The MT Interview: Victoria Barnsley

The founder of Fourth Estate made a million selling her acclaimed niche publisher to UK number three HarperCollins - and took the top job there. An entrepreneur at heart, she relishes signing big-buck deals with celebs like David Beckham, Greg Dyke and Jon Snow. But don't call her a sell-out ...

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Victoria Barnsley is perched on the edge of a nondescript armchair in her book-strewn fourth-floor office at Harper-Collins, talking. Outside, down the scruffy end of London's Hammersmith, the rumble of traffic is just audible. Inside, in the glasshouse calm of HarperCollins' widely atriumed headquarters, Barnsley's dynamo of poshly loquacious energy just keeps on turning.

'Frankly, there is too much of everything, isn't there?' she says, arching a knowing eyebrow. 'Too many books published, too many publishers, too much retail space, everyone is fighting for market share, retailers are focused on a handful of big frontlist titles that they can market the hell out of ... that puts huge pressure on publishers, one or two books a year can make the difference between a successful year or not, if you're Penguin it's Jamie Oliver ...'

Sometimes it's hard to detect where she is taking a breath, so fast is the flow - no full stops, certainly very little room to pop in another question. She is, it seems, indomitable, and certainly uninterruptable.

And that helps, you'd guess, for an executive who has jumped from running her own acclaimed but tiny company, Fourth Estate, to heading Britain's third-biggest publisher, part of one of the largest media groups in the world, News Corp.

'I went from 36 people to 1,100,' she says, smiling at the absurdity of it. 'I'd never worked in a big company, ever, and there were functions here that I'd never even dreamt of, but I had done every job in publishing - which is an advantage, as not every boss of a big company can say that.

I'd done production, I'd done editorial, I'd done rights selling, probably even helped design a book jacket somewhere down the line. But, of course, I'd never had an HR department, didn't even know what that meant - I thought it was called personnel. Oh, and the joy of having your own IT department ...'

Barnsley, just 50, short, confident and very well spoken, is a terrific talker - no wonder authors, agents and colleagues get swept along in the tide of her enthusiasm. It has propelled her from left-field entrepreneur to big-company boss with a barely a twitch of visible discomfort in the transition.

Since she took over the top slot at HarperCollins UK four years ago, she has given the publisher a ferocious shake and a new profile, adding to what was already a formidable sales machine a frisson of fashionable glamour and a willingness to take risks that has surprised a few. In particular, she has upped the ante in the book world's continual poker game of who gets what advance, paying out large sums to star authors as unlikely as England captain David Beckham (£1.5 million), Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow (£650,000, according to rumour), now-departed Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri and former BBC boss Greg Dyke.

Some say she is bonkers to pay so much for what are basically celebrity works, others that she is completely media-obsessed. A few have also waspishly pointed out that, like the surprised economy passenger offered an upgrade to first-class, Barnsley enjoys the publishing high life rather too much: lots of jetsetting to America, dining in the best restaurants, signing up London's movers and shakers for book deals that, say critics, are more about who she wants to hang out with than profit on the bottom line.

Barnsley herself, daughter of the former Tube Investments boss Tom Barnsley, has heard it all before and shrugs it off. Publishing, she says, has always been like that. She just loves business - not 'the business', as most book bosses say, but business itself: having ideas, putting money in, getting profit out, motivating the team, plotting the future.

Listening to her, you realise that like many entrepreneurs, it's not so much about the product as about the process, the game and the result.

And in literary land, where books and writing seem so terribly important, that could be a problem. Hence the feeling among some that Barnsley covers her commercialism by being a larger-than-life character, all hair flicks and bustling dynamism and head-girl enthusiasms that are ever-so-close to a Private Eye parody, as if her sheer brio can brush aside any misgivings.

But you don't get to run a valuable part of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire by brio alone. HarperCollins bought out Fourth Estate, bringing it into the group and pushing Barnsley up to run the lot, because it believed she could add something extra. What's surprised many is how readily she has slotted into big corporate life - HarperCollins takes 9.4% of the UK market, behind Penguin (11.4%) and Random House (14.7%) - especially after nearly two decades of running a small publisher such as Fourth Estate.

