Five Ways to Make Digital Pay

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

digital ebook publishing strategyFew doubt ebooks’ importance to publishers’ bottom line, particularly as print sales decline, but with ebook growth mostly flat, many still question how much further a digital strategy should go within a modern publishing business.

For every good reason publishers have to expand their digital strategies, there seems to be at least one skeptical objection. The strongest criticisms relate to the cost of scalability and the likely return on investment, based on what we know now about the current market.

I am a passionate advocate of multi-channel content publishing, and by that I mean print as well as various digital options. I think this is (or will be) the strongest driver of a renaissance in our publishing industry. But while it’s easy to trumpet the advantages of the digital approach, that’s usually not enough to answer the challenge, “What does it cost?”

So I am keen to answer as unequivocally as I can. This is the first in a two-part series of posts exploring ways publishers can make digital adjustments that make clear business sense.

Beneath all the hype and excitement, the two fundamental benefits of a fully realized digital strategy come down to the potential for cost savings and for increasing commercial opportunities. This applies most obviously to content creation and production and then to marketing and sales, but it works best as part of a comprehensive digital approach.

The cost of digital adoption comes primarily in two forms. One is technological; those costs are significant but falling all the time. The other is the price of change itself, which is much harder to quantify because there are so many variables, nearly all of them human.

As with any change and innovation, risk is always a factor. In this case, though, it’s also double-edged: Is the risk of change greater than the risk of not changing? Take digital publishing technologies. Ideally, a publisher that invests in a new production-editorial workflow, for instance, wants to offset both the cost of the technology itself as well as the human costs of training staff by other savings in the overall publishing process. If this can be done, then the argument in favor of instituting the new workflow should prevail.

Here’s a look at five key areas where investing in a digital approach can help publishers avoid paying more for failing to do so later down the road:

  1. Finding and commissioning content
    The digital environment removes most barriers to written communication and is rapidly reducing additional barriers to audio and visual communication, too. Non-professionals are writing more than ever before, and the self-publishing world is giving many former amateurs wider opportunities to hone their craft and earn income from it. That means for publishers, searching for new kinds of content and finding authors has never been easier or (theoretically) cheaper, too.
  2. Editing, revising, developing and designing content
    While it’s true that without authors there’d be nothing to edit (and, further, that authors now have more opportunities to engage directly with readers and thus increase their leverage in the book business) the publishing process itself really begins when editors start working with authors. The first big benefit of the digital revolution kicks in here, when a common language (currently XML thanks to its flexibility) is used to bring all the creative components into the same working environment. An effective digital production-editorial workflow reduces both costs and time-constraints by sharing information, coordinating the efforts of the people involved and even encouraging experimentation with new formats. Investing in the workflow is initially set against the benefits it later delivers, but the return on investment should not take long.
  3. Process control and production to print and other formats
    If No. 2 is the creative side of the digital workflow, this is operational one. In conventional publishing, process management and production teams are experts in cost-control and just-in-time scheduling. They need to bring together disparate threads into the creative process, coordinating different people and technologies for the final quality-check before the highest-cost elements of pre-press and print are incurred. Workflow management in the evolving digital environment, again thanks to XML, makes it possible to streamline all these elements, bringing significant savings in both cost and time.
  4. Covers, catalog copy and book data
    With the diversification of published formats beyond hardcover and paperback to ebooks and apps and potentially others, too, there’s an increasing risk of these vital commercial factors getting out of step. Linking these directly with the content creation and production processes, and the people involved in them, not only reduces the risk of disparity but also increases a publisher’s ability to adapt and change quickly as new opportunities arise. In the digital environment, all these can be managed as metadata, linked to the content itself. Quantifying the financial benefit of good metadata management may be difficult, but arguing against the advantages of organizing your resources is difficult, too.
  5. Publicity and marketing
    Social media platforms have emerged as the digital equivalents of “word of mouth,” which is still one of the most effective ways of marketing books. The social web complements conventional publicity and marketing mechanisms, helping to coordinate feedback and build direct connections with readers. And because the cost of exploiting the social web is infinitely scalable, it is one of the easiest digital innovations to control and evaluate for cost-effectiveness.

Keep a lookout for a second post next week when I’ll run through five additional ways publishers can make digital investments that pay off. In the meantime, feel free to weigh in below in the comments section on anything I’ve covered so far.


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