08 November 2008

Speaking of change

I've set up shop on the Tools of Change for Publishing site. My dedicated readers (both of you) can find my latest post here.

13 September 2008

Signs of printing's future

I went to the Print Buyers International conference in Boston this week. Margie Dana, the show's organizer, is a combination coach and cheerleader for the printing industry, and boy, do we need one.
When I wasn't manning the RR Donnelley booth in the library-quiet exhibit hall, I managed to take in a session by Frank Romano on digital print. Frank's lectures are noted for their imaginative use of video, and I was reminded of a YouTube video that was making the rounds among my graphic-arts buddies last year.
In it, a printer stands outside his shop, pumping his fists and screaming, "I f--ing love printing! I love the smell of ink! Love to spread it on my toast like f--ing Nutella!" About halfway though his three-and-a-half-minute rant, he shouts, "Now they try to tell me that computers are replacing printing! No, we conquered the computers! Now they work for us! Can you string a computer across the wall at a party that says 'Happy Birthday'? Can you fit a computer on a water bottle that says 'Evian'?"

I was inspired to start blogging in part by a conversation I had with Scott-Martin Kosofsky, the incumbent president of the Society of Printers, a 103-year old Boston institution often mocked as the Dead Printers Society (and of which I am a past president).
Scott and I were pondering the perennial paradox of the Society of Printers: that very few of us are actually employed in the printing trade. When I joined SP, I was working as a book designer, and part of the group's appeal to me was its unspoken principle that book printing was the only real printing. Everything else was just ephemera, stuff you might collect as a hobby, but not make your life's work. Maybe that's elitist, but elitism doesn't feel so bad when you're on the inside looking out--which I was, being a book designer.
These days, SP's program of lectures leans toward printing history, graphic design, book collecting, and limited editions, and its membership is increasingly composed of scholars and librarians. Books are less something to be made than something to be preserved, like an endangered species.
Which they very well might be. When the guy who spreads ink on his toast proclaimed there are things a computer can't do, he didn't mention books. He talked about ephemera--signs and labels. If he were to give a lecture at SP, he would have a field day with the idea that we still depend on printers to make stuff we're going to throw away--the Happy Birthday sign, the Evian label--but our culture's most important ideas end up in the most ephemeral form of all, tiny electric charges that are only made human-readable by devices that will surely be obsolete by the time Mr. Ink-on-Toast's grandchildren learn to read.
And by regarding the book as a collector's item rather than a commodity, the Society of Printers may be anticipating the future more than clinging to the past.

09 August 2008

What matters and what sells

Last month on Good Experience, Bit Literacy author Mark Hurst wrote about the sometimes-painful lessons he’d learned working with mainstream book publishers. “Drop any illusions about spending time with book lovers,” writes Hurst, “this is business.”
“Publishers and bookstores want a book that sells,” he warns. “[I]f your book will sell, it doesn't matter what you're writing about.” Publishers have one-track minds, but so does Hurst. Why doesn’t he flip that argument around? If what you’re writing about matters, it will sell, whether it’s a book or not.
If you read Hurst’s essay as I did, without having read his book or its title, you would have no clue what his book is about: A novel, a weight-loss regimen, a Western Civ. textbook, the results of his research on porphyrins? It doesn't matter what you write about, he seems to say, as long as it ends up being made of paper and ink and prominently displayed in a bookstore.
Why doesn’t this acclaimed Web innovator counsel aspiring authors to say, Here are my ideas. What channel(s) will they sell best in? Traditional book, e-book, web site, TV show, movie, etc.?
Don’t blame the book publisher for putting you through the old-school publishing wringer. That’s what book publishers do. But they’re not an author's only choice anymore.

23 July 2008

Paper or plastic

Economists and environmentalists alike shake their heads at our thirst for bottled water. America has the world's safest water on tap, but we spend almost $12 billion a year buying the stuff in bottles.
Most Americans are connected to a grid that pumps fresh, clean water right into our homes, schools, and workplaces. We can use as much as we want, for a fee that's a tiny fraction of the price of bottled water.
So why, whenever we want a drink of water, do we pay for a new container, when we can have the contents piped into our homes 24/7? It's inconceivable! We wouldn't dream of buying anything else that way.
Okay, we buy newspapers that way, but nothing else, just water and newspapers. And magazines. And books.
Hmm, maybe the publishers should call up the bottled-water people and ask them what the trick is.

04 July 2008

An accidental tourist bids farewell to Lehigh Press

Graphic Arts Online reports that Visant Corporation will close its Lehigh Press plant in Pennsauken, New Jersey. American print shops close at the rate of about three a day, but every one was a place where real people did real work, and every one has stories to tell. Here's one about Lehigh Press.

