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Interview Publishing

Meet The Publisher: Sharmaine Lovegrove

Sharmaine Lovegrove is the co-founder, managing director and publisher of Dialogue Books, an inclusive division of Hachette UK. She was the recipient of the Future Book Publishing Person of the Year 2018 and has worked in PR, bookselling, events management, and TV scouting. She has also been the literary editor for Elle. In 2009 she founded her own bookshop and creative agency in Berlin.Sharmaine serves on the board of The Black Cultural Archives, and is a founding organiser of The Black Writers Guild.     The interview is from May, 2023.    1. You have an incredible history, experience and insight into book world - as a reader, as a bookseller, as a bookshop owner, as a publisher, as an executive.. the list could go on. But where did it all start? What are some of your first literary memories? My first memories are from early childhood. I remember really clearly buying "Boy" by Roald Dahl from my local bookstore in Junction in Battersea London. I distinctly remember the feeling of being given a book in a brown paper-bag and thinking to myself that I want to spend my life making people this happy! Imagine, you give people a book in a brown bag and their lives are made - why would you not do that? Later, when I was about 11-12, I have memories of going to my local library and borrowing a Judy Blume book like "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret" or something, and going to a local cafe where they served tea. I sat there with my woven tote bag, drinking tea and reading my book. Or, getting on the old trains when going to school and seeing all these men reading "The Guardian" and me having my book, fitting right in... I have always felt that books make you part of the world. Reading and having those experiences made me feel I was part of something bigger.And I remember wanting to be like an adult with ideas, I never really enjoyed being the child with big ideas. It's also funny that now, as I'm raising my son who has many big ideas around politics for example, that he also does not want to be the child with the ideas - he wants to be part of the conversation, he wants to be taken seriously with his reading and his thoughts.   2. A lot of bookish kids might aspire to become writers themselves, whereas you had a childhood dream of opening a bookstore. And even though you just mentioned the act of making someone’s day with handing them a book, do you remember recognising the feeling of wanting to share the stories, spread the word rather than creating them? It’s funny that you say it like that because it’s kind of like religious understanding to "spread the word". I myself am not religious or spiritual, but one of the secondary schools I went to was a convent school, and what I learned from being around so many religious people, was the absolute commitment to something that makes you happy. For them it was God, for me it was literature and books. Having a real sense of pride in facilitation of the story. Being a bookseller is the most amazing thing. I miss it more than I miss anything else from the things I don’t do anymore. It’s a huge part of my life.There’s something about the tangible knowledge that goes with being a bookseller - you've either read something or you haven't, you either know it or you don't. And although that wasn’t really about race for me at a young age, I did realise that as a young black woman, it was quite incredible to have that kind of definitive knowledge and being able to share that. I started reading at a really early age, I went to bookstores when I was young, and as soon as I could, I worked in a bookshop, so I've always felt very confident in these spaces. Looking back, I also recognise that my precocious knowledge gave me an access to something that other people might not had. But being a bookseller gave me also a permission to talk about challenging subjects. It was a huge learning curve of how to speak to strangers, how to talk about multitude of complex subjects without censoring myself.   3.  … and a bookseller can subtly study the reader through these conversations, suggest something they don’t even know they would like to read. Push their world a little... Or even a lot! And then they come back again and again. Such conversations are so interesting, not only do you learn about the lives of others, but it also makes you think about books outside your own interest. I mean, that’s the job. It’s never about what you love, it’s always about thinking of other people. And that centering of others is something that has interested me from an early age, and that's what's propelled me to become a good publisher. Such knowledge can only come through having conversations with readers. This is also  the idea behind a new traineeship I created [at Dialogue Books] where, instead of just working in a publishing house, the trainees go out to different places in the industry - for a month they go to Waterstones, working in the bookshop; another month they’ll spend in Curtis Brown Literary Agency in London and so on. The idea that I wouldn’t become a publisher because I was a bookseller is now really odd to me because having all these experiences, talking to so many different types of people about so many different types of books… There’s so many opinions that happen within a publishing house, such confidence and comfort, but if you’ve never sold Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook to a sixty-year-old black man who then comes back and asks you “What’s Next?”, how can you possibly have such big  opinions if you don’t have the selling experience?   4. You’ve pointed out previously that there’s a huge gap between booksellers and publishing houses. We’re all part of the same system, absolutely necessary to each other, yet it’s so true.. Why do you think that is?   When I was 26, I became a publicist, having worked in bookshops. I worked at the London Review Bookshop and then I became a publicist for the LRB’s publishing consultancy, FmCM.  And very interestingly, working with Fiona [Fiona McMorrough, CEO & Founder of FmcM] at FMcM, I was suddenly invited to loads of publishing events and parties. As a publicist, I am paid to talk about the books on my list - if I’m putting out 12 books per year then these are the books I talk about. Endlessly. Whereas when you’re a bookseller, you get paid to potentially talk about every single book! So the idea that I wasn’t invited to all of these events as a bookseller made me think that they’re all talking to the wrong people! I was baffled by that and it’s partly why I wanted to go back to bookselling. I really enjoyed being a publicist and I learned a lot from Fiona, some of which I still carry today, but I missed being out, talking to people, and I missed that tangible knowledge. So when I moved to Berlin, and I think I’m the only person who has moved country because of the Net Book Agreement, I had an idea of creating a bookshop where the bookseller would be the center, being also directly connected to the publishing industry. That was my vision - connecting the bookselling back into publishing.   