Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Dubious Approach to Podcasting

Stop me when this starts to sound familiar. A hot new trend emerges, and while only a small percentage of the population participates in the activities surrounding this new technology, companies rush to spend a lot of money to be part of "this new thing" so not to be left behind. They give it a year, maybe less, to start showing some results and when it doesn't they turn around and say, "This new technology doesn't work," and they abandon it.

Obviously I'm talking about podcasting, but I could just as easily have been describing how the book publishing industry approached e-books and online advertising in the 90s. They over-reacted, wasted a bunch of money (or thought they had), and then dropped these two tech developments like a crashing stock to cut their loses. As it turns out, online advertising does make sense (always has) and publishers now recognize it. And e-books will eventually find their market, even if it doesn't mean the printed word will disappear (as was the popular rumor to incite panic a decade ago).

Now I see podcasting on that inevitable horizon of publishing mania. Chronicle has just announced it will offer a podcast twice a month to be produced by a company called Hear Now Productions. Chronicle joins Holtzbrinck, and probably others, in the move to providing additional audio content online (that is, additional to simply offering an audio book).

An article from Publishers Weekly today says, "The key in podcasting, according to both Chronicle and Hear Now, is to create original, compelling and consistent content.... Chronicle doesn't expect immediate results from its podcasting venture and is giving the program six-months to a year to build."

You know, I hope I'm wrong about this and Chronicle goes on to great success with its podcasting initiative, but this scenario sounds awfully familiar to me and seems to fit the pattern I mentioned earlier. Chronicle is investing some money and giving an untested, small user-base format six months to a year to work. I can't imagine it's cheap either. PW reports, "Chronicle solicited the expertise of audio producers with NPR backgrounds to help develop a program that goes beyond reusing audio book excerpts, but will feature an emcee, a theme song and produced segments that include interviews with the authors of various books." That's no small change, I promise.

My guess is that if they make it through a whole year, they will probably drop it for lack of consumer participation. I think this is terribly unfortunate because podcasting is a great new medium with exciting possibilities for book publishing, but it's stupid to throw a lot of money at it right now when there just aren't enough users.

I think it's instructive to compare blogging with this phenomenon of binging & over-dosing on new technology. Why hasn't blogging fit into the pattern that e-books and podcasts have? I could certainly name a number of publishers and publishing professionals who have taken up blogs, and probably even name a few who have already quit. But why isn't anyone saying that blogging doesn't work? That it's just a fad?

There's a pretty simple answer and it has everything to do with why I think Chronicle's approach to podcasting is dubious. You can't throw money at blogging. Think about it. You can't pay a firm an exorbitant amount of money to write a blog for your company. Why? Well, blogging technology is sufficiently user-friendly such that a person with a modest understanding of word-processing can publish a blog. Unless you want to hire someone for their writing skills, you might as well just write the damn thing yourself. And there are two important qualities of writing the blog yourself: 1. it becomes personal, has character, and is therefore more attractive to people than something "produced" and 2. it's free!

When it's free to produce, a blog can't fail because it has a financial cost to overcome. Maybe it fails because it's boring and no one cares, but it's not going to be weighted with the expectations that come with significant financial investment, those same expectations that make new technology so easy to drop when the returns don't show immediately.

I fear that Chronicle's approach is doomed because it is "produced" and professional, and costly. And it's disappointing to imagine that Chronicle probably employs a number of smart, talented young people who would have been eager to try a low-budget podcasting program. Kids all over the country are podcasting and vlogging (video blogging) -- it's not impossible, even if you don't know what you're doing at first.

