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Conference Reports York 2015 (selection only)

Our thanks to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) and the individual authors of the following reports (originally pubhlished in the SfEP newsletter, Editing Matters) for permission to reproduce them here.

The buzz of 'big books'
John Thompson
Reported by Paula Clarke

The Whitcombe Lecture was ‘The transformation of Anglo-American trade publishing’ by John B Thompson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He began by stating his sociological approach, based on Bourdieu, introducing ‘fields’ as places of power, each with its own ‘logic of the field’.
The field of Anglo-American trade publishing is at a critical juncture because of recent social and economic changes. First is the growth of retail chains, with fewer independent booksellers, escalating discounts and the ‘hardback revolution’. Second is the rise of literary agents, where today’s ‘super-agents’ (such as ‘The Jackal’, Andrew Wylie) are prepared to poach authors and make enemies. Third is the emergence of publishing corporations dominating the industry, such as Penguin/Random House.

These changes have led to polarisation of the field, with medium-sized publishers dying out. Huge author advances are problematic, such as that for Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, which lost ‘shedloads of money’. A preoccupation with big books (ie ‘hoped-for bestsellers’) attempts to maximise sales on a smaller list of books. Big books require ‘buzz’ (talking up) but are a gamble. This can mean extreme publishing – ‘closing the gap’ in profits by bringing ‘pretty bad’ books to market quickly (see Hilton, Paris). Publishers face shrinking windows in bookstores (‘visibility does not come cheap’) and high returns. There is also the impact of the digital revolution, with a surge in demand for ebooks from 2008 but a levelling off since 2012.

Looking to the future, Professor Thompson concluded that existing pressures will only intensify for the co-existent cultures of print and digital. This thought-provoking lecture covered much important ground (and for me was mercifully light on Bourdieu). This ‘logic of the field’ is in revolution: who knows where it will lead? In the end, as John Thompson admitted, his hunch may be no better than anyone else’s.

Using Word professionally
Kathleen Lyle and Anne Waddingham
Reported by Mandy Bailey

I normally work with PDF files and so I’m wary about taking on Word document jobs. I was keen to see what this workshop had to offer.

The topics covered were file management, navigation, shortcut keys and controlling Word’s bad habits. Starting with the basics of file organisation, we quickly learned the importance of file compatibility, particularly if dealing with equations. This type of ‘simple to more advanced’ approach ensured there was something for everyone throughout the session. The ‘keeping Word under control’ section was most illuminating – who knew you could create a personal tab with links to all the things you need the most? Certainly not this newbie! The tips about customising the ribbon (and importing this to a different machine), understanding icons, using a quick-access toolbar and turning off those annoying ‘Word knows best’ auto-corrections were invaluable. The session also covered working with different languages, creating your own shortcuts, the usefulness of the ‘more’ tab to use the subtleties of some non-intuitive tools, how to find the ‘hidden horrors’ in a document and how using the navigation panel can help identify problems.

The pace and variation of the session could have been improved slightly by a more even time-split between the two presenters. This might have also helped contain the frequent ‘personal anecdotes’ from the floor, which although interesting, and sometimes helpful, occasionally took us off on tangents costing valuable time.

All in all, it was very worthwhile. I definitely have more confidence in using Word professionally now.

Finance for freelances
Nigel Jones

Reported by Stephanie Gardham

As a newcomer to the world of being a freelance, I signed up to the session on finance to check that I was ticking all the right boxes for the tax man. The attendees appeared to be a mixture of newbies like me and members nearing the end of their editing career, looking for retirement advice.

Nigel Jones, a local accountant, who has run his own business since 29 February 1988 (he has a thing for numbers and dates!), led the session. First, Nigel showed us a basic spreadsheet to help us work out what we needed to earn each hour in order to achieve the net salary we wanted each year; there is a calculator on his website (

The remainder of the session was focused on tax. Two things I wasn’t going to claim for, but now am: travel (even on a bike!) and my mortgage (including the interest). The suggestion of claiming mortgage payments was questioned by many, because of implications regarding Capital Gains Tax. However, Nigel said that you are only liable if you use your house exclusively for business.

Of course, there was a caveat: rules change. So, make sure you check before you fill out your tax return each year, and seek professional advice if in doubt! The session was really useful, and has given me the confidence to run my own finances.

Building your client base
Moyra Forrest and Alan Rutter

Reported by Katherine Trail

As a new freelance, a session entitled ‘Building your client base’ seemed something of a no-brainer to me, and I was eager to find out what nuggets of advice fellow editors, proofreaders and indexers would have for someone just starting out on a new career.

