Tips for publishers as coronavirus hammers bookstores, libraries, and Amazon

It’s too early to tell the health impact of coronavirus/COVID-19, but the economic impact has already devastated countless small businesses and the people they employ. The book industry, already in decline, as been hammered by the closure of bookstores (including the venerable Powell’s in Portland) and libraries, as well as Amazon’s announcement to restrict shipments of non-essential items. The pain will get worse as layoffs spread throughout the economy and a recession takes hold. I own and operate a small publishing business, and here’s some advice I have for my fellow indie publishers.

Health and safety

One of the first things business owners need to do is make sure their own workers are safe, as well as the suppliers and contractors they interact with.

Review working arrangements and protocols to make sure that potential points of contact are reduced to reduce the chance of coronavirus infection and shipments can be safely handled. For instance, normally I deal face-to-face with one of my suppliers for payments and receiving shipments. Starting this week, we’ve switched to online payments and I have them leave boxes on the loading dock for me to pick up myself (see image, below). I use disinfectant to wipe down boxes and packages before bringing them inside.

loading dock books coronavirus

Also try to help with people’s emotional health. People are isolated and need more human contact, even if it’s just a voice on the phone. For colleagues and partners, give them a call instead of sending an email, text, or Slack message. Set up a pleasant home office — a small investment in a small desk, a comfortable office chair, an external monitor, and even a plant can make a difference.

Preparing for recession

PowerPoint Basics In 30 Minutes, second editionThe pandemic struck just as I was preparing to launch our latest book, the second edition of Angela Rose’s PowerPoint Basics In 30 Minutes. I normally have a press release, reviews, and a social media campaigns to accompany the launch, but for this book I didn’t bother. It’s hard to get excited about live presentation software when events have been cancelled and people are sheltering at home.

I’ve taken a number of steps in the past week to prepare for a prolonged recession. I started by reviewing last year’s P&L to get a better understanding of costs, expenses, and revenue this year. When I met with my accountant about a month ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought a 15% increase in revenue was likely. Now I am planning for at least a 30% decrease based on preliminary sales data from Amazon as well as news that libraries and bookstores are closing and won’t reopen for some time. I am assuming revenue related to events and consulting will drop by more than half in 2020.

There will need to be some cuts. Payroll is frozen for myself and my single employee, and I have told some of my suppliers that orders will be smaller or more spread out for the next 3-6 months. I have also taken steps to reduce advertising and promotional expenses. For instance, I went into Amazon Advertising and immediately cut the daily budgets and bid levels for several campaigns.

Advertising budgets during a coronavirus recession

However, I am not shutting down campaigns completely. There are still people out there searching for books, and advertising can help give my titles more visibility. Moreover, as other publishers including large New York publishing houses pull back their own marketing budgets, I predict bid levels on auction-based advertising platforms like Amazon Advertising, Google Ads, and Facebook Advertising will drop sharply. This will make certain types of campaigns more cost effective and better able to generate a return on investment.

There are other opportunities. I have several publishing brands, and one of them, IN 30 MINUTES guides, has lots of titles related to software, including Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes and cheat sheets for Microsoft Office. The crisis has made it clear that technology is needed more than ever to manage remote work, distance learning, and personal collaboration, and these guides and references help meet that need. I have launched several new online advertising campaigns targeting people who may find themselves working from home and need to quickly get up to speed with G Suite, Microsoft Office, and Dropbox.

Other people will be looking to escape the depressing news cycle about disease and layoffs. This could be an opportunity for fiction publishers.

These changes are not the final word on 2020 planning. But I hope these steps will help my business weather the storm over the next few months.

 

Updated my Excel Basics book for Excel 2019

Earlier this month I released a revised version of Excel Basics In 30 Minutes. This is the third edition of the book. The first, published in 2012 under a slightly different title, showed users how to use Excel 2010 (for PCs) and Excel for Mac (which was then a very different software product). The second edition, published in 2015, covered Excel 2013. A few years later, I updated the second edition for Excel 2016 as well as Excel Online and the mobile apps for iOS and Android.

