How Book Publishers Are Transforming From Within
This article was initially published in the Spring issue of Book Business. You can view the complete issue here.
In the decades since the ebook was invented and years since the web became the main conduit for information distribution, publishing companies have undergone massive organizational changes in order to create and distribute books -- or more accurately, “content” -- in new ways. Publishers have implemented new processes, invested in the latest tools, and recruited fresh talent to meet the growing demand of digital content.
Often the new tools publishers have adopted couldn’t simply be tacked onto the traditional publishing workflow, but rather called for the development of entirely new workflows and expertise. And the transformation is far from over. To keep step with change, publishers must continually adapt to disruptive devices and technology that enter the market. The rapid pace of change can be disorienting, and book publishers are challenged with finding the proper focus and determining where their time and money is best spent.
At the Book Business Live: Executive Summit on Digital Publishing, held in New York City in March, leading publishers from the trade and education sectors gathered to share insight on how they’re managing change and working to reorient their organizations. During the panel “Transforming Your Company for the New Era of Book Publishing,” speakers were asked what maneuvers their organizations are making to thrive in an era of flux.
The panelists, hailing from Pearson, Hachette, and McGraw-Hill Education, often shared differing views on how to manage change and to what extent they should invest in new technologies. In part that is a reflection of the differing goals of education and trade publishers, as well as varying philosophies on navigating market disruptions. Ultimately, though, it was apparent that all three panelists have had a hand in developing digital-focused, multi-channel publishing and that they view internal transformation as an imperative for future success.
Featured on the Book Business Live panel were Phil Madans, executive director of digital publishing technology at Hachette; Clancy Marshall, vice president of core platforms at Pearson; and Zach Posner, senior vice president of the School Group at McGraw-Hill Education. Joe Wikert, director of strategy and business development at Olive Software, moderated the session.
Following is an overview of the key points for the panel. Full audio of the event can be found here.
What Drives Change?
Each executive had a unique take on initiating change within his or her business. At Pearson, where focus has increasingly been put on digital learning products and platforms as opposed to print texts, it is important that strong partnerships lead technology changes, said Clancy Marshall. “We were not born digital at Pearson, so we’re looking for partners who have actually started with digital business models. We want to partner with those companies in a more meaningful way. That’s how we’re looking to transition our business.”
Marshall also emphasized that there’s a big difference between a vendor and a partner. “A vendor is an individual product team that we hire to create something for us. It’s kind of a one-off. We’re moving away from this because we’re not getting maximum value from anyone.” To get the most out of their partnerships, Pearson is seeking providers that can work across their systems rather than provide a single tool or solution. This partner approach also allows Pearson’s teams to work more nimbly, because they only need to collaborate with one solution provider as opposed to five or ten.
At Hachette, the objective is to increase the amount of digital production completed in-house. Early on, entrenched print production models forced Hachette to largely outsource digital conversion of its PDFs and create multiple EPUB versions for each platform format. “Our vendors were creating formats from formats instead of formats from content,” explained Phil Madans, which often led to lower quality ebooks riddled with mistakes. “If you want to build an airplane, you get airplane parts to build it. You don’t get a Chevy Malibu, pull it apart, and try to build an airplane out of it. You’re going to have issues with that.”
In light of this realization, Hachette’s strategy has increasingly been to bring digital production in-house and develop a plethora of content outputs from a single source. The publisher began transitioning production in-house five years ago and it is still on-going, but Madans suggested that having in-house control over content creation is worth the long-term investment. It has given Hachette greater flexibility to change formats on the fly and reuse content in order to create new product offerings.
Zach Posner of McGraw-Hill Education advocated for yet another strategy to shift an organization toward digital publishing proficiency -- acquisition. Over the past few years McGraw-Hill Education has acquired several education and publishing startups. Posner himself came to Pearson through the acquisition of Engrade, a startup he founded that provides learning management tools and assessments. McGraw-Hill has also acquired adaptive learning companies including Area9 and ALEKS. “We’ve made big bets on these startups because adaptive learning is the direction McGraw-Hill wanted to go in. I think you absolutely have to have that kind of focus when acquiring.”
Whose Job Is Digital?
While external partners are important for all three publishers’ digital strategies, significant internal organizational shifts are also necessary. It can be difficult to determine who should manage digital initiatives within the company. Should legacy production teams learn digital architectures such as HTML5 and oversee new workflows? Or should a separate division deal with all digital production concerns?
Panelists’ views differed on this subject. McGraw-Hill, for example, created a Digital Platform Group (DPG) a few years ago to serve the technology needs of its entire company, including its K-12, higher education, professional publishing, and international groups. The goal of the DPG, said Posner, was to create a single group that leads and manages McGraw-Hill’s digital strategy, purchasing and creating new tools that streamline multi-channel production across groups. Specifically, the DPG is working to move all of the publisher’s content onto one technology platform.
