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In conversation with Suzanne BeDell - Episode 13 - Inspiring the Next CMO series

Join Lou in conversation with Suzanne BeDell, industry senior executive and independent publishing consultant. Suzanne talks with us about:

  • her favourite (two!) words ‘summer afternoon’

  • life since retiring and focusing on internal growth

  • her career path in book publishing and how she got to where she is today

  • the challenges of moving from a product role to a general management role

  • the importance of spending time with your customer or client

  • the best advice she has been given

  • her favourite reads and podcast

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

Links from the session

Transcription -

Be inspired -

#IntBunchWordOfTheDay - Summer Afternoon


Lou: Welcome everybody to our Behind the Fluff: Inspiring the Next CMO podcast series. Now you'll find lots of fantastic resources on our website, Today, I would like to welcome Suzanne BeDell. Suzanne is an industry senior exec, and we used to work together several years ago at ProQuest. Hello, Suzanne.

Suzanne: Hello, Lou.

Lou: So delighted to have you here today. I'm getting comfy now because I know that this is going to be a good one.

Suzanne: You getting... Strap in.

Lou: Exactly. Now before we get started, I've got a question for you. We have a campaign that we do called #IntBunchWordOfTheDay. And what we love to do is we love to hear the favourite words of the community. So, what is your favourite word and why?

Suzanne: Well, my favourite word is two words. It's probably one word in some languages but in English it's summer afternoon. And we're in August here when we're recording this podcast and I'm hoping many people are going to go away on holiday. I've just gotten back from mine and to me summer afternoon means hammocks and reading and days at the lake and getting ready for dinner with family and friends, it's that long, lovely light. So, it's just a beautiful thought for me and so my favourite words.

Lou: I think that brings a lot of positiveness to me. When I hear that, I think like you, and I think I grew up in my teenage years in Malta and it actually makes me think of being in Malta and going to the beach and just sun and relaxing-

Suzanne: It's heavenly.

Lou: And oh, just nice chill thoughts.

Suzanne: Yes, so I'm sending that out to everybody-

Lou: Summer afternoon vibes.

Suzanne: Summer afternoon into your day

Lou: I love it. Unless of course you're in, like, New Zealand or Australia where it's winter for them right now, but-

Suzanne: Well, that's right.

Lou: There'll be dreaming of those summer afternoons.

Suzanne: Yes, it'll be around soon enough.

Lou: Exactly. Okay, so first things first, now we'd love to know a bit more about you. Obviously recently in the industry, I know that you did a podcast with Scholarly Kitchen, and you've just retired from Elsevier, which is very exciting in the respect of just being able to breathe and have a life without work, though I know that you'll still have a bit of work in there every now and again. So, what is the best thing that you have discovered in this last year? Or it could even be last year and a half because it's been such an odd year with COVID-19.

Suzanne: Yes, it has been an odd year for sure. Well, the power of just what we're doing right now, virtual and video, it really... I think we've all discovered it and when I was still working at Elsevier, it allowed me to connect with people that I would only be able to connect with when I travelled, of course, I miss travelling to the fabulous places that we have offices in, but really, it was surprising how effective it could be. Even we had a big three-day meeting and got rave reviews. One of the things Lou, I discovered just today, and I should have discovered it earlier in preparation for this video podcast, was the great resources that you have on your website about how to get ready for video. Being virtual with the kit as you call it. And I didn't realize that there were so many great tools that you could have, like the script readers and stuff.

Lou: Oh, yes.

Suzanne: So, I was like, wow, I wish I would've spent a little time to figure that out when I was really in the thick of it because that would've been super helpful. But a lot of-

Lou: Check you out looking at our website, very good. Tick! Gold star.

Suzanne: Yes, it's really helpful, Lou. I mean, I think anybody that's doing this kind of thing needs to check it out. But the thing that I discovered that for myself is kind of the same, I've been doing - streaming yoga courses from this great studio in Boston and wherever I am, I'm able to do it with these world-class teachers. So yes, that's been the benefit of this whole weird year and a half is the power of virtual and video.

