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31 posts from October 2007

Textbooks and eBooks

Books2_2This article from talks about textbooks/ebooks and features some great insight from two executives here at Wiley: Chariman Peter Wiley and Senior VP Steve Smith.

With two kids currently in college I can tell you that I'm particularly interested in the short-term future of the textbook industry; it feels awfully antiquated and certainly doesn't leverage the technology that's readily available.  I agree with Peter Wiley's assessment that printed textbooks will eventually give way to an e-alternative.  As Steve Smith notes later in the article, we can definitely offer more value online.

I recently saw a demo of a very cool piece of software that's a classroom tool offering value to both teacher and student alike.  Despite the fact that this particular tool lends itself to the integration of textbook content, it was interesting to hear how this software vendor hadn't hooked up with any publishers yet; they've had the product adopted at a number of institutions but it's unclear how much it's actually used on campus.  This could very well be a case where the software was licensed by a school, instructors are given a quick overview of it but then it's never touched again.  That would be tragic, especially when you consider the functionality this product offers.

What's the solution?  One approach would be to have the software vendor work directly with the textbook publishers to create an offering that's more fine-tuned for the instructor's needs.  Rather than hoping professors will integrate the content with the tool, why not involve the publishers in this effort?  After all, most publishers are looking for opportunities to add value through other ancillary materials; this might be an excellent way to stand out from the crowd and drive even more adoptions.

Back to Steve Smith's point about offering more value...  A simple conversion of textbook to PDF, for example, isn't going to cut it.  That solution has existed for years and yet printed textbooks still rule.  The entire ecosystem needs to change.  In this earlier post I mentioned my own experience with Purdue's policy on providing an online listing of all required textbooks (they don't) and their relationship with the local campus bookstores.  If my experience is consistent with what others are running into elsewhere, a major revolution will be required to significantly change the current model, and it needs to feature benefits to all the current stakeholders in this complex formula (universities, professors, students, bookstores, authors and publishers).

The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, by Patrick Lencioni


Patrick Lencioni has a gift for taking complex problems, boiling them down to their critical components and then providing viable solutions in easy-to-read fable format.  His latest work, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, is another excellent example of his talent in action.

I'll admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this one.  Everyone has aspects of their job they don't enjoy, but do you really want to read a book about why those things make you miserable, especially if you feel they can't be changed?  Having read The Three Signs, I can honestly say the answer to this question is yes, you should.  Read it if you're a manager so that you can consider Lencioni's advice for your employees.  But regardless of whether or not you're a manager, read it and see if you can encourage your manager to read it; maybe you could even leave it on his/her chair anonymously after you've read it yourself...

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from this fantastic book:

Too often, (companies) are slow to recognize that they have an employee satisfaction issue, and then when they finally do, their attempts to address it focus on the wrong issues.

(Regarding exit interviews...) The problem, of course, is that departing employees rarely tell the whole story.  By the time people decide to leave an organization, they have little incentive to tell their soon-to-be-former employer the truth -- that they are leaving because their supervisor didn't really manage them, and without a good manager, their jobs eventually become miserable.

Even in those instances when executives are able to discern that poor management is the real source of employee dissatisfaction, their response, though well-intentioned, is rarely effective.  That response usually takes the form of more management training, which often includes mandatory classes...

And so I suppose that the real shame is not that more people aren't working in positions of service to others, but that so many managers haven't yet realized that they already are.

This book has given me much to think about in my own role as both employee and manager.  Now it's up to me to figure out how to implement Lencioni's advice to improve the situation on both fronts.

Have You Tried Microsoft's Live Book Search Yet?

Ms_live_search_2It's still technically in beta stage, but I've been impressed with Microsoft's Live Book search program, or as they call it "Live Search Books."  (I know the primary brand is "Live Search" and their intent is to tack on all formats after that, but "Live Search Books" sounds terribly awkward to me...)

