Thursday, December 27, 2007

Someone's gonna have to explain this to me

I just spent an hour on the treadmill at the local gym watching the story of Benazir Bhutto's assassination in Pakistan.

Ok, sorry, this is not an issue in publishing - at least until next week. This is an issue in life.

Whether or not you agree with her politics, policies, or even personal habits is irrelevant, the cowardice and stupidity displayed today against a person who was a world leader, is beyond my comprehension.

My most sincere condolences go to those who loved her.

It feels a little like 1968 when Bobby Kennedy was shot. No one will ever know the real reasons, and its possible, that in death, she will achieve more power than she ever could have in a race for the premiership.

Kids reactions to OLPC/XO

Christmas morning in our home was extraordinary. It seems as though everyone was thrilled with their gifts and general mood was absolutely wonderful.

Brian and Nick, our 8 year old twin boys, were the recipients of the XO machines (with one left over for Dad to play with). My reasons for this approach were detailed in my last post.

I was fully prepared to be absolutely wrong about my assumptions, but it looks like I was right about most of them. And there were a few surprises as well. You should read the last post about the details of my family, but to say that we had mayhem on Christmas morning is a bit understated. So, I couldn't really keep track of what everyone was doing, and I did lose track of what Brian and Nick did initially with their laptops.

I do know that Nick opened the box and promptly 'poured' the XO out of the open end onto the floor! Well, the first test passed... whew... it had no impact on the operation. When Brian saw that Nick got a 'laptop', he promptly dived under the tree to find his - nearly knocking over the entire tree.

About an hour later, I found both boys up in their room, 'playing' with their XO's. With absolutely no help from Dad, they were chatting with each other, and had already made a little video of themselves! I was more than a little impressed, in fact I was blown away! I guess this is pretty intuitive.

Being 8 year old boys, they were pretty easily distracted, but have spent a fair amount of time with the XO. They showed me some things I failed to find, on my first pass of the machine (and I've owned a software company for 20 years and have a computer science degree!). Now, it seems to have fallen into that lull place, but I think that has more to do with some other gifts they received, than to do with a lack of excitement about their 'laptops'.

My impressions as to why the older kids wouldn't want these machines were also born out. In fact, when I tried to explain the 'philanthropic' nature of the OLPC project, the older guys seemed somewhat unimpressed. I did think that they would 'get' that, and it might make them more interested in owning one, but alas, they didn't 'get it' at all. They thought it was cool that Brian & Nick got their laptops, and figured that without AIM, iTunes, and Word, they wouldn't use them anyway.

When I get a little more time, I'll post my own impressions. But, the take away for me is that kids can really use this machine with little or now help from adults. I read in a CNN story yesterday that there were concerns that the kids would overwhelm the teachers in developing countries. I can really see how that could happen. These are impressive little machines whose technology will provide some wonderful opportunities to the worlds children. I think that Nicholas Negraponte should be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. I wouldn't be surprised to see that come up in more blog entries in the next year!

Monday, December 24, 2007

First Reactions to the OLPC

Last Friday, a big box was waiting on my doorstep when I got home. The 3 XO's that I had ordered on November 12th, finally arrived.

We have 6 kids, 5 of whom are still living at home. My original intentions were that the three laptops I ordered were going to be for the three older ones (18, 16, 14). But after opening one up, and playing with it for a while, those thoughts have been thrown out the window.

It now looks like our twin 8 year old sons are going to be the recipients, and we'll figure out what to do with the third one later. The little guys will be out of their minds excited, about everything related to this machine. And, I can't wait to learn more myself in order to help them learn and take advantage of all this has to offer. There are lots of great comments to make about this machine for younger kids. However, I'm a little disappointed that the older guys won't be getting these as gifts.

So, here is what brought me to decision not to give them to the older kids:

1. I knew they were very cute - from all the pictures - but I thought that this would be 'mitigated' for teenagers by the 'coolness' of being part of the solution. My impression now... No way... it is too cute. And the keyboard is so small and toy like that it is not something a teenager would be caught with.

