Interview with Brian O’Leary, Book Industry Study Group
Angela Bole, CEO Independent Book Publishers Association
For podcast release Monday, January 30, 2017
KENNEALLY: As the name suggests, the Book Industry Study Group has ambitions to be a safe place for publishing professionals to share information. After 40 years, though, the BISG community is expecting the organization to do much more.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Appointed executive director at BISG in September, Brian O’Leary says the path forward will take the lead from working groups and committees who can shape the conversation, drive industry collaboration, and arrive at practical solutions to problems across the publishing supply chain. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Brian O’Leary.
O’LEARY: Thanks, Chris. It’s always great to talk to you.
KENNEALLY: Well, this is the first time we’ve had a chance to speak with you since you became executive director of BISG. You came in right as the organization was marking its 40th anniversary and at a time when the future is much more important than celebrating the past, and you’ve had a lot of work to do in the several months since you’ve arrived to sort of stake out some ground for that future direction. I want to hear about it from you. And I guess the first place to start is with the members, who are critical to BISG, and I think critical to your vision. So tell us about that.
O’LEARY: Sure. We have about 180 members that are companies from across the supply chain – everybody from publishers and distributors and wholesalers to retailers, printers, industry service providers in a variety of different roles. In fact, one of our overall objectives is actually to maintain and grow that diverse membership, because it’s through them that we’re able to solve problems. We are fundamentally the organization that is built to solve problems that touch one or more parts of the supply chain. That’s both our vision as well as what we do day to day, both in committees and in other ways.
KENNEALLY: The way you see it is that solutions that you’re going to get to are going to be only arrived at by consensus from that group of members. The members themselves are really critical towards driving the conversation, shaping the conversation, but maybe later on getting to the solution. But first they have to be the ones to really ask the questions and have the conversations.
O’LEARY: Agreed. Representatives of member companies have the deep expertise that’s required to solve the kinds of interdisciplinary problems that we face in publishing today. Members of the staff can certainly play a really significant role. Our operations manager, Kim Graff, for example, attends every committee and working group discussion, takes detailed minutes, follows up on things. But in practical terms, neither Kim nor I can be an expert at all of the things that we need to be addressing for the industry, and so we really look to the members both to identify the problems, bring them to our attention, and to have them work through in committees and working groups.
KENNEALLY: Right. So if the members are expecting more from BISG, BISG is expecting more from them, it sounds like.
O’LEARY: A little bit. I think that the real value of a BISG membership – there’s certainly a value in supporting the industry and in getting access to information that helps your company either work more effectively or efficiently. But I think the core thing is that it gives each of our member companies and the staff who participate in our committees and working groups an opportunity to what I call shape the conversation – to change the dynamic of both where publishing is and where it’s headed.
KENNEALLY: So if it’s solutions across the supply chain, there are a couple of things that immediately come up. One of them is the dialogue or the conflict, if you want to put it that way, between the physical and the digital. The emphasis in the past at BISG has been more on the physical side of things, I think it’s fair. Are we moving in a sort of digital direction, or is there a balance you’re looking for? Tell us about that.
O’LEARY: Sure. I think that it’s fair to say that we were relatively late to embracing digital. The standard itself for digital books, EPUB, was created and managed by another organization, IDPF, which is on the verge of merging with the W3C. And we were active in supporting EPUB and doing a variety of other things, but we weren’t as active in embracing the overall supply chain. That’s changed a little bit in the last five years. We, for example, have a really good initiative in the area of accessibility, where EPUB plays a really significant role in making content accessible to a print-disabled audience. But we still have more work yet to do.
The key thing to keep in mind, though, is that it’s not a print or digital, but it’s a print and a digital world. And so we need to be able to solve problems for one that take into account the other. It’s not enough for us to go out and say, well, we’re going to focus on digital, because there’s still quite a few – particularly as the industry changes – quite a few problems in the physical book chain as well.
KENNEALLY: You mentioned the EPUB standard, which – standards are a topic that everyone speaks a lot about, particularly at publishing conferences, and there may almost need to be a standard for all the standards. They’ve proliferated so much. What about the role of standards? Do you have some view on which standards are the most important, which are the ones that BISG is going to be concerned with or maybe thinking about helping to create a new standard?
O’LEARY: Sure. Well, there’s a two-part answer. The standards that are most important for us are the ones that either reduce friction or increase transparency in the supply chain. As an example, the ONIX standard for metadata helps increase transparency, increase visibility of books. Identification standards, like the ISBN-13 – also they reduce friction and they create clarity in terms of sales tracking and reporting.
