Business profile: Sarah Odedina and Hot Key Books

It has been a whirlwind year for Sarah Odedina. Last summer, she announced that she would be leaving her role as group editor-in-chief for children’s books at Bloomsbury to launch a new children’s publisher for Swedish-owned Bonnier Publishing, the parent of UK publishing houses including Templar and Autumn Publishing.

Less than 12 months later, Hot Key Books has its launch list and a staff of 16 in handsome brick offices in Farringdon. It is also working hard on its profile, setting up a competition with the Guardian to find the next generation of young writers and having launched a series of seminars to help those outside publishing to understand the industry.

There are no signs that this unforgiving pace is slowing up; Odedina says she has not felt this energetic about things “since the first few years at Bloomsbury when we were building the list”. Among her launch titles for Bloomsbury, of course, was J K Rowling’s Harry Potter.

While she is working “pretty much all the time”, Odedina says that is her choice. “I want to be in touch with people in Australia when it’s the right time to do so, I want to read the projects we are publishing and to be involved in planning the year ahead and to think about marketing and what we are doing digitally.”

Point of difference

According to Odedina, there are advantages in being a start-up, particularly the lack of a backlist. Instead of focusing on rejacketing existing titles, Hot Key can focus on what is new. Nor do they have to take books because they “have a gap to fill”. Not having a company history is another liberation. “There’s no point of reference for us, we did it like that two years ago so we can’t do that again. Everything is fresh and full of energy.”

This sense of freedom is reflected in the look of Hot Key’s launch titles—something that was noticed at their unveiling at London Book Fair. The Hot Key books stood out because they looked different, a deliberate move by Odedina who hired Jet Purdie as art director, whose background was in film and commercial design, not children’s books. “My feeling was that there seems to be a dominant taste and trend in books that doesn’t serve the children’s book world well; people think, ‘this look has sold so we will do another jacket like it’, but I don’t want our list to look like anything else you see on the bookshelves.” Book proofs also have a single look, and will be numbered.

Hot Key aims to publish just 50 titles a year in the nine to 19 age range. “Any five-year plan for us would involve having more people on board to make sure that we never lose the care and attention we pay to each project, rather than having more people to become a faceless organisation,” she says. “If we can make enough money from 50 titles a year, that is where I would like to keep it.”

Authors have told her they “want to be part of a smaller, personality-driven company rather than a big machine” and names Hot Key has attracted include Sally Gardner (Maggot Moon), Gareth P Jones (Constable and Toop), Alex Shearer (Cloud Hunters) and journalist Dawn Porter (Rene and Flo). As Hot Key grows, the company will change but Odedina adds: “I hope that we will stay mindful of the things we have heard in the past six months and stay true to our philosophy of being a boutique publishing house.”