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.

New Senior Management Skills

April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Most people in senior management arrive based on some outstanding qualities that elevated them among their peers. It is rightly expected that those qualities will be the cornerstone of how that person will perform in the future.

But, what if the industry pivots on you, and you find that you need to know more about an aspect of your business than you ever thought possible? Very few senior people are secure enough to say, “Help!”. After all, wasn’t it their knowledge and skills that got them there in the first place? Shouldn’t they be omniscient (or at least appear that way to the people who work for them)?

Some will try to “pick it up as they go along”. Others, will quite frankly, fake it. Others still find people in their organizations they trust who can backup their knowledge deficiencies.  But, at some point there is no getting around the fact that you need to at least have a working knowledge in order to get by.

The most common – and commonly accepted skill deficit – is financial acumen. Hence for many years, there have been courses available like “Finance for the non-Financial Manager”. But, in the world of publishing today, there are two areas where many senior managers are lacking, and where significant opportunities abound: technology, and production. In the current publishing evolution, knowledge of these areas of the business is no longer a “nice to have” skill, it is a necessity.

The publishing world is pivoting on technology and production to the point where these areas are no longer just cost centers but the basis from which a publisher can most efficiently position his products in the marketplace. Technology and production are no longer just tools of the publisher, they are (or can be) it’s weapon in the battle for growth and profitability.

As a senior manager, you owe it to yourself and your company to become more knowledgable in these areas. Seek out trusted advisors who can help you get the knowledge you need, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or dive into the details.

As you seek your path to understanding, bear in mind the following questions:

1. What are the latest innovations in technology and production for publishers?

2. How can I leverage these in my business?

3. What are the capabilities of my own team, and what new skills do they need?

4. How will utilizing the latest innovation affect the way we bring products to market?

Learning any new skill requires learning the terms, and understanding the concepts. However, as a senior manager, you must also keep your eye on the big picture, and continue to run your business. The ever changing landscape of publishing requires that we all work hard and understand new things. Taking on this task of learning about areas that you never needed to know about will set an example for your entire organization and make you a more respected leader.

The Easy Button

March 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

We all want simple.  Sometimes simple is best, but we tend to convince ourselves, even when the data indicate otherwise, that the simplest, most straightforward answers are the correct ones. When we do that, we often find ourselves in a more complicated situation than we might have if we’d done the analysis and hard work first.

I think, in some ways, senior management at many (but by no means all) publishers want an Easy Button to simplify the route from a primarily print to a primarily digital world. It’s a trap, but not because the easy solution to any given problem could be the best. It’s because the inter-relationships of the many functions publishers have performed and will need to perform going forward are of such complexity that optimizing one process can sub-optimize the whole. So the Easy Button, however appealing, is a dangerous thing.

Because of the inter-relationships, I’d argue that structuring  publishing operations going forward is a strategic matter requiring top-down direction and oversight, not a tactical issue to be addressed by individual departments, divisions or imprints. Building from the bottom up risks duplication of effort as well as sub-optimal outcomes for the organization as a whole.

Among the most important items that need thorough review and possible restructuring for an outcome that provides the highest probability of survival and a prosperous future are:

  • Clarity on the vision and a coherent strategy for where the organization needs to be and what it wants to do going forward;
  • Are the organizational structure and the human resources in place adequate to achieve the vision and goals or is a realignment (not necessarily downsizing) required? As an example, we still see digital groups or departments in some publishing firms, almost assuring a two-track approach to products and marketing that is inherently inefficient and increasingly antiquated;
  • Are the acquisition, internal management and output of content efficient and congruent? Could more be done with title management and content management systems?
  • Is workflow optimized for content creation in multiple formats? If the organization is not ready or able to adopt a full XML workflow, can it optimize its existing workflow to assure efficient outputs complete with metadata and other discovery tools.
  • Are existing supply chain and distribution arrangements adequate for current and future outputs? Does the company have arrangements in place to serve global and increasingly mobile markets?
  • Is the rest of the marketing mix (product, pricing, positioning,packaging, etc.) aligned with new realities? Further to organizational structure, is the marketing group integrated into the process from the acquisition of content through sale?
  • Finally, is the company’s culture aligned with its vision and strategy? It’s difficult to act in an entrepreneurial and innovative environment with a culture that’s locked into a different view of what a publishing program should be.

