Meet the Publishers

Why the HarperCollins UK CEO says ‘Most authors have understood that the roof is on fire’

An interview with Charlie Redmayne, CEO, HarperCollins UK, on digital publishing, HarperCollins’s India plans, and the state of publishing in general.

First, a little something about your career arc. Between your two stints with HarperCollins, you helped set up Pottermore, JK Rowling’s digital publishing business for the Harry Potter books. That was a journey out of conventional publishing and into something very new and focussed. What did you learn from that experience, and did it help you look at publishing differently?
I didn’t come from a traditional publishing background anyway. Before joining HarperCollins for the first time, I had run my own businesses, one of which was a startup which we launched in 2000 and sold to Sky in 2006. When I joined HarperCollins in 2008, I was the digital director and had a very entrepreneurial role within the business: it was about building a digital business, and there wasn’t one at the time. E-books hardly existed, audio was still physical in format, we changed all those things.

So when I left to do Pottermore, I knew how to do digital startups but I also understood the conventional publishing industry, which is what Pottermore needed. I had enormous fun working there, we built some great platforms and products, engaged with millions of people – that I think is more about the Harry Potter brand, but we produced some really strong work.

What I learnt in terms of coming back to HarperCollins: first, about storytelling across every platform. You’re not limited to just e-books or audio-books or physical books, but you can do things across Playstation and a range of platforms. But I learnt that if you’re doing this, make sure you work with the right partners. With Playstation, we worked with Sony, for instance.

I learnt a lot about rights as well. One problem we had at Pottermore was that Warner Bros owned some rights, Sony owned others, Jo [JK Rowling] herself had other rights and control. It limited what you could do. So now, when we’re coming up with ideas and someone in my team goes “oh, I don’t know if we have the rights”, I say: look, let’s have the idea first, let’s try and create the best consumer experience – because the consumer doesn’t understand rights. And once we’ve done that, and if we think it’s really good, let’s go and talk to the people who are in the rights and see if we can get this done. But if you restrict your thinking to rights, you won’t get anywhere.

Publishing has changed so much, and so quickly, in the last few years – even veteran editors and publishers can struggle to keep up with new developments. Do you sometimes feel like you have to be a student all over again?
Goodness me, all the time. One thing I’m always looking at, which I don’t always have the answers for, is how technology is going to change our industry in the future. We all know how it has changed our industry already, with e-books and audio moving from physical to digital. It’s fundamentally changed us in terms of the marketing process, how books are discovered.

There have been huge challenges with Amazon becoming such a dominant player, fewer physical bookstores; getting authors discovered becomes more challenging – they have their own platforms, there are hundreds of thousands of self-published authors coming through. Think of our lifetime – you and I are probably of a not dissimilar age, and how on earth did we book holidays before the internet?! I can barely remember, it’s an absurd thought. The net fundamentally changed our lives and how we did business.

Looking forward…we think in the last 15 years our world has changed – well, you wait for the next 15 years and see! It can be tricky to work out what is a fad and what is a lasting, impactful change. Everyone got very excited a few years ago about wearables – wearable technology was going to be the next big thing, with Google Glasses and so on. Absolute rubbish.

Some things are worth noting. One is virtual reality, which I think is a fundamental change in how we consume entertainment and educate. Historically, media has been portal-based: you watch TV, look at a book, I use my eyes to look at something. Whereas virtual reality is the most extraordinary technology, it’s not portal-based, you’re IN it, it’s happening to you. How that changes the creative process for all of our worlds, how that changes education, is going to be fundamental.

The other thing is voice. Amazon has its voice products, others do too. You know how we watch films, and people are carrying great big mobile phones and you laugh at it. I think in 10 or 15 years people are going to laugh at this (makes gesture of tapping at a phone’s keys), I don’t think we are going to do that anymore, it’s going to be all voice, voice becomes ubiquitous, I speak to my phone and give instructions to my fridge.

There’s something like that in Spike Jonze’s film Her, which is set just 10 years into the future – so it doesn’t even feel right calling it a futuristic story – but shows things that would be unsettling to many of us today.
I haven’t seen it, but yes. And I think that fundamentally influences publishing.

