O’Reilly Says the Future of Publishing is Data

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Feb 16, 2012

And I almost believe them. The truth is publishers have been dealing with mounds of data for quite some time. Now that enterprise marketers are facing similar issues, there’s a term (Big Data) to explain the problem. Graphics, text, links, rich media, and more are all versioned and stored with metadata to ensure they’re findable when needed. New media and technology has just added a new layer of complication to the already expanding databases. To capture the changing demands of publishing technology, O’Reilly has once again hosted its Tools of Change conference, bringing publishers, authors, and technology companies under one roof to discuss the problems and solutions facing today’s publishing industry.

The primary message that I gathered from the event was that publishers need to collect, analyze, and use data to drive publishing business models that work. The collecting may already be in place, but gaps need to be filled to ensure this information can be analyzed and used. Publishers are looking at a variety of ways to leverage existing content. Vogue magazine recently released a digital archive containing all of its contents enabling a nostalgic reminder of the fashion evolution over the years. Book publishers and authors however, are leveraging the cloud to connect with their audiences and “test” content while the book is being created. The Onion’s director of digital, Baratunde Thurstan spoke about the process for publishing his book, leveraging the cloud for a live feedback session that enabled followers to watch and comment on his content as he was writing it.

The message of lean, agile publishing was also spread throughout the conference. There were plenty of references to Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup which resonated well with many publishers who spoke about trying to implement his suggested processes and culture. His concepts, however, are not entirely new. Software engineers have faced the challenge of building agile software that is scalable not only for businesses of multiple sizes, but for quickly adding features when demand requires them; which has led to shorter development — test — release cycles.

Eric Ries, a featured speaker at the event, discussed the need for publishers to use data in new and innovated way to uncover what will actually make the book or publication successful. The example he gave was the process of designing the cover for his book. Filtering through the numerous design concepts, Ries would snap pictures of business book shelves in airports and bookstores as he traveled to show exactly why the concepts would not be effective.  When an idea was based on a specific color that the publisher thought would “pop” off the shelf since no one else was doing it, he would find numerous other books already produced with the same idea. The development process also leveraged tools like the http://fivesecondtest.com to test memorable book covers after being seen for only 5 seconds. The point was that often unsubstantiated opinions are a waste of time, particularly when the information (data) that can provide the answer can be acquired without guessing.

The concept of running the publishing business like a startup was also a topic of discussion, based on O’Reilly’s recent guide to publishing businesses, Every Book is a Startup. Today, startups are star businesses, gaining a lot of attention with hopes of being the next big thing. Similar to the point of being lean and agile, simulating a startup environment enables publishers to act quickly without a mass of hierarchy; thus enabling change.  Demand for this level of flexibility uncovers the fact that media consumption is rapidly evolving, and in the process, causing major disruption in the publishing industry. If publishers, and even businesses, of all types are not able to go with the flow of change, they face an ultimate failure.

Dominique Raccah, founder of Sourcebooks, put the real-world agile publishing into a framework using this formula: Creation + Interaction + Collaboration = Created Book. The idea is to get input on the content, pricing, and other factors that would help determine how to best sell the book, put content out in multiple phases, and then determine what the readers are actually reading. This process enables publishers to engage the already interested audience with a preorder opportunity if applicable. In turn, this process cuts out the middleman (retailers), so the biggest challenge is making sure you don’t miss out on post-sales by including all prospects in the testing phase(s).

Being agile and lean is not only valid on the business and content side, producing the final output needs to leverage these concepts as well. One trend that should make print service providers happy is that many publishers are still very print-focused; testing new opportunities that support the print output model. A collaboration between Hearst Corporation and Strategic Content Imaging, with the guidance from cierant, Quad Graphics, and HP, leveraged customer data to support a personalized, integrated marketing campaign for readers of Harper’s Bazaar, Popular Science, and advertisers willing to invest in the concept. The full-page, full-color, personalized ads contained a QR code that brought engaged readers to a personalized landing page. The personalized ad pages were printed on an HP T300 inkjet device, and then shipped to the Quad Graphics production site, to be stitched into the offset printed magazine. Special considerations had to be made to ensure the right personalized ad reached the right recipients magazine.

A panel session sponsored by Océ featured InfoTrends’ Barb Pellow, Ingram Content Group’s Larry Brewster, Lynn Terhune of John Wiley & Sons, and Bookmaster’s Larry Bennett to discuss how publishers could “Have it Your Way!” In other words, discuss how publishers can leverage cost-effective technology to move between print and electronic media while providing customized and unique versions of their publications. Technology has become an inherent dynamic publishing problem. Production of many publications remains in silos, where each channel has its own separate production process. It would be valuable for publishers to create agile workflows that support output to a number of current and emerging channels without the need to plan out in advance each output channel that is expected. It’s time for design once, publish many!

Overall the conference was great; large turnout, lots of energy, and well-known, knowledgable speakers. In retrospect, I would have preferred to see more topics on technology outside of data, especially since O’Reilly is already planning its Strata Conference on Big Data for later this year. Nonetheless, the publishing industry is in an exciting time of disruptive change, breaking the ground in many ways for other content-driven industries. I challenge publishers, their service providers, and the technology vendors that support them both to implement agile workflows, integrate and streamline multi-channel production processes, and look to data to answer questions instead of guessing.   

Follow me on Twitter @spieruccini

P.S. Even big technology publishers like O’Reilly are finding new delicious ways to monetize print advertising with printed cookies to treat its Valentine’s Day attendees:

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