DBW Profiles: Sanj Kharbanda, VP, Digital Strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

By Matt Mullin, Community Relations Manager, Digital Book World | @mrmullin

Beyond the workshops, presentations, and panels at Digital Book World Conference + Expo, there are numerous benefits to meeting with your colleagues to network and trade experiences. As part of our ongoing DBW Profiles series, we’ll introduce you to the kind of innovators you’ll encounter on the show floor January 23-25, 2012 in New York.

In his role as VP, Digital Strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference, Sanj Kharbanda (@sanjjk) has had the opportunity to work on every major concern for a digital publishing, from web and product development to marketing and e-commerce. This gives him the opportunity to be what he calls “an internal and external digital evangelist,” helping authors and colleagues to improve workflow and tell stories across multiple channels. This has been no easy task, as HMH’s business includes many titles that have traditionally been difficult to render well on devices, including picture books and complex layout titles.

This week, we asked Sanj for insight into the issues most affecting publishing.

When you’re looking to create new digital products, like enhanced ebooks, apps, or something else entirely, how are you making strategic assessments on where to focus?

I see ourselves as storytellers and when we look at creating digital products, we always answer these questions before we proceed:

Are we creating a better reader experience?

Does this retain the author’s original intent?

We would never want to add videos to a book just because we have them or gamify a book because technology permits it. We don’t ever want to create a product because of a device or because a platform allows us. We want every digital product we create [eBook+ (HMH’s version of enhanced ebooks), digital apps, etc] to take advantage of the device capabilities but we always keep the content first.  After we’ve answered those questions (in the affirmative) we focus on the audience and work on the best way to bring the digital version to market. For instance we are about to release a new Jacques Pepin title, Essential Pepin, and we chose to embed a few select videos. These clips illustrate some techniques and enhance the reader’s experience without interference.

What other publishers and media professionals have inspired your digital strategy?

I get inspiration from many, many different sources: from business & technology leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, from our partners including B&N, Overdrive and others, from the DBW community including [Mike] Shatzkin, and from industry colleagues.  Most importantly I get inspired daily by our authors and their amazing writing, by our editors and their vision and by all my colleagues and their incredibly passion for and dedication to what we do.

Are there any aspects of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt business that have proven challenging to develop digitally and how are you overcoming that?

A significant percentage of our business is kids’ books (picture books), and complex layout titles (cooking, field guides). Due to standards and device limitations it has been almost impossible to create in reader friendly formats. Standards are evolving, devices have improved and we have already made great strides. We are working on changing our workflow so that digital can be one of the outputs from the process. We are already doing XML first for many of our titles and we plan to expand.

Do you feel there’s a different dynamic between Marketing, Editorial, and Production due to digital?

Publishing has always had a assembly line/conveyor belt approach—one stage followed the other (acquisition, editorial, etc). We were already seeing a trend towards a more agile process but digital has clearly sped up that process. This will lead to fewer silos, flexibility, the ability to be opportunistic, and ultimately a better, more timely experience for readers.

One aspect of your job is to work on channel development at HMH trade – what have been your recent successes in that area?

We have had a good year. We’ve added vendors and expanded our presence in certain market areas. I am very proud of the work we are doing with our picture books. We have had our titles on the Nook Color and the Apple platform for some time and HMH will continue to grow those portfolios. We are also working to get our titles on many of the soon to be released devices.

What skill sets have you and your staff had to acquire in order to publish digital products?

Patience! But seriously, we have had to become better communicators, improve our technical skills, increase our ability to manage multiple, changeable priorities, and learn to live in two industries: tech and publishing.

In a world that may someday be predominantly digital, how does that change your priorities over the next two years?  

If anyone looks at how other media has fared, and the rate of device adoption, it becomes abundantly clear that publishing has a very small window to make changes and adapt to the new reality. We are still storytellers and our content has always been, and will continue to be, our main priority.  But we do have to become more nimble, improve and update all our processes, and create workflows that look at more than print.

How do you see the relationship between publisher, author, and reader evolving?

I see everyone getting closer: a stronger link between publisher and reader, more collaboration between author and publisher.

On what single challenge do you think publishing should focus more attention?

There are so many challenges that we need to work on:  better metadata, territories and rights, improving the reader experience, content fidelity, XML workflow and more. However, the most important aspect we need to focus on is training.  Publishing needs passionate book people who are comfortable working with digital products all the way from conceptualization to market.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in publishing?

This is one of the most exciting times to be in publishing. The industry has seen more changes in the last 18 months than it has seen in decades. But, if you can’t handle moving cheese…

What are you reading and in what format?

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco in print and digital formats. Now if I can only figure out how to sync the print and digital copies!

Don’t forget to register for Digital Book World Conference + Expo, where you’ll meet professionals like Sanj and hundreds more. Register now – early bird savings of $400 expire on November 1st.

Have someone in your organization who is doing big things for your digital business? Send an email to Matt Mullin with a name, title, and an explanation why he or she is changing publishing.

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