knk recently interviewed Graham Bell, the Executive Director of EDItEUR as part of knk’s continuing series of interviews with thought leaders serving the book publishing industry and its supporting communities. Mr. Bell has worked in the book industry for over 30 years and is a specialist in metadata and identifiers for the book and e-book publishing sector.
EDItEUR, as many will know, is a trade organization somewhat like BIC and BISG, but unlike the latter, they are truly international in scope with over 110 member companies in 25 countries. They create and support metadata standards and are technical in focus. EDItEUR enjoys a symbiotic relationship with BIC and BISG – both BIC and BISG promote EDItEUR’s standards to their members, and EDItEUR focuses on technology backup to the others. As relatively small companies, they all work closely together and have similar working harmonies with CLIL in France, MVB in Germany and JPO in Japan, to spread the word to the GLOBAL market. And like all the other organizations in this niche, membership is a critical necessity, as it’s the members that finance operations, and propagate those standards to the rest of the global publishing community.
knk asked Mr. Bell what he views as the book industry’s biggest challenges: In the big picture, Graham says the biggest challenge has always been selecting the right books to publish. In terms of new challenges, Number 1 in Graham’s book is that more and more commerce is online – meaning both eBooks and online book selling. And as more and more book selling moves online, Mr. Bell believes that it is in the industry’s best interests for publishers to find a way to ensure that High Street booksellers and independent bookstores remain viable, especially today. Without them, a book becomes this remote object that you don’t see until you’ve bought it, which deprives us of the joy of walking into a bookstore and browsing the shelves. It’s a great pleasure for most of us.
The second biggest challenge, Mr. Bell claims is ignoring Open Access. OA is obviously bigger in scholarly publishing, and arguably bigger in Europe than North America. Open Access can be good for publishers because it takes a lot of the risk out of the business – they get paid up front for doing the publishing job, provided that they set their processing charges realistically and that the research organizations that pay, are prepared to pay for the publication without compromising publishing standards. The publisher’s brand adds a lot to this process, (think Springer Nature), and if traditional publishers aren’t alert, they may find themselves disrupted and disintermediated if they continue to ignore Open Access.
Comparing Open Access and Plan S, Mr. Bell says they are essentially the same. Open Access is an umbrella term with a vague definition. Most forms of Open Access aim to ensure that resources are freely available at the point of consumption. In this context, “freely available” is more about publishing rights and copyright, than it is about income – it’s about being available for reuse and redistribution. Plan S on the other hand, is about making sure those kinds of principles become more widespread – in scholarly and journal publishing.
The third challenge that Graham believes is critical is accessibility. This is a morality issue, as well as a political and legal issue. He sees constant pressure on publishers to make their books accessible to as wide a range of readers as possible. It’s going to get even tougher. Visual and physical impairments, cognitive issues, and other accessibility concerns that haven’t even been discussed yet, are a struggle for many publishers. Mr. Bell observes that there is broad and increasing range of regulation in the EU that mandates high levels of accessibility for education books for all students for example, and publishers continue to wrestle with them. EDItEUR has and continues to be a big supporter of these efforts, especially given the EU deadline to make ALL published products fully accessible by 2025.
On the subject of opportunities that may present themselves to publishers, Mr. Bell was more circumspect. It’s difficult to see what will emerge, he says. Eight years ago, who would have predicted the surge in audio, for example? For many publishers, one clear opportunity is in selling their books globally (as long as they have the rights of course). Publishers can get much better at exploiting rights that they hold. This is just one manifestation of the bigger problem – managing rights much more carefully than is typical. If that happened, publishers would be in a much better position to exploit those rights, he claims. For whatever reason, publishers lost sight of the value of rights (and permissions). Like other thought leaders we have spoken with, he believes there’s real opportunity there. OK, it’s difficult to organize and systematize all that rights data (especially when it’s stored in boxes in the basement), but rights are assets that can be sold profitably. Many don’t treat it that way. The reasons vary a great deal, just like the contracts they’re based on. Agents are often incented to make contracts unique, and “systemizing” it all has been difficult in the past. The technology vendors are catching up he says, and there is great optimism for example, in using AI and machine learning to extract terms from a contract, even if that contract is unique and customized.
So what else can technology vendors like knk do? Metadata is inevitably brought up here. It seems like we’ve all been talking about better metadata for many years but we’re still not there yet. The big houses have become quite committed, but at many smaller publishers, it’s often a case of giving metadata to the junior person in the office. It could be better integrated into their processes but it’s not. It’s perceived as being dull, it’s plumbing, behind the scenes and not at all glamorous. After all, who didn’t get into publishing wanting to be a commissioning editor on children’s books? Mr. Bell can point to examples of publishers who got religion about metadata that resulted in a dramatic improvement in results – it can be done and is worth doing he says. When we suggested that publishers don’t take on risk well, he disagreed. The real problem, he believes, is that they don’t embrace the necessary investment required in IT. He observes that IT systems typically have a long life in publishing, much more so than other industries. Why ? Because at many publishers, there are frequently systems that are not integrated at all, and so the publisher’s ability to spend on an improved new systems is impaired, partly because of the lack of integration, and partly because customization has been the norm in the past, and so they are much more difficult to replace. It’s almost like it’s culturally unacceptable in publishing to spend more on IT. They had believed that their competitive advantage was in their unique processes – not so says Mr. Bell, it is and always was, in their ability to select the right books for publication.
Graham Bell is Executive Director of EDItEUR, responsible for the overall development of EDItEUR’s standards and services. Graham joined EDItEUR in 2010 after a career in the publishing world , most recently as Head of Publishing Systems at Harper Collins UK. Graham brings real-world publishing expertise to his work, including over a decade of experience with ONIX, with in-depth experience and knowledge of editorial, bibliographic and asset management systems in print and digital publishing.
knk Software (https://www.knkpublishingsoftware.com/) is a global software solutions provider focused solely on the publishing and media industry with over 450 customers on three continents.
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