Victoria Barnsley: Bringing books to your mobile phone

Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of HarperCollins, tells Ciar Byrne of her plans to take the publishing house into the digital future
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The Independent Online

If a film-set designer were to create a high flying publishing executive's office, it would look like the workplace of Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of HarperCollins. The walls are lined with black book cases seductively showcasing the publisher's titles above sleek leather furniture. The room is dimly lit, with windows looking out on to a late autumn Hammersmith sunset.

But there is nothing remotely old-fashioned about the room or its occupant. Barnsley is proud to proclaim that her company is in the vanguard of digital publishing. She is dedicated to using "all the new technology so that we can reach our readers directly", whether it be the internet, mobile phones, or other hand-held devices.

Most recently HarperCollins has launched a web application that will allow iPhone owners to download extracts from 15 of its books – a list that will eventually be built up to 50. The service makes use of browse search technology, which makes about five per cent of any book available as a taster, and is a prime example of how digital technology is being harnessed not just to publish books, but also to market them. The initial 15 titles include Lewis Hamilton: My Story, Gordon Ramsay's Playing With Fire and the Booker shortlisted Darkmans by Nicola Barker.

The elegantly suited Barnsley, 53, comes from a traditional publishing background. At the age of 30, she founded the independent publishing house Fourth Estate with an £80,000 loan from a friend. Fourth Estate gained a reputation for making bold and brilliant spots, from Dava Sobel's Longitude to Tom Bower's unauthorised biography of Robert Maxwell and in 2000 Barnsley sold the company to HarperCollins, taking up the post of chief executive there.

"I decided I'd like to run a larger company," she explains. "Publishing is going to change and you need to be with the bigger players."

For Barnsley, one of the most exciting aspects of the brave new world of digital publishing is that it has allowed her company to become a "direct consumer business".

In the past, publishers had to rely on persuading a bookseller to stock their product, in the hope the right reader would stumble across it. Now, internet search engines mean that people can immediately identify books on subjects that interest them.

"We've got to embrace the fact that we're becoming a direct consumer business. We have a website and we can have a direct dialogue with our readers. We can capture your name and ultimately sell you something. That's a complete change," says Barnsley.

With this in mind, HarperCollins is about to launch a new website, Authonomy.co.uk, which will allow unpublished authors to upload their manuscripts for others to read and comment on. The website will provide an opportunity to spot promising new work, but also, more importantly from the publisher's point of view, will create an online community of readers and writers.

"Our whole business model will change," says Barnsley. "Up until now we have received unsolicited manuscripts. This is about encouraging people to build a community where they will judge each other's content."

"My view is more people want to write a book than read a book. It is unbelievable how many people out there have a book in them. I think people will love it. Only one of the purposes of this site is that eventually we'd find stuff to publish. The main interest is building a community. We see this as experimenting to learn."

Amid all the excitement about digital technology, is there not a danger of forgetting that the book itself is a design classic?

"Books are not suddenly going to disappear," Barnsley insists. "Books are a wonderful piece of technology: they are portable, very easy to access, lovely to hold and feel. I wouldn't want to suggest in any way they'll be replaced. They'll be supplemented. People love the feel of books, the smell of them. I'm convinced people are going to want to have both."

She does not think that any of the "e-readers" that have come on to the market so far are "quite there yet", but adds: "They are getting better all the time. I believe that soon something will be developed that's very user friendly." In Japan, people already read novels on hand-held devices, although Barnsley says she finds this "extraordinary", speculating that Japanese script may lend itself more easily to being read on screen.

For HarperCollins, the most obvious area for digital development is its reference books. The company does a lot of business in Korea, where it licences content on to hand-held devices, while Collins dictionaries can already be accessed via mobile phones.

Barnsley admits she is of a generation that when it comes to fiction, would prefer to settle down with a good book. But as the mother of a Bebo-addicted 13-year-old daughter, she says: "I can imagine that a younger generation that's more attuned to digital technologies might read a novel on a very good hand-held device."

HarperCollins is the first trade publisher to have created a "digital warehouse" of all its front list books and hopes eventually to upload its entire historic catalogue.

The advent of print-on demand means that "out of print" will soon be a thing of the past. New technology means it is now possible to print very small quantities of books economically, allowing publishers to customise books.

"First novels we might just put out online. If enough people respond, we might decide to print the physical book," says Barnsley. "It's being able to cater to the individual. We might say, 'What sort of cover do you want?'"

Is she concerned that the spectre of copyright infringement, which has already sent shockwaves through the recorded music industry, will also affect publishing? "The record industry gave away control of the industry to Apple. The publishing industry has to retain control," she insists, explaining that part of the rationale for creating a digital warehouse was to protect authors' rights.

But she adds: "The thing I would want to stress most is from an author's point of view, digital is a fantastic opportunity. An author through the medium of the web can have a direct dialogue with the readers. Some authors are quite frightened and threatened by it. But as one author said, obscurity is a greater threat than privacy. The web means authors need no longer be obscure.

"It's a time of enormous change. It's in some ways a difficult time. Relatively speaking, we're at an early stage. We're investing and we haven't reaped the rewards yet. But like all times of change, there are great opportunities. Long term, the picture is quite rosy if we handle things well."

As I get up to leave, Barnsley shows me a Noddy book in which the Enid Blyton character goes on an adventure with "Vicky". It has been customised specially for her, and is a sign of what is to come in publishing.

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