Wiley’s Peter Balis on the Future of Publishing and Why He’s Not on Twitter

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

At $1.74 billion in revenue for its last fiscal year ending in April 2011, John Wiley & Sons is one of the largest publishing companies in the world. Perhaps to the envy of some other publishers, Wiley has managed to make a significant portion of that revenue “digital” in nature. Each of its three business units – STMS (science, technology and math journals and books), education, and professional and trade – derive at least 10% of their revenue from digital.

Near the center of that action is Peter Balis, director of digital content sales for Wiley’s professional and trade division (full disclosure: Balis is also a member of the Digital Book World Conference Council). Balis has been in publishing since 1998 and at Wiley since 2001, when Wiley acquired his employer IDG Books, the book-publishing division of technology-media company IDG, publisher of PC World and other magazines.

When he arrived at Wiley, the company was already thinking both “globally” and “digitally,” said Balis. Ten years later, both global and digital are at the core of everything the company does, according to Balis.

We sat down with Balis to talk about the most exciting developments in digital publishing, the digital workforce of the future, and why he doesn’t use Twitter.


Jeremy Greenfield: You have a lot of responsibilities at Wiley. Can you explain what you oversee on a day-to-day basis? How did you come to be in this position?

Peter Balis: I oversee digital business development at Wiley with primary focus on e-books. I also manage our strategic partnerships with accounts like Apple, Amazon and Google.

I transitioned into this position from being the director of the online sales team. So, I managed the group that sold to accounts like Amazon and Walmart.com. I slowly migrated over into non-book product and eventually developed this role, which never existed before at Wiley.


JG: You’ve been in the business for a while now and at Wiley since 2001. How has Wiley changed since then?

PB: When I came to Wiley, it was a large, somewhat-global company, and Wiley has really become over time a dynamic, global company. We work globally all the time. We look at our product assortment and our organization from a global perspective in every angle, and it makes us a better publisher. When we take on a new relationship, we look at that relationship across all territories.

Wiley in 2001 was already a fairly digital company. We were producing PDF e-books at the time. And we had already launched our online platform, Wiley Online Library, which distributed STM [science, technology and math] content through our own online platform to academic libraries.

Since that time, our digital infrastructure, our digital products and our digital capabilities have grown exponentially. We manage our own digital asset distribution, we have robust CMS [content management system] capabilities, we have XML-first workflows.

Our digital staff has grown accordingly, whether in the production of our files, or our marketing organization.

And the last thing we’ve done is that we went through this period where our sales-force, which was really just a print-based sales-force, has integrated ‘e’ into their offerings. We now have a sales-force that sells format-agnostically when they go into their rounds. That’s a fundamental shift in the way we operate.


JG: Speaking of staffing, what kind of digital talent do publishers need to attract and retain to compete in the coming years? How do you compete with Google and Facebook for talent? Is there a skills gap in the industry?

PB: The challenge is that the publishing industry is in a period of transition. It’s been a long time since the two-martini lunch was ubiquitous, but the pace of technological change has been rapid and we keeping up with it is challenging. But we are now evolving, and are identifying what our technology hiring needs are as we become publishers in a new age. Our challenge is two-fold.

First, it’s finding a way to help re-define the roles of different publishing jobs. Let’s take an editor, for example. An editor today has to have a digital understanding, a digital knowledge or some affinity for it, if they’re going to survive in the next wave of publishing. Part of it is how do we raise the level of our employees to the point that they can contribute to our success digitally and in print as our sales migrate that way.

Second, there is a whole technology infrastructure we have to bring in so we can innovate technology-wise and product-wise. We at Wiley maintain our own website, so we have an active developer group. That doesn’t mean we have a set of HTML5 developers that can experiment and develop the next great interactive cookbook, so until we can fully acquire those skills, we outsource so we can continue to move forward at the rapid pace this transition demands.

We have to go after some of those folks who are producing products for Google and Facebook and others and it’s hard – not just because we’re competing against them for employees. It’s hard because we’re not by definition a technology company. We’re a content and solutions provider and will add services as we go into e-learning and other areas, but we have to focus on technology since that’s where our next change is happening.


JG: As you look out at the e-book landscape and see myriad issues that publishers face, what do you think is going to be the one over the next few years that publishers need to pay the most attention to?

PB: File standardization and interoperability.

As devices continue to proliferate and technologies continue to become more robust – and not necessarily at the same pace – it is not scalable for a publisher to produce unique file formats to fit every device. We produce one hardcover edition and that goes out to every retailer. We don’t want to have to produce a different file for Amazon and a different file for Apple and a different file for Barnes & Noble.

Related to that is interoperability. For all of these bespoke products, there is no way to move a file from a Kindle Fire to a Nook, so we’re almost creating an environment like the Blue-Ray versus HDDVD experiment and people are not accustomed to living in that space. People expect a CD or a DVD to play in any device. If they want to play a Netflix movie, they want to stream it to an iPhone or an Android [phone].

If you’ve bought that book on a Kindle and you get a nook tablet for Christmas, you have to start all over again with a new library. That’s nothing that publishers can change because they’re not the device manufacturers, but they have to be wary of that industry trend and work with retailers to work toward that interoperable solution.


JG: Moving past the challenges, what do you think the exciting opportunities are?

PB: To create just a digital product out of a digital book is fine, but I think that we in the industry operating in the digital space have the responsibility to make things better than the printed product.

We are using technology that affords those opportunities and to not take advantage of them is to leave opportunities on the table.

I do not mean to imply that a great novel or a great biography need more than a digital replication of the printed product. But at Wiley, we are a knowledge provider. We’re trying to enrich people’s lives with information, to help them do things better and faster, to gain skills they have never had before. To just provide people with a simple digital reproduction is a baseline that affords people the opportunity to have content anywhere, anytime on a device. But we need to take that to the next level: How do we help them learn faster and better using digital technologies?


JG: The book industry is incredibly active on Twitter. Unless I’m mistaken, @nerdpete_nyc is your handle. You have one Tweet in nearly three years? Why?

PB: I never tweet.

And yet all these people keep signing up to follow me, I don’t know why. I’m a terrible social-media person.

I don’t have time. Wiley has huge twitter feeds. We have imprints that have twitter feeds. We set up twitter feeds for our authors and some of our partners.

That’s different from me having my own twitter feed. Do I get people to send me tweets so I know what’s going on in key isues? Absolutely. I wish I had more time during the day. I have to balance my desire to gather more information to balance the decisions that I make in light of the work I do every day to keep business going. It’s a frustrating place to be. I would love to have the time to process more information like that and to feed information outward.

I do other things that I think contribute to Wiley’s visibility in the industry.

Also, on a total personal note, I’m just not clever and pithy enough.


JG: What are you reading right now and on what platform?

PB: I don’t read print books. I’m reading The Marriage Plot [the new Jeffrey Eugenides book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux] on my iPad. I have not read a print book since 2008. Both my parents are in their seventies and both read all their books electronically.

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