Publishing's Dirty Little Secret

If you're an investor, you should know about publishing's dirty little secret. Most book publishers are wasting your money. That's right: They're burning through your cash at an alarming rate in a desperate attempt to keep up with changing user expectations. Publishers are throwing your money at problems that can only really be fixed by changing the way the publishing process works. They hope you'll continue to funnel money into their coffers without really knowing whether or not they are giving you the most bang for your buck. Most of all, they're happy you aren't aware that the publishing industry could be doing things better, faster, and cheaper. Needless to say, they won't be happy I'm letting the cat out of the bag.

In many cases, the outdated processes designed to support the creation and distribution of printed books aren't much different today than they were 100 years ago-complete with paper galleys, red pens, and rubber bands. It should be obvious that print processes are not appropriate for creating enhanced ebooks. These antiquated methods of doing business are equally inappropriate for creating mobile content, apps, and companion website content, but that doesn't stop publishers from trying to make it work.

Most book publishers have been missing huge revenue-generating opportunities in ebooks and mobile device apps; that's no secret. The people behind your favorite best-sellers and literary gems saw the opportunity coming and did nothing to prepare for it. Or worse, they didn't see it coming at all. Now publishers are playing a losing game of catch-up, cranking out as many ebooks as possible in hopes of competing.

Unfortunately, these publishers are doing things all wrong. They mistakenly think the best approach to creating ebooks, apps, and other new content types is to tweak the traditional print publishing process. They're wrong. Poor planning has trapped them in a never-ending cycle where they will always be struggling to keep up. Each and every time a new device is introduced, they will jury-rig the print process, tossing more of your money out the window on one-off efforts.

What's needed is for investors to get educated, to understand there is a much better way of doing business, and to demand that publishing companies that want their money develop efficient, repeatable digital content production processes, adopt relevant content standards, and deploy tools designed to assist in the creation of multiple content types efficiently and effectively. By ditching the print paradigm and developing a content strategy that supports modern content production processes, publishers could provide shareholders with the opportunity for a much better return on their investments.

Digital content strategies aren't new. Forward-thinking companies have been tackling these types of challenges for more than a decade with great success. These organizations are well-positioned, as a result of their strategic thinking early on, to create new products whenever the market demands it.

Content strategist Ann Rockley says what's needed is a "unified content strategy": a repeatable method of identifying all content requirements up front, creating consistently structured content for reuse, managing that content in a definitive source, and assembling that content on demand to satisfy customers' needs. By utilizing a unified content strategy, Rockley says, publishers could produce ebooks, apps, web content, and print books simultaneously. While Rockley notes that trimming waste and improving efficiency is important, a unified content strategy also opens new channels of revenue generation for publishers.

Ironically, some of the very same book publishers you invest in today have successfully adopted a unified digital content strategy and moved away from the printed book publishing paradigm-but only in one department or division of the company. Unfortunately, this is an all too common byproduct of the way publishing companies are organized and managed. Rockley calls this the "content silo trap," where content is created using one set of standards and tools in one department, while folks in another department use a completely different system.

Investors need to take a closer look at the book publishers they give investment dollars to. In fact, I would argue that investors should stop funneling money into publishing companies that are poor stewards of shareholder funds and start providing financial support to those publishing houses that understand that maintaining the status quo is no longer good enough.

Book publishing companies need to optimize workflows, future-proof the organizations, and become super-lean publishing machines. Efforts should be focused on maximizing return on investment, not protecting the "we've always done it this way" mentality. When publishers get serious about creating, managing, and delivering valuable content, shareholders will find a gold mine of returns.