Life Without Borders’

This past Wednesday, Borders’ filed for bankruptcy.  This wasn’t a surprise.  Even before the company announced last month that they were trying to re-work payment arrangements with publishers and creditors—a move that, given their well-known struggles over the past few years—all but guaranteed bankruptcy, it was pretty obvious to most Borders’ customers—at least those of us who received their coupons via email—that things weren’t looking good.  A weekly delivery of 30% off, 40% off, 50% off, Buy One Book Get Another at Half Price coupons made the company appear like an antsy auctioneer attempting to dump unwanted merchandise.

So most people saw this bankruptcy coming.  There have been a steady stream of reports in the media about “the significance” of Borders’ going bankrupt, people talking about the “challenging world of the book retail industry” and the effect this could have on publishing.  It was never very obvious what Borders’ was attempting to do to avoid this rapid decent towards bankruptcy—other than flinging those desperate coupons at customers.

I suppose the news of Borders’ demise should upset me.  I’m a writer, trying to finish a novel, and any bad news about the “book retail” industry—particularly the demise of one of the former giants of book retail—could upset me. But I also have a more personal connection to Borders’: I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the headquarters of the company, and I still remember going, as a boy, to the original store on State Street ,at the intersection of Liberty, and looking through Calvin and Hobbes and other comic books.  That was probably twenty years ago, before Borders’—born in that liberal, book-loving university town—expanded to the point that it became ubiquitous in even rural shopping strips.

But I’m not upset that Borders’ went bankrupt.  I’m not happy; I don’t take pleasure in the unhappiness of others.  I think Borders’ failure is appropriate, and I truly believe that its current flagging state will—in the long run—benefit writers.  Not book retailers—they’ve got their own problems.  But this is good for writers. Here’s why:

Those desperate, massive, weekly percentage-off coupons have been devaluing the value of books.  They give the impression that the product they’re discounting is over-priced, and, perhaps, not important.  Think about it this way: If you saw your local butcher or meat counter selling their beef for 30% off week after week for years on end, do you think you’d keep buying that beef?

The floor plan of Borders’—with those “featured books” tables front-and center and all the “other” books shoved to the far reaches of the bookshelves—establishes the idea in the customer that some books are more important than others.  Unfortunately—and not always—those books on the featured tables are no better-written or more engaging than the ones on the shelves.  Many a fine author will be featured on those tables—say, oh, David Foster Wallace or Michael Cunningham or Jumpdha Lahari.  But think about what this display probably means for the publishers of those books.  Which books are gonna make the most money?  The ones at the front of the store, on those “featured tables.”  So for years publishers have been dumping the majority of their money into already best-selling authors who they hope will continue sell well, and then use the profits to support the publication of all their B List authors.  Well, most of the authors I know and read are “B” List, and they write damn fine work, and the covers of their books have as much of a right to be staring you in the face as anything by Stephanie Meyer.

The shelves.  Ok, most people keep books on shelves. And what do you do when you have too many books? Buy more shelves, or stack books on the floor.  But a Borders’ store has limited shelf space.  And books don’t get to linger on those shelves for years on end.  If an author’s book comes out and doesn’t sell, Borders’ is gonna get rid of it to make space for some other book that is selling or might sell.  And eventually, so, too, will the publisher get rid of the author.  Which is bad business for an author—and bad business for the publisher.  Books don’t sell for a number of reasons, most of them related to marketing and promotion, not necessarily the quality of the writing. Sure, the author could do more to promote the book, but so could the publisher. Dumping an author’s book—and maybe an author—because a book isn’t selling is sort of like a sports team getting rid of a stellar athlete if the team isn’t winning.   It’s a team game; team don’t win ‘cause the team isn’t good.  If the Chicago Bulls had gotten rid of Michael Jordan in the early years of his career, Jordan still would have gone on to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  And the Chicago Bulls might never have won any of those six championships.

