Small Teams and Acquisitions: A Collection of Messy Thoughts

May 3rd, 2010 · 8 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Since the announcement that HarperStudio was being shuttered and its staff, Bob Miller excepted, would be absorbed into the larger HarperCollins machine, I have been thinking about what this means for publishers. HarperStudio was a high-profile experiment that barely had time to emerge from start-up mode, much less to achieve goals great and small. From my outsider perspective, one of their greatest accomplishments was proving the effectiveness of small teams.

I may be romanticizing Studio, but it seemed to me an entity that functioned fairly autonomously within the larger HarperCollins entity. Yes, they could tap into the mighty HC machine, but the layers of bureaucracy that slow down the process were largely eliminated. Stripping away obstacles (and their associated meetings!) allows a team to focus on the book, not the potential roadblocks.

Small teams are tantalizing. Speed-to-market. The ability to innovate. Focused communication. Inexpensive experiments. Low-budget failures. Synergy. The lack of corporate baggage. Autonomy. Freedom.

The only other experiment of this nature is the on-the-verge Carina Press, Harlequin’s digital publishing start-up. From top to bottom, Carina took a different approach than Studio. Despite the different business models, both entities distinguished themselves by throwing back the curtain and exposing their business process. In an era where we are told big publishers cannot be “brands” (and, apparently, neither can editors), Carina and Studio proved the opposite.

Working fast, sharing successes, discussing next moves, addressing setbacks — Debbie Stier’s Formspring account is an awesome example of communication — and engaging readers, authors, industry observers, and even competitors…it’s nearly a textbook vision of how to work with small teams.

As the announcement that Studio was ending its experiment was being made, I was leaving the bubble of South by Southwest Interactive. After spending days with people focused on creating and doing, I wondered about the lessons publishers would take from the Studio experiment, and how publishers were going to find the skill sets they needed to take advantage of new ways to bring readers and books together.

I also wondered where the acquisitions in publishing were. It’s not hard to find interesting experiments in publishing. I would hazard that all the current innovative thinking (and doing!) we’re seeing in publishing is being done by individuals and small teams outside the industry as we know it.

(Aside: I am fascinated by the way the people behind these projects continue to knock on publishing’s doors, despite near-constant frustrations of meetings that never result in action. I would love to see more partnerships and experiments.)

Now that the iPad has landed, reality has splashed a bit of cold water on the idea that a single device can “save” an industry. The experience of reading plain text books on the iPad remains an option, but plain text books — silly page turning graphics or not — really don’t do much to leverage the technology. If anything, it highlights the fact that publishers continue to ignore the opportunities of browser-based reading systems. Oh, and that they haven’t done much to leverage that technology either.

(Man, when you think about it, there is so much potential waiting to be tapped. It’s exciting. Digital reading to date has been very much device focused — Kindle, Nook, iPad — and yet the vast majority of people engaged in this type of reading do so via PDF or browser. Imagine the impact on sales if people could, you know, access books in their preferred format.)

The chatter has moved from iBooks to multimedia, transmedia, enhanced books. These terms mean different things to different people. The goal is to either a) increase revenues through value-added product or b) move beyond booky books to reach new “readers”. There is some acceptance that the competition for reader attention comes from all types of media and that publishing wants to leverage its strengths to grab its share of that attention. The how becomes the real question.

There is no dearth of creative technological talent in publishing houses big and small. Whether or not it is the right talent is a question I cannot answer. Based on my extremely informal surveys, it is clear there are great ideas, vision, and — critically — understanding of how real people use technology. Maybe it’s my own prejudice, but I don’t trust decisions made by people who don’t actually use the media they’re trying to leverage.

As I thought about how publishers could learn from the lessons of HarperStudio, Carina, and South by Southwest, I plunged back into the vortex of a multinational corporation. This reminded me of additional data points I needed to include in my musings. Large companies have a very distinct systems. It is hard to change the DNA of entrenched business structure. Whether it be through the creation of small teams (which may or may not be skunkworks-like projects) or through acquisitions, the challenge comes from integrating into the corporate organism.

Small teams can be HarperStudios created to push the boundaries of existing business practices, or they can be cross-departmental groups designed to facilitate new media projects. Either way, these teams step on toes. Nobody wants to let go of headcount without some sort of reward. Staff who report to multiple bosses tend to find their loyalties torn. Finding time to juggle projects becomes a nightmare.

Without strong support from senior management, the lifespan of these kinds of teams is not long. Buy-in needs to part of the corporate vision. If serious transmedia/enhanced projects are part of the publishing company mix, then talent will be culled from across each house, consultants or project people brought in to fill gaps, and success will be shared by many.

Building new infrastructure — these projects will require additional technology at the very least — can be time-consuming and expensive. This will lead to serious consideration of acquiring existing companies. It makes sense: why reinvent the wheel?

Then come the questions. How do you find the right company? What do you do with the new company? What department takes ownership of the company? Is it marketing? Is it editorial? Is it Information Technology? How do you, once you have infrastructure in place, bring all the necessary people to the table?

