Record Stores and Book Stores: The End of An Era? Or Of Our Misplaced Sentimentality?

I read that Bleecker Bob’s Records in New York City’s Greenwich Village was closing its doors this month, after (I believe) four decades in business. As the publishing world continues to change, I will admit, I do look to the music business for lessons learned as book stores face a similar challenge – and perhaps fate – as record stores.

I paid a final visit to Bleecker Bob’s yesterday, and catalog it in detail via nearly 50 photos below. As I looked through the photos, I found it to be a reflection – perhaps a meditation – on my own sentimentality towards record and book stores.

Bleecker Bob’s always seemed to represent more than it really was. The last time I visited there was likely 20 years ago, and I don’t think I purchased anything then because their prices were always much higher than other record stores, with little real gold to be found. Going there was a bit of a pilgrimage, perhaps like going to CBGB’s, which I never got around to going to. You go there to play a role of who you hope to be. To be a tourist, idealizing another time and place.

At places like Bleecker Bob’s or CBGB’s or other New York City establishments, you can’t help but wonder: did Joey Ramone stand in this very spot? Does the fact that I stand here now, somehow connect me to this legend?

I am sentimental about Bleecker Bob’s closing, not really for what it is, but what it represents. For memories I have of an era – of similar record stores and a time when their existence was primary in my life. When I step into this store, part of me treats it like a museum, or more likely, of an endangered species that I am studying and capturing before it is wiped from existence.

Which reminds me of a line from a Cure song:

“Tell me who doesn’t love, what can never come back.”

Publishing is going through this as well. Books vs ebooks. Book stores vs online retailers. Publishers vs self-publishing. Many folks are sentimental amidst the changes, and I can’t blame them. Even when excited about the shift – the potential for what can be, I can’t help but notice aspects of the experience of reading and publishing that are changing.

As I walked through Bleecker Bob’s, there was a reality that I couldn’t help but notice: I had headphones on, listening to an MP3 I downloaded that morning. Yes, I own a very nice record player and fully believe that records provide a vastly better audio experience than digital music. But… that record player doesn’t get much use now that I have a toddler at home. And even when I do buy records, I don’t buy them at Bleecker Bob’s, I go to Princeton Record Exchange, or use

Is Bleecker Bob’s closing emblematic of the times, or merely the skyhigh New York City rent?

I can’t help but feel that even with these changes, there has never been a better time to be a musician or writer. That it is easier to create your work and find an audience now, than it ever has been in the past. That the closing of a store such as this is not symbolic of the state of creation, but the state of commerce.

Below is a photo tour of Bleecker Bob’s. As you look through the photos, do you find them quaint, emblematic of a better time, or merely a museum piece? The final photo is of the wooden floor in front of the main counter. After all these years, it is amazing to see this organic material still holding out. Still supporting customers. That amidst the changes in fashion, music, and the industry that feeds this store, it has remained worn, but unchanged.

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Please Welcome Andy Blank to We Grow Media

I would like to announce that We Grow Media is itself growing, and welcome our newest employee: Andy Blank to the team. And just to clear things up right up front:

  • With Andy joining the team, we now are a “team.” Before, it was just me.
  • Yes, Andy is my brother. More on why I think that is a huge bonus, below.

His role is Operations Manager, and has a strong retail background? Wait – WHAT?! Why would I bring someone with retail experience into my company, which is focused solely on helping publishers and writers? Well, Andy spent 9 years at Disney, 5 years at Target, and then another 5+ years before that in retail management positions at large chains such as Staples. His experience, by any measure, is impressive. Just for starters, here are three things he will bring to We Grow Media:

  • The knowledge and implementation to create a great brand. Both Disney and Target are legendary for their branding – the consistency of an experience that truly meets the needs of their audience.
  • The ability to serve customers better than anyone else. Again, his experience at Disney and Target means that he will bring an amazing level of customer service to We Grow Media. Have you ever walked into a Disney Store or theme park and not smiled? Have you ever walked into a Target and not found it to be a bright, pleasant experience? These are the standards by which I am holding my company.
  • A backbone for creating a sustainable and growing business. Throughout Andy’s 20 year career in retail, he has been tasked with meeting aggressive expectations about sales and business growth. He has managed very large stores in crowded markets, and helped to open new locations. He knows how to look at a business and implement a strategy that meets business expectations and leads to growth. He will be helping me to manage my existing business, and develop new ways to be of assistance to publishers and writers.

