To what degree does publishing need university people?

To what degree does publishing need university people?

'The best people no longer go into publishing'

It's my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller who reminds us today in his leader piece, The place to be, of that line from the late Lord George Weidenfeld. Today, it carries a particularly wry weight in light of the publishing recruitment debate in the UK.

As you'll know, our Lisa Campbell reported on Monday of this week that Penguin Random House UK has done away with uni-degree requirements in the interest of more staffing diversity:

Penguin Random House UK is removing any requirement for a university degree for all new jobs to attract a “more varied candidate pool” in order to “publish the best books that appeal to readers everywhere”. Group human resource director Neil Morrison said he made the decision following increasing evidence that there was no simple correlation between having a degree and ongoing performance in work. PRH’s “brightest talents” come from a variety of different backgrounds, not just from the top universities, Morrison added.

And amid the busy debate in the industry this winter about diversity in its ranks—a conversation usually defined by the lack thereof—the recruitment posture of the majors is worth attention for the reflection of publishing's changes it gives us. 

As Jones writes:

PRH is not the only publisher now looking beyond educational attainment in the hunt for talented staff—Hachette and HarperCollins both said they no longer specified such a requirement, as did Bonnier boss Richard Johnson. The Bookseller’s own recruitment executive Maria Vassilopoulos reckons only a minority of the publishing jobs advertised in The Bookseller recently have listed a degree as a requirement.

This is the kind of issue that can sometimes (and not always) fall along predictable "party lines," of course. Opposing observations are generally expected to come across this way: 

  • Those who hold or are getting—or plan to get—university degrees are likely to say that a degree is important and that higher education is essential to full realisation of one's talents and skills. And this may or may not be a question of class distinction in these arguments. Once past political suspicion, there still is a perception for many that university study is especially valuable in the arts and sciences and as a preparation for business and social leadership.
  • Those who do not hold university degrees—either by choice or because of socio-economic situation or family or ethnic tradition or other factors—might be expected to argue that such formal training is not essential, at best a nice-to-have not a necessary-to-have, and that such perceptions of higher education's importance contribute more to social inequality than to excellence on the labour and cultural fronts.

Let's take the question today into #FutureChat, where we're pretty good at taking the emotional gas out of controversy and exchanging some earnest views.

This story was written as the walkup to the #FutureChat of 22 January 2016. 

On our normal schedule, we are live on Twitter at:

  • 4:00 p.m. London (GMT)
  • 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST)
  • 11:00 a.m. New York (ET)
  • 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT)
  • 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT)

'A mix of people is good for business'

One of the most telling responses to the news of PRH's ditching of the degree requirement came from Bonnier c.e.o. Richard Johnson in a blog post he contributed to The Bookseller on Tuesday. (He's pictured at right from the Bonnier Web site in a caricature. Please see my note below* about the illustrator credit for this image.) 

Johnson writes: 

Personally, I think [PRH's change in recruitment requirements] is great news for the industry and a step in the right direction to bring publishing into the 'new world'. Having said that, at Bonnier Publishing, I don’t think we’ve ever specified a degree as a requirement for a job and I don’t believe we ever will.

As it happens, he is speaking from that "party line" I mentioned above. Johnson goes on to say:

I can make this statement from personal experience. I went to university for a day and left because I instantly knew I would rather start a career. Actually that’s wrong, I went to university for three hours but there was a tube strike so I had to wait until it was over to leave.

Johnson's commentary is most welcome and also instructive, even for the wry twist with which he tells us how eager he was to get off the campus. In short, there's an emotional element to this. Nothing wrong with that. But we must take it into account no matter who we're hearing from in this debate. As Johnson tells us:

I had academics from the course ringing me up, telling me to reconsider and that  I was 'ruining my life'. Well I’m now the c.e.o. of the fourth biggest publisher in the UK, so I guess they were wrong. And if I can achieve that without a degree, so can anyone.

And when Johnson asserts that if he can achieve his success as an executive without a degree, "so can anyone," is he right?

Some might want to point out that Johnson is white and male. But the Bonnier site quickly follows his caricature's blinking appearance with a chance to learn more about the company's people—in the aggregate, not so white and not so male, a handsome, lively, and colourful display as you can see in our excerpt, is it not?

One thing leads to another

While the recruitment issue and university degrees don't necessarily turn on issues of gender and ethnic provenance, the socio-economic fray does deposit assumptions nearby. It's extremely difficult to get at these issues without grasping at anecdotes.  

I'll give you an example from the The FutureBook. In many instances, we're glad and grateful here to have the writings of members of the publishing community. The FutureBook is, in fact, for and about the many voices of digital publishing.

What's interesting to see—and no, I won't show you—is the "condition of the copy," as we journos say, when it arrives. Sometimes it's glowing and could lie on the page with barely a touch. At other times you'd be surprised that it had been written by a member of the publishing community. And it's not always the degreed folks among us who turn in the best and cleanest copy. Nor is it always the non-degreed thinkers in our group who are less adept at writing, not by a long shot.

Is a university degree about who can write well and who can't? Of course not. This is only an anecdotal glimpse from one corner into the debate. But publishing is about writing, after all, and even this small point of daily interest holds some little place of interest in the kinds of perceptions we all ponder in these questions. Our personal experience, whether deep in halls of ivy or in "the school of hard knocks," tends to give us a context, a starting point. And each of us might have to stop and study that context to get a clear view of what we're thinking.

As we prepare the tweeterie, we might, for example, ask ourselves:

  • Shouldn't the idea of a degree's value hold some particular cachet in publishing because, in traditional terms, reading and writing are thought to thrive in the house of education?
  • Are those "traditional terms" just wrong, and is the "house of education" not, in fact, the home of literature's success in our culture and society?
  • Personally, I like Richard Johnson's assertion that "People with different backgrounds and experiences challenge each other more." But, then, I like the idea of intra-industry "challenge" as an element of good publishing, right down to challenging our beloved readers to confront something new. You may feel differently, do you?
  • On the most practical level, if the great halls of corporate human resources departments ("human rights offices," as my CNN International colleague Bettina Luscher used to call them) set aside the university sheepskin as a token of entry-level readiness, is it then harder to develop a framework of various criteria on which good hiring will stand in publishing?

Jones has gifted us with a good way to get at this issue too, in his piece today:

If a young George Weidenfeld arrived in the UK now, would he still find publishing the place to be?

Perhaps some of our good HR colleagues in publishing will join us today in our conversation—bring one along, if you see her or him in the hallway, will you?  

And we'll see you in #FutureChat.

#FutureChat is live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (GMT), 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

*I regret that I cannot spot on the Bonnier site a credit for the clever illustrator who has created the many fine employee caricatures we see there. I believe that the Bonnier offices can expect a call from Sarah McIntyre of #PicturesMeanBusiness within minutes. Let me hasten, indeed, to credit the illustration of wingy Pegasus to the right to McIntyre.

Main image - iStockphoto: