Archive for the ‘strategy’ Category

Milestones, fake relationships, and continuity plans.


We all pass milestones from time to time. I figure the best thing we can do is note them and consider what we’re learning on the trip.

I took a  bit of an abrupt break from blogging. Two things conspired. One good, and one bad.

On the good side, I got busy , and took some time for vacation. That led to the first hiatus. But then, the bad thing. Shortly after I returned from vacation, my dad passed away, and I’ve been trying to juggle work and the myriad details that immediately follow a death.

The good news is that my mother is a very strong woman. The other good news is that she’s receiving moral support and paperwork from both of her children and their partners, her grandchildren, and being entertained and diverted by her great-grandchildren. So things are progressing about as well as they can in the wake of an event that was expected, to an extent, but still a terrible shock and a cause for mourning.

But enough about me. What’s on my mind when it comes to communications, social media, and PR. And there are two things that I want to highlight that relate to social media and to business that the last several weeks have impressed upon me.

First, a succession plan and an interruption of business plan is a necessity, for businesses right down to the micro level. I like to have discussions with friends and colleagues so that if something comes up that makes my participation in a project difficult or impossible, I have someone who I can slot into the project with a minimum of prep time. If you’re a SOHO, or a small retail business, what would you do if there was a death in the family, or if you were incapacitated by an illness or injury?

Second, it’s easy for social media to be criticized as creating false or inauthentic relationships, relationships which aren’t important. But when I got the call on a Saturday morning from my mom that my dad had died, I got support from my partner and my real-life friends. But I ALSO got support from people who I know only online. Cards. Memorial donations. Other gestures of caring.

Those gestures were meaningful. While I can’t prove it or quantify it, I know it. And last I checked, there’s no shortage of inathentic or fake rleationships in real life.

So those are two lessons that I’ve been thinking about since August 11. That, and that hugs are good. Give one to someone you like at every opportunity. It’s hard to imagine a bad outcome from a good hug.

And finally, one of the thing sthat I had to postpone when my dad passed was my webinar in the Think Tank Summer E-learning Series, organized by SocialFish and CommPartners. Instead of August 16, I’ll be presenting “Your New Content Strategy” on September 27. You can find more info and sign up here.

SMB 101 Post #5: What to do with freebie requests?

There’s no doubt that being the owner of a small business puts you in the exalted / cursed position of being asked for stuff. A lot.

The local food bank. A friend who’s doing a fundraiser. A loyal customer who is hosting a silent auction. The business improvement association or chamber of commerce. An arts event. There will always be someone who will find you and ask for your help with their event. Usually by providing either money or stuff. Or possibly both.

In this (delinquent, but hopefully still useful) SMB 101 edition, how to sift through the endless list of requests, and how to help yourself while you’re helping others.

Question #1: “How do I deal with all these requests???”

Panhandler. Image CC licenced by

There are a couple of things you can do. First off, you can set yourself a budget for both money and product sponsorships or giveaways. Then, keep track of what you’re doing with requesters, so you don’t find yourself wondering how you spent THAT much at the end of the year. This also gives you a great and reasonable way to turn people down. “I’m sorry, but we only have so much we can do, and we’ve done it.”

Second, you can ask people to submit requests in writing, so you can track those requests.

Third, you can set out some guidelines before you start accepting requests. Are you a believer in children’s charities? Maybe a Ronald McDonald House.  Are you a cancer survivor (a cause close to my heart, or perhaps bladder)? Then perhaps you have a charity like Ottawa’s Maplesoft Centre you could help.  What causes or issues resonate with you? Set out guidelines for people so they can understand what you’re interested in. You can be as restrictive or as free as you like. But when you have guidelines, you can point to those.

Finally, keep an eye on what your competitors are doing in the community. If an organization already has multiple supporters in your sector, maybe it’s time you struck out into a new segment and carved out your own niche.

Question #2: “What’s in this for me?”

Philanthropy is good, period. But there’s nothing wrong with helping yourself out while helping others, and there’s also nothing wrong with talking about your support of community events, causes, or charities.

So first, think about what sort of benefits you would like to see for your business from a donation or sponsorship. Is it a full sponsorship? Are you providing coffee and cookies for an event? Be fair, reasonable, and assertive in telling the organization asking for help that you’d like to get a little something too.

