The Missing Link?

Try as I might to avoid jargon – I know I fail. Plus I’m often guilty of having favourite (and over-used) words of the moment, although annoying as they may be to my friends and family, these are less a guilty pleasure than a reflection of my current preoccupations and passions. A couple of years ago “strategy” and “strategic” were in constant use. But now I’m a sometime denizen of London’s Silicon Roundabout, my vocabulary is shifting. The words I hear myself using repeatedly are journey, interaction, interactivity, stuff, content, assets, product. And as for product design, well, that small label for a multitude of crucial concepts and activities passes my lips countless times each day.

After nearly a decade in the Book Industry Supply chain, I’m comfortable with the word product. The supply chain and online retail are 100% dependent on great product data (the isbn and its close relative, rich metadata). When you have a warehouse full to the rafters with thousands of active titles, all available for same-day pick, you can’t work on title & author. Most physical and all electronic delivery is only made possible by identifiers (isbns*). As Laura Dawson of Bowker, Staten Island and the publishing information republic so succinctly puts it, identifiers tell us that “this thing is not that thing (or any other thing). So I’m conditioned not to worry about calling books products, although I know many people who still bristle at the notion of a book being as dull or mundane a thing as a (mere) product. (Note: even I never could go quite so far as SKU, or “stock keeping unit”. There are bridges too far, you know.)

Just recently I realised there’s a notable absentee in the book community’s vocabulary. It dawned on me that in over two-and-a-half decades I’ve heard frequent references to “author development”, “list development” and sometimes (even) “market development”. But never, until the last year,  did I hear“product development”. For centuries print publishing has in fact only had one basic product format – the page – and two business models (purchase and subscription). Yes, printed pages come in different flavours, sub-flavours and wrappers but a book is a book is a book. A bit like clothes, which may come in different shades and styles – but Versace or Primark –  ultimately a dress is a dress is a dress. Which explains quite a lot, don’t you think?

And just as I say “product development” many times a day. I think I’ll be writing it here many times between now and #toccon next month.


* Or, as Laura more specifically notes: an isbn identifies a stand-alone, trade-able publication (a book or a chapter)

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3 Responses to The Missing Link?

  1. Laura Dawson says:

    And at what point, do you think, will editors become product managers, and managing editors become project managers? ;)

    • Jonathan Harris says:

      Not so new, really. I had editors as product managers in the 90′s at Letts, and editors at Learning Matters whose role was to be market experts in order to develop new product. I guess I think product development (based on market understanding) is at the core of our publishing activity.

      • Sheila says:

        You’re ahead of me, Jonathan. The follow-up post to this is in fact about the fact that the closest I see to product development is in the educational publishing sector – where I’ve been lucky enough to see some very interesting work in action recently. Also new technology enables publishers to publish in formats beyond the print book – so its not just content but structure that needs development.
        Its also noteworthy that Learning Matters was a new independent and therefore by definition more innovative in approach. Which is why you made such a success of it….

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