Yes, you can write about that

As some of you may know, I write a lot of stuff in a lot of places. I maintain a few blogs, and I also write fiction and non-fiction books and short pieces that I publish on Amazon.

From time to time I get questions or comments that seem to imply that only special people can write.

Who do I think I am, they seem to be saying, to be writing books? And who gave me permission to write about publishing, or marketing, or relations between the sexes, or marriage, or even homebrewing? Shouldn’t that sort of thing be left to experts? Maybe to people with PhDs, or some relevant degree?

I got over that attitude many years ago. Here’s why.

My first serious job was as an associate editor on a book about natural gas regulation. I was completely unqualified. I didn’t have a journalism degree, I couldn’t type, I didn’t know grammar and usage very well, and I wasn’t that great at spelling. After some intense on-the-job training, within a couple years I was writing highly valued analysis of natural gas laws, regulations and court decisions. D.C. lawyers would call me to ask questions about the issues. (I’m not a lawyer.)

Through that process I learned two secrets.

  1. Know what you know and why you know it.
  2. Adjust your writing accordingly.

1. Know what you know

When you’re writing for a legal publication, every word had better be right. When you make an assertion, you have to back it up. In fact, you should cite your justification for most of the things you say.

Everything that you write in that environment will be reviewed by an editor who is just itching to find an error and mark it with a big red pen. Editors love to do that. It’s the purpose of their existence. It justifies their paycheck. It’s what makes them feel they have done a good day’s work when they pack up at the end of the day.

Working in a place like that trains you to think in a certain way. You don’t write something is true unless you know it’s true. If you don’t know, you don’t say it.

In a different context you could make it clear that you’re guessing, but there’s no room for that sort of thing in those kinds of publications.

When I started out as an editor, I knew what I didn’t know about being an editor, which was just about everything. I kept the dictionary and the style guide at my elbow, I sat at the feet of a very knowledgeable and very patient energy attorney for a few months to learn about the basics, and I read thousands of pages of FERC regulations, orders, and ALJ decisions. I also read about writing and editing. I sat in on the open meetings at FERC, I went to conferences and I read industry publications.

Yes, it was dreadful. But after a few years there were few people who understood better than I did all the nuances of Order 436, or Section 7(c) transportation rules.

Simply put, I became an expert. It’s actually not that hard.

Years later I edited services on other topics, including human resources issues, used oil regulations, international trade, and a few other things. The key thing to the job was to know what you know, and to read every word with that filter on. “How do I know this is true?”

2. Adjust your writing accordingly

I suspect I know what you’re thinking right now. “Everything you just said about being an expert on natural gas issues is precisely why we’re wondering why you think you can write about those other things. You’re not an expert on that stuff!

Right. But being an expert only matters for some things.

Having developed that discipline — to know what I know, and know why I know it — allows me to write about things that I’m not an expert on, because when I see that I’m making an assertion of some sort, that old editorial training comes back and says, “You don’t know that.”

Once you adopt that frame of mind, you can write on just about anything. All you have to do is make sure you have things right when you make a factual statement.

But there’s a whole lot to writing that isn’t factual. There are times when it’s perfectly okay to say “Here are my reasons for thinking this, but … hey, I may be wrong.”

For example, there’s a much lower burden of proof on, say, a list of things HR managers should consider when they create an employee handbook, and a description of what the FLSA says about part-time work. The former has a lot more wiggle room than the latter because you’re not telling people what to put in the handbook, but only what to consider.

Part of the discipline of writing is to make sure you understand that and write according to the reader’s expectation of reliability.

Are you writing something factual? Well … get it right, and show your sources.

Are you just blowing off steam, or expressing an opinion? Make that clear.

The thing that you’re writing has a broader context and setting. Be aware of that, and pay attention.

When I write about politics on my blog, it’s clear — at least I hope it’s clear. If it’s not then I’m not doing my job. Anyway, it should be clear that I’m just expressing an opinion. It’s the equivalent of having a beer with friends and jawing about the news. You try not to say things that are wrong, but it’s not like you need to fact check everything.

It’s tempting to think that truth doesn’t matter when you write fiction, because it’s just made-up stuff out of your crazy imagination, but that’s not so. You still need to be mindful of how the reader is going to interpret things. If I say there’s this one-armed guy named Sam who speaks with owls in French, everybody knows there’s no such guy and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. But if I say something about owls or about the French language, that stuff is real and I should get it right.