Now it’s 2020. Besides refreshing the book for the latest desktop version of Excel (Excel 2019, part of the Office 365 suite), I also made a few other changes that were a bit more significant.

Streamlined Excel examples

I built the first edition around the story of three colleagues in a sales department, and how Excel could be used to track their sales and earnings. Through these examples, I introduced basic Excel concepts, including:

  • Functions
  • Formulas
  • Formatting data
  • AutoFill
  • Charts
  • Filtering and sorting data
  • Static cell references

The problem: the chapter on projecting sales was simply too complicated, and describing how to hide and manipulate data for different people was distracting. In the new edition of my Excel book, I only project the earnings of one of the colleagues in that chapter and simplify the step-by-step instructions and screenshots:

Excel Basics in 30 Minutes sorting exampleExplaining the Excel mobile apps

Before starting the new edition of Excel Basics In 30 Minutes, I hoped to be able to expand the sections on the Excel mobile apps for iOS and Android.

I quickly discovered that the apps, while very full-featured, are really hard to use with a touch-screen interface. This is particularly true for phones, where a lot of taps are required just to change a single cell.

The reason, of course, is the fact that most Excel spreadsheets are complicated, with lots of cells and columns and buttons and commands. It was designed for the keyboard and mouse, often requires accessing files that aren’t stored or exported locally (such as .csv files and charts). Shoehorning the user interface and features into a touch-screen device is really hard to do.

Excel iOS autosum example

So, while the book does explain how to use certain Excel features on small-screen devices (the example above shows Excel AutoSum for iOS), for many of the examples I advise people to use the desktop versions of Excel 2019 for Windows and macOS.

Excel alternatives: Google Sheets and Excel Online

One very popular feature of Excel Basics In 30 Minutes since the first edition is the inclusion of instructions for Google Sheets, a free Excel alternative. Readers and reviewers constantly remark about how helpful it is to be able to use Sheets with the book, either because they can’t afford Excel or their office or school uses G Suite (the Google equivalent of Microsoft Office). I’ve updated the latest edition of the book for Google Sheets, which hasn’t changed much since the last book update.

Excel Online has changed quite a bit. In 2018, when the last update to the second edition of the book was published, Excel Online was pretty bare-boned — almost a grudging freebie made available to counter the threat of Google Sheets. As of 2020, the Excel Online interface has been really improved, and there are a bunch of new features that weren’t there before, including filtering.

If you’re interested in learning more about the third edition of the book, check out the official website, excel.in30minutes.com:

Excel Basics book website screenshot 02102020

A new Social Security guide gets an unexpected boost from YouTube

Last month, my company i30 Media released a two-volume guide to Social Security retirement and disability benefits: Social Security In 30 Minutes. This was a big project, but I was fortunate to work with a true pro, author Emily Pogue, who worked in human services for years and knew the ins and outs of various Social Security programs, including SSDI, SSI, and the gigantic retirement insurance system used by tens of millions of Americans.

Early reviews have been great. Here’s what Kirkus had to say about Volume 1 of the guide:

In this debut personal finance book, Pogue covers a wide range of topics, from who’s eligible to collect Social Security benefits to what useful information can be found on the Social Security Administration’s website—all in fewer than 100 pages, including a glossary.

The author walks readers through how Social Security benefits are calculated, the circumstances that can reduce them, and their long-term impact on total income. However, because many of these aspects are influenced by individual earnings and state regulations, the book offers explanations in general terms and encourages readers to consult experts regarding some of the more specific requirements.

Although the book’s primary target audience is readers planning for retirement, Pogue also explains how spouses and dependents may also qualify for benefits. Charts and examples make it relatively easy to understand how, for instance, one’s outside earnings affect benefit levels and tax rates, and readers will be able to easily use the provided calculation formulas.

The book also uses examples to encourage readers to make financially sound decisions, showing, for example, how collecting benefits as soon as one is eligible can substantially reduce one’s overall earnings.

