Get Your Multimedia House in Order
Following typical protocol, Ayun Halliday went on tour to promote her latest title, “Dirty Sugar Cookies.” Only, it wasn’t a 30-city tour, it was a 30-blog tour. These days, blog tours are all the rage thanks to the high-speed, seemingly infinite cyberspace connections they create. After interviewing with bloggers who either posted Halliday’s comments online or recorded her on a downloadable audio podcast file, the author’s “appearance” was suddenly linked to other blogs, which linked to more blogs, ad infinitum.
Buzz like this is priceless and, interestingly, Halliday’s publisher, Seal Press—an imprint of Avalon Publishing, New York—didn’t have to make too many adjustments to its creative workflow or staff to get it. Instead, says Hannah Cox, marketing manager for Avalon Publishing, a new job description was created.
“We wanted someone who would look [for] ways to better market and publicize books through the Internet, because we are finding that, increasingly, Web outlets reach more people,” she says.
It has been only in the past year and a half that Avalon has accelerated its Web reach this way. And while it was somewhat simple to implement, transitioning from a print publisher, or one with a restricted digital platform, to a fully operational multimedia house is another story.
Many publishers are also stepping up creation of author- and title-specific Web sites, and creating audio interviews and webcasts with authors to supplement print content and give their authors an online presence. Between these efforts and the general push for providing content in many formats, multimedia demands are confronting entire publishing organizations.
Stepping Into the Abyss
For the less electronically equipped, offering online products to compete in the digital age can be a little like stepping into an abyss. The question is, how far down the rabbit hole do you want to or should you go?
Bill Trippe, president of New Millennium Publishing—a Boston-based consulting firm specializing in electronic publishing—suggests taking a good look at your market. “Do opportunities exist to call for more digital offerings, and are you prepared to spend wisely toward them?” asks Trippe. “Looking back five years or so, some publishers put the cart before the horse, burning holes in their pockets for expansive digital publishing before the market was really clear.
“For instance, publishers that think they would benefit most from e-books need to know that a market exists, but it is not as big [as they might think] and there are plenty of third-parties who could easily handle production and hosting,” he says. “On the other hand, medical and legal publishers with enormous electronic potential absolutely need to make a commitment to a digital presence and they need to adjust staff to handle it,” he says.
Got a Tech-Savvy Staff?
As publishers delve further down into the rabbit hole, one major challenge that presents itself is staffing a traditionally print-driven company for multimedia projects. Sure, doing blogs and webcasts or creating title-specific Web sites for every book would be great; but what do you do when no one on staff knows how to produce them?
Companies edging their way toward full-blown multimedia-publishing terrain are faced with the decision of whether to train their current employees or hire new personnel already educated in certain aspects of digital media.
Elizabeth Willingham, executive vice president of Silverchair—a Charlottesville, Va.-based company offering print and online publishing services and products for medical content providers—says Silverchair does both.
“We’ve been able to train current staff because even when the only products we developed were print books, we started laying a foundation for a workflow that would allow us to deliver both print and digital products,” she says. “So, for example, our book compositors use a composition program that delivers XML. ... We also trained book project managers to be Web site/software development project managers, and our book indexers moved into the creation of semantic metadata,” says Willingham.
“It’s also important for the content people to have a good understanding of and respect for what developers do and vice versa,” she says. “Their work must be collaborative.”
Rob Cleveland, director of development for Atlanta-based August House—a multimedia publisher of children’s stories and folktale anthologies, agrees. He adds, however, that staff-training decisions often hinge upon how up-to-date the current staff is already, and planning for a long-term vision for the company can help.
“When we started [the company], we knew what we were going to do. So, the in-house artists we hired also [were] online animators. It wasn’t like we had to train them on digital endeavors,” he says.
One of August House’s most digitally advanced line of books is its Story Cove Collection, which is simultaneously released in print and online with animation movies and downloadable PDF lesson plans available on the Web.
Cleveland notes that all of August House’s staff is in a continual state of training and adds, “Of course, we want people on staff who are hungry to learn.”
Avalon was progressive as well. In fact, for the past 10 years, it has published text from one of its best-selling travel guides online. “‘Road Trip USA,’ by Jamie Jensen, has lived on various Web sites and has been updated with every new edition. That kind of work was being done in-house already by knowledgeable staff,” says Cox.
Who’s Responsible for What?
Producing print and online versions of “Road Trip USA,” says Cox, has always been a collaborative effort among all employees. And, such a blending of responsibilities, rather than a division of them, is often the secret to multimedia success.
“My experience has been that clients with real success do not have a separate electronic group,” says Trippe. “If they do, it is a very market-focused group, but for the most part workloads among editorial, creative and production are blended.”
He concedes this could mean a slight workload imbalance for digital output versus print. “If you look at textbook publishers who are trying to put a lot of core material out in electronic form along with a single print book, there can be substantially more work on the digital end. They have to consider more digital staff in such cases.”
However, Trippe says some electronic work is actually being done by authors who blog in anticipation of a book.
Willingham says Silverchair does not separate print and digital staffs either. “We have people who work on both … and our workflows support both outcomes for the content,” she says. “We put more emphasis on efficiency, quality and the best experience for the customer—whether book readers or Web users—than on print versus digital.”
The creation of author- and title-specific Web sites, however, has required some publishers to supplement their current staffs.
For example, there was a time when book production was Silverchair’s only business and, back then, no designers were on staff because the company’s publisher-customers handled design themselves. “Developing Web sites definitely required us to establish a full-blown art department that is headed by someone with both design and interface usability experience,” says Willingham.
She also explains that her company does not make workload-balancing decisions based on print versus digital, adding that some books can take longer to produce than Web sites.
For publishers looking to advance their digital offerings, hiring at least one or two executives who are fluent in
techno-speak is inevitable. But because nonprint media is still unfamiliar to many publishers, they could be in the dark on what to look for in new hires.
Willingham says it’s important to have a production staff that truly understands how to use XML to deploy content online, and to have project managers with a mastery of both detail and the big picture.
“Our software developers are required to have experience with Microsoft Web technologies, including ASP.NET, VB.NET, [and] MSSQL Server. Experience with interface implementation—HTML/DHTML/CSS/browser compatibility—is also required. Deep knowledge of XML is a must, while knowledge of XSL/XSKT is a plus.”
Willingham also says she is always hiring. “We like to keep all work inside, because it provides us with better quality control and shorter schedules,” she says.
Trippe urges publishers to consider what digital offerings make sense for their markets. While he doesn’t believe everyone in editorial needs to be XML experts, he believes that including XML in a job description is helpful, especially for publishers with significant online potential.
“For instance, if I’m a medical publisher, someone needs to do XML for me,” he says. “The more my business depends upon electronic, the more I want to control that in-house.”
For Avalon, however, hiring has less to do with XML, and more to do with figuring out how to approach the Web with a traditional marketing lens.
“We are dedicated to staying on top of the ever-changing nature of the Web, and we want people who understand how to best take advantage of podcasting and blogs from a marketing standpoint,” Cox says. “We want to utilize all the resources that emerge from the digital universe.”
No question, “going digital” to some degree has become a necessity for most book publishers, but the transition need not be daunting. Many suggest that publishers first consider their digital market potential, begin training staff while also hiring new e-savvy personnel, blend responsibilities among all staff and, lastly, be prepared to spend more than you project. (See “Preparing for the Price Tag” below.)
In the end, they say, it will all pay off. BB
Sharon R. Cole is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer serving the print industry.