What’s the role of universities in publishing innovation?

What’s the role of universities in publishing innovation?

Universities are now firmly placed in the Dept. for Business, Innovation and Skills along with the publishing industry. Now seems is as good a time as any for both parties to work together for mutual benefit. Cheering us on we have Skillset’s publishing division run by ex-publisher and lecturer, Suzanne Kavanagh (http://www.skillset.org/publishing/ ). University and industry cultures might be different, but both have to cope with increased workloads and financial pressures. Both need to deal with challenges of a digital future.

Degree courses and assessment items tend not to demand student engagement with new digital platforms beyond their rather idiosyncratic virtual learning environments (VLEs). As in the publishing industry, the new technical skills and proactive engagement with digital exists in scattered pockets across universities, often dependent on individual staff interest in the area. Publishers talk of difficulties finding graduates willing and able to dive into digital. My experience on both sides of the fence, is that there’s not much difference between today’s graduates and those I interviewed fifteen years ago (apart from a Facebook addiction perhaps). Having taught across different university departments, I am more convinced than ever that we need to address the UK’s digital skills gap in terms of university curriculum: not just on publishing courses but across the board.

Four years ago, Bath Spa University invested in a high-spec Publishing Lab complete with its own full-time software trainer, rows of Macs and all sorts of lovely kit. I was hired to develop a new (very practical) Publishing Foundation Degree (http://www.bathspa.ac.uk/courses/undergraduate/publishing-fd.asp) and publishing modules for English and Creative Writing BA students. I now have second year students who are so confident and skilled that I would be delighted to employ them; a third year has spent the last year running an international newspaper’s social media. They’re editing and laying out books; running literary festival events; tweeting for literary and film festivals; making websites for history journals; and providing southwest publishers with skilled interns. More than anything they’re learning about project management and aiming high in terms of quality.

So now, with the core skills fairly sorted, I’m turning my attention to digital. I’d like to see how encouraging experimentation, innovation and creative play works in terms of developing new ideas for digital publishing. I’ll be learning alongside my students. I (and visiting digital publishers) will be asking students to rethink the book; perhaps they’ll develop books that link up with online gaming and social media? I’m hoping they’ll consider the sort of vibrant content, texture and animation showcased at The Literary Platform, a one-stop shop for new ideas. (http://www.theliteraryplatform.com/ )

As an industry we’ve only scratched the surface of digital’s immense potential for extended user experience, creativity and functionality. Given that it is so difficult to create the time and conditions for genuine experimentation within organizations, perhaps universities can offer a place where new, possibly radical ideas about ‘what a book could be’ can grow? There is industry-university engagement in digital going on at Oxford Brookes, with its MA in Digital Publishing (http://ah.brookes.ac.uk/publishing/ma_digital_publishing/) and at City University (http://ecir2006.soi.city.ac.uk/pgcourses/ep/ep2.html ), but we need more of this across the UK, especially if we want to increase diversity. Perhaps through increased joint project work and targeted student placements, we can encourage greater digital literacy amongst new graduates and encourage them to see the publishing industry as a place they’d like to work in the future.


Katharine Reeve is a freelance commissioning editor and writer; She is also a part-time Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Studies at Bath Spa University. She splits her time between Bath and Twitter.

Follow her on twitter: http://twitter.com/kreeve