Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dead Barbie On A Beach in Costa Rica

This is the last of three travel articles on a trip Mrs PND and I took to Costa Rica. Links to the others are at the bottom.

There is a rage mixed with disbelief as the view along the crescent of sand is dotted with colorful plastic jewelry. Every conceivable color is represented and in all forms of mass production from buckets to sandals to nylon rope. Netted collections of twigs, branches and leaves hold this detritus from our civilized world until it runs ashore. And make no mistake - this excrement has no business being here in this spit of wilderness pointing out into the Pacific Ocean.

And, yes, tossed up on the beach was dead Barbie. Entirely pink but not anatomically correct it may nevertheless be the subject of an intense manhunt in some bedroom in Santa Monica. The sheer amount of plastic material, both whole and ground into small pieces, is hard to describe and the hotel workers labored for three days to collect the material and truck it off. Mini color-dotted pyres sprang up along the beach as they struggled to catch up with the constant influx of new material from the sea. It was likely to go on for a week pushed ahead by some massive storm out to sea: This didn’t matter to hotel management - they had to get the beach back in pristine shape. At least until the next tide. I did notice that of the 20 or so workers, there didn’t appear to be any managers.

My fascination with this mess took me along the beach. We are infrequently confronted by our impact on our environment and this was a first for me. We had just spent the past three days in a protected ecological reserve and that experience made the contrast with what we saw on the beach all the more marked. As I walked the length of the beach I was mindful of my step. Thoughts of medical waste washed up on New Jersey beaches caught in my mind and wouldn’t you know it? There was a syringe still connected to its needle sitting happily just above the waterline. Thankfully lonely amongst the plastic bottles, buckets and foam bottle holders, I carefully picked it up and placed it in one of the garbage bags the workers were filling.

Needless to say, few people were venturing into the sea that week although the beach on the bay side of the hotel was protected from the scrum of scum. Care had been taken in the construction of the hotel so as to destroy as little of the jungle as possible but while this is a beautiful location, an eco-lodge it is not. Designed for rich, pampered phobia-ridden tourists, there is just enough ‘nature’ to enable them to return to Upper Saddle River where they can tell their friends about the monkeys they saw from their bedroom lanai. How about a hike up the volcano or a visit to the small local town? Nope, that would be too much trouble and we only came for the sun.

Make no mistake - I recognize Mr. and Mrs. PND are similar (although we are often horrified at the closed mindedness of some of our fellow pool dwellers) in nature to all the other attendees at this ecological Disney experience. On the other hand, the hotel has enabled some lucky Costa Ricans to crawl into a sort of lower middle class. Engaging in a conversation with the hotel staff produces startling support for the hotel and the opportunity it affords. All enjoy the opportunity to practice their English and in a country where over 95% of the population is literate (can we say the same?), your average Costa Rican is going to come across as being quite “with it”. The hotel is hard to get to and I think management discourages personal transport, so staff catch regularly scheduled coaches to the hotel. One worker told us she is up at four every morning to catch the bus and not home until past six at night. She just loves her job, though.

We can escape all we want to places like this, but it doesn’t take long to realize how interconnected we all are. It was bad enough that we were quietly sitting reading at the pool when two couples sidled up near us and started to discuss shopping at the Short Hills Mall. The ecological disaster that greeted us on the beach got me wondering what it must be like to live downstream from a very large waste pipe. Sadly the producers of the waste in the pipe (me included) rarely, if ever, see the results of their activities. I wonder, had the weather been a little nicer, would I have been more upset that I couldn’t tan on the beach or horrified about the scum? I guess if I didn’t think the experience disturbing, I wouldn’t still be thinking about it.

Hiking in the Clouds
Zipping Through Costa Rica

Customer Service

I admit to a degree of impatience with shoddy service. At the same time I do fight the English tendancy to put up. Often I have an internal conversation with myself that generally ends in ''ll be disgusted with yourself tomorrow if you don't do something about this..' Generally by then I am pissed which doesn't help. Anyway over the past two weeks, I have felt a little awash in the Bermuda Triangle of customer service.

I checked into a Holiday Inn recently and on leaving the desk I asked if my room had a connecting door. I hate them. Happily the receptionist said "When you get up there if your room has one just come back and I'll put you in another room." Sure enough I was back at the desk five minutes later. By then she had seemed to have found the floor map.

