London Show Daily feature: Finding your niche

Jessica Kingsley • 04 May 2012

JKP is 25 years old. Jessica Kingsley reports on how the firm has grown and adapted.
Twenty-five years is a daunting amount of time -  too long to pretend one is not serious, not quite long enough to warrant institutional respect; 25 years' hard work, successful enough to survive and arrive at a milestone that unavoidably demands some reflection.

Jessica Kingsley Publishers turned 25 this year and, inevitably, one is both looking backwards and looking forwards, wondering how we somehow got from the kitchen table to offices in London and Philadelphia, and a turnover of more than £4 million. And trying to determine where, in these painfully interesting times, we go from here.

Independent style
Some things don't change. One style of independent publisher succeeds by finding a niche and making it their own, and this is JKP's style. We have always specialised in trying to create social change, and our niches, initially, were very small - disability, forensic psychotherapy, dementia, the arts therapies, for example - but truly international. So right from the beginning, we had to think about the nuances of practice in different parts of the world, and we absolutely had to find a way of reaching the global market. Selling rights was barely an option; to a large extent we were creating a literature for hitherto undefined groups - tough in the short term, but lucky in the long run, because we hold world rights on most of what we publish.

In the 1990s we expanded within one of our niches, disability, to publish solidly on just about all aspects of the then very poorly understood condition of autism, and most specifically on Asperger Syndrome. Our books were incredibly well received. Having published the first authoritative  and highly successful - book on the subject (Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals by Tony Attwood), we were the market leader in a market that was taking off quickly. To keep our place, we had to find the right international partners, who would really work at finding the readership. Several book fairs and an insane number of air miles later, we had what we needed everywhere but in the US, where we were signing up an increasing number of authors. In early 2004, with so much local competition for authors, we realised that we would have to set up our own US office.

With considerable angst, we hired staff and opened an office in Philadelphia in 2005. We then had our own American staff answering the phone to customers and prospective authors. Within just a few years, our sales in the US had more than doubled, but so had the competition, as publishers raced to get into what was seen as a lucrative autism market. It is now badly overpublished, and JKP turned its attention early to new niches.

One obvious place to look was China, where the industrialised world has been looking with increasing interest, but for different reasons. Whereas most publishers are interested in
selling to China, we have been interested in buying. I felt that the ancient traditions of China offered new opportunities for a western publisher.

We launched a new imprint, Singing Dragon, with a Chinese chop ("the dragon is singing") as the colophon, and started to buy books on Chinese medicine, Qigong and Oriental martial arts. It has been immensely challenging, but hugely enjoyable and interesting. Cultural difference has presented some interesting difficulties, not just in terms of business practice: bone scraping and bloodletting, for example, are not high on the list of popular alternative treatments here, and many herbs used in Chinese medicine are not licensed for use in the West. But Singing Dragon also publishes on traditional medicine and health from a worldwide perspective and, in true indie style, has found its individual voice - and its reputation is growing as a serious imprint.

Each year JKP's turnover has grown, even though sometimes not by much, and each year
we have made a profit. Each year I wonder how we will repeat that, and this year more than ever. The enormous number of, largely unedited, books available online makes it hard for readers to work out which books are worth buying; the quality of our brand is more important than it has ever been. Margins, too, are being squeezed so thin in some places as to be unsustainable.

Untold opportunity
On the other hand there are untold opportunities for the taking too, if one is smart enough to see them and adroit enough to make them work. Creativity and imagination are more important than ever - as is a belief in the importance of what we publish. And, perhaps oddly, so are
conversations with colleagues from around the world. Just when many people have been saying that book fairs are a waste of time, I'm rather inclined to think they are the opposite.

Jessica Kingsley is Chairman and Managing Director of JKP