Publishing 2.0

When Peter Dart first entered the book publishing industry as an electronic data processing manager 25 years ago, publishing books was pretty much all that the industry worried about.

Back then the company was called Penguin Australia, but a series of amalgamations has seen it evolve into Pearson Australia Group, a division of the UK-based company Pearson PLC.

As information services director Dart has been responsible for IT operations across Australia and New Zealand, and supporting initiatives in India, and China. But as he prepares to wrap up his quarter-century career with company, the biggest changes are yet to come.

Pearson globally has been experiencing a revolution in its internal systems as it prepares itself for an increasingly digital future. Dart describes it as modernising the whole of the publishing cycle.

During the last ten years he has watched the music industry struggle with the challenges that were inflicted upon it by the Internet, and which have subsequently decimated that industry. Those same changes now lie in wait for book publishing, and Dart is determined that his industry will not suffer the same fate.

Pearson Australia’s imprints today include Penguin, Viking, Hamish Hamilton, Dorling Kindersley, and Ladybird, covering cookbooks and biographies, fiction, political writing and non-fiction, as well as educational books from Longman, Rigby, Heinemann and Prentice Hall (the parent company also publishes the Financial Times in London, and operates businesses in the testing and assessment industry).

But over the years Pearson has expanded significantly from being a simple regional book publisher. Pearson Australia is also responsible for delivery of technology services including its BookMaster enterprise resource planning system into New Zealand, India (Penguin is now the leading trade publisher in India), China and South Africa, It also runs the United Book Distributors business that provides warehousing and logistics services to its own brands, as well as to rivals Allen Unwin and Simon and Schuster.

“We are running a multi-company, multi-geography and multi-currency computer system, and basically acting sort of like cloud computing service for the ERP of Allen Unwin,” Dart says.

Then there are also the standard desktop and telecommunications requirements for a company whose Australian staff numbers about 850 (out of 42,000 worldwide), including around 100 Apple Macintoshes, and a huge amount of storage.

Hence Pearson globally has been experiencing a revolution in its internal systems as it prepares itself for an increasingly digital future, centred around the Documentum document management system from EMC. Dart describes it as modernising the whole of the publishing cycle.

“Traditionally we have produced a book, and then somebody has scanned those pages in and turned it into something electronic or, if we are lucky, we have taken the PDF and put that into an electronic form,” Dart says.

The company began its electronic journey around 2000 when it introduced its Pearson Asset Library system in the US, which was used primarily for managing versions in its higher education books so they were suitable for each region they were sold. A parallel system was also introduced for images, including the entire Dorling Kindersley image library.

That has been sufficient for Pearson to produce books in PDF or the EPUB e-book standard created by the International Digital Publishing Forum, an open standard for ‘reflowable’ text that can be optimised for display on devices of varying screen size. But it is still a model that puts the printed publication first.

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Challenges with matching the metadata between the systems, storing video content and joining data between the two databases led to the move to implement Documentum and store everything in one place. New devices, such as the Kindle e-book reader from Amazon or the Sony E-Reader, are also forcing a rethink.

“What Documentum is about is really creating the digital objects first, and then having the physical book as an output,” Dart says. “In education, things are rapidly changing to the point where the State of California has announced that the schoolbooks there will all go electronic and there won’t be any physical books.

“That is a huge change for our company -- focusing on the physical object to becoming effectively a software company.”

“Today in Australia you can’t buy a Sony Reader and you can’t buy an Amazon Kindle,” Dart says. “There are a couple of e-reader devices out there but they are not based around global standards and they haven’t really taken off. It is going to happen, but it is a matter of when.”

In the US Pearson has rolled out the first implementation of Documentum for its middle school science titles, and is now developing business cases around the world for further implementations.

Pearson Australia is also making significant investments into e-commerce systems to support its electronic journey, which will enable buyers to log into the system, interrogate inventory and place orders directly. Dart has been investigating the Microsoft .Net framework, as well as Salesforce.com, but still sees significant issues with cloud computing interfaces.

“Interfacing stuff is very challenging and I think is often grossly underestimated,” Dart says. “Salesforce.com looks cheap until you try to build an interface and support it. So cloud computing at the moment in my view is limited to stand alone functions, or functions that can be simply interfaced rather than real-time, active type interfaces.”

Rise of the e-Book

The evolution of print publishing has been a quiet one in comparison to the music industry. According the director of online sales at the US academic and trade book publishing company John Wiley Sons, Peter Balis, his company has been producing e-books since the late 1990s, although originally these were static PDF format books that were sold to libraries and institutions.

Balis describes e-books as a small business that provided some incremental revenue to Wiley thanks to the relatively low production demands and the high prices of the titles it was selling. Until 2005, that is.

“Wiley’s world changed overnight in 2005,” Balis says. “That is when Amazon purchased Mobipocket, and at that time we learned of Amazon’s initiative to launch its own e-books store.”

