Why Publishing is the Original Software Industry

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This month, we’re sharing a weekly four-part series called “The State of the Publishing Industry.” Every week, our CEO and Founder Matt MacInnis discusses the publishing software trends of today, what the industry will look like in the future, and how the smart companies will survive and thrive. (Hint: it won’t involve paper or even “eBooks”.) This week, Matt focuses on the surprising similarities between the publishing industry as a whole and the growing software industry.

When you think about it, books and other media are like software for the brain. We can almost see publishers as the original software industry. I talked about the differences in the business models between software and publishing in a prior post. Despite these, the old publisher business model bears some important similarities to that of the software industry. Because of this, the publishing industry is arguably better positioned to transform itself in the age of software than any other media industry. They’ve just been far slower to move.

A key similarity between the two industries can be found in the operating leverage that both have enjoyed. In software, it is unrivaled: no manufacturing, no shipping, effectively infinite customer capacity, and relatively low fixed costs. Publishers have enjoyed a similar profile for a long time, too. While there are manufacturing and shipping costs associated with their books, the words and pictures in the books were relatively cheap to produce and had uncapped reproducibility: just print more copies. The process of generating new products was well understood, and once efficient distribution was established, publishers enjoyed very predictable revenue.

The game is changing, however. Software has enabled new ways of accomplishing the things that books used to help us accomplish. Rather than buying a travel guide, we visit TripAdvisor. Rather than referencing an encyclopedia, we use Wikipedia. Magazines have been eroded by myriad free online sources of entertainment media. Publishers have to become competent software businesses, even if only to create content that’s displayed in more sophisticated software platforms. It’s not about printing a book any longer. It’s about creating content that can appear anywhere, from Flipboard on a mobile phone, to a website on a PC, and no two users want to see it the same way.

Changing how publishers build product won’t be easy. While content is still king, the methods publishers have honed over decades to scale their product processes differ starkly from the methods used for digital products. For example:



Ship with as few errors as possible

Ship with as many errors as the customer will tolerate

Ship it and move on to the next product or revision (multiple years)

Ship some changes and move on to the next release (2-4 weeks)

More “features” in a title means more pages, a relatively simple tradeoff

Every feature costs you in subtle ways of usability and complexity; the tradeoffs are complex and nuanced

Contract with authors and experts for each product; more content creators means more products

Build software with as few engineers as possible, all of them directly hired; outsourcing is a last resort

Keep product management in-house, but outsource all the production; use people to scale the business

Directly hire and richly compensate highly skilled engineers, product managers, and designers, but hire as few as possible

This last one is the Achilles heel of publishing. Although many are starting to unlearn the habit, I’ve observed that the tendency to outsource the “hard work” of print content often bleeds over into how publishers approach software. But this is doomed to fail. Whereas print content production was something publishers mastered before they outsourced it, they haven’t mastered the process of creating media-rich digital content that’s built for sophisticated software products. And yet their first instinct is to outsource this new process anyway. Outsourcing companies are skilled in ramping up a well-established process; they are far less adept at inventing those processes anew. But novel product processes are precisely what publishers need in order to survive.

How Publishers Can Begin Changing Now

This leads me to a few recommendations. Most publishers will never become sophisticated software firms, but they will learn to create content products that are rich with the dynamism and interactivity that software affords their products. To do so, publishers must:

Put software product managers into product management roles. I’ve seen many people in product management roles at publishers who have never been engineers or product managers. Nontechnical product managers cannot understand the tradeoffs they must make in order to ship software that succeeds. There’s no way around it: you can’t repurpose nontechnical staff into product roles for software products, even if the product they’re building is “content” that goes into software. They’ll fail, and so will your product.

Build products entirely in house before attempting to outsource anything. Publishers need to get their hands dirty on reinventing workflows for more sophisticated products. Don’t outsource anything–not even grunt work, like image processing–until you have it nailed. If the team can’t do it impeccably in-house, how on earth could less skilled workers to solve these complex problems themselves? Yes, it’s far more expensive at first. But it’s better to spend money discovering a product model that works than to save money building one that doesn’t.

Adopt the best practices of software development. Ship early, ship often. Iterate. Customers, even in the academic world, will tolerate imperfect products. This one is hard for publishers to swallow: for decades, publishers ensured a near total lack of errors in their books. In software, you’ll never ship anything perfect, and you’ll die trying.

Place fewer, more coherent product bets, and iterate on them over time. Throwing spaghetti at the wall is a viable strategy in many industries, but not software. Thankfully, software is mutable. Focus on a smaller number of products. Bridges aren’t built in a straight line from shore to shore; they start with a single cable, and the builders go from there. Software products should be built in the same way.

Replace the sales team. Book salespeople cannot sell software. It’s a different business. Hire software salespeople.

As I said before, the book has been a wildly successful product model, as has been the business model built around that product. But what replaces the book will not be ebooks, and what replaces the old publishing business model will not be honed by outsourcing the production of new products. In the end, the publishers who succeed will reinvent themselves from the inside out by hiring in software veterans who can help them rethink the way they do business. As that happens, the industry will use silicon-based software to amplify the utility and value of the product it has always produced with excellence: software for the brain.

Ready to start thinking about how to create richly interactive and dynamic new content products? Check out our free how-to eBook, “5 Mission-Critical Questions for Digital Content Creation.” With learnings gathered from years of working with some of the world’s leading publishers, this guide contains five questions you should ask before starting just about any digital content project to ensure success without wasting time and money. Get it here.