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Doing the Work

Most publishers are now releasing books in 5 formats: the traditional hardcover and paperback, as well as Kindle, ePub and PDF. That’s at a minimum – and does not include audio, or enhanced ebooks with multimedia features embedded. Publishers are selling these different formats at different prices in the supply chain – agency pricing to Apple, MSRP to other retailers, institutional pricing to libraries.

Publishers are selling these different formats at different prices…overseas – meaning they have to grant the appropriate rights to the appropriate bookseller in the appropriate country. And publishers are selling books through tech companies – Apple, Amazon, Google, Sony, Overdrive, Copia, Blio, Kobo – rather than through traditional booksellers.

Publishing ebooks is not simply a matter of tacking on another output at the end of the production process. Ebooks – because they are new – are somewhat unstandardized. The same ePub file that gets in the door at Kobo can be rejected at Apple. An ePub validator only catches so much. The wrong (or missing) metadata can trip a publisher up as well – Apple requires some data elements (such as page count of the print book) that other retailers do not.

So it’s important to recognize that, on a day-to-day level, publishing is a lot more work than it used to be. Just as importantly, publishers are not seeing much of a rise in overall revenue due to ebooks (thanks to the inevitable cannibalization of print sales) – so that increased workload is handled without a whole lot of new hires. If you feel overworked, frazzled, harried, and perpetually behind where you think you should be…that’s the new normal. If your relationship with publishing were a Facebook status, it would be, “It’s Complicated.”

Here’s the part where a vendor newsletter generally gets all sales-y and starts talking about magical solutions that will give you the clear conscience and peace of mind to plan your vacation to Playa del Carmen while your ebooks publish themselves.

But instead, probably the most productive thing we can do – for current customers and Firebrand friends alike – is offer some practical advice for dealing with the complications of publishing digital and print side-by-side.

  1. Recognize the complexity – at all levels. From the C-Suite on down, it’s important that everybody in the organization understand that complications are a way of life in this environment, and deal with them realistically rather than insisting that “it shouldn’t be that complicated.” Maybe it shouldn’t! But it is.
  2. Use your single source of truth. Task tracking and scheduling, title search – the tools in Title Management, for example, are there to streamline your workflow, help you generate to-do lists, keep you in sync with your ebook deliveries and conversions. Spreadsheets on hard drives add to the noise and clutter (which version is correct? Can I trust this data?)
  3. Slow down to speed up. (This is always a hard lesson for me.) Take time before you hit “save” or “send” to review what’s in front of you at that moment. In today’s frenetic environment, undoing something done wrong takes a lot more time than doing something right the first time.

It would be great if there were magical solutions out there so ebooks could publish and distribute themselves. But in this chaotic market, it’s best to have control over your processes – it’s best to actually do the work. It’s complicated – and there’s a lot of it – but being realistic about that is what determines a publisher’s sustainability in the long term.

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Object Lessons from 978 (Bookland)

It’s been almost exactly seven months since I started working at Firebrand, and sort of put blogging and newslettering on hiatus. But I think (insert a million caveats here) that I’m now feeling grounded enough in this work so that I can start commenting publicly again without fear of putting my foot in my mouth (okay, I’ll never be without that fear…but this does not stop me!).

In these seven months, we’ve been working very hard on developing, testing, and releasing Firebrand’s Content Services – which allows publishers to upload, convert and distribute ebook (and other) files to our Content Services Cloud. Our conversion partners are eBook Architects and Digital Divide Data. And our distribution partners are growing exponentially. I’m not going to pimp Content Services here (I was at BEA doing that for three days), but I’ve realized that I’ve gathered a lot of information just by being out in the field, and being part of a team that really understands the infrastructure of the book market.

To say I’ve learned a lot is a vast understatement.

Lesson 1 – These vendors are not like those vendors.

The new Big Six (Apple, Amazon, BN, Sony, Kobo, Google) are very very different from traditional book retailers. In fact, of the six, only one is also a traditional book retailer – and runs its ebook business separately and with different goals.

The rest, as Peter Brantley points out, are tech companies. And while some of them are informed by traditional bookselling, publishers are facing the fact that ebook retailers require different standards than print book retailers.

