Episode 266 – Ahead of her time with Judy Piatkus

‘I think we’re going to have another watershed moment… there’s going to be business pre-pandemic and business post-pandemic. And I wonder how many business books are going to feel out of date.’

Judy PIatkusAs a woman founder in publishing, Judy Piatkus is one of my heroes. Working from home long before it was fashionable, navigating caring for a child with special needs alongside the casual sexism of the 1980s, she quietly built up a pioneering company specialising in self-development. And along the way she transformed her own consciousness through the books she brought into the world.

Her story reflects many common themes of entrepreneurship, women at work, the digital revolution and the the power of books and of bringing people together.


Judy’s site: http://www.judypiatkus.com/

Conscious Cafe site: https://consciouscafe.org/

Judy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Judypiatkus

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones:  I’m here today with Judy Piatkus, who is an entrepreneur, publisher and business coach specializing in conscious leadership. She founded  Piatkus when she was in her twenties and grew the company to become an international brand before selling it in 2007, just before the global financial crash that she had shrewdly foreseen.

And she’s now a keynote speaker and a coach and mentor to startups. In 2011 she founded Conscious Café, a network that brings people together for connection and discussion. She’s the author of Ahead of Her Time: How a one- woman startup became a global publishing brand.

 So welcome to the show, Judy.

Judy Piatkus: Thank you, Alison, it’s lovely to be here.

Alison Jones: It is a thrill to have you here. And I was just saying off mic what a fan girl I am of Piatkus and just what an inspiration you’ve been to me on my own  publishing entrepreneurship journey. So, although I promise everybody I will get on to talk about writing and books and all the rest of it, I just want to take the opportunity to talk to you a bit about publishing and specifically about your own journey as a publishing entrepreneur. You were doing the whole working mum, working from home,  woman startup thing, long before it was fashionable, weren’t you? You’re a real pioneer.

Judy Piatkus: Well, indeed. In fact, it was so long before it was fashionable that every time a lorry  might come with new books, which they’d drop off at our front door, I could see all the neighbours’ curtains twitching and I’m not even sure that if they’d complained to the council that I was running a business from home, I would have been legal. It was that early.

So it was very unusual then for a woman to be growing a sizeable company. And  it was a challenge because there weren’t very many role models.  Margaret Thatcher, I’m talking about the eighties now when I started, Margaret Thatcher had become prime minister, and therefore there was a sense, I mean, whether you were a supporter of Margaret Thatcher or not, there was a sense that if a woman could become prime minister, then people were going to be opening their minds to the fact that women could do everything they wanted. So it was an exciting time from that point of view and I felt supported by having a woman prime minister.

It was very unusual in the 80’s, England was ahead of her time as well.

Alison Jones: Yes and it took a long time, actually, before we had the second one, didn’t we?

Judy Piatkus: It took a very long time!

Alison Jones: It’s a real demonstration of that,  ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ thing, isn’t it?  The power of being able to see powerful women and the effect that has on you.

Judy Piatkus: Definitely. I mean, it was a time when many women were still expecting that they wouldn’t do anything after they got married, they would settle down,  they would have children.  I mean, Cosmopolitan, I think began in,  the UK edition, I think came here in the 80s and it opened people’s minds to new ways of thinking.

So women were going to university in larger numbers, but not very large numbers, and not studying things like accountancy or not doing the STEM subjects. And if they were doing some of these, they weren’t necessarily expecting that they would be making a lifelong career. And when I say that, of course, some women were doing it, but they were really few and far between.

And so yes, I was lucky, there were always many women working in publishing, not necessarily running companies. Although I wasn’t the first one to have my own company. But publishing has always been an industry where women, who have always been particularly drawn to the arts, have done very well. So that wasn’t so unusual.

In fact, I had an aunt who had worked for Victor Gollancz so whether that meant publishing ran in the family, I don’t really know.

Alison Jones: It’s in the genes, isn’t it? Well, again, it’s seeing what’s possible. It’s having those role models. So perhaps it was an influence.

It’s really interesting, you say about publishing being a female- dominated industry, I don’t know if that’s quite the word you used, but it’s certainly, there are an awful lot of women in publishing, but still even now, they do tend to be in the lower positions and the CEOs of most of the companies, not all of them, many of the companies, are male. It is interesting.

