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Catalogue season is here again (but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare)

The time: early evening, late February. The place: a dark office, desks piled with books, Jiffy bags, and full-colour A3 print-outs of spreadsheets. A woman sits, hunched, bathed in the glow of a screen, on which colourful rectangles dance. 

She’s making the catalogue for the London Book Fair, in InDesign. She drags and types, drags and types. 

Copies and pastes and drags and types. 

Earlier in the day, the editors held a status meeting with production. Pencils flew across a printed-out publishing schedule, spread out over the meeting room table, and now it’s a scribbled mass of edits. Is that a 1 or a 7? “Jan” or “Jun”? The woman scrunches her eyes, and drags, and types.

This is publishing’s dark side, a tale repeated in offices across the land, between January and March every year. A cruel, recurring nightmare, where pub dates and prices shift daily, and text boxes grow and shrink to fit the changing lengths of blurbs. Where a seemingly small change by the commissioning editor on a lead title’s delivery date has a disproportionately chaotic knock-on effect on page order. Where changing a book from a half-page to a quarter-page layout means resetting the entire frontlist section. Where ISBNs are reassigned. Where days are spent running a finger down the rights spreadsheet (refreshed daily, of course, in this busy pre-Fair period), and typing what rights remain for sale directly into InDesign. 

Where, of course, this happens: 

There is a great lie we tell ourselves in publishing that stems from our hopeless, endless optimism: that the plan won’t change. Pub dates won’t change. Prices won’t change. The manuscript will be delivered on time. The printer’s binding line won’t break. The courier will deliver the books when they said they will. The proofreader will catch all the errors the first time round. Senior management won’t decide to raise all backlist ePub prices by 5% two weeks before LBF. Waterstones will like the cover.

But change is the only constant. And when data is scattered so far and wide, one change means multiple updates. It’s not just the catalogue: it’s Nielsen, and Bowker, and Amazon, and the distributors, and the website, and the AIs, and the production spreadsheet… 

And we pass the great lie on in our recruitment. We say that you’re joining a creative industry. But manually dealing with the fallout from changed plans isn’t creative. It is secretarial drudge.

Here’s my challenge. Name the lie for what it is: plans and data will change, and often, and it’s wrong to keep up with them manually. Lift your head up from the firefighting for just long enough to acknowledge this for what it is: a stupid, horrible waste of human effort that fails to build the sustainable business these uncertain times require. And dream of how it could be: being able to focus on publishing good books, well.

There are two options open to you: become technically literate, or buy tools. You don’t need a computer system to store data properly, but you can get affordable ones which automate data feeds to Nielsen and beyond. You can use those same feeds to create a catalogue. Or populate spreadsheets or Word docs. Or set up a Slack feed of data changes for your company. You can learn how to use APIs as a catalogue data source. You can get all the benefits of one version of the truth. You can literally create a PDF catalogue in 20 seconds:

Software like this costs £55 per person a month. Your people cost thousands. 

For their sake, for the sake of your books, their authors and your future publishing: make 2019 the year where you give your staff the tools and skills they need to be the creative powerhouses you thought you hired. The creative powerhouses we collectively need to keep our industry robust and hearty through these uncertain times.

Emma Barnes is the MD of independent publisher Snowbooks and CEO of publishing software company General Products Ltd, makers of Consonance. She and her team will be at the London Book Fair on stand 3B60 and invite you to come and admire the Snowbooks catalogue, which will have been created the week before in 20 seconds. 

The Consonance team are also running a free Coding for Publishers seminar at LBF on Wednesday 13th March at 4.15pm in the Buzz Theatre. Come along to learn how to create an online catalogue from Google Books’ API. 

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