I ♥ Kickstarter

Kickstarter’s cultural currency continues to rise. In the past few weeks, The crowd sourcing site announced it has collected over one billion dollars in pledges. The most highly funded movie in Kickstarter history, Veronica Mars, was just released. And with the Facebook’s two billion dollar acquisition of Kickstarter darling Oculus this week, questions are being raised about whether backers should compensated for their early support.

I believe I feel like most backers: I don’t pledge to take ownership in a project; I pledge to enable it. I consider myself a patron, someone who can validate an artist’s idea through declaring my interest and provide monetary support to bring that idea into the world.

I have backed over 70 projects in the last five years and it has been amazing to be a part of so many great ideas. Here are some of my favorites:

This is not a Kickstarter shirt

Kickstarter Shirt

Creating a Kickstarter shirt using Kickstarter was the brilliant idea of CEO and co-founder Yancey Strickler. The image came from the campaign itself. Of course, I was going to get one.

The Crabby Wallet

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Along with my iPhone and car keys, this is a part of my everyday carry with its ability to hold five or six cards. Love it.

The WINGstand

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Before my kids took primary ownership of my iPad, it was great to use the tablet with WINGstand to create another screen to work from.

Realizing Empathy

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This project is a little more special than most. Not only was I a backer, but I also served as the editor for the book. Slim put out a call to backers for help bringing the project from his RISD master’s thesis to a more accessible book for a wider audience. I am so happy with how it turned out and proud to have contributed in a small way.

The Bluer Denim Project

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There were several factors that drew me to this project. First, Bluer Denim is designed in Portland, one of the most active cities on Kickstarter. The second was their commitment to end to end manufacturing in the United States. The final piece was the direct connection to the maker as I bought my first pair of raw selvage jeans.

The Icarus Deception

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Seth Godin went to Kickstarter with his latest book project, Icarus Deception. I have been a fan of Seth since the Purple Cow milk carton, so there was only a split second of thought before I pledged at the No-Brainer level. This package included 8 copies of the book, a 12 pound book called THIS MIGHT WORK, an alphabet book illustrated by Hugh MacLeod, an audiobook LP and a handcrafted coffee mug.

The Smartest Shirt on The Planet

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I loved this project from the moment I heard out it. Garment veteran Steven Sal Debus developed a new fabric that uses eucalyptus trees rather than cotton. This result is less water used, virtually no chemicals added and the creation on a shirt that is naturally wicking and odor free. Even with the great pitch, the project didn’t get funded, earning only $8,000 of the $30,000 needed.

I was so impressed I tracked down the company in Canada and bought four of their prototype garments. I have been using two of them and they are as great as advertised.

It’s often said that many good ideas never get the traction they deserve. I can’t think of a better example.

Elevation Dock

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As another Portland based project, I bought into Elevation Dock along with the other 12,500 backers. This is a great product that is everything that it advertises. The trouble was I upgraded to the iPhone 5 and haven’t been willing to buy the upgrade kit for the lighting connector. This can be the tricky part of backing technology projects.

TRIMR Water + Shaker Bottle

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This is the latest project I backed and I already have the bottle. I like the mixture of features (though I have poured water on myself more than once while getting used to the straw nozzle).

Here are a few of my other favorites…

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And today, I supported another project.

I can’t wait to see it.

The 100 Best, Five Years Later

I walked into my local bookstore, Powell’s, recently and found a copy of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time on the shelf. I always appreciated the happy coincidence that since my co-author’s last name was Covert, the book was shelved between Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I like to think our book’s popular location helped its sales over the years.

This paperback copy had a small black mark on bottom face denoting its remaindered status. Powell’s had bought the copy from a company that specialized in overstock inventory. Publishers printing too many copies and selling off the excess might bother some authors, but for me, I always saw an opportunity. Not the first time, I tracked down the company and bought up all the copies I could find. At three dollars a piece, remaindered copies work great as gifts, marketing tokens, or a 300-page business card.

The existence of extra inventory might give you the impression the book didn’t do well. In the sum of its many forms – hardcover, digital, paperback and audio – The 100 Best sold over 45,000 copies. In foreign markets, we sold eleven deals for translation rights. In the first year, we earned back the six figure advance we had been paid and started earning money for both the publisher and ourselves.

