Shaper: Peter Usborne

Show aired on 17th January 2015

Transcript

Elliot Moss
What a wonderfully upbeat way to start the programme this morning. Good morning I am Elliot Moss, this is Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM on a bright and breezy Saturday morning. Jazz Shapers the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, soul and blues alongside their equivalents in the world of business; a Business Shaper. My Business Shaper today I am very pleased to tell you is Peter Usborne. He is the founder and managing director of Usborne Publishing and if you have children you will know him or rather his work and his wonderful work extremely well – I certainly do. You will be hearing lots from Peter very very shortly. In addition to hearing from Peter, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon De Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that of course a sumptuous mix of music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, including Madeleine Peyroux, Louis Armstrong, new music from Omer Avital and this from Joyce Moreno.

I am positively tapping my toes, two great tracks already here on Jazz Shapers. That was Mio Pial, I am sure I have said that incorrectly, my Spanish is better than my Portuguese, from Joyce Moreno, a Brazilian – great. Well I have got a publishing great with me today, Peter Usborne; I am making sure I say it properly so we don’t get any persecuted feelings over there from Peter. Peter is the founder as I mentioned earlier and managing director of Usborne Publishing and a fine institution it is too. Only forty one years old thought Peter?

Peter Usborne
Well I am sorry about that and will keep going for a bit longer if you want.

Elliott Moss
We need to make sure you are established properly. Now for those, for those of the people listening who don’t know, just give me a little flavour of what Usborne Publishing is all about?

Peter Usborne
Well Usborne Publishing is a fairly substantial children’s publishing company that I started as you correctly say, forty one years ago which has grown and grown which publishes a lot of sticker books, a series you probably know called ‘That’s Not My’ and all sorts of other books; about four hundred books a year and we’ve grown and grown and we are now I suppose one of the leading children’s book publishers in this country but we also publish in six foreign languages which is remarkable – French, Spanish, Italian, we are just about to start I think tomorrow Usborne Korea and I love languages so we are very export crazy really.

Elliot Moss
Now building a business over four decades takes some doing. Right at the centre of it is creating stories and books. How do you know, especially in the world of children’s literature and I have four children myself, how do you know what is going to be a winner? And how do you know the tone to touch and the how long a book should be and whether it should be tactile? I mean these are not easy things to know. I imagine you don’t ask three year olds what they want?

Peter Usborne
No 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. Most people do when they go through teenage years, they ‘Ahh I must get rid of things that are childish’. I never have been through that so I have a natural I don’t know, it’s kind of radio contact to my childhood and yes you do ask a lot of questions and I don’t want to go into it in detail but my first huge success I was working for another publishing company, was called McDonald Starters and I had got a clue from some sales rep at McDonald I was then working for who had said ‘you blankety blankety London blanks haven’t got a clue how simple people up in Scotland really want books to be’. And there were you know two or three hundred people, it was a big meeting and I went away, I was just getting going in book publishing and I thought and I thought and I thought ‘ that chap from Scotland was probably saying something deeply true’ so I sat down and I invented this series of books which explains very simple things like rain, milk, tiger to like six year olds and they were simpler and shorter than anybody had ever written anything before and they worked brilliantly and I was suddenly kind of a hero in my publishing company and I was promoted and promoted and eventually got back to start my own book publishing company. So there is a sort of mixture of the Scottish chap giving me a tip and me being you know, pretty observant and a bit of memory.

Elliot Moss
Find out much more from my Business Shaper today, Peter Usborne, the founder and managing director of Usborne Publishing. Time for some music, this is Hafla from Omer Avital.

That was Hafla from Omer Avital and very nice it was too; he is an Israeli jazz bassist if you are interested in looking him up. Peter Usborne is my Business Shaper today and if you were listening earlier you would have heard that he is the founder and managing director of Usborne Publishing and they publish books for children, thousands of them by the way. Now going back in time a little bit Peter, your first venture, your first foray into the world of publishing was at Private Eye? How did you land that? Was that? Is that right?