Mrs PND and I travelled to the UK last week. British Airways used to have one of the best in-flight services going. Coming and going we noted the total mediocrity of the service. Periodically the flight attendants seemed to forget we existed. I never got offered breakfast and for some reason the crew moved four from economy into business class - a significant bonus for them no doubt - and in the process spent more time addressing their needs than the rest of the paying travellers. Return wasn't much better but it was prefaced by a standing room only arrival in the executive club lounge. Staff couldn't give a rats arse.

While in the UK, I walked into a Starbucks near home at 5:45pm to access my email only to realize the place was closing. This was apparent because rather than waiting to clean up after they were closed (at 6pm) all the chairs were on the tables and they were mopping up. No staff were available to serve. The next day I went down to get a coffee at 8:20am, paid for my grande and then realized (together with the clerk) that they had forgotten to put the coffee on! This is Starbucks - that's what they do!

In Hatchards on Monday I was picking up books I had paid for over the phone and rather than have someone bring them to the front desk they had me up and down the stairs doing my own research on where someone may have put the three books in question. I ended up in the mail room on the top floor. As I left someone asked if I had found everything I needed. Christ.

I might be a whiner but over the same period, I can't think of any occasion where I have witnessed good or exceptional customer service. No one cares anymore.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Publishing Supply Chain Part Two

Structural flaws in our business will increasingly cause a decrease in the amounts of productive capital invested in our business. Publishers we are weighed down by the inefficiencies within the publishing business and unless we adopt more flexible processes and work more collaboratively with our partners in the supply chain business growth will be stunted.

Our industry continues to benefit from a technology-driven period of change based in part on Y2K and ERP system implementations. IT infrastructure is now more flexible and provides information far surpassing the data and analytics available in years past. Today’s systems are also leveragable; their implementations allow even further opportunities for efficiencies within the organizations where they exist and this has helped drive cost and process efficiencies.

Recently, the President of a large trade publishing house commented that his company had maintained their operating margins over the past five years by squeezing more and more cost out of their operations but he couldn’t see that continuing in the ensuing years. Other publishers have begun to understand that cost structures have been cut about as much as they can and effort needs to be focused externally to achieve margin improvement. Creating efficiencies in the supply chain is the only area where sustainable expense and cost savings can be found.

The elements exist for publishing companies to understand and proactively manage their supply chains. Data warehouse structures now support sophisticated analytical reporting across a broad range of metrics, including the development of models for projecting the sales of new titles based on past performance of an authors previous titles or predicting sales of a new title against titles with similar characteristics. Publishers using the data currently available to them have generated incremental operating improvements from their use but there remain significant gaps in data supply.

Supply chain problems manifest themselves in operational statistics that would not be tolerated in most other businesses. Order fill rates averaging 85% are common; meaning we may be loosing as much as 15% of potential revenue. Counter intuitive to this fill rate percentage, inventory levels are often excessive - absorbing cash, capital expense, and operating costs due to personnel, obsolescence, damage and shrinkage. At fault is a lack of knowledge of key supply chain data elements. For example, most publishers (with a few exceptions) can not see day-to-day demand and stock positions across the supply chain. If this information were available to publishers, they could be far more educated about inventory, printing and supply decisions.

The low fill rates above are not for want of trying. There is plenty of inventory with the publishers, wholesalers and retailers. Nevertheless, a publisher’s annual inventory turns of less than of 1 is common. And let’s not forget returns which average between 25 - 40%. Efficiencies can and have been made within organizations with better planning and forecasting tools. For example, while at Price Waterhouse I was involved in a project which increased inventory turn at a large trade publisher saving them $120million/year; however, this only got them to a turn of once per year. To really drive inventory down and turn up, the publisher needed to know where their inventory was in the supply chain, what was selling and what projected demand was for all their titles down to the level of the locations that held the inventory – stores, wholesalers, retail warehouses, etc.

Access to retail sales data and stock information at each level in the supply chain would enable publishers to make their operations more efficient. Retailers would be able to manage their inventory effectively but most importantly all participants would be better placed to satisfy customer’s requests resulting in improved fill rates. Publishers don’t want to be caught unable to fulfill a title and incorporate a high safety stock level into their printing decisions. Intuitively, better knowledge would lead to more effective distribution and therefore less returns and less need for high safety stock levels. The ripple effect is considerable; high inventory turns means less warehouse space, fewer returns means less freight and postage, processing and write-offs.

