How to deal with disruptive change in publishing

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Last night, I took a trip up to Fleet Street, London, where BookMachine and Unite had arranged for a panel of expert speakers from the world of publishing to address the contentious issue of change.

At the United We Publish III event, the panellists were:

  • Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing
  • Hazel Cushion, founder and Managing Director of Accent Press
  • Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary at Unite the Union
  • Jacks Thomas, Director of the London Book Fair and
  • John Pettigrew, founder of We Are Future Proofs.

With such a diverse panel of experts, some of whom had effected change, some who had been on the receiving end of change, different perspectives on change were inevitable.  Surprisingly though, each speaker seemed to agree with one another’s advice on how best to manage change. This suggests that best practice exists when it comes to tackling change in an organisation. Here follows a summary of the panellists’ advice.

Specialise, but keep an eye on the big picture

Richard began with a whistle-stop tour of his experiences of publishing over 45 years. We were invited to imagine a time when publishing houses operated without computers and when bookshops were the only places where people bought books.  His aim was not to reminisce, but to illustrate that in many ways, publishing used to be simpler. As publishing has become more complex, we have evolved specialist roles and systems to deal with the challenges we face, such as globalisation (which Richard feels we still struggle with).  While he applauded the professionalisation of publishers, he also warned of the dangers of losing sight of the big picture. Individuals need to understand what their colleagues do and how the publishing house works in order for decisions that benefit the whole organisation to be made. He also warned about the danger of complex systems hampering the efficient journey of content. Publishers, he asserted, if they are doing their job well, should be an invisible intermediary between author and reader.

Give everyone a voice

Jacks Thomas took the view that as publishers are ‘chronicler of our times’, we have the responsibility to be at the vanguard of change.  This means embracing and adapting to necessary changes, engaging with the opportunities and challenges change presents and questioning the necessity of change.

As change is so omnipresent, Jacks suggested, we hardly notice it anymore, but as a manager, she feels that there are some rules that should be followed when an organisation engages with change.  In order to keep your team on your side, it’s essential to:

  • Give everyone a voice
  • Remain approachable and respectful
  • Allow your team to make mistakes and to learn from them without recriminations

Identify your strengths and weaknesses

Hazel Cushion talked about being at the sharp end of change. A self-confessed risk-taker, she is an advocate of embracing change, but also accepting the likelihood of occasional failure.

Accent Press is, without doubt, a success story. It’s won awards for its innovative, niche publishing. Hazel explains that it was necessary to be fearless to be successful. Accent Press plunged headlong into digital publishing when it was in its infancy and reaped the rewards.  Growing Accent Press seemed the logical next step.  However, when Hazel stepped back, acquired a middle management layer and grew Accent Press, profits declined.  It seemed that being ‘big and sensible’ didn’t suit Accent Press.

Hazel concluded that the strength of Accent Press is to find a niche in the market and to develop it quickly. A restructure was therefore on the cards.  Her message was that it’s necessary to understand the strengths that underpin your brand and to also be aware of its weaknesses.

Talk is the best way of negotiating change

Like Jacks, Tony Burke recognises the need to get ‘buy-in’ when negotiating change. Communication is key, he explained, to navigating change and listening to people’s fears was essential.

Manage change respectfully and positively

John Pettigrew reiterated the importance of communication when organisations are developing strategies or dealing with something as contentious as mass redundancy. He added that showing people respect is also essential.  His tips for doing this were:

  • To tell people well in advance of change
  • To undergo a period of consultation with people before and during the decision process
  • To invest in those people who do not want to accept the change you want to effect
  • To accept that the process might be messy
  • To listen to people who tell you that your idea ‘might not work’, even if this is unwelcome news
  • To look for the positive aspect of change, even though the situation may feel negative at the time

What does this all mean for freelancers?

We are often at the receiving end of organisational change as freelancers. For example, if publishing houses decide to outsource less, we are likely to receive fewer offers of work. Unfortunately, we are seldom privy to the bigger picture and understand only partially the situation that informs the decisions that affect us. How can we manage this? Although it’s tempting to look for answers, it’s perhaps unrealistic to do so. It’s probably more productive for freelancers to diversify in terms of skills and clients. Spreading our nets wider reduces the risk of being out of work.

However, as a freelancer, I feel slightly envious of the collaborative ways of managing change outlined by the panellists. There is clearly strength in numbers and, as change is often scary, comfort can be given by people who are in the same boat. I’m personally very glad of social media networks, where freelancers can support one another in closed groups, but I do wonder whether more could be done. Is there room and opportunity for a freelance Union, for example? Or would the existence of a freelance Union alienate the clients we are all doing our best to attract?

A final thought – I’m always slightly frustrated by comments such as ‘as a freelancer, you have more control over your work’. I’d agree that we have more control over the hours we work and to a degree the type of work we take on, so there is an element of choice. However, I’m unconvinced that freelancers are entirely masters of our own fate. By its very definition, freelancing means responding to a client’s needs. We can be proactive about attracting work, but we can’t create our own work. Does this mean that being a freelancer is, by definition, a reactive role? Is it our responsibility just to adapt to the change that is thrust upon us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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