8 Dinner Parties in Literature Gone Wrong

From Electric Lit:

There’s something inherently charged and dramatic about a dinner party—various individuals, couples, or families coming together to share a meal, perhaps several courses over several hours, with everyone trapped in their seats. No escape, interruption, or distraction. Just the food, and each other’s company. 

In real life, the drama of these dinner parties is often confined to a mouthy uncle, or a political debate that morphs into a shouting match after too much wine’s been served. In fiction, though, the possible dramas and dangers of a dinner party are almost limitless—the tight, intimate space of contrasting characters with conflicting motivations a perfect setting for writers to enact their very worst. A fictional dinner might be capable of upending a character’s life over the course of just a few pages, for instance. Or the dinner food or invitees themselves could be treacherous. Or, as in my novel, a dinner party could be the very inconvenient situation a character finds herself in on the brink of the apocalypse.

. . . .

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Jack and Grace are the envy of their dinner guests: he’s handsome, successful, and charming; she’s graceful, doting, and a wonder in the kitchen. Little do these dinner guests know, though, that the elaborate three-course meal Grace has prepared is a malicious test designed by Jack, a secret sociopath—and if the beef wellington is undercooked or the souffles overdone, there will be hell to pay. 

. . . .

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Protagonist Wallace, a gay, Black, introverted biochemistry graduate student, is pondering leaving his predominately White Midwestern university given the many indignities he’s endured inside his lab and on campus. Wallace’s limits are further tested when he’s invited to a campus dinner party. The danger, here, is overt when one of the other guests makes racist, incendiary remarks to Wallace during the meal. But there are also the more subtle, pervasive dangers of the institutional system in which Wallace is enmeshed, a system that consistently suppresses and permits these types of comments and conversations. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Children’s Books Edition: PRH’s ‘Banned Wagon’ Rolls Sunday

From Publishing Perspectives:

At Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22), programming on tap in many parts of the world’s largest book publishing trade fair reflects the fact that politically driven censorship–frequently targeting children and young adult readers (YA)–is much on the minds of book professionals this year.
Despite the fact that the international sweep of right-wing censorship has recently surfaced in young people’s literature and textbook assaults–in Brazil’s State of São Paulo; in the vast educational system of Mexico; and in the Caribbean’s Dominican Republic–the waves of book bannings powered largely by organized activists in the United States have drawn sharp and understandable attention.

. . . .

Hearing the call, Penguin Random House–the world’s largest and most internationally positioned of trade publishers– is gassing up something new: its “Banned Wagon: A Vehicle for Change.”

The goal is to take the debate right into the American South during Banned Books Week. Putting its fuel budget where its “Read Banned Books” message is, the vehicle not only will showcase a section of 12 frequently challenged books but will also distribute free copies of those books to attendees in each of the cities in which the tour “sits down.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

New York City is lecturing to the unwashed masses occupying the rest of the country so they’ll understand they need listen to their betters and radically change their benighted values and beliefs. Right now.

Why Bookstores Can’t Avoid Politics

From Publishers Weekly:

The most glaring challenge to access to books today stems from attacks on school and public libraries by right-wing politicians and activists. In Texas, lawmakers are trying to regulate how books are sold to schools. Libraries frequently receive bomb threats, including in a recent spate in the Chicago area. These are brazen and dangerous attacks on our democracy as well as fundamental challenges to bookstores—but they’re not the only challenge that books and booksellers face.

Almost every bookseller has heard some version of “$18 for a paperback! Books are so expensive!” Given the thousands of hours of skilled labor a book requires, $18 really should be considered cheap. But $18 is still too much for many people. Once they’ve paid their rent, health insurance premiums, student loans, car loans, phone bills, and other utility bills, and fed and clothed their families, there isn’t enough left to buy the books they want. Readers who should be booksellers’ customers aren’t.

Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. The minimum wage in 1968, when adjusted for inflation, would have been worth $12 per hour today. According to data from the Federal Reserve and Realtime Inequality, if the federal minimum wage were to have grown with increases in productivity since 1968, it would’ve been $21.50 in 2020. Since 1980, the top 1% has seen its income grow 235.3%, while the bottom 50% has only seen an increase of 29.8%. We talk about the erosion of the American middle class in many other contexts, but I rarely see it discussed in terms of the ways in which it impacts small businesses in a consumer-spending-driven economy.

Those same expenses that eat into customers’ discretionary spending strain bookstore owners, too. We pay for health insurance for our employees, dramatically reducing our potential wages. We get squeezed on rent; too often we are forced to move from successful locations because landlords want more money. These economic conditions aren’t natural phenomena. Low wages and exorbitant healthcare, housing, and education costs are the result of policy decisions made to support some populations at the expense of others. And though none of those policies target bookstores, they still hit us.

My book, The Art of Libromancy, focuses on the changes booksellers can make to stores that will impact the publishing industry and the wider world. But booksellers also need to look at the challenges facing all small businesses and all Americans, and consider techniques for change that may have made us uncomfortable in the past. The American Booksellers Association has used litigation in the past, notably when it sued publishers and Barnes & Noble over unfair discounts; the shop local movement seeks to change both the culture of individual communities and influence municipal, state, and federal policy; and the ABA and many booksellers engage in antitrust and anti-censorship advocacy. These political actions have a direct focus on bookstores. But, taking a larger view, can we really argue that the collapse of the American middle class only indirectly affects our industry?

. . . .

That confronting these specific challenges overlaps with other political conflicts over social and economic justice shouldn’t make us fear accusations of partisanship. Rather we should look at is as an opportunity for solidarity and community with those who have been fighting these battles for decades.

Too many people in this country can’t afford the goods and services—and books—they want because of policies that transfer wealth from the working class to the rich and powerful. As much as booksellers may want to remain nonpartisan, we have to recognize that many of the challenges our stores face are political and, at least today, partisan. I believe if bookstore owners focus on community building and cultivating long-term booksellers, we can run profitable bookstores that pay livable wages—even if we are hamstrung by these challenges. But imagine if we weren’t.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

“My book, The Art of Libromancy, focuses on the changes booksellers can make to stores that will impact the publishing industry and the wider world.”

When PG goes into a physical bookstore, the last thing he wants to be confronted with is politics. If a bookstore couldn’t avoid politics, PG would head out the door and order a book from Amazon.

