8 questions for Alastair Horne [interview]


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Photo courtesy of Toby Rhind-Tutt (http://www.greytrilby.com/)
Alastair Horne (Innovations Manager for Cambridge University Press) is everywhere. On Twitter, at ELT conferences, writing for FutureBook, TOC and at our very own BookMachine parties. We decided we wanted to know a little bit more about this innovative, super-networking creative type….


1. You have been writing regularly for Futurebook for a while now. What led you to get involved with this?

Sam Missingham asked me! We’d spoken on Twitter just before the first FutureBook conference, and she knew that I was working on innovations in digital publishing, so when The Bookseller was launching the site she invited me to write for it.I was delighted to be asked: there’s so much that’s exciting going on in publishing right now, and it’s great to have the opportunity to write about it for such an audience.


2. At Cambridge University Press you are ‘Innovations Manager’. Excellent job title for the era of change in publishing. What do you actually do?

It’s quite a varied role. A great deal of what I do is essentially information-gathering: attending conferences and reading widely to work out what’s happening – and what’s going to happen – in publishing and technology. I then have to make sure that this knowledge informs the decisions we’re making at Cambridge.I also work closely with developers and publishing teams across the Press to develop prototypes for new types of product – making sure that we can respond quickly to new opportunities, and that good new ideas get the support they need to make it into development.It’s a fascinating job. I’m learning new things every day, and actually getting the opportunity to think about where the industry’s headed… as well as playing with shiny new devices and exploring their potential!


3. Could you tell us a little bit about your thesis featuring novels about novelists?

It’s something of a long-term project, given that I started work on it in 1994! But it looks at the reasons why so many writers should want to write about novelists, and how that can actually change the way that readers read fiction. It all ties in with the increasingly prevalent assumption that any writer is to some extent writing autobiographically. There are sections on writers such as Paul Auster, Philip Roth, and Dennis Potter, and I take a look at how the publishing world is depicted, so it does have some connection with the day job…


4. What achievement are you most proud of?

In publishing, I’m probably proudest of my involvement with Race to Learn, an educational project Cambridge published in partnership with the Williams Formula One team. It won the 2010 BETT award for best Primary Digital Content, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit about ten schools to teach using it, which is always really rewarding – watching the children’s energy, enthusiasm and creativity as they work in their teams.Outside publishing, I’m quite proud of the choral arrangements I’ve done of a number of pop songs: particularly Britney Spears’s Toxic, and Patience by Take That. And last year I wrote and arranged a carol about a Victorian publisher which the Cambridge University Press choir recorded for the Press’s electronic Christmas card; it’s hardly In the Bleak Midwinter, but it was fun to do.


5. What would you like to be doing in 5/10/15 years time?

I’d like to have finished my thesis for starters! And the musical I’m currently writing – very slowly – about the death of Trotsky. And with both of those out of the way, I could probably start work on the novel…In terms of publishing, in the next few years I’d like to be running a digital list, and then – in the longer term – defining a publisher’s entire digital strategy. That said, ten years ago I was teaching English at a university in Japan, and fifteen years ago I was doing my PhD, so I may be doing something entirely different.


6. How has Twitter changed your life?

90% of what I know about publishing I know through Twitter; and 95% of the people too. It’s a remarkable tool for continuing professional development: so many people are sharing useful links and discussing key issues that the main piece of advice I give to publishing students is to sign up for Twitter and follow people like @jafurtado,  @thefuturebook, @skillsetSSC, @SYP_UK, – and of course @book_machine!

I’ve met some wonderfully intelligent, creative and fun people through Twitter, and they’ve tended to be equally so when I’ve met them in the flesh. I’ve made some very good friends.

It’s also led to some exciting invitations: I was asked to write a report on the Future of Publishing for Media Futures, which should be out soon, and I’ll be talking at the Tools of Change conference at Frankfurt next week with Brian O’Leary and Sheila Bounford about how publishers need to change their workflows and their whole print-first philosophy. Sheila, who asked me to join this session, is someone I’d never met until a week ago, but we’ve talked a lot on Twitter. If you’re attending TOC, you should certainly come along!


7. Who do you most admire?

Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) is someone I admire enormously; a remarkably clever writer who can write both sparklingly witty dialogue and astonishingly intricate and innovative plotting: he’s writing for a remarkably diverse audience, ranging from small children to obsessive adults who’ll watch episodes over and over again, and he’s doing a marvellous job of satisfying them all.

In publishing, Henry Volans and the Faber team are doing some excellent work with book apps; Rebecca Smart is achieving great things running two very different publishers simultaneously (military history publishers Osprey and science fiction imprint Angry Robot); Sam Missingham and Philip Jones at the Bookseller have done a great job building up FutureBook, and I’m very envious of Dean Johnson of Brandwidth for all the fun apps he gets to work on.

Oh, and Nabokov, Shakespeare and Graham Greene: each in their own way the greatest writer in the language.


8. From the perspective of innovation – what do you think we at BookMachine should do to get better?

You’re doing a great job already – regular posts from a wide variety of writers, and some excellent social events – and seem to be keen to expand; the weekly twitter debate looks interesting, and I’m already looking forward to the conference…

BookMachine likes innovation. Is there anyone out there doing great stuff that you think we should feature? Let us know.

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