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Taming the Data Tiger

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There’s an old Washington, DC joke: “It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.” Increasingly, however, whether in Congress or in a book publishing company, it’s not whom you know, but what you know, how you know it, and especially how quickly and easily you can get to the information.

As a result, the most important decisions publishing executives are now making–both financially and in terms of impact on the business itself–are decisions about their core systems: hardware, networking, and software. And the goal is integration–systems that work together, that allow data (whether about editorial content, production information, or customer identities) to move easily among different applications and locations.

Admittedly, this is not comfortable for people in publishing, given a unique culture based on five centuries of slowly accreted processes. Discomfort notwithstanding, book publishing finds itself moving toward ever-more-complex (and expensive!) computer-based, software-dependent, web-enabled ways of organizing and accessing information essential to daily business activities.   Sales and marketing data, returns, renewals, circulation, promotion–the very stuff of publishing life–are no longer being assembled as they once were, manually, as thick paper reports that arrive on your desk every week or every few weeks or months. Rather, with a couple of mouse clicks, you can have the answers instantly, online, on an ongoing basis, in real time, with the ability to drill down into the data that form the basis of the report itself, about sales, inventory, customer relations, and more.
Amazing Changes in the Last Few Years

One short case study helps show how new technologies are combining to transform publishing operations. In 1998, the NYC-based Van Holtzbrinck built a new distribution center in Virginia, handling thousands of titles a day for distributors and retailers worldwide–some 20,000 billing accounts in 90,000 locations. The sheer volume of data was daunting. As a client of VISTA Computer Services, Holtzbrinck already had a partner tailoring its software products expressly for the publishing industry, unlike some of the larger providers of ERP (enterprise resource planning) software such as SAP and Peoplesoft.

However, the needs of Holtzbrinck’s customers were changing. As Bill Morrogh, Senior Director of its Publishing Information Systems observed, “People in all  areas of our organization wanted to see and sort detailed information [in new ways], roll it up, summarize it, and add their own information to it, even to change reports on the fly.” Notwithstanding their expertise in managing and shipping inventory, VISTA realized it needed to find specific tools for extensive online data management. Enter Cognos.

Billing itself as “the world’s largest and most successful business intelligence company,” Cognos brought to the table software tools that allow users to access, analyze, and report on data collected in all applications, whether from VISTA or other vendors. (For the technophiles among you, the tool is called PowerPlay, and it builds multidimensional databases, or cubes. In this case, the underlying data source is an Oracle 8 database.)

Ted Jandl, area Vice President of North American Partner Channel Sales for Cognos, reports that their “partnership with VISTA provides the publishing-specific, enterprise-wide reporting and analysis that executives need to derive maximum value from their corporate information–delivering the accurate and timely information… information that is priceless to the publishing industry.”

Similarly, VISTA’s CEO George Lossius says, “Cognos tools allow us to provide modules that were not possible in the past.”

And, in fact, this three-way partnership, unlike a three-legged race, allowed Holtzbrinck executives to leverage their VISTA data much more quickly and in many more ways, whether to compare title-specific sales figures in comparable markets, or to custom-tailor publicity campaigns based on selling patterns–both in the home office and on the road. And it even gives key customers access to sales information via an exclusive extranet.


Scaling for All Sizes

The success of the partnership resulted in a new VISTA product, Publishing Intelligence, as the core information-delivery mechanism for all of VISTA’s other products. As such, Publishing Intelligence offers analytic capabilities in areas across the spectrum from “author to reader,” including sales, renewal/response, finances, promotion, circulation, accounts receivable, and claims.

One of the benefits of this product is that it is scalable both up and down, making it suitable for companies large and small. “It doesn’t even require that a company have any legacy systems for report writing,” explains Randy Petway, VISTA’s Vice President of Development Services. “Increasingly, publishers who don’t have a full-blown fulfillment system are coming to us just for Publishing Intelligence. It resolves their #1 problem–access to decision-support information.” Of course, as Petway added, the “trickiest” thing is getting people to make the transition from “static, flat pieces of paper to dynamic, online information.”

Technology’s True Purpose

But as Esther Dyson observed at a recent New York New Media Association breakfast, the most important thing is “not the technology, it’s the people.” VISTA Executive VP John Wicker agrees: “It’s not about hardware, software, or networking. It’s about the vision you have for your company. All too often, however, decisions about systems get offloaded to IT folks who may know a lot about technology but make these crucial choices mostly on the basis of which new ‘toy’ they would like to have.”

Whether or not you opt for these new toys, it’s vital to remember the true goal of technology. When all is said and done, the purpose of the best possible data is what it has been for 500+ years–to give publishers, large and small, the tools to do whatever kind of publishing they really love to do.

James Lichtenberg, who has worked with and written about the publishing industry for almost 15 years, is a regular contributor on technology to industry publications. Lightspeed, LLC, his consulting firm, specializes in business development, marketing, and e-business strategy in publishing and the corporate world.

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