George Walkley in the Publisher's Chair

George Walkley in the Publisher's Chair

George Walkley is an independent consultant, publishing expert and academic researcher. As a consultant, since 2020 George has worked with more than thirty organisations in ten countries, including clients in the media and publishing, professional services, education and non-profit sectors.

George’s early career was spent in the publishing industry, notably at Hachette UK where he held senior roles in strategy, development, digital and marketing.

Welcome to Supadu’s Publisher’s Chair, George! Can you start by telling us about your consulting business?

Thank you for having me! I run a small consulting business called Outside Context and we work with three different types of clients. The first are typically publishers or organisations that are in the publishing world, publishing startups or sometimes creative agencies that work with publishers. 

The second type are broadly professional services companies that want to work with publishers for a particular reason or who want to use books as part of their communication strategy. The third are education and nonprofit organisations which in many respects are sort of slightly adjacent to the publishing market. Now we have a couple of full time employees and then a network of freelancers that I work with on other projects.

Which areas do you typically help publishers with?

Broadly speaking, my focus is on strategy, addressing the big questions for publishers. This includes determining the actions the business should take, how to implement them, identifying the required resources, and understanding the markets they operate in. Given my background in publishing, I also place a strong emphasis on content-related aspects. This involves examining the type of content the business produces and the formats in which it is distributed. Naturally, digital formats, such as audiobooks and ebooks, are significant, but I also consider the role of print in the overall mix.

Where do you see the future of print versus digital?

I believe that all formats, including print and digital, will continue to coexist in the publishing industry. While the ebook market has reached a stable point, and audio books have gained significant traction, the print market has remained resilient, even during the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Different formats cater to different use cases and audience preferences. Digital formats like audiobooks and ebooks are convenient for on-the-go consumption, while print books provide a break from screens. I see a continued demand for print books alongside digital formats.

What opportunities do you think there are for publishers in the last five years, and what challenges do they face?

The past five years have seen tremendous opportunities for publishers, especially in the growth of the audiobook market; it has experienced an impressive annual growth rate of 20% to 30%. However, there are still significant gaps in the availability of certain content in audio format, particularly classics and specific nonfiction categories. This presents publishers with the chance to expand their offerings in audiobooks and reach broader audiences. Additionally, the use of AI and large language models in publishing has emerged as an opportunity to improve efficiency and productivity in various areas such as writing marketing copy and creating visual assets.

At the same time, the industry faces challenges related to the ethical use of AI and its potential impact on creators. Concerns have been raised about whether AI-powered algorithms might replace human creators, and there is a need to address these questions responsibly. Publishers must navigate the use of AI in a manner that respects individual creators' interests while taking advantage of the efficiency gains it can offer within the publishing process.

How can you help your publishers overcome these challenges and make the most of the opportunities?

In addressing the opportunities and challenges, my role involves supporting publishers in several ways. For the expansion of the audiobook market, I work with an audiobook startup called Xigxag, which has relationships with three dozen publishers in the UK. Through this, I gain valuable insights into the marketplace and can help publishers identify gaps and areas where they can expand their audiobook offerings.

Regarding the use of AI and large language models, I can assist publishers in understanding how to use these technologies responsibly and effectively within their businesses. This includes finding ways to leverage AI to work smarter and faster, such as in writing marketing materials or creating visual assets. However, it's crucial to have a thoughtful approach that aligns with the interests of individual creators and respects their contributions to the creative process.

Overall, my goal is to help publishers make informed strategic decisions, capitalise on emerging opportunities, and navigate the evolving landscape of the publishing industry while remaining mindful of ethical considerations.

What led you to becoming a consultant in the first place?

The decision to become a consultant was motivated by my experiences as a commuter on Southwestern Railway for 15 years! At the beginning of 2020, I felt the need for a change and I made the decision to transition into consulting. However, little did I anticipate that this change would coincide with the extraordinary disruptions brought about by the pandemic in the following years. Nevertheless, the experience has been intriguing, offering opportunities to work with diverse organisations in various countries. 

Can you tell me more about your time at Hachette and your earlier experiences as a bookseller?

Before joining Hachette, I began my career as a bookseller at the beloved bookshop called Ottakar’s. I spent eight years with the company, which grew significantly from 14 or 15 shops in the south of England to over 150 shops. As the book market changed due to factors like the emergence of Amazon and increased competition from supermarkets, Ottakar’s faced challenges and eventually was taken over by Waterstones.

Afterward, I joined Time Warner Books, which quickly became Hachette and rebranded as Little Brown. I spent four years at Little Brown, holding various roles, including marketing manager, director of digital strategy, and marketing director. During this time, digital formats started to gain prominence, and I was involved in creating some of the first ebooks. The rise of devices like the Sony ebook reader paved the way for digital publishing. In 2009, I moved to Hachette's group management team as head of digital, where I established the group's digital supply chain and systems, adapting to the growing demand for ebooks. By the time I left Hachette in 2020, we had made significant strides, offering around 55,000 ebooks compared to the few hundred available in the first year of my digital role.

