Ten things we learned at the 2020 Autumn Conference

Our Autumn Conference on 21 October packed around 30 sessions and 40+ speakers into an informative and inspiring day. Here are just ten of the messages and lessons we took away; we’d love to hear yours!

1. ‘Independents have been agile and generous’

The first Conference session came from Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Digital and Culture in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. She praised publishers’ resilience and agility in the wake of the pandemic. “We’re incredibly proud at the DCMS of the UK’s great publishing industry… There have been some amazing examples of independent publishers responding in an agile and generous way.”

2. ‘Publishers provide a window on the world’

The Conference keynote, BBC global trade correspondent and author Dharshini David, warned of more economic and trade upheaval to come from the pandemic and, soon, the end of the UK’s transition from the European Union. “We don’t know when the recovery will come, and it’ll be a very bumpy ride.” But she also praised publishers for the work they have done lately—especially in entertaining and educating people. “We owe a huge debt to the publishing world for allowing us to look beyond the four walls that many of us have been trapped by in recent months, and have a window on the world beyond.”

3. The pandemic has accelerated change

Ingram Content Group’s David Taylor gave the Conference a whistlestop tour of challenges around the globe—but opportunities too. While markets including India and Russia continue to struggle, others like Italy and Spain are showing recovery. He suggested “Covid has accelerated change” in publishing—notably a rapid shift to online and direct sales, which emphasizes the need for good online discoverability and efficient fulfillment. “Speed is of the essence. The internet has made everyone impatient and speed is absolutely critical to capturing sales now.”

4. Go direct to your community

Two sessions on online marketing in trade and academic publishing showed how much the lockdown has changed the way books are promoted. Expert Sam Missingham said it was important to find the right tone of voice in marketing and add value to your audience that others can’t. Third party platforms like social media and ads are important, but it’s even more valuable to get close to buyers via a great website and targeted email marketing. “Try to pull your website into the centre of your business. The more you spend on your website and newsletter, the more you will own an audience you can market to.”

5. Brexit will bring pressures, but rights opportunities abound

The Conference took close and useful looks at markets including France, Ireland, the US and South East Asia—all of which present good potential for UK publishers. But looming over them is Brexit, which will cause major upheaval in international trade, with freight and printing particularly impacted. “I still don’t think people realise how big a change this is… from an Irish perspective it’s awful,” said Ivan O’Brien of The O’Brien Press. But as a couple of other sessions made clear, rights sales provide a bright spot for international growth. To get the most out of them, publishers first need to get their rights management in good order, said PLS’ Amy Ellis; auditing and organizing contracts and learning from PLS’ new Rights & Licensing Hub are good ways to start. Rights systems are important too, added Virtusales’ Rodney Elder. “A good workflow management system… is critical for maximizing your IP and income.”

6. Audio is still booming

The phenomenal growth of audio content was another big theme of the Conference. Bookwire’s Videl Bar-Kar pointed to figures suggesting the global market will grow by around a quarter in 2020, with streaming and subscriptions the hottest areas at the moment. A session on getting started in audio with Princeton University Press’ Kimberley Williams, Michael O’Mara’s Rumana Haider and Zebralution’s Carla Herbertson meanwhile made the point that audio reconnects people with the original form of aural storytelling. 

7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Conference sessions looked at how to start, grow and pivot a publishing business during very challenging times, and several speakers emphasized the importance of seeking help when needed. “As soon as you ask questions you find that people are so generous with their information and time,” said Bella Pearson of Guppy Books. Keep things simple, play to your strengths, watch cashflow like a hawk and stay patient, added Confer Books’ Kathy Rooney. “Everything will take longer and be harder than you expect, but building your own business is uniquely satisfying.”

8. Lockdown has pushed tech deeper into publishing

The pandemic has rapidly accelerated the use of technology in publishing, bringing new opportunities as well as difficulties. A session from MetaComet’s David Marlin and Emerald Publishing’s Sarah Boyd shared some tips for successfully embedding it in a business, including the need for planning, testing and staying focused on the desired outcome. Venu Prasad Menon of Amnet Systems showed the value of EPUB3 as a route to format flexibility, discoverability and security: “It’s a true enabler of a digital-first strategy.” There was also an eye-opening session on WhatsApp, which now has two billion users and is being widely used in some countries for book orders, notifications, customer services and the delivery of chunks of content. “Combining commerce and messaging feels like quite a powerful partnership,” said WhatsApp’s Alice Newton-Rex.

9. There’s much more to be done on sustainability and diversity

The Conference tackled several big cross-industry issues, like the need to improve sustainability in areas like returns and printing, the urgent work to be done on promoting mental health and resilience, and how to build a more inclusive and diverse industry. On the last challenge, a couple of sessions from Stonewall tutors showed how to become champions of equality of rights and opportunities for LGBT people in publishing. Being sensitive to language, talking openly, avoiding assumptions and better training can all help.  

10. Bookshop.org is coming

The Autumn Conference ended on a very positive note with a hugely popular session from Andy Hunter, founder of Bookshop.org. The platform, which enables people to buy books online via their local bookshop, lands in the UK in early November, and Hunter said it was a timely way to support independents. “We’re trying to provide them with a lifeline… so that when we emerge from this pandemic we emerge into a world that includes wonderful bookshops we can browse in.” Ahead of the launch, he is encouraging publishers to spread the word within publishing and beyond. 

You can read much more about the Conference in tweets from the day via the #ipgac hashtag

Thank you to the gold sponsors of the Autumn Conference, Ingram Content Group and Publishers’ Licensing Services; silver sponsors MetaComet Systems and ProQuest; and bronze sponsors Amnet Systems, Bookwire, Newgen Publishing UK, Virtusales and Zebralution.