What I learned from Macmillan Educational’s head of digital publishing

Went to see what insights I could glean from Tim Oliver, head of digital publishing at Macmillan Educational, speaking at a Book Machine meeting yesterday eve, and learned this:

90% of book sales in the UK are still print, 10% e-books

95% of profits are from print, 5% from e-books

There is huge consumer demand for digital formats, but publishers are struggling to find ways to make digital bring home the profit margins to which they are accustomed.

It’s all about publishing in multiple digital formats while not abandoning print

Heavy emphasis on keeping cost low

Major push to centralise all digital publishing within a company so different departments aren’t constantly reinventing the wheel

Efficiency requires sticking with the same technology, developing, revising and adhering to strict process manual and rulebook so all players in a project work in a streamlined and integrated way

Roles previously outsourced are now being ‘backsourced’ i.e. brought back in-house, like:

  • web designers (not quite what emc design, sponsors of the event, wished to hear)
  • software developers who build frameworks to create apps, websites, interactivities…
  • training on how to use the software, which is largely done online
  • testing – when products have to work on so many devices which are themselves being constantly updated, it is cheaper to keep a cupboard full of the latest tablets, phones, ebook readers… than outsourcing

New role of update controller is essential, to ensure products keep up with changes to operating systems of existing devices and work on new devices.

Lengthy development time and the need to respond to particular development issues as they arise requires flexibility to tweak and change projects midstream

Much talk about the wonders of Agile vs Waterfall as an approach to project management. (This is surely where freelances and small outfits have an advantage over mega digital publishing outfits)

Interesting point raised about who has IP rights over software developed by techies in-house (if anyone present doubted that the company should have full rights, they didn’t dare speak out. The case in question was apparently in the hands of lawyers, so there must surely be some question about the rights and wrongs. )

Points raised too about distribution. Traditional distributors are also selling digital stuff, but will this be superseded by aggregators like Amazon, Apple, Google? Or direct to consumer? (point not raised: how will distribution power of mighty aggregators impact on the shape of the industry and who/what gets or does not get published)

So an interesting evening, but a slightly strange experience being among a bunch of capable and motivated editorial and design people discussing, in their own time, how to be the best and most successful in the digital publishing industry without any reference to what the industry is doing to people like them.

No mention that in moving from Oxford to London, driven largely by the demands of centralising digital production, Macmillan Educational will be losing the best part of a quite exceptional team of people who have expertise and experience not just in educational publishing but also the languages and the cultural backgrounds of the markets they serve.

No worries about the most recent round of redundancies at OUP and Pearson (both related to their digital programmes), or about the fact that OUP  is now advertising a load of jobs that look suspiciously like the ones just declared redundant.

No mention of the pressure on the people who remain being asked to do such ambitious, integrated, multiskilled stuff with minimal staff to keep the costs down.

Or on how these pressures and stresses aren’t always resolved by streamlining efficiencies and process manuals, but sometimes by demanding too much from too few people to meet too tight deadlines, which some people thrive on at some points in their life, but can make life miserable for many.

Maybe that’s why they call it Book Machine…

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