/ Content Management Systems: Getting from Concept to Reality

Most good ideas are easy to understand. They frequently are born out of a need, so conceptually they are easy to accept. The tricky part with many good ideas is getting from their conceptual acceptance to practical use. A Content Management System (CMS) is no exception: great idea, easy to understand, tough to do.

Until a few years ago, the printed page was the sole destination of published content. The remnants of that portion of the publishing process — tear sheets, galleys, and electronic typesetting files — are of no further use.

When we entered the CD-ROM world, however, our awareness of the need to use electronic files beyond the printing process began to shift. The cost and development pain of our first electronic-data conversion, or the need to create (or re-create) electronic-data files for a CD-ROM project was the first challenge. Almost immediately many of us were being thrust into a new delivery medium, the Internet, with its own data-format needs. After getting through all that, when the time for a new print edition rolled around we had cost increases, not reductions, because the electronic data files were not left in a form useful for print.

A Content Management System allows content to be stored, retrieved, edited, updated, controlled, then output in a variety of ways such that the incremental cost of each update cycle and output production shrinks dramatically over time. It is a great concept. CMS solutions involve the integration of database, workflow, and editorial tools. They tend to be implemented for specific publications, not as enterprise-wide solutions. Since specific needs differ, most solutions are custom, using various off-the-shelf database, workflow, and editorial products. While no integrated brand leader has emerged, several journal and reference publishers including McGraw-Hill, Mosby, and various Thomson units have developed and implemented publication specific systems.

When to Consider a CMS

Certain types of publications do not lend themselves to a CMS. In fact, those that do are generally the same types of publications that have been, and continue to be, successful in the CD-ROM business: reference. The best candidates for a CMS will meet all or most of the following criteria:

  • Database orientation

    For our purposes, that means any information that can be organized in some logical fashion, and has component parts that have value independent of the remainder of the work. A quick scan of a Table of Contents will give a first measure of how appropriate a particular work might be. Encyclopedias come to mind, as do databooks and technical reference works. Journals have their own special requirements, which may or may not benefit from a CMS.

  • Multiple volumes

    If a published work won't squeeze into one volume, its size alone might suggest that it can benefit from the use of a CMS. Some larger single-volume collections (say, over 1,000 pages) are worthy of consideration.

  • Multiple editions

    A "one-and-done" publication does not need a CMS. However, multiple editions cry out for a CMS for a variety of reasons. First, the fact that they are being produced multiple times implies that they have been successful, and may continue to be successful. That is important when developing the payback plan for a CMS. Second, new editions are generally not entirely new. In fact, they are generally mostly not new, with typically only 15 to 3 percent of a work updated between traditional new print editions. While a method for the updates is important, the 70 to 85 percent of the previous edition also needs to be handled properly.

  • Multiple authors, contributors, and editors

    While it may be true that too many cooks spoil the broth, without lots of involvement from many people, many publications would never get out of the kitchen. That does not mean it is easy to publish a product with multiple authors, contributors, and editors. In fact, the logistics of managing the development of a reference product or series for the first time or as an update are very demanding. A CMS automates and manages that process.

  • Multiple deliverable options

    Oh, for the days when we had to worry only about print. For many publications those days are gone forever. Repurposing data has proven to be an effective way to leverage content into existing markets, although repurposing frequently comes at a prohibitive cost. That's where a CMS can help. (The new entries into those existing markets, by the way, are electronic: Just a few years back it was CD-ROM, then overnight the Internet happened. Interestingly, the print market has not yet collapsed.)

Components of a CMS

The term Content Management System is the most straightforward of the various labels that attempt to describe a comprehensive solution. A CMS is simply a system to manage content. Content is the asset that, because of the characteristics already mentioned, needs to be managed. A system is required because several interdependent functions are required to work together within a common framework.

The major components of a CMS are the data repository, user interface, workflow scheme, editorial tools, and output utilities. They allow writers to work in one way in one environment (or several), creating or updating content; editors may use different tools to interact with what the writers submit, and keep track of who's doing what; and the final edited content, still managed in the same repository, can be output in a variety of configurations in a variety of ways (for example, a printed book, and a CD, and a Web site) each of which might have different combinations of the content formatted in different ways but all of which draw from the same database.

"The CMS takes the edited, formatted article and creates an appropriate electronic version for the final product — CD-ROM, online, or print"

An author charged with updating an existing encyclopedia article might mark up the old article and fax or mail it to an editor, or submit a word-processing document on diskette. With a CMS, the same author might access the article over the Internet and edit it with a traditional word-processing product or SGML editor. When it is time to re-submit it, the new article will be properly formatted by that SGML editor or a template in the word processor, and sent back electronically. A program keeps track of where the article is and when it is expected back, and alerts the editors when it has arrived. It also keeps track of who is doing the copy editing, and when that is finished. Finally, the CMS takes the edited, formatted article and, through the use of output utilities, creates an appropriate electronic version for the final product — CD-ROM, online, or print. A short discussion of each component part paints a more thorough picture of what a CMS is and what it does.

