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.


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!