Evan Davis in the recording studio
I’m writing this four years on from the day we announced the existence of Nosy Crow, so I hope you’ll indulge what is a very personal blog post.
I love the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Bottom Line. I think Evan Davis is a great interviewer – informal but serious, probing but not aggressive – and I really enjoy all the insights I get into different businesses and different ways of thinking.
For people who don’t know it, and who want a book- or app-related way into it, then Books with Victoria Barnsley (then at HarperCollins), Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown and Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, or The App Industry with Touch Press founder Max Whitby would be great places to start.
Anyway, as a fan of the programme, I was hugely flattered to be asked to participate, even if the subject, “Life After CEO” wasn’t necessarily one I’d have chosen, and the other guests, Lord Browne, who ran BP, and Robert Polet, who ran the Gucci Group, were seriously out of my league, having been at the very top of multi-billion pound corporations.
The programme was broadcast yesterday evening, and will be on again on Saturday 22 February.
Participating in the programme meant saying something openly that I hadn’t quite put on the record publicly before: I was fired. That’s why I stopped being a CEO. Just five months into a new role running a big adult imprint in a big publishing corporation, I lost my job. We announced the existence of Nosy Crow four-and-a-half months later. Being fired after over 20 years on the corporate ladder was as painful and humiliating and anxiety-inducing for me as it is for anyone else, even if I justified it by saying that, after just five months, it’s not about measurable performance, but about perception of fit.
Lots of people get fired (or made redundant) and lots of people fear losing their jobs, so I thought that it might be a tiny bit helpful to any of them listening if I said that, yes, it was devastating, but that it wasn’t the end of the world – that there was, indeed, “life after CEO”, or after any kind of job loss, come to that.
Recording the programme – no multiple takes, no rehearsals – required an hour and a half of studio time, from which the radio programme’s 30 minutes is filleted. The programme, rightly, gives most air-time to Lord Browne, whose very public “fall” still feels to me to have something of the Shakespearean tragedy about it.
You can hear what I have to say in the programme. But there were a few things that we talked about that didn’t make the final cut, and I thought that I would share them with you.
Lord Browne talks about “looking in the mirror” to make an honest assessment of what he thought he could do after leaving BP. My version of the same process was to look at a photograph of me as a child – Kate at eight. I thought about what I had been like back then, and what qualities I’d had that had been overlaid and maybe partly obscured by the professional roles that I’d had since. I wondered if there was anything there that might be worth excavating or getting back to. Kate at eight liked books; making things; winning; and trading (I set up a “stall” on the doorstep of our house, selling – at a profit – to other kids in the street individual sweets from packets I’d bought from the newsagent with my pocket money). Kate at eight did not much like authority (this was a bit of a schooling low-point, though things picked up later, academically). Kate at eight, brought up in a pretty hard-core Roman Catholic family, was someone with a strong sense that what you do should really be underpinned by things you believe in. Of course, I was looking back with a particular perspective, and the power we have to shape remembered events in the light of a current situation always makes me think of George Eliot’s pier-glass parable. Maybe I just saw those attributes in Kate at eight because they were the attributes I needed or wanted to see almost forty years later. They are, after all, useful attributes for an entrepreneur who wanted to be a hands-on maker of children’s books and apps that I could be proud of. But I think that these are all attributes that were and are mine, and looking at them hard and weighing them against other attributes did help me to determine my direction.
Kate at eight, though maybe there’s a bit of selective memory going on here
Lord Browne surprised me by speaking of business achievements as “ephemeral” – and in fact I challenged him on it in the programme. He did clarify that he didn’t mean that BP was ephemeral, but something struck me when he contrasted his work at BP with the work he says does for The Tate Galleries. Art, he said, is not ephemeral. And one of the remarkable things about publishing as a business is that there’s a chance that what you make, or what you help others make, won’t be ephemeral either. I’ve just referred to a George Eliot quote from Middlemarch, published 140 years ago. Last year’s Nosy Crow publication, The Princess and the Peas, was as successful as it was partly because of its echoes of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, published 180 years earlier. And one of my inspirations when I was working on our award-winning Little Red Riding Hood app, with its branching narrative pathways, was that there are centuries-old versions of the story in which the wolf asks Little Red Riding Hood what path she’s going to take through the woods. Books written long before my birth shaped my mind as an early reader – Winnie the Pooh, The Secret Garden, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables – and are books I read to my own children. Books published centuries ago are still read and continue to influence new writing, or to be adapted into new stories or new media. I believe that books that are being published today will be read decades, even centuries, after their publication – not all of them, of course, but some of them. And you can’t always tell which ones will become the classics: I often say that I printed 1,500 copies of The Gruffalo in hardback, because, at that point in its history, that was a perfectly sensible estimate of the number of copies it would sell. Publishing, at its best, is about doing things that make a difference, and doing things that last.
