People and technology: The future of making books


This year has shown, once again, how technology is vital to the making of books. But while our needs can change in a heartbeat, people are always at the heart of what we do!

As part of Frankfurter Buchmesse 2020, John Pettigrew, CEO of We Are Futureproofs and host of the Talking Through My Hat conversation series, invited Chandi Perera (Typefi), Anna Faherty (Strategic Content) and Nick Coveney (Kobo) to join a lively virtual panel discussion on people and tech in publishing.

  • Does tech ever change what we’re trying to do, or just how we do it?
  • How do we balance the development of skilled publishing teams with the use of new technologies?
  • Where do these two aims align, and where do they not?
  • How do we equip our teams to make best use of their skills?

If you’d like to share your thoughts about this discussion or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to drop us a line—we’d love to talk publishing with you!


00:00 Introduction
08:00 Has technology changed the basic nature of publishing?
14:49 What should technology be doing for the publishing industry?
19:41 How do we ensure access to published content for everyone who wants or needs it?
23:40 How do people in publishing react to new technology?
27:31 How can publishers successfully adopt new technology?
31:08 What’s the role of managers and business leaders in adopting new technology?
34:34 What skills do people need to help them engage with new technologies?
41:43 How can people balance learning new tech skills with doing their day-to-day work?
45:47 What responsibility do tech vendors have to tech users?
47:49 Some final thoughts on people and technology in publishing

Introduction (00:00)

JOHN: Hello, and welcome to the third of our panels for this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Don’t worry if you’ve missed any, the videos will remain available on YouTube and the audio on our podcast, just search for Talking Through My Hat.

Today we’re talking tech, or more precisely, tech and people. How tech has changed publishing, how we plan for and deal with that, and where the opportunities are to build teams with great publishing skills, who are able to properly use that technology that’s available to us.

I’m John Pettigrew, I’m a recovering editor and the CEO of We Are Futureproofs, where we create technology to support skilled editorial teams.

I’m joined by a fantastic panel for our conversation today, so I’ll introduce them in alphabetical order.

Anna Faherty runs Strategic Content, a writing, training and strategy consultancy, where she collaborates with a diverse range of clients to scope, develop and deliver print, digital and in-gallery experiences. Formerly course leader at Kingston University, MA in Publishing, Anna now teaches at City University, London, and University of Arts in London. Welcome, Anna.

ANNA: Thank you.

JOHN: Chandi Perera is CEO at publishing automation business Typefi, and he has over two decades of publishing and media technology experience.

He’s acted as a technology consultant to corporations and government agencies around the world, and he’s a frequent conference speaker in the areas of content management, publishing, media, XML, structured content and digital rights management. He’s a board member of a number of industry bodies, and has degrees in Engineering and Computer Science.

And he’s joining us, actually, from Australia today, which is fantastic. With their second wave of lockdown due to end maybe in a month or so, I think, he says this is the longest he’s spent in one place without travelling since the mid-90s. So, thanks very much for being with us, Chandi.

CHANDI: Thank you, John.

JOHN: Nick Coveney is Publisher Relations and Content Lead for UK and New Zealand at Kobo, and before that he was Digital Innovation Director at HarperCollins. He’s an experienced digital and marketing leader for products, digital transformation and marketing campaigns within the media industry, trade publishing, and information services. So, again, thanks for being with us Nick.

NICK: Thank you.

JOHN: Thank you all for joining us on the panel. And I wanted to start by asking you to, in alphabetical order then, to say what is your stake in this conversation. Why do you care about publishing and the impact that technology has on it and its people? So, Anna, over to you.

ANNA: I think my stake is kind of twofold, over two strands—they’re related but slightly different.

Firstly, I do deliver training consultancy for publishers, and I’ve been asked countless times to run sessions with publishers in which I cover the future of publishing, and it’s an obvious question isn’t it.

You can see from the organisation’s point of view, if they can find some budget, they’re thinking, “Hey let’s pay a consultant to come in, they can tell us where things are going, what we should be doing. Then we can just know what tech we should be getting behind, what training we should be doing and then we can develop our five-year plan and just get on with it.”

And that’s a problem for me as a freelancer, because I want this work, but I can’t deliver what the client wants. So, I have to go back and say, “Well I don’t know what the future of publishing is, not because I’m bad at my job, but because no one knows what the future is.”

And this ties in with my second strand, which is that I teach, as John said, on MA Publishing courses, and I’ve been doing that for ten years across five different universities. There’s a constant theme that comes up, which is that many, not all, but many students want us to teach them about the latest tech. And again, that’s to be expected because it will probably help them get a job.

But, however up to date we are, that tech is going to change, and the way publishing teams work will also need to change.

Not to mention the world outside publishing, where consumers are going to encounter and use tech in different ways—that’s also going to change.

So again, I have to say to students—I’m a bit of a disappointing freelancer and lecturer—I’d say, “Yeah we might teach you that tech, but we also want to go beyond that.”

So, the common theme in these two strands is that with both publishers and students, I don’t want to focus on the nebulous future or the latest tech. But I want to help these people develop the skills and, really, a mindset that will enable them to navigate a sort of uncertain future, that means they can adapt to new technology as it comes along, and that will also encourage them to experiment with new ways of thinking and working.

So, that’s my stake. I want to develop these people’s attitudes and mindsets as much as focusing on the tech itself.

JOHN: That’s great, thanks, Anna. So Chandi, what’s your stake in this?