So when I wrote my little book about men, I made it very clear I was just trying to tell a story and paint a picture. And when I wrote about homebrewing — something I know a lot about — I tried to distinguish the factual stuff from things that are debatable, or matters of taste or style.

The point is, once you learn to think that way, it makes it easier to write in general.

So if the writing bug bites you, go for it. You can write about a lot of things provided you’re careful about what you assert and how you handle what you say.

Whether it sells or not … that’s another question.

“Pay to Play,” and get with it, publishers

Last week I discussed how publishers should respond to ad blockers, and mentioned several different strategies. But there’s another complication, called “pay to play.”

Ad blockers aren’t really ad blockers if some of the advertisers have the option to pay to get their ads seen anyway. See, for example, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are paying Adblock Plus huge fees to get their ads unblocked.

It’s nice to hope every once in a while that there are companies out there that are trying to provide a decent service that actually benefits people. Unfortunately, when there’s a conflict between doing something the consumer actually wants and making an extra buck, the extra buck usually wins.

That seems to be the case with the ad blockers.

“Install this plugin and do away with those pesky ads,” they say. “I did that, but I’m still seeing ads. Why?” the user asks. “Oh, they paid us extra.”

Another path for publishers

Consider another path that would allow publishers and readers to make the deals they want to make. E.g., if you want content with ads, fine. If you want it without ads, that’s fine too — you just pay a little extra, or register, or answer this survey, or … whatever deal the publisher and the reader agree to.

Think of a generic reader app (or possibly a dedicated device, like a Kindle) where the reader is in control and gets the content he wants on terms negotiated with the content provider. That is, not on Apple’s terms, or Amazon’s terms, but on the publisher’s terms.

If I’m a subscriber to Wired, or Brew Your Own, or Field and Stream, or The Washington Times, I would be able to enter my credentials for each of those subscriptions and get my content in a single reader app — rather than having to download an app for each subscription, or go here, there and everywhere to get it.

I could also read other articles, blogs, rss feeds, etc. The app would be like Evernote, or Readly, or Kindle, or Flipboard, or any of the other reader apps out there, except that it would allow the reader to include subscription content.

RIght now, if I want to clip an article from The Atlantic to read on my train ride home, I put it in Evernote. But if I want to read a magazine, I either need that magazine’s app, or I need one of the newsstand apps, like Zinio or Magzter. If I want to read a blog, I need a web browser or an rss reader. And if I want to read a book, I need a Kindle or Nook app.

That’s not very convenient. I would rather have one reader app that includes all my content — paid and unpaid, subscription or single purchase.

The main problem with this concept is that it’s intended to serve both the reader and the publisher and doesn’t lead to world domination for the app / device owner. Amazon, Google, Apple et al. want to force everyone into their walled garden on their terms. My concept is for a service that intermediates between the reader and the publisher and allows them to set their own terms.

If my app / device existed, when a visitor came to a site with an ad blocker, the publisher would have another option — i.e., direct the reader to get the ad-free version of the content through this paid service.

The benefit would be that the reader woud probably already be using the app / device because lots of other publishers would be doing the same thing, and lots of different publishers would be promoting the use of this common standard.

How to respond to ad blockers

Many years ago, most publishers decided to post their valuable content online “for free,” and to earn their keep by selling ads against it. It’s a model that has evolved over the years, and many companies are doing very well with it — particularly those who create content for a niche audience that is willing to buy things. (That is, an audience that advertisers are interested in.)

But there are dark clouds on the horizon. Web visitors are starting to install software to block the ads, allowing them to get the content without exposing their eyeballs to the money-making images that are intended to be part of the deal.

To some extent, websites have nobody but themselves to blame for this. They’ve crowded their pages with junk and annoying ads and made the experience slow and frustrating. New options that offer content that serves quickly with few ads are gaining market share.

Backing off from the NASCAR look is a good idea and might slow the number of users who install ad blockers, but it might also be too little too late.

Whether you’ve contributed to this problem or not, you’re going to suffer the consequences — because people don’t choose to install an ad blocker solely on what your site looks like. So … What’s a publisher to do?

Here’s an overview of the options, as I see it, with a few thoughts on each.

1. Do nothing – Only a portion of your visitors will use ad blockers, so don’t worry about it.

This was a decent strategy last year, when not many people had ad blockers, but it’s going to get worse this year, and probably will continue to get worse for a while. I don’t think it’s a good choice, but there is this to be said in its favor — it might do less harm than any of the other options. All the other responses to ad blocking software carry at least some risk.

