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31 posts from October 2007

We Are Smarter Than Me, by Barry Libert & Jon Spector

We_are_smarterThe book We Are Smarter Than Me is the first product from the website initiative with the same name.  The folks at Wharton School Publishing launched the We Are Smarter Than Me website project last year and invited everyone the world to participate in community development of a business book.

Although the community effort played a role, this particular book was primarily written by Barry Libert and Jon Spector.  Writing a book via wiki is pretty challenging given all the coordination efforts required, not to mention the various egos that undoubtedly get in the way.  Developing this book "the old fashioned way" while sprinkling in plenty of community perspective sidebars was the right formula for We Are Smarter Than Me.

This book is a very quick and enjoyable read.  You could almost think of it as a Cliff's Notes version of Don Tapscott's Wikinomics.  In fact, Tapscott wrote the Foreword for We Are Smarter Than Me.  You'll definitely find more in-depth coverage of the various community tools and platforms in Wikinomics though, so if find yourself craving more after reading We Are Smarter Than Me you should definitely read Wikinomics as well.

Libert and Spector provide an excellent overview of communities, social networking, the wisdom of crowds and much more, all packed into a book that's barely 150 pages long.  If you're looking for an easy way to get street smart on the world of communities you can't go wrong with this one.  I'm also looking forward to reading the next book from this community initiative which is currently at the case studies stage.

Rights Reversion and Out-of-Print

Books2_2Technology impacts every industry and publishing is no exception.  This article from asks whether "out-of-print is outdated."  The short answer is yes, for the most part.

Publishers do indeed want to hang onto and exploit rights for as long as they can, especially as they're building out more of a digital presence.  Most also figure they made a significant investment in the project and they'd like to enjoy the long tail revenues for as many years as possible.

I agree with that logic and apply it to my own group at Wiley, but I'm also a reasonable person.  If an author figures they can do better by placing the book with another publisher (or self-publishing it) I'll generally do what I can to revert their rights.  I say "generally" and not "always" because there are plenty of factors to consider.  For example, where are we in the life cycle of the book?  It might be selling a modest quantity every month and we've got plenty of inventory on-hand; we, the publisher, invested in producing that inventory and I'd like to recoup as much of that investment as possible.  But when sales go negative (returns exceed gross sales) or we're down to single-digit sales over several months, well, that's a pretty good sign that the book has run its course.

The big question authors need to ask themselves is the one Derek Johns asks in this article: "...where else can you go?"  Is another publisher really interested in taking this book on as a new title?  If so, why?  That's important information to share with the current publisher -- it's a bit of a long shot, but maybe the current publisher could use that information to spark renewed interest and sales of the book without having to change publishers.

At the end of the day, if you (the author) feel like you'd be better served by getting your rights back, give your editor or publisher a call and have an honest discussion with them.  Regardless of what your contract says, exceptions can be made.  I still tend to think you're better off letting the current publisher do what they can to push the book as part of their backlist, but like anything else, it's best to talk it through so that you thoroughly understand the pros and cons.

Why Universal's Total Music Idea Won't Work

UmgWhen I first read about UMG's Total Music project I thought, "yeah, that's for me."  But the more I think about it the more I realize they'll never pull it off.

UMG wants to create a new iTunes competitor that's totally free...well, sort of free.  They essentially want to mimic the "razor and blades" model, but in this case, the blades (songs) would be free once you buy the razor (player).  I love it, so where can it go wrong?

For starters, the hardware vendors would have to pay the labels $5/month as long as that player is in service.  That means the hardware companies need to build that cost into the price of the unit.  The BusinessWeek article linked to earlier says the typical player is used for about 18 months before the owner upgrades to a newer model, so they figure the music will cost about $90 over the life of the player (18 months x $5/month).

That sounds reasonable on the surface, but what sort of player price does that create?  When you factor in retailer discounts it quickly becomes something north of $100 that's added to the typical non-iPod pricing levels you see today.  That means these Total Music devices would likely cost more than an iPod.  I figure there are two types of consumers out there buying players: One group, and obviously the largest group, willingly pays a premium for the Apple name while the other group won't pay the premium.  Which one of these is going to switch to Total Music?  If you're willing to pay a premium you're probably more likely to buy an iPod, not a Total Music device.

