In the first few months of any new job, the most important thing is to listen and learn. Since taking over as m.d. of Octopus Publishing Group in October I have done a lot of both, almost entirely via Microsoft Teams. It’s been a year of learning for us all, learning new ways to do our jobs, learning how to cope without many of the things we enjoy. I have learnt a lot about illustrated publishing. Illustrated publishing is an artform, and one of the things I have enjoyed most over the past few months is seeing how talented the team at Octopus are at their art. It is an art which is different to mono publishing and therefore the challenges it faced in 2020 were also different. Illustrated books are often reliant on coedition and rights sales, which were quick to dry up, as foreign publishers prioritised their own lists. Our books are often printed in China, something which we all realised was going to be a challenge about this time last year. Our books are also best admired in bookshops, so when bookshops had to close their doors, the impact felt by illustrated publishers was dramatic. The success Octopus delivered in 2020 was in spite of these additional pressures on what has always been our core format, the heart of our business.
Against all the odds, and if we are being honest, the forecasts this time last year, sales via the UK physical book market were reassuringly strong in 2020. For Octopus, the loss of impulse sales via bookshops and gift shops was compensated for by the sales of books, often backlist, which helped people to cope with the pandemic. We are all very proud of that. People bought books to cook from, to inspire home makeovers, to train their perfect puppies and develop their gardens. Summersdale, which usually sells its gift books in shops outside book retail, found success in books which helped children cope with anxiety and reminded us all to be kind. Short Books, the most recent addition to the Octopus family, continued to hit the bestseller list with Michael Mosley and Claire Bailey’s Fast titles. These trends also manifested themselves around the world. Physical book sales in the US remained strong for our list, despite shop closures and political upheaval. We had a record year in our sales in Australasia. Beautiful, physical books in beautiful, physical bookshops will always be core to us, and I am looking forward to the time when bookshops can reopen and I can assure booksellers we are doing everything that we can to support them.
The challenges illustrated publishers face in 2021 are considerable, and new. Our designers, editors and production teams are still having to work at home without specialist equipment, but now we have the additional impact of the photoshoots which couldn’t happen on schedule, and the author travel for research which couldn’t happen. The challenges of printing in China are compounded by the post-Brexit challenges of printing in Europe. There is a global shipping crisis, so even if books can be printed, getting them to their correct destinations will involve delays, new layers of red tape, maybe even rising costs.
The beat goes on
Thankfully an octopus has three hearts, and alongside illustrated publishing the two other hearts have been finding their strength. While no-one could have anticipated a global pandemic, the business has been evolving over the past two years to develop new imprints which are less reliant on Far East printing or photography, and more focused on creative voices and wonderful stories. Of the 15 Sunday Times bestsellers we had in 2020, half were illustrated and half were mono, with the most successful being a narrative title in full colour: Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. We have two new narrative non-fiction lists in Claudia Connal’s Endeavour and Jake Lingwood’s Monoray, and a third new imprint will be announced in the spring. We are also planning a relaunch of our Gaia imprint later in the year, to increase our focus on our nature publishing in both mono and illustrated formats, a part of the market where we continue to see growth.
The third heart is, of course, digital. Our e-book and audio sales grew considerably in 2020. Our new narrative list enables us much more scope in these formats, but our illustrated lists also have growing e-book sales. Along with the rest of the industry, we are working out how podcasts fit into our partnership and promotional strategy, what’s next for video content, which TikTok “stars” have a book in them. Digital marketing is more important than ever, as is optimising our metadata and search. There are many opportunities in digital formats, and I’m enjoying discussing that with the team and determining our priorities.
Despite the challenges, I am excited about the potential in the year ahead and about the books on our lists. If I were to pull out two in the first half of the year, they would be Together by Luke Adam Hawker and In Black and White by Alexandra Wilson. I hope that Together is the gift which helps us all reflect with hope on the year just gone; and In Black and White makes us determined to create a better future. Hachette UK celebrates the fifth anniversary of its Changing the Story initiative this year. It has evolved from a programme of diversity and inclusion initiatives into a movement with huge momentum, driven from the grassroots by brilliant employee networks. Octopus is more engaged than ever in maintaining that momentum, because we all know the industry has a long way to go.
Anna Bond is the managing director of the Octopus Publishing Group, a Hachette imprint.