When I was head of a textbook design team at D.C. Heath, a favorite part of my job was to go on press OKs. I loved the noise and smell of the presses (I still do), and the urgency and finality of knowing that, after months of planning and revising, in a few days I'd hold a real live book in my hand.
Lehigh Press's specialty was book covers and jackets. They catered to publishers' demand for bells and whistles: Glossy and matte coatings (or both together), embossing, foil stamping, even holographic effects. The man who represented them to D.C. Heath, Bruce Kissell, wasn't a traditional salesman, he was a consultant. He spent as much time with the designers as he did with the print buyers, collaborating on innovative visual effects.
For press OKs at Lehigh, I used to catch an early flight from Boston to Philadelphia, and return the same day. They would send a driver to pick me up at the airport, always the same guy: An old man in a high-mileage stretched-out Lincoln. I would sit in the cavernous passenger area, surrounded by the empty champagne glasses, dried-out corsages, and cigarette butts left by his last night's fare. I'd roll down the glass partition that separated me from the driver's seat, and he'd tell me his troubles, mostly about his family: This one's in jail, that one's husband left her, another one's an alcoholic.
I took that ride one morning in February 1996, and I had my own troubles to tell the limo guy. D.C. Heath had been sold, and about half of us were getting laid off. I had not quite two weeks left.
By the time we got to Pennsauken, it was starting to snow. As usual, the Lehigh folks didn't take long to get the color right where I wanted it, and I called for the limo, hoping I wouldn't miss my return flight. Drivers in the Mid-Atlantic turn helpless with fear when it snows, so even minor storms can cause gridlock. But I underestimated the storm. It wasn't a gridlock-causing storm, it was an airport-closing storm. After a couple of hours on the runway, they took us back to the terminal, no flights 'til tomorrow morning.
I had come down for the day, didn't even have a toothbrush, and all the hotels near the airport were sold out already. Pre-Internet, pre-cell-phone, I was screwed. Grasping at straws, I called a Boston colleague who took frequent business trips to Philly, and he recommended a downtown B&B. I found a shuttle van from the airport, and hoped for the best.
I got more than I hoped for. Despite being a Society Hill landmark dating to 1769, the Thomas Bond House was much cheaper than the airport hotels. I got there in time for the free wine and cheese they serve every evening, and as I prepared to drown my sorrows, another guest offered me her ticket for that night's concert at the Academy of Music, a dozen blocks away. The seat was in a remote balcony, but the snow had kept most of the audience home, so at the first break in the program I parked myself in a cushy orchestra seat to enjoy the rest of the show.
Next morning, the sun came out and I flew home, a happy accidental tourist. Goodbye, Lehigh Press, and thank you for luring me into that bit of serendipity.

14 June 2008

Grits at the Ritz

Audio geeks of yore used to build their custom stereo systems from expensive German-made components, and the finishing touch was a placard that said something along the lines of:

Das Machinenwerken ist nicht fur Gefingerpoken
und Mittengrabben by das Dumkopfen.
Ist easy Snappenspringen und Blowenfusen
mit Poppencorken und Spitzensparken.
Das Rubbernecken Touristen keepen
das Hands in das Pockets und watch
der Blinkenlights.

People thought this was incontinence-provokingly funny. Not the Hogan's Heroes German, but the fact that it was printed! And not just printed, but printed in a Fraktur-like typeface that looked like a real WWII German poster.
I call it grits-at-the-Ritz humor: An expensive, elaborate delivery system makes you think you're going to get something important and valuable, and then--wham! You get a plate of grits. Or a stupid fake-German sign.
In the vinyl-record era, when people saw anything set in type, they assumed it was important, because typography and printing required machines that cost a small fortune and took years to learn how to use. The folks who made novelty-shop tchotchkes knew they could get a laugh by contrasting the important-looking printing process with the dumb gefingerpoken gag.
You don't see the gefingerpoken sign on audio systems anymore, and not just because it's too big to hang on an iPod. Anyone can set type and print a sign now, using machines that cost a few hundred dollars and require virtually no training. In the 21st Century, setting a joke in type doesn't make it funny.
But grits at the Ritz is the idea behind a whole new class of entertainment, from The Real World to EBaumsWorld. We're so accustomed to the broadcast media bringing us "professional" entertainment, we can't help but laugh when we see somebody being a total dork on television!
But YouTube and its ilk are changing all that. Amateur-grade video is becoming the default, and when that happens, the media will lose their ability to bestow importance on the message (or make it funnier). We won't be able to leverage the Ritz-iness of media to make audiences pay attention to our grits, so we'll have to make better messages.
The most powerful example of a medium conferring importance on its content is books. It's at the core of how I define publishing mojo: "For centuries books have been the vehicle for the best that human culture has to offer. . . . publishing mojo [is] the conviction that what we are making is valuable, and deserves all the care and creativity we can muster." Every 21st-Century publisher's mission statement should include learning to create value in a world where value is no longer derived from the laborious book manufacturing process.

