Three portraits of Charlie Mackesy, Michaela Coel and Joshua Wong side-by-side on different coloured backgrounds

The Book Seekers: how Ebury turned publishing on its head

Ever wondered how a book gets made? One publishing house is starting with the reader first – and changing the bestsellers list in the process.

How do you go about getting a book published? The traditional route is well-paved: somebody has an idea or a manuscript and takes it to a publisher, usually via an agent, who then helps turn it into the finished product on the shelf. But what happens when that process is turned upside-down, when instead of waiting for books to come to them, editors and publishers go out to the people they want to hear from, and try to convince them to write?

That’s how Marianne Tatepo ended up filming a three-minute video of herself and sending it to a Bafta award-winning actor as part of her pitch. The commissioning editor at Ebury, one of the publishing houses at Penguin Random House UK, had been following Michaela Coel’s career for years, waiting, she says, “for that move to the book side.” When no agent was forthcoming, Tatepo set about making it happen herself.

“I wasn’t seeing that submission coming through,” she tells me, “so I was like: I’ll come to you.” Tatepo remembered the well-publicised lecture Coel had given at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2018, then watched the actress’s incendiary television series I May Destroy You. She realised there was something in “Michaela’s immense talent for analysing societal dynamics in a really astute way and putting it into words succinctly.”

Knowing there could be a book was one thing, conveying the vision to Coel to begin their editorial collaboration was another. “It’s a bit embarrassing, but I took a video of myself,” Tatepo says. “It was nerve-wracking. It was like, 20 takes, took me half a day. But I was able to get my point across in three minutes and I really meant what I was saying.” Ebury will be publishing Coel’s debut book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto, in September.

'Wong was a 22-year-old on the frontline of a political uprising'

Such moves are familiar in the Ebury office. Although going direct to writers isn't unique to Ebury, it has been part of their approach since their foundation – and it is paying particular dividends in the social media age. The company turns 60 this year, having started out life as the publishing wing of the National Magazine Company. That, says publisher Andrew Goodfellow, has become part of Ebury’s DNA. “We still see ourselves first and foremost as resourceful, self-starters. Not waiting to be sold ideas, but to going out and building them,” he says. “There has always been a down-to-earth, can-do attitude here. So many of our books and creative ideas start with our own curiosities – an exciting subject or an amazing talent that we reach out to.”

One of Ebury’s key tenets is that the business of bringing an idea to the table, approaching an author or coming up with a concept for a book shouldn’t just be limited to commissioning editors, but the entire team. “It is how we have so often spotted leftfield books that go on to have great success that others didn’t always see” Goodfellow adds.

Assistant editor Hana Teraie-Wood was a few months into her first permanent role in publishing, as an editorial assistant at Ebury, when she bought her first book Unfree Speech, by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. “It was in 2019, at the beginning of the summer, and the protests in Hong Kong were just starting to make the headlines on a daily basis,” she tells me. “I heard Joshua being profiled on the radio and just thought he sounded really exciting.” Contacting him proved more challenging – Wong was a 22-year-old on the frontline of the uprising, an activist whose work landed him with a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. When he wasn’t protesting on the streets, he was speaking to journalists. As Teraie-Wood puts it, mildly, “Wong was busy”.

In the end, having tried more traditional avenues, Teraie-Wood dropped him a line via Facebook. “What ensued was a bit of a cat-and-mouse chase of one-line emails,” she says, but her perseverance paid off: Unfree Speech was published last February with an introduction by the artist Ai WeiWei.

Wong proved to be only the first of Teraie-Wood’s Nobel Prize contenders: she’s currently editing a book by one of this year’s nominees, Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist and CEO of Rappler whose one-woman fight against fake news in the Philippines has racked up 10 arrest warrants against her name. Teraie-Wood has been in touch with Ressa since 2019, after an initial email exchange. “I just thought she was the most compelling person,” she tells me. “She's part of the vanguard of women who are taking on tech and fighting for democracy around the world. Hillary Clinton loves her, Carole Cadwalladr loves her.” Ressa’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, will be writing the foreword to the book.

Finding fascinating authors is one element of Ebury’s strategy, but the team think as much about audiences, too. It was the level of engagement that artist Charlie Mackesy inspired from his Instagram followers – rather than the sheer number of them, which wasn't yet huge – that caught Publishing Director Laura Higginson’s attention in 2019. “The conversation around what he was doing was extraordinary,” she says.

The hunch paid off. The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse, which dominated bestseller lists throughout lockdown thanks to its message of resilience and hope, was, Higginson explains, a great example of a book for all readers. “When you reach people who say, ‘I don’t normally buy books, but I bought this one,’ then you know you’re onto something really special,” she says.

If Facebook and Twitter led Ebury to Wong, and Instagram brought them Mackesy, how can other online platforms shape future bookshelves? “The new exciting frontier is TikTok,” confirms Higginson, adding that Ebury have just acquired their first book through the app, which will be published next year.

“What’s so thrilling about being in publishing is that we can evolve,” she adds. “If we're constantly trying to be at the forefront of these new online technologies, we can find these exciting new talents that are doing an amazing job of reaching audiences themselves, and then figure out what the most useful, the most entertaining, most inspiring book for that audience can be.”

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Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin

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