Second, don’t be shy. Talk about your supportive activities on your web site, your Facebook page, on Twitter — your social media activities can help the organizations you’re helping, and people ought to know that you’re a generous member of the community too.

Finally, if you are a business with physical visitors — retail or wholesale — think about some sort of display to celebrate your corporate generosity and your pride in associating with worthy causes.

What this all comes down to? You already know that you are going to be asked. So wouldn’t it make sense to think strategically about what you want to support and to what extent?

(Image cc licenced by Flickr user Meddygarnet)

(This is post number five in an ongoing series of posts aimed at providing practical advice for small businesspeople in the areas of public relations, communications and social media. If you ever need help with your small business… why not get in touch?)

SMB101 post #1: Avoid the social media smorgasbord.

SMB101 logo

NOTE: This is post #1 in a weekly series I’m calling SMB101. SMB can stand for a few things: Social Media in Business, Small and Medium Business… it’s up to you. Whatever the acronym, when you see it and the 101 logo at right, you’ll know it’s a short, (hopefully) pithy and useful post designed to help smaller organizations get a handle on social media.

The rollout of new social media tools seems neverending. And it pretty much is.Even a relatively short time ago, social media options seemed limited. Do a blog. Maybe a podcast.

Then social networks like Facebook became ubiquitous, the cost of creating video decreased, smartphones flooded the Western world, Twitter was everywhere, and the hits just kept on coming. If you don’t feel overwhelmed yet, check out this listing of over 400 networks and sites.

It’s natural to want to jump on board. Everybody talks about the advantages of being the first adopter, of being ahead of the curve. And there are advantages.

If you’re working for or own a business that has a communications, public relations, or social media team, you have the relative luxury of relying on them to lead the adoption of new media tools. Alternatively, larger businesses or not-for-profits might have a PR, advertising, or social media agency on retainer to be the leader. Even having a community manager or dedicated social media person is great.

But if you’re a small business with limited time to “do” social media, it might be wise for you to resist the temptation to jump on every bandwagon you see someone else riding on. Why? I’ll give you a number of reasons:

  • Tools aren’t strategies. If you jump from tool to tool, you increase the risk of forgetting WHY you’re doing social media in the first place. Social media should be like every other part of your business — informed by a solid strategy. It’s a powerful form of communications and public relations. And that power can translate into greatness, or awfulness.
  • If you’re a small business, you need to budget your time carefully. And each tool has a learning curve. Better to do three things well than 10 things poorly.
  • There’s no guarantee that the latest new gadget, site, utility, etc. will be around for long. Remember Google Wave? Exactly.
  • There’s no guarantee your audience is looking for you on a given tool, or that they’re even there. A furniture store near me prominently displays a LinkedIn logo. Why?

If you’re the sort of person who loves to know about new things, that’s great. Play with shiny toys on your own time and in your own spaces. But don’t experiment with them for your business on your business’s site and on your business’s time. Your time is too precious to be spent on efforts that aren’t well-thought-out and supportive of your business goals.

If your small business needs some help choosing from the nearly infinite set of social media options, get in touch. I’d be happy to help. I love finding ways of helping small business that are affordable and effective for you and profitable and rewarding for me. 

UPDATED 23/4/2012: Is good news not as good as NO news?

This story is getting a lot of attention, at least in Ottawa and Canadian political circles today. I encourage you to read the whole thing, including the online version.

But here’s a précis. Tom Spears is the science writer for my local broadsheet, the Ottawa Citizen. In March, he saw a news story that suggested NASA was flying research planes into snowstorms near Lake Simcoe, and that our own National Research Council might be involved.

You’d think this would be a good news story, right? Back in my time in university media relations, this sort of story was our bread and butter. But you’d be wrong. In some quarters, it feels like an annoyance that must be smothered under a pile of wet wool blankets.

As Spears recounts, his inquiry generated a 52-page trail of e-mails (which he obtained using an access-to-information request) among 11 people. At the end, Spears received an e-mail message that actually doesn’t mention snow, but explains where on the NRC plane the radar devices were located. Here’s the story that resulted.

