Focus on a Resilient and Timely Supply Chain for the Future

During these strange times many people in the book industry have one earnest desire, and that is to return to normality or something akin to daily life before COVID19. Although the government is taking steps to lift restrictions on business and leisure activities, we should be honest enough to recognise that normality as we knew it is gone forever.

For the book industry, the watch words include consolidation, cost control, client retention, revenue, routes to market, new clients and adaptability.

COVID19 is not the first time the book industry has encountered disruption. It is not the first time that change has been forced upon us. What is different is the extent and impact of the disruption and the sense of anticipation that this has created. We should avoid being too harsh on ourselves, take heed of past disruption in the sector and remember that the book industry is highly skilled, adaptable and positive in outlook.

So, is this the time for innovation or retrenchment, where businesses either spend money or cut costs? Neither. Now is the time to focus on a resilient and timely book supply chain. Let’s take the best book industry practices of the pre COVID19 world and combine them with some of the ideas, initiatives and projects that we never applied in our own businesses before March 2020. These needn’t be all our own. Again, the book industry is very adept at sharing knowledge for the benefit of the trade as a whole.

Having spent my professional career in the book industry, I understand how important an efficient supply chain is.

Let’s start with a few questions: Is your organisation focused on completing tasks or adding value? Are you aware of how (in)efficient your business is? Is every current process and procedure required? Is your data updated in real time? Can your clients self-serve? Could current work practices impact your ability to respond to business ideas and client needs post COVID19?

Look to maximise efficiency, automation and integration opportunities. Let’s not employ colleagues to carry out repetitive tasks that can be readily automated. Let’s not create new ways for computer to talk to computer, when there are enough established methods of communicating already. Let’s not see current systems, processes and ways of working as a constraint. These all represent opportunities.

The supply chain is a big topic. No organisation is so self-sufficient that it does not need the additional support provided by professional trade bodies such as Book Industry Communication (BIC). Specifically, BIC brands itself as:

… an independent organisation set up and sponsored by the Publishers Association, the Booksellers Association, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and the British Library to promote supply chain efficiency in all sectors of the book world through e-commerce and the application of standard processes and procedures.

BIC comprises a number of member organisations that reflect the diverse nature of the trade: booksellers, retailers, publishers, printers, shippers, distributors, wholesalers, libraries, library suppliers and systems vendors.

The chances are though that your organisation may not actively or regularly participate in or contribute to BIC projects or events. And whilst BIC is by no means the only professional body in our industry, it is there for the trade as a whole and can positively contribute to a range of initiatives that your business needs to consider post COVID19. These include:

  • Supply chain efficiency
  • Product information and the promotion of discoverability
  • E-commerce and the promotion of tradability
  • Development and promotion of standards for digital and physical publications
  • Accreditation

These are all areas of BIC expertise ably supported by the BIC membership, but they do not wholly demonstrate the extent of what BIC offers or the impact that it can have on your organisation. I have direct experience of the following in my roles at Waterstones and Nielsen Book Services:

  • STRATEGY. Each year BIC will consult with its members to review strategy and confirm key priorities. Members have an opportunity to influence future direction, actively participate and ensure the long-term success of BIC and its members. Metadata Map, physical supply chain and digital are all represented:
  • EVENTS. There is a wide variety of events throughout the year. These range from BIC Breakfasts, Supply Chain Seminars, Task and Finish Work Groups to social events. These can focus on a single topic, or range of supply chain activities. Price and availability, new trends, digital audio and green issues immediately spring to mind. The key point here is that contributions from the diverse BIC membership are critical to ensuring that the breadth of business types and supply chain needs are represented and accommodated, rather than just those of the more influential and active organisations.
  • GREEN AGENDA. Some organisations were promoting supply chain efficiency before the arrival of BIC in 1991. The evolution of TeleOrdering in the nineteen eighties is one example where the book ordering process was automated and sped up. Another example… early adopters of EDI included Macmillan and WH Smith. To the fore at the moment are green issues and although this year’s London Book Fair Building a Better Business Seminar didn’t take place, a successful BIC online event focused on green issues and initiatives, followed by a panel discussion: BIC Green Hub
  • NETWORKING. The range of events means that there are many opportunities for the exchange of knowledge and ideas with key industry stakeholders. A different perspective may help you deal with your own supply chain challenge. Returns, environmental concerns and the impact of the pandemic are all hot topics.
  • STANDARDS. Technical standards are there to make life easier for everyone. A single set of rules to which everyone adheres ensures timeliness, efficiency and accuracy. That said, there are a variety of standards and permutations in use in the book industry, dependent on business type and client need. Some are static, others continue to evolve. BIC can help you navigate these standards and establish best practice by giving you access to the experts. You will learn from others’ experience and mistakes. BIC also maintains close links with other standards organisations such as the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), EDItEUR, BookNet Canada, the International Standard Name Identifier Agency (ISNI), the British Standards Institution (BSI) and the International ISBN Agency.
  • RECOGNITION. It is all too easy to focus on our own individual organisation’s supply chain needs and lose sight of how we measure up against other book businesses. Informally, BIC offers you the opportunity to regain that sense of perspective, better appreciate how your organisation compares to others and clarify where improvements can be made. You can apply for formal metadata, supply chain or libraries accreditation too.
  • NEXT GENERATION. Future industry experts, leaders and influencers should know that they can count on the BIC membership’s years of insight, knowledge and experience. This already happens formally via BIC’s training programme, but it doesn’t always need to be in such a structured way. BIC has brought likeminded organisations together to create a well-known and well-respected professional body that is consulted on a wide variety of issues.

Much like a utility, BIC and other professional bodies risk being taken for granted in normal times. Like water, gas and electricity, as long as everything is working as it should, we don’t think about why the lights come on at the flick of a switch or why water comes out of the tap. These aren’t normal times. Now is the time to be an active supporter of BIC and the book supply chain. If we’re to bounce back after COVID19 we need to be even more aware that the health of our industry depends on a wide range of businesses interacting in as efficient a way as possible. BIC has a key role to play and so do you.

bicgreenhub #bicsupplychain #joinbic


  • Stephen Long

    Stephen Long is a senior manager in the book industry with a background in retailing, metadata and business to business e-commerce.

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