Wisdom//

Thriving with Mensch

What I learned from starting my new venture.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I began my career in book publishing forty-seven years ago in January 1972. Since then I have been continuously employed by a series of terrific companies publishing terrific books, series, journals, digital products around the world for all sorts of markets from pre-school, through K-12, university, from mass-market fiction, to Booker-prize winners, in English, German, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi and via partners most of the languages in the world. The companies I have worked for include Oxford University Press, Reed International, Macmillan, and most recently Bloomsbury.

The one thing I had never done was to set up my own business. Last June I stepped down from the Board of Bloomsbury to allow me to work for them on a consultancy basis but also to develop other interests. I have a number of non-executive positions in academic publishing and I chair an important leadership charity, Common Purpose.

But the idea of starting a new publisher was still nagging at me. I could try to put into practice what I had been preaching for forty plus years. I could risk my own money and not have to take notice of the opinions of others. I could learn how the publishing business really works, in the weeds, in the detail. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much I had to learn to be able to thrive as an independent person close to seventy years of age.

I had never had to negotiate my private health insurance. I had never had to raise an invoice. I had never had to charge and reclaim value added tax (VAT). I had never had to buy standard book numbers to identify my publications. I had never had to register to receive reproductive rights income. I had never had to worry about claiming receipts against income tax.  But here I am in the global headquarters (and only location and employee) of Mensch Publishing.

Of course, when I announced my intention to start Mensch I had no business plan, no books to publish, no strategy apart from a sketchy idea based on keeping things simple, being honest, being ruthlessly commercial, and recognising the centrality of the author in all publishing matters. I was brought up to believe that a publisher’s role was to help an author find readers with as little intervention as possible. Not all publishers agree and have unnecessarily aggrandised their roles.

Everything became possible when I was able to sign up Mensch’s first book from the novelist Guy Kennaway. The project fitted my publishing philosophy perfectly. The author had a draft of the full manuscript which meant we could publish quickly. It was brilliantly funny, well-written and important. The author was willing to proceed without an advance royalty but with generous royalty terms. He granted Mensch full publishing rights which allowed me to exploit newspaper serialisation, foreign-language editions, all digital media, and most importantly to sell throughout the world with no territorial restrictions. You can read about Time to Go on my website (which I had to build from scratch). I had to find a designer for the cover.

I commissioned a logo from my friend Roger Law, co-founder of the Spitting Image satirical TV series.

I hired an editor. I negotiated a print support team, a sales and distribution deal through Bloomsbury and Macmillan. I broke the rules by publishing within six months of contract with the author. I received and sent more than 5000 emails! I hired a brilliant publicist, Ruth Killick, and now I have my fingers crossed that the £10k I transferred to my Mensch Publishing bank account grows rather than diminishes.

And in parallel I now must find new projects to publish which meet my self-imposed criteria. That will doubtless present a new set of problems but that’s what starting again at seventy is all about. And isn’t that what Thrive Global is all about too?

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