The BookBrunch Interview: Ursula Mackenzie, president, the Book Trade Charity

Tim Relf
News - Interviews Friday, 07 December 2018

As president of the Book Trade Charity, former Little, Brown chief executive Ursula Mackenzie is a woman on a mission. She talks to Tim Relf about the charity’s new focus helping young people - and the first beneficiary, Lilidh Kendrick, tells her story


There’s one taxi ride Ursula Mackenzie will never forget.

It was 1994, and the then editor at Transworld, who had just read a part-manuscript of The Horse Whisperer, was in a cab with a colleague, describing the story. At the end of the journey, the driver turned round and said; "I’d love to read that book, where can I get it?"

It was a comment that further reinforced her resolve to acquire the book. Now, we are 15 million-plus copies and a Hollywood blockbuster later.

"I have never been more convinced that a book was going to be an enormous bestseller," she recalls. "I was totally convinced. And if someone overhears just a little bit about it and they want to read it, that’s a real sign of something special."

Pitching in
The importance of being able to pitch a book succinctly and convincingly is one of the pieces of advice Mackenzie would give young editors during her 35-year career in publishing. Now retired, the former Little, Brown chief exec is helping young people in a new way as president of the Book Trade Charity (BTBS).

Founded in 1837 to "provide care and support to former, current and future book trade people", BTBS still supports many retirement-age individuals, but increasingly is looking to help young people wanting to enter the industry or who are employed in their first or second jobs. "There’s a lot of awareness of the support the charity gives older people, but what’s less well known is the amazing work it does at the opposite end of the spectrum," says Mackenzie.

In additional to subsidising travel, rent, clothing and general living costs for under-30s attending interviews or on internships, the charity also provides unique opportunities to live in affordable accommodation.

Mergers with the Bookbinders’ Charitable Society in 2016 and the Matthew Hodder Charitable Trust in 2015 widened the services BTBS offers, the range of trades and professions from which people can apply for support, as well as its resources. Now, in addition to The Retreat at Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, it has housing at Whetstone in North London.

"The first six of these flats have been refurbished and rented incredibly quickly - and I’m not surprised," says Mackenzie. "The deal is fantastic. The one-bed ones are £734/month and the bedsits are £384 per person per month. On a tube line in London, that’s amazing."

Meanwhile, there are plans to demolish two of the older blocks at Whetstone and rebuild them, along with putting up two further blocks of one-person bedsits and two-person flats.

Helping hand
"The need for initiatives such as this has become ever-more important as property prices have rocketed. It’s an expensive business, starting out in this industry. Travel’s not cheap, either, so even getting to an interview can be prohibitive if you live on the other side of the country. You might have to pay for a B&B or a hotel if you can’t get to and from an interview in a day, too. The publishing and bookselling professions can’t be representative of our broader society if the only people who can work in it are those with a godmother in Pimlico who lets them stay with her.

"When companies are advertising entry-level jobs and internships, they should highlight that this support is available on the job advert. That could make all the difference between someone choosing whether to apply or not.

"There are some fantastic initiatives happening, but we all have to work harder at ensuring we encourage geographical and social diversity or we simply won’t represent the people we’re trying to sell our books to.

"You publish and sell a book best when you’re passionate about it and, while all publishers and booksellers have a responsibility to like as wide a variety of books as they can, there is inevitably a tendency to like what you’re familiar with, so you can’t help reflecting your social and geographical background. If we are to publish and sell books to as wide a range of people as possible, we have to employ people who understand those different milieus."

The planned work at Whetstone will cost £2.5m, half of which the charity will find from its own funds, with the remainder coming from a bank loan. Meanwhile, ever-more requests are coming for its help - the range it offers covers everything from grants for re-training, living with a disability and medical need, to circumstances sparked by redundancy, sickness or other life events. Last year alone, the BTBS awarded £200,000 of grants. Hence Mackenzie’s focus on fundraising.

"My role is to be a figurehead and a bit of a bully," she jokes. "I’m talking to new people, plus leaning on those who have given before to give a bit more. The more money we can raise, the more that’ll help us pay the bank loan back quickly and the more we’ll be able to do with our money.

Passion overcomes discomfort
"In the past, I’ve never been that keen on the notion of fundraising," she admits. "I don’t have a lot of wealthy friends, and I always found something uncomfortable about asking one’s friends to support something anyway. But I’m passionate about this, because it’s to do with the health of the book industry, which has been so incredibly good to me. I’ve had a wonderful time and I want to ensure other people can have as good a time as I did - and they need help, particularly when they're starting out."

With her 15 years at Transworld and 16 at Little, Brown, Mackenzie continues to be in demand - she’s a non-exec director of Profile and of the Andrew Nurnberg literary agency, plus a judge for the CWA’s Gold Dagger award ("I’m currently awash with crime novels!")

"Fundraising is all about being genuinely enthusiastic," she says. "It’s also got a lot to do with having a simple and clear message to sell."

So those pitching skills she so often helped new starters develop are still coming in useful for her now?

"Absolutely. You have to develop interpersonal skills, overcome shyness and hone your presentation skills. It’s not just the sales guys who are selling - everybody is. As an editor, the first people you have to sell to are your colleagues, whom you have to convince that this is the book you should be acquiring.

"Of course, you have to resign yourself to the fact that in a competitive marketplace you will lose some books you wanted to acquire and that it isn’t the end of the world when you do. I can remember feeling devastated when I was young and lost a book at auction I’d set my heart on. But there are an awful lot of books one can publish – so not getting too stuck on ones you’ve missed is not bad advice, either."

Given what she said about The Horse Whisperer, would she have been so philosophical if she had missed out on it?

"OK, that’s one I probably would have felt heartbroken about if I’d lost!"

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Lilidh’s story

Securing accommodation at one of the Bookbinders Cottages at Whetstone has been "life-changing" for Lilidh Kendrick.

When the 26-year-old from Perth in Scotland was offered an editorial assistant role with Bloomsbury a year ago, it represented her "dream job"; but she was also conscious that a move to London would stretch her finances.

"As well as being one of the most exciting cities in the world, London is also one of the most expensive," she says. "But Bloomsbury told me about the Book Trade Charity at my second interview, and having the chance to live in their accommodation has been an amazing opportunity.

"The rent is just over £400/month and they didn’t require a deposit, so it’s incredibly affordable compared to what I’d otherwise be paying.

“It’s giving me a unique chance to live in a friendly, safe place and I’ve been able to find my feet and get to know the city ready for when I move out of Bookbinders.

"There are people in the accommodation at both ends of their careers, so there's something really special about the inter-generational aspect. There’s a real sense of community," she adds.

"On a typical day it's about 50 minutes from home to work and, because I get on the tube near the beginning of the line, I can nearly always get a seat!

"I’m learning so much at Bloomsbury and am gaining new skills and confidence. I’ve had the best possible start to my career and The Book Trade Charity has played a huge part in that."

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Support The Book Trade Charity
If you’d like to make a corporate or personal donation, please email the chief executive, David Hicks, on david@btbs.org.

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