Maureen McMahon

Three words of wisdom: standards, rights, & data


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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A brilliant Conference Council helps make a great Digital Book World


We had a very successful debut annual conference for Digital Book World last January, even though we didn’t conceive the idea until June, put together a group of helpers (which we now call our Conference Council) until July, or draft the initial program until August. This year we’re way ahead of that schedule. We’ve put together a fabulous Council to advise us this year and we’re having a meeting of many of them next week to discuss the agenda and to start getting suggestions for speakers.

The Council gives us wide exposure and connections to the trade publishing industry. That way we make sure we don’t miss any ideas and we don’t miss knowing about any talented people whom our audience would want to hear.

We have several publishing company presidents and CEOs (Sara Domville of F+W, Marcus Leaver of Sterling, Maureen McMahon of Kaplan, Brian Napack of Macmillan, Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks) and some presidents and CEOs from other companies and support organizations in the industry (Kristen McLean of the Association of Booksellers for Children, Tracey Armstrong of Copyright Clearance Center, Peter Clifton of Filedby, David Cully of Baker & Taylor, Joe Esposito of GiantChair, John Ingram of Ingram Content Companies, Scott Lubeck of The Book Industry Study Group, and Steve Potash of Overdrive Systems.)

We have other senior level executives, many with specific digital responsibilities (Peter Balis of Wiley, Ken Brooks of Cengage, Mark Gompertz of Simon & Schuster, Madeline McIntosh of Random House, Thomas Minkus of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Larry Norton of Borders, Kate Rados of F+W Media, Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins, Adam Salomone of Harvard Common Press, John Schline of Penguin, Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press, Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, Maja Thomas of Hachette, and Tom Turvey of Google.)

We have agents (Sloan Harris of ICM, Simon Lipskar of Writer’s House, and Scott Waxman of the Waxman Agency) and industry consultants and commentators (Michael Cairns of Persona Non Data, Ted Hill of THA Consulting, and Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International.) And because he is our media partner, we have help from Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace as well. And we also get great input from others on the F+W team: David Nussbaum, David Blansfield, Cory Smith, Guy Gonzalez, and Matt Mullin.

So we have all the Big Six represented, as well as small publishers, industry-wide associations and service providers, wholesalers, digital distribution partners, retailers, and agents. All of these people have real input into the topic list and speakers. Many of them are joining us for a meeting next week to review our ideas for the program, which we previewed on this blog about a month ago.

Because Digital Book World tries to be at the cutting edge of trade publishing and digital change, we often face one or both of two challenges. Sometimes we believe something should be happening, or be about to happen, but we may not know where or whether the publishers leading the charge will talk about it. Several topics come to mind that fit that description: vertical efforts inside general trade houses; what houses are doing to adjust to reduced expectations for print sales in bookstores; how houses are gearing up or changing their sales efforts to compete in and serve a growing list of digital intermediaries; how enhanced ebook and ebook first creation change the traditional order of things in product development.

The other challenge we have to work around is when people can say things privately but not publicly. One topic that is very tough to talk about is ebook royalties, which is a major point of contention between publishers and leading agents at the moment. The big houses are pretty adamantly trying to hold the line (publicly) at a royalty of 25% of net receipts. But upstart publishers like Jane Friedman’s Open Road appear to be willing to pay 50%; publishing through Smashwords yields 85% (but sells the books without DRM, which would frequently scare the copyright owners of valuable properties); and self-publishing through a distributor would deliver a yield somewhere in between. (Remember: self-publishing ebooks carries no inventory risk.) In that environment, some agents are able to wring some concessions from some publishers. But the agent can’t talk about that without jeopardizing her ability to get concessions for her clients and no publisher will volunteer to reveal the isolated concession and start turning that into a policy.

Some things are just hard to discuss. Do booksellers, or even the publishers and wholesalers who supply them, want to talk about the possibility of their impending demise? But how can one plan for the future and ignore that elephant in the room? If a publisher suddenly sees the necessity of developing direct selling relationships with end users, after years of telling booksellers he was against it, does that publisher want to talk about those efforts in public?

When competitors participate in industry education initiatives, they must draw lines around what they will reveal and what they won’t. One ebook-responsible executive we know at a major house is persistently reluctant to reveal what he’s doing or what he’s thinking. But he has a boss, one who is proud of what he does and what their house does, who pushes him forward as a speaker.

Frankly, I think these challenges are greater for us than they are for other conferences on digital change that focus more on technology than they do on business practices. Very few publishers are masters of tech; usually they’re working with outside suppliers who are happy to share best practices. But business practices are different; they’re more sensitive. Sometimes the reluctance to share them is sound. Sometimes constraints are even legally required. Since our job is to focus on business practices, we’re glad to have relationships with very knowledgable players who will candidly engage with us on these challenges so we can figure out the best way to protect true proprietary knowledge but still disseminate valuable information.

We’re really proud of the illustrious group we have gotten to advise our efforts, and we get great value from them even though their first responsibility is to the company they work for. We feel confident that this group helps us cast a net that is wide and broad enough to assure us that any major development in the trade book world will hit our radar screen and that we’ll know if there are informed people willing to talk about it.

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Points of No Return: Making Information Pay for 2010


This is the third year in a row that we’ve put together the Making Information Pay conference for the Book Industry Study Group, in conjunction with Ted Hill of THA Consulting. We’ve repeated the formula we’ve applied for the past two years, doing an industry survey on the conference theme to provide some additional insight.