2. the keyboard - as mentioned above - is very small, built for kids hands, not adult hands. I tried to write this blog entry on the XO, but eventually had to give up, as it was just to hard to type.

3. The 'Sugar' interface. Sugar is the operating system on the XO, and it, too, is very cool, but it is slow, and not intuitive for the hardcore windows and mac users. It is just not as advanced an operating system, and it is clear that it was built by developers for developers. Teenagers are into usage. They only care that they can do what they want, and fast.

4. While the internet is available, and the browser is not bad, some pages come up as inaccessible - and I have yet to figure out why.... It's almost as though it sees them as a popup, but there are not tools on the browser to help configure those types of things.

5. The screen is so small as to prevent larger web pages to be displayed without scrolling up and down, left and right. Definitely a problem in a 'myspace world'.

6. These machines won't support the major apps that the teenage kids use. In our house, the major apps are, AIM, AIM, AIM, iTunes, iTunes, Microsoft word, and powerpoint... in addition to the internet. The chat feature on the XO is cool, but won't allow 'cross chatting' with other systems. I just don't think the teenagers will be able to get past this one, no matter how cool, or cute the machine is.

7. There are some really basic things that 'normal' pc users can do, that I haven't been able to figure out on the XO, yet. For example, I can't figure out whether there is a file system, or if there is how to use it, and manage it. I have no idea how to tell what kind of disk space is available or how to save things. This is probably just my own learning curve, and something I'll eventually get by, but I fear the kids won't give it that type of perseverance.

Having said all this, there are some really great things that the 'unburdened' eight year olds will really enjoy:

1. If you are not a hardcore windows or mac user, then the Sugar interface is clearly designed for a kid. I can't wait to prove this when the boys start using them, but my impression is that this is just their speed.

2. the application loading speed won't be an issue for the little guys, since they have no expectations.

3. the fact that the mesh network can let them chat with each other (and hopefully friends) will be a source of endless delight.

4. some of the included apps will be alot of fun for little guys, and help them with math!

5. If I ever figure out the file system, it looks like tools are available for me to teach them how to program!

I guess that's it for now.... I'll post more after the kids start to play! Merry Christmas!

A Zany Amazon Prediction for 2008

It's just too much fun trying to predict the moves of one of the most important players in the book industry.... I guess I'm officially one of those 'pundits'. there is no price to pay for a wrong prediction, so why not throw a few out there, right?

Yesterday, I went to the local Apple Store to purchase a gift for a family member (who must remain nameless for a couple of days). Their primary 'Christmas product', the iPod Nano was set up in stacks, with an express checkout assembly all setup to maximize the sales of these little wonders.

This morning, I was reading Joe Wikert's Kindleville, about the fact that Kindles haven't been shipping... and bam... these two disparate ideas clanged, and I couldn't help but think that maybe Kindle will take Amazon into the Bricks and Mortar world. Is it really too hard to imagine, an Amazon store tucked in with all the other upscale stores in every mall and in every major city? The picture of Kindles stacked up like nano's seems very plausible to me.

After all, I may be wrong, but isn't this the first Amazon Branded product? Could the Kindle simply be a test to see whether the Amazon brand is ubiquitous enough to be placed on different types of products? Can the virtual brand float into the tangible world? The voices highlighting this aspect of the Kindle have been pretty weak... I'm sure someone has made this connection, but I haven't read about it.

But a leap from branding to bricks and mortar? I know it may seem a bit far fetched, but then I'm reminded of all those huge distribution centers Amazon built a few years back. Were they really designed to be just to facilitate mail orders to online customers? Their geography seems to be designed more like supporting retail distribution.

