Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Victoria Barnsley | The iPod moment for books

Like a scene in a situational comedy, Victoria Barnsley, the CEO of HarperCollins UK, and I wait for each other on the opposite sides of a pillar. It takes about 10 minutes and a flurry of phone calls to publicists for us to find one another round the corner.

When we do, we settle in at the table she has picked in the garden at Rambagh Palace. It’s one of those extraordinary circumstances that could only have come true in Jaipur during the literature festival last month; that I was talking to the CEO of the second largest publishing house in the world and fighting the distraction of a dazzling mauve pair of socks worn by Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson, who was having lunch at the next table.

Although Barnsley, 58, has been to India several times, this is her first visit to the lit-fest. She is amazed at the crowd. When I point out that most people have come to listen to cricketer Rahul Dravid, she takes a long sip of her lemonade and says: “That is true. Still, I think it’s a good sign for the publishing business."

Good signs have never before been so important for the publishing industry. With the Internet, e-commerce and digital books, the industry is undergoing a historic churn and no one really knows what the right strategy is. In an interview in 2009, Barnsley had said that the “iPod moment" was yet to arrive in the books business. I ask her if it now has.

“It has, certainly," she says. “But it’s been less dramatic than the music industry. E-books now account for 20% of our sale. Digital, in the broader sense, has completely transformed our business. Only 35% of our novels are sold through physical retailers. The rest is either online or through indigenous formats. This raises all sorts of questions about our business. How do you discover a new author if you don’t go to a book store and browse?" she asks.

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint.
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Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint.

The biggest threat to companies like HarperCollins comes from Amazon, which is not just a powerful retailer but is now also a publisher. Barnsley is worried, even though she is unsure about their model. “Amazon is potentially the iTunes of the publishing industry. They are an amazing business. But at its heart, it’s a retail business; at its heart, it’s a business that puts the consumer first and not the author. It’s not in the authors’ interest to see their book sold so cheaply but it is in the consumer’s interest," she says.

“So it doesn’t keep you awake at night then?"

“It does," she laughs. “Amazon and questions such as whither publishing keep me awake most nights."

While much of her time now is spent in managing the company, Barnsley started her career in editing. She finished college with a postgraduate degree in English literature and then spent the next five years travelling the world. She went to Central and South America, China, any place that caught her fancy. When she came back to London, she was 28 and her father was desperate that she find a job and settle down.

One of her tutors from college was working in a publishing company and she joined as a commissioning editor. In a couple of years though, the company shut down. “I had a few authors I had signed up and when I was telling my friends that I might be losing my job, some of them suggested that I buy assets from the company and set up my own." Barnsley approached a few prominent people to raise money. This was the Margaret Thatcher-era and investing in start-ups came with a tax break. She raised about £80,000 (around 67 lakh now) and started her own publishing house, 4th Estate, in 1984. She was 30 years old.

After 16 years, not only did HarperCollins make an offer to acquire the company, but it also offered her the job of CEO. “I like to call it a reverse takeover," she says. Although Barnsley, who is based in London, enjoyed being an independent publisher, she felt the only way to make an impact in the industry was if she moved to a bigger playground. She took up the job.

“There are many differences between working in your own small company and then moving on to big publishing. There is a lot more bureaucracy. But it also has its perks. I suddenly had an expense account and a good salary," she says.

IN PARENTHESIS: When she is not working, Victoria Barnsley spends her time gardening and birdwatching. She loves to read, of course, but does not find it relaxing. “I’m reading a non-HarperCollins book now and the back of my mind is ticking away at whether we should go after this author, she says. Barnsley will not tell you her favourite writers, worried as she is about offending authors who don’t find mention. So she sticks to classics—‘Vanity Fair’, ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘War And Peace’. Also, “I love Saul Bellow, she says.

To be honest, Barnsley scares me a little. I worry she will tell me off for being over-intrusive. So I bring it back to the business and ask her what actually, in the post-Amazon world, is a book. “That is exactly what I think about now. I don’t think in the long term the book will be the unit around which we build our business. We will build our business around content and around stories. Potentially, we could revert to the Dickensian model where we deliver a chapter every week," she says.

In India, for the moment, Barnsley is betting on our appetite for education. A day before we met, the company announced the launch of its education publishing division, under the Collins brand. Collins India will develop content for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus and sees a big opportunity in the £150 million market for textbooks in English.

Globally, Barnsley is dealing with the merger of her two biggest rivals, Random House and Penguin. HarperCollins lost its bid to buy Penguin in 2012. In retrospect, Barnsley does not see it as a bad thing. “There is one disadvantage to being the largest company at a time of transition. That you have a lot invested in the status quo. History tells us that often in moments of business disruption, people who are leading the race aren’t the ones who win it because they have so much invested in things remaining the same. So that’s what they’ve got to watch," she says.

She hopes that while Random House and Penguin focus on the big job of stitching the two businesses together, they are likely to be distracted from the actual job of publishing. “And we will be sitting right there, taking advantage of that distraction," she says, laughing.

The publishing industry buzz is that having lost Penguin, HarperCollins has trained its eyes on Simon & Schuster. I ask if there is any truth to that. “That’s gossip. I do not comment on gossip," she says sternly, and the waiter who is clearing our table shrinks back a little.

Lunch is over. I rise to leave and even though she insists I attend the HarperCollins after-party later that evening, I walk away with the distinct suspicion that Barnsley is rolling her eyes behind my back.

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