Ten things we learned at the IPG’s 2023 Spring Conference
We’ve distilled our many takeaways from a packed Conference to just ten. Tell us yours!
1. ‘There’s a new spirit of resilience’
Back at the Conference by popular demand, BBC broadcaster, economist and author Dharshini David balanced economic realism with cautious optimism in her keynote. A triple whammy of Brexit, Covid and war in Ukraine have battered the economy, with high inflation, energy price shocks and export and supply problems all affecting publishers. But the good news is that many people remain happy to spend on small luxuries like books, and there are some signs of respite. “We’re still looking at a hard time… but it could have been a lot worse, and we seem to have got a new spirit of resilience.”
2. ‘The pluses of being independent far outweigh the negatives’
A session with Canongate’s Jamie Byng in conversation with Virago’s Lennie Goodings was a great reminder of the power of independence in publishing. What indies lack in financial clout they more than make up for in passion, agility, innovation, author care and more. “I feel very passionate about Canongate remaining independent… the pluses far outweigh the negatives.” Byng also struck a chord when he said Canongate refers not to backlist but core list. “We don’t like the term… it’s such a pejorative word.” Other speakers agreed, including PB Shop’s Caroline Summers, who said many readers turned to older titles when their spending is tight. “People want books and authors that are familiar—they’re less willing to take a punt on things.”
3. ‘Recommendation is the holy grail of selling books’
In a session on selling books in tough times, Litalist founder Seni Glaister talked about the value of consumer data in engaging buyers. But she also emphasised the enduring power of word of mouth and recommendations, which Litalist is setting out to encourage. “We still need to learn more about the emotional punch that prompts people to buy books… intelligent recommendation is the holy grail of bookselling.”
4. ‘TikTok is the new storefront’
TikTok’s Matthew Perry drew a big crowd to talk about the power of BookTok and the potential to sell through its new online shop. “The BookTok phenomenon is reshaping the industry… TikTok is the new storefront for consumers,” he said. To engage users, focus on live content, recommendations and behind-the-scenes glimpses. And don’t worry if it’s not professional, because authenticity is the most important thing. For more help with getting started on TikTok, see this IPG Skills Hub resource.
5. ‘ChatGPT could have as big an impact as Gutenberg’
“It sometimes feels like tech is out of control… it’s creating new perceptions of what reality is,” said tech expert and Wired co-founder David Rowan in a thought-provoking keynote. He looked at the impact of Artificial Intelligence and the new ChatGPT service, which raises big questions around issues like the role of authors and publishers, the boundaries of tech and the accuracy of what we are told. “AI and ChatGPT could have as much impact as Gutenberg [and the printing press],” he suggested.
6. ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it’
A stream of academic sessions at the Conference looked at issues including Open Access and library sales. There was also a talk from Bloomsbury’s Jenny Ridout about the challenges of managing change, scaling up a business and dealing with powerful new technology like AI. Research and planning is crucial, and she pointed to a popular adage from Alan Kay when discussing the need to be bold: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
7. ‘As independents we can publish exactly what we want’
Bloomsbury co-founder Nigel Newton was another speaker highlighting the special advantages of independent publishers. “We’re in charge of our own destinies… the very best thing about being independent is that you can publish exactly what you want to.” There’s a special camaraderie and collaboration between publishers, who generally want others to succeed too, he added—and a natural affinity with our counterparts in independent bookselling.
8. ‘Good stock management is crucial’
Management and movement of book stock, and the value of on-demand printing close to markets, were recurring themes at the Conference. “Stock management is crucial… more and more publishers are putting titles into virtual stock,” said Ingram Content Group’s Bunmi Western. A panel session on supply chain solutions echoed that view. “Stock is cash—we need to make it work harder and smarter,” said CPI’s Alison Kaye. “ASR [Automatic Stock Replenishment] and minimum stock holding is possible for even small publishers,” added Clays’ Andrew Copley.
9. ‘Bookselling is really robust’
Two of the country’s top booksellers—Waterstones’ James Daunt and Bookshop.org’s Nicole Vanderbilt—gave upbeat assessments of retailing in 2023. “We’ve come out of the pandemic better than we could have hoped… the market is really robust,” Daunt said, adding an apology for Waterstones’ warehouse problems in recent months. Vanderbilt said Bookshop.org was a great way for publishers, authors and others to support independent bookshops, and urged publishers to link there for sales.
10. ‘Trading in Europe may soon get better’
The first day of the Spring Conference coincided with big news of agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which could be a turning point for UK-EU relations. Closing keynote speaker Anand Menon said Brexit had badly affected exports to the continent for smaller businesses but added that trading conditions might soon start to improve—and economic recovery would help everyone move on. “Once people feel the cash in their pocket again… they’ll stop thinking about Brexit.”
The IPG’s 2023 Spring Conference was supported by gold sponsor Ingram Content Group; silver sponsors ProQuest, part of Clarivate, Publishers’ Licensing Services and The London Book Fair; and exhibitors BooksoniX, Clays, CPI, Edelweiss, Gardners, Hobbs, Inspired Search & Selection, Klopotek, New Vista Ventures, Nielsen BookData, The Bookseller and Westchester Publishing Services. We are very grateful to all our sponsors, exhibitors, speakers and delegates.
You can read reports from the Spring Conference from The Bookseller here and here, and from BookBrunch here and here.
The IPG’s academic and policy correspondent Richard Fisher will report on academic publishing sessions in his next briefing for members.
For more views from the Conference, take a look at the #ipgsc hashtag on Twitter. Click here for our album of Conference photos.