2. Ask them to turn off the ad blocker and/or whitelist you – Ad blockers allow the user to specify some sites where the ads do get through. This might be a good first step in addressing the problem, especially if you redesign your own site to be light and fast.

Any such whitelisting effort should have at least the following components: (1) an explanation of why cooperating with the ad-supported system is a benefit to the reader, and (2) specific instructions on how to whitelist your site with the major ad blockers.

3. Find a way to deliver the ads anyway – With apologies to Newton, for any technology there is an equal and opposite technology, and that’s true of ad blockers. There are some services that find ways around the ad blockers.

I’m not sure what I think of this approach. In a way it seems like cheating, but it’s cheating on the cheaters, so maybe that’s okay.

My bigger concern is that it’s probably going to be a headache for your tech team as they’re constantly readjusting to the back and forth. It’s hard enough to get your page to display correctly on all the browsers and devices out there. If you add another layer to the madness you’ll need to be ready for the unintended and unexpected consequences of the geek fight.

4. Monetize their visit in some other way – Just because you monetize most of your traffic with ads doesn’t mean you have to do that with everybody. There are other ways to get your digital dimes from your visitors, including the following.

A. Ask them to pay, either for that particular piece of content (through a micropayment) or for on-going access to your content on a subscription basis. That could be a subscription to your web content, or it could be a value-add for subscribers to your other publications (i.e., the privilege of using an ad blocker is for subscribers only).

(Update: Wired is doing this.)

B. Ask them to register, fill out a survey, or otherwise give you some information that you value as much as the lost ad revenue. These days, information about your users can be as valuable as ad impressions.

C. Show sponsored content (content somebody else pays you to display).

There are many ways to monetize content without ads, but there is one big problem with that approach. Your ad sales team is probably paid on a commission on ad sales, not on those other things. They have no incentive to promote micropayments or any of these other efforts, which they will see as distractions from the important business of ad impressions.

If you choose to deal with ad blockers by introducing another monetization strategy, you’re going to have to address your internal incentives.

5. Prohibit visitors with ad blockers — This is a hardball response, but … hey, it’s your site. If you’re providing content on the assumption that the user has to suffer through your ads, then that’s the deal, and if they aren’t willing to accept it, you’re free to cancel the arrangement.

Those are the strategies I came up with. If you can think of other ways to deal with ad blockers, please send them along.

Next week I’ll discuss “pay to play” and other possible developments.

Publishing lessons from an iceberg

When snow falls in the Antarctic, it piles up over thousands of years and forms glaciers, which flow (slowly) across the continent and sometimes end up in the sea as icebergs. As the glacier traverses the landscape it picks up nutrients from the soil, so in some cases icebergs end up moving those nutrients into the ocean.


Those nutrients feed phytoplankton, which are little critters that live in the ocean. That impacts the local ecosystem in many ways, but it also sequesters carbon, because the phytoplankton use up CO2.

So, CO2 might cause a warmer climate which might cause more icebergs to break off into the ocean which might cause phytoplankton to thrive which then use up the CO2 that cause a warmer climate.

See How huge icebergs could be slowing climate change.

That’s the way nature works sometimes. There are complicated feedback loops that tend to balance one another out. If one thing increases, something else often comes along to counter it. For example, a warmer climate might cause more cloud cover, which tends to cool the climate.

These things don’t always balance out perfectly. It’s not as if the phytoplankton will sequester exactly the right amount of CO2. The point is simply that when you increase one thing, something else often comes along to counter it. Nature is full of opportunistic plants and animals that are eager to grab what they can get. And as in the example with cloud cover, you don’t even need living things to have this sort of balancing act.

The same sort of balancing act can happen with markets. A new thing comes along and takes off like the proverbial bat from Hell, but then new products and players appear, costs and benefits adjust, and the initial calculations don’t apply any more.

A company sees an opportunity and enters a new market, but by the very fact of entering the market things have now changed.

Consider drones. The recent holiday shopping stats show that people are buying more and more of their gifts online. (I don’t think I darkened the door of more than one or two actual stores.) What will happen if packages can be delivered in hours instead of days?

Drones could drastically decrease shipping costs, since you don’t have to pay postage, or a truck driver. But remember that there are opportunistic critters out there ready to pounce. You can’t hack a UPS truck, but a clever kid can probably hack and divert a drone, which could increase delivery costs.