Andy BlankThe funny thing is, Andy is so much more than that. He is a real down-to-earth nice guy. He always has a smile, is very giving, and cares deeply for helping others.

We originally began speaking about working together a year ago. We went through lots of scenarios and really talked a lot about the future – of what we both want from life, and how we can achieve that. Last Fall, we began a series of experiments to see how well he would fit into the business. For months, I looped him into projects, gave him some responsibility, and was blown away by how good of a fit it was.

With publishing being in such a huge state of flux, I think there is incredible value in bringing in outside perspectives. Yes, there needs to be total and complete respect for the history of publishing, and the many ways that the world of writers and publishers are indeed unique from other industries.

But… I want to be a part of building a vibrant future for writers and publishers. And I am convinced that Andy’s experience will be a core part of that.

To be honest, it also feels really good to have a family member be the first person I bring into the business. I work with many writers who take my courses. We forge strong relationships as we work together, and it does begin to feel like they are family. I am helping them meet challenges and move towards their goals. Bringing Andy into We Grow Media extends that sensibility – that I have 100% trust in him, that I can share anything with him and know that he will only extend its value. That we can be honest at every stage, and not worry. And you know what: it is nice to talk to my brother every day.

I am excited about the future of We Grow Media, and how bringing Andy on board provides more resources to work with those who truly inspire me: writers and publishers.

You can connect with Andy in the following places:


People Deliver Higher ROI Than Technology

I spoke at two events this week, and today I want to reflect on common themes I found, and something I don’t think is talked about often enough:

People deliver higher return on investment than technology.

Both of the events dealt with organizations trying to leverage digital media to expand and more deeply engage their communities. First up was Folio: Show, where media companies discussed issues such as how to best leverage apps and increase revenue for digital products. My session was called: “The New Content-Creation Paradigm: Blending Production, Audience and Content.”
Dan Blank at Folio Show

The next event was a private Social Media Boot Camp for the United Nations communications staff. Here, 150 members of their staff came together for a day to discuss how to best engage in their mission via social media. My session was “Writing for Social Media.”

Dan Blank

image by Babette Ross

The more I spoke with people at each event, the more I kept considering the value of where we invest our resources. That oftentimes, we look to technology – to systems – to supercharge our mission to expand and engage, but that the most powerful resource are our own employees, colleagues, and members of the communities we serve.

Too often, we invest in technology, instead of where we should: people.

Investing in your staff can deliver far greater ROI than any system or piece of technology you build. People scale. In the right scenario – they can be exponential in their power. This is how ideas spread – how they “go viral.” How organizations can achieve things that break previously established barriers.

But I do understand that many organizations fear investing in people for two reasons:

  1. You don’t “own” the people as you would the server or software. That piece of technology is under lock and key, and can’t escape. But an employee can leave at any time. So a lot of trust is involved.
  2. People are complicated. They are not single function. They don’t all respond the same way to the same input. In reality, this is their brilliance. But for an organization, this means a lot more uncertainty in understanding what your resources are, how to manage them, and how to best unlock their potential.

At the Folio: Show I had a conversation with one editor that I seem to have with nearly every editor: how they are looking to change their website CMS – the backend content management system for all of their online content. I have rarely met any editorial team that is happy with their current CMS. So they are constantly migrating from one piece of technology to another, constantly furthering investment in the tools, instead of the people who use them.

Likewise, people often address social media with me wanting to know what tools, what new platforms, what automation or management tools they should be using. And these are all good things, and I do provide plenty of recommendations. But I feel that many people overlook the basics too quickly – how to better communicate with their audience, how to craft more effective messages, how do more research on what their audience needs and wants. Basic skills that go across any platform/media from any century. Not just ways to “say” more, but to communicate more effectively.