PG notes that the author of the OP is the co-owner of a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While the author is correct that the federal minimum hourly wage is $7.25 per hour, Massachusetts has set a state minimum wage of $15.00 per hour and PG hopes that the employees of his bookstore are paid that amount.

The Art of Libromancy is published by Biblioasis, “a literary press based in Windsor, Ontario, committed to publishing the best poetry, fiction and non-fiction in beautifully crafted editions.”

From the Biblioasis website:

If books are important to you because you’re a reader or a writer, then how books are sold should be important to you as well. If it matters to you that your vegetables are organic, your clothes made without child labor, your beer brewed without a culture of misogyny, then it should matter how books are made and sold to you.

For the record, although Biblioasis and The Art of Libromancy don’t appear to be PG’s cup of tea, he thinks child labor and misogyny are bad things.

He’s happy to have fresh vegetables, regardless of how they’re raised or fertilized.

However, if you’re worried about the welfare of those who aren’t as wealthy as many others in society, you should understand that organic produce costs substantially more to raise and purchase than produce raised with fertilizer and harvested mechanically.

Using the most efficient means of cultivating food grains, America and Canada are able to raise far more food than their populations can eat. Every year, each nation exports a huge amount of food to the rest of the world at very low prices.

If you would like a bit more Mom and apple pie, per research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “family farms remain a key part of U.S. agriculture, making up 98% of all farms and providing 88% of production.”

PG grew up on family farms and ranches and drank milk from various dairy cows milked mostly by his father but also by PG on occasion. PG helped his family raise beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens in varying quantities until he left home to attend college.

PG has been chased by upset cattle and mother pigs under a wide range of circumstances and shoveled (and occasionally slipped and fallen onto) a lot of nasty-smelling manure on more occasions than he can remember.

After such adventures, his mother almost always made younger PG leave his boots outside then strip to his underwear in the basement or mud room, where he rinsed his dirty clothing in a large basement sink used for dealing with those sorts of adventures. Thereafter, he put his clothes into a washing machine with a little extra soap to clean them up for their next outdoor adventure.

‘The Two-Parent Privilege’ Review: Where Have All the Good Men Gone?

From The Wall Street Journal:

For families with young children, morning routines can resemble an assembly line: Make breakfast. Remind the kids to brush their teeth. Negotiate which snacks to include in their backpacks. Remind them again to brush their teeth. Look for shoes. Head out the door. Head back in the door to get the stray backpacks.

In our household, when one parent is out of town, the process seems to intensify and can feel like the “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy takes a job wrapping chocolates. Quickly overwhelmed by the speed of the conveyor belt, she starts shoving chocolates anywhere they’ll fit, and concludes, “I think we’re fighting a losing game.”

Over the past 50 years, the number of one-parent households in America have dramatically increased. In 2019, 57% of U.S. children lived with two parents, down from 80% in 1980. Is the rise of single-parent households an emblem of empowerment or a sign of dwindling support for children?

Discussions of parenting can be fraught, dominated by feelings over facts, and too often tinged with judgment rather than support. The problem is, in part, that there has been limited accessible evidence on the causal effect of household logistics on children’s outcomes.

Enter “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” Melissa Kearney’s clear-eyed look at the economic impact of having a second parent at home. Ms. Kearney is an economist at the University of Maryland; her topics of research range from the social impact of the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” to the recent Covid baby bust. As she notes, “discomfort and hesitancy have stifled public conversation on a critically important topic that has sweeping implications not just for the well-being of American children and families but for the country’s well-being.”

Ms. Kearney’s objective is two-fold: first, to offer a data-driven overview of the rise and impact of single parenting; second, to propose strategies to enable more kids to live in stable households.

When it comes to the economic well-being of children, she argues, having two parents really is better than one—on average. Consider the conclusion of a 2004 paper, “Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children? The Long-Run Implications of Unilateral Divorce,” by the economist Jonathan Gruber. “As a result of the increased incidence of parental divorce,” Ms. Kearney tells us, “children wound up having lower levels of education, lower levels of income, and more marital churn themselves (both more marriages and more separations), as compared to similarly situated children who did not live in places where unilateral divorce laws were in effect.” Moreover, Ms. Kearney notes that children living with a stepparent also tend to have worse behavioral outcomes than those whose birth parents remained married.

While divorce is common, the spike in the number of single-parent households is mainly driven by an increase in the share of mothers who have never married—particularly among those who are less educated. In 2019, 60% of children whose mothers had a high-school degree (but less than a four-year college degree) lived with both parents, “a huge drop from the 83% who did in 1980” and low relative to the roughly 84% of children of college-educated mothers who lived with both parents in 2019. The author also notes significant gaps in family structure according to race: In 2019, 38% of black children lived with married parents, compared with 77% of white children and 88% of Asian children.

What is driving these changes? Among other factors, Ms. Kearney refers to the lack of “marriageable men,” pointing to a 2019 paper by the economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, “When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage Market Value of Young Men.” The paper analyzes the effect of drops in income for less-educated men, driven by increased international competition in manufacturing, and finds, Ms. Kearney tells us, that “the trade-induced reduction in men’s relative earnings led to lower levels of marriage and a higher share of unmarried mothers. It also led to an increase in the share of children living in single-mother households with below-poverty levels of income.” Reintroducing economic opportunities (for instance, through fracking booms) doesn’t seem to reverse this trend—suggesting an interplay between economic shocks and evolving social norms.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Writing About Pain: Best Practices for Great Fiction

From Writers Helping Writers:

Show Don’t Tell

This one comes first, because if you want to create evocative and compelling descriptions, showing is the way to do it. Take this passage, for example:

Pain throbbed in my wrist. It radiated into my fingers. Tears sprang to my eyes.

On the surface, this description gets the job done because it adequately describes the character’s pain. But it’s not engaging. Lists seldom are—yet this is how pain is often described, as a series of symptoms or sensations. This isn’t how real pain registers, so it being described this way won’t read as authentic to readers.

Don’t stop the story to talk about what the character’s feeling. Instead, incorporate it into what’s happening. This keeps the pace moving and readers reading:

Cradling my throbbing wrist, I searched for the rope and loosed it from my belt. I drew a shuddering breath of relief to discover my fingers still worked, though the pain had me biting nearly through my lip.

This description is much better because it reveals the pain in bits and bobs as the character is going about her business. It uses words that describe the intensity and quality of the pain: throbbing and shuddering. There’s also a thought included, which is important because when agony strikes, our brains don’t stop working. The opposite is actually true, with our thoughts often going into overdrive. So including a thought that references the character’s mental state or physical discomfort is another way to show their pain to readers in an organic way.

