The Future of Publishers and Writers in an Automated World

by: Camilia Darwish

Hello and welcome to week 8!

We begin our morning session with a promise from Owen that the end is in sight- sort of. We have few more weeks to go. So, hang on in there, folks!

This week we travel to the future in which automation is invading untapped fields. “A robot writer is coming,” we are told. The class is divided between those who opened their arms to welcome the innovation that is already leaving its print on the world, and those who are feeling anxious about being replaced by an unfeeling mimicking machine. Owen, gallantly, asks people in the class to hold on to your hats and dreams for there is hope.

On this week’s schedule:

  • A quick review of some of the main points from Week 7,
  • A capstone conversation about book publishing,
  • Wrap up of the extensive job search in book publishing, and
  • Gideon Rosenblatt’s “The Automation of the Publishing Industry” (Rosenblatt’s article link).
An overview of the responsibilities of publishers, authors and editors:
Table: Courtesy of Owen Percy
The Perkins Archetype:

Watch Genius trailer but don’t start day-dreaming about a romantic future job in editing and publishing. Perkins, ideally, had been given the time and space to get into the life of his authors, although handling emotions that writers may have is still part of an editor’s job (YAY!). Perkins is best remembered for his work with authors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. We are told that we will continue to hear from him throughout this course.

The book publishing chain
What do publishers do?


  1. Make sure they have the right people in the right positions in the company.
  2. Are ultimate decision makers who approve an editorial pitch.
  3. Are responsible for holding contracts, although the editor will handle the fine lines.
  4. Manage Profit and Loss sheets that the management team puts together for them (ironically called loss and profit sheets in Canadian publishing according to Owen).
  5. Then allocate a particular budget.
  6. Oversee the design, production, marketing, and sales teams.

Publishers are the ones responsible for the money.

What is Profit and Loss Sheet?

It is a “balance sheet.” A P&L sheet is an accounting statement estimating or summarizing all revenue, costs, and expenses for a specific project or financial quarter. It is a sophisticated guess to nail in the unpredictable patterns and trends in the publishing world on the understanding that “you can’t replicate a lightning strike,” says Owen.

In publishing, a P&L considers the following:

  1. Print run

Are we going to publish large amounts of copies right off the bat? Or are we going to publish in less quantities and keep the printing machine running in case we need more?

2. Gross and net sales

The amount of retail sales you will get and money left after paying everyone for their services.

3. Projected Return Rate

This is the number of books that are expected to be returned.

4. Suggested Retail Price

5. Average Discount Rate

The rate at which books are going to be sold in large quantities to distributor or retailers.

6. Unit Manufacturing Costs of PPB (paper, printing, binding)

How much does it cost to make one copy of the book on ordering 5000 of them, for example?

7. Plant costs

This means the price of renting the equipment and having someone produce the book.

8. Direct Marketing

9. Royalty Advance

10. Sub or Foreign Rights Revenues

(See Greco et al. 201-205)

Publishers also oversee design and production processes. This means they hire people or assign work to people in their company.

Production team:

Making the book

These are people who don’t have to have any appreciation of the file they are turning into a book, or a specialized cultural or aesthetic knowledge. They do technical work digitally and manually and are unconnected to the spirit or content of what they are printing.


On the other hand, designers have to understand not just the plot of the book but its themes, aesthetics, tone, etc. This understanding is needed so that designers can come up with a design that reflects all this, and is also attractive to people.

Designers are responsible for all decisions about the aesthetic and material realization of books.

Once again, Owen brings the class down from a dreamy world in which authors get or can do whatever they want, and back to the grinding realities of the practical world:

“You don’t always get to pick the cover of your book as a writer,” says Owen. However, you may be allowed a thumb-up thumb-down input- a vote that could be outweighed by others in the book publishing industry. “So, let it go, writers!”

-Owen Percy

Book designers make decisions, with the editor and publisher in conversation, on:

  • design art and visuals,
  • font/ typography,
  • paper quality and weight (sometimes determined by the budget),
  • print technology, and
  • Binding method (sometimes).

Speaking of binding…

What are the different types of binding?

Watch how hardcovers are made:

[Video Link]

What is Lithography, again?

Lithographic printing has been used for the past 50 years, and it is still the standard today, even though we are moving towards digital.

Remember Chip Kidd on designing Knof tiles? [Click to watch video]

Layout Designers

In publishing, layout designers make sure that each single page must be designed individually like a photograph.

Layout designs affect: Readability and Budget.

So, layout designers consider elements such as: book blocks (box of text), margins, alignment, the amount of space between letters, words, lines, etc. While layout designers are not editors, they have to do a job that gives readers aesthetic experience while keeping them in the book space without being distracted by format.

This is because:

Human beings recognize patterns and when they do as readers, they stray away from the book content they are reading.

