An indication of the rapidly evolving workforce in the British book trade can be seen in The Bookseller’s Rising Stars, the annual rundown of the up-and-comers in the UK industry. The inaugural list (in 2010) was primarily full of people whose roles probably would have been recognisable to those working in the trade in, say, 1910: agents, booksellers, editors.
The 2014 edition of Rising Stars, however, was completely different. There were 40 entries and 39 different job titles, some of which may have been unfathomable as recently as five years ago, let alone a century: group digital archivist, consumer insight director, head of technology and new media.
Digital, of course, is the catalyst. The disruption in the industry—new technologies, new business models and new ways to reach audiences—means the workforce itself has had to adapt. The change is more acute for younger staffers entering the industry who, partially by dint of being generationally more disposed towards technology, often end up doing the digital heavy lifting in their companies. Which begs the question: do the publishers, agents and booksellers entering the industry today need completely different skill-sets to their predecessors who entered the trade a mere decade ago?
Yes, says Marissa Hussey, Orion’s digital marketing director, but it is a qualified yes. She explains: “There is a certain base level of digital skills we want when we are hiring people, including social media savviness, knowing about s.e.o. [search engine optimisation] and database management. You at least need those kind of skills to be successful at marketing these days.
“But do I need someone who knows how to code? It would be useful, but no. Ultimately, the main skill we need is curiosity. You may not have to have high-level tech skills, but you need to know how to ask the right questions to those who do.”
While working at Penguin Random House, Crystal Mahey-Morgan was one of the new breed of publishing’s digerati. As group online/digital account manager (first for Random and then for PRH post-merger), she was responsible for a number of highly regarded initiatives including the successful strategy behind releasing 24-year-old music and media mogul Jamal Edwards’ business book, Self Belief: The Vision (Virgin), via e-book shorts.
Mahey-Morgan recently left PRH to become a freelance marketer focusing on younger and non-traditional book audiences. To reach these groups, she believes, it is absolutely essential that publishers have the technological know-how. She says: “One of the stats I like to bring up is that 16 to 24-year-olds are the least literate age range in the UK, but the most tech-savvy. That is worrying, and the business case for being in the digital spaces that young people are in is simple: this is [publishing’s] future audience.”
For Mahey-Morgan, having a more digitally aware workforce is not the only thing that needs to change: the infrastructure and culture needs to be altered, too. “There is still a difficulty in the way publishing operates,” she says. “Even today, particularly in bigger houses, each department often works on its own. We are still in silos. I see a huge benefit in small teams working together, doing everything—editorial, marketing, publicity—on their titles. I think we should work more like young entrepreneurs, or tech companies.”
Headline senior publicity and digital campaigns manager (and a 2014 Bookseller Rising Star) Ben Willis agrees, but reckons that the culture is changing. He says: “The lines are blurring [between roles]. Even in the past three or four years, I’ve seen a big shift. We are linked to marketing—which of course is a natural progression from publicity—very closely. But we also know what editors are doing sooner than before, and at a group level we have much greater access to consumer insight. But this simply makes sense, because ultimately it serves the book and the author better.”
Specific digital skill sets aside, another issue about changing the workforce that needs to be addressed is one the trade has been wrestling with for some time. “Diversity continues to be the elephant in the room,” says Mahey-Morgan. “We need to open up the industry to not just those from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds, but working-class people. And that comes down, quite frankly, to paying entry level jobs a decent wage.”
Hussey agrees: “There is a huge benefit to having people of different backgrounds [working for an organisation]. Ultimately, our job is about talking to people and getting them excited about books, and we need to cast our net wide.”
The Bookseller's The FutureBook 2014 conference programme on 14th November promises to have the widest scope and most inquisitive bent yet, in terms of signalling digital directions ahead. Keynote commentary will come from author George Berkowski, WGSN's Carla Buzasi, and -- in conversation with Philip Jones -- Penguin Random House's Tom Weldon.
At 12 noon a panel discussion at FutureBook, chaired by Tom Tivnan, will focus on New Voices: Who should you hire and how will they change your company? Panelists include Mahey-Morgan, Hussey, Willis, and Sanne Vliengenthart, booktuber and digital co-ordinator for Hot Key Books. Hurry to secure your seat, as sales will be closed soon.