And, finally, a general lack of enthusiasm or care about selling the product in their stores.  I live in Chicago now, and every time I’ve gone in recent years to the Borders’s nearest my home—at North and Halsted—I’ve felt like I’m walking into a teenager’s bedroom.  A feeling of neglect and disregard permeates the place.  Those “featured books” tables are usually in the way of what I’m looking for—often classic Russian Literature, or classic crime novels or some of the fine American literature of ‘70’s and ‘80’s, maybe some Pete Dexter or Harry Crews or Clyde Edgerton(which is never in stock).  The other categories—fiction and poetry and cooking and history—feel rather strewn around the store, sort of like dirty clothes.  Nobody asks what I’m looking for.  Nobody even seems to care that I’m there.  And many times, they haven’t had in stock books I’d consider classics.  I have two kids, both of whom love books, but the shelves of the Children’s sections are filled with a dozen or so copies of big-sellers like “The Cat in The Hat” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”  But try to find a book by Maurice Sendak other than “Where the Wild Things Are” or a Munro Leaf book other than “The Story of Ferdinand” and you find bunko.

So why is Borders’ demise good for writers?  Because for these reasons—and probably more—Borders’ has slowly been contributing to the cheapening of literature.  Unfortunately, publishing companies went along with the game.  And more unfortunately, so have writers.

But there is hope. Because writing, The Word, is more powerful than Borders’—it’s more powerful than publishers and books and even writers.  Those things are all just elements trying to channel the power of the word to an audience.  And since The Word will live on, so will writers.  Without—or maybe even with—Borders’.



What’s that video for?

Yesterday I saw an animated marketing video for a soon-to-be-published collection of short stories.  The video only presented a few sentences of the book, none of which were in any narrative context.  At no point did any content in the video mention that the video was based on a book, and that it was trying to sell a book.  At the very end of the video, a date appeared on screen, then the publisher’s name.  Then a website address, which was hard to read.

I thought: what’s the point of this?

Anybody who’s ever sold anything—a cup of coffee, a pair of pants, a car, a house—knows that the sales process, at its essence, is simple.

  1. Ask the customer what they’re looking for.
  2. Ask the customer a few probing questions to narrow their search.
  3. Ask the customer what their price range is.
  4. Present the customer with a few products that fit their desires.
  5. Let the customer experience the product: wear it, taste it, drive it, whatever.
  6. Sell the product.

The most successful salesmen understand the nuances of this process, are aggressive without being overbearing, and deliver a product that meets or exceeds the customer’s desires.

So about video trailers for books.  I’ve seen a variety of approaches. Some show images of the actual book with the author talking about the book.  Some show animations of the scenes in the book.  Others are movie-like trailers, with highly stylized and dramatized visual scenes in the book.

The more I’ve learned about marketing, the more confused I’ve become as to the point of these video trailers.  Here’s why:

  1. A trailer for a book usually does not present the primary feature of the book: the written narrative. Have you ever seen a television commercial or magazine ad that doesn’t present the features and benefits of the product it’s selling? Car commercials show cars successfully performing the actions they’re designed for.  Commercials for cleaning products show clean surfaces.  Shampoo commercials usually show people touching their clean, lustrous hair.  A trailer for a book showing some animated or dramatized scene from the book isn’t showing the book, it’s showing a visual interpretation of the book.  This animation actually devalues the product it’s selling: the written narrative.
  2. A movie trailer for a book actually creates a barrier between the reader (i.e. the consumer) and the book.  Once the person watches the trailer, they still have to find the book, look at it, read a few pages, then decide if they want to read it.  And every barrier between the reader and the book presents an opportunity for the potential reader to lose interest in the book.
  3. And, probably most importantly: A book is a book.  It’s not a movie.

Why does this matter?  Well, in case you haven’t heard, the publishing industry is having some difficultly selling books.  Writers are worried about the fact that people are reading fewer and fewer books.   In an effort to sell books and engage readers, publishers and writers are trying new marketing and promotional tactics.  The “book trailer” is one of these tactics.

But frankly, I think the book trailer will actually work to hamper book sales.  If publishers and writers truly believed in the quality of the narratives they’re selling, they’d find a way to better engage readers directly with that narrative.  The “book trailer” does the opposite: again, it creates a barrier.  It suggests that writing isn’t enough to engage a reader; instead, video is required to interest readers in a book.   It violates the basic sales strategy of enabling a potential customer to experience a product.

When you go to a restaurant, you want to taste good food.  When you go to a shoe store, you want to try on shoes.  When you’re looking to buy a car, you want to drive cars. You want to experience things.

So what’s the marketing solution for books? Remove barriers: videos, blurbs, even book covers (yes, that is a barrier between the reader and the text).  Present an interested reader with the written narrative as soon as possible.  Let them experience it, get engaged with it.

