In 2018, publishers need to rethink the content churn

In 2018, publishers need to rethink the content churn

Great content is publishers' superpower.

That was one of the loudest messages that emerged from last month's FutureBook 2017 conference. One of its most passionate spokespeople was Vikki Chowney, Chief Content Strategist for H+K London, who described the "huge opportunity" publishers have to make money from better content marketing, an industry predicted to grow to $413bn (£305bn) by 2021.

It's a message I hear again and again from tech entrepreneurs and investors. These outsiders are amazed that book folk aren't getting more traction and loyalty out of the abundance of brilliant content they have already paid for. 

But exactly how publishers harness that content will be a big factor in exactly how happy their new year turns out to be. The creation and sharing of compelling content is undoubtedly the currency of our times, but it is also becoming a millstone around many publishers' necks - monopolising their attention, disheartening their employees and draining resources away from larger and more strategic innovation projects.

One consultant who worked with a publisher on a project last year told me, in confidence, how staff in 'content' focused roles (social media managers, marketing assistants, digital editors) regularly broke down in tears during their interviews, overwhelmed by the unrelenting urgency and volume of their work. They felt trapped on a treadmill, churning out illustrated Instagram quotes and pithy Facebook posts for hundreds of books they barely had time to read, let alone devise unique and meaningful strategies for.

The pressure does not just come from their bosses but from authors and agents who anxiously expect to see a steady stream of tweets, posts, pins, grams and snaps scrolling through their feeds, and demand 24/7 stats and updates. It's all totally understandable, and there's sound thinking behind it. If you want to reach the masses, you need to produce masses, particularly when you're up against a sea of competing noise - not to mention algorithms eager to filter you out.

But this leaves book marketers little time to really connect with the communities that love the books, or even to connect with the books themselves. This damages company culture as much as author relations and sales. As I know from my own years in the 'community manager' trenches, these roles usually result in high churn, low ethics and even lower creativity. Not exactly an appealing entry-level position for self-starting Gen Zers.

Just as the industrial revolution brought us ranks of frustrated factory workers, so the technological revolution has brought us deskfuls of bleary-eyed content slaves. In another panel at FutureBook 2017, Albert Hogan, Penguin Random House's ‎director of group marketing for audience and digital development, talked about the need to "break the campaign cycle" so that more sustainable and meaningful marketing work can shine through. But how?

The answer surely begins with a better understanding of the respective strengths of humans and machines.

Automation is often framed as an enemy of employment, but artificial intelligence can be truly impactful here, taking the 'mass production' burden off human shoulders by tailoring, targeting and serving large volumes of content to relevant audiences online. That frees the humans up to do what they do best - be creative, be surpising and connect with other humans in a nuanced, emotive and thoughtful way around things they love. 

This rebalancing is not easy to achieve. It requires publishers to both invest in emerging technology, and protect the value and time of their staff. It also requires saying 'no' as often as yes. In his bracing call to arms a couple of weeks ago, Awesome Media's Jeff Norton proposed that publishers struggling to compete with video on demand platforms such at Netflix must "publish less. A lot less. I propose that each imprint can only handle 14 books per year. That’s one per month and two extra in the run up to Christmas. You cannot make a genuine connection with readers if you’re throwing spaghetti at the wall."

Whether or not Norton's numbers feel viable to you, his challenge echoes a big question all businesses will face in coming years. Which skills are irreplacably human, and will facilitate satisftying and valuable human work in an increasingly automated marketplace?

The best publishing has always been powered by intrinsically human virtues: sophisticated instincts about what makes a compelling and timely story, teamed with an ability and willingness to take risks on the unorthodox. And what goes for commissioning, goes for content. High-volume, repetitive, unimaginative tasks are perfect for computers, but a real misallocation of resource when assigned to people, even (especially) when they're dressed up as an exciting, 'community-focused' career option for smart young digital natives.

So yes, content is still king. But if publishers really want to make the most of the amazing stories they own, they cannot allow it to be a tyrant.