30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

Recap on the New Education

My series late last year on the New Education (Agility, Resilience and Curiosity) prompted several comments from friends and acquaintances, a number of whom work as teachers or in the broader education sector.

Some of the feedback expressed frustration with the rigid structure and expected learning outcomes of current curricula – some teachers feel constrained by what/how they can teach. Rather than taking into account the holistic learning needs of students, most primary, secondary and even tertiary education is fixated on quantitative results, much of it geared towards formal STEM subjects. Whereas, in early childhood education, there is more of a focus on well-being and resilience, along with core learning and life skills. (But of course, if that resilience, agility and curiosity is not re-enforced at home or sustained beyond the classroom during those formative years, it may be a wasted effort….)

No doubt STEM subjects are important (to build the core technical skills we need for the future). Just as important is the inclusion of the arts (STEAM), for without creative skills, it becomes harder to interpret and then apply our technical learning to new situations. And let’s not forget the importance of play, even in a learning environment. A friend of mine provides extra-curricula classes in coding and robotics to primary school children. She finds that once the students have grasped the basics, unless they remain curious and are willing to explore what they have learned through play, they can’t progress to adaptive tasks such as creative problem-solving or identifying bugs in their programs. So they get bored and frustrated. The situation is not helped by many parents who want to know when their 10-year old “genius” is going to get to degree level computer science….

At the other end of the age spectrum, it’s clear that if we stop learning, and if we stop being curious, our agility in adapting to the career demands of the new world of work will be seriously depleted. The need to pursue our goals, passions and interests was explored in a recent discussion about late stage career transition on ABC Radio National. A major point being that if don’t put effort into managing our career, someone else will decide our future for us. Or we end up resenting the work we do. Similarly, I get frustrated by some former colleagues, who reach out to me for advice on how they can find their next work opportunity. When I explain my own recent journey, how I participated in a number of weekend hackathons, joined various meet-up groups, and attended numerous networking events, they say things like, “That sounds like hard work” – well, of course it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth doing.

The final word on curiosity should go to style icon, Iris Apfel. She maintains that being curious, and having a sense of humour, are vital to our existence. In fact, she goes as far as suggesting that she doesn’t have time for people who are not curious.

Next week: Manchester, so much to answer for…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new education #3: Curiosity

Week 3 (and final part) of “What they should be teaching at school” – Curiosity.

If curiosity is supposed to have killed the cat, then in my case, curiosity probably changed my life. Earlier in my career, I was offered the opportunity to relocate overseas. When I asked my manager why I had been chosen, he replied that I had “asked the right questions” to justify my selection. In fact, I had no idea that I was in contention for the role – I was simply interested in the new project from a business perspective. I hadn’t even considered whether I wanted the role itself – but my questioning apparently displayed the right amount of curiosity, and I was seen as the right fit for the job.

Being curious means you are less willing to simply accept something as “received wisdom”. It shows that you want to make sense of things for yourself. It helps you ask why things are done a certain way (especially if the answer is “because they’ve always been done this way…”). It demonstrates you want to find out how things work for yourself.

The downside is you may be more disbelieving, more sceptical, and prone to being suspicious. It can also mean you distrust certainty. But I would gladly take a level of ambiguity over a sense of complacency any day. A questioning nature can act as a defence mechanism against hype, cant and bullsh*t.

I hope kids learn how to take their early curiosity (and not just their knack for asking “but, why, mummy, why?”) into later life. Curiosity is how we learn to find our passions and interests outside the formal school curriculum and the set learning model. Our natural curiosity helps us to make sense of the world. I don’t think I would have developed any real critical thinking if I hadn’t strayed “off piste” and explored books that were not on the list of set texts.

Recently, I explained to a former colleague how I had participated in a number of startup and tech hackathons, even though I’m not a coder or programmer. My ex-colleague asked, almost in disbelief, “why would you do that?” Apart from being part of my journey into a new career path, my answer was simple: “Because I was curious, because I wanted to learn something, because I wanted to network and make new connections, and because I also wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”

In my view, if you stop being curious, you stop growing as a person, you stop developing your mental faculties, and metaphorically, you stop breathing.

Next week: Looking back on 6 years of blogging

 

 

The new education #2: Resilience

Week 2 of “What they should be teaching at school” – Resilience.

Life doesn’t always turn out how we hoped. Life isn’t always “fair”. And sometimes life just sucks. In the words of The Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Given that:

  • people entering the workforce now are likely to be made redundant at least 5 times during their career;
  • within the next few years, 40% or more of the workforce will be self-employed, contractors, freelancers, or employed in the gig economy, and therefore will be more reliant than ever on their own abilities to generate an income; and
  • an increasing number of today’s jobs will disappear through automation or other technology advances;

it makes sense to include resilience on the curriculum, to prepare students for the reality of the new economy.

As we are all too aware, having a degree or other formal qualification is no guarantee that candidates will get a job or role in the career of their choice. And even if they do, sooner or later they will have to consider a career switch – which may include having to make a sideways or even a backwards move in order to go forward in a new field or discipline. Plus some re-training or skill updates wouldn’t go amiss.

Resilience helps us to deal with life’s disappointments and overcome personal and professional setbacks. It can also help us to learn from those experiences – what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

While it’s important to provide a safe and supportive learning environment, I’m not a fan of  helicopter parents, so-called tiger parenting, let alone stage parents. Over-coddled kids are more likely to come unstuck (or go off the rails) at the first obstacle or challenge they face, especially in circumstances where they might not like the choices life has presented them.

I may be drawing a long bow here, but I can’t help thinking there is some sort of correlation between current concepts of modern parenting and education, and the higher incidences of allergies and mental illness – and maybe stronger resistance through greater resilience would help pupils cope with whatever gets thrown at them. Just saying.

Next week: Curiosity