NEW - Digital Directions: Your Digital DNA
I started working with digital content 25 years ago, developing interactive products for publishers and other content organizations in New York City. I worked in small media and technology development firms, without much to speak of in terms of infrastructure. I imagined that the larger publishing organizations for which we developed products all had robust systems for the management of digital content.
Ten years later, a large textbook publisher hired me to lead a media and technology group and I learned otherwise.
There was no systematic approach to the management of digital assets. Following the printing of a textbook, digital assets were stored on a variety of offline media (SyQuest, anyone?), and put in a shoebox or some similar receptacle under the production editor’s desk. As I later learned, it was not that unusual a circumstance in the industry.
Content management was off the table as a strategic priority. The reasons were clear:
• Outsourcing of compositing and printing put staff in a position where they were only indirectly involved in the final stages of book production. This yielded quite a savings, but publishing organizations were no longer directly involved in managing digital assets.
• Second, there was no compelling business rationale for a comprehensive digital asset management system, other than some nebulous claims on efficiency. There was no product payoff for maintaining the digital components of books. Why? There was no electronic book marketplace, as we know it today. Plus, these works contained a large number of one-time use, licensed third-party components preventing their use in derivative products.
• Finally, the mission of the organization in thought, word and deed was in the creation of physical books only. The digital elements used in the creation of the physical book were considered an incidental byproduct.
The situation has changed today. There has been a significant and demonstrable shift, putting the management of digital content assets in focus as a key publishing function. This is not just a matter of administrative housekeeping, but is integral to the ongoing success of a publishing organization.
This shift has been caused by digital distribution—both the distribution of salable electronic content, as well as the dissemination of content to support online marketing programs through search engines. These activities are neither optional nor speculative, and they require us to manage digital assets in a systematic way.
The question remains: To what degree do our organizations need to change in order to meet this new requirement for managing our digital content?
Perhaps very little. There are no shortage of service providers available to handle every aspect of the creation, stewardship and distribution of digital content. Digital asset management and digital asset distribution partners provide key benefits:
• economies of scale
• reduction of time to market
• technical and process expertise.
Perhaps we can handle the asset-management function with relatively little organizational disruption. Perhaps we can simply have our digital files sent from the book compositor to an asset-management service provider, who will maintain these assets, perform any necessary transformations upon these files, and transmit them to the appropriate channel partners.
Our world unfortunately is rarely as tidy as we would like.
When determining an outsourcing approach, organizations need to review the tasks involved and decide which tasks are among core functions and which are not.
Core functions are those in which we add particular value, and our ability to do so may differentiate us from our competitors. Core functions are our focus and should be done in-house.
Non-core functions are those that are outside our focus, are commodity activities, and are not areas of competitive differentiation. Non-core functions should be assigned to service partners.
Clearly some functions are not core to publishing organizations, such as setting up a server farm for digital file storage. But there are many aspects of digital asset management that are core functions and need to be done in-house:
• Chunking of content, an editorial process that breaks up the content into parts, that can be licensed, distributed, combined and used in new ways.
• Creating descriptive metadata. While this sounds technical, it really is not—no more so than compiling catalog information, albeit in a more structured fashion. Metadata allows the content to be distributed, discovered and used by specific communities and marketing channel partners.
• Creation and management of device-specific book-design style sheets that allow the product experience to be consistent across a variety of delivery platforms.
• Rights clearance to enable the delivery of content in a variety of formats, devices and combinations.
Editorial. Marketing. Design. Rights clearance. These are core activities, electronic or otherwise, that should remain within the publishing organization. Publishing organizations that do not directly manage how their content is chunked, tagged and designed will relinquish control of the quality of their digital offerings and the ways in which they can be marketed. They also will relinquish this control—and therefore control of the marketplace—to other parties that understand the strategic value of these functions.
Publishing organizations need to take overall responsibility for digital asset management. Their future may depend upon it.
How then to avail ourselves of the advantages of digital asset service providers and not commoditize ourselves out of existence? It can be done and, I think, must be done in order for us to realize our digital opportunities economically.
Not every task needs to be performed in-house, but some of them do. More importantly, publishers need to take overall responsibility and have an understanding of how to effectively work with digital assets.
Like many, I don’t believe the physical book is going away anytime soon. It is a great content delivery vehicle. However, we must treat digital files with the same reverence as cloth-bound volumes. Digital assets are the DNA of our content—DNA that can be expressed in a variety of ways: physical book, e-book, within online services, delivered via RSS feeds, and so on. Asset management is all about the stewardship of the digital DNA. And it is a core function of the publishing organization.
Andrew Brenneman is managing director of Finitiv, a digital media consultancy. He has 20 years’ experience leading pioneering digital media initiatives in publishing and advertising, including NETg’s Skill Builder, Thomson Learning’s WebTutor, FreeMark Mail, and MsDewey.com. Brenneman also founded the Digital Media Group of The University of Chicago Press Books Division, where he led digital distribution for the Books Division and the development of The Chicago Manual of Style Online.