Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Software as a strategy: prefabricated publishers


Activities that make money aren’t strategic. Activities that affect a company’s ability to make money in the future are strategic. Where is the leverage? That’s what is “strategic.” Only software provides significant leverage in business today. (Alan Cooper – https://storify.com/fakebaldur/software-and-strategy)

Most publishers today don’t understand the role software has come to play in business strategy.

They all use the same software for production (InDesign and other assorted Adobe curses). They all use the same software to organise and manage projects (a mix of calendars and Excel). They all use the same printers and the same processes for working with them (if emailing a PDF can be called a process). Their ebooks are all delivered and restricted using the same software (Adobe’s DRM server or Amazon’s Kindle platform). And, finally, all of their ebooks are delivered to the same reading software (again, Adobe based or the Kindle).

That they are all using identical software (with minor variations) means that they are all executing the same strategy: play the new title casino until you win with a bestseller.

There is no real differentiation between them except for in size and theme.

The exceptions, though, make for interesting case studies.

‘Lost My Name’ has sold one hundred thousand copies of the one title it offers.

That isn’t entirely accurate since all of those copies were customised for the buyer.

Everything they did and all of the resources they used were also available to regular publishers. They partner with existing print-on-demand printers. They hired an illustrator just like any other publisher would. The difference is that at every stage they built their own software to test and execute their strategy. They sell a print product but software is key to why they work.

(And, lucky for us, they have documented some of their processes and their history in the ‘Making Lost My Name’ collection over at Medium. You really should read it all.)

Another example is the company Safari Books. Interesting because their entire business model is a transformation of existing book titles through software.

The core idea is the fact that ebooks and digital text isn’t bound by the same limitations as print. You can aggregate hundreds, if not thousands of books and offer them through a unified interface. You can break apart books and present chapters. You can help readers find exactly the bits of the book that they need to solve their problems. Safari Books’s value is entirely the leverage they get from being a software-centred company.

(And, again, they have an excellent blog, so you really don’t have any excuse for not being familiar with how companies like this can work.)

If the founders of Comixology had decided to launch using off-the-shelf software like most other businesses in publishing tend to do, then when they launched their reader in 2009 they would have had launch as a bog-standard PDF retailer. They would have been forced to use Adobe’s DRM system and a reading system using their RMSDK. (FXL ePub came out a year later and was at first a proprietary Apple extension.) They wouldn’t have been able to create their interface, reading flow, small-screen adaptation, retail model, or their user experience. It would have been an entirely different company with an entirely different, probably unsuccessful, strategy. (Due in large part to the fact that, at the time, comics have historically been very badly served by the pre-existing digital publishing software stack. It’s slightly better now, but that’s mostly due to the emergence of well-designed custom comics apps like Chunky or Comic Zeal.)

Being in control of their own software stack is what enabled them to build the company up to the point where they are today.

(Also note how having your own software stack doesn’t preclude customer friendly format policies. Comics have moved over to DRM-free formats at a much larger scale than trade books.)

The risk with attempting ‘digital’ innovation at the edges of an existing business is that software is the most interesting when it is at the strategic heart of the business. If you stick to off-the-shelf software for your production, organisation, communication, management, and sales, what the publisher will end up with will always look like a book:

  • A single title…

  • With a per-copy price…

  • Somewhere between 50 000–200 000 words long…

  • With one version per format…

  • And every buyer of a format gets an identical copy.

Ask somebody in a business like this to create something experimental or do something experimental with existing titles and all you will get are those same titles in a slightly different, but strategically identical context. Get asked to put books on the web, ‘but in an interesting way’, and you get web pages that are sold for five pounds a pop. It isn’t the fault of the people publishers are asking to do the ‘innovating’; they are simply bound by the publisher’s existing strategy.

It’s the Ikea approach to business. Company strategies as flat-packed prefabricated furniture. You get all of the components beforehand ready to put together. The only variation allowed are the configuration options given to you buy the original manufacturer.

(And, showing just how apt the Ikea analogy is, both come with truly indecipherable manuals and how-to guides.)

You just bought your business in a box from Adobe.

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