Publishing needs to adopt an “Intelligent Publishing Supply Chain” (IPSN) model governed by the demand of the final consumer. This drum beat will set the pace for the entire supply chain and is based on information flow and access across the supply chain. Obviously, a main component of this information flow is demand information at all stages of the supply chain with full collaboration between trading partners. To be effective in driving supply chain efficiencies publishers, retailers and wholesalers will need to establish collaborative practices and common standards across the industry. This will require a significant change in approach and perspective for all the players but the benefits will accrue to all parties. Collaboration across the supply chain is the only meaningful opportunity which will result in increased sales, reduced inventories, and reduced supply chain costs.

What might this IPSN look like? That is for my next post on this subject.

Supply Chain Part One.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ziping Through Costa Rica (Number 2)

You have the feeling that things are spiraling out of control, but you are of two minds as to whether to stop it. The process itself seems to be controlling matters and, while you have had time to think about your actions, there is something in the back of your head reflecting on the ease with which you seem to have put your life in danger. Those thoughts ran through my head as Luis, our guide, placed the pulley over the zip wire and told me to lift my feet off the platform. Mrs. PND is no wimp; she upped and went first and was now 200 feet away-- speeding 50 feet above the canopy to the second of 15 platforms we would visit in the next hour. Our two guides had clearly come to a conclusion about us immediately and, for whatever reason, they decided we would just get on with it. Hence, the rather cursory and matter-of-fact instruction, which sounded more like he was practicing his English than anything else. He gave the impression he expected us to pay about as much attention as we would to a flight attendant.

The first platform is a short drive from the head office and small gift shop and, once up the hill, we were led to a location short of the first platform. Our instructions were simple and presented in decent English—place your arm behind you, pressing on the wire to slow yourself and never grab the wire in front (otherwise you risk mangling your fingers). Then one of the boys attached himself to the practice wire suspended in front of us between two trees and showed us how it worked. We then got up from our seats, thinking we would then get the chance to practice on the training wire. Not so. We went straight to prime time.

Per instruction, up go the feet with knees bent in front of you and you are off-- flying like Peter Pan above the sea of green Monteverde rain forest. It was very cool and we still can’t really believe we did it. There are 15 platforms at Selvatura and a multi-bridge cloud walk. I had reviewed Fodor’s list of zipwire tours but decided based on the recommendation of our hotel, and I think we made the right choice. Most of the ziplines are 30-100 meters long; however, the longest is 400 meters, and runs parallel to one of the suspension bridges we walked across later that day. The wire looked more impressive from the bridge than it did when we sped across, given its height above ground - perhaps 100 feet - and the enormous distance between the platforms at either end.

Since it was just the two of us, we able to enjoy the company of the two boys and Mrs. PND was able to try her Spanish --I think the boys liked her. One had better English than the other and told her it was easy to learn English because Americans keep using the same words over and over again. I thought that comment was rather amusing.

Selvatura is located a very bumpy 20-minute ride above Santa Elena, and their mini-buses pick up customers anywhere in town. Ecology provided the genesis of the zipline tour when scientists recognized that they could study plant life and animals more effectively if they were suspended above or within the canopy. So, for purely scientific reasons--not at all for fun --scientists began zipwireing across nature preserves; word got out and a tourist attraction was born. In Santa Elena, there are at least 10 zip-line tour operators but none of them could be better than Selvatura. Any guide book will have listings and recommendations on each of the better operators. Obviously, safety is a major concern because these tours are a strong attraction for eco-tourism. It wouldn't do for tourists to start falling out of the sky and, at least according to Fodor’s there haven't been many accidents.

The zipline tour lasts about 60 mins. and I think I got to platform 10 thinking we were done. I was already impressed with the length of the tour but, as a parting gift, Selvatura offers something they call the “Tarzan Swing.” Tarzan has no redeeming or scientific value and is designed only to make you scream like an idiot as you step off a small platform and free-fall 30 feet over a ravine. It is really a mini bungee jump. Again, the fearless Mrs. PND went first. Not ever having bungee-jumped, the sensation of nothingness as you fall forward is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. This wasn't even that high--and I would do it again. When we got back to the hotel, the desk clerk asked in reverent tones, “Did you do the Tarzan?” I think she was impressed, although she might have been worried about my age...

