Interview: Katy Lockwood-Holmes, head of Scottish publisher of the year Floris Books

Kelpies publisher Katy Lockwood-Holmes says her harshest critics are her daughters Meg, ten, and Jess, eight. Photograph: Ian Georgeson,
Kelpies publisher Katy Lockwood-Holmes says her harshest critics are her daughters Meg, ten, and Jess, eight. Photograph: Ian Georgeson,
Have your say

With about 100 titles in the Kelpies range of tots-to-teens novels in print, Katy Lockwood-Holmes is hard-pressed to name a favourite. The head of publisher Floris Books says singling out a particular one is like selecting a preferred child. “We love them all in different ways,” she says.

But fresh off being named the Saltire Society Scottish Publisher of the Year, there are some that stand out in what has been an impressive 12 months for Edinburgh-based Floris. Among the authors and titles which Lockwood-Holmes rattles off like the names of her kin is Ross Mackenzie’s The Nowhere Emporium, winner of the Blue Peter Best Story Award 2016. As the first Floris title to bag a high-profile UK-wide accolade, it has proven a step-up in terms of opening doors. “That has got a very special place for us at the moment, but of course there are always new ones coming along that you have high hopes for,” she says.

Though best-known in Scotland for its Kelpies list – which it acquired in 2002 from Canongate – those titles make up just a quarter of the books published by Floris, which generates £1.2 million in annual revenues. With its roots in Christian publishing, the firm has a range of books focused on spirituality, health, education and well-being, many of which are based on the anthroposophical movement of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

But the Kelpies have had the biggest hand in driving recent growth at Floris, which has chalked up revenue increases of about 50 per cent annually for the past five years since Lockwood-Holmes took the helm. Staff numbers have approximately doubled during that same period to 15, leading to the move to Floris’ offices in Edinburgh’s Robertson Avenue this month.

It’s a distant cry from the kitchen table where the firm began 40 years ago as the Christian Community Press founded by Christian Maclean, who still works as an editor at Floris. The firm moved from the early days of religious publishing to include books on all aspects of the life and thinking of Steiner, whose work before his death in 1925 covered everything from farming to alternative medicine.

He is also the inspiration of today’s Steiner Waldorf curriculum, which covers a network of more than 1,000 schools in 64 countries around the world. This connection drives the international element at Floris, which has strong sales in the US. In addition, about half of its books are translated into English from other languages. “Because of Steiner’s origins, a lot of what is written about him originates out of other countries in Europe,” Lockwood-Holmes says.

From Steiner, Floris evolved into niche non-fiction topics such as astronomy and biodynamics. It then moved into children’s publishing at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1986, when it bought the rights to two children’s picture books by Swedish illustrator Elsa Beskow.

Today Floris has more than 30 Beskow titles, as well as many other traditional European picture books. The opportunity to take over Canongate’s children’s list in 2002 was a natural extension from there.

Lockwood-Holmes joined the following year as the firm’s first head of sales and marketing, having spent the previous two years in New York with academic publisher Continuum International.

After graduating from Edinburgh University in linguistics, she landed her first job as a marketing assistant with Edinburgh University Press. From there she joined T&T Clark, the religious publisher based in Edinburgh that became part of Continuum. She had the opportunity to work with Continuum in London, but chose instead to go to the company’s New York office as its theology marketing manager. She and her husband lived there for two years before they came back to Scotland to start a family.

Her manager at Continuum met Floris founder Maclean on a business trip in Europe. He mentioned to Maclean that he had an employee looking to move back to Scotland, and from there her return to Edinburgh was agreed. Lockwood-Holmes was just the fifth employee at Floris in 2003, when revenues were hovering around the £300,000 mark. But the previous year’s acquisition would prove transformational for the business.

“With hindsight it was quite a visionary thing,” she says. “But it was a list that had not been invested in for quite some time. It took some work to bring it back to life.”

There were about 20 Kelpies books in print at the time of the deal, all aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. Floris set about reissuing classics still suitable for the modern market, including Mollie Hunter’s A Stranger Came Ashore and The Desperate Journey by Kathleen Fiddler. Both remain best-sellers for Floris, and with the launch of the Kelpies Prize in 2005, the firm started sourcing new talent such as Lari Don and Janis Mackay with its annual award for unpublished Scottish children’s fiction. To date, more than 70 Kelpies have been added to the list, including recent titles such as Thorfinn And The Awful Invasion and Spellchasers: The Beginner’s Guide To Curses.

Floris initially focused on expansion in the “middle-grade” age band traditionally targeted by Kelpies, and this helped it grow. After a couple of rounds of maternity leave to give birth to her daughters, Lockwood-Holmes was preparing to take over from Maclean, and the board that runs Floris as a trust was faced with a decision.

“We could have just capped things there at that size, but I think there are real dangers in doing that,” she says. “If you are on a natural growth trajectory, it can be damaging to try and artificially cap it. If you are not growing, there is a real risk you will go into decline.”

The list expanded into other age groups ranging from Wee Kelpies board books up to KelpiesTeen, pushing up revenues at their fastest pace yet. The common theme is the Scottish connection, be it the author, illustrator, characters, storyline or setting. “We try to be as flexible as possible, and take everything case-by-case,” says Lockwood-Holmes. “If we really like something, we will find a way to publish it.”

As the head of Scotland’s largest children’s publisher, she is passionate about the “empowering” effect of reading books in a familiar language and setting. Though not a requirement, many Kelpies stories take place in Scotland, and many of their authors are based north of the border.

“It is really important that Scottish children can recognise themselves and where they live in the stories that they read,” she says. “Children engage with books more if they are set in places where they live, and are written in a language that they recognise. That means they are more likely to read for pleasure, rather then doing it because they have to for school. That increases literacy rates, with all the knock-on benefits that we know come with that.”

That said, Lockwood-Holmes says there is no reason why an overtly Scottish book can’t be enjoyed by readers around the world. The Kelpies tag line – “Scottish books for children everywhere” – leaves no room for doubt on that point, though Lockwood-Holmes concedes that the industry has “not quite cracked” selling Scottish children’s books into North America in the same way that Ireland has.

As for those who might aspire to become a Kelpies author, it should come as no surprise that Lockwood-Holmes relies upon the input of her team which extends beyond the office to her daughters Meg, ten, and Jess, eight. “I use them for market research purposes,” she says. “They are two of my harshest critics.”