In Praise of Analog

There’s a large rectangular white box sitting in our basement. It’s a basic white refrigerator and it has absolutely no bells or whistles. Two doors, freezer up top, fridge on the bottom. You set the temperature with a dial. The big add-on was some extra ice-cube trays.

At best estimate, it’s about 20 some odd years old and it’s lived in three different homes. Over the years it’s been used and abused and ignored and neglected. But no matter what, it’s always worked and done it’s duty.

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As a self-employed person, most of my ready cash goes to the government; the insurance people and what’s left over might make it into a retirement account. There’s not a lot for the latest in digital bells and whistles. So I’m think I’m pretty good at keeping my tech up to date with the latest installations and when I do pick up a new piece of equipment, I make sure its’ fully powered and going to last.

But it seems to me that in today’s digital environment we are slaves to the tech. At two years of age, my once top of the line iPhone 6 is starting to have techno burps, farts and tantrums. A three-year-old iPad periodically disconnects itself from a Wi-Fi router that is sitting no less than two feet from it. An even bigger and more powerful router that is less than two years old tends to get into arguments with the Comcast cable box. Of course all of the Comcast lines in the neighborhood like to go on vacation periodically.

We are slaves to our tech. At last count, I had something like 125 different passwords on file to different sites. They change frequently and while there are numerous handy little apps and built-ins on browsers that track it all for you, how many times have you found yourself repeatedly trying to get a new password sent to you by the site you’re trying to access?

It’s no longer enough to be proficient at MS Office. We also have to know a host of other digital programs and apps if we want to be attractive to a new employer or client. But ask yourself, what exactly did you get out of the latest update? The annual OS updates from Apple alternatively either slow down my machines, or offer “innovations” that seem pointless. Does anyone like the last few iterations of iTunes? To be fair, while some of these updates are nice to have, I don’t understand the hyperbole that accompanies them. Yes, it does make computing easier, sometimes. But I’m surprised it took you this long to figure out how to make this happen.

Please don’t get me started on what I think of MS Office updates.

Our tech is supposed to manage us, make our lives easier, make us happier. Does it? My friends who have the latest Apple Watch or similar digital minders seem to be constantly distracted by something twitching on their arm. At the beginning of many runs or bike rides, I find myself mildly annoyed with the Fitbit app because of some lag or error message or the simple fact that it exists and I feel compelled to turn it on. I’ve been known to give the finger to my poor iPhone because the free version of MayMyRide is chock full of pop ups, interruptions and requests to rate it. Then I feel irritated that I feel entitled not to want to pay for the pop up free version.

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Source: Fastcompany.com

We used to have a washer and dryer that were, according to a home inspector, at least fifteen years old. “You should get another five years out of them,” he said, “They’re a little beat up so keep an eye out.” They lasted another ten and when the washer sprung a leak and made a lake in the basement, we replaced them with the latest in front end loaders.

“Well,’ said a repairman we had out to the house recently, “These new ones tend to burn out pretty quickly. You said it’s ten years old?”

I did a quick calculation and nodded.

“You’re lucky! Seven or eight is what I usually see for this model.”

Lovely.

Our cars send us emails when they don’t feel well or think they need something. They ping at us when a tire is running low. The more expensive cars tell you which tire. If you’re driving something a little more middle class, you have to guess or remember where you put your tire gauge.

I mostly curse at my cars so maybe they feel bad. They tell me that “The phone has been connected!” and then disconnect the phone. I like the idea of satellite radio, but do I want to get clipped for yet another monthly fee for some tech?

Let me make it clear, I’m not some Luddite wishing for the days when we had to cross the room to change the channel from CBS to ABC. I usually appreciate the tech and think that much of it is nice to have.

But it seemed like analog refrigerators, TVs, cars, stereo systems and phone worked for me. They were there to serve me. They did exactly what I told them to do. To be honest was not very much. But they did what they were told and if they didn’t, they were fixed.

