The best time to take action toward a dream is yesterday; the worst is tomorrow; the best compromise is today.” – Alvah Simon, Author
The best time to take action toward a dream is yesterday; the worst is tomorrow; the best compromise is today.” – Alvah Simon, Author
FakeGrimlock knows what he is talking about.
This is what authors do when they write books – they build a can from observing the can’ts in the world.
I am starting the final preparations for my trip to Japan.
I have been wanting to make this trip for a long time, so I made it one of my big goals for 2014.
The itinerary for the trip is going to be pretty straight forward. I am traveling during the last two weeks of July. My plan is to travel through Central Honshu between Tokyo, Kyoto, Kananzawa and back again to Tokyo. There will be other stops and a little bit of backtracking, but for the most part it will be a loop through those main cities.
I have done so much work preparing for the Japan trip that I thought I would share the resources that I have found most useful.
The Rough Guide to Japan is by far the best overall travel guide to Japan. It provides over 800 pages of material in the kind of detail that I look for in a travel guide. I plan my own trips, routes, and destinations. Cities of all sizes are covered with recommendations for lodging, food and fun. Maps and insets with special interest topics are plentiful.
As a supplement, I also like Ben Stevens’ A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan. He organizes a couple hundred cultural touch points in a A-Z format starting with the infamous mistress Sada Abe and ending with the Japanese born Buddhist sect of Zen. The randomness and variety of Stevens’ anecdotes provide nice insights a Westerner would appreciate ahead of their visit.
On the even more niche side, as a fan of microbreweries in the US, I was concerned that I would be limited to Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo while I was in Japan. It turns out a ji-biru (micro beer) revolution underway and Mark Meli has created a wonderful English-language guide to the movement called Craft Beer in Japan. The guide starts with an explanation of how the craft movement has evolved in Japan and then a directory of breweries and specialized tap rooms by region. The beer themselves are rated by Meli and each has a short description. For me, this guide will be in heavy use on my trip.
My last mention is a few digital walking guides that I have found. White Rabbit has produced an outstanding audio tour of the otaku-geek haven of Akihabara. On iOS, you can download Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara inside the GuidGO app. Also on iOS, City Maps and Walks has over 450 GPS enabled walks with sight descriptions. I downloaded the set of Tokyo tours they have available.
Being able to communicate in Japanese while I was there was important to me. What I didn’t know was the rabbit hole of language learning that I was fall into. There are so many products and opinions on the topic and I spent considerable time sorting through them to figure out what would work for me.
In the short term, I wanted to be able to speak for my trip, and I had a longer term goal to be able to read Japanese text in a variety of situations.
Here are few thoughts before I share what worked:
The first resource I would recommend Master Japanese by John Fotheringham. There are a lot of info products out there to help you learn a language. Most of them are a generalist guide to learning any language, full of motivation, goal setting and simple techniques to acquire the knowledge faster.
Master Japanese has all of that and much more. You get a 540 page ebook that is the most complete document I have been able to find on learning Japanese. The value for me was in the compilation and curation of resources available to learn Japanese, but the resource itself contains over 250 pages of instruction on the language itself. Most of what I suggest in both approach and resources came from John.
For me, I started with learning the Japanese alphabet. This is strongly supported in the Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever system. I decided to learn both the sounds and symbols found in hiragana and katakana. The best tool to for this is Anki, an open source flashcard system with built-in spaced repetition. The community has a huge catalog of free decks on everything from state capitals to multiplication facts. Hiragana with audio and Master Katakana (with audio) are the best decks to download and use for learning the alphabet. Each card has the symbol on one side and on the other side, the romanji (English) and audible sound for how it is pronounced. Anki will tell you automatically when you need to see a flashcard again based on how well you know them.
If you are like me, you will have a hard time associating those sounds with the symbols you are being shown. The first thing to do is visit Tofugu.com and download their Hiragana42 ebook (it is also available as a webpage). Seeing a wide range of mnemonics gave me a huge jumpstart in committing hiragana to memory. The master of this technique is James Heig and you might find his book Remembering the Kana a great resource. I also like The Hiragana Song by MissHanake.
