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Event report: BookMachine Meets Jessica Kingsley Publishers

BookMachine members have enjoyed a series of ‘BookMachine Unplugged’ events in 2018 and 2019, in which panels of experts give their views on key publishing areas such as tech, production, editorial and marketing, but last week we were treated to the first in a new series of events entitled ‘BookMachine Meets…’. The aim of these events is to showcase the skills and experience of one particular publisher, and on 30 May 2019 we gathered at Hachette HQ in London for the first in the series, to meet Jessica Kingsley Publishers and learn some of the secrets of their success.

Jessica Kingsley Publishers (hereafter ‘JKP’) was founded in 1987 and became part of the Hachette Group in 2017. As their MD Sanphy Thomas explained, JKP has always been a strong social justice publisher, committed to publishing books that make a difference. Focusing on specific issues that matter to them means that they don’t follow trends: as an example of this, they started publishing books on gender diversity well before this subject had spread to the wider industry, as it has today. Communities are hugely important to JKP – they focus on niche audiences, aiming to meet the needs of specific groups rather than to a wider mainstream readership.

Lisa Clark, Editorial Director at JKP, has been there since 2007. She gave an insight into JKP’s successful autism list: their first JKP title on autism came out in 1996, and since then the list has grown to achieve international renown, spanning all parts of the market from picture books for children to self-help titles, books for professionals and more. The breadth of this list has formed a model for other subject lists.

As Lisa explained, having a well-established list carries a risk of stagnation: you risk competing with yourself when you publish new titles. The JKP team resists this threat by always trying to stay ahead of the curve, keeping in touch with the community and learning about new debates and new voices. Being so close to the subject helps them identify emerging topics, and to stay abreast of changing language used around the subject. One way in which their commissioning has shifted is that the concept of neurodiversity (which recognises the positive aspects of difference) has become very important to them, rather than the older ‘deficit model’ (which defines conditions in terms of what’s wrong with people).

Senior Commissioning Editor Andrew James described the thinking behind JKP’s gender diversity list, which began in 2017. As staff aren’t siloed into strictly defined areas, they are able to spot potential new markets emerging from intersecting parts of the communities they work with. Spotting opportunities which might be too niche for other publishers allows JKP to grow into new areas and publish for underserved markets, thereby building a successful list.

When commissioning new books, the JKP team likes to work with the community, to find topics that need to be covered and people they could approach to write about them. Echoing Lisa’s words, Andrew explained that when the list began, he could commission all over the subject, but now the list is more established, he has to look for gaps that need to be filled, which is a slightly different challenge. Social media is a really useful source of book ideas, and Andrew’s authors also function as an unofficial ‘review board’, checking if new project ideas would work as JKP titles.

Moving from editorial matters on to marketing, our next speaker was Sarah Plows, JKP’s Marketing Manager. Sarah manages a team of six marketing executives who each focus on a specific subject, and she explained how vital it is for each team member to understand the nuances and trends in their subject. Twitter is an essential tool for spotting debates and changing language use in communities: for example, Áine Ryan, who works on autism and neurodiversity titles, became aware of a change from ‘person first’ to ‘identity first’ language in the autism community earlier in the year, and this has influenced the way she communicated with her audience. (For more on working with niche markets, see this article by Áine: https://bookmachine.org/2019/05/09/getting-to-know-a-niche-market/.)

I’ve never been more proud to work @JKPBooks or more excited by what books can do for their audience, thanks all! #jkp #jkpbooks #jkpautism #bookmachine #bookmachinemeets pic.twitter.com/KJNPf1RXiT— Áine Ryan (@AineSays) May 30, 2019

As you would expect from any successful publisher, online marketing is a key element of JKP’s strategy. Their emailing list has 230,000 contacts, providing a huge database to test their email marketing on, and their website receives some 200,000 hits per year. They include lots of useful content (such as worksheets) on the site, and they make it as discoverable as possible, for example by framing headings as the kinds of questions that users might be googling.

They also use their authors as a source of contacts who might review and promote books, and the information they provide can transform marketing campaigns. Leveraging author connections is key!

Lily Bowden, Senior Publicity and Marketing Executive at JKP, took us through some of the lessons she’s learned while working on the JKP list. She promotes her books to journalists as ‘own voices’ titles – a buzzword widely used at the moment to mean that the authors are writing from their own lived experience, but also something JKP has been focusing on since its foundation. She also includes key facts and statistics in her pitches, to demonstrate to journalists a book has more to it than memoir-based content.

Lily explained the importance of understanding how authors want to be identified, and how they want to face the challenges of publicity: for example, people going through transition might not want to appear on broadcast media and might prefer to give written interviews. She also stressed that It’s OK to miss the ‘big opportunities’. Some authors find it hard to speak on live TV, while others choose to boycott certain outlets, such as any programme that wants to set up a ‘trans debate’, as if someone’s identity is a topic that can possibly have two sides. Finding allies in the media is key: Lily has worked to build a network of supportive contacts, including journalists who themselves identify as trans or on the spectrum – the resulting coverage is very natural and organic, and the journalists support the authors.

The final contribution to the evening’s talks came from Pippa Adams, Special Sales and Rights Assistant. Pippa stressed how important it is to build strong relationships with specialist booksellers, because they are the ones engaging with the communities JKP wants to reach. It’s also vital to connect with academic suppliers, NGOs and organisations such as the Reading Agency, which promotes titles to readers with specific conditions through its Reading Well programme.

Just as with marketing, authors provide valuable leads for sales teams too, whether that’s through bookselling at conferences and other events, or by helping Pippa to find her way through the often-opaque application processes for subject-related funding schemes.

On the rights front, backlist titles are very important, with countries round the world showing spikes of interest in specific subjects as they become more widely known there. Recent examples include increased interest in autism from Russian publishers and in children’s mental health from Turkish publishers. At the same time, it’s important to realise that some countries will not be open to all the titles and subjects in the JKP list, so those meetings require careful handling.

The best thing about working for a smaller niche publisher is that they can have an authentic voice and stand up for the people that they believe in and show solidarity to particular communities #BookMachine— Inspired Selection (@Inspiredjobs) May 30, 2019

By the end of the presentations, we’d been given a broad sweep of insights into the life of a publisher with a strong social justice agenda, a tactical plan for keeping up with developments in the fields they cover and a vertical-marketing approach which sees them aiming to fulfil all the needs of each subject community, from children’s picture books to books for professionals and everything in between. I never get bored of learning what makes publishers tick, and this event provided us with an honest and passionate depiction of the day-to-day decisions taken by each department. It was a great start to a new series of events, not just because of the stunning views along the Thames from Hachette’s roof garden but also because it reminded us why publishing matters so much: because the books we produce can change people’s lives.

Huge success! Thanks @JKPBooks – you inspired us all with your dedication, creativity, insight into how you work and the way you clearly all care so much about your community. #BookMachine https://t.co/jCY1VkWKYm— Laura Summers (@LauraSummersNow) May 31, 2019

Abbie Headon is Commissioning Editor at Prelude Books, and also writes and edits books as Abbie Headon Publishing Services. She is a 2018 Bookseller Rising Star and sits on the BookMachine Editorial Board 

Abbie Headon, Andrew James, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, JKP, Lily Bowden, Lisa Clark, Pippa Adams, Sanphy Thomas, Sarah Plows

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