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London Book Fair review

30 April 2009

A FlanimalLast week was the London Book Fair, attended by publishers, authors and Flanimals (pictured, right).

It was interesting to see how digital books were received at the fair. There was an area at the back of the hall given over to ebooks and digital publishing, and the seminars there were packed out. But it seemed to be led by the technology, rather than the content. There were plenty of firms who could help you to repurpose and distribute your content for mobile platforms (including the iPhone and Sony Reader), but I didn't notice anybody promoting digital content.

I didn't see any discussion about how ebooks can be different to print books. A certain amount of this is built into the device (eg searchability), but there is lots of potential to create new types of content based on the written word. Mindsportlive is developing iPhone apps based on its card packs, including '52 Ways to Beat Stress', but it was very much the exception.

It's partly the nature of shows like this that means major publishers would sideline their digital offerings. If you're negotiating rights, a printed book looks more impressive. Experienced publishers can get a measure of the content quickly. With ebooks, you can't tell how big they are, how well proofread they are in the middle, whether the book's consistently structured and so on without flicking through a lot of virtual pages. There's not a 'flick through until something catches my eye' button on any of the devices I've seen. Also, since the ebooks are often sold directly, they probably don't belong at a show that's partly about negotiating print book distribution and sales with intermediaries.

One company from Russia has an interesting proposition for interactive physical products - it markets hardback comic books for adults, with an enclosed music CD and CD-Rom. On the CD-Rom is a Flash animation that brings the comic book to life, and the CD contains atmospheric music that goes with the story. The project has been led by the music, with the creator being a musician first and commissioning illustration to expand on his work, which is an interesting way to create value at a time when it's increasingly difficult to sell music. For more information, check out the Ylotana website.

The Espresso Book Machine for printing on demand attracted a lot of attention. The Blackwell bookshop in Charing Cross Road will now be able to print books on demand using the machine, which was demonstrated at the fair. The device is a great way to increase effective footage in an expensive store, and it means many books need never go out of print. But it also transforms the bookseller into a book distributor. Surely the point of a bookshop is that you can browse and discover new titles you wouldn't have otherwise read? Isn't the idea that the bookshop can sell you books you didn't already know about? Print on demand is likely to require the shopper to ask for a specific book to be printed, although it is theoretically possible for displays to be mounted to showcase print-on-demand books, enabling infinite sales based on one shelf copy.

Other news from the show: Simon Pegg's writing a book for publication in October (hurrah!). It's an autobiography/memoir (err... okay). Enid Blyton is coming back from the dead with six new stories being ghostwritten in her (presumably trademarked) name. She wrote over 700 stories when she was alive, so you wouldn't think there would be a need for this. I wonder whether we'll see the day when John LennonTM releases a new album? Perhaps we have more respect for the personal creativity of songwriters than we do of book authors. Or perhaps it just needs another fifty years before The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zepellin and Abba become brand names attached to ghostwritten work.

While at the show, I got some useful feedback on my novel University of Death from successful self-publishers, including Pauline Rowson, who writes and publishes crime fiction and business books. She has given me some great ideas for how I can make the book (or my next book) more marketable. Shows like this are always a good opportunity to pick up new ideas - I came back home with more ideas than I know what to do with.

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What's a press release for?

The press office at Internet World today was giving out press packs, including all press releases, on USB keys instead of on paper.

These digital copies are useful for when a journalist returns to the office and might want to cut and paste together material from the press pack to incorporate it in a story (come on, let's not pretend that doesn't happen). But the real purpose of a press release at a trade show is to direct the journalist to the stand to find out more. Isn't it?

Without having the press release in an easily readable form, there's a risk a journalist might miss an opportunity to follow up on a story because he or she didn't know about it until after the show closed.

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New look website launches

29 April 2009

I've just relaunched this website, with a new look and feel. I recently got a larger monitor and the old design wasn't easy to use on that, so I've made this design fluid within certain parameters. I've taken the opportunity to update the layout, fonts and colour scheme, and to add a few fun/random interactive features. I've tried to integrate the different types of content better, so that it's possible to more easily move between the different experiences the site offers.

I've still got some stuff to tidy up and check (but do let me know if you spot anything that's broken), and I've got a few pieces of new content in progress at the moment.

The site should work acceptably on most screen sizes and I've tested it on the PC using IE7, IE6 (shudder!), Chrome, Firefox and Safari. It doesn't look the same in them all (it's best in IE, because I've used font embedding extensively), but it works fine. Let me know what your experience is like (particularly if you're using a Mac).

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The Apprentice: where's the customer service?

08 April 2009

So far in The Apprentice, we've had a cleaning task and a catering task, and there have been interesting parallels in both.

Firstly, the programmes have made a strong case for the value that professionals bring to a job. You wouldn't think it would be hard to clean cars or make sandwiches, but they managed to screw them both up. Since I work in a profession (writing) that some people think is easy, that struck a chord. (I remember a woman at a party telling me that she thought she might change jobs to being a writer because it looked pretty easy. She was a teacher at the time, so I told her I'd often thought about moving into schools myself. "It's just talking to a bunch of kids. How hard could it be?")

The programmes have also focused on profit to the exclusion of everything else. Doubtless there will be the usual creative tasks in future episodes (starting tonight, I think), but where's the customer service? Alan Sugar's company Amstrad had great customer service and quality back in the 80s. Without it, it could never have entered the home computer market as late as it did and seized the market share it did. But he's encouraging his apprentices to look only at the immediate sale. There's no respect for the customer, no real drive to create a transaction that customers appreciate: just a push for a quick buck. To close the deal, the apprentices argue with customers, serve up shoddy products, and sell products they can't deliver. They don't seem to care (or even believe) that with every sale, their own reputation is on the line.

One of my writing customers is also in an agency type business and he says that in the current economic downturn, companies all need to love their customers a little bit more. They need to make sure they're focusing on the long term, and building a relationship that will survive the recession.

Wouldn't it be great if The Apprentice had an episode where the success was judged on how happy customers were at the end? If the apprentices had to try to truly delight the customer and build some desire for repeat business?

That's the kind of apprentice any company needs today. Cutting corners is easy. Delighting customers takes that extra spark of creativity and enthusiasm. Sometimes it will be less profitable in the short term. But in the long term, it's the only strategy that pays.

(I wrote a review of Alan Sugar's book after the first series, and co-wrote The Customer Service Pocketbook. The Apprentice is on iTunes now if you can't get it on proper telly).

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