Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Technology, Change & Customers

(or) Back to the Future

Here's the text of my presentation at today's O'Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt...

Last week Publishing Perspectives billed me as “the odd woman out” at this conference – in that my concerns – and what I will be focussing on today – are some of the less tangible aspects of the impacts of technologies. There’s a tendency for us to focus on the “tools” and think much less about the “change” and even less about how our existing customers and our existing employees are going to experience that change – and for the next 45 minutes at least, I’d like to reverse that trend.

For clarity – and to dispel the sense that I might be a Luddite imposter here – I’m a daily user of new technologies; the happy owner of blackberry, iPhone and iPad. And I can’t imagine a working life without technological tools developed over the past two decades. For a humanities graduate I spend an astonishingly large portion of my life analysing data mined out of the Oracle database that is the fundamental infrastructure for the business I currently work in.

Time and clarity are of the essence this morning – so here’s an overview of what I’m going to be looking at.

Why I’m here
Tools of Change (what do we mean?)
Thoughts about Change (and how it’s funded) mixed with a Bit of Industry History

In this presentation you’ll encounter some key words. Be alert to them.

Towards the end I’ll be taking some of the more general points I have been making and illustrating how they inform relationships with customers, using some of these businesses as examples.

(or) Things you really need to think about to make good decisions

Just a final introductory point – a lot of what I say today is informed by my experience at NBNi & Rowman & Littlefield – but for clarity the opinions I am expressing are my own and not necessarily those of the business.

Why I’m Here (in the present rather than the existential sense)
So if I’m not a technologist – why am I up here in front of you at a meeting that has become associated with cutting-edge technologies (or at least what passes in publishing as cutting-edge, even if it isn’t always news out in the wider world)?
Well, there two are primary reasons…

Firstly, for the past six years I have worked in distribution. My current working life is engaged with service provision – to publishers and to their customers – for supply of print books (and some ebooks and software products). Remember – although it may not be the case down the line from now – today, cash in return for print books is still the primary revenue source for the vast majority of publishers.

Most people in publishing – and quite a few in bookselling – have traditionally seen the supply chain as the ultimate in boredom – and certainly not the place for bright young media types in search of a glittering career. Yet today it is the place to get a grandstand view of change as it is embodied in our customer interactions, revenue streams, business models and profit margins.

And secondly, I have spent my whole professional life engaging with change. It is very tempting for us to think that change is new - but it isn’t. I’ve been in this industry for more than 23 years in five different roles, and every one of them has been in a business coming to terms with the need to change. It there is anything I know a little about – it is change and how it affects businesses.

Twenty-two years ago, I was a partner in the family business, Chapman Bounford & Associates (later bounford.com). In the months before I became involved, the Chapman from that partnership – the wonderful airbrush illustrator, Bob Chapman, died very suddenly. In the following months my (then) husband, Trevor Bounford, was struggling to rebuild a business based around his own somewhat different cartographic, information design and editorial project management skills. Trevor had the foresight to spend a substantial portion of the business’s life insurance payout for Bob on Apple Macs and software (at eye-watering expense compared to present costs). It was an inspired move, because it catapulted us to the forefront of technological change in the illustrated reference field in London. Within a few months we became the first graphic design studio in London to draw maps on the Mac and have them output to 4-colour separated film. (But remember, this step-change was funded by an unexpected cash injection to the business, and I am going to return to cash to fund change later. Though I won’t be advocating a premature demise for one of your business partners as a method for raising that cash.)

Around the same time we became the last studio to draw the London Underground map by hand. Trevor is the man responsible for putting the bend in the Central Line in a major, time-consuming and somewhat traumatic re-design of the map. Yet a mere year after that redesign, the tube map had been digitised and from then on could be continuously modified and updated. (Which is a poetic irony given that Beck’s inspiration for the original was a circuit board diagram).

Then, in the late 1990s, I became Executive Director of the Independent Publishers Guild. I had the luck to be at the organisational heart of that trade body during a time of enormous change. During my tenure, the UK book industry was first learning how to take advantage of Print-on-Demand technologies to keep backlist in print, and to control cash – and at the same time many of us first started worrying about eBooks.
Most significantly for our purposes today - the organisation of the IPG itself was literally transformed by our specifying and implementing a new database that could act as the administrative, commercial and communications engine for the organisation. With one fundamental technological shift, the executive was liberated from the need to keep multiple address lists for different purposes (finance, events billing, membership subscriptions, publications, mailing labels and so on). And in doing so, we finally had time to engage with the very real issues facing the industry – rather than merely administrating a handful of annual get-togethers. Whenever I am anxious about forthcoming technological change, I think back to the enormous benefits we reaped grasping and deploying a new technology at the IPG.

With this perspective, I think that although an instinctive response to the prospect of rapid migration to digital delivery channels can be alarm, we should not forget that publishing and bookselling have always had a symbiotic relationship with technology. (I live in a village called “Caxton” – which is the English equivalent of living in a German village called “Gutenberg” – so I am reminded of this on a daily basis).

But there is a difference between the technological innovation that was movable type for the printing press and today’s innovations. When publishing as a potentially viable business venture first exploded in the West as a result of Gutenberg, Caxton et al, it was absolutely clear how the printer/publisher was going to monetize their investment and activities to receive a satisfactory ROI. Usually the printer and the publisher were one and the same person. With that new technology one copy was turned to multiple copies, quickly, and at a price the market was prepared to bear, as they were a fraction of the price of copies produced in scriptoria. There was a time-rich market hungry for printed entertainment and information product and with no alternative options for accessing content, and few distractions from that content. Which was a price-to-market revolution that was mirrored in a small way centuries later with the arrival of mass-market paperbacks).

In our diverse electronic world with so much competition for attention, our future revenue streams are much less obvious and far more fragmented. And given that I.T. investment is so incredibly expensive, I don’t really buy the argument that eBooks are cheaper to produce than pBooks. If you are thinking just in terms of unit production costs – yes – possibly. But the I.T. and time investment required to morph a print publishing business to an e-publishing business is certain to be a major expense in terms of the initial financial and human-resource investment (and change in human resource deployment is always accompanied by incalculable quantities of management pain and therefore management time).

We may be able to outsource file conversion to the developing world – but the beating hearts of our publishing businesses are in the minds and creativity of our editors and authors. Unless we secure substantial ongoing revenue streams from what that heart pumps out - it will suffer a terminal cardiac arrest.

The costs of changing our technologies and retraining people or hiring in new skills are huge – and often not factored into our notions of cost. For decades – if not right back to Gutenberg – the publishing industry has been hopelessly wedded to the notion of multiples of unit cost as the primary method of determining future profit. (You only have to come into our warehouse and look at the pallets on the very top racks of our hi-bay to grasp the pitfalls of that approach.)

