Adapting the Team to Digital

frankfurtbookfairFrankfurt Book Fair is the world’s largest trade fair for the book industry. Held every October, it brings together all kinds of publishers from all over the world. And as with world leading shows, there are a number of ‘fringe’ events that take place in the preceding days. One such meeting is that of the UN group of publishers’ Publications Officers Interagency Meeting (PIAM for short) including organisations such as UNESCO, the International Labour Organisation, IMF and the International Maritime Organisation.

Comprised of six concurrent round table discussions on different themes, each is chaired by one of the publishers, with input from industry experts. Skillset was invited along to contribute to the ‘Adapting the Team to Digital’ session, one of several themes that included: Open Access; defining an Open Licence for inter-governmental organisations; choosing the right warehousing and fulfilment; selecting publishing management systems; and print-on-demand.

So what issues emerged from our session? The challenges the group face have more in common with the wider industry than they may have first thought…PIAM

It’s about people

There is real fear around the onslaught of digital and a strong sense that traditional craft skills will become obsolete. Will speed take precedence over quality? Is that something that has to be lived with? Are those with more experience undermined by a younger generation who are more adept at multi-tasking and being versatile?

The pace of change is about constant re-evaluation. That is a scary prospect for many people and you have to work hard to build in that level of analysis across the team. You need to consider how different people respond to training or how adaptable they are. The difficulty is often the least adaptable ones are less likely to engage and help you solve the problem. Get any opposing teams to meet and talk through the issues. It is intensive and difficult, but the only way to get beyond silos.

Many organisations now have a decentralised approach to publishing: anyone can publish any time. How do publishing departments maintain their role of in-house experts? Perhaps there is a role for publishers to train colleagues internally. Being flexible, and – at times – just getting people to work together can break down the barriers.Those with print expertise are starting to understand digital and everyone accustomed to doing web-only now has to learn about print. It’s not comfortable, but it is the way forward.

Changing the customer mindset can often be the biggest challenge. Where technology is not embedded in everyday activity of the market, there are basic levels of customer support that need to be factored in. What can they expect with digital delivery as a pose to physical distribution? You also need to manage the relationship with the authors. Help them understand the real size of the market and manage their expectations.

The wider context

There are significant challenges for many organisations where ‘digital’ has meant posting a pdf on the website with free access to all. Vendors are now asking for a wide variety of formats (e.g. ePub, XML etc). The cost of file conversion for these backlist titles – in many cases between £3-400 per title – is prohibitive. It makes the development of a credible ebook list practically impossible.

The question of investment is a pressing one. In many cases there are barriers to accessing money for staff, training and platforms. In some cases, there are no resources at all. Building a convincing case for investment is essential.

Companies such as Amazon have set the tone in terms of what to expect with a rich customer experience. Publishers now have to step up their game making recommendations and more intuitive links to sell more effectively.

There is a huge amount of communication to control, edit and/or translate. Spotting changes to compliance areas then considering how they may generate new opportunities is critical. How could the information be used and what service will work best for the market in that changing context? You need to shift from ‘create product then print/distribute’ mindset to ‘create digital content that will be distributed via various channels’.

Understanding code

It is no longer enough to know a bit about code, understanding the importance and depth of code will be key to success. When you start using XML is can look like gobbledy gook, but behind the scenes it has the power to transform your content into many formats.

One organisation provided an example: where they had outsourced their metadata work. The decision was made to bring it back in-house. But by employing a team of librarians and information specialists to manage it, they are absolutely convinced the quality has improved. This is another example of the changing skill set needed for publishing.

Start with some basics. Look at combining the data and publications back office systems. Then focus on moving upstream with XML. There are issues around DRM and security and some organisations are uncertain about how to approach this. Others outsource, but it is a challenging area for many.

Working with aggregators and third parties

Several organisations have outsourced to third parties, but it can a) be expensive, and b) the quality sometimes suffers. There was recognition that outsourcing can be good for automating a process, but some of the more specialist elements of the work are undermined in digital format.

Another risk with outsourcing is that you may cut the core skills in-house down too far. Consider what is the right balance for your organisation. It can make sense to plug internal skills gaps with external expert networks. Try outsourcing first then bring some back in as your knowledge and understanding builds.

When developing new digital products, you need to sell – or demo – them in new ways so that agents, retailers and resellers can do an effective job of communicating the benefits to the customer. Are distributors relevant in the digital age? Maybe yes for print, but perhaps not for pure digital sales. You need to consider the balance when working with digital aggregators. What are they buying and where are they selling? Are you selling in the same territory? Is ‘e’ free or is everything free except ‘e’? Digital provides an opportunity for publishers to regain a direct relationship with their customers.

Changing the publishing mindset and the need to experiment

What is the maximum potential for a manuscript or text? Talk about format AND content: get a balance between the two. Why do a format? Is it needed? What problem does it solve? The key is to find the right format for the right use and reader. Avoid the drive from industry to be digital for digital’s sake. A tick box approach can lead to a lack of innovation. Use technology to enhance and improve the content.

Where there is an internal belief that posting a PDF on the website is the most effective way to help disseminate the content to the member countries, it is incredibly challenging to secure resource commitment to try new approaches. Would it be best as an ebook? Could you provide an app that searches dynamically through your data as a query and search based product? Could your data be used in bite sized ways? Some organisations are experimenting with video and audio as well as creating mobile, iPad, Kindle, Nook and ePub with a move towards simultaneous versions. And perhaps the numbers game isn’t right: focus on quality, not quantity, to reap results.

Customers now expect a 24 hour service. Not only is that a challenge on the sales and distribution front, but also with IT back-up and helpdesk. A weekday nine to five culture is no longer enough.

So what next?

There was consensus around the challenge to adopt a consumer focus – getting inside the mind of your customer regardless of who they are – so you know what they do and need from your products. You need to provide the right technical infrastructure, be creative, have strong, experienced production teams, and underpin this with investment in systems, people and training.

One clear challenge that emerged is around understanding and keeping track of the skill sets a contemporary publisher needs. While there is a need for technical as well as more traditional publishing craft skills, how can an organisation know what is right?

Skillset is currently consulting on the update of the National Occupational Standards for Publishing. They will outline the skills and knowledge you need to publish in a digital world. This is an ideal opportunity to reflect on what’s needed. Take part and tell us what you think here.

When they are published in 2012, they should prove to be a valuable resource for the PIAM network.

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