The Shatzkin Files

Three words of wisdom: standards, rights, & data

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The Book Industry Study Group’s annual membership meeting on Friday concluded with a panel discussion among four industry executives who have leadership roles in the group. They are also four of the sharpest minds in publishing and they all had provocative things to say. Recollection of detail is not my strongest suit and I didn’t take any notes, but all of them said things that stuck with me and which struck me as ideas that deserve more attention than they get.

Dominique Raccah, the founder and CEO of Sourcebooks, made the now-obvious (but new to me that morning) point that we are going to have to streamline generating metadata in multiple languages to take advantage of emerging global markets.

Maureen McMahon, the CEO of Kaplan, which serves a very targeted audience, recalled that five years ago she was able to track her very discrete list of competitors and closely calculate her market share. But as an information-provider, she now finds competitors can pop up from anywhere.

Ken Michaels, just appointed President of Hachette Book Group USA, reminded us that 70% of the sales are still print. He said that we need to stop talking about digital as if digital is all there is; that just as media and consumer habits are converging so must the approach publishers take to running their business. He stressed building workflows around content, not product, so you can curate and compose once for all formats, and incorporating digital as a way of life, even in publicity and marketing, rather than having any stand-alone digital workflows. In other words, it is time to integrate digital, not treat it as a thing apart.

All great insights, but what I really took to heart was some simple wisdom from Tom Turvey of Google. Turvey is spending a lot of time outside the US these days, as Google Play opens in markets across the globe. He reminds us that we are way ahead of everybody else in digital change. That means that potential markets abroad are only in their earliest stages of development. He sees that the publishers in those markets –and we as well — need to concentrate on three things: standards, rights, and data.

Standards, rights, and data. These are the three elements which can restrain digital growth, or propel it. They’d also serve as a good short summary of BISG’s agenda. Turvey took the opportunity to say that every country needs a BISG, but not every country has one.

Standards, of course, are a community endeavor. It is not for any one publishing player to create standards on their own for everybody else. If you’re powerful enough, like Amazon, it might be in your best interest not to throw yourself wholeheartedly into participation in standards that make it easier for others to compete with you. But, as publishers well know, insufficient standards can cost a lot of money, rendering content for different screens or even subtly different applications of epub or Adobe.

The challenges with rights are, first, having them, and second, making sure a file’s metadata spells them out clearly. One of the the first rules I learned when I came into publishing decades ago was “acquire rights broadly, license rights narrowly”. That is practice which was unambiguously the wisest commercial course until our current and developing age of digital delivery. Now agents (or publishers) having licensed rights “narrowly” can cause books not to be available to customers who would be happy to buy them when they easily could be doing so.

Data is a combination of an industry problem and an individual publisher challenge. The digital age is presenting us all with new metrics if we can gather and use them: from websites and Twitter and Facebook, as well as from publishers’ sales. We are beginning to learn what marketing and social activities move the sales needle and we’re finding it isn’t necessarily the same for different kinds of books. BISG and AAP have joined forces to deliver BookStats, the most rational and accurate book industry sales data we’ve ever had in the US and perhaps the most accurate industry data in the world. Tara Catogge of Readerlink Distribution Services did an eye-opening presentation of what that database can do earlier in the show, but we’re still at the earliest stages of learning how best to use it and we’re as blind as we’ve ever been everywhere else.

Standards, rights, and data. Publishers could benefit by reviewing their practices and progress in all three areas at a senior level on a regular basis. My hunch is that some, including the ones who joined Turvey on that stage, already do.

Two of those BISG panelists, Raccah and Michaels, are among the “innvoators” presenting at our Publishers Launch Conference next Monday, 10:30-6:30, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Dominique will be talking about two new initiatives from Sourcebooks and Ken will be explaining the value of SaaS — software as a service — to modern publishing IT departments, including some tools his team at Hachette has developed and are making available to the industry. Pub Launch Frankfurt will also feature a presentation from Noah Genner, who runs Book Net Canada — their version of BISG — about a survey of Canadian book consumers they’ve just done: more about data.

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  • Dominique’s point about the needs for multi-language metadata to take advantage of emerging global markets got me thinking about the relative value of distributors to small and medium-size publishers. I often balked, given the trivial cost, at the % fee distributors wanted in exchange for distributing their client-publishers eBooks, But as international markets open in various ways, the benefit of having a distributor who can scale their efforts to build these markets for their client-publishers may well justify their fees in new ways.

    • Good point to raise, Peter. The value of distributors is directly proportional to the number of outlets they are helping you reach. Ingram Distribution, for example, (which is more analogous to a wholesaler than a distributor) is reaching a slew of independent retail accounts it would be nearly impossible to serve without them. But the pure distributors — Constellation, Ingram’s Coresource, INScribe, etc. — are of greatest value if they get you to lots of places it would be painful to try to reach on your own and/or they use relationships to get you promotion you wouldn’t have the attention from the accounts to get without them.


  • Mike —

    Speaking of standards, any inside baseball on what happened to the first released iteration of J.K. Rowling’s e-book file of “Casual Vacancy”? It makes me wonder if this sort of thing happens with some frequency — only we never hear about it because the author simply isn’t famous enough to warrant the coverage.

    • I haven’t asked any of my friends at Hachette about it. I don’t know as much as you do because I didn’t even read the press accounts very carefully.

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  • Jim Lichtenberg

    Based on this excellent review, Mike, it may be better for you not to take notes as the salient points seemed to have risen to the top. One further thought: I was quite impressed by the differing views of whether “we” are now in the content business, or as Dominique surprisingly said, “no, I’m in the book and author business.” Clearly, we’re still a long way from Tipperary.

    • Dominique also now sees herself as a “developer”, which isn’t quite the same thing as a book publisher either.

      I’m glad it is better for me not to take notes because I almost never do. It’s a hangover from the first 51 years of my life — before I got decent hearing aids — when just hearing what was said required so much concentration that I couldn’t possibly take notes at the same time. So I never really learned how.


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