Earlier this morning Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly shared some information about the volume of ebooks being sold from their web site. It’s useful for us to note that the sales Andrew talked about take place in the context of consumers accessing the O’Reilly brand direct from the corporate web site(and not purchasing via resellers). It is time for us to think less about unit margin and much more about our overall brand value.

Given that both development costs and any future revenue streams remain uncertain, the financial and human investment required for us to change in response to new content delivery channels is quite some commitment to make. We’re back to the old cliché that “if I want to go there, I wouldn’t necessarily start from here”.

Back in the days of Gutenberg & Caxton printers & publishers were the technological innovators. In the twenty-first century the technological innovators are not publishers. They are venture-capital backed organisations working on totally different risk/reward cycle to the traditional publishing industry – be they the giants like Amazon, or student start-ups that go on to change the ways in which people communicate across the globe.

Currently I work in a book industry supply chain business owned by The Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group - an international academic publisher. We are constantly adapting and developing our systems in order to keep pace with change in the way books are being published by publishers and bought and “experienced” by customers. By far our most demanding customers are the Internet resellers who have much more exacting data requirements than bricks and mortar booksellers – and next to them in term of service expectations come individuals purchasing books direct. I realised after joining NBNi that I was over 18 years into a career in publishing at a senior level before I did a job that brought me into any sort of proximity with the “customer”. Over the same time-frame I am prepared to bet that there are many in publishing of a similar age, enjoying successful careers - who have had even less contact with or concept of their customer.

Tools of Change

So – bearing in mind that my career history demonstrates that neither technology nor change are exactly new to our industry – I’d like to take a brief look at the title of this meeting – which in itself has become a powerful brand – “Tools of Change”.

Starting with “change”, which the OED defines firstly as “the act or fact of changing” – which I like because it carries with it the notion that change is often an ongoing or continuous process. It’s unfortunate that many of us think of the second definition – which is “exchange” – as in changing merchandise or currency or to change one’s clothes. A quick transaction or transition from one state to another – which when complete requires no more thought.

I was discussing the problem of the word “change” with a prolific author of ethics and theology texts – asking if he could think of a word for change that was freighted with an implication of a continuous activity. He couldn’t. However he could point me to a Latin tag that’s particularly appropriate given that we are here in Germany.

Anyone who happens to be familiar with Calvinist doctrine will know this tag:
“Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est” - which translates as: “The reformed Church must go on being reformed”. The point being that change doesn’t just happen once. To be worth anything it must be continuous.

The other thing to say about change – particularly when it comes to changing an existing business is that it is a human process that requires both vision and leadership. I’ve had first hand experience this year of how difficult change can be to effect and how scared individuals can be that it is going to annihilate their jobs. And of course the more scared and negative they are – the more likely that outcome becomes.

Change need leaders, generals and troops – and even then, victory is not assured.

As for “tool” – the OED provides “any instrument of manual operation; a mechanical implement”. (It is arguable that a traditional print book is a tool – in that it is a mechanism for conveying printed words.)

Slightly more usefully the OED’s second definition is “to work or shape with a tool” – this definition comes closer to a more continuous process, which again is a more useful notion for our purposes.

So, why am I knocking holes into the title of our conference and risking offence to our hosts from O’Reilly and the Frankfurt Book Fair? Because I think that we have to adjust our focus a little and stop thinking that we will find magical techniques and technologies that are going to facilitate change and then we can all settle back down into nicely profitable business routines. We tend to think of change as pivoting around moments of crisis – not an ongoing process.

The last time I spoke to this issue was in June at the American Association of University Presses conference at Salt Lake City where my great friend and client Richard Brown - Director of Georgetown University Press said “This is not a crisis but a transition, a perpetual transition that will become, in time, as natural as the air we breathe.” Richard could just as easily have quoted the Calvinist tag “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est!” (Except as the Georgetown University was established by Jesuits – it would be an unlikely choice of phrase.)

Thoughts about Funding Change Mixed with A Dash of Industry History
At the same meeting in Salt Lake City, Joseph Esposito, CEO of giantchair.com proposed a five-stage model of the development of university press publishing – with University Presses currently in stage 3. I’d urge anyone thinking about the commercial structure of publishing to go to the AAUP website and download and read his presentation. I don’t fully agree with all of it – and I am not at all sure he is right about the texture and structure of stages 4 & 5. However – like all of the most useful presentations, Esposito’s session crystallised for me in a moment something that I had gradually been realising over a long time – but had not ever articulated to myself. And that is that the publishing industry is preparing for its future while being funded by its past, unlike new media and technology companies – which are preparing for the future at the same time as being funded by that future – in the form of Venture Capital and other start-up funding mechanisms.

(As an aside – you may be asking yourselves when I am quoting events at the AAUP meeting – when the Unversity Press sector is often considered to be one of the less commercial sectors – supported as it often is by contributions to operating cost from the parent university. And the answer is that because of budget cuts many of these presses are now having to sink or swim on their own – at the same time as facing huge pressure from librarians in particular to provide content electronically on a pay-per-use basis. These presses are being squeezed at both ends, and they have to reshape themselves fast).

Tech and social media companies spend vast portions of their funds on R&D. For centuries the only R&D costs that the publishing industry has had to bear are author advances and in the case of illustrated publishing – artwork. I’d suggest that one of the reasons why the Wylie agency decision on eBook rights caused such a furore (albeit something of a furore in a teacup earlier in the year) is that it went straight to the heart of an issue we aren’t talking about. Are royalties sustainable for publishers needing to invest in new content delivery methods?

Esposito’s thesis that the industry is currently in stage 3 of a 5-stage progression captures the essence of the Gordian knot that most publishers are currently faced with. Our current revenue streams come from old technologies and old financial models and systems – yet we need to fund new technologies and new financial models – for which we currently have few defined supply chain systems (and I’m using supply chain in the broad sense of getting a product or service to the consumer here). Plus there’s the complication that we have little evidence that these delivery methods can be financially self-supporting in terms of profit, cash management or subsidiary revenue streams.

In our headlong rush to be able to supply eBooks, many publishers have failed to think about how fundamentally different the new world is. Replicating print books as eBooks and disseminating them through intermediaries as lots of us are currently doing is an important first step. Indeed the company I work for is engaged in facilitating this process for publishers – because the publishers we work with are asking us for this service.

However on a purely personal level I have some concerns about the audit-“ability” of eBooks supplied to the customer by resellers. The business model in play here is fundamentally the same as that of the Amazon Advantage programme – where stock is supplied on consignment and paid for in retrospect. The eBook reselling model works in very much the same way, with the HUGE exception that the electronic file is obtained from the eBook aggregator once and once only. We are placing huge levels of trust in both the moral compass and – more importantly – the robustness of the distribution, recording and reporting technologies used by eBook resellers. I work in the supply chain and I have to report back to my clients daily about their sales. And I know from experience that reporting systems don’t always do what you think you have instructed your I.T. people tell them to do. In the word of print books we have the checks and balances of physical stock movements to audit our reporting. I am unsure what the checks and balances in the eBook reselling world are.

