Transcript: When Publishing Emulates Software

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Interview with Neil De Young, Hachette Digital, Inc.

For podcast release Monday, August 15, 2016

KENNEALLY: Think like a startup, act like a mature business. It’s the trick that publishing houses around the world want to master. Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. In the digital age, every publisher needs to get closer to the consumer, also known as the reader. How they get there requires a revised perspective on return on investment and publishing practices that emulate software development.

Neil De Young is executive director of Hachette Digital, Inc., and he is speaking today at the Yale Publishing Course. He joins me now. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Neil.

DE YOUNG: Thank you.

KENNEALLY: We’ll tell people a bit more about your background. You are responsible for managing digital content development and operations at Hachette, which includes interactive ebooks, supply chain, direct-to-consumer ecommerce, and anti-piracy. Neil De Young is also an adjunct professor at Hofstra University teaching the digital publishing course and a guest lecturer at the Yale Publishing Course here, as well as at the New York University summer publishing program.

Neil De Young, you gave the attendees here today instructions on how to approach publishing – it sounded to me in the back of the room much more like a software developer than what we traditionally think of as a publisher. Do I have that right?

DE YOUNG: Yeah, definitely. Being able to develop in a hyper-release schedule is really difficult when you’re looking at interactive development or digital development at all. So adapting a software development philosophy is really important to be able to release things and iterate content in a way that makes sense and what consumers are looking for.

KENNEALLY: For listeners, hyper-release – it sounds like something on Star Trek. But what you mean, I assume, is that kind of agile software development approach of scrums and revision and retakes and evolution along the way, not trying to get to a perfect result.

DE YOUNG: That’s definitely part of it. What I was actually referring to in hyper-release schedule is that for book publishers, we release content on a weekly basis. We have a single title, multiple titles per week. Our marketing and publicity departments need to concentrate on a title and then also concentrate on the next title that’s releasing the next week. So our time is often spent on managing titles on a weekly basis that we’re releasing all the time, which leaves very little time to work on things that are outside of the box.

KENNEALLY: OK, so that’s really the point, then. You’ve got multiple timelines to manage here, and they’re all sort of stacked on top of each other. That must be quite a feat.

DE YOUNG: Yeah, it’s really difficult, and one of the things that we had to do was be upfront about the schedule, in that in order to do what we need to do, we have to operate on a different timeline. That means addressing our schedule in different ways and the types of titles that we’re going to work on.

Obviously working on frontlist titles, when you’re doing something like that and it requires agile development, is much harder. Working on backlist titles allows us to do that freedom in the schedule that we wouldn’t have in the frontlist. Both approaches have pros and cons, and we weigh each one for each project. But either way, it’s still true that we have a certain period of time where we can do development and then what we call a blackout period. That blackout period is meant to take a look back at what we’ve just done. What do we need to improve on? What tools can we create that can help us scale what we’ve done for future projects? Things like that, you need time to take that pause and evaluate what you’ve done and iterate on what you’ve released so that you’re providing fresh content and features.

KENNEALLY: If I was going to pick the place that’s the most important on the schedule, it sounds like that blackout period may be the most important part.

DE YOUNG: You know, it’s just like my children. I love them all. Not one point on the schedule is more important than the other. You can’t have a successful program without having both periods – a development period and a pause/blackout period. If you don’t have that, your content and your feature set becomes stale. And when you become stale, that’s usually the death of your digital publishing program.

KENNEALLY: Another death of any publishing program is not making money. You were urging the attendees here at the Yale Publishing Course to think in a different way about return on investment – not to leave out the profit-making part, but to add some other points of evaluation and metrics. Talk about that. What is the new ROI in this kind of digital approach?

DE YOUNG: So that’s also a really good point. Obviously we want to make money on what we’re doing, not only for us, but of course for the author. But it can’t be the only item that we measure success against. We often look at author care. Are we showing the author that we’re paying attention to them, that we’re looking at their content in a unique and different way, something that can make them stand out from other books that are out there?

We also measure – we want to know, are we creating something that customers and readers like? And we do surveys. We do focus groups. We want to make sure that what we’re developing is actually an improvement on what’s already out there. If what we’re building isn’t wanted or isn’t liked, then there’s no point in doing it.

KENNEALLY: Right. Those customer surveys must be something that really inform not only your publishing practice, but inform the authors for their next project or their next book or the way they think about their own careers.

DE YOUNG: Yeah, they absolutely can. We often will share the feedback that we get with the authors. It’s not just internalized to our own development team. But if there’s something valuable for the author or authors to hear, we want to share that with them. That feedback is part of the author care cycle. As a book publisher, we’re always competing with lots of different mediums right now. Providing that extra level of care and attention to the author is something that Hachette can really bring to the table and something that we can differentiate ourselves from other publishers and other businesses.

