As part of knk’s continuing series of interviews with thought leaders serving the book publishing industry and its supporting communities, we recently interviewed Brian O’Leary, Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group (https://bisg.org/). BISG’s mission is to create a more informed, empowered and efficient book industry, and to be the primary resource for solving problems that affect more than a single link in the book industry supply chain.
O’Leary observed that publishing today faces several challenges, including platform dominance and the potential impact of direct-to-consumer distribution models. Talking mainly about trade publishing in this context, O’Leary noted the ongoing consolidation across publishers, wholesalers and distributors, and retailing. The ecosystem has evolved to include a few large actors, and that has changed the landscape in which standards are established and updated.
Asked what can be done in an era of platform dominance, O’Leary discussed BISG’s work with standards, which deliver transparency and reduce friction across the supply chain, and cited their work with ONIX 3.0 as a good example. The ONIX standard has been variously implemented with retailers customizing its delivery to their own requirements. That practice increases costs and reduces flexibility for publishers of all sizes. So although the variety of existing requirements presents ongoing challenges, BISG is working to standardize implementation of ONIX 3.0 in the U.S. market. More on that later.
O’Leary sees other challenges, as well. Most trade publishers work with a traditional trade (business-to-business) model, while the growth of online access supports more direct-to-consumer sales. eBooks represent only a share of total sales, but they have taken away from the print volume that wholesalers, distributors, and bricks-and-mortar retailers depend upon.
The industry has struggled to change the traditional model to address these trends, but modifications have been made mostly only at the margins, mostly to improve efficiencies of existing processes. As a result, the supply chain has been increasingly challenged. Built for print, it has only partly adapted for other formats and channels, and this makes working with the industry to develop a “supply chain 2.0” a BISG priority. With generally flat trade sales and double-digit declines in higher education and K-12, the industry needs a supply chain that will help it grow revenues. BISG’s supply chain committee is working hard this year to create the maps the industry will need to understand both the challenges and opportunities.
In other book industry segments, things may appear more stable but looking only at sales, masks broad challenges for the future. Scholarly and STM publishing are trying to understand the impact of open access, and BISG is part of a project to better understand its usage. Many traditional outlets for scholarly retail have been lost and discovery has moved essentially online. At the same time, funding pressures from universities and the impact of open access have led some scholarly publishers to produce more trade-like books, ultimately competing in a world different from the one they know best.
Significant unrealized opportunities are available to publishers, O’Leary says. Growing the pie for rights offers one good example. There’s an upside in making rights more globally accessible, with clearer identification of rights holders, thus supporting rights transactions that otherwise would get lost. BISG is engaged – they published a rights white paper in mid-2017, and in September 2019 the rights committee introduced an updated rights taxonomy. The committee is also looking at the potential downside of rights that are not well-managed. O’Leary quoted Mark Bide, past executive director of the standards organization EDItEUR, who observed, “Rights you understand are an asset, rights that you don’t are a liability”.
Another opportunity for publishers is two-way communications across the supply chain. O’Leary sees benefits in moving away from the EDI model and flat-file feeds for things like metadata, supply chain transactions and sales reporting. Mr. O’Leary believes that the industry can benefit from two-way data exchanges, particularly as the codes lists supported in ONIX 3 are implemented. Amazon’s announcement that it would soon require metadata for print formats to be supplied using ONIX 3.0 gained significant attention, and BISG is working closely with the balance of the supply chain to make sure it will be ready by the end of August 2020. Other promising opportunities include improvements in supply chain sustainability. O’Leary talked about the value of managing returns, which can impact both the industry and the environment.
We asked O’Leary what technology vendors can do to help. He believes publishing-specific software vendors represent technology with standards, supporting and enhancing the BISG mission. Industry partners are supporting workflow initiatives, and potential application of blockchain for rights management. The BISG workflow and supply chain committees will each publish a “tools and resources” guide and glossary in 2020 – foundational documents that may become a clearing house for helping publishers evaluate the different publishing-specific supply chain software.
Brian O’Leary earned his undergraduate and MBA degrees from Harvard. His 37-year career in publishing started with several roles in weekly magazine production at Time Inc. Admitting that “not many people do that”, O’Leary explained that he saw production as a way to find out how the industry functions. He believes that working for a weekly magazine gave him the chance to experiment, to figure out workflows, and better understand the whole supply chain. He worked at reference publisher Hammond Inc. before becoming a consultant and joined BISG in 2016. There, O’Leary can be reached at 646-336-7141, and at email@example.com.
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