An insight into the publishing world…

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Insights from one year of working in publishing!

In just a couple of weeks, I will have been working in publishing for a year. Me! This is something I thought I could only dream of when I was struggling to get myself on the career ladder. It was not easy, but sheer determination and stubbornness paid off. I have learned an unbelievable amount already, and I don’t think I will ever stop learning for as long as I’m working in the industry. But that is, perhaps, what makes this career so attractive to me.

Currently I work as a Publishing Editor at an academic publishing house called Emerald Group Publishing. To mark my one-year anniversary in my dream industry, I have put together a short list of basic skills that I feel are essential in gaining (and keeping!) that all-important first job in publishing. These may sound like buzz words that are packed into every job ad out there, but they are there for a reason. Ignore them in your applications and/or daily work and you could find yourself being overlooked for an interview or promotion.

1) An ability to deal with a large workload and manage time effectively.

There is a funny hoodie that www.sunfrog.com sells, with the slogan: “Publisher – Only because Full Time Multi Tasking Ninja is not an actual job title.” I can’t stress how true this actually is. In my roles as Editorial Assistant/Publishing Editor, I have been, and will continue to be, bombarded with a large number of tasks per day, of varying sizes and urgency. If you can’t handle workload prioritisation and management, and the idea of multi-tasking brings you out in a cold sweat, then you either need to take a time-management course or reconsider your career choices.

This image is from www.sunfrog.com

This image is from http://www.sunfrog.com (greattee design)

2) A good knowledge of the industry.

Publishing is a rapidly changing industry – fact. If you don’t try to keep up-to-date with the latest developments, you may find yourself at a disadvantage. If, like me, you work in academic publishing, then learn more about and research the academic publishing industry. But don’t stop there. Learn about the other sectors – Trade, STM, Professional, Educational – because you will find that they share a lot of the same trends and that they can help inform what you do in your own sector. Besides, you just never know where your next opportunity lies.

3) An interest and presence on social media.

Publishers are experts in the dissemination of information, so you’re missing a trick if you’re not savvy with at least a few of the main social media apps. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and many more offer you the opportunity to spread your message far and wide to vast numbers of people for free – if you learn to do it correctly. Get yourself out there, get yourself known, and start building up your network.

4) A willingness and a passion for learning from other people and departments.

This kind of work is entirely collaborative. Each publication, app or service requires teams to work together effectively. Sometimes, when you’re working in one department every day, it can be difficult to see how some tasks and processes fall into the bigger picture. It is for this reason that I urge you, once you’ve secured that all-important first publishing job, to make and take the time to find out about what other departments do and what they’re working on. How can you help? How will this, in turn, help improve what you do? Why are things done in a certain way and what can you learn from this? How can things be improved for the benefit of everyone? Shadowing people in other departments, or meeting up and having a chat about what they’re up to, can be invaluable.

5) An ability to adapt your skills to your working environment.

As I said before, the publishing industry is changing at an alarming rate. Becoming stuck in your ways will lead you to getting swept away by the tide. The digital landscape presents an amazing opportunity for publishers to grow and develop and take advantage of how customers share information. You need to be open and willing, at all times, to build upon your own skill set in order to stay valuable in a disruptive world. If you cannot, or will not, take the time to learn new skills, somebody else will. Don’t become replaceable. Adapt and evolve, and be happy to do so.

6) A personable demeanour and ability to form strong working relationships.

We work with people, end of story. They are our bread and butter. If you don’t get along easily with others, or are unwilling to make an effort in social situations in and outside of work, you won’t get very far in publishing. No matter which sector you work in, you will be dealing with authors, editors, typesetters, vendors and sales people, illustrators or designers, publishers, IT and finance professionals…the list goes on. The work can only be done effectively in a harmonious environment. This is not to say that you have to like everyone – no one in the world likes every single person they meet – but you have to be able to put differences aside and work professionally and efficiently together.

You also need be able to network effectively, which isn’t always easy. However, networking is vital in this industry and the more you practise, the better you will get. It’s a very small world out there – you want your name to be recognised, and for the right reasons. Who knows how you will be able to help each other with projects in the future?

Me and my team at Emerald Group Publishing

Me and my team at Emerald Group Publishing (I am on the right!)

This is only a short list, because I realise I could go on and on. Is there something you feel that should be added to the list? Add to the discussion below!

Matt Haig talks to Russ Litten at Head In A Book, Hull!

Last month I was lucky enough to attend a fully-booked author event in Hull Central Library, featuring the enormously successful Matt Haig, author of The Humans and Reasons To Stay Alive (and who, by the way, is a fellow Hull University alumn and I had no idea!)

