Success story

FORMER estate agent Sir Roger Martin and Jeffrey Nobbs, who came from a publishing background, have created a multi-million pound business employing about 400 people.

When Sir Roger realised a few new businesses were buying books at low prices from publishers and selling them direct to the public he thought he would give it a go.

Starting with only an interest in books, but no experience, he soon filled the double garage at the family home in Malvern Close, Kettering.

In 16 years Index Books has moved six times.

From lock-ups on Cunliffe Drive it moved to premises on Garrard Way, then to Henson Way where it moved twice to ever larger premises, and this year it has moved to its largest location, a specifically built unit on Garrard Way.

Adjacent ground, bought at the same time, will allow for further extension and is already waiting for the go-ahead from the council to start building – more room, and subsequent extra staff, is already needed to cope with new projects.

In the past four years the company has started to publish its own books through a sister company, Book Studio.

This is run by managing director Jeffrey Nobbs and although it shares the same building as Index Books, there are at times conflicting interests.

Index Books buys discounted books from publishers which it then sells and distributes through its 250-strong on-the-road sales force. The Book Studio actively seeks new titles to publish, trying to find the balance between and sale costs.

Sir Roger said: "The Book Studio publishes about 70 titles a year, each with a typical print run of 25,000 copies.

"In terms of sales Index sell 100,000 books a week with a jacket price of about 1.5 million and a quantity that would fill 400 pallets and weigh about 200 tons."

At any one time Index Books will have around 300 'active' titles but is looking to expand its business in the near future.

It hopes to introduce e-commerce sales through a website and sell children's titles and associated learning products, such as colouring sets and educational games, as well as intending to develop stronger links with schools.

Much of this will be made possible following negotiations with publishers Penguin.

Sir Roger said: "For several years we have been approached by publishing companies who wanted to buy us out. Just over a year ago we started talking to Penguin, a respected company which seemed the ideal people to get into bed with.

"In October we completed the deal for them to buy the businesses.

"Although I sold my 85 per cent shares to Penguin they leave us much to ourselves and I remain managing director at Index Books and Jeffrey the managing director of Book Studio."

In his office, one floor up and at the end of the corridor, Jeffrey Nobbs keeps a keen eye on the publishing side of the business.

It is almost full circle for the person who once worked for Penguin Books and who finds himself once again reporting back to them, but this time in a more elevated position.

He said: "We give and take from each other where it is appropriate but in general we are allowed to follow our own direction.

"At the Book Studio we create, design and publish new titles, mainly children's books and playsets, and published about 50 titles in our first year."

Within three years the company found itself way ahead of where it was expected to be and had retails sales in the region of 15m.

By the end of the year the company will have the potential to double its revenue as a partnership with Dorling Kindersley will see the launch of Kids Play in the USA and the Book Studio, Hong Kong. Mr Nobbs said: "All our books are hand-made and a children's pop-up title or a book with five individually sewn teddy bears on its pages will still sell for less than 10.

"I do the actual concept work for the new titles but work closely with the designers and editors to turn it into an actual saleable item."

Deciding which titles will sell is a challenge to the buying department.

They see a range of books from children's titles, lifestyle, fiction and reference, as well as items for the home including trays, coasters and children's games – each hoping to appeal and influence the buying department to take it on and sell to the intended eventual customer.

Like a lot of trades, book selling goes in seasonal cycles, and titles related to gardening sell better in spring, days out publications in summer and activity books or games usually sell more in the winter.

In one month the three-strong team is likely to see about 500 titles.

Book buyer Karen Tomlinson said: "From these we select a test sample of about 125 and these are given to one of the reps to trial in his area of the country.

"Probably only ten per cent of these will eventually be taken on by us, over a period of time.

"My greatest satisfaction is seeing an item sell knowing our choice was one people want to buy."

It is not so much predicting a trend but, for Mr Nobbs, it involves many hours spent with publishers and partners searching for innovative new ideas that will appeal to its target audience, and ones that will allow the company to secure an even greater stake in the book market.

Looking back, Sir Roger is a little amazed but very proud of what he has already achieved, and not only in the business which he said he is enjoying as much today as he did when he first started.

Six years ago, as an acknowledgement for his charitable work, he was knighted and Sir Roger is one of the few people in the country to be presented with a vellum hand-made parchment depicting his coat of arms.

He said: "It took 18 months of research to create the crest of arms, it is not for the Martin family but one specific to my name and one I will be proud to hand down to future generations."

Just like the company he started, he is confident the growth of Index Books and the Book Studio, although part of the Penguin group, will be two other names that will be around for generations to come.