Brian O’Leary on BISG at 40: ‘A Fresh Look at Everything’

As Book Industry Study Group members gather for a 40th annual meeting, the organization’s incoming director is focused on ‘execution against the objectives and strategies’ of the group.

Brian O'Leary
Brian O’Leary

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘All About Solving Problems’

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday (September 30), the USA’s Book Industry Study Group (BISG) is holding its 40th annual meeting at New York City’s Masonic Hall.

400-bisg-logo-linedAnd for an organization that generally appears to be relatively slow-moving, BISG has had one eventful year.

Last October, Publishers Weekly‘s Andrew Albanese had a Frankfurt Book Fair interview with Mark Kuyper, who had been CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and was, last autumn, replacing Len Vlahos as BISG’s new executive director. Albanese asked Kuyper, among other things, about the importance of data development to publishing. Ironically in retrospect, Kuyper turned for a reference to Google’s driverless car that’s “always collecting data,” as he put it, “and telling the car what to do.”

As it happened, BISG would find itself driverless again in under a year. Kuyper left BISG in August, and this month BISG announced that longtime publishing consultant Brian O’Leary has been tapped to step into the leadership role, beginning officially on Monday (October 3).

Having worked in the Time Inc. magazine division on production and distribution for Time, People, Entertainment Weekly, and other Time Warner properties, O’Leary later led Hammond Inc.—a publisher of geographic reference work—through an editorial restructuring and would go on to teach management and leadership in New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies publishing program.

book-futurist-coverSome of us know O’Leary best for his contextual work around the digital dynamic in publishing. O’Leary’s framing of the “abundance” theme in digital publishing and of an “architecture of collaboration” have had lasting resonance in the industry’s discussions, as has his book with Hugh McGuire, A Futurist’s Manifesto: A Collection of Essays From the Bleeding Edge of Publishing (O’Reilly Media, 2011).

On the eve of the BISG annual membership meeting—billed as a chance to “celebrate BISG’s 40 years of transforming the publishing industry”—Publishing Perspectives asked O’Leary to share a little background with our international audience.

Publishing Perspectives:  What was BISG created four decades ago to do in the American publishing industry?

[pullquote cite=”Brian O’Leary” type=”right”]”When you write a column as a consultant, you don’t have to worry so much about implementation, right? And now I do.”[/pullquote]

Brian O’Leary: BISG initially started as a research organization. A mix of publishers, printers, and trade associations agreed that the industry would benefit from regular, structured studies of what was happening across what we now call the “publishing supply chain,” from publishers through to printers, wholesalers, and retailers.

Early support from industry associations—Association of American Publishers (AAP), American Booksellers Association (ABA), International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), and Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA)—was critical to BISG’s early success, and that support continues through to today.

Since its founding, BISG has grown to address research, information, and standards. Today, it’s probably best known for its work around standards, including implementation of ONIX, the metadata standard maintained by EDItEUR, and regular updates to the BISAC subject codes.

PP: Considering how much change has come to the industry in the last five or 10 years, it’s to be expected that some recalibration and fresh assessments are in order, right?

BO: BISG grew up in a print-only, bricks-and-mortar era, but it has adapted over time to help address challenges presented when new channels and formats come along. The growth of online sales, for example, made it critical that publishers, distributors, and retailers improve their handling of product metadata. BISG’s committee structure brought together representatives from companies across the supply chain to discuss best practices and agree on how that product metadata should be created and managed.

I’d agree that the pace of change has accelerated in the last five to 10 years. The growth of ebooks following Amazon’s release of the Kindle ecosystem is an easy example, but we also have to pay close attention to other areas, like subscription models and the shorter-form content that digital distribution can facilitate.

Recalibration is almost always in order for an established association, and over the next three to six months, I expect we’ll be taking a fresh look at everything we’ve been doing.

PP: In that vein, Jim Milliot’s characterization of BISG’s having “struggled recently to define what its future mission should be” is probably to be expected, right? The ground under it has shifted very fast.

[pullquote cite=”Brian O’Leary” type=”right”]”It’s absolutely critical that we find ways to serve the interests of independent authors. At this point, many don’t understand the supply chain.”[/pullquote]

BO: BISG was somewhat behind in embracing the potential of digital formats. As a result, observers and probably some members came to see us as focused on physical products.

While we’ve done a good deal of work on things like online use of ONIX, we weren’t seen as leading the charge. IDPF owns the EPUB standard, and it has moved quickly to expand its use. That’s okay: we don’t need to own the standard to help the industry benefit from it. A couple of years ago, BISG formally endorsed EPUB 3.0 as a preferred format, something the organization does only rarely.

There’s more: Read the full story at Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Ander­son

Originally published at

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