The uncomfortable truths of publishing: change and data

Two years ago at the annual FutureBook conference, the talk was all about redefining the role of the publisher, putting consumers at the heart of everything we do and any time, any place, anywhere publishing. Last year, my colleague Judith Watts reported on telling stories across platforms, building and developing brands and promoting creativity. All these issues were still in the air at FutureBook 2013, but the biggest themes I took away from the sessions I attended can be summed up in just two words: change and data.

The uncomfortable truth of change

Amazon's Jeff Bezos didn't get where he is today by ignoring the change around him. Photo by Sipa Press/REX (1455397a)

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos didn’t get where he is today by ignoring the change around him. Photo by Sipa Press/REX (1455397a)

Setting the scene in his introduction for the day, The Bookseller’s Nigel Roby stated that publishing was no longer about disruption (“we’ve done that”) but about continuous change. While I don’t necessarily agree with the first of these claims, I’m all for the second one: innovation is key. Of course innovation isn’t new to the industry. As Faber CEO Stephen Page stated at the other end of the day, publishing has always been “rebellious”; figures like Allen Lane, Paul Hamlyn and Stanley Unwin were all innovators who changed the future. HarperCollins CEO Charlie Redmayne also invoked history, saying “publishers have always been the most creative and innovative businesses and we need to continue to do so”. It sounds easy, but Redmayne also lamented that with digital “we sort of stopped”. This echoes the view of Kingston alumnus Kjell Eldor, who – in a Masterclass just days before this meeting – blamed “technologists’ rhetoric and robotspeak” for making publishers keep technology at arm’s length.

One way of moving past this digital bottleneck is to shape the publishing workforce to enable them to deal with all this new technology and technospeak. In a considered presentation, Hachette’s George Walkley identified just three fundamental skills for “modern publishers”: markup languages, working with data and mastering workflow. While I’m pleased to say we cover at least two of these skills in reasonable depth at Kingston, it’s fair to say that many of our MA students don’t arrive expecting (or even wanting – at least initially) to learn them. So, for me, it’s not just about upskilling the traditional publishing types, it’s about bringing in new types of people in the first place (like Lane, Hamlyn and Unwin, who were all outsiders to the traditional publishing world they transformed). Agent Simon Trewin also talked about this “cross-pollination” in his pitch to bring the Publishing Hackathon to the UK – a great idea, by the way…

Of course, as Mark Ryan from Wiley pointed out, even upskilling existing staff isn’t just about technical skills, it’s also about ways of working and cultural change. Wiley’s training priorities are therefore more about leading change and innovation than about specific technological developments (full disclosure: Wiley use my own Innovation,  Managing Change & Transformation and Transitioning to a Digital Future online learning courses with their staff).

Even when publishers are innovating, however, they could do better. Stephen Page – a previous winner of FutureBook’s Most Inspiring Digital Person award – was refreshingly honest when he admitted that despite Faber’s reputation for innovation the company had so far “innovated at the edges. Now we need to innovate at the core”.  Page couldn’t say Faber had been as relentless as companies like Amazon, when “we should be”. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, we learned from author of The Everything Store Brad Stone, “is always leaning into the future and happy to grapple with the truth of [Amazon’s] business – even if it is an uncomfortable truth”. Stone told of Bezos – who was once, lest we forget, “just an online bookseller” – responding to “the uncomfortable truth of the time”, that his business was changing thanks to the impact of technology giants Apple and Google. Bezos didn’t have many big advantages so the only way to survive was to “weave a rope of small advantages”, something Stone suggests Amazon will extend by continuing to experiment. It’s also an approach Stephen Page recommends for publishers: “it’s not about completely transforming the pipeline, it’s about small pieces of innovation”. The continuous innovation theme popped up earlier in the day during Pottermore CEO Susan Jurevics’ presentation: “keep innovating and reinventing your brand. Even if you sometimes fail or even if you try something with the sole goal of testing and learning”. Like Guinness World Records’ VP of Publishing Frank Chambers (“it’s good to fail, because you can test stuff”), I’m a big fan of experimentation and doing things specifically in order to learn – as I wrote just last week.

