Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Random Thoughts for 2009

Living at the intersection of Book Publishing and Technology, I live in an interesting place. In some ways, it feels as though I live right on a giant fault line. Two tectonic plates are colliding creating a seismic disturbance the likes of which have not been seen before (at least not in my career).

With all that’s going on, I have been giving a lot of thought to what might shake out of all of the tremors. In general, I think this is going to be a great year for small and nimble companies. Here are some random thoughts:

1. People will either be very busy or looking for work. Many people are already out of work, and I don’t think that trend is over. The people that remain employed will be asked to do even more than they did before, and the people out of work are going to have challenging times finding a new place of employment. I think this is going to affect many things, including what people read, and how they get their information.

2. Given the above, I think the price of general fiction will decrease, while there may be some room for modest increases in prices for non-fiction. There is just a glut of fiction work available in the market now, and no shortage of writers (and self-publishers) adding to the supply. Fiction is generally read when people have time and want to escape. The ‘employed’ won’t have the time, and the unemployed will be looking to re-tool for other opportunities, so the demand will be lower. On the non-fiction side, with all of the information sources available on the internet, the need for authoritative, reviewed, edited works of non-fiction will be in greater demand. Publishers that can make their non-fiction products available in the ways these consumers want will see better price elasticity.

3. There will be a rise in the mini-celebrity. Technology is making it simpler to define a market space, find a leader, and build communities around those leaders. Creating author websites and marketing their expertise has never been easier. Creating electronic communities is also becoming easier and easier.

4. Smaller, independent publishers have a great opportunity, and larger, multi-imprint publishers are going to be more greatly challenged. Publishers that focus on a community, and whose brand represents a mission to serve that community will develop reputations that may rival their key authors. Their inherent ability to focus on doing a few things very well as opposed to doing many things only partially well will also help them outperform the larger houses. Unless the larger publishers really reorganize themselves as a group of small businesses with a bootstrapping attitude, I fear they are in for major destruction.

5. Independent retailers will finally embrace the internet (instead of fighting it), and use it to their advantage. Independent retailers have built in communities, and embracing electronic technology can help them keep their local clientele local. All the major retailers sell to their customers in whatever way the customer wants to buy, either in store, or online. The technology is available now and affordable even for small independents.

6. People will continue to read more and more books, magazines, and research material online, or on e-reading devices. Sometimes they will want the e-product for quick answers and then keep the printed text for future reference. The proliferation of product forms and management of the same will be a major challenge for publishers. This points to another solid year for supporting technology companies (such as content management, and yes, workflow companies), and print-on-demand companies.

7. Design of information delivery will become almost as important as the information itself. Finding what is needed as quickly and intuitively as possible as well as being pleasing to the eye will make the difference between customers choosing one data published work over another.


All-in-all, I think it’s going to be an interesting year coming up. What are your thoughts?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The New Leadership Paradigm

Please read this blog post by Kat Meyer. It really got me thinking not only about the ‘leadership vacuum’ in publishing today, but more importantly how the internet is changing our notions of leadership. Specifically, it got me pondering the notion of how internet communication mechanisms – whether they be social networks, chat rooms, blogs, Twitter, or whatever – are changing the entire paradigm of leadership.

If you think about it, we in society take leadership from fairly rigid hierarchical structures. The structure may be your family or your church or your place of employment, or your city, state, or federal government. In some of those structures we may be leaders and in others we may be followers.

Leaders tend to be ‘in charge’ of leading very specific groups of people, and they tend to become leaders because they either started the structure (like a family or small business) or they were elected or promoted into it by people further up the hierarchical ladder.

On the internet, leaders are no longer bound by these traditional structures. What emerges on the internet are ‘thought leaders’ – people we want to listen to and follow by virtue of the fact that we are in alignment with their ideas. Leaders in this paradigm are made in the most egalitarian way – they are made because we choose to follow them, not because we exist in a structure where the leadership is defined for us.

Thought leaders don’t require a pedigree, or any special training. They only need ideas that other people think are interesting and insightful. Anyone who has the courage to speak up on the internet can be a leader. It doesn’t matter whether a person is scrubbing bathrooms at the local McDonalds or the CEO of a major corporation. The only thing that gives a leader power is the people that choose to follow them.

Another thing about leadership on the internet is that leadership is no longer hierarchical - its relational. There is no one single individual who sets the direction of the masses following them. People follow many people all at the same time often on the same topics. They then choose the best ideas from all of them and come to their own conclusions.

I believe that this truly free society is why we are seeing the crash in mainstream media, like television, radio and print news organizations, as well as magazines and other structured information services. There is a quiet revolution going on. People are rebelling against the notion that others are making decisions about what they read and listen to, and what stories are important to them. Instead they are looking for the new voices of reason; the new leaders to point them in a direction and help them find the things that are of the most interest.

The new leaders act as information filters, helping the people that follow them sift through the myriad of information floating around and pointing them toward new ideas – and possibly even new leaders.

So, as I see it, the traits of the ‘new’ leader are:
1. The courage to stand up and take a leadership role
2. A Platform from which to lead (a blog, website, or social network page)
3. A message that consistently resonates with other people
4. The understanding that they exist in the service of and at the pleasure of the people that follow them
5. They are comfortable not being the only leader, and actively promote the ideas of other leaders
6. They are comfortable with the idea of power without authority
7. They are comfortable with the idea that there are no boundaries to their leadership

Anyone care to stand up?

Monday, December 08, 2008

NetGalley LLC



Today is huge day in the history of Firebrand Technologies! Today, in cooperation with Rosetta Solutions, we are formally announcing the formation of joint venture company called NetGalley LLC. For more information about this joint venture, please see our press release.

NetGalley is a product that was created by Rosetta Solutions to help publishers manage the 'galley' process in an electronic way. Galleys are books that are printed in advance of the formally published book. Generally, they are sent out to reviewers and key customers prior to their formal publication so they can be reviewed. NetGalley is a tool that manages this process electronically, by creating a secure environment where reviewers can either read or download electronic versions, or request a hardcopy of the 'netgalley' and then post their reviews online.

The product was formally launched last Spring during BEA. Since then it has garnered much attention, but has not made a significant impact in the market. At least not yet... We are definitely hoping to change that!

The concept of NetGalley is a very exciting one for everyone in the industry who recognizes how much wasted money there is in the current 'galley process'. Publishers waste significant money sending galleys out via the mail to people who either never get them or never read them. Reviewers are often inundated by publishers to review their books, and need to create makeshift tools to manage their workload.

To, me, there is a tremendous opportunity to help publishers save money in this process. The amount of money wasted on sending galleys to bad addresses is enough to make any publishing CEO wince! By providing reviewers with rich bibliograpic data (which of course is Firebrand's forte), they can choose to opt-in to either read a galley electronically, or have one sent to them. Savvy publishers will connect this system directly to their print on demand printer of choice and have a galley custom created for the review.

In later entries, I'll be talking more about this, and how we intend on:

  • Making NetGalley completely integrated with Firebrand's Title Management and eloquence databases.
  • Improving the workflow for both publishers and reviewers
  • Changing the business model from a price per title to a subscription model

Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Give Books This Holiday

This post has been simmering for a long time. But the events of the past week have finally stirred me to write this. The book retail market has been in trouble for a long time, and the publishing industry is really challenged, especially at the moment. But, I'm not going to spend alot of time on that topic here. There was a good summation of publishing's ills done by Lynn Neary of NPR yesterday.


We, in the publishing industry, don't have the luxury of just sitting idly by and waiting for the axe to fall. We each can find a way to support the industry that supports us - by giving books this holiday season!


Many of us already do this, but I don't think many of us are promoting that we do it.


I could swear that a month or two ago, there were many blog entries (or maybe they were twitter feeds) about people trying to start a movement for buying books this holiday season. However, a casual search of both the web and twitter came up almost empty. It's time to re-energize the movement!

Here are two ideas:


1. Add something to your email signature. This idea comes from some friends at Ingram Publisher Services. Recently, in their email signatures, they had a simple and tasteful logo:



When I first saw it, I loved it, but never said anything about it. I hope they don't mind that this will now become part of my email signature as well. Maybe we can get everyone in publishing to add it to their emails also. Please feel free to copy it.