That meant adapting to the flowable text format that Amazon had acquired with Mobipocket. “The writing was basically on the wall for us,” Balis says. “We knew there were customers who wanted these e-books, so we had an actual revenue stream that we could use to define our interest in going to the Amazon format.”

In 2008 Wiley launched its fully-reflowable e-book program, and today has more than 10,000 titles available for the Kindle. It continues to produce titles also in the EPUB and PDF formats. But Balis says e-books do not constitute a significant component of Wiley’s business -- yet. He says has already lived through numerous e-book initiatives that have promised much, but fizzled and died.

“That is not to say that the e-book business is not viable and vibrant, it is just that we have an incredibly diverse print business that far exceeds the general consumer market place,” Balis says.

“I am not looking for when e-books supersede print books. I am just wondering when we are going to get to a point where there is even parity. And frankly I think it is going to be a few years till that happens.

“In some areas you are just not going to find an e-book replacing a print book. It is not going to work for coffee table books. It is very cumbersome for cookbooks and there are other areas where it is not good.”

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Back End Systems

“Publishers have been using digital technology for quite some time,” says Elizabeth Weiss, academic and digital publishing director for Allen and Unwin in Australia. “The vast majority of manuscripts we receive come in as digital files, typesetters use software to typeset books, and when we send a book to a printer we use computer-to-plate technology because the printers have invested heavily in digital printing. And we all use inhouse databases for sales and production systems, so digital technology isn’t new to the publishing industry.

“But what is now happening is that it’s possible to deliver whole books in e-book format, and there are now quite well-developed digital printing technologies making significant inroads into the way we manage the traditional book printing supply chain -- improve cash flow, reduce the number of books hanging around in warehouses or bookshops running out of stock.”

Weiss says Allen Unwin recognised early the importance of investing in an overhaul of the company’s backend systems if the publisher was going to be able to compete in an online world. For example, Allen Unwin was the first publisher in Australia adopt ONIX, the international metadata standard for the book publishing industry.

““We see digital publishing as integral to our current and future strategies,” Weiss says. “In the mid-90s we upgraded the metadata on our databases, storing full details of books. We produce about 250 new Australian books each year and we have thousands of titles on our backlist -- and we distribute books for a number of British publishers -- so we are dealing with metadata for thousands of products at a time. Historically that meta-data was fairly limited and just used for sales system. So in the mid-90s we had to invest in improving our metadata so that we could then supply high quality metadata to our Web site for information about books generated on the fly from a database.”

Weiss says another crucial step in the company’s online journey was to begin digitally archiving basic book production files. “We set up a basic system for that and archived book covers systematically,” she says. “We will move to a digital asset management system at some stage, but we will need to be careful, as once we commit to a supplier we will be with them for some time. We need to be careful because we need to make sure the [digital asset management system] is networked and compatible with whatever becomes the Australian e-book retail system.

Most recently, Allen Unwin has partnered with Australian book wholesaler Central Book Services, the company behind the local e-book reader, the Eco Reader, to provide content for the Australian market. “We need to be careful not to move too far ahead of the game,” Weiss says “There are limits to the decisions we can make at the moment.”

Academic Markets

For Pearson Australia, one of the key drivers for going electronic has been the evolution of the Australian education system, as school curricula come to incorporate greater amounts of electronic resources such as notebooks, netbooks and electronic whiteboards.

“Obviously, educational publishers want to produce resources to enable teachers to be able to use those,” Dart says. “It means you need a completely different approach. We have to get very good at producing resources at the same time as we produce the books.

“What I am talking about are things you can put up on electronic whiteboards to illustrate what is going on within the class and within the curriculum, and other material for teachers like tests and pieces of movies even, so they can present them in class.”

The writing is very much on the chalkboard. Dart says when you visit a school today, staff will show you the whiteboards and computer resources, not the library. In NSW, for instance, the government has begun deploying more than 220,000 netbooks to students.

“That is just huge and if we don’t publish material that can involve those devices we are just not at the table, and it takes time and effort to get to something that the school kids want,” Dart says.

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This need is growing more pressing as the company’s export activities grow. Dart says the United Arab Emirates recently adopted the New South Wales curriculum, and Pearson has won the tender to produce their books and support it and the associated educational resources.

Allen Unwin’s Weiss agrees with the important role the academic market has played in edging the publishing industry closer to new, digitally-based business models. “[e-books] have become a significant format for the academic and tertiary sector, books for scholars and universities,” she says.

“They were initially high-priced, so the market was largely academic libraries. The academic journal area digitised in the mid- to late- 90s, and now some are only available in electronic format.

It’s a far cry from the old days, when competition came from publishers such as Thompson, Harper Collins, Random House and Macmillan, but the changes are ones that have had to happen. According to Peter Wiadrowski, a senior assurance partner in the technology, information, communications and entertainment group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, book publishing as a sector within the media industry has been in decline, particularly as content migrates into other online formats.

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