Interview
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Harper Collins’s CEO Victoria Barnsley

"I’m a perfectionist. I like getting things right. I also enjoy gambling, the adrenalin of risk taking."

After borrowing £80,000 to start her own book publisher Fourth Estate in 1984, then winning the Sunday Times competition for best small publisher, Victoria Barnsley made the switch from entrepreneur to Chief Executive of Harper Collins in 2000. She discusses the highs and lows of her entrepreneurial roots and the future of publishing in a digital age with Roxelana Books.

What was your earliest innovative idea?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had one!

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

Direct Grant Grammar (a kind of hybrid now abolished), UCL and York University.

Why did you choose to be an entrepreneur?

I was unemployed.

What drives you on?

I’m a perfectionist. I like getting things right. I also enjoy gambling; the adrenalin of risk taking.

People, ideas or execution: what matters more to start-up success?

People – with a well balanced team you get both good ideas and execution.

What start-up has caught your attention recently?

A new publishing venture called ‘Unbound’- A bold attempt to bring ‘crowd-funding ‘ to the British market.

What are the qualities needed to start up a business?

Vision, guts and salesmanship.

What about the qualities needed to manage a business?

Very different: delegation, strategic thinking and leadership.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

You always need more cash than you business plan demands. Don’t give up the day job immediately.

What led you to start Fourth Estate?

It was sort of an accident. I never planned or set out to do it. It was opportunism, one of the big entrepreneurial characteristics. I had been working at Junction Books for 2 years as assistant editor, but it was underfunded and it went bust. My friend Andrew Gifford told me, ‘Why don’t you buy the assets?’ I replied, ‘You’re absolutely bonkers.’ But he said, ‘No, I’ll find you the money.’ Various independent parties got an £80,000 loan together. Also, there was a new business expansion scheme then. I don’t think it would have got going otherwise.

How did Fourth Estate run originally?

I rented a couple of offices on Westbourne Grove. It was me, a part time assistant, production and shareholders. Then Fourth estate, which means the press, was geared towards nonfiction. But we ended up publishing a couple of novels. It was opportunism; something came along. I had hired an editor who worked previously in non-fiction at Penguin, but he had a passion for novels.

How did the company grow as a business?

We nearly went bust a million times. Our big break came 2/3 years in when we won the Sunday Times best small publisher prize. We got all this publicity, literary agents sent us books. It was mad. Soon after the postman rang us up saying, ‘We have 10,000 jiffy bags we need to send down.’ I was at Clythsdale bank, Lombard Street. I went there feeling gloomy; I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay salaries…Then I got a terribly urgent call for Miss Barnsley. It was the office saying we won this prize.

Why do you think you won the prize?

Our design was good, despite few resources, and we had a stylish catalogue.

Do you prefer working as an entrepreneur or being employed as CEO for Harper Collins?

I prefer being an entrepreneur. This job is intellectually challenging, but it’s not as fun. You have to convince; you can’t force things in or be spontaneous. However, now I see the risk, I’m not sure I would do it again. Knowledge makes you cautions. Then I was motivated by excitement and adrenalin. I had nothing to lose, I was losing my job.

How has the digital revolution influenced Harper Collins?

It’s a massive change. Now we’re more consumer focused and we have a direct relationship with readers, while before we were a bit closeted from readers. Some editors are wary of it. In the past they were in touch of the zeitgeist, now we can prove that online.

How much do you read digital books versus physical books?

I have an iPad and a Kindle which I find is better for reading outside, but I’m still using both. I like the feel of the book, but the convenience of the e-book.

How do you see the future of the physical book?

Hardbacks will survive longer than paperbacks. People talk about an ibook library. Books take you back and look nice. It’s a romantic thing, no one loved a CD. So we will improve hardbacks, use better paper, give them more beauty, ribbons and produce more gift and limited editions. In the digital space, the book cover is not the same.

Are you equally in touch with the business and editorial aspects of publishing?

I have a slight lack of credibility in finance. When I started Fourth Estate my father suggested I do an MBA. But someone else said, ‘No, get on and do it, you learn on the job.’ However, more credibility on the business side would have helped. It would have given me more confidence.

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