HarperCollins's chief executive is about to launch an e-atlas – and, she says, that's not the only way the world is changing.
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As the trays of cheese and wine begin to circulate for this autumn’s book launch season, one of the UK’s biggest publishing houses will be pinning its hopes not on a hardback, but on an app designed for tablet computers.
Alongside celebrity autobiographies from Victoria Pendleton and Cheryl Cole, and John Major’s history of music hall, HarperCollins will be unveiling a digital reinvention of the Collins World Atlas. “It’s the culmination of years of work, and it’s going to be really ground-breaking,” says Victoria Barnsley, UK and international chief executive of the book publishing arm of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
The app presents a collection of globes suspended in space. One shows a satellite view; others are themed by population, energy or telecommunications. A few swipes, and the world lights up according to which areas have mobile coverage, or consume most oil. The information is, of course, always up to date.
“We can’t think of ourselves as book publishers any longer. We have to see ourselves as, you know,” Barnsley hesitates to use the cliché, “multimedia content producers.”
Her flower-scented Hammersmith office, with its plush upholstery and charcoal-grey walls so dark the eyes have to adjust, is a world away from the warehouses across town on east London’s Silicon Roundabout, where most new digital products are being produced.
But HarperCollins appears to have wholeheartedly embraced the e-book revolution that followed the arrival of Amazon’s Kindle reader in the UK in 2009. Barnsley predicts that within 18 months, over half of revenues from her fiction titles will be digital: they already are in America. While sales of HarperCollins’s paper books are flat year on year at about £120m, according to Nielsen Bookscan, digital titles are up 250% and now account for 20% of UK income.
With self-published 50 Shades of Grey author EL James as its poster child, romantic fiction is by far the biggest-selling digital category. Nearly half of sales at HarperCollins’s Avon imprint, which specialises in the genre, are now in e-book format. It has responded with a me-too 50 Ways to Play and the revival of a 10-year-old title, The Bride Stripped Bare, but more importantly with “dynamic pricing”.
Barnsley’s biggest new signing is not a Booker prizewinner, but a Spanish data analyst: she refers to Eloy Sasot, recruited from American Express, as her “secret weapon”. His team monitors sales around the clock, making the discounts or mark-ups needed to stay ahead of the competition.
This is all possible because of the controversial “agency deal” system created by HarperCollins and four other majors to curb Amazon’s relentless discounting. It means publishers rather than retailers now set the prices of e-books.
Agency deals kicked in two years ago and their impact has been significant in the US: Amazon, which had controlled 90% of e-book sales thanks in part to low prices, has been pushed back. Bricks and mortar retailer Barnes & Noble, which has just announced the arrival of its Nook e-reader and online bookstore in the UK, was able to grab up to 30% market share. Apple’s iTunes is also a major player.The deals had less impact in the UK, where there was no retailer able to take the fight to Amazon, and the online giant still holds an estimated 90% of digital sales.
The Nook’s UK debut may come too late to change that. publishers could be about to lose their control over pricing because the agency system is under investigation by regulators in Europe and America. HarperCollins has joined others in offering to settle after the US department of justice came down against agency deals. But it has done so through gritted teeth. “It was the wrong decision,” says Barnsley. “It’s going to be bad for the industry and bad for competition, but I’m sure we’ll survive.”
She has run HarperCollins since 2000, after selling Fourth Estate, the independent publishing house she founded at the age of 30, to News Corporation. “When I got this job, Ed Victor the literary agent said it was like asking somebody who had sailed a racing dinghy to become captain of the QE2,” she laughs. But business is in her blood: her father, an accountant, was chief executive of engineering holding company Tube Investments.
Married to the Hon Nicholas Howard, whose family seat is Castle Howard in Yorkshire, her early days at HarperCollins were all about the arrival of a new kind of aristocracy: celebrities and their best-selling autobiographies. She paid £2m for David Beckham’s.
Asked to name the defining books of her HarperCollins career, she turns away to consider her answer. There is Pamela Stephenson’s biography of her husband Billy Connolly, which helped start the celebrity publishing phenomenon; Hilary Mantel’s recent Oliver Cromwell novel Wolf Hall; and the works of JRR Tolkien, which have found new audiences thanks to Peter Jackson’s films.
But Barnsley is reluctant to mention any others. “Singling out authors is a very dangerous thing for a publisher to do,” she says with a smile.
Later years have been marked by the internet, which has led to the demise of the high street bookseller, the increasing clout of the self-published author and the arrival of the e-book.
“It’s not been boring. I don’t feel I’ve been doing the same job for 12 years. In some respects, publishing 12 years ago had more in common with publishing in the last century than it has now.”
There have been accolades, including “publisher of the year” in May, but one thing that has not changed, despite Barnsley’s best efforts, is HarperCollins’s UK ranking – in fourth position behind Penguin, Random House and Hachette.
The reorganisation triggered at News Corporation by the phone-hacking scandal could help. The group is to be split in two, with television and film studios in one division and HarperCollins joining the newspapers and the Dow Jones Newswire service in another, where it will stand out as the most profitable business. Barnsley hopes this will mean more focus and more investment.
“I have to say I’m very glad I’m a publisher and not running a newspaper,” she chuckles. “What consumers have proved with e-books is they may not be willing to pay as much as for a physical book – but they will pay for them.”
She is blunt about the fact that publishers’ revenues will fall over time: piracy is ever-present, and e-books cost less than paper ones. While no technology company has found a way to replace her role, this is no guarantee of survival.
“The idea that the publishing industry might be destroyed by tech companies is a rather frightening thought. Our job is to work with great authors and it’s very important culturally and socially. I can’t imagine doing anything different.”
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