Does this new world lead to a conflict with authors, many of whom are slow adaptors, old-school in how they do things, and often intimidated by the demands of self-promotion anyway?
I think that would be a challenge we talked about five years ago. I think most authors have fully understood that the roof’s on fire! It took them a while, but I think authors now understand that a significant proportion of their books are going to be bought in e-form or in physical forms through different channels, and there are there are lots of platforms they can use to reach larger numbers of people.

I’m also thinking in the Indian context, where change has come more slowly than in the UK. To take an admittedly extreme example, there’s someone like Ruskin Bond, still being published at age 82, but submitting handwritten manuscripts. And many younger writers who do work on devices are behind the technological curve.
It’s nice if writers can get into the brave new world, but again, if you have older writers for whom that world is a terrifying place, we can help them do it and that possibly IS one of the roles of a publisher. I feel if you explain to a writer that you’re trying to help their work get read by more people, that’s really what they care about.

But I do get what you’re saying. I was speaking at an event three years ago as a keynote speaker, and the speaker before me was quite brilliant. He said, the thing about technology is: if a piece of technology is invented before you’re 18, then you completely immerse yourself in it, it becomes second nature to you, it’s how you live your life. If a piece of technology is invented when you’re between the ages of 18 and 35, you never really understand it, but you make a career out of it anyway. And if it’s invented after you’re 35, you resent it or are irritated by it, and frankly would like it banned!

The internet was invented when I was between 18 and 35, so I’m in the camp of never quite understanding it, but I made a career out of it anyway.

What are your broad perceptions of Indian market, and what changes can HarperCollins make?
I think it’s a fascinating market, one that’s growing very quickly and has the potential to grow more quickly. Traditionally it was very much centered around serious non-fiction and great literary fiction. That was the mainstay of the English-language publishing market here in India.

What we’ve seen in recent years is an explosion of commercial publishing, with younger people getting into reading. I think that’s fantastic. It does not mean that serious literary fiction and non-fiction gets any less important – it’s still there, with a wonderful heritage and a wonderful market. But now we also have this burgeoning commercial market. Producing books in different ways, reaching that market of new readers, the retail solutions that we have to put in place to do this: that’s a real opportunity for us.

You say that literary writing isn’t going anywhere, but in actual practice, things rapidly get more marketing-driven in this industry. Are publishers in danger of getting pigeonholed into ideas of what a blockbuster book should look like?
Well, I think they are already there. But the thing about publishing houses is that that they are a very catholic collection of people. If you look at the business I run, we have Fourth Estate, which is serious literary fiction, great writers who get a lot of critical acclaim. We have William Collins, which is serious nonfiction, politicians, businesspeople, men of the day. But we also have commercial fiction and nonfiction, and yes, we WILL reach out to the latest vlogger who is having his moment in the sun and will sell us a couple of hundred thousand copies because he has an existing fanbase. And absolutely, that IS marketing-driven and trend-driven – we should be at the head of those curves too.

Marketing is not a dirty word, we should be marketing our literary fiction too, in the best ways for those books. We should also be publishing literary books because they have a back-list potential which some of this other stuff maybe doesn’t. And the real value of a publishing company sits in the backlist. But at the same time, the trend-based stuff is important, and we should be seeing those trends before they happen.

I want to be publishing across the board, and Ananth Padmanabhan [HarperCollins India’s CEO, who joined in October 2015] coming to run this business reflects that. I want someone as passionate about commercial fiction as they are about literary fiction, I want to do both and I want to be the best at doing both.

In recent times, with the launch of Juggernaut, there has been a lot of talk about phone apps and the idea that there might be a huge readership on that medium. How has that worked out, and is it something you might be looking at?
In terms of e-books being read on phones, the UK market is very well developed. If you go to work on the Tube as I do, you’ll see everyone there sitting and reading on those devices or on the phone, and many of them are reading books. Do I think it will happen in India? Yes, it will. Historically, you’re a country that adopted smart-phones incredibly quickly, there’s a huge penetration of smart-phones. And yes, as the e-book market develops, people will read on those phones too.

