Around 170 publishing professionals gathered at the Westin Pasadena in California for the annual PubWest conference held February 15-17. The conference tackled the theme of “Raising Voices: Creating a Vibrant Publishing Future,” looking to lower barriers within the publishing industry—values reflected in the structure of the show itself.
“We make sure that everyone is talking,” said Kent Watson, the executive director of PubWest. “We make sure that everything we offer in every session, in every keynote, directly helps small to medium-sized publishers.” PubWest participants spent most of the weekend in small groups, hashing out solutions to everyday problems. Instead of lectures and slideshows, a series of “peer-to-peer seminars” put panelists and participants on equal footing at PubWest.
At one session, “How Can Editors Build Sustainable, Effective Virtual Project Teams?” both participants and panelists shared actionable tips for using digital resources like Dropbox, Trello, Asana, and Harvest. Knock Knock CEO Jen Bilik was one of the panelists, sharing actual spreadsheets, worksheets, and other real tools her employees use every day. These logistical tools have helped the gift product and book publisher manage the acquisition of two other companies in January—growing from 38 to 48 employees. The investment will help her company adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace. “We can be heavily stocked in Pier 1 for five years, then not stocked when they decide they want to go another direction,” Bilik said. “We are looking at all the ways that we can distribute books and products—as well as diversifying our products.”
Roundtable discussions at PubWest intentionally combined marketing, editorial, operations, and other publishing employees into intimate groups. Arielle Kesweder, the associate director of operations at Berrett-Koehler Publishers and a newly elected PubWest board member, led one of these roundtables. “Recently, my company focused on unpaid internships,” she said, initiating a conversation about obstacles in the industry. “It was a staple of publishing that created a barrier for students who couldn’t afford to not be paid for a summer. So we decided yes, we are going to pay our interns.”
PubWest keynotes included a number of national figures dedicated to knocking down barriers that can silence diverse voices: Becky Brasington Clark, the director of the Library of Congress Publishing Office; Chris Finan, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation. Liz Dolan and Lian Dolan, co-hosts of the long-running “Satellite Sisters” radio show and podcast, delivered a tag-team keynote about how the podcast revolution helped them find a voice and an audience. Liz Dolan had served as the chief marketing officer at Nike and OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network; Lian Dolan is the author of the novel, Helen of Pasadena. "If your public believes you are honest and authentic in what you are doing, they will let you take them places,” said Liz Dolan, urging publishers to find meaningful and appropriate ways to engage with new communities. “That’s why Nike’s business expanded so quickly. Because we realized, if we were authentically true within every sport, our public would let us go there.”
Many PubWest attendees were looking for ways to reach new readers as the traditional marketplace continues its painful transformation. “When you are in a community where there is no indie bookstore, what are you going to do?” said PubWest vice president and Prospect Park Books publisher Colleen Dunn Bates. “People want to be part of book communities. They want to connect with authors. That’s our challenge and our opportunity.” Bates cited audiobooks and live events as two successful tools shared repeatedly by members this year.
On the final day of the conference, the organization unveiled PUB501—its new digital course for members. The online intensive focuses on a practical subject for members: “Title Profit & Loss.” In 2014, the group began its PUB501 series at the University of Denver, a “mini-conference” to help publishing professionals expand their skillsets. That series has officially moved online, with three other courses planned.
Book Industry Study Group executive director Brian O'Leary has attended PubWest three times, and he always appreciates the conference's focus on practicalities. “PubWest has a conversational and engaging approach to talking about the issues that affect the publishing community,” he said. “It’s not remote. It’s real people talking to other real people about real problems—and sharing information about how to solve them.”