Emma Barnes: Menial publishing jobs are destroying our future

Emma Barnes: Menial publishing jobs are destroying our future

"Why are we still getting humans to do the work of computers?" Regular FutureBook contributor Emma Barnes of Bibliocloud and Snowbooks sees paperclip-and-pencil jobs in publishing as where industry newcomers get off on the wrong foot. And she follows the meager money upstairs to find little prospect of "thoughtful, powerful and competent managers" coming from such a start, particularly women. Likely a Manifesto for the Future of the Book Business-in-the-making for The FutureBook Conference (4th December), Barnes' concern is for an industry that she sees fumbling its grip on the future: "Without appropriately-skilled people, we won't have one." -- Porter Anderson


I haven’t applied for a job for years, gods be thanked, but I recently stumbled upon a job advert for an entry-level trade publishing job. And it made my blood boil. So I Googled other entry-level trade publishing job specs to see if it was a one-off. It wasn’t. 

To my eye, these job ads read like something from the 1950s. They require the lucky applicant to engage in “order processing”, to “maintain grids” (read: spreadsheets), to take minutes of meetings. They call for “strong IT skills”, but suffix that with “including Word and Excel”.

“Word” and “Excel” are not “IT skills”. They are typing. We recruit young, pretty women (go on, deny it), and we give them secretarial jobs.

Eventually they will get promoted, usually without an ounce of formal management training, into project management roles, supplier management roles, people management roles, data management roles. They will likely struggle, because they have to intuit an entire suite of management skills from first principles, from trial and error. They aren't given the long-term development support necessary to be competent in senior management roles. 

We are guilty of keeping junior publishing roles menial and manual. Further up the ladder, we are guilty of failing to help the women we’ve hired to be successful in management roles.

Why are junior publishing roles menial? Why are we still getting humans to do the work of computers? On every level, it’s ridiculous. Humans cost companies a fortune. They require management by other, more expensive humans. They get bored easily, because of their big brains. Administrative, repetitive, rote, data-entry work isn’t their forte. So they make mistakes — typos, copy-and-paste errors, calculation errors. The humans in question have likely spent a fortune on an education and could be using their brains for thinking, and creative tasks. They joined publishing because they wanted to create wonderful books — and they’re left wondering why copying and pasting between Excel, Word and InDesign feature so heavily in this ostensibly creative process. 

Junior roles stay menial because the people writing the job ads don’t know what computers can do. They don’t know what normalisation is: they are happy to build a company that survives on multiple “master grid” spreadsheets containing proliferating variations on the same sort of data. They are happy to pay people £20,000 a year to copy and paste data from one bit of software to another because they don’t know that you can, for instance, get a computer to populate sales presentations, tailored for each recipient, from a single data source, or integrate order processing systems with APIs.They pay people thousands and thousands of pounds to do mundane tasks such as this manually — again, and again, and again. 

Better-specced junior roles could underpin a technically-expert publishing industry. Our home-grown talent would know how to harness the power of computers — not by briefing a third party agency, but by using their own hands — to make amazing products that compete properly with other media, that find wider audiences. As an industry, we’ve never been the leading authority on our own product.

  • When print books were all the rage, it wasn’t publishers who were the experts in bindings, paper technology, FSC supply chains, ink technology: it was the printers.
  • In the digital format age, few publishers know how to write an iOS app, or hack an ebook, or write a transactional website to accompany a series.

We are the middle men whose role is to manage external experts. Middle men get disintermediated. 

How are we stopping women from being successful in later management roles? Our junior roles, from which future managers develop, don’t provide testing and difficult opportunities to think critically. I'm not just leading up to a big pom-pom wave about how everyone should learn to code: I'm talking about rehearsing any sort of difficult, logically-minded activity. We still celebrate gut feel in our company cultures. We rarely train our juniors in influencing skills or project management techniques, or provide them with the practice to develop the mental apparatus to logically unpick a problem.

We have managing editors -- professional project managers, in other words -- who don’t know what a critical path is (and no, it’s not a list of dependent tasks). Gantt charts confuse them. They’ve not heard of Kanban methodologies. I cringe when I hear a publisher talking about adopting agile methodologies: they’ve heard the buzzword but they haven’t put in the hours of research to know what it really means. We’re not providing the foundations from which competent managers can emerge. 

As an aside, if publishing suddenly did skill-up and have project managers with formal project management skills, then chances are the big personalities wouldn’t let them do their jobs, anyway. Some publishing companies are ruled by editorial magnates, production supremos or board-level benign dictators — no amount of project management theory would override their ‘gut feel’ rulings. If the publishing director wants to change the price and print run three weeks before publication — well, everyone had better just jump, and to hell with the consequences on metadata accuracy and paper buying.

Learning to program a computer is one skill which would put juniors in a strong position to be thoughtful, powerful and competent managers of the future. But in the six months since I’ve been writing regularly for The FutureBook, I’ve met no more than half-a-dozen people who have made steps towards learning a little code. Out of exasperation at the state of affairs, the Bibliocloud team are running our subsidised Try Programming course again in September, as part of the Oxford Publishing Group training initiative, and you should come. But it’s just one course in a vortex of functional, modern training provision. There should be advanced publishing-flavoured courses on Swift, or Liquid templating for designers, or Rails, or Go, or iOS frameworks. We should not be providing the only publishing-specific coding course. 

Growing fit-for-the-future talent is a multifaceted problem. It’s to do with hard and soft skills training, and it’s to do with a combination of in-house training, personal development and hiring strategies. I would love to see job application processes for junior publishing roles which ask the applicants for their Github profile, for their open source contributions, and for a proposal on how they’d create and, crucially, implement -- without recourse to expensive, disengaged external agencies -- an integrated marketing campaign for a title. I would love to see training programmes that help to progress people, particularly women, in a meaningful career.

Hm. Perhaps I’ll write all this up in response to The Bookseller's call for Manifestos for the Future of the Book Business ... because without appropriately-skilled people, we won't have one.