The Future for People in Publishing

A transcript of John Whitley's speech to the 2004 SfEP conference

I was asked to talk about 'The Future of People in Publishing'. This is, truthfully, the most scary thing anyone has ever asked me to talk about. I can't tell you what my future looks like 10 days from now, and you are asking me to predict yours 10 years ahead!

I met a guy once called a futurologist. Yes, they really do exist. He worked for BT. Look what a mess they're in. I happen to think that developing coherent strategies for tomorrow based largely on guesswork (he called it 'trend analysis' but I still prefer 'guesswork') is a recipe for certain disaster. So no, I'm not going to try to second guess the future, but I will have a go at the here and now, and then we can extrapolate a little.

What is life like for today's publishers? I'd like you to listen to the following, which is the result of a little competition we have just run. [JW read extracts from competition.]

So, let's take our young in-house publishers first. What's changed over the last few years? What are they doing differently now from, say, 10 years ago?

The first thing to say, and I know this is stating the obvious, is that today's publisher has to be much more technically savvy than his or her predecessor. Think back 10 years to the office environment then, in 1994. The internet was taking off in America, but not here. Now we take it for granted. We've forgotten what life was like without it. Email was just emerging as a new and speedy means of communication. Within three years, we would all have email, but not in 1994. It simply wasn't widespread enough.

Most male managers and many female managers didn't know how to type, let alone work a spreadsheet. Those that did wouldn't admit to it. Now you can't get a job if you are not computer literate, and schools all teach IT skills. They didn't in my day. Decent knowledge of MS Office at the very least is a requirement, not an option, and in publishing it helps if you know loads of other packages as well. Some training may be given, but most young publishers will be expected to learn on the job.

I think this world of instant communication comes at a price. It is my experience that, when you make something easy and cheap that people want and need, they gorge on it. Personally I feel swamped by communication. I like it when it is precise, necessary, important. Today's young entrant to publishing will probably have to learn this the hard way. Good communication is gold dust. It is rare.

I suspect that, for the freelance community, the skill of managing your communication and information flows is something you learn quickly. Your customers expect instant answers to their emails, but frequently fail to respond to yours. People always want to sell you things. There is loads of what I call 'white noise' crackling in the atmosphere, slowing you down. You learn to be brutal. You curse spam. You hate it with an intensity normally reserved for football referees at European cup games – especially Swiss ones, I understand.

If I may make so bold as to suggest a few tips here:

  • Always set a time limit on meetings. What is it about the one-hour meeting? We've all been there. They always take an hour, longer if we let them. Something very interesting happened to me the other day. I got to a meeting with a violent bout of gastric flu. My hosts were convinced that I was about to throw up all over them. Do you know, it was the most productive and efficient meeting I have ever had. It was done in 10 minutes!
  • If you are in a big meeting and nobody is running it, offer to chair it, and be polite but brutal with waffle.
  • Set an agenda before the meeting and stick to it.
  • Keep your fun conversations/chats out of your work time.
  • Plan what you want to do around what you have to do – prioritise.
  • When you need to, close the door, take the phone off the hook. Your concentration is vital.
  • Remember that 99% of communication can wait a while, and some does not need to happen at all. Respond when appropriate, not necessarily at once.

This brings me on to a couple of other generalisations about the new generation of publishers. They seem to be getting younger. And I don't mean this in the sense that you are all getting older. I'm not being disparaging, but often they are young and, by definition, inexperienced. Why is this an issue? Because publishing houses have let go their experienced, seasoned campaigners and have come to rely for that experience increasingly on the outsourcing option.

New recruits are given responsibility early, often well beyond what their experience enables them to handle competently. This always surprises me. Mistakes are incredibly costly, both in terms of time and reputation. Anyone who has heard Barbara Horn banging on – sorry, eloquently sounding forth on – the subject will know exactly how damaging and deeply frustrating this approach is. And it doesn't make your lives any easier. It seems to me today that a good freelancer almost becomes a life coach for some of these young people. You don't need to take the blame if they mess up – though occasionally one may try it on from time to time. You need to guide but not lead. That can be quite tough.

It is your experience sometimes that is the glue that keeps projects afloat and it is your tact and diplomacy that will help your client to survive, and commission another project with you. But an awful lot of experience has migrated, for one reason or another, out of the publishing house and into this room. It seems to me that publishers are turning to freelancers and expecting more and more as part and parcel of the normal service.