I do remember at OUP, Oxford University Press, somebody had a little cartoon outside their door saying ‘a good hierarchy needs a solid foundation of women at the bottom’ and it was very much like that wasn’t it?

Judy Piatkus: Oh my goodness. Well, I’m glad I didn’t work there because the equality has always been something I felt very strongly about.

I think being a woman in publishing or just a woman in business, it was so unusual for so many of the men who I met. And so I felt very strongly about women needing to be treated equal in every area of their life  from the outset.

So I didn’t want people to treat me as anybody different. I simply wanted them to treat me as another human  engaged in work as they were, and expecting the respect that you would give to any colleague. And it sounds so simple and straightforward, and it really has been difficult and we’re not there yet.

Alison Jones: We have come a long way, but yes, we are definitely not there yet.

And what about publishing as an industry? How do you think that’s changed over the years since you set up  Piatkus?

Judy Piatkus: Well, publishing has changed hugely since I started.  So it changed  towards the end of the last decade,  when it was the 90s, when technology obviously changed everything for every business.

And I remember we were publishing business books at the end of the 90s. And then of course, everybody installed computers. I do remember one of the major banks being one of the very last companies to get computerized, and that wasn’t until about 2003 or so. And  they were incredibly slow, but it gives you an idea of the massive changes that we’ve seen in the last 20 years.

So 20 years ago, publishing shifted because of technology and computers and all of a sudden our business books that we’d been publishing, many of them were completely out of date overnight. And that would have been the same, of course, for all publishers. I mean, if you don’t mention technology and if you don’t mention writing and managing and leading in a world of technology, of course your books are going to be out of date.

 But I think now 20 years later, with the pandemic hopefully coming to an end fairly soon, I think we’re going to have another watershed moment. And then there’s going to be business pre-pandemic and business post-pandemic. And I wonder how many business books are going to feel out of date. And I think probably quite a lot of them. So that’s a challenge for publishers of business books.

So publishing has changed because Amazon is so much more powerful than it was say 10 years ago. And Ingram’s, which is responsible for distribution of books, particularly in the States and has been very helpful to smaller publishers, enabling them to keep books in print for longer – that was not really a company that we gave a lot of thought to when I sold Piatkus  in 2007. So that’s a massive change.

And then, Oh, what’s really interesting is that in 2007 digital departments, if they existed, usually comprised one or two people. And of course it then took quite a while for digital departments to integrate with editorial departments because publishers go into publishing mostly because they want to work with words.

And digital was really quite a challenge for a lot of people, especially older people, who’ve been in publishing and were in their forties and fifties. It was all very, very new and of course, digital people who came into publishing were coming from outside publishing, couldn’t always understand why everything had to be done in a particular way.

So there have been a myriad of changes, and those are just a few of them.

Alison Jones: Yes. So interesting. I was Digital Director for a while – the Publisher’s Association had a kind of board of digital directors of the different companies. We all had to attend with our own lawyers of course, because there was so much going on with the anti-competition suites with Apple and Amazon at the time and so on as well, and it was just hilarious. Because every meeting we’d say, we really shouldn’t be doing this, this should just be publishing, we shouldn’t have to have Digital Directors. It should just be Publishing Directors. But yes, we got there, but it did take a long time. Really interesting.

What about the relationship do you think between authors and publishers, because you mentioned about Ingram  and Amazon, of course, the empowerment  of self published authors and small presses and so on; do you think that traditional publishing has changed its relationship with authors or is that in process still?

Judy Piatkus: Well, I feel very new to being an author and when I was a publisher, we really cared about our authors. And  we were very focused on working very closely and collaborating closely and getting the best out of each book.

So unlike in a large conglomerate where everything would be much more process driven, and a book would leave someone’s desk and then move on to someone else’s desk. I mean, I’m talking about desks, but that was how it felt. So it’s actually difficult for me to tell if it’s very different now.

My publishing company who I’m working with Watkins and they have been fabulous. And they have been particularly careful to consult me about everything. And so I have really appreciated that and they also feel very young and enthusiastic. And I’d like to think that we were like that at Piatkus.

