The myth of passive income streams for small businesses

I regularly cover Amazon scams on my Lean Media blog (see “AI gives new life to Amazon low content book scams“) and create videos detailing some of the specific lures and schemes that dominate YouTube and social media. Sometimes, I get responses from people who have fallen for the tricks … or are desperate to learn about passive income streams that will translate to easy money.

passive income streams amazon KDPA recent viewer of one of my passive income videos reached out to tell me she was at her wit’s end. In her 50s, she was tired of her career and was hoping passive income streams could lead to real income to support her financially. It had dawned on her that the get-rich-quick Amazon schemes, whether using Amazon KDP, Audible, or Amazon FBA were the modern equivalent of fool’s gold. What were her options?

My first piece of advice: Don’t despair.

Howard Anderson, one of my business school professors at MIT Sloan (he later went to Harvard Business School and now teaches at Dartmouth) once told our Entrepreneurship class, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”

There’s real truth to this simple saying. My first small business, a software startup, failed. My cofounder flaked after getting some equity in the company and cold feet, and left me swinging in the wind.

usps shipment at our Newton small business
An outbound holiday shipment at our Newton small business.

However, that failure led to the creation of the second completely different business which is still going strong 10+ years later. It took a while to scale it up, but this is now a small business based in Newton that provides a salary and other benefits.

My second piece of advice about starting a new venture: Find something that people like and are willing to pay for.

Not just something they say they like. Rather, it needs to be a real product (it can be a prototype or soft launch or demo version) that is resounds so much customers or audiences are willing to take out cash or a credit card and pay for on the spot.

It can be a product, a service, a piece of media, or something else. Effort then should go into trying to scale it up (finding more customers, lowering marketing costs, etc.)

My third piece of advice: It’s also possible to do a venture on the side or support it with activities like consulting. Take advantage of new trends and technology platforms. For instance, if someone has expertise in something related to mortgages, maybe this person can find a bank or finance company that needs remote customer service agents (taking advantage of the work-from-home trend) while the new product or venture is developed on nights and weekends.

Bottom line: Passive income streams promoted on the Internet are bogus. Stay away from “passive income” traps, especially on Amazon. Most are scams to get people to sign up for expensive masterclasses, and provide terrible advice that will lead to wasted time, lost money, and possible account bans. It’s possible to create a legitimate online business, but it takes work, creativity, and patience … not easy money fantasies.

Newton developers behaving badly: Turtle Lane edition

In Newton, a major building project at the corner of Ash Street and Melrose Street across from the Auburndale Community Library has turned into a giant eyesore and question mark for neighbors. I typically walk past the Turtle Lane building site several times per week on the way to my office, the coffee shop, or the Village Bank branch on Auburn Street and have been wondering what was going on at Turtle Lane. Why was construction so slow, and then apparently halted altogether?

There is now more clarity on this aspect of the Turtle Lane project thanks to a letter from Newton’s chief building inspector. It’s worse than many people thought.

Turtle Lane & the Auburndale Club

Turtle Lane was a community fixture for decades. I went there for neighborhood parties, and even had a drink at the old-fashioned bar! This Patch article describes some of the Turtle Lane history:

According to the Turtle Lane website, the non-profit theatre organization started as an offshoot of Wayland’s Vokes Theatre in the 1970s. The group of actors started with a production of “Godspell” and held rehearsals at a cast member’s house, which was located on Turtle Lane in Dover, Mass.

After success with its “Godspell” production, more actors joined and the group purchased the old Auburndale Club on Melrose Street in 1979. Two years later, the Turtle Lane Playhouse opened its doors with a production of “A Little Night Music,” according to its website.

In addition to its productions, Turtle Lane also offered internships, classes and a Children’s Workshop series in the summer.

The project to redevelop the former Turtle Lane playhouse into housing started some 10 years ago, but wasn’t approved until early 2016, according to the Newton Tab:

Developer Stephen Vona has been eyeing a project to renovate the theater while also adding a mix of residential and commercial uses to the Melrose Street site for more than two years.

The City Council Monday night cleared the way for Vona to construct a 16-unit multi-family building plus a new three-story office building attached to the theater, which will be rehabilitated and reopened.

In addition to office space, initial plans called for 29 units plus a restaurant on the site, but the developer agreed to modify the proposal after feedback from neighbors and councilors.

