Carrots and Sticks

Not too long ago, I was at a conference hotel, getting some work done in the lobby between sessions. A friend dropped by to chat, and I showed him an app that I use for productivity and good habits. It's a role-playing game called Habitica. As you knock to-dos off your list, and check off when you've performed a habit you want to encourage in yourself, you get rewards. It's a positive reinforcement virtuous cycle.

He laughed and said, "You're all carrot and no stick."

It's true. I happily admit it. I function best when incentivized with rewards rather than threats. I might check off more to-dos in a threatening environment, but I'm happier in a rewarding one - which means I do a better job at the things I put my mind to.

Unfortunately, standards adoption doesn't work that way.

There are a great many standards that are created to solve specific problems, but get very slow adoption in the industry. Or none. At least in the US book industry, it seems, there has to be a stick. Carrots don't get the job done.

The stick, in most cases, is that someone has to make the first move in requiring a standard. That was how the ISBN caught on - bookstores began requiring it. That was how ONIX (and the ONIX code-lists) caught on - Amazon began requiring it from the larger publishers. In our portion of the industry, that's what it takes. "Nice to haves" are lovely, but by and large, the book industry doesn't invest in "nice to haves" unless there's a distinct competitive advantage. Which, itself, is at least the threat of a stick.

Other industries have more sticks, it's true. The music industry is a thicket of threats and competition. The video industry is as well. And with our adoption of ISBN (and, to some degree, ISSN) and ONIX, we're regarded as being "ahead" by those industries. But both music and video companies are scrambling with discoverability issues, rights and royalties issues. They're looking closely at, for example, ISNI as a way of solving these problems. They're looking at linked data functionality, so they get attention from Google's Knowledge Panel.

And it may be that, as an industry, we're extremely comfortable with what's already on our plates. But I would argue that, in many ways, we're competing with other types of media for customers - and that competition isn't going so well for us these days. And if those media are looking at standards that we haven't even implemented as potential solutions to their problems...that gap might well become more pronounced.

Treat yourself, maybe. Think about a carrot.

Faith In the Small Things

Two words guaranteed to bore the crap out of anybody are standards and governance. Of course, these two things make our world pretty much bearable - without standards, bridges would collapse and cars wouldn't run, there would be no internet or web, or phone, or electric lighting. And governance is what makes standards work.
I'm not going to argue about the relevance of standards in book publishing, etc. - I think that ship sailed a long time ago. We know. We know, okay, Mom? Jeez.
Governance is what determines the success or failure of any given standard. How is it applied? How is it used? By whom? What for? It's the nitty-gritty details, the rules. And there...lies the devil in the details.
ISBN governance means that ISBNs cannot be used for more than one product. (Fight me.) ISBN governance dictates that an ISBN is now 13 digits long and begins with a 978 or 979. Etc. Most of us in publishing know how the ISBN is governed - how it works. We agree on its rules, fundamentally. The rules work for us.
Other standards are not so clear. Or are open to debate. ISTC is a good example of this. The ISTC's rules are: anyone can apply for an ISTC to tie a group of editions (ISBNs) together, and the ISTC registration agency would decide if that grouping was valid, based on the criteria that the applicant supplied.
The applicant could be a library. A literary agent. An author. A publisher. A retailer. A distributor. Just an interested party - the author's mother.
Needless to say, this caused no small amount of consternation among stakeholders in the book supply chain when ISTC was introduced in the early 2000s. We were all just getting used to the idea of customer reviews. The potential for a standard to be, essentially, crowdsourced was problematic. And for the ultimate arbiter to be a registration agency (which may or may not have the best interests of publishing or bookselling at heart)?
There may yet be a way to salvage ISTC and make it into something that everyone can agree on using. But to date, different stakeholders define ISBN groupings in different ways, and some of those are proprietary. And as long as there are seven different ways of describing an elephant (or "work"), governance is near-impossible.
This is a huge lesson as the industry moves forward into adopting other standards, such as ISNI, or We all have to agree on the rules. Those rules have to work for us. Or the standard is a solution without a problem. Which is a huge waste of time, and makes us less likely to invest time in developing actual problem-solving solutions.
We're in an interesting period these days. The pain of digital's impact on publishing is by and large manageable now. We're in an era of the "nice to have". Sometimes that leads to investment. More frequently, it leads to reification, which brings on later pain and disruption. I'm also not here to argue the wisdom of investing in infrastructure to avoid pain later. We know, Mom. Ugh. Stop being boring. You're not cool and you're embarrassing us.
The pain will come, inevitably. It always does. As sure as we get out of bed in the morning and wince, there will be plenty of pain to go around. When it does, we'll need to pull together quickly and develop a standard to solve/salve it. As with most salves, it won't be perfect. The pain may never entirely go away. But it will be a point we can all come to agreement on. Which, these days, is a rare and heartening thing.

