Snowblog post #500: Genesis • 20 September 2007 • The SnowBlog

Snowblog post #500: Genesis


Post 500

Here it is, blogpost number 500. We asked you what you'd like this landmark blogpost to be about, and you suggested a 'story so far' piece might be nice. So here it is. There's a timeline of events on the press page which gives you the bare bones. And by reading the blog you know a lot about our outlook: how we like progress and computers, and spend a lot of time thinking about the role of publishers. You know that we take a pride in our work and that's our overall motivator: we'd rather think of ourselves as craftsmen than ruthlessly efficient business types - although we come with business strategy modules built in to our heads. Why don't I go right back to the beginning, to the genesis of Snowbooks (as best I remember it!) and tell you where it all came from. In August 2002 I was working at Deloitte, and Rob was doing an MSc. having recently left ITIM, a boutique management consultancy. Both of us were depressed with the idea of consulting. My job consisted mostly of pitching for business - huge amounts of business, such as a £10m SAP implementation or a £5m cost reduction programme. Worse, some of these pitches were to public sector companies - and I knew full well that the consultancy would drain the public purse of money and do bugger all to resolve actual problems. Not only that, but the work was really, really boring with incredibly long hours - for instance, M&A due diligence is done in a week or two, so that's a week, or two, of 20 hour days (no kidding); pitches are done, on powerpoint, in a week with a team of 10 in a meeting room. More than once we worked through the night; once my colleague worked from 8am to 4pm *the following day* then got in a cab with the finished pitches and travelled to Birmingham, from London, to hand deliver the documents to the client. I was compensating for my awful job by spending my really quite substantial income on a fast car, haircuts every two weeks, eating out every night, drinking a fair amount and basically getting through life without living it. For a while it was fun; you have money, you're young(ish), you have all of London to abuse, your colleagues are bright and the crazywork actually means you have a sense of cameraderie with those other poor fools you're working with. But if you have an epiphany - if you realise what a load of nonsense it all is, even for a moment - that's it, you can't go back. I know there are far worse things that could be afflicting a person than having a boring job, which is what all this comes down to. But disgust for it all gets to you and the sense that your life is slipping away while you do nothing much except drink or design powerpoint slides becomes unbearable. So against that background, what happened? Rob and I were best friends; we knew each other from Superdrug, where I started my career on the Kingfisher Management Development Scheme and where Rob worked in Business Planning. Naturally once it had dawned on us that we were wasting our lives, we got to talking about what we could do. At one point I thought running a deli would be a good idea, at a high-footfall location where commuters could buy a tasty treat from us for their dinner. What an astonishingly bad idea that would have been, given how awful I am at cooking. I ditched that idea after six months of planning revealed that the numbers just didn't stack up. So, back to the drawing board. The important thing was that we wanted to do something meaningful - the antithesis of consulting. We wanted to be proud of ourselves and our work, and to do something that mattered. Hmmm, but what? Rob had always wanted to write a book and got a contract with a non-trade publisher (naming no names) to write it. It was - is - about retail strategy and is the finest book of its kind - content-wise, at least. He got a small advance and took 6 months off work to write it. It's quite Seth Godin in style: searing insight and thorough analysis delivered in a light, entertaining style. Probably would have been an ideal candidate for a B format paperback (not that I knew what a B format paperback was at the time). But the publisher in question didn't do that. First, rather than looking at the book for what it was - a pop business paperback candidate - they put it out in a £28 hardback with an uninspiring jacket image. Essentially they had taken a book and fed it into the way they always do things - we worked out after the fact that their model must be to publish a high number of high-retail-price hardbacks, breaking even by selling 500 units of each to a limited market, without marketing support or much effort of any kind, and then to get their profit from the titles that took off all by themselves. Disappointing to an author if you don't know about it in advance, though it probably works - but it was enough to get us thinking, and encouraged us to poke around a bit more in the publishing industry. And boy, did we find some interesting things. Such as, for instance, the barriers to entry for publishing were remarkably low. The ranges in the retailers were huge - far more books get selected for inclusion in a range than I ever would have listed when I was a buyer at B&Q or Superdrug. The industry seemed to be mired in convention - doing things in a particular way because that's the way they've always done it. There were some really cool pieces of software on the market that seemed to allow a tiny publisher to operate on the same level as a larger publisher. Not knowing anything, I couldn't quite believe this - I thought I must be missing a huge part of the puzzle and that it would dawn on me that it couldn't be that simple. (I'm still waiting...) So we formed a bit of a plan. Rob would write another book - the thriller he'd been thinking about for the last few years - and I would take a sabbatical from Deloitte to set up a company to publish it and a few other books. Like a lot of people, this was a plan formed down at the pub (although I think Rob had given up drinking by then, so maybe it was a cafe. Oh yes! The greasy spoon in South Croydon - remember, Rob?) and like a lot of plans it might never have come to anything - except I met Andy. Within three months I'd moved in with