Emma Barnes’ Digital Lunchtime Lecture on Optimising Workflow (#DLL14)

by Leonie Drake

“I want to BE her when I grow up!” was Helena’s enthusiastic introduction to Emma Barnes, this week’s guest Digital Publishing speaker. An hour later, I suspect that more than a few of us were starting to feel the same.

Emma is the MD of Snowbooks and founder of Bibliocloud, a publishing management software package that won the Futurebook 2013 prize for best technology innovation. She starts by describing her early career in retail, where she was once reduced to despair, while knee-deep in unmarked orange pots (the kind of moment I’m sure many of us can relate to). Further up the career ladder she found political intrigue in the world of dusters as a buyer for B&Q, sparking a long-term interest in how people make, break and shake up organisations.

Swapping PowerPoint for print, Emma founded Snowbooks eleven years ago in a bid to create a more meaningful career by providing a vehicle for authors. She admits that the story of her publishing career has been punctuated by mistakes; we all know that in publishing one slip of the finger on a keyboard can have huge ramifications, creating extra work and that sinking feeling of being ‘such a twonk!’. So what are the lessons to be learned for fledgling publishers?

  • The three key ingredients for a successful workflow are responsibility, authority and skills. These need to be in balance with unifying objectives throughout the organisation, not just at department level. A surprising number of publishers get this balance wrong, vaguely waving responsibilities at departments without giving individuals the authority they need to fulfil them or buying in skills that could have been fostered within the organisation.

  • Pay attention to the dynamics of companies you work for. The larger the company, the more schizophrenic it can become i.e. with many disparate voices clamouring to be heard. Be alert in junior roles and subtly point out instances when the workflow process is being undermined. Don’t be afraid to ‘manage upwards’ if necessary.

  • Managing metadata is a metaphor for life. Getting it right is fairly painless, whilst getting it wrong has horrendous consequences (there are some entertaining examples on Amazon such as the publisher who accidentally released the entire sales history of a book in its description). To get it right you need to know exactly which data you are responsible for, what authority you need and what skills you need to get the work done.

  • Tinker with InDesign. Play with XML. Spend some quality time with Ruby on Rails (a programming framework for building websites) and database building. If you do, your skillset will outstrip that of your peers to an extent you wouldn’t believe. Emma spent many weekends on her sofa with The Rails Tutorial, which takes you through the entire process of writing Twitter (as in making the whole shebang, coding and all). At the end she felt as if she had ‘magic fingers’ and couldn’t stop imagining the possibilities.

  • ‘Gut feel is so 1997.’ When developing new products, measure and justify everything (and never forget the customer).

  • When you do buy in tech expertise, make it a training exercise too. Pin them down in the corridor and beg them to share their knowledge.

  • Try not to go insane while working for The Man, or anyone else for that matter.

During the concluding Q&A session, Emma confirmed that there are still vast opportunities at entry level for digital business models. Start-up capital is not always needed and you can sit on a sofa anywhere in the world to develop your product. Inspired? Just be aware that you may need to give up your social life. But, as Emma cheerily put it, ‘who needs friends when you’ve got Rails?’

About the author of this article

Leonie Drake is an International Publishing Masters student, editorial and marketing intern, and self-confessed language geek with a pathological intolerance of bad grammar stemming from her murky past as an English language teacher. Aside from inspirational publishing talks her interests include travel publishing, international development, feminism and cake. She would be happy to hear from you on Twitter at @leo_zeo

Edited by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06 Mar 2014 around 2pm

Last edited: 07 03 2014