It would hardly be right to celebrate Crime Reading Month without including a post about a publisher! Noel Murphy is the Commercial Director of Granta, one of the UK’s most distinguished – and long-lived – independent publishing houses.
Noel is a graduate of University College London, where he read Philosophy. When he graduated, he had no career plan – just a burning desire to visit South America, inspired by his having read One Hundred Years of Solitude,by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His mother told him there was a vacancy at the Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon and he applied for the job, with the intention to save some money to fulfil his travelling dreams. He got the job but has still not visited South America.
After Stratford, he spent two years respectively running the ground floors of the Waterstones at Cardiff and Hampstead. Then he moved to Dublin, where he opened a new branch, and after that he worked at Waterstones Head Office for two years as Promotions Manager. He says the latter job connected him to publishing and enabled him to “jump the fence” to Bloomsbury, where he helped to develop its website in the early years of online bookselling. After that, he was the Marketing Director at Faber for six years.
For family reasons, he then moved to New Zealand and worked for a not-for-profit organisation, where he says he didn’t earn much but learnt a great deal. On his return to the UK, he made his only foray into academic publishing when he joined Yale as Sales and Marketing Director. After Yale, he worked as a freelance for a short while before joining Granta.
Noel is extremely proud of Granta’s fine frontlist and equally acclaimed backlist, to which he says “different editors have added lots of great books. As Commercial Director, I don’t have to worry about the books – I know they’re all going to be good. They’re also the kinds of books that booksellers like, which means that buyers will always give them a hearing. They’re therefore stocked by most of the big bookshops.”
He has spent his career working with and talking to booksellers, publishers and authors. To those wishing to embark on a career in bookselling, he says the good news is that it’s still not particularly difficult to get your first foot on the rung. What prospective booksellers need to know is that bookshops vary tremendously, so the choices they make depend on which part of the industry they want to work in and the type of readers they want to serve. Independent bookshops are very different from chains: new booksellers are “thrown into it” and have to pitch into doing most tasks from the word go, though they learn a lot in the process. The qualities of a good bookseller are, above all, to like people and to be happy to give customers recommendations (which implies keeping up with what’s being published and themselves reading a great deal). Booksellers aren’t well paid, but they do get to see new books and are given as many proof copies and reading copies as they can handle.
Noel’s advice to would-be publishers is to start out by working in a bookshop. It’s a really useful way of understanding the market. Working in publishing is very hard if you don’t understand what readers want. Publishers also need to be proficient in using Excel and other technical applications and to know how to produce accurate and detailed metadata and then deploy it – otherwise, the books they publish won’t achieve their potential. It’s also important to understand what books look like on the Internet. “Today people have grown up with Amazon and it has changed their perception of the book.” Most important of all is to gain an understanding of customers. To do this, some form of experience – e.g., taking a Saturday job in a bookshop – is vital.
His message to writers is that being a published author is a difficult thing to be and requires resilience – but don’t give up. Spend time in bookshops and talk to booksellers. When he was working in Hampstead, there were lots of local authors who came into the shop. Louise Doughty stands out in his memory as having been “really, really nice”. She liked books and would sign them while she was in the shop, and always talked to the staff. From this perspective, his “best author of all time” was Maeve Binchy (he says she is a “better writer than her packaging suggests”). She was always nice to everyone and never took anything for granted. He still has some postcards she sent him. “The staff in the shop would do anything for her.” Elly Griffiths is an author who has similarly won over booksellers more recently.
Noel describes his own reading tastes as ‘catholic’. He has recently been reading Timothy Snyder’s books about Ukraine – four in a row – which are “a bit bleak, though brilliant”. He’s also reading Station Eleven, a science fiction novel published in 2014, which he says is uncannily prescient. He enjoys reading crime fiction and likes Michael Connelly. He is also addicted to the L.A. Confidential series , by Curtis Hanson. A seminal book which made a huge impression on him was Blake Morrison’s And when did you last see your Father?, partly because “Many other good books would not have been written if Morrison had not explored the subject first.” He has “not read as many classics as I should”, but he likes Thomas Hardy and enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights when he was young because “it appealed to my teenage angst”.
Of a career in books, he says the biggest pitfall is that “you can’t stop recommending them to other people”. It seems to me to be a very venial shortcoming.