At the heart of all this change, however, there’s one thing both Jurevics and Pan Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd highlighted: the truth of who you are. Jurevics emphasised the need to  maintain “the universal truth” of your brand; Lloyd urged change managers to keep in mind “the unchangeable truths” of their organisation and to remember what is still key from the old world. While this makes undeniable sense if you’re talking about underlying ‘values’ – as Jurevics and Lloyd were – my fear is that people are inherently likely to focus on more tangible “truths”, which could prevent innovation. After all, as Publit’s Jonas Lennermo said, you can’t compare digital with the old print world, “you need to reimagine what a digital ecosystem looks like” and, Charlie Redmayne stated, you need to try out new business models. More radically, Canongate MD Jamie Byng shared Brian Eno’s view (one of several Eno-isms quoted in the day) that “nonconformity is taking great pleasure in inventing a new target rather than trying to hit the one everyone else is aiming at” and Stephen Page ultimately exhorted us to “create a crisis within our own business”, to challenge ourselves as well as others.

Brian Eno's non-conformist philosophy became a bit of a FutureBook mantra. Photo by Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard /REX (936420a)

Brian Eno’s non-conformist philosophy became a bit of a FutureBook mantra. Photo by Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard /REX (936420a)

The uncomfortable truth of data

As well as highlighting the need for change, Nigel Roby used his introduction to identify three new “disciplines” in publishing: consumer insight, direct-to-consumer (D2C) publishing and pricing strategies. Each of these has one thing in common: data. Consumer insight, pointed out Charlie Redmayne, isn’t an alternative to editorial insight (the ability to spot great writing and shape it), but an adjunct: editorial insight can be informed and enhanced by information that helps us understand consumer behaviour and preferences.

Publishers must collect, store, analyse and interpret data to boost their traditional skills. Photo by KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/REX (1484512f)

Publishers must collect, store, analyse and interpret data to boost their traditional skills. Photo by KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/REX (1484512f)

Data is also central to digital marketing. In a world where content is only discovered in two ways (by people looking for it or people recommending it), Redmayne reduced the core marketing skills to: knowing how to manipulate search and understanding how to use social media. Of course the best way to get to grips with both search and social media is to look at the data: What do people search for? When? Which posts or tweets get the most likes or shares? What factors influence that? And so on…

This data-centric approach was demonstrated well by Random House’s Ruth Spencer, who spoke about Dead Good, a community for people who love crime stories. From the off, Spencer was all about real people rather than faceless users. Companies like Unilever, she said, don’t talk about “consumers” or “shoppers”, they talk about “people and the deep truth of their behaviour”. With this in mind, I was impressed by Dead Good’s focus not just on connecting with people, but on considering when to create the right moments for these connections. It sounds like a no-brainer, but running a live Facebook chat with an author just after the 9pm TV showing of their book has aired isn’t always something a 9-5-focused publisher would do. Plus, Random House have the data to evaluate whether their various efforts have been successful or not (and that’s not just data about views or likes, it’s data about newsletter sign-ups, email open rates and online purchases too).

In an independent publishing context, Joanna Penn talked about the need “to do research over the keywords” to optimise discoverability for your books and also advised publishers not to “build your platform on someone else’s platform”, like Facebook. Of course the most uncomfortable truth about consumer data in the publishing industry is just that: publishers don’t usually own information about their customers. Simon Scott of Push Entertainment warned publishers not to make the mistake of ceding their customer base to third parties, but I couldn’t help feeling he was shutting the door after the horse had bolted. Of course, publishers don’t want to give their data away, but “the gorilla in the room” Amazon has already become the prime holder of customer insight. One ray of hope in the midst of this was the offer by the Society of Chief Librarians’ Nick Stopforth that libraries could share their consumer base (and the data associated with it) with publishers. For anyone who thinks libraries are dying, Stopforth sparked a Twitter backchannel flurry with his revelation that more people visit public libraries than go to football matches, cinemas and the theatre combined. The Reading Agency’s Sandeep Mahal reminded us that libraries are “rich discovery environments”, suggesting that libraries and publishers could collaborate to “create, encounter and nurture” audiences.

Whether publishers partner with other organisations to gain access to customer data, or build their own hoard of it, as The Book People CEO Seni Glaister wants to do, surely it’s time to move on from blaming Amazon for the state we’re in. I recently paraphrased Front of Store’s Philip Downer as saying “Amazon is the most powerful force in publishing. Get over it” but I like Jeff Bezos’s view on this even more: “Amazon isn’t happening to the book business. The future is happening to the book business”. And like Bezos, publishers need to acknowledge that and take responsibility for shaping the future for themselves.