Take Personal Factors into Account

The character’s pain level and intensity will depend on a number of factors, such as their pain tolerance, their personality, and what else is going on in the moment. Being aware of these details and knowing what they look like for your character is key for tailoring a response that is authentic for them. For more information on the factors that will determine your character’s pain response and their ability to cope with their discomfort, see the 6th post in this series.

Adhere to Your Chosen Point of View

Whether you’re telling your story in first person, third person, or omniscient viewpoint, consistency is a must, so you’ve got to stick to that point of view. If the person in pain is the one narrating, you can go deep into their perspective to show readers what’s happening inside—the pain, yes, but also the nausea, tense muscles, and the spots that appear in the character’s vision as they start to black out.

But if the victim isn’t a viewpoint character—if the reader isn’t privy to what’s happening inside their heads and bodies—you’ll need be true to that choice. Stick with external indicators that are visible to others, such as the character wincing, the hissed intake of breath through clenched teeth, the weeping of blood, or the skin going white and clammy.

Consider the Intensity of the Pain

All pain isn’t created equal, and the intensity of the pain being described will often determine the level of detail. Excruciating, agonizing pain is going to be impossible for the character to ignore; because of their focus on their own pain, more description is often necessary. On the flip side, a lot of words aren’t needed to express the mild, fleeting pain of a stubbed toe or bruised knee. The severity of the pain can guide you toward the right amount of description.

Don’t Forget about It

Remember that pain has a life of its own. Some injuries heal fast, with the pain receding quickly and steadily. Others linger. Many times, healing is a one-step-forward-two-steps-back situation, with things seeming to improve, then a relapse or reinjury causing a setback. And then there’s chronic pain, which never fully goes away.

The nature of the injury will dictate how often you return to the character’s pain and remind readers of it. Minor injuries can fade into the background without further mention. But moderate and severe hurts will take time to heal. This means your character will be feeling the pain well after it began, and you’ll have to mention it again. But when you do, the quality and intensity will be less, and your description will follow suit.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Best Fiction vs Nonfiction Book Covers: Ways They Differ

From The Book Designer:

In the vibrant world of book publishing, the first thing that comes to mind, I’m sure, when any of us think of design is the book cover! It’s the main element of any fiction or nonfiction piece that immediately turns heads and makes a statement all at once. 

It’s worth noting that there are subtle distinctions when it comes to fiction vs nonfiction book covers. While nonfiction books focus on displaying useful and persuasive information on the front (think autobiographies and history books), fiction books can be a lot more expressive with colors, fonts, imagery and so on. 

. . . .

Fiction vs Nonfiction Book Covers: The Big Difference

Fiction and nonfiction book covers have very different missions to accomplish, and recognizing these different paths is the first step to crafting the perfect introduction to your work. 

Fiction Book Covers:

Imagination, mystery, and the alluring call to a different world; these are the hallmarks of a compelling fiction book cover. 

With the main aim being to reflect the book’s tone and genre and to evoke curiosity, these covers often leave a lot to the imagination. The design elements are less restricted, urging readers to delve deeper and discover the story within. 

You’ll find that titles are concise and descriptions are almost non-existent, allowing the visual elements to play a more significant role in persuading readers to pick it off the shelf. 

Nonfiction Book Covers:

On the flip side, nonfiction book covers adopt a more straightforward approach, serving readers a clear picture of what to expect inside. 

This no-nonsense approach consists of a rich spread of information, longer titles with descriptive subtitles to offer readers a clear snapshot of the valuable insights awaiting them. While the storytelling element takes a backseat, the design leans towards minimalism with a preference for neutral tones, creating a clean and focused entry point that prioritizes information and clarity over mystery.

Understanding these foundational differences is pivotal in crafting a cover that not only resonates with your target audience but beautifully houses the heart of your literary masterpiece! 

What Readers Expect: Nonfiction Book Cover Design Elements

Understanding your audience’s expectations is a cardinal rule in book cover design. Let’s delve into what readers anticipate when they pick up a book from either genre:

Nonfiction Book Covers:

A nonfiction book cover must reflect the substantial and educative content it houses. It needs to exude a sense of authority and expertise, promising the reader a journey of learning and growth. Here are the key elements to focus on:

  • Detailed Titles and Subtitles: Go for long titles and accompanying subtitles that lucidly convey the book’s essence, offering a clear insight into what the reader can expect.
  • Minimalistic Graphic Elements: Stick to a linear and rational theme with minimal graphics to maintain a focused and serious demeanor.
  • Bold and Formal Typography: Employ typography that is both bold and formal, facilitating easy readability while also commanding respect and attention.
  • Centered Messaging: Place the central message or title in the direct eyeline to instantly grab attention and convey the core theme succinctly.
  • Volume and Version Details: If applicable, include details like volume number and version to offer readers a sense of the book’s place in a series or its updated content.
  • Neutral Color Palette: Leverage a palette grounded in neutral tones, avoiding vibrant hues that might potentially diminish the gravity of the topic at hand.

. . . .

What Readers Expect: Fiction Book Cover Design Elements

Crafting the perfect cover for a fiction book comes with a lot of freedom to play, to imagine, and to lure your readers into the world you’ve crafted within the pages. Think of it like an open canvas It’s an open canvas where you can illustrate your story through vivid imagery, bold colors, and evocative typography. Let’s explore the design elements that can help your fiction book cover become an irresistible pick:

  • Strategic Color Scheme: While the spectrum of colors is wide, it’s wise to narrow down your choice to up to three complementary colors that echos your book’s tone, genre, and essence. Use these chosen hues not just in the backdrop but also in the titles to create a harmonized visual appeal.
  • Creative Visual Imagery: Whether it’s unveiling the mysterious protagonist of your sequel to evoke a sense of familiarity or crafting bespoke illustrations, leveraging visual imagery allows you to strike a chord with your audience right from the first glance.
  • Title Readability: Amidst the expected noise of colors and visuals, ensure that your book title remains the hero. It should be easily conveyed, inviting readers to delve deeper into the story that awaits.
  • Dual Typeface Play: Play around with a dual typeface strategy where the main title and the supplementary information like the author’s name are rendered in distinct but complementary fonts, enhancing visual interest and hierarchy.
  • Background Storytelling: Your background is not just a canvas but a storyteller. Think of it as a preview of the genre, For example, darker visuals for action-packed mysteries or a serene landscape for a heartwarming tale.

Embrace the creative freedom that fiction book cover design offers and craft a visual narrative that is as captivating as the story inside!

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

The OP includes several examples of non-fiction and fiction book covers the author of the OP regards as examples of effective cover design.

Getty Images Launches Commercially Safe Generative AI Offering

From Getty Images:

Trained on Getty Images’ world‑class creative content, Generative AI by Getty Images allows customers to explore the power of generative AI with full protection and usage rights

New York – September 25, 2023: Getty Images (NYSE: GETY), a preeminent global visual content creator and marketplace, today announced the launch of Generative AI by Getty Images, a new tool that pairs the company’s best‑in‑class creative content with the latest AI technology for a commercially safe generative AI tool.

Generative AI by Getty Images is trained on the state‑of‑the‑art Edify model architecture, which is part of NVIDIA Picasso, a foundry for generative AI models for visual design. The tool is trained solely from Getty Images’ vast creative library, including exclusive premium content, with full indemnification for commercial use. Sitting alongside the company’s broader, industry‑leading services, Generative AI by Getty Images works seamlessly with the company’s expansive library of authentic and compelling visuals and Custom Content solutions, allowing customers to elevate their entire end‑to‑end creative process to find the right visual content for any need.

. . . .

Customers creating and downloading visuals through the tool will receive Getty Images’ standard royalty‑free license, which includes representations and warranties, uncapped indemnification, and the right to perpetual, worldwide, nonexclusive use in all media. Content generated through the tool will not be added into existing Getty Images and iStock content libraries for others to license. Further, contributors will be compensated for any inclusion of their content in the training set.

“We’ve listened to customers about the swift growth of generative AI – and have heard both excitement and hesitation – and tried to be intentional around how we developed our own tool,” said Grant Farhall, Chief Product Officer at Getty Images. “We’ve created a service that allows brands and marketers to safely embrace AI and stretch their creative possibilities, while compensating creators for inclusion of their visuals in the underlying training sets.”

. . . .

Customers will soon be able to customize Generative AI by Getty Images with proprietary data to produce images with their unique brand style and language. 

Link to the rest at Getty Images

PG has previously suggested that the owners of images used to train an AI are likely not going to be able to pursue a claim for copyright infringement effectively.

That said, large business organizations and their legal departments will be able to use Getty’s AI system without concerns about claims of copyright infringement by the owners of the images used provide grist for Getty’s AI mill.

Book Business Applauds Government Lawsuit Against Amazon

From Publishers Weekly:

The Federal Trade Commission, supported by 17 state attorneys general, finally filed its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Amazon yesterday. In a 172-page complaint, the government alleged that the e-tailer “uses a set of interlocking anticompetitive and unfair strategies to illegally maintain its monopoly power.” The use of that power, the government continued, allows Amazon “to stop rivals and sellers from lowering prices, degrade quality for shoppers, overcharge sellers, stifle innovation, and prevent rivals from fairly competing against Amazon.”

The immediate industry reaction to the news of the suit was uniform: “What took so long?” Or, in the words of Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson, that it was “about ******** time.” An industry lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, gave a more nuanced view in wondering why it took the government so long to act, pointing to the infamous buy button case in 2010, when Amazon pulled Macmillan’s buy buttons in a dispute over e-book terms.

Even with Amazon’s dominant position over the sale of e-books and print books, the suit doesn’t mention books, which, of course, were Amazon’s first line of business. The suit does, however, highlight Amazon’s hold over the companies who use its online marketplace to sell a range of products, including books, to consumers.

Jed Lyons, CEO of Rowman & Littlefield, was skeptical about how the case will play out, pointing to the government’s “sketchy” track record in lawsuits against major corporations. But even though the FTC lawsuit is more about third party sellers, Lyons said, if “it shuts down unauthorized sellers of new books, which we know are not new books, then that will be a win for book publishers.”

Independent booksellers, which were the first physical retailers impacted by Amazon and the steep discounting on books it employed to attract customers, praised the FTC’s long-awaited action. The lawsuit, said ABA CEO Allison Hill, “is good news for indie bookstores and good news for all small business. ABA applauds the FTC and states’ effort to release Amazon’s stranglehold, and we look forward to the transparency this lawsuit will provide into Amazon’s business practices.”

. . . .

Other industry groups, including the AAP and Authors Guild, have also long advocated that the government investigate many of Amazon’s practices.

No bookseller has been more active in attacking Amazon’s book practices than Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans., and author of How to Resist Amazon and Why. Caine acknowledged that, “while the suit doesn’t go after Amazon’s book business in particular, it can still do a lot to level the playing field. For one thing, it can prove that Amazon is acting illegally or anti-competitively via tactics like preferencing its own products, placing unfair pressure on sellers who list their products for lower prices elsewhere, and forcing sellers and customers onto their Prime platform.”

The head of one independent publisher, who wished to remain anonymous, said that if the government prevails, “it could be very beneficial to publishers.” She then laid out the many challenges publishers face in dealing with Amazon: “I think [the suit] could affect tactics around the negotiation of discounts and fees, etc., with publishers. This would also be a good thing. The negotiations over the years between publishers and Amazon have been brutal. At first, Amazon got big discounts since they were buying non-returnable. Then, predictably, they started returning books and kept the discounts.”

She continued: “Publishers were simply too fearful and too powerless to stand up to their biggest customer. And then Amazon started added all manner of fees, effectively increasing their discount even further. To the extent that Amazon was able to discount books to lure customers away from other booksellers, publishers were effectively subsidizing Amazon’s growth and dominance while watching their margins erode.”

Melville’s Johnson made many of the same points, lamenting that the government’s lack of action up until now and allowing Amazon to use books as a “loss leader” got the company to where it is today. The government further strengthened Amazon’s hand, Johnson maintained, when it sued the major publishers over their e-book pricing policies. That decision “really pounded Amazon’s suppliers, and thus altered the business of making and selling books, probably irrevocably.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Here are a few questions PG would like to put to the traditional publishers celebrating the FTC’s suit against Amazon:

  1. Do you really want your biggest customer to stop selling your books? That’s an option for Amazon. Traditionally-published books are a minuscule part of Amazon’s total sales, a rounding error.
  2. If Amazon decided to shut down its book business on a temporary or permanent basis, would Americans buy more or fewer books? Would Americans change their behavior and travel to physical bookstores once again (assuming they live within a reasonable distance from a remaining physical bookstore)?
  3. Do you really not care about readers who live a long way from a physical bookstore? Have you ever even visited North or South Dakota? Nebraska? Wyoming? New Mexico? Idaho? Nevada (outside of Las Vegas)? Kansas?
  4. Do you understand that the internet provides endless reading material at no charge to readers, reading material that doesn’t include commercial books?
  5. Do you really think your books are not competing for reader attention against free reading material on the internet?
  6. Do you understand how many more Americans log on to the internet every day instead of visiting a physical store of any sort, let alone a book store?

The Stages of Womanhood

From Electric Lit:

It was in the midst of these days when I was struggling to complete the—what would it be?—seventh, no, sixth stage of my growth as a woman, being a year late already with that, according to the (ineffective) anthroposophic doctor I had consulted about my persistent ear infections, when I was awoken yet again during a particularly restless night of being awoken, first, by my child, then by a mosquito, then by my child again, then by the tickling in my ears, then by my child again—when I was awoken yet again, this time by the high-pitched wail of an air-raid siren that I mistook at first for a malfunctioning fan in one window and then a fan in another, going around turning off and unplugging the fans one by one, then finally making my way downstairs and out the back door to stand in the yard looking up until the sound of the siren died abruptly, the wail descending. Of course I thought of war, since our country was in conflict yet again with another country. I thought maybe the mosquito that had been bothering me would live longer than I would. I thought of calling the local police station. I wondered if my husband had heard the siren through his ear plugs. He was sleeping downstairs so that he would not be bothered by me, since I was sleeping so badly these days, or by the child, who was waking so often. The doctor had told me that the next stage, the last stage of womanhood in which a woman is reproductive, was very important creatively. The stage that came after that was very different—also wonderful, she said, but very different. But I had not yet completed this stage, which was supposed to be a growth into full womanhood. As far as I could see, I was exactly the same this year as I had been last year and the year before.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Is It Worthwhile to Write My Memoir, Especially If a Publishing Deal Is Unlikely?

From Jane Friedman:


In the eighth decade of my life and after having three books traditionally published—a travel memoir 50 years ago and two novels more recently—I am pondering the wisdom of writing a very personal memoir.

What has moved me most to think about this is the #MeToo movement: I was the victim of date rape while working as a civilian employee on an American army base in France from 1963–1964. While my time in France was indeed a wonderful one, a dream come true, tarnished only by this one incident, I sometimes reflect on the high percentage of women who have suffered sexual abuse, many while serving in the military. I was advised not to report this case by my immediate superior with the very real threat that the perpetrator (an officer) most likely would not be punished, and it would likely mean the loss of my job.

The memoir I am thinking of and which I have partially written is about much more than this incident; it is also about the loss of innocence and the excitement of discovering a foreign culture. It includes the story of my first true romance, an interracial affair. I was the “innocent” white girl in love with an African American enlisted man—two “no-no’s” for I was told during my training that it was absolutely not advised to date enlisted men, but only officers, “men of a higher caliber.” Race was not mentioned but implied by the times and by several other statements. These experiences in addition to the opportunity I had to develop wonderful life-long friendships with several French citizens prompts me to want to share them in a memoir. I would like to know if this is worth my writing; would it be received well or would you offer a caveat to me, to avoid what may be a well-worn subject matter?

—Memoirist with a Dilemma

P.S. I would love to have a traditional publisher if I do finish this memoir, but in today’s world, I think it is highly unlikely I would find one interested in an octogenarian author.

Dear Memoirist with a Dilemma,

Oh my goodness, there are so many layers to this question!

I think I want to start by saying that even if #MeToo feels like it’s run its course, even if it feels like the publishing world is tired of women’s stories about rape, or maybe just tired of women’s stories or memoirs, period…I assure you, the market is not oversaturated with memoirs by women in their eighth decade.

Which, as you know, doesn’t mean there’s an easy path ahead of you. The publishing world may not be receptive to a memoir like this for any number of reasons—some of which might be valid and some of which are utter bullshit. Your age might be one of those reasons, but it’s not the only one. Publishing is a highly uncertain field with few guarantees, and the market for memoirs can be particularly uncertain.

As it happens, I’m writing this response on Labor Day, so in answering your question about the value of writing a memoir—and about the worth of writing—I do first want to acknowledge writing (and art-making, generally) as a form of labor that, like any labor, should be fairly compensated, monetarily.

That said, for better and worse, many artistic and writing projects fall largely outside the realm of capitalism. Recently, I was listening to one of the first episodes of the “Wiser Than Me” podcast*, hosted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; it’s an interview with Isabel Allende (who didn’t start writing novels until 40), who channeled Elizabeth Gilbert giving advice to young writers—which you are not, but maybe this is actually just decent advice for any writer: “Don’t expect your writing to give you fame or money, right? Because you love the process, right? And that’s the whole point, love the process.” 

Which is just to say that, if you’re asking whether writing this memoir is likely to justify your time and energy, financially—well, unfortunately, that’s probably a very short response letter. It’s almost certainly not.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it, or that writing this memoir would be unwise, in some way, or unworthy of your time and energy. The answer, here, lies in the whyWhy do you want to write this memoir?

Do you love the process? Do you think you’ll feel better about the world on the average day when you’ve sat down to work on this book than on a day when you haven’t? Do you enjoy writing more than you don’t enjoy it?

If your answers to those questions are enthusiastically positive, then that’s reason enough to write.

There might be other, even more significant reasons to dive fully into this project. Writing a memoir isn’t therapeutic, per se, but the process of writing and rewriting our personal stories can be a rewarding process, one that’s often full of (good) surprises.

In this case, you’re talking about revisiting experiences—including an assault—after 60 years; the opportunity to reshape your story and to reconsider what you make of it might be incredibly meaningful. Indeed, it sounds like you’re already doing this to some extent, inspired in part by the #MeToo movement and other people’s sharing of their stories. One of the reasons #MeToo took off was because it defused and transformed a particular kind of shame and loneliness an awful lot of women had been sitting with for too long. Perhaps you, too, have been feeling that way.

Does revisiting this time and your experiences—the many good ones as well as the bad one—and considering them from fresh and maybe unexpected angles sound appealing and useful? Again, if your answer here is an enthusiastic yes: what are you waiting for?