Lou: Yes, the virtual side has massively accelerated, hasn't it? And these services that we're all kind of trialling and testing before suddenly exploded like Zoom, for example, that we're using today. And it's really interesting when you look at Teams or even like Google Hangouts, how those other services have also had to accelerate their development plans and really become competitive with services like Zoom. I think one of the most annoying things for me with Zoom last year was that support would take about three months to come back to you because they were so inundated and so busy and you're like, I'm paying you, come on.

Suzanne: Yes, yes. Well, it shows the challenges. Unfortunately, I've never really had this problem because I've worked in book publishing most of my career, but it must be as hard to be in a business that's growing super-fast, then that's got to be a really hard business challenge and overnight everybody was Zooming.

Lou: Yes, absolutely. And you'd see it everywhere and people would be talking about it. So yes, it's incredible the things that are available to us now that were a bit more basic and that's certainly been great. And it'll be really interesting to see how virtual events continue and also improvements that can happen there because I think there's a lot of scope, and for me, the problem with events is that often people try to replicate a physical event in a virtual structure and actually you've got these two very different ways of delivering something. And actually, why not just really look at this virtual way of doing an event and are there things that you couldn't do in a physical environment that you can really exploit and take advantage of? So, I think that'll be quite exciting in the future, but yes, you're right that connectivity and just being able to meet more people and just being able to connect with more people has been astounding.

Suzanne: Yes, in a much more kind of democratic way because you can get into Zoom calls and there'll be a variety of people and I just find myself interacting with people that I probably wouldn't in a physical environment. But I agree with you there's opportunity there, but you can't replicate what we were doing in a physical way you got to rethink it, yes.

Lou: I've never really found a virtual networking solution that is as good as meeting someone face to face and having a drink and just having a chat about whatever.

Suzanne: Well, there is a wonderful person that I work with at Elsevier, named Gaby Appleton, who has gone to the exhibits business at RELX in a product role. So, I'm sure we'll start seeing a lot of innovation from the industry, because necessity is the mother of invention, if any industry needs it, it's that one.

Lou: Yes, I think maybe we'll actually have to have our own drinks here, but we'll wear like a suit. So, when we go to shake hands with someone, we'll actually feel the handshaking and we'll be like, "This is amazing!" We'll just stay like this for ages. Who knows? The possibilities are endless. And then they'll be like, no travel.

Suzanne: Yes, we'll all be sitting in our rooms, drinking our wine and virtually handshaking.

Lou: And we'll have like virtual avatars so actually what I looked like is like probably what I'd really love to look like, but actually-

Suzanne: Yes, you could look better.

Lou: I'm sure there's a film like that, isn't there?

Suzanne: Probably, probably.

Lou: So, who inspires you? I'd love to know this.

Suzanne: Wow, you know, this is a hard... I'm inspired, as I'm sure everybody is, in so many different ways by so many different... But I think that when I was thinking about it, it was really people that are true to themselves and there's a couple of great examples. One, everybody knows Simone Biles, I'm probably saying it incorrectly, who is... I think such a topic of conversation because we all had such high hopes in the US at least, about her Olympic performance and then she made the decision that it wasn't in her best interest to proceed, stepped back, and then was able to come back and ultimately win a bronze. And just that kind of... That's inspirational to me because she was thinking about what was important to her and what she needed to do, and not just trying to meet the expectations, unrealistic expectations, of others. And in a much more kind of at-home way we were just talking about Simon Holt, as we were talking about getting the video transcription set up for this podcast and Simon, who is the person that interviewed me at Scholarly Kitchen has been so inspirational to me because he's taken his own personal disability and used it to start a conversation in the industry that's really, really helped us all to think about assessability and what we need to be doing better. And he's so brave in doing that and so thoughtful. And he really puts himself out there. And that's very inspirational to me as well.