The book is five years old now and it is hard to think of another project that had a larger effect on my life. Professionally, my career as an editor, an agent, a literary scout, and now a publisher, all materialized around the expertise shown in writing The 100 Best. People still marvel at how quickly Jack and I chose of the books (it took about 24 hours). They still measure themselves against the list, counting the titles they have read (the record is 92).

The first lesson I learned was that book concepts have to be simple. Our initial proposal was titled “Monday Morning: An Executive Guide to The Business Ideas That Matter.” The project was ambitious. Neither Jack and I were writers, so brought in a writer to develop the concept. The idea was to construct a series of chapter length essays that examined a topic like time management or customer relationship by a method of compare and contrast. We wanted to see if we could put Peter Drucker, Stephen Covey and David Allen in a mixer and say something interesting about results. When we completed the proposal and shared it with one of the top literary agents in the business books, his answer was very clear, “I don’t get it.”

We were pretty disappointed, I more than Jack. From the start, he thought the concept was too complicated. From the man who had been reviewing business books since 1981, I should have listened more closely to those early hesitations.

To be more accurate, I was devastated. I had put a lot of work into the proposal and put even more hope into the possibilities the project would open up. It took more than a year before we returned again to the idea of a book.

In December 2006, we gathered a wonderful group of authors and publishing professionals at 800-CEO-READ’s first Author Pow-Wow. Over dinner, I told Will Weisser, the associate publisher at Portfolio, about our crazy idea to write a book and asked him if he would read the proposal. He wasn’t sure about the concept either, but he agreed.

The holidays passed and Will came back with a familiar sentiment – “I don’t get it,” but he followed with a better question – “Why don’t you just do the 100 best business books of all time?”

I groaned aloud as I read his email. My response was “That’s already been done, multiple times.”

Will wrote back, “You are right, but almost all books have been done before. Just remember the iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player. If you get it right, you get to own the category.” I felt like the gauntlet had been thrown down.

We could do a book on the best business books but it was going to have to be different and interesting. The book would be based around reviews but the richness would come from connecting the books to one another. We would recommend books beyond the list of 100 books. There was be a choose your own adventure feature when you got to the end of each review. There would be “easter eggs” with suggestions for movies, novels and events that readers would also be interested. The book would more resemble a magazine more than a book with multiple points of entry for the reviews. I think it worked. The compliment we received over and over again was “This is better than I thought it would be.”

The 100 Best also showed me a hidden love for writing. In college, I prided myself on only taking two English classes enroute to getting my engineering degree. Looking back, I missed an opportunity to learn to express myself, to share my ideas, to determine what I believed. I would find my way to blogging almost ten years later as the way to finally start writing and that would lead to my job at 800-CEO-READ.

I was a hack though. I didn’t appreciate active verbs, the rhythm of a finely constructed sentence, or the drafts it takes to create good writing. We were so fortunate to have Sally, a wonderful editor, on staff who helped Jack and I through the dozens of reviews that needed to be written and rewritten. In the book’s acknowledgements, we described Sally’s multifaceted role as “editor, cheerleader, psychologist, humorist, and referee.” I would add “teacher” to that list. I am not the writer I am today with the book project or Sally’s involvement in it.

The most common question I get asked now is whether I would change anything. I tell people who ask I wouldn’t change a thing. I know they are asking about the list of books but I like to pretend that they see the bigger picture – the sweat, the missteps, and the joy that come from having created something that helps people just a little. 100BestBusiness150

My Three Goals for 2014

I talked with a friend the other day and she called me on how I had not posted my 2014 goals as I promised.

So let me fix that…

My three goals for 2014 are:

  1. Take a Trip to Japan and Learn Japanese – I have an inexplicable desire to go to Japan for years and this year I have decided to do something about that. The plane ticket to Tokyo has been purchased and I am going to be going for two weeks in July. When I get there, I want to be able to navigate in the native language, so my secondary goal is to be able to communicate in common situations.
  2. Publish Version 2.0 of Every Book Is A Startup – With the sad disbanding of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change effort, there was one small glimmer of opportunity. As the publisher for Every Book Is A Startup, they approached me about returning to me the rights to the book. I decided to take the opportunity, update the book, and republished it more widely.
  3. Launch a Publishing Company – This is the biggest project of the year, something I have been working on for over a year.