Once construction on Turtle Lane started, there seemed to be spurts of activity involving the original structure and new modular units, interspersed with increasingly long pauses. Here’s what it looked like in May 2018:

turtle lane auburndale May 2018

Over the next few years, the original playhouse building was gutted and partially refurbished. Modular units were placed to the north of the playhouse and connected; as I recall this was during the early part of the pandemic. But then work on Turtle Lane stopped completely more than a year ago. What happened?

Turtle Lane Construction as of mid 2022

Here’s what it looked like this past summer. The plywood on the east side of the old playhouse was already starting to look weathered. Someone finally had covered up the open holes against the elements, though (they had been uncovered for many months).

Turtle Lane developer 2022

Here are the modular units per Google Street View:

turtle lane Melrose street view better

The Newton ISD memo

Rumor had it there was an issue with the foundation. According to a recent document from Newton’s Inspectional Services Department, that’s not all. It turns out the problems are manifold and extremely serious. Here’s what ISD Commissioner John Lojek states in his January 4, 2023 letter to Mayor Fuller:

Residents in the area surrounding 283 Melrose Street in Auburndale have voiced frustration with  the stalled Turtle Lane Development, which includes a theater building and a 16-unit modular  residential dwelling (the “Residential Building”) at 283 Melrose Street. I appreciate these frustrations and share them.

This memo focuses on the issues concerning the Residential Building. I have significant concerns  about the structural integrity of the Residential Building and the overall safety of the site.  Significant work was performed without building permits and in violation of multiple City of  Newton Stop Work Orders. Much of the work has not been sufficiently inspected or signed off on in  accordance with the State Building Code.

I. History

On multiple occasions, work on the Residential Building has been performed without obtaining building permits; without notice, knowledge, or oversight by ISD; and in direct violation of the  State Building Code. The installation of manufactured (modular) units is strictly regulated under the  State Building Code. One notable issue is that the modular housing units were set on the foundation without a building permit.

As a result of such violations, the City has issued numerous stop work orders and notices of  violation. Despite this, work continued to be performed in violation of the notices and orders. Some  on my recent notices were appealed to the Massachusetts Building Code Appeals Board and upheld  after thorough review.

After conducting a walkthrough of the Residential Building, I determined that the structure was not  safe and issued a notice of unsafe structure. The Newton Fire Department also determined that the  structure is unsafe in the case of fire and marked the Residential Building with a red X as notice of its unsafe condition, signifying that the structure is deemed unsafe for interior firefighting or for interior response by first responders.

II. Structural Concerns

An overarching concern is that the Residential Building was installed without building permits and  without full inspections. Even without full inspections, it is clear that the physical structure, as it  currently exists, does not meet the requirements of the State Building Code and is not structurally sound. Based on its walkthroughs of the property, ISD has discovered a number of serious structural problems with the Residential Building and has been unable to confirm the Residential Building’s compliance with the State Building Code or issue building permits to complete the building. In essence, the Residential Building was incorrectly assembled.

ISD has sent comprehensive letters to Turtle Lane, LLC listing the requirements that need to be  fulfilled in order for a building permit to be granted for the completion of the Residential Building.  To date, the majority of these requirements have not been fulfilled.

III. Steps Forward

I want to see the Residential Building completed as quickly as possible, but it must be built safely and in accordance with the law. I have continually consulted with the City’s Law Department to consider all possible avenues of achieving completion of this project. As this is private construction  on private property, the options available to the City to force compliance are limited. It is ultimately  the property owner’s responsibility, along with their construction team, to comply with the State  Building Code. I have clearly and unequivocally communicated to the property owner and the  development team the steps that are required for the Residential Building to proceed. They know  what is necessary to come into compliance to complete construction and it is ultimately their  responsibility to do so.

The City should continue to evaluate all of its options and rights. Currently, an upcoming meeting  has been scheduled with city officials and the developer’s representatives in another attempt to  resolve the outstanding issues. I will provide a further update after that meeting.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen Newton developers behaving badly. There was the shoddy finishing work at Mark Development’s Trio project in Newtonville (see “Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton“) as well as developer Ty Gupta’s outrageous and illegal demolition of the  Gershom Hyde House, a nearly 300-year-old historic home.

But “unsafe for interior firefighting?” “Incorrectly assembled?” “Not structurally sound?” Turtle Lane takes things to a whole different level, if the ISD letter is accurate.

