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Is data the key to the future of publishing?

Founders of five-year-old publishing house Canelo reveal how data management has been central to its success

The publishing sector is not renowned for its data-driven innovation, so when digital venture Canelo, which derives from “cinnamon” in Spanish and Portuguese, was launched in early-2015, it added some much-needed spice. Powered by a data strategy, Canelo set out to publish a range of fiction and non-fiction titles as ebooks, apps and on the web.

At the time Canelo launched, led by founders Michael Bhaskar, Iain Millar and Nick Barreto, ebooks were being hastily converted to PDFs. “The ebook is too often an afterthought; we want our ebooks to be beautiful,” says Bhaskar. “Everyone has talked about the future of publishing for years; it’s time we actually got on and made it happen.”

Technology director Barreto, 33, adds: “We are building a truly 21st-century publisher, with the tools and agility needed to explore new opportunities to the full. Now is when things get really exciting.”

Creating a digital-first publisher

Canelo has indeed spiced up the publishing sector and continues to innovate, thanks to its data strategy and identifying a gap in the market to produce high-quality ebooks.

“When Canelo began, we felt publishers weren’t focused on innovating and changing how they worked,” says Barreto. “Despite incredible growth in digital readers, they’d plan and do everything with print in mind and, sometimes literally when it came to asset production, work backwards to digital formats.

“It had been decades since anyone was trying to build a new kind of publishing house. It got to a point where instead of trying to effect change from within the organisations we were in, we decided to start afresh. We reimagined things completely for the digital world.

Every publisher spends a lot of time looking at sales patterns and we’re no exception. But we try to think and use data holistically

“We wanted to build a publisher that was innovative, agile, responsive, digitally native, giving both readers and authors a better deal: cheaper, more easily accessible books and a fairer royalty split on short licences for authors.”

Canelo approached the task with three values in mind: simplicity, fairness and growth. “If we could do that, we felt we could disrupt the world of mass-market publishing for the better,” says Barreto. There was plenty of initial encouragement from others within the publishing sector.

“Early on we were told by a literary agent that our largely automated royalty reports were the best they’d ever seen. Even now we offer the highest royalties on digital sales. While we don’t pay any advances, even a moderately successful book will likely be more financially rewarding for an author thanks to the uniqueness of our offer.”

The real benefits of a solid data strategy

Due to its data strategy, Canelo continues to be agile and has adapted its original business model and for the last two years it has published print editions. “It started as a trial in mid-2018 and because the interest in our titles was much greater than we were expecting, we quickly sold over a million paperbacks,” says Barreto.

Investment in technology has been paramount. “The first batch of print books we released – 32 in total – were all typeset automatically in a single day. That process has only got better from there.”

Such commitment to tech and a robust data strategy has been critical to Canelo and its constant evolution. It has also enabled the organisation to thrive in the last six months. “We were well placed to deal with the lockdown, mostly as a result of being an inherently digital business working entirely in the cloud,” says Barreto. “We are probably also one of the few publishers that didn’t furlough any staff; in fact, we’ve accelerated our growth plans for the future this year.”

How to do publishing differently

He emphasises the importance of Canelo’s data strategy. “Data has been at the heart of the business. Every publisher spends a lot of time looking at sales patterns and we’re no exception. But we try to think and use data holistically. We use data management in so many different ways. Most of the innovation is behind the scenes, in our contract and offer, in our workflows and delivery mechanisms, in our approach to authors and marketing,” says Barreto.

As an example, he points to how Canelo has recently updated its entire workflow so it can produce ebooks and print editions from the same source. “This process saves us a lot of time and ensures both editions are always the most up-to-date and accurate version of a given work,” he says. “Generally, this sort of workflow is only found in the largest organisations and can be prohibitively expensive. We’re only able to do this because we had great quality data in the first instance.”

Offering a final piece of advice for business leaders, Barreto adds: “Investing in technology and having our own software expertise in-house has enabled us to take on loads of different challenges and punch above our weight in so many ways as we’ve grown. Ultimately, it’s about embracing the opportunities of the age in which you find yourself.”

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