SYP Conference 2014 – Report

Hello everyone!

On Saturday I went to The Society of Young Publishers‘ Conference 2014. This year’s focus was “the perfect publisher”: what does this mythological creature look like? How do you become the perfect publisher in this era of transitions and innovation in the industry?

Since I enjoyed it a lot, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about it here, and take this opportunity to start a new series of English ramblings on my blog. I plan to do some maintenance soon and tidy up the layout, so that it will be easier to navigate among Italian and English posts (or maybe it will become even more complicated and I will give up blogging for good).

The event was organised in four streams revolving around different areas of publishing (Editors & Agents; Marketing, sales & data; Outside the traditional publishing house; Big ideas), and dedicated career workshops designed to provide practical support for aspiring professionals of the sector.

Being a wannabe-editor, I chose to attend the career workshop of stream 1 (editors & agents); I then attended Who decides what books we buy? The importance of reviewers, bloggers and literary prizes (stream 4, Big ideas) and Kill your darlings, the changing role of an editor (again stream 1).

The conference opened with the speech of Ursula Mackenzie, CEO of Little, Brown. Her talk focused on the role of a publisher in the era of the democratisation of publishing, amazon, and self-publishing.
The role of the publisher was meant to be invisible, she said, in order to put the focus on the relationship between author and readers. However, it is now pivotal that authors and readers understand the value of the publisher and how (s)he can improve the relationship between the two. The real challenge, in Ursula Mackenzie’s opinion, is to make clear that a professional publisher can be a value for the authors’ money and a comfortable place to be.
The digitalisation of books, on the other hand, is not engendering the “conservative” branches of the industry, according to the speaker: although ebooks represent the 27% of the sales of the sector (16% in the UK), the most popular vehicle for book recommendations, is getting to a bookshop and ask the staff; or asking friends. Much to my dismay, it seems that people tend not to discover new books online.

The first career workshop hosted Sarah Juckes, communication manager of CompletelyNovel, and Cathy Wells, HR Director for Hachette UK. The speakers talked about their career and gave very useful tips to apply for editorial jobs, such as commercial awareness, personality, passion, and the ability to read carefully the job add.

After the lunch break, I went to Who decides which books we buy?, with Lucy Pearson and Cathy Rentzenbrink.
Lucy Pearson, who works both for Bloomsbury and the Baileys Women’s Prize, is also a blogger. The decision of keeping a book blog has contributed to start her career in publishing. It was not easy, she told: at first, she got up every morning at 5.45am to read and/or write reviews before going to work. She has also become a proficient user of social media, which now constitute a substantial part of her work as social media manager and digital marketeer. Her talk was inspiring and pushed me to start using more consistently my blog.
Cathy Rentzenbrink is…well, incredible. She manages to be project director of Quick Reads, associate director of The Bookseller, run the BBC Radio Book Club, read a lot for work and pleasure, and, in the meanwhile, she also have a life and a family. She is the ultimate multitasker. For her role at The Bookseller, she needs to go through more than 200 synopsis per month.

Yes, more than TWO HUNDRED. Of course she stressed the importance of receiving clear and concise information about the books, so that she can do her job quicker and more easily. She reads an average of 16 complete books per month (if I remember correctly). She is my new hero.

After lunch, which I spent with some lovely young ladies, it was time for Kill your darlings, with Nick Davies (editor at John Murray Press), Sarah Savitt (editor at Faber) and Kimberley Young (publisher at Harper Fiction). The speakers, telling about their career, stressed once again the importance of the relationship between editor and authors, and how important is to develop mutual trust. The three also underlined that the work of the editor does not limit to edit manuscripts, but involves other varied tasks, aimed to commission and produce successful editorial products to be launched on the market. Among these tasks, for example, it is taking business trips to other cities in order to understand the specific trends of the areas. As a result, the audience had the clear idea that the editor needs to be a round professional, competent and willing to understand multiple aspects of publishing.

The conference concluded with a panel chaired by Alastair Horne, wrapping up the core theme of the conference, the Perfect Publisher. All the speakers had different opinions about the subject: according to Sara O’Connor, fiction digital director at Hot Key Books, the perfect publisher is where the readers are, is a brand, and is profitable; Jonathan Glasspool, managing director of Bloomsbury Academic and Professional, stressed the importance of digital and IT awareness for anyone aspiring to become a publisher; Gareth Howard, CEO and co-founder of Authoright, on the other hand, made the most controversial point of the panel, stating that the battle against Amazon is has already been lost, partly because some publishers claim the right to decide what people should read. This strong declaration divided both the speakers and the public, between those determined (or resigned?) to see Amazon as a partner, and those strongly rejecting the idea; those advocating for democracy, and those defending the quality standards of traditional publishing.

Personally, I still have mixed feelings about these matters. I have already expressed my doubts about some of the recently published substandard and poorly edited products, which I thought to be the legacy of some branches of the self-publishing market running wild. However, I am aware that without this possibility, many good writers may remain unknown to us. Many steps are being made for supporting self-published authors (see, for example, the already mentioned CompletelyNovel and Authoright), and those might become, given time, strong competitors for publishing houses.

The second point is even more disputable: when thinking about this “hot potato”, I do not want to forget that publishing is a business, and, as such, it needs to attune to the fluctuations of the market and the readers’ preferences. For this reason, saying that editors egotistically choose what we should read is in my opinion a necessary but not accurate generalization to raise a debated (and still unsolved) issue. However, being it a generalization, it might engender dangerous assumptions. I hence hope to be wrong.

As the ancestors said, in medio stat virtus.

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