Publishers have been extremely comfortable with the book supply chain as it’s evolved. They know how it works – they know the nodes where things can break down. A lot of work has gone into building up the print book infrastructure: standards for shipping, standards for inventory, bar code placement, and communication between publisher and wholesaler, wholesaler and retailer. ONIX for print books did not happen overnight, nor did bar codes on boxes of books that immediately inform a warehouse exactly what’s in the box, what size the books are, and how much they weigh.

The ebook landscape is (lest we forget) still new. And we’re starting with a new set of players, some of whom have never been in the book industry and really do not care all that much about what has gone on before they got here.

We can’t make them care. And given the rate of ebook sales, we can’t ignore them.

So what’s a publisher to do? Right now, the best he/she can. At this point it’s a matter of recognizing and acknowledging that the market is chaotic. Standards are not just in flux – they are undefined. It is frustrating…it is also our reality at the moment.

Lesson 2 – The world is going to get bigger

At the Firebrand User Conference last September, Fran Toolan said that “slaying the rights dragon” is a critical issue. Brian O’Leary points out that Amazon recently has made significant investment overseas – meaning that publishers will have the opportunity to sell ebooks in markets other than the US. The dissolving of physical boundaries affects pricing, availability, and it will shake up the publishing business even more than anything else to date. Artificial restrictions on ebooks to protect existing business models will inevitably lead to piracy – the business models themselves have to change.

They will change – but not without a lot of pain and expense beforehand. It’s extremely tricky for publishers to work out what business practices are in fact sustainable and what are not. A lot depends on context – what types of books are published, what previous experience the publisher has with digital initiatives, who the audience is for specific publication programs.

Lesson 3 – There are no easy answers

Or, the answer to everything is, “It depends.” Just as there is no one single book market, there is no one single ebook market. The trends are very different in textbooks and trade books.  They are very different in the libraries and in the bookstores. Even in trade books, there are wildly different trends from genre to genre, subject area to subject area.

The market is complex – and it is growing more and more complex. It is difficult to scale. And competing in this market requires a lot of work – work that publishers are, by and large, unused to doing or even thinking about…such as file size, wifi vs. Ethernet connection, and whether or not the files were actually ingested on the vendor end. These are new workflows. As we know, new workflows are hard, and it takes quite a while to get good at them.

So what’s the good news? I don’t have any simple answers about how things will shake out – but I do know that once a book is digitized, you can do a heck of a lot more with it, which makes it more accessible to more people, whatever their location, disability, or economic background. My own opinion, based on what I’ve seen these last seven months, is that for all our pain and suffering now, we are working towards a pretty near-term future of “more books in more places”. Which is why a lot of us got into this business in the first place – we are passionate about books, passionate about their value to people, and we want to create opportunities for as many people as possible to be able to read them.

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Blio, We Hardly Knew Ye….

Launched yesterday, after nine months of hype, the Blio reader fell so short of so many expectations (expectations that have become basic market requirements for digital reading), it was deemed by many as a failure. What struck me is that many of the failures are fundamentally at odds with the one thing that Kurzweil was touting above all else: accessibility. But accessibility is not just about text-to-speech. Accessibility comes on many levels. And Blio didn’t hit ANY of those levels.

1. The first release is Windows-only. Yes, most digital reading is still done on actual laptops and desktops. And yes, most of those machines are not Macs. But given that Adobe (with all its Apple woes) can develop a platform-independent e-reader in Adobe Digital Editions, you’d think someone over at KNFB would have considered this a gating issue. Why trim down your potential customer base by limiting what platforms your software can run on? Particularly when, in this day and age, you have so many options? We hear that iOS and Android versions will be released “soon”. As soon as the Windows one was? Why all the different OS-dependent rollouts?

2. The Windows text-to-speech functionality is notoriously bad. Why dedicate your first release to a platform that has KNOWN ISSUES with TTS, while you are advertising the accessibility options? It makes no sense. According to PW, “[Blio executive Peter Chapman] acknowledged that most people’s Text To Speech (TTS) would likely have problems because, “the TTS software on most Windows machines isn’t very good.” KNFB, Chapman said, is in the process of making new and affordable TTS software available through the Blio bookstore. Chapman said consumers dissatisfied with their TTS can purchase better  (but significantly more expensive) software immediately online that will improve its quality. However, he said they are working with TTS software vendors to offer a better and much cheaper TTS software that will allow users to choose different voice qualities and he said it will be available very soon.” This is just a botch. A botch at the heart of Blio’s value proposition.

