Mastering Change in Book Publishing
Change has always been a constant in the publishing business, and of course change is a natural state in all of our lives. What’s different today is that change is occurring faster than it ever has before. Carolyn Pittis, director of Welman Digital, pointed out at the Yale Publishing Course on Monday, that the Agricultural Revolution lasted thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution lasted a few hundred years, and the Digital Revolution has lasted just a few decades. Technology’s pace of change will only increase, yet humans are much slower to adapt. It is difficult to change our habits and that is what makes adapting to technological change so difficult, explained Pittis.
I was lucky enough to attend The Yale Publishing Course (YPC) on Monday and Tuesday this week in New Haven, Connecticut. The course runs through Friday and challenges book professionals to break their habits and embrace change. Or more accurately, it teaches them the process of change. People and organizations cannot simply decide to change. They need to adopt new processes, implement new team structures, and train themselves to approach problems differently. Book publishers need to do the same thing in order to evolve and thrive in the digital age.
Defining Our Purpose
All of the speakers at YPC agreed that change starts with defining a company’s mission and its future goals. This may sound like a basic business school proverb, but it’s amazing how many companies fail to do this.
Neil DeYoung, executive director of digital media at Hachette Digital, posed a question to attendees on Tuesday. He asked, “Why did Kodak fail?” Some responded that Kodak failed to anticipate the rise of digital cameras, which is true. But DeYoung emphasized that the reason Kodak failed was that it forgot its core business. The camera giant thought its core business was film, but actually it was helping consumers create memories. How consumers create memories -- with a film camera or a camera on their smartphones -- will change, but the need to create and share memories will not.
Likewise, book publishers’ purpose is not to create print books or ebooks or apps. DeYoung defined book publishing’s core business as changing the way consumers view the world by sharing new ideas. When publishing teams understand their purpose, it becomes much easier to create a plan to achieve that goal.
Forming Strong Teams
Pittis said that people and teams are at the core of successful change. She said that many companies’ teams are unsuccessful because they are unbalanced and don’t allow individuals to play to their strengths. Pittis recommended publishing teams take the Belbin Test, which categorizes individuals into a particular role based on their strengths and weaknesses. The Belbin Test identifies nine roles that fall into three categories -- social, thinking, and action roles. When a team doesn’t have each of these categories represented, the team cannot function to its best ability.
Additionally publishing leadership needs to understand how these teams view change. Liisa McCloy-Kelley, VP, director of ebook development and innovation at Penguin Random House, explained that before implementing a new process or reorganizing a team, she has to assess that team’s openness to change. Understanding a team’s willingness to change helps leaders determine what type of messaging or incentives will guide that team’s transition. Should change come from the top down? Or can the team determine how it should be reorganized and what processes work best and filter that to the rest of the organization?
DeYoung said that getting a team to understand why they need to change and how change benefits them, is key to driving more efficient processes.
Creating a Process for Change
Change is cyclical process. Many of the YPC speakers emphasized that setting a goal and creating steps to achieve it is important, but even more important is measuring results and assessing what worked and what didn’t. Applying that knowledge to the process ensures that businesses are constantly evolving and adapting to a quick-changing market.
DeYoung explained that his team, which creates app-like ebooks with interactive features, works on a different production schedule than the rest of the publishing organization. While other Hachette imprints are constantly producing and marketing new titles, the digital group works on a schedule that has built in “black-out periods.” These are full months that DeYoung and his team can assess past projects and refine them, build automation tools to help scale projects, and plan for future projects. During these periods they don’t take on any additional projects.
One of the nuts the digital group wanted to crack was scaling interactive cookbooks with features like a timer, shopping lists, and recipe search. By using the above process, DeYoung and his team were able to break down the cookbook into structured content -- single recipes -- and remix them in a variety of ways to create new cookbooks. Now the team can roll out a new cookbook title in a matter of weeks, as opposed to the year-plus it took the team to create its first interactive cookbook.
DeYoung said that publishers need to inject their businesses with agile development processes, which allow for these periods of assessment and refinement. If publishers cannot take time to reflect and improve their process, than their work becomes stagnant. They will not be able to adapt to the rapidly changing market or anticipate what will disrupt the industry next.
I had a chance to interview a number of the YPC speakers over the past two days and will continue to share their perspectives on change and their outlooks on future of the book industry.
Related story: Why Book Publishers Must Change Culture to Evolve Their Businesses
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.