The Bookseller: Iain Dale of Politico’s Publishing explains why he sold his company to Methuen and implores booksellers to take political books seriously.
Ten weeks ago Politico’s Publishing was sold to Methuen. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but it was a move that was inevitable if we wanted to see the company grow. I imagine that I am no different to most publishers when I say that I dread the day when most of my time is spent looking at balance sheets and discussing bottom lines. And I could see that day rapidly approaching.
For three years we had published between 20 and 25 titles a year and had clearly identified a small but significant gap in the publishing market, yet to exploit that gap more fully we realised we would have to expand the company’s financial resources beyond our own immediate capability. Either that or merge with another publisher and benefit from their size and economies of scale. Methuen emerged as a natural fit and we have been delighted at the way it is working out so far.
Sean Magee, our Publishing Director and one of the best known names in the political publishing world, was the catalyst for the deal as he is a Methuen author. Last year Methuen published his history of Ascot. They and he were both gutted that he lamentably failed to win the Virgin Sports Book of the Year award. I am told that a Virgin Books title won. Funny that. Anyway, back to Methuen. Sean returned from last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair and just casually mentioned that he “might have sold the company to Methuen”. Now I know that Frankfurt often has deep effects on his liver, but to have addled his brain too was quite an achievement.
But it did set me thinking. Was this the right time? What would the effect on the company be? Could I personally go from being in total control to effectively working for someone else? What would it mean for the number and types of books we could publish? Would we have to change the way we work in order to conform to another organisation?
And so began a few months of the publishing equivalent of canine bottom sniffing. Peter Tummons of Methuen and I hit it off from the start. He’s a straightforward person to deal with and it soon became apparent that we both really wanted to do a deal. The devil lay in the accounting detail, but the main thing was that we both agreed on the potential of our list and the possibilities for expansion. Peter made it clear that he saw our list expanding to 35 or 40 titles a year fairly quickly.
Perhaps the best thing from my point of view as a commissioning editor is the ability to go after books which might before have been beyond my financial reach. We have never been able to pay large advances, and in general, haven’t paid advances at all. As someone who started a publishing company with absolutely no knowledge of publishing at all, I have often questioned some of the generally accepted practices in the industry – often to the astonishment and general bewilderment of Sean Magee – and the economics of paying large advances were never very attractive to me! And to be honest I do not see that changing in the future.
How on earth Hodder have survived by paying huge advances to the likes of Michael Heseltine, Ted Heath and Mo Mowlem and then publishing God-awful books which haven’t exactly troubled the bestseller lists I dread to think. Someone somewhere must have very deep pockets. What on earth is the point of paying over the odds just to stop another publisher getting the book?
However, joining up with a bigger company does indeed mean that we can compete with other political publishers like Profile for books which before might have been beyond us. We debated whether to go after Robin Cook’s book, but I’m glad we didn’t bother. Simon & Schuster have reputedly shelled out £350,000 for what will inevitably be a hastily written book on the Blair government since the 2001 election. How on earth they expect to make a profit out of it I’d love to know. With the serial market for political books a fraction of what it was only two years ago and a likely hardback sale of fewer than 10,000 it is a sum that frankly beggars belief.
Since we started Politico’s six years ago I seem to have spent half my time with a microphone under my nose trying to convince a sceptical world that political memoirs are really rather a good thing. No, really! They are, I tell you! But what makes a political memoir successful? Do they have to be bestsellers to be successful and be described as “good books”?
If one judges a book on sales then there have been only a few successful political memoirs in the last decade - Margaret Thatcher’s, John Major’s and Denis Healey’s. But what about those that fail to trouble the cash registers too often? Most pundits consider them failures because they fail to see more than a few thousand copies. But the truth is that the real treasures often lie undiscovered among these titles.
I still maintain that one of the best books I have published was Fourth Among Equals by the former gang of four member Bill Rodgers. Beautifully crafted and extremely well reviewed, it only sold about 1500 copies. But do I regret it? No.
It may not have sold many copies but it still ‘washed its face’ as the saying goes. My hope is that becoming part of a larger organisation will not prevent us from publishing the odd book which we know is good even if we know it won’t sell huge numbers.
But like everyone else we are dependent on bookshops to actually stock our books if we wish to be successful in expanding our list. Sadly the time is coming when many smaller publishers face the prospect of bypassing the booktrade almost entirely if they wish to sell their books.
We know there is a market for our books, and an expanding one. It is a myth that people are no longer interested in politics, and those bookshops that have shrunk their politics section to two shelves might soon live to regret it. Not everyone is into Jamie Oliver and people won’t buy the books if they are not on display. Increasingly they are buying their books from online retailers. It is now commonplace for us to sell 10 to 20% of a print run of one of our books through Amazon.
Speaking to other smaller political publishers they tell the same story. They say that because high street bookshops won’t stock political books anymore unless they are published by Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House or Macmillan, they are forced to market them through direct mail, bypassing bookshops altogether, and on Amazon. So my message to the high street booksellers is simple. There’s a market in this country for political books and if you won’t service it there are plenty of online retailers who will.
I remain very bullish about the prospects for political publishing. Politics in this country are becoming interesting again. We are clearly nearer to the end of the Blair government than to its beginning. Political controversy is back on the front pages. People are beginning to get angry. And when people get angry there are books to be written. Hopefully, many of them will come to Politico’s!