Five Things: July 8, 2021

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Books Are Cheap | Anne Trubek

“Blaming Amazon for problems in the industry distracts us from considering other factors: increasing conglomeration, which forces prices down; pressure from distributors to keep prices down; pressure from booksellers to keep prices down.”

Anne publishes one of my favorite newsletters, and it’s one of the few I happily pay for because she isn’t afraid to tackle thorny industry issues with an inquisitive, open mind, while also sharing candid insights about her own business, Belt Publishing. There’s a handful of publishers who run things like I believe I would in the theoretical publishing company I refuse to ever start, and Anne is one of them.

The idea that books should cost more is an intriguing one, but only in an alternative world where the industry hadn’t been devaluing its own content for years while pretending they weren’t competing with other media for attention and discretionary income. The main thing that’s always struck me odd about book prices is they’re the only major media I’m aware of that heavily discounts brand new releases. Movies, games, comic books, and magazines are typically full price at their initial release, discounted only after demand ebbs, never flowed, or, in ill-advised ad-supported scenarios, heavily discounted via subscriptions. Meanwhile, almost every new book hits the shelves with a sizeable discount attached, and that’s the norm.

That’s not Amazon’s fault; they just took advantage of an established business model, found the white space, and put their thumb on the scale.

Because trade book publishers have historically been terrible about communicating directly with readers about literally anything—and in attempting to correct that fault, have clumsily done things to further alienate their real customers: booksellers and librarians—trying to argue for the “true value” of books is a Sisyphean task. Books are cheap because scale demands it, and the entire supply chain is built around maximizing scale to support large corporate publishers.

Success in the margins can be found outside of the supply chain, engaging directly with specific groups of readers and serving them well, like many marginalized authors and specialty niches have done for years, long before ebooks made it easy for anyone to publish a book and help send Jeff Bezos to space. Better to focus on premium releases and adjacent experiences for your hardcore fans, sold directly or via true partners, and accept the general commodification of books as yet another thing Boomers screwed future generations on.


Slack survey finds 97% of Black knowledge workers want the future of the office to be remote or hybrid | Veronica Combs

“If you want to return back to the old way of working, you’ll lose your talent because talent is asking for flexibility and a culture of trust and a new way of management.”

The “old way” of office work was rarely equitable, inevitably leading to the dreaded, often exclusionary, “culture fit.” Remote work is an adjustment for anyone, management and workers, but it can also help level the playing field in ways that lead to a stronger, more inclusive, more productive culture. (The early days of Twitter were very similar from a networking perspective.)

I’ve had to tolerate some bullshit office cultures throughout my career, and I surely benefitted at times from certain cultures that were exclusionary for others. Working remotely for the past 3+ years in three different office cultures has proven to me that the problem isn’t remote work, it’s toxic management.

My current day job is fully remote and I started as a part-time consultant, working with a few people I still haven’t met in person, but it’s been one of the most invigorating and positively challenging environments I’ve ever been in. I hate Slack and Zoom / Meet / Teams / OMFG! can be draining, but thanks to all of them, I’ve enjoyed similar “water cooler” moments to the ones I used to enjoy in offices, but none of the awkward, obligatory ones I always hated.

Working remotely often feels more authentic because there doesn’t have to be anything performative about it. We enjoy the work we’re doing, we work together to get things done, and our culture is evolving organically rather than being driven by any single powerful executive with an oversized ego.

Bonus: I get to wear t-shirts every day and never have to wonder if I should cover up my forearm tattoo.


3 Ways to Create Order to Encourage Change (Yes, Really!) | Charlene Li

“You can be a disruptive organization and have clear processes, beliefs, and behaviors that support change.”

The myth of the freewheeling disruptive start-up is total bullshit, typically driven by a purposeful lack of structure meant to stroke egos rather than nurture real progress, or it’s propped up by wheelbarrows full of VC funding. Truly successful disruption requires process and context, and Li’s “contradictory” insights remind me of Doc Hudson’s advice in Cars: “If you’re going hard enough left, you’ll find yourself turning right.”

Speaking of contradictions, while I’ve always despised overly structured corporate cultures, I’ve always worked best within structures I could challenge. When there was no real structure to speak of, I’ve created some myself and then invited challenges to them.

As a result, I found consulting and freelancing to be way more difficult than working for a terrible company, because any structure was relatively porous. Now working for a quasi-startup for nearly a year, I’m pleased to see we’re following all three of Li’s tips, and are finding success doing so.


Metadata, Marketing, and Equitable Access Drive Comics Circulation in Libraries and Schools | Me!

“Over the past year, we’ve found that a few key factors help drive discovery and circulation in Comics Plus beyond pre-existing consumer awareness of popular franchises and creators, most of which publishers can influence with robust metadata aligned with industry standards, complemented by targeted marketing efforts and equitable access.”

I do a lot of writing, and even more editing, at the day job, but the majority of it is marketing-related and not really meant for general consumption. Every now and then I get to tackle something like I would in the old blogging days, and this post originally started out as a simple call to our publisher partners for promotional materials but turned into something bigger and, I think, more interesting.

It only scratches the surface of a topic I want to dig into further—the intersection of digital content, library lending, metadata, and being data-informed—but it helped me frame a few of the peripheral issues for a publisher’s perspective, which is ultimately going to be my primary audience when I do write it. Soon…


Plants Are People, Too | Also Me!

A couple of lifetimes ago, I found myself unexpectedly being named the publisher of Horticulture Magazine, after initially serving as its Ad Director along with a couple of other titles, including my beloved Writer’s Digest. My friend and former colleague, Jane Friedman, got the WD gig—deservedly so—and I spent a year stabilizing a neglected brand that never did find its fit in F+W Media’s awkwardly cobbled together portfolio, but I did achieve my main goal: to not be the last publisher on the masthead of that historic brand!

(Ironically, years later, I did get the WD gig and ended up in the same situation when F+W finally stumbled into bankruptcy: stabilizing a neglected brand, refusing to be the last publisher on its masthead. Shortly thereafter, I learned about the “glass cliff.” Womp womp.)

During my year running Horticulture, I tried to get into gardening myself and found it to be simultaneously challenging and relaxing, and ultimately very rewarding. Fast forward, we bought a house at the end of last year and are on the verge of finally moving in at the end of this month, so my interest in gardening has returned, this time purely out of personal interest.

While researching plants for our yard and aspirational garden, I remembered Ken Druse’s Planthropology, a book I not only sincerely enjoyed years ago, I wrote this article about it for Horticulture after seeing him speak at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Whippany, NJ. One thing led to another, and a copy of that book is now on its way to me in the mail, thanks to Ebay, and we have a great little tree (standing vine?) planted in our front lawn.

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