Thursday, November 17, 2011

The End of an Era

Congratulations to Don Collins on his retirement from the University of Chicago Press!

I don't even know how many years Don has been involved in University Press Publishing, but if I had to guess, I'd say it was more than 40 years. I do know that since 1986, Don has been at the University of Chicago Press.

Given the direction to 'make it work or shut it down', Don is best known for taking the university's distribution center (CDC) from a single client to 102 distribution clients today. However, I dare say that everyone in university press publishing has an opinion about Don. To call him a lightning rod is a vast understatement. Some think he's a blow hard, others a visionary. Well known for his long monologues on how to handle thorny issues, Don's persona is much larger than his stature.

But, as my wife would say, Don is a campfire marshmallow. Crusty on the outside, gooey on the inside.

Few know or understand how loyally devoted Don is to those close to him, and vice-versa. This past Wednesday evening, the warehouse at CDC was transformed to a party room as Don was feted by close to 100 colleagues and friends. Current, and past colleagues from the press as well as a handful of friends from over the years came to celebrate Don's illustrious career and to wish him well in the next chapter of his life. [In the picture above, Don is giving his 'thank you speech' at the party.]

This is truly the end of an era in university press publishing. I can't imagine it will ever be the same without Don. I hope you will join me in wishing my friend nothing but the best going forward!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Our Challenge is Disruption itself

When I was a young aspiring baseball player, my Dad would hit me ground balls so that I could learn to field them. Whenever I'd botch one because I was caught on my heels, he would yell, "Play the Ball, don't let the Ball Play You!"

In essence, he meant that when the ball was coming toward me that I should charge forward and meet the challenge rather than simply wait for it to come and potentially overwhelm me. This advice has served me well in many aspects of my life, and it seems good advice for our embattled publishing industry.

After seeing Brian O'Leary give his talk about Abundance at the Internet Archive a couple of weeks ago, and reading follow up commentary from my friend and colleague, Don Linn, as well as the response by Bill McCoy of IDPF, I'm been inspired to add my own two cents to the conversation.

Brian made many points during his talk - which I encourage you all to read. One point that resonated with me was when he referred to disparate initiatives in publishing by saying "If we don't hang together, surely we will all hang separately". Don extends this point by talking about there being too many trade organizations and standards bodies - a point I wholeheartedly agree with. (and one that I will address in a future post)

But, in thinking about this a bit more, I can't escape the question: How did we get here, and what ground ball are we trying to field?

The problems we are facing today are but the latest in a constant surge of disruption that has been going on for at least 30 years. Since the early-to-mid 1980's improvements in computer hardware and software have radically changed the throughput of published materials from author to reader.

In the 1980's, computer systems led to supply chain improvements, which (it could be argued) led to the formation of chain stores. The internet and the ubiquity of browser technologies in the 1990's enabled an innovative company named Amazon to be a first mover in disrupting the world of bookstores. Computer to Print, and Print on Demand technologies have radically changed inventory strategies. Constant improvements in computer hardware and telephony have enabled discovering and reading ebooks a reality. The simple process of creating ebooks have encouraged authors, agents, and retailers to become publishers. Now, social networks have once again upset the apple cart and have changed forever how we will choose the books we read. Social networks are also evolving and its certain that collaborative reading and writing will become a normal human endeavor before long.

With each disruption, some of us have "charged the ball", while others "let the ball play us". Groups were formed, sometimes officially, sometimes not, to work together to solve whatever the latest challenge was. Most of these groups were formed because either they didn't acknowledge that other groups existed, or were impatient with the incumbent's speed in addressing the challenge. Many were created for very good reasons, some, well, not so good.

Now we are in a state where we have more trade and standards organizations than you can count, many with the same parties involved. We're all trying to come up with standards and practices that address 80% of the problem. Many of these organizations are vying for financial and human resources from the same constituency. It's not just the disruption that we're all fighting, the problem is that we are fighting ourselves over who owns what solution, and we're all thinking that we're more relevant than the others.

It's ludicrous that to be involved in the technology end of the book industry, you need to be a member of five or six trade organizations.

I say it's time we get all of these groups to huddle together, pool their resources, and get back to work on fielding the grounder that we all face: disruption itself. The disruptions are only accelerating.

It may be a pipe dream, but, "If we don't hang together, surely we will all hang separately!"

