Ian Burrell: The publisher of 'bookazines' hopes his reliable, unstuffy medium will appeal to parents everywhere

The Media Column

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The Independent Online

It’s the aftermath of Christmas, when many family homes are strewn with toys and most children’s thoughts are a long way from the new school term. But for one smart media company in Bournemouth, the education cycle never stops. And the desire of parents to pay for learning tools that their offspring will regard as a gift – not a homework assignment – provides a winning business model.

Imagine Publishing specialises in the "bookazine". It’s a hybrid product offering high-quality illustrations and typically running to a chunky 180 pages. It combines the accessibility and sense of entertainment of a magazine with the integrity and collectability of a book.

The format is helping to transform the public’s notion of print media in the digital age, not least because one of the areas in which Imagine excels is in explaining the functionality of technology products. Some of its most popular bookazines help consumers get the most from gadgets from Apple’s iPad to Google’s Raspberry Pi.

Each major launch from one of the tech giants is an opportunity for a new edition in Imagine’s popular bookazine series such as "How to…", "Tips and Tricks…" and "…For Beginners". How It Works, the science-based flagship title in the publisher’s portfolio of 20 magazines is based on that same thirst for understanding functionality. The company now employs 150 people on the south coast and turns over £18.5m in revenues, making 250 bookazines a year and selling 300,000 specialist magazines each month. More recently, it has focused its attentions on more traditional classroom subjects, such as history and physics.

"We have moved into knowledge and science, and really dominated that market," says Imagine’s group managing director Damian Butt. "Bookazine categories are as diverse as history, running, chess and space. We cover a huge range of topics now."

Imagine wants to create a modern-day learning resource to match the Ladybird series that served previous generations. Alongside the sophisticated computer-generated graphics, it uses artists who once illustrated for Ladybird. Some have burst into tears on being commissioned.

"When the Eighties and Nineties came along they got chucked on the scrapheap," says Butt. "We love to commission original illustrators because people see them in a modern publication and are transported back to their childhood. They want to pass on the joy of learning they had."

Parents are Imagine’s key target market. Butt talks of a "massive groundswell of people who want to further their children’s education". Some simply want to swot up. "If the kids ask them questions they want to appear like they have a lot of the answers. Magazines like How It Works are purchased by parents so that they can work with the children."

Grandparents, too, regard educational bookazines as an opportunity to "hand down" some "wholesome, tangible education". Butt says: "We’ve noticed a growing parental concern that the internet is becoming increasingly unsafe for children and unreliable as a research tool."

Imagine operates 30 websites of its own and all its titles are available in digital format. This allows users to "interact in new and exciting ways" with the content. The publisher describes its seaside location as "Silicon Beach", because of the number of local digital agencies, and has been able to recruit digital media graduates from the "hotbed" of Bournemouth University.

Butt credits television presenter Professor Brian Cox for bringing new interest to science subjects and creating an appetite for titles such as All About Space. "He took something which many considered a stuffy and academic topic and made it incredibly accessible and interesting through his delivery and the visuals he was bringing to the screen,"  says Butt.

History is currently one of Imagine’s strongest suits, he says. "It was a market that was very staid and boring and we launched into it with All About History and brought a range of people to that sector who hadn’t been there before. It speaks to people of all ages through the use of incredibly lush graphics and detailed info-diagrams."

Imagine products sell at a "premium price", with How It Works retailing at £3.99, other magazines selling for £5.99 and bookazines typically £9.99.

Butt said the bookazine concept emerged at his previous company, Paragon Publishing, with guides to the PlayStation games console in the late Nineties. Imagine was founded in 2005 with a plan to take bookazines worldwide. "We took the high-quality appeal of those products to a far greater scale," he says. Imagine sells its products in 54 countries.

A major moment in the company’s evolution is this month’s launch into Taiwan of How It Works. Middle-income Taiwanese families, Imagine has discovered, spend 19 per cent of their annual household income on their children’s education. Butt acknowledges that this Mandarin edition is a "stepping stone" which reveals the company’s ambitions not just in China but India too.

"India and China have huge emerging middle-classes who put education at the forefront of their self-improvement," says Butt. "That chimes perfectly with How It Works."