There is no denying that the last decade has seen some mighty changes within the publishing industry. The surging power of social media, the ‘death’ of the physical book and the rise of the ebook, the on-going debate over open-access, tech start-ups and the new drive for consolidation have greatly  altered the face of our industry. Some things, however, remain the same. The big book fairs, Frankfurt, London, BEA, still mark crucial phases of the industry and play a consistently important role. Their continued relevance elucidates a truth at the very heart of the industry – whilst changes affecting the wider community, the alteration in the way content is delivered for example, have impacted upon publishing, the role of the publisher is very much what it always was: a content gate-keeper.

If fairs like Frankfurt prove anything though, it’s that as far as the role and fundamental function of the publisher remain the same, publishers cannot rely upon traditional tried-and-tested modes of working to guarantee success. Instead, publishers need fresh eyes and an innovative approach.  That’s why, in spite of media doom and gloom about the difficulties faced by today’s graduates as they attempt to break into sectors like ours, it’s a great time for a younger generation of thinkers. Their inbuilt awareness of what technology can do and offer means they are brilliantly placed to redefine the parameters within which publishing works.

So what problems need fixing? On the trade side, there’s no denying that a large proportion of retail has well and truly migrated online. The link between consumer and publisher is, for these individuals, wholly severed. What’s more, e-tailers are proprietorial and won’t share the access to these consumers. Publishers need to find a way to build a new relationship with these readers, creating an alternative space for the reading community. It’s no small task. Author experience is also in need of a shake, writers want closer proximity to editors, to sales and marketing teams, to publicity and promotional activity. This means changing the implementation stage of the publishing process, as authors want more of a hand in, and effect on, the impact their books can make on readers.

On the academic side, however, challenges lie in best facilitating the impact of content. Academics create content in order to share their research for the good of the world, but also to garner credit for their research that in turn furthers their careers in academia – for these writers the crucial factors are furthering the reach and penetration of their work, the need to measure consumption more closely, and of course, the on-going issues surrounding accessibility. Publishers need to look to create solutions which interlink resources, providing details on all aspects at a more granular level. This will improve the author experience by delivering the information they want, which can then create a feedback loop to improve and inform dissemination of content.

How can publishers solve these problems? Undoubtedly, publishers have an eye on innovation and ingenuity, they appreciate there is a need for change. The bustling halls and packed seminar programmes which most probably surround you as you read this article are the living proof of that. The book fair is in many ways a hot house for experimentation – cherry picking those brilliant sparks that can kick-start the creativity a publisher requires to build success within the current industry landscape.  By focusing on these glimmers of genius, though, their attention and time is drawn from the elementary building blocks necessitous to change.

For that spark of genius to become a blaze, then the kindling needs to be suitable. Publishers know they need to be thinking about innovation, it hangs heavy in the air in the halls in Frankfurt, tantalizingly close. But the raw material is not up to scratch. Most publishing houses are working with a basic infrastructure that is in no fit state to take advantage of the opportunities around us.

The conditions for innovation won’t go away. The time is right for change. Publishers might, ultimately, have the same role they have always had, but the tools they use and the possibilities they encounter are evolving. Publishers need to accept this and make the jump. By seeking input from technology companies, publishers can rely on experts for the solutions which can best facilitate their profession, dodging those fads along the way which are the scourge of progress… (fads are the subject for a different article in themselves!)

In short, the publisher must be both a traditionalist and an innovator.  Publishers must be convinced of the continued relevance and consistency of their role; steadfast in the belief that publishing is a unique industry with a specific business model requiring specialist knowledge and attention.  Publishers must also be innovators, believing that essentially the future of the industry is bright and looking out for chances to capitalise on major developments. There are many opportunities for growth, for new ideas, for invention.

If publishers can stay true to their essential role, investing in their basic infrastructure, but harnessing the new technology advances with vigour and enthusiasm, we can expect the next decade to be even more successful and interesting than the last. Roll on FIBF 2023!