01 June 2008

Go ahead, show 'em your a__

At the 2007 conference of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), Anne Valentine, the president of SmartCatalog, gave some suggestions on how to reduce the cost of printing course catalogs. Most were just common sense (cut your page count, use lighter paper, get competitive bids), but one was practically heresy to many of the admissions staffers in the audience. Don't just spend less, she told them, sell advertising and make your catalog pull its own weight.
Anne had uttered the unmentionable A-word. To accept advertising is to wear the scarlet letter of intellectual prostitution.
I was reminded of Anne's session by an article in the May 29 Rolling Stone, "Rock's New Economy: Making Money When CDs Don't Sell." For the baby boomers who launched Rolling Stone, the rock music brand was defined by flipping off the corporate suits. When John Sebastian sang a McDonald's commercial, millions wailed, John, you were at Woodstock! How could you sell out like that?
That was then. Now, writes RS reporter Fred Goodman, "Album sales are down 25% since 2000 . . . but smart artists and managers are finding new ways to reach fans and make money." Goodman cites a six-figure deal that "paired Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' 'Killing the Blues' with the TV ad for American Living, Ralph Lauren's new clothing line for JC Penney." The dude from Led Zep is pimpin' for JC Penney? Total bummer!
That self-righteousness is starting to erode. Some of the players in the emerging media matrix (PublishingMojo, May 17) have traditionally been paid by advances and royalties (books, movies, and music), while others (magazines, newspapers, television, and radio) have sold advertising to let audiences get the content free, or at least cheap. As long as book, movie, and music consumers had to shoulder the entire cost of the delivery module (book, DVD, CD), the publishers and studios could claim that the absence of advertising was proof of artistic integrity.
But free-or-cheap content is now the norm, and like college admissions officers, the royalty-driven media have to question the reasons they still resist advertising:
  • They have an overdeveloped sense of fairness: If I say yes to Pete's Pizza, how can I say no to Sadie's Strip Joint and Gus's Gun Shop? It's easier than you think. The First Amendment doesn't guarantee anyone the right to use your vehicle for their ad.
  • They fear conflict of interest, real or apparent: What if Acme Auto Service threatens to pull their ad unless we give them the maintenance contract on our fleet of vehicles? Do what any other businessperson would do: Either call their bluff or give them the contract.
And the publishers and studios may not have to sacrifice as much integrity as they think. After all, the gold standard of journalistic objectivity in the US is The New York Times, and they print all the advertising that fits.

25 May 2008

Demotivational speaker

Harris DeWese stepped up to the lectern and took off his sport coat. He pointed to his gaudy suspenders and grinned, "You can see I'm in investment banking."
The scene was the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, the annual meeting of Bookbuilders of Boston (on whose Board of Directors I serve). We had finished the evening's business, and were settling back with our dessert and coffee to enjoy DeWese's presentation. He writes an irreverent column called "DeWese on Sales" that has appeared monthly in Printing Impressions magazine for over 20 years, and which he has anthologized in a popular book called Now Get Out There and Sell Something! Printers have often hired him as a sales coach and trainer.
I hadn't read his column or books, so I was prepared for anything, except what we got. DeWese's shtick is that he's the Mañana Man, the sales guy who beats his quota before lunch and spends the afternoon at the track. He shuns PowerPoint polish and bullet points, and instead digresses about baseball, cooking, and parallel parking before he gets down to business.
When he got down to business, it was a splash of cold water. He doesn't sell printing anymore, he sells printing companies, and as his suspenders attest, business is booming. As Chairman and CEO of Compass Capital Partners, he's put 135 of them on the block. "Printing companies rarely emerge from Chapter 11 or Chapter 7," he observed.
The folks in the room who work for small-to-medium companies made mental notes to check Monster.com first thing in the morning. But I wasn't worried, I work for an $11 billion company. We buy other printers, they don't buy us.
Then DeWese sharpened his focus from printing in general to his audience's specialty, book manufacturing. He displayed his knowledge of the turf by mentioning the "Michigan Mafia," the cluster of book printers in the Ann Arbor area. He talked about selling to specific segments of the book market (long-run, short-run, etc.), and then, almost as an afterthought, he delivered the showstopper: "If print buyers are directed by their managers to buy only on price, there's not much the salesperson can do."
Doesn't he know that most book manufacturing buyers haven't looked at anything but price for the last decade? In the US, technology has pretty much leveled the playing field as far as quality and turn times, so publishers see price as the only variable. And overseas competition has so skewed the price variable that publishers often concede quality and turn time just to drive down unit cost.
It's no better for commercial printers. Their work has become a commodity because supply dwarfs demand as many printed documents, such as catalogs and annual reports, migrate to the Internet.
According to DeWese, in a reverse auction the salesperson gets screwed. That's not a radical idea, but it's a mighty demotivating thing to say to people whose customers believe devoutly in reverse auctions. Unless you're trying to motivate them to sell their businesses.

