Guilty Pleasures and Guilty Publishers

OK, I admit it. The New York Times has gotten rid of their notorious “Times Select” racket, and I’ve been busily catching up on all the columns that didn’t make the grade (the moderator likes politics) on Behind the Times. And so I’ve been glancing through Dick Cavett’s blog, and found his difficulties at getting his best selling book shipped to eager bookstores very interesting. Apparently, he had to resort to threats of canceling the book tour that was generating tons of sales for the publisher unless they shipped books to Chicago!

The comments were also very interesting. Many authors wrote in with stories of how impossible it was to get the publisher to ship any books to any bookstores, but they lacked the star-power of a Cavett to get the ball rolling. Several cited disasters with liberal arts incompetents masquerading as businessmen and women mishandling their projects and yes, I’ve experienced this myself, particularly the idiot from Wiley who couldn’t keep straight the project, the book, the times scheduled to discuss matters, and the communications. While I could cope with basic incompetence (I work in Silicon Valley, after all), I had to threaten legal action when she decided unilaterally wreck the project when it was essentially completed by contacting one of my business associates (who ran a lovely datacenter and was going to buy lots and lots of books) that she didn’t want to do the project and he shouldn’t deal with me. She then went on to sign a nobody to try and rip off the same manuscript (I hadn’t given her the good stuff yet, so there wasn’t enough to rip-off, because I had been clued in by my agent to be careful after my prior editor was off’d), and it went on to be a complete failure. Suffice to say she didn’t last long, but I never did business with that publisher again.

But the primary reasons for this lack of execution are economic and global in nature. Yes, execution is CEO-speak for doing, or not doing, the job, and it’s the executives that are ultimately responsible. Cavett found it almost impossible to get his publishing execs on the ball for executing on his agreement, even though executives are supposed to be the ones who make sure things go — that was my job in the last four companies I co-founded. In fact, I remember when execution was always on the top-three lists for CEOs, but last time I saw John Doerr he apparently didn’t think it was that important anymore — hmm, do you start to see a pattern? Sometimes when people hear words like global, they feel they don’t have to do anything because the problem is too large. This may explain the complete disinterest Cavett experienced — they just don’t feel they have to deal with any problem because it’s too big.

So I guess we have to reduce the problem down to a level where they have to take responsibility. So I’ll take a shot at it (anyone is free to comment on a better approach). The reason publishers blow it has much to do with how they have adapted, or not adapted, to Internet publicity and distribution. Book cycles are much shorter than 20 years ago, and demands for books are likely to be stochastic (a foreign word to most liberal arts publishers, but very understandable to technologists). If a publishing house is still doing publishing “the old fashioned way” (e.g. sign an author, wait for a complete manuscript and then do editing, get in-house art to handle the cover, in-house marketing to do the blurbs and publicity, recon the entire work into their own proprietary system, re-edit, rewrite, and finally, after much discussion, order inventory for storage from a book binder), then they’re putting themselves at a great deal of risk because they can’t respond to fluctuating demand easily. And the author loses out because the progression from signing to book takes a great deal of time — perhaps missing a good window of opportunity to establish it before trends shifted. No wonder book publishers only want to sign “pet autobiographies” and “self-help memoirs”, and fixate on block-busters. Perhaps instead of checks, publishers should just buy everybody in the biz lottery tickets, so that maybe somebody will make it big.

Of course, there are ways to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace. One approach is to embrace the long-tail, and not run away from it, perhaps by using some of the technologies available such as “instant book publishing” and software license arrangements (see Fun Friday – College Textbook Sticker Shock). But this would demand a fundamental sea change in how publishers relate to their authors and their business — one that would require just-in-time inventory, Internet updates, Internet publicity (online video, for instance of authors chats), investment in new technologies like kiosks, and so on. Their revenues would be based on licenses to read, and not on tangible inventories, and their financials would look completely different. And that is the real bugbear in the bookselling business.

This will happen, whether publishers want to adapt or not. And the end result will be bankruptcies, mergers, failures, and ultimately a few successes. The real sufferers are the book-buying public who wants to see the long-tail of new book ideas and the authors, who just want to write and sell books to those who want to read them.

When Security Means Silence

My daughter is studying the play “Judgment at Nuremberg” by Abby Mann for English Lit, so for fun we decided to rent the wonderful 1961 movie version and watch it together as a family. The play depicts the trial of four judges who committed crimes under the guise of executing the law under Nazism, the responses of victims, and the interplay between state mandate and personal responsibility. Intercut with actual footage of Nuremberg during that time as well as actual footage of atrocities committed by the regime, and filled with wonderful actors (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer, and William Shatner), the play underscores the series of step-by-step legal decisions which ultimately denied justice, steps beginning with loyalty oaths and mandates against associating with inappropriate (labeled by the government) people and leading to the subversion of the entire judicial system in the name of maintaining the fiction of law during a genocidal war. And even though each judge was deemed responsible and “guilty” by the presiding trial judges (2-1, not unanimous), the lead defense attorney indicates that within a short time all those convicted will be released – which they eventually are.

I am struck with how much the lessons in this play, learned at such great cost in WWII, are still relevant today. Bruce Schneier in his latest CryptoGram security bulletin notes that non-classified NASA researchers working at JPL are now suing NASA and CalTech over invasive background checks. According to the Associated Press account of the lawsuit filed, “the Commerce Department and NASA instituted requirements that employees and contractors permit sweeping background checks to qualify for credentials and refusal would mean the loss of their jobs. NASA calls on employees to permit investigators to delve into medical, financial and past employment records, and to question friends and acquaintances about everything from their finances to sex lives, according to the suit. The requirements apply to everyone from janitors to visiting professors.”

I know there are people who will loudly proclaim that those who refuse to sign probably have something to hide. But this isn’t a standard background check – this is a blank check for the government to look at your mammogram results, bug your neighbors, examine your tax returns, follow you on vacation, and generally treat you as a criminal when you have committed no crime and there is no threat of a crime. Would anyone really sign a form that let’s their employer talk to your ex-wife or follow you into the PTA meeting or bar after work? Would you like your doctor asked questions about what you told him in confidence? I sincerely doubt it. It would be really stupid.

One thing about the leading researchers on the Mars rovers, the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn — they are not stupid. They are well-known world-class scientists being told they must sign away their Constitutional rights (the 4th and 14th Amendment) or lose their jobs. It’s scary. And it’s absolutely suicidal for America’s space program.

Finally, for those pundits who say we don’t need a space program, I suggest they look at the progress China and Russia are making. America has dominated the space exploration biz for over 40 years, and we have reaped the rewards in scientific achievement (which translates into big bucks in the commercial sector over the long run) and prestige (which means we get things our way most of the time). In fact, we’re so used to getting what we want from the world that we actually think we don’t have to work for it. To use a common phrase, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We can’t afford to kick out our best and brightest because some government bureaucrat wants to break out of the GS-12 dead-end pay level by inventing threats. Because at the end of the day, somebody has to pay for that lunch one way or another. Let’s hope that our lead in space exploration isn’t the price.