Author of his own fortune

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The Independent Online
Given all the attention devoted to the likes of Random House and HarperCollins, it is easy to run away with the idea that publishing these days is all about conglomerates. But, as Philip Sturrock, chairman of Cassell, says: "The big boys don't get it all their own way."

While accepting that there are some advantages to being multinational - especially international reach - Mr Sturrock maintains that small can be beautiful. Particularly when it comes to breaking schedules and publishing books in a hurry, as happened recently when Lord Owen wanted his book about the Balkans to hit the shops when the topic was hot.

But perhaps the greatest strength he points to is the ability of smaller independents, such as Cassell, to exploit niches. The publisher, which is due to publish annual results in April, is perhaps best known for Nick Hornby, the writer who turned the books world upside down with his love letter to football, Fever Pitch, which is likely to increase its earnings still further when the film version appears later this year.

But Cassell really prospers outside the mainstream. Besides books on gardening and health, it has a strong academic arm that includes two religious imprints, one of which enjoyed huge sales in 1994 on the back of the revised Catholic Catechism.

Indeed, imprints are a key part of Mr Sturrock's strategy. Mr Hornby and Joe R Lansdale, the cult crime writer, are published by Victor Gollancz, the literary line Cassell acquired in 1992 two years before floating. Prior to that, it had taken in Blandford and Arms and Armour, military publishers. While there are such books as the Cassell Dictionary of Proverbs, others bear such names as Ward Lock.

Mr Sturrock admits that the approach taken by himself and his colleagues since they acquired the company in a management buy-in from the US broadcaster CBS in 1986 might make the public less aware of the company's reach. But he believes that giving a separate sense of identity to individual editorial teams produces greater commitment and motivation. Rather than getting them to focus on the financials, he insists that if they are managed properly, the profits follow. "Part of the skill of being a publishing manager is how you manage these people," he says, adding that it is a fine line between indulging them and exerting strict control.

Despite what some may see as an old-fashioned approach, Mr Sturrock - managing director of Routledge until it changed hands in 1986 - is not averse to a bit of commercialism.

Although Cassell was generally in favour of the Net Book Agreement, he believes that its collapse has so far favoured the company because it has made many booksellers, especially smaller chains such as Books Etc and Hammicks, more prepared to do deals with publishers and to think about promotion in their shops.

At the same time Mr Sturrock has sought to cash in on the company's assets. As hardback publisher of Dick King-Smith, a children's author, it rushed out the book on which the hit film Babe was based, suitably renamed to attract a new generation of readers. It has also made nearly pounds 1m by licensing the name Mrs Beeton, of cookery book fame, to the food producer Ginsters for a line of chilled foods.

Such an attitude might have been expected to impress the City. But Mr Sturrock admits to feeling a little disappointed by the shares since the company's float. Some of this is down to uncertainties about the publishing industry in general in the wake of the end of the NBA, as well as what he calls "froth about the possibilities of electronic publishing". There is also concern over the effects on general publishers of WH Smith's strategy of reducing the number of titles stocked in its shops.

Although 1995 was not an especially good year, with profits of about pounds 736,000 on sales of pounds 23m, observers are expecting an improvement in the figures about to be announced.

Mr Sturrock, while keen to stay small in approach, still plans to build the business up to pounds 100m turnover. No wonder he is keen to point out that another Hornby book is on the way.