Helen Thomas Interview

Helen Thomas

Editorial Director, Orion Children's Books & Indigo

How did your career in publishing begin and what have been some of the high points so far?

I began my publishing career by doing the Columbia Publishing Course in New York City, which is a bit like a publishing boot camp, or The Apprentice (without the ‘you’re fired’ bit!). There I met Karen Lotz, who now runs Walker Books and Candlewick. Karen introduced me to with the wonderful Jane Winterbotham at Walker Books who hired me as her assistant. Lucky strike! Jane was the perfect first boss, mentor and now friend. She trained me up editorially and also gave me insight into the business side of things. She let me work alongside her on projects by authors I wouldn’t normally have come within a mile of at that stage – Anthony Horowitz, David Almond, Shirley Hughes – and let me lead on the acquisition of Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, which is still my favourite YA romance. I then moved to Scholastic, where I spent 5 years getting greater commercial knowledge and commissioning experience. I arrived just as The Hunger Games was about to start its phenomenal rise, and it was a lot of fun riding that wave. But mainly, during that time, I was able to work with authors I adored and really hone my editorial skills. Now, at Orion, I’ve found the perfect balance between commercial nous and a commitment to the highest standards of storytelling and creativity. Working with Fiona Kennedy is a joy – I hugely value learning from her wealth of experience, and we bounce off each other in a fun, creative way. I’m looking forward to seeing how that shapes our list in the years to come.

You became Editorial Director of Orion Children's Books & Indigo in July, just as Hachette Children's Group joined the wider Hachette UK team. What does your remit broadly entail and how is the team structured?

My role, alongside Publisher Fiona Kennedy, is to shape and grow the Orion/Indigo list. Working with us, we also have brilliant editor Fliss Johnston, as well as lovely editorial assistants Jennie Skinner and Maggie Savage.

It’s a time of change at Hachette Children’s; we’re one Group now and there are seven different imprints. What’s becoming more and more apparent is each imprint holding its individual identity, and all the editors and publishers working supportively and collaboratively alongside one another. There’s an atmosphere of celebration of the other lists that feels warm and genuine.

At Orion, we see our imprint as the home that strikes the balance between literary and commercial fiction, as well as having room for bigger author-led brands (such as Horrid Henry), and we have a real flavour of personal, cultural and social awareness – exemplified in Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, which I’d been admiring in a ‘that’s exactly the sort of book I’d love to publish’ way long before this job came up.

What kind of titles are you looking to acquire across Orion Children’s and Indigo YA lists?

I’m looking for fiction across the ages (though mainly middle-grade plus), as well as selective non-fiction. I want brilliantly-written books that have a commercial punch; I’m a sucker for anything that’s deeply moving – whether it inspires laughter or tears; I’m also on the look-out for insightful non-fiction that has some sort of broad cultural/social/personal appeal, whether it’s an inspiring memoir or a fresh look at emotional intelligence or feminism.

Orion is known for its strong core value of excellent story-telling. Highlight 3 titles on your current list which best exemplifies this point.

It really is; that’s why I’m so thrilled to be here. It’s hard to pick a top three, but if I must, the ones that are standing out for me at the moment are Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s The Apple Tart of Hope, which fills me with joy; Liz Kessler’s brave and moving coming-out novel, Read Me Like a Book; and Annabel Pitcher’s Silence is Goldfish, which is sensitive and just stunning. 

What portfolio advice would you give illustrators looking to appeal to Orion Children's Books & Indigo?

Quite simply: originality and authenticity. We’re not looking for someone to replicate another style or trend, we’re looking for something that’s uniquely you. The same applies for writing and illustration alike.

You've successfully managed many titles through the publishing process. If you had to select one title to tell our audience about, which one would it be and why?

Some of the most fun I’ve had working on a book was The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. I’ve rarely been tickled quite as much. Emer is one of the best creative minds I’ve come across (plus she’s one of the creatives behind the John Lewis ads that make the nation weep every year). She’s also the rare combination of writer and illustrator, and working with her was a dream. She’s hugely collaborative and extremely lovely, so the way we worked was very back and forth – lots of brainstorming, chatting, playing with ideas, pinging off thoughts, letting the book take shape in an organic way.

In-house meanwhile, we knew from the moment of acquisition that we needed to do something different. Pig as a character was alive for us – he led the whole thing without us needing to think too hard, and we wanted the whole package to be owned by him. What would Pig actually find on a farm to write with? What would it look like if he was writing whilst eating his slops at the same time? Andrew Biscomb, the Creative Director at Scholastic, and I worked with the production team to find a unique little format, and the book was printed in blue ink, full of splats and splodges. Pig even writes comments on the imprint page, because why would he understand a copyright line?!

