Ever since returning from the 2008 Publishing Business Conference & Expo I’ve been trying to find the time to blog about the 10 or so particular sessions I went to. Every time I look, however, at the pages and pages (and more pages) of notes I took and then think about distilling those down to anything succinct (and coherent) I somehow mange to move on to more immediately pressing activities: trying to close out the upcoming biodiesel TechBrief, working with Todd and Grace on the presentation we gave this afternoon to the new TSTC instructors, talking to vendors from the aforementioned conference, making phone calls and answering phone calls (likewise with email), writing contracts and signing contracts, answering and asking questions, and dealing with—as it always seems—the myriad (and unanticipated) obligations that crop up every day.
All that aside though, I have had one big realization since returning from the PBC&E, especially after sitting in session after session built around real publishing industry nuts and bolts issues/information and not things that are vague enough to be true like “You know, the Internet’s on computers these days” or “Work smart and hard.”
Basically, we have to admit that we can’t figure it out all on our own.
That is, when you’re starting up a business of any kind there are some basic things you have to do no matter what: identify your product, your market, your source of goods, your distribution points, your production process, your marketing scheme and so on. But, after a while, especially when you’ve moved beyond a starting point that consisted just an inherent interest in an industry/product—in our case, books—and the scale of both production and sales begins to ramp up, you probably need—or, in our case, just need—some outside insight.
For us, this is even more relevant because from the get go one of my primary goals has to been to set up a business that is structurally and procedurally sound for the long haul. I think that’s especially important when you look at the radical transformation the traditional print publishing industry is going through right now. The big publishing houses are having to work through being saddled with all kinds of legacy content formatting, contracts, distribution, workflow and so on. It seemed only logical that we be as thoughtful as possible given that we have no inherent systems or processes in place to keep us from being as streamlined and forward thinking as possible.
That’s easier said than done, of course, and we’ve come dangerously close to codifying the most inefficient ways of doing things just by virtue of repeating how we did them the first time around. The classic example of this is the first math book we did where we rebuilt every single equation one by one using MathType software instead of spending an hour or so reading about all of the various features and finding out that we could export the equations automatically from Word via MathType and then relink to them in InDesign. (Yes, I admit, to most people this probably sounds like tech tech tech talk. But to those who do know what I’m referring to—Steve Tiano, where are you?—what it means is that we went from dumb and dumber to moderately more smart.) And because of situations like this I spend an inordinate (or, actually, not) amount of time wondering how many more things we’re doing like this simply because we don’t know any better.
(“Don’t know any better” is, of course, a moderatly nicer way of saying “ignorant.” Happily, the difference between being ignorant vs. being stupid is that if you’re just ignorant you can probably learn. Stupid? Now that’s a real problem.)
So, thankfully, it looks like in early May we’re going to have a consultant come in and evaluate what we’re doing (and how we’re doing it) from top to bottom: financials, contracts, workflow, distribution, marketing, and sales. Of course, there’s a lot baggage—much of it negative–that can come with the idea of bringing in an outside consultant. A lot of times you’ll being told things that you probably knew already and should have already been doing: be polite, keep in mind what the overall goals of the business are, don’t be afraid of change, etc. ad nauseum. Or, you’ll get crazy pieces of advice that don’t make any real sense at all. (One good story—that is, sad; that is, way . . . too . . . typical—I heard recently was about how the big conclusion from some marketing consultants hired by a newspaper consisted of telling them to use a rainbow header style). Or, my greatest fear is hearing: Doing great! Keep up the good work! And then . . . nothing else.
The key, of course, is performing the due diligence to get the most out of the consulting experience. First, we’re looking to bring in someone who has the kind of publishing background and experience that relates directly to what we’re doing. Second, we’re already working on the questions/subjects we know we want to cover. Third, and perhaps most importanly, I stressed at our department meeting this week that none of this is meant to be punitive. (Hey, if this hadn’t been my idea I know I would have taken as some sort of slap in the face. Then again, I’m a small, ego-driven person with little self-awareness and even less of a sense of humor.) Based on what I see on a day-to-basis, I take it as a given we’re all working as hard as we can. But, to take it to the next level, I’m happy to admit that we need an outside, expert evaluation to tell us what to do to build on what we’ve done well, change what we’re doing inefficiently, and basically guide us toward achieving the goals we’ve set for ourselves: producing quality books while being financially self-sustaining as soon as possible.
In the end, who knows for sure? We’re doing the best we can . . . and it’s all very exciting. More later as events develop!
(Finally, on a completely unrelated note, we’ll be happy to send a free copy of the TSTC 40th Anniversary Cookbook to the first person who comments below identifying what classic album cover the picture at the top of this post comes from.)