Solving for Innovation

Posted By: Brian F. O'Leary Announcements,

On October 28 and 29, a small group of volunteers hosted PageBreak, a successor of sort to the conversations started at Books in Browsers between 2010 and 2013. The San Francisco event attracted about 100 people interested in exploring the intersection of technology, innovation, and publishing. PageBreak launched nearly a decade after Books in Browsers faltered and O’Reilly Media closed its Tools of Change conferences, with Tim O’Reilly claiming at the time that his company had finished its work bringing people together to foster innovation in the book business.

If there was a message that resonated across the two days, it was that the work of fostering innovation in the book business is far from finished. Presentation after presentation featured the work of people committed to making the book business better, faster, and in at least some cases cheaper. There were happy tales of innovative practices at startups, at smaller publishers, and in grant-funded projects delivering open-source and in some cases open-access solutions. And there were less happy stories about successes that withered on the vine or failed to get traction with larger publishers, forcing companies to pivot, and pivot again.

Among the attendees, few came from larger publishers. No one there worked for a manufacturer, a distributor, or a retailer. Only one of the industry partners that provide solutions to manage metadata in book publishing was represented. A couple of people spoke on behalf of libraries, including Brewster Kahle, head of the Internet Archive, currently in litigation with several larger publishers over the IA’s distribution of digital copies during the early days of the pandemic.

Maybe there’s no message in the attendee list. It’s a busy time of year for the book business. Publishers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have a lot on their plates, and it makes sense that they stayed close to home to tend to fourth-quarter pressures.

That said, different parts of the business do tend to swim in their own lanes. While the Tools of Change conferences were an exception, meetings with a technology bent tend to attract technologists, even if the discussion is “how to use technology to improve how publishing works, sells, and grows.” Conversations about how publishing works – topics that include BISG’s mission-driven focus on metadata, workflow, and supply chains – are left in the hands of people working at a level that seldom has the authority to change an organization’s priorities.

This isn’t a new problem, and it isn’t unique to the book business. But the U.S. book business is 25 years into a digital transformation that shows clear signs of having changed the model. One retailer represents half or more of all sales. Untracked digital sales may make up a quarter of the market. For most of the past decade, larger publishers and public libraries have been at odds over sales and licensing of digital products. Increasingly, it feels like litigation is replacing dialogue, in a business whose annual sales is less than the value of two grocery chains merging.

At PageBreak, dialogue was not in short supply. On each of its two days, the meeting held an open, “un-conference” session at which anyone could pitch an idea to those attending. The first day saw the meeting break out into seven sessions, with a mixture of lively, inquisitive, and hopeful sessions that were necessarily summarized too quickly. The second day saw five more sessions, with equally fast report-outs. It was a bit of a whirlwind, with folks participating in a session and then trying to understand the ideas pouring out of several groups they had first heard about only an hour before.

Ideas were collected throughout the meeting on post-it notes, the innovator’s first technology of choice. I contributed four ideas*, ultimately choosing to pitch “How do we innovate in ways that don’t get our ideas (or us) killed?” The short-form title was “Innovating to survive.” About a dozen people joined a lets-stand-around-a-room-with-no-chairs session.

Some participants in that session shared stories of innovation failed. We started with an HTML-based workflow solution that could generate multiple physical and digital versions from a single source file, withdrawn because it required the company to maintain skill sets in CSS. Another volunteered a five-year old blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) startup that withered until it left the book industry and courted other sectors. We heard about an ebook delivery solution that made full use of the EPUB specification that struggled because major ebook platforms ignore the more innovative, interactive parts of the standard, and publishers use those platforms as the least common denominator.

In the un-conference session, conversation turned to ways we could foster innovation within the industry, rather than be subject to the work of those outside it. We heard that a community focus might help, building solutions that serve a segment (like academic or scholarly publishing) that is open to or pressured by new ways of working. Advisory boards, higher-level executive sponsors, and a focus on even small, near-term wins were all mentioned. Returning to a theme evident in discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion, the importance of investing in people and skills was raised.

