Author Archives: Richard Romano

About Richard Romano

Richard Romano has been involved in the graphic arts since before birth. He is a writer and analyst for the graphic communications industry and a regular contributor to WhatTheyThink.com, for which he oversees the Wide-Format and Production Inkjet special topic areas. For eight years, he was the senior analyst for The Industry Measure (formerly TrendWatch Graphic Arts), until its demise in March 2008. He has also worked on consulting and market research projects for many other organizations and companies and has contributed to such magazines as Graphic Arts Monthly, GATFWorld, Printing News, and HOW; is the former executive editor of, CrossMedia magazine; and is the former managing editor of Micro Publishing News and Digital Imaging magazines. As if that weren’t enough, he is also the author or coauthor of more than a half dozen or so books, the last three with WhatTheyThink’s Dr. Joe Webb, including Disrupting the Future, which has been translated into Japanese and Portuguese. Their most recent title is "The Home Office That Works! Make Working At Home a Success—A Guide for Entrepreneurs and Telecommuters." He has vague recollections of having graduated from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications in 1989, and has a 1994 certificate in Multimedia Production from New York University. He is currently in the final throes of a Masters program at the University at Buffalo, which he really does need to wrap up at some point. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

The Game’s Afoot! Media Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

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Like many, I’ve been hooked on the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes reboot Sherlock, which concluded its third series a couple of weeks ago and which, I am happy to hear, has been renewed for a fourth. The idea of setting Sherlock Holmes in the present day is not without precedent; after all, many literary, film, and TV detectives over the years have been variations on the basic template that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle devised in the original Holmes adventures. But the idea of taking the great man himself into the 21st century was a bit of a novelty. What catches my attention watching the series is the dependence that Holmes and Watson have on modern communication technologies. They are never parted from their mobile phones, Holmes is a constant texter (Irene Adler’s reprogramming of his text chime in “A Scandal in Belgravia” has to be a series highlight), Holmes has a Web site and uses the Internet to conduct research, and Watson blogs their cases.

Some purists may deem all this blasphemy, but it’s very much in keeping with the spirit of Doyle’s original Holmes, who was no Luddite. I’ve read all the original stories and novels (the “canon”), and Holmes was not hesitant to avail himself of all the communications technologies available in Victorian London. He wires (telegraphs), avidly reads the Daily Mail agony column (personal ads) to glean information (in The Sign of the Four, set in 1888, Holmes takes out a personal ad to trap a would-be suspect, which is not a million miles removed from the text message he has Watson send to the murder victim’s missing cellphone in “A Study In Pink,” set in 2010), and, late in his career, Holmes even owns a telephone. In “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” (set in 1902), Watson lets his fingers do the walking and uses Holmes’ telephone directory as a research tool.

If you are a great detective, you use whatever tools are at your disposal to search for clues and get information without being too hung up on whether it’s old or new technology, or that it’s even technology at all. Holmes has a great brain and great powers of observation and deductive reasoning, but the things that got into that brain have to come from somewhere. In the 19th century, it would have been books, newspapers, and other examples of the communication technologies available at the time. In the 21st century, it’s the Internet and mobile phones. And if the show is again remade in the 22nd century, Sherlock Holmes 3.0 will very likely be using a whole new set of technologies. It’s what the great brain does with the information that matters, not where it came from.

I mention all of this because as printers, marketers, and other types of content creators and disseminators, we are often quick to disparage newer technologies. I’m just as guilty as anyone; I fail to take Facebook or LinkedIn seriously or as anything other than toys, despite the fact they have become important communication and marketing tools. My bad.

I was at a Canon Solutions America anniversary event last week, and one of the speakers was a large commercial printer who not only offered transactional printing, but also electronic transaction services. And this makes perfect sense: demand for printed transactional materials (credit card statements, et al.) is being eaten away by electronic transactions, so getting into the business of what is taking away your business is a brilliant move worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. Because if you ignore all these new technologies, well, Reichenbach Falls awaits…

Whether you are a great detective searching for clues to try to catch villains, or a marketing solutions provider trying to get potential customers to pick up clues to lead them to certain products or services, you need to use all the tools that are available. Offering non-print services with print services is, well, just “elem—” oh, you know.