But I think more specific to your answer, what are we focusing in on right now – number one on the list is ONIX 3.0, which is stalled in its adoption in the United States. It’s not the only market in the world in which adoption of ONIX 3.0 is slower than it might be. But we are the largest market in which it is not fully adopted. So we’re looking really closely at what we can do to make a business case for ONIX 3.0, and that’s going to be one of our first half of 2017 events.
I think the second thing we’re looking at is what happens to digital book standards overall as the W3C and the IDPF merge. They’re going to continue – the W3C will continue – to have custody over the EPUB standard, and we’re not involved in that. But the question becomes how do we, as an organization, help support US publishers in making sure that they’re aware of what’s going on with the standard and communicating to the W3C any concerns and/or interests that they might have as publishers and other members of the supply chain here in the United States.
KENNEALLY: So I wonder whether the stall in certain standards or the ownership of other standards leads to a kind of exhaustion around this whole topic. Do you think that your members and others may be sort of at this point wondering, oh my gosh, what about standards? What more can I do? It seems as if there’s been a lot of discussion. A lot of standards have been created. To your point about things sort of getting stuck, the adoption is the real critical piece of it. I just put it down to fatigue around the topic.
O’LEARY: I think that’s a fair observation. And I think about it a lot – not just in terms of the ONIX 3.0 and EPUB topics that I mentioned a moment ago. But I think specifically with ONIX, like one of the things we’re trying to do is not get it adopted blindly but really to make a business case for why it should be adopted. And if we can’t fully make that argument, I’m willing to put it aside. I don’t know that that’s the best decision, but there a point at which, if you tried A, you tried B, you tried C, you have to put things down and go on. There are plenty of other problems for us to work on. It just happens to be right now I think that that’s big enough and of enough value for the publishing business in the United States that we want to try and push it at least one more time.
KENNEALLY: OK. Well, the publishing business has changed in the 40 years, obviously, since BISG was first organized, and the most significant change apart from digital is what digital brought into the industry. Digital brought into the industry the authors in a way that they hadn’t been before. They were content suppliers, not publishers themselves.
Also, of course, part of that distribution chain now includes the Amazons and the Apples and Google as well. How does that change, where sort of players who don’t think of themselves as being part of the book industry now are having a major role and have a lot to say about what happens in the book business? How will that change BISG? Will you be incorporating authors into membership? Will you be looking to the digital players as well? Just talk about that role that the new players, the outsiders, are going to have for the future.
O’LEARY: Sure. I think there are at least two parts to the answer. The first is with respect to new entrants. There are organizations like the Independent Book Publishers Association, IBPA, which actually help found BISG in 1975. It, along with the ECPA, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, recognized that there was a need for a horizontal trade association, one that looked end to end across the supply chain. And they organized work initially in concert with the Book Manufacturers Institute to help create BISG. So our roots are there. Those organizations are still representative – they’re in our membership, they’re on our board – and they inform what we think about when it comes to things like independent authors and new roles for those independent authors.
But I think more broadly – and this links back to standards – the growth of an independent community that doesn’t understand, for example, the value of identifiers or finds that the cost of identifiers is greater than the value that it provides to them is a risk for the overall supply chain, because it clouds what we’re thinking about. I think you’ve covered in Beyond the Book that kind of topic with respect to what’s going on with the growth of e-books outside of the traditional channels.
KENNEALLY: Well, I think the point you’re making there, and we’ll make it explicit for our listeners, is ISBN. So if you’re speaking about authors, they have a hard time recognizing the value of ISBNs. They’re costly, and they seem to be able to sell their books without worrying about that.
O’LEARY: Agreed. They do. For any given author, I think that that’s an acceptable solution. The challenge becomes if you want to then begin to look at what’s going on in the industry as a whole. You see the debate between Data Guy and the Author Earnings site versus what traditional publishers say are happening with e-books. That debate could be better served – and actually would be much more insightful – if we actually had ISBNs in place for all the books that are being sold.
KENNEALLY: So you’ve got a strategic plan that sets out year one, two, and three for your role here at BISG. What kind of a BISG will we see down the road – a Brian O’Leary BISG or just a BISG that has begun to adjust to the new environment, incorporate new players, and see itself more firmly as a real key player? What are you going to look like – I guess is my question – in 2018, 2019?
O’LEARY: I want BISG in 2019 to be the organization that anyone in publishing comes to first when they have a problem that touches one or more parts of the supply chain. So effectively we want to become a problem solving pipeline. You have a problem, you bring it to us, we figure out a way to get it resolved. And if we can’t, then we know who can. I think that would be the first example.
