The BookBrunch Interview: Jacks Thomas, director of the London Book Fair

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews 16 February 2017

The winners of the second annual Trailblazers Awards, organised by London Book Fair (LBF) and the Society of Young Publishers (SYP), were announced in early February at a stylish event in London’s Soho House. The winners, Anna Russo, Caroline Tatam, Claire O'Neill, Željka Maroševic and Heather McDaid, boast a suitably impressive list of accomplishments. Here, Trailblazers judge and director of LBF Jacks Thomas takes a brief break from preparing this year’s Fair to discuss the importance of showcasing young talent in the industry.

The winners of this year’s Trailblazer Awards are a hugely impressive group: Russo, sales executive at Hodder Education, is managing a new Caribbean list; Tatam, platform marketing executive at Cambridge University Press, delivered the biggest digital project anyone her age at CUP has ever undertaken; O'Neill is lighting the way for audiobook developers as business affairs manager at Audible; Maroševic, now co-publisher at Daunt Books, has a history at 4th Estate and Melville House; while McDaid is founding publisher at 404 INK and programmed Scot Lit Fest.

They represent what the awards are all about, Thomas says: "It’s brilliant to showcase young talent entering publishing - in a digital age they have played a greater role than ever before!  What’s more, there's a lack of 'tram lines' for the current generation: they’re traversing territory that is very different to previous generations."

In the past decade, the publishing world has changed beyond recognition as a result of digital innovations - not least of which are social media and ebooks. Publishers, young and old, have had to learn to multitask and communicate in many new ways; but, Thomas says, "the effect has been more routes to market than ever before as well as a whole new field of creators - from Youtube to Instragram - from whom to commission books. We celebrate the multi-faceted nature of communication because it's to everybody's benefit, either to see what talent is out there or to showcase talent that you've commissioned. I love the fact that all that noise is going on, and the flexible, fluid ability of those in their 20s."

The thing that really swung the Trailblazer Awards for Thomas, however, was the fact that inevitably but not exclusively those in their 20s are at the forefront of discovering new routes to market, combining these new opportunities with more conventional strategies. "With books still at the heart of everything, digital has brought forth a whole new raft of creativity, talent and interest. Everything is so full of opportunity and some of the people who are best placed to take advantage of that are those in their 20s - I think they deserve a shout out!"

Clearly, the Trailblazers agree: this year, the awards have expanded, garnering over twice as many entries as in their inaugural year. The ceremony was taken up a notch too, held in Soho House and featuring a keynote defence of publishing from Granta editor and prize-winning author (Grief Is the Thing with Feathers) Max Porter.

Though Porter may have "stolen the show" on the night, Thomas says the real game changer was the quality of entries. "All these things that the Trailblazers do morphs into the world of publishing: publishing spills out into your life and your life spills into publishing. I thought that was really exemplified by the list."

Plans for next year are already underway, with Thomas issuing an official call out for anybody who MCs or script-writes in their spare time to host. "We've decided to make it all under 30 next year," she explains.

Nurturing talent throughout the industry
The Trailblazer Awards highlight where the industry is getting it right in nurturing talent, but there are other areas it needs to continue working on.

"We haven't quite got inclusivity and diversity right," Thomas observes. "Though you could argue as to whether or not we actually get that right in society in general. It's not just me saying we need to work on inclusivity - everybody is saying it, and I'm agreeing noisily."

On the back of this support, LBF helped organise the 'Building Inclusivity in Publishing' conference, held last November in London, organised with the Publishers Association (PA) and sponsored by the Publishing Training Centre (PTC).

"When you look at the wonderful differences in society and the people who are perhaps excluded, if we're just commissioning and putting out content that's in our image, we're only going to become smaller and we're not going to reach people," says Thomas.

Despite this, publishing continues to hold appeal for younger generations. "Publishing's exciting," she explains. "It always has been and I think it always will be. Publishing has an amazing seat at the creative industries table."

What’s more, the appeal of books is undying. "I'm not of the school of thought that books are 'good for you'. I think books are so much more than that: they’re fun, escapism, knowledge hubs, enablers, windows on so many different worlds. Books take you out of yourself. I'd just like everyone to be able to enjoy them!"

LBF itself takes its role in supporting young talent seriously. "Our job is really to be there to facilitate and enable as much as possible. I hope that both aspiring and employed talent at the book fair finds everything that we offer useful."

LBF invests heavily in face-to-face networking for young publishers, and initiated international networking last year between the SYP of Germany, SYP UK and the Trailblazers. Future plans include extending the service to other countries. "One of the things I think is a fantastic USP of publishing is trying to get those peer group interactions and friendships," Thomas says.

Other outreaches include a programme of over 200 free seminars and paid-for seminars with special rates for SYP members. This includes a Skills Stream, run in collaboration with the Publishers Association (PA), and others. "The goal is that by attending some of the education seminars, you go away better able to do your job or go on to the next level of your career," Thomas says. "Altogether we try very hard to make sure there's a lot at the book fair to participate in, aside from the business of the fair. It's all about connections and immersion."

Outside the week of the fair, LBF hosts bi-monthly Tech Tuesdays meetups, most recently with the Oxford SYP. There are plans to do further collaborative events like this in the future, taking Tech Tuesdays to other publishing hubs outside London.

The applications for this year's Trailblazer Awards were more diverse than one might have predicted from the profiles of the leading London houses. To Thomas, that shows that the kind of recognition the Trailblazer Awards offers is needed.

"The large companies are extremely good at recognising their young talent and showcasing it within their companies - which is all fantastic and great for career paths - but there are a lot of small publishers and organisations out there who are making a huge contribution to publishing. It's nice to be able to give them a platform."

LBF 2017: more satire, more Brexit
Meanwhile, preparations for this year's London Book Fair continue apace: headline features include the Poland Market Focus and the Authors of the Day, this year including former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo, Booker winner Roddy Doyle, and Polish author Olga Tokarczuk.

After last year's Shakespeare 400 celebrations, Thomas was at first worried about which anniversaries there would be to celebrate this time round; but it turns out there is a lot going on, most notably 20 years of Harry Potter, 160 years since Joseph Conrad's death, 350 years since Jonathan Swift's birth, and 200 years since Jane Austen's death.

"All of those anniversaries just go to show the wonderful range of publishing," Thomas enthuses. She's particularly interested in the Swift anniversary, given the recent rise of satire. "Possibly as a reflection of today's society and what's going on in the world. He's having his moment again."

Recent politics, however, have not affected the fair as much as one might suppose. "There are certainly a couple of seminars about Brexit," Thomas notes, "and obviously the book fair's going to take place in the month that Article 50 goes ahead, so Brexit will be on people's lips. But books by definition are always going to reflect what goes on in the world, both to inspire and to inform. Looking ahead, there will be more Brexit - but I suspect there will also be more satire too!"

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