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In conversation with Nicola Ramsey - Episode 14 - Inspiring the Next CMO series

Join Lou in conversation with the excellent Nicola Ramsey, senior publishing executive in the industry. Nicola talks with us about:

  • her favourite word ‘serendipity’

  • her childhood dream of becoming an author and where her career path took her

  • ensuring authors’ work receives the impact it deserves

  • challenges of balancing work life with home life

  • the best advice she has been given

  • her favourite reads and podcasts

Podcast channel: Website, Google Podcast, Apple, Podbean, Spotify

Links from the session

Be inspired -

#IntBunchWordOfTheDay - Serendipity

  • Sweet Dreams (romance novels)

  • John Kotter – Leading Change -

  • John Kotter – The 8 Steps for Leading Change -

  • John Kotter – Our Iceberg Is Melting -

  • Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins -

  • Kate Atkinson – Life After Life -

  • Meg Mason – Sorrow and Bliss -

  • Chris Warburton – The Staircase: The Real Story podcast -

  • BBC – Obsessed With… podcast -

  • Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast -


Lou: Welcome, everybody, to our Behind the Fluff: Inspiring the Next CMO podcast series. Now, you can find lots of great resources to help raise your game in marketing at Now, today, I would like to welcome Nicola Ramsey. Nicola is an excellent industry Senior Executive in the academic publishing industry. Hello, Nicola.

Nicola: Hi, Lou. How are you?

Lou: Very, very well. How are you?

Nicola: Good. I'm really well, thank you.

Lou: Now it looks like you are in the library there or is that just a...

Nicola: It's the meeting room in the office, which doubles as, I mean, part of a library. Honestly, you should see the place. There are books everywhere, which there should, we are a publisher, but we ran out of space a long time ago. But here, yes, are our books from authors with names, I don't know, D to F or something.

Lou: Amazing! Okay. So, now, before we get started, I have one question for you. We have something that we do called #IntBunch-- Oh, dear. #IntBunchWordOfTheDay, and that is where we ask you for your favourite word and what does it mean? And then we share it on social. So, tell me, what is your favourite word and what does it mean?

Nicola: Okay. So, my favourite word is serendipity. I know, and I love the way it sounds when I can say it, because sometimes I trip over it, but I think it has got this kind of lovely kind of musical sound to it. And I love even more what it means, which is a happy accident. Something that happens by chance, the planets align and things just work out in a way that perhaps you didn't expect. I think we spend a lot of time thinking about unintended consequences in a negative way, but sometimes there are positive unintended consequences and I think we have to grasp those when they come. And it's funny, I have lots of conversations with my Mum about fate because she believes in fate and I do not. And because I'm saying you can't just sort of sit there in your house and expect that things will happen. Oh, there's no point in me making any effort or trying because it's going to happen anyway.

Lou: Hey, it's fate.

Nicola: Yes, exactly. Let's just let it roll. I think you have to work hard and shape things and what have you. But I also really like the idea that if every so often then also serendipity comes along and something works out as this sort of happy accident, then that's beautiful. Then that's kind of best of both worlds having cake and eating it.

Lou: I love that. I absolutely love that. And I love the explanation. I agree with your Mum. I'm a fate is fate, but then I agree with you that if you don't do things, yes, sure fate is fate, but it's going to be a very different fate than if you actually did things, so. Oh, brilliant. There's a lot of things that I don't know about you as you've got older, but I certainly found that my Mother, I think I can admit that my Mother is probably right 95% of the time. Whereas before when I was younger, I was like, "My Mother's never right".

Nicola: Yes, no, there's definitely that realization, isn't there, or realizing that your experiences are really quite similar. And then also that I'm turning into my Mum bit which is a bit [laughs].

Lou: Exactly. Okay, so first things first, we want to know a bit more about you. So, what is the best thing that you have discovered in the last year?

