This week’s MA Publishing Masterclass was delivered by John Blake, publisher of bestsellers such as Being Jordan and The Guv’nor. Guest blogger Kelly Cracknell reviews the talk, and Blake’s insights into the value in celebrity mass-market publishing.
This week’s Masterclass by John Blake began with an introduction by one of my fellow MA students, Siobhan Aldridge. Giving us a quick oversight of John’s publishing career, Siobhan highlighted the extraordinary success of Being Jordan, a product that marked a turning point for the celebrity autobiography genre. The book by Katie Price was then the fastest selling non-fiction book in history. It made large publishers sit up and take notice of what the team at John Blake Publishing were accomplishing.
Known for their mass-market celebrity autobiographies, the John Blake team has successfully harnessed a subject for which there is huge public interest; they also create books for those not traditionally thought of as book-buyers. In fact, John and his team are almost solely responsible for revolutionising British publishing to include such books – when he entered the field, publishers wouldn’t produce something deemed so ‘mass-market’. As John said:
“Literary has its place, but it would be a very sad place if that was all there was.”
One example John shared was the success of JK Rowling, whose books managed to target a group previously not being addressed. With Katie Price, the key to her book’s success was to target women who were intrigued by her, as well as the more obvious audience of men.
Reflecting a theme that has come up frequently in lectures, John’s move into publishing stems from an opportunism gained from his journalistic background. When no other publisher would publish a mass-market book he had written on the Rolling Stones, he successfully published it himself. From the venture, three other book deals quickly came his way. John attributes much of this instant success to “beginners luck”, asserting that half of the business of publishing generally is luck. Clearly, though, he also saw an opening that others were afraid to take.
In one of several amusing stories that energised the lecture, John recounted the tale of his deal to publish the story of Lenny McLean – the bareknuckle fighter known as ‘The Guv’nor’ – despite not really knowing who he was. The book became a huge success, confirmed by the theft of all the copies at a book fair – an experience John considers one of the best good omens for the sale of a book.
John also stressed the importance of timing. Talking about identifying the zeitgeist, or the mood of the public, he emphasised the need for momentum behind a book – it is no good if it is not topical. He is still looking ahead, predicting that companies such as Amazon, Google and Apple will become the big publishers of the future. Publishing is always changing and it is vitally important not to think of things as they have always been, or to feel secure in set ways of working. Instead John encouraged us, as new entrants into the industry, to embrace new technologies and new ways of thinking. Describing a “sea change” revival in book buying in the last year due to new formats for content, John offered this as “an incredible opportunity” for us.
One of the new innovations that John’s own company have been quick to implement is “fast publishing”, which he again attributes to his journalistic background, and the speed needed to respond to current events. In addition, John Blake have also harnessed the Kindle format to drive new sales, considering it “a powerful tool” with a wide readership. Another current trend is the ‘comfort books’ market, which capitalises on peopling wanting to read about nostalgia and happiness in a depressing economic climate.
John Blake could not be classed as an average publisher. But nor, do I think, would he want to be. It is precisely this edge, seeking out that which isn’t already being done, that defines and makes John Blake Publishing what it is. Blake passionately believes in the value of telling stories of ordinary lives, in the tradition of authors such as Dickens. One of the most valuable things he has achieved is to get people who aren’t used to reading books actually reading. Near the end of the Masterclass, he left us with the thought, “What is wrong with writing books that people want to read?”
You can read fellow student Philippa Sitters’ take on the Masterclass on her blog too.