One thing that makes trade publishing companies a bit confusing to outsiders is that they’re all organized a little differently. I remember years ago when the great editor, the late Alan Williams, was running a small general trade house near the end of his career. At one point, Alan’s sales and marketing director came to him and said, “I’d like to have publicity, which now reports in to ‘publishing’, report to me.” And Alan said, “fine.”
Then a few months later, the sales and marketing director said, “I’d like to have subsidiary rights, which now reports in to ‘publishing’, report to me.” And Alan said “no.” Alan’s logic was: “I need the capabilities of subsidiary rights reporting to me to make acquisition and product development decisions.” (Those were clearly different times, when book club and paperback sales potential could affect an acquisition decision, which they almost certainly wouldn’t today.) But, even then, Alan recognized that a different editor-publisher doing different books might look at it precisely the other way around.
In an ideal publishing world, the vision of a book and its market promulgated by an author and “gotten” by an acquiring editor, will guide all the work done by (in large houses) legions of people to develop the book’s editorial quality and presentation in any form, its “messaging” for marketing, its pricing, and its ultimate merchandising and delivery to the public.
I have observed for years that “each book published presents the opportunity to make an unlimited number of decisions, which must be resisted”. In big houses, those decisions are often made by committee. It creates a lot of meetings; more meetings than anybody can stand. That’s why good publishing management is constantly trying to delineate the lines of authority for decision-making because just about everything can become the subject of a cross-functional committee, if you let it.
Which raises the question of how you do introduce cross-functional ideas to a publishing house at anything other than the CEO or COO level, a strategy which has its own limitations. On Friday, we had a company in our office seeking our advice about how to advance their proposition. They were a large Indian printer with strong capabilities bolted at both ends: prepress services that included XML workflows and content conversion and complete warehousing fulfillment services, down to the single copy level. They could see all sorts of problems they could solve for publishers that would reduce costs and grow sales, particularly with supply to Africa, which is a problematic but growing market.
They had already engaged one of the most senior and knowledgeable consultants in the industry to help them. He just couldn’t find the “right” person to talk to in each house. Efficiencies that result from more sensible linking of prepress to printing, or printing to warehousing and fulfillment, will fall in multiple bailiwicks in any publisher of consequence. He called us; we called in two other senior consultants who might be able to help. It was a sales development meeting for all of us (that’s consultant-speak for “an uncompensated opportunity to help somebody in the hope that work might result from it”.) But none of us felt the integrated services and cost savings would be easy to sell because of the structural impediments. The best advice that came out of that meeting (and it wasn’t from me) was “sell them that you can grow revenue in Africa; revenue enhancements are easier to sell than savings.”
We’ve been helping a client called SBS Worldwide tackle a similar problem. The label most publishers would put on them is “freight forwarder”, but because they are entreprenurial, aggressive, and creative out-of-the-box thinkers, they’ve built capabilities that make them much more than that. By forming a partnership with a big company in China, they have put freight-forwarding capabilities (which, standing alone, consist merely of commissioning the transport companies to move goods — usually by land, then by sea, and then by land — and keeping track of where the goods are throughout their journey) into the same service offering as warehousing, pick and pack, splitting and combining shipments, and handwork like stickering or prepack assembly. And they deliver these services at Asia prices, not Western prices. SBS wrapped it all up with a great web-based reporting system that “sees” the goods from end to end any way you want to, tied a ribbon around it, and called it eDC for “electronic Distribution Center.”
The capabilities this offers a publisher — with no capital investment — doing a lot of printing in China for the American or European markets are enormous. They can consolidate shipments from four printers, split off 700 separate packages for the Barnes & Noble stores, the shipments to the top five distribution center customers, and 200 review copies (with a press release folded in), and send each its most efficient way directly from Asia.
And they can hold books in Asia if they aren’t needed right away and the publisher’s warehouse is full or would like them “metered” in. I am aware of two major houses who have expressed warehouse space pain within the past year. I don’t imagine asking for cash for more warehouse space would be well received in the current business environment.
And eDC can customize looks at those shipments so that each stakeholder inside or outside the publisher can see their own view: their distribution center, their customers’ distribution centers, their sales people, and their editors. This can take an enormous communications burden off their organization.
The challenge SBS faces is that the freight forwarder is viewed as the most commoditized and least important component of the supply chain (they don’t absorb much of the budget compared to the other costs of delivering the inventory). Many publishers just let the printer “deliver” to their warehouse (so the printer may be choosing the freight forwarder). In that case, the production director is “buying” what SBS is selling, and it isn’t crazy that production’s first instinct is to let the printer handle it. (After all, they’re trying to choose the lowest “landed price” for the book, aren’t they?)
Some larger houses have a “supply chain management” function, which takes a broader view. But, even there, vested interests come into play. Does the house need to continue showing “throughput” to justify distribution center fixed costs? Does the supply chain department or production department even want to develop a routine involvement with marketing functions like review copies and sales interactions like delivery to Barnes & Noble stores?
Print book publishing is shrinking because of the alternatives being offered by technology. Sometimes technology can turn that shrinking into an advantage by collapsing functions, or reconfiguring the relationship between departments. But publishers are structurally resistant to entertaining propositions that could do just that. There’s no widely applicable solution to this problem except to have an energetic COO that looks for solutions with a broader organizational perspectives that her functional heads might resist.