Lou: Yes, he's very impressive. And what I like about Simon is that he likes to challenge, or he'll give you a different perspective and it makes you think, "I didn't really think about that". That's really interesting. And sometimes when I've spoken to him, I've been really fortunate that I've then gone into like a call on one of my committee roles talking about EDI, because I've literally just talked to him, I'll give the specific feedback that him and I have been talking about in that to hopefully then empower and have other people thinking about the things that he's just made me think about so yes, he is very impressive.

Suzanne: Yes, and inspirational. As an industry, we just have to do a better job at bringing in those voices and he models that so well.

Lou: Yes, absolutely. So, when you were young, what did you want to be?

Suzanne: Yes, I was thinking about this, Lou, and... I was young during... when we first landed on the moon, and I thought that idea of space exploration would be just... being an astronaut. Wow, what a cool thing that would be. Of course, that was in an era when women really, you know, weren't astronauts.

Lou: We didn't have the same opportunities then, did we, that we have available now?

Suzanne: Yes, not at all. And so, I was thinking about that. It was at the beginning of that time but there was still very much a women's kind of roles although I certainly didn't have that kind of funnelling at home, but I always loved books. And so, I mean , it's not, probably getting into publishing I knew I wanted to do something with writing from a pretty early age.

Lou: Surprise you didn't go into space exploration as a subject area.

Suzanne: Yes, well, when I got to Elsevier, I was like, just think about what's happening there's so much potential here, but it's a difficult area to publish in, but yes. But I do enjoy reading, well, it's fascinating, isn't it? It's what we're learning.

Lou: You're going to learn so much, especially when you read things that you're passionate about as well. It's a wonderful way to digest information. I'm more of a listener than a reader. I love podcasts, or I love listening to audiobooks, that's my thing.

Suzanne: Yes, a thing that I have to do is I was talking to a friend yesterday and she said that she's using her library app to check out audiobooks. And so, I have to get that set up because I love to listen to books too. I think it's a great way.

Lou: And you have to support our local libraries, don't we?

Suzanne: Of course.

Lou: Now you say that it's really interesting because certainly here in the UK, when we had the lockdowns and public libraries were closed and then public libraries were trying to say, "We may not be open physically, but we actually still have access to online resources", and they would have subscriptions to services like BorrowBox and things like that. But they would have like one user per book kind of licences, so it was really interesting because of the explosion that happened with audiobooks from public services that they then had to adjust those. And it'll be really interesting to see the future of libraries as we go back to more normality and whether the uptake of audiobooks and that kind of thing will still continue but I hope that people will actually have a look at to see what services that they get online from their libraries, because it's not about measuring footfall anymore it'll be actually measuring usage.

Suzanne: Yes, yes. Well, I love libraries and our time at ProQuest, you can't leave ProQuest without really having such a deep appreciation for them. And I was just in the Boston Public Library the other day and their magnificent reading room and, Lou, it was as full as I've ever seen it.

Lou: Oh, fantastic.

Suzanne: I think part of it may be, as people are coming out of lockdown for better or for worse right now, given the explosion of the Delta variant, people are looking for kind of spaces to physically reconnect.

Lou: We could have a whole conversation about the value of libraries because they just are, and how they are in different settings, they're fantastic places. And yes, I think certainly for me, ProQuest really cemented, like you, my love of libraries and the huge appreciation that we have for the information professional community and all that they do.

Suzanne: Yes.

Lou: And maybe they don't often realize, when we work in a service provider, we do really recognize that and the stuff that we read and the people that we're seeing at these conferences and doing talks and stuff, it's just absolutely fascinating, but a highly complex industry as we both know.

Suzanne: Oh yes.

Lou: Like publishing.

Suzanne: Well, just that single user, the business models and the drive to figure out models that both, give the librarian what they want, but then also can pay for the cost of creating the content and paying the royalties to the author. It's a constant dance. But I think both sides make the other better for sure.

Lou: Yes, oh, fantastic. We could definitely talk about libraries for a long time. So, if you were to have dinner tonight with anybody in the world, absolutely anybody, alive, dead, who would it be?

