Thursday, September 08, 2005

Impressed with the Red Cross

On Sunday, September 4th, I received a call from Hands on Nashville, a volunteer organization I work with from time to time. They were trying to round up volunteers very quickly for a project in conjunction with the Red Cross, receiving and directing a few planeloads of evacuees from New Orleans. Having watched the tragedy unfold for a week feeling sickened and helpless, I agreed immediately to help in any way I could.

I arrived at the Red Cross on Charlotte and was directed to go, with other volunteers, to the Smyrna air force base, where the planes would be arriving later . While everything was very whirlwind and rushed in that first hour, it turned out to be a case of "hurry up and wait." The plan changed multiple times before and after we arrived in Smyrna, and no one seemed to be able to get a clear sense of when the first plane would arrive, or how many people would be on it. This disorganization could be interpreted either as a lack of organization or as a simple result of the sheer magnitude of the disaster overwhelming all resources. I'm sure there will be endless discussions for years to come about who was responsible for the official and charitable response (or lack thereof), and I'm equally sure that the answer will never truly be known.

I do know that I met a Red Cross volunteer who had been awake since Saturday morning. Sometime Saturday afternoon, she had been told of the imminent arrival of evacuees, and she had begun putting together the supplies needed. She was frantic and exhausted, but she had done an excellent job.

About 300 evacuees arrived that day, on two planes. They were tired, dirty, some were injured, sick, or in desperate need of medication. But all were grateful to be on ground where a dry bed was promised. The Red Cross (and possibly other organizations involved - FEMA, TEMA, and the Air National Guard were all present, and I don't really know much about who was in charge of what) had put together a very well-thought-out reception room for the evacuees. There was medical triage as they exited the plane. They were greeted by the more than 50 volunteers on-hand with cold water, hot food (the two things they were most excited to see), snacks, personal toiletries, clean towels, clean clothes (hospital scrubs), toys for the kids, books, and yes, Bibles. All items were appreciated, because these people mostly walked in with absolutely nothing in their hands, even those with very young children in tow. I was impressed with the selection of supplies. I wouldn't have thought of toys, but apparently a three-year-old who has been through a week of hell-on-earth can still be delighted by a kazoo. Isn't that a miracle?

The evacuees were housed on the base in Smyrna, where they will ostensibly remain for the duration of their refuge, which could be months by all accounts from NOLA. I was heartened by the generosity of the volunteers who had made this Tennessee hospitality possible, and I was humbled to be a part of it.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Amazon is your friend... Really!

In my role as content manager here at Thomas Nelson, I am responsible for the mostly-automated process which ensures that our thousands of titles appear as they should on various sites around the web, including (which is by far the most high-profile). I am often contacted by our pub groups to correct some bit of information on a product page on Amazon (usually because they were contacted by an author). Most of the time, I can effect whatever change is requested. However, there is a good deal of Amazon content over which I have no control. Basically, this is my simple, but characteristically long-winded, primer about where all of the content on Amazon comes from, and which parts are actually under our control (and which are not).

Title, Author, cover image: Of course we do have plenty of control over these. Our automatic feeds generally keep these accurate, but we have occasional problems. Usually, if the title and author are correct in CPR (our “central product repository”, where all book data is entered by the publishing groups) then it will be correct on Amazon. However, there are a few limitations. Examples: they accept no HTML in the title field, so you can’t have a ™ symbol in a title. You can use the inelegant (TM), if you really need to have a trademark in a title. Also, Amazon generally discourages suffixes on author names (including “M.D.”) because they believe that they interfere with their search engine. We’re working on ways to keep our database clean so that we gradually eliminate title and author errors caused by content that Amazon simply doesn’t like.

If a cover is wrong, let me know and I can get that fixed very quickly. Amazon has an excellent process in place for cover corrections, and I can usually make that happen in just a couple of days (I can never, ever make any sort of change happen “today” – the zillions of changes they process in a week simply prohibit instant gratification).

“List Price” and “Price”: List price is the retail price, which should be correct. If it’s not, let me know and I can work on fixing it. However, these changes take longer than content changes because Amazon prefers to receive list price corrections from Ingram, their distributor, not from the publisher. So, the change has to filter from us to Ingram, and from Ingram to Amazon, which can take several weeks. Avoid making last-minute price changes to titles, and you should have no problems.

