Tuesday, November 25, 2008


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...


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.

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.

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.


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?