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The State of Automation - Part 3

During the past few weeks we have been looking at how automation may impact the book publishing industry in the future. In the previous post, we started exploring and analysing how many of the different roles within the publishing ecosystem could be affected by this phenomenon, revealing how upper management, HR, legal and financial positions will likely fare.

This week we turn our attention to some of the more traditional roles in publishing to understand what the future of working in the industry could be like.

Editorial: Most people who aspire to work in publishing and have a love for the written word often have their hearts set on editorial jobs. From discovering new talent to working with writers to refine their work, and from negotiating contracts to correcting manuscripts, editors are very much considered the heart and soul of a publishing house, and their roles are incredibly diverse and multi-faceted. But editorial responsibilities will probably be among those hit the hardest by automation.

Ever since Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jocker famously released The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, and came up with the Bestseller-ometer, the algorithm at the heart of the book’s thesis, much has been said about whether computers can do what was previously considered an incredibly “human” job, that of the commissioning editor.

Understanding complex emotions, what makes us tick, the journey we want a book to take us on and the characteristics which can ultimately make a book a success — these are the skills very much at the core of what commissioning editors do. The fact that big data algorithms have been developed, and machine learning based start-ups such as Intellogo and Archer and Jocker’s very own consultancy, Archers Jockers, have come into existence, show that this is an aspect of publishing which is ripe for automation. But will we see the role of the commissioning editor replaced? It’s highly doubtful. It’s more likely that the commissioning editors of the future incorporate AI tools into their role to assist them in uncovering and snapping up potential bestsellers, allowing them to focus on nurturing author relationships and managing other aspects of the book cycle.

Lower down the editorial chain of command is where automation will really take no prisoners. As workflow tools become increasingly sophisticated and integrate machine learning as the new normal, the need for copy editors and proof readers will become less, as the new technology will sift through manuscripts checking flow, sense, clarity consistency, grammar, and even facts. The editorial department of the future looks very different from what it is now, and those looking to enter publishing via the editorial route may find themselves training for a very completely different role.

Design: Despite design being considered among the most creative disciplines in publishing, there are various elements of graphic design, in particular, which are succumbing to automation. In this article by Rob Pearl, ominously entitled Automation threatens to make graphic designers obsolete, the author highlights his belief that much of the work designers do is already ‘prescriptive’ and being affected by automation. He goes on to discuss the work of designer Jon Gold, who is applying machine learning techniques to standard graphic design procedures and uses this approach to analyse typefaces and typographic trends, for example. Interestingly Gold’s pull-out quote states: “I’m building design tools that try to make designers better by learning about what they’re doing. Augmenting rather than replacing designers.” In publishing, where many companies traditionally opt for a particular house or brand style when it comes to book jackets, typefaces and marketing materials, the automation of many of the more procedural design processes could have an extremely positive impact on the role of the designer, freeing them up to focus on the more creative elements of their job. Designers becoming obsolete is not a likely outcome, certainly not in the short to mid-term future, however designers training or retraining to understand how to use the latest machine learning-driven tools at their disposal is a far more realistic consequence of automation.

Production: The publishing department we expect to be hardest hit by automation is the production department. While there will always be the need for production personnel to oversee the supply chain and bring books to market, it is probable that this area is deeply affected by automation and that junior production roles will be the most at risk. Workflow tools which incorporate machine learning are increasingly automating many key production tasks, such as formatting, layout, typesetting and proofing. They are also facilitating improved lines of communication between different departments, like design and editorial, another important aspect of the production role. In order to stay in the game we will inevitably see production staff becoming jacks-of-all-trades, equipping themselves with more technical skills, as well as being able to take on editorial and design tasks.

Marketing: There is no doubt that in most marketing circles the arrival of automation is considered a force for the good. Applications incorporating AI have flooded the marketplace and are already helping marketers in their day jobs, while enabling them to analyse data and trends more efficiently and become more impactful in their roles. In this article in Forbes by Andrew Stephen, head of marketing at Oxford’s Said Business School, we can see how marketing as an industry is adapting to this new reality and how digital literacy is now such an important currency for existing and aspiring marketers. In terms of how this plays out in publishing, AI can help deliver much greater and deeper understanding of consumers and readers, so those who empower their marketing departments and give them these valuable tools will inevitably be one step ahead.

The final post in this four-part series will examine what all this means for publishers, what the industry might look like in the future, and how publishers should consider equipping themselves for automation across the business.

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