London Book Fair: Women in Publishing – interview with Jacks Thomas

© London Book Fair. For editorial purposes only.

Jacks Thomas, Direktorin der London Book Fair, lud auf der Frankfurter Buchmesse 2015 die BücherFrauen auf die London Book Fair 2016 ein. Für die BücherFrauen – Women in Publishing hatte ich die Gelegenheit, Jacks Thomas in London zu einem längeren Gespräch zu treffen. Darin sprach sie über den Buchmarkt im UK, die Londoner Buchmesse, Frauen in der Buchbranche und vieles mehr.

Das Interview führte Yvonne de Andrés.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Determined, supportive, creative.

What matters in your life?
Family, encouraging and supporting talent at work and in young people across my industry. I am also passionate about promoting a reading culture in the UK. Literature and reading have given me so much in my life and I firmly believe in the book’s role in opening doors to other people’s lives and views. Surely an attribute more important than ever in today’s world.

Since 2013 you are the Director of The London Book Fair. What could you move during this time?
Firstly, I’d like to say that The London Book Fair has been a fantastic and inspirational show for the 45 years since it was created. So when I joined it was important that the Fair retained all the qualities and character which make it so popular with exhibitors and visitors while responding to changes in publishing. It is fundamental that we innovate every year to reflect this evolution. To this end, my team and I have implemented many changes over the last three years.
We’ve expanded the scope of the Fair to make it more attractive to people in the wider creative industries, and as a result, we now welcome more delegates from industries outside of publishing, such as TV, film, advertising, gaming etc. We’ve also made the Fair more appealing to different audiences within publishing, such as education and academic publishers, launching standalone conferences, show floor theatres and seminar streams to cater to these sectors. In recognition of emergingtrends we’ve expanded our technology offering and introduced whole new areas of the show, such as Author HQ, which every year brings in a growing number of aspiring and self-published authors. These are just a few examples, but generally each year we look at every single aspect of the fair, take feedback on-board and then apply a great deal of strategic and creative thinking to improve our offering.

What were the biggest challenges?
During my time here, the most important challenge I’ve faced is without doubt moving the Fair from its previous location at Earls Court, soon to be luxury apartments, to London Olympia. The whole process involved a great deal of consultation with all our stakeholders and then the logistics of completely reimagining the Fair from scratch with a totally new layout, which was no small task. Keeping our exhibitors and visitors happy is always at the front of our minds, and now two years on since we moved I’d like to think everybody is getting more accustomed to the new venue and their space within it.

Who is the audience of The London Book Fair?
The Fair welcomes around 25,000 visitors from over 130 countries and over 1,500 international exhibitors. The attendees are generally anybody who is involved with the creation, distribution, sale or treatment of content, which typically includes authors, talent scouts/agents, editors, designers and technology folk.

What is special about The London Book Fair?
Firstly, its location. London is indubitably the or one of the leading creative capitals of the world and a very significant centre of publishing. When it comes to international publishing rights deals the LBF is where many of the year’s most noteworthy transactions are made and where a great deal of next year’s bestsellers are born. In this regard, as a major rights event, it is truly unique – perhaps the single most significant global rights business event in the calendar year. It’s one of the few opportunities the international publishing industry gets to come together and the fact that it’s in London, the world’s cultural capital, makes it even more appealing. It’s a fantastic place to network, make fresh introductions, reinforce relationships and learn new things.

What is the award “Author of the Day?
It’s not actually an award as such, but each day at LBF, during the course of the three days, we honour a different bestselling author, celebrating their success and contribution to the publishing industry. The Author of the Day programme showcases the author’s work and incorporates a jam packed schedule, including In Conversation events, book signings, photo calls, media interviews and meetings with international publishing contacts. They are essentially guests of honour for the whole day. This year we welcomed Marian Keyes, Professor Nick Bostrom and Judith Kerr together with three special Shakespeare Authors of the Day, Howard Jacobson, Jeanette Winterson and Tracy Chevalier. Additionally we generally have a special guest author and were delighted to welcome Julian Fellowes to the fair this year.

How do you assess the situation of the British booksellers?
I think British booksellers, of all shapes and sizes, have had to change to compete in the current marketplace. The response to the challenges on bookshops has been phenomenal and we now have some of the best bookshops and most passionate booksellers in the world.The fact that so many physical bookstores have survived, unlike the decline in record stores after their digital transformation, is testament to the hard work booksellers put in to stock all the right books, establish lasting relationships with readers, engage with local communities, market themselves to readers, put on fun events. We, at LBF, are delighted to support key initiatives like Books Are My Bag, which promotes the sector to the public. Bookshops are important assets to our high street, our culture and our heritage, and I’m so glad to see that, in contrast to many other retail sectors, bookselling has been comparatively resilient. 