Another key issue I spoke with folks about is how attitude is a greater resource than skills. That skills can become irrelevant, but attitude finds a way. One of my favorite quotes says it best:

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

In today’s rapidly changing world of digital media, change is the norm, and an organization’s roles and capabilities need to address this on a near daily basis.

What is the attitude that you need on your team? Caring. In an organization, this would translate into constantly learning more about one’s audience; being honest about what isn’t working; working outside of defined roles; experimenting when there is no certainty for success; and evolving to meet the needs of today, not last year.

The final point I want to make is about how an organization can best amplify the technology and tools that they are using. People talk a lot about the power of analytics, but often analytics and research are rendered useless for a single reason: they are rarely communicated effectively and often throughout an organization. Sales, marketing, editorial, research, events staff, and other groups all collect and use their own data to improve their performance. But this data and the insights they learn about their audience often aren’t shared across the entire organization. They die a lonely death, in a spreadsheet, instead of growing in value via conversations.

At the United Nations session, it was wonderful to see the organization invest the time to address this issue: how to communicate with the communities they serve in a forum like this. The day was organized by HUGE, and allowed staff members to come together with outside experts to explore what could be, and specific tactics on how to best share their mission.

I told them that the greatest resource they have is themselves – to speak with each other about what is working well in social media in different areas of their universe. That they need to recreate this large meeting every week in tiny ways – at water coolers, via email, instant messages – anything that keeps sharing new insights.

At the Folio: Show, the luncheon keynote speaker was Mashable Founder Pete Cashmore. It was a good session, but there was one major point he made that I didn’t agree with. A question was made about the value of content companies (such as a newspaper) vs technology companies (such as Google News), and Pete concluded that those who own the technology win. That a newspaper or magazine brand can’t compete with a well developed blog or digital media site.

But isn’t it those who are best embedded within their community the ones who win, not those who own a piece of technology? Because you can always serve a community in new ways, but technology is just a ‘thing’? Yes, it is an enabler, but tell that to MySpace nowadays. Their great technology is nothing without people using it.

As to why newspapers are finding it hard to stay in business and Google isn’t – the reason is likly that newspapers spent the past 15 years focused less on the people they serve and more on the paper they produce. That inherently, their mission should have extended far beyond the format of a newspaper (or the reasonable facsimile online or in an app), and more to finding new (and yes, profitable) ways to inform and engage their communities.

And finally, as is common practice nowadays, I want to end with an insight from Steve Jobs:

“Steve made choices,” his close friend Dr. Dean Ornish told the New York Times. “I once asked him if he was glad that he had kids, and he said, ‘It’s 10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done.’

I interpret that quote as the exponential power that people have. That creating an iPod or an iPad is creating a ‘thing.’ That thing does specific tasks, and does them very well. But in 5 years, it is still the same object, and at that point, likely to be outdated. But a kid – a person – would have created exponential value in that same period of time. It will be at once something exactly the same, and something entirely new.

I wish more companies and organizations not only understood this (they all say they value their people), but acted on it by investing more in their employees and members, and less in THINGS.

Have a great day.

Preserving Your Legacy: Backing Up Your Digital Media

Oftentimes, when we talk about protection in the digital realm, we are referring to the fear that “others” will misuse our data, steal what we create, and abscond our identity. I work with a lot of writers, many of whom create and share a wide range of digital media: photos, blogs, videos, and the like. What I find is that:

The greatest threat to what we create is ourselves.

That we don’t take basic measures to preserve what we create – to ensure it will be a lasting legacy, either personally or publicly.

Oftentimes, we create and share things online as a momentary act, whose shelf life is brief. In a culture of Tweets, we rush to create and share, create and share, create and share, rarely looking back. But what is lost in this constant stream of digital media? What body of work have you created, but gets lost in the flow?

For a writer or artist, what you share is not just a work in and of itself, but part of your creative process. The photos, the blogs, the status updates. And we often treat it like garbage. Posting it is akin to disposing of it. We create it, and move on, doing little to protect our work from failing hardware or transitions to new platforms.