When Databases Attack

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Last week in this space, variable-data printing guru (guress?) Heidi Tolliver-Walker wrote about Geico’s VDP misstep, where they had sent out a letter “personalized” to someone who no longer lived at her address. As I’ll point out in a moment, VDP missteps can even be worse than that.

Since the very beginning of so-called variable-data printing—indeed, even going back to the very first rudimentary mail-merges—one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge, in making 1:1 marketing effective, let alone successful, has been the quality of the data used for the mailing. Remember those old personalized letters we used to receive:

Dear Mr. Ramono,

We very much want to put you, Mr. Ramono, in a new car. Mr. Ramono, have you ever seen yourself behind the wheel of a luxurious yet sporty new vehicle. Have you ever envisioned your own vehicle, Mr. Ramono, being the envy of your neighborhood? Surely the entire Ramono family would derive nothing but benefits from this…

You get the idea, and that’s actually not much of an exaggeration. Nothing says “hey, someone is writing to me personally!” like not only using my name in every single sentence (because who doesn’t do that?), but misspelling it every time. And now we can see our names misspelled in snowflakes, Alpha-Bits, letters etched in the sand, and so forth. Even when our names are spelled correctly, often direct mail comes addressed to us at a company we no longer work for or which no longer exists. Sometimes we move faster than the speed of databases.

Now, these little glitches are more amusing than anything, at least for the recipient. And on the plus side, I can use persistent errors like the above to figure out who has procured my name from whom. (One local organization has me in their database as “Ms. Romano,” which is a real drag.) And sometimes when I see something addressed to me at “Digital Imaging magazine”—which still does happen even though it’s been 15 years—it does trigger off a little sentimental remembrance of good old times… It’s kind of like Proustian direct mail, in a weird way.

However, a far more serious personalization glitch made the news, the Twitterverse, and cropped up on The Facebook Machine a couple of weeks ago. From the L.A. Times:

An off-and-on customer of OfficeMax, Mike Seay has gotten the office supply company’s junk mail for years. But the mail that the grieving Lindenhurst, Ill., father said he got from OfficeMax last week was different.

The envelope appeared to be a typical discount offering. But this one was addressed to “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash.”

Seay’s daughter Ashley, 17, was killed last year in a car crash along with her boyfriend.

The first question Mr. Seay—and anyone reading about the incident—had was, “how did Office Max know that?” Here’s a clue:

In a statement, Naperville, Ill.-based OfficeMax said the mailer was “a result of a mailing list rented through a third-party provider”.

It’s actually not hard to figure out how that happened. Whoever compiled the database entered that particular datum in the wrong field and it was got included in the output fields. Anyone who has ever used a database program (I regularly used Filemaker a million years ago) has had that problem. Now, the real question is: why would this information be in any field in a database?

Phenomenal amounts of data on each of us are freely available to anyone who wants it. And most of it is perfectly legal. Death records (like birth records) are public, and there may even have been a death notice in the local paper. Property transfers are matters of public record, so if you have ever bought a house you know you are immediately included in “new home/homeowner” databases. Health records are supposed to be private, but information leaks out in a thousand different ways. From the L.A. Times article:

Dixon’s group [the World Privacy Forum] has found companies selling data on rape victims, seniors suffering from dementia and people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. She said companies created powerful data sets by combining personal information available from public records, census information and social media.

This is not a new debate, and in some ways it’s rather quaint to talk about privacy when so many people put virtually every aspect of their lives on Facebook, Instagram, etc. And Facebook makes the data you willingly share available to advertisers and marketers. The Office Max blunder doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know or at least suspect—or fear.

