Posted: Fri 20th Jul 2012
"We're an independent business," stresses Mark Franklin, marketing director for Usborne Books at Home, the direct selling division of Usborne Publishing. "We're almost like a family-run firm. Our founder Peter Usborne is still involved with the company and many of the senior staff have been with us since the start." Started in 1973, the company was inspired by Peter Usborne's own first experience of parenthood and his desire to create "edible" children's books of the kind that he'd like to read with his own children. From the word go, he emphasised independence, freshness and freedom, assembling a small but talented team around him and giving them their heads to - as Mark Franklin puts it - "move in their own direction".
The company's growth over four decades reflects this willingness to explore new avenues and change with the times. What began as a publisher of reference books for younger children only now has more than 2,000 fiction and non-fiction titles for teenagers as well as toddlers. In 1981, it launched its direct selling division, Usborne Books at Home, which opened up new sales channels but has also created a community of product evangelists across the UK. Their commitment to their own businesses ensures that Usborne's profile remains strong in its key markets - families and schools. The company has lived through massive technological change - particular the emergence of the internet, which is revolutionising publishing. Mark admits this has been a particular challenge - but also spurred the business on. "One of our big innovations was putting website links into our hardcopy books, suggesting places where you can find out more," notes Mark. "We're keeping a keep a close eye on digital books, too, and our fiction range is being moved across all the different platforms. "But the growth of the internet has meant the market for reference books has shrunk, so we've very carefully moved away from reference. Nowadays, the market has shifted more towards the younger reader and we place a lot of emphasis on the importance of reading and pre-reading," he explains. "We change, but we never make changes or adopt new technology for the sake of it. "For example, we recognise the value of social media and we're developing our social media strategy. But we're thinking in terms of how we can integrate it into our community of direct selling businesses in a way that reinforces face-to-face contact rather than replaces it."
Like all of its developments, Usborne's growth has been managed with the company's identity in mind. As a brand, the company is colourful, approachable, supportive; keeping the business 'in the family' has been essential to maintain its clear and strong personality. Its 200 employees are spread across just three sites in the UK. And, as Mark proudly points out, all of the books are produced in-house, with the exception of the distinctive illustrations. "We're one of few publishers in the world that works in that way and that's allowed us to change direction very quickly," he says. Furthermore, a deliberate policy of openly questioning its activities has kept the business from becoming stale, Mark explains. "Every year we have meetings where we look at everything we do and everything everyone else is doing and we question ourselves. We look at where we should be going and try to keep a step ahead. You have to keep changing to grow and we have a good history of that."
The results are clear to see. Usborne won the Bookseller's Children's Publisher of the Year award this year. They've also picked up a Direct Selling Association Award for Excellence and have a history of retaining good people who grow with the company - including Usborne Books at Home organisers, some of whom have run their home business for decades. It's not just an independent spirit that keeps people at Usborne, Mark says, but also a sense of belonging. That, and "edible" books which are as attractive to parents as they are to children. "I'm actually a graphic designer by training and I started with Usborne as a freelancer - that was 12 years ago now," he explains. "Within six months of arriving I moved to a different department and had a daughter, and all the children's books started to make a lot more sense to me. Seeing my daughter pick up some of the phonics books and learn from those is very exciting!"