Thursday, March 12, 2009

Moving notice!

Well, the Online Marketing class I was in at PSU's graduate program in publishing is all done, so I'm moving my blogging efforts back over to my personal blog. Feel free to stop on over and check it out, or if you prefer just mainline it right away with an RSS feed. If you've been following along at this blog, you'll probably see some familiar posts in the archives--but there are others, too. Check 'em out!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Fallacy of "Nimbleness"

It seems like an accepted truism that small publishers are more nimble and quicker to adapt to change than large publishing houses, probably on the basis of all the layers of bureaucracy that a large publishing house has to claw through in order to change the status quo. When analyzing a publishing house in terms of content, this is probably the case; a smaller editorial staff means that there are less people to object to an "experimental" book.

I would have to disagree, though, with all the people out there who say that the nimbleness of small publishers makes them ideally situated to take advantage of the possibilities of ebooks. The problem here is that we aren't talking about new content--we're talking about new delivery channels. These new delivery channels require some technical expertise to be able to work effectively with, let alone imaginatively. And that requires staff whose jobs are to check out new technologies and see how to do stuff with them; in short, it requires a research and development team.

Most small publishers that I know of barely scrape by. They make enough to pay the bills, pay themselves, and have enough left over to get started on another book or two, but that's about it. There's no money to fund research in a small publisher. I would guess that most small publishers out there don't even have the money for an IT staff. What this means is that small publishers, by and large, are not the ones who are doing exciting new things with technology. Sure, there are some exceptions, but most of the innovative uses of technology are going to come from the big houses. Small presses who don't have the technical know-how to develop new solutions on their own are going to follow the lead of the big houses.

If any publishers are nimble in regards to innovative uses of technology, it's the mid-size to large houses; they're the ones who have the staff to explore new options. It's certainly quite possible for a small press to take advantage of digital technology and ebooks to do something really fascinating and new, but I would argue that most small publishers don't have the resources to do so. Small publishers may be more organizationally nimble, but that nimbleness doesn't do much good wthout resources, either in the form of cash or in the form of on-board knowledge about digital technologies. If small publishers want to take advantage of their nimbleness, they need to acquire the knowledge to do so; they need to study online technologies, learn XML, maybe some basic web design, and try to understand what sorts of things are possible in this brave new world of digital publishing and what sort of things aren't.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The future of publishing is a big thing to speculate about; there's a lot of change happening in a lot of different directions. There are the purely technological changes, like new ebook readers coming out; the business changes, like corporations buying up each other; and there are the distribution changes, like distributors providing content for new devices. Then on top of those, there are the social changes--how people interact with books, and with each other when they read books. Things will certainly change in the next ten years or so, and those changes will be largely in ways that we can't predict now. There are too many variables to be able to predict with any degree of certainty how things will look.

That being said, if I had to take a guess, it would be that:
  • Reading ebooks will become more and more popular, for many different reasons. Devices will become cheaper, prices of files will drop, people will be drawn to the social aspects of online reading; all these things will conspire to make income from ebooks the lion's share of revenue for most publishers.
  • Print books will increase in price faster than they have been, and paperbacks will slowly start to die off as ebooks take their place. Eventually, mass market books will be put out entirely in ebook form. Printed books will become something you buy for books you really like--deluxe editions.
  • Self publishing will become more common, as people find it easier and easier to get in touch with freelance editors and designers online, and then to sell their ebooks through a digital storefront like Amazon or Fictionwise.
  • Small general trade publishers will struggle. The large houses will continue to attract the bulk of submissions, due mostly to their sales and marketing forces. Smaller houses, with their corresponding smaller marketing reach, will have to work hard to justify their existence.
  • Small niche publishers will do quite well, as long as they are prepared to take advantage of the internet and the ease of communication the digital world brings. Niche markets will become increasingly important, and publishers who are seen to be responsible members of niche communities will derive great benefits from that.
  • Big chain bookstores will falter. As ebooks become more and more common, people will have less and less interest in browsing through a warehouse store, when they could as easily do a quick search fr a particular topic or learn about a cool new title from friends on a social network.
  • Independent, niche bookstores will rise from the ashes. As niches and micro-communities become more important, smaller stores that cater specifically to those niches will proliferate.
I'm sure this will be a post to look back on and laugh about in ten years or so; just about all predictions of the future are, after all. Still, it's worth thinking about.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On repurposing fiction

