Shelf life in hard times: The book folk who wrote glorious chapters in 2011
From digital wizards to library champions...
Friday 23 December 2011
Think long-term. That's one of the mantras of the man who left JP Morgan to launch a business that combined his twin passions, travel and reading. It was 1990, Britain was in a recession but, within five years, Daunt Books had turned over its first million. Now, 21 years later, with five much-admired shops doing nicely, James Daunt has accepted the challenge of turning around Waterstone's, bought for £53m from HMV by a Russian billionaire who was a regular at Daunts Holland Park.
It's assumed that Alexander Mamut is also thinking long-term, for there's much for Daunt to do as new MD at the beleaguered 330-store chain. In private hands, Waterstone's is no longer required to issue trading statements so evidence about Christmas performance will be anecdotal. With Ottakar's gone (bought by HMV and absorbed into Waterstone's before it went into freefall) and Borders bankrupt, Waterstone's is Britain's only dedicated bookselling chain.
So much rests on Daunt's shoulders. In 2012, we can expect to see him launch a full digital offer, including an e-reader – probably a version of the Nook, a success for Barnes & Noble in the US. It's also likely we'll see store closures, though Daunt will aim to minimise them. But there are too many branches, many in locales that don't work. However, the reinvention of Waterstone's has already begun: gone are three-for-twos, the crass advertising, the one-size-fits-all promotions. Homogeneity is out, individuality in, as trust and autonomy are returned to branch managers. If all goes well, by this time next year, Waterstone's should be as exciting and intoxicating as it was in its 1980s heyday.
Faber & Faber
While it's no longer possible to love the House of Eliot unconditionally – the music, film and drama lists are all much diminished – Faber is still a beacon among publishers, as much for what it has become (the flagship of the independent publishing community) as for what it publishes. Stephen Page, who took the helm a decade ago, has charted a careful course in difficult weather, not rushing headlong into digital but awaiting the right device, the right partner, the right project – see Touch Press. He has chosen well.
Key to his success is first officer Will Atkinson, who learned his trade under Tim Waterstone in the glory days of his chain. He is the driving force behind the Alliance, the Faber-led grouping of 10 like-minded indies which together comprise Britain's sixth largest publisher, a position which gives it clout in negotiations. The pan-industry approach provided the launchpad for Faber Factory, a one-stop digital service for independent publishers. There's also Faber Finds, a print-on-demand operation reviving out-of-print titles.
Where once it struggled, dependent on income from Cats, Faber under Page has returned to profitability. However, just as former chief executive Matthew Evans sought to make the publisher trendy by appointing Pete Townshend editor-at-large, so Page has appointed Jarvis Cocker to the same role. While trying to be cool, Faber is ever mindful of its very particular heritage, even to the extent of employing a full-time archivist.
Publishing's very own rock star doesn't try to be cool – he is cool, even if now in his forties and a father once more. Ever since 1994, when he went from unpaid intern to managing director having bought the troubled Edinburgh indie Canongate, Byng has been consistently interesting. There have been initiatives such as the Pocket Canons; two books by a then-unknown junior senator who went on to become President of the US; and Life of Pi, the first novel from a Scottish publisher to win the Booker Prize. Its author, Yann Martel, describes Byng as "a non-stop genius" and his Edinburgh offices as "an anarchist commune" – which perhaps goes some way to explaining the attraction of Julian Assange's memoir, though things didn't work out quite as planned.
Canongate's success is symbolic of the Scottish renaissance and he flies the flag of his adopted homeland as he competes on the international stage. It was also Byng who "invented" World Book Night, an idea he proposed in 2009. In just a few months he succeeding in putting together a cross-industry alliance, persuading them that giving away one million copies of 48 books on one night to people not likely to buy books would be a good thing. Not everyone agrees, asking if it's smart to deprive the trade of £8m worth of sales in the midst of a recession, but the event was a great success. The second Night takes place on 23 April.
