Sheila Bounford has worked in service businesses connected to the publishing industry for thirty years. A former Executive Director of the IPG, Head of Business Development at NBNi, and mentor to independent publishers, she is currently teaching English to secondary school pupils as part of the Teach First Leadership Development Programme.
BookMachine is a great forum for exploring the breadth and depth of our industry, but it’s sometimes useful to pause and remember the world outside. Which is why Abbie asked me to contribute a new blog: I’m a publishing “insider” currently at large on the outside… It’s a paradox, or perhaps a classic love-hate thing, that after three decades working in and around the world of book publishing, more than twenty Frankfurt Book Fairs, and countless conferences, I needed a break from the industry I love and which had become a cornerstone of my self-image.
Publishing is inherently seasonal and cyclical, tied as it has long been to the retail calendar, and, in the education and academic & scholarly publishing sectors, the academic calendar.
I had reached a point where re-entering the Frankfurt Book Fair in early October each year gave the sensation of stepping into a parallel universe where no time had passed since I stepped out of the doors 51 weeks earlier: the only clues to the passage of time being a wrinkle here and there, a few more grey hairs, and the gradual morphing of stands reflecting the shifting fortunes, mergers, acquisitions, expansions and contractions of businesses I have known for decades. The impression of existing in a comfortable and cultured version of Rubin and Ramis’ Groundhog Day was overwhelming.
The Future of Reading?
Similarly, conferences were giving me a dizzying sense of déjà vu. I was frustrated that we spent SO long discussing the future of the book when, increasingly, I felt the far more important question was the future of reading. And no, I don’t mean the future of how we consume our words, which device, which channel, chunked or longform… I mean the ability of the next generation to access those words in the first place.
Meanwhile I had long been struck by the way in which publishing takes an ongoing supply of capable readers, churned out by our education system, completely for granted. How many other industries have the luxury of mass-scale, largely state-funded foundations for their markets? I was also troubled that publishing seemed to be becoming less diverse, not more: class and cultural homogeny felt to me like it was entrenching, not dissolving.
Which is why I gave myself time out to train as an English Teacher. (I use the phrase “time out” loosely. Whilst I have worked extremely long hours throughout my career, I have never, never felt so exhausted.) After a few months testing the waters in a local secondary school, last summer I joined Teach First’s two-year Leadership Development Programme (I’ll leave the subject of the lack of differentiation for experienced leaders in teacher training for another day).
Teach First works with schools in the most economically deprived and – often –most ethnically diverse areas of the UK. I wanted to be part of a less insulated world and Teach First has certainly delivered on that, placed as I am in a secondary school in central Peterborough where a majority of pupils are eligible for free school meals, over 50% have English as an additional language, and a truly shocking proportion have some level of child protection concern noted.
This year I have worked with children who have been placed in care, children who live with their families in shelters and temporary accommodation, children who are carers for their siblings whilst their parents work shifts: children who life has delivered few advantages to.
Recently I have been reading Danny Champion of the World with a group of Year 7s who struggle with attention span, some of whom are troubled and angry, who have so little self-belief they would rather not try than risk failing, who already believe “I can’t do that”.
In the last five minutes of one lesson, I asked them to write a few lines comparing their bedtime routine to Danny’s (Dahl aficionados will recall that Danny’s bed time stories are the genesis of the BFG). What came back was heartbreaking. “I watch YouTube on my phone until I fall asleep,” was a common theme for children from all social and ethnic groups. And then there was the child who wrote, “Danny’s bed time sounds so cool, his Dad tells him the most marvelous stories. I look at my phone when I go to bed.”
Children who arrived in my class barely able to string a sentence together (Peterborough has the lowest KS2 SATS scores in the country) were suddenly able to clearly identify differences and articulate comparisons that revealed how hungry for conversation and for stories they are.
Do I miss publishing?
Of course: I’m homesick for the comfort of the friendships; the familiarity of the roles; and the safety of my tribe. I miss conversations that feed and nurture me; I feel the loss of status acutely; and the pay is laughable. In October I even felt nostalgic for the Frankfurt Book Fair.
But publishing needs to engage with a broader sense of society. For me, this is about the society we live in, and how we make it different; how we make it fairer. If events at Grenfell Tower tell us anything it is that there is something rotten in the state of things and that the disempowered need their voices. The next generation needs to be equipped with the skills to articulate their stories, and those stories need to be told and heard.