It quickly became apparent, however, that the issue of building your client base is not one suffered just by those new to freelancing. It was interesting to hear the perspectives of experienced freelances who were looking to diversify and expand their client base, having perhaps become uncomfortable with relying on just one or two big clients.

Unfortunately, the magic bullet was not forthcoming, but to me, as a naturally curious (nosey) person, the session was fascinating, as it provided a real insight into the career paths of colleagues and also gave rise to quite a healthy discussion on various successes (and failures) we had suffered with marketing. The consensus was that editors and proofreaders are often quite a modest bunch, and marketing is something that many of us could improve on.

Transferable skills were highlighted, and the subsequent round-table discussion was extremely illuminating as it highlighted the wide skillset we all have and can use as freelance editors, proofreaders or indexers – whether from a previous, unrelated job or a personal interest (eg involvement in amateur theatre giving an insight into play editing). And one look at the transferable skills checklist we were provided with has made me realise that, yes, I do actually have some useful skills!

The magic of the movable book
Paul Johnson
Reported by Gillian Clarke

I wasn’t certain what I’d signed up for, but the description of Paul Johnson as a pop-up book artist was a good clue to part of this session. Paul travels the world with his scheme for developing literacy through book art. To help children get to grips with writing, he works with them in folding sheets of paper to make a little book each. Pupils then plan the content and write in the pages.

We had great fun working on sheets of paper, from A4 to A2, folding and cutting them according to his instructions. He also gave us two double-sided sheets with diagrams showing how to fold and cut paper to make a wide variety of shapes. Something to do in the winter evenings?

Paul had a wonderful array of items to show us. Some were copies of the little books made by pupils but others were examples of his paper engineering. They were amazing: complicated structures that were made out of strong paper he’d coloured using dyes. Because the structures are so easy to damage when travelling, he has developed ways to construct them so that they fold down flat for transport. The structure often has a story tucked away, such as the ‘Three Little Pigs’ and ‘Old Mother Hubbard’. Paul concluded by showing us his flat Noah’s Ark, and then (one, two, three!) flicking it open to its glorious 3D shape. What talent!

Adverbs are more expensive
David Crystal
Reported by Julia Sandford-Cooke

The after-dinner speech at the conference is always eagerly anticipated. It is difficult for a speaker to tell whether the audience will be benevolent or critical, depending, probably, on the amount of wine taken. This year, as Julia Sandford-Cooke reports, for the SfEP’s honorary vice-president, David Crystal, it was definitely the former kind of audience.

 ‘It says on my badge,’ began David Crystal, ‘“After-dinner speaker”.’ He is, of course, far more than just that. As a linguistics professor, prolific writer, consultant and broadcaster, his contribution to the study of language has been immense. In his role as the vice-president of the SfEP, he has entertained editors at many conferences, and began his talk by endearing himself to indexers too: ‘Good evening or, to members of the Society of Indexers, evening, good.’

As usual, Professor Crystal was candid about the opportunity to promote his new book, this time Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation. He recalled advising Lynne Truss not to write about the subject because ‘nobody buys books on punctuation’. ‘Three million books later,’ he added, ‘I hate her.’

A skilful and confident speaker, Professor Crystal made what was really a series of snippets and anecdotes into a coherent talk, aided, of course, by humour and a shared understanding with his audience. He concluded with an unlikely but hilarious story from his time working at the Survey of English Usage in the 1960s. Alone in the office one day, he answered the phone to a man asking the price of supplying adjectives for a shoe advertisement. Convinced the caller was a mischievous colleague, he replied that they were sixpence each and cheaper by the dozen. ‘We also have a very good line in adverbs: they’re more expensive as they depend on the verbs, which themselves are essential to the clause structure, so they are a shilling.’ Of course, the order turned out to be real, and the linguists duly supplied the words ‘via Roget’s Thesaurus’. The customer was effusive in his appreciation.

Judging by the length of the queue for a signed copy of Professor Crystal’s book, the SfEP audience was, too.

Work–life balance for freelances
Alison Rutter and Janette Griffin
Reported by Luke Finley

First session, the morning after the gala dinner, and I wasn’t quite ready to do more than ‘just exist’, but duty calls … Besides, any new tips and techniques on this subject are particularly relevant to me: I have a chronic pain condition, fibromyalgia, which only exacerbates the strain we all face from long hours hunched over a keyboard.

Occupational therapist Alison Rutter and Alexander Technique practitioner Janette Griffin gave a good basic overview of the risks of ignoring work– life balance or the physical aspects of working style. There was some relevant discussion of the added pressures of freelancing – such as the pressure to say ‘yes’ and blurred lines between work and home life.