Nicola: Yes. This time frame is actually really good because I became chief exec just over a year ago. So, it's quite easy for me to sort of think back over that period of time. And it's about the generosity of the people in this industry, which I was sort of slightly, I want to move on from my previous role. I was head of editorial, so my engagement was really with our authors perhaps more than the industry, whether that was right wrong. That's just how it was. But yes, I sort of started in this new role and knew that I had loads to learn. So I was kind of tasked with developing a business plan for the next five years and sketching out the strategic development of the business. And I had so much to learn. There was so much I didn't know. And so I just asked a bunch of people a bunch of questions. And everybody was amazing and so generous with their time. There was no sense of, "Oh, you are my competitor, so I'm not going to share this with you". And so, I was asking about platforms and publishing management systems and how to help your staff when they're kind of reaching burnout. I mean, there's just such a wide range of questions. And every single person I asked, whether it was sending an email or asking for a call or meeting at a conference, gave up their time in just this really generous way. And I didn't know that that's how it was, I suppose, and that that's just this brilliant thing to learn. So that was amazing.

Lou: You are right. We do work in an incredible industry and it's about the individuals that are in the industry and the knowledge that there is and the shared learning and the best practices. I mean, the approach that you've done is absolutely fantastic because you don't want to keep making the same mistakes that others have already made. You want to learn by what they've already done and also you forge really good relationships and friendships. And so we've got some conferences coming up soon. We've got the ALPSP Conference next week. We've got Frankfurt Book Fair. And I think the STM conferences at the beginning of that, and it's just an amazing opportunity to catch up with people and find out what's going on and what they're all doing.

Nicola: Yes. And I think that's obviously what we missed in that kind of horrible two years where we couldn't do that, and you can connect in enough ways but being able to get in person with someone and have those conversations. Yes. There's no substitute for that, I don't think.

Lou: I'm very much looking forward to two weeks’ time when there's that ALPSP Conference and we're going to get together and I'm going to find out all the juicy gossip.

Nicola: Exactly. There's that too. The stuff that people won't put in an email.

Lou: I did. Yes, exactly. And after a few drinks, they might tell you. I do, yes, I do remember that during the pandemic I remember just having a meeting with a couple of people and I was just like, what's going on? What's the gossip because I just feel like no one knows anyone. Then they told me some things and I was like, and I left it thinking, well, that's me for the next year. That's really good gossip just for me in my head for nobody else, just for my own pleasure. So who inspires you?

Nicola: Yes, that's hard. I mean, it's hard to get it down to an individual. So, from that I was thinking about what inspires me and that is, I guess, people who have strong values that are authentic, honest work hard, have strong sense of purpose, generosity of spirit. And when I thought about all of those things, I then kind of came to, there is one person in the industry who I think absolutely kind of embodies all of that. And that's Ali Shaw from Bristol University Press. Who has been a tremendous support to me over the last year, but also seeing how she took policy press from a very small publisher 25 years ago now I think and built that up and then created Bristol University Press and that's growing and it's so incredibly successful that has such a strong identity. Yes. I just think she kind of encapsulates all of that. And I also think, and I've been thinking a lot about leading teams over the last year. And I think there you look at kind of sports coaches because I think they're the best ones are so good at that. When you get this kind of disparate group of people with different talents and different abilities, and you pull them together so that they can work towards a common goal. And so, whilst I'm not really a football fan at all,

Lou: Uh oh!

Nicola: I remain very aware of Jürgen Klopp. I don't know whether I'm going to alienate half of the people listening now, But it seems like Jürgen Klopp really kind of, it seems to me like someone from the outside looking in kind of has all of those characteristics and abundance and has kind of got the team coming on leaps and bounds. So, half my cousins will love me for saying that. And then the other half here inside of Manchester will not, so.

Lou: Well, they may never see this this footage so that's fine.

Nicola: It's unlikely actually to be fair.

Lou: Cut that out. So, when you were young, what did you want to be?