Like the day before, we were eating lunch by 1:30 (this time at Pizzeria Johnny), feeling very satisfied with ourselves. Selvatura also has a 1.5-mile trail which includes 8 suspension bridges through the cloud forest, but we had to rush this since we would have had to wait 2 hours for the next shuttle bus to Santa Elena. We needed our lunch and we needed to get on the road to the beach.

Travel Edition: Hiking Above the Clouds

Monday, November 20, 2006

Top Ten Reasons Beckham Should Stay and Ali G.

Selena Roberts wrote last week that David Beckham should come to the US and give up playing at Real Madrid. I'm not sure this is a good idea. Here are my top ten reasons why. (And if you need to ask who David Beckham is then don't bother reading on).
  1. Who will he play with when all the good players are in Europe. Kiss good bye to Freddy.
  2. He is still only one free kick from redemption for England
  3. Naming his next child Brentwood - or perhaps Malibu - would be too much
  4. 10 Boring players are is still a boring team
  5. Heaven can wait: Buy a team and play when he turns forty
  6. He couldn't carry England how will he carry MLS
  7. Playing for MLS he will get about as much action as the least on the field
  8. Posh
  9. There will be less admin assistants for the rest of us; ask Rebecca Loos
  10. We don't want David in the Movies.
That's it other than the following Ali G video.
Ali-G Interviews Posh Spice and David Beckham

Friday, November 17, 2006

Berlitz: Improve your English

I used to work for Berlitz and they were a very conservative organization who relied on yellow pages and newspaper advertising to generate sales leads. Internationally, the company tended to be a little more adventurous particularly in Germany and Japan. Here is a link to some new style advertising that shows you can teach an old dog some new tricks.

Friday Update: Deals, Deals, Deals

Given all the hype about private equity interest in publishing and media it is interesting that two huge deals come somewhat out of the blue. Wiley has purchased Blackwell which will fit very well with that company and both will be able to leverage their collective expertise around the world. Both Wiley and Blackwell have strong positions in the UK and International markets but Blackwell will definitely get a boost in the US and Australia/New Zealand. This combination will also better support their growth into the Asian and Indian markets. I think it is a perfect deal for both. Obviously, the fact that Blackwell were for sale is not as much a surprise as hearing of the Reader's Digest sale. In the case of Blackwell they have suffered through some family issues and had reorganized about a year ago with new management directed to get the company into shape.

Reader's Digest has been under pressure for a number of years with a declining market and reduced direct marketing effectiveness. In the past five years or so they have restructured and infused the organization with new management and new thinking which has started to bear some fruit. No telling where this company would have been if it remained on the same path it was seven or eight years ago. The wonder now will be whether RD embarks on an acquisition process to further strengthen its revenue base.

Wiley: Press Release
Blackwell: Oxford Mail
Readers Digest: New York Times

Monday, November 13, 2006

Reading Challenge

So I thought this would be easy...thanks to So Many Books here is notice of a challenge issued by Overdue Books to read five books currently on your bookself. As I noted recently, I did a dumb thing and rearranged the books I have purchased but not read and they numbered over 30. So the challenge is read five books by January. Here is my gang of five;

The Road - Cormac McCarthy. Just picked it off the shelf

The Emperors Children - Claire Massud

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins

The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde

The Power of the Dog - Don Winslow

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Travel Edition - Hiking in Clouds In Costa Rica

Our second trip to Costa Rica started with a weather report from the Captain: “I hope you guys are planning on doing some surfing--October is the wettest month of the year.” Actually, we weren’t planning on catching any waves and, about three hours later, we were climbing the hardscrabble road to Santa Elena in Monteverde. As we drove up the mountain road – which rolled, twisted and turned, rising to a point 5,000 feet above sea level-- we marveled at the green pastures and the apparent slow pace of life. Locals looked up in mild interest and smiled as we passed slowly by. We waved affably and tried not to overplay our interest in what they were up to.

Costa Rica is rapidly growing in popularity and, in the year between our last visit and this one, a strip mall with an American-style supermarket – is that “Maxi-Bodega”? – had opened up in Liberia. Liberia is regional capital of Guanacaste and the location of the recently expanded northern Costa Rican airport. We had landed here with the intention of spending a few days hiking in the rain forest followed by five days in the sun. As we de-planed, the likelihood of five days in the sun was dimming but, as we entered the clouds in our approach to Santa Elena, I wasn’t thinking about that at all in anticipation of seeing the rainforest firsthand.