17 May 2008

Students and silos: Thoughts on graphic-arts education

Over on the Print CEO Blog last week, Brian Regan and I traded comments on Adam Dewitz's post about educating the next generation of printing industry leaders. The elephant in the (virtual) room was the fear that there won't be any printing industry for the next generation to lead.
As President of the Society of Printers from 1995-1997 and of Bookbuilders of Boston from 2004-2007, I was an ex-officio member of the Printing and Publishing Council of New England. The PPCNE was once an influential group, promoting the interests of a dozen graphic-arts organizations in the Boston area. Mergers and acquisitions, overseas competition, and the growth of other media have diminished the printing and publishing industries, so now PPCNE's primary role is the stewardship of a substantial scholarship endowment (in the low seven figures). The Council, as its members call it, administers its own scholarship program: They review students' applications and decide which ones will receive scholarships.
When I attended Council meetings, the constant refrain was the shrinking pool of qualified applicants. "Qualified" in this case means students from New England enrolled in degree-granting programs leading to careers in printing or publishing (not just graphic design, and certainly not web design).
This line of conversation drove me nuts. What college kid would get on a vocational track dedicated to an industry where each year, a thousand US companies either are swallowed up by bigger companies or simply sell their presses for scrap and close down?
No amount of scholarship money will motivate kids to learn skills that fewer and fewer employers need. Yes, we still need printers, and we always will, but it's no longer useful to think of putting ink on paper as an isolated activity. 21st Century printing is one part of an industrial matrix that includes all the ways we distribute and display words, sounds, and images. This matrix includes book and magazine publishing, music, television, movies, games, telecom, Internet, direct mail marketing, packaging, and signage.
Industry and colleges must embrace this change together. Both must break down the silos that impede the formation of this media matrix. Industry must create career paths that cross obsolete boundaries, and colleges must create curricula to prepare graduates to thrive in a world where ideas matter more than the channels they flow through.
And organizations like the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation and the Printing and Publishing Council of New England must use their scholarship money to enable this evolution, not to resist it.

10 May 2008

A time capsule from the global village

In my May 4 post, I surveyed Marshall McLuhan's metamorphosis from a nerdy Canadian academic into the very model of an avant-garde intellectual.
In the 1960s, avant-garde intellectuals and wannabees liked to spend downtime in Aspen, CO. The resort town had earned its highbrow cred as home to the Aspen Music Festival since 1949, and the International Design Conference since 1951. In the mid-60s, a Manhattan magazine editor named Phyllis Johnson was inspired by her stay in Aspen to launch a magazine by that name, meant to embody the experimental spirit of the Aspen arts community. She invited a different artist to design each issue, and she made Aspen a box
rather than a bound volume, so each guest artist could fill it with whatever he chose.
Gone was the linear-text straightjacket. Articles were printed separately in different sizes, shapes, and colors, to discourage reading them in a fixed sequence. Besides the printed articles, eight of the ten issues published contained short pieces of music on phonograph records, and No. 3 even anticipated video by including a flipbook of frames from underground films by Andy Warhol and Jack Smith.
When Aspen debuted in 1965, Understanding Media had already made McLuhan famous for blaming our hangups on linear text, so the magazine and the media messiah were a perfect fit. In 1967 McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore had a new book, The Medium is the Massage, that was as non-linear as a $1.45 paperback could be, so they were tapped to create Aspen No. 4, published in the spring of that year.
It's a
vision of transforming society without conflict, a time capsule from an America whose optimism had not yet been tempered by the murder of Martin Luther King and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

The Aspen Vol. 1, No. 4 box, with contents.

Fiore puts quotes from McLuhan as teasers on the box and all the articles in it. The main course is a "press proof" from The Medium is the Massage, a 23 x 30-inch sheet of 32 pages that are not in printer's imposition, or any other sequence (the back of page 63 is page 18). The lack of order is the point, of course, as McLuhan explains: "Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. 'Time' has ceased, 'space' has vanished."
In a rambling essay from the preceding year's
International Design Conference, avant-garde composer John Cage writes: "Utopia? Self-knowledge. Some will make it, with or without LSD."
There's a 22 x 15-inch poster with bright, blurry photo of
Big Brother and the Holding Company playing at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. On the back, McLuhan writes that automation has given modern humans too much free time. He calls it "a liberation that taxes our inner resources of self-employment and imaginative participation in society." His answer? We are all called "to the role of artist in society. The mark of our time is its revulsion against imposed patterns. We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally." Beneath this headline are stories about the Drop City and Solux communes and the "tribal sense" in the Haight-Ashbury (where the Summer of Love would begin in just a few weeks).
This stuff all points to a conclusion: If the problem is conformity, then the solution must be non-conformity. Or as McLuhan puts it, "The poet, the artist, the sleuth--whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial . . . [they] cannot go along with currents and trends . . . [they] see environments as they really are." This epigraph graces the cover of "Psycles," a 20-page booklet of excerpts from The Bikeriders, photographer Danny Lyons' book of photos and interviews he made while he was a member of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club.
What an irresistible proposition, especially for a buttoned-up literature professor: Drop acid, ride your chopper to the commune, and declare your being totally! You're not a shiftless bum, you're a social-change pioneer!
But the medium reveals much more than the words do, and Aspen was not a medium for dropouts. It was a $4 magazine at a time when Life was selling for 35 cents. Its readers may have daydreamed about slumming with the hippies and the bikers, but the advertisers knew what they really wanted. Quentin Fiore must have relished the irony of enclosing the advertising inserts in a folder imprinted with McLuhan's catchphrase, "Advertising is all good news."

