Justin Colby is a 2008 graduate of the MS in Publishing program. Since then he has been the Project Director at Onward Publishing, a premier custom publishing company “that successfully combines outstanding leadership with exceptional talent.” Onward Publishing is renowned for award-winning editorial and design and has a proven expertise in creating and strengthening world-class brand images. As a premier custom publishing company, Onward publishes magazines and newsletters, and provides web/digital services. In this interview, Justin will share with us his insights on the value of custom publishing and industry trends, as well as his thoughts on the future of publishing.
Prof. Denning: Hi Justin, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. It has been 4 years since you graduated from the MS in Publishing program. Can you tell us what you have been doing since you graduated?
JC: I actually got the call from Onward Publishing the day I handed in my thesis, and started with them almost immediately after that. Thanks to my experience with the MS in Publishing program and the Pace University Press, I’ve also been able to help a couple of my friends self-publish their books.
Prof. Denning: What does your job as Project Director entail?
JC: My job is to bring together the “puzzle pieces” of what we do – the conceptualization, the writing, the design, the production and the distribution – and help make the process as seamless as possible for our client. Therefore, my week is usually split between visiting clients to learn their needs, and working with our internal editorial and design teams. Since I spend so much time in the field, I also have my finger on the pulse of what our clients are looking for from us, whether it’s the latest printing bells and whistles or interactive versions.
Prof. Denning: What exactly is custom publishing? Is it similar to advertising? Who are some of your clients?
JC: That’s the beauty of it – custom publishing can be many things to many people. We combine agency-level creative talent with years of publishing and printing experience to create measurable, targeted publications for our clients that accomplish specific goals.
Healthcare is a major business for us, both big hospital systems and managed care companies (HMOs). One of the most rewarding parts of what we do is helping blue chip names like Mount Sinai and UnitedHealthcare keep people healthy. It’s sort of an enlightened self-interest for them, but the end result is healthier people.
Our business changed significantly when we signed an agreement with National Geographic in 2008; we soon added clients including Airbus and FSC to our roster.
Prof. Denning: How does custom publishing differ from self-publishing?
JC: I love the idea of self-publishing – it’s truly revolutionary in allowing authors to reach an audience on their own terms, and I think it will only become more democratic as the barriers to entry fall with the advent of digital magazines. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to make money in the self-publishing industry with a service-based model. Most authors don’t have many resources to work with and there are already some inexpensive services available.
We have some book and magazine vets on our staff, but what we do is really a marketing tool for our clients. They approach us with a specific goal and we give them a soup-to-nuts solution. The piece is then distributed directly to their customers or referral sources, tracked and distributed. In a sense, we become a part of their communications team. Some companies call this “branded content.”
Prof. Denning: On the webpage for your company, it states that “designing ways to communicate is what ONWARD Publishing is all about.” Can you tell me what is meant by that?
JC: Onward has always hung its hat on design. While content is king, the key to getting customers to pick up and consume your message is to provide it in a pretty package. It’s amazing how attached people get to a well-designed and written magazine, even if it comes from a marketer.
Prof. Denning: Your company also provides web/digital services. Can you explain what that means?
JC: Traditionally, it meant what we call “microsites” (web sites meant as a companion to a publication), e-newsletters, and interactive flash magazines. But with the advent of tablets, it includes everything from mobile applications to interactive optimized publications online.
Prof. Denning: Has social media played a role in the success and growth of ONWARD Publishing?
JC: I’ve always been bearish on social media as a business tool, but I’m coming around and realizing the value it can have, particularly for a consumer-oriented brand. In fact, we are even talking to a couple of our clients about helping them to manage their social presence.
I think what’s true in publishing carries over to social media – customers are willing to listen to you if you’re “real” and, perhaps even more importantly, if you’re providing useful information. A company’s social voice shouldn’t be drastically different from how it communicates through other channels.
For publishing, I think it’s another equalizer – social media will help the best works get discovered and build a following.
Prof Denning: What do you think the future holds for book publishers? Do you think the launch of designated ebook readers and the iPad (and subsequent tablets) forever changed publishing as we know it?
JC: I put a lot of value in the look and feel of a publication, and to me, there’s a certain luxury to shutting off my electronics for the day and sitting down with a good book or the latest issue of Saveur.
That said, we can’t put this thing back in the box. Tablets are here, they’re sexy, they’re personal, and they’ll get cheaper by the year. You’re not going to bring an $800 iPad to the beach, but a $50 tablet isn’t as precious. I think print will always serve a purpose, but tablets (or some similar device) will become the way we consume much of our media in the near future.
Prof: Denning: What do you think the biggest trends in publishing are today?
JC: What fascinates me is that despite the long tail and the ability that we have to focus on our most niche interests, we still have mega-hits. Book series like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter show that the fundamentals of storytelling stay the same, and we still want something to talk about over the water cooler. I think what’s changed is that those stories come from unexpected sources. In our connected society, it’s easier for the cream to rise to the top.
Prof. Denning: Would you like to speculate on the future of magazines? What do you think the industry will look like in 20 years? 30? 50?
JC: Magazines have two things going for them: a great brand and editors. It might seem like in a world of unlimited content, a magazine is an anachronism, but more than ever readers need someone they trust and identify with to help them find the best information. We’re developing an iPad reader that will allow people to do just that. It intelligently filters information, learning from what users read and adapting continuously.
Prof. Denning: Please tell me a bit about how your educational experience at Pace prepared you for your publishing career.
JC: I think the most valuable part for me was the multi-disciplinary approach. As publishing becomes more and more complicated, employers are looking for someone who can adapt quickly and wear many hats, if you pardon the cliché. Working with professors who had worked or were currently working in the industry was also very valuable. My grandfather always told me you should know something about everything and everything about one thing. I think that’s a good way to go about a publishing career.
Prof. Denning: Have you always been interested in writing and publishing? Where did that passion come from?
JC: I’ve always enjoyed creating. I wouldn’t call myself a writer, but I’ve always imagined I’d have a job where I made something I could point to. I have many artists in my family and though the talent may have missed me, the desire to create is still there. It’s intoxicating to see your work reach such a broad audience.
Prof Denning: Where did you intern when you were in Graduate school?
JC: I worked for a bit at American Business Media and Haymarket Media. At each company, I met great people and got to see a different part of the industry. ABM is an association of B2B publishers and many of their members were pioneers in monetizing online media. At Haymarket, I learned how to cultivate a niche audience for PR week. In an indirect way, both were related to what I’m doing now.
Prof. Denning: What was the topic of your thesis paper? What advice would you give to students who still have to write their papers?
JC: My thesis paper was about how business-to-business companies could monetize digital media to help them recover some of the lost profit from advertisers. The idea was that because B2B serves such niche audiences, it was easier to connect interested buyers with relevant advertisements. As for those still working on the paper, be flexible and talk to a lot of people. You’ll be surprised that the paper will take on a life of its own.
Prof. Denning: What do you think are the essential skills our students need to leave the program with in order to succeed in the industry?
JC: Anyone who attends the program will leave with a well-rounded understanding of the industry thanks to a great curriculum and great professors. But honestly, I’ve learned that the most important thing in any business is learning how to deal with people. If you can sell yourself and work well in a team, you’ll have a lot of success. As our company’s president always tells us, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
Prof. Denning: Any other advice you would like to offer up to our students?
JC: Be patient. Even with a graduate degree, you’re still going to have to prove yourself when you get out of school. Also, keep in touch with everyone you meet in the program. Professors and other students can be a great deal of help and are usually gracious in offering their advice.