An Interview with Roger Rosen

March 13, 2013

Roger Rosen, CEO of the educational house Rosen Publishing, calls himself a publishing brat. “I grew up in the business, packing books as a little boy and attending ALAconferences with my parents.” Lately, Rosen’s been making news as one of the first publishers to figure out a pricing and delivery structure for ebooks and databases, and as an advocate for libraries and librarians. “Librarians are the most trusted people in America,” he said. “I have never heard anyone talking about a librarian having an agenda to push information that in any way serves their personal interest. It’s unheard of. The notion that any citizen can consult a librarian and get unbiased information is pretty thrilling.” Rosen is confident and optimistic about publishing, declaring that he’s more excited about the enterprise now than when he first started. “The tools at our disposal and the kind of innovation that we can bring to the publishing process to inspire and engage kids is unprecedented,” he said.

American Libraries: Tell us about your work with ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group.

Roger Rosen. I’ve been a long-time supporter of ALA in an advocacy role and ALA’s American Association of School Librarians as well. But in this point in my career—I’ve been in publishing for US schools for 32 years, actually—it’s even more important to me to be engaged in the discourse, especially as it seems to me libraries and their role are ever more threatened and there’s ever more misunderstanding about what the library is contributing to society. The digital revolution is such that the library’s role has come under scrutiny and there’s some confusion on the part of the population as a whole, and certainly in the minds of our elected leaders, about its utility and value. When you add to that some of my publishing colleagues’ concerns about usage and practices with digital content, you have a real complicated scenario, a complicated relationship. But it’s one that we at Rosen are very comfortable with. And the reason for that is we really see the digital space as, in many ways, the virtual adjunct to the best practices that we’ve had in our print space and the relationship we have nurtured and developed with libraries, both public and school, since 1950, when we started publishing. That is the real mandate of our enterprise, which is to get the right content, the needed content, into the hands of those who will search for it, need it, be best informed by it, benefit from it. When there’s real goodwill to serve patrons and work with libraries toward that same goal we share, the solutions become evident.

How did you come up with ebook pricing and a model that works?

My basic jumping-off place was this: What is the virtual corollary to best practices that we had in print? And we were largely able to replicate that through the sales model, but with the appropriate hosting fees as needed under the appropriate circumstances. With the appropriate simultaneity and currency models depending on the value proposition that we were all looking for. So we have crafted individual arrangements for systems or individual buildings as needed. Everyone understands the variables here and I believe people of goodwill find the right method (obviously, because of our large institutional business, it is largely from a DRM point of view). Rosen Publishing does the hosting and there is IP authentication and user name and password access. So we have huge confidence in all of this, though of course we are moving to an HTML5 workflow that will allow an even easier adaptation or download to any sort of device, any tablet. So we’re moving forward with all sorts of innovations in the actual materials that we’re building, but these practices allow for this partnership with libraries. And I suppose in some ways, too, there’s a basic trust with this population that we’ve worked with, as I say, since 1950.

Describe the financial literacy database that you’ve launched. How did that come about?

We started about 10 years ago with our Rosen digital program, our database program. Maybe 12 or 13 years ago, we saw that anyone in reference nonfiction publishing really had to have a very robust digital strategy. We had certain impressions about where the world was going and we wanted to continue being vital and relevant no matter what the technological changes might be. So we invested quite heavily in a robust platform to support new content development.

We launched with Teen Health and Wellness, a database that has garnered so many accolades and has been very, very successful for us and has a renewal rate of more than 90% and is well deployed throughout the country and in English-speaking markets. From that basic platform, we were able to see what else seemed relevant and needed. We have published in print quite heavily in the financial literacy area and in personal finance as well as micro- and macroeconomics, and of course, those three items are mandated within curricula. Obviously, different school districts adopt different programs, but there is a fair amount of universality about what has to be covered. And certainly it is both personal finance and micro- and macroeconomics.

I think it’s even more important for particularly vulnerable populations. One could argue that the citizenry at large is a vulnerable population. We saw in 2008 that people didn’t fully understand some of the basics of economics and were particularly vulnerable to predatory lending practices. So we had a commitment, as we do with so much of our publishing program, to be of help. We think some of our core skill set is to take very complex ideas and render them into accessible language for whatever target audience we might have. With financial literacy, the material was essentially at a 7th- or 8th-grade reading level for 7th–12th graders, plus into the junior college population. Of course that also works for adults and patrons of public libraries, particularly those for whom English is not their first language. Rendering those complex issues in that way, we were really able to cover the waterfront with those three topics. And with all of our databases being continually updated, we’re able to reflect news as it unfolds. That makes our databases extremely relevant resources and they certainly trump whatever a textbook can offer. And we’ve had a tremendous response.