The advertisements in Aspen Vol. 1, No. 4.

In the advertising folder are ads for Gordon's Gin, Remy Martin Cognac, and St Raphael aperitif wine. A flyer shows an MG sportscar in front of an English castle. A color brochure for Eastern Airlines says, "We want everyone to fly" (at a time when air travel was considered such a luxury that the rich were called the "jet set").
Aspen's audience could afford a $4 magazine, a sportscar, a flight to the Bahamas. They were the fortunate few who really were liberated from drudgery, free to declare their beings totally. Their biggest problem was the dull conformity that prevailed in high society and higher education at the time. Aspen offered them a brand of social change that was as easy to swallow as a fine Cognac.

04 May 2008

Text and television in McLuhan's global village

I revisited the work of Marshall McLuhan recently. The patron saint of Wired Magazine prophesied the triumph of video over print some 40 years before YouTube, but he died in 1980, too soon to see himself proved (sort of) right.

The pop-culture prophet becomes a pop-culture cliché: Marshall McLuhan (right) in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977).

McLuhan was an English Literature professor at the University of Toronto whose 1951 book The Mechanical Bride:Folklore of Industrial Man was among the first to view popular culture through a scholar's eye.
He achieved notoriety outside of academic circles with the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man in 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy introduced his theory that written language, and by extension printing, imposed a linear template on the thought process of all Western society.
In 1964 he took this idea further in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Television was so ubiquitous and so immediate, it would reverse the dominance of print and linear thinking: "The mass media of today are turning the globe into a village and catapulting 20th century man back to the life of the tribe." This notion lent momentum to the emerging 60s counterculture, but unlike his commune-dwelling admirers, McLuhan didn't completely endorse the return to the primitive. "Terror is the normal state of any oral society," he wrote, and that puts the inhabitants of the global village at the mercy of "Big Brother."

A spread from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), a 160-page paperback created in collaboration with graphic designer Quentin Fiore. Long on images and avant-garde typography and light on content, the book made McLuhan a bona fide celebrity.

McLuhan lacked the scholar's cool detachment from his subject. He envisioned television as an engine of social change. "Television completes the cycle of the human sensorium. [It] demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being. It will not work as a background. It engages you," he wrote in 1967's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. He continued:
It is a matter of greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival in the immensely persuasive 'outside' world created by new information media. Education must shift from instruction . . . to discovery--to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.
He had to admit, though, that television promotes consumption more than discovery: "Today, the mass audience (the successor to 'the public') can be used as creative, participating force. It is, instead, merely given packages of passive entertainment."
He was naively hopeful that television would create more engaged citizens: "The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television . . . is changing everything." Everything changed all right, but not the way McLuhan imagined.
Written language drew the line between gossip and news, and television erased that line. Pre-literate people probably didn't care about distant wars or global politics, but they were always eager to know who cheated on his wife, who got falling-down drunk, and what provocative remarks the preacher made--the stuff that television does best.
In McLuhan's Utopia, media would engage us in the life of the community. He was right that print often fails to do that, because it's one-way, top-down communication. Television wasn't the answer, though, because it's top-down too. What he was trying to invent was fully interactive media--something akin to Web 2.0. What he couldn't imagine was how successfully the new participatory media would integrate the core of the old media--text. Freed from the printed page, writing is no longer rigidly linear. It can flow seamlessly into pictures, sounds, or other text strands.
In 1967, McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore tried to achieve this non-linearity within the confines of print in an issue of Aspen, "the magazine in a box," which will be the subject of the next PublishingMojo post.

