Thursday, July 30, 2009

Let someone else do the work...

While Christopher and I are too lazy busy to write much, the good folks at the Green Apple Bookstore in San Francisco have bumped it up a notch, not just blogging but creating a series of 10 webisodes, if you will, highlighting the printed book vs the Kindle. First one went up this week so you can still catch the action as it unfolds!

And I still need to comment on Richard Nash's announcement of his new company (if it can be called a company), which is intriguing but about which I have some questions. More soon.

OH! And have I written about Su Blackwell before? Because this is pretty badass. Her art's below, made from a BOOK!Amazing artworks created from old books

Monday, July 27, 2009

Kindle in Great Detail

It's a little tedious at times, but Nicholas Baker's much-mentioned (today) New Yorker piece on the Kindle digs up a lot of interesting points on the Kindle Experience. I recall my partner opening his Mac products and being aware (and ever so pleased) with the actual design, not just of the product but the packaging. He also walks us through what it is like once you have the thing, and you are ready to start reading.

I didn't know Amazon had a campaign wherein they enlisted users to share their readers with potential customers:
To find out more, I went to Freeport, Maine, to talk to Eileen Messina, the manager of the British-imports store just across from L. L. Bean. Messina, a thoughtful, intelligent woman in her thirties, has all kinds of things on her Kindle, including “Anna Karenina,” Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore,” books by Dan Simmons and Abraham Verghese, and the comic novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” She is so happy with it that she has volunteered, along with about a hundred others, to show it off to prospective purchasers, as part of Amazon’s “See a Kindle in Your City” promotion. Her Kindle was in her purse; she’d crocheted a cover for it out of green yarn.

This partially answers my ongoing question about how a potential customer can test drive the thing.

One unexpected running threat in the article is how excited people are not to have to deal with used books, either purchased or borrowed from a library. I had not idea of the resentment! We all get annoyed if someone has written or damaged a book, but claims that books smell like smoke, that you "don't know where they've been"? Really? That's nuts, and half the fun!

Baker also does a nice job untangling all the other readers. The end result, it seems to me, is that the technology just ain't there yet for most of us. So Kindle readers can keep flipping the ol' Kindle "control nipple," as some call it, but I'll be over here with Christopher, readin' good old-fashioned books... for now.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I'll be reading in the conference room

Friday humor, but still related to the blog topic. Not bad, eh?

I found this ridiculous video linked through the HarperStudio blog. This kind of reminded me of me and Christopher in some ways, though I won't say which is which.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

More money, more problems

Despite getting ditched by my co-SOTB scribe Christopher, I attended a fascinating discussion last night at the Boston Public Library titled, Expanding Access to Books: Implications of the Google Books Settlement Agreement. As it turns out, the event ended up being both an opportunity for Daniel Clancy, Engineering Director of Google Books, to defend the settlement, and a chance for various very smart people - most notably, MIT Director of Libraries Ann Wolpert and Harvard Vice Dean John Palfrey - to frame the issues slightly differently from Google and press Clancy on serious concerns.

It was a good show. Wolpert was fair, persistent, and sharp, repeatedly noting how libraries had presented Google with the books to digitize, but now run the risk of getting limited access to scans due to budget constraints and pricing by a company (google) that essentially now has a monopoly on the market. Palfrey bravely noted that we - the public - should have had the chutzpah Google had five years ago, we should have funded this scanning so that we now owned the scans and could use them for the public interest. We didn't do it, a private company did, and now no one else will replicate this project or anything like it for years. All we can do now is try to insert a public interest voice into this process. It's not clear whether that will be possible.

The overall concern is orphan books, those titles that are out of print but not out of copyright. Google will allow users to download these books at a cost and the money will go to the Book Rights Registry, who will try to track down the copyright holders. If they are not found... this is another of Wolpert's concerns. Where is that money going?

There was also a mention of privacy and censorship, though time was limited and that didn't get the attention it deserved. The panel did however note that Google has been "courageous" on the issue of censorship in the past, so there was some hope there.

As I still work to make sense of the library concerns with Google, I find online this article by Rita Chang in Advertising Age on the future of ads in e-books (courtesy of Dennis Johnson at MobyLives). Put your coffee down before reading. It's ugly. The article centers on the mysterious patent pending for Amazon that suggests the company is getting ready to, as Chang says, "stuff digital books with contextual advertising." I know.