What’s even more alarming is the ISD’s claim of limited options being available to force compliance. This is a longstanding problem. Newton negotiates projects with no real strings attached, and when developers screw up or demand more concessions (see “More broken promises, more developer demands at Riverside T Stop in Auburndale“) it’s neighbors who are left staring at derelict buildings, shoddy construction, and unfinished foundations.

A system needs to be implemented that penalize developers and property owners with significant fines that not only “force compliance,” but serve as a deterrent for delays and corner-cutting. Ultimately, if Newton developers prove unable to finish the work that they promised to do, there needs to be a mechanism for the property to be turned over to a more competent party … or the city.

What will happen to Turtle Lane? In the absence of any compliance mechanism, I and many other neighbors fear Turtle Lane will remain a hazard and eyesore for years while the developer, the city, lawyers and lenders deal with the mess.

Newton zoning reform: 2 factors that will make or break Newton’s small businesses

I am a small business owner who resides in Newton and currently rents commercial space on Commonwealth Avenue. I recently posted about my business on this blog. In the discussion of Newton zoning reform, two issues related to zoning for Newton’s village centers (West Newton, Newton Highlands, Auburndale, Nonantum, Waban, etc.) that will have the biggest impact on the ability of small businesses to flourish are customer access and costs.

Regarding access: No one likes parking lots, but if parking is eliminated many types of small businesses will be unable to function in the absence of realistic substitutes. The MBTA’s Commuter Rail system is not a realistic substitute for customer access. Nor are bicycles (see West Newton traffic is a disaster).

My parents live within walking distance of one of the Newton villages. They walk there when the weather is good. But there’s no way they’re walking during the cold and dark winter months to pick up a prescription or get a bite to eat.

Small businesses like mine also depend on deliveries and pickups, which take place throughout the day during the peak season. This requires parking (I often use my personal car to drive to the main post office and UPS store in Newtonville) as well as vehicle access for UPS and USPS trucks. Here’s what my office looked like a month ago:

Newton small business shpping

Bottom line: Bicycling and public transportation are not realistic options for most residents to access Newton’s small businesses, particularly on the north side of Newton.

Luxury apartments vs. Newton’s small businesses

I listened to the West Newton zoning feedback session. The comments from the business owners on Border Street were very telling regarding the impact on their blue-collar businesses and the prospect of conflict with new tenants who discover their expensive new apartments are next to working businesses with deliveries, noise, and employees seeking parking.

Restrictive and expensive commercial rents will be the other issue that kills off small businesses. One only needs to look at Kenmore Square, a thriving commercial center 25 years ago, which has turned into a corporate dead zone once a dominant corporate landlord took over and rebuilt Kenmore Square for luxury hotels, condos, and commercial space.

Planning officials say that they don’t have any ability to control ownership of property, but there certainly can and should be incentives to avoid monopoly situations, including elimination of “by right” developments, which will drive up costs for renters, whether they are “luxury” residential units or Newton small businesses.

When it comes to understanding the needs of small businesses and Newton zoning reform, the city council should consider the small business impact just as they look at environmental impact, traffic, and diversity.

Small businesses struggle against big box stores, Amazon, and luxury developers … and adapt

As the owner of a small business specializing in genealogy supplies, and someone who is passionate about local history, I follow several historical Facebook groups focused on neighborhoods in Newton Massachusetts and northern New York. It’s a lot of fun looking at the old photos and reminiscing about people or activities or buildings from decades ago. The photo at the top of this page is from near where I grew up – the line of shops on Washington Street in West Newton, near the former location for the West Newton branch of the Newton Free Library.

I’ve noticed people are particularly delighted by the pictures of main streets commercial districts and the small shops that lined the street (sample comments edited and anonymized):

“That was a great place to grow up … we would walk up town go to the drug store and get a soda that they mixed at the counter.”

“When I was 6 years old I would go the corner market with a note and they would pick the goods off of the shelves and put them in the bag along with any change.”

“I remember there was a second hand store that helped my mom when we had no money … the owner gave my mom winter boots, toys, decorations, so much love … My mom went back every year to buy things to help her business keep going and we became like family.”

“My Dad would drop me and Mom off near Main Street. We’d stroll to the shoe shop and Mom would get me my Hush Puppy shoes for school. Then off to Woolworth’s for a chocolate milkshake … it was our tradition!

“Next to Dad’s barbershop, the apple pie a la mode at the Lounge could not be beat!”

People clearly appreciated the personal touch. They loved the genuine concern the owners and staff showed for their customers. And there was mutual trust.

