Jamal Edwards is a 23-year old Acton-born film-maker who went from filming grime and hip hop artists on estate corners to building a multi-million pound business. Without question Edwards is one of this country’s brightest, most entrepreneurial creative business minds and he has produced what I would argue is one of the most important books of the year.
This makes it all the more scary that if he had tried to get a job in publishing - as a young black man who left school with no GCSEs above grade D—the industry would have almost certainly overlooked him. This begs an important question; how many great minds is our industry losing out on?
A question made all the more important by the fact that in today’s digital world, books are competing with a multitude of other forms of entertainment and many young people are not benefiting from the joys of reading. According to the OECD report, although 16-24 year olds in the UK are some of the most technical savvy, they are also among the least literate in the developed world.
Appealing to this young, digitally savvy audience is exactly what Commissioning Editor Hannah Knowles and I set out to do with Jamal Edwards’ book Self Belief: The Vision. The fact that I come from (to use the correct lingo) a working-class BME background means that I can offer a perspective and insights different to those of my colleagues. In the case of Edwards’ book, these insights helped us deliver a successful strategy in engaging people who would not usually find reading an appealing form of entertainment. Having an industry made up of individuals from all sections of society and backgrounds is essential for publishing to stay at the cutting edge of creativity, innovation and audience development. Ultimately this will lead to a more profitable and exciting publishing industry for all.
Edwards’ business book was initially published as a digital exclusive—the thinking being that the majority of his core audience owns a smart phone, but would be unlikely to pop into a Waterstones or a Foyles. The eBook was split into 6 bite-sized ‘levels’ each with an RRP of £0.99p, with the mobile phone device and audience in mind. Published over six weeks, there was a deliberate head nod to the gaming experience in the form of a ‘choose your own adventure’ format with each ‘level’ getting progressively harder. The strategy later developed to include a physical book containing all six levels in one.
Although, unfortunately not deemed strong enough to be shortlisted by the Digital FutureBook Award, Self Belief: The Vision has been a great success: the e-book of Level 1 went to number 1 in the iBooks paid-for charts in its first week, ahead of J K Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith; the first business book to do so. Let’s not forget this was achieved with an audience who, we are told, in large part do not normally buy or read books.
And this has been the book’s biggest achievement: making reading appealing to a new audience. An audience who are traditionally more likely to chose other forms of entertainment over books; a sentiment that I have heard time and again while on a nationwide educational tour with Jamal to promote the physical edition.
This is encouraging for an industry that prides itself on fuelling a passion for reading, I would love to see SELF BELIEF: THE VISION used as a blueprint to do more to engage 16-24 years olds. Diversity, or the lack of it, is also an area where the publishing industry needs to do more. Penguin Random House is committed to increasing the diversity of its workforce both in terms of skills and demographic make-up. It has democratised the process of work experience by opening up recruitment through facebook and actively funds internships for BMEs. This is an area we must continue to build on and invest in, especially if we are going to grasp with both hands all the opportunities both digital and physical can bring in an exciting new publishing landscape.
Crystal Mahey-Morgan is online/digital account manager, Random House