Launching a literary crime list is always going to be exciting. For although crime writers are often overlooked by the literary prize committees, there are some fantastic crime, thriller and suspense writers who are producing prose of a calibre equal to the very best fiction of today.
And the beauty of crime writing is that it can be easily understandable to readers from other countries. In essence, crime writing is about human nature, from the very best and to the absolute worst, and we can all relate to other people. Another bonus of crime fiction is that often it offers a fascinating peephole into another sort of world or culture. Sometimes novels from the most far-flung territories seem very like our own homegrown fiction, and sometimes extraordinarily different – and I think a genre novel, which many readers will come to with pre-formed suppositions, is a great way of exploring the world around us.
There are advantages to launching a crime list with an independent publisher. Oneworld, like several of the other British independent publishers, prides itself on offering on the books we feel deserve to be published, no matter what. This means that although we are eager to be market-aware, we are just as keen to make sure that we remain an editorial-led company.
After several years learning how to publish fiction we are looking to expand what we do. We have had critical success recently with Man Booker prizewinner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, and last year we launched a children’s and YA imprint, Rock the Boat. I’d previously been buying general literary fiction, but have been a long-term crime fan, and so Point Blank was the logical development.
Although Point Blank will always be a literary list, it gives us a chance to push the boundaries with more commercial novels than we might ordinarily, and to buy writers who will produce novels regularly, all of which is sound business sense, especially at a time when it is vital to prove to booksellers we are able to bring authors to the market with novels that will make readers look for that writer’s next outing.
Luckily for me crime publishing covers a gamut of writing styles, and I think this is one of the joys of working in this area, as you can be reading something quite commercial or cosy, and just an hour or two later you can be deep inside the mind of a terrifying psychopath.
I’m very open-minded as a reader, but I’ve had to teach myself to enjoy the leap of faith needed to acquire a crime novel in another language, where often I won’t have been able to read a word. So novels that win prizes and have some sample text translated tend to move up the queue of waiting projects, and I rely heavily on reader reports from crime experts who can read in the original language.
I think there has been a sea-change in what readers are willing to try, helped by BBC4 being supportive of subtitled crime television series, and breakout books from writers such as Joël Dicker, Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Paulo Lins.
Almost half of Point Blank’s acquisitions are in translation. Our first two novels were originally written in Chinese, French Concession by Xiao Bai and A Perfect Crime by A Yi. And this autumn we have The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl, winner of the Harald Mogensen Prize for the best Danish crime novel of the year and the 2015 Glass Key award for best Nordic crime novel of the year. The Rydahl is an interesting novel as it is well in excess of 200,000 words – I won’t say quite how long, but it is an impressive length! – and it is hard to think of many large publishers being bold enough to take on something quite as unashamedly muscular as this. Aside from British, American and Canadian authors, we have books in the pipeline from Israel, Finland and Belgium, and before long I expect to be looking towards Russia as well as South America.
There is one fly in the ointment, however, which is the difficulty in securing translation funding for books that, no matter how brilliant, are deemed to be ‘genre’ and therefore less worthy of a grant.
I would completely disagree with this strategy. Readers have in the past been wary of novels in translation, while translation costs are heavy, and although publishers such as Oneworld and Pushkin Press are working hard to give readers the opportunity to discover for themselves how great literature from around the world can be, there is a whole galaxy of new but fantastic fiction waiting out there.
And we know that readers are waiting too. Last autumn we published the Algerian novel The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, and have had to reprint several times, while the hardback of A Perfect Crime by A Yi gleaned amazing reviews. Both of these books were awarded PEN grants, which meant we felt we were able to publish these two distinctive and quite challenging titles from more of a level playing field.
So I would say, how better to educate the wary reader about world fiction than with a good read on a genre list?