By Karina Mikhli
In this age of digital publishing, so much of the focus has been on content. But the simple fact is, no matter what your content, getting the right process (and people) in place is paramount to achieving success. As I’ve worked my way up from production editor through the publishing chain, I have often been hired to “fix” workflow problems, and regardless of the type of publishing (I’ve worked in most types) or what the finished product is (whether print or digital), there are certain requisites to ensuring a streamlined and efficient workflow.
These basics are worth bearing in mind no matter what type of publishing you’re working in, no matter where you are in the world.
Step One: Aligning Expectations
For a project to be completed on time, on budget, and as expected (e.g., high quality), it is imperative that everyone involved be aware of its parameters, deadlines, components, etc. from the get-go. Surprises may be pleasant in your personal life (or not), but they are a disaster when it comes to getting work done. Below are a few suggestions to avoid these nasty surprises:
- Contracts: All department heads should own the boilerplate language that affects their function, and any variations or change to the boilerplate must require their sign-off. It is not enough to ask their approval as you pass them in the hall or supposedly by phone — it must be documented and clearly signed-off.
- Author Guidelines: Create easy-to-read, brief author guidelines outlining the entire publishing process and send these to the authors with their contracts and a cover pages summarizing the highlights. Stress what he or she will need to do, when, and in what format. The editor should follow-up to ensure the author has at least read the summary and understands what is expected.
- Product and Workflow Type: In this day and age when most publishers have a combination of print only, print to digital, digital only and many other variations, it is important that everyone know exactly under which of these categories any given project falls under so that they can plan and execute appropriately.
- Communication Alert System: Even when expectations are aligned up front, changes sometimes occur; it is therefore important to have a system in place whereby these changes get communicated to all appropriate parties. If you have a workflow management system that can automate this, great; if not, create e-mail distribution lists and clear guidelines as to who sends out which alert.
Step Two: Schedules
Before you go down the “speed to market” route, here are a few things to consider:
- Is this actually good for the business? In other words, will this help you sell more books? I remember a Director of Marketing telling me that books released before six months weren’t given enough time for “sell-through” and therefore the timing wasn’t good for business.
- Do you have the resources to shorten schedules? There’s an inverse relationship between speed and cost/quality. So if you want it faster, and still want to maintain quality, you’ll have to pay more and/or bring on more resources — which also means more money. Is this worth it?
- How long does each department need for their part of the process? Add a small buffer since things will get delayed and/or mistakes may happen. Discuss all the different types of products/workflows.
- How long do the authors need — realistically — to do their part? Again, add a small buffer since most authors have a “day job” and getting back to you is not their priority.
- Are there any conferences or other events where books or bound galleys will mean appreciable sales?
So instead of aiming for shorter schedules because asked to and/or someone thinks it will improve profits, sit down with all departments involved and discuss the following:
Take all the above and create standard turnarounds for each product type and a system whereby rush schedules need sign-off by people in the position to decide whether the rush makes business sense or not.
Step Three: Systems
Although some companies will have more to invest than others in systems, the following tools are the minimum needed for a proper functioning workflow:
- File management system: Whether on a network drive, in the cloud, or outsourced, every company needs a clearly defined naming convention and place to save all documents and files. Imagine not owning your content and having to track it down every time something is up for reprint? Imagine not knowing where the latest version of an important form is located — or which version to use?
- Title Management System: At the minimum, project details and schedule should be shared. If a company cannot invest in a large system, Excel, Project, or Access can be used. If there is money to invest, there are systems that can be bought or built that can provide much more functionality.
- Content Management System: In this day and age of digital and repurposing of content, it is vital to have a repository for this content. Authors can be allowed to write directly into the CMS, searches can be run to see what you already own on any given topic, and cross-media publishing and updates can be done more easily.
There is obviously more to a good workflow than just the above, but these are the common denominators I’ve seen and which are still necessary even when dealing with new media.
Karina Mikhli is a publishing executive with a Master’s in Publishing and over ten years of experience in different sectors of the industry. Her expertise is in managing editorial, production operations, and process management.