Ten things we learned at the IPG’s 2023 Autumn Conference

Here are some of our takeaways from the IPG’s biggest ever Conference in London and online on 20 September. We’d love to hear yours!

1. Publishers can make a difference in the world
The Conference keynote was given by BBC security correspondent and writer Frank Gardner, who scoped the big geopolitical issues facing the world in 2023, especially relating to Russia and China. Diana Broccardo, co-founder of Swift Press, followed up with a look at how international issues apply to publishing. She said small businesses needed the government to actively help businesses adapt to big global issues, but stressed how publishers’ work has positive impacts in the world. “The real change we can make is through the books we publish.”

2. Is AI friend or foe?
Artificial Intelligence was the top theme of the Autumn Conference. Tech expert George Walkley—leader of the IPG’s special training in AI—set out its potential impacts on publishing. “Gen AI has had one of the fastest adoption rates I’ve seen in my life… there’s a blistering pace of investment.” Shimmr’s Searsha Sadek highlighted the pros of AI—like its ability to speed up repetitive tasks, make better forecasts and connect with new audiences—and its cons, including impacts on jobs. “‘Is AI friend or foe? The short answer is that as with any tool it can be used for good or ill.” Later in the day, Kogan Page’s Helen Kogan stressed the importance of publishers in a world of auto-generated content. “Readers feel we have a personality and are a trusted source.”
3. Keywords, reviews and video content sell books
Amazon expert Cam Lennon gave publishers a host of tips for working with the online retailer in a very well received Conference session. They included the importance of optimising product descriptions and keywords, leveraging email lists for reviews, experimenting with advertising and using visuals. “Video content sells books—it’s a great conversion machine,” he said. Monitoring the effectiveness of campaigns, keeping a close eye on the competition and experimenting with price are also valuable, but customer focus is the top priority. “We need to be as obsessed with our customers as Jeff Bezos.”

4. Publishing is making progress on sustainability
An important session on sustainability in publishing rounded up recent steps forward and resources for more progress. They include the IPG’s free Zero Carbon Toolkit, the Publishers Association’s Carbon Calculator that will be available to IPG members soon, and a sustainability accreditations and standards map from BIC. Boldwood Books’ Amanda Ridout, chair of the IPG’s Sustainability Action Group, said the latest phase of the Book Journeys Project was tackling environmental impacts in the end-of-life treatment of books, while the Localising Printing Project is scoping potential to bring more printing closer to home.

5. Publishers need purpose
In an afternoon keynote, Faber’s Many Cannam stressed the importance of purpose in publishing. It helps a business plan for the long term and increase its appeal to both customers and staff, who increasingly want to work for businesses with strong values. “It’s so important to think about why we do what we do… our work matters,” she said. Commercial success is important, but only if it helps publishers make a difference. “‘We need to think about value in a much broader way… profit should be a means to an end, and not an end in itself.”

6. More needs to be done to encourage female leaders
Another important Conference session looked at ongoing biases against women in recruitment and promotion at senior levels of publishing. Despite progress, many barriers still exist, including imposter syndrome. “We sometimes feel imposter syndrome is somehow still women’s fault—but it’s been put on us by so many micro-aggressions,” said Cassie Rocks of HarperCollins and The Flip. Outdated habits have to change, added Suzy Astbury of Inspired. “We have the most brilliant and exciting generation entering publishing, and they’re going to call us out for old behaviours.” More flexible working patterns and mentoring can help, as can male allyship. Publishers may also like to support The Flip and read Inspired’s white paper on women in leadership and Joy Burnford’s book Don’t Fix Women, published by IPG member Practical Inspiration.

7. TikTok continues to power sales
Sales-related sessions included an overview of trends in Europe from Ingram’s Darragh Deering—an in particular the impact of TikTok. “BookTok is fuelling English language growth across Europe.” Sales hotspots on the continent at the moment include Scandinavia and eastern Europe, he said. Other Conference sessions looked at opportunities for British publishers in Australia and the chance for academic publishers to grow direct sales. 

8. Publishing must be proactive on AI
Towards the end of the day, the Conference returned to the subject of AI. Sarah Faulder of Publishers’ Licensing Services and James Bennett of the Copyright Licensing Agency looked at regulatory aspects of AI and said the government was listening to lobbying about the value of IP. “Parliamentarians are making sympathetic noises,” Faulder said. Michael Bhaskar, founder of Canelo and co-author with Mustafa Suleyman of The Coming Wave, a new book about AI’s impacts across society, was upbeat about AI’s potential to improve productivity and working lives—but only if it’s harnessed properly. “If we take an entrepreneurial approach to this I’m optimistic… but unless we’re proactive we may get swamped by the wave.”

9. Other tech makes publishing more efficient
The Autumn Conference looked beyond AI to the many other benefits of tech adoption in publishing. A session on marketing saw Javier del Puerto of Bookwire, Ruth Bradstreet of Edelweiss and Ben Gutcher of Thames & Hudson show how digital marketing campaigns and catalogues can boost sales, while James Woollam of David & Charles discussed how tech makes workflows and metadata management better. 

10. Gen Z values books
The Conference ended with a look to the future with strategy and innovation expert Will Higham, who explained the habits and needs of Generation Z. Having grown up in more difficult economic times than previous generations, they’re focused, risk-averse and pragmatic. Fortunately for publishers, they love books too. “This is a generation that likes to read—to get information to help them get somewhere… and I don’t see that falling off.”

Thank you to all our sponsors and exhibitors who supported the Autumn Conference: to our longstanding gold sponsors Ingram Content Group and Publishers' Licensing Services, to our silver sponsors Frankfurter Buchmesse, ProQuest, part of Clarivate, Shimmr, The London Book Fair and Zebralution Audiobook, and our bronze sponsors Bookwire, Edelweiss, Glassboxx, The FLIP and Virtusales Publishing Solutions. Thanks also to our exhibitors and partners: BookBrunch, Clays, CPI, Friesens, Gardners, Hobbs, HP, Inspired, Klopotek, Lumina Datamatics, Nielsen BookData, The Bookseller, The Publishing Post and Westchester Publishing Services UK

You can take a look back at some of the Conference goings-on via the #ipgac hashtag

There are reports from the Conference from the Bookseller here and here; from BookBrunch here and here; and from The Publishing Post here. Photos from the Conference are here