Holland House, the tiny indie behind Karen Jennings' An Island, has reprinted 5,000 more copies and attracted foreign rights interest after the novel won the press its first ever Booker nomination.
Founder and senior editor Robert Peett has sold rights to Text Publishing in Australia, and some foreign-language rights to countries including Greece, negotiated through Deborah Dubra, "the great rights agent" who approached the press a few years ago, attracted by its list. Two further print runs have also been scheduled since Jennings made the 13-book longlist.
Peett told The Bookseller her decided he wanted to sign the novel "within a few pages". He said: "I think this is a very special book, one that is difficult to publish because it is hard to get the right market, but it's not at all difficult to read," he said. "Once started, it is hard to stop. The Booker Prize judges description seems to me very accurate, and they describe it as ‘transfixing’ and with ‘majestic, extraordinary prose’."
The South African author (pictured, below) was longlisted last month for her novel, which revolves around a lighthouse-keeper’s interaction with a refugee, who washes up on the beach near his lighthouse, and weaves colonialism, poverty and racism into the narrative.
Her debut novel, Finding Soutbek, published by South African publisher Holland Park Press, was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. Her 2016 memoir, Travels with my Father, and 2018 debut poetry collection Space Inhabited by Echoes were also published by Holland Park. However, her Booker-longlisted novel was turned down by numerous publishers, before Holland House jumped at the chance to sign the title.
Although An Island and Jennings have now gained publicity interest since the Booker longlist, Peett said he intially received no interest when he sent it out to be reviewed. The initial print run produced 500 copies, and the book was largely ignored.
"We got no reviews despite sending it out pretty widely, and yet Karen never complained. Since the longlisting we have had to order two further print runs, and sales are currently in the low thousands, with more to come," he added.
The indie is largely a one-man show, with Peett the only full-time member of staff. He launched the company in 2012, and its first novel, The Absent Woman by Marlene Lee, was published the following year. Since then it has published more than 40 titles, focusing on literary fiction and non-fiction, including Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s Paper Sparrows, set in Lebanon, and Emma Darwin’s This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin. The press has also released poetry by Anna Blasiak.
"Generally it is books I both love and feel we are right for as a publisher—not necessarily the same thing—and ones that might not be published if we don’t take the risk," Peett said. "The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong is probably, along with An Island, the best example of important books that might never be read if we didn’t publish. We are incredibly small, so I expect us often to be the last on the list of authors and agents."
Alhough the Booker longlisting is a coup for the publisher, Peett has said he hopes the attention will be focused on Jennings' career. "I am not sure it has made much difference to our profile, to be honest," he said. "Hopefully people are focusing on the book and the author, not us. Really, the best effect has been how it has brought Karen to people’s notice, though she doesn’t really enjoy the attention.
"This recognition is long overdue. She wants to give back to Africa as much as she can, and I have been amazed by how much support and love she has there. This isn’t her first book but I think, in many ways, this is just the beginning of an important career."