In a career of just 16 years, David Shelley has progressed from "editorial assistantcum- dogsbody" (as the ad for a vacancy at Allison & Busby put it) to publisher of Little, Brown U.K., where he arrived in 2005 as an editorial director for crime and thrillers.
"It sounds a bigger leap than it was," Shelley reflects, chatting in the Thames-side boardroom that is the envy of London publishing, "but it wasn't as much of a culture shock as I'd thought." A smaller fish in a much larger pond, he was nevertheless joining a company that has always seemed familial, despite its growth and an enviable roster of bestsellers that includes Val McDermid, Stephenie Meyer, Sarah Waters and J.K. Rowling, of whom more anon.
An Oxford graduate, class of '97, Shelley (whose paternal grandparents chose the name of the poet when they arrived as refugees from Vienna in 1939) knew he wanted to be in publishing, though he wasn't sure if it was as a publisher or as a literary agent. In the event the fates decided: no agency application panned out and he found himself at Allison & Busby, an indie with a long pedigree, which was by then in hands-off Spanish ownership. "What was nice was that you could be very entrepreneurial. I had some success with commercial non-fiction, literary fiction and crime fiction, so I published quite a range."
The high street was booming and if one or other bookshop chain took up the cause, it was possible to make something out of quite modest books. Among his successes was Molly Ivins' Bushwhacked, which sold 45,000 copies.
But Shelley was keen to roll up his sleeves with proper mass-market publishing, so when Little, Brown CEO and publisher Ursula Mackenzie offered him a job it was pretty much a no-brainer. He rose quickly, becoming paperback publisher of the Sphere imprint, then its publisher, then deputy publisher of Little, Brown, and, finally, publisher when Mackenzie relinquished that part of her role as she stepped up to be president of the Publishers Association. Now, with the editorial and design teams reporting in to him, Shelley is as much involved with nurturing the careers of staff as he is those of authors, and it's a role he relishes. However, it means there's less time for acquiring and editing.
"I'm very aware that I can't commission as much as I used to be able to, but I do like to try and have my cake and eat it, so with the British authors I work with I like to get very involved and do the structural edits. It's a matter of setting time aside to do that and not having too many authors. I find it very stimulating and energising, and I love the contact." These days when Shelley talks to agents, it's either about a very big project - or a very small project. "I like taking a punt on a new name."
Among the new names on which he's taken a punt was one Robert Galbraith, submitted by Neil Blair in early 2011. Publisher and agent had talked a few times and knew each other's tastes, and Shelley liked The Cuckoo's Calling, a debut crime novel. He opened discussions with Blair, who had submitted the manuscript to a handful of editors around town. They agreed to meet for lunch, and Shelley arrived at a Marylebone restaurant ready to talk further and confirm his offer.
"I was expecting to find just Neil, but there was a blonde woman sitting with him. When she turned round I had the surprise of my life. She said, ‘I'm Jo.' I said, ‘I know who you are.'" The three chatted, the discussion turning inevitably to the adult novel that everyone knew Rowling was writing. "We had a very general chat about The Casual Vacancy," Shelley recalls, surprised to be quizzed on the details of a meeting that he assumed no one knew about and refusing to be drawn on the detail. Somewhere around coffee, Rowling said she'd heard that he'd liked the Robert Galbraith, and Shelley, who still hadn't twigged, asked if she were a friend. "No," she replied, "I am Robert Galbraith." The novel had felt "very authentic", and he had had no sense that it wasn't written by a man.
Nothing specific was discussed, much less a deal, but that lunch marked "the start of a process", and one can only imagine Shelley's excitement as he stepped into Mackenzie's office to tell her of his surprise encounter. "Robert Galbraith" was still their shared secret when the, as-yetuntitled, adult novel that would become The Casual Vacancy was announced in February 2012.
As to Galbraith's Cuckoo, Shelley won't be drawn on timing, but says everything was sorted in just a few weeks. The "shared hope" was that the secret, known only to Shelley, Mackenzie and Hachette U.K. CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson, would keep for several books, and he watched with satisfaction as U.K. and Commonwealth sales hit 8,500 and Blair started to ratchet up rights deals. "The few people who knew had all gone to such lengths to keep Robert's true identity a secret that we were genuinely taken by surprise when it came out - we only had 50 copies or so in stock." While he's as disappointed as Rowling that the cover was blown, he's pleased that, unlike his amanuensis, Galbraith had "a fair hearing… The novel has been judged on its merits and the reviews after the reveal were as positive as those before. Jo has proved that it's hard to read without prejudice. She's made people stop and think what they come to a book with."
He praises the crime reading community for its fairness, and it will be fascinating to see the reception accorded to Galbraith's second outing in 2014. Galbraith also proved that quiet new authors can still succeed when booksellers support them adequately, and Shelley and his colleagues at LB work closely with indies in particular to ensure a genuinely two-way relationship. Crime specialists Goldsboro Books was necessarily denied a signing session, but received 250 signed copies, which paid unexpected dividends in terms of profile–though owner David Headley refused to cash in when all was revealed, selling The Cuckoo's Calling at cover price and giving a copy to each of his staff. "It's tough out there and we do everything we can to ensure they're able to survive and compete," Shelley explains of the company's attitude to booksellers.
As to digital sales, Shelley was given that nascent portfolio when he first arrived and the experience "gave me an insight into the way the business is changing that I wouldn't have had otherwise". In Britain as in the U.S., e-book sales appear to have plateaued, though with some authors they outnumber print by as much as seven to one. There's a sentimental attachment to print, but he believes authors are realistic-and the good thing is the speed with which titles can take off. Asked about self-publishing, he says that it's up to publishers to show authors what more they can do for them. "We're bringing to projects our editorial and design skills, our knowledge of the market, our relationships with retailers, our consumer insight–a skillset which is probably different to the one you'd have needed as a publisher 20 years ago, when it was largely a distribution business. We're now more in the business of ideas and marketing."
Frankfurt has changed too of course, though Shelley still relishes it, paraphrasing Dr. Johnson on London. It's not so long ago that Mackenzie, then at Bantam Press, made the running at the Fair when she bought Nicholas Evans' debut The Horse Whisperer. "It used to be all-night reading," remembers Shelley, who was attending even in his days at Allison & Busby, "but now it's all done in London before - though in the last few years there have been a lot of submissions going out on the Friday [before the Fair]. But I always get a thrill out of it and I go to talk to my counterparts and to compare notes."
The great book-of-the-fair chase often resulted in big checks for projects that never earned out (unlike Evans') or which never happened. But first technology and now the new austerity have combined to halt the general craziness of advances, in the day-to-day, and at Frankfurt and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, Shelley doesn't buy into the Wylie ideal that the advance should be so large there are never royalties, and if there are that the agent has failed.
"I always prefer to see publishing as a partnership - publishers working with agents and authors and arriving at a deal in which everyone does OK. All author contracts are different as authors look for different things; there are now lots of ways of constructing a deal. But it's supply and demand and the market decides. The best relationships we've got with agents are the long-term ones where everyone is realistic and no one takes advantage of anyone else, and we're all in it for the long haul."
This article appeared on October 9 in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily.