Beyond the Book: the Society of Young Publishers conference 2012

SYP conference poster

The 2012 Society of Young Publishers conference once again matched more expensive events, with an excellent range of speakers at the cutting edge of the industry.

The 2012 Society of Young Publishers conference once again offered a range and quality of speakers to rival publishing events that cost ten times as much to attend. In keeping with the conference title, Beyond the Book, a number of speakers explored the possibilities offered by what Trevor Klein of content design and creation company Somethin’ Else described as “new reading experiences on new hardware”. These new reading experiences, Klein explained, move beyond simple translations of older, paper-based experiences: the comforting but ultimately pointless skeuomorphism of page-turn animations, for instance, is slowly giving way to page layouts designed to take full advantage of the options offered by tablet touchscreens.

We were to see a number of examples of new reading experiences throughout the day. Klein mentioned his company’s own BAFTA-nominated Night Jar app, an audio-adventure voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch and designed specifically to be listened to through headphones on a smartphone, while in a later session, Jon Ingold explained the thinking behind Inkle Studios’ Frankenstein app, developed in collaboration with author Dave Morris and publisher Profile Books. The app offers readers the opportunity to influence the narrative through their own choices, and Ingold was at pains to point out that such interactivity (or, as he preferred to call it, ‘responsiveness’) did not undermine authors but actually empowered both reader and author. Reading, he argued, had never been the passive experience many claimed it to be, but was itself intrinsically interactive, the written word lifeless and inert like notes on a stave until ‘performed’ by the reader. The Frankenstein app, he suggested, was in some ways more authentically a new reading experience than the book apps produced by the likes of Faber and Nosy Crow, which – though excellently realised – were essentially versions of already-familiar ideas.

The conference was full of advice for those struggling to get to grips with digital. Erica Wolfe-Murray of Lola Media advised publishers to look closely at their existing content and assets, consider who might value them, and then seek partners to exploit that potential, citing the example of a publisher whose store of cupcake recipes had been repurposed into an app that had achieved 100,000 downloads at 69p a time. Laura Austin, perhaps best known as founder of publishing networkers BookMachine, but here in her capacity as ebook product manager at YUDU, demonstrated what could be achieved with Apple’s iBooks Author. Using YUDU’s recent collaboration with HarperCollins on a series of interactive titles based around The Hobbit as examples, Austin suggested that interactive content could be published more cheaply and quickly as ebooks created through Apple’s tool than as bespoke apps. Klein stressed the need for publishers to understand their audience, emphasising the importance of gathering user data and painstakingly analysing it, while Andrew Rhomberg of JellyBooks offered encouragement to late-comers, assuring his audience that the revolution had barely started, and that there was still time to catch up.

The conference had begun, however, with some chastening statistics from Julia Kingsford, Chief Executive of World Book Night. One in three UK households has no books, Kingsford had stated, and though one in ten people buys books regularly – these are the ‘power readers’ who keep the industry alive – the average person buys only three books a year. 40% of people in the UK have only level one literacy, equivalent to a grade D or lower in GCSE English, and many young people told a recent survey that they’d be genuinely embarrassed if their friends saw them reading. This, she had insisted, was why World Book Night was important: by putting nearly half a million books each year into the hands of those who rarely read, it can awaken an interest in the written word in those for whom reading is, literally, a closed book. Kingsford ended her talk with a call to get involved, and – in a judicious nod to the aspirational character of her audience – mentioned that opportunities to intern were available.

One of the most interesting themes to emerge from the conference was how the growth in self-publishing may be altering the nature of the relationship between publishers and authors. Leila Dewji, founder of publishing services provider Acorn Independent Press, explained that self-published authors are increasingly keen to compete on more equal terms with conventional publishers. One way of doing so is by buying in the type of professional services – editorial, design, and marketing, for instance – that publishers have traditionally provided. Acorn offers such services, their professional quality underlined by the fact that the freelancers who perform them do so also for traditional publishers, and by Dewji’s own experience of working in the sector.

This space may increasingly become occupied by more traditional publishers, however, looking to supplement their conventional sources of income by making money from authors directly. On the opening panel was Sarah Taylor, marketing assistant at Matador, the self-publishing imprint run by UK trade and academic publisher Troubadour. Matador, Taylor told the audience, works with 300 authors a year on more than 400 titles, similarly offering expertise honed by years of experience within the traditional publishing industry, and a proven route to market. The impression that publishers may increasingly be looking towards authors as a new source of revenue was heightened when Sales Manager Ian Ellard spoke about Faber Academy, a venture that sees the publisher of Eliot, Heaney and Larkin offering creative writing courses.

Overall, the conference belied the widespread impression of an industry in crisis, and offered numerous pointers to those looking either to break into publishing, or to further existing careers. If “new reading experiences on new hardware” really are the future, then open-mindedness and a willingness to experiment will be vital. And as publishers seek to get to know their readers better, those with market research and data analysis skills may also find themselves sought-after. Traditional publishing skills, however, will be far from obsolete, and – as self-published writers increasingly seek a professional touch – may even be more in demand than before.

First published on the Skillset blog

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