Now We Are Five

Infrastructure of publishing business

Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is founder of Practical Inspiration Publishing, a pioneering publishing partner for businesses, and host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club, a podcast and community for writers and readers of extraordinary business books. She sits on the board of the Independent Publishers Guild and is Head Judge of the Business Book Awards. 

Practical Inspiration Publishing celebrated its 5th birthday in April: past the stage of tantrums and toilet-related accidents (I hope) but still with so much to learn and so far to go. 

I’ve been asked to write a little about the evolution of the infrastructure of our business over that time, which is kind of fun: it’s the side of publishing that most people don’t think about, but actually it’s where we’ve done so much of our innovation and experimentation. So here are three things we’ve learned in our first few years that might be useful for other small publishers…

  1. The importance of the right partners

When I first set up Practical Inspiration, I did everything: for the first few titles I designed the cover, copy-edited, typeset, and proofread the text, and laboriously keyed all the metadata into Nielsen. It wasn’t what you’d call scalable. Over time I gradually brought in partners: first a typesetter (an Indian company we still work with), then freelance cover designers, copy-editors and proofreaders, then a project-manager to work with them all. Until two years ago we made one of the best decisions of our corporate life and partnered with Newgen UK (then Out of House Publishing) as our virtual design and production team.

I can’t tell you what a difference they have made to my quality of life. And more importantly, the quality of our books. Having a dedicated project manager working on each book with rigorous control over the schedule at every stage has also improved our author experience, which leads me nicely to the second point….

  1. The importance of process

‘Processes’ is perhaps the most unsexy word in the English language (with the possible exception of ‘gusset’), but if you want happy authors and a good night’s sleep as a publisher you’re going to have to learn to love it. I started an operations document right at the start, and this is now a living online being housed in a shared Google drive, with every member of the team responsible for keeping their section updated (and one person responsible for chivvying everyone else – very important). When it’s clear to everyone what needs to happen by whom and in what order for the routine parts of the job, it frees everyone up to focus on the more interesting stuff such as innovating, creating, communicating, coping with unusual author requests or finding better ways of doing things. The Google drive is an example of my third point…

  1. The importance of collaborative tech

There are SO many cool tech tools out there these days that it can be overwhelming, so it’s important to apply the Einstein principle: as simple as possible, but no simpler. For us, a team of 10 mostly working from home, that means a simple cloud-based tech stack:

  • Consonance for bibliographic data (including all exports, website, catalogues, AIs, production files etc), our single version of the truth for anything book-related;
  • Slack as the main communication channel for projects in production (we have a workspace for the team and a separate one for authors), to save everyone’s inbox and provide a repository of key documents such as cover briefs, schedules, proofs etc;
  • Trello for a kanban tracking each project through the various stages from contract to reprint, plus a separate board for day-to-day task management;
  • CapsuleCRM for managing leads and non-author contacts (journalists, institutional buyers, customers etc);
  • And finally the Google drive for anything that needs to be shared with the wider universe such as reps, PR partners, rights team, etc.

There are a few additional specialist systems for automated emails, online sales, accounts, HR, rights etc, but that simple suite – connected in many cases by integrations or Zapier – is the backbone of our processes and communication and is easily as effective as anything I’ve used in a multinational, multimillion company in the past.

Every organisation will have its own approach to building an infrastructure, but the key is to figure out what you need for each of those three core pillars – partners, process, systems – and get it in place sooner rather than later. Infrastructure allows you to scale. It will evolve as you grow: I’m sure ours will look different again in another five years’ time. I think of it as something midway between scaffolding and a skeleton, supporting the good stuff, the relationships with our authors and customers, the books we create, the profit we bring in, the difference we make in the world.

It’s worth getting it right.

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