An Interview with Valentina Kalk, Director at Brookings Institution Press

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.


London-book-fairBetween the conferences on Monday and the wrap-up parties on Thursday, the London Book Fair is always a hive of activity, bustling with publishing people. As is my annual habit, I had been perusing this year’s show, catching up with old friends and colleagues, attending seminars and chatting with the great and good of the book business.

One of the most insightful seminars I attended was titled “Checking in on the Road to Digital Transformation,” which was hosted by Christopher Kenneally and featured prominent digital publishing experts Max Gabriel, David Worlock and Valentina Kalk. The panelists discussed publishing’s position along this rollercoaster route, citing changing consumer habits, the role of digital media, and the need for a fundamental shift in mindset by publishers.

Brookings Institution PressOn the final day of the fair, I got the chance to catch up with Valentina Kalk, Director at Brookings Institution Press. The Brookings Institution Press is the publishing house of the Brookings Institution, the pre-eminent think tank in Washington, D.C. Think of it as a small university press. They publish about 40 peer-reviewed books every year on topics such as international relations, current affairs, economics, governance and development.

Valentina joined Brookings in 2013 and has overseen a significant restructure.

You spent 10 years at the World Bank and three years at UN Publications. How have you applied these experiences to your role at Brookings?

I think I [attempted] to bring together the print and digital activities, which tended to be quite separate and not well integrated [into] all three organizations. Essentially, it was about bringing digital into the mainstream of activities, in terms of products, metadata and accounts and channels.

Was this a focus that you found yourself attracted to naturally, or was it a targeted effort?

For someone like me, who has been in book publishing for over 25 years, digital was not always there. I learned a lot on the spot, especially when I was at the World Bank in the 90s and early 2000s.

In book publishing, digital came much later than with journals. At that time, I was doing rights and licensing. The first big contract we had was with NetLibrary, then a start-up and now a well-established aggregator, part of EBSCO. This contract came to me because I happened to do rights and licensing. After signing the contract, I had to coordinate implementation and file supply, a first for World Bank Publications.

As you can see, I almost started casually. I happened to have a rights-and-licensing role, which later evolved into a rights-and-digital-development-manager role.

At Brookings, you seem to have been given a mandate to restructure the press. How did you go about achieving this?

It’s a combination of many tactics, of course. You must think about whether you have the right people for jobs that are needed. The tough part of this reorganization was that I had to assess the skills that were there and the jobs that were needed, and in this process I had to let a few people go. That’s painful.

The exciting part of the reorganization is that once I had the team in place with the appropriate skills and job responsibilities, that’s when things really started to happen. This goes beyond the digital part of our business: It included acquisitions, product development, marketing and sales. And digital became an important backbone of our work, well beyond the book.

I still remember when the Brookings Press sent out tens of thousands of little brochures and academic catalogs. A lot of physical mailing, a lot of printing production. It was expensive, and it was not necessarily efficient. We began to do much more marketing digitally: acquiring lists, reaching customers, reaching professors, reaching end readers and reaching big B2B customers in different ways, depending on the customer needs and the works we wanted to push.

One other big change for the press was a closer integration with Brookings’ communications team. For example, something that I have seen working very well is the creation of ancillary products surrounding a new book: video, podcast, data visualization  all digital products that extract and distil the key messages from a book and deliver them to different audiences that learn about the book in that way.

On the distribution side, we made big steps to improve our metadata, both in terms of quality and reach. Good metadata enable search engine optimization and high relevance in search results. For example, on Amazon they enable wholesalers or booksellers to make their purchase decisions, or prospective licensees to become interested in our content. Metadata discipline—in terms of quality, timeliness and distribution—is essential.

Our output may not have changed significantly—after all, we are still a traditional book and ebook publisher—but these very traditional activities have been significantly enhanced and improved by a stronger infrastructure.

Brookings turned 100 years old in 2016, and the Institution released a 2.0 strategic plan. Could you give us an overview of what this plan contains?

The strategic plan updates Brookings’ role in a changing world and lays out goals for the coming years. They can be summarized in five points:

Firstly, to tighten our focus on the complex of governance issues as an organizing theme of our priorities, activities, products and partnerships, and to seek to be a leader in addressing the primary challenges of our time.

Secondly, to enhance our influence and relevance by engaging new audiences and building new partnerships around the world. This means exploiting more vigorously the tools of the digital age. It also means using new and more effective branding and messaging to clarify who we are, what we do, why it matters, and how citizens can be part of the solution to the major problems of our time.

Thirdly, to promote a culture of collaboration across the Institution and with our overseas centers, since the governance problems we deal with are interdisciplinary, multifaceted and often shared by other major powers.

The fourth point is to advance inclusion and diversity in all its aspects—in our community as a whole and, in particular, within our scholarly ranks and management.

And finally, we aim to reinforce efficiency and sustainability through disciplined decision-making on how to allocate our resources, whom to hire and for how long, and whether to start or sunset projects.