What does all this about icebergs and drones have to do with publishing?

The same basic rules seem to apply across markets.

Trends tend to slow down. Ebook adoption started off at a mad pace. Now the ebook share of the market is steady. You can’t base your business on an assumption that a trend will keep going the way it’s going now — or even keep going at all. People change, and new things come along. (Along these lines, analog is staging a small comeback against the digital revolution.)

“Opportunistic critters” show up. Years ago, publishers rushed to put their articles online to get ad sales, but then slimy websites stole the content and sold ads against it, cutting into publisher profits. It’s like the long-lost relative ambling down the lane after you win the lottery. As soon as somebody starts to make a buck, other people try to find a way to get their cut.

That “cut” might undermine your hard work. For example, you might spend a lot of money to convert your content into the latest and greatest digital format, and one month later a new technology comes out that makes it all obsolete.

Even the experts can’t see what’s coming. We’re not very good at predicting the future. Remember when Sen. McCain said “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” just before the Great Recession, or when President Obama said “ISIS is contained” right before the Paris attacks? These are guys who get regular briefings from the best of the best, and they still get it wrong.

I’m painting a fairly negative picture here and you may be asking what it all means. Am I suggesting that we spurn trends and not worry about the future? Que sera sera?

Of course not.

The first step is to avoid being fooled, but the second step is to take appropriate action. In my opinion, publishers should keep these things in mind.

  1. When you’ve got a wave, surf. Ride trends quickly and make what you can of them, but don’t expect them to last.
  2. Stick to the fundamentals. No matter what device or format people are using, quality content, clear offers and compelling benefits to a well-targeted market are what matters.
  3. Do the cheap thing first. You don’t want to call the pumber only to find out that you could have solved the problem in five minutes if you’d just checked YouTube. (Ask me sometime about the morning I disassembled my steering column when all I had to do was wiggle the wheel.)

The overall lesson from the iceberg is that the world is a complicated place, and causes and effects are tricky things. Hidden forces can creep out of the woodwork and take a bite out of your confident projections. Push ahead, but keep your options open, and don’t expect the winds to keep blowing in the same direction.

Half of what you hear about book publishing is wrong

A few times I’ve had the privilege of speaking with Chinese business and government officials about publishing. It’s very interesting to hear their perspectives, and what they worry about.

The experience reminds me of something I read from C.S. Lewis about the virtue of reading old books. It’s a way to get your mind outside of the prejudices you live and breathe every day, he says. A fish doesn’t know that he’s wet, right?

The same is true with other cultures. Sometimes it might be helpful to try to view an issue from the perspective of another country, or another age group.

I’m no expert on the differences between American and Chinese culture, but it seems to me that Americans are far more likely to jump on trends, while the Chinese are more cautious. Many of the questions I get when I speak with the Chinese about publishing show this. They read disturbing articles about “disruption” and changes in the industry, and they want to know what’s really going on.

I try to emphasize skepticism towards articles about trends in publishing. There are too many people trying to make a point, or push an agenda. They believe some slogan and then they go out to find statistics to support it so they can make their point.

This is hardly unique to publishing. We all look for things that confirm our biases and we tend to ignore or downplay things that contradict them. Confirmation bias affects how we view the shift from print to digital, or the effect of social media, or the future of mobile, just as surely as it affects our views of politics or social issues.

To combat this, you need to make an effort to find evidence that contradicts your pet theory, but you also need to be very careful interpreting what you think you’re reading — not only because of bias, but because of general sloppiness.

For example, statistics about the shift from desktop to mobile often use worldwide figures and trends, which are quite misleading for the American market. Traffic on mobile is increasing dramatically in the third world because they don’t have desktops.

The point is not to deny the substantial shift to mobile, but to point out that we have to pay attention to the details.

I was reading up on book publishing this week and came across this very interesting review of the ebook market. This piece really grabbed me.

… the media reporting on the industry almost always confuses the sales of only 1,200 traditional AAP publishers with those of the entire US ebook market. And as we’ve also seen, those 1,200 AAP publishers now represent less than half of the broader US ebook market ….

What gets measured is often not a reflection of reality but a reflection of what’s easy to measure. Keep that in mind as you read statistics about your market.

