After about five minutes in Jonathan Goodman's spacious office, the Carlton Publishing Group founder and m.d. is on his feet, plucking books off the shelves and excitedly showing off some of the company's newer Experience titles.
The range has become the illustrated publisher's backbone— a series of "informative and interactive" books stuffed with memorabilia on subjects as diverse as the Second World War, William Shakespeare, dinosaurs and Elvis Presley. The Elvis title, for example, has a CD of Presley interviews and recordings, along with facsimiles that include his high school diploma and first Sun Records contract. They are fun— sort of like pop-up books for adults.
Goodman grabs the Russian language edition of The Napoleonic Wars Experience off a shelf to illustrate how the books are intended to have as wide an appeal as possible. He says: "We try to make the books come alive in your hands. And if we get it right, we can sell anywhere. We sold Napoleon wherever he wreaked havoc— Russia, Germany, Italy— and it became a bestseller in France, which was gratifying."
Design leads the way
The Experience line, which was launched in 2004 with a book about D-Day, is an example of what Goodman describes as Carlton's "design-led" ethos. "We spend probably more per page on our conventional illustrated books than any other publisher," he says.
"Because we haven't had the concerns about money, we have invested heavily in how things look. As a result, that becomes a virtuous circle with other publishers around the world. They like what we do."
He is quick to point out that editorial is still key, with the Experience roster boasting heavy-hitting authors such as Richard Overy, Martin Gilbert and Richard Holmes.
Goodman says: "The writers of these books have all said they liked the fun of working with us in this popularising way."
After graduating from Oxford with a classics degree, Goodman was angling to go into television or advertising, but joined the Octopus Group following a meeting with its founder, Paul Hamlyn. He says: "I liked Octopus because it was fast moving, iconoclastic and very business orientated at a time when a lot of British publishing wasn't."
He worked in a variety of roles, ending up as publisher for the Octopus and Hamlyn illustrated lists. Itching to run his own company, Goodman set up Carlton Books in 1992, backed by £2.5m from media and TV company Carlton Communications. Its focus was on television tie-ins with Carlton. Carlton Books was successful in the early years, yet hit a rut when financial constraints forced its parent to merge with Granada to form ITV. "They lost a lot of money on digital TV—about a billion," says Goodman. "That meant their budgets were strained and we couldn't get enough TV tie-in content. Then 9/11 happened in the US—our prime market."
With the company in the doldrums, Goodman engineered a management buy-out in 2004. He says: "I thought I could see an opportunity for the business and good publishing here but I wanted to be free of corporate ownership. I did it with private equity money— no banks."
Since then, the company's output has ratcheted up and it now publishes 120 titles across the group, which includes biography and history specialist Andre Deutsch and humour and nostalgia publisher Prion, acquired in 2000 and 2002 respectively.
Carlton's 2007 full-year accounts show a pre-tax profit of £1.7m on a turnover of £17.25m— almost exactly repeating the performance of 2006, the company's record year.
This is a complete turnaround from the period before the m.b.o., when Carlton made a loss of £1.8m on a turnover of £10.1 for a 15-month period to December 2003. "It's a fantastic business, a lot of cash in hand, no debt," says Goodman. "I would say we are firing on all cylinders."
In the past four years, Goodman says, Carlton's creativity has also increased. "The m.b.o. allowed me to pursue riskier avenues of publishing without any pressures, and it released a massive amount of energy in this company. There were no constraints any more and I encouraged everyone around the company to suggest and develop new areas."
Two years ago, Carlton published its first children's book, Pirates, using the same "informative and interactive" format as the Entertain books. It was Carlton's first million-selling title and it has ramped up the children's programme, bringing out 20 titles to date. It has also scored in the nostalgia boom with its Commando comic books and reprinting of Jackie magazine annuals.
Goodman concedes the economic climate can be very difficult but insists being a coedition publisher is a help, not a hindrance.
He says: "We publish in up to 22 languages. If you get the subject, costs and treatment right, you will sell books. Creating some of these books is so expensive, a local publisher won't be able to do it."
He emphasises that it is not a time for meekness: "In difficult circumstances, there is the temptation to limit what you are doing. But the world has too much of everything, so if you are going to make people pay attention to what you are doing, you have to make them sit up and take notice. Ultimately, we have to make our books the objects of desire or the objects of instant fun."