Multi-million-pound children’s books publisher John Styring, 40, was once headed for a career in journalism. However, an internship at a local paper as an English language university student taught him that there wasn’t much money in it. So when he finished his degree, he joined a publisher instead.
His first role was in sales, for Dorling Kindersley, an international publisher. “I contacted cereal companies and got them to add our books as part of their promotions.” Styring thrived and after helping to negotiate several million-pound deals he moved to Paragon, a smaller publisher, as its business development director. Being a bigger fish in a smaller pond meant “I really trod the boards”. So much so that, by 2003, he and four partners were ready to set up Igloo Books to exploit a niche in children’s books.
They raised a few hundred thousand pounds and began commissioning. “One of the advantages of children’s books is that they’re cheaper to produce so they’re ideal when you’re just starting out.”
For starters, they are smaller and need less physical material and Styring’s team was by now experienced enough to create an idea or theme for a book and then directly commission freelance illustrators and writers to make it happen. “The one problem is that these staff need to be paid up front while the money for the book may not come through for another 12 months.” To solve the resulting cash-flow headache, Igloo developed a sideline reselling retailers’ unwanted books.
The business flew – “we had a very good idea of what would be commercially successful. There are thousands of publishers in Britain, but what makes the difference is if you produce books that readers want.”
Styring also spoke directly to retailers to gauge whether Igloo’s books would tap public demand. Best of all, factors that destroyed other publishers – namely, the recession and the onslaught of the e-book – helped Igloo. Operating at the lower-end of the price spectrum, its books began to outsell more expensive rivals.
Meanwhile, Igloo’s focus on interactive children’s books – which come with stickers, pop-ups and puppets – meant it couldn’t easily be substituted by an e-book rival. “Until now digital hasn’t affected us,” says Styring. “Indeed, if anything, it has helped – by hurting other sections, it’s created more space for our books on the shelves.”
But a low-cost structure brings its own problems. A few years ago a wave of key staff left. Since then, Styring has adopted a bonus scheme and introduced other benefits. That seems to have worked and over the last few years Igloo has grown. Output has increased – “we jumped from 250 books a year to 400” – in part thanks to a move into non-fiction areas, such as cookery books. Last year the firm made £23m in sales, making it one of the most successful new entrants to Britain’s publishing scene in the last decade.
However, Styring isn’t about to stop. Together with his wife, he has bought out all but one of the original partners and now plans to double turnover. Igloo Books recently inked a deal to produce the books for the new Dreamworks film, Turbo. “It’s great for us, but it is also good for them as books help an audience appreciate a film,” says Styring. “It’s a win-win situation.”