In 2017, my role shifted to group development director, focusing on strategy, mergers and acquisitions, and other key areas with the senior team. This varied career in publishing has given me valuable insights and equipped me well for my current consulting work.

Do you have a highlight from your time at Hachette or beforehand in bookselling?

There have been several career highlights related to books and authors. Working on the publication of books by Ian Banks at Little Brown was a special privilege, as he had been one of my favourite authors, particularly in his science fiction writing. Additionally, being involved in the publication of books like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series and J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, were really exciting to work on. These projects demonstrated the remarkable team effort involved in publishing, with various departments working together to bring a book to market.

What advice do you give to hopeful publishers or people looking to move around in the industry? 

For aspiring publishers, I encourage them to meet people, network, and gain diverse perspectives. The publishing industry is not based on a single model, and each publisher operates differently. So, talking to different people from various types of publishers, including those with a focus on print or digital formats, UK-based or international publishers, helps them find the best fit for their career aspirations. Networking opportunities, like those provided by the Society of Young Publishers, can be valuable in building knowledge of the industry and forming connections.

And what advice have you found incredibly useful during your time in publishing?

As for advice that I have found useful during my career, I have been fortunate to work with exceptional bosses who taught me valuable lessons. For instance, James Heneage at Ottakar’s was an extraordinary leader who imparted valuable knowledge. Tim Holman at Orbit emphasized the importance of meticulous attention to detail, and David Young was highly skilled in managing systems and people. Ursula Mckenzie's communication clarity left no room for doubts. Richard Kitson's international focus and Tim Hely Hutchinson's interpersonal skills were other aspects that I learned from. These experiences have guided my own consulting work, where I strive to simplify complex technical subjects for non-technical professionals and provide practical takeaways that can be implemented in their work.

What do you usually speak about at book fairs and conferences?

At book fairs and conferences, I often speak about areas within my professional expertise, which have included ebooks, audio, and more recently, AI and its impact. My goal in these presentations is to explain complex technical topics in a way that the audience can relate to and understand the business impact. I aim to provide practical advice so that attendees can apply what they've learned after the event. Personally, I find it fulfilling to offer actionable insights that empower people to try something new in their work and witness the results.

Additionally, speaking at book fairs and conferences provides an opportunity for continuous learning. Visiting international book fairs, like the one in Abu Dhabi, exposes me to various markets and allows me to engage with key players in the industry. Understanding how different markets operate, their local tastes, and preferences is invaluable, especially considering the significant international opportunities for publishers, particularly with digital formats. It's a privilege to attend these events and gain insights that can inform and enrich my work as a consultant.

I understand you're also doing some doctoral research alongside your consulting work. What is your research focused on?

My doctoral research is centred around examining how strategy is formulated in small businesses, which is highly relevant to many of the clients I work with. In the publishing industry, there are numerous small and medium-sized publishers, particularly in the UK, who face unique challenges due to limited resources and budgets. These smaller businesses must be agile and resourceful in their strategic decisions. My research aims to shed light on how these businesses navigate these challenges and make strategic choices.

Can you tell me more about your experience pursuing an MBA and the influence it had on your interest in research?

Between 2014 and 2016, I had the opportunity to pursue an MBA, which I found fascinating on various levels. Being back in a classroom setting after a considerable gap was an interesting experience. I observed how education had embraced digital platforms, giving me a consumer perspective on modern learning methods. Furthermore, I interacted with classmates from diverse backgrounds, such as software, consulting, banking, technology, and advertising, who were not from the publishing industry. Engaging with these individuals allowed me to gain valuable insights that I could apply in my own business.

As part of my MBA, I had the chance to write a dissertation, and contrary to the norm, I thoroughly enjoyed the process! Conducting interviews with interesting people about their jobs, which I might not have had the opportunity to do otherwise, was immensely rewarding. This sparked my interest in research, and in 2021, I decided to pursue further research opportunities at Bristol Business School. Despite the challenges of limited spare time, as a self-employed individual, I found this to be the perfect moment to undertake the research. 

With your busy schedule, do you find time for reading? If so, what kind of books do you enjoy?

Reading has taken a backseat but I do try to keep some non-research or work-related books on my reading list. I am currently reading Choke Point Capitalism by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow, which I highly recommend. It delves into the creative economy and explores how large publishers and tech platforms like Amazon can act as choke points, syphoning off most of the money and value, leaving creators underpaid. The book provides a radical vision for reforming copyright and benefiting creators, although I find the authors too critical of big publishers based on my experience. Nonetheless, I believe it is essential to read diverse viewpoints to challenge preconceptions and I do recommend this book.

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