2. Subscribe to and become a follower of Buy Books for the Holidays 2008 blog, and add your logo to your own blog. Maybe if we all band together, we can make a difference.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Me Too Strategy?

It has been a horrible week in the book world.  And, I apologize in advance if this post sounds just a bit cynical.  

There is no question that the book business is in a world of flux.  Between yesterday and today, I've read no less than 30 different accounts of layoffs, salary freezes, hiring freezes, and warnings about all of the above, in the book business.

Some, there can be no doubt, are legitimate business moves made in light of the current economic climate.  But I wonder if some publishers didn't just see the opportunity to make cuts because they heard others were about to.

I raised this question with a colleague on the phone today, and he said that he was thinking the same thing.  Isn't it a little suspicious that all of this took place in a two day period?  How could it be that Random House, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Putnam, Thomas Nelson, Bowker, and of course, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt all chose this week to cut staff.  Even HarperCollins got into the act by announcing a salary freeze.  At least Macmillan made their announcement about a hiring freeze a few weeks ago.

Now, I don't think that there was any collusion going on, but I do think that there was a lot of communications between these houses and that rumors abounded long before we were made aware of the situation.

One bright spot - Hachette announced that they were giving out bonuses this year!  

Can't wait to hear tomorrow's news... it's got to be better than the last two days.




Monday, December 01, 2008

One of our Own

I hope you all had a great holiday weekend!

For those of you that read this blog and are in the 'metadata business' like we are at Firebrand, I wanted to let you know that Stanley Greenfield is in the hospital. They are not really sure what's wrong with him other than he has some type of infection.

His wife, Betty, called last week to let us know. I spoke to Stanley very briefly on Saturday, and of course, if you know Stanley, he was upbeat and asking for excerpts. But, uncharacteristically, you could tell he was very tired (or sedated), and the call was no more than 2 minutes long. He said that he may be in the hospital for 2 - 4 more weeks.

Stanley, who runs the company, Dial-A-Book, is one of the most spry octogenarians I know. He is very proud of his 3rd place finish in the U.S. National Squash Championships in his age category, and quick to acknowledge that only three contestants over 80 showed up!

Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers. Stanley is at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for those of you who want to call or write to him. I'll update this blog as I know more.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Productivity

Why are we so productive when we get super busy?

I am in a crazy-busy period, yet I seem to be taking care of lots of little things that have been sitting around my desk for months. I'm trying to understand it in order to tap into it in less busy times.

- is it just adrenaline? if so, I know I can only keep this up for so long
- is it that I'm just not thinking so much about the task, and just doing it?
- I find myself filling in free minutes with "Priority B or Priority C" things that have been nagging me - am I just trying to get these off my mind, so I can concentrate on the important stuff?

whatever it is, it tracks with other times when I've been consumed by a project, and have been energized. I love it, but I wonder how long I can keep the pace....

It also tracks with a saying that someone told me a long time ago - "Give your most important projects to your busiest person." - well that's me at the moment...

fpt

Monday, November 24, 2008

CPSIA - Sneaking up on us?

On Friday we received a rather interesting email from Amazon related to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act - which was signed into law last August. Here is what was so interesting:

  1. I hadn't even heard of this before - and haven't heard anyone speak of it, or its implications for book publishers.
  2. Amazon sent this email out to publishers on Friday, and wanted a response the same day.
  3. Last week (and even this morning) the BISAC Metadata committee had a virtual discussion about some of these issues, and are trying to rush putting 'hazard warnings' into the standards for ONIX - the standard that most publishers use to communicate product information to Amazon and others.
  4. We didn't receive any notices like this from any other retailers.

I wonder how anyone will comply with all this in such a short timeframe. Here is the text of the email:

Dear Amazon Vendor
This message outlines the steps Amazon.com will require vendors to take to confirm their compliance with new product safety regulations affecting childrens products.


We will need your response via e-mail on two issues by November 21, 2008: (1) product safety cautionary statements regarding choking hazards of childrens toys and games, and (2) lead and phthalate limits that will be phased in on all childrens products.

These issues are described in further detail below, along with information about what you need to do to ensure that the compliance of your products offered on Amazon.com.

Background
The U.S. House and Senate have passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (the Act), and on August 14, 2008, President Bush signed the Act into law.

We expect that all Amazon.com vendors will ensure that their products are compliant with the Act in accordance with all applicable effective dates. Specific provisions of the Act discussed in this letter are for ease of reference only. Specific provisions of the Act discussed in this letter are for ease of reference only. Further information on the Act is available on the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website at http://www.cpsc.gov/.

Vendors are responsible for thoroughly familiarizing themselves with all the requirements of the Act. We would, however, like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to two issues of particular importance to Amazon.com.

1. Cautionary Statements in Internet Advertisements
Section 105 of the Act requires manufacturers, importers and distributors to provide retailers with appropriate cautionary statements relating to the choking hazards of childrens toys and games. These cautionary statements are defined in Section 105 of the Act and Section 24 of the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. They must be displayed on the product packaging and in certain online and catalog advertisements.

What you need to do
You are responsible for determining if a cautionary statement applies to the product. This can be verified by contacting the product manufacturer or checking the product packaging. Amazon.com has created a data field for such cautionary statements among the product attributes supplied to us by vendors. In order to enter cautionary statements applicable to each of your products, please download the spreadsheet CPSIA Vendor Spreadsheet in the Resource Center of Vendor Central. Follow the instructions located in this file to download your items from Vendor Central, complete, and return as an attachment to an e-mail addressed to cpsia-books@amazon.com. Vendors must supply Amazon.com with an appropriate cautionary statement (or certify that no such statements are applicable) for each applicable product no later than November 21, 2008. Cautionary statements that you select will be displayed on the product detail page.

If none of your products are subject to a cautionary statement, reply to cpsia-books@amazon.com the following statement We, [Vendor Name], certify that no cautionary statement under Section 105 of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 is applicable to any product sold or furnished by us.

Please include your vendor name in the subject line of your e-mail to us when you respond in any case. Any products for which the applicable cautionary statements are not received (or certified as non-applicable) are subject to removal from the Amazon.com site, and Amazon.com will be entitled to return any inventory of such products to you for a full refund.

2. Product Content Limits
The Act prescribes strict limits on the content of certain materials in products intended for children, including lead and phthalates. In particular:
Effective February 10, 2009, the Act prohibits the sale of childrens toys and child care articles with concentrations of more than 0.1 percent of di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate, (DIDP), or di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP).

The Act mandates a phased-in ban on lead in substrate for all childrens products, requiring that lead levels be reduced to a maximum of 600 parts per million by February 10, 2009; 300 parts per million by August 14, 2009; and 100 parts per million by August 14, 2011. Electronic devices and inaccessible component parts will be subject to rules to be issued by August 14, 2009.
The Act also reduces permissible lead in paint content from 0.06 percent to 0.009 percent (effective August 14, 2009), which may be lowered further by administrative action.

What you need to do
We expect that vendors will familiarize themselves with the effective dates of each applicable limit. In order to minimize the difficulty of tracking multiple versions of the same product through the supply chain, it is highly advisable for manufacturers to promptly eliminate or phase-out product offerings which do not or will not comply with the most restrictive limits described above, well before such limits take effect.

If all of your products are compliant with the lead and phthalate limits according to the table below, reply to cpsia-books@amazon.com with the following statement We, [Vendor Name], certify that all of our products are compliant with the lead and phthalate limits effective as of August 14, 2011 as defined by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
If some of your products are not compliant by any of the dates below, you must complete the spreadsheet located in the Resource Center of Vendor Central, as stated above. Only one spreadsheet needs to be completed.

As of each date set forth in Column III of the table below, each vendor must confirm and report to Amazon.com that all of your childrens products (i) in Amazon.coms inventory, as reported to you in Vendor Central as of such date, and (ii) in transit or shipped to Amazon.com on or after such date, will comply with applicable limits set forth in Column I.






































I
II
III
IV
Limit
Effective Date of Limit per the Act
Products shipped to Amazon.com must comply by
Noncompliant products are subject to return to Vendor
Lead 600 ppm
February 10, 2009
November 30, 2008
January 10, 2009
Phthalate ban
February 10, 2009
November 30, 2008
January 10, 2009
Lead 300 ppm
August 14, 2009
April 14, 2009
July 1, 2009
Lead paint 0.009
August 14, 2009
April 14, 2009
July 1, 2009
Lead 100 PPM
August 14, 2011
February 14, 2011
July 1, 2011



Please put your vendor name in the subject field of the email when you respond in any case.

