I’ve been working on a short documentary film tentatively titled “When Dogs Die.” It’s about the end of life of dogs and how we humans deal with that loss. One of the people I’ve interviewed for the film is Mike Thomas, caretaker at the Pine Ridge Pet Cemetery in Dedham, MA. While working on this project I began taking a class in documentary film making since I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. One of the assignments for the class was to create a video portrait of someone. Since I already had an extensive interview with Mike, and I liked him as a subject, I decided to do my portrait about him. I spoke with him a couple more times while he was at work at the cemetery. This short film then is about Mike and the work he does. It’s not exactly an excerpt of “When Dogs Die,” but portions of this short film will no doubt appear in the longer final film. At one point while interviewing Mike, he said he’d “become the cemetery guy.” I liked that line and so made it the title for this short piece. Unfortunately the line itself didn’t make it into the film.
A continuation of people and things discovered at the O’Reilly TOC conference in NYC, February 13-15, 2012.
The title of Valla’s talk was “Exaggerations and Perversions,” a phrase he borrowed from William James‘ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. James writes, “…it always leads to a better understanding of a thing’s significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere.”
Valla and his team have created what they call the “Storyverse,” where they bring all the details of fictional worlds to the real world. People, places, things. As they say at their site:
A place where details touch, overlap and lead you further. To new music to listen to. New movies to watch. Places to visit. People to know. And of course, new books to read. Getting started is simple. Just choose a book. See where it takes you.
This all seems very interesting. What does that character eat, drink. Where does she go? What other characters in other books end up in those same places? This can lead to an endless number of connections between an endless number of fictional characters. Readers have a passion, an obsession, for characters. I think of my own experience of reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in college and always wanting to open a bottle of wine and drink along with the characters. The worry is that collecting all this information about these characters and connecting them to shopping opportunities will lead to a world where writers write with product placement in mind. Of course that’s already occurred a couple of times. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime go obsess in that fictional world.
His mantra: Build. Measure. Learn. His blog: StartupLessonsLearned
His provocative statement: if he were running a big publishing house he’d put together a group of 5-10 people whose sole job was to find manuscripts in the slush pile and turn them into bestsellers. Methodically. He doesn’t believe bestsellers happen by accident. Build. Measure. Learn. Test content with friends and their friends. Test different covers online. (He photoshopped different colored book covers into bookstore display shelves and asked people to tell him which one “popped” for them. [the blue one]) Test, test, test.
He took “pre-orders” for his book even before he had written the book. Charged people $30 even though he didn’t know what the publisher would charge. But put together 10,000 pre-orders before book was published. Kind of thing that gives everyone in the process a warm fuzzy feeling.
Lots of stats:
E-book take-up flattened in 2011. Fiction is where the action is with e-books. When will other genres catch up? What does role of technology play in adoption.
And then this: heard from presenters more than once at this conference: “We tend to forget the reader.” (And people wonder why publishers are so terrified? Don’t forget your customers! Any first-day business-school student will tell you that.)
E-book buyer was originally male oriented but it is women with higher educations, higher income, homes. Perhaps women were waiting for the technology to shake out and settle down. Or is it just that women really are the readers and maybe it looked like men were readers because they were first to adopt the e-readers, but perhaps they were more interested in the technology than what you could read with it?
Fourteen percent of folks with an e-reader still haven’t purchased an e-book. What prevents people from buying e-books?
- More comfortable with print.
- Difficult to share with others.
- Inability to resell books.
Power buyers are social people. Power buyers need ability to share what they’re reading. While they buy 25 percent of physical books, they drive 50 percent of sales and value in the marketplace.
It seems that after two years of owning an e-reader, people to tend buy fewer books. In fact, there’s a slight increase in the number of physical books bought at the time. Technology backlash?
Everything is context. Wordnik is a large large dictionary. It connects words to other words. Words don’t have meaning without context.
She says your content is your core. Getting people to the core of who you are is the new holy grail. How to discover books without browsing. How do you get books into venues where people aren’t necessarily looking for books? People are reading blogs. Sweet spot for context/content delivery. But reaching out to bloggers is labor intensive. What if you could make an API for your content? And then people could connect your content to communities you might not even know about.
