Interview with Carl Robinson, Ixxus
Recorded at Frankfurt Book Fair 2016
For podcast release Monday, October 24, 2016
KENNEALLY: Welcome. My name is Chris Kenneally with Copyright Clearance Center and host of a podcast series called Beyond the Book. Welcome to the Publishing Perspectives stage.
Marie Kondo is a professional organizer and international best-selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. With a two-step method for eliminating clutter, Kondo has attracted a global following of cleaning converts. Step one – collect everything you own. Step two – ask yourself, does this spark joy? Whatever prompts an affirmative answer should be neatly folded and left where it’s accessible or visible. All else is to be purged.
Tidying up is good business, and not only for Marie Kondo. The US-based National Association of Professional Organizers has some 4,000 members from more than 20 countries who work mostly in the home to bring order out of chaos in closets, kitchens, and attics.
In publishing as well, tidying up is catching on. Content management solutions and software promise to transport editors and authors to a new plane of existence, a nirvana where content creation and collaboration, distribution and discovery, are made painless. Revenue forecasts for enterprise content management from the Palo Alto-based Radicati Group project that ECM will grow to a nearly $10 billion market in 2018 at an average annual growth rate of 15% from 2014. Publishers everywhere, says Carl Robinson of the UK-based Ixxus, a subsidiary of Copryight Clearance Center, can begin to tidy up their content attics by promoting a positive content management culture. Deadlines and the bottom line don’t really leave us much choice. We can get smart about our content, or we can watch the clutter accumulate.
Carl Robinson has been in publishing since 1995 and has worked for Pearson Education, Macmillan Education, and Oxford University Press before joining Ixxus, where he is a principal consultant. I want to welcome to the Publishing Perspectives stage here at Frankfurt Book Fair, Carl Robinson. Carl?
ROBINSON: Thank you very much, Chris.
KENNEALLY: It’s good to see you. I think the place to start is to learn how you work with publishers and how you engage them in developing a content management culture. So I guess I wonder whether this first meeting with a publisher is rather like that question that Marie Kondo poses.
ROBINSON: It is, yes. I think one of the things that we talk to publishers about is to understand where they’ve got all of their content in the first place. Typically, what we’re finding is content is on a hard drive. It’s in a database. It’s in a spreadsheet. It’s on somebody’s laptop at home. It’s split across two different laptops. All that kind of stuff. So typically what we’re finding is a bit of a mess, and something needs to be done about it. So we need to help them figure out what to do with that content, where to put it, so that it can be found. That’s the key principle.
KENNEALLY: Right. Marie Kondo talks about asking yourself, does this spark joy? I’m not sure that’s the question that you ask publishers, does this spark joy? But first it’s to get the situation in order, know where everything is, and then really ask yourself, how can I use this more effectively?
ROBINSON: Yes, absolutely. Let me tell you a story from my own experience of working for one of the publishers I did, was that we were faced with a situation where in a short window of time, our minister of education totally changed the way education was going to be done in that country and said from September, we’re going to have it all on iPads. We were a print publisher, pretty much. We had dabbled – I think in the previous session just now, somebody said people dabbled in digital as an afterthought. We dabbled in digital as an afterthought. Suddenly we were faced with potentially losing a quarter of a million pounds’ worth of business in that market because we weren’t digitally ready.
Now, if we’d had our content in a tidy place where we could find it, where we could do something with it, we could have reacted much more quickly, we could have been smart about it. That’s what I’m really interested in, is just getting smart, really, about what we do with our content so that it can enable future freedom of action. We were constrained in that situation. We weren’t free to act.
KENNEALLY: Right. So it’s not that we have this black-and-white world of dumb content and smart content. It’s about what we do with it and being smart with it. I want to ask you about how you get to that point about being smart. The first question is, where is it? You mentioned all the variety of sources and silos. But can you say what the next step is? Once we know where things are, where do we move next?
ROBINSON: I think about being smart in about maybe three different ways – maybe two or three different ways. We talk about smart management of content. The first thing is once we’ve got it all into one place, what does that give us, really? I think it’s important to just reflect on that for a moment. Some of the things I’ve seen in my experience at Ixxus and as a publisher myself is that it’s sometimes easier for a publisher to buy, say, photographs again than find the ones they already have. It’s quicker for them to repurchase content. How mad is that?
KENNEALLY: It’s crazy. And the thing is that this effort, this discovery effort – we hear about it on this floor. Particularly here at Frankfurt Book Fair, it’s so important for the sale of the work. But discovery internally is equally important, and there’s a lot of lost content and lost resources involved.
ROBINSON: Definitely. Lost content is one thing. Again, my background is in educational, ELT publishing, and I don’t know how many times we commissioned artwork for table or chair or bottle – millions of pieces of artwork that we just didn’t know we had. That’s one thing.