If you do not provide the information requested by the dates provided in Column III, you are representing and warranting that all of your products shipped to Amazon.com prior to such date are fully compliant with the applicable limits. Amazon.com will be entitled to rely on such representation. Nevertheless, any childrens products for which you have not provided affirmative confirmation of compliance are subject to removal from the Amazon.com catalog at any time, and Amazon.com will be entitled to return to you for a full refund (including shipping costs) any non-compliant products which remain in our inventory as of the dates in Column IV above.

In order to minimize difficulties in inventory compliance tracking, any products which are altered to comply with a limit described in the Act must have a distinct SKU number from previous versions. These changes must be reported to Amazon.com along with a return authorization for any Amazon.com inventory of previous versions.

The Act provides that the CPSC may issue regulations providing for further limitations on the content of childrens products. Vendors are responsible for tracking and complying with any regulations issued by the CPSC.

We are confident that you share our commitment to ensure the full compliance with the Act of all of your products sold on Amazon.com.

Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.

Sincerely,
Amazon.com

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I’m usually a person who keeps his own council. I don’t often seek out the help of others when I’ve got decisions to make or research to do. But, recently, I’ve been working on a very complex project, one that has many implications for both me and my company. And, this time, I enlisted the help of a great many people. It was such a great experience that I thought I’d share a few of the insights I got from it:


1. Asking people’s opinions helped me clarify my questions. As I struggled with some rather complex questions, simply trying to figure out how to ask for someone else’s opinion gave me great insight. And the more people I asked the more clear the issues became.

2. Most opinions were non-committal, but they were extremely helpful. It was interesting to me that of all the people I spoke with, no one said, “You should do this”. Most of them were very helpful in identifying factors to consider, both positive and negative, but few offered any strong ideas about what I should do.

3. Most people really enjoyed being asked for help. Maybe it’s because I don’t ask for help very often, but I was really impressed at how willing people were to give me their time, and sincerely help me evaluate what I was doing.

4. Several folks referred me to others that I would not have thought of myself. As they listened to my questions, if the person I was speaking with didn’t feel qualified to answer, they usually had someone in mind that was, and offered to connect me.

5. Other people can really help your productivity. I had reached a point several times on this project where something needed to be done – quickly – and I didn’t even realize that I was stuck. It was only after I accepted someone’s offer to make a phone call on my behalf, did I realize that that phone call was the most important thing that needed to be done at that moment.

6. Asking for other people’s help gave me confidence that I was covering all my bases. Whether or not the decisions I make will be good ones won’t be known for quite a while, but feeling that I thoroughly thought through the situation, gives me confidence to take action.

Thanks to all who helped me with this project. You know who you are. I’ll let you all know the outcome very soon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Amazon Honors Distributors

Today, Publishers Marketplace had a very interesting news item - at least to me! It is copied below:
Amazon Honors 3 Distributors
Apparently Amazon recognizes distributors of the year, and this year they are honoring Macmillan, Random House Publisher Service, and IPG. Criteria include "the shortest and most consistent receive lead times" for books, "actively growing" Kindle availability, using Amazon's print-on-demand, providing correct ONIX data, and strong search inside the book participation.Amazon books vp Russell Grandinetti says in the announcement, "By working together, we're able to improve the rate at
which their books are in stock on Amazon, lower prices through lowering
operational costs and help customers find, discover and buy great books....
We're proud to work with such great distributors on behalf of their client publishers."

What was so interesting (to me) is that Macmillan, and IPG are Firebrand customers and use our Title Management database to help manage lead times, and determine which books will be in the Kindle program, and the Search Inside Program. They are also eloquence customers, and eloquence is the service they use to create and distribute their ONIX data.

It's nice to be behind the scenes of an award like this!

The above news item was copied from Publisher's Marketplace because you need a password to have access to their content. Publisher's Marketplace is a great source of daily news about the book publishing world, and I would strongly suggest signing up (it's free), to get their daily emails.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Amazon's CloudFront


I've sort of filed this one under "innocuous little email that one day may have a profound impact on my business".


This morning - because I'm on a mailing list - I received an email from Amazon Web Services. For those of you that don't know what a web service is, it is a tool that programmers can use to access information from someone else (over the web) on demand. We use Amazon's web services to access information from Amazon's database (like titles, and author names, and page counts etc.) so we can compare it to what is on our database.


The email I received this morning was a little different from the normally very geeky ones I get. It was announcing a beta-platform for a new service called Amazon CloudFront. With CloudFront, programmers can now ask for and retrieve "content" that is in Amazon's database, not just the structured information (mentioned above).


It's a little vague about what it means by content, but from what I can gather, it looks like images. That's cool by itself, but if you consider that when Amazon shows you pages of a book in their Search Inside the Book tool, and all of those pages are stored as individual images of a page, then this new little tool starts to have some very interesting implications.


I'm still not sure what it all means yet, but this much I do know: Amazon, Yahoo, and Google, are the three largest creators of web services. There is a whole group of individual programmers out there that do some very creative things with these services, by building what they call mashups. Mashups are little pieces of code that when "mashed together" create some very cool applications. In fact there is a whole group of these folks getting together right now at a conference (or better called an unconference) called MashupCamp, which is run by a friend of mine named David Berlind.


When Amazon first created their webservices, these mashup developers went crazy and built some really cool things. I can't wait to see what some of them will come up with.


We may have to get into the act ourselves.... as I said, this could have a profound impact on my company!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast

This is a paraphrase of a quote from the Steven Hunter's book, The Point of Impact, which was also turned into a movie (Shooter) starring Mark Wahlberg. The book is about a sniper, or more accurately, the mind of a sniper, as he prepares to make shots upwards of a mile in length.


“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” is also a quote that I have found myself saying to people around me a lot lately. In my context, it is analogous to the old carpenter’s adage: “measure twice, cut once”. Essentially, I mean, if you do something right the first time, you save yourself a ton of time and trouble in the long run. It also means that you spend at least a little time considering your next course of action before committing yourself to it.



In our ultra high paced society, we are all under stress to experiment with new methods, make quick decisions, and to get things done more quickly than has ever been expected in the past. This is especially true in book publishing, as publishers struggle with using new technologies and creating new business models. However, under this pressure, we all often fall prey to “leaping before we look”. And, the notion of “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” seems somewhat counter-intuitive.

Everyone has heard the story that it took Edison over 1,000 experiments before he perfected the light bulb, but has anyone ever put forth the notion that any of those experiments were not planned out? I think that the notion of ‘experimentation’ has become synonymous with the idea of “Just do it” (a commercial slogan designed to get people exercising.) Ill planned experiments can have disastrous results, wasting time, money, and other resources, especially in business. And, once the resources are gone, we can’t do any more experiments.

We need to move quickly in today’s society, but we must also move with some consideration of the implications our actions.

On another plane entirely, I hope our Treasury Secretary considers that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” when doling out our $700 Billion. We certainly can’t afford for this ‘experiment’ not to work.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Only A Passion for Ideals will Save Publishing

When I think about leadership of any kind, the first trait that comes to my mind is passion.

It seems to me that leaders achieve their position because they project a passion for ideals that are greater than they are. It doesn't matter whether the leader is a presidential candidate, or a programmer in a small startup company. They become leaders NOT because they aspire to lead but because they inspire people to follow their ideals.

The best and brightest people I work with are all passionate about what they do. They care about the minute details. They pontificate about philosophical approaches to problems. They might not always be right (who is?) but that doesn't really matter, we (less passionate) will follow anyway as long as we feel the leaders motivations are aligned with our own.

Looking back, I first fell in love with the book business in the mid 1980's because it was an industry passionate about its role in bringing information, education, and entertainment - thought provoking ideas - to society in a cohesive form. As a whole, the industry had passion for this mission, and was a societal leader. I wanted to be a part of it. It inspired me to start my business to support them in their mission.

