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The Bookworm Issue

The world’s first $430 million book, college admissions on steroids, the little bookshop that took the click-and-mortar universe by storm, agency all-stars, how print may solve the global warming crisis, and why Philly’s 30th Street Station needs the best a man can get. Welcome to The Bookworm Issue.

GUTENBERG’S GHOST

Yeah, yeah. Print is dead. We’ve heard more iterations of this eulogy than there are pages in War and Peace. But, the thing is, print ain’t dead. It’s just different.

We’ve been highly skeptical about audiobooks since they first came around. Visions of meditation-tape voices and a tone that stresses all the wrong words plagued the imagined experience. But seeking a fair verdict, we finally decided to suck it up and try it, getting a book we’d read before for comparison purposes.

simplyaudiobooks.pngThe pick: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point from Simply Audiobooks. And, in all honesty, it was a pleasant surprise.

The CDs arrive fast. (We wanted all judgement points available, so we went with the hard-copy mail-based rental club, but they also have a neat download club and a purchase option for those who don’t care for the restrictions of monthly or annual memberships.) And there are no Netflixy restrictions on what you can do with the content — ours got sucked right into our iTunes library, so the “rental” ended up as ownership. Best of all, our book was actually read by Gladwell himself — granted, in a rather meditative voice, but nothing beats hearing an author’s interpretation of his own work.

An added bonus: subtle print on the neat blue cardboard boxes CDs come in tells you they are made from 100% post-consumer materials and are fully recyclable and biodegradable. There’s no mention of it on the site, there’s not boastfulness about it — seems like an authentic effort by these folks to make a small, tangible difference. You don’t get that a lot in the fanfare-driven eco movement.

Then there’s print that’s actually printed and just as 2.0. Initiated by the World Bank and funded through the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, On Demand Books created the world’s first print-on-demand (POD) device last spring: the Espresso Book Machine. It takes this media shaker 3 minutes to print and bind a 300-page paperback from a digital file. Which, come to think of it, would work great with Google’s Library Project, an effort to digitize the world’s libraries and make them fully searchable, once it leaps over the self-serving, pointlessly bitter naysayers and takes off full steam.

Espresso Book MachineOn Demand Books and Google seem to share more than functional compatibility: just like Google’s do-no-evil, empower-people-though- information vision, the Espresso is out to solve a larger problem. From a sustainability perspective, the gizmo will eliminate the enormous global shipping and warehousing costs for books and reduce paper consumption (in which the U.S. is a world leader, at 715 pounds per capita a year and growing at about 10% each decade). Thanks to Uncle Gore, we all know what this has to do with them glaciers. And from a socioeconomic perspective, it will give that smart, hard-working but incredibly poor student in Mozambique access to the educational tools that will empower her to pursue her dreams and passions. It’s hard, after all, to ignore the powerful role education and information access play in socioeconomic status, driving the dynamic between education, employment and poverty.

The miracle printer is expected to retail for about $100,000 — much less than what the majority of national libraries, including ones in the developing world, spend on stocking every year. Plus, given the machine’s workhorse capacity, it seems like a sound investment. See it all in action and marvel.

BETA VERSION OF YOU

We remember the days when CollegeBoard.com was as high-tech as college application got. But it seemed intended to ease the process on the administrative end, not the student end. Not exactly a hook these days when kids are all about being in control. That’s where 2.0 startup Zinch comes in.

They cater to one of the most powerful, universal human aspirations — to be recognized as unique individuals. Because, really, who likes being reduced to a standardized test score, a bunch of acronyms (hello, GPA, AP, SAT, TOEFL, and others), and a bullet-point list of extracurriculars? Certainly not budding twenty-something hipsters.

picture-1.pngStill in startup-classic Beta, Zinch was inspired by the simple observation that the current admissions process seems to favor those in already favorable positions. (Hey there, private school all-stars, alum kids, extracurricular whores and grade-grubbers.)

Combined with various research findings that test scores and high school GPA are poor predictors of how kids do in college (known to some of ous as the keg effect), a vision was born: to level the playing field, giving students an outlet for showcasing their individuality without the traditional expensive resources like essay-writing courses, test preparation services, tutors, and other get-in-bed-with-the-Ivies plots.

Here’s how it works: students sign up and create detailed profiles, or “portfolios,” where they showcase what they’re all about. Anything goes — blogs, obscure art, a garage band gig, you name it. Portfolios are then assembled into a sophisticated database, which colleges and universities across the nation can search based on whatever criteria they think matter.

