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The Death of the Publishing IT Department?

The emergence of a cloud-based book publishing infrastructure will change everything about how we do our jobs.

Editorial by Ted Hill

Ted Hill, publishing consultant

For decades now, forward-thinking publishers have invested scarce dollars in software systems to improve their financial management, operations, production, sales, and marketing capabilities — and many of them became larger and stronger for it. New technologies often offer a competitive advantage to the publishers who were able to find the right way to apply them to their businesses.

Usually (but not always), the innovators were the largest companies who had the professional and financial resources to build and maintain their own systems. Whether custom-built or assembled from best of breed components, all of these systems required a growing cadre of IT professionals to build and support them. Like it or not, however, in the coming years a new generation of technology services that I call “cloud-based book publishing” will grow to permeate every aspect of the publishing process and fundamentally change the role of the publishing IT professional.

I am referring of course to the ongoing migration of technology infrastructure from the proprietary platforms of our PCs and company servers, to the shared platform of software services on the internet called the “cloud.”  Also known as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), the impact of cloud-based book publishing will be felt by every worker in the organization as we remake some of our most fundamental editorial, production, marketing, and sales processes.

In recent years we have already witnessed how basic business tools like word-processing, email, presentation software, and spreadsheets have been reinvented as cloud services (i.e. Google Docs). Evidence abounds of increasingly specialized cloud-based software applications for publishers — applications that may have once lived on company servers, but are now accessed through shared platforms on the Web.

Edelweiss and NetGalley are two prominent examples of innovative web-based services that are rapidly changing the way publishers think about their catalogs and Advance Reading Copies. Given the richness and low cost of these services, there are very few publishers today who could justify building their own online catalogs or eGalley delivery services. Even more important, there are now also thousands of marketers, sales reps, and publicists working to develop new practices to make the best use of these shared marketing platforms.

Going deeper into the publishing process, we are now also seeing the rapidly growing acceptance of digital asset management, production workflow, rights management, and other products that are licensed and used as hosted solutions rather than being installed and maintained in-house.

ethernet internet cables

In theory, it’s not hard to imagine a day when the entire book publishing process could be successfully managed by a virtual network of skilled professionals with nothing more than access to the Internet. And in fact, such models exist in the form of Smashwords, and perhaps a dozen or more other publishing platforms that cater to the self-publishing market. It takes a greater leap of the imagination, however, to envision how this might play out in the industrial-strength corporate book publishing that currently generates the vast majority of book sales and revenues, but at some point that day will surely come.

Like all changes in the book industry, adoption of a cloud-based book publishing model will be inconsistent and take place at varying rates depending on the size, resources, and company culture of a given house. In one possible scenario, one of the largest houses may make a wholesale shift to cloud-based book publishing infrastructure in an effort to dramatically cut back on IT overhead costs and leapfrog over their rivals (think of HarperCollins’ recent move to shift the fulfillment of all of their new releases to RR Donnelley as a strategy to reduce their physical inventory fulfillment infrastructure costs).

Or, under another scenario, we may see some of the smaller houses adopt cloud infrastructure out of pure economic necessity (think of the adoption many university presses to POD/short-run printing strategies to reduce their cost of inventory management).

Or, we may see the emergence of a cluster of rapidly growing, “lean-and-mean” new publishing houses that are able to create exciting, highly sellable titles and successfully bring them to market without the traditional trappings of book publishers like formal editorial, production, sales, and marketing departments — and the installed software systems that bind them together.

Or, most likely, we will see some combination of all of the above.

At the end of the day, though, the significance of cloud-based book publishing is not that it will simply reduce IT costs, or enable users to get better versions of the latest tools sooner (although it should serve both these goals). Instead, cloud infrastructure will force a change in the role of the publishing IT department from that of a service shop that builds and maintains infrastructure, to that of a consultant whose job it is to understand how new digital tools and practices can have the greatest impact within the organization and then act as an agent for change.

Going forward, therefore, perhaps the greatest benefit of cloud-based book publishing is a transformation of the role of technology and the IT professional within every job function. Advantage will no longer necessarily go to the publishers who invest the capital and resources required to build the most robust technology infrastructure, but to those who invest the time to integrate the new technologies into their businesses and develop the new practices that will make them pay off.

DISCUSS: Is Your IT Dept Helping or Hindering Your Transition to Digital?

With over 25 years experience in the publishing industry, Ted has launched dozens of new businesses and business initiatives. As a business development consultant with deep knowledge of the publishing and information industries Ted is a frequent speaker at industry events on the subject of how new technologies impact the business of publishing.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted July 13, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the NetGalley mention!

    In the publishers we work with, this line sums up the key change that I already see happening–”…a change in the role of the publishing IT department from that of a service shop that builds and maintains infrastructure, to that of a consultant whose job it is to understand how new digital tools and practices can have the greatest impact within the organization and then act as an agent for change.”

    Great article.

  2. Posted July 14, 2011 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    You’re exactly right Ted.
    I think this is a positive thing for publishers. It will allow them to get back to basics – finding and nurturing talent and unearthing the really good stories that are out there.

  3. Andrew Brenneman
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Very comprehensively stated. The age of big integration projects is largely over for publishing houses.

    However, I think there is plenty for IT to do in the age of the cloud:
    - in defining and enforcing standards,
    - designing APIs,
    - managing RFI/RFP processes
    - and creating and managing SLAs.

    There is much to do for the technical team, albeit of a different nature than the activities of today.

  4. Lance C.
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I’m old enough to remember the first iteration of “cloud computing”. We called it “timesharing” back then. There’s a reason we migrated away from it and put the computing power on users’ desktops: timesharing didn’t work very well. It required exponential increases in centralized computing resources and never-ending upgrades to storage and communications. When it failed, it took out hours (or days) of organizational productivity.

    Now everyone is getting excited by “cloud-based apps” and “cloud services”. This is just timesharing with the added wrinkle that you can’t call the IT desk on the third floor when it doesn’t work. The beauty of distributed computing is that even if the phones and networks are down — a fairly common occurrence even today — you can still get some work done. If, however, your local computer has no on-board software or storage, it’s nothing but a doorstop when it can’t connect to the Internet.

    I’ve found that most people who enthuse about cloud computing (a) weren’t in IT before the 1990s (as I was), (b) have never lived through a major interruption in their communications, and (c) have never lost anything valuable to a third party. I don’t doubt that corporate bean-counters look at cloud computing as a chance to unload all those high-priced IT specialists. However, when business interruption starts to become a major budget line-item due to cloud failures, they may find out what a bargain those on-the-scene IT specialists are.

  5. Dave B
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    I have to say I agree 100% with Lance.
    There is definitly some merritt, but I think it can prpduce as much harm as it can solve. I have done 24 hour shifts with MAJOR system failures occured, I have also seen the company I worked for be brought to its knees when the corporate base which was in a different county form the shipping facility lost their connection due to a MPLS outage, and we had to print and do everythign by currier. But at least all our data and processing ability was local. With this all being on the cloud it would have become exponentially worse.
    I came after the days of time shares, but I am also a minimalist when it comes to corporate servers/networking, and adding additional layers just causes more support, and the less that is in house, the less we can fix to get you back up and running in a timely fashion.
    Also, computing and storage has to occure SOMEWHERE, you are not removing your 50 Terrabytes of storage, you are putting it elsewhere, you are not removing the processing needed for your applications, you are moving it elsewhere. So this really doesnt save anything in the long run, really, it simply moves it.

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