“We are desperate for great books”, Says HarperCollins MD Colin Hughes
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“We are desperate for great books”, Says HarperCollins MD Colin Hughes

May 13, 2019

Not everybody is fortunate to get opportunities to work in different fields that are related. There are a few, however, who do manage to straddle many areas and successfully at that.

Star of Mysore Features Editor N. Niranjan Nikam met one such person Colin Hughes, Managing Director, HarperCollins, who has been a journalist, publisher and an educationist, at the swanky office of Excelsoft in Hootagalli Industrial Area recently, where the very articulate, highly knowledgeable, with a typical British accent, spoke at length about history of Publishing, his own experience as a Journalist and on Education. —Ed

By N. Niranjan Nikam

Star of Mysore (SOM): HarperCollins is one of the big five English-language Publishing Houses in the world. You joined as MD of Collins Education Division in 2012. Can you tell us briefly about the Publishing world and  Education Division?

Colin Hughes: HarperCollins is the second largest Publisher in the world after Penguin Random House with a two billion dollars turnover. But most of that is in trade publishing like novels, cookery books and so on. Only a small amount is in the education and reference arena.

HarperCollins was created as a merger between Harper, an American New York Publisher, that is more than 200 years old and William Collins which was a Glasgow-based Publisher in the UK, Scottish-based. Rupert Murdoch put the two of them together to create HarperCollins.

The part of it that I look after is from the Collins’ side. In fact for the Collins, business is 200 years old and very importantly it is Scottish (laughs), not English at all. The Collins business has a very interesting history, created in 1819 by William Collins. He was a teetotaller, a very passionate supporter of alcohol-free life and the original emblem of the publishing business was a fountain of water because that was the symbol of what was called the Temperance Movement, the non-drinking movement. His original purpose was to print and publish Bibles that would be cheap enough for ordinary working people to be able to buy one each for themselves.

During the 19th century he became the first to publish educational books for the masses and that was always his objective and then for publishing great literature but in very handy, low cost versions that poorer people could afford. That is the origin of the business and the path I took over is the continuation of that business and so it is publishing textbooks. Within my division we publish dictionaries and so we are the second largest English language dictionary provider in the world, the first is Oxford University Press. Ours is called Collins Dictionary.

SOM: These days everyone wants to write books but the biggest problem one encounters is in finding a Publisher. The fear also is that when you write something, the work could be distorted and hence many just keep quiet or self-publish.  Is there a mantra to find ways to the Publishers’ hearts?

Colin Hughes: (Laughs) Here are a few simple things. Very often when people say they want to write a book or they have written a book they have written it for themselves, not for somebody else, that’s the key. If you have written a book that was genuinely written for somebody else to read, there is a good chance that someone will want to publish it. It is often said and this may seem paradoxical that one of the best ways to achieve that is to imagine yourself as your own reader, would you want to pick up that book and read it. And the answer very often is not really and if it is not really, then maybe you should just think that was fine, I wrote that book, it is for me but actually nobody else really wants it.

The truth is if a book really does have reader interest then a Publisher would publish it. We are desperate for great books. Very often people think that the Publishers have the opposite mentality that is quite wrong. They desperately want books that they can publish. It is more than being paid, more than anything they most want is to find a book that somebody else didn’t find, that is what really motivates them. That is what really excites the Publisher and then looking for the real book that they believe in and then they would put their heart into it to make it succeed as a book. If you ask them what made them proud, then they would say I found this author and I made him or her a big name.

The way to grab a reader straight away is through feeling and story and actually it is a better idea if you want to keep the reader’s interest, read Dickens, see how many times he has food, taste and smell.

SOM: But how to approach a Publisher as these days people are self-publishing?

Colin Hughes: You referred to self-publishing, very interesting. I think self-publishing is going to carry on and it is fine as you want to give it to your friends like Mr. K.B. Ganapathy, who has written the book ‘Star of Mysore,’ has done, that is fine.  But if you want a Publisher to pick up your book and run away with it, what do you gain by doing that? Quite a lot actually because they put all the marketing, strengthen them; they just know how to put the book out there. It is not just taking it and printing it. That is the easy bit. The reason you want a Publisher to support you is because they will take that entire burden away from you and make that book succeed if they believe in it.