At the same time (and I want to stress at the same time), I started listening to Pimsleur Japanese. The course is outstanding. They also uses the spaced repetition to improve recall over time and all of the material is built in the context of a conversation or exchange you would have with another speaker. There is a lot of call and response like you find in other audio programs.
Pimsleur has an extensive catalog of lessons. The complete course is 90 thirty minute sessions and costs around $300 for digital and closer to $700 for the discs if you buy direct. I was able to find the entire series at our library here in Portland.
Even with the other resources, I still felt like I needed a written guide to work from and I found the perfect companion in Teach Yourself Complete Japanese. The package I bought had a written guide and audio material to support it. This book was clearly written to teach language and the context for how to apply the language. The biggest benefit is material in the TYCJ matches well with the order in which material in presented in Pimsleur. The guide also uses conversation as the primary tool to teach vocabulary and usage.
The last piece of my language training has been listening to Japanese whenever I can. The language learning experts always recommend immersion and if you can’t visit the country, you can surround yourself with media that matches the language. I created a YouTube playlist of japanese music. I started renting Japanese anime on DVD from Netflix and watching with Japanese audio and english subtitles. If you are considering that route, I recommend Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Planetes as good place to start.
So, as I head into my trip, I would say that I am still at a very basic level of Japanese. When I started back in January, I would able to dedicate a significant amount of time to the alphabet and starting through the Pimsleur series. As we got further into the year, it was hard to trade-off language lessons with other commitments. In these couple weeks prior to the trip, I am focused back on it to see what else I can add before I leave.
We are incredibly fortunate to have a direct flight from Portland to Tokyo daily. The ticket price was only 10% higher than traveling through the alternative hubs. I am not much of a travel hacker, so I paid for the ticket outright. What I did do though was sign up for a Delta American Express card during a special promotion that got me a 50,000 mile signing bonus. I am already at 78,000 miles in my account and I should earn enough miles in the next 12 months for another ticket to Japan.
Everything you read will tell you to get a JR rail pass before you get to Japan. If you plan to do travel between multiple cities, that is very good advice to follow. Start by checking out HyperDia, which is a a great English language timetable for Japanese trains. Check out the major legs of your trip and pay careful attention to the overall cost of the ticket. The total cost is the fare + the seat fee. The seat fee is the piece you might miss (I did) and it can be close to half the overall cost for the ticket. Also remember, the JR Rail Pass can also be used on local JR bus lines, the Tokyo monorail, and the Narita Express from the airport.
I am mostly staying in hostels and ryokens while I am in Japan. Hostelworld was a great resource and had listings for most of the popular lodging choices in that market segment. I booked a number of locations using the site. The average cost is around $50/night for a private room with a single or double bed.
The biggest question was how to keep connected overseas. I wanted a better option than relying on computer cafes and hostel wifi. Having done regular international travel, purchasing a plan of any sort from your US based phone carrier is limited and expensive. The other options include renting phones or buying SIM cards with minutes and bandwidth if you have an unlocked phone.
I went for the Pocket MiFi option to give me more options with my phone and my iPad. I reserved mine with Global Advanced Communications. The unit I rented75 Mbps and 12 hours of battery life. You pick the unit up at the airport and they give you a prepaid envelope to ship it back when your trip is done. The 14 day rental works out to around $5.50/day, which seems reasonable for an always-on connection that you can carry with you.
I am bringing my iPad with a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. I am trying to travel with one bag and reduce weight as much as possible with the tablet while taking advantage of its longer battery life. As a test, I used this combo on a recent business trip to New York and it worked pretty well. The most important thing I found was that you have to have all of your needed files in the cloud. Evernote was a nice solution that let you both upload and create documents. Dropbox is also an option for files that you want to reference. The Logitech keyboard is a little smaller than normal but I found it very easy to work on.
The other miscellaneous recommendations I have are:
If you find yourself making a trip to Japan, I hope these tips help a little with your planning.
P.S. Some of the links in the article are referral links to Amazon and other sources. The recommendations are what worked best for me.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
2014 is shaping already to be a big year. I’ll start to share those goals next week.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
…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.
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.
This essay The Future of Bookselling (Loosely Told In Three Acts) originally appeared in Shelf Awareness on June 2, 2011.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.