Special Advertising Supplement: Strategic Allies: Global Ebook Outsourcing: A Primer
You can't hide from it: Electronic content consumption is big and only getting bigger. While ebook sales have been steadily on the rise for the last few years, the results of the Pew Internet and American Life study titled The Rise of E-Reading (not to mention the sales numbers for Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone and Android products in the last year) suggest that the industry has hit a tipping point.
And it's not just consumers driving the paradigm shift; corporations and institutions like school districts, governments and university systems are pushing the needle from P to E, as well.
While only the most severe of futurists predict print's total demise, most publishers have accepted that digital products need to be a slice of their revenue mix, and a growing slice at that.
Yet it's one thing to recognize that change must happen; it's quite another to enact that change, especially when you can't exactly hit pause on your business while you reconfigure your workflow, to say nothing of tackling that massive backlist.
That's why many publishers are turning to the wide world of service providers who make it their business to help publishers solve digital content and digital transition issues.
The global outsource market for ebook conversion is certainly burgeoning (look no further than India's ambitious Book City—Vision 2017 initiative, essentially a publishing-centric business development zone), and there is a multitude of options—from commodity functions like conversion of print products, to full-service, end-to-end strategic partners—that can help publishers not only make the conversion to digital, but guide them in the steps beyond by keeping up with, and ahead of, the technology curve. That way, when the next disruptive technology arises, you'll be prepared and ready to move early.
How it Works
"One of the things I tell folks when they're deciding whether they should invest in outsourcing is, look really hard at your core competencies then ask yourself, is there a task that could be easily done by someone else with either no loss of quality, faster, cheaper or in some cases even better by another organization?" advises John Wheeler, Vice President of Strategy and Emerging Technologies for global, Philippines-based SPi Global. "If the answer is yes, they should consider outsourcing."
That is, of course, the golden trope of outsourcing: Isolate the things you do best. Then, so that you can really focus on those things, partner with someone who can accomplish better, faster, cheaper or more easily the areas where you're not an expert.
"Publishers long ago gave up printing," says Wheeler, whose SPi provides a full range of publishing, e-publishing, technology, content enrichment, customer service and marketing support services. "[Publishers] were printers at first, but as printing became more specialized, it turned out that someone who was doing all the printing for everyone could do it better."
It's as potent an analogy as you'll find in a time when the delivery and very nature of content is changing before our eyes.
There is, of course, a wide range of services that can be undertaken by an outsource partner, from typesetting and composition to editorial services like copy editing to e-learning solutions to conversions to technology. You can outsource as little or as much as you want.
"We can do some heavy lifting," says Dev Ganesan, CEO of India-based Aptara, a global, full-service, end-to-end content services provider. "We can deliver 25 million pages of ebooks at extremely high quality. So the throughput is pretty high. We invest heavily in infrastructure so that we can do some huge scale with high quality."
Which is not to say that you must be a publishing giant to make good use of even the biggest of outsource partners.
"On the one hand, we provide solutions and services for the large customers, where we have entire dedicated teams for certain customers, like a Wiley or a Pearson," says Sriram Panchanathan, Head of Digital Solutions for Aptara. "On the other hand, we're also working with individual authors and smaller and medium-size publishers who have a backlist of 300 or 400 titles. We offer them the same set of services."
Panchanathan likens a good outsource solutions provider to a well-designed piece of technology.
"Let's say you have a laptop or an iPad. That device could be used in a large company; the same laptop could be used by a family or by a child," explains Panchanathan of Aptara's scalability. "It's the same device, but different people are finding different uses for it. … So unless there are some very specific and complex requirements that we are unable to cater to in a cost-effective matter, we wouldn't say no to anybody."
These strategy-based partners focus on streamlined workflow—which makes big jobs and small jobs alike economically feasible.
"This is our secret sauce," says Aptara's Ganesan. "At the center of all issues is workflow. I have a team of 150 specialists who deal with content workflow."
Any opportunity to have your business assessed by a third party is, of course, a good opportunity. Especially when that assessment is coming from a company that works with some of the most successful businesses in your field. Forming a partnership not only provides strategy and services; it also allows for insight.
"What [our clients are] saying to us now is, 'Hey SPi, help me understand my business better,'" explains Gregory Sullivan, Senior Vice President, Global Sales Content Solutions for SPi. "Help me get better at this. Help me understand how to develop my whole digital strategy without throwing away print because even though it's diminishing, it's still my cash cow today. How can I keep that driving forward as well as reinvigorate and innovate?"
Partnering With Experts
Most publishers aren't technologists, which is why it can be extremely helpful to partner with a company that's committed to technology. Take global academic and professional publisher SAGE.
"[Digitization is] nothing that we would do or would ever consider doing," says John Shaw, Executive Director of Publishing Technologies at SAGE, which partners with Aptara on digital conversion and a small but growing number of other strategic areas. "[Aptara] focus on it. As our specialty is running a publishing program, their specialty is making sure they can get files into the right formats. They do a lot of it [so they are] able to focus systems and people on doing this properly.
