In March last year, Tim Hely Hutchinson, chief executive of Hachette UK, Britain's leading consumer book publisher, sent an open letter to all authors within the group's stable. The letter, which ran to close to 3,000 words and later found its way onto the internet, provided a fascinating snapshot of how the company had fared, both commercially and strategically, in the previous calendar year.
Describing 2011 as a "year of transformation", Hely Hutchinson identified the threats that were pressing hardest at the industry's door (including internet piracy) and set out a manifesto for all the roles the modern publisher should perform (curator, investor, editor, copyright defender and marketer, among them) as the industry sought to make further adjustments to the new realities of the explosion in self-publishing, copyright infringements and the relentless creep of online. In essence, it was a state-of-the-union address fused with a state-we're-in assessment.
On a recent visit to Dubai, Hely Hutchinson sat down in the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Downtown Dubai and delivered an updated perspective on that snapshot. Over the course of a 40-minute interview, the conversation moved freely from The Casual Vacancy to corporate concerns, and from Great Britain to the Middle East.
One would expect nothing less. Hely Hutchinson, educated at Eton and Oxford, broke into book publishing in 1975 after accepting a job at Macmillan. He made a near instant impact by buying the rights to EL Doctorow's Ragtime - the venerable American author was almost unknown at the time - and helped it sail to the top of the bestseller lists. On such moments reputations are made. In 1982, at the age of 28, he was appointed managing director of Macdonald Futura, owned by the late Robert Maxwell.
"We did actually get on quite well," he says of the despotic media baron who left the bitterest of legacies following his 1991 death. "Nevertheless, he used to ring me up at 4am and ask me to present myself in the office in 20 minutes. It was pretty stressful."
Hely Hutchinson left the Maxwell empire in 1986 to set up Headline, his own publishing house, "starting from zero" at his dining room table and building it into an industry powerhouse that would eventually float on the London Stock Exchange.
"It did sometimes feel like crossing the Atlantic in a rowing boat. We couldn't always compete, we had to mend and make do in many ways. They were frightening times, customers went broke. Books that we thought were bestsellers didn't best sell. But there were more good times than bad," he says.
The good times included the acquisition of Hodder & Stoughton to form Hodder Headline and latterly the group's purchase by Hachette Livre in 2004. Hely Hutchinson now sits atop the Hachette UK organisation and has responsibility for all English-language markets outside the US.
If 2011 had been a transformative year for Hachette UK and one in which the company set up a regional office in Dubai, then 2012 could easily be characterised as a year of tumult: EL James's Fifty Shades trilogy, published by rivals Random House, swept all before it, selling millions of copies and catching the rest of the industry almost completely off guard. Meanwhile, Hachette's own blockbuster, The Casual Vacancy, the first novel for grown-ups written by JK Rowling, was met, initially at least, with a degree of head-scratching by critics. Furthermore, at corporate level, the global publishing landscape is likely to be dramatically reshaped later this year if the mooted merger between Random and Penguin is concluded.
However, Hely Hutchinson is not about to call this a tumultuous moment. Instead, he identifies a series of "seismic" shifts in book publishing over the past four decades, in which this latest movement falls neatly into that narrative.