But would I be building an app specifically to go and do that: the answer to that is, we aren’t. We have our own website where you can go and buy physical books and e-books from, we have our own reading app which you can download, which we developed in the US. Ultimately it doesn’t get a huge amount of reach and it isn’t going to move the needle where we are concerned.

Will your global publishing platform HarperCollins 360 lead to more distribution and visibility for Indian writers for markets beyond South Asia? Not just writers who already have international agents and publishers, but homegrown Indian writers?
There absolutely is potential for that, and it needs to become a priority for us. We have a stable of fabulous Indian writers, and part of the opportunity of being published by HarperCollins is that we are published in so many different countries – and in so many different languages as well. Our 360 programme works well in terms of selling Indian books into the UK and US, a lot of those books are sold into the Indian communities in those countries, and it should also be about finding books that can transcend the Indianness of it, if you like, into the broader marketplace. 360 is a way of giving more opportunity to more Indian writers to be distributed widely. Then, if they are picked up and discovered, we grow them.

As a reader, do you have a high degree of familiarity with Indian literature?
No. To be honest with you, as a reader I read an enormous number of books – but I never finish them…because I run a publishing business! I only read around eight books a year that I read for myself. Certainly I read stuff that Ananth sends to me, which I enjoy, but I don’t have a huge firsthand experience of Indian writing. If I’m honest, my favourite writer is Bernard Cornwell, I love all that wonderful historical fiction, Hilary Mantel and so on.

What about the prospects of regional-language Indian publishing? You have Harper Perennial, which does a fine job of books in translation from other Indian languages into English. Is there an international market for those books?
I’ll let Ananth answer that, I personally would like to see it continue.

Ananth Padmanabhan: Look at the success of some of our recent Perennial releases like [Vivek Shanbhag’s] Ghachar Ghochar – there is still so much rich storytelling in local-language publishing that is not available in English. We want to publish six to eight books a year in the Perennial list, and they get both lives, hardback in the first year followed by paperback. We have also set up a relationship with Seagull Books, publishing from Calcutta – while we publish for the Indian subcontinent, they do the US and north American market for us, taking the books global.

One thing I enjoy about those books are the “extras” that you have at the end – the interviews and so on. We all know about the changes happening in publishing at the digital level, but here is something new and interesting within the covers of a print book.
Ananth Padmanabhan: Yes, that’s the “P.S.” section. We are constantly trying to add value that goes beyond the digital experience, and Perennial is a very good example, putting the book in context. It’s like a director’s commentary, it helps a reader understand where the book is coming from.

There has been a long history in India, unfortunately, of books being banned or violently protested against, which puts a lot of pressure on publishers. When Penguin Indian withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, they made the point that the Indian Penal Code makes it difficult to uphold international standards of freedom of expression. Does that concern you as a publisher looking to do new things?
Charlie Redmayne: Yes, but ultimately when you publish a book you need to look at the content, the claims that are being made, you have to substantiate them. And if you’re confident, then you should publish, and we do. And therefore, we will stand up and support our authors because we are comfortable that they speak the truth.

I’m not just talking about non-fiction, I’m talking about provocative fiction too, where the substantiating of hard facts isn’t so important, but a book might still end up “offending” or being protested because of the subject matter. As happened with Rushdie and Peramul Murugan famously, and with many others.
Ananth Padmanabhan: There are two ways to look at this: One, we will publish books bravely; if on the publishing and editorial side we believe this is a book we should publish, we will go ahead and do it. But we have to be mindful of the geography that anyone in the industry operates in. Will an author or publisher willingly go and publish something that offends a sentiment? Not really. We have to be mindful of geographical and cultural context.

What types of books do you want to push more in the Indian market – in terms of fiction, non-fiction or genres and sub-genres?
Charlie Redmayne: I would like to grow our commercial fiction business. Again, not to the detriment of serious literary fiction and non-fiction. But I’d like to reach readers we haven’t reached before.

The other thing is that HarperCollins globally is a very powerful children’s publisher. We have huge children’s brands that we have developed, and what I’d love to do is to build some homegrown Indian children’s writing talent – I don’t think we have done that to a great degree here at Harper Collins India. It’s important to catch readers young.

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