I’ve embedded the whole sordid tale, but if you want to see his question and the eventual answer, here it is: 

The whole chain is in this Scribd document: A simple question, a blizzard of bureaucracy

Spears has chronicled (and I’ve chronicled his chronicles at least once) the misadventures of Canadian government communicators in the past. He’s talked about how government communicators wouldn’t take media calls for FIVE HOURS after a major earthquake that affected Canada’s capital city, and how they issued a media advisory for a briefing 25 minutes after the briefing began.

So what’s going on here?

  • Some bloggers are fulminating about the culture of top-down control that they argue has created a culture of paranoia within the public service. Spears’s fellow Citizen writer Dan Gardner has related this case to his ideas around open and closed government. I think there’s likely something to that.
  • I think there’s also a level of fear and loathing in government around getting something “wrong”, about making a “mistake.” In university media relations, the fact that our faculty had academic freedom insulated us. If the expert we found for a journalist said something outrageous, we wouldn’t get in trouble. If someone at the NRC said something untoward, there would be much kerfuffling, as can be seen by the comments in the Scribd doc around the omission of the Canadian Space Agency. So you copy the world on e-mails. You ensure that the higher-ups and the highest-ups sign off on everything. 
  • There’s also the tradition that ministers speak for departments and that public servants do not. While in the past that hasn’t prevented scientists within the public service from speaking about their work, there have been rumblings that this is no longer the case. One of the  most prominent public calls for change came from the Canadian Science Writers Association during the last election campaign.
  • But I also wonder if, for the political masters who set policy for departments and agencies, if there’s no upside from showing what government does RIGHT. It may be that there’s a spoken or unspoken belief that showing good stuff the government’s doing might lead people to think government agencies are valuable and/or worth preserving, which would fly in the face of our current government’s budgetary direction. If your ideology tells you that small government is the way to go, why show off success stories?

I suppose it’s not surprising to me that as I read this, I felt as much sympathy for the government communicators as I did for Tom Spears. They are likely as frustrated by the process as he was. Certainly, I noticed one of my Facebook  friends who is a government communicator wincing about the story.And my recent quest to find out information about the government using social media to monitor conversations about the seal hunt led to a similarly unsatisfying response e-mail from a communications officer, several DAYS later.

The saddest part of the email trail comes when the communicators begin to talk about a media visit to the facility next summer. Yes, let’s invite the reporter we just annoyed and treated poorly to come to look at our snowstorm research plane. In the summer. When it’s 40 with the humidex, and the last thing anyone want to think about is snowstorms, and the last story that an editor will accept is a story about snowstorms.

By my count of positions in the government’s electronic directory, there are more than 40 people working in communications at the NRC. I’d bet that if you set those folks free, told them to court people like Tom Spears — not with boozy lunches or junkets, but with really good stories — and make good news happen, they could and would. We did that when I was working in the university sector. It worked. Who woulda thought that if you give journalists good story ideas, they’ll pick ‘em up and run with them?

It’s unfortunate that ideology, bureaucracy, paranoia, or something is handcuffing our government and its employees and keeping them from doing so.

UPDATE: Science writer Margaret Munro files this story for Postmedia about Environment Canada’s insructions to its scientists attending a conference on polar science.  There appears to be some difference of opinion about the “instructions.”

Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada spokesperson, says there is nothing unusual about the plan, which he describes as “standard practice” and consistent with the government’s overall communication policy.

Others see it as the latest evidence of the warped culture of obsessive information control inside the Harper government.

“Until now such a crude heavy-handed approach to muzzle Canadian scientists, prior to a significant international Arctic science conference hosted by Canada, would have been unthinkable,” says a senior scientist, who has worked for Environment Canada for decades. He asked not to be identified due to the possibility of repercussions from Ottawa.

“The memo is clearly designed to intimidate government scientists from Environment Canada,” he says. “Why they would do such an unethical thing, I can’t even begin to imagine, but it is enormously embarrassing to us in the international world of science.”

UPDATE: April 24: A blog post by PostMedia’s Mike deSouza quotes Environment Minister Peter Kent on his department’s media management practice:

“There is nothing new in the email that was sent to attendees…It is established practice to coordinate media availability. In fact, many of our younger scientists seek advice from our departmental communications staff.  Where we run into problems is when journalists try to lead scientists away from science and into policy matters. When it comes to policy, ministers address those issues.”

Kent was challenged in this open letter on April 4:

Open Letter to Peter Kent

Why do brands sell their customers short?

So. I’m of an age when some hair begins to gray (and other hair begins to grow in unexpected places, but that’s another blog post).

Now, I don’t have two adorable little girls, and I’m in a relationship. So what do I make of this:

Or this:

Or this:

Shaving gear ads don’t get much better.

The gold standard, it seems, for razor ad storyboards is: guy shaving, guy shaving, graphics shot of razor cutting, product shot, shot of an adoring woman caressing the guy’s face and somehow magically implying he’s going to get the best sex of his entire life RIGHT FREAKING NOW.

Now here’s how they deal with shaving ads in another culture:

Just for men site
Notice the difference? The lack of ponderousness, the spoofing of popular culture memes (the Mortal Kombat video games), and even a subtle satire on sex roles (please say that three times quickly)?

Here are two images from the Just for Men website. The others are of a guy with a football, two guys in polo shirts having drinks…

I’m not writing this to slag off brands or to start a war. And, I’m guessing, brands like Just For Men or Gillette have research that tells them ads and imagery like this are effective. (Surely you advertising folk have the same expectations imposed upon them to demonstrate ROI that social media folk do… right?)

But it’s unfortunate that brands feel so compelled to associate themselves with such ridiculous and stereotyped characteristics, and to sell their customers so short.

In the same way that I observe these commercials, I see commercials for comparable women’s products. L’Oreal’s hair colour products use the tag line “Because we’re worth it.” Natural Instincts from Clairol: “discover just how gorgeous you and your hair can be!” Venus razors: “Discover the Goddess In You.” Seems to me that the commercials for women’s products focus on reinforcing positive images of the potential customers, while the products for men just make the association that if you use our hair dye you’ll get laid.

Why don’t some smart brands start to use the far more subtle messaging available in social media to actually converse with real men, who are able to comprehend arguments more complex than “If you shave with this razor, you’ll get a blow job?”

When planning media events, a note: don’t fake them. (UPDATED)

"Excited" "new" "Canadians"

It seems like just a year or so ago that Netflix found itself in the New York Times apologizing for hiring actors to pretend to be excited about the company entering the Canadian market. And didn’t the US Federal Emergency Management agency have to apologize for pretending that its own employees were journalists, when it faked a news conference? Oh yeah, they did!

But hey, those guys are amateurs. They are certainly not “Canada’s home for hard news and straight talk”, a network that is “unwavering in their commitment to uncover the real stories impacting the lives of everyday working people and their families“.

So when Sun News wants to cover a citizenship ceremony, what ends up happening? The minister’s office sends down the orders to put together a ceremony at the Sun studios (not where Elvis and Jerry Lee hung out, sadly), and when they have trouble putting together enough warm bodies to make the ceremony look legit… the ceremony gets faked, with public servants posing as new Canadians. Here’s the video, in all its cringeworthy glory. Keep in mind as you watch it, that six of these people are not “new Canadians.” They are federal employees.

I’m guessing the two small people on the end aren’t the public servants. They appear to be children, although in this topsy-turvy world who can tell? Here’s the story as reported in the Globe and Mail, obtained through Access to Information requests by the Canadian Press.

The story’s money quote:

When a bureaucrat sent Sun News a list of possible citizenship ceremonies to cover in Ontario, a network employee suggested another scenario. “Let’s do it. We can fake the Oath,” reads an email from a email address, the name blacked out of the document.

I suppose I should draw the lessons, although I can’t imagine I have to:

  • Journalists shouldn’t create pseudo events or cover them as real events.
  • Public servants should have more integrity.
  • Hard news and straight talk don’t mix well with “Fake the Oath.”

Let’s all be a bit better than this.


The political appointee Candice Malcom appeared on Sun News today to apologize for the event. Sun News host Pat Bolland claimed that they knew nothing of the fakery. For what it’s worth, I never would have suggested the strategy followed in the wake of this muffup. Here’s the video:

UPDATE 2: Sun News Network’s David Akin weighs in with his take on the event.