Anyway, enough punditry for now.... We'll see what 2008 brings. Whatever it is, I'm sure we're in for a few surprises. You can almost feel them in the air.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

2007: The year we embraced Technology

When book publishing historians look back at 2007, there will be much for them to remark on. But, in my view, the overwhelming theme of this year in the book industry is that 2007 is the year that technology (in general) went from being feared to being embraced.

And, as I think through this, it didn't just happen in one place. It happened at all levels of the 'value chain'. It happened at the publisher level, at the author level, at the retail level, and at the consumer level.

Let's consider some of the following:
  1. At the beginning of 2007, how many of you knew what a social network was? (I didn't really)
  2. At the beginning of 2007, how many of you either wrote or read (or even considered) blogs as a main source of information? (not me)
  3. I'd love to know how many self publishing service companies there were at the beginning of 2007 compared to what seem like 'hundreds' now.
  4. How many of you had your entire concept of personal technology design turned on it's ear by the iPhone, even though you knew it was coming?
  5. How many publishers are actively converting titles, and changing their workflows for digital distribution now, as compared to last year?
  6. How many would anticipate at the beginning of 2007, that an e-reading device would DOMINATE the industry dialogue? (I would have laughed if someone suggested this)
  7. How many of us thought that the One Laptop Per Child or $100 Laptop (OLPC) was just wishful thinking, and couldn't possibly expect that hundreds of thousands of them would be shipped into EMERGING MARKETS?
  8. How many thought that there would be realistic - as opposed to theoretical - conversations about new publishing business models?

I have to admit that I didn't see most of this coming, but now that it has, it's not too hard to see where it might lead us.

So, what caused all this? Well, I would argue that it was just a handful of vanguard companies that started down their individual roads with their ideas a couple of years ago. And this year, they came together to show (the rest of us) that this is no longer science fiction - it is real stuff.

Some of the credit needs to go to all those publishing conferences this year. In an earlier post, I complained about there being too many of them, but looking back, it was really what we all needed. Starting with the Google Unbound conference at the NY Public Library, and progressing on through the O'Reilly, 'Tools of Change' conference, and even to the ECPA's Publishing University in November, the dialogue dramatically changed from denial, to grudging acceptance, to foregone conclusion. Book Publishing is at a cross roads, and, our very survival as a relevant industry is hanging in the balance.

All in all, it was really a year that book publishing historians will look back on as one of the more important in the industry's evolution.

2007 in Review: Let's Discuss!

This is the time of year when all the book industry trade publications start naming their top picks for the best books of the year. There are so many different top ten lists that I can't keep up with them all.

For me, though, it's the time of year when I look back at the major trends in the business, and try to look forward to what might happen next year. So, for the next couple of blog posts, I'll explore these topics. I hope that whoever reads this will chime in with some ideas of their own, and that perhaps instead of a monologue, this blog can start to become a dialog.

Please post some comments, even if they are anonymous. Thanks. fpt

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Can the e-Galley idea make a comeback?

Joe Wikert’s post the other day about Simon & Schuster's internal use of e-reading devices got me thinking about the possible resurgence of the idea of electronic galleys.

Two years ago, I personally phone surveyed about 30 book buyers from stores all over the United States. To a person, they all told stories about their love-hate relationship with galleys. They loved them because it gave them advanced understanding about the books that they were buying, so that they could decide whether or not to recommend them to their customers. They hated them because a. they couldn’t sell them, and b. because they were hard to store and eventually recycle. They seem like such a waste of paper.

One of the huge take-aways from that informal survey for me was that independent bookstores that survived the age of the internet, and survived big-box retailers, and chain superstores, did so by embracing the new realities, and directing their attention to things they could do that the competition couldn’t. It was interesting that many actually made their businesses far more successful than they had ever been before the large threats came along, simply by better engaging their communities.

Now booksellers (of all types) are facing another huge challenge, the possibility that e-book reading devices will gain real traction in the marketplace, and that sales of e-books may cut into sales of print books. As I have mentioned in another post, I believe strongly that the 'indies' need to have a role in the e-book world. The way it looks from my perch, it’s time again for booksellers to make a survival decision: be stalwarts against the new invader, or embrace the new reality and use it to their advantage.