But, it has lost its way. Certainly, one reason for our waywardness was the rising imperative that publishing companies be as financially successful as any other type of business. That notion caused a lot of bad blood in the 1990's, but we collectively got over it, and trudged on. Society as a whole has moved toward a superstar mentality where only the thought leaders that have a proven track record have room for success. So, now publishing is following society (because that's where the money is) instead of leading it. It's as though we all gave up, believing that making a profit and bringing thought provoking ideas to society are mutually exclusive paths.

Now it seems that the industry is thinking that technology will possibly save it from the demise that seems to be looming. But using technology to simply do the same thing better, faster, and cheaper is like a band-aid on a stab wound. There is value in stemming the bleeding, but the bleeding will not stop.

In order to turn ourselves around, and again become a leading force in society, we need to remember our mission, and get back our passion for bringing thoughts and ideas into a cohesive form. Books - as we know them today - either printed, or electronic, are but one form. Technology is enabling other forms, and will continue to develop new ones going forward. But, to take advantage of these new enabling forms, publishers need to re-think they way the produce, organize, market and deliver ideas, not just printed products.

Some publishers are starting to think this way, and are moving toward the idea of branding ideas, not just works. But, the industry as a whole is not moving as a cohesive unit. It's moving in pieces. But the reason its moving is NOT because of its passion for the original mission, its moving because of its pursuit of profit.

It's only when we get passionate again, that this industry will again attract the brightest minds who can find creative ways to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. In my ideal of the future, the pursuit of profit and the mission of bringing thought stimulating ideas to society are mutually INCLUSIVE and lie on the same path.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Challenging Times call for Focus

Obviously, these are challenging times.

One of the things that makes them challenging is the uncertainty that surrounds all of us. What's happening to my savings? What's happening to my job? What if the sky falls? What are we going to do about 'X'? What if, what if, what if???

Mike Hyatt, President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers - whose blog has become required daily reading for me - has two posts that address some of the challenges we face. In the first post, he describes what leaders must do in turbulent times. In second post, he writes about the 10 benefits of a recession.

These are great posts that I hope you all read, as they offer concise, practical advise for facing adversity and determining what is important to you.

It is interesting to me to watch how the stress of uncertainty affects us. Some people completely lose their focus and tend to anxiously flit about doing lots of things that don't matter, thinking everything is important and must be done at once. Others, have a laser-like focus on the most important things and tend to excel under stress. The people in the former group seem to lose all sense of time management, while the people in the latter group seem to become time management gurus overnight.

How does this happen? With some people it's like their internal compass has had a magnet applied to it. It just spins and spins. How can you stop it and get focused?

Here are a few ideas:

1. Breathe, just Breathe. Close your eyes, think of the Karate Kid, breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, nice and slow. Try to clear your mind of everything. Set a timer, do it for three minutes. It will seem like an eternity. This will slow your heart rate and calm your mind.

2. Ask yourself the question, If there was only one thing I need to have, or do, before ___________ (the sky falls), what would it be? This is the thing that is most important thing for you to do right now.

3. If the answer to your question is something like a project, in that it has many steps or dependencies, then pull your time frame into a one day increment. Ask yourself, if I only had today to get this project done, what would be the most important piece to make happen? Now the important stuff is coming into focus.

4. Make a commitment to yourself to make it happen. If you are truly committed, nothing can stop you.

5. Get started with a baby step. Of the stuff that (now) needs to get done today, what piece of it is the easiest to get done? Accomplishment is the best tool for action. Crank out a few easy things; get your momentum going.

6. Avoid the temptation to stop before you are done with what you committed to do. Don't let yourself down. This is discipline. Sometimes it takes strong discipline to get a task across the finish line.

7. Reward yourself for your accomplishment. Even if it is just giving yourself a silent 'atta boy' and getting a cup of coffee.

8. Repeat.


Focus leads to action, and action leads to focus. Sometimes to focus is not natural, but that doesn't mean you can't have it. During these challenging times, take one day at a time, and work on the things that are most important. Before you know it, the challenge will be past!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thank You!

I was just trying to catch up on all my RSS feeds, and I was struck by the surprising lack of a topic today - at least in the feeds I subscribe to. Most of my feeds are book publishing related, but still I would have thought someone would have said something about the significance of the day.

Today, is November 11th - Veteran's Day. It is a day to think of all of those who have served on our behalf. In this era, virtually everyone knows of or directly knows a veteran. We pass them as we travel through airports, we see their pictures in our local papers. And yet, there are so many that we don't know about. Those that never call attention to themselves, those that fought in wars and skirmishes that we as a society would rather not remember.

So, before the day actually passes, I wanted to 'virtually' extend my thanks to all of you.

I was fortunate to have been only 17 when then draft for the Viet Nam war was stopped. So, I missed all service. But, many others stood in my stead, and I am grateful to all of you for that.

On a happier note, I just did a search of blogs that contained the term "Veteran's Day", and got back 110,000 hits. I wonder why none of them were in any of the publishing blogs?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Are Retailers getting in the way of Customers?

Last Sunday night, Carolyn Reidy, President of Simon & Schuster addressed a large audience of publishers gathered outside of Chicago. The event was the Evangelical Christian Publisher's Association, PubU conference.

Last year, Jane Friedman - then head of HarperCollins - gave a riveting address, and so the room was primed and ready to hear what Ms. Reidy had to say. Ms. Friedman's talk was mostly about leveraging content, and experimenting with new business models. By contrast, Ms. Reidy's talk was more tied to the age old issue of finding customers.

Ms. Reidy's talk was refreshing from the point of view that she bucked a lot of conventional wisdom related to the decline of reading among younger generations. However, (I think) she shocked the room a bit by suggesting that ECPA's member publishers focus on where the customers are, and not where the retailers are.

Ms. Reidy's address was a bit too well prepared, but her points were salient. She suggested that specialty retailers, like Christian bookstores, were part of the problem in selling Christian titles. Don't Christian people shop in secular establishments? Most of these retailers are small, and cannot compete with larger competitors on price. She also argued that big titles in the Christian market, are just plain big titles. When a book title sells more than 1 million copies, its a big book by any one's standards. (Immediately prior to Ms. Reidy's speech, the ECPA publishers had just celebrated 14 titles that eclipsed that mark, and two that eclipsed the 10 Million copy mark.) So, why would a consumer of such a large title buy it at a specialty retailer, when they can get it at Walmart or Costco 20% - 40% cheaper, and also pick up a gallon of milk or tires for their car at the same time?

There seemed to be a collective gasp from the audience at this notion, but most had to acknowledge the truth in it. Every publisher in the room now depends on Amazon (the most secular of all retailers) for a major piece of their sales - but they sort of see that as a special case.

In another conversation I had this week with the SVP of Marketing for a major trade house, I was surprised to learn that numbers bear out Ms. Reidy's point. About 10 years ago, it was fairly common for publishers to say that independent retailers were responsible for about 20% of sales, yet took up approximately 80% of the marketing and sales budget. Now, the numbers are that independent stores make up 10% of sales and take up 90% of the budget.

In a down economy, how long can publishers continue to support these retailers? (Some presses, I have heard are off by as much as 30% this year.) Independent or specialty bookstores are about as important a part of publishing history as the printing press, but are they, too, becoming an anachronism? (I have to say it feels somewhat sacraligious to write this, as I love independent stores.) Are these stores, which remain a destination retail establishment getting in the way of customers finding books? I think the answer to that last one is an obvious no, but then again, they are not doing anything to help their customers with other needs they might have as well - like saving time and money.

Maybe some smart retailer will partner with one or more of the big box retailers, and create a brand name specialty store within the store.... There are Starbucks in Target locations, why couldn't there be a Jabberwocky in every Walmart?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A mission for 150 years

We've been hearing a lot about Google's mission lately - to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

In Louisville, Kentucky, there is another organization with a very similar mission, except for a rather interesting twist. The organization is the American Printing House for the Blind and their mission is to: To promote the independence of blind and visually impaired persons by providing specialized materials, products, and services needed for education and life.

Since 1858 the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has been creating unique products for people who are visually impaired, blind, or deaf blind. APH products are designed for infants, preschoolers, students, and adults, both in education and in daily living.

In other words they are trying to organize the worlds information and make it accessible to the sight impaired. In some ways this task is easier than Google's, and in other ways, it is far, far more difficult.

