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Working In the Book Trade: The Business of Selling Books

Did you know that the UK is the world’s biggest exporter of books?  Publishing is a large and growing industry and the total number of books published in the UK last year was 173,000.  Publishing businesses in the UK alone have a collective annual turnover of £6 billion, making the UK the fifth biggest market in the world after the US, China, Germany, and Japan. On average, the UK publishing industry employs 30,000 people directly and roughly 70,000 people indirectly spread across over 8,000 publishers. Publishing is now a multimedia business and last year digital books accounted 15% of the 360,000,000 physical and eBooks sold. Ebook sales have dropped a little in recent years from 17% to 15%, perhaps because they are being rapidly displaced by digital audio books! These figures give you an idea of the size and importance of the publishing industry.

Earlier in the month, Parissa Bagheri from Atwood Tate was invited back to her alma mater, the University of Greenwich, to attend an event they were holding to discuss Working in the Book Trade: The Business of Selling Books. The panel of speakers included CEO of Bonnier, Perminder Mann, CEO of Hachette, David Shelley, and the Ex-Chairman of Blackwell’s Bookshop Trevor Goul-Wheeker. These leading figures in publishing and the book trade shared their experiences and journeys into publishing, offering advice to those in the audience looking to do the same.  We know a lot of our followers are aspiring publishing professionals or still young in their publishing career, so wanted to share their insights with you too.

CEO of Hachette David Shelley was first up in telling the audience about how he entered the industry. David’s parents owned a second-hand bookshop, so he was exposed to the sales side of publishing from an early age. He began his career as an Editorial Assistant for Alison and Busby (a well-established small publisher).  He kept the company running for 5 years and encompassed problems along the way, such as the book distributor going bust and relocating the office near to Brixton near to where he lived. The owner of Little, Brown asked David if he would consider buying a few books a year as an Editor and he joined the company, which eventually led to his promotion to Publisher, then Head of Division, and finally to his current role running Hachette UK!

Hachette publishes 5,000 books every year and has a staff of 18,000. David explained that the editorial departments receive 1,000 applications for every editorial assistant job, whereas the sales team often only receive around three direct applications. He emphasised the importance of exploring different sectors; foreign rights professionals get to read, travel and correspond with authors whereas, production departments, whilst equally driven and creative focus more on the people and processes in the background. David also advised that publishers are looking for people who are keen to work in finance, also stating that the first two to three years of entering the industry is all about grafting your way through. It is necessary to differentiate yourself from others, don’t rely on just the contacts you have. Don’t be afraid to be bold and fearless in your first year, don’t undersell yourself, and be proud and show off your achievements. People love to mentor younger people, so offer to have coffee with them to show your passion and interest!

His tips for a good cover letter are:

  • Look up the books that your target publisher is publishing and research its heritage
  • Brilliant quality writing – this is a reflection of how well you can communicate
  • Talk about your favourite writers, what are they doing?
  • Be thoughtful and considerate
  • Don’t follow the rules strictly, break rules and disagree!

Bonnier is the sixth largest publishing company in the UK and its CEO Perminder Mann also talked about her experience in the publishing industry. Growing up, she spent much of her time reading, making sure to build up her English vocabulary. She spent time interning and eventually had an interview with Macmillan for a role in its in Special Sales department. She was offered the job, which she explained was quite challenging, but she used the opportunity to gain as much knowledge as she could. Perminder was then promoted in sales and travelled throughout the UK to meet buyers. Later she moved to Transworld (now part of Penguin Random House) as an entrepreneur in a five person team, and faced the problem of not having as much contact or support, constantly having to juggle between having a career and being a mother. She survived that and then moved into children’s publishing, but was travelling too much and decided to move out of publishing altogether.  Publishing isn’t quite like any other industry, though, and she ended up returning when she was offered a position at Bonnier.

Perminder talked about how at Bonnier you don’t have to choose between a career and family, as you can work flexibly she has put benefits in place such as a good a maternity policy.  This is something that Perminder is extremely passionate about given her own experience throughout her career and she is now in the middle of improving paternity pay and continuing to champion equality.

Finally, the ex-chairman of Blackwell’s Bookshop Trevor Goul-Wheeker took to the floor to explain how he fell in love with the publishing industry. Trevor started off as a bookseller and fell in love with the book trade, partly because of the people involved in it. Blackwell’s is a well-known book retailer, but as the digital publishing industry gradually took over, Blackwell’s was forced to start closing stores and were closing 16 high street shops every day. Currently, the UK bookshops account for 41% of books sold with ecommerce accounting for 35% of book sales. However, Trevor stated that bookshop recommendations are still the number one influencer when people are choosing which book to buy.  He believes that bookshops still offer customer engagement and a valued experience and that bookselling and publishing go hand in hand.

All three speakers did emphasise that you do not need a masters to get into publishing; most publishing companies prefer more hands on experience, which shows a variety of skills.  They also all agreed that ecommerce and ebooks are slowly taking over from print as they are easier to access and to read on the go. Audio books are now attracting a new demographic of “readers” and enabling publishers to tap into a new market. Publishers are already and will continue to learn about and develop in the area of audio.

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