What the publishing industry has taught me

By   Hannah Bickerton 2 min read

John has been involved in publishing for nearly thirty years. He held senior positions at Penguin and at HarperCollins, where he was on the main board for nine years, running sales, marketing and publishing divisions including the 4th Estate imprint and their stable of award-winning authors such as Hilary Mantel and Jonathan Franzen. He co-founded whitefox in 2012 on the principle that the future of successful publishing would be based upon external, managed services and creative collaboration with the very best freelancers. Nothing that has happened since has dissuaded him of this view.

Sometimes, in an idle moment, more entrepreneurial publishing folk like to play a little game. We ask ourselves the question: if you were starting up a new publishing company now, exactly what resources would you need?

This, of course, brings about a number of other questions: who are the crucial initial hires? How much working capital do you require and how, ultimately, do you scale?

There is of course no definitive answer to this question, but it is interesting to consider in the context of some learnings from (almost) thirty years in publishing.

  • Yes, discoverability really matters.

No matter how good your book, it won’t sell if no one knows it exists.

Would you cut your own hair? Exactly.

  • Try not to overuse the B word.

Whatever anyone tells you, chances are, you are probably not a ‘brand’.

  • Isn’t POD amazing?

Your book is available to order anywhere forever without you holding any inventory. Wow.

  • How passionate are you?

It actually does really matter how much you or your agent or your publisher care about your book and your writing. You can have all the data and insight available, but passion has a role in taking your book to market too.

  • What strategy?

You can be as strategic as you like… but sometimes dumb luck means you hit the zeitgeist and establish that sales momentum.

  • It can happen at any time.

It used to be all about the window of opportunity around launch. But now, assuming your book is readily available, it can take off days, weeks, months or even years after publication.

  • People who have read a lot of books probably know what they are talking about.

Hopefully that doesn’t need much of an explanation.

As a famous writer once said to me, the book, like the umbrella, is a pretty good design that has lasted for centuries. And you tend not to see many people with an electronic force field above their heads in the rain.

  • Readers don’t really know what the logo on the spine means.

Ok, certain imprints undoubtedly still have kudos (waves to the Penguin) and authority, and can make you feel like you are in the right club. But look at the Amazon overall top one-hundred bestselling titles at any given snapshot in time, and I challenge anyone to know all the imprints or their provenance.

  • Not all writers make great marketeers.

Better to acknowledge this and work around it than try and be someone you are not.

  • Don’t pretend to have read books you haven’t.

You’ll get found out!

So what is the answer to that first question? What do you need to launch a new publishing company?

Simple really. Great commissioning and the oxygen of PR and smart marketing. Pretty much everything else can be outsourced or managed for each project.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.