Monday, 14 March 2011

IPG Conference 2011: (Social Networking) Butterflies Emerge from their Cocoons

South by Southwest may be dominating the American creative psyche at present, but on a somewhat different scale over here in the UK last week's IPG conference near Chipping Norton was the biggest and most vibrant to date. It was a meeting of startling juxtapositions: olde worlde Cotswold charm on the approaching back roads to a stunning modern venue. And in an ironic illustration of the pitfalls of misalignment between technology and content, top quality sessions on social media delivered in a state-of-the-art lecture theatre where a near total lack of Internet connection and blocked mobile phone signals were reducing the twitterati to frustration (and good old analogue pen and paper).

This was my 12th IPG conference and the organization has blossomed in the time since my first event at The Royal Hotel, York in 1999, when as the organization's new "Secretary", I was nervously navigating the first of my six annual conferences at the helm. Over the twelve years since then not only has the IPG changed, but the landscape of publishing and bookselling has irreversibly altered. (To say seismically altered would be disrespectful of those caught up with the horrific natural disaster currently unfolding in Japan, and which puts all of our preoccupations into perspective.)

Back then, independent publishers and the IPG were usually the butt of industry jokes and looked down upon by their corporate cousins. Horace Bent made free on the last page of The Bookseller with pithy observations about the average age of IPG members being older than the Deity. Having a panel of major book retailers to speak at the conference would have been an impossibility, and no-one had the slightest inkling of what online sales were going to do to the market. In 1999, Beverley Hodson, then in charge of WHS, delivered the keynote in which she enjoined the audience to bear with WHS as they were dealing with the legacy of a large, outdated organisation, by which she meant their arcane warehouse. I wonder how long before a Waterstone's CEO describes the Hub as a legacy issue. Later the same day, Michael Schmidt, MD of Carcanet told the audience that he took a "forestry ecology approach" to publishing, Paul Clifford of Lion Hudson talked about collaborating with other independent publishers on seasonal (Easter) in-store promotions and Bob Rooney of T&F US made some pithy (and colourful) observations about the book industry's approach to Customer Services.

Interesting to note that what the publishers were saying in 1999 (about niches, markets and customers) has maintained more currency than the retailer's contribution. How moribund and Canute-like some (but not all) modern retailers seem in contrast to today's independent publishers. And how ironic that some of the very qualities that made independent publishers so unfashionable in 1999 are those that are enabling them to emerge as victors in 2011.

IPG publishers are almost all specialist in one way of another. Most have a level of detailed customer and market knowledge unimaginable to their corporate competitors. Knowledge they own and don't need to buy from Nielsen. In an era of Twitter and other social media, publishing to an audience you know by name is an enviable position. Independent publishers are engaging with their customers online in ways the corporates cannot emulate, because these indies are already deeply integrated in the dialogue and community of their specialist markets. They are able to use social media to share and engage and not simply to broadcast. Inspired tweeting from a different period of history each week by a member of the Osprey team, or the way in which children's publisher @nosycrow - herself a refugee from corporate life - engages with parents online could not be a greater contrast to excruciating Publicity Dept tweeting from some of the corporates. (Perhaps the IPG should organise the equivalent of the annual "bad sex" award for the crassest book tweeting.)

Last week's conference was absolutely remarkable for the way in which an atmosphere of excitement and optimism pervaded the group. Given fears about inflation and the prospect of a double-dip recession there can't be many industry groups that are genuinely so excited about what the future has to offer, and how new technologies are going to help them achieve their aims. Over in the US, Mike Shatzkin has been talking for a while now about the emergence of vertical markets as a response to changing technologies. IPG publishers provide some excellent examples of the points he is making.

Useful links:
Mike Shatzkin's blog
Osprey Blogs

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