On publishing and data without context


A few years ago, I started a small publishing company. The motivation was two-fold. First, having published two books at that point, I wanted to learn a bit more about the industry. Was its future really bleak? Was it impossible to make money? One way to find out: Jump right in.

Second, if opportunity existed in the chaos, then I could continue diversifying my own business. In other words, I could add another viable plank to my platform.

While I'm no millionaire, I'm pleased to report that Motion Publishing is today a small but profitable enterprise. The company has produced five books, including 101 Lightbulb Moments in Data Management.

As the head of the company, I'm involved in all projects, but not all aspects. I outsource each book's cover design, layout, editing, indexing and proofreading to a team of highly experienced professionals. I handle all marketing, business development, client acquisition and (of course) sales.

With respect to the latter, I often deal with book stores. It turns out that a few Motion titles are becoming popular in colleges and universities in the US. Recurring sales are unequivocally beneficial. Still, anyone who goes into the book business knows that not all sales to brick-and-mortar outfits are final. That is, a publisher has to agree to a return policy. (Failure to accept any future returns will pretty much kill any potential sale.)

To this end, the other day I received a terse email from a bookstore manager about the terms of some "settlement." I was unaware that I was involved any dispute, so I looked at the spreadsheet attached to the email. It's presented below:

Now, I've been looking at data for most of my life. I know how to read a table, but I am not clairvoyant. I don't fully understand the data above. I can only assume that these orders have been canceled, but of that I am not sure. (The "open" status puts that theory into question.) After a few unreturned calls to the bookstore manager asking for clarification, I am still left wondering just what's going on.

Simon Says

Needless to say, I'm not writing any checks to anyone until I understand what happened and why - and the data above helps me with neither endeavor.

The more general point is that data without context means very little. A header record would have certainly helped me understand what I was looking at. Don't make the mistake of providing raw data to resolve a dispute and expect a satisfactory resolution.


What say you?

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About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. His ninth will be Slack For Dummies (April, 2020, Wiley) He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. He teaches information systems and analytics at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business.

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