But then let’s say I know I’ve got it somewhere, but I can’t find it. A couple of years ago, the International Data Corporation did a study on lost time, lost effort in searching for unindexed content. The maths go something like this. You take an average salary and then work out what the hourly rate would be, and then the assumption is 2.5 hours per week searching for content, and 50% of that content you’re searching for is not indexed. It’s not in a place you can find it. Then you scale that back up to work out what that costs you across 1,000 employees you might have. So if you imagine a €50,000 salary as an average salary, 1,000 employees, that can cost a business €1.5 million per annum in wasted time.
Now, you could dispute the figures, but the principle is there. People lose time because they can’t find stuff. So let’s enable them to find stuff. Let’s enable them, then, to do something interesting with it. Let’s enable them to put things together, create relationships.
That’s about the management of the content – where is it? What can I do with it? What rights do I have with it? ELT, my background, was plagued with rights issues, because if you wanted to clear a photograph or a piece of content from The Guardian for use across the globe, sadly getting rights to use it in North America cost a fortune. So you needed to be very careful that you didn’t use that content in North America. In other places, it’s not just about the rights. It might be about the content. Certain markets have got specifics about what kind of content you can show on a page. So we need to be very careful about that.
Imagine if you had that content in front of you with all of that information surfaced around it. I can find it. I can see where I can use it. I can see what I’m allowed to do with it. And then I can do something with it. And I’m not repurchasing. I can create newness.
Michal Bhaskar was on stage just now, and he quotes somebody in there. He said creation isn’t necessarily creating new content, but it might be creating newness from what you’ve got. Enabling publishers to create newness from what they’ve got, that’s got to be a good thing.
KENNEALLY: And we’ve lived with the situation status quo ante for so long, it may be difficult to move people in the right direction. But as I was saying in the introduction, we’re not left with much choice anymore. It’s not just the proliferation of content, but it’s the proliferation of devices that’s really changing things.
ROBINSON: Absolutely. I think what you’re touching on there is the fact that consumption of content is very different. So one of the things – I wrote a white paper for Ixxus a while back and rather prosaically called it Thinking Outside the Books. One of the things that bugs me is that publishing is still trying to be digital, but quite often trying to be digital in a book mindset. They commission content thinking about how it’s going to look on a page and how it’s going to be laid out, and that constrains that content reuse later on.
Now, our consumers – the students or people out there are consuming content in small chunks, and they want to choose what pathway they take through that content. We’re not in a position to enable that. So what I’m trying to say quite often is let’s get smart about how we think about when we’re commissioning our content, how we think about how it’s going to be used. Let’s get format-agnostic about it as much as possible. And let’s add value to that content by adding that special knowledge that a particular publisher can bring about how to use it and maybe directing people through it a little bit, but not constraining the way they want to do it. How do you do that? Let’s break that content up a bit. I think the horrible word is granularize it. But let’s granularize our content so that they can connect these two different pieces themselves. We give people choice.
KENNEALLY: Right. So organize and then granularize is a good way to see the progress of all of this. What’s the challenge to the businesses? Again, getting people to have a conversation around all of this is probably not as easy as it would seem.
ROBINSON: Sometimes it is, Chris. I think the great thing about being a consultant is you can go in and you can just reflect back, and there’s no politics going on. So it’s a good thing sometimes to be able to go in and do that. But the challenge, I think, is the mindset. There is a mindset within organizations about – I like to term it let’s get people into a content management mindset or a content mindset.
Typical publisher story – a couple of years back, I was working with an educational publisher, and we found and exposed to them and reflected back to them that what they were doing with their content was they were doing a bit of work on it, and then they’d send it via FTP – unsecured, by the way – via FTP or via e-mail and so on out to a freelancer, and it would basically be out of sight for them. They couldn’t see it anymore. They didn’t know what was going on with it. They didn’t know whether they were losing sight, losing control of it. Had no transparency about what was going on. Then it would come back, and they’d see the work that had been done, and it wouldn’t necessarily be what they want.
So what’s going on there? I think for a publisher, content is a massive IP – that’s what they produce, that’s what they sell, that’s where they make their money – and to send it outside the building, as it were, and lose control over it for a while, that’s a pretty risky thing to do. So what content management thinking does is let’s bring people in. Let’s invite them into our space, where they can work on our content and we get sight of what’s going on.
We worked with a publisher a few years ago – we created a great proofing tool. They could do proofing. They could almost see it live – actually synchronous proofing on the screen. But that wasn’t their big driver. What they were saving there was FedEx costs sending it out to freelancers, FedEx costs coming back in, the risk of loss, all of that kind of stuff. But their biggest driver was transparency. I can see what’s happening with our content, the valuable asset that I own, and I’m instilling control of it. I haven’t lost control of it. That’s being smart, I think, about content in that way.
