Tuesday 22 October 2013

Reaching readers, and dealing with data: preparing for phase two of publishing’s digital transformation

Alastair Horne is Social Media and Communities Manager for ELT at Cambridge University Press. Here, in a guest post, he reflects on the changing skill set of the wider publishing sector, as Creative Skillset calls for final contributions to their industry panels

"Whisper it, but the publishing industry has – mostly – coped tolerably well with the first phase of its transition to digital. Ebook sales have risen to account for about a quarter of all trade revenues without destroying the industry’s financial model, while some non-trade publishers like Wiley are now reporting that more than half their income is coming from digital products.

In many respects, publishing was better prepared for digital than the hype would have had you believe, since industry workflows had already been predominantly digital for some time. For most employees, the change has primarily been a question of thinking digitally: being aware of the possibilities offered by digital products and adjusting their thinking accordingly. Where radically new skills were required – in, for instance, the building of digital products such as apps or learning platforms – publishers have mostly addressed the issue by buying in the skills they lacked: typically by hiring external developers, often offshore.

New roles have also grown up in the hinterland between publishers and developers. 

A need has arisen for people who can translate the sometimes vague aspirations of a commissioning editor into a document sufficiently precise that nothing is left for a developer with very different cultural assumptions to misinterpret – and then to translate the developers’ responses into terms non-technical editors will understand. People in such roles don't need to be able to code – if they could, they'd be working as coders and getting paid much more – but they do need to be able to understand what it's like to code, and what information a developer requires to do his or her job successfully.

Now, as we enter the second phase of publishing’s digital transformation – focusing on readers and data – we in the industry have an opportunity to ensure that our staff possess the skills that will be required. Creative Skillset – the licensed Sector Skills Council for publishing and other creative industries – is seeking vital feedback from employers and professionals in the publishing industry to identify skills needs and develop solutions to support those needs.

This second phase is likely to follow a similar pattern to the first. As publishers adjust their bifocals to switch from their near-sighted focus on booksellers to the longer-distance vision required to engage with readers, change may follow a similar pattern as before. There will be most likely be some changes to the everyday skills required by publishing employees, some of the more technical skills will be bought in from outside, and some new roles created in the space between the two.

Many of the new roles are already in place at more forward-thinking publishers.

Market research analysts, for instance, and social media and community managers (such as myself), responsible for nurturing relationships across third party owned platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and across publishers' own purpose-built platforms. The more technical roles – manipulating massive amounts of customer data – may once again be contracted out to companies better able to provide these specific skills.

The most wide-ranging change will be amongst those employees whose job titles won’t change.

Though their skill set will need to. From commissioning editor to marketer, the ability to put the reader at the heart of every aspect of the business, and to make better decisions informed by the data others are gathering and interpreting, will be vital."

Alastair Horne tweets as @pressfuturist, and blogs at www.pressfuturist.com.
Creative Skillset is the Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries.

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