3. A small offering. Blio launched with only 11,000 titles. This is mind-boggling. There are HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of books available digitally. Publishers are already sending files to the new Big Six – Amazon, B&N, Sony, Google, Kobo and Apple. Adding another vendor to the file distribution is not hard. Why did KNFB not solicit more content? Do they expect people will adopt Blio if there are no books to be read on it? Yes, they’re adding 7-800 titles per day, but given all the books that are already available from other vendors, you still have to actually COMPETE.

There are many, many other issues being reported, but these four really spoke to me. Kurzweil’s partnership with NFB suggested a product that would have accessibility as a priority. And this launch was truly disappointing.

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Move Along Folks, Nothing To See Here

The announcement on Tuesday that “Barnes & Noble Is Putting Itself Up For Sale” pretty much set Twitter on fire last night. Where had this even come from? We thought Borders was the one in trouble!

Make no mistake, Borders is still in trouble. But the state of Borders has nothing to do with B&N’s pondering as to whether or not to sell itself.

The state of ebooks has nothing to do with B&N’s pondering as to whether or not to sell itself.

And the wild speculation that perhaps Borders will buy B&N, or Amazon, is patently nuts. Amazon has no desire to bog itself down in a brick-and-mortar business. Borders has enough on its plate (and getting the board to authorize such a purchase would put even Lebow’s formidable skills to the test).

This is not about the sale of B&N. This is about Ron Burkle and Len Riggio.

Barnes & Noble has been a family business since Len Riggio bought it in the 1970s. Many executives and board members have been there for decades, and have worked very closely with Len and his brother Steve as they built up the business from some college bookstores to a nationwide superstore chain to an online presence that – while not exactly giving Amazon a run for its money – nevertheless offers reliable access to millions of books, well-written reviews by professional reviewers, and great delivery and return options.

Disclaimer: I used to work there. For three years, I managed the database that powered both the stores and the website. I experienced the corporate cultures of both Inc. and .com, as they were called internally – the corporate cultures of Len and Steve. The Riggios make a very big distinction between who’s family and who’s not.

Burkle is not.

In aiming for a majority share in B&N, he’s overreaching. You don’t overreach with the Riggios. When you do, you get spanked.

But of course Burkle does not like being treated like a child who doesn’t know proper limits.

Is Riggio cutting off his nose to spite his face? On the face of it, the situation appears to be one of “If I can’t have control, we’ll sell it.” But let’s look a little deeper.

Last summer at this time, Barnes & Noble bought B&N College from Len Riggio. In fact, Len loaned B&N $250 million for that sale. So B&N is already in the hole to Len for that amount.

If Len and Steve form an investment group (with others, of course), which then turns around and buys B&N, essentially taking it private, the actual price of B&N to Len might well be reduced by $250 million. It would NOT be reduced to anyone else, and B&N would still be in that much debt to its founder even if someone else bought it. Not a comfortable situation for a prospective buyer.

The Riggios are perfectly positioned to do this. To an observer who knows how they run their companies, it seems highly likely that they will.

And then? Then things continue to develop the way the Riggios want them to – much the same as they are developing now.

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The European Market for eBooks

Two weeks ago I was fortunate to be asked to speak at the Associazione Italiana Editori’s EdiTech conference in Milan. I gave my usual StartwithXML spiel (“ROI” is the same in English and Italian), but I was really struck by the presentations of the other participants – from Italy, yes, but also France, Switzerland, Germany, and the UK. All together, they gave a great picture of ebook publishing in Europe.

In the US, we rail against competing formats, the necessity of assigning ISBNs, the difficulties of DRM, agency pricing, and re-engineering publishing companies to accommodate all these changes as we move towards a digital model.

Yeah, they’re not there yet in Europe.