Monday, June 20, 2011

Learn to be a Reader Again

Last week, Don Linn, wrote a couple of very practical blog posts entitled "What Men (and Women) Talk About When They Talk About Publishing". In those posts, Don advises how best to focus management attention and move organizations forward during these early days of ebooks.

Don has hit the nail directly on the head with his posts, but from my perspective, there is still a piece missing. While Don has laid out "what" publishing executives should focus on, I have a few tips on "how" they should start to do it. In offering these tips, I must acknowledge that these come from some very savvy publishers who are already doing this!

1. Understand the Consumer's experience. As a company executive, you should OWN many different devices, a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad, a Kobo Reader, and any other device you can get your hands on. You should be BUYING books from different retailers (all around the world), downloading them to your device or devices and READING them. BUY books from your own website and from the websites of other publishers. This is a relatively small investment of money compared with the insights you will receive in doing so.

2. Become at least as "tech savvy" as your readers. Read books that have DRM applied and those that don't. Understand the difference in the user experience. Download a book or two from a "Pirate" site. Try to borrow a title from your local library. Try to lend a title from your Nook.

3. Where ever your titles or discussions of your titles can be found, you should be there. If your house is using NetGalley for disseminating review copies, join NetGalley and request your e-ARCs. If you house is using Edelweiss for electronic catalogs, get on the distribution list. Join GoodReads. Join LibraryThing. If your publicity department is putting up facebook pages for certain titles, visit them.

4. Ask lot's of dumb questions internally. Understand your internal processes. Understand why certain groups work differently than others. Understand what kinds of stresses and strains producing ebooks puts on your staff. Understand how production quality breakdowns occur. Understand how rights are managed.

As you progress down this path you will come to understand many things, and your experience and training as a leader will help your company break down many barriers.

The moral of all of this is, that as publishing executives, you cannot delegate understanding how your products AND the products of your competitors are consumed in the marketplace.

Good Luck!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ebook Files and Metadata need to travel together

At the London Book Fair this week, I found myself talking to several publishers about the topic of ebook content distribution and metadata distribution. On at least four occasions I repeated: "I don't care who does it, but the same company that distributes your files, should distribute your ebook metadata".

Full disclosure: we at Firebrand Technologies distribute ebook content and metadata for publishers. So, of course, we would love for publishers to use us for both metadata distribution and file distribution. However, it's also true that it is a lose-lose-lose situation when a publisher uses one "vendor" to distribute files, and another to distribute metadata for those files. And we have decided to not to distribute ebook metadata only for any more clients. Here's why:

1. The ebook supply chain is fundamentally different than the print book supply chain.

With print books, retailers were happy to receive metadata from publishers even though the books were not yet available. They were happy to take files with incomplete records, until the publication date of the title. Retailers, wholesalers, and data aggregators have systems in place to deal with data files with thousands of records, and they are all run to automatically upload the files.

In the ebook world, none of the above is true - at least not universally. ebook retailers only want metadata records for which files are also coming at nearly the same time. Most only want the record once, and it better be complete. Most ebook retailers don't have the systems in place to upload the kind of volume that print books do. Ask anyone who has ever tried to upload thousands of titles to Apple's transporter. You can do it, but you better allocate hours of babysitting time after you manually log in and start the upload process.

2. When something goes wrong, problems are often very difficult to track down, and often go unresolved.

I related this story to a few people at the fair. Let's say that the person at the publisher who is responsible for data delivery (let's call her Jean) gets a phone call from her boss, asking why a book - that should be - is not in the iBookstore. This phone call spurs Jean to call her contact at the metadata partner AND her contact at the content file partner. Both of those contacts in turn start an internal investigation as to what when wrong and unreported. If each contact is at a loss, and then imply that the other vendor is to blame, then Jean is left sitting in the middle with a dilemma of who to believe. The bottom line is still an unresolved problem. Even if both vendors did their job, then the problem might lie with the retailer. Jean doesn't have that relationship, the vendors do, so Jean calls them both back again to find out if the retailer knows anything. Both vendors call different people in the retailer with the same question, causing two more investigations.

This is a nightmare of wasted time and resources. Everyone in this chain loses. And support is the highest cost element of the relationship for each of the vendors. And, Jean is left not knowing who she can trust if this ever happens again.

In conclusion, streamline your processes. Keep one point of contact who can track down problems. Managing your ebooks through one "vendor" or "partner" is far less expensive in the long run than managing multiple relationships.

Good luck out there.