There has probably not been a more challenging and more compromising year for the UK books supply chain than since the Luftwaffe was raining bombs down across Britain. Coronavirus was the main culprit but there were a number of other factors, too, including the collapse of Bertrams. In truth it had been teetering on the brink for months before the pandemic hit; it was the UK’s second-biggest distributor and a key supplier, in particular, to indie shops.
Enter Little’s Gardners, which worked mightily throughout the year to ensure books kept flowing from publishers to booksellers. But crucially, the wholesaler also stepped up in July to acquire the assets of Bertrams—cleverly not buying the in-administration firm outright, as it would have inherited its liabilities. The move was roundly applauded across the trade, with Bookseller Association m.d. Meryl Halls noting it “helps to stabilise the landscape for high street booksellers”.
There were naturally some competition concerns that Gardners is now the only significant wholesaler in the marketplace. But to be fair to Little, that would have been the case whether Gardners bought Bertrams’ assets or not. While the acquisition certainly made great business sense, it was hardly mercenary: there was a legacy operation and jobs to preserve, as well as the useful location in the middle of the country.
Another significant move for Little was the link-up with Bookshop.org, the online business which helps indies challenge Amazon. Its speedy entry into the UK market this autumn simply could not have happened if Gardners did not sign up to be its distribution and packaging partner. What makes this all the more interesting is that Bookshop.org’s biggest competitor in this space is...Gardners, with its relaunched Hive.co.uk. This may be big-heartedness on Little’s part, or simply another canny business move—a thriving indie sector is, after all, key to Gardners’ long-term health. But whatever the motives and effect on the bottom line, it again seems like an initiative which benefits the trade as much as it will swell Gardners’ coffers.
A big move on the personnel side this year was head of business development Nigel Wyman moving up to sales and marketing director, with the new role amalgamating the previously separated divisions.
Little has been m.d. of Gardners since 1986, when he was a 21-year-old fresh out of business school and he and his father Alan acquired what was then a somewhat underperforming Bexhill distributor (it moved to its current Eastbourne base in 1993). The Littles saw opportunity in the distribution game and have succeeded and built the company by continuous innovation: offering next-day service back when competitors were delivering in three days; investing in technology and international expansion.
Little is not one for the spotlight, preferring to let others in the firm be in front of the cameras. Wyman, for example, usually hands out the £5,000 cheque to the winners of the Gardners-sponsored Independent Bookshop of the Year at the Nibbies ceremony. (Even acquiring a picture of Little for this feature was like trying to get one of Thomas Pynchon...) That rectitude perhaps makes it easy to forget what a colossus he has helped build Gardners into. The wholesaler’s last set of results (to 20th February 2020) were as eye-popping as usual, with sales of £270m and operating profit of £8.6m.
The book trade’s health remains delicate, and Brexit may have more of an impact on Little’s business than the pandemic. So the coming year is crucial. But if the past is any indication, Little and Gardners will be ready for what comes next.
Waterstones/Barnes & Noble
This side of Jeff Bezos, there is probably no one with a bigger role in global books retailing than our Bookseller 151st, James Daunt. He, of course, has led the UK’s premier bricks-and-mortar books chain, and now will be spending much of his time in the US, attempting to reverse the fortunes of ailing Barnes & Noble. Daunt also becomes the first person to win our de facto Person of the Year award twice, after being given the honour early in his Waterstones tenure.
The American task is, of course, monumental. B&N has a massive footprint, with sales of $3.7bn in 2018. But that is an eye-watering 20% drop (-$1bn) on where the retailer was just four years previously. B&N’s troubles are complex, long-gestating and have been much-discussed across the pond, but they can perhaps be summed up by having had various leadership regimes who have scratched their head for the past 20 years, wondering what to do with Amazon—and who, when they decided on a strategic shift, acted a couple of years too late.
Daunt has said his initial approach would be similar to when he took over at Waterstones, telling The Bookseller earlier this year that the plan was to invest in the bookshops and “manage through the people already there”. He added: “There were very good people within Waterstones when I arrived, and I would expect there to be people of similar capabilities within Barnes & Noble. My job will be to empower them and set them on the right route.”
