Interview: David Shelley
by Sonali Misra
David Shelley joined Little, Brown as Editorial Director in 2005, after five years running the publishing at independent publisher Allison and Busby. Initially commissioning mainly crime and thriller novels and overseeing the audio and eBook lists, he became Sphere publisher in 2007, then Little, Brown Deputy Publisher in 2009, and Publisher in 2011. Authors he published include Mitch Albom, Mark Billingham, Carl Hiaasen, Dennis Lehane, Val McDermid, and J.K. Rowling. He became CEO of Orion and Little, Brown in 2015, and in January 2018 became Group CEO of Hachette UK. David is a Director of the Publishers Association and leads the Consumer Publishers Council.
You can learn more about the Fresh Chapters programme on their website.
One would assume that the head of one of the world’s leading publishing houses would have their own cabin – perhaps one with glass walls so they could keep a close eye on their employees, while having the option of rolling down shades to distance themselves. Except, when I walked on to the fifth floor of Carmelite House in London, the building that houses the offices of the different companies operating under the aegis of Hachette UK, I found the Group CEO, David Shelley, sitting at a desk in the big hall, like the other staff. The glass room beside him was reserved for meetings only, and that was where he led me for our interview.
Sonali Misra (SM): Thank you so much for sparing time out of your busy schedule for us. Could you tell our readers a bit about Hachette UK and your role in the organisation?
David Shelley (DS): Hachette UK is the second-largest trade publisher, and by trade publisher I mean a publisher of books largely for consumers rather than for academics or students – there are different sectors within publishing. Consumer publishing is generally the books you can find in bookshops. But we also have a very successful and growing education division. I would describe Hachette UK as a federation of different divisions and imprints, and Hachette is really the thing that brings them all together. So, we’ve got Orion, Hodder & Stoughton, Headline, Quercus, John Murray, and Little, Brown as some of the divisions, and Sceptre and Virago are among the wide variety of our imprints – in fact over fifty imprints. Everyone’s doing their own thing; sometimes the same thing and competing as well. My role as the CEO of the organisation is to ensure that all the divisions and imprints have all that they need to publish great books and reach lots of readers.
SM: You’ve had a fascinating trajectory in publishing. Could you run our readers through it?
DS: I started by working for a small publisher called Allison and Busby. Due to a few reasons, including my boss’s retirement, I was allowed to run that small publisher. I began when I was 23, and carried on till I was 29. I learnt an enormous amount doing that; as I said, it was a very small company, about five or six people, and they’re still going strong under the leadership of a brilliant woman called Susie Dunlop. There, I published literary fiction, non-fiction and crime fiction, and it gave me a great grounding in how to be a successful publisher, especially when you don’t have the most resources, and how to really succeed and stand out in the market. It obviously gave me a deep appreciation for crime fiction, which I’ve worked with a lot, and also literary fiction. So, when I was 29, I was hired to be a Crime Editor at Little, Brown, which was at that point the only book publisher that was part of Time Warner. A year or so later we were sold to Hachette. I had other roles within Little, Brown, but I eventually became its Publisher; then CEO of Little, Brown, and then CEO of Orion as well, which is also part of the Hachette group. As of this January, I became the CEO of all of Hachette, when my boss Tim Hely Hutchinson retired.
I published literary fiction, non-fiction and crime fiction, and it gave me a great grounding in how to be a successful publisher, especially when you don’t have the most resources.
SM: A fun fact for our readers – we’ve all heard the story of how J.K. Rowling got rejected by multiple publishers when she submitted Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym ‘Robert Galbraith’. You were the Publisher at Little, Brown when you first read the manuscript, unaware that you were reading the next series by J.K. Rowling, and the one who then signed her on, if I’m right?
DS: Yes, that’s all correct.
SM: Hachette UK runs a diversity programme, Fresh Chapters, which consists of a year-long traineeship for people from BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. Could you tell our readers a bit about it and the reason you thought this was needed?