As a result, everyone recognizes the need for financial literacy. It’s becoming ever more a mandated part of the curriculum. And, you know, our timing, as with, say, Teen Health was extremely good. We just have a real sense of the zeitgeist, the needs, and we publish to those needs. So it’s been very, very gratifying to see the response. And we’re talking with various groups, both in terms of public library usage, but also getting elected officials within a community behind libraries. We are talking to that nexus between elected officials, local banks, and the public library, to all partner together to potentially disseminate this resource. And obviously, discoverability is a key point, so we have also financial-literacy programs, both in terms of professional development and promotion.

Tell us about your company’s relationship with schools and libraries and how it developed your product lines, such as the interactive books, and what’s in store for that format.

We started as a company in 1950. My parents founded it. They were part of a circle of innovative educators and they had this real ethos about there not being any taboo information—that information was worth having and could be virtually any topic and that it could be constructive so that it would resonate or be accessible to any population. In the late 1950s, in fact, they published a book, The Teenager and Venereal Disease, which was really quite innovative during that period for not shying away from the topic. There was a certain justice that just 10 years ago, when we launched our first database, we chose health and wellness because we are kind of the gold standard—a trusted resource among providers in the educational space to cover everything from self-mutilation to date rape to teen suicide and everything in between; we know how to navigate those subjects in a very non-polemical way. So that was the ethos of the company.

My parents started out as exclusively young adult publishers. I moved into the K–6 space, and even pre-K. But increasingly we publish very much with an eye to curriculum correlations to support the curriculum, and that has been a guide to our program, as well as high-interest material. We’ve done graphics, but we have a very keen eye for essential knowledge, what is being studied. And now of course very, very keen understanding and interest in the Common Core. To your point about the interactive ebooks with e-content creation tools, which is a very innovative and unique bit of programming and software that we’ve embedded within these active ebooks, that is very much in response to the mandates of the Common Core, which basically state (among many other things, and we do regard it as a very elegant document) that students become not just passive consumers of information, but also creators of information. And being creators of information would also mean that they demonstrate a certain mastery of the content.

So in addition, they need to be 21st-century learners, and to be “transliterate.” We can define transliteracy as being very fluent in many different modes of communication, particularly those modes that came into existence in the 21st century, such as social networking and the like. And so we wanted to make all of that come together in a very meaningful way. I innovated these content creation tools that draw upon the content of a book and allow these students or readers to demonstrate their mastery, to utilize the content and make it their own, and do so in 21st-century modalities such as blogs and wikis and social networking profiles. And we’ve gotten fantastic responses as a result of our doing that.

It’s a revolution. I really think we are living through the most amazing revolution in the history of civilization in terms of the dissemination of information and what can be accessed. I’m more excited about the profession than I was when I started, and I was very enthusiastic when I started. The tools at our disposal and the kind of innovation one can bring to really inspire kids and engage them is unprecedented.

Are print books doomed?

I don’t think so at all. I mean, there are a number of issues here. First, there’s the big issue of equity of access. I mean, it’s in question partly if we look worldwide. We do a lot of business in South Africa, for instance. It’s a country that’s not wired. I’ve heard it said, and I agree, that if Gutenberg were to have had his invention at this moment in time, it would be heralded as an extraordinary innovation and as an amazing delivery system. And I still believe that about the book. It is extraordinarily efficient and economical and I just don’t see it going away. I see multimedia—the interactivity—having a place, being very dynamic. It can do so much. But there is a personal relationship with the book, a kind of intimacy, a place for thought and imagination that may be special to the print book. The economic drivers are such that I’m convinced that the book is certainly valuable and will be here to stay.

How have the educational reform movement and charter schools influenced your business model? And how do you feel about school reform?