'I'll be absolutely honest,' she says. 'I wanted to play on a bigger stage, and my editors wanted to play on a bigger stage too. We were all ready, we'd spent long enough in a garrett living hand-to-mouth, doing small-publisher things, and we felt it would be a new experience.'

What she has tried to do, she says, is bring the advantages of being small to bear on an organisation that can't help being big. 'There are hugely good things about being a big company: the strength you have, the economies of scale; but there are also terribly bad things: poor communication and creativity.

Large companies are just not a good environment for creativity, and I do think that is because of the bureaucracy. Small teams of people are what make creativity work.'

She spent much of her first three years at HarperCollins putting in the people she wanted, and releasing the firm from the old ways of doing things, creating what she hopes is a more entrepreneurial, less male culture.

There have been high-profile exits, imprints have gone, some bad feeling, but it had to be done, she says.

'It had all got fantastically centralised, and very hierarchical. No-one would take a decision on things, stuff was coming on my desk here that I would have delegated to others at Fourth Estate. I'm trying to cascade decision-making down, make people more accountable but have more ownership - all the old cliches, if you like. But in our business it is about spotting more winners and really publishing the hell out of them so they stand out in a glutted market.'

In short, she wants the firm to run as an amalgamation of little teams.

'Run it like a lot of small publishers, then do other things that make sense centrally, like buying paper. Those are services for the publishing teams. Before I came here, they were controlling the publishing teams. Obviously, I am talking about an ideal world and we haven't got there yet.'

Others who know Barnsley back the changes and the way she's gone about them. 'Vicky's fun, she's irreverent, she's not frightened to speak her mind and she has a very clear vision. She's a good leader,' says Jonathan Lloyd, chief executive of the Curtis Brown agency.

'Vicky is very good at recruiting excellent people,' says Faber & Faber chief executive Stephen Page, who used to work with her, 'and then allowing them to be free. She expects them to move into the spaces she creates.'

Both agree that all the major publishers are much better run than they were a decade ago, with higher-calibre staff and better leadership. HarperCollins had to change to keep up.

Barnsley compares what she is trying to do with the changes Greg Dyke tried to push through the BBC - no surprise there, as she has just been reading through the draft of his new book and is keen to give it a plug.

'I have been fascinated by what he was doing. It's a similar sort of problem, very interesting. The chapters on cultural change are fascinating because it is so similar, and we've got the woman who helped him coming in here to talk to managers. So we've started, but it is a long, slow process.'

Dyke has written his book in just four months, a rush dictated by the need to get non-fiction titles onto the market fast if they are pegged to recent events. Likewise a forthcoming title by Ranieri about his season at Chelsea - big books by well-known names that will be given a big marketing push. It's symptomatic of the way the retail market has changed, with many shops wanting to carry less product, but more heavily promoted. Bad for choice?

Barnsley shrugs. The truth, she says, is that publishers make more from the big books like Beckham's autobiography than they do from producing a greater number of smaller titles. Where publishers lose money, she says, is on the middle-size advances to lesser-known authors - £20,000-£60,000 - because there are simply too many titles around and many just can't get noticed. She cites some figures.

'In 1934, there were less than 10,000 books published in Britain and America. In 1974 that had gone up to 25,000. In 2004, in the UK alone there will be 125,000 new books published. It's never been so easy to be published, but the sad thing is that many of these books are not very well published or see much of the light of day.' And, increasingly, retailers don't want to fill shelf space with older books as a convenience to readers.

'Retailers are focusing more on frontlist titles rather than backlist, and, frankly, it's difficult for them to run libraries on the high street. They have got commercial realities, and it is in everyone's interests to publish less.'

And newspaper deals? For some time the market appears to have been skewed by the willingness of newspapers to pay vast sums for serial rights for titles that actually have little market appeal, such as politicians' memoirs.

