Decoding Diversity – the 13th Annual Publishing Innovation Conference

For the past thirteen years, the London College of Communication has been delighted to play host to a very special series of one-night-only assemblies: the annual Publishing Innovation Conference. Organised from the ground up by the hardworking students of MA Publishing, the conference brings together guest speakers from across the professional publishing world to encourage new ideas, fresh perspectives and answers to some of the industry’s most daunting challenges.

2017 has been no exception. For this year, the conference was organised around a singular theme: ‘Decoding Diversity’, a hard look at the state of affairs in the industry with regards to reflecting ever increasing multiculturalism in both society and readership. We were honoured to have four fantastic guest speakers attend the conference on 27th April:

Aidah Ahmed – commissioning editor at Little, Brown Book Group,

Anne Beech – Managing Director of Pluto Press,

Jack Self – Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Real Review,

Natasha Mackenzie – Founder of Pretty&Inked.

With all attendees registered and ready by 6pm, it was time to launch the event! Alice Caprio, our first MA Publishing representative for the evening, bid everyone a warm welcome to both the venue of Lecture Theatre B, and to the conference itself, before providing a brief outline of the itinerary for both attendees and special guests alike.

With things officially underway, it was time for our esteemed colleague Kathryn O’Regan to take the chair for the first of our activities – a panel discussion on the nature of diversity, what it means, what it can represent, the current landscape of diversity in publishing, and what we’re currently doing right and wrong concerning diversity. With introductions (and self-introductions) swiftly conducted, our panellists got down to a fantastically full and frank discussion on each of these points.

“Diversity is something we are aspiring to be”, observed Aidah. “I’m retiring at the end of the year, and my successor I’m delighted to say is a woman”, Ann enthused. “We’re using portals to help women reach out to their male counterparts”, Natasha added. For a full forty-five minutes, the conversation swept back and forth between all participants, with anecdotes, notes and jokes galore, making the whole segment a riveting dialogue from start to finish. We may not have answered the big questions, but we certainly sunk our teeth into them.

What quickly became highlighted over the course of the evening was the sheer extent of intersectionality that is possible when it comes to talking about diversity. Guest speaker Jack Self treated us all to some compelling comparisons to certain facts about the history of architecture, and how issues of gender have impacted the thinking behind design and structural decisions (both positively and negatively). “Even in the 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for married couples to be in twin beds. A theory of feminist realism, of the right of matrimonial relations, informed the rise to prominence of the double-bed”. Ultimately, one understanding emerged that had heads nodding all round – that diversity must be a driving ambition, a goal. “It’s one thing to get more diverse people in through the door, but you need to support them and you need to help them rise” – Aidah.

Every good conference knows that as much as it’s all about the conversations, not all of the best ones happen under a spotlight, and especially not when people have talked for the best part of an hour without much refreshment. At 7.15, it was snack time! Guests and speakers treated themselves to only the finest selection of edibles and drinkables available to a modest MA course recreation budget (so maybe more Jaffa cakes and tea than vodka martinis and oysters), and it just went to show the calibre of personalities assembled for the evening that even a casual situation such as this break prompted so many conversations about the evening’s theme. What’s more, the break afforded guests and attendees the opportunity to check out an especially made zine-fair and exhibition of various works made by current students! As impromptu feedback sessions go, this was an unmistakeably warm one.

With one and all refreshed, it was time for the second major component to the evening’s itinerary – the debate. Who is more equipped to deal with diversity in publishing, the indies or the commercial publishers? Our speakers obligingly divided themselves into two ‘teams’, but the funny thing about gathering together an eclectic line-up of professionals for a back-and-forth contest of philosophies: they kind of end up agreeing an awful lot. Moderated by fellow MA Publishing student Suzette Dorrielan, the debate produced yet more arresting insights into the fundamental quandary of ‘where do we start’ when it comes to the fostering of diversity in the industry. Ann may have put it best when she commented on how “diversity is not just how the industry is comprised of people, but the voices it brings to life”, and that the infrastructure of large-scale companies must be diversified before content can be authentically diverse. Natasha stressed the frustration of pursuing an endgame as simple as changing definitions of what women are allowed to do. A few fun facts were thrown into the mix that really hit home amongst the gathered attendees, such as Jack’s statistic that more than 50% of architecture students are women, but only 19% in the profession itself. Another one that practically caused the entire conference to face-palm was that in the United States there are more men named John leading major companies than there are women leading major companies. Little tidbits such as these really grounded the abstracts of these conversations in concrete, everyday reality, an invaluable ingredient to any serious discussion of how to affect change.

All good things must come to an end however, and for the 2017 Publishing Innovation Conference that time came with 8.30pm. Mistress of Ceremonies Alice Caprio took the stage to bid each guest speaker a heartfelt thanks on behalf of organisers and attendees alike. A last healthy dose of social unwinding was accommodated for with wine and a variety of edible goodies (essential for any decent networking opportunity), at least whilst the MA Publishing team quickly ran through the tidying up process. A much deserved shout-out to the conference’s most key organisers: Yuting Huang, Maria Sibirtseva and Natasha Mackenzie (both Organiser-In-Chief AND guest speaker) to name a few. The MA Publishing team would like to extend a collective thank you to all our splendid guest speakers who graciously gave up their time to take part. Your input made the evening a very special occasion and worth every minute! Finally, the team simply cannot go without thanking the support from both the staff of the MA Publishing program, and the facility services of the London College of Communication.

Bring on PIC 2018!

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