Addressing The Human Element of Digital Change

Addressing The Human Element of Digital Change

Ironically enough, success in digital publishing has more to do with people than machines.  Digital publishing requires publishing houses and their partners to work in materially different ways.  Digital publishing is not merely delivering an EPUB file along with a print-ready PDF.  Successful initiatives require the development of new skills, processes, and business practices.  Publishers that successfully execute these changes will be able to take advantage of the unique characteristics of digital, and bring new value to the marketplace.

What are some of the challenges that must be overcome through the human element?   A few that come to mind include:

  • The end of “print-first”.  “Print-first” is an approach to cross-platform publishing in which all-digital delivery formats are derivatives of the print product:  The book is first composed and optimized for the paper page, then digital outputs (such as ebooks) are then produced by wrestling the print product into a digital delivery format.  This is hardly an optimized approach since “p-books” and ebooks are distinct in some fundamental ways, such as in their use of page numbers, internal and external hyperlinks, and so on.   Yet, since “print-first” introduces the least disruption to publishers and their service providers it has become a standard though strategically unattractive practice.
  • Untangling digital rights.   The issue of digital rights represents a significant hurdle for many publishers.  The Holy Grail of magically “digitizing the back list” is often impeded by a lack of digital rights clauses in contracts pertaining to older titles.  A secondary issue is the inclusion in print titles of one-time-use artwork that have not been cleared for digital delivery.   This issue is made even more challenging by the fact that modes of delivery that the publisher may use in the future may not even exist today.
  • Mastering digital design.  Designers and art directors within publishing houses have a high-level of sophistication and expertise when it comes to the nuances of designing for the page.  Many publishers feel that the visual experience of the product is a point of competitive differentiation.  However, this level of design sophistication often does not extend to digital delivery models.    In order to have the same competitive differentiation of their digital books as they enjoy in print, art directors and designers in publishing houses need to ramp up their knowledge and toolset in design for the digital domain.
  • Born-digital product models.  Most publishers create offerings that for the most part fit a print product footprint: a certain page range, trim size, price, and development cycle.  There are some good reasons for print titles to fall within these bounds in order to efficiently enter distribution.  However digital books need not to be so restricted: page and illustration count are less critical factors in ebooks, and trim size is moot.  There may be wonderful digital product opportunities that may be outside the range of typical print titles, such as the 50-page essay.  Yet standard business processes are often unable to accommodate these born-digital opportunities.

All of these challenges must be addressed through the human element of publishing: changing assumptions, practices, skill-sets, and practices.

So what’s the hold up?  After all, most of these issues are familiar to publishers.  So why is there often a lack of traction in changing skills and practices? Perhaps the answers lie within the human failings that we are all heir to:

  • Fear.  From a macroeconomic perspective, there is no lack of career anxiety today, no matter what the industry.  This anxiety is magnified when an industry, such as publishing, faces unprecedented change.  “Will my company survive this digital transformation?”  “Will my job continue to exist?” “Will I be able to learn new skills?” are all some of the concerns that are widely shared.
  • Laziness.  Change requires effort.  Learning new skills requires effort.  Redrafting contract templates requires effort.  Everyone is already working at full capacity, right?  We often understand what needs to be done to accomplish these changes but fail to rise to the occasion because it’s too much work. We need to find the time.
  • Greed.   Organizations fail when they trade long-term competitive advantage for short-term financial gain.  The effort that must go into evolving skill-sets, processes, and business practices represents an investment without a direct, short-term, product-based financial return.  It is an investment in the future of the organization.  While failure to invest in organizational change is understandable when a publishing house is attempting to meet earnings expectations, the long-term cost may be incalculable.

These concerns must be taken seriously and addressed by publishing management.  Anyone within a publishing organization, no matter what level of the hierarchy, has the ability to derail a digital transformation initiative if they are so motivated.  The publishing house wins as a team.

Five years ago it may have been appropriate to forgo organizational changes of this magnitude, because it wasn’t worth it financially.  There was not enough digital revenue to justify it.  That clearly is not the case today.  The shifting trajectory of revenue toward digital, to ebooks, apps, and online services, makes a clear business case of executing these fundamental changes.

At first blush, technology-driven change in publishing seems to be all about machines.  Yet it is how publishers execute changes to the human element that may make the difference between success and failure in negotiating this transformation.