2013: The Year In Review

What happened in 2013? Surely you remember, weren’t you paying attention?.

And now it is a New Year. It’s 2014.  We all get a fresh start with new opportunities, a new beginning and new chances.

You know, turn the page.

As for the year that is past… Well, as that great philosopher Marge Simpson said, “…let us never speak of it again…”

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Amen!

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On Digital Books, Apps and eReading

I was recently gifted with an iPad mini and it was interesting to see how big an improvement it was over the somewhat sclerotic first generation iPad we own. That machine, while very cool when we first got it, quickly aged and now spends most of its time crashing the Safari app or playing solitaire.

Right out of the box, everything is smoother on this new machine. Mail, calendars photos and music synched perfectly with the cloud and I was off and running in less than an hour.

Even better, while tablets still mostly feel like entertainment devices, the mini is capable of helping with work. When I’m working off campus with my MacBook Air, the mini often serves as a second screen. It can work successfully as a stand alone and mimic almost every program I use on either of my Macs. I even came across a shell app for Tel-Net access to a legacy IBM mainframe I work with on almost a daily basis (Yes, those still exist and are useful).

So it wasn’t too long before I downloaded the iBook app and decided to give digital reading a second try.

My conclusion is this: I’m fortunate to be part of a “straddle” generation. We’re the people who adapted to personal computing, made it part of our professional and personal lives. But we remember a time when computers were large, distant, and mostly used for accounting and launching NASA rockets.

And I want to say this: I laugh at digital apologists who frequently say how much “greener” eBooks are? Seriously? How do they think those shiny slabs of metal, plastic and lord knows what else are made? What do you think powers your Wi-Fi? Have you seen pictures of the air in Beijing and Shanghai? While there may be some green washing on both sides of the “debate” let’s point out that at least paper is created out of a renewable resource that is recyclable. Moreover, in my little shallow backwater of the publishing business (Newsstand Distribution), almost every single thing that enters a wholesalers’ warehouse is recyclable.

I did try reading on the iPad 1 early on and was displeased with how awkward and heavy the tablet felt after a while. So I was expecting a better experience with the mini. Meh.  We added what was supposed to be a “lightweight” cover to the tablet but in all honesty, at some point it feels just like a large book. Granted, it’s not like a Stephen King “Under The Dome” hardback, but still.

So how was reading with it?

The screen image is nice. The mini is the right size for reading. I liked the nighttime reading feature. That is certainly an improvement over a book light. Downloading books, presuming the books were in the iBook store was very quick.

On the flip side, it was a little odd finding that I could download books that are now in the public domain for free. I suppose I should be grateful for having free access to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, but it felt a little like stealing.

The ability to switch the screen to white on black for nighttime reading is one of the big pluses for me. In either daytime or nighttime mode, the screen is easily readable and switching out of iBook into other apps is, of course, easy. I didn’t find the iBook store any harder to navigate than I find almost any other digital store. Which is to say that I’m not that easily impressed.

In other words, I’m impressed with the technology. But still not the layout or ease of use. It’s not that any of this is difficult to use. I’m far from a technophobe. I just don’t like having to think about what I’m doing when I am reading.

The first book I downloaded and read through was “Discordia” by British journalist Laurie Penny and American artist Molly Crabapple. The short book is not available in print and was intentionally designed as an e-book. In its digital form, it was remarkably cheap. I’m a fan of Molly Crabapple’s art work. It’s sort of cross between neo-Victorian and Steampunk. The book is a journal/artistic rendering of the time Crabapple and Penny spent in Greece during the financial and social meltdown in the summer of 2012. Laurie Penny’s prose is a modern take on Hunter S. Thompson and gives a lot of weight and empathy to the plight of the upcoming generation of the underclass. Her writing is direct, forceful and thought-provoking.

Discordia, By Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny
Discordia, By Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny

In my first read through the book, I was stuck by how either I couldn’t, or couldn’t figure out how to zoom in on the images. I Googled my problem and found many unhelpful suggestions. Once again, tech was in the way of reading. The latest version of iOS seems to have resolved this. Or I may have stumbled across the solution without realizing it.

Another issue I ran into was one of bookmarks and controls. I found getting the controls for bookmarks and scrolling touchy at times. If I tap the screen accidentally, the page will turn on me. Are there comparable issues with an old-fashioned print book? Yes, but whether reading for pleasure, learning or business, I don’t want to be thinking about technology.

And then there’s the public library. If I want a book at the library, I go there and get it. If I’m lazy, I sign in remotely, reserve the book, then go get it when it gets placed on the shelf for me to pick up.

If I want a digital book from the library, well that’s an entirely different story. Opponents of the ACA (aka Obamacare) have been having fun laughing at the web site. If they want to see a real horror, check out digital public libraries. Go see for yourself.

I did download a more contemporary novel and found layout and ease of navigation pretty fair. In other words, there’s not a lot to complain about and anything I did complain about would sound like so much nitpicking.

But I also downloaded what you could call a “legacy” book. Something that had been in print for some time: American author Tad William’s “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series. This is a set of fantasy novels and if you’re a fan of the genre, you know that this means maps, glossaries and lots of turning back and forth to pick up complex and convoluted threads.

What was interesting here was that the final book in the series had originally been published in two volumes. At the time, the publisher explained that they split the book in two because of the size (It’s very long) and they did not want to sacrifice publishing quality. In the digital world, that’s not an issue. So why are they sold as two books digitally? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.

To Green Angel Tower Part 1 & 2 By Tad Williams, Published by Daw Books. Cover art by Michael Whelan
To Green Angel Tower Part 1 & 2 By Tad Williams, Published by Daw Books. Cover art by Michael Whelan

Perhaps negotiating tablets and digital reading will become as second nature to younger generations as flipping a page and scanning an index is to our “straddle” generation. But given the tendency of hardware and software developers to fiddle with their designs, I wonder. What do I mean? Well, which version of Office is in your office? What do you think of the latest one you have? How long did it take for you  to get “used” to it? Why do you have to get used to it?

If I was filling out one of the endless customer surveys that are pushed at me after my latest web or bricks and mortar purchase, I would click on the number five: I neither “Like nor dislike” the experience. It’s OK. It’s nothing great. At times it is pleasant. At other times, I’m frustrated and wondering why I’m spending time with this.

When reading becomes all about the tech and not the word, you’ve lost me. When the tech fails to enhance the word or image you’ve missed a wonderful opportunity. A contemporary novel, or even a “legacy” one is fine digitally. I would have loved to spent hours looking “Discordia” in print.

My conclusion is this: The recently reported plateauing of digital book and magazine sales is might be the pause we see while the early adopters wait for the rest of the populace to catch up. We will see usage grow and new technologies change and adapt what we’re doing.

None of this is going away paper lovers.  But I hope (hope being the key word), that the tech will not overwhelm the importance and pleasure of the written word.

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.