What the tools of the trade tell us: Emma Barnes

What the tools of the trade tell us: Emma Barnes

"These are things all professional writers should be paying attention to," writes Emma Barnes in the address she made at our inaugural Author Day. "Not just the words, but the way you work." Predictably, Barnes' comments were challenging for some. A certain proportion of attendees at any publishing event will have glazed eyes as soon as the word technology is uttered. But those who listened heard something intriguing. Barnes went beyond suggestions of tech capabilities for publishers and writers. She went on to propose: "Once the basics are in place, I would challenge the authors’ representatives—the agencies, the societies—to focus on owning audience data, to get the swing of power back towards authors."—Porter Anderson

'No system or tool can mend a broken publishing company'

I founded a little publisher that I still run, called Snowbooks, in March 2003. And in about April 2003 I realised that there weren’t any decent or affordable tools to run my company properly. So I spent the last decade and a bit learning to write code so I could create my own. Over that time we’ve all witnessed other amazing software come to market. Cloud-based apps and web services help us to do everything nowadays, from ordering the weekly shop to developing complex character arcs.

About four years ago, other publishers became interested in those tools I'd developed, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years working with other publishers of all shapes and sizes: one-man bands and teams of a hundred, trade and academic, digital only, POD only, and more traditional litho-oriented publishers.

And the one thing that I’ve learned is that no system or tool can mend a broken publishing company. If your processes aren’t right, you have to fix them first, before you cement them with software.

I spend hours counting the number of spreadsheets in publishers that contain almost the same information, and the number of meetings that take hours because there’s no one version of metadata, or scheduling information.

In one small publisher we counted 27 different spellings of an author’s name in various places. His name was something like Professor JR Bond, so there was "Bond, JR", "JR Bonde," "J.R. Bond", "Professor J Bond", and on and on. It caused chaos. Who wrote what? Who’s owed royalties? To which contact record's address do we send the cheque?

'Not just the words, but the way you work'

In the author’s world, technology has changed the way you work to an extent you might not even recognise. You might use Scrivener to organise your plot and character development rather than Post-it notes, or Google to look up spellings rather than a printed dictionary, or to research backgrounds and stories rather than an encyclopaedia. You might use a laptop rather than a typewriter or pen and pencil, and a Google calendar rather than a pocket diary. Our lives are shaped by access to tools of a world that simply didn’t exist when we were kids.

Publishing companies operate in this same changing world, but I don’t think all of them have caught up with it. Some have, but you can spot the ones who are lagging.

  • If the royalty statement you receive is an Excel spreadsheet, or looks suspiciously like a hand-typed Word document, or if it’s late, you know that they’ve not adopted the appropriate royalty management systems.
  • If they ask you to resend your address every time they need to post you something, they’ve not adopted the right CRM tools.
  • If they say that Jane’s on holiday this week and she’s the only one who can get back to you, they’ve not got a central repository for their project management. If you need to chase them for triggered advance payments, their systems aren’t telling them it’s due.
  • If your biographical note refuses to update on Amazon despite you asking a hundred times for it to be changed, they’ve not adopted ONIX management tools.

The awful thing is that the publishing companies that are guilty of those sorts of things might have bought tools that they think will solve all these problems, but they might not have stopped to address the underlying process problems. So I can rattle off some of the tools that exist for publishers to use, and all these tools can be used by publishers of all sizes, but it’s the processes that need to be fixed first before we ever get to talking about systems. There are things like baked-in XML imports in InDesign so publishers can create their catalogs automatically. There’s Slack, a team messaging app, and Asana, a project management tool that gets data out of endless email threads and into easy-to-curate projects. I love PandaDoc, which is a way to write and send contracts that keeps an audit trail of which pages have been read. (No one ever scrolls past the money bit.) We always recommend Google Docs, which let multiple users edit the same document at the same time. There are cloud based metadata, production, rights and royalty systems. And there’s Shopify -- a Canadian-based ecommerce site with an API so beautiful it’d make a grown man weep.