Dusk was closing in as we jolted into Santa Elena and the ground-level clouds made it virtually impossible to see anything. Mrs. PND and I had settled on Hotel Sapo Dorado (she really didn’t have much to do with it) – the name has something to do with frogs – which turned out to be both empty and rustically adorable. Staffers told us that the hotel is usually full between mid-December and April with a mix of European and US guests. Fifteen cabins are spread across a hill above Santa Elena, most with views of the town and the Nicoya Peninsula beyond. Once settled in our cabin (which had an outdoor lanai, two queen-size beds and a basic bathroom), we proceeded to dinner in the hotel restaurant. As we discussed plans for the next day, we were a little worried about the rain but decided we would hike through the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve.

Costa Rica has an aggressive ecological program and recently designated a large tract of forest in Northern Guanacaste as national park--though they haven’t yet decided what they will actually do with it. It has neither bathroom nor navigable road but, nevertheless, it represents the country’s desire to create yet another feast for eco-tourists. At 8:30 am the next day, we found ourselves hiking through the cloud forest on a route suggested by a park ranger based at the trail head. On the well-maintained trail, we rarely faced any mud or other hazards. I was a bit disappointed about this, since I had bought hiking boots and Mrs. PND only had Nikes--I was looking for a real hike, with real mud. At this altitude, we quickly became short of breath and regularly stopped as we climbed through the greenery. Tall trees covered in epiphytes and wrapped in vines towered above us; others seemed to have succumbed to the stranglehold of the hangers-on and had fallen across the forest floor, taking a chunk of the canopy with it. We later read that winds at this level can be very strong and often result in casualties.

Occasionally, we emerged from the dense forest to stand on the edge of a ridge, where we surveyed the peaks and valleys intersecting the region. Sixty minutes into our hike, we arrived at the Continental Divide, which provided a rest stop as well as an opportunity to look out over the forest toward the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other – or at least we could have, if the clouds had cooperated. The return trip took us over one of the hanging bridges common to Costa Rican parks and reserves, and we resolved to visit another of these reserves the following day. That day’s supposed 3.5 hr. hike took us about 2.5 hrs. and, as we returned to the car, the rain started to hammer down.

The Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve is only 10 mins. from Santa Elena and we were eating a well-deserved lunch by 11:30 that morning. As the rain pounded away, we spent the rest of our day reading in our cabin in the clouds. I plotted our activities for the next day and wondered why we weren’t spending more than two days up there. . .

Friday, November 10, 2006

Updates for the Weekend

Watching the news last night, Mrs PND and I were shocked and incredibly saddened to hear of the death of Ed Bradley. What a shock. Only several weeks ago he presented his last story on 60mins about the BP Refinery explosion in Texas and was admitted to the hospital the same day. Bradley was cool, professional and unpretentious and he joined the serious crew at 60mins in the early 1980s as very much the newbie. He clearly took his job seriously but had a great attitude about life. As described in the Boston Globe, at a Jimmy Buffet concert in Boston in 1984 he jumped up on stage unannounced and grabbed a tambourine and belted out a few songs. Here is CBS.

In other news, you will enjoy the following tale of a cocktail party where Stephen King attempts to sing with a band. The writer is Madame Arcarti and she rightly points out the hypocrisy sometimes exhibited in our reactions to the antics of of our popular culture 'heros'. Why do people think King's singing is great? Why, because he is a popular writer of fiction. Obvious. We seem to be far more patient with these people than we should be.

Thanks to a link on Guy Kawasaki's blog here is a very creative blog entry. I love it and it would be cool to try the comics myself. I should look into it.

Here is an all too frequent example misguided censorship in education from Blasted Members. It has a nice twist at the end.

Apparently, yet another large city newspaper has decided to do away with books reporting and book reviews. Here though is the reasoned discussion why this is somewhat inevitable.

I caught the following review by Bill Grimes in the NYTimes yesterday about the US pilots of the Eighth Airforce which was established in the aftermath of Pearl harbor to execute a long range bombing campaign against Germany. Surviving a tour with your mind and body in tact was a feat in itself, but to then face another tour was unbearable for some. Yet another book to place on the Christmas list.