KENNEALLY: Right. The Ixxus publishing platform has a variety of components to it, and it’s all about this general proposition of getting smart, so organizing, granularizing. I think another key word for you is enrichment. You want to enrich the information that they have. We hear a lot about metadata. People sort of acknowledge this is important. But have people really latched on to it in the way that you feel they should? Can you tell us a story about the way that enriching the content, providing that kind of data about data, is really going to transform the business?
ROBINSON: That’s really interesting. My experience with publishers has been quite mixed. Some people don’t really believe in the power of metadata. Some of them really latch on to it. I’m obviously in the camp where I think metadata is important. What we mean by that is you take a piece of content and decorate it with all this information. Every photograph that you take, if you upload it into certain systems, it can extract data about what camera was used, what f-stop was used. But the importance of that is once I’ve got all of that metadata, all that information, then I can look into my content through the prism of that metadata.
Take my example of photographs. I have 1,000 photographs of a table. Let’s say I extract the metadata from that, and I know what f-stop was used, what camera was used, what date it was used, what geolocation it was in. Let’s say I’ve also added, when I uploaded the content into a system, different information about – it’s a table outside, it’s a table that’s brown walnut, whatever. Because I’ve enriched that content, then one of the things you can do is find stuff you don’t know you’re looking for. I think this is the key thing. How often do we go on Google – the thing about Google is it helps you find stuff you don’t know you’re looking for. That’s what we’re trying to emulate with content management.
But sometimes we go in and search machines – if you think about a network drive where you’ve got a bunch of folders, a normal Windows drive with a bunch of folders that are named by someone else – let’s say I took over your job and I inherit your folders. I have no idea how you’ve organized those folders. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I don’t know what I’m going to find. But let’s say that content was organized differently, and I say, well, tell me everything, show me everything, that Chris did at Frankfurt Book Fair in 2016 that’s a photograph that is on a stage. Because that metadata has decorated it, I can have that stuff surface to me. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but I can find a whole bunch of things that meet the criteria that I was after, that would meet those criteria, out of thousands and thousands of photographs or texts. That’s the power of metadata, and I think people are beginning to get it.
KENNEALLY: Right. And to the point you made earlier about being able to work internally better and not sending things off into the mysterious void and it comes back to you probably in worse shape than it was when it left –
ROBINSON: You hope not, but –
KENNEALLY: So what you’ve got there is an ecosystem, if I can call it, of content that not only enables people to work better at the publisher, but to work better with all the various players they have.
ROBINSON: Yeah, absolutely. I touched on it earlier on. You’re inviting people into the system. But it enables so much things. It speeds things up. One of the key things we try to do at Ixxus is we have a number of mantras that we tell ourselves, but they’re absolutely true. What we’re trying to do is get quicker time to market. That’s a big thing, particularly in educational publishing, which is very seasonal. My own experience of working with publishing deadlines like that is we barely made it most of the time. We got it out just in time or just enough in time.
KENNEALLY: That’s the story of publishing.
ROBINSON: Yeah, absolutely. So how can Ixxus serve people, serve publishers better? This is the key thing. If we can help you do things quicker, faster, better, then you’re going to get quicker time to market, therefore quicker revenue. And hopefully, as I mentioned earlier on, if we’re also saving on the cost line, then what you’re seeing is your revenues are going up, hopefully, because quicker time to market. Your cost base is going down. And you’re widening that funnel.
Now, in an increasingly difficult time for publishers, surely a bigger margin has got to be the nirvana that people are going for. I think what we’re generally seeing is flatlining – particularly in education, I think – flatlining revenues and costs potentially creeping up. Again, that digital transformation that people are seeking isn’t happening without the right kind of tool and the right kind of mentality. And what publishers are tending to do is throw heads at it. That’s where the cost base is coming from, and that’s squeezing margin. So it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be a good publisher in a digital age.
KENNEALLY: To put it on a bumper sticker, you’re talking about not throwing people at this problem, but really throwing metadata at this problem.
ROBINSON: Yeah, you could be. I think there are three things involved. There’s people, process, and technology. We need to change the way we think about our content, and I would say change the way think about how we commission content. Change the way about how we manage content and what we can do with it. Be creative about the reuse possibilities. We need smart management tools around content.
There’s a great thing that I’ve only just recently started to understand about graphing databases. This comes down to your metadata thing. So that whole thing about connecting bits of content to relationships between them so that you can show me stuff I didn’t even know I had. That’s getting smart about it. So we need to be clever about that.
And then I think ultimately we might need to be changing roles. Things need to change in terms of the way that we operate as people, as individuals inside a publishing company. We’re not print publishers anymore. We can’t be. At least I don’t think so.