And there are open source web development frameworks like Ruby on Rails and open source databases like Postgres, a world class alternative to proprietary databases such as Oracle. You know in films like Iron Man, there are big blinky server machines in the background to indicate “tech”? Those are Oracle Exadata Servers. They’re $1 million, $2 million just for the hardware, and more millions for the middleware and database software and consultancy. And in this modern open-source world we have completely free alternatives. It’s an amazing time to be a developer. The cost of systems is going down; access to world-class software is going up.

So those are some of the tools already available. But it’s the basic skills and ability to manage data that is lacking.

Do any publishers here know what normalisation is? This trade is run on standalone spreadsheets: no data validation, no de-duplication. We have managing editors—professional project managers, in other words—who are English graduates with no training in how to manage a complex series of dependent tasks, and no formal training in negotiation, or project management. And there is a deep-rooted failure at senior management level to believe that people in-house can or should learn to code.

And whilst I think that authors have more naturally adopted writing and feedback tools that work for them, and adjusted the way they work to take advantage of those tools, even if they haven’t, it doesn’t stop you from delivering your end of the bargain. Whether you use Post-it notes, or a notebook, or whatever, if the words are good, that’s your bit done.

'When publishers and authors try to work together'

It’s when publishers and authors try to work together—to join up the bits of the supply chain—that we’re all doing a pretty bad job.

In my decade and a bit of experience, the proper use of character and paragraph styles in Word is still a challenge, and that hinders the ability of publishers to have a smooth production workflow. Some authors have cracked this and more, such as the folk who write in XML markup, or who use cloud-based project management tools to stay on top of their deadlines. But they’re in the minority.

This is basic craftsmanship, the basic ability to use the tools of your trade. These are things all professional writers should be paying attention to: not just the words, but the way you work.

There’s a low level of expert adoption of tools but there’s also a fear that stops tools being used to best effect as well. I always see a suspicion of print on demand in contract negotiations. POD is a way to monetise the backlist, to have an efficient stockholding management strategy, to adopt just-in-time supply chain principles, but there’s no sense at all of authors encouraging its use as a means of production in the supply chain. It's more a sense of "what are you trying to take away from us"?

If we wanted to work well together, we would come up with some decent processes, then we’d adopt the right tools. If we want to share status updates, we’ll use Slack. If we want to have seamless product development we’d integrate with Scrivener. If we wanted to be efficient, we’d use Google Docs to collect author questionnaire responses.

So there’s a lot of work to do. And once the basics are in place, I would challenge the authors’ representatives -- the agencies, the societies -- to focus on owning audience data, to get the swing of power back towards authors. Because those who own the customer data own the balance of power. And the tools exist.

  • Google Analytics let you see which named network has looked at your site. There’s HubSpot, which automates marketing campaigns.
  • You can use Amazon APIs to allow you to extract and chart your sales-ranking data.
  • There’s Mail Chimp reader analytics.
  • Goodreads’ API lets you harvest and rank all sorts of data and reviews over time. 
  • You can ping Twitter’s API programmatically to get all mentions of all your authors’ names and books, globally, over time.
  • Google Books’ API gives you the power of Google’s search to collate, collect and query all sorts of book data and show patterns of review, use, buying and promotion. 
  • Instead of a microsite for one book, or a rubbishy Blogspot page, why don’t agencies create author-specific transactional websites that would allow authors to be in control of their brand across their whole career, and assign them the rights to take that site with them regardless of publisher or agency?

There’s no technical impedance 

It’s a matter of strategy.

What do the tools of the trade tell us?

That we leave a lot of their power on the table because our processes, collective organisation, skills and attitudes are broken.

We have to fix them first, and then we can sensibly navigate the mosaic landscape of systems that are on offer to meet our shared objective: to reach more readers, to sell more books.

Emma Barnes can be reached at Bibliocloud and at Snowbooks.

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