Last Thursday I participated in BISG Next, a one-day workshop/conference by the Book Industry Study Group. Since I’ve spent most of my career on the digital media side, I found it a fascinating look at the changes facing the traditional book publishing industry.
The BISG represent many of the more forward-thinking people in the book industry. If the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have a problem, then BISG participants were well on their way through that step. That said, I also saw that many of the participants felt that the way to solve the problem was by using the same tools and skills they’d used in the past, which I don’t think is a realistic option.
The program was a set up as a one-day problem-solving workshop. Teams were created to assist a theoretical publisher in setting their strategy to take them through the year 2020 in four areas:
- Identifying the customer & core business
- Mobile strategy
- Content strategy
- Making content discoverable
What was most promising about the process was that the participants seemed to embrace things that may have been anathema to them just a few years ago. Some of the key themes that emerged were community, new business models (including free), increased verticalization, a customer-centric approach (including a focus on analytics and data exhaust), open, extensible platforms and a need to become agile.
I was on one of the two teams looking at mobile strategy. Our team took a broad-based view of mobile, first deciding that a flexible and open platform would be required. We started with a few core assumptions:
- Success in mobile meant that we would need to open up our content to others; it would be arrogant to assume that we alone would build the most compelling apps for our content;
- We should embrace the idea of writable APIs. The publisher in our exercise had books on musicians and technology, as well as textbooks; any of these could be augmented by allowing others to add content (concert video or audio, author presentations, teacher lesson plans);
- We would seek to partner with market leaders wherever feasible. Today that might include apps like Instagram or a wiki like setlist.fm;
- A major role for the publisher going forward would be in the curation and organization of other people's content;
- Especially in those segments where we served an enthusiast audience (particularly music) we would look to engage with a community, both by building social features into the platform and through participation in existing external platforms (e.g. Facebook, MySpace and whatever may follow).
I think our team put forth a compelling vision and plan, but we were far from unanimity. Openness and ceding control are not values that come easily to an industry where editors have often had total control over their product.
And therein lay the biggest challenge. While most of the people in the room acknowledged the need for rapid change, there was near unanimity that the existing staff would be best-positioned to fill these new roles. In our group, there was much talk of how a book Editor would be able to curate community content and how those with the existing domain knowledge would be best positioned to build great new apps. While I’ve no doubt that people in those roles could make significant contributions as part of a team, the centralized editorial power that led to success in traditional book publishing is a very different approach than the team-based, user-centric sharing model which they will need to embrace going forward.
That said, I was most pleased in the ending discussion, where many people in the group raised the issue of whether these plans were being too conservative. Of course, it’s easier to rip apart someone else’s (theoretical) publishing business than to jettison or revamp parts of your own, but this was a promising discussion.
I’d like to thank the BISG for inviting me to participate in this event.