Changing the Way We Work – Incorporating Digital Throughout the Publisher’s Internal Ecosystem (2/2)

My talk at Tools of Change for Publishing in Frankfurt, october 5th 2010  – Part two (access part one)


If the editor is not properly informed about the digital question, if his vision is distant or blurred, if he is not comfortable with what it involves, how can he come with the appropriate arguments when negotiating digital rights with authors ?

Of course, contracts today all have a clause that relates to digital rights. But this is not the case of older contracts. And to be able to build a digital offer, it is imperative to obtain digital rights. To be able to convince authors to transfer these rights, the publisher must at least be able to convince them that he will be the best to exploit them.

And if, in our companies, digital is the case of a small group of experts dealing with digital stuff in the Digital Kitchen while editors continue to «  make books  », how will editors introduce these issues to authors ?

What credibility will they have ? How will they be able to answer their authors’ questions ?

The shift to digital for books essentially relates to a change in the materiality of the book, and therefore it deeply affects the area that is the most linked to materiality : design. Since the invention of printing, books designers have accumulated a rich know-how that is directly related to the support. Designers perfectly know what a page is. Their language is full of marvelous jargon. The relationship between the white and the text, the difference between letters, between words, the size of the margin, the way words intersect at the end of a line…  A lot of words to describe, a perfect control of the result.

And now comes digital text. Capricious as a torrent. Digital text  doesn’t care about pages. Liquid, it adapts to context. Mastering digital text is an art that is more akin to rafting than to swimming in a swimming pool…

In the print world, eye and hand are enough to resolve every detail of layout, even if the software executes the command.

In the digital world, the code is interposed between eye and hand.

Code of the terminal operating system, code that displays the engine used, code to format and structure the text. And most designers in the publishing world don’t like code. But to design ebooks, they will have to learn to like it.

This presentation could be very simple if, to succeed in making a publishing company go from the 20th to the 21st century, it was enough to analyze what specific changes are expected for each of our traditional tasks, and to manage change in all these areas. But things are not so simple. Because it is not enough that each business makes its small change in its corner, adopting some procedural changes, some new habits.

This is why support in these changes does not only consist in a simple training, sector by sector, to get used to new processes or tools. Of course, it is necessary to acquire new skills. But it is equally necessary to acquire new knowledge, and to become very familiar with «  web culture  ». Maybe are you thinking that web culture disseminates itself very well and naturally. It’s true for some people, but far from true for a lot of others.

Publishing companies are not populated by digital natives and digerati. If most of people are now quite familiar with the web, most of them use it only in a limited way, and aren’t aware of its power.

This is why we are dedicating time to introduce this culture into company’s teams. Because your understanding of digital is better when you understand what a RSS feed is, and how to use it.
Because something as simple as googling a title to know what the web is saying about your book is not the first reflex among PR people, who are used to focus on traditional media.

This is why we organize events, workshops and meetings. For example, this year, “Spring of Digital”, was designed to disseminate our digital vision and strategy : 11 conferences, 16 speakers, 300 participants. Our goal : to spread shared knowledge among all employees around issues related to digital. And we will keep organizing such actions to inform and explain, encourage dialogue, welcome everyone’s questions and objections.

Two years ago, we also created a “marketing studio working group” where we invite marketing people from different imprints of our group. Why ? To share ideas about the best way to increase the presence of Editis’ tool, our ‘browse inside books’ widget, on websites, blogs and other social medias, and most widely to talk about new practices in webmarketing.

The idea of sharing ideas between competitor imprints first encountered some resistance. But after some people decided to start sharing, things changed, and now everyone understands that it is a win-win game, and that these meetings are a good place for exchanges, a breach in the culture of secrecy, and a step towards the idea that you enrich yourself each time you contribute.

Technological advances and changes in readers’ practices have a significant impact on the fate of all books, even on the printed ones.

Everyone in a publishing house is mentally putting his work into a chain, and each link of this chain is clearly identified. The «  book chain  » is a timeline that runs from the author to the reader, with well-defined steps. The digital and the web superimposed a new structure, a nonlinear network on this chain that shapes the publishing process of printed books. New players and new connections between all actors are emerging.

If only all the actors in this new configuration were human beings, it would be possible to agree with them on new ways of working. But today, some “actors” are automated : they are algorithms, softwares. We don’t only have to speak to new partners. Now, our data have to speak to softwares…

Whether it is printed, digital or enhanced books, the challenge is the same : to keep afloat in the ocean of the web, to attract and retain the attention of potential readers who are in permanent contact with an infinity of other products, information, entertainment, games, movies, activities that can be found on the web.

It is often said that the web blew the barriers to the dissemination of all goods that can be digitized, thus eliminating the difficulty associated with the delivery of physical products. And it is true. However, a new barrier just appeared : the difficulty to guarantee the visibility of books, physical or digital, on the web.

