Starting a new imprint in a pandemic had a lot of downsides, Francesca Main concedes. But having left Picador to launch her Orion list, Phoenix, in April last year may have actually sharpened her focus. She says: “There was nothing good about the pandemic but maybe I benefited by having some preconceived ideas shaken up a bit. And planning and creating something new—and all of it was future planning last year—was a distraction from the circumstances. In some ways, maybe I was lucky to be freed from some of the worries that other publishers have had to deal with: publication plans going awry, having to move books out of the year or dealing with disappointed authors.”
It is a dicey prospect, too, given the long lead times. Her first Phoenix book, Emily Itani’s Tokyo-set “Sally Rooney meets Helen Fielding modern love story” Fault Lines was published three weeks ago, while Everyone is Still Alive, the first novel from Cathy Rentzenbrink (whose non-fiction Main published at Picador), is out in July. But the programme does not really kick into gear until 2022. She says: “It is a massive exercise in patience and optimism, but I guess that’s what being an editor is anyway. But it does mean you have to hold your nerve because there’s a long period where you don’t feel like you have anything to show for yourself. And when something is brand new, you’re also kind of selling your vision of what it’s going to be, rather than pointing to what it already is.”
That vision, broadly, is a list of books that have a foot in both literary and commercial camps. She says: “I’m always looking for books that do something for the head and the heart; that are intelligent, but accessible; that care very much about how the writing is crafted but also very much about the story that the writer is telling. I think what I am looking for, in either fiction or non-fiction, is the kind of book where it reminds you why you fell in love with books in the first place.”
The country to the city
Main grew up a “regular bookish child” in Dorset—“I only have the accent when I talk to my family; I think publishing beat it out of me.” After studying English and creative writing at university she moved back home, worked in her local Ottakar’s and wanted to get into publishing, so she wrote to every publisher and agent in London asking for a job—“that was my naïvety; I didn’t know about things like work placements”. Not many people wrote back, but one was Carole Blake, the Blake Friedmann co-founder, who offered an initial two-week placement, which morphed into a three-month paid gig. Main says: “I still have that letter and am so grateful for her; she was a working-class girl made good who recognised you should pay people for the work they do. If I didn’t get that, I think I probably would have gone back to Dorset and that would have been the end of my publishing career.”
After Blake Friedmann, Main did another work experience stint at Curtis Brown, was “rejected for nine straight jobs at Penguin” and then managed to be hired on her 10th go, as a rights assistant. From there she moved across to Hamish Hamilton, first as publisher Simon Prosser’s assistant, before beginning to commission on her own.
Main spent eight years at Picador, earning a 2015 Nibbie for Editor of the Year along the way. Her biggest commercial hit was Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, which has sold almost 1.2 million units through BookScan in mass-market paperback—only Joe Wicks’ Lean in 15 and the first Pinch of Nom book shifted more for the entire Pan Macmillan group during her time at the company. She shepherded a raft of other books into publication that span that literary/commercial space, such as Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, A J Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird and Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love. Though she was not running her own imprint, the way she started at Picador was similar to her work at Phoenix, essentially building her own list from scratch, and she says she was “very proud and really personally connected” to the list she built.
The obvious question, then: why leave? Main says when her boss Paul Baggaley left to go to Bloomsbury “things were changing at Picador and I started thinking of what I wanted from the next stage of my career”. Then she was offered a chance to run her own list by Orion m.d. Katie Espiner: “In a weird way, maybe Katie worked out what I wanted to do even before I did. But Orion has had such an exciting transformation over the past few years; it feels like it’s on the cusp of an even bigger and better phase and the thought of being part of that was very exciting. [Espiner] has amassed a really amazing team of people and it’s great to be able to work alongside them.”
Another thing that appealed was Phoenix is essentially a one-woman band—on commissioning, that is: Main works with Francesca Pearce, who head the imprint’s publicity, and with Kate Davies on marketing, and is supported by editorial assistant Kate Moreton. But the model is akin to Mantle, the Pan Mac imprint headed by Maria Rejt, or Fig Tree, the Penguin General list whose founder Juliet Annan stepped down last year.
Main explains: “I was at a point where I had sort of taken another step and taken on some management responsibility alongside publishing the books. I love mentoring—whether it’s junior colleagues, those who want to get into the industry or people doing writing courses. But I don’t think I am a natural manager, and I was finding it hard to balance my management responsibilities and the amount of energy that I wanted to put into my list—as well as being relatively new to working parenthood. Phoenix has enabled me to really focus on what I love to do best: commission books, work with writers and roll up my sleeves and edit books.”
As she builds the list there is an emphasis on the new: débuts or authors that are new to the UK. This includes To Fill a Yellow House, British-Ghanian writer Sussie Annie’s first novel of an unlikely friendship between a white charity shop owner and a young Black second-generation immigrant, bought by Main in a six-figure pre-empt 48 hours after submission. There is also journalist Marianne Levy’s first collection of essays on motherhood, Don’t Forget to Scream, and Take My Hand, American Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s third novel, but the first published by a UK house, set in 1970s Alabama and based on the true story of forced sterilisation of young Black women. Some old friends are popping in, too, as the novelist David Whitehouse followed Main over from Picador for his first non-fiction, the memoir-cum-true crime About a Son, which centres on the murder of a young man in Whitehouse’s home town.
Circling back to launching a list in a pandemic, Main suggests that another benefit is that it has got her thinking a bit more about how to approach audiences. She says: “I’m a real introvert, but I have missed collaborating directly with colleagues, and also those connections you can feel with readers at events. So I think [the pandemic] has encouraged all of us, particularly me personally, to use technology to take advantage of digital ways of connecting with people which has helped make publishing more accessible and inclusive. So maybe I am grateful for all those things, and we will continue to reach out as we grow the list."
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