Markets Keynote at Frankfurt: Charlie Redmayne on Realistic Innovation

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Ahead of his Frankfurt keynote, HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne talks about meeting reader demands, expanding in Ireland, and finding revenue opportunities.

Charlie Redmayne. Image: HarperCollins UK

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

Engagement: ‘The Tide Will Come In’
In Heloise Wood’s listing at The Bookseller of “Eleven Essential Events at Frankfurt 2018,”  HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne’s keynote address at The Markets conference tops the ranking. This will surprise few who have followed Redmayne’s five-year stewardship of HarperCollins UK, including the global corporation’s Irish, Indian, and Australian operations.

The Markets is the pace-setting conference of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, running 9:30 a.m to 1 p.m. October 9, the eve of the book fair’s formal opening. It takes place in Europa Room of the Business Club, Hall 4.0.

Redmayne’s remarks are a chance to hear the observations of one of the best-recognized leaders in the book industry today on innovation and revenue models in contemporary publishing.

Having taken on what The Bookseller editor Philip Jones called “one of the toughest jobs in publishing” in August 2013, Redmayne found himself able to say this past July at the company’s summer party, that HarperCollins not only had just passed its 200th anniversary but “I have to say we’ve started our third century incredibly strongly.” HarperCollins UK was named this year’s Publisher of the Year, the biggest of the prizes offered, in the 2018 British Book Awards.

The house’s publication of Gail Honeyman’s Costa-winning Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was certified—in Kiera O’Brien’s sweetly headlined “Holy Gail” article—as the longest-running fiction title at the peak of the UK Top 50 since 2016’s The Girl on the Train (Penguin/Black Swan). As of early July, Honeyman’s book sold 587,763 copies at £3.6 million (US$4.7 million), according to Nielsen BookScan. Overall, he said, HarperCollins titles had spent a third of the year at the top of the UK chart.

Redmayne has succeeded Hodder Education’s Lis Tribe as president of the UK’s Publishers Association, in what Brexit’s approach ensures will be one of the most challenging eras of the organization’s activities.

HarperCollins’ reading program called Collins Big Cat has partnered with The Scottish Sun to give primary schools in Scotland more than £1 million of free books, with special focus on Glasgow, where HarperCollins employees are volunteering to work with young parents in introducing reading to their children.

This is a publishing CEO on a roll, and one who credits his team as being “at the top of their game.”In asking Charlie Redmayne to keynote The Markets, Publishing Perspectives is particularly interested in his sense for what the consumer wants.

Redmayne joined HarperCollins UK in 2008, became worldwide digital chief in 2009, then left for Pottermore in 2011. What he did in responding to JK Rowling’s fandom was to craft an answer to what readers wanted. And when he was tapped to return to the publishing house two years later to succeed Victoria Barnsley, Redmayne was the consumer-attuned specialist he has continued to be at HarperCollins.

“Whether it’s the ways people consume our content, the business models under which we sell our content, or the retail channels that we use, we have to be proactive. That is what a publisher has to be.”Charlie Redmayne

“I guess my background in working for broader media companies, working in marketing, advertising agencies,” Redmayne says, carried its own education in “thinking of what the customer wants.” And that schooling wasn’t without some negative lessons in terms of advertisers who were hired “to position products a certain way instead of thinking of the aspirations of the consumer.

“The products we’re trying to create, the way our content can be consumed,” Redmayne says, is fundamental to his approach now.

“And I think it’s really interesting at the moment, looking at business models. There seem to be a lot of people in publishing who are fighting against [more consumer-driven] business models, not engaging, for example, in subscription.

“One of the things I’m going to say on Tuesday” at The Markets “is that ultimately, if subscription is a business model that consumers buy into, then it’s incumbent upon publishers to find a way of working with subscription models in a way that protects the IP of their authors and the value of their authors’ content. Just sitting there like King Canute, saying, ‘We will not engage,’ means ultimately that the tide will come in and you’ll be left with very wet feet.

“That really is the message I’m going to be trying to make” when he speaks. “Whether it’s  the ways people consume our content, the business models under which we sell our content, or the retail channels that we use, we have to be proactive, on the front foot and finding ways to make that work. That, at the end of the day, is what a publisher has to be.”

Opportunity: ‘Publishing in Ireland’

One of Redmayne’s most interesting moves this year, reflective of just the kind of market responsiveness he’s talking about, has been a doubling of the staffing he’s placed in Harper’s Irish operations, including bringing in Eoin McHugh, the former Transworld Ireland publisher, as publishing director. With an eye to acquiring and cultivating Irish authors, the development is a kind of territorial innovation for HarperCollins.

“What I wanted to do was take my already successful Irish business, and do some publishing in Ireland for the Irish market.”Charlie Redmayne

“Ireland is a fantastic book market,” says Redmayne. “I think I’m right in saying that the Irish people consume more books per capita than in any other country in the world,” with the possible exception of Australia. “It’s either No. 1 or No. 2. And when I inherited HarperCollins, our Irish business was great, but it was very much focused upon finding Irish authors who would sell well into the UK market, the US market, the international markets.

