Hot off the press

Despite the eye-catching price, ‘Opus’ large-format books are selling like hot cakes. Commercial director Paul Murphy explains why
Commercial director Paul Murphy. The Opus Media Group has further Opuses taking shape, centering on various subjects, including opera singer Andrea Bocelli, Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee and Liverpool Football Club
By Sara Anabtawi
Sun 02 Sep 2012 07:17 AM

Eight hundred and fifty pages, coloured roughly with 2,000 images, fuelled by around 200,000 words — all of which is housed in a clamshell box and weighs approximately 37 kilogrammes. This is an Opus, or simply, a large-format book.

As the commercial director of Opus Media Group, publisher of the Opus, Paul Murphy is the man responsible for ensuring that these highly-intricate works of art make it to the market.

“[CEO] Karl Fawler and myself set up the company together about eight years ago,” says Murphy, as he sits in Mall of the Emirates’ Harvey Nichols, facing the newly launched official Ferrari Opus collection.

He goes on to recount how it all began: “Both of us come from a financial background and we were both heavily involved in the sports and entertainment sectors. So, for a period of time, we would make gifts of very expensive books for our special clients.”

But that was before the economic downturn, when expensive gifts were part and parcel of a more affordable lifestyle.

“Then, we started thinking about it,” says Murphy. “Is this something that we should be involved in? We had very good connections in the sports and entertainment sectors so we looked at the possibily of bringing our clients to the table and bringing a particular type of book to the table, and then possibly doing something quite unique that at the same time could be profitable," he adds.

It was at that point that the pair devised the concept of the large-format book. “The thing that puts people off creating [these] books is the cost. You know, if you are creating something that has got 300 pages, it is a lot cheaper than something with 800 pages,” he points out, adding: “And, if you look at the volume of paper involved in something like this — it is hugely substantial. But even more so is the binding; no machine can bind a book that size so you need to have it hand-stitched."

Opus Media Group's first book was for the British football club, Manchester United Football Club. “They are a brand that transcends the sport. If you are a hockey fan, you know who Manchester United are — and that was key for us — whichever brand that we worked with had to be a global brand,” he says.

Murphy analysed the football club’s database and saw massive potential: “They have 60,000 season ticket holders and 1.5 million people on their members database. I [knew that if] we could strike a deal with Manchester United, we would be able to access that database,” he explains.

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That Manchester United FC database didn't come cheap but Murphy says he has no regrets after a slew of potential projects followed. In the eight years since the firm launched its operation, it has worked with a string of high-profile clients including the National Football League (NFL) for the Superbowl, Formula One, Ferrari, and even the late pop star, Michael Jackson.

“We had agreed with Michael Jackson the month before he died to do a full-size Opus. When he passed away, we were the only publication that had access  so the Jackson estate  gave us the licence to publish a smaller Opus — about 12 kilogrammes,” Murphy explains, adding that they already have 15,000 pre-orders going to print.

The sports and entertainment sectors are not the only industries that have proved successful for the group, which recently expanded its operations to include projects in fashion, property and even religion. The company's first foray into real estate resulted in the Burj Khalifa Opus, which is due for general release soon.

“It was great for us. They did not build something that is insignificant. It is the tallest, most beautiful building in the world,” explains Murphy.

“We documented it from the start to finish. The photography was from when it was all sand, all the way through to the end. We have stunning pictures from the crane driver on the very top just before he came down. We even have pictures from his phone.”

Murphy sees the Burj Khalifa book as a project that combined architectural elements with both design and human components and appears to be particularly proud of the book’s ability to document all the different nationalities that took part in making the building such a success.

But his favourite Opus touches the religious sector, and is expected to come out in October, coinciding with this year’s Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

“Every Opus needs to pass the integrity barrier. And I think, more than ever, particularly as this issue was related to the Hajj, we needed to make sure that everything was signed off as being absolutely correct,” says Murphy.

Called ‘The Journey to Mecca’, the Opus is being published in partnership with the King Abdul Aziz Public Library and the King Faisal Foundation — a relationship that worked to Murphy’s advantage as it helped provide great access to a country renowned for conservatism and limited accessibility.

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“We also did it in partnership with a film commissioned by His Highness Prince Turki [Bin Faisal Al Saud] called ‘Journey to Mecca’. It was made for Imax, so had definition prints. The film had unprecedented access for the Hajj as it was filmed over two years,” says Murphy.

They also managed to add colour to the book with tales from all over the world; from a shoe seller in Istanbul to the American boxing legend Mohammed Ali. “[The Journey to Mecca] is a visual story. Although the writing in it is fantastic, it is so powerful with the images, and that was because of the access that we were given.”

Murphy’s work does not end there. At present, he has further Opuses taking shape, centering on various subjects, including the Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli, Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee and Liverpool Football Club, among others, all of which are at different stages of production.

“We also have two new projects with China; one is with the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming, who played in the NBA, and then another one with the government on the Forbidden City in Beijing,” he says.

It seems like Murphy has got everything under control, but success has only come through a lot of effort.

“We’re doing better this year compared to last year because we are now printing and selling. We made an active decision not to print for about two years during the recession. When everything went downhill, when things were uncertain, we continued to create content, but we could not print,” he explains.

When the global economic crisis started to show some signs of recovery, the firm started printing, creating six Opuses in the last two years alone. In terms of sales, the group is performing 30 percent more this year, in comparison to 2011.

“It is very difficult to predict what is going to happen with the economy, but if we are steady, if the economy is steady, and no one gets any frights, our deal flow is strong enough in the next eighteen months to see us grow around 45 percent,” he continues.

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Job well done by the group, then, but the question remains: how is it possible to sell these books, given their hefty price tag and the weak economic climate in many parts of the world?  For instance, the most expensive Opus was auctioned on behalf of the charity Dubai Cares in 2008 for a staggering AED5m ($1.3m), and was signed by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.Article continued on next page

“That was the Manchester United Opus,” says Murphy. “Pricing was the first dilemma in the beginning, particularly when you do an Opus on a football club and the bulk of the supporters are working people — you have to be very conscious that this is outside many people’s price range.”

However, he believes that individuals must realise that creating 800 pages of content is a very expensive process: “I have never come across anyone from Manchester United, for example, who wished we had not done an Opus, because they all think it was fantastic.

“If you look at a Ferrari fan, not everyone can afford to buy the car, but people aspire to it. They buy Ferrari caps and want to belong to the name,” he continues.

But Murphy has found a way to alleviate concerns over the cost of the printed product and make it more widely accessible. The group has made a digital download of the Opus allowing customers to have access digitally.

“We are a business and we have to recover, first and foremost,” he explains. “We hope that people who buy the Opus believe that, not only is it something worth the price, but it is something that they will appreciate as a collector’s item.

“We have to be selling the idea and selling the fact that it is worth the money. When people see it, the sale is so much easier, when they touch it, when they try to pick it up, they realise [what it’s worth],” he adds.

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