I"ve been thinking quite a bit lately about different ways to repurpose content. This has come mostly from my delving into the wide world of XML, which is a great thing for publishers to look into, assuming there is some repurposing of content to be done. If you have a properly tagged XML document, it becomes very easy to recycle parts of it, or restructure the whole thing, or just generally mess about with it in new ways. This is great for publishers because as long as you have the electronic rights, you've already got the content.

Repurposing is fairly straightforward for some classes of books: A travel guide, for example, could be pretty easily repurposed into a mobile-based geospatially aware application that could tell you what's across the street from you. Cookbooks, similarly, can become databases that are easily sortable by ingredients, or serving size, or appliances needed, or whatever. Textbook-type nonfiction, where each chapter is a more or less discrete unit, can even be segmented and used in anthologies or as journal articles.

Fiction, it seems to me, is the tricky part. What sort of repurposing can be done with a novel? Certainly, there is some room for customization--one of the vendors at TOC did exactly that, and would sell you a copy of a book for a friend with your friend's name used in the text of the book, or printed on the dedication page. But other than that, I'm at a bit of a loss. I think there's got to be a fascinating way that fiction can take advantage of geospatial recognition to build stories that go different ways depending on where you are, or perhaps on how many other people around you are also reading the same book, but I haven't been able to figure any of them out yet. Any thoughts?

Friday, February 27, 2009

One book to rule them all . . . .

Life-changing books, eh? Well, my first thought was to write about a book that has helped to shape my philosophy. The Tao of Pooh is a big stand-out in that regard, as is Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality. At the same time, though, those are both a little too overtly philosophical. They helped me refine my points of view, but didn't really expose me to anything too new. They just helped put words to things.

Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's illustrated Primer introduced me to more new ideas, and some that are particularly relevant to me now. I still go back to it often when I think of the possibilities for ebooks and ebook technology. Still, despite the new ideas it gave me, it didn't really change the way I think in any real way. It came along a little too late in my life for that.

When looking for a book that really shaped who I am today, a book that helped form my ideas of right and wrong and that helped me figure out the kind of life I wanted to lead and the sort of person I wanted to be; well, there was really only one possible book to write about: Frodo called it The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King, but we know it more simply as The Lord of the Rings. I first picked it up the summer between fourth and fifth grade, and I re-read it on at least a yearly basis; I know that by my junior year in high school I had read it ten times.

The discovery part was easy--my parents loved Tolkien. Not that they were horrendously geeky people, or obsessed, or anything (granted, their silver Volvo does still have the license plate SHDWFX, in tribute to Gandalf's horse--still, that was mostly my doing). They just really liked Tolkien's stories, and they passed that along to me.

The Lord of the Rings influenced my early life in so many ways; because I loved it, I read other fantasy, started playing role-playing games (yes, I was one of them), and regularly broke friends's fingers with broomstick swords. But those are the more superficial ways that it influenced my life, really.

From Aragorn, I learned to love the idea of travel, while Gandalf passed along a hunger to know the ancient roots of things. Frodo taught me the importance of trying your best, even in circumstances that are much, much bigger than you, while Sam showed me that all the complexities of life aren't really nearly as complex as we think they are. And from all the hobbits I learned that really, the important thing to remember most of the time is that life is good.

The lessons from The Lord of the Rings keep coming, on each re-read. I've learned the importance of honoring one's word, the value of mercy, and the sad truth that all things must change and nothing will ever again be as it was. The Lord of the Rings is the book that set me on the path that I'm on now; it shaped me. And I couldn't be happier about it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Another reason for Ooligan to be excited

In thinking about the Ooligan website and what sort of redesign it's going to end up getting, it occurred to me that we might want to have a look at the websites of other publishing programs in the country. I knew that there was a publishing degree available at NYU; their flyers show up in the halls of PSU sometimes, and I actually got to chat with oneof their instructors at the conference I was at recently. I had a vague idea that there might be another one or two around, but exactly how many, I didn't really have any idea of.

