Linda Bennett founded Gold Leaf twenty-one years ago, to provide market research and business development support for the publishing industry. Clients include publishers, booksellers, technological and bibliographical services, publishing industries, trade associations, libraries and universities. She was formerly a director of two library supply companies, business development director at Waterstone’s and director of the full-time MBA programme at the University of Huddersfield. She writes articles about publishing, higher education and librarianship as herself and crime fiction under the pseudonym Christina James. The DI Yates novels are psychological crime thrillers set mainly in Lincolnshire.
Thanks for joining us, Linda! I’d love to start with Gold Leaf. What does it do and who are your clients?
Gold Leaf was founded in 2001 and provides business development and marketing research support for publishers and other people connected to the publishing industry. Most of the publishers we work with are academic publishers, but there are some trade publishers as well. The projects we work on are often related to multimedia technology, which tends to be more relevant to academic than trade publishing.
Are they global publishers or mainly UK based?
They are mostly global; our clients based in the UK have outposts everywhere and we also have clients based in other countries. They tend to be English-speaking but we have worked for publishers whose first language is not English. For example, now there is such excellent simultaneous translation technology available we can run seminars that include Chinese speakers.
Why did you start Gold Leaf and with whom?
I started with two clients: an academic publisher and a trade association. Both are still clients.
I had several reasons for setting up Gold Leaf. I had been Business Development Director at Waterstones at a time when digital was starting to emerge and Waterstones was experimenting with ebooks. My boss at the time made me use a well-known consultancy company to conduct some research into the ebook market. It made a huge dent in my budget, which frustrated me because I knew I could have done the work as well myself. So that was one reason.
Also, although I had a wonderful time at Waterstones - I was there for 5 years - before that I had worked for a library supplier in Scotland and therefore I spent nearly 10 years working away from home. My family remained in Yorkshire, but I was spending most of my time either in Scotland or London, only going home for weekends (or alternatively my family would come to see me at weekends). When my son went to university my husband and I were still living at opposite ends of the M1. I thought it was time I did something different.
I could see many opportunities emerging – it was a great time for someone with my background to start a new business, because people needed help with new digital projects. The fact that I am quasi-academic also helped. I was the MBA course director at a British university for three years so I understood how to carry out empirical research and present it formally.
However, for someone who is still fairly risk-averse, it was still quite a big leap. I had some help and encouragement. I belonged to a retail research group at Templeton College, Oxford and discussed my plans with the course leader, who said, “You can come out of a business like Waterstones for six months to a year and you’ll get back into a similar business if it doesn’t work; but if you leave it for more than a year, you’ll never get back into retail again”. So I thought to myself, “I’ve got a year to make this work”; and I haven’t looked back since!
Which of Gold Leaf’s services do your clients come away thinking “that has really changed my business” the most?
That’s more for them to answer than me! We conduct research in several different ways. Sometimes, when it is for academic publishers, it is about finding out what their own clients want. My business partner and I facilitate several librarian advisory boards across the world. We are strict about not making any kind of sales pitch, so the information that is shared is unbiased: it is a win-win situation for everyone.
When carrying out business development work, we have to be careful not to discuss actual prices with clients’ customers, as this is illegal in the UK and many other jurisdictions. We can, however, discuss pricing models and one of the important things we help with is getting the pricing model right. There are all sorts of different pricing models for online products, so it can be tricky finding the right one for the customer base.
What else have you learnt from your work as a library supplier and at Waterstones?
I learnt project management at Waterstones: how to keep track of multiple projects and how to delegate tasks to other people. Before I was Business Development Director there, my role was to oversee the running of the campus bookshops (Waterstones had 42 campus bookshops at the time) and also contribute to the academic sales in the high street bookshops. Academic sales were responsible for about one third of the company’s turnover at the time. We held lots of events in the larger shops, so that was a useful new skill for me.
I also learnt about new product development. While I was in charge of business development, Waterstones and HarperCollins worked together to sell the first commercially available ebook in the UK. It was called The E before Christmas. It’s collectable now!
You were at the forefront of remote working! Which is your favourite of the shops you worked in?
I have a big soft spot for Waterstones Gower Street. It has always been a wonderful bookshop and of course it’s the original Dillons, set up by Una Dillon in its present Arts and Crafts building in the early twentieth century. It’s unique and in my opinion has much more character than Piccadilly (Waterstones’ largest shop, also Europe’s largest bookstore).
Do you miss working with bookshops,?
Yes, I do! I still visit every possible bookshop at the slightest excuse: it’s a professional quirk of mine! I was in New York in July and I went into several bookshops there. There’s one that I really like in Prague – it’s called the Globe Bookshop – and visiting it involves catching a succession of buses, starting at the town centre. Well worth it, though!
