By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘More Frustrations Down the Line’During London Book Fair this spring, a white paper presented by Copyright Clearance Center looked at the opinions of publishing-company executives from the STM, education, and trade sectors about the progress of digital publishing. The paper is based on the responses of 25 people to a survey commissioned from Imbue Partners by Ixxus, a CCC subsidiary.
CCC’s business development director Christopher Kenneally led a panel discussion in London’s Insights Seminars series on the topic with Max Gabriel of Taylor and Francis; Valentina Kalk of Brookings Institution Press; and David Worlock of Outsell.
Kenneally points out to Publishing Perspectives that, by 2020, tech research firm Gartner estimates that “three out of four businesses will be digital or have digital business transformations under way.”
But only 30 percent of those companies, Gartner’s research suggests, will be successful. “And that,” Kenneally says, “can be costly.”
The survey commissioned by CCC’s Ixxus asked its 25 respondents, how far it appears to them we are down the digital road. As Kenneally phrases the gist of more of the questions, “Is this a race? Who’s ahead? Will the journey ever end?”
And in terms of what came back from the executives asked, Kenneally says, “The phrase ‘digital transformation’ in the publishing industry is both aspirational and nebulous.”
‘The Crux of the Problem’
As part of CCC’s “Beyond the Book” series, he’s posted an audio podcast edition of the discussion in London, and he talks of one key effect of digital on the industry being a shift “from a product-centric business focus to one that puts the relationship with the customer first.”
Taylor & Francis’ chief technology officer Max Gabriel’s background includes positions with Pearson India and Africa, Pfizer, Morgan Stanley, and Diageo. He tells Kenneally during the discussion, “Whether during my time at financial services or pharmaceutical or consumer goods, [I learned that] truly understanding what is the problem you want to solve for the customer, lies at the core.
“I know that sounds blindingly obvious, but it’s extremely hard for a publisher to do,” Gabriel says. “[Publishers] are in the business of telling [customers] what makes a good title, what belongs in the right journal. We decide what the right content is, what the quality threshold is.
“The more we start paying attention to what the authors’ needs are,” Gabriel says, “what the researchers’ needs are—and at the end of the cycle, what the readers and users want—that’s really [arriving at] the crux of the problem.”
‘Our Core Roles’
For an example of this, Kenneally asks Outsell co-chair David Worlock about the trend in readers’ desire to purchase only part of a book rather than the entire volume.
“Exactly so,” Worlock says. “They may be telling you, ‘I want to pay by the drink rather than by the bottle.’ And they may be telling you something else as well.”
Having given the opening address on publishing strategies in 2017 at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum last month, Worlock’s experience of the digital dynamic dates back at least as far as 1985, when he founded Electronic Publishing Services Ltd. (EPS), a research and consultancy company in the digital content industry.
Today, Worlock tells Kenneally, the challenge is to respond as a partner or collaborator.
“How do we get people to find the things which are really important and distinguish them from the fuzz and the buzz of the marketplace?”David Worlock
“The role of the publisher changes,” Worlock says, “to being the person who adds the discoverability, or the access, or all sorts of other things. Always we have to be prepared in this evolutionary process [of digital transformation] to give up what we think are our core roles in order to take on the roles which people actually require in their workflow.”
Kenneally points out to Publishing Perspectives that one of Worlock’s best phrases about the developing role of publishers is solutioning. Publishers, he says, are in the solutioning business.
“I hate the expression ‘solutioning,’” the UK’s Worlock says in the discussion, “which your fellow [American] countrymen have invented as a burden for us, but yes, I think it exactly describes the thing.
“In a network, you have to have a great deal of collaboration to produce solutions for end users. And this is a different style of working, and it may take a lot of time [to become accustomed to]. How do we summarize something? How do we map it? How do we get people to find the things which are really important and distinguish them from the fuzz and the buzz of the marketplace?”
‘The Content Description Business’
Kenneally brings forward an intriguing element of the white paper’s survey of publishing executives: they say that they see publishers today to be less in the content creation business than in the content description business, a way of describing a new importance in metadata.
“At the Brookings Institution Press,” he says, “text remains prominent, regardless of how deep into the digital woods the organization advances.”
And according to Valentina Kalk, director of the Brookings Institute Press, gaining control over one’s own metadata can be elusive.
“The moment there’s a new business partner or new requirements from, say, a big wholesaler,” Kalk says, “you have to change the way you distribute metadata. When you change distributors–which has happened only once, and I hope it doesn’t happen again because it’s very tough work to change distributors–you also have to change the way you create metadata.
“Where I wish I could find better solutions,” Kalk says, “is how to integrate the content of the press with the content of the rest of the institution in order to have a powerhouse of metadata that works well for the whole institution and not only for its books and journals.”
‘A Participatory Game’
Even before such a logical and worthy challenge is handled, though, Worlock’s position is that technological and market changes may keep moving faster than our ability to find all the solutions we’d like.
“We’re going to have more and more frustrations down the line until our attitudes alter [and come] closer to the attitudes we’ve heard here and we begin to say that we’re in a participatory game.
“This is not ‘them versus us,'” he says. “We’re in a continuum. And the only way we can get sensible evolution is if we evolve together at the same rate to solve the right problems’