SPEECH: Rebecca Smart on why UK Publishing is a Creative Hub for All


The Markets, Global Publishing Summit, Frankfurt Book Fair  2016

Good morning everyone. I’m Rebecca Smart, Managing Director of Ebury Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House UK. It’s great to be here talk about something that I love.

The UK publishing industry is, as I’m sure you know, a place populated by energetic, creative people who are absolutely passionate about what they do. It’s also a place where dealing with change has become everyday business, and that has made it a fascinating place to work these last few years.

This year maybe more so than most!

I woke up on 24 June, turned on the radio, and swore (I won’t repeat what I said but it was a bad swear). I felt like I had woken from my dreams into a post-apocalyptic novel, the news headlines screaming that what I couldn’t believe would happen had, indeed, happened. In Oxford, where I live, and London, where I work, there was utter dismay. But in Hull, in the North of England, where my parents live, there was jubilation – they had taught the posh, rich, fatcat Westminster boys and the Brussels bureaucrats a lesson. My family’s situation mirrored that of our country and of many other families and it felt difficult to see how we would all get along.

I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the tumultuous summer that followed in British politics, and throughout the wider culture of the UK. And none of us wanted to see the spread of hatred and sense of ‘otherness’ that resulted from the Brexit referendum.

Tom Weldon, Penguin Random House UK’s CEO, was quick to calm things for us and we welcomed that. He pointed out how important we are as publishers at this time of chaos – we can bring perspective and help people understand the world, and we can too, as we always have, give people a way of escaping into stories. He also highlighted how important it is that we accelerate our work to ensure that UK publishing reflects and represents the society in which we live – addressing ‘otherness’, focusing on our uniting human qualities - working to bring the nation together through the world of books.

Fast forward a few months and things feel much calmer, though we are no less determined about our desired business outcomes (and indeed political ones, though that’s not a story for here!). We are resolutely open as usual. There are so many examples of UK published books that have become global bestsellers that I’d be here all day if I started listing them, but I can give you just a few Penguin Random House examples:

  • A Lee Child thriller is bought somewhere in the world every 20 seconds. Total sales are over 70 million copies in 96 countries, and his books have been translated into 41 languages.
  • Jojo Moyes’ books have worldwide sales of over 20 million copies, have been translated in to 40 languages and have topped the charts in 12 countries.
  • Our Little Black Classics have had sales of over 1.4 million copies since their launch in 2014, with half of those outside the UK.
  • And on the children’s side, Peppa Pig books have sold 7 million copies worldwide, and sell in 73 countries in the English language.

And we buy in a big way from everywhere in the world too.

A good proportion of our smart thinking and business publishing comes from US authors, agents and publishers.

Since we acquired and translated Jo Nesbo, his books have sold 17m copies in the English language in 40 countries and become a global sensation.

And Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was a phenomenon in the English language when it published last autumn.

And our message to you is that we will remain open as usual, whatever happens during Brexit negotiations. Our European publisher partners are a very important part of the UK industry – we buy from them and sell to them every day. We are global citizens but we remain European citizens, whether EU members or not.

I mentioned the need for unity through diversity. We have to work hard on this.

UK publishing does not have a good record of addressing its lack of diversity. It has remained staunchly white middle class, and its leadership has been too male.

Books drive culture, and it’s important that we ensure we are driving it towards representation of everyone in our society. There are voices that are not being heard, stories that are not being told.

Not only that but we are missing out on significant audiences if we don’t embrace the whole of society. 1 in 4 millennials in the UK is from a non-White-British background. By 2051 the whole of the UK will be as diverse as London is today – 40% BAME. And according to the Read On, Get On survey carried out by Save the Children in 2014, black and Asian British audiences enjoy reading daily in greater numbers than their white counterparts. And that’s just taking the ethnicity axis – there are also significant groups of readers and potential readers outside London in socio-economically marginalised communities that we are failing to reach.

If we are truly to remain a strong, positive force in global culture we need to do better. And, finally, we are. There are initiatives being implemented in many of the UK’s large publishing houses, and a number of BAME writers’ prizes. Penguin Random House has led the way on this.

  • We have removed the need for a University degree for our job applicants
  • We are out on the road with #jobhack sharing what we do with school pupils around the UK (particularly outside London in large northern British cities, including in Scotland) aiming to attract a wider pool of applicants for jobs in the future
  • We are holding #writenow workshops around the UK for writers from groups not well represented in publishing, talking about how to get published and giving them one-to-one time with an editor. We will be going on to mentor a number of them and eventually aiming to publish them
  • We have launched The Scheme, a one-year paid work placement for four people each year (last year we focused on marketing, this year on editorial) where the recruitment process is all about potential and creativity, not about experience, or knowledge, or qualifications
  • We’ve made our work experience programmes and internship programmes completely open to all and selected on a random basis. And we’ll do all we can to support work experience for those who don’t live in London and have difficulty coming to the city
  • And we are doing ‘unconscious bias’ training with all our employees, helping them understand how their behaviours might be stopping diverse voices being heard both within the company and in our publishing. This might sound dry and ‘pc’ but has actually been incredibly powerful in holding up a mirror to our unwitting white middle class blithe prejudice

We are already beginning to see the fruits of our work, with improvements in the diversity of both our workforce and our publishing, but it’s important that we sustain this work and that our competitors join with us to accelerate change. This is not about corporate responsibility – we call it creative responsibility as we believe there is a creativity gap and we want to fill it. And, as I have said, that gap indicates commercial opportunity as well as cultural imperative. By changing the industry we can find and create new readers and that is good for all of us and for society - stories provide a powerful way of helping people see the common characteristics between humans, rather than the differences, and let’s face it, we all need more of that at the moment.