Broken cycle of small business renewal

Many of those little shops and eateries and small department stores are long gone. Furthermore, on main streets and crossroads across North America, the cycle of small businesses closing and new ones taking their place has been broken.

st lawrence county 1970s

Over the summer when I visited northern New York, I drove down the street shown in the photo above, and there were boarded-up windows everywhere. It turns out that the remaining local shops were dealt a fatal blow in the early 2000s after Walmart came to town, building a giant superstore a few miles away along the state highway. Business evaporated, and the local businesses shut down. It’s a typical pattern, the so-called “Walmart effect,” particularly when Walmart builds new stores in rural areas:

walmart effect small businessIn my own hometown near Boston, a larger population base gives local small businesses a better chance of survival against the big box retailers. But there are other threats, from Amazon to COVID. Here in Newton, a looming crisis for small businesses is the appearance of luxury apartment developers, who buy out local property owners, and redevelop the land into giant complexes that favor high-end retail tenants and national franchises over family-owned businesses and shops.

There is one bright spot for small businesses like ours: Online stores and tools that help us find new customers and stay connected with old ones, no matter where they happen to live.

As you complete your holiday shopping, please give extra consideration to small businesses, whether it’s a local gift shop in Auburndale or a trusted specialty retailer. We strive to provide that personal touch, mutual trust, and special products that you won’t find elsewhere.

More broken promises, more developer demands at Riverside T Stop in Auburndale

Riverside T stop development Korff

Mark Development once again wants to wriggle out of the agreement they forced through on Auburndale residents. Quoting Fig City News:

According to the report, “Over the last four months, increased construction costs (they have gone up by 25%) and rising interest rates have stalled the project. Once Mark Development has financing in place, it will be 9 months before they have a shovel in the ground. This means that there is no start date for the ledge blasting or Hotel Indigo demolition.”

The Liaison Committee also reported that residential units may be developed first, before any laboratory space, saying “it could take a couple of years for the market for lab to come back so Mark Development is exploring building the residential component of the project first,” even though they believe they have a great location and a strong partner in Alexandria Development.

The company, operated by Newton luxury apartment developer Robert Korff, was supposed to pay the MBTA $25 million next year. Now he is demanding an extension.

Is anyone surprised? This is the third or fourth time a Riverside developer has reneged on its agreement with Auburndale and Lower Falls residents, pleading poverty or “changed conditions” or something else to get more profits or rights at residents’ expense.

A few years ago, when Korff & Co. and his friends in City Hall were in the midst of maneuvering to overcome the sensible objections of Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls residents, I said the deal should be rejected on principle:

The impact would be especially hard on residents of Newton Lower Falls and Auburndale, who thought the Riverside deal was settled five years ago but have since learned the negotiation was merely a preamble to yet more aggressive demands from developers. No one cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot, but there’s already a signed deal that developers, residents, and politicians agreed to. Developer Korff’s attempt to renege on it should be shot down not only on principle, but also to avoid setting a precedent for other real estate deals signed by Korff and other developers throughout Newton.

It’s time to consider other options for this parcel. No one forced Robert Korff to pay premium prices for development rights in Riverside, and then expect Auburndale and Lower Falls residents to accommodate its endless demands for more profit. Mark Development clearly can’t be trusted to follow through on the promises it made for Riverside. And it makes me wonder about Korff’s other promises for Washington Street, from West Newton to the Lake.

Newton should also use eminent domain in cases where Newton developers demonstrate they are not up to the task. Unfortunately, the role of the MBTA makes that impossible at Riverside. Besides, in recent years, eminent domain has only been invoked for nature preservation on the south side of the city in the mayor’s back yard. When it comes to the northern villages, Newton City Hall applies a different set of considerations.

 

A publisher tries the OpenAI chatbot

I’ve been hearing a lot about advanced AI content creation models, and decided to give one of them – OpenAI and the OpenAI chatbot tool – a spin. Over the past 30+ years, I have seen advanced digital technologies upend the ways in which creators make and sell media, and audiences consume it. Creators generally embrace such technologies and associated tools, even as media businesses have struggled.

