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Publisher Profile: Penny Lane

by | Sep 9, 2015 | Higher Education

If you’re interested in the publishing industry or simply want to have a closer look at Oxford University Press Southern Africa – look no further than our recurring Publisher Profile feature. Publisher Profiles are brief Q & A sessions with our Publishers which aim to give insight into the mechanics of the Publishing industry, shed light on what it takes to be an Oxford University Press Southern Africa publisher, and give expert advice to anybody interesting in joining the world of Higher Education publishing in South Africa.

Penny Lane

Penny Lane (Publisher, Oxford University Press Southern Africa)


Q: Describe your work day, what does your job entail?

 In essence, publishers strategically plan for new opportunities, conceptualise new product, and coordinate projects and teams to implement our plans and ideas.  In order to ensure that our products support education optimally, and that our publishing remains relevant and valuable to the people who will use our products, we focus strongly on understanding needs and issues within educational markets.  It is also important to remain informed within the disciplines in which we publish, and to keep abreast of issues and trends within those spheres.  From a business point of view, we manage and oversee all processes and activities within our publishing units: this means planning for future growth, setting out structures and processes, and managing the editorial staff who work within our units.  We are responsible for the financial management of our publishing processes and the commercial success of our products, and we manage various operational aspects of our business activities.

Q: What key traits do you think make a great Publisher?

 The traits required of a publisher are quite diverse, which makes our work very interesting.  It is important to understand teaching and learning needs, and contextual dynamics, within the Higher Education sector, and then to interpret this information in order to offer a meaningful contribution.  This requires connectedness with our market, the ability to analyse information astutely and accurately, and creative vision.  Our relationships with authors and other stakeholders are extremely important, so the ability to communicate well and to engage with people in a valuable and motivational way, is needed.  From a business point of view, our success depends on entrepreneurial flair, the ability to recognise opportunities and create solutions to problems, and the acumen to develop our business alongside a changing and fast-developing world.  In my view, personal qualities such as integrity, positivity, passion for our purpose, uncompromising commitment to quality, and a desire to contribute to the future of our country, are essential.  I believe that it is these qualities which really connect us to the people with whom we collaborate in the Higher Education space.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you would say in being a good Publisher?

 The new information technology age is, of course, a noteworthy challenge, because it has a significant impact on publishing strategy and development.  I believe that a publisher’s role in producing well-conceived, educationally valuable, curated content will remain relevant and important.  Our challenge is to interpret contextual dynamics, in order to determine how publishers should best support future dynamics in the delivery of content.

Another challenge is that our work is inherently connected with that of our authors. This means that if an unpredictable circumstance affects an author, it may also affect our goals and business.  As academic and professional authors are subject to pressure and many competing priorities, such circumstances may arise.  In this context, problem-solving is very important.  We try to address risks by setting out careful and realistic plans, by anticipating difficulties and resourcing solutions proactively, and by supporting authors however possible as difficulties arise.

Q: Books vs eBooks? What is your opinion?

 My view is that, in some ways, e-books are a gift to education.  This is because they have the potential to introduce innovative solutions which may overcome constraints and limitations, significantly enhance teaching and learning, and allow for novel flexibility and convenience.  In this respect, the full potential of their value is just beginning to develop.  However, in an academic context, e-books do have limitations, and in many ways they do not replace printed books.  People still love to hold a book in their hands, and, when engaged in deep reading, many prefer to work and study from paper.  My sense is that there is an opportunity for balance, and potential to enrich the way that we meet and use information; that one compliments the other very well, and that the birth of the e-book does not mean the demise of the printed book.

Q: What book project experience did you enjoy most, and why?

 It is not possible to identify a single project, as so many have been extraordinary.

We see the selfless dedication, hard work, and passion which our authors give to their projects, motivated primarily by a sense of service to education.  To witness this is humbling, and really engenders respect for the people who write our books. We also have the privilege of working with people who are leading experts in their fields, and who share invaluable knowledge, experience and innovation.  Working alongside people like this is a real inspiration.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to build a new publishing programme, which required a new way of thinking about textbooks.  I enjoy doing things differently and creatively; and it is a joy to know that one’s work may make a difference to people and to the law.

