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October 2005

10 posts from September 2005

This Aging Business

I spent the better part of this past week attending a series of meetings in Redmond, WA. The sessions were great and the weather was beautiful, but what really caught my eye was the average age of the attendees and speakers. Keep in mind this was a mix of authors and members of various publishing houses, primarily editorial and marketing types. Other than the occasional Microsoft employee, I don’t think anyone in the room was less than 30 years old. In fact, I’d estimate the average age at about 35, maybe closer to 40.

What’s wrong with that? For starters, I think it’s both an accurate snapshot of the aging population of authors and publishers, and I would bet that it also mirrors the ever-increasing average age of our customer base. OK, it’s only one conference and maybe it’s not a good representation of the overall business. Or is it?

As I think back about the last several tech conferences I’ve attended over the past few years (e.g., TechEd, LinuxWorld, etc.), the theme is very similar. Although there are plenty of 20-somethings at these shows, they don’t seem to be the ones stopping by the publisher booths. That average age of 35 noted above is pretty consistent with the average age of publisher booth browsers. I tend to visit and hang around all the publisher booths at these events, by the way, so my observations aren’t limited to just one or two.

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but if this trend doesn’t change we’ll simply continue to chase after an older and older (and shrinking) customer base. I see this with my own kids (ages 18, 16 and 11). When it comes to issues on the computer, they don’t look for a book, they turn to Google for the answer.

At its core, this business isn’t so much about making books as it is about providing information. We’ve got to do a better job of providing that information in a manner that’s relevant to the next generation of customers. What’s your opinion?

Bookscan – Week Ending 9/18/05

Here’s a quick look at the top 750 titles in the computer/tech category for the most recent week:

1. Pearson/Penguin            33%
2. Wiley                             29%
3. O’Reilly                          16%
4. Microsoft Press              11%
5. Osborne/McGraw-Hill        5%

Comparing that to the summary from a couple of weeks ago, Pearson is down one point, Wiley is up two points, O’Reilly is down one point while Microsoft Press and Osborne/McGraw Hill are both flat.

Out of the top 10 titles for the week, Wiley had 4, Pearson had 3 while Microsoft Press, O’Reilly and Osborne/McGraw-Hill each had one – in other words, all of the top 5 publishers had at least one title in the top 10.

Author Tip: Conversational Writing

Take a few minutes to read a wonderful authoring tip on Kathy Sierra’s blog. For better or worse, I’ve been in this business long enough to remember when a stiff, formal style was the only way to write a computer book. In fact, a senior executive at a former employer once ridiculed me because I had the nerve to bring what he called “a joke book” into an editorial board for review. This was before …For Dummies, Kathy’s Head First and any other informal series hit the scene. The thinking back then was “if the formal style works for Using Lotus 1-2-3, Special Edition, why change the formula with a conversational style?”

As Kathy correctly states, a pure reference book (such as an A-to-Z syntax reference) is probably better off in the old, formal style…sort of. When I was a programmer many years ago, I appreciated the type of programmer’s reference that offered concise entries. Easy in and easy out. I just want to know the syntax, what each parameter represents, etc. However, there’s plenty of room to be conversational when talking about practical implementations. What shortcuts or workarounds has the author discovered? Those are the gems that make a reference work so valuable. They also lend themselves to a more conversational style.

Some authors think “conversational” means “forced humor.” Nothing makes a book harder to read than a bunch of bad jokes. Fight the temptation. A former colleague once described the conversational style this way: It’s as if the author is telling you a story while the two of you are enjoying a beer. With or without the beer, I think this is a good description of the relaxed, informal style that works best.

iPod, Part II

I had my say about the iPod flea/nano/whatever earlier this week. The Motorola ROKR was Apple’s other interesting recent announcement. In short, the ROKR brings iTunes to a cellphone. I find it interesting not because it’s so revolutionary, but because the phone itself is so ordinary. That doesn’t sound like Apple, does it?

