The topic of digital innovation is one that has been prominent in countless publishing get-togethers over the past two decades. A palpable tension exists in the book business world, as major publishing organisations battle to grip consumer habits. It seems as though technology is simultaneously welcomed and feared in the publishing industry, as characterised by some publishers thriving whilst others falter. There’s no shortage of comment on the matter.

One compelling seminar at this year’s London Book Fair checked-in on our progress along the digital roadmap. Hosted by Christopher Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center, the panel featured Max Gabriel, CTO of Taylor & Francis, Victoria Kalk, Director at Brookings Institution Press, and esteemed technology consultant, David Worlock.

The four panelists contributed a fascinating collection of ideas and experience, discussing the changing definition and roles of a publisher, the importance of multimedia, and the altered equations of supply and demand that affect the industry so impactfully.

After the well-attended discussion, I chased down Max Gabriel for a chat. The Taylor & Francis CTO certainly has an aura suited to his level of career experience, and offers calm and considered expertise on technology, publishing, and business.

Industry influence

It’s clear from our conversation that Max is an enthusiast for problem solving, and takes a broader standpoint on adapting products for changing consumer behaviours.
His previous roles include high-level positions at Pfizer, JPMorgan Chase and Diageo – within industries that operate at a very different pace to academic publishing. I wondered whether this has impacted his perspective on the relationships between publishing, consumers, and technology.

“Fundamentally, we’re all in the business of identifying the customer’s problem and solving it for them. There are unmet customer needs on one side and there’s technology on the other. Many industries have brought them together slightly ahead of others. A few haven’t quite made that connection. Throughout my career, I’ve always been fascinated in solving customer problems with the right technology solutions, often borrowing from other industries.”

It’s clear that some sectors have adapted to our digitally-dominated world better than others, and one notable success is financial services. Other businesses are thriving in logistics, healthcare, and retail. In which areas can publishing take lessons from these other industries?

“Financial Services leverage technology very efficiently, not just as an automation engine. Over a decade ago, I recall the debate in the Banking sector whether online banking is important. Obviously, that debate has been settled now. Not only does every bank have an online platform, fully-fledged mobile banking is a minimum requirement these days. I see the ongoing debate in the publishing industry whether publishers should have their own digital platform. The choice is obvious if you want to understand and engage with your customers in a meaningful way.

When I look at consumer goods and retail space, they leverage transactional data to create deep insights and intelligence about their consumers and market segmentation. You can’t survive in the consumer industry if you don’t have deep insight into your customers. For publishing, this is a very useful area to embrace, not only to understand how their products are being used but to identify unmet customer and market needs. There’s a lot the industry can learn from consumer goods and financial services in terms of customer intimacy and a frictionless experience and how you bring this into product development.“

State of survival

Publishing professionals will note the high-profile casualties of recent years, and will sense the collective feeling of embattlement so clearly demonstrated at conferences and seminars.

Indeed, UK publishing actually saw an encouraging 2015, with total book and journal sales amounting to £4.4 billion. But broader long-term trends are not quite so positive, and it only takes a swift browse through Publishers Weekly’s financial reporting news to spot a pattern of grim results. The well-documented struggles of a goliath such as Pearson does highlight the need for swift action among the biggest industry players.
Max has referred to publishers’ need to survive in the new digital civilisation, and was grilled about this statement during the seminar at the London Book Fair. Indeed, whilst this is a widely-held view among many internal and external commentators, it’s unusual to hear such candidness from an industry leader.

I asked whether Max could clarify his viewpoint here, and he did so;
“It is not specific to publishing at all but applies for every industry out there. The economy in which we operate, regardless of which products you sell or buy, is changing – that’s the digital economy. Most industries are trying to find their feet, and some are better than others now. From that standpoint, it’s not a transformation, I call it survival in the digital economy across industries.There is huge incentive to come out of the other side.”

Where exactly does publishing sit in this environment now?

“In terms of publishing, I think we’re at an interesting crossroads. Many players have been very successful in replicating their print business success in the online world. Digitising the channel and format isn’t going to be sufficient in the long run. We must appreciate that the market is evolving, and there are new players that are emerging in this landscape who are challenging the traditional distribution channels and business models. So, understanding that and rewiring the process and profit formula to respond to these shifts is crucial. From that standpoint, I guess it is survival, but it’s also an opportunity for reinvention.”

A change in mindset

One theme that runs consistently throughout Max Gabriel’s thinking is the need for a shift in mindset, and appreciation for the broader context of technology, behavioural trends, and consumer problems.

“We live in a digital civilisation. Aligning the products and services to address the customer goals, balancing the economics of demand and supply and informing product development through meaningful insights is more important than ever.”

It has undoubtedly been a challenge for publishers to get their teeth into these consumer trends, and part of the issue has been ineffective measurement and interpretation of data.

“It certainly has been a challenging journey to get granular data and intersect that with other functional data sets use that to drive meaningful insights but this is an important agenda for many publishers as part of their digital transformation.”

Will an emphasis on digital technology aid publishers in getting more granular?

“Yes. Digital platforms enable publishers to get richer and more granular analysis of the usage of their products and services. To successfully do that, we need to start treating the products at the right granularity of how they are being used rather than how they are produced. This insight is invaluable in creating successful products and services.”

Jobs and skills

There’s another problem that many publishers will recognise. With major publishing houses having developed into behemoths over decades of sustained growth, how does organisational structure present a barrier to this fundamental shift? Job role requirements have changed with new market needs, and new practical skills are needed as much as fresh theoretical mindsets.

“It’s mindset over skillset. Publishing is a well-connected ecosystem and people move around a lot in this world and it has worked extremely well. In addition, publishers can benefit by bringing in talent from outside the industry which will bring broader perspective and multi-industry expertise into the core DNA. It’s also vital to attract digital-savvy early career technical talent into the industry. We need to discover ways to breed this talent within the publishing world.”

It’s clear that publishing must find a way to attract innovative technologists, and perhaps this will become easier as the discourse around publishing changes from its reliance on books. Michael Clarke argued this in his Scholarly Kitchen article about publishing talent for the 21st century, which was published back in 2010. Whilst progress has been made, there’s still much to do.

A diversity in skills, mindsets, and backgrounds will make for a richer and more innovative publishing landscape. This principle also applies to encouraging diversity within a majority white industry (89%), as was argued by Rachel Deahl in 2016.

As an esteemed industry thought leader, does Max have any tips for innovative digitally-minded young people that are entering the publishing world during this turbulent and exciting era?

“It is indeed an exciting time to enter publishing. When you step into a publishing organisation, focus your energy on building a frictionless customer experience in interesting adjacencies rather than trying to fix the core. You will end up winning the hearts and minds of the organisation by proving what’s possible and will make a sustainable impact in the industry. Results speak the loudest.”

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