Let’s talk about trends.

As a non-fiction publisher across all genres (in the last full year Ebury was the biggest publisher in food and drink, autobiographies and biographies, personal development and a number of other genres) we see more than most the acceleration of the pace of change in our cultural landscape. Social media and web platforms have given rise to a new type of talent, and digital connections mean that trends rise seemingly from nowhere, becoming enormously popular overnight and sustaining for unpredictable periods of time. A year ago everyone was predicting that colouring would soon be over, but here we are and it still represents sales of over £10 million this year in the UK.

The latest trend is Hygge (loosely translated from the Danish it means ‘living well’). Three of these books are published by Penguin Random House so we’ve been having quite the battle between our publishing divisions! How wonderful that the UK industry has anticipated and then accelerated this trend – and that we’re now enabling our partner publishers to benefit (The Book of Hygge and The Little Book of Hygge have both sold in over 15 territories).

We are also seeing that when these trends subside, it’s the first and the best that sustain beyond the zeitgeist moment – so the battle to be first and to secure the best is often a heated one!

The same is happening in the world of fiction. Over and over again in the last few years there have been event books driven by UK authors and UK publishers that have become global phenomena – and, again, Penguin Random House has led the way, with The Girl on The Train being our most famous recent example.

I talked about how the internet is changing the way trends rise and fall. There is also the fact that it provides a new source for authors. Books written by authors whose audience has collected online now represent a significant chunk of sales for UK publishers, who were in this market meaningfully before the US, and Penguin Random House has a large share of this market, with hundreds of books published in the last two years.

These authors have a connection with their audiences that is unlike anything we’ve seen in other media – their fans know their lives intimately and want to collect a slice of what they see. A physical book is perfect as a memento, and is very much an ‘event’ for those fans. We’ve also been able to spread our wings beyond the book to help these creative people tell their story in a wide range of ways, and our release of Dan & Phil’s The Amazing Book Is Not on Fire shows just how big that can be.

Again, the battle to buy and make one of these event books is a tough one and all of this accelerating change and the rise of event books as a phenomenon means we need to be better and better at what we’ve always done. We’ve got to be ready to take bigger but still calculated risks to invest in something we believe in. We must hustle like hell to break out a book like never before. We have to be more and more creative in our packaging. We need to innovate in our marketing and find publicity opportunities in unlikely places. We’ve got to use data to underpin our decisions but instinct to make them.

And we need to be really flexible.

Debut fiction needs to be published slowly to build buzz, but topical non-fiction needs to be published at high speed. The slow route is no problem – it’s how we’ve always worked. And I think that as an industry we are beginning to cope better with the need for speed. In the world of non-fiction, it is quite normal to publish a book within 4-5 months of commissioning it – even if it isn’t actually written at that point. But the pain of doing that in the face of an industry where ‘normal’ sales cycles are 9-12 months is felt every day by editors, marketers, publicists and sales people. This is the challenge of legacy - of a complex physical and digital supply chain – and it will be a major focus in the years ahead. We’ll have to rethink the linear (albeit iterative) way we work and be more flexible - as a whole supply chain, not just the publisher part.

I think the second big challenge we face as an industry is around systems, data and, most importantly, insight.

We need to further invest in systems in order to compete with digital media – our creativity on its own will not be enough to help us win. We need to equip our people with the ability to apply insight to data quickly, to update metadata easily, to market online efficiently. And we need to do this at the same time as doing everything else we do and have always done – this is another challenge of legacy and again I think will be a key focus of the next few years in the UK industry.

UK publishing has been accused of not changing enough. In a way it’s not surprising that we haven’t because what we fundamentally need to do has not changed.

We find the best stories (be they fiction or non-fiction), from the best authors, and we help make them even better, refine the words and commission or choose the pictures. We package them beautifully (whether physically or digitally) in the way that will make them appeal to the most readers, and we tell as many people as we can about them and lead them towards them wherever and however they want to find them.

When you put it like that it sounds simple doesn’t it? But, as you all know, it’s not. It’s incredibly complex and messy and hard work. But it’s also great fun.

And that’s the image of the UK industry I want to leave you with – we LOVE what we do and we love being a part of the global publishing community, and whatever happens in the next few years that is not going away. Our energy, our creativity, our ability to navigate the complexity, and our relationships with authors, partner publishers, retailers and readers mean that we have never been more prepared to meet the challenges ahead.

Thank you.

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