This Week

This Week

from our local correspondent

No matter how hard you work, there’s always something major to miss, isn’t there? Besides the syrup layer cake celebration for Luca’s latest seven-way auction success. I certainly missed that. I mean, somehow the misplaced confidence of the past week always unpeels by Friday afternoon, as you discover a colossal cock-up to set you up for a weekend of ruptured sleep.

Film lovers might suspect that the publishing world revolves around working on manuscripts with yachting flax-haired authors. Or perhaps involves pugilistic sales meetings with suited senior editors high above a rainy Thames embankment, talking about The Figures. Or sitting in the white noise of a packed glass-walled room, beside stale biscuits and curling sandwiches and ancient copies of Campaign, watching the latest webinar on Full Flex Tactile Marketing; and really taking notes.

While I think of it, why are so many representations of publishing life so bone-crushingly awful? If you watch films (rather than sleep through them), Publishing People are often hunched over papers (with paper weights and paper knives), papers spread over an enormous wooden desk like a casket, in a panelled room of some country pile filled with books like larder. That’s us, that is, I think. We’re usually well-dressed, well-heeled, plummy, educated, professional. Everything I’m not. We have smooth hair in the movies; good fringes. We don’t have toilets to unblock, or fish finger sandwiches to cremate for the children. But I digress. Digression, along with procrastination, is a professional luxury.

Anyway, this week’s cock-up was all about data. Friday is data day. Yippee. Data is the Zopiclone of the publishing world – in real life, if editors were having trouble sleeping, a day spent with this stuff would leave anyone in a coma. However, people have real jobs working with this stuff. There are even consultants selling solutions to problems you never knew existed. The employees, however, are usually housed in departments called Information Services where they have polyester-wearing careers pretending to be spies, hackers or boffins. And they develop databases. And they buy databases, big expensive ones that require things called table optimisation – like, I imagine, restaurants have. And they torment senior managers and minions with the propagation of The Absolute System – a multi-tiered, privilege-sucking, password-protected, agglomeration of web forms. I’ll admit that even Salt has some of this.

But data is, sadly, key to a book’s success. There, I have admitted it. Whether it be populating the point of sale in Waterstones, or driving the company website, or simply having a record of what you’re doing, with whom, and identifying what all the bloody pieces are called and where on earth they are being stored (on a scratched CD in the footwell of the Astra).

A book is a puzzle of data. Lots of different types of data. If you are an author, you might have 80,000 words to write, but there will always be twice as much data needed to bring it into the world. Understanding why is really part of the job of being/becoming A Publisher. Heck, I’m digressing again.

This week, the discovery was that the stock reports, which on Fridays feed into our database, affectionately known as ‘Pepper’, were not creating triggers to identify reprints across the list. If you happen to be looking at the title profile of a book (don’t ask), you can of course see the stock levels, the sales, and have an instant picture of where we are with persuading you, the reader, to Buy More Copies of this specific page turner. Yet there wasn’t a report that told us to pay attention elsewhere.

This is basic stuff, really. So off we go: the Friday rush to generate a stock replenishment notice. The report that says, Hey, Dude, check these titles out, we’re running low in stock. Firstly, there was the field creation – what is the trigger level for any given book? Then the calculation that compared stock level to trigger level and generated the record flag. Then there was the script that searched for titles flagged for reprint consideration. Then the design of the report and the key fields needed to decide. There’s a perverse pleasure in sorting this kind of thing. Like knowing when the cat litter needs changing, or when to buy more tea bags, or bog roll.

The draft reports generated twenty pages of blank sheets. Excellent. Something was missing in those subsummary fields. I mean, who needs subsummary fields anyway? The fix complete, the report whirred and rasped its way out of the OfficeJet Pro. Forty-six reprints. Holy cow!

The exhausted bank accounts were going to need an even larger overdraft. And here, at the end of this piece, is the critical moment: the decision to reprint. Nothing will destroy profits faster. Nothing reduce the working capital needed to keep the whole shebang afloat. It is a matter for serious judgement. And it’s a matter that has an impact on all titles at some point in their life. Most distributors will levy a fee against slow moving titles, if the income from the titles falls below this charge, you are faced with placing a title out of print. A tough decision, yet much harder is the decision to commit funds (and profits) to speculating on future sales. Hiding in that decision is plenty to miss.

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