There is no question that the pandemic has accelerated the pace of content digitization even as it has decimated revenues in both the digital solutions and publishing industries. Virtual learning, edtech, and e-books saved the day. But between prolonged school and bookstore closures and the slow progress of new publishing projects in 2020, optimism was in rather short supply. Add in pandemic uncertainties, and the picture was quite gloomy.

But good news is in store, literally, for both industries: in the AAP StatShot report for the first half of 2021, the K–12 segment posted the biggest sales gain, at 35.2% higher than the same period in 2020. The higher-ed segment expanded as well, showing a 15.1% sales increase. News for the trade book segment was also positive, with NPD BookScan reporting that bookstore sales jumped 30% over what was a miserable first six months of 2020.

To get a quick snapshot of what is happening and where the digital solutions industry is heading, PW speaks to three companies in different parts of the globe—Lapiz Digital, Newgen KnowledgeWorks, and Westchester Publishing Services—from their offices in India, the U.K., and the U.S., respectively.

Adopting new ways of working and collaborating

For Lapiz Digital, a blended office model is now the modus operandi. “We have a flexible arrangement in which there is a pool of staff working from home and another at our production facility,” says head of operations Meena Prakash, adding that the staff involved in critical projects will be in the office at least three days out of the work week. “Going forward, for established work processes and project types, we see the work-from-home (WFH) option continuing even after this pandemic lockdown period ends. Naturally, to ensure a smooth workflow with maximum security and data integrity within this blended model, we have been investing much more than before in our IT infrastructure.”

Increased communications and daily reviews between WFH and work-from-office (WFO) staff have resulted in better control of the deliverables while fostering closer working relationships and higher organizational performance. “Day-to-day huddles for WFH employees further break the monotony and social isolation,” Prakash says. “Our team leaders and managers have also made it a point to speak to everyone regularly to check on their health and on their families.”

“When we started this blended model,” Prakash says, “we thought that people would be happier working from home and that attrition would decrease. Well, that did not happen. Attrition continues in this dynamic industry, and employees relocate or jump to better opportunities regardless of the coronavirus or WFH advantages.”

More than 90% of Westchester Publishing Services’ 400-plus employees (from locations in India, the U.K., and the U.S.) continue to work from home. “Prior to the pandemic, we already had the capabilities to support distributed work, which was built around our global nature but largely driven by the impact of severe storms on our U.S. and India offices in recent years,” says chief revenue office Tyler Carey.

The WFH situation, Carey says, has generated a greater degree of empathy among publishers, vendors, and, most importantly, employers. “Whether it’s been talking with a co-worker, manager, client, or partner over the past year, I think we all can relate to anecdotes of Zoom meetings that featured pets walking across our desks or children passing by on-screen,” he says. “The Zoom dynamic at work humanized a lot of what we do together as an industry and has adjusted the way many of us will return to work, with hybrid models and flexible schedules more common in our space than ever before, even as some regions are prepping to more widely return to the office next year.”

The WFH model has transformed Newgen KnowledgeWorks in many ways. “We have been able to recruit from a much wider geographic pool,” says Jo Bottrill, managing director of operations in the U.K. and the U.S. “Many of our staff have also moved away from crowded metropolitan areas. While we have to work harder to foster team spirit and the sense of togetherness, our smaller client-focused teams, quality circles, and company-wide initiatives have helped staff to stay connected. We are investing heavily in and expanding our Pubkit workflow management system to make it the entry point for everyone’s working day. We also have new HR systems that enable us to keep in touch with our staff in more meaningful ways.”

Bottrill has seen huge benefits to being able to bring a larger constituency of Newgenites together in online meetings in the WFH mode. “It has improved timely and open communication across the teams,” he says. “Our onshore staff in the U.S., U.K., and Continental Europe offices are definitely more closely connected with their teammates in our production facilities in India. On the other hand, our clients have more immediate and open access to the entire Newgen team, which helps us to form even closer partnerships and be more responsive and connected to their needs.”