I will have more to say about all of these goals as the year goes on. Each one is very interesting to me. I am going to share my process and the learnings as I go.

#YearInReview 2013

In 2010, Seth Godin asked people to make a list of what they shipped that year. I did the exercise in 2010 and 2012 and decided to do it again this year. I have come to believe that this is a important exercise, especially for solopreneuers to see what they have accomplished.

  • The Phoenix Project (1/15/13) – We spent much of 2012 building on this project and I spent most of 2013 launching and spreading word of this book. We have sold 28,000 copies of The Phoenix Project and learned so much about shipping. We used Google Adwords to test titles and subtitles. We followed up with SurveyMonkey gathered invaluable feedback on the book and how we were promoting it, which lead us to a 3-day Free Kindle giveaway and 20,000 downloads. We have more planned for this book and another in 2014.
  • Year Two at NCNM – My wife spent the last 12 months in school full time studying Chinese Medicine. It was a lot of work
  • 1000 Lunches – With my wife in school, I am the primary person shipping three kids off to school every day and picking them back up. 200 nights of homework. 250 loads of laundry. This is a nod to everyone who is doing the same.
  • Monster Loyalty (5/2/2013) – I helped my friend Jackie Huba find a home for this project at Portfolio. It was great to see Jackie take her passion for Lady Gaga and expertise in marketing to create a great book.
  • Teaching Publishing at Wizard Academy (9/4/13-9/5/13) – I was honored to teach a wonderful group of authors in Austin. I shared the stage with my good friend Ray Bard and got to spend two days talking about what make book succeed.
  • I started a Zen Buddhist practice when we moved to Oregon in 2010. This year, I decided to take the next step in my practice and take a teacher. The most visible part of that choice was the three month process of sewing of a rakasu.

2014 is shaping already to be a big year. I’ll start to share those goals next week.

The 50 Best Business Books of The Last Five Years

IN MAY 2010, Bloomberg ran a list complied by James Pressley of the Top 50 Business Books published since January 2009. If you wanted to read about financial engineering, Wall Street, economic collapse, and pessimism, this was the perfect list for you. Books like Animal Spirits, Freefall, and The Greatest Trade Ever make up the bulk of the list as is to be expected from the leading media company providing data to financial services. A better list was required though; one that provides a more well rounded, positive view of what is possible in the world of business.

I pulled together a list of forty books that year to show a different perspective and the new ways thought leaders were giving readers to think about business.

A few more years have passed. So, to end 2013, I thought I would update and add to the list.

Enjoy!

