Mark Allen speaks with the PPA

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

In the build-up to the PPA Independent Publisher Conference, we spoke with last year's keynote speaker, Mark Allen, Founder & Chairman of the Mark Allen Group and soon-to-be published author. Having successfully steered his company through the last six months, Mark gives his advice to publishers to get through these difficult times as well as explaining more about his productive lockdown during which he wrote a novel.

What made you want to work in publishing?

When I was at university I could not decide whether to go into social work or become a journalist. I chose the latter but my interest in social work was the trigger which got me into magazines and changed the course of my career. Later, whilst working for Reed (now RELX) I was offered the chance of becoming a ‘publisher’. Acquiring some of those publishing and people skills was an advantage when I set up the Mark Allen Group more than 35 years ago.

Chart your career from the start to where you are now.

After Durham University, I became a trainee reporter for the Sheffield Star, serving ‘indentures’ for three years. From the Sheffield Star I joined the Daily Express in Manchester, then a broadsheet selling four million copies a day, first as an investigative reporter and then as a sub-editor. After three years I applied to become the launch editor of the weekly Community Care. This was my biggest break. Community Care thrived and became very successful. Then, a few years later I was asked to become the editor of Nursing Mirror, which was struggling. We waged a campaign for nurses’ pay and in 1983 I became the PPA Editor of the Year, at the same time as the magazine won the Business Magazine and Campaign of the Year awards. After a short stint as publisher of these two magazines and one other, I left Reed to join Thomson to set up a medical publishing division. I was not at Thomson long before I completed a management buyout of two medical journals and set up my own company. That was in 1985 and the rest is history.

At the end of November we have our annual PPA Independent Publisher Conference, where you were a keynote speaker last year. What advice would you give to Independent Publishers at this point in time? What should they be focusing on?

In order to have a future in, hopefully, a post-coronavirus world tomorrow, you have to survive today. It is about cash, cash and cash. Loving it. Preserving it. You need to think positively and creatively. Even with imaginative digital initiatives, revenues for nearly all publishing companies will almost certainly be lower than the year before. However, it is amazing how much all companies can do to save on expenditure, without compromising on quality. You must do your best to look after your staff. If there are staff vacancies, take a risk and give furloughed staff, who might otherwise be made redundant, a chance to do different roles. You will be amazed and surprised at how adaptable some people are. Your staff are your future, so try and treat them with kindness and respect.

How different does the MAG post-COVID look from the MAG pre-COVID?

Our workplace is constantly evolving and changing. We have been performing remarkably well, despite the circumstances and the fact that we have not been able to hold a single live exhibition or event, which have been contributing a third of our total revenue, since March. Ironically, it is our magazines which have really come to the rescue, as well as Community Care – a digital-only resource for busy social workers requiring easily accessible information and guidance. Our acquisition of Farmers Weekly at the end of last year has been very fortuitous. It’s an amazing business and, during the crisis, it has only very marginally been affected. In a nutshell, in March, we put together three budgets – the good, the bad and the ugly. After five months we are performing £2.5 million ahead of our best-case profits’ scenario. However, this comes with huge caveats. The job retention scheme is about to end. The events’ industry is in crisis and with so much uncertainty, it is impossible to make any long-term plans.

As Chairman of MAG with a huge amount of experience in publishing, why is the PPA important for publishers, both big and small?

When you belong to an industry which we all love, it is very desirable to become a member of the ‘club’ which best represents you. That is the PPA. The PPA demonstrated its enormous value by its campaign on VAT for e-magazines, which partly as a result of its efforts, is now zero-rated. That was a remarkable achievement. To paraphrase John F Kennedy in his 1961 presidential inauguration: “Ask not what the PPA can do for you — ask what you can do for the PPA.”

You have recently written a book which is due to come out in mid-March – how did you manage to write the book while also managing the company?

I was determined that it would not interfere with the crucial job of helping to run the company over very challenging times. I was getting up at 3am to write till 8am or so and then, if the day allowed, I would return to the book in the late afternoon or evening. I made sure that our superb senior management team received my very full attention when I was communicating with them over Zoom calls, which to begin with we were doing every day.

The book is an update to one you wrote a few years ago – what made you want to rewrite it?

I first wrote the book several years ago, mainly to see if I could sustain the writing of a novel of more than 100,000 words. As a journalist I have written a lot of articles, but rarely more than 1,500 words, so this was a different experience. A couple of years ago my publisher, who really liked the book, suggested I rewrite the novel in the first person, rather than the third and to tell the story chronologically and not to dip in and out of time.

How can our members pre-order your book?

If you pre-order now, there is a special offer on the book, which will cost £16.49 with postage and packing. You can pay by credit card. Phone the Freephone service 0800 137201 or 01722 716997 or email: customercare@markallengroup.com The book should be on the bookstalls in mid-March, but it’s safer and better to order in advance and for my publisher and me, this has the added benefit of giving us some idea about likely sales. I do hope PPA readers find the book interesting. I do believe it is quite a moving and gripping story which takes the reader up to date with lockdown. It’s certainly a topical and sensitive theme with a surprising twist at the end.