Then there's this whole 18-month life cycle question.  While the majority of consumers probably do upgrade every 18 months or so, I'll bet many of those old units become hand-me-downs for someone else.  Some wind up unused in a drawer but many get sold on eBay or passed along to a friend, child, etc.  In these cases, the proposed $5/month revenue stream from hardware vendor to label doesn't end at the upgrade point.  Would the hardware vendors really sign up for an almost endless $5/month payment liability?  I doubt it, and even if they could cap it at, say, 24 months, then the artists would raise a stink for not getting paid for their songs in those later months/years.

It would be fun to see someone challenge the Apple/iTunes monster.  I'm just not convinced this is the right formula.

Google Not Planning to Extend Book Search to Magazines

Google_book_searchAccording to this article, Google isn't likely to extend their Book Search program into the magazine world.  If I were a magazine publisher I'd be disappointed with this news.  It's a missed opportunity to make your archives discoverable and usable through the world's largest search platform.

Sure, some magazines offer archive search functionality as a special feature that's available only to their (paying) print subscribers.  What would happen if they'd open it up to the public?  How many paying customers would cancel their subscriptions?  Not many.  After all, how many people subscribe to a print magazine just so they can get access to the archives?  Some magazine publishers may not want to participate in this sort of program because they feel they're better off providing paid access to their archives.  Great.  Opt out of this program and see whether your competitors benefit.

The article says paper quality made scanning/digitizing the content difficult at best and that magazine publishers don't have usable archives.  Their archives may not be suitable for scanning or electronic delivery today, but wouldn't it be pretty simple to adjust the production process a bit and create an electronic rendering of the entire magazine for this purpose?  So what if you don't have archives from yesterday or last year.  Start now.

I'm surprised the amount of freely viewable content wasn't a major issue.  On the book side a publisher can set a percentage limit.  So any given visitor can only see a maximum of x% of the book at a time.  Let's say that's 15%, for example; that's a good ceiling for a 400-page book but it represents a couple of pretty long articles in a magazine, including the entire article the reader was probably searching for.

I hope Google reconsiders their position on this.  As a frequent user of their search tools I'm pretty sure I'd get a lot of mileage out of a Google Magazine Search utility.

Yikes! What Have They Done to BusinessWeek?!

New_bw_logo My favorite phrase regarding good branding is "unique and memorable."  Great brands provide a unique and memorable experience.  Ironically, I can't remember where or when I first heard the phrase "unique and memorable" but I'm pretty sure it doesn't apply to the new BusinessWeek look.

Study that "new" logo for a moment.  Could it be any more generic?  I guess so, if they would have gone with a black background instead, but the white-on-red look is pretty darned close to the opposite of unique and memorable.

I just received my copy of the first print issue with the new design.  (To be honest, I didn't see a big problem with the old design and I seriously doubt it was the culprit for a decline in subscriptions.  Nevertheless, someone felt that something had to be done I suppose, hence this new look.)  I also recently read this article describing the rationale for the overhaul.

First of all, the headline "Imitating the Web, for the Busy Reader" makes me cringe.  The article goes on to say that, "from an advertiser's perspective, the new BusinessWeek is designed a bit more like a web site." I think you could replace the word "advertiser's" with "reader's" and it would still be true.  But is that really what we're looking for in a good magazine...for it to look more like a web site?

I go online for the most up-to-date news as well as to read short pieces of content.  My eyes start to dry up and glaze over if I'm constantly scrolling or paging through an article.  Magazines are where I go for more in-depth content; that, and some of the nicer ones do a better job with full-color images than you typically see online.  But it's really all about depth, which is why I was also disappointed to read that "the magazine will feature just two long articles a week."

If they're going to dumb down the business news every week in this magazine where am I supposed to go for the more in-depth coverage?  Why do I feel like my BusinessWeek subscription just morphed into a magazine version of USAToday?