"Most of the work is on straight conversion work, digitizing books, journals and any other products that we're trying to get online," continues Shaw. "And they can be in any of the formats for the platforms that we own, so different types of XML, an EPUB for Apple iBooks. … We've dabbled in [additional] little bits and pieces all over the place. I just opened a demo from them on an interactive ebook that we're looking at. That's a service they have been offering that's interesting to us. "
E-reading, it appears, is not going to be where the technology train stops. As devices and content consumers become more sophisticated, they're going to demand more sophisticated content, and we're not talking about just adding some video and audio to an ebook. Books, especially STM products and text and test-prep books are already becoming highly interactive. Which is why partnering with a company committed to mastering these technologies could be smart.
"In the last three years, we invested in 15 different software products, tools and platforms so that we bring constant innovation, so that we can bring productivity to the customers," says Aptara's Ganesan.
The same goes for SPi Global.
"We created and formalized a group within our organization called the innovation lab," says SPi's Sullivan. "It formalized processes where clients would come to us with issues, ideas, problems, product ideas and say, 'Hey, what do you guys think? Can you help us develop this?' So the innovation lab takes together strategists, technologists, subject matter experts, operations people, finance, marketing and says, 'OK, let's put people on projects and ideas and help develop a solution.'"
And make no mistake, when you hear talk of subject matter experts, it means that some of these companies invest in staff to ensure they best understand your specific needs.
"Within the STM space, most of these people that are publishing are renowned experts, and they're working with world-class leaders, whether it's in chemistry, biology, legal matters, financial matters," says SPi's Sullivan. "You can't just edit the English language and then produce something. You have to really understand chemistry molecules, breakdowns, formulas. You have to really understand everything you're touching if you want to move up that value chain. Within the STM world, if you want to help your client company grow, you have to invest in Ph.D. chemists, you have to invest in top legal talent, you have to invest in global financial talent. … We're like the 'Intel Within,' we're trying to be the power within our client base. "
Breaking Down Language Barriers
With the rise of e-content comes the ability to zap your content around the planet instantly. And with that will come a growing need to convert your content into the languages spoken in those far-off corners of the globe. While you might put straight-up conversions in the hands of a small, fly-by-night outfit, translation, like other strategic arrangements, requires a higher level of trust and expertise.
"We are doing a lot of work in Spanish and French. We are also beginning to see Portuguese and German," says Panchanathan. "We also have started working in Italian and Turkish, and even did some work … in Latin.
"When it comes to Chinese and Japanese, we get the work done through partners, we don't do it ourselves," explains Panchanathan. "We have not yet entered into those markets. But we are planning to get into them. It's on the road map."
Front and Back
When it comes to the question of digitizing frontlist and backlist titles, it is, of course, easier to digitize your frontlist.
"They are different workflows, but we do both," says Aptara's Panchanathan. "On the frontlist, [conversion] just happens to be an extra step in the process, [though] an additional process [you can add is] enhancing frontlist titles, adding extra assets, interactivity, audio and video."
An outsource partner can guide you in the best process for adding those extra steps and can make sure your titles are available in almost any format.
"I could get a request in from an online ebook vendor that I've never worked with before," hypothesizes Shaw, "and they can send me a format I've never seen and say they need 10 books tomorrow. I can go to Aptara and chances are, 1) they've seen the format, 2) they have somebody available, and 3) they can hit the quality and pricing I need to get that turned around within a short period. … Even if they had not seen the format, if I can provide them the sample and a specification of what it might look like, my guess is they will find a way to do it."
Backlist provides a whole host of additional issues. Some publishers have soft copies in obsolete or non-XML formats; others possess rare and degraded single hard copies that must be preserved through the conversion process. (The standard process for converting a hard copy is to cut the spine and run the individual pages through a scanner, but there are non-destructive methods of conversion, as well). But a provider will get the job done, even if it means scanning page by page by hand or, in rare instances, retyping an entire book manually.
A Game of Strategy
No matter who your company decides to partner with, the initiative needs to have support from on high.
To be successful, a partnership "needs to have a very strategic thrust. It needs to have absolute blessing and push from C-level," says Aptara's Ganesan. "If not, I've seen these things not go anywhere. You do a little bit and it levels off. It needs to be made part and parcel of the operation, not so much to save cost, but more like, 'Hey, things are happening fast and we need a partner who can understand the whole digital revolution and take us through this change."
Which is a difficult task that can be made easier with the right partner.
"Across the industry, it's understood that this has to happen," says SPi's Wheeler. "Yes, a huge amount of realized revenue is still in print. They want to bring E into it while still supporting P. It's a matter—in some cases—of these guys changing the spark plugs while the engine is running." BB