Movers and makers

Publisher offices have long been a fascination of mine, for reader, I have been to a few. Favourites include Quartet’s former office in Soho, more broom cupboard than workspace; Laurence Orbach’s old Quarto office on the York Road in London, which appeared to me—back then anyway—to be a watch-tower. Then there was The History Press’ former Stroud HQ, part of a disused mill, complete with stream.

An office can capture the mood of a company, particularly a people-focused business like this one. Leaving one can dictate a change of terms. HarperCollins felt like a different business when it swapped its expensive atrium in Hammersmith for the News Building in London Bridge.

It is no surprise that all of the big publishing groups will have relocated over the course of this decade, as their businesses have changed, the costs of office space in central London have increased, and the philosophies around smart-working have developed. Pan Macmillan is the latest. Its new Clerkenwell office is instantly recognisable as Pan Macmillan, yet in its own way revolutionary.

Here the plan is not just open, but mobile, with the publisher’s 250 full-time staff given phones and laptops and allowed to roam freely around the six floors over the course of their working day. Any barriers to working collegiately have been removed—as m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson told me, there is nowhere he can go where a colleague cannot follow. The skill now, he says, is to learn how to filter—if not, run.

Some might bristle at what may be regarded as the solipsism on display. Agents in particular are rightly wary of the costs of publisher offices outpacing their own clients’ incomes, and tend to be lairy of a relocation: one told me that Hachette’s blockish Carmelite House diminished a business whose consituent parts were once thought to be grander; while HarperCollins sharing space with the Times et al was really about bringing the publisher to heel. Neither view has proved to be accurate. But if Forbes Watson is sensitive about what trade wags might say of Pan Mac’s new HQ, he does not look it, calling the new build a “coherent response” to its business strategies, which here are centred on its employees, and its ability to look like a big publisher, while feeling like a smaller one.

To no one’s great surprise, none of these bigger groups has so far taken the opportunity to further extend their reach outside London as part of this mass relocation. Forbes Watson says it was considered, but “not for long”, arguing that it would have meant starting again. Publishing people are not “substitutional”, he says.

Nevertheless, with Penguin Random House moving later this year, and Bonnier also eyeing a shift along the river, London publishing is remaking itself—putting on a show for staff, authors and rivals at a time when threats to the industry appear to have faded away.

Still standing after all this time, these bigger group have rarely been as focused as they are today in preparing for the long, long time ahead.