CHANDI: So, John, as you said, my background—I started as an engineer, so I kind of started on the technology end of things.

I must say, when I was a lot younger, one of the things I believed was that technology has an answer to everything. Well, it turns out that’s not the case.

And I think one of the great joys of any job, not just in publishing, is if your technology and your people work together, it makes a very enjoyable workplace, it makes an enjoyable job. On the flipside, if they don’t work together and they work in opposite directions, it makes a very miserable place to work.

I think getting that right is really productive and really rewarding for an organisation, be it a publishing organisation or a software company like ourselves. I think my stake is to make sure that the people and the technology go together.

JOHN: Excellent. And Nick, what’s your stake?

NICK: I think my stake, again, is twofold. On the one hand, my background in editorial and in publishing was digital product development and digital innovation for a long time.

So, again, like Anna referenced, being in that horrible position when people say, “So what’s the future look like?” And you have to tell them that actually the future isn’t a fixed point and it’s about iterating and building something in an agile way and trying to improve it.

Which is something that, I think, publishers and publishing are ideologically opposed to, because it’s traditionally a push business, where you push out content and it stays static. So, you print a physical book, you push it out to market, you don’t have to worry about the content of that book changing, because those pages won’t change from the moment it’s printed, you’re selling a static object which is fixed and immutable.

Whereas digital products, as we know, the goalposts can change, perspectives can change, everything about it can change.

And then the other element is that now I work for a digital retailer, again, I’m looking after publishers, authors, their content. I care very much about their adoption of the latest technologies and trying to ensure that they are helping consumers find their content and enjoy it.

I think from both perspectives, the key thing for me is that books need to stay as relevant as possible. I love books, I always have, but I think that book publishers have this terrible tendency of being complacent of their cultural dominance. “Books matter, books are special.”

Yes, yes, they do, but so are computer games, so is TikTok. These are horrible blasphemous things to say to some people, but they’re true.

We have to help the industry engage and adapt, otherwise books will be less relevant and less special.

JOHN: That’s great. So, thank you all for that, that’s given us a good view on where you’re coming from.

Has technology changed the basic nature of publishing? (08:00)

I’ll stick with you, Nick, and just ask, to follow up on what you were just saying there, has technology, in your view, changed the basic nature of publishing? Or is it just fiddling with the edges, is it just changing how we’re doing it? How does that go for you?

NICK: I think that, fundamentally, publishing hasn’t changed for a very, very long time. I’d hate to guess how many centuries! But no, I think that, sadly, the business has tried to stay as static as possible throughout all the change.

It’s been incredibly fascinating in the context of 2020 and the year that we’ve just had with COVID-19. Because all those pesky industry headlines about the death of the e-book and how e-books have gone away, suddenly change when the physical supply chains fall through the floor, and we’ve seen an exponential growth in digital consumption, digital purchasing.

I think the truth is that publishers now have more opportunities to distract themselves than ever before from what their core business is. And they also have the pesky quandary of social media marketing and digital marketing, which is a huge opportunity but also a risk.

It creates a kind of circuitous goose chase, where people are trying to make content that will go viral, they’re trying to make campaigns which will basically seed themselves, so the publishers can spend less money. But obviously, the best campaigns that do that still require a lot of planning and a lot of money behind them.

But the actual fundaments of publishing haven’t changed. If you look at the tech specs of EPUB3 and e-books, EPUB is a great accessible industry standard, but it is designed, first and foremost, to replicate a static book.

It’s even got a digital spine in there for no apparent reason other than it needs to be a little teapot that declares it has a spine because it’s a real book. And it’s crazy, really, when you think about it—that isn’t innovation, that isn’t change, that’s creating a digital totem of a static thing which has been around for centuries.

So, I think that the industry fundamentally hasn’t properly changed, and it needs to do a lot more to grapple with the opportunities and the risks that surround it.

JOHN: It has been fascinating, as you say, to look at what’s happened this year and the change in the conversation.

Just the other day, there was a headline saying, “Oh look, digital publishing and education has gone huge this year!”

Because, oddly enough, lots of people suddenly need to access this stuff away from the library, away from wherever the physical content is held. And that kind of stuff, as you say, it’s still often fundamentally the same thing that’s being delivered.

So, Anna, I’ll come to you with your education/teacher hat on, maybe, but also, you’ve got quite broad experience as a consultant. How do you think tech has changed our jobs within publishing? If we’re still doing fundamentally the same thing, are we still doing it in fundamentally the same way?

ANNA: The short answer is, I think, yes. Just to reflect what you were just saying about digital and learning, obviously I’m teaching and I’m having to teach online, which isn’t too much of a challenge for me.

But right at the end of last semester, in the middle of the first lockdown, we had reading lesson things that we had to change at a moment’s notice because those books were not available digitally, and that was very frustrating for us and hugely frustrating for students. And that’s just on one module on one course, and that must have happened everywhere.

So, publishers weren’t really prepared for that. I don’t expect them to be prepared for a pandemic, but they weren’t prepared for a sudden need or desire to have digital books. So that’s just an aside.

But I totally agree with Nick. On one level nothing has really changed about publishing, we’re still a creative, collaborative business, we still spot opportunities, we conceive, produce, market and sell products, in that order, in a sort of waterfall order, not in an agile order.

