Heather Blakey blogs for us from the Society of Young Publishers’ annual gathering in London
Innovation and disruption were the themes of this year’s Society of Young Publishers Autumn Conference last Saturday (10 November). It’s a unique event, creating an intersection between pre or early career publishing professionals and a diverse range of voices from across the industry. Speakers came from big industry publishers like Penguin Random House and HarperCollins, parallel content providers like the BBC, and independent presses with unique business models and strategies.
For me, the Conference highlighted the importance of interrogating what innovation and disruption in publishing truly mean. Their prominence when we talk about positive change in business stems from Silicon Valley culture and exports, and in publishing they are often invoked to signify the swift introduction of new technologies and the diversification of the content we produce. But innovation is not the licensed property of new-wave technology, and titans like Apple, Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook are not the sole enablers of disruptive ideas.
The keynote address from Clare Conville, co-founder of the Conville & Walsh agency, was a refreshing and thought-provoking introduction to the day’s discussions. It turned an eye on publishing’s historical innovations: books with a demonstrable and lingering impact on individuals and communities around the world. In publishing, she pointed out, “Innovation can be a quiet time-bomb with the power to change the world.” Using examples from the King James Bible to Jane Austen’s lasting influence, she showed how re-examining historical innovation can sometimes be just as enlightening as the ‘disruptive’ trends of today, as the revitalisation of audiobooks and the increasing number of niche independent magazine publishers demonstrate.
As a conference both produced and attended by the next generation of publishing professionals, many of the best insights came from the questions and discussions that followed the various panels. It is from this group that many of the next wave of innovations will come, and part of that process involves the asking of good questions about the industry’s culture and how it will evolve.
The audience were both highly invested in the future of the publishing industry yet aware of the contradictions in the pathways offered to them. While the desire for a nomadic freelance career is often hooked on to the ‘millennial’ stereotype, the reality is that many young people still believe in, and want to contribute to, the legacies of established publishers. There is also an astute awareness that many founders of independent presses hail from a structured background in the industry, and that such experience is still an invaluable resource for building up skillsets, regardless of your ultimate career goals.
There was much talk at the Conference of improving accessibility to publishing as a workplace—especially as the industry is so centred on London, where high living costs can hinder its viability as a career for some people. There is a lot of enthusiasm about various schemes to improve accessibility, but as Knights Of co-founder Aimée Felone articulated in the closing address, unless diverse voices are actually involved in the commissioning of new work, their ultimate impact on publishing’s output may not be as significant as advertised. Natalie Jerome of Bonnier added that even when diverse lists are published, they need retailers’ support to find an audience. Alongside Keshini Naidoo of Hera Books and Joelle Owusu of Unbound, she also advocated for looking outside publishing for talent, unique voices and market insights. Doing so brings innovative ideas into the fold, and stops publishing becoming an echo chamber.
Connections between current and historical innovation in publishing were also evident in discussions about how new technologies can encourage engagement with important knowledge. After all, the contemporary publishing industry is the direct result of the close interplay between technology and social change. By contrast, ‘tick-box’ attitudes to adopting technological innovations often serve a set of desires that resemble those of technology companies, and not those of book publishers.
During the Conference’s ‘Publishing for Everyone’ panel, Julia Kingsford, who co-founded The Good Journal and The Good Literary Agency with Nikesh Shukla, acknowledged her belief in the well-established structures of the publishing industry, even while working on projects—like the crowdfunding of The Good Journal—that might be considered innovative or disruptive. She emphasized that when it comes to innovation, it is imperative to be pulled rather than pushed towards decisions. Don’t introduce a new idea or do things a certain way because it seems like it must be done, she argued—but do so because you are pulled to it as the best way to achieve a goal.
Heather Blakey is academic engagement executive at Rowman & Littlefield International. She was the IPG’s guest at the SYP’s Autumn Conference.