I think that it is for this reason that in a Twitter exchange (under the #followreader hash tag) earlier this year, Tim Spadling, founder of LibraryThing, described publishers’ current approaches to eBooks as publishers selling their inheritance for a mess of potage.

But in case you think I am being hopelessly negative about eBooks I am not at all. I buy them and occasionally read them (in roughly the same sort of proportion as the percentage of print books I buy and then actually manage the time to read). My biggest reservation about the notion of eBook reselling as it is currently constructed in our industry is that it misses the whole point that eBooks are NOT print books and present a completely different range of opportunities to the publisher – most significantly for interaction and engagement with the customer. A possibility that is entirely lost under the eBook reselling model. (And this is why I think eBook reselling is just a first – and temporary – step for many publishers.) And in the last few minutes I’ll be looking at some examples of how publishers are exploiting these possibilities.

But back to my point. Ongoing change presents us with real problems. Doing what is sensible for our business in the “here and now” is not necessarily what prepares it best for the “tomorrow and beyond”. Indeed doing what seems logically right today can be exactly the opposite of what is good for the long-term.

A great example of this conundrum lies in the way in which the Publisher-Customer dynamic altered during the twentieth century (and which is also key to the problems we are facing today and why people like you and me come to meetings like this in search of answers.) The C20 began with most publishing enterprises as independent entities, frequently with offices over their own shops – shops that may or may not have contained their own printing press in the back room. Publishers were commissioners, editors, producers, and retailers. Customers obtained books by visiting the shop or by ordering through the mail, which was the only option for the transfer of goods and correspondence in the marketplace. The closest example I can think of today is the Persephone Bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London. They don’t print there, but Nicola and her team do everything else from commission to wrap and pack. And I think we’re all agreed that it’s not a model that could become universal in a digital age. In fact the reason that it works today is because it is so individual.

As the twentieth century progressed, our industry (along with many others) began to consolidate. Smaller presses were bought by larger presses – grandparents of the major international conglomerates we are now familiar with, and instead of multiple offices over shops, we began to see the establishment of warehouses – and the beginning of a distancing between customer and publisher – as independent bookselling took off. (Bookshops had previously existed in the university cities – but gradually they were established in most sizeable market towns). These bookshops were supplied by the publishers’ central warehouse, while smaller publishers continued to supply direct.

Gradually the larger publishers – sensing an opportunity to defray their costs – began distributing for smaller publishers. Direct contact with the customer was all but lost by the vast majority (by volume) of publishers for any purpose other than “selling” and discount negotiations. The service of providing the book – and making the experience of obtaining the book as pleasant an experience as possible was entirely outsourced and largely forgotten about. In many larger companies the distance between a commissioning editor and the warehouse, supply chain and customer became so great that you needed the metaphorical equivalent of several visas and a passport to traverse it.

As the pace of consolidation and outsourcing accelerated in the last decades of the century we ended up with a situation where the last thing many publishers wanted was contact with end users, the only time they ever thought about the supply chain was when something was going wrong. Even worse, more often than not the publisher thought of their “customer” as another book trade intermediary – a wholesaler, library supplier, chain bookstore or independent bookstore.

Academic publishers were amongst the closest connected to their customers in that their stable of authors taught their cohort of customers. They were proactive in direct mail campaigns and in seeking adoptions from academics, but for the general trade, contact with the end user was almost non-existent. Not only did publishers avoid contact with customers – but if at all possible they avoided booksellers too. I remember being speechless when suggesting to a member of the IPG Board in 2001 that we hold a joint meeting for members of the IPG and the Booksellers Association and being told: “Oh I really don’t think we have enough in common to run a meeting together”. Fortunately things have moved on rapidly since and the same thing would not happen now – but it is indicative of how very far removed some publishers became from their customers.

At the same time, the publishing industry was (and remains) notoriously poor at utilising professional market research, with tiny budgets – if any – apportioned to direct consumer research. Editors, agents and to some extent literary reviewers, acted as arbiters and gatekeepers to the public taste. One of the few sectors of the publishing industry to have made intensive and sustained use of the sorts of market research processes being commonly employed by most other design and manufacturing industries was the part-works publishing sector (a sector that many in the mainstream looked down their noses on as “not proper publishing”).

(For an indication of the lack of importance attached to consumer research by the UK Book Industry, we need look no further than the UK’s only book-specialist consumer research company, Book Marketing Ltd. When this company was put up for sale not long ago, it was purchased by an American company, Bowker – not a British or European company.)

It’s a profound irony that whilst the financial drive to outsourcing was increasing the distance between publisher and customer developments elsewhere in the technology sector and the retail sector have taken us full circle to where the closest possible relationship with the customer is possible – and indeed desirable. Today technology is driving us towards flexible publishing tools that permit, enable, facilitate and (god forbid) even encourage interactions between author and consumer, publisher and consumer, consumer and consumer. At a time when the mainstream publishers found themselves more distanced from their customer than ever before – technology has plunged them into a situation where they need to learn to understand and interact with their customer – or suffer the consequences of competitors leaping into the vacuum. And by competitors I don’t necessarily mean other publishers. I mean competitors for attention.

So – it’s useful to remember that what’s financially good for a business today is not necessarily what prepares it for a sustainable future and just as the pressure to outsource warehousing lead to – what is now - an unhelpful distancing between publisher and customer, in the same way the current rush to providing ebooks via reselling models that ape print book reselling models may not be the best long-term strategic solution.

As I have already mentioned – many publishing types think of distribution and the supply chain as the most tedious part of our industry – not worthy of the attention of creative people. If the ISBN was the Cinderella of our industry – until she became a princess in these days of metadata, metadata and more metadata – then the warehouse was the hearth she slept in at night. However I consider myself lucky to have spent the past six years working in this sector. Being part of a distribution company has also led to me become increasingly concerned with the customer experience of book buying. And thinking about precisely that - “the experience of book buying”- can be very illuminating.

This phrase is so important I am going to repeat it again – I am concerned with – and spend time thinking about – “the experience of book buying”.

Over the past three months our business has expanded into new premises – and the process of moving 3.4 million units of stock at the same time as keeping 39,500 individual product lines available for instant supply has been enormously difficult. Indeed, we haven’t always managed it. If I needed any evidence at all of how important focussing on the customer experience is – I have had it in spades this summer. I can confirm that modern consumers have very low tolerance levels to inconvenience and delay.

The paradigm shift that has lowered customer tolerance to inconvenience (or to put it another way – raised their expectation of information, speed and faultless service), is of course Amazon. Closely followed by many other Internet resellers.

