The supply chain we use for book publishing is a lot like an old house. Bringing it up to date is a labor of love that takes a lot of planning, investment, and time. Only when you visit a neighbor who has reimagined their house, do you realize how far behind your own house is.

Though the book industry has evolved with such innovations as online retailing, digital books, and new business models, our plumbing is largely the same as it was 15 years ago. That’s a problem. It limits the ability of publishers, retailers, and other partners in the supply chain to improve discovery, sell more books, and reduce costs. And it leaves too many questions that are difficult to impossible to answer.

For example, there’s no real-time data on how many books are printed each year, where they were printed, or the rate of returns by book type—such as data specifically covering children’s books—across the industry. Retailers who want to share sales data with publishers must use large Excel workbooks with hundreds of columns, which add costs for publishers to format and interpret. Publishers also have difficulty testing new marketing approaches because some distributors and retailers may not pick them up.

These everyday failures in supply-chain communications are like inadequate plumbing. They add work and cost time and understanding. In some cases, they limit what publishers can test or where they can innovate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our neighbors are showing us what can be done. BookNet Canada maintains a metadata repository and API that anyone in the supply chain can use. Together, they make it possible to proof metadata and create web catalogs, and even build something entirely new—like 49th Shelf, a collection of Canadian-authored content, dynamically delivered from the metadata that BookNet maintains.

In the U.K., Book Industry Commu-nication maintains protocols called BIC Realtime that allow publishers and their partners to communicate back and forth about inventory and returns. A payments clearinghouse called BATCH also gives retailers the opportunity to pay invoices from multiple publishers with one check or wire, with the system doing the work of apportioning the payments.

The Dutch, French, German, and Norwegian markets offer a variety of solutions for improving the supply chain—some based on centralized repositories, others on implementation of existing standards for two-way communication across all industry players. The U.S. market could adapt many of these practices and solutions to improve discovery, sell more books, and streamline operations to focus on higher value-added activities.

“Over the next three years, we expect to help the industry create better metadata with more effective feedback on problems and inconsistencies, ultimately delivering greater sales.”

The Book Industry Study Group is currently gathering information to build the business case for change. The priorities are likely to include creating metadata repositories of record, implementing tools to automate and broaden sales and inventory reporting, and launching a payments clearinghouse across the U.S. market. Other goals may emerge as we engage broadly and deepen our analysis.

Over the next three years, we expect to help the industry create better metadata with more effective feedback on problems and inconsistencies, ultimately delivering greater sales, as better metadata drives discovery. Other changes will increase understanding of industry trends and better establish the impact of publishers’ initiatives. Across the board, we’ll also provide a platform for greater efficiency, as labor is redeployed away from reporting and payments processing.

Of course, no single company or organization can fix the plumbing for the book industry. That takes agreements reached across the supply chain, from publishers and distributors to retailers, libraries, and industry service partners.

Our industry has done it before: in the late 1990s, the Association of American Publishers began developing what is now the ONIX standard for metadata, to help retailers create online catalogs with more complete information. Around 2007, the industry moved to the 13-digit ISBN, which helped books enter mass market and specialty stores on a significant scale. These are important advances, but they are also a sign of our infrastructure challenge. It has been 16 years since the 13-digit ISBN was introduced.

Any change effort will take time. To get the ball rolling, we will discuss these issues in detail at the BISG annual meeting on April 28. Anyone from the industry is welcome to attend. The industry-wide support we’ll need represents an investment in the future of book publishing, ensuring we have a house we’re all happy to live and grow in.

Brian F. O’Leary is the executive director of the Book Industry Study Group.