With anything new and untested, it's always better to start small, minimize expectations, and let it grow into something bigger organically. The top-down approach of forcing new mediums to work is akin to telling people how much they will love New Coke.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Re-Visiting "Branding Re-visited"

Richard Nash at Soft Skull took up the gauntlet of my call for some opinions on books and branding and wrote a very thoughtful piece on his blog. I highly recommend reading the post in its entirety, but this is specifically what Richard had to say about branding and corporate publishing:

My instinct is that it can be done, but it would really require a complete reinvention of the structure of the corporate publisher. You'd need to create small imprints within the company, consisting of a group of maybe 4 to 8 people functioning as an entire editorial and marketing and publicity operation, availing of the corporation to provide infrastructure, sales, distribution. They would have considerable autonomy, so long as they met their financial targets.
Everyone in that unit would be encouraged to think like a publisher, considering the entirety of how a book gets from the writer to the reader. And the sales, rights and contracts, production and manufacturing groups would be structuring themselves as service providers.

In effect the Random Houses and Penguins would be holding companies of a stable of imprints and the primary difference between them, and a company like Soft Skull working with a distributor like PGW, is that they would have stable cash flow and great economies of scale on everything from FedEx to printing.
(Operations like
Perseus and Avalon are existing examples, albeit on a smaller scale, of this hypothetical structure).

But, absent that level of autonomy it would be very difficult to build
a brand, since all a brand is, really, is a small group of people creating something they think is lovely, and a larger group of people (readers) agreeing it is lovely, and a bond developing between them. That connection can't be faked, not in books...

I agree with Richard's analysis here, which is part of why I continue to think about this question, especially in regards to Vintage and Anchor books. V/A is a small imprint in a larger group which is then part of a huge corporation, yet V/A enjoys quite a bit of autonomy (or at least that is my perception) and has a small enough staff to work closely together, share ideas, and work on all aspects of the publishing process. This is, roughly, the essence of my job -- cover several areas of expertise and bring together comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategies. But the situation Richard proposes is not really happening at Vintage and Anchor. We are still structured like other corporate imprints -- the traditions that separate departments are still intact and the potential for cross-pollination and "team" development are still largely unrealized. This is not a criticism of Vintage and Anchor in any way, but more so of this aging model on which all of publishing is set.

Sadly, it seems like everyday I read in Publishers Lunch about some new imprint being founded. Aside from being vanity projects for successful editors and publishers, I wonder what's the point when we all pretty much do the same thing anyway. It would be great to see a large corporate publisher, like Random or Penguin, gamble on a small "indie" imprint that aimed to become a culturally identifiable source of specific types of books. I mean hell, it would be worth it just to see something different for a change.

In Spiegel & Grau's mission statement, they say, "The books published under the banner of Spiegel & Grau aim to be on the frontline. As publishers, we want to be responsive to the issues that touch people's lives but also to provide a forum for thinkers and writers who break new ground, pose new questions, provoke and challenge us to remain alert and live to change, even as they entertain us." Well that certainly differentiates them from everyone else. Seems like the only ones not breaking new ground, posing new questions, or provoking any change are the publishers themselves.

I have often wondered if people working in book publishing actually read the books they work on and apply the wisdom therein to their own lives and jobs. We published James Surowiecki's THE WISDOM OF CROWDS and I found the irony striking that we would promote this book as a work of such value to business people and yet not take any of its principles into consideration in examining the nature of our own workplace. I invite you to read the book to understand the reasons why, and then maybe examine how your business operates.

I'm getting off topic here, but I think it speaks to questions of, "What are we (as publishers) doing here? Why aren't we asking more questions? Really challenging ourselves as professionals to do it better?" Everyday we work with some of the most brilliant, innovative writers, who are constantly reinventing themselves and their craft to push their art forward. We seem rather dull by comparison.

I think quite often of something Laurence Kirshbaum said in the New York Times last December. He said, "The demands of publishing and marketing a book today have grown to exceed the ability of a publisher to cope. I felt very keenly that we were leaving so many good marketing ideas unexplored because there were too many authors and too little time."

I think he's right to say that part of the problem is in sheer numbers -- too many books are being published for any reasonable degree of marketing effort (and dollars) to be spent on every book. However that's not the only reason good ideas are being left unexplored. Part of the reason is that we are still beholden to a set of practices and perceived notions about "how to publish a book" that keep us so preoccupied we can't begin to think outside of our traditions. And in the context of branding, and with respect to Richard Nash's comments, we are still beholden to the sense of "how a an imprint is organized" to fully appreciate the value of trying it differently.