Naming conventions aside, the service's results and usability are solid.  Here are the results for a search of the term "blogging."  If you hover your mouse over any of the titles in the left pane, the right pane changes to show the results from that title.  Those title results also include a colored bar showing search relevance throughout the book -- the darker the green the more relevant that section of the book.

I clicked on our own Naked Conversations and this screen was displayed.  Individual page links are ranked by relevance in a scrollable area on the left and the book pages themselves are shown on the right.  Notice that the relevancy bar is now displayed vertically; dragging it over the darkest green area allows you to jump directly to that passage in the book.  OK, searching for "blogging" in a book about blogs isn't a great test.  I read this book though and I recall the authors mentioned something about Lotus founder Mitch Kapor.  Here's a search for his name; as you can see, there were two references to him in the book and they're easily found via Live Search.

Live Search renders each page quickly and the results are crisp and clear.  You can't read the entire book using Live Search but you should be able to determine whether it contains the coverage you're looking for.  For example, after doing a handful of searches within Naked Conversations I still had about 40 pages of results I could read before I'd be locked out of that title.  That seems sufficient to me if I'm really just doing some research and either looking for a book to buy or a quick answer to a question.

Microsoft is in the process of adding books to this service and I'm not sure when they plan to take it out of beta stage.  The functionality is solid today though so stop by and take it for a test drive.

Kids & Intellectual Property: Where Have We Failed?

LegalHere's a disturbing article from The New York Times.  On the surface, it's yet another story of the mean, old RIAA going after a supposedly poor, defenseless college student for stealing a song or two.  The more I thought about how this particular student reacted and what he said though, the more irritated I became.

Here's a college student (Zachary McCune) at one of the nation's finest institutions admitting that he had been warned before and "his eyes glazed over", "it was a campus cliché" and he "quickly forgot about it."  This is the sort of person who gets pulled over twice for speeding, is issued warnings both times and then becomes outraged when the third incident results in an expensive fine.

This experience pushed McCune into action: He co-founded the local chapter of Students for Free Culture.  Great idea.  I tend to agree that the language and spirit of our laws need to be revisited from time to time, especially when technology comes into play.  The group apparently has roots tied to Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture book.  (It's a great book and I reviewed it earlier here.)

Although Lessig presents numerous interesting cases and models, I seriously doubt he'd ever advocate stealing content.  That's the point students like McCune need to understand.  It's perfectly fine to swap and share in the open source world, for example, but you need to respect IP ownership in the world of copyright.  So by all means, go ahead and build, contribute to and otherwise support the exchange of free content and ideas via the use of the Creative Commons license, but don't try to apply the exact same terms to other products that are protected under other models.  I firmly believe both can co-exist and thrive, but only if everyone abides by the laws.

This reminds me that I need to sit down with my own kids and make sure they're clear on all this...

Straight Talk from the Editor, by Terry Whalin

Books2I sometimes discover a new blog, grab the RSS feed and then neglect to keep up with it as much as I ought to.  That's exactly what happened some time ago when I found Terry Whalin's blog, The Writing Life.  Lucky for me, this was one of those days when I decided to work through my RSS feeds in reverse alphabetical order, which means his was one of the first blogs I caught up on today...

Terry is a published author, used to be an acquisitions editor and currently works as a literary agent.  Read through a few of his posts and you'll quickly agree that he brings a lot of valuable insight to the table.  But if you only have time to read one thing from Terry, make sure it's this: Straight Talk from the Editor.  That link will take you to a registration page where you'll simply provide your first name and e-mail address.  Moments later you'll receive a link to a 25-page document that lays out the "18 keys to a rejection-proof submission."  Nothing in life is guaranteed, of course, but Terry does a fine job hitting the highlights of what an editor looks for and, more importantly, what an editor doesn't want to see or hear.  He offers 6 reasons why book ideas are rejected, 6 keys to guarantee rejection and closes with the most valuable element of all: 6 ways to get an editor's attention.  Good stuff.