The NextIssue reboot — and why it still won’t work

I saw an ad on Facebook for Texture, and I thought it was another attempt at the NextIssue model for magazines, which, if you don’t recall, is a plan to do for magazines what Netflix did for movies. One subscription gives you access to a library of choices. But it turns out Texture is actually a reboot of Nextissue. In any event, I don’t think this model is going to work very well, new name notwithstanding.

Texture charges $9.99/month for the basic plan, and $14.99/month for premium service, which gives the reader access to weekly as well as monthly magazines. The subscriber can read as much as he likes of any title that chooses to participate in the program.

There are a lot of problems with this model, from both a consumer’s and a publisher’s perspective. Here are a few of my concerns.

Why it won’t thrill consumers.

  • Think for a minute about the movies you’ve watched in the past year, and compare that list to the magazines you’ve read. I suspect that your choice in movies is far more eclectic than your choice of magazines. In other words, it’s probably easier to lump the magazines you read into two or three categories than it is the movies you watch.

    I can’t prove that’s universally true, but I suspect that’s the way it is for most people. And if I’m right, it shows why the Netflix model doesn’t cross over very well to magazines. Movie watchers are more likely to want to choose from a large selection of movies than magazine readers are likely to want to choose from a large selection of magazines. Magazines tend to be more of a niche thing.

  • Netflix delivers movies precisely the way everybody wants to view them — that is, on a screen. There’s no print edition of a movie. But we are in the middle of a big experiment wth print vs. digital editions of magazines, and Texture is on the (so far) losing side of that. If you look at the sales figures, people prefer print magazines in large numbers. So the Texture business model is relying on delivering magazines in a format people generally don’t prefer.

Why publishers won’t be thrilled.

  • Who’s going to do customer service? Putting an intermediary between the consumer and the publisher is going to cause trouble. Since Texture is delivering magazines digitally, it won’t have to deal with changes of address, snow birds, and so on, but there are still issues about accounts and access. Some customers will be confused and will call the publisher rather than Texture. Also, there’s a growing expectation on the part of print subscribers that they should get the digital edition for free, or at a discount. How will that consumer expectation play out with the Texture model?
  • Will the publisher get the customer data? Part of the publishing business model is to up-sell and cross-sell, but publishers can only do that effectively when they get the customer information. I’m sure Texture has no intention of giving the publishers the customer data, and data is becoming more and more important to the publishing business model.
  • No, it’s not like the newsstand.

    When publishers ask digital newsstands for customer data, the digital newsstand people reply that the publisher should view digital sales the way they view print newsstand sales. “You don’t get the customer data when somebody buys your magazine at the drug store, and you don’t get it here either.”

    That’s not quite true. The printed edition at the newsstand has 47 of those annoying blow-in cards in it. You know, the things that drop all over the floor as you’re trying to read the magazine. They’re annoying, but publishers use those cards because they get a lot of subscriptions from them. In other words, print newsstand sales do convert to print subscriptions where the publisher gets the customer data. Not on every one, for sure, but on enough. There is no analogy to a digital sale. The publisher simply gets his cash, and that’s it.

    In some digital newsstands, publishers can sell single issues and try to upsell to subscriptions, but often they have to do it on rotten terms. In the Texture world, there would be no incentive for the customer to subscribe, since he can always get the next issue.

Generally speaking, I don’t think much of digital magazines. As I see it, a “magazine” is an inherently print-centric thing. The content can and should be repurposed for digital delivery, but the structure and arrangement should be very different. There’s not much point in trying to force it into something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a magazine (to borrow from Douglas Adams).

This is part pf why digital magazines simply haven’t taken off the way they were expected to. It’s simply not a good experience, and it’s not like a magazine. (Nor should it be.)

Back when Nextissue first came out, I offered some thoughts about the model. They still seem to apply.

A magazine is not just its content. It’s not a collection of articles, pictures and ads. It’s a peculiar sort of package, both in its content and in its presentation. It’s also a lifestyle choice. It’s a way to brand yourself. A magazine is a form of self and group identity.

You don’t subscribe to Field and Stream just because you want to know how to get a trophy buck. You want to think of yourself — and you want others to think of you — as that kind of guy. You want to feel a part of that lifestyle. You want the people who visit your house to see Field and Stream on your coffee table and know a little more about you.

The idea that consumers will grab GQ this month, then Entertainment Weekly, then People, then Better Homes and Gardens …. It seems like a flawed premise to me. A reader might browse those things in the barber shop while waiting for a chair, but this undifferentiated mass of magazines is not a compelling sale.