Looking forward to 2012

So it is New Year’s Eve2  (New Year’s Eve Eve, that is) and the time for all bloggers to either post a “best of whatever”  or a look-forward list.

I am of the opinion that Mark Blevis is on to something when he talks about someone aggregating all the best of, top 10, etc. lists that people create, so you can save time and read the “best of the best of” and save time.  But it won’t be me.

So I guess that leaves looking forward, mostly.

What am I looking forward to in 2012?

BobCat House Concerts' first anniversary cake

First anniversary cake -- what will the fifth anniversary bring?

  • In 2011, I found myself in the “smorgasbord” period of my life. I saw an even better description of this this morning, when Stuart Bruce in the UK describes himself as having “‘gone plural’ and decided to pursue a portfolio career.” I love the idea of a “portfolio career” as a descriptor of what he’s doing, and of what I’m doing — PR & social media consulting + podcasting (hopefully as a part-time sources of income) + part-time teaching at Algonquin College + private training + handling membership services for OCFF + doing promotion and media relations for musicians I love. Sounds more professional than smorgasbord (unless you’re Scandinavian, maybe). In 2012, I want to get a better handle on managing every part of this “portfolio career.”
  • As I have for the last five years, I am looking forward to more house concerts. When I first got bladder cancer (and turned 40) five years ago, I went through a bit of a struggle to figure out ways of pursuing what made me feel fulfilled and happy. At the top of that list was music. Thus was born BobCat House Concerts, with the support and patience of my partner Cathy. We are going to celebrate five years of those concerts, which bring amazing musicians to our house to perform for us and our guests, in February. It has been wonderful to expose people to the musicians that I love, and to have become friends with so many talented people. I have to single out our friendship with David Ross MacDonald, which has become really important to us. It helps that he’s a musical treasure. But even if he never wrote another song, I’d still want him in my corner.
  • And that initial splash into the “music industry” has led to a recently-ended term of service on the board of the Ottawa Folk Festival, to working with OCFF, and to the plans I currently have underway to launch a new “commercial” concert series in Ottawa.
  • I’m looking forward to inaugurating the FIR Book Club this coming January. It’s been a real pleasure reviewing books for the For Immediate Release podcast (and hopefully the authors would agree), and I’m hoping this new “talk-radio” call-in with authors of interesting PR and social media books will be lively and entertaining and informative.
  • I’m looking forward to finding out if a podcast about Stephen King can actually make its owner a little money. I suspect that the “nichiness” of my podcast the Kingcast may make it an attractive enough target for people seeking to find and reach Stephen King and horror fans that they’ll be willing to pay for it. Time will tell.
  • I’m looking forward to continuing my conversations with friends and podcasting partners Mark Blevis on PR and other Deadly Sins and with Joe Boughner and Susan Murphy on The Contrarians. Sometimes you don’t know what you think about something until you write about it. Or talk about it.
  • I want to spend a little more time on fiction writing. I’ve spasmodically worked on fiction projects. But I’ve got finishitis. So I want to FINISH some fiction and see if anyone other than me thinks it’s any good.

Andrea del Sarto (subject of Robert Browning's poem)

Man. Sometimes I get a little stressed out working on all these different projects. But when I write it out like this — that’s a lot to look forward to. I hope your lives are as full of fun and potential as this.  And if not — why not do something to make them that way?

As Robert Browning put it:

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
Happy 2012. Reach for something out of your grasp, why don’t you? And just because I like it, here’s a YouTube video that is quite sweet.   

How to avoid launchitis

I’ve seen it. I’ve suffered from it. I’ll bet many of you reading this have too. I call it… launchitis.

It’s a terrible malady, suffered from by those who toil in the trenches of the social media salt mines. The symptoms include depression, burnout, hair loss (from people tearing it out by the roots), uncontrollable anger, and addiction to Dilbert cartoons.