DS: Fresh Chapters is part of an overarching scheme – well, not scheme but a mindset we try here – called Changing the Story, which comprises lots of different initiatives to make ourselves a more diverse and inclusive company. Fresh Chapters we thought was an important part of that because, when we looked at statistics, we found that publishing has traditionally been underrepresented by people from BAME backgrounds. I think that’s changing very rapidly now. We worked with a company called Creative Access for quite a long time, who worked – they still are but they’ve lost their funding, which is very sad – with companies to provide internships to people from BAME backgrounds. We worked with them for the last five years or so; we had great success with that. When they had their funding cut, they had to pull back from what they were doing. Basically, Fresh Chapters is a continuation of that work, and we wanted to make sure that we had talent coming into business from all backgrounds, and we’re trying to change the traditional model in publishing that includes people from more affluent backgrounds and not the same percentage of BAME employees as compared to rest of the population. It’s been great, and through Creative Access and Fresh Chapters, we’ve had some amazing talent come into business, which is brilliant.
When we looked at statistics, we found that publishing has traditionally been underrepresented by people from BAME backgrounds.
SM: How do you think British publishing as a whole is faring today when it comes to representation of POC (people of colour), in terms of books being published and people working in the industry? Since the big five publishers based in London have Commonwealth rights, how often do you think they publish books that speak to people of those countries on a more personal level – where they can find in books characters that look and talk like them?
DS: That’s a really interesting question. I think there’s great progress being made across the industry; I think people are switched on to it now. We’re not the only publisher that’s doing internships like this. We also launched an imprint called Dialogue Books that Sharmaine Lovegrove is heading, and will publish books by writers from diverse backgrounds who may otherwise not have been picked up by the establishment. She’s found some amazing writers as part of that. There’s a lot happening.
We also launched an imprint called Dialogue Books that Sharmaine Lovegrove is heading, and will publish books by writers from diverse backgrounds who may otherwise not have been picked up by the establishment.
Unfortunately, there’ve been too many decades where nothing has happened, so there’s a lot of ground we have to make up for in the industry. And the sad thing is that there are potential classics that were never published in the 60s–90s because the industry was very much one way. I’m reminded of Allison and Busby, the first company I worked for. It was started by two people – a man called Clive Allison and a woman called Margaret Busby. Margaret was the first black British woman to have a publishing company. They started that in 1967, and she published some amazing writers like Ishmael Reed and CLR James – just some fantastic BAME writers. What’s also sad is that from 1967 till up to two or three years ago, there were very few other Margaret Busbys and things didn’t move on. I think there’s an awful lot of ground the industry has to cover, but I think it is committed to it. We’re all signed up at The Publishers Association, which is fully committed to diversity. So, I do think the will is there.
Unfortunately, there’ve been too many decades where nothing has happened, so there’s a lot of ground we have to make up for in the industry. And the sad thing is that there are potential classics that were never published in the 60s–90s because the industry was very much one way.
I think we in Britain need to be more outward-facing when it comes to India and other Commonwealth countries where we have rights. One thing I’m really proud of and excited about is we’re publishing a series of books called the Reading Planet books, which is part of our Hodder Education programme. These were conceived on the basis of neuroscience research, and they’re a good, modern way to help children read. But most importantly, the characters that are featured in these books are representative of modern Britain and the world as well. They are characters any child in any part of the world could look at and identify with.
Whereas in traditional reading schemes that come out of the UK – and you would know since a lot of British product goes into India – kids wouldn’t see themselves in those books. I think we need to start at a very young age if we’re being inclusive. So, I’m very proud of that series, and I hope we can do more of that. And I think it’s important for us to send people out to India, South Africa, Australia and other territories to see different cultures and see what’s relevant to people there.
We do also have local publishing, as you know, in India, Australia and New Zealand – in New Zealand we’re doing children’s books with traditional Māori stories, which I think is really cool and speaks to people in that region. I think it’s important for us to not be too Anglo-centric and just look around the world, and where possible, have teams in those parts of the world who understand those regions.
Whereas in traditional reading schemes that come out of the UK – and you would know since a lot of British product goes into India – kids wouldn’t see themselves in those books. I think we need to start at a very young age if we’re being inclusive.
SM: This reminds me of an article I recently read about an author, who shall remain unnamed, who said that her publisher was sending out surveys to their authors to find out how they were doing when it comes to representation, in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc., and the author spoke against this. She felt that her publisher would end up putting out bad literature just to up their author-diversity quotient, because they’re just filling a quota as opposed to publishing good books. However, through that statement she’s also implying that good books can’t come from these spaces. Would you like to comment on that?