Peter Usborne
It’s a very very strange story and I am constantly called a Maverick in the Bookseller, our trade magazine because they can’t quite work out how I fit. I started my publishing career at Oxford University where I started a so called funny magazine. I thought there was a lack of one. My magazine wasn’t particularly funny but I kept going and it got funnier and funnier and eventually we turned it in to Private Eye magazine. It wasn’t, I think it was Willie Rushton’s idea. He has sadly gone but I think he said in some field we were lying in on the last day at Oxford University ‘why don’t we go on doing this’ and my magazine then was called Mesopotamia thing in real life it had been great fun and everybody said ‘shut up Willie’ and I went away and thought and thought and thought. I went I think to America for three months and came back and rang everybody up and said ‘hey what about doing another magazine funny but national’ and they said ‘yes’ and I got them altogether and we bought a company off the shelf and I found an office and I was briefly a trainee in an advertising agency and in the lunch hour I organised printers and things like that and we started Private Eye and it was embarrassing, it was an instant success. I think we published it, the first what I call the real Private Eye, after three trial editions. We published it in February ’62 with I think a print run of five thousand which got up to a hundred and fifty thousand in a year because we had fantastic publicity. It was a satire thing, early ‘60s we are talking about, the satire was in the air and suddenly Private Eye a new satirical magazine came along, journalists loved it and we were just amazingly successful very very quickly and then it all started to go wrong and it slumped and you know, we sorted it out in the end and I wasn’t the editor, I was only the chap who made it all happen and got people together and I suppose paid their salaries but it was a, you know, fairly vivid experience.

Elliot Moss
You just mentioned you weren’t the editor but what intrigues me about the publishing world is that for someone like you, I imagine you have to have a really good sensibility around what good writing is regardless of who the audience is but also you need to know how to run a business. So are you both creative and commercial – is that the order? Or is it…

Peter Usborne
Yes, yes although I – absolutely and I do in a children’s book, I am basically an editorial chap in technical terms. In children’s books I wrote and created books. Now of course I have people who do that for me. We have authors and we have staff, designers and things like that but yes I am a bridge person. I can do both editorial and the business side though at Private Eye I have to say I really did not do the editorial. We hired a very good editor called Chris Booker and put him in charge and he and Willie Rushton effectively created the editorial content and I was just the pen pusher and filler of bottles and things. But it was quite exciting.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper today, Peter Usborne. Time for the latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom for your burgeoning business from our program partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning from 9.00 o’clock here on Jazz FM you can hear me talking to someone of note in the world of business. If you have missed those people of note go in to iTunes, put in the words Jazz and Shapers and you will find them all there or if you are flying on British Airways, you can always listen to Highlife, I am sure there will be some really good guests in there as well. My good guest today, very good guest is Peter Usborne and he is the managing director and founder of Usborne Publishing which is a bit of an institution now if you have children; especially if you don’t well go and get some children and then you will need to buy his books. Peter we were talking before your first venture, your first entrepreneurial venture was Mesopotamia – which I have never said in my life before, those words in that order – back in Oxford University. You said that morphed in to Private Eye which in the eyes of many many people will make you a bit of a legend. You were running a business and we were talking about where commercial and creativity comes together. You moved on from there and you took a paid job I believe; at McDonald Educational Publishers is that correct?

Peter Usborne
Umm, let’s get it right. I left Private Eye after about three years because I was so called managing director and I had almost nothing to do except slightly worriedly check the small ads for hidden homosexual content – it was illegal at the time and I remember sitting there one Friday evening checking the bloody small ads and trying to work out whether advertisements for rubber gear for motorcycle riders meant something different from what it appeared to mean and I said ‘I cannot go on doing this all my life, I have to think of something else to do’ and I knew some friend from Oxford who said he had been to a French business school so I signed up to a business school in France in Fontainebleau. I speak all the languages and you had to speak three to get in so I was rather proud of getting in.

Elliot Moss
Which ones do you speak?

Peter Usborne
I speak a lot of German, French, a bit of Spanish, a bit of Italian, a bit of Swahili – I am learning Korean at the moment.

Elliot Moss
What did you study at Oxford?

Peter Usborne
Classics and philosophy.

Elliot Moss
Okay.

Peter Usborne
So Latin and Greek as well. I had forgotten all them.

Elliot Moss
That’s only about nine languages Peter.

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

Elliot Moss
So from – underpinning that and we will go back to where you went after Fontainebleau.

Peter Usborne
Yes. Let me, let me finish the story.

Elliot Moss
Yes please.