The book is informative and easy to understand, which is no small achievement, given the many variables involved. There are several references to other books in the publisher’s series, such as the companion volume, which covers the disability portion of Social Security; there’s also an excerpt from a book by another author, Personal Finance for Beginners in 30 Minutes, Vol. 2. Despite these advertisements, however, the book is a solid account of how a complicated benefits system works, and it will be useful to readers looking for a concise introduction.

A Social Security explainer that packs a lot of information into a brief text.

NetGalley reviews were also very strong. I was particularly pleased to see this review of Vol. 1, which was also published on Goodreads:

I could not believe how much I learned. I have been reading the Social Security website and searching the web for info for almost a year straight and learned the answers to everything I was looking for and more in this short read. Thank you for making this book.

Another NetGalley review for Vol. 2:

In my work as co-director of an employability program for people with disabilities, one of the biggest concerns of those we support are questions around how working will impact their Social Security benefits. This short guide is informative, well written, and chock full of easy-to-understand details about the labyrinthine benefits world. I’ll be sharing much of this information with the families we support. A must-read for anyone who desires to know more about the process.

But some of the most interesting reaction to the guide has been on YouTube. When the books were launched, I created a few simple screencasts outlining some of the main points and posted them on the IN 30 MINUTES YouTube channel. Compare the number of views for the Social Security videos compared to the videos on other topics (i30 Media also publishes a book about Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel cheat sheets, a Twitter guide, etc.):

YouTube Social Security videos grid with numbersMore than 5,000 views in six days for Social Security: SSI and SSDI, side by side? It’s a seven-minute video outlining some of the points made in one of Emily’s charts in the Volume 2. It currently has 14 “likes” and 2 “dislikes.” By comparison, a new video about Twitter animated GIFs received just 12 views in the same time period, and no likes or dislikes.

The activity on the ongoing series of Social Security videos is not just helping to stroke my ego or fulfill my latent dream to become a YouTube influencer (with only 2,760 subscribers, the In 30 Minutes YouTube channel still has a long way to go). It has three direct benefits to my business:

  • Book awareness. About 10,000 people have become aware of the titles and the author via the short introduction at the beginning of each video.
  • Brand awareness. I mention that I am the publisher of the guides, which include more than 20 titles.
  • Sales. I have a very primitive tracking system which shows when visitors from YouTube go to the official book website for Social Security In 30 Minutes, and from there I can follow sales via my own website or Amazon.

Upon seeing the success of the first two or three videos, I set out to record some more videos on the topic. But I have to be careful that the channel doesn’t become all Social Security all the time. Many subscribers are there for other topics (mostly technology related) so it’s important to serve that audience, too.

 

How a question on Amazon about dog pedigree led to a new product

So my company just launched a new product, a kit that includes genealogy charts for dogs, health forms, and paper sheets that can be shared with caregivers and vets. This blog post discusses how the product came to be.

A few years ago, I received a question about one of the genealogy products I sell on Amazon. The product is a pedigree chart, printed on archival quality paper, intended to help genealogists track back up to eight generations along maternal and paternal lines.

The question wasn’t about using the charts to track people. It was about dogs:

Pedigree charts for dogs questionWhen I first saw the question arrive in my email inbox, I had a double take. I assumed that it was obvious the charts were for people tracking their own ancestry. But as soon as I saw the replies from my customers, I realized that there was another use case for the charts: People tracking the pedigree of their dogs.

And no wonder. There are millions of owners of pedigree dog breeds who want to track their dogs’ lineage. Here’s a list of the top 15 breeds (out of 192 total!) for 2018 from the American Kennel Club:

  1. Retrievers (Labrador)
  2. German Shepherd Dogs
  3. Retrievers (Golden)
  4. French Bulldogs
  5. Bulldogs
  6. Beagles
  7. Poodles
  8. Rottweilers
  9. Pointers (German Shorthaired)
  10. Yorkshire Terriers
  11. Boxers
  12. Dachshunds
  13. Pembroke Welsh Corgis
  14. Siberian Huskies
  15. Australian Shepherds

But that’s not the only group interested in their dogs’ pedigree. There are millions of dog owners who simply want to track their dogs’ genealogy because they love them deeply. Dogs are more than pets, they are members of their family. Why not use high-quality charts to track their dogs’ lineage?