Suzanne: Well, one of the... everything about retirement has been fantastic for the last month, but I left with saying goodbye in person to only a handful of people in the Cambridge office, because of COVID. So, if I could have dinner with anybody, it would be my team at Elsevier, all of my friends at Elsevier, we would have a huge party with a big dinner and then dancing afterwards and it would be a lot of fun.

Lou: Sounds like a conference to me, that.

Suzanne: It is. AKA, editorial retreat, right?

Lou: Yes, exactly. Oh, that sounds brilliant. And I bet that's going to really touch a lot of hearts with your ex-colleagues at Elsevier.

Suzanne: Yes, that was the one thing that I missed but that's definitely what it would be.

Lou: Oh, fabulous. So, okay, let's talk about your career, because you still have a career, and so how did you get to where you are today?

Suzanne: Yes, well, I started as a marketing assistant at a small family owned publishing company in Houston and that was such a great opportunity because it was only about 20 people it was a little oil and gas publisher, and we did professional reference and I got to see the whole process, from ideation, commissioning, development, because, all of the meetings, it was such a small space all of the meetings were held in this kind of common area where my desk fell. So, it was a great foundation. And I went on to sales at McGraw Hill as a book rep, for the college division, which in those days, I sound so old, but, if you had to get into academic publishing.

Lou: In the good old days.

Suzanne: In the good old days, you started as a textbook rep, and you carried a bag, and you talk to professors and you tried to get them to adopt their books and it's just served me so well because a lot of things never change and the lessons that I learned it served me around listening to customers and really being in the market while through my career. At McGraw Hill though, talking about inspirational people, I worked with a woman who was leaving McGraw Hill and going to run a publishing company in Boston, and I thought, wow, I would love to do that. That's what I would like to do. And I always had, in my mind, I think that I wanted to be the general manager and to run a book publishing business. And so, I think kind of setting those, you don't have to think about it all the time, but kind of setting those intentions for yourself really does help to manifest them I feel strongly about that. And often I have career conversations with people that the hardest part of it is helping them to articulate what it is they want from their career. And until you're able to do that for yourself, it's very difficult for other people to help you because nobody can figure that out for you, you really have to on your own. So, it was a series then of just serendipitous moments that kind of took me through different companies, but with a thread of this intersection of content and technology, which I was introduced to at McGraw Hill when I became responsible for the content on a custom publishing system called Primus, which was the first electronic custom publishing system.

Lou: Wow.

Suzanne: Yes, so building on that really strong foundation of book publishing that I got at Gulf, then that really, we started, you know, it's all about licencing and rights. I remember trying to have a conversation trying to licence a lot of short stories to put into the database to allow people to build their own anthologies. And this is 1980, gosh... '87, '86, so long ago. And I remember I was saying to somebody about like how could we get the rights? And she said, "Well, you could licence it", and I'm thinking, "What's a licence?" I didn't even understand the most basic kind of like, so, that was the beginning of this idea of the intersection of content and technology and that was really a thread throughout my career.

Lou: Amazing. I've got the dog in the office, so she's just dreaming at the moment. These things have to happen.

Suzanne: She's chipping away.

Lou: I thought the highlighter was over there.

Suzanne: I thought she was just excited.

Lou: The eraser from the whiteboard, just popped it on her, and she's like, what? Oh, I did. This is what makes these things so authentic and real. And I think that's like, when you mentioned earlier about virtual, I think one thing that's been really good is that we're a lot more empathetic and we're just used to, someone's kids in the background or someone's-

Suzanne: I love that.

Lou: cat goes past and whacks in their face, all that kind of stuff. We're all just normal.

Suzanne: Oh, yes, yes. You get to see people in a way that you never would otherwise, and I love seeing the kids, that's my favourite.

Lou: Oh, I've had several of those conversations in fact, for me, one of the most devastating was when my daughter was two in lockdown last year, she's three now, and she was potty training and I was on a call with someone like this And she just gave me her potty with pee in it and I was just like, "Haha!" talking to a client thinking, thank you so much, darling, that's great but I don't think my client wants to see.

Suzanne: Oh yes.

Lou: That's when it gets really real.

