Lisa Highton is the Publisher of Two Roads Books, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, who in turn are an imprint of one of the Big Six: Hachette.
Taking their name from a line in the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both" they are a relatively young imprint having only been established in 2011.
This came just 6 years after Lisa Highton returned to the UK from an extensive publishing career in Australia. Although mainly an editor while she was there, Lisa also worked in book publicity, children's publishing, and was even an author herself. The experience she developed from her time at Macmillan, Doubleday, and HarperCollins, saw her recruited by Hodder & Stoughton in 1993.
In the 20 years since, she has became a prominent publisher in the industry resulting in heading up her own imprint Two Roads Books.
But perhaps the most significant part of her formative publishing years, was how the travelling itself instilled a passion for new cultures and places. This passion has led to a yearning to find the same in fiction and non-fiction.
Despite the hectic responsibilities of running her own imprint, Lisa Highton is an active member of the Twitter community, and often replies to general questions from readers and writers alike.
Can you explain more about the ethos of Two Road Books, and how your mantra of 'Stories…Places…Voices…Lives' came to be?
Starting a list made me review the books I have published and loved and what I wanted this list to be about. As most of my publishing experience is from other countries (although I am English) I’ve always seen things a little differently – hence Two Roads – and am interested in writing from other places.
Put simply, those four words of the ‘mantra’ reflect my taste for strong narrative and voice in either fiction or non-fiction. Like many ‘reading group’ readers I’m interested in exploring other places and lives and other times.
I know the reading group is the holy grail of publishing, but really that’s where I’ve always been. Give me books you can press in the hands of your friends and say you must read this!
Are there any pressures from Hodder & Stoughton, or the Hachette group themselves, when it comes to acquisitions?
We’re in business - we have a responsibility to run things profitability but there’s no other pressure other than to find the best books we possibly can and publish them well. That’s our job after all. There’s no pressure just support. I’m tremendously lucky to be able to run a boutique imprint yet with all the strength of a major house behind me.
You recently launched the online Two Roads Book Club to discuss books from a variety of publishers. It is not often a publisher will use their site to recommend books from their competitors, why did you decide to take this approach? And how has the reaction to it been?
I did it primarily to support a book we’ve just published -The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe - in which a dying mother and her son explore life through books. Who doesn’t love books about books? I thought it’d be good to read some of the books they discussed (many book club favourites, some relative unknowns). Oddly, we didn’t have a book club in house so this seemed a perfect gap to fill. We’ve had a year’s worth of meetings and it’s been terrific – we’ve all enjoyed it. If nothing else we will have sold a lot of copies of Crossing to Safety. Don’t we all recommend each other’s books in some way or another?
As far as reaction goes I can see the book club blogs and comments get a lot of hits on the site, so we seem to be spreading the word.
Your website has a very warm, welcoming and personal touch to it. How important was it to you that Two Roads Books had such a friendly persona in the online environment?
Thanks – that's very important. It’s our shop front and how people see us – it’s still professional but it is meant to be human! I write all the copy on the site apart from guest blog posts, and manage all the social media - Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. We’re not that big yet that this is overwhelming, but it’s important it’s conversational and not impersonal. All the social media we do is different and I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of things. We’re all learning here aren’t we?
What differences do you see from your authors when they collaborate with yourselves on rewrites? And have you had to make any tough decisions about changing a title of one of their books?
No; after when I take a book on I am in partnership with the author, their agent and in some cases other editors around the world. Our goal is to publish a great book. We have to make lots of decisions, but with the author. This isn’t an adversarial relationship – that’d be hopeless from the start. We work together on getting the book into the best shape. Sometimes this is a simple process, sometimes less so, but we always get there. Surely that’s one of the advantages of being published - having someone to work with?
Titles are ghastly; they’re either right straight away or agony. Would The Great Gatsby have worked so well as Incident at West Egg or Trimalchio? But, like covers, we get there in the end. We’d never go with a cover or a title the author hated!
How challenging is it to fact-check the Non-Fiction books you publish, and how much of it is down to trusting the author?
I refer to the partnership – we’re there to help the author not to point them to the nearest bear-trap. Sometimes it can be tricky but an incredible amount of research can be done on-line. Factual content is easy – historical events, the number of continents etc but memoir is harder. This is an interpretation of real events and, as such, subjective. But we work with the author to make sure it makes sense, is as correct as can be and is the right side of the law.
Predominately your submissions come from agency repped writers, but you also accept queries from those without an agent. It is unusual for an imprint of the Big Six to open their doors in this way to unsolicited submissions, so why did Two Road Books choose to be so receptive to those without an agent?
So far this hasn’t proved unwieldy but I’d still look. I make it quite clear that I’ll look at targeted submissions after checking by email. By targeted I mean have they actually looked at the website and seen what we do? Oddly though, most of the submissions I’ve received to date have been spot on – slightly more so than some agents in fact!
How many submissions do you receive per month? And what percentage of them would be unsolicited queries?
Hard to say by month but over a year I will have dealt with roughly 500 manuscripts and proposals and been aware of half that number again. Maybe 50 + are unsolicited so far. The principal reasons most people don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts are time and quality. Editors have only so much time so, rather like readers, we like to know we’re spending our time wisely!
If an unsolicited manuscript impressed you to such an extent that you wanted to acquire it, would you publish it without a literary agent being involved in the negotiations? Or would you assist or encourage that writer to secure representation first as a precondition of your publishing contract?
I would encourage the author to get an agent, easier for them if we were interested. The trinity of author agent and publisher works pretty well in every possible combination for a number of well-tested reasons.
Have you discovered a writer from any other avenues such as conferences, social networking, festivals, or creative writing courses?
Probably all of the above over time. Publishing is a million tiny acts. Who knows what pays off? I love getting out and meeting people. I travelled over 7500 miles around the UK visiting book groups and independent booksellers. I’d advise anyone who feels ‘we’re all doomed’ to go out and talk to book groups – full of passionate readers, lively interested people who love reading. Readers & writers are out there – we just have to get to them and they have to discover us and our books. It’s about bridging the gap.
What advice would you give to an unpublished writer who is about to embark on the submission process?
Make sure your work is good and that there is a market for it.
Try and get an agent.
Listen to advice and then ignore it.