Not pretty enough

Earlier this week, Don Linn posted “A Tragedy of the Commons“, an effective assessment that builds upon the thinking behind “The opportunity in abundance“, recently posted here.

In his post, Don tackles the role of industry associations at a time of significant change. His assessment: “They’ve largely looked after their individual interests to the detriment of the industry as a whole.” It’s a point of view I agree with, but I need to offer a bit of disclosure first.

Last spring (and summer), when the Book Industry Study Group was looking for an executive director to replace Scott Lubeck, I was a candidate. I interviewed with the search committee but did not make it to the next round, in which the BISG board’s executive committee met with a short list of candidates. The job eventually went to Len Vlahos, who came to BISG after working with the American Booksellers Association.

I’ve worked in publishing for 28 years, almost half of that time as a consultant (sobering, I know). I was interested in BISG because it is well-positioned to employ what has been called the convening power of associations.

Before I interviewed, I had already been writing the early drafts of what became “abundance”, and I tested my ideas with the search committee. I didn’t prevail, and that’s a good thing. Every organization wants a leader who can do what the governing body thinks is important. BISG has that, and I wish them well.

I tell you this because I’d rather say it publicly and avoid the suggestion, whispered or e-mailed, that I write about industry associations because I didn’t get the gig. That’s not the case.

As one of my interviewers told me, the BISG has its priorities: dealing with identifiers, rights and piracy. If you know me, and a lot of you do, I’d last about 15 minutes fighting piracy.

So … Don Linn. He speaks plainly, and that isn’t always easy. I’d like to give him some support.

Not only have most associations fiddled while Rome burned; they have been vocal about it. Just last week, the AAR blog included a post calling publishers out for allegedly avoiding negotiations about digital royalty rates. It’s a land grab; why not?

“Abundance” explains why not: we are eroding our competitiveness from the inside out. We need an industry solution, not a cascade of power struggles.

The same thinking applies to BISG and the IDPF. It makes no sense to have two industry standards bodies, one physical, the other digital. But it’s also the case that few vertically sponsored associations vote themselves out of existence. The IDPF recently went the other direction, electing to significantly expand its board of directors. Magellan Media is a member, and we cast the only vote against expanding the board.

A narrow focus can hamper vision. Even though two-thirds or more of the digital books sold in the United States are read inside a proprietary system that has at best a passing relation to the IDPF standard, the public discussions treat Amazon as some sort of outlier.

Amazon, the company that made digital reading a reality, did so by creating an end-to-end solution that avoided the interoperability hassles of earlier e-readers. Publishers, ever eager to wrap DRM around content, bought in. After they helped Amazon make a captive market, publishers balked at things like low ebook prices.

In these debates, associations take sides that mirror their membership interests. Of course they do; that’s why they exist. In stable times, that may be okay.

These are not stable times. Acting as if they are will not help. We don’t need to defend the necessarily narrow work of associations; we need to move past it.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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