Sure, it may take some time until the admission process recognizes the human factor involved in sifting through applicants to select those who’ll make the greatest brains of tomorrow. (Because, really, it’s the successful ones that shell out the biggest alum donations.) But we dig that someone out there is starting to nudge things in the right direction.

Plus, there’s the “i am more than a test score” tagline. Simple. Honest. And sadly revolutionary.

UNTRIVIA

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A recent partnership between STORES Magazine and BIGresearch produced the Favorite 50, a survey in which consumers ranked their favorite e-tailers. If anything, it’s a useful snapshot of how the contrast between the brick-and-mortar and online retail landscapes — offline many of the rank-toppers are either B-grade or nonexistent altogether. Here’s a top-line of the findings:

1. Amazon.com — The interesting thing is that if you were to walk into a traditional retail store that carries all the products available on Amazon, you’d be so overwhelmed with the paradox of choice you’d either pass out or walk out. But the success of this search-based system enhanced by personalized recommendations suggests the future of shopping may just be in online stores that operate as sophisticated, algorithm-driven retail databases.

2. eBay — The Barry Bonds of vintage stores seems to be hitting a home run with shoppers.

3. Wal-Mart — Despite various questionably effective attempts to be, like, totally hip and catch the young set (including the latest merciless milking of the green cow), this retail giant is doing well as ever.

4. Best Buy — Eh, not really “Best,” but “4th Best Buy” doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

5. JC Penny — We’re talking massive dollars here, not pennies. And it’s quite a jump for this lovemarked (see appropriate snark below) retailer. Can they really be better liked than…

6. …Target? — All the multiplying pretty people, the swirly stuff and the poppy tunes seem to be paying off.

7. Kohl’s — We’re guessing quietly kicking up their posh quotient with the Vera Bradley line didn’t hurt.

Also of note: Google (#9) and Yahoo (#16) are sending clear signals that search engines play a big role in e-commerce beyond your grandmother’s basic search optimization.

But most importantly, unlike “objective” spending-based rankings, the Favorite 50 assessed how people feel, subjectively, about the retailers they shop with. And while the dollar can’t be neglected as a business driver, it’s brand equity and love that keep it coming year after year. Refreshing to see some commercial entity out there actually cares about how consumers feel, not how much and what they bought today.

GLOSSY VS. GRITTY

While we’re on the subject of brand love and the number-five ranker above, it seems like for lovemarker K-Rob there’s no shame in being one justifiably smug, smart SOB. (You may recall JC Penny’s unexpected, pitchless shift of business to Saatchi & Saatchi, allegedly after top execs were blown away by Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts’ Lovemarks. If this is the case, it makes it the world’s most expensive book, with a price sticker of the $430-million business.) Especially if he’s willing to put his money where his pen is.

Which he did, kinda. The lovemarketing campaign is a-rollin‘, replete with bouncy imagery, life-is-good cliches, and — our biggest gripe — commodification of formerly-indie acts in soundtracks. (To be fair, as much as we love Regina Spektor, we first thought she was showing symptoms of sellout after being prominently featured on the first season finale of addictive primetime soap Grey’s Anatomy, but this is a whole new level of commercialization.)

Daniel Goleman booksIn any case, our biggest concern with K-Rob’s literary foray is that while it includes some superficially innovative gimmicks, it simply offers a glossy iteration of social and psychological research findings that have been around for quite some time. And while we have tremendous respect for the complex psychological principles behind it all, we’d have to go with the grittier, down-and-dirty reads on the subject.

And on that note, here’s a Brain Pickings rarity: a shameless endorsement and recommendation for those who care to dig deeper. Yep, we’re shamelessly endorsing and recommending Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (and sequel Social Intelligence), an incredibly smart (yet very credible) foray into sociology, neuroscience, psychology and behavioral science that sheds light on why we ever care about anything. Bonus: Goleman is not an ad agency CEO and the book is not intended to be a new business hook.

ONLY IN PHILLY

Ever feel like you’re constantly climbing the (social, corporate, whatever) ladder to no avail? Philly, always the literalist, has taken that metaphorical concept to a verbatim level. Spotted on the concourse of 30th Street Station by a certain young lad is this architectural head-scratcher.

30th Street Station concourse

Of course, if we had a Gillette Mach 3 Turbo, that wall would be a piece of cake.


Published October 5, 2007

https://www.brainpickings.org/2007/10/05/the-bookworm-issue/

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