Today, I often feel like I serve at the pleasure of my tech. I do what they tell me to do. I service them. When I’m not in awe of some of their capabilities, I have a queasy feeling that I’m not really in control of gadgets.

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.

Disconnect, Reconnect

On Tuesday, a huge thunder, lightening and wind storm tore through the area. Trees fell, roads were blocked, power was lost. Our family was separated for an anxious hour.

Ultimately, we were reunited, we only lost power temporarily. Some of the beautiful maple and elm trees that surround our house lost limbs. But overall, the effects of this storm were less than others we have experienced over the years that we have lived out here in the flatlands.

But, the cable is out. So no TV. And that means no land line – not that we have really noticed. The high speed internet is out – no modem, no wi-fi.

Both my spouse and I are home based workers. I gave up my office years ago. It was a wasted expense and the pressure to get home at the end of the day was too high. Some of my more creative moments happen after hours and it’s easier to sneak into my office and work on something. I’ve never enjoyed “Go to my PC” moments.

What this has given me an education on, is how far we still really have to go in this new digital age. How tenuous, this electronic connection.  I’ve never been cutting edge when it come to technology, but I am pretty darn current. A modem from my wireless provider would certainly help. But it’s also another expense. One more way for corporate America to get in my pockets and watch what I do. I do have access to my clients, email, and obviously, this blog. But while I love my ‘droid enabled smart phone, it’s wonderful widgets and apps, typing on it, reading on it, working on it, is a chore. My ‘droid is a tool. And despite it’s elegant appearance, it’s still remarkably crude.

At last week’s family reunion, I got engaged in a wonderful discussion with one of my nieces. She has fallen hard for the green movement. Grows her own food. Cooks holistically. Lives simply. Has rejected much of her middle class background and values. It’s marvelous to see her commitment, her dedication. It caused me to reflect on my ideological stances from that time. Am I more flexible these days, or simply less patient? The latter perhaps.

She announced that she really didn’t think she needed her computer all that much anymore and that she was considering typing all of her papers next semester on an old manual typewriter. It was a jaw dropping announcement. We were incredulous. How could you do that? We went into a recitation of what it was like in our college years. The ribbons, the correction fluid, the noise. The weight of even the portable models. A nice laptop or tablet with a good word processing program is so much better. Here, try our iPad!

On the other hand. If we had lost power, eventually even the smart phones would have died. If we were as disconnected as she was, we wouldn’t find ourselves in line for coffee and a table at Panera. I wouldn’t have people lined up behind me at the study corral at the library. The library’s wi-fi wouldn’t be overloaded.

Industry consultant Bob Sacks frequently preaches that we’re at the dawn of a wonderful new age. I think he may be right. But I am skeptical that our corporate partners will yield power to readers and authors so easily. We should be ready, he says. He’s right.  I think  am. But we’re in that in-between moment right now and all I can say is what I have said in the past regarding all of this technology. It needs a label. And the label needs to say:

“Caution: Technology Does Not Work As Advertised. Chill.”

Caution: Technology May Not Work As Advertised

There’s a rimshot line in one of my favorite movies, “Master And Comander” where Russell Crowe’s Captain Aubrey stares at a model of the warship he’s chasing into the Pacific and marvels at the wonders of “modern technology”. It’s a throwaway line, designed to get the knowing 21st century audience to chuckle. And it works, too. Every time I see the movie, I laugh at that same moment.

Some days I sit at my work desk and marvel at how far technology has driven my industry. It used to take many weeks and many hours of compiling to get an idea of where and how a title is selling in specific markets. Now that information is at my fingertips waiting for me to access it (If I’m willing to pay the price, of course. This is the 21st century, after all.) and I can then use my very powerful “personal” computer to interpret the data in ways I never would have even considered twenty years ago.

And it is all pretty wonderful. I find the line between people from my parents generation, and my children’s generation very telling. My parents, and their peers ask the question: Why do you want to do that? Tweet, Facebook, text, watch a movie on an iPod Touch? My kids say, because we can. I usually ask, “That’s interesting, and cool. But will it really work?”