OI was in Milan for three and a half days. And while, granted, I spent some of that time sleeping off the jet lag, for much of the rest of the time I was walking around the city. It was warm – plenty of people were out at cafes and bars, sitting on the steps of the art museum, hanging in store doorways watching the World Cup, waiting for trams and trains. Not a single e-reader among them. Loads of cell phones – all being used largely for passionate conversations about Team Italia’s failure, and not at all for reading. I saw plenty of paper books – Milan is, after all, where Italian publishing happens.

Obviously this is purely anecdotal and can’t be used to extrapolate anything. But it’s nevertheless an observation. So different from San Francisco or New York, where you see a smattering of e-readers on the train or in nail salons (oh, how we love our e-reader while waiting for our nails to dry!) or in coffeeshops.

I wasn’t putting too much weight on my observation until I attended the actual conference. Presenter after presenter gave ebook market penetration statistics for their country – and not one went over 1% of the total book market.

So what I was seeing (or not seeing) was a reflection of reality. Here in the US, our ebook-to-total-book market penetration is roughly 5%, depending on how you count things (in some areas, it’s more).

We’re so down in the weeds of actually forming this market – that is a very real market and not a passing fad – that we don’t often look up from our work and observe the rest of the world.

At this conference, attendees and presenters alike were very excited about the iPad, which had just debuted the month before and promptly sold out. The fact that the European market is just not dealing with e-ink screens at all speaks volumes about what those readers will and won’t put up with in a reading experience. During the breaks, we milled about in a room with various e-ink readers on display, but few attendees seemed interested in them.

It’s not that Europe is not adopting ebooks – every presenter seemed to feel that this was a market that is here to stay – but readers there do not seem to be adopting e-ink at anywhere close to the same rate that they are here. It will be interesting to see what comes out of Europe now that they’ve got the iPad.

The presentations can be found here. Many are in Italian – we were fortunate enough to have simultaneous translation at the time, but I don’t think the translations were recorded for later use. Nevertheless, it’s great content and worth running through Google Translate.

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The Thing-ness of Things

On Twitter, I follow a gentleman named , who blogs in several places but most lately blew my mind today.

Over this past weekend, my youngest daughter (who is known as Scamp on Twitter) had to go to a birthday party. She’s nearly 12 now, and she wanted to get a Really Awesome Present for this kid. We wound up getting him a picture frame with a photo inside that she’d downloaded from Facebook. Digital picture frame prices have still not dropped to the point where they are good gifts for adolescents – but I realized…that time will come! Soon!

And then what? What will people get one another, besides iTunes/Amazon/BN/whatever gift cards? What will be a lovely personalized gift?

June is a crisis month for my family because in addition to the usual “outside the family” birthdays, there are three others – plus Father’s Day. Gifts are tough. And it’s useless to bemoan the physical book/CD/movie as a gift – increasingly, that just isn’t an option.

Hence the new homemade.

When books, movies, music become commoditized – and available on a streaming free-or-near-free basis – how do we acknowledge one another’s tastes, celebrate uniqueness, toast a point of view?

The reason Scamp and I got a picture frame is because our original idea didn’t work. That is because Mom is video-ignorant. Scamp had made a lovely video for her friend. Supportive, smart-ass, funny, motivational – it is a truly great little video. But I could not burn it to DVD because I am Fail Mom.

I will not, however, be Fail Mom forever. We will learn to do these things. Just as my mother learned to create her own greeting cards (and God help us all), I will learn to burn DVDs or upload YouTube videos to private accounts or do whatever. Just as my grandparents gave us generous gifts of homemade jams and pickles, we will inflict emotional generosity on our friends.

Yes, well, how many of us have books that are sort of embarrassing that we won’t get rid of because they are gifts?

This is why self-publishing is important. Because once “things” become streamed, we will find ourselves having to create in new ways to connect with people, acknowledge them and ourselves, have media conversations.

And naturally there will be metadata considerations to render this all multi-dimensional and searchable, but that is another conversation for another day.

Which, of course, I intend to have – eventually.

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Q&A with Ami Greko, GetGlue

LJND: What, exactly, is GetGlue supposed to do? (yes, the corporate speak, but let’s have it in English too?)

