Let’s start with your professional background. You have a degree in Philosophy and you started to work in publishing as an editor. How come you currently manage international projects which deal with rights information management, interoperability and metadata? Which is the path that led you there?
I can say that when I started working for the publishing industry I was almost illiterate in both fields: my previous knowledge was limited to that I read books and I used a computer basically as a typing machine and to search the Internet with my 64Kb modem. I had no idea of the work, processes, professionals behind the fact that I could buy a book in a bookstore. For me there was a writer and then magically the book was there on a shelf. Likewise I had no clue about why and how things could pop up on the screen just by clicking some buttons.
However I had some glimpses of what I would have had to face in my professional life already at the time I was writing my dissertation when I faced the issue of finding information and documents on the subject of my thesis. I’m talking about some 15 years ago, but as odd as it may seem today to find and have access to most of the materials, I had to make plenty of phone calls, travel in Italy and abroad and visit bookseller, libraries and archives, including those belonging to small not for profit organisations. At the same time searching on the Internet I realized that there was a lot out there but that for me it was quite a challenge to understand whether a source was reliable or just crap. Believe me, finding what I was looking for was a real mess!
I had the clear perception that there must have been a better way to reach the same information and that technology could be the enabler. But I did not have the background or the skills to support this wishful thinking.
Then, at the beginning the new Millennium, as part of a stage for a post-graduate training course I ended up in publishing, namely at Associazione Italiana Editori.
And a ‘new’ chapter begun. As you recalled I started working as editor, but for the trade magazine of the Association, the ‘Giornale della Libreria‘, that at the time had an almost complete paper-based traditional workflow. Proofreading and editing professional articles on the different topics around publishing, interviewing publishers, distributors, booksellers, visiting Italian and International bookfairs to report for the magazine, has been a great school to learn about the publishing industry. And of course also technology was in the radar and, disappointing intellectuals among my family and friends, apparently I was more attracted by xml than by Nobel Prizes, so I started supporting more experienced colleagues in projects with technological component.
In the meanwhile technology was also growing more and more important in publishing, as everywhere, so, when I had the occasion, I just jumped on the other side. Well this is not really correct: I jumped in between!
mEDRA, the organization you work at, is a SME created with the clear purpose to bring together ICT and publishing in a single environment and build an integrated team comprising publishing and business oriented profiles and IT oriented profiles. What about this joint venture? Which are the most valuable aspects?
First of all it’s fun! Which brings me to the most valuable aspects, in my opinion: the team.
Internally a team made of individuals with different backgrounds, skills and attitudes is a constant source of intellectual challenge, forces you to look at things from different angles, to discuss different perspectives, to contaminate and be contaminated so that at the end of the day you are no longer 100% IT or 100% publishing. At least in the way projects are approached.
To the outside, this team is flexible, we can go straight to the IT solution, but we can also support the client in understanding what is the real need,
Moreover the fact the mEDRA lives in the broader ecosystem of the Italian Publishers Association and of CINECA, the largest Italian computing center, allows the team to easily acquire knowledge, make experiences and have a solid network of relations nationally and worldwide.
As a team we also evolved this way, from being specialized in a focused IT based service for publishers as DOI Registration Agency, to a wider range service provider and consultancy company. You know… you have a kind of insight of what’s going on in the IT space and of what’s going on in the publishing industry, you share and talk, each of us learns a bit and everybody wins.
At the end I would say, mEDRA is an interoperability layer between publishing and IT: we can talk ‘IT’ and we can talk ‘publishing’ and translate from one to the other.
You daily deal with both publishing houses and ICT companies. Which are right now the strengths of each sector and the most urgent issues they are facing?
Sometimes I think the biggest issue publishers are facing is fear. Fear of the Googles and Amazons, fear of the pirates but also of the Spotifys, fear of change but also of not changing, in a way fear of losing their role in the book value chain. A fear that existed in pre-digital time and that has become stronger in the digital time, partly because it is easier for competitors to take over functions traditionally assigned to publishers, partly because of the speed on the power some of these competitors move on the market.
However being able to play the role of a publisher does not imply to be able to be a good publisher, at least not in all cases.
Therefore in my opinion the strength of the publishing sector is being publishers, knowing the difference between a ‘good’ books and ‘bad’ books, the mechanisms that drive readers choice, the diversity in editorial programmes. They should now be able to understand how technology can support them in better doing their job, avoiding the temptation to become technologist. Technology is must be a means, not the goal in itself.
I’m probably naïf, but I still believe that the quality and innovation in the content is a pre-requisite for successful innovation in the container, whatever form it takes: printed books, journals, e-books, apps, games, unstructured content in semantic relations on the web.
Here comes the possibility of collaboration with organisations in the ICT sector: they focus on the means, they are used to move quickly, with demonstrators, prototyping and in some cases have strong links to research centers in universities. On the other side ICT companies in my view need to apply their innovation on real life, on something that matters and, in case of publishing, I’d say on something that can enrich the experience of being humans.
I believe that publishing companies and ICT companies shall not lose their identity, and thus their strengths, just innovate to combine them.
The issue that I see for both sectors is that of finding a win-to-win model for finding solutions now and in the future, more than find a solution for each specific problem.
According to you, where are the most valuable synergies between publishing and ICT? Is there a specific area or sector? Which are the most interesting examples?
As I said, I think the most valuable synergies between publishers and ICT concern the method for collaborating. Let me put it this way: both the publishing sector and the ICT sector need to understand that they can learn and profit from the knowledge and experience of the other, and therefore listen to each other. An example in this direction is the creation of a working group within W3C dedicated to ‘publishing’ in the broader sense. This is exciting, although ‘more publishing’ might be needed…
What I would like to see is a common place where ICT and publishing meet, a sort of think-thank or incubator if you want: someone has an idea, someone else will for sure make it real, someone has a problem, someone else will for sure solve it. It doesn’t matter if you are a small independent company or a big group, open and transparent collaboration between ICT and publishing but also within each of the two industries, help to make innovation and make business.
In a way it’s what the TISP project has started, go TISP go!
Which are right now the skills and the professional profiles that publishing houses cannot miss to integrate within their companies in order to achieve better results?
There is nothing new in saying that publishing houses shall have professionals that do not panic if someone mentions something like ‘metadata’, ‘xml’, ‘database’ or ‘semantic web’, or any other nerd-stuff that may come up at every moment. Then depending on the attitude of the publishing house towards technology and its real needs you can also have a full professional profile, or an office, that manages innovation on technology projects of the publishing house, dealing with the IT department of the IT provider. Clearly they also need to have time for this, meaning that this kind of activity is considered as an investments not a waste of time, although not strictly ‘core’ to the business of publishing books.
Which are the publishing skills that ICT companies are looking for and should incorporate?
I don’t think ICT companies need publishing skills, I think they need the skills to understand the publishing industry and their needs. Practically have someone in the team that goes to bookfairs and publishing conferences, to learn what publishing is about and what it is not about, the practices and standards of the sector…
If you allow, they have to implement an interface for the publishing industry.
Interview by Elisa Molinari, Associazione Italiana Editori