Here’s how a typical case of Launchitis usually goes:

  1. an organization gets super-duper excited about some online social media tool or trend that involves interactivity — Foursquare, communities, bulletin boards, Facebook pages, augmented reality. Yay!
  2. They task staff to put the project on the to-do list.
  3. Staff get moving. Sometimes they hire consultants to help out.
  4. The project creeps. Let’s do THIS TOO! And this! And let’s make it glow in the dark!
  5. People start getting tired. Deadlines loom. Sometimes budgets start to get dicey.
  6. The project launches with attendant hoopla. Ribbons are cut. News releases go out. Everyone congratulates each other, whether or not it was on time or on budget.
  7. The landscape is then suffused with the gentle sound of crickets. Nobody posts in the community. Nobody joins the page. Those who do don’t say much. Nobody checks in.

What’s happened here?

The organization forgot that it’s not enough to launch. It’s easy to believe that  all you have to do is build the tool and it will rise like Frankenstein’s monster and live. But to keep on with that monstrous metaphor, Frankenstein didn’t just assemble the parts — he added electricity. That belief is dangerous to the success of your projects.

If you’re a communicator and you’re tasked with a new project, do yourself — and your organization — a big favour. Write an element into the project charter, the project plan, the communications plan and any other document related to the project that identifies the resources that will be necessary to nurture the product through its early life. That might be a month or two, it might be a year; it might mean part of someone’s job, or hiring a contractor to manage the product.

If it’s blog-related or relies on written content, ensure part of the plan coming up to launch is pre-writing content that will either get finished and posted in the early days; if it’s video-based, have some video ready. You get the idea.

George Burns

Field of DreamsAnd don’t stop talking about it the whole way through the project. The best way to ensure that your project will survive the launch is to keep people focussed on the fact that the goal is not to LAUNCH something. It’s to BUILD something. Social media sites should not be envisioned in Ray Kinsella mode, as in: “If you build it, they will come.” It’s more like George Burns mode: “I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”

You should also think about adding in measures in your evaluation plan (you HAVE one of those, RIGHT?) that make it more likely that you’ll nurture the project post-launch.

Preventing the spread of launchitis is a great way to make the likelihood of your social media initiatives succeeding greater. Thinking past the launch is important. Don’t miss out on the chance to scream, just like Dr. Frankenstein, “It’s alive. It’s ALIIIIVE. AAALIIIIIIIVE!!!”

And now for something mostly unrelated to launch-itis, a little LOVE-itis from the J. Geils Band:

A tip of the hat to Ottawa Citizen blogger David Reevely, who inspired the thinking behind this post.

Is there a PR upside to alienating publics?

Cherry & Ford, in a Toronto Star photo

I’ve been dithering on whether to write about the investiture of Toronto’s new Mayor Rob Ford since I first heard that Don Cherry had been invited. You may recall that I covered Rob Ford earlier this year, when he didn’t quite do an interview with CBC Radio’s “As it Happens” on the day after his election.

For non-Canadian readers, Ford has styled himself as a plain-speaking council maverick who will stand up for the “little guy.” Don Cherry is a former NHL coach who is now a commentator on Hockey Night in Canada, a Saturday-night sporting institution. He’s also got a number of other gigs, from a radio commentator on sports radio networks to endorsements or ad appearances for things such as Cold-FX, the Quizno‘s restaurant chain, a series of hockey videos, and a chain of restaurants with the Don Cherry name over the door. He’s a passionate supporter of Canada’s military and a number of charities from organ donation to a hospice named after his late wife Rose, to whom he seemed to have been quite devoted.

Cherry is also a polarizing figure. He can seem belligerent, he doesn’t seem to suffer fools gladly, and he would likely place himself pretty far on the right of the political spectrum. In a recent byelection, he recorded a robocall in support of Conservative candidate Julian Fantino.

And then he was asked to attend Rob Ford’s investiture ceremony to place the chain of office around Ford’s neck (it should be noted that in most cases, the city clerk does this duty). Here’s what he said after he did the deed:

So. I was a little horrified at this speech. It seems to me that the investiture of a mayor and a council is a time for a little dignity and not for baiting of one’s ‘enemies’ and crude insults.

