One year ago Richard Johnson, the departed chief executive of Bonnier Publishing, and I had a chat about what his exit from the business would look like.
An outsider, the veritable maverick, self-confessed philistine, and disruptor in chief, Johnson's reign at the group was always likely to be ended once its Swedish parent Bonnier lost patience/wised up. I knew it, he knew it, most of publishing knew it. The surprise was not that it took so long, but that it ever came to this point.
Johnson left his post on Friday, replaced by Swede Jim Zetterlund. There was no fanfare, not even a goodbye quote in the press release. Over lunch a year ago Johnson had said he wouldn't look back once the time came; he would have better things to do.
Over his nine years at the helm of Bonnier Publishing, Johnson brought a bit of colour to the often mono-cultural publishing sector. No, scratch that, a lot of colour. He'd taken Bonnier UK from nowhere (a small children's imprint Autumn, bought originally in 1999), and grown it into (he argued) the fourth biggest trade publisher in the UK, with ambitions to overhaul HarperCollins in third place. He'd exited numerous colleagues along the way, made few friends outside of the company and perhaps fewer within it; yet he was also the driving force behind something remarkable. A genuine challenge to the publishing status-quo.
That Johnson was intent on shaking things up is well known: his annual summer party, held in his huge back garden, is the stuff of legend. His view was that only by ruffling a few feathers could he form a business that looked more like how publishing ought to be today, less like how it used to be yesterday, and he wanted to attract staff who believed in that vision. "A different story" is how it is described by Bonnier Publishing on its website and corporate literature, complete with cartoonish versions of Bonnier’s key staff, and the occasional staff conga.
At the FutureBook Conference in 2017, which he keynoted, he said we should not think of the mass-market as a "dirty word", but instead focus on getting books into the hands of those not used to buying them regularly. His ambition was entirely in tune with what many other publishers profess to want but will never deliver. He decried diversity quotas, highlighting instead his own "diverse" senior management team. At the conference, he stated: "We are in the entertainment business, not the literary business. Sometimes we create literary masterpieces which is fantastic but we have to entertain people to attract people. And let's not be afraid to say that—we are in the entertainment business."
Of course, he knew he was Marmite, but rather astutely made a virtue of it. If you went to work for Bonnier Publishing, you knew what you were getting into. What Richard meant by this "different story" was hiding in plain sight.
But he knew he wasn't a keeper, and never professed an interest in publishing outside of Bonnier Publishing. Some people come into publishing late in their careers or from other sectors and fall in love with it. Not Richard.
It was perhaps for this reason—rather than any business necessity—that he was intent on growing the company fast, buying its way into agents' minds by outbidding rivals for rights and then outmuscling them for retail space. It was, in a sense, old-school, barrow-boy economics played out on publishing's sometimes too effete stage. The growth, and size of their recent deals (particularly the eight-figure Wilbur Smith acquisition) annoyed rivals because they were thought to be out of kilter with the market; those rivals relished the relative failure of the Robbie Williams title; and talked darkly of Bonnier Publishing's write-offs. "What a relief," said one when I told him the news on Friday. Another pointed me to Bonnier Publishing's recently submitted company accounts.
Johnson's role though was not to worry about the books, but to make sure the UK business had the support of its parent, the monied Bonnier, the Swedish media conglomerate that I once heard referred to as a "bank". And despite the naysayers, Johnson was pretty good at this task: in recruiting Mark Smith to run its fiction business Bonnier Zaffre, and in promoting Perminder Mann to oversee first Blink, then Kings Road Publishing, and most recently Bonnier Publishing UK, alongside other hires such as Benn Dunn, James Horobin, Kate Parkin, Jane Harris and Natalie Jerome, he put in place a decent, if expensively assembled, squad. Blink in particular has motored, pioneering the YouTuber book that many other publishers have since copied; while Zaffre set it stall out early with its Sunday Times hit Maestra, and again more recently with Lynda La Plante.
But the mass-market can be cruel, quick to reward but always, always fickle. The Robbie Williams book was a bad bet, and the YouTuber phenomenon has gone off the boil. It is one thing to push out a market-driven front-list built on brands and supercharged by marketing spend, it is quite another to put in place a back-list engine room that could eventually make such an enterprise profitable. Building a business is not quite the same as running one.
That Richard's time was probably up at Bonnier was revealed a week ago in the accounts of its parent company Bonnier. Bonnier said that the UK business had "wrestled with profitability problems as the result of rapid growth, which had a strong negative effect on the financial results". During 2017, it said sales lagged and write-offs affected profits. "After operational measures and write-offs, Bonnier Publishing has a good chance of sharply improving its profitability for 2018."
Nevertheless, profits at Bonnier's range of books businesses, including some retail, halved. Wags might suggest that the drop—about £20m—is roughly the same amount Bonnier Publishing recently spent on some of its big deals.
Bonnier Publishing's UK accounts, filed just last week four months after they were due, show the costs of maintaining that rapid growth. It reported rising losses of £9m in 2016. Sales, reported through its subsidiary company accounts, were certainly growing, but there were also losses at Kings Road Publishing, Bonnier Zaffre, and Igloo over the same period.
The results will have precipitated Johnson's departure, but I doubt they were the only reason. According to Jim Zetterlund, an eight-year Bonnier veteran and current chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Bonnier Books, who will now run the UK arm before a long term c.e.o. is found, the plan is to make Bonnier Publishing into a "fully-fledged publisher", focusing on fiction and narrative non-fiction, and, by implication, less focused on the mass-market. As Bonnier's press statement put it: "In the Nordics and Germany, Bonnier Books has a proud literary heritage, with bestselling authors and numerous winners of prestigious book awards. We’re looking forward to gradually creating a similar setting in the English language book market." It remains to be seen how Wilbur Smith, Lynda La Plante and Alfie Deyes fit into that new vision.
But the puzzle remains: how did it come to this? Why did Bonnier Sweden allow Johnson to build the kind of business that it neither wanted nor understood, and is now intent on reversing out of? In a 2015 interview with The Bookseller, Johnson said: "My job is to deliver value for the shareholders, my job isn’t to come to them with 10 awards that we’ve won." When I asked, in Frankfurt two years ago, Bonnier Books c.e.o. Jacob Dalborg why Bonnier in the UK was such a different type of publisher than Bonnier elsewhere, he simply shrugged his shoulders, as if I'd missed something. But I hadn't. Everyone knew that at some point a reckoning was due. Dalborg left Bonnier Books in November last year—perhaps without Dalborg Johnson's optimism got lost in translation.
As for Johnson, I doubt he will miss publishing much. He was there to do a job, and he did it, and pretty much in the only way he was ever likely to do it. When other publishers asked me about Bonnier, I said that they'd carry on this way until the Swedes stopped supporting the business: why would they not? Growth begets growth: you cannot simply stop. Besides which, at some point every publisher scores a hit.
For all his faults, I still think what Johnson achieved should not be understated: he put Bonnier Publishing on the map. It was just never on the same map as its parent company.
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