The New Skills in Publishing?

May 29, 2012 § 3 Comments

One of the more interesting sessions coming up at the Firebrand Community Conference in September is going to be a discussion of the new skills required by publishers as the internet converges as both the platform and fulfillment mechanism for books and reading.

There are many aspects to this topic. What new skills does everyone in the organization need to acquire? What skills are required of everyone entering publishing today? Do we need a new vocabulary? Do we need new processes? What things do “digital natives” inherently understand that those of us who came to the business before e-mail arrived don’t quite get?

In this disruptive time, publishers are being asked to fundamentally change the way they produce and market every product. The shift is massive for publishers, moving from where essentially business-to-business companies to business-to-consumer companies, both because they can, and because leaving it to “middle-men” is no longer having the desired effects.

What do you think?  What skills do you think you need to compete in today’s job market? What disciplines and new habits are you currently working on to be the best you can be?

For me personally, there are some old challenges that take on a new twist, and some new challenges that require iterative tweaking. Many of mine are not related to books, but just to the generally escalating speed of communication and the need for immediacy in so many things. Some of the old challenges are:

  • Managing my time – I think I’ve been working on this since I entered the workforce many years ago, but now its different. As my roles have changed the demands on my time have increased dramatically. Moving from a “do-er” to a “manager – do-er” to a “manager” causes different time management challenges. Every day there seem to be new tools and software, and retaining a single discipline over a long period of time seems nearly impossible.
  • Managing email – I’m one of those people who entered the workforce when email was only a theory on a whiteboard. Now my inbox can carry upwards of 600 messages a day. Learning to triage, and making time to triage is a constant challenge. I highly recommend Inbox Zero as a way to help, but it is still a constant challenge.
  • Understanding how and how much to engage in social media and which social media. I’ve been all over the map on this one, and it’s still a constant challenge. I am amazed at how well some people work their social media presence and have used it to elevate their own personal standing, yet it takes a fair amount of time to get it right.

Some of my newer challenges relate to understanding how other people, especially younger ones, naturally think about   things and communicate with each other. Trying to understand and engage in social media is part of this. However, there is also no denying that the traits that were important in the products and services we offer when I was selling them, are different now that median age of the customer we engage has declined.

What are your challenges?

Book Publishers Are Facing Tough Tradeoffs Managing Inventory

May 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently worked on inventory projects for book publishers and wanted to share some keyobseravtions that warrant blogging. 

  • Success in controlling inventory in book publishing now should be defined as having inventory levels dropping more rapidly than book sales, while still meeting service level targets.  Since print book sales are declining, successfully managing inventory means being able to anticipate/forecast declining patterns, yet still maintain high in-stock rates to maxmize existing demand.   More working capital can then be used to invest in the digital side of the business.
  • Decreasing inventory levels  increases the number of transactions (like printings) that are required to resupply inventory.  Obviously, printing for shorter supply timeframes means that you might, for example, print a title twice a year instead of once.  Over a large title base, this can mean a huge percentage increase in reprint transactions that have to be processed.
  • Increased numbers of transactions put pressure on staff, processes, and systems for greater efficiency.  Most publishers are very leanly staffed at this point, and may not have the bandwidth to absorb signficantly higher transactions without major problems.  Investment in better processes and/or systems could save publishers from having to make difficult staffing tradeoffs and suffering supply disruptions.
  • Based on these observations and assuming continuing declines for print sales, book publishers will increasingly face tough tradeoffs between managing their inventory relative to sales, managing their transaction volumes, and covering staff overhead faced with diminishing print sales. 

It seems counterintuitive during this digital transition away from the primacy of physical books, but book publishers that lack strong inventory systems and/or processes may need to invest soon for improved performance and sustainability.   The risk of inventory ballooning while sales fall is one that can consume working capital and pollute a balance sheet, hampering a  publisher’s flexibility to invest as needed in the digital business.  A reasonable investment in improvements can save a lot of pain in the long term.

Tim Cooper

In Search of Simpler Solutions

May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

We’ve recently been working on consulting assignments involving evaluating vendors and solutions to publishers’ issues. In every case, the publisher is looking to solve or simplify a basic problem without using multiple vendors or software packages and the Requests for Proposals also included a specification for a ‘global solution’. We weren’t looking for a front-to-back publishing system…just a solution for a specific problem.

Know what? Complete single-vendor global solutions for many typical problems don’t exist. You can find all the components, but putting together a complete package (at reasonable pricing and with a good chance of success) typically involves combining pieces from two or more vendors. This raises the price (and the amount of brain damage) significantly. There are exceptions, of course, but if you want, for example, to sort out contracts, royalties, rights and permissions with one vendor you’re, as a practical matter, out of luck.

Now, this is not a reflection on those providing products and services to the industry. They’re smart and hard-working and many of their offerings are first-rate. What it reflects is the speed with which the ground is shifting under the industry’s feet and a notion we have of ourselves that publishing is a snowflake, unlike any other business category.

There’s a big opportunity here to serve small to medium-sized publishers with light, nimble solutions to problems like global digital distribution, workflow management, rights and permissions. We tend to think that each publisher’s issues are unique and require a bespoke solution when in fact if an off-the-shelf product could solve, say, 90% of these kinds of problems, it could be immensely useful and, I’d guess, profitable. Sometimes a Chevrolet works as well as a Bentley. (If you’re interested in an example, have a look at PressBooks [pressbooks.com/about ], which uses the lightweight WordPress platform to produce multiple format outputs…avoiding the conversion process entirely).

I’m not one of those who typically calls for publishing to “think more like Silicon Valley”, but in looking for answers to some of these knotty problems, rapid development of ‘good enough’ solutions would give many publishers a chance to move ahead without taking on major projects and the attendant costs. These aren’t easy problems, but they’re not as complex as we want to believe.

Go for it. There might not be an Easy Button, but there might be some “Easier” Buttons that could be low hanging fruit for vendors.

Note: This post was previously published at http://www.baitnbeer.com by Don Linn.

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