This year’s conference is called “Points of No Return.” It looks at things from the perspective of publishing’s employees and seeks to discover when the markets, technologies, and process changes make things so different that old skills don’t map, old organizational structures have to be completely revamped, and people really have to develop new capabilities, accept new roles, or be forced to move on.

Our survey this year tried to gauge the feelings of publishing’s labor force about the changes they’re seeing in their company and throughout the industry. We also asked for a reaction to a number of industry “buzzwords” (like “Twitter” and “vertical”.) A report on the survey results will be distributed at the conference, but here are three little nuggets:

1. The preponderant majority of workers in all parts of publishing — editorial, marketing, sales, IT, distribution — believe that significant changes caused by technology either have occurred or are occurring now. No surprise there, but the surprise will be that there is one function people think is changing much less than everything else. And wouldn’t you know it is one that I think will likely change more than any other over the next few years?

2. Half of our respondents think publishing will become a more profitable business in the future, but they split down the middle as to whether the business will be smaller and more profitable or larger and more profitable. There’s a similar split on expectations about whether there will be more jobs or fewer. (Half of those expressing an opinion think there will be more jobs! Stop the presses!!)

3. What I found to be a startling percentage of our respondents think Twitter is a fad, soon to fade away.

Making Information Pay delivers a concise program: two 90-minute sessions surrounding a 30-minute networking break that starts at 9 and concludes at 12:30. We designed the program so that the first 90 minutes delivers facts and insights about the industry and the second half features reports from the front lines of change.

After BISG Executive Director Scott Lubeck opens the program and I deliver a very short keynote, Kelly Gallagher of Bowker will begin the morning segment talking about what Bowker PubTrack Consumer has discovered consumers are saying that is relevant to publishers thinking about points of no return. PubTrack has delivered some great insights over the past year, from demonstrating how important in-store display is to book sales to quantifying consumer attitudes about ebooks in a special study done jointly with BISG. He will highlight the Bowker findings most relevant to our program’s theme.

The Gilbane Group is also working with BISG, doing research on the seven “essential processes” (which I still call “systems”) that publishers need to keep up to date in order to stay viable as their businesses change. Do your production processes support tagging chunks of content that you might want to sell separately from the whole book? If not, you will lose revenue as the market for fragments develops. Does your royalty accounting process enable you to report to authors on sales of this kind and divide revenues appropriately? If not, then you’ll have a different set of problems exploiting those new opportunities. David Guenette of Gilbane will tell the MIP audience what the seven essential processes are, why they’re critical, and what pitfalls await if they are not ready for what’s coming.

George Lossius of Publishing Technology will tackle one of the paralyzing challenges of our current environment: how can publishers make substantial investments in technology when the business climate is changing so quickly around them? Lossius maintains that there are things we do know that can guide us; he’ll be helping publishers see what truths are stable and reliable to guide their investment decisions, even when a lot is not.

Jabin White of Wolters Kluwer has worked through some major process changes within his own company. We’ve asked him to focus on the people-centered challenges of those changes. How do you bring people along when change might be making them uncomfortable or unhappy? And how does an organization deal with the changes in job skills required, which could mean changes in the particular people required, in the least disruptive way?

The second half of the program will start with Bruce Shaw and Adam Salamone of Harvard Common Press who will present an eye-opening view of how the strategy for new title acquisition changes when a publisher becomes sensitive to its role as a vertical player. They demonstrate convincingly that decisions change when an editor sees they are acquiring content for a database rather than simply publishing a book.

Phil Madans is deeply involved in Hachette’s move to a digital workflow for book development. This requires a shift from an “assembly line” way of working to a “collaborative” one. Editors no longer finish their work before they engage with design and production; there’s a lot more being done simultaneously rather than consecutively. Hachette is well along in building this new process; Madans will offer insights that will be very useful to other publishers still contemplating this switch

Matt Baldacci of Macmillan, who oversees all the marketing spending at his company, is covering the challenge of changes in where marketing dollars are allocated, and the processes and skill sets necessary to do successful marketing in today’s marketplace.

Maureen McMahon of Kaplan draws on her prior experience directing sales at Random House to analyze the changes in sales, which she sees as having moved from requring “closing” to requiring “connecting”, all of which leads to different hiring criteria than she would have applied only a few years ago.

And on top of that, BISG has two sponsors with useful messages. Steve Walker of SBS Worldwide offers his Electronic Distribution Center, which gives publishers completely new supply chain capabilities and a web-based tracking mechanism that cuts administration and communication costs at the same time. And John Konczal of Sterling Commerce has tools to enable new business models, such as those that the Gilbane analysis points out as requirements earlier in the conference.

We’re very excited about this program; we think people at every publishing house will have something to take home and apply that very afternoon, which is always our objective. As readers of this blog well know, I’ve been speaking at, running, and going to digital change conferences for almost two full decades. To my knowledge, there has never been one before that focused on people in their jobs. How will mine change? Will I still be able to do it? Will it still be here for me? And what do I have to do to make sure I can stay employed in publishing?

We think these are questions a lot of people are thinking about. If you’re one of them, join us at Making Information Pay on May 6!

I am interrupting the “What I Would Have Said in London” series to bring you this time-sensitive post. We’ll resume WIWHSIL with Part 2 tomorrow.

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