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Agile for real-world publishing

The first in a series looking at the major themes of this year's TOC conference.

At TOC, you’re as likely to run into media professionals, entrepreneurs and innovators as you are publishers, booksellers and others working in traditional publishing. This, in turn, makes the underlying themes as varying and diverse as the attendees. This is the first in a series, taking a look at five themes that permeated interviews, sessions and/or keynotes at this year’s show. The complete series will be posted here.


Agile publishing, in terms of workflow, work environment as well as practical publishing applications was one of the overriding themes at this year’s TOC.

Kristen McLean (BKGKristen), founder and CEO of Bookigee, addressed agile in her session Hippo In Ballet Shoes, Or Greyhound On The Track? Applying Agile Methodologies To Traditional Publishing. She talked about how agile is a workflow strategy and cited “The Agile Manifesto”:

AgileManifesto.jpg

She also discussed what the agile environment looks like in real-world publishing. Some highlights from her discussion include:

  • Self-organizing teams with flexible skills — get highly talented and interdisciplinary individuals
  • Accountability & empowerment — Give them what they need and trust them to get the work done.
  • Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace — each person should be able to commit only to what they can do in a day, a week, or a production cycle. Cut back features in order to deliver on time.
  • Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location) — put the entire team in one place.
  • Completed tasks are delivered frequently — weeks rather than months
  • Completed tasks are the principal measure of progress — focus on real stuff, not on rituals, documentation, or other internal benchmarks that do nothing for your customer.

McLean’s presentation slides can be found here, and an interview with McLean on some of the finer points of agile can be found here.

Firebrand Technologies’ communications chief Laura Dawson (@ljndawson) held a session on metadata, Metadata is Not a Thing, that reinforced some of these ideas, in that an agile publishing environment requires solid metadata through every phase of the publishing process. Dawson talked more about metadata and workflows in a video interview:

The agile theme flowed in a practical direction in the Real World Agile Publishing session with Joe Wikert (@jwikert) of O’Reilly Media and Dominique Raccah (@draccah) of Sourcebooks, and moderator Brett Sandusky (@bsandusky) of Macmillan New Ventures.

Wikert talked about a variety of agile publishing projects at O’Reilly, including current book projects such as Todd Sattersten’s “Every Book Is a Startup,” which is based on a model of frequent updates to build content and dynamic pricing, and Peter Meyers’ Breaking the Page, which is based on a freemium model. He also addressed other styles of agile publishing O’Reilly has experimented with, including early release projects and rough cuts, which offer early digital access and flat pricing. Wikert touched on short form content publishing as well, which he said allows for a quick turnaround to publish minimum viable products on cutting-edge topics.

Raccah announced that Sourcebooks would be using an agile publishing model to publish an upcoming book, “Entering the Shift Age,” by David Houle. She outlined three goals for the model — more efficient product development, a better author experience, and more timely/updated books — and listed six guiding principles of agile publishing:

AgileGuidingPrinciples.PNG

Wikert’s presentation slides can be viewed here, and Raccah’s can be viewed here.

In a separate video interview, Sandusky addressed a question about whether agile applies universally to all types of books:

“‘Books’ is the part that I have a little bit of a problem with — I think agile applies universally to all kinds of digital product development. That could include books; that could include traditional print books with a POD component; that could include many different types of digital products. ‘Books,’ in terms of the traditional model of ‘build a print book, take it to manufacturing, and then take it to launch’ is not an agile process. But if your workflow is more digitally focused, then I think it applies to all digital products overall."

Also in a video interview, Todd Sattersten (@toddsattersten), author of “Every Book is a Startup” and founder of BizBookLab, addressed a question about how publishers can apply agile development methods:

"I’m interested in how we take the concept of a minimum viable product and apply it to how we develop content. The problem with books is that we tend to believe they have to be big and long and carefully constructed. With minimum viable product, it’s really the exact opposite — what is the smallest amount that we have to do? It could be just putting up a splash page and saying, “Are you interested enough in this idea to share an address?” We’re very familiar in book publishing with the idea of pre-sales — why not sell a book before we actually invest a whole bunch of money in producing the book?"


If you couldn’t make it to TOC, or you missed a session you wanted to see, sign up for the TOC 2012 Complete Video Compilation and check out our archive of free keynotes and interviews.


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  • Gwen Jenkins

    I’d like to see an article on “Accommodating Individuals with Disabilities on Agile Teams.” While small shops only concern is missing out on talent that doesn’t quite fit the mold, it’s a legal requirement for companies with 50 or more employees.

    Digital communication and telecommuting have been gifts to the disabled; every time I see the emphasis on co-location and face-to-face communication, I get depressed.

  • http://www.firebrandtech.com Laura Dawson

    Gwen, as the stepmom of a young woman with autism, I share your concern. (Face-to-face communication makes her very anxious and that anxiety compromises her abilities.) Obviously our language needs to change a little bit – rather than talking about “in person” and “face to face”, I think we need to emphasize effectiveness. For most of us, that involves a high-touch approach but obviously that doesn’t work for all comers.

  • http://writeitforward.wordpress.com Bob Mayer

    Once more, I have to admit I yawn a bit. Been doing that for 18 months now at Who Dares Wins Publishing. My take from Digital Book World and from these various blogs from TOC (since it wasn’t big on inviting authors) are that most of the gurus are still about a year behind the reality of where publishing is.

    I built Who Dares Wins using my experience in Special Forces where we had to radically restructure ourselves for the future based on the real world. We had to act, rather than react. Out lives depended on it.

    Agile publishing is a nice term. What it means in reality is that using our motto: Lead, Follow or Get The Hell Out Of The Way, you need to get the hell out of the way. Anyone who is not a content provider, ie the author, needs to justify their role in getting that content to the consumer, the reader. That is still a difficult concept for many in publishing to grasp.

    That framework slide is so basic it’s a bit scary that people in publishing think it’s innovative.