This organization is a little hard to appreciate unless you go visit them. I was in Louisville today for a big status meeting (more on that later), but the more interesting part of the day was a tour of their "printing plant" and their museum. I have visited maybe 20 printing plants in my career, but I've never seen anything, and I mean not even close, to anything that resembles what I saw today.

APH generally (and lets be very liberal here, because they do lots of other products too) takes books that were published by other publishers and creates Braille and/or Large Print editions - on demand - for the sight impaired. Contractually, some of these Braille editions still need to be created on plates, and others can be done electronically. In either case, they need to be translated into Braille first before they can be printed - or I should say imprinted. Braille is essentially an embossing process for every character. Any production person I know will tell you how much embossing just a cover of a paperback book costs. Imagine every character. Each page needs to be printed individually from plates!

The plant is a strange combination of 19th century technology and 21st century technology. There are machines in that plant that I swear are more than 100 years old. All I could think about was the guy whose job it was to keep them running. There were machines in this plant that I have seen only in Antique shops. Yet they were still running, and being run by people who literally endangered their hands every second of their shift.

Then there were sheet fed machines that were were running side by side to create materials (again) one page at a time.

To appreciate this, I want you to imagine a 384 page text book with color illustrations - let's say a high school physics book. Imagine that the reader can't see any of the diagrams. The translator now needs not only to produce the textual translation, but also needs to try and literally interpret and describe the graph or picture. What an incredibly daunting task. I was told of a tragic story today of an AP Physics student who needed a Braille translation, but couldn't get it - and therefore couldn't take AP Physics - because they couldn't find a translator. It wasn't because it was going to cost $30,000 to translate that one book, it was simply that there weren't any translators available who knew physics and braille.

Now, assume that 384 page book could be translated. How many pages is that in braille? I have no idea, but I think a safe assumption would be at least 768. What an unbelievable mission!

This company labors on, under everyone's radar... since 1858.... doing what google has been doing since what? 1998?

We have had the great fortune of have APH as a client for about nine months now, and today we were able to preview the new Louis database portal (which we developed) as well as their new e-commerce site and Title Management database (again a Firebrand product), working together to help the people looking for sight impaired products - find them.

After seeing the incredible job APH has taken on for themselves, our little contribution seems like a pimple on the butt cheek of an organization with an incredible mission. To learn more about APH you can check out their website, or check out the "current" Louis database - but be aware it will be much improved probably around the beginning of next year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Damn the Economy! Full Speed Ahead!

I've had to do a lot of soul searching recently. The economy continues to head south, and our company, Firebrand Technologies, is experiencing unprecedented growth in both client acquisition, and in revenue. But, in business, you can only grow so much before you have to invest in more infrastructure, and, (gulp) more people.

Since early in the year, I've been watching the team here at Firebrand grow more and more taxed by our recent successes. And, during that time, they have done an incredible job of taking it all in stride, and giving it everything they have. This year, in addition to our client acquisition growth, we've also developed our most ambitious new set of applications, launched two new websites, ran a user conference, and even re-branded ourselves. We've also made significant investments in both internal and external IT hardware and software.

Then the economy started to tank.

As you can see from a very recent blog post - my initial inclination was to "hunker down", bank some cash, and wait for better times before hiring new staff. But now, I see that as a recipe for disaster. We have completely maximized the capacity of our team - no matter how many tools we throw at them to make them more efficient. If we don't get some new staff, we won't be able to support (to our own service level standards) all the new clients who have come on board. This could cause a whole host of bad things to happen, including putting a serious break on our growth.

So, to parody John Paul Jones - Damn the economy! Full Speed Ahead!

We've already made one strategic hire this week (announcement to be made in about two weeks), and we're looking for people in support, QA, and development. We've got some big things happening in 2009. We can't let the economy slow those plans, its very difficult getting the positive momentum that we currently enjoy. He have to keep it moving forward!

Is anyone else out there in this position?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

We're nothing without others

I was pretty moved by Mike Hyatt's blog post yesterday - and I'm not completely sure why. What he wrote is what I "think" about all the time, and is sort of my basic life philosophy. I think that the mere fact that he wrote it all down is what made it so moving. Thanks, Mike, for doing that.

There have also been, in just that past few days, several personal examples of the just how much stronger we all are because of our strong connections with all of the people in our lives. We are all like strands in a tightly woven fabric. Whether it be my brother calling with an offer of baby clothes for my granddaughter, or my kids pitching in with the grocery shopping and dinner while my wife is away, or the people here at work who have been putting in an extraordinary effort, they all have one common theme: self sacrifice for the good of others.

As the economy becomes more challenged, this "people fabric" is going to be stretched in new and different ways. All of us are going to need to "stretch" in order to keep the fabric from ripping.

To completely mix metaphors: perhaps the silver lining in our dark economic cloud is that we might just take the time to appreciate the little things - things that maybe we've taken for granted for a while.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hunker Down and do what you do Better!

The economy is in the tank, and the prospects of a recovery seem very far off.

Virtually every publisher, distributor, wholesaler, or retailer I've spoken to in the past month or so has been moaning about sales this year. Based on my anecdotal evidence, this could turn out to be a very difficult year for all of us.

The good news is that books have generally been considered 'recession proof' as they are a relatively low cost of entertainment. But this recession seems to have different characteristics than others I have known. It seems to be hitting consumers last instead of first. There are still stadiums full of fans often paying north of $100 a ticket to see major sporting events. It's still just as hard to get a table at your favorite restaurant. It's only the financial markets that are in a shambles. Maybe when we all get up the nerve to look at our 401(k) plans, consumers will start cutting back, and feel the pinch.

In these hard times, though, companies need to focus on net profit more than sales. Being profitable means staying alive to fight another day under better conditions. The only way to hold our profits is to hunker down and do what we do better. We all have inefficiencies in our business. We need to route these out, and save time. Efficiency reduces costs, we all know that, but in stronger economic times, we ignore that in lieu of improving our sales. It's time to start paying attention again.

Now is a good time to look at your current workflows, to examine your management practices, your list management, and obviously anything that has an impact on costs. Now is the time to look hard at the way you feed the supply chain, and especially the way you lay down new titles. (It has long been established that most titles sell more copies in their first three months than they do for the rest of their shelf life - so it's important to make those first months as smooth as possible.)

Efficiencies can be gained simply by paying attention to the little things as well. How many of you do mailings where you know your contact lists are not in good shape? How many of you don't even know if you have rights in a certain market, or e-rights to some of your best selling titles? If you were trying to make a reprint decision, how many of you really know how many copies already exist in the channel?

So, during this time of economic morass, clean house a little. When the economy comes back, you will be poised for growth!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Making a comeback

Hey all,

After more than a few subtle hints, I'm committed to re-joining the blogospheric chorus.

Tomorrow, I'll start posting real things again, but for today, I simply want to acknowledge a few of you fellow bloggers.

I not only stopped blogging a few months ago, I completely abandoned the blogosphere. So, in making a comeback, my first order of business was to try and sift through the 800+ RSS entries that I haven't read. Of course, I didn't read them all, but I was able to get a pretty good sense of things.

The most overwhelming sensation I got from this review was profound sense of respect for those of you who continue to show discipline and perserverance in your writing. Keep up the good work!

The next major feeling I got in 'sifting' through was how this 'underground media' was so much more personal and meaningful than the 'mainstream media'. Acknowledging your personal slant on things and being proud of that slant gives your work more credibility. Whether I agree with your point of view or not, I have to respect it.

Thanks to all of you for your efforts and inspiration. I especially want to thank Joe Wikert, Michael Cairns, Seth Godin, and Tim O'Reilly, whose blogs I read more than skimmed.

see you tomorrow. fpt

Monday, June 02, 2008

Blinding Flash of the Obvious

Sometimes, it's a blinding flash of the obvious that makes your head spin with new insights.

Manga is arguably the fastest growing genre in publishing today. These companies are hot. Traditional publishers often druel openly as they watch the manga titles fly off the shelves, while theirs just sit (or worse, are returned). The conventional publishing wisdom says that manga's success is due to manga publishers creating the types of books that kids want to read, and that kids today have shorter attention spans and want more illustrated works.