Suzanne: That's very real, that's super real.

Lou: Oh, dear, I think that's scarred me, that has. That's as authentic as it can get.

Suzanne: Hopefully it didn't scar your daughter though.

Lou: No, she knew none the wiser, and she was just like, and every time I'm on the phone, she's like, "Hi!" Oh dear. Brilliant, so what have you been most proud of in your career?

Suzanne: Well, I've had the opportunity to work on a lot of exciting projects. And when you have a product that really meets the needs of the market, there is nothing better. Umm, and... But we, umm... This kind of leads into the most challenging thing in my career is, as I moved from the product side and the exciting work around the content and technology, that's very product and process focused. And it was a very challenging thing for me to move to a general management role, which is very people focused and very communication focused. And of course, with product, you have to be focused on the customer, but when you're a general manager, you're basically working for the people that report to you in a way. And making that shift, that external to internal shift took a while for me to do and was super challenging because I kept wanting to continue to be out. I kept kind of thinking of myself in a product role, as opposed to a general manager role.

Lou: And products don't really talk back, do they?

Suzanne: No, not at all, not at all.

Lou: It's a different conversation, isn't it? It's an actual conversation because you're talking to people.

Suzanne: Yes, it's a very different conversation. We work with such bright people. Many of the people that come into this industry are coming with advanced degrees and coming with a... culture of scientific reasoning and dialogue and... intuition is not going to cut it just because you're the general manager, you think that. I'm not going to just accept that which is great, right? But, you know, that culturally too was very... different and challenging for me to kind of move to move one where it was much more data-driven and you need to be able to articulate the reason, the why behind the what, effectively.

Lou: Yes. And it's amazing that sometimes when you ask questions to a more wider community of where you work in your area, and you say, for example, to someone about marketing ideas, but you open it out to everybody, it's quite astounding some of the ideas that are really solid, excellent ideas that you wouldn't have thought of that are really quite inspiring that come out of other departments that you just really wouldn't think. You're right, we work with some incredible people in so many different disciplines from so many different backgrounds. And I absolutely love this industry that we're in because it is very complex, but the people really make it and I think that's what's been hard for me this past 18 months is that just not being able to see the people, to say, oh, at a conference, let's just pop out for a quick drink. Let's go for another cup of tea somewhere and just sit down and have a chat.

Suzanne: Yes, yes.

Lou: And I miss the gossip.

Suzanne: And connect, yes. The gossip is great, I know, that was another thing. Like not going to Frankfurt.

Lou: Oh, yes.

Suzanne: In my last year of my retirement. The gossip is always, though, for me, surrounded in like, what's happening.

Lou: Oh yes, absolutely.

Suzanne: What's going on in the industry and what's going on in the market and who's doing what, and you can track, people and their careers through responses to opportunities in the market. So, it's fascinating to connect and we were talking about this before coming onto the call, for people that are younger in their career, they're going to have to figure out those opportunities for connections because unfortunately, it's going to change. The world probably isn't going to go back to the way it was at least for now several years. So, it's so important because you learn so much from those networks.

Lou: Yes, and we also make very valuable friends. I have people that we both worked together at ProQuest, who was still very much, great friends at different organizations, and it's also a very incestuous industry. So, most of us are still in the industry, which is also really nice. So, when you go to these conferences, when you go to these events, you see people that you know or used to work with and that's really nice. I did find some gossip out the other day that was about 10 years old, but it still really shocked me. It's just like, when someone told me, I'm like, "What?" They're like, "But didn't you know this?" And I'm like, "No".

Suzanne: Oh my gosh, oh, well, I can't wait. I can't wait to find out what that is.

Lou: Yes, I'll tell you what that is. Not on a live recording.

Suzanne: Yes, not now.

Lou: Everyone's going to be like, what is this? Like, what goes on tour stays on tour, so that's fine. What was your ultimate career goal?

Suzanne: What was, yes, so... Well, I think I mentioned, I always had in my head that I wanted to run a publishing business, and Boston, what a fabulous place to do it. Love, love, lov