The CEO of the Publishers Association talks to Linda Bennett about his organisation and its role, the challenges facing publishers today and how the PA can help small publishers
Richard Mollet became Chief Executive of the Publishers Association in October 2010. Prior to this he was Director of Public Affairs at the BPI (the representative body of the UK recorded music industry), during which time where he was closely involved in the Digital Economy Act, the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, and the wider debates around the value of copyright and the creative industries. Before joining the BPI, Richard gained ten years’ experience as a political communications consultant, working across a range of political and media sectors.
He studied PPE at Worcester College, Oxford University. Richard is a visiting lecturer for the Hansard Scholars Programme at the London School of Economics.
Richard very kindly agreed to be interviewed for the Salt website shortly after we became members of the Publishers Association.
At the risk of sounding either impertinent or like the Queen, could you explain briefly what your job is?
I have a team of fifteen people. Our role is to do two things: for members, we work to develop members’ services and create an information exchange. Secondly, we have an outward-looking remit to communicate the value of publishing to political and media audiences and in the international sphere. We are proactive, but at the same time mindful that we are here to do what our members want us to do and not what they don’t want us to do. We have to make sure that we choose the right things to focus on.
What did you do prior to taking on the Chief Executive’s role? How has your past career helped you in your present work?
In my last job, I was the Director of Public Affairs for BPI, the recorded music industry trade body. The music industry is similar to the publishing industry in some ways. Before that, I worked for twelve years in political consultancy advising companies on their political communications.
A lot of what I do at the PA is about advocacy and lobbying. Publishing needs a strong voice at the moment, not just here, but in Brussels, too. We need to make it clear how important publishing is to the economy, and work to ward off dangers to the industry. So that background in political communications is very helpful when I’m working on these issues. I and others in the team have a good understanding of how the political system works and how to develop contact with politicians.
What do you most like about the publishing industry?
I believe that British creativity is one of the best things about our country. I love being involved with creative people and companies. It is an honour to be an advocate for such a fascinating and successful sector. In both industries, I have acted as an advocate for something that I truly believe in and feel one hundred per cent passionate about. It is my job to see that what publishers do is understood and appreciated.
Are there areas in which you think the publishing industry is unduly vulnerable?
Publishers face the ever-present challenge of having to be able to explain their value to two customer bases: authors / writers and end-readers. Getting people to understand their role can be difficult, especially as there has been misinformed debate about whether there is still a place for publishers in a high-tech era. In fact, publishers are even more important in the digital age; but they constantly have to make it clear how vital their services are. They provide three essential benefits: financial support, especially for new authors; creative and editorial support, which even leading writers need; and marketing and distribution support. They do have to keep on explaining how indispensable these services are, and the PA helps to get the message out. Together we have to make readers understand that high-quality works don’t come about by accident. Most readers do appreciate this, but it is still necessary to keep on putting it across. In the present digital age, the best publishers supply readers with what they want when they want it. This is why the PA has been able to make an announcement today that e-book sales are up by 134%.
Looking back over the PA’s PA announcements of the past few weeks, I see that you have been addressing such issues as IPO and other copyright issues, Open Access and its many attendant challenges, changes in education / educational publishing, e-book lending and Amazon, often by engaging directly with government ministers. Aside from the last two, these are heavily weighted towards academic publishing. Is this just fortuitous, because of what is going on in the wider environment at the moment? Would you say that on balance the PA spends just as much time on addressing the issues relating to trade publishing?
The PA’s PA weekly bulletin reflects the hot topics of that week. If you’d gone back a few more weeks, you would have seen that e-lending and VAT featured strongly. The agenda varies according to what is coming down the track. On the whole, I think that Open Access is an issue that will continue mostly to be of concern to journals publishers. When it comes to data and text-mining, this is not necessarily the case. We don’t know the government’s full intentions in respect of these activities; there may be wider implications for the copyright-owner than have so far been made clear. Whatever it is the government is trying to do – and we are trying to bottom out what their intentions are – there could still be an outcome that will affect trade publishers.
Recently another element of copyright law has been challenged by the government which, if it had gone through, could have had a far-reaching effects on poetry publishers: the suggestion that schools should be allowed to photocopy more of a book than they currently are allowed. We have successfully pushed back on that one. We have to watch this government extremely carefully, because it often doesn’t pause to consider the issue from all angles. I’ve just been writing about this on my blog on the PA website. http://bit.ly/Y8qlMl
My argument is that if the government has already clocked up forty U-turns since the general election, why should we not expect another on intellectual property?