As marketers, and those who facilitate the efforts of marketers, we need to be careful about what we collect on potential customers—either directly or indirectly. We can’t stop the collection of sensitive information, but we can be careful about how we use it.

New Tech Takes Print Books Into New Directions

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For the second year in a row, a critical mass of friends and colleagues reported that they received a Kindle or the like for Christmas. (My policy for the past couple of years has been to only give people print books as gifts.) Still, recent trends in ebook sales show a slowdown, which is actually being greeted as somewhat good news by an industry that never was all that enthused by ebooks to begin with. And Forbes tells us that last year hardcover sales rebounded and outpaced ebook sales.

So it doesn’t appear that books need anything in particular to breathe new life into them. Still, new printing technologies—or creative approaches to printing—can make books exciting in new ways. Two recent titles show that you don’t really need electronic media to make books interactive. One was a bestseller last fall, a novel conceived by J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, Fringe, and the Star Trek reboots (don’t get me started…), among many other projects for screens both large and small, and written by Doug Dorst. The result of their collaboration, S., is an elaborate “story within a story” that masquerades as a well-thumbed old library book, a surreal literary novel called Ship of Theseus, ostensibly authored by the fictional V.M. Straka and purportedly published in 1949. The plot of Ship of Theseus is somewhat beside the point, as the real story of S. is told in the margins—literally—as two avid Straka readers meet within the pages of the book and strike up a relationship that starts off intellectual and soon becomes romantic. The colors of the ink they use become an important means of following their timeline. A seemingly low-tech effect, but not that long ago having color throughout a book for such a “prosaic” (pun intended) purpose would have been prohibitively expensive and impractical.

In addition to the marginal notes, the two characters also pass other items back and forth to each other—maps, letters, postcards, photographs, a kind of code wheel, even a page from their school newspaper—that are physically inserted at relevant points in the book. As a result, the book has become loathed by librarians: it’s easy for these items to fall out of the book and get lost or damaged. (Actually, at times reading S. brought back memories of reading magazines and having blow-in cards fall out in my lap. Annoying at the time but rather quaint these days.)

Another recent title is what is said to have the first 3D-printed book cover—or, more correctly, slipcover. Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, published by Riverhead Books, is available in two print editions: the everyday hardcover, which retails for $27.95, and one featuring the 3D-printed slipcase, which is a steal at $150.

The idea is to turn books into “art objects”—or objets d’art, if you want to sound pretentious about it—which is not a new concept; actually it predates the printed book; remember all those illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages? Admittedly, both these strategies seem like gimmicks, and they are, but the gimmick used in S. functions as part of the narrative itself, offering a unique way to tell a story. The 3D cover is really just plumage. Plumage is fine, of course; after all, book covers have long boasted spot varnishes, embossing, foil stamping and other effects to stand out on a crowded bookshelf. Even a hardcover itself (vs. a paperback) is more art than necessity. But these days maybe we could all use a bit more art in our lives.

I contrast these titles with an elaborate graphic novel that the publisher sent a while ago called Anomaly, which implemented the latest in augmented reality (AR) to bring some of the pages alive. I was more impressed with the print edition—it’s an all-full-color, hardcover, coffee-table-esque book—than the AR components, which required downloading an iPhone app, going to a Web page to find out what pages had AR content, and adjusting the ambient lighting and camera angle meticulously to get the AR to work. I like the idea but, like QR codes, I await a more elegant, seamless solution (which already exists).

Intermingling print with electronic content can enhance the reading experience, and it really doesn’t need to be anything especially exotic. As a Christopher Moore fan, I found the author’s blog posts (delivered via a smartphone app) that complemented his last novel, Sacre Bleu, provided interesting behind-the-scenes info and added content that would have bogged down the book’s narrative, but functioned rather like those “deleted scenes” or “making of” features on movie DVDs.

Still, I find the best “bonus features” of books to be those that are self-contained within the book itself. And that means “print.” And it means unleashing the imaginations of authors, designers, publishers, and printers—and even equipment manufacturers. And that’s always a good thing.