London Book Fair 2024: challenges for publishers

I went to London with a purpose. It’s always good to meet collaborators and friends, but I had other goals with my visit. You see, it’s never good when the decisions that impact us are arrived at without our input.

I wanted to bring awareness of my new peer review standards project to those in the publishing industry that can benefit from them. I'm comfortable researching and reviewing, even editing and managing the peer review process, but hearing editors and publishers speak of the big picture issue was an eye-opener.

Change is ever present

The publishing industry fancies itself as having evolved to explore the heritage and lived experience of minorities, by more frequently placing a spotlight on hidden and undervalued communities. Jonathan Karp, who spoke on the current model of employee ownership that underpins his role as CEO at Simon & Schuster, perfectly exemplified this—with profits now being reinvested in the company, there’s a new collaborative environment within the organization. The editors feel fulfilled at work, have developed an entrepreneurial mindset, and innovation has been unleashed.

A compelling vision of their purpose is a priority for publishers in times of uncertainty. Effective communication within a team is essential to align strategy and operations. However, there is an ever-present risk of being bound down by the search from consensus. Instead, leaders in the industry need to better hand down accountability.

A different level of project management is needed to effect a change of culture, according to Charlotte Talmage (CEO of Uuna). This means fostering a culture of resilience and innovation within their organisations. The pressure to perform and transform requires a delicate balance between flexibility and planfulness. Managing talent and recruiting people with the right mindset is key, as a team needs to be able to use metrics to move change forward, and make decisions on what works.

The people issue

Regrettably, learning through experimentation and being willing to try new things is the antithesis of the traditional publishing mindset. Daniel Ebneter (CEO of Karger Publishers) reminded us that for centuries, the industry focused on delivering a finished, perfect, immutable product. Now, the approach is the opposite—to fail fast, instead of avoiding failure. The order in which change occurs needs to be flexible, if organizations are to guarantee support from the shareholders. Karger operates in circles of accountability where new models and ideas are validated with the outside world. Often, waiting for support to increase satisfaction is the best course of action. Their motto is go slow to go faster.

The timeline between idea and action has significantly shortened. Having spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by physicists, Antonia Seymour (Chief Executive of IOP Publishing) favours the scientific approach: take a hypothesis and test it. Most of all, accept that decisions will often need to be made based on incomplete data. Her personification of vulnerability as a leader builds trust, because it signifies transparency. She advocates that leaders should push for incremental daily progress to effect the necessary changes. As an example, she mentions that teams should build comfort around use cases for AI, as a means to distribute responsibility to address issues of research integrity.

Books matter and books save lives

Jason Manske ( identified an essential need: people actually want to own the things they buy. This happens less and less nowadays, as digital content is often merely licensed. However, e-books and audio books that have been digitally encrypted through the blockchain can be passed on through generations.

This permanence enables authors to obtain recurring royalties through secondary sales, but also facilitates interpersonal and library lending. Publishers are not left out of the loop, as they can access usage metrics through data aggregation in personalised dashboards. 

The transformational impact of reading was more than justified by the excess of 30.000 people that attended the book fair. But what is the publisher’s role in the landscape we now inhabit? Is AI merely a nuisance on author’s copyright, or can it be used as a tool to expedite effective copywriting? Thoughts on all things AI to follow.



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