One of the things that I think makes publishing different from lots of other industries, and where tech can really help, is that we work on a large number of products at any one time, compared, say, with a car manufacturer who might have a handful of models that they’re promoting or a phone manufacturer that might just be promoting one or two models each year.

So, systems have always been really important to publishers to keep track of everything. And obviously, tech has the capacity and the capability to really support businesses in this way.

It gives potential for us to be more efficient and spend less time on admin, and for us to do more fun and creative things, the things that encourage you and encourage our students, definitely, to get into publishing.

But again, I’m not sure that we’re using tech in that way—often those systems bog us down and become difficult things, rather than helpful things.

Going back to the actual roles, I did a look on The Bookseller this morning and it was very sobering to see that I’ve been in publishing 30 years, and the same old job titles are there, production controller, senior desk editor. I’m just reading them here. Marketing communications executive, publicity executive, sales manager, designer.

Even when you click through on those jobs, most of the skills they’re asking for are the same. I mean, occasionally they ask for Adobe InDesign, but really, they’re asking for the same old skills. So, on that level, I don’t think anything’s changed about what we’re recruiting.

However, the world outside is changing, so people can publish for themselves, people can get free content, people can find publishers’ content without the publisher or the bookseller being involved at all.

And people will have expectations about discovery and consumption, because we use other things like Netflix, so we have an assumption about working multi-platform, we have assumptions about granular discoverability, and algorithms that will help us find our next great box set. Publishers haven’t caught up with that yet.

Also, we’re leaving these digital trails about our book discovery journey, which can give publishers insight about the market as a whole on a macro level, or even individuals in consumer insight. So, there are a few new jobs around, like ones to do with discoverability and metadata, and ones to do with consumer insight.

But, overall, I would say that we’re still recruiting for the old ways of doing things, with a smattering of digital occasionally, rather than really recruiting different types of people for different types of jobs.

What should technology be doing for the publishing industry? (14:49)

JOHN: So, if we’re still doing the same thing in the same way with the same job titles and stuff, I guess our resident technologist, maybe, Chandi—what should we be looking for technology to do for us? What would it be doing, ideally, for the business of publishing?

CHANDI: I think it depends on who you define by ‘us’. So, if you define ‘us’ as the publishing community, so the people who work in publishing—everything from authors, to the person in the book store who sells you the book or sells it digitally—then I think when there’s technology being introduced, it really has to have a purpose.

You have to ask as a leader, for everybody whose life is getting changed, you have to ask, “What is in this for me?” Or, “What is in this for them?”

Now, not everybody’s life has to get better, but for a successful project, what I’ve found is most people’s lives have to get better, otherwise it is going to fail.

As a technologist, I think as a tech software vendor as well, and before that as an engineer in publishing companies—before switching to the dark side and becoming a vendor, I used to work for publishers—the worst situation is you see a piece of technology as being a silver bullet. It is going to fix all our problems.

If we had a better project management system, all our books will be on time. Doesn’t matter that everything is running overtime, it’s not the project management system that’s making it run overtime. If we had a better website, then we will be making more sales.

I think technology is seen as a silver bullet and I think that is probably the biggest burden or the biggest failing of publishing.

Really, any piece of technology, you have to decide, “What is in this for the person who’s implementing it?” And if I change it the other way around, if ‘us’ means the people who read books, who consume our product—and as you can see from behind me, I read a few books now and then—you really need to deliver something people need, when they need it.

And I think publishing, especially publishing in the western world right now, is becoming very insular. I’ll tell you why I’m saying that. It’s a bit of a controversial statement, but I’ve said that a few times this year and I live in Australia so it’s hard for people to find me.

But if you look at the statistics from the ITU, the International Telecommunications Union, so they’re an international body who regulates telecommunications, about 51% of the global population has regular access to the internet. They define regular as at least once a week. But only 48% of women have regular access to the internet.

We are so focused on delivering everything digitally, and we are cutting out a very significant part of the population. And we’re not really thinking about all of this new content we are creating, we are creating a very large digital divide, and that’s not just the third world, but even in the developing world.

I have an anecdote about both my kids. One’s in secondary school, he’s in a private secondary school; one’s in primary school, he’s in a public primary school.

When we went into lockdown, the secondary school, everybody had an iPad. It’s private school, they have very high quality of technology. They have ability to switch to remote learning without a problem, they didn’t miss a day.

In the public school, I think about a third of the students in my younger son’s class, they did not even have internet access at home, let alone a device. So, they had to wait for devices and dongles to be delivered so they could get wireless internet, and it has been a challenge for quite a few of them and their parents to keep up with delivering content digitally.

And again, when we look at, from a technology point of view, yes, the technology can enable this but if the society is not ready for that yet, we have to keep that in mind, because at the end of the day we live and die as publishers by how people consume our content. And if they can’t consume our content, then we’re talking to a wall.

So, for us, if you’re a publisher, I think you have to make sure your people and your vision are aligned with your technology. And in general, as a publishing community, we need to make sure that our vision as a publishing community is aligned with society and we are delivering to what society wants from us.

Don’t take me as being anti-digital! I think a fair amount of society wants digital, but they also want print. So, I think we’re in that situation where we can’t really leave one behind and say, look we’ve gone from there to here. I think we need to be able to deliver to society what they want.

How do we ensure access to published content for everyone who wants or needs it? (19:41)

JOHN: I think I’m going to put Nick on the spot a bit here. As representing a company whose job is delivering digital content, how do we deal with this digital divide if we are focused on creating digital content for all the good reasons? How do we bridge that, as an industry, with the need to keep access for everybody who needs it?

