The Long-Term Outlook for the Publishing Industry

In a prior article, we wrote about the immediate outlook for the publishing industry in 2024. In this piece, we focus our attention on the long-term prospects for publishing. Here, we are concerned with three significant issues that will challenge publishers in the years ahead. 

The first issue relates to that word “attention,” and how it is being stolen from us by addictive technologies that make it difficult for many of us to read a book. The second concerns the current business model which entails high production and pre-production costs, that actually encourages overproduction and waste. And third is that freight train coming through the tunnel called Artificial Intelligence. 

1. The Ethics of Technology

There are some powerful forces that are wrenching from us our ability to focus on anything substantial for more than a few seconds at a time. Ours is an interrupt-driven world in which we are perpetually urged to click. It is almost dishonest how our attention is monetized, and worse still, it is most insidious with our children, the audience that publishers most need for the future. In the past, we believed that reading books was the essence of personal growth and creativity. Without books there is little shared human experience, just a continuous series of isolated interactions with our personal devices. And so there is a feeling that our collective well-being is threatened unless we solve this problem.  

The challenge for publishers, in addition to finding and curating killer content, is finding our people! So in addition to talented editors, it means personalizing our marketing messages, tracking the customer journey at each stage through social media and application software, and lastly by trying anything to get and keep the attention (and the subscription) of the people who are most likely to consume what we are publishing! Technology is both curse and cure.  

To overcome this challenge, publishers will need to eliminate their data silos and deliver a rich, insightful experience to users and customers, and by harnessing Big Data to accelerate decision making. This path can be summarized by the concept of “data-first modernization,” which recognizes that data (managed in the cloud) is the key to driving today’s IT. 

Book publishing has always evolved in the past in the face of competition from other sources of entertainment such as television, streaming media, and video games, and we are confident it will continue to do so – necessity is indeed the mother of invention. 

2. The Broken Print Production Model

Today’s digital processes enable rapid content creation, design, and distribution and although millennials and Gen Z prefer reading digital formats more than print, print is still king with other generations and will likely remain so for some time. That is important. 

A sizable proportion of book publishing costs derive from lengthy up-front processes – for both digital and print products. However, with print production, it is almost always about what kind of sales volume the publisher can generate to offset those costs. This leads to the false notion that the more books you print the cheaper a book costs! This, of course, works only if you sell all the books you print, which rarely happens. The vast majority of titles published in the US sells less than 1,000 copies, and yet we continue to routinely print in numbers well in excess of 1,000, and subsequently pulp and landfill the remainders. This made some sense when real demand for a title was difficult to determine and when Print-On-Demand (POD) and short-run digital printing was not an option, mainly because of quality concerns.  

These issues have mostly been dispelled and now POD clearly fits as a strategy for most books except for the blockbusters (and a few others). Many publishers today use a hybrid strategy of offset and POD printing especially after the supply chain constraints we experienced in the pandemic. The value offered by POD comes from its “Sell-First-Print-Later” concept which is not only cost-effective but, equally important in the long-run, is much more sustainable. Our current model is “Print-First-Sell-Later.” 

Sustainability may not be top-of-mind for the average US publisher today, but we cannot afford to ignore its demands for long, as it will become increasingly important to consumers who will make buying decisions accordingly. This is not to say that digital consumption of content is free of sustainability concerns. The cloud data centers that support digital reading are notoriously big consumers of electrical power, and we have a poor record of recycling portable device components at their end-of-life. Nevertheless, print has more ground to cover to reach sustainability. 

These habits will change as POD and other sustainable practices gradually become a way of life, especially as digitalization and mobile commerce become predominant. By minimizing print and distribution costs, publishers will then be more able to invest in personalized marketing and content production systems that are required to resolve the “attention monetization” problems described above.

3. Artificial Intelligence

Bill Gates predicts that within the next five years, we will no longer be using different apps for different tasks, but simply by using the spoken word to tell our “agent” (our AI assistant on our phone or computer) what we need done, the AI system will execute our command, pretty well regardless of complexity. It will accomplish those tasks based on its large-language model of what function we perform in our company, and on the user as an individual.  

It has also been predicted that half of all skills in today’s workforce will not be relevant in just two years from now due to AI! 

If either of these forecasts are remotely close to reality, we are in for an entertaining if turbulent few years. Of course, the chief concern to the publishing industry is the complex legal question of copyright infringement (for both ingestion and output materials), but the immediate threat from AI is disinformation, and the apparent ease with which it can be dispersed, willfully or otherwise. On the legal questions, the jury is still very much out, and may remain so for a long time. Until that happens, the tech companies will continue to try to steal a march on their competitors, all of whom are well-financed and equally determined. It does not bode well. 

Governments are taking notice at least. On October 30, 2023, President Biden issued a landmark Executive Order on the subject of “Safe, Secure and Trustworthy AI.” And the Prime Minister of the UK convened a summit conference of world leaders to discuss the safety of Artificial Intelligence. The venue was Bletchley Park, an historic site steeped in computer science history, and renowned for its pivotal role in breaking the Enigma codes in WWII. 

Such is the gravity of this question that high-level representatives from twenty-seven countries attended, including US Vice President, Kamala Harris, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EEC, and leading figures from the world of technology (such as Elon Musk). 

The Summit began with a communique signed by almost 30 governments (including US, UK, EEC and China) in which AI was described as “providing enormous global opportunities with the potential to transform and enhance human well-being, but there is an immediate concern that the most significant capabilities of these AI models have the potential for serious, even catastrophic harm.” 

Without a trace of irony, the group then passed on anything substantial and kicked the can down the road to the next Summit in South Korea (in six months) and France, six months later. We are left to ponder that international consensus is sadly something of an oxymoron. At this point, Neville Chamberlain no doubt turned over in his grave. 

In summary, digital technology is changing every aspect of the publishing industry from editorial to distribution and everything in between, and harnessing it remains the key challenge for all participants. The successful channeling of technology will allow the industry to improve its operational workflows and cost structure, understand and engage with consumers in exciting new ways, and lead to a sustainable and profitable future. 



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