None of these matters is easy to address as a stand-alone issue. Integrating the solutions into a coherent whole is even more difficult. Don’t fall into the trap of the quick solution or the Easy Button. Do the hard work now (and get help if you need to). It’ll pay off sooner than you think and the cost of not doing so could be steep.

Toward a New Vision of Sustainable Print Book Publishing

March 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

If print book publishing is to survive in a rapidly digitizing world, traditional models for decision-making around print must evolve into models that better fit the times.  Print book publishing has been driven by the vision of continuous growth in volume–which generally translated into selling more copies of more titles and (thus more printing).  This older vision of growth–and the fear of unfilled demand (which jeopardizes growth)– translated into a business model that sought profit primarily in economies of scale.  Ever increasing print volume led to a focus on reducing the unit cost of each print book, driving up print quantities, which further drove efficiencies in offset printing, high volume finishing (i.e., jacketing, binding, etc) and mass logistics and distribution.The reality is that print book sales in the US peaked in 2007.  The pinnacle was reached by the final Harry Potter title,  and sales of print books have declined significantly each year since.  At this point in the 21st century, preserving a model driven by print book volume growth is folly.  Instead, a new vision through ensuring a sustainable eco-system around printed books should be the goal.  Central to this new vision is a rethink of traditional print quantity decisions.

Fortunately, the conceptual model needed to replace the unit cost model is readily available for adaptation: “total cost of ownership” or TCO.  Rather than using  unit cost as the primary determinant of print quantity and profitability, TCO introduces additional inventory related carrying costs that act to constrain the attractiveness of lower unit costs that stem from  higher print quantities.

What print decision-making strategies complement a TCO model?  The most fundamental is that “less is more.”  Printing fewer copies more frequently is the basic premise.  To do this involves finding a new balance between simple p & l cost analysis (unit cost is a key driver), and a more inclusive review of the implications of purchasing inventory (TCO).  Reducing the size of inventory investment occurs transaction by transaction. TCO is an approach that requires consistency and discipline, as well as timely access to relevant demand and inventory data.  Book publishers need to realign metrics, accounting, and incentives to reinforce the TCO vision.

The drawing below shows the extent of inventory carrying costs that are in addition to unit cost.  As the shift to digital accelerates, capital, service, risk, and storage costs need to be considered with greater rigor rather than be treated as “external” to a print quantity decision (as was the case too often in the growth era).  Of all of the cost factors shown below, the inventory risk costs, primarily the risk of obsolescence, are huge in a disrupted environment.  Customer demand for print  is rapidly changing, and is much less predictable than before.

tco carrying costs

non-unit cost inventory costs

Depending on the level of activity for the title, reducing print quantities typically triggers the need for short-run digital print solutions.  Book printers need to increase their capabilities/capacity to make economical digital print books.  Publishers and their printing partners need to utilize distributed print networks to enable  printing closer to where the book is needed, saving shipping time and cost.   As more print titles move towards being considered “long tail”, print on demand services (combined with direct fulfillment) will comprise a larger piece of the pie.  TCO also calls for better demand forecasting for titles where inventory must be held.  The forecasts should be based on updated market  models that reflect the new realities of the print book marketplace.

Additionally, given shrinking print revenues for the foreseeable future, publishers are also challenged to financially support the staff and systems required to manage the print side of the business.   This could open the door to investments supporting more automated, streamlined print transactions.  Pressure to reduce staff costs could lead to mutually advantageous transfer of staff and functional duties from publishers to printers or other 3rd parties.  Whether this takes the form of limited business process outsourcing or more comprehensive vendor managed inventory programs, it’s clear that there are many opportunities for creative solutions to the challenge of sustaining the print book ecosystem.

(Part 1 of a multi-part series)

Looking at the Cloud (from Both Sides Now)

February 20, 2012 § 6 Comments

We were  recently reminded by several speakers at the If Book Then conference in Milan and again at Tools of Change, that there are new technologies now coming into broader use and applicability that allow for much richer data mining of reader behavior. Up until now, the ability to track when e-reading devices are being used, how much time is being spent on entire books and sections within the books, whether readers are finishing the book and other data has been limited to device manufacturers who typically have shared only very limited data with publishers. The benefits of mining this data could be very important for acquisition editors, marketing departments and to senior management in making decisions about what and how to publish.

