Business profile: Jonathan Taylor, non-fiction publishing director of Headline

Business profile: Jonathan Taylor, non-fiction publishing director of Headline

Two years ago Headline appointed Jonathan Taylor as non-fiction publishing director in a bid to rebuild its non-fiction presence.

This autumn he will face the bestseller charts with two worthy contenders: David Beckham’s David Beckham—the footballing superstar discussing 150 of his favourite images, published this week—and Andy Murray’s Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory, out next week.

“The Headline non-fiction team had had a quiet three years and the decision was made to fire on all cylinders again, so I was approached to join and build a team,” he says. “I was fortunate, I didn’t inherit a complex set of circumstances so it was tantamount to a blank sheet of paper; that was a large part of the reason why I left HarperCollins, it was a great opportunity to build a team and I was able to embark on an exciting hiring campaign.”

To work alongside existing staff member Emma Tait, Taylor bought in Sarah Emsley from Transworld as deputy publishing director and then hired another ex-Transworlder, Simon Thorogood, in the role of non-fiction publisher. “Sarah is very strong commercially and she has done well with celebrities like Cheryl Cole and various comedians, so she has a really acute sense of what works in the super-commercial mass-market genre. Simon was a different kind of hire, he is strong in another kind of non-fiction—still commercial, but he gives us expertise in what I could lazily call clever non-fiction—areas that we know can perform well in, but with a slightly different model. I got my timing right with both of them; they were ready to run their own lists and came with terrific expertise and experience.”

Last month, former BBC Books editorial director Muna Reyal joined the team in the new role of publisher for cookery and lifestyle.

Working in such a competitive part of the market, with advances that would make even the most established editor do a double take, Taylor explains that all of his team are a certain type of commissioner: tough, robust and ready to take risks. “I think it is important for the commissioner to know what is expected from them and what the business needs from them; and then work with them to find out what the best way of getting to that destination is. There is no getting away from risk in the super-commercial world of non-fiction, but it is about balance. If you don’t like taking risks, you need a new job.

“There are quite hard-nosed assessments that have to be carried out when it comes to valuing a project, but my team are quite robust, they are financially astute and they know their categories inside out. Consumer insight is becoming massively important across the whole Hachette group, because we are looking to harness as much data as we possibly can to help make a not totally scientific process a little bit more scientific and make more informed bets.”

A & C Black

Taylor’s publishing career started in 1990 at A & C Black and he joined Headline after almost four years at HarperCollins. He says that for the first 15 years of his career the publishing industry didn’t change that much, but that the past five years has seen “seismic changes”; with the “mind-boggling array of things that can change and do change very quickly” ensuring his team have got used to producing books under huge time pressures. Taylor himself “didn’t even close out the deal on Murray and Beckham till July, August time”.

One of the biggest changes over the past few years for Taylor is that he very rarely now works on books that come in on submission, preferring the creative control that comes by generating ideas in-house.

“The majority of my projects don’t involve a literary agent. I have no problem with literary agents, but there are very few books that I will take on that come in on general submission—one or two a year maybe. Going straight to a sports agent or a talent with an original project, saying we have an idea that is worth x amount, that’s quite an empowering situation, as one retains a degree of control—both in terms of the commercial deal but also one might feel a little closer to the talent and the book itself.

“I spend a lot of time racking my brain to think of the right editorial content. The boundaries are blurring a little. There was a time when I was under threat of redundancy, and I had calls from people asking if I thought about being an agent and I think I operate a bit like that anyway. It does mean if the book doesn’t work, there is nowhere to hide, but when it does work it is a slightly sweeter feeling.”