NICK: Well, I think that it’s one of those things where, as a retailer, obviously our business is in the selling of content, but it’s also really important to have other models where people can access digital content more easily.

I love physical books. I always feel like I’m miscast sometimes as this kind of anti-physical person, because I’ve always been on the digital side of book publishing.

But I’m a bibliophile in the truest possible sense. I love books, regardless of the format, whether it’s audio, e, print, regardless, I just love books.

But I think there are many benefits to digital publishing in terms of it being more accessible, it being more democratic, it being more readily consumed by multiple people.

If you think of it, in terms of elitism, there’s nothing more elitist than a physical book collection, because literally only one person can own that bookshelf and those books. Whereas, there’s multiple digital models or solutions.

We work very closely with OverDrive, who used to be a Rakuten business and now they’re no longer a sister company, they’re independently owned. But we still work very closely with them to integrate their e-lending service onto our devices.

So, even though Kobo’s a proprietary device, we enable both that and our iOS and Android apps to interface with OverDrive’s digital lending technology, so that if people have a digital library subscription, they can access content on either their Kobo device or on an application that way.

I think it’s really important to have free software so that people don’t need to own a physical device. A big chunk of our customer base globally comes from our free desktop app for the laptop or via Android and iOS apps, so tablet and smart phones.

Obviously, those require a device in order to run this software, but a surprisingly high percentage of people have access to some form now of smart device, even if it’s one which might not be recognised on the high street because it’s five-plus years old.

And we try very hard to make sure that our technology isn’t absolutist, and that it has good, responsible grandfathering so that it plays nicely with older devices and does not force a hegemony, where people have to buy the latest tablet or smart phone in order to play nicely.

But I also think we want the physical trade to be buoyant and benefit from innovations in the future as well. I think that digital and physical books have a symbiotic relationship.

There’s obviously now more ways for people to publish independently, and indie publishing often skews to digital-first or digital-only. A lot of independent authors prefer that, because it’s a leaner business model, it’s faster, and it’s lower risk.

But we all—I’m sure everyone on this call loves physical books as well—so I don’t think we want this type of future where physical books are banned and everyone has to e-read or listen to an audio book.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could try and work together to ensure that everyone can access as many books as possible?

JOHN: Yeah, excellent. There’s a clarion call there.

How do people in publishing react to new technology? (23:40)

To go back to one of the questions that Chandi was talking about, this question of, ‘What’s in it for me when it comes to technology?’

I want to ask Anna because, again, you’re encountering people right at the start of their journeys in their publishing career as students, but also working with them, working with companies who have established teams and stuff.

How do people, publishing people, react to new technology? You’ve said students are looking for it. Does that last? When they’re in a company, how do the businesses manage that?

ANNA: Students are looking for the skills that they think will get them a job. So they know, for instance, that InDesign is a useful thing to have, so they want to learn that.

But I’d say—and this isn’t all students, we have a wide variety of students from different backgrounds, both around the world, but in terms of their professional background, not all straight from education—but often students view tech with some kind of fear or irritation or even disinterest.

When I’ve tried to introduce coding on courses, for instance, it’s a big challenge, because students don’t see—and obviously it’s my job to make them see this—but students don’t see the relevance, and they think it’s just getting in the way of making some lovely books and learning how to edit or something that they perceive as being much more about making beautiful books because that’s why they’ve come on the course.

So, they’re open on one level, because they realise that digital skills, some digital skills, are important. But I think, because you can never see inside an industry until you’re in it, they don’t necessarily see what’s in it for them, so what Chandi was saying.

The challenge for us, as educators, is to persuade them that coding is a really useful thing. It can make your life easier, and it can get rid of some of the admin, and then you can actually spend more time doing the fun stuff.

The mindset might be that it’s a challenge and boring and dull and unimportant, and our job is to open their minds and show that it’s an enabler and an opportunity. So that’s the student perspective.

Then, I think, when you get into publishing, it’s a bit like Nick said with the spine on the e-book—because we’re such a systems-driven industry, people are trying to shove new tech into the old workflows, and that can create problems.

One of my bugbears as a consumer is on audio books. I don’t know anything about audio book production, but I’m assuming publishers are forced to have chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, whatever.

And often chapter one is actually the preface or something, so that when you’re listening to what the audio book describes as chapter two, it’s actually chapter one in the printed book, and that just does my head in, because why can’t we just solve that problem and have the chapters as they should be?

But in a more serious and challenging way, I think publishers are often putting new tech into existing systems and also existing business models.

So, for instance, I actually write online learning courses, and I used to be on a royalty system which was just like an old book system—it was a contract like a book contract, it was royalties like a book contract.

It didn’t work, because my text and content was being taken and used in different ways, and packaged in whole subscriptions that are being sold, and it became really complicated for the publisher to even work out what royalties I was due.

So that’s an example of using an old system because it’s there, because probably there’s no time to invent a new system. But, actually, you’re creating loads of problems.

I think what I’d say to people in publishing is that do as Chandi says, think about what’s in it for you and whether you really need to do it.

But also think about what impact this technology is going to have on your existing business models, your existing workflow and your existing systems. And then adapt, if need be, because there’s no point adopting a great new technology and then forcing it into an old traditional publishing model.

