By Rebecca Smart, Managing Director, Osprey Publishing/Shire
In her excellent, practical article A Clear, Easy Roadmap for Change, Edwina Lui gave a great summary of a model for effecting change.
But what is the nature of that change for us in this period of turmoil? Is it just a case of creating e-books of everything and optimising your workflow? Do you throw precious resources into creating multimedia iPad works (check out The iPad Won’t Save the Publishing Industry from Itself for a scathing take on this)? Or do you take the Mike Shatzkin worldview, accept that you won’t be able to sell content at all in the future and go for amassing community eyeballs, then think about how to monetise them later (OK, I’m taking this to its extreme, I know)?
Digital is the challenge to our industry, but selling digital content is not the only response to that challenge. I don’t know what your business will look like in five years; I don’t even know what mine will look like. I do believe that if they are not different in nature from how they are today they will most definitely be smaller.
At Osprey we are experimenting in a number of different directions and on a range of scales – some projects are digital, some are diversifications of other kinds. My mantra is “more bigger experiments” – bigger doesn’t mean more expensive, it means more challenging to the status quo.
We have a strong presence in one niche, military history, and we’re rapidly developing a following for UK heritage material of a particularly eccentric kind under the Shire brand. There are other niches in the works, some of which may be surprising; suffice to say that our focus is on specialist, enthusiast niches where participants have a real hunger to pursue their interest and authors have a hunger to be recognised by their peers. That hunger drives customers to tell us what they want, to tell us when we get it wrong, when we get it right. It allows us to build strong relationships with people, to develop partnerships with other organisations working within our niches where we can join together to create something new and different.
One of our biggest successes in the last two years came out of a partnership with a game developer; we created a lavish print product in a sector where there had been very little lavish print and a lot of unprofessional online and photocopied material – the gamers were crying out for a lovely product and we were delighted to create it for them.
We thought hard about what Osprey could be as a digital product; at its heart it is an amazing encyclopedia of military history currently published in around 1500 books. So we’ve created an online database, initially of our artwork to help us make the inevitable mistakes at minimum cost, and we offer memberships which give access to the artwork, discounts off physical purchases and exclusive offers on products from other companies. We sell books direct to consumer and have done so for many years. We have sold a few e-books (all our books are highly illustrated so until now it’s been PDF) and created a small number of iPhone/iPad apps. We have tweeted title acquisition meetings.
Publishing and the Permanent Crisis
In their HBR article about the recession, Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky talk about fostering adaptation (about ‘developing next practices while excelling at today’s best practices’) not from initiatives dreamed up by the top management team but from the ‘accumulation of microadaptations originating throughout the company in response to its many microenvironments’.
The keys are the words ‘many microenvironments’ and ‘throughout the company’.
If you perceive that your only environment is that encompassed by your current supply chain then you’re only going to adapt to changes in that environment – so the response to the digital challenge viewed in this way would be to create and sell e-books. If you put the consumer at the heart of your thinking you can consider instead each group of customers you serve and what they might want on top of what you already provide, how they might want you to serve them differently in the future. More to the point, you can ASK them, listen and respond.
The best way to ensure that experimentation takes place is to push leadership out through your company. Those closest to the consumers are those best-equipped to come up with the ideas for future experiments. One of the experiments beginning at Osprey right now is a digital-only project in a new niche which was conceived and is being driven by two of our marketing team.
Leaders need to let go, to accept that we don’t know best. Our role is to create the environment in which a sense of urgency around experiments is engendered, to accept and allow failure, to encourage iterative improvement and speedy adaptation, to facilitate information flow throughout the organisation: to orchestrate a process of improvisation, a dance in which the aim is to fail better, cheaper and faster so that we can all work out what will succeed.
Rebecca Smart is President and Managing Director of Osprey Publishing, the largest specialist military history publisher in the world. She has worked at Osprey for 11 years and was instrumental in creating its online membership scheme which delivers existing content to fee-paying subscribers alongside discounts and other exclusive features. Osprey’s web community is extremely active, with customers participating in the creative process by contributing content and feedback.