Charlie Redmayne: On a steady wicket
The HarperCollins UK CEO opens up about digital publishing, his love for cricket, and having an Oscar winner in the family
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On a glorious late August afternoon at Wanborough, Charlie Redmayne showed us all how easy batting can be when you are…ahem…a wonderfully talented cricketer. Opening the batting with Bruce Cook, Charlie’s 130 anchored our innings, and whilst wickets fell around him, the runs just kept piling up on a bobbly and lightning fast outfield.”
So begins the match report of a game of cricket between the Avebury Cricket Club and CS Nomads on 9 August 2015. Avebury won that match by 117 runs, and that victory was attributed to Redmayne’s heroic innings, as the report on the club’s website says emphatically. He may be much better known as the chief executive officer (CEO) of HarperCollins UK, but Redmayne, 51, still considers himself a cricketer, sort of. “Well I actually started out as a cricketer,” he says, when I meet him one February afternoon at the HarperCollins office in Noida, near Delhi. Dressed in a sky-blue Oxford shirt and trousers, Redmayne has been listening to pitches from his India team all day.
“I tried to be a cricketer, but unfortunately my career was cut short by a tragic lack of talent,” he laughs. How long did he play? I ask. “Well, I was a soldier,” he says, “so I played for the army and combined services. And I played a bit for Northamptonshire, in the second eleven.” Redmayne says he played long enough to know that he wasn’t good enough to make it as a professional cricketer. “Which is great,” he says, animatedly, “because some of my friends, who played a little cricket, now sit very frustrated when they watch television. They all go, ‘I could’ve been!’ And I know that I could never have been. I also know that they couldn’t have been.”
He still plays, as the match report suggests, for his village team, Avebury, in Wiltshire, a county in south-west England. For an amateur team, Redmayne says, his Avebury home matches get big audiences. He takes out his phone and shows me photographs of the cricket ground.
The village of Avebury is best known for its neolithic henge monument—concentric stone rings that surround the village. He shows me a Google Maps shot of the village. “That’s the car park there, and that is the cricket ground, right next door,” he says. Avebury gets many tourists, and they always stop to watch the matches. “They go, ‘Oh, how sweet, English cricket!’ And they watch us. So, we end up with hundreds of Americans, and druids, and all sorts of people coming to watch us play cricket,” he laughs.
I am surprised by all this, but then, Redmayne’s career has been nothing less than startling. When he was appointed CEO of HarperCollins UK in 2013, replacing industry veteran Victoria Barnsley, it caused a shock in the publishing industry. He was anything but a traditional publisher. He had mostly worked with digital businesses and start-ups—including at HarperCollins, as its digital chief from 2008-11—and the news received mixed reactions. The Evening Standard wrote that “publishing has gone mad”. The industry was already beset with challenges, from falling book sales to the rise of ebooks and Amazon, and this seemed like a further emasculation of editorial-led control.
Redmayne is quite clear about the logic behind that decision. He says the fact that he joined publishing in 2008 was a result of publishing houses seeing the need to gear up for digital challenges. “It was a moment when publishing realized that the challenge that it was going to face would not come from, you know, its historical competitors, but from new platforms like Amazon and Google and Apple and others. I think the fact that I’m now the CEO of HarperCollins is also down to that challenge,” he says. Once the work began, he says, it didn’t really make much of a difference. “I’ve got a business full of brilliant publishing people, brilliant editorial people, and what I’m about is understanding the challenges that those digital platforms bring. But also thinking about how we can succeed,” he explains.
HarperCollins has certainly been successful under Redmayne. According to the company, its consumer sales grew by 8.1% in value in 2017. I ask Redmayne about the areas he has been focused on in the past few years. His mission, he says, was to drive the profitability of the publisher’s business and widen its reach. “I inherited a very talented group of publishers that were putting the building blocks in place for the publishing that they were doing to be as successful as it could be and to be as profitable as it could be,” he says. HarperCollins UK was one of the first big publishing houses that started working with data analytics to understand consumer behaviour.