Nicola: I wanted to be an author. So here we are. It wasn't, really... Yes. I mean that's really, really all I wanted to be from a very young age. I mean I read all the time. I was an only child and there's not violins and poor me, but there was a lot of times when I was on my own. So, I was just in my bedroom reading a lot and then writing a lot and it was all completely derivative. So, it was whatever age I was or whatever I was reading at that time. What I was writing was basically a rip off of that. And I was thinking last night back to, and this had kind of gone from my mind for so many years, but I don't know whether you remember "Sweet Dreams" romances.

Lou: Yes.

Nicola: Yes. Those awful American high school works. So, I used to read at least two or three of those a week and then everything that I was writing at that time when I was probably about 12 was essentially.

Lou: Love it.

Nicola: A rip off of these Sweet Dreams romances. I mean, I never finished anything. I would start strong, and I'd have my first chapter. And I would feel really pleased then I would realize I had no idea where the story was going.

Lou: think that's a positive, right? Because that's actually, you recognized that it wasn't going the right way. So, you just stopped doing it.

Nicola: Yes, just stopped.

Lou: Why waste your time?

Nicola: Yes. And then I was thinking about that horrible adage, which I don't agree with at all, which is that those who can do and those who can't teach, I mean, good grief. I mean particularly I think anyone who didn't have respect for teachers before, what was wrong with you, but will have had it now, an amazing profession. But I kind of think similarly is there that those who can write and those who don't publish and again, no, because we're all kind of critical to this particular industry. So yes, I think I found my right place within the industry, which was on the publishing side and not the creating of the content.

Lou: Nothing to stop you, Nicola, from doing like...

Nicola: Oh, well, ability, skill, talent.

Lou: Guest blog posts, or, you know, an article with Allison about university presses or something.

Nicola: Yes, yes.

Lou: You know, fulfil your dreams while you have the chance.

Nicola: That's true, actually, I still like writing and I like writing about what I know. I just...

Lou: There we are.

Nicola: Yes. I thought I was going to be a multimillion copy selling fiction author. I don't think that's on the cards.

Lou: Who knows? Who knows? They say now that actually you can change your career in your lifetime two or three times.

Nicola: Yes. True. And I haven't done it once yet, so... Maybe this is it.

Lou: I don't think it's written in stone. You don't have to, but you could. So, if you were to have dinner tonight with anybody in the world, alive or dead, who would it be? And you can have more than one person it's up to you. It's your dinner.

Nicola: It's my dinner. What I realized when I was thinking about this is that if it were dinner with anybody famous or really significant, I would be really nervous. So, I could imagine it might be Michelle Obama or Nelson Mandela, but I would be completely tongue tied and I wouldn't be relaxed. And I would probably go in with a set of questions and I would just be under the table. And so, it would be amazing, but I don't know how much I'd enjoy it, but what I would enjoy, and I think I would be relaxed, would be to have dinner with my Dad. And he died 25 years ago when I was 25. And so, we had obviously the parent-child relationship and then teenage and all of that. And then I left home, went to university, and then didn't really come back very often. I moved to Scotland, and they were down in the East Midlands. And so, I didn't spend as much time. And because then at that age you think you've got all the time in the world, and then you haven't. And so, yes, I'd love just to sit and have bottle of wine with him in a meal and I'm sure we would disagree and argue because that's all we did. I think 50-year-old me would handle that a lot better than 20-year-old me did, which would be standard.

Lou: Yes.

Nicola: Puff, walk out because I didn't really know then how to have conversations, the way you might have differences of opinion, but you could still kind of have that conversation continue. So, I think, and we would shoot the breeze about all the brilliant telly that there is now. He loved things like Hill Street Blues, and L.A. Law and all that kind of stuff. I think of all these dramas now that he, oh my goodness. I mean, he would have all the subscriptions.