Do you need an agent to get to a Publisher? No. Sometimes they are useful. I will tell you when they are useful if your book is going to be very successful, the agent will be very good at making Publishers compete to buy it. So they are very good at negotiating and they are very good at writing contracts. But are they of much help for your book? Not really. You probably want an agent when you realise that you are going to be successful.

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SOM: It is very interesting to find that you were also a journalist and that too a Political Correspondent in The Independent when you joined them in 1986 and before that in the Press Association and The Times. What was journalism like then and that too political journalism?

Colin Hughes: Very interesting actually. I became a journalist in 1979 at the age of 21 and then I went to Press Association briefly in 1982 and then to Times for three years and I was Whitehall Correspondent for The Times which means I was covering the policy side of Government, so I sort of knew the political environment and I had actually previously covered local politics in Sheffield. So I was always really a Political Correspondent. The story of my journalistic life was basically covering politics and education.

Then what happened was a group of people from Daily Telegraph decided that they wanted to launch a new newspaper called The Independent and at that time there were many of us at The Times where I was, who were unhappy. So we went and joined these other guys and there were actually about 22 of us initially and we set up The Independent together. It was the first time in 137 years that a new national, quality, broadsheet newspaper was launched and it was in 1986. I joined right at the beginning and my employee number was 00013 and 13 is my lucky number. The house number when I was a child was 13. It was easily the most exciting time of my life to create a national newspaper from scratch and to be a Political Correspondent in the UK and in a newspaper that was taking a very radical view of how to cover politics at a time when Margaret Thatcher was in her final years as Prime Minister and very turbulent period, very exciting.

Journalism has changed enormously. When I started out we had those big old royal typewriters, carbon copies in those typewriters, nobody had recording devices and so on. We used to file our copies by going to a public telephone and dictating stories down the line to a typist at the other end. I remember vividly being one of the first persons in London to use a mobile phone in the 1987 general election when I was following Margaret Thatcher on her Battle Bus. These newfangled things had appeared on the street and only very wealthy city kids had them. We were suddenly issued this mobile phone. It had to be carried on a shoulder strap because it was like carrying two bricks with a massive handset sitting on top of it and the weight of it was this huge battery which gave up after about 23 minutes. So you had to file your copy down the line in about 20 minutes. Within a few years after that everybody was walking around with mobile telephones and filing on laptops and wireless devices. So in my life-time we had actually gone from pencil and paper and typewriter to being very close to the demise of print in UK and, of course, in the US too. However, it is very different in India.

SOM: What prompted you to move from being a journalist to joining The Guardian (started in 1821) where you founded Learnthings Ltd., The Guardian’s digital learning business, in 2000?

Colin Hughes: The Guardian realised very early on that the Internet would be the future and it had a very visionary Editor at that time, Alan Rusbridger. He asked me essentially to see whether it would be possible to develop new businesses around digital platforms. Obviously he wanted the main content of the newspaper to be free online. But he realised it would also be important to try find out other ways of making a living. The Guardian was read by a lot of teachers and we felt that we could create a curriculum content online that would be of great help for teachers, students and we could get some advertising next to it but more importantly we could get them to buy that on a subscription basis and also that we would be able to sell teacher job advertising alongside that content.

So it was essentially trying to develop new business models around the old business of newspaper online. So I did it and that is how we were successful. By the way that is how I came to know Sudhanva (of Excelsoft).

The truth is I don’t think print will ever go and the reason I am confident about that I kind of instinctively knew then that it is not just the serendipity of turning the pages of a newspaper, it is also that there is a sort of physical satisfaction.

Colin Hughes’ Mysuru connection

SOM: There is a Mysuru connection as you are on the Board of Excelsoft Technologies. How did this happen?

Colin Hughes: When I was at The Guardian I launched a website called learn.co.uk. We needed to develop some technology that would organise this huge amount of educational content that we were creating for our website which we were building in Johannesburg, South Africa. What happened was a friend introduced Sudhanva to me and he came into my office in London and said we would like to have a go, building this platform for you. I had a very clever technical architect at the time and I said, look I am not sure whether these guys can build this thing. I want you to write out a specification (spec) for what we need and by the way this guy who worked for me was half-Indian. I want you to go to Mysuru and sit down with them and ask them to come back with a description of how they would do it.

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He did that and on the first night he called me back and said this is very difficult and I don’t know whether this is going to work. I asked what is the problem and he said, well I spent all day in an air-conditioned room going through specs with them and all these guys sitting around the table looking at me taking notes and they haven’t said anything. They asked me one or two questions. I said I am sure it will be fine just see how it goes, call me tomorrow.

