Kogan Page: toasting success and planning ahead

Helen Kogan
Opinion - Publishing Tuesday, 07 November 2017

Helen Kogan discusses how Kogan Page has dealt with challenges to face its anniversary year and the future in fine health

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kogan Page. As one of a handful of independent publishers to have reached this landmark, I'm frequently asked how we have successfully tackled the pitfalls of succession, market changes and digital disruption. The 50 years have seen the company go through start-up, rapid expansion and diversification, and then, in recent years, a refocus that has reconnected with our core strengths and helped create a future path for the business in a dramatically changed landscape.

As with many independent companies, Kogan Page began on the family's kitchen table with little more than the determined spirit of my father, Philip, and a small loan from his brother to get it going. Kogan Page began with a good idea - a reference directory for human resource professionals - and an energetic direct marketing operation which helped launch the fledgling company.

Soon it had built lists in business and management, human resources, education, a groundbreaking early list on robotics and technology, logistics, marketing and careers. The 1980s saw the development of a trade list that resulted in engagement with the retail trade, with many of the early titles still selling well today. During these years we also built an international presence, with offices opening in the US and India. Today our titles sell into 90 different territories (in print and digital formats) and are translated into 50 languages.

However, the last decade has seen challenges that were quite different from the early days of hand-to-mouth publishing. The impact of e-commerce, the rise of non-traditional publishers and changes in reader expectations have meant that we, along with the rest of publishing, can no longer take former certainties for granted. In 2013 we put a plan into action that faced these challenges head-on.

The first question we asked ourselves was, with diminishing retail channels, how were our books going to continue to be discovered? We started our renewal strategy with this fundamental question, which inevitably led us to question whether our publishing strategy was robust and forward-thinking and if our marketing truly supported it. While we still published in our original specialist areas, we had also over the years expanded into more generic business titles and marginal subjects. We had to accept that in a world awash with generic business books we might not be able to stand out in a digital retail environment that didn't discern between multiple titles.

This realisation led us to refocus on some our key areas of publishing from the early days - our human resources, marketing and logistics lists - in order to develop foundations upon which to roll out our integrated publishing and marketing strategy. We began to think through what we needed to do to build true engagement with readers and to think about what skills would be required within our marketing teams to operate successfully in a data-driven world.

While we set about recasting our publishing and marketing strategy, we also began to invest in processes and systems that would support our supply chain efficiency, which we identified as a core competency in order to utilise the new opportunities presented by digital tools. The result is that we are regularly awarded the UK's BIC top Excellence Award (with digital tick) for digital supply chain.

New opportunities
As our footprint within specialist communities renewed, so we began to discover new publishing opportunities. Our 50th year has seen two new co-publishing contracts with the CIPD (the UK's largest professional association for HR professionals) and the Chartered Bankers Institute to provide specialist vocational textbooks and professional development titles. We have launched digital product including, this year, our first online training course with the Market Research Society, to support its professional qualification, and the roll out of courses to support workplace skills and continuing professional development. We have also launched a searchable, multi-media, digital platform to help support our co-publishing partners' content needs. Having concentrated on our specialist areas of publishing, we have also seen a renewed energy in our consumer-facing publishing, and have marked our 50th year with our first trade series for some time: the Myths of series. We have just finished our financial year with 16% growth.

In many ways the experience of the last few years can be applied to the last 50. Kogan Page has survived because it has always had a clear value proposition. Our books have a close relationship to our readers' needs. Certainly, we have had to "tough it out" many times, but the two tenets on which the company was built have stood us in good stead: acquiring great intellectual property, and the creation of diverse channels to market.

We will continue to develop both our vertical professional and academic niches, and bring the best of business thought, leadership and skills to readers across formats and territories. There's no crystal ball as to what further challenges we'll face, but by staying close to our readers and keeping a sprinkle of our original pioneering spirit I'd like to think that the next 50 years will be as vibrant and successful as the first.

Helen Kogan is managing director of Kogan Page.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily.

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