Montagues and Capulets? Stephen Page on Industry Relationships

Stephen Page, Faber & Faber
Stephen Page, Faber & Faber

Stephen Page is the Chief Executive of Faber & Faber, one of the most successful publishing houses in the industry. He has been credited with modernising the T.S.Eliot’s House of Faber and features regularly in trade publications such as Publishers Weekly and The Bookseller magazine. In addition to re-interpreting what he terms the ‘traditonal mechanics’ of publishing, Page is urging publishers to become more ‘consumer-centric’ and personalised about business models. Stephen spoke to Stephanie Lawless at Publishing Ireland in advance of his address to Irish publishers at its annual trade event, Working Together on where publishing is now and why publishers and booksellers need to combined their resources to understand one another better.

SL      How are things at Faber at the moment?

SP      Well, Christmas is always a ‘hold your breath’ moment – waiting to see what sells in the numbers you hope it will. The book market in the UK has been pretty tough for the last year and if you’re not creating the ‘big hits’ it’s the midlist that suffers. We are coming off the back of a year or so where that’s been the case. E-book sales have flattened and so there is more riding now on having some good success at Christmas, as well as ‘Summer reads’ and prizes. There’s more heat on those things than there ever was- and there was always quite a lot of heat under them! It’s quite tough to get things to sell how you would expect them to sell.

SL      Has the launch of Faber Press added extra weight to the Christmas planning?

SP       Faber Press is a way to start approaching various parts of the market differently. Our core heritage lies in our literary publishing – around poetry, drama and literary fiction, film, classical music publishing and this sort of publishing is being less well supported by what remains of the ‘book trade’. The scale of where this is at now is probably right for the market and they are doing a very good job in many ways but the deeper literary publishing (which feeds into academic publishing in the end)- that part of the market has been very hard work so Faber Press is a way of approaching this in quite a different way.

SL      How so?

SP       Well we’ve put Faber Digital into Faber Press alongside the Fine Press, which is a high-end limited edition way of looking at literary publishing. We’ve also partnered with Bloomsbury to create Drama Online, which is an academic database off plays, so we will start to think about our other copyrights in that way. It’s a matter of separating that out, because trying to think clearly about this kind of publishing while also trying to create hits in the general trade is hard. So we’ve tried to create some definition and also to put some very strong leadership in place with Henry Volans, who is going to lead that. Henry has come through the digital and editorial routes and really understands the marriage with the copyrights and has a fresh mind when it comes to business models and how to exploit them.

SL     You said that Faber Social was the model for this new departure. What does this mean in practical terms?

SP      Faber Social is a business that was invented by an editor’s disappointment with the world ! It started with a monthly event, which was a conversation between a writer and a rock musician, a poet reading, some music- late night, small-scale. What we found then very quickly in bringing together the worlds of rock music and literature was a very rich scene. We then took that out to festivals and other similar events and out of that has come the blossoming of our publishing around the area. The whole thing has become an ecology in itself, in that an event has led to a social media following and the publishing has then been able to be a part of the conversation. This has led us to publishing to an engaged audience and then you add on top of that we have published and sold quite a few limited editions directly to our fanbase.

SL     Tell me more about the ‘Superfan’.

SP      Within rock and roll there are superfans who are collectors and so you get to publish in a rich way- all the way from a conversation in a live event through to a standard edition of the book – usually quite highly priced. These books are very ‘vinyl’ from £16-£30- the ‘object’ being a really important part of it. This goes all the way up to limited editions and to ‘super’, high- spec limited editions and along the way an e-book. The other interesting thing is that the audience is quite global-it has a niche audience with quite a global reach. English is the language of rock music so there’s something very interesting in what we are developing.

SL      How do you think other publishers will react to this? Do you think they’ll follow your lead?

SP       They can try! It’s very hard work- there’s an impresario in the middle off all this, an editor called Lee Brackstone, who has a real gift for this. Othershave done similar things before with limited editions – some rock and roll publishing like that has being going on with ‘super merchandise’. It’s like the Faber Academy– we’ve built something that’s very personal and sui generis. We know what it’s about, we know why it exists and we know what we want it to be and while we may have competition, no one’s trying to make the thing we’re making. It’s made in Faber’s image.

