Monday, November 27, 2006

Oh yes... marketing

"Product without marketing is scrap, but marketing without product is fraud." That was the mantra my husband and I repeated every day when we worked for a manufacturer who created woodworking machines. Marketing is the engine that gets the train going--just because the rest of the train is up to speed doesn't mean it's time to unhook the engine. Marketing is the smart and clever part of business. The rest is just bean counting. And there is no reason for marketing on the Web to be as scientific and saavy as marketing in your grocery store. Cohen and Rosenzweig gave a thorough overview of research at the back end-counting visitors and the like. But what about researching the front end-so far much of what I have seen falls under the "let's run it up a flag pole and see if anyone salutes" flavor. The chief engineer at the factory we worked at would get a good idea for a machine and obsesively spend valuable design and engineering and production time on it. That's a great way to exibit your genius, but a lousy way to sell a machine nobody else wanted! Just because you are interested in a product or topic, don't suppose everyone else is too! There are ways to apply focus group information or just informal interviews with prospective clients to the front end of the product--the creation of the beast. Find a need then fill it. Much easier than convincing someone they really need something they never even thought of before. CHNM's web sites do that-they are not just about providing content. They give added value--they fill the existing needs of students and teachers in creative ways. And they have a staff out plugging their wares--look at any collection of articles about history on the Web, and you will find a large portion are written by CHNM staffers- Cohen, Rosenzweig, Schraum, etc. Sure, they are tooting their own horn--but CHNM is seen as a leader in the field. Don't get all cynical--of course it is good marketing. But they also put out a good product. See rule one..."product without marketing is scrap..."

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thank God for Bridgeman!

One great source of up to date information on copyrights is organizations that cater to documentary producers. My husband and I belong to one out of the San Francisco area, and they have some very good pro-bono lawyers who will give decent information. That is where we learned about Bridgeman. They also help provide "errors and omissions" insurance policies to cover those little "oops, I forgot to get Harold to sign the release and now he is suing us for ..."
This has been the most concretely helpful chapter-worth buying the book. Pity it wasn't published before 1923! Really, the struggle to get permissions is the biggest headache in any production. Sometimes you get lucky, copy an image out of a book, then find where that same image had been published in a ninteenth century book. As long as our Federal Government doesn't subpoena our library records, there is little or no way to prove you didn't get the image out of the older work. Unless the newer publication has some sort of watermark or identifier built in. This cat and mouse game adds untold costs to any publication--that is part of the reason why your textbooks cost so much! We once spent $3000 for 29 seconds of a Czech film shot in the 1950's-one that never has nor probably ever will be released in the US. That money went just to purchase the broadcast rights for five years. Our film was later picked up by a distributor for direct to home sales, and the rights holders of the film wanted another $3000 for five more years. We edited the scene out. Did it hurt? Hell yes! But we refused to be black-mailed every five years.
Music is another raquet. The rights to use any recognizable piece of music are obscene. We found a publishing house who speciallized in classical music recorded by good but little known orchestras (Lower Slobovia Chamber Orchestra). So we got music for soft-core prices. Came right off the CD, recorded on non-digital instruments (violins) and sounded great. My favorite music-for-video story came from a friend who shot a gathering of kite-enthusiasts in Long Beach, WA. Some hippie in a Volkswagon van was hanging out at the gathering playing a hammer dulcimer for tips. He was good, too! So my friend stuck a mike under the sound board of the dulcimer, and turned on his camera for an hour. Then he stuck a ten dollar bill in the guy's jar, got the musician to sign a release and voi-la -- instant soundtrack. Remember, many times it is the performance, not the song that is covered by copyrights. Can you get a garage band or a friend with a synthesizer to record a particular piece? Lots of starving musicians out there. Just be sure to get the release signed! The technology has changed radically since the days of music libraries and needle-drop charges--back when scratching an LP was a bad thing! Unless you need a particular piece, a soundtrack can be manufactured to fit in the digital realm. Very cool.
Oh yeah, I can't pass up giving out one very important piece of advice for using inexpensive talent on camera--check out the person first! Very embarrasing things can happen. Like the time we shot a full day using a model for a training tape on how to run woodworking machines safely before we noticed our model was missing a finger. Yup, he lost it in another woodworking machine. Or the on-camera talent we used as spokesperson for a hospital emergency room before we learned the guy had been involved a few years earlier in a messy DUI accident where a young kid had gotten killed (the ad agent was responsible for that screw up). OK, sometimes getting rights doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A few hours of sleep and a pot of coffee later...