One of the reasons Amazon has transformed the landscape of bookselling is because it has transformed the customer experience. Because they are purchasing online, the customer acts as their own personal order-entry clerk – embedding their own requirements directly into Amazon’s systems. This – combined with Amazon’s ability to invest large sums of money in I.T. – facilitates total transparency about where in the process of supply the customer’s order is – without the nasty gap that traditional distributors experience in between receipt of an order (even by EDI – where the EDI message still has to be tested and accepted by the system) and the order being placed in the system.

Amazon has introduced a new customer-transparency paradigm that traditional publishers’ and distributors’ systems were not designed around. They were built around reselling-via-intermediary business models. The snowballing of Internet retailing in all sectors has transformed customer expectations – whether that customer be an individual or another business. Amazon and other Internet retailers have catapulted all of us into a world where we (and we are all customers) expect not only speed, but also information and visibility. Ever since Amazon was established, the traditional book distribution sector has been playing catch-up. And more critically, playing catch up at the same time as revenues are being squeezed by publishers looking for the lowest possible fulfilment costs (and at the same time as publishers in turn are squeezed for more discount by retailers – further diminishing the distributor’s margin and ability to invest in quality I.T. and quality customer services people.

Any distributor will tell you it is nigh on impossible to run a business that needs to make major I.T. spends at the same time as being squeezed for margin at every front. I like to think that our company is an exception. We have been making large capital investments this year – but it is very difficult to do in a sector that is considered to be on the way out. And for the record I don’t believe that Distribution is on the way out. I believe it has to undergo a process of change in order to provide the services publishers need to engage in a world of much more diverse revenue streams. Distributors have to invest in warehouses and systems – and the best possible customer service staff – so that we can do what we have always done much better than ever before for two reasons
(i) because we are competing with instant access, and
(ii) because Esposito’s 5-stage model suggests that publishers can’t get to stages four and five without maximising revenues from stages 1, 2 and 3 and that can only be done with the best possible customer service – or customers will simply migrate to other media.

To put it another way, it is only through having the best possible physical supply chains and providing a customer experience that is informed about all of your products and services (and that has therefore been the subject of major investments) that publishers will maintain their print book revenues for long enough for them to work out how to magnetize their content in new ways.

The expectations of what we as publishers & distributors of consumer goods ought to deliver are now being determined by companies like Amazon which – sustained losses year on year – are so well capitalised that they can afford the continuous software development that is now a pre-requisite of being an effective part of the supply chain. The tension between the need to reduce costs now – and the need to invest – has exacerbated publishing’s crash course for disaster, without publishers even being aware of it – so far removed are they from the reality of the customer’s experience of obtaining their products.

Finally, I’d like to turn to some examples of publishers who are creatively exploiting the opportunities now available to them. And example No1 is dead easy. We’re in the room with it. O’Reilly (recently re-branded O’Reilly Media) is a brilliant example of how a publisher can use its content strengths to become a pivotal member of a community of interest.

O’Reilly started out publishing print books. Today they publish eBooks – which in turn enhance demand for print book. They hold webinars, events like Tools of Change and many other specialist tech meetings. I was talking with Sharon Cordesse from O’Reilly over dinner last night and discovered that only a little over 50% of O’Reilly’s revenues now arise from e- and p-books. The remainder comes from the complex web business activities built up around their specialist brand.

I also asked Sharon about their customer interface – whether each business unit has its own billing and customer service interface. The answer is “no” O’Reilly has one centralised customer services department that can take care of any transaction (or trouble-shoot any problem). From the same customer services unit I can organise booking a place at ToC or purchase of e-books. O’Reilly therefore is providing a joined-up customer service experience – not one that exposes the customer to the frustration of dealing with separate silos within the O’Reilly businesses.

I’m also fortunate to work with a company called PasTest – a medical publisher that publishes test prep materials for qualified doctors who are taking their professional exams (FRCP, FRCS, etc.). PasTest are really closely tuned in to their customer’s requirements – particularly speed of turnover. They know that their customers are busy, work very long hours, are dedicating year of their lives to taking exams that have a very high first time failure rate. PasTest know that their customers don’t have time to waste and don’t have time to wait for books once they have been ordered.

As well as supplying books, PasTest provide online webinars and self-test materials. They also organise courses where doctors can practise making diagnoses on real patients with real ailments. PasTest’s multi-textured relationship – and multiple points of contact with their audience offers them many more ways to know and get to understand their customers’ requirements than many other publishers will ever have.

Publishers can also learn from what some non-publishers are doing. We have a member of staff currently going through the Edinburgh Business School MBA. The organisation provides a complete course pack (no need to buy books), online learning resources, online tutorial support, weekend crammer courses – and of course the final exam. The customer service experience for the executive student is brilliant.

Something that all of these publishers are organisations are doing is building a brand. Which is a novel concept to most publishers – who for years have been hostage to the brands of their author. The demands of the modern publisher mean that publishers have more opportunities than ever to build their own brand(s) and in doing so get much closer to their customers.

So – I promised you some conclusions – which would not be answers but questions. And here they are.

Do you provide a coherent, informed and joined-up customer service experience across your entire range of publications, products and services?

What is the infrastructure that supports your customer’s engagement with your products and services – and does it provide them with the best possible customer experience?

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

On NBNi's Summer 2010 Expansion Project

This post first appeared on the NBNi web site earlier today, where it was the inaugural post on the blog we have launched in order encourage the exchange of information and ideas with our industry colleages about how to meet changing cusotmer needs.

If you are distributed by us or if you buy books from us in any quantity, you almost certainly know by now that NBNi is expanding into larger, more modern distribution premises in Plymouth this summer (the main switchover between locations takes place this coming weekend). Over the months we have been preparing for and running this project, many clients, customers and colleagues in the industry have been asking us: "If the future's digital, why are you taking more space?" It's a simple question with a simple short answer, and a not-quite-so-simple long one. Today I'm going to focus on the short answer (the longer one will follow in a separate post). The key words are service, efficiency, turnaround times, customer expectations, quality control, communication, people.

We've been running our business from premises designed over thirty years ago when the book industry supply chain worked at a much slower pace than it does now. We’ve also more than doubled in size in the past six years, and we can’t continue in the same premises. When our old warehouse was built, just-in-time ordering was an unknown phrase; Amazon wasn't even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos' eye; customers were used to waiting for books to come into stock in their local bookstore, and most publishers thought of the "customer" as the buyer in the bookshop, library supplier, wholesaler - not the ultimate user or consumer of the book.

Everything's different now. Internet retailers have been the dominant force in changing the supply chain for some years, and more recently in the UK the centralisation of Waterstone’s has also engendered change. The Internet resellers have incredibly high expectations of both data and physical book supply, and each one works to a slightly different model with its own service needs and priorities. Amazon needs consignment supply, The Book Depository needs daily actual stock data, Boffin requires direct-to-consumer supply, to name but a few. In the meantime some of the difficulties Waterstone’s have experienced at the hub have driven us to invest in new technologies that enable us to ensure and prove accuracy of supply.