Lou: What would he be-- yes, exactly

Nicola: Yes. He would have been all over The Wire and Breaking Bad. And so, we could talk about all that. So yes, that's who I'd be having my dinner with tonight.

Lou: So how old was he when he passed away?

Nicola: He was quite old actually. He was in his seventies because my Mum was a second marriage for him, and he had grown up kids. So, he was an old dad second time around with me. So, yes, he was getting to do it all again.

Lou: Because I was going to say if you had dinner with him and he was the age that he was when he passed, I was thinking, oh, maybe he would be younger than you or the same age as you. No, but no. He would still be the older Father.

Nicola: Yes, he would. So, yes, that would be amazing.

Lou: That's very, very precious. And I love that, and I love that you would still remember the things that he would love about things now, but also just the things that you'd be having discussions about, things would carry on as they always were. So, okay. Tell me about your career and how you got to where you are today.

Nicola: Right. So, connecting back, I suppose, to the wanting to be an author and what have you, I did an English literature degree, surprise, down in the south of England and I got really close to my finals, and hadn't decided what I was doing next and then sort of had a bit of a light bulb moment and thought maybe publishing. But I wasn't sure. And also I didn't really want to start work yet. So, I looked for a master's course and I was really, really fortunate that my Grandfather agreed to fund that because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do it.

Lou: Amazing.

Nicola: But I was his first Granddaughter to go to university, so I think he was really supporting that. So I went to Stirling University to do an MPhil in Publishing Studies, and the intention was to be there for the year of the course and then to head to London or Oxford or whatever, and get a job in publishing, but fell in love with Scotland, which I had to expect it, but my Mum, back to Mum's being wise and always right, when I moved up to Scotland, she said, "You'll move to Scotland and you'll never leave". I was like, what a ridiculous thing to say. Here we are...

Lou: "Of course, I'll come back to England!"

Nicola: …years later. I'm like, oh, yes, she was right. So, I basically wrote to every publisher in Edinburgh and there were a lot at that point asking for work and landed on my feet with a job as an Editorial Assistant at Edinburgh University Press. So that was 28 years ago. So, I worked up through the editorial department. I did sort of a few different things. I did some sort of rights and translations work. I looked after our complications programme. I was an Assistant Editor. Then I became sort of halftime rights person, halftime Commissioning Editor. So I was told to go and start a politics list. Go and find some rights and politics books. And it kind of just built from there. And I worked across Scottish studies, American studies, some literary studies and then settled within Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, which is the list that I worked on for the longest period of time. And that was the list that we'd had for a long time, but I sort of built and grew that. And so I was doing that up until 10 years ago, I became Head of Editorial and sort of ran the team. And then as I say, last year became Chief Exec. So, a whole career at Edinburgh University Press. And I quite like that. I've sort of seen all the stages along the way. So, I still have connections with people wherever they are within the business. It's like, I mean, I know it was very different when I was doing that job, but I have held that job.

Lou: I think it's also really important because as a CEO, when you know what the different roles go through, even though those roles change in respect of what they do, you still have an understanding of what it means to be at that level and the things that you have to take on. So, it just gives you that extra experience where when you think, oh, we've got to get this done. You may be a little bit more realistic in terms of thinking, I know how much work has got to go into that from different individuals and different teams. And it's not going to be like that.

Nicola: Exactly.

Lou: It is going to take time and it is going to take a lot of effort. I think because that from my perspective has been really important and in the role I do now, I still do content stuff, copywriting, working with designers on some projects because of some of the clients I have, and it keeps me grounded. It gives you a very different perspective, doesn't it?

Nicola: Yes.

Lou: It's very important. So, what have you been most proud of then in your career?