Finally, Grumpy Old Bookman has a segment about Richard Dawkins writer of The God Delusion and a strange coincidental interview Dawkins had with Ted Haggard an apparent supporter of the gay lifestyle and illegal drug purchaser but now ex-head of his local evangelical church.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Private Equity Still Interested

Publishing is suddenly hot news in the financial markets. For an industry that is periodically characterized as a anachronism it is curious that so many PE firms seem to view publishing with excitement. Last Friday, CNBC had a segment on the activity and while they didn't hit on anything new they focused on the fact that many publishing companies, particularly newspaper companies retain very good margins and throw off a lot of cash. While their markets are seen to be declining, the PE firms can ride a decent wave for a few years and expect to hop off with a respectable return on investment. Several newspaper companies are or may be in play and even the NYT may face a proxy fight that may lead to changes in their ownership structure. It is well known that the Chandler family - prior owners of the LA Times - have pressured the Tribune Company to consider new ideas and options for recapitalizing that business.

In other publishing news, CNBC mentioned Moody's as a potential target given its strong and stable state. I haven't heard this company's name brought up before. Springer had its' bid rejected by Informa but I suspect they will be back with another bid in the short term. It was also revealed last week that Vivendi received an unsolicited bid from KKR - while not directly publishing this does reflect the interest in media generally. The bid while huge was rejected also.

We do however await the outcome of the Thomson and the Harcourt deals; they will represent the biggest publishing deals in a long time and will presage other deals in the early part of 2007 if not sooner. (Article on Pearson).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ronald Reagan and the Vote

In July 1981 I warily plodded down to my local post office (Kihei, Maui) to register for the draft. As a non-citizen green card holder I was required to do so just like every other kid I knew because of the bill the Reagan Administration had passed earlier that year. Since that day I was never sure that the paper work was ever completed -that the post office hadn't lost it: the whole process seemed completely ad hoc. Nevertheless, no less than 25 years later I was sitting in an immigration hearing answering questions for my citizenship application and there sure enough was the notation regarding my registration for the draft on July 10th, 1981.

So, in the intervening years I could drink legally, work, be arrested (I wasn't) deported, pay my taxes, go to war as a draftee but I couldn't vote for the candidate of my choice. Up until today I have never voted anywhere. Having gone through the byzantine citizen process - which is another story - I am finally enfranchised and just at the right time. In retrospect, I should have done this sooner, but my silly notion that I would be somehow giving up my Englishness if I became a US citizen is wholly selfish and irresponsible and I wish that I had done this sooner.

It is interesting to contrast 1980 with 2006 because the current President believes himself to be the successor to Ronny. Ron Reagan the President's son was on The Colbert Report recently and couldn't control is disdain for this idea and pointedly poked fun at the idea even suggesting that he had learned to ride a horse any by a ranch to emulate The Great Communicator. Ronald Reagan was the right choice for America in 1980 as much as George Bush is the wrong choice today. Regrettably, as Neil Young said "... we had our chance to change our mind... but we went with what we knew..." I think if voters could do the 2004 election over they would think differently. Today the electorate gets to exhibit their dissatisfaction with the state of events over the past six years and will present the democrats with a chance to define themselves while in the leadership in the run up to 2008. Do I think the Democrats will blow it? All evidence today seems to indicate they haven't won this election as much as the Republicans have lost it and that should be very worrisome to the dems.

This election today appears to be the most widely voted mid-term election since 1946 with an expected 48% of voters participating. I am finally happy and proud to be one of them. If anyone doubts the true state of affairs I recommend reading Frank Rich's piece in the NYT from this weekend.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Books In Different colors

There was a front page article in The New Times last week that didn't deserve to be there. Honestly, The Times' coverage of the publishing industry has eroded substantially since Geraldine Fabricant moved to other things and this article is no different than most of the other recent weak stories. The NYT treated the news that books are now available in Home Depot, Anthopologie and other non-bookstores as a shocking surprise. The only real surprise in my mind is their lack of imagination in suggesting that more of this non-traditional placement should occur and that they should have examined why publishers are being led by (supposedly) innovative retailers who place yellow covered titles with yellow pull-overs. I mean really how brainless is that.

This weekend in the same paper Eleanor Randolph composed a rebuttal which included the notion that if books are considered a fashion accessory then perhaps publishers could cover them in some chameleon like material that matches its' surroundings thereby perfectly blending into its environment. I think she strikes the right absurd note.

