John Wiley & Sons – Lessons from a Publisher that Has Made the Digital Transition

Jeff Hayes
May 4, 2011

We can all learn some valuable lessons about making the “transition to digital” from John Wiley & Sons, the $1.7 billion publisher of scientific, technical, medical (STMS), higher education, and professional trade books and journals.

Wiley has been around since 1807 and during that time they have had only 11 CEOs, a testament to the organization’s ability to adapt to change as well as the strength of its leadership team.

Wiley’s outgoing CEO, William Pesce and incoming CEO, Stephen Smith spoke yesterday in an excellent webinar hosted by Book Business Magazine’s editor-in-chief Noelle Skodzinski and sponsored by publishing technology vendor Aptara. I strongly encourage you to take some time to listen to Learn from Wiley’s Legacy and Leadership.

Wiley first got into “digital publishing” back in 1995 and was one of the first publishers to offer online books in 2001. All these initiatives were customer and market driven. According to Mr. Pesce, “STMS was the first Wiley business to invest heavily in technology because online content is more accessible and discoverable than print” — which is critical for its readers.

Pesce and his team realized that “digital” is not a project, but a new way of life that evolves based on customer needs. “We realized early on that we would not get this right from the beginning. We recognized we would be in a constant state of enhancements.”

He further commented, “at our company these changes have been evolutionary, not revolutionary. We have been consistently and steadily making progress. People tend to focus on the technology. There is a whole human element to this. We can have all this technology, but if the people who are involved with it don’t embrace, don’t use it to drive a better outcome we aren’t going to make any progress.”

Critical elements for making a successful transition cited by Wiley’s CEOs include:

  • Having a shift in mindset is necessary for success
  • Ongoing investment in training and development for colleagues
  • Recruiting talent from outside the publishing business is necessary for certain skills
  • Recognizing that the human element ultimately determines the pace at which transition happens
  • Always thinking about ways to multipurpose the content
  • Starting right from the beginning thinking about multi formats for multiple delivery methods
  • Investing in technology to empower value to the customer
  • Being in a constant state of enhancements

The company believes it has made the transition from a print publisher to a content publisher. Key metrics cited by the company include:

  • Digital publishing now accounts for 56% of its STMS, 15% of higher education, and 7% of professional & trade business.
  • Print is not actually declining, but has reached a plateau in some areas.
  • Digital publishing accounts for more than 40% of overall revenue and all of the company’s growth.

“Digital publishing, print publishing is all our business. It is not one or the other”, stated Mr. Smith. “We are doing things that were unimaginable just a few years ago.”

My sense is this 200-year old company will likely be doing new things for many years to come.

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