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The Open Book Podcast: how digital changed the role of editor

Listen to The Open Book Podcast on SoundCloud.

You can see Scharlaine’s e-book here.


F = Freya Horton Andrews

S = Scharlaine Cairns

F: Hello and welcome to the Open Book – a podcast about books and the publishing industry as they take on digital. I’m your host, Freya Horton Andrews.

S: For the whole of my career, I always had one book on the go – one book I was halfway through and one book I was just starting. So it was all a juggling job, but if you can manage to do the juggling, you can make it work really well for you.

F: Scharlaine Cairns is a freelance editor. She’s worked in the educational publishing industry for nearly thirty-five years, and just recently she’s published her first e-book, about Pythagoras’ theorem.

S: I trained on the job with a small company called Lloyd O’Neil publishing that was in Claremont Street, South Yarra. It was a great job to learn on because they had in-house typesetting and an in-house art department. It was all educational publishing.

F: And what year was that?

S: 1983-84. My job before that was as personal assistant on the Sunday Observer so I had been involved with print media beforehand, which actually helped me in my role as book editor. The newspaper actually had men there that had worked on molten metal and stone. Even though they were working on screen, some of their operators had been working on the metal letters and the stone where they laid out all the text and printed the page from that. So I saw how that worked and, yeah, we didn’t think it was archaic at the time, but yes, it was archaic.

F: So that’s really interesting, that you’ve gone from this really traditional print media and you’ve now produced your own interactive e-book. Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

S: I was contacted by a lady called Nicole Melbourne, who has a business called Nikki M Group, and she wanted a maths online activity. Pythagoras theorem just kind of lent itself to be a really good suggestion. You could actually illustrate the lengths of the sides with the squares on them and you could put an active animation that made people understand that, which you can’t do with a book. And that’s the reason why it was an e-book. So we put it free online and it’s a best-seller in Greece and around the world but I didn’t make any money on it because it’s a freely accessible book. You know, that was my first attempt at an e-book, so I was really happy to see that it was well received and it kind of spurs me on to think outside the box and do some other things like that.

F: In terms of the, kind of, dawn of the digital era, do you think that has an effect on the role of the freelancer? Does that make it more or less attractive?

S: I think it makes it more attractive for the freelancer because of the fact you’re not needed in-house, to be an in-house presence. You can go in for meetings when needed, but really, you’re at the end of an email and everything can be shown to you on a screen. My job has changed a lot. For one thing, email has just made everything speed up. It was supposed to be a leisure-creating device but it hasn’t been because now instead of waiting for an overnight courier or something to deliver my next stage of the book, I get it instantly by email and they expect it back from me as quickly as I can do it.

F: So what do you think are the biggest challenges facing the publishing industry today?

S: I think the fact that people can self-publish and a whole lot of not-well-edited not-well-thought-out material is out there as gospel. I think that’s one thing that’s really hard to compete with. So not the best books are getting the most exposure, and I suppose that’s not just for the industry, it’s also for the readership.

F: How do you envisage the future of print media?

S: I think things like newspapers probably have a limited life to come. Everything’s online, you know, the first thing I do is go and look online at the news if I want to find out something more on a topic I’ve heard a little bit about on the radio or something. Printed books – I think there’s still a place for them, and it’s not just my generation of people who’ve grown up with books and feel comfortable with them. The new generation – although they’re exposed to all this digital media – I think that there’s still a place for print media.

I love the smell of new books and there’s something just really nice about holding a book, having it with you on a plane. There’s something sterile about looking at a piece of machinery, I think.

F: This has been the open book podcast.

Main image: An editor’s work desk. Source:  Max Pixel, available under CC0.
Podcast music: Cheery Monday by Kevin Macleod. Source: Youtube.

AI: the future of publishing is augmented

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is the flavour of the moment. Whether AI is solving cold cases, performing life-saving surgery, or destroying humankind, it’s a game changer for every industry.

The ABC has released a nifty/slightly anxiety-inducing AI tool that calculates the extent to which AI could replace your job. Mercifully, many publishing jobs – including editor, marketing officer, copywriter and proofreader – are only 20% ‘susceptible to automation’ by AI. Phew!

