The Art of Business: Gene Gable Speaks Out
There aren't many people who know the publishing industry, its people, inside stories, and backroom secrets better than Gene Gable. If you've ever been to Seybold Seminars, you know Gene. He's the big guy always on stage introducing the likes of John Warnock and Steve Jobs. Gene recently left his position as president of Seybold Seminars and Publications after a four-year stint. Prior to Seybold, Gene was president of Integrated Media, Inc., a division of International Data Group, where he served as publisher of "Publish" magazine for five years.
Now that he's a free agent, I took to opportunity to ask Gene for his frank opinion on the companies, trends, failures, and successes of the publishing world.
Creativepro.com: You recently resigned your position as President of Seybold Seminars and Publications. Why the change?
Gene Gable: As much as we all like to romanticize brands (and Seybold certainly benefited from that) in the end, unless you are an owner, they are really just places to work. And we've all left great jobs because of strategy disagreements or differences in vision.
We are at significant intersection as an industry, and everyone is going to have to adapt and change once more. I'd rather make those changes in a more stable setting than the environment created by Seybold's parent, Key3Media Events.
That said, running Seybold is a great job because you get to deal with so many smart people. And if you don't insulate yourself too much among the "old guard" of the industry, you can get a great picture as to what the real issues are out there. Plus it's really fun when you are actually at an event and all that stuff is going on around you -- it's a rush.
CP: Many publishing companies are pushing toward corporate or enterprise publishing. How will this affect creative professionals?
GG: Our industry has never been very good at dealing with IT departments and CTOs, so we have a lot to learn, but the emphasis is clearly away from the desktop and on to the enterprise.
When it comes to installing a content management system, establishing policies and technology around rights management, or implementing an on-demand, one-to-one marketing campaign, the problems are not primarily technical. They're about bringing together groups in a company, determining "ownership" of the process, and deciding "this is important enough" to endure pain and make fundamental changes to how you work. And then the competitive and partner landscape changes, too, and you're talking about Oracle databases, SAP installations, Siebel customer-relationship packages, etc.
Creative professionals don't really speak that language, but they need to learn it or they'll be minimized in the process. I know it's painful, but the creative side of business is getting dragged into the IT side, like it or not. And on the positive front, when we're finished, if all goes well, things will work much more smoothly and with any luck, creative efforts will reach even deeper into the organization.
CP: So what, then, does the future hold graphics professionals?
GG: I caught a lot of flack a few years back when I advocated for licensing or some sort of certification process for graphic artists and production professionals. And while no one wants to put a metric on creativity, until and unless we establish both a measure of professionalism and a common way to identify qualified creative professionals, the value of their services is diminished. In Hollywood, writers have the Writer's Guild and when they work on a project, there is an understanding of the minimum professional value for every service. Like it or not, unless an industry can identify its members easily, it gets less commitment from vendors.
Companies like Microsoft, IBM, or Intel, don't relate to "graphic professionals" because they can't get a handle around what that means -- is that the head of a large production department at a top ad agency, someone in the marketing department, or an amateur desktop publisher who moonlights from their regular job? Even Adobe is trying, in some respects, to shake the "creative products" moniker and be thought of as an enterprise products company. And yet in my mind, the graphic professional market has a lot of influence on IT spending. They just don't get proper credit for it. I'd like to hope that demand increases for their services. The more information there is out there, the more good-quality design stands out.
CP: That said, what are some of the new skills and arenas that creative professionals will have to understand to remain successful?
GG: The action right now is in the areas of collaborative workflows, content management, rights management, and to some degree full-motion video, which I still believe has a role in the graphic arts industry as we currently define it. But those are complicated technologies and not easy to put a face to -- and quite frankly, a little ho-hum from a whiz-bang standpoint, though they are critical to progress. How exciting is Adobe's Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP)? Critical, yes, but not something you can go to a tradeshow and drool over.
Yet until we get a handle on our content, and that includes customer database information, we can't take full advantage of digital printing, customizable Web sites, and collaborative workflows. And creative professionals have to embrace the idea that designing a good database is a creative process, too! If you can't anticipate the creative uses at the end of the cycle, you can't really design a good repository for data at the beginning of the process. Right now we typically start with the data. We should start with the marketing and creative needs, then design back from there. It frustrates me that marketing and creative professionals often wait to be told what the process is rather than drive the design of the process.
CP: There's a lot a talk about PDF and XML. What are your thoughts?
There's no question that XML is the foundation for a ton of what's to come. When John Seybold and his son Jonathan were first talking about the future of publishing 30 years ago, they recognized that you have to give data enough structure so that it will know how to act when it becomes part of a larger work -- that's why they promoted SGML so heavily. And of course SGML was the precursor to XML.
The Web simply sped up the process because it's such an inherently unstructured environment. Simply, XML in all its various flavors allows information to "play well together" so that it doesn't need to be handled each time it's put to a new use. And fortunately XML is bigger now than just publishing, though we should be proud to have claimed it first.
But XML is just a language, really. The interesting part comes in how it will be used to structure information, tag huge repositories of content, and anticipate future needs. Aren't we all a little tired of re-structuring our data each time technology changes?
CP: What about PDF?
