A “seismic shift” to online shopping during the pandemic has fuelled a “crazy” market for acquisitions of big names and highlighted how important it is for publishers to support high-street booksellers, HarperCollins UK c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne has said.
Speaking to Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, at FutureBook, Redmayne said the move to online had strengthened Amazon across the world, with the publisher seeing the same effect in the UK, US, India and Australia.
He said: “Hopefully when we come out of this and we sort ourselves out, well-run bookshops will come back and will be successful. I think that some of that market share has gone and gone forever. I think that people have discovered online shopping who maybe weren't before and are finding it works for them. We as publishers need to do everything that we can to support booksellers and certainly at HarperCollins we are. Not just in terms of payment and stuff like that but in terms of really helping to market them and drive people in store.”
The online surge had also helped fuel a situation where “extraordinary amounts of money” were flying around for acquisitions. Amazon's larger role meant people were going after big brand authors with platforms guaranteed to work well on the site.
He said: “I think that's again a very challenging thing for our core business which isn't just the big celebrity books and the big brands. It's about breaking new and emerging talent and I think, as publishers, in order to have as broad and diverse bookselling environment and publishing environment as possible we're going to have to really think through how we do that and how in a new world where Amazon is bigger we're going to get that done.”
Redmayne again hit out at the second national lockdown and questioned the need for bookshops to close which would be “devastating” while also taking people out of well-run retail environments and pushing them into supermarkets. Redmayne said he had been lobbying government along with others to keep shops open.
He said: “I don't really understand it to be honest. I understand fully why the government needs to get on top of this pandemic as people are dying. But I think that, after the last lockdown, a lot of shops came out and really adhered to the rules of social distancing and were incredibly rigorous about making sure their shops were safe environments for staff and for their customers and were doing really well.
"Talking to bookshop owners and big retailers, the mood was that they'd come out of an incredibly tough period, we were seeing a very buoyant marketplace and they needed a good Christmas and with a good Christmas a lot of them would push on into next year with great confidence. To have at least four weeks of that pre-Christmas marketplace whipped away from them, for me, is going to be potentially quite devastating.”
Redmayne said his own company had performed well during the challenge of the first lockdown with its decision not to push back its publishing proving a good one and Collins Learning getting traction in the home learning market. HarperCollins was also quickly able to bring back the 100 or so staff it furloughed in April, not taking government money, because the market had held up well.
He said: “I've been surprised by companies who, across different industries, seemingly have been taking that furlough money from the government whilst actually delivering quite significant profits and I think there will be a moment when those companies are rightly held to account.”
Asked about the issues of a lack of diversity in publishing that came to the fore again over the summer, Redmayne admitted he was “probably quite smug” about his own firm's achievements before the Black Lives Matter protests.
He said: “What became incredibly clear for me is that this business we had built which I believed was diverse and inclusive and absolutely had equaiity for everyone within it was not the experience that members of my staff had and I just didn't know. I think it is incredibly important to listen and for us to take continuous and meaningful action.”
HarperCollins networks such as Elevate were “crucial” in informing the firm, and Redmayne admitted there was a lot more to do. However, he pointed to the firm's moves forward, including a race equality strategy, the appointment of Nancy Adimora to identify diverse talent, an audit of its books, the launch of Rose Sandy's author academy, a new multi-disciplinary freelance database, changes to recruitment practices and extra marketing resources for books from black and minority ethnic (BAME) authors.
Asked what he was doing to change things at the top, he said: “One of the things that we have done well is recruiting great talent from BAME backgrounds into the business but we haven't done so well keeping them and I think I'd missed that. One of the things we're putting in place is creating, I hope, a truly diverse culture and inclusive culture where people can be themselves whatever background they come from, in our office and within our business, which will enable us to hold on to the best talent and then try and push that talent through. We do leadership training and invest in leadership training. I want to make sure that there is a very significant proportion of our best diverse talent represented on that leadership training. And then it's about recruitment.”
Speaking about the future, he said it was “enormously important” that a Brexit deal is negotiated with the EU. “We're hoping for a deal but planning for every eventuality to make sure that booksellers in Ireland and other places get access to our books and we don't end up with problems of moving books moved around the world and getting stuck in ports,” he said.
However, he said he was “very confident” of continued demand for books with an “incredibly strong” market for this autumn before lockdown. He was even optimistic in the face of the prospect of a deep recession, pointing to the ability of books to ride out the 2008 financial crisis.
He said: “If we knock this on the head and we get through things by the early spring I think people will come out and they'll start spending and that will give us a real surge. I don't think it will be like the Roaring Twenties after the First World War but I do think there'll be a real surge and comeback.”