30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

Startup Victoria – Best of the Startup State Pitch Night

In support of Victoria’s reputation as “Australia’s Startup State”, last week’s Startup Victoria pitch night was designed to showcase four of the best local startups. Hosted by Stone & Chalk, the judges were drawn from Mentorloop, Brosa, Giant Leap Fund, Rampersand and Vinomofo.

The pitches in order of presentation were (website links embedded in the titles):

Code Like A Girl

Founded four years ago, Code Like A Girl’s stated mission is to bring greater gender diversity to the ICT sector (information and communications technology), within both the industry and education spheres. To do this, the founders say we need more female coders, which they plan to achieve via coding camps, internships, and community events. Positioning itself as a social impact enterprise, the business is active in four States, and 75% of interns are placed into full time roles.

To support the ongoing development of its “role ready” value chain and to prepare for possible overseas expansion, Code Like A Girl is seeking $1.5m in seed funding. Currently piloting the training model via education providers (RTOs, boot camps, universities, online code schools), the business takes a 10% commission on courses sold (held twice a year), plus it charges placement fees of $2k per person.

But the model is difficult to scale, especially as Code Like A Girl does not own or create the actual training content – it is acting as a sales channel for third party courseware, and providing platform for advocacy, engagement and influence. Its key metrics are based on things like social impact scores – such as 30% of kids return to boot camps. The panel felt that the community platform is a huge cost centre, and it might be preferable to try a TedX model, where Code Like A Girl provides branding and foundational support to build more of a network effect – but without its own curriculum, the business will still struggle to scale.

Seer Medical

The business claims to make epilepsy diagnosis easier, and is currently raising $14m for European expansion (UK & Germany). To improve current diagnosis, the model needs to capture time series data to distinguish epilepsy from other conditions, but do so faster, cheaper and more efficiently than current processes. Founded in 2017, Seer has already serviced more than 1500 patients via 200 clinicians.

Using the Seer Cloud infrastructure,  it can achieve diagnostic outcomes 10x faster than traditional methods, and the platform is using machine learning to train its algorithms. The service is subject to Medicare reimbursement, which has no doubt assisted adoption.

Asked by the judges if the platform could be used to diagnose other conditions, the founders mentioned cardio, sleep and other health domains. As for competition, this comes mainly from the status quo – i.e., hospital based services. With advocacy from neurologists, giving them access to customers, the founders have a strong track record in the research field, which helps to open doors with clinicians. Along with research partnerships, plus the public health cost reimbursement, data is the fuel of the business –  Seer even have access to some third party data on which to train their diagnostic.

Liven

A dining rewards app, Liven is also bringing a behavioral gamification layer to a real world use case. Currently, there is a poor linkage between loyalty programmes and gamification. So, Liven has launched a universal reward token (the LVN token) for use in a digital/real world context.  The details were scant, and the status of the LVN token sale is unclear, but it seems users can earn LVN tokens from completing certain “missions”. The token (using a standard ERC 20 token format on the Ethereum blockchain), is designed to be interoperable and fungible (but Liven does not yet appear to use blockchain in its end user app or merchant point of sale solution).

The said merchants pay a 10-25% commission on app-based sales, of which upto 40% is paid back to the end user in the form of LVN tokens – if I got the maths right, Liven itself is securing $15 profit on every $100 of sales. Currently only available in Melbourne and Sydney, the judges wanted to know what the appeal is to merchants. According to the founders, users typically spend more in an average transaction when they use the app. It also seems that the app only works in brick and mortar restaurants, cafes and bars. The path to scaling will be via channel partners such as PoS systems.

Although not yet deployed, in future, it was suggested that users will be able to pay in any crypto – which raises all sorts of questions about the tokenomics of the LVN token, and whether LVN will be subject to exchange rate volatility (and even token speculation) or act as a stable coin; if the latter, what will it be backed by or pegged to?

Phoria

Phoria is in the business of extended reality technology (XR). Started in 2014, Phoria was an entrant to the Melbourne Accelerator Programme (MAP), with the stated goal of moving VR into a mobile experience (“democratize VR”).  Having gained some clinical VR research experience, Phoria has since worked on commercial projects such as “Captured” (turning a 3D scan of a building or structure into a Digital Twin), “Rewild Our Planet” (a Singapore-based AR experience), and various art installations museum exhibits.

