#SfEP 2018 – Let’s Get F***in’ Serious

The title of my blog on the 2017 SfEP conference at Wyboston Lakes was “Linnets, Laughter, Learning”. All three were available at #SfEP2018 Lancaster too.

Alongside a big helping of food for thought. The plenary session led by PTC CEO Kathryn Munt added a serious note to proceedings, highlighting big changes in the way publishing houses and outsourcing companies are working with each other and with freelance suppliers, including editors and proofreaders.

Still, better out than in. It’s better that we don’t put our heads in the sand and that we stay fully conscious of these trends; so we can work together with other industry players such as PTC to address the needs of the outsourcing companies and make them aware of our needs.

More on that later. We should also celebrate the many joys that the conference brings. Opportunities for renewing old friendships, making new ones, letting our hair down (in a, by and large, rather attractive and introverted way) and revitalising our businesses with new knowledge, techniques, hints, tips and reminders about the things we know we should be doing. And learning some new words along the way, courtesy of Kia Thomas’s inspired obscenity-compounding.

This was my second conference and I didn’t think it could possibly improve on the first. But it did. Partly because I knew so many more people already. Seeing them all again felt very warm and reassuring and exhilarating, however many tweets, forum posts and emails had passed between us since #SfEP2017. Nothing beats IRL.

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

Group buddies

Speaking of that, the distance between East Anglia and Lancaster meant some more creative travel arrangements for some of us. Norfolk group chose a people carrier. From Herts & Essex group we hired a rather smart Hyundai, a 2-litre diesel fuel injection number, which made the long journeys very comfortable indeed. Carpool karaoke was not needed once. There was too much catching up to do (on the way) and gossip and deconstruction (on the way back). My local group buddies Anna Nolan and Annie Deakins ensured never a dull moment, even when we missed one services slip road at a crucial point of the return journey due to excessive focus on “how nice X was”, “how gorgeous Y was”, and oh yes “what a brilliant speaker Z was”.

‘Old’ buddies

It was a thrill to meet my mentor Liz Jones for the first time IRL after two years of social media interaction. And a sheer pleasure to talk writing at length with Laura Ripper, in my estimation one of the best bloggers among us. I only wish I had not attributed the word ‘plain’ to her in one inadvertent moment during my workshop – meaning of course her forte ‘plain language’. Plain in any other sense clearly Laura is not!

I also enjoyed seeing other ‘old’ buddies not mentioned elsewhere: the inestimable Louise Harnby, feline-adoring Anya Hastwell (for whom I even managed a rather unfortunate kittens-in-a-sack reference in my workshop) and force of nature Kasia Trojanowska. Also Helen, Helen, Sue, Denise, Melanie, John, John, Lucy, Kat, Luke, Eleanor, Janet, Hazel and others too numerous to mention. I apologise for any obvious omissions.

New buddies

One thing about conference is the chance to put flesh on the avatars as I described it on Twitter, including seasoned editors who you might have missed last year.

There was some disagreement about this in our hire-car, but personally I thought Lisa de Caux, Stephen Pigney and Hannah McCall were instantly recognisable from their avatars. Among non-newbie players I enjoyed meeting Julia Slone-Murphy, Graham Hughes, Paula Clarke Bain, Heather Musk and Michele Howe for the first time. And chatting at breakfast to Grainne Treanor and at the gala dinner to fellow linnet Sarah Wright was a delight.

I also spent quite a bit of time with Stephen Cashmore, talking cricket as well as editing and, of course, buying his marvellous book aimed at 8-year-old grandsons. And with Lucy Metzger – not all of it intended. Such as when we separately – only mildly intoxicated – exited the wrong door of Barker House Farm in an attempt to find our accommodations. Two heads were better than one getting us back on track.

Psalms and tweets

It was a privilege to sing with the linnets once again, giving psalmic life to Julia Sandford-Cooke’s inspired lyric setting. It was a relief not to be the only male singer thanks to Ian Spackman; and a pleasure to join forces once again with musical wizards Karen Cox and Pam Smith. Thanks to Sarah Patey for having me.