26 April 2008

Getting it right away, getting it right

The Guardian recently wrote about a study titled Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, published in January 2008. The report was written Dr. Ian Rowlands and colleagues at the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research. They must have been up all night coming up with a name that fit the acronym CIBER.
The study was commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, so it's no shock that the report emphasizes what libraries must do to ensure their survival in the face of other media competing for the researcher of the future's dwindling attention span. The report's authors display admirable reserve (they're British, after all), but they tip their hand on the title page, with a big photo of a child staring at a computer screen with nostrils flared, teeth bared, and for good measure, mad-scientist hair.
Research libraries rightly fear becoming obsolete if search engines and online information resources outperform them at their own job. The report defends the library by suggesting that readers, in their desire to get information right away, often fail to get it right.
It argues first that online researchers find good information, but they don't read it. "Around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return. . . . The average times that users spend on e-book and ejournal sites are very short: typically four and eight minutes respectively. . . . users `power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins." I admit I'm busted, I didn't read every word of the report. But I was power browsing in college back in the 20th Century. Surely it's no surprise to Dr. Rowlands et al. that researchers often stop reading after they've found the information they need, even when they're using hard-copy sources.
Expanding on the subject of what we don't read, the report laments the tendency of academics to "squirrel away content in the form of downloads [but] there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read." This is another bad habit that folks had centuries before the Internet made it easy and cheap. Most book-filled homes and offices contain scores of unread or partially-read volumes.
The second argument the report advances is that content found online is less reliable than that found in libraries, or that users can't tell the difference. "Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google)." Traditional scholarship has always been backed by the guarantee of peer reviews--"peer" in this case being the author's peer, not the reader's. Readers of the Google generation are too quick to trust the imprimatur of their own peers, but libraries won't lure researchers back into the stacks by impugning all web content. In academic and professional circles, the web is evolving its own equivalent of peer review, and intelligent readers quickly learn to recognize the writers with sound ideas, and to ignore the quacks and hacks.
The CIBER team sees a tidal wave of suspect information threatening to drown the libraries, so they throw them an anvil. "Libraries are handicapped here by a lack of brand . . . Publishers are better able to offer something here with their strong commercial and academic brands and their rapidly expanding ‘walled garden’ information products, and strategic partnerships should be considered." The publishers can't stop this particular deluge; they're already in it far over their heads. And anyway, they've already created a brand--books--that Google regards as the gold standard for "highest-quality knowledge," as Sergey Brin said last year in a New Yorker interview.
Google lets readers get information right away. Often they get it right, too. But Google has no interest in preserving information for readers of the 22nd or 23rd Centuries. No business can wait 200 years to see a return on its investment. That's why libraries won't, and mustn't, become obsolete. Their stakeholders are not just the power-browsing scholars of the present, but those of the future. Nobody finds current information better than Google. But someday Google will be just a footnote in a volume of history, and it won't even be that unless someone is preserving volumes of history. Nobody does that better than the British Library.

19 April 2008

Trash-talking authors

As an admitted stranger in the world of fiction, I rely on Booksquare to keep me up to date with what's going on. A recent Booksquare post led me to Dear Author, a reader blog about genre (mainly romance) fiction, where unbeknownst to me, "most of the blogosphere has been mouth agape" because an author named Deborah Anne MacGillivray wrote hostile replies to a reader who had posted an unflattering review on Amazon.com of MacGillivray's book In Her Bed.
The reader, who calls herself Reba Belle, says "Looks like I will be the 'voice of dissent' here. . . . [In Her Bed] was kinda neat, actually; except that there was repeat scenes . . . when you already know the final outcome(s) kinda puts a 'blah' on the suspense/drama. . . . This happens throught [sic] the book. And dreams that we read, then experience--almost verbatum [sic]. Come on . . ."
MacGillivray's reply includes these remarks: "I am think [sic] you skimmed the book. . . and didn’t bother to see why the characters did things, just took surface reactions. . . . [your review] shows how totally you are missing the true emotions of these characters."
This outburst of trash talk shouldn't be enough to get these two sent to the principal's office, let alone set "most of the blogosphere" atwitter. Trash talk belongs in the schoolyard, not in in the big leagues. Maybe that's why there's such a fuss: we used to expect big-league conduct from book authors.
When Manny Ramirez misses a fly ball we can yell "Hey Manny, you suck," confident that Manny won't jump up in the stands and kick our butt. The social contract that keeps ballplayers from kicking the butts of hostile fans is the same one that used to keep authors from mixing it up with readers. When publishing was a one-way conversation, authors were on a pedestal, like pro athletes. It was undignified and unfair for them to rough up a fan, no matter how belligerent.
In the Web 2.0 world, even the fans get a chance to step up to the plate. Most of the blogosphere agrees that's a change for the better. But apparently, some of the blogosphere hasn't figured out that once you step out onto the field, the pros don't have to cut you any slack.

12 April 2008

Tell my kids . . .

. . . this shirt is what I want for Father's Day.

10 April 2008

More substantial than popcorn

RR Donnelley has something like 65,000 employees all over the world, working in businesses as varied as book and magazine printing, market research, and business process outsourcing. For us in the trenches, it would be hard to see Donnelley's full scope and strategy, if it weren't for the company's robust intranet site.
The Inside RRD site prominently features a Fact of the Day which showcases the work of a different business unit every day, and usually lightens it up with a little trivia about the geographic location of the facility in question. For example, Crawfordsville, Indiana, is the birthplace of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace.
The book Ben-Hur became a blockbuster movie, which brings me to today's Fact of the Day: Laura Kasischke's 2002 novel, The Life Before Her Eyes, is now a movie, and the publisher (Harcourt) used Donnelley to print books intended for sale in theater lobbies where the movie is showing.
It's the latest development in re-envisioning the book as souvenir. I'm surprised somebody didn't think of this 49 years ago, when Ben-Hur was in theaters. It's a win for the publisher, who boosts backlist sales in a neglected special-markets channel, and it's a win for theaters, who get to generate some incremental revenue while they offer patrons something more substantial than popcorn.
Why don't publishers take this to the next level, and partner with cable networks to give subscribers an option to order the book when they watch a movie at home?