Why wouldn’t the first iTunes phone be as uniquely designed as the Mac, the Newton or the iPod itself? It’s basically a run-of-the-mill phone which happens to offer iTunes service. By the way, that service doesn’t sound all that slick – the songs have to be loaded from a computer, not from the wireless connection itself. Huh?

The phone only holds about 100 songs, so it’s not likely to replace your dedicated MP3 player. Apple was probably a bit concerned about releasing a phone that could hold lots more and has a higher coolness factor. Why? It could kill the golden goose the iPod franchise has become . They wouldn’t want to do that for a measly licensing fee to Motorola or some other manufacturer.

Surely Apple has something a lot more exciting than the ROKR on the drawing board, right? I have zero inside information on this, but my guess is they’ll measure the interest level in an iTunes-enabled phone with the ROKR, then follow that up with a real Apple product down the road. What’s a “real Apple product”? It’s one that is exclusively branded “Apple”, which means they’ll get the revenue, not just a piece of it.

Google Blog Search

Finally. After a lot of complaining and pleas for help on blogs like this one, the real players are arriving on the blog search front. Google’s Blog Search beta was just announced and is almost guaranteed to be more useful than anything else out there. I played around with it a bit tonight and it’s pretty much what you’d expect: simple results in a simple interface. Still, it’s good to see the big guys showing up and providing what will hopefully be a more reliable blog search tool.

iPod – iDon’tGetIt

I know Apple is the king of MP3 players. In fact, one could argue Apple is now more of a music company than a computer company, but that’s a whole separate post…

I admire the way Apple innovates. There’s no question they have some of the most awesome looking products in the industry. That said, why do people continue to pay a premium for a commodity like an MP3 player? I know…it’s a fashion statement. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a fashionable guy, so it’s no surprise that I own a Creative MP3 player, not an iPod.

In perhaps the latest example of how life imitates art, Apple comes out with yet another, even smaller MP3 player with less capacity than most others available today. The reason I say “life imitates art” is because Apple is getting dangerously close to the scenario presented in this great spoof ad created by Scott Kelby. Take a moment and watch it. It’s hilarious, only because each new iPod model seems to be getting closer and closer to this “flea” version.

I’m sure Apple will sell a gazillion of the new “nano” model. It’s trendy. It’s tiny. Holy cow! I feel like such an idiot paying $199 for my Creative 40-Gig player when I could have waited to buy a 4-Gig iPod nano for only $249.

I wonder if these iPod shuffle and nano customers are the same people who routinely overbid on eBay? More importantly, how do I get a mailing list full of them so that I can start tapping into this segment?…

First in Thirst – The Gatorade Book

As I mentioned earlier, Darren Rovell arranged for me to receive a copy of his latest book entitled First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon. I drink the stuff from time to time, and while the story of its origins is interesting, the best part of this book is chapter 8, “The Gatorade Rules”. Rovell lays out “the nine business principles that helped Gatorade become one of the most powerful brands in modern-day business history.” Here are my two favorites:

Learn from your mistakes – Did you know there was a “Gatorade Light”? I didn’t. It sounds like it suffered the same fate as New Coke. This section talks about the dangers of overextending your brand, or trying to make it something it’s not. By coincidence, I happened to be reading the September issue of Fast Company magazine today. Right there on page 34 was a vivid example of how Coke continues battling that same temptation with their line of diet products. Take a look at that comparison, noting that they didn’t include the 5th variation, Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, and tell me these guys aren’t creating market confusion.

Form Smart Strategic Alliances – OK, this one seems obvious, but look at how well Gatorade has leveraged their partnerships. Have you ever seen a football game on TV without also seeing at least one of those orange Gatorade coolers? Heck, Gatorade is so tightly linked to football that it’s customary for the winning coach to be doused in the stuff, right? Gatorade is always on the sidelines, not necessarily because the players like it, but because the Gatorade people know how to work the system.

