My Inside Story: David Shelley, CEO
21 Feb 2017
Next up in our 'Inside Story' series, David Shelley shares how he carved his publishing career to become CEO for Little, Brown and Orion.
I grew up living above an antiquarian bookshop, which my parents ran, so I guess books were always in my blood. From a young age I was a voracious reader, and there was never any question in my mind that I wanted my career to involve books and reading. After studying English at university I did unpaid work experience at several publishers, sleeping on friends’ sofas and feeling more and more desperate to get paid work. I eventually landed a job as editorial assistant at a small firm, Allison & Busby. Due to a very lucky sequence of events, I was able to commission there after a year, and was then asked to run it when I was 23. Even though it was a small company of just five people, this was a huge responsibility for me at that age and it weighed heavily at first – but I learned the most enormous amount. In order to keep our heads above water I needed to learn a lot, quickly, about how to run a business, and about creative ways to make a list successful on slender resources. We specialised in literary fiction, crime fiction and popular culture non-fiction – all genres close to my heart.
After five exciting, nerve-racking, brilliant years, I was then asked by Ursula Mackenzie to come to Little, Brown to commission crime fiction and thrillers. It was a hard decision to make but I had always been curious about what it would be like working in a big company and I had consistently heard great things about the culture at Little, Brown fostered by Ursula and by David Young (the then CEO). I then spent three years commissioning crime and thrillers, working with up and coming authors such as Jeff Abbott, Michele Giuttari, Gregg Hurwitz, Jesse Kellerman, Mark Gimenez, as well as bringing in some established bestsellers including Val McDermid, Dennis Lehane and Carl Hiaasen, and helping our team to take their careers to the next level. I was also fortunate enough to inherit some key authors at L,B including Mark Billingham and Mitch Albom. This is a period of my career I look back on with real affection – I feel very lucky to have worked with such inspiring authors, and to have had the opportunity to use my own creativity to reach the biggest possible audiences for them.
I was then promoted to Publisher of the Sphere imprint. This introduced me to a whole host of other authors who really made a big impact on me, including Jenny Colgan and Carole Matthews. I also loved working with editors, and working across different departments – working particularly closely with the Sales department, something I have always relished, as well as Design, Publicity and Marketing – to realise the full potential of all the books on the Sphere list. After a few years, I was promoted by Ursula to Deputy Publisher and subsequently Publisher of Little, Brown. This was great as I had the chance to work with such a wide variety of books, authors and editors – Little, Brown has a wonderfully diverse range of imprints including Virago, Abacus, Orbit, Piatkus. In this role, I also steered our integration of the Constable & Robinson lists when we acquired them, and this stands out as a true highlight of my career. Another highlight in 2011 was starting a working relationship with J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, one that has been hugely important to me.
In 2016, when Ursula announced that she would be retiring, I became CEO of Little, Brown – and shortly afterwards became CEO of the Orion Publishing Group too. The past 18 months have undoubtedly been the most rewarding of my career to date, working closely with the MDs of these two companies – Katie Espiner at Orion and Charlie King at Little, Brown – to do our best possible job for all our authors and to create an exciting future for both companies (which remain autonomous, competitive and separate within the Hachette group).
In terms of anyone thinking of entering the industry, my advice would be that this is a fantastic career for anyone who wants to work in a dynamic, fast-moving, ever-changing, creative environment. It is a career that requires a lot of passion, commitment and dedication, and it is a career that can be unpredictable. One thing I feel very proud of is how skilfully and fast our industry is adapting to the digital revolution, so anyone entering it needs to be prepared to be flexible, hard-working and quick-thinking.
I very much want our business to more closely reflect the world we live in so I would love to see entrants from a very wide range of backgrounds – and Hachette is working hard to encourage such applications. My final piece of advice to anyone thinking of entering our industry is to really investigate the roles of a range of different departments; we have a huge number of applicants for roles in Editorial and Publicity, but there are a whole host of other departments (Sales, Contracts, Rights, Operations) who are as pivotal to the publishing process and where incredible careers can begin.