Publishing’s remarkable resilience is amazing: Hachette UK’s David Shelley
New Delhi: In 18 short years, David Shelley has gone from being an editorial assistant and then publishing director at independent publisher Allison and Busby, to becoming chief executive of Hachette UK last month—a career that’s nothing short of phenomenal. Along the way, the Oxford graduate in English literature has also been the CEO of Little, Brown and Orion.
Shelley is seen as one of the hottest young talents in global publishing and has worked with authors such as J.K. Rowling and Mitch Albom. A passionate advocate for publishers adapting to the digital environment, Shelley also oversees Hatchette UK’s inclusion initiative, Changing the Story. In the country for Hachette India’s 10th anniversary celebrations, the 41-year-old Shelley spoke about his career, publishing in the digital world, audiobooks, the company’s diversity initiatives and plans for India. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Congratulations on your new position David. What are your plans now for Hachette UK?
I think one thing is really exciting: there is the potential for understanding consumers better. Very successful businesses like Amazon or Netflix are extraordinary in the way they use data, algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning. In book publishing, we’re just sort of starting on that. So I feel for me this is an exciting time coming to the job I’m doing. At the moment, we’re publishing a book, putting a cover on it and hoping for the best. I think it’s really probable that in the years to come, we will test a book before we publish it. We will also look to see what people’s reactions are. We ought to know how to describe a book in a way that excites people, and what cover to put on that really interests readers. We’re only as good as the authors we publish. On the other hand, we will be a brilliant partner for authors if we can get them to as many readers as possible. So for me that’s the Number 1 objective over the next few years. I feel very fortunate to have inherited a company with amazing authors, talented people and great infrastructure. I see my role as just continuing that journey, making sure that we are as interesting as we were 250 years ago.
Opinions are divided within the sector about the health of the publishing industry. What’s your take?
I think that publishing is a little bit like farming. If you get a group of farmers together, they’re always going to disagree about the harvest or the market. I think it is the same for publishers. It often feels like something very big is happening—certainly in the UK, a few years ago, supermarkets started keeping books and this started destroying small bookshops. Now we have Amazon. I think these things come and go; the amazing thing about publishing is its remarkable resilience, and that’s because of people’s desire for long-form content, both fiction and non-fiction. If you look at book sales, then the value can go up and down but actually the number of sales remains very stable and strong. The industry probably needs to become more a part of the digital world. And that doesn’t mean just publishing e-books, but how we operate in the digital environment. We need to understand online retail very well, as well as the connection between offline and online retail. We are in a pretty strong place, with some challenges.
You’ve been a big champion of audiobooks. It seems to be a pretty big trend across publishers. Do you see that becoming a market in itself?
What I think is really exciting about audio is that most people have access to it because of the smartphone. In India, I know that the penetration of smartphones is absolutely huge. And it’s growing. A lot of people who like audiobooks actually don’t see them as books. Many such consumers don’t read books but actually enjoy audio content. If we’re a business that just speaks to readers, then that would narrow us down a bit. But if we say that we are a business that is about knowledge and entertainment, and we’re creating in different kinds of media, then that opens things up. In the UK, our audiobook sales have grown by 30% to 40% to 50% every year, for the last three years. In India, if only a very tiny percentage of people with smartphones paid for some audio content, then that would be transformative for the industry.
Your career has spanned everything from independent publishing to a big international publisher in a remarkably short time. What have you learnt?
I started in a small company called Allison and Busby. Due to a series of events I was running it when I was 23! There were five of us, and we had an office in Brixton in south London, which is not an area where publishers tend to have offices. But it was close to my house so I thought it was a good idea. Working for a small independent publisher with five people, looking back on it, it was the best thing that I possibly could have done. You learn absolutely everything. You know about sales, you know about distribution, you know about editorial, you know about art. I had to make sure that we had enough money in the bank to pay everyone. That really focuses your mind on what you publish and how you publish it.
I did that for about seven years and then moved to Little, Brown. The process was incredibly similar. In the UK, there are a 150,000 books published every year. All you’re trying to do in such a scenario is to make sure that your books are reaching this readership. I had a fancy office and air conditioning, and I didn’t have to take the post to the post office. I learnt a lot about mass-market retail. Earlier I was very obsessed with the books doing well. But when you manage people, you become obsessed with helping people have success. In my present job, I think of it as being the conductor of an orchestra. If the orchestra is playing very well then no one notices the conductor. If it’s a mess, then you notice that the conductor isn’t doing his job! Now I keep an overview, and make sure that the whole thing is producing beautiful music.
Tell us a bit about Hachette’s diversity initiative, Changing the Story?
My first company, Allison and Busby, was founded by two people, Clive Allison and Margaret Busby, 50 years ago. Margaret Busby was the first black British woman to run a publishing company, and so, the list that I’d inherited, had a lot of amazing black writers. Coming to a larger publisher, it was quite striking that there weren’t a lot of new Margaret Busbys around. There were obstacles not only for minority ethnic people in the UK, but also people with disabilities, or people with different religions. My colleagues on the board and I felt that we wanted to try and change that. So we set up Changing the Story two years ago. We want to really inspire the younger generation from all backgrounds to want to join our company and progress in it; to make sure that there are no glass ceilings in our company. We have started a diverse mentoring scheme; we’ve also started paid internships. We just opened a new imprint called Dialogue Books, with the aim to publish people from diverse backgrounds, whether it’s a trans author, or an author with disability or an author from a minority ethnic background. We’re getting some brilliant submissions.
With Hachette completing 10 years in India, what are your broad plans for the next 10?
I think we’ve had a brilliant start here. We’ve grown by about 10% every year, which is great. We’ve built a local publishing list from scratch and we have a very strong publishing team here. I would like to be sitting here in 10 years, celebrating an enormous bestseller where we sold half a million copies. I think that’s very doable. We’re going to continue to invest in India as we are wholly committed to this very exciting market.
Is there any new area in publishing that really excites you?
I want to publish more of what you might call the “Big Ideas” books. We had an enormous success with the Steve Jobs book a few years ago (Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography). And there has been big success with books from other publishers like (Yuval Noah Harari’s) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I think there’s more potential there. There are a lot of people in the market, people my age—sort of too old to be millennials and too young to be Generation X—we are fascinated with the digital world, though we’re not a part of it. Such people are really going to get more and more interested in such books which look at the way the world’s going. I think it’s a really good area for India as well. There’s a lot of intellectual curiosity in India about technology and how it’s changing the world.
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