THE TUESDAY INTERVIEW Tim Hely Hutchinson Vision beyond Bloomsbury
Tuesday 18 April 1995
For centuries publishers and agents have worked there among the biggest concentration of bookshops in the world in an atmosphere of cosiness and civility.
That cosiness will soon be a mere memory if Mr Hely Hutchinson, the iconoclastic boss of Hodder Headline, wins his intensifying campaign against the net book agreement. This is the 100-year-old agreement which sets a minimum price for books sold in Britain's bookshops. It is one of the last remaining legal price-fixing agreements and, according to Mr Hely Hutchinson, is responsible for the stultification of the industry, where sales increased by a miserly 2 per cent last year, compared with four times that amount in the US.
"It should be dawning on everyone that the reason the trade did not recover last year is a structural issue not a recessionary one," he said.
His views have caused many in the publishing world to seethe with anger.
Book retailers complain that the end of the agreement will bring about the death of rural bookshops and lead to further eradication of specialist bookshops.
They argue that supermarkets and other discounters will squeeze out the old professionals, offering a lower standard of service to customers.
Publishers complain about the threat to niche titles which, because they are expensive to produce, will not be feasible in the world of half-priced bestsellers.
The impending death of the net book agreement has been reported too hastily many times in the past, but this time is different. The campaign has gathered momentum following an Office of Fair Trading reference of the agreement to the Restrictive Practices Court. Later this week begins an investigation into the NBA by the House of Commons' National Heritage Committee, chaired by Gerald Kaufman.
The campaign casts Hely Hutchinson, a workaholic who seems to struggle with a natural shyness to get his message across, in a paradoxical role. On the one hand, flashier publishers carried away with the seemingly magical opportunities of electronic publishing such as CD-Rom and the Internet see him as something of a Luddite. Despite forecasts that we are entering a paperless society, he has focused entirely on paper publishing. At the same time, he is arguing against old, cosy practices and in favour of open competition.
The story of how the old Etonian son of an Irish earl first joined Robert Maxwell's publishing empire, then set up his own tiny fiction publishing house, and then managed to buy Hodder & Stoughton, one of the largest names in British publishing, is well known. Nowhere in this story of entrepreneurial flair is there a chapter on new technologies. At a time when his competitors are starting up new media divisions and exploring ways of exploiting their book lists, Hely Hutchinson defends his approach vigorously. "Screens very much have their place - I am no Luddite. But in fiction the subtlety of the author's thought, the prose and characterisation, cannot be captured on the screen," he says. "What is going to happen is what happened with newspapers and television as people let them co-exist and get a fuller life."
His answer to the threat of new technologies is not to withdraw behind the strong hold of restrictive practices. In this sense he seems a moderniser. Even though the market for books demonstrates many of the characteristics of a mature market, with post-recession sales currently as flat as a pancake and some publishers experiencing declining revenues, Hely Hutchinson is determined to take the offensive.
If he gets his way, he believes he can increase massively the market for books, including works by his own authors, John Le Carr and Dean Koontz.
Apart from the abolition of the NBA, the thing he wants changed most of all is the Britishbookshop, which he sees as a comforting place but one which is not selling as many books as possible.
"British bookshops tend to look like libraries, but they do not make themselves places of commerce and pleasant temptation," he says. "They do not highlight certain books particularly with sharp discounts. They are set out in a very conservative, unpushy style and they get what they aim for which is lots of little orders across a wide range."
Next month he is off to America for his annual pilgrimage. There he will visit some of his favourite book stores, where bestsellers are piled high and sold at mouth-watering discounts. Despite this commercialism, stock ranges remain higher than in Britain - more than 100,000 per store - and the staff are trained to steer customers to books they will enjoy.
"It is perfectly acceptable to middle-class reading people to be tempted by things and have bargains," he said. "The same people are going into Oddbins and enjoying the labelling and the discounts."
Within his own house, Hely Hutchinson says he is trying to instill the highest levels of professionalism possible. To outsiders the book industry has been characterised by long lunching editors, insufficient financial controls, poor stock management and a general atmosphere of amateurism that some find endearing but shareholders have recently found frustrating.
Like a modern day Lord Hanson, Hely Hutchinson is taking on a mature industry where the opportunities may seem to have dimmed compared with brighter industries.
By installing better management and imaginative marketing, a clever operator can turn out impressive profits. Earlier this month he announced record profits on a turnover up 58 per cent (11 per cent like for like). Acquisitions are on their way, but not before he has got his engine running smoothly on all cylinders. "I do not want as my epitaph that I was a successful Attila for a few years of my career, I want to be known as a forward-looking publisher, a moderniser and a builder," he said.
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