Salt Publishing has just joined the PA. Almost since its foundation it has been an active and enthusiastic member of the IPG, and is continuing its membership with the latter. What benefits does the PA bring to a small publisher like Salt?
The Publishers Association is the leading UK organisation for the representation of publishers. I believe strongly that we benefit from a collective voice. If large and small publishers band together, this gives us a correspondingly greater weight of influence. The PA is a conduit to political intelligence; it tells its members what is going on. It supports smaller publishers in very particular ways: for example, it makes it possible for them to exhibit at international book fairs. There are a number of other services directed specifically at small publishers: for example, they can obtain legal and insurance services through the PA. We focus more on the over-arching issues that shape the industry; the IPG focuses more on the practical assistance. The IPG offers a suite of services that the PA has never tried to replicate. Two years ago we started to engage in regular quarterly meetings with Bridget Shine and her management team. We make sure that when we are assisting our members or engaging in consultation with outside parties, we are in agreement and present the voice of both organisations as one. We also try to ensure that there is as little overlap as possible in what we do. We have a number of members in common of course. The PA is not just a big publishers’ club; we have a significant number of members from SMEs.
Returning to the subject of dual trade association membership, I know that many publishers also belong to the STM or ALPSP as well as the PA. Do you think that each of these organisations has something different to offer? To what extent do you work together?
One of the wider things I’ve tried to do is to bring all of these organisations more closely together. The PA sits in a massive ecosystem – rippling further out even than from the organisations that you mention are others, such as BPI, the Premier League, FACT and the Alliance of Intellectual Property. My role is to keep the dialogue open. By temperament and drawing on personal experience, I have an instinct for co-operation. We will win the battles that we have to win if we work with others of a like mind.
The PA is also developing a profile when it comes to workforce development and is working with universities to recruit the best brains into the industry, especially people with digital and I.T. expertise. At the London Book Fair we launched a new part of the website which gives details about MA in Publishing courses and training providers. We are making publishers aware of the courses that are out there and trying to improve the flow of communication between academia and industry.
To explore the benefits a little further, Salt is, of course, concerned about the ‘big issues’ that face publishers. But survival is its main imperative (I know that this is true of all publishers, but publishers like Salt work on low margins and have little cushion for failure). Does the PA also try to address more perennial issues that help business conditions for all publishers, but particularly small ones? In recent years, I have been told that the PA is an organisation that especially values its large publisher members, yet I know from my conversation with you that you are very keen to attract more small publishers. Is there a reason for this?
All of the work that we do all of the time is relevant to publishers of all kinds. We want everyone to become a member. We write to publishers who are not yet members, but not aggressively. The more publishers who can act collectively on an issue, the better it will be for everyone.
Do you have any advice to offer Salt in order to ensure that it gets the most from its PA membership?
Be engaged as much as you can. It is possible to get a lot from the PA just by being a recipient of the information that we provide and reading it; but you will benefit even more if you engage with PA activities and volunteer. Try to sit on groups and committees that are representing the issues of most importance to you. Get into conversation with our senior officers: myself, Emma (House), Gemma (Hersh), Kelly (Signorelli-Chaplin). If you see something in the media that shows publishers represented in the wrong light or spot a political issue connected with publishing, get in touch. We are a conduit for members’ views. We don’t come up with the issues ourselves; we take the lead from our members. I do appreciate that for smaller publishers it takes up a greater proportion of resource and therefore requires more effort to do this.
I’ve mentioned other publishing trade organisations and asked how you interact with them. Could you also describe how you co-operate with the BA? I went to the launch of the Books Are My Bag initiative at the London Book Fair; it seems to me to be the most exciting joint project that has taken place for years. How are the PA and BA working together on this?
We aren’t saying a great deal more than was announced at the London Book Fair at this stage, because the main launch will be in September. Books Are My Bag was the joint idea of Jane Streeter and Gail Rebuck. Publishers have funded the initiative and the PA has co-ordinated this. We have encouraged all of our trade members to get involved.
Spreading the ripple of working with other organisations yet wider, can you describe how the PA works with the PLS, CLA, ALCS and DACS? Is there added benefit that small publishers like Salt can tap into here, and if so how can they get a handle on it (given that, as you say, their manpower is usually pretty thinly stretched?)
The PA owns the PLS and the CLA is the PLS’s agent. We are therefore intimately involved in all of their activities. The work that the PLS is currently doing around the Copyright Hub and data text mining is incredibly important – I refer back to my earlier comments about working collectively.