Gotta love a historian who can put his point across in vigorous and simple language--I grant both Carl Becker and James Gardner that critique. And thanks to Tom for putting them together--I had read the Becker piece before, but after the Gardner piece, I found new sentiments take precident. For example, "Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities (Becker, 234) as opposed to Gardiner "...we need to help them [the public] understand that scholarship, interpretation, and controversy are central to what we do... we want to share the end product, but not the process." (15) What is all this saying? Here is my two cents. Obviously from the surveys, the public mostly hated the history they were taught. But they do not hate history for its own sake, and are rather motivated in pursuing historical topics that spark their interest. We, the guardians of history--and I include archivists and curators in that group--have a certain set of skills that we aquire at higher levels of education or on the job. These are techniques that are normally witheld from the public, but we use them to judge what is history and what is not. So when it comes time to teach elementary and high school kids history (and every school district insists that we do teach it for the good of the community [inculcation]), those who are not trained as we are choose to teach the kids names, places, and most importantly, dates. Thus passing on to the students those aspects of history that are easiest to quantify and most visible, but for a historian these elements are merely starting points of an investigation. My (not original to me) idea, and one that is supported in powerful ways by the Center for History and New Media, is to turn this equation over, and teach the skills first! Sure, it will be giving away some of our authority, but hey, most fifth graders do not have the attention span to think through the complex problems, so our jobs are pretty safe. Besides, who would you rather have voting for president: a critical thinker who could weigh the issues, or someone well versed in the Whiskey Rebellion? Remember, narrative without facts is fiction, but facts without narrative is a laundry list.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A nice mixture of sweet and sour

Who could not feel a bit misty eyed while reading Rosenzweg and Thelen's The Past as Presence? I couldn't help but think of my grandfather and his stories, and wonder if we all had some relative that got us interested , even a little, in history. However, in trying to become a "professional historian," I have frequently found the need to downplay those personal involvements. So we attempt to study other facets of the past, but we secretly have a box or two of letters, pictures, etc. that we mean to digitize, label, index, and send off to other relatives. My biggest problem with "everyman as his own Historian" lies in the concept of self-interest. The one factor almost every story in R & T's survey dealt with a special interest each subject had in a certain part of history. I think the main difference between an enthusiast's scope of knowledge vs. a professional's is that a professional does not necessarily get to stop researching a subject if they do not like the answer, or they may not be so interested in the period. Professionals ask more questions, while enthusiasts stick with the easiest answers. I have plenty of friends-you probably have some too, who KNOW everything there is to know about WW II. Except what they really know is an impressive set of dates, names, tactics, technologies, and places--but they haven't a clue why these came to pass. Because it is not sexy to learn about the failures of the Wiemar Republic or the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. History takes a lot of hard, dusty work in places most folks do not want to wander. And I am not just talking about archives. History takes those quiet moments of contemplation (in the shower is my favorite) when the uninterrupted mind moves those pieces around until they fit. Even the ugly, nasty pieces that haven't worked anywhere else. Part two of this rant will continue in the morning, when my brain is less fuzzy.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Gutenberg-e and the direction of monographs

Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her seminal book "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," observed that Johann Gutenberg went bankrupt publishing the exact same type of book the scribes were already creating. The printed book did not catch a wide audience until after printers and authors started experimenting with size, format, ephemera, etc. And all this took time. For example, it wasn't until 1560 that someone thought to number both the chapters and the verses in the Bible. I keep thinking of Eisenstein's book as we study digital history. We too, are in this experimental phase, and who knows how different electronic publishing will look--and sound--in the next few decades. I do not think we have found the most exemplary use for electronic media yet, but the market and the demand will slowly coax innovation out of the most clever and supple-minded experimentors in the field.
Peter Mannings' article brought up several ideas worthy of extensive commentary, but I found his most intriguing comment dealt with the publishing of junior scholars' work over senior scholars' (paragraph 50). Would a senior scholar be willing to take more chances than someone still looking for tenure? The despirate struggle to achieve that tenured position is one of the more entertaining aspects of working around academics. Not meaning to sound cruel, but the older faculty (at other colleges I've been to--present company exculded) frequently use this opportunity as a rite of passage (see hazing) through which to force their younger colleagues through. And while experimentation may be out of the question for a novitiate struggling to fit in a hidebound system, are more senior scholars up to learning a few new tricks? Actually, I have seen mature historians open new avenues of thought and presentation, and really create some outstanding work. But usually in cooperation with younger colleagues. Part of the problem with the monograph concept is that is is frequently the work of a single individual. Now, put the energy and innovative spirit of a fresh Ph.D together with a mature (and crafty) professor, and that may be when sparks start to fly. After all, early incanabula came into being as a collaboration between the author and the printer. Too often, the author got all the credit. But much of what we now think of as a book came from the craft and invention of the printers.
Is the monograph a dead form? I hope not, because with some ideas it takes time to ferment into full-blown concepts. Lately I have found articles reflect bold research done on smaller aspects that don't require the full treatment. And boy, do I appreciate not having to wade through a full book to find a small idea. Both are necessary. Looking at the problem from the perspective of a first-year Ph. D student, I'm jealous those authors in the article found such fascinating research topics that could extend into book form. I have yet to find such a good idea. Darn their eyes!