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Software for the Publishing Office:
Finding the Product that Fits Your Needs

Every state in the US has anywhere from 500 to 2,000 publishers, doing one to perhaps hundreds of books a year. While no two publishers are alike, the one thing they all have in common is the need for back-office software to do the order-entry, invoicing, inventory, and sales/finance reporting. It's not the "glamorous" part of publishing, but it is one of the most necessary, as well as the most dreaded. Some publishers are left-brain driven, and for them, the accounting tasks of publishing are not that unpleasant. But I suspect that among small, independent publishers, more are right-brain driven writers as well as publishers -- and for right-brain people, accounting work can be brain-numbing. No lyrical sentences, thoughtful metaphors, or attractive colors anywhere. I can feel my brain begin to short-circuit just thinking about it. But fortunately for us, those left-brain software developers have come to our rescue -- making the unpleasant, not so terribly bad after all.

Why is software needed? There are three answers: efficiency, finance, and taxes.

We have two very different divisions at Bookwrights. Our design studio designs and produces books for other publishers. For years, we used Quickbooks for our billing and it worked alright for us -- not ideal -- but certainly adequate. It is way too much program for the design studio's needs but I was somewhat comfortable with it. However, when we tried to handle our book publishing company's accounts -- including royalties and publisher-specific accounting concerns with Quickbooks, it fell woefully short of our needs. I am not a programmer, I could not customize any software for our use, and I didn't want to have to do so. So my search for a package for our publishing company began. I took my time researching available products, and learned a few things in the process.

You can't run a successful publishing company on 3x5 cards or an Excel spreadsheet. Even a one-book publisher needs a software program that will allow them to not spend their entire day doing paperwork for Ingram or Baker & Taylor. Time is money, and the more time allotted to "drudge" work, the less time there is for the important things -- like marketing, product selection, and publicity.

With the problem of returns compounded by slow (or no) payment, only with a good software system will you, the publisher, have any idea what kind of profit you are making or how large a loss you are taking. An end-of-month summary showing which titles are moving and which are not is an invaluable business tool.

And then there are sales taxes to pay and report. Little needs to be said about the complexity of taxes and how software can help. Being able to click a button and total all your taxable sales will save many days of mind-numbing work.

In deciding what software to buy, the first rule is that price is not the best indicator of value. There are some expensive programs that are very good, and there are some that are not. That is to be expected. But it is also true (and unexpected) that there are some low-priced packages that are every bit as good as those that cost 10 times more. For our small company, cost was a big factor. We only publish one or two books a year; we are not going to pay more for accounting software than we spend on the books we publish!

The prime difference between a system costing $300 like PubAssist and one costing $5,000 like CATS or $10,000 like Accumen are items you might call "bells and whistles" -- extra features that some publishers need, but which will probably go unused by most of us. An example would be a subscription feature that would be valued by newsletter and magazine publishers, but not by most book publishers.

The bottom line is that all of the popular packages on the market have the same basic features -- from the low priced, web-based JAYA123 (the system we decided to use) to the premium-priced Acumen (which was beautiful, but not practical for us). In all of them, there are modules to enter authors, titles, customers, and order line-items. There are modules to accept payments, and to print invoices or packing slips. And there are reports, reports, and more reports... the more expensive the program, usually the more reports that can be generated. But regardless of price, the basic features are the same.

The first question you need to address is whether you want a traditional desk-top application or a web-based system. For me it was easy. I hate installing software. Anytime we can use a web-based product we do. Whether it is banking, brokerage, payroll or taxes, we look to see if there is a good "on the net" system. Being on the Mac platform is one of the reason. There are not as many desktop back-office applications for the Mac. This is one reason we chose JAYA123.

Cost is the second item you need to consider. We didn't want to lay out anywhere from $400 to $14,000 dollars for software that would become outdated and need to be updated, for even more money. It was much easier on our budget to buy our software "by the pound" which is another reason we opted for the JAYA123 system.

When trying to determine which non-basic features are important, the answer is mainly that of implementation. For example, all software programs will figure the tax for an order. But does the program allow the tax to be computed at the line-item... such that some items are taxable and some are not? And is there a feature to allow taxation of shipping, as required in Canada, and for some states like Pennsylvania?