him, and within six I'd sold my flat, cashing in the last of the money I'd saved whilst doing up houses. (I bought my first flat in Colliers Wood in 1996 and sold it a few months later, once my lovely dad had put in a new kitchen, for about 15% more. I thought 'hello, that was interesting' and bought and sold a house once a year, on average, for the next six years, doing it up myself. And that was how I raised the money to put my share into Snowbooks - no loans and no outside shareholders. Oh, and I am never going to do any DIY ever again.) The game was afoot! But I found it really hard to stop being a consultant. My previous roles either required huge spreadsheets of product information and sales performance, or powerpoint slides of strategy - but strategy written as a sales pitch. I found myself writing great long business plans - beautifully presented, I have to say, but pointless. I was used to pitching and spinning - now I only had myself to pitch to. And oh, god, the language problem! It took me a good year to remember how to talk properly. I couldn't talk about the business plans without mentioning how our holistic approach enables vertical connectivity between the product operations team and the quality assurance technicians to optimize consumer impact points. Or whatever. Anyway, we plugged away, writing business plans that, frankly, bear no resemblance at all to the business that stands in front of you today. A couple of wonderful things happened. Firstly, Deloitte made me redundant. Ka-ching, another lump sum in our start-up fund. Secondly, I got accepted by the Digital Incubator for London (now the Innovatory) who provided office space on Old Street on the absolute cheap. These two things enabled (eek, I'm slipping back into consultant vernacular) me to shift my head space (Argh! Help me!) to focus solely on the business. When I was on sabbatical, there was a get-out clause - if it didn't work, I could go back to a salaried job. And if I'd been working from my spare bedroom I could have pretended it was just a hobby. But now there was no safety net and someone had believed in our plan enough to want to help us out with office space. We were away! The first six months was spent getting some books together. Man, it took a long time. I remember Gilly (our first permanent hire) and I trying to figure out how to create a PDF. It took us all morning! We got there in the end, and then came the moment of truth - trying to sell the things. Gilly and I sat at our little meeting table and started to brainstorm - I wanted to write down all the things I ever wanted my suppliers to do for me when I had been a buyer. They used to drive me crazy - asking for meetings just because it would make their bosses happy, which would eat up my day. Never giving me a straight answer on what their cost base was so I could work out how to offer them a fair cost price. Promising the earth and then failing to get the stock to us. Going behind my back to my boss to ask him to overrule me when I delisted something. Grr. Thing about buying is, it's a vicious environment and it's every man for himself. There's only so much space in store and whilst products are mainly allocated based on productivity, a lot of it has to do with how effective the buyer is at managing the politics of the organisation. So we wrote down the attributes of the perfect supplier, and then set to work making sure that we were that supplier. We created an info pack on each of our titles, which included basic supply chain data like the pallet ti-his (dimensions), availability promises and the lead times we could achieve. We could promise to work via EDI (electronic data interchange) and meet timed delivery slots because the wonderful Bridget from LBS had met us, seen the potential and signed us up (for which I will be forever grateful). We solicited feedback from readers. We researched the retailers' strategic objectives and made sure that our books were going to support them. We analysed each category, looked at the trends and what worked, and illustrated how our books fit well into the genre. We printed it out in colour and bound it up in a nice, frosted A5 ring binder. The end result was an info pack (or 'Buyers Fun Pack' as Rob tries to insist we call them) that contained everything the buyer could need to know about the book - but more importantly, it was something the buyer could take to her Monday Morning Meeting and wave around and say 'look what I get my suppliers to do'. The aim was to make the buyer look good in her bosses' eyes - which was exactly what I wanted my suppliers to do when I was in that position. And by jiminy it worked. I got an email from Suzie Doore (now at Hodder, then at Waterstone's) who seemed intrigued and asked me in for a meeting. At that meeting was Scott Pack, then Buying Manager of Waterstone's. As I recall, the two of them sat me down and said something along the lines of "Who the hell are you? We've never heard of you and then out of the blue you send in this info pack - with our logo on it!" (that seemed to go down particularly well). They reckoned it was a more thorough approach than any of their other publishers bothered to take. "Tell you what," said Scott, "we'll take all of your books and put them onto our front of store 3 for 2 promotion." Tell you what, I thought, bloody hell, we've done it! And, brilliantly, Adept (Rob's book) took off and sold tens of thousands of copies. We were on our way. Many things came together to get Snowbooks off the ground - the luck of being made redundant, the wonderfulness of Andy in believing in me when he hardly knew me, the genius of Rob's writing, the leg-up that our commercial background gave us. But the single greatest thing that breathed life into Snowbooks was Scott and Susie's decision that day to back us, to take a punt, to support a tiny publisher who needed that one chance to prove themselves. I will always be incredibly grateful for that. Thank you, chaps. And that is how Snowbooks came to be.


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

Many of the older posts in our blog archive suffer from link rot. Apologies if you see missing links and images: let us know if you'd like us to find any in particular.

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