Fifteen things we learned at the IPG’s 2021 Spring Conference


Here are some of the many messages we took away from the IPG’s Spring Conference on 11 and 12 May. We’d love to hear yours!

1. It’s an exciting time for independents

AConference panel of leaders agreed that while 2020 and early 2021 have been tough for all businesses, they have brought the resilience and agility of independents to the fore. “This is an exciting and optimistic time despite the worries we’ve been through, said SAGE’s Ziyad Marar. “There’s never been such a level playing field between small and large publishers… or a better time to reach new markets and try new formats,” added Helen Kogan of Kogan Page.

2. We’re at a turning point in the way we work

Peter Cheese of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development talked thoughtfully about how the pandemic has brought us to “an inflection point” in the way people work. Employers will need to think carefully about their balance of office and home working, their values and social responsibilities and their inclusivity, he said. “I’ve never seen so much uncertainty… we’re going to have to learn as we go.” The things we’ve learned about looking after each other mustn’t be forgotten, he added. “Covid has forced us all to pay more attention to how we connect with people… and look after their wellbeing. We’ve got to carry that forward.”

3. Independents are crucial to literature

Costa Book of the Year winner Monique Roffey gave the Conference an important author’s perspective on publishing, and celebrated the cultural value of independents. “Big companies are well resourced… but at indies we’re at the core of what they do,” she said. “Independent publishers are critical to literary fiction… without them our world would look very grim and monolithic.” But she added that some publishers should learn to trust authors more, and get their views on cover designs in particular.

4. Social media needs to be sociable

Social media guru Kelly Weekes gave the Conference two sessions on improving engagement on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. She emphasised the need for relationship-building and a focus on conversations and connections rather than just posting. “Think of social media as a bookshop—you want to get people in and show them round, and not just look at the window.” Understand your audience, experiment, monitor success and don’t spread yourself too thin across platforms, she advised.

5. People have missed bookshops

A panel of top retailers agreed that people have badly missed bookshops during long months of lockdown. James Daunt said people had returned enthusiastically to Waterstones, visiting less regularly but spending more when they do so. “Bookshops promote reading and engagement with books in a way that’s hard for online to do.” Andy Rossiter of Rossiter Books added: “People have been craving the inviting atmosphere of bookshops… they’ve realised that they need to use independents or lose them.” Nicole Vanderbilt said online sales via had helped to sustain indies while they were closed. “We’ve been encouraged by people’s desire to support independents… we’re not replacing [physical purchases] but enhancing the experiences.”

6 Technology is changing everything

A Conference keynote from Azeem Azhar showed how the pandemic has accelerated the changes wrought by technology, across society as well as publishing. “We’re entering the exponential age… driven by multiple, fast improving technologies.” Some of the changes may threaten publishers’ traditional models, but they remain essential, he added. “Publishers are still valuable… There’s an incredibly important role for them.” Appropriately enough, Azhar was talking in the same week he announced his first book, Exponential, which will be published in September.

7. Streaming and subscriptions are the future of audio

A breakout focused on the audiobook market heard that streaming and subscription platforms like Spotify are widening the reach of publishers’ audio content. “There’s a once in a generation opportunity to reach consumers who might not grow up in a traditional reading household… but who might be just as well attuned to [spoken] storytelling,” said Videl Bar-Kar of Bookwire. Subscriptions encouraged people to explore new content that they wouldn’t otherwise pay for, added Carla Herbertson of Zebralution: “You have a chance to reach more people… and get more revenue.” Voice recognition devices and Artificial Intelligence-based narration could open up even more opportunities for publishers, the session noted.

8. The Middle East is opening up

Growth markets identified at the Conference included the Middle East, where there are 200 million potential buyers to be reached. Distribution into a fragmented and complex region has held publishers back in the past, but Ingram’s David Taylor said print on demand services at a new Sharjah hub would help to open things up—not just in the United Arab Emirates but across the Arab world and North Africa. He explains more about the opportunities in this episode of the IPG Podcast.

9. Investment in rights management pays off

In a session dedicated to rights, Marjon Esfandiary and Amy Ellis of PLS and Clare Hodder of Rights2 Consultants argued that well-organised management of them can open up new licensing opportunities. To help, PLS has developed free new training resources; you can find out more here.

10. Open Access is at ‘an exciting point’

Conference sessions dedicated to academic publishing highlighted some of the big issues facing the sector at the moment, including Open Access. Bloomsbury’s Ros Pyne said publishers had engaged well with OA, without achieving significant structural change. “I think we’re at an exciting point… there’s an excitement and enthusiasm to do things with Open Access books, and the chance to get creative.”

11. Start-ups are still thriving

The pandemic might not seem like a good time to start a business, but two publishers at the Conference said it had actually brought some positives. Diana Broccardo of Swift Press said she had learned to be more flexible on sales and marketing, and to try new things. “The pandemic has shown us that it’s not worth having plans that are too strict—and that it’s important to enjoy the ride.” “It’s been encouraging to see how resilient publishing has been… embrace the chaos and do what you love,” added Rachel Williams of Magic Cat Publishing.

12. Metadata transforms discoverability

The team from ProQuest joined the Conference to explain how smart use of data can improve the discoverability of academic content—though their advice could apply to any publisher seeking to make their books more visible. They set out some common metadata pitfalls, including missing, incorrect or outdated data and poor formatting leading to wrong displays.

Discoverability was also the theme of a session on how new digital tools can help publishers reach trade buyers. Maria Vassilopoulos of the British Library’s publishing arm, Laura Willis of Hardie Grant and freelance sales rep Mike Lapworth explained how the Edelweiss+ platform had improved access to booksellers, reviewers and others; Ruth Bradstreet of Edelweiss+ discusses it further in this episode of the IPG Podcast.

13. Brexit challenges ‘are settling down’

A session tackling post-Brexit import and export challenges heard that while publishers are still encountering some delays, extra costs and frustrations, problems at borders are easing as new routines are established. “Things have settled down—now it’s about making it as easy as possible for customers to buy from you,” said Charles Hogg of Unsworth. It might also be worth thinking afresh about distribution structures, he added. “Brexit is forcing us to reengineer our supply chains—it’s a good opportunity to standardise processes.”

14. More work is needed on diversity and sustainability

The Spring Conference covered big industry issues including diversity and sustainability. A well-received case study from Sweet Cherry showed diverse and inclusive publishing at its best, though more needs to be done: “It should be part and parcel of all publishing,” said Abdul Thadha. A session on sustainability with Boldwood Books’ Amanda Ridout, HP’s Paul Randall and Daniel Witte from the Book Chain Project looked at ways to reduce environmental impacts in the supply chain—something that is being explored by the IPG’s new research with the Book Chain Project.

15. What we do matters

Faber’s Stephen Page gave publishers an uplifting reminder of the value of their work after a year of unprecedented challenges. “People have reached out to us for consolation and inspiration during the pandemic… and we should feel the truth of that. What we do really matters,” he said. “We need to bring to bear the opportunity we have to influence and create a world in which we all thrive… If independent publishers thrive, so do freedom of speech, education and art.”

Our Virtual Spring Conference was supported by gold sponsor Ingram Content Group and Bookwire, HP, Edelweiss+, PLS, ProQuest, The Paperback Shop and Zebralution. We are hugely grateful to all our sponsors, exhibitors, speakers and delegates. 

There are extensive reports on the Spring Conference at The Bookseller and BookBrunch.

For more views from the Conference and its wide range of break-out sessions, take a look at the #ipgsc hashtag on Twitter.