An industry awash with English graduates | @Tom_Chalmers

An industry awash with English graduates | @Tom_Chalmers

I read with interest that the Publishing Association had recruited a Communications Manager, who previously worked at the professional association for Anti-Money Laundering Officers.  Appointments don’t usually catch the attention but in this case it was just the bringing in of new skills from a different industry – an opportunity to bring in relevant but also fresh skills to add into the mix. It brought back to my mind what I have long thought an overlooked but major issue for publishing – the shockingly narrow experience range of those in the sector.

We have regular interns in the office for work experience and over a decade all but a rare few have said they studied English at university and would like to be an editor. I say this as an English graduate myself and with a team in which the vast majority also studied English at university. I find whenever someone names a different subject I jump upon it with relish – which is an odd reaction to a Mechanical Engineering student.

As a result we have English graduates who came into the industry to be an editor in marketing, production, sales, rights, contracts, and any new fangled digital departments. There is also a diversity issue – while publishing sets a positive trend in gender balance, at least in terms of numbers, it is dominated by those from the white, middle-classes – but that is subject for a great deal more focus and so in this blog I wanted to focus on skills.

This is not to insult individuals or say they shouldn’t be doing the jobs they have – there are many fantastic English graduates in different roles, a number working in this office – but the picture is very clear.  Where the issue becomes most obvious is in sales – sales operates in publishing, and in particular in its pace, like no other industry I have ever witnessed. 

While a sudden change to cheaply suited men screaming down the phone in the hope of ringing a bell at the end of the day would be an error, there is huge room for improvement and surely many lessons to be picked out from other industries. For instance, there is much talk of setting up direct sales channels, but yet we are using the same staff to set them up. It would make sense to bring in outside experience in this area. The fact is whenever a publisher opens a new department of any type, my first thought is always I wonder who they have moved in it; it’s never I wonder who they have recruited in.

And it is not just sales – the digital revolution has effected everything, from marketing, to production to licensing and onwards. Silicon Valley is now so full, we no longer work at Old Street but by ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and every major city in the world appears to be slapping the word onto something. If I am allowed to be briefly judgemental, when I go into a digital department I want to see cutting edge, not tweed.

There are some improvements – in the last six months publishers appear to have begrudgingly accepted that partnerships are a good way forward. Subscription and ebook production companies are appearing everywhere, with a number led by entrepreneurs with backgrounds in technology, social media, general business. Peter Thiel’s Fund, one of the cofounders of PayPal, investing in Oyster was another sign that the tide may be turning, at tidal speed.

I think it is now commonly acknowledged that publishing existed in a now burst bubble. There are a diminishing but still influential few – like posher, less tough mafia overlords in braces – that are trying to cling on to the Old Way. But one of the next key steps is to accept ‘outsiders’, to embrace new skills, vital to quickly evolving our businesses. 

Still too many business decisions in publishing is governed by fear – incredibly bizarre for a creative industry - and it is the case here. Deep down employers don’t want to lose their jobs by employing people who turn out to be better than them. Better to stick to what you know. But I don’t want to employ people like me – I find one of me enough to deal with. I want to surround myself with people more intelligent, better at things than I am, who know things that I don’t. This way we start to add different skillsets rather than having 100 iterations of the same one. There is some straightforward maths in there somewhere.

I think the point is made and it will be good to see more appointments from different industries. Hopefully we can build an industry with the same number of English graduates but twice the size, that would be something exciting. At least Michael Gove is ensuring we will no longer lose them to teaching.

Would love to hear your thoughts, as always | @Tom_Chalmers