The future of books: ‘Only the most outstanding are likely to survive’

The chief executive of one of the UK's biggest publishing houses is optimistic about the future of the printed word.

One of Hachette's biggest successes is the Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, who moved into the world of fiction for adults last year with her novel The Casual Vacancy. Oli Scarff / Getty Images
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In March last year, Tim Hely Hutchinson, chief executive of Hachette UK, Britain's leading consumer book publisher, sent an open letter to all authors within the group's stable. The letter, which ran to close to 3,000 words and later found its way onto the internet, provided a fascinating snapshot of how the company had fared, both commercially and strategically, in the previous calendar year.
Describing 2011 as a "year of transformation", Hely Hutchinson identified the threats that were pressing hardest at the industry's door (including internet piracy) and set out a manifesto for all the roles the modern publisher should perform (curator, investor, editor, copyright defender and marketer, among them) as the industry sought to make further adjustments to the new realities of the explosion in self-publishing, copyright infringements and the relentless creep of online. In essence, it was a state-of-the-union address fused with a state-we're-in assessment.
On a recent visit to Dubai, Hely Hutchinson sat down in the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Downtown Dubai and delivered an updated perspective on that snapshot. Over the course of a 40-minute interview, the conversation moved freely from The Casual Vacancy to corporate concerns, and from Great Britain to the Middle East.
One would expect nothing less. Hely Hutchinson, educated at Eton and Oxford, broke into book publishing in 1975 after accepting a job at Macmillan. He made a near instant impact by buying the rights to EL Doctorow's Ragtime - the venerable American author was almost unknown at the time - and helped it sail to the top of the bestseller lists. On such moments reputations are made. In 1982, at the age of 28, he was appointed managing director of Macdonald Futura, owned by the late Robert Maxwell.
"We did actually get on quite well," he says of the despotic media baron who left the bitterest of legacies following his 1991 death. "Nevertheless, he used to ring me up at 4am and ask me to present myself in the office in 20 minutes. It was pretty stressful."
Hely Hutchinson left the Maxwell empire in 1986 to set up Headline, his own publishing house, "starting from zero" at his dining room table and building it into an industry powerhouse that would eventually float on the London Stock Exchange.
"It did sometimes feel like crossing the Atlantic in a rowing boat. We couldn't always compete, we had to mend and make do in many ways. They were frightening times, customers went broke. Books that we thought were bestsellers didn't best sell. But there were more good times than bad," he says.
The good times included the acquisition of Hodder & Stoughton to form Hodder Headline and latterly the group's purchase by Hachette Livre in 2004. Hely Hutchinson now sits atop the Hachette UK organisation and has responsibility for all English-language markets outside the US.
If 2011 had been a transformative year for Hachette UK and one in which the company set up a regional office in Dubai, then 2012 could easily be characterised as a year of tumult: EL James's Fifty Shades trilogy, published by rivals Random House, swept all before it, selling millions of copies and catching the rest of the industry almost completely off guard. Meanwhile, Hachette's own blockbuster, The Casual Vacancy, the first novel for grown-ups written by JK Rowling, was met, initially at least, with a degree of head-scratching by critics. Furthermore, at corporate level, the global publishing landscape is likely to be dramatically reshaped later this year if the mooted merger between Random and Penguin is concluded.
However, Hely Hutchinson is not about to call this a tumultuous moment. Instead, he identifies a series of "seismic" shifts in book publishing over the past four decades, in which this latest movement falls neatly into that narrative.
"When I came into publishing, the bestseller lists were shared between 30-40 publishers. Gradually there was this process of conglomeration." Then there was the growth of beautiful book stores, he says, citing Barnes & Nobles in America, among others. That concept, in turn, was overtaken by online booksellers (principally Amazon) and now, the e-book.
"There have been a lot of seismic changes and I have no doubt that in the decades ahead there will be further seismic changes."
Those changes will certainly include the continuing growth of all things digital.
Publishers, he says, will have to be both imaginative and tough to defend themselves "against the marauders". Chief among those raiders are online pirates, although Hely Hutchinson says that threat can be overstated.
"Surveys we've done indicate the leakage of piracy in the developed world is quite small. However, in poorer parts of the world, piracy is a way of life."
Despite such challenges, Hely Hutchinson maintains that "book publishing is making a better transformation to digital than any other [creative] industry," referencing the newspaper world's relatively bumpy journey towards the online horizon and the serial challenges and multiple platform changes the music business has experienced.
"Book publishers have been lucky so far in the sense that they have been able to sell e-books at more or less the same money as they can sell [physical] books and obviously there are inherent efficiencies in e-books in the sense they don't generate returns, you don't have to hold stock and so on. So it's obviously a good transformation so far.
"I can see a scenario where the majority of books are read either on dedicated e-readers or on tablets. In our business, more than 20 per cent of all sales are electronic and in the fiction part of our business it is more than 30 per cent. It really doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that going to 50 per cent.
"The negative side of the digital revolution is that it has made life tough for booksellers and only the most outstanding are likely to survive."
He cites Kinokuniya, spread over a vast area of the Dubai Mall's top floor, as an example of an excellent retailer and one that is likely to thrive, adding that "the UAE is really a good market. It has some fantastic booksellers and a lot of keen readers".
Many of those keen readers have an opinion on The Casual Vacancy, Rowling's debut piece of adult fiction, which emerged to much fanfare last autumn and was billed by its publisher Little, Brown (part of the Hachette UK group) as "a big novel about a small town". Many critics initially found the book less satisfying than that tag line teases - it was described in this newspaper as a book with "no great story to tell" - although, as the dust has settled, a more balanced view has begun to emerge.
"People were really criticising it for not being Harry Potter," says Hely Hutchinson, jumping to the author's defence.
Even the book's sparse yellow and red jacket divided opinion.
"We presented it correctly. The author was most concerned not to mislead Harry Potter readers into thinking that the new book was a popular fantasy. She wanted to tell people that the book is a challenging read," he says.
Interestingly, the paperback edition, which is due for release in the summer, will use more muted colours and cleaner typography, creating an altogether less confrontational aesthetic.
If The Casual Vacancy became the subject of heated discussion last year, self-publishing is an equally hot topic that continues to bubble away, although once again, Hely Hutchinson prefers not to overstate its impact.
"It is more important than vanity publishing was before," he says. "There are quite a few titles that have made it in self-publishing and have then transferred over in a big way to a mainstream.
"Self-publishing is probably taking around one per cent of the market and the fairy tales you read about are the exceptions. The huge majority of self-published books are not very good and not attracting many readers."
He says that publishers tend to select only a small fraction of the manuscripts offered to them (typically one out of every 50 to 100) by literary agents, who operate on similar refusal ratios. "The gatekeeping is there for a reason, but of course, the gatekeepers occasionally get it wrong. So it is possible for a book to be rejected by all the leading publishing houses in Britain and America and still strike a chord with the public."
Contemplating his industry's immediate future, he appears optimistic that it will successfully see out the digital revolution: "I don't think publishers have been at all dopey about this. Most of the time we are ahead of what the market wants."
Nick March is editor of The Review.