Tom Turvey

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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Tech companies need to look like they understand publishing, which they don’t always do


I showed up Tuesday morning at the gorgeous Cipriani restaurant and ballroom on 42nd Street for The Future of Publishing Summit, not knowing what to expect. I had been invited to attend this in an email last month which promised an interesting program (lots of big tech companies plus a book publishing “track” led by the always-interesting Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins) at an all-day conference. I was invited because of my status as a “thought leader”; an all-day event like this with no fee is not unheard of, but it also isn’t common. I accepted.

Then when I heard from my friend Evan Schnittman of OUP over the weekend that he’d be going, I decided I should look at “what is this” more carefully. So I went to the web site for it and I found it almost impossible to figure out who was staging this thing and what they hoped to get out of it. My prior experience with free events — many I helped organize that were run by VISTA Computer Services (now renamed Publishing Technology) in the 1990s and several since hosted by MarkLogic — tended to have the organizer highly branded and visible. This one was opaque. “About us” on the “The Future of Publishing” web site described the conference, the agenda, and the goal of “setting the agenda for publishing’s new business model amid digital disruption”, and it led to a link listing the sponsoring companies. But nowhere did it say, “I’m the organizer of this event and this is why I want you there.”

When I got to Cipriani in the morning, I started to see some people I knew: Evan, David Young and Maja Thomas from Hachette, Peter Balis from Wiley, Dominique Raccah from Sourcebooks. “What is this about?”, I asked them. “Who is behind this?” Nobody really seemed to know.

As the day developed, it seemed that the two parties in charge were Tim Bajarin, President of Creative Strategies and Colin Crawford, former EVP Digital at IDG Communications, Inc. Bajarin kicked off the session recalling a critical meeting at UCLA in 1990 that really charted the course for CD-Rom development.

Uh oh, I thought. I wonder if these guys know what “CD-Rom” calls up in the mind of anybody in the room who was in trade publishing the 1990s.

What I had walked into took me back to the early 1990s when I went to a conference sponsored very openly sponsored by Microsoft for book publishers. The message then was, “here are the amazing things we are going to be able to do with CD-Roms in the very near future. To realize the true value of this technology, we need content. We’re not sure exactly how you make money from the content, but, hey, guys, get creative.” And, in fact, that was the message that the five key sponsors of this Summit — Sony, Adobe, Marvell, Qualcomm, and HP — had for their publishing audience.

This was the takeaway. Consumers are going to be navigating their content on faster, smarter, lighter, and cheaper devices that will open up more flexible and robust content delivery and consumption models. Publishers should take advantage of this! But “taking advantage” in this case often meant “more sound, more pictures, more video”. And that recalls the veritable disaster of CD-Rom development for book publishers: largely uncontrolled spending in development of new kinds of products, ostensibly but loosely rooted in books, that had no established market and never found one. The iPad had already unleashed several sparks of enthusiasm for enhanced ebooks; this conference wanted to pour fuel on those sparks and start a real fire burning.

The format of the day was that each of the primary sponsors got a half-hour to present their technology, following 30 minutes from Tom Turvey of Google on the forthcoming Google Editions. (Turvey joked about the fact that he had given the presentation to just about everybody in the room before in their office or his.) I’d say that most of the 30 minute presentations packed at least 5 minutes of useful information into them. There were definitely people buzzing about the fact that Adobe has a workaround to enable Flash-like content on the iPhone, which doesn’t support Flash. We all got the message that connectivity will be more robust and more routine; that both LCD color and e-ink (and before long, color e-ink) will be available in a staggering number of devices (or “form factors.”)

With all that capability in your hand, you can pull up just about any content you want. “Why would you read a plain old book” was certainly part of the message.

Then after a really terrific lunch, about half to two-thirds of the audience (I’d reckon; couldn’t really see because we were broken into three groups in different rooms for books, magazines, and newspapers and no more than a fourth of the audience was there for the final part of the program after the breakouts) remained to hear the content-based presentations. The intention here was “the tech guys will explain what’s coming in the morning; the publishing guys will explain where they are in the early afternoon; and then our experts will ‘pull it all together’ at the end of the day, allowing us to leave with a new plan for publishing.” The “experts”were additional sponsors, of course, and creators of tools or platforms for products or presentation: Zinio, Notion Ink, ScrollMotion, Vook, and Skiff. These are all very worthy companies with substantial propositions that have made real inroads working with established media.

But are they qualified to chart a commercial course forward for complex publishing enterprises? Frankly, I don’t think so.

Cader said privately on Monday that he had joined Conferences Anonymous. He wasn’t going. Admittedly, these guys had a rough row to hoe trying to tell people something new following on the heels of Digital Book World in January, Tools of Change in February, Pub Business Conference and Expo earlier in March, and an ABA meeting on digital change in between. People who are really junkies for this stuff were out at SXSW, which apparently also didn’t seem as revelatory to some savvy book practioners as it did last year (or so said my buddy from the Microsoft conference two decades ago, Lorraine Shanley.)

My sense of this one was “nice try”, but it didn’t work. The superficial logic of putting the tech and publishing people together, laying out the picture from each side and then coming up with “answers” within a single stimulating day is appealing, but it is ultimately impractical. Book publishers (and, I suspect, other publishers as well) aren’t going to do much today based on what they see tech might deliver two or four years from now. And book publishing isn’t one business anyhow. As Turvey of Google, who understands the publishing business better than any other tech company representative I know and, frankly, better than most publishers, spelled out in the beginning: “book publishing is about five different businesses that don’t have much to do with each other.” We in publishing know that very well. Tech companies that want to get our attention need to make clear that they know that too.

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