HarperCollins Chief Digital Officer Chantal Restivo-Alessi: ‘Essential’ for Publishers to Take Risks
By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid
Like most publishing companies, HarperCollins is trying to figure out how to survive and thrive in the new book industry landscape which is increasingly being altered by e-books and digital publishing.
Unlike most other publishers, HarperCollins is turning to publishing industry outsiders for leadership. Two of its c-level executives come from outside of the book publishing industry – its new chief marketing officer Angela Tribelli and its new chief digital officer Chantal Restivo-Alessi. As the publishing industry transitions to digital, these are arguably the two most important c-level positions outside of a publishing company’s CEO.
We recently spoke with Tribelli, who joined the company in February, about her outsiders’ perspective and her plans for marketing efforts at HarperCollins. The difficult decisions she will be making over the coming months and years won’t be informed by a career’s worth of experience in publishing but by a fresh perspective on book marketing problems.
Restivo-Alessi, who joined the company in May, has perhaps the more challenging assignment. With so many possibilities of where to take the large publisher digitally and so many potential pitfalls (the history of digital publishing is littered with bad investments), Restivo-Alessi has some tough decisions to make.
But she might just be equipped to make them. Restivo-Alessi has spent years as an investment banker covering the media industry and so has seen dozens of executives and companies rise and fall through digital transitions. She has also spent over a decade in the music industry and some time as a consultant, including some time doing work for HarperCollins three years ago.
Restivo-Alessi, 48, comes to HarperCollins most recently from the Dutch bank ING where she was a director of investment banking for media, a post she held for two years. Prior to her time at ING, she had a few stints working in branding, including as head of strategy and corporate development at Aegis Group, a large London-based media and digital communications firm.
She came to Aegis after a decade at EMI Music, one of the world’s largest music companies and home to artists such as The Beatles, Coldplay, Norah Jones and many more, eventually rising to the position of head of strategy and chief operating officer for one of the company’s units. Prior to EMI, she was an associate at consultancy Booz Allen & Hamilton for three years.
She has an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School and an undergraduate degree from Alman Lisesi in Italy.
We spoke with Restivo-Alessi about her early impressions of the book publishing industry, what she intends to do with digital at HarperCollins and why it’s essential that publishers continue to take risks.
Jeremy Greenfield: You’ve been in your position for all of two months. What are your initial impressions of the book industry?
Chantal Restivo-Alessi: To be fair, although I’ve been here two months, I did a project three years ago with HarperCollins.
The first impressions are that on the one hand there’s been a lot of development in the e-book space – faster than I expected three years ago. And I think the industry has been embracing this growth and this change in business, but I think there’s still a lot of challenges and opportunities ahead of us.
Sometimes the industry – this is just a first impression – sometimes it’s a little bit too negative about itself. I think it’s not easy to adapt and change and it has adapted and changed quite a bit in the last three years. So, I think it should be a little more positive about itself than it is at times.
JG: Let’s talk about digital at HarperCollins. Around what percentage of HarperCollins revenues will be digital at the company this fiscal year? How will that grow in the coming years?
CR-A: I don’t want to really want to give out numbers. We’re projecting to grow in line if not slightly ahead of the market.
It’s going to be double digit growth in digital. Growth has slightly slowed. It’s going into the next phase. It’s still going to be healthy growth. There will be strong triple digit growth in the international market.
JG: As the business evolves, how will the organization evolve? Will there be new hires? What kind of people?
CR-A: We’re in the second phase of digital. It’s now big enough to become more ingrained in the business units rather than setting up a massive infrastructure in the center reporting to me.
Digital will report more to the publishers. There are areas that will get reinforced, but they won’t all necessarily report to me. It’s a dotted line and an influencer role rather than an empire sitting separately from the business.
JG: Can you give me an example of how this will work?
CR-A: We’ve already hired digital publishers in the UK and embedded them in each of the imprints to support the thinking and execution of digital content.
Digital publishers have a combination of strategy, business development and product development responsibilities.
I will aim to introduce the concept in the U.S., and already in some of the imprints it’s there, but these roles need to be formalized a bit more. In the UK it’s been six months. HarperCollins in the UK has created an infrastructure where there are some more centralized marketing roles that provide centralized support and guidance but at the same time you need execution capabilities at the lower level of the business so you can be faster at adapting and changing your business.
You try to combine two effects: strategic thinking in centralized roles and execution at the imprint level.
JG: And your role will be…?
CR-A: The functions left with me are business development and strategy and what I’d like to build as well is the product innovation, technology part. Those are the only three that I’d like to keep central.