On top of all of that, far more specialist publishers are now engaged in direct-to-consumer activities, with email and web-based marketing campaigns replacing traditional direct mail. What’s certain is that whatever route the customer is ordering through, they now have far more choice, and wield far more power than 30 years ago. And that's not just choice of books - but choice of what to do with their time, period. If the book isn't available when they want it, there are plenty of other ways to engage with ideas and text on and offline. Our changed consumer culture demands a different level of responsiveness from those of us still engaged with supplying physical books to resellers and end users. And to provide that responsiveness, we need to be working from premises designed around the new paradigms of book supply, where we can communicate with each other and our clients and customers more effectively, and where we can work faster and more accurately.

Most of our clients still rely on print books as their primary source of revenue. And the best way in which we can support our publishers through the present turbulent and unsettling times is to ensure that the experience of obtaining those physical books is as simple, and enjoyable as possible for the customer. Whether they are a wholesaler, a librarian, an independent bookshop in a German or Italian university town, a consignment distributor in the Far East, or an individual ordering via a vendor or publisher web site - people need to like ordering from us.

It is with all this in mind that we are going through the pain of relocating 3.4 million units of stock; a pressurised process that hasn't always been smooth. With thousands of active isbns, some of which sell only a few units of stock a year combining the process of a move, with keeping everything available for order and continuing timely supply has been a huge challenge. And of course it is not just books that we are relocating; our staff are also moving over to the new premises. No-one has to move house as our new warehouse and offices are less than a mile from the old ones. But people will be working in a new environment. It's a much better-planned, safer work space. (For example the new picking face is completely separate from the hi-bay storage, so there will be far less interaction of people and fork lift trucks). On balance our teams are excited to be working for a company that is so obviously investing in expansion and the future at a time when much of the economic news is doom and gloom. But even good change causes disruption and we’ve all had to retain our senses of humour at times.

We're deeply grateful to all of our publisher clients and to all of our customers for the support and encouragement we've received during the course of the project. Our objective is to reward you for this support with faster service, greater efficiency, better communication, greater accuracy and above all to be a company that you want to work with and want to buy from, staffed by people you really enjoy communicating and working with.

With thanks to my colleagues at NBNi for permission to re-post here.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The technology of reading: a long view (ii)

My second eureka insight arising from Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World centres around the question of "who makes money from books?". Whilst we are accustomed to the norm that (some) authors, (most) publishers and (most) booksellers are able to make money out of words, it's salutary to note that this was certainly not the case in the ancient world. In all of the ancient societies reading and writing were high status activities, and anyone who was anyone sought to write down and disseminate their works. If we stop to think, we know this: after all the writings of Julius Caesar are still taught in those (largely private) schools that still have Latin and other ancient languages on the curriculum. And just as publishing one's thoughts was an indication of power, insight and status - so was ownership of and access to texts. It's interesting that one of the love gifts from Antony to Cleopatra (possibly the world's first celebrity couple) was a library; the 200,000 volume collection in the library at Pergamum to be precise. Casson comments that this could have been a shrewd cost-control measure on Mark Antony's part - the funds required to maintain such a resource were enormous. Nonetheless it's hard to imagine such a gift exchanging hands between twenty-first century A-listers as a token of esteem and devotion (although it's a fair bet that a few iPads have).

It seems the only people in the ancient world who made money from texts were booksellers and librarians. Authors received not a penny for their efforts (their rewards were indirect, on the way up the intellectual, social and political ladder). Most authors completed a master copy and employed scribes (usually slaves) to make a limited number of presentation copies which were then bestowed upon those individuals the author held in high regard (or wanted to ingratiate themselves with). Thereafter the text was considered to be in the public domain and anyone could make a copy. Indeed the earliest booksellers ran scriptoria - copy shops using human labour in place of any form of mechanised duplication. By the last century B.C. it was possible to buy most of the acknowledged "classics" from Rome's booksellers. Even if Cicero bemoaned in a letter to his brother that "For books in Latin I don't know where to go; the copies sold are so full of errors." Q.A. issues have obviously beset our industry from the outset.

Librarianship gradually became an valued occupation, sometimes carried out by highly educated slaves who were often manumitted for long and devoted service, and also by freemen. Indeed in Rome stewardship of the city's libraries became one of the recognised stepping stones on the fast-track civil service ladder to high office. So those who curated texts and those who organised the reproduction of texts were the only people who actually made a living from them. There were no agents brokering deals - and the author and the publisher were one and the same (unpaid) person.

In the West, the invention of the printing press in 1440 was what made publishing as a financial enterprise viable - and for centuries thereafter the printer and the publisher were one and the same (and sometimes even printer, publisher and author). Sir Walter Scott was one of the first writers to pen his way out of bankruptcy, and he is amongst those authors who had a financial involvement with his printing company. Even in the twentieth century, authors and Bloomsbury Group luminaries Virginia and Leonard Woolf established The Hogarth Press which (ironically given the current e-royalty furore) was eventually subsumed into Random House upon the purchase of Chatto and Windus in 1987.

All of which takes us full circle. No-one in our industry has an automatic right to make a living out of what we do. It is not enshrined in law (state or economic) that authors, agents, publishers or booksellers can and shall make a living and run economically viable businesses. We can only do so if we know exactly who values what we have and what we do; if we know how much they are prepared to pay, and this price is one that covers the costs of our activities. As Brian O'Leary (content work flow guru and founder of Magellan Media Partners) observed in a blog post today - what we really learn from the conflict between The Wylie Agency and The Random House Group is about the supply chain - and the fact that Amazon is entirely customer focused (which might explain the phenomenon a marketing director I know calls "the Circle of Hell known as Vendor Central"). Amazon understand that in a consumer society, serving the customer is where there's money to be made. Like those first bookshop owners in ancient Rome.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The technology of reading: a long view (i)

I'm currently enjoying reading a (print) copy of Lionel Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World (Yale). It's a great read for anyone interested in the cultural heritage of literature, information, authorship, book selling and publishing. When I first picked it up in Topping's Ely bookshop (more of which in a later post) I did not expect illumination for the many puzzles that beset me in my professional life, but that's precisely what it has provided. The conventional axiom is that Gutenberg and movable type were the point at which books and technology began to merge - but I'm now reminded that this isn't true. The technologies of reading and publishing have entwined and evolved since writing was first invented - often in response to the available resources and the cultural pressures in play as societies have changed. So over the next few days I'm planning a sequence of short posts on some of "eureka" moments I've experienced while reading the book.

