Sitting in a Cardboard Box, Saying Vroom Vroom, and Pretending It’s a Car

June 27, 2009

The title of this blog is the title of a presentation to be made this weekend in Austin, Texas by Michael Murphy, a 27-year veteran of the book publishing business.

I read about it on Ron Hogan’s fun blog on MediaBistro today titled, “Making the Future Up As We Go Along.”

When I saw that title I suspected the post would be about a subject near and dear to my heart: as much as various executives, experts and analysts put on a brave face suggesting that they’ve got everything under control, I believe that we’re making endless stabs in the dark, hoping we’ll hit the quarry.

Hogan reports that Murphy sent him an explanation of the session as follows: “It (is) really meant to covey that we are all pretty much making-it-up as we go through this period of fundamental change in the book business. There are many rather smart people issuing completely divergent opinions about The Future of Publishing.

“This could be a wonderful new era where some people much smarter than me figure out how to effectively use the opportunities of the Internet to establish like-minded viral communities and give many more writers much greater access to their core readers than was ever afforded when a buyer in Ann Arbor or on Fifth Avenue in New York were the primary deciders of what readers were presented as New & Noteworthy. On the other hand, a new era could be even more restrictive as The Era of The Ampersand Wielding Book Barons (Barnes & Noble/Simon & Schuster) gives way to The Dot.Com Book Baron and Amazon becomes the all-powerful voice of book consumption… I use Amazon; I love their speed, ease, & efficiency. But I don’t trust them to serve my reading needs over their quarterly profits as far as I can next-day deliver them.

Hogan continues: “After three decades in the book business, Murphy says he’s never seen this level of ‘passionate debate about where we’re headed and what we’re doing wrong…But what I find most “wrong” about our current state of affairs,’ he concludes, “is that our conversations have become so dominated about the bottles and so little about the wine. I’d much rather be talking about my writers, like Tony O’Neill and Barb Johnson, who are so talented they bring tears to me eyes…on a back lit screen as well as the printed page.'”

Great stuff…I’m tempted to head out to Vancouver airport for a last-minute flight to Austin.

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The Economy and the Future of Publishing

May 4, 2009

I’m not a trained economist, although I’ve worked as a businessman for some 30 years, and have closely followed economic issues for many years. I think it’s obvious to everyone that works in publishing that the economic situation worldwide (and particularly in the U.S.) has become the “double whammy” that’s causing huge distress for publishers of all shapes and sizes. I keep pondering how newspapers would be faring if we weren’t in a recession. Obviously the Internet is a huge challenge to their current situation and prospects, but just as obvious is that a robust economy would be mitigating a lot of the pain they’re suffering today.

I’m sure that most readers have noted that for every doom-and-gloom story that’s published are two more that take the tack: “Such and such economic indicator fell for the fifth straight month, but a glimmer of hope is appearing.”

And so observers of the economy essentially fall into two broad camps: it’s bad now and going to get worse before it get better, or, it’s bad now but we may have bottomed out.

I’m with the former, partially by temperament, but largely from experience and study. I sold every stock I was holding several years ago, somewhat prematurely, but as they say, “you can never time the top or the bottom.” So the collapse of the stock market cost me next to nothing.

On April 22nd the Wall Street Journal headlined an article: “IMF Says Recession Is Deepening.” As we all know, institutions like the International Monetary Fund gain little capital in making statements as gloomy as that. The article leads off with “The global economy is in the grips of a deepening recession that isn’t likely to turn around until sometime next year, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday. The IMF, which had been slow to apply the word to the current downturn, also released a new definition of global recession.”

The Canadian Globe & Mail headlined its report on the story “IMF sees ‘severe recession.” The lead paragraphs for that article are as follows:

The world is in its worst economic state in 60 years, and recovery will be slow and painful, the International Monetary Fund says in its newest global outlook.

“The global economy is in a severe recession inflicted by a massive financial crisis and an acute loss of confidence,” the World Economic Outlook begins, projecting a steep 1.3 per cent contraction of the global economy this year and a dismal 1.9 per cent expansion next year.

“This represents the deepest post-World War II recession by far.”

Not very encouraging.

So my advice to all publishers who read this blog is by all means retain your optimism, but PLEASE make sure you’ve got a worst case scenario in your planning. Without it you remain excessively vulnerable.