  • The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau – Good advice for anyone starting a new project, book or business. The key to success: be relentlessly useful.
  • The 1% Windfall by Rafi Mohammed – The nuts and bolts of pricing.
  • The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni – Smart and healthy companies succeed with lots of clarity.
  • The Anatomy of Buzz Revisted by Emanuel Rosen – revision of the classic manual on word of mouth marketing.
  • The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar – if you know the jam story from Blink, you know Iyengar’s research on decision-making.
  • The Art of The Idea by John Hunt – OBSERVATION No. 11 – “An IDEA is a PARADIGM SHIFTING moment that forward projects FUTURE POTENTIAL in an initially ETHEREAL but progressively tangible MANNER.”
  • The Back of The Napkin (Expanded Edition) by Dan Roam – pictures solve problems.
  • Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur – beautifully designed book on how to think about business models.
  • Change by Design by Tim Brown – IDEO CEO makes case for wider use of design in business
  • The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gwande – New Yorker writer and practicing doctor says we should go back to making lists
  • Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken – Anthropologist to corporate America says not knowing culture costs companies billions.
  • Click by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman – The subtitle says it all “The Magic of Instant Connections”
  • Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky – This prognostication makes clear the promise of online collaborations.
  • Daring Greatly by Brene Brown – Don’t be confused. Brene is writing for all of us when she asks us to embrace vulnerability and imperfection.
  • Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath – The Heath Brothers take on making better decisions.
  • Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh – Zappos CEO shares his philosophy.
  • Different by Youngme Moon – a wonderfully different take on marketing.
  • Drive by Dan Pink – Motivation comes from autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
  • The Essential Bennis by Warren Bennis – a wonderful collection of his best writings.
  • The Essential Deming by W. Edward Deming – The work might also seem foreign because his prescriptions are still largely ignored. Maybe this new volume will solve that problem.
  • Fierce Leadership by Susan Scott – refreshing take on leadership
  • Free by Chris Anderson – overview of the price of zeros and the effects that has.
  • The Four Conversations by Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford – best book I have read on management in the last five years.
  • Give and Take by Adam Grant – Givers are more successful than Takers and Matchers. This might be news in the world of business.
  • Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen – Collins brings his power metaphors to explain how successful companies grow.
  • Greater Than Yourself by Steve Farber – a fable about mentoring and a lot more.
  • How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins – The opposite of Good to Great.
  • I Moved Your Cheese by Deepak Malhorta – a thoughtful extension to the original fable and a rebuttal of the original take.
  • Ignore Everybody by Hugh Macleod – To use the author’s term, this is a cubicle grenade.
  • The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – Lean production principles meet the world of startups. Iterate and pivot to succeed.
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – The success is simple to explain – the first real business book written for women by a women in business.
  • Linchpin by Seth Godin – a book about art, gifts, and shipping.
  • The Little Big Things by Tom Peters – classic Tom.
  • Minding The Store edited by Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge – a great collection of fiction that takes place in the business setting.
  • The New Rules of Marketing & PR (2nd Edition) by David Meerman Scott – The marketing manual for Web 2.0 .
  • The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison – Big Idea means Networking book
  • The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton – the title says it all.
  • Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – This book won the 2011 FT/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book of the Year and shows the important work going on at MIT’s J-PAL as they collect and use data to make better decisions about solving big global problems.
  • The Predictioneer’s Game by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita – great book on decision-making
  • Priceless by William Poundstone – another book on pricing, but driven by narrative and research.
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhhig – What you can do with sticking to something day after day.
  • Rework by 37 Signals – the guys behind Basecamp share their philosophy.
  • Rules of Thumb by Alan Webber – Founding editor of Fast Company shares what he has learned doing some amazing things.
  • Seizing The White Space by Mark Johnson – Shows how to build entirely new business models.
  • Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie – Just buy it, everyone else has.
  • Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath – “How to Change When Change Is Hard.”
  • Think Twice by Michael Mauboussin – Always interesting insights into how we make decisions.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanheman – The nobel laureate takes us on a walk through his life’s work that has fundamentally changed our view of how we make decisions.
  • Trade-Off by Kevin Maney – Convenience versus fidelity, choose only one.
  • What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis – What makes Google different and interesting thought experiments on those applied to other industries.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson – His synthesis of the patterns that lead to successful innovation.

Fast Company at 20 Years

This weekend marks the twenty year anniversary of Fast Company Magazine.

Founding editor Bill Taylor sent out a tweet asking for fans for their favorite stories under the hashtag #fastcompanyreunion.

I recently wrote my letter of love for the My Favo(u)rite Magazine project. It seems like the perfect time to share that piece a little more widely.

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I encountered Fast Company in its early teens and quickly fell in love. Each month, I waited by the mailbox for the next issue like I was eleven years old again awaiting the arrival of the Christmas Wishbook from Sears .

Founding editors Alan Webber and Bill Taylor described their vision for a new business magazine as a cross between Fortune and Rolling Stone. At its height, Fast Company was certainly that. Its pages showed corporate elephants could dance alongside agile upstarts, both groups newly supercharged by the spread of technology’s disruptive energy.

I bought into the vision. I drank the Kool-Aid. I even left the too safe corporate gig to find my Free Agent/Purple Cow/Brand You world. All because of a magazine.

I could pick almost any issue from those early years for the impact they had on me, but the September 1999 issue still stands out. The cover package looks straight past Y2K crisis looming on the horizon and asks what is going to be important in the 21st century. The magazine was never about now; it was always about next.

The apex of the dot-com boom gave them the ad pages to publish a 364 page book that month. The magazine put Muhammad Yunus across from Andy & Kate Spade. They report on U.S. Special Operations Command and an Australian real estate company. They visit outdoor equipment maker K2 and ask J. Craig Venter about the future of genetics. And they present AOL’s acquisition of Netscape as a three act play with a sidebar recommending a 19 year old book, best for dealing with organizational change.