AG: Plain and simple, we’re there to help users figure out what to read, watch, listen to, or play next. There’s a bunch of different ways that we do that, from personalized new release recommendations to allowing you to read reviews from your friends around the web.

LJND: How do you attract people to actually do the work to rate/recommend things?

AG: A number of ways, including good old publicity and browser recommendations, but I have to say the most effective is word-of-mouth (so everyone reading this please go tell five people about us right now).

LJND: What other social networking platforms are interoperable with GetGlue?

AG: Twitter and Facebook, of course – we’ve enabled users to share their comments and rewards from GetGlue with these platforms pretty easily. With our browser add-on installed, you’re able to reach a really wide range of social networks, including things like Goodreads and Shelfari. Our add-on technology means that when you’re looking at a book on one of these sites, GetGlue knows what book you’re looking at, and it allows you to rate and comment via a toolbar at the bottom of the screen. These ratings and comments are then automatically fed to your profile on GetGlue.com, which means that you’re building a profile of your tastes automatically, just from your normal web browsing.

LJND: How do you serve other websites, such as McGraw-Hill Professional and Alibris?

AG: Same as above – with our add-on installed, you’re able to interact with books on these sites.

LJND: What’s your role in the organization?

AG: Lots of things! Technically, my title is director of business development, but on a day-to-day basis I work on a range of things, from company PR to liaising with book publishers to writing blog posts.

LJND: What’s exhilarating about your work?

AG: I really geek out on working with books in this way. The fact that GetGlue is cross-vertical – meaning we work with books AND movies AND music, etc. – means that I have a chance to think about where books fit into the larger media landscape. Books are drivers of culture. They actually power lots of other media, and sometimes when you’re in the publishing trenches, it can be easy to forget about that. One of my favorite things so far has been working on our book giveaways program. I’m able to give books to our influential users in all verticals, which means a comment we hear a lot is, ‘I’d never heard of this book before, but I loved it.’ That’s a good feeling.

LJND: Can you explain the Facebook API in English? Why is it a good thing?

AG: In short: using our API, you can take a URL of any page that GetGlue understands and get meta data using Facebook Open Graph Protocol without doing any coding. (emphasis on the last four words)

LJND: What about those widgets? Why does everybody have a widget? Why is yours awesome?

AG: First of all, it’s free, which can be the only word some folks need to hear to equal ‘awesome.’ We’ve also just made them easy to generate on your own instantly, just by entering ISBNs, at MyBookWidget.com. I know it sounds like crazy marketing speak, but for Blogger and Typepad platforms, they really do install with one click. My favorite thing about them, though, is that they make the necessity of linking to multiple retailers much easier and a lot prettier looking – instead of a list of hyperlinks, everything is elegantly embedded within the widget.

LJND: Why do you start off with movies? When I log in for the first time, I have to “like” a bunch of movies. I want to “like” books first thing.

AG: As an affirmed book lover, I hear you! You can always choose to exit out of the movies screen if rating those things is not working for you.

LJND: What’s next? What are you working on (that you can talk about)?

AG: Right now, we’re all hands on deck creating our iPhone app. It’s going to be a way to share with your friends what you’re reading, watching, and listening to, while you’re out and about. I’m really, really, really excited about it.

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It’s going to happen slowly, and then it’s going to happen very quickly. It has already started – the rate at which independent bookstores have shuttered over the years is not publicized, but we know they’ve been an endangered species since the 1990s, when Borders and Barnes & Noble began their rapid superstore expansion.

Borders is suffering a lingering death, but there’s little doubt among industry pundits that its lifespan is seriously limited. (Please prove them wrong, please prove them wrong!!!) This will be a much bigger deal than anybody’s anticipating.


Because Barnes & Noble is not going to pick up all those locations. And if a huge chain like Borders can’t survive, what indie bookstore in its right mind is going to open in those locations?

There will be fewer brick and mortar bookstores. By a factor of a lot. Possibly a third of bookstores in the US will close when Borders is finished with its death spiral and Barnes & Noble and successful independents have picked up what business makes sense in those locations. But for that newly-deprived third of bookstore customers? Where will they get their books?

Two places: the library and the internet.