We keep no backups of our digital files; we work on the same computer for 4 years getting a new one only when the old one dies; we take all our photos on our phones, over-processing them with Hipstamatic; we scatter our personal narrative across devices of varying degrees of obsolescence, all without backups.

So today I wanted to share my process of backing up the digital media I create and what I share online, with the hopes of establishing good practices that protects the legacy of what you are creating.

I have 72,000 family photos on my hard drive. This is a mixture of those I have taken myself over the years, and family albums I have scanned in. I also make sure I preserve all the photos my wife has taken with her camera and on her phone. I have spent countless hours on this, organizing the library and adding annotations to the images. This is the primary archive of my family’s history.

Preserving your digital media is often a process that starts before you even snap the picture. For photos I take every week, I take them on the highest quality setting possible. For my main camera, it is a RAW image file, which means each photo is about 25mb each. For someone who takes dozens and dozens of photos each week, that quickly adds up. The opposite of this is what I see many doing: talking ALL of their photos on their phones, which are usually 1-2mb each, and taken with a tiny lens. Nowadays, those images are then filtered with Instagram or Hipstamatic, degrading the image quality of the photos so they can look “retro.” It is very trendy right now to use vintage filters, so your photos are washed out, similar to snapshots from the 1960s and 70s. It’s a fun and dramatic look, but not really suited for archival work.

To store my photos, I use Apple’s Aperture, a professional photo software program. It’s similar to Adobe’s Light Room. It sometimes feels weird to CHOOSE to buy software in an age online services are largely free. Besides the photo editing capabilities of these programs, they are designed to organize and archive large bodies of photos in a flexible manner. I can easily modify the date of photos, tag them, add captions and keywords, create albums, and rate them. But what I love most is that they easily create backup archives.

Once a day, I backup my photo library onto an external hard drive. This means, that if my computer dies, I have a full backup of everything. The way Aperture works, it automatically senses what has changed from the previous day, so it just backs up the few files I added or modified. It’s very quick.

I also have a third backup – another external hard drive that I keep in a safe deposit box. This one I update about once a week. This may sound paranoid, but if our home ever burns down or is robbed, I don’t want to lose every photo of my son. A friend told me a story of a musician who had his computer and all of his backup hard drives stolen. All of his recorded music was digitally stored on this equipment – the man’s entire life’s work. Gone.

For my blogs (and my wife’s blog), I typically backup once a week. This is really easy. In WordPress, I simply go to “export,” and it creates an xml file on my desktop. If you have other files in your blog such as images, you can back them up via FTP.
I have a folder on my desktop that just stores old backups of each of my blogs. I have spent years writing on my blog each week – it shares my largest body of creative work. It would take a simple glitch in the server of my web host to wipe it out entirely.

Files on My Computer
One of the reasons I like Apple computers is that they have backup software build right into it. I use Apple’s Time Machine to backup my computer once a day – in the same process as I do with my photo library, including the third backup off site in the safe deposit box.

So this includes everything I write, all of my business files, and the backups of my blogs. For the file structure on my desktop, I won’t pretend to have found a good system. I essentially create folders by year, and then rely on my computer’s search function to find stuff. Not ideal, but it works.

Devices & Machines
It can be a pain to always be updating software and purchasing new equipment. No one likes change, and every software upgrade means that SOMETHING won’t work as you expected. But… I think it’s smart to stay up-to-date with software and hardware.

I buy a new computer every 2-3 years, and a new phone every 2 years. I just got a new iMac. My old one was still “fine” but there were lots of small ways I was outgrowing it. The nice thing about Apple products is that they have strong resale value. So, selling my old one now and buying a new one won’t cost me any more money than if I waited another year or two.

For software, upgrades can often head-off your exposure to viruses or bugs in the system. I update WordPress when updates come out, and the same with my computer’s operating system. For other software, I have a mixed track record. Usually, if Photoshop or MS Office worked, I would leave it alone.