If you want to sell Better Homes and Gardens there’s a solid pitch to be made. Have a nicer home! We’ll show you how, and all the great stuff we’ll show you is more than worth the paltry subscription price. Plus you get all these premiums!

What is Nextissue selling? You can read … uh … all this stuff … and, uh … whatever it is that you like you can … well … you can read it on a tablet, like no one else in the world is doing right now. (Despite the hype, tablet sales of magazines are awful.)

There’s no clear benefit to an identifiable group of people who want a discrete something — except for a group of people that simply doesn’t exist, that is, people who want to read an undifferentiated mass of whatever on a tablet.

People simply aren’t getting on board with the digital magazine thing — even with titles they like that have a clear audience and a clear benefit. The idea that it’s possible to water down the benefit, target an unclear demographic and sell even more digital magazines is not a business model I would bet on.

If I were to design a service like this, I would get rid of the concept of the issue. “Issues” don’t mean as much for a digital subscription. Rather, I would include articles and tag them by concept, so that if I was interested in politics I could get all the political articles from any title, or by any author.

The content from print magazines shouldn’t just get plopped into some digital service. It needs a re-think. Texture is rethinking it a little, but, in my opinion, not enough.

Publishing lessons from a zip-lock bag

If you're anything like me, when you're out at a store, or at a yard sale, you're always drawn to the book table. You already have too many books in your house, but … you have to look. You simply like books.

One of them catches your eye because it's a Sherlock Holmes book, and you love Holmes. But it catches your eye for the wrong reason. It looks amateurish. You can tell right away that it was not professionally done. The cover art is awful. The spine is blank. There's no bar code on the back cover. When you look inside, there's no copyright page — it just rushes to the text, and the text isn't set well. There are odd breaks, and it's hard to tell one paragraph from the next.

Somebody just downloaded the text off the internet and slapped a cover on it. It's shoddy work, and you toss it aside with a little bit of disgust.

But why? From a purely functional perspective, what does it matter? It's still got the whole story. Do you really need those other features?

Whoever published the thing was just trying to make a quick buck, and what's the ROI on a copyright page, anyway? Why should the publisher waste time and money on fancy features when this simpler version, published at home in Word, does just fine? After all, a lot of books have been published like this, and lots of copies were sold. They didn't need all the frills and flourishes.

I'm sure you see through that sort of thinking. There's more to a book than words on a page. There's a bit of art to it as well, and a book that isn't done well gets mentally categorized along with books about crazy conspiracy theories or other fringe topics.

There probably is an ROI on doing a book well, but it would be very hard to calculate it. The more important thing is that you simply don't want to be the company that does a book so poorly. The other thing to realize is that the standards are always changing.

Most things in life are getting better all the time. My kids are grown now, but recently I was shopping for baby paraphernalia, and it's astonishing how much better everything is. Nobody today would buy the backpack I used to carry my kids around the park, and no football player wants to use my old helmet.

Once an improvement is made in a product or process, everybody else adopts that improvement or gets left behind.

A few years ago you couldn't find a bag of frozen vegetables with a zip-lock resealable top. Now it's becoming standard. And once somebody finally uses a zip-lock bag for breakfast cereal (what's holding that up, anyway?), every brand will have to follow suit quickly.


zip lock bag

Just yesterday I noticed a huge improvement on the ordinary zip-lock sandwich bag. The plastic on one of the sides has an extra tab so it's easy to grab both sides and open the bag. It's a great idea, and within months everybody who makes zip-lock bags will revise their manufacturing process to do the same.

All this applies to your business as well. It doesn't matter if you think you need a Facebook page. Everybody expects you to have one, so if you don't, you'll look unprofessional.

There's room for different strategies about innovation. You might be out ahead of the pack, trying crazy new ideas, or you might be a fast follower — waiting for someone else to spend their time and money blazing new paths while you wait to see if they work.

You might even be a slightly slow follower. But you can't afford to ignore innovation. You have to keep up with what people expect of a modern, professional organization or you'll be selling my old baby backpack to people who expect modern backpacks.

Along those lines, consider this New Year's exercise. Make a list of what "not being left behind" means in 2016 for your business. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • If you don't already, you have to have a strategy for mobile. At a minimum that will affect the layout of your emails, how you do e-commerce and how you deliver content.
  • You need to start collecting and using your customer data. That means web visitors, recording actions people take on your website, organizing your email lists, making sense of your subscriber data, matching it all up with your prospects …. You need to have a strategy for any and all data you collect or can collect.
  • Many websites are using chat for customer service these days. Are you?
  • Do you let users track delivery of their products?
  • Do you allow customers to review your products, or leave feedback?

