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Featured Member: Karen Ferns, Managing Director, Random House (NZ) Ltd

By July 17, 2010April 11th, 2014No Comments

The alchemy of risk-taking and creativity joined at the hip with commercial reality has had me enthralled with the publishing industry since I stumbled over it in the eighties. In that decade, a perfect collision of background interests and opportunity occurred when I talked my way into a publishing and marketing assistant’s role at Penguin just as they were taking the first tentative steps to build a New Zealand list. Just as the music, wine and film industry have contributed to our national identity, it has been exciting and challenging to be part of the emergence of a strong and vibrant New Zealand publishing range. In the early days, every book got its moment in the media and on bookshop shelves. That is no longer the case in the rough and tumble of today but the New Zealand list is 20 to 30 per cent of most multinational publishers’ turnover, and we continue to scheme and dream about how to ensure it remains a profitable and developing part of our businesses.

As I have stayed for most of my career within the sales and publicity and marketing departments, my ability to communicate and pitch ideas and sell books has served me well. Books can change lives, spur trade in ideas and contribute to national debate, but not all have such a lofty journey. The trick is to be able to position a book quickly and simply no matter where it fits along the literary-to­-mass-market continuum or adult to children’s market.

Sometimes there are ideas of the moment that you look back on and see have had a lasting I can be as excited about launching a new literary writer as I can about selling thousands of a mass market writer.heritage. Part of the contribution I have enjoyed making to the industry was developing, along with other like-minded publishing and bookselling women, the women’s book festival and guiding the marketing of that over the initial years. Today’s book festivals and awards owe something to the emergence of that early model.

Our industry is often viewed by outsiders as quaint and project-driven, as if we juggle lots of projects because we love books. They fail to see the conceptual thinking that goes into understanding how to meet the needs of each customer base and how to develop and shape a New Zealand list. Overseas bestseller lists and Bookscan data help but what you learn about the past doesn’t necessarily dictate the future because spotting trends is one of the many keys to success. We are always looking for that category killer or, even better, the emerging category. Other times you can’t fully explain why an author like Lee Child or Diana Gabaldon took off in New Zealand ahead of many other territories, but you know a particular mix of what you and your team have done created that success.

My own reading tastes are eclectic. I can be as excited about launching a new literary writer as I can about selling thousands of a mass market writer. You need that ability to celebrate the small achievements alongside the breakouts, as much of what we do is across a very broad product base. Much of it is about believing with a passion in an author over time, as good writing will eventually find its way to a growth in audience.

Selling for many different third parties over the years has filled me with admiration for those who run small publishing presses, often with too little buffer or capital when times turn hard. My own development has been helped by working for two different multinationals, Penguin and Random House. This has allowed me to develop a good understanding of different models of business and the effect that size, philosophy, international structure and scale can have on growing a publishing company. It makes a case for shifting around as you develop your career but that is exceedingly hard to do in such a compact industry.

As a managing director I spend a lot of my time looking forward, developing the skills of our team and working on general business processes that are a part of any company, but the creative aspects of our industry keep the fire in my belly. My natural optimism, alongside retaining a passion for what I do, counts for much of my success. At the heart of it is never losing the feeling of reading a book and getting that instant urge as you close the final page to go out and hand-sell it to anyone who will listen.