Archive for the ‘publishing’ Category
Every year around this time, the subscription to the online Wall Street Journal comes around and I send money that winds up in one of the infinite number of bank accounts controlled by one of the worst men in media. Each year the decision gets harder — the A-heds get shorter and less surprising, the wall between the news and opinion operations gets knocked down a bit more, and the paper continues to let its focus on financial journalism go fuzzy — but in the end I renew my subscription. Even in its reduced state, the paper offers some strong journalism, particularly in those occasional areas where the Murdochs don’t have glaring interests or conflicts of interest. But each year I have less trouble imagining a world in which I don’t need the WSJ to get my job done. Maybe next year?
I don’t want to have any print newspapers dropped onto the sidewalk in front of our house, but I have two of ‘em now waiting for me on Sundays. Turns out it’s less expensive to have Sunday print + digital subscriptions to The New York Times and The Boston Globe than to get digital-only subscriptions, so to save a few bucks I’m doing the ecologically wrong thing by having someone drop yesterday’s news onto the sidewalk.
But I’m not here to complain. I’m here to wonder: Is there an opportunity here for newspapers to use their Sunday papers as something other than necessary add-ons during this transition period when print readers are worth so much more to publishers and advertisers than digital readers? Let’s pay a visit to our most ridiculous 2012 presidential candidate for a hint.
Saturday afternoon I was doing some laundry in the basement and wanted some news to keep me company during the mundane task. It was the hour that the Herman Cain am-I-done-yet? announcement was expected, so I tuned into a livestream and started sorting the clothes. Cain wasn’t onstage yet, but a series of supporters, probably not knowing that he was about to desert them as they dedicated his new campaign headquarters, made the case for him.
One of those speakers got my attention more than I’d expected. He spoke of going on a recent Sunday to a store to pick up a copy of his local paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. There was a sign noting that copies of the AJC were available only behind the counter, which he hadn’t seen before, so he got in line to buy the paper. The woman in front of him in line needed some extra money to complete her transaction, so she went to her car to get more cash and he stepped up to the register. He asked why the newspapers were behind the counter, and the cashier told him that people were stealing the coupons inside the paper and leaving the rest of it. Then the woman who needed extra money returned and completed her transaction: she was buying six copies of the day’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The speaker used this story as a way into an indictment of Obama’s economic policies (it was a reach), but I heard something different: a chance for print newspapers to grab relevance at a time when the few bucks it costs to buy a Sunday paper is a purchase millions of Americans have to think over. I know it’s stupid to suggest action based on a sample size of one, especially if that sample thought Herman Cain was a genuine candidate for president, but think about it. As my pal Scott Kirsner pointed out to me last week, the best newspapers create value for their readers: they uncover corruption, they keep people informed, they save readers from bad restaurants. And in these tough, tough times, newspapers can save readers money. Embrace that! Who in this age wouldn’t spend $3 to save $30? Newspapers could promote the quantity of the savings along with the quality of the coverage. And that gives newspapers more readers to give to more advertisers, who would buy more ads with rmore discounts. Everyone wins, in the short term. It’s no solution to the big issues newspapers have to face, but it’s a short-term fix that does no harm and may bring in new readers. Come for the discounts and we’ll give you the news, too!
P.S. Just as science fiction beats real science to the punch, the newspaper satirists got here before real newspapers: The Chicago Tribune moves to an all-Beyonce-and-coupons format in one of the greatest-ever Onion videos.
This morning, on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Comm. Ave., I saw a Globe delivery truck. On the side of that truck was an ad for one of the many things that will make such delivery trucks disappear. (It won’t be the anemic Globe Reader that kills the physical-newspapers-to-your-home service, but it will be something delivered in a similar manner.)
Twenty or 30 years from now, when I tell my grandchildren that news from the day before used to be dumped by a truck at the end of a driveway, they’ll roll their eyes. Old news? By truck? There goes the crazy old man again…
A few weeks ago, I used this space to argue against the posthumous publication of pieces of the novel Vladimir Nabokov was working on before his death. Just today I was reading Nabokov’s introduction to his poetry-free translation of Eugene Onegin, in which the great man himself weighs in:
“An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying cancelled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.”