Still, to stay on top of the game, media and book publishers will need to keep abreast of AI tech. So how can we leverage AI to improve how we write, format and market books?

1. How we write

AI takes on the role of reporter

In 2015, the Associated Press adopted AI to produce US corporate earnings reports. These reports were a chore for humans to produce: they relied heavily on data, followed a strict formula, and needed to be published as quickly as humanly possible.

Then a little company called Automated Insights stepped in. The result: an AI tool now produces twelve times more earnings reports for AP than its human counterparts, with far fewer errors.

The AI tool easily replicated this report style because it was number-heavy and formulaic. This success story hints at an exciting future for the mainstream press. AI will deliver important information more efficiently and accurately, and free up writers’ precious time. Soon, AI may well become industry standard for this genre of journalism – and I say amen to that.

Creative AI?

In 2016, a Japanese AI program co-penned a story aptly titled The Day A Computer Writes A Novel. A very human team led the project – and put limits on vocabulary, structure, and the story idea. But it was up to the AI to actually build a story with this data, and it managed to pass the first round of the Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award.

Creative authors use symbolism and metaphor, and make intertextual and social references that speak to our cultural values. It’s hard to imagine a machine learning and convincingly mimicking such raw… humanness. According to a judge at the competition, while the AI novel was structurally sound, this is precisely where it fell short: believability and ‘relatability’ of its characters.

But AI is constantly learning, and it could revolutionise ghost writing and book commissions one day soon. AI might not displace the author, per se, but it will certainly allow them to be more selective with where they invest their time and effort.

2. How we format


In today’s ‘convergence culture’ – coined by media theorist Henry Jenkins in 2006 – the traditional book is increasingly integrated with digital platforms, where users are at the helm of an immersive experience. 2011 saw the first interactive book and now interactive textbooks enrich children’s education.

Video: TED Talk about the first interactive book. Source: Youtube.

While e-books have enjoyed commercial success, and reconfigured reading for the digital age, they are by no means the norm… yet. It seems only a matter of time before AI builds on the premise of e-books to deliver an immersive, media-rich reading experience.

Kristin Castle Neuschwanstein Castle Germany

Image: interactive experiential reading. Source: MaxPixel, available under CC0.

Focus on video

Consumers and social media users love video. Accordingly, advertisers’ spend on social in-feed video content has nearly doubled since the start of this year, overtaking banner ads for the first time ever.

An example of a startup that could change the face of video publishing is Wibbitz. The AI-powered platform transforms clients’ text stories into short videos, all within a matter of seconds. All the client needs to do is enter the URL of a published article to receive a polished video, complete with human voiceover, within ten minutes(!).

Video: AI tool Wibbitz. Source: Youtube.

3. How we market


Connecting books with readers

According to a 2016 industry report, 19,971 books are published in Australia annually. In such a saturated market, effective discoverability and consumer targeting are paramount for titles to succeed. In an increasingly consumer-oriented market brimming with niche titles, connecting readers to products is crucial for marketers.

AI-powered platform Booxby uses analytics to connect readers with books, and marketers with readerships. Its clients are publishers, authors and agents, as well as readers, who can join to have their preferences analysed, and books recommended directly to and for them.

The future is integrated

Tech apocalypse or not, disruptive AI is good news for Australia’s publishing industry, as it battles decreased consumer spending and heavyweight newcomer, Amazon.

Especially in Australia, data is patchy on book sales and readerships, and publishers have relied heavily on intuitive marketing. The common thread between these AI tools is that they place reader/ media consumer preferences at the heart of publishing practice.

They AI equip publishers with ways to effectively, measurably hone in their offering to meet diverse, niche consumer segments. This, in turn, will create engaged readerships of loyal consumers.

Going forward, these tools will work in tandem with publishers’ ‘human touch’ to refine marketing, content and book formats as we step into our augmented future.

Main image: AI and human integration. Source: MaxPixel, available under CC0.


The book cover renaissance: where does the traditional book cover sit in a digital era?