Well, a bit of googling brought me seven US programs that at least claimed to be about publishing, and another two that claimed to be in the US despite addresses in Aberdeen, Scotland. In no particular order, those are:
  • Columbia's Publishing Course. They bill themselves, apparently with pride, as being "the shortest graduate school in the country." It's six weeks long; you spend 3 on books, 2 on magazines, and one on "new media."
  • NYU's MS in Publishing. This looks to be a more serious sort of program than Columbia's, though their list of courses makes me think the emphasis of the program is on publishing as a business--I would expect the people who come out of this program to want to be publishing executives in big companies, rather than the well-rounded publishing generalists that we tend to turn out at PSU.
  • George Washington University's MPS in Publishing. This is a two-year program that, like NYU's program, has a very stron business emphasis; shockingly, they have no courses on editing on their curriculum, though at least they offer one on design.
  • Emerson College's MA in Publishing and Writing. They claim to deliver "an overview of the publishing industry from writing and editing, through design, production, promotion, and distribution," and their course selection looks reasonable enough--they seem to offer most of the courses that we do here at Ooligan, with a fair few additional ones devoted to magazines.
  • University of Denver must be having a competition with Columbia--they have a program called The Publishing Institute that beats out the Publishing Course by a third--that's right, their course is only four weeks long. 'Nuff said on that, I think.
  • Pace University offers an MS in Publishing that also seems to have a fairly decent course selection--there are plenty of courses on editing and design, and like Emerson a fairly full selection of classes on magazine publishing. They also have a number of classes on technology in publishing.
  • Harvard's Extension School offers a publishing certificate, but there don't seem to be too many classes offered that are publishing specific--in fact, it looks like there are two (Principles of Editing and Survey of Publishing: From Text to Hypertext), and the rest of the courses are electives from various writing and journalism fields.
So, there are some other publishing programs out there, and some of them actually look like they're pretty decent. But none of them have what we have with Ooligan: A student-run press. Actually being able to work on books that are really going to be published in the real world is a huge thing. I can't say for sure, of course, but I would think that this gives those students who really take advantage of Ooligan a world of experience that students at other schools won't get.

So why should we be excited? Well, it seems to me that we're in a really good position. There is apparently a fair bit of interest in publishing--enough to support eight programs in the States, even if some of them last for weeks rather than years. And we have a lot of experience with teaching publishing by publishing; we're even going to be putting out a book about it soon. We have the chance to start a dialogue with all those other students and teachers of publishing, and we can use that conversation to expand our web of contacts, share a lot of information with the industry in general, and get ourselves some good name-recognition. There are lots of possibilities here, and I'm excited to try to grab some.

Friday, February 20, 2009

No, really, with lasers!

Well, I can't say that I've ever actually personally bought something because of an email campaign. I tend to not sign up for many mailings, and those mailings I do sign up for all go to my spam email address, so I look at them all at the same time, once every month or so. Usually I don't spend a lot of time going through stuff--I skim, seeing if there's anything of interest, and then I delete it all.

Well, except for this once. I had signed up some while previous for the ThinkGeek newsletter. For those not in the know, ThinkGeek is the home of the most awesomely amazing toys on the internet: You can get remote control helicopters, screaming monkey slingshots, T shirts that tell you when there's a wifi signal, and stuff designed exclusively to annoy your coworkers. It's a gadget geek's heaven.

So one late one winter, I was going through my spam email address, clearing stuff out, when I hit the ThinkGeek newsletter. I had just recently gotten off the phone with my parents, who were despairing of ever being able to find me a decent Christmas present, when lo and behold, what should I see but a really super-cool looking strategy board game. With lasers. I drooled for a while, read some reviews, saw what other people thought of the game. And I liked what I read. So, I sent a link off to my parents. A month and change later, and what should I discover under the tree but an Egyptian-themed laser-equipped board game?

And that's about the closest I've come to succumbing to email marketing.