For the last few weeks, in between marveling at modern technology, I’ve been dealing with a series of small, highly time consuming and frustrating glitches in all of my wonderful machines and thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if on these commercials, and on the boxes of wonder that we open, if there weren’t a large warning tag that said:

OK, so there’s no way a company would really put a warning label on a box that said that. But ask yourself, wouldn’t that be nice?

I’ve been engaging in a series of conversations with a client about digital formats for their magazines. What will work? What won’t work? What do you really want to do? Why are we having this conversation? There were some fascinating articles in today’s “BoSacks” e-reading list discussing cloud based storage and Bo finally offered us some insight into his new publishing model, consortium publishing. Interesting. And it was all there. In my in box.

Now if I could only get my mail out of my “out” box. If only one of those two hundred helpful suggestions on Google would actually work. If I could only get my iPod to re-boot, jut like the manual says. If I could only get that piece of social media technology to do what it’s advertised to do. If only the website where all of that data I need for this morning’s report would stop crashing ever time I press “Process”!

I have to ask, “Do I really need to change my password every four weeks? Really?” I want to know, “You keep telling me that your back office support for this website is not designed for this browser. But the browser it is designed for always crashes. Can you give me an answer I can understand?”

This riff could go on for quite awhile. But it’s something for all of us in the publishing industry to keep in mind as we make the transition to more digital media. The technology has to work. Every time. Let’s let our readers marvel at the wonders of “modern technology”. We want them to read. Not chase their tails.

What I Believe (FWIW)

Sometime in the past month, I passed two years of posting thoughts, facts, and links to articles on Twitter. The experience has been revelatory in that I have learned much from the people I follow. Learning the discipline of posting to Twitter has helped me focus on the publishing business and stay on track with other tasks.

In a month or two, I will pass one year posting to this blog and two years since I left the corporate world to go and work for myself again.

This week, a new client asked me to introduce myself, via a presentation, to his senior management team. He asked me write up an introduction that would state who I was, what I believe about my end of the publishing industry, and where I think it’s all going.

In lieu of anything earth shattering report on, I thought I would share it with you:

Since 1988, I have provided single copy sales consulting services for a wide variety of magazine publishers. These companies have ranged in size from small regional sports publishers to Ziff-Davis Communications, Fox Sports and the former Emap-USA.

The one constant in this business, from the day I entered it as a newly minted professional to the moment that I put these words into an electronic file is: change. Throughout all of this time, people have wanted magazines. Publishers have strived to produce them for their readers, and retailers and distributors have tried (often successfully, sometimes in spite of themselves), to make them available to the public.

Will all of this business go up in a blaze of e-ink, Flipboard and Facebook? Maybe. But certainly not tomorrow. The beauty of a magazine is it’s durability, it’s ubiquity, and it’s simplicity. No owners manual is needed. No need to fear a power surge or a low battery alert. If you drop it in the pool or bathtub or it get’s stolen from the beach, your loss is a few dollars, not a few hundred dollars. If people didn’t want to be magazine publishers, then no one would call me saying they wanted to publish magazines. If publishers didn’t want to produce magazines then why would Samir Husni and MediaFinder vie to count the number of new title launches each quarter?

Where will this business be in two years? Five years? Ten years? I don’t entirely trust the prognostications of many of the consulting firms daily e-blasts that flood our in boxes every morning. They have services to sell and someone paid them for their research. We do know that people are snapping up e-books and digital readers and tablets. But people are also still buying print books. And the book market is very different from the magazine market.

I firmly believe that a savvy consumer magazine publisher working in today’s environment will offer the reader both a digital and print experience. I believe that in order to thrive in this market, you must have a promotional plan that complements both offerings and encourages the reader to participate in both experiences. Paper only will not work. Digital only leaves money on the table.

What do you believe?