Kate Wilson and Nosy Crow
It takes courage to launch a publishing house in the midst of recession, but Kate Wilson - who made Macmillan into a children's powerhouse and went on to work her magic at Scholastic – did just that. Nosy Crow would be "small, nimble and responsive" and would "make lot of noise in the industry", the company named after a much-maligned creature "among the world's most intelligent animals... robust and strong, persistent and smart". Alongside the books there would be apps - "not books squashed on to phones" but projects "specially created to take advantage of the devices to tell stories and provide information to children in new and engaging ways".
The books are terrific and include Pip and Posy, a new series from Axel Scheffler, whom Wilson introduced to Julia Donaldson, launching a partnership that resulted in The Gruffalo. Wilson herself was named Most Inspirational Business Mum at the Mumpreneur UK Awards. But it's the apps which have stolen the show. First was The Three Little Pigs, which allows young readers to blow down the pigs' houses. Then came Cinderella, in which kids can help Cinders clean the kitchen and choose her dress. Out this week is Bizzy Bear on the Farm, which allows tots to drive a tractor, make a horse gallop, feed chicks and play in each scene, helping with farm chores.
As publishers rush to create apps simply because they can, Wilson is adamant that "it's much better to commission books that work on the page for that medium". In each case, what matters is the story, and with apps "what we are interested in is creating a reading experience, not a game." So far, she and her colleagues have done just that.
A digital publishing venture whose British and American principals between them have a track record of interactive software development, Touch Press grew out of a shared obsession: Theodore Gray and Max Whitby, both scientists but not yet colleagues, found themselves in pursuit of the same goal – a complete collection of the elements that form the Periodic Table. Bidding against each other seemed pointless – so they decided to pool resources. They then dreamed up The Elements, a truly ground-breaking app. It has sold 250,000 copies, and besotted fans include Oliver Sacks and Stephen Fry. For Gray and Whitby, it became "a manifesto": all their books would blend interactive video and audio with text; would offer "active access to live data and visualisations"; and would be "delivered with passion".
Touch Press works with international publishers, including Faber & Faber, which announced its partnership last year with the release of the award-winning The Solar System by Marcus Chown. But it's the latest collaboration between F&F and TP which demonstrates the literary possibilities of apps. The Waste Land, an exploration of TS Eliot's poem, uses drafts, discussions and readings, including two by the poet, and much besides, and in so doing demonstrates that apps and ebooks can truly enhance the reading and learning experience, allowing readers to (re)engage with subjects that once seemed irrelevant. The publisher's aim is "to redefine the book, reinvent publishing, and forever transform the act of reading". Certainly their releases – which also include March of the Dinosaurs, featuring 10 "fully 3D interactive rotating dinosaurs", demonstrate that all those bright shiny gizmos we'll be unwrapping this weekend can be so much more than a fashion statement.
Brent and Gloucestershire-Somerset library campaigners
Until now, the Occupiers at Wall Street and St Paul's have filled our TV screens as they speak up for the 99 per cent. But another group has been no less determined, even though it has had less international air time: protesters against public library closures. Monday's decision by the High Court declared Brent council's plans to close six libraries (with a seventh under threat) "rational" and "made with great care", a view not shared by the army of library users and authors - among them Alan Bennett, Philip Pullman, Zadie Smith and Jacqueline Wilson – who mobilised, turning out for fundraisers to support a legal challenge even as council-despatched wrecking crews boarded up branches. Lords Justice Pill, Richards and Davis this week shamefully upheld the High Court decision, which they felt had been made only after a "most careful and thorough review of all the points advanced".
The verdict came as a great disappointment, following Judge McKenna's ruling in a judicial review that Gloucestershire and Somerset councils' plans to close 21 libraries were unlawful– made without adequate consultation and putting the authorities in breach of their statutory duties.
Brent campaigners felt a precedent had been set, particularly since those authorities were denied a right of appeal and ordered to pay costs. In Oxford, council leader Keith Mitchell has been forced into a volte face. As this newspaper noted, Brent's plans are "vandalism on a worse scale than the riots". But the official vandals in Brent and elsewhere will not, however, be hunted down and sent to jail.
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