How to thrive in the evolving book world

Anna Cunnane
Opinion - Publishing Tuesday, 1st May 2018

Anna Cunnane reports on a Trailblazers 'Future of Publishing' panel at the London Book Fair

The panel I was invited to speak on at the London Book Fair was of particular interest to all ambitious publishing professionals, because it touched on how to stay ahead of the curve. We were asked to comment on the skills young publishers needed to ensure that they (and the industry as a whole) were equipped to thrive.

The speakers on the panel were:

Abiola Bello, co-founder, the Author School and Hashtag Press
Anna Cunnane, senior data executive, Abrams & Chronicle
Clio Cornish, editor, HQ (HarperCollins)
Heather McDaid, founder and publisher, 404 Ink

David Roche, non-executive Chairman of the London Book Fair and of BookBrunch, was in the chair.

The future
David began by asking us about where we believed publishing was heading and what we needed to do now to be at the forefront of new technologies and business models. The panel agreed that nobody knew what the future of publishing would look like; but that to make sure we were in the best shape possible to meet the future we needed to do much more to encourage diversity in our workforce and in the books we publish.

The panellists stressed flexibility as an advantage in a fast-changing publishing landscape. Publishers are adopting more agile workflows that demand collaboration across departments. Innovation can often come from outsiders, who are not bound by publishing conventions and can spot opportunities or offer better ways of doing things. It was noticeable that both Abiola and Heather had started their own companies. Barriers to entry in publishing - whether formal education requirements or geography - were cited as sources of frustration. In the unpredictable job market of the future, portfolio careers could replace the typical desk job. The publishers who are proactive about their professional development now and who are actively building new skills will be the most successful in five to 10 years' time.

David asked us how consumer data and insight were affecting acquisitions, and whether editorial "flair" was going to become a relic of the past. Clio commented that data insight did inform acquisitions decisions, but that some publishers' negative experiences, for example with YouTube stars, meant that there were less likely to offer big advances based solely on factors such as audience numbers. She noted that recent bestsellers such as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine could be put down to the traditional ingredients of a great story, editorial passion and a committed marketing and publicity effort. I would add that where data can be really useful is when it’s applied to platforms rather than content. Smartphones have created a resurgence in audio that publishers were not expecting, and streaming services such as Netflix are encouraging "binge" watching that may influence reading habits.

Battling for consumer attention
How can we as publishers take on other forms of media and win the battle for consumer attention? First, as mentioned above, we need to expand our hiring practices to bring people into the industry who never would have considered publishing careers. We need to invest in and promote a wider range of talent who will help us reach out to untapped audiences. Other industries are outstripping us in this regard - a direct comparison shows that the size of the UK book and ebook market (£2.02 billion in 2017) is less than half of the UK gaming market (£.5.11 billion for the same period). But there are opportunities to be grasped - millennials tend to value experiences over owning things, and they want to make purchases that align with their values. Some of the ways publishers can monetise these trends include live storytelling events, clever engagement marketing, and an industry that reflects wider society.

Finally, David asked us if the next big technology revolution was likely to come from within or outside the publishing community. We agreed that it could come from a start-up within the community, but none of us believed that the publishing culture up until now has really supported this kind of breakthrough. A lack of professionalism reflected in low entry salaries and unpaid internships means that ambitious young people don’t have much incentive to work in the industry. But around the margins exciting things are happening and sales are booming. Larger trade publishers in particular could look to smaller publishers and STM/educational publishers for how to create a culture of innovation.

The panellists acknowledged that innovation required financial risk and long term vision. But if we continue to hide behind our role as cultural gatekeepers and resist engaging with the future we are risking our irrelevance.

Anna Cunnane was one of five 2018 Trailblazer winners, along with Abiola Bello, Phoebe Morgan (Avon), Katie Seaman (Ebury), and Natalie Shaw (Granta).

This article first appeared on BookMachine: