Growing up a self-described “Air Force brat,” whose family moved between American military bases in Europe throughout her youth, Brooke O'Donnell is used to meeting large numbers of people on a regular basis and quickly sizing them up.
“That translates into making decisions on books,” insists O'Donnell, Trafalgar Square's publishing director. Her responsibilities include culling each season through 2,000 adult and children's titles in all genres from 50 of Britain's largest and most respected publishing houses, selecting from those approximately 500 titles that she believes will interest readers on—as she repeatedly refers to the U.S.—“this side of the pond.”
Trafalgar Square Publishing, which was acquired in October 2006 by Chicago Review Press, the parent company of Independent Publishers Group, distributes in the U.S. a total of about 10,000 titles from the U.K. Unlike most distributors, Trafalgar Square buys the books from their publishers, rather than selling them on consignment.
“It's a real challenge. We're learning about the market,” O'Donnell admits, as she describes searching for books that maintain a “perfect” balance between subject matter and price, while at the same time “making sure I'm not missing something,” like books on European football or biographies of British sports figures that, in the past were passed over, but in recent years have found their niche among American readers newly enthralled with the World Cup championships and British soccer star David Beckham's exploits.
Besides sports, what does especially well are mysteries and fiction—especially historical fiction and the classics. The strength of the British pound as compared to the ailing U.S. dollar only adds to the challenges O'Donnell faces, selecting appropriate titles for American readers. “If you do a strict conversion, we're not going to get these books on the shelf here,” O'Donnell says, explaining that she negotiates with publishers on pricing for the U.S. market.
While she's been Trafalgar Square's publishing director only since January 2007, O'Donnell is no stranger to bridging the cultural divide between U.S. and U.K. publishers. Her first job after college was almost a mirror of her current position—she spent two years in an entry-level marketing position at Eurospan Group, a London-based distributor of U.S. trade and university publishers into the U.K.
“It was a perfect fit for me, to get into publishing, surrounded by U.S. publishers, but in an international environment, which I'm comfortable with,” she recalls, adding that she'd previously considered a career in advertising and had always envisioned herself in a “more corporate setting.” But O'Donnell loved publishing, and so never left, though she did leave London for Washington, D.C., where she spent the next two years handling subsidiary rights and managing the international sales force at National Academy Press, quickly working her way up to international sales manager and assistant marketing director there.
While O'Donnell left both Washington and the international publishing scene when she took a position as trade sales manager with IPG in Chicago in 1998, it was not a permanent departure on either count. After leaving IPG for four years to raise her family of three boys, O'Donnell returned to her old position on a full-time basis in October 2005. When Chicago Review Press acquired Trafalgar Square, O'Donnell was the logical choice to be named the company's publishing director. About six months after her appointment, O'Donnell returned to the Washington, D.C. area and now works from her home office in Alexandria, Va., while her two-person staff reports to her from their offices at IPG's headquarters.
“I can work from anywhere,” she explains, “After all, my clients are all in the U.K. I'm actually closer to them now, and there's an hour less of a time difference than in Chicago.”
“The stars were aligned—it was serendipity,” she says of IPG's acquisition of Trafalgar Square.
“This is the perfect culmination of all my different experiences.”