Good morning. For much of yesterday, the top two stories on business websites were the latest twists in antitrust cases against Microsoft (dropped) and Intel (doubled down). It sent me back to a time when I would wake up around 5 a.m. and one of the first things I had to think about was what was happening with various Microsoft and Intel legal actions. I had to think about that because of what I did for a living. For a few years I was editor of Media Grok, a daily email newsletter published by The Industry Standard; after The Standard went under, we secured independent funding and I was editor and publisher of Media Unspun. (We had to change the name because we were unwilling to pay the extortion fee IDG wanted to use the “Grok” name.)
The mission of Grok and Unspun was pretty specific: identify the two or three most important Internet economy stories of the day, summarize them, summarize the media coverage of them, present it to readers with both humor and context, do it briefly, and get it all to them by 9 a.m. Until the dot-com bubble popped, there were plenty of people who wanted their tech news served with attitude and there was a good business there. After 2001, it was hard to find anything funny in yet another layoff or bankruptcy story. Eventually, we went under as well. If you’d like to see what Media Unspun was about all those years ago, I just found our archive.
I loved the work, both for The Standard and on our own dime. Our year-and-change as a startup was particularly exciting and all-encompassing. Aside from writing and editing, I learned a great deal about selling advertising, getting paid for advertising (and not getting paid for advertising), circulation, spam filters, primitive search engine optimization, and, most of all, customer service. We were a rare early-in-the-decade non-porn-or-WSJ content play that people had to pay for, and when people sent us their credit card number many of them felt they were joining a club. When you join a club, you want to talk to the people in it. Those hundreds of conversations, sometimes about what we were doing wrong, improved the product on a daily basis and kept us connected.
I’m happy right now, but when I saw the headlines about Microsoft and Intel yesterday it hit me how I miss the project, the people I was lucky enough to work with on it, and the people we did it for. Microsoft and Intel are in court; someone has to crack a smart, telling joke about it.
(Your best bet nowadays for well-informed snark: John Paczkowski, ex of Good Morning Silicon Valley, who continues to illuminate and crack up the industry with his Digital Daily at All Things Digital.)
I’m a big Vladimir Nabokov fan. His novels are up there with those of Proust, Powell, Fox, and maybe Marquez as those from the last century that have given me the most pleasure. The Gift! Pale Fire! Ada! Lo-lee-ta! As with most writers or performers of whom I’m a big fan, I want to devour everything the artist created and everything interesting created about him: letters, outtakes, biographies, critical works, ephemera. I’ve even read novels based on albums I love and have been pleasantly surprised by one of them.
I bear no ill will against Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son. He’s been wrestling with a dilemma over the past 30 years: what to do with the unfinished draft of The Original of Laura that Vladimir left behind. Dad told him to destroy the manuscript; instead, Dmitri locked it in a box and thought hard for a long time, probably balancing loyalty to the father with loyalty to the work. There are strong arguments in both directions and I suspect Dmitri bounced pinball-like between the two positions for three decades.
Dmitri decided, in the end, to publish it. It came out last month; I bought it the day it came out. It’s no lost masterpiece. Indeed, it’s quite terrible, Nabokov’s worst book, void of the thrills hiding behind most phrases in even his minor novels. But, worse, than that, it’s not even a book (even in the post-modern sense). It’s not merely that there are 1.5 characters, 0 indications of a plot, and only a few hundred words scattered over a few hundred pages. To emphasize the collector value (and to distract from the lack of literary or story value), the publisher presents these work pages just as Nabokov left them: replicas of index cards, some of them written on, some of them in order, none of them intended for separate or combined publication. It’s the very definition of unpublishable, even in the current age of every damn thing being published. There’s a reason this book comes in shrink wrap: because anyone who opens it before reading it will never buy it. There’s nothing here for all but the most dedicated academic Nabokovians; I completed a first reading in barely half an hour and am unlikely to look at it again until I pack it up the next time I make a donation to the library.