Perhaps the most sobering observation likened publishers to mining companies, with both seeking to convert raw materials into a product. “If you’re selling the equivalent of a better mining machine to a publisher, you have a shot. If it can save them money and turn out more ore faster, they’re interested. But if you want to talk about new uses for the ore, or a new way of delivering it to their buyers, they shrug their shoulders. It’s not interesting to them.”

I thought about BISG’s own history with innovation. We tend to work on projects that optimize or make the supply chain more resilient, not necessarily more innovative. Our own track record in endorsing innovation is mixed. In the past decade, the Industry Innovator Award we announce most years has recognized at least two companies that are no longer among us, and the ones we recognize that persist, like Wattpad in 2022, have been rising stars for a decade or more.

There’s value in optimizing the supply chain, and I remain proud of what BISG has accomplished. But the U.S. book industry remains stagnant, with annual revenues more or less flat over the course of a decade. The growth of the past two pandemic years is encouraging, but it seems less driven by innovation and more by the enduring appeal of a strong backlist. If you believe the claim that a growing self-publishing segment represents as many units as Penguin Random House sells in a year, pandemic selling starts to feel a bit underwhelming.

I hope the coming year might introduce concepts that are truly innovative. In committee, we’re working on a couple of ideas that we expect to roll out in 2023. The first is a model of supply chain forecasting, focused on ordering, inventory, sales, and returns. We think there’s an opportunity to use a combination of better practices, shared data, and technology to inform and shape a more efficient, less resource-intensive industry. Some companies are doing this now, and we look to build on their examples. Look for more on that in the next two months.

The second is a reconsideration of what some call the “tech stack” in book publishing. As the largest book publishing market, we support a number of legacy technologies that are increasingly challenged to keep up as business models evolve and multiply. Getting data out of these systems and silos takes work, and understanding what the data is telling us takes even more time and effort. In some cases, data sources are wrapped together with one or more companies, affecting access to information. Solving that challenge is not easy, but it reads like the kind of innovation BISG can and should support. Look for a white paper on that topic in 2023.

Neither supply chain optimization nor a new tech stack is innovation, on its own. These are enabling technologies. Changing the landscape for innovation will require either a different mindset within publishing or a different approach to platforms and gatekeepers. Much of the supply chain for digital products emulates what we built for managing physical products, even though there are critical differences in what’s possible for selling and distributing digital content.

In a presentation on the first day of PageBreak, Brewster Kahle returned to a decade-old standard, the Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS), that would support peer-to-peer sale and distribution of content, independent of the origin or destination of a transaction. It’s already in use in some settings.

A number of us sat in on an un-conference session about OPDS that Kahle led later that same day. Much of the time was spent building an understanding of what OPDS is and how it could reduce the impact of platform monopolies and duopolies in journal and book publishing. There was interest in continuing the conversation, if only to better understand the potential. If technologies start to effectively support peer-to-peer transactions, particularly without the overhead associated with blockchain, the supply chain for content could become both interesting and innovative for a wide variety of participants.

We're not there yet. The hope that came with Books in Browsers and Tools of Change more than a decade ago has subsided. PageBreak represents a new stake in the ground, but its promise is something we have to make happen outside of conferences and small-group discussions. As organizer Peter Brantley observed at the end of the first day of PageBreak, "Here we are, again". We're all older, hopefully wiser, but it's still not clear what we do with the time that is given us.

* My other three ideas (not discussed) were: "If the future is in niches, what parts of publishing need to change?"; "How do we secure the skills we need to innovate in a tech-phobic industry?"; and "How can the shift from scarcity (print) to abundance (digital) be used to inform and spur positive changes in workflows?"

** While this post appears on the BISG blog, and everything I say or write is inextricably linked to my role at BISG, the opinions expressed are my own and do not represent an organizational or board-endorsed perspective.