A Q & A with Nick Clee, the founder and editor of Bookbrunch
More than most industries, publishing and bookselling depend on the oxygen of publicity for survival. They rely on the support of friendly journalists who present them faithfully and without exaggeration or malice. The industry is lucky to be represented by Nick Clee, a distinguished news publisher who understands it inside out. Here, he kindly responds to my questions.
Q: Before you founded BookBrunch, you were the editor of The Bookseller, so you moved from a very established old-school type of publishing to something much more dynamic – and perhaps, nowadays, more resilient. Did you set out to do this? What was your rationale when you first set up BookBrunch? Has it evolved in the way you thought it would?
A: I left The Bookseller in 2004, and went freelance – in those days, still just about a feasible pursuit. In addition to journalism, I wrote a couple of books. I had delivered the second of them when Liz Thomson, editor of the recently defunct Publishing News, phoned me to ask whether I’d join her in a new, online venture, which had private backing. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned, but I had a space in my schedule and hated to turn down jobs. We had no coherent mission statement for BookBrunch: we simply intended to provide a news service, selling it on our long experience of the trade.
Q: Did you get a lot of support from the industry in the early days?
A: In the internet era, you can get known fast, particularly in a trade such as the book industry. People signed up enthusiastically.
Q: Are you a journalist by profession? Has your whole career been spent in journalism? Is there a reason why you have focused your efforts on publishing industry news for so many years?
A: I fell into it. I got a job as maternity cover at The Bookseller; twenty years later, I was still there. I’ve been very lucky.
Q: How do you gather information for BookBrunch? Do prospects mainly come to you with items they want you to publish or is it the other way round? Do you have ‘roving reporters’ to cover events etc?
A: I have to admit that most of our stories arrive on a plate, by email. (By the way, I’m now joint editor with Neill Denny, another ex-Bookseller editor. I work two days a week and he covers the other three; Lucy Nathan is reporter; and Julie Vuong contributes twice-monthly interviews or features.) We try, on our limited resources, to get out to conferences, launches and so on. Occasionally, we commission features – but the budget is limited.
Q: What is the business model? How do you get paid?
A: We carry some paid advertising, but get almost all our income from subscriptions. Our salaries are very modest.
Q: What kinds of support are you able to provide for authors?
A: We have discounts for freelancers and for Society of Authors members. Not all authors are interested in trade news, but some are.
Q: How did you survive during the pandemic? Were you forced to change the way you operate? If so, are you more or less back to normal now?
A: The pandemic was/is an awful thing, but looked at only in commercial terms it turned out to be not unfavourable for our business. Subscriptions went up. It hit networking on the head and is still doing so, in my case – I remain cautious.
Q: Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you think the publishing industry will look like in five years’ time?
A: I’m not qualified to talk about the academic publishing world. In general books, we appear to have reached a relatively stable balance of digital and print formats. If further disruption is imminent, neither I nor anyone else can foresee what will cause it. The pandemic confirmed to us – because it hastened them – things that were already apparent; among them were the decline of the High Street, an alarming trend for publishers as well as retailers.
Q: Do you enjoy reading? If so, what kinds of books do you like? Do you have a favourite author? Do you have other hobbies?
A: I read a lot of crime fiction, ranging from American noir to police procedurals to psychological thrillers. A favourite recent example is Simon Mason’s A Killing in November. In literary fiction, I go for writers who are interested in the domestic: Katherine Heiny has been a delightful discovery this year. My favourite author is John Updike.
I play tennis, and follow sport. I’ve been lucky enough to make horseracing my work as well as a hobby: my second book was a racing history and I’m writing another racing book at the moment.