Three revolutions and counting – The Stephen Page Masterclass

Publishing MA student and Faber intern, Danny Lyle, distils the essence of the Masterclass delivered by Stephen Page. Faber and Faber’s CEO engaged us with his wit and wisdom as he took us through the journey of his career through three major industry revolutions. The final revolution he spoke of inspired us all to take advantage of the opportunities that future change will bring.

After working in a book shop Stephen Page moved into publishing in 1988. The industry had been stagnant for some time but was on the verge of big change. Larger publishing houses were beginning to emerge. Paperback houses had absorbed hardback houses. Waterstones was about to make a name for itself. The first revolution was brewing.

One: The Price Revolution
In which the Net Book agreement is terminated.

The Net Book agreement in the UK came into effect in 1900 to ensure booksellers sold books at a set price. Often under scrutiny, it was not until 1994 when several large publishers withdrew from the agreement that it finally collapsed. The ‘cultural certainty’ of how business was done was gone. The parties involved had never had to think about price. Overnight booksellers were able to discount books, giving chains an advantage over independent booksellers as they could afford to give better discounts. The book landscape began to resemble that of other mass market businesses. As the need for big hits grew, publishers experimented with designs and formats to reach new markets. Transworld for example, took certain genres such as romance, and upcycled them to new bookshop readers. Other publishers did the opposite. Vintage took more ‘serious’ reads and repackaged and re-priced them to appeal to a broader audience through supermarkets.

Two: The Amazon Revolution
In which customers buy books online.

In 1997, the year the Restrictive Practises Court finally decided that price fixing for books was not in the public interest, Amazon came onto the scene with their dedicated book buying team and aggressive pricing. They were the first to make publishers think about the online customer around the world. Amazon began to dominate the online book world, and in turn, consumers have begun to dictate what is bought. Selling books online meant for the first time that being discovered in the online marketplace became an issue. Marketing in publishing was for so long ‘marketing and promotion to the trade channel’. The challenge now is to drive sales online and to drive demand like never before. Publishers must market to consumers and also to authors.

Three: The E-Book Revolution
In which the Amazon Kindle gets big.

To quote Stephen, “format shifting is as old as time in publishing.” It’s an issue publishers in the past have had to deal with time and again. In that respect, the e-book is no different. The e-reader had been around for a while but the public didn’t buy it. Publishers knew about it and many attempted to get into the (at the time, non-existent) e-book market. Like many new technologies, it had the potential of an over-hyped flop. It wasn’t going to take off. Showing good judgement Faber early on recognised the need to be active in this part of the value chain. They spent time and effort clearing rights with often worried authors and agents and were ready when the format evolved as Amazon’s Kindle paved the way for the successful e-book. Not only did Amazon already dominate the online book buying business, but they also had the brilliant concept that the e-reader was an online shop that you read in.
Each of the three revolutions has caused ripples in the waters that can still be felt today. Digital is still in its infancy. There is no one story of e-books and although the market is levelling, we are still very much in a time of change. Publishers have to think harder now about the presentation in a way which satisfies readers who want to consume it in different ways – from high end physical products to reading events. They must curate the distribution of quality content to suit customer needs. In all this, the value of the writer’s work remains central and the publisher has to live up to the licence.

Your Revolution
In which the industry continues to evolve.

Steven concluded his talk by bringing us, the students, into the discussion. He reminds us that it’s a new industry we’re stepping into. He imparts advice and experience. It’s a consumer business, no longer a trade business; consider the consumer and make use of your channels; digital is an expanding universe, we have yet to discover the ways in which the consumer will experience the product; the rules of engagement have changed – new skills are necessary, make use of them; make diversity happen; make brand matter; and finally, think globally.
“Come in, but change it by coming in. Have your Revolution”. Stephen Page

You can contact Danny via his blog,


One response to “Three revolutions and counting – The Stephen Page Masterclass

  1. Pingback: Five Reasons to Choose Kingston’s MA Publishing Course | Kingston Publishing: inspiring future publishers·

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