So can OpenAI (and similar AI-based applications) be viewed as yet another powerful technology in the media creator’s toolbox, much like other transformational technologies have served in the past? Or will it outright replace writers, designers, musicians, and other creative professionals and the publishing businesses that employ them? Some artists are indeed very worried, after seeing AI-created examples that mimic human artists so well that one “painting” even won an award:

There is no doubt that OpenAI is very powerful. Check it what it spat out when I played in the OpenAI API playground, using a prompt “explain the Lean Media framework” and the “text-davinci-003” model:

The Lean Media framework is a framework for making media production more efficient and cost-effective. It is based on the Lean Manufacturing principles developed by Toyota in the late 1980s. The Lean Media framework focuses on a continuous process of eliminating waste and optimizing efficiency in media production. It is designed to help media companies reduce costs, improve quality, and increase productivity. The framework emphasizes the importance of using data and analytics to inform decisions, streamlining processes, and focusing on value creation rather than cost cutting. It also encourages collaboration among teams and stakeholders to ensure that everyone is on the same page with regards to goals and objectives. The Lean Media framework is designed to help media production become faster, more efficient, and more cost-effective.

That’s very good! I should know, because I created the Lean Media framework and wrote a book about it. Readers may even remember that some of the early concepts were fleshed out on this blog 10 years ago. I believe the summary is based on various public sources, including blog posts, articles, press releases, possibly the Google Books excerpt, or samples of the book (legal and otherwise) from other sources.

But then things started to go off the rails. I asked the OpenAI chatbot “who invented the lean media framework”?

The Lean Media Framework was developed by the Lean Media Lab, a research and design collective based in Los Angeles. The lab was founded by media scholar and professor Dr. Juliette De Maeyer and media makers and technologists Esther Robinson and Sarah Szalavitz.

Hmmm. Is there another Lean Media framework floating around? I couldn’t find it online, or even the “Lean Media Lab.”

So I re-entered the prompt “who invented the lean media framework.” It gave a completely different answer:

OpenAI media creation example

I started re-asking questions about the framework, using slightly different phrasings. More unfamiliar answers came up that completely contradicted earlier answers:

openai history examples

What’s going on here? How can the AI give different answers to the same questions, or even apparently “wrong” answers? It’s a hard question, because the “black box” design of most AI systems means that even its creators are unable to explain how certain answers were obtained:

In machine learning, these black box models are created directly from data by an algorithm, meaning that humans, even those who design them, cannot understand how variables are being combined to make predictions. Even if one has a list of the input variables, black box predictive models can be such complicated functions of the variables that no human can understand how the variables are jointly related to each other to reach a final prediction.

There are exceptions to the black box problem, such as leela.ai. There are also small, amusing examples of AI failures that Google’s AI generates in response to search queries, but the potential for harm is real, as I pointed out when I queried Google last year about “When Neil Armstrong set foot on Mars”:

neil armstrong mars google AI AI researchers, including OpenAI itself, acknowledge there is a problem:

The OpenAI API is powered by GPT-3 language models which can be coaxed to perform natural language tasks using carefully engineered text prompts. But these models can also generate outputs that are untruthful, toxic, or reflect harmful sentiments. This is in part because GPT-3 is trained to predict the next word on a large dataset of Internet text, rather than to safely perform the language task that the user wants. In other words, these models aren’t aligned with their users.

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done. But there are a few important conclusions:

  • AI models will improve.
  • AI tools for media creators will improve.
  • We will see AI-generated content with a higher degree of quality (editorial, visual, and so on).
  • “Accuracy” based upon existing inputs will improve.
  • Humans will attempt to “game” AIs to produce desired communication, business, or creative outcomes. This may be done by training them on unusual data/inputs (including data/inputs at scale) or tweaks to the models.
  • Creators will have to monitor AIs to protect their intellectual property and creative rights. We are already seeing this emerge as an issue with Github Copilot, a tool which generates quick generic code blocks for developers to use but also copyrighted code with no attribution.
  • Media creators will learn to harness AI, just as they have done with earlier technologies and tools.

 

West Newton traffic is a disaster

West Newton traffic has never been good. Its design dates to colonial times, long before the invention of motor vehicles. But in the past few years West Newton traffic has gone from bad to worse, to a disaster that threatens the safety of pedestrians and drivers.

west newton traffic map

Increased volume is a factor, as are bad driving habits, and technology platforms like Uber and Google Maps that route drivers through the area. But I believe the traffic reconfiguration that introduced bike lanes in West Newton Square and reset the timing of traffic lights in recent years is also part of the problem.

