The Skills Publishers Need: A Self-Evaluation

In anticipation of January’s Digital Book World, where one panel was entitled “Skills Sets Publishers Don’t Have: How Do We Get Them or Deal with It?”, Publishing Trends sent a survey to a range of publishers, agents and industry insiders, asking them about this increasingly urgent issue.Of the respondents to our survey, 60% work for a book publisher and 20% are agents, followed closely by the self-employed; just over 5% are searching for jobs. When asked how comfortable they are with technology, 40% of respondents said they are “trying to stay on top of the digital now,” 23% are “poised to take on the digital future,” and 29% are downright “eager to check out the newest new thing.” Only 3.5% of respondents said they are “scared of anything that’s not on paper,” with another 3.5% who are hoping to finish their careers before they have to deal with this tech stuff. One respondent is “OBSESSED with all things digital,” but another wrote, “For the past ten years I have attended numerous lectures, seminars, and talks about the digital future for book publishing. I consider myself quite knowledgeable about the field, but the truth is I have no deep intellectual or professional interest in digital media. . . . My true interests are in literature and top nonfiction in my areas of interest.”

By a wide margin, respondents believe that marketing is the most digitally savvy area in publishing (51.8%), followed by— surprise—IT (19.6%), management (14.3%), and sales (9.8%). Editorial barely registers, at 1.8%.

Top Skills Respondents Would Like to Learn (or Improve) to Prepare Themselves for Future Job Advancement/Security:

  1. Online marketing (57.1%)
  2. Website/app development (44.8%)
  3. Social networking (42.9%)

Participants’ personal additions to this list included:

  • “Video and audio production on the web, podcast skills”
  • “UI/user experience expertise”
  • “Change management”

Only 14% wanted to sharpen their P&L skills, with a mere 5% interested in excelling at Excel.

Most of our respondents have experience with various tech-y endeavors. 80.4% have used a Kindle, Nook, or Sony e-reader; 62.6% have used an iPad. 34.6% say they’ve used “too many apps to count,” and 45.8% have tried creating a website, while 32.7% have tried creating a blog. 11.2% have tried self-publishing.

Those who answered the survey feel, for the most part, confident about their digital futures.

  • 51.8% are confident they can learn any skills they need to.
  • 31.3% are happy members of the digital classes.
  • 30.4% believe there is still a real need for people who possess their traditional skills. “My traditional skills and digital opportunities mesh quite well,” said one respondent.

But 8.9% worry they will not find another job if they can’t get with the digital program, and 6.3% worry they will not be able to stay employed given their lack of digital knowledge.

So if they were just setting out, how would our respondents go back and do it all over again? Most of them are happy with their chosen industry: “I recently got my MBA in hopes that I’ll have another leg to stand on if the ship goes down!” wrote one respondent.

Many respondents have looked for jobs recently, though most are still looking in publishing. One respondent suggested “marrying up” as a job option.

A question on how people who work in publishing differ from other media professionals generated a huge response and included comments such as:

  • “Thinking about content in the longer form and term.”
  • “They cling to the 20th century.”
  • “Interested in selling something that is and will be a ‘long-form’ product (this could be said of movies but not of TV, music, online).”
  • “More content-driven—the ideas and the way in which they are expressed are more important. For much media, the medium is the message.”
  • “We are smarter. Sometimes to our detriment.”
  • “They are readers first and foremost and well-educated. Talking about books they have read is what they consider fun, what turns them on.”
  • “Very slow to understand, let alone adapt to the digital tidal wave that will be sweeping the industry in the very near term.”
  • “More thoughtful, more congenial, by and large less innovative.”
  • “They think their product is sacred, are less willing to take risks, dress a bit more poorly, but still have a greater percentage of their souls left.”

New Skill Sets

How do our respondents learn new skills?

  1. “I immerse myself in whatever I need to learn, and just do it.” (56.4%)
  2. “I read websites/blogs to learn about these topics.” (55.5%)
  3. “I ask colleagues/friends to teach me.” (50%)
  4. “The company I work for helps me learn these skills, through information sessions, classes, etc.” (28.2%)
  5. “I read books to help me learn about these topics.” (25.5%)

Other responses: “I hire the youngest, most tuned-up kids I can find and love-bomb them.” “I Google early and often.”

And what skills do publishers need to succeed in the future?

  • “Flexibility and intellect. Everything else can be learned.”
  • “Blogging, reputation management, networking.”
  • “You need a solid business background, you can’t think that your job ends at 5:00, and you must have a healthy amount of skepticism about what people are calling ‘the next big thing.’”
  • “Capacity to acquire, filter, and internalize information; ability to diversify involvement; position oneself as close to the content/ copyright as possible.”
  • “The ability to change direction quickly. The ability to learn how to do an old job in a new way. The ability to express yourself clearly in the old-fashioned way.”
  • “1. Really understanding book readers. 2. Being intensely creative in communicating with book readers to break through massive digital clutter. 3. Measuring everything to know what’s really working and then know when it’s actually improving (or not).”
  • “The ability to market all subsidiary rights.”
  • “The ability to synthesize and analyze large swaths of data and make creative connections.”
  • “Profitability, profitability, profitability. If you can make your business money, you will always have a job as a content provider.”
Leave a Comment


  1. Feb 3, 20113:56 pm
    Peter Turner

    I think the most valuable skill people in publishing need to cultivate or acquire is the ability to think different. One way to begin is a thought experiment. I did this a couple of years ago, before he sh*t started to really hit the fan with traditional publishing. I began by assuming that almost everything I knew about publishing was wrong or at least outdated. Then, I looked at what is happening around me; how content was being created, curated, discovered, and consumed. Finally, I took a good long look at myself, my skills–not what I knew but what I knew how to do. This is a tough one, because we’re all so used to thinking of our job as a list of tasks, procedures, or accomplishments. The question is what lies underneath our ability to do these tasks and procedures or allowed you to make those accomplishments. So, if you an editor, for example, you have discernment as regards the quality of written content and some understand of why readers value that content; If you’re in design, you know how to engage the eye and present content in a visually arresting way; If you’re a marketer or a sales person, you know how to present content in the best possible light so that readers will engage what you’re presenting; If you’re a CEO or business person, you know how the business works (and how it, now, largely doesn’t work). By doing this, I was able to start to see how I fit in with what was happening with publishing and what direction I felt I had to go into.

  2. Feb 16, 20114:52 pm

    As electronic and online technology expands and social media becomes a prominent aspect of peoples daily lives it is no wonder that the majority of respontents want education about applications and book marketing.

    As a result of so many spammers an email announcement to bookstores and readers is longer as effective as it once was. Now a publisher must stay ahead of everyone and constantly find newer, better and more innovative ways to spread the word about their titles.

  3. Aug 16, 20135:00 am

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    a blog from start to end.

  4. Nov 12, 20131:25 pm

    Affter I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and noww each time a omment is added I get 4 emails with the samke comment.
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  5. Feb 7, 20143:00 pm

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