Machine-Learning: One Of Skills Publishers Need To Keep Moving Forward

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Many within the industry may deny it, and there have been some bright moments, but book publishing has floundered on the rocks for most of the last decade, set in a new direction or at other times battered by various strong gales. These gales have included supermarkets, pricing, Amazon, global recession, ebooks (Amazon again), bookshop closures, demand for online free use and the impact of self-publishing, among many others.

Having started my first publishing business, Legend Press, in 2005 and started six other publishing-related companies since, I have had an unplanned vantage point to these challenges years and changes within the industry.

Now though, and thankfully, we have entered a new stage. Picture that film moment: new day, suddenly winds gone, sea and sky clear and time to inspect how much damage has been done. Well, it may not be that sunny but there are signs to be optimistic, print sales to the surprise of most are up, according to The Guardian up 7%, and a calmer stability appears to be holding.

This is in part due to the fact that many of those gales have moved on elsewhere to new battles – all- encompassing subscription models, robotics, new global markets. What we have left is a battered and in many places shrunken industry but shrunken to its core, Millions of people who still want to buy books, whether in print, digital or audio, and they remain our market. Now a niche market, but a multi-billion dollar niche market.

This, however, remains a key time for publishing and our direction now will set the course of the industry for decades, if not centuries, to come. The island we left behind cannot be returned to. The only course left for us is to now move bravely forward and more smartly into uncharted territory.

Publishing couldn’t have predicted the internet and how it would completely change customer behavior, availability and power. But much of the trouble it brought on itself. Distanced from the customer, a non-diverse clique, arrogant in its misjudged sense of place and importance to the customer and outside world – it was there for the taking and taken it was.  Note Jeff Bezos’s unconfirmed but reported comment of ‘sickly gazelles’ in an early Amazon meeting.

To further evidence this arrogance, listen to self-published books being derided as ‘unutterable rubbish’ or the customer damned as ‘only now interested in trash or celebrities’. Bezos certainly doesn’t need any sticking up for but you can see how he formed his view.

We made poor decisions on pricing, data, availability, marketing and general strategy. An industry over 400 years old, we were overtaken by sharper, more efficient, smarter new upstart media industries only a decade or two old.

However, publishing has learnt and is learning. We have taken on that we must stop being conceited and prove to the outside world what we offer. We are trying to get to know our customer better and appealing to them more directly, whether through selling direct, events, or how we interact with them through social platforms etc. We aiming to be leaner and are finally trying to give the customer what we think they want rather than trying to tell them what they should have like a quiet whisper in the wind.

We still, though, have far further to take these developments and much else to learn. While some of the forces may have moved on and we may be in no hurry to be in the eye of their storm again, we cannot be left behind and become a new ignored island. While shoring up what we have we must tentatively look to where the big future opportunities lie, if nothing else than to keep fulfilling the demands of that loyal book buyer.

I subscribe to seven weekly technology and business e-bulletins to stay on track with new trends and probably 70% of the articles relate to machine-learning, AI, cyber and robotics. As a result I have invested time in learning further about these areas and although they felt like an unrecognized language initially, the huge opportunities soon appeared relevant.

I recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post on how machine-learning is to provide curation tools to shape-cut the huge amount of marketing content online to make it work specifically for different platforms. At Legend Business we launched a cyber product, Managing Cybersecurity Risk, and will be releasing a new portal end of July that, without giving the big surprise away, will allow users to create their own environment, bringing the events and content that match their online usage directly to them.

The current business model for retail book subscription appears flawed but according to Reed Elsevier’s 2016 annual report they made 72% of their publishing revenues through subscription with smart journal content platforms such as ScienceDirect. Companies across science, technical and medical publishing and also now trade publishing are starting to see the value in their IP and are implementing smart content management systems across their businesses.

I started my first business at 25 years old as I wanted to produce and sell books. I still retain the important essence of that ambition but these are interesting times and publishing must now make the effort to look, learn and keep moving forward. More than risking a new storm, we have an exciting opportunity now to be explorers and discoverers of new places and territories. If we continue to be brave, the coming years will be exciting and formative for the new world of book publishing.

Expert Publishing Blog, Industry News
Tom Chalmers

About Tom Chalmers

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Times, a group of five publishing companies he has founded. He started his first company in 2005 when aged 25, Legend Press, a book publisher focused predominantly on mainstream literary and commercial fiction. Chalmers subsequently acquired Paperbooks Publishing, and later launched Legend Business, a business book publisher, followed by successful self-publishing and writer workshops companies, New Generation Publishing and Write-Connections, respectively. He also founded IPR License in 2012, a global rights licensing platform, which he sold in 2016. He has been shortlisted for UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year, UK Young Publisher of the Year, UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year, and longlisted for the Enterprising Young Brit Awards. He also speaks regularly on publishing and business and is an Enterprise Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust.