Emma Hopkin: Managing Director of Bloomsbury Children’s and Educational Publishing

Emma HopkinEmma Hopkin fell in love with books as a young child, a love affair which has shown no signs of abating in the intervening years.

Currently the Managing Director of Bloomsbury Children’s and Educational Publishing at Bloomsbury Publishing, she has channelled this enduring love of literature into a successful career that has seen her occupy a number of management roles at various international publishing houses, specifically overseeing children’s literature.

She was in Australia recently from the UK to meet with the Bloomsbury team here, and promote the launch of their new digital imprint Spark. So we took the opportunity to sit down with her to ask her when she first realised how powerful books could be, what led her into the publishing industry in the first place, and where she sees the rapidly changing business of selling books going.

Click play to listen. Running time: 20.42

Bloomsbury

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability.

Andrew:
I’m talking today with Emma Hopkins, who is the managing director of Bloomsbury Children’s and Educational Publishing in the UK. Thanks for joining us, Emma.

Emma:
It’s a pleasure.

Andrew:
I guess we can start at the beginning, can you give us some background on how you ended up in publishing at all, and specifically children’s publishing?

Emma:
When I was young I went travelling for a year. While I was travelling I decided the only thing I really like doing was reading, and that was the moment that I decided that publishing was for me. When I came back from my travels I managed to get myself a job in publishing. And since that day I’ve worked for a few companies, I ended up with a wonderful marketing role at Macmillan. I stayed at Macmillan for 15 years, and went from the adult publishing list onto to the children’s publishing list, and worked my way up through sales and marketing and became MD of the children’s division. And then I joined Bloomsbury about two years ago, so I was very lucky in my career and have a fabulous job.

Andrew:
It sounds like a charming career, that’s great! How very few people get to live out their dreams. That’s wonderful.

Emma:
Exactly.

Andrew:
I guess you’ve seen a lot of changes in that time, obviously. What are the major changes that you’ve seen in however long you’ve been in there, 15 or 20 years?

Emma:
Well, the biggest change – and I’m speaking from a UK point of view here, but I think a lot of reflects what’s going on in Australia as well – is the sort of diminishing shop frontage on the high street for books. When I started in publishing we probably had three or four thriving chains, which gradually bought each other up, and we’re now left with, really, Waterstones and with W H Smith, who sell books, but aren’t a book specialist. So that’s been a really big change, and obviously online sales and the rise now of digital publishing is a massive change that the industry is going through at the moment, and that’s by far the biggest I think that we’ll see for a while – I hope! Or maybe not, who knows?

Andrew:
You want to hope so. It’s interesting you say that about the diminishing sort of… well, in your case high street frontage, but I guess for us it’s often malls and main streets. People argue that means that there’s not as much exposure, but then the others will counter-argue that Twitter and Facebook and those sort of channels will make up for that. Do you see that they compensate for the lack of a physical presence for a bookstore?

Emma:
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s that it gives you less opportunity to get more authors exposed, I think that’s what has happened. So back in the day you had chains who were really good at breaking debut authors, or you had a chains that were really good at building authors at a certain level in their career. And I think that opportunity has just shrunk to have it actually in front of people – people browsing who can actually purchase in an opportunistic way, I suppose.

I mean, I think social media is absolutely fantastic for marketing books, but I don’t think it’s making up for that lack of exposure from high street.

Andrew:
Yeah. I guess people don’t tend to browse over Twitter or –

Emma:
No.

Andrew:
I suppose Amazon, I guess, the big bad wolf I suppose, depending on your point of view, would tend to give you that, ‘If you read this you might want to read that…’ but I suppose it’s not the same as seeing it in a bookstore, is it?

Emma:
No.

Andrew:
Or a store?

Emma:
No, especially not for children’s books, I think, because a lot of children’s books are illustrated, and so you get to see the production values, you get to look at the beautiful artwork, and so that leads to purchase I think.

Andrew:
I guess that leads me into a question, given that children’s books are that visual and I guess tactile almost because kids like to pick them up they like to open them up. How do you find that works in terms of digital publishing and obviously things like YA or the young adults that are going very much into digital publishing.

Emma:
Yeah.

Andrew:
But, children’s… how has that been affected, given the type of books they are?

Emma:
At Bloomsbury we’re seeing our YA digital sales are growing, I would say about 85 per cent of our digital sales are in that upper age bracket. We’re beginning to see some of our middle grade titles move slightly, but the sales aren’t nearly as big as YA. We’re just launching at the moment some colours books with audio, professional audio recordings as well. And it will be interesting to see how those sell, and I think they’ll sell well. I think a lot of young children are using devices, dare I say. I think being able to read a children’s book like that is really interesting, but I think the print book will remain. I don’t think it will fade away at all.

Andrew:
So you can see them running in parallel almost?

Emma:
Yeah.

Andrew:
I think what’s happening in some way, hard covers are suddenly coming back as almost the status, collector’s…

Emma:
Yes… yes.