Of course, what this means is that the writing and the story will have to be so good that the reader becomes so engaged with the story she cannot be pulled away from it.  But that’s a good thing.

Discovery of the Day: ScrollMotion

A successful digital reading experience does not simply deliver print content via an electronic screen.  Instead, it utilizes the interactive cabilities of technology to enhance the printed content and create a better reading experience.

For Scroll Motion, a leading developer of mobile apps, this theory is a core business goal.  The company develops apps that enhance the content of printed books, magazines, and other publications. Scroll Motion has developed over 11,000 apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, and it has worked with some of the biggest names in publishing: Hearst, Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Simon and Schuster.  It’s also working with educational publishing companies like Houghton Mifflin to improve students’ experiences with the content they study in text books.

Here’s a video of Josh Koppel, the founder of ScrollMotion, demonstrating a new iPad app the company recently developed for Esquire.

It Takes a Jay-Z

Random House is really spending some cheese on innovative marketing to promote Jay-Z’s upcoming memoir, Decoded.

The publisher tapped Droga5, a Manhattan-based agency, to develop the campaign, which will distribute every page of the book in some physical location.  Regular old billboards will play a role in this, but so will swimming pools, the lining of suit coats, and, most importantly, Bing.

The campaign includes a scavenger hunt, utilizing Bing Maps, which will provide daily clues about the locations of pages.  Doesn’t matter if you live in NYC  or Fargo; if there’s a page posted on an overpass on the BQE, you’ll be able to find it via Bing.  The first players to find a page will get a signed hard copy of the book and be entered into a drawing for the big grand prize: a ticket to see Jay-Z and Coldplay in Concert on New Year’s in Las Vegas.

What’s particularly inspiring about this campaign is that even though its execution is expansive and expensive, the idea behind it is simple: the key thing needed to sell the book is…the story.  Jay-Z believes in his story.  He’s so confident that every page of the book is compelling that once you read one, you’ll want to read them all.

Sure this is an unusual case: it’s Jay-Z, who has a slightly larger platform than your average unpublished novelist.  But his confidence in his story is admirable.  It’s a belief every writer should have: your story should be so good that if you show somebody a single page of your work, they’ll want to read more.

Throw away those silly author photos, the book jackets, the blurbs.  Just find a way to get somebody the story.  Engage them with it.  Whether it’s developing a virtual scavenger hunt or  yelling your story from atop a milk crate in a busy intersection, just get it out there.  If it’s good, people will want it.

“Interactive Narratives: Creating the Future of Literature” Accepted to SXSW!

"Interactive Narratives: Creating the Future of Literature" Accepted to SXSWThe panel  was 1 of 200 of the 2500 proposed sessions to make the selection for SXSW 2011.  As you can imagine, I am elated to see a panel about literature make a selective cut at such a high-profile conference—and be included in a list of panels about things like branding, Semantic Web, Augmented Reality, and Mobile App Development.  That I will be presenting alongside people from leading digital agencies and companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft further validates the importance of this topic in the digital landscape.

Thank you to everyone who offered support and voted for the panel.  Hope to see you in Austin!

Here’s the panel.

Here’s the full list of panels.


Boards Magazine – Augmented Reality Experience

This application of Augmented Reality, developed for Boards Magazine by Theo Watson, Emily Gobeille, and Nexus Productions, continues to stand out to me for the way AR is used to create a detailed fictionalized world that the user can actually explore, simply by moving the magazine cover.

Other magazines have employed AR to augment their print content—one of the more recent examples was Esquire’s 2009 Best and Brightest issue.  But using AR simply to augment print content leads to one of the great constraints of the technology: AR can augment an existing piece of material or content, but then nothing more happens.  This limitation can often make the technology feel like nothing more than a gimmick.

But this Boards Magazine cover breaks free of those constraints.  Here, AR doesn’t just augment other content. Instead, it creates a new world and enables the user to experience that world.

Download the software and cover here.

The World Cup, Facebook, and The New York Times

During the World Cup, the New York Times tracked Facebook data that measured, on a daily basis, the number of times users mentioned top world cup players in their profile posts.  The results of the data are displayed via visual images of the players, which grow or shrink depending upon the number of times users mentioned their names.

The application demonstrates the unique way that data and interactive technology can enable story-telling.  In this instance, user-generated content is used to tell the narrative of a global audience’s interaction with a global sporting event over a month-long period.