  • Data repository

    Also called a database, the data repository is the organization of the content to facilitate access, updating, and re-distribution. The specific organization of the information will depend on how it is to be accessed, but generally it will be broken down to its lowest logical level of granularity. The data repository might be one of the commercial relational-database products of varying size and power, or a custom database. The format of the information might be SGML or even plain ASCII text. It may be accessed from a local network, intranet, or the Internet, and security to control authorized access must be thought out and included.

  • User interface

    The set of screens used to interact with the data make up the user interface. Since a CMS is typically an integration of several products, it will utilize several different-but-familiar interfaces, specifically those of Internet browsers and word processors. Frequently those are used in combination with custom interfaces designed to fit the specific process needs of an organization or publication.

  • Editorial tools

    Word processors and SGML editors are key components of most CMS solutions. They provide tools that allow content creation and editing, as well as a fluid file form that facilitates the ongoing processing of the content. The ideal set of editorial tools would allow authors to work in a software environment that they are comfortable with, such as a word processor or text editor, while following a few basic rules. That is preferable to an environment where the author must be proficient in SGML tagging for editorial purposes. While some authors might be intrigued by the workings of a tagging scheme, most will be distracted by them, taking away from their content focus.

  • Workflow scheme

    With a CMS, we always know what is happening with any given component of the content. The workflow scheme keeps track of each data element, its check-in and check-out history, as well as its version history. That allows those checking on the status of an article to know whether it has been accessed, is being edited, has been submitted for copy editing, has been returned to the author for re-work, or has been accepted in its final form. In addition, the version history tracks which version of the article has appeared in which publications. Different versions remain accessible forever. The workflow scheme can also generate custom reports to provide status information in a variety of formats. It allows the publisher to control (or at least track) the content and process.

  • Output utilities

    The output utilities are filters that take information in the data repository and format it for various publishing media. For instance, a filter may generate the CD-ROM version of the content in its final form, but may generate a print version in a partially tagged form to be sent to a typesetter for pagination. Some would argue that the output utilities are the most important part of a CMS. Others skip over them as an afterthought. The reality is that even after getting the data in shape and providing access to it and control of it, without well-developed output utilities the content is not going anywhere. It is a misconception that once data is "media neutral" and in a data repository, the job is done. Clearly, the job is easier. However, not only is it not done, it is truly just beginning.

Some say that a CMS is a money pit where the spending continues forever. That is true — but it is a positive thing, because the incremental spending relative to the products and revenue generated truly becomes nominal over time, increasing bottom-line revenue for the publisher. If you're going to create various products from the same material, a CMS will make it cheaper to do it.

"Your marketing department will love the opportunity to leverage your content with cost-effective promotions and custom publications"

Benefits Are Obvious

Let's review for a moment: We start with content that is authored by many, and updated for print and electronic delivery every couple of years. Instead of going through that process somewhat manually with manual controls, costing the same or more each review cycle and leaving us with nothing usable for the next cycle, we use a CMS. At the concept level, this is a no brainer. Let's explore the benefits in more detail.

1. Ongoing update costs are reduced.

In the end, this is the litmus test for the CMS. Payback comes in a variety of ways: Creating a subsequent edition of a CD-ROM via a properly crafted output utility will cost less than "pre-CMS"; updating a Web site will be a much simpler and less expensive process; and providing a typesetter with a partially typeset file for the next print edition will reduce typesetting costs. The cost of a CMS can vary significantly depending on the scope; however, the ongoing cost reduction for combined print, Web, and CD-ROM publishing can reach 50 percent. The following table illustrates how.

CMS Return on Investment Model
Without a CMS ($000s)With a CMS ($000s)
CMS development—————————200———200
CMS upgrades————————————3030
CMS total (2 yr.)230
CD-ROM dev.8570155402060
Web output2525505510

Note that the blue cells show that over two years the CMS option is $43,000 higher — 15 percent — than the other publication method. But beginning in the next edition (gray cells), the CMS costs $66,000 less — nearly 50 percent — than the other publication method. That is a conservative analysis, because it does not take into account the potential increase in incremental revenue derived from new custom publications.

2. Content is always in usable form.

If you have ever had to run down the last electronic version to start the update process, you know how beneficial it is to have your content in a perpetually usable form. And let's be clear that usable electronic form is not PDF format, but rather machine-editable ASCII.

3. The tracking and workflow mechanism is an effective development and production aid.

Editors and authors will always talk, but think of the efficiency of being able to bring up a screen that will show an editor the editorial status of each component at the current time. Not only will that help in dealing with your authors, it will be useful dealing with your production, marketing, and senior management colleagues. This is a management tool you will wonder how you did without.

4. When done properly, a CMS can turn a production cost into a content investment.

Production costs for publications that might benefit from a CMS have traditionally been lost, returning no benefit but the product itself, despite the best efforts of editors and production executives. While a CMS does not eliminate costs, it surely will reduce them. Equally important is the fact that your content, your asset, is being maintained in a format that gives you the greatest flexibility to respond to changes in the publishing business. If you were to sell that product, or the business, the value of content in a CMS has to be greater than the value of a work archived somewhere in an unusable format.

