David Shelley was 23 when he was "thrown completely in at the deep end" and made publishing director of Allison & Busby. He'd joined the publisher straight out of university as an editorial assistant, and a combination of staff leaving—and Spanish parent company Editorial Prensa Iberica's obvious confidence in him—meant he was running it three years later.
He initially "thought it might be a complete disaster", he admits. "At the age of 23, I didn't know myself that well. I didn't know my strengths and weaknesses." He knew he loved books, but had to learn the business realities of publishing very quickly.
"On a daily basis I was looking at P&L sheets and writing financial reports," he says. "I suppose it made me much more business oriented and much more conscious of the financial implications of everything. Otherwise I might just have been happy acquiring books because I thought they were beautifully written." Not, he adds hurriedly, that beautiful writing can't make money.
Over the next five years, Shelley dragged the independent publisher back into profit. He cut its list back dramatically, introduced a line of library hardback crime novels, and saw turnover quadruple to £1m. Unsurprising, then, that he drew the attention of larger rivals, and was eventually poached by Little, Brown.
He's spent the past two years as LB editorial director for crime and thrillers, and earlier this year took on the additional role of Sphere paperback publisher. "I'm back looking at the bottom line," he says. "What's been nice here is really focusing editorially on a few authors. But it's also nice to have the other side—having an overview of something, hopefully trying to make a financial difference to what we're doing. I get quite easily bored, so it is really nice."
Little, Brown c.e.o. Ursula Mackenzie and publishing director Antonia Hodgson came up with the idea of the paperback role following LB's acquisition by Hachette last year. "It was interesting for us to look at the other Hachette companies and see how they operate, see if there were any lessons to be learnt there," says Shelley. "Obviously Susan Lamb at Orion has had fantastic success rates, and really within the Hachette group their paperback publishing is second to none. So I think Ursula and Antonia felt it would be good to do something similar here."
The role, he says, is about "reinventing" Sphere paperbacks. He's been spending a lot of time with sales and marketing—raising expectations, sharing information, and visiting supermarkets to feed back information on cover design. "Basically, my brief is to raise turnover across the board, so it's however I feel we can best achieve that. Sometimes that means a backlist promotion or sometimes it means looking further down the list to find an author we could do a bit more with."
He's been enjoying getting to grips with the women's fiction end of the Sphere list. "I have quite dark dreams and nightmares from all the crime and thrillers. I tend to react to things with huge suspicion because in thrillers awful things happen at every turn, so it's really nice to be reading some women's fiction."
But he remains happy enough to "return to the darkness" in terms of what he acquires for Little, Brown. He's just paid a high six-figure sum for three titles from Mira thriller author Erica Spindler; it is his first acquisition "for ages", as he is "quite selective" in what he buys. "I don't think it's possible to make a splash with more than a couple of authors a year. So what I try to do is find two new authors I'm incredibly excited about each year and put everything behind them."
His backing has helped Jeff Abbott sell 350,000 copies of his two latest novels, Panic and Fear, and Mark Gimenez hit the 150,000 mark in paperback with The Colour of Law. "As time goes on, there are fewer and fewer books selling more than 10,000 copies—but the ones that are selling over 10,000 are selling more. So it's about putting a lot behind a few things rather than publishing more and just seeing what sticks," he says. "Every book matters."