First things first, why did you start up a publishing company?
In the 1960s there wasn’t much careers guidance but I was told I would be good at selling and I always wanted to work with books. I worked as a secretary (the forerunner to a P.A) for several publishers and a literary agent and when the chance came to start my own business, I took it.
And how did you predict so accurately what readers wanted ?
I launched Piatkus Books in 1979 when far fewer books were published, perhaps around 60,000 each year in the UK. There were no internet or chain bookstores so it was easy to go into W H Smith and independent bookshops and libraries and assess the competition. As a small company, we looked for the gaps in the market and then tried to publish a good book on subjects where there was little material.
We kept these same principles in mind as the company grew. We were always looking for less crowded areas of the marketplace and trying to second-guess what readers would want to read about in 12 – 18 months time.
If you were starting up a publishing company today, what would you need to do differently?
If I were starting up a company today, I would not have to deal with the problems that many mature publishing companies have where half the staff do not understand the digital world. A start-up would be able to put in place all the necessary systems at an early stage and everyone in the company would be able to work with and understand them.
That being said, the task of publishers remains the same as it always has which is to capture the reader’s attention with a book which both promises, and delivers, the reading experience they are hoping for when they buy it. When a book can do that, as long as the pricing, format, packaging and marketing are right for the market (therein lies the sophistication of publishing), it should sell well.
What’s been your biggest mistake?
We started a mass market paperback list in the early 1990s but abandoned it too quickly because we hadn’t got the covers right. I think we cut our losses too quickly.
A few years later though, we tried again and we did get everything right the second time.
And your biggest achievement?
Publishing so many books, both fiction and non-fiction, that have given pleasure to millions of readers.
Who do you admire most in the publishing industry?
Authors who are professional to work with and make a publisher’s life easier.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start up a publishing company?
A publishing company is like any other business. You have to understand what you are doing and you have to know how to get your money in.
Finally, what are you doing now?
When I sold Piatkus everyone asked me what I would do and I said that I wanted to have ‘interesting conversations with interesting people’. And that’s what I seem to do in my work as a management consultant, keynote speaker and angel investor. I have a great time.