If a movie can sell cigars, why not books?

08 April 2008

The Stinehour Press and the end of delight

The late August Heckscher, a prominent figure in the arts and an aficionado of fine printing, once gave a lecture at the Boston Athenaeum in which he compared letterpress printing to wind-powered boats, both antiquated technologies that people cling to just because they like them. "They have passed out of the economics of necessity," he said, "and into the economics of delight."
We printers in the marketplace of necessity face a steady erosion of our trade by the Internet and cheap foreign labor. But the Stinehour Press seemed to exist on another plane, the marketplace of delight, serving the customer for whom nothing but a book, and a well-made book, will do. The closing of the Stinehour Press, inevitable as it may be, is heartbreaking. It's like watching the last sailboat sink.

01 April 2008

If I ran the library

Tim Spalding, founder of LibraryThing, sounds the alarm in a March 26 post about some collateral damage from the demise of traditional top-down publishing. When authors make an end run around publishers by using a self-publishing service like Lulu.com, even if they succeed in reaching a large audience of readers, their books don't get bought by libraries.
Publishers used to be the judges of intellectual and literary merit. If a book didn't get chosen by a publisher, it had no merit. If it ended up in print anyway, it must be the work of a vanity press, and therefore undeserving of shelf space in a library. Spalding rightly argues that in the 21st Century, this logic has become nonsense. The problem is, nobody told the libraries, so they forgot to turn off the the vanity-press filter, and as a result nothing self-published gets in, no matter how good.
Spalding is worried about this, and he's making Andrew Savikas at Tools of Change worried, too. Me, I think I'll just go to the zoo.

The Monkey House, 1890, from www.victorianlondon.org

Zoos are a lot like libraries. Both were invented by people who had a surplus of money, time, and curiosity, and inevitably became collectors. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, a humanistic impulse in Europe and the US led to the establishment of zoos and libraries that were open to the public, supported by taxes or philanthropy. Give the common people books and baboons, and they will be educated, or at least entertained.
Behind the charitable impulse of opening these collections to the public was a hard fact: The average European or American worker in 1800 might live his whole life--all 30-odd years of it--without ever reading a book other than the Bible. And he would certainly never see a crocodile or a giraffe. Libraries and zoos opened worlds that were previously off limits to ordinary people.
Zoos have fallen on hard times lately, and it's not just because of animal-rights activists. Photography and lithography flooded the market with realistic images of exotic animals, and then movies and television put every toddler on a first-name basis with ostriches, penguins, and kangaroos. In other words, technology brought into our homes the experience we used to need zoos for, and at little or no cost to the consumer.
Are you listening, libraries? Your mission was to make learning and entertainment available for free to folks who couldn't afford to buy books. If the Internet takes over that job, maybe we won't need to keep the libraries open any more. And maybe it won't matter if there are important books that never make it onto library shelves.
Or maybe it will matter. Consider the Scimitar Oryx. These North African antelopes are extinct in the wild, and they wouldn't exist at all if they weren't preserved in zoos. Libraries, like zoos, offer a safeguard against extinction, a promise that the best ideas of our lifetime won't disappear along with the hardware and software used to deliver them.
In my March 22 post, I defined publishing mojo as finding the best ideas, presenting them clearly, delivering them conveniently, and preserving them for the future. The first three of these functions can easily be taken over by non-print media. That last one, though, is where print wins hands down, with the help of libraries.

30 March 2008

Forward to the past with Amazon

Beside the Charles River in Cambridge, MA, between MIT and Harvard, there's a little patch of green called Riverside Press Park. It takes its name from a book printing plant that stood on that site until the early 1970s. Riverside Press was the manufacturing division of Houghton Mifflin (now called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ).
This type of vertical integration was common for book publishers a century ago. By the time
HMCo dismantled the Riverside Press in 1973, they were among the last big publishers to spin off or shut down their printing operations.
There's a strange
deja vu in Amazon.com's announcement that they won't sell print-on-demand titles unless they are printed at its subsidiary BookSurge. Book publishers got out of the printing business decades ago, because book publishing is a seasonal business. Publishers couldn't afford to tie up their capital in factories that for half the year were idle (or contracted out to do competitors' work).
So why is Amazon muscling its way into the printing business? Amazon's value proposition isn't the merchandise. They sell convenience, the ease of shopping for books, music, movies, cameras, and golf clubs all in one place, and getting them delivered to your door quickly. They're successful because they put their resources into the buyer experience. They let other people invest in factories, warehouses, and inventory.
Amazon might have saved itself a lot of trouble by reading
Charlie Rheault's fine little book, In Retrospect: The Riverside Press 1852-1971* (you can even buy it on Amazon). They might have learned that assets aren't worth keeping if you have to bully your customers and business partners into paying for them.
* The source of
the illustration above.

