Episode 64 – Independent Publishing with Helen Kogan

Helen KoganKogan Page is one of the world’s leading business book publishers and one of the last big independents. The company has just celebrated its 50th birthday, and in this episode I talk to MD Helen Kogan – daughter of founder Philip – about what it means to be independent, what commissioning editors look for in a proposal, and some hands-on, down-and-dirty tips for writing a business book that sells.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the workings of one of the truly great publishing houses, and to hear from the very top what they look for in the authors and books they take on.


Kogan Page: https://www.koganpage.com/#

Kogan Page on Twitter: https://twitter.com/koganpage

Helen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/koganh

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

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge (starts 5 June): https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I’m delighted to be here with Helen Kogan, who is the MD of Kogan Page one of the few large independent publishers left to us. She’s a fellow member of the IPG. Kogan Page was founded by her father Phillip in 1967. Helen hasn’t always been in the firm. Before she joined in 2001 she was a journalist for 20 years. Happy 50th birthday Kogan Page.

Helen Kogan:                       Thank you very much.

Alison Jones:                        Are you celebrating?

Helen Kogan:                       We will be. Yes we are. We’ve got lots of lovely things planned.

Alison Jones:                        It’s not many independent publishers get to this age do they?

Helen Kogan:                       No, there’s very few of us actually. There is very few of our size. Looking at other fellow brilliant independent publishers there’s a point at which, at about 30 years old I think there is a moment related to succession as to whether or not they stay as an independent or whether they get absorbed into PLC. There are not many of us. That’s for sure.

Alison Jones:                        I look at this with great interest. My independent publishing company’s three years old now. I have a nine year old son, I’m grooming him…

Helen Kogan:                       You’re a toddler and we’re just at middle age.

Alison Jones:                        That’s right. Yes, I’m at the throwing things stage.

Helen Kogan:                       We’re at the “should know better” age I think.

Alison Jones:                        What do you think the difference for you? You work in an independent publishing house, what do you think is the hallmark of that compared to what we have in the broader landscape of publishing, which are these big, big conglomerates that have absorbed independents over the years?

Helen Kogan:                       I think there are a number of things that really sort of mark us out. One of the things is that the author really is absolutely the centre of our raison d’être, and I think the thing is we can give them a very, very good experience in terms of whether it be through the writing, the marketing, the production. We keep in very close contact with our authors. We provide fantastic support throughout the process. They really do get to know us all. I think I always have a sort of mantra that every book matters and it really does to us. Every book matters to us because we have to live on the success or failure of every single one of our books. We’re also agile and I think that’s a thing that tends to be underestimated in terms of the positive aspect of independence.

We have a light structure. We work very collaboratively within Kogan Page. We really do emphasise team work. We can move quite quickly when a good idea comes up. We can really move on it. We’re not sort of inhibited by significant layers of management or a P&L that doesn’t allow us to… or, indeed, external investors that don’t allow us to make our own decisions. I think one of the things is that we’re very light footed.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and that’s something that I really enjoyed actually coming into the independent publishing firm after a career in corporate. It’s interesting because so many big corporates are now trying to almost invocate a startup culture. They get the benefits of being independent with intrapreneurship, they call it.

Helen Kogan:                       That’s right but one of the things is you have, in terms of engagement, you are only as good as the people who you work with really. I think being a smaller size we’re able to really work hard as a company to make sure that everybody is really fully engaged and really fully involved. We’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years in terms of making sure that we’ve got our company values, everybody understands and that we’ve become a sort of coaching culture here as well. We really do work together. We’re very transparent internally in terms of figures, our revenue and we have quarterly meetings where we go through our P&L with our colleagues. We have a company conference every year where we’re looking at how we can better deliver value to all of our stakeholders whether they be our authors or they be our network of agents, whether they be colleagues in the book trade. It’s very much a collaborative effort. I think one of the things why we’re able to do this is because of our size actually.

Alison Jones:                        You’re big enough to matter but small enough to do something like this. One of the great joys, of course, of independent publishing is that you get to publish basically whatever the hell you want, which is …

Helen Kogan:                       Right.

