Red wine and risks – an interview with Katie Isbester

13th June 2017

Meet our friend and associate, Katie Isbester, creator of Claret Press, whose titles include Surface Tension and Half Life by Sarah Gray, Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta, Blackout by Sam Grenfall, R.B. Watkinson’s The Cracked Amulet, Stories from Herodotus by Lorna Oakes, and our newest release Dangerous Skies, written by Brian James.

At Essential Audiobooks, we work closely with Claret Press, proudly producing audio editions of some of the country’s best new literature.

Here, Katie tells Maxine Lennon all about setting up her company, what makes her tick, taking a leap of faith, and the future of publishing.

On story-telling

At the core of publishing is storytelling. You can turn anything into a story, if you tell it as a story people want to hear.

People have the most extraordinary lives and they send me their memoirs but often it’s very plod, plod, plod… and I will say “It’s all about storytelling. This is a great book, now story tell it.”

It’s a lost art that we are rediscovering.

As a publisher I’m always thinking about how to reach out to people who choose not to read, and encourage them to pick up a book. If you look at a graph of people reading, it goes up and down – it’s an issue that runs throughout every literary festival. I went to the Frankfurt Book Festival where there was an entire seminar on how to reach out to readers, and learning about new ways to attract people.

Performance readings are very successful. We mixed one of our authors, Sarah Gray’s Surface Tension, in with readings of Neil Gaiman, and Edgar Allan Poe’s work during a Halloween performance. People loved Sarah’s work, really loved it. I realised that people enjoyed coming to performance readings; it was accepted as a night out.

On naming the company

Claret is a very nice red wine, but not fancy-wancy, not Rothschild, not burgundy red… It’s just a nice red wine. There are very few pleasures greater in life than sitting down surrounded by your friends having a lovely meal and a glass of red. It’s very warm, it’s a bit luxurious. Let’s be honest, this is not a puritanical approach toward life; this is a pleasurable approach full of good friends, and good wine, and good food, and good laughter, and good conversations, and that’s what a good bottle of Claret means to me. That’s why it’s Claret Press. It tells more about me than I’d care to admit!

On why publishing?

I was driven to be a publisher. I was a freelance editor for a long time. Because of the babies and following my husband around to his jobs, I never really had a traditional career, but I was always really good at language. I know that sounds immodest, but that was kind of my super skill. I would edit everything! I started off doing doctoral dissertations, then detective stories, murder mysteries, romances, memoirs, travel logs, and more doctoral dissertations. All the while I could see that good books were not being published.

I couldn’t get why this had to be so difficult, and I wanted to help the people who I thought should have their books published, so I educated myself on self-publishing.

Then I got quite ill with cancer and it became a little bit nip and tuck whether or not I’d pull through, but I did. I thought enough of being careful; enough of playing it safe; let’s throw caution to the wind and get these good books published.

On taking risks

This is perhaps a crazy, unwise, foolish thing to have done, but I started up a publishing company to get the books I fell in love with out there so that everybody else could fall in love with them too.

An example of a book that should be published is Sarah Gray’s short stories, Surface Tension. Nobody publishes short stories anymore, they’re a hard sell. Sarah’s stories are ghost stories that don’t fit the mould. They are very intelligent, and some of them aren’t even ghost stories, rather psychological dramas. They don’t fit the genre of what constitutes a ghost story, they break every rule, but people love them because they are so thoughtful and are so well written. People who don’t read ghost stories, read these and love them. People who read ghost stories love them.  Young people read them, and we’re getting people who are seriously ill reading them, loving them and being emotionally moved by them.

I take risks. I take on books that are quirky and different, that appeal to me and that should see the light of day, because they are great pieces of storytelling that touch me and engage me at some level.

Another example of a high risk book that I published is Blackout by Sam Grenfall. It is for that hard to reach age group of boys between the ages of 14-17 who won’t read, so nobody publishes for them.

I thought it was a great book – it’s got a lot of science in it and a rather obnoxious anti-hero as our lead guy (he’s a felon, he’s a drug dealer, he’s a bad boy) and it’s witty and amusing.

I know people who have said to their sons, “Okay, you didn’t clean your room, so as punishment you have to read a book”. These boys consider reading a book to be a punishment! Then they give them Blackout to read and the boys fall in love with it!

