Will machines take over publishing? Jon White investigates
Automation and its impact on the job market, our livelihood and our way of life has been a hot topic for several years now. Seemingly every management consultancy, recruitment firm, IT company, think tank and government body in the world has at some point weighed in and released a study or white paper projecting the future impact of automation and all the doom and gloom that comes with it.
We've seen research from leading IT analysts Gartner and Forrester, consultancies and auditors such as McKinsey and PwC, as well as renowned global economic organisations such as the OECD and the World Economic Forum - all throwing their sizeable hats into the automation ring.
What the experts say
Each study has attempted to paint a picture of what the short and long-term future will look like: from analysing which social groups are most at risk, to highlighting which jobs are most likely to become obsolete; from calculating how many of us will suffer, to capturing the general public's fears.
Much of the research seems to conclude that certain jobs will become more at risk than others, highlighting those in the financial and manufacturing sectors as the most under threat. And it would appear that low-skilled workers and young people with entry level roles are the most at risk, validating Martin Ford's theory that those whose jobs "are on some level routine, repetitive and predictable" will likely feel the pinch.
The OECD goes as far as predicting that automation will create more divisions in society between the educated classes and working classes, high-skilled and low-skilled workers, and the rich and the poor.
To believe or not to believe, that is not the question
Varying wildly in their prognoses on a scale of conservative to devastating, barely any of the papers we've seen to date can be corroborated or supported by parallel studies, which points to a rather confusing landscape. Do we actually know how AI, robotics and other forms of automation will affect us in five,10 or 20 years? Apparently not, is the one main takeaway to be gleaned from all of this.
But that is not to say that we should just dismiss all this heavyweight research as tedious scaremongering. The fact that the research is being conducted in the first place speaks volumes. What we do know is that to some extent and at some point, within the years to come, automation will touch our lives, and this could be in a positive or negative way depending on a variety of geographical and socio-economic factors. It's now up to us to speculate on how our roles might evolve over time and how we choose to be prepared for the possible, probable or inevitable.
Automation in publishing
The truth is we don't know exactly how and when automation will transform certain aspects of publishing. We can gaze into the crystal ball and speculate all we like, but technology evolves and accelerates at its own, often astounding, speed, and it can also be reined in and regulated. However, what we do know is how innovations like machine learning are currently starting to be applied, and which kind of functions it is starting to assist and benefit on the one hand, but supersede, replace and render surplus to requirements on the other.
Like any other industry, publishing employs a diverse range of people. The publishing ecosystem is made up of legal professionals, accountants, HR directors, marketing personnel, sales people, production and editorial staff and C-level execs, in addition to those who originate the product (authors) and those who sell it (retailers). Let's analyse how automation might affect these key positions.
C-level and upper management
You might assume that those at the top of the tree will remain largely unscathed by automation - these are the decision-makers whose leadership we rely on to run their companies, after all. However, a report in the Harvard Business Review in 2016 stated that managers spent 54% of their time on administrative tasks. Many of the managers surveyed welcomed AI as a means of reducing their administrative workload in return for more time spent on "judgement work", strategic thinking and building deep social skills and networks. Although automation is likely to help managers cut out daily tasks considered below their pay grades, it may also lead to the consolidation of managerial roles - for example, an organisation may not consider it necessary to continue employing COOs, COIs, CFOS, SVPs and MDs if the CEO is able to take a more active role.
If there is one department within an organisational structure where the human element reigns supreme, it's human resources. Jobs in HR will be hard to automate, yet it's predicted that technological developments, particularly around AI, will end up benefiting the profession a great deal in the long run. With tech giants such as Slack already developing HR-dedicated Siri-esque chatbots to handle many of the more mundane daily employee queries, platforms such as Job Market Maker and Entelo providing ever more sophisticated ways of managing talent acquisition, and training and development increasingly moving into the digital sphere, the HR role will undoubtedly be changed for the better by AI… which will give HR people more time to focus on any organisational fallout generated by automation.