Alison Jones:                        This is what I wanted to ask you. How do you go about making those publishing decisions? Particularly, obviously in the context of this podcast, when you’re looking to take on a business book, when you’re making that commissioning decision, what are you asking yourself? What are you looking for?

Helen Kogan:                       I have to say one of the very first things we look at is the commercial viability. We cannot publish books that don’t sell. The first thing we’re looking at is what the market positioning is going to be like. The change in the last couple of years is that we really have absorbed as one of our core functions the ability to make a book discoverable so we have to make sure that: A) the book is fit for its market whether that be a more general trade business market to make sure that we can definitely get viability within the book trade or whether if it’s a professional academic type, whether or not we have very clear channels to market but we can make sure we can create discoverability around the book. We can make sure we can get that book in front of the people who are most interested in it.

The very first thing that we look at is the commercial viability of the title. We then look at an author provenance, and how engaged they’re going to be. I think we really work very closely with our authors and we do look at whether or not if it’s a professional book what their footprint is, what their background is, what their experience is. Are they going to be active? Are they going to engage with us? That’s hugely important. We also, because we’ve got a very global … sales are incredibly important to us. 45% of our revenue comes from international sales now. We also look to see whether or not its got a global reach, whether the content is relevant to a global audience. That’s really important.

We look at the content. We look at whether or not it is going to provide a clear proposition to readers. If it’s a professional academic title we look to see if it offers a sort of solution to the readers’ pain points. Are they going to have a really good strong take away if they bought the book? Is it going to make a difference to them? Of course, if it’s a trade book we’ll look and see is this covering a subject in a new or interesting way and can it punch its weight in a very crowded market within the retail space.

We look at it in various ways but the one thing we know is that we have to make sure that it’s commercially viable because you get very unhappy authors if you haven’t ticked those boxes and of course as a company we have to make sure that it works for us as well.

Alison Jones:                        When you say commercially viable, that’s a sort of output of a number of factors, isn’t it? The size of the audience, it’s what’s there already, it’s the credibility of the author in the field. It’s also the price that people are prepared to pay for the book.

Helen Kogan:                       That’s right. You know, because we have different types of books, we have some quite expensive technical books for instance in logistics, which is a completely different situation consideration to, for instance, some of our fantastic solo trade titles, which will sell for $14.99 or £9.99. It’s really horses for courses. We’re looking at where their readership lies. Can we reach them? If we haven’t already got channels to market are we able to create those channels to market. When I mean channels to market I do mean about creating discoverability because we’re quite happy when those sales come back plenty to us but also through the supply channel. Most of our sales do still come back through the supply chain but we have to make sure that we are able to create discoverability around those titles.

Alison Jones:                        Just for people who aren’t book traders or experts, when you say supply chain you’re talking obviously about … Amazon is a huge online retailer, but there’s the traditional bookshops as well. Then, there is libraries.

Helen Kogan:                       Libraries, yes. That’s right, and wholesalers and the independent bookshops. One of the things that we’ve developed over the recent past is the ability to sell the book into anywhere that actually wants to buy it. We have agile print technology, which allows us to distribute worldwide. We’re in all of the digital platforms. The thing is that it’s really not about providing books into the supply chain, that happens without … it’s something that we’ve established, but it’s about making sure the readers know about them. That’s been the big change in the last four or five years particularly in terms of our marketing activities. We really do spend a lot of time making sure that there is discoverability around those titles.

Alison Jones:                        Obviously that’s the work that you as Kogan Page do as the publisher. If there is somebody listening who’s thinking about putting a proposal together, what are the queue’s and the clues that they can give you to show that they are going to be an asset when you are engaging in that kind of work. What sorts of things are you looking for from the author?

Helen Kogan:                       You need to make sure that they have a very clear idea about the proposition, the value proposition of their book. Who are the readers? You have a very clear idea about readers. Particularly in the professional space. We often have proposals come in that talk about, in a very general way, sort of C-Suite or mid managers. Actually that’s probably too generic for us to be able to think about how we’re going to access channels to market. They need to think very, very … in a very segmented way, exactly who will be the target audience for their title. That’s the first. They also need to think really about that content. Will that content really provide solutions and answers and inspiration and thought leadership to those target markets. I think they need to be thinking really carefully about the proposition, about the value proposition and be able to explain that in a very kind of clear and succinct way to us.

