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Troubled waters demand a tightly run ship

Increasing distribution costs and paper prices, advertising budgets being cut, and mounting competition from other media mean that a small B2B publishing outfit has to concentrate on being efficient and manoeuvrable in order to grow, according to Hamish Dickie, publishing director of specialist information provider Riviera Maritime Media.

By Hamish Dickie

Let’s face it, two of the first costs cut by many businesses in periods of economic uncertainty are advertising and marketing. To a publisher, this is lost income, so how does anyone make a serious go of running a small B2B publishing company today? The advice that immediately springs to mind is: "don’t even try it!" But those stubborn enough to do so might more constructively be advised to make sure they approach the task more methodically. Although this seems obvious, to many small publishers it apparently isn’t.

For example, just ask any printer about the files they receive that are supposedly ready to print; some of them are in a truly horrible state, a collection of multiple file formats and – as one printer recently revealed to me – even Powerpoint and Word docs being supplied. While this demonstrates a hazy knowledge of modern production methods, it also shows that the publisher doesn’t realise the printer is charging him for sorting out this mess. So the publisher is throwing money away, the printer has to provide an unnecessary service, and the whole approach is unnecessarily time consuming and inefficient.

It is no longer good enough to just ‘muddle through’, which is remarkably often the approach of some publishers who still cling to comfortable old-fashioned ways, even though it is over 20 years since PCs replaced typewriters on journalists’ desks and Macs revolutionised magazine production.

There is obviously a lot more to successful publishing than an effective production process, but looking at this element of the business does demonstrate the benefits to be gained by a methodical approach. I don’t intend to go into detail here about readership, content, sales and circulation, but obviously getting the right product to the right readers needs planning, as does attracting advertisers. What may be less obvious is the impact that improving the production process can have upon the business: in lean times, failing to keep up with the technology and techniques that are continuously emerging and being developed could make the difference between profit and loss.

Schedule is king

As a specialist technical information provider to niche vertical markets, we have extended our range of information outlets to include events, data and online, but we still regard publishing journals as the heart of our business, and the key to managing this is nothing more complicated than a basic spreadsheet: the annual publishing schedule. This detailed document shows when key events occur for each title. Dates – and in some cases times – for planning ed/ad paginations, flatplan production, various copy deadlines, start and finish of layouts, through to proof-reading, printing and despatch are known for up to a year ahead – and adhered to.

It may sound simple, but it is extremely effective: the editorial, sales, production and circulation departments have detailed timetables to plan their work around, the printer can rely on error-free PDFs for each journal arriving on schedule, and the accounts department know exactly which day they can send out the invoices. Such a rigid routine may be regarded as ‘over-the-top’ by some in B2B publishing who reckon their routines are better for being ‘more flexible’, but few of them could match these results: this year we are publishing 43 journals containing a total of over 4,000 pages using only three production staff, and last year, every issue was despatched on the date planned, even though some paginations were substantially larger than originally budgeted.

The production schedule became crucial at a transition stage in our company’s growth, when we grew out of our small cottage industry type business routines and became a much larger and more structured operation. Although the schedule was just as important before, it largely relied on the working relationship of two or three people who appreciated how it worked without everything needing to be spelt out. Now we needed to be able to communicate to others how we did what we did, and this turned out to be an extremely valuable exercise. As we examined elements of the production process (how many pages could be laid out in a day, for example), we were able to refine routines to improve their effectiveness. The result is a production schedule that defines how tasks are carried out as well as when.

Workflow planner

Another simple tool developed alongside the schedule was the ‘workflow planner’, which is essentially a Gantt chart where the start and finish dates are planned based on the journal’s estimated pagination, the resources available to produce it and the time required. This is of most value when compiling the main production schedule, as it is easy to see when we would have been attempting to do too many things at once (such as over-loading the sub-editors), but it is also extremely useful for other tasks such as identifying suitable dates for scheduling meetings etc.

Technology must be central to the publisher’s production strategy and this is essential not only from a manufacturing perspective but also economics. The production of publications is so much easier now than a decade ago and this has undoubtedly impacted on the number of B2B titles in existence. The demise of the external repro house and the trend for this function to be brought in-house is old news, but is now compounded by the fact that any modern day IT graduate or ‘cyber nerd’ can build their own PC in minutes, download some software and call themselves a graphic designer.

Production advances

Creative Suite offers everything required to lay out a magazine and produce advertisements within an integrated package, eliminating the need for continual investment in stand-alone applications from disparate vendors. In our world of advertisements being supplied as PDF files, Acrobat 8 itself brought massive steps forward for in-house ad production capability with the addition of the ‘touch up object tool’ – an amazingly simple yet effective concept whereby images embedded within a PDF can be extracted, opened and edited in their native applications, and then imported back into the original PDF. The point is that such an underrated function gives the production staff the ability to fix problematic advertisements themselves instead of going back to the clients and bothering them for resupplied artwork over and over again, resulting in substantial time saving and reduced admin.

The incremental preflighting advancements in each upgrade of Creative Suite used in conjunction with the guidelines of the PPA’s pass4press initiative mean that top quality PDF files can be produced by even the smallest production department, and with broadband, both proofs and press optimised PDFs can be pinged out to advertisers and colleagues via email, web or FTP with ease. Web-based file supply applications mean that getting jobs to the printing company and receiving soft proofs back has never been easier and the control is passed back upstream from the printer to the publisher.


Flatplanning is the one area where all publishing companies still appear to struggle, and I am continually amazed at horror stories from friends working at larger companies who use such antiquated methods as pencil, paper and fax! A real-time multi-user online system has to be the way forward, and a huge breakthrough came at February’s Publishing Expo where an application called Intelligent Flatplan was launched meeting just these requirements. The utter simplicity and ease of use is complemented by some extremely well thought out functionality, and the pay-as-you-go model requires zero capital investment which makes it affordable to even the tightest of budgets.

Again though, the real benefits are behind the scenes; traditionally the role of maintaining the flatplan has often fallen on the editor’s lap. But thinking outside the box, why should a person who is employed to bring their unparalleled knowledge of their specialist area to a demanding readership be sidetracked for hours a week by the requirement to continually manually amend an existing document, which is essentially a mundane administrative task requiring only limited skill? Replace the paper, pencil (and let’s not forget eraser) and fax method with a web browser and the editor can invest the time saved back into making the editorial content even stronger than it was before and giving the reader even more value for their money.

Effective communication is essential for operational efficiency and our colleagues in production, sales and editorial can now find themselves freed of the relentless barrage of emails (or faxes!) containing the updated versions of the flatplan, and instead rest assured that they can simply flick into their browser and see the very latest version as and when they require - the margin for error created by missing an email and being a version behind is also eradicated.

And as the firepower of Apple Macs increases while their prices decrease, the overriding point here is that the smaller publisher now has the ability to produce top quality publications in-house by utilising the functionality found in existing technology without the need for investing in expensive digital workflow systems and being tied into those systems. A good understanding of what products are on offer is essential, but so is the ability to continually evaluate new technologies and decide what is NOT required; less can be more and a streamlined approach can offer great savings in software upgrades and support fees.

To take full advantage of a methodical approach to routines and technology, however, the company must make sure it is manoeuvrable and able to react quickly to adopt the benefits it has identified. A bit of planning and organisation early on will be repaid with valuable dividends in the form of a more efficient throughput of work further downstream.