And this highlights the second point. One key skill that our new generation of publishers need to learn much earlier than their bosses ever had to is the skill of project management. We are seeing this at PTC. Barbara's new project management course is running to packed houses, and the delegates are, by and large, bright, well qualified, very able but quite junior.

Another thing to note about today's publisher is that the traditional boundaries that defined their skills and specialities are breaking down. Take the production department, for instance. It is not unusual for production to be managing copy editing and proofreading functions now, where a few years ago production just handled the printing part of the process. Foreign rights, where complex deals are impacting on print runs and schedules, are now sometimes the province of the production department.

And processes are contracting. I know some of this is probably heresy, but it is also true. Proofreading and copy-editing are sometimes rolled into one process. Sometimes authors are required to lay out their work in a particular style, effectively acting as typesetters. Typography and design may merge with other editing functions. All this is not futurology: it is the here and now. And this places enormous stress on the individuals required to deliver these services, a fact sadly not backed up by increasing training budgets.

And then there is internationalisation. I hear that Macmillan is outsourcing proofreading and copy-editing to India now, where the cost is a fraction of the UK recommended rates. Printing has been going overseas for years. Other than perhaps commissioning, is there anything stopping whole publishing houses moving shop. If boards won't do it, shareholders will replace them with ones who will. Can I just ask for a show of hands? Have any of you got international clients? Have any of you knowingly lost business to suppliers from overseas? [Some hands were raised.] It's a small world.

One last thing that is probably worth mentioning is that the traditional career path – through proofreading and copy-editing to project manager and then finally commissioning editor – is also changing. If you think about it, it is not very logical anyway. How does being a good copy-editor prepare you for what is essentially a product management and client relationship role?

And speaking of career paths, where are they? Sadly, book publishing has never been strong on identifying, encouraging and even testing skills to enable career advancement. And sadly too much of the talent that we see in our young publishers at Book House tends to walk off to better paid and more career-minded sectors. The result is sometimes sloppy publishing, which is in nobody's interest.

Do you know I picked up and read a paperback the other day, a wonderful detective novel called The White Lioness by Henning Mankell, a lovely read, but spoiled for me by dreadful production – printed on something resembling toilet paper, no gutters or margins, tiny print, very hard to use. I really felt it was a shabby effort and both I and the book deserved something very much better.

So, let's summarise. Our young, able and highly qualified publisher is faced with lots of new pressures and uncertainties. But please remember these are generalities:

  • They are given responsibility early.
  • They don't know where their careers will take them.
  • The process of publishing is contracting around them.
  • They are short of time and experience.
  • They need to learn project management skills.
  • Communication is not always their strong point - they do plenty of it, but not necessarily very well.
  • Technology is altering fundamentally the way they work.
  • Basic numeracy skills may be deficient in some instances.

And from this there are some important lessons for freelancers:

  • Your clients' lack of experience will place great strains on you.
  • This is a real opportunity to impress, but at what cost?
  • You may need to be a project manager as well as a proofreader or editor.
  • Your time is precious. Manage it well.
  • Learn to communicate clearly and quickly.
  • Make sure you have a clear audit-trail of agreements, decisions and advice.

Right, let's move on to a day in the life of a freelancer. [JW reads out copy.]

So, what has changed for you and how might you wish to respond? Now this really is scary, me telling you how to do your jobs! I don't know, I've never been a freelancer. So I'm going to do a bit of nifty footwork here and just tell you what others have told me. That way, you see, it's not my fault.

Rumour has it that the market is tougher now – all these fresh-faced young whipper-snappers trained up by PTC entering the game and depressing prices, plus more casualties from within. But then every generation says the same, so we shouldn't put much store by that. However, the threat to our jobs from other English-speaking nations is real, the technology challenge is real and the growing expectations from clients are real. So I would be inclined to believe that life as a freelancer is tough.

The encouraging thing, I guess, from your point of view, is that publishers are still determined to over-publish and that new publishers in every guise are appearing all the time. There is no shortage of content, that's for sure, and it seems that just about everyone is a publisher these days.

I guess there have been two parallel trends over the last decade or so that have really influenced your roles as freelancers, and we have touched on both already.