Rumors Greatly Exaggerated

In the early '90s, I got a job as assistant manager of the medical department at the Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. I sold medical textbooks to residents and nursing students; I sold stethoscopes and calipers. I hazed new staffers with forensic pathology and dermatology slides. I made "signage" out of BISAC categories.

The store was a weird mix. On the one hand, it was a textbook shop for NYU and other New York City colleges. On the other, it was the original Barnes & Noble, and something of a tourist attraction. So it sold trade titles and bestsellers in addition to fulfilling the syllabi of local professors.

Unlike the superstores, this shop was cavernous, with low ceilings and unbelievably creaky wooden floors. There were mice - mostly in the overstock areas, but occasionally one would make its way out to the sales floor, cough miserably, shoot one of us a baleful look, and wander away. All staff had to wear blue jackets, kind of like lab coats but shorter, so we could be easily identified.

That store doesn't exist now. The new flagship store is the Union Square superstore. The college division is a separate entity from the big stores. But one thing has not changed.

Len Riggio.

If Steve Jobs was Apple personified, Len Riggio is that for Barnes & Noble. In the 1990s, B&N was a juggernaut - seemingly unstoppable, perpetually plunking down new superstores, driving indies out of business, and generally behaving like an 800 pound gorilla.

Then came the internet. Then came Amazon. Then came the Kindle.

This triple whammy ultimately put competitor Borders out of business entirely, and weakened Barnes & Noble's position in a drastic way. (Ironically, B&N had been at the forefront of ebook sales in the early 2000s. But they didn't catch on, and once burned is twice shy.) The website just couldn't compete with Amazon, where you can buy shoes, home furnishings, and books all in one order. And the stores have faltered as well. Where they once boasted vast inventories, the web and ebook combination have seen B&N stocking games, bobble-head figurines, and stationery products in lieu of books. Indie bookstores have seen a resurgence, by adding coffee shops and wine bars and hosting events.

This week we learned that Ron Boire, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, has been let go. Len Riggio, on the verge of retirement, has decided to step back into the CEO role for the time being. This is not the first time that has happened. The position of CEO of B&N is coming to resemble that of the drummer in Spinal Tap.

Some see a long, slow death spiral in the making. I have to wonder about that. While music stores collapsed after iTunes and other services, and video stores after Netflix and streaming, books are a different proposition. Ebook sales have flattened. Print book sales are stable (once you remove the boost that adult coloring books have given them). The market seems to have found its footing after the digital disruption.

The thing that hurts publicly-traded companies the most is the expectation of increased profitability year over year. Stability is not enough.

In the course of his stewardship of B&N, Riggio has shown a willingness to spin off divisions into their own companies, acquire other companies, partner with larger companies, take his companies public, take those companies private again. When shareholders get disgruntled, Riggio readily buys them out.

So I wouldn't read a revolving door of CEOs as a harbinger of a death spiral. I wouldn't look at store closings, the failure of the Nook, and an influx of non-book inventory as indications of B&N disappearing from the landscape.