Robert Polet and Lord Browne both talked about waiting for several months before they took on new roles after their final corporate CEO jobs. I spoke about knowing that I wanted to start a children’s publishing company within 12 hours of being fired. But I also said that I hadn’t absolutely managed to hold onto that certainty through the next few months. I spent a bit of time exploring whether there were alternative jobs for me either inside or outside the book industry. Because the truth is that, even if it’s tempting to think you could do it, it is pretty scary to set up a company and to be an entrepreneur. I knew how it felt as a corporate employer to have people depending on me for to pay for the supermarket shop and the kids’ shoes, and was fearful of letting people down. I knew how it felt, even as a successful corporate employee, to sometimes make mistakes and to lose money, and was anxious about losing not just corporate funds but money that belonged to individuals, including me. I was afraid of failing – and like everyone else, I knew that the stats on new business survival weren’t great. But the idea – the dream, really – of being the boss of an independent children’s publishing company was one that I’d pushed to the back of my mind for years and wouldn’t go away. At the same time that I was trying to create a shape for my shapeless days, and meeting up with publishers and headhunters, I was also planning Nosy Crow, and quite soon, that plan took over. I suppose that I what I am trying to say is that, in my experience, finding out what you want to be and do next is sometimes not a linear process, either practically or psychologically.
Evan Davis asked about looking back at the companies you’ve left. I don’t think much about my brief time in adult publishing – can’t remember much of it, to be honest (which is not to say that I didn’t meet, and keep in contact with, great individuals from that time) – but I do think back with affection and some pride to Macmillan Children’s Books and Scholastic UK. Evan Davis asked if there was a part of each of us that wanted companies we’d left to do worse without us. I didn’t and don’t. I have friends (staff, authors, illustrators) still at each of those companies who I like to see safe and happy. Besides, in the case of Macmillan and Scholastic, the next person to run the company was someone from my management team that I’d worked closely with and really rated. And it’s also true that the length of time it takes from contracting a book to its publication meant, in the case of both companies, that there were books that were acquired on my watch but that weren’t published until ages afterwards: if you remember the excitement of reading a proof of The Hunger Games on a plane back from New York and deciding to publish it, you can’t feel blase about what happens to the series afterwards. So I think I clapped as hard as anyone on the Scholastic table when Scholastic UK won the Book Industry Award for Children’s Publisher of the Year last year. The thing about businesses is that your success is partly determined by whether they’d be OK without you. It’s a bit like being a parent: they depend on you completely when they are little and new, but the bigger and older they get, the more proud you are, and the more necessary it is, that they are independent of you. I think that the thing that made me lumpy-throatiest about our recent IPG award shortlistings was that we had not one but two people on the Young Independent Publisher of the Year Award shortlist. I’m not planning on going anywhere, but being able to develop the independence and skills of talented people is, for me, one of the best – most fulfilling and fun – things about being a boss, and it’s essential to the future success of Nosy Crow. I talked about making things in relation to making books, but I like making companies too.
Both Lord Browne and Robert Polet talked about the freedom they were enjoying since leaving their big CEO jobs. Robert Polet spoke about calling his wife as he exited Gucci HQ to say “this is the final step” in their walk to freedom. I don’t think I felt unbearably trammelled by my most of my corporate jobs… and I certainly learned a lot while I was doing them. At Macmillan and Scholastic, in particular, I worked for people (including Adrian, but that’s another story) who were, generally, pretty supportive of me and of my ideas, though I doubt I was the easiest report that they had. But, still, I certainly feel more free at Nosy Crow. There’s no question that it’s easier for us, as an independent company, to make our highly experimental digital products – which we started making before the device on which they are used even existed – than it would be if they had to fight their way for approval through a traditional large-scale publishing machine. There’s no question that it was easier for us, as an independent company, to make our first John Lewis Christmas advertisement book quickly and without fuss than it would have been to make it as a big corporate. I’ve written more about the advantages of small-scale, independent publishing here. As I said at the end of the programme, I love the freedom we have, even if it comes at a cost: as a company wholly owned by five individuals, we have more aspiration than cash funds. Of course, we could “sell” our freedom, raising money by selling shares and reducing our independence, but, right now, we value our freedom even more than what we could do with the extra dosh.
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