When I left the publishing industry at the end of 2007, the first Kindle had gone on sale just a month earlier, Apple had not yet launched the iPad and few people in publishing knew what an app was. It was a very different world.
Fast forward to 2021 and for me the changes are almost overwhelming. In writing my business memoir about my journey founding and selling Piatkus Books, Ahead of Her Time: How a One-Woman Startup Became a Global Publishing Brand (published in April), I have realised just how far we have come. The exponential growth of Amazon, the efficient distribution and stock management of Ingram, the growth in size of conglomerates and the number of new indies, the impact of self-publishing, the size of in-house digital departments, sophisticated use of metadata (I left the industry when there were many more opportunities to meet your customers face-to-face) - all these have changed the playing field. And from social media to inclusion, collaboration has become essential – something at which publishers, booksellers and authors have always excelled.
Of course, it is too soon to know what the impact of the pandemic will have. Publishing lends itself well to working from home but it is also a creative industry where people need to bounce ideas off one another as they work. Everyone learns from one another in an office space, and online interaction cannot replicate spontaneous real life conversations. I feel confident publishing will find a new normal, but it will be a challenging time.
Frankly, I am glad I am not charged with running a profitable company at the present time. While the number of books published is up, the sales of so many of them are very low, and creating backlist amongst so many competing titles is a massive challenge. If I were running a publishing start-up today, I imagine I would still want to follow the two simple principles which created our Piatkus culture when we first began. We had to watch our finances all the time so that we made a profit in order to keep growing (and pay everyone their salary at the end of the month – everyone understood that principle!). At the same time we wanted people to enjoy coming to work so that they would want to give of their best. We asked everyone to work hard during office hours and then to go home and have a life outside of work in order to re-energise and refuel their creativity. We offered a relaxed, open, flexible and efficient work culture, and company values of tolerance and respect for one another and for everyone with whom we came into contact.
By accommodating people’s needs and supporting each other as much as we could during difficult times – whether in the workplace or in people’s personal lives - we created a powerful culture of trust. Everyone understood the importance of their role and their contribution and felt empowered to use their initiative when required. As a result of this exceptional teamwork, we were able to punch far above our weight, which meant that customers and freelance associates liked dealing with us and more established authors wanted to be published by us. The times and the tech may have radically changed, but whatever the size of the publishing business, I’m pretty sure these indie values are still the ones that will lead to sustainable success.
But what of the future? I am convinced that the industry will look as different in ten years time as it did a decade ago. We are about to see the convergence of many technologies that have developed fast in the last few years, and publishers must focus thoughtfully on their USP when user-generated content is everywhere. How will AI affect our daily lives and our reading habits? What kind of screens are we likely to be wearing, reading and learning on? How will AR and VR affect the entertainment world? The two-dimensional experience of Zoom and other online meeting places will become much more immersive. Improved holographics are on the way. We’ll not just hear our favourite authors’ books on audio but will be able to see realistic images flickering against the walls of our homes. And what about the impact of technologies such as 3D printing on education and lifelong learning as well as on stock and warehouses? Or the creation of new materials in the production of a book? Will the growing focus on climate change and sustainability create a backlash against using so much paper? Technology will impact on our daily lives in ways we cannot yet conceive of. Publishers need to pay attention and not get left behind.
One thing will never change though. All of us love stories. The role of the book will always be important in our lives. The care agents and publishers take to nurture their authors and bring out the best in them is what keeps our industry not just afloat but flourishing. If we hold onto that as our priority, we can navigate whatever is to come.
Judy Piatkus sold her indie publishing company Piatkus Books to Little Brown in 2007. Her book, Ahead of Her Time: How a One-Woman Startup Became a Global Publishing Brand will be published on 13 April by Watkins.