Saturday, 15 October 2011

Keith Charters - Author/Publisher interview

When in Edinburgh we arranged to meet and share a pizza with Keith Charters. He was very approachable and our teen was delighted that he was not just book orientated but also showed an interest in her music. We are delighted that he managed to find time to be interviewed by us.

You worked in London as a stockbroker before taking up the pen and producing "Lee And The Consul Mutants". What was the inspiration behind Lee and why this particular story subject?
Actually, I ran a sales team involved in what are known as the wholesale financial markets – essentially where banks trade with other banks in financial products. Some, such as foreign exchange, were simple; others, such as credit default swaps, less so.
Did this have anything to do with Lee and the Consul Mutants?
And yet yes – indirectly. By day I was Sales Director. By night I was a would-be author, with all the usual traits: a desk in my bedroom; an irrepressible need to write most evenings despite long hours at work; the same need on planes when I should have been trying to catch up on lost sleep. I started writing psychological thrillers, and they were okay – importantly they improved the more I wrote.
My oldest kids (twins) were aged about 9 at the time the idea for Lee and the Consul Mutants popped into my head. They’d been having a great laugh reading the likes of Michael Lawrence’s The Toilet of Doom. I loved that books were entertaining them in that way and thought I’d try writing a few lines about a boy whose appendix had exploded. Before I’d even finished the first page I knew it was what I should have been doing all along. It was so much fun!

When did you decide to leave stockbrokership and was it to become a writer or a publisher?
I’d already left to give myself some concentrated writing time. A brave/risky/stupid move, of course. I might have come to naught. But it didn’t. Sometimes putting yourself in the position of needing to make something work means you make it work. So I started as an author and at that point had no thought of becoming a publisher.
So how did I end up a publisher too? Well, my first publisher was small and I had a background in business. That meant I learned a lot. And after they’d expressed an interest in signing up Lee Goes For Gold and Lee’s Holiday Showdown (both of which I’d written by the time Lee and the Consul Mutants was published) I thought: could I do what my publisher is doing? And, perhaps because I’d done much of the marketing myself, I decided that I could…with help. Because I didn’t (and still don’t) know it all. But I’d found some great people who knew some of the bits I didn’t know. So we formed a team, each of us with different strengths.

It’s worth saying that from the outset we were focused on building a strong list. The fact that my books – already validated in the market – happened to be on it was incidental. But it was a neat starting point. Now, of course, they’re an increasingly small part of what we publish. I can’t write quickly enough for it to be otherwise!

You formed Strident Publishing in 2005. What was your first publication under this brand?
D A Nelson’s DarkIsle in October 2007. I remember the launch well. I’m sure Dawn does too – she was about 8 months pregnant by then. Helpfully, the book won the 2008 Royal Mail Awards for Scottish Children’s Books and promptly sold (mostly to parts of Random House) all around the world in rights deals.

At what point did you decide to move the Lee stories in-house?
From the outset. In fact, we bought back the rights to the first Lee novel to ensure we’d have control over the full series. My original editor also came over. That was important because she was used to telling me when my writing worked and when it didn’t, and she just carried no doing that. It meant we kept objectivity and that was important to me.
Many of the titles you publish are specifically for the 8-12 year old reader and recently you have published books by Emma Barnes, again aimed at that age group, was this reader Strident's original target market?
We originally saw our market as those of school age. Actually, we’ve avoided the 5-6 sector and gone for 7+. And whilst we didn’t expect to publish books for adults, the likes of Gillian Philip’s Firebrand and Bloodstone, and Janne Teller’s Nothing, having taken us there by virtue of their strong crossover appeal.
So, Emma’s novels (How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good and Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher, both for ages 7+) are very firmly targeted at our core market.

Strident’s "Mission Statement" is 'Strident aims to produce books with a bit of spark; books that give young people a kick out of reading. They will be bold and modern and will cry out to be read and discussed.' How well do you feel Strident is achieving this?
Hopefully very well! In fact, although we have one list, there are two distinct parts to it. Our 7+ titles have a ‘modern classic’ feel – Paul Biegel’s The King of the Copper Mountains and Emma Barnes’s novels. Beyond 9+ the titles become increasingly feisty. Nick Green’s The Cat Kin and Cat’s Paw definitely fit that description and Linda Strachan’s Spider and Dead Boy Talking only take it a step further. Then there’s Janne Teller’s controversial and philosophical Nothing; and finally there’s Gillian Philip’s Firebrand and Bloodstone. I sometimes think the word ‘feisty’ was invented with those last two in mind.
And then come writers like Linda Strachan writing for the teen market, and Gillian Philip's "Bad Faith" and then... The Rebel Angels series. This series has appealed to the adult reader, although mostly the female readers. Did this take you by surprise?
We were delighted that Linda Strachan’s Spider won the 2010 Catalyst Award. Her teen/YA fiction is short, accessible and thought-provoking. We’ve always believed that would be a winning combination.

Then, as you say, along came Gillian’s Rebel Angels series. Now that has taken us to a new part of the market. The series was originally written as YA fiction, but as anyone who’s read Bloodstone will know, they are at least as much adult as YA. In fact we had a dilemma when publishing the first book: should we launch it into the main (i.e. adult) sci-fi fantasy market or into YA? Ideally we’d have gone for both, but retailers’ systems won’t allow that. It has to be listed in one or the other. Gillian had already been building a reputation in YA (she was Carnegie Medal nominated for Crossing The Line, and Bad Faith was very well received) so we eventually opted for that category. However, just to prove the extent of its crossover appeal, Tor in the USA have bought the entire 4-book series for their adult fantasy list, while Ravensburger in Germany are publishing it as a YA title.

Do you now have any intentions of publishing for the adult market?
Well, we didn’t, but we effectively do because of Firebrand, Bloodstone and Nothing. It’s not quite the same as having an adult list, of course. Do we plan one? Not quite yet.

As a keen gardener do you have any plans for horticultural books at all?
‘Keen gardener’. I like that description. It’s an improvement on my wife’s ‘obsessive veg planter’.
Of course, growing plants is like growing stories: you start off with the seed/seed of an idea, ensure it has the ideal growing environment (compost/coffee and cake) and then hope for the best. And there’s also an element of creating something out of nothing about both.
Do we have plans for horticultural books? If the right project (and people) came along we would certainly consider creating a separate imprint.
Would you rather be known as an author or a publisher?
I don’t see it as a choice between the two. Indeed, I would argue that both are essential to what I/we do. I meet a lot of authors because I’m an author myself and that’s been the channel through which many of our titles have come to us. Plus, presenting to young people gives me a keen sense of what they want. That informs our editing and the titles we acquire. And, on the other side, being involved in acquiring and shaping the books of others helps me focus on what I need to do with my own writing. Yes, there’s only one of me (don’t believe any of the claims that I’ve been cloned), but I manage to fit in publishing, presenting, writing (occasionally, and always on trains) and a few other things to boot.
A different – but relevant – question might be: which am I likely to become known for. Again, I hope both, with the answer being dependant upon who’s being asked. I’d hope that those in publishing would know me best for publishing; whereas I’d hope that young people aged 9+ would know me best for my Lee books and lively, humorous author sessions.

Many thanks for finding the time to answer our questions and best wishes for both projects in the future. And if there is an imprint for horticulture please remember - we also review non-fiction.
If you would like to follow Lee then he can be found at

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