25 March 2008

The three faces of publishing

When civilians talk about publishing, they almost always mean the world of book signings and movie rights. I'm a stranger in that world, although I've spent much of my career in publishing. As I told Jim McCormack's graduate class at Emerson College last year, publishing isn't one business, it's at least 3 very different businesses:
  • The entertainment business, where you find Harry Potter and Henry Miller. Highly vulnerable to recession and to competition from other entertainment options (Internet, television, movies, etc.)
  • The information business, where you find textbooks, academic journals, reference books, and the like. Spending is less discretionary (you can read a Harry Potter book, watch a Harry Potter movie, or do neither. But you can't pass Calculus without your Calculus text, whether you get it in print or on your laptop.)
  • The inspiration business, where you find religion and the softer varieties of self-help. (If you think inspiration is too trivial to deserve its own category, consider that in 2006, religious publishing revenues grew 5.6%, versus 3.2% growth for US book publishing as a whole.)
If you look at publishing this way, some segments are more viable than others, but all of them are defined by ideas and audiences, not delivery systems. This is probably what Time and Warner (and Harcourt and General Cinema) had in mind when they merged, but they couldn't make it work, because their principal revenue streams were tied to delivery systems, not content.

23 March 2008

Souvenirs and southern cooking

I couldn't make it to the Tools of Change conference, but last week I had the pleasure of hearing one of the speakers, Phil Zuckerman, give a guest lecture to a graduate class in publishing at Emerson College. Phil is the founder and president of Applewood Books. Applewood has been around since the 70s, and at first glance, they seem positively Luddite. Their web site says they're "fully Y1K compliant" and offer "an old-fashioned personal experience . . . serving up wisdom and entertainment from America's Living Past." You imagine a wood stove, a manual typewriter, a rotary phone. But Phil's a savvy businessman, and owes his much of his success to ignoring the traditional rules of the publishing game.
  • Applewood revives titles that are long out of copyright (everything from Thomas Jefferson to Tom Swift), avoiding royalties and typesetting costs.
  • They aggressively target markets that mainstream publishers dismiss as marginal, such as gift shops, museums, and sales to schools and corporations. The retail book trade is a relatively small segment of Applewood's business, so they enjoy a very low rate of returns.
  • A large share of their sales comes from their backlist, so they manage their portfolio like the best university presses. Perennial best-sellers are printed by traditional offset for lowest unit cost. Slower-selling titles are printed digitally so little capital is tied up in inventory.
Another speaker at the 2008 TOC, marketing visionary Seth Godin, expressed the opinion that people don't want books for information or entertainment any more, because they can get those things faster and cheaper on a computer or iPhone. People still want books, Godin says, but only as souvenirs to remind them of the experience. That may be a devil-take-the-hindmost view of publishing's future, but it's surprisingly compatible with Phil's publishing mission. After all, what is "wisdom and entertainment from America's Living Past" but another name for souvenirs?
The traditional content supply chain is a one-way sequence from author to publisher to bookstore to reader. Phil broke that chain long ago when he killed his authors. (Okay, he didn't kill them, they were already dead.) Then he made the traditional bookseller an option rather than a necessity. And on a new web site, he's turned himself into a retailer for other publishers' books (excuse me, souvenirs).
One of Applewood's evergreen titles is What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking, an 1881 collection of recipes from the American south, and it has become the flagship of a list of over 100 titles ranging from Camp Cookery to Manufacture of Liquors, Wines & Cordials. As an offshoot of this list, Phil launched Foodsville.com, where you can buy books about food and cooking from Applewood and other publishers, but where you can also read Applewood's cookbooks for free, post your own comments or recipes, and share them with other Foodsville users. It's not revolutionary, but it completes the deconstruction of the old-school publishing model: The publisher is a bookseller, the reader is an author.

22 March 2008

What is publishing mojo?

In a 2007 interview Marissa Mayer, the vice-president in charge of the Google Books project, told The New Yorker magazine, "If we provide access to books we are going to get much higher-quality and much more reliable information. We are moving up the food chain." Google's co-founder Sergey Brin echoed this view: "Comprehensiveness [is] about having the really high-quality information. You have thousands of years of human knowledge, and probably the highest-quality knowledge is captured in books."
Why does the search-engine giant Google look to books for the highest-quality knowledge? It's publishing mojo. Publishers created a model that still can't be improved on:
  • To search and select the best ideas from around the world
  • To present them in a clear and attractive design
  • To deliver them in a convenient and affordable format
  • To preserve them for the future.
For centuries books have been the vehicle for the best that human culture has to offer. Now we have other vehicles, but we still need publishing mojo: the conviction that what we are making is valuable, and deserves all the care and creativity we can muster.