UK or USA for British pub-tech companies?

John Pettigrew
Opinion - Publishing Sunday, 5th July 2020

John Pettigrew explores why many British pub-tech companies are more successful outside the UK


The UK punches above its weight in publishing, and also boasts more than its fair share of publishing technology (pub-tech) companies. As an industry, we gain most of our success controlling margins and building new workflows from the judicious application of technology. But do cultural differences across the Atlantic prevent the UK industry from gaining the full benefits of its home-grown support network?

Over the past few decades, publishing businesses have made most of our efficiency gains from harnessing new technology. And, in keeping with the UK's sizeable role in global publishing, the UK has spawned many great pub-tech businesses. It's odd, then that many British pub-tech businesses experience more commercial success outside the UK than within.

When we talk to each other (and we do), we ask why the USA is often a better place to do business than the UK. It's something I've experienced with my own business Futureproofs, an online editorial workflow platform, where our biggest customers and quickest sales are in the USA and Australia, not the UK. It's not simply the relative sizes of the markets: there are many factors at play.

Engagement
For example, Ken Jones of digital workflow business Circular Software finds that North America has for years earned him a steady revenue stream for some products that the UK simply doesn't - that North Americans look for solutions to their problems and follow up on what they find. Indeed, Ken says that folk in the USA engage much more with the process of buying services than those in the UK: they enjoy sales calls, ask more questions, explore the possibilities, and make decisions more quickly (whether that's Yes or No).

James Macfarlane of cloud publishing business Easypress attributes its success in the USA with Atomik ePublisher to two things. First, US publishers are more collegiate and will discuss suppliers with each other both before and after contracting. This means they spread knowledge and experience around, which really helps a new supplier break into the market (if you make your customers happy!). By contrast, UK publishers often treat their supplier list like a trade secret, and don't share experiences in the same way, giving them less knowledge of the marketplace.

Second, James finds that US publishers are much readier to accept evidence of value from a supplier. That is, if publisher X uses your software then publisher Y will understand that it will work for them, too. By contrast, British publishers are more likely to see themselves as unique, and to make every supplier prove its value afresh before they'll adopt.

Not everyone sees the effect to the same degree, of course. Emma Barnes of publishing-management system Consonance.app sees a more even split between the USA and UK in her business, but still finds little reticence from US publishers to use a software platform from the UK. She does, however, find that UK publishers suffer more from an inertia that makes them stick with established suppliers even when they know there are problems. And she believes this arises from a lack of technical literacy - that is, they lack the experience of technology that would let them understand their problems and define and discover solutions.

Technical literacy shortage
However, it's not just about the USA - Sarah Arbuthnot of publishing-website and ecommerce business Supadu has seen the same openness to new ways of working that's often missing in the UK in Australia, Canada and Singapore, too. She finds that overseas publishers often define their objectives more clearly, which can make the difference between success and failure in adopting new technology.
Also, Sarah finds technology to be a bugbear for many publishers, especially in the UK, and this can make talking to suppliers about industry-specific features like ONIX feeds harder - especially when the publisher doesn't have technical literacy! Without technical literacy, it's hard to ask the right questions and evaluate the answers.

This problem of technical literacy is the same one that Emma Barnes has long campaigned on - to the extent of designing and running day-long courses specifically aimed at getting publishers onto the first step of the technical-literacy ladder (check out https://dayofcode.co.uk/) so they can start to understand their own businesses better.

The issue will not go away by itself, and the fact that the problem may be common to other creative industries doesn't absolve British publishing from dealing with it and diversifying at all levels. If British pub-tech companies focus on the USA because they make more money there, where will the British publishers get the tech to compete? There's a real risk of a divide opening wider and wider between the UK industry and the rest of the world. Although we tend to take for granted the global dominance of UK publishers, it's not written in stone; if we don't build the skills and don't engage the workers and services who have them, we could lose our best people to other industries and our best opportunities to other sectors and markets.

We need to learn from our friends and partners. We need to learn tech. We need to learn to share our knowledge. And we need to learn to look for answers around us, because there are some great British pub-tech businesses looking for new partners in their local market!

John Pettigrew is the founder and CEO of Futureproofs, helping editors, authors and proofreaders work together remotely as well as in the office. Before that, he led editorial and digital at CUP International Education, and has been an editor since the mid-1990s. He wears a hat.

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