While many heads of publishing houses have worked their way up through editorial, Jordan Fenn started out as a sales rep for H.B. Fenn and Company, the Toronto publishing company his father, Harold B. Fenn, started in 1982 (actually, Jordan's very first job was sweeping the warehouse floors). Fenn, now publisher of Key Porter Books and Fenn Publishing and v-p of H.B. Fenn and Company, recognizes that he's a bit of an anomaly in the business, and has had agents tell him he's different than most publishers. He thinks that's because “I don't just look at a book as a nice piece of art. I look at it as a piece of art, but I say, 'Is it going to sell?' I don't want to be taking those kinds of risks.”
Fenn has to be cautious. Even though Key Porter publishes as many new titles (160 in 2008) as many of Canada's corporate-owned houses, it's an independent, family-owned and -operated house. “That's what makes us different from them,” Fenn says. “We can't gamble to the same degree that they can.” Still, Key Porter, and its sister imprint Fenn Publishing have published many bestsellers. Fenn Publishing may be relatively small, but it is quite possibly the largest hockey publisher in the world, serving as the official publisher of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hockey Canada and the hugely popular Hockey Night in Canada. It publishes about 10 new hockey titles a year; one recent standout was Honoured Canadiens, which has sold 165,000 copies since its release in October 2008.
And then there's Key Porter Books, which publishes about 100 titles a year in fiction, biography, business, politics, cooking, children's and other categories. The company scored something of a coup when it became the North America publisher for chef Gordon Ramsay. Key Porter has already released three of Ramsay's cookbooks and has two more coming out later this year and in 2010. The Ramsay books are the biggest books Key Porter has published since it was acquired by H.B. Fenn in 2004.
Fenn's ideas for ancillary revenue streams are indicative of his sales and marketing background. Selling advertising space in books and product placement are two controversial ideas he's entertaining. He has featured specific wine from paying vendors in cookbooks he's published, reasoning that “movies do it,” so why not books?
Like every publisher, Fenn is taking precautionary measures in the rocky economy. He has reduced the number of books both houses are publishing, cutting the programs by about 25%. And Fenn is being more selective about publishing books that he will be able to sell in more mass market accounts, “so we can see the same level of revenue coming from fewer titles.” The company is actually up 35% over last year in sales, despite having cut the number of books it produces. A forthcoming C$45 hockey book with Hockey Canada that Fenn expects will sell in excess of 100,000 copies should help boost revenues, too. And Ramsay's backlist continues to sell.
Fenn is also cautious when it comes to digital publishing. “I recognize that making our content available electronically is the natural progression and what the industry is facing, though this doesn't mean that I have to immediately embrace it,” he says. He's concerned about revenue streams, for one, especially if e-book sales replace hard copy sales. “In an industry which is already struggling with budgets and reliant on so many government subsidies, what will the future look like if the retail pricing of all or our products is dramatically reduced while volume remains static?” Fenn also has “massive concerns over piracy and how we capture all sales.” Still, he admits he enjoys the convenience of his Sony Reader.
Fenn's attitude toward his job is probably one that many people share: “Some days I come home from the office in a great mood, and other days it's like, 'What a stupid industry.' ” But he acknowledges that experiences such as befriending Gordon Ramsay and having lunch at Canada's Senate Building to talk about a book opportunity with a senator are major perks of the job. Not bad for someone who started as a warehouse sweep guy.