Creating a List
2 Apr 2006
Trevor Dolby joined HarperCollins as the Publisher for HarperEntertainment in the latter half of 2004.
He began his career creating and writing highly illustrated books for Michael Joseph and Mitchel Beazley, later moving on to be Science Editor at the venerable publisher John Murray. In the mid 1980s he joined Paul Hamlyn’s eponymous company, eventually running the illustrated publishing division. From the large to the small, he then became Publishing Director of Pavilion, and then back to the large by joining Orion to create the one of the most successful non-fiction lists of the last ten years and Orion audio, which culminated in his winning the ‘Editor and Imprint of the Year’ at the British Book Awards in 2003. His expertise in book and film rights has made him a regular panellist and speaker on publishing rights and television, most recently at Cannes MIPCOM last year and at the LBF this year, and was Non-Executive Director of the highly respected and successful production company Maverick TV for 5 years, specialising in retaining and exploiting intellectual property rights.
As Publisher, Trevor specialises in commissioning high-profile celebrity autobiographies and TV tie-ins, including U2 by U2, The Richard and Judy Wine Guide, Whicker’s War and Rik Mayall’s explosive Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ, as well as The Python’s Autobiography by The Pythons whilst at Orion. He also takes pleasure in championing more general works of popular non-fiction, including James Holland’s Malta trilogy, Julia Neuberger’s The Moral State We’re In, and, whilst at Orion, Dave Pelzer’s ground-breaking trilogy.
Spring is perhaps the toughest time of the year for publishers of non-fiction. It's the time when we find out if all our plans are coming together for the critical autumn publishing period. Over half the non-fiction books are published in the last four months of the year. As Tom Lehrer sang in his alternative 'Christmas Carol'
.God rest ye merry, merchants, May you make the yuletide pay. Angels we have heard on high Tell us to go out and buy!...
It's generally reckoned that you can sell perhaps three times as many hardcovers of a big celebrity biography on the run up to Christmas than if you publish the same book in the spring. It's even more stark for humour titles. It's almost impossible to make a humour bestseller outside the Christmas period.
So that's easy then. Publish all your big books in the autumn and voila, job done. But then everyone thinks like that and the competition is rabid at that time of year and, as happened in the run up to Christmas 2005, just two or three books rocket away leaving the rest behind. That's what preoccupies popular non-fiction publishers like me: where is the next blockbuster coming from.
It wasn't always like this. I made my name - such as it is - when I was Publishing Director of Non-Fiction at Orion buying books like Dave Pelzer's Child Called It, The Darwin Awards, the Autobiography of David Essex, Martin Kemp and many others. Those were the days when you could buy things for a competitive advance and 'make' them by cultivating partnerships with the retailers and through clever marketing and publicity. It's not quite as simple now, but it can still be done as Little Brown did with Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round or Gloria Hunniford’s Next to You, last year. Above all, the answer is to get Richard and Judy to endorse your wares – more on that later.
My job is to create a balanced list of big celebrity books, gift books, humour, illustrated and popular history where the risk is spread. At one end we pay big advances creating books which, of course, must be well-written and presented, but which are effectively tie-ins to a celebrity’s brand. At the other end we are looking for series of books, as it is difficult to create backlist in popular non-fiction. For example we publish Simpson’s books, Blanchard business books, Edwards Monkton series, Halliwell’s film guides and The Good Web Site Guide.
We also look for writers such as James Holland who is one of the great new young historians and who might write a book every two years and who we can build. We also keep an eye out for interesting books which might just capture people's imagination and take off. This year we have bought a science book called Survival of the Sickest about the way disease has shaped human survival.
It is not a case of targeting new or established writers or writers of a certain age or gender. It’s about the books. Can the author write? Have they a good idea? Have I got a space in my list at the appropriate time of year to publish their book well? Have I got a track record in this area which I can exercise when presenting the book to the retailers? If it’s an established author we can check on what’s called TCM (Total Consumer Market) sales figures for the sales of their previous books. This can be a very good thing if the figures are high then the retailers will look at the author’s track record and support their next book. If not then they will need some more persuading. This can be rather invidious as it takes no account of how an author is developing in their writing or whether their latest offering is quite simply a better book.