 But as I haven’t been an author before it’s difficult to know, I’d have to talk to other authors and find out. But in any event, every author’s experience is personal. So every author’s going to have a slightly different relationship with all the people they’re dealing with in their publishing company.

And a lot of publishers’ work has always been managing authors’ expectations. And because I understand this, I’m hoping I won’t be too much of a challenge as an author for my publishers.

Alison Jones: It could go either way, couldn’t it? I can imagine if I was your editor, I’d be terrified, frankly.

Judy Piatkus: Oh, actually, I’m the one who’s terrified because I’m discovering what it’s like to be an author.

And another thing that’s different nowadays is of course, social media. So somebody this morning was sent an advance copy of my book and  she posted a  photograph of it on Facebook. Luckily she said she liked it. But actually it’s very possible that people who don’t like it are going to be posting on all kinds of social media outlets and conversations.

And I know I’ve got to be prepared for that. So that makes it rather more terrifying, but I suspect it’s always been terrifying being an author. And I’m just finding out about the terror.

Alison Jones: Yes, you are sort of a gamekeeper turned poacher, I suppose. I’m not quite sure what the right picture there is, is it the other way around… really interesting. And when you were publishing, I mean, you really pioneered self-development as a genre, which is one of the things that’s most exciting, you know, one of the reasons that I’m such a fan. You took all that on board, didn’t you, and you were talking about caring about your authors, but you really invested yourself in the subjects that you were publishing  and read those books and published what you felt you needed to read, I think  you’re saying in the book.

So just tell us a little bit about how that developed, you know, because  you were first in the field, you’ve got your pick of the authors and now of course it’s huge.

How did that shape you as a publisher, but also as a person?

Judy Piatkus: Well, when we began to publish books in the, what was called at the time self-help area, there were very, very few books being published. So I’d go into a bookshop and there’d be hardly any books on the shelf. And that was an area that interested me.

And I couldn’t tell you why I was drawn to it. Although  if we are drawn to what we ourselves need to learn, that could perhaps have been why, but of course this was before personal growth, before personal development. So I think there would have been many other people like myself, brought up in a family where parents were not given to being over- analytical, so not really understanding things like emotional intelligence. Which, I probably had it, but not really understanding the dynamics, wanting to improve communications, wanting to understand people better. And I think most people who are drawn to this area want to learn about human relationships and why we do the things we are.

Why we become the people that we’ve become at different points in our lives and what triggers our emotions on a daily basis. So I began to read these books and as I read more books, I began to learn from them.

And I think it was the same with business books when we came to publish them. And I think all publishers who work in these areas and read widely, because you want to read the books that are successful and understand why your competitors achieved such success with them, I think all of us really are wanting to learn more about ourselves and our identities and our being in relationship with ourselves and with others. So yes. And  my book hopefully  explores a little of my own journey.

Alison Jones: Yes. I thought it was fascinating. And then of course, you went on to make that your second career, if you like,  the Conscious Café and the mentoring, the leadership, the coaching.

So you really, in a sense when you left publishing, that was what you embraced instead.

Judy Piatkus: When I left publishing, I was completely burnt out. I had worked so hard since I had been a publisher. I didn’t go to university and I’d had one publishing company, which I started early in my twenties. And then Piatkus Books  which was launched when I was 29 and I’d worked with fabulous colleagues and we’d been a fantastic team and the last 18 months of the company we were doing incredibly well. And I was engaged in trying to sell it at the same time, which was very stressful because we had a very, very open culture and it really didn’t feel comfortable, but I felt not telling my colleagues what I was doing was the right decision.

And then we sold it and then we merged and then I left and I really did not know what I was going to do, what I wanted to do. And I was just happy to do nothing. I did nothing for a year. I would sleep, read, have lunches and coffees. And then my daughter told me she was pregnant. That was lovely because we spent a lot of time together, which previously she’d been working, I’d been working, we hadn’t spent as much time together and that became really special. So I felt very lucky to have that experience at that time.

Alison Jones: You had your mini lockdown didn’t you? We’ve all hit pause in some one way or another.

