The Unbound co-founder on his debt to Tim Waterstone, top publishing advice, and indies' innovations
Describe your job
As publisher I manage three teams at Unbound - the commissioning team that finds the projects that go up on the site; the trade publishing team that edits, produces and sells the books that fund, and the PR and communication team that lets the world know just how good those books are.
What was your first job in the book industry?
I started as a bookseller at Waterstones in Regent Street in 1987. Within a week I found myself buying for the photography and science fiction and fantasy sections. The deep end, but I loved it and have done ever since.
Who has been the most influential person in your career?
There have been several, but I owe Tim Waterstone the biggest debt of all. So much of what we take for granted in the industry derives from him and his commitment to books. He gave me my big break by making me Waterstones' first marketing director at the age of 26 and instilling in me the confidence and self-belief I needed to do the job. I now know just what an act of faith that was.
How has the industry changed since your first job?
The impact of Amazon dwarfs all the other changes, even the rise of digital. Of course, the idea of ordering a book in the morning and having it delivered in the afternoon still thrills and amazes me. But it has led to the erosion of earnings for most authors and smaller publishers, and that should worry all of us who want a diverse and healthy ecosystem for books.
What's the biggest challenge in your job?
This has been a constant throughout my publishing life: getting the books you produce noticed. Writers pour the best of themselves into their books: it's our job to find them readers. That pressure never changes; in fact, as the options multiply, it probably gets more intense.
What's the best piece of book-related advice you've ever been given?
"If you can see the bandwagon, you've already missed it." Neil Aspinall, MD of Apple Corps, as he put my marketing plan for The Beatles Anthology in the bin.
What are the most interesting things you're seeing at the moment in the industry?
Well, it might sound like self-interested trumpet-blowing, but I am encouraged by the way (mostly) independent publishers are beginning to innovate in their direct-to-reader offerings. Subscription services, crowd-funding, exquisitely produced merchandise: the communities that Rough Trade, Galley Beggar, Influx Press and others are building offer a commercially viable alternative to the Amazonian race to the bottom.
What do you think might be the next big thing?
Again, I would say this given I co-host a books podcast, but I think we'll see even more opportunities for online recommendation that isn't based on algorithms but on the taste of people who read. Podcasts. Substack. BookTok. The word-of-mouth revolution.
How are you coping with working from home?
Now, mostly very well. It was difficult at first - and boundaries remain a challenge (I probably work harder and certainly longer hours than I've ever done) but I love having more time at home. This is a momentous cultural shift: I don't think work will ever be the same again for millions of people.
How do you think the industry will come out of the Covid-19 crisis?
As an industry we seem to have thrived during the uncertainty and pain of the last year. People have turned to books as sources of solace and inspiration and that is surely a good thing. And reading is habit-forming, so I'm cautiously optimistic.
What do you most like doing when you're not working?
Reading. I'm still amazed at my good fortune that I somehow make a living doing the thing I love.
What is the best book you've read in the last year?
That's an impossible question. So I'm going to side-step and say the book I've read three times and have internalised most deeply in the last year is Patrick McCabe's Poguemahone, which Unbound publishes next April. It's a privilege to help shape the destiny of such a great book - the nearest I'll get to publishing a Joyce or a Beckett.
What are you reading now?
As usual, I have several books on the go. In fiction, I'm immersed in Palmares, Gayl Jones's first new novel in over 20 years (from Virago in September) - very much worth the wait; in non-fiction, I'm enjoying Frances Wilson's reinvention of literary biography with her bracingly brilliant Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence (Bloomsbury). And I try to always have a classic on the go - this week it's Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey in France and Italy, which is (almost) as good as being there.
How do you like to read: on screen, on paper, or do you listen to audiobooks?
In all formats. I often buy a physical book and then buy the ebook as well - I tend to read a lot at night on my phone in bed (on a dark screen setting), so I don't wake my wife, Rachael.
Photo of John Mitchinson by Chris Floyd
John Mitchinson is publisher and co-founder of Unbound. Shortlisted for the Independent Publisher of the Year in 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2021, Unbound celebrates its 10th birthday this year. Despite the challenges of lockdown and high street closures, Unbound has reported trade sales growth of 58% YoY, and in May experienced its highest revenue month in its history.