Barnsley, according to trade sources, has been adept at tying in authors to News Corp's newspaper stable, but she says that, actually, the publisher makes very little from such deals.

'No, the author makes it, and I would never want to do a book just because it has a big serial deal. The profit we make is not from that but from the books' sales. Look at the Edwina Currie deal; that was a big serial deal, but it didn't sell the book. And that would be disastrous, as it may have covered the advance but it didn't make any money.'

So signing on well-known faces like Snow is not about milking their profile?

No, she says, it's about her hunch that there is a growing market for serious, opinionated but readable political books, as suggested by Michael Moore's recent successes. 'And I read some of Jon's book last weekend and it is utterly brilliant, and I am having lunch with him next week and I think it is the book of the moment. He has got a real take on what has happened in the last 20 years, the whole west and Arab world thing.'

And how does that leave his position as an objective newscaster? 'I don't think it causes him any problem and I am sure he has thought of that, anyway. But I do think there is a mood now to trust journalists rather than politicians.'

Like all the best publishers, Barnsley has built a career on backing hunches. Sometimes, on her own admission, she gets them wrong, but the key is to move on and find something else before the error sinks the ship.

It was that way with Fourth Estate, a firm she set up under the Business Expansion Scheme when the small publisher she worked for after university folded under her feet. She thought there would be a market for books of current affairs journalism - hence the firm's name - but swiftly discovered she was very wrong. 'It's not predictable enough and it does go out of date too quickly, so I jettisoned that very fast and realised we needed fiction, as you have to have a backlist - that is your bread and butter.'

Those early years were 'a bit bumpy'. She'd been helped to start up by her father, who had written her business plan and had long experience of running bigger companies - though absolutely none of the book trade and its quirks, such as the practice of sale or return, which he forgot to account for. 'It's a pretty mad business really,' she laughs.

She cites her father as a key influence, trained as an accountant but with good people skills. Her mother was an English teacher. Brought up in Worcestershire and Leicestershire, attending Loughborough High School and University College London, Barnsley always loved literature but spent a long time running in the footsteps of her elder brother, now a doctor, who was prodigiously academic.

'But I probably take more from my father than anyone else,' she says. 'He was a great enabler and I hope I have some of that. Publishing is about spotting talent, and also about getting talented people to work in it and enabling them. My dad was very social, very gregarious, and people liked to work for him. Sadly, he died before I made any money. I think he went to his grave thinking: Oh God, Vicky's destitute.'

But she never was. Shrewd signings of overseas authors such as Annie Proulx and Carole Shields, both picked up for tiny advances - 'something like £1,500' - made Fourth Estate's name. There were lucky breaks along the way, too. Just as the banks were closing in after a rocky patch, the firm won a small publisher of the year award. It sold a stake to the Guardian and published a series of big-selling titles, culminating in Longitude by Dava Sobel, a book it had picked up for an advance of only £7,000.

'It went on to sell millions.' A whole trend for narrative non-fiction was born.

Then Barnsley looked to get a foothold in America, the biggest English language market, and the Guardian decided it wanted out. 'We discussed a joint venture with HarperCollins and they suddenly said: "Maybe we would like to buy the firm and put you in charge of the UK division". I felt the climate was getting more difficult; we'd already had a couple of offers of interest from Random House and Penguin, and I thought: at least if I'm CEO I can to a certain extent control it, so Fourth Estate is not destroyed. It was just a very good offer that was going to protect everybody.'

Others saw it as a sellout to leap from the bosom of the Guardian into the clutches of Rupert Murdoch. 'There was adverse comment,' she sighs, 'and to some people in publishing money is a dirty word. But, actually, when dealing with authors and their advances, it is very much a business. And the Guardian did very well out of it, as did the original Business Expansion Scheme shareholders.'

Did she make much? 'I probably netted a million, not a huge amount - certainly not enough to buy my manor house and retire to the country!' She laughs poshly, as if it's odd that she hasn't been able to afford that manor in the country (she's looking now, apparently).