A 2010 survey revealed book covers played a ‘decisive role’ in 79% of participants’ purchasing habits. In today’s publishing climate, book cover design remains a marketing imperative that underpins commercial success.

Recently a friend of mine was enthusing about a fantasy e-book. But when I asked her, she couldn’t recall the title or author. She had never even seen its cover, all because the e-book format prioritises text over paratext.


Image: Pretty book covers. Photography: Freya Horton Andrews.

When e-book buyers browse titles, they see covers represented by small thumbnails. These lead to webpages about the book, but this moment is often readers’ only contact with this information.

When we lose regular visual contact with a book’s cover (and other paratextual features, like author and title) we lose considered, coded information about that book: a crucial aesthetic signifier of genre and what to expect.

Could this disconnect between content and paratext be a fatal flaw of e-books, and the salvation of their print counterparts?

The rise (and fall?) of e-books

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched Kindle in 2007, he compared e-book technology to Guttenberg’s printing press. His vision: a reading and publishing revolution that would catapult change-resistant books into the digital era.


E-book on a stack of paperbacks. Photographer unknown. Source:  Max Pixel, available under CC0.

Within a day of Kindle’s launch, trigger-happy commentators began to pronounce the print book dead. But anyone with eyes and ears in the publishing sector knows the Death of the Book is a time-honoured industry tradition. Previous would-be culprits have included: newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and even paperbacks.

E-books come as the youngest red herring, with sales peaking in 2014 and dwindling ever since. Now industry observers say e-books have officially lost their shine, and printed books are the victors of the format wars.

Digital book covers


Photoshop gone wrong: a self-designed cover. E-book by Rhys Hughes available on Amazon.

The physical, illustrated book cover itself has also been declared a casualty of digitisation. Web 2.0 made fonts, stock photos, photoshop and other tools suddenly cheap and inviting for amateurs to try their hand at designing and publishing their own works. E. L. James and Adam Croft are two of many authors to turn self-published e-books into cultural phenomena and lucrative careers.


But self-publishing is a double-edged sword. While it’s true that e-book sales increase by 268 per cent when they have a cover image, photoshop does not a book designer make, as covers like this hippopotamus debacle prove.

In a digital scape where aesthetic is king and everyone sees everything, shoddy DIY cover designs are mocked publicly and without mercy. Blogs like Kindle Cover Disasters and countless scathing (but hilarious) listicles exist purely for this purpose.

Book covers today 

Book covers today look very different to how they did a decade ago, when new digital competition, the 2008 financial crisis, and Amazon’s growth first rattled publishers’confidence. An industry in turmoil compromised production values to make regrettable and forgettable book covers, compared with the artistry of book design today.

A Google search of ‘popular books 2016’ brings up a list of books with strikingly different covers to ‘popular books 2008’. New covers feature compelling typography, colour and pattern, where older covers relied heavily on photographic clichés.

So how have paper books adapted to digitisation?

Current industry emphasis on attractive book design echoes Web 2.0 values.

Aestheticism reigns in our networked online world, and users perform lifestyle values through what they publish on social media (e.g. Instagram). Printed books become carriers of these values, and important accessories for tastemakers and regular users alike to perform online identities.

Publishers harness the internet to tout new titles through visuals, and to share the creative narrative behind their books. For example, footage of Dominique Falla’s art-making process behind the cover of The Sun is also a Star entices online audiences of potential readers, playing on the sensory delight of books as artistic objects.

A cursory scroll of Instagram’s #bookstagram tag reveals the scope of  physical books as value-laden aesthetic symbols; whereas visual elements of of e-books are relatively unimportant compared to the reading experience itself, by design.

Media personalities like Emma Watson post images of print books to convey social beliefs, lifestyle and aesthetic values in a way that tangibly connects with their audience.

Book design has now entered a golden age of gorgeous covers and high-quality assembly, adapting to digitisation by celebrating the tactile and visual pleasure of printed books.

Books are beautiful and their covers have cultural agency, and this is their salvation in the face of digitisation.

Main image: Book shelves. Source: LoveOzYa Facebook.