SL      Speaking of the English language, next year’s Frankfurt Book Fair will see a significant shift in the move of English language publishers from Hall 8 to Hall 6. How was Frankfurt this year for you and how will this reshuffle compare with your current location?

SP      Frankfurt was very business-like. We did the business we expected to do and it was a very valuable fair for us, but I would say that a lot of the sort of ‘ephemera’ is quietening down. The aisles were quieter, so you had a feeling that the fair was an important, functional part of our calendar in the way that Frankfurt used to be. Next year’s shift will be an interesting test.

SL      You are credited as having modernised T.S Eliot’s House of Faber. Since taking the reins, what would you say is the innovation that you are most proud of?

SP      Past choices are a very important part of current publishing houses. Faber’s long legacy of publishing poets alongside dramatists and literary writers is something that you have to continually keep fresh and current. The truth of the matter is that literary publishing has always been hard and, looking back, you can see the boom times and the fallow times. That’s when things like The Waste Land app and Drama Online come into their own. The other side of it is in social media where you can gather a conversation around the sum of what you’ve done in 85 years and a conversation around what you’re doing right now and find a relationship between the two.

SL      How has The Waste Land App been received commercially, particularly given it’s natural leaning toward academic usage?

SP      Very well actually. In terms of the Academic side it’s only available on iPad and for all of the noise about the iPad being ever-present in terms of schools and universities- it isn’t! Also the mechanics of supply are still much better done via the web so things like Drama Online is a database that’s made available through university libraries. That’s a far better model for us than individual purchase through tablets. At the moment one can’t help feeling that that has to be the way it will go but we haven’t scaled up.

We haven’t been able to publish twelve other Wasteland-like apps because there isn’t a sizeable market yet. The Waste Land has been very much a consumer success, selling to people with iPads who wanted interesting content. They bought it because it was The Waste Land, because they were curious, but to do that again and again with the investment required is challenging.

SL      You once said in an interview with Jane Martinson in the Guardian (March, 2007) that you had yet to be convinced that the technology existed to replace books. According to recent Nielsen data, UK consumers are now paying almost double the average price for an e-book and that the value of the e-book had grown more sharply on last year than in volume. Do you still feel the same way or do you see a day coming when digital technology will make the print book obsolete for the average consumer?

SP      If anything I feel more confident of it. What’s so interesting is that the story around e-books is not the one people told us to expect and I didn’t’ expect the e-book to rapidly become the most read. Self-publishing and genre publishing through Kindle has been a true revolution and real change but it’s only so much of everything. I hear a lot of numbers bandied around that I’m not sure I believe- 30% of all books being read in e-book- that sort of thing is certainly not the case with the publishers I talk to! We’re in the mid-teens. Only genre or best-seller publishers sell a lot in e-books.

Most literary readers, it turns out – about 90% still want a book. Readers are on a journey, many trying digital reading and some giving up on it, or mixing it with physical reading. In the meantime the big issue is the fact the mixture of online sales and e-book sales have led to a very difficult time for the high street and that is where lots of readers still discover books. Discover is the bigger challenge to digital. It’s not actually that e-books are going to be, any time soon the most popular way to read. It’s the fact that buying online has been such a challenge for the high street.

SL      You have recently had pieces in The Bookseller on the need for publishers today to be ‘consumer publishers’ and that they needed, above all else to release themselves from the ‘traditional mechanics’ of publishing. Could you explain what, in realistic terms this means and what you feel it would mean for Irish publishers in particular?

SP        I suppose that the distribution-base of publishing, which is getting books ready for the mass-market essentially means that you tend to have a rather ‘relay-race’ version of organisation. Publishing must become more consumer-centric and to do this you’ve got to stop over-valuing the opinions that come from the old mechanics of taking the book to the market. Most books have a very quiet and small beginning in the book trade now. So in order to create energy around the publication, publishers have to become far more expert and interested in other things like announcements, cover-reveals, what the author will do around publication, events, marshalling your own community, etc. Publishing your own e-book is to publish every single day. You can change the price of your e-books every day.