The hype behind the belated release of this incomplete nonmasterpiece may lower Nabokov’s stock, which would be a shame. But, fortunately, there’s an upside to hype: Vintage is reissuing his ouevre with cool covers that may attract new readers. If great packaging can help draw attention to something as lousy as The Original of Laura, perhaps it can bring more than a dozen classics to a new generation of readers who will adore them.
When I’m not working or blogging or trying to live my life, I steal some time to work on my fiction. I use a fine program called WriteRoom that makes a computer writing environment much less distracting than the Microsoft Word norm.
The developer of WriteRoom has written an iPhone version of the program. I don’t use it as much, but it has been the subject of an fascinating price experiment. I bought WriteRoom.iPhone soon after it came out, for $4.99, but since then the developer has been testing different price points, with conclusive results:
08/20/2009 9 @ $4.99
08/21/2009 4280 @ Free
08/22/2009 7166 @ Free
08/23/2009 4901 @ Free
08/24/2009 88 @ $0.99
08/25/2009 56 @ $0.99
08/26/2009 119 @ $0.99
Looks like strong evidence for Chris Anderson’s contention that there is an enormous difference between almost free and free, even as Joshua Benton has noted that anyone who can afford an iPhone or an iPod Touch likely can risk 99 cents on an app without falling into a lower tax bracket.
I’ve got my own story to tell about free. As regular readers of this space know, last week I made The Sandinista Project available for free for roughly one day. The record went up at 12.01am on Friday and came down around 9am on Saturday. Here are the stats:
Total number of views of the page with the download link: 17,664 (13,834 Friday, 3,830 Saturday)
Total number of completed album downloads: 7,577 (6,772 Friday, 805 Saturday)
This is not what traffic is usually like on my blog, as this traffic report from WordPress makes embarrasingly clear:
The day of making The Sandinista Project free flattened my traffic for every other day this month. (Thanks to boing boing and others for pointing to it, by the way.) Indeed, the 7,577 free album downloads exceeded the number of physical albums we sold in the two years since the record came out. I’m not sure how many legit digital albums we sold via iTunes, Amazon, etc., but much of that business is in single tracks so I suspect the digital full-album sales were negligible. It’s hard to figure out how many unauthorized copies are out on the Net, but the week before the download experiment, I checked the numbers on Pirate Bay and two other prominent torrent sites and extrapolated at the very least 6,000 torrented copies. So, between the free authorized download last week and the free unauthorized downloads of the previous 28 months, most of the copies of The Sandinista Project that people are listening to weren’t paid for.
Yet people are listening to it. In the week since the free download, more than 300 of them wrote me to either thank me or complement the work. The trolls came out, too, but we all know what to do about them. So … there is some audience of people who want this music. They just don’t want to pay for it. For this project, that was not a big problem. We weren’t expecting to get paid, and what little we did make we intended to give away. It was, I guess, an art project. We weren’t doing it to make a living. We were doing it to get heard. Mission accomplished.
But what if The Sandinista Project was intended as a money-maker? The success of the free download suggests that there is an audience interested in the work. A popular policy nowadays is to give away something of value in the hope that it will serve as persuasive marketing for something that is for sale. A free download of this record could have been a come-on for a concert, associated merch, or some high-end physical version of the same product. Not sure how well that would work. Let’s use the WriteRoom.iphone example: when the price rose from zero to 99 cents, downloads all but stopped: the worst day at the free price was 4,280 downloads, the best day at the cheap price was 119 downloads, and let’s not forget that a typical day at the original price of $4.99 was 9 downloads. There is no substantial business there.