Let's start with publishing formats. Casson describes the formats known to have existed in the Ancient world - starting with wood and clay tablets, and graduating through papyrus and parchment scrolls to the codex (bound volumes). Each one of these technologies had advantages and disadvantages for their manufacturers, readers and librarians. In his discussion of the shift to codices, Casson shares some statistics using archaeological finds from the dry sands of Egypt, as base data:
"Over 1,330 pieces of Greek literary, scientific and other such writings have been discovered that date to the first and the second centuries: all are on rolls save less than twenty, a mere 1.5 percent, on codices. In the third century the percentage rises from 1.5% to about 17 per cent; clearly the codex was gaining favour. Around AD 300 the percentage has climbed to 50 percent - a parity with the roll that is reflected ins some preserved representations which depict a man holding a roll next to one holding a codex. By A.D. 400 it is up to 80 per cent and by A.D. 500 to 90 percent. The roll still had centuries of life ahead of it, but only for documents; what people read for pleasure, edification , or instruction was virtually all on codices."
After describing the manufacture of codices, Casson highlights a remarkable exception to their gradual adoption over several centuries. He points out that all eleven earliest surviving copies of the Bible date from between the end of the second century and the early part of the third century and all eleven are codices. Yet the evidence previously quoted suggests that in the same period as these codices were manufactured, the vast majority of non-Christian literary, scientific, historical, philosophical and spiritual texts were still produced on parchment and papyrus rolls. The codex was not yet the preferred format.

Casson comments that there could be a number of contributory factors that led to the Christian preference for the Codex ranging from the fact that Rome - where Christianity was quick to take hold - is where the codex format seems to have begun, to the fact that the codex was free from the cultural connotations attached to Jewish parchment scrolls and pagan papyrus scrolls. Moreover, he suggests that Christians used their scripture as a manual for living - rather than simply a sacred document - and the codex was much more suited to this utility.

All of which set me thinking. It seems that the most significant change to the format in which text and information was disseminated from ancient times to the advent of the eBook was driven by a coalescence of technological development (aka human inventiveness), emotional and cultural sensibilities and sensitivities, and utility. Or to put it another way, the drivers for change were the needs and preferences of the user or consumer of the text. It was all about what the customer wanted.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

On (i)Tools and (i)Toys

We have all known have we not, Dear Reader, that the events of yesterday have been inevitable for over a year? The Caxton branch of the Bounford family finally bowed to fate and become a household possessed of (and obsessed with) not just one, but two ipads.

So yes - along with the Victorian music cabinet (a recent ebay purchase collected yesterday evening) it's been an eye-wateringly expensive weekend in this corner of England. But already my only regret is that I didn't bite the bullet earlier. I recall blogging last year that my reluctance to part with cash for a Kindle lay in the fact I couldn't use it for anything other than reading books bought from Amazon. Whereas I wanted one piece of kit I could read from, purchase my groceries on, watch films, view photos, IM with the children from. And here, in the ipad is something that does all that and more. I haven't yet rigged up a camera so I can spy on the chickens via it - but I'm pretty sure it would be possible.

Here I sit, therefore, in the garden blogging on the ipad with it docked into a lovely little portable keyboard (that would also work with my iphone). And I know I've fallen in love - in a way I never did with the Kindle (still defunct on the dresser - looking hopelessly old world and analogue next to this shiny new toy) or even my iphone which - useful as it is - never grabbed me in the way this has. Thanks to Project Gutenberg and the ibooks app I sat in bed last night grazing on Marcus Aurelius, Huckleberry Finn, Shakespeare (mugging up on The Comedy of Errors so I can answer the children's questions when we see it at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park next Saturday). Today I reluctantly went down-market and loaded Dan Brown's Angels and Demons - which Felix was half way through on the ill-fated Kindle. We couldn't find this book on ibooks so loaded the kindle app for free and bought it that way.

So why two ipads? I've been a parent long enough to know that if I'd only bought one - I'd never get a look in. And also Hannah was due a laptop. She'd been eyeing up a Hewlett Packard with a swivel screen (at significantly greater cost than the ipad). And I had an epiphany. There's just no point buying her a laptop, when she will get so much more out of this. Docked to the keyboard she can write essays, while she surfs content online and in books. Through Project Gutenburg she has instant access to the classics and the staples of world literature, culture, philosophy and religion. Not to mention Angry Birds, Facebook, Hotmail, Gmail, YouTube, and all the other mandatory requirements of the modern 14-year old. She has resources at her fingertips I could not have dreamed possible when I was the same age. And moreover all rolled into a bit of kit that's totally seductive and as cool as it comes. Libraries were never this sexy.

I've heard educational and children's publishers talking a lot since the arrival of the ipad about the blurring between books and games that is beginning to take place. I think the change is more fundamental than that. In this instance it's not about the content it's about the kit. Just as interactive whiteboards have changed the classroom, the ipad has crossed a social Rubicon in a way smart phones, kindles, laptops and net books have never quite managed in being both a tool that is necessary and/or useful to achieve constructive work - and a toy that brings entertainment, pleasure, creativity and play. Smart phones nearly got there - but the screen size was always going to inhibit them. When I first saw Steve Jobs proudly holding the ipad aloft - like many others I sniggered that all Apple had done was create an iphone on steroids. But now I'm using one, I'm embarrassed by that cynicism.

Yes, I'm concerned that the infinite variety on offer has a detrimental effect on concentration and self discipline - my own let alone Hannah's. But something in me tells me that in this - and the generations of technology that will follow hot on its heels - there is a blended-experience future for our industry and probably our culture. Unless we want to go the way of the Amish and become a tiny, quaint minority, we have to address the inherent problems through engagement, use and experience - not through abstention.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Publishing in Future: Not an Oxymoron

On my way back over Atlantic airspace I am digesting lessons learned at this year's AAUP Meeting, and mapping out how I shall be using them in the coming weeks. Apart from connecting in person with some great contacts made online via Twitter (more of this later) my highlight of the meeting was, without doubt, the first half of the final plenary session: Digital Humanities is Not an Oxymoron - a provocative presentation from Alexander C. Halavais, Associate Professor of Interactive Communications at Quinnipiac University.

Halavais was an excellent choice of speaker for this audience. He is from the Academy (which most AAUP member presses exist to serve) and yet unafraid to challenge either the institution or the processes of scholarly publishing - or of scholarship itself. There can be few individuals brave enough to confess - in front of an audience of 500+ publishers - to having systematically destroyed thousands of books in his ownership (to scan them for personal use). Coming - as I do - from a professional life in the independent publishing sector I have always been somewhat mystified by a deep reverence for scholarship over profit (or at least break-even). It has always seemed to me that independent-mindedness is only truly independent if it is fiscally self-supporting. Therefore Halavais' ability to speak radically within the vernacular of his audience was illuminating to me. He used an iron fist wrapped within the most eloquent and witty of velvet gloves - and I'd recommend that anyone with an interest in the way text is used in the digitally connected academic world read the draft of his presentation available online. Unfortunately the sublimely subversive accompanying slide show is not there - but it would undoubtedly fall flat without the live narrative, which was a sequence of riffs improvised around the themes laid out in the written draft.

