In this inaugural column, I’ve been asked to offer up some predictions for digitization in publishing in 2017. The problems—and solutions—of digitization are more complex than the question of e-books vs. print books. By and large, that divide has stabilized; print books are clearly still a strong part of the market, and e-books have their attributes (instantaneous purchase, no bundles to lug around, changeable font size).
Digitization impacts far more than format, however. First and foremost, digitizing workflow speeds it up. No papers to file. No manuscripts to walk to copy editing or to haul home in overstuffed bags. The reduction of physicality makes things go faster.
Additionally, digitized workflow is cheaper than the onerous analog publishing processes that it replaced. That has made barriers to entering publishing lower than ever before, and we’ve seen new entrants to the industry pop up all over the place. Lower costs have also helped to make self-publishing a legitimate business (though metrics such as sales figures are hard to come by).
So what does this mean in 2017? It’s clear from year-end announcements that the market is stable, but that it could be on the brink of a contraction. Certainly 2016’s round of acquisitions (Perseus’s book division by Hachette, ANconnect by Readerlink) would indicate a streamlining in distribution and points of sale is at hand. According to Nielsen BookScan data, print unit sales were up 3.3% in 2016 from 2015, with sales of adult fiction posting the biggest gains.
That’s the product side of things. In terms of the back end, there’s opportunity in discovery. Kadaxis and Firebrand Technologies have been working together on a keyword optimization project, which they presented at this year’s Digital Book World. The goal of the project is to increase sales for midlist titles by strategically selecting keywords.
Then there’s Schema.org. Book publishers haven’t really embraced the move to linked data (structured information that can be picked up and featured by search engines), but I do expect that to change in 2017, thanks to initiatives from BISG and Editeur. By marking up their websites with Schema.org tags, publishers can influence search engines’ behavior to make sure products surface more readily in search results. Yes, Amazon will by and large come first. And Google Play listings will show up in the Knowledge Panel on the right-hand side of a search results page. But Schema.org can affect search results in other ways, which in turn affect page ranking and discovery of books and publishers—and right now it seems few to no publishers (outside of O’Reilly) are working with it.
There’s also opportunity in workflow efficiencies, which of course speed up time to market and offer cost savings. Companies like Thomson Digital and MPS are focused on machine learning, digitized production, and rights and permissions clearance. Automating as much of these processes as possible frees up publishers to do what they do best: acquisitions and sales.
In the realm of metadata, support for Onix 2.1 ended at the conclusion of 2014. Without further development of 2.1, migration to Onix 3.0 will inevitably have to happen. I’m betting that migrations will not begin to roll out until late 2017 or in 2018. As an industry, we are very comfortable with “good enough”—until there is actual pain that needs addressing. But we will have to face the prospect of upgrading systems in the near future.
Efficiencies do not seem to have reached smaller publishers, who are still submitting data in spreadsheets, or filling out forms on Amazon, or using services like NetRead to create Onix files on their behalf. So that’s an area ripe for inexpensive, easy-to-use solutions.
In the retail arena, Amazon continues to dominate, increasing its share of all sales made online over the holidays, while Barnes & Noble had a disappointing end to 2016. The Barnes & Noble Nook is simply no match for Amazon’s Fire Tablet, giving Amazon a huge advantage in e-book sales. Amazon is also in the process of opening about 10 bookstores, whose stock will be determined by Amazon’s prodigious use of data. When it comes to digitization and retail, Amazon is a well-funded Juggernaut willing to experiment and fail.
This year also promises to be quite an ambitious year for BISG. New executive director Brian O’Leary comes to BISG with a packed agenda of initiatives, which means that BISG committees are going to be very busy. Standards, particularly those maintained by BISG (Onix, BISAC, and so on) are the lingua franca our business needs to operate smoothly (or as smoothly as it can).
All in all, I think we’re not currently in a terribly disruptive phase, from a digital standpoint. It seems more to be a time of putting tools to work and upgrading to a few new technologies, but a far cry from the upheaval of years past. It’s worth remembering that November will be the 10-year anniversary of the Kindle’s launch, which set off a firestorm of disruption from which we only now seem to be emerging.
Laura Dawson, CEO of Numerical Gurus, is a book supply chain consultant. She also facilitates Metadata Boot Camp, a webinar series tackling metadata issues in publishing.