I'm sure you can come up with more, and please feel free to mention them.

Not every innovation will apply to your business, and you have to make reasonable economic decisions about whether to implement them. But you can't afford to be the company that looks like it belongs in an old movie.

Once an idea catches on, nobody will ever do it the old way again. You won't find a car that doesn't have intermittent wipers, or lots of cup holders, and you don't want to be the publisher that refuses to catch up with the times.

Jeeves and the Smart Phone — a few thoughts about fan fiction

Bear with me for a couple paragraphs — despite appearances, this isn’t about me.

I’m a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves stories. Most of them involve Wooster bumbling into trouble and Jeeves rescuing him, but they often involve mistaken identity, so when a humorous case of mistaken identity came up at the dinner table the other day, I decided to write it up as a Jeeves story.

Of course I don’t own the copyright, so I can’t publish a Jeeves story for money, but I enjoy writing short stories, so I thought I’d have a go at it just for fun. That got me curious about what my publishing options might be.

The first option is to track down the owner of the copyright and ask for permission. That was a relatively simple matter on Google. Rogers Coleridge and White manage such things for the Wodehouse estate. Unfortunately, their contact form doesn’t work, they don’t publish an email and they don’t reply to tweets, so I’m going to have to resort to a letter.

The second option is the weird world of fan fiction, which skirts the edges of copyright law. (It’s also just kinda odd.)

Publishers and authors have different views on fan fiction. Some like it and encourage it, while others don’t. For more on the legal problems of fan fiction, the oracle of all knowledge is helpful.

Fanfiction is not infringing if it constitutes fair use of the underlying copyrighted work. In determining whether a particular use constitutes fair use, courts consider the following four factors:

  1. “the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

Here’s the worst of it: “fair use is assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

I would like to publish this story on the kindle, just for fun. Also, as a struggling wannabe writer, publishing something with the Jeeves name would get my name out there in the world of Amazon and such, which would be a good thing.

But that’s precisely the point of copyright. The Jeeves name draws attention because of the skill of P.G. Wodehouse, and it’s not right for me to try to piggyback on it. WIthout permission, anyway.

The personalized newsletter of the future

I’ve been in subscription publishing for about 30 years. Back when I started I never heard anyone talk about “personalization.” I don’t think it was a word yet. The ability to customize content to the audience was pretty limited. Subscribers might be able to select which state tabs they got in the back of their binders, or whether they got this or that edition of the newsletter — among only a few choices — but that was about it.

Customized publishing has come a long way since. Printers can run several different editions of a magazine and include specific content by region and by other demographic criteria. Email marketers can insert content that is unique to the individual recipient, based on whatever demographic or other data the sender has in his database. And we all know how flexible content can be on the web, provided you can match the visitor to your database.

There are lots of other things going on as well. I can get Google alerts on the topics I select, and email newsletters from the organizations I want to hear from. I can create custom RSS feeds, or use apps that pull articles from a range of sources on the topics I want to know about.

Content can be fine-tuned pretty well these days, but I think it still has a long way to go.

For example, there’s a particular dress shirt that I buy. Joseph A Banks’ fitted, pinpoint Oxford, button down, no iron shirt in 15 x 33. That’s what I buy, and nothing else. When that shirt is on sale I want to hear about it. Otherwise I don’t care.

As things stand today, in order to know about that shirt I need to get all the Joseph A Banks emails, which I don’t want. I don’t care about sweaters and I have enough suits.

I also want to know what’s going on in the world, which is why I get The Week’s daily “10 things you need to know” email. It’s a decent summary of top stories and keeps me from being that guy who’s living under a rock.

There are also columnists I follow, and bloggers, YouTube channels, authors, musicians, actors and tv shows. But each of those things is tied to a different brand, or service, or website. The publisher or creator cares about that for their own business reasons. I don’t.

Facebook covers some of these things. Google alerts can cover others. But nothing does it all, and part of the reason is that each of these brands isn’t looking out for me and what I want. They’re looking out for how they can squeeze me and what I want into their universe.

