30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

The new productivity tools

With every new app I download, install or have to use, I keep asking myself: “Do I feel more productive than I did before I downloaded it?” Comparing notes with a business associate the other week, I realised that the arsenal of daily tools I use continues to expand since I last blogged about this topic. At times, I feel like Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” trying to keep on top of this digital production line.

Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

In particular, the number of communication tools (instant messaging and conferencing) keeps growing; document and file management continues to be a battle largely between operating systems; and most collaboration tools struggle to make the UI as seamless as it should be – so that the UX is all about the “process” for creating, updating and maintaining projects, and not the quality of outcomes.

So, as an update to my previous blog, here’s a few thoughts on recent experiences:

Meetings/Chat

Added to my regular list are Telegram, WeChat, UberConference, BlueJean and RingCentral. Meanwhile, Microsoft (Skype), Google (Hangouts) and Apple (FaceTime) all compete for our communications. (Even Amazon has its own conferencing app, Chime.) One of the biggest challenges I find is browser compatibility (when using via a desktop or laptop) – presumably because vendors want to tie you into their proprietary software eco-systems.

Project Management/Collaboration

Still looking for the perfect solution…. Products are either so hard-coded that they are inflexible, or so customisable that they can lack structure. I suspect that part of the problem is projects are still seen as linear (which makes sense from a progress and completion perspective), but we collaborate at multiple levels and tasks (with corresponding inter-dependencies), which don’t fit into a neat project timeline.

Document/File Management

I seem to spend most of my day in Google Drive (largely thanks to Gmail and Drive) and Dropbox (which continues to improve). I find Dropbox more robust than Google Drive for file management and document sharing, and it continues to expand the types of files it supports and other functionality. Whereas, with Drive, version control is a bit clunky, unless the document was first created in Google Docs.

Productivity

Overall, Google Docs is still not as good as MS Office (but does anyone use OneDrive, let alone iCloud/iWorks, for document sharing or collaboration?)

One thing I have noticed is that my use of native iOS productivity tools has dropped off completely – if anything, I am now using more MS Office iOS apps (e.g., Lens, OneNote), and some Google Docs apps for iOS. Plus the DropboxPaper iOS app.

CRM

I’m starting to use Zoho (having outgrown Streak) – and I’ve heard that there is even a Zoho plug-in that connects with LinkedIn, which I shall soon be exploring. But as with Collaboration tools, getting the right balance between rigidity and flexibility is not easy.

Next week: The first of three musical interludes….

 

Big Data – Panacea or Pandemic?

You’ve probably heard that “data is the new oil” (but you just need to know where to drill?). Or alternatively, that the growing lakes of “Big Data” hold all the answers, but they don’t necessarily tell us which questions to ask. It feels like Big Data is the cure for everything, yet far from solving our problems, it is simply adding to our confusion.

Cartoon by Thierry Gregorious (Sourced from Flickr under Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved)

There’s no doubt that customer, transaction, behavioral, geographic and demographic data points can be valuable for analysis and forecasting. When used appropriately, and in conjunction with relevant tools, this data can even throw up new insights. And when combined with contextual and psychometric analysis can give rise to whole new data-driven businesses.

Of course, we often use simple trend analysis to reveal underlying patterns and changes in behaviour. (“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”). But the core issue is, what is this data actually telling us? For example, if the busiest time for online banking is during commuting hourswhat opportunities does this present? (Rather than, “how much more data can we generate from even more frequent data capture….”)

I get that companies want to know more about their customers so they can “understand” them, and anticipate their needs. Companies are putting more and more effort into analysing the data they already have, as well as tapping into even more sources of data, to create even more granular data models, all with the goal of improving customer experience. It’s just a shame that few companies have a really good single view of their customers, because often, data still sits in siloed operations and legacy business information systems.

There is also a risk, that by trying to enhance and further personalise the user experience, companies are raising their customers’ expectations to a level that cannot be fulfilled. Full customisation would ultimately mean creating products with a customer base of one. Plus customers will expect companies to really “know” them, to treat them as unique individuals with their own specific needs and preferences. Totally unrealistic, of course, because such solutions are mostly impossible to scale, and are largely unsustainable.

Next week: Startup Governance

 

Spaghetti in the Cloud

The combo of Cloud+Wireless+Mobile has transformed the way I work. For one thing, storing, accessing and sharing documents is now so much easier than having to send everything as bulky e-mail attachments tethered to a hard drive. However, as an independent consultant, with every new project, business or client I work with, I find I need to use different collaboration tools to be compatible with their workflow, IT systems or platform preferences. Great as all these collaborative apps are, the fact that many don’t talk to one another makes it feel like I am being sucked into a mess of virtual cables that don’t interconnect. Sort of “Spaghetti in the Cloud”.

Image sourced from Flickr

It feels like all my apps are unconnected yet tangled up in the Cloud (Image sourced from Flickr)

There is definitely a battle to dominate enterprise collaboration, with Facebook’s recent launch of Workplace to compete with the likes of Slack, the anticipated revamp of Microsoft’s Office 365 Groups when Yammer is decommissioned in early 2017, and Atlassian’s own HipChat. But aside from enterprise social media and chat, there is now competition across multiple collaboration tools. Here is a list of just a few of the productivity apps I have been exposed to across the various projects I work on:

Meetings/Chat

  • Skype for Business (formerly Lync)
  • Google Hangouts
  • Zoom
  • Cisco WebEx for iOS
  • GoToMeeting
  • Fuze
  • Join.Me
  • WhatsApp

Project Management

  • Samepage
  • Mightybell
  • Basecamp
  • Trello
  • Smartsheet

Document/File Management

  • Dropbox
  • OneDrive
  • Google Drive
  • FileApp (iOS)
  • FileManager Pro (iOS)
  • Docs To Go (iOS)

Productivity

  • Google Docs
  • Apple iWork
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • SlideShark

CRM

  • SalesForce
  • Insightly
  • Streak

And this list doesn’t include single-purpose apps like POP, Simplist and Ideament that allow some project sharing; the entire suite of creative, social media, blogging and CMS tools that organisations increasingly embrace as enterprise solutions; and the growing number of apps that support text, photo and video editing on mobile devices.

While some of these tools support content, file, document and even project sharing from within the app, a lot of functionality is native, and therefore embedded, and is not transferable. So I end up having to learn (and unlearn) the features, quirks and limitations of each one, project by project, client by client.

As I have written before, based on my experience of creating digital music (plus using and beta-testing iOS apps), an app like Audiobus set the standard for product compatibility and content integration. So much so, that Apple ended up supporting Inter-App Audio as a new standard for iOS. Since Audiobus, similar apps have emerged that allow audio and MIDI apps to run together on a single device, and to share/stream content between different mobile devices and desktop DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations): Midiflow, musicIO, AudioShare, AudioCopy, Audreio, studiomux etc.

If only enterprise software and productivity app developers would have a similar approach to product design and collaboration….

Next week: StartupVic’s Pitch Night for October