Firebrand Community Conference Inside Edition: Q&A with Magellan Media Founder, Brian O’Leary

Brian O’Leary is founder and principal of Magellan Media, a management consulting firm that works with publishers seeking support in content operations, benchmarking and financial analysis. O’Leary is known for his well thought out opinions regarding the state of the publishing industry when looked at from the standpoint of digital vs. print and how these formats affect the publishing supply-chain. He is also the architect of “Development, Use, and Modification of Book Product Metadata,” an industry report he put together for the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). At Firebrand’s Community Conference he will be making an appearance as the event’s keynote speaker. Firebrand Community Concierge, Chris Hislop had the distinct pleasure of picking the brain of one of the industry’s clear thought leaders:

Chris Hislop: What excites you about participating in the Firebrand Community Conference this year?

Brian O’Leary: Over the last several years, publishing has become a data-driven business, but there are relatively few meetings or events that focus on the topic. I think we’re reaching critical mass when it comes to understanding how data “fits” our view of publishing, and the Conference brings together a cross-section of people who are eager to talk about the opportunities and challenges ahead.

CH: You’ve been to the Conference before. What were your impressions of it? Is it an event you’d recommend to colleagues?

BO’L: I attended the 2010 Conference, and I was impressed by the dialogue that took place in every session I attended. Firebrand fosters this by selecting session leaders from among those attending and encouraging presenters to talk less and facilitate more. I’ve already recommended the event to colleagues, several of whom I expect will attend this year.

CH: You had an interesting “debate” in regards to Digital and Print publications at the TOC Executive Roundtable 2012. Where does your stance lie between Digital vs. Print? Have strides been made since this conversation to better marry the two formats under a given roof?

BO’L: I kicked off the Roundtable discussion with a presentation, “The Opportunity in Abundance,” that encourages publishers to think more broadly about the role of content in the lives of those who consume it. This is a theme I keep returning to in various ways. At TOC this year, I was considering the overall supply chain.

Although I think we’re reaching a turning point in the discussion of  “digital vs. print”, I’ve always felt that it’s a false debate. The question is not “either-or”, but “either-and.” Publishers and other supply-chain participants have to be prepared to deliver content as the consumer wants it. Print will persist, digital will grow and new content forms will emerge as we learn how to deliver content in a blended environment.

It’s hard to say how much has changed since the discussion in February. Things generally move slowly in publishing, and that’s a concern. Although we’re in the second decade of digital content, legacy print workflows still dominate in the book space.

CH: When people mention your name, it is inevitably linked to “metadata.” What is it about metadata that led you to dive so deeply into it for the recent report you released with BISG?

BO’L: Honestly, there are plenty of people with better metadata chops than I can claim. What Magellan brought to the party is a methodology that can provide a foundation for sustained change in this area.

Since 1998, Magellan has emphasized making data-driven decisions about things like print-on-demand technologies, piracy and agile content. When the Book Industry Study Group issued an RFP last fall asking for help evaluating the dissemination, modification and use of metadata across the supply chain, we proposed an approach that emulated what we have done successfully in these other areas.

We interviewed people at 30 different firms, surveyed another 125 and analyzed the results in detail. In many ways, you have to be “in the weeds” first, to develop the data you need to drive higher-level assessments and recommendations. The cooperation of people working across the supply chain kept us going. Even when they disagreed with one another about the source of persistent problems, they all agreed that improving the current situation must be an industry priority.

CH: People talk a lot about where the publishing industry was, and where it’s headed. Let’s focus on the present for a second. What do you see when you look around at the current publishing landscape? Given this image, where do you see things going? What does the road look to the future look like, and how do we get there?

BO’L: To borrow a phrase from Kat Meyer, Charlotte Abbott and the Firebrand/NetGalley team, “Follow the Reader”. That’s what’s missing today.

I’m not a big fan of predictions. Publishing is not one business; you can’t reliably say that what is true for trade books is true for professional or STM publishing. You probably can’t even say that something is true for all trade books.

I do think we can all do a better job of trying to understand the reader. To help there, I go back to a 2010 presentation, “Context First,” in which I offered four implications of a reader-driven, content-abundant universe:

  • Content must become open, accessible and interoperable. Adherence to standards will not be an option;
  • Because we compete on context, we’ll need to focus more clearly on using it to promote discovery;
  • Because we’re competing with businesses that already use low- and no-cost tools, trying to beat them on the cost of content is a losing proposition.  We need to develop opportunities that encourage broader use of content; and…
  • We will distinguish ourselves if we can provide readers with tools that draw upon context to help them manage abundance.

All publishers can look at the readers they serve and map to their needs using these four filters, plus ones that make sense for them. Predictions can often come across as static endpoints. I’d rather look at these ideas as markers on a publishing roadmap.

CH: People are getting very excited for your upcoming keynote presentation at the Conference. Care to leak any insight as to what they can expect? Or is it a “wait and see” type of scenario?

BO’L: It’s not quite “wait and see”; I’m working on the presentation now. Because the Conference audience is already familiar with metadata as a topic, I’ll be focusing on reaching “the next plateau.”

The ability to distribute content globally exists today, and it is shifting how we plan for and negotiate distribution rights. Digital formats really require that metadata travel with or as part of the content, something most publishers need to address. The ability to capture conversations about book content is an increasingly critical part of marketing, but we’re not doing this now. I’m planning to look at these and other areas to offer a perspective that might help those attending navigate the next few years.

CH: Will fireworks be involved?

BO’L: I’m not really a ‘fireworks’ kind of guy, but for Firebrand, I’ll try.

Join us at the Community Conference! For more information click here!

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