My role is a truly global role – it’s bringing all these skill sets together. We have business development functions in all the other markets and that gives us an opportunity to learn and experiment in different markets. That gives us the benefit of a global playing field rather than just a domestic one – with the caveat that some of these other markets are still in an embryonic phase.
JG: So who will you hire around you? A handful of M.B.A.s and technologists?
CR-A: Literally a handful. I don’t want to build an empire. In my experience, when you build an empire you create an “us and them” culture and build a massive central overhead when the business needs to be nimble. The best way of affecting change is having thought leadership and identifying champions within your businesses and working with them.
JG: There’s a lot of talk always about the future of reading and publishing, enhanced e-books, apps, e-book shorts and products we haven’t imagined yet. From your outsider’s view, what looks really promising and what looks like a flop?
CR-A: We’re in the experimentation phase.
We haven’t had massively exciting results with enhanced e-books – we have a decent business, we’re not losing money. It’s still an embryonic consumer offering. I think the issue really is, what is the consumer proposition? It’s very confusing still and I don’t think consumers understand what it really stands for. There have been too many elements and the marketing has been uneven. These things need to be fixed. There’s no brand, like this is a Blue Ray, like this is what enhanced e-book means.
With apps, at the moment we’re deciding to focus on fewer but really rich experiences, because the issue there is discovery.
JG: Do you see publishers taking fewer risks in the e-book era? Not just with new kinds of products but with acquiring books?
CR-A: Fewer risks? Maybe. But I think it’s still essential that they do take risks. That’s part and parcel of the business. You need to reinvigorate your catalog on an ongoing basis. The way they discover those authors might change. You might put out fewer titles, but have the same amount of authors. It might be a combination of titles and other kinds of products. It’s a shift from a product focus to an intellectual property and brand focus.
What you need to focus on is the planning. When you’re acquiring it’s not anymore about individual titles, it’s about how are you going to build brands, whether they’re author brands or whether they’re genre brands; and that takes a different way of thinking about the content, the longevity of the content. To me, the book and even the digital book is just one expression of that brand.
JG: You’re an outsider to the publishing industry — so is Angela Tribelli [the new HarperCollins chief marketing officer]. Do you get the sense that HarperCollins is trying to invigorate the c-suite with outside ideas and fresh blood?
CR-A: Yes and I think that’s a smart thing to do. Every media business I’ve been in did that – appointed change. The beauty of the visibility you have when you’re in banking and consulting is the learning you can derive from different. You still need to work with the existing business experts because you have to take that knowledge and make it relevant to them.
JG: How is working in books different than working in banking?
CR-A: The main difference is cultural. In books, a thing of beauty is that you have passionate people around the product and that’s very energizing for people like me who aren’t necessarily related to the product. It’s one of the motivators: to bring business savvy to creative people who are passionate about what they do. I find that very inspiring. I was missing that in banking because their motivation is money. I never found that very inspirational.
On the positive side of banking, it was a bit like when I was in consulting: I could learn and observe and debate across all media segments. This allows you to bring learning and experience from one area to the next. Once you work very much into one business the risk is that you lose that.
JG: Because Digital Book World lives as much on Twitter as on the Web, we thought it would be fun to start taking questions for these Q&As from our following. We started this new tradition with our last Q&A with Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn. We have several questions from Twitter this time around. The first is from NYRBLit (@nyrbLit): “How best to sell e-books that don’t have a print version?”
CR-A: The same way we sell the ones that do: through existing retail channels and to market them as much as possible to people we know that are interested in those kind of books. I don’t think it differs whether there’s a print version or not.
In terms of marketing, we’re having to deal with a world where there is less of an opportunity to discover books through stores, so we have to get better at marketing.
JG: Another from NYRBLit: “When will mainstream review e-onlies?”
CR-A: This has more to do with how mainstream media is changing. This is a broader question. It will happen when mainstream media go through the same change processes as we are going through in publishing here.
JG: Here’s one from jrf_publishing (@jrf_publishing): “Would be good to get her thoughts on apps — will they stick around or will everyone get bored/move onto the next thing?”
CR-A: No, they will stick around, but some have utility and some don’t. The ones that will be valuable will stick around but the rest will disappear. Our obsession with them will wane and then we’ll move on to the next trend.
JG: And now one more from me: What are you reading and on what platform?
CR-A: I’m very interested in history, so I’m reading the Prague Winter [HarperCollins, April 2012] by Madeleine Albright. I’m reading it in hardcover because I have it in my office. I love history; she’s had a wonderful career and I lived in Prague as a child.
I don’t read in parallel, but my next one is Bring up the Bodies [Macmillan, May 2012] by Hilary Mantel because I read Wolf Hall [Macmillan, October 2009, by Hilary Mantel].
Write to Jeremy Greenfield
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