But in the two hours available, we could have gone deeper. More focus on real-life examples from participants, discussion and suggested solutions would have gone further in answering the key question: ‘what can I do about it?’ We came away with useful handouts, for example detailing how to apply the Alexander technique in practice, but the workshop itself missed the opportunity to teach this by example by demonstrating on volunteers.

Most attendees had their own examples of problems caused by posture, etc, and few said that they had their work –life balance right, so this subject is undoubtedly worth revisiting at future conferences. This session was maybe best seen as a ‘taster’ for a more in-depth, solution-focused approach next time around.

Building a good client relationship
Jane Read and Philip Stirups
Reported by Amelia Smithers

Jane Read, a full-time freelance indexer, and Philip Stirups, an in-house editor at Ashgate Publishing who has project managed over 150 books, spoke about how to build up a good relationship with your clients. Philip Stirups said: ‘Negotiation skills are the key to managing relationships; it is not just about getting enough money. It is about building a relationship with the people you are going to be working with.’

He advised his audience to think in advance about what they were going to say and what they needed to know about the job. He also advised them to always end discussions on a positive note but to remember that it was always possible to turn down a job if the conditions were not right: ‘Even the most experienced of us needs to sleep!’

There was some discussion with the participants about whether to negotiate with clients by telephone or by e-mail. Jane Read emphasised that with new clients it was important to be as professional as possible and to at least obtain an agreement in writing, as opposed to just a verbal agreement. She said that it was important to remember that good relationships take time to establish and could be destroyed in minutes.

There was quite a bit of discussion about how to negotiate fees, and advice on how to renegotiate deadlines and chase up bad debts.

Social media marketing
Ruth Ellis
Reported by Denise Cowle

Ruth Ellis from the Society of Indexers took us through how to use social media to market ourselves. We looked at the importance of having a presence online for prospective clients, both to locate you and to verify who you are. Ruth showed us how to link our own website to other social media sites, and the importance of back-links for search engine optimisation.

We should have a plan for our social media marketing, particularly for what we want to say, and be clear about what results we want to get from it. The ways to engage online are by sharing, teaching, helping, complimenting and referring. The definite no-no is hard selling – your followers won’t like that, so don’t do it!

The main focus of the session was on Twitter – which is public, up-to-the-minute and versatile – and LinkedIn, which is strictly professional and a good forum for connecting with colleagues and prospective clients, although we also looked at Facebook. Ruth covered the basics of how Twitter works, the different types of tweets, and how to set up lists to categorise and filter who you are following.

This was an information-packed session, with lots of really useful tips, even for those familiar with these platforms. My suggestion would be that in future it could be split into two sessions: one for absolute beginners covering the basics of starting out, how-to information, the etiquette of connecting and posting, dos and don’ts, etc, and the other for dabblers who want to learn more about its effective use – scheduling, using lists, marketing techniques, etc.

Reading the future
Eben Muse
Reported by Andrew Coulson

Dr Eben Muse brought the conference to its conclusion with his closing lecture dealing with ‘possibilities in a world of speculation’. As Andrew Coulson describes, he took us time-travelling, to the past of reading and then to the future.

Dr Eben Muse’s closing lecture looked at the future of reading. He is well qualified to talk about this as a self-confessed book fanatic, a part-owner of a bookstore and a professor of digital media. He described his interest as coming from the work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who founded the World Wide Web; from EPUB, the open ebook standard; from his students’ reaction to a new development in digital reading; and from his own awareness of the possibilities of what readers might want.

The lecture took us time-travelling through the history of reading, from the stone tablet to moving type. He highlighted the enormity of this advancement in making reading portable, private and indexable. En route, we visited some early innovations in reading that hinted at the developments we are now seeing.

Arriving at the present day, Eben described convenience as a key measure of the success of any reading technology in a world where ‘we used to read intensively; we now read extensively’. He used the ‘shadow industry’ of inexpensive, self-published books (now accounting for about 30% of all books sold but not appearing in the official sales figures) and the growth of audiobooks as examples.

We then tumbled on into the future and met the idea that books could respond to our moods and actions. This might mean we could influence how a story would evolve, or be told from different perspectives. Turning to non-fiction and textbooks, he identified how we ‘satisfice’, just wanting key information quickly. He sees this as a key problem holding back digital technologies in this field. Ultimately, he expects a solution that combines and allows indexing and searching to evolve.

He finished up by sharing his belief that any digital solution that can make reading immersive, enjoyable, chaotic and personal is likely to succeed. Ending on a positive note, he highlighted the central role for human input in content creation, such as editing or indexing, to make these technologies work most effectively for the reader.

Last updated: 28 November 2015 | Maintained by Webmaster | Page ID: 498
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