Setting The Pace at Prima Publishing
A three-day turnaround of The Starr Report is just one example of the fast footwork constantly required of this rapidly growing, independently owned West Coast book publisher
by Rose Blessing
When a national drama unfolds and is reported by an author who may be unpopular but writes in succinct English prose and provides the copy for free on the Internet, what's a publisher to do?
When this happened last year, a few publishers jumped quickly, capturing the text and publishing printed versions as books. Among that group was Rocklin, CA-based Prima Publishing. The "official report of the independent counsel's investigation of the President," written by the investigator himself, went up on the Internet at about noon (Pacific time) on Friday, Sept. 11. While people around the country were downloading the most salacious tidbits on their office laser printers, by 5:30 p.m. that same day at Prima Publishing, the production staff had downloaded the entire document, laid the pages out in QuarkXPress and sent them electronically over the Internet to the printers. By Sunday, samples had been delivered to major New York news networks. By Monday, 150,000 copies of The Starr Report had been printed and delivered to retail outlets across the country. By the end of the week, a total of 300,000 copies had been printed and delivered.
That particular piece of fast footwork put Prima Publishing momentarily in the national spotlight, making history by proving definitively that people will pay for a printed book even when the same material is available free on the Internet. The company's returns were lower than historic rates for books of that nature, Prima Publishing reports.
For Prima Publishing, the fast footwork was possible because it was a familiar way of working. In part because of the time-sensitive nature of its computer- and video-game strategy books, which comprise more than one third of its titles, Prima Publishing has structured itself to be a master of the fast-turnaround book. "In that division, we publish between 120 and 130 titles a year," explains Matthew Carleson, executive vice president and COO for the company. "It's incredibly important that each one of those books are in the store the same date that the game hits the store."
Often, beating competitors to market is extremely important, says Carleson, because the titles "can have a very short life, and, more importantly, very often retailers will take in heavily the first book that is available."
Though 10 days is considered a demanding turnaround in the industry, says Carleson, it's standard for Prima. "I often find myself apologizing to our printers," says Carleson. "We're always pushing them."
Coordinated efforts count
Besides its gaming division, Prima Games, the company has three additional operating divisions: Prima Life, Prima-Tech and Prima Health. All four together produce about 300 titles a year. While the computer gaming books produced by Prima Games and the computer technology books published by Prima-Tech are the most time-critical, the tight management of schedules needed to get those books out has influenced the way the company operates as a whole.
Achieving quick turnarounds and smooth operation in publishing is easier if book publishing is treated as a manufacturing process, says Carleson.
"In any manufacturing process, you have multiple processes that are taking place simultaneously. All have to start at differring points and meet at a common point," he says. In book manufacturing, he explains, that common point is the point at which the materials go to the printer.
However, he adds, "What does make it different, when publishing 300 titles every year, is that you have 300 new products every year."
For companies to effectively organize themselves to meet a common goal, they need a common base of information, says Carleson. When he arrived at Prima, he focused on trying to find a way to ensure that all areas of the company, from editorial to marketing to sales to order fulfillment, would have access to accurate information about schedules and other critical data.
The solution, he felt, was a centralized database, so Prima Publishing explored possible computer management systems. Carleson and Prima's Vice President of Information Technology Bill Scribner looked at solutions from outside vendors, but eventually decided that an in-house-created system would "provide the most flexibility to change as we knew we would in the future."
The company ultimately built an information system, dubbed Power Publisher, around a Microsoft SQL server database. Prima received a Global PERT Practices award from Arthur Anderson for the development of this system. (PERT stands for Performance Evaluation and Review Technique. It is not used just for performance evaluation, as its name suggests, but is a project planning and management method developed in the 1970s and used today by many types of organizations, from manufacturing and construction companies to military groups.)
Prima Publishing insists that all staff members use its Power Publisher system for collecting, tracking and modifying core company data. To encourage that and to discourage small departments from devising their own independent databases, the system has been made as comprehensive as possible--it facilitates budgeting, financial forecasting, paper inventory management, Web content delivery, royalty payments and commission calculations. Job scheduling, from editorial management to design project planning to press scheduling, is also included.
Now up and running, the database is an important aspect of the company that helps it operate efficiently and publish and ship its books in market-responsive ways, says Carleson. It has also helped the company avoid being overwhelmed by its steady double-digit growth for the past few years.
But really, can any system do everything? "It's widely acknowledged in programming and IT," says Carleson, that "the more information you give people, the more they are going to want."
To discourage departments from investing their time to create desktop databases or spreadsheets that are not tied into the main database, Prima has included as many variables as possible to allow users to create custom queries and custom reports, and to download subsets of data to play with. Users are expected to use the main system and encouraged to ask for modifications from the central programming department when needed.
The effort has been worth it, says Carleson. "When I first came to Prima, you could ask five different people when a particular book was going to publish and you would get five different answers. Now, everyone sings from the same hymnal."
To maintain integrity of the core data, departments and operating divisions are responsible for inputting and keeping their eye on the data that they would naturally be accountable for.
For example, production staff input paper specs and manufacturing data, managing editors create and monitor editorial schedules and some production schedules, and publishers watch sales figures and expected delivery dates.
Printers understand the goal
How are the books produced so quickly? On the editorial side, careful coordination and project planning make a difference, including use of PERT management techniques, says Carleson.
On the printing and production side, the answer is not a technology miracle, just extraordinary support from printers, says John Clark, Prima's director of manufacturing. "Our vendors make it very easy for us," he says frankly.
Good communication helps, says Clark. "We spend a lot of time talking to each other. We are all basically in the communication business, so it's important that we do that well. We know them; they know us. That has saved so many jobs for us."
Many of Prima's books are produced computer-to-plate (CTP). Sending CTP files to the printer allows Prima to skip the film output stage, Clark notes. It also permits the printer to move a book from one press to another even if the alternate press requires a different page imposition, which helps the printer by allowing quick switches to presses that are available soonest, he notes. While such time savings are helpful, Clark says that for him, the primary benefit of CTP is simply the improvement in print quality he's observed.
What about proofing? That process is kept simple. For most CTP jobs, for example, Clark sends a disk and laser proofs, then receives one return set of black-and-white digital proofs created by printers' CTP systems.
Even though many pages run with a great deal of color, Clark requires color proofs only now and then for some especially complex pages. For the most part, because he has spent a great deal of time with the press operators at the plants, he is confident that they know what level of quality he is expecting.
In general, Clark concludes, "We align ourselves with vendors that take the time to understand our business. That is probably the key for us."