Halavais was full of pithy observations, one of the most striking of which was "publishing isn't about what you make - it is about what you do" (like all the best epigrams, a construction of elegant simplicity in its perception and accuracy). It is a phrase that all publishers would do well keep in mind through the turbulent times ahead of us.

It was clear from the discussions going on in and outside of sessions that for all of the angst that surrounds the future of printed books (and most particularly in this forum, printed scholarly books), many medium-sized American university press publishers are significantly ahead of their UK independent counterparts in embracing e-book formats. Three aspects of this situation struck me forcibly. Firstly, e-book distribution, particularly to libraries, brings with it actual usage statistics. And what those statistics reveal about (the lack of) usage of monographs in particular is - if not surprising - shocking. The fact that monograph publishing exists to support tenure and the structure of academic employment is an inconvenient truth that can no longer be glossed by either the Academy its associated University Presses. At some point the Academy is either going to have to stop expecting University Presses to fulfil this need, or find a more honest and transparent way of funding it. After all, publication by the for-profit sector (Wiley, T&F, Continuum, Rowman & Littlefield to name but a few) is as valid to academics for resume purposes as publication by a not-for-profit. And moreover if the likes of Wiley et al are willing to publish - it suggests that the book is meaningful enough for at least a few copies to be read within a year of publication.

Secondly, although e-books are firmly established in the academic publishing environment in the US - there seemed to be little discussion of the opportunities that this creates. The e-book is a new format largely bolted into an old business model. There was little talk of what can be learned from consumer data - and the opportunities for publishers that are created by the shortening of the supply chain to permit two-way publisher-consumer information flow.

The third (and related) striking aspect of these University Presses' relationships with e-books was that, by and large, there seemed to be an acceptance of the e-book as merely an electronic reproduction of the printed text. I heard virtually no discussion of enhanced e-books - or the unleashing of numerous possibilities for innovation that accompanies shifting text from the printed to the digital environment. And therefore no mention of the potential for creative new blended revenue streams that could be facilitated by the liberation of ideas from ink. I understand that there was a session "Designing in the E-book Era which did address some of these issues (to a packed crowd) - but I had chosen another of the concurrent sessions (thinking that this was a design and production session rather than a business strategy session). I am certainly hoping that next year's meeting in Baltimore might consider taking a look at new business models in more depth.

To revert to the discussion of and on Twitter - this meeting was undoubtedly enhanced (for those of us who tweet) by the #AAUP10 tweetstream- which provided subtext and counterpoint to the formal presentations, not to mention a great deal of good natured teasing of this year's programme organiser, the urbane, charming and seemingly ubiquitous Greg Britton, Publisher at the Getty Foundation. (Indeed the AAUP owes a great debt to Britton and his program committee colleagues for picking up from last year's deeply gloomy recession-hit Philadelphia Annual Meeting and making a huge success this year.) I've been an intermittent Tweeter over the past few months - but the experience of #AAUP10 - and of meeting up face to face with tweeps such as @KatMeyer of #followreader and O'Reilly's Tools of Change, @brianoleary of Magellan Consulting and @susanmpls - all of whom I first connected with via Twitter - has reminded me of the extraordinary global connecting power of online discussion and networking. Certainly the AAUP's use of Twitter from Salt Lake City this weekend was more edifying than that of Utah's Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, who controversially used the medium to tweet his decision to give the go-ahead to an execution by firing squad (the first execution to take place in the state for many years). One could find few more startling snapshots of the sheer diversity of preset-day American culture.

A final takeaway from this year's meeting comes from Richard Brown of Georgetown University Press (with whom I have the privilege of working in my day job). Richard made a characteristically poised and thoughtful speech when accepting this year's AAUP presidency. "We are organisations in transition," he said. "And that's not going to stop. From now on perpetual transition will become as natural as the air we breathe." Publishing is an activity that has evolved at a leisurely pace since the invention of movable type and Brown's words summarise the challenge and the opportunities we all face whether we work in the scholarly sector, or elsewhere in the publishing industry.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

On Technological Change, Publishers & Customers

On the plane to the AAUP Meeting just over a month after I attended the Book Industry Conference in London - and I am dwelling on the most challenging presentation of that last conference. In retrospect it should be no surprise that it came from someone outside the book world: Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis. Taking an overview of the impact of new technologies, he made some salutary points - most notably that our business environment is rapidly becoming dominated by international companies that are neither publishers nor retailers.

  • Google: which is not a technology company - it is an advertising business - using cash flow to build a dominant content position so that the journey is always started from Google, thus maximising the opportunity to derive advertising revenues.
  • Amazon: which pushes physical products through its logistics chain to the end consumer, thereby deriving revenues. Although Amazon has made significant investments in kindle and e-books, this is not their core business - but a way of retaining the buying relationship. (Indeed Evans suggested that the fact that there is no logistics business model in ebooks explains Amazon's "latent aggression" regarding ebooks.)
  • Apple (and other platform manufacturers): which are consumer technology companies whose strategic objective is to create products that people want to buy (and upgrade, and own the next model soonest).

Evans then drew our attention to the cash reserves of these three companies:

  • Apple: $41.7 billion cash on hand
  • Amazon: $5.6 billion cash on hand
  • Google; $26.5 billion cash on hand

He then suggested that we compare those figures with the cash reserves of any of the key book industry players. It's a sobering thought particularly when combined with the anonymous adage doing the rounds: "Google kills industries without noticing". Listening to this - and feeling chilled - made me think of Gavin Weightman's immensely readable book The Frozen Water Trade, which charts the rise and fall of the business of shipping ice from New England down the East Coast of America and on to the Caribbean; a once thriving enterprise that was completely annihilated by the advent of the domestic fridge and freezer. (How many homes do you know that still have ice-houses?)

If there is any good news it is that - none of the three dominant companies is a content generator- and their core business models lie a long way from the business of creating content. (Although it seems to me they could all clearly afford to buy content generators from out of the petty cash tin - should they decide they want to do so).

As Benedict Evans pointed out - bolting new technologies into old ways of doing things does not remain a viable model for long. Therefore now - more than ever - is time for publishers to pay close attention to their customers, and to the value that they provide to those customers. Our new techno-charged world is one where wealthy companies can change the destiny of traditional industries without setting out to do so. Systemic and structural change throughout the book industry - from the perspective of these highly capitalised companies - will be an accidental by-product of what they are doing in their own core businesses.

