BLOG: The SYP Conference 2018 – Rewriting the (Rule)Book

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Saturday 10th November was the annual SYP autumn conference. The theme was innovation and disruption in publishing, questioning established beliefs and practices in the UK publishing industry.

Stream 1 was entitled “Write Your Own Story”, which looked at started a career in publishing, and also alternative ways to manage or develop your career. Stream 2 was entitled “Rulebreakers” and looked at ways people are working to change the industry from within, and in particular address ongoing issues with lack of diversity in publishing. The final stream, stream 3, was “By the Book”, which discussed both current trends in publishing, but also looked at the future of publishing beyond the book, and how to engage markets in different media. You can find more about the streams and the panellists on the SYP website. You can also find the hashtags for both the day and each session which can be used to track live-tweeting – I did so most of the day, and my tweets can be found here (although for some reason the search is bringing them back out of chronological order).

The day also opened with a keynote speech by literary agent Clare Conville, and ended with a panel entitled “Voices of the Future”, with the founders of Hera Books, the new female-front, digital-only publisher, and one of the co-founders of Knights Of, a children’s publisher which is working to break barriers on ethnic diversity in the works they publish. In between was plenty of time for meeting new people, and also talking to recruiters and industry bodies who were exhibiting in the cafeteria, the natural hub for socialisation and free coffee.

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Whilst I mostly followed stream 1, for advice and insight on trying to gain my first publishing role outside of London, I also switched to stream 2 for the final session – “Far From the London Crowd”.

The last time I attended an SYP conference was in 2016, just after starting my MA. Like last time, the talks were fascinating and engaging, but the difference in the content was stark – and wonderfully so! There was a lot of regional and ethnic diversity on the panels, meaning that speakers were coming from a huge variety of backgrounds. Several times over the day people mentioned that currently it’s difficult to get in to publishing if you aren’t a white brunette from Oxbridge called ‘Arabella’, and it got a chuckle – but there is some truth to that reality. Earlier this year there was a flurry of discontent on twitter about editors from non-traditional backgrounds, but the truth is that it’s hard to get into publishing is you haven’t gone the traditional routes, and don’t have the finances to intern for free for a significant period of time. Unless you can stay in London for free, then interning isn’t a possibility.

It was heartening to hear how many people were angry about unpaid internships – in the final panel of the day Lindsey Mooney, Keshini Naidoo, and Aimée Felone all expressed how strongly they feel about unpaid internships, and the lack of diversity in the industry. These are representatives from relatively new indie publishers, but they are willing to make the effort to make the change, which is promising for a culture change in the industry.

I particularly enjoyed how many regional accents I heard on the panels, and it was refreshing how many people said things I have been saying for a long time – there’s no reason for publishing to be based in London, staff would have a better quality of life if publishing were based almost anywhere else in the country, and travel links with the rest of the country make commuting from outside of London a much more reasonable prospect than people might otherwise expect. There was something extremely affirming to know that there are people in the industry who are not afraid to say the things I have been thinking, and to hear that work is being done to address this.

Perhaps my enjoyment was simply a case of confirmation bias (which I learned about in the first lecture on Unconscious Bias!), however it was reassuring to hear that there are plans to make change in the industry. Whilst some of the speakers were fairly early-career, or new publishing houses, there was a wealth of experience across the board and they seemed to be in agreement that change needed to be made.

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If you would like to read an alternative review of the conference, focusing on a different aspect of the day, the IPG have one on their website. The key message from the conference is that things need to change, and that things are starting to move in the right direction, and the desire to keep these things moving is strong. From my perspective, I think it will be hard to see any real outcome of this until the Big 5 start to make a more concerted effort to address these issues, as they have such a huge share of the market. Penguin Random House have made some movements towards this by removing requirements for a degree in their entry level roles, and having JobHack workshops around the country for people interested in publishing. Hachette have started a few cautious steps too, with their Inside Story scheme, and on a smaller level within the business, Orion’s #OrionOnTour scheme. The latter currently only represents one publisher out of the many within Hachette, but there are hopes it will expand.

As many people said throughout the day, unless the bulk of the publishing industry begins to make a concerted effort to look outside of London, and to push itself into the rest of the country, there will be a lack of diversity in the business, and in the product. Whilst it was acknowledged that this would need to be done carefully and sensitively to avoid damaging the wealth of Indie publishers in the UK – particularly in the North of England – the general consensus was the net needs to be cast more widely.

I’m looking forward to seeing that happen.

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