Andrew:
…thing. And I agree with the digital…

Emma:
Yeah.

Andrew:
It’s interesting. Do you find people are wanting to have these books increasingly, say on their iPad, or would you snuggle up in bed with your child to read a book with your iPad next to you? Do people do that anecdotally, or…

Emma:
Yes, anecdotally I think people are using their iPads with their children, and I think a lot of people are very time-poor, and I think that’s an easy way to feel that you’re reading with your child, is to give them… I’m very embarrassed, but I used to send my daughter to sleep with audio books, because I’d been reading all day at work, so she went to bed listening to someone else reading a book instead of me! But she seems OK.

Andrew:
She came out OK at the other end?

Emma:
She’s coming up OK.

Andrew:
Good! I guess forgetting about the format for a second, what does Bloomsbury look for when they’re selecting an author? What are the sort of qualities you’re looking for in the manuscript, or the person even?

Emma:
We’re always looking for a really unique voice, I think that’s the one thing we always want. And someone with a really good story to tell, so a really strong narrative, some really fabulous characters, but a unique voice is what we’re always looking for. We have on our list a really nice mix of award-winning authors, and more commercial authors but all of them have that really strong story going through them.

Andrew:
I guess that would be even more critical these days when you’re in sort of a very frenetic online marketplace, you would need to be as distinctive as possible… I suppose it’s even more important these days?

Emma:
Yeah, it is important. I think it’s not necessarily… people write in genre, I suppose, but just standing out within that genre, and we do the whole range of fantasy, contemporary, romance – all sorts of books.

Andrew:
All right, quite a mix.

Emma:
Yes.

Andrew:
Now we get asked all the time by authors, or aspiring authors what they should do better, or what they could do better when approaching a publisher. Now, granted a lot of people do go through agents, but there are an awful lot of people I’m sure that most approach you directly. What I guess are the biggest failings, firstly that you see, when an author does approach you? But what are the things that you’ve seen done right? What are the sort of things where you go, ‘That’s brilliant! Thanks for coming to us like that’?

Emma:
We actually have a policy at Bloomsbury where we don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts. We actually look at everything via agents, and we would far rather buy a completed manuscript than a synopsis and a few chapters. So, we’d like to see the book in its entirely so we can see how it finishes, and if the narrative holds good for the entire book. So that’s what we prefer to see.

I mean we like working with authors, and I think that’s why I truly believe that publishers will survive, because I think we bring a lot to an author and help them shape – my editorial team are truly expert in getting the best from an author and getting the best from their writing.

Andrew:
I think there’s a lot to be said about that. I mean obviously if you’re locked in a room all the time writing, you probably need an outside opinion, don’t you?

Emma:
Yes. Yeah, and it leads to new ideas and newly creative thoughts… yes, I think it works very well.

Andrew:
And do you think it’s a healthy scene at moment, creatively? Are people coming to you with amazing ideas? Is the next Harry Potter bubbling away beneath the surface?

Emma:
We always hope so. We always hope so. Yeah, I think there are an enormous amount of people writing at the moment and I think Australian Writers’ Centre success shows that. So there’s an awful lot going on. Again, back when I started there were a few selected children’s agents who looked after children writers, and now there are numerous agents representing numerous different voices. I’d say we see an awful lot of submissions all the time, and many of them are very, very good.

Andrew:
And I suspect making the… deciding what to take on very hard.

Emma:
It is very hard, but it’s really interesting when you’re shaping a list, because you need a balance of things on that list, especially in children’s, you’re going from 0-14 and you need books that will appeal to boys, books that will appeal to… both funny ones, frightening ones, romantic ones, so you have this wonderful choice of books to choose, really.

Andrew:
That’s great. It sounds like people are really reaching out and coming out with some amazing ideas.

Emma:
Definitely.

Andrew:
Self publishing, I guess, would be encouraging people who may not have thought of venturing that way to go ahead and try something new.

Emma:
Absolutely.

Andrew:
And you’re the beneficiaries, I guess, down the track?

Emma:
Absolutely.

Andrew:
Do you get very much of your material from self publisher efforts? Do you keep your idea on that as well? Obviously, as you said, you go via agents.

Emma:
Yeah.

Andrew:
But do you keep an eye on that if somebody does break out as a self publisher?

Emma:
Yeah, we do. We keep an eye on that very carefully. We actually have an author who is… we publish her globally, but she was a client from our US list, and her title was published first of all online, and generated a great fan base. And that’s where we… yeah, that’s why we acquired her. So, we’re definitely always looking at those self-published sites and looking out for interesting, new projects.

Andrew:
Great. OK. Now, how active is Bloomsbury, I guess, across the digital space digitally? Have you got any major initiatives that you’re launching, or have launched recently where you feel like you’re marking out  your own territory?