Technology has long been eating into what were once considered core legal tasks. Interestingly, a study by Duke Law and Stanford Law School recently found that AI software was able to deliver a 94% accuracy rate when reviewing legal documents, compared to 85% by human lawyers. AI techniques such as natural language processing have already started to provide a great deal of assistance to those in the profession, and increasingly AI contracting software is being used to help process more routine contracts. As due diligence and contract work becomes more automated, legal professionals are having to focus more on assessing risk and providing counsel - areas which are yet to be impacted by automation. Another development worth watching, particularly for rights professionals, is Microsoft's new rights and royalties blockchain platform, EY, which, when it rolls out later this year, is rumoured to be a gamechanger for managing complex digital rights and royalties transactions. Whether this becomes a force for good in publishing, a job threat, or both, remains to be seen.
While the financial industry itself is consistently earmarked among the top three sectors to be impacted by automation, finance jobs within publishing are less likely to be affected for the foreseeable future. Research by Bloomberg concluded that financial managers and advisors were among the lowest risk group in the sector. Meanwhile, it is expected that roles in accountancy and bookkeeping will become enhanced and will evolve to incorporate aspects of automation that make the role less open to human error.
Most people who aspire to work in publishing and have a love for the written word have at some point set their hearts on editorial jobs. From discovering new talent to working with writers to refine their work, and from negotiating contracts to correcting manuscripts, editors are very much considered the heart and soul of a publishing house, and their roles are incredibly diverse and multi-faceted. But editorial responsibilities will probably be among those hit the hardest by automation.
Ever since Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jocker released their The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel and came up with the Bestseller-ometer, the algorithm at the heart of the book's thesis, much has been said about whether computers can do what was previously considered an incredibly "human" job, that of the commissioning editor.
Understanding complex emotions, what makes us tick, the journey we want a book to take us on and the characteristics that can make a book a success - these are the skills at the core of what commissioning editors do. The fact that big data algorithms have been developed, and machine learning based start-ups such as Intellogo and Archer and Jocker's very own consultancy, Archers Jockers, have come into existence, shows that this is an aspect of publishing that is ripe for automation. But will we see the role of the commissioning editor replaced? It's highly doubtful. It's more likely that the commissioning editors of the future will incorporate AI tools into their roles to assist them in uncovering and snapping up potential bestsellers, allowing them to focus on nurturing author relationships and managing other aspects of the book cycle.
Lower down the editorial chain of command is where automation will really take no prisoners. As workflow tools become increasingly sophisticated and integrate machine learning as the new normal, the need for copy editors and proof readers will decrease, as the new technology will sift through manuscripts checking flow, sense, clarity, consistency, grammar, and even facts. The editorial department of the future will look very different from what it is now, and those aiming to enter publishing via the editorial route may find themselves training for a much altered role.
Despite being considered among the most creative disciplines in publishing, design - and particularly graphic design - is becoming increasingly automated. In this article, ominously entitled "Automation threatens to make graphic designers obsolete", Rob Pearl argues that much of the work designers do is already "prescriptive" and being affected by automation. He goes on to discuss the work of designer Jon Gold, who is applying machine learning techniques to standard graphic design procedures, and who uses this approach to analyse elements such as typefaces and typographic trends. Interestingly, Gold's pull-out quote states: "I'm building design tools that try to make designers better by learning about what they're doing. Augmenting rather than replacing designers."
In publishing, where many companies traditionally opt for a particular house or brand style when it comes to book jackets, typefaces and marketing materials, the automation of many of the procedural design processes could have a positive impact on designers' roles, freeing them to focus on the more creative elements of their jobs. The obsolescence of designers is not a probable outcome, certainly in the short to mid-term; however, the training or retraining of designers to understand how to use the latest machine learning-driven tools is a far more likely prospect.
The publishing department we expect to be hardest hit by automation is the production department. While there will always be the need for production personnel to oversee the supply chain and bring books to market, it is probable that this area will be deeply affected by automation and that junior production roles will be the most at risk. Workflow tools that incorporate machine learning are increasingly automating many key production tasks, such as formatting, layout, typesetting and proofing. They are also facilitating improved lines of communication between different departments such as design and editorial - another important aspect of the production role. In order to stay in the game we will inevitably see production staff becoming jacks-of-all-trade, equipping themselves with more technical skills, as well as being able to take on editorial and design tasks.