Spoke about starting a business and how hard it has become since all the colleges now have entrepreneurial programs. Asking for a show of hands, turns out about half the people in the audience are either currently working for a startup or want to start a new business.
But it turns out that most of the people in the audience also say they were A students in college, and Bob says the chances of them succeeding in an innovative business are slim. It’s the C students who start and succeed in business. If you’re an A student, you’ve by definition bought into the system, the current education system, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Tom Peters once had a slide about this very topic. So Bob says, “please don’t start a business.” Well, he doesn’t want any more competition. More on that…
But then he goes on to say that if you are going to start a business, 1) have fun, and 2) follow your customers. Advice clearly not followed by many since they say “we’ve forgotten about the reader.”
What Bob set out to do at Lulu was to build a platform where authors could sell books directly to their customers. Books that generally have small specialty markets, e.g., cookbooks. Lulu really is fulfilling what Chris Anderson called “the long tail.”
But in an echo of what Erin McKean was talking about, sharing APIs, Lulu at first saw all the other people coming in to the self-publishing realm as competitors, but then realized that since they had been one of the first ones in, they could in fact share their knowledge with all the newcomers. Which is what they do at developer.lulu.com.
Seems the whole world these days is about opening up your API. Sharing, transparency, all that.
Good place to end the conference. Funny guy, Bob Young. No slides, which was nice.
- Tools of Change 2012: Today. Tomorrow. (booksquare.com)
- Novelties: Wordnik’s Online Dictionary: No Arbiters, Please (nytimes.com)
I attended the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York City, February 13-15. (Is it odd that these folks put together a conference that falls on Valentine’s Day? Or am I just an old sentimentalist?) Someone asked for a show of hands at one point and determined that half the people there are in publishing and scared to death of what this “digital revolution” means; the other half were entrepreneurs or at least entrepreneurially minded and hoping to start some kind of digital publishing or related venture.
Some of the folks and ventures and ideas I ran into there:
Opening keynote by LeVar Burton, he of Kunta Kinte fame from the “Roots” TV miniseries. Lifelong scifi reader. His mother was an English teacher. His main point: the importance of these two words: “What if.” @levarburton
Some articles he’s written:
One of his points: yes, the publishing industry is in the midst of chaos, but guess what, it has happened before and will happen again. Don’t worry. Tells us that when paper moved from being cloth-based to wood pulp-based, the abundance created was co-equal to the digital abundance now available.
Vocabulary lesson: skeuomorph: old technology reformatted to new technology.
Barbara Genco: manager of special projects at Library Journal. @BarbaraAGenco
Says library “power users” (use library more than 4X/month) buy a lot of books as well. 9,000 libraries in the U.S. (I actually thought this number seemed low. Doesn’t every small town have its own library? How many small towns in the U.S.?) 169 million Americans use a public library.
Convergence! See this article from Boston Globe about libraries hosting their own bookstores.
Reinventing books and publishing. To copy content from books to ebooks is folly, he says. The future of publishing is high fidelity content—media rich, interactive content. Check out their website. I think this guy is on to something. Also, under each chair in the auditorium was an envelope with a card inside that included a code for a free copy of one of two Inkling iPad app books: Speakeasy Cocktails or Master Your DSLR Camera.
I got the camera book. It is beautiful and instructive and useful and fun. Can’t wait to learn more about my camera. Thanks, Inkling.
Mark Johnson: CEO of Zite (personalized magazine for iPhone and iPad) @philosophygeek
He spoke about recommendations, online recommendations. Search is not useful for everything: it doesn’t help us find the interesting stuff. Clay Shirkey said: “Curation comes up when search stops working.” Amazon, Netflix, and Pandora are the three canonical recommendation-engine-driven sites. (Canonical? Really?)
I downloaded Zite on to my iPhone and iPad. It learns what is interesting for you (for me!) from content, from social web, and from your own interactions. So far it seems a good fit and I’ve only loaded links to Delicious and Twitter. I’d recommend Zite as your own personal interest magazine.
