4 Sessions and 2 Keynotes: Soaking Up Book Buzz at Book Summit 2019

by Lesley-Anne Longo and Beth McAuley

Published at 2019-06-27

On June 18, 2019, we attended Book Summit 2019 at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. It was a gorgeous day to be on the waterfront — breezy, warm, and not a cloud in the sky. At last, the first hint of summer weather. Such a great setting for this annual event celebrating Canadian book publishing. In this blog, we cover the key points (and more) about the sessions we attended. We hope you will find our summaries informative and inspiring. We’ve identified our separate summaries by the initials LL and BMc.



Opening Panel: Preaching to a New Choir: Widening the Audience for Literature (BMc)

Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation based in New York City, delivered an inspiring keynote address on the theme of keeping books culturally relevant in today’s technological world. She posed the challenging question, “How can this be done?” One answer is to work with kids to instill a deep-seated love for books — and especially kids that fall outside the traditional demographic of who reads books.


One of Lisa’s initiatives at the NBF is the campaign to reach this younger demographic through outreach and implementation of reading programs in schools, community centres, libraries — wherever children gather. The Book Rich Environments program is active in 39 sites across 22 states and this year will surpass one million books donated by publishers and distributed in public housing communities. With the evidence of such a successful program, Lisa argues that her mission to generate booklovers everywhere is certainly doable.



Session 1: Generating Book Buzz (LL)

Elamin Abdelmahmoud of BuzzFeed News moderated this discussion with panelists Chris Houston (DK Publishing), Hope Nicholson (Bedside Press), Kara Wark (Bad Girls Collective), and Lisa Wray (Harlequin).


The first session I attended at Book Summit 2019 was “Generating Book Buzz,” which was all about, well, generating buzz for new books as part of a marketing/publicity plan. Having worked at a publishing house previously, I knew that the marketing process can start 6–11 months out from publication, sometimes even longer! That’s a lot of time in which you have to carry out a plan that ensures the book you’re working with will be successful.


But how do you define a successful publicity/marketing launch? Well, obviously, book sales are the best way to determine whether or not you were on the right track. However, the panelists were quick to point out that sales don’t always translate, even if you run a great campaign.


The part of the session I found most interesting was the discussion on using outlets such as Goodreads, Facebook, YouTube, and even Instagram to market books to readers. Offering book samples on NetGalley is also a common way to drive buzz; however, you do take a gamble with those reader reviews.


My favourite technique mentioned was from Lisa Wray, Manager of Publicity & Events at Harlequin. Harlequin uses its in-house team to promote buzz by circulating a book early to some of the staff to generate word-of-mouth momentum. I thought that was a really smart way to use people who are already in your circle to help promote a book — if people love it, they’ll talk about it.



Session 2: Evolving Book Coverage (LL)

Sue Carter of Quill & Quire moderated this panel discussion with Randy Boyagoda (University of Toronto), Deborah Dundas (Toronto Star), Jason Purcell (Canadian Literature Centre/Glass Bookshop), and Parul Sehgal (The New York Times).


This panel discussion on book criticism and reviews was a little less related to my day-to-day work, but I found it interesting nonetheless. When asked how they got into book criticism, one panelist replied that they thought the critiques they found in newspapers were “like books but better, it was the gossip about the books,” which I thought was a great way to look at things.


The idea of criticism as participating in a larger community was an ever-present thread running through the discussion, especially as the panelists discussed how to engage people who aren’t heavy readers, with suggestions such as focusing on the book’s story instead of the book as an object, and grounding the review in WHAT the book is about (making it less “literary”).


An interesting question that came up was, “Do we have the right people reviewing?” The panelists pointed out that would-be budding critics just don’t have places (i.e., publications or outlets) that would be willing to nurture them into becoming seasoned critics. Panelists theorized that the next generation of critics will come from established outlets that take more chances on new writers and that put more importance on the mentoring of new writers, and from smaller grassroots outlets giving chances to writers.


A spirited conversation developed from the question, “What is the obligation of the critic?” Some panelists felt their role was to nurture and entertain the reader, while others felt it was their job to tell the reader whether or not they should buy the book. I think a good review needs elements of both sides!



Session 3: Tech Trends Defining Publishing Now (BMc)

This panel explored how blockchain technology, attribution data, and machine learning are shaping the business of book creation, promotion, and sales. The discussion was moderated by Noah Genner of BookNet Canada. It was a fascinating tour of technology coming our way!


Simon-Pierre Marion, CEO of Montreal-based Scenarex, described how his company has created Bookchain®, a publishing platform using blockchain technology to advance digital book publishing. The goal is to create flexible, user-friendly, non-restrictive solutions that allow publishers and content creators to manage their digital files in the creation of their ebooks and in the management of the number of copies created, the pricing, royalties, and copyright involved in the process.