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Matt’s most recent book, Reasons To Stay Alive, was the main focus of the book event, but he discussed most of his novels and writing. In a Q&A session with Hull author Russ Litten, Matt talked at length about his continuous struggles with mental illness and depression and how it shaped his writing and reading habits over the years. He began with an explanation of his breakdown which happened to him in his early twenties – how he was in a constant state of pure panic, how the breakdown was physical as well as mental, how he was in terrible discomfort for a week and couldn’t eat or sleep. He felt suicidal, and even when the worst of it passed, it was a condition that never quite went away.

“Even when I was at my best, depression and anxiety fluttered around at the back of my brain like butterflies – I was never completely free of them.”

Back at his parents’ house, where he spent his time in recovery, he found that he couldn’t bring himself to read.

“At my lowest point, I couldn’t read at all,” he explained. “My anxiety was at its loudest volume and I couldn’t cut through that long enough to concentrate on reading.”

Even when he did start reading, he could only bring himself to read his childhood books, and nothing more. Reading was a source of comfort for him, but only when he was reading things that were familiar. He couldn’t face anything new, or, essentially, the ‘unknown’. As someone who has a family member diagnosed with GAD, I could understand this perfectly. Familiarity often makes us feel safe, and a familiar world within a familiar book is one of the safest places to be – at least mentally.

So, how did Matt’s struggles with his mental health affect his writing and the novels that we, as his fans, have come to love?

When asked if he enjoyed much creative writing in university, before he suffered the breakdown, Matt quipped, “Are you kidding? I barely even wrote my essays!”

However, he did begin to write after the anxiety and depression kicked in. A lot of Matt’s writing is in some way influenced by his struggles with depression. His first novel, The Last Family in England, was written soon after his breakdown occurred, and he was suffering from separation anxiety from his girlfriend. His mum was battling cancer and he was unemployed, and needed something to occupy himself and fill the time.

So, did he start writing novels expecting to be published?

“Of course not!” he giggled. “You don’t start writing with a view to getting published, only to start writing in the point of view of dogs and writing mild satires of Shakespearean plays! Initially when I started writing, it was a coping mechanism. Getting published was an added bonus.”

After a number of rejections from agents and publishers, the book was finally published. At the event, he described The Last Family in England as a “selfie of the mind” – a reflection of how he was feeling at the time. He wouldn’t write anything like that now, he explained, but it needed to be written at the time. He described how a lot of his writing at that time involved short sentences, short paragraphs and a lot of white spaces. He wanted to make his work accessible, something that wasn’t hard work or which took a lot of effort to read. “I was recovering from the depression, but I still wasn’t completely back to normal,” he explained. “I needed to deal with something that wasn’t too difficult or heavy. I wanted to have fun, to keep my mind off my predicament, and this novel helped me do that.”

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Russ Litten tweeting about Matt Haig minutes before the event kicked off.

Matt’s second novel Dead Father’s Club was much darker, he explained, because he was sinking bank into illness and depression. It was a tough time; he suffered from ‘second novel syndrome’ and looking back, he said, he could tell in his writing that his mind was in a darker place. Dead Father’s Club tells the story of a young boy who loses his father and is visited by his ghost (and is in this way loosely based on Hamlet.) It deals with a noticeably more serious subject matter, and is therefore another of his works that was influenced by his emotions.

Haig’s book The Radleys is based on a family of vampires who attempt to curb their appetites and desires in order to fit in. They have to make compromises in order to appear normal to the outside world. Matt highlighted the parallels between the stigma of being a vampire in the novel and the stigma of mental illness in the real world. “I have always been very resistant to stigmatising and I fight against discrimination of people with depression and anxiety, because I’ve been on both sides myself.”

So that explains The Radleys, Russ Litten commented. But why did you decide to write a novel from the point of view of an alien?

“When you’re writing, sometimes you need to take a big step back and look at the bigger picture, like when an artist is looking at a painting they’re working on,” Matt explained. “With The Humans, I was able to do that. I was able to write a narrator that looks at the human race from the outside in, and in this way I could easily show how alien the world can seem. I don’t have answers to the big questions in life, and so The Humans allowed me to ask the questions and ponder why we are the way we are. The alien is an outsider and that’s how I often felt when I was ill.

“On the other hand, I didn’t want it to be all doom and gloom. I injected humour and light-heartedness into the novel, because, let’s face it – the human race is pretty damn funny!”

The discussion then moved on to his most recent novel, Reasons to Stay Alive. It was recently published to enormous acclaim and achieved instant popularity. Many have described it as a ‘Zen Bible’ and is a true testament that positive feeling and thinking can prevail. “I tried to explain through this book that the cliché of depression is a model that doesn’t fit everyone. I also wanted to give a positive message to my readers – as bad as life gets, there is always a reason to stay alive, and I truly believe that.”

