Colin Hughes joined HarperCollins in April 2012 as the Managing Director of the Collins Education division. In October 2012 he was promoted to MD, Collins Learning – bringing together the Education, Language & Geo divisions. In 2013 he launched Collins India, and he has been Chair of the Education Publishers Council in the UK since 2014. Colin has been a member of the Board of the Governors of Middlesex University and was its Chair from June 2010 to June 2017.
What was the last book you read?
I read several books simultaneously, these days I find it quite hard to read one thing from cover to cover without breaking off to do something else. Right now? Why We Sleep (life-changing, can’t recommend it strongly enough). JH Prynne’s White Stones (abstruse poetry, I don’t recommend it to anyone unless they’re already as weird as I am). Ali Smith’s Winter, pretty much as good as Autumn, which is saying something. I loved Reservoir 13 (just finished – and that I DO recommend reading at one sitting). With The End in Mind, Kathryn Mannix, is my bedside reading, each chapter a small revelation on a topic that is dear to my heart, namely that we are terrible as a society at doing death properly.
You’re stranded on a desert island. What three books would you want with you?
Shakespeare complete is presumably already there? If not, then really that’s all anyone needs. But assuming that’s provided, like the Bible, then it would be John Donne’s collected works, the manuscripts of everything Bach wrote and the Beatles lyrics.
What is the single biggest challenge facing the publishing industry right now?
In schools publishing, it’s the negativity with which British teachers view textbooks, in spite of the fact that they know they save time and improve performance. Schools would rather spend money on more teaching assistants than on quality learning resources, and then have teachers making all their own lesson materials from scratch. It’s baffling – nowhere else in the world has this problem.
Does the publishing industry understand technology?
That’s easy. Yes. Publishers have not suffered at all from new onset tech, in fact I’d argue they’ve always gained, and been on the curve, neither too far ahead (which is dangerous) nor slipping behind (which is lethal).
Go on, let us know your musical guilty pleasure.
Too, too many of those. Dancing to Ziggy Stardust with my small daughter. Singing along with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough at the top of our voices in the car with my older daughter. Playing any Bach Prelude and Fugue on my Kawai grand at home: it is the most extreme form of self-gratification.
And your one from the world of fiction?
Iain M Banks’ Culture series (sci-fi is the guilty pleasure, sorry to admit). There are scenes that can still make me bark out loud with laughter. I once had a hilarious day with him in Edinburgh (I was writing his profile for The Guardian), which was spent in a completely sozzled state from within about an hour or so of meeting, yet I still remember every element of it. My favourite moment was when he ordered a jug of margarita, and I said, “Oh, that’d be nice,” and he turned to me and said, “It’s no for you, it’s all for me.” And promptly went ahead and drank the lot before catching his train home. He woke at 4am in Dundee, many miles past his stop…
What was your first job?
While at university I was a milkman, a DJ, a barman – all at the same time, during vacations.
What is the silliest thing you have on your desk?
A purple-pink cuddly Big Cat toy. Big Cat is our reading scheme, I guess it’s obligatory.
Tell us about a passion you have outside the business.
Passions should be enjoyed privately, it seems to me. But the thing that makes me happiest (apart from my family) is walking from my front door and being able to see a huge variety of often quite rare birds within a few minutes (I live on the Suffolk coast between Walberswick and Dunwich).
Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?
When I was a political correspondent my boss was Tony Bevins, then Political Editor of The Independent. From him I learned that however ultimately unobtainable truth may be, the relentless attempt to find it is absolutely fundamental to any kind of meaningful life.
What has been your most successful piece of business, or contact made, at The London Book Fair?
We signed our agreement with Shanghai Century Press here last year to translate their maths textbooks into English for distribution in the UK – which was the first time any English publisher had ever done such a radical thing.
Hear Colin Hughes at What Works? Education Conference, which he is Co-Chairing with Kate Harris, MD, Oxford University Press’ UK Education and Children’s Division.