Peter Usborne
Sorry I spent a year at the business school and then I mucked around briefly. I was a management consultant for a year, a pretty miserable experience and ended up working for a large publishing group, as the chairman’s assistant and after a couple of years of doing that my wife rang up one memorable Friday afternoon at about 3.15 and said ‘I’ve got some news, you are going to be a father’ and I marched into my bosses room which was just through the door and said ‘John, can I stop being your assistant and can I have something to do with children’ and he said ‘Okay Peter, well why don’t you go down a couple of floors, you will find we own a publishing company called McDonald which has an educational publishing department, get yourself a job’ – and I did and I dare say everybody said scatter lads, it’s the chairman’s assistant you know, but I got myself a job and a pen and scissors and a table and looked around and invented this series I mentioned earlier called McDonald Starters – which turned out to be a huge success. It was intended for schools and I got promoted and promoted and eventually I met my boss in the loo and when we were washing our hands he said ‘How’s it going Peter?’ and I said ‘Well it’s going quite well’ and he said ‘Well I have heard good things, what are you going to do next?’ and then I had a real moment of terror and said ‘Well umm, I don’t really want to be promoted any more, I really want to start my own company’ and he said to me quite incredibly ‘Well you don’t need to go to the City of London, ask me for the money’ and I did and I made a business plan and it involved borrowing twenty thousand quid and I took it to a friend and said ‘How’s this for a business plan?’ and he said ‘Well it’s only got one mistake, add a nought’. So I did and asked for two hundred thousand pounds. I got it and I started Usborne Publishing. Extremely well-funded because in those days two hundred thousand pounds is worth about a million pounds today and we sat there…

Elliot Moss
Wow.

Peter Usborne
…you know, that’s how we got the money.

Elliot Moss
What a story and you are going to find out what happened next if you stay with me here on Jazz Shapers with my wonderful Business Shaper, Peter Usborne. Time for some more music in the meantime this is Madeleine Peyroux and The Summer Wind.

The tranquil sound of Madeleine Peyroux and The Summer Wind. I have been talking to Peter Usborne; he is my Business Shaper today. He was telling me how a chance encounter in the toilet, don’t take it the wrong way, ended up two hundred thousand pounds richer and you set your own business up. Now you were talking before about your love of languages and it struck me and I don’t think it is at all a coincidence that you are obviously not just someone who loves to learn but you are an educationalist and the two don’t always go together. Some people can be quite selfish about learning for themselves and other people want to share it. Do you think those two things in addition to the point you made about being happily childish, have enabled you to create this wonderful empire that you have created. It must – it feels like they underpin the dream of the man forty one years ago borrowing two hundred thousand pounds?

Peter Usborne
I don’t feel like a teacher though it has occurred to me that I might possibly have been a good one. I did have an uncle who was a brilliant teacher. I am not courageous enough frankly to teach children and I know that I would get furious and clobber someone and be put in jail. But I do have a knack for communicating with kids, I don’t know quite where it or what it really amounts to but I can do something there. So I communicate with children rather than consciously teach them. I don’t have them sitting in rows.

Elliot Moss
But the fact that you, but I think somewhere and I meant in a sort of more philosophical way that you like the idea of education rather than necessarily teaching?

Peter Usborne
I like, I very much like the idea of simplicity. All my life I am always looking for the simple way of doing things. The simple book, the simple line of communication, the simple letter, the simple… I love simple. I don’t know quite where that comes from but I have a passion for simplicity and a knack for it and I can clearly I don’t know, something I can do a lot of other people can’t do which is get things across very easily and make things, make knowledge less frightening and much more attractive and edible. I use the word edible about my books – I want my books to be as edible as those bottles of sweets one used to see in old fashioned Post Offices I remember so well from my childhood. I want my books to be something you want to put in your mouth. Indeed when my books sometimes come in from the printer I still slightly put them in my mouth.

Elliot Moss
(Laughs).

Peter Usborne
They have to be wonderful objects like sweets used to be wonderful objects.

Elliot Moss
I think my children have done the same thing but they are a bit younger than you. But was it simple to you then to use your word? Was it simple for you to say ‘I want to run my own business’ all the way back when because that wouldn’t have occurred to a lot of people who were you?

Peter Usborne
Well I had done it in a sense at Oxford. I did it at Private Eye. I had an uncle Henry who became eventually a Labour MP who started a business and made a bit of money and had wonderful property up on the River Avon and I think I had always thought that if I am going to have to be in business which I didn’t particularly want to do, I mean I really wanted to be a Spitfire pilot one day but that, you know, I was a bit old for that. If you are going to be in business you might as well do it for yourself because my uncle once said to me ‘Peter you know what the one thing that is really good fun, is working for yourself’. I think that must have stuck in my mind.

Elliot Moss
We will have our final chat with Peter Usborne today and we will also play a track from Louis Armstrong – that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

The iconic Louis Armstrong with the iconic Mack The Knife and I think even Peter likes that one too.

Peter Usborne
Yes.

Elliot Moss
It’s a victory. We have been talking about all sorts of things Peter and I love your approach to life which is you are very clear on what you are good at, you’ve wanted to convert what you are good at into or you have converted it into the business that you run and I am sure you live your life in that way too, that sense of things having to be edible as you said and the joy of simplicity. You are forty one years into this business now and you obviously love what you do still – where is going to go? What’s the legacy going to be for Peter and the family and then the business that you are going to you know, pass on at some point to your family?

