Digital Directions: "In-sourcing" Production and Design
Publishers realized that the ownership of printing presses was not core to their mission. What was core: acquiring and developing works for publication, as well as marketing and selling those works. Others could do non-core functions such as printing, shipping… and mixing ink from pigs' blood.
Other functions followed suit. While sometimes the source of heated polemics, today it is often the case (if not the expectation) that book design, composition, packaging, even manuscript editing, is performed by external service providers. The rationale is the same as outsourcing printing: Non-core functions are often more economically handled by external service providers.
With the advent of digital publishing, additional functions also became outsourced, such as the conversion of print titles into ebook formats. This conversion process is often viewed as non-core, and therefore appropriate for outsourcing, preferably taking advantage of lower offshore labor costs.
In many cases, outsourced service providers connect directly with one another to create an externalized production flow. For example, an external compositor may send the final PDF files used for print to an ebook conversion service provider. The publishing staff therefore assumes the role of an orchestrator of vendors, never actually directly performing the tasks involved in creating digital products.
And therein lies the danger. If publishing organizations remain outside the direct creative process, they have a limited ability to impact product innovation. It is oftentimes the case that vendors are learning essential skills related to digital publishing, such as the creation and management of cascading style sheets, and not the publisher. This creates a high level of dependence upon vendors.
Publishers are in the process of defining the nature of their digital offerings. Most recognize that simply offering ebooks that are digital versions of print products is insufficient. If publishers are not immersed in the details of digital production and design and are dependent upon service providers and channel partners, they will lack the ability to meaningfully shape the future. The nature of their offerings, and therefore their role in the digital publishing landscape, will be defined by third parties: the Apples, the Amazons and the Inklings of the world.