Alison Jones:                        I’m nodding vigorously here. I remember being a commissioning editor and getting those really quite niche or targeted … what could have been very niche or targeted publications and saying they’re for the general reader. Well, they’re not are they? You don’t understand this at all.

Helen Kogan:                       The thing is that it’s a very crowded space and I think to make books stand out and jump out they’ve got to have real clarity about that.

Alison Jones:                        It’s got to be meeting a need.

Helen Kogan:                       That’s right.

Alison Jones:                        And not just a need but a need that people recognise because otherwise they aren’t in the market for a solution.

Helen Kogan:                       That’s right, absolutely. I think it’s really interesting because we do spend a lot of time with proposals so we get a lot of unsolicited proposals and we also seek out authors in subject areas that we think there is a gap in our list. We’ll spend a lot of time… if we think a proposal has got something we’ll spend time with that author. Our commissioning editors put a lot of work into the proposal forms before they come to our investment approval meetings, and they work alongside the marketers as well so they’ll spend a lot of time working with the prospective author, talking them through it. Trying to make sure we’ve got all of the points that we really need to tick off which says, actually this is a very compelling proposal, there’s a clear target market, the content is really good and substantiated. It has fantastic case studies or evidence that really… and also with really strong takeaways for the readers. I think those are the sort of two things that match up together. That content and also the clear idea about channels to market. That will be very compelling for us.

Alison Jones:                        Presumably, when an author is demonstrating those channels to market that’s a really important additional channel we haven’t really talked about, isn’t it? With the authors direct sales can be huge.

Helen Kogan:                       Yes, but it … certainly for the authors to understand it but we will be looking at our own channels to market and certainly we work with authors to … if they can bring new channels to market that we don’t already have, that’s fine. But what we’re looking at is really more importantly to get the author to identify those rather than actually- Clearly, we want them to be active but a lot of what we do, we already have channels to market or we have relationships, but we need to make sure that that proposal fits with that if you see what I mean?

Alison Jones:                        Yes, absolutely. That’s really interesting. Do you see any particularly interesting or emerging trends in that business book space at the moment?

Helen Kogan:                       I think there’s some fantastic new stuff going on. A lot of it is related to digital disruption but if you think about how digital has affected so many areas of business – everything really – you can look at communication and social media and how you communicate with your customers. Customer innovation. FinTech, I think there is just still an evolving narrative about how we work in changing times. This also has impact on leadership and how do you lead organisations in a very disruptive time. How do you cope with the pace of change. And then as an individual, how do you reskill to cope with these changes. I think there is masses out there and we’re certainly looking at some really key themes related to digital disruption and how companies and individuals work within this fast-moving environment.

Alison Jones:                        Ain’t that the truth. Actually, let’s go on from that. Kogan Page itself operates in an incredibly disrupted environment. Publishing has been arguably more disrupted than most over the last few years. How have you changed recently to meet the challenges and the opportunities of publishing today. I know there is digital disruption, there’s the growth of self publishing and so on. What’s changed for you?

Helen Kogan:                       Everything and nothing in the same way. First of all, lets start with the nothing. The nothing is we still … this was so true of the day that my father started this business in 1967 as it is today. We publish great content and we find channels to market. Those two things have stayed the same. They are our stakes in the sand if you like. How we get to that market, how we develop that content, those are the things that have changed. Those two tenets stay the same, great content, channels to market.

If you look at, for instance, how we develop the content, clearly books are still our primary function and that’s what we do but there are also real opportunities to create the content in the way that consumers want to purchase it or read it. I think we have to be prepared to look at how the next generation really want to acquire and have access to linear narrative. I think we’ve spent a lot of time looking at that so it’s not just a case of a straight ebook, although all of our books are published as e-books. We’re on 30 different global digital platforms. We’re also looking at short form. We’re looking at ways in which we can deliver content in really whatever way the readers want it. We’re developing online courses to support qualification. Our first pilot course is going to be launched within the next month or two. We’re working with the market research consortium on that one. We’ve got another course based on some of our sort of sub skills titles as well to help with continued professional development.

