Episode 398 – AI and book publishing with Sara Lloyd

Sara Lloyd“We’ve been innovating forever, before digital formats came along... in a way we have some of the natural abilities we need. We need to remember that and not be too scared when new things come along.”

Publishing is an industry that runs on creativity and intellectual property. So how are book publishers responding to the challenges and opportunities of generative AI? Can the book, one of our oldest technologies, survive this latest technological revolution? And if so, what are the implications for authors? 

As the first Global AI Lead for Pan Macmillan, one of the world’s largest publishers of trade fiction and non-fiction, Sara Lloyd is grappling with these very questions. In this week’s conversation she sheds some light on the conversations taking place in the industry, and the ways that publishers themselves are using AI. She also gives her best tip for authors writing their first book, and it’s probably not what you expect… 

AUDIO

VIDEO

Pan Macmillan website: https://www.panmacmillan.com/

Sara on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/saralloyd/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Write with me! https://alisonjones.com/writing/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sara Lloyd, who is Group Communications Director and Global AI Lead for Pan Macmillan, which is just the latest role in a very distinguished career that spanned newspaper, academic, reference, STM, consumer publishing, always at the cutting edge of change in the industry. She’s been named as one of the top 100 most influential people in publishing by The Bookseller, pretty much since that chart began every year.

So first of all, welcome, Sara. It’s really, really good to have you here.

Sara Lloyd: Thank you so much, Alison. Thanks for having me. I’m really looking forward to our conversation.

Alison Jones: I was thinking back, do you realise we have been associated for, is it nearly 25 years? But the lovely thing is we don’t look any different.

Sara Lloyd: Oh, we look exactly the same.

Alison Jones: I haven’t changed a bit!

Sara Lloyd: And I think we’ve both had careers spanning almost, well, probably about 30 odd years, haven’t we? And we’ve actually known each other for 25 of those. So yes, wonderful to see you again today.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s great to have you here. I’m really excited and particularly, it’s wonderful to have you anyway, frankly, we could just have a blether for half an hour and that would be terrific. And what I’d really love to talk to you about is your new AI role, because it’s something that really, not just publishers, but authors are, well, everybody’s grappling with it. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not just us.

But just tell us a little bit, you know, how is, well, actually, do you know what, before we get into the AI, let’s just look back a minute, because you and I, 25 years ago at the cutting edge of digital publishing, looking forward, making crazy predictions, like how there’d be no print books in 10 years time.

Print’s done all right, hasn’t it? It’s been surprisingly resilient.

Sara Lloyd: It has., It’s been really resilient. And I’ve been thinking a lot with this new role about what it is that makes publishing and books so resilient. I mean, ebooks, I think, first came onto the scene really in 2007, digital audio soon after. We’ve also moved from purely physical bookshop channels to digital channels.

And then more recently, the rise of social channels and their influence on the book world. And particularly the rise of TikTok…

Alison Jones: #BookTok.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, as a way to really drive sales but also discover new content, new authors. So there’s been all these changes and there were many before my career as well, but those are the ones, the big digital ones, that I can remember.

And what is it that makes publishers so resilient? I think what it is, is it’s partly to do with the book itself, and it’s partly to do with the way publishers have reacted to these changes. I mean, in a funny way, it’s quite difficult to actually make many major improvements to the core product of the book…

Alison Jones: It just works.

Sara Lloyd: It just works. You know, they actually work quite well. They don’t have that many pain points.

And so, as new formats and new technologies have evolved, often they sort of added different things and additional things and new things, but not necessarily things that needed solving so much as kind of nice add ons, particularly when you think of something like audio.

And the other thing is that all these new formats and these changes, they’ve all kind of complemented one another. So when ebooks came and everyone thought, gosh, could it be the death of the print book? In fact ebooks did for a while sort of start to really gather steam and take over in certain segments, but then it became more of a kind of an ecosystem in which, sometimes an e book, people might buy an ebook because it’s cheaper or it’s on a special deal and they might discover a new author and then they might go and buy more of their books, perhaps in physical format as well.

So I think it’s the way that publishers have embraced new technology, largely, and really been prepared to innovate and be flexible and to use their kind of creative capacity that most people in publishing have. That’s enabled us and the book to stay so buoyant in all its different formats.

And, in a way with AI, I guess, that’s just something that I’m sort of trying to think about how we bring to this new challenge.

Alison Jones: And I will get onto AI in just a second, but that resilience and that as you say, the sort of creative and commercial aspects of publishing that have made it work. It’s really interesting because, you’re right, it has grown the pie. And I think that there was, we didn’t see, I don’t know if everybody saw that coming, exactly.

