Dan's Blog

February 23, 2010

What good are Product Managers?

Filed under: Product Management,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 10:32 am

I’m not an expert Product Manager yet, though I expect to become one, but one thing I am an expert on is things that can happen if you don’t have a Product Manager, and today I’ll describe an incident that shows some of these things. I’m talking about a time when my company didn’t have Product Managers, and I’m depending on memory, so the details might not be exact, but the incident described below did happen. The company desire to lower costs by avoiding incidents similar to this is one of the reasons the PM position was created, back around 2001 or so.

A new edition of a textbook and an ancillary software product were released. Instructors who had used the prior edition of this textbook and software started calling the famous author, because the software for the new edition was missing one of the features found in the prior edition. Instructors threatened to go back to the old edition, or worse yet, adopt a different author’s book from another publisher.

An extremely important part of the Product Manager’s job is to uncover market needs and address them in new products and product upgrades. This missing feature was not just a market need, it was a critical need for the product, and any good or even adequate Product Manager had better recognize critical needs and prioritize them accordingly.

The missing feature was a skill-building exercise. The student was presented with a problem similar to a homework problem from the book. The student solved the problem and the program verified the answer. If desired, the student could then solve another similar problem, and the program would present a different problem each time. Solving similar yet different problems was supposed to build the student’s knowledge about this particular type of problem.

The problem was conveyed to a project manager and although I didn’t actually see the specifications that were provided, my later experience with the feature suggests they were something like this:
· Create a self-grading skill-building exercise for this product.
· Do it fast and cheap

The upgraded product was quickly re-released. The new feature did not resemble at all the skill-builder from the earlier version; it had apparently been designed by the developer based on the specs above. Tech Support quickly became intimately familiar with this new skill-builder; it seemed that every student who used it called support. In addition, the author got even more calls from instructors about the new feature than there had been about the missing feature. There were two problems with the new feature:
· It graded the first problem it presented to the student correctly; every subsequent iteration of the problem was graded incorrectly.
· The presentation of the problem was such that even when it worked correctly, it did not promote student learning.

Our hypothetical ‘good or even adequate’ Product Manager would have insured that these issues never made it into the release. The PRD would have given more details on what the skill-builder should do, and the test cases in the user stories would have avoided both issues.

The bad feature was quickly updated and the product re-released (still without a PM) and guess what? Only the first issue was addressed. Whoever prioritized these issues didn’t understand that a skill-builder that doesn’t promote learning is as useless as a skill-builder that doesn’t work. Our PM would have prioritized these issues correctly.

What did this particular problem cost us? We could accurately compute Development and Testing costs, Tech Support cost and the cost of scrapping bad inventory and building new inventory (three times!). Sales provided the dollar value of lost adoptions. Harder to calculate are: costs for future lost adoptions; opportunity cost of reassigning the development resources; the dollar value of loss of goodwill from authors and customers and damaged morale of the product stakeholders, and the resistance of the Sales Team to selling this product in the future.

What is clear is that the lack of a Product Manager had a direct impact on the bottom line. Perhaps for a single textbook the expense wasn’t that much compared to the bottom line. But we sold over 200 textbooks. The example above was an extreme case; most ancillary products didn’t have issues as severe or expensive as this one. But with over 200 products and less than 1 Product Manager, there were definitely other similar issues.

We did learn from this incident and others like it, and Product Managers were hired and Product Management methodology adopted. And our products got better!

February 8, 2010

Grammatical errors on web sites

Filed under: education,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 3:35 pm

I worked for an Educational Publisher for years, and would enjoy doing so again; I like contributing to books, eBooks and helping people learn. This morning something caused me to recall an incident that happened some time ago, and it sounded to me like a good topic to write about.

We used to have self-tests on our textbook web sites, with True/False, Multiple Choice, or Short Answer questions that were automatically graded. These were for review purposes only, since clever students could easily take them over and over again until the had all the right answers, and they were one of the most used features on the sites. If one of these stopped working, we could easily get hundreds of support calls before we got it fixed.

