Pros and cons of traditional book distributors

Getting books onto bookshelves with traditional book distributors

Amazon has been disrupting the book industry for more than two decades. Sometimes the public hears the complaints as disputes boil into the open, but much of the restructuring of the industry is taking place quietly, without much public angst. In the post, I will discuss one of the casualties of the new world order for publishing, book distributors.

Distributors are an unseen force in many industries. They are responsible for bringing products to retailers. In the grocery and liquor industries, distributors are the companies whose trucks pull up to the loading dock in the back early in the morning to drop off a wide variety of goods that shop managers have ordered. In the book industry, distributors are the companies that arrange for certain titles to be available in Barnes & Noble, airport bookstores, and independent bookstores. Other services are available, too – there’s a good overview from the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) titled “Working with Distributors.”

It’s important to note that distributors don’t represent everybody. They choose which producers they want to include in their catalogs, and take a cut from any sales that occur. They also demand exclusivity – if you sign a deal with a distributor, that’s the only outlet for your product in a particular geographic area. Obviously, if you have a distributor, you can get onto shelves in retail outlets, which increases your chance for retail sales. If you don’t have traditional distribution, you’re probably out of luck, unless you can work out a deal on your own with a shop or chain of stores.

In the book industry, distributors used to wield a great amount of power. Nearly every publisher had a book traditional distribution deal, or had a sales force to sell directly to the big book retailers. Amazon pulled the rug out from under that model, allowing publishers to offer books for sale directly to consumers. Retailers were hurt, and distributors were decimated. The book distributors who are left are now far more picky about the publishers they work with.

Do you need a distributor for your books?

At one time, I thought I needed a traditional book distribution deal for my company. This was not only to get access to new retail markets, it also seemed like a mark of industry respectability, which is important to growing companies. I did the dance with several distributors, but they didn’t work out. One bailed when it decided it didn’t like the way I managed ebook ISBNs. I pulled out of another offer when I realized the terms wouldn’t work out unless each title sold thousands of copies (many do, but some don’t). A third company completely ignored some of my requests for information, and just shoved a contract in front of my face to sign.

Ultimately, as I thought things through, it became clear to me that I didn’t need book distributors as much as I thought. It wasn’t just the cut they demanded, or the less-than-ideal business relationship. Other factors included:

  1. Once I went with a distributor, I would no longer consider readers to be my customers — it would be the distributor and their clients, the bookstore managers and buying teams.
  2. Distributors demanded a cut of ebook sales, even though they added no value to working with Amazon or other channels.
  3. There were also changes I would be forced to make to accommodate book distributors. My IBPA board colleague Leslie Browning outlines some of them here, including the necessity to have ARCs (advance review copies) ready at least six months before the publication date.

I don’t have a distributor now, and I don’t see it as holding back my business. In fact, I had the best year ever for my company last year, thanks to strong sales via Amazon and other online channels.

It would certainly be great to have my company’s books show up in big-box retailers or airport gift shops or B&N, but the sacrifices I would have to make dealing with book distributors — not to mention dealing with retailers returns — lessen the attraction of traditional book distribution.

 

 

 

 

A brief history of iPhone apps

iPhone appsIn prehistoric times, before Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone, primitive mobile phones and Palm Pilots ruled the earth. These devices came with simple games, utilities, and other small computer programs called applications (or “apps” for short). It was also possible to buy additional apps, which were usually sold by the wireless carrier or offered by the device manufacturer.

But after the iPhone was launched in 2007, followed by the iPod touch in 2008, the iPad in 2010, and the Apple Watch in 2015, Apple took apps to a whole new level. The company made it possible for independent computer programmers to create powerful apps for use with the touch screen interface and sell them for any price (or give them away for free). Consumers could quickly download the apps from Apple’s App Store.

