Workflow is a new buzzword (Google it), and its prominence has come about because it speaks to real needs and may deliver real benefits. Consider the situation of a typical publishing organization. This organization has had a workflow in place for many years; it was so thoroughly in place, so entrenched, that no one even thought of it as a workflow. It was simply how we do things here. It was only when things started changing around it, when new technology began to open up new possibilities, that workflow was viewed as such and analyzed carefully. It was soon determined that the introduction of a new technology would streamline that workflow; it might improve quality; it could deliver savings to the bottom line.
At first when new technology disrupted old workflow, the resulting situation was unwelcome; it was chaotic and costly. Most of the publishers who are reading this post have had the exasperating experience of having to live with both print and digital workflows side by side. It was a sign of better times to come when those workflows were eventually combined and formats, whether print or digital, were the endpoint of a common process. Whew! We have solved that problem once and for all.
Of course, as Kent Anderson’s excellent recent post describes, the number of new formats never ends. Yesterday we had to learn how to display the content of print publications on a desktop, today we wrestle with mobile formats. Yesterday the PDF seemed like the sign of an astute publisher (we have captured all the virtues of the print publication, but have reduced our costs and enabled new forms of discovery), today the PDF is the unwelcome cousin who shows up during the holidays whom you have to take in. Today’s hero is responsive design, but like all heroes it will come to disappoint us some day. No reason not to enjoy the jig of a hero while it lasts, but all things must pass. It’s not a bad idea to start thinking now about what you are going to do—and why—after you announce your mobile solution.
Most investments publishers make in technology go toward allowing the publisher to hold its ground, simply to keep up with the competition. The marketplace demands these investments, and I have yet to hear a good case for failing to make them. (There is a strong case that when a company reaches this point, it is a good time for the shareholders to sell out, putting the burden of the new technology investment on the shoulders of the new owner.) Other investments show a return: they reduce costs and thus contribute to the bottom line. In the book business today, the margins of many publishers have doubled, as publishers reap the benefits of digital formats without sharing them with authors (as one would expect, as there is little market pressure to do otherwise).
Once in a great while investments in technology enable a business to grow. Some easy examples: online bookselling opened up international markets; the Big Deal permitted the largest STM publishers to take a greater share of library expenditures; and print on demand created a revenue stream from the long-dormant backlist. It is noteworthy that augmented revenue brought about by technology usually only benefits a small number of companies, and often only one. To use the examples in this paragraph: Amazon for online bookselling; Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer for the Big Deal; and Ingram/Lightning Source for POD for academic titles. If you want to use digital technology to grow, you have to figure out more than how to get it to work; you need to have a strategy that uniquely enables your organization to find new customers or to sell more things to the customers you already have.
While publishers may discuss their spanking new digital workflows, it’s not out of place to ask how these investments have added to sales. Yes, costs are down and, thus, profits are up, but the top line? A company whose idea of vision and strategy is to examine its cost structure—and then to examine it again—is not going to be the one to establish a new paradigm, to open up a new channel, to bring more customers into the always embattled world of publishing—embattled because the low capital requirements of this industry invite a great many participants. The question every organization has to ask is how to move from the work stream to the revenue stream.
Monetization for new formats has been elusive. It was not so long ago that publishers tried to charge one price for print, another for Web versions, and perhaps yet another fee for some mobile formats. This made perfect sense: each of these versions required incremental investment, and it was only natural for the publishers to seek a return on that investment. The market has spoken, however, and it is increasingly rare for a publisher to reap any gain from the money that goes into multiple formats. It’s just the cost of business, and those costs keep going up.
I have long thought that publishers may find an opportunity in thinking more deeply about the nature of mobile computing, but now I am not so sure. Currently mobile computing is simply a cost to a publisher, which has to provide this capability without any augmented revenue. Mostly we think of mobile devices as small-screen versions of desktops. We read on a desktop, and we read on tablets and phablets and phones. But often when we are mobile we do not read at all. The small screen is hard on the eyes, and even harder on the fingers as you try to type on a tiny keyboard. It is no wonder that the mobile suppliers are investing heavily in voice-recognition and text-to-speech technology, as the mobile experience is often more aural than visual. What was it you were doing when you walked the dog today? Did you read a book or listen to music? Or perhaps you listened to an audiobook. Audio is in fact the fastest growing category of the consumer book business.
Unlike video, which, like text, presumes a user who is not moving around, audio potentially opens up a new use case for published materials. We listen to things when our sight is impaired in some way. Not necessarily in a medical sense but in a way that makes it inconvenient to read. So, for example, we listen to audio when we drive a car and have to keep our eyes on the road. The virtue of audio is that it potentially expands the workday by slipping in an audio stream when we are otherwise occupied. It is no wonder that so many STM publishers are experimenting with podcasts.
The problem for scholarly communications and audio, though, is that the densely packed information of academic books and articles is very difficult to absorb by ear. If it were otherwise, we would simply take a batch or articles, run them through speech synthesis technology and listen to them on an iPhone. What this means is that to tap into a revenue opportunity for audio, we have to do more than come up with a new format. We have to think about different kinds of content that researchers and clinicians find useful. This takes us away from the task of workflow management into new product creation. It’s more exciting, perhaps, but it is also painful, costly, and inconclusive.
And that’s the problem with the workflow buzzword. The workflows we reengineer now handle things more efficiently, but they still flow to the same place. Publishing is not production. One test of an innovation is whether people will pay for it. Have we passed the test?