Founder of Hookline Books, Yvonne Barlow, talks to Claire Davis
All book-lovers out there know how it feels to finish a novel that they adored, closing the book and awakening from the world you were part of during the course of reading. But do you ever wonder what the writer has gone through to get this beloved book into your hands? Have you ever considered how much changes in the editing process, before it is finally published and available for the reader? A unique and independent publishers, Hookline Books, prioritises this integral relationship between reader and writer, nurturing values that are often lost in today’s competitive industry of book publishing.
Yvonne Barlow, founder and editor of Hookline, tells me about the inspiration for her company. “As celebrities such as Jordan, Anne Widdecombe, Michael Howard’s wife – a former model who, I believe, had never put pen to paper – received contracts to write novels, I felt this was unfair to those who have sacrificed time and money to study fiction writing. Around fifty universities in the UK offer an MA in writing, however graduates find it difficult to find an editor or agent as publishers close their doors to unsolicited manuscripts. I believed that there had to be gems arising from these courses, novels that the public might truly enjoy.”
Hookline therefore offers debut novelists the chance to get published via a contest, the Hookline Novel Competition, whilst simultaneously placing emphasis on the opinion of the reader. Yvonne needed opinions on a range of new novels, and to put her business plan in motion, she knew that she could not act as a judge herself.
“Fiction is so utterly subjective,” she explains, “so it needed a broad range of people who read novels for sheer pleasure. It seemed a natural union to bring these new writers before book groups.”
The competition itself is a two stage, ten month project, beginning in January when writing graduates submit the first three chapters of their work. Hookline typesets and binds these into collections of 12 book openings, which are then sent off to various book groups. Readers have three months to nominate their favourite works, and then the short-listed authors submit their entire novels. Once again typeset, bound and sent to book groups, the finalists are rated, and the top-ranking book ends up being published.
“Letting ordinary readers make publishing decisions has raised eyebrows,” Yvonne explains, when I ask whether others ever question her liberal approach to the process. “At a London Book Fair forum on finding new voices in fiction, there was much discussion on how new voices could be discovered. When I described the Hookline competition, a matriarch within the industry, Fay Weldon, said that if we let book groups choose what went to print, ‘we would all be reading Jordan.’ So much for listening to new voices!”
Hookline therefore simultaneously gives writers a chance and readers a choice in the publishing process. The writers have more input with the design and choices about the content, and readers can voice what they would like to see on their bookshelves; it is an acute way to observe gaps in the market, by interacting directly with consumers.
“There is a stereotype of book groups as middle class, but such a wide variety of people belong to them,” she insists. “Prisons have seen a rise in reading groups – the Hookline Novel Competition now have two book groups based in prisons, and The Reading Agency, a literacy charity, use books groups in the belief that a good plot and discussion will spur reading skills.”
As a new business with such a distinct approach to producing novels, I wonder whether Hookline manages to keep up with the radically changing publishing world, and Yvonne assures me that it does. “We publish in paperback and E-book format. Keeping abreast of changes in digital publishing is a massive challenge, so it helps that we belong to a consortium of independent publishers led by Faber & Faber, known as Faber Factory.”
Their paperbacks are available to order at all familiar bookshops, their E-books from all major E-retail sites. Yvonne is passionate about spreading the word about Hookline, to continue to supply a fairer and more gratifying way of providing novels that people wouldn’t otherwise have the chance of reading.
“I would love Hookline Books to be known as a brand of reader-endorsed fiction, where everyone, no matter their favourite genre, will find something good to read,” she confesses, when I ask what her hopes are for the future.
Her vision has certainly been successful so far. Hookline’s most recent book, Underground by Gayle O’Brien, was reviewed as “gripping and full of suspense”, whilst Seven Days to Tell You, by Ruby Soames, was a finalist in this year’s People’s Book Prize.
Yvonne’s business is a shining star amidst the dynamic world of publishing; small but steadfast in its enthusiasm and unusual methods. For those of you who understand the importance of page-turners and appreciate the virtuosity in offering bright writers a chance, show your support by seeking out a Hookline book, or even joining a book group. With Hookline, your opinion really matters; you could help change one writer’s talent into a career, get hooked on numerous new reads, and be involved in an exciting publishing project unlike any other.