UPDATE: For a little levity, always appreciated when reporting on the economy, check out on today’s The Onion, “Nation Ready To Be Lied To About Economy Again.” Included is this gem:

The report estimated that 663,000 private and public sector jobs were lost in the month of March—a revealing statistic many people found shockingly blunt. Responding to the new information, an overwhelming majority of citizens said they believe that, during these extremely uncertain times, our leaders have a responsibility to come together, sit the American people down, and lie through their teeth about everything from misappropriations of taxpayer dollars to the severity of the credit crisis.

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The Best Blog on DRM

May 2, 2009

My colleague, Bill Rosenblatt, could be nicknamed (perhaps inelegantly) “Mr. DRM.” He remains, as far as I know, the leading American expert on the topic, having dealt with it in his work at various publishers since 1994, and writing extensively on the subject since 2001, including a website, newsletter, and now an excellent blog, Copyright and Technology. He also authored the standard text on DRM, Digital Rights Management: Business and Technology (Wiley, 2001) (with Bill Trippe and Stephen Mooney), as well as contributing a chapter (“Digital Rights and Digital Television”) to the new volume Television Goes Digital (Springer, 2009).

Bill explains his position on DRM this way:

My philosophy is that digital rights technologies are fundamental to the future of the Internet and other digital networks as viable media for news, culture, and entertainment. And my definition of rights technologies spans much more broadly than the “classical” definition of DRM: it includes technologies such as fingerprinting, watermarking, content identifiers (such as the DOI), and rights licensing schemes. (For example, my view is that Creative Commons is a rights technology — and a very successful one at that.)

As Lawrence Lessig says in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, technology is one of four empirical forces that determine how people and businesses conduct themselves, others being laws, markets, and societal norms. We can argue about how those four forces do or should balance each other out, but my belief is that when it comes to digital content, markets and technology are ultimately the most powerful forces. Many attempts to manipulate the other two to control them are doomed to failure, especially when they are driven by people who fundamentally do not understand or appreciate technology and how it interacts with market forces.

The issue of digital rights management will be with us long after numerous seemingly-urgent technological challenges have been resolved. Every publisher, indeed everyone in the larger electronic publishing sphere, needs to keep a close eye on this topic as it evolves, and Bill Rosenblatt is who I’d recommend you turn to first.

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The Kindle is Not Attracting Youngsters

May 1, 2009

A very interesting blog entry on 4-29 from Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab; the title: “Kindle users skew older; does that impact news biz’s revenue hopes?”

Mr. Benton reports on an article from a subscriber-based newsletter called Publishers Lunch, which reported that “…over half of reporting Kindle owners are 50 or older, and 70 percent are 40 or older.”

Benton quotes Publishers Lunch to the effect that:

It’s older folks — not the gadget crowd, not the young bookloving crowd, and not the mathematical intersect of the two.

The second finding of note from Publishers Lunch:

So many users said they like Kindle because they suffer from some form of arthritis that multiple posters indicate that they do or do not have arthritis as a matter of course. A variety of other impairments, from weakening eyes and carpal-tunnel-like syndromes to more exotic disabilities dominate the purchase rationales of these posters.

In other words, it’s primarily a particular segment of older folks that the Kindle appeals to — those for whom the traditional dead-tree reading experience is painful or difficult.

Benton notes: “But to my non-business-school eyes, that doesn’t look like the makings of a breakout hit on the scale that the oft-repeated phrase “the iPod of books” implies. After all, the Kindle audience demographically looks an awful lot like the print newspaper audience.”

A new perspective on the Kindle “phenomenon.”

Check out his blog (and the whole Nieman Journalism Lab site).

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The Future of Digital Magazines

April 28, 2009

The title of this entry is tongue-in-cheek (at least I’m keeping my tongue in my mouth), as I just discovered Zinio’s little-publicized side venture: Undercover Mags. If you go to the site by clicking on this link, it will take you to the magazines deemed of interest to heterosexuals, and you’ll be greeted with a not very discreet screen of revealing anatomical images:


If you go to their alternate site for the gay community, you’ll also be greeted with revealing images, a little too revealing for me to post, and a wide selection of digital magazines organized under categories like anal, black, hairy, hunks, jocks, legal teens, etc.

Zinio doesn’t appear to be completely hiding it’s involvement with the site: its name does appear in small print on the bottom of the home page.

But I wonder if the publishers of Reader’s Digest, Parenting Early Years, Parenting School Years, Cosmopolitan Bride and American Cowboy are aware of their “alternate interest” publishing colleagues?

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