Five-Year Plans Are Ridiculous

Can we possibly be serious about creating a five-year plan? In an era of breakneck changes in technology, cultural tastes, the economy and 24-hour news cycles, futurists look suspiciously like palm readers.

Just some of the recent, and massive, changes in book publishing we are all familiar with include

  • the rise of sales over the Internet
  • the decline of trade stores
  • the rise of ebooks
  • the increasing variety of ebook readers
  • the massive upsurge of self-publishing
  • the exploding diversity of requirements on publishers by distributors

And what’s ahead in the next few years? As IVP Publisher Bob Fryling is fond of quoting, “To prophesy is very difficult. Especially in regard to the future.” Essentially, we have no idea.

So why do we insist on the apparently archaic corporate ritual of a five-year plan? Isn’t it a rather ridiculous exercise? Yes and no.

Publishing for the general market, like we do, is usually on a short turnaround–anywhere from six months to two years–from contract to finished books. If, however, you are in academic or reference publishing as we are as well, you have a de facto five-year plan whether you want it or not. It can take three to seven years from inception to books in the warehouse. Piece together all your contracts for unpublished books, and that’s one form of your multi-year plan.

But even when we publish for the general market, we can get locked into systems and infrastructure that make even two-year adjustments difficult–systems of warehousing, order fulfillment, sales and marketing, and so forth. So we have to think about the long term as well.

How will we market books in five years? In what print or electronic formats will we produce them in 2015? How many will they sell when they finally emerge (and, therefore, how much can you afford to invest in them today)? Publishers have to think about those issues now.

The Catch 22 is that no one knows the answers to these questions. So what’s the point making a five-year plan? Two points, actually.

1. We need to make a five-year plan so we know what to do next year. It shows us the general areas we need to focus on. Without that long-range look, we have no short-term direction.

2. As a corollary, we need to revise our five-year plan every year. We should reevaluate the assumptions we’ve made about the long-term future to see if they match up with current reality. If not, we abandon them, adapt them or introduce new assumptions. Those then will shape our annual work of revising the five-year plan.

Yes, five-year plans are ridiculous. But they are still necessary.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.