Helping and giving back to the community

The Diwali celebration early this month was indeed a joyous event throughout India. New Covid-19 infections, averaging 12,000 cases, are now a fraction of the peak in May, when the country’s public-health systems buckled under a massive wave of deaths. More than one billion doses of vaccine have been administered, and private and public entities are rallying to drive up vaccination rates and support local communities in need.

In recent months, Prakash and president V. Bharathram, for instance, have arranged for Lapiz Digital employees several talks by senior epidemiologists on the importance of vaccination. “We’ve also created a long list of FAQs to address issues that some may want to ask but are either reluctant or too shy to voice,” Prakash says. “Hopefully, these activities will push the vaccination rate to 100% for both doses soon.” Around 90% of Lapiz Digital staff have received at least one vaccine dose, she says.

Lapiz Digital has also joined in the efforts to educate the public about the pandemic. “Last year, many of our staff, along with others from our sister companies, distributed free self-care packets in rural communities and helped to design and disseminate posters on Covid-19 awareness,” Prakash says. “This year, we are continuing these efforts alongside local communities and government in addition to donating oxygen cylinders to local hospitals for use in their Covid-19 wards.”

Extending the WFH policy and encouraging staff to work flexibly and from anywhere have been important parts of keeping people safe during the pandemic over at Newgen KnowledgeWorks. “Supporting staff in moving out to their native places and in working confidently and efficiently from home while staying connected to the team has been essential to preserving staff well-being and playing our part in reducing the spread of the virus in the wider community,” Bottrill says, adding that the company has supported its staff, their families, and their communities with medical assistance, including the establishment of a bank of oxygen concentrators that were rapidly deployed to the sick and needy during the height of the pandemic.

Then there is the Nandavanam Center of Excellence for Children with Developmental Challenges, a Newgen CSR initiative that was launched in 2014. “During these difficult times, it has provided food parcels to families and supported online learning, keeping needy children and their families connected to the important lifeline that this center provides,” Bottrill says.

Westchester Publishing Services, on the other hand, has proactively worked with organizations in India to provide free vaccines to all of its staff, covering any costs incurred and even providing transportation, if required, to vaccination sites. “As a company, we have also financially supported the efforts of United Way, which is supporting vaccination programs in India,” Carey says.

Meeting new demands arising from the pandemic

Now that different industries are shifting and evolving owing to the pandemic, quality career training and professional development programs are expanding and changing too. In May, Westchester expanded its career and technical education (CTE) content development services unit by identifying further specialists within different industries and bringing in Debbie Allen to lead the team.

“Our clients, including CareerPath, work closely with districts, education and training centers, and professional groups to define CTE programs, and we play a role in recruiting subject matter experts and creating and editing content that can be used in these programs,” Carey says.

The pandemic also exerts its toll on children’s emotional development. “Pre-pandemic, educational publishers had begun including in their content more materials specific to social and emotional learning [SEL] principles to help students navigate their emotions and address the challenges of socialization,” Carey says. “During the past year and a half, these challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, with lockdowns and school closures deepening the sense of loneliness that many kids were experiencing. Westchester’s team has worked closely with the CASEL Framework to ensure that these standards are considered and applied in the content we create for children through our education unit. As the father of three kids in different stages of development, it is very empowering for me to see our team working alongside publishers to foster the healthy emotional and social growth of the younger generation.”

During the pandemic, Westchester’s Client Portal dashboards have become even more useful for tracking ongoing projects. “Our close collaboration with Dropbox to implement the latest technologies and address emerging client needs is ongoing,” Carey says. “Most recently, we hired Deb Taylor, who has extensive background in software development, sales, and client support, as our director of business development to work proactively with clients to explore further use cases for our Client Portal, as requests for editing tools and various added services become ubiquitous.”