KENNEALLY: And another thing you’re probably charged with doing is understanding better that consumer, that reader. As you point out, a book today, whatever form it’s in, if it’s on a tablet or on a phone, sits side by side with all the other media that’s out there – everything from YouTube videos to Netflix and all the rest of it. Does that mean that you’re less thinking about the text and more thinking about the rest of the project – the visual aspect, the audio, and so forth?

DE YOUNG: Yeah, all of that ties together. You’re exactly right. We compete against everything else that that phone or tablet or that desktop can do. Not everything needs interactivity or a different experience. The experience I used in the lecture was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It’s a gorgeous book that doesn’t need interactivity. It’s beautiful on its own. There’s lots of other content, though, that can be improved or interacted with differently, whether it be a cookbook, whether it be a devotional, whether it be a sci-fi novel – things with giant worlds, complex content, ways for us – we look at content that makes sense to be reevaluated and reimagined. If it doesn’t need to be, then it doesn’t need to be.

KENNEALLY: You mentioned some of the examples that you spoke about in the course. There were cookbooks and particularly some new efforts in science fiction. Is there a single template that works with all text, or do you have to really go back to the drawing board, start at zero for every new book, every new project?

DE YOUNG: We look, actually, at categories at a time. So we’ll look at a category and develop a template, if you will, for that category.

KENNEALLY: So for cookbooks, for science fiction, for devotional.

DE YOUNG: Exactly. And those templates will be unique to that category. So from that instance, it is unique, and we’re starting new with each category. But once that template is finalized, then we just need to iterate on top of it and apply it to new projects and new titles, not starting from scratch, unless what we’ve created isn’t working and nobody likes what we’ve done.

KENNEALLY: And the approach – right, you have to sort of evaluate and see what’s working, what doesn’t work, throw out the bad and keep the good. And one of the points you made was to pilot your efforts, to evolve, and to grow. I wonder whether you can tell us about some surprises that you experienced in this process, because it’s unpredictable. You don’t know where things are going to wind up. There may be some pleasant surprises, and there may be some unpleasant ones. Can you share them with us?

DE YOUNG: Most of the surprises come in the feature sets that we’ve built. So we’ll have a point of opinion about what a particular user experience or user flow should be when we’re creating some of the interactivity. And when we go to focus group, we’ll learn that our going-in presumption is completely wrong.

For instance, we presumed in a cookbook that readers didn’t need or want an index, which are often in some of the cookbooks. What we found is that most readers really missed having that. We took it out because we had search features. We built in other kind of search features. Readers really wanted to have that in there. So we went back and we reimagined how the index would be used, but we essentially created lists. We had taken lists out, and we added lists back in.

KENNEALLY: What about with science fiction, which I believe is a new field for you? You’ve got a series of books coming out that you previewed for us. Those are worlds – as you say, quite large worlds, and they require following a lot of characters and a lot of places over a lengthy period of time. Is there an approach – is it rather like dealing with a travel guide as well as dealing with a novel?

DE YOUNG: This is a brand new category for us, so we’ll find out once we’ve published it. But our going-in position is that these giant worlds are easy to get lost in, and maps are integral to the storyline. What we think is that readers want an easy way to access all that information without spoiling anything or interrupting the reading experience. That’s our going-in position. We’re in beta right now. We’re going in to focus group. And we’ll see what the readers tell us. That’s something that we preach internally, is don’t be married to what your opinion is too early in the process.

KENNEALLY: Finally, Neil De Young, a lot of science fiction – even when you’re with a cookbook, you’re sort of imagining how it’s going to look on the plate. The imagination and reading go together. When one goes for the literal approach with the digital experience, do you have to walk a line and really be sure that you do leave something to the imagination?

DE YOUNG: Yes. It depends really on the book. For nonfiction, you don’t necessarily need to worry about leaving anything to the imagination. It’s a utility. You want to make it as useful and as easy to use as possible. Do we want to make it beautiful and easy to navigate? Yes. But that’s a little bit different than leaving something to the imagination.

On the science fiction side, it’s extremely important. That’s the entire world. One of our early positions was that we wanted to create pictures of the actual characters. What we’ve learned is that – don’t do that. Don’t tell the reader what something should look like. Leave that to the imagination. So we left out all of those things, and we left it as straight text, so that we’re not showing the reader what something should look like.

KENNEALLY: Right. I understand your point about cookbooks. You want to show the reader what the dish would look like. But I always know it’s never going to look like that picture. (laughter)

DE YOUNG: Right. That’s something I can’t really help the reader with on that. Hopefully we’ve broken up the instructions in an easy-to-use way where it does come out looking like that. But yeah, you’re right. I’m not as skilled as Mario Batali, so when I cook one of his dishes, it never quite looks exactly like the picture. But it tastes pretty good.

KENNEALLY: Your responsibility is not to stand over me in the kitchen. Anyway, appreciate chatting with you here at the Yale Publishing Course. Neil De Young is the executive director of Hachette Digital. Nice to chat with you, Neil.

DE YOUNG: Thank you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With its subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining, and rights licensing technology. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.

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