Tipping the Editorial Apple Cart

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

digital publishing strategies book editors Inkling Matt MacInnisAs founder and CEO at Inkling, I’ve spent nearly six years working across the publishing industry at every level. In my first post in this three-part series, I discussed a few key ways the market has changed. In this second post, I’ll share my tech-centric perspective on the challenges publishers face in transforming themselves. In my next and final post, I’ll share the strategies I’ve seen some companies employ that seem to be working.

Software is at once the existential threat and the messianic savior of the publishing industry. Publishers that pursue transformation strategies and successfully reinvent themselves as software companies will thrive, propelled by the value of their content assets and skills.

This is no simple feat, however. Coupled with the backdrop of financial, technical and market challenges, one overarching challenge makes any publisher’s transformation especially daunting—corporate culture.

Corporate culture shows up across any organization in a million small ways. It’s the set of reflexive behaviors, like default settings, that companies develop over time. It influences everything from how the company hires and how it interacts with customers to the way it develops its products. Corporate culture is the result of countless subtle inputs over time, and as many CEOs have discovered, it’s profoundly difficult to change.

But culture is precisely what must change in today’s publishing industry. From stem to stern, the most successful publishers are rethinking risk tolerance, speed of development, the opinion of the customer and even the structure of their companies. Although culture isn’t good or bad, it can certainly be right or wrong for what a company is trying to accomplish.

So what are the symptoms of a culture that’s ‘wrong’ for building the future of the industry? There are many, but here are the three reflexive behaviors I’ve observed most often.

1. The Kitchen Sink Reflex

In software, it’s best to ship as simple a product as possible, as quickly as possible. Software can do virtually anything; there are countless ways to solve any problem. So it’s notoriously difficult to design an optimal solution without testing and iterating. Incremental approaches to development produce better results than big, comprehensive first-time products, beginning with a “minimum viable product,” or MVP.

In publishing, the opposite has been (understandably) true. With a book, everything is delivered all at once, and it’s immutable after it’s shipped. Revisions to titles are only made if the product was successful, and only if there are still people out there to buy new copies. If the first edition fails, everyone moves on. With a book, “minimum viable” often includes the kitchen sink.

Many publishing professionals unwittingly apply this mindset to their software processes, developing big lists of features with ship dates a year or two into the future. This rarely works. Most early-stage software companies, by contrast, ship their first version of a product within months of founding. Publishers can do that, too, but editorial and technical teams have to work collaboratively to define simple, testable products.

2. The Outsourcing Reflex

A few decades back, in the heyday of desktop publishing, publishers were centers of intense innovation, leveraging new software to move from analog layout mechanisms to digital ones. Experimentation with tools like Aldus PageMaker and Quark Xpress led to entirely new workflows. Initial investments, while expensive, yielded exciting results in both the products and the financial efficiencies of the publishing process.

Over the ensuing years, publishers adeptly outsourced the non-strategic parts of their digital workflows. More and more work was done offshore and less of it in-house, and the institutional knowledge of these methods largely dissipated. Business process outsourcing (BPO) companies now own many of those core processes, with publishers providing inputs and receiving outputs, such as illustrations and page layouts.

It’s within that environment that publishers today confront the completely new problem of constructing digital content and products, and they haven’t yet figured out how to do it at large scale. Meanwhile, these same BPO companies are asked to ‘solve’ the digital content problem. They try, but these companies are skilled in process optimization, not in initial problem solving, especially when the end product isn’t yet fully understood by anyone.

When publishers reflexively outsource these supposedly non-strategic processes, the outsourced work is either frustratingly poor in quality or impossible to scale up. Instead, publishers themselves must first invest in the problem-solving, just as in they did in the ’90s with desktop publishing. Only then can the optimization of outsourcing begin.

3. The Editorial Hegemony Reflex

I’ve often marveled at the power editorial teams wield within publishers. They’ve traditionally controlled budgets, product roadmaps and sales teams, all in one. Talk about influence! But this cultural hallmark is unattractive to engineers and designers, who expect to be at the center of the discovery and decision-making processes of a software company. It’s the age-old MBA-meets-engineer cliché on the grandest of scales: “I’ve got a great idea, all I need is an engineer to build it for me!” Alas, the engineer, if she’s smart, has her own ideas.

The publishers that successfully shift their internal cultures to be technology-driven, rather than editorial-driven, will more quickly adopt methods and practices that favor the transition from publishing to software. These companies will, in turn, attract better talent. And the virtuous cycle will accelerate.

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Some publishers are making impressive headway in their reinvention, and for those, the most profound shift is occurring in the culture of those companies, not just in their strategy or technology. It helps to ship smaller products more quickly, to innovate before optimizing and to put technical leaders in charge. That last one is a doozy, to be sure, and it upsets a lot of apple carts. But it’s an absolute must.

In my third and final post, I’ll share the most successful strategies I’ve seen in the industry to date as many companies have begun to shift significant parts of their organizations toward away from book publishing and toward a technology-centered frame of mind.

Learn more: Read Matt MacInnis‘s first post in this series, “How to Survive the Death of the Book

8 thoughts on “Tipping the Editorial Apple Cart

  1. James Dennis

    The section on \The Editorial Hegemony Reflex\ is, alas, disappointingly vague and falls back too quickly on empty rhetoric. This is your call to arms? We need better from you than just contempt for the editorial profession. Maxell Perkins did good things, and so can digital editors.

    Reply
  2. deb smith

    Leave it to a tech guy from a semi-successful start-up to downplay the vital role of editors and suggest they be marginalized. In my experience working with editorial departments at major pubs, the vast power was and is held by the bean counters and marketing people, not editorial.

    Reply
  3. Michelle Witte

    When you get those monkeys typing out Shakespeare on a steady basis, then we can talk about replacing editors with software.

    Reply
    1. Matt (Author)

      Ha! I love it. I’m not implying that we need to replace talented editorial staff with software. I am, however, suggesting that software products require software product management expertise, which most editorial professionals lack. The balance of power must shift, but the editorial role must remain strong and influential.

      Reply
  4. Ian Collier

    I think it’s an amazing article, and I didn’t read any attack on editorial roles in there at all. It’s a rally cry for clarity and properly placed ownership. It’s also about generating properly defined zones of expertise which in fact are zones of comfort too. Everyone working in publishing should not only desire this but realise that they deserve it. When it comes to digital product development within publishing businesses there needs to be a clear distinction between product, production and technology, as three points on a wheel of collaboration. Product knows the market and customers and content and can bring understanding of users and their needs and content and a clear vision around that. Technology and Production can work with that vision to take the conversation onto the next point, about how we come up with a product proposition that meets needs and delivers benefit. And then we can plan exactly how we go about creating it and look after it properly as we go through production stages. The story starts at its proper place and gets it’s proper heart – a vision that’s connected firmly with our understanding of the customers, the users, their needs. And then (and only then) we move on to the rewarding, collaborative space in which all teams work together to create something successful that they can be proud of.

    Reply

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