Libraries are themselves rather limited in this way: waiting lists for popular books. (This includes ebooks.) If you really must own a book right now, the best way to get it is online.

So in approximately a third of areas previously served by large chains, customers will become quickly accustomed to ordering books online.

How long do you think it will be before they realize that if they order ebooks, they don’t have to wait even 24 hours before they get what they want? How long do you think it will be before instant gratification means that suddenly these underserved areas are hotbeds of ebook consumption?

We’ve seen this sort of leapfrogging happen in underdeveloped areas before – that is why residents of certain African and Asian countries are so wedded to their cell phones; they skipped the land-line process altogether.

We’ve seen it happen in the music industry as well – when was the last time you went into a store where the primary stock was CDs? A Virgin or an HMV or a Tower? Or, heaven help you, your local indie music store?

We are seeing it happen in video. I live in New York City – there used to be video stores every few blocks, staffed by amazing kids from NYU or Columbia; those Quentin Tarantino-breeding environments are gone. We get our movies from Netflix. We get our movies on demand from Time-Warner. We get our movies streamed through our laptops directly to our TVs.

That leapfrogging in the book business is going to happen primarily in rural and suburban areas where intellectual life was always underserved. That is where it will start. And once that convenience of immediate delivery of digital books is realized, it is only a matter of time before we see that the bookstores we treasure have to offer more than just books if they want to attract customers. Books are commodities – and they will become increasingly more commoditized as Google Editions launches, as Kobo develops device-independent platforms, as Overdrive adds more titles to its Content Reserve service.

The bookstores that will be successful in that environment will be shops that sell deep inventory in specific areas (such as the spiritual/inspirational Breathe Books, staffed by the amazing Jenn Northington, aka @JennIRL on Twitter) and can provide a rich experience (offering CDs, videos, other media within those areas), or shops that have deep ties to their communities – that offer afterschool programs, sports events, matchmaking services (if you doubt me, look at WORD Bookstore’s Lonely Hearts board, or follow @bookavore on Twitter), or other beyond-the-book activities. Because when a book becomes commoditized, what becomes important – and NOT a commodity – is the conversation AROUND the book. The community of readers. And if brick and mortar bookstores can tap that community, engender those conversations in ways the community finds valuable…then their community will support them.

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The Hard Part

I’ve talked a lot lately about how metadata is to marketing efforts.

And certainly I’ve spoken and written a lot in the past about an XML workflow, and how critical that is to developing the sort of publishing that will be required of us in the near future.

I don’t think anything I’ve said is particularly controversial, even among the most paper-pervy of publishers.


Nobody said it was easy.

Dominique Raccah talks about running two companies at once – the company you’re currently running and the company you are scoping towards in the future. (The future happens fast.) Retooling anything systematically – workflow, back-end systems, metadata – is disruptive. This is why companies call in enormous fleets of consultants who speak in very generic terms and look at you like they secretly think you’re from some primitive continent where nobody’s ever heard of SharePoint. (That would be Bookland, and yes, we DO know about SharePoint.)

And dealing with these guys (it is, mostly, guys – although more and more women are entering this field as well) kind of takes the wind out of your sails because you have to spend so much time explaining things when you could, in fact, be feeling a whole lot more productive if you could just get to your desk and have another crack at figuring out the Fall list.

Changing workflow is hard. And any of these processes – a new metadata strategy, an XML-first strategy…hell, even a new office building – is hard to adjust to.

In fact, it’s extremely helpful to think of these changes as a form of moving. (To a better place! With a new stove and more closets and a big patio for grilling!) First there’s the packing – assessing exactly what you have right now, sorting it into what you want to keep and what you want to throw away, and determining who’s going to help you move it (what vendors will you need?). Then there’s the actual moving – of your metadata from spreadsheets into a title management system; of your digital assets into a DAM. And then there’s the unpacking – seeing what broke along the way (oh, yes, there’s always breakage), seeing what items you need to replace, putting everything into its new space and seeing if it looks good/fits/works well there.