Emma:
Well, one new initiative that is incredibly new and it hasn’t quite launched yet, is we’re looking at an E-1st list for young adult authors. So, it’s an opportunity for people to be published digitally by Bloomsbury, and what we can offer is we are a truly global company. But we have local marketing, so we have local marketing in Australia, and America and in the UK. So we are looking for submissions directly from writers for that particular list. So that’s very exciting and it’s something that we’ve not tried before.

And anything that is successful on that list will go into print as well, so that gives people a really nice opportunity to get their books published.

We also have… we’re launching some apps, this month in fact, for the first time, which are to go with a range of activity books that we do. So those are really fun for sort of preschoolers, so we’re looking forward to doing those and seeing how they sell and learning lessons. Digital publishing seems to be about experimentation and just doing books at different prices, trying things out. We very successfully, last year, published some small e-novellas, alongside one of our major publications of last year, and they sold very strongly and helped the book perform really well as well. So all sorts of different things we’re trying all the time.

Andrew:
That’s good, it’s definitely an age for experimentation, definitely. I saw a panel recently where they were talking about transmedia, from a publishing point of view, and the feeling was that those choose-your-own interactive adventures had limited potential. In your particular area though, do you think that’s… these are people who are not necessarily in the children’s space, I guess we’re about young adults… what do you think about that? Obviously, it sounds to me like you’re heading into that area, but do you think people will react to that well? Or is that a throw back to the old choose-your-own-adventures?

Emma:
I don’t know. I think some people are doing some really interesting transmedia projects, where you can find the written printed book with gaming online and maybe even some animation. I think, again, it’s just a time for experimentation. I think if you talk to a child of 10 nowadays, probably they spend most of their free time online, gaming, or YouTubing, or Facebooking or… although they’re not meant to be on Facebook. So I think they’re certainly spending time there, but they will always stop to reading… you know, reading is sort of holding its own. So, I think combining them is interesting. Yeah, definitely, I think it’s…

Andrew:
Well, it’s meeting your audience where they are at the moment, isn’t it?

Emma:
Yeah.

Andrew:
Which is sensible.

Emma:
Yeah.

Andrew:
Now given that the publishing industry is changing obviously quite dramatically, what advice would you give to an aspiring person who actually wants to join the publishing industry, much like you did? Now, as opposed to, say, diving in 20 years ago?

Emma:
Yeah. Well, I think it’s always a really good idea to have some work experience. I know that’s… we have work experience people working every… well, every week we have someone in with us who’s learning what we do and finding out some more about the industry so I think that’s completely invaluable. And the more experience you can show you have in publishing that will make you more confident as well. I think that’s a really good way to come in.

Andrew:
Do you still think it’s obviously an industry that people should… as you said, you firmly believe it will survive, which is probably quite likely. Is it still a sort of industry that will have the availability for people to get into, or do you think it’s going to be harder and harder?

Emma:
Oh no, I think definitely… I think people, especially with digital publishing, I think young people are much more savvy in that area, understand much quicker how things work. So I think there’s absolutely room for new, fresh people coming in, not only into the editorial teams. One area of the publishing world that I always think is really interesting is the rights sales team, and anyone who can speak a foreign language has a real opportunity for getting a job within the rights team. The rights team sell translation of books, and they get this fantastic opportunity to meet all of these foreign publishers, they get to travel, and they get to understand the basis of all the contracts, because they’re selling rights, so they need to understand all of the production values. It’s such a great grounding place to work, so I always regretted that I never worked in the rights department. That’s one of my big regrets in publishing.

Andrew:
So if you could go back…

Emma:
If I could go back I would go into the rights department, without question.

Andrew:
Dually noted. OK, aspiring publishers? Now, where do you see yourself in five years? Obviously, with a lot going on, I mean really you were at your old job for 15 years.

Emma:
Yeah.

Andrew:
But, I mean and I’m not trying to get you to commit to anything, but where do you see yourself heading in five years? Do you see yourself moving into another area? Or is it the kind of field you like kind of thing, because you’re passionate about it?

Emma:
It’s one of those… that’s a really interesting question, I think. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have been Managing Director first of Macmillan children’s books and now with Bloomsbury children’s books. I can’t see myself not doing children’s books at all, because I do absolutely love it. I think it’s a really… because you are publishing for children of such a wide age and of such different developmental stages, that it’s an incredibly creative business to be in. So I would be very surprised if I was not still MD of Bloomsbury children’s books in five years’ time.

Andrew:
There you go, the job is safe. I guess to wrap up, what do you like to do when you’re away from the job? I mean, given as you said before you’re reading all day, so give your daughter audio books.

Emma:
Yes.

Andrew:
But do you find reading a challenge when you’re at home, or is it something you dive into anyway?

Emma”
Well, I think it’s quite interesting, because I read a lot of children’s books, obviously, and so I rarely get to read adult books. So that is a real pleasure and treat that happens now and again is I get to read a really good adult book, and that’s a really nice treat. But reading is still what I love most. Yeah, definitely.

Andrew:
Brilliant. Well, thank you very much for joining us. That was great.

Emma:
Thank you.


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