Report from SFU Publishing Immersion, pt. 1 (I’m alive!)

Caleigh Minshall

I’ve now been at the Publishing Immersion at Simon Fraser University for a whole week. And wow, where to begin! It is even more exhausting than they say on the website. This is the first spare moment I’ve had to even sit down and write a blog! But the exhaustion is totally worthwhile, and in fact I’ve found that the more difficult aspect is the group work (and the group dynamics). Five to six hours of sleep every night, with days that run from 8:30am to at the very least 10:00pm (but more often until 11:00pm, or on one memorable occasion 12:30am) — well, let’s just say people get cranky! You learn a lot about how to work under stress and how to manage group time wisely. And, of course, you also learn a lot about publishing.

Maybe it would help if I started with this year’s participants’ demographics. I had no idea what to expect when I first started packing for the immersion last weekend. Would people be my age? What kind of jobs would they have? What are their backgrounds? Well, there are only four men out of 24 participants, for one thing. At 21 I’m also the youngest person in the workshop by at least (I think) a couple of years. It seems as if my fellow participants can be split into two groups of people: people in their mid-twenties who are trying to get into the industry (and may work at bookstores, small internet start-ups, or something entirely unrelated), and then there is a group of people who are 28+ years old who are either already well-established in the industry as editors and general managers or have significant experience in related industries like design or technology. There are, of course, exceptions; there are at least a few people over 40 who have less experience in publishing than some of the 30-year-olds. Overall, though, this two-group-split seems an accurate way of understanding who comes to the immersion. The dress code is casual, but not too casual, because many of the speakers are the big wigs that (some) participants are trying to impress — so you need to look pretty sharp! Some speakers are also some of the participants’ bosses, which heaps even more pressure on those people to perform. Then again I haven’t seen anyone at all wearing sweatpants in Vancouver, so maybe that’s just a local thing.

For me, the best part of this workshop so far has been the candid honesty of speakers and of fellow participants. Speakers use case studies involving real, recognizable people and companies (protected under the immersion’s ‘cone of silence,’ a term coined by Kristin Cochrane, publisher of Doubleday Canada). The speakers are often unafraid to express their own misgivings about the future of publishing and their own experiments in digital marketing and technologies. In fact, many of our speakers contradict each other …! But that’s part of why I’m having so much fun: there are no easy answers, nobody seems to have a clear vision of what publishing may look like in fifteen years, and in many ways our — the participants’ — ideas about the future of publishing seem as likely a possible outcome as everyone else’s predictions.

I won’t talk about who has spoken, because the entire faculty list (with bios!) is available on the SFU website. I will say that without exception each faculty member has been approachable, kind and extremely well-qualified to teach us — and they all had amazing ideas, too (although I didn’t always agree with them). However, I’ve also discovered that there is just as much value in learning from my fellow participants, if not more value (because the chances of my becoming an editorial or marketing person is much more likely than my becoming the CEO of Simon & Schuster, ha). For example, Julie Forrest (@jforrest on Twitter) works at Random House Canada in digital marketing, and she is one of the participants at the immersion — and I had also been following her on Twitter for months before even considering attending the workshop. Four of the participants are from Harlequin; they’ve been nicknamed the Harlequin Girls and they are all completely lovely. One woman is an assistant editor at Doubleday Canada (I may be getting her title wrong). Another is in marketing at New Society Publishers of D&M, and yet another is a publicist at Simon & Schuster. One of the men works at NeWest Press. I think another one of the men, whom I haven’t spoken with as much, works with a French publishing house in Quebec. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, too. Some of these people I’ve had the chance to sit down with for some time, and learning about their jobs, what they do from day to day, and simply how much they love their career has been worth all the hard work. There are many people here whom I will definitely be keeping in touch with after I leave.

The other half of the immersion, apart from the speakers, is the simulated publishing house that we run in our groups of six. My house is called Robson House. Each group is given a company profile; ours is that we are the Canadian branch plant of a huge multinational publisher, but that although we were once regarded as a ‘powerhouse of Canadian nonfiction,’ in recent years our titles have lacked focus and direction and we are now, sadly, haemorrhaging cash. Our task? To renew our relationships with prominent authors and agents and create a list that will begin to recover our old prestige — a list that will also turn a tidy profit, without any help from our multinational Mom and Dad. Each house has their own profile, but the common thread is that we each need to create a list of seven original titles (mainly nonfiction) and write TIs (Title Information sheets), P&Ls (Profit and Loss sheets), costing sheets, print specs, marketing plans, catalogue copy, and … well, that’s as far as we’ve gotten, so I’m not too sure what happens next week. We receive our assignment at around 5pm and it is technically due at 10pm, but more often than not everyone needs an extra one to three hours to complete everything — particularly because the faculty members often scrap title ideas after most of the work has been completed for them. Our group fortunately only had to redo three titles early on in the week based on faculty feedback; other groups, I’ve heard, have been forced to scrap 6+ titles over the course of several days before they found a list that the faculty loved.

I could go on for another 1000 words about group dynamics, digital opportunities and making the most of your experience here, but I think I’ll end with this for now: It’s been an amazing experience and I’d recommend it to anyone, and no matter how tired you are, never turn down a night on the town! If you’re interested in more detailed updates, you can also follow the workshop’s progress on Twitter using the hashtag #SPW.

Caleigh Minshall

About Caleigh

Intern at the Porcupine's Quill.
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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.