Judy Piatkus: I was having a sabbatical, the one that I never had  because I didn’t go to university, I’d gone to secretarial college, which is what young women did then, and I didn’t have university holidays. I did have a period of time traveling, but after that I just worked. And when I was in my twenties people only got two weeks’ holiday. I mean, it was really precious. I mean, four weeks is like really abundant.

Alison Jones:  Absolutely. And  it’s wonderful, that sense of expansion and possibility and potential, isn’t it. Once you have come out of one really intense period of your life and then reset for the other.

So  tell me a little bit about what you do now, about Conscious Café, about  that new life that you’ve forged for yourself.

Judy Piatkus: Well, I started Conscious Cafe in 2011 because I was really missing conversations about personal growth, personal development.

And I invited some authors from Piatkus and friends who I also  wanted to bring together because I love bringing people together. And we had a conversation. The first one I think was about what is consciousness and everybody enjoyed it. So Conscious Café has been organizing conversations ever since.

So we’ve been online for the last year and we now have several groups in different countries, and in a few places in the UK and we hope we will be able to return to meeting in person. But meanwhile, in the last year we’ve run a lot of events online on a range of different subjects connected with personal development, spirituality, the mystical side of life, if you like.

But we do give people the opportunity to come together for a conversation, a really meaningful conversation. The kind that you don’t have very often with your family or the people you live with because they may not want to engage in conversations about the meaning of life, and they might not have thought about it very much. So you can’t always have those conversations, but you can have them at Conscious Café.

Alison Jones: I love that. We are going to have to talk about writing as well, because we touched on the fact that you became an author after having been a publisher. So, I think they’re very different skill sets aren’t they?

Well, I know, because I’ve done both as well, they are very different skill sets and  you know, because the fact that you’re the publisher doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to find writing easy. How did you find it? And what did you find worked for you? Did anything surprise you about the process?

Judy Piatkus: Well I joined a writing class and  it was run by a very capable editor who I knew in publishing. So I felt safe joining that class. I could be myself because otherwise I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about joining a writing class. I think I might have used my married name and gone there under pseudonym so as not to make anybody feel uncomfortable.

So this writing class started with us having to return in three weeks time having written something and really that’s how I began to write my story, because I just did what a lot of people do when they get to a later stage in life and they think, Oh, well, I’ll start with me. And then I’ll see what I want to write about afterwards.

I would never have been able to write a novel. I don’t think I will ever write a novel. I don’t have a very large vocabulary and I have never been anyone who has been able to appreciate literary fiction as much as more popular commercial fiction. So I did not see me going in that direction.

And I think I needed to write my story. I think you come to a point in life later on when you want to write your story to make sense of it. And had I written this book 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have made so much sense to me at the time. And writing about my publishing career from a distance actually flowed most of the time, it was very straightforward.

But having said that  I worked with a freelance editor who was extremely encouraging and eventually I sent her the finished book and it was 80,000 words and it came back cut to 60,000. So she’d taken out 25% of the book and I thought, you were a publisher, so if she’s done this you’ve just got to let go of 20,000 words and not think about it.

And that’s what I was able to do. And had I not been a publisher, that would definitely have been harder for me.

Alison Jones:  That’s interesting. Do you mean from a kind of an ego perspective, that you understand that actually what you’re trying to do is best for the book rather than making you feel good?

Judy Piatkus: Absolutely. Absolutely. And to be honest, I couldn’t even bring myself to read it again.

So I couldn’t even bring myself to look at all the words that she chopped out. I thought, well, I have entrusted my work to her, this is what she thinks and I’ll just go with it as it is now. But that would have been much, much harder to do if I hadn’t been a publisher, I suspect.

Alison Jones: And also it would be very, very hard for you to cut those 20,000 words yourself. Wouldn’t it?

Judy Piatkus: Well what I’d asked her to do was not edit it, but copy edit it. But really, I learned from glimpses of paragraphs every now and again to refine how I was writing. I was just too wordy, so I’m sure every word she took out needed to go.

Alison Jones: Less is more, that’s what they say, isn’t it?

Judy Piatkus: Absolutely. Actually I have noticed in the last year that my writing has become more precise. So I wrote the book, so I can call myself an author. But I’m still struggling with what that means. I think if I wrote a second book, I’d feel more confident about calling myself an author.