OK, that makes a certain amount of sense when you look through the lens of a book publisher.

But, yesterday, near the end of a very quiet day at BEA, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeremy Ross, the director of new product development at TokyoPop. And, as casually as you might ask about the weather, he threw out a nugget that took a moment to register in my brain. He said, "we are not a publisher, we are media company, who happens to sell books".

Later, when I was out to dinner with Doug , the implications of that simple line for our business and for publishing in general began to flood over me like a wave.

The publishers who have been successfully transforming themselves in the face of the new digital day, have gotten this concept to some extent, but I believe Jeremy's simple statement goes even further. At the PMA Graduate School on Thursday both Andrew Savikas, and Mike Shatzkin spoke to the publishers about building communities around their niche markets, and supporting their books by serving the reader with all they need, which might include the book, but might include other ancillary materials as well. All really good points, and as more publishers take those concepts to heart, they will transition into a new style of company.

However, in their hearts they will still be book publishers who happen to build communities, and not media companies who happen to publish books. It may sound like a fine line, but I believe it is one of the keys to why manga in general, and TokyoPop in particular have been so successful. They are not limited by the traditional publishing lens. Hence, they are not 'transitioning', they are just 'being' different.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

How long will the BEA survive?

The almost complete absence of non-exhibiting attendees to the Book Expo on Sunday afternoon should be a real wake-up call to the Reed Exhibitions people. The show's use as a way for publishers and authors to interact directly with customers has been waning for several years, but this year seem incredibly weak.

That rasping sound of packing tape, that is not supposed to be heard in the hall until the official close at 4pm, could heard throughout the hall by 11:30am. What's going on?

Most publishers I spoke with, anticipated a 'light' show, and sent fewer people. Many expected this simply because it was in Los Angeles. But I think the 'lightness' was even 'lighter' than many expected. The publishers I was speaking with were openly questioning why they come at all, and all vowed to send even fewer people and take less space next year.

But we've been hearing those sounds for years. Maybe next year, back in New York, the attendance will be different. But will it be buyers and librarians, or simply more publishing people? If the 2009 show in NYC does not have a dramatic rebound from this year, then I think the 2011 show in Las Vegas will be doomed.

I personally love the BEA. I get to see all my clients in one place, rekindle many old connections, and make some new ones. While grueling, it is also generally a very gratifying experience. But my role there is different than most. My customers are the exhibitors, not the attendees. If they stop showing, so will I.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Innovation - 5% Planning, 95% execution

Thomas Edison might not appreciate my application of his famous quote about invention, but I do think that invention and innovation are very similar concepts.

For the past two years, dozens of conferences like today’s BISG Making Information Pay (MIP) event and the ECPA Leadership Summit earlier this week, and our own event a month ago, have been focusing on the interesting changes being made in the publishing industry by a few key companies. Looking back now, it seems that those few have been very impressive on multiple fronts. Not only did they focus on an innovative idea, they acted on it, and made it real. The simple fact that they planned and executed the development of an idea seems to be the real victory. Virtually all of the speakers at MIP today were speaking about things that they had DONE, not things that they were planning to do.

And execution seems to be what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. In my estimation, successful companies have a culture of execution. They don’t just talk about doing things, they actually do them. And then, they review the results and improve the process. In today’s MIP event, Carolyn Pittis explained that this was certainly the case at HarperCollins.

Size doesn’t matter in this either. O’Reilly Media, self considered the third largest computer book publisher, is widely viewed as the most innovative publisher in the business. The reason isn’t because they simply talk about their ideas; it is because they demonstrate them! Michael Cader of Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace showed in today’s MIP that very few resources are really necessary to create very innovative services.

Other publishers we work with like Island Press, The University of Chicago Distribution Center, the University of Nebraska Press, and Southern Illinois University Press, also have cultures of execution, even though they have limited resources. These companies continue to drive themselves forward, not worrying about whether others are or not. This type of self reliance is refreshing and exhilarating to be around, and I applaud these companies for their efforts. They are truly Firebrands!

What I think is so impressive about these companies is that execution of a new idea can be a nerve wracking and risky move. When we launched Firebrand, I was privately wondering right up until the night before the launch whether it was a good idea. Fortunately, by that time the plan had so much momentum that my private worries were overwhelmed. Now looking back, I’m very pleased that was the case!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Consumerism vs Discipline and our personal satisfaction

Andy Crouch, the editorial director at Christianity Today gave a very interesting talk tonight at the ECPA Leadership Conference, on how he thinks our culture is shifting from one of consumerism to one of creationism. If I was to boil his talk down into one sentence, I would say that his long view of things is that we as a society are becoming less and less satisfied by the short term "thrill" we get from consuming products, and are starting to move toward the longer term "thrill" of earning things.

Andy interestingly correlated satisfaction over time, and seemed to make the point that "high point" in our satisfaction comes either at the point of acquisition of a consumer product, or very shortly after. Then satisfaction drops precipitously. This causes us to want to consume more in order to keep ourselves at a high satisfaction level. I think that Andy is spot on in this assessment. I would also add that the more we consume, the shorter the thrill, and so we end up in a bad spiral. Any parent who has lovingly bought presents for a child at Christmas can appreciate this as they watch the kids discard things often within minutes of being opened.

The other interesting point that Andy made was that there is what he calls a 'discipline curve'. In the discipline curve, general satisfaction is very low at the beginning but grow substantially over time as we gain skill and strength at some ability that it takes time to cultivate. Andy used the example of learning to play the piano, and how difficult (and unsatisfying) it was in the beginning, but after years of discipline, he has come to be proud of his abilities, and his high level of satisfaction lasts for years and years.

Andy tried to correlate money to these two seeming opposing forces, and I don't think I agreed with his assessment that the consumer does not spend very much on his long term satisfaction after he or she has attained a certain level. His own example of spending @25,000 on a grand piano seems to contradict that argument, as he probably didn't spend $25,000 on lessons to achieve his ability. In my experience, what I see is that people tend to try and balance their dissatisfaction with their early abilities (on the discipline curve) by consuming related products, to make themselves feel better, or to feel as though they will come up the curve faster.

This is where I really see the economic opportunity. If we are going to learn new things and create new things, then we will probably buy things surrounding that area of interest.

What does this mean for books and media? I think it spells great opportunity for products that teach us things, or enhance our learning experience. In our 24x7 world, people need help at odd times, and do not often have the luxury of regular schedules. Anything in the online learning space that is available as self serve, whenever the consumer needs it is going to do very well.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Facebook Experiment - Checkpoint #1

At our user conference a couple of weeks ago, we introduced to our friends and customers the idea of creating a community. At the conference, this idea was very well received, and I'm completely jazzed by the possibilities that exist not only for growing our business, but for growing the book industry as a whole.

The word "community", however, is a way over-used term in the tech world today. And it is one that has many subtly different meanings to people.

Our first experiment in the creation of Community, was to put a "Wiki Page" together for the conference. In the weeks leading up to it, we know that site got a very strong amount of traffic, and the feedback we received from it was very good.

Our next experiment was to put a "Group Page" together on Facebook. We even put a link to it on our new website. This page allows us to post articles, manage threaded discussions, post pictures, and even contact one another privately. A lot of nice functionality at no 'monetary cost'. But, the 'cost' is that you have to join Facebook, and put your 'real' self out there on the internet. I'm fearing that I may have underestimated that cost to some people.

As of this writing there are 47 members of the Firebrand Technologies Facebook Group. Not bad, but not that great either, when you consider that 16 of us work for Firebrand. I'm sure we can nudge that up in a couple of weeks as we start to post some videos and other things that we have planned. but that still doesn't get us into the numbers I was originally expecting.

But the numbers are really a secondary issue for me at this point. The numbers would surely rise if the page was used more by its members - and the discussions became as dynamic as I think that they can. Again, as of this writing, Doug and I are the only people who have posted anything out there. It seems like everyone who has joined, is watching to see what will happen. (We are, obviously, too). Doesn't anyone else have an opinion?

I guess we'll all keep watching.... I'll blog another checkpoint in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, the Firebrand Community Management Plan continues to be developed, and I'm extraordinarily excited by the possibilities. The issue is not what to do, but what to do first!

More to come on that in the next couple of weeks as well.

