One of the brightest stars in international publishing, David Shelley, 41, who took over as CEO, Hachette UK, in January, has many successes up his sleeves, not least as the editor and nurturer of authors such as Stephenie Meyer, Val McDermid, Sarah Waters and JK Rowling (in her post-Harry Potter avatar). In Delhi to celebrate a decade of publishing conglomerate Hachette in India, Shelley spoke of the potential of the audio-book, working with Rowling and why he strives for diversity in publishing. Edited excerpts:
What sort of changes are you looking to implement in your new role?
Hachette has been a successful company with an incredibly stable management, so I want to continue that. But, that said, you want to keep changing with the times. One thing very important to me is understanding consumers better. A lot of the big tech companies have a really sophisticated understanding of consumer behaviour, say, something like Netflix. So that’s something I would like to go into.
You have been a strong advocate of audio books. How do you assess its future? Does it have any prospect in India?
What’s really interesting is that in the UK, we have seen a growth of 30-50 per cent every year for the last three years. That is above and beyond the growth we have seen anywhere else in the book market. In India, I think it will start later but there’s enormous potential. The UK market is growing because of smartphone use, and, obviously, if you look at smartphone penetration, in India, it is extraordinary. The exciting thing is that people who don’t read are listening to audio and they are not necessarily thinking of them as books; they are not thinking of themselves as readers. They just like listening to stuff that inspires them or entertains them.
Hachette has completed a decade in India. What’s the plan going ahead?
It’s been an amazing first 10 years. The good thing about our list is that it is not confined to literary fiction or a narrow notion of what Indian writing is. Hachette in the UK has been known for a wide range of publishing, including commercial, which includes Nicholas Sparks, Stephen King or John Grisham. I’d like to think that in India we might find the Indian Grisham or the Indian Stephen King.
How important are bestseller lists in determining what you choose to publish?
I have never been a tremendous believer in bestseller lists. We have some very successful books that have never hit a bestseller list. One example I would give is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Certainly, in the UK, people are obsessed by the Sunday Times bestseller list. Shantaram has never been on the Times bestseller list, but we have sold that over a million copies. It’s nice for a writer or a publisher when his book gets on that list, but we always try not to see too much of it… there are so many books that sell incredibly well without getting on the list.
You have led Hachette’s drive for diversity in publishing. What does that entail?
This is something that’s incredibly important to me. We are trying to make ourselves the employer and publisher of choice for everyone, irrespective of religion, gender, sexuality, education — anything at all. We started a programme called Changing the Story two years ago. Certainly, in London, there can be a perception of publishers being a little bit snooty or a certain sort of person. So, with the programme, we have done a lot of paid internships for people from all sorts of backgrounds. We have had a programme where people (from within the company) apply for a mentoring scheme if they don’t feel that someone like them is represented on our board. Last year was the first year of the mentoring. It was incredibly powerful. I think it made everyone on the board think a lot about what our board is, what we want to be, how representative it is, and, I hope, it helped some talented people in the organisation know what steps they need to take to be on the board. I hope, in 10 years’ time, when we talk, I would be able to say that we have a fully representative, fully inclusive board.
Has this range started showing up in the books that you publish?
The most exciting thing, of course, has been that there are a lot more ideas flowing out from the company at all levels. For instance, we have published a guy called KSI (controversial YouTube star) and he is quite hard-hitting. I don’t think he is someone who traditional publishing would have necessarily spotted, but, because we are a more diverse business, that came up and it was an enormous bestseller. We have recently launched an imprint called Dialogue Books, which will try to publish writers from all sorts of backgrounds — writers, perhaps, with a disability, or from countries that have not been covered by normal British publishing. Some people have written things like, I have never felt confident of approaching a publisher before because I was never sure that publishing wanted someone like me. So that’s exciting, opening up those doors.
You have been a partner in crime with JK Rowling on the Robert Galbraith series. But you have known her since The Casual Vacancy or do you go back even before that?
I didn’t know her from before. Her agent Neil Blair had sent the manuscript and had asked me for lunch. When I got to the restaurant, I saw Neil and I waved to him and then I saw that he was sitting with a blonde-haired woman who had her back to me. I sort of thought it was going to be just Neil and me going to the restaurant. Then she turned around and said, ‘Hi, I am Jo’ and I was like ‘I know who you are’ and it went from there.
So what can we expect from Galbraith next? How many books are left in the series?
No one knows the answer to that. I think there are a lot more adventures that Cormoran’s going to have. Robert is very busy at the moment writing the next one. I don’t know when it’s going to be, but it will be worth it whenever it is.