Tell me about Salt Publishing and your work as a publisher
I’ve always worked with publishers but my real role as a publisher started through Lightning Source, an early Gold Leaf client that asked me to write some case studies, one of which was about a small literary publisher called Salt Publishing. Salt was newish at the time and had evolved from what was initially a poetry magazine to becoming a literary publisher, publishing poetry, short stories, literary fiction, and the odd non-fiction work, too. Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery asked me to do some work for them and eventually I became a director.
I’ve edited several books for Salt that have been nominated for or won prizes. Perhaps the most prominent was The Litten Path, by James Clarke, which won the Betty Trask Prize a few years ago. It was James’ first novel and is about the 1980s miners' strike in Yorkshire. When the strikes took place I was Managing Director of a small library supply company in Yorkshire. Most of my staff were female and married to miners, so I had quite a sense of what life was like for them. I read the book and was blown away by how accurate James’ depiction of that catastrophic period in British history.
Salt was one of the first publishers to understand the importance of promoting its books via social media.
That’s really interesting! At Supadu we encourage our publishers to interact with social media. Books really thrive there, especially on TikTok.
Absolutely! My current publisher, Bloodhound, relies almost entirely on social media marketing. However, to complement this I also arrange events for myself in libraries and bookshops. For example, I was at Gateshead library during National Library Week. It organises a very well-known programme of crime fiction events. As an author, it’s essential to talk to the people who read your books.
Before we talk about your writing, do you think there is something special about having these in-person events at libraries and bookshops, that can’t be replicated online?
Up to a point, but during the pandemic I both organised and attended some excellent online author events using Teams. You have the same problem when you organise an event online as in a shop or a library - you never know who is going to come. One of the things I usually advise libraries and bookshops to do is to make a small charge for an event, something affordable, like £3, because you do find if people have paid they’re more likely to turn up. It’s harder to find such incentives for online audiences. But competitions, discounts, signed copies or giving away a few copies of previous books all encourage people to attend, whether in person or online. Readers especially love signed copies!
When did you become an author, what sort of books do you write and how many have you written so far?
I’ve written eleven books so far. The first ten are crime novels. I’ve just completed my eleventh novel, which is probably best described as literary fiction. I began my career as an author writing literary fiction, and like many others I’ve got MSs hidden away that I didn’t- and don’t - think were good enough to publish. When I was quite young, one of my manuscripts was sent to a very well-known editor at Jonathan Cape. She told me that I could write but that I needed more plot and suggested that I try genre fiction, to help me develop stronger plots.
I thought about the different genres and knew that I couldn’t write science fiction or fantasy. You really need a science background for SF and in any case I don’t have that kind of brain. I certainly couldn’t write a romance - I’m far too ironic! I do like historical fiction and I may still have a shot at it, but it can be hard to get it right. If, when reading the book, you feel that some of the descriptions are anachronistic, you immediately wonder what else the author has got wrong. However, although I’m choosy, there is some historical fiction that I admire. The Miniaturist stands out. I don’t know a great deal about sixteenth-century Dutch history, but you feel that Jessie Burton has got it just right.
But you can be a literary crime writer - John le Carre is a great example – and I try to make sure my own novels are well-written. They certainly belong to the psychological crime sub-genre, rather than slotting into the categories of police procedural or shock-horror guts and gore! I set them in Lincolnshire, which is where I was born, although my protagonist, DI Yates, travels as well. I believe topography is important in crime fiction. I grew up in Spalding, a small market town with a very ancient history. The town itself hasn’t changed much since the eighteenth century. It makes a great setting for crime novels.
Why do you write under a pseudonym - Christina James?
Quite simply, because I need to keep the two main elements of my working life - Gold Leaf and the crime fiction – in separate compartments. Gold Leaf produces some serious industry reports: I don’t want people to think they are fiction! And Linda Bennett is an eminently forgettable name. Christina James has more of a ring to it.
Are the Yates novels stand-alone or do they form a series?
They’re all about DI Yates and his colleagues. They do move forward in time, but they can also each be read separately, without reference to the others. I think that’s important. It would be unfair to expect your readers to start at the beginning. But I hope that those who read the latest one will be interested enough to take a look at the others.
What is DI Yates’ character like?
He is supposed to be the antithesis to your usual cop. He’s young, he isn’t disillusioned or an alcoholic and he hasn’t had a succession of broken relationships! But the most interesting thing about him is that he is quite abrasive - he doesn't have much emotional intelligence. He’s run by two women, one of whom is his wife - Katrin – and the other his second-in-command, Juliet Armstrong, who is bisexual. These two characters haven’t developed in quite the way that I thought they would - my readers have shown great interest in Juliet as a character, so gradually she has assumed more prominence. I try to listen to what my readers like and allow them to have their say, to a certain extent.
There is a blog tour featuring three of my novels which begins on November 17. I hope perhaps some of your readers will find time to read some of the posts!