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Judy Piatkus: From a One-Woman Startup to a Global Publishing Brand

By Sujany Baleswaran

Starting her company from the spare bedroom of her home in her early 20s, Judy Piatkus grew her company, Piatkus Books, to global success. Personal development, self-help, mind and body are topics that women are seeking to delve into in 2021, but Judy Piatkus saw the market way ahead of her time. After giving a generation of readers, a new perspective to life through Piatkus Books, Judy sold the company in 2007 to Hachette and is now dedicating her time to coaching, mentoring, her new venture Conscious Café and has recently published a book, a memoir to her time in publishing. 

You founded Piatkus Books from your spare bedroom, and the company grew and became an international brand. Can you tell us more about your early career as a publisher?

I launched my first publishing company with a partner. We were in our early 20s and had met when I worked for a literary agency and he worked for a company producing out-of-print books for libraries. We decided to set up together and produce a range of books for libraries. The venture was very successful, but after four years he and I decided to go our separate ways. I founded my second publishing company when I was 29, on my own this time.

I’m sure your success has not come easily. What challenges have you had to overcome?

It’s very rare for success as an entrepreneur to be achieved easily. Building a company requires a huge amount of work. There is so much to think about all the time – what are you creating? Who are your customers? Why might they choose to buy your product or service instead of those of another business? How will you reach them? Where will you work from as you grow? All these questions are very complex, and entrepreneurs have to look at the big picture, and at the same time, they have to think about the details. Learning all the aspects of building a company is a huge challenge. It’s all-consuming but very rewarding.

If you could go back in time, what’s one piece of advice you would give yourself during the more difficult periods of your career?

Ask more questions. We all absorb new information in a variety of ways. Showing more curiosity at an earlier stage would have helped me to make better decisions later on.

What made Piatkus Books stand out from other renowned publishing companies? Who were the readers behind Piatkus Books, and did this change over time?

There were very few women running their own publishing companies in the UK in the 1980s, so that was unusual. At Piatkus Books, we endeavoured to make our mark early on with lively marketing, taking full-page advertisements in the trade press and advertising one of our books on the London Underground which had not been done by publishers before. We became known as risk-takers – publishing many first novels is always a gamble, and non-fiction books in areas such as mind, body and spirit and personal growth, long before larger publishers had understood the market for those titles. Later on, we published many popular American bestselling fiction authors such as Nora Roberts and Julia Quin (Bridgerton), which other publishers had overlooked. We were able to do that because Amazon made it easier for us to sell those books to readers who could buy them online, so we no longer had to rely on traditional bookshops stocking them.

Your company focused on transparency and trust, and this resulted in a loyal staff that worked with you for upward of twenty years. How important is company culture to you?

I have always tried to treat people in the way that I would like to be treated in the workplace. I believe that company culture comes from the person at the top of an organisation, and the impact of how they behave trickles all the way down, no matter the size of the enterprise. I wanted people to enjoy coming to work at Piatkus Books and to be proud of the work they were doing. I think that a workplace with a positive and friendly culture is always a preferred experience for everyone.

You’re now a keynote speaker and an angel investor, as well as a mentor and coach. What sparked this change in your career?

Piatkus Books was sold successfully to the largest publishing corporation in the UK at that time, Hachette, in 2007. I had run the company for 28 years and it was the right moment for the sale, shortly before the financial downturn which my colleagues and I had foreseen as we were always peering into the future, thinking about what to publish. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to enjoy and learn about a wide variety of other activities. I also now run a network, ConsciousCafe, for people who enjoy thoughtful conversations 

You recently published your first book, Ahead of Her Time: How a One-Woman Startup Became a Global Publishing Brand, a memoir of your time in publishing. After working as a publisher for nearly three decades, is it difficult to become an author and not wish you were still a publisher?

I loved being a publisher, and after Piatkus Books was sold, I was very happy not to be responsible for running a company as I had been doing that for so long. I was also pleased not to have to read any books for work on my weekends.  

I have very much enjoyed the experience of writing my memoir. When Watkins offered to publish it, I was delighted, and it has been so interesting to experience the author’s journey. I haven’t wanted to be on the other side of the desk at all.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who want to start their own company and make a mark in their field of interest?

There has never been a better time to start a company. There is so much information available on the internet and so many people ready and willing to help you. The market is challenging because of the pandemic but if you start from a low base, it is easier to grow. You have to believe in yourself, do your research, persevere, focus and always think of yourself as a professional in every action you take. When you take yourself seriously, other people will treat you seriously as well.

Ahead of Her Time: How a One-Woman Startup Became a Global Publishing Brand by Judy Piatkus is published by Watkins and is available online and from all good bookshops.

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