For example (one provided by Mike Shatzkin at the Milan conference), knowing that readers are reading an author’s first novel straight through without breaks might suggest that further acquisitions from that author might be in order…even ahead of knowing sales figures for the book. Another example, and perhaps more compelling, is for non-fiction publishers (and particularly those in educational publishing) to know which chapters are garnering the most attention, suggesting areas of emphasis for future titles or perhaps ‘chunking’ out those sections for separate sales. If you let your imagination wander a little, you can think of a number of similar examples that could be valuable in planning and executing a publishing program.

With cloud-based reading rapidly becoming a reality, it will be possible for publishers to track this data themselves if they choose to operate (or outsource on the right terms) their own cloud readers. Obviously having one’s own data allows for richer mining to produce, presumably, better results. Such clouds could be ‘built’ by publishers but are more likely, in our opinion, to be licensed from third-party ‘white label’ providers. We are aware of at least one company, 24 Symbols, that is already beginning to license such a service.

We’ve long argued that data is critical in driving successful publishers and will be even more so in the future. The developments discussed in this post bear following. The reality isn’t that far away.

We’ll leave you with one open question: How will readers respond?

Take Control of your Operations

February 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Let’s face it.  Being a publisher today is a much different thing than it was even five years ago.  Virtually every aspect of the publishing process, from the time a work is selected for publication until a consumer is reading a finished version, has been affected by new technologies.

Just to name a few innovations from recent history that come to the front of mind when thinking about all this change:

  • Centralized distribution  – eliminating the warehouse freed financial and intellectual capital that could be put into content publication
  • Short Run Digital Printing – changed the way composition was done, and made us rethink print runs
  • Print On Demand – made us rethink inventory strategy
  • Title Management systems – have become almost as essential to publishers as order processing systems used to be.
  • Electronic metadata feeds – puts our marketing messages on ecommerce sites
  • Ecommerce web sites – radically changed the way books are sold
  • Electronic catalogs – made life easier for retail buyers
  • Electronic galleys – have helped expand the opportunities to create a buzz about individual titles
  • Social Media – has created unprecedented opportunities and challenges in how to market titles
  • Search Engine Optimization – changed the way customers discover your content
  • An explosion of new reading devices and content formats

The point is that in the face of all of this change, most companies have taken each innovation on, one at a time, and layered new processes on top of their old processes while waiting for things to “shake out”. Some things have shaken out, but others won’t ever.  Some of the changes are temporary and others permanent. Yet, most publishers still have all of the layered processes in place. This often leads to a redundancy of effort, and a frustrated work force.

The most progressive publishers we see are those that have an ongoing endeavor to constantly review their internal operational processes and eliminate the layers wherever possible.  The CEO or COO usually chairs internal review committees – a group that meets regularly to review the processes in place in individual departments – and holds them up to the new realities of the day.

These publishers understand that in order to compete in today’s market, the efficiency of which products move through the editorial, production, marketing, publicity, and sales departments is critical to their survival.  There is no longer the luxury of having artificial boundaries between these groups.  Everyone needs to be on board and work together.  In order for that to happen, each group needs to be constantly re-educated in what it means to be a publisher, and that can only come from the people at the top of the organization who own that overall vision.

So, join the vanguard! Publishing is much different than it was five years ago, and it will be much different five years from now. Constantly reviewing your internal approach is the only way to incorporate all of the challenges that lie ahead.

 

The Power of Observation: Applying the Heisenberg Principle to Consulting

January 31, 2012 § 2 Comments

I firmly believe in the power of external consulting to cause change in companies.  I say that from experience, but can explain it with a scientific principle.   It is the Heisenberg principle of the observer effect–the impact that an observer has on the observed.

According to Wikipedia, “The observer effect …, relates to the influence the observer has on a system… This means that the type of       measurement that we do on the system affects the end state of the system.”

Consultants are obvious observers, newly and consciously introduced into the enterprise eco-system by management.    Consultants have an immediate, sometimes  visceral impact, on the organizations that deploy them .  The question is, how can the impact be leveraged for best effect?

The best clients leverage the presence that consultants have to best effect.  They communicate proactively about the pending engagement with the key players in their company.  They show their organization that they are serious and willing to commit resources.

The best consultants harness their presence to get information and connect with the key players.  They channel positive energy and try to use it to uncover barriers.  As they absorb more information, they begin to test hypotheses about how to orchestrate the changes needed, whether process or organizational.

The best results bring the observed into a new state, one that is more cohesive, productive, and committed to achieving common goals.  The strength of the Heisenberg principle, and consulting in general, is in leveraging the impact made to organizations by observers.