Building the publishers of the future

Anna Faherty
Anna Faherty is a lecturer on the MA Publishing at Kingston University and a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She’s currently working on a tablet app for the National Maritime Museum and a suite of digital publishing courses for a major publisher. Follow her on twitter: @mafunyane.


I’ve blogged for BookMachine before about the value of an MA in Publishing, an issue that was debated further by a lecture-hall full of publishing academics, publishers, industry representatives and other interested parties last week. The Are publishers born or made? symposium at Kingston University was designed to provide a forum for discussing the value and content of academic publishing qualifications, how industry and academia might work more closely together and what publishing-related research is – and should be – undertaken. If that all sounds a bit like academic navel-gazing, the presence of Richard Mollet (CEO of the Publishers Association) along with a number of professional publishers demonstrated the practical relevance of all this.

As my colleague, and the event organiser, Alison Baverstock explains, ‘although publishing has been established as a subject within universities for a long time now, there has not been a previous opportunity to debate the relevance and content of such courses – how they relate to both the academic curriculum and the wider industry for which they prepare students’. Indeed, getting such a diverse bunch of people together for the first time meant much of the day raised issues we didn’t have time to pursue in great depth, and other issues couldn’t be squeezed into the time at all. Yet there were still important lessons for both academics and professionals, and positive noises about collaborating across that distinction in the future.

The three key things I, personally, took away from the day were:

  • There’s a lack of understanding within the industry about what MAs deliver
  • We need to recruit different types of students for the future
  • Academics and publishers should work together to deliver impactful research

What’s in a publishing MA?

Although industry tends to value publishing MAs – the PA’s Richard Mollet cited a CEO who described their organisation’s MA recruits as ‘fantastic’, practical and having a great work ethic – several comments in the room betrayed underlying misconceptions about what the courses actually cover. From the small sample on the day, academic courses are seen as focusing on editorial and trade at the expense of other job roles and industry sectors, and as not covering financial and commercial skills. This is far from the truth – as many of those tweeting from universities protested.

Industry also says it wants practical, not academic, skills and experience. Yet, as Skillset’s Suzanne Kavanagh pointed out, they also want critical and reflective skills – which, for me at least, is exactly what academic skills are. In my own initiative to boost critical thinking skills at Kingston, I’m hoping the end result will be graduates who are able to research, analyse and interpret information and data, who can look at things from different perspectives and who can reflect on their own experience to develop as effective professionals in the future. Most importantly, I’m hoping they will then be able to cope with – or even thrive in – the uncertain publishing industry ahead of them.

The issue could be that we’re not great at communicating the content and benefits of an MA to industry. Or, as Claire Squires from Stirling suggested, it could simply be that industry blames us for the general deficiencies in their staff – whether they recruited them from MAs or not. Given that Ian Grant from Encyclopedia Britannica described many publishing staff as ‘male, pale and frail… who know what they are doing, sort of’, there may be quite a few of these deficiencies…

Students of the future

With this in mind, there was a lot of discussion about the skills publishers need – and will need in the future. Of course, this isn’t an unexplored area. SkillSet’s research identifies numerous skills gaps in the industry, including technical nous and business savvy. The top bods from Pan Macmillan, Random House and Penguin have recently lamented what they don’t yet have: people who can count, manage data, engage with consumers and work across multiple platforms. The last two lacks were also highlighted at last year’s Futurebook conference.

Of course, publishing courses can – and in some cases already do – make sure we develop these missing skills. But what will really make a difference is if we recruit different people to start with – not just English literature graduates who love reading.

On the teaching side, we should also involve Amazon and Apple somehow, because, as Philip Downer pointed out, their business model and culture are both hugely different to what we generally think of as ‘publishing’ – and yet they may well be leading the way in the future publishing industry.

In a side discussion about whether publishing should be classified as a profession or a trade, there were also suggestions that universities and industry should develop publishing apprenticeships too.

Working together

Many academic publishing departments already work closely with industry, bringing in guest speakers, encouraging students to undertake work placements and – in Kingston’s case – even using industry professionals as supervisors for student dissertations. But one thing we don’t yet do very well is to work with industry to identify suitable areas for research, either for student work or longer-term research projects.

Sparked by Samantha Rayner from Anglia Ruskin’s call for collaborative, industry-focused and impact-driven research, everyone in the room agreed that academia and industry should work together on this. Hopefully the day was the first step in making this happen across the board. Watch this space!

These are just three of the many topics explored on the day. But, given that people are already calling for a follow-up session, what should we cover next time? I bet everyone who attended has their own pet list. For me, I’d suggest four key aspects:

  • Student recruitment: how can we recruit the sort of students that will ultimately deliver what industry wants? How can we broaden the intake (not just in terms of socio-economic diversity, but also to include business, science, techie-type people as much as English literature graduates)?
  • The student experience: what value do they expect, perceive and want from an academic publishing qualification? What are the most valuable parts of their academic experience? What do they gain from other students (as much as from lecturers – be they academics or industry practitioners)?
  • Teaching and learning: what constitutes a ‘good’ learning experience on an academic publishing degree? How can we do the best job to deliver what students want and need? How can we best develop students’ critical thinking skills in order to prepare them for an uncertain future?
  • Incorporating professional practice: how can we ensure our students get the greatest benefit from our own professional practice? How can we work as co-collaborators with them? How can we raise the perceived value of practitioner-lecturers within higher education institutions?

Whatever we cover, getting this broad range of people together again will undeniably be a good thing. Because building the successful publishers of the future isn’t something either industry or academia can do on their own.

We’re keen to collect any other suggestions for future discussions, so feel free to comment on this post with your own.


Are publishers born or made? Was hosted by the School of Journalism and Publishing at Kingston University, London and supported by the Publishers Association and the Association for Publishing Education.
Are Publishers Born or Made

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