Thanks to the lethal combination of breakthrough technology, changes in consumer expectations, and industry-wide incompetence so overwhelming that a business school could build an entire degree program around it, I suspect the existing music industry is too far gone to build a business out of a we’ll-give-you-something-for-free-and-then-sell-something-else-to-you model. The attitude at traditional entertainment companies, that we’re the geniuses and the tastemakers and you’ll buy what we tell you is good, is nearly the opposite of the Net’s relatively bottom-up approach to popularity. There will still be some very popular performers who can sell more than a million copies of a traditional album in physical or virtual form, and there will be many, many indie performers who can garner a devoted audience on the Net while covering some subset of their expenses. But for those in the middle, neither superstars or hobbyists, people who want to make a living as musicians, the current model offers little. Giving something away and hoping someone will pay for something else somewhere down the road looks more and more like a business model that’s both cynical and hopeless. The fat, spent music industry needs a punk rock of business models the same way it needed punk rock in the mid-1970s. And, as with punk, none of the incumbent powers will be the ones who figure it out.
Over on PaidContent, Staci Kramer, ace reporter and Jill Sobule fan, reports AP Launching Newspaper Industry Campaign To ‘Protect’ News Content. Oy vey. If the people running newspapers and wire services (both now antiquated terms) think that aggregators stealing their content, rather than their own inability to navigate the dynastic shift I mention here, is their biggest problem, maybe they do deserve to go away. Those aggregators are giving the newspapers new customers. Why don’t the newspapers welcome (and focus on monetizing) their new customers rather than hope to sue away new technologies and business models? I’m having a how-the-record-industry-treated-Napster-in-a-way-that-hastened-its-own-demise flashback.
UPDATE: Staci has a super analysis follow-up today. I reproduce the lede in full: “Those of you who have never owned a mercury thermometer and a tiled floor at the same time probably won’t get this but the Associated Press campaign to “protect” news content is the online equivalent of trying to pick up mercury after you drop the glass thermometer. It’s virtually impossible to pick it all up and maddening to try. The AP and the news industry won’t be able to pick up all of the ways news content is used, even with the most sophisticated tagging or other technologies. And even if they manage to do so, they won’t be able to stop it all.”
By the time The Boston Globe arrived Saturday morning with the ominous headline Times Co. Threatens To Shut Globe, it was old news and that’s the problem. The story had been broken the day before by Adam Reilly at The Boston Phoenix and Monica Brady-Myerov at WBUR, both via electronic media; by the time the newspaper landed with a very light thud at homes and newsstands, the story had moved along. On Saturday morning, the initial shock had moved on to questions about management’s negotiation tactics and other meta-issues. The bloggers and microbloggers had taken over the story.
The Boston Globe is an inconsistent newspaper. Some sections, particularly Washington and Metro, are strong; others, like Sports, are driven by personality and trivia; still others, like Living/Arts, are so full of factual and conceptual errors that they rise to mediocrity only on a very good day. But none of that may matter when considering the survival of the newspaper. The life-threatening problem facing The Boston Globe is not, primarily, a content problem. The Boston Globe is middling and The New York Times may be the best in the English language, but they both face the same problem: a combination technology and business problem that adds up to a dynastic problem.
It’s the end of the print dynasty as the primary delivery mechanism for the content typically housed in a newspaper. Although papers as different in quality as The Boston Globe and The New York Times have shrinking print readerships, they have strong and, in many cases, growing online readerships. People want their product — just not in the wrapper that the newspapers currently offer as their primary product. Indeed, the costs associated with delivering the newspapers on paper are so extraordinary that one enterprising reporter has imagined a dramatically different and provocative way to spend that money.
If I’m right that this is a dynastic problem, not a content problem, then better content — although always desirable — will not solve the profound problems facing newspapers. The businesspeople charged with saving the Globe, whether it be the current ownership or a new team, must confront the truth that cutting down trees, printing tree-based products on large machines, and delivering smaller packages via trucks, is a dead business model for the delivery of timely news.
I’m not arguing that print as a general medium is dead. I am arguing what should be self-evident, but isn’t to many in newspaper management: that print as a way to deliver timely news will soon be over. Smart folks at the Globe and the Times may well dream up tough-minded, profitable print products, but those print products will be expensive, low-volume, premium entries, not mass-market ones. There is a small but sustainable audience that will pay a premium price for a high-quality physical item, so long as it plays to the strength of a physical item, such as permanence, portability, and higher, more controllable production values. But that print product will be secondary to its electronically published siblings. Once publishers stop wrestling with that, they can focus entirely on building the future rather than resuscitating the past. Even those of us who see the Globe as far from perfect want it to survive — but the powers that be on Morrissey Avenue and across the street from Port Authority had better understand that the only way it can survive is in a far different form. Newspapers: you wanna live? Give us new products. Now.