Royalties are also an important feature. A large and expensive program like the $10,000 Acumen will calculate royalties just about every way possible. However, the $14.95 per month JAYA123 and the $400 Publishers Assistant can calculate royalty on volume of sales, discount sold, or by channel -- the same as programs costing far more. They are the methods used by most publishers and probably the way you calculate them as well.

A publisher also has to decide if their software should have complex double-entry (credit/debit) accounting integrated with it. Most small publishers use a simple financial package such as Medlin or Quicken (we use Quicken). Programs like JAYA123 and others have the ability to export necessary data to these inexpensive packages. Others have their own integrated accounting system built in. While an all-in-one package can have advantages, many publishers don't want to be locked into both an order-entry system and a finance system from a single vendor. Besides, many publishers have no need for a complex, top-heavy accounting system, and find that a single entry method like Medlin or Quicken serves their needs quite well.

Exporting data may not seem like an important feature, but it is. For example, programs like JAYA123 can export credit card transactions to the popular merchant programs like PC Authorize or an online credit card virtual terminal. And, of course, it is very desirable to be able to export customer data for use in generating form letters and "personalized" marketing material.

I liked the programs that let us also print a single label, especially the feature in JAYA123 that allows you to print it anywhere on the label sheet so you don't waste them. And you also want to easily output stacks of labels based upon complex demographic queries? like all of the people who bought Gone With The Breeze who live in zip code 11023 on a street that has the name "Breeze" in it (like Breeze Lane or Cool Breeze Court.)

Every publisher wants reports, and here is where I found the greatest difference between low-cost programs and the higher priced ones. But the sheer number of reports should not be the determining factor of what system you purchase. Does the software output the reports that are really necessary for you to run your business? Some publishers really need to output customer statements and aging reports. Others never use these, but spend a lot of time analyzing sales summary reports. An important feature to look for is the ability to create your own report queries; for example, being able to output sales and customer data for a specific title, between two dates, for Boston, Massachusetts.

The heart of any back-office system is invoicing. You want to look for features such as the ability to easily make duplicate invoices as well as to set up recur billing. One thing that sold us on the JAYA system is that all of the different invoice formats were output to PDF files. We now e-mail our invoices to clients instead of snail-mailing them.

Your software is of limited use if it is difficult to learn. The "look and feel" of a program is a very important consideration. Many programs on the market today are re-tooled legacy DOS systems... and they look and act like it. Others have a non-intuitive look-and-feel and really require a college level manual to learn how to work them. The newer applications that are on the web of course have a browser user interface, which is something we are all used to by now.

We use Macs at Bookwrights. This was a major stumbling block for us because few programs are available for the Mac. Mac owner, you want to look for a program that will run well under one of the Windows emulators, like Virtual PC or you want to go the web route like we did with JAYA123,

A publisher should think about whether or not they need a single-user system or a multi-user system. Traditional desktop systems can be very complex to set up in a networked, multi-user environment. The nice feature about a web-based system is that it is by definition multi-user. The internet is your network and you can use your system from anywhere in the world that you can get onto the internet. If you have more than one concurrent user all you need to do is purchase multiple logins from the vendor.

It is important that you be able to try software before we buy it. Many packages are sold right over the Internet where users have the ability to install them, work with them for 10 days, and either buy them or erase them. I recommend getting as many trial packages as possible to see which one will work best for you. One nice thing about a web-based system like JAYA123 is the entire demo just like the 'real' system' is on the net.... nothing to download or install.

Finally, the publisher needs to look into what kind of support they will get from the software vendor. This is where references are so valuable. While many references will say that they like the program's features, make sure the references obtained from the vendor are questioned about how the support has been. It is even better to find users on your own and not those supplied by the vendor. No vendor will give you dissatisfied clients to call! Yet these are the ones you want to find and speak with. Also, try to see if you can speak with their customer or technical support before you buy. Ask some questions and see how they respond.

No off-the-shelf software package is perfect. If you want "perfection," then you need to hire a programming staff (or contractors) and have a package created that will fill your exact needs. While most packages boast that they will do everything you want, what is closer to the truth is that most packages will do 100% of what you need done, and about 90% of what you want done. The other 10% will cost from $1,000 to $10,000 extra.

So you can learn more, here are contacts for some of the software companies:

JAYA123:, Adams-Blake Company
Publishers Assistant:, Upper Access

Mayapriya Long, award-winning book designer
owner of Bookwrights Press and Bookwrights Design Studio
Charlottesville, VA
Bookwrights uses the JAYA123 web-based application.

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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