“Price” is Amazon’s selling price after their significant discount. Believe it or not, authors sometimes complain about how cheaply Amazon prices their books. Well, they’re not alone. Plenty of retailers and etailers wish Amazon weren’t so competitive. But their prices are one reason why they are the bookselling behemoth that they are. It’s called capitalism and it’s beyond my control.

Availability: If there is lots of available stock of a particular title in all of Amazon’s distribution centers, this message will usually say “ships in 24 hours”. If stock is low or not available in all distributors at a given time, it might say “ships in 1-2 days”. Stock can be low because a title is not particularly hot, or because it’s very hot and orders haven’t kept up with demand. This is not something I can generally make Amazon “change”. However, if they say a title is not shipping for whatever reason, or is a “special order” taking several weeks, let me know because that may signal a problem I can straighten out.

Search Inside the Book (SITB): This is a very nifty program enabling a person to search for a topic or keyword inside the book in question and read the 5-6 pages on either side of each appearance of this word. Presumably this lets a customer “browse” a book to see whether a particular topic is covered. I suspect that it’s more often used to simply flip through a book as one would do in a bookstore to see if the author writes in a compelling way. Amazon’s old process to compile these files was to take actual hard copies of books (supplied by the publisher), cut the bindings off, and scan them. They are now moving toward a more digital process whereby the publisher submits a pdf of the entire book. We, like most publishers, are a bit slow in keeping up with this new requirement, which puts a heavy burden on our desktop department. So not all new titles have SITB activated yet. Unfortunate, but we’re trying to catch up.

Incidentally, I have heard the complaint that a customer could conceivably use this feature to systematically search for keywords until the entire book is read, thereby preventing them from buying it. Well… yes, conceivably they could. But someone capable of such behavior is probably slightly demented, absurdly thrifty, and lacking a job or vocation of any sort. Not the biggest book-buying audience anyway.

Better Together: This is a program where Amazon offers two similar books for one price. It’s actually a paid placement program (just like buying counter placement in a bookstore). If you want your book displayed next to, say, Freakonomics, you can do so. But the publisher pays for this, and Amazon must approve the pairing (ie, it must make sense as a pairing). Otherwise, these are systematic pairings (and usually involve no cost savings) generated based on buying habits. I have no control over them.

Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought: Just like the above, this is based on Amazon customer buying habits, and I can’t control it.

Editorial Reviews: The only thing under this section that I can control is “Product Description” which should match the description in CPR, and if it doesn’t, I can fix it. I can’t make them take off or rearrange their own editorial reviews or reviews from the major periodicals they quote from (Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, a few others).

Product Details: Things like format, publisher, ISBN, etc. I can get these corrected if they are wrong (but they rarely are). However, one note about Sales Rank: This is exactly what it sounds like. Ranking of a book’s sales on Amazon. There are many flaws here and it’s a good idea not to take it too seriously. For one thing, it doesn’t take into account multiple editions (HC, PB, Audio) of a single title. For another thing, the rankings are updated several times a day and fluctuate wildly. The rankings go up to 999,999,999. If your book doesn’t have a ranking, it’s not in the top million. This is often true of NYP (not yet published) titles. Believe it or not, only your mom is searching for and preordering your book a month before it comes out and promotion has begun. Just because Harry Potter VI has great pre-sales, doesn’t mean folks all over the world are salivating over the upcoming publication of 500 Great Waffle Iron Meals.