KENNEALLY: You just mentioned the roles are changing. Within that notion of a content management culture, it needs to be agile. It needs to be adaptive. It’s not just the content that needs to be agile. It’s not just the approach to which devices and where we’re going to put the content in print form or digital form. It’s the people themselves. But they can only be as agile as those processes and as the approach is.
ROBINSON: Yeah, I would agree with that. We do it as a kind of infinity loop, really. You’ve got an agile organization and agile content. Which one do you start with? Well, I would argue you’d probably start by getting your organization agile. Get thinking differently. Change the mindset. Change the way you want to operate. Change the way you want to commission. Then do something smart and agile with your content. Let’s get it granularized. Let’s store it differently. Let’s enrich it. And then let’s enable collaboration and discovery on it. Collaboration’s a big thing. If we can enable working together globally, which we can these days, then let’s do it. Let’s leverage the power of that workforce that’s global, but also at the same time take away some of the nonsense.
How many publishers – if I look at the audience, I’m going to see some nods, I’m sure – but publishing managed by spreadsheet, rights information managed on a spreadsheet. That means you’ve got people filling spreadsheets with ISBN numbers to attach the rights to it disconnected from content. That’s just a waste of time. Those people were hired because they’re brilliant at what they do, and we’re making them into, at best, overqualified project managers. Let’s free them up by creating this tool set that allows them to do what they’re really, really good at.
KENNEALLY: Last point, because it came up briefly, and I want to get back to it – it’s worth underscoring – is that this content management culture and approach to content is critical for all the reasons you mentioned – the use of resources, the success with putting it into markets, and so forth. But really, security matters here, as well. Tell us why.
ROBINSON: I’m working with a publisher at the moment, and there’s a massive issue with security for them. They’re an assessment provider. So we’re trying to solve some quite key issues there. But in the past, I was working with a publisher a while back. I mentioned earlier on about sending content out and going into a black hole. That was about traceability. But they also were sending content out via an unsecured FTP drive. That was one thing they did.
The worst thing about that – A) it was unsecured. B) when I logged in, as I was investigating what was going on inside this company, I noticed that I could see every piece of content that was on that FTP drive, which means that if I were an unscrupulous freelancer, I could probably devise what the publishing plan was for the next year based upon what content was going to and fro, because I could see it happening. That’s a security hole. That’s a massive security hole.
KENNEALLY: So it’s not just about that single piece of content that they thought they were sending to the freelancer. It’s about their –
ROBINSON: Visibility of the plan.
KENNEALLY: Their entire asset, yeah.
ROBINSON: That’s a pretty big risk for a company. But I think securing assets, so using good final content stores that are heavily secured. You have logins, all of that kind of stuff. It’s all fairly basic, but the biggest thing is changing the mindset. I used to work on paper proofs with the green, the red, and the blue pen. And I used to pack it up and send it out. Things got lost. That meant something I was working on that was a valuable asset to the company that was due to bring in money could have been stolen, could have been taken off and reprinted somewhere else. Why are we replicating that behavior when we don’t need to? That’s what I’m saying. If you’ve got the tools that can help safeguard the assets, let’s use them.
KENNEALLY: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? As a final point, as we’ve made this fairly long transition from print to digital, one of the things we’ve brought along are some of the bad habits as well as the good habits. You’re looking at an opportunity to change things, to improve things.
ROBINSON: Absolutely. I was talking to someone just before this meeting, in fact. I wanted to kiss his hand, frankly, because he was saying exactly the right thing. He said, what I don’t want to do is just take what we currently do now and mildly automate it, because that’s not the big lever that’s going to change the way that we operate. That’s just going to give me a little incremental value and a little bit of saved time. That’s a great place to start from. Not very many publishers that I’ve worked with so far start from that position. But that’s where I’d urge them to be.
If they can change the way they think about things so that they’re pulling the big levers and creating new ways of working with their content, smart ways of working with their content, then they’re going to get transformation. Not incremental change, they’re going to get transformation. That’s a massive thing.
Once you’ve got transformation as a publisher and you’re freeing up people to do their jobs properly by taking away all of the noise, then again, to kind of touch on Michael Bhaskar, who’s speaking a little later on this stage – he’s written a great book called Curation. I’m really into this idea that then publishers can become what they really are these days, which is they offer curation. They have all this content that they can curate it, they can tell the story, they can pick the right content at the right time for the right people. That’s the value that publishers can add if we free them up from all of this other stuff. So publishers, I think, are curators now more than they are creators.
KENNEALLY: Thank you, Carl Robinson, for helping us get smart about content. Carl Robinson is a principal consultant with Ixxus. My name’s Chris Kenneally. Thank you very much for joining us.
ROBINSON: Thank you.