In light of your occasionally fragile state of mind, Russ Litten put to Haig, how do you deal with negative criticism?

“Badly! As is to be expected, I loved praise, but hated criticism. That said, I don’t think the book blogging and book review world is critical enough! All of these bloggers who receive free copies left, right and centre – they’re too scared to look nasty or to give genuinely critical reviews. They want to be liked and to continue getting books but they need to know that it’s OK to criticise something. This fake culture isn’t healthy for the book world. We can’t evolve with fake praise.”

“That said,” he continued with a chuckle, “I still don’t want to see bad reviews of my OWN books. I’ll pretend they’re not there!”

When asked by Russ Litten if writing helped his condition, Matt launched into a powerful and moving discussion of literature and books. He explained, “Writing has always given me something to focus on. Paid writing in particular gave me a real boost, a reason to live, if you will. Talking is therapeutic, but it can be both physically and mentally hard to speak when ill. Writing can help overcome that – when I wrote, it felt like a lightening of the weight in my brain. Taking something painful and giving it language, a thing that is shared by all humans, tames the problem and makes it manageable. When I was depressed, I felt alone, divorced from the world. But language is the umbilical cord that connects us back to each other, and to life….

“Being bookish is a way out of loneliness. You can find comfort and a friend in a book. It can help you find a way back into life.”

“A story, in its most basic form, is a form of change. When you’re feeling ill and trapped, all you want to do it buy into the idea of change. I grew a taste for stories that I was previously cynical about. This is why books and stories can therapeutic to atheists…they give us hope, and a reason to stay alive.”

Matt is just as brilliant with words and language in person as he is on the page. This was a truly inspiring event to be a part of. No matter what Matt Haig was feeling when he wrote each book, as a big fan of his I can truly say that he wrote some truly fantastic novels. As he said repeatedly, each piece of his work has been affected in some way by his state of mind but that in writing each one he helped himself to come to terms with it and make sense of it in a wider context.

A parting word from Matt: “Strange as it sounds, I am glad I’ve had depression. In some ways it changes you for good.”

It definitely resulted in some truly amazing work.

A big thank you to Head In A Book for making this event happen!

Russ Litten tweeting about Matt Haig minutes before the event kicked off.

The Print vs. Digital Argument – Should Sentiment Be Ignored?

So here we go again: the Digital vs. Print debate. I fully understand that there are many, many posts on this subject, and I can’t even pretend to know in depth or to have studied intently the data and statistics behind this huge publishing topic. I have read numerous articles from a large number of sources, all more equipped with and informed by numbers that I personally don’t have. But I guess I’m not pretending that this article is going to be backed up by lots of figures and graphs, etc. I want this post to be a little more personal, sentimental and emotional than a market analysis.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that any amount of my friends can be used as a sizeable enough sample – but just like the topic and nature of my post, I don’t want to look at this like a scientific or quantitative experiment. I want to look at it from a sociological and qualitative point of view. And I’m taking a look at the world directly around me. To this end, I asked my friends on Facebook which they preferred: digital or print?

print v d

Out of 23 friends who answered, all but two of them said they preferred print. But again, it’s not really the numbers that mean anything, but rather the reasons behind their decisions.

What I’ve noticed that with all of the responses I received is that those who answered that they prefer digital, or prefer print but still like digital, gave purely convenience and practical-based reasons. For example, one friend has severe arthritis and using a Kindle makes reading far easier for her than reading print books. Another friend has vision impairment and finds the ability to adjust font size a real help. One preferred to be able to carry around large numbers of books without using up a lot of space.

Those who preferred print, however, tended to give reasons that were rooted in emotion and senses. And that’s the general theme of my post.

6 or 7 people claimed to love the smell of books. 3 people mentioned that cuddling up to read a good book somehow ‘doesn’t feel as cuddly’ when you’re holding onto plastic and metal. Many said that you can’t beat going into a good book shop and buying a physical copy, and that it reminds them of their childhood. One friend stated that ‘you can’t beat a gorgeous cover and pages to turn.’ (It’s also worth pointing out that print was also deemed to more ‘practical’ than digital in a number of ways, too – you can’t leave it hanging around on the beach, it makes people’s eyes blurry, charging is a pain). Two of my friends – Kevin Duffy and Mark Moreau, both of whom are publishers – also professed their love of print.

print v digital

Sentimentality and emotions play a big part in the book-lover universe. In my view, there is only so far that convenience can take priority over sentiment and emotion. We need our comfort, senses and emotions in life in order to make life worth living. In a world where I am reading more and more about Big Data and having to look at readers as statistics and figures, it just kind of helps the sentimental girl in me to look at things from this kind of perspective. To engage with other readers and take a look not at how their buying habits combine with others to form a large dataset (as critical as they are in today’s business, I admit) but rather at their emotions and their feelings toward the print book and its counterpart.

