The Rising Stars program, now in its sixth year, is a project conceived and run by The Bookseller in association with Frankfurt Book Fair. It recognizes emerging leadership in the UK publishing industry. Publishing Perspectives’ series of interviews with some of the 40 members of the class of 2016 continues today with a personality familiar to many of us from her recent work with Pan Macmillan: Leena Normington. Since being selected a Rising Star, she’s left PanMac. And if you’ve noted a pattern of digitally dedicated players exiting the field, you might find her observations helpful. — Porter Anderson
By Alastair Horne | @PressFuturist
The Fading ‘Romance of Publishing’Best known among publishing’s people for making Pan Macmillan’s Book Break into a lively and engaging online publisher’s channel, Leena Normington (@leenanorms) helped move the energy and enthusiasm of the booktuber community toward the publishing mainstream.
“Our industry is often so in love with, and dedicated to, books that we can become insular in our approach…We need to stay agile.”Leena Normington
Now working at the Daily Telegraph, where she manages several programs including publishing, Normington is enthusiastic about challenges the industry faces—from retaining a young and talented workforce to building longer-term relationships with readers.
Publishing Perspectives: How long did you work in book publishing, and how did you begin? And what attracted you to the new role at The Telegraph?
Leena Normington: Without putting too lofty a cause to it, the books we decide to publish and the ones we actually succeed in getting into the public’s hands—not always the same thing—can turn a tide for a whole generation. Whether that’s a political message wrapped up in a story about a boy wizard, or a memoir that helps people finally understand an illness/race/class experience different from theirs, making sure books you believe in get to people who didn’t know they needed them is what brought me to the book industry.
At The Telegraph, I’m managing the publishing program, working with publishers on branded book deals, and managing the Telegraph Bookshop. I also manage their Dating and Ticket sites. Staying on top of and informed about those industries has been a great way to stop my tendency to think vertically about publishing.
Our industry is often so in love with, and dedicated to, books that we can become insular in our approach. This new role has really expanded my insight into all the new ways we should be looking to evolve the book industry. We need to stay agile.
PP: What do you see as your best effort so far in your work?
LN: I’ve enjoyed every role I’ve had, from export sales to publicity management, to producing Book Break for Pan Macmillan. I think it would be arrogant—and, more honestly, depressing—to think that my best is behind me. I’ve always put effort in, but I think the more you know, the more that effort becomes something successful, and the more likely that is to birth more energy, which logically would inspire me to work harder and learn more. So hopefully, that “best effort” is to come.
PP: What’s your biggest strength?
“Increasingly, publishers seem either unable or unwilling to offer a competitive wage to young and skilled publishers between the ages of 20 and 30.”Leena Normington
LN: I think that privilege is a huge problem in publishing, and—as a result of that—diversity, both in race and class. It affects who feels welcome in the industry, who feels able to stay, and ultimately which books end up being published and succeeding.
I’m working hard to try to see over the walls a little. My biggest strength is probably having a high resilience to embarrassment: in a professional sense, I’m always willing to ask the silly question, but in a moral sense I’m trying to find the best way to ask the awkward ones too.
PP: What’s your biggest weakness?
LN: My age means that I haven’t yet been able to see longer-term trends in publishing—life cycles of whole series of books—or had a better overview of how publishing works as a whole. I’m always happy to turn to those who have seen more or been around longer to ask, “Is this familiar to you?” or “Have you seen this happen before? What did you do?”
PP: Where do you want your career/work to be in five years?
LN: In a housing market like this, in five years I hope to have the sheer blind gumption to stay in London at all! But seriously, in five years I just want to be working with skilled people I can learn from, know that I’m helping the industry to soar, if not float, and perhaps be looking to start a publishing house myself.
“Publishing houses can no longer rely on the ‘romance of publishing’ to sweep talented workers into sticking around if they’re getting a raw deal.”Leena Normington
PP: And what’s the one thing that publishing as an industry needs to focus on most today?
LN: My biggest worry by far is who my colleagues will be in 10 years. Increasingly, publishers seem either unable or unwilling to offer a competitive wage to young and skilled publishers between the ages of 20 and 30—so much so, that I see my more talented peers either setting up on their own as freelancers or moving out of the industry entirely.
Whilst directors can see these candidates at the “beginning” of their careers, many already have unique skill sets (like coding, producing, online audience management) that publishing houses can’t claim to showcase or mirror in middle management positions. This can lead to young professionals feeling undervalued or under-managed, and a lot are turning to industries like tech, advertising or magazines to move up.
Coupled with the over-reported but very real debt and lack of financial leverage most people my age leave university with, that means that publishing houses can no longer rely on the “romance of publishing” to sweep talented workers into sticking around if they’re getting a raw deal.
It’s not through vanity or greed that younger professionals are moving on, but through necessity. It’s a story I’m hearing from peers all over the industry, and it saddens me to keep losing the innovative and young blood our industry desperately needs to compete in an ever challenging economy.
PP: You had so much success with Pan Macmillan’s Book Break YouTube channel. What did you and Pan Macmillan learn from it, and what should publishers be doing to engage reading communities better?
“Too often, I see superficial engagement with reading communities that lasts the length of a campaign or until publishers get a book sale..”Leena Normington
LN: I think the biggest misplaced arrogance I see in the industry is this referral to “building communities”—readers congregate naturally, often around libraries or bookshops, rarely publishers, and most commonly, around themselves. Engaging with those communities respectfully, hiring people that understand them and not being afraid to look at long-term outcomes is what will save publishers from being excluded from these spaces.
Too often, I see superficial engagement with reading communities that lasts the length of a campaign or until they get a book sale.
Publishers need to look past the aspiration for a spike sale on release, and look to becoming genuine members of reading communities themselves, as brands and as individuals.
In her Book Break video, “What Career Should I Choose”—which seems pertinent to her recently adjusted work life—Normington tells us that we can expect to spend 99,117 hour in our workspaces during the course of our lifetimes. It seems particularly apt to share that with you on a Monday. Here’s the video, from Pan Macmillan: