Andrew Franklin, 49, had spent 11 years at Penguin Books, first as an editor and then director, when his boss called him into his office in 1995. “We’ll get straight to the point,” he told him. “We’ve some bad news for you.” At the time, Penguin was going through a pretty tough period, so being fired wasn’t a complete surprise. His industry experience meant he wasn’t short of fresh job offers, but none appealed. Before long, Franklin realised that “if nobody is going to employ you, you’ve got to employ yourself”.
From Penguin to Profile: the early years
So he persuaded an old friend, former Economist journalist Stephen Bruff, to join his fledgling start-up, Profile Books, established on 1 April 1996. They had worked together on the many books published for The Economist at Penguin, and when Franklin left, they spotted an opportunity. “Penguin did what big companies very often do with a small business that doesn’t really interest them very much. They took their eye off the ball.” One month, Penguin sent 300 Economist books to Singapore, meant for Hong Kong. And the following month, when they wanted 200 books sent to Johannesburg, Penguin sent 2,000 copies of a different title to Cape Town. “You only have to do that twice, or three times and [clients are] quite susceptible to being seduced,” says Franklin.
With the lucrative Economist business on board, investors soon followed. The firm attracted £320,000 using the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) for small firms. Franklin had approached wealthy individuals for investment with a detailed business plan, and through the EIS they were able to offer investors both capital gains and income-tax relief.
Did the firm’s eventual performance reflect the business plan? “No,” he says. In fact, “we did much better”. The first year’s loss was half of what they had predicted, and in the second year they made a profit. But although for the first few years, the firm was “doing fine – it wasn’t doing spectacular”. Turnover was growing each year, but by 2002, the company was behind budget.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the making of a bestseller
That’s when he heard a former Times’ journalist called Lynne Truss speaking on the radio about punctuation, and thought it would be a good idea for a book. What followed was the publishing sensation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. “Our first printing run was 15,000 copies and I knew if we published 40,000 copies we would balance [the books].” But in the week before Christmas alone, it sold 128,000. “You know you’re home and dry when it goes to number one.”
It’s since sold three million copies in hardback, “a spectacular success”, half of which were sold by Penguin when they bought the American rights. You still have cordial relations? “Oh yes.
In fact, the man who fired me, that’s his desk over there, he comes in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” But there’s more to Profile than good grammar. They’ve got another chart-topper in Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, and sales last year were just over £8m.
But “it won’t last,” he says. “You have good years and bad ones. It’s like the Pharaoh’s dream; seven lean cows and seven fat ones. We’re dependent on consumer spending, but it helps that we’re international.”