For Your Consideration

This is offered for your considertion. I will leave out my own comments and snarkiness.

Below is a quote directly from this mornings reading of Shelf Awareness. It is a discussion of a very interesting article in The New Yorker by George Packer entitled, “Cheap Words.” You can find a link to the article here. The editors at Shelf Awareness  have this to say:

Another “former Amazon employee” who worked in the Kindle division said, Packer writes, “that few of his colleagues in Seattle had a real interest in books: ‘You never heard people say, ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They don’t know how to talk to novelists.’ ”

Packer doesn’t talk much about alternatives to Amazon, including independent booksellers, Barnes & Noble or nonbook retailers who sell books, saying that publishers’ “long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to–they are too busy doing other things with their devices–but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces. The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich. ‘Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value,’ [Dennis] Johnson said. ‘It’s a widget.’ ”

Packer quotes a literary agent saying that book world trends are leading to ” ‘the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.’ A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out: the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy.”

Packer concludes: “Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

Why Does What Works, Work?

While the phrase “Disruptive Technology” has been with us since the late 1990’s, I didn’t seriously think about it until I began my adventure with Twitter several years ago. All of a sudden, my morning “In the office not traveling” routine was tossed out of whack. How do I fit the now necessary “Advancing my Brand” on social media into the more mundane “Stuff that pays the bills”?

To be fair, being on Twitter and here in Word Press has brought in a few paying jobs, but still.

I got to thinking about “Disruptive Technology” today when a recent post from fellow Word Press blogger Laura of “The Well Prepared Mind” showed up in my in box. Laura writes about the digital book industry and in the post, she quotes Harvard Business Review writer Grant McCracken. In “Will Netflix Flourish Where Hollywood Failed” McCracken cites the amount of data Netflix now generates about their viewers and how the use of that data could lead them down some significantly wrong paths.

netflix-logo-slice-01

Laura compared his warning to what could happen in the digital book business if data on when, how and what people were reading was suddenly used to try to tailor what kinds of books to produce.

McCracken’s point was this:

“Knowing that something works leaves us a long way from knowing why something works.”

Read McCraken’s full post here for some insight into the entertainment industry and how that world is also being turned on it’s ear by new technologies. It’s nice to know we magazine folks are not going this alone.

In considering the impact of data collection on the reader of digital books, Laura applies his thesis to digital reading:

“Readers can stop, start, reread or skip and it doesn’t really tell you anything unless you know what is happening in their heads.”

As she points out, you may have stopped reading a book because you were on the bus and needed to get off. That doesn’t mean you weren’t still thinking about the book.

Now, let’s move over to the magazine business for a moment. First, though, let’s stop at the top of the dune, look towards the bay to the east, the one that leads out to the shallow little sea that is called “Newsstand”. That’s the sea where everyone is an expert and all attention is focused because…

There’s a ton of data in our industry. And inexplicably to me, we give a lot of it away for free and without explanation or exposition. At one time, collecting it was a huge chore. As I pointed out in a previous post and more personally back in April of last year, our industry used to maintain large field forces dedicated to what was often the simple act of copying a wholesaler’s store level sales records.

That is now so 1982.

There are a lot of rules in our industry and many variations of those rules. Think about both the generic and sometimes data driven advice we give on cover treatment. It’s entirely possible to follow all of that advice right down to the letter and still…

Flop.

Consider great editing. Do you remember the wonderful literary magazines from the 1980’s like Wig Wag and my personal favorite Spy Magazine? Only The Donald seemed to dislike the latter. But where are they now? They followed all the rules about great content.

Spy's demise made Donald Trump a happy man.
Spy’s demise made Donald Trump a happy man.

You can carefully tailor your editorial and design for the target audience. Spend weeks researching the appropriate retailers and regional locations to focus the newsstand distribution. Your new magazine can reach the stands at exactly the right peak sales moment with not a copy withheld, not a truck lost or detoured, not a shipment accidentally shredded or lost in transition over the Canadian border. The weather across North America can be perfect and the economy humming and…

Flop

Maybe the weather was too perfect. No one was shopping.

For more than 10 years we have had access to both demographic data and store level sales data. We can sort it by zip code, chain, state, wholesaler, distribution center, depot, POS and almost anything else you can desire. We can compare to prior year, prior quarter, prior issue or multiple years. We can compare to red covers, blue covers, covers where the model is facing right.

Yet single copy sales have declined during this period. Efficiencies have not improved.

Has access to all of this data helped us? Or hindered us? Where we better off when we operated on “hunches”? Were we more efficient when Harry the Distribution Manager took a look at the sample, clacked through a few screens on his IBM 5151 and said, “Yeah, I like this. OK, give me 500 copies”?

Personally, I think the data has helped. At least it’s helped me. But I also know that the data only tells me what happened, not why. And when I put a few hundred thousand copies of a periodical out onto the newsstand racks, I have no real way of knowing what caused each copy to sell and the rest to be recycled. This is a sales business, not an accounting business.  I am neither an accountant nor a psychologist.

I am not sure where all of this goes, but in this post audit period, Grant and Laura have given me something to consider.

Many years ago, a client asked me to give a presentation on newsstand covers to his college level journalism class. For their final, they were divided into teams and had to create magazines. I was invited to talk about the world of circulation in general and the newsstand world in particular. I went through a pretty straightforward discussion of  how product moves from printer to wholesaler to retailer, how the financing works and how cover images can impact sales. Lastly, I discussed my role in all of this and what national distributors were.

A student raised his hand during the question and answer period.

“Why do you go through all of that?” he asked. “I just want to sell my magazine.”

Score one for the kids.