The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Publishing’s Supply Chain Needs an Upgrade

From Publisher’s Weekly:

The supply chain we use for book publishing is a lot like an old house. Bringing it up to date is a labor of love that takes a lot of planning, investment, and time. Only when you visit a neighbor who has reimagined their house, do you realize how far behind your own house is.

Though the book industry has evolved with such innovations as online retailing, digital books, and new business models, our plumbing is largely the same as it was 15 years ago. That’s a problem. It limits the ability of publishers, retailers, and other partners in the supply chain to improve discovery, sell more books, and reduce costs. And it leaves too many questions that are difficult to impossible to answer.

For example, there’s no real-time data on how many books are printed each year, where they were printed, or the rate of returns by book type—such as data specifically covering children’s books—across the industry. Retailers who want to share sales data with publishers must use large Excel workbooks with hundreds of columns, which add costs for publishers to format and interpret. Publishers also have difficulty testing new marketing approaches because some distributors and retailers may not pick them up.

These everyday failures in supply-chain communications are like inadequate plumbing. They add work and cost time and understanding. In some cases, they limit what publishers can test or where they can innovate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our neighbors are showing us what can be done. BookNet Canada maintains a metadata repository and API that anyone in the supply chain can use. Together, they make it possible to proof metadata and create web catalogs, and even build something entirely new—like 49th Shelf, a collection of Canadian-authored content, dynamically delivered from the metadata that BookNet maintains.

In the U.K., Book Industry Communication maintains protocols called BIC Realtime that allow publishers and their partners to communicate back and forth about inventory and returns. A payments clearinghouse called BATCH also gives retailers the opportunity to pay invoices from multiple publishers with one check or wire, with the system doing the work of apportioning the payments.

The Dutch, French, German, and Norwegian markets offer a variety of solutions for improving the supply chain—some based on centralized repositories, others on implementation of existing standards for two-way communication across all industry players. The U.S. market could adapt many of these practices and solutions to improve discovery, sell more books, and streamline operations to focus on higher value-added activities.

The Book Industry Study Group is currently gathering information to build the business case for change. The priorities are likely to include creating metadata repositories of record, implementing tools to automate and broaden sales and inventory reporting, and launching a payments clearinghouse across the U.S. market. Other goals may emerge as we engage broadly and deepen our analysis.

Over the next three years, we expect to help the industry create better metadata with more effective feedback on problems and inconsistencies, ultimately delivering greater sales, as better metadata drives discovery. Other changes will increase understanding of industry trends and better establish the impact of publishers’ initiatives. Across the board, we’ll also provide a platform for greater efficiency, as labor is redeployed away from reporting and payments processing.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

PG says real tech companies could finish the job described in the OP in a few months.

If the members of The Ancient and Disorderly Order of Publishing asked Amazon to do this, Zon could go from zero to up-and-running in three months. Amazon could even provide much-improved warehouses.

5 thoughts on “The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Publishing’s Supply Chain Needs an Upgrade”

  1. The BPHs could, theoretically, build such a system just by writing a check to the right consultancy if they ever got a clue, but…
    How long would that kind of coordination last before today’s ideologically driven FTC screamed “CARTEL!”. And, for a change, not without reason.

    Specifically, does any american industry engage in that kind of coordination the OP pines for in that mistitled piece?
    I can’t think of one outside of pro sports where MLB enjoys an explicit (and controversial) antitrust exception.

    Beyond that, somebody ought to explain to the OP what a supply chain is.

    “A supply chain is a complex logistics system that consists of facilities that convert raw materials into finished products which are later distributed to end consumers [1] or end customers.”

    It is not a post-manufacturing (much less post sale) product tracking or collusion tool. 😛

  2. Yes, Amazon could supply new warehouses.

    It couldn’t supply data that justifies the accounting memes built into commercial publishing contracts (yes, that’s a whisper of “retuuuuuuuuuuurns” you’re hearing in the distance). Similarly, Amazon couldn’t delay providing that data for a few months to continue justifying the existing royalty-accounting periods, payment schedules, or anything else. Someone would start using the “f” word (this one). And the fine, upstanding scoundrels management can’t have that. Accurate, timely, auditable data is the last thing that commercial publishers want.

    Most importantly, it couldn’t supply cats for the warehouses. And according to widely-accepted mythology, all bookstores must have cats.

  3. This jumped out at me…

    Retailers who want to share sales data with publishers must use large Excel workbooks with hundreds of columns,

    Really? An Excel sheet with hundreds of columns? THAT is publishing’s data interchange format?

    • They’ve upgraded.
      It used to be CSV on floppies.

      That is not a joke; years ago I saw credible reports that at least one of the BPHs was still on sneakernet into the 21st century.

      Moving to EXCEL is a baby step forward but they are looking at a cliff:
      1- MS announced over a month ago the GPT tech is coming to Excel so being laggards may prove fortuitous.

      2- However, I recently saw an assessment of the state and direction of “AI” software and two of the earliest white collar professions at risk (if they don’t figure out how to leverage it themselves) are proof editors and accountants. (Word and Excel being the beachheads, coincidentally).

  4. The Book Industry Study Group is currently gathering information to build the business case for change.

    Didn’t Bezos do that in 1995?

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