May’s Byte The Book asked one very big question: what is the nature of tomorrow’s publisher? Tasked with providing the answers were chair Nicholas Clee (Book Brunch), Bibliocloud’s Emma Barnes, Daniel Crewe of Viking / Penguin Random House and Bonnier Publishing COO Sharon Parker.
“You can’t publish good books if you’re a lousy employer,” began Nicholas, “so let’s start by talking about recruitment”. He turned first to Sharon, who in her time at Bonnier has seen the company’s annual turnover grow from £5million to £120million. “Publishing is no longer seen by the younger generations as an industry they’re desperate to go into,” she revealed, adding that aspiring professionals are more likely to turn to companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Apple – the quintuple threat otherwise known as FANGA – as these brands boast an irresistible caché. “Our challenge,” she asserted, “is to try and make publishing ‘sexy’ to a broader range of young people”.
Our speakers from L-R: Nicholas Clee (Chair), Daniel Crewe, Sharon Parker and Emma Barnes.
Emma Barnes, however, baulked at this suggestion. “I’m really troubled by the idea that we have to make publishing sexy”, she said. “I feel we should be honest, and not over-promise”. She advocated a plain-speaking approach, where new employees are told that the job will be fantastic in some ways and awful in others; but that, ultimately, they will have the opportunity to quite literally change the world. “The sell,” she continued, “is this: we want to put out books into the world that have a chance to stop the madness. The more good books we can get out there – the more decent, reasoned arguments – the more matter there is to throw at Trump”.
Panel, sponsors and attendees networking in the garden at The House of St Barnabas before the talk.
Nicholas then turned to Daniel Crewe to dig down into the recruitment process at Penguin Random House. What are PRH doing, he asked, to diversify their workforce and help make the industry accessible to applicants from all backgrounds? “We don’t demand that applicants have a degree, for a start,” Daniel replied. “We run programs that involve going into schools and talking to young people about what publishing actually is; we organise paid work experience; we provide our staff with unconscious bias training”. He also referenced the company’s flexible working policies, which are currently being examined to ensure that female employees are able to climb the ranks as readily as their male counterparts. Sharon agreed that this sort of approach is key to cultivating gender equality across the industry. “There’s more work we can do to retain women throughout their careers,” she argued. “We need to make it easier for mothers to come back to work after having children; we need to facilitate job shares, healthy work-life balances, holidays and so on. We need to make it easier for women to stay”.
The discussion closed with a spiky comment from an audience member that suggested publishers need to pay their authors more, lest they squeeze out the very people who make their businesses possible. Daniel defended the margins offered by Penguin Random House and others, stating that, quite simply, “the publisher’s first responsibility is to remain solvent”. Emma picked up this thread, suggesting that the only real fix to the problem of writers’ diminishing revenues is for the industry to publish fewer books. She added that publishers should never oversell the promise of what’s to come to their potential new authors: “We need to make it clear that no one will get rich from this. We need to say to them: ‘we won’t pay you much, so don’t give up your day job’. That might not solve the problem, but at least it’s the truth.”
Leena Normington and Justine Solomons – Byte The Book is about learning and debate but also having fun and networking.
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