PUBLISHER

Usborne is a major, independent, award-winning UK publishing company, and Children’s Publisher of the Year 2012-2013.

BUSINESS PROFILE
USBORNE PUBLISHING: PETER USBORNE, CEO

“Making children’s books is so much fun, it ought to be illegal.”

Peter Usborne MBE, MD and founder of this eponymous children’s publisher, which in 2013 celebrated its 40th birthday, says this with a chuckle as he scuttles about the boardroom showing examples of Usborne books old and new. His enthusiasm is boundless and, well, rather childlike.

PU-12The MBE was conferred on him in the 2011 British New Year’s Honours list for services to the publishing industry. “It is quite nice to reach this advanced age and get an honour,” he says. “But it’s not for me, really, it’s for Usborne Publishing. If I could split this into 200 pieces I would. The amazing thing about this company unquestionably is its extraordinary staff. “We’ve always been profitable in 35 years and I’ve never had to make anyone redundant” Usborne notes.

How has Usborne achieved this growth? “80 to 90% of our business is books, made and shaped by us. It’s inside talent rather than outside talent, and we focus on the humble areas largely neglected by other publishers who spend their time chasing after the next JK Rowling.

Board books, sticker books, card, colouring books… I remember when we were getting into colouring books and the prevailing wisdom was “who does anything with colouring books anymore?” Well, we do, and we do it bloody well !”

Lingua Franca

Usborne’s personal passions—languages and travel—are perhaps another key to the company’s growth; the company licenses foreign language translations and publishes under its own brand in France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Korea and China. More territories are on the horizon. “We are looking at Turkey, Poland, possibly Russia, but it does depend on finding a good partner. Licensing with other publishers is fine but then you don’t get a reputation with the public.” He foresees as many as 20 Usborne foreign imprints or deals in the next 10 years. “That’s the policy and it’s entirely conceivable. Editorial is very hard to scale up, harder to grow, you can’t just turn on the tap and get great ideas. But marketing is eminently scalable.”

Born to a German mother and English father, Usborne went to “posh schools” before doing his national service in East Africa.

“The best time of my life was as an officer in the King’s African Rifles. I learned Swahili and spent most of my time sailing or on safari.” At Oxford he started a “so-called funny magazine that wasn’t very funny”, but in the process met Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot and Willie Rushton, the core of the group with whom he would go on to found Private Eye. The magazine was almost instantly successful, and Usborne stayed on until after the comedian Peter Cook came on board (Usborne still owns 8% of the magazine). He eventually landed at publisher/ printer British Printing Cooperation, where a few years later he developed a hugely successful proto-Usborne Books range called MacDonald Starters: simple, colourful non-fiction titles aimed at six-year-olds.

“This was at a time when there was little children’s non-fiction, and of that, most was dull as ditchwater, often with black and white photos that looked like they had been taken by the author’s great aunt.” He decided to step out on his own, helped by a chance meeting in the BPC gents with his C.E.O. John Pollock. When Usborne told Pollock he was thinking of a start-up, Pollock said he would loan Usborne the money, stumping up the equivalent of £1m in today’s money.

Usborne has no plans to retire and sidesteps questions about succession (“my plan is not to die”). Ultimately, he says the key to kid’s books success is not shutting the door on childhood. “I call it the edibility factor. I remember when I was a child, going into sweet shops with all those enormous bottles filled with colourful sweets and I wanted to eat them all. That’s what I want people to feel when they see our books.”

Rotary Bonding with Usborne

Strong links were established between Usborne and the project, when in early October 2013 PDG Michael Johnson and his Linda visited the Usborne Head Office in London. Here is a pictorial record of the happy event, reading from left to right: Michael, Peter Usborne, Sharon Afutu (Usborne Marketing Consultant), Yvonne Riddell (former Export Director) and Grant Hartley (Export Director).