Pushkin Press is a turnaround story, but an unusual one.
Sales have risen fivefold under its new management team, while the brand has been revitalised with the addition of a children’s list, an overhaul of the backlist and some smart new publishing. The original Pushkin Press was founded in 1997 by Melissa Ulfane, whose ambition was to bring literature in translation to the UK. Publisher and managing director Adam Freudenheim and associate publisher and chief operating officer Stephanie Seegmuller came on the scene in 2012.
The duo met at Penguin, where the former was publisher of Penguin Classics and the latter business development manager working with former c.e.o. John Makinson. Both expats (Freudenheim is American and Seegmuller is French), over lunch they discovered a shared passion for foreign writing. Seegmuller says: “We made a list of books that we thought it was impossible that they hadn’t been published over here.”
The pair decided to establish their own company. But a chance encounter with Ulfane—who was looking for a buyer—gave them an opportunity to make a jump-start with an established brand. “That [meeting] was January, and by the 2nd April we’d signed the papers to take it over,” says Freudenheim.
The Pushkin Press brand was well known, but the company poorly managed. “What attracted us to it was that it was a niche brand, with a lot of potential. Those who knew it, loved it,” says Freudenheim. But, says Seegmuller, it wasn’t run as a company: “There was a sense that it was lovely but a bit amateurish. If books came out on time that was a bonus. It wasn’t run to be profitable. It was driven by taste and the desire to make nice books. The thought was not to make it a business, and that’s fine—sometimes business is boring.” But Freudenheim and Seegmuller took a different approach. Seegmuller says: “We thought it would be interesting to make money, because that is a good measure of success. You can fool yourself that you are doing great publishing, but it’s nice if it translates into commercial success. We talked a lot about how to make ourselves sustainable.”
Freudenheim adds: “We had to invest a lot in basic things. There was no filing, contracts were missing, there was no production system. There was no direct relationship with a printer. Only 20 of the 100 backlist titles were available as e-books.”
Seegmuller says the strategy was for “everything that can be outsourced [to be] outsourced”, so that the company could focus on its core publishing skills. But it also brought in a scaled back production system from Virtusales, and relaunched the Pushkin Press website along with a new e-commerce facility. She says: “Even though we are small, we want to be futureproofed. We’ve spent a lot of time getting organised so we can focus on the books.”
It also set about relaunching its backlist: ranging from the “obscure” (Seegmuller), to “gems” (Freudenheim) in distinctive Pushkin Press livery, with the author emphasised. The launch of a children’s list in 2013 enabled it to bring to the UK the highly successful Oksa Pollock series from France, the first of which, The Last Hope, has been the company’s bestselling title in 2014 to date. It is a series that fits perfectly with Pushkin Press’ ethos: to publish the books as if they weren’t translated. Seegmuller says: “The Oksa Pollock books are a specific genre, so shelve them next to the other books written in English in the same genre.” It also launched ONE, an imprint focused on literary débuts hand-picked by scout Elena Lappin. In total in 2014 Pushkin will publish 39 new books.
The efforts have borne fruit. In its final year under Ulfane the company had sales of around £100,000. In the pair’s first full year, 2013, sales rose to £500,000, and the business is on target to turn over £1.5m in 2014. Nielsen BookScan shows Total Consumer Market sales of £392,861 in 2013, more than double 2012’s figure (£149,584). Freudenheim says: “That’s a pretty good top-line story. We bought the company for very little. We had a huge job to do. We are in turnaround, so we are not in profit, but we hope to break even this year.”
To flourish in the future, Freudenheim says Pushkin will need to make a range of small bets: it won’t chase bestsellers even where it is painful not to. For example, Pushkin Press’ biggest seller in 2013 was Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, but the writer’s new selection of short stories is to be published by John Murray in the UK. “The worst thing we could have done for the business was take a huge punt on Edith. We don’t take those big bets, but that is a small price to pay.”
Freudenheim believes this strategy will help Pushkin stand out at a time when publishers, such as his former employer, are getting bigger. “The market will divide between the big players and smaller publishers, and those in the middle will struggle. We are small and focused on every single book we publish; that is something that distinguishes us from the bigger publishers. We want to publish the books we want to publish, and we’ll reinvest, so we’ll publish better over time, but not necessarily more.”