Saturday, July 30, 2016

What Does the Third Law of Plumbing Have To Do With Publishing?

Hard at work in the Production Department
Some of my fellow magazine production managers have been known to quote the First Three Laws of Plumbing: 1) Hot on the left; 2) Cold on the right; 3) Shit don’t run uphill.

It’s the Third Law of Plumbing (our Publishing Word of the Day) that we find especially relevant: You can fling around fancy words like collaboration and workflow, but eventually everything – editorial content, ads, subscriber files, etc. – ends up in the production department, also known as the manufacturing or operations department.

If there’s human fecal matter in the flow, guess who gets to clean it up. While still meeting all the deadlines. And the budget.

I’ve seen savvy operations departments find clever ways to save small fortunes and create new lines of business. And I’ve seen dysfunctional ones miss huge savings opportunities and bring publishers to the brink of ruin.

With print publishing on the decline, you’d think all of us production dinosaurs would be nearly extinct. And, in fact, a lot of good production folks have left the business.

But understanding how to get stuff from one end of the pipeline to the other also gives us a career advantage: In a notoriously siloed industry, where each department typically has a myopic focus only on its own part of the business, someone who knows how to get everything flowing together can be valuable.

It’s no wonder that our industry’s most notorious pundit, BoSacks, is a production guy (not to mention yours truly): Nowhere else are you forced to learn as much about what goes on in the other publishing silos.

Know the flow
Knowing the flow has become more valuable as the shift into multiple media have made magazine – forgive me, magazine-media – publishing more complex and less compartmentalized. Already accustomed to wearing multiple hats and tackling new technologies, I’ve seen some production colleagues morph into roles like web design, email marketing, and data analytics that seem far removed from their dead-tree beginnings.

And never has the need to knit together the various, and growing, publishing disciplines been more critical.

“You can’t always have every relevant department represented in a discussion, so I often find myself looking out for the interests of the missing ones,” says a colleague. “The advertising people think I’m a circulation expert. I’m not, but in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.”

Digital publishing products likewise have employees at the end of the pipeline, with a wide variety of titles, who know the Third Law of Plumbing all too well. They too try to keep things flowing while praying that the next flush of content or data won’t overwhelm them with icky brown stuff.

You can create as much native this and responsive that as you want. But the people who can actually knit all that fancy-ass stuff together, make it comprehensible, and then actually implement it are priceless. And, like my production colleagues in the ink-on-paper world, they're largely unsung.

This article is part of our continuing Publishing Word of the Day series, which explores new and obscure terms that will help you make sense of the contemporary content-peddling business. Yeah, we promised one article every day this month, but it's gotten a bit nasty down at our end of the pipeline, so we're extending the series into August. And, who knows, maybe September.

Previous Dead Tree Edition looks inside the magazine industry include:

1 comment:

BoSacks said...

Well, being a production guy, your missive is spot on. We are the plumbers, the invisible catalysts, and the true politicians of work flow. Unsung, mostly unloved, and always the heroes when anything stuffs up the pipes. Sadly after saving the moment, and multiple problems simultaneously, we are once again unsung and invisible until needed again.