Book publishers need to take storytelling role back from digital rivals, HarperCollins CEO tells publishing industry conference, saying publishers stopped innovating with e-books while competitors have continued

, November 21, 2013 () – It seems a safe bet that few people in the book world have marched in the scarlet tunic of the Irish Guards. Charlie Redmayne, the new UK boss of HarperCollins, served four years as a lieutenant in the 1980s, before starting out on a media career that has taken him to the top of the publishing world.

Three months after returning to HarperCollins to become its chief executive, Redmayne will deliver a brisk message at an industry conference today, warning publishers against letting digital rivals steal their role - storytelling.

Publishers have allowed competitors to jump in, he says, whether they are startup companies producing apps or authors publishing novels on Amazon. Now they "need to take that space back" by producing content for games players, tablet computers and other devices.

"Publishers have historically been the most innovative and creative of organisations," he said. "But I think that when it came to the digital revolution we came to a point where we stopped innovating and creating. We thought: 'We've done an ebook and that is what it is.'

"Have others stolen a march on us? Yes, absolutely. There are now people competing with us who five or 10 years ago were not on our radars . . . My predecessor used to say publishers are becoming digital content developers. I always used to think she ought to add that digital content developers are becoming publishers."

That predecessor was Victoria Barnsley, the acclaimed publisher who founded 4th Estate and went on to run HarperCollins for 13 years. When news of her shock departure broke in July, coinciding with the announcement that publishing supremo Gail Rebuck was stepping down from the day-to-day running of Random House UK, many in the book world were left depressed about the loss of talented woman at the top.

"A bad week for women and a good one for geeks," said one industry figure.

"I've never been described as geek in my life," protests Redmayne. "Vicky is a terrific, instinctive, influential publisher and I am not those things. I come from a different background, but the stuff I've done will add value in different ways."

Redmayne, who was at Eton College with David Cameron and counts the prime minister among his friends, chose a media career after leaving the services in 1989. By the time his younger brother, the actor and Les Miserables star Eddie Redmayne, was making a name for himself on the small screen, Charlie was working at BSkyB. He joined HarperCollins in 2008 as digital director, but just a few years into the job was poached by JK Rowling to launch Pottermore, the Harry Potter website that offers a galaxy of material about the boy wizard.

Lured back to HarperCollins this year, he has fought against "the perception of me that I was some kind of techie digital guy who had no respect for the traditional ways of book publishing, that I was going to come in here and rip everything up and start again". He added: "The first thing I said to the business is that is not the case. I am a book person and I am passionate about books."

The mainstay of HarperCollins, whose rollcall of authors includes Hilary Mantel, Michael Morpurgo and the late Doris Lessing, will remain the old-fashioned art of publishing great books, he said. "If you haven't got great books, it doesn't matter how good you are in digital or marketing, you have nothing."

Although it was Barnsley who first set the publishing house on a digital course, the top team at HarperCollins in New York must be hoping Redmayne can conjure up more technical wizardry, as income from printed books continues to decline. Broadly in line with the rest of the industry, HarperCollins' revenues from physical books were down 6% over the last 12 months, although digital sales are expanding robustly and now account for more than one fifth of sales.

Redmayne expects demand for ebooks to continue to grow before plateauing at roughly 50% of all book sales. But the industry needs to think far beyond ebooks, he argues, and create content for a range of devices: apps, games for consoles, video. These are attracting new readers, people who "didn't feel at home in bookshops" and who have discovered reading through their iPad or another device.

These might be turbulent times, but Redmayne points out that in the 19th century authors such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were read in periodicals more than books. More than a century since New York-based Harper's magazine published Twain's essays, Redmayne is also preoccupied with promoting his superstar authors.

"We need to think about brands. In a world where Amazon is knocking out hundreds of emerging authors every year, it becomes increasingly difficult for emerging authors to be discovered, so we need to think about how we build brands like John Grisham, James Patterson," he said, revealing he is a fan of Bernard Cornwell, author of the swashbuckling Sharpe novels. "Michael Morpurgo, Hilary Mantel, JK Rowling - people who have transcended being an author and are brands in their own right . . . and in a digital world they are going to create a huge amount of value."

Nevertheless, printed books and ebooks "will continue to be huge part of what we are", he said. The importance of the printed page comes back to him every time he opens one of his many cookbooks, eschewing the millions of recipes he might download at the click of a mouse. "Reading cookbooks is a physical experience, it is not about trawling through websites."

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