One day, one of the Tier 1 agents forwarded an angry student email to me. We had a chemistry test with fill in the blank including some definitions that looked something like this:

“__________ is the combination of a substance with oxygen.”

The proper answer to this is “Oxidation”. This student had entered “oxidation” and it was marked wrong. The student called Tech Support to complain; when the support agent tried to explain, the student used offensive language and then hung up, and then wrote an email. The email was offensive and contained obscene language; you would have thought our Web site had caused this student to fail the course. Remember, this test can be taken multiple times until you get all the questions right, if that’s what you want.  It would have required much less energy to do it over than it did to write an email.

The reason for the complaint? We were enforcing the rules of English grammar on a CHEMISTRY test. How simply terrible and impudent of us! How dare we?

As a representative of an educational publisher, I always felt it was our duty and obligation to get things right on our Web sites. To me, this includes using proper grammar and proper spelling, regardless of the discipline involved.  If for no other reason that just to set a good example. It doesn’t matter that we could easily have programmed this test to accept ‘oxidation’ as well as ‘Oxidation’. I know this seems picayune to some people, but it is important to me.

Your website is marketing collateral, often the first and sometimes the only marketing collateral your customer will see. When the web site is the source of a customer’s first impression, I want my Web site to say ‘The employees of this company are erudite and pay attention to detail, and believe that education is a holistic process. They believe that your English skills are important in everything you do in life.’

If I see a Web site that is poorly written, full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, I tend to think that whoever built and/or owns that site is careless and doesn’t really care about the impression the site gives to potential customers.  Personally,  I don’t really want to deal with companies like that. My grammar isn’t perfect, but I think it’s pretty darn good.  If I see an educational site with that kind of error, I usually send an email to the Webmaster, because I hope other people in the Education industry have a similar attitude. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m disappointed. It’s still worth doing.

February 2, 2010

Why eBooks aren’t free…

Filed under: eBooks,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 4:00 pm

What’s the deal with selling eBooks?  Why do they have to cost anything?  Once you’ve got the book in electronic form for printing (the pBook), all you have to do is save that file in PDF form to make an eBook, right?  It’s a virtually free byproduct of the print product, right?  And hey, once you’ve got the digital file, you just post is and the only cost to the publisher after that is the bandwidth required for a customer to download it.  How much easier could it be?

NOT!  All of this might have been true when an eBook was just a flat PDF file, but eBooks are much more now and perhaps there are consumers who don’t understand what goes into making an eBook.

My eBook experience is in the textbook industry, so I can’t speak to any other kinds of eBooks, but here’s a discussion about some of the things that go into the eBook version of a textbook.

To start with, there is usually the flat PDF file.  I’m pretty sure most publishers these days have updated the book development process so that the PDF file does just drop out automatically, and you do get this file pretty much for free.  But the book development process up to that point isn’t free, and the eBook needs to cover some portion of those development costs.  And since eBook sales are growing at the expense of pBook sales, publishers can’t necessarily count on the pBook sales to cover the development costs any longer.  If the eBook sells for almost nothing, and sales of the pBook don’t cover the development costs, a lot of eBooks have to be sold to make up the difference.  And maybe the total market for that particular textbook isn’t large enough for eBook sales to even reach the break-even point.  Publishers can’t stay in business if they don’t make a profit.

But very few students would buy a flat PDF eTextbook any more; if they are buying an eBook, they want the bells and whistles.

Some of the bells and whistles are: videos; animations; simulations; interactive exercises; historical reenactments; links to paid news services; links to online live tutors; content management tools so you can make notes in the book; additional content that’s not in the pBook, and in the case of online eBooks, content that is regularly updated.  Maybe an online language lab, or graphic calculator, links to spreadsheet templates, and I’m sure there are lots of others I can’t recall right now.  Plus, someone is paying Web hosting fees and bandwidth charges.