He laid out some of his strategy for his plans in a keynote at the FutureBook Live conference a couple of weeks ago, saying that the retailer must avoid being “boring” and apply a “bookseller’s mind” to data if B&N wanted to survive in an era dominated by Amazon. He added: “I now arrive at Barnes & Noble, where they’ve had a loyalty programme forever and a day. And yet, if you walk into any of the Barnes & Noble bookstores, they are the most crucifyingly boring stores. Which is odd, because they know what people want, they have all this data and yet they can’t interpret it and they’ve been unable to manipulate that knowledge to in any way deliver decent bookstores to people.”
Daunt’s greatest achievement for both Waterstones and B&N may be convincing Elliott Advisors—the retailers’ private equity owner is not exactly famed for patience with investments—of the soundness in backing bricks-and-mortar bookselling. Or, at the very least, Elliott’s UK boss Paul Best may have simply been convinced by the handling of Waterstones that B&N would be a decent horse to back with Daunt in the saddle.
There will be many in the UK who will wish B&N very well, but are far more concerned that Waterstones’ will continue to thrive—and that having a distracted boss might take away from its performance. But, as Daunt has pointed out, a lot of his time had been taken up with working with Elliott on the B&N buy, and he passed a lot of his duties over to his talented second-in-command, chief operating officer Kate Skipper.
There have been difficulties over the course of this year, not least a staff revolt over low pay and subsequent run of bad publicity, which Daunt was able to quell. But 2019 has also shown once again how powerful the retailer can be. Take the massive, out-of nowhere hit that is Charlie Macksey’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (Ebury). Waterstones took ownership of the title, promoted it heavily from its publication, with sales skyrocketing when it was made Waterstones Book of the Year. In its first week of sales after its win, it shifted 54,000 units, and it has just surpassed 200,000 copies sold since publication.
Ebury m.d. Joel Rickett praised Waterstones’ handling of the title to The Bookseller earlier this week, flagging up the retailer’s commitment long before it won the award. He said: “The moment it really went big was when Waterstones said it would do a signed special edition. We said we would do about 2,000, and then Waterstones sold out in two hours, so we did another 5,000.”
This is Daunt’s Waterstones—and perhaps future B&N—in a nutshell. Having the ability—and cojones—to take a punt on a less-than-obvious book, to take ownership of it. The cumulative effect is that the shopping experience of a chain bookseller can seem more like that of a local independent.
The Daunt Waterstones resurgence has not been perfect or without hiccups—indie store owners’ ire at the chain’s “unbranded” shops comes quickly to mind—but it has been essential to the UK trade.
And it’s certainly not been boring.
Prior to 2019, The Bookseller 151st was known as The Bookseller 101st.
Charlie Redmayne’s HarperCollins had a brilliant 2017—so good that the group was crowned Publisher of the Year at the Nibbies. Yet 2018 has been even better.
The publisher has the biggest-selling book of 2018 (Gail Honeyman’s trend-setting Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine); the UK’s top-earning author (David Walliams, who has sold £13.6m through the TCM); an out-of-nowhere memoir hit (Ant Middleton’s First Man In); and the biggest-selling vegan cookery book of all time (Henry Firth and Ian Theasby’s social media-driven BOSH!).
Those chart-topping smashes are built on excellent across-the-board publishing. Oliver Malcolm’s Avon is humming in digital and print; Kimberley Young’s commercial women’s fiction division has big brands (Josephine Cox, Dilly Court) and young guns (Lucy Clarke, Dawn O’Porter); Fourth Estate has prize-winners (Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13) and a new Jonas Jonasson novel; and the crime list is popping, with Karin Slaughter (brought over from Random House in a HarperCollins worldwide deal), breakout A J Finn and Adele Parks, who joined HQ from Headline and pivoted to psychological thrillers. All told, HarperCollins has been worth £94.8m to British booksellers this year—that’s a 7.6% rise through the TCM, by far the biggest leap of any of the Big Four publishers.
It’s taken a little while to get here. HarperCollins was in decent shape when Redmayne succeeded Victoria Barnsley in 2013, but it may be fair to say that it was like Arsenal in Arsène Wenger’s latter stages—still great, but not firing on all cylinders. Redmayne, to continue the metaphor (sorry, non-football fans), has been like Unai Emery, reinvigorating the offer, refining the personnel and seeing the business with fresh eyes.