GG: PDF is taking a larger and larger role in publishing, but I think of PDF as old technology, really -- I remember seeing it at Adobe back in the early nineties. It's simply taken an incredibly long time to perfect and for adoption to take place. I hardly think of PDF as breakthrough -- it's a good example of a product that found its place more from the way people wanted to use it than from its intended purpose. But now that it's pervasive, I suppose they'll continue to be some interesting developments around it, and I'm glad to see companies like Enfocus be successful -- they were slogging away at PostScript editing back in the NeXT-computer days. PDF's bigger future, though, is certainly outside of graphic arts -- at least Adobe certainly hopes so.
CP: Your thoughts on Apple, Adobe, Macromedia, Quark and Microsoft.
GG: All of the companies that were once satisfied with being primarily a graphics company are trying to break out of that image and expand more into either consumer or corporate products. Apple certainly is, Adobe is big time, Macromedia is. I suppose Quark is one of the few companies that isn't talking about new markets, though they have started some business-products initiatives too. This isn't because these companies dislike our market. It's because we aren't buying enough products to sustain any growth, and because financial markets think of the graphics business as dead.
And it's always hard when your favorite company moves on and courts someone else, but as long as they continue to support you, and I believe all of these companies will, why should it matter? You can't begrudge a company for looking at new opportunities.
Of course, anytime a company moves into new territory, it becomes vulnerable, and since everyone is looking for growth, they run up against each other even more. If you think of it, Apple is potentially one of Adobe's biggest competitors. Final Cut Pro has made a huge dent in the sales of Premiere, and programs like iPhoto may seem innocent enough, but with a few more features it's a free version of Photoshop. And Microsoft has clearly set their eyes on PDF. So Adobe has to play it very smart and not be too greedy -- so far I think they're doing a good job of positioning products like Acrobat as complements to existing IT structures, not as direct competitors to entrenched products. And Adobe knows better than to abandon its core creative customers.
Macromedia has done a terrific job with the new MX product line -- it took some time for them to integrate with Allaire, but the results are great. They've clearly become the Web-production products company. If the economy stabilizes and the Web gets back on its feet and takes its rightful place as the dominate publishing vehicle, Macromedia is in a great position to benefit.
Quark is the wild card for the near term. It's become a very fragmented company. The CEO is in Switzerland, the product development team is in Germany, the programming is all being done in India, and a relatively small staff remains in Denver. Things have really changed since Tim Gill, the founder, sold out his interests. It's unusual for a company with such a dominant product to still be privately held, but you have to respect Quark for not wavering from its mission.
Everyone talks about the impact InDesign is having, but in the trenches out there, QuarkXPress is still the product of choice, and I don't see that changing as long as it continues to work well and is supported by third-party integrators. Quark is vulnerable right now in the newspaper market, and needs to bring out some of the systems products they've been talking about. But I think the lack of OS X support is more emotional than real -- not that many large publishing companies rushing to adopt OS X. It may seem late to the Mac faithful, but Quark will be okay if they release that product in the next six to eight months.
CP: Can this business continue to sustain all these companies Is there enough to go around?
GG: I wouldn't be shocked to see a major merger among the "big three" of Adobe, Macromedia, and Quark, though the overlap in products and customers is very high. The stock market has a big impact on both Adobe and Macromedia, so anything goes. With Quark, you're dealing with the whims of a single owner, so who knows what might happen. One day he may simply say "I'm tired of this," and cash out. Stranger things have happened. And we shouldn't discount Corel, which has some great technology and very smart people -- they could figure into the future in a bigger way, too, if they can shake the unfair image of a lower-end products company. You just have to look around at other industries to see that things usually boil down to one or two dominate technology suppliers and a couple of smaller players.
We've already seen tremendous consolidation, especially among the hardware vendors, as products become more and more commodity items with little or no profit margins. So much of success in these times is based on efficient manufacturing, good channel distribution, aggressive marketing, and global reach. Smaller companies will always be vulnerable. But I do think there is a trend among consumers to be a little wary and distrustful of large corporations -- that could slow things down a bit, but the graphic arts industry as a separate slice of technology is becoming less and less viable. All of technology is compacting.
CP: Any long shot predictions on one dark-horse technology worth watching, and why?
GG: There is one technology to watch -- that's content categorization software. Luke Cavanagh at Seybold Reports wrote a great summary recently about all the companies using artificial intelligence and other means to add taxonomy and structure to existing databases of information. If you can't find it, you can't use it, and I think we have all run up against the limits of text-based searches. These systems organize information and make relationships based on some pretty complex routines. I can't say I understand it completely, but then that's what makes it interesting!
CP: You recently bought several old letterpress presses and a 1930's Intertype hot-metal typesetter on eBay. How does it feel to be messing with metal type again?
GG: I've always been a firm believer that until you work with individual letterforms, you never really learn about typography. If your sole exposure to type is through QuarkXpress or InDesign, you have a hard time grasping how important the relationships are between individual characters. That's why I like working with metal type, and why I generally see some of the best typography done by sign painters -- they still work one letter at a time.
The other reason I have vintage letterpress equipment around is because I'm still a mechanical person at heart -- I've learned to embrace digital technology, but I hate the fact that you can't see what's going on in the machine. I loved photomechanical typesetting machines, and I love hot metal typesetting -- it strips everything down to the basics.
Plus, it's a fun hobby and one that I've discovered quite a few people indulge in. You'd be surprised how many bidders show up for the metal type that sells on eBay. And it was a way to get back at my wife who collects paint-by-number paintings on eBay. I complained for years about all the boxes coming to the front door and in one purchase I managed to bring six tons of equipment home!
Read more by Eric J. Adams.
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