I think there was an awful lot of fear around what would happen with books, once digital publishing, Amazon sort of came onto the scene, and self publishing, you know. And the industry sort of reeled from, sort of disruption to disruption but the core book, as you say, is such a great item. It works really, really well.

Exactly.

And actually what happens with each new technology, new way of discovering content is that you get new people who fall in love with the books, with the authors, with the ideas. And it’s, I mean, I’m making it sound rosier than it is, an awful lot of small publishers have gone to the wall. There’s no doubt about it. And, you know, revenues are difficult, but actually books are doing all right.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, they are and I do think there’s a lot in the idea that probably authors and publishers and illustrators, of course, are sort of innately generally creative people, creative businesses. We’ve been innovating forever, before digital formats came along and digital sort of platforms and the digital environment. We were always innovating.

We were always innovating our formats and our content types. And you look now at the latest trend like Murdle before Christmas just was a kind of phenomenon and it’s not really a new idea, but it’s kind of a new idea combined with an old idea and we’re always constantly reframing things and redoing things in interesting ways.

And so I do think we sort of have the natural, in a way we have some of the natural abilities we need. We need to remember that and not be too scared when new things come along I think.

Alison Jones: Yes. And let’s talk about AI then, because I know there’s an awful lot of fear around AI in every industry, I think, but also a real sense of opportunity. So, what would you say are the big opportunities, challenges, you know, what kind of impact is AI making on publishing right now?

Sara Lloyd: I think, you know, the impact it’s having right now is that everybody’s talking about it. It’s the biggest topic really in the industry. And the reason for that is, as you say, AI is huge. It’s not just us that’s dealing with it, it’s not just publishers, authors, illustrators, it’s the whole world, it’s governments, it’s commercial entities, it’s people, it’s creators, and it will have a very consequential way on, sorry, a very consequential impact on the way we do business as publishers and I think ultimately it will have some impact as well on authors and writers and illustrators and the things they have to think about. Just as it will across many sectors. But I do think the way we’re wanting to look at it is to sort of hold both the challenges and the opportunities in our hands at once. And talking to our author and agent stakeholder group that we set up towards the end of last year, we did come away from that conversation, we spoke with a large-ish group of agents, authors, illustrators, industry body heads at Pan Macmillan, and we did come away having discussed in quite a lot of depth some of the challenges and some of the fears as well, but also some of the opportunities, and I think what was really nice at the end was coming out and saying yes, we can see that it has these two sides.

You know, we need to not be naive about the difficulties and the challenges. We need to be very mindful of those. But being mindful of those shouldn’t stop us experimenting with things that might be the opportunities.

Talking about what some of those opportunities might be I mean, in publishing, I think we’re talking very much about how can, especially generative AI, because obviously there’s AI and then there’s generative AI which is what’s broken onto the scene since sort of late 22, early 23 and generative AI has really changed the game because it can effectively, it writes in you know, language that we recognise.

And that’s what we all do. And that’s what we all work with. So it really makes a bigger difference to the other types of sort of automation that we could have been building in before generative AI.

And I think what we’re looking at is how can it enhance our work? So generative AI, we must remember, it is just a machine. It is basically advanced statistics. It’s not sentient. It’s not another human being. But what it can do is it can help us to, for example, solve the blank page syndrome. So we’ve found in Pan Mac that when we’re working together as a group, still working as a group of human beings together on, I don’t know, a piece of copy, a blurb or you know, what the metadata should be for a book.

We are able to sometimes get to our own creative output quicker by briefing, very cleverly, the generative AI to come up with some ideas that we can then build upon. Now in all the times that I’ve used it in groups that I’ve worked in. It’s extremely rare, in fact, probably never that what the AI has generated has been the final outcome that we’ve wanted, but it has sparked ideas and sparked conversation and sparked creativity.

So in its most exciting form, I suppose, or most potential…

Alison Jones: Benign form.

Sara Lloyd: …in its most benign form, that’s a really good word. It’s a fantastic creative sparring partner, but we must remember, as I say, that it is only that, and you need really good human input to make it come out with a good output. And then you also need to, as we do in publishing and writing all the time, be editing and refining and making it better and using the value of your experience.

And something we’ve been talking about at Pan Mac is, it’s about delegating tasks, not responsibilities. Again, remembering that it’s a machine and it’s just advanced statistics. It’s not a human. It doesn’t have anything else it’s calling upon. And I think, you know, this is really, really important, the way that we refer to AI and think about AI, that we remember that and we don’t get too caught up in these kind of Terminator type visions of dystopia.

