Friday, May 19, 2006

Gardening, garage software, and garage books

Before the great migration to the cities in the last part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, when the vast majority of Americans lived on subsistence farms, which is to say they farmed to feed their families rather than to feed the teeming multitudes, gardening was the subject of many a bestseller. When I was attempting to raise vegetables for a living myself, one of my farming partners picked up an old book somewhere (I do not recall the title) that had been written as an earnest instruction for school-age children on the art and science of gardening.

The book presented—and illustrated—an apt metaphor for the successful garden that we can as well apply to the successful book: The capacity of a barrel is defined by the height of its shortest stave. In the gardening book, the staves represented such concepts as water, light, fertility, and the young gardener’s effort in the application of a hoe. In book publishing, as in many other kinds of business ventures, the staves represent the various aspects of feasibility analysis, product design and development, marketing, and distribution. Sales—the level of water in the barrel—can only rise to the height of the shortest stave.

I mentioned in my previous post the problem of self-published books gathering dust in garages. Many of these are fine books that just happen to be among the ninety-nine percent of all new titles that fail to sell well. But to the extent that it is possible to ask why a particular book is gathering dust, it is well [intentionally archaic construction, just because this is a blog and I like to trot out archaic constructions once in a while and you cannot stop me] to look for the short stave.

The stave I want to discuss today is market feasibility analysis: If we make a book that is perfect in all respects except that there is no market for it, will a reporter for The New York Times hear it fall in the forest (or notice it moldering in the garage, for that matter)?

The first job I had with the title technical writer (a function I had been fulfilling for many years under other titles) was for a garage software company. The owner–engineer had rented a vacant garage (from its size and layout, I suspect it had been a body shop) to house his business. Like everyone else who starts a garage software company, Rick was an absolutely brilliant programmer who had had an idea for a system he found interesting and wanted to spend his time developing. He found a backer, somehow, and plowed the investor’s money into his own salary, computer hardware, and salaries for a few part-time employees, of whom I was the third.

As the months went by, Rick brought in sophisticated sales people with real industry knowledge; he responded to their critiques of his system to make it more user-friendly; he did everything he could to make a success of the business. But what he could not do was create demand for a product that nobody else saw the need for, no matter how brilliantly it was designed. Six months after I started, the backer pulled the plug and the company ran down the bathtub drain.

This was in the early 1990s and was a foreshadowing of the dot-boom and dot-bust to come. That cycle began with thousands of brilliant programmers with clever ideas getting funds and developing software that nobody wanted or that nobody wanted to pay for. I was lucky. My last salaried tech writing job was for a company that started from a different premise. The founder was a management consultant who, in his broad experience working with executives of many large corporations, had sussed out a felt need for software to solve a particularly vexing problem. In other words, he began with a known market demand. Then he set out to start and staff a company that could effectively develop the needed software for the already extant market. That company took a shot to the knees but survived the dot-bust and is alive and kicking today (even without my help). Why? Because the need was real and the company came into being to fill that need.

What does all this have to do with books? Everything. Even if you (as a century-old publishing company or as a first-time self-publishing author) do everything else right—from writing beautifully to producing an exquisitely made book to investing adequately in marketing—a tactical guide to winning at Pong is not going to have a big market. Not all that many people still play Pong. A new frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film is probably a few years too late. A warning not to invest in Enron that might have been timely a few years ago is not going to find a big audience today.

Has everyone in your family told you that your paean to your late, lamented cocker spaniel is the most wonderful thing they have ever read? Cool beans! Has anyone who does not have to be at your house next Thanksgiving told you the same thing? If not, you might consider private publication and distribution via Christmas stocking.

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