For years, publishers in all sectors have been wrestling with the tension between the quintessential human and organic content creation and development processes, and the more procedural and automated production and delivery processes. The challenge publishers face is to make an inherently variable process more predictable and market acceptable by narrowing the range of variability (content quality, format, and schedule) as a title progresses through its transformation until it is ready for market on a specific date in all formats, print and/or digital. Lean content development—which merges the best features of human and automated approaches—is a promising way to address this challenge.

Content creation and development is inherently variable. Authors, editors, and subject-matter experts with varying degrees of writing skill often develop narrative, storytelling, and even instructive content iteratively. Their motivation and ability to deliver to a schedule also varies. Textual content is often supplemented with rich media, interactive elements, assessment, and other material written by yet more contributors requiring management and coordination by skilled editors.

Though content creation is variable, the market rewards predictability. Regardless of how it is delivered, content must be well structured and achieve its objective, whether that is entertainment, communication, or education. It also must be delivered on schedule, so that sales and marketing activities can be coordinated.

Over the years, publishers have developed ways to work with the large time and quality variances at the front end of the content creation pipeline. These working methods often involve rigid processes with firm dividing lines between development and production activities. Editors hand off manuscripts to production departments only when they’re complete. Shortfalls in completeness or quality are ironed out in sequential steps through many passes. And both editors and production managers plan and control these activities with spreadsheets and communicate by email.

One thing that is certain is that the publishing world continues to change. Markets are evolving to emphasize direct sales, and customer expectations at all levels are becoming increasingly stringent. Pressure to reduce pricing and the availability of pirated and used editions increase pressure on publishers’ revenue and operating margins. Publications are increasingly digital, but even print is seeing shifts in formats. Educational publishers are actively exploring how best to move away from new editions toward continuous publishing with flow-through content. For products distributed through online platforms, publishers track usage and effectiveness so that content revisions can be pushed as needed to end users. Crucially, commercial models continue to change through experimentation with debundling, collection sales, custom combinations of previously published content, subscriptions, and the addition of user-generated content.

The traditional approach to content creation and production—rigid processes with hard dividing lines, complete and “final” manuscripts delivered before transformation begins, many cycles of iteration, mostly manual activity—is running out of steam. It isn’t effective or efficient, but that’s not news. Readers are still finding avoidable errors in published books, and authors are still making corrections that aren’t getting into published editions. Many publishers have noted that author satisfaction decreases immediately after the contract is signed, reaching a low point when the title is published. One author commented that their experience “wasn’t bad for a pre-internet company.” Ouch. Experiments such as splitting print and digital production are proving to increase production time, cost, and opportunities to introduce errors, not to mention disenfranchising staff who are stuck in the “print production ghettos.”

New approaches are emerging. O’Reilly’s print and e-book production toolchain was an early example, enabling new revenue models through the release and sale of early editions. Several startups and technology companies also offer promising solutions: Gutenberg Technology’s MyEcontentFactory allows collaborative editing and the creation of simultaneous print and digital editions with one-touch delivery to education channels. EasyPress Technologies is doing something very similar in trade channels. Bookalope and Hederis have an actively developed environment for content capture, structuring, and delivery of multiple output formats. And Booksprints is turning the world of authoring on its head by bringing together groups to collaboratively author books in a matter of a few weeks. Publishers and many ed tech startups are constantly experimenting by insourcing content development to avoid the problems of finding and vetting subject-matter experts.

These approaches share some key features. They use commonplace tools (collaborative editing, for example) and well-known methods for improving flow (enabling small batches, down to the chapter level, for example). They eliminate handoffs and manual barriers, which also eliminates concomitant potential loss of quality at each stage of the process. In general, these approaches are providing the flexibility and capability to move away from rigid production models, increasing the visibility and transparency of the entire process, and linking all functions (authors, editing, permissions, art, etc.) together.

Ask for more

Yet most technology and service providers don’t go far enough—not because they can’t but because they are not being asked to. Often there are implicit constraints within the publishing companies they are working with. The dividing line between editorial and production departments, for example, is often strong, separated by different mindsets and motivations. Some editors insist on insourced labor when many publishers just don’t have the staff to deploy for those activities. Technology and publishing professionals don’t recognize that “automation assisted” beats “purely human” or “fully automated” in an industry as diverse as publishing. And, of course, different types of publishing have different content constraints, requirements, and customer expectations.

The best results are achieved through a combination of people, process, and technology brought together with lean techniques. The goal of technology should be to implement tools that allow the best from people, making it easy for them to do their work. These days that means cloud-based technologies for execution, planning, and control, with API connections among components, either manual or automated, in a service-based architecture. Through these approaches, it is possible to implement collaborative editing and WYSIWYG rendering of pages and digital offerings, and to eliminate the major sources of error and delay. How? By avoiding moves in and out of the platform, making big manual steps bite-size, and reducing sequential steps and handoffs. Working this way allows for universal transparency and fluid pivots to deal with variances as they invariably occur, enabling management to focus on exceptions rather than deal with hundreds of unnecessary daily emails.

While the vision is a grand one, it doesn’t have to be expensive. A publisher can start with a holistic, architectural view of content creation and consumption that begins with the author and extends to the reader and then back again. Each step along the way is implemented through proof-of-concept projects that continue to build on each other to avoid “big bangs.” Each project should pay for itself to avoid huge investments. This gradual but steady pace of implementation also makes it easier for staff to adopt, because they are part of the solution from the beginning rather than unwilling victims of corporate churn. The entire effort should be part of an ongoing program management effort, feeding back progress, challenges, and victories to the entire organization to assist in managing commitment and capacity.

While publishing continues to evolve and face pressures in its markets, products, and commercial models, the key mission of providing relevant materials to consumers, students, and professionals stays the same. Through concepts such as the lean content development model, every publishing enterprise can continue to fulfill this mission in a cost-, time-, and quality-effective manner. Figuring this out is an increasingly urgent matter of potentially existential importance for all sectors of publishing.

Ken Brooks is the founder of the consulting firm Treadwell Media Group. He has served as chief content officer at Wiley and COO at Macmillan Learning, and has held senior roles at other major publishers.