Social Media
I will admit, I haven’t even looked at ways of backing up my Tweets, status updates or friends list on Facebook and Twitter. It would be impossible to recreate them if somehow one of the services accidentally deleted my account. So, I am open to suggestions if anyone has them!

Everything listed above requires that one be proactive instead of reactive in terms of managing what they create digitally. That you will replace your laptop before the hard drive starts making a horrible loud sound. That you will make the time to organize and backup that which is precious to you.

I think the key is that many people only realize certain things are precious once they are gone. We offload the responsibility to others: that our web host is responsible for not corrupting our blog files; that our computer is responsible for not dying, taking all of your work with it; that whatever settings come standard in your phone are the best way to take archival photos of your family and loved ones.

The wealth of words and images on the web sometimes make them seem like a commodity that we can never keep up with. But the words and images that YOU create are invaluable. Be the curator of your own work – of preserving the legacy of what you create.


Why Publishers & Writers Need to Embrace Digital Media

I read the most incredible article this week, and I want to take the time to really explore what it means. Specifically… what it means for you and your career as a publisher or writer.

The article is a Fortune piece on Conan O’Brien, and his transition from old media personality to becoming a multimedia brand. Even if you hate Conan, read the article. It’s an important reflection on the power EACH OF US has to reshape our lives and careers.

What amazes me is that this happened last year. By then, Twitter was already seen as normal, when we all felt like we missed any “opportunity” with Twitter that would have profound effect. And yet, here we have Conan’s story, which perfectly embodies not just the power of digital media, but the power of an individual who focuses on purpose and connection.

Below are highlights from the article. But this is the main theme:

“Like millions of other Americans, Conan O’Brien’s life has been disrupted by the digital world, and he’s been forced to reinvent himself.”

If you are in publishing – if you are a writer or creator – consider how this article reflects on your career. On how we have ALL been challenged by new media, but that there is opportunity hidden within it if we care to look. I want to be clear: Conan’s story is not about technology. It is about removing the pretense, about getting back to basics – connecting with people, and doing so via a shared purpose.

If you don’t know the basic’s of Conan’s recent experience: after 17 years as a late night talk show host, NBC made an unreasonable demand: to move his show, until after midnight, and put his biggest competition (Jay Leno) in the time slot ahead of him, at 11:35. Conan would not make the move, so he left the show of his dreams. Via social media and the web, fans helped support him, and it lead the way to a very different type of career for Conan.

Okay, here is what I took away from the article:

  • Conan Focused on Greater Purpose and Beliefs, not Selfish Motivation
    His response to NBC’s demand that he move his show from 11:35 to 12:05:
    “For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting… I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”

    This wasn’t a discussion of contracts or formats. It was about the greater affect of his decision on the people it affected most: the fans and the work he would be building – a work that has a rich history. Messing with those things in the name of profit alone is not something he wanted to be a part of.

  • Context Matters
    Conan’s use of Twitter started when a fan created an image, Facebook Page and Twitter account to support him. In coming to his support, Conan saw the power of social media – something he knew nothing about. When he saw its use within the context of his situation, a light bulb went off.

    For those in publishing – some of this talk about digital media, social media, apps, etc must seem very foreign. Look for ways to put the proper context around it – to see how it can connect you with your core mission of sharing information and stories – of connecting with people.

  • The Role of “The Audience” has Changed
    On the generational shift, thanks to the web and social media: “It’s an audience that doesn’t want to be just an audience — they want to be participants. They love being connected to one another and to the celebrity objects of their affection; they love posting and creating and remixing.”

    In the publishing world, I hear the phrase “People still love holding books” a lot. You know what, I love holding books too. We all love books. But that’s not the question. The question is… do some people enjoy connecting with information and stories in a different manner too. Is there another opportunity IN ADDITION to holding books. One that does not belittle the book, but is simply different from it. When we stop focusing on the book, and start focusing on readers, a world of possibilities opens up.

  • We Sometimes Represent Things Greater than Ourselves
    “Generation X is finally at the stage where they can have the jobs the boomers had, and the economy crashes. There’s nothing left for them: There’s no Social Security; there’s nowhere to invest. Conan was a great stand-in for the frustration with this never-ending boomer legacy.”

