The Right Tool for the Job

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

The Right Tool for the Job“What you have to understand about us,” says every publisher ever, “is that we are a little bit different. We’re not like everyone else.”

I talk to a wide range of publishers about their workflow and processes, and it’s true that each publisher’s route to market is crafted to suit their particular style, culture, genre and habit. But there are, however, some overriding themes that emerge across publishing programs. And there are discrete types of tools that can be usefully applied at different points along that workflow.

The earliest part of the publishing process is also the vaguest. The sketchiest editorial ideas exist in commissioning editors’ heads and notebooks; ideas for new projects emerge in scattered conversations at conferences, in pubs, on emails. In this primordial-soup-like stage, you want to capture the idea so it’s not lost, but you don’t want to have to enter masses of data into a system about something that may be as vague as “series of books about poultry in art history.”

Systems that allow you to capture the essence without much detail are useful here—but which ideally can be added to as the idea grows and takes on a more solid form. Trello, a card-based system, is good for this, as is Pipedrive. These tools are based on the Kanban system developed by Toyota in the 1970s to help manage manufacturing processes, and are time-tested to be pragmatic and good at moving items along a process. In our commissioning process, brevity of data entry, coupled with data integrity, is a great asset.

As an idea takes shape, more data needs to be added so that the commissioning team can take the idea to the editorial decision-making stage. At this stage, we consider both the editorial and the financial arguments: the words and the numbers. In the absence of an actual publishing management system, Google Docs and Google Sheets are remarkably helpful tools here. Think of them as Microsoft Office tools that a team of twenty can edit simultaneously. Literally, simultaneously! You see your team members’ edits appearing on the page in front of you. The de-duplication of effort is a great step forward compared to emailing different versions of spreadsheets around, and it’s a great initial exercise to encourage often autonomous team-members to learn to collaborate. Your mantra here should be “one version of the truth.”

After sign-off, you’ll prepare a draft contract to begin negotiations with the author or agent. Again, an integrated publishing management system is the gold standard here, but in its absence there are some document collaboration systems which are truly superb. It’s worth checking out PandaDocs, which allows you to create documents, such as proposals and contracts, from templates, and then mail them to recipients. The best bit is that you can see not only when the recipient viewed the document, but also the percentage of time he or she spent on each page. You can digitally sign the contracts and manage the back-and-forth negotiation with elegant comments, notes and discussion threads.

Now on to manuscript development and the start of the selling-in process. At this stage, there are a lot of moving parts, but there are particular pieces of data that can dramatically affect a wide range of people. Let’s take the manuscript delivery date, or the pub date: if either of them changes, the team members affected range from goods-in and sales to third-party distribution services, your print buyer and the PR team. A beneficial tool here is Slack, a team-messaging app that integrates with any number of services. It’s trivial for any software to integrate with it, too, so there’s no reason why you can’t use it with your existing infrastructure. You can get growl-type notifications that pop up, if you like, or, if you prefer not to be interrupted throughout the day, you can review notifications in batches. So the whole team can be alerted to a slipped date without having to be emailed, or having to log on to a scheduling system.

When we get to the production stage, the process tends to become a bit more predictable. At this stage, we tend to do the same sorts of things, again and again: briefing typesetters, designers and proofreaders. First proofs, second proofs, corrections. Confirming the print quantities. Our processes tend to form a series of dependent, repetitive, ordered tasks, and Gantt chart schedules are great for managing these. I also like seeing dates in a human-friendly format, such as on a calendar. If you use systems that express dates in the iCal standard, you can see dates in Google, Outlook or other preferred calendar programs. CapsuleCRM does this quite nicely and is great for managing multiple complex projects.

Tying the whole publishing process together requires some underpinning software: systems that span the entire process of publishing. Accounting software is a good example. I use FreeAgent, and Xero is another excellent choice for 2015. Both systems have beautiful, flexible APIs, which means they integrate with tools like Float for cashflow analysis, Shopify for e-commerce, CapsuleCRM for customer relationship management—in fact, I counted over 100 integrations on a Google search. Compare that to a client-server tool where your only options are .csv files bouncing around the place: more expensive, less flexible, less beautiful, less functionally rich.

The trick to using software productively is to ensure that you use as little of it as possible to limit the complexity of your infrastructure, and that the software you do use plays nicely with its companions. The tools we’ve looked at here all benefit from beautifully-crafted APIs that allow them to be integrated with other tools. That means that you enter data in one bit of software and it magically appears in another, saving time and avoiding duplication.

Whatever tools you decide to use, make sure you pick ones whose developers have paid as much attention to how their product works alongside other software as their core offering.


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2 thoughts on “The Right Tool for the Job

  1. ebookdesignworks

    Good article about workflow and business processes. Creativity without organization can be a bust. I am very much impressed with the features of PandaDoc and will check out FreeAgent. Integrated accounting and tax management is always a challenge. You didn’t speak to any integrated project management systems. We used to use Basecamp, but switched to TeamworkPM just over a year ago. It really helps to keep everything in one place—even for customers who only want to use it through their email client. And it has a great scheduler with terrific Gantt charts.

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