Friday, July 31, 2015

Real Innovation - What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?

We talked about "enhanced books" on #futurechat today.  Whenever that subject comes up among publishing professionals, I always end up chewing through a steel filing cabinet in frustration.

I mean, Friday's chat was actually a pretty interesting one. (Check it out here -- it's a twitter chat, so be prepared to click and scroll to try to find the various threads of the convo.)  Publishing people are not a dumb crowd.  It is always an interesting conversation.

But the thing that makes me chew steel and spit nails is that the whole conversation tends to be based on a false premise.

No, really, listen...

What is innovation?

Problem solving.

That's it. That's the critical foundation element of innovation.

If someone presents an innovation, the first thing you ask is: "What problem are you trying to solve?"

And, um, just a hint: when you are talking about being innovative with a product or service, you are talking about the CUSTOMER'S problems, not the producer's problems.

And whenever we talk about enhanced books, we never talk about that.  Publishing peopel keep talking about their own problems instead.  How do we keep from being marginalized?  How do we compete with games and movies and the internet for our customer's attention? 

And yes, the correct answer to those question is INNOVATE!  But then you have to actually BE innovative, and that means:

You have to focus on solving the customer's problems, not yours.

The customers do not have a problem that is solved by enhanced books.  They have all the shiny, push-button-y, video- and audio-enhanced everything in the world they can want.  They're not bitching and moaning about not having enough bells and whistles.  If they feel the need for that, they have PLENTY of products that fulfill the need.

(Although, if you have a project that calls for bells and whistles, sure, go ahead and create it to be the best it can be. Just don't call it innovative.)

So what is the customer's actual problem? What are they bitching about?

The answer is the thing that really makes me grind steel between my teeth: the biggest, most obvious problem of the customers in publishing is something that publishers have always considered core to their business:

Content and Curation

Seriously.  I know that those of us in the Indie Publishing Revolution have been screaming "Destroy the gatekeepers! Ça ira!"  And as readers we are SO glad to get rid of the old curation system where books would go out of print, and series we love would be cut, along with authors we loved.

But we hated that because, under the old system, curation limited our choices.  We don't want limits.  We don't like 'em.  An no, we aren't drowning in a sea of crap, thank you very much.  After 20 years of internet, we're all pretty good at filtering crap.

But we still have problems that relate to content and curation.  For instance....

The Naughty Regency Romance and the Old Hippie

I have been disgruntled about my choices in mystery for decades (see my screed on The Murder of the Mystery Genre), but I think an even better example of a customer with a problem is a friend of mine. 

At first glance, it seems a simple enough problem: She's been frustrated trying to find a Regency Romance that isn't full explicit sex.  And at this point, she'll settle for a "clean" romance -- but that's not actually what she's looking for either.

She's not a church lady.  She's not Christian.  She's an old hippie lesbian who swears like a sailor. So she's not looking for "clean" in the way that a church lady would.  She's not looking for conservative values or clean language or a whitewashed world.  She's just looking for light entertainment, and she's not that psyched about the physical aspects of boy meets girl.  (And even if it was girl meets girl, she's not reading the romance for that element.)

What she wants is the deep interpersonal part of the romance (sexual attraction can and should be a part of it, but please draw the curtain as she doesn't want to see it), intelligent banter, funny turns of plot, maybe a little intrigue, suspense and even magic, with good old fashioned justice that people of all political perspectives can enjoy, and a Happily Ever After ending.

She's re-reading old classics, because everything new she tries is too sexy or too Christian.

In the meantime, we know that those readers of clean Christian fiction have been complaining about having to be in the Inspirational Ghetto.  They can't always find what they want either.

And I can't find that exact mix of Hitchcockian suspense, madcap comedy, clue-based whodunnit, and with characters I love, and emphasis on their relationships (romance or not).  Preferably with a serious thematic undertone that doesn't interfere with the comedy.

Folks, this is an opportunity.  Not just for the writer to write what we're looking for, but for the curator to help us find it!
This is what you guys in publishing and bookselling do.  Right? Isn't it?

