Building a relevant book publishing industry for the future: Roles

Last week I posted some of my notes from a panel discussion on the subject of Building a relevant book industry for the future: Diversity, Content and Data at the BIC New Trends in Publishing seminar. Below is the second installment in this series of three blogs. 

New roles and new skills

Q: Despite how the industry might be portrayed in the media, and perhaps be perceived by the general public, not all roles in publishing are for “creatives” although they may require creative thinking. What are the challenges when going outside the industry to recruit for a different skillset?

A: A little while ago, I spoke to a manager who had hired technical experts from outside of publishing to work on developing new products. These developers were not happy working in an open plan office next to people from finance and struggled with the concept of 9am to 5pm. They wanted to be able to work flexi-time and at whatever time of day or night suited them. It was not a happy cultural fit and the expectations of experts from other sectors can be very different.

In consumer trade publishing there is still hostility towards the concept of publishing being a commercial business. As we heard earlier, from one of the other speakers at this seminar, we are afraid of referring to books as a commodity. I once experienced a backlash from editors when I voiced the opinion that having access to more consumer data could be a great thing for publishing and this negative view of the commercial side of the business could also be off-putting to professionals from other industries. Quality of content must not be compromised and not every book needs to be a bestseller, but there has never been a better time to target niche audiences (through social media etc.), and it’s important to understand that a commercial approach to maximising sales of niche publications is not a negative thing.

Q: What (if any) differences are we seeing when it comes to awareness and skills required in different types of publishing? E.g. professional publishing v. trade publishing? Software services, content development, data usage etc.

A: Ebook sales have risen dramatically (though perhaps these sales have reached a peak) and some trade publishers are taking a more data driven and commercial approach. The trend in professional book publishing appears to be to move towards a service/subscription model, but some legal publishers have been doing this for some time now, so it’s not an entirely new concept.

Q: Helen, in your opinion, what might be improved when it comes to Careers advice, both in schools and also higher education? Why does the industry often insist on applicants having degrees? Is this a barrier in your opinion?

A: More needs to be done in schools. There are some good careers services out there (like Cambridge Occupational Analysts COA) but it’s an expensive service and mostly only used by fee paying schools, where the parents have the means to finance it. Children get pressured by their parents and by society and some have little idea as to which subjects they need to take at A level in order to study their subject of choice at university. In terms of a degree being required, I think the issue lies with the education system rather than being the industry’s problem. Publishing could look at apprenticeships for certain roles, but there are so many good graduates looking for a role in publishing that there is little incentive for employers to look elsewhere.

Q: What about technical Degrees? How might the industry attract recruits from these types of degrees, as opposed to always recruiting arts graduates? Diverse skillsets from other degrees…different types of people/minds/new ways of thinking etc…

A: A degree should provide discipline, the ability to think critically and carry out research, so does subject really matter? It does for editorial roles in scientific publishing and for subject specific roles within educational publishing and academic publishing, where subject specific expertise and knowledge are required, but in many cases, it shouldn’t matter. The difficulty that the industry has in attracting graduates with technical degrees is generally a question of salary level and the other options open to these graduates and the kind of opportunities their peers are being offered.

University careers services have a difficult job, but in my experience can tend to be a bit conservative in their advice. However, I think some improvement is happening there – I was recently invited to an event being held for computer science and tech graduates who wanted to work in the creative sector or media, which I thought was a great idea. We should also think about arts grads, who could have good business brains, but don’t necessarily know where to start or what the options are, so think that the only way to go is editorial. I know an English Literature graduate who is a senior software developer, so perhaps the solution is to encourage the interested graduates to develop the skills that the industry requires, regardless of their degree discipline.

Q: How might we get around the challenge of publishing simply not paying as much as other industries?

A: Transparency in terms of pay would be a good start, so that employees or potential employees have a pay structure to refer to. Other industries have more formal pay scales in place but this is not something that the media industries have always been keen to implement.


  • Helen Speedy

    Helen Speedy is Manager at Atwood Tate and has over six years' experience of working in publishing, latterly as Rights Executive for Orion Children's Books. Helen's main focus is on Senior Management opportunities in all roles, publishing market and all locations across the UK.

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