Publishing Focus – Imola Unger of Penguin Random House

We’re always on the lookout for movers and shakers to interview for Publishing Focus, and this week is no exception! Imola Unger has developed a solid reputation for her work at Penguin Random House UK over the past couple of years, rising quickly to the position of Agile Implementation Lead.
She’s a champion for digital technology, and a lover of books. In Imola’s own words, her “goal is to enable the digital product team to work together on behalf of authors, readers and the business on experiments that objectively explore value creation.” I spoke to Imola about her role in one of the world’s finest publishers, and her perspectives on this ever-changing industry.
Hello Imola! Great to chat. Firstly, could you tell me a little about what your role involves at Penguin Random House?
My role is to create an environment where ideas quickly grow into products. It’s one part organisational change, one part project management and a lot of smaller, moving parts. I’m basically designing a framework that acts as a plant support for these fledgling ideas. The framework rests on agile principles: collaborative prototyping and consumer focused, iterative development, with testing integrated throughout.
This ensures that we are developing what the audience needs, to high quality standards. That then translates into increased consumer confidence and author awareness, so ultimately higher sales. Innovation is the safest bet when it comes to digital publishing.
Broadly speaking, how has Penguin Random House embraced digital technology?
It’s hard to call out specific things as it’s so deeply embedded in everything we do. Physical books are created digitally, we use digital tools to communicate and plan, our ebook catalogue size is in the hundred thousands. In the development team we are experimenting with cutting edge technology and collaborate with the pioneers of the field to explore new ways of storytelling. I think it’s become so much part of our DNA that I’d struggle to name an area that hasn’t embraced digital technology.
What have been the most challenging shifts caused by digital?
Adapting and redesigning what you’re used to always take a while, but these shifts are enormous opportunities. A few years ago there may have been a sense of unease but that is long gone. What dominates now is an incredible energy and enthusiasm about what’s new and how quickly we can respond – tempered by assessing what creates genuine value.
And what has been most rewarding thing about this change?
The ability to instantly respond to changes, to release improvements right away and to communicate with our audience directly. Trends change fast, but reacting to them and anticipating them has become so much easier, too. We know so much more about our audience, their preferences, their behaviour – in a sense it’s made things easier and more failsafe.
Have publishers needed to reevaluate their relationship with authors and readers in recent years?
Expectations have mutually increased. Publishers expect authors to have a stimulating digital presence, and authors, in turn, often rely on publishers to provide the digital platform. As offline experiences become rare and more meaningful, the onus is on us to organise events that stand out. Social media has also made the traditionally mystical figures of the author and the publisher seem more approachable and human, but the same is true for the audience – no longer an abstract concept that only retailers interact with.
Do you see opportunities for smaller publishers to challenge the big dogs in today’s industry?
Agile is an area where size does matter: smaller publishers are able to react quicker, make organisational and workflow changes faster. Where larger publishers may be spreading themselves thin, smaller companies can focus great creative effort on fewer products that then truly stand out.
How important would you say internal company culture is to business success?
Publishing is a vocation more than anything, where everyone is powered by the same genuine enthusiasm and relentless drive. When like-minded individuals come together to create, they feed off of each other’s energy and brilliance. The job of the company is to provide the environment where this power can be unleashed, and it’s an incredible feeling to work in a place like that.
What are your ambitions for the next three years, both for yourself and the team at Penguin Random House?
Those ambitions happily coincide. I see the digital team having the confidence to quickly trial ambitious ideas (there’s no shortage of those in the business!) and run with the ones that have been verified to work. It will be second nature to work through them in quick cycles of prototyping, testing and refinement, heavily relying on Consumer Insight and Analytics to understand audience needs and behaviour. I’m definitely hoping for a Bookseller article about a couple of those, and I would like to think that I’d been able to play a key role…
What advice would you give to a young person entering the publishing world?
Twitter is where it’s at. Being an immigrant and with English as my second language I was up against some pretty tough competition. But having made key publishing contacts on Twitter, I was immediately invited to networking events (thank you, @pressfuturist) and through them met further key people. Whether in Waterstones or at Kobo, retail experience is also invaluable – we are moving towards an increasingly consumer-focused world.
Use Twitter. Be unafraid. Ask to have coffee. Express gratitude. Be informed. Make the most of work experience. Be curious and willing.
A huge thanks to Imola for her insightful words! To keep up with all the goings-on, you can follow Imola on Twitter. Don’t forget to say hello to us, too. You can follow Ribbonfish here.
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