And remember, just really remember, it is just a machine and we are in control of it and we’re controlling the input and we’re controlling the output. If we’re using it in a kind of careful and thoughtful manner as we should be.

Alison Jones: I love that idea about retaining responsibility. I think that’s really key and it doesn’t always happen. Publishing is an industry that’s based on intellectual property. That’s the product. So talk us through some of the challenges associated with that, with generative AI.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, I mean, I think the first thing to acknowledge and think about and make sure we talk about is that there’s an awful lot of concern, legitimate concern, about the way that a lot of the LLMs have been trained, the large language models on which generative AI is based are trained. And effectively, it’s kind of everything on the internet, more or less, so…

Alison Jones: …under the fair use. We’ve been here before, haven’t we, with Google?

Sara Lloyd: We’ve been here before with Google, exactly. But it basically means that authors and agents and illustrators legitimately are concerned that those LLMs may have been trained on their material. And so, that’s one thing that I think, I think it will come out in the wash.

I’m not an expert on this, but, I do think that ultimately legal actions of various types, I mean, there have been some started in America already, will sort of guide the way here and that we’ll get clarity on what that’s going to look like.

But, I think, you know, there is a model. There’s a licensing model. There’s an attribution model. There are ways that digital platforms of all types can use content legitimately, if they ask permission and label it as such and so on.

And that’s for much bigger players than you or I.

Alison Jones: The New York Times is the sort of leader of this in the States, and that’s so interesting. Yes.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m referring to. And I think those cases will be closely watched and the outcomes of those will be incredibly important. And I hope that they go in a way that enables more to follow. But as you know, many people in the industry have already said that, you know, the models exist, licensing models exist, mass payment models exist, et cetera.

So, let’s hope that it goes, it feels like, and this is just a bit of a kind of feeling in my waters, it feels like the desire is there from all sides, because I’m sure, and I’m not speaking for them because I don’t know, but I’m sure that the LLMs, or the owners of these LLMs, they want to be able to develop, they want to be able to go forward, and also they want to be able to be well received and built on quality content.

So, you know, I hope that ultimately they’ll see that this is the right way forward. And if it takes these sort of legal battles to set the precedent, then so it be.

Alison Jones: It’s so funny, isn’t it, that the legal infrastructure is another one that’s desperately trying to keep up with the technology. Yes, absolutely fascinating.

What about for authors, do you think? What are the big opportunities, challenges, things that authors maybe should be thinking about in terms of generative AI.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, I mean, this has been really interesting talking to our stakeholder group because some authors are still really grappling with what could AI be to me, and perhaps quite focused because of this issue with the LLMs, it’s quite hard for them to get beyond, imagining some of the positives.

 But we have met and do talk to authors who are using AI tools in their day to day work. And sometimes it’s for research, sometimes it’s for that creative sparring partner idea that I talked about that we use in the Publishing House, that absolutely can be used within the writing process.

And there are some very good examples, I’m going to forget the names of them now, of some books that have been written and outwardly have been said to be written with a sort of AI creative partner, so to speak.

Alison Jones: I’m going to forget the name as well, but I know there was one that just won a Japanese literary prize and there was a bit of a stushie about it because 5 percent of the book was written by AI, but the author was absolutely transparent about that. And this is the sort of thing we’re going to have to come to terms with, you know, how do we work together like that?

Sara Lloyd: No, that’s it. And I do think that’s the way that it can be best used by authors and by publishers. As I say, in particular, acknowledging that it’s the human intervention, the human extra bit that’s added on round the edges, that really is what makes it the unique product at the end of the day.

Alison Jones: Do you know, it makes me think of almost, you can imagine artists sitting around and scoffing at the introduction of photography. It’s cheating, you know, but actually photography is a valid art form in its own right, but nobody pretends it’s a picture. It’s not a bad comparison, is it?

Sara Lloyd: No, actually, that’s a great comparison. Sort of human plus machine, which is exactly what we’re talking about here.

Alison Jones: but the human’s doing the selecting and the framing and the decision making and ultimately processing the output.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, and I must say I am on the side, and perhaps this is my slightly… my optimistic streak, but I am on the side of thinking that ultimately people want to read books by people, or they at least want to know that there’s a person involved. And I think that because I’ve really been thinking about what makes good writing and what engages people with books and writing.