Case in point: 3 accidents in 36 hours at a nearby intersection, where Watertown street is bisected by Eliot Ave/Eddy Street, about a quarter-mile away from West Newton Square. Someone – a pedestrian – was apparently struck. A stone fence was destroyed. I grew up in the area and have family there still. While accidents have happened in the past, they were never this frequent. Local residents have taken matters into their own hands with “Slow Down” signs and other warnings to pedestrians:

eddy street watertown street accident

The city has since introduced rubber poles on Watertown Street as “traffic calming” measures to slow drivers. But it doesn’t address the root cause.

If distracted drivers and poor driving were the root causes, we would be seeing similar clusters of accidents all over the city. So what’s happening at this intersection?

In a nutshell, more people are using Eddy/Eliot as a cut through to avoid West Newton Square where Watertown Street meets Washington Street, and connects with Chestnut Street, Elm Street, Cherry Street, and Waltham Street.

There are similar detours all around West Newton Square. Webster Street. Auburndale Ave and River Street. Adella Ave. Hunter Street. Eden Ave. Some of these ‘shortcuts’ are used more than others, but it derives from the same truth: people do not want to drive through the West Newton traffic mess.

Local residents noticed the situation getting worse during the pandemic after West Newton traffic was reconfigured to include bike lanes, new traffic light timings, and lanes for cars that force drivers to weave a path through Washington Street as they go through West Newton Square. Quoting West Newton Ward Councilor Julia Malakie from a newsletter in October 2021:

‘One of the most frequently mentioned concerns I’ve been hearing as I knock on doors in West Newton is the reconfiguration of traffic in the Square. “I hate it,” “I avoid West Newton Square now,” and “why are there so few bikes using the bike lanes?” are representative comments.’

west newton traffic disaster malakie newsletter

Now that the pandemic has receded and more people are returning to their jobs and social routines, West Newton traffic has gotten even worse, and more people are using the cut-throughs to avoid it. And more people are getting in accidents, and getting hurt, or nearly getting hit.

Malakie and other West Newton (Ward 3) councilors are raising concerns at City Hall. There are meetings and public comments are solicited. I’m not confident the situation will change, though.

As we’ve seen in the past, successive Newton mayors have been focused on prioritizing the demands of developers and small groups of activists over the input of northside residents and local businesses. They only relent when the outcry is too loud to ignore. Quoting “Newton Pulls Plug On Bike Lane Pilot On Washington Street” in the October 19, 2020 Newton Patch:

Earlier this month, the city removed some 200 parking spaces for a bike lane pilot east bound on Washington Street. Now the spaces are back and the pilot never kicked off, according to the city.

The spaces were removed at the beginning of the month along the Mass Pike side of Washington Street between Sullivan Tire in West Newton and Lowell Avenue in Newtonville as a trial designed to last a few months, according to city officials.

Local businesses panicked, as parking for their employers and customers was removed. According to the article, councilor Alicia Bowman from Ward 6/Newton Center had some role in the plan for bike lanes replacing parking on Washington Street in West Newton and Newtonville, but distanced herself from the plan after people complained (“I don’t think they anticipated the level of angst from the business community”). The Chamber of Commerce, usually a fan of Mayor Fuller’s pro-development policies, criticized the city:

Greg Reibman president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce said he thought the city made a mistake by not communicating the decision in advance or giving stakeholders a chance to weigh in.

What happens now? There is a city website to track West Newton Village enhancements. The city’s presentation on October 20, 2022 about West Newton traffic flows states its goal is to “Maximize Safety and convenience for all travel modes.”

The top bullet points under this heading: “Simplify intersections and traffic patterns” and “Accommodate bicycles.”

When an institution changes its mind: Harvard alumni edition

Harvard University and most other large institutions don’t reverse decisions very often, which is what makes this story worth telling. Earlier this year, the Harvard Alumni Association announced that it was ending a popular service with alumni who graduated in 2021 or earlier: an email forwarding address on the @harvard.edu domain. Here’s the message I received in September:

harvard alumni email forwarding

The unsigned message went on to say that “alumni email forwarding was introduced in the 1990s and no longer functions well with most email service providers,” noting issues with spam filtering and delivery that the HAA is unable to resolve. We were advised to let  all of our contacts and services that still used the forwarding addresses to change them to another email address before our post.harvard.edu or alumni.harvard.edu accounts were switched off.

