A ubiquitous sight at WebVisions was the Rosenfeld Media book cart which offered for sale all 8 of the books published to date. One of the conference sponsors, Rosenfeld Media specializes in books about user experience and Louis Rosenfeld, its founder and publisher was the first day’s keynote speaker. Editorial Contributor Rich Kelley sat down with Rosenfeld to understand how his experience as consultant, speaker and author informs his five-year-old publishing program.
As an author you’re best known for writing, with Peter Morville, O’Reilly’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, first published in 1998 and now in its third edition and still the best-selling book on information architecture. Did your Master’s in Library Science help in writing that book?
Absolutely. Library science is not about libraries. It’s about librarianship. It’s about helping people find information. What I learned is that you need different taxonomic approaches for different kinds of searches. You don’t take approaches from physical spaces and apply them to digital spaces. Dewey Decimal may work for libraries, but not for corporate intranets. There you might try a folksonomic approach: user-generated tagging. How many library science books have sold 200,000 copies? Information architecture is a Trojan horse from the world of libraries.
Why did you choose to focus your publishing program on user experience?
What distinguishes a publisher is its audience. I went into this business because I wanted to depend on who I knew rather than what I knew. Your network can never be commodified. My network was in user experience. People knew me based on my writing and consulting. That’s why I’m in this field. I like it and it’s growing and I believe in it. What makes Disney theme parks so different from competing theme parks? It’s the user experience. Their lamp shades have mouse ear trim on them. Also our topics are evergreen. Backlist sales have really stood up. Take Storytelling for User Experience — it’s not going to change. The technology changes but our authors are not writing about the technology. They’re writing about what you do with the technology. User experience is really about good communication.
What do you think it means to be a 21st-century publisher?
The term publisher has a lot of baggage. For most people it still connotes books more than anything else. That’s why so many publishers currently are struggling: because they see themselves as being in the business of books, not in the business of providing whatever it is books provide. Is it entertainment? Information? For us, it’s expertise. But if all I sell is expertise in book form I won’t be in business for very long.
Customers have different needs in their career life cycle. A customer who buys a book now is going to be further along in three months and is going to need more depth that other formats of expertise can provide. If you’ve gone to all the effort to identify high quality experts and you’ve built an audience and you’re putting them together why would you only want to leave it there in books? Why wouldn’t you want to look for other opportunities to serve both communities—the experts and the consumers of this expertise?
What other opportunities?
For us we’re looking at an information ecosystem. It has books. Ours are typically 200 to 350 pages. But we’re starting to look at whether there’s a market for the 180-page book, a different type of book. We also have sixty- to ninety-minute-long virtual seminars which we do through Adobe Connect and then we sell the recordings. We’re partnering with the best company doing these already with a similar audience, UIE, User Interface Engineering, Jared Spool’s company.
Another form is daylong workshops. The workshops are public. We do a road show in six cities a year. Myself, our other authors and experts who are not our authors. Usually three different daylong workshops with three different experts in every city. These are full day workshops very interactive, very engaging. A lot of hands-on work, hands-on exercises.
By the end of this quarter we’ll be launching two other initiatives: first, inhouse courses. A lot of these workshops can be taught inhouse. Say Hewlett Packard comes to me and says they need someone to teach them how to do mobile prototyping. We’re going to have a catalog of 30 to 40 courses that are high end, high quality user experience courses. No one else has put this together. There’s no current goto source for inhouse workshops.
The other initiative: light time-based licensed consulting. Not so much about deliverables but about expert guidance. Basically, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last ten years.
I see all of this as part of a service design. We’re going to consciously design all these things to fit together. We’ll have loss leaders in books and virtual seminars and we can promote our workshops, training courses and consulting on top of that. I’m hoping some reasonable percentage will upsell to bigger ticket items.
And yet, you’re something of a virtual publisher yourself. For instance, you don’t have an office.
Why do I need an office? I work out of Brooklyn Creative League’s space. I have one fulltime employee. I do no editing. Every book gets a freelance developmental editor. Most of my competitors don’t do this. Almost everyone I talk to who’s done a book with another publisher has been unhappy. I have to eat my own dog food. I tell authors not to give me a complete proposal. Send me an idea and we’ll work on it. It’s almost like an Agile process. We’re both learning and I get to shape the book for the audience. I then place it before a board of editorial experts and I get three or four of them to do an evaluation of each proposal — before I sign them. You design the best you can up front so that when you try to execute, you have a good plan. That’s what a proposal is.
One of the requirements in our agreement is that within two months of signing the author and I sit down and develop a marketing plan. I’ve never sent out a press release. Why should I? We know the audience. We’re going to reach our audience through conferences, through social media… We try to get our authors to view their books as dialogues, not monologues. We have 70,000 followers on Twitter. We give a lot of books away. We give a free book to a tweeter who encourages one of our authors to finish his book (@RosenfeldMedia gives a free book to a tweeter once a month). The book is the most effective way to promote the things that go beyond the book.