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15.08.08 | Catherine Neilan
If Faber & Faber is still a "20th-century publisher" in a couple of years' time, Jason Cooper will be an unhappy man. Charged with overseeing the firm's new business development, alongside his other role as rights director, Cooper is responsible for uncovering new directions Faber could be taken in, as part of the publisher's desire to update and modernise.
Central to this objective, he believes, is thinking about the way publishing houses engage with customers. "We really need to think about a new relationship with readers," he says. "Perhaps it's a cliché, but most publishers are distant from readers. There are reading events, and some involvement with reader groups, but it's rare to get face-to-face contact. Publishers are quite old fashioned in many respects—we are supplying a ready-made product for people to consume in a passive way. Clearly that is something a lot of publishers are thinking about. Certainly we are."
Printing and selling books, by its nature, will never offer customers the same interactive experience digital consumers are used to. As a result, says Cooper, the industry is "20th century certainly, possibly even 19th century".
What can Cooper expect to do to update the business? While re-evaluating relationships with readers is crucial, he is also keen to work with new partners to create projects outside of Faber's traditional scope.
The process has already begun with the co-launch of a film website with movie studio Film Focus and Loops, a pop music magazine, in association with Domino Recording Company. This is in addition to Faber jumping wholeheartedly into the digital arena with a new fully transactional website, a raft of e-books and Faber Finds, a print-on-demand imprint for out-of-print classics. Cooper and Faber business development manager Patrick Keogh are making up the initially small team that will look to expand these new businesses even further.
"The idea is to develop specifically things that sit outside the publishing programme, but are connected by brand and by Faber," explains Cooper. "It's not really about advertising books, but creating new businesses that hopefully we can continue with.
"Clearly publishing is at the fore of what we do, and the key to all these things, but these are hopefully profitable enhancements. Margins are quite tight in book publishing, so one of the ideas behind this is to increase those margins."
Cooper is quick to emphasise he will continue to focus on the books side as rights director. Yet he sees the new projects as key to Faber's development as a smallish business. With less investment coming in than bigger players, he says, it encourages Faber to be more creative than some of its competitors.
"I have never worked for a large corporate publisher, but I would imagine this sort of move wouldn't make so much sense to them because financially it would look irrelevant," he says. "Faber is a small company and that helps, because we can be more nimble, things can be changed more quickly."
Cooper adds that it helps that Faber has a strong enough history that it could be recognised as a kind of cult brand, a brand that needs protecting.
"We can't go down the total mass market, supermarket thing, because we are not that kind of company," he says. "It would sort of undermine a bit what we are. So there are certain areas we are not interested in going, although we are looking at a slightly broader range of commercial publishing."
Another new project will be Faber's first creative writing course, a collaboration with Paris-based bookshop Shakespeare & Company, in which budding writers can, for £500, take in a four-day tutorial with Faber novelists Tobias Hill and Jeanette Winterson.
"It is very distinctive. We have this good relationship with Shakespeare & Company, and it's a great setting. We have some extras too—people will do literary walking tours, and receive a Moleskine guide to Paris. It's all quite nice."
A London writing course based in Fitzroy Square has now also been confirmed for late October, led by novelists Hill and Sarah Hall and featuring a Q&A with poet laureate Andrew Motion. Cooper is also looking at developing a film course in Berlin, with Dublin, Edinburgh and Birmingham all tipped as other alternative locations.
Meanwhile, despite admitting that "no one really cares about [publishing brands]. Very few people buy books because of who published them", Cooper and Keogh are looking into following Penguin by developing products that carry recognisably Faber-ish designs.
"Faber has a huge back catalogue of cover designs by Berthold Wolpe who created the Albertus font, so we are looking at possibly doing some designs around that for different products," he says.
Cooper goes on to list a wide range of activities that are on the drawing board, from Europe-wide festivals to guided tours around the building for true Faber fans. "There are all sorts of things that we could do," he says. "We have an archive that could fill a room in a museum."