My money is on those that will embrace the new technologies, and figure out how to leverage them into revenue. I’m not sure what those business models will look like yet, but I suspect my friends at Ingram Digital have some notions about that topic. But, one thing I do know from my years in ‘change management’, there are two necessary ingredients to developing a new business model: 1. completely understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of the new product or service, and 2. Use the product or service yourself before offering it out to others.

And so, one way for booksellers to embrace and understand the new technologies are to to use them themselves. Using them for reading electronic galleys would be a great start to this process. There would be many advantages, not the least of which is the ‘green’ angle. Think of all the paper that could be saved, and the recycling that wouldn’t have to be done. It seems like a such a logical win-win situation for the publisher and the retailer.

I also think this is an opportunity for the American Booksellers Association to take a real leadership stand. Perhaps they could start to work with Sony, iRex, and other purveyors of e-reading devices, and get a few samples to pass around to their constituents to ‘test’. It would be a great first step in having a centralized approach to having bookstores (who want to survive) start selling the e-reader devices in their stores.

Food for thought.

I’m getting a Kindle, I’m getting a Kindle!

Last Friday night at our company Christmas Party, my team presented me with a ‘notice’ that they had purchased a Kindle for me. Shocked and excited, I must admit to a kid-like anticipation of its arrival. Of course, no one knows when that will be.

Now I’m hoping that Amazon’s ‘under promise, over deliver’ style is going to kick in, and the new Kindle will be arriving very soon.

Having seen one first hand, I’m very curious about using it for real reading. As stated in a previous post, I’m reading more now than ever, and I look forward to organizing my time around it’s use.

Thanks to all my friends at Quality Solutions for their generous hearts. This is a gift that I would not have bought for myself. It’s a little pricey for my blood, but getting it as a gift is a great thing!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

e-Books are a Whole New Canvas for Authors

It seems to me that in all the hand-wringing about the end of printed books, there is an important opportunity not being discussed at all.

The printed book is a closed system. It stands completely alone, and interacts with only one reader at a time. It is, as an old mentor of mine would say, "perfect".

By contrast e-books are open, and can possibly interact with many people at one time. So, I guess they are "imperfect".

But authors haven't had this much creative opportunity since the book of Kells. Perhaps that is what all the hand-wringing is about? Are the authors afraid of the challenge of dealing with such a vast canvas?

They shouldn't be. And, neither should editors, or agents, or publishers. No one has to use the entirety of the canvas yet. Just push out the borders a little... create some alternative endings... link to a few websites that have additional information about the topic you are writing about... set up some links to wikipedia.

As the borders get pushed a little here and a little there, I am sure that reading experience will become enhanced, and the reading public will reward the creativity by buying more works (notice I didn't say books).

In some ways it feels like book publishing is where television was when color TV sets were first introduced. At first they were just for the 'early adopters', and the programming wasn't any different, it just used color film. I still remember our first color TV. (We were not early adopters). As consumers of the media, we were amazed and enthralled with the new paradigm. That interest eventually fed into the creativity of the television studios, who invested more and more in the technology, and the 'creative pallet'.

I think the next 10 years will bode the same thing for 'books'. We'll always call them that... at least for a few more generations.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Random Thought about Reading & Writing

I've had a weird little bout of writers block for a few days.

What is weird about it is that I have had plenty of ideas to write about, but one idea that doesn't seem nearly worthy enough to post keeps getting in the way. It's as though I can't write anything else until I get this out...

Since I heard Joe Wickert of Wiley speak at Publishing University last month about blogging, I've been inspired to keep it up. And to do so, I've found that I am doing an amazing amount of reading. And it's not just in the blogosphere, but that has been significant, it is everywhere in my life. Since committing to writing, I've become an almost insatiable consumer of the written word.

