Conference Recap: Taming the Giant—BISG Takes On Big Data
At the BISG ninth annual Making Information Pay Conference, held at the McGraw Hill auditorium on May 3, seven expert presenters took the assembled 200 industry professionals through a fast-paced three-and-a-half-hour session slicing Big Data down to manageable bites.
Not for the faint of heart, the event was focused on the message that Angela Bole, BISG Deputy Executive Director opened with. Citing a McKinsey Institute study’s warning of a critical shortage of expert analytical information workers she said that “It’s our belief that, as an industry, we need to harness the awesomeness of ‘deep analytical expertise’ in order to create the kind of book industry that’s truly capable of the innovation necessary to stay relevant over the coming years.”
Big Data, she said, “refers to the act of ‘taming’ the volume, variety and velocity of massive datasets.” It is what takes us to a place where we’re now able to develop holistic approaches to full-scale strategies that are analytical in the deepest sense of the term.”
BISG’s Information Stewardship
The good news is that some fabulous minds are at work on the stratospherics among the twelve major BISG committees and the BISG Coordinating Council and among industry information providers, while others are at the ready to translate the message in practical and simple terms.
BISG, in its stewardship of the book publishing industry’s efforts to grow its business insights to the level of its literary prowess, revealed its total commitment to this task in the tightly woven program as well as in its last 2010-2011 Annual Report. The report, with a forward by Dominique Raccah, Chair (Sourcebooks), and Kenneth Michaels, Vice Chair (Hachette), summarizes an impressive range of education, research, events and development.
These included, as Bole reported, an ongoing Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading survey launched in 2009. This was followed up with an ongoing Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education survey in 2010 and, just a few months ago, a Higher-Education Faculty survey to complement the student point of view.
In keeping with its information goals, two years ago BISG decided, Bole reported,” to discontinue Book Industry TRENDS, a research report BISG had been publishing since 1977, in order to enter a new joint venture with the Association of American Publishers.” It enabled the two organizations to provide “a single annual accounting of the size and shape of U.S. book publishing. The result of this work is BookStats, now about to launch numbers for year two during BookExpo next month.”
The Challenge of Big Data
We all know that there is more to data than meets the eye. It is hard enough to corral the tsunami of information that greets us daily—even harder to extract useful nuggets of information from which plausible insights can be drawn.
Especially so when the industry’s eye has been cast largely in the least effectual direction, as Peter Collingridge, Founder of Bookseer, observed “Publishing is a business that has always been driven by supply, “he said. The internet and web 2.0 empowered customer preference to drive the business and laid bare how costly many misdirected promotional programs based on traditional models can be without a real understanding of what will drive business.
Further quoting Jeff Bezos that “Data trumps intuition,” Collingridge summed up the futility of efforts to spend money pushing supply to uncertain demand when he cited Brian O’Leary’s warning that “ultimately, making changes without collecting data is the publishing equivalent of using sonar without listening for the response.”
O’Leary, Founder and Principal of Magellan Media, also appeared at the conference, shining additional light on the inefficiencies of assembling and transmitting data without some better forms of curating. O’Leary presented an interim report of the study he is conducting for BISG to map the flow of product metadata across the publishing supply chain.
One example among his interim findings: transmission of ONIX formats among publishers vary widely, as 56% sent multiple versions of a single product feed and 85% maintain separate digital edition feeds. Highlighting these factoids reminds us that even on the basic level of what should be undisputed information, analysis will be frustrated by the incompleteness of input to our industry distribution system.
Dealing with Big Data
Returning to the main chance, the fundamentals of matching apples to apples in sales, inventory and returns (for print), version performance (for digital), and title, author, BISAC subject and channel behavior (for all formats) begin with accuracy and completeness in meta data compilation and transmittal. All of the analytics that might follow rest on these identifiers.
More importantly, knowing why customers choose a particular author, book, online or physical retailer can lead to powerful efficiencies in directing customer attention to their interests and where they can be satisfied.
Jake Freivald, Vice President of Corporate Marketing, Information Builders, speaking to information as a strategic asset, highlighted the importance of identifying who needs what kind of information, how it is to be used, and setting up a process for management and execution that has to begin with buy-in from top leadership in the company. Details of his presentation, along with others can be found in the presentation slide downloads on the BISG site.