Naveen Menon is a Senior Manager at Indigo Books and Sales. He discussed the Indigo attribution analytical software that is helping Indigo determine how its customers are buying books. Through touchpoint analysis, Indigo is able to follow a customer’s online journey that begins with looking up information about the book they want to buy on the Indigo website and more often ends with looking up the nearest store where they can go to buy it. The data is indicating that there is an upward trend in the number of shoppers making the trip to the brick-and-mortar outlet rather than buying the book online, a trend that brings with it add-on value. If the customer is in the store, there is a strong likelihood that they will buy another item while there.


Katey Townshend is the Marketing Manager of Wattpad Studios. Since its creation in 2006, Wattpad has grown to 70 million readers and writers across the globe. One of Wattpad’s most recent initiatives is the application of machine learning to select material from its enormous database in the creation of published print books. The machine learning algorithms are given specific details to search for in the Wattpad archive of stories – vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, emotions, engagement. Based on this selection, it identifies six possible stories for publication. Each manuscript is then put through a content and developmental edit by Wattpad editors. When the books are ready for publication, a print run is set and books are sent to market. From its research with its online community, Wattpad knows there is a strong market for these titles and that Wattpad readers themselves will buy copies of the stories in a non-digital format.



Session 4: Mentorship: Models, Merits & More (LL, BMc)

Jael Richardson (Founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity) moderated a discussion among three panelists: Whitney French (Author, Editor, Educator), Téa Mutonji (Author, VS Books), and Wendy Whitebear (University of Regina Press).


One of the first questions discussed was, “What is a mentor?”


The panelists’ responses described a mentor as someone who fosters intent and pushes you to believe in yourself and to build confidence in yourself. A mentor treats you as an equal in the relationship. A mentorship is not the same as a teacher–student relationship, it is more of an equal exchange. Mentoring can be seen as a two-way street in which each party gives and takes. So make sure it’s not just a “take” relationship — you need to “give” to make sure that you and your mentor are getting something out of the experience.


Another discussion point included how important mentorship is to the health of the industry because it trains up-and-coming professionals and passes on to them important experience and knowledge. As well, mentorships need to be more widely available to young professionals from marginalized communities who are building their careers so they too are invited into the industry.


How to find a mentor? Ask! But in a thoughtful and measured way — don’t ambush the person at an event. Rather, ask the potential mentor through a thoughtfully composed email or, if the mentor is someone you may be working with, ask for a few minutes to speak with them about setting up a mentorship with you.



Closing Panel: The Future of Publishing: Toward the Next Decade (LL)

Leigh Nash of Invisible Publishing moderated this panel discussion among Alicia Elliott (The Fiddlehead), Casey Plett (Biblioasis), David Ross (Penguin Canada), and Hana El Niwari (BIPOC of Publishing).


This panel was a bit tougher to hear, as publishing still has a ways to go in terms of diversity. This was an eye-opening session for me, and I’m really glad this topic was covered in this way at the conference.


When Leigh asked, “What is the best thing in publishing/editing from the last 5–10 years?” panelists referred to a greater number of Indigenous voices and that new voices previously unheard from are making themselves known through books, which are selling. We can hope is a positive and optimistic sign of change in the industry.


The discussion I found most interesting was about long-term diversity in publishing, in terms of both acquisitions and staffing. Alicia Elliott of The Fiddlehead pointed out that if a press just publishes marginalized writers, it can sometimes give the impression that that group is doing okay and that no further attention is required. Unfortunately, she stressed, this is not the case. She also discussed how it can be very hard for authors who have to re-perform their lived trauma in order for people to engage with the book.


Hana El Niwairi of BIPOC of Publishing also pointed out that many marginalized or minority authors feel pressure, or even an expectation, to educate the people around them — such as publishing staff and even readers — about the issues they face.


When asked what the panelists hoped for in the future of publishing, the thing that struck me most was a comment made by Casey Plett of Biblioasis, who said that she hoped for more room for writers to write about things that are totally unrelated to their marginalized status, such as sci-fi and fantasy. This seemed to me such a simple idea, but one that could affect great change in the industry. The good thing is that social media may be making this easier for many writers, as forms of social media are now viewed as viable sources of books to read (see Wattpad, for example), and this provides marginalized authors with more opportunities to speak and share their experiences.



Our Joint Conclusion

All in all, Book Summit 2019 was a wonderful day of learning, networking, and reconnecting with all things publishing. It confirmed for both of us that the publishing industry is where we want to be!


See also Beth’s “Book Summit: A Recipe for Inspiration” on LinkedIn.