DS: I think there’s a long-running argument about this sort of thing when you look at any discussions about diversity and inclusivity. There is a big difference between positive discrimination and positive action. Positive discrimination is saying – we need quotas, we need a number of certain types of books. Positive action says – actually let’s open our minds, let’s look as widely as we can, let’s ditch our preconceived ideas, let’s ditch our subconscious biases, and let’s make this place as welcoming as possible. And if we do that, good stuff will come in. And I know that to be true from my experience, with books and with staff, when we’ve made a conscious effort to recruit widely for something – we’re going to advertise in The Voice newspaper and we’re going to put things out in places we normally don’t. We will get good people because we’re positively seeking a diverse range of applicants. It’s not about lowering standards – that would be positive discrimination, which we don’t do and it’s not even legal or helpful. But positive action is a really good thing, and I think some people don’t always see the difference between the two.
There is a big difference between positive discrimination and positive action. Positive discrimination is saying – we need quotas, we need a number of certain types of books. Positive action says – actually let’s open our minds, let’s look as widely as we can, let’s ditch our preconceived ideas, let’s ditch our subconscious biases, and let’s make this place as welcoming as possible. And if we do that, good stuff will come in.
SM: I agree; that’s a good distinction to have. Now to get even more political – how do you think Brexit and the strict measures taken regarding work permits will affect this desired diversity in the industry?
DS: A very good question. Hachette is a member of The Creative Industries Federation, which lobbies on the behalf of creative industries. I’ve been to several meetings, several round-table discussions with politicians. We’ve made it very clear – I think all creative industries are united on this – that open borders and work permits for EU nationals are significant for creative industries. We really thrive on that. There are some creative industries where the majority of the workforce comes from other countries. The Publishers Association is deeply committed to lobbying for that as well. The reality is that with Brexit, no one knows anything at this moment in time, but we have been extremely clear with the government as an industry that this is key for us. And not to sound cheesy, but creativity doesn’t have any borders. It’s important that we’re able to get skill and talent from wherever we can and that we don’t limit it.
The reality is that with Brexit, no one knows anything at this moment in time, but we have been extremely clear with the government as an industry that [open borders and work permits for EU nationals are] key for us. And not to sound cheesy, but creativity doesn’t have any borders. It’s important that we’re able to get skill and talent from wherever we can and that we don’t limit it.
SM: You began this year as Hachette UK’s CEO – what is your vision for the organisation as a whole and also when it comes to diversity in publishing?
DS: We’ve got four key pillars of our strategy here. First, understanding consumers deeply; second, celebrating and making the most of our unique federal structure, so that all the different companies have their own identities and are able to thrive; third, everyone here being empowered and feeling as though this is the company that they own, whatever job they’re in; and fourth is really about embedding diversity within everything that we do.
It reminds me very much of the early days of digital publishing, about ten years ago. We used to have separate digital conferences and there would be separate digital teams that were set up and people would say, “What’s digital going to mean for publishing?” and “How do we become more digital?” And now, digital is embedded in absolutely everything we do. It would be ludicrous to have a separate digital conference or team even, or to discuss how to become more digital – it just is part and parcel of us. And that’s how I perceive diversity and inclusivity programmes should work. My vision for Hachette would be that in five years’ time, it’s just absolutely part of life for us and everything that we do – workforce or publishing – it’s just natural for us; it’s not something we have to especially stop and think about, have a conference about, or have a special team for – which is required now and is good, but the long-term vision is that it’s just part of who we are. When you walk around this building, as is starting to be the case, you see all sorts of people, including those in positions of power. Because so little happened for so long in publishing, we have many imbalances in terms of power, and I’m very conscious sitting here talking to you as a white man and what that means in terms of power structures, and I’m very conscious in my privilege. Ideally, in five years’ time, power would be represented in a different way here.
Because so little happened for so long in publishing, we have many imbalances in terms of power, and I’m very conscious sitting here talking to you as a white man and what that means in terms of power structures, and I’m very conscious in my privilege. Ideally, in five years’ time, power would be represented in a different way here.
SM: Thank you so much for your time and for answering such tough questions in detail with absolute honesty and sincerity.
DS: It’s been a pleasure.