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24 posts from March 2008

Helium Interview with Mark Ranalli

HeliumHelium is a multifaceted writing and publishing operation that I recently discovered.  As their website states, Helium exists to help you "learn what you need, share what you know."  I asked Helium President & CEO Mark Ranalli to take part in a blog interview and he graciously agreed.  Here's what he had to say about the organization:

JW: How did you wind up creating Helium and what's your long-term goal for the site?

MR: Helium's founding mission was to bring order to the chaos of user generated content. The explosion of content being created on the Web is awe inspiring, yet it has been missing a structure. The traditional publishing industry, despite many of its short comings, has succeeded for thousands of years. This system established credibility, orchestrated distribution, and established standards of quality. Helium's objective is to empower its community to replicate many of the assets of the traditional publishing industry, such that it can help launch a citizen journalism industry.

JW: Helium's Marketplace site is where content publishers are posting their needs for articles and other short-length works.  It looks like much of this is for online content.  Are you starting to see traditional magazine and even book publishers utilize the Marketplace?  How do you see this evolving?

MR: We are very excited about Helium's Freelance Marketplace. We are seeing interest from publishers from all spectrums of the publishing industry. Many of the early adopters were online publishers, but we are seeing an every growing body of more traditional publishers start to embrace our solution. Through our Marketplace, we have provided content for a number of high end print magazines, we have sourced material for books, produced corporate marketing material and product descriptions, and most recently, we've begun to partner with a number of newspapers.

JW: Your site mentions a proprietary peer review technology.  How does this system differ from the typical peer review model that other sites/services use?

MR: Helium's rating engine is at the core of our offering. Helium has created a true meritocracy. Our rating engine is designed to elevate quality, not popularity. Helium's rating system pulls from both peer review and relative ranking.

JW: Who owns the rights to material that's written through Helium?  Are the rights determined by the paying publisher or is there a blanket set of terms that applies to all works on the site?

MR: Content rights are very straight forward with Helium. Our members retain all rights to their content that they publish on Helium. The only exception are the articles that are purchased through Helium's Freelance Marketplace. With Marketplace articles, the member is fully aware of what rights they are assigning to the publisher, which only transfer upon payment. The most typical rights transfer through marketplace are for exclusive publishing rights to the content, although in some cases, our publishers are only requesting First Rights, and in some cases they are requesting re-naming (ghost writing) rights.

JW: Is there a typical earnings model new members tend to follow?  I know it's hard to generalize on this, but some prospective authors would probably like to know how long it typically takes to see an income stream.  Are new members finding that it's a creative outlet that's a labor of love or do they frequently find they're generating income much sooner than they originally expected?

MR: Earnings on Helium cover a wide spectrum. Like anything in life, you get out of Helium what you put into it. Helium's underlying brand promise is that we will always share our advertising revenue with our writers. As Helium continues to grow, the pool of advertising revenue we share will continue to expand. Today, we have writers who have built up a portfolio of a few hundred articles on our site. These members are earning upwards of $50 to $100 per month for their body of work, and will continue to do so. Other members focus their energies on our numerous weekly contests, and are earning weekly prizes that range from $5 to $75 per contest. For those writers who are most interested in writing for the money, Helium's Marketplace is putting a lot of money in our writers hands. Last month, one of our writers earned $1,300. This isn't bad for a part-time passion.

I believe the most valuable reasons for joining Helium are to build skills, to be recognized, to participate in a massive community of people who are seeking to share their knowledge and to have their voices heard and to express themselves as well as possible.  One of our most recent announcements is the creation of Helium’s Journalism Awards program. Through Helium, our writers have the ability to win journalism awards for the Pulitzer Center, the Knight Center for International Media, OneWorld, Foreign Exchange, and several other organizations. Additionally, the National Press Club has extended application offers to all of Helium’s 5 star writers. Through Helium, citizen journalists have the ability to be fully recognized for the value they bring to the broader journalism industry.

What Does the Technology Add?

We_tell_stories_2As a publisher focusing on the professional IT sector, I ask myself this question a lot: What does the technology add?  Is this new tool or release measurably different from the others?  Will it enable users to create products faster, less expensively, with more useful features...or all of the above?

I found myself asking the same question when I recently read about this project, The 21 Steps, by Charles Cumming, which is part of Penguin's We Tell Stories initiative.  In The 21 Steps, Cumming uses Google's satellite imagery to help tell the story.  Different?  Yes.  Functional use of the technology to enhance the reading experience?  I'm not so sure.

