the digital skills gap

While everyone else is talking about Harry Potter this week, I want to focus on a different work of fiction. A story that got me very excited at the weekend. It was the news that David Worlock had been appointed Non-Executive Chairman of HarperCollins UK.
Before you write in, I regretfully have to point out that Publishing News, who reported this, were playing a little game of Call My Bluff with us, and this story is, in fact, a ‘Bluff‘ (an easy mistake to make – what else could HCUK stand for?) And Richard Charkin‘s point about the story being buried in the trade press, eight stories down in ‘in other news’ still stands – I only read about it on his blog.
I’ve previously quoted David Worlock on this blog, under the future of the book. To save you looking, here’s the quote, from the Google Unbound video:

The future of the book is secure. It’s what we do with it, how we promote it, how we develop it, and how we put new layers of meaning around it in a digital context which becomes extremely important.

Had the story about Worlock been ‘True’, it would have been hugely significant and an encouraging sign for an industry that is sometimes characterised as burying its head in the sand over the digital future (not least by me). And, by the way, it’s not the digital future that we should be concerned about. It’s already here: welcome to the digital present.
HarperCollins are already ahead of many publishers when it comes to digital, of course. But why are some publishers apparently reluctant to engage with today’s digital world? People often say to me that it’s a generational thing: it’s because the top execs of publishing companies are from a bygone age of print, and don’t ‘get’ digital. We have only to wait for the next digital generation to filter through, and then it’ll all be ok.
I just don’t buy that argument. I know senior people who totally get digital. I also know Bright Young Things who, while very well-read, can barely plug in an iPod. It’s not a simple generational correlation. And it’s not the technology that’s the hard part to change: it’s the attitudes and skills needed for today’s business environment.
I went to a session at this year’s London Book Fair run by Oxford Brookes, called ‘Publishing Skills for 21st Century Europe’. The Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies is a centre of excellence for publishing training, and rightly ahead of the trend, since they are among those training the next generation of publishers.
One of the observations made in the session was that skills such as innovation and entrepreneurialism are now more important than traditional publishing skills. That includes a willingness to embrace digital innovations, and an entrepreneurial attitude to respond to the market, embrace change and benefit from it.
Of course, most people who work in publishing haven’t actually taken a publishing course, and any shift in graduate training and recruitment will take a while to work its way through the industry. Meanwhile, a number of short CPD courses are on offer to help current staff get up to speed, from various institutions.
But, at the risk of churning out another cliché, I do think it’s time recruitment shifted away from English Literature graduates. An enthusiasm for the gothic novel is, perhaps, less important to the development of our industry than, say, a knowledge of digital media or business innovation. I am, of course, biased here, since I prefer to read geeky tech manuals and business books than novels. But I do worry about the prevalence of a page-sniffing mentality in some parts of the industry, which shows little sign of changing, and will leave those who adhere to it completely unprepared for what lies ahead.
Other industries are also wrestling with this issue. Advertising, for example, an industry typically ahead of publishing in these matters, is experiencing the same skills gap, as highlighted in a recent article in Marketing Week. Guy Phillipson, chief executive officer of the Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IAB), was quoted as saying:

The fact that there is an industry skills shortage is now widely acknowledged and steps are being taken to address it at all levels. New technology to aid the marketer is being created on an almost daily basis. The integration and convergence of digital and traditional media means that it is the responsibility of the whole industry to get to grips with online, and this wider shift in thinking will ultimately bring about further solutions.

The music industry has taken responsibility. The advertising industry is taking responsibility. It’s time for the publishing industry to take responsibility. The first step to recovery is recognising the problem – and doing something about it. That starts with training and recruitment.
It might not yet be time for people like David Worlock to occupy the top positions in our industry. But there will be a shift in skills, attitudes and personnel – there has to be. Cultural shift takes time, but it can be done, and I remain an optimist. The future’s bright: the future’s digital.

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Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a content writer, author, screenwriter, lecturer, blogger - and the founder of Publishing Talk. He was previously a publisher for 10 years. Publishing Talk aims to help new and emerging authors write, publish and sell books. Advice is available via the blog and our masterclasses and membership programme. More...

One thought on “the digital skills gap

  • Aaah “page sniffers”. Brings to mind many a bookshop visit, lodged in a dark corner, quietly inhaling paper and ink.
    What you say is true though. Self-confessed sniffer that I am, I’ve been amazed at how accessible getting a grasp on the basics of social media can be. If over the last ten years you have managed to use email or extract sales figures from various inventory databases, you have the ability to work your way through this brave new world.
    The problem is often with the perception of things: whether it be that literature graduates make the best candidates or that you have to be Bill Gates to handle this stuff, the reality is very different.
    People need to get out of their comfort zones, prioritise some time to read up on the subject or try out a short course. Once you realise what customers – young or old – are doing online, and what you can do at home on your laptop, you start to see how you can work with your content in all kinds of ways. The future’s bright indeed.

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