long_road.jpgTom Tivnan visited us at Imago UK in Thame back in 2010 - we've not changed too much...



There are certainly worse places to work than the Imago Publishing offices, set in the countryside in a rambling former farmstead on the outskirts of the Oxfordshire market town of Thame. Indeed, when I arrive—a long drive from the main road avoiding the seemingly suicidal pheasants darting out from the fields in front of the car—I am told the sales team is in a meeting in “the barn”.

Yet appearances can be deceptive. This is no bucolic idyll—there is serious work going on here. What is that work? Well, the elevator pitch is that Imago does production services for publishers, but that hardly does justice to the scope of its business. It was initially set up in 1980 by founders Erik Pordes and Richard Hayes, who had worked together at Marshall Cavendish, to specialise in book production and freight sourcing from the Far East, where the two had a wealth of contacts. Pordes explains: “This was at a time when, quite frankly, few publishers knew anything about the Far East, but we had this expertise and knowledge in the area. We rode the first wave of publishers coming into the region.”

Yet as more of the industry's production expanded into the region, Imago's business shifted. It can broadly be described today as a book production consultant which works in concert with—and Imago's staff are sometimes seconded to—in-house production teams. Looking to outsource?

Imago can use its local knowledge to direct you to the right partner. Its book production runs the gamut from the basic black-and-white printing to high-quality luxury publishing, but its expertise is with more complicated processes from gilt-edged bibles, to high-quality illustrated titles. Thinking of books plus—putting other product with a book? Imago have teams based in China sourcing products as diverse as glasses for wine guides, tennis balls for sports books and stuffed toys for children's titles.bookseller.jpg

“We are in a space that no one else is in,” says Pordes. “Yes, some services we offer can be done by bigger production teams. Yet it is about the whole package, and the proof is that publishers keep us on because in the end we provide savings and added value.”

Imago has come a long way from when it was just Pordes and Hayes in a small office in Thame (Hayes, who has since retired, was a local). The company now employs around 130 people—50 in the UK, with the rest in its 10 offices across the globe in the US, France, Hong Kong, China, Australia, India, Malaysia and Singapore. In its last full-year accounts to 31st December 2009, the Imago Group generated £41.2m in revenue.

There is a lot of energy going into research and development in the books plus/added value added area of business that Pordes referred to. Pordes and Debbie Knight, Imago's marketing director, excitedly show me a number of products that have come from the Imago labs such as gilt edges which spell out words, spiral-bound books where the title is printed on the end paper (helping a bookseller shelve it spine out), a B&W photography book printed with specialist ink which, almost magically when exposed to natural light, turns the images to full colour. A favourite for this reporter—who dressed up as Han Solo for three Hallowe'ens running as a child—is The Jedi Path (becker&mayer!). The book is the “ancient Jedi training manual” which comes in an Imago-designed vault, which when you press a button opens mechanically, with the book rising up on a platform.

Some of the books were developed specifically from publisher specs, some off Imago's own back. Pordes says: “Rather than just waiting for the publishers to come up with all the ideas, we thought we should be proactive in innovation and development.” That development is not confined to physical books; Imago has a couple of products in the pipeline which combine digital with print. Though keeping mum on the exact details, Pordes says they “have the potential to be huge”. Leaving the offices, I get a final tour of the Imago ranch. I see “the barn”, which is indeed a former barn but converted to a modern conference room. From it Imago, among other things, hosts its programme of training courses, open to the trade and overseen by group production director Cherry Jaquet, which covers everything from InDesign training to buying and selling rights to app development. Deceptive appearances, indeed.