How can publishers successfully adopt new technology? (27:31)

JOHN: You can’t change everything at once, can you? You have to take your new thing and try and fit it in, but you need to do it properly, do it mindfully, do it in awareness of that there’s a whole thing around it.

So, taking that, and taking from what you said earlier, Chandi, that there isn’t a silver bullet, technology is never going to solve all your problems in one fell swoop—what are the ingredients then for a successful adoption of technology? How can you plan and execute so that, although it’s not silver bullet, it’s at least going to do the job you asked it to?

CHANDI: I think really, businesses, publishers, should start off with saying what do I need here, what’s the missing ingredient? Is that a piece of software, is that more skill in my people, is that a change in our business process? Because it’s going to fall into one of those three things.

And then if it’s a piece of software, then there is something you need for them, they can decide how to go with that.

But also, I think what a lot of organisations, especially in publishing, forget to ask is, “Is my organisation mature enough to do this?”

We work in automation. Automation requires that you know what you want to automate, and if you look at business processes within publishing, especially the creative process of taking a manuscript and creating a book out of it, it is very amorphous, a lot of publishers cannot explain their core business process on a white board.

If I go to a car manufacturer, they can tell me down to the last bolt that these are the instructions, these are the instructions we’ve sent to the people in the suppliers, these are the tolerances—it’s a very very highly detailed process. Which is why you can automate a making of a car much easier than you can automate the making of a book.

Because, when you go to a publisher and say, “You edit—what do you mean by you edit? Do you do a technical edit, do you do a copy edit, what’s your style guide?”

Quite often they don’t have a formal editorial style guide, so when you say ‘can you automate my editing’, technology can. But what do you want me to do, can you describe to me what you want me to do? And quite often that becomes very difficult.

That’s where I think, as publishers, quite often, this is something I see very much in publishers outside, the publishers see themselves as doing something very special, a creative process of making a book. But they haven’t really formalised any of that.

That also means if there are new staff coming into that business process, they can’t be productive from day one. They have to sit there and absorb all that information by symbiosis and say, “Look, this is how we edit a book, this is our publishing style guide for this organisation. This is how I set out the book.”

After they absorb that, about a year later, they become productive, which is not great.

This is nothing to do with technology, but I think as a publisher, if you know exactly what you’re doing in your business process—which is really boring work, it’s not creative work, but it is very useful—if you do know what you’re doing and it’s well documented and it’s well understood, then technology can really help you.

But if you say, “Oh look, those guys took their production time for their book down from six weeks to six days. Can we do that by buying that software?” I would say, not as easily. First let’s understand what you do, let’s see how we can help you, and then let’s put the software in and train your people.

What’s the role of managers and business leaders in adopting new technology? (31:08)

JOHN: Okay, so if the primary need, then, for getting your technology together with your people in a working way is actually understanding what you do in your organisation, and asking the right questions was the first thing you said there, what are we actually trying to achieve?

Again, Nick, with your previous innovation hat on—what’s the role of managers and business leaders, how do they fit in? They’re obviously the people who are going to have to answer these questions, or at least ask them. How do they fit in? Do they fit in?

NICK: I think that one of the key things is them actually paying enough attention to ask the questions.

One of the things that I found incredibly frustrating when I was on the publisher side of the trade was that there’s a general complacency, I think, with the new world order, that pursuit of a silver bullet, which is wholly unrealistic.

They would never apply that rationale to the physical book market because they know how crazy it sounds. If the secret to a good business was a silver bullet, then publishers would only buy one book a year and make sure it was the big best seller that year and take all the money and never publish a book that didn’t earn out. We all know better than that.

I think that there’s a fallacy that this innovation or new technology, the new ways of working, will be an instant success, will radically transform everything, and that there will be no teething problems, or no need for iteration or further work.

That’s the thing I always try to get across is that, if you’re doing it right, you should factor in actually iterating your solution, improving your products, trying to do more than just push something out to market.

But that goes against the ideological cascade of the supply chain that book publishers are used to, and that they’re used to making the most money from.

I think that it’s really important that publishers look at digital licensing solutions, look at new platforms, look at subscription, and all the different opportunities, so that they find ways of ensuring that their content is reaching the broadest audience possible, and staying hyper relevant.

And I think that managers, senior leaders can be doing more to think about ensuring that they’re making individual departments work better, work more agile, for want of a better word.

But also ensuring that they, as a business aren’t being complacent, aren’t being led by retailers and names, down certain garden paths or in the wrong direction. Because at the end of the day, their business has all got to be about ensuring the relevancy of their content to the general consumer.

JOHN: I really like that point. We all know as publishers that a book that’s a sudden and unexpected success, is a sudden and unexpected success because some team has spent a lot of time laying the groundwork, making the book in the first place but getting the buzz out, getting the reviews, all those kind of things that lead to, “Oh look, no one expected this.”

But actually it came from somewhere. And the same applies to digital success.

What skills do people need to help them engage with new technologies? (34:34)

If we need to address that complacency in management and, as you said, that kind of lazy thinking, and I want to put Anna on the ground as our resident educator, what skills do we need to promulgate in managers and in the people who are actually doing the work to help us engage with these new technologies?

How do we evaluate them, how do we acquire them, how do we know whether it’s got a possibility of working?

ANNA: It depends how you define skills, but I think in some ways it’s about our mindset, it’s about a mindset that’s comfortable with uncertainty, that’s comfortable with failure.