If anyone has any ideas, please comment here, or, better yet, join our group, and comment there!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hot and Sour Soup


I'm back!


What a long, strange trip it's been....


As Doug Lessing so eloquently describes in his blog, 'Up the Mast', we have done it! We have re-branded our company as Firebrand Technologies. We've got a new website, we've got a new look, and we've got a new mission. Our mission now is to harness the power of the community of Firebrands that we are creating to move our entire industry forward. It's pretty ambitious stuff for a simple software company.

Not only have we re-branded, we pulled off an incredible conference here in Newburyport, and our development team launched a wholly new piece of software so flexible, that many of the big internet companies should be jealous (read salesforce.com). What an unbelievable couple of months!

Now that its all done, I was trying to think how to put into words, how I was feeling. Maybe because our family went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner last night, the metaphor that comes to mind is 'hot and sour soup'. (You might have to like hot & sour soup to appreciate this metaphor).
In that context, I would label my feelings, 'Pride & Humility soup'.

For me, hot and sour is a misnomer for the soup itself. The name leaves out the fact that there is something sweet and tangy intermixed with spices and tartness. This combination sends my taste buds in multiple directions at the same time, with the result being an extraordinarily vibrant and pleasurable experience.

In the same way, Pride & Humility soup is a misnomer. It leaves out the notion of a heavy smattering of Gratitude. This combination sends my emotions in multiple directions at the same time, with the result being an extraordinarily vibrant and pleasurable experience.

I am very proud of how our team, including our extended team at MicroArts, planned and executed our launch. I am humbled by the way everyone reacted so positively to everything that we did, and at what lies before us to fulfill our mission. And, I am grateful for all of the hard work, and participation that made it all go so smoothly.

I don't know when I'll get to taste Pride & Humility soup again, but now that I've had it, I guarantee it won't take 20 years for me to taste it again.

Thanks everyone - for everything. fpt

Monday, February 18, 2008

Blogging Hiatus

It's been a while since I've posted anything. At first, I could 'blame' it on a vacation. It was a great one, too. Very little possiblity of internet access or cell phone service.

That vacation gave me time to think, and I came back with lots of ideas to share. But, for the past couple of weeks, I've been completely consumed by another project - the organizing of our first ever, user conference.

I'm extraordinarily excited by this conference, and our team has been putting a lot of time into its planning. As of this writing, we're closing in on 100 or so publishing professionals who have committed to joining us on April 8th and 9th in Newburyport, MA.

The themes of the conference are Community Building and Reinvention, and these themes really seem to have struck a chord with our customers, and several others who have signed up to come.

For more information about the conference check out this http://wiki.qsolution.com/index.php?title=2008_Open_House_and_User_Conference_Wiki

Thursday, January 24, 2008

In Defense of Reading Books

I was surprised that Steve Jobs comments last week at Mac World about people not reading books anymore didn’t garner more reaction in blogosphere. There were only two, one from Joe Wikert, and one from David Rothman that showed up in my RSS feeds.

Fortunately, doing a search of blogs using the keywords "Steve Jobs reading books" brought up several thousand reactions. Until I did that search though, I thought that I was the only publishing person to feel angry. Now that I know I'm not alone, I feel much better. But where are my book publishing friends on this issue? Are we just going to stand by and take this crap?

Is the quiet out there in the book publishing community the result of people fearing that Steve Jobs is right about so many things that he must be right about this? Or, is it that most book people actually agree with him? I would have expected a reaction similar to that about the weapons of mass destruction that never were, but instead there was relative silence. Did his comments ring so true as to strike a sense of futility about the books future into the hearts of all who work to bring them to life?

I think that there is a much more worthwhile discussion to be had about what the word ‘book’ means in the digital age, but to write the book off as an obsolete form is about as arrogant as a person can get.

I am biased about this subject, hence my anger. But, what has surprised me so much about this situation is not Steve Job’s arrogant ideas, but our acquiescence to them. Isn’t it possible that even a superstar ‘prognosticator of hip’ can strikeout once in a while? It feels like we as an industry seem to just want to roll over and accept our obsolescence. What a bunch of wimps!

The book industry needs to change – to reinvent. Change is scary, change hurts. We need to stop worrying about creating so many titles and start worrying about how to make books relevant for a generation where kids talk on the phone, IM, connect on MySpace, listen to music, and do their homework all at the exact same moment.

To transform our industry and keep it vibrant and alive, we need to understand the very core of what makes a book (especially one of fiction) so special. Then we can take on the task of how to adapt that to technology’s new world order.

Here is a list of 10 things (in no particular order) that make books – for me - stand out as not only relevant, but necessary to society:

  1. Books invite us in.
  2. Books offer our imaginations a place to roam.
  3. Books do not judge the reader
  4. Books that are published are subject to editing and severe scrutiny before they are released.
  5. Books provide a safe haven for the reader.
  6. Books inform and educate us.
  7. Books allow us to project ourselves into the action, or stand by and watch from the sidelines.
  8. Books show us situations from a point of view that we might not have considered before and allow us to debate with ourselves.
  9. Books prepare us for real world situations.
  10. Books help shape our personal philosophies about life.

Perhaps a few of you who read this might offer up your own lists as comments to this post. If 10 people offered up 10 important traits of a book, we’d have 100. Then in the next week or so, we can start to explore how those traits can be matched to the superfast paced, multi-faceted, technology dependent, world that is here now, and will only become more complex in the future.

Perhaps, if we work together, we can regain a hold of our industry’s destiny and continue to educate, entertain, expand, and enlighten the minds of our society.

eBook Buzz and Fright

If any book publishers still have their heads in the sand with regard to eBooks, it's really time for them pull them up!

I have two small anecdotes that underscore this:

1. Two nights ago, I ran into the proprietor of our local independent bookstore at (of all places) our local video store. I mentioned to him that I had a Kindle, and told him about my experiences thus far. He asked me to bring it in for him to see, but I could tell that he really doesn't want me to. He was visibly shaken when I mentioned how easy it was to download eBooks. His reaction was so strong it took my breath away. And, I could tell that he was trying to hide his reaction.

2. Today I had to come to NYC for meetings with clients. Whenever I come to the city, my local office is the nearest Starbucks, so that I can have wireless internet access. Today, I had the pleasure of residing in three different Starbucks for some period of time. IN ALL THREE, there was chatter going on around me about e-reading devices. Chatter to the positive and chatter to the negative - but none the less, there was a lot of chatter. Chatter that I've never heard before in any local office!

The book publishing industry is going through monumental change right now. e-Reading devices are becoming a mainstream conversation pieces. And, still only 90,000 books available for the Kindle when there are over 3,000,000 available in print?

What is that great sucking sound I hear? That is quite a vacuum being created. I think its the self publishers who will be filling the void if the big publishers don't get their acts together quickly.

Monday, January 21, 2008

When a Good Idea Meets Good Timing

Just before Christmas, I sent out an email to many people in the QS community to announce that we were going to put on our first user conference on April 8th and 9th. This was just an informal ‘save the date message’, designed simply to let people know that we were planning something and to mark their calendars appropriately. The response was immediate and incredible.

Directly and indirectly we heard of people who were planning on coming to the event. Some people we haven’t heard from in a long time, and others who we have spent a lot of time with in recent months. All were excited, and all were willing to come way off the beaten path to Newburyport, MA.

In all my years in business, our ideas have either been way ahead of their time, or way behind. But with this user conference, it seems that we have hit the timing curve right on the button. When we initially came up with the idea, we thought that maybe 50 people – if we were lucky – would want to attend. Now its looking like 2 to 3 times that number are interested in what we have to say.

Since then, I put out another email about the conference, asking people to participate in a survey about what they wanted to accomplish during those two days. Again, the response was astounding. The response rate thus far is about what a surveyor might hope for; we are up to about 15% of those surveyed responding. Amazingly though, 86% of those responding to the survey said that they were planning to attend.

Now, it’s up to us to deliver. Our community has spoken. They have told us loud and clear that they want to be brought together and brought into the conversation about where we are and where we are going.

This strong, positive feedback is very invigorating. Everyone on the QS team is charged up and looking to put their best foot forward. I have no doubts this will be a memorable experience for all involved. So, when a good idea hits good timing, the results are more positive than you can imagine.

Up the Mast!

