Yesterday evening, members and friends of BookMachine and Unite gathered at St Bride Foundation for a panel discussion on the subject of change. There’s perhaps no better place to think about how the publishing industry has changed over the years than this historic building, tucked away just off Fleet Street, the former heart of the London newspaper industry – and no sign that the process of change that silenced the Fleet Street printing presses is likely to stop soon, if ever.
The only thing that is certain is change
Keynote speaker Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing, described how his career in book publishing began after a brief and poorly paid stint in journalism; he needed to join the National Union of Journalists in order to receive better pay, and joining the publishing industry was the quickest way to do this. Some 50 applications later, he obtained a position at George G. Harrap and Co. as a science editor, and entered a world of publishing which was very different to the one we know today.
Richard outlined some of the changes that have taken place since that time: typesetting and printing processes transformed beyond recognition; sales and publicity teams expanded as customers started buying through more specialised channels; and hand in hand with this, publishers started to focus more on specific subject niches, rather than offering a broad sweep of genres. Publishers started thinking more globally, and there was a general move away from family-run businesses, with all their quirks, to a more impersonal and corporate way of life.
How can companies manage change better?
Jacks Thomas, Director of the London Book Fair, focused on the ‘consent or coercion’ theme of the evening, and in particular, how companies can manage change effectively. Her own career has involved several changes, such as her move to the London Book Fair in 2013, and she explained that collaboration and consultation are vital for change to succeed.
All companies undergo periods of change, whether it’s the introduction of new senior management, new projects or a physical move, such a LBF’s transition from Earl’s Court to Olympia, and good communication – including that all-too-easily forgotten part: listening – is essential if your team is going to come with you willingly. As Jacks pointed out, in this digital age, change is so inevitable that it’s become the new normal – change is the new black, as she memorably summed it up – and having an empowered and positive team of colleagues is the best way to make sure your business can thrive.
How can we cope with change better?
Hazel Cushion, founder and Managing Director of Accent Press, and John Pettigrew, founder of We Are Futureproofs, both gave great insights into how we can cope with change when we’re on the receiving end of it – which resonated strongly for a lot of us in the audience.
Hazel has experienced all sorts of changes over her years running Accent Press, from the highs of exploiting opportunities in up-and-coming genres to the lows of seeing organisational changes fail to work out as planned, but as she pointed out, the reason we fear change is that we fear failure, and once you get over that fear, nothing can hold you back. She described her memorable technique for dealing with fears and worries, which is to put them in a wicker basket below a shiny red hot air balloon and then watch them float away – a technique which leaves her free to get on with moving forward and making things better.
Another key tip from Hazel was to keep lines of honest communication open, with staff and authors, so that if failures happen (as they must from time to time), they’re not hidden and they can be monitored and dealt with.
John described how changes, in the form of redundancies, actually helped him to reach his current role as a business owner. On being made redundant for the first time, his company gave several months’ notice, provided funds for retraining and allowed days off to help people begin their new lives successfully, and this allowed him to establish a freelancing career. A second redundancy process enabled him to set up his current company. Having a positive attitude helped, of course, but the key thing that made these processes work well was that the companies took time to consult their staff about what was happening, and they actually listened to what their staff said.
Plenty more changes on the horizon
We can’t know everything about the future until it happens, but it’s certain that increasing globalisation and technological change will affect our jobs in the publishing industry and the ways that people consume and pay for content. As Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary at Unite the Union, pointed out, you only have to look at Netflix, Uber and Facebook to see how the world has changed, and as an industry, we need to protect our staff through these changes.
Although having a positive attitude and an entrepreneurial spirit can get you a long way, joining a union gives you the advice and support you need when changes affect you. However articulate you are, being part of a bigger group whose purpose is to speak on your behalf will provide you with a stronger voice – and that’s why it was so valuable for BookMachine and Unite to come together for the third time last night. The publishing industry has coped with and embraced huge changes over the past forty years or so, but by supporting each other and standing together, we will come through them stronger and more successfully.