Fast Company drew inspiration from any and all appropriate sources. Business as a pursuit was always reported in the positive and the possible. They suggested a new agenda for the new economy, asked us to talk amongst ourselves and then go make something happen in the new century.

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The Camera Doesn’t Know

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Kevin Spacey’s opening keynote at the Edinburgh International Television Festival has been making waves.

The whole speech is worth your time if you care about (or your livelihood depends) the future of the media industry.

He stresses the importance of talent, new talent in particular, but I want to direct you to this section from Spacey’s talk:

One way that our industry might fail to adapt to the continually shifting sands is to keep a dogmatic differentiation in their minds between various media – separating FILM and TV and MINI-SERIES and WEBISODES and however else you night want to label narrative formats.

Its like when I’m working in front of a camera that camera doesn’t know it’s a film camera or a TV camera or a streaming camera. It’s just a camera. I predict that in the next decade or two. any differentiation between these formats. these platforms – will fall away.

Is 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole really any different than a FILM? Do we define film by being something two hours or less? Surely it goes deeper than that.

If you are watching a film on your television, is it no longer a film because you’re not watching it in the theater?

If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show?

The device and length are irrelevant.

The labels are useless – except perhaps to agents and managers and lawyers who use these labels to conduct business deals.

For kids growing up now there’s no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game of Thrones on their computer.

Its all CONTENT. It’s all STORY.

(Transcript)

It’s the same with words.

This keyboard I am typing on right now has no idea if this will be a blog post, a tweet, a PowerPoint slide, an essay, a newsletter communique, a book or a letter that I am going to print out and send to my mom.

I, as the writer, might have some intention about where these words will go and the container that I might put them into.

My experience from the thousands and thousands I have written is ideas are ideas and language is slowing our ability to grasp what is next.

The Power of Love

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We are not our successes.
We are not our failures.
And we are not our rejections.

 

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Don Miller provided the first two lines. He talked honestly about his success as a bestselling author and the fear that kept him from writing the next book, the relationships he blew up and the bottles of whiskey that deaden the pain.

Holding onto our successes and failures both create that same distorted expectation:

How will it ever be good enough?

 

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Jia Jiang went out looking for rejection. He wanted people to say “No” and see what he could learn from it. He said he wanted rejection to become a good friend, one that he knew well.

 

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Don’t identify with the outcome.
Certainty is a lie.
“Keep going!”

…shouted one audience member, when an attendee on stage struggled to share what her project meant to her.

Just a week prior, Tess Vigeland found out she didn’t get her dream job at NPR.  A standing ovation erupted at the end of her talk. ”We are with you,” the crowd was saying. Tess was brought to tears as she walked off stage.

The audience at WDS gave back to the speakers in a way I am not sure I have seen. They held a space that allowed for acceptance, encouragement, and love. Yes, love.

 

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In telling one friend about the event, he said, “This sounds like a spiritual experience.”

I said, “Yes, that is exactly what this is.”

WDS is about looking at our beliefs and developing the courage to live your life. It is more than just inspiration (that has a half-life of about 22 hours).  The event has become a place to explore honesty, vulnerability and determination with an incredible group of people who want to do the same.

 

The Future of Bookselling

This essay The Future of Bookselling (Loosely Told In Three Acts) originally appeared in Shelf Awareness on June 2, 2011.

1.

“There are two kinds of companies—those that work to raise prices and those that work to lower them.” -Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com

On the morning of February 11th, 2011, few were surprised by the news Borders had filed for bankruptcy. The second largest retail bookseller in the U.S. had already started to delay payments to publishers, desperate to maintain their cash-flow after the traditional crest from retail sales during the holiday season. Every day brings new developments as the company establishes bridge financing to allow the company to emerge from Chapter 11 status, bankruptcy trustees complaining about the fees paid to lawyers and executives, and 238 stores across the country go through the proceed of liquidation. Unfortunately, this was not a singular event.

Bookstores around the country are suffering from the same fate as the Ann Arbor based big box outlet. A few days before Borders’ bankruptcy announcement, Portland-based indie stalwart Powell’s Books announced they were laying off 31 people or 7% of their workforce. The regional bookseller Joseph-Beth Booksellers entered bankruptcy with nine stores and emerged with five stores spread among three owners. If we used Publisher’s Lunch as the newsletter of record, we’d find a total of 18 bookstores that closed, went bankrupt, or were in search of a new owner since the Borders entered bankruptcy in February, when compared to just four stores in the same six-week period last year.

