A Twitter Plan

It has happened. I have been blocked by Twitter from following any more people. I follow 2001 and people and I have 1200 followers. The good news is that I have doubled the number of followers I have in the last year. The bad news is that I have yet to “find my voice” on the site. There’s something about it that I find intimidating. It’s the same fear that I have at any social event. I prefer intimate conversations. I’m not great at working the room. And yet I love Twitter. It fascinates me.

My first reaction when getting blocked was to think, “Now I really have to start Tweeting.” The fact is that I much prefer to read and react to others Tweets than put myself out there. It’s the same with this blog. It’s really hard for me to be satisfied with anything I say. I labor over every word.

Natalie Goldberg recommends that we write about our obsessions. My obsessions are: the rock band Rush and music in general; the Gene Keys; sports, especially baseball; marketing; books, especially good literature; building websites and learning how the web works; cool design; playing guitar; God and religion; cars. Not necessarily in that order. I guess I better get writing Tweets about what I love. Sigh.

Adult Learning

One of the things that interests me is the strategies adults use to learn new skills and concepts. As a book lover and a publishing professional, my go to medium is Amazon.com. Their search engine is a powerful tool for discovering book-length resources on topics that are in my learning and developmental cross-hairs. I’m talking about the types of topics that adult education guru Maryellen Weimer identifies as requiring “hard, messy work.” As Weimer has said elsewhere, this type of learning “can be so frustrating, emotions so strong and raw, that insight and understanding escape us.”

shutterstock_153270215 adult learningIn an ideal world, everyone would would be able to pop into a free local community college or an on-line class to engage in this type of learning. As it stands, social structures such as class, income, and the quality of prior educational experiences all serve to limit access to personal growth tools.

But equality is just one dimension of the problem. Another dimension is what appears to be a diminishing habit of book use and book-length reading among adults. Public libraries used to serve as a bulwark against inequal access to more difficult-to-acquire forms of knowledge. But book circulation is down across the board at libraries and years ago these institutions began transforming themselves into places where those who could not afford a home computer or internet connection could gain access to the world wide web. Those who have gained the habit of book reading and have the resources to purchase them have greatly expanded options for continuing education.

I have friends who have taught themselves difficult skills through Googling articles and watching videos on Youtube. In some ways this is more efficient than learning from a book because it allows the learner to pick her own way through the process. It’s probably not as efficient as a good classroom environment would be where there is an expert in the field into which you’re delving. But it works.

On the other side of the equation, many people with advanced skills and experience are hungry for opportunities to mentor young people in the field and share their know-how. Many people I have spoken with would love to write a book about their area of expertise, but lack the time and commitment needed to see a project like that through. Writing a book takes an incredible amount of effort. Skilled people usually have heavy demands on their time. Some in later years find their way to adjunct professorships at local colleges or teaching courses on-line. But the slots for those assignments are competitive and not everyone has what it takes to run a class and all that goes with it.

What needs to emerge are new ways of connecting learners with experts. I believe that books will always play a role in this equation. And before long, someone is going to figure out semantic search, which will make using the internet much less arduous for learners. Surely technology has additional roles to play in making connections.

From Manufacturers to Service Providers

About six weeks into business school, when we were given the Asahi beer case to analyze, it occurred to me that the book publishing business is essentially a manufacturing business. It’s an odd thing to say, for as Richard Nash notes in his new column, book publishers like to think of themselves as being in the culture business. And they are to some extent. On the fringes. Book publishers produce widgets that are buoyed by and bouy conversations happening in the culture. That is what makes the field interesting, but it’s not what we do on a daily basis. On a daily basis we do demand projections, review sales reports, order paper, typeset paragraphs, edit copy, write marketing plans, present to account managers, meet with account buyers, take authors to lunch, and email reporters. In these last two roles, there’s something of the cultural ambassador. But let’s be honest, this business is all about sales units.


Nash’s observations that books are by and large commoditized items and that Amazon is simply playing by the rules of the game INVENTED BY PUBLISHERS are also things that I have thought about in the past. People have told me that John Grisham and James Patterson are good writers. That certainly may be the case, and I hope it is. But at the end of the day, there’s something a “bestseller” does that bestsellers do. They entertain, thrill, scare, excite, provide an escape, make your heart beat a little faster, indulge a fantasy. A bestseller is a bestseller because it does that. It’s a highly packaged and highly commoditized product.