Technology has evolved, which changes everything in a fundamental way. Geography is no longer important, which means you are no longer competing just with the people on your block, but with a world market of people with similar skills. If you want to print something, it normally goes straight from the computer to the printing plate ( so it had better be right first time) – that contraction of process we were talking about. And your on-screen proofing and editing skills need to be strong.

The second trend is the structural one. It is rare now to find someone in their 50s who has not experienced at least one redundancy. And many of you here have decided to start your own businesses instead of suffer the constant worry of job insecurity. As publishing houses shed staff, they also shed experience, and they have needed to re-acquire it, either by buying it in or training up from within. It is your experience that is now critical to these publishers.

So if we are now competing on a global stage, we had better start asking ourselves some fundamental questions, it seems to me. Firstly, if I am six times more expensive than my equivalent in India, what can I offer that will make my clients stay faithful to me? Secondly, if it truly is a global market, how am I positioning myself to take advantage of it? So let's just kick those two questions around for a moment.

Let's take these two together. What have you got that they haven't? I know this is tough on the greenhorns amongst us, but I'm sure you all agree that you are much more likely to get work from a client if you have worked in-house for them before. Knowing a house style, knowing the people you work for and knowing the processes that are applied makes you instantly more effective. And if you haven't actually worked for a client in-house, it may well make a difference if you take the time to find these things out. It never ever hurts to get close to your customer, and it is almost impossible to achieve this if you are delivering the service from another continent.

What else? Well, you should begin to arm yourselves with the kind of add-on services that you know your clients are short of. We have already alluded to the potential lack of project management skills amongst your clients. So become a project manager; sell your project management skills. Get up close and personal and save your clients' bacon a couple of times. Then they will never trot off to India, that's a certainty. It may mean you investing in some training, but at PTC charges, Paul Hamlyn grants and special freelance discounts, you can all afford that.

And don't sell yourselves short. If you are turning away work, then probably you are too cheap. Apply the old Keynesian principle of supply and demand and increase the fees. I know there is some risk in this. With one-man or one-woman bands, it tends to be either feast or famine. So you should be secure and have regular work before you can confidently hike up the price. But if you are consistently over-booked, why not?

The other real threat, I think – and this applies to everyone, whether they are working for themselves or for someone else – is complacency. And the greatest friend of complacency, in my view, is routine. It is always easier to do something the way we are used to doing it rather than stretch ourselves to try to do it better. Or just differently.

Ask yourselves this question: When did you last deliberately change a routine? Or when did you learn a new skill? Or when did you last set out to sell your services to a new client?

Here are a few tips for breaking down routines and encouraging fresh thinking:

  • Go for a 'let's try' approach rather than a 'maybe but' approach.
  • Look for ideas outside your own circle. Talk to others about what they do.
  • Work at being creative. New ideas sometimes need hard work.
  • Set yourself personal challenges and targets.
  • Challenge everything – even things you are sure are true.
  • Try to think in ways other than linear.
  • Do one thing differently every day.

Last section, I promise, then I'll shut up. We've talked about trends in companies. We've talked about trends in freelance work. What about trends in training? I feel a little more comfortable here, home territory at last.

PTC is changing shape. I think the main forces influencing this change are increasing conglomeration leading to larger workforces and more co-ordinated training demand, and increasing pressure of work. There is one other, of course, and that is technology. We can see all these forces at work in PTC very clearly.

Firstly, our courses are changing. You have heard about the online work we are doing to extend the experience of learning well beyond the classroom. It is essential, because the courses are contracting. We simply cannot get people away from their desks for more than three days, and that in itself is rare enough. So the courses get shorter.

They also move with the times. New courses are constantly being trialled. Sometimes, like Barbara's new editorial project management course, they are extremely successful. Sometimes they whither and die. But the clear trend is away from long programmes to short, intensive courses backed by on-line tutorial support when needed.

Next, our customers are changing. For us, one of the advantages of young publishers moving beyond what we would call traditional book publishing is that they take their knowledge of Book House with them. We now deliver almost 40% of our training to the non-traditional publishing market, and this percentage is growing. And this is just as well because our core market, as you might expect, given head-count reductions and time constraints, is shrinking.

Lastly, our internal skills are changing. We are having to find out about things like electronic delivery of our service. We are having to go further afield to find business, places like Malaysia, Russia, China. We are having to wise up about training theory. Both Orna [O'Brien] and Graham [Smith] are doing substantial training programmes themselves at the moment. So it is exciting times for us.