Feature article

The Diamond Sorter

Wednesday 22 July 2015 ~ Romance Matters

Kate Bradley, senior commissioning editor for Harper Fiction.

Once ensconced in the corner of a buzzing café Kate Bradley, who describes her role as “a dream job for a bookworm”, revealed a deep affinity for classic women’s commercial fiction, recounting helping Princess Diana select her favourite Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper novels during her days as a Saturday girl working for WHSmith on High Street Kensington, followed by ten years at Waterstones. It’s clear to see this editor’s roots are grounded in the very soul of publishing – reader satisfaction – and that, Kate tells me, starts with the heart.

“I’ve always loved commercial fiction,” says Kate, “and in the early days working in retail, I took the time to get to know my customers, mentoring their reading, trying to find stories that would resonate, books they would adore, it was my job to spread the passion.”
 
Where does your love of books come from?
“My mum was a fiction junkie and loved Agatha Christie and James Herbert and she passed her love of commercial fiction to her children. I loved working in the Books Department of Smiths but didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I had a variety of jobs, even working for DeBeers as a diamond sorter. It wasn’t until I went travelling around the world that the idea of a career in books started to bed in. I read anything I could get my hands on while I was away; everything from Terry Pratchett to John Fowles, devouring Patricia Cornwall, Georgette Heyer and Danielle Steele, I am still a voracious reader.”
Returning to the UK, Kate landed a job with Waterstones where she worked for ten years, eventually becoming a manager in Central London.
“It was the first job that I really loved and it opened up a whole world of literature to me, but after ten years I knew that I really wanted to get into publishing and I’ve never lost my love of the commercial read.”
Kate then moved to Book Club Associates, working under Lisa Milton – now with Orion – at the Mystery & Thriller Club.
“We bought licenses to print book club editions, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies of novels by some really great saga authors. I moved to Harper Collins as a brand manager before being asked to cover maternity leave for the editorial director on the Avon list. Talk about trial by fire!”
For Kate this was an amazing experience, thrusting her into a diversely creative and demandingly dynamic environment; it also helped hone her commercial skills.
“It consolidated my thinking about my role and my career, it was a real springboard. Harper Collins is a prestige publishing imprint – publishing Agatha Christie and Barbara Erskine who we’d all read at home through to Freya North, Cecelia Ahern, and exciting new authors like Alexandra Brown and Lisa Foley who are joining a list with a huge heritage. It’s a lot to live up to and as an editor I’m very aware of this legacy but also keen to add my stamp, it’s important to have diversity too.”

So what is a commissioning editor looking for these days?
“Nothing has changed really. Trends come and go, but a story has to speak to your heart first, then your head, because you have to be professional and think about the market. If you’re a new author, the truth is, it’s really difficult to get noticed and the hard reality is I take on very few new authors, only one or two a year.”

What does the industry look like from your desk?
“We’re totally part of the publishing mix – and it is a mix. The physical market is still hugely important while Amazon has helped lots of new authors find an audience. The key to what we do is matching books with readers and discoverability is what it’s all about, for emerging and established authors. Self-publishing has given writers more insight into how things work. Social media is very important, connecting writers with their audience and collaboration and engagement is vital; it’s part of the mix.
“I think people tend to read e-books differently and there’s a perception there’s a need for a shorter, more easily digested form, but that isn’t true – a story needs to be as long as it needs to be, writers know that. There’s also a move back to a more immersive reading experience, which is pleasing. I read e-books as part of my job, but for me, it’s always a printed book for pleasure. My passion for reading has never waned, I like to be amazed, enthralled and impressed. I still get a sense of excitement working with a new writer, or reading a new work from one of my authors, I’m always a reader first.”

What captures you as a reader?
“Warmth, something that makes me laugh, makes me cry and will make me think. It’s great to share books I love with other people who love books and I genuinely believe my job is important, because books are important. I’m also lucky to be part of a strong team, with inspirational leaders supporting me in my role, brilliant publishers such as Kate Elton and Kimberley Young. I know I’m very lucky.”

What drives you as a publisher?
“When I’m commissioning, I have a very clear vision of who the end consumer is and what sales channel will work best – it is really key to know who you want to read the book and how you will reach them. I could be working with someone on a project for a year, or publishing them in six months. I recently acquired a writer of erotica who self-published, and she was published by us in six weeks. We’ve really honed our internal production process and it’s working well.
“My long-standing agent connections are vitally important, they know what I’m looking for and can help fill a gap in my list. I’m also working in the area of Intellectual Property, commissioning work to satisfy a need, it’s all about being proactive and driving the market.
“I always try to put my authors and their needs at the heart of the day. It’s easy to get caught up in detail, looking at jackets, copy edits, statistics, PR and then copy needs to be written too, but I am their publisher, the person who helps get the book written, and I like to be as collegiate an editor as I can be,” explains Kate, who currently handles about a dozen author’s careers, including the hugely talented Fern Britton. She is also refreshingly honest about some ‘trends’ that might concern writers.
“A few years ago there was concern that the backlist was dying, but pedigree counts and e-readers are breathing new life into lovely, quality older titles. The saga is definitely a growth area. We’re all living longer and as we age we long for times past. As a Londoner, I’m fascinated by the Blitz, so I want more people writing sagas, because there’s great drama, heart-rending trauma and tragedy there, and readers love that.”

What does the future look like?
Kate gazes into an imaginary crystal ball on the table, and we both burst out laughing, again!
“The industry feels brilliant at the moment, really vibrant, very challenging, with lots of energy. Combining a new environment with a creative, dynamic group of people who strongly believe in what they are doing is very exciting. People’s reading habits might change but the demand for quality women’s fiction never will. People still want to read good books.”
So, after all this time, you’re basically still a ‘diamond sorter’? I suggest. The eyes sparkle and she grins, taking my arm as we emerge back into the bustle of the city.
“I suppose I am,” she agrees, heading back to her task of finding readers yet another gem to cherish

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It's a fact

The first romantic novel with a happy ending was 'Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded', by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740. She marries the boss – eventually!