(This might be an unpopular opinion, but for what it’s worth, I think it’s also completely valid to say, “Nah, I don’t need to relive all that.” But I think you wouldn’t have written in with this question if that were how you felt about it.)

Ultimately, both of those reasons are sort of personal and maybe even a little self-centered. And so what if they are? After all, as Mary Oliver put it in “The Summer Day” (which she wrote at age 62), “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You really don’t have to please anyone but yourself.

But I also understand that writing a memoir solely for the pleasure of it might not feel entirely satisfactory, either. We want our stories to make connections, and to matter to someone, right?

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

A Crisis Is Brewing at U.K. Universities

From The Wall Street Journal:

CAMBRIDGE, England—The U.K.’s storied universities have a problem. They lose money on almost every British student they teach.

The country’s university system boasts 11 of the world’s top 100 universities, with three in the top 10—in a country that has just 1% of the global population. The system’s health has an outsize impact on both the future of the world’s sixth-biggest economy and globally important research.

That system is increasingly at risk from politics. Unlike in the U.S., where private universities and many state schools set their own tuition, in England and Wales the government sets a price cap on tuition for all domestic undergraduate students—the same cap for every college from Cambridge to Coventry. Since 2010, the price cap has remained essentially frozen, even as inflation sharply raises costs. Northern Ireland cuts tuition in half for domestic students. In Scotland, there is no tuition at all.

The upshot: While U.S. universities charge ever higher tuition in an arms race for the best facilities and research, leading to a soaring student debt crisis, U.K. universities have the opposite problem. They aren’t able to charge enough.

To bridge the gap, they are cutting back on everything from research to teacher salaries to dorm rooms, and teaching more classes online. They are increasingly relying on foreign students, who are charged market rates. And they are cutting back on local students: The percentage of British teens going to college is now falling for the first time in generations.

“It’s a turning point,” said Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Oxford. Even the U.K.’s most elite universities could see finances and quality decline if the government doesn’t step in, he said. A new report this month by the House of Lords said the university funding system in the U.K. wasn’t sustainable and faced a looming crisis.

About 30 universities reported financial losses in the latest academic year, a number likely to triple this year to about one in four overall, according to the government regulator, which nevertheless said the overall system remained sound. Teacher strikes for higher pay affected about 83 universities last year.

Rankings for U.K. universities, while still the second best in the world after the U.S., fell in nine of the 13 metrics measured by Times Higher Education, including for the global reputation of their research and teaching. The U.K. data firm will release its latest university rankings on Wednesday. 

‘Not in a million years’

The vast majority of universities in the U.K. are public, financed out of the annual government budget. That means politicians and bureaucrats, and not the universities themselves, decide tuition. Since 1998, when U.K. universities started charging tuition, the government has raised the tuition level three times, drawing howls of protest from students.  

There is no relief for university budgets coming soon. Raising tuition at a time when average salaries in the U.K. have fallen the past two years because of high inflation is “just not going to happen, not in a million years,” Robert Halfon, the higher-education minister for the conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, said in an interview with Times Higher Education. The opposition Labour Party, heavily favored to win elections next year, usually talks about cutting fees rather than raising them.

Halfon declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesperson for the department said: “We are keeping maximum tuition fees frozen to deliver better value for students and for taxpayers and keep the cost of higher education under control,” adding that the sector is financially stable overall.  

“Ultimately, it means we will not be able to deliver such a high-quality education,” said David Maguire, the vice chancellor of East Anglia University, which has a creative writing course whose graduates include Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro and novelist Ian McEwan. “So we won’t be able to attract the brightest and the best to our universities, who will then feed through into the U.K. economy, which is really built on services and knowledge.” 

U.K. universities have helped produce breakthroughs such as the theories of evolution and gravity, the discovery of penicillin, the structure of DNA and, more recently, the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine. British universities are currently researching cancer cures, artificial intelligence and next generation batteries for electric vehicles, among other vital issues. More than a quarter of today’s world leaders were educated at a U.K. university, second only to the U.S., according to the Higher Education Policy Institute, a U.K. think tank on education. 

Since 2012, annual tuition for domestic students in England has been raised only once, in 2017, from £9,000 a year to £9,250, or from about $11,200 to $11,500, an increase of 2.8%. Adjusting for inflation, fees have actually declined by about a third since 2012, according to DataHE, a higher-education consulting firm. Had tuition kept up with inflation, it would be close to £14,000, it estimates. 

Over the same period, U.S. tuition at private, nonprofit universities rose by 40% in nominal terms and nearly 10% after inflation to an average $34,041. Public universities raised annual tuition for in-state students by 34% before inflation and 5.4% after inflation to an average $9,596, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. 

Britain’s Russell Group universities, the rough equivalent of the Ivy League, ran a deficit close to £2,500 per U.K. student for the 2022-23 school year, a shortfall that will double to £5,000 per student by 2030, according to data released by the group, which comprises Britain’s 24 most research-intensive universities. 

“The one jaw-dropping thing I’ve learned in my first three months is just how perilous the higher-education sector is financially,” Oxford University’s new vice chancellor, neuroscientist Irene Tracy, told a higher-education seminar in March. “We really have a worrying financial future.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG has attended a couple of two-week continuing legal education programs at one of the Oxford colleges. Also, in family history records, PG has found several ancestors who were educated to prepare them for the ministry at Oxford in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Some ancestors emigrated to the United States to avoid religious persecution in Britain.

Although his personal exposure has been relatively brief, PG developed a significant appreciation of Oxford. For him, the idea that learning has been going on in that place for over 900 years makes it an almost magical setting.

As the OP describes, Oxford and similar non-public institutions are subsidized directly by the British government. In the US, virtually all colleges and universities are subsidized directly or indirectly by the federal government, in large part by government-insured student loans. Public colleges and universities are subsidized directly by the state governments of the states where they exist and, secondly, by federally insured student loans.

Each approach to subsidizing college/university educational institutions has its downside.

As the OP describes, in Britain, direct subsidies are a recurring political issue. Why should those in the working class who did not attend university contribute to the rising subsidies for those who often are and will be more educationally and financially privileged? For members of Parliament representing primarily working-class constituents, this must be an evergreen political issue.

In the US, in past years, the number of staff members performing administrative functions, sometimes to satisfy state or federal government mandates, has grown much more rapidly than the number of professors. The salaries of more than a few of the administrative staff are higher than those paid to professors and instructors who are actually teaching students. In recent years, bloated staff roles have been a major driver of increased student costs.

