Your Biggest Weapon: Managing Expectations

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

Emma Barnes authors publishers business strategySkills development, well-thought-through workflows, decent transactional websites, careful integrations of software using APIs, and thoughtful planning are all valuable strategies. And if you adopt a considered, strategic approach to building a publisher, you increase the likelihood that your company will still be around, relevant and thriving next year, in five years and in 10 years time. But even if you have the most efficient implementation of the right technology—even if you have the best, most elegant, most thought-through strategic plans—it still doesn’t mean that everything’s going to be OK.

There are two looming dangers you have to deal with. First, your strategic, infrastructural brilliance won’t matter one bit if your staff’s, suppliers’ and customers’ actions don’t support your plans, and second, the money spent on infrastructural changes may not be recouped for years, if at all—making your projects seem like failures, and potentially stifling any future plans to innovate and improve.

Let’s take the support you need first. Your own staff, your suppliers (authors, printers, salespeople) and even your customers may be well-intentioned, but they can sometimes hinder rather than help.

For starters, staff can be unproductive for any number of reasons—perhaps they enter the wrong data into your shiny new metadata system, or keep doing things the old way after a process review because it’s easier in the short term. No computer system can rescue you from a broken company.

Suppliers can also let you down. Printers and distributors, experimenting themselves with POD and new ways of managing the supply chain, can trip up, affecting your ability to meet your own goals. And authors can often expect the impossible, or simply be misaligned with your approach.

Finally, customers can just plain old not buy your books. This is, to be honest, more of a point about product-market fit than managing your customers, but it’s true to say that you can’t rely on readers doing what they said (or at least, what you thought they said) they’d do. And you certainly can’t rely on retailers buying your books just because they’re excellent and beautiful—because most books are excellent and beautiful to one degree or another, and bookstore shelves aren’t infinite.

The best approach I’ve come up with to mitigate these effects on your business is to try to manage people’s expectations up front.

Take staffing, for example: if I’m hiring for a role where attention to detail is paramount, I’ll test candidates on these skills before I hire them. And I’ll set up KPIs so that staff are measured on goals designed to support the company’s wider plans. Everyone’s happier when people fit their job naturally and know what’s expected of them.

What about customers? To help manage customers’ expectations, we have to help them understand our books before they buy them. I’ve been guilty of designing covers that were intended primarily to sell the book to the retailer, rather than communicate the story to the reader. It’s kept me in business to date, admittedly, but it conflicts with a desire to help readers choose their next book. Because of this, subscriptions and crowdfunding are exciting new areas to dabble in. They make us explain a lot more up front about our books before they’re produced, and customers can put their money where their mouth is, giving publishers a lot more evidence about demand in good time.

How to make authors happy, though? Authors come in two flavors: those who need to make money from their writing, and those who have a different job that pays the rent. The requirements of each group are wildly different, and it pays for them to explicitly articulate what their expectations are—financial or otherwise—so you can provide a forecast. Before we sign a contract, I explain how we work and give prospective authors a realistic royalty forecast up front. To that end, if you think the nature of the market means they’re only going to make $100 in the first five years, tell them. It may lose you the deal—they may go elsewhere—but I think it’s preferable to be realistic and under-promise than suffer the ire of authors who think you’ve let them down.

Managing people’s expectations can certainly protect against problems that your infrastructure might come up against, but we’re far from done yet.

What’s this about not making money on your infrastructure investments? If you thought that spending $10,000 on a brand new website would quadruple your online sales, you may be in for disappointment. Same goes if you think that spending time and money on a new royalties, production or metadata system is going to immediately increase your profit. Sure, these things are necessary as baseline requirements for a competent operation, but they’re not going to positively transform your fortunes overnight. So enter into these projects with your eyes open on their likely return. Spend thriftily on them and plan for the fact that infrastructural projects, certainly in the short term, are about eliminating costs rather than increasing revenues. Manage your own expectations.

Decent planning, decent tools and decent workflow can remove the overwhelming drudge of publishing operations. But make sure the people you work with support your plans. Managing expectations—your own, and those of others—is the crucial cherry on the cake of a successful strategic plan.


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