“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, is the understandable view of many independent publishers and it explains why many of them persevere with outdated systems. “It does the job (just about) and improving it or changing system would be too costly and we simply don’t have the time.”
But, says Andy Kirk, managing partner of publishing solutions provider Perception SaS, there are systems that are very affordable and have enormous amounts of functionality, created and supplied by companies with the expertise to handle any heavy lifting and technicalities involved in a changeover process.
Many publishers are struggling with systems that are not fit for purpose: they are siloed, clunky, inefficient and lacking in functionality. The circulation system is not linked to the sales system which is not linked to the content platform; data is held in isolation and is not joined up, making comprehensive management reports a pipe dream. Publishers are working in the dark; getting even a partial snapshot of their data involves a laborious process of running off lists from different sources and manually comparing them.
These systems, which have been developed haphazardly over the years, often only work thanks to manual workarounds that have evolved to paper over system deficiencies. These workarounds get the job done but are time-consuming and error-prone.
“Without easy and full access to their data”, says Andy, “how can publishers exploit its value? They are effectively leaving money on the table.”
Andy’s message to independent publishers is simple: “Many of the things big publishers – some of whom will be your competitors – can do, you can’t. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Let me paint a picture of what is affordable and available now for independent publishers”, he continues: “High functionality publishing systems that handle circulation, sales and content creation from ONE database giving a genuine real-time single customer view. Everything is joined together and cross-referenced, meaning that publishers have an instant and full picture of their whole publishing operation. Much of the system is publisher-definable, and users can keep track of key performance indicators via dashboards, tailored for each user, depending on their seniority and area of responsibility. All processes are intuitive, so your staff don’t need to be rocket scientists to use them and, being browser based, publishers are not limited to where and when they access their system. The silo-culture becomes a thing of the past, overnight.”
Andy Kirk speaks with a passion and knowledge built up over thirty years in the publishing business. His publishing career started in the days of Cheshire labels and carbon paper reader enquiry forms. Having worked on both the supplier and publisher side of the industry (he spent fifteen years at Colby Publications in the 80s and 90s), Andy has a full understanding of all the publishing processes. This insight, coupled with a passion for programming – Andy started his programming journey aged seven and at school, spent his breaktimes grappling with Spectrum ZX81 computers – means that he understands publishing problems and has the computing know-how to see the solution.
Perception SaS is a Sussex-based company providing software and bureau services for the publishing sector, primarily independent publishers. Their high spec publishing solutions manage circulation, sales and content creation, either as a bureau or via cloud-based software as a service. The solutions can be mixed and matched – a couple of clients use them as a bureau for circulation but as a software provider for sales. “It’s all on one platform, so is very flexible”, says Andy.
Andy and his team have spent the last three years putting the finishing touches to the suite of programmes and while good software systems never stop evolving, they have reached the point where the key set of development objectives that he set for the software three years ago have all now been met, and he wants to tell the market about it. Hence our meeting in leafy Uckfield on a sunny October afternoon.
So, I ask Andy, what should an independent publisher, who suspects their systems might be holding them back, be asking themselves? Is there a basic health check they can run which will tell them whether or not they should consider changing their publishing systems? Andy suggests that every publisher should ask themselves eight questions:
1. Have our systems been designed specifically for publishers?
“A lot of publishers use generic software products, that were not designed for the needs of publishers, to manage circulation mailing lists and sales. At the most basic level, it will do the job, and a degree of customisation is always possible, but there will be a chronic lack of functionality that will slow you down and prevent you realising your full potential.”
2. Are they future proof?
“If your software support and development is handled by a one-man-band external developer, then you are vulnerable. If he gets hit by a bus, loses interest, gets a better offer, or relations sour, then you could be in trouble.”
3. Is our system being continually developed and enhanced?
“Good software never stands still. It is constantly being upgraded to take into account technological advances, fix bugs and add new functionality. We have a team of developers whose sole job it is to maintain and develop the software; we install major new releases of our software quarterly, along with smaller monthly releases. Development is also driven by other users of the system, which means that our publishing clients know that the system is being continuously improved, even if they are not the ones asking for the changes. They benefit from the system enhancements requested by other users.”
4. Am I the wrong type of ‘busy’?
“Ask any publisher how they are, and the inevitable answer is “busy” but is it the wrong type of ‘busy’? Are they spending their time fire-fighting due to system breakdowns, or is time in short supply because tasks that should be simple, take an inordinate amount of effort because of system inefficiencies? In the ideal world, ‘busy’ should refer only to productive, revenue generating, business-growing activities, but you need proper publishing systems to be able to achieve that.”
5. Where is my data?
“This should be a simple one. The best answer is: in one place only. The reality for most independent publishers is that data is located in disparate places around the company: in databases and spreadsheets, at a bureau, in card indexes, stuffed into bottom drawers, in personal organisers and contact books. This means that publishers can never get a complete picture of, let alone utilise, all their data assets. Because all our systems are run out of a single database, publishers have instant and complete access to everything. It’s a genuine single customer view.”
6. Is our system an enabler or an inhibitor?
“Are your systems helping you to fly or bogging you down? If new product ideas are being put on hold or take forever to bring to market, because your systems lack basic functionality, are outdated, or simply unable to cope with the requirements of modern digital publishers, then you have to think seriously about changing them. Systems should be the springboard for new ideas, not the reason for not doing them.”
7. Am I in control?
“Is your data accessible? Can you interrogate it instantly to see at a glance how many readers you have in a particular geographic area or demographic, how much money you are owed, who is not paying their bills, which articles are being read and by who? Can you change publishing strategy easily – perhaps set up a paywall or registration barrier around some of your content? Can you save customer service costs by instituting reader self-service? These and a hundred and one similar management tasks and business objectives should be instantly actionable. If you are having to get your developer involved for any of the above, then the bad news is that you are not in control. The good news is that you soon could be…”
8. Do I think that better systems are beyond our reach?
“There is a common mindset that holds that sophisticated publishing functionality, a proper single customer view, joined-up and digitally-enabled systems are the preserve of big publishers with big budgets; that they are simply too expensive and too complex for smaller publishers. This is absolutely not the case.”
If you answered ‘no, ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘yes’, ‘not sure’, ‘inhibitor’, ‘no’ and ‘yes’, then your systems are probably not fit for purpose. Yes, they might be doing a job – of sorts – now, but they are a drag on your business. At the very least, it would be worth you picking up the phone to Andy for a chat to see how Perception SaS might be able to help you unlock your publishing potential.
What’s next in the pipeline for Perception SaS, I ask Andy. “We will continue to develop the software and are planning to expand our development team. We are looking to significantly grow our client base, both bureau and software, over the next two to three years and the direction of much of our future development will be client-led. In terms of new modules, next up is event management.”
“The publishing world is challenging but also incredibly exciting and publishers should be doing what they’re best at – creating compelling content and monetising and distributing it in ever more innovative ways – and should never be held back by their systems. Big system functionality is available now for smaller publishers and I look forward to talking with them about their needs and our capabilities”, says Andy Kirk.