There are lots of different ways that we can look at content now. We’ve got the tools to be able to do that. The channels to market are really interesting as well because of course the channels to market previously used to be purely through the book trade, pretty well. Although I have to say in 1967 our first book still has … and I have a copy of it on my desk … still has an insert, a direct marketing insert, so we’re already direct marketing there, our very first piece of mark-ons that we produced in 1967. Of course, we have fantastic tools now to reach markets with Social Media, with a range of tools that we can really engage with communities. At the same time also we’re able to optimise our digital supply chains. We can print books in any territory we want. We can communicate new markets in any territory you want because the marketing tools. We can present our content in various different ways.

Yes, we’ve had to really bite the bullet in some changing processes. Understanding about metadata, without going into too technical a detail we have Onyx feeds that go out once a month with our bibliographic data to our books to a global sales network. That is just fantastic. For an independent publisher to be able to do that. We were always very internationally focused but now it is fantastically easy once you’ve got the systems in place. You do have to make an investment in those systems and you do have to make an investment in changing your internal processes to do it. Once you’ve done that you have this wonderful ability to reach markets both in your home market and globally.

Alison Jones:                        I think that’s fascinating actually. I’m just going to comment on that because the metadata is the information about the book. Not the content itself, information about the book. As you said it’s all about discoverability. If you haven’t got good metadata then you just can’t be discovered. It doesn’t matter how good the content is. I think there’s a really good lesson there for any business. The information about your business is just as important as the content of it or the quality of the service that you provide.

Helen Kogan:                       Believe it or not, we spend a very long time per book on looking at metadata because we do think it’s something that we can really add value to our authors, which is really just to make sure that that book and the information about that book can be found. It’s a great tool actually, it really is.

Alison Jones:                        I’m a total metadata geek so I’m with you all the way here. Always have been. There’s going to be lots of people listening to this who are writing their book and for whom the whole world of publishing is a bit of a mystery, a very attractive mystery. From a publisher’s perspective what advice would you give to that person who is in the process of writing their first business book?

Helen Kogan:                       Well, I’m going to go back to the reader. Always think about your reader. I think writing a book is really interesting because we work with brilliant, brilliant authors who have been top CEOs of large FTSE companies, but when it comes to writing a book everybody feels vulnerable and everybody feels a bit exposed. The first thing I’d say is think about the reader. What are you giving to the reader? I think that’s the most important thing. Keep the reader in mind.

Secondly, in fact this is exactly the same advice I give actually to my children who are at University writing their dissertation as I do to very experienced authors. Let the structure help you. There is a reason why structures haven’t changed for many years. Narrative structures haven’t changed for years and that’s because it helps you. This really goes back to basics doesn’t it though? A beginning, a middle, an end, sign posting, etc, etc. Actually we have development editors here who spent a lot of time on one of the things that we put in place in recent years, working with our authors. Not just new authors, to help them through that writing process to help them put in place structures and clarity. If you’re writing it without a development editor help, think about the structure.

I think also, a book is a work in progress. I think there is always a point where you have to stop. You have to know when to stop because the temptation is to fill that it’s never finished. It probably, in your mind, won’t be. That’s the second book that you write and then the third. But there is always a point where you have to have a bit of closure and step back from it.

Finally, what I would say is I always say stepping back. Give yourself a bit of time. If you’ve got yourself into a fog and you’re writing, you don’t quite know where you’re going and you should actually have a clear structure, a clear sign posting for yourself as you’re writing it. Put in that groundwork first, by the way. Don’t think that a book will have clarity if you don’t know what you’re going to write until you start writing. You’ve got to give yourself a structure but also give yourself time to step back from it and revisit it. It’s amazing what a bit of space … you could put it away for a week and then go back and read it. You’ll begin to see where you need a bit more clarity or you need to have a bit more detail or whatever it may be. If you can, give yourself a bit of space from it before you go back and re-read and start revising it.

