Book publishing has always been an industry of tight margins. Particularly in the world of the printed book, publishers have always found themselves at the mercy of overheads which are well beyond their control. From paper and ink costs to fluctuating global currencies and transportation outlays, publishers’ profits have traditionally ebbed and flowed based on external factors, and we haven’t even mentioned challenges with the retailing environment and evolving reading habits.
This was a major concern among many of the C-level executives I met with at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, and then more recently at other conferences in the US and UK. On the one hand they were happy and defiant that the printed book had apparently held strong in the midst of challenging trading conditions while having fought off a range of disruptive elements in the marketplace, but on the other they were showing a growing concern about rising costs associated with physical product, and evidently feeling the pinch.
Lean and mean
Books are an expensive business. However, most of the people I spoke to at Frankfurt were insistent that passing these increasing costs onto the consumer was not an option they were willing to explore. Yet they were extremely keen to hear about ways in which technology trends such as AI could enable them to streamline efficiencies across the business to reduce operational expenditure.
More than ever, directors of publishing houses are looking for ways to make their organisations leaner and meaner, and to ensure that they’re not overspending and overstaffing, in an effort to recoup some of these spiralling overheads. And many are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the new wave of technologies being made available will help them to do exactly that.
How soon is now?
Several months ago, on this blog, we explored how automation is likely to impact various different roles within publishing. We concluded that where technologies such as AI would likely have the most significant short-term impact would be within the production and editorial departments and that we can expect publishers to start rolling out AI-based technologies into their workflows within the next two years or so.
Some in the industry were quick to dismiss this prediction, stating that they just couldn’t see publishers implementing AI-driven technologies, in any part of the business, in the immediate future. However, judging from these exchanges in Frankfurt I am now more convinced than ever that leaders are already prepared to take a long, hard look at how technology can help them to optimise their business processes.
First past the post
Earlier in the year we suggested that by introducing machine learning into the publishing workflow, particularly across pre-production and editorial departments, publishers can free up around 40 per cent of the time that is spent on manual tasks. In my mind this is a conservative figure, especially when you consider how much production resource is put into formatting, layout, typesetting and proofing - all highly automatable tasks which machine learning-driven technology can undertake.
The technology is there, and the business case has been identified. Now that publishing leaders are starting to really take a keen interest in how this technology works and how it can be applied across their organisations to boost efficiencies, make savings and drive revenue, it’s not a question of “if” but “when” and “how far” they want to go with it. Either way, the production department will certainly be the first to witness AI in action, and the benefits of this transition will be immediately felt all around the business.