Thursday, March 31, 2011


Entering new territory - as it appears the book industry is doing - inevitably results in some wrong turnings being taken. Even in the short time since we have had to take digital seriously there are things we realise should have been tackled differently. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to second-guess the future, especially in preparing the ground for what will clearly be a mixed-economy supply chain for some years to come.

One such example is our newest BIC group, rather grandly named the Metadata Futures Group, which has been set up under the chairmanship of Jon Windus of Nielsen to explore the way metadata is going to go on delivering value to the supply chain when the product described is nothing like as simple as just a printed book. Defining products when the products themselves are capable of undergoing continuous change, in their content but also in their technical properties - suitability for devices, delivery platforms, digital rights management, and so on - is a real challenge to existing mechanisms for handling metadata. It begs questions we would no doubt prefer not to ask, but it would be remiss of us not to ask them and see where those questions lead.

If any BIC members would like to be involved in this work, please let me know.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


We awarded another eighteen Supply Chain Excellence Awards last week, making 53 in total and within sight of the 80-odd companies which held the e4books award at the end of last year. Some of the eighteen were those who had found the application form or the timetable for filling it in too challenging when the scheme launched; but there was a gratifying number of independent booksellers too, helped by the simplified form which we have now made available.

We need more applications from publishers. There's so much innovation and enterprising use of technology out there, as we saw at the IPG conference a fortnight ago, it's a shame if they don't want their efforts to be recognised. Independent distributors are also thin on the ground. Supply chain excellence and technical proficiency should be a primary concern for smaller publishers when they look around for a new distributor.

We hope that those BIC members who have won the award already will help to promote the scheme to trading partners and others with whom they are in contact, and encourage them to apply and to support the objectives of a slicker, more efficient supply chain based on innovative technology.

Friday, March 18, 2011


BIC's operational board met on Monday and afterwards its chair, Jonathan Nowell, generously hosted a small reception for the board and other trade luminaries. Quite coincidentally I remembered that it was twenty years almost to the day since BIC had been established; so it became a birthday party too.

I chose that as the theme of a short speech I gave: that BIC had achieved much in its history but that the book world was changing so much and so fast that in many ways we faced the same potential challenges now to standards-driven stability that we did twenty years ago.

Anyway this is what (more or less) I said:

'Since 1991, BIC has achieved a quite extraordinary profile both in the UK and internationally, thanks largely to the vision and perseverance in its early days of my predecessor Brian Green.

'As a result, we have for our core product – the book - a sophisticated supply chain, almost all of it underpinned by a swathe of BIC standards for EDI, barcoding, identifiers, product information, returns processing and so on, and which simply wouldn't function without them.

'Now, however, although BIC will continue to maintain those standards as long as there is a need to do so, we are confronted by an industry in a dramatic transition to new models, which currently operate largely without standards - certainly book trade ones.

'There may never be local or specific book trade standards again. But does that mean there is no role for BIC? Absolutely not: industry collaboration and standards are essential in the long run if the industry is going to prosper – even survive - in the new world. It is vital that the industry works to re-establish its grounding in standards – just as happened in the 90s – to cope with the bewildering complexity of the supply chains of the future.

'We all know that global standards are the inevitable necessity in the digital arena. But local needs and local implementations create the momentum for standards, and BIC’s status as a community of interested individuals and organisations gives us a huge advantage in the quest for greater supply chain stability.

'I want to mention just a few things that BIC is doing or plans to do.

'I am tremendously proud of the recent achievements of the BIC/CILIP RFID in Libraries Group, which has had an influence far beyond its original remit in fostering standardisation in the area of library RFID; and now is rewriting the way RFID systems and library management systems interoperate. This is hugely important work for that sector and has given the group international clout and respect. We are very grateful to its chair, Martin Palmer, and the consultants who work alongside the group for their part in this success story.

'We want to see standardised sales reporting of digital content adopted universally in the UK trade. At present this crucial bit of the digital jigsaw is a mess. The tools to clean it up exist already and this is exactly the kind of supply chain nightmare which we believe we can resolve by promoting those standards and the best practice that goes along with them.

'There is a huge task to be done on metadata. The cosy world of metadata, based on simple processes and identifiers, is irretrievably gone. We need to move fast to prevent complete anarchy moving in to take its place.

'We want to start the process of establishing a global multilingual subject classification scheme, appropriate to digital search and discovery as well as more traditional purposes. The parallel existence of two influential schemes in North America and in Europe is no longer a sustainable model; and we and our colleagues in the US must address it fast.

'We need to engage with the rights community in the communication of rights, contracts, licences and royalties. As rights are the pillars which support the digital publishing edifice, efficient communication of them is going to be as important as the transmission of metadata was ten years ago.

'To conclude, then, we absolutely need to promote standards in the future as we did in the past, and we need the support of the whole industry to do so. Our standards are open and free, but ‘free’ doesn’t mean they come without cost. We therefore beg those organisations which are not in membership but who use our standards to show in a tangible way their commitment to the overwhelming importance of stabilising the supply chain once again as we move through these disruptive times.

'So many thanks to Jonathan Nowell for hosting this reception and to Nielsen for sponsoring it; and to our sponsoring associations and institutions (PA, BA, British Library and CILIP); our committee chairs, consultants and members. The toast is to BIC.'

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


It's seven years since I was invited by Sheila Bounford to speak at the IPG conference in Torquay. It was the beginning of the e4books campaign and the message was that independent publishers needed to think about how proficiency in the supply chain gave them competitive advantage. Thankfully - and greatly to their benefit - many publishers have taken that advice: outsourced distribution, understood the fundamental impact of product metadata on sales performance, installed publishing management systems which reduced error and automated processes which should never be wasting the time of the publishing entrepreneurs who are the bedrock of the IPG.

We're in a different game now, though. IPG members have been as enterprising as ever in embracing the digital future, publishing digitally, developing apps and tweeting and facebooking as if it was going out of fashion. It was depressing from a BIC perspective, though, that this year's conference in Chipping Norton avoided almost any mention of the digital supply chain or the value of product metadata - more important than ever in the digital maelstrom. These subjects may not have the same appeal as social networking but independent publishers ignore them at their peril. Freedom to innovate and publish innovatively - not to mention survival - will for better or worse increasingly depend on the smooth running of these supply chain mechanics.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


One of the best things about our supply chain accreditation scheme is that you don't have to be technically savvy or knowledgeable about industry standards to be a winner. For our team of judges it is just a matter of assessing whether an organisation, wherever it may be in the supply chain, is optimising the use of technology to achieve a limited number of business goals: automating business processes (for recipient as well as sender) to increase efficiency; using automation to improve customer service; and paying due regard to the environment by reducing the amount of waste manual processes tend to generate. Any company which can do these things to the best of its ability is worthy of a supply chain accreditation.

What may not be so easy - especially for busy managers of small publishing or bookselling operations - is to express on a fairly complex application form what drives a supply chain strategy which ticks all these boxes. That's why we have this week launched a simple six or seven point questionnaire, free (I hope) of jargon and technical stuff, suitable for independent booksellers and publishers who have wisely decided to outsource their distribution to professionals. The initial response has been heartening, showing that at least to some extent we have achieved our objective.

Of course we wouldn't expect such organisations to be part of the BIC community, even though they unknowingly use BIC standards every day of their lives: but we do believe that it is our job to empower every part of the supply chain and work with partner organisations like the PA, BA and IPG, and with our members in the systems and services providers' sector - who routinely deliver BIC standards through their products and services - to remind the industry that efficiency in the supply chain is the route to prosperity.