I would also like to discuss this subject on a publishing business/community level as well. I’d want to talk about this year’s London Book Fair.

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At the London Book Fair, I attended the Real ‘New’ Publishing talk with a panel of publishing professionals – Katharine Reeve, the Course Director for Publishing at Bath Spa University, Caroline Harris, the co-founder of Harris & Wilson, Vince Medeiros, publisher at TCOLondon Publishing, and Miranda West, publisher at the Do Book Company. The purpose of their talk was to discuss what independent publishing companies are doing differently to traditional publishers, and also how they are preserving the creativity in this creative industry:

A new generation of independent publishing companies, starting from scratch, are doing things rather differently. They are creating highly-desirable publications, putting editorial and design, innovation and creativity at the heart of what they do, and setting new trends and communicating with their audience.

Each publisher spoke of the importance of preserving the print book in an increasingly digital age.

Katharine Reeve kicked off proceedings by discussing the changes that are happening right now in the publishing world. Publishers are having to experiment with new, different formats to get their voices heard and their products noticed – among those are social media, talks and events, multi-channel marketing and, most importantly, experimenting with different types of print.

The print book is still dominant, she said. And there are a number of publishers who are using that to their advantage. As well as this, new publishers don’t have that awkward transition from print to digital with their backlists – they can start both from scratch and make their products an art form.

I think that was also an underlying theme in this discussion – that the print book, or pamphlet, or newsletter, or whichever format publishers are playing around with these days, can still be made into, and considered, an art form. The finished product means something to the owner.

Miranda West of Do Books Company acknowledged customers’ appreciation of well-crafted, well-designed books. She pointed out that smaller publishing houses can think more about layout and the creative look of a book. They have complete creative freedom, and can use this to create a strong brand and a strong identity. Overall, she emphasised that books – and print books especially – can change lives and inspire, as well as being genuinely useful.

Vince Medeiros of TCOLondon explored the idea of print and how it was majorly disrupted by the economic crisis and the growth of digital. But he also stressed that print and physical literature and books can give the reader things that digital will never be able to achieve. Magnets and heat sensitive paper are just a couple of his ideas for ways to be creative with print. He explained that these kinds of things can inspire a level of excitement that digital just can’t touch.

The London Book Fair at Olympia.

The London Book Fair at Olympia.

Books are the perfect medium, he argued. Even some of the largest companies, like Apple, are producing print publications for their employees. And why print books? Because they add value. The scarcity of a finite print run gives them value. They are tangible. We can physically interact with them.

This is not to say that print lovers and those who are still advocates of the print book are not moving with the times. Embracing print does not mean ignoring digital, and vice versa. As Caroline Harris of Harris & Wilson discussed, in these turbulent times publishers need to start positioning themselves as ‘brands’, and in order to achieve this publishers need to create a beautiful and well-crafted book or publication, and then build an online community by supporting the publication with extra media channels. It’s about publishing professions being responsive and agile. It’s about taking a look at the current climate and trends and being able to adapt your business to keep up with that, without losing the core focus and love of the print book. We can keep our love of the print book at the heart of what we do – it’s just that we can’t put all of our eggs into the ‘Just Books Basket’ any more. Business needs diversification.

Her final point was that print books have even more value now, and are more desirable precisely because the general reading society perceives there to be a threat. Again, sentimentality and emotion kicks in here. We want to preserve what once made our culture so great.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I did get a sense here that the general argument was that we’re not necessarily now living in a ‘digital first’ era, but rather publishers are using digital in order to strengthen the particular book or publication. In other words, the whole thing becomes a brand rather than a product. And a brand can produce a core idea or value in many different formats. For this reason, and this is just my own point of view, I think that while this is true of business, one format will not kill the other. We need sentimentality just as much as we need convenience. One does not necessarily trump the other.

My overall argument here is that the reason I don’t believe that print will go the same way as other outdated formats and become completely obsolete is because, while there are still humans out there, there will always be some level of sentimentality. And I believe there is enough sentimentality and love out there to keep the print format alive. It may be smaller than before, and it may be facing opposition – but this publishing enthusiast believes it will always be around. Call me old-fashioned.

Or maybe I’m just a bit sentimental.

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Me and my book shelf – can you tell which format I prefer?

What do you think of this ongoing argument? Which still has your heart – print or digital?

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