HarperCollins c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne has told the Scottish Book Trade conference that Amazon's focus on driving up margins will be "a particular challenge for publishers this year", but that major Asian players such as AliBaba and TenCent could be on their way to disrupt "the great disruptor". Meanwhile reviewing the achievements of his first 18 months at the HC helm, he also told delegates at the Edinburgh event today (24th February) that the publisher would be going "all in" to acquire the right kind of celebrity autobiography and that it was "beyond him" why so few major publishers had followed HarperCollins in embracing the subscription model.
Redmayne gave the morning's keynote speech, telling the audience it was "the second speech you'll have heard this week from a member of my family". The HC c.e.o. - half-brother of Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne - said his contribution would be "longer, not as emotional, and not as good" as that given by his younger relative at the US awards ceremony on Monday.
Redmayne said he believed the industry was "in a pretty robust state" despite facing challenges that would bring "some casualties", telling delegates that publishing had made both good and bad decisions in recent years, but was still producing "good books that people want to read on the channels people want to read them on, at a good price".
But surveying the state of the retail landscape, he noted the "aggressive" growth of Amazon and said the online giant "seems to be focusing on not just building market share but also driving up margins - which will be a particular challenge for publishers this year."
Redmayne said he focused on "empowering my editors" in his role at HarperCollins, but also that he wanted the publishing house to be a business built on brand success, rather than individual hits. "For too long businesses like mine, if we had an enormous hit, were profitable - if they didn't, they weren't," he said. Instead, hits should be "the icing on the cake". With this in mind, over the last two years, HarperCollins had built its fiction and children's publishing, with brands including Wilbur Smith, Patricia Cornwell and David Walliams, and moved away from celebrity autobiographies - unless they were precisely chosen.
"When I arrived we were spending seven-figure sums on big celebrity autobiographies - I looked at the area, and we seemed to be losing money, quite big sums," commented Redmayne. "I got the team together and asked them, 'How many celebrity autobiographies will sell over 200,000?' The answer was three. 'There were three last year, three the year before that, and the year before that.' We were publishing as though we thought we would have three [of our own].
"I want to make sure we are investing in the right way - not with people having a brief moment in the sun, but great stories brilliantly told, people with longevity and international appeal. If those opportunities come along, I'm all in. We are going to be in that market, and all in for the right books, but we are going to be realistic about the market and the kind of publishing we want to do."
HC will have announcements to make of some acquisitions in exactly this area in the coming weeks, Redmayne added.
Meanwhile, although Canongate's Jamie Byng has criticised the industry for publishing too many books, Redmayne said: "As I've dug into it, I think he's wrong. It's not too many books, it's spreading resources too thinly across too many books. We need to be clear what we are trying to achieve with every book, and we must be honest with authors - it is not realistic to throw the kitchen sink at everything."
Redmayne talked of reducing the cost base of the business, focusing resources on what really matters - great editors, distribution and production. Among other areas of focus, HarperCollins' investment in data analytics has "made a multi-million pound contribution to the bottom line of my business," he said.
Meanwhile he spoke rosily of the subscription model, saying it benefited authors and publishers, bringing new players and hundreds and millions of people to the book market. "It's beyond me why other major publishers have not followed us; the model protects authors' content and the value of it, and makes sure publishers make more money for the books. It's part of the publisher's role to develop new models [in the industry]," he said.
Redmayne said the acquisition of Harlequin had been a "key strategic move". "It gives us scale - where Amazon is even more dominant and aggressive, scale is key in [negotiating] trading terms," he said. "It also gives us international publishing capability; it gives us the potential of not just being an English language publisher selling translation rights, but we can publish in 32 languages on the same day - important for us and for authors."
Looking to the future, he noted that the big players from the far East - AliBaba and TenCent - may be the new disruptors for the industry. "Could their businesses threaten Amazon? Could the great disruptor be disrupted? Nobody can be complacent," he warned. Therefore it was important for publishers to keep innovating: "If we don't, someone else will."