There is a neat orbit to David Young’s career.
He began his publishing life as a 12-year-old working on the “trade counter” at his grandfather’s firm Thorsons, then based just off the Charing Cross Road, in St Martin’s Court. He is now back in the neighbourhood—aged 62—at Orion’s St Martin’s Lane headquarters.
Young returns to the UK having left his role as c.e.o. of Hachette Book Group USA in March. “From St Martin’s Court to St Martin’s Lane via New York,” he quips.
If anyone thinks Young—chief executive of the Orion Publishing Group since June—is now in retirement mode, forget it. In 2008 Young told The Bookseller that he planned to retire when his New York sojourn came to an end. Now he says: “I’ve been talking about retirement since 2005—but when I really think about it, I realise I don’t want to do that.”
The decision to succeed Peter Roche at Orion was precipitated 15 months earlier, when Young decided to follow his family back across the pond. “After two years of living apart I’d had enough, but I wasn’t looking for employment outside of Hachette, so when Roche decided to retire the opportunity came up. It wasn’t a tough sell.”
Young moved to the US in January 2006 to manage the Time Warner Book Group—the American sister of Little, Brown, which he had managed in the UK since 1996—taking over from Larry Kirshbaum. One month later the business was sold to the French group Hachette Livre. The deal marked the beginning of seven remarkable years in the US, as Young oversaw the adoption by a new parent company, watched the rise of Amazon (and notably the Kindle), and dealt with the collapse of US bookseller Borders Inc.
At Orion, his job is different: to build rather than fix. “Orion has consistently delivered good sales and profits, and is very focused on that,” he says. Last year it became the biggest division within Hachette UK’s federal structure, with BookScan sales of £48.1m. It is a lead the business has kept in 2013 with total sales of £28.5m in the 40 weeks to 5th October, a nose ahead of Little, Brown’s £27m. Young wants to build on this success, “making sure authors and agencies are considering us, if they want to make a move”.
Young says he “feels like a new boy”, despite having worked with some Orion executives in the past, and having run Little, Brown. He will, he says, be different from his predecessor. In the US he was known as a “systems man”, and it is here that he feels he adds value. Roche was all about the numbers, says Young. “They are vital, but I am more interested in making things work. My attitude is that I exist to try to eliminate frustrations in the business, and they are often systems and IT-related.”
He will leave acquisitions to his deputy, Malcolm Edwards: “I’ve told him, the publishing is yours. I’m proud of the fact that I have never acquired a book. It creates weird dynamics if you do, we used to call them MDIs at HarperCollins—Managing Directors’ Indulgences.”
According to insiders, Young’s American time has given him an advantage: he is ahead of everyone else in the UK in digital experience. But the US run had sobering moments. He was one of the US publishing executives who signed deals that enabled Amazon to sell content on the Kindle without twigging that the Seattle giant would establish a price point that risked destabilising the wider business.
“It’s the thing I most regret: that we enabled the Kindle so effectively, and we didn’t foresee the $9.99 price. But we didn’t see it coming. We should have, and could have, negotiated some protection around that.”
But he is not for looking back. He says publishers have grasped some of what’s offered by digital, but not all. “The web has given publishers the opportunity to have a dialogue with consumers, which was undreamt of before. But we’ve still got a long way to go to fully capture what’s going on digitally.” He has brought in a consumer insight director, with results already having an impact on tangibles such as jacket designs.
Young is a supporter of the overall group’s federalist structure. “We are all fiercely competitive with one another: one of the smartest things Gail [Rebuck] did at Random House was keep Transworld in Ealing. They’ll change that at their peril.”
But on the group’s consumer-facing websites—such as Orion’s SF Gateway and its crime website The Murder Room—he acknowledges that a group approach will work better. SF Gateway will now be broadened to include classic sci-fi from across Hachette UK, while discussions are under way around the group’s other federally-operated but consumer-oriented sites, such as The Murder Room and The Crime Vault. “Frankly I think we would be better served if we put those two together, and it is something we are considering,” he says.
Young remains chairman of the US business, now run by c.e.o. Michael Pietsch. Orion is much smaller than HBG USA, of course, but he has also become president of the Book Trade Benevolent Society, and sits on the UK advisory board of the London Book Fair. “I wake up every morning looking forward to coming to work: I have a portfolio of jobs and that’s keeping me busy.” He is also deputy c.e.o. of Hachette UK, as Roche was. “I didn’t return on the basis of wondering what’s going to happen to [c.e.o.] Tim [Hely Hutchinson]. I’ve no plan to saw through his brake pipes.”
Publishing, he says, should shout louder, but acknowledges the job is to broadcast an author’s work, not tell everyone how much effort they had to make to get the book out there. He believes a “kitemark” on books, showing that they have been professionally edited, could help emphasize what the trade does. “There is something to commend in that, and it could be done using metadata, for example.”
He is not negative about the future, despite the challenges. “We are evolving so fast it is exciting. I’m not a doom and gloom merchant. If I was, I would have retired.”