For me, independent publishers are the people in the industry who are prepared to take risks on new authors and books where the larger players either don’t wish to venture, or where they can’t see there being a return on. Each month in 2018 I am aiming to highlight some of my favourite independent publishers, along with some of their books that I have loved and also to have someone from the publisher answer a few questions. This month is the turn of Head of Zeus.
Head of Zeus are based in London and have been in business now for 16 years. They have a broad portfolio of books and have also started their own imprints for childrens books, literary fiction and digital books. In their latest catalogue you can find a diverse range of genres from crime to historical fiction, YA and science fiction and fantasy. As you would expect from me, I tend to head to their non-fiction pages first to perruse their latest offerings and their books have always been well worth reading. Along with other small publishers they take care in choosing the covers that work with the books they want to publish as well as that attention to detail in the quality of the paper and what I call the heft of the book.
The first that I can recommend is Stonehenge by an archelogy hero of mine, Francis Pryor. He was one of the first authors that I interviewed for Nudge Books magazine and he was generous with his time and his answers. I did notice that they are publishing a new book of his on the Fens later this year.Simon Barnes was another author that I interviewed about his beautiful book, The Meaning of Birds, it is a well written, heartfelt book about the wonders of birds. One of the subjects that I like reading about is language, and may I Borrow Your Language? by Philip Gooden about the way that the English Language purloins words from all over the place is well worth reading and would be an excellent addition for anyone with an etymological collection of books.
Swimming with Seals by Victoria Withworth is a book in the sub-genre of nature writing and personal memoir. Whitworth is a member of the Orkney Polar Bears, a swimming club who meet to swim in the cold seas of Orkney. This beautifully written book is about the company she seeks to comfort her, as her marriage crumbles and she tries to manage other health problems too.
My career is in engineering, both electronics and mechanical so I have an inordinate fascination with all sorts of machines. This book about the Blackbird is a collection of facts and details about the design and creation of this still breathtaking looking aircraft that still holds several records for speed including one for travelling from New York to London in just 1 hour 54 minutes.
They are a publisher with breadth and depth to their range of books. I have read one of their fantasy books, but not read any of their brilliant looking science fiction as yet, though have been very tempted at times. Laura and Blake were kind enough to answer some of my questions below on behalf of Head of Zeus.
Can you tell me a little about the history of Head of Zeus?
Head of Zeus started life in an attic in Shaftesbury Avenue. The company consisted of five people, three laptops, and four chairs in a startling shade of neon pink. It was chaotic and exhausting, but very exhilarating too. We founded the company in January 2012, just as ebooks were exploding. Our mission was to launch new fiction authors in the market very quickly, using a hybrid model of traditional print publishing and innovative E-publishing to reach – and grow – their readership.
How is the company organised today and how many people work for you?
We are now 40 people, working out of a lovely, light-filled office in Clerkenwell. We have added non-fiction, children’s fiction and digital-first fiction to our publishing portfolio, and since 2012, we have won the Digital Business of the Year Award, the Independent Publisher of the Year Award and a Bad Sex Award. You can guess which one is in pride of place on the bookshelves.
As we have grown in size, we have tried to preserve the entrepreneurial spirit that was central to our foundation. Having an open-plan office is very important to us – sometimes it gets a bit noisy, but it means we all know what is going on in each department, and can collaborate as much as possible. And we’ve kept our original pink chairs to remind us where we started!
What is the company philosophy when it comes to selecting for your catalogue?
We have two publishing divisions, one which focuses on literary fiction and non-fiction, and one which focuses on popular fiction. I run the latter division, and our aim is to build a list of 60 book-a-year authors, each of whom has the potential to become a market leader in their genre – whether that be historical fiction, romance, crime and thriller, or science fiction and fantasy.
How do you go about choosing the titles to be included in your portfolio?
Personally, I look for books that combine a page-turning plot, memorable characters and emotional engagement. I want escapist fiction that makes me feel something, whether that be fear, shock, love, sadness, or happiness. All editors are different, of course. Some search for brilliant prose stylists; others look for fiction which transports you to new worlds. At Head of Zeus, all our editors have slightly different tastes. Hopefully, that means we can publish something for everyone.
Tell me about your process after selecting a book for publication
Usually, we will schedule a book for publication twelve months after it has been written. Books have to go to the printers three months before they are published – so that gives us nine months to prepare. We spend the first three months working on the structural edit; designing the book jacket; and preparing the sales pitch. The remaining six months are spent undertaking finer edits; writing the copy for the book jacket; selling the book into the bookshops; and planning the PR and marketing campaign.
How much effort goes into the design of the book, for example, the cover design, font selection and so on?
I’d say the cover is one of the most crucial moments in a book’s life. We know that people look at a book’s cover in a bookshop for about 3 seconds before they decide whether or not to buy it. They may turn it over to read the back, or they may not. Either way, you have 3 seconds for your cover to tell someone 1) what the book is and 2) why they must buy it. So it’s absolutely crucial to get the cover right.
We put a huge amount of thought and effort into our covers and into the cover copy, sometimes redesigning or rewriting them two or three times over the book’s life.
Are there any up and coming books that you are publishing soon that we need to look out for?