To remodel themselves for a world dominated by Google, Amazon and Apple publishers need to focus on their unique abilities to commission top-class content, nurture authors, and create pleasurable information and entertainment products - regardless of the customer's method of consumption - be it print, ipod, ipad, Kindle, nook, library platform, desktop, smartphone, Nintendo DS, or the next generation of far more radical interactive and virtual world technologies.

I am often asked if - employed as I am in the physical supply chain for books - I fear for the future of our business (and therefore my job). In a way I feel I am at an advantage, because it is so obvious that our business has to reconfigure itself for its medium to long-term future. The great thing about working in distribution is that it teaches you to think about books as products that customers want with the shortest possible time frame in between making that choice and receiving the book. Inhabiting the supply chain also teaches one to draw distinctions between "customers" (who may in fact be intermediaries) and the end "consumer" of the book. In that sense the mind[set of those of us in the academic and reference supply chain is way ahead of many publishers, particularly many in the mainstream "trade".

Distribution is driven by the customer's needs, and a perception of the book as a consumer item. Yes, in my private life I may also consider individual books to be desirable to own and pleasurable to read. But professionally I know that publishers have to be more aware than ever of precisely what value they add to the experience(s) of accessing content that the consumer wants - and able to deliver those experiences in multiple ways - depending upon the consumer's preference and choice.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On International Marketing

I'm in the taxi on the way to Heathrow turning my attention to this week's AAUP Annual Meeting and in particular to structuring my thoughts for Friday's Export panel. At last year's meeting in Philadelphia I was somewhat stunned that although many American university presses were experiencing turbulent times in their traditional domestic market - barely any mention was made of the fact that the European market remained buoyant. Indeed I knew for a fact that several American scholarly presses were experiencing significant growth in export markets. I had always thought that not boasting about one's successes was a peculiarly British trait - but it seems it extends to the American scholarly publishing community too.

As I think about this year's meeting, and the panel I am participating in, I realise that I wish the title referred to "international" rather than "export". The word "export" is such an old fashioned word - heavily freighted (if you will forgive the pun) with the assumption of a "push" selling model. Which is not, I realise, what I want to talk about at all! I shall be taking a look at some of the factors that make for success in international markets and in an Internet-enabled world, that is as much about "pull" as it is about "push".

AAUP attendees would be mistaken if they think that this is a session for marketing personnel only. International success comes to organisations that adopt an international mindset as part of their overall culture. I suspect that this comes more easily to European presses for a number of reasons. We have many more centuries of international trade under our belt, we have the remnants of colonial territories or in the case of the UK the Commonwealth, and our domestic markets are comparatively small. Therefore I'm planning to take a look at some of the best European independent reference and academic publishers - to see what lessons can be drawn from them.

Last year the AAUP meeting seemed somewhat insular, downbeat and pervaded by a sense of genuine shock at the depth of the financial crisis, and the downturn in the domestic market for scholarly books. I am aware that this year some presses are feeling the knock-on effect with difficulty in agreeing budgets with their institutions, and the likelihood of deep cuts to balance budgets. It is encouraging, therefore, that this year's meeting in Salt Lake City has sold out its room allocation and looks set to be an energetic meeting. All the more reason to be taking a look at what can be learned about international strategy from the best of the financially independent sector. All press employees from directors to editors, marketeers and production managers need to be interested in the opportunities afforded them by expanding their international horizons and thinking entrepreneurially.

The good news is that university presses have huge advantages over many other publishers when it comes to finding international opportunities. The Academy is international, highly mobile, and committed to the value of the written word. In a world where intermediaries are being disenfranchised from the supply chain, and publishers are building direct two-way relationships with customers, many university press publishers have multiple opportunities for this kind of relationship building built into the structure of their institutions and wider constituencies.

"International" is a key strategic issue. Publishing iconoclast Mike Shatzkin talks a lot about "verticals" (cf. his recent post about a presentation to Harlequin). University Presses serve classic vertical markets, focused around specific interests. Vertical markets are liberated from the geographical boundaries of territorial markets. I'm hoping therefore that this year's AAUP meeting will feel less insular and be embracing a little of the modern flat earth syndrome. Export is no longer just another task for an over-worked sales or marketing department. It is an integral aspect of the overall strategic mindset that needs to permeate the whole press.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Of Eggs and Ebooks (reprise)

I have been asked several times in the past week why I stopped blogging last year. There's no simple answer, and certainly nothing succinct enough to write here. But the questions - combined with the fact that there is lots going on in the UK book industry at present - suggest that it seems a good time to pick up the reins again.

Tomorrow I fly to Salt Lake City for the 2010
AAUP Annual Meeting where much of the talk will be of ipads, kindles, nooks and other digital reading devices. (As up-to-the-moment as ever the panel I am participating in focuses on maximising export impact for print books). Therefore I thought I should begin to revive this site with a reprise of last year's eggs and e-books post.

You may recall that the Eglu and its feathered occupants arrived shortly after London Book Fair last year. The Eglu has been everything that the marketing blurb promised. Easy to clean and funky. And as predicted it has retained its value despite being used by the ladies every day for over a year for purposes ranging from egg laying to excreting - eating to sleeping. It has been left out in the freezing cold for weeks on end (see pic). Yet if I were to ebay it tomorrow I could set a reserve close to what I paid for it and be sure to sell. The girls might be a little grumpy about losing their home and it would be a poor way to repay them for the over 700 eggs and huge entertainment they have provided.

On the other hand, the Kindle arrived in January this year. It was the focus of much attention from me for a few days, and was then commandeered by the younger generation, who were more comfortable with it, and who loved being able to sit in bed late at night, finish one book, buy the next in the series and start reading it before I'd had a chance to say "lights out". All went well until after about a month - when carrying a pile of exercise books - Hannah slipped dropping the kindle on our tiled kitchen floor. Suddenly I remembered why I like print books so much. They don't provoke panic and inconsolable tears when dropped. The screen of the Kindle has been frozen ever since, and although I understand from Martin Gardner at Amazon in the UK that I could get it sorted out - somehow none of us has mustered the energy.

Meanwhile we've also acquired an iphone and an ipod touch. Since using them the Kindle doesn't seem worth reviving because the black-and-white display and lack of touch screen seem so very analogue in the face of the shiny new-world ipad. Felix - owner of the ipod touch - has discovered the app store. Thank goodness we linked his impossible-run-up-an-overdraft cash card and not my credit card to his itunes account. To cap it all last week, Trevor, my ex-business partner and ex-husband (but very much my present-friend and present-father to E, H & F) acquired not one but two ipads. Which I suspect knocks the final nail into the coffin of our Kindle.

In a recent blogpost Seth Godin proposed the
"Paperback Kindle" as a low-cost mass market information tool as well as commercial e-reader. I suspect Amazon won't give up the e-reader fight easily - but whatever their response - it is going to have to be radical. Even without a broken screen, our Kindle is no longer worth anything like what we paid for it by any measure of value.