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27 May 2021

Independent publishing in 2021: change, challenge and opportunity

Publishing work is changing faster than ever before, but for people with the right skills and agility, it’s still a great industry to be in.

Those were two of the headline messages at the IPG’s Spring Conference in mid-May, which welcomed nearly 600 people to hear from over 45 speakers, with the opportunity to network—albeit virtually..

The Conference looked back on the host of disruptions that publishers have faced since early 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated of course, but macro issues like Brexit, urgent cross-industry questions around sustainability and diversity, and sector-specific concerns like Open Access and budget cuts have all forced businesses to think afresh about the way they operate.

The evolution of tech

Another challenge, and a big theme of the Spring Conference, has come from technology. Keynote speaker Azeem Azhar suggested we are in an “exponential age”, with technologies evolving faster than we have ever known. Sessions on ecommerce, social media and audio all confirmed the massive changes that have emerged in the way we produce, promote and sell content now.

Tech has also altered the skills required of publishing professionals and the way they operate—not least during the pandemic, when home working and video calls have become routine. As Publishing Training Centre tutor Alysoun Owen said in a session on publishing skills, digital expertise is now essential.

Wellbeing matters

Peter Cheese of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development questioned whether our working lives would ever return to their pre-pandemic ways, and said employers had been prompted to reconsider how they look after their staff. “Covid has forced us all to pay more attention to how we connect with people… and to look after their wellbeing better. We’ve got to carry that forward.”

In an important follow-up session on mental health, coach Paul Bulos said the stresses of juggling home and work lives had taken their toll on many people. “Burnout is a serious mental health issue, and it’s important we all know the signs and how to respond. It’s increasing, and the impact can be devastating.”

Reasons to be confident

Amid all the personal and professional challenges facing everyone at the moment, several top independent publishers suggested there are lots of reasons to be confident. “It’s an exciting and optimistic time, despite the worries we’ve been through, said SAGE’s Ziyad Marar, who said the pandemic has shown independent publishers at their most creative and innovative. “I’m very optimistic about the future for indies,” agreed Kogan Page’s Helen Kogan. “There’s never been such a level playing field between small and large publishers.”

A Conference session with a couple of new publishers showed it has been possible for start-ups as well as established companies to thrive. “We’ve all learned to be agile, and to find new ways to do things,” said Diana Broccardo of Swift Press. “It’s been encouraging to see how resilient publishing has been… we should embrace the chaos,” added Rachel Williams of Magic Cat Publishing.

The value of bookshops

Faber & Faber’s Stephen Page said the pandemic and lockdowns had reminded everyone that publishers contribute a great deal to the cultural and educational life of the country. “People have reached out to us for consolation and inspiration during the pandemic… What we do really matters.”

A retail-focused Spring Conference session showed that Covid has had a similarly positive effect on people’s perceptions of bookshops. Waterstone’s’ James Daunt said that while consumers had been buying books online during lockdowns, they had badly missed their visits to physical stores. “People have been craving the inviting atmosphere of bookshops… they’ve realized that they need to use independents or lose them,” added Andy Rossiter of Rossiter Books.

Facing the future

With pandemic restrictions and Brexit-related challenges easing, publishing can hopefully look forward to more settled times – as well as physical rather than virtual conferences, book fairs and training at long last. But it is already clear that some things will never return to pre-Covid norms. The last year has led publishers to think deeply about their purpose and identity, said Stephen Page. “The pandemic has made us all consider what matters… and how we become the best version of ourselves in the future. It’s incumbent on all of us to lean in and bring to bear the opportunity we have to create a world in which we all thrive.”


The IPG provides a wide range of events, resources and services to help independent publishers do better business. It has around 600 members with combined turnover of more than £1 billion.

For more about its work, visit its website or follow on FacebookInstagramLinkedIn  and Twitter.