This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on The Shatzkin Files.
Much of the change we are living through in publishing is plain as day to see. The shift from print to digital, like the shift from stores to online purchasing, is evident to all of us, inside the industry and out.
But there’s another aspect of the change that is not nearly as visible and that’s around systems and workflows. Publishing, even in the pre-digital age, was a systems-driven business. The big companies are producing 3,000 to 5,000 titles a year: each one with its own unique contract, metadata, editing requirements, and (in most cases) market. I like to observe that “each book published presents the opportunity to make an unlimited number of decisions, which must be resisted.” Most of the time the systems don’t help so much in making the decisions, but it takes a lot of support just to keep track of them all and report them to each person who needs to know!
Over the years, the companies with stronger systems have tended to acquire the companies with weaker ones. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it has most of the time. And over the years there have been stories about when publishers almost lost their business because systems broke down. The original Macmillan (now a division of Simon & Schuster) almost died in the 1960s when they fell so far behind on returns processing that they couldn’t properly dun bookstores to pay their bills. In the late 1980s or early 90s, Penguin had a warehouse crisis that was a similar existential threat. A friend of mine with a process-oriented consulting practice really made his year working on that problem.
In the digital age, systems are once again front and center. Every publisher is facing new requirements and seeing the parameters change for the old ones. Most of a trade publisher’s revenue, for at least a while longer, comes from print but the digital side is where the growth is. Systems have to support both.
Until recently, publishers ran on systems that were, primarily, housed on their own computers, either created or heavily customized by their own IT departments, and the operators in the publishing house (editors, production people, marketers, salespeople) were at the mercy of their IT department queues. If they wanted something done, they had to get on line for tech support.
And smaller publishers doing 50 titles or 100 titles or 200 titles a year had to make do with less robust, less customized, and often less capable systems even though their outputs also required thousands of decisions to be tracked and they are no less affected by the shift from print to digital.
But this is changing. Or maybe we should say it has changed. The new systems in publishing are Cloud-based. They are frequently referred to as SaaS: software as a service. They don’t live on a company’s own computers but are hosted by the service provider. They often don’t require an IT department to customize them and they certainly don’t require an IT department to keep them up to date. And the best news of all is that they are cheaper to acquire and faster to install in a company’s workflow than the systems of the past.
Within this change, there is enormous opportunity. Big publishers can sidestep the tricky question of scaling down their print-based systems and scaling up their digital ones. Small publishers can now use systems and workflows that give them capabilities equivalent to their much larger competitors.