Episode 105 – Report from the frontline of independent publishing

IPGSCSomething a little different this week: a report from the bleeding edge of the publishing industry, also known as the IPG Spring Conference. This is one of the most exciting and diverse events of the publishing calendar, bringing together publishers from all genres of publishing and from all sizes of houses, from one-person microbusinesses to key players such as Bloomsbury and Kogan Page, and with an outstanding reputation for big name keynote speakers with big ideas.

It’s a packed programme over three days, and this was the first year I’ve managed to attend from start to finish.

Here are the key messages I came away with – essential listening for anyone interested in publishing, but with many interesting insights for entrepreneurs in any discipline:

DISRUPTION – what’s happening out there, and what might it mean for publishers?
DIVERSITY – how can we better reflect the full range of expertise and experience in the world?
DIGITAL – what’s next in the transformation of our businesses?
DATA – why does it matter, how do you get it and what the heck do you do with it?
DEDICATION – the secret weapon of independent publishing: passion, creativity and entrepreneurial flair wrapped up in steely determination
DISTRIBUTION – how can we get books to the readers who need them?


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Hello and welcome to Episode 105 of The Extraordinary Business Book Club, it’s the 13th of March 2018 as I’m recording this. It’s a very slightly different episode today. Instead of featuring an interview, I’m just going to talk at you for a little while, partly to celebrate the fact that I’ve now got my voice back, so I can, but also because I’m just back from #IPGSC, if you’ve been following that hashtag on Twitter. It’s been absolutely fascinating, the Independent Publishers Guild Spring Conference, which took place for 48 hours, which seems like nothing, but it’s incredible how much they pack in there, in Chipping Norton, near Oxford.

It was the first time that I’ve made it there for all three days. I know 48 hours sounds like two days, but you have to imagine it spread it out over three days. And I think every time before, I’ve kind of just snuck in at the awards’ ceremony, or just for a day or so, and I’ve really enjoyed it, but there was something magical about being there for the whole time. It was much more expansive, and there were all kinds of corridor conversations and so on, so I really enjoyed that.

Quick background on the Independent Publishers Guild. This is the UK organisation, different to the US IPG. It includes 600-plus publishers now, which is pretty amazing, and its mission is to help them do better business, and I can vouch for the fact that they do that extremely well, as a member, but also as a member of the board, so I get to see what happens behind the scenes. It’s very collaborative, it’s very collegiate. If you happen to be at LBF, by the way, London Book Fair, the IPG have a cracking stand party. I’m exhibiting there this year, I have a little stand at the IPG, so do come and say hello.

So this is really just a few take-aways from that conference, from the bleeding edge of independent publishing. I didn’t realise until I drafted it that it would be quite so alliterative but it’s quite pleasing that it is. So, here are my seven ‘D’s: disruption, diversity, digital, data, dedication, design, and distribution.

So in that order, let’s think about disruption first.


Obviously, publishing is not immune from disruption. It is also not the only industry being disrupted. It’s everywhere. But it was a continuing theme of the conference. Not in a, “Oh my goodness. Have you noticed we’re being disrupted?” way, because that happened about five years ago, but just coming to terms with it in a much more creative way. And the thing that really struck me about this was in one of the keynotes, which was absolutely amazing, when Ed Newton-Rex stood up and talked about artificial intelligence and machine learning and what that might mean for publishers. Often when people talk about AI and creativity they get a little bit hysterical about it, and Ed was brilliant because he was really calm, just saying, “This is really interesting, isn’t it?” and what might happen if computers and people start co-creating stuff, and he was talking across the whole spectrum of creativity. So he was looking at art generated by image recognition systems, for example, which is just stunning, and reminding us of the fact that an AI generated, or rather an AI-assisted novel had got past the first stage in a novel writing competition in Japan recently, so really interesting.

He is actually about music. He runs an AI music-generating tool and as a podcaster I got this immediately. You can say to him, “I want a piece of music that’s exactly this many seconds long, and it needs to climax at second 14, and it needs to fade out here.” You can basically just customise a piece of music and then he will feed those parameters into the machine, and it will give you a little bit of music. The machine learns to compose by listening to lots and lots of music until it figures out what note should come next. Really, really interesting. [NOTE: Ed’s company is called Jukedeck: https://www.jukedeck.com/]

And another thing that was interesting about disruption was David Shelley, the CEO of Hachette, who used to head up Allison and Busby, an independent, which of course was then acquired by Hachette (as so many are): his talk was billed as what independent publishers can learn from corporates. But interestingly, about a third of the way through it sort of flipped around to what he finds corporates can learn from indies, maybe a bit of audience pleasing?

But it resonated with me: he was saying that he runs Hachette as a federation of small companies to preserve the creativity and the passion and the entrepreneurship that was the reason they acquired the company in the first place. So yeah, really, really interesting. I should probably talk about Ken Clark on Brexit, but I just don’t think I can face it. So Ken Clark gave a very informative, entertaining talk on Brexit and that’s massive disruption, and I think I’m just going to leave it there.


