Michael Tamblyn, the smart and dynamic leader of Booknet Canada who has performed minor miracles with the Canadian supply chain, gave a talk at his company’s tech forum a fortnight ago that has gotten a lot of deserved attention. It’s 30 minutes long, but it flies by and the presentation is great fun: very much worth watching.
I want to remark briefly on Michael’s six ideas. I’ll devote a later post to greater detail on one of them.
Michael begins by making the point that previous periods of financial difficulty have been nurturing times for new technology and new companies and new ideas. In troubled times, resources are cheaper and competitors are preoccupied, opening the door for new successes to be launched and nurtured. So, he asks, “what do you want your revolution to be?”
His first idea is that bibliographic data should be collected in the cloud and made available very cheaply or free to new or non-commercial users. Booknet has now started to acquire that data from publishers and will be crunching and distributing it. Although BNC’s activity is, for now at least, exclusively in Canada, this must be a very threatening notion to companies that make data collection a business (Bowker) or have data as a competitive advantage in a larger business (Ingram or Baker & Taylor.) The first requirement for a data aggregation service is that the sources of data must be in regular touch with it. That has been a handicap for Bowker in relation to Ingram or Amazon: publishers will more surely report a price change to an account than they will to a data aggregator. Booknet already has established very regular data exchanges with the entire Canadian publishing industry. They can pull this off and they are innovative enough that we would expect, when they have all the data, they will do more with it, and enable users to do more with it, than competitors do. This is potentially a game-changer for a lot of people. Michael hid it — the most disruptive idea he had to present — in plain sight by putting it first.
The second idea is that publishers need a StartWithXML workflow that doesn’t “kill people.” Michael lays out the problem very well, including showing that O’Reilly and Wiley, who have addessed it, have solutions most publishers can’t follow. (I have the “Wiley-O’Reilly Rule” for publishing, which is that those two companies always do things in the smartest way, but, for many reasons, it is usually impossible for other companies to imitate them.) From our work on the StartWithXML project I’m quite aware that this problem has been seen by others. Jouve North America and Value-Chain International, to name two, are working hard at making XML user-friendly for authors and editors now working in Word and for designers now working in Quark or InDesign. That’s essentially what Michael is suggesting. So this is a good idea but not an original one and smart people are working on it, although until this problem is solved we could certainly use more.
The third idea is that Michael wants to see a “DRM-free” ebook reader, but, by this he means “Date Repulsion Mode” rather than “Digital Rights Management.” This is a plea for an ereader that doesn’t itself look geeky and makes its user look sexy. This one isn’t up to the standards of the rest of the talk but it does provide some nice comic relief.
The fourth idea is the one we will explore in more detail (in a subsequent post): that publishers need a better tool than the present print catalog to help their reps help buyers reach the right frontlist buy decision.
The fifth idea is that the presentation of books online needs to improve. As Michael put it very well, we “search online” but “browse in stores.” He shows a number of interesting alternative presentations to the online bookstore standard pioneered by Amazon, but makes a crucial point, I think, when he talks about “curation” as the key. He wants online bookselling to move on from “we have all the books” to “we’ve distilled your interest down to this manageable number of choices”. As Michael said, “maybe it’s about presenting less.” There is great food for thought here (but no specific idea.)
The sixth idea is that publishers integrate generalists who know tech into their business more, so that technology is not isolated from the business practice. He lampoons the way tech is usually done in publishing companies, where a complete set of specs and an ROI are often needed before tech requirements for a new idea can be developed. This leads to the great advice that publishers need to place many little bets, learn from the ones which fail and “double down” on the ones that appear to succeed. This is the culture of innovation approach that is absolutely essential. Whether publishers can actually do it, of course, is another question.
Everything Tamblyn said in this address is thought-provoking, The initiative on data could be an industry game-charger. We’ll have some more thoughts on the frontlist buying component of his address soon.
Note to my readers: The first two weeks I did this blog I posted from Monday to Saturday. Last week and the week before I cut Saturday out. Now I’ve decided quality and sanity require me to go to 4 days a week, which will routinely be Monday to Thursday (when I think people are most likely to be paying attention.) Of course, inspiration or breaking news warranting commentary are always possible motivations for a post out of schedule There already was one day early on when I did two.