"We want to be recognised as one of the leading children’s book publishers in the industry: we want not only to be recognised, we want to be respected.” Sanjee de Silva (pictured), the new publisher at Sweet Cherry, recently named Small Press of the Year at the British Book Awards, has big ambitions for the Leicester-based company, which he joined only weeks ago.
Sweet Cherry, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in October, has defied the pandemic so far. It exceeded the magic £1m sales mark for the first time in 2020, thanks in part to strong overseas growth in China, Africa and the US and Canada. The British Book Awards judges, who chose Sweet Cherry as the overall Small Press winner against competition from publishers such as Wales’ Firefly Press and Sheffield’s And Other Stories, praised the business’ brand licensing programme and the diversity of its staff: more than 50% of its management are from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Unusually in publishing, de Silva doesn’t come from a books background, but has worked for a variety of businesses and has experience in retail management, purchasing and manufacturing, among other things. He has a good track record in “making people money”, he says, and was invited to join Sweet Cherry after he came in to give business advice, and following the departure of the previous publisher, Lara Clift. “I’m taking an established business from one place to another place... and I’m going to be looking at how to get there; everything from schedules and infrastructure, to people. It’s about making sure we are making the correct decisions to get us where we want to be.”
So what are the company’s goals? Divia Kainth, head of sales and marketing, says it is looking to maintain sales around the £1m mark, as well as grow its international reach. Currently around 70% of revenues are from international and export sales, and Sweet Cherry books are distributed by Penguin Random House in Africa and Baker & Taylor Publisher Services (BTPS) in the US and Canada. China and Hong Kong are both very important markets; sales of Sweet Cherry books were up a massive 480% and 475% in those territories respectively in 2020, and the business now wants to sell more into Europe.
In the UK, Kainth sells into non-traditional retail outlets such as CostCo and TK Maxx, and has a good relationship with Gardners and independent bookshops, but she has the supermarkets in her sights. “Accessibility means a lot to us and we know, from what we see in our local community, that not everyone goes to a bookshop every weekend.”
Another big goal is making the company more diverse. Even though Sweet Cherry is one of the most diverse publishing businesses in the UK, de Silva doesn’t want to rest on his laurels. “When we won our award [it was named the Midlands category winner in the Small Press of the Year running, before claiming the overall gong] I thought: ‘Are we doing enough?’ It has made us look at ourselves a bit more. We are going to be a champion of diversity, and going forward we are going to encourage more diverse stories by asking diverse authors and marginalised authors to submit to us.”
He is aware that some groups of people struggle to know how to reach out to publishers, and Sweet Cherry is going to demystify the process by updating its website and host- ing events online for people who are interested in working with them. “We want to make this process less elitist. That way we will be leading the way in getting more diverse voices out there."
Widening the net
Sweet Cherry was set up 10 years ago by Abdul Thadha, a former bookseller who noticed a gap in the market, both for books that were published from outside London, and for books with characters who resembled his own children. The business focuses on sets and series for children up to the age of 14, and its big hits include Geronimo Stilton, translated from the Italian, and the Mina Mistry series by Angie Lake. It also has the UK rights to publish books based on the BBC children’s series “Alphablocks” and “Numberblocks”, which has brought them a whole new group of readers, says Kainth.
De Silva and Kainth are both very proud of being based in Leicester, and say their local community is always in mind when thinking about what to publish. “Leicester is one of the most multicultural cities in the UK,” says Kainth. “We know that a lot of children don’t hear English outside the classroom. We have that child in mind, so a lot of our titles come with free audiobooks to give those children the same opportunities as their friends who are being read to [in English] before bed.”
Leicester is more
De Silva adds that being outside London has “100%” helped with diversifying its workforce, too. “We are a university city and have plans for the people we have within Leicester. If you join us, you may start off doing work experience, but we will give you opportunities in every department and when we feel you are ready to make the decision as to which department you want to be part of, we will progress you. One of the best parts of this job is watching this kind of growth.”
Kainth is a good example of this. She graduated with a first-class degree in publishing from Oxford Brookes in 2018 and joined Sweet Cherry as a sales and rights assistant. She then became marketing and publicity executive, and was made head of sales and marketing earlier this month. Without London overheads, businesses can afford to invest more in their staff, she says.
During the pandemic, the workforce grew by 13 members of staff, to 26. “When we say we have big expansion plans, we’re not joking,” says de Silva, who thinks one of the most exciting things about joining Sweet Cherry is that everyone at the publisher is on the same path. “It’s difficult to come and take over a business. When you ask people where they want to go, you hear lots of different responses. This is the first company I’ve worked at where everyone wants to go to the same destination. We’ve pressed the accelerator and everyone feels we are going in the right direction.”