So, diversity, now this is really big on publishers’ agendas, partly because we’re so flipping undiverse. It was really good actually to hear Sarah Caro of Princeton University Press saying that diversity is a real priority for them. She used that lovely phrase “inclusivity of expertise”. Which I think is really really key to, you know, why do this? It’s not a box-ticking exercise, the point is that you want all the expertise that’s out there and it isn’t all in one box.

So you know diversity across, everything really, gender, ethnicity, creed, belief and so on. There was a fabulous… Amol Rajan, the BBC’s Media Editor, gave a keynote alongside Ed Newton-Rex and that was fabulous, he was talking about the role of the BBC and just generally the role of media and how it’s under threat these days. One point that he made, I thought was excellent, was him saying that when we have the capacity to customise and personalise our experience of the world, our news feeds, what we see, it’s actually really dangerous. This is the phrase that I wrote down verbatim because I thought it was so brilliant and tweeted it: “It’s an important part of an enlightened society that we are confronted by ideas and people that we find heretical and disagreeable.”

Isn’t that brilliant? So an important part of diversity is opening yourself up to ideas that actually feel really uncomfortable, and for publishers that’s one of the things that we do really well. Independent publishing particularly, this is the home of diverse publishing. It’s niche almost by definition, you know, this where people exist to serve minority interests. It was amazing looking at the tables of books on display just how many really engaging books there were for minority readerships that aren’t very well served at all by mainstream publishers.

Diversity of publishing as well: publishing models, open access, traditional publishing, hybrid publishing, author-pays models, all in that melting pot, and multiplicity of formats as well. Where we thought the ebook would one day replace the paperback – hands up, I thought ten years ago we’d all be looking at ebooks these days because they were so much more convenient – hasn’t happened. So hardback, paperback, ebook, audio, apps, they’re all our there. They’re all complementing each other, they’re all doing slightly different jobs, and it looks like they’re all here to stay. And who knows what’s going to come next.

So yes, diversity really interesting theme, which leads me nicely onto digital, actually, because obviously several of those are digital.


The real success story of publishing recently has been digital audio and Jo Forshaw did a fascinating piece on that. I had a really good chat with Jo, because digital audio is very much on my priority list at the moment.

Another interesting thing, from the IPG’s perspective, is that this is the year in which we really launched our IPG skills hub, which is an online elearning platform: that’s gone down really well as well. I think that’s such a great example of the guild really being a guild, existing to support members, and becoming a content publisher as well.

But digital isn’t just about formats and how you deliver content. It’s actually about your business and David Shelley from Hachette again had a really good phrase: “systems sell books.” I was nodding furiously when he said that because that’s where I’ve put a lot of my energy and investment in the last couple of years, into building up the systems behind Practical Inspiration Publishing, so that it doesn’t all depend on me basically. It’s got to scale and it can only scale when it’s digitised.

Another big digital theme was social media, which again wasn’t “oh, we must do social media.” That happened five years ago. It was “How can we do social media better?” I was chairing a session by Ed Ripley, from Walker Books, who was telling us about the campaign they did for Guess How Much I Love You (which is apparently the fourth most-quoted book at weddings, who knew?), a really great example of how you can engage online communities – they work closely with Mumsnet and so on, and also opportunism: they noticed that there was a separate market for Guess How Much I Love You which was people giving it to each other on Valentine’s Day, and off the back of that they developed a whole range of jewellery which is doing very nicely. So yeah, lots of stuff, it’s not digital particularly, but just looking at what people are doing.


Actually that does lead me on to, data, because only when you have the data can you really see what people are doing. Amanda Ridout, formerly of Head of Zeus, said, “Data is power, you only get your data by knowing your customers.” So that was really huge theme at the conference. Another session I was chairing was with Tom Bonnick of Nosy Crow and Richard Sullivan of Osprey, and both of those publishers really know their markets well. They’ve got a very good direct-to-consumer sale. They were talking about newsletters, which is interesting for me because obviously I do a weekly news letter as well.

They were saying that one of the things about newsletters is that you own that space, you own that relationship and you can see what people are doing with that content. Where they’re clicking, which ones they open, what newsletter headlines get the traction and which ones don’t, where they unsubscribe. So having that data is really important, but onterrogating that data and acting on it, that’s equally important as well.

I guess I should mention GDPR as well, again, like Brexit I don’t really want to mention it but James Woollam, MD of F+W Media, gave a really good talk on what they’re doing with it. I was hoping that would tell me everything that I needed to do with it but James’s point at the end of the day was: “It’s going to depend on your business and your situation and what you do with your data and what your systems are.” So that was a bit of a let down. (Sorry, James!) No easy answers on that one, but GDPR was a massive theme of the conference, and data generally.