Q: In your opinion, what value does a Publisher bring to the process of publishing a good book?

Through our engagement with educators throughout the country, publishers have a broad and informed understanding of the needs, dynamics and trends across our market.  We are able to share this knowledge with authors, in order to bring a useful contribution to the conceptual planning of our books.  This ensures that our product offers precisely the right solution to the market, which supports its future success.  As far as the writing process is concerned, we offer project management support, and writing development for authors; and we sometimes provide support services, such as information-sourcing and research.  We take over laborious processes, such as the meticulous checking of references and citations, so that authors may be relieved of this work whilst the credibility of the information is assured.

For authors of scholarly works, academic credibility is a key concern.  A reputable publishing house will ensure that all works are subject to full, independent peer reviews.  We bring together experts who wish to share knowledge, collaborate and discuss projects with peers, and, where helpful, we can put authors in touch with niche specialists.

With regard to production, a publishing house offers specialised skills and expertise, ensuring that the products which we create are beautiful, meticulous and competitive.  A publisher invests capital, and brings together a large team of people who have the necessary knowledge and skills in graphic design, production technologies, editing, information technology, and so on.  We publish books in various formats (print and electronic), using the right electronic technologies, and we provide distribution networks and solutions which ensure that works are marketed and distributed on the right platforms and with appropriate logistical support.

In addition to textbooks, publishers commission and develop related teaching and learning resources. These are distributed through a powerful, interactive electronic teaching and learning platform.  Lecturers’ resources support the core text, enhancing its teaching/learning value.  This adds competitive value to our books, ensuring that a text is not only as a standalone product, but that it offers a full, cohesive and enriched learning package.

Q: Do you advise against self-publishing a book, and why?

 I would not advise anyone against self-publishing, but the question of whether it might serve well depends upon the author’s purpose and objectives.  Self-publishing may offer an expedient solution in certain circumstances, but there are many (often invisible) factors which should be considered if one is weighing the options.  In an academic context, there are many advantages to publishing through a reputable publisher.   These include the academic credibility which is associated with an affirmed reputation for quality publishing, exposure of the work to an international scholarly community, the publisher’s understanding of market needs, which contributes to the efficacy of the product, and a publisher’s ability to leverage developing opportunities and technologies in order to ensure maximum exploitation of the material.

Q: What additional support does an Oxford Publisher offer their authors, and why is this important?

We provide authors with clear, guided writing briefs (these are developed in collaboration with our content Editors).  These briefs clearly demonstrate how the work should be written, and include all of the information which is needed to prepare authors for the project.  During the writing process, we remain in fairly close contact with authors, offering supportive guidance as well as project management support.  All manuscript drafts are reviewed by a Development Editor, who provides constructive suggestions and feedback to the author.  This input is tremendously helpful, contributing ideas and assisting authors to write in such a way that our mutual vision is achieved.  We liaise a great deal between the content Editor and authors, facilitating communication, assisting Editors to provide guidance and feedback to authors, and, when required, arranging meetings to facilitate collaboration and direct discussion.   Where it is helpful, we are able to provide support services, such as information-sourcing and research.  We often take over meticulous, laborious processes, such as checking of references and citations, in order to allow authors to focus on other priorities.  As a matter of course, we manage processes such as drawing up tables of contents, tables of cases and legislation, indexes, lists of abbreviations, and so on. The writing process is therefore inherently supported.  We engage as much as needed in order to ensure that it is constructive and rewarding for both content Editors and authors, that time is focused on the right priorities, and that the experience remains enjoyable and manageable.

Q: What makes you proud to be a Publisher?

 The most important outcome of my work should be to make a contribution to the lives and potential of people who are striving to build a future for themselves and their families.  Education is alchemy – it transforms people and societies – and so we are playing a part in building our country.  Sometimes, for a student, a book can make all the difference between passing or failing a course, and it can change a struggling student into a brilliant, confident and passionate achiever.  If our books can help students, so that they do not give up their hopes, but overcome their difficulties and complete their studies successfully, then our work serves a truly valuable purpose.

I also like to hope that our books might contribute to the development of law and democracy in South Africa – either through innovative ideas and approaches to aspects of law, or through the people who learn well from our books and then go on to lead new thinking.

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