The result was an explosion of apps. Besides the obvious (games, expense trackers, mobile newspapers, Facebook, etc.) a torrent of niche apps that anyone can download is available. They include:

  • Shopping apps for retail stores and e-commerce companies.
  • Social apps such as Facebook, and dating apps such as Tinder.
  • Games, from arcade classics to puzzle apps.
  • News apps that show articles and videos from local and international news organizations.
  • Banking apps that let users scan checks and make deposits, without ever visiting the bank or mailing a check to a processing office.
  • Streaming music and video.
  • Sports apps for professional teams and fantasy leagues.
  • Workout apps for custom routines and tracking.
  • Calculators, scanners, expense trackers, and other utilities.

There are now hundreds of thousands of apps that are actively maintained by the programmers or companies that created them.

Pre-installed Apple apps

A new iPhone comes with more than 20 preinstalled apps that were developed by Apple. They include:

  • App Store. Download paid and free apps.
  • Calculator. In landscape mode, it switches to a scientific calculator.
  • A simple calendar app that lets you set appointments and alerts. This can be synced with your Google, Yahoo, and Outlook calendars in the Settings app.
  • Camera. This app takes photos and videos, and allows simple editing of videos.
  • Clock.  This app shows the time zones of your choosing. Alarm and stopwatch functions can be activated in the app or via Siri.
  • Contacts. This app organizes your contacts, including phone numbers and email addresses. It can be synced with Microsoft Exchange/Outlook accounts and Gmail.
  • FaceTime. Live video chat with other iPhone/iPad/iPod touch users.
  • Health. The app gathers health-related data from the iPhone, connected apps, and connected devices including the Apple Watch and various third-party fitness trackers.
  • Mail. This powerful email program can handle personal and corporate email.
  • Apple’s Maps app looks great, and is integrated with Siri. An alternative is the Google Maps app.
  • Messages. A texting app that is integrated with your phone number and contact list.
  • News. This app lets you select favorite news sources and topics, which are then presented to you in a clean list of headlines and photos.
  • Notes. Take simple text notes with this app, using the virtual keyboard or Dictation.
  • Photos. View photographs, videos, and screen captures taken with your iPhone.
  • Safari, Apple’s mobile Web browser. An alternative is the Chrome app.
  • Settings. Manage hardware and software settings.
  • Apple Wallet. This app works with apps from airlines, hotels, retailers, and other companies to display and process coupons, boarding passes, and vouchers. Wallet is also used to change Apple Pay settings.
  • A no-frills Weather app that automatically shows the local weather if you are connected to a Wi-Fi or carrier network.

Superior alternatives to many of these apps (including Calculator and Weather) can be found in the Apple App Store.

(This post was excerpted from an IN 30 MINUTES guide that I wrote.)

What employers think about Harvard Extension School degrees

For more than 10 years, I have received questions from prospective Harvard Extension School students (and some current students) about whether or not Harvard Extension School degrees will help them get a job, and what employers think about them. Here’s a typical query:

I am considering the Harvard Extension School for Management. I really want your opinion if this will be worth doing in terms of getting a job. I am an international student and have one year of business experience. Do you get an internship in summer? Does the Harvard brand help?

The short answer is “maybe.” Aside from the Harvard or Harvard Extension School brand, there are a few factors employers typically consider:

  1. It depends on the person and what else he or she brings to the table in terms of job experience, specific technical/work skills, and whether or not he or she will be a good fit for the team.
  2. It depends on the field/location/position. It will matter less in a highly competitive field in a big city compared to a less competitive market in a rural area or overseas.
  3. It depends on the person’s network.

As for the brand: By itself, the Harvard Extension School degree is not an automatic signal to “hire this person because he/she has ‘Harvard’ in his educational background.” But it may help you get noticed. My ALM thesis director (a tenured professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) said the Harvard association and reputation — even for Extension School students — carries a lot of weight, and will help open doors that might otherwise be closed. He actually offered to help me find work related to my research (Chinese foreign policy analysis using computer-based research) if I was interested. I wasn’t — at the time I had a pretty good job in tech media and a young family, and becoming an analyst required moving to Washington, D.C.

Another thing that may help graduates get noticed are automated resume processing programs that search for specific keywords or phrases, which may include the name of famous universities … such as Harvard.

But when the resume gets passed to an HR screener or hiring manager, things start to get tricky for many HES grads. A lot of people do not make it clear that they attended the Extension School, and instead list “Harvard University” on their resumes, either in a misguided justification to hide the Extension School affiliation, or an outright misleading attempt to make it seem as if they graduated from Harvard College, the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), or the Harvard Business School. Here are just a few examples from LinkedIn:

Harvard BiologyHarvard ALB economicsHarvard ALM digital media

Not everyone does this, of course. It’s also possible to find people who proudly list their Extension School degrees on LinkedIn:

Harvard Extension ALM nonprofits

I’ve covered the issue of how to represent your Extension School diploma in the past, and it has been debated by hundreds of people on this blog and elsewhere. You can read more at Harvard Extension School résumé guidelines are bogus.

In short, a Harvard Extension Degree is NOT a Harvard College AB degree, a Harvard Business School MBA degree, or a GSAS AM degree. The former has a rigorous process that makes students prove they can do the work before they are admitted, but the others are among the most highly selective undergraduate and graduate programs in the United States. Students are in classrooms with other high-achievers, which raises the level of discourse and focus. Yes, HES gets some high achievers as well, but the classrooms are also filled with casual class-takers who don’t have the same focus as degree candidates.

The curricula and graduation requirements are also completely different. The most obvious is the Extension School’s use of distance education for course credit and for many of the professional programs,  the fact that there is no requirement to take classes taught by faculty with actual teaching appointments at Harvard.

What this means is McKinsey or Bain won’t regard an HES ALB or ALM in Management grad the same way they will treat a recent Harvard College AB or HBS MBA recipient.

What HR and hiring managers think about Extension School grads

Several people involved in hiring decisions have commented how they regard HES grads compared to their counterparts from other schools. I’ll start with the positive evaluations, followed by some of the negative takes:

Josh:

I’m a hiring manager and I would hire an HES graduate any day of the week.

Paul:

As the president and founder of our company with final say in hiring/firing, the choice is clear. Being only book smart is not nearly enough to cut it as there are already too many book smart people out there to choose from. Candidate B’s qualities along with street smarts are harder to find and what the real world is looking for.

justanotheropinion:

If I had to hire one of two applicants for my accounting firm and one said hire me because I got good grades in high school and was active in the community (real Harvard applicant), and the other said I have years of experience in accounting and will work for three months to prove myself to you and if you don’t like what you see I will leave (HES applicant) I would hire the latter.

Why? Simple, the latter has shown they can complete a course of study, are working to better themselves and have decided to take on a great amount of additional responsibility.

But there are more than a few managers out there who have been burned by HES grads misrepresenting their degrees:

As somebody who has personally on-boarded somebody claiming an HES degree as a HGSAS degree, I can tell you that this is pure bullwack. What a complete waste of time and energy her fraud was. I wasted a ton of time looking into the issue. Harvard’s own standards have always made it clear to grads that their HES degree is not a Harvard College degree. Period… It’s willful ignorance on the part of HES grads that it will be overlooked. Anyone who doesn’t know how to represent an HES degree on a resume is a liar.

Another example:

It happens every few years where my firm gets an HES grad misrepresenting their degree. The latest “MA Anthropology – Harvard,” which after a little checking (we have learned to ALWAYS be suspicious), ends up being an MLA with a concentration from HES. When confronted they always plead ignorance and make the same BS argument about how they took classes on campus at Harvard taught by faculty and blah, blah, blah. Some are otherwise good candidates, but they are still committing resume fraud. I would take an honest UMass or UConn grad over HES any day. Had they listed their true HES credential on the resume and sold it in the interview, they would be fine.

As I have said many times in the past, HES grads should be proud of what they have accomplished and be proud to list “Harvard Extension School” on their resumes. If enough people do so and do as well in their careers as they did while at HES, the reputation of the Harvard Extension School will grow … making it easier for all Extension School grads to leverage ALB and ALM degrees to advance their careers.

Lean Startup vs. Lean Media

Yesterday, I participated in a live video discussion about my Lean Media book. One of the topics that came up was the relationship of the Lean Media framework to Lean Startup, a business and product framework first articulated by Eric Ries nearly ten years ago. He ended up releasing a book titled Lean Startup, and the concepts outlined in it are now widely followed by tech startups and business units at larger companies. (Eric expands on how some of these innovative concepts can be applied to larger ventures and multinational corporations in his new book The Startup Way).

I’ve acknowledged Lean Media’s connections with Lean Startup since I first proposed the Lean Media framework right here on this blog five years ago, but it’s worth exploring in greater detail how they differ. To some, the two iterative product development frameworks may seem similar, but there are some profound differences, too.

The following chart lays it all out:

Lean Startup vs. Lean Media chartIn the first row, Lean Startup addresses products with defined characteristics – a light bulb or SaaS application. In certain cases there may be design elements, such as a smartphone case or pair of shoes, but at the end of the day such products also serve practical purposes, such as protecting your phone or your feet. They therefore have practical value and can be assigned a price. They can also be designed and produced in a methodical fashion, building out components and features to reach the desired specification. Lean Startup’s build-measure-learn cycle brings in customer feedback to improve development of products with defined characteristics.

Media products, on the other hand, are designed to entertain and inform. In certain cases they may have knowledge value (e.g., a subscription to the Financial Times informs business people about issues that impact their careers) but in most cases they bring no tangible value. Media is all about intangibles — the hard-to-articulate qualities of work that elicit feelings and emotions in the people who experience them. Despite media’s lack of practical value, audiences are willing to spend one of their most valuable resources — time — to consume them. They may also spend a great deal of money on media experiences.

MVP vs. Media Prototype

The MVP (minimum viable product) is perhaps the most famous element of Lean Startup. The concept has also been debated, as I discussed on this blog in 2013 (see MDP: Minimum Delightful Product) and I have heard elsewhere. Ideally, it’s a functional product that can be shown to early adopters in order to test hypotheses and get feedback, but some founders expand the definition to include incomplete models or design prototypes, and often end up showing them to people who are not early adopters, such as journalists or prospective investors. MVPs are by definition not finished products, but early customers (or observers, investors, etc.) may have a hard time seeing past the flaws.

Lean Media does not use the term MVP. We already have lots of terms for early versions of a work — draft, rough cut, demo version, etc. — but in the book I group them all under the term prototype for all media formats. While early prototypes may be simple or incomplete, I instruct creators to be sure to remove from the media prototypes what I call scaffolding before showing them to test audiences. Scaffolding could include editors’ marks, time codes, and annotations that will distract from the work.

In the third row, Lean Startup relies on empirical data and validated learning to test hypotheses. An MVP might provoke some discussions with early adopters, but in the build-measure-learn cycle you need to be measuring what you are doing so you can make an informed, data-driven decision. For instance, will customers prefer a recessed headlight in the new car, or something that’s more flush with the front of the vehicle? Have your design team whip up some graphic renderings in their CAD programs, and then show them to prospective customers and measure which one gets more votes. It’s the classic A/B test.

For media, quantitative data can deliver insights as test audiences experience a prototype, but qualitative data explains why people feel the way they do about a media work being developed. Sometimes the quantitative indicators (20 “thumbs down” vs 10 “thumbs up” after reviewing a draft manuscript of a novel) may be invalidated by the qualitative feedback (75% of thumbs down concerned minor issues relating to chapter titles and the index, as opposed to fundamental issues with the story itself).

Regardless of the type of feedback, it’s intended to inform creators about the work, rather than dictating how they must proceed. This is a big difference with Lean Startup, which practically requires founders to follow where the empirical data takes them, even if it’s far outside their original hypotheses about what customers want.

Finally, Lean Startup is not just a framework for product development, it’s a framework for startup business development. For instance, in Lean Startup, Ries describes innovation accounting as a way for the company to reach its business goals. Lean Media has no such intentions — the framework is purely about product. While a media work that resounds with audiences can be the basis for a successful media venture, I do not explicitly address how to make a media business profitable. That may very well be the focus of my next media book (working title: Niche Media). Stay tuned!

 

Do music playlists hold the same emotional and temporal connections as songs and albums?

A friend of mine asked an interesting series of questions on Facebook about music, noting that certain albums had the ability to bring people back to a certain time and place. I think this is common experience that traverses cultures and age groups — e.g., the first time you heard Miles Davis or the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album. He then asked, what about playlists, such as those that might be found on Spotify or Apple Music or some other service?

I started making playlists on iTunes in late 2004, so I could have music to listen to on my iPod as I walked to the bus stop to go to Harvard, where I worked. Looking through the songs definitely brings back memories of that winter walk, especially on cold winter mornings when the temperature was below 20 degrees and the wind was whipping up the street into my face. Later on I set up playlists to keep me going late into the night as I worked on my graduate thesis for the Harvard Extension School.

The mixtapes I made or were given to me from about the early 80s to the mid 1990s also take me back to specific times and places, including other countries where I lived. The ones shared with me also remind me of people who gave them, and where they were in their lives.

I remember one called “Sherman’s Heroes.” A guy named Neil Sherman who I met in a hostel in Taipei gave it to me in early 1993. It consisted of American and British bands that would now be called Shoegaze, such as Love Battery and Ride. Listening to those songs now takes me back to the hot, humid summer, when I was just getting established in Taiwan.

Around the same time, another friend sent me a tape of rap and another one of rock which also takes me back, and reminds me of him.

But maybe all of these examples are special because I or a friend curated the playlists, and knew my tastes and therefore had a better chance of making that emotional connection.

I haven’t had much of an experience with curated playlists. The ones on Amazon Music are generally quite poor — one that springs to mine is the “Classical Guitar Chillout” which contains a small assortment of songs and performances by the greats of the genre (Segovia, Diaz, etc.) but whose marketing copy was clearly made by someone who knows next to nothing of classical guitar (see screenshot, below). The Apple Playlists are really interesting, but because I never got a subscription I have to manually recreate them on Amazon which is a pain (readers, please let me know if there is a way to easily do this by using the comment form below!)

Amazon playlist emotional connections

Lean Media: Out next month!

Five years ago on this blog, I wrote a post titled A proposal for a Lean Media Framework: Input and iteration required. Having heard Eric Ries’ talk about Lean Startup, I wondered whether some of these ideas could be applied to media works, such as a film, video game, website, or music. Little did I know that this conceptual nugget would grow to something much larger. I wrote:

I believe there is an opportunity to build a new Lean framework that is specific to media ventures — a Lean “mod” for media, if you will. The goal of building a Lean Media Framework is to help startups and established companies build innovative products, platforms, and business models that have a higher chance of success and can contribute to new models of creation, distribution, and consumption.

I saw the opportunity, looked for examples from across the world of media, and listened to you, my audience. I then developed a framework, and tested it out on some of the media projects I am engaged in.

Lean Media frameworkBut it needed to be more than a series of blog posts. The result is Lean Media: How to focus creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences love. The book comes out September 12, and I’m hoping that it can serve as a model for creators and media ventures which are interested in streamlining their operations and making media that truly resonates with audiences.

The book itself was developed using Lean Media principles. In addition to feedback to blog posts here and elsewhere, I had a test pod of readers who read the entire manuscript and offered generalized and specific feedback. I also sought feedback on the cover design from people on Facebook and the Kboards discussion forum — this input steered me away from what I personally thought was best, to concepts that had a broader appeal to people who create media.

The book has already received an endorsement from Automattic’s John Maeda, but over the coming months what I will really be looking for is reactions from readers — not only to validate the ideas and spread the word about Lean Media, but also to provide input to evolve the Lean Media framework further.

If you are a creator of media destined for public audiences, consider how the Lean Media framework might help. It’s easy to try on a couple of pilot projects (for instance, designing an album cover or for an online article) and then if it works, to scale it higher.

Thanks for your support!

 

Interview with the founder of Bonzer’s electric car service

Earlier this month I met Ivan Li Huang, a fellow graduate of the MIT Sloan Fellows program, at a continuing education class at Sloan. We chatted, and I found out that after graduating from the program a few years after me, Ivan had subsequently founded a fascinating venture: Bonzer, a car-sharing service based in Kendall Square.

The timing was fortuitous. Ivan had just completed several bureaucratic steps, including getting approval from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to drive Bonzer’s small electric cars on local streets. The cars were ready for a demonstration, and I was there at the Cambridge Innovation Center a few days ago when Ivan and his team let testers take the cars for a spin around the block. I have video interview with Bonzer’s founder below.

I also took a few pictures of Bonzer’s fleet, which currently consists of cars manufactured by Zhejiang Rayttle, a Chinese company. They are electric cars, with a range of 60 miles and a maximum legal speed of 25 MPH on local roads. Believe it or not, the cars actually have 3 seats, although the two people in the back will have a tight fit if they are big. Here are some photos of Bonzer’s fleet:

Bonzer founder and MIT Sloan Fellows graduate Ivan Li Huang in his car
Bonzer founder and MIT Sloan Fellows graduate Ivan Li Huang in one of the cars.
One of the many passersby who stopped to look at Bonzer's cars
One of the many passersby who stopped to look at Bonzer’s fleet
Bonzer driver's view. Basic but standard controls.
Bonzer driver’s view. Basic but standard controls.

Bonzer car front Bonzer car Rayttle img_3694

The cars got a lot of looks, with some people even stopping to take a picture or selfie. And no wonder: They not only look cool, but they also small enough to fit sideways into a parking spot. Three Bonzer cars could fit into the space occupied by a standard car!

Ivan hopes to start a one-way car-rental service, kind of like Hubway for cars, in Cambridge in the next few months. Here’s an interview with Bonzer’s founder in which he discusses the cars and the business model. You can also see one of the cars driving at about the halfway point of the video:

 

Using paper forms for family genealogy

Last month, my company launched Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes: The quick guide to creating a family tree, building connections with relatives, and discovering the stories of your ancestors. Professional genealogist Shannon Combs-Bennett wrote the book, which explains basic concepts of interest to anyone researching family origins. As you might expect, the book has sections about family trees, interviewing tips, genetic genealogy, and different type of source records. As an amateur genealogist myself, I expected Shannon to delve into these issues when I read the manuscript. However, I did not expect the topic of using genealogy forms to track research to come up, except perhaps in passing. Instead, it took up the better part of Chapter 4, “Tracking and sharing your research.” Here is how she introduced the topic:

“Tracking includes everything from creating good source citations to outputting data to a chart or tree. Along with preserving research (which we will cover in Chapter 5), it’s one of my least favorite tasks. After the initial excitement of making easy discoveries, it’s so frustrating to deal with tracking and filing and storing all of the information and papers you have found.

On the other hand, charts and other summary documents are a great way to share findings to family members. When you bring a complete pedigree chart to a family reunion, it will attract attention and prompt lots of questions. Be sure to bring copies to give away!”

Part of the reason I was not expecting to see such a deep examination of tracking research using genealogy forms relates to the fact that I use genealogy software to track my own research. The software lets me generate family group sheets, pedigree charts, and other pre-filled forms from my computer.

