Mike Walsh
Mike Walsh (Photo credit: Halans)

In the last couple of weeks, California has been invaded by publishers, librarians and vendors eager to explore their way in a world where publishing paradigms are shifting under their feet.

Here at the Special Libraries Association meeting (SLA) in San Diego this week, Mike Walsh, author of Futuretainment , opened the meeting.  The talk, while quite the glitzy performance, held inspiring themes that resonated soundly with those brought up by Tim O’Reilly and others at SSP in San Francisco a week ago.

In this, my first post for The Scholarly Kitchen, I will explore some of these themes.  I hope they will hit home with many publishers and librarians thinking through the new realities and opportunities ahead of us.

Publishers of all stripes are in many ways keeping pace with change. The real question, though, is perhaps not technological wizardry in itself. The real opportunity for publishers is to begin to reimagine how your business would look if you started with a clean sheet of paper. What products would you develop? How would you organize your business to achieve your goals? How would you work differently? This question was raised overtly by Walsh as he suggested that we need to think beyond our legacy business and address the needs of the next generation of content creators and consumers.

Walsh put it quite bluntly: “The client of the future is not a demographic, it is your kids.” He then went on to ask “If your kids had your job, what is the one thing they would do differently?” This is something that O’Reilly also touched on at SSP, noting that any child since 2007 has just not experienced life without an iPhone. While O’Reilly quite rightly is not a fan of gaming in itself, the fact remains that there are many apps and tools that teach kids the language of creativity, from Minecraft (my nine year old is an addict) to Bad Piggies. Are we rewiring our kids’ brains?

Walsh gave us a number of wonderful illustrations of how inventive kids can be across the world. In Saudi Arabia, young Saudis face many challenges in finding romance. One solution that inventive Saudi youth came up with was to post their Blackberry numbers on the trunks of their cars. Girls in a coffee shop they were passing would spot these, and call as the boys drove past. The Saudi Government caught on and restrictions grew. Now a boy drives past a coffee shop, activates his Bluetooth, and within seconds a Bluetooth screen name from an interested girl who may have seen him drive by will pop up on his device.

Ok, so this is all quite fascinating, but how does it relate to you as a publisher? Publishers should be asking themselves more about the behaviors, needs and pain points of their users. Do we understand not just the way they use technology, but the social constructs that are changing in the way technology is applied? An interesting way of looking at this, raised by Walsh, is how we identify top performers. Who are the smart ones? Are the smartest those who know the answer, or those who are able to look up the answer in the most agile way? At SSP, O’Reilly also asked us to understand our customer. The theme here is that we are much more likely to build successful publishing products if we understand user behavior.

Publishers, like many businesses, have an operational model that harkens back to the 19th century, where control of the business was paramount. While most publishers have seen significant outsourcing, as Walsh puts it, “…you have just exported your mess.” Now things are changing, and it seems that what may distinguish a publisher’s ability to differentiate itself will be its agility and speed, along with the ability for flexible collaboration. Walsh encourages us as publishers, libraries, and academic societies to set up fast internal networks utilizing cloud-based management, encouraging the best performers in the business to use this network for innovation – perhaps akin to working internally in the same way you may use Facebook.

An interesting example of this approach to operating a business can be seen in Intel’s appointment of Dr. Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist, as Director, Interaction & Experience Research. She is also the 2013 Women of Vision Award winner for Leadership. Hers is an enviable job: to observe, understand and reinvent the way we use computers. Take a look at this wonderful video describing her work:

There is another blog post in the making here about the value of big data, around which there is much hype. As Walsh suggests, perhaps Big Data is not about investing in sophisticated technology, but leveraging data to make better decisions.

My take-away – stay close to the customer.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


8 Thoughts on "Stay Close to Your Customers"

But one of the deepest confusions is who is the customer? This is especially true in journals, where many parties are demanding to be served. With APC OA it is the authors but with subscriptions it is the libraries. Green mandates make funders and governments the customer. OA says it is the public readers not the research specialists, but the impact factor says otherwise. Data mining wants it their way. This is all perfectly normal of course because technological revolutions are always social revolutions, where basic social concepts go out of focus for awhile. In this case it is the concept of the customer which is no longer clear.