We’ve just published Anna, a heartbreaking but uplifting love story by one of my very favourite authors, Amanda Prowse. I defy anyone to read it without shedding a tear.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum, I have had a ball working with Wendy Holden on her sparkling romantic comedy Last of the Summer Moet. If you are looking for something fun, glamorous and truly escapist, it’s perfect. (it is also 99p on kindle until the end of March!)
We’re also really excited for Gallows Court from Martin Edwards, who is President of the Detection Club, Chair of the CWA and consults on the British Library’s classic crime series. He’s won hundreds of awards and when you read Gallows Court you can see why – it’s gripping and dark, and totally unputdownable.
What debut authors are you publishing this year?
We are publishing two really exciting debut authors this year.
My tip for the summer is The Boy at the Door (July 2018) by new author Alex Dahl. It is a completely engrossing psychological thriller about a woman in Norway whose perfect life is destroyed when a mysterious young boy turns up at her doorstep. I raced through it.
In August, we are publishing The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas – a wonderfully quirky novel about a group of female scientists who invent a time machine and use it to solve a murder. We’re describing it as a time-travel murder mystery, and everyone who’s read it, loves it.
How did you come across them?
Both authors were submitted to us by their literary agents. We tend to find most of our debut authors via literary agents, although we also welcome authors to submit directly through our submission portal (headofzeus.com/submissions). Our digital imprint, Aria, also has a submissions portal and we’ve had some great titles acquired through this.
What title of yours has been an unexpected success?
Back in 2013, we published a novel called The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson. It was upmarket, literary crime, first in a series. In the ‘old’ days, that kind of fiction would have taken seven books (over seven years) to build up the kind of readership that delivers a top-ten bestseller. But the immediacy of ebook publishing had changed all of that. People liked the title and description, and downloaded it in their droves. Then, once they had read it, and started posting rave reviews, what had begun as a little success snowballed into something much bigger. The book sold 300,000 copies in four months, was reviewed by 1500 readers, and stayed at the top of the kindle charts for about ten weeks.
What would you say were the undiscovered gems in your catalogue?
My absolute favourite undiscovered gem is a novel called Black Dog Summer by Miranda Sherry, which the entire company fell in love with at acquisition. It’s the story of a young girl navigating the world after the death of her mother. Set in rural South Africa, the novel weaves together family drama, thriller, love story and ghost story. Although we got excellent reviews, sadly the sales didn’t hit the dizzy heights we were all expecting. If the book ever has a renaissance, I’ll die happy.
One of our authors, M.R.C. Kasasian, has developed a hardcore fanbase, who call themselves the #KasasianCrew. Everyone who reads his books adores them, but for some reason they haven’t broken through yet. We’re re-launching him this Autumn with a new series featuring kickass detective Betty Church, in Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire. Hopefully this will be the moment where his amazing books, which combine a wonderful, wry humour with gruesome and gripping crimes.
How do you use social media for promoting books and authors?
We have a monthly email to readers on our rapidly growing database, which highlights our titles for the month, shares details of our upcoming events, and also spotlights the best content from the previous month on the website. We share all our review coverage online and take advantage of events and book signings to share new content like videos and photos, so that we are constantly engaging with our followers.
But although we are very active on our HoZ social media channels, at the end of the day, it’s the author, not the publisher, that readers really want to connect with. So we encourage all our authors to have social media accounts, and advise them on which one (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) would work best for them. We give tips on building their profile, and we create artwork and marketing messages for them to share.
Is working with book bloggers becoming a larger part of that process now?
As a small independent publisher, we have always benefited from our relationship with book bloggers. Unlike some of the bigger companies, who invest heavily in tube advertisements or magazine campaigns to promote their books, we rely on word-of-mouth within reader communities. We recognise how important bloggers are, and (hopefully!) we show our gratitude for their support by inviting them to author launch parties, crediting them properly when we include their reviews on our books, and offering them exclusive content such as signed copies.
What book do you wish you had published?
Oh there are so many! If I can pick just one, I’ll go for The Other Hand by Chris Cleave. Partly because it has the perfect combination of gripping plot, memorable characters and emotional heft I am always looking for, but mainly because it was published with creativity and flair. The publisher made the unusual decision not to share any details about the story or the author anywhere on the cover. Instead, the book included a passionate letter from the editor, imploring readers to simply trust in the magic of the storytelling. It was an original and bold strategy, and it worked on me! I have never forgotten it.
What does the future hold for Head of Zeus?
Last year, we launched a children’s list, Zephyr which has some brilliant offerings later this year, including big names like Marcus Sedgwick and Sally Gardner. Our genre fiction is going from strength to strength and, with our science fiction authors over for WorldCon in Dublin in 2019, next summer is starting to look out of this world. We are already publishing some fantastic authors – old and new – and I can’t wait to see how it develops in 2019.
Apart from that, it’s quite simple: world domination.
So world domination it is then… A big thank you to Laura and Blake for taking time out of their hectic schedules to answer those questions for me. I really appreciate it. Head of Zeus’s books are available from all good bookshops and their most recent catalogue can be seen here. I would urge you to buy them from an independent bookshop if you can as this support them, the publisher and of course the author with one purchase.
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