Book Publishing Operations: How Publishers Measure Success

27 Jan

Or, as the complete title to this post could be “How Publishers Measure Success Without Becoming Trapped By Either The Measuring Or The Success.” In addition, I must acknowledge the title of this post and its subject as being inspired by Morris Rosenthal at Foner Books who posted an entry only yesterday called “How Authors Should Measure Success.”

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working up the financial numbers—revenue generated vs. expenses incurred—for the first quarter of our current fiscal year. Although we’ve always tracked these kinds of things—titles in print, sales by location, copies sold, printing costs, royalty payments and the like—being a relatively new start-up meant that early on a lot of this was not particularly revealing. (That is, it initially took us about seventeen months to get everything set up and our first two books published . . . that financial time period is pretty easy to track: it was all expenses—broken down by category, of course—against zero revenue.) And while those of us working in the office have a good idea of where we stand financially, now we’re on a regular schedule to report to all our stakeholders—people who are necessarily not in the trenches of publishing day in and day out—as to how we are doing and how to measure the success of what we are doing.

At this point I must also add that the publishing operation has gone through several measured stages in its development and growth at Texas State Technical College in the 34 months since its inception. And, each of these stages has had its own particular benchmarks to be met.

Phase I—the first seventeen months when it was just me and a handful of graphics interns—was to see if the operation could be set up and publish any books at all. Success at this point was pretty easy to measure: we published our first books on schedule, sold copies of them to the TSTC Waco bookstore, and collected money on those sales.

Phase II—the next eight months when it was me and a full-time graphics person plus graphics and editorial interns—was to see if we could publish more books more quickly while also increasing sales. Once again, success was easy to measure: whereas it took us almost a year and a half to publish our first two books, in the next seven months we published three more books, two of which sold to other colleges in the TSTC System.

Phase III—the past nine months when it was me, the graphics specialist, an editor, and a secretary plus the interns—was to see if we could ramp up production and sales yet again, meet specific financial goals, and be on a very clear timeline toward profitability. Once again, we were successful in these areas. In the last nine months we’ve published eighteen books and are on schedule to do around ten to fifteen per year on a regular basis at current staffing levels. In addition, sales are up and the number of customers—institutional and individual, around the country and internationally—is up as well.

Now we’re moving on to Phase IV: achieving profitability and, therefore, attaining a financially self-sustaining capacity. Once again, the success of this phase will be easy to measure: either revenue exceeds expenses or it doesn’t. And, because TSTC doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have an open-ended commitment helping us achieve profitability at some indeterminate point in the future, the clock is ticking faster than ever before.

So, this gets me back to our first quarter financial report for this fiscal year. As I was preparing this information to present to the appropriate parties, one thing became clear: we have to concentrate on those projects that—in conjunction with our own procedures and workflow structures—will have the most immediate positive impact on our bottom line. Of course, to anyone with any business background or has ever balanced a checkbook, this is obvious. But, it’s also typical to become so caught up in day-to-day realities that you fall into routines and procedures that, while being productive when first initiated, over time cause more inefficiency than productivity when it comes to the best allocation of resources such as personnel, time, and money.

As an outgrowth of the current financial report, we have already begun evaluating and making changes relating to all areas of publishing: project acquisition, production workflow (especially the distribution of work between the graphics and editorial groups), and marketing. And, certainly, this has highlighted the need to reevaluate what we do and how we’re doing it on a regular basis so that we never undercut our efforts due by continuing to do things like they’ve been done in the past.

At the same time, I’m also trying to strike a balance between what impacts the bottom line in the short term (today or this quarter or next quarter) with the transformation and innovation we need to foster to stay relevant and competitive for the long term. I’ve found myself sitting in on some meetings recently where we’ve passed on projects—or at least significant involvement in projects—because they were a little too far outside our particular area of expertise (publishing and selling books) in conjunction with not enough potential for those projects to help our financial numbers quickly enough. And sure, while I know you can’t say yes to everyone at the expense of emphasizing your own core competencies, I also don’t want to create a set of blinders for myself that don’t allow me to see anything but the most recent numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s a very delicate and necessary balance to maintain between both the realities of today and tomorrow.

In particular, I was lucky enough yesterday to have a couple of books, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, passed on to me, books that I hope will be part of the ongoing process of keeping the future’s big picture as clearly in mind as what is right in front of me.

Mark

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One Response to “Book Publishing Operations: How Publishers Measure Success”

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