The executive team he has assembled is one of the best in the business; it includes Kate Elton, David Roth-Ey, Lisa Milton, Ann-Janine Murtagh, Fiona Allen and new sales boss Anna Derkacz. But bubbling underneath that is an A-list of strong commissioning talent such as HarperVoyager’s Natasha Bardon, HarperCollins Children’s Rachel Denwood, Fourth Estate’s Anna Kelly, Jack Fogg of new imprint Mudlark, and Oliphant... editor Martha Ashby—to name but a few.
Then there are the less obvious changes to the culture that Redmayne has enacted. A digital guy at heart (Redmayne founded teen website Mykindaplace in the early 2000s and ran J K Rowling’s Pottermore), he worked hard to ensure HarperCollins had best-in-class back-end systems—crucial in the integration of the Mills & Boon business in 2014/15. And under HR boss John Athanasiou, there have been a range of diversity measures which have earned the publisher a place on the Business in the Community Best Employers for Race listing for two years running.
Redmayne also assumed the Publishers Association presidency this year in—with Brexit looming—unquestionably the most critical time for the British publishing community in decades. He began his tenure on a combative note, pledging to fight for “copyright, competition and opportunity”, while rounding on Amazon, calling the e-tailer “a powerful engine for copyright infringement”.
Tim Hely Hutchinson
Hachette UK, group c.e.o.
Most folk, with their retirement beckoning, might be tempted to take their foot off the pedal and slowly drift into the hard shoulder of their well-deserved golden years. Not Tim Hely Hutchinson. The Hachette boss has had a more than active 12 months before he steps down in January.
Over the past year, Hely Hutchinson has directed the acquisition of Kyle Cathie Books (brought under Alison Goff’s Octopus division), Jessica Kingsley Publishers (to be folded into Jamie Hodder-Williams’ Hodder, Headline and Quercus division), Bookouture and Neon Play.
Kyle Cathie and JKP are both excellent, well-respected indies, but adding publishers of that ilk has been Hachette’s model from the get-go. Rather, it is snapping up Bookouture and Neon Play which suggests Hely Hutchinson is thinking long-term. Bookouture is the digital genre fiction publisher (well, digital-first now as Little, Brown publishes some of its titles in paperback). Bookouture’s savvy team has bucked the slowdown in e-books by knowing its market and being best in class for metadata. Neon Play is something else entirely, a cutting-edge mobile gaming company.
Who knows, the Bookouture and Neon Play acquisitions may not pan out as planned. But they are both traditional-model-busting businesses and represent, perhaps, the Hachette of the future, not the publisher it is at present.
The future of the company is also represented in the senior team Hely Hutchinson will leave behind, assembled by a series of promotions in recent years. David Shelley steps in to the top spot at the relatively tender age of 41. The bulk of the rest of the divisions are being run by people of more or less Shelley’s generation, all in their publishing primes: Hodder-Williams, deputy c.e.o. Richard Kitson, Headline’s Mari Evans, Little, Brown’s Charlie King, Orion’s Katie Espiner and Quercus’ Jon Butler.
Hely Hutchinson’s Bookseller 101st nod is not something of a gold watch for a sparkling career, but rather an accolade for his achievements in the past 12 months. However, if we look back, it is not hyperbole to suggest that Hachette would not exist today if it were not for Hely Hutchinson’s business nous and leadership skills.
The history of Hachette began when Hely Hutchinson, Sue Fletcher and Sian Thomas started Headline in 1986. It came into being over the next three decades by way of a number of acquisitions and mergers: snapping up Hodder in 1993 for £49m to create Hodder Headline; being acquired by W H Smith in 1999 for £185m.
Then the fun began. Hodder Headline acquired John Murray in 2002 then in 2004 Lagardère, through its Hachette Livre subsidiary (which included Orion and Octopus), bought Hodder Headline from WHS for £210m, with Hely Hutchinson installed as the new group c.e.o. In 2006, the more or less modern-day Hachette was completed when Lagardère bought Time Warner Books (which included Little, Brown).
In a farewell party held for the outgoing c.e.o. in London, Hachette Livre global boss Arnaud Nourry said it was Hely Hutchinson’s “composure and business acumen” that sealed the Time Warner deal.
Nourry went on to say that Hely Hutchinson’s success goes back to those early Headline days, stating: “Tim is an unlikely radical, but the company he created radically changed publishing, [establishing] the principle that publishers and authors are partners in the publishing process.”