As long as Len Riggio is still with us, Barnes & Noble will be too. It began as a college store and it may well end as one. But it will persist as long as Len wills it to. Do not expect him to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

How ONIX Came To Be

In 1997, superstore behemoth Barnes & Noble had launched their website in competition with Amazon. (As a matter of disclosure: I began working there in 1998, directing the database that served both the web and the stores.) Borders, Hastings, Books-A-Million, and others soon followed. There were numerous start-ups dedicated to selling specific sorts of books – Varsity Books for textbooks, FatBrain for business books. Companies were acquired, rose up, shut down – it was absolutely chaotic.

In the midst of all this, the problems presented by back-office, transactional metadata (truncated titles, metadata in ALL CAPS) were abundantly clear to consumers – these websites were ugly, clunky, and not very enticing. Publishers noticed. Distributors noticed. Everyone saw an opportunity to increase sales.

ONIX stands for Online Information Exchange, and was developed as a joint effort by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and EDItEUR (which originally stood for EDI-to-Europe, but which has evolved more broadly into a London-based standards body for the book industry). It was created to solve two problems: (1) that consumers were now looking at this data so it had to be more robust, descriptive, accurate, and reflective of what they needed to see, and (2) that ANSI X12, as a US-based standard, was insufficient for international communications about books.

I was on the front lines back then – it was hotly competitive between Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. There were lawsuits, front-page news articles, insults, and shade thrown. It was nasty. But everybody could agree that the metadata was causing us all the same headaches. So there was a parley.

In 1998, in the conference room at AAP on 5th Avenue, the Big Seven publishers (yes, there were seven at the time), Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, a handful of startups, and a number of other interested companies sat down at a large conference table and laid out the problems. It was the first time B&N and Amazon had allowed representatives to sit in the same room together – Cindy Cunningham and myself. (We later became good friends – largely due to this experience.) It was clear that we needed to present a unified front to persuade publishers to adopt this new standard that would benefit all of us. After two years of negotiations, ONIX 1.0 was published and its maintenance in the US was handed to the Book Industry Study Group, which created a metadata committee (now run by Richard Stark at B&N, who was one of my first hires there) to handle changes and fixes and additions to the code lists.

ONIX is not terribly sexy. But it allowed sexiness to happen. As we evolve through ONIX 3.0 and beyond, knowing how we got here will help us lay the infrastructure for whatever awaits the book industry as the Web itself advances.

Small Changes Afoot

IPG acquires InScribe Digital. Barnes & Noble acquires Adaptive Studios and is experimenting with POD for self-published titles. Ingram's been on an acquisitions binge since last December. Hachette acquiredPerseus's publishing unit. And Mike Shatzkin has announced he is stepping down as program director of DBW.
Mike makes a good point - the dust raised up by the drastic disruption brought on by digitization is settling. Pain points seem to have minimized. These days, the big news is in consolidation, iterative experimentation, and (dare I say it) infrastructure improvements. The acquisitions I mentioned are not earth-shattering but incremental - the Big Scary Days are safely in the rear-view mirror for the time being.
For those of us who thrive on disturbance, this can be a difficult time - casting about for The Next Big Thing (especially in summer, when the buzz of the tree locusts lulls us into either napping or impatience) is quite frustrating when all seems well in hand. Forcing disruption where none is naturally occurring is, of course, not terribly honest. One can always argue that publishing is complacent, that the book trade is blinkered, that if traditional publishers don't focus on something other than the next bestseller then they'll be blindsided by Pokemon Go or something like it.
And that's true.
But publishing continues. For all the disruption caused by ebooks, print sales are still strong. Audiobook sales continue a spectacular hockey stick growth. Pikachu can exist side-by-side with adult coloring books and the Knopf frontlist.
So perhaps now is a time for contemplation. For digging ditches, and focusing on fortification. For refining processes and smoothing efficiencies. It's a luxury to be able to do so. I used to have a trainer who would hold me back from pushing myself during certain workouts. "It's okay if it's easy," he would say. "Enjoy it. Not everything has to be hard."