Nicola: I think it's, well, it's the publishing piece, which sounds really general, but what I mean by that is, think of all the books that I've commissioned and developed and published over the years. I don't know how many that is, but it's in the hundreds, if not, it might be in the thousands and that's, every book there's an author there who it's mattered to them for their book to be published for academics that publish or perish is absolutely true. That it's part of your career progression as well as the importance of the content that we're publishing that that's helping other people learn and it's progressing research in particular areas. So, I think what we publish is really important, but it's particularly that impact. I think that it has on our authors. And so, I'm proud of that and I'm proud of the way we all, I think at EUP work with our authors, which is about how to make this particular book be the very best that it can be. And that's a hugely collaborative process involving a lot of people with the author, of course at the centre. But you have, if it's in a series, there are series editors, series advisors, you have external readers. We have our press committee, that's academics from the University of Edinburgh who engage with every single project that we want to publish and look at it and say, "How could this be better?" "How can we make this even better than it already is?" And then you, as a Commissioning Editor, you are kind of the conduit between all of that and you're pulling it all together and bringing through on that process so that what is published at the other end is of excellent quality and can have the impact that it deserves. So, I'm really proud just generally to have been part of that whole process for the last 20 odd years.

Lou: I love what you say there, Nicola, because I did an interview recently with an author, and we were talking about them publishing with books. And I just love the way that you talked about that because it really shows how much you really care about each of the authors. And they're not just another author and it's not just another book. There was real sentiment there and resonance and you can see how much you value each and each of those individuals and the book that they're writing.

Nicola: Yes.

Lou: And that's very special.

Nicola: Yes. And that's what slightly frustrates me in some of the conversations within academic publishing that we have around open access, which I support completely. But I think we still grapple with the 'who pays' part of that and that there is sometimes the sense that the bit that we as editors bring to that is maybe the bit that could go because then it would be cheaper. And I think that's to miss the investment that we have in every book and the role we play in shaping it and developing it so that what comes out is of a really high quality. So that does just sort of frustrate me. I wonder whether it's because we are not good enough at telling that story, I think our authors understand the value, but whether wider people within the policy world, perhaps don't see it and we are perhaps not as effective as we should be in communicating that to make that value better understood.

Lou: After two years of being in a pandemic situation, we've all become a lot more empathetic. And we want that more honest conversation. And I think that it's really important that authors recognize how important they are to you. And probably like you said, some new authors or potential authors may not, but there's so many things that we could be doing so many ways that we can position ourselves. But the testament is when you have people that come back, and they publish with you again. But then of course, writing a book for some authors can take, could be a five, seven-year investment, even a 10 year investment. So, you're not going to get a huge series of books out of one person like you you would do if you were... like my, uh, a friend of the family, she publishes, she started writing crime novels and she's just publishing every year. She's publishing a new book and I'm just thinking, cor, it's not like that in this industry. That's a lot of books you're putting out there every year.

Nicola: I know. Yes, yes. It's funny we were sort of talk about KPIs and what have you and that whole thing within commissioning is so hard to measure. We'd be saying, obviously not in the role I'm in now, but previously I could be at a conference one year having a conversation with an author and it could be another two or three years before the proposal comes in.

Lou: Oh yes. And then it could be another three or four years before the transcript comes in and linking that back and saying it was worthwhile attending that conference because, yes, in seven years’ time there was a book.

Nicola: Yes, absolutely. Your return on investment is for the long game, isn't it?

Lou: Oh, completely. It's not for, "How many authors because I met people at this event?" "How many authors have actually we been able to commission in the last 12 months?" Don't even look at that as your time scale. That's the joy of books though, isn't it? So, what have you found the most challenging in your career?

Nicola: The juggle between being good at my job and being good at my home life I think is the thing. So, I have two now teenage kids and…

Lou: Enjoy!

Nicola: I mean, yes actually yes, but it's really hard work. And, you know, that idea of the mental load, which is that women tend to, I don't want to kind of generalize wildly, but for the purpose of this, we tend to be the ones who are carrying that whole thinking about work and children and family and what's going on and relationships. And I was thinking about that this morning. I got up and I sort cleared the, well, I got myself ready. Then I kind of cleared the draining board and the dishes from the night before. And I made sure that the kids'--

Lou: You are good.