Peter Usborne
Well, again its strange. I haven’t sold out. Most people when they get to be sort of forty five or fifty think ‘Ah I really want to buy a yacht and sail round the world, I want to make a pile of money’. I was fortunate that I managed to find an American investor who bought twenty six percent of my company when I was about fifty five and that in a sense made it unnecessary for me to have to sell the whole company I had. He gave me some money, I bought a lovely house in France and various toys so I haven’t had to think about selling out and I think on the whole that is a very good thing for my staff because most people know what happens when you sell a company which is the people come in and it is all full of smiles but then two or three years down the road the so called back office gets so called rationalised and anyway. So my hope now is that I manage to hand over my company to my two children and we are working quite hard on that. My kids are sort of early forties, very very clever young people who I admire and am extremely proud of and if it were possible to hand over successfully the ownership and possibly the running of the company to my kids I would be a very happy corpse. I would be looking down with great pleasure.

Elliot Moss
The other thing beyond that which I think must be the primary and most important thing right now on your agenda as it were as the owner and the founder of this business is the future of publishing or rather the current of publishing because people talk about it and people talk about the demise and yet in most houses across the country there are parents reading books in their hands to children before they go to bed, all being well. Will that be forever? Do you think? In a printed form?

Peter Usborne
Six to seven years ago I think a lot of us in publishing thought we would all disappear like in a sense various forms of recorded music have disappeared. But it hasn’t happened. Amazon have clearly become an enormous force and the Kindle is a very good device for reading books on but people still love owning books and sharing books and having books and showing books and above all giving books as presents. You can’t give a download as a present. The book industry has been shaken but it has not been destroyed and I don’t think it will be. We are all crossing our fingers a bit on this but the one area that is actually continuing to grow is children’s books. The kind of books I do which a lot of which are things like lift the flat, touchy feely, sticker books. You can’t do on line and are given very happily as presents and children love to own books and parents love to give books. I think probably more than ever parents love to give books because parents are worried in a way that they weren’t ten or fifteen years ago. I see it in the younger generation very clearly – they are dead worried about their kids getting decent jobs in a way that I never was in my generation. One just got a job. Now they are getting incredibly worried about their kids and even two, three, four year olds are being given books like there is almost no tomorrow because they are so worried about them learning about the world and learning and reading and learning manual skills and things. So actually the winds I think are blowing in favour of children’s books and what’s more, it is happening all over the world. It’s a bi-product of globalisation which means worried mums who are going back to work, a bit guilty about that and wonder what they can do about this fact of increasing competition with people all over the world and increasing or rather decreasing maternal time and one of the things they are doing is buying children’s books so I am extremely optimistic about the future of children’s books.

Elliot Moss
Peter it has been really fantastic to talk to you, thank you so much for spending some time with me. Just before I let you go – what is your song choice today and why have you chosen it?

Peter Usborne
Well I had some trouble because…

Elliot Moss
Be honest come on.

Peter Usborne
…this is a radio station dedicated to jazz, blues and I’ve got now soul. None of which are me. I am a pop and a classical music man you know, very middle of the road, middle brow kind of chap so I thought and thought and came up with Bill Haley, Rock Around The Clock and you said ‘No it doesn’t count, it’s not jazz’. So we struggled around and my wife looked on and she said ‘What about these songs’ and one of them was The Girl From Ipanema. Now I remember lying on Copacabana beach in Rio in the sun watching those beautiful bodies walking back and forth and at that time The Girl From Ipanema was a huge hit. It is a beautiful melody and I hope you play it and I said to some Brazilian bloke lying next to me ‘Where is Ipanema?’ and he said ‘Oh it’s just down there if you walk three or four miles down the beach you will be in Ipanema’ and I thought ‘My God with any luck the girl from Ipanema will walk past’ and if I am really lucky she will take an interest in a balding, middle-aged British publicist lying on Copacabana beach. For me this is travel, this is Brazil. I have a Brazilian operation doing extremely well, known as Innes Shong, born in South Palau so for me this is a beautiful song, it’s a memory of Copacabana beach and it’s me travelling and having a huge amount of fun doing what I do.

Elliot Moss
Thank you so much, here it is.

That was The Girl from Ipanema from Astrud Gilberto, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Peter Usborne. What a colourful man. Fantastically intelligent, a real fan of education and someone who absolutely wanted to keep it simple and wanted his books to continue to be edible. Brilliant stuff. Join me again, same time, same place, that’s 9.00am next Saturday morning for another edition of Jazz Shapers. In the meantime stay with us, coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

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’.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

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.