So, for example, Layout designers have to deal with issues such as, widows and orphans

This just means fixing dangling first or last paragraph lines on a page. Why?

Well, they just look weird, and this means distracting. On the other hand, Self-publishing ignores pagination style errors. This is Good news! This means layout designers are here to stay, at least for now.

Template for the printing sheets

Each page of a book is layout in a particular way on the signature page

A signature page is a double-sided sheet of paper upon which pages (pages are grouped in increments of 8/sheet) have been printed which, when folded and cut, form the collated pages of a manuscript.


Lithographic machines:

These are printing machines that have been used in the past 50 years in most printing centres. Lithography is the process of printing on a plane/page. They are also called Offset printing.

Planographic printing:

The printing plates are raised where the text/image that are going to be printed are. The plates roll through the machine and are printed against the paper.

The paper is covered with a solution of water, so the paper is damp. The ink will not stick on the damp paper, except for the raised parts.

Then, ink is added where it sticks only to the parts that remained dry.

Fun fact: Water and ink don’t mix because ink is oil-based.

-Owen Percy

If you want to look at how lithographic printing works, check out this video (click the link below):

More on lithographic printing

These machines are expensive and massive in size that most publishers contract out their business to printers who have such machines.

The emergence of Print-on-Demand (POD)
  • This is a technology that continues to offer some great alternatives to small publishers.
  • It was facilitated by the emergence of the less successful Espresso book machine [Video Link].
  • It allows the publisher to maintain a small inventory (print as you go or print as demanded while avoiding overestimating the number of copies to be sold).
  •  It reduces unwanted returns and with POD, one will never run out of copies.

And, hear ye, hear ye! Owen predicts that this technology will continue to evolve.

Fun Fact: Library quality paperback does not necessarily mean a well-printed book. However, such quality of printing does the job, particularly for text books.

Marketing and Sales

People working in these departments will:

  • Engage with editors and publishers;
  • Read manuscripts (or not) and similar competitive texts (a practice that Owen doesn’t like);
  • Attend pre-production meetings; and
  • Create catalogues, tip sheets, and sales strategies for each title

What is a Tip Sheet?

It is A flyer for the book; a description of the book. It is a short promotional document summarizing the work, introducing the author, and listing the logistics relevant to bookstores (i.e., space it takes on their shelves, positioning the book in a market, offering sales pointers). (See Greco et al. 224)

What is a galley?

A galley historically is a low, flat ship with one or more sails and up to three banks of oars, chiefly used for warfare, trade, and piracy. Galley | Definition of Galley by Merriam-Webster

In publishing, the term is used to refer to an exceptionally durable but dull-looking paper copy of the complete book (minus some design). A galley is rare and is generally distributed three months ahead of publication. It is sent to reviewers sometimes, but mostly to copy editors.

What is an ARC?

No, not that type of Ark.

ARC, in the publishing world, stands for “Advanced Reading Copy”; a fancy galley with some design elements and promotional content on covers. In other words, ARC is the book as it will appear on a trial run. It does not have a cover necessarily; and it is sent to reviewers or people who will talk about the book later.

What is the difference between retail and national sales?

Retail Sales is:

  • Selling to independent and regional chains; often in person, via catalogue.
  • Selling seasonal frontlists with personalization to owners/stores/readers.
  • More personal than national sales.

National Sales is:

  • Selling frontlists and backlists to national and international chains.
  • Done most often by email or over the phone. It is not personal.
Promoters, Publicists, Marketers, and Salespeople…
  • Do the bulk of their work online.
  • Spend a lot of time engaging face-to-face, attending and organizing events to support their authors and publicize their product.
  • Often work as freelancers.
  • Are consulted on and contribute to development and editorial conversations.
  • Thrive at book fairs, conferences, and literary festivals.

Book Fairs, Conferences, and Literary Festivals:

Book fairs are public. Sometimes access to book fairs requires paying a fee, but they are mostly free. The most notable in the world is The Frankfurt International Book Fair.

Conferences are multi-day private events. Conferences are more like a professional development event. They are focused on specific industry themes, challenges, and issues. One has to be invited to them to participate. Example, PubWest and Association of Canadian Publishers.

Literary Festivals are multi-day public cultural events for celebration and promotion. They are designed to connect writers and publishers with their audiences and readers. Example, Wordfest in Calgary and International Festival of Authors.

The Automation of the Publishing Industry

In groups, the class discussed the following questions in the context of required readings:

What is the distinction between automation and digitization?

How might automation impact the publishing industry more than digitization has?

What about writing? How is automation going to change writing?

Someone in the general chat space said that automation is a goofy novelty that may develop in 50 years. Owen strikes again, predicting that we will see automation in more fields sooner than we are expecting.

Then Owen gives the final blow revealing that:

“Robots can imitate emotions.”

