Guest Columnist: Working Smarter
It can’t have escaped the attention of anyone in the book business that we’re working through the toughest trading conditions that any of us have experienced. In the course of just a few months, we have become accustomed to a flood of bad news from our industry—declining book sales in most outlets, significant job losses, traditional sales channels shrinking and consolidating, and consumer confidence at an all-time low. If you add into the picture declining literacy skills and the apparently irresistible attraction of other types of media, it’s tempting to succumb to persistent pessimism and certainly to abandon the view that comforted many for so long—that we work in a recession-proof industry. It’s also tempting to view the years immediately before the current recession as some kind of “golden age,” though statistics don’t support this viewpoint. In fact, as figures from the Book Industry Study Group’s (BISG) “Book Industry Trends” report have made clear, unit sales of books overall have been flat for several years. Certain sectors of publishing—most notably children’s and religious books—have bucked the general trend in recent years, and even today there are bright spots, such as the rapid growth (admittedly from a low base) of e-book sales. But these should not obscure the main headline: Book publishing has now moved from a no-growth or, at best, low-growth business to one currently (and we all hope temporarily) in decline.
The traditional reaction in tough times is to cut costs, by doing the same work with fewer people or just doing less, and in recent months we have seen many announcements of job losses, moratoriums on new titles, companies pulling out of major trade shows and much else. The traditional reaction is often the right one, but it’s rarely the only option. Many companies take the opportunity to review some of their key business processes and see what opportunities there are to do things more efficiently and in a more standardized way. At BISG, where our mission for more than 30 years has been to help the book business achieve higher levels of efficiency in its supply chain operations, we have been working to help our members and the industry at large identify ways to cut costs by “working smart.”
Where to Begin
Where should a company determined to take a hard look at its supply chain activities and seek efficiencies start? The first step is to identify processes where manual, nonstandard and repetitive tasks have persisted. This leads many book businesses to look at their routine communications with trading partners and the processes that generate the basic building blocks of those communications: orders, order acknowledgments, invoices and so on.
For many years, BISG has been promoting the benefits of e-commerce and making it easier for businesses to adopt a standardized approach to these basic transactions. It’s clear for many companies that the perceived complexities, the tangle of acronyms and jargon, and confusion about seemingly competing standards have inhibited them from tackling obvious inefficiencies in their communications with trading partners. What is EDI? What version of X12 should I use for my messages? Should I skip X12 entirely and use XML?
At BISG, it’s our job to remove as much of the mystery as possible from electronic commerce and provide businesses with the essential information necessary to move from manual and nonstandard processes to automated and standardized ones. That’s why for many years we have provided the industry with access to the key EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) messages in various formats and why we continue to update these standards so companies of all kinds can find standard message types suitable for their particular needs and technical capabilities.
Building on this foundation, BISG shortly will begin the process of defining more clearly the business requirements behind e-commerce and ultimately introducing a certification program to give more active support and advice to those preparing the basic EDI messages. Of course, adopting e-commerce ultimately saves money, but it is about more than just that. It increases the reliability, accuracy and security of the messages that are critical for a business’s commercial success and trading relationships.
The Importance of Good Data
While we’re examining the engine room of book businesses, let’s include a review of how product information is created and distributed. Can there be anything more critical to a publisher’s, bookseller’s or wholesaler’s sales success in these difficult times than accurate, timely and comprehensive product data? For more than 10 years, the message about the importance of good data has been proclaimed throughout our industry. We have seen much improvement in that time, but there is still a long way to go before we can say that the book business has really gotten the message. Inaccurate and unreliable data about titles, publication dates, prices and much more continues to be common, despite the easy availability of information, advice and standards to help everyone in the supply chain perfect their product information.
Having supported the industry with standards and best practices in this area for many years, BISG introduced last year a certification program that enables publishers to provide us with product data files in ONIX or Excel, and to receive free and independent feedback. Several publishers used the service, and many of them attained BISG certification, but we would like to see many more. In today’s climate, who ignores offers of free, expert advice?
Business communication and product information are only two examples of where book businesses can look for improvements in efficiency that in turn can lead to higher sales. There are many others. The sorry mess of industry returns is one obvious area. Many are even less glamorous (are poorly formatted carton labels leading to delayed shipments?), but in times as difficult as these, it’s vital to explore even the darkest corners of our businesses to identify opportunities for greater efficiency.
As an industry, there is so much more to be done to make our supply chain processes more effective. Cooperation across the industry is vital if we’re going to succeed. So many of the initiatives we take for granted and which are so essential for the operation of our industry—ISBN-13, BISAC Subject Codes, .ePub—were possible only because of the determination and commitment of many people prepared to devote time to the development of standards for the greater good of the book business and to work through organizations such as BISG, the Association of American Publishers and the International Digital Publishing Forum.
Our industry needs to renew its commitment to efficiency and support that commitment by dedicating time and energy to initiatives that lead to efficiency. The need for that contribution has never been greater because the challenges facing us have never been tougher.
Michael Healy is the executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, a nonprofit membership body established in New York more than 30 years ago to improve the efficiency of the book industry through standards, research and information. Healy has 25 years’ experience in the book industry, and prior to joining BISG in 2006, he spent seven years as editorial director of Nielsen Book Services, a leading supplier of information, transaction and market measurement services to the international book industry.