A feature of the conference was the incredible energy of the live-tweeters led by Anna Nicholson (@axnicho) and Louise Bolotin (@louisebolotin). Respect to them for their devotion to the reporting cause. I tweeted a fair bit myself, but it was perhaps a sign of the startling irrelevance of most of them that my most popular tweet by a long way was a picture of Liz Jones’s tiara.


Oh yes, the serious work. For me, the most valuable session was Tony McEnery’s introduction to corpus linguistics and the incredible work of the Lancaster linguistics team, building open source applications which can be used by anyone to reference both established global and local corpus works.

When I did my English Language and Literature degree back in the 17th century computers were not invented so the whole field of corpus was extremely limited. Monks with pens and scrolls is not too far an exaggeration. The way the whole field has opened up with the advent of big data and lightning-fast computing was quite an insight. Tony and his colleague Luke Collins gave a practical but unpatronising introduction to the database, the tools and the subject of corpus linguistics more broadly: with links to enable you to go and use the data yourself at home. I will be boring my students with corpus data for years to come.


It would be a f***in’ disgrace not to give further space in this blog to Kia Thomas’s inspired session on editing swear-language, perhaps the single most enjoyable hour of the entire conference. Like, I suspect, many of the other attendees at this session, I don’t even edit fiction. So the real utility of the session, for me, was limited. No matter. It was a brilliant treatment.

I am still proud of the logical conundrum invented by team-mate Paula Clarke Bain and me when confronted with the compound noun c**t-bastard. Clearly a double-negative implying “really good bloke” as Paula put it. But perhaps with hindsight applying said epithet to one of the most popular men at conference and in the industry was tactless. John Espirian actually is a really good bloke and not the other thing. Thanks to him and best wishes in his well-deserved retirement from SfEP Council after many years of selfless and devoted duty. He has helped so many and truly is relentless in that quest.

Stepped Wall Cloud Sky


I’ll end by going back to what I felt was the most important session at conference: Kathryn Munt’s account of the changing world of outsourcing. The thrust was that the relationships between publishing houses, outsourcing companies (often in India or Malaysia) and freelance service suppliers are evolving fast, and in some extreme cases evolving far. To the point where the publisher is little more than a shell or brand, and the outsourcee does all the substantive work around publication, or rather the management of it, using freelance resources to achieve delivery of the things they don’t have in-house expertise to do themselves.

In this sense outsourcees are becoming recognisably publisher-like themselves. And freelancers are finding their rates squeezed because the additional intermediation is costly but has to be met from an unchanged core budget. Indeed the outsourcees are actually under pressure to reduce rates.

How to square the circle?

Well, perhaps three ways.
1. Less work will be done by freelancers for the given rate.
2. It will be done to deliberately lower standards.
3. And the three parts of the triangle (publishers, outsourcees, freelancers) will have to co-ordinate better to work out how to navigate this new environment while keeping everyone’s needs met. Industry-level coordination and representation is essential to success in getting our (freelancers’) voice heard. But we have to accept, uncomfortable though it is, that we have to work towards meeting the expectations of the outsourcing companies too; and change practices at both individual and industry level to achieve that.

It is perhaps reassuring that the SfEP Council will be working with someone with the industry insight of Kathryn Munt as we attempt to negotiate these rapids.


I haven’t mentioned lots of other content highlights from the last few days including Lynne Murphy’s keynote speech, John Espirian’s LinkedIn lesson (“you are all LinkedIn losers”) and Paul Beverley’s arm-waving enthusiasm for and commitment to WORD macros. Oh and the lightning talks, informative and funny as ever, a brilliant invention and a feature of both the conferences I have attended.

I won’t be coming to #SfEP2019 at Aston University, so this is it from me on this topic for a couple of years.

So finally let me just pay tribute to Beth Hamer and the team, who work their socks off each year to deliver something truly appreciated. They are – as much as it is.

[PS: Technical note for people who attended my workshop: this blog was written using MS Speech Recognition in two hours, with two hours of manual editing: four from start to finish.]