Alison Jones:                        That’s fantastic advice. The structure thing I think, I always bang on about structure. It’s funny, we were having a conversation in the bootcamp that I run, this morning where somebody was like, it feels quite constraining to put a structure in place. You know, this is a living document but it does help when you do that top-down work, don’t you. Saying okay if I’m going or 50,000 words I’ve got ten chapters. We’re looking at roughly 5,000 words a chapter. It can feel very mechanistic but actually it’s a huge help when you’re writing something.

Helen Kogan:                       It’s really there to help you. Also, you need evidence as well. Don’t forget, particularly if it’s a business book, if it’s a book based on facts you need to be able to properly provide evidence for your key points. I would also beg anybody who is writing a book at the moment to really think about permissions and think about if you are using somebody else’s intellectual property you do need to seek out permission and you do need to be aware of that as a major concern for publishers. They will be asking you if you are including- That also covers tables, illustrations. You have to have permissions from the originator.

Alison Jones:                        If you redraw their model that is not okay.

Helen Kogan:                       Certainly not okay.

Alison Jones:                        ‘But I’ve redrawn it …’ No. It’s the expression of the idea that’s copyrighted.

Helen Kogan:                       Definitely structure is a fantastic thing. It’s there for a reason. I think we’re all creatures of habit and when you read a book … We’ve all read books where you think where is this going and what’s happening here. It’s because the structure isn’t strong enough. Don’t be ashamed to use it. It’s a tried and trusted, tested device that’s been used … goodness I don’t think it’s changed much for centuries. Do use it because it’s there to help you. When you go back and revisit it, if you’re not happy you can tinker with it.

Alison Jones:                        I totally agree. We talked about how structure helps you as a writer but I think it’s also a part of the contract with the reader isn’t it? As you say, the reader needs this sign post. They need to kind of feel secure that you are somebody who can lead them through this new territory and they can have confidence in it.

Helen Kogan:                       If you’re working with a publisher already, that publisher should be giving you feedback on that anyway. If you’re writing a book without a publisher then you just need to really, really think about that.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely, or work with someone who can help you. Brilliant. Helen, I always ask my guest to recommend someone else that they think I should speak to. Is there someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books, who do you think would be great for this show?

Helen Kogan:                       Oh gosh. I have so many authors that I could offer up.

Alison Jones:                        I know, I’m quite excited about what you’re going to say.

Helen Kogan:                       Who I’d suggest actually is our fantastic author Chris Lewis who wrote “Too Fast to Think”. I think he’d be a really great next victim of your podcast.

Alison Jones:                        I quite like that. Wonderful. Thank you. I do know the book actually so that would be terrific. I will approach Chris and I will say, “Helen sent me” and hopefully we will have him on the show. That sounds fantastic.

Helen Kogan:                       Lovely.

Alison Jones:                        If you people want to find out more about Kogan Page and more about perhaps submitting a purposeful in a way that you’re going to be grateful to receive, where can they go and give them some tips.

Helen Kogan:                       If you come onto our website that’s www.KoganPage.com, that’s Kogan with a “K”.

Alison Jones:                        I’ll put the link up on the show notes as well so if you’re in any doubt.

Helen Kogan:                       That’s probably your best port of call. Of course, follow us on Twitter. That is KoganPage, @KoganPage is our general Twitter handle. I’m @KoganH and so yes, I think those are the main ways that you can make contact. There are mail addresses on our website to reach commissioning editors depending on what your subject area is.

Alison Jones:                        All the details are on there. Have you got a … I think you have got a template haven’t you? For how to present a proposal?

Helen Kogan:                       Yes, we do. That’s on the website.

Alison Jones:                        Wonderful. Well, thank you so much Helen, that was absolutely fascinating. I could have talked to you all day but we’re going to have to end it there. Thank you so much for your time.

Helen Kogan:                       Thanks very much.



  1. This episode was a great insight into a publisher whose books I order regularly. I’m a librarian in an academic library and it’s fascinating to see what goes on with the publishers. Quite a few of the publishers have suspect practices, publishing the same book with only 20% of the content changed every two or three years.But I’ve always found Kogan pages book to be one-offs that are valuable.

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