Henry Volans is a rarity in the modern book business—a profitable app publisher. The head of Faber Digital has published five apps, including most recently The Waste Land, with only one disappointment—Harry Hill’s Whopping Great Joke Book.
Volans’ hit rate—as well as his appearances at conferences such as last year’s FutureBook alongside Max Whitby of the app developers Touch Press, with whom Faber has released Solar System and The Waste Land—have made him something of a poster boy for the digital publishing generation.
In June he featured in The Bookseller’s Rising Stars list. “The volume has been quite small and the hit rate has been high,” he says, with genuine modesty. “That makes this interview the easy one.”
Like a few other digitalists—such as Enhanced Editions’ Peter Collingridge and Random House’s digital editor Dan Franklin—Volans came via the Scottish school of Jamie Byng, joining Canongate in its Edinburgh office from Cambridge University. He moved to London (and Faber) in October 2003 as a non-fiction editorial assistant, before becoming a commissioning editor for non-fiction, a position which then morphed into the digital role “at a time when people didn’t know what that meant”.
It soon became clearer. “By 2008 digital was quite simple, as it basically only had one impetus, and that was Waterstone’s launch of the Sony Reader. It was about doing a lot of different roles, from clearing rights to quality assessment. Unthinkable now, but it was very small scale.”
Volans took on his new role in September 2009. Faber Digital is an innovations and new products unit, run under the wing of new business development director Jason Cooper, who also runs Faber Academy and Faber Rights. Volans says that the founding principle was that it could look beyond the Faber list.
The partnership with Touch Press has been key to that. The relationship was forged very quickly after Volans (literally) got on his bike and cycled to the company’s office in Acton. “We just got on, and within about half an hour we’d pretty much agreed to do the Solar System and The Waste Land apps.” Touch Press, which had previously produced the highly successful Elements app, had already had the idea of doing the Solar System, but Volans brought the author to the deal—the popular science writer Marcus Chown, who was a Faber writer.
The Waste Land app was more of a distinctly Faber project. “The Waste Land was attractive because it was absolutely pure Faber. I am interested in stuff that comes from the Faber catalogue, but not exclusively so.”
Both apps earned out within weeks (four and five respectively, in fact), a remarkable situation given how other publishers have fared. “What we have shown is that if you make good, interesting apps that you conceive as apps, rather than adaptations, you can do well with them. I don’t make any grander claim. The development costs are quite high—though not as high as some might think.”
Not surprisingly, Volans is cautious about revealing what will come next out of the Touch Press partnership, though an announcement is close—and it will not be a million miles away from the Solar System.
After that, the plan for Faber Digital is to “scale up”: “We will do as many apps as we can do without killing ourselves—you should be looking at plenty more than what we have done so far over the next 18 months.” Volans says he can imagine the literary side developing into a strand. “You only need to look at the reviews, everyone has a preferred poet or poem they’d like to see Faber do next.”
Volans admits that Faber has been fortunate: it has published distinctive apps at a time when journalists are receptive to writing about them and Apple has an interest in promoting them. Intriguingly he admits that it “hadn’t occurred” to him to spend money on marketing or publicity. But he says apps don’t need that “impact moment” like physical products tend to—citing the QI app, but also more recently the Morris Lessmore app, both of which built sales virally. “Unlike books, apps don’t disappear, so you need never write them off.”
Volans is also charged with developing Drama Online, another joint project, this time with Bloomsbury, and the Faber Academy website—which will relaunch as well as offer online courses. Like many, he is aware that just because the digital moment has finally arrived, it is not the time to relax: “It’s obvious that digital is starting to impact publishing in a pretty urgent way now. So there will be legitimate expectations on digital: it now has to generate revenue, not just theorising.”
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