Phoria is commissioned by tech and media brands to create XR content. It has developed a SaaS model, whereby it can turn real space into virtual space (“virtualising internal space”).

The judges wondered where we are along the cycle of mass adoption vs peak hype. In response, the founders mentioned that the first wireless headsets are now available, although consumer-facing mixed reality hardware is still 3-5 years away. With a growing customer base in engineering and architecture applications, Phoria’s main focus is on spatial information.

After the votes were counted, the People’s choice was Seer Medical, who also won the overall prize.

Next week: 30 years in publishing

My Top Ten Concerts of All Time

Yet another musical interlude this week….

Reflecting on last week’s blog, I attempted to compile a list of my Top Ten concerts of all time – no mean feat, given 40+ years of attending gigs. And like any such list, if you ask me next year, or even next week, the choices would be different. So, here they are.

Image sourced from Songs Smiths

#1: Joy Division, Electric Ballroom, London, August 1979

Not the best gig I saw them play (that was at The Lyceum in February 1980, where they previewed “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), but my first live encounter with Joy Division. It’s now 40 years after the release of their debut album, “Unknown Pleasures” (one of the most influential albums from the post-punk era), but I can still recall the power of this particular performance. (It was also the first time I had seen any of the support acts – see poster, above – all of which have continued to be part of my chosen listening.)

#2: Talking Heads, Electric Ballroom, London, December 1979

The tail end of the “Fear of Music” tour (one of my favourite albums of the ’70s), and also one of their last performances as a 4-piece band. Captured for posterity via a mixing desk recording, the concert was also notable for an early performance by a relatively unknown U2, with additional support by the 2-piece OMD (plus Winston, the reel-to-reel tape recorder).

#3: Pixies, Mean Fiddler, London, April 1988

Incredible, visceral performance, and their first gig outside the USA. It felt like the cream of London’s independent music scene turned up, scarcely imagining they would witness a piece of rock history. Finishing with their version of David Lynch’s “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” from “Eraserhead” was a nice touch after the intensity of the previous hour. (A live version recorded a few weeks later on that same tour was released as part of their first EP.)

#4: New Order, Glastonbury, June 1987

My first (and last?) time at Glastonbury. Typical of an English summer, it had rained for days before the event, turning the festival site into a mud bath. There was even a temporary lake, where the anarcho-hippy-punks took pleasure in creating sculptures out of abandoned vehicles, and then setting fire to them, as a tribute to The Wicker Man… Into the midst of these night-time neo-pagan ceremonies appear New Order, at the height of their electronic powers, complete with laser show. Also captured on album (without the lasers).

#5: Elvis Costello, Glastonbury, June 1987

Glastonbury that year was also the setting for a captivating performance by Elvis Costello & The Attractions, who were at their peak after a 10-year run of (mostly) classic albums. After testing the patience of even his long-term fans with a lengthy solo set (including a particularly overwrought version of “I Want You”), Costello pulls off a major coup by whipping off the stage backcloth, revealing the waiting Attractions, and leading them into a storming version of “I Hope You’re Happy Now”, followed by a cover of Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.

#6: Bjork, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Hong Kong, February 1996

I’d seen The Sugarcubes in the wake of their minor hit, “Birthday”, but soon lost interest in their music after that. Bjork as a solo act was a whole different phenomenon. On this tour, she pushed the electronic side of her music, as featured on her second album “Post”. If there was any doubt about her status as a global star, towards the end of this concert she was joined on stage by Goldie who presented her with the Brit Award for Best International Female Artist, which she had won for the second time.

#7: Kraftwerk, Metro Nightclub, Melbourne, January 2003

Ahead of their first new album in 12 years (17 years, if you exclude “The Mix” re-workings), in January 2003 Kraftwerk began touring again, after a hiatus since the late ’90s. As part of the warm-up for their Australian summer festival shows, they made this one-off club appearance, complete with their new stage design. This tour led to the spectacular “Minimum-Maximum” live album and DVD.

#8: R.E.M, Hammersmith Palais, London, October 1985

Three albums into their career, and R.E.M were still treating audiences to a wealth of carefully curated cover versions, revealing their influences and their personal tastes. This concert was no different, including tributes to Marlene Dietrich, Aerosmith and Television (although I wish I’d also seen the previous night’s gig with covers of Tom Jones, Creedance Clearweater Revival and Golden Earring).

