The figures of fiction: Malcolm Boyd CA
Those who said ebooks would destroy the traditional publishing model had fact mixed up with fiction. Malcolm Boyd CA, CFO of Harper Collins Publishers (Australia/NZ), speaks to Chris Sheedy about his career, innovation and the future of the publishing industry.
In an industry that has had to innovate around disruption, Malcolm Boyd CA, CFO of Harper Collins Publishers (Australia/NZ), keeps the books balanced.
Originally from the village of Killearn in Stirlingshire, Malcolm decided on an accounting career fairly early in life after learning about the work of his uncle, a chartered accountant.
“My father was a highly qualified electrical engineer, and I just couldn’t understand anything he did,” Malcolm smiles. “But at school I was reasonably good with numbers and I enjoyed problem solving, so I thought I’d move into that line of work.”
I began to wonder whether I could get a transfer to Australia.
A degree at the University of Glasgow was followed by a job with Arthur Young, and the earning of his ICAS qualification. A few years later a good friend took a role that involved a great deal of European travel, which made Malcolm wonder whether he should have a little more adventure, too.
“My father died when I was 20, and that made me think about life,” he says. “I began to wonder whether I could get a transfer to Australia. It could have been any city in Australia, to be honest, but the people at Arthur Young were very accommodating and Sydney happened to be the first transfer that was offered, so I took it.”
Malcolm left the UK in 1985. After meeting and marrying (in 1987) his wife in Australia, the intended two-year adventure became a permanent move. One of his audit clients, publisher William Collins, invited Malcolm on board soon after his honeymoon.
“I wasn’t really enjoying the audit work, which will come as no surprise to most ICAS members,” he says. “So I started with William Collins as Financial Controller in 1987.”
What was the size of the business back then?
Back then the business was $40 to $50 million, but now it’s over $100 million. We were on one floor in Sydney’s Clarence Street and we had a distribution centre in Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands, which is two hours south west of Sydney.
Two years later we were acquired by News Corp, who merged the businesses of Harper & Row with William Collins. It became Harper Collins and I became its Finance Director.
When did the ebook challenge hit the industry?
Actually, before ebooks we had another major challenge. When we merged, there were seven entities that had to be consolidated, and that took quite a few years to manage.
We also went through tough times when News Corp was in financial difficulties in the early ‘90s. Then things finally settled down until ebooks began to develop around 2008 as ereaders became more effective and popular, which caused enormous disruption to the book industry.
What immediate effect did ebooks have?
Publishing companies had to reinvent themselves after having operated in pretty much the same way for over 200 years.
Apart from digitising all the backlist, which took years, there was the difficulty of working out how ebooks would develop as an alternative distribution channel, which ereaders would be successful, how to price product, how to promote our ebooks, how to make them more visible than our competitors, how to maximise sales in this rapidly growing market, etc. Everything was new and unknown at that time.
What was the next challenge?
Print decisions became extremely difficult. As the ebook market grew, the quantities of print books sold shrank and it was incredibly hard to get the right balance.
The tendency was to over-print which caused write-offs. Also, pricing was extremely difficult to implement. How to price these products appropriately? How to maximise sales when you’re dealing with etailers as opposed to retailers? How to keep our authors happy by maximising royalties and earning out advances?
We had to develop models internally to correlate pricing between ebooks and physical books to be fair to the consumer and the author. It was an interesting challenge because with ebooks you can increase or decrease the price at any time, but when it’s on a bookshelf, it’s not that straightforward.
Weren’t ebooks supposed to destroy physical books?
It was interesting to watch the way the electronic and physical markets have developed and are still developing. Initially, ebooks growth went through the roof - there was 100% revenue increase year on year, albeit from a small base.
But now sales of ebooks are slowly in decline - in 2016 ebook sales decreased for the first time. People think ebooks make up a much larger percentage of the total book market.
For us, ebook sales are less than 20% of our total book sales while physical books are definitely making a bit of a comeback. No doubt a happy medium between the two types of product will be found.
You’ve been in Australia since 1985. Why didn’t you go home?
I was lucky because until the GFC hit in 2008, I had to travel to New York for work a lot - around 25 times.
As a result, I'd try to drop in to Scotland on the way and catch up with friends and family as well as our colleagues in our UK offices in Glasgow and London. So I didn’t lose the connection to home.
Also, even though I’ve been working for HarperCollins for 29 years now, I still really like my job as it’s not just accounting – I get involved in all sorts of business decisions as well as being responsible for distribution.
But irrespective of that, I just think Australia is a great place to live. I originally came for two years but I’m still here – 32 years later! It's a wonderful place to bring up children. I play golf, and to be able to play 12 months of the year is huge as the weather is terrific and the courses are world class.
However, it all began in Scotland. Without the ICAS qualification, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.
About the author
Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia Voyeur, The Australian Magazine, GQ, In The Black, Cadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.