Tuesday, December 8, 2009


A few years ago a publishing friend in Sao Paulo, Brazil said his company enjoyed zero newsstand returns. I assumed this was no more than acceptable bravado. After all, I had been arguing that the U.S. soccer team actually stood a chance against Brazil.

My friend didn't really sell every copy put out at retail. He just collected all "unsolds" and stashed them in a warehouse on the outskirts of town. "Fire hazard," is what I thought when eyeing the million-plus magazines reaching to the roof of a well-managed and spacious warehouse.

His plan was simple. He would distribute old magazines, usually with no cover date or price, to parts of the country that had not been exposed to articles about the "Ten Ways to Enjoy Brazilian Wines." That, by the way is a joke at the expense of my Brazilian friend who forced me to actually count all those stored magazines. Or he might re-issue the magazines with new covers putting, as it were, old wine in new bottles.

And why not? Brazil has huge swaths of land that have not been blessed with a traditional distribution system presently clustered around Rio and Sao Paulo.

Anyone who has been involved in international publishing knows the above story varies by degree in other developing countries or nations in transition. I've seen instances in China, India and Russia where publishers sell dated magazines outside the major metro areas. The old-fasioned doctrine of "scarcity" still works in some places. Yes, the local black market might have some skin in this game.

What happens when distribution systems in other nations become more mature, and these options are less viable?

At the recent OMMA Mobile conference in Los Angeles there was considerable talk of mobile applications at retail. In a way this was refreshing as there was less emphasis on the Jesus iPhone and more attention to the bottom of the puchase funnel. A number of speakers addressed mobile's ability to "geo-fence" around retail, including loyalty programs and CRM data. Ikea and JC Penny seem very advanced in reading scans with mobile phones.

TechCrunch reported on December 6, 2009 that "Google had mailed out window stickers with two-dimensional bar codes (aka QR codes) to the most searched for or clicked-on businesses in its local business directory. Anyone with a QR code reader in their phone can scan it to call up a Google Mobile local directory for one of these favorite places." Just wave your iPhone in front of the bar code and get all the necessary information about a local business.

As location-based mobile marketing becomes more sophisticated and coupon scanning more ubiquitous, retail businesses, including magazines, are likely to be transformed.

As for my friend in Brazil he plans to put all back issues of his million magazines on mobile devices.

And the U.S. is going to win the upcoming World Cup.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Stroking the Keys

Recently the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on the future of journalism. The focus was primarily on newspapers. I didn't attend but watched a few webcasts. My takeaway: someone bashed Google. Then someone bashed the basher. And finally a professor said that is was unclear whether the newspaper model of the future would be more like the typewriter or the bicycle.

For a professor, you'd think that would be a no-brainer. But since I have both a typewriter and a bike, I listened intently.

To my dismay the metaphor was left hanging in mid-air, like a participle in mid-sentence, So I did what every red-blooded writer does: I extended the metaphor even through I had absolutely no idea where it was going.

I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I have a typewriter, to be sure, but it is stashed in a closet under a well-used altar cloth. And my modest wine collection is parked in front, serving as both inspiration and camouflage. You don't have to be an English major to know this is a monument to Old Media and the pre- PDF days of multiple key strokes and powerful secretaries. The typewriter is hidden because my more progressive family might take it to the recycling center. The altar cloth says I take this homage seriously. The wine suggests I know when to cut my losses.

But this is poetry and therefore everything matters and nothing matters. The best poetry exists in a syntactical tension that drives the hell out of anyone who wants to get off that slow-moving, directionless bus. If you have any questions, please read John Crowe Ransom's "The Equilibrist."  JC has left a guy on a high wire for more than eighty years.

I figure as long as I hide the typewriter from my family and don't drink all the wine, journalism will be safe. But just in case, I'll make the case for the Bicycle Business Model of Journalism because I've always liked to do what pleases the professor. Full discloser: I have ridden more bikes than I have owned typewriters. Also, I was editor and publisher of "Bicyclng" and "Mountain Bike" and have written books about these subjects on my computer. So I know slightly more about spokes than keys.

