Understanding publishing's new ecosystem

Alistair Burtenshaw • 07 August 2012

London Book Fair Director Alistair Burtenshaw reflects on a week of thought-provoking international discussion at Yale
For much of this year, I have been looking forward to the Yale Publishing Course on Leadership Strategies for Book Publishing, which took place during the last week of July in New Haven, Connecticut.

On a hot and humid Sunday afternoon I found myself on the Yale University campus in the company of publishers from Brazil, China, Denmark, Germany, India, Ireland, Lebanon, Qatar, Singapore, the Netherlands, the UK and USA. It was clear from the first round of introductions that one common goal united us all - to understand the digital ecosystem and what the transformation of the book business meant to our companies.

It was clear that whatever the size of our organisation, wherever our region and whatever our business - academic press, general trade, education, religious publishing, children's books, journal publishing, international book fair - the publishing landscape had changed dramatically and it was clear we were now fully immersed in the period of "constant change" that was referred to repeatedly throughout the week.

Whether the percentage of ebook sales in our markets is currently in single or double digits, we all understood that we are in a new "ecosystem" of parallel supply chains, new market entrants, new platforms and new channels to consumer: a period of "creative destruction" that presents unparalleled challenges and opportunities for all publishers.

Over the next five days, we were privileged to be able to hear from, and exchange ideas with, 32 speakers representing the very best in bookselling, publishing, libraries, online platforms, disruption to traditional models, international markets, copyright, finance, design and the broader context of previous changes in the book business. The speakers also included professors from Yale University to set the challenges of the book trade in a wider business context.

Throughout these stimulating and thought-provoking sessions, four key themes emerged for navigating this new era in the book business which I have titled "new thinking", "new skill-sets", "new business models" and "new opportunities".

New Thinking
The fast pace of constant change requires us to be nimble, open to new ways of working, able to decide which changes to respond to and how and which opportunities to pass on, at least initially. Questions such as "do we want to lead or to follow" have profound implications for our businesses - in some instances the benefits of leading, of innovating first may be offset by the risks of creating new forms of content that markets are not yet ready for.

New Skill-sets
Throughout the week, the challenge of adapting our businesses to constant change was apparent: an era of heightened complexity, speed of change, "anxious enthusiasm" and, in some cases, resistance to change provide challenges to all publishers. While many of the traditional publishing skills are as important as ever, they need to be matched with the type of new high-tech skills that digital start-ups and Silicon Valley tech giants are employing. Indeed, many speakers referred to the Roman god Janus and the ability to combine perspective and experience from the past with a forward-looking approach to the challenges and opportunities of the future.

New Models
The complexities of multiple new platforms for content distribution means that not only do publishers need to ensure that their functional teams are set up to respond to the demands that new formats place on editorial, digital production, sales, marketing and finance teams but savvy publishers need to look at how their business systems can be reinvented to respond faster, more cost-effectively and to create greater value. However, in many instances there needs to be a fundamental re-shaping of the business to respond to international and digital opportunities, as has been seen with the global restructuring that has taken place at both Bloomsbury and Macmillan in the last year.

New Markets
Another recurrent theme of the week was the challenge and opportunity presented by the intersection of digital formats and international markets. Not least of these was the opportunity for publishers and agents to consider the merits of acquiring world language rights, to experiment in selling ebooks in local markets at different, locally appropriate prices, utilizing flexible pricing models. Other opportunities presented included how to respond to the different speeds of mobile and device adoption around the globe, and the need to look to the major emerging economies globally for new opportunities to partner, innovate and experiment with new digital content offerings to meet local market needs. 

While it is almost impossible to summarize five days’ of presentations, the Yale Publishing Course was a wonderful reinforcement of the conclusion of a presentation that I made recently to the International Publishers Association Congress in Cape Town. Based on publishing CEO-level interviews conducted for Reed Exhibitions last year by Outsell Inc, our conclusion seems more pertinent than ever: to thrive and take advantage of the opportunities in this new landscape, all those in publishing need to "engage", "experiment" and "evolve".

Alistair Burtenshaw is Director of the London Book Fair and Director of Books and Publishing at Reed Exhibitions Ltd.