Given the ambitious goal, the publisher sought to hire completely new talent, and in particular expert technologists. “We wanted to create a culture and environment that recruits some of the highest caliber technology folks that we could find,” said Posner. Today the group numbers over 500 employees and works with the McGraw-Hill’s business team to understand their needs and create the technology that can streamline production and enhance user experience. The group also spearheads new technology partnerships and acquisitions, vetting prospective tools or vendors and working with a business strategy team to ensure that they align with the company’s overall vision.
The significant investment in talent and technology seems to be paying off. Posner credited the DPG with growing McGraw-Hill’s digital revenue, citing the fact that digital revenue surpassed print for the first time ever in the higher education group in 2014.
Hachette took a different approach, said Madans. Although Hachette has hired new talent that has digital expertise, the emphasis has been on integrating print and digital production and retraining existing staff. The goal is to move toward a holistic strategy, in which the publisher creates digital and print formats from a single source.
This blend of digital and print production is visible in the publisher’s talent management. Hachette has encouraged its employees to learn new skills around digital production and marketing, preferring to retrain existing staff rather than hire from outside the industry. “We always try to use the people that we have in place because they understand the business, they understand our products, and they understand our people.”
Madans advised publishers to identify the employees in their organization who are willing to try new things and learn new skills. “It’s not about the jobs so much,” said Madans, “It’s about the people. There are people who are willing to try new things and you can easily identify those folks in your organization and retrain. I think you’re much better off doing that in house if you can and transition.” He did add though, that when it came to managing digital production, Hachette hired an XML and CSS expert who could guide existing staff.
What’s the Workflow?
Equally important to a talent strategy that supports greater digital output is adopting workflows that are truly multi-channel. The education publishers on the panel indicated that their workflows begin with their authors. Both Pearson and McGraw-Hill provide authoring tools to their authors, allowing them to create XML files. Content written in XML can be formatted for a variety of devices more easily than working from a Word manuscript.
Asked whether this was disruptive to the creative process of their authors, Marshall responded that authoring tools actually had the opposite effect. “We’re not telling our authors to change. I think our authors have actually changed and we need to keep up with them.” Marshall continued that education itself has become more interactive and technology-driven so Pearson’s authors -- many leading teachers in K-12 classrooms -- have already adopted a variety of teaching tools that keep their students engaged and encourage digital learning.
Trade publishing is a different animal, noted Madans. The creative process of Hachette’s authors is, in a sense, sacred. “We don’t want to get in the way of the creation of the manuscript,” said Madans. “We try to find other efficiencies where we can.”
Madans said that these efficiencies are often common sense changes that enable Hachette to “get out of its own way.” For example, the publisher moved to digital copyediting when it realized shipping physical manuscripts to outsourced copy editors was costing 30 days of production time. Now manuscripts are copy edited in Word with tracked changes.
Another crucial process change involved data interchange between Hachette and its retailers. Using up to date metadata standards, in particular ONIX, the publisher has made it easier to share title information with retailers and in turn improved the discoverability of its titles.
Visions of a Digital Future
In an attempt to prompt panelists to discuss where the industry is and where it needs to go, moderator Joe Wikert asked why ebooks still appear to be “print under glass,” and have yet to capitalize on the capabilities of the digital web. “To me redeploying print digitally shouldn’t be the end game,” said Wikert. The panelists acknowledged that despite the advancements in publishing standards, metadata, and content management tools, their work is by no means done and they have ambitious plans for the continued transformation of their companies.
At McGraw-Hill, the future is adaptive learning. Posner has seen the technology take off in higher education and is excited to bring similar tools to the K-12 space. The goal is to connect directly with the end user and better understand how students learn. “We’re focused on using technology to crack the science behind adaptive learning, and creating a truly personalized learning experience,” said Posner.
Like Posner, Marshall wants Pearson to put greater emphasis on its end users and understand exactly when they need a print product versus digital. “I have a seven-year-old and a ten-year-old and they have computers and they have textbooks for doing their homework, but what they really like are printed worksheets. We’re creating these huge digital products for them, but then the teachers are printing out pages for them to work on.” Despite significant digital innovations, Pearson cannot lose sight of the importance of print, said Marshall.
In trade, the evolution of ebooks has always been a slower process than predicted, observed Madans. But the hurdles that kept ebooks from dominating the market in the early 2000s are quickly disappearing. Ereading devices of that era were clunky, expensive, and stuck in proprietary formats that yielded poor user experiences, said Madans. Today there is a more positive trend of open standards such as EPUB 3 and more affordable reading devices. With greater access to ebooks and greater quality ebooks at hand, the market has continued to grow.
Madans is pragmatically optimistic toward the future. “As the tools get better and as screens get better and as the standards improve, I think we’ll keep moving forward and I think we’ll get there.”
Contact publisher Matt Steinmetz for more information on attending or sponsoring future Book Business Live events: firstname.lastname@example.org.