To be fair, I only got through the first three chapters before I lost interest.  Perhaps it's because I'm not into fiction, but I found the text and imagery integration lacking as well.  I didn't see the benefit to having the animated movements on the satellite images.  I also got pretty tired of clicking again and again, just to read the next sentence or two.  In short, if technology is added to the formula for something like this, I feel it should improve the overall experience; in this case, it seemed to weigh it down.

I'm also not the sort of person who thinks in terms of satellite views.  I'm more of a street level guy and I suspect I'm not alone.  After all, we see and experience things from a street-view view, not an overhead one, so it forces you to constantly adjust your perspective as you're reading through the screens.

Before anyone jumps down my throat on this, please realize that I absolutely love the fact that Penguin is experimenting with technology on this project.  If I published into the fiction area I'd be jealous that I didn't think of this approach.  The lessons that can be learned from the pioneers like Penguin will help benefit everyone in the long run.

For example, as I ran through those chapters of The 21 Steps, I started to think about other applications for a narrative-map mashup.  Think about travel guides for a moment.  A walking tour of a city with travel guide content spliced into satellite map displays would be cool.  Switching to street-level view instead of satellite probably makes it better.  Offering the capability to flip between both is better yet.

I'd also like to see more content goodies sprinkled throughout, and perhaps this is where community content could come into play.  Maybe the tour features great pictures from previous visitors or recommendations they have for future visitors.  Let them be ranked by the community itself so that only the top show up as push-pins on the screen.

The device has to be considered here as well.  If I'm doing the tourist thing it's unlikely that I'm carrying around something larger than a cell phone or Blackberry.  You can't design this for a computer when it's being used on a display that's much smaller.  This is where the Kindle might evolve into something highly useful.  Imagine a next-generation Kindle with a color display.  The Kindle's Whispernet technology would enable cellphone-like connectivity with a larger, but still portable display.

So again, I applaud Penguin's efforts here and although I'm not convinced this is anything more than technology for technology's sake, there's much to be learned from the experiment itself.

New Publishing Solutions Interview with Jim Nye

NewpublishingsolutionsJim Nye was one of the top executives running what at the time was called ITT Publishing, my first employer out of college...many, many years ago.  Jim was an insightful leader and someone I always looked up to.  We went our separate ways after ITT Publishing but our paths recently crossed again.  Jim is a partner in a venture called NEW Publishing Solutions and I thought it would be fun to interview him on the blog:

JW: Ingram has certainly built a strong reputation as an important wholesaler in our industry.  You've done a lot of work with their Digital Group -- what are some of the more interesting things Ingram is doing to further diversify their operation on the digital side?

JN: Ingram, through Ingram Digital Group (IDG), aims to be the number one distributor of digital content.  Working with them to build the beginnings of all of what IDG has become was very exciting. The key focus of all of this is to help Publishers sell more content. IDG is organized into four main business units - publisher, retail, institutional and educational solutions:

Publisher Solutions (CoreSource)
Brings comprehensive digital asset management and distribution capabilities to publishers. Among the features of such a relationship are:

  • Viral marketing via a widget
  • The flow of content directly into print on demand
  • Direct selling via websites powered for the publisher
  • Custom publishing is enabled
  • Content can be flowed to any customer through any channel
  • Files can simply be transformed from one format to another

Retail Solutions
Allows publishers to sell content to consumers through the retail channels and  includes encrypted eBook download in various formats, pdf, .lit, palm etc. Full search and discovery plus a browse inside the book capability are available. They have some 130,000 unique titles available.

Institutional Solutions –  The MyiLibrary
Allows publishers to sell their digital content to academic, Public, Corporate and Government libraries.

Education Solutions
The VitalSource platform is the leading textbook distribution platform and allows publishers to sell their eTextbooks to students, distribute them to faculty (eComps) and offers the capability for search within a title, across titles and within a class or course grouping.

Ingram now has over 500,000 digital files from some 4,000 publishers that are being and are optimised for all the solutions.

JW: You've had a couple of stints as President and CEO of two organizations with an emphasis on computer/web-based training products (Carnegie Learning and ExploreLearning).  How did your traditional publishing background help you in both of these roles?

JN: With both Carnegie and Explore I was working with very bright people who had created ingenious answers to educational challenges without any experience or background in the business of educational content. Having a clear perspective on the relationship between content and intent as well as years of experience in the systems of learning gave me a wonderful chance to bring their great ideas into the mainstream.

I was able to not only help create appropriate systems of management, sales and marketing for them but I also introduced both of the companies to traditional publishers, their people and their business systems.

Interestingly there are a lot of wonderful, effective ideas that are being developed outside the publishing norms all of which can benefit from working with someone with a traditional publishing business experience base.

