SYP/JFL Digital Skills Evening

Posted on September 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

SYP/JFL digital skills eveningThe SYP/JFL Digital Skills Evening started with an ironic delay, as when we tested the technical equipment, we discovered that the only laptop at hand wouldn’t fire up Nicholas Blake’s presentation.  It would not be the last time during the evening when SYP Chair Jon Slack had to show off his own digital skills as he laboured to get the recalcitrant laptop to fire up.  Having spent enough time in front of my own PC for the day, I wandered back out to the excellent nibbles and drinks laid on by the evening’s co-hosts, JFL. The temporary absence of a more traditional technology (a corkscrew), did not delay my consumption of a splendid glass of wine.
  Ros Kindersley, JFL’s Managing Director, was the first speaker, and began by saying that two years ago, JFL were beginning to be approached by publishers asking them to fill new "digital" vacancies.  Since these skill sets were so new, Ros and her team were wondering about how best to go about filling these jobs. She began by relating the well-known detrimental effects that digital had on the music industry, before discussing the birth of the e-book. Of all publishing departments, Production seems to be particularly affected, with new mediums such as CD-Rom or downloads to deal with. SEO* skills and a basic knowledge of html seem to be the main requirements for this new digital environment. She concluded that recruiters are looking for candidates that have the imagination to make best use of this digital world; along with the responsibility to monitor content they create, such as online forums.
  Chris Meade, Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, said that those who are creating digital media are disappointed by the e-book, whose format is still quite conventional. Where does Publishing fit in this digital world? Isn’t something new going to emerge, to take Publishing’s place? Chris then quoted Bob Stein’s counter argument: “far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences” (from Bob Stein’s Unified Theory of Publishing). Chris doesn’t think that traditional publishers are in the best place to deal with this world, and said that folk such as the organisers of the Small Wonder Short Story festival are more equipped to deal with digital, as they are accomplished at online networking. Writers think they can now dispense with agents, but they still need to call on marketing and editing skills. Chris Meade concurred with Ros when he said, “the digital future is there for people who can think afresh”. He continued to say that books of the future should be more engaged with their audience, but also that e-books need to be more focused, and not attempt to cover everything, a la Wikipedia.
  Nicholas Blake, (the Editorial Manager of Picador and Digital), started by saying that editors don’t need new skills, but they do need new knowledge. Nicholas joined the industry a couple of years before the web was developed. So, despite seeing a lot of changes in the industry, he said that the editorial processes are the same as they were twenty years ago. Macmillan are publishing their e-books with the same quality of attention as their paper cousins. Nicholas said that although e-books seem to be cheaper than traditional products, they could often be more expensive, as they involve a lot of additional work that is not immediately apparent to the reader. Yet Macmillan would be appearing to do things right, as their digital products are the second most popular on the new Waterstones e-book store.
  We then had a mini technical breakdown, as the laptop went to sleep again, although it did soon revive with Jon’s help. Nicholas showed us an e-book with an index, and said that it cost could 20 cents per link according to some pricing models; sometimes the extra cost is built in, as with Picador’s current converter. Some e-books are better designed than others, which Nicholas revealed by showing off examples of the good and the bad. Nicholas went on to say that you don’t need to know html, you just think more carefully about how your content will look in its new format. He then gave us some examples of ebook layouts, starting with Doctor Who (Pocket Essentials – click here for screenshot), which has a "clear layout, helpful bookmarks, italic and bold all converted successfully; but the index is not hyperlinked so is useless".  Nicholas moved onto an edition of A Passage to India (pub. Rosetta Books – click here for screenshot): "no sign of any thought. Meaningless emblem to go with the chapter heading, every paragraph is full out, no italics for book titles, basic typesetting mistakes".
  Then the projector started playing up! Nicholas continued by advising that you have to pay attention to the metadata to provide a good reading experience. The Sony Reader has a whole set of fields that the editor can enter, but Nicholas warned against making elementary mistakes, such as stating that the Irish author John Banville is writing in British English, as this simple error may prevent readers from finding the book in the e-store.  So as long as you’re good at filling in forms, you should do fine.
  Then the floor was thrown open to questions. An audience member asked Chris what he thought of Amazon’s relations with say, small publishers. Chris said that such publishers have other avenues to explore online, to avoid being trapped in unfavourable and possibly monopolistic terms.
  Ros then went on to reassure everyone by saying that the publishing experience is more important than having these new technical skills. People with more technical skills are being brought into Publishing from other industries, especially with regards to Marketing, rather than Editorial, but a lot of such digital work is outsourced. Ros observed people in Publishing are more or less training themselves, by participating in online social networks etc. Nicholas was asked if it was possible to transfer illustrated content to e-books, to which he said yes, but you have to adapt it to maximise your content. A member of the audience then pointed out that there is a lot of help online, which started off a lively debate in the audience.  Chris contributed by saying that most of the recruiters placing ads won’t necessarily know much about these new technical skills, and that there is possible room for negotiating with employers if you don’t have all the technical skills requested in a job advertisement. Another audience member pointed out that the SEO practices recognised by Google involve quite simple editorial skills (although Google is perhaps a tad more monopolistic than even Amazon, methinks, but that’s a much bigger debate). 
  This is the only time that I’ve seen a debate break out on the floor of an SYP event, and I think this is probably because we are all of us feeling our way into this new digital world.  With some many new avenues to explore, we can only really find the way to our goals with the help of others.  Which, appropriately enough, is all very Web 2.0.

*SEO = “Search Engine Optimisation”, i.e. the art of getting your website ranked higher than your competitors’.

Click here to read Nicholas Blake’s notes for his talk.

Kevin Mahoney