5. Custom-publishing opportunities that might previously have been rejected for cost reasons are now cost-effective.

With the explosion of the Web, there are more and more opportunities for custom publishing by extracting pieces of a large work that may be timely. Let's say you managed a scientific or astronomical encyclopedia that was not in a CMS. A year ago you might have wanted to respond to the Hale-Bopp phenomenon by publishing an article on your Web site, freely accessible, in hopes that you could generate interest in the encyclopedia. Or you may have wanted to rush to print a work selected from your database on comets and related articles that was suddenly more pertinent and marketable.

Unfortunately, the work required to turn your content into a Web-ready article will cost you a lot of money, and the potential return in encyclopedia sales might not cover it. Likewise, the cost of generating a custom niche publication would probably be prohibitive, so it would not get done. With a CMS, however, the cost should be nominal, since generating an HTML version that will allow you to publish the article on the Web should be practically automatic, as should compiling and generating the partially typeset files for a print publication. Your marketing department will love the opportunity to leverage your content with cost-effective promotions and custom publications.

Ominous Barriers

Even if a publisher wholeheartedly agrees that a CMS is to publishing what an elevator is to vertical travel, the leap to implementing it is still a big one. There are two reasons:

Not using a CMS costs nothing today, and it's easy to ignore the future savings in favor of a short term publishing plan that may meet return requirements. However, installing a CMS can be expensive in the short term, and the payback doesn't come until farther in the future than some publishers are used to thinking.

The ROI model of a CMS conflicts with the traditional publishing plan and cycle. The short-term costs are higher than traditional publication costs, and the return generally extends beyond one publishing cycle. Many publishers are not equipped financially or culturally to foster that type of long-term strategic decision making, even if it is clearly in the best interest of the business. Mid-level and senior publishing executives are reviewed based on short-term decisions; bonuses and promotions are handed out based on short-term returns; and dismissals are based on short-term setbacks. It really is not that hard to fathom that people would not risk their bonuses and possibly their jobs to stand up for a capital investment that may not start producing savings until after they are gone from the company. Sadly, the tenure frailty so evident in many publishing cultures frequently discourages the best long-term decisions from being made. What the publishing business needs is a few brave, far-thinking executives who forge ahead and prove the value of a CMS.

"An educated management will be your best asset, providing both organizational and fiscal support"

In addition, many publishers have not embraced their suppliers as partners, frequently viewing them as nothing more than commodity brokers. In the past, most publisher suppliers were supplying commodity services such as typesetting and printing. In today's publishing world, many supplier services and relationships are too specialized and complex to be treated as commodities. In fact, dealing with a software developer (the typical supplier of a CMS) is much like dealing with an author; they are usually bright, knowledgeable in an area where the publishers may not be, a bit flaky, good talkers, but unreliable when it comes to hitting delivery dates. Sound familiar? Dealing with such people sounds risky, and in fact it can be.

Getting to Reality

The intent of this article is to address what a CMS is, in what situations publishers should consider them, and the irony that despite how obvious a solution they may appear to be conceptually, they remain difficult to justify and recommend in reality.

Here are some suggestions to help overcome that dilemma. First, investigate whether your content fits the profile best served by a CMS. Second, if it does, understand the real numbers for going forward without a CMS. Third, develop and manage a long term plan that truly captures and addresses all cost and revenue areas for CMS development, maintenance, and ongoing publication. Fourth, find suppliers with whom you are comfortable forming resource and program partnerships. Fifth, be an advocate of your cause, and fight for top-level acceptance and support that can withstand regime changes. Sixth, stay focused on doing the right thing for your authors, content, and business.

The easy part is recognizing the need for a CMS. The more difficult part is designing the correct system for a price that you can justify. Success here largely hinges on the strength of external and internal relationships. An educated management will be your best asset, providing both organizational and fiscal support. That might come in the form of creative cost amortization and bonus plans. Likewise, a savvy supplier might provide service alternatives that smooth costs such that they fit within more rigid fiscal requirements.

The concept of a CMS is simple yet compelling. The use of such systems has been complex and lagging. That is about to change. As technology and publishing management improve, the CMS will go from being an unrealized concept to an important reality for many publishers. That is a logical progression in understanding and controlling the value of repurposed content based upon the value of repurposed format. Business and technical challenges are not new to publishers. If you are in a situation that calls for the process improvement of a CMS, develop your support and resource networks, and enjoy the challenge of turning a great concept into a profitable reality.

Chris Kartchner founded CDIS, INC in 1991 to focus on the electronic-publishing needs of professional-reference publishers. He previously held executive positions at three multi-national companies in three diverse industries. His broad background helps him bring technical solutions to non-technical audiences. Mr. Kartchner is a graduate of the University of Utah and of Dowling College. He is a frequent and popular conference speaker and panelist at academic and reference-publishing events, and he is an Adjunct Professor in Pace University's Masters in Publishing Program in New York City, where he teaches publishing-technology and academic-publishing courses. He may be reached at cpk@cdisinc.com.