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Im pubiz.de-Interview: Chantal Restivo-Alessi, Digital-Chefin von HarperCollins

Ohne Trial and Error geht es nicht

Von Michael Lemster

Mit dem Erwerb des international agierenden Harlequin Verlages setzte HarperCollins Publisher – seit jeher ein ganz Großer in der englischsprechenden Welt – zu einem unvergleichlichen Sprung auf die internationale Bühne an. Seit 2015 kann der Verlag seine Rechte in praktisch jedem relevanten Sprachraum unter eigenem Namen orchestrieren und vermarkten. Aber der Verlag hat noch andere wichtige Punkte auf der Agenda, wie Digital-Chefin Chantal Restivo-Alessi im (englischen) Interview verrät.


Chantal Restivo-Alessi, geboren in Rom, ist seit 2012 Chief Digital Officer und seit 2015 Executive Vice President International von HarperCollins Publishers. Sie verantwortet die Digitalisierungs-Strategie sowie die Internationalisierung des zweitgrößten Publikumsverlages der Welt. Zuvor hat sie Management-Positionen unter anderem in der Musik-Industrie besetzt.


Chantal Restivo-Alessi, for a leading executive in book publishing you seem quite relaxed. Isn’t this a bit irresponsible given the generally quite tight situation?

I believe there is a thin line between confident and relaxed. It is good if I gave the audience a sense of relaxed because I wanted to transmit confidence and optimism. 

However, this does not mean that as a company, and one of its leading executives, we are not constantly working at improving our performance and handling situations that are at hand. Therefore, I would say that we are far from relaxed, we are always vigilant and aiming to constantly anticipate or at the worst address what comes our way.

In your keynote speech at the Future!publish Conference, you mentioned that you lived through a music business going down rapidly but now slowly rising. Will publishing go through the same stages of decline and recovery?

Having worked in both businesses I actually believe that they are quite different – though similarities to exist.

When I was talking about being more optimistic in publishing, it was precisely because, based on my experience, publishing has addressed some of the digital challenges better than music. It decided to engage in digital formats, in part thanks to very proficient retail partners, and to learn from the experiences the music business went through.

So two examples to show that the trajectory is likely to be different:

  • Piracy is a very rampant phenomenon in music, and it started at the time when no legitimate offers were available to consumers. While piracy is something we do fight in publishing, it is not at the same scale as music in most markets
  • More importantly, music went through an unbundling effect – the consumer did not want to pay for an album but only for individual songs  - while the whole industry’s economics were built on making albums

In summary, I believe we should always be aware of what is going on in music, because it was the industry that went through the digital revolution first, while not necessarily assuming that all the trends will apply.

You claim that HarperCollins has a master plan in order to stay relevant for media consumers. Is it easier for a big corporation to have one?

I am not sure I would qualify it as a master plan. We have a strategy and we have a corporate culture.

I believe that if we stay true to our values, that are to put the author first and be at their service, we will always attract good talent and good people to work with. With good talent and good people comes good content that consumer value. 

Even in these days of continuous change you can see the importance of good content – and this is true for a small or a big company.

HarperCollins embraced digital products at an early stage. Now with e-book turnovers obviously hitting the ceiling in the U.S. and print sales recovering, is it still worth while sticking to the digital agenda?

As I mentioned in the course of my presentation, consumers live in a hybrid world, so it is absolutely vital to stick to a digital agenda.

Seeing a slow down in growth is normal in any new product introduction, nothing grows forever, and additionally, at least in the US, we are in year of business model transition.

However, it is clear, that from a product stand point, digital is here to stay – and that consumers have adopted this product. 

Additionally, digital does not only mean product. There is still plenty of innovation and improvement that can be achieved thanks to digital across many publishing activities.

To conclude, as a company, we never saw digital as an either or – but a complement to print. So this latest trend does not change the attitude we had in our company, where we have aimed to integrate digital in every function.

You try to reach out to your audience by forming a readers’ community. The KPIs you published are, frankly speaking, not impressive compared to what is known from the big digital network operators and to the size of your company. Why do they nevertheless matter?

The KPIs I included in my presentation related to a very specific segment of our audience, millennials interested in YA books. 

We will never be able to have the scale of a digital network operator, nor do we aim to. We collaborate on a daily basis with those digital networks together with our authors, and in fact help those digital operators to remain relevant by having attractive content for their communities.

The reason that building smaller scale communities are still important for us is that having a deep engagement with a very qualified audience allows us to do a better job as publishers. We can gain more insights and we can make sure that we reach more consumers – all in the spirit of servicing not just our big authors but all our authors, some of which can’t afford building out their own digital platforms.

You appealed to German-language publishers to change their mind-set in favor of continuous experimenting. How many experiments can a publishing house, say, one per cent of HarperCollins’ size actually afford? There are quite a few of that type.

It is hard to put a measure on experimentation and innovation. My point was that publishers take risks and experiment every day with the content they decide to invest in and publish. Therefore, the key is applying the same mindset to other forms of innovation – like digital. In my experience, there are always ways to fund good ideas – the challenge is identifying those good ideas and nourishing a culture that allows people to come up with those good ideas.

In 2014, HarperCollins acquired the world’s leading romance publisher, the Canada-based Harlequin, to form an organizational backbone of the publisher’s globalization strategy across 17 language areas and 18 countries. Do you intend to distribute your rights stack worldwide and make the local units a kind of production and sales offices?

The acquisition of Harlequin in the summer of 2014 was core to our international growth strategy. We wanted to expand into local language publishing, complementing our English language publishing. Harlequin had the international presence in 18 countries,  as well as a seasoned international and local management team, and well developed local capabilities for translation (we translate in 16 languages), sales and distribution.

Our intent is to develop a small global publishing program, around 50 titles per country, and learn. These titles will be sourced from our HarperCollins rights acquired in our English language markets. 

However, we will continue to actively sell international rights to third parties. The global publishing program is aimed as a complement to our existing activities.

Most importantly, and in the spirit of servicing our authors, we believe that our global publishing program gives us the opportunity to service the authors who decide to participate in it, in a unique way.

For example we can decide to have a global publishing date, can leverage global social media in a co-ordinated way, can ensure, should the author want that, that the author and the book brand messages are consistent internationally. The beauty of the program is that we can rely on very experienced local management teams – so we can deliver and execute locally – while offering co-ordination and best practice sharing globally.

As we know in publishing, every author and every book is unique, so in partnership with our authors and their teams we will pick the best approach case by case.

To sum it all up: what is going to be the place of printed books in an eventually fully-digitalized world with virtually everybody having access to multiple electronic devices and, through them, to all relevant written materials? 

We believe, and have seen in numerous studies to date including those about younger consumers, that the printed book will retain a very prominent role in the way consumers experience long form story telling. 

The positive message is that consumers still appreciate the print book for many of its tactile qualities as well as for the ability the book gives people to show their knowledge and taste.

We are already in a fully digitized world and consumers continue to engage with long form story telling in all its formats.

So our job will continue to be focused around helping the authors of those great stories to achieve the broadest reach and to ensure that their content is properly valued.


Bilder: Daniel Lenz, buchreport

05. Februar 2016