The University of Stirling’s publishing course hosted a round-table discussion prior to their publishing showcase, allowing students and visitors to hear industry opinions on the future of publishing, before asking their own questions.
Those in attendance were Vivian Marr of Oxford University Press, Katy Lockwood-Holmes of Floris Books, Marion Sinclair of Publishing Scotland and Adrian Searle of Freight Books.
“Publishing is about risk.”
Each began with explaining where they see the future of publishing in their respective fields.
Vivian began that working with dictionaries, they are investing in a long term project, seeking to create go-to resources in digitally underrepresented languages. In 10 years, they’re hoping for 100 websites. They want to work with communities to create their own content, reinforce cultural identity through content that recreates how language is actually used, slang and all. They’re building partnerships with big tech business in order to fulfill their mission.
Katy explains that Floris publish both children’s fiction and adult’s non-fiction, but are known best for the former. She’s wary of the idea that the children’s sector is as resilient as people say, as much of the growth as been at the top age bracket, the YA end, bolstered by it being bought by ages far higher than the demographic. But they are still more stable after digital; parents will still buy books for their children when they can’t buy books for themselves. It is a robust market.
There’s a need to look at changing reading habits, to understand how the plethora of entertainment opportunities impacts them. Floris’ response is to be relevant and accessible in order to compete for their attention. Storytelling, narrative and illustration is key, the goal is to engage. There’s a rallying call for children’s publishing to turn children into lifelong readers.
Marion says she offers more of an overview of the network. She begins with the argument lately over Alex Salmond’s book being published in a London publisher. The main question she found herself asking was: How do we grow the sector in Scotland? How to we get to a stage where people have the same confidence in Scottish publishing?
It’s improved greatly in the last five years – there’s more publishers, and more being published, a higher production value, and excellent marketing. She says that her bias ultimately has to be the business side, as without it no one can sustain themselves or grow. She refers to the Canongate model, in which they publish in Scotland but for the world; the perception outside of Scotland is that it’s regional, not internationally focused. For interviews, she adds to always think that you’re going into the business of publishing. Think “What contribution am I making?” Quantify it, exercise your business muscles.
Adrian agrees on the business aspects. In the macro view, he doesn’t think anything will change other than the context. He loves literature and publishing, but there’s more money on the mass market; it’s what people want to read v. what you want people to read. You’ve got to be careful of vanity projects, got to keep your business sense. There are frenzies of popularity, and they’re great if you’re the recipient, but everything in publishing is about risk. It’s gambling for educated people. In the micro view, sustainable growth is key, seeing progress. Learn every day, evaluate and work out how to do it better the next day.
“The magic word is integrity.”
The dichotomy of the cultural and economic values are clearly key – so how to you balance that?
Katy says there is admittedly a tension. Ignore the business aspect at your peril. You have a duty to try to be sustainable. Finance is the tool that keeps you going. They feel that all of their projects have value, it’s just a case of figuring out how to support them.
It’s fundamental, adds Vivian. You need revenue to generate sustainability. Oxford University is investing long term in them. In dictionaries, the font would be squeezed together to save pages; they knew it had to be a business in which you looked at costs all the time.
Marion discusses Faber, in which they diversified in order to sustain their own cultural mission. The publishing industry has a mission to express themselves with a diversity of voices. Publishing is so interesting, but tricky; complex yet fascinating.
The magic word, says Adrian, is integrity. It must be there in whatever you do.
“It levels the playing field.”
Digital has obviously changed a lot, but has it changed the actual content?
Yes, says Adrian. Certain things do well in digital, like romance and crime. Editorial is more confident on taking a crime now as they know it can sell. With print you have a 9 month window generally speaking, which isn’t there in digital. People binge on writers, they like episodes; the boxset mentality. It levels the playing field, in which indies can go up against multinationals.
It’s not just what is published, adds Vivian, but jobs that come with it. Content creators, blogs, forums; they’re recruiting vision and creativity, jobs they didn’t have 3-5 years ago.
It’s not had the same impact on kids publishing, picks up Katy. They did two tests years ago and decided not to release them, the quality wasn’t worthy of the Floris name. You need to do a lot of redesigning and rejigging of illustrations to make it work; it has a big impact on how you publish.
“Books are not vegetables!”
What’s most important in growing the young audience now, so that there are still readers in the future?
Children’s publishing must be appealing, relevant and successful, says Katy. They need to see their own lives reflected back. If you never see yourself in a book, it’s dis-empowering.
Adrian agrees – culture reflecting real people’s lives matters. He was late to reading, he didn’t really start enjoying it until in University and consumed huge amounts. It’s not necessarily that the only time to get readers hooked is during childhood.
Books are often the thing to get through before children get a reward, the vegetables in order to get the dessert. We need to find a way to shift books into being the reward. Books are not vegetables!
This is just the tip of the iceberg on the discussion, but still a very interesting insight from those in the industry.