The Bookseller's Rising Stars 2020 unveiled

The Bookseller's Rising Stars 2020 unveiled

The annual Rising Stars list of industry catalysts reaches its 10th instalment with the Class of 2020, and judging by their forebears’ success, this year’s batch have plenty to look forward to.

In every Bookseller Rising Stars feature since its launch in 2011, we have explained its mission as something like “our annual list of up-and-comers and future leaders of the industry”. As this is our 10th outing, it is a good time to look over the past decade and see if we have indeed achieved what we set out to do.

But first, let’s go out to the front stoop and clap for this year’s crop, who come to you in our most competitive year yet, with submissions shooting up nearly 50% on last year’s figure—itself a record. The Class of 2020 (or the Covid Class, if you will) are battle-hardened, too, currently in the midst of the industry’s most difficult spell for generations. Many are included partly because of innovations during lockdown, such as indie bookshop stalwarts Sue Porter of Linghams and Carrie Morris of Booka, who along with Emma Corfield-Walters of Book-ish and Helen Stanton of Forum Books (both former Rising Stars), launched the At Home with 4 Indies virtual events festival. 

A year in lieu
There are greater things to worry about given the state of the world, but the Class of ’20 also misses out on a few Rising Stardom perks, such as the knees-up we throw them every summer, which, yes, is a jolly old time but also a vital networking event. And each year our sponsor, the Frankfurt Book Fair, brings the Shooting Star—the person we single out for a little more recognition—to the fair to appear on panel discussions and for meet-and-greets with international publishing bigwigs. Never fear, the Class of ’20 will join next year’s lot for the annual party; and this year’s Shooting Star, Penguin Random House’s Indira Birnie, will appear at FBF 2021. 

We also typically hold a photoshoot for the Rising Stars, but that obviously was an impossibility this year, so we took pictures via the platform of 2020/company you wished you bought stock in last year: Zoom. While the resolution of the images is not ideal—and affected greatly by the quality of people’s wi-fi and the spec of their laptop cameras—it does lend a sort of lockdown vibe, perfectly suited for the difficult few months we have endured.

Trends emerge when we interview the Stars for this feature, and every one of this year’s list at some point mentioned expanding readership and increasing diversity. This is an issue that is, of course, very much in the air at the moment. But it is striking that the Class of ’20 are thinking so deeply about shaking up the industry. It is cheering that they are doing it in many different ways, too: from Jasmine Richards’ wonderful Storymix, to Angelique Tran Van Sang’s translation list, to Hazel Holmes’ Northern YA Lit Festival.

This thinking perhaps has also stemmed from the significant barriers to entry many of the Stars themselves related having experienced. A lot of those barriers are, quite frankly, institutional: 42% of the list are from a BAME background, while nearly half self-identified as coming from a working-class background. (As an aside, we should stress the final selections were made in mid-May, 10 days before George Floyd was killed, and the list is consistent with an upward trajectory of BAME and working-class submissions of the last several years.) There have been many laudable recent programmes that have re-evaluated hiring practices, but it is worrying that many of the Class of ’20 were still initially denied by gatekeepers. It is frustrating that hugely talented people like Audible’s Victoria Haslam and Unbound’s Joelle Owusu have said they were on the cusp of chucking their dreams of getting into the industry because recruiters couldn’t see beyond their atypical backgrounds. Nevertheless, these Rising Stars persisted, and the industry should be grateful for that. 

Where are they now?
I started the Rising Stars list in 2011 to look at an obvious gap: while The Bookseller, quite rightly, often covers the big cheeses, there was less of spotlight shone on those earlier-career people—or longer-serving staffers who have changed tack, or those who come from outside the industry—who were having a significant impact on the trade and, we thought, would have a greater role in the years to come.

It is difficult predicting long-term success in the industry, but I think we have had a pretty good strike record. Going back to that first list in 2011, it is chock-full of people who have become head-honchos and Nibbie winners: Orion’s Anna Valentine, Chatto’s Clara Farmer, Harvill’s Liz Foley, Waterstones head of retail Luke Taylor, The Gutter Bookshop’s Ann Geraghty and Bob Johnson, and agents Madeleine Milburn and Cathryn Summerhayes.

We have had Rising Stars who have become certified big cheeses by “graduating” to The Bookseller 100 list, including author Nikesh Shukla (Rising Star ’17), Transworld’s Sarah Adams (’11), Bloomsbury’s Emma Hopkin (’12), Dialogue Books’ Sharmaine Lovegrove (’17) and Waterstones’ Florentyna Martin (’17). Stars have banded together, like at Rachel Mills Literary (see profile, pp20–21) or digital-first publisher Canelo, whose team boasts Iain Miller (’11), Michael Bhashkar (’12), Nick Baretto (’15) and Francesca Riccardi (’17). We’ve even had Stars who have left their industry roles to become award-winning authors, including Cathy Rentzenbrink (’12), Candice Carty-Williams (’16) and Derek Owusu (’18). 

Stars’ trajectory
In these past 10 years, the Rising Stars has become a bit of a “thing”. As I mentioned earlier, this year we have had another record number of entries. FBF has been our sponsor since coming aboard in 2014, FBF director Juergen Boos says because “today’s Rising Stars are tomorrow’s movers and shakers at Frankfurter Buchmesse, with many past nominees having already risen to the very top of their sectors and becoming pioneers in their field”. FBF has also encouraged Rising Stars-like programmes in dozen or so countries worldwide.  

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose. And it is genuinely touching to see The Bookseller representative among her (it has always been a her) Shooting Star equivalents from six continents at Frankfurt talking strategy and perhaps forging relationships that will last a career. 

It has been a privilege to watch over the Rising Stars in the last decade—it is like seeing the industry develop from the ground up. These incredibly talented people we have selected have gone on to shape the trade, and the entire book trade should salute them.