Other publishers say you underestimate Barnsley at your peril, though.

'She was such a maverick,' says Faber's Page, 'and HarperCollins was famous as a good selling company, but it didn't have that openness to creative forces.' That, he thinks, is what the Americans want Barnsley to provide: to make it more author-friendly without losing its sales edge.

HarperCollins UK was also quite a stuffy institution. 'Very male, fat and Scottish,' laughs Curtis Brown's Lloyd, who used to work there. That has now changed and more female executives are coming through. 'But there are so many women working here that it is not really that remarkable,' Barnsley says. 'Publishing has always been female-heavy - I have no experience of male work environments, really - but women are good multitaskers and good at getting the home/work balance right. That's important, as publishing is a cultural business and you have to be part of that culture, so you have to have a life outside the office - I always encourage people not to sit here till 9pm.'

Her ideal employee, she says, should be out soaking up the influences, getting a sense of what the next big thing will be. She does a lot of that herself, of course, as any publisher does, her working week a whirl of meetings, lunches and drinks with authors, agents, colleagues and regional bosses from the Murdoch empire.

Some say she is beginning to be a real force in the industry, overtaking Random House's Gail Rebuck as its most influential boss. Others that the effectiveness of her changes have yet to be proven. Figures released by HarperCollins UK may show that revenue is up by more than a quarter and profit by nearly two-thirds in 2000-03, but wait till a longer view can be taken, they urge. 'The jury is still out,' says one.

But if the sniping bothers Barnsley, she does not show it. A thick skin, you would guess, is a prerequisite in such a wordy world. Outside work, Barnsley gets another perspective on organised creativity by sitting as a trustee of the Tate - part of being plugged into what's hot and what's not - and she cites gardening as her main hobby. She has a nine-year-old daughter and a husband who works as a photographer. 'He's a real dilettante.

At the moment he is a photographer, but he's been many things.' She laughs when I ask her what she spends her money on. Not much, she says, though there is that house in the country that she has her eye on.

Will she stay at HarperCollins? Many in the industry think she'll eventually get bored. She smiles. 'Publishing is rather different to many jobs. A lot of it is about long-term relationships with authors, and managing long-term careers. That takes a long time, and I'd hate to leave this and find someone else was undoing it all.'

What about going to America? She widens those big brown eyes. 'Though we are a very global business - more than any other business - we are very culturally driven. There are a lot of similarities but also a lot of differences.'

Anyway, she has her work cut out here. If WH Smith's publishing subsidiary Hodder Headline is sold to Orion - as market rumours suggest - HarperCollins will be knocked back into fourth place in the UK. She might have to do some acquisitions herself, build up the children's publishing side, for instance.

'I would like to be bigger in children's publishing,' she says, pondering the point. 'We do get offered publishers all the time. I got a call from Deutsche Bank just this morning.'

Then she adds: 'It's very easy to buy, that's the trouble in this business - it's much more difficult to be ruthless with yourself.'

THREE TOUGH CHALLENGES FACING BARNSLEY

1. Sustaining growth in a mature, naturally flat market

2. Resisting major pressure from retailers and authors' agents as the trade becomes increasingly focused on a handful of frontlist titles.

3. Changing the old-fashioned paternalist and hierarchical culture of HarperCollins UK into one that devolves decision-making and is more creative and performance led.

BARNSLEY IN A MINUTE

1954: Born 4 March. Educated at Loughborough High School, Beech Lawn Tutorial College, Edinburgh University, University College London and York University

1981-83 Editor, Junction Books

1984: Launches Fourth Estate

1988: Fourth Estate wins the Sunday Times Small Publisher of the Year award

1996: Fourth Estate wins Publisher of the Year award at the British Book Awards

2000: Sells Fourth Estate to HarperCollins Publishers and is appointed CEO and publisher of HarperCollins UK

2002: HarperCollins wins Publisher of the Year award at the British Book Awards.

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