So, you were just talking about successes, but actually you learn much more often from failure. In other industries, you talk about failure a lot more, and in publishing we don’t, because we have so many products that if one fails, we can just go, “Oh well, something went wrong with that.” And we might occasionally have reviews about a book to work out why it failed.

But we don’t spend a lot of time talking about failure. Whereas if you were that car manufacturer or that phone manufacturer that I mentioned at the beginning, and your huge product fails, you would have to talk about it.

One of the things I think we, as an industry, need to do, is talk about failure more and encourage people that it’s okay to fail. We try and do that with our students.

It’s very challenging, because publishing attracts a certain type of person—I put myself in this boat—a sort of high achieving person who wants to get things right, who’s got great attention to detail so always wants everything to be perfect, is good at organisation and planning, likes to know what’s going to happen.

And all those things become challenged when you go into a digital environment, because you don’t necessarily know how to plan, and things might go wrong and you might need to adapt, or as Nick said, to iterate through things. So, for me, it’s kind of a mindset rather than a set of skills.

In terms of students, and if anyone is watching this who’s thinking about doing an MA, I’m not going to promote any individual course, but I’d say, as much as looking at what content is in the course and what topics are covered and what tech is covered, look at how the course is taught. Because you’re not going to get that mindset if you’re just sitting in a lecture room, told things. You might learn lots of stuff that you can tick off and think, “Great, I can now go and get a job.”

You’re going to learn by doing, and by being thrown in the deep end at a project where you don’t have all the answers, where things might go wrong, and hopefully at the end of that project you’ll feel comfortable with uncertainty and a bit of chaos and complexity. And you’ll also have developed, hopefully, your problem-solving skills.

So, in terms of skills, I suppose I would say problem solving, creative thinking, the ability to take action even if you don’t have all the right answers, are the kind of things I think publishers need to do.

How you do that if you’re in a job already, or if you’re a manager, is a challenge, because you’ve got to that position because you’re really good at all the other things.

As an aside, those Bookseller ads that I looked at today, they all asked for organisational skills, written and verbal communication skills, attention to detail, working independently as well as within a team. Some of those things are at odds with that mindset that you need for digital.

It’s only one ad I found today, which was for an audio and digital executive, that asked for problem solvers, asked for adaptability, asked for creativity and a positive can-do attitude.

But going back to what you can do, if you’re in a job. I’d say, still try and do that, learn by doing. So do some kind of side hustle. Learn how to code in your spare time, make some kind of e-book, do something.

If you’ve got a great organisation, ask to do it on company time. If you don’t, do it in your own time. But do something that puts you in that ‘learning by doing’ mindset and shows you that you can experiment and still be successful.

Also look outside publishing, if you’re looking at training. Publishing courses are great, and publishing training courses are great, but see if you can just learn to code somewhere else, nothing to do with publishing.

See if you can look to journalism, where they’re doing some really clever things in terms of using artificial intelligence and using things like Snapchat, and stuff like that, so they’re doing very clever things. Learn about data analytics, about artificial intelligence, don’t necessarily just stay in publishing courses.

And then, I think, companies have something to do with this, because the company systems thwart this mindset. They don’t give people time to think creatively, they don’t encourage people to talk about failure in a positive way, rather than finding the blame and the reason it went wrong. And they have systems that thwart.

So, I know as a commissioning editor, if you come along with a new kind of product using a new kind of tech or, even worse, a new kind of business model like a service business model, the kind of system for how you propose that and get approval in your company probably doesn’t allow for that.

And they want you to have all the answers, and know exactly how much it’s going to cost, and you won’t know that, so instead you, as a commissioning editor trying to get your targets, focus on the books because they’re the easy thing, you know how to budget for them, you know how they work through the production process. You can put them in the system and they work.

Companies need to have a way that they encourage a bit of experimentation and creativity, whether that’s having a separate fund for innovative ideas, whether that’s having a separate way of appraising new projects that don’t have to go through the old system, at least not at the start.

And, overall, I think companies need to encourage people to think in a more agile way, to think in the language of things like minimum viable products and think about, “Why couldn’t we do dynamic pricing?” Think about granular discoverability, think about gathering and using analytics.

But often these are not things that are in the standard publishing process, so as an individual, I’d say learn by doing, look outside publishing, reflect on your own practice and if things have failed, why?

And then, as a company, try and give people this time and space and support to explore these different ways of doing things.

JOHN: Thanks, Anna. I think that final point, about the companies encouraging their staff to learn new things, is so important and so rare, particularly in publishing. The attitude is, “We’re paying you to do thing x, do thing x all the time.” And probably about 15% more than that.

Whereas, if you encourage people to spend a bit of their time learning something new, they’ll both be more engaged, and be more useful to you, and it’s just so much better to prepare you as a business.

I do want to give my little thumbs up to learning to code. Not because you want to be a developer, most people should not become developers and won’t become developers.

But if you learn just a bit about how computers work, they’ll be so much more able to evaluate, “Oh look, here’s the thing I’m doing that will be much better done by a computer because it’s routine.” Or, “Here’s a thing that actually… a vendor is telling me this, and I’ve done a little bit of this, and I know it’s a lot easier than that.”

Emma Barnes of Consonance runs the Day of Code and Side Project Summer, it’s a great encouragement to people in publishing to try something new with code, and I think it’s a really good thing to do.

