In his keynote to this year’s Book Industry Study Group’s Making Information Pay conference, Hachette COO Ken Michaels used his company as an example of a “21st century content provider,” detailing Hachette’s embrace of the digital transformation and outlining the critical steps that enabled its implementation. But it was BISG’s joint survey on rights management systems (or rather the lack of them) that provided the day’s most compelling presentation, offering a sobering assessment of the state of rights management in legacy book publishing, a situation described as “a vast problem.”

While Michaels’s presentation, “Publishers as 21st Century Content Providers,” touched on all the usual topics—embrace digital, move beyond print, new workflows, metadata, direct customer outreach, etc.—it was particularly notable for the insights it provided into Hachette’s internal re-invention. Michaels used Hachette’s experience to illustrate seven critical steps to success.

“The publisher’s role is under question by everyone from writers to journalists to consumers at a time when the industry is changing at breakneck speed,” he said, as he offered a list organizational highpoints. He noted that Hachette revamped its processes into “intelligent digital workflows,” pervasive and simple digital platforms integrated across the company—using online copyediting, for instance, to speed up the editorial process. Hachette creates its content “once for all consumption” and has established an “internal cloud infrastructure” and an “auto-sync platform,” that allows all parts of the house to easily access content from its digital asset management system, update apps dynamically and more; changes, he said, that have generated cost savings and improved productivity.

Next Bill Kasdorf, general editor of the Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing and v-p at Apex Content Solutions, and Andrew Savikas, v-p digital initiatives at O’Reilly Media and CEO, Safari Books, offered parallel presentations on revamping a publisher’s internal product development systems from traditional workflows to digital. Kasdorf was broad, and practical, “this isn’t rocket science and you shouldn’t have to invest millions in this. You can build on the structures you already have in place.” He said to focus on content, not on print (“think in terms of chunks of information, how to market them, who buys your chunks”), overload on Metadata terms (“so content can be found across a broad range of keywords”), XML (it “futureproofs your books”) and work to establish standards (leverage collective experience). “Don’t think it’s all too hard,” Kasdorf said, “it’s not.”

Savikas offered a case study of Safari Books, O’Reilly’s subscription library of web-based tech and reference titles, and how they managed the transformation of its workflows. Launched in 2005, Safari Books began grow quickly into a major sales channel. But even at a tech publisher like O’Reilly, Savikas said, “we had a traditional workflow that optimized print, the ‘real books,’ and it was costing us sales, delaying getting content into Safari.” Savikas outlined their process: start small (they picked a behind-schedule book and focused on turning it into a pilot project to create a digital-first title); initially use a small team to oversee the project (one senior executive so people pay attention and one enthusiastic internal digital advocate); provide “cool tools” to authors (Safari offered a variety of authoring tools from facebook apps to generating automatic PDFs for proofing) and don’t be afraid to “fail fast; you learn what’s right by doing it wrong,” he said.

But certainly BISG’s joint study with the Copyright Clearance Center, “The State of Current Rights Management Systems,” offered a lamentable picture of legacy publishing and its ability (or inability) to exploit the rights it own—if they even know what rights they have. Digital consultant Mike Shatzkin outlined the challenges: “Whole books are getting harder to sell; there’s more competition from old books from the long tail; content fragmentation and the need for pieces of information; and the problem of rights research, which eats up time and too much of the rights revenue.”

CCC’s Heather Reid offered the distressing responses of nine publishers and six rights management vendors, who provided in-depth interviews for the survey. Only one of the publishers said they were “satisfied” with their rights situation and many of them only manage to store unsearchable PDFs of their paper contracts; while half of them still store only paper contracts “in file cabinets somewhere.” Most publishers continue to manage rights through a grab bag of systems that are not integrated and not strategic.

Reid described current rights management as a “a choke point” and outlined the desperate need for “actionable data, rights information captured in a structured digital system so it is easily discovered and can be used to create new opportunities for business.” David Marlin of MetaComet Systems, outlined the likely consequences of all this, surveying the potential and current damage done to a house’s brand, likely legal problems and to profits, “when content is released into the wild and publishers don’t know how to control or manage it.”

Reid went on to outline what BISG/CCC and the publishing industry are working to implement regarding rights management: “industry education and discussion of the complexities; standardized terms and definitions for rights-in and rights-out; begin reducing manual data entry and create new workflows.” Publishers need to establish rights databases for current contracts now and focus on the backlist later; systems that must be flexible and can talk to other in-house software systems.

The conference offered more presentations than I can detail here, among them: Pearson’s Madi Solomon offered a thoughtful and witty presention on “smarter content,” metadata and “data grooming” (“so content finds you”); and Tara Catogge from the wholesaler Levy Home Entertainment, offered many charts and graphs on how Levy revamped the in-store experience for book customers at big box mass market retailers (“mass merchants can drive sales on emerging authors”).

Making Information Pay packs a lot of information into a short morning program. In fact, packed with the usual suspects, the conference showed no signs of digital conference fatigue and the hall was about three-quarters full if not a bit more.

But of course, this is BISG’s mission, as Hachette’s Ken Michael’s pointed out in his keynote. Noting that he is often asked if print will survive and about the rate of growth of e-book sales, Michaels said, and he answers, “Yes and fast.” He exhorted the audience of publishers to, “be active in this time of change. Engage your peers, look for clarity and use the AAP and BISG to collectively set the new rules for the 21st Century publisher.”