I’d like to discuss the context of the world around us and your role as a press, especially with regards to discourse in the U.S., but also worldwide. Has this put your organization on red alert? Is there an upsurge in interest from outside?

I think this is a good time for Brookings to bring forth its motto, which is quality, independence and impact. We examine and analyze what happens in the world and try to be an impartial and objective voice that is respected and considered as truthful as possible.

In terms of book publishing, of course we want to follow what is happening and publish books that cover those topics but that [also] have a long shelf life. For example, we will [soon] publish a book about class and inequality in America, a significant problem.

With our short history series, we select key issues and trends such as corruption, marijuana policy, global cities, inequality, trade and others, and find authors that can write competently about these topics and who can tell a story based on facts and history.

Does other media come into the equation here? We see viral videos and memes making an impact and influencing people online, in many cases spreading fake news on both sides of the argument. Is this on your radar?

Brookings makes extensive use of social media and has [a] YouTube channel, and its blogs are available through a variety of aggregators. This is a fundamental component of our outreach. We keep firmly on objective, informed data and content.

During your London Book Fair seminar, Max Gabriel noted that publishers are battling for survival in the digital era. How do you perceive this viewpoint?

Well, as sad as this sounds, in part it is true. One does see waves—good years and bad years—but many academic publishers, and many university presses in particular, have seen a decline in sales, and print and digital have both plateaued. The costs of doing business are increasing. The discounts demanded by some big buyers get steeper and steeper. And we’re not selling more copies. This is clearly a problem. It’s not a coincidence that university presses in the United States are subsidized by their own institutions and/or rely on endowments.

Clearly, we need different ways and business models to publish traditional monographs. There are many open-access initiatives available, and most university presses have explored and relied on them, including Brookings.

Academic trade books are more successful commercially because they reach a broader audience than the traditional academic community. Think of the typical Guardian reader, the typical NPR listener. But it is not easy to maintain the critical mass and the communications machinery that these publications need.

It’s notable that the Brookings website has a strong emphasis on blogging. Is this something that you’re encouraging in support of the books that you publish?

I think blogging is very important. You need a variety of content nowadays, and that keeps scholars incredibly busy—because they must be on radio, they have to be on TV, they have to write blogs, they have to write longer papers, they need to write policy notes, and they have to write books.

One of the challenges for us as a publisher, but also for a scholar or researcher nowadays, is that we need to have content for all possible needs: the short-term life span (the content that’s great today and history tomorrow), and the content that has a long shelf life (for example, a long paper or a book).

Luckily, our authors are very receptive and engaged. I see scholars that are excellent bloggers. I see scholars that are excellent communicators in general, and that are very media wise, both in social media and traditional media.

You alluded earlier to the multimedia packages that Brookings creates around books, and during your seminar you said that they must have a life of their own. Is there a set package of media that you apply to each publication, or does this change? How do you arrange this?

It changes a lot. Essentially, we have three categories of books. We have trade books, we have academic books, and then there’s a third category that I call peer-to-peer, essentially those books that speak to a very small but very influential audience.

What you do for a trade book may not be the same for a more academic monograph, where we deploy more traditional techniques to reach audiences. So it really depends.

It also depends a lot on the subject and on how the book is structured. For example, our upcoming book by Richard Reeves about inequality in America, which I mentioned earlier, has a lot of data which will be great for visualization.

We published a book called Diversity Explosion that talks about diversity in the United States; it’s a book on the changing demography of the United States. We used maps—both in the book and digitally—to show these trends.

For those books that are primarily text-based, we need to find other ways to convey the message on different media.

It sounds like you must have a very fluid set of processes to achieve this flexibility.

Yes, it is quite fluid. It often starts when we acquire a book and when we have a sense of what the book will be even before having the manuscript. When you know a bit about what the book will be about and how it will be structured, then for us it’s a good time to think of the communication strategy and the best way to reach different audiences.

Innovation is typically quicker in smaller publishers and in start-ups. Do you keep an eye on what they’re doing, and do you take inspiration?

I do, but I would like to do this more systematically. The Association of American University Presses is a very collaborative group, and there’s always a lot to learn from my fellow members, especially because it is a diverse association: [It includes] large publishers like Oxford University Press and small, regional publishers, perhaps with five employees. Very diverse, but they face the same challenges.

I do think that there’s a lot going on in the private sector that could be very useful for me to learn in a more systematic way.

Finally, do you have any advice for somebody in your position on restructuring for the digital era?

Firstly, observe what already exists, because sometimes one could dismiss some good processes already in place. At times, one just needs to fine-tune instead of [starting] a revolution!

Second, understand what your peers and competitors are doing that works well.

The third [piece of advice] is to keep in mind that every sector is different. For example, what works well in [science, medicine and technology] may not necessarily work for a university press with a focus on the humanities and social sciences. Certain things that trade publishers do would be nice to imitate, but if you are a small academic publisher, you will never have the budget to do them! But learning from success stories and trying to replicate success by experimenting at the lowest possible cost often work well.

Last but not least, bring your team on board—they will ultimately be those who will make change happen.

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