And so much of it is to do with that connection with another human being, another human experience. Whether that’s the experience of the author themselves or the experience that the author’s bringing to bear on something they’re writing about. But I think, we don’t consciously, as we read, think about the author sitting behind the book all the time. But subconsciously, I believe we do.

And I think that because we know it’s written by another human being, and that they’ve brought all of their… of that emotional experience and reality to bear on their writing, even when it’s non fiction, as well as when it’s fiction, by the way, I do think that that gives it something.

I mean, the way I think about it is to ask the question, and I’ll ask it of you now. How would you feel, and what would the reading experience be, when reading a book that you know is entirely written by an AI? Would you feel differently about it? And I’ve asked myself that question, and I think the answer is yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely categorically yes, and I can tell you, you know that experience where you think you’re chatting with a human and then you realize it’s a bot and there’s that… it just, it’s an odd thing. You feel unseen. You feel that the connection that you thought was there isn’t there. And I think there’s a lot to be said for that.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, and that brings me back to the point I’m making about we must remember in the way that we talk about AI and the way we engage with AI, not to humanise it. And in fact I’ve already done that, because I’ve said it as a creative partner. It’s not a creative partner. It can act like a creative partner, that’s what we should say,

Alison Jones: It’s a tool.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, Yes.

Alison Jones: It’s very easy, isn’t it, to anthropomorphize anything, but it’s really quite dangerous because it has passed the Turing test. You absolutely believe you’re speaking to a human and then suddenly you realize you’re not. So yes, it’s absolutely fascinating.

I’m going to, I always ask my guests for their best tip for a first time author. Now, it’s a bit mean because you are a publisher and you work in a very different space to me. You work in trade books, in trade fiction and non fiction, which is not prime business book territory. Sadly, it should be, but it’s not. But I’m still going to ask you, Sara, because you’ve seen so many books, you’ve seen so many really successful books over your time.

What would you like to say to somebody who really wants to write a good book?

Sara Lloyd: Okay, so I think my best tip for first time business book authors would be actually not about the writing, but to build your network, to connect with other writers, talk to people in the publishing industry if you can, or use your whatever connections you have and authors in my experience, are the most thoughtful and generous people by and large.

And, in my experience, working at Pan Macmillan, many of our authors really lift each other up, they read for each other, they connect each other to new people in their networks. And I think that can be so valuable because, not for everyone, but for some, writing is quite an isolating process and quite a process that you do alone.

And I think that publishing versus writing is much more of a networked process and is about relationships and connections and human to human, which goes back to the theme of what we were saying in relation to AI. So I think, really build your network, really talk to others, try and find other authors and talk to them, maybe do creative writing workshops with other authors, you know, get into the swim of all that wonderful, you know, sea of ideas and opportunities that comes with connecting with other people.

 And I think part of that is also don’t be afraid to ask questions because especially publishing, it’s such a sort of strange industry in some ways. And I say that having been part of it for 30 years and absolutely loving it.

I love the strangeness of it, but it is strange. And it’s a little bit like, a foreign land sometimes when you’re trying to kind of navigate it for the first time, to work out how it all works.

But other authors can help and talk to you about their experiences and no question is too stupid because it really is odd.

Alison Jones: It’s a funny old business.

Sara Lloyd: Yes

Alison Jones: It’s a funny old business.

And I like the distinction that you draw there as well, between writing and publishing. They are such separate activities. I mean, obviously complementary. You can’t publish if you haven’t written it, unless you’ve written it with generative AI.

And, you know, you can’t get it out into the world unless you’ve published it. But they are, one is very personal, it’s just you and the manuscript and, you know, wrestling this stuff out from your soul. And the other one is noisy and busy and there’s a whole village of people involved and it’s very, very public.

And making that transition, I think, is really hard for most first time authors.

Sara Lloyd: So I think that’s why the network’s important is to help you make the transition but also once you’re really fully networked, it’s incredibly helpful for promoting the book as well.

Alison Jones: Yes, we love those endorsements.

Sara Lloyd: Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s so true. Brilliant tip, thank you.

And I’m really looking forward to the answer to this one. You know I always ask my guests for a recommendation for a book that they think everyone should read. You can’t give us the whole Pan Mac front list, okay, just to be really clear. Go on, just give us one.

Sara Lloyd: Okay, well, we’ve been speaking about AI, and so I have to give you an AI book recommendation, i. e. a book about AI, which is something also that we didn’t really discuss, being in publishing that’s the wonder of, we have all these brilliant authors that are looking at this subject and writing about it and thinking about it.

