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The written word can still change the world

June 2020

By Michiel Kolman*, Senior Vice President, Information Industry Relations; Academic Ambassador, Elsevier

*Michiel Kolman is also Presidential Envoy for Diversity and Inclusion at the International Publishers Association, Board member of the Accessible Books Consortium and Workplace Pride.

The written word in its most basic form enables a transfer of knowledge from the ideas of an author directly into the hearts and minds of readers across the world. For centuries, it has transformed our society and in 2020, we need the written word - and publishers - more than ever.

Smaller and newer publishers, in particular, often led by women are proving to be more innovative and willing to challenge the status quo by publishing work that is beyond the mainstream and that provides a platform for new voices. (Photo: WIPO/E.Berrod)

The publishing industry, tasked with the responsibility of guiding the public discourse on topics from climate change to mental health, is driving change. Publishers are agents of change and there are good reasons why we still need them in the modern world.

Agents of change

The publishing industry is at the forefront of efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. In my role as the Presidential Envoy for Diversity and Inclusion for the International Publishers Association (IPA), I see that the publishing industry is increasingly embracing these ideals. That is a good thing. It is right that everyone in publishing should feel welcome and included.

PublishHER, an industry-led initiative, spearheaded by the IPA’s Vice President, Bodour Al Qasimi, herself a driving force for the development of publishing in the Arab world, is a striking example of what the industry is doing to promote gender equality. PublishHER is a call to action by leading female publishers to tackle deep-routed gender imbalances in the industry and to drive an international agenda for change.

Publishers are agents of change and there are good reasons why we still need them in the modern world.

But beyond being the right thing to do, there is also a clear business case to support diversity and inclusion. Companies that embrace diversity and pursue inclusion perform significantly better financially. Those led by executive teams that do not reflect the diversity of today’s societies, with respect to gender or ethnicity, for example, pay a penalty in terms of poor economic performance.

Data from the Global North show that the publishing industry is making great progress on gender diversity. For instance, UK data by the Publishers Association on the Publishing Workforce show that more women than men work in publishing. More importantly, they show that women hold 54 percent of leadership and senior executive roles within the industry. More challenging is the situation around ethnicity, where it has been difficult to attract and retain staff belonging to ethnic minorities.

In the Global South, hard data are not easily available but anecdotal evidence shows over and over again that many women, such as Moroccan children’s publisher Amina Hachimi Alaoui, are starting their own publishing businesses. The smaller and newer publishers, in particular, are proving to be more innovative and willing to challenge the status quo by publishing work that is beyond the mainstream and that provides a platform for new voices in the world of literature and culture. More and more of these voices are female, offering a great illustration of how diversity and inclusion serves societal and cultural change.

Publishers are also increasingly embracing diversity and inclusion in relation to what we publish. Children’s book publishers are setting stories where families are not always traditional but where kids are allowed to embrace their own identity in a world that is more colorful and forward-looking. There are great examples of children’s books that depict a variety of family configurations. They also celebrate children embracing their true self, even if this is not the typical gender role as determined by their biological sex. The trend towards expressing self-identity in children’s books is well illustrated by Julian is a Mermaid, which was an outstanding success at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2019. More recently, the Swedish publisher Olika made a push for gender equality with their books on Sweden’s top female football stars.

The Sustainable Development Book Club

Also in the area of children’s books, publishers are charting children’s future around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The IPA is proud to have launched with the United Nations, and the support of many other players in the book ecosystem, the Sustainable Development Book Club.

Over 17 months we announce monthly book recommendations for each of the 17 SDGs in all official UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). These are books for kids between 6 and 12 years of age around the themes of the SDGs. So, a boy in Peru can read books on gender equality (SDG 5) in Spanish and a girl in China can read books linked to clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) in Chinese.

I have to admit, I am a little proud that this initiative launched during my presidency of the IPA. It is a great illustration that publishers are agents of change and are investing actively in the next generation.

The Accessible Books Consortium

Publishers are also at the forefront of efforts to expand the number of books available in the formats required by the hundreds of millions of blind or visually impaired individuals around the world, through their active participation in the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC). In Autumn 2019, Hachette Livre became the 100th signatory of the ABC Charter, sealing its commitment to making its products fully accessible to all users.

The ABC is a public-private partnership led by WIPO that brings together key players, including publishers, to increase the number of books worldwide in accessible formats such as braille, audio and large print and to make them available to people who are print disabled.

Launched by IPA and the United Nations with the support of various other organizations, the #SDGBookClub helps children learn about the Sustainable Development Goals. People around the world are hosting SDG book club meetings. Members of the BrainGyan Foundation’s SDG Book Club (above). (Photo: www.braingyanfoundation.in/projects/education-projects/)

Innovation in publishing

Publishers have always embraced innovation and continue to do so. We see this today, by the way Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) publishers are increasingly deploying block chain and artificial intelligence (AI) in their operations. Springer Nature, for example, has compiled and published an innovative book prototype using a machine learning algorithm developed in collaboration with the Applied Computational Linguistics Lab of Goethe University in Germany. And at Elsevier we are using AI to extract the relevant information for a physician in the emergency room, for instance.

In fact, while building on the high-quality content they have been publishing for decades if not longer, many publishers are now turning into Big Data enterprises, developing analytics that in combination with their content can help medical professionals make faster decisions, and can support scientists in enhancing their research capabilities.

We are now in a remarkable era where the majority of the major STM publishing houses are led by female leaders, a situation considered unimaginable just a few years ago. With the exception of Wolters Kluwer, the vast number of science publishers have been led by male CEOs – that is no longer the case today!

The #SDGBookClub helps children learn about
the Sustainable Development Goals.

Publishers are also agents of change in their fight for freedom to publish, which is one of the two core pillars of the IPA. We fight against censorship and we fight alongside our fellow publishers when they are under attack for what they publish. It is our responsibility and duty as publishers to support the freedom to publish wherever and whenever we can.

Finally, publishers are also embracing change where copyright – IPA’s second core pillar – is concerned. Copyright needs to be updated and brought into the digital age. Having said that, it should be recognized that it is copyright that has been enabling innovation in the publishing industry. And it should also be acknowledged that it is copyright that has secured the ecosystem in which science publishers can deliver trusted information in the areas of health and research. Always important, but especially so now during the Corona pandemic when it is more crucial than ever to have trustworthy information on which public policies can be based. In such times, it is the reliability of information, secured by the copyright framework, that can literally make the difference between global and national policies that are effective and those that do not deliver. Trustworthy information powered by copyright can literally mean the difference between life and death. Therefore today, the role of publishers in securing reliable content is even more important than ever.

A robust copyright framework is essential to support a publishing ecosystem in which diversity can flourish. An ecosystem where female publishers in the Global South can enter the market and publish new, groundbreaking, and at times even controversial, literary works. An ecosystem that allows poetry from Portugal to be published alongside fiction from Finland, celebrating the diversity of topics, subjects, authors and readers; books that may not be bestsellers, but which should be published for reasons that go beyond economic interest; and books that may be controversial and subject to censorship in some countries but that are prime examples of why we fight for the freedom to publish. That is why a robust copyright framework goes hand in hand with innovation, diversity, inclusion and freedom to publish.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.