There is no doubt that in most marketing circles the arrival of automation is considered a force for good. Applications incorporating AI have flooded the marketplace and are already helping marketers in their day jobs, while enabling them to analyse data and trends more efficiently and become more effective in their roles. In this article in Forbes by Andrew Stephen, head of marketing at Oxford's Said Business School, we can see how marketing as an industry is adapting to the new reality, and how digital literacy is now such an important currency for existing and aspiring marketers. AI can help deliver much greater and deeper understanding of consumers and readers, so those who empower their marketing departments and give them these valuable tools will inevitably be one step ahead.
Knowledge is power
In the Book Industry Study Group's "State of Supply Chain" survey conducted earlier this year, 33% of respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned about the potential to be replaced by artificial intelligence and bots.
Automation will have a massive impact on publishing, there is no doubt about that. But whether this impact is negative or positive depends greatly on the industry response. Will publishers let innovation happen to them? Or will they act quickly to understand how new technologies work and can be applied to their organisations, then evolve their working practices and reskill their workforce accordingly?
If the last 20 years have taught us anything, it's that rapid innovation can, and will, gobble you up if you're not prepared for it. Most industries have suffered at the hands of disruptive technologies they were completely ignorant about and ill-prepared to respond to. This is a lesson we all must learn.
Publishers, who traditionally tend to adopt a cautious approach to new technology, will need to know exactly what developments in automation are around the corner. Not knowing will mean not being able to respond quickly enough when the world around is changing at break-neck speed.
Publishing houses that are aware of these developments, those prepared to take an open-minded approach and start to experiment, and those seeking ways to use automation to their benefit, will automatically be in advantageous positions.
Humans are (still) essential
A survey conducted by Evolve in 2016 revealed that the most in-demand skills in the workplace are "the ability to work cooperatively, flexibly and cohesively". These soft skills are areas where humans usurp robots (well, at least for the next 15 years, which is when experts are predicting computational power will equal the human brain). Recognising this is key.
While AI will do a fantastic job at automating a variety of tasks, in most cases the incorporation of AI technology is at its most powerful when it interacts with humans and benefits from the creativity, imagination and judgement of the human brain. To this end, being able to harness automation-driven technology and play to its strengths, while aligning it with human capabilities, will give publishers an edge.
In the real world, this can be applied in the editorial department - for example, where AI can be used to do the heavy lifting in proofing manuscripts; but the process will still need to be overseen by human eyes. Or in the production department, where AI can be applied to a number of tasks, but where humans will continue to make judgement calls and business-critical decisions on matters such as print runs.
Next gen workforce
Many believe that in a world of automation the only people who will survive will be those who came out of the womb coding, and that only employees with an intimate understanding of the latest tech will be of any use. Although rather exaggerated, this is to some extent true. As technology will play a much more influential role in our working lives, job seekers who are tech savvy and can prove that they have the ability to work alongside the latest innovations will always have an edge.
However, another view is that widespread automation will increase demand for those who have heightened emotional intelligence and a softer skill base, as reflected by this article on "automation resistant skills" in the BBC.
Either way, it's highly likely that those who present an innate understanding of technology and a willingness to work with it, while also demonstrating a range of emotional skills, will be the most likely to thrive in an automated workplace; and it is these types of candidates who will be most valuable to publishers.
Automation is going to change book publishing as we know it beyond all recognition. It will be as gradual as it will be sudden. It will be as beneficial as it will be damaging. Publishers will flourish and perish, and employees will gain and lose. This is what has happened during every major period of disruption since the dawn of time. The industry has a small window of opportunity to learn about how the publishing business might be affected and what sort of steps can be taken to exploit the opportunities that automation will bring. The alternative is to be left behind.
Jon White is global vp of sales & marketing at PageMajik.