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Moving to Network Publishing--Thad McIlroy

December 2000
I first starting writing about printers and the Internet in the summer of 1995; a mere five years ago in human time, a lifetime ago for technology. Since then I've continued to harangue you in this column and in my seminars. Get with the Internet, get with the Web, I've admonished. This really is going to affect printing and publishing—it's inevitable.

The problem is that I've been a little short on specifics about what exactly a printer is supposed to DO about the Web. Was I suggesting that printers learn a lot more about the Internet and the Web? (Definitely.) Was I suggesting that you get your own Website? (Yes.) Was I suggesting that you create Websites for your customers? (Maybe.) That you become Internet Service Providers? (Definitely not.)

Truth be told, I've been at a loss about what exactly to recommend to printing companies in terms of reconfiguring their businesses around the Web. I've watched companies pursue a smorgasbord of new-fangled digital options, from starting design and photography studios, to adding asset management and Web publishing services. While most companies have had positive experiences in these pursuits, in the end, they're still just printing companies-plus, rather than fundamentally changed businesses.

Print is no longer a growing business (if you adjust for inflation and paper price increases), and with printing as their core business, I've been concerned about these firms' long-term viability, despite the shiny incremental product offerings.

Well, I think I've finally got it—a conception for the "printing company of the future." I'm calling it the Network Publishing Service Provider (NPSP). It's a printer-plus, but the plus reconfigures the existing business, without tossing out any of the existing business.

The concept is inspired from a new marketing initiative launched on Halloween by Adobe Systems (I'm choosing to ignore any significance from the scary Halloween connection). Just like the rest of us, Adobe has been struggling to try and get a handle on where the whole graphic communications business is going. They watched desktop publishing explode in the 1980s (in fact they were one of the main reasons it did). They watched Web publishing explode in the mid-'90s (and nearly missed the boat on this one, though they've since caught up nicely).

Now they see wireless publishing exploding (to PDAs and phones) with an estimated 600 million devices in use by 2004. At the same time there's an increasing capacity to download "rich media" (with moving images) into homes and offices. Adobe estimates that there will be 40 million households wired for broadband Web access by 2003.

What kind of publishing will serve all of these devices? Adobe calls it network publishing. What is network publishing? According to Adobe: "Making visually rich, personalized content, reliably available any time, anywhere, on any device."

I like it. You can argue that this is just a restatement of something we already know. In a way it is. But we've lacked an overriding conception of the thing, and a term with which to classify it. Network publishing works just fine for me.

If network publishing is the activity in which we'll all be engaged, then, I figure, we're going to need some Network Publishing Service Providers (NPSPs). Why NPSPs? Because as more and more organizations get with the network publishing program, they'll get sick and tired of using three or four different service providers to get their marketing message out to the public.

Using multiple service providers has two great drawbacks. First, it costs extra to manage multiple suppliers. More significantly, it's tough to get a unified message across in a coordinated fashion when a range of suppliers are involved. A single NPSP would have a significant competitive advantage over three or four different services.

So what's involved in transforming a company from printer to NPSP? Clearly the process begins with the full digitization of current processes. If you're still running film to plates, don't even bother.

The second challenge is building a closed-loop manufacturing model. If you still think printing is a craft, you've got the wrong mindset for network publishing.

Your next step is to configure an in-house digital asset management system, if you don't have one already. Add to that someone on staff who understands how databases are built and maintained. This skill is central to network publishing.

Make sure you've got a functional Website. By functional I mean that you can communicate with your existing clients to provide price quotes, accept file submissions and report on job progress.

Next you'll need to hire or partner with another company so that you can offer Web design and hosting facilities. Partnering probably makes more sense—this is a highly specialized area.

Finally, you're going to need to add consulting services. This will have to be on-staff; one or more people who can go out and evangelize network publishing, take orders, establish accounts and keep them happy.

Printers are always saying that their customers keep coming back because of quality, service and pricing. Well, as you know by now, every printer offers good quality, great service and competitive pricing. That's because technology has made good quality achievable for most printers. You've got no choice but to meet competitors' prices. But I think that great service is still a fine art. For all the high-tech, above all, network publishing is a service business. That's a key point. The service skills you've built over the years give you an enviable position as a NPSP.

Better still, consider this: Website design and hosting services have NO INTEREST in print. They think print is at least dying, if not already dead. It's our little secret that while print may not be at its finest hour, it's still a dynamic medium, essential for today's advertisers and marketers. It's not dying any time soon, and we're the only industry that knows how to make it work.

Now if we can just pick up a few other skills, I'd say there's a brilliant future for printers—as Network Publishing Service Providers.

Thad McIlroy

About the Author
Thad McIlroy is a San Francisco-based electronic publishing consultant and author, and serves as program director of Seybold Seminars. He welcomes comments at

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