The traditional print meeting three months before publication discussing price, format, print run, etc. in a stately fashion and putting them in a warehouse to re-visit when you re print, all of that’s gone. Those ‘mechanics’ are now dynamic, and from marketing to pricing to formats to re-energising a publication, to creating social interest- all of it can be liberated from the stately trade-oriented, mass market conveyor belt. I think that publishers are continuing to overvalue their access to distribution.

Publishing in Ireland has the same challenges and opportunities that we have in the UK and I think one of the important things is to think outside your local market. Digital allows both print and digital format publishing in all English language markets around the world and allows you to market into them without schlepping your inventory around the planet so there are barriers falling for smaller publishers. There are also barriers rising in terms of access to the markets and to best-sellers and the value coming back from the market. It’s challenging and you’ve got to keep your costs very tight and specialise. You’ve got to be expert at something.

SL       Do you see this dynamism in any other publisher at the moment?

SP        Lots of publishers I think are beginning to disrupt themselves. It’s a balance though because a lot of success does come from the stately march towards the mass market and we shouldn’t abandon the things we’re already good at. The difficulty is that being good at them often precludes you from getting better at the things you’ll have to do next, and I think that that’s the game.

I look at the interesting ways HarperCollins has been innovating recently and I also look at the exemplary publisher like Jamie Byng at Canongate who is just a riot of energy around his books and he puts them at the centre of everything that they do. He’s never shy of valuing his books- the pricing of Canongate books is very individual. Publishers have got to get more like that- they’ve got to know the value of what they’ve got and to establish that value.

SL      In terms of the relationship between publishers and booksellers there has long been a push and pull dynamic with frustrations on both sides. How do feel about this, and how do you think the trade relationship could be bettered in what are increasingly challenging times for both?

SP       I feel very good about it. The book trade has been through a very torturous and tumultuous time but the high street that’s emerging in front of us (and I speak mainly of the UK high street) at the moment is one where we have a number of really excellent bookshops. When you look at that there is the basis for continuing to be able to sell books to people who want to discover them.

There are fewer book shops than there used to be, so some of the scale of that is under challenge, but it’s looking healthier than it has looked for some time. I also think that there is some sense that the mass market is less confidently part of the piece – the supermarkets and bargain-side of things has not had such an easy ride and it is necessary for wider distribution of best-sellers. The platform under publishers – the book trade – seem to be firmer now but undoubtedly they are still hugely challenged. Partnership is what we are all going to make sure that we continue to find the major way for books to be discovered- the relationship remains between booksellers and publishers and the media- that triangle is very important. There’s a strong sense of what drives sales here- e-book sales only happen when you have print-book sales, so discovery is a problem in digital and online.

SL     Bob Johnston spoke to us about times when publishers don’t seem to fully understand the reality of what faces booksellers in terms of book placement in shops. What’s your opinion on this?

SP      I’ve been in the leadership side of publishing for 26 years and I’ve never known a similar dynamic not to exist. There’s always a sense that they don’t understand us and we don’t understand them and I think publishers perhaps don’t know the full extent of the challenge book shops have been facing, but perhaps book shops don’t understand the full extent of the challenges to publishers.

Publishing is made of very different parts and partnering is really important but it will always be with a sense of…’Montagues and Capulets’ you know? We are a symbiotic relationship with an element of animosity and it’s ever been thus! Given the extreme times it would be a surprise if it didn’t exist but I don’t find it to be unhealthy. I think it’s valuable to be made aware of the reality of the frontline on both sides.

SL     Do you think there is anything that can be done to better the dynamic?

SP      Talk talk talk! Endlessly talk- I think you just need to understand each other and respect each other and most importantly, remain engaged with each other because we are interdependent.

 

*If you would like to hear Stephen at our trade event, please go to http://www.eventbrite.ie/e/working-together-publishing-ireland-annual-trade-day-tickets-13674935099 or email stephanie@publishingireland.com