In the US, the college cost squeeze often appears in the occupational choices made by graduates with large student loan debts.

A would-be public school teacher may not be able to afford this career path because it won’t provide a living wage, after student loan obligations are met.

In some locales, government programs may subsidize student loan repayments for public employees such as public school teachers. However, this approach carries some of the same inequities when those who didn’t receive a college education are indirectly subsidizing those who did.

Needless to say, PG doesn’t have a good solution for this growing problem.

Sublime Neutrality

From Public Books:

I read somewhere that good literature is indifferent to evil. It might have been that good writers are indifferent to evil. I retained none of the context, only the pull quote, and why wouldn’t I? What a seductive proposition—giving readers permission to banish the author, or at least the specter of their moral character; giving writers permission to write without thinking, first, always, what does this say about me?

Literary evil is thin on the ground these days; all those charming pedophiles, sadists, murderers, crowded out by neurotics, malingerers, failed imposters. Look at Dennis Cooper: even snuff is “tender.” You have to meet your reader in the middle. Too much specificity and you alienate your audience, who go from book to book looking for themselves. A popular template from the middlebrow almanac: name a place, throw in trees, quality of light, some vague cultural analysis, no real particulars. In the first person, the speaker invites you to where they are, which is very generous of them. They let you in, and there’s plenty of room in their blousy descriptions for you to bring yourself and everything you already knew. Particularity can be dangerous, even violent, so writers learn to be careful what they ask their readers to relate to. But if the writer knows what they’re doing, relatability doesn’t come into it. The reader has forgotten they exist as a being apart.

Before the publication of his first collection of short fiction, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, Paul Dalla Rosa enjoyed a remarkably slick career for a local short story writer. Who is his agent??? I would seethe, watching his bylines appear in GrantaThe Paris Review, and, most recently, Forever, a magazine so cool I paid $100AUD for it to get lost in the mail. I was surprised he even had an AustLit entry, despite failing to appear in the bloated back-catalogues of print periodicals or obscurely-monied short story competitions, not one weird poem on a glorified blog run by regional cat people. Dalla Rosa has been careful not to embarrass himself.

The stories in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life are set in millennial Carver-country, an abstract zone of aestheticized precarity and terminally online mass culture, where there is no space but private space and hell is ourselves. Reviews of the collection have described its “poise,” “precision” and “elegance.” The stories are written with a calculated reserve, a wry and reflexive humor; they are contemporary without unduly dating themselves, breaking no sweat under anxiety of influence, neither unfashionably literary nor fashionably unliterary, with the author citing Ottessa Moshfegh, Amie Barrodale, Gary Indiana, Lucia Berlin, Eve Babitz, Dean Kissick, Jordan Castro, Honor Levy, Megan Boyle, Chelsea Hodson, and Tao Lin as influences, a North American canon of cool edge. Any dorky, undergraduate-writing-class interest in “place” has been excised. Settings are always threatening to turn into somewhere else (the Gold Coast “felt kind of like California, with theme parks, palm trees and water, but it wasn’t California”). Smartphones blink. People regard each other in terse, empty moments. Technology represents alienation. Sex also represents alienation. Mutual regard is held with roaches, emotionally dysfunctional pets, and Mary Gaitskill, but never other people. The dust jacket claims the book is “tender and unsparing,” and the word tender comes up in more reviews than I bothered to count. In profiles, interviews, and rarefied circles of snobs, the collection’s “deft execution,” “taut” prose, “forensic” detail have been praised. The general view holds Dalla Rosa as that rare and highly-prized thing: a craftsman.

Why is craft such cause for comment? If craft is so remarkable, this must mean that writing badly is not a barrier to publication in Australia, and while nobody wants a reputation for cruelty, failing to say this produces its own contradiction: if “craft” (labor) does not produce “craft” (quality), then the latter is either innate or some transcendental haze that comes over the writer like a spell, possibly after receiving an Australia Council grant. Or, and this is my suspicion, praise of “craft” is primarily bestowed on writers who tend toward a spare, ironic, placeless style; the skill here concerned is the disciplined study of fashionable Americans, who sometimes sound “American” but mostly sound, to their own ears and everybody else’s, neutral.

Americans are freaks, but they represent the imperial centre of Western cultural production and it’s natural to be curious what they get up to. If Dalla Rosa’s reception has a touch of “local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner”—when he gets called the “real deal” and it bears the same inflection as world class—that is hardly his fault. And Dalla Rosa is writing in a tradition of, for want of a better word, nasty stories, brutal tales told with jaunty elegance, which we perhaps do not associate with the ruddy and simpering national character. Nobody has ever praised the dark glamor of the Wheeler Centre; there is something staid, dismayingly crude, about a literature that counts Murnane among its sexiest cult figures, making some dissociation from the local an understandable position for aspiring stylists. Mary Gaitskill, Mary Gaitskill, thinks writer-character Paul as he turns to sex work in “An MFA Story,” and Bad Behavior certainly looms, ur-text to a strain of fiction that, in its anti-sentimental approach, its “transgressive” subject matter, may court accusations of bad taste but never a failure of self-knowledge. What was transgressive in 1988 is a little pat now; this kind of franchizable cynicism has become familiar, which is not to say, in Dalla Rosa’s case, that it’s poorly done; and, in fact, its very iterability is the binding principle of the collection.

. . . .

Where a novel is an argument, a short story is an axiom. It’s the minor form for a reason. A novelist may have to publish three or four times before revealing that, like the proverbial flat character, they’re essentially possessed by one idea. A short story writer is less lucky; a story lasts just long enough for some central fixation or moral ideology to crystallize before it collapses under the imperative of economythen the gesture must be repeated. This is why short stories can be uniquely frustrating to read and to write; it’s also why they work so well when the prevailing mode is nastiness, bad people doing cruel and stupid things. The fetish figure of a typical short story collection might be the revenant, the same preoccupations returning again and again to be killed off in entertaining ways. Rather than the revenant, we might say, the fetish of An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is the Sim.

This motif of the digital puppet pursues the characters across the collection. “The stars indicated I was under the influence of an inverted Mars,” says the narrator of “The Hard Thing,” “which meant I could act like a body possessed.” In “Charlie”:

Emma had begun to see herself as a model in one of her renders, or more so as an Emma avatar in the game The Sims or a Sims Brooklyn expansion pack. Emma’s avatar was a Sim that was playing The Sims to earn money, but that money was only ever enough to keep playing, and, at certain times, upgrade homewares.