Nicola: snacks were out because even though they're teenagers, if I don't put them out, they won't take them to school and then they won't have any water or anything to eat and I've put a load of washing on so that they've got rugby kit for tomorrow. And I got some food out the freezer for dinner and did all of this. And then I got my train to go to work. And my husband, who is a brilliant person, got up, got ready, went to work.

Lou: Went to work, yes, yes. Yes. I think many of us can completely, that completely resonates with many of us. You know, Nicola, something that I watched a comedy the other day or it was some comedian, and they said women are always, generally, our brains are like "woo". And so, if we were sat there together and you and I, and I was just looking vacantly, you would be like, "What's wrong? Are you okay?" So, when we do that to guys, if I do that to my husband, if he's just looking like a vacant expression, I'm like, "Are you OK? What are you thinking about?" And he'll go, "Nothing". And actually, the comedian was right. Because my husband said to me, "This is so right". And I'm like, "What are you thinking about?" And he's like, "Nothing". And he is literally thinking about nothing. They go into standby mode.

Nicola: Yes.

Lou: And they're not thinking. Our heads are like this. Yes. Yes. So when you asked your friend, she's going to tell you, "Oh my God, I'm thinking [makes Noises] but then I had these random thoughts about this and led me into here".

Nicola: It's like waking up, isn't it? And your brain's already into, and it's the to-do list for the day.

Lou: And my husband's just like, "I don't think about, I'm not thinking about anything. I'm just watching TV. I'm just, I'm off".

Nicola: Yes. Amazing.

Lou: That would be nice!

Nicola: What a skill.

Lou: So, I don't ask him anymore, if he has that vacant expression. I'm not worried, like "Oh my god, he's going to leave me or something". That's not even coming, I'm just like, oh standby mode.

Nicola: Yes, yes. That's a brilliant phrase as well. And then because on top of that yes, then I want to be really good at my job. And I think the responsibility that I sort of feel for leading the business and leading the team and all the rest of it. And it's like, that's quite a lot too. And I love it. I love all of it, but it's just quite a lot. So that's the challenge, is just, I don't know, sometimes taking a breath and stepping back and also, I wondered about saying this, but I will. Because I think we have to be more open about these things is that I'm perimenopausal. And so, on top of all that, I also just get really hot.

Lou: Oh my God, you poor thing.

Nicola: And that's horrible. And then there's the anxiety that comes. And so that sort of started around the same time as I started my new job. And that was awful because I kind of thought I was going a bit mad and now I'm managing that and it's a bit more under control, but it's still there all the time.

Lou: Yes. Oh, yes.

Nicola: That whole picture is - it's a lot.

Lou: Yes. People, it's funny because people don't know what's going on inside you. They just see the outside and what you are projecting. My best friend is going through the same, and her husband was saying to me the other day he was because there's a supply issue with the hormonal treatment in the UK. He, it's one of his little jobs to go and pick up any medications and things, and he hadn't. And it had been a couple of weeks. Anyway, he went to go and do it and there wasn't any.

Nicola: Oh, gosh.

Lou: And he was going back and forth to doctors, to the pharmacy. He was going all over the place and he's like, "There's not going to be any hormonal treatments soon for my wife. Please, you must help me". "She's like a different person at the moment". So, I could see the desperation in his face.

Nicola: Completely. Yes. The happy patches as we call them in my house. Another happy patch slapped on.

Lou: So, if your husband was ever thinking, "Oh my gosh, there's not going to be any happy patches". I bet he'd be like, It would be like, as we talked about just before here, toilet paper, not being around in the pandemic, it would be like, "Must find them somewhere!"

Nicola: Yes! Track it down.

Lou: "They must be somewhere! I'll drive to England to get some, it doesn't matter". So, now this is an interesting question for you being a CEO. What is your ultimate career goal?