Iterative Versus Linear Processes in Publishing

By Barb, who has made it back to New England in time for our very last snow, apparently

Last week, as I read Jane Friedman’s excellent blog post on the takeaways for authors from Digital Book World, I was struck once again by the idea that traditional publishers are stuck in a world of linear manufacturing processes when, in fact, it is their iterative processes they need to embrace to survive.

Development versus Manufacturing

In my previous life I worked as a Chief Operating Officer for an educational technology company that developed and distributed software that institutions of higher education used to put courses, or even more often, to put some course functions (self-quizzing, grading, submission of papers, etc.) online. At this company, we partnered with the big textbook publishers and in those days (1996-2006), despite the fact that one of those publishers had a large investment stake in our company and a seat on the board, the relationships were fraught.

After struggling for years with hysteria on one side or the other, I realized that one of the major problems between a software company like ours and the textbook publishers was that our processes were almost all iterative, whereas theirs were linear.

In the software world, particularly when you are creating a new category of product, you normally put out a version that has your best guess as to what your target users want and need. You see if customers or users rally to it (i.e. if it’s even worth investing more time and money in). If users do like it, believe me, they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms what other features they need and where the bugs are. The work of fixing the current version and creating new versions is constant, all part of a conversation with customers and users. Cycles have shrunk and gone faster even since I stepped out of the field in 2010.

At the publishers, the editors worked under a very different burden. Each edition of the book was an endpoint and it had to be absolutely perfect. At least that was the goal. This was the product that their salespeople would carry around in the trunks of their cars for the next three years. No changes.

Our very different mindsets about how we were working and the goals of our processes caused a huge amount of our conflict. (Earlier this month, McGraw-Hill announced that sales 2015 unit sales of digital platforms and programs exceeded those of print in its U.S. Higher Education Group for the first time. I imagine the culture has changed there, too.)

What does that have to do with fiction?

Producing quality fiction books requires both iterative and linear processes.

When we think of the great era of book editors, we think of a conversation between a writer and editor that shaped a book and made it great. Iterative processes are inherently creative processes.

But often publishers think like manufacturers. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to get an error in a book changed, even in the digital version. Or tried make a significant change at the galley stage. Galleys are treated as if they are typeset in printer’s trays the way my great-grandfather used to do it. “I don’t know how you do it,” a friend of mine told her editor, “but I’m using a computer.”

I realize that every time they open a file on a computer, it costs a publisher money. But the linear mindset causes publishers not to do things that are easy and cheap. Like fixing a book’s metadata after it’s released. Or adding a buy link for the next book in a series into a published ebook. What better, cheaper, more targeted form of advertising? Or dropping the price of the e-book for a time period. Some publishers act as if the price is still printed on the cover. As Friedman points out in her report, they can always raise it again.

But doing things like that involves changing your mindset to realize that producing the book is no longer an endpoint and paying attention to the book long after the traditional short promotional period that follows a book’s release. Many traditional publishers haven’t shown themselves to be great at that.

No, I don’t want novels to become like software with changes constantly made based on readers’ suggestions. There are other methods of storytelling that support that approach better, including interactive gaming and forms of experimental fiction. The novel’s strength is that it is one person’s vision and it is inevitably shaped by the time in which it is written. (One of my favorite series is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books in which the canon must constantly be repaired from damage caused by wandering literary tourists.)

But I do think it’s the iterative processes at publishing houses that are the valuable ones—curating their list, and making those books the best they can be. Technology will make the manufacturing part of producing books ever faster and more cost-efficient. We’ve already reached the point where printing access and costs are not barriers to entry for anyone. Can they big publishers change their mindsets? It will be interesting to watch.

Usual caveats:

  1. I actually have a great relationship with my publisher. As a medium-sized house they’ve shown themselves willing to experiment with pricing and marketing in many ways, including changing ebook pricing long after a book’s release.
  2. Authors are not really insiders when it comes to publishing. We’re not at the table when the important decisions get made. So you should view these opinions only as those of a highly interested observer.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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10 Responses to Iterative Versus Linear Processes in Publishing

  1. Edith says:

    Great observations, Barb. I also worked in the software industry. When I started, we still printed the user guides. By the time I left, all the information was presented as online help embedded in the application, so our manuals had become software, too – constantly changing.

    I agree that our shared publisher does a good job of fiddling with pricing of ebooks as a marketing tool.

  2. My favorite line: “I don’t know how you do it,” a friend of mine told her editor, “but I’m using a computer.” Great post!

  3. Agree with your observations, Barb. One of the strengths of independent publishing is the ability to immediately revise, if necessary. Corrections and updated buy links can be quickly done, not only to the ebook versions, but to the print as well. Like Edith and with her comment above, I’m also a Technical Writer, and I dislike having outdated or incorrect published editions, when fixes are so quick and easy. Price changes or getting your book added to a book bundle with others is a snap, too, and it’s great to run experiments and compare results. What’s nice is that we now have options for all kinds of approaches. While some larger companies may be slow to adapt, there’s value in marketplace agility.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I agree that independent publishing is leading the way on this. For a variety of reasons, I would love to see some of the big publishers save themselves. We’ll see who adapts how.

  4. John Clark says:

    Excellent. It brings to mind how some books in the YA market started as chapters online that readers/fans voted on in terms of where they should go in subsequent ones. The results seem to be good and well received.

  5. L.C. Rooney says:

    Fascinating insights, Barb. Thanks so much for sharing. As a member of the yet-to-be-published club — and someone who came out of the online marketing world — these are the kinds of things I wonder about. I hope more publishers begin to evolve. The technology is there.

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