Wednesday, 18 January 2012

On Change (via Dr Seuss & W H Auden)

In June 2011 I was privileged to be invited to give the Keynote at Book Industry Communication’s New Trends summer seminar. Peter Kilborn challenged me to talk about Book Distribution in a Changing World. I was delighted that Peter included the word “changing”, because endemic change is what makes the supply chain a fascinating place to work. Peter later told me that he had been expecting a “distributor-type polemic against change”. But that was not what I gave. I did promise to post the presentation here on my blog – but for various reasons including the fact that it is significantly too long to work online – I didn’t. It’s been suggested to me that I might do this in slices. Like a publisher I need to learn to slice and dice my content. So here goes: Slice One.

To understand and adapt to change we must ask ourselves many questions – but remember – as Dr Seuss famously said “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple”. 

I should disclose that my professional life is currently engaged almost entirely with physical books and managing what is required to get them into the hands of the people who need & want them. You, Dear Reader, may well be far more engaged with the realities of new technology and digital delivery - but our commonality is likely to be the primacy of data. Product data is the engine of the business I manage, sales data is its lifeblood, and market data is something I spend a lot of time analysing for trends that indicate transformational change. It might also help if I pause and wind back for a moment to these words from one of my favourite poets, W H Auden in his poem Atlantis, which pretty much sum up how I felt on landing up in the book industry supply chain seven years ago.
Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,
As gales of abnormal force
Are predicted, and that you
Must therefore be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.
I was very much a novice in a world dominated by enormous spaces, pallets, trucks, racking, process, standards and data (confession: I am one of the world’s least process-driven people). But looking in from an outsider perspective can make it much easier to identify change, and its impacts. So whilst I can occasionally pass for “one of the boys”, can hold my liquor and now know more about racking, fork lifts, carriers and pallets than I ever hoped I would – I have deliberately preserved my outsider way of looking at things, because it helps me to understand and manage change. As a result I have five key observations to make about change as it pertains to the book industry – and I’ll share the first two today

Observation 1: Change isn't new
Many people dislike change in their personal lives and in their professional lives. But the book industry has been changing ever since a scribe put quill to parchment (or stylus to tablet). The way in which the written word and ideas are packaged up has moved through scrolls to codex, mass manufacture of manuscripts, to print with movable type, cold type and hot type, There’s been artwork and paste-up, which is roughly the point on the time line where I entered the industry. I’m a dab hand with typeset text; a grid, scalpel and spray mount and I can even strip corrections into 4-colour separated film. Oh – and by the way – those are skills that are entirely redundant in the days of straight to plate technology. 
Change is very definitely not new.

Observation 2: Change isn’t always obvious
Whilst change isn’t new, it can sometimes be invisible. Publishers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the changes that have taken place in how the books they publish get into the hands of readers. This is because the customer interface is largely seen as a back office or an outsourced task. Publishers like to think in terms of the “channels” that books are sold through – chain, wholesale, independent, library supply (if you are lucky). Only highly specialist publishers of very high-priced product think in terms of the individual customer.

The company I work for asks our client publishers to allow our customer-facing staff to attend their sales conferences – to improve product knowledge and build relationships. In the over 23 years I have been working with publishers in one way or another I have never once known a publisher ask to send any of their editorial or marketing staff to a customer service centre – to work on the phones, listening to customers and learning to understand the processes involved in getting books into customers’ hands. (If publishing office staff did so, they’d understand a whole lot more about the primacy of good bibliographic data.) In fact there seems to be a communal blindness to the enormous educative power of consumer interactions. (And I suggest you read HG Wells’ The Valley of the Blind for some insights on where communal blindness can lead.)

The fact that change can be invisible is how a whole revolution can have taken place in the supply chain without publishers noticing. For example, I am astonished to still be asked by some specialist non-trade publishers, “Who are the Book Depository?” (Note: I am not at all anti-Book Depository. They are a brilliant company – but their just-in-time-zero-stock-holding business model beautifully illustrates the way in which rapid data exchange, EDI and rising customer expectations have transformed the operations and fundamental premise of book distribution.)

So remember change is not new - and it is not always obvious - but that doesn't mean it's not important. Stand by for observations 3, 4 and possibly even 5 tomorrow.

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