Company spotlight: Pavilion

Company spotlight: Pavilion

After becoming the sole owner of illustrated publisher Anova, Polly Powell’s Pavilion rebrand has paid dividends

Polly Powell has her husband to thank for this. In 2013, when the illustrated publisher Anova was put on the block by its directors — Robin Wood, David Proffit and Powell herself — the three pursued a range of options, including a trade sale. But it was her spouse, the artist Vaughan Grylls, who suggested that Powell should go it alone.

“At the time we thought one of the big companies might want to buy us as they were looking for market share. We also had thought about going off in our separate ways, each with a piece. Then my husband said to me: ‘Why don’t you do it?’ And I thought: ‘Why not? I’ve done it with three, why can’t I do it by myself?’” She says it was the sense of having to put the business back on track that excited her. 

Powell secured a bank loan, guaranteed against her house, and purchased Anova in January 2014, rebranding it as Pavilion three months later, and appointing David Graham as m.d. in October. One year on, the acquisition is working out. Back in the black, Pavilion recently won the IPG’s Trade Publisher of the Year award, and it is also shortlisted for Independent Publisher of the Year at The Bookseller Industry Awards. “I think I have been in this industry for 30 years without an award, so it was particularly sweet. It felt like an acknowledgement of the turnaround, because it ain’t easy, it’s a lot of hard work. I’ve aged at least five years — so five times the biological rate.”

In the 12 months to end February 2015, Pavilion grew its turnover to £8.55m up by 7% — if you strip out Conway, which was sold to Bloomsbury in August for £425,000 — and turned a £300,000 loss into a £360,000 profit. “That is quite some turnaround,” says Powell emphatically. “We’ve really got the house in order.” In the current year, turnover is budgeted to rise modestly, though Powell is confident of more. “Our sense is that the budget is achievable but our expectation is to exceed it.”

Pavilion comprises a collection of lists and imprints (some dating back to the 19th century) acquired by groups such as Collins & Brown and Chrysalis in the late 1990s and early noughties. Pavilion’s latest accounts list 15 subsidiary companies, including long-gone names such as Parkgate and Quadrillion. Powell says there is a backlist of some 1,200 titles still in print, but perhaps a further 10,000 out of print, many of which are stored in her basement. “Given the history, we don’t actually know how many titles we have. We are always resurrecting our books.” It now publishes (150 new titles/editions) under the imprints Batsford, Collins & Brown, National Trust, Pavilion, Pavilion Children’s, Portico and Salamander. There is also an image library, primarily black and white, housed in 32 filing cabinets, with more on permanent loan with English Heritage. Powell would like the images to find a long-term home: “It feels like the collection ought to be in one place. My motivation is not money: they are historically important.”

Back in black

Anova was bought out of Chrysalis in November 2005 by Wood, Proffit and Powell, with sales then as high as £14m. The trio helped return the business to good profit levels before the recession began to have an impact—in the period between March 2012 and February 2013, annual sales fell from £11m to £8.8m, and the business reported a pretax loss. “We were slow to go into it, but then we suffered from the American co-edition market evaporating overnight—[US publishers] simply stopped buying books from overseas. We also suffered from the buying changes at Waterstones.”

Powell says the trio of directors were also “too polite” to each other: “The three of us were very deferential to each other, so if one of us wanted to do something but the others didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. Sometimes you need one vision at the top.”

Powell’s view is to publish well and with conviction. She says: “You are only as good as the books you publish. In illustrated books the acquisition process is very cautious. You tend to talk to a lot of people first and then you sort of end up with something a little dull. We are not so targeted: we are thinking about what makes a really good book that we can publish well, and sell lots of. We ask ourselves, ‘would you buy it?’” Powell’s philosophy has been helped by how the market has changed, with print books back in vogue as desirable objects that are attractive to retailers of all types. “The book as a beautiful object can be sold as well in Urban Outfitters as it can in Waterstones. It has to be a good book though, beautifully produced.” 

Powell is also benefiting from the long history of the business, both in terms of size and output. “Chrysalis suffered from having too many individual businesses. But we are about the right size. We have a mixed portfolio. Our books are a bit quirky and different.” 

And she has one of its oldest imprints — Batsford, established in 1843 — to thank for its current biggest hit, adult colouring title Animal Kingdom by Millie Marotta, which sold 15,000 copies through Nielsen BookScan’s TCM in 2014, and a further 29,000 copies in 2015. Powell says it has sold 145,000 copies across all UK outlets, with 40,000 dues ready to ship from its warehouse. 

“We were the first ones in with colouring books for adults, in 2007. We now have to manage the success.“ 

Powell is phlegmatic about the turnaround. “When things are going well, I feel slightly troubled.” But reckons Pavilion is well set up at its new home at 1 Gower Street, with fewer staff, but united under the Pavilion arch. “We have an agility and a freedom here. We can cut our cloth quite quickly if we need to. We don’t have anyone sitting in France, America or Germany looking over our shoulders. The only person we have to explain anything to is the bank manager . . . and he seems pretty happy.”