As you read through the various reasons for closures, technology undoubtedly receives part, if not, all of the blame the general demise of bookselling. Amazon has long been the villain that has disrupted bookselling. But now, tens of millions of tablets in the marketplace, readers are choosing to buy more and more of their books digitally. Bookscan has reported that print books sales are down 7% this year compared to 2010 while most alternate indicators like the ebook sales report from American Association of Publishers show ebook sales growing substantially, now accounting for more than 20% of sales. Publishers like Sourcebooks and Bloomsbury USA have reported even higher percentages.

Given these realities, how can retail booksellers continue to stay in business? Empty bromides like “Work Harder!” and “Do Something Different!” fray the nerves of those working at bookstores around the country. Maybe things would be different if we could clearly see how to be different.

2.

“CSV-5 has better throughput, but Cal-12 has better pavement. That is typical—Fairlanes roads emphasize getting you there, for Type A drivers, and Cruiseways emphasize the enjoyment of the ride for Type B drivers.” -Neal Stephenson in Snowcrash

Kevin Maney, the longtime technology writer for USA Today, has a theory that businesses have one of two options when they compete. The first option is to compete on convenience—make a simple to use product, make it widely available, and charge the lowest possible price. Oreo cookies and Netflix come to mind.

The second option is to pursue fidelity: produce a high-resolution experience which the customer values for its uniqueness. My mother’s homemade Grand Champion chocolate chip cookies and Avatar in IMAX 3-D contrast well to the convenient alternatives.

Maney says when Amazon introduced the Kindle they pursued the fidelity side of the continuum. If you go back and read the interviews with CEO Jeff Bezos he talked about the importance of emulating the experience you get when you read a book—the size of the screen, the weight of the object. Bezos even mentioned how the product team studied the book’s vanilla-like scent and considered how they could include that in the device. The entire approach left the market confused. Amazon was a company that for their entire existence had pursued one goal: make buying things more convenient with their hallmarks were low prices, infinite shelf space, and quick delivery.

With the introduction of Kindle 2 in 2009, Amazon changed their messaging. “Books in 60 seconds” was the new tagline and everything we have seen since in Amazon’s marketing and PR has been about convenience. Every chance they get the retailer announces how ebooks sales are overtaking some form of print book (using very subjective statistics). Every week in the New York Times Book Review, the full-page ad that sits opposite from the week’s bestseller lists telling readers how easily they can download any of the popular titles from Amazon. Convenience has come in the form of lower and lower prices, most recent being the addition of an ad-supported Kindle that costs $114.

Ebooks and the myriad of devices people will use read books play directly to the market of convenience, a market that retail storefronts selling “pbooks” will never be able to properly satisfy.

3.

“Bookselling was and is for me a cultural and political expression, an expression of progressive change, of a challenge to oppressive authority, of a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community.” -A. David Schwartz (1938-2004)

The news of the passing of Seattle bookseller Kim Ricketts caused me to stop and reflect on what she accomplished and what it means more broadly to retail segment of book publishing. Anyone in bookselling knows the story of Kim’s migration from the University of Washington bookstore in Seattle to her own business creating events that sold books. I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of her efforts firsthand during the launch of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time in 2009. At corporate events, like the one I spoke at, as well as her other events, Kim brought together wonderful groups of people who shared curiosities and passions. And while it is important for me to pay tribute Kim and the business she built, it is even more important for all of us to understand what Kim Ricketts Book Events exemplifies for the future of bookselling.

What too few booksellers understand is that the only strategic play for this entire retail segment is on the fidelity side of the continuum. Kim understood this in spades. She found great success in her Cooks & Books event, which attracted the country’s top chefs to share a meal and tell stories to those gathered from the foodie community of Seattle. Each attending member of the tribe went home with latest cookbook from that celebrity and a collection of wonderful memories. For that privilege, attendees paid two to four times the cover price of the book.

