06 Apr 2014 19:33:22
The indie booksellers are shutting up shop, authors struggle to make a living, and more than 60% of 18-to-30-year-olds would rather watch a DVD than get their nose in a book. But as the publishing world gathers at the annual London Book Fair this week, one of the UK's leading publishers thinks the notion of the book industry in crisis is just a cliched old story.
"Some commentators say the publishing industry is in enormous trouble today. They are completely wrong, and I don't understand that view at all," says Tom Weldon, UK chief executive of Penguin Random House, one of the biggest players in Britain's book world.
As an up-and-coming publisher, he persuaded a teenage chef called Jamie Oliver to sign a book contract. He gets to edit Jeremy Paxman's prose and read the latest Ian McEwan manuscript. And since last July he has been at the helm of the UK division of the world's biggest publishing house, after a mega-merger brought together Penguin, Random House and their 15,000 writers.
While a recent Booktrust survey showing that reading for pleasure is declining among young people might lead some execs to reach for the chablis, Weldon is convinced book publishers are doing better than other creative industries in adapting to a digital world.
"In the last four years, Penguin and Random House have had the best years in their financial history," he says. "Book publishers have managed the digital transition better than any other media or entertainment industry. I don't understand the cultural cringe around books."
Rare in the upper echelons of publishing for coming from an editorial background, rather than management, Weldon started at Macmillan in 1985 in the twilight of the gentleman publisher. As a graduate trainee, Weldon recalls glimpses of the company's nonagenarian chairman, Harold Macmillan, former Conservative prime minister and "a publisher to his fingertips". One of his first jobs was to edit One of Us, Hugo Young's biography of Margaret Thatcher, which came into his hands just before the forces of global capitalism she exalted in would see the ranks of established family publishers folded up into giant conglomerates. It was a time before Amazon, before the Richard and Judy book club, when Waterstones was still an upstart independent. Now the industry is grappling with its biggest upheaval since the invention of high-speed printing presses and the railways.
"It is a sad fact of life that there are fewer physical bookshops than there were," he says. Traditional media is declining, including books pages. As the book world moves from "a browse-and-display model to one of online search and recommendation", publishers must adapt to capture readers attention. "The challenge isn't digital: it is how do you tell people about the next great book."
While Amazon tempts browsers with recommendations based on their search history, Weldon thinks traditional publishers need something more personal. They have to get to know their readers: "Where do they hang out, what do they like, how do we talk to them?" The company is still in the early stages of this process, but is seeking this "direct relationship with readers to tell them about the books they might fall in love with".
Inevitably, this means social media. Penguin UK already has 700,000 followers on Twitter, while every month 2,500 subscribers open an email from the company. But it also means thinking beyond the book: "We might tell our stories many different ways, whether that is books or ebooks, or apps, or toys, or clothes. We are developing a much broader range of intellectual property and exploiting it."
Weldon says publishers are becoming more like broadcasters, but he could have said impresarios. Caitlin Moran, columnist and author of a very modern feminist manifesto, How To Be A Woman, is going on tour: the publisher sold more than 10,000 tickets for her nine events in three days. Although he stresses he is not becoming a retailer, Penguin Random House is going into "merchandise and branding like never before".
These developments are most evident in children's publishing, where much-loved characters, such as Peter Rabbit, the Snowman, and Topsy and Tim, are being made to work much harder. The company has spent almost £10m creating a Peter Rabbit animated series, which it has exported to 15 countries with a wide-range of merchandise tie-ins. In Japan, where Peter Rabbit is a hit among women aged 20 to 40, the radish-stealing rabbit is helping to sell Toyota's latest family hybrid and adorns Mitsubishi Bank's cash machines. In the children's market, Weldon says, animation and products keep children engaged with the printed page when apps, videos and games are vying for their free time. Only a company with Penguin Random House's heft can move into these areas on such a scale, he says: "Our size gives us an advantage."
Weldon has to be the main UK spokesman for a mega-merger that some feared would leave two great publishers lost in a muddy bureaucracy. "This merger has so much greater a chance of succeeding," he says. "Eight to nine months in, things are going extremely well. We had our best results. We consistently publish bestsellers."
As for fears that the merger would dilute competition and push down author advances, this is not the case: "We are acquiring very aggressively."
Leading literary agent Andrew Lownie has seen no pressure on advances – although he says "it is very early days". However, publishers are commissioning less than before, he points out, which is making its own pressure. "We have seen conditions get tougher, and that is only going to continue."
Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates thinks the merger "could be very good for authors" but fears mid-career writers could struggle to get attention from a large publisher preoccupied with the next big thing and the bankable big names that generate the bestsellers that pay their enormous overheads. "The industry loves debuts and brands, but most people are neither."
Weldon counters that a big company has the scale to nurture its backlist: "In a way, our size and breadth gives us the security to take those risks." Stoner by John Williams, became a surprise bestseller 19 years after its author's death, he says, when the company noticed an unexpected spike in sales in the Netherlands and ploughed marketing money into the book.
Jojo Moyes had a hit with Me Before You, her eighth book, published by Penguin after poaching her from a rival. "We made it a huge success." He stresses the 200 to 250 debut writers Penguin Random House publishes every year. "I can't think of any other cultural institution that sponsors new art in the same way."
He thinks publishing a new book is a bit like running a startup company, or – in an analogy closer to this horse-racing enthusiast – a flutter at the track, where "relentless optimism" is blended with controlled risk-taking.
The publisher might be expanding its remit, but the core business is the same: "We are still storytellers, but we are telling our stories in many different ways."
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