A publisher who once worked for Elton John and Pete Townsend, who
lists Richard Branson and Felix Dennis among his influences and cites
Viz as his favourite read is bound to be unconventional.
In fact, John Brown Publishing mirrors its idiosyncratic founder’s
Its portfolio reflects his sense of humour (Viz), his sporting interests
(Wisden’s Cricket Monthly), his eccentricity (Fortean Times and Bizarre)
and his business sense (Debenhams, Waitrose Food Illustrated and Ikea’s
Room). His home life has also had an influence (Gardens
Brown’s early career was promisingly offbeat. He was a motorcycle
courier with Sir Elton’s management company before joining Townsend’s
Eel Pie Publishing. But he had an entrepreneurial streak, too. Brown
spotted his first magazine opportunity when he was publishing rock music
books for Virgin. He came up with an idea for a stylish inflight
magazine, which eventually became Hot Air - a publication many frequent
flyers believe still soars above its rivals.
’Airlines failed to realise that passengers, having browsed through
Vogue in the departure lounge, were underwhelmed by inflight magazines
that resembled an East European parish newsletters,’ Brown says.
Although Hot Air was a success, Brown says his proudest career moment
was the discovery of Viz in 1985. He claims the title initiated the
lads’ market, but regrets that inexperience and the lack of an ad sales
background meant he didn’t spot the sector’s commercial potential until
Now a wiser Brown is taking his talents to the US where, he claims, ’the
contract publishing market is years behind the UK’. This theory was
reinforced by a visit to The New York Times, which was selling its
contract publishing division.
’We got the hysterical giggles when we realised the paper was making all
the same mistakes we made, but learned from, long ago,’ he confides.
Needless to say, he decided not to buy.
Instead, Brown has set up his own New York office for the US launch of
Room, which he is confident will be the best contract title in
’It will attract attention and act as our beachhead. We are already
talking to another high-profile US company.’
Brown also has two new UK consumer launches planned for next spring.
He’s keeping tight-lipped about what they are, although industry gossip
suggests one could be a men’s magazine.
He is also looking to the internet for brand extensions, with Bizarre
leading the way. ’We can sell products online that might be embarrassing
for people to buy face to face,’ he points out.
He is also preparing for the convergence of new and traditional
For instance, he can see a time when Room will be linked to a shopping
channel and an e-commerce website. ’I just hope we’re right in the thick
of (new media),’ he says, although he tempers this by adding: ’But we’re
going to be sensible. We’re not going to piss money down the drain like
some people have.’
So does he really read Viz? ’Of course. Sid the Sexist has done more to
correct men’s attitudes than any feminist campaign.’
John Brown on climbing the career ladder
’Don’t get stuck in a rut. There are masses of jobs, so if you are not
learning and enjoying yourself, then move on. I would want to be a
publisher by my early 30s, so I would want to have got everything I
could out of advertising sales by then. Personally, I regret not
starting out in sales. It’s key to understanding the business.’