What frustrates me is what Chang points out as the driving force behind this movement to get ads into books: the need to lower the cost of books. This goes back to my concern over the need for cheap product - at what price! Get this:
"There's a movement in the industry to offset book prices through various ways," said consultant Chris Andrews, who's writing an e-book about the advent of e-books. "There's more revenue per book with those ads and they allow publishers to sell the book less expensively. It also gives advertisers this cool market of people who spend hours with content. The relationship is longer than any other media -- and it's deeper."

and this!
"They're just exploring all the multiple ways you can monetize content, so you can offer a customer a full-priced book at $9.99 or you can offer them a half-priced book that's partially underwritten by advertisers," said Mark Coker, founder of e-book seller Smashwords.
If this revenue source makes publishing a thriving industry, where will the jobs be, or what will the priorities be? Jobs will be in ad sales, and editors will have to find synergistic products. Get that book to appeal to a specific demographic and then sell space to advertisers by laying claim to said demographic. A marriage made in heaven!

All I can do at this point is hold out hope that good, honest, respectable presses - such as Melville House, host of Mobylives - will remain for those of us that don't want to have books interrupted with f'ing advertising. I need to read something uplifting to get out of this ad age-induced funk.

Ah! The David Rees v. Jamba Juice debacle! I'm loving it. Now Rees is a man who has perfected his online voice, with frequent OMG and LOL and comic (and yet legit) frustration. Enjoy the saga!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kindle Fall-Out

Christopher was quite right to post quickly on David Pogue's news about Amazon removing Orwell books from readers' Kindles. It needed to be spread as quickly as it was spread. Ah, aren't we all happy (except Bezos) when the internet works for good not evil?!

So let the fall-out begin and continue. I enjoyed Sam Jordisan's take over at one of the best places for publishing news, the Guardian UK's Books Blog. Jordisan goes over the flags raised with this incident, getting to the point in 2 paragraphs in particular:

This early Kindle book-burning episode also provides a reminder of how closely ebook devices monitor their users' reading. And that provokes quite a few questions. What's to stop advertisers paying to find out about your preferences, for instance? What's to stop churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area? What's to stop governments finding out about your revolutionary reading preferences?

The question of whether it is safe or wise to blithely hand over so much of one of our most important industries and so many of our treasured freedoms to the gatekeepers of this revolutionary technology is an entirely modern one. The issue that underlies it, however, is one of the very oldest: who will guard the guards?

Indeed. Jordisan also includes a link to the coverage over at BoingBoing on DRM technology, which I've linked to before.

A link in the comments section will send you over to another nice summation and projection at Slate, from that publication's techno guru, Farhad Marjoo.

Fascinating stuff that is rightly scaring the pants off folks. Can anyone talk about anything else?

Oh wait, look over here! It's super agent Esther Newberg of ICM, giving us a run-down of her typical Sunday in the Hamptons. This is so f'ing civilized you'll spit out YOUR latte. I got halfway through the article but then got distracted by last night's new episode of Dynasty, but once Alexis kicked the crap out of Krystle, I got back to it and really enjoyed it. Yes folks, the '80s are back! As the publishing industry deal with layoffs and authors struggling to get paid and foreclosures and job losses abound, NY Times readers are reading about Newberg's 2004 Saab convertible she leaves in the Hamptons - "it’s fun to drive" - and how she loves to shop - "My nephew says I’m my own stimulus package." With recession comes leisure, it seems. I'm just glad someone's getting to enjoy it - am I right?!

Sometimes I can't believe we're all in the same business.

Friday, July 17, 2009

See, the anti-Kindle rants I did a while ago aren't all a ludite screaming in the darkness.

With all apologies to my co-editor Brian for pushing his piece on eBook pricing further down the site, this article in today's Pogue's Posts from the New York Times just couldn't go by without a spotlight put on it. David Pogue's short article shows that ebooks aren't "exactly, you know, just like real books, only better" which is what all of us doubters have been told time and time again when we dared to question the usefulness and importance of this new technology. Apparently, took back copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from people and removed them from their Kindles with nary a word to those who had purchased the ebook because the publisher of the electronic edition changed their mind and didn't want an electronic edition.

