Vibrant reading list sites suggest there is hope for book publishing

In his long career, Si Newhouse has shown shrewd business acumen. In the 1990’s, when many said it couldn’t be done, he pulled off an impressive turn-around of New Yorker magazine. This was accomplished in part by hiring Tina Brown, whom Michael Kinsley has called “The very best magazine editor alive.” At the time she had done a similar remake of another Conde Nast property and money-loser, Vanity Fair.*

While Newhouse was working his magic on these magazines, he was also busy in book publishing. But here he was selling off, not rehabbing.

He sold Random House, his company’s huge and respected book publishing unit. The financial calculus was unmistakable: With a few notable exceptions — such as Wiley Publishing (the folks behind the brilliant For Dummies series) — the business model of book publishing cannot generate profit margins that more modern media such as films are commanding. With the rising cost of printing and shipping, this will likely remain the case until e-books such as the Amazon Kindle become easier and more affordable.

So what do you do if you’re a Si Newhouse wannabe? What if you wish to make your reputation and fortune in books?

The leaders of two enterprising companies have decided to ignore the headaches of production and focus instead on bringing readers together. Although the viability of these two businesses will continue to be in question, they have survived their crucial first year. was a year old in January, while will mark its first anniversary in a week.

As anyone who has ever joined a reading club knows, in spite of the reclusive nature of reading, book lovers can be a surprisingly social breed of bird. Like so many distinctive tail feathers, they flash their lists of favorite books and authors as a way to bond.

Reading lists, and the opinions associated with them, can become an obsession. Take recording artist Art Garfunkel. His web site includes a reading list, in chronological order, of every book he has read in the last 40 years. The list tops 1,000 of some of the most respected books in literature (“I avoid fluff,” Garfunkel recently told a reporter).

Art Garfunkel has a habit and he has it bad

Is the urge to list online an act of ego, OCD, or intellectual outreach? Or a little of all three?

The founders of GoodReads would tell you that Garfunkel is merely trying to display his tail feathers on a more world-wide strutting ground. And they’d point out he is not alone in this instinct to share his list online. GoodReads currently sports over 300,000 members. On average, only one in five online community members is truly active. But those who are active on GoodReads are extremely so.

The site reports that more than one out of a hundred members (3,708) have taken the time to review J. D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye. (This number is extrordinary for such an “old” book. Slightly fewer people – 3,641 – reviewed the first Rowling book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.) Below is a comparison of the two sites in terms of Page Views, according to (Click to expand the thumbnail below.)

Click to expand GoodReads vs Shelfari, in estimated page views

It’s ironic that social networks built upon a moribund business model may soon become future sweethearts of venture capitalists. Whether this is so will depend on the speed with which the internet becomes as effective an e-book delivery system as it is virtual reading club.

* At the New Yorker she introduced such innovations as the following:

  • Short articles, so they could be mostly read in one sitting
  • An edgier aesthetic, guided by Pulitzer-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and a slew of new editors
  • Actual photography in the editorial space. (I’m not kidding. What’s more, some of these photos were– Gasp! – in color)

Interactive design requires living life with your “eyes wide open”

Our very own interactive creative director Clay Konnor was interviewed yesterday on WUWM FM, Milwaukee Public Radio. You can listen to the podcast, but why not see him live? He’s a co-presenter tonight at the Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design. It’s a panel discussion that’s part of an excellent series by Clay offers this advice for those seeking to excel in the interactive design field:

My chief piece of advice is to practice your craft. Really the best interactive designers I’ve ever run into are just well-practiced. They’ve solved similar issues time and time again.

The other thing I recommend is to go through life with your eyes wide open.

Every day I make a point of reading both the New York Times and RealSimple magazine. I listen to both Pat Metheny and Dolly Parton. In the same day. The idea is to expose yourself to a wide breadth of what’s going on. What are the trends, and how can they be used to cause conversions on a site?

The presentation Business Meets Design: A Panel Discussion begins tonight at 7PM. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, I urge you to sign up online and enjoy some interesting perspectives on modern product design.

How to handle blogged ambivalence (or worse!) of your product

I agree with Sam Decker that a lukewarm or negative review posted online is not a terrible thing. Since there will be many glowing reviews of your product (one hopes), the contrasting viewpoints will lend authenticity to the whole.

But how does one respond to a negative review — especially one from a respected and well-known source?

In other words, talk of social media firefighting is common, but where are good examples of a well-deployed firefight in action?

I’ve come across a few, but the one I found yesterday is excellent. Be sure to scroll down this post by Dave Berkowitz to see the comments of affronted author, Joe Jaffe.

