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What the Next Generation Thinks: A BEA Panel

Reading the minds of the future...

In one of the final education events of BookExpo America 2012, two past and two current participants in NYU’s Masters in Publishing joined a panel to discuss the subject of “What The Next Generation Thinks: New Voices In Publishing Speak Out.” The panel was moderated by Andrea Chambers, Director of the Center for Publishing at NYU-SCPS, and despite Thursday being the day when most people start to disappear from BEA before the morning’s even out, the seminar room boasted a healthy crowd.
The two students currently enrolled in the program were Maleri Sevier, who also happens to be a 2011 graduate of the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, and an operations assistant for Penguin Group USA; and Matt Albrecht, who, in addition to being a summer intern at Random House digital, is also a blogger and essayist. In the newly-minted alumnae corner were Kristin Vorce, a 2012 graduate and project editor for non-fiction titles at John Wiley & Sons; and her fellow 2012 graduate Lavanya Narasimhan, who boasts an internship history longer than your arm, and is pursuing a career in sales or marketing.

The panel’s greatest challenge throughout is forecast in the grand sweep of its title: “What the Next Generation Thinks.” An entire generation–even of publishers–is a huge thing, and the thoughts of that generation will be diverse and probably conflicting. The weakest questions were those that addressed the panelists as generic ambassadors from that awe-and-fear-inspiring archetype: the Digital Native. Focusing for too long on panelists as representative digital consumers fell short of the mark both because these panelists have so much more to offer, but also for the reason so wisely pointed out by Ms. Narasimhan (not once, but twice): beyond a few basic principles, trying to use NYU Publishing grad students as models of the 20-something reader will give you inaccurate results. Their book-consumption habits are more deeply informed by their involvement in the publishing industry than by any generational zeitgeist.

But after a few questions that did little more than confirm assumptions that the average 20-something has an intravenous Twitter feed, (“What’s the first thing you read in the morning? What’s your favorite app?”) the conversation turned toward some questions that gave that “You think differently” approach a different spin. Rather than the monolithic ways in which all of Generation Y  thinks differently from Generation X, or Baby Boomers, or whoever, it’s the ways in which we think differently from each other (though, yes, often within those generational differences) that are truly going to shape publishing in the next 30 years, and what will serve the diverse needs that book business requires. As the discussion continued, the questions started appealing to the panelists less as consumers and more as professionals who have their own new and unique view points (plural!). These questions—about discoverability, about piracy and DRM— helped distinguish the panelists from each other, showcasing their own unique viewpoints and strengths. One thing that particularly stuck out was Matt Albrecht’s charming way of making analogues between almost any aspect of publishing and the video-game industry. That speaks to his own unique way of viewing business and media. From their own “corners,” Ms. Vorce, Ms. Sevier, and Ms. Narasimhan emerged as equally engaged members of their industry with unique ideas to offer.

The portion of the talk I thought covered the most unique ground—and which was most likely to be of use to a multi-generational dialogue—was mostly crammed at the end of the session. The question, “what would your ideal publishing company of the future look like?” illicited the smart idea for a system allowing all employees in all divisions of a house easy (digital) access to every title the house produces, “both because it’s so easy for all of us to get trapped in a mindset that only takes in our own department or division, but because no matter who we are, we have an investment in these books, and in publicizing them.” Ms. Chambers asked the valuable question of what kind of company environment the panelists would ideally like to work in. All the answers emphasized that even as we race to allow customers to access content digitally, digital approaches are still underutilized in making the jobs of those who make books as efficient as they could be. Answers ranged from the importance of digitizing workflow, to allowing valued employees to work remotely, but there was a clear concensus that the power of digital can and should be put to better work in-house.

Something to keep in mind: “the Next Generation” as represented by NYU grad students has a very particular slant that would be lacking from a panel of those who have done a different grad program, or those who haven’t done any post-undergrad publishing education at all. The “Next Generation” speaks in many voices, and as much as I loved hearing the differences amongst these panelists emerge, I would be even more thrilled to see a more diverse panel, hosting young book professionals from a variety of backgrounds. I also know how rarely the executive-level crowd gets to sit down and hear a focused conversation on this topic, and so the more wide-ranging a representation of young publishers, the better.

As a start, though, it was great to see four young professionals holding such a lively discussion to such a well-filled room, and will hopefully prove a model for other, more diverse conversations to come.

What are your feelings about being classed as a person who thinks or acts a certain way because you’re part of “the Next Generation”? Do you feel certain talents get overlooked because there’s a certain set of talents or interests you’re expected to have? Do you think publishing especially suffers from these sweeping categorizations because of anxiety around digital?

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I was in the audience and, actually, I thought it was incredibly interesting to hear what the students thought about content consumption. The moderator explained that the students were experienced in publishing, so to me it was even more valuable to know what they look at /read daily. Also, she only asked one combined question about that, as I recall and then moved on. I loved the whole thing and wish it went on longer!

  2. Anne Forlines says:

    Sounds like it was a great discussion. Wish I’d been there, particularly to reinforce Lavanya Narasimhan’s point that the reading habits of twenty-somethings aren’t likely to track those of publishing industry insiders, even young ones. I should know; I have two twenty-somethings of my own, and their reading interests are often a bit bizarre, sometimes influenced by prevailing winds, but more often by television series or video games. It’s horrifying.

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