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Q&A: Philip Parker, Developer of Automated Authoring Platform

Philip Parker, founder of ICON Group International and a management science professor at Insead, has developed a patented approach to publishing that combines databases and programming with editorial management — sometimes via humans, sometimes via computers. ICON Group produces books in 17 genres, including health care, business, reference and crosswords.

In this Q&A, Parker discusses ICON Group’s computer-driven process.

How do you identify book topics?

Based on personal and research interests, I select a genre. Once a genre is selected, I do all titles in that genre (e.g. all trade categories that are officially recognized).

Are writers, editors, or designers involved at any point?

Depends on the genre, but yes, all are relied on heavily at many stages. Health guides are written by medical professionals and hand edited. The business reports have highly edited sections, but 90 percent is computer based.

What types of sources/databases do you pull information from? Are there data sources you don’t currently have access to that you think hold promise for this type of publishing?

Depends on the genre. I use the sources that are used by regular authors. For example, an economist uses well established sources to do econometrics, I use the same sources. Many companies and governments have under-utilized data sources and databases that may yield interesting genres; I have worked on the ones that I found of interest to me. I have a huge store of proprietary data. If I use a government source, this is cited, and will vary by genre (e.g. CDC for infectious disease information).

You were part of a print-on-demand (POD) panel at TOC ’08. Are all Icon Group books POD? What POD service(s) do you use?

No, not all are print-on-demand. We use LSI [Lighting Source] and Booksurge for POD. We do some POD ourselves for specialized orders.

Could your company — or a similar company — function without POD?

Yes, in fact, most of our titles are not POD, but electronic via subscription for large libraries — corporate and non-corporate.

Are all books also made available as ebooks? What ebook formats do you use?

Yes. PDF, DOC, Mobipocket (coming soon), Pocket PC.

Do researchers or clients ask you to prepare specific books?

Yes. We are able to do financial and labor studies on demand.

Mike Maznick says there’s some fairly negative feedback on some of the titles. Is that a consequence of the automated nature of the content creation? Do you feel confident people buying these books know they’re generated? Or does that not matter?

All publishers have negative and positive comments (e.g. O’Reilly). I would find it strange if our titles did not. Of the titles we have on Amazon, some 50/210,000 have real comments. Many are satirical. Of the ones from actual buyers, all publishers will receive negative and positive feedback (both can be not real, as Amazon comments are almost wiki based; posted by various people, including affiliates who are trying to sell titles).

I do not track the feedback on Amazon, but I imagine of the 17 genres (crosswords, classics, trade, outlooks, etc.), the negative ones are probably only on the health care guides, which are sold mostly to libraries and patient associations. Of all the genres, this one [health care] is not “generated by computer” — all the text is written by professionals. The computer is used for formatting and doing the index, and compiling the glossaries.

I have a feeling that the low ratings are because the person does not like the content, thinks that better content or similar content is available elsewhere (e.g. the Internet) or was hoping for more. The health guides are clearly marked as Internet guides, and they cite Internet sources. All of the guides are vetted (by librarians, etc.). If people are dissatisfied because they think the computer wrote the text in the books, then they are dissatisfied for the wrong reason, which is unfortunate.

Many patient associations have not only reviewed the books, but also recommended them to patients and families. On balance, I think it better to make these available to patients with rare diseases who wish to better know how to navigate the Internet, beyond a Google search. For the other genres, I have never received negative feedback, only positive feedback or questions about methodology.

What is your most popular title? How many copies were sold?

Our trade reports, which are purchased by consulting firms, investment banks, and companies involved in international trade. This series is very popular. We gauge sales by series, not by individual titles. Traditional publishers think in terms of individual titles.

On average, how many copies of a single title do you sell?

There are thousands held by libraries (this is public data at World Cat). Some firms subscribe to all titles. Again, we often sell series. Some [titles] sell hundreds, some sell just a few, as a part of a series sale. The prices seen on Amazon are one-off — we sell few or none of these.

For a typical title, what percentage of the total retail sale is profit?

We do not have a typical title. ICON Group as a whole makes no “profit” — all resources are plowed into R&D for new genres. The margins of the books at retail — as opposed to profit — are very low for the POD titles, and higher for the business titles. The margins for the low-priced products follow the industry, though we have lower margins as POD can be expensive compared to short-run printing.

A recent New York Times article says that each book costs you “about 12 cents in electricity.” What other costs are involved in the process?

It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, to set up a genre (programming, licensing, editing, research/analysis, etc.). Many [genres] take about 1 year to create, some take 3 to 5 years. I have been doing this for about 8 years now.

How is pricing determined?

Same as in the publishing industry. In some genres we try to equate marginal revenues to marginal costs. On lower-priced POD we make sure we cover the basic costs. On higher end, we try to be substantially below related titles (e.g. trade and outlook, and other business reports). The latter [higher end] are really not sold via Amazon much, but rather through MarketResearch.com, EBSCO (content inclusion), NetLibrary and traditional channels for those markets (direct sales).

How many titles do you plan to develop this year?

Depends on the genre. For Mobipocket (mobile books), we plan on about 68,000 titles. For others, maybe around 50,000. We are working heavily on my dictionary and animations.

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