Ten years ago, Lorne Forsyth committed "an incredibly rash act". He was a successful investment banker, yet was feeling unfulfilled because, as his responsibilities expanded, he found himself "doing more admin, flipping switches and pulling levers than spending time with clients, which is what I loved".
So he decided to go into publishing, acquiring Elliott & Thompson (E&T), then a micro independent. This was not a complete bolt out of the blue. First and foremost, Forsyth was a book lover. But he also had previously provided E&T with some seed capital (the well-connected Forsyth’s introduction to founders Brad Thompson and David Elliott was through Nick Webb, the late Simon & Schuster m.d. and original commissioner of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). So, when Thompson and Elliott were looking for a buyer, Forsyth decided to switch gears.
Forsyth says: "I was transgressing against almost every principle I was ever taught [in business school], as I was going into an industry where I knew nobody, had no real connections, no conceptions of how it worked. How do you get distribution? How do you build your infrastructure... It was a challenge at first."
Of course there were transferable skills. Personal relationships and client management are a big part of investment banking, as they are in the book trade. And, Forsyth says, "I’m pretty decent with numbers. My basic understanding is the one thing that matters is cash. We all know that profits are something of an accounting artefact; you can massage the numbers up and down. You can be a highly profitable company with no cash and go bust. In fact, a lot of companies that grow too fast run out of cash and do go bust."
Fast-forward a decade and Forsyth has cracked the books business code, having slowly and surely carved out E&T’s niche as a (mainly) "smart narrative non-fiction" mini-powerhouse. The company only releases around 15 frontlist titles per year, but it has had a remarkable strike rate for hitting the charts and getting Waterstones Book of the Month nods. Recent successes include Julia Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich, Tim Marshall’s Divided and Dharshini David’s The Almighty Dollar. E&T shifted £2.6m through Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market in 2018, a rise of 34% on 2017’s total, and a figure that helped it earn a Highly Commended nod in the Independent Publisher of the Year category at this year’s Nibbies.
The title that really kick-started the purple patch was Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography, championed by Waterstones and indie booksellers at the start, and now an all-channel phenomenon. The paperback edition has crested the 500,000-unit mark through the TCM, and is the bestselling indie-published non-fiction book since its release. It has done this not by scorching the top of the charts, but with week-in, week-out consistency. Since the paperback’s publication in June 2016, Prisoners... has shifted more than 10,000 units just once (during Christmas 2016) in a seven-day period. But it has never sold fewer than 1,000 copies in a week since launch, a remarkable streak of 172 consecutive weeks. Forsyth says: "[Prisoners...] made a huge difference because suddenly we became visible to all levels of retailers, and agents began to knock on our door. It was fantastic, but then we were fortunate that we had other hits to follow it up."
During our talk, Forsyth often underlines that whatever successes E&T is experiencing, it is down to the whole team. It is a tight-knit one, with just four full-timers, led by publisher—and The Bookseller Rising Star class of 2017 honouree—Jennie Condell. Condell is currently on maternity leave, with her role covered this year by former Hutchinson senior editor Sarah Rigby (a Rising Star in 2014). Rigby and Forsyth are joined by senior editor Pippa Crane and operations manager Marianne Thorndahl. There is out-of-office editorial nous, too, with former Gollancz associate publisher Simon Spanton joining as an editor-at-large last year, while Olivia Bays, Condell’s predecessor and still a company director, commissions titles on a freelance basis.
Signing books is a company-wide decision, Forsyth says: "The core team sits down and debates what we buy, because with a compact list every book is important. We aren’t looking for fillers. Sometimes we get it wrong, every publisher does. But a lot of effort goes into making decisions on books for what we think are the right reasons, and discussing how are we going to support that book."
Moving the goalposts
The overall strategy, Forsyth jokes, "is to develop a strategy. There is some truth in that, however. In all companies the strategy has to evolve according to the market. Our list has changed over the years, and we have a better nose for what we want and what will work."
That nose has sniffed out boxer-turned-barrister-turned-thriller writer Tony Kent (pictured right), who Forsyth met at a mutual friend’s party. Forsyth told the author E&T did not do fiction, but he would take a look—then promptly signed up Kent to an eight-book deal after reading the manuscript. So far, so good: his début, Killer Intent, was selected for the Zoe Ball Book Club, while the follow-up, Marked for Death, was in this summer’s Richard & Judy Book Club promotion. Forsyth says: "This is not to say we will be jumping into fiction. We can be opportunistic at times. Though it is really expensive to try to build a brand in such a competitive commercial area. But we decided to invest in Tony, because we are with him for the long term."
A couple of times Forsyth mentions his admiration for Profile Books—while stressing E&T has not modelled itself on its fellow indie. Though Profile is obviously the far bigger entity, there are similarities in some parts of their lists. Like Profile, E&T is one of the few non-fiction indies that can compete with the conglomerates in the narrative non-fiction space during autumn. E&T’s big contender for the Christmas 2019 market is Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books. The attractively packaged slim tome examines how people revere books as objects, and one can easily imagine it becoming a till-point smash given sufficient retailer buy-in.
Discussion of current successes inevitably leads to whether E&T will leverage that to expand the company. Forsyth worked in mergers and acquisitions for a time in his banking days—will he be setting his sights on another business? "We are financially stable, self-financing. The company has been on a sound financial footing for a long time. So we are in a position where we can consider growing. The issue is, what does growth mean? It means revenues, it doesn’t mean overheads. I don’t want to massively increase overheads then say [to staff], ‘Ok, now you go get the revenue’.
"If a company came along that was appropriate, we would take look at it. But we’re not on a massive acquisition trail. Our biggest challenge is getting the right books and investing in the authors. That’s where the growth will come from."