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just started working with some fantastic authors, and I’ve been lucky that a few of them have recently delivered new manuscripts, which means we can get our author-editor relationship going straightaway. On my desk at the moment are: Liz Kessler’s second teen novel, Haunt Me, which is romantic and moving; Phil Earle’s third Storey Street novel for middle-grade, The War Next Door, which is darn funny but also sensitive; and Dawn Kurtagich’s second terrifying psychological thriller, The Creeper Man.

We’ve also just acquired a novel that I’m so proud that we’re going to publish. It’s a beautiful, important and deeply moving story about a boy who’s spent his entire life living in a refugee camp. It’s a story that gives a voice to anyone who’s ever struggled to find a safe home. Obviously the topic is hugely pertinent on the world stage at the moment – and supporting the refugees in crisis will be an important part of our campaign – but it’s also a universal and timeless story that we hope readers will love for many years to come. Look out for The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon next summer!

What’s been your greatest career challenge to date?

Like so many women, confidence has probably been my greatest challenge. I’m now realising that for every day in which I don’t feel like I deserve to be doing this job, there’s a day to come that will give me a reassuring boost, and I’m coming to trust and appreciate the flow of that now. Alongside, I’m starting to trust my instincts more – with submissions, and also with creative ideas and editing. With submissions, for example, we know when it’s not quite right, when we’re panicking that we need to buy something. There’s a difference between ‘yes, it’s good’ and that absolute certainty that comes along a couple of times a year, when everything falls into place and buying that book is unequivocally the right decision, and the vision and ideas just flow. What a privilege. But I’m also grateful to not always feel I’m quite up to it – staying humble (or on my toes!) is as important and letting myself have the confidence to take creative risks.

Who are some of the most inspiring minds you have ever worked with and what valuable pieces of advice did they give you?

I love this question! I’ve received some great advice from a lot of wise, generous and inspiring people. I’d be going all day if I included them all, so I’ll choose one from each stage of my career:

Lindy Hess – Lindy was the Director of the Columbia Publishing Course, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. Lindy was a legend: known by virtually everyone in the US publishing industry, she was charming and funny, with trademark long black hair and wardrobe, and she had an extraordinary ability to match young wannabes to the perfect job – people rarely said no when she said ‘hire this person’! She was a generous and inspiring mentor to me and countless others. Lindy taught me that I could have fun, be passionate, and still be taken seriously. She also encouraged me to hold out for the right opportunity at a time when I was desperate just to get my foot in the door. There’s a lot to be said for getting a foot in the door, of course, but there’s even more to be said for trusting instincts when something doesn’t feel like quite the right move. I’ll also always be grateful for her letting me accompany her then 15-year-old daughter, Eliza, to the Vogue offices to raid the beauty cupboard…


Jane Winterbotham, Publishing Director at Walker Books – Jane is one of the best people I know. She always inspires me with her warmth, integrity and passion. She’s taught me a lot, personally and professionally, and also about how to strike that work-life balance. As a penniless editorial assistant, I was once offered a last-minute free weekend in Europe to see a good friend (terrible situation, I hear you say, woe is me…). To go meant I had to leave a few of hours early on a Friday. I was a super conscientious and ambitious assistant and fretted, assuming I wouldn’t be able to go, because I didn’t have any holiday left. Jane’s response was an incredulous: “Uh, Helen, when someone offers to fly you over to stay in a 5* spa for the weekend, the answer’s YES.” On a more serious note, she also taught me that in this industry, it’s all about the standard of the book and how important it is to look after our authors. She always says authors are our bread and butter, and she’s right.

Hilary Murray Hill – now CEO at Hachette Children’s, I first worked with Hilary when she was MD at Scholastic. A lover of good clothes and good books in almost equal measure, and with a huge amount of compassion and loyalty, when she left Scholastic it was like Dumbledore leaving Hogwarts. The best career advice she gave me was to act more senior than I was. It’s a version of ‘fake it till you make it’. She didn’t mean it to be about inauthenticity or bolshiness or arrogance though. It’s sage advice: practice being more confident, practice being at a different level, and at some point it’ll start to be real. There’s a great TED talk about this too, by Amy Cuddy.

Which iconic children's book do you wish you had been a part of?

Please don’t shoot me for lack of originality, but Harry Potter. Who wouldn’t want to have published Harry Potter, the series that has inspired millions and millions of children (and adults) to read? That’s what children’s books are about. They’re also stories with real emotional intelligence: heart and courage and love. JK Rowling is a literary hero, and I’m not going to try to be cool coming up with a quirkier answer.

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