J K Rowling
J K Rowling is the first author to be named The Bookseller 101st, the entry we regard as our de facto “person of the year”, someone we feel has stood out more than any other person included on the 100 list.
This is an important thing to note. The 100 is first and foremost a trade list, and authors who make the cut have to be extra special. They need to do more than shift a massive amount of units through the tills. They also have to have a profound effect on the industry at large, either by boosting their publishers’ business and that of booksellers as a whole, or as campaigners on vital trade issues; or perhaps they have led new and disruptive business models, or their work has spilled out more widely to the world at large.
If you are tallying that up, Rowling ticks each and every one of those boxes.
However, let’s step back a moment and talk about the massive amount of units the author has shifted this year, with her return to the Harry Potter universe bringing back some of that old magic.
Her Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playscript (co-authored with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany) has sold 1.4 million units for £15.1m, while the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them screenplay has earned £1.6m in a couple of weeks. All told, her books have taken £24.9m through BookScan thus far in 2016, her best year since 2007—and the crucial four-week run-in to Christmas is still to come. Little, Brown and Orion c.e.o. David Shelley must thank his lucky stars every day that he didn’t skip that lunch a few years ago to meet that “Robert Galbraith” fella...
What is so cheering about this—and especially ...Cursed Child in the summer—was what it meant for retailers. Waterstones reported that the book was its biggest pre-order in a decade, while bricks-and-mortar shops up and down the country celebrated with special events and openings. There have been “event” books in the past few years, but with all respect to their authors and publishers, nothing matches Potter. Not too many people dressed up as Robert Langdon to get Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol at a midnight opening in 2009.
Then there is Pottermore. Rowling’s website got a revamp under boss Susan Jurevics and its “expanded retail footprint” (enabling other retailers to sell previously exclusive content) has been successful. The formerly Pottermore-only audiobooks, for example, have been staples in the Audible Audio Download Top 20 since they were released on the platform last November.
The Pottermore rejig, and the fact that ...Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts... come from other media, is a key point. It shows the astute brand management and extension of the Potter universe that Rowling and agent Neil Blair have excelled at. And with four more Fantastic Beasts films slated (to name just one of the author’s projects), there appears to be much more to come.
In the year in which the print market has rebounded, our Bookseller 101st—the person in the industry we think has stood out a bit more than the others on the 100 list—is the man who is in large part responsible for that recovery: Waterstones managing director James Daunt.
After years in the doldrums, Waterstones is back, poised to make its first profit since before the economic crisis in 2008 (provided the current sales patterns hold through to Christmas). It is a incredible turnaround for a company that was—as Daunt said when hired after Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut bought the company in 2011—“a business that had fallen off the cliff”.
The recovery has taken time and has not been without pain—such as the major restructure in 2013 which saw around 200 management-level staff leave the business. Yet these tough measures Daunt has taken have ultimately been for the very survival of the nation’s biggest specialist bookseller.
The difference between Daunt’s Waterstones and that of his immediate predecessors is that the retailer is back to being able to “make” a book. From Elena Ferrante to Jessie Burton to the British Library’s crime classics list, buyers and staff have championed titles and created bestsellers.
Daunt’s programme of trusting the expertise and knowledge of people on the shop floor has paid off, too. He has said that the company ethos and culture has “undergone a revolution” with that idea that booksellers spend less time on stickering, ordering and returning books, and far more on customer service and actively hand-selling titles. Individual shops are using book of the month promotions and recommendations to boost books like never before.
Dovetailing with that is how much things have tightened up operationally. Waterstones’ buying policy is now one of greatly reduced initial subscriptions. This has vexed publishers, but it has worked for the bookseller: Waterstones has reduced its returns rate from 23% to just 4%.
There have been changes to the head office (both in personnel and geography, moving to its London Piccadilly branch), but the current brain trust is one of the best in the business, led by comms boss Sandra Taylor, head of children’s and range Melissa Cox and director of buying Kate Skipper (currently on maternity leave, covered by Cox).
Perhaps underscoring the resurgence of print was Waterstones’ decision to remove the Amazon Kindle devices from most of its stores. The original deal for Waterstones to sell its major rival’s e-reader was always a head-scratcher, and Daunt’s heart never seemed to be in it. You could almost hear his glee when he told The Bookseller that Kindle “sales continued to be pitiful” and that Waterstones was “taking the space back” for physical books.