Sharpening up the messages the industry gives to the outside world, opening publishing to a broader range of recruits and inspiring an army of “passionate” literacy champions from within the ranks of publishing’s employees are among the priorities of the new Publishers Association president Joanna Prior.
Prior, who in her “day job” is managing director of PRH’s Penguin General division, succeeded outgoing PA president, Palgrave’s Dominic Knight, in May, stepping up from vice- president. She will be PA president for a year, advising the executive and acting as a figurehead for the industry.
Her early career was in communications, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Prior thinks the advocacy side of the role will come naturally
to her, and that the issue of how publishers are perceived is high on her agenda. There is a communication problem in the industry, she says: “I think we have so many good stories to tell but sometimes it does get lost in the complexity of who we are. The fact that we are this diverse and varied industry with all sorts of different products—from books to journals to textbooks—means finding a unifying theme is sometimes quite difficult.”
Last year Knight set up a communications task force, with practitioners from publishing houses, to think about new ways to get across the dynamism and innovation in publishing. Prior intends to carry that initiative forward. It’s important, she says, to combat “this dichotomy that perhaps exists in people’s minds between traditional publishing and digital technology—as though one is opposed to the other.”
Her point seems clear; recent statements from Brussels have warned of “vested interests” opposing copyright liberalisation, as though the copyright protections essential to publishing are at odds with forward- looking digital development. But, as Prior says, “one of the truly impressive things about our industry is how we have responded to the changes in technology, the new ways that readers are accessing entertainment.”
The PA has been amassing examples of industry innovation to showcase “either through our own digital channels or by taking them literally on a laptop into Whitehall to show to key opinion-formers—or to Brussels, the other key area of lobbying importance.” Examples such as the 360-degree brand exploitation happening at PRH Children’s, or the digital services being developed by academic houses such as Elsevier, Prior says, “are things that might surprise your average politician, who doesn’t know what publishing entails nowadays”.
The value of publishing is much better understood on a personal level among authors, she believes. “There’s a fantastic series about authors and their editors running in the Irish Times at the moment, and actually, if the PA had set out to come up with a newspaper series ourselves to show the value of publishers, we couldn’t have thought up a better one. Our job is to make authors’ work as brilliant and fabulous as it can be, and then connect it up with the reader and distribute it. It’s a simple thing to say, but that job is done in a million different complicated manoeuvres, and when it works well it’s a relationship that is understood clearly, I think.”
Another area where the industry needs to communicate better externally is in recruiting young talent coming up through school and university. Prior says. “It’s about how we convey what an exciting and rewarding place career publishing can be, but also make our appeal seem broader—there’s no doubting that we have struggled to present ourselves as open enough. We need to shed some old, out-of-date images of what publishing is about, the idea that it is closed to certain people— whether that’s needing to get more ethnic diversity through the door; attracting people from outside the London bubble and the south-east; or articulating better our appeal to science grads, engineers, people who are wanting to embrace technology, coders or talented designers who may not have the traditional educational background that in the past we have looked for. We are not a closed world that is difficult to get into, we’re open to doing things in new ways.”
Prior accepts that “as a white, middle-class girl who has always lived in the south-east of England”, she isn’t a great example of that diversity personally, even though “I have spent a huge amount of my time in publishing trying to open it up”. But while “there is masses to do, and it is an aspiration”, the industry is nevertheless “further along than people think,” she says. There will be work done with university careers services, and a little later down the line with sixth-formers, to offer leaflets, posters and career talks from speakers throughout the industry. “Individual houses are already doing this sort of work—certainly Penguin Random House is—but our membership wants to see a joined-up approach.”
The pleasure principle
Literacy and reading for pleasure is another area of focus. “It’s about opening up [to others] the world that we all love and enjoy—of reading, of learning, and of having the best possible opportunities in life,” Prior says, adding that there is “so much fantastic work being done in the industry around this, whether it’s with World Book Day, or working closely with literacy partners such as National Literacy Trust, Book Trust or The Reading Agency.
“Perhaps in the past these things have happened in a slightly more isolated and fragmentary way; but two years ago when I was chair of the [PA’s] Trade Publishers Council, I brought as big a group as I could manage of those non-governmental organisations together around a table with key trade partners to try to talk together in a collaborative way about how we could be more than the sum of our parts... It’s part of the mission of publishing, it seems to me, to ensure that everybody in this country has access to books and reading. If we’re not banging the drum for that, who is?”
That first meeting, Prior says, was “fantastic”: “Everyone committed then to trying to work in a more collaborative way so we could shout louder about the things that matter— to government and to fundraisers— and also to engage our staff in the mission of getting kids reading.”
One result was the PA Reading for Pleasure Roadshow, which brings charities and other organisations that promote reading and literacy together with authors and publishing staff. Roadshows have been held at Pan Macmillan, Bloomsbury, Egmont and HarperCollins, with Hachette and Walker coming up.
Prior says: “The idea is that you create an army of supporters from among the people who are most passionate about the business and reading, and spread it out from there. I got such lovely feedback at the Macmillan roadshow, people saying: ‘I didn’t realise quite how much was going on, and now I’m going to do my fun run in aid of the National Literacy Trust, I’m going to be a book giver at World Book Night.’ It feels like a very powerful thing.”
Prior’s commitment to the publisher/library collaboration Reading Partners, with which she has been closely involved over the past decade, is well known. But could publishers do more to support libraries, particularly in the thorny area of e-lending, recently the subject of a year-long pilot project run by the PA with the Society of Chief Librarians? Prior says libraries are now “embedded in what we do—every campaign for a big book that involves an author tour will involve libraries. Reading Partners continues to think about solutions to the digital issue around libraries and how we can help libraries to fulfil their users’ expectations around e-books: how, with their very limited funds, they can deliver a really great digital proposition as well as having beautifully stocked library shelves full of books, all of which creates a nice environment and a safe space for people to learn and read.
“[The recent e-lending project] was a limited pilot. It showed us a few things and it raised some concerns at the BA, which we understand. I think now we’ll see publishers going away and considering the way they engage with library supply on their own.” She adds: “There wasn’t an easy fix, otherwise we’d have found it. But the belief is as strong as ever that libraries are an important part of our ecosystem, and that partnership is really valuable.”
Prior is the latest in a line of women presidents of the PA, which has included Hachette’s Ursula Mackenzie and Victoria Barnsley, then HarperCollins c.e.o. Does she think recently voiced concerns about women at the very top of the industry—or the lack thereof—are justified? “I understand why the issue arose but what I say to anyone who will hear me is that there are women in extremely senior positions across publishing,” Prior says in her measured way.
“Gail [Rebuck] is chair of the biggest publishing company in the UK; at the smaller end of things, Jenny Todd has taken over running Canongate, Amanda Ridout is running Head of Zeus, and the divisions of Penguin Random House are all big businesses, and out of eight, women are running five of them. So I do have concerns about diversity within publishing, but I don’t have concerns about gender.”
She adds: “There’s a lot of very interesting discussion going on that came up through the Women’s Prize this year [shortlistee Kamila Shamsie proposed a Year of Publishing Women in 2018]. The research that goes on around reviewing makes fascinating reading. But there are women commissioning across London who have the power to make sure that we are acquiring enough women writers and I think it’s a fair challenge to us all to make sure we’re doing that.”