I hate moving. I hate it with a passion – it is nearly May and I am still raw from having moved house in November. And I completely, completely empathize with those who, while feeling some pain, are also to some degree comfortable with where they are, and who really don’t want to upset their everyday routine with the necessity of putting things in boxes. They also get it that immediately after you move, you can’t find anything you need, like a fork or a can opener (or a corkscrew, God help you, because isn’t that what you need most after the trauma?). Plus all your muscles hurt.

But of course it needs to be done. You can’t continue living in a situation where you have universally faulty wiring that shorts all your appliances, or you’re paying way too much for too little space, or the kids next door just will not stop setting your trashcans on fire. You don’t want to spend your entire time putting out fires and not getting anywhere.

So yes, moving is painful. The stress of developing and implementing a new workflow is not something anyone should underestimate. And it’s no surprise that at every company there are folks who balk. They are smart to balk. They understand immediately what a royal pain it’s going to be. But good managers will coax them along through their balking to the other side. And once you find that corkscrew, things will begin to look up.

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A Note From the Desert

While everybody who matters is at SXSW this week (another conference? I am utterly exhausted just thinking about it), I’ve had an amazing shortage of phone calls and emails, and hence the opportunity to mull some things over.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in Southern Delaware. The interesting thing about the area is that it’s so verdant – fields and fields of soybeans and corn, and chickenhouses lining the routes to the beaches. It looks like a foodie’s paradise.

It’s not.

Those soybeans and corn are all genetically-modified. The chickens are stuck inside those chickenhouses and never let out, and many cannot even walk. They are stuffed with that GM feed and grow at an alarming rate, and turn bright yellow. Then Purdue slaughters them and ships them all up and down the East Coast.

If you want to eat well…it’s difficult. There are a few independent diners in the area. There is one upscale sort of bistro. There are no food co-ops. The only farmstand is 40-minute drive from just about anywhere – it is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is, in the words of Michelle Obama, a food desert. People shop for food at Wal-Mart, and a couple of bodega-like stores, and that’s pretty much all there is besides the stunning number of fast-food restaurants.

I’ve also mentioned previously that the area has no bookstores. In addition, there are no movie theaters. No concerts – classical or otherwise. No plays, except for the high school productions. There is a small library. It is a cultural desert until you cross the state line into Maryland.

It sounds grim! It is. Were it not for the gorgeous beaches, it would be an extremely depressing place. This is how I grew up – and why I no longer live there. I went back to visit my mom not too long ago, and the Enterprise Car Rental guy who picked me up said, adamantly, “If it weren’t for the Internet, I couldn’t stay here.”

And that’s it. The Internet has literally made things tolerable for folks who have no access to anything beyond subsistence. Netflix, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, Overstock.com, iTunes – these make a richer, more interesting life even possible. The Internet has just enabled my high school Home Ec teacher to organize a CSA – connecting a few independent farmers and large gardeners with people who are hungry for fresh produce.

Three times in the last month, I’ve found myself in conversations with entrepreneurs who attest that the appetite for a richer, more interesting life is more or less universal. And there are many, many deserts all over the world – quite a lot of them literal deserts.

The Internet is really making it possible for people in developing areas (nations, counties, what have you) to get access. To books, music, movies, ideas – knowledge. Appetites are huge – even for English-language content. People are starving for more than just food in these deserts.

People like Arthur Attwell and Ramy Habeeb are focused on watering these deserts. I find their work extremely exciting, for some very visceral, obvious reasons. If I had had access, as a kid growing up in my desert, I might not have had to flee just to preserve my sanity. I might have been able to stay and help make it better. I might have found good work to do right where I was, and improved things for others who – for a myriad of reasons – couldn’t have ever left and had to suffer where they were.

Arthur Attwell was telling me that some Africans are downloading books via text messages on their phones. SMS by SMS, they are reading. It won’t be long before smartphones invade the African continent, and real ebooks will be possible. But already, the hunger is such that these readers are willing to put up with an insanely inconvenient way to read – because the drive to open up the world beyond their own desert is so great.

That drive is what will improve developing areas – it is the oasis. And the Attwells and Habeebs can provide all the direction, all the assistance, they possibly can. But the infrastructure – metadata that makes search and discovery easier, less arcane; identifiers that point out exactly what it is you’re looking at; rights information that makes it clear what is accessible to whom – is the irrigation. That’s what will ensure life.

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