“You know we’ve employed PhDs in maths and physicists to come and, you know, these aren’t traditional publishing hires,” he says, adding that all the data and number crunching was with a view to using digital platforms to reach more readers. “We have the right publishers and the right editors to do the things that they have always done with the best authors. And then the best possible marketing, data analytics, sales organizations supporting to, you know, really amplify their voices and sell as many books as possible.” As Redmayne warms to his theme, he becomes more animated.
The way he tells it, it’s clear that there’s a well thought through strategy. “(Digital) platforms are extraordinary. More people are consuming author-based content than ever before. They’re consuming it in physical books, they’re consuming it in ebooks, they’re consuming it in audiobooks, downloadable audio; they’re consuming it in vlogs and blogs and games and video and all of that is created by authors. And, you know, the job of a publisher now is being able to take that content and make sure that the author gets paid for it.”
This is what I’ve heard other big publishing CEOs say recently as well. Especially the bit on audiobooks, which is clearly a new growth area in publishing. I ask Redmayne how much this contributes to the bottom line of HarperCollins. “Well, it’s been small, but it’s been growing very quickly,” he says. The company’s business in audio grew by 47% in the past year, he says. “It came from a low base, but, at the rate of growth, it means that the decline in ebooks and the growth of audiobooks means that the overall growth is still in digital.” Redmayne is bullish about this trend. “I think it’s a really exciting area, and I think the reason it’s exciting, as much as anything else, is that it’s attracting new customers,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean traditional books are on their way out. If anything, according to Redmayne, the slide in sales of physical books has been arrested, and is now growing again. Whereas ebooks, after the initial Kindle-led growth, have plateaued and aren’t the threat they once were. In all this, he sees India as an important and interesting market. Gesturing at his smartphone, he says that when it comes to digital content, India, unlike the West, went straight from the computer to the mobile as a platform, leapfrogging intermediate platforms like e-readers, laptops and tablet PCs. “I think the ebook business in India will not be driven by e-reading devices. Mobiles are getting bigger, and iPads are getting smaller. You’re going to end up with a device that is everything. And I think audio will benefit from that. And audio will be a big market here,” he says.
But he also sees India’s traditional strengths in publishing continuing to play a vital role in the company’s operations here. “We’ve got terrific editors here who continue to publish great literary fiction and serious non-fiction, for which there is a great market here in India, and there will continue to be a great market,” he explains. However, one of his goals is to keep expanding the company’s footprint in the realm of commercial and children’s fiction. “I want to be reaching the new readers, and, actually, readers like me, that love great commercial fiction and great commercial non-fiction. Because it’s entertaining and it’s storytelling and it’s twists and it’s thrillers, all that.”
This naturally begs the question, what kind of books does Redmayne read? When I ask him, he laughs and says, “I rarely get to finish a book these days!” But he has his favourites. “I love historical fiction,” he says. “I’ve read every book that Bernard Cornwell has ever written. One of my favourite books was The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett, which is about building cathedrals in the 12th century. And I love thrillers, and Karin Slaughter is one of our big authors. I’m a huge fan of her writing. Another author called Kimberley Chambers in London, who writes about East End gangsters. I love her books.”
Redmayne has a couple of more meetings with the editors at HarperCollins before flying out the next day. Before I leave, I ask him about his famous half-brother, the Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne. “Eddie’s done unbelievably well. We’re all very proud of him. I think some people who have that level of stardom thrust upon them probably change. He never has. He’s a really lovely, down-to-earth kind of guy,” Redmayne says, fondly.
But they don’t look alike, Redmayne says, so he’s spent the last 10 years disappointing people. Soon after Eddie won his Oscar, Redmayne was flying to Toronto for a strategy conference. “And I was checking into the British Airways lounge in Toronto airport, and as I handed my ticket over, the lady said, ‘Any relation to Eddie?’ I said, ‘Yes, he is my brother.’ And she looked at me, handed the ticket back and went, ‘Yeah, right’.”
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