5.  World has faced many long-overdue dialogues in the recent years and I think you have played a big part leading some of those conversations (and significant structural changes), especially in the publishing industry.  Of course, Dialogue Books has been all about sparking discussions from the very beginning. What are the new conversations you would like to start now? Where to now? Great question. What I’m constantly struck by is this censoring of self that people can not help but do when you’re talking about anything that’s to do with something that’s different to them. So we have to keep going backwards, we have to reiterate the same thing. For example at Dialogue, I’ve never spoken about diversity. I’ve talked about exclusion and inclusion, and yet, even years later, publishers and agents still talk to me about diversity and still ask me if I only publish black people. The first person I published wasn’t black! Most white people only publish white people and you’re not talking to them about that. I’m a multicultural person, I’m black, British, Jamaican, and I live and raise my children in Germany, and I am married to a white middle class man. So by definition I have an extremely multicultural life. Of course I’m here for my community and for my culture. For us to get to a point of equity - that’s my goal. It’s just so reductive to think that [for people to assume that Dialogue only publishes people of colour]! Such projections of their own actions to me shows that we still have so much work to do. I’m coming from a culture and history that was enslaved and colonised for hundreds of years and more recently vilified like the Windrush generation, and as black people are in the UK and around the world. But I come from a great tradition of storytelling. It’s just that such tradition of storytelling doesn’t necessarily look like the 18th century European storytelling. And the idea that you’re completely excluded from that, while also celebrated in a really weird way… I was talking to some friends recently who are film and television producers here [in Berlin] and who made “Sam - a Saxon”, the first show in Germany’s TV with a majority of black cast. And we discussed how making this really important show that’s never been done before, of a first black policeman from East Germany, people get nervous. We’ve got like one sliver of this cake. A sliver! People need to start opening themselves to different narratives. Me publishing a book by a black author, by an Asian author, a working class author does not preclude someone who’s cisgendered heterosexual white and middle class from also publishing a book. Until people really start understanding that to me it’s about carving out space and inclusion, rather than diversity, which is about creating divisions, until that’s not understood, I don’t really know where the conversation can go. All I can do is shield myself from those conversations, answer those questions that are really astounding to me in their ignorance and keep going. Because there will never be a point in which the stories that I'm trying to tell shouldn't be told. The conversation will move into whatever direction the writers and readers would like it to go to and it's our job as publishers to facilitate that dialogue, that conversation and keep it going.   6. Dialogue has a new commercial imprint named Renegade. Congratulations! “Commercial” is a word that might often have a slightly negative connotation, but bringing previously excluded and marginalised stories and voices to the mainstream is obviously fantastic. It sounds like it could create a real change in the readers canon, rather than parading the one black author read throughout the year on people's social media accounts. Lisa Lucas, who heads the Pantheon Books in the US, asked on her social media the other day that when did people take away Black Lives Matter from their bios? That's very interesting. Black lives mattered and now it's just over? But about the commercial side - I worked by myself for five years as a publisher and having never worked in a publishing house before, that was not easy. But I published 48 books and sold over  a million copies. It was amazing. But I never expected us to become a division. And one of the most exciting things is to work with Christina Demosthenous, who is our publisher at Renegade Books which is now our commercial imprint. She, and her team, Joelle Owusu-Sekyere, the editorial director of non-fiction, and Amy Baxter who is a senior editor.  Amy publishes sexy books and romance her books have often a queer person or a person of colour as a protagonist, because how often do you have a protagonist in romance who's queer or black? Especially as black people are being very sexualised by the media, but apparently in books we don’t do romance?  The stereotype of us and sexuality is one thing, but when it comes to literature, apparently there's no space for us. So having Amy really delve into that area is great. And then on nonfiction, there's so many great stories and narratives that Joelle has acquired. And with Christina, you know, she's phenomenal, she has such deep knowledge and a really great track record. She also loves really hooky-books and so to have those crime thrillers of different genres to be part of Dialogue, to have people who actually know what they're doing, to have them involved, is fantastic. On the other side we have the Dialogue Books imprint, which is Hannah Chukwu, who came from Hamish Hamilton, which is the most preeminent literary imprint in corporate publishing, and who set up the Writing Back series with Bernardine Evardine. To have her join Dialogue, that's amazing. To work with so many brilliant young people is incredible. To have a really inclusive team, to have a 90% women of color, all of us have Commonwealth connections, so we're all kind of dealing and grappling with the  same conversations around culture, placement, belonging and all of such things. And that's just really exciting to be around to.     Thanks to Sharmaine Lovegrove for this illuminating interview!   Find more on Dialogue Books here:  📚 Dialogue Books 📚  Interview by our bookseller Iti Libe.Assistant editor Maria Amelia Facchin.