With stability taking hold of the hybrid print-digital market after years of rapid ebook growth, many publishers are turning to evaluate how workflow automation and other IT solutions can streamline their businesses and make them more efficient.

That’s undeniably a good thing, but as I’ve written before, the allure of a new digital system or solution can sometimes introduce new problems in an earnest bid to solve old ones.

I talk to a wide range of publishers interested in implementing our Consonance publishing management software. But before we ever get to talking about databases, metadata management, interfaces or legacy data migration, we close the laptops, get out a Sharpie and some Post-It notes and talk about business process.

The point at which a publishing business starts to think about putting in place a new management system is a great time for a spring-cleaning of its processes. In fact, whether a publisher realizes it or not, the reason they think they need a system is usually because of problems with process, not data.

Yet that bigger picture rarely gets the level of scrutiny it deserves amid the daily hurly-burly of trying to keep a thousand tasks, deliverables and projects on track.

When publishers take the time to reflect on how they work and how well it’s working, though, they tend to arrive at more intentional and efficient ideas about their workflows and processes. That’s why we encourage all our clients to let us facilitate a day’s workshop for them. At those workshops, in the morning, we document how things work in the business, right now, using Post-It notes and a big wall.

We talk about how a publication gets from soup to nuts. We talk about how commissioning and acquisition works, about how the business considers and approves a manuscript put forward for consideration. We document how long the business allows for a book to go through its various stages of development. We write down all the discussions that have to occur and layers of approval that have to be passed—who’s involved and what each step is for. We write down all the names of the various documents that hold data. We articulate exactly how things normally happen to get a book to market in all its formats.

Do you know who, for instance, is in charge of writing back-cover copy in your organization? And who then signs off on it? Do you pass it by the author for approval? Or to senior editors to make sure that an imprint-level view is taken? What about series editors—do they have a say?

What about cost sign-offs—is there a stack of invoices waiting to be approved by senior managers? Can they see the context in which they’re signing them—whether they signify an overspend or are within budget—or is it just a pile of invoices needing signatures?

How do you handle a project’s transmittal from editorial to production? How long do you allow for proofreading? Is your in-house design team actually capable of meeting the deadlines for first and final cover drafts that editorial assumes to be reasonable?

What’s your canonical source of metadata? How many spreadsheets get maintained by different departments and individuals that contain roughly the same data?

And what we always discover—without exaggeration — is that there’s a lot of duplication, and a lot of assumptions about who does what, and when.

Lunch can be a sobering affair, during which the team may reflect, with some dismay, on their working practices. Don’t confuse that with snark; I would challenge any publisher to go through this exercise and feel that their workflow resembles a finely tuned machine.

Things pick up throughout the afternoon of our workshop, though, as it’s our chance to redesign the process for the future. The bottlenecks and duplication of data and effort that seem so obvious after our morning’s work get eliminated from the plan. We have some great, spirited discussions about who, precisely, should do what. I often see real relief from people who’ve been living with the effects of a poorly articulated process, who see simplification and clarity on the horizon for the first time in years.

It’s an exhausting day, as you can imagine, and sometimes it’s the first of many. But in time I email the team the first draft of their own “Publishing Manual.” It’s a document that, after many edits, refinements and discussions, will eventually be given to every new hire—“this is how we do things here,” with every part of the publishing process clearly written down. Responsibilities articulated, authority made clear. The roles of departments and individuals defined in writing. Timescales (both normal and crash schedules) laid out.

The document names meetings, and their frequency, attendees and expected outcomes. It states how the team will manage the canonical version of every sort of data, from contacts and schedules to metadata and printer estimates.

And almost as an afterthought, the Publishing Manual contains information about how the IT system will help—where the data will be entered and maintained, where meeting minutes will be captured and actioned, how sign-offs get stored and so on.

Because configuring a system to support a particular process is the easy part. Figuring out what the process should look like, on the other hand, is the larger problem. It’s emotionally charged, challenging, difficult and often frustrating. But it’s necessary and, ultimately, hugely beneficial for the business.

And it’s a prerequisite for the success of any significant systems implementation.

Are your current systems sabotaging your growth ambitions? Are you hungry to implement new business models, but concerned you lack the strong administrative foundations needed for innovation?

We're always amazed at how resigned publishers have had to become to the low bar in publishing management systems. Demand more.

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