Reform through the Race to the Top and the Common Core. Well, you know, the charter schools and school reform is obviously a very polemical question. Rosen Publishing is not as involved in the charter school movement as much as it is in public education. We’re working toward state, national, and district curricula. We have found that often within the charter school movement, they are creating their own resources internally. So it hasn’t been a space in which we’ve spent as much time. But certainly as everyone looks to the Common Core and how that will inform so much of instruction, we celebrate the Common Core because we do see it as a triumph of supplemental resources—the notion that there should be a multiplicity of sources from which kids get information and a multiplicity of genres from which they get information. And that is antithetical to the big backdoor stopper–sized textbook that has predominated, with an adoption cycle of five years, despite information changing so quickly and the ability of digital resources to constantly update us in the case of e-health and wellness and our financial literacy product. We applaud that most elegant document that is the Common Core, which we see as very much in sync with our own philosophical beliefs about education and publishing. The notion of holding kids to a greater rigor, having them stretch with respect to the text, deeper dives in analysis, points of view—these are all things that we have always embraced as a supplemental publisher.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a golden era for our way of doing things and what we believe in. When we talk about Race to the Top, the potential we’re all seeing is an ever-greater emphasis on Big Data and data-driven results. We have ever more as part of our programs a portion of assessment, of interactivity in terms of child response, be it quantitative or qualitative. And we have many programs being developed internally related to aggregating the student-response data into larger learning management systems that districts have. So teachers and administrators and superintendents can obtain from us the data they want to aggregate. We’re committed to being vital members of the community, and in order to do so we have to be participants in this electronic echo system—the Learning Resources Management Initiative—and we are.

What came first, your regard for libraries or becoming a publisher?

Well, they’re sort of inextricably linked. You might call me a publishing brat. I grew up in the business, you know, packing books as a little boy. I went to library conferences when my parents attended in many cities throughout this country. Librarians have been a part of my world from the beginning. My local branch growing up was the New York Public Library’s Epiphany branch on 23rd Street, so it’s a building I know well and still walk into frequently. It’s an institution that, you know, has been front and center in my consciousness and I was certainly raised with a great respect for what the institution does. The library is one of the greatest democratic institutions. It serves as a portal for people of all economic backgrounds and levels the playing field in terms of opportunity. One need only pass through those doors to have access to the world’s knowledge and be secure about the accuracy of that knowledge.

We as library advocates need to push the message that really, one could call the librarian the most trusted person in America. Who would you trust more? Our lawyers and our doctors and our bankers have come under scrutiny because of hidden agendas in some cases. I have never heard anyone talking about a librarian having a hidden agenda to push data that in some way, shape, or form serves their personal interest. It’s unheard of. It’s not on the table. So the notion that any citizen could go into a space and get unbiased information, get help in searching for an answer—for the truth with a capital “T”—is pretty thrilling, actually. And that a public servant is there, dedicated to that enterprise, needs to be promoted. I’m certainly committed to that.

What would you say to convince the general public and funders once and for all that libraries are indispensable?

It’s essential that people of influence and power and those who elect such people recognize that there are many different realities in this country. One must recognize the number of people who do not have access to broadband. They might not have computers at home. There is a huge divide in this country, and one of those divides is in equity of access to information. That gap can increase even more as the technology gap widens. I think the institution that has the best shot that’s already established with a superb structure to address this is the library. People who have technology at their fingertips and can buy any book on Amazon in a millisecond don’t recognize the reality for so many of our fellow citizens who have not been able to keep up technologically, be it through education or economics. Who perhaps have lost jobs and no longer have the ability to pay for internet access, who do not have laptops, and whose children do not have laptops. These same people might be looking for jobs or are job changers or elderly. Where are they going to go? You cannot apply for a job in this country any longer unless you do it online. Well, if they don’t have access to the internet and maybe don’t know how to craft a résumé online, where are they going to get help?

Those people who have been most on the frontline of this gap issue are our magnificent librarians. They are conducting seminars and providing internet access and workstations for anyone who needs that. They’re also conducting basic life skills, job searching, and financial literacy classes. Frankly, I consider librarians unsung heroes of our society because they really are the ones addressing these problems. Not to mention the fact that the library increasingly helps to build community and continues to be the communal memory in terms of keeping archives of local newspapers and local publishing. This would be so easily lost if the institution is not sufficiently appreciated.

What initiatives would you like to see libraries pursue?

I want to come back to this notion of the community, libraries as community centers, and involving elected officials and other members of the community, including those with special skill sets, to provide seminars about issues like financial literacy or car repair or résumé building or networking or cooking or any number of topics that can be housed at the library as part of a community program and content acquisition. And this is something I’m very involved with in a number of cities—making the library the nexus between elected officials, community leaders, and patrons. Within the public library setting, it’s very important that the branches of a public library system have their own robust web presence. Often, I’ve seen that there is just one website for a library system, generally the main library, with links to local branches that might not list anything much more than opening hours and travel directions. I think there has to be a real focus online about what the branch is doing with respect to the community—to make each branch a center and drive community involvement and have the website be a place where that would be one of the first places to go—that tells you what’s happening, what the events are, what the new resources are, what you can get and learn there, and how you can contribute.

I just would say that, you know, it’s been very gratifying to spend my career in publishing for libraries and schools. I’m committed as an advocate to making sure that the library, as an essential democratic institution, grows and remains a robust resource. I’m very committed to that.