The conundrum of sui generis

By   Hannah Bickerton 3 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

There is a funny passage in the 2016 memoir Splashed! by veteran BBC Panorama investigative reporter Tom Mangold. Back in 1977, Mangold was interviewing Pakistan’s prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. With the help of his then producer, now Rottweiler biographer Tom Bower, Mangold had by his own admission required something of a reputation as a ‘minor journalistic thug’. But sparring with Bhutto did not go according to plan.

‘[Bhutto] dealt with my feeble and ill-prepared questions in an academic and condescending manner, each soundbite another blow to my reputation. Slowly, carefully, he beat me up on camera… In desperation I reached for my only defence and took out my one editorial hand grenade, pulled the pin and hurled the weapon into his lap. “So, Mr Prime Minister… you speak about democracy in Pakistan but what about the case of Wali Khan – the man you’ve held without trial for so many years?” Then I sat back waiting happily for the explosion and his on-camera collapse.

‘“The case of Wali Khan,” replied Bhutto without missing a beat, “is sui generis.”

‘Now, Dorking Grammar School had taught me much, but I’d given up Latin lessons in the second form. Sui generis? What the… Earth began to fall on my coffin… In desperation I turned to Bower sitting off-camera and mouthed “What does it mean?” Tom tried to be helpful: “One-off,” he silently mouthed back at me. I, in my panic, misread his lips to say: “Fuck off.” So no help there.”’

Which is a rather circuitous way of introducing one of the most perennially challenging concepts in editorial commissioning: the sui generis book. This has come up in two recent conversations with writers and their agents who have approached whitefox. Neither book sits neatly in a definable genre box. Both are potentially tricky to pitch to retailers or classify via metadata. Neither falls into the beloved equation that says ‘It’s X meets Y… only set in the US. And in graphic novel form.’ As it were.

So where to go with this. For every book that’s accepted by a traditional publisher because it bears enough comparison with a previous success, something always eventually comes along to defy the age-old winning formula and the perceived wisdom of the collective decision-makers. Sometimes, as a publisher, you need to create the market rather than just give it what it clearly seems to want. Look at Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Unquestionably an interesting initial P&L, until a bazillion copies later… In-house there’s probably a quota for how many of those gambles on passion projects editors are allowed to take. For whitefox? Not so much. We like a new, previously untried mash-up. We are drawn towards that book which is neither fish nor fowl. Just as the kid who is the odd one out at school can often become the cool one everyone wants to be in later life – no matter how much money the uncool kid is making from management consultancy.

I first heard the term sui generis in an acquisitions meeting at Penguin over twenty years ago. Andrew Kidd, then at Viking, wanted to buy Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. What’s it like? What’s the hook? How do we position it? came the usual sales and marketing chorus. ‘You can’t. It’s just brilliant. It’s sui generis.’ This from Penguin MD Helen Fraser. For Tom Mangold’s Dorking Grammar, substitute John Bond’s South London comprehensive, long since bulldozed to the ground. We’d been taught Latin for just one year before our ex-grammar-school teacher went mad and left (it’s a long story but it involved a walking stick being used as a golf club during a lesson). Anyway, I listened and learned quickly, and sales and marketing shared a covert, knowing look. Typographical cover, then, I guess, we said. Which it was, of course, and a very brilliant example too of the creative collaboration between Jon Gray and the late great John Hamilton. 

When they get together, the finest editors, in my experience, usually enjoy the masochistic game of reliving the ones that got away. But you can’t blame them for letting some market-defying one-offs slip through the net, can you? In-house acquisition has inevitably become an increasingly consensus-driven process in which committees make sensible, data-based decisions and don’t like going out on a limb. At whitefox, the decision to publish is ultimately being made by the creator. After which, almost anything can happen.

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Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.