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Re-examining the Publishing Value Chain

For the last decade, the traditional publishing industry has been contracting.  The rise of digital publishing, self-publishing, and open access, coupled with the worldwide recession forced publishers, large and small, to conduct massive layoffs.  In order to maintain profit margins, publishers have had to publish an increasing number of books with a further dwindling workforce.

The Challenge to Traditional Publishing Models

This increasing workload often means that there are situations of inattention, including typo-filled publications, and lack of understanding of the impact of a publication on the marketplace, like the one last year with Usborne and the recall of Alex Frith’s Growing Up For Boys which lead to a controversy around objectifying women.

As these issues occur more frequently and rapid  direct-to-consumer publishing models like Kindle Direct Publishing or Lulu become more popular, traditional publishers see their role threatened.  Publishers must re-examine the value chain and focus energy and budget on the most important roles they play—in the curation, editing, and promotion of fine, informative, and entertaining books and journals. 

Embracing the Future

In order to best do that, publishers must commit to improving what is a somewhat time-consuming and outdated publishing process and embracing technology where it can be helpful in making the system more efficient, freeing up humans to focus on higher-level work. 

Publishers have often been very reticent to embrace technology due to the cost, the training time for their staff on a new system, and a lack of proven effectiveness. Yet, when publishers embraced the importance of metadata, they found that their books were catalogued better and discovered more easily.  Now that they have that in hand, it’s important for publishers to look to the next technological solution for their challenges.

Technology and digital publishing may have forced publishers to deal with a changing marketplace, but technology can also offer traditional publishers a chance to update systems that will improve workflow and efficiency and ultimately generate increased revenue.  From rights management systems to better identification of rights holdings, sales automation, and predictive technology to help with more profitable acquisitions, to name a few, technology and machine learning have helped publishers to better take control of their bottom line. 

Trusting the Machines

Specifically, the addition of machine learning into the publishing process is crucial.  As Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media Founder, noted at last fall’s W3C meeting, artificial intelligence and machine learning could help publishers with their essential problem “matching up the people who know something or have a story to tell with the people who want to find them.”  Machine learning can learn and improve upon publisher formats and systems, eliminate human error, take on some of these tasks that are time-consuming, and better help analyze and understand readers’ needs. 

It is in the day-to-day publishing process that publishers most need a system that will automate redundant tasks and put all assets and project management in one integrated system, so that publishers can focus on the higher level tasks of acquiring and publishing books and journals well.  A system that helps all members of the publishing team, from author to editor to production, would allow publishers to be more efficient, let them be better able to respond quickly to trends, and digitize and update backlist more rapidly, thus allowing them to reclaim their roles in the industry.

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