Start small, he counseled, keep it simple and ask yourself whether the cost of assembling and managing the data being collected will provide a benefit worth the effort and expense.
If you are a mid-range or smaller independent publisher, the burden of cutting your way through “big data” in industry reports to what might be useful so that you can find your own target can be even heavier. However, as the threats to survival facing the large and the small begin increasingly to converge—technologies, distribution oligarchs, empowered readers and authors, social networks reaching millions and generating billions of transactions, eroding intellectual property protections—BISG and industry efforts to set best practices, standards of reporting and meta data, will increasingly serve the interests of all levels of the industry.
Examples of Big Data operations
Two presenters described how massive amounts of data flow can now be tamed in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even ten years ago.
Kyle Marx, Vice President of Business Analytics, Readerlink Distribution Services, LLC, provided an example of an enterprise for which Big Data is a daily onrush that needs taming and honing down continuously. Readerlink, it turns out, has become (while I wasn’t paying attention) the largest printed book distributor in the nation, serving 23,000 non-bookstore retail store fronts (Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, CVS, Walgreens, etc.), and sells one out of every 5 U.S. trade books and 45% of the top 100 best sellers. Converting analytics into insight to maximize sales is their primary goal.
Kyusik Chung, Vice President of Business Development, Goodreads, speaking to the discovery of books online, provides reading recommendations from 8,000,000 readers who furnish reviews, discussion forums and book clubs. These readers “shelve their recommendations” resulting in a total of 299,000,000 books “shelved” at the rate of 16 million a month.
In this way users can share the libraries and recommendations with each other with various levels of access. Getting to the “sweet spot” for alerting users to books that would match their interest is, of course, the secret sauce of this enterprise. Goodreads connects potential readers when they are on the detail page for a title to three “buy” buttons that go to Barnes & Noble, to others online (a list that begins with Kobo and passes through half a dozen others before getting to Amazon) and one to OCLC that enables readers to locate where the book can be found in local libraries,.
Goodreads seems very much in the genre of Carol Fitzgerald’s Book Report Network founded in 1996 with 11,000 registered book clubs and 1.2 million unique visitors. Also Tim Spalding’s Library Thing founded in 2005 as an exchange for librarians that is open to all readers, with 1,526,000 members, 72 million books catalogued consisting of 6,800,000 unique works and 7,830 interest groups.
Talk about Big Data!
Leaving Big Data to address some of its causations, closing the program were Len Vlahos, Executive Director of BISG, who spoke to “Future Attitudes Toward eBook Reading,” and Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business."
Vlahos walked through some of the unexpected in the Book Stats 2011 Report and the 2012 e-Book Reading Report, such as the continued modest growth of hard and paperback trade (at the expense of mass market paperback decline) and the steep rise in eBook sales from January 2011 to January 2012. More intriguing was the unanswered closing question (stay tuned!) he raised about the likely scenarios for book industry development in the face of the aggressive and hypnotic challenge of entertainment media on tablets and portable devices competing for attention with reading.
Duhigg used a case study to illustrate the cycles of habit from “cue” through “routine” to “reward”—reinforced by craving. Brain activity analysis supports the validation of cues in relation to habit. And behavior routines certainly do. Using the case study of the introduction of Febreze, a consumer product intended to eliminate unpleasant odor—Duhigg showed how its original marketing test failed because the assumed reward—eliminating unpleasant odor—proved to be the wrong incentive. As it turned out, a different reward promotional strategy (the satisfaction of things fresh and clean) resulted in a billion dollar product.
Duhigg showed how to apply to effective advertising and merchandising understanding why consumers develop habits—and how to apply this understanding to selling books. His book seems worth a buy.
All in all, a lot was packed into the morning—fortified by an 8 a.m. buffet breakfast and mid-morning coffee break. The BISG interim event format for a half-day session can be daunting for us note-takers—but they have the virtue of concentrating both speaker and audience to the subject at hand.
A good event doesn’t happen without a lot of good planning and hard work—so kudos to Len Vlahos, Angela Bole, and the BISG staff.
Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.