John ~ painting by Stuart Davies
Please welcome John. The John. The actual real-life John of John Hunt Publishing Ltd.
How do you introduce yourself at parties?
“Hi. I’m John.”
What led you to becoming a publisher?
I’ld always vaguely assumed I’ld become an academic and live on the state. Did well in exams and so on, but felt a bit of a fraud in academia, not that passionately interested (or that good, really) in any one subject, more omnivorous. Being able to read and write seemed my only qualifications, so took the first job in publishing that came along (selling advertising space).
You are regarded as a forward thinker and innovator. Do you agree?
Not really, if I was, we’ld have been doing this ages ago. I just try and read what genuine innovators are saying. In so far as we’ve made progress, it’s been easier for us than most in that we have less old baggage to carry with us, and because we’re a small company there are simply fewer people you need to take with you.
Part of the way we’ve developed has been down to necessity, part as a way of getting around my own limitations (not very comfortable with meetings, management, confrontation, and all that stuff), part is just seeing some pretty obvious trends, thinking “then what does that mean for us a few years down the road”, and putting the planks in place to get there. The main one of which, recently, has been getting a new team in place who will be better at the job than I was.
What are you thoughts on the publishing industry today?
How long have you got? It feels like running off the edge of a cliff, though some haven’t noticed. You’ve got rapidly declining bookshop shelf space, still ever-faster growth in the number of new titles, migration online, fast-changing technology, plummeting prices in digital, authors (rightly) wanting a larger share of the revenues, and so on. The old model still exists, and needs to be serviced at the same time as you invest in where you need to be. For a small publisher in particular, it’s tricky, but it’s why annually we invest over 10% of our revenues in software.
In one of my jobs back in the early 80s I was in a publishing company which also owned bookshops and a printing plant. Variations of that used to be quite common (still is, in Europe). The definition of what a publisher “is”, what role it plays in the author-to-reader equation, has always been changing. It’s just probably more up for grabs now than at any time before. I don’t know where it will end up, but the fundamentals of people wanting to read and write won’t change.
Have there been any surprises for you?
A few times a day. Mostly negative; “Surely that book should have done better?” “How can she say that about us?””How did we let that slip through the net?” Some positive; nice thank you notes from authors. The fact that I still find the business interesting. That there are so many talented people out there we’ld like to work with.
You have separated JHP into genre specific imprints. What was your thought process for this?
We publish a lot of titles because authors recommend us to other authors and bring their own next books to us etc. Over time, you edge into different subject areas, the existing list gets too unwieldy, hard to promote, hard to find in it the subjects/titles you might be interested in. Long term, the answer has to be in building relationships with specific communities/reader groups. So separating into different imprints and starting new ones was the first step, over the last few months we’ve been building FB pages/blogs etc, and that’s probably where we’ll put an increasing emphasis.
Have you any predictions?
I’m usually wrong. But I think a good publishing model for the future could be one that turns the existing relationships on their head. Instead of “author gets 10%, publisher gets 90% (of which 50% goes to the stores, 10% to the distributor, 15% to sales, 15% to the printer and so on...with whatever variations..) it will be “author gets 90%”. The publisher keeps 10% for their service, and there are options for the author to buy into what they want – so they could do just ebooks and keep 90%, or select print books as well and lose 50% and pay the printer directly through the system, or put more into marketing or enhanced ebooks or whatever. And I know that’s the kind of thing self-publishing houses offer, but that 10% the publisher keeps would be for “quality control”. Ie; the selection and editorial standards and criteria would be just as high as before.
What advice can you share with aspiring authors?
There are as many aspiring authors as there are readers. Think hard about what you have to offer, get advice on it early. Are you adding something distinctive? Start small with articles or short stories/whatever. Get yourself known, to whatever degree, in your peer group. Find your market before you try and publish. Think about whether it’s worth it – maybe you’ld be happier reading than writing. Be prepared for the slog, and enjoy it for its own sake, not to make money.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for asking me.
News from the Muse
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