Could you say a little about the Copyright Hub? How might this benefit a publisher like Salt?
The Copyright Hub is a vital facility for all British creators, not just writers but musicians, artists, film-makers, everyone whose output is some kind of creative work. At first it will enable smooth licensing of material from business to business and eventually from business to the consumer. Its existence will demonstrate that it is possible to facilitate the efficient deployment of copyright law by providing a strong structure that will ensure the growth of the use of works protected by intellectual property rights. It will show that there is no need to change the law itself.
Do you interact with the Society of Authors on behalf of publishers?
Yes, we work very closely with them. We are currently both engaged in the e-lending debate, upon which we take a more or less identical stance.
Could you say a little about the Copyright Infringement Portal? Salt is of course interested in protecting its copyright, but poetry doesn’t travel well, so it has had little to fear from piracy from other countries in the past. However, some of the fiction rights are now being sold overseas, especially Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize; so Salt may need to be much more vigilant in the future.
Access to the Copyright Infringement Portal is free to all PA members. It provides a very concrete service. It is publishers’ first line of defence against copyright infringement.
What are the main immediate and middle-term challenges that you think publishers face? Would you give a different reply for large publishers and small publishers, or do you think that broadly they face the same issues, but in differing degrees?
The main issue facing all publishers is that of copyright and its defence. We must be allowed to maintain the robust legal framework upon which successful publishing depends. Licences work. They ensure that publishers continue to generate revenue for investment. Copyright is more under threat in some sub-sectors of publishing than others. More broadly, defending it is part of the related threat of demonstrating the importance of publishing that I’ve already mentioned. Publishing makes an important contribution to the economy, to export and to the creative mix in the UK - internationally, we punch way above our weight in the creative industries. It’s not just about taking the naked commercial view, either. Publishing is about the promotion of literacy. Publishers have a moral obligation to work closely with the charities that support literacy: World Book Day, World Book Night, Book Trust, the Literacy Trust, etc. We are also strong advocates for the public library system.
Do you think that there will be more ‘consolidation’ between large publishing companies? Does this present a threat or an opportunity for small and independent publishers? Given the amount of investment in technology likely to be needed in publishing in the future, do you think that small publishers will be able to meet the demands of this, and if so how?
I don’t know the answer to the consolidation question. Obviously, following recent mergers there has been talk in the press. I wouldn’t like to speculate. Industries go through periods of change, and not infrequently that implies some kind of reconfiguration. But I really don’t want to start guessing. With regard to expenditure on technology, some types of investment may be out of the reach of small publishers, but this can be one of the areas where they gain from collaboration. They can often follow in the wake of large publishers who blaze the trail by spending substantial amounts of money on innovation. The smaller publishers can then come in later and carry out the same or similar actions more cheaply. The benefits created by large investors tend to ripple outwards to aid the rest of the economy. It is therefore my hope that smaller publishers will benefit further down the line, and make smaller-scale investments that are compatible with what the industry as a whole is doing. I’d emphasise the last point. Publishers tend to work towards open standards which allow works to be fully interoperable and readable on any devices, for example, and the adoption of ePub3 as a standard. The tendency towards universality that is happening in this industry means that no-one needs to be locked out.
What are the main immediate and middle-term challenges facing the PA?
I return to what I said at the beginning. We need to carry on consulting, communicating and representing our members’ interests.
Is there a future for the print book?
Yes. There are those who would like to predict its imminent demise, but they are not being objective. Print is an important part of our cultural history - and that of Europe generally. It won’t go away any time soon. It will take its place cheek by jowl with other media, including e-books, DVDs, film, etc. But it will withstand the test of time.
Would you mind telling us a little more about yourself? Do you have time for other interests?
Aside from publishing, I have two great passions: football and music. I play for the inaptly-named Haslemere Dynamos (I’m nursing an injury that from my last match at the moment). I’m also a very keen musician and songwriter: I play keyboard and guitar and sing. I often perform in gigs. I have three children and two cats.
What do you enjoy reading?
Since I’ve been working at the PA, I’ve read a lot more fiction, but I’m a greater fan of non-fiction. I read everything by Anthony Beevor and pretty much all political biographies. My favourite novelists are David Mitchell Hilary Mantel and Paul Auster. Since the London Book Fair’s market focus was on Turkey this year, I was exposed to the books of Turkish authors and read Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak; in fact, my meeting with Elif was the highlight of the book fair for me. I have also become an expert on Julia Donaldson’s children’s books!