Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
As founder and CEO at Inkling, I’ve spent nearly six years working across the publishing industry at every level. In my first two posts in this three-part series, I discussed changing customer expectations then turned to examine the corporate culture challenges many publishers face. In this third and final post, I’ll explore the strategies that are clearly working for the publishers that have implemented them.
Although my prior posts highlighted the challenges the industry faces, I’m excited for the future of publishing. Everywhere I look, there’s new product innovation occurring around entertainment, learning and human communication writ large. Every established publisher has pockets of innovation, some succeeding in harmony with their organizations, some in spite of them.
As I’ve worked with my team across dozens of publishing companies, some patterns have emerged. We can see what’s working, and we can more easily explain the failures. The overarching trend? Success favors those strategies that work with the strengths and assets publishers already possess.
It’s at once obvious and subtle. When teams go with the flow, working with, rather than against, the strengths of their companies, they move more quickly. They bring partners and technologies to the table to complement weaknesses, as opposed to going it alone. And what they lack in human skill, they hire, especially at executive levels.
Here’s an overview of what we here at Inkling have seen to be working. While only a handful of the publishers we work with have adopted all of these strategies, all have adopted at least some.
Smart, Measured Steps
Winning publishers are using the content and brands they’ve got.
There’s a temptation to invent complex, technology-driven content models that would, at least in theory, necessitate the massive recreation of everyone’s content. “Chunking” and “tagging” processes can take on lives of their own, becoming massive projects to reinvent workflow, rather than customer-focused, iterative projects to ship incrementally better products.
Some publishers are iterating on their existing assets in simple, scalable ways. Elsevier wanted to provide a modern, compelling experience around their medical learning and reference book business. The digital product, called Expert Consult, was built by iterating on existing book content, adding a clean user experience, better search and interactive enhancements to the most valuable titles. Rather than requiring the complex reworking of an entire corpus of medical knowledge, it stood on the shoulders of a decade of work. Now it’s a living product with both the software and the content in continuous evolution.
Winning publishers are using off-the-shelf technology as much as possible.
The groups that are furthest along in their own reinvention are building as little new technology as possible. They’re using HTML5 powered by third-party content engines and striking deals and partnerships with companies that can provide other components of their technology. They’re reinventing no wheels.
Despite building software engineering orgs, they’re staying lean and developing only the product components that truly differentiate their offerings, like user experience, or components that gather and process user data to be mined for intelligence. For non-strategic components, like storage and workflow, they’re accepting the tradeoffs of using off-the-shelf solutions that get them 80% of the way to their wish-list, rather than searching for, or building, unicorns.
Winning publishers are hiring from outside the industry.
At Inkling, we’re increasingly working with staff at publishers who are in their first-ever publishing jobs. From other areas of media, from technology and as far afield as energy and healthcare, they bring fresh eyes and ask obvious questions that, as it turns out, often deserved to be asked. We most often see these people hired into technology roles, but we’ve seen some interesting additions to editorial teams, too.
Winning publishers have a strong central technical leader.
The companies moving most quickly have a clear technical product leader in the business who partners closely with strong editorial leaders. He or she has an integrated view of technology investments and tradeoffs, and helps editorial product leaders articulate their product visions and chart a course for iterative development.
Editorial leaders know their markets incredibly well; technical leaders know the opportunities and constraints of the software engineering landscape. I’ve observed that organizations with empowered executive peers do a better job of more quickly navigating the tradeoffs and getting products built.
Playing to a New Endgame
At the individual team and product levels, success comes from strategies that emulate small software companies—lean product development, strong technical leadership and a reluctance to build unnecessarily complex software. At the executive level, however, publishers must deploy their unique financial resources to pursue ambitious, longer-term approaches that can capitalize on existing content assets, brands and relationships, which in turn can serve as umbrellas to those pockets of innovation. The two approaches, implemented together, are complementary.
In reality, the publishing industry is an unlikely amalgam of information industries formerly unified by the concept of the book. But the book is no longer a relevant device for much of what the publishing industry has produced to entertain us, to inform us and to help us learn.
As the industry evolves, winners will join the ranks of successful software companies, looking less and less like publishers as we know them today. And yet those winners can have a much greater impact on shaping the culture of learning, literature and thought than ever before—and that’s the real endgame.