Some I skim, and some I savor, but I think that I've read more in the past month than I have in the past two years!

I'm not quite sure where to go with this notion. It's probably something that writers - of all kinds - have experienced forever. But, it is a new concept to me. I have to believe that there is some lesson for our education system here.

When I was coming out of college, everyone 'said' you had to have good written communication skills, but, if you had a major like mine (Computer Science/Math), no one really worried much about your writing skills. Since the advent of email, however, we've all had to sure them up. And, with the rise of social networking, it seems that this requirement has taken another quantum leap.

Extrapolating out my reading and writing experience, it seems that the more we as people in a society want to be part of the blogospheric dialog, the greater demand we are going to place on written content. This has to bode well for publishers...

Well, now that this is out of my system, maybe I can get back to writing about other things. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reading Amazon's Tea-leaves: a fool's errand

Michael Cairns posted an insightful piece this morning that really humbled me. In his opening paragraph he talks about an audience he had with Jeff Bezos in 1998, and how wrong he was at the time about trying to project where Amazon was going.

This reminded me of a similar experience I had with Mr. Bezos. It must also have been in early 1998. Jeff Bezos was the keynote speaker at a publishing conference hosted by the University of Virginia, held at the Library of Congress. At a cocktail reception after his keynote, I actually had a one-on-one conversation with him for about 10 minutes, until the host ushered me away. At that meeting I gave him my original business plan for eloquence.

About 2 months later at BEA, several people from Amazon descended on our small booth, and demanded a meeting. Now remember, this is pre-ONIX, pre-everything related to bibliographic metadata. When I arrived at their booth for the meeting, they produced the business plan that I had given to Jeff a couple of months earlier. It was highlighted and underlined, and obviously well read - by somebody.

In the meeting, however, they only wanted to talk about one thing. About 10 pages into the document I wrote about the collection and dissemination of rights information. That paragraph was circled, highlighted, and starred. They wanted to know how I could do it. Whatever my answer was, I don't remember, but it was obviously not compelling enough for them to continue the meeting. They ushered me out, and that was the last I heard from them.

What I was left with was a strong sense that Amazon was not going to be what it appeared to be. They were looking way beyond where they were. In 1998, they were a small, US only, website for books. They knew then that they had to try and tackle the issue of rights one way or another to be the international power that they are today.

Michael's story was further corroborated today by a couple of other interesting items that came to my attention today. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality, I can't share them here. Suffice it to say one had to do with asking publishers for a specific type of content, and the other had to do with Amazon's use of the EVDO platform for purposes other than downloading content.

I guess the bottom line for me is that we are all wasting our time trying to figure out what Amazon's next move is. There are many very smart people there, and they are thinking two or three moves ahead all the time. In this age of 'now', it seems difficult to get our heads around the notion that a company is thinking and acting in a long term way. Clearly, if the past is any teacher, Amazon's Kindle launch is just a baby step in a much larger plan, that will be revealed when they want us to know it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

On Kindle and e-books and much more...

On Monday, my friend, David Berlind, who is an executive editor for ZD-Net interviewed me about a pretty sweeping array of topics related to Kindle and the book publishing industry. He wrote in his blog today, and even published a podcast of our conversation.

For anyone who has been following this blog, it should be interesting. Thanks, David for saving me a ton of writing.....

Amazon’s Kindle: Much needed revolution or book industry power play? by ZDNet's David Berlind -- Like Apple’s iPods and the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) from which they can so effortlessly acquire content, the transparency of the automation and infrastructure that makes Amazon’s Kindle work so effortlessly with the Web site is a marvel in terms of the user experience. But the same technology under the hood that makes [...]

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Will Kindle help Amazon Command the Self Publishing Marketplace?

Yesterday a friend asked me about the proprietary nature of the Kindle. "Why would Amazon want to only have content in its own format?" I didn't have a good answer. My first inclination was that the use of only proprietary formats of ebooks might be simply a functionality prioritization, and that in a later release, Kindle will be able to handle other forms of e-content.

