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Business profile: Hesperus Press

Move over Stieg Larsson, the hottest new Swede on the bookshop block is Jonas Jonasson, the author of one of the biggest word-of-mouth hits of last year, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. After sales topping one million copies in Sweden, THYOM was snapped up by publishers across the world—it has now been translated into more than 30 languages—and in the UK it was Hesperus Press that had the lucky foresight to acquire it. Lucky because the success of THYOM, which has sold close to £1.5m through the tills since its publication in July, helped Hesperus see a 900% rise in sales in 2012.

Originally picked up by canny former m.d. Karl Sabbagh, the success of THYOM has exceeded the wildest expectations of the four-strong team at Hesperus. Nikki Griffiths, head of sales, marketing and publicity [pictured], says: “We’ve been delighted by the success of it. We had confidence in it because of international success, but it has surpassed all of our expectations. A lot of its success was down to word of mouth, but we were really pursuing bookshops with it and we sent out a shedload of reading copies and pressed it into the hands of everyone we could.

“A key part of the success was it being supported by Waterstones but we have had huge support from independents which is really great. It’s a bit of a booksellers’ favourite and it all just shows that hand-selling still has a huge impact, which is nice to know.”

Reinventing a classic

Founded in 2002 by Alessandro Gallenzi and Elisabetta Minervini (who went on to launch Alma Books in 2005), Hesperus started life as a classics publisher, bringing titles back into print and breathing new life into neglected books for a new audience.

Yet the success of THYOM lends some financial clout to its new direction—an increasing move into the commercial fiction and non-fiction space. Griffiths explains: “Alongside that, we’ve been introducing more contemporary books to our list as well, and the success of last year does mean we can look to expand a little this year. We are planning on launching two new imprints, Hesperus Nova and Hesperus Minor.”

Under Hesperus Nova, which will concentrate on contemporary fiction and non-fiction, Griffiths will publish three new titles: Pekka Hiltunen’s Cold Courage, a Finnish psychological thriller; Peter Stjernström’s The Best Book in the World, a Swedish quirky comedy similar in style to THYOM; and The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren, which Griffiths describes as “an interesting blend of reality and magical realism, about a dysfunctional family set in a small town in Sweden".

Hesperus Minor will be Hesperus’ first real foray into children’s publishing. In January it published four books by L Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz, to tie in with the Hollywood movie “Oz the Great and Powerful”. “He wrote 14 Oz books and we selected four of them and published them in a nice new set, which has done very well. We thought that was interesting, and so we want to concentrate more on a few other neglected children’s books; crossover books that adults will remember from their childhood and want to introduce to their children. That’s what we like to do, pick books that not everyone would publish and introduce them to a modern audience.”

Griffiths will publish three titles this year under Hesperus Minor—The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit; The Coral Islands by J M Valentine; and George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, “a great classic fantasy book written way before Tolkien and C S Lewis”, Griffiths says.

A big part of Hesperus’ work is translating and publishing writers from Europe and further afield and Griffiths says: “We’ve got a lot of Scandinavian stuff coming up, but what we are publishing is not necessarily what you would associate with Scandinavia. It’s not all dark crime/noir books, there is lots of variation coming, it is interesting. There are so many wonderful books out there that are successful internationally that we just don’t know about in the UK, and that’s something we love to do, to find those books and bring them to UK readers.”