I recently read a quote from Todd Wager (who founded with Marc Cuban) who stated that it is "dangerous to assume your customers will be interested in your products in five months". His research confirmed that half of movie goers leaving a cinema said they’d buy the DVD which is an impulse buy opportunity. So, the strong implication is to place the DVD in the movie theatre so the patrons can buy the books, err... the DVDs. Wagner's new company does sell DVDs to patrons in the movie theatre. MJ Rose recently tried to solicit other ideas as to book/store match-ups from this entry. Harlequin Romance with Victoria Secret.... the notion is positively sacrilegious.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Have You Heard of Crowdsourcing?

A post on Lorcan Dempsey's site a few weeks ago caught my attention. He drew attention to a concept defined by Wired Magazine writers Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson called crowdsourcing (Article). They defined the concept (to paraphrase from wikipedia) as activity traditionally completed by selectively hired, trained and managed workforces migrating to low paid or un-paid amateurs. These people use their knowledge and spare time to complete tasks, share ideas and solve problems. The obvious question is why don't you get what you pay for? The answer seems to be that to work well there needs to be a strong and widely held common purpose. The 'crowdsourcing' moniker is evidence that the idea is growing mainstream (and is itself a result of increasing wide-spread access to networks). As some have pointed out the Linux and Firefox development projects have been early examples of this concept.

The wikipedia site also lists some additional examples from mainstream companies such as Proctor and Gamble and Amazon. Recently, The Economist wrote about an Australian mining company that made available their prospecting documents under the guise of a competition. Interested 3rd parties could identify areas where they believed the company could mine for gold. Apparently the participating companies identified over 110 target sites of which 50 were new to the company. The benefit for the mining company was a significant reduction in time and expense to find these new targets and they also got access to new prospecting technology and processes.

Jeff Howe has a blog related to this topic named unsurprisingly The article in Wired is fascinating as it points to how business models have to change in some of the least likely businesses. Who would have thought that the stock photo business could collapse because we all have digital cameras and loads of images we can now share or license. Suddenly 'good enough' content exists in substantial amounts and the market is becoming over supplied - at least from the perspective of the stock photo agencies. The article points to as examples of the above and in the same vein exists to enable anyone who witnesses a newsworthy event to upload their photos for distribution and licensing.

Coincident with my reading Lorcan's blog entry about crowdsourcing I also witnessed an incredible example of this idea on the site. A few weeks ago, they decided that they wanted to translate their pages so that they could appeal to foreign language speakers. Instead of finding a language speaker in each of the target languages to slog through all the pages and translate them into F, I, G, S etc. they opened up the site to allow iterative translation. To my mind the results were astounding because they had for example 75% of the German translation done inside a day. To date, about a month after they started the project, they have 100% of the site translated into German, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. Here is the hit parade. As they (Tim) point out, adding a league table of translators seemed to incite some competition. There have been a number of blog entries on this topic but here is an early one.

Crowdsourcing is powerful, and yes we can argue it isn't that new, but the enablers are now more prevalent which is better and closer computing power, easier access to networking and rapid adoption of virtual social networks. My characterization of 'good enough' above was purposeful; one of the tenets of crowdsourcing is that the power of the network will outstrip that of a small group of experienced professionals. This is the real danger for publishers and others who have built silos of expensive (to develop and sell) content. As a database publisher I could point out the blemishes in 'good enough' products that I competed against. What happens when I can't do that. Witness the EB versus wikipedia debate earlier this year.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

William Styron

William Styron has passed away and his obit in The New York Times is here. Sophie's Choice is the only title I have read which still resonates with me having read it when I was 16. William Styron wasn't afraid of courting controversy - perhaps he didn't set out to do that - but he knew what he knew and he wanted to tell people about it. Sophie's Choice was a powerful novel that in my case drew me in and told me about the holocaust in a way a history book never could.

Penguin Blog

I typed penguin blog into google today and this is what came up first. Predictable really... I don't believe a Penguin can do its own shopping. For the record, I was looking for the book publisher.

While I am on this, while I was in Graduate school some friends of mine wanted to set up an all boys club named after Penguins (The Penguin Club) on the basis that (apparently) Penguins only mate once a year. Happily, I was able to decline my charter membership.

Lorcan Dempsey (who may not like the intro to this link) has some thoughts on the design of the Penguin paperbacks here.