In the 1980s and 1990s, publishing seemed to go out of fashion as a number one career choice for the brightest and best graduates.
In the 1980s, many of the graduates, who might previously have entered the industry, were lured by the Thatcherite pot of gold and spent their final months at university plotting how to get into the City. In the 1990s, dotcom businesses looked like the exciting and rewarding place to be, and traditional book publishing was too often presented in the media as an old-fashioned cul-de-sac plugging away at a dying medium. Many of the big media conglomerates even separated their businesses into what they classified as "old" and "new" media, and book publishing was firmly placed in the former category, often with a not very invisible "for sale" sign over publishing companies.
There are encouraging signs that the tide is turning in the noughties. Why is this? For a start, the financial crisis showed that businesses based on a real physical "product" have more staying power than those based on less substantial future predictions. And publishing began to grapple very publicly with the digital world. An industry which had been portrayed as, at best, burying its head in the sand and, at worst, completely defeated by the seismic shifts in technology and consumer demand, was suddenly not only engaging with this, but was determined to maximise all the new opportunities and fight off the threats. Unlike the newspaper and magazine industries, whose existing models were being destroyed by the digital world, for publishers it was an exciting opportunity to sell books in new formats via new platforms, and, perhaps most excitingly of all, to reach potential consumers in completely new ways.
Graduates are starting to notice this. An industry that they hardly knew anything about before, now appears to have the unique attraction of combining something that is culturally important with a thriving business, fully embracing digital and new media opportunities and ready to re-invent itself radically. The growth and popularity of post-graduate publishing courses in recent years is a reflection of this. And it is significant that the students on these courses don't just want to be editors: during their degree, most of them do placements across all departments in publishing companies and many of them go on to find jobs in sales, marketing and production as well as editorial. This is all progress, but the industry still has more work to do in selling itself once again as a top career choice, and we will need to go out more aggressively to do this.
As part of recruiting and retaining the most talented publishers of the future, we will also need to rethink our approach to every process in the business. For example, there is little doubt that editorial creativity and originality have been more difficult to achieve in recent years. The development of Epos and Nielsen Bookscan sales data has undoubtedly played a part in this. Is this data a life jacket or a strait jacket for publishing? The answer is both. The best editors of the future will be market aware and totally on top of the data, but they should also be encouraged to have the confidence and flair to persuade their colleagues to support the new, the different and the original, in spite of what strict adherence to the data would suggest. The best future marketeers should be able see publishing as an industry that is as innovative in reaching its consumers, using new media and other techniques, as any other creative and leisure industry. And our sales people should be trained and encouraged just as if they were working for ICI or EMI.
For too long publishing saw itself as "different", a special case and a business for which it was a privilege to work. Almost everyone now realises that we are an entertainment industry like any other, battling it out for people's leisure time with the giants of music, film, games and social networking. We will only continue to win this battle by spending more time attracting the very best leaders of the future, who will be excited by a career that offers a unique opportunity to combine a passion for books with the opportunity to develop a business model, which will thrive whatever is thrown at it in the future.
Martin Neild is a consultant specialising in coaching, mentoring and training in media businesses and is Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Publishing Studies, University College, London. He was previously Chief Executive of Hodder and Stoughton, John Murray and Headline.