But it doesn't work to do it the way you used to.  You need to innovate.  To change how you do that curation thing, that content nurturing thing. You need to change how you think about your existing role.

Because there are other people working on it.  That's the way it is with actual pressing problems.

Amazon is doing it the automated way -- using algorithms to leverage customer behavior patterns -- and they would really like it if someone else were doing hte heavy lifting.  This is why they bought Goodreads and Shelfari, and why they have Affiliate Programs that support the bloggers who try to act as curators.

But their content curation is crowd-sourced, so it will always be weirdly averaged.  Different authors and publishers will use the same keywords on very different books -- because the line between, say, romance and erotica varies widely from person to person.

It works, but it still leaves us frustrated and looking for a solution.

A real innovator in the field is Netflix. They have a more reliable system because they actually use content experts to watch and tag movies with keywords based on things real customers are looking for.  Not just genre, but subtlties.  I'ts robust and deep, and best of all, consistent.  They may have different standards than I do, but because those standards are applied across the board, I know what they mean.

So, if you want to innovate?

Here is is, a burning problem that really matters to your customers. 

Your old solutions won't help, but your expertise will.  In a world where every kind of book is available to every kind of reader, help the unique customer find the unique book they want.  Not the book you want to sell them, not the book you think is good for them or deserves more attention, or the book that everybody else is buying -- the book that will fulfill their dreams.

You could do this in big ways (a unified repository of professionally key-worded and tagged books) or in small ways (nurturing micro-genres for niche audiences, or exhaustively cataloging such a small niche).

But if you want to innovate... solve MY problems, not yours.

See you in the funny papers.

Which Way Did She Go?

I didn't disappear. I've been right here.

I just discovered that if you're going to disengage for a while from the Writing Community, it is best not to announce that you're going to do it, or say when you expect to be back, or what you'll do while you're gone.

If you do that, you haven't actually disengaged.  You've just gone into Stealth Engagement Mode.  (I would explain that in a lengthy blog post, but that would put me back in Full Engagement Mode. So I won't.  You can figure it out for yourself.)

Also, I'm not going to give you a progress report or a list of plans, etc.  (Uber-Full-Engagment Mode!)

The Writing Community is a Time and Attention Sink-hole. A Vortex of Doom.

(You're being sucked in, Camille!  Disengage!  Disengage! .... Oh, what the hell....)

It's not actually the company of other writers that is the problem.  (This is why I have continued to engage with people on Twitter, and even take part on Twitter chats.)  There is, however, an element to the online writer community where I feel like I'm wearing my work clothes.  There are social obligations and professional codes lurking underneath.  It's like ... the Academic Community.

Okay, except in certain circles, it's not as bad as Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?  But there is a nagging careerism, a subtle imperative to make connections, build reputation.  If you don't end up actually posturing, you do at least find yourself striking a pose now and then.  You  begin to limit your own thinking, even.  Not consciously, but when everyone around you is marching in step, you have to make a conscious effort to break out of step -- and that is almost as limiting as just going along with the crowd.

Sometimes, you just have to put some earplugs in for a while, and restrain yourself from taking part.  And then you can start hearing the rhythm of your own heartbeat.

So I'm all Zen right now, and I intend to stay that way for a bit.

I'm not going to talk about writing for a while, though I may talk about publishing -- that is the big cultural issues, not the 'how to succeed in' part.

I've been taking a break lately by flinging myself with utter abandon into my family history and geneology.  I am currently locked in a battle to the death with my great-great-great grandmother and her mother-in-law (or, at least, one of her mothers-in-law) both of whom seem determined to make the tracing of the family impossible by marrying, remarrying, changing chlidren's names, farming out kids and taking in kids and changing their names....

And I thought my great-great-grandmother's husband, the drunken French Canadian lumberjack, was going to be the interesting/difficult one in the family tree!

Anyway, I started a blog about my journey into family history -- Clues to the Past.  I will update it fitfully, and probably mention things here too.

In the meantime, see you in the funny papers.