eBooks Marketing and Technology Innovations

Interview with HaperCollins CEO in Economic Times. Innovations still do not rule over books in publishing: HarperCollins UK CEO Charlie Redmayne by Malini Goyal.

The digital wave is sweeping the world, and nowhere is it being felt more than in the publishing industry. HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and among the top five publishers in the world, has been experimenting with a range of digital initiatives — from dynamic pricing of books to partnerships with companies like online digital library Scribd. In 2013, the publisher appointed Charlie Redmayne as the chief executive of HarperCollins UK (who also oversees the India business). Redmayne came with diverse experience, with stints at media buying company RCL Communications and Blink TV, and was founder of teen internet firm MyKindaPlace, which got acquired by BSkyB and JK Rowling's Pottermore, a digital publisher. For the Etonian who has also served in the army and is half-brother of the Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne, this is his second stint at HarperCollins. As the company celebrates its 25th anniversary, Redmayne shares his perspective on India, experiments with digital and the future. Edited excerpts from an interview with Malini Goyal: 

On India's publishing industry 

India is an exciting, huge publishing market with great history and future. It has always been a market for more serious books — great literary fiction and serious nonfiction. That remains. But to this is getting added the new fast growing category of popular fiction, which is introducing reading to younger people who were not reading earlier. This is brilliant for publishing. 

Five years back, almost 80% of our list was literary fiction and nonfiction with a smattering of commercial fiction and almost no children's publishing. Today, commercial fiction and nonfiction is 40% and when the children's list is restarted later this year, it will be about 10%. A challenge we find with children's books in India is to get homegrown authors. We are working on that. Sales in India are now beginning to reflect the patterns in countries like the UK where the business is very developed. 

On working with JK Rowling's Pottermore 

JK Rowling is a hugely impressive person who thinks in a very different way. She has created this whole new world and her books offer just a narrow corridor to that world. That's the reason why her stories are so rich. She is somebody who changed my mind more than anybody else. Any new idea I get I always go what if... With JK, she would go 'what if ' one step further than me. There I learnt that one needs to work with the right partners to tell different forms of stories. We worked with Sony to create this Book of Spells (an augmented reality video game for the Play-Station 3). 

On Amazon and the digital wave 

In the past, there was a value chain — the author, an agent, a publisher, a retailer and a consumer and each of them had a role to play. That value chain is changing and everybody is turning a publisher. But as a publisher we have to continue to add value. We have really great editors and a great editorial. 

A great marketing team and multiple distribution channels that help get books discovered and sold. Amazon does not do all of that. Also, Amazon as a company is very focused on self-publishing books. So we need to figure out how can we add value. Amazon is a frenemy. It is incredibly powerful and as a publishing firm we do work with them but they are also a threat. 

Indian economy is unique. Mostly cash-based with independent stores, it is at a different stage than other countries. eBooks contribute under 2% of India sales. Globally, its share is upwards of 20%. In India, the change is still on the way. Amazon sees a big market here. 

On learnings from digital experiments 

In 2008, when I came here, we did some experiments with audio and eBooks. We thought people could switch between eBooks and audio seamlessly while reading a book. But it didn't work. We also experimented by offering enhanced features like videos with eBooks. We realised that just because you can does not mean you should and that enhancing could be distracting and costly too. We learnt that additional audio and video features work well for non-fiction, educational and children's books. But don't put it in the middle of fiction. Also pick the right partner when you do some of these things. 

On dynamic pricing and data analytics 

We now have guys with PhDs in mathematics who help us understand how retailing works. Based on algorithms, we have dynamic pricing now that helps us maximise a book's value. At times, we may choose to give away profit to build the author for future. Data analytics has helped us become more process driven. There are metrics on which we analyse what worked and what didn't. However, this is a creative business. You have to take chances. You read a brilliant manuscript, publish it, put a great cover and market it brilliantly. Yet, it may not sell. But you have got to do what you believe in. 

On why e-book sales declined in 2016 

People read e-books when they first got their devices. But they also want to read physical books. The Amazon deal with publishers in 2015 (Hachette, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster, besides HarperCollins) too pushed up e-book prices. (Last year Apple lost a case where it was accused of collusion with publishers to manipulate and jack up ebook prices. Also, Amazon, which controls about 75% of the US e-book market and had set a low price ceiling of $9.99, decided to let prices rise.) 

On the buzz that geeks are taking over the industry 

I do not think so. I had gone to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show to listen to a technology investor who had made billions. On what he looks for while hiring a CEO, he said 'he must be the best at something. Whatever it is. And then he needs to surround himself with brilliant people in other areas he is not good at'. So I will try and add value the way I can. 

On the experiment of phone publishing by Chiki Sarkar's Juggernaut 

She (co-founder Chiki Sarkar) is a smart lady. What she is trying to do is challenging. What I know is that the fundamentals of the business hasn't changed. It doesn't matter how good you are in digital content and marketing. The center of publishing will always will be producing good books. Other things like marketing, consumer insights and technology can help amplify the business. But the book remains at the core. 


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