And one such is Madhumita Murgia, who’s written a book called Code Dependent: Living in the shadow of AI, and it’s published on the Picador imprint, which is obviously part of Pan Macmillan so it’s probably quite predictable that I was going to suggest one of our books.

Alison Jones: You were never going to give us a Penguin title, were you?

Sara Lloyd: Genuinely, I’ve hand picked this one because it’s a book about technology, but, there are some big buts. First of all, it is beautifully written, it’s a non fiction book. It’s about AI, but basically it’s about the real human impact of AI all around the world. And the way Madhu does it is so gorgeous because she writes so well. I mean, she could be a novelist. In fact, I should say that to her next time I see her.

Alison Jones: Sorry, that was such a publisher comment.

Sara Lloyd: But the way she’s done it is she’s written it almost as a series of stories where, because she’s a journalist, she’s the tech correspondent for the FT. So she is very well versed in how to go and meet people where they are and talk to them about their story and really bring that out of them. And she’s done it so beautifully.

And it’s a book that really shines a light on sort of all the dark ways that automation can affect us and ultimately warns us to chart a path of resistance to make sure that we retain our agency as human beings.

So actually, in relation to the kind of quite jolly chat that we’ve just had about AI, relatively speaking, it’s quite a dark tale, but what’s good about it is that she ends the book with 10 really helpful questions that we can all apply to our thinking when in relation to AI. So whether we’re thinking about just using an AI tool, or we want to protest some sort of use of AI that’s being used on us by, maybe it’s the government or whoever it is by, or a commercial entity, or just wanting to understand AI better. It’s really, really thoughtful, but it’s also, I think, a fantastic, it kind of ends up being something that, for someone like me working now, really thinking about how are we going to, how are we going to navigate this world of AI as publishers. It’s a fantastic aide-memoire for that, just to kind of think about those ten steps, those ten questions.

So I won’t give away what they are, because they’re at the end of the book and you’ve got to read the rest of it to get to that. And really understand why she’s saying these things, because these stories are fantastic.

And as I say, unusual, I think, that sometimes these sorts of non fiction books about quite a dry subject, like a tech subject, to be so warm and to put the humans at the centre of the story, which is exactly what we need to do with AI.

Alison Jones: Amazing. What a great recommendation. Thank you. And I hadn’t heard of it. Is it out now or is it coming?

Sara Lloyd: So, I’m reading it in proof at the moment, and it is not quite out yet, but it’s out imminently. So, on Picador. So, watch this space.

Alison Jones: And available for pre order.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, you’ll see it, have a look on Amazon for it or wherever you look for your books.

Alison Jones: Yes. Amazing. Thank you, Sara.

And it’s not quite appropriate, I guess, to say, Hey, Sara Lloyd, how do we find out more about you personally? Although you absolutely can point us to your private travel blog or, you know, whatever you want. But just generally, how do people find out more about what’s going on in AI and publishing and in Pan Mac particularly?

Sara Lloyd: Yes, so with Pan Mac, I mean Pan Macmillan has a great LinkedIn and we post lots of stuff on there. I post a lot on my LinkedIn and you can find me on LinkedIn pretty easily, hopefully. And the other place you could look is on the Pan Macmillan website, which tells you a lot about what we’re up to.

And actually, broadly, if you want to sort of really follow what’s going on in AI in a sort of publishing way, I think The Bookseller are really starting to cover this a lot more. I wrote a piece from the other day and I’m going to be writing quite a few comment pieces for them through the year, so you can follow those if you like.

But there’s lots of other people and conferences and people talking about it all the time, and The Bookseller does tend to report on that. So I think that’s the other thing and there’s some great books, as I’ve said, I’ve obviously recommended Madhu’s because that’s one of ours, but there’s also a fantastic book by Mustafa Suleyman that is probably one of the best reads, recommended by Obama on AI and that’s called The Coming Wave.

Lots and lots of great books. So there’s tons of, it’s very much a big topic on LinkedIn though, I would say, not just our channels and…

Alison Jones: You can’t get away from it, even if you wanted to.

Sara Lloyd: Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. And actually, if you are really interested as an author, then always, you know, come to the London Book Fair, come to Author HQ, there’ll be so much on it this year in March.

Sara Lloyd: Yes, there’ll be so many talks and things on it, I’m sure.

Alison Jones: Amazing. Sara, it’s such a pleasure to talk to you.

I’m sorry it’s not at King’s Cross over a cappuccino, but this is great. And thank you so much for your time today.

Sara Lloyd: It’s been brilliant. So much fun.

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