Alison Jones: That’s so interesting, isn’t it?

That even once you’ve written a book and it’s published, you still hesitate to identify yourself in that way?

Judy Piatkus: Well, I think it’s because I’m not a very stylish writer. I’m a storyteller. So you start reading and you just keep going, because I tell a story and it’s quite easy to read. But I’m not a stylish, beautiful literary writer.

And I admire stylish, beautiful literary writers who really have to think about crafting every sentence, every paragraph, every page. And I am not that writer. And that’s why I’m hesitant to call myself an author.

Alison Jones: So interesting. Isn’t it? I know exactly what you mean and when it has done well, that kind of writing is an absolute joy to read. It’s not done very well, very often in business books, I have to admit. Because you know most people who write business books aren’t writers, first and foremost, I think the best ones are probably written by journalists, but again, it’s not literary, it’s not highfalutin, or over styled or anything.

And I find when I read nonfiction and it is written in that way, I find it quite irritating. For me, I’d rather just get to what they’re trying to communicate to me. I want the idea, I want the nub of it rather than lose myself in kind of literary flourishes. So I think, I don’t know, if you’re listening and  you’re attempting literary flourishes, I’d just be really careful.

Judy Piatkus: I agree with you, but interestingly, I have read in my time, many American business books that are both well written and informative and just an absolute joy to read and some British ones as well, of course. But in the States, there has been a tradition of much more line editing. And even though we do do it here, we don’t do it quite as much as they do there. So you do notice the difference.

Alison Jones: Yes. Interesting. And if there’s somebody listening who hasn’t yet managed to pull their first draft together, in your dual capacity  as a publisher who knows what they’re looking for when they publish a book, but also as an author, who’s kind of been there in the arena doing it, what would your best advice be for them?

Judy Piatkus: Well, my best advice is actually to approach your writing of your book  as a professional and see, in the first instance, if you would like to work with a traditional book publisher, because you may be an excellent writer and lots of people are very tempted to self publish, but it’s very hard to sell a lot of copies of self published book.

And if you go to a traditional publisher they will ensure that your book is well edited, it’s well crafted, it’s well designed, the cover is attractive. All those things that a lot of people who want to self publish don’t always appreciate how important it is to the potential reader.

But the other thing is that many authors don’t realize that you can get a commission for a book. So you don’t have to write the whole book. You need to write your synopsis. You need to write three sample chapters. You need to make it clear what will be in the book, but you don’t actually have to complete the book in order to find a publisher.

And there is so much on the information on the internet that will tell you exactly what you need to do. And the other thing which the publisher is going to say to you is, what is your platform? And so you do need to develop your platform, which is thinking about how you are going to sell this book to the people you know, what channels do you have to the market and how to increase them?

So it’s a big project writing a book, a really big project. It’s like a couple of years out of your life. So make sure you’ve got the time before you embark on it.

Alison Jones: It’s not just the writing, is it? That’s the whole point, you think you’ve written the book and the job’s done, but it’s starting, because that whole marketing piece  kicks in then. Yes. Brilliant.

And actually just going back to your point about the synopsis, the proposal and the sample chapters, actually for non-fiction, that’s really important, isn’t it? Because often a non-fiction publisher will have their own commissioning strategy. They will have an idea about how they can develop this for the market so they can reach well, and they might want to work in partnership with you rather than just sort of take the whole thing and blast it out to the world.

Judy Piatkus: Yes, absolutely, because you might present a publishing company with an idea, with samples of your  writing that shows you are going to be able to write the book and they may just want to fine tune it so it goes in a direction that they feel will sell much better in the marketplace. And you know, if a publisher gives you advice, then take it, the most successful authors that we worked with took our advice and some authors didn’t always agree with what we suggested.

And it was hard for them to achieve the success they wanted because they hadn’t really listened to what we advised.

Alison Jones: Yep. I’m nodding vigorously. Brilliant. And this is going to be fascinating. I’m going to ask you to recommend, well, I was going say a business book. It doesn’t have to be a business book, but a book that you think is useful, beneficial, enjoyable, helpful for business people, particularly those considering writing a book, to read.

