Interview with Rudolf van Wezel of BIS Publishers

BIS Publishers is a small, independent outfit of about five staff that produces glossy, top-of-the-line books – the kind that you want to run your fingers over and keep around for dinner party show-and-tells. Their titles cover graphic design, fashion, architecture, product design and advertising, and they’ve become prized for their Dutch Design book series, created every two years since 1990 in collaboration with the Association of Dutch Designers BNO.

BIS was founded in 1986 by director and publisher Rudolf van Wezel. INC sat down with van Wezel to go over our questionnaire for how small publishers are confronting the industry’s digital turn.

Do you use any electronic formats to sell your books?
We use issuu to give a preview of our books, but we don’t sell PDF or ebook formats as yet. But we have some books we want to do that with, and this fall we will have our first eproduct.

At this point considering ebooks requires some research. Maybe we can talk in a half year about the market for them and for platforms. I get emails from producers of services about transforming print books to ebooks, but I haven’t delved into it yet. I’m interested and want to get more knowledgeable on this, but I haven’t yet taken the time to try it out.

How do you choose your titles?
Our content comes first from our own ideas and our wishes for certain books and subjects to publish. Then we source content from experts, authors or producers who can do both design (for our visual books) and editing and writing.

We also get proposals from authors in our market – designers and architects who have an idea and overview of their work and then contact us.

The third way is from foreign publishers. We mostly publish in English, but we also translate content. Other publishers develop books that we like, then they give us the rights for our home market, and in some cases in all of Europe. So the book is developed by a publisher colleague, and we acquire rights for a certain market.

For instance, with Good 50×70, the author is Italian and was looking for publisher, so he approached us with an idea and asked if we can make a book together.

How long does the publishing cycle take, from start to finish?
In general you have to look at about a year for bringing a work from start to finish. It does happen sometimes that we are quicker, depending on how far ahead the project is before it comes to our attention. We have examples of books that took seven years. Often authors or editorial teams have a history of working two to three years on a project before they contact a publisher, so it’s already quite advanced. Our technical process includes editing, proofreading, and design, but in our field, people often come with content and design already. But the whole process is generally about four to six months for production, and two months for technical production.

The editor is sometimes also the author of our books, when it’s a collaboration in advanced stage. Authors can now also work better internationally.

What type of content do you think translate well into electronic format?

For instance, This is Service Design Thinking – a management book on service design that is crowd sourced. You have 24 main authors, above that an editorial team, and below those authors are dozens of people who contributed to the manuscript online. So contributed content and improvements are done in a community. The good thing is that the community becomes a circle of investors for book, because they all are enthusiastic – they are apart of the marketing angle as well as the creation. There is a website for This is Service Design Thinking as well, and parts of book are online. This is an example of a book we would like to publish in an eformat. There’s a hashtag and bar code that brings you to the website. The map in the back is of the service design process, so you have the original but can download more. This is a book that has a connection to the web.

Sketching books are successful, we want to also provide them in an eformat. This is because it’s a visual book, a visual course in sketching. We are looking into digital formats that have videos incorporated, and also layers that you can peel off to see how sketches are built up, with shadows and colors and help lines. Some books are successful in print and are used in schools, but it would be very exciting to turn them into a multimedia publication with video and layers, an app – some eformat that integrates layers and video. A simple ebook that has text and illustration locked so that things are explained in a certain order, with a fixed layout or app. iBook platform is the first to convert to an e-version.

What is your business model?
We are more like a commercial publisher. In the cultural field architectural publishers apply for subsidy. We always wanted to earn money in the market and are a bit more commercial. When we invest in a book we feel there is a market for it, and we are striving to sell as many copies as we can. We can’t have a culture of asking for support. We are based on selling enough books to earn some money. Publishers who have a culture of subsidy are worried now.

We don’t have an advertising model. We have a sister company that publishes magazines (such as Elephant), also a private company  and quite successful. But because they have advertisements, they feel the downturn in the ad market. With books you don’t.

What kind of licenses do you use? Are you interested in exploring open access?

We work with licensing by buying licenses for translated editions, and we sell licenses for some editions. The sketching books are in Chinese, Korean, German, and there’s interest to translate them into Spanish. We work under normal copyright regimes. For one book we did on open design – Open Design Now, designed by Hendrik-Jan Grievink with/for Premsela, Waag Society and Creative Commons Netherlands – the regime of copyright is open but not for commercial use. We invested in it and don’t want others to profit from our investment. We have an open clause that allows people to use the content for non commercial purposes.

I don’t see getting rid of copyright as a business model. At the launch of the book (Open Design Now) there was discussion on open source ideas for design, and it’s quite difficult to see a business model in this line of thinking. In book publishing if you give your design away without protecting payment arrangements, where do you earn your money? You get more by way of reputation, people like it and you can get famous, but somehhow you must make money to be sustainable. There’s a difficulty. In theory and idealistically it sounds interesting and nice, but difficult. You have earn your money in the market.

I do think that traditional copyright should become more open. As a publisher, it’s difficult to publish books if things cannot be copy pasted. If everything is protected you can’t comment on what others have done. That’s how things grow and change. If you have to check and pay always, it becomes very strict and closed. I’m for more openness, but if you have created a book, there should be some ownership and payment.

Are you looking into expanding your services beyond publishing? How do you reach out to audiences or strive to build community?
A new venture we have is called Dutch Creative. It’s a marketplace and platform for designers to publish their portfolio. It’s similar to Behance. It applies to people working in communication, production, fashion, animation – all creative industries can publish a portfolio. It’s a free service. Our interest is to build the best, most visual platform for all creatives in the Netherlands, so clients have a better view of who they can work with and so people can get to know them. It’s a match-making plaform between creatives and clients. It just came out of a beta version.

It is important for publishers to connect with communities and not stay only within the confines of your office. You create a book and throw it into the market, and you should be in touch with readers. Social media can help you to be closer, that will become more important. I do think that digital formats will be important, and visual arts will become more and more important.  If you have a smart app that teaches you how to draw, this can reach a much larger group than a physical book.

Finally, what kind of information about new formats or publishing options would you like to have as you consider moving towards digital formats?

I need to know what the most cost-effective ways are to convert digital files into epub formats, who deliver the service best and I need to know what the channels for selling ebooks are and how I can easily reach the shops/channels to give the ebook the broadest possible distribution.