Faber has reported "another exceptionally good year" in its latest annual results to the end of March 2020, producing the second-best turnover in the company’s history and increased profits, bolstered by sales of Sally Rooney and its most successful year to date for the Academy.
The results however exclude the "significant impact" from Covid-19 this year; nevertheless c.e.o. Stephen Page has said the company is in "a good strong place".
For the financial year to end March, turnover dipped 6% to £20.9m compared to 2019's record £22.2m which included sales of the Booker Prize-winning Milkman by Anna Burns. This year's result was "well ahead of budget" though, according to Page, and in fact marks the second-best year in the company’s history.
Meanwhile profit before tax rose 18.5%. Gross profit in the year hit £11.1m (2019: £11.4m) at a margin of 53.1% (2019: 51.4%), and rights and commission incomes in the year were "again healthy", contributing to the operating profit of £2.6m (2019: £2.2m) and profit after tax of £1.98m (2019: £1.67m).
Rooney played a significant role in Faber's success for 2019/20, with the period encompassing the publication of Normal People in paperback in May 2019. The book was the publisher's bestselling title while Conversations with Friends, also by Rooney, was the year's second-strongest seller. Other fiction highlights for the financial year included André Aciman’s Find Me, David Mitchell’s Dishonesty Is the Second-Best Policy, Lenny Henry’s Who Am I Again?, Edna O'Brien’s Girl and the paperback of John Lanchester’s novel The Wall. Milkman also continued to sell well during the 12 months to March 2020. In children's Emma Carroll also particularly stood out, and in poetry Mary Jean Chan—whose debut, Flèche, won the Costa Poetry Award—was notable.
Page credited Faber's "depth and range of publishing" for its success in the year. "We've been actively bringing to the list a new generation of writers over the last five or six years, including Sally Rooney and Anna Burns and poets such as Mary Jean Chan. And that list is richer and wider and having a great deal of success," he said.
"Publishers' success is often related to finding the bigger audiences for a wider range of their writers, and that's what we've done this year. It's very exciting for us to be taking literature and high quality books to a really broad audience.
"Another reason we've been able to have that success is that the market has changed over the last five or six years. There is such a rich ecology around print books, e-books and audio, through brilliant high street booksellers and exceptional online services, and the addition of social media as a marketing tool... so I think there are broader reasons why we were enjoying success in such a good and interesting market, but then also our own publishing really connected."
He continued, addressing the slight decrease in turnover on the year prior: "When you think about what happened in 2018, we had a Booker Prize winner and an extraordinary Book of the Year. And Booker winners do tend to be very international in their impact as well... I think it was simply that we had the most extraordinary year in 2018/19 and we've had another excellent year. We certainly performed a lot better than we budgeted for and outpaced our own compass."
The Academy, which accounts for 5–10% of Faber's turnover, reported another record year, with top-line revenue up 6%. Page said this was achieved both by attracting more students to its programmes and rolling out more classes, expanding its range of six-month courses as well as its short courses, and growing its online offering and manuscript assessment programme. "Its reputation has only grown over the last few years, and we are carefully building the online side; but as with all of Faber's businesses we don't pursue growth for growth's sake," he added.
Looking ahead to the publisher's performance for the financial year ending March 2021–having previously said Faber's sales were down "about a third year on year for print" during the lockdown period–Page said the company was "doing OK" and in a "strong place", particularly having reaped the benefits of the BBC's adaptation of Normal People (aired in April), aiding discoverability of its books.
He confirmed all staff that were on furlough have now returned, there have been no job losses, and Faber is not currently taking advantage of the government's new staff retention scheme.
"Year to date we are in a good strong place and very happy with that, but there are some choppy waters still in front of us," he said. "So far we've had an excellent period. We had the Normal People television series which during the first couple months of lockdown became a fixation for the nation and we definitely benefited from that, because the most challenging part of the lot of the high street is just discovery of things that aren't already known. It strikes me when you have something like we had with Normal People, where everyone knows it and it's just a case of where to go and find it, you do very well. The challenge come the new year will be to restore that environment when we were presented with a wide range of fascinating books, brilliantly published—how confident will people feel to go back onto the high street in the way that they were and how quickly can we find a model that is successful for book events?"
Page said the second lockdown was calmer compared to the first time and he would back James Daunt and others in their calls for bookshops to be allowed to re-open as quickly as possible.
"Of course we want bookshops to be open, this trading season for the book trade is absolutely critical," he said. "In the first round of the pandemic there was little controversy, we were having to tackle something very challenging and it seemed the right view to lock down very hard. There seems to be a wider range of opinion this time round and of course I support the booksellers making that case."
With all staff are currently working from home again, having re-opened the office temporarily in July on a purely voluntary basis, Page said the company would be taking stock of new learnings from its time having to adapt working remotely. However the publisher will not be rushing into permanent changes for the future, with Page saying the lockdowns had also highlighted what it missed about being able to work collaboratively in the office. Positive outcomes, he noted, were that the pandemic had acted as a catalyst for some developments—for example, its own online marketing and broadcasting—which may not otherwise have come about as quickly.
"There's no doubt the pandemic has been an accelerator, although I don't think in and of itself it's changed things... It's taking us more quickly to a place we all wanted to get to," said Page. "Look at the evolution on the high street and the arrival of Bookshop.org, these are interesting and exciting developments in the market. At the other end of it, we are looking at how we can be really modern in our working practices to attract the best staff. We've accelerated some of our online broadcasting [initatives] that over the summer drove more interest towards our Members programme and that has been heartening. We were on all of those, but it does seem to have moved faster, and that in the long-term no doubt a good thing."