First in Thirst does a good job documenting the Gatorade history, but I found the branding and business coverage to be the most valuable lessons in this book.

Brainstorming at Alias

I just returned from a great visit with one of Sybex’s key partners, Alias. After spending a couple of days with the team at their Toronto offices, all I can say is “wow!”. I can’t tell you the last time I saw such incredibly high levels of passion and energy at a software company. It was quite impressive. Do yourself a favor and poke around a bit on their website; their products are the tools behind the special effects of many of the movies you’ve undoubtedly watched over the past several years.

I’d like to thank Michael, Danielle, Carla, Lorraine and the other folks at Alias for their hospitality this week. We covered a lot of ground and came up with quite a few interesting new ideas. Here’s to a great future for Alias and Sybex/Wiley!

Bookscan – Week Ending 8/28/05

A few readers were curious as to how the publisher market share changes when you look at more than just the top 50 titles. Here’s a snapshot of how it looked for the top 750 titles for the week ending 8/28 (by units sold):

1. Pearson/Penguin            34%
2. Wiley                             27%
3. O’Reilly                          17%
4. Microsoft Press              11%
5. Osborne/McGraw-Hill        5%

See there…I’m willing to show data cuts where Wiley isn’t in the #1 position. As I’ve mentioned before, these numbers change from week to week due to promotional activities, new releases, etc. It’s generally a tight race between Pearson and Wiley for the top slot. Pearson is just coming off a promotion at one of the key brick-and-mortar accounts, hence the 7-point advantage. Check back in around Dummies Month or one of the other Wiley promotional periods and you’ll often see these numbers flip.

I would offer to show the same sort of information by topic area, but that would mean I’d have to manually code all 750 titles. I like this blog and all, but I don’t have the time for something like that. Unfortunately, the coding that exists in the raw data file isn’t all that useful for this sort of analysis. Keep an eye on the O’Reilly Radar blog though, as they have done a lot of Bookscan recoding and occasionally share the results.


I wanted to say thanks to my new friends over at Amacom. Why? Two reasons:

  1. They continue to supply me with interesting, new reading material.
  2. They “get” the benefits and values of blogs.

Darren Rovell, sports business reporter for ESPN and author of Amacom’s First in Thirst book about Gatorade read my blog and asked if I’d like a copy of his book. Being a sports fan, I said “absolutely”. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I can tell you it’s not just a history of the popular sports drink – this book is also an interesting read with valuable business and branding lessons.

I thought I heard the last from Amacom, but last Friday I got a care package in the mail containing a couple of books and their latest catalog. Kama Timbrell of Amacom read my earlier post about eBay and sent me eBay The Smart Way, 4th Edition and Publishing Confidential: The Insider’s Guide to What It Really Takes to Land a Nonfiction Book Deal. Now that I’ve completely switched over from a PocketPC to my Blackberry 7100t, I plan to unload the former on eBay. I’m going to start flipping through that eBay book shortly… I’m also very interested in reading the perspective in Publishing Confidential, especially to see how it compares to the advice I’d give. Since this blog seems to attract a lot of aspiring authors, I suspect many readers will also want to take a look at this book, which leads me to point #2 above…

Kama Timbrell is obviously keeping an eye out for interesting and useful publishing-related blogs. Rather than just sitting back collecting a few tidbits, she’s reaching out and helping to seed the market for Amacom’s authors. OK, I realize my blog’s small readership isn’t going to make or break any book. But, I’m betting Kama is feeding other bloggers with galley/PR copies in a truly grassroots approach. It would be easy for her to simply send a stack of comp copies to the “usual suspects” (e.g., the same old reviewers and “influential members of the community”) and “see what happens”. I applaud Kama’s effort to look for new promotional opportunities in the blogosphere.

That said, I also promise to always state my unbiased opinions of any book I read. See my recent post about Jack Welch’s latest book for a good example. I appreciate the ability to get a free book every now and then, but my review won’t be swayed by whether or not I had to shell out a few bucks in the process.