There was understandable alarm and frustration in the alumni community. Some people really depended on the email forwarding address to stay constant even as they switched jobs or ISP domains. Switching is no small task, either. For alumni who use the email forwarding accounts, myself included, it’s a chore to figure out which services use the EFL and then switch them over to a permanent address. Alerting classmates and friends is also inconvenient, and hoping that they will update their address books is unrealistic.

A few weeks ago, we got another message from the HAA, this time from the outgoing director, Philip Lovejoy:

As I have often said, Harvard alumni and volunteers are the heart of our community—and your voices are critical to so much of our work. In recent weeks, we have listened carefully to thoughtful feedback from many alumni and volunteers about our plan and have decided not to move forward with the discontinuation of Harvard’s alumni email forwarding service. You will be able to use your email forwarding address as you have been doing previously and beyond December 1.

He noted that the technical issues that had precipitated the original decision were still unresolved, and we alumni should be aware of these challenges and take appropriate action. Alumni can find out more about these concerns and make changes to their account (such as updating the destination address) on the HAA website email forwarding page after logging on.

But the fact that Harvard changed its mind on this matter in response to feedback was a breath of fresh air. Some alumni activists praised the HAA in the Crimson:

Sally J. Wolf ’97, who worked with Huang to protest the deactivation, said she was “pleasantly surprised” the University quickly changed course. Still, she acknowledged functionality issues associated with the forwarding services and said further change is needed.

“They were reneging on a promise that they made with words like ‘lifelong’ and ‘permanence,’” Wolf said. “I am hopeful that going forward, that we can all collaborate — that we, the alum, some representation of alumni voices, can collaborate with the HAA and the school to co-create a solution that is ideal and also one that feels fully inclusive.”

Petition co-creator Chris J. Nicholson ’97 called the original decision to deactivate an “unfortunate misunderstanding.”

“It’s to [the HAA’s] credit that they recognized that this was an error and moved kind of quickly to reassure alumni that it will be fixed,” Nicholson said.

Now, if the University would only get moving on the Extension Studies issue

Kirkus Indie reviews worth it? Read this first

Is Kirkus Indie worth it for book publishers? Over a period of roughly 5 years, my publishing company used Kirkus Indies reviews for a half-dozen books. But we will use the service no longer, after a major lapse in quality and poor handling of our complaint from Kirkus Reviews.

Kirkus Indie is a paid service that lets indie publishers get a Kirkus-quality review without having to take a chance on regular Kirkus slush pile, which, judging by the tidal wave of indie books over the past few years (nearly a half million frontlist titles per year according to NPD), is nigh impossible to breach if your brand or imprint is small or unknown.

Here’s how Kirkus Indie describes the service:

Our indie reviews are written by qualified professionals, such as librarians, nationally published journalists, creative executives and more. While we do not guarantee positive reviews, unfavorable reviews can be taken as valuable feedback for improvements and ultimately do not have to be published on our site. With our most popular review option priced at $425, you can receive an affordable book review that could generously boost your writing career.

The risk of a negative Kirkus Indie review was real. Out of the 6 or 7 books submitted through the end of 2021, one of them received a review that was negative in tone. Nevertheless, we were happy with the results. The reviews were very well written, even the negative review described earlier.

Several of the Kirkus Indie reviews and the books they featured were even deemed good enough to be published in the regular Kirkus magazine. Here’s an example from September 2020, for Thyroid Cancer & Thyroid Nodules In 30 Minutes: A guide to symptoms, diagnosis, surgery, and disease management:

Kirkus Indie review sample

As you can see from the sample, the Kirkus Indie review was well-written and meets the quality standards that readers expect from Kirkus Reviews. The magazine targets publishers, librarians, and other book professionals. The language and style reflect the needs of this audience.

But the tone of the review and the brand also lends authority to our marketing efforts. We excerpt them our website, on social media, and on our Amazon and B&N listings. We also publish them on the Kirkus website. Moreover, such reviews validate the other indicators of publishing quality that In 30 Minutes guides have received from other sources. They include awards from industry associations including a gold Ben Franklin award for publishing excellence from IBPA and recognitions from Foreword INDIES, as well as the strong sales enjoyed by several of the titles.

I was therefore very surprised when our most recent Kirkus Indie review came back to us. Not only did it contain sloppy errors, the quality of the writing was abysmal. Here’s what I told Kirkus Indie:

  • Sections of the review consist of basic paraphrasing.

  • The writing is dull and uninspired throughout.