And I wasn’t alone. Spacing Toronto is holding a poll to design a “LEFT-WING PINKO” button, and others are busily printing t-shirts and other merchandise. Meanwhile, more right-wing media outlets are supporting Cherry as plain-spoken and just what was necessary. Joe O’Connor, for example, wrote in the National Post:

Be outraged over Cherry. Be embarrassed for Toronto. Or else be like this left wing, bike riding, print media wacko and lighten up. And remember this: we are talking about a 76-year-old Grampa.

But I think it’s too easy to simply dismiss Ford — or Cherry, for that matter — as ignorant or stupid. Ford is sending messages here, and I think they’re very specific. I think he’s specifically targeting the “pinko” contingent and smacking them verbally.

Now here are the public relations / communications questions, and I don’t know if I have answers or not:

  1. What does it gain Ford to do this?
  2. What are the circumstances – in politics or outside of them – when it’s appropriate to antagonize or alienate publics?

I would REALLY appreciate some insights on this. I rarely find myself unable to answer my own questions.

Are you as prepared for success as you are for failure?

Johanna Skibsrud

Johanna Skibsrud, author of The Sentimentalists, in a photo from the Toronto Star

Recently, a young writer won Canada’s richest literary prize. Johanna Skibsrud won the 2010 Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists.

She gave a moving acceptance speech, thanking her late father for information, and then started to prepare to rejoin her mother on a vacation in the Middle East. A great story! But  … that’s where the trouble started.

Skibsrud’s novel, like her previous volume of poetry, was published by Gaspereau Press, a small publisher based in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. Gaspereau describes itself as part of: “a unique but traditional publishing model that brings printing and publishing together under one roof [whose] publishing program stresses the importance of quality across the entire process, from editorial and design to the manufacturing stage.”

In realistic terms, that meant that The Sentimentalists could be produced at a maximum rate of 1,000 copies per week. That was fine for the roughly 800 copies it had sold since its release. This was not going to work for a Giller winner. For example, last year’s winner The Bishop’s Man sold about 75,000 copies. Even if you halved that number, Gaspereau was facing a bit of a problem. They had demand that was far outstripping supply. It could take the better part of a year to produce enough to meet the immediate demand, and this is the time of year — as Christmas shopping ramps up — when the vast majority of books are sold.

Immediately after the Giller Prize was announced, arts journalists started to focus on the supply issue. The president of Canadian book megastore chain Indigo told the National Post “We’re working hard with Gaspereau to try and get some supply into the marketplace … We want to order thousands of copies. Whenever they come to market, I think they’ll sell [but] I think the sales velocity opportunity is over the next six weeks in a material way.”
In the same article, Gaspereau’s co-owner said Indigo wasn’t “a core client for us. They are someone we deal with because they are a factor in the industry, not because they’re good customers. I don’t want to complicate their lives, but I’m not going to change who we are and how we do business.”

So let me lay out the issues that faced Gaspereau as I see them:

  • They have a principled commitment to quality production
  • They have a book in demand far beyond what they can supply (Amazon is selling ONE copy for nearly $900!)
  • That demand is partially time limited
  • Printing by someone else will likely reduce the quality of the physical book
  • Printing by someone else will generate additional revenue for the business
  • Printing by someone else will generate additional revenue for the author

Today, it appears that Gaspereau has found a solution. They’ve sold trade paperback rights to another publisher, Douglas & McIntyre. This means that their editions will still be the beautiful objects they are, but that many more people will be able to buy paper versions. There will be 30,000 copies available in about a week, and if they need more, they can do another 20,000 pretty easily. Douglas & McIntyre will also make e-reader editions available for all the popular e-readers. Previously, you could only buy it for Indigo’s proprietary Kobo e-reader. There’s a certain irony in a book published by a craftsmanlike press being primarily available for e-readers, I think.

All that is good news, and I wish Gaspereau and Ms. Skibsrud much more success in the future.

But the story of The Sentimentalists made me think. On one level, I admire Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfeld of Gaspereau Press for their dedication. But I’m led to believe that most of the time, when a book is shortlisted for a Giller Prize, the publisher prepares for a possible win by making printing arrangements.

So perhaps what the folks at Gaspereau did was to neglect to prepare for success. It’s easy to think about failure. It’s easy to disaster plan (even though we often don’t do it!). But do we prepare and plan for success in the same way? I think it’s worth thinking about.