As for Amazon, it is easy to forget the years and years that its investors went without profits or dividends while the company built its sales know-how and its warehouses. One of the first big accounts I was given as a junior sales rep was a company called Marlboro books. It was a mail order bookseller that sold books from a pretty ugly-looking mail order catalog. The book descriptions were about an inch high, with dozens of titles crammed onto each page. Even so, Marlboro could move a TON of units.

At the time, the company was owned by Barnes & Noble and once it was clear that Amazon was not going away, the company was rolled into the fledgling barnesandnoble.com. Amazon, in the first instance, disrupted the MAIL ORDER bookselling channel.

Nash recommends that book publishers pivot towards services as a way out of the commoditization trap. He cites the Faber Academy in the UK which leads creative writing courses for aspiring authors. He also encourages publishers to “occupy the space held by, say, yoga instructors, dentists, psychotherapists, interior designers.” I’m not exactly sure what he means by this, but I think he might be recommending that we go into business with our authors, supporting not just their writing and publishing, but also helping them grow the businesses which gave them the authority to write a book in the first place.

I have been saying for a while that authors (especially non-fiction authors) ought to think of their book as their “calling card,” as one tool in their business development toolshed. (I did not invent this notion, by the way.) I very much like Nash’s idea (if that is what he is saying) of taking that one step further–becoming business consultants, even an angel investors, to our authors. Publishers at the moment are looking for authors with “platforms,” with businesses already at scale. The next obvious step is for publishers to get into the business of helping experts achieve the scale necessary to break out and sell a lot of books.

Richard Nash Column

Photo: “Air .pollution 1”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Air_.pollution_1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Air_.pollution_1.jpg

Lessons from Twiki

One of the pieces of detritus kicking around in my brain is the catch-phrase of Twiki the robot from the ’80s version of Buck Rogers: “bidi-bidi-bidi.” Twiki begins all of his utterances with tag. It’s pretty inane. But once it’s inside of you, it never goes away. In the story, Twiki’s reason for existence is to be the vehicle for Dr. Theopolis, a disk-shaped super-computer who has no other means of getting around. Dr. Theopolis is sort of like IBM’s Watson meets Brian the Dog. The caption for the youtube clip below calls a scene with Twiki “awesomely bad crap.” Which it is. But there’s also something profound about Twiki and Dr. Theopolis. The two are a metaphor for the mind-body split.


Review of “Why We Read What We Read”

I just finished the book, Why We Read What We Read. It is the fourth book I’ve read in the past year or so on the publishing industry and reading culture in England and North America. (The others were Merchants of Culture, The Late Age of Print, and The Times of Their Lives). All of these books are ambitious, but Lisa Adams and John Heath’s effort is perhaps the most ambitious of all. Their goal is to get an inside read on the psyche of mainstream America. To accomplish this they waded through nearly 200 of the books that appeared on the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller lists from the years 1995-2005.
It was a particularly fertile period from which to draw a sample: it saw the rise of Harry Potter, the birth and death of The Oprah Book Club, and the apotheosis of Dan Brown. The book is organized by genre: self-help, adventure novels, political non-fiction, romance, religion & spirituality, and literary fiction (e.g. The Kite Runner). The Da Vinci Code gets a chapter all its own. What came through all that reading is a culture that is hooked on quick fixes and simplistic answers to thorny problems. One that would rather take the advice of a huckster than think for itself. Even so, Adams and Heath are not complete scourges or prophets of doom. For example, they give a stiff defense of Oprah’s book club (she got people reading, after all, and there are even one or two enduring masterpieces on her list.) Adams and Heath also remind us where Oprah may have went wrong (it wasn’t that her books were too easy or two girly, but that she and her audience read not for reading’s sake but to gather insights into their own biographies). In their conclusion, Adams and Heath pine for a culture where deeper, more complex, and realistic books take a front row to the current fare saying, “If we can wean ourselves from the destructive and useless quest for easy answers, devoting ourselves instead to a genuine search for truth in all its complexity, we can change the substance of these [bestseller] lists.” True! Nevertheless, what Adams and Heath fail to take on board is that the success of authors like Dan Brown funds the professional publication of dozens of serious and experimental novels at big publishing houses–even poetry. To paraphrase the futurist, Kingsley L. Dennis, “Change always comes from the margins, not from the center.”

Why We Read What We Read
Why We Read What We Read