How can people balance learning new tech skills with doing their day-to-day work? (41:43)

But this need to develop new skills though, and spend time doing it—is it at odds with a need to become better at what’s actually our job?

I guess I’m going to throw this your way, Nick. How do we balance the need to learn tech skills with the need to be good at our actual job, and to think about how those two things balance?

NICK: I think that the core thing is embedding, thinking about digital best practices and learning new skills as a part of every job, regardless of whether or not you have an obviously digital-facing job or not.

I always thought it was remarkable how many people in editorial teams would distance themselves from metadata discussion, when actually nothing is probably closer to the success of their direct careers as someone that’s an editor who is acquiring titles and trying to ensure that they perform well in market, and making sure that the metadata for those titles is right.

I think, thankfully, we’ve moved on a bit, but there’s still this sort of ‘stay in my lane’ mentality that some people adopt, where they think, “Oh well that’s somebody else’s, that sits with a different department. I don’t need to have that, because marketing will sort it out, or the digital group staff will sort it out, production ops can sort it out.”

Actually, knowing more about the nitty gritty technical side of it only benefits everyone.

The greater your understanding—even if it isn’t your role, even if it is something where you actually have to go to colleagues and get them to help you—at least if you understand the broad-brush parameters of what has gone wrong and why, you can give them more detailed feedback, which will help them fix the problem faster, which will then resolve things, and as a business you can move forward in a more positive way.

I do think that businesses have to be careful of not wanting an army of perfect coders who don’t understand the other elements of the job. I completely agree with what Anna and yourself and everyone else has said about the importance of learning to code.

I remember a decade ago actually having to split open EPUBs for certain publishers, correct minor mistakes, and then recompile them and pass them back into EPUBs from ZIP folders.

And just that little bit of thinking that an EPUB is actually a ZIP folder with delusions of grandeur, it’s quite a massive revelation. Once you understand CSS, once you understand XML, HTML, the broad parameters of it, it will help at so many different levels of your work, whether it’s online or offline.

And also having a side hustle, doing something outside which is related to content or storytelling, is incredibly important.

I was having a discussion with an elderly relative I won’t name, but they were telling me about the growth of their little Instagram, and how they’ve been sharing their plant photos on Instagram, and how they now understand everything I told them about hashtags about 10 plus years ago. Because they’ve seen that certain hashtags would do really well on Instagram and others, even if it’s a really lovely photo that they’re very fond of, won’t perform.

I just think the more people do outside their day to day, the better understanding they’ll have of how they can add more value to their business but also have a bit more fun with it.

JOHN: Yeah, the thought of educating one’s family in the joys of modern technology is great fun. We have this responsibility to educate each other, as well, as you were touching on, Nick.

What responsibility do tech vendors have to tech users? (45:47)

Chandi, I want to bring you in on this one, because we have a responsibility as vendors, we are providing technology to publishers. What responsibility do we have to help our users—not just the customer, the manager who’s paying us, but the people who are using our stuff—to adapt? How do we fit into this picture? Can we fit in?

CHANDI: I think that is our primary responsibility, more than to educate the person who’s paying us, which happens as part of the sales process and then they forget anyway. But the end user needs to know what they’re doing, and they’re the people who are deriving benefit from this.

To have a relationship that goes 10 years or 15 years with a vendor, which I’ve been told is uncommon these days, but you do that by making sure that the person who’s actually using your widget is getting value from it.

And it really doesn’t have to do with, “Is the business making money?” It does, but really, if this is the person who’s buying your widget, they’re not paying for it but they’re the people using it every day, day in, day out. And you need to make sure their life is easier.

If their life is not easier, you’re going to be out of there the minute the management changes, or something changes. You’re going to be out of there because you have made their life miserable.

As a vendor, I think if I can give any advice for prospective vendors, I would say focus on your user. The person who’s using your widget, your software or your hardware or your business process, whatever, make sure they are getting daily benefit from this, they are the person you need to please.

If they are getting a benefit, and the business is getting a benefit, then you have a relationship that goes on for a long time.

I would say it is almost the primary purpose of a software vendor or a services vendor to make sure the person who you’re serving is getting a benefit.

JOHN: That goes back to the comment we started with. It’s what’s in it for me, it’s always about that, there’s got to be an answer. Technology has to answer that: What’s in it for me for everyone who’s going to touch it.

Some final thoughts on people and technology in publishing (47:49)

I think we’re drawing to a close of our time. So, I just want to ask each of you to give a one-minute summary of how do we balance this new technology against skilled teams who understand publishing?

Let’s go in reverse alphabetical order this time, and I’ll pitch Nick up first. What’s your take on that? What’s the balance between publishing skills and tech skills?

NICK: I think the core thing is trying to think about what publishing is at its heart, so it’s storytelling and therefore finding the ways which technology can enhance your storytelling. Like very very simple stuff, some of it, like AB campaigns, proper testing, updating, refreshing metadata rather than just leaving it to stagnate because that’s what you would have done with a physical book.

There’s a whole list of different things, but fundamentally, I think it’s got to come back to publishers remembering why it is we do what we do. We all love books, we all love storytelling, but also ensuring that they don’t allow certain players to dictate what innovation or change looks like.

There are certain fallacies that the industry likes to tell itself, like digital piracy is not a thing—it is completely a thing. It’s just something that publishers like to pretend doesn’t happen because that way they can say things like ‘nobody reads e-books’, rather than knowing that a chunk of people are reading e-books illegitimately because they’re pirating the content.

