Business profile: David Shelley, publisher, Little, Brown

Business profile: David Shelley, publisher, Little, Brown

David Shelley is undoubtedly the muggle of the moment; the editor of the most hotly anticipated book in recent years—a tale set in a sleepy West Country town that just happens to have been written by J K Rowling.

“On one level it’s been completely normal,” he explains. “But because of the public interest, and because we didn’t want pirated copies leaking before publication, we had to take a whole raft of measures to make sure that the book didn’t get out, and that’s been the really different thing.”

Those actions have been much discussed, and despite the normality of the editorial process there are still aspects of the deal that Shelley is unable to talk about—the advance and Rowling’s move from the Christopher Little Agency are out of bounds—but he and Little, Brown are no strangers to high-security publishing.

As the publisher of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, they had front row seats to the phenomenon of uber-fan hysteria. He admits however that this “. . . is on a completely different level. On one hand I can completely understand reviewers and journalists saying it’s made it difficult for them with the embargoes, but it’s really hard to know a perfect way of doing it. We tried our best and I’m pleased that we managed to stop the book leaking. It all makes me realise how much I appreciate the private relationship you have with your authors.”

As soon as Shelley’s attachment to the book was announced in February, the rumour mill went into overdrive. Fans predicted that his experience as the editor of Val McDermid and Dennis Lehane meant that Rowling’s first departure from Harry Potter would be a crime novel, which Shelley himself, “found quite funny. It was a sort of fun distraction. There were some nerves, but more than anything I wanted people to understand what the book was about and make their own minds up about it—not come to it with preconceptions from the media.”

A lot of those preconceptions were about just how many copies The Casual Vacancy would sell. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows selling 2.6 million copies in its first 24 hours, the difficult task for Shelley was always going to be dealing with the sales comparison if The Casual Vacancy didn’t reach such dizzying heights.
“In a way—maybe this sounds simplistic—but my aim was just to get the book out there in the most responsible way possible. The Daily Mail will always want to run some sort of negative story and I can’t stop that. But I am really pleased that it is the UK’s fastest-selling book in three years . . . beyond that, I think you can go slightly mad if you’re just comparing it to whatever the last big thing was.” Since publication, the print book has sold close to 200,000 copies in the UK.

The Casual Vacancy

Much has been made of Little, Brown’s success with its “denial marketing” campaign, a term Shelley says he had not heard of until a newspaper used it in the week of publication. “That was never what we intended to do. What our intention was—and I’m not saying this is how it always came across—was to publish this book responsibly and to convey what sort of a book it is; we certainly didn’t aim to tease people or hype it in any way. The media did that of their own accord. If you look at the press releases we put out during the time it was like any other book publication, nothing bigger or smaller about it.”

The most interesting part of the story is that over a lunch (which Shelley “knew wasn’t just a social call”) Rowling chose him to be her new editor—there was no bidding war, no campaign pitches, no “Pottermore-ing” of the book online. Little, Brown is just starting to think about the marketing strategy for the paperback, and Shelley sees his relationship with Rowling as the same as his relationships with all of his authors. So while he is tight-lipped about what will be next for his new acquisition, he sees“every book in terms of an author’s overall career—it’s not just a short-term strategy for us. That’s important to me.”

He goes on to say that Little, Brown is set to have its busiest autumn for a long time, with books out from John Taylor, Will Young, Rupert Everett and, of course, the “autobi-dog-raphy” from “Britain’s Got Talent” winner Pudsey, “who caused almost as much as a stir as J K Rowling when he came in to do a meet and greet.”