Not everyone uses family tree software for research, though. They prefer paper, and use blank genealogy forms to enter names, dates, and other information. In addition, as Shannon noted in the book, computers have drawbacks, including the risk of a crash or some other disaster that wipes out the data. Paper genealogy forms provide some reassurance on this front. They also do not require a power outlet!

Shannon and I discussed providing some free resources on the companion website to Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes. Besides blog posts and tips, I have created a free genealogy forms starter kit that contains two forms:

  1. A free five-generation pedigree chart
  2. A free genealogy research log

The pedigree chart contains fields for recording birth, death, and marriage information, and goes back to great-great-grandparents (all 16 of them!). Names are numbered for easy cross-referencing. The research log can help genealogists track websites, books, and other sources used to research specific ancestors.

But it’s also good for something else, which Shannon mentions in the book: Redundant searches for information, which typically result from unorganized late-night searches on Ancestry.com. If you don’t track what you are doing, you very may well end up revisiting sites or searching for the same information over and over again. The genealogy research log helps avoid redundant searches.

Besides the free genealogy forms, I am also making available a bundle of blank forms that goes far beyond the pedigree chart and research log. The Genealogy Forms Library includes eight forms in all, ranging from a cemetery record to a photo inventory tracker. The digital edition includes 13 .pdf and .xlsx spreadsheets, but I am also preparing a printed bundle which will include multiple copies of the forms printed on archival quality paper.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren’s dangerous Planning Department report

The following ~725-word essay about a Planning Department report sponsored by the office of Newton Mayor Setti Warren was originally submitted to the Newton Tab as an op-ed column. The Tab asked that it be shortened to a 400-word letter, which appeared in the printed paper earlier this week. Here is the original column. You are welcome to leave comments below.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren Planning Department ReportLast month, the city released the “Management and Organizational Analysis” of Newton’s Planning Department. The report was commissioned by the Mayor’s Office and co-authored by Sasaki Associates, the same consultancy that helped organize a housing strategy workshop last November that had residents and developers placing LEGO blocks on a map to indicate where they preferred high-density housing to be built. The LEGO exercise was rightly called out as a fait accompli and dismissed by many councilors and residents. Similarly, I would like to call out the new Planning Department report as a flawed document whose recommendations threaten to undermine our elected representatives while giving Mayor Warren’s administration—and its successors—unfettered control over special permits and related processes.

The Planning Department report purports to provide a “clear and honest” accounting of the problems facing the department. While it presents a list of legitimate concerns (e.g., a lack of documented processes, project management inefficiencies, high turnover, no long-term IT plan, etc.) it proceeds to assign much of the blame to a group of stakeholders who happen to represent Newton’s citizens—the City Council. The report basically throws Councilors under the bus, blaming them for being too numerous, taking up too much staff time, and generally getting in the way of the special permitting process.

The report states, “The City should strongly consider removing the special permit granting authority from the City Council and placing it with an independent, less political body comprised of knowledgeable professionals, citizens, and business owners.” Practically speaking, this would mean that if a special permit were required for a large condo development or a new commercial project that exceeds the zoning limits of the parcel, our elected representatives would have no say in the matter. Instead, the approval would be up to city staff as well as unelected appointees who represent the interests of commercial developers, not citizens.

This and other oversight recommendations in the report are dangerous and unwarranted. I think many others will agree. The recommendations, if implemented, remove an important channel for residents and their elected representatives to influence specific proposals. As citizens and taxpayers, we have a right to be heard, which includes appealing to our councilors to ask hard questions and request changes that the Mayor, developers, and other parties would rather ignore. You may like the mayor’s development plans, or you may object to them, but regardless more citizen input is needed to guide development going forward, not less. Elected representatives play a critical role in bringing neighborhood concerns in front of the staff responsible for implementing housing policies.

