On April 1, Michael Cairns officially replaced the retiring George Lossius as CEO of Publishing Technology. Cairns’s ascension to the top spot comes less than a year after he joined the company, in May, 2013, as COO of the online division, and after serving seven years as president of R.R. Bowker. We caught up with Cairns to talk about his new job and to survey the digital landscape in 2014.
Congratulations on your new post. Tell us a little about what might be first thing on your plate, and a little about what you might be looking at over the next few years?
First, Publishing Technology is a relatively old company as a ‘technology’ business and in my new position, I benefit from a significant amount of institutional knowledge about technology and the mechanics of the publishing industry. The company is also very stable and we have a good balance between some of our legacy products—such as Vista and Ingenta, both of which continue to do well—and our new and very up-to-date technology platforms in advance and pub2web. My task will be to press harder on expanding the opportunities for those newer products in the enterprise software market, which is the market for [the product] advance and, in the content management market for pub2web.
The e-book business, although still pretty young, is now well-established. But as we gather in London, are we on the brink of another tech-driven shift, driven by customization, subscription models, bundling, etc?
Certainly, we have come out of the “rush to digitize” period that characterized the past five years or so. I think publishers are now thinking much more broadly about different models for selling and distributing their content. On our pub2web platform, one of the key drivers motivating new customers is a desire to place all their content in one place. And more than collecting the obvious publications they produce, our platform enables content owners to collect all the content they produce, so books and journals can be collected together with conference proceedings, webinars, special publications, and just about any other type of content. Subscribers and consumers of this content are then able to search and draw on all the content produced by this publisher, whatever the original format of the material. This facility offers the potential for the publisher to own more relationships with their customers via one site.
What has surprised you about the digital landscape in 2014? Can you give us an example of the kinds issues you see for publishers, looking forward?
Perhaps the thing that surprises me most is the we haven’t seen the erosion of foreign rights as quickly as I might have thought, given how digital distribution is no longer dependent on needing a local distribution node. I think that’s doubly odd, given the precipitous decline in physical retail options in places like Australia and New Zealand and to a similar extent in the U.K. and other English-language markets. Perhaps part of the reason is that print may be a little more resilient than we give it credit for.
I think one of the increasing concerns we work with is around reporting and how to interpret the vast amount of data that can be—and often is—collected through publishers’ platforms and their content. While we produce a raft of standard reports for our publishers, understanding and interpreting data is a significant gap in capability, and I think one of our added-value services could be to help publishers better understand and act on the information contained in these reports. There is also a lack of standardization across reporting formats and methodology that can make comparisons between sites and providers very difficult. Understanding these issues can make the marketing and sales staffs smarter about how they allocate resources, and I think we will see a lot more emphasis placed in these areas in the years to come.
Metadata has become a major topic at recent conferences and fairs. Is it fair to say there is an expanding awareness that metadata practices are crucial?
In my experience the issue has always been the same: publishers, and actually most businesses generally, fail to allocate sufficient resources to manage the collection, distribution, policing, and quality of their metadata. I ran a metadata company [Bowker] and I’ve been on many metadata panels and I can say for sure that we are still talking about the same things we were at the advent of Internet retailing. So I live in hope that publishers will see the light and invest more in their product information.