The professor seemed to favor the bike because after it was pushed off the road by cars on June 17, 1899 and languished in toy boxes for generations, it was rescued by fantatics in California who thought the machine was actually a way to health and fitness. For the first phase this fantasy was fueled by names like Fuji and Univega until red-blooded American names like Cannondale and Trek came out of the west with bikes that better fit the body.

So everyone was happy in the land. In a given year 11 million bikes were sold and we came damn close to pushing that over-sized Pontiac off the road. At "Bicycling" I declared victory and took all the credit. And with that declaration I became happy and fat.  When I was feeding my face, metaphorically speaking, a home-made, clunky mountain bike roared down the slopes of Marin County, CA and ate my lunch.

The moral of the story: it is precisely when your local newspaper is rotound and happy with a a ROI of 30% that techies from the mountain top will descend and take a bite out of the community pie.

The professor, as usual, is right. "Bicycling" purchased "Mountain Bike" and the older son coaxed the renegade, dressed to the nines in his tattos, nose rings, and pony tails, into town to meet mother and family at Sunday brunch.

We tell mother that it's alright if our outlaw cousin is a little rough and smells a lot. That is, after all, how he keeps the other bikers at bay.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On the #! Train in the Bronx

I spend a fair bit of my day thinking about and playing with e-readers and other stuff that slosh around in the emerging device eco-system. I'm profoundly disappointed that the B&N stores will probably not have enough of The Nook during the holidays to satsify the needs of relatives and friends I have sent under threat to the various stores. I give B&N a lot of credit, though, especially for the name. As an unrepentant English major I can have it both ways. I call feel like I'm curled up in a corner of the imitationYale library at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania taking in the scent of mildewed books and still hold in my hand a chunk of promising technology.

When I was studying for my PhD at Lehigh, I had to read, give-or-take, a thousand books.  These were piled everywhere in my garage apartment: in my son's crib when we wasn't available; on the stove when I was not making tea; on the toilet lid when that device wasn't in use. Eventually I had to send my family to Switzerland to sojourn while I was filling my head with a lot of usefless details about whether more blood was shed in Shakespearean or Jacobean drama. If you must know: the thugs from the Jacobean theater won. Have a look at the works of Webster some time. Right, he doesn't warrant a first name. Time has that effect.

There begins the tale.

Here I am, sitting in my brown study (go to Henry James for the explanation), on the #1 train to the Bronx and I see a woman dressed entirely in pink reading on a Kindle.  Above her was a sign about protecting your purses, iPhones, and other valuables. You see where this is going. She was close to the door so that should be part of the calculus. This is emphatically not about de-valuing the Kindle. Do not steal that book!

To the left of the woman in pink was a young man reading "Catcher in the Rye," my favorite book and one I have tried to imitate a half-dozen times. The most recent version entitled "Limey Down" will be available on Amazon shortly.

For a moment I ignore the rap music and the screaming teenagers and focus on the pure experience of watching vicariously the woman in pink and the young man in a "hoodie." I looked at the woman's face and saw pure joy and realized she must be reading a romance novel.

I tried to catch the young man's eye, realizing immediately that on the #1 train a strange and uninvited glance might put you in the middle of a Jacobean murder scene. So I held my powder until he left the train at 96th Street. On his way through the doors I said: ""Great book, isn't it."  He reached into his pocket and pulled out, not a weapon but our book. He said "yes." That made my day.

The woman in pink continued to read until 231st Street. I applauded the author for making romance last the requisite amount of time. And to think some people just count to ten and this author lasted at least fifteen stops. Riding the subway in New York takes stamina.

Yes, I wished I had had an e-reader when all those books were piled high on the toilet. But the truth is I want my books both ways. The Salinger book is a fifty year-old brand and captures me at every sitting. I am warming to the Kindle. My suggestion to Amazon is that it requires women to wear pink while the device is in use. If you want to make progress with men in the Bronx, the "hoodie" is already taken. Don't even think about pink.

I was on one happy #1.