The right tools for the job: technology in publishing in 2020

Sinjore’s Samantha Town shares the results of a survey of independent academic and scholarly publishers’ use of digital solutions

 The Covid-19 pandemic has presented publishers with a host of unwelcome challenges in 2020. But amid all the disruption there have been some opportunities too—including the chance to accelerate the take-up of digital content and technology.

With so many students and academics working from home, demand for digital delivery of content has soared. Independent publishers have responded particularly well to the new demand for digital content, using their agility to get resources and delivery mechanisms up and running quickly. The IPG’s recent survey of members found that while 71% had suffered a fall in print sales this year, 51% had managed to increase their digital revenue.

Technology has helped to drive this important shift—and to gauge its use, Sinjore recently undertook a survey of independent publishers of all shapes and sizes across academic and scholarly sectors. It wasn’t intended to be a definitive survey of publishing’s use of technology, but a snapshot of adoption in a very disruptive year.

Our poll shows that more than nine in ten (92%) publishers now regularly use project management and tracking tools, while well over half use data and analytics tools (69%) and content management tools (62%). There is also ample use of digital editing, proofing, marketing, sales, peer review and other solutions, demonstrating just how deeply embedded technology has become in publishing.

But the survey also shows there is room for improvement in technology and the way it is applied. Only just over half (54%) of our respondents said they were satisfied with the tools that are available to support their work, with the rest either dissatisfied (23%) or non-committal (23%). “Our tools do the job, but they could be improved—there are limits and therefore manual workarounds,” said one publisher. “Some tools are better than others, but I’m yet to find the perfect tool that does exactly what we need it to do,” added another. Publishers also express frustration with the integration of their technology into their work. “It would be better if the different systems could be more easily hooked… at present they are still isolated from one another.”

Some publishers are happy to continue their activity without technology, but others would like to see more tools introduced into their work. Asked about what is holding them back, cost (33%) is a commonly cited barrier. But the same number (33%) point to a lack of time, while some others are put off by a lack of confidence or technical proficiency. As one publisher put it: “Most of our development and IT people have not come from the publishing world, so it's hard to get the changes done that will bring us up to the levels of our competitors.”

Our survey makes it clear that while publishers see the benefits of digital tools, they don’t always have the time, money or expertise to take full advantage of them. That is hardly surprising: while larger publishers have the resources to support technology in-house, smaller ones cannot be expected to be experts in all aspects of digital solutions.

The answer to this problem could lie in outsourcing, which gives publishers access to the skills they need without the overheads or long-term commitments. Letting others handle production tasks like XML workflows, content digitization and typesetting allows publishers to make much better and more cost-effective use of their time. With competent and trusted partners, it can also be worth allowing technology to take the strain on jobs that until recently would have been done in-house, like copy-editing, proofing and indexing. It all frees academic and scholarly publishers up to do what they are best at: generating and selling high quality content.

Samantha Town is business development and project manager at Sinjore.

 Sinjore provides technology solutions for end-to-end production of books and journals. It works with more than 70 STM, academic, professional and trade publishers worldwide, and has operations in the UK and India. For more about Sinjore, click here.