It doesn’t matter to me what Google thinks of my TV shows, or whether they’ve been able to work out a business deal with that network. I don’t want to be limited to what they offer in their walled garden. Or Amazon’s. Or Apple’s.

Each of these brands thinks they can have their fingers in everything — news, movies, TV, music, books, etc. — so you can get everything you want in their platform. But no matter how hard they try, they’re not going to get everything I’m interested in, and I don’t want to be stuck in their system.

I’ll want to watch a Netflix original that isn’t on Amazon prime, or I’ll read blogs from several different platforms, or I’ll want a type of tea they don’t sell, or I’ll own a very particular type of whatsit that’s only available from a custom shop.

There is simply no way that the big players are going to be able to cover everything I’m interested in, and this creates an opportunity for someone who’s willing to do a little leg work.

All the stuff that I’ve mentioned is available online, but it’s available in different services. On Amazon, on Google Play, on Blogspot, at Joseph A Banks, etc., and there’s no one place where you can get it all. Nobody’s going to solve that, but somebody might be able to put information about all those things into one service.

Imagine a browser plugin that allowed you to select things no matter where you found them, and allowed you to customize alerts for when something has changed.

  • “Tell me when this shirt is on sale.”
  • “Let me know when Lutheran Satire posts a new YouTube video.”
  • “I want to read everything anybody says about Wooster and Jeeves.”
  • “Send me a note when a new review is posted on this product — in any store or on any site.”

Now imagine that all this stuff was organized into a daily email.

That, my friends, would be custom publishing.

Click-bait headlines are a moral problem

This week I had the bad sense to click on this headline: "These six tragic revelations from Carly Simon’s memoir will make you ashamed to be a man (if you are a man)"

I won't link to it for reasons that will become plain below.

The article is about the troubled romantic life of Carly Simon. She wasn’t very discerning in her dating and mating habits, and she got her heart broken a few times by unscrupulous men. Big surprise, right? Perhaps she should have read some Jane Austen, or listened to her grandmother.

The story itself isn’t so bad, but the headline is ridiculous. All men are supposed to feel ashamed because some actors and musicians aren’t nice people? Seriously? What will we learn next, that circus performers move around a lot and that many people don't trust lawyers?

The headline is absurd, and almost all the comments on the article take the site to task for it.

Still, I can imagine the headline writer with his Omniture statistics and ad revenue reports in one hand, and the negative comments in the other, thinking “the joke’s on you guys.” Because no matter how much you hate click-bait headlines, they work. If you want to attract eyeballs, being angry, outrageous or salacious is the way to go.

If that's the case, how’s an honest newsman to make a living in this sort of environment? If the editors, the publishers, the advertisers and the readers don’t value honesty, integrity, fairness and truth, it seems we’ll continue to slip down this path to a place where the only thing that matters is getting the clicks — by hook or by crook. Because it works. And, you know, we have to make a living, right?

I was discussing this with my wife this morning, and she reminded me of a quote from John Adams. The situation with journalism is somewhat analogous to American politics.

Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

An unruly people requires a lot of rules to keep them in line. “Self governing” doesn’t only mean that we get to elect our representatives. It means that we govern ourselves. Self-governing people are ruled by their own internal moral compass. They're strict with themselves so somebody else doesn't have to be.

Another wise man once said this.

Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.

Or, to put it a little closer to home, if you're afraid of speed cameras, stop speeding. Govern yourself, and somebody else won't have to govern you.

The same concept seems to apply to the press. Click-bait headlines work because we click on them. Cut it out.

It's not just a matter of annoyance. This is a moral issue. These headlines lie. They deceive. They misrepresent.

In this case it’s fair to call whatever revenue you get from this garbage “filthy lucre.”

If click bait headlines offend you (and they should), you should be putting pressure on the companies that profit from them. Don’t do business with them. Don't even view their pages.

But that’s not nearly enough to turn the tide. If we want honest journalism, we need an honest population that (1) knows better than to be fooled by this nonsense, (2) is disgusted by it, and (3) has the self control to keep away from it (no matter how tasty the little morsel appears).

We need people who insist on honesty and fairness in their news, and who are willing to govern themselves accordingly — by refusing to visit sites that use these cheap tactics.

And if any of my readers are in the business of making web browsers, or browser plugins, here's an idea for you. Add a function that allows the user to mark a site as a click-bait offender. Then, whenever the user accidentally navigates to that same site, display a message, like "You've labeled this as a site that uses click-bait headlines. Do you want to reward their bad business practices?"