A number of my small clients fit this profile exactly.

JW: You also held a variety of positions with several educational publishing companies.  Where do you see the college textbook market heading?  Will a device like the Kindle ever live up to everyone's expectations and enable students to carry their entire textbook library with them (without breaking their backs!)?

JN: First, Joe, I do not think that the any answer being sought is going to be provided by a reading device. Kindle, the Sony Reader, and other such attempts have the limitation of primarily being black and white readers with little or no interactivity possible. To my way of thinking the most likely utilized "device" on the market today, that has tremendous potential, is the iPod Touch.  And, the iPod Touch is much more a computer with reading, interactivity, wi-fi, etc. than simply an ebook reading device.

Much of what I see happening to the market is focused around the growing interest in access to content in a fluid and dynamic system, anytime and anywhere and within a wrapper that allows for measurement both normative and formative as the learner approaches desired outcomes.

Who makes the content decision, how it is made and how the selected content is presented and the results measured are undergoing change. Achievement that can be measured and outcomes that can be defined are clearly becoming a part of the educational imperative.

Technology allows for and supports such systems and technology also offsets the limitations of printed and bound pedagogical tools. We can house all of the content required for a college major and much, much more in almost any laptop computer in popular use today (no breaking of the back).

There are some fascinating initiatives underway that are attempting to deal with all of the issues of digital content in education.  One of the most interesting is the California State University Digital Marketplace Initiative.

It is the intention of this program, as one example of the application, to have all of the classroom materials in use on any California State University campus in the future available in digital form. Ohio has a "like" program underway as do a number of schools and universities individually.

Other interesting initiatives are:

and other open source programs that are developed and developing.

Then, another force that I see impacting the educational content market is the entry of non-traditional providers such as Intel, Sun, Cisco, Google and Microsoft who are developing or supporting educational programs central to their corporate mandates.

One only need look at what is going on in the K-12 segment of the educational market to see the impact of new entries, modalities and designs that will bubble up in to Higher Ed.

JW: Finally, quite a few publishing professionals have toyed with the idea of eventually becoming an industry consultant down the road.  You successfully made the transition, so what advice do you have to offer anyone who's currently thinking about making that switch?

JN: Network, network, network.

Know the people who are working in your marketspace, learn what their interests are, how they do their business and establish friendly relationships with them and remember who they are. They will be going places in their companies (or maybe the one you work for) and become an amazing resource.

And do not restrict yourself to meeting people in your specific business. If they are on your campuses or at the meetings you attend you need to know who they are and what they do.

Having this kind of perspective not only will pay off in the future as references, it will enhance your work with your primary targets if you better understand all the work of the people in their world.

Oh, and by the way, if someone is considering becoming a consultant I am always looking for new talent!

Opinionated: A Kindle Exclusive

Kindle3Thanks partially to the Kindle's Whispernet connection feature, new and innovative ways of distributing all sorts of content are likely to emerge.  For example, this week's announcement by Tribune Media Services (TMS) to create a Kindle-exclusive magazine called Opinionated: Voices and Viewpoints on America and the World.

The print magazine business is currently going through some challenging times.  If it's not higher paper costs, more advertisers going online or a decline in subscribers you also have to face the fact that Walmart is cutting almost 1,000 titles from its shelves.  Why fight those odds when you can launch in the happy world of no inventory management or manufacturing costs?

The only real question is whether enough Kindles can be sold to make this a profitable venture for TMS.  Since it's exclusive to the Kindle, I have to assume Amazon was willing to make this a sweeter deal for TMS than they've done for other magazine publishers, especially in the short term while Amazon works to address the Kindle supply issue.

The White Book, by Ken Mansfield

ThewhitebookJust when you thought you had read and seen everything about The Beatles...  Author Ken Mansfield provides one of the more entertaining and fascinating books about the Fab Four in years.  The White Book isn't just another Beatles book because Mansfield isn't just another music critic with a new angle; he's the guy who used to run the U.S. arm of Apple Records, the label started by The Beatles.

The White Book is loaded with stories and photos that I've never seen before, and believe me when I tell you I've gone through my share of Beatles books.  In addition to the many unique photos of the band, there are also pictures of memorabilia and letters.  It was interesting to read not just the facts about each event/document but Mansfield's behind-the-scenes explanations, the real insider's perspective.

Mansfield's music experience isn't limited to The Beatles and neither is the coverage in this book.  He dedicates the latter part of the book to his work with other big names such as James Taylor, Waylon Jennings, David Cassidy and several others.  The White Book is a wonderful book and one that every Beatle fan needs for their collection.