Why aren't there a hundred blogs out there asking these questions? And why is Richard Nash the only person giving thoughtful answers? Again, as my thoughts are not complete on this subject, and potentially out-and-out wrong, I welcome any comments you may have, or email me a link to your blog post if you write something.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Branding Revisited

When I started Sepulculture, one of my first posts was about branding and the book industry. Some of my comments were noted by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch. He pointed out that Vintage Books was one of the most recognizable brands in publishing, despite my claim that Vintage seemed a little schizophrenic with all of its sub-imprints. I still stand by what I said. While Vintage is widely recognized within the publishing industry, among few consumers is it a known "brand" in the way other products are. I think in publishing we sometimes forget that the book buyers at Barnes and Noble and Borders aren't the end consumer. But the question I find useful from Cader's remark is whether or not it matters for a publisher to have brand identity among consumers? Certainly it matters with our retailers -- I want B+N to think of Vintage as the publisher of great literary fiction and non-fiction, but how much effort should Vintage put into conveying that impression to consumers? Typically in the industry we don't invest much (if any) capital in marketing ourselves. We invest the overwhelming majority of our resources in branding our individual authors, building awareness of their names and titles among consumers. But is there a point to also developing a consumer sense of what "types" of books we as a specific publisher produce? I feel there are.

In working to promote some of our recent trade paperback originals to young readers, it has frequently occurred to me that I could really save a lot of effort in trying to explain to these kids that our books are smart and cool and interesting to them. If they understood that Vintage frequently publishes these type of books that they enjoy, I wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel every time out. I think about the way that independent record labels have successfully managed to this with this very same demographic -- kids know what to expect from a Vagrant or Saddle Creek band, Side One Dummy or Drive-Thru Records band. Why shouldn't publishers enjoy a similar recognition? I guess there's no reason why they shouldn't, only a question of whether or not it's possible. If anyone out there is still reading, I would to hear your thoughts. Is branding only effective for small labels, or in the book business small publishers? One of my favorite publishers is Soft Skull Press. I think they could make Soft Skull a really strong identifiable source among young people. I would assume their marketing budgets are slim (or non-existent), but I think a lot of this work (especially when you're talking about grass-roots efforts anyway) could be done very inexpensively. A topic for further consideration.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Back in the (proverbial) saddle

Does anyone still read this blog anymore? Perhaps you are one of the many people who have asked why I'm not writing anymore. You'll have to accept my apologies for my silence over the last 6 months. I was (as they so lamely say) busy. But the time was not wasted I assure you.

Over the past 6 months, when people would ask me why I wasn't blogging anymore, I would respond, "I'm too busy doing my job to write about it." While this held some truth, it wasn't the full story. What I was really doing was thinking, questioning myself, my beliefs, my blogging style, and numerous other things. Was I effectively doing what I set out to do when I started this blog? Was that even possible? Was there an audience for my thoughts on publishing and marketing? Was my writing style and choice of subject matter alienating any real dialogue that might exist around the issues I chose to tackle? How could I facilitate enough dialogue to actually change the publishing environment? Was all of this, in the end, worth it?

I didn't find answers to all of those questions, however I do find myself once again at the beginning, the place where all of this started (for me). This weekend I head off once again to Austin for the SXSW Interactive Conference, which is the event that inspired me to start this blog a year ago. And again my mind is on blogging, particularly my blogging. I suppose if I drew any answer from the all of the questions I posed to myself over the past 6 months it would be this: THE QUESTIONS ARE JUST AS IMPORTANT AS THE ANSWERS.

Maybe I don't know the answers to every question I face in my job and in my life, but this blog is as good a place to ask them as any, and in doing so, perhaps to give them the serious thought they deserve, and hopefully spark something in you. I think this requires a slightly different methodology than what you have encountered here in the past, when my writing aimed to be more argumentative. I think you will see less of that from now on, and more of my inquisitive nature. Either way, here's to seeing more from Sepulculture than you have in the past 6 months.