Shaper: Peter Usborne

Show aired on 17th January 2015


Peter Usborne

After National Service in Tanzania, Peter Usborne’s publishing career began at Oxford University, where he started a funny magazine called Mesopotamia. When he left Oxford, he started satirical magazine Private Eye, where he was Managing Director for three years. He then spent a year at a French business school and a year as a management consultant before ending up back in publishing as ‘special assistant’ to the chairman of the BPC Publishing Group.

From there, he got a job in BPC’s educational publishing department, Macdonald Educational, where he devised a highly successful series of school books for beginners, Macdonald Starters. He later became Publishing Director, before starting his own publishing company, which his former boss lent him the money to do.

Usborne Publishing was born, which quickly made a name for itself producing highly entertaining and colourful non-fiction books for children. In the forty years since then, Usborne has grown to become one of the world’s leading publishers of children’s books of every kind, having been translated into over 100 foreign languages.

Peter was awarded an MBE for services to the publishing industry in 2011. With his two children, he is a trustee of The Usborne Foundation which supports charities working in the area of early literacy, and is developing a suite of free online games for early readers called ‘Teach Your Monster to Read’.

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My qualification for being a children’s book publisher is that I was a child and I haven’t shut the doors to childhood behind me.

We started Private Eye by buying a company off the shelf with me organising printers in my lunch break… It was embarrassing, it was an instant success.

I love languages, I think languages are the most extraordinary invention that the human species has ever devised.

My wife rang up one Friday afternoon and said, “you are going to be a father” and I marched into my bosses room and said, “can I stop being your assistant and can I have something to do with children?”

So I got myself a job and a pen and a table and invented this series called McDonald Starters – which turned out to be a huge success.

I wrote a business plan that involved borrowing £20,000. I took it to a friend to check and he said “It’s only got one mistake: add a nought”, so I did and I asked for £200,000.

I very much like the idea of simplicity. All my life I am always looking for the simple way of doing things.

I want my books to be as edible as those bottles of sweets one used to see in old fashioned Post Offices. They have to be wonderful objects.

My kids are very clever people who I am extremely proud of. If I could successfully hand over the ownership and possibly the running of the company to them I would be looking down with great pleasure.

The book industry has been shaken but it has not been destroyed and I don’t think it will be.