An interview with Stephen Page

By   Tim Inman 9 min read

Stephen Page became Chief Executive of the independent publisher Faber & Faber in 2001 and has been credited with breathing new life into the company. He was president of the Publisher’s Association in 2006, the same year that Faber was named the KPMG Publisher of the Year.

What attracted you to working at Faber?

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I suppose a number of things. Primarily an enormous respect and love for the list itself. I came to reading later than most, perhaps – in my late teens-early twenties – and from the very start I was hooked by Faber’s writers, and just by the whole way the company was presented and published. So, I suppose I did have it in my bones a bit.

The second thing is that I worked at 4th Estate for six years when it was independent and small. We used to look across at Faber and wonder: ‘Is that what we want to become? Is that the best outcome?’ I used to get frustrated at times because 4th Estate was a very energetic business, with very little underpinning it in terms of backlist and I used to think that Faber looked a little bit complacent by comparison. So when it came time for me to join them, which I had never really expected to be asked to do, I knew what I thought should be done differently because I had been quietly fixated about it for some time. But, of course, I soon realised I didn’t really know much at all – because it’s only when you work somewhere that you really understand the motivations which underpin it.

You mentioned Faber’s illustrious history and its backlist. Do you think this has made it easier or more difficult for the company to adapt to the upheaval that publishing has undergone in recent years?

I think there can be a tendency to make history heavy and wrap it in aspic, but really it is just the aggregation of the activity, taste and design heritage of the company. You can’t endlessly look back; you have to connect the past to the present and that is the power incumbent in having an identity like Faber. Because Faber genuinely means something. It means something to the people who work here. It means something to the writers being published. It means something to other publishers. And it means a great deal to its readers. And though it’s important to not betray it or dilute it, it’s also important to be bold enough to say that for 85 years the publishing at Faber has been commercial in its own way. So really I would say that we are blessed as a generation that we are allowed to re-imagine the list and Faber’s identity in the context of a transformation of format. A 400-year format shift comes along and you can think again about Beckett and Eliot and Ishiguro and Hughes and Golding and Larkin and Heaney and Plath. People get fixated on the difficulties of the format shift and the apparently impossible pace of change, none of which I believe in. When you’ve got an amazing catalogue of writers and a great history then the changes can provide a way of amplifying opportunity. Of re-imagining not cautiously but excitedly.

You spoke about re-imagining works in new formats. The Faber Digital imprint was launched in 2009 and has enjoyed great success with various projects, including an app version of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. How important do you think it was to choose a writer so indelibly connected with Faber’s history for such a project?

You’re right that that wasn’t an accident. Faber Digital was set up with the very specific brief of having nothing to do with e-books; rather, (it was) to be an avant-garde part of the company, able to disrupt our thinking about what was possible with reading. But the problem is that to do that is not easily scalable. Whatever we built would have to attract a great deal of attention, and so for Faber, as its first marker in the ground, to re-imagine The Wasteland was a natural thing to do. We had discussed it with our partners Touch Press and the possibilities were just so thrilling; we had total belief that this was an emblematic thing to do for the company, but also likely to be a bold and commercially exciting project. We chose it from the middle of what we are, so we could both present the text itself, but also surround it with a solar system of interaction that would be fantastic for the general reader or even the student.

So, how elastic can the Faber brand be?

If I can just flip that and say two things really. One of which is: what’s the natural footprint of the Faber brand? And the second: what can the Faber brand stand for? I’m not sure that I see it as elasticity. Faber’s roots, its history and whole life is about a community of people with great ideas: an extraordinary range of creative artists are associated with the company and have been over the years – film makers, rock stars, classical musicians, novelists, poets and dramatists. You look at the full range of this and think, ‘This is what Faber is about.’ It’s about bringing together the arts. For the large part of our history we happen to have expressed that only through the making of books. But the arrival of digital loosens everything up: from digital products and digital partnerships, right through to digital conversations with readers and the other arts. There is something fresh and new about the way we can re-present ourselves. I don’t see that as stretching ourselves. I just see us as having a natural footprint that’s lit differently, and is, perhaps, wider than we were able to express solely as a book publisher.

Faber has, over the past few years, become something of a service provider to other publishers. Do you see this as a threat to the content-driven, rights-owning core of the Faber brand or as a natural development of it?

Certainly not as a threat. We believe in independence. We believe in supporting a community of publishers who work at a smaller and more intimate scale. We believe in them because they work closely with writers. So our role, first of all in the Alliance, and then within the Factory, and then within Factory Plus, has been a very natural extension of our desire to do good work in the world of independents. All literary publishing houses have, pretty much from the beginning of time, required some ballast across their publishing, simply because literary publishing has never made it easy to predict your business because it’s an up and down thing. And really, Faber is no different: we are famous for having had a rights income stream out of Cats: The Musical and that played a role in supporting the company through the years when many of the other small, independents fell into corporate ownership. And many publishers have always needed to have strong underpinning businesses, and the service business has, I suppose, been that for us. We don’t have a steady publishing business, with professional journals – we concentrate our publishing on the places where we feel we can really be dynamic. So we have the service business, which is a steadier companion to that.

How do you view the growth of publishing service providers over the last few years?

It’s clear that everyone from a self-published author through to medium-sized publishing houses have always and will continue to require services. That has become increasingly so as publishers try to tighten up their overheads and reduce their costs. We regard Faber’s service provision as sui generis. We’re a publishing house providing a range of services; that makes us quite a different beast. We’re not a mass-service provider with a white label front end. We’re a different thing, more intimate and involved – a more passionate partner.

Faber has become involved in a number of different external collaborations in recent years including, the Independent Alliance, Touch Press, the Perseus Book Group and most recently the Guardian. Why?

Faber has always partnered with other businesses. For many years we partnered with the Penguin group for our international distribution and sales, and we still do in parts. We’re always looking for partners who work well with us and there are different reasons for different partnerships. When you look at publishers in the Alliance, it’s about aggregating to create opportunity in the mass market, as well as scale elsewhere, and there’s a mutual amplification. The sum is greater than the parts: we can get things to happen for each other, merely by putting ourselves in one bag and therefore having hits more regularly. Conversely, one of the key thoughts about our brand partnerships now is to do with nodes on the network of the world, where consumers might like what we do, and partnering to create an audience for our publishing. And really the partnerships I’m most fixed on at the moment – and that is what the Guardian is about – is about this: going to very, very lively places where there’s either content and consumers, or consumers where we create content, to get our brightest works in front of the right kind of people.

We’re seeing tablets taking over from dedicated e-readers as the preferred option for reading e-books. What impact, if any, do you think this will have on publishing in the next few years?

It’s certainly going to have an impact. What it feels like right now is that one stage of the transformation of publishing into a print, digital and services practice is coming to an end. What is not going to happen is for everyone to be able to draw breath and say ‘Great, now we can have some balance between digital reading and print reading.’ That would be a terrible mistake. What we’ve reached is nearly the end of a specific story about the e-ink reader. The impact that the tablet will have is going to be all about how interested the tablet manufacturers are in long-form reading, because the environment of reading on a tablet is not yet, I would say, entirely suitable. If you were to ask somebody why they own a tablet, I bet that reading novels would not come into their top ten reasons, and certainly not their first five. So we’re moving into a more crowded, noisier window to try to get people to concentrate on what we do. And if there are people out there who are hoping that the e-ink market will slow down to make life more understandable and easier, they should be careful what they wish for. I, for one, will not be cheering. The e-ink devices are a silent, single universe in which people can concentrate on reading and we have sold a lot of books through them. I think it’s been a very good and smooth evolution of reading into digital. The next bit will be more difficult.