Search Press owners look to future growth with spate of plans

Search Press owners look to future growth with spate of plans

Many people have undoubtedly had life-changing experiences at Glastonbury, pharmaceutically aided or otherwise. But few will have had business-changing ones. That is what happened to Caroline and Martin de la Bedoyere (pictured below), the husband-and-wife team who run independent art and craft powerhouse Search Press.

At Glastonbury 2019, Caroline de la Bedoyere was called by James Woollam, m.d. of fellow art and craft publisher David & Charles, in the midst of a set by pop-rock band Bastille. D&C’s parent company, the US-based F+W, had filed for bankruptcy and Woollam and his team were trying to orchestrate a UK management buyout. Caroline  says: “I got to know James when we were both on the Independent Publishers Guild board and when F+W first went up for sale I said to him, ‘Let us know if you ever want to do something with us.’ But when he called, I kept saying: ‘What? I can’t hear you, I’m at the main stage,’ and then sending him pictures. He said later he couldn’t believe it: this was such an important time, when he was trying to get the financing together, and I was sending him pictures of Glastonbury.” 

They were, however, able to connect a short time later with the de la Bedoyeres coming into the D&C business as private investors to support the buyout. Though they have a stake and are on the board, the de la Bedoyeres have no operational control of D&C. The two businesses have, however, since built closer ties, with D&C now being distributed by Search. The companies recently launched a joint venture, Bookmarked: The Creative Books Hub, an online crafting community and e-commerce site. 

Caroline de la Bedoyere says: “It was one of the things that we started talking about and developing with D&C over the pandemic. Bookmarked is a site for people who love art and craft books. But it’s more than that—it’s extra projects, interviews with authors, live demos. The idea is that we give extra value to our books at a time when keeping that community that supports us is so important. Obviously, one of the big changes during the pandemic is the switch to online. We’re trying to provide a shop window because one of the problems with Amazon and other online retailers is that craft books are quite touchy-feely. People like to see all the pictures and how they work.”

Golden years

Last year was supposed to be a year-long knees-up for Search, as 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of Martin’s mother, Lotti de la Bedoyere, founding the business in an attic room in Kensington. Though a publishing novice, Lotti built the company up from scratch, running it successfully for nearly three decades before handing the reins over to Martin and Caroline in 1997. 

The pandemic put paid to much of the anniversary marketing Search had planned, Caroline says: “In the end, we were able to have a big party with the staff in the summer between the lockdowns. But we had to find a way to celebrate with customers. So we did things like hosting some digital versions of books from our history for free on our website—and had 20,000 downloads. That convinced us about Bookmarked, because it really drove home that we have a lot of people coming to our website and using that extra information we put up.”

In many ways Search had a very good pandemic. In a (business) sense it could hardly have been better: turnover eclipsed £7m in 2020, its all-time record haul. Part of the reason for that is that people really turned to crafting during the lockdowns, and Search had spikes across all its categories, with sewing titles particularly skyrocketing. “It was a very good niche to be in during the pandemic,” Caroline concedes. “Not just for us—almost everyone with craft lists did pretty well.” 

Search also had some logistical advantages over many publishing colleagues. It long ago made the decision to do its own distribution (and it distributes for other craft publishers), partially because it sells through a wide, niche portfolio, ranging from general bookshops to specialist craft retailers. Because of that, its Tunbridge Wells warehouse and publishing HQ sit on a roomy—and easy to socially distance for its 35 staff—one-acre plot. Therefore, Search’s distribution centre never had to shut during lockdowns, so it was able to keep its own supply chain moving. 

That is not to say there were no stresses and strains. Its physical shop heartland suffered, which Search was keen to alleviate, Caroline says. “One of the main things we did was try to support our craft retailers. We did what I suppose you could call a ‘mini bookshop.org’ in that we were doing direct dispatch for craft retailers, giving them promotions and material to put on their websites, which would encourage people to buy from them, and then we would fulfil the orders.”

There was a bit of a dip from that 2020 crafting bonanza in summer 2021—“I think people might have just been sick of being inside”—but sales have turned robust again in the autumn. However, Search and the rest of its market in general is still missing the “in real life” crafting events which tend to generate a lot of sales. Caroline says: “Online has been great and there are a lot of benefits to it: for example, we have a lot of American crafters coming directly to our virtual events, and that’s helped our US sales. But until we see things like craft fairs start being regular on the calendar again, we won’t be able to really get that side of our business going.” 

As a publisher and distributor, Search has been hit by the issue du jour: supply chain worries. Caroline says the cocktail of Brexit and worldwide shipping problems have “caused a massive headache”. Brexit in particular has been vexing as Search recently suspended its direct mail-order business into the EU as it had become cost-prohibitive. “It just became far too difficult and far too expensive, with far too much time spent chasing parcels that never arrived—and then paying for them to come back to you. So unfortunately, our European customers can only order through [third-party] online suppliers. 

“A lot of the shipping problems in general I think will work themselves out—and are at least a bit more manageable. But Brexit is more difficult. The VAT problem alone in printing means that we really can’t print in Europe, so we have far fewer alternatives than before.” 

Those niggles aside, Caroline is bullish about the future. She might not exactly be looking ahead to the firm’s next 51 years, but says: “If we weren’t thinking long-term, Martin and I wouldn’t have invested in David & Charles; we’ve learned a lot from them in the past couple of years. But we have just hired a new publisher [Samantha Warrington from Quarto] to help build our list and on the marketing side we are really focused on Bookmarked. And we love the industry we’re in.”