To be continued…
From the Sunday, January 8, 2012 New York Times magazine article “How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?“
Colbert, who is good at compartmentalization, manages in spite of this exhausting schedule to make time for his family. For some of the writers, the job is more all-consuming. One of them, Opus Moreschi, told me that he solves the problem of how to balance the job and a life by forgoing the life. “Basically, I’ve never had a life except for comedy, so it isn’t that much of a problem,” he said. Yet for all the demands that Colbert puts on his staff members, he is apparently beloved by them. “There are a lot of unhappy people in comedy,” Purcell said, “and sometimes you get a very radioactive vibe. But Stephen has an excellent way of treating people. You should never underestimate the power of good manners.”
On a related front, I was at the meat counter at my local Whole Foods, trying to get the butchers to make a batch of ground chicken necks for me (dog food for Frankie), and sometimes they don’t really want to do this because I guess it’s a pain in the ass for them, but I made my pitch and ended it with “Please.” At that the butcher looked up at me and smiled. “In that case…” he said. “Doesn’t everyone say ‘please’ when they want something from you.” By his look, he said “no.” Which I found dispiriting. Really? People don’t say, “Could I get a pound of ground turkey, please?” Apparently not. Channel Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs motto and “Just say please.” Didn’t your mother teach you to always say “please”?
Stumbled across a couple of blog posts recently that survey the current state of publishing, or at least the digital aspect of publishing. At the BookBaby.com blog (What BookBaby is), Chris Robley sums up where he thinks the publishing world is headed in the next five years. The title of his piece also includes “or sooner.” Of course all the things he writes about are already happening somewhere, somehow. I like his first point about digital remixes and the idea of sampling different chapters/sections from different books to create your own unique book. There’s a site called ebookpie that is currently doing just that. It’s in beta (what isn’t these days?), but I’ll be curious to see what comes of that idea.
His point two comes from Todd Sattersten who predicts that in the future physical books will be what audiobooks are now. That is, because of the high cost of producing an audiobook, publishers only make them for some authors. In the future, the physical book will be seen as the “expensive” version that only elite authors will get. I’m not quite so sure about this, because the cost of a paper book is nowhere near the cost of producing an audiobook—think audio engineers, producers, studio time, etc.
On a related front (I think) there’s a post from Julien Smith (co-author with Chris Brogan of Trust Agents) called The 6 Shifts of a Kindle Dominated Marketplace, in which he posits that “This is the time we all become authors.” Why? Because there are no gatekeepers, you are your own publisher (are you going to throw your own work into the slush pile?), you can sell stuff for cheap, you can buy stuff for cheap (though I recently had the experience of buying a Kindle single from someone who is an acquaintance and, you know, it was awful; it wasn’t even worth the $2.99 I paid for it), and so almost everyone who ever wanted to write something will be writing something. Which is exciting and good and a lot of good writing that might not otherwise have made it to the world will, though there will also be tons—tons!—of crap to wade through. (In the future everyone will need their own content curator.) To say nothing of the millions of Chinese fiction authors who are soon to launch their own writing careers.
Then, on the other hand, I was talking with a guy who helps business thought leaders write their books. He thinks books still work because it collects an author’s best thinking in one place. Rather than tracking down this ebook or that .pdf or this series of blog posts, you just put all your best thoughts in an organized fashion in a book. That’s what books are good for. Whether it’s paper or digital, that doesn’t matter. Just get all the thinking organized in one place. Something to be said for that.
If you look at the people who are ringing the death knell for paper-based books, you’ll see that most of them got to be a spokesperson because they authored a big paper-based book. Big books are still the primary way to claim authority, at least in the business book world. Is this all shifting rapidly? Yes. But at this point in time and at least for a few more years, if you want to get your ideas out there and make a business of selling those ideas, you’ll still want to write a big (or fairly big) book.