(Disclosure: Between 1998 and 2006, I served on and off as a consultant to boston.com, The Boston Globe‘s website, and over the past 15 or so years I have written a grand total of one book review and two op-eds for The Globe, none more recent than 2005. )
…the first things to go are the introductions. Here’s why.
I was looking forward to reading the Penguin collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories. I’d seen the first sentences from two of his stories quoted and I both grabbed me.
From “The Marquise of O–”:
“In M–, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O–, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children, inserted the following announcement in the newspapers: that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.”
And from “The Earthquake in Chile”:
“In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands lost their lives, a young Spaniard called Jeronimo Rugera was standing beside one of the pillars in the prison to which he had been committed on a criminal charge, and was about to hang himself.”
Each of them practically beg to let you know what comes next. I wanted to know, so I bought Penguin’s colection of von Kleist’s stories and read the introduction. That ruined the book for me. The introduction is brisk and informative — but it GIVES AWAY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF EVERY STORY IN THE COLLECTION. It’s like a spoiler site for classical literature. The introduction is like a Cliff’s Notes for the story collection. It summarizes the plots and then sends you away. Who, when reading a book for pleasure, wants to know how it ends before it even starts?
Two quick caveats:
1. Some introductions are great. Bernard Knox’s notes prior to Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and Virgil were essential to my having even a rudimentary understanding of what I was about to read.
2. Sometimes it’s OK to give it all away in advance. Here’s how Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark opens: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a beautiful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” The mean and funny novel that follows offered heightened meanness and humor because we know what’s coming.
But those are the rarest of exceptions. Introductions are for context, not for giving it all away. In a few weeks, after this passes, I’ll try again to read these stories. From now on, I’m reading the introductions last.
Where you been?
Canada, mostly. The five of us and a friend of Eli’s packed into the van: half a week in Montreal (good, and I was not responsible for this), half a week in Ottawa (great), and a one-night stopover in Burlington, Vt., on the way back. As of Tuesday, I’m three-quarters of the way to Inbox Zero. I need to learn French for the next trip to the Great White North.
Was everything the same when you returned?
Mostly. Manny is gone, and so is Scrabulous, but it looks as if the latter has returned in not-too-diminished form. I missed a particularly weird Carl Icahn hissy fit, and I’ll have to check in with Paczkowski for guidance on how to interpret that.
What did you learn about your newspaper-reading habits while you were gone?
As I’ve noted previously, I’m done with print newspapers. For the first half of the vacation, I did a reasonably good job of staying off the laptop (and we were in another country, so I didn’t want to turn on the iPhone unless absolutely necessary). If I wanted to know what was going on in the world I had to read the print versions of the Times and Journal, both of which were available in hotel gift shops at imminent-apocalypse prices. I imagined that reading newspapers this way would feel like a luxury. Instead, compared to their younger online siblings, they felt out of date and, well, short. Aside from the immediacy you get from following news via the net, chances are you see that news as part of a larger river of information. It’s always coming at you. In comparison, reading the news in a newspaper feels limited, finite. It ends. News on the net never ends (for better or worse).
Also worth looking at was the National Gallery in Ottawa. We spent two hours there. I bet we could have gone at least two days without running out of surprises. I was particularly taken by William Kurelek’s “Arriving on the Manitoba Farm,” which looks dark and formless in this image, but reveals more and more layers of detail and meaning when you have the pleasure of standing in front of it.
When you stopped in Burlington, Vt., on the way back, did you see any newspaper headlines you’d expect to see only in Burlington, Vt.?
What did you read?
Parts of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (mostly zzz, but it did introduce me to this guy) and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and (several times) my favorite Chekhov story, “The Lady with the Dog.”