Aside from the obvious bullshit going on here, it does feel curiously like Big Brother, no? In Newspeak let's call this action, um, "negpurch" for negative purchase...yeah, that should do it.

Me? I'm just gonna peruse my Signet Classic edition of 1984, located conveniently right next to me on my bookshelf.

The Kindle stinks.

E-book Bonanza

I'm exhausted by all this e-book pricing talk (link to agent Nathan Bransford's blog posting, which in turn has many links to various opinions), but it's an important debate to have. Perhaps we should look to the newspaper world for some sort of lesson: once some big players started making online content free, everyone did it, and now they have all this online content for which they cannot charge, with ad revenue not high enough to keep them afloat. We need to hash out how to sell e-books at a rate that will be sustainable if this market keeps gaining ground at the rate is has been. Despite Amazon's insistence, $9.99 might not be the magic number.

Many are blogging about Jack Shafer's Slate article on the danger of pirating in e-books, which is of course related to the pricing. He makes some okay points in this article but I think his larger point about needing to really take the consumer into consideration is problematic. If we focus too much on the consumer, are we going to devalue the work that goes into writing and even publishing a book? Just because a book is easy to download and read on a portable device doesn't mean it was written or edited or produced with the same level of ease.

As usual, I hope we can find a balance here. It seems to be, the end should match the process. If an author is a scribbler who churns out a novel or two a year, something very genre oriented such as romance or thriller, books whose primary format is mass market, then a cheap e-book edition makes sense. But then you look at a large and thorough biography and things change. My partner just purchased D. Guttenplan's American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone, a 570 page, $35 hardcover. He bought it full-price at the charming Provincetown Book Shop, an independent worth supporting, but he later expressed surprise as the price, when he thought about it. I explained how a big biography like that should be expensive. The author spent over a decade writing this book, so he should be paid for that time. It makes sense that the reader should pay for the privilege of reading the result of his labor.

In this talk of e-book pricing, I worry that the call to think of the consumer is overlooking the efforts of writers, and that this will contibute to the ongoing trend of editors pushing writers to finish projects in months, not years, even if projects demand more thorough research and more delicate writing. Then we get crappier products for cheaper prices, and authors have books that they cannot take as much pride in, and publishers have lists that don't hold up to close scrutiny. All for a reader's convenience. It just doesn't seem worth it.

The time is now to set these prices, and I just hope the so-called market doesn't prevail. I haven't read the new book by Ellen Ruppel Shell called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, but after hearing her on NPR, it sounds like she touches on my concerns, in other industries. We now scoff at a t-shirt costing more than $5 or a bookshelf that's more than $20, so retailers are getting the prices down by cutting costs on production, on labor. This could just as easily happen in publishing if we keep diving deeper in our prices, endlessly worried about the consumer.

The more this hypothetical consumer is discussed, the more s/he sounds like another evil, made-up character that recurs in media discussions: the undecided voter. So irritating. They shrug and we all struggle to make them happy. I'm over it. We shouldn't be beholden to this threatening, petulant figure, always threatening to not give up his/her vote or purchase. At some point one must wonder, how real is this character?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Advances Don't Always Add Up

Blogger and author John Green has caused a bit of a dust-up with his argument about publishers needing to change their thinking, letting go of the blockbuster model, focusing less on increasing advances, and instead focusing more on raising the royalty rates they offer authors, especially first time novelists. He compares publishers to mortgage brokers and practically shrugs at the segment of the industry that refuses to change their business model, suggesting what they do now is simply unsustainable.

I do not foresee big, corporate publishers letting the blockbuster idea go. With the loss of editors in the last year, maybe competition for books will die down and there will be less in-house competition for new projects, at least. Green's advice, however, is useful for smaller, independent, more nimble publishers who benefit from consistent, steady lists, with longtime partnerships with authors.

Green et al are up against the publishers who scream, "You have no idea what publishing a book actually costs - trust me!," and who end their argument there. Then there are agents who say, "We... er, YOU deserve more money, author!" But there are also publishers, editors, agents, and authors saying they want something more longterm and reliable