“And what I saw was that there was a really interesting home market, as well. There was a real passion for Irish history. We saw this around the centenary of 1916,” the Easter Rising. “And we saw a real interest in Irish celebrities and Irish politics, and also in Irish literature and in Irish poetry. In Ireland, poetry is a huge market, which isn’t really replicated in the UK.

“So what I wanted to do was take my already successful Irish business—which was finding international authors—and I wanted to do some publishing in Ireland for the Irish market. And hopefully, those authors will become international authors, but I’m not necessarily buying them because they are or will be international authors but because I believe they can do well in the Irish market, published in Ireland, promoted in Ireland, and doing well within Ireland.

“Hopefully, we can bring them into the international publishing house, but I want to maximize my opportunity in Ireland as well as in international markets.” And that, too, is a way in which Redmayne has assessed what he found on the ground and responded to, in the Irish case, a robust market’s demands, rather than trying to overlay his own expectations.

Politics: ‘There Are Standards To Uphold’

In terms of today’s challenges for so many publishers, Redmayne says he’s keenly aware of the dilemma for many houses relative to publishing political work.

So politically charged are these times—whether the politics are Brexitian, Trumpian, nationalist, populist, or otherwise—that many companies are giving new thought to how they consider and choose political work.

On the 18th of this month, HarperCollins UK will publish both Philip Collins’ Start Again: How We Can Fix Our Broken Politics and Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias. In July, the house brought out the UK edition of Michiko Kakutani’s searing The Death of Truth, and the house also has published Allan J. Lichtman’s The Case for Impeachment.

The issue has to do with market appeal and publishing standards, Redmayne says, as is seen in the white-hot readership in the States, for example, for such titles as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Macmillan) and for Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, the latter of which racked up 900,000 copies sold by the end of its first week. Both books drew threats of litigation from Donald Trump, as well as consumer response both for and against these writings.

Where this leads us is to the question of ethical publication in a time of profoundly divided political opinion: no matter what viewpoint an author brings to the table, someone is going to be angry these days, and a publisher risks backlash.

“It’s a huge dilemma,” Redmayne says. “We’re in a world where politically we’re polarized: in America and in Britain, and in countries in Europe, the Left is going left and the Right is going right, and that makes me uncomfortable, to be honest.

“We have to be sure that we publish books that conform to what we are as a publisher. And that to me means books that are interesting, relevant, well-researched, commercially potentially successful, well-written, important—all of those things.

“But what they don’t have to be is necessarily fitting with the politics that I have or indeed the people who work at my company have. We’re not here as publishers to say which political view is right or wrong.

“And having said that, there are standards to uphold. We should not publish racists. We should not publish criminals, people who have broken the law. That’s not something that we would look to do.”

Revenue Models: ‘A Culture of Innovation’

When it comes to looking for what the next most effective revenue models may be, Redmayne says that “We’re in a kind of golden period to a degree,” but he isn’t necessarily convinced of the much-discussed resurgence of print that some say they see.

“We have to be willing to look at these things and ask, ‘Can this really move the needle? Can this be something that actually impacts our business at scale?'”Charlie Redmayne

When he hears talk of the physical book coming back, he says, “I must admit I’m not seeing that. I’m seeing that the physical book has declined and now is plateauing and showing a little bit of growth. That little bit of growth might be more to do with the fact that there’s some great publishing out there at the moment.

“I think we need to find growth in other areas. Ebooks have grown quickly and now are plateauing. And audiobooks are going through the roof. But then, we need to start thinking of other ways that an author originating content can do well. And we’re seeing authors now involved in blogs, and vlogs, and podcasts, in video, in film writing and TV writing.

“One great challenge for any publisher is podcasting. Is it a marketing tool? Or is it a revenue stream? At the moment, for most publishers, it’s a marketing tool. But I have no doubt that in the future it’s going to be a revenue stream for authors and this is why it’s incumbent on publishers to find ways to make that happen.

“Sitting there saying, ‘Well, we can’t make money out of podcasts,'” won’t cut it, he says. “That’s what we’re there for. You need to find ways to do that.

“We’ve had a lot of gold rushes. When I first joined the publishing industry, every author needed to have a Web site, and we built an awful lot of sites where no one ever went because no one knew where to find them, and you’d be much more successful putting your page on Facebook where audiences already are.

“Then we thought every author should have an app. But realistically, that’s not what we were producing in publishing.” Similarly, he says, the enhanced ebook was a hot concept until “We realized that a work of fiction is what it is, and adding film to it just distracted rather than enhancing it. So it’s thinking of where the next things are, which I’ll talk about in my speech, ways of taking storytelling into new areas.”

The caution, however, is that, “As publishers, we have to be incredibly careful that we don’t throw a lot of money and resources at something” that can never be viable in the market. And yet, whether “creating really interesting niche products that work for specific areas of publishing or things that are going to work on a grander scale, we need to explore them, too.”

All of which points to forthright appraisal and level-headed analysis. “We have to be willing to look at these things,” he says, “and ask, ‘Can this really move the needle? Can this be something that actually impacts our business at scale?'”

Charlie Redmayne is clear on the point of what makes Tuesday’s focus at The Markets timely: “An awful lot of time and resource has been spent chasing gold rushes that weren’t there. You want smart, innovative people with new ideas. You need to create a culture of innovation within your company.”

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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 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.