As for agility the question is how to manage in an issue driven environment without having your people run off in all directions, getting nowhere in the process. Agility requires steadiness in the face of confusion.

Good point, though I would argue that we do know who the customers are, but that we know less about how to serve their shifting profiles – the world is changing changing under their feet. There is another customer that we should consider – our employees – those who have much to offer in Walsh’s request that we reimagine our business.

Yes and let’s not forget the members. Shifting profiles is indeed the challenge.

David has summarized the issue. We have no idea who to serve with what we publish. Nevertheless, there are some things we seem to know – at least in S&T – and that is that any audience is very small and that libraries can influence a decision, but they are service providers and not the ultimate consumer nor determiner of what is purchased. Lastly, that the final consumer is engaged in a rather lonely endeavor, namely: discovery.

I am still questioning just how involved the bulk of the scientific community is involved in the “new” technology. Just what do they expect? Is technology once discovered anything more than a tool? If the technology is no more than a tool then the role of the publisher is to make sure the tool is available.

What does a publisher do? In my mind a publisher provides a means for a author to make that which is written available to an audience and then promote what it made available.

In short, is it the role of the publisher to innovate or to follow?

To add to the complexity, academic libraries are themselves becoming publishers. (There are some 50 members of the Library Publishing Coalition now.) In line with the theme of this post, think about the advantages that libraries becoming publishers may have just because they are not burdened with a legacy business model; they are in a position to invent a model more suited to the times we live in, and they know their customers well.

Is a legacy business a burden? I tend to view a legacy business, if properly managed, a great profit center and a place of innovation.

Robert, I strongly support your position on employees. These are the folks who not only offer ideas but are prepared to carry them out.

There seems to be a narrative coming out of Silicon Valley these days that is based on technological determinism: The world is a scary place, look at youth today, you need to change or go extinct, hire me and I’ll show you the way.

What this narrative ignores is the reality that culture trumps technology. The story of technology is littered with the brushed aluminum hulls of failures that are completely ignored by those who get to retell the story of success. Academics adopt the tools that are useful to them and ignore the rest. Facebook and scientific blogging have done little to change academic publishing in spite of the fact that we were told that this was inevitable just 5 years ago as younger academics moved into the roles of professor and researcher.

After the SSP plenary speech, I chatted with a German who said that the Tim O’Reilly type talk was very much an American cultural icon. When you strip away the details, the story of technological success really is a retelling of the American story of the self-made-man (also known as picking-your-self-up-by-your-bootstraps, among others). It is story that bases success on hard work, pluck, and completely ignores the reality of economics, class, and plain luck. The German responded by saying that this American narrative is completely a fable. Yes, I agreed, but that doesn’t make the story less resounding in US culture. At our table, we all laughed, and then got another drink.

Technology is only a communication (or content) delivery system, it does not build relationships. In the same way it makes it easy for businesses to reach out, it also makes it VERY easy for consumers to slam the door in our faces. Frankly, this is more about trust in our content, our processes in developing content, and our willingness to go the extra mile to produce GREAT content. All the technology in the world cannot make a crap book into a good book.

We completely changed our content process to fully involve the customer base (community) into the development of our top books. Our cadre of VOLUNTEERS started working at the proposal stage, reviewed content as it was submitted by the authors, suggested changes, corrected errors, and even jumped on board to produce additional chapters. More volunteers checked the veracity of the content produced (and corrected) by the first group. In doing so, a publisher with 5 people on staff brought out a technical book that is now the top seller in the subject (by far), and supplanted a book that had been #1 for over 20 years. Volunteer reviewers from academia became customers (adopters) and suggested it to their colleagues. Volunteer reviewers from industry brought their colleagues to the book, and nearly 90% of the companies who were involved, now use the book for training worldwide.

The secret formula behind all this? We simply ASKED. We asked our customers for their opinions. We asked them to help us reach a goal of creating a great book. We asked them to get involved. And they responded with such vigor we were left scrambling to catch up with everyone…a great problem to have.

This is about trust. This is about relationships. This is about creating great content, whether your audience is a thousand or millions. Great content from a trusted source will always be in demand, no matter how it is delivered.

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