Friday, March 2, 2012

Students Could Save Money if Publishers Would Move to Digital-First Workflows

Photo y Audrey Watters
In the last two months we have seen a number of powerful e-book authoring tools rolled out. Apple released iBooks Author, Inkling launched Inkling Habitat, and SourceFabric announced its open source solution Booktype.

What all of these platforms have in common is that they emphasize the difference between print-centric and digital-first publishing. In a print-centric paradigm, the end product (the print textbook) is the only real product. Yes, there are many parts, but all processes and workflows are designed and tied to deliver a single monolithic construct. The tasks associated with this construction are tightly coordinated and often linear.

Digital-first book production, on the other hand, is about creating digital products that can be accessed and experience anywhere including, if necessary, in print form. The most radical difference between digital-first and print-centric approaches, however, is in their basic product assumptions. While print-centric publishing models assume a specific textbook construct as the end goal, digital-first publishing operates in terms of pieces (objects) of content that can be assembled and collected in many different ways.

Moving to a digital-first workflows and product models make content more flexible and reusable, and they can reduce operational costs associated with print-centric textbook publishing.

What kind of cost reduction?

Well, let’s imagine a general textbook project that has been produced previously in a print-centric environment. What kind of cost savings could I manage if I re-envisioned this product from a digital first perspective? Assuming that our new product approach is part of a company-wide digital-first process overhaul (i.e. there is buy-in across the board), you could achieve a 40%-50% cost savings easily, and reach 65% savings with a bit of extra effort.

A Digital-First Product Assumptions

First, let me explain what I mean by a digital-first workflow, as well as the basic product assumptions I am making and some of the specific areas where we will see cost reductions.

1. Production – From a production standpoint, companies will likely want to move to a baseline XHTML format that includes all necessary editorial tagging and integration of any media, Web, or assessment references/content. This is the approach that some trade publishers, like Hachette, are already employing. It allows publishers to deploy an entire digital workflow that uses XHTML as a base, can incorporate new authoring platforms or familiar ones like InDesign for some traditional elements, and has editors working online and making changes throughout the entire document workflow. This baseline format will support your ePub3, K8, PDF, and print formats dynamically.

2. Design -- The above production strategy allows for global design templates that reduce the design and composition overhead. These templates ensure that final products can be produced successfully, but also allow for extensive product design by traditional sources. This means that publishers can achieve the savings without necessarily having to abandon all of their current workflows and outsourcing resources (no existing publisher would be able to assimilate complete change without causing crippling chaos).

3. Rights Management – By breaking traditional products into bits, and by applying smart tagging, publishers will be able to have more granular approaches to rights management and licensing, which means they can reduce their overall costs associated with rights acquisition for product components.

4. Print savings – A digital-first strategy moves textbook companies more squarely into a print-on-demand model (POD). This means that publishers can actually ask the user to bear the extra costs associated with print – POD, additional rights, etc. The result is that print products will go down, but profit margins for publishers will go up.

5. Editorial review -- If you look at the standard editorial process, there is significant time and money spent in internal manuscript development and external review (all the rounds of market review with instructors, pilot classes etc.). There may be 3-5 rounds of such external review, all of which entail creating early design versions of chapters etc. This will be streamlined considerably in a digital-first workflow and publishers will end up with better market feedback because integrated digital processes will allow them to do more effective and frequent reviews. In addition, the general editorial review process would be collapsed in terms of time.

6. Desk copies – In a digital-first product workflow, all desk copies are digital but faculty can choose any format -- desktop, tablet, e-reader. These will mean no more print desk copies. Instructors could obtain a print copy if they wanted to pay POD costs.

7. Marketing -- There is much waste here in a print-centric world and, as with editorial reviews, marketing will become more efficient, better distributed, and achieve improved results.

So, How Much Can We Save?

1. To begin with, a digital-first approach is going to reduce the product creation cycle, so there are fewer bodies involved over a shorter period of time. Traditional three-year product cycles will collapse to no more than two immediately, and will be reduced to approximately 18 months after the new processes have been in place for a time.

2. Overall production costs -- design, composition, conversion, product tracking, formatting for different platforms, archiving -- will be eventually reduced by about 50%.

3. Editorial savings (the part that is the differentiator for commercial textbook textbook publishers) will be 30%-50% per product simply because of reduced time and elimination of unnecessary steps due to the move away from print.

4. Printing is not the huge piece in the overall costs but will will eliminate some costs here as well.

5. Overall marketing costs will be reduced by 20%-25% on a per-product basis.

Drum Roll Please

So, at the end of the day, on a per-product basis, we're talking about a conservative cost savings of 40%-50% by moving to the digital-first workflows I describe above. If you throw in the global company savings (staff reductions and eliminations of wasteful practices), the per-product cost savings could reach 65%.

And This Would Help Students How?

When pressed on price increases publishers often complain about the rising costs of doing business. The reality is that these costs can be reduced dramatically and the result more dynamic products that can be offered at more affordable prices.

There are a number of new publishers like Flat World Knowledge and Textbook Media that are already showing how this approach can save students money.

Let’s hope others jump on the bandwagon soon.

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