The best way to limit this barrier is to provide the highest quality care in the metadata of our books. It is the «  sine qua non  » of visibility. The importance of metadata is not sufficiently understood yet in publishing houses.
What makes the quality of metadata is both their richness and how they are presented. What is needed is to present data to make them likely to be routed to any destination where they will have the visibility that every book needs.

To reach this goal, metadata must be structured in a standardized manner. It is because it is full of protocols and standards that the web can exist as an open environment. And the new ecosystem of books has to grow inside this open environment that requires standards. Minimum bibliographic information describing a book : title, author, publication date, ISBN ARE Metadata. But metadata can be infinitely richer. If you want to broaden your vision on metadata, see the documentation that accompanies the ONIX format. It is possible to gather a great deal of information about a book, which goes well beyond the minimum information that comes to mind when one mentions metadata. If your metadata is inadequate, if they do not meet current standards, you can publish the best book in the world, nobody will know : it will remain invisible on the web.

The way people find information, share their tastes or become aware of a book has changed. But traditional channels used by marketing teams and press officers should not be abandoned. These teams are still struggling to get a review in a newspaper or to their author on a TV program. Advertisement continues in traditional media.

But now, other means that require new skills are adding to these traditional means of promotion. Traditional media are no longer the only ones that can mobilize public attention. The web now enables everyone to easily publish information. The era of «  one to many  » is not over, but that of «  many to many  » has begun. It started with blogs, it continues with social networks like Facebook and Twitter, to name the best known. Countless conversations are popping on the web every second, and an Internet connection is enough to take part in them.
However, in order to develop a strategy for an appropriate use of social networks, it is not enough to hire a community manager, which already presents some difficulties, as the job is so new that no community manager can pretend to have a long experience and show references.

The best community managers do not come out of specialized schools. Their school is the web. The best ones have been into web communities for a long time.

They are blogging since the early 2000s. They discovered Facebook before your children. They tried Twitter without knowing what Twitter was exactly about.

They learned the social codes, the simplicity of tone, the respectful familiarity, how to talk about themselves without compromising their privacy, they know how to create the perfect mix between serious stuff and jokes without consequences. They learned that to be heard you have to listen, that we must give to receive, that if you want to be followed you have to follow, and if you want people to be interested in you, you have to be sincerely interested in people.

What a publisher can dream of is that one of his authors recognize himself in this description of the ideal community manager. In this case, the author will be able to maintain his own community of readers, and he will probably go further : create connections with other authors, develop an online activity in parallel to what is related to the publication of his book.
What a publisher can also fear, is that such an author might choose, if his publisher is unable to offer him something more than what he can do himself, to do without him, and to turn to others to distribute and sell his next book.

The challenge today is to be able to get in tune with the online presence that some authors have developed on their own, by providing services that will save them time and give them visibility, while simultaneously setting community management practices in the service of authors who do not care about what happens on the web, or do not want to spend time there.

Many questions remain : where to build communities – around an author,  a collection, a brand ? What granularity do we have to adopt ? Should we finely segment the audiences of our publications, and identify related communities ? How many communities can you maintain or be a part of at the same time ? How many simultaneous conversations ? Each publisher, according to the kind of book he publishes, and according to what he knows about his readers, will choose his own strategy. But the rule remains, whatever the nature of the community that we want to maintain : give, commit, engage, be sincere, and above all drop the formatted language of traditional marketing.

There is a risk : if the publisher does not care about his online existence, if he is not part of the conversation, he excludes himself, turns his back on his future and takes the risk that the authors turn their back on him, soon after.

To change the ways we work, we also have to be sure of what, in our work, has to be preserved. To be innovative doesn’t mean we have to give up on the value and beauty of our business.

Our curiosity, our attention, our sensitivity, which are what put us on the trail of the best authors.
Our ability to recognize valuable content and to make choices.
Our expertise in accompanying authors to the best of their art and set their manuscript to its final form.
Our ability to build collections, to assemble works in meaningful families.
Our ability to care about the quality of text presentation.
Our obsession to allow the encounter between works we have chosen and loved, and the highest number of readers.

We have been «  gatekeepers  » for a very long time : without us, it was virtually impossible for an author to reach his audience. That time has passed, with the advent of the web.

If we don’t want to give reason to those who call us dinosaurs, we must dive into this digital universe and learn its intricacies and mysteries, we must be able to transfer there the best of our know-how.

We have to make the high complexity of this new world simple for our authors and readers. This is adding value. We have to learn to identify new forms of mediation, new instances of validation, to understand and respect them, and to work with them. This is adding value. But we will not do this alone : it is essential to work in partnership with actors who have complementary skills to ours, particularly in the technology field.

To successfully change, nothing forces us to stop being ourselves : our only chance to continue to be active and visible in the cultural and technology world that is emerging, is to remain ourselves, to open our minds, to accept to change, and to be ready for collaborations, exchanges and partnerships that will make us able to enrich our experience and our offers.

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