Customer Reviews: These drive authors crazy. But there’s nothing I can do about it. There are some things that an author or other interested party can do, however, when a customer review is particularly scathing. You can “report this” (there is a link under each review – just click on it). If the review is really personal or nasty or off-topic, Amazon may review and remove it. But they give a lot of leeway with customer reviews. It’s meant to be a public forum, after all, and booksellers tend to be big on free speech. You can also vote “not helpful” (voting buttons are above each review). This has no effect whatsoever but may make you feel better. Actually, a reviewer with a lot of negative votes ends up with a bad “reviewer score”, but not many Amazon reviewers actually care. Finally, you can get all your friends, your publicist, and your mom to write glowing reviews of your book. Customer reviews never fall off the site completely, but when enough collect, they are archived to another page (one must click on “see all customer reviews” to see more than the first few). The ones at the top are always the most recent. I don’t suggest this because I approve of the tactic, however. As a user of Amazon, I wish that all customer reviews were written by unbiased third parties with serious intent to share opinion after having actually read the entire book. But I can usually spot the ones written by publicists, friends and moms and these are the books I’m least likely to buy.

Finally, a word on the Amazon search engine: If you have a book titled Ben Franklin Sat on My Cupcake and you do a search for it on Amazon, you may not find your book at the top of the search results. You may not even find it on the first, or second, or third page of search results, especially if it’s NYP (not yet printed). This is because Amazon’s search engine doesn’t weigh exact title match as heavily as you might think. Their search engine takes into account availability and sales rank. So your book may be hidden behind a raft of other titles about Ben Franklin and cupcakes and S.A.T. scores. As your book gains a sales ranking, it will move up on the list, just be patient.

As I always say, please let me know if you have any questions...

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Musing on New Technology

Well, here I am, actually setting up and writing a "blog". I'm not sure how long I've been aware of blogs, but it hasn't been more than a couple of years, and it's been a much shorter time that I've actually known for sure what one was, much less read any. I now check in regularly with several and, lo-and-behold, am authoring one myself.

It's no secret that this blog-activity was instigated, and actually strongly encouraged, by my company management, Thomas Nelson Publishers. The idea is that we are embracing this growing technology as a new means by which to communicate ideas - to each other, to our customers, to interested third parties (whether partner or competitor). It's an interesting idea, and I have both cynicism and optimism regarding this undertaking.

First of all, the company that is held-forth as the standard-bearer for the "Corporate Blog" is Microsoft, who has a lively, dynamic community of employee bloggers aggregated into a company site that serves as a repository of often-useful information about Microsoft products, posted by those best-positioned to be up on the latest glitches, fixes and patches.

But where we differ from Microsoft is that we have neither frequent & vital product updates to share, nor a proven computer-savvy customer base who seek us out on the web.

On the other hand, we do have information to share, a certain level of brand-identity, and a customer base who are increasingly web-knowledgeable. I mean, it's not like we're some nameless, faceless corporation blogging about cardboard. We do have personality, right?

Hence is where my optimism comes. Because it's interesting that my company wants us to put down our company masks and wear our real faces, in public, in writing. It's a very progressive idea, and I'm proud to be a part of a company who places emphasis and value in being on the "cutting edge".

And that, too, is where my skepticism arises.

This whole thing reminds me of a time at my previous publisher, Rutledge Hill Press (now a division of Thomas Nelson, and now you know how I got here). Before we had the backing of a huge, powerful company, we had to navigate new technological fields on our own, with our minimal staff and knowledge. I am thinking of a time, years ago, when it was decreed that we should have a WEBSITE! Which were new enough then that a company could "decide" if it needed a website or not. Ludicrous now, in today's world, that a company of any size shouldn't at least own the rights to their URL. But indeed, in those days, it was actually discussed: "Shouldn't we have a website?" I recall my friends at RHP working long and hard on the project: having a website designed, complete with shopping cart. Which generated, on average, something like $100 in sales per month. And these were not very profitable sales, as it involved man-hours at the warehouse to ship one-book orders. But we had a Website!

Now, of course, the RHP website, looped into the TNI site, generates considerably more revenue and traffic than it did in those days. And our overall website business is a part of our operations that we would never dream of abandoning, because it is vital and important and we only plan to grow and expand it, as we should. Because that is how business is run, these days.

But in those days, when the RHP site garnered little or no traffic, and it had taken up so many people's time for so many days and weeks, to develop and then to maintain it... Well, sometimes I fear that being on the cutting edge can really dull your blade. I think that there is a right and a wrong time to jump on a new technology bandwagon, and being way too early can be just as calamitous as being way too late.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, I shall enjoy and participate in the experiment! Hope you will, too.