Questions for: Beat Barblan

News - Interviews Tuesday, 9th February 2021

'Book lovers have more choices than ever before'


Describe your current job
I manage ProQuest affiliate Bowker's bibliographic data and publishing services business, with a focus on helping publishers, authors, booksellers, and libraries better serve their customers.   

What was your first job in the book industry?
In 1999 I was hired by Bowker, in those days part of Reed Elsevier, to work as a programmer on the new Global Books in Print platform and some other recently launched websites. To be honest, I was a lousy programmer, but I loved the world and the business of books. My work gave me access to detailed information about millions of books: it was fantastic! 

Who has been the most influential person in your career?
This is a difficult question to answer, and I can think of numerous people, both in my personal and professional life, who have influenced my choices and helped me over the years. Still, if I had to single out one person, that would be Andy Popper, my boss and, at the time, in 2007, VP of marketing & product management at Wolters Kluwer.

I had landed a position as senior product manager, working, among other things, on the then soon-to-be-launched OVID SP platform. Andy was both an insightful mentor and a source of inspiration. He had a knack for quickly identifying areas where I needed help and providing exactly the right kind of support to help me be successful. Seemingly indefatigable, always positive and encouraging, he pushed me in new directions and helped me grow and discover strengths I didn't know I had.

During our multiple, worldwide travels together, he also introduced me to Hendricks gin and single malt scotch, and I am grateful for that as well. We have remained friends and stayed in contact over the years. During this stay-at-home year, together with some other former WK colleagues, we have held a weekly virtual happy hour where topics can cover a variety of subjects including international travel, politics, cooking, movies, and of course books.

How has the industry changed since your first job? 
In more ways than I can count. While one could buy books online before I started my career in this industry, online book sales started really to take off right around that time. Since then, we have seen more and more books moving from only print to also digital and, increasingly, audio formats.

Purchasing models have become more flexible, with relatively inexpensive monthly subscriptions offered for both books and audio titles. Libraries have joined the digital mode and, even in my small town, I can opt to check out ebooks from my local library. Self-publishing took off in a major way, with millions of titles hitting the market each year and more than a few making the bestseller lists. And, just to add one more change close to my world, library collection development and purchasing options tools have become extremely sophisticated to help librarians navigate a world that is becoming increasingly complex.

What's the biggest challenge in your job?
Continuously having to pivot and adapt to the rapid and never-ending changes in the industry.
 
What's the best piece of book-related advice you've ever been given?
Two things come to mind.

1.  A piece of advice from William Howard Taft, 27th president of the United States and 10th Chief Justice of the United States, that my adoptive, English-teacher father always reminded me to follow: "Don't write so that you can be understood, write so that you can't be misunderstood."
2.  Don't be your own editor!

What are the most interesting things you're seeing at the moment in the industry?
The ever-expanding set of options for generating and providing access to books. As more content is available in digital and audio options on multiple devices, from both traditional and independent publishing sources, and from all corners of the world, book lovers have more choices than ever before.

What do you think might be the next big thing?
Vastly improved recommendation engines that combine the strength of both direct human input and technological advances. As content continues to grow, while the time to consume it remains the same or might even shrink, we all want to find the next best book that is just right for us at that moment quickly. Hardly a day goes by that discovery doesn't come up in conversation with book industry stakeholders.

How are you coping with working from a home environment? 
I'm coping well but I miss family, friends and pretty much the whole world, terribly. Under normal circumstances I spend, on average, about a week a month traveling, often to other continents. Now I spend about 18 hours each day in my bedroom. I'm going a little stir-crazy. 

How do you think the industry will come out of the current Covid-19 crisis?
The long-term implications are hard to predict, but, especially in some parts of the industry such as the library world, we've seen a faster than previously expected move from print to digital, as many libraries have had to shutter their buildings due to the pandemic, and patrons have been unable to pick up physical books. Bookstores, who might previously have resisted the move, have had to add a web presence to their bricks-and-mortar business. New opportunities to provide digital services to retailers have grown during this past year.

Overall, especially during this difficult and, for many, isolating time, reading, both for pleasure and other reasons, has actually picked up - the demand for books has not waned at all. I believe that the book industry, while transformed in numerous ways, and notwithstanding some additional consolidation and painful losses, will be as strong as ever and continue to grow considerably over the coming years.

What do you most like doing when you're not working?
I grew up in Switzerland, and even after almost 40 years in relatively flat New Jersey, USA, I have never lost my taste for mountains and nature. Hiking with my family and friends is perhaps what gives me the greatest sense of joy. Somewhat paradoxically, I also love big cities, and one of my other great passions is to explore a new city in some part of the world where I have never been before.

What is the best book you've read in the last year? 
Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins

What are you reading now?
I can never settle for one book at a time, so right now I'm intermittently reading:
•  Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 edited by Ibram X Kendi and Keisha N Blain.
•  A Promised Land by Barack Obama
•  The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
•  The Odyssey by… well, Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
•  The Six New Rules of Business: Creating Real Value in a Changing World by my dear friend Judy Samuelson
•  The Gene; An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
•  The Poetry of Pablo Neruda by Pablo Neruda, edited by Lian Stavans

How do you like to read: on screen, on paper, or do you listen to audiobooks? 
It depends. Typically, I would listen to a lot of audiobooks when travelling or working out at the gym. Since I've been confined to home, however, my audiobook consumption has decreased drastically. I spend my days in front of a screen, more now than ever, so I've switched almost entirely to reading books, and even newspapers, on paper. 

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