The next evening he rang me  up and said, I am very sorry I got that totally wrong. I said what do you mean and he said, well you know these 13 guys who sat in the room stayed up all night, they just didn’t come back with the spec, they actually designed it and produced prototypes overnight. They showed it to me in the morning what it looked like and told me where my spec was wrong and how we should do it differently. By the end of the day they had rewritten my spec and given me examples of everything that we should do.

After that I came out to meet everybody here in May 2001 and I told Sudhanva, look I can’t spend a lot of money on this but I would like to do it. Basically he said, I want to develop this platform with you because I can do the technical side but I need you to teach me about the educational side. Within a few weeks he and his team were way ahead of anything that I could bring to it. But it gave them the starting point to be able to develop platforms that they could then take to other people such as Pearson and that gave Excelsoft business operating in the educational market.

Colin Hughes with D. Sudhanva, CEO & Managing Director of Excelsoft Technologies Pvt. Ltd., Mysuru.

SOM: As an educationist how do you think digital Indian platforms like Excelsoft (which has also started Excel Public School that celebrated its tenth anniversary in February 2019) play a role?

Colin Hughes: The big thing that Sudhanva and Excelsoft have done is that on the one hand they are absolutely at the forefront of technology in this area. So Ed-tech, as these people call it, educational technology, has obviously developed hugely in the last 20 years that both Sudhanva and I have been involved. Crucial thing for him is that he has always ensured that Excelsoft stays at the frontier so that they don’t get overtaken or caught up by other start-up providers.

The second thing is that it is often very tempting for people in Ed-tech to emphasise the second part of that which is the technology side. So essentially to keep saying we have got this whizzy new piece of tech that’s going to change the world and actually they don’t go back to the teachers, educationists and saying hang on a minute I am not sure what is going to change the world. The difference with Excelsoft is they have always been focused on the education bit of Ed-tech and I think it is because of the father-son duo Prof. M.H. Dhananjaya and Sudhanva. Their interest is in both technology and education, whereas quite a lot of tech companies are much more interested in Tech than in the Ed.

I think in that context the creation of the school was a real symbol of what they wanted to achieve. If you look at that school in part it was created to see whether the new technologies that Excelsoft was working on could be successfully deployed in an Indian context and really make a difference. The answer, of course, is yes. However, they didn’t get distracted by the technology; they knew perfectly well that is just one part of what you have to do. So that is the thing that has made Excelsoft distinctive and that is where digital succeeds if it is in service of an educational purpose.

Excelsoft Technologies Pvt. Ltd., Mysuru.

SOM: With the advent of television era first and now the social media, journalism is a lot different now than during just the print era. In that sense do you consider your move to education a right decision?

Colin Hughes: (Laughs) Now-a-days to break in as a journalist, you are competing really with bloggers and all sorts of things. I am worried and nervous about one particular thing. In past times, the process of being trained in the ethics of proper reporting and actually really caring about getting things right was of primary importance. But now the principles of quality journalism are in danger of being corrupted by this everywhere in the world. Social media does undermine everything.

I do miss the journalistic world for the reason I have given. I will be honest with you, one of the things I miss, is the glamour of being close to power and being a Principal Correspondent or the Editor of a national newspaper is very exciting. You get some amazing things happen, I miss that business of being able to travel as a Foreign Correspondent and go anywhere, do anything and for a young person it is very exciting.

However, in my second career as a businessman and Publisher there are big compensations. Just the sheer variety and also the knowledge that literally everything I make is trying to make the lives of the young people better than they would otherwise be and that is a very nice feeling.

I think in the end, one of the things I say to people who are thinking of ‘Do I want to be a journalist or something else?’ I try to say to them look I am now 60 years old. In four decades, I have arguably had four different careers and it is at least likely what you choose to do now, you will not be doing at the age of 41 or 51 or 61. You will be doing something else and in fact you must almost aspire to that. You should be thinking I can actually do anything.

And I said this at the Excel Public School’s tenth anniversary celebrations that the most important thing in school that can teach you as students is to learn how to learn. Because the minute you stop learning, you will stop in every other sense. One of the lovely things being a journalist is you learn something new every day. One of the lovely things about being a Publisher is the same thing actually. In that sense it is no different.

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