800-CEO-READ, the book retailer in Milwaukee where I spent six years, is certainly a niche player with their specialty in business books, but that fails to fully explain their completely different approach to fidelity. The entire book retail distribution system is designed to get a single book into the hands of an individual. Rather than selling one book at a time, 800-CEO-READ sells tens or hundreds of books at a time to organizations that use books for meetings, training, or large industry events. While the revenue and the margins are markedly better, these orders generate a different set of costs from the need for a call center to manage the unique requirements of corporate sales to a shipping department that understands global logistics. It is hard to call this bookselling by standards we are all familiar with.

And look at Powell’s Books. They have created a Disneyland-like destination in their City of Books location and I don’t mean in the costumed characters sense (though you can get a green-screened photo of yourself in front of the store printed on a t-shirt). The store stocks over one million new and used copies of books, an order of magnitude larger than what you would find in amy Barnes & Noble. Like Ameoba Records in Hollywood, CA, Powell’s has created a high definition experience making the store a destination for any book lover.

Epilogue

Kevin Maney offers a final caution worth noting. The nirvana of offering both convenience and fidelity is strategic mirage where customers increasingly understand less and less why they need your products. Starbucks doesn’t want to admit that as a 17,000 store global chain they are a convenience play (and the reason VIA “Ready Brew” is successful is because of that). The US Post Office lives in the dying space between the next day fidelity of FedEx and the convenience of text messages. Do you need to talk about 35mm film?

Booksellers need to start seeing that Amazon is not their competition; convenience is. Retail booksellers need to answer “What can I do different?” by providing higher fidelity experiences for their customers. Or put another way: the book is the start and not the end to the experience customers want to have.

From Pages Read to Minutes Spent

This essay From Pages Read to Minutes Spent: Rethinking How We Quantify Reading was originally published at Publishing Perspectives on February 3, 2011.

Amazon launched Kindle Singles last week. These original works of 10,000 to 30,000 words are designed to fill the space between an essay and book. At the same time, TED, the popular conference organization, launched TED Books as a publishing imprint using the Singles program. Director Chris Anderson stated what he sees as the problem: “Busy people can be daunted at the prospect of having to read a 300- or 400-page book.” Amazon VP Russ Grandinetti suggesting a more elegant reason for this experimental evolution: “Our goal with Singles is to allow compelling ideas to be expressed at their natural length.”

What Amazon and TED clearly believe is that e-books are going to remove the fear publishers have of needing to deliver specific minimum page count. The variety of screen dimensions across an ever growing number of reading devices and the ability for readers to adjust font size in this new e-world makes the page infinitely variable in size and measuring page count pointless. Each electronic “container” now dictates the form the book will take, much like pouring same amount of water into a champagne flute and saucepan create very different results. So what do we use instead?

I wonder if the daunting “400 page problem” that Anderson suggests leads us to a better solution. Maybe minutes and seconds is the best measure of book length in the digital world. Music and movies, which migrated to digital formats years ago, consistently provide the duration of the piece and there are already signs of this standard being associated with the written word.

The curation website Longreads, which directs readers to quality long form writing, provides, along with the title, author, source, and synopsis, the number of words contained in each piece and an estimate of the time required to read. It does not seem much of a stretch that with small evolutions in our reading devices we could measure the actual speed of the person reading and customize those times to match to the individual.

Seeing those time estimates will change our perceptions of reading as an activity, for better and worse. I already have an improved and altered sense for the time I spend reading, and I do sometimes avoid pieces because of the word count exceeds my day’s quota. Smart book publishers will help readers get over the attention anxiety by providing time estimates for each chapter (“You can read this book in ten easy installments of 17 minutes each!”) –- something that is available as an easy plug-in for blogs and others forms of online publishing. Or maybe our device will tell us how much time is left in a chapter as a replacement to our old method of paging ahead to find the chapter’s end.

This shift from page count to word count will be another casualty of the physical book that will be lamented. Purists will see this as another horrible concession, wishing we returned to an age when books were shown proper respect. “We are going to start saying, ‘This is a four hour, seventeen minute book?’ That’s absurd!”

But what if this shift is a way for books to better fit into our a world where we measure in smaller and smaller slices of time? The book hasn’t changed, only the way we relate to it. And what if instead of choosing another 47 minute episode of Mad Men from iTunes, that reluctant reader picks up a book, knowing she can finish five more chapters before going to bed? That seems like a good trade-off.