And you read them all on your…
Kindle, right. It’s a usability nightmare and the selection of Amazon-blessed-and-DRMed books is insufficient and random, but I found it convenient and comfortable under all but the most low-light situations.
Did you write?
Yes, especially early in the week when I was still keeping that off-the-net promise. It’s amazing how less depressed you can be about the quality of something if you’re actually working on it. And maybe I should consider a new business model.
What was Jane’s most memorable quote during the week?
There were so many candidates, but I’m going with “I’m trying to save the tattoo.”
How’s the new job going?
So far it seems like a very good fit. I’ll have a full report at the end of The First 90 Days.
Weren’t you going to tell us the point of this blog?
Comments from Doug, Owen, and Andrea — and a gift from Brian — showed me the limits of my thinking from a few posts ago. And Jane has suggested that I write about what I think about: namely, media and technology. So, unless you’re reading this via a newsreader, you’ll see that the blog now has a new tagline: “media, technology, and the rest of it.” I’ve got some ideas for making this more than a vanity blog; we’ll see if I can live up to them. Oh, and to warn you, I’m going to pay more attention to Twitter.
Gotta see how the WordPress app for the iPhone works.
I’m a student of magazine covers. I’m a hardcore Loisite, and I’ve spent decades exploring the best way to mix words and images so people cannot ignore the cover and must grab the magazine.
I’ve had the great pleasure of spending much of my career editing and writing for magazines. Those reading this who know me know that I love magazines. As a reader, I spend way too much time at newsstands. I love the immediacy of magazines. As an editor, I love getting words and pictures to tell stories together. I love trying to fill infinite content into a severely finite space. I even love the disposability of magazines: after this issue is done, I get to work on another one!
Some disclosure: I voted for Barack Obama in the Massachusetts primary and intend to vote for him in November, but I am not among his more enthusiastic supporters. I wrote more than 100 reviews and articles for Rolling Stone during the ’80s, but I lost interest with it during the ’90s and receive it now only because it came as a free offer when I bought a DVD earlier this year. The text of the recent issue is full of both cliches and factual errors (sample of the latter: the Kinman Brothers will be surprised to learn that Alejandro Escovedo “fronted” Rank and File), so I’ll stop receiving the magazine as soon as they stop sending me free copies. That noted, I believe the cover of the new issue of the magazine, featuring Obama, is the most arresting magazine cover I’ve seen in years.
Magazines are about words and images working together, although sometimes words can detract from an image. Is there anything that the cover image of Obama doesn’t say to the reader? It tells you who it’s about and what Rolling Stone thinks about him: everything about content and approach is embedded in the bold image. The smile is 1,000-watt, the (digitally enhanced?) wrinkles coming out of his eyes convey that this guy isn’t too young for the job he wants, and the American flag lapel pin wouldn’t pop more unless the cover was 3-D. And how important does Rolling Stone think Obama is? Important enough to cover half the words in the name of the magazine. That’s an old trick, but it’s especially powerful here.
This cover is particularly powerful when you compare it to this recent one that tried to accomplish something similar with its design (although, of course, the politicians and their predicaments are far different):
The Rolling Stone cover makes a starker impact because the designer went 100% of the way: no words. The New York cover cheats. The “<-Brain” thing works because it’s as much a pure graphic element as a word with an arrow, but the words in the top left of the page are a waste. They distract. “The Governor’s Fall” reads the headline. Please. When that cover appeared, mere days after Spitzer and his power evaporated, did anyone in the New York reading public not know who Eliot Spitzer was or what he had done? (The subhead, with its pointless navigation, adds to the offense.) The cover, a step away from brilliant, loses its way because the committee that vetted it didn’t trust the arresting image at its core. Words are important. But sometimes words get in the way, too.
Back in March, I gave up print newspapers. Every day since then I’ve read all of The New York Times, most of The Wall Street Journal, and some of The Boston Globe and a few other dailies, but I’ve read them all online. It was hard getting used to; indeed, I’m still getting used to it.
So imagine my delight yesterday when I received my Father’s Day present:
This is what a paper newspaper feels like now: a luxury, a gift, a change of pace, maybe even an indulgence.