It seems incredible that Nosy Crow, which is this month celebrating its first decade in the business, is only 10, when the company, set up by Kate Wilson, Adrian Soar and Camilla Reid, has become such a mainstay in children’s publishing.
Since 2011 the company has grown to become the 11th-biggest children’s publisher in terms of Nielsen sales, and it has won countless awards for both its books and its business practice: last year Nosy Crow was named Independent Publisher of the Year at the British Book Awards, and it has won IPG Independent Publishing Awards in nearly every year that it has been in business.
These are incredibly impressive achievements and the company has come a long way since Wilson (now the m.d.), Soar (commercial directorm and married to Wilson) and Reid (editorial director) were sitting around a table with a blank piece of paper, ready to launch something new.
Nosy Crow shareholders from left Camilla Reid, Sean Williams, Kate Wilson, Axel Scheffler and Adrian Soar at one of the kids’ indie’s christmas parties
When asked why the three decided to strike out on their own, Wilson, who previously had senior management roles at Macmillan Children’s Books and Scholastic, says: “The first impetus was that I was fired [from Headline], so I had both time and a bit of money to think about starting something up on my own.” Soar had retired from his job as a book publishing c.e.o. and Reid, who had worked with Wilson at Macmillan, had taken some time out of publishing to raise her children and write her own books.
Wilson always wanted to make children’s books (Nosy Crow publishes for readers aged 12 and under) and launching in 2011, just after an economic crisis, was “fun but absolutely nerve-wracking”, says Soar, who invested his own money along with the other founders. Axel Scheffler and Sean Williams also invested, and are shareholders.
“It was frightening, but people were excited about what we were trying to do,” says Wilson. “Among UK and international customers, there was a huge amount of enthusiasm. Camilla and I went to Bologna [Children’s Book Fair] in 2010 on the Publishers Association stand, and we had appointments all the time.”
The first title Nosy Crow published was a fiction novel that is now out of print, but its second title was the first in Benji Davies’ Bizzee Bear series, closely followed by the first Pip and Posy, written by Reid and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Both Bizzee Bear and Pip and Posy are now hugely successful brands, with sales totalling 107,734 for the former and 401,472 for the latter through Nielsen BookScan UK. Bizzee Bear is the company’s big international brand, selling millions of copies worldwide. “It’s remarkable how many of those early books have gone on to become backbone, international bestsellers,” says Wilson.
The pre-school department is the company’s financial mainstay, says Reid, who is responsible for all pre-school and novelty publishing and created or launched series such as the Felt Flap books, illustrated by Ingela P Arrhenius. But the firm now has a “wide spread” of different types of books. Successful collections of poetry and nursery rhymes, bestselling non-fiction such as Her Story, and funny fiction by Pamela Butchart and David Solomons, came later, as did publishing partnerships with the National Trust and the British Museum.
In 2020, the trio say Nosy Crow’s sales hit £22m, up 24.8% from the previous year, and 70% of its total sales were generated by backlist titles. “We publish books that last,” says Soar, who sells books into multiple global territories. In fact, 74% of the firm’s revenues come from outside the UK, and last year the Asian markets were “livelier” than the UK and Europe equivalents. (Coronavirus was under control earlier in Taiwan, Korea and China quicker, so their economies were less affected, Soar says.)
“That focus on international potential is hugely important,” says Wilson, who has always bought world rights when acquiring books. Reid adds: “I’m thinking about 15 different markets for every book we do. We are thinking about Waterstones and supermarkets and independent bookshops, and then all the different international territories, which have different tastes as well.”
One aspect of the business that has been dropped, however, is the apps department, which closed in 2018, despite Nosy Crow apps winning multiple awards. “We continued with them for as long as we could, for as long as they were financially viable,” says Wilson. “We ended up deciding the market wasn’t there. People didn’t feel good spending money on apps in the way they feel good spending money on books.”
The value of running that business remains in its digital legacy: the company learned to do speech and animation, and has a “disproportionately strong” presence on social media thanks to that digital focus, says Wilson.
And although the company doesn’t usually make books to respond to outside events, Reid conceived and created two books during lockdown with Arrhenius: Where’s Mrs Doctor?, part of the Felt Flap series, and Peekaboo Love, which celebrates the domestic world. They also put out a free book about Coronavirus, Coronavirus: A Book for Children, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, and made it available digitally. But many parents asked where the physical copy was, which shows that demand for physical books remains high, says Wilson. “What is exciting is the resilience of print. Parents continue to feel that books are a good thing for children to be engaging with.”
Spreading the wealth
Another lockdown job was improving the company’s metadata. “Our online sales increased via the obvious channel [Amazon], but we also wanted to help other retailers hone their online offering. I felt we had a responsibility to make sure that our books are going out dressed as well as they can be, with the right metadata descriptions,” says Wilson. “It was a focus that will be useful going forward.”
Celebrity publishing is something the company isn’t keen on—the risks and IP costs are high, says Wilson—and the company “hates” Brexit, but looking forward not much will change in terms of business and what Nosy Crow does best, which is excellent publishing for under-12s. “We have always overachieved what we had planned for, and we intend to go on overachieving,” says Soar.
“We have been part of a diversification of the market into independents,” says Wilson. “Our TCM has gone up 146%, while Penguin Random House’s has dropped by 16%. Independents are taking a greater share, and that’s hugely positive.”
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