Moving on to dedication, it’s a bit of a ‘softer’ one in a sense, but it’s one of the things that most exhilarates you in this conference: the passion, the commitment, the energy of the people there is just amazing. I guess it all culminates at the awards evening, which is … the hairs are going up on the back of my neck just thinking about it. Really incredible, I’m not going to shout them all out but massive congratulations to everybody who was short listed and who won the awards at the end of that. Congratulations to all the winners.

But it’s not just about the passion and the dedication of publishers across the board in their companies, it’s also the passion for each individual book on your list, and this is the the challenge and the joy of publishing. On the one hand you’re running a commercial business and you have to think big picture stuff, but the other thing is that you get to publish, you get to bring into the world ideas that you think matter, and that’s such a privilege, and such a joy.

Emma Hopkin of Bloomsbury pointed out what that means for authors. She said “Every author wants to feel like theirs is the only book on your list.” Which I loved, and I really do try and make that true for Practical Inspiration authors. It’s hard, because obviously you’re dealing with quite large number of books, actually, but you still want every single one to have that individuality of attention and to make it the best it can possibly be. I think independent publishers are just ace at that.


Alright, we’re nearly there. This is number six, this is design and you know what, this is going to be a really short one because it was just a talk by Alan Moore who is a designer, and it was … again it was a keynote speech, so it was very much in the mode of inspiring you. He just had this wonderful phrase: “Everything is designed, so why not make it meaningful, useful, valuable, joyful, beautiful.” It sounds so simple in a way, but I just love that. If you’re going to be making something, why not make it beautiful? So the theme is the importance of design.

Interestingly, I had a slightly ambivalent take to his talk because I think a lot of independent publishers were sitting in the room going, “Well that’s all very well but what if you can’t afford top-flight designers and endless rounds of proofs and so on.” So there is a little bit of me that says “Done is better than perfect.” And you know that’s a bit of a mantra of mine. He was talking about Ed Catmull as well, Creativity Inc. author, the guy from Pixar, and I remembered – of course you know it’s really important that those finished products are just wonderful, that’s what Pixar is all about – but Ed Catmull also makes the point that you have to protect your “ugly babies”, which I think is a great phrase, which is just … things don’t drop into the world fully formed and beautiful. The initial idea will be messy and scraggy and it’s got rough edges, and that’s okay. So a lot of the art of innovation, generally and certainly in publishing, is about finding that balance between, you know, getting that raw idea and transforming it into something that’s fit for purpose and knowing when it’s ready to let it go out into the world: not too soon, before you do it justice, but also I think probably not too late, not before it’s lost its edge and its relevance and you’ve worked it to death. So yes, a fascinating, inspiring talk, it did make me think about that trade off between getting stuff out almost before it’s ready which is the agile way of course, and something I buy into, and just spending that extra effort to make something beautiful because, why wouldn’t you make it with heart and passion?


Then the final D was distribution. I’m not going into massive detail here because this is very boring unless you’re a publisher, frankly. One thing that is more general is metadata, that is quite a publishing-specific term in a sense: it’s the information about the book, the stuff that goes into the book supply chain, that allows people to find out how to order it, where they get it from, which is the distribution partner, the price, extent, the format, whether it’s black and white, all that good stuff. So you know, so far so situation completely normal for publishers: metadata really matters in the book supply chain.

But I hadn’t taken on board the point that Ed Newton-Rex made, which was that metadata is actually what fuels artificial intelligence and machine learning. So metadata is the future of content and of creativity generally. For people like me, who have always been metadata geeks, it was nice to hear.

But distribution is a really key theme for me this year. I’ve been working on that very hard, and that’s part of my infrastructure work, and one of the great joys for me of the IPG conference this year was meeting a lot of booksellers and wholesalers and people who will help me get my books into more places. So that was really exciting. I’m also going to be extending my ebooks distribution and also digital audio and that will come along later this year as well.

So that’s a really quick whistle-stop tour of a packed 48 hours. I guess in summary I’d say it showed that these are really challenging times for publishers, there’s no doubt about that, but also probably that they’re more exciting than ever. I think that the spirit of that conference was the spirit in which companies basically are going to succeed: it was open and engaged and collaborative and curious. I think curiosity is one of the top values of entrepreneurs.

So yes, a massive thank you to the IPG team: Bridget Shine, who’s the CEO, has been on this podcast before. She’s just a force of nature that woman, all her team have done an amazing job, and also a big personal thank you to Nielsen BookData who put up the Hotel Chocolat prize which I won in the raffle. It was delicious, thank you.

So if you were at the IPG Spring Conference. I’d love to hear what you think about that: were those the things that you picked up on? Did I miss anything massive out? What do you think about publishing generally, independent publishing, corporate publishing, self publishing? What are your thoughts on where it’s all going?

So that’s it for this week. By the time I speak to you next week the winners of the Business Book Awards will be public. I know but I can’t tell you yet. The awards evening is on Friday and I know a few listeners are going to be there, really can’t wait to see you all. But in the meantime if you have any thoughts on any of this, do drop me a tweet – @bookstothesky – or join in the conversation in the Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook. Otherwise I shall speak to you soon. Have a great week, goodbye.

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