What are the biggest challenges for publishers today?
I think the main challenge is increased competition and getting cut through. I’m not talking about the competition between publishers, as that has always existed. But now that the field has opened up so much with – among others – crowdfunding platforms, self-publishing platforms, free online content – publishers have competition in every direction. In addition it is challenging to ensure your titles and authors cut through all this noise and get noticed by readers. That said, publishers have always been innovative, adaptable and creative as is evidenced by some of the fantastic content being produced across both the academic and trade sectors.

How do you see the career development possibilities in the publishing industry?
Publishing, like other industries, has to keep reskilling current workforce as well as bringing in new talent from outside. Something the UK appears to do very successfully. The process has been escalated with the digital revolution and the need for people who understand social media and technology is obviously very important. Many big publishing companies have bought up successful reading platforms and start-ups as well as wanting to encourage more innovation from within and many have exciting opportunities for people with good ideas. Personally, I think that there is some incredible young talent out there which is why we launched our Trailblazers Awards in order to showcase those who are doing brilliant work in their twenties.

Who are the important role models for women in the publishing industry? How do you see the labour situation for women in the publishing industry? What is the perspective? Which approaches are there that gender equality works?
I think publishing needs to address diversity in its workforce across the board – recruiting from all parts of society and across the country. Not only is it sensible to recruit from the widest talent pool, it will also mean the industry can reach a wider audience base through the books that are commissioned. LBF is proud to support diversity campaign EQUIP, run by the Publishers Association and IPG.
In terms of women in particular, I know that publishing has a preponderance of brilliant and powerful women from Baroness Gail Rebuck to Jessica Kingsley. Not to mention that the only publishing figure who made it into The Guardian’s media power list was a woman – JK Rowling. Also the top-selling author of books through Nielsen Bookscan last year was Julia Donaldson. I think publishing needs to promote, recognise and celebrate talent and I am always keen to mentor and promote younger people in the industry. I think that publishing is one of the most flexible industries for women to return to work post maternity leave and I hope that it continues to be so.

Publishing is a women’s world: Gender inequality in the writing industry.
It has been fascinating to see the switch in authorship of self-published titles with women taking up a larger percentage of successful writers. A survey in The Guardian last year found 67 % of top 100 self-published books were by women, compared to 39 % of top 100 traditionally published books. Certainly the new skills writers have had to acquire to promote their works from Twitter and blogs and forming networks (such as Killer Women) seem to have had a part in democratising the publishing industry and giving more writers the chance to get their works out to readers.

Is self-publishing one of the most important transformations in the publishing industry?
Independent publishing is now essentially an industry in its own right. Self-publishing a book used to be an expensive, time-consuming and arduous process for authors, but now it is incredibly easy to navigate through it all. Everything from editing to production, and funding to marketing, can all be done relatively affordably, conveniently and quickly using online platforms. As a result, more authors are publishing more titles (predominantly digitally) than ever and consequently during the last few years we’ve witnessed the birth of this rather buoyant new parallel book industry. However, so far, authors who gain a readership through independent publishing have subsequently taken traditional publishing deals. So it seems that the two industries are symbiotic and not always in direct competition. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey, which did amazingly well as a self-published ebook but didn’t become a runaway international bestseller and cultural phenomenon until Random House took it on and published it around the world. Nothing stands still and publishing certainly hasn’t!

How do you see the German bookmarket? Where do you see similarities and differences to Britain?
I am in awe of the German book market – it is huge! The second largest publishing market in the world, boasting the most active audiobook audience in the world, the German book market is one to be reckoned with.
It’s fascinating to keep an eye on titles and authors that do well in Germany and where that allies to the UK and where that diverges. I loved seeing the success of Darm mit Charme (Gut! In English) a few years ago. Hall 3 at Frankfurt Book Fair is a must attend for me each year given the passion and pride you see there from the German publishers. It’s always interesting to see which cultural phenomena translate across markets, such as colouring books, and which don’t.
We have plenty in common – rich literary heritage, high levels of reading and reader engagement, a mutual hunger for importing quality translated works, to name a few. Differences? I struggle to find them as a passion for publishing and books unite us all.

Jacks Thomas, we thank you for this interview.

BücherFrauen auf der London Book Fair

Vom 12. bis zum 14. April 2016 fand die London Book Fair statt. Einige Kolleginnen waren vor Ort und berichten von ihren Eindrücken, zum Beispiel auf dem BücherFrauen-Blog.

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