The Planning Department report also points to a problem with a “lack of leadership.”  However, the report confines the leadership problems to the department. It goes no higher than that. It fails to mention the Mayor even once, despite the fact he has led the city government since January 2010 and could have addressed legitimate concerns with the Planning Department’s organization, turnover, technology, and processes years ago.

So, why is this report coming out now, instead of during Mayor Warren’s first term? In my opinion, it’s because the Mayor needs to overcome local opposition to his new development vision, and he needs to do it soon. As reported in the Tab, the Mayor and developers hope to build thousands of new housing units across the city and transform the villages into small urban centers. We have seen the responses in the pages of this paper, in letters from residents who say they won’t be able to afford “market rate” apartments and condos in the new developments, as well as those who object to the scale of the giant buildings and the impact of large-scale development upon Newtonville, Newton Center, West Newton, Oak Hill, Auburndale, and other neighborhoods. This strong grassroots opposition suggests that developers won’t be able to build thousands of units of new housing and commercial space unless Mayor Warren and his administration are given free rein over zoning, permitting, and other development approvals. Removing elected councilors from the picture is crucial to achieving the Mayor’s goals.

In summary, I believe the new Planning Department report was created to justify changes that would reduce the power of councilors and make it easier for the current Mayor—and future mayors—to force their strategic visions for development upon the citizens of Newton with limited oversight. It’s unfair, unwarranted, and undemocratic.

Question: Is the Harvard ALM a good fit for me?

I received an email from a prospective Harvard ALM student who had stumbled upon my Harvard Extension School blog posts describing the program. She lives overseas, and wanted some honest opinions about the ALM in History program, from which I graduated in 2008. Here is what I said:

The most important question to ask yourself: Why are you starting this program? It will take years and there are some drawbacks (described below). The reasons many students cite include low cost, interest in a particular field, interest in being challenged, interest in using an ALM as a stepping stone to a PhD program, etc. All are valid reasons … but note there are alternative programs that may be more convenient or superior (depending on the field of study).

I also think there are a lot of prospective students who focus on getting a Harvard degree and don’t really care so much about the academics. This is unfortunate, because I think that’s what makes the program so good!

Here are some other issues you should be aware of (note that this is based on my own experience and what I have heard/read in over the years, but it may have changed):

  • The ALM History program is good for certain fields (e.g. American history, some Asian-focused studies) but less so for others — there are not many courses available, and few potential thesis advisors. I would take a close look at the course offerings to make sure there are topics that really interest you.
  • HES has rapidly increased its online offerings, but not all have Harvard faculty members, and even for those online courses that do have Harvard faculty instructors, many are based on pre-recorded lectures which means there are few opportunities to interact with them or even ask questions (that is the responsibility of TAs).
  • I advise distance students to make an effort to take as many on-campus classes as possible, not only because I believe the quality is better but also it is chance to get to know other students and take advantage of other activities on campus.
  • I urge all students, whether they are on-campus or distance, to take as many classes with Harvard faculty as possible. The non-Harvard faculty are good, but if most of your credits are with non-Harvard faculty, what’s the point of coming to HES? For the same reason, I think the new professional ALM programs such as digital media are a step in the wrong direction — there are no Harvard faculty who teach digital media, which means that most instructors will have no Harvard academic affiliation.
  • Regardless of whether you are a distance or an on-campus student, HES does not make much of an effort to have a true cohort experience. For instance, at [redacted] you had an opportunity to bond with the students starting at the same time, and everyone had to take certain core classes at the same time. This is not the way HES works. I had one close friend who happened to take some of the same classes that I did, but HES did not make any effort to have students feel like they are part of a group going through the program together. There was also no “departmental” feeling. What this means is students (especially distance students) tend to feel isolated, and you are really on your own when it comes to pushing yourself forward. It’s lonely!

I finished off my response with the message that I did not want to scare this prospective Harvard ALM student away from the Extension School program — I would do it again in a heartbeat. But there are some real drawbacks that prospective students should be aware of, particularly those taking distance courses.