#9: Tindersticks, Corner Hotel, Melbourne, November 2002

Tindersticks are a sublime live experience, as evidenced on their numerous concert recordings. I’d managed to see them early on in their career while I was still living in London, so it was a pleasure to experience them in the relative intimacy of my local pub, the Corner Hotel in Richmond, on what was possibly their first Australian tour. (If anyone knows of a recording of this gig, please let me know….)

#10: Low, Corner Hotel, Melbourne, June 2006

Low were a band I stumbled on by accident, when I bought a copy of their first album shortly after I moved to Hong Kong at the end of 1994 – I didn’t have any music with me while my stuff was in transit (and I was having withdrawal symptoms), and the album sleeve looked intriguing. It’s still one of my favourites in their catalogue. I recall they played a stunning version of “Monkey”.

Next week: Startup Victoria – Best of the Startup State Pitch Night

 

The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall

Another musical interlude this week.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Recital Hall, one of the best venues for live music, thanks to its acoustic design and sonic ambience. I have seen a number of events there – chamber music, jazz, vocal, electronic, avant garde and contemporary classical – and the sound quality is invariably superb. Not all the programming works (a few of the support acts I have seen feel like they are trying too hard – maybe the sense of occasion has overwhelmed them?), but it’s a valuable addition to Melbourne’s cultural landscape. In recent months, I have seen a number of singularly powerful concerts, but each of them very different.

First was Julia Holter, who for me is one of the most interesting and more compelling singer-songwriters of the current era. I had seen her on her previous Australian tour (at a club venue), but I was still unprepared for her latest performance at the Recital Centre. Although she composes and writes all her own songs, Holter relies on the interplay between her close-knit band of backing musicians to give dynamic life to her music, as she leads and plays keyboards from the front. Her singing voice is a particularly striking instrument, and unlike many of her contemporaries she doesn’t “over sing”. She avoids the annoying habits of histrionics and over emoting, or resorting to vocal gymnastics and sterile vocalisations that many singers deploy to compensate for a lack of depth, warmth or soul. Rather she lets her natural and sometimes low-key voice stand in its own right, and when unleashed in the space of the Recital Centre, it really fell like she was “playing” the venue, as an extension of herself. At one point, just as the band launched into another song, Holter stopped abruptly – turned to the double-bass player and asked, “Wait, was that really the F?” because she thought he had come in on the wrong note. Despite being a seasoned performer, it seemed that she had never really “heard” her own music that way. It was clear that this experience inspired her to go even further, but there was nothing forced, contrived or artificial about her performance.

Next came Grouper, probably the most introverted live performer I have ever seen. As a solo artist, Grouper clearly does not fully relish being the centre of attention. The stage was already very dimly lit as she come out to perform, but she immediately asked for the lights to be dimmed even further. Using piano, guitar, electronics and effects Grouper proceeded to play a continuous series of mainly instrumental pieces, with no audience interaction or between-song patter. This was live music as pure performance. It was also incredibly soporific – OK, so I was a bit jet-lagged, but it was like listening to music designed to put you to sleep, and I’m sure I was not alone in the audience in drifting off. There was a palpable stillness in the auditorium that we rarely experience in our “always on” and digitally intermediated world. It was also (ironic?) confirmation that we need these sorts of experiences to recharge our own batteries.

Finally, Hauschka played a non-stop sequence of pieces for prepared piano and electronics – for around 80 minutes, despite suffering his own jet-lag, he mesmerised with the intense but fluid dynamics of his playing style, complemented by some simple but highly effective lighting design. In complete contrast to Grouper, he prefaced his performance with a 10-minute spoken introduction, where he commented on the ways he deals with life on the road as a musician (including the jet-lag), the context for his recent work, and his gratitude that on a previous visit to Melbourne, he made a chance encounter that changed his life for ever, as it launched his career as a soundtrack composer – and in that regard, putting him on a par with Max Richter and Ryuichi Sakamoto. But what is also appealing about his performance is that, notwithstanding its impact, it is modest, understated, and above all authentic – with none of the faux-authenticity that many folk, rock and soul performers have to seem to resort to.

The Melbourne Recital Centre has the ability to reveal the “true” performer, while giving rise to a type of performance that only succeeds when it is natural, honest and not contrived, forced or inauthentic.

Next week: My Top Ten Concerts of All Time