Ongoing trends and emerging market opportunities

Automation, says Bottrill, of Newgen, will continue to push efficiency and speed in academic content production. “It will be vital in helping publishers adapt to the shift to Open Access,” he says. “While the craft of copyediting will still see editors polishing language and helping authors communicate clearly and concisely, tools for automating parts of the editorial process will reach maturity quickly.” Newgen’s language assessment tools, for instance, are already helping publishers assess and validate language quality, ensuring that resources are directed to content that will most benefit from editorial intervention.

Publishers are looking at how more of the production and editorial processes can be automated, Bottrill says. “Our innovative workflows and platforms are helping to unlock automation while leaving the publisher, project manager, and author in control of their content. We are rapidly integrating in-house tools such as Pubkit [for workflow management], Redshift [for automated typesetting], and Nova [for content publishing and distribution] to provide an end-to-end solution for publishers across academic, trade, and professional publishing segments.” Nova, for instance, allows publishers to form direct relationships with their customers, build important communities of users, and retain more of the revenues from their direct sales. (Check out the Expert Series online article, “Improving Outcomes Using Agile Learning.”)

Meanwhile, supply chain woes, printer backlogs, and paper shortages have created a renaissance in digital products. “Now that print products are having their supply chain challenges, backlist and frontlist ePub files are becoming increasingly important for distribution,” says Carey, of Westchester. “Many publishers are seeing ePubs contributing more to their bottom lines in the past 18 months. This was raised in our recent webinar cohosted with PW about the state of the supply chain and ways to navigate getting products to market. This wider usage of ePubs has also revealed the lack of support for communities that use adaptive technology to engage with the content.”

So Westchester is now working with the nonprofit organization Benetech, which operates the largest library of accessible e-books in the world and acts as a third-party evaluator for accessible content, to become a GCA-certified partner for creating accessible digital files. “We are upping our game to create better and more accessible ePub 3 files that will help to address the needs of all readers, no matter how they engage with their content,” Carey says. (More in the Expert Series online article, “Accessibility and Digital EPubs.”)

“We see a continuing trend toward end-to-end project management and a greater focus on offshore project management,” Bottrill, of Newgen, says. “At the same time, publishers are partnering with us on more upstream services, including developmental editing, pre-production support, and even content commissioning.” The company’s media-related services (covering audio, video, and animation) and manufacturing services (including print and asset management) have also grown rapidly, he says. “There is a growing interest in accessibility among publishers, and anyone with digital content is waking up to their legal obligations to make content accessible.”

And for publishers looking to access the vibrant and diverse—and challenging—Southeast Asian markets, Bottrill and his team are ready to assist. “Our deep market knowledge across this region coupled with our network of sales agents and distributors put us in a great position to confidently open up this market for academic, trade, and K–12 publishers,” Bottrill says. “We have the capabilities and expertise—having sold legal content across this market for many years—to support a wide range of publishers in this region.”

Over at Lapiz Digital, the demand for online testing and assessments from both overseas and domestic markets in the publishing segment is growing fast. “There is also a huge demand for online training courseware from corporate clients,” says Bharathram, whose team is also busy auditing projects done by other vendors to ensure both quality and content accuracy. “This pandemic has essentially accelerated the implementation and adoption of online education in different industries.” (Read the Expert Series online article, “The Audit Process Prior to Publication.”)

These digital solutions vendors and their counterparts are continuing to aggressively automate, innovate, reengineer, and transform to meet the moment. The times are tough and the competition, tougher.

For publishers, going digital is a must—not an option—for long-term survival and healthy bottom lines. Publishers must have their best products available in both print and digital formats to maximize revenues. They need to ensure that “XML,” “HTML5,” “ePub 3,” “accessibility,” and “discoverability” are integral parts of their business, strategy, and process lexicons. While such transformation doesn’t happen overnight, no one can afford to ignore the digital path. As Stewart Brand so aptly said, once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.

This feature is published with the support of the vendors covered in these articles.

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