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The next 5 years of publishing: Alison Jones interview

In the run up to Publishing: the next 5 years, BookMachine will be featuring a number of opinions about what might be next for the industry. Alison Jones will be speaking at the Cambridge event. Alison is a business and executive coach, content consultant and publisher. After a 23-year career in trade and scholarly publishing working with major publishers such as Oxford University Press and Macmillan, during which she pioneered digital publishing, she set up Alison Jones Business Services and the Practical Inspiration Publishing imprint in 2014. Here Stephanie Cox interviews her about the last 5 years in publishing and her thoughts on the next 5.

1. We all know that there has been enormous change and evolution in the publishing industry recently. What would you say, in your opinion, has made the biggest impact on the industry in the last 5 years?

I think one of the biggest changes in recent years has been around commercial models which have just exploded as we have unbundled content from its print container. Open Access for example has transformed scholarly publishing, and the author-pays model has enabled the self publishing revolution. Crowdfunding is another example, and so good at building engagement, and of course there’s e-book subscription which has finally come into its own in the last year or so. I don’t see any signs of the innovation in commercial models abating, quite contrary in fact, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this will evolve over the next few years. Perhaps more profoundly, I think the biggest change I’ve noticed recently has been in mindset: there’s a new sense of optimism and possibilities in the industry and a willingness to embrace digital rather than see it as a threat. I think in the long term that might be the most significant change of all.

2. Which individuals or companies do you think have been major game changers or influencers in this time period and why?

It’s hard to name individuals as I’ll inevitably leave out somebody vital but, for my money, the most inspiring and interesting people in publishing today include Rebecca Smart at Penguin Random House, Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow, Michael Bhaskar at Canelo, and Emma Barnes at BlblioCloud: I think they epitomise that sense of optimism and possibilities, and they’re not just doing interesting things, they’re thinking and speaking intelligently about the future too. I also love the work that non-traditional publishing type folk are doing around communities, such as Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors, Anna Lewis at Completely Novel, Justine Solomons at Byte the Book, and of course Laura Summer at BookMachine! As far as companies are concerned, I like what Bloomsbury is doing with its information division, what Canongate are doing with events, Faber’s diversifying into events and courses, and so many innovative independent publishers engaging directly with their niche, for example F&W Media, with their curated communities in which books are just part of a bigger service. I think some university presses are also doing really interesting things; they are embedded in the scholarly and library communities, have a culture of working collaboratively, and they’re energetically engaged in the bigger mission of reinventing scholarly communication.

3. What projects have you been personally involved in in the past 5 years which have particularly excited you?

While I was at Macmillan, one of the most interesting areas I was engaged with was the development of tools and services for the scholarly community; it was fascinating to work closely with Digital Science who were pioneers in this area. These days, I’m focused on providing publishing services closely linked to business development and broader content strategy for businesses and organisations: I believe that publishers’ skills are a vital part of the content economy. Publishing books, in print and digitally, is more important than it’s ever been but it’s no longer a stand-alone activity, and publishers need to recognise their role in the diverse content ecosystem. To give a specific example, I’ve been working with the Free Word Centre and its international partners to publish Weather Stations, a multi-lingual, digital-only anthology of creative writing on climate change, which was funded by the EU. It’s a non-commercial project, so wouldn’t have interested a commercial publisher, but the impact on the young people that took part in particular and on anyone who reads the astonishing and thought-provoking writing will be immense.

4. As publishing professionals, how can we best equip ourselves skills-wise to deal with big changes and developments in our industry?

Most fundamentally, we need to stay curious and creative, we need to say “yes, and…”, rather than “yes, but…”. We also need to connect: we can’t do what needs to be done alone. There are more possibilities and more potential partners out there than ever before, so we need to be really clear on what we are trying to do and why so that we can partner wisely. And finally, I believe we need to adopt the agile mindset: stay flexible, iterate, seek out and respond to feedback, put smart people together and empower them to deliver.

5. We wouldn’t want you to reveal all of your insights before the big event, but can you give us one example of a trend or major development that you think might occur over the next 5 years in publishing?

It’s no secret that I think developing a service stream will be an important trend for publishers over the next 5 years. Some are already doing it very successfully, and I expect to see those growing fast; for those still wedded to selling bits of content for money as their only business model, as though that were what defines them as a publisher, I think times will get increasingly hard.   – Join us for ‘Publishing: the next 5 years’ in London, Oxford, Cambridge UK, or NYC.

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Alison Jones, commercial models, crowdfunding, digital, future of publishing, open access, Stephanie Cox, subscription

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