I'd like to welcome my friend and QS colleague, Doug Lessing, to the blogosphere.

His new blog, Up the Mast will focus on issues similar to those that drive me in this one, but with his own unique (and if you know Doug, you know what I mean by unique) flair and perspective.

Please put this in your RSS feeds and favorites list, as I'm sure that you will be informed, entertained, and generally moved by Doug's passion. Please also comment on his posts, often, as we all need a little encouragement sometimes.

Enjoy!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Sad Day in Publishing

Yesterday, all of the electronic industry ‘rags’ (I guess we’ll have to come up with a new term for this) were abuzz with the news that the San Diego office of Harcourt Trade Publishers will be closed by June 30th. The news articles don’t say it specifically, but allude to the fact that most of the 65 employees who work in that office are being let go.

The news articles all go on to say that this was ‘no surprise’ considering the recent news that Dan Farley (President of Harcourt Trade) was being let go at the end of January. Well, from a pure, cold hearted, business perspective they are right, it’s no surprise. It is just how a consultant would write it up on a white board. But, from a position of knowledge, I’m shocked.

Harcourt Trade is one of our clients and has been for about seven years. This is a company that is one of the most organized and best run trade publishing operations that I have ever known. Whenever we talk to a prospective client, we use them as the example of what can be achieved in terms of operational efficiency in the publication process. They are a team of people that through their dedication to their processes and attention to detail know how to make money on lists of books that any other publisher (I know) would not be able to support. I am frankly worried that these titles will not survive very long under the new management.

Harcourt Trade was one of the first companies to realize the importance of bibliographic metadata, and to work (very hard) to improve their publishing processes so the data about their titles was excellent throughout the pre-publication life cycle of the title. When Barnes & Noble first instituted their EDRP system, Harcourt was the first to score ‘100’ on those monthly reports. Harcourt’s performance on those reports proved that the bar set by B&N for publishers with respect to metadata could be met. In a very real way, Harcourt vindicated B&N’s stance on insisting that publishers improve their metadata practices. And, by extension, as I have said many times before, this insistence has resulted in a vast improvement in bibliographic metadata in the entire book publishing industry.

My sincere hope is that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will use the next six months very wisely, and take the time to understand the processes that Harcourt had been using. Unfortunately, processes alone to not make a better publisher. I also hope that they recognize that there are many very talented individuals working in San Diego, and work to secure them in the new company. It is through those individuals’ talents that this small trade division has become the gem that it is.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Kindle Ships!

After my rants over the weekend, it looks like the machines are moving again.

I got a phone call tonight from Denise of the Quality Solutions team, who reported that the Kindle has been delivered to her home.

Unfortunately, I'm travelling on business this week, so I won't see it until Monday, but I'm very excited to finally get my hands on it!

Its not a hoax after all.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

When will Kindle Ship? Is it a Hoax?

Like any self-respecting blogger, every day I look at the analytics of my page to see how many people read what I have to say. There aren't many of you, and my relative anonymity lets me be pretty free with my words.

However, lately, or more precisely, since Christmas day(December 25, 2007), the change in these analytics has been astounding. Prior to Christmas, there was a pretty even distribution of people coming to this blog either directly, or they clicked through from another blog, or they found it through a search engine. Today, that distribution is completely skewed. Since Christmas, the vast majority of readers have come via a search engine with the key phrase, 'how many kindles sold'. What they are finding is a previous post of mine with that same title. (Joe Wikert recently reported this in Kindleville). The numbers reading this post outstrip any other posts by a factor of 4 - 1. Pretty impressive considering about 3 people read it when I first posted it.

I can only surmise, that these people are (like me) waiting for the Kindle that someone gave them as a Holiday gift. And, Amazon is completely mum on when these are going to be shipped. As Joe would say, very 'Un-Amazon-ish'.

It's got me thinking, is this whole Kindle thing a hoax? Is there a great guffaw echoing from the top of the Veterans Hospital in Seattle? Is this the great practical joke of 2007? Obviously, they don't have them, or they would have been shipped already. What gives? Maybe they just wanted to give all of us, 'pundits', something to distract us while they moved in another direction.

Or, alternatively, did Amazon bet the farm on the assumption that the Kindle would fall flat on it's face? Was Kindle only introduced as a mechanism to shake up the book publishing industry and show them all how foolish they have been to eschew digital distribution?

Well, in any case, my initial excitement about getting a Kindle is turning to anger. And, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm a pretty patient guy. I imagine that there are many angry people out there, which is another reason in the 'massive' uptick in finding my old blog post. People have plunked down money and there are no goods coming. It's as simple as that.

And, unfortunately, it is very 'Amazon-ish' to not have any 'person' to go to. It doesn't seem that there there is a real responsibility taker anywhere in the entire operation. It's all computer systems. And when the systems don't work correctly, no one has to take personal responsibility.

It would be ironic if this 'Kindle debacle' single-handedly destroyed Amazon's (well earned) reputation for under-promising and over-delivering. Maybe then, a 'person' might have to eat some humble pie, and someone might (God forbid) have to take some responsibility and lose a job.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008 is Going to be Great

Happy New Year, and welcome to 2008! I am very excited about the year ahead for our company, our customers, and the book publishing industry.

Michael Cairn's blog today lays out some interesting prognostications about our industry. While I'm not thinking at the same level as Michael in my exuberance, many of our thoughts dovetail. I particularly agree with the line, "In the not-too-distant future, we may look back on 2007 as a significant transition year for the media business." I made a similar statement in a post I made in December.

So, here are a few of my own prognostications:
  • I think that 2008 will be a 'wildfire' year in terms of the use of technical devices (pc's, ebook readers, cell phones, pda's etc.) for the purpose of reading. I say that with my XO pc sitting next to me, and thinking about all of the children that will be introduced to technology who don't have access to printed materials. I think that in general, 2008 will be the year that ebooks go 'mainstream'.
  • 2008 will be the year of infrastructure building for book publishers. The new digital paradigm requires a much different infrastructure than the traditional print paradigm. Most book publishers spent at least part (if not all) of 2007 creating strategies and figuring out what the infrastructure should look like, and 2008 is the year to make all that a reality.
  • I agree with Michael that the 'squeezed value chain' from author to consumer is going to challenge many book publishers. But, I am very excited about what I see as potential opportunities in those challenges (more on that in a future post).
  • In 2008, both Google and Amazon are going to do something that knocks our socks off. I have lots of ideas about what could happen, but I won't speculate here. I'm willing to bet that they both spent a lot of time in 2007 planning to release something big this year.
  • In 2008, the killer app is going to be the one that helps consumers identify the content that they want to read and cull out the content they don't want. Peter Bloom used the term 'separating signal from noise' at the AAP Annual Meeting last year. There is so much content available to read, that even with RSS feeds, and subscriptions, there is too much to sift through. Software and people that provide that kind of service will surely hit the market in 2008, and continue to get better and better in the future. I especially see an important role in this for social networks, libraries, and bricks-and-mortar retailers.
  • I think that blogs will continue to grow and improve in 2008, and will become an increasingly important aspect of online communication. Minimally, they will be used to keep ecommerce sites fresh with content, but more and more, you will see them used as instructional tools, and dialog starters. I especially like what Seth Godin had to say the other day about how it doesn't matter whether a blog only gets a few hits, as long as they are the 'right' hits. (Unfortunately, I couldn't find that entry again, so I can't link to it, sorry!)
  • The lines between all forms of media are going to get blurrier and blurrier. 2008 will see a continued trend toward simplifying our abilities to move between (and interact with) audio, video, and text based medias. I expect many new types of hybrid products being experimented with in 2008.
  • In 2008, I think that there is a real possibility that consumers will become overloaded by the amount of content pushed at them, and look for ways to eschew some technologies and simplify their lives.
  • Unfortunately, I also expect that in this year of very rapid change, some of the more monolithic companies are going to feel some pain, and may even be toppled because they couldn't adapt fast enough. (I never thought I'd think of Microsoft as a monolithic company!) Publishers that don't get very entrepreneurial this year are going to find themselves in big trouble by 2010.

That's probably enough for now. Times of change are always good for Quality Solutions, and I am sure that the roles we play with our customers will only grow in both size and importance.

Here's to a great 2008!