While I think smart acquisitions can do much to help publishers increase their internal portfolios, I believe small, cross-departmental teams can do a lot to spur innovation in publishing houses. The right mix of skills and autonomy will free staff to think differently, to experiment boldly. Succeed, fail, reflect, rebuild.

HarperStudio epitomized this ethos. Carina Press is doing the same with a fun twist: remote staff. I’d once again emphasize that both projects, while very different, have made it a point of exposing their business models to the world. This kind of openness rallies the community and generates buzz for products. I promise you that when it comes to building teams or integrating acquisitions, the need for secrecy seems far more important than it really is.

So tell me, where are the small teams and what are they doing?

File Under: The Business of Publishing

8 responses so far ↓

  • Maryann Miller // May 3, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    This is ery interesting. I was not familiar with HarperStudio, but do know about Carina. I think that publishing is definitely moving in new directions and I hope those who are working on that other side of the writing business take your suggestions to heart.

  • Chris Fagg // May 4, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Somewhere in this discussion is a distinction between the book as content and book as object. Take children’s books for instance. Would The Hungry Caterpillar work on an Ipad? (Although a videogame based on it might.) The hundreds of thousands of kids who stood in line for the latest Harry Potter really wanted to possess that book. So, content for Kindle (or internet browser — v smart idea) but the real job of publishers is to make people want a personal relationship with the book. Small, dedicated teams may be better at this than boring corporations infested with drones and power freaks.

  • Debbie Stier // May 4, 2010 at 4:53 am

    I always said that one of my favorite aspects of HarperStudio was that we each got to do a little bit of everything because we didn’t have “staff” — and I can’t help but wonder if that was one of the aspects that led Bob to leave (i.e. he wasn’t loving having to handle the minutea we all had to deal with as a result of having no bodies). I’m still adjusting to the new meeting schedule as well as having to go through many people to get a decision made, when a few weeks ago I used to make decisions by yelling out my office door “Bob, can I buy this book?”

    All that said, it does feel luxurious at this point to have teams of people working on the books, now that they’ve been folded back into the rest of the company imprints. I honestly can’t believe how many people there are to do the work. No wonder I aged so much during these last two years.

    I’ve been wanting to write a post on Lessons Learned from my HarperStudio Experience……

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Kassia.

  • Debbie Stier // May 4, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Just to add, I’m very intrigued by Twelve at Hachette Book group and how they function as a small team. Would love to hear more from Jonathan Karp.

  • Rebecca Springer // May 4, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Looking back to the distant past (2000-2001), Time Warner Book Group’s was another innovative digital experiment that was killed before it had a chance to take off. A small team, run like a startup, we actually made phenomenal headway in 18 months, but that’s all the time we got before TW pulled the plug. Publishers need to get comfortable with the idea of burn rate, and that not all new projects will make P&L right out of the gate. If they’re not willing to invest, well, the “future of publishing” may increasingly be happening outside the big 6.

  • Kassia Krozser // May 4, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    @debbie — I eagerly await your “lessons learned” post. You make a point that is critical: this is not an approach embraced by many. There is some comfort in working within established structure. As nonsensical as some corporate processes seem to those inside and outside the organism, procedures have been established for good reason. Though I would argue that one side effect of the small team approach is to challenge those procedures to see if they still make sense.

    So perhaps an addition to my list is “willingness to challenge or sometimes subvert the status quo.”

    (I do hear you on the luxury of large teams. It took a village to teach me to work a fax machine. And it was group-think that lead to my use of something I believe is called “interoffice mail”.)

  • Colleen Cunningham // May 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    In the production department at Adams Media, we’ve been given free reign to build a digital workflow into our existing print workflow. We were tasked to save the company money by learning how to create digital products in-house, and now that we’ve become so familiar with the technology, the rest of the company looks to us for education as to whether books are better in the PDF or ePub format, direction on how to shape our manuscripts to better take advantage of cross-referencing and hyperlinking, and lessons on how to create a quality digital product in a fast-paced production environment. That’s not to say that this educational process is easy – sometimes I think we’re known as the “NO” people, but having this in-house discussion about the best formats for our various print books will no doubt help get our publishing program up to speed quickly on which books to invest time in converting to ePub and which titles should go the PDF route. As long as our department can get us on the same page as a company as to how to best reach our consumers with minimal friction, then the learning curve (and hours and hours of troubleshooting) will have been worth it.

  • stacy // May 28, 2010 at 4:44 am

    I’m not clear what you mean by acquisitions–do you mean bigger publishers acquiring startups? That’s what (still relatively small) Lee & Low did for Tu Publishing, a small press startup. Any small press is a small team. I am the only editor for Tu Books, now an imprint of Lee & Low, and I read slush, do all the editorial work, work with the freelancers who do art and copyediting, etc. I like the freedom of my small team–it’s not just me; we have marketing and sales folk, my publisher, and other people who are invested in Tu succeeding, yet there aren’t multiple levels of bureaucracy to deal with, and anyone whose signoff I *do* need for an acquisition are invested in the success of the imprint.