All these considerations contribute to the acquisition thought process. Across all types of publishing from literary fiction to popular non-fiction these considerations are pretty much the same. What makes a difference is the taste and personality of the acquiring editor. Taste: have they a nose for a good book (well-written, commercial and all those indefinable things that give a book ‘it’). Personality: are they passionate, committed, willing to work for their ideas defend them when things get tough, be a persuasive champion? Sure, like anything else, you have to have a hit rate. The more hits you have the easier it is to bring your colleagues on board.
One of the great privileges is being in a position to come up with ideas and make them happen. I try and encourage all my colleagues and editors to make the question ‘would this make a good book’ a question they ask about everything they read or see. It’s easier in non-fiction of course, but some fiction publishers see this as part of developing their authors and their list – would this journalist/columnist make a good author. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary came from her newspaper column and was spotted by Peter Strauss at Picador.
My part of the business publishes about 50 new books a year and I try and aim for maybe 15 or so of these to have come from our own ideas. We then contact agents and develop things with them and their author. It doesn’t mean necessarily that you get a book any cheaper. What it does mean is that you as an editor get the chance to deal on an exclusive basis and to have perhaps more input in shaping the book at the ideas stage. This gives the editor the opportunity to, perhaps, establish a collaboration which might go on for years.
But back to my end of the business. In the end I deal in commercial hits. There are parts of the company who are judged partly on winning awards as this gives character and personality to a publishing company, helps distinguish them from other houses and can project a cache which may attract other authors. I certainly want to win awards but my main aim is commercial success. On the one hand I have to make sure I have, as they say in films, the big ‘Marquee’ projects, but I also have to have the independent low budget books which might just hit the jackpot.
Does this mean that there is now no room for what we used to call ‘midlist books’: books that are not expected to become mega sellers but which are well-written, will find a constituency, add to the lustre of the imprint or publishing house and whose author might develop? Yes there is, of course, still room for these books. But ten years ago a ‘midlist’ book might sell 10,000 hard covers whereas today it might sell 3,000 or 4000 copies. Does that mean that it these books are in fact not ‘midlist’ but ‘bottom of the list’ and so not worth doing? Not necessarily. It’s down to how much is paid for the book and what spin, in terms of creative marketing and publicity, the publisher and author can bring to maximise sales. A ‘midlist’ book can still be commercially and critically successful. For example, last year I bought Alan Whicker’s account of his war time experiences in Italy from the splendid and renowned agent Andrew Lownie. I paid a not insignificant amount of money but it was in the scheme of things very manageable. The book went on to sell 60,000 copies reached the Sunday Times Bestseller list and earned Alan a handsome amount over and above the advance. The book was applauded by the critics and we worked hard with Alan to make that book commercially successful. He was superb in tirelessly promoting the book and we backed this up not with vast amounts of cash but with time and energy. You can do the same with fiction. But again this depends on the energy and commitment of the editor and the team.
So what is in the cards for publishing in the next few years? For sure publishing is certainly becoming more and more a hits business. On Wednesday last week the British Book Awards were held at the Grosvenor House in London and televised on Channel Four on Saturday evening. Any of you who saw that must have been amused to see Lauren Becall, Jo Rowling and Alan Bennett on the same stage as Chantelle from Big Brother and two of the cast from the BBC hit TV series ‘Life on Mars’, all presented by the dynamic duo of daytime Richard and Judy. Amanda Ross, producer of Richard and Judy, was voted most powerful person in publishing in the Observer the week before and the trade has been knocked sideways by the fact that R&J can now turn a literary novel like ‘Shadow of the Wind’ into a huge bestseller.
Waterstones are trying to buy Ottakars with the Competition Commission looking at whether this would limit choice. The supermarkets are discounting heavily and the bookshops are following suit, cutting hardback prices by half and demanding terms from publishers. Amazon now account for around 8% of the total book sales in the UK. The Digital Library concept is becoming a battle ground for Google and Amazon and publishers. Publishers are afraid that they will now longer hold the ‘rights’ to the ‘content’. Agents are afraid they are going to give away a valuable new revenue stream for them and their authors. It’s complex and confusing and fast moving. For an interesting but rather fanciful glimpse of one potential future, Google ‘Epic 2014’.
Me? I’m pretty optimistic as it goes. There is something perfect about a book… printed on paper with cardboard round it, with a nice printed jacket, portable and accessible… stores well… easily searched via a device called an ‘index’… not reliant on batteries…