Skill swapping in a time of coronavirus

Laura Summers
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 17th April 2020

Laura Summers on how we can learn from each other during lockdown

Now is the time for the publishing industry to pull together - and skill swapping can enable us to do this.

Everywhere we turn, someone's livelihood has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Even the most stable and successful publishing businesses will be concerned about cash flow, as we see a collapse in consumer spending, problems in the supply chain, and bookshop closures. Although there are numerous ways to boost online sales and tap into the lockdown market, this often requires a fresh approach to business models, one that requires investment to get off the ground; and spending extra cash ahead of a likely recession may seem risky.

So I would like to suggest an alternative means of getting things done. Skill swapping, or bartering as it is more commonly known, is certainly not a new initiative, but tends to be revived during recessions. When finances are under pressure, the first things to go are areas of the business that are non-essential, and retaining staff has to be everyone's top priority. However, when the pandemic eventually ends, it will be easier to snap back into action if you have been able to innovate, and working in this way can help you to do this with limited budgets.

"Skill swapping is an increasingly popular means of investing time rather than cash"

Our 21st-century barter systems can be traced back to the 1970s, when computers became complicated enough to track transactions. The internet really expanded the opportunities available. Fast-forward to 2010, and you may remember that 17-year-old Steven Ortiz made the headlines with a series of trades, beginning with the bartering of a mobile phone, that ultimately put him in the driver's seat of a Porsche. He traded an item rather than a skill, but the concept isn't too dissimilar.

So how does this link back to publishing? If you run a small press, you may be tempted to stop spending and innovating, to hold tight, and hope that this pandemic will run its course sooner rather than later. However, this is also a perfect time to try new things. Some of the most successful companies emerged out of a recession, because necessity is the mother of all innovation. Both Apple and Netflix transformed themselves during the dot-com crash of the early 2000s. In the 2007 recession, Airbnb identified that a number of people had been priced out of staying in hotels, and was able to revamp the market for short-term rentals.

Fresh opportunities
With hardship comes opportunity, and by skill swapping you can find partners in the industry who have the skills you lack, giving you a fresh opportunity to do things you could not do before.

Skill swapping is a legitimate and increasingly popular means of investing time rather than cash. Perhaps you need help with your SEO, your Amazon ads, social media ads or other ways of getting your books into readers' hands; there will be individuals out there who could manage all of these areas for you in exchange for, say, finance training, photoshop advice, or skills from your editorial team.

If you work in-house, perhaps you have been put on furlough - you might be able to train someone in what you do in exchange for learning about how they work. If you are thinking about your next career move and how to update and diversify your skillset, this could be a great alternative to a training course; you could improve your CV and boost your career at the same time.

There are opportunities for freelancers too. I am not brushing under the carpet the fact that we all have bills to pay. However, if you do find yourself with time on your hands, one fundamental truth is that the more business you do, the more business you will get. So if you are able to apply your skills in a skill swap arrangement (perhaps you can get a new website or a logo in return), then you could see this as a way of expanding your network in a way that might change your life.

Going virtual
BookMachine has been organising real-world events for the industry since 2010. Everything we do is aimed at mid-level publishing professionals looking for ways to connect and develop professionally. We have a community of members (individuals and businesses) paying a monthly fee to attend these events and take our training courses. We also work closely with sponsoring partners. As you can imagine, with a business like this, we have had to pivot most of our programme this year. We can't run real-world events (our own or client events), and analysts predict that levels of social distancing could continue for the next 12-18 months. That requires a huge change in the way we work and the way we bring industry professionals together.

The first change was to take all our events online, and we've had an excellent reaction to this so far. But we want to do more to support our members during the turbulent times ahead.

The next stage is to expand our online immersive community, which acts as a portal for members. By logging into this our members can access recordings of industry experts sharing their tips and "Meet the Member" sessions to learn about others in the community. From next week members will have the opportunity to skill swap on a Monday by posting their opportunities or availability on the site. Perhaps it's a website redesign in return for a lesson in metadata; or a blog post written in return for publishing advice. Skill swapping can also take the shape of long-term partnerships - taking charge of someone's social media presence in order to receive regular financial management lessons, for example.

BookMachine ( will run a Skill Swap session for members on Mondays, starting on Monday 20 April. You can join the community from £5/month to get involved.

Laura Summers runs BookMachine, the fast-growing community and agency specialising in book publishing. Its mission is to provide all publishing professionals in the UK with knowledge, ideas and connections to help them to progress in their careers.