Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Let out of the Supply Chain Silo

After a few weeks confined to the Plymouth barracks (aside from a flying trip to BEA), I was finally out and about again this week. Peter Kilborn of Book Industry Communication (the UK equivalent of BISG) had asked me some time back if I would present at this year's BIC New Trends 2011 Summer Seminar, which took place on Tuesday afternoon at RIBA in London. Originally he asked for "something on the future of book distribution" to which a now ex-friend of mine remarked pithily "well that's going to be a short presentation, then". Fortunately my theme was later modulated to Book Distribution in a Changing World. Just as daunting, but a little less implied doom.

My presentation was on the long side - far too long for a blogpost - so I plan to break it into chunks for posting here next week. But before that I've come away from the seminar itself with some immediate thoughts to share. Some positive, and some scary.

On the positive side, I noted that four out of six presentations were given by women (Sarah Hilderly of EDItEUR, Ruth Jones of Ingram and Gabrielle Wallington of Waterstone's were the other three). When I first started attending BIC events ten years ago, then on behalf of the IPG, that ratio of women speakers on supply chain issues would just not have happened. I think it is indicative of the way in which supply chain issues  increasingly interface with new technology and product development that the balance is shifting, and I take that as a positive sign because it suggests that the group is broadening its expertise-base (not just because of a vested interest in shifting the gender balance for the sake of it). In the meantime 14 out of 47 attendees were female - so there is still some way to go on that score.

On the scary side I found myself deeply depressed that almost all of the attendees were either from organisations like Nielsen, or were the designated "supply chain" specialists from the large corporate publishers and distributors. Good that they were in attendance. But bad, and worrying, that the work of BIC seems invisible or uninteresting to medium sized publishers - who in many ways are the constituency with the most to lose by not being informed about the way in which data standards and systems are changing the ways customers find and access books (print and e). It was as if the occupants of the supply chain silo had been sent out on an afternoon trip all on their own.

My presentation - of which more next week - looked at how publishers have outsourced their customer relationships and whilst that scores high on convenience - and indeed keeps people like me in jobs - it leaves them badly prepared for an economy in which direct consumer interactions and quasi-social commercial interactions are a growing trend. Data and standards underpin the modern physical and digital supply chains, and I am worried that the majority of medium-sized publishers are not engaged with the work of BIC and are therefore not sufficiently aware of the power and implications of data and work-flow standards.

Gabrielle Wallington of Waterstone's (on the day the bookseller formally left the HMV Group and passed into new ownership - so  Gabrielle would be forgiven for having had other things on her mind) presented a pithy insight into price and availability codes. I can hear you yawning already. But as Gabrielle pointed out - there are no industry standards for the application of P&A codes - and that lack of standardisation leads to lots of confusion and ultimately confusion results in poor customer services. During a recession, and at a time when books have so much competition from other leisure and media choices, anything that results in poor customer service depresses sales and must be challenged.

Ruth Jones, Director of Ingram Publisher Services (formerly head of product development at the British Library), gave a disingenuously self-deprecating but most insightful and amusing commentary on the challenges of standardising digital workflows. Do I hear double yawning out there in the ether? If so, shame on you. Because effective, standardised digital workflows will (as Ruth said) help us out of the muddly quagmire that's currently impeding all of our progress. My key take-away from Ruth - and she will have to forgive me if I paraphrase incorrectly - was her quoting Faber's Stephen Page saying (during an airport lounge conversation when they were both delayed en route to a conference) "the metadata conversation is the new cover meeting". Which reminded me strongly of a phrase I overheard at last year's AAUP meeting: "Metadata is Marketing".

And that's why we should all care deeply about the work of BIC and BISG and take every opportunity to participate in it.

Post scripts:
1. BIC's Price and Availability Working Group holds its next meeting next week. Anyone interested in participating in this or any of the other work done by BIC can contact Peter Kilborn:
2. RIBA's HQ on Portland Place is in such an elegant and stylish building. Every time I enter its doors I wish publishing had its own equivalent.