It’s not surprising that a veteran blogger would step forward to assert his side of the discussion with measured tact plus a sprinkling of clarifications. Jaffe’s comments are a textbook example of how to properly defend your brand in a public forum.

My one edit, if I had advised Mr. Jaffe, was to cut the line, “Not much more to say except thanks for taking the time to read 27 pages [of the 300-page book].” Ouch. That sounded defensive and unfair.

Finally, to David’s point in his Caveat #6, I too find marketing today a great amount of fun and I think most in the business do.

Marketing is especially fun when the rules of engagement are being written in real time. To paraphrase jazz poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, the marketing revolution will be televised.

Costume company uses political widget to predict election results

If you’re an online costume company whose biggest sales day is in late October (Halloween of course), how do you use social networks and current events to generate buzz? The leader in this category,, created a widget that claims to be an accurate predictor of Presidential election results. Check out this clever way to cause a stir — and sell a vertiable Washington Beltway worth of cardboard masks!


Thank you, Jon Krouse, for the scoop, the good conversation, and the cookie. (Full disclosure: The only payment received was a wonderful Alterra brand Cowboy Cookie, at the coffee shop where we met last week).


What do you think? Is this type of promotion worth it? Let me know your thoughts. I’ll be checking with Jon after the election to see if the ROI on was as strong as I suspect it will be. In the meantime, he encourages you to click through, vote early, and vote often. 🙂

This Thursday’s Interactive Marketing Assoc. speaker weighs in on Influentials, NPS and social media

The Milwaukee Interactive Marketing Association has come back to life, and its first event of what promises to be a fascinating season will be Thursday night, at the William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising. Bryan Rasch of Hanson Dodge will discuss how to meet the online needs of what his firm calls Brand Champions. It’s a somewhat ironic term, since the sites his company creates for their core clients (including Trek Bikes) are for “active lifestyle” consumer products. These sites cater to champions of all stripes — some of the most active consumers, including triathletes, pro fishermen and other avid outdoors people.

I spoke with Bryan to get a feel for his company’s approach to online branding. I wanted to know his thoughts on three topics that are being hotly debated today. They are as follows:

  1. Influentials: Do Malcolm Gladwell’s Influentials really exist? And if not, aren’t any efforts to court brand champions ultimately wasteful?
  2. Net Promoter Score (NPS)*: Where do you stand on the topic of this metric?
  3. Social Media As Brand Promotion: Isn’t the potential for negative online reviews too harmful to warrant opening your brand to public discussion?

JL: First, Bryan, I’d like to know what you think of those people, such as Bob Garfield (the AdAge columnist) and Clive Thompson (in his February Fast Company piece) who have claimed that there is no validity to the concept of courting a product’s Influentials?

BR: They have a point in that you can’t identify a small number of extremely influential people, to whom everyone else turns for advice on a brand. Brand champions are a much broader base of product users. They are vocal, and they particularly prefer the web as their megaphone. But aside from their passion for the brand, they are no different from other customers. They may make up large numbers — upwards of 10% of the total number of visitors to a typical brand site.

JL: I’ve heard you talk about Net Promoter Scores (NPS) as a metric. Do you encourage this type of evaluation, or do you agree with those who think it’s too simplistic?

BR: I do encourage the use of NPS, but primarily as a measure of true customer satisfaction. The strength in this measurement lies in knowing that it doesn’t predict a user’s likelihood of being a brand champion, but the likelihood of that customer buying from you again. But I think this score can also help you understand the likelihood of your consumers to speak out … to write positive reviews, recommend your brand to others online, etc. Thus the metric is helpful as a barometer of how your brand may perform within Social Media formats.

JL: If you want to encourage brand champions online, you have to open the gates and let in all opinions. A minority of brands are comfortable with a certain level of negative buzz. But most refuse to provide forums for discussion because they’re afraid of getting flamed — of being host to unfavorable reviews. What is your response to those fears?

BR: The negative reviews will happen, and often they’ll happen first. But reviews seek an equilibrium, just like water. Initially, a negative review may show up, because a consumer is angry. But over time, other consumers who love the brand tend to prevail. Over time the sum of the reviews reaches the proper level of consumer opinion.

I’ve never come across a set of reviews where it wasn’t an accurate barometer of how the brand fulfills consumer expectations.

Do join me Thursday night at what promises to be a provocative and informative presentation. Visit the Milwaukee Interactive Marketing Association site for details.

* NPS asks customers one question: “How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?” Customers reply with a score on a scale of 10, with 10 being “Extremely likely.” The net score is the sum of all customers scoring nine and 10, minus those scoring six or less. Incredibly high scores are in the 75 to 80 percent range of your customers. The average is only 15%.