News room: From our own Correspondent

From our own Correspondent by Kat Matfield

During her years working as a freelance journalist and a producer for BBC World Service, Rosie Whitehouse was confronted again and again by stories whose scope and importance couldn’t be jammed into 500 words or a 3 minute segment. Journalist friends who had the same experience would approach mainstream publishers with proposals for exciting, moving and significant books on foreign affairs subjects only to be rebuffed. They’d be told that no-one wanted to read heavy books set in far-off places whose names clotted on the tongue when there were shelves full of Richard&Judy bestsellers and ghosted celebrity memoirs. It took a chance meeting in Paris and an epiphany at a supermarket checkout to transform Rosie’s rising frustration with this near-sighted view into a determination to take action. From these two events, Reportage Press was born.

The chance meeting in Paris was with Denise Affonco, whose powerful, harrowing memoir of her years living in Pol Pot’s Cambodia has become one of the publisher’s most celebrated books and has been praised by heavy-weight reviewers including The Economist and The Times. However, when Rosie Whitehouse’s husband, a respected foreign correspondent, first met the author in Paris, she was struggling to interest any English publisher in the book, despite sales of over 50,000 for its French edition.
“We thought that Denise was somebody who had a story to be told,” Rosie remembers, “so we decided to help her.” After approaching friends who worked in publishing only to receive the same dismissive response as her fellow journalists, “we were so horrified by that that it was one of the big spurring points to set up Reportage Press.”

It hadn’t been long since Rosie had decided to work on her own book, goaded into revealing what it was like to be married to a journalist reporting from war zones by coverage of the Iraq invasion seen on a TV behind the counter of her local supermarket. Standing in the queue with images of battlefields and shelled towns running across the screen, she became increasingly angry at the way the media ignored the effect their coverage would have on the families of soldiers and reporters in these areas, and how these kinds of stories were never reported. Are We There Yet, Rosie’s memoir of her travels with a ‘frontline family’ across some of the more dangerous parts of the world, was the result.

Not long after To The Ends of Hell and Rosie’s own book were released by Reportage Press, Rosie’s theories about the kind of books readers wanted to see on shelves were proved right by Tim Butcher’s Blood River, whose massive sales demonstrated a massive public appetite for the kind of books the press specializes in. Rosie’s personal experience has shown her that “When you actually get to the public they like the books because they are different” but the problem has been convincing bookshops to stock them. Because Reportage remains quite small, Rosie mans the publisher’s stall at fairs and shows, where she has the gratifying experience of selling directly to people who bemoan the ordinariness and homogeneity of what’s on offer in mainstream shops that hesitate to stock Reportage’s books.

Not everyone has been so hard to convince: managers of individual branches of chain stores have reacted with enthusiasm, as have independent bookshops like Daunt Books, a prestigious small chain which specializes in books from and about foreign parts, which has offered support and encouragement to the publisher from its birth. Other small and large presses have offered advice and help, and Rosie reflects that “There’s a very positive general feeling in publishing as a whole that little people like us need to be helped and encouraged.” To match the international focus of Reportage’s books, Rosie stresses that “it’s as important to us to get our books into a bookshop in Kosovo as into Waterstone’s Piccadilly branch.” As a result of this broad focus, shops across Europe and in the middle east have purchased Reportage’s books, along with individual customers from Afghanistan and Iraq – all attracted the publisher’s focus on stories that have been ignored by larger presses.

Reportage Press’s dedication to giving readers a perspective into the realities behind the headline stories results in some fascinating memoirs, like Révérien Rurangwa’s Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda, an account of the aftermath of the murder of 43 members of the author’s family in the Tutsi pogroms. These moving personal accounts have also inspired the press to donate a portion of the royalties of each book to a relevant charity for example, money from every sale of Rosie’s own book goes towards the Rory Peck Trust, which supports families of news-gatherers who have been killed or injured overseas. “There is a price that’s paid to out the news on tv so the work of the Rory Peck trust was something we needed to link to.” After reading about the plight of the author’s translator in Red Zone, a book which reveals the threats and violence perpetrated against journalists in Iraq by gangs trying to prevent accurate reporting of the country, Rosie was moved to start working in partnership with International PEN to fight this suppression of free speech. As well as being a remarkable new kind of Corporate Social Responsibility, the press’s connections with these charities is a great way to introduce the books to readers who are interested in related issues.

For Rosie, “our journalistic background has been the key to our success” – not least, she says, because she didn’t know the things that ’didn’t work’ in publishing, so she was able to come at the process with a fresh eye. With a team of young staff who are similarly new to publishing and unfettered by the status quo, Reportage is able to produce a highly topical list. The expected lead time (the period between finishing writing and the book hitting shelves) for books published by larger publishers can be anything from one to two years: Rosie and her writers are accustomed to working to tight newspaper and magazine deadlines, so the same process can take them as little as six months. At the end of February, Rosie signed up an author whose as-yet-unfinished book – an account of a twenty year stint as the BBC’s correspondent in Eastern Europe, from 1989 to 2009 – will come out this November, unthinkably quick for an older press.

Another valuable inheritance from Rosie’s journalism days is her familiarity with the media, which is a great advantage in getting publicity for her books. “My own background was at the BBC so when I ring up – although there’s nobody at the other end of the phone who knows me – I know exactly how to sell the story, I know the programmes and I know how to pitch the authors.” She’s also retained the journalist’s nose for a story and it’s this that leads her to many of Reportage’s books. As the press’s fame spreads, writers are approaching Reportage more and more with their ideas for foreign-affairs-related fiction and non-fiction. Rosie is adamant that all submissions that have relevance to foreign affairs issues will be read -even if it takes Reportage a bit longer than it might for larger presses. Writers should know that she is especially interested in children’s books which have an international perspective and deal with serious matters, something she thinks is frequently lacking in the genre.

For readers, there is an exciting new list with an African slant to look forward to, featuring one of the first novels set in the Sudan and published in England; as well as non-fiction on the situation in Darfur by The Times’ East Africa correspondent; and a gripping crime thriller set in Budapest and based on real documentation that reveals an attempted Nazi coup in the 21st century. Head to the website for links to interviews with the authors, images from the books and extracts, or join the facebook group to keep up to date on the latest books and author events.

To anyone who doubts the continuing relevance of Reportage Press’s books, Rosie points out a line from Cry Korea, a memoir of the twentieth century’s forgotten war and part of the Dispatches series of reprinted classic works:
‘One should never intervene in somebody else’s country unless one knows how to rebuild it.’

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Written by
Kat Matfield
Published on
Journalism, Interview, and Rosie whitehouse