Ebury’s Rebecca Smart: A Publishing ‘House Open to All’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘It’s important that the book industry stays culturally in touch with the whole of society,’ says PRH Ebury’s Rebecca Smart. She brings her viewpoints to Frankfurt’s The Markets conference.
Rebecca Smart

Rebecca Smart

In our series with specialists (analysts, visionaries, and players) who will tackle issues in the seven pivotal publishing markets of Frankfurt Book Fair’s and Publishing Perspectives’ conference, we hear today from Rebecca Smart, managing director of Penguin Random House’s Ebury Publishing. Smart speaks on October 18 at Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club as the UK market’s visionary in The Markets: Global Publishing Summit. (Some seats remain, hurry.)

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘To Break Through the Noise’

300 The Markets logoSometimes a name is apt, and many in the industry who know her will tell you that Rebecca Smart is correctly named—she’s an articulate and sensitive observer of the business.

She now heads Ebury Publishing, the division of Penguin Random House that stands as the UK’s largest publisher in nonfiction areas including parenting, food and drink, and personal development. Long a leading voice in the UK publishing community, she’s admired by many for her work in verticalization while with Osprey Publishing (1998-2014). Osprey’s military history vertical, for example, developed informative connections with its membership-readers for guidance on what content was wanted and needed: a prosperous publishing dialogue with readers.

As she looks ahead to speaking at Frankfurt, of course, she’s mindful not only of nonfiction’s stance in a complex market, but also the place and future of fiction: Ebury, she reminds us, has “a small but perfectly formed fiction list”: Del Rey UK and Black Lace are part of that end of the operation.

Most importantly, she’s a leader in the industry whom we know as thoughtful. She was willing to speak at last year’s Author Day event in London from The Bookseller’s The FutureBook, braving a room not entirely friendly to the trade and traditional publishing routes. And earlier this year, as she mentions in her exchange with Publishing Perspectives, she wrote a compelling column at The Bookseller, in which she made the case for a less dismissive attitude about publishing’s more commercial offerings—for “pride, not prejudice,” as she titled her commentary.

We begin, as we do in our series of conversations with Markets speakers, with key talking points in her reflection on the UK industry today.

Three Points of Importance: Event, Diversity, Flexibility

500t-ebury-publishing-logo-lined1. The ability of the industry to create events. “The UK book industry has been at the heart of many zeitgeist moments and continues to do this incredibly well,” Smart tells Publishing Perspectives. “‘Event’ publishing is more and more important.

“Whether this is creating a global phenomenon from a novel or finding the best experts on a subject in order to make it this season’s must-have trend, there’s always something to talk about.”

“Each book’s needs differ more than ever, and we have to publish the hell out of every single one to break through the noise.”Rebecca Smart

2The need for diversity. “Books are a driving force for culture in the UK, and books from the UK have often been a driving force for global culture through movies and other media,” Smart says.

“In order to ensure that we maintain our significance, it’s important that the book industry represents the voices of all those in society. Particularly in these pre-Brexit-tense times, we can bring unity through diversity, in both our publishing and our workforce. We can help people make sense of the world, and we can help them escape from it occasionally.”

3. The need for flexibility. “Flexibility is becoming more and more important,” Smart says. “Each book’s needs differ more than ever, and we have to publish the hell out of every single one to break through the noise.

“While fiction often needs time to build buzz, nonfiction is responding to a faster and faster evolving landscape, and we have to work equally well with both of those patterns.”

‘Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives’

Publishing Perspectives: How did you come to see things this way? 

“There are many communities around the UK who feel excluded from the world we inhabit, and I want to be part of changing that.”Rebecca Smart

Rebecca Smart: “My shift from specialist niche publishing to commercial trade publishing has involved a steep learning curve. But I have absolutely fallen in love with the new world I’ve entered.

One of the things I love the most is being at the heart of trends, even being able to influence those trends through our relationship with other media. For example, this year we accelerated the love of all things Scandi by publishing the first book on Hygge (the unique Danish concept of creating a warm and supportive atmosphere by enjoying the simple pleasures in life), which was followed very closely by a number of other books.

PP: In the past, as in a memorable FutureBook conference address, you spoke of the industry being slow to market.

RS: I’ve spoken before about how we need to publish more quickly, but my view on this has changed. What we need is flexibility.

In fiction, sometimes we need to publish quickly, where an author has an audience clamoring for his or her next book, but sometimes we need to give a book time to build—so many debut novels have benefitted from being published slowly.

In the nonfiction world, trends move quickly—I’ve seen in the last two years how quickly the cultural landscape evolves, and this evolution is accelerating. And, more often than not, a book is just part of an author’s career and time is of the essence for them.

PP: You wrote this in May: “As someone working in a company that publishes these books that are ‘not real,’ I can tell you that they are put together with the same commitment of hard work, care and attention as any literary novel.” And by “not real,” you were referring, in part, to such parts of the industry’s output as YouTube stars’ books and coloring books. Can you elaborate on this?

“Sometimes we need to give a book time to build—so many debut novels have benefitted from being published slowly.”Rebecca Smart

RS: I wrote a piece for The Bookseller recently (Pride not Prejudice) about how important it is that we, as an industry, do not dismiss any kind of book or trend—in effect, that would be dismissing a chunk of our readership and that does not make commercial sense.

More importantly, it’s really important that the book industry stays culturally in touch with the whole of society, that it represents all voices and tells a really wide range of stories.

I grew up in Hull in the North East of England and went to school with many people who wouldn’t have thought the world of writing and publishing accessible to them. There are many communities around the UK who feel excluded from the world we inhabit, and I want to be part of changing that, which is why I’m heavily involved with the diversity and inclusion initiatives at Penguin Random House.

500t-writenow-logo-linedMost recently we ran our first WriteNow workshop—this is an outreach and mentoring program reaching out to writers from under-represented communities, helping them build contacts and confidence. It leads to a year’s one-to-one mentoring from our editors for 10 of them, and the ultimate goal of getting them published.

People often talk about publishing “houses”—we want to be a house open to all.

In addition to our Markets white paper, you can read our series of interviews and information in relation to The Markets: Global Publishing Summit (18 October 2016) from Publishing Perspectives and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The Markets logo

This year’s program will showcase the following seven markets:

  1. Brazil
  2. Flanders & The Netherlands (Guest of Honor)
  3. Philippines
  4. Poland
  5. Spain
  6. United Arab Emirates
  7. United Kingdom

The Markets’ programming highlights each of these seven publishing territories from three perspectives: analysis, vision, and industry players. The day is devised to provide attendees not only with information and insights into the most important features of each industry market, but also with extensive networking opportunities during the event.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.