In November, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) board of directors approved the appointment of its officers for fiscal year 2020, which includes Andrew Savikas, who was elected board chair at BISG’s annual meeting of members in April 2019. Currently the president of GetAbstract, a service that provides business book summaries for corporate learning, Savikas is widely respected as an executive and as a strategic thinker, whose career includes stints at O'Reilly Media, where he ran the highly regarded Tools of Change for Publishing conferences in New York and Frankfurt, and Safari Books Online.
Publishing consultant Julie Blattberg recently caught up with Savikas to talk about his new role as BISG board chair, and the issues he hopes to take on.
You were elected chair of the Book Industry Study Group earlier this year. What made you decide to throw your hat into this ring?
I had the privilege of serving on the BISG board some years back, so I knew how important this organization is to the industry. I saw the opportunity to serve as its chair as a chance to roll up my sleeves and join some of the sharpest minds in publishing during an incredibly exciting time. A lot of really interesting stuff is happening in the part of the industry I work in now at getAbstract, around using summaries as a marketing and discovery tool, and I really wanted us to be part of those kinds of rights and marketing conversations happening every day within and around BISG.
Since taking on this role, is there anything you learned about the industry, or BISG, that you didn’t know before?
Well, one thing I've learned is that there is always more to learn. Also, that what any one of us calls 'publishing' can vary quite a bit depending on where we sit within the overall ecosystem. Sometimes it reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, and I've learned that BISG comes about as close as anyone to helping folks see the whole elephant that is publishing in the 21st century.
From the annual meeting, to webinars and workshops, BISG is focusing a lot on innovation and technology. Is this a change in direction for BISG?
Well, one company's innovation is another company's disruption. I see them as just two ways to interpret change. And, of course, if there wasn't anything changing, I'm not sure we'd need an organization like BISG anymore! The emergence of new technologies is now driving change in just about every facet of our industry. And the rate of change for so many of us is now increasing with the same relentless momentum as Moore's Law. At the same time that technology contributes to change, it often offers new tools for responding to those changes, so I certainly agree it's important for BISG to focus a lot of attention on technology and innovation.
On the other hand, technology by itself doesn’t change anything. It's the competitive context and the company culture in which that technology is applied that determines the ultimate outcome. That's why BISG's four core pillars—Information, Standards, Research, and Community—are so important. Together, they help all of us make sense of new technologies in context, as well as provide the cross-industry community connections needed to work together to solve problems along the way.
BISG executive director Brian O'Leary has a great framework for describing how BISG does just that, which is "Convene, Amplify, Solve." In other words, get the right people around the table, help surface the most important and useful ideas and information, and give folks a forum to work together. And if you look back over the past 40-plus years, whether it was bar codes, or BISAC, or ISBN13, BISG has done just that.
BISG partnered with the University of Michigan, the University of North Texas, and KU Research on an open access e-book usage project, and published a white paper in May. It also just released a white paper on publishing workflows that was sponsored by the Copyright Clearance Center. How do you see BISG using these kinds of partnerships to build on its core work?
Brian and the BISG staff do some incredible work, but BISG is also a relatively small organization, so partnerships like those just give us more leverage. It's also an important way to cultivate relationships with other organizations in the industry doing important work. I see us collaborating even more in the future, not just on research but also on events and other programming for our members, as a way to accomplish more and better work with others than we could ever deliver on our own. A joint BISG/BMI event on book production scheduled for next February is another good example.
BISG has been one of the loudest voices in the industry when it comes to metadata. What else is on BISG’s radar?
Well, there have been a lot of loud voices talking about the importance of metadata for more than a decade now, but, as we heard from Michael Tamblyn during his keynote at this year's BISG annual meeting, we've still got a long way to go. Metadata will continue to be a focus area for BISG, but there are a lot of other important topics on our radar, too.
For example, we continue to hear from members about how important rights taxonomies are, especially as business models continue to evolve.
The explosion in digital audiobooks has also generated a lot more interest from members in understanding that evolving market, as well as looking at what role BISG can play in audiobook standards.
Accessibility remains a critical topic, in part because accessible content is inherently more discoverable and plays better with new digital channels. We're also talking about how we can help our members make sense of key new technologies like AI and blockchain.
What do you see as the greatest challenges for BISG? And, how might they be turned into opportunities?
I'd say one of our biggest challenges is awareness outside of the supply chain, production, and operations corners of our member organizations, and the industry in general. And some of the most interesting stuff happening out there right now is in marketing, it's in mobile, it's in audio, it's in data analytics—and many of those folks just aren't as familiar with BISG and the role we can play in convening, in amplifying, and in solving problems.
Our opportunity is to engage with new audiences and find ways to help them in their work. We also know that we have a challenge with making sure we're relevant well outside of the New York metropolitan area. There are so many cities and regions across the country with vibrant publishing ecosystems, so we're looking at what we might do to serve those more effectively. We recently held an event in Chicago, and we're looking at doing one in Denver next year.
Fundamentally, the center of gravity within the industry has shifted—it's no longer centered around a relatively small number of New York firms covering each step in a linear supply chain. It's now a much richer web of interconnections, with authors connecting directly to consumers, with corporations doing just as much "publishing" as many publishers, and with specialty retailers assuming much more prominence even as independent bookstores experience a renaissance. While each of those shifts presents big challenges, they also represent enormous opportunity for BISG to do what it's done so well for more than 40 years, which is help those of us in the book business learn from each other and work together to solve problems.
Why is a trade association like BISG still important / relevant to the book industry?
Those of us in the book business aren't the only ones dealing with an increased rate of change and the need to focus on innovation. There's a growing body of research on the digital transformation throughout our economy, and one of the most important findings from that research is that the companies who are furthest along in that process of digital maturity are those that cultivate rich networks. They use both formal and informal ties when cooperating to achieve shared goals, and they consider that kind of cooperation vital to their innovation efforts. BISG is at its best when it helps its members work together across the industry to do just that—to achieve shared goals—and in my view that's only going to get more important in the years ahead.
Any predictions for BISG for the year ahead?
I've learned the hard way that making predictions is a risky proposition, so I'm going to invoke a quote usually attributed to William Gibson: “The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet.”
In that sense, the future of BISG is already here in the outstanding work the organization does today in areas like metadata, workflow, and rights. In the year ahead, I look forward to seeing BISG do more of that same kind of work in many more areas of the book industry.
Julie Blattberg consults to publishers, authors, and nonprofits on everything from workflow and metadata, to audience development and product branding. She has held strategy marketing and operations positions at HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Disney Publishing Worldwide, and Open Road Integrated Media, where she was v-p strategic operations. Blattberg also serves on the board of the Women’s Media Group.