Questions for: Alastair Giles

News - Interviews Tuesday, 6th October 2020

The founder and creative director of Agile Marketing contributes to our Q&A series

Describe your current job
That's a tough one, as it varies enormously from day to day, from organising prize judging panels and managing a creative team to liaising with TV production companies, media partners and sponsors, from advising international literary prizes to publishing a literary magazine, and more. Variety is taxing, but a joy as well as a curse.

What was your first job in the book industry?
I was a short-trousered young trainee sales rep for Fontana paperbacks, covering territories for (largely) guys who were having nervous breakdowns dealing with the stress of selling huge quantities of Alistair MacLean and Virginia Andrews novels in the mid Eighties.

Who has been the most influential person in your career?
My leaving speech at HarperCollins was entitled "17 years, 23 bosses". For good or bad they all had an impact on my career. I have fond memories of lots of them, including John Sexton, Jonathan Lloyd, David North and Stephen Page, but I know he'll get a kick out of it if I answer Geoff Duffield to this question. He was my first boss when I finally started in marketing (after 12 years of trying to get there), and we had a lot of fun in a very short period at the end of the Nineties.

How has the industry changed since your first job?
The arrival and consolidation of a company named after a rainforest with an arrow now masquerading as a smile in its logo. When I first encountered them, it seemed like an interesting new supplier, and I liked some of the people involved. Every day since has seen a gradual eroding of everything I loved about the industry. Maybe I'm being simplistic, but as a lover of independent bookshops, to me it's become a malevolent force that has tilted the playing field into a sharp and daunting incline. There are opportunities to redress the balance, perhaps, and based on the fortuitous acceleration of their worth since lockdown they may be magnanimous enough to take them. Disruption doesn't have to mean destruction.

What's the best piece of book-related advice you've ever been given?
In my first week in-house a colleague told me that if you want to get anything done, do it in the morning. Of course, he was one of many who returned from a then-typical Mayfair publishing lunch at 4pm every day and promptly fell asleep at his desk...

What do you think might be the next big thing?
Everyday experiential memoirs - by which I mean philosophical musings from anyone not called a "celebrity" about life and work. For instance, I'm probably not a good enough writer, but someone, soon, will write a really serious and interesting book about what it means to be old. Rather than scrambling for the brakes as you race downhill and assessing the onset of irrelevance, how can society help embrace and utilise older people's life experiences?
How do you think the industry will come out of the Covid-19 crisis?
Like every other industry: doing twice as much work for half the fee. In terms of events, we've upskilled all our team on video-editing and cleverly utilising social media. The term "event-management" has ceased being about organising the AV and canapes and moved to multi-tasking the management of content in the real and virtual world simultaneously... blimey.

What do you most like doing when you're not working?
Building stuff out of wood. My beloved Grandad was a carpenter, and I've retained a small bit of his alchemy. Over lockdown, I knocked down an old summer house in my garden and upcycled it into what started out as an outdoor kitchen and ended up more like a personal cocktail bar (with an integrated pizza oven). 

What is the best book you've read in the last year?
I only recently got around to reading East West Street by Philippe Sands, a wonderfully constructed and immensely readable book about a number of extraordinary coincidences wrapped around some of the prosecuting lawyers at the Nuremberg trials and the author's own grandfather. 

What are you reading now?
I always have to be careful about reading books that are being considered in a prize or awards show we are running, but I make an exception for Donal Ryan, who is, to me, by far the most intriguing writer of the last 10 years. His latest, Strange Flowers, delivers again in spades.

How do you like to read: on screen, on paper, or do you listen to audiobooks?
At night in bed mainly, so another screen in that environment is the last thing I'd like to look at. I once helped launch an audiobook list and I love the format, but being lost in a paperback will always be my fondest reading experience.