A classmate suggests that automation is going to be a distinct genre rather than replacing human writers.

So if you are someone who just woke up to a world in which the word “automated publishing” or “automated writing” suddenly became a normal part of everyday conversation, you will be surprised to know that you may have already read something written by a robot while you were sipping your cup of coffee and reading through sports or stocks news reports.

An example of a system that is very well attuned to human speech automation is   

“First, let’s get one thing straight: the publishing sector isn’t just digitizing –it’s automating. It’s just that digitalization is an integral aspect of automation in this particular industry” (Rosenblatt par. 3).

So what are digitization, digitalization, and automation?

“There will come a day when you read something, thinking: wow that writer really gets me! Then, you will realize that the author is an algorithm, because machines can mimic people. But you shouldn’t be scared… yet.”

Owen Percy
The Great Un-bundling of Publishing

The processes in traditional publishing have been done in-house by specialists. Technology and automation provide us with a certain set of skills that now we don’t have to learn. However, if we just rely on technology without learning the actual skills, then we will not know how to do the job without it.

“Automation has killed jobs in the publishing sector, streamlining and eliminating what were once human tasks, transforming them into virtual processes more efficiently handled by machines. So far though, writing and editorial professions have proven surprisingly resilient, shaking off layoffs by publishers, and shifting their skills to new opportunities” (Rosenblatt par. 36).

The jobs haven’t really tanked for writers and editors as expected. They changed a little bit, but they did not disappear.

Alexa and Siri

“In other words, computer code, in the form of something like a virtual personal assistant, is about to form a new publishing medium. It will wrap our knowledge in code, code that we will converse with in order to answer our questions. This is the next generation of publishing, made possible by the massive automation of publishing that has already preceded it” (Rosenblatt par. 49).

Siri (Apple)

  • Siri is a “Virtual Personal Assistant” that uses principles of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
  • Siri was launched as an app in early 2010 and was added to Apple devices on October 4, 2011.
  • This technology is based on George Lucas’s concept of a “knowledge navigator.”
  • Siri was updated in 2018 to include “predictive guidance and recommendations.”

Alexa (Amazon)

  • Alexa is a “Virtual Assistant AI Technology.”
  • It was launched on November, 2014.
  • “Alexa Hunches” was launched in 2018 to predict user needs: “We’re just getting started. Like all things, this feature will get better and smarterover time.” –Amazon Press Release, Sept. 2018.

The thing about IT and AI though is that they are only predictive, and are based on what we have already done, and what we will do.  

The question is: Are we going to create technology that will outstrip us as humans?

 “As new tools have simplified the publishing process and invited a whole new class of writers to the fray, demand for content in the Information Age has proven powerful enough that, despite many concerns, the demand for professional writers remains strong. The skills of writing and editing have thus far resisted succumbing to automation. But for how long?” (Rosenblatt par. 40).

However, it is hard to mimic fiction or prose in general according to Owen. Prose is supposed to be modelled based on “extra-lingual” skills of communication- meaning a knowledge of everyday language. We have different speaking patterns, but as humans we can recognize those patterns. An evidence of AI finding difficulties in this area are the hilarious lines in Harry Potter’s automated chapter. Although the plot is correct, the style is missing. In Owen’s own words: “The soul of the story is not there yet.”

Owen continues to argue that when dealing with a genre that does not use colloquial everyday language like poetry, it becomes difficult to recognize whether a robot has actually written the work (such as, avant-garde and experimental writing).

Read: Twinkle Twinkle by Stephen Marche

[Click link to article]

Read: Harry Potter Automated Chapter

[Click link to article]

When dealing with a genre that does not use colloquial everyday language like poetry, it becomes difficult to recognize whether a robot has actually written the work (such as, avant-garde and experimental writing)

Turning Test:

This is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human. (Watch The Imitation Game by Graham Moore, 2014). This technology, though, can be helpful in terms of narrowing down the uncertainties of the publishing world.

To sum it up:

Publishing has been dealing with compound uncertainties for a long time. It has almost always been hard to predict trends in the publishing world. With the continuous progress and advancing of Artificial Intelligence inventions, publishing could become a profession in trouble, or it could be advanced by technological novelties.

Here is a head scratcher for you:

Automation is tapping new fields in an accelerating manner. Do you think that in the near future, technology will be used to help us write life memoirs about ourselves through following our daily lives over the years?

Also, if Artificial intelligence has already started writing articles, what impact will this have on academic integrity in the future? Are we going to see assignments written by machines on behalf of students? How do you think will educational institutions deal with this issue in the future?

For Next Week
  • Complete Week 9 readings and prep, including watching PAGE ONE

Don’t forget to review The Hunger Games Group Publishing Presentation by Takyrah, Lena, Kristen, and Alysha on Divergent.

That’s it folks!

Stay well, keep safe, and love thyself.

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