So, there are things like that where I think that the best possible way that the industry can ensure its future is to be properly engaged in making sure that everybody feels like they’re on board with keeping up with the pace of digital change, but are also trying new things.

Audio books are having this huge boom at the moment, and yet you could name on one hand interesting uses by big publishers of voice-controlled speakers, despite those pieces of kit being propagated and growing rapidly in the market.

Most publishers haven’t done anything with them. Why? Because they’re relying on the tech companies and the retailers to do it for them. And that seems kind of crazy.

Being wedded to a historical price point, I mean, dynamic pricing is so important. And I think that there’s this sort of misconception that just because an e-book pricing strategy works in 2010 doesn’t mean you can use the same strategy 10 years later, particularly now that Spotify, Netflix, other kinds of digital content are being pushed to the consumer, which makes e-books seem incredibly expensive.

I think that that is something that is really connected to the piracy thing. Unless we properly engage with the responsibility that publishers and content creators have to make books a viable digital product, then we risk people being pushed into piracy, either because they can’t access content when they want to—that whole Game of Thrones, HBO thing, where something doesn’t stream globally despite the fact that we live in a global world—or because it’s viewed as being too expensive.

JOHN: Great, thanks. So Chandi, publishing versus technology, how do we balance those skills?

CHANDI: I’m going back to something Nick and Anna said right at the start, which is publishing hasn’t changed much. And I think in its core value proposition it hasn’t, it is about storytelling or providing information, if you’re the reference world. But what has changed is the delivery mechanism.

If we go back a few years, and go back a few centuries, the person working in publishing had to know how the delivery mechanism worked. They had to know how the book was put together, and if you go back a few hundred years, printer and publisher was the same word.

And then printers and publishers separated and even, when I started my career, which was in the ’90s, editors went to the printer, they knew what was printed, they knew how it was printed, they knew how a book was put together. It wasn’t a foreign skill.

But today, I think maybe there’s a misexpectation, I’m not really sure, but the publishing professionals need to know how their product is going to get delivered, and that’s in an e-book or HTML page or whatever technology platform that comes along.

They need to know it as much as the editors 30 years ago knew how a book was bound and printed and delivered, and how many fit in a box, and all of those things.

In a sense it’s an exciting industry, things are changing all the time, you’re learning new things all the time. At least that’s how I see it.

If you’re a publishing professional, you just need to know the industry and you need to take the time to learn the industry.

If you’re a publisher and employer, it is good for your staff to know the industry and stop being focused on such miniscule tasks. The more breadth they have, the more productive and the more they’ll be able to predict what their actions will have further down the line, or further up the line.

If they just focus on their single job and when we say our day job, if you’re only focused on that, you have no idea how your actions affect further down the line, or further up the line. So just knowing what’s happening is going to make your life a lot easier.

JOHN: That’s great, thanks Chandi. And Anna, how do you see the balance sitting now and in the next few years?

ANNA: I’m going to answer by means of an audio-visual aid that I just scribbled while the two of you were answering, I was listening at the same time.

I think you kind of set it up as a dichotomy between publishing skills and tech skills. I think it’s actually a three-way thing—it’s got publishing, business and tech skills, and they all merge in the middle.

Sort of building on what Chandi said as well, there’s always been tech. It’s been different kinds of tech, but there’s always been tech in publishing, even centuries ago. I think it’s just different types of tech now, and maybe the pace of change has changed.

So, I did my publishing-business-tech and it should sit in the middle, so your question was, what makes you skilled at your publishing job? And I’d say it’s all of that, and depending on your role, you might have more of different things.

Obviously, a commissioning editor is going to know a bit more about business maybe, or be focused on that, whereas a production person might be more focused on the tech, but I do think you all need to have a sweet spot in the middle where you understand those three things.

Again, when we’re teaching, as well as tech and students sometimes being a bit resistant to that, we talk from day one about business, and students are often a bit resistant to that too, if they’ve come with very lofty literary ambitions. So that, for me, is a key thing.

Then I put some other things on here, so looking at other media, being happy with change, focusing on users, so picking up on Chandi and storytelling, obviously, in the fiction side of publishing.

But for me, it’s a kind of Venn diagram that publishing, business and tech, and there’s not one thing that’s more important than the other. But where you sit in that Venn diagram will change.

You’ve made me think that after this call, I’m going to go and put dots to see different jobs and where they’re going to go on this Venn diagram. But they should all somewhere be in the middle of that. That’s my answer.

JOHN: Fantastic, thanks Anna. And thanks all of you. I think that’s a great place to end up actually. This idea that tech isn’t separate to business, it never has been, back to Gutenberg, publishing is driven by technology change.

Michael Bhaskar has written an excellent book on this topic, but this idea that you have to really know some tech to understand what we’re doing as publishers, that’s a great and, I think, inspiring message to take away as we go on.

So, thank all of you for your time, that’s been a fantastic conversation. And for those of you who are watching and listening, now is the time to go over to Twitter where we are going to do a little bit of Q and A, if anyone has any questions we want to pursue on that medium. Follow the hashtag, #TalkingThroughMyHat. And we will hopefully see you there.

Thank you all for your time and thank you so much for being part of it. Goodbye now.

Check out the other Talking Through My Hat panels from Frankfurter Buchmesse 2020!

Publishing Innovation: How do we manage change?

Publishing People: Building teams and careers in 2020