Having said that, I’m still a firm believer in experimentation. I always encourage any authors I’m working with to put their ideas out there in multiple formats and ways. Anyone who is working on a book should be creating ebooks or .pdfs and giving them away at their websites and perhaps trying to sell some of them
at Amazon online. Try different things. And if you’re selling things, try different prices. It’s wild west time out there. Just try stuff. Of course that then brings us back to what Julien was saying in his blog post referenced above.
My new cause is for bicyclists to stop at stop signs and red lights as if they were a motorist. In Massachusetts, and perhaps elsewhere, it’s now a law. If you go through a red light on your bicycle, you can be ticketed. I shouldn’t get self-righteous here because I’ve bicycled through many a red light in my time. But now, my feeling is that if bicyclists will stop at red lights, then car drivers might respond to them differently; rather than as pesky lane swervers, motorists might see bicycles as legitimate vehicles, almost like another car. And I think that would be helpful for all of us. I’ve got to believe that that state of affairs would help cut down on car-bike accidents. And I believe that bicyclists have to make the first move. Because they have the most to lose; car drivers are never hurt when their cars collide with a bicyclist. (Please let me know if I’m wrong on this one.) Bicyclists think car drivers should shift their attitude, but that’s not going to happen. Cars are in the majority, cars rule the road. Our society reveres cars and car transportation; bicycles and their riders are second-class citizens at best, rebels, outliers, socialists at worst.
This past weekend a group of bicyclists passed me as I was returning home from a ride. There were six of them; one of the guys was not wearing a helmet, which is just downright stupid. They moved ahead of me and then there was a red light ahead. I was trying to catch up with them, but they slowed for the light, checked that no cars were coming in the cross street, then sped through. I called out half heartedly for them to stop and then I waited for the light to change. And then, well, I just got pissed off. I don’t know what it is. Why couldn’t I just let them go on their way? I poured on the speed and caught up with them at the crest of the next hill and as I passed I looked over at the two leaders, Mr. No Helmet and his friend. “I really wish you guys would stop for red lights!” I yelled as I continued on, pedaling hard. I was sort of hoping that the next light would be red and I’d be stopped and they’d have to make their way around me in order to go through the light. But it was green.
I just kept going and then there was my left turn light ahead. It was red, though for the two travel lanes the light was green. I stopped, and I was standing there with my right foot on the pavement, when Mr. No Helmet whooshed by screaming at me, “The light is green!” as he flew down Beacon Street. His glee! He was so thrilled to be able to “get me back.” I was startled at first, then realized in that moment the folly of my ways. (Though of course I wish I had had the wherewithal to reply with some snarky remark like, “You may be stupid but at least you’re not colorblind!”)
I’m not going to get bicyclists to stop at red lights by yelling at them after they’ve gone through one. At least I could approach the discussion differently, perhaps a reserved, “Have you thought about stopping at red lights?” as I pedal along beside them. Maybe I’ll do that, or maybe I’ll just continue to stop at red lights and let the other bicyclists do what they will. Perhaps in time I’ll serve as a role model. Maybe some other bicyclist will think, “Hey, that’s a good idea.” As I slowly made my way home, it was then that I truly understood the oft-quoted line from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” So for now I’ll stop screaming and just do.
But I do think of places like the Netherlands where drivers are trained to open their car doors with their right hands, reaching across their bodies, turning themselves to the left, forcing them to look back at the road, thus enabling them to see any bicyclists who might be coming their way. (I’ve been “doored” by a car driver. It is no fun. Knocked me out of commission for a couple of months and to this day I have a left shoulder problem associated with that accident.) Meaning that we could find ways to accelerate a melding of the minds between car drivers and bicyclists. Hopefully that day will come in my lifetime here in the U.S. of A.
Post script: was visiting some friends who were sitting out on their front porch last night. (It was a beautiful evening.) Got talking about bikes and red lights with this friend who has taken up biking later in life and who I often see Sunday mornings making his way home from the store where he’s just bought fresh bagels. He told me that because of my example he is now stopping at red lights and stop signs. Not always, and not consistently, but he’s doing it more and more. All I could say was, “My work here is done.”
Well, if not done, at least a beginning.