Ten things we learned at the IPG’s Virtual Spring Conference

Here are just some of our top takeaways from the IPG’s first ever Virtual Spring Conference on 2 and 3 June. We’d love to hear yours!

1. Tough times force innovation

Rebecca Smart, once of IPG member Osprey and now managing director of publishing at non-fiction giant DK, was one of several Conference speakers suggesting that challenging times like these sometimes prompt businesses to innovate and change for the better. They make large and small companies alike more nimble, and more focused on what consumers need. “This [pandemic] has shown that we can move faster than we ever thought possible… it’s accelerated us into what would have been the future anyway,” she said. “What consumers have got used to in the past few weeks is going to continue, so we need to make sure we’re good at it.”

2. People will always want to shop for books

James Daunt, leader of Waterstones and Barnes & Noble and always a popular speaker at IPG Conferences, looked ahead to the time when bookshops can reopen. He conceded recovery might be slow—“I don’t think there’ll be a rush back to the high street… people will be cautious”—but said the lockdown has reminded people about the pleasures of browsing books. “The shopping experience will change, but the attributes and merits of shopping remain as clear as ever… We’ve learned during lockdown that we need the physical connections of places like bookshops.” The future is bright for independent publishers too, he said. “For nimble, clever, entrepreneurial publishers, the age is as strong and vibrant and positive as ever.”

3. The way we work has changed for good

Leadership and entrepreneurialism expert Mark Leruste joined the Conference live to explore how Covid-19 has changed the way we live, work and come together—and how many of the changes will be permanent. Anyone struggling with the switch to home-working shouldn’t feel bad about it—“It’s OK to not be at your most productive during this crisis”—and anyone enjoying the change ought not to feel guilty either, he said. Embracing the philosophy of stoicism, establishing routines, keeping journals and making time for “watercooler stuff” can all help people adjust to change, he said. Above all, teams need to make sure they stay connected and clear about their mission.

4. The supply chain is evolving

A session on the publishing supply chain discussed the changes wrought by the pandemic. Ingram’s David Taylor said it was accelerating the move away from over-printing towards print on demand, and Caroline Summers of The Paperback Shop saw a similar move to a ‘virtual’ system of wholesale and supply. Environmental concerns will give both those trends more impetus. Meryl Halls of the Booksellers Association said she was optimistic about the long-term future of independent bookshops, and David Taylor said independent publishers should be confident too. “I’m very optimistic for independent publishers, because their ability to reach markets has never been greater.”

5. It’s a time to be flexible

Independents’ ability to respond quickly to market dynamics has been much in evidence lately, and several sessions noted the importance of staying nimble. A session on agile marketing from Kogan Page’s Louise Dickens and Alison Middle showed how social media in particular can help publishers connect direct to buyers. Agent Jonny Geller said independents’ agility in reaching consumers would come to the fore, and added they had a crucial role in making publishing more inclusive too. “This could be an era where independents surge… We look to our independent publishers for diversity of ideas—that’s where we get the most range.”

6. We need to open up on mental health

In a Conference session set over to the issue of mental health, Melissa Doman, M.A. called for employers and employees to have open and honest discussions about wellbeing. “Discussing mental health at work is no longer a nice-to-have—it’s a necessity,” she said. “People have been afraid of raising mental health issues at work, but that’s changing.” With research suggesting that people who feel good at work are 28% more productive and more likely to stay with a business, there are sound commercial reasons to promote conversations too.

7. Data is king

Several speakers emphasised the huge importance of data in understanding and reaching readers, especially at a time when so many are shopping online. Ingram’s Ruth Jones stressed the need to stay on top of consumer behaviour, title availability and metadata in particular, and Rebecca Smart suggested it can help to “think of metadata as merchandising”—a marketing tool that helps people discover and buy content.

8. Starting a publisher is a rollercoaster ride

Two founders of new publishing businesses—Jenny Broom of Magic Cat Publishing and Adrian Hobart of Hobeck Books—gave the Conference a very honest review of their ups and downs so far. They agreed on the big benefits of working for yourself rather than a corporate. “I feel fortunate not to have banks at our throats and huge numbers of people to contact—we can make decisions and respond nimbly to market conditions, said Broom. But it can be tough too: “It’s a daily trade-off of excitement and fear… but you find a way to make it work,” said Hobart. And independents have a unique spirit that can give them a competitive edge: “People want books that matter and have heart—that’s where indies punch above our weight. We live our companies and our books,” said Broom.

9. Get ready for the new office normal

A very useful session from Fox Williams’ Jane Mann primed employers for the practical and legal changes to workplaces that are looming as the pandemic lockdown eases. She suggested that businesses check their responsibilities and the latest government guidance, document all their plans, risk assessments and health and safety policies, draft a test-and-trace protocol, consult union reps and support staff with training and information. 

10. Virtual events can work!

When big industry occasions like The London Book Fair started getting cancelled in the spring, there were doubts over whether events could ever successfully go digital. Our Virtual Spring Conference has shown that it’s possible to recreate the feel as well as the content of a face-to-face event online, and the future will bring a blended approach of physical and digital interactions. Thank you to everyone who made our first virtual conference work so well.

Our Virtual Spring Conference was supported by gold sponsor Ingram Content Group, silver sponsors PLS, ProQuest and ThePaperback Shop, and bronze sponsor Virtusales. We are hugely grateful to all our sponsors, exhibitors, speakers and delegates.

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