The second – I’d like to be a lot hipper and faster. We’re not particularly nimble right now. I like the committee structure a lot, but things take time. Some things must take time. But I don’t think all things must take time.
The third is I think our events are going to evolve from what have been kind of a backward-looking collection of here’s what we did this year to a much more forward-looking approach. We have an event in April – The Evolution of Delivery – that I think will really excite people. We’re going to be announcing the speaker list pretty soon. But I think that there’ll be a lot of new examples, things that people haven’t thought of before, in the realm of delivery.
And we’re doing an accessibility supply chain event in June that is not going to be about accessibility, which has been covered by a lot of folks, but really about how do we make content accessible for anyone who wants to obtain it, anyone who’s print-disabled? We have to think beyond just the product itself, but access to the Web and a variety of other media. So those are the kinds of things I think that are going to be really interesting.
KENNEALLY: All right. Well, Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, thanks for joining me on Beyond the Book.
O’LEARY: Thanks. It’s always great to talk to you, Chris.
KENNEALLY: And joining me now on the line Manhattan Beach California is the CEO of the Independent Book Publishers Association Angela Bole. Angela, welcome back to Beyond the Book.
BOLE: Thank you, Chris. It’s nice to be here.
KENNEALLY: We wanted to chat with you because we’ve been chatting with Brian O’Leary, who’s the new executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, and you serve there on the board as well as on the executive committee, but you know BISG from the inside as well, because you served as deputy director from 2009 to 2013, and we thought we’d turn to you, Angela, because your perspective is an important one there at the Independent Book Publishers Association, and I guess I’d like to start with some of your thoughts on this BISG strategic plan that Brian has presented to the board. It’s an important moment in BISG history. It’s the 40th year, but really you’re looking ahead then looking back.
And of the areas that he cites as being of real importance, information, membership, standards and research, I suppose you think they’re all important, but could you pick one that you think really sort of tops the list there?
BOLE: Yeah, sure. And I want to say, I think what Brian is doing with BISG and really helping the board and the membership solidify themselves around a particular strategic vision is a really important one and something we needed as a trade association. So I really like the work he’s doing in bringing us back to our mission of creating a more informed, empowered and efficient book industry. So that’s a strong mission for BISG. It’s been the mission for a long time, but it really needed some strategic meat on the bone, if you will.
And in terms of the objectives, I think in the name of Book Industry Study Group, there’s this idea of studying the industry and of having all of the players across the ecosystem come together in one place where we can talk about pain points that are kind of ubiquitous, if you will, and everyone kind of experiences them. So I like information as a focal point for objectives, and I like research as another focal point in the objectives, that we’re really here to bring all the parties together, get multiple viewpoints considered and understand what this thing is that we’re all trying to work in and run with and do good business through.
So I like the information and the research, and through that will come standards and a growing membership. So it’s all pretty, I think, tied together.
KENNEALLY: And at IBPA, Independent Book Publishers, it’s important to – in your name too – the word independent, and we think of the book industry, and people can sort of quickly think of the Big Five, but the independents really have been growing in importance for a number of years now. How important is the Independent Book Publishers Association to this effort that BISG is making – is, again, looking at the situation quite differently than those in the Big Five would?
BOLE: Yeah, and what you’re saying is true. The independent publishing industry – it’s growing. As we’re seeing a lot of consolidation with the Big Five and the larger players, we see an amazing amount of energy and innovation in the independent publishing side of our business. And this strategic plan of BISG, the objectives that they’re bringing to the table, it’s all very important to us at IBPA. We are a professional publishers’ association, and our members are part of the professional publishing industry, so whatever we can do to help them understand what the industry looks like and how to play well in the sandbox and work through that space is important.
Of course, our members are also, as I mentioned before, very innovative, and find lots of ways to work around and outside and in different connections to the traditional industry, but it’s important to us that our members are part of this process and that their voice is really strongly heard as we look at the different kinds of information and research and standards that are developed.
KENNEALLY: Well, Angela Bole, we’re glad we could add your voice to this discussion about the Book Industry Study Group and its future direction. We’ve been speaking with Angela Bole. She is the chief executive officer of the Independent Book Publishers Association and also serves on the board and executive committee for the Book Industry Study Group. Angela Bole, thanks for joining us on Beyond the Book.
BOLE: Thank you, Chris.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center with Subsidiary RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom. CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining and rights licensing technology. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, BeyondtheBook.com. Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.