Publishing Focus – Alison Jones
Such is the hustle and bustle of the London Book Fair, we only managed to catch Alison Jones for a brief chat on the Wednesday. We know Alison from our projects with Palgrave, and were delighted that she agreed to speak to us in more depth to answer a few questions about her perspectives on publishing.
Thank you for taking the time to chat, Alison! You’re well-respected in the publishing sphere – What would you say your specialties are as a consultant?
I focus on business books, and specifically on making the book work as part of the wider business. That means helping the author get clear on their key message and market niche, the mix of platforms and channels they’re using, and finding creative ways for them to develop a book as part of the business rather than as a side project. When I’m working with publishers, rather than businesses, my speciality is developing multi-platform digital strategy and innovation capability.
How’ve you used your experience at Palgrave Macmillan in your current role?
The experience of scoping, specifying and developing major online projects – particularly the experience of agile methodology – and all the technical detail of ebook formats, metadata and standards, platforms and supply chain logistics have all been invaluable. The latter particularly is so often missing from the skillset of publishing startups. Another useful experience was having to invent new business models: looking creatively at pricing and revenue streams is very much part of what I do with my clients now.
Was it an easy decision to make a go of it as a consultant?
Surprisingly, yes: although I probably wouldn’t have done it if Macmillan hadn’t announced the move to London and given me both the time to think about my options and the option of redundancy to help fund the new business. I’d done an MBA several years before and always knew I wanted to run my own business one day, so when I was given this opportunity I knew I had to take it. Also I was getting increasingly frustrated with the constraints of working in a big company: I wanted freedom to try out new ideas without complex project approval and governance processes!
How would you sum up the state of the modern publishing industry at this time?
In flux! Publishing was always actually many different industries lumped together artificially because they used the same ink-on-paper technology, but the digital revolution has opened up wildly different possibilities for different markets and types of content, and we’re only just beginning to explore those. The traditional barriers to entry as a publisher – bibliographic systems, high print runs, warehousing, distribution, access to retailers and so on – have eroded and publishers are finding new ways of responding to that. In some ways it’s a golden age for publishers, or it should be: content and connection are what drive the economy today and publishers are superb at both of these.
So are there still digital challenges for major publishers?
Of course, and there always will be. Pretty much every publisher has now solved the most basic problems of digitising content and selling ebooks but that’s just the first step: how will content evolve embedded into the social web, in virtual reality, across the internet of things, with micro-personalization? What’s the right mix of content, formats, channels and business models for your particular market? How can you innovate at scale in a low-margin business when the user expectations and transaction rules are set by technology giants with deep pockets?
What times have you personally found most challenging during the course of your career?
Innovating in a big company is hard (I’m not the first person to have noticed this). Even when there’s a will to innovate, there’s still a huge nervousness about cannibalising existing revenues, betting on a technology or platform that will become defunct, or simply never seeing a return on investment. And the truth is you don’t know: I’ve championed projects that turned out to be dodos, and fought for others that didn’t get accepted only to see someone else do them successfully 6 months later. That’s frustrating.
And what have been the most rewarding moments?
Definitely working with a professional and personable team to deliver something significant: there were no online products in the company when I started and by the time I left we’d migrated the revenue from our most valuable copyrights to digital and created a profitable ebook platform that set the standard for all others when it was launched. Working with Digital Science to craft their offerings to publishers was also a highlight. As a small business now I relish my freedom to try things out but I also miss the buzz of working in such a great team, and having such a superb technology infrastructure behind me!
What are your hopes for the future (for yourself, and for publishers)?
I see enormous opportunity in this fragmentation of the industry, and in my own niche – business books – I want to grow my platform and community (based around the Extraordinary Business Book Club across a range of revenue streams: sponsorship, membership, events, 1-to-1 coaching, authors services, publishing fees, royalties and so on. I’m enjoying growing my team in a completely flexible way, working virtually with professionals and assistants all around the world; whenever I want to launch a new experiment I can pull together the expertise I need have something live within a matter of days, and that’s incredibly exciting.
For publishers generally, I hope to see more and more transitioning from what used to be a relatively simple monolithic model into a more diverse set of capabilities tailored to their market and their expertise: I love that so many are starting to offer services, run events, provide elearning, create ventures with new partners and so on. We still need all those traditional publishing values of finding and nurturing good authors and creating professional products, but there’s now no limit to the ways in which publishers can make that link between creators and consumers of the content they publish.
And finally, what advice would you give someone entering the publishing business?
First, master the basics (and that includes rock-solid grammar and spelling skills, no publisher wants to be shamed by a misplaced apostrophe if they put you in charge of the Twitter account): make friends with metadata and systems, get your head around the financials (I don’t think there’s any room in publishing any more for someone who can’t work out gross profit or doesn’t understand how tax works on ebooks), and respect the accumulated wisdom of the professionals around you. But just as importantly, stay curious: connect with as many interesting people as you can in the industry and outside it, make a habit of noticing opportunities and offering to try new things, and never stop learning.