You might think video is easy; the publisher I worked for had thousands of hours of video when we got into eBooks, which should minimize the cost for videos, right?  Unfortunately, having a video on a video tape doesn’t instantly translate to having downloadable video; even converting video tape to a digital movie file costs money.  And making new videos is expensive; an educational publisher can’t just use a cell phone or handheld video camera in a classroom – the place I worked had a reputation for high quality and the videos had to match that quality.  That means a studio, at least one professional-grade camera and camera operator, someone to write a script, people to read the script, cutting, editing, content verification, etc.  If a math book had a 2 minute video to illustrate every concept in the book (and some of the do), the cost for new video could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

Animations, simulations and interactive exercises aren’t free either; they share some of the same costs – someone has to write the script, and then software developers go to work, and someone has to review the final product and content.  Software developers aren’t free, and a textbook might have several of these items per chapter.

In fact, everything that is part of an eBook other than the flat PDF file is an additional expense, some of which didn’t even exist before eBooks.  And every publisher is currently looking for new types of content and services that can be added to their eBooks to provide a competitive advantage over all the other publishers.

I don’t know how the cost of developing the eBook bells and whistles compares to the cost of sale plus costs of printing, warehousing, distributing and dealing with returns a pBook, but if a textbook publisher totally dropped pBooks and their eBook sales had to cover the total development costs, I’ll bet the minimum eBook price to stay in business would surprise a lot of people.

Of course, I worked for a textbook publisher, and I hope to remain in publishing, so I’m clearly biased against free eBooks.  But I think the perception is that publishers get eBooks for free, and that’s far from true.  I also buy books, and as a consumer I want prices to be as low as possible, without driving the publisher out of business.  It seems to me that a new business model might be needed to satisfy both publishers and consumers.  What might that look like?  I’m sure there are a lot of people, much more aware of the financial facts than I will ever be, who are also considering this question right now.

January 29, 2010

Some thoughts about the future of publishing

Filed under: publishing — ddswanson01 @ 9:58 am

I’ve been in Educational Publishing since 1994, involved in the digital products side ( software, eBooks, websites, online learning products, Web portals, etc).  I love books, I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and being in Educational Publishing has been a thrill for me.  I’m currently looking for a new positiion, and I’m hoping to remain in publishing and remain associated with eBooks.  The future of eBooks is still wide open and an exciting field, but eBooks pose an important question to publishers – how can publishers stay in business in the future?  Even today, almost anyone with Web access can publish an eBook.  Are publishers doomed to become little more than online bookstores?  And for publishers’ consumers, the readers, the task is going to be, ‘with literally millions of self-published titles to choose from, how do I determine what eBooks are worth reading?’.

I think that in one sense, at least one of the current roles that distinguish publishers will continue to be important.  In order to find valuable content, readers will look for the names of publishers they know, whose brands promise high quality content.  But that promise won’t be enough; if similar content of similar quality is available elsewhere, and it will be, what else can the publisher offer to customers to influence the decision?  That’s the kind of question I’m interested in, and I’m going to try to investigate that question here.

There’s another group to consider as well, and that’s authors.  The author’s brand can be equally as important as the publisher’s brand, in some cases maybe more so.  I’ve followed a number of authors when they left one publisher and moved to another; I’ve also picked up new authors because of the company that published them.  There are some very famous authors who have found that they make more money ‘self publishing’ that they do with their traditional publishers.  How to retain quality authors and find new ones is another puzzle publishers are going to have to solve.

These are heavy issues for publishers to address.  Many publishers have been in business for hundreds of years, and they are experts at making high quality books.  They know in advance everything that will have to be done from reviewing manuscripts to signing and working with authors to printing to distribution, how much it will cost, to what kind of marketing – every little detail.  It’s difficult to change such a complex set of interrelated and effective processes.

So what can I contribute to this process?  I hope I can make some useful observations and suggestions.  We’ll see!

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