Four Things Trade Publishers Can Learn From STM Publishers

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Unlike other media businesses, trade publishing was insulated from the ravages of digital distribution of content until a distribution system arose that could disrupt traditional channels. But in the six years since Amazon’s Kindle hit the scene, trade publishers have transformed their revenues, staffs and workflows to represent the new ebook reality of the industry.

STM publishers (that is, scientific, technical and medical publishers), however, have been dealing with digital distribution for decades, having to service its early-adopting, technology-friendly audience as early as the 80s and 90s.

As a result, STM publishers have learned a lot about digital adoption and workflows. Here are four things trade publishers can learn from STM publishers*:

1. Culture. An organization has to want to change before it can actually do so.

“You have to believe things are changing and make appropriate investments to harness those changes,” said Chet Ensign, director of standards development at Oasis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development and adoption of open standards in information industries. “The people and their attitudes are usually the biggest problem.”

A culture that works, according to Ensign, is one where continuous change is expected and the organization strives to make that change happen optimally.

It’s also important, however, to understand what kind of company you operate in and shift the culture accordingly, Ensign said, bringing up the examples of information providers Reed Elsevier, Lexis Nexis and Bloomberg. Reed Elsevier outsourced its technology needs, focusing on author relationships and brand management, whereas the other two build their own technology infrastructures.


2. Standards. STM publishers generally use the same technologies, workflows, coding languages and file formats. Trade publishers, Ensign said, should adopt uniform workflows and formats.

“Publishers should embrace and promote standards like EPUB to simplify and enhance publishing processes,” he said. “There are a lot of standards out there, but the market is beginning to choose which standards to work with.”

It’s easier said than done in trade publishing, where various retailers use different file formats (Kindle and Apple, for instance) to distribute ebooks. Retailers retain advantages in the marketplace by locking readers into using their devices or apps to read their special ebook files. So getting them to agree on one format to use may be difficult.

But, Ensign suggested, publishers could find ways to make their workflows easier by pushing retailers to use file formats similar enough so that conversion is relatively easy.


3. Technology adoption. Publishers should invest in technology early and often, according to Bill Trippe, director of technology at publisher MIT Press.

“STM publishing adopted XML over ten years ago and is reaping the rewards now,” said Trippe. “And EPUB2 has already yielded EPUB3. Whether you do it yourself with a partner, it’s worth having a base of content in that format and when new technologies emerge, it will be very easy to convert it to that new technology.”

The trade publishing industry in general may be scared by this approach because of what happened in the 90s to the book publishing industry when it invested heavily in CD-ROM, a technology that was short-lived and specializing in it had few long-term benefits.


4. Own the future. While publishers may feel they’re at the whim of the big ebook retailers when it comes to driving technology, that may not be entirely true. In fact, publishers may be in the driver’s seat.

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“As long as you control the content, you can, as new models emerge, begin to experiment,” said Trippe. “Will they pan out? We don’t know, but you can try them.”

The big caveat is that as long as publishers want to continue to do business in established channels, they have to continue to play ball with those who own those channels.

“Publishers’ future is being driven by device manufacturers,” said Ensign.

Trippe suggests experimenting with selling directly to consumers and with print and ebook bundles.

“You could come up with some offerings that are more attractive [than those offered by retailers],” said Trippe, who added some initiatives that his own employer, MIT Press, will be experimenting with, “We’re shortly to be bundling print and ebooks off of our website. I wouldn’t recommend everyone do that. It’s very hard but we have a brand advantage.”

* This post is basically a summary of a panel from last week’s Publishing Business Conference, which I attended. 

Related Content

Explaining XML: What is it, how it works and what you need to know about it (Video) 

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