Parents have written me letters or bump into me in the street and say to me “Katie, that was so good, what else have you got by this guy because they’ll actually read it!”

The first book Catherine [O’Brien] produced for us as an audiobook is a classic for kiddies. It’s the ancient Greek Herodotus for 9 – 12 year olds! High risk, it’s a classic, but it’s unusual.

Brushstrokes in Time is our best seller. It’s been picked up by Yale and the University of Kent in England. It’s been endorsed by a Harvard university professor, an Oxford university professor, and various Asian experts. It’s a story about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the coming of age in China, the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The ex-pat Chinese community loves it, and Catherine said this is her bestselling audiobook.

On her philosophy

 I publish because I’m passionate about the books, and I think the world would love them if they knew about them. I spend a lot of time marketing (much more than I thought) – I’ve got to get them as wide a readership as possible – they deserve it, and I truly believe that – I don’t publish anything I don’t really believe in, and it pays off.

It’s a very similar philosophy to Essential Audiobooks. Catherine is like my twin sister separated at birth; it’s extraordinary! We have a similar attitude, a similar approach. We both try to create books that are quality, and that we truly believe have longevity.

On the key to success

One of things I do at Claret Press, which I think is really helpful, is that I try to encourage my writers to help each other – united we can punch above our weight. With half a dozen to ten authors you can get a synergy, share tips and things like that. We review each other’s books, we recommend each other’s books to our friends and family, we buy each other’s books at Christmas. If we have a contact that is well placed with children’s literature then we give it to someone else in the group and that way we all help each other out.

As I learn more  I’m better able to articulate exactly what I want the author to do, how much time it’s going to take, what is involved, what they’ll get out of it, what they want to do… When I started off I just knew that I had to publish their work but I’m becoming more helpful now, I’m becoming a bit of an unexpected guru!

On her dream book

I just finished reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which won the Man Booker Prize. It is an excoriating analysis about post racial America, written as both a satire and as an analysis of it. It’s hilarious and painful and it’s so clever. I wish I had published that! It’s edgy, it’s offensive, in fact I don’t know any people it wouldn’t offend… he ticks every box in offending everybody with enormous humanity and enormous humour. I highly recommend the book, it’s a virtuoso feat in terms of the technique of writing and I’m a sucker for that too. Technically it’s superb and I’m very attracted to that; it scratches an itch for me.

You read literature like that Man Booker prize winner and you think that is the power that a book can still have, which you’re not going to find in a TV movie, even if it’s House of Cards or Game of Thrones.  You can only find this in a piece of literature. I was very impressed with it.

I’m a sucker for poetry and there was a book published last year called Grief is a thing with feathers, about a poet, a man, who’d lost his wife and two young children. He writes this sustained riff on The Crow by Ted Hughes.  You’d have to be familiar with Hughes’ poetry in order to understand this book. There won’t be a large audience for this book of poetry but it’s really very good. I would have liked to have published it.

On the future of publishing

Claret Press could not have existed 10 or 15 years ago, because we are, in essence, an E-Publisher.

We can produce books which can be bought anywhere in the world – you couldn’t have done this 10 or 15 years ago. We’re an example of the new, innovative small presses, which are cropping up more frequently now.

How this is going to shake down in 10 to 15 years from now; I don’t know. How viable it’s going to be to have, not just one Claret Press, but 2000 independent publishers in Great Britain, publishing everything and anything; I don’t know.

I was talking to a lady about it recently, who owns a small independent book store. They’ve had to reinvent selling books, having been in the industry for 40 years, and I asked her how she saw the future of bookselling. She said The future of publishing resides in people like you”, and I immediately thought, “Whoa wait a minute I’m not sure I want this much responsibility! I’m just trying to get the books I like out there, publish books I like to publish.”

She believed that we, and publishers like us, were the future of publishing. The micro presses, publishing books that they think are quality and giving the big publishing companies a run for their money.

She might be right. For the last two years a small independent press (about 10 years old) has won the Man Booker Prize. It’s an exciting time for publishing, and I’m proud to be a part of it.


Claret Press is a selective press that publishes both paper and ebooks, and maximises royalties for its authors. A new kind of publishing house, one that fosters creativity, edits manuscripts and supports writers; Claret Press selects on the basis of quality and readability in the belief that those criteria create modern classics.

Written by Bryony Robertson

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