This afternoon I was cleaning up my desk and ran across the business card of someone from BookSurge - and that got my gears grinding.

BookSurge is an Amazon company that helps people self-publish their books. They offer editorial, marketing, and print-on-demand services for people who (for whatever reason) won't get published by an established publishing house. This is a burgeoning market and one where BookSurge has many competitors.

In fact, according the the Under the Radar Study by BISG back in 2005, aggregated sales of books from publishers who (individually) have less that $1 Million in annual revenue, is estimated to be nearly $3 Billion per year. That's a pretty big market to service, especially if you have way of taking a significant chunk of that $3 Billion for yourself.

From BookSurge's website, they even say the following:

Not only can BookSurge help you create a high-quality, highly marketable book, we can also provide you with exclusive tools and resources to help you gain exposure, develop an audience, and build readership for your work.

Exclusive tools? Like maybe we can distribute your titles through Kindle, and we won't take any from other self-publishers? That's a pretty big exclusivity factor for an author thinking of self-publishing.

food for thought.

How many Kindles were actually sold?

Does anyone really know? I've been scouring the web everywhere, and can't come up with a number.

There are tons and tons of articles talking about how the first 'lot' sold out in 5.5 hours. Truly amazing, huh? I guess we're all assuming that the there were 'a lot' of units in the first 'lot'. But, how many is 'a lot'?

Is it just a marketing ploy? To some extent it must be, otherwise, Amazon would have shouted the numbers from every rooftop in Seattle. Creating artificial demand by manipulating the supply is a good way to justify the big price tag.

I am personally very excited by the Kindle, and the effect it will have on book publishers. I think this is the type of shot in the arm the book publishing industry really needs. I will even go on to say that I want one, and I think Amazon did a masterful job of PR. I'm just a bit bothered by the lack of, even ball park, figures.

When I look and see stories like yesterday's about the XO, and the news that Peru has signed up for 260,000 units( and another 50,000 to Mexico!!!), it seems a stark contrast to the lack of any numbers from Amazon.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Discussion of Book Publishings Future

There is an interesting blog post this week, that I had a chance to participate in. Both the content and context of this post are interesting to me.

The post written by Ajay Jain, in a blog called Techgazing, asks the Question, "Will Kindle send book publishing the music industry way?" Please take the time to read it.

What I find interesting here (besides the obvious that he included my opinion in the post) were several things:

1. The post was 'built' by using a feature of the LinkedIn social network, called Q&A. I'm not even sure I understand all the magic here. One day, I logged into LinkedIn, and there was a 'question' about the book industry that was just too tantalizing to pass up. So I answered it. It was clear that mine was one of maybe 50 answers. I thought to myself at the time, that this was an interesting method to write a piece, and after I answered, I didn't think anything more of it. All of the people who answered were in the LinkedIn network.

2. The post was more of a survey aggregation than something written by the author. If you notice, aside from the opening 3 paragraphs, the author lets other people do all the talking. This is both interesting, and powerful. We don't need to 'trust' exclusively in the opinion of the author, and the fact that there are so many voices in the piece, I think, helped turn this piece more into a discussion forum than an editorial like piece.

3. The post generated (as you can see), many many comments - and obviously touched a nerve. The content, obviously found a place where people have strong emotions, as have all the pieces in the past few weeks about ebooks. I find this very encouraging for our society. If we can take this type of discussion into the world political arena, perhaps we could all become a little more tolerant of each other.

4. While definitely a 'geek' perspective on the world of books and publishing, it is a 'world geek' view, not just an American view. It seems that one very interesting thing is that social networks eliminate territorial borders. The author was from India, but many of his participants were from places all around the world. Again, sociologically speaking, I find this to be very encouraging.

My kudos to Ajay for pulling this piece together, not only on the topic, but for how he did it. This type of 'facilitation' is very interesting.