Why Do Publishers Attend Academic Conferences? By Francine O’Sullivan

August 12, 2014

Getting Published

Above the clouds

In the many years working for Edward Elgar, I have attended in excess of 150 academic conferences. This is a lot of conference bags, air miles, hotel soap, being lost in strange cities and, indeed, time. Now is the height of the conference season and so is perhaps a good time to reflect on why we actually do it.

Of course, non-publishers always think that attending conferences is a glamorous way of seeing the world at someone else’s expense but, naturally, the reality – as for academics – is somewhat different. Publishers tend to rush in for the conference and then pack up and go home as soon as it is finished because, in the summer, there is always another conference just around the corner.

Most academic publishers worth their salt attend a lot of conferences. The most common misconception is that we are there to sell books. Of course, all publishers need to sell books but if we take into account the conference fee and the cost of getting us (and the books) there as well as feeding and watering us, very few conferences break-even on direct book sales. We also want to build awareness of our brand and our list but sales and marketing only covers part of the rationale, for us at least.

For my own part, my primary reason for attending a conference is to meet current and future authors, seek out book projects and find out which areas we should be publishing in. Of course, I could just email people or visit them in their universities but I find that being outside their working environment makes people more reflective and willing to engage in the idea of rebelling against the prevailing academic pressures and entertain the idea of writing a book. When a conference goes smoothly, is well-organised, and people are engaged it is possible to come up with truly innovative book ideas. About 25 per cent of my book ideas originate at conferences.

However, predictably, not all conferences go well. The one phrase that will strike fear into the heart of any publisher from a well-meaning organiser is ‘we put all the publishers in a room by themselves’. If this is married with coffee and lunch breaks in another building or it is a lovely sunny day outside whilst the publishers are based in a room with no windows then wemay as well just burn the several thousand pounds we may have paid and go home. One experienced competitor publisher – who I shall not name – did just that. They arrived on the first day of a conference, sussed out that the arrangements weren’t to their liking and promptly flew home.   I have never been so bold – I always stay in hope that just one conversation on the last day will make the whole conference worthwhile.


Our Desires Are Simple…

There are few sights so pathetic as a group of bored, lonely-looking publishers or so scary as a gaggle of angry academic publishers bearing down on an unsuspecting organiser so, for the record, our desires are simple. We basically all want to be in the area where delegates have coffee and, ideally, lunch. To be clear, we don’t want to be near them, with a door/corridor/room/building between us. Osmosis doesn’t work particularly well at conferences. You have to be right in there or people won’t make the leap and visit you. We also want a table that is large enough to hold a number of display materials. A chair would be nice, maybe two, but even this isn’t essential. Being in and amongst the coffee is the thing that will make or break a conference for us and make the fee worthwhile.

So, in my observer capacity, have business and management conferences changed in all the years I have been attending them? Perhaps not in essence but there are some positive recent changes; for instance there are far more delegates from all around the world at all conferences. I am not sure that conferences have become substantially more diverse at the same rate – maybe a few more women – they are still dominated by white men. Perhaps in recent years I have also detected a collective weariness at the prevailing national research assessment systems and the stifling effect that can have on the nature of research. But, of course, I am biased.

All publishers like lists. So, what are the highlights from those 150 or so conferences?

Best destination?

Has to be Tromsø in Norway. It is beyond cool to hold a conference inside the arctic circle near midsummer. The destination was beautiful but I spent most of the night checking that it was still brilliant sunlight outside my window.

Best conference dinner?

I have two – one is Paul Bocuse’s Abbaye de Collonges outside Lyon, if only to experience everyone jumping out of their skin when the organs started playing and the meal was clapped in. The other would be a reception in Milan at the beautiful Villa Necchi Campiglio.

Best keynote?

Deirdre McCloskey at the European Group for Organisational Studies meeting.

Best conference organiser?

Georgia Papavasiliou, who organises the BCERC conference every year. Friendly, efficient, and runs everything like clockwork. Invaluable.

Best conference food?

Academy of International Business meeting in Istanbul. At least 15 different types of dessert.

Worst Destination?

It would be too rude to say. But Disneyworld in August is a tough sell for someone travelling without their children.

Most embarrassing conference moment?

Attending an author’s session to find that I was the only person in the audience who wasn’t actually presenting.

Worst place for my stand?

Under a stairwell in a corridor with a broken light and no passers by, excepting those on the way to the toilet. I moved it…


In the end, it’s all about meeting people.

So conferences can be good, excellent, bad or worse; they can surprise, engage and sometimes frustrate, but they are always vital to the process of engaging with academic research and developing ideas and relationships with prospective authors. However, all good things must come to an end and when I get to the stage where I struggle crossing a road because I forget which direction the traffic is likely to come from, or notice when the adverts change at Schiphol airport, then I know that I have conference fatigue and it is time to go home.


Fran work 008Francine O’Sullivan is the Publisher for Management at Edward Elgar  Publishing.

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