  • The reviewer mistakenly states “In this second installment of the Quick Guides for a Complex World series” when in fact it is the second edition of the book, which is part of the IN 30 MINUTES series. “Quick Guides for a Complex World” is not a series name, it is a marketing slogan.

The point about the series name isn’t hard to figure out. Not only does IN 30 MINUTES appear in giant text on the front of the book, it’s listed as the series name on the copyright page inside the book. The fact that the writer made this basic error is a screaming red flag.

There were other issues, too. Capitalization errors. Language that suggested the topic of the book was obscure. A reference to the use of stock photography, which we had never seen in our earlier Kirkus Indie reviews (despite using stock photos in all our titles) or in any other Kirkus review.

I compared the new review with the thyroid book review from two years ago, and asked if there had been a change in Kirkus Indies’ reviewer pool or editorial processes in the past 2 years. I concluded:

There is no way I can publish [this new] Kirkus Indies review or use it for marketing. It’s not a negative review, but it is amateurish and poorly written. If it were made public, it would reflect badly on my book business and Kirkus. It is certainly not what I have come to expect from the Kirkus Indie program, especially considering the premium price being charged.

The response:

Thank you for reaching out to us. It is Kirkus Indie’s policy to address factual inaccuracies, which we take very seriously. Will you please send a concise, numbered list of the inaccuracies following the below template:

Sentence from the review that contains an error:

Error in this sentence:

We can then begin our investigation process

I dutifully laid out the problems. They corrected two errors, but rejected all of the other criticism. For instance, concerning the mention of stock photography in the review:

Response: When a book contains illustrations or visual elements, it is common for reviewers to comment on them. In the case of photographs used, reviews cite the source of the photography (e.g., personal, historical, stock, or named credits).

I checked this claim. According to Google, aside from a single children’s title and reviews of galleries of stock photos, the term is never mentioned in Kirkus Reviews.

But the big problem was quality. Kirkus claims “qualified professionals” are reviewers, but for the most recent review my company paid for was not only an inexperienced amateur, Kirkus’ editorial process failed to notice anything amiss. Here’s the response from Kirkus Indies:

Factual errors do not often occur, as a review goes through several stages of editing before being presented to an author. However, in such cases we are happy to correct the mistakes. We offer you our thanks again for helping us uphold our editorial standards and our apologies.

However, some of the concerns you raised were directly related either to the reviewer’s opinion or the review format. As you know, book reviews are inherently subjective in nature. Sometimes the author’s intent for his or her work will not align with the reviewer’s interpretation.

At this point, I realized there was no hope. For five years, I had experienced Kirkus’ “A team” reviewers, and appreciated the results, even if the reviews were critical. This time around, the guide was assigned to someone from Kirkus’ B or C team, and the “several stages of editing” failed to catch anything.

So, is Kirkus Indie worth the commissioning cost? At one time, it was for my publishing company. But after this experience in how the review was written and edited, and the totally unsatisfactory response by Kirkus Indie support, We will never use the service again.

Boom and bust: genealogy edition

old farm

There’s a story in our family dating to the late 1800s. At the time, a maternal branch living just south of the Canadian border was engaged in farming – specifically, the farming of hops, which is used to brew beer. My great-aunt takes up the story, in a hand-written written account that is now part of our family history:

“Raising hops was very profitable at one time in Northern New York which caused my grandfather to buy a farm and take up raising this crop. The farm was in Burke, New York. Unfortunately, there was one bad year. When the price of hops went so low that he was ruined. He had to go back to his original trade.”

I’ve heard variations of this tale that this hops-growing ancestor was a millionaire on paper one day, and completely broke the next.

But it wasn’t the end of the world. My great-great grandfather was able to fall back on his original trade – stonemasonry, which his Irish-born father had taught him. Life went on.

I bring up this tale because much of the world is currently headed toward a deep economic crisis. Inflation. Energy shortages. Stock market selloffs. Wild fluctuations in the supply of certain types of goods. Layoffs.

Sure, it’s worrying. But most people reading this can remember recessions, layoffs, gas shortages, and inflation that was even worse. Before the pandemic, I experienced 3 major downturns as an adult – the early 1990s recession, the 2000 dot-com crash, and the 2008 financial crisis. I have childhood memories of the 1970s oil embargoes. A few readers may even recall the darkest days of the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate hit nearly 25% and Social Security wasn’t yet available.

We’ll get through it this time, just as we did back then.