    For a writer or publisher, this is about understanding that people’s relationships with your work is something deeper than purchasing and reading a magazine article or a book. That the work LIVES within them, they think about it and act on it long after the process of reading it has ended. Consider what those deeper connections are all about.

  • Value Can Be Created Where There Was None Before
    “What was interesting about it,” points out O’Brien, “is that all the legal prohibitions were coming from people in the old media. They were saying you can’t do all these things, and pretty quickly we realized, ‘Wait a minute!’ Someone said, ‘Does that include Twitter? No. It doesn’t include Twitter.’ And so I started tweeting.”

    If the publishing world tries to create the digital media (eg: ebook) world in the same image as the print world, they will find challenge after challenge. The rules that we think apply don’t really exist. But for most of us, it is scary to consider this – that these rules that secure our world-view don’t exist. For others, it leaves an opportunity. To help shape the world, and improve it.

  • Power is in Aligning Purpose to Connection
    “On January 23, 2010 after taping his last broadcast, Conan O’Brien, a guy who had been a staple of late-night television for 17 years, no longer had a show. Nor did he have a Facebook or Twitter account yet.” A month later, he amassed 250,000 Twitter followers in his first day on Twitter.

    Was Twitter the key in Conan’s success? No. It was merely a channel, be it a relevant one for his audience. It was his purpose – in combination with the channel – that had such a profound effect. When you approach a channel like Twitter, you can’t think about what it can do for you, you have to think about what you are putting into it. That is what matters.

  • Learn by Doing
    He sold 120,000 tickets to his live concert tour with a single Tweet, and sold out 30 shows within a few days. During the live shows, they would create a unique twitter hash tag, so Conan could keep track of what was happening in the audience, and use it in his performance. “Suddenly O’Brien wasn’t just performing for fans; he was also engaging in a conversation with them.”

    Conan kept exploring what could be done – how to further connect with his audience – even during a theater tour, something very traditional. Again and again, he broke down barriers that separated him from his audience.

  • Freedom Matters
    With his new show on TBS: “O’Brien is in control of all the on-air creative and, just as important, all the digital use of his content. He and his production company Conaco own the show. Among the other late-night talent — Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Fallon — Letterman is the only host who owns his show. It’s the opposite of O’Brien’s setup at NBC, says Ross, a partner in the company. “Conaco owns the show, and TBS is a participant. At Tonight, NBC owned the show, and we were participants.” And ownership makes all the difference for O’Brien and his team.”

    It is hard to state how big of a shift this is for the media world. Conan will not be the last to experience a shift like this in their career.

  • Rewrite the Rules of Success
    “Team Coco touches more than 5 million people each month, many of them primarily consumers of O’Brien’s brand of humor online. “A lot of television executives still have the idea that a show is something everybody watches.” His team also shares clips from the show very quickly – so instead of people needing to rip them and post them, Conan’s team encourages them to simply share.

    Conan’s new role is something very new and very traditional at the same time. Regardless, he has rewritten the rules of success, paving the way for others.

So why am I so excited about this story? Because it’s not just about creating great content and broadcasting it, but about strengthening the CONNECTION and ENGAGEMENT between the creator and the audience. Digital media is not about marketing to people – tricking them to engage with you. Rather, it is about aligning for a common purpose.

For each of us, this is about not just embracing a thing (digital media), but embracing a change in our own identity. That even though we may have EXPECTED our careers to be one thing, we have to be open to shift and expand. Not for the sake of ‘media’ – but for the opportunity for our work to have a deeper affect on the world.

In the end for Conan, it wasn’t about him keeping “The Tonight Show” at all costs – about sitting in Johnny’s chair. It was about connecting with people – entertaining them – making their lives better.

For those of you in publishing and who are creating great work that flows through the publishing world – this comes down to the idea of whether you are focusing ONLY on the book or magazine or newspaper – or if you are focusing on the effect your work has on people’s lives, regardless of media type. And that the opportunity in front of you is to strengthen your connection to the world, and give your work the chance to have a greater purpose and effect.