Someone came up to Richard Johnson at last month's London Book Fair with a comment that one can scarcely imagine being asked of any other publishing c.e.o.: "Hey, aren't you that guy from the cartoon?"
Yes, he is indeed the guy from the cartoon. Go to Bonnier's website and a cartoon version of Johnson—seen reading C.e.o. for Dummies on the landing page—introduces the seven children's publishing imprints in the company's portfolio. Johnson laughs: "I'm not afraid to let myself look ridiculous. Don't get me wrong, we are a serious bunch and we work really hard. But we do like to have fun and the website is part of that."
Johnson and the group have certainly been working very hard in recent years. In 2011, Johnson lured Sarah Odedina from Bloomsbury to start Hot Key Books, the children's fiction imprint which launches this year with nine titles, and will publish 50–60 books in 2013.
A few other highlights from the last calendar year include the launch of Smellessence, a scented books division; the acquisitions of the UK licensing rights to Barbie and Angelina Ballerina; the launch of an Indian venture with New Delhi-based Research Press; and bringing their sales team in-house after previously using third parties. In all, 44 people have joined the group in the past 12 months, bringing the total number of employees to 240 in its three offices in the UK, France and Australia.
Johnson has been given free reign for this surge of activity because his division's parent, the family-owned Swedish media giant Bonnier Group—it had a turnover of $4.24bn in 2010; the books division contributed about $970m (£600m)—wants to get serious about English-language books. Bonnier has been gingerly dipping its toe into the market for a little over a decade by buying activity books specialist Autumn Books in 1999, Paris-based Piccola in 2001, Melbourne's Five Mile Press in 2004, Sydney-based Weldon Owen in 2006 and Templar in 2008.
"Bonnier is totally dominant in Scandinavia and is the third biggest publisher in Germany, so there is not much more they can do in those territories," Johnson says. "Under [c.e.o.] Jonas Bonnier there is a serious growth strategy. English language is an obvious target, and they want it driven from the UK."
The decision to create Hot Key was the first part of a more aggressive expansion. Johnson says: "We looked at several acquisitions but decided we'd do a start-up . . . and we'd do it the best we could. So we approached the best publisher, Sarah Odedina, with the idea that the rest would follow: we could then attract the best people, the best content, the best authors. It's a sort of knock-on effect, too—not just at Hot Key, but throughout the group. For example, hiring Mike McGrath as Templar m.d. from Quercus is partly as a result of what Sarah is doing at Hot Key."
Johnson says the growth of the group's licensing division in a way mirrors the Hot Key start-up: by striking a deal with a big property like Barbie, it signals the company's intent to other licensors. The growth will not be limited to children's, as Johnson says Bonnier will either acquire or start up adult imprints within the next 12 to 18 months: "We're a £60m group at the moment, and Bonnier is not interested in that; it wants a £160m company. With Hot Key added, we now have covered all the bases in children's, from novelty to fiction. Another children's publisher wouldn't necessarily add value to our portfolio. So the growth is going to come from adult."
But is all this expansion perhaps a risky strategy given the current climate? Johnson shrugs. "Of course, it is an uncertain time for us, as it is for anybody else. Although the trade side has picked up in the early part of the year; Waterstones, in particular, is buying more than they had been. Our attitude is that there is going to be uncertainty for the next two or three years, with both the economy and digital. Ultimately, I feel that we have more opportunities with more new formats, and that if you have great publishing coming through and creative, passionate people working for you, then that will outweigh the difficulties."
Hot Key (formed 2011)
Templar (acquired 2008)
The Five Mile Press (acquired 2004)
Piccolia (acquired 2001)
Autumn Publishing (acquired 1999)