Education Publishing – Print Vs. Technology III

Textbook publishers have a checkered history with developing technology products – which I’ve already commented on here and here.

Yesterday Richard Carey sent me a link to Rockets, Cars, and Gardens, which does a very elegant job of explaining different software development paradigms.

One of the concepts that jumped out at me is the idea of developing products in a portfolio model. To quote:

“…the portfolio model is like firing a swarm of rockets and hoping one hits. The company greenlights a large number of projects, funds them fully and hopes that one of them will blossom into a success. In return for spending more money, you rarely have to wait until version 3.0 to observe success.”

This is the approach textbook publishers take with most supplemental products. Since it is hard to predict exactly what the market wants they throw a lot out of books there and make money off the winners.

This works swell in a market where your costs and design questions are known and well developed, like printing textbooks (or music in the article). You know what it costs to print a book of a certain length on a given paper stock. Its a given that it will have a table of contents, a teacher’s edition, and other standard elements.

With software almost none of those questions is known in advance. It is much harder to know exactly what is going to be needed – which would make an even stronger case for the kind of portfolio model the publishers are already using for print products.

The opposite usually happens. Software is seen as higher risk than print because of all the unknowns, so publishers only greenlight one or two projects at a time. When they do this they then go on to make additional problems for themselves by under funding or over funding the projects.

1. They fund it like a book – which isn’t nearly enough when you have so many unknowns to resolve. To the print folks it looks like the techies are just flailing around and doing a lot of analysis, but that is only because in the print world so many questions have rock solid answers in advance. The techies are actually working to best practices but have a hard time convincing the print folks of this.

462737_terracota_warriors.jpg2. They fund it like a war – it becomes the “mother of” all software projects. This drags development out, ratchets up costs, and ultimately means you are very distant from your customer’s needs. Eventually someone sane comes along and kills the whole thing leaving a bad taste in everyones mouth about technology.

What would be interesting to see is if a publisher had the stomach to take the funding they were doing on one mega project and spread it around on 20 small projects with the idea that they are going to kill at least 15 of them before they launch.

What is odd is that they already know and love this approach – its just that the costs and unknowns associated with software spook them into forgetting it.