Judy Piatkus: Well we are really at a watershed moment with the pandemic and we don’t know what our daily lives will be like in a few years. And the chances are that much of our daily routine will be different from what it was say in 2019 before everything began.

So it’s hard to recommend a book because  what is going to be the right book for everybody really is going to want to read in the next two to three years? But one book that I’m reading at the moment is called Invisible Work by an author, John Howkins. And it’s subtitled ‘the hidden ingredient of true creativity, purpose and power’. It’s published by September Books. And I’m finding it very interesting because it came out a year ago just as we went into lockdown.

And what he’s looking at is what does work really mean? So in one chapter in the book he’s talking about different progress as we work. So we might start with a fairly menial job. And then we might progress  to an administrative job. When you’re doing those jobs, people can more or less see what you’re doing, but then the more sophisticated work, which would be the next stage, advisory, and then the final stage, conceptual, are invisible kinds of work, but in the world that we’re going into now, if you want to have a successful career, you want to get beyond Administration into Advisory you know, if that’s going to be what you’re very good at – to the conceptualizing of whatever it is, whatever product or service that you would take into the marketplace. And actually, it’s very hard to explain what that invisible work consists of.

And the book is absolutely fascinating and I think it’s valuable for younger people to understand what work can be because they don’t see it. And I remember when my daughter was a teenager, she’d worked in my publishing company a few times in the holidays and I’d come home with books and she knew more or less the process of turning a manuscript, a typescript, into a finished book and how it was sold.

But all of that was very visible. And I remember saying to her once, do you understand what I do? And she said, ‘Of course!’, and I sort of was not sufficiently cognizant myself of what I did to be able to describe it to her.

But actually what I was involved in was invisible work because with my team, we were conceptualizing what the books were going to be like and being very creative about how we were going to market them and those things are very difficult to see. So I’m finding this a really interesting book to read, and I think there’s the factors that we are all going to have to think much more about, especially if we’re not going to be working together in the office all day, every day.

And while I think we must return to offices because we won’t have the opportunity to learn from one another and we can work uninterrupted in offices, which is a plus, and we don’t have to be multitasking all the time, while I think that will happen, I think we’ll have many more people working at home say two days a week and in the office three days a week.

And I think it’ll be very difficult to attract the people that a company wants to attract, unless they’re going to offer them some flexible working.

Alison Jones: Yes, I think it’s really true. And you’re right about the learning from each other. I think it’s also about something, about a stage of life. Isn’t there.

I love working from home now. I would have hated it in my twenties.

Great recommendation. Yes. I love that book. I love his point that staring out the window… working at that top level looks a lot like doing nothing.

Judy Piatkus: Exactly, exactly. That’s when you got to the top of your career, when your work is really purposeful and meaningful, well should be, should be anyway.

Alison Jones: Yeah, absolutely. And I love that point as well about that the publishing works on those two levels because there is a very… mechanical? Is that the right word? But there is a real, there’s a process, you know, a typescript comes in and it goes through all these processes and there’s some very visible outputs at every stage of those, but across the whole thing, there is that conceptualizing, that creativity, that beautiful blend of the creative and the commercial that makes publishing such a great industry to work in.

Yes. If people want to find out more about you, more about the book, more about the work you do now with Conscious Café, where should they go?

Judy Piatkus: Oh, Conscious Cafe has a website www.consciouscafe.org. And I’m just redoing my website because I haven’t been using it very much. But now that I’m an author I’ve popped a picture of the cover on it. So I’m just updating it

 I’m on social media. So www consciouscafe, if you want to have interesting conversations.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. And I’ll put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as usual, along with the full transcript of today’s conversation.

 Judy, such a pleasure and a privilege to talk to you today.

I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for your time.

Judy Piatkus: Oh, thank you. It’s been absolutely lovely to talk to you, Alison, and lovely to experience a podcast,  we didn’t have very many of those in 2007 either.

Alison Jones: Yes. It feels like they’ve been here forever, but they’re still quite…

Judy Piatkus: They really haven’t!

Alison Jones: They haven’t, have they. Life moves very, very fast these days.

Judy Piatkus: Thank you for inviting me.

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