Over the next 12 months, I considered whether there was a market for dog pedigree charts. I also thought about how paper forms might be used by dog and puppy owners for other purposes — tracking health history, or informing veterinarians and caregivers about canine behavior, preferred dog food, and dog activity notes.

The end result — the Friend Forms Dog Health, Activity, and Genealogy Forms Kit (21 Sheets) — was released earlier this month. There are three features that I think set it apart:

✅ Dog vaccination sheets to record vaccinations, microchip numbers, and other health data
✅ Share activity notes, food requirements, and your vet’s contact info with caregivers
✅ High-quality folder holds forms, receipts, and other pet documentation

Are there apps for this? No doubt. But some of the great advantages of pet health forms, pedigree records, and activity sheets is they never need batteries and are easier to share. They can also last for decades if stored properly — unlike digital devices or the data stored on them, which may become obsolete or deleted as accounts expire or tech companies get sold or go out of business.

Here’s what the kit looks like:

Friend Forms - Dog Health, Activity, and Genealogy Forms Kit
Friend Forms Dog Health, Activity, and Genealogy Forms Kit (21 Sheets)

Learn more about it at the official website or purchase it here or on Amazon.

A new genealogy kit for kids

As the owner of a small publishing company, I’m always on the lookout for new product or brand opportunities. The EasyGenie brand is in fact an offshoot of a book we published two years ago, Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes. The author, Shannon Combs-Bennett, mentioned how paper genealogy forms can be a great tool for organizing and recording family data. I took that idea a step further, launching a package of high-quality genealogy forms for amateur researchers. It did extremely well, but it was just for adults. Today, I launched a new EasyGenie product, a genealogy kit for kids to enjoy. Here’s a shot of the first shrink-wrapped package coming off the printing press:

EasyGenie genealogy kit for kids

Designing this product was quite unlike the other EasyGenie packages I’ve released in the past. The obvious difference is it’s intended for kids, not adults. Earlier this year, I conducted a brief survey of the genealogy for kids marketplace and was surprised to see how limited the products were, not only in terms of the range of products available, but the quality of the materials. In many respects, they were scaled-down versions of genealogy paper forms for adults, printed on cheap copier paper.

I realized that there was an opportunity to provide something more dynamic, that was not only made better (all EasyGenie products use archival-quality paper, and larger formats are printed on an offset press in the United States) but was also made with kids in mind:

  • The forms recognize kids’ natural curiosity and willingness to apply their own creativity
  • They encourage discussions with adults, rather than on-screen research
  • Explanatory annotations help guide them through concepts
  • Recognition that kids have diverse backgrounds, including blended families and ancestry in multiple continents.

EasyGenie kit for kids map sampleThis last point is driven home by recent government data on the nearly 74 million kids in the United States (“In 2016, 51 percent of U.S. children were White, non-Hispanic; 25 percent were Hispanic; 14 percent were Black, non-Hispanic; 5 percent were Asian, non-Hispanic; and 5 percent were non-Hispanic, All other races.”) So, the kids genealogy kit includes maps showing nearly every country and territory in the world, and encourages kids to decorate or annotate the maps with locations where their ancestors came from.

As with many new design-oriented projects I am involved with these days, I used the Lean Media framework to develop ideas with members of the creative team (thank you Janice, Malgorzata, and Julie) and solicit feedback during the production process from potential customers and users. (Not the same! Parents are the customers, children are the users.)

One other big difference is the packaging. Kids are not the neatest and most organized people in the world (I say this as a parent), so this kit comes in a sturdy three-ring binder which not only makes it easier to store the contents, but also helps to preserve what’s inside.

I want this new EasyGenie product to succeed, but I also hope that it sparks interest in a rewarding hobby and helps children and their families preserve information for future generations.

Learn more about the kids’ genealogy kit.

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!