At one point, Emma’s brain feels like an overworked MacBook; when she’s angry, her MacBook overheats. Experience in “COMME” is “like a certain kind of YouTube video,” or, for the movie star in “In Bright Light,” like “watching a 2D movie that was now 3D.” In “Contact,” in which a call center worker is automated out of her job, the character views her hallway as “a low-rendered loading screen she must navigate as her apartment buffers.”

Link to the rest at Public Books

There are clues in the excerpts, but PG confirms that the author of the OP is Australian. The OP first appeared in the Sydney Review of Books.

For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work

For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude. To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed. Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness. And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man’s memory. Everything that begins as comedy ends in tragedy.

Roberto Bolaño

BookLife Reviews – Reach the Right Readers

From Booklife from Publishers Weekly:

A Guaranteed Review by a Publishers Weekly Reviewer Designed to Help You Market Your Book

A BookLife Review is a respectful, knowledgeable 300-word review that includes information designed to help in the marketing of your book, all crafted by a professional Publishers Weekly reviewer who’s an expert in your genre or field.


Because a BookLife Review is a paid review ($399; $499 for books over 100,000 words), you are guaranteed to receive a review of your book (as long as you can provide a digital version of your book). BookLife Reviews are delivered in six weeks–four weeks if you purchase expedited service ($150). And with your approval, your review will run in the BookLife section of Publishers Weekly magazine at no extra charge. 

. . . .


It’s easy to get a BookLife Review! If you’re a BookLife member, just log in and go to the project page for the book you’d like reviewed.

Link to the rest at Booklife from Publishers Weekly

PG recalls not long ago that paid-for book reviews were among the worst violations of the Iron Code of traditional publishing.

In an earlier post today, we read how Amazon tracked down shady Chinese sellers of paid-for/fake reviews and helped send them to prison.

PG would love to see comments regarding the Publishers’ Weekly “Guaranteed Reviews” program and whether it materially differs from Chinese selling fake reviews.

For those not familiar with the publication, Publishers’ Weekly, which first appeared in 1872, is among the bluest of blue-blood publications covering traditional publishing. Being mentioned in or reviewed on Publishers’ Weekly was formerly a recognition that established an author as a rising star.

Additionally, if anyone is familiar with any reaction Amazon has had to the PW program, PG would love to hear about it, either in the comments or via the Contact PG link at the top of the La Blogge.

Amazon’s latest actions against fake review brokers: 2 fraudsters found guilty of facilitating fake reviews in Amazon’s store

From Amazon:

Two individual fake review brokers were found guilty of illegal business operations intended to deceive Amazon customers and harm Amazon selling partners through the facilitation of fake reviews. These verdicts are the result of local law enforcement’s investigation and a criminal referral supported by Amazon.

From March 2021 to March 2022, the China-based defendants used third-party messaging applications to advertise and sell fake reviews to bad actors operating Amazon selling accounts. In exchange for a fee, the defendants left fake positive reviews to boost a bad actor’s product ranking, or fake negative reviews to lower the ranking of a competitor’s product.

Following the criminal referral, local law enforcement conducted an investigation and confirmed the review brokers’ illicit activities in Amazon’s U.S. store. The defendants were officially sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and three years of probation in China, marking Amazon’s second criminal judgement of this kind.

“Amazon is pleased to see that these fraudsters are being held accountable for their actions,” said David Montague, Amazon’s vice president of Selling Partner Risk. “The verdicts are a testament to the partnership of local officials in bringing down those who attempt to deceive our customers and harm our selling partners. We look forward to continuing to partner with law enforcement toward the mutual goal of bringing fake review brokers to justice.”

Link to the rest at Amazon

The most impressive part of the OP to PG is that Amazon relied upon local Chinese law enforcement to handle the arrest and whatever trial procedure China uses to punish the fake review scammers.

The FTC’s lawsuit against Amazon would lead to higher prices and slower deliveries for consumers—and hurt businesses

From Amazon:

Over the last several years, we’ve engaged cooperatively with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) during a broad-ranging investigation of our business. It was our hope the agency would recognize that Amazon’s innovations and customer-centric focus have benefited American consumers through low prices and increased competition in the already competitive retail industry.

We respect the role the FTC has historically played in protecting consumers and promoting competition. Unfortunately, it appears the current FTC is radically departing from that approach, filing a misguided lawsuit against Amazon that would, if successful, force Amazon to engage in practices that actually harm consumers and the many businesses that sell in our store—such as having to feature higher prices, offer slower or less reliable Prime shipping, and make Prime more expensive and less convenient.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that our pricing practices, our Fulfillment by Amazon offering, and Amazon Prime are anticompetitive. In so doing, the lawsuit reveals the Commission’s fundamental misunderstanding of retail.

In order to demonstrate how the Commission’s case could negatively impact consumers and the businesses that sell in our store, we think it’s important to address some key areas of the FTC’s complaint and explain how Amazon’s procompetitive model actually works.

Bringing low prices to customers

We’re proud of the low prices customers find when shopping in our store—we know customers have many options, and that competitive prices are essential if we want customers to choose us. We’ve also enabled third-party businesses to sell their products right alongside the products we sell ourselves, which provides opportunities for those businesses and an even better experience for customers. When setting prices for the products we sell ourselves, we try to match other retailers’ low prices—online and offline. All of the other businesses that sell in our store set their prices independently, but to help them increase sales and make our store more attractive to customers, we also invest in tools and education to help them offer competitive prices. Other retailers also use similar tools and practices to highlight competitive offers and provide customers value in their stores.

Even with those tools, some of the businesses selling on Amazon might still choose to set prices that aren’t competitive. Just like any store owner who wouldn’t want to promote a bad deal to their customers, we don’t highlight or promote offers that are not competitively priced. It’s part of our commitment to featuring low prices to earn and maintain customer trust, which we believe is the right decision for both consumers and sellers in the long run.

The FTC’s case alleges that our practice of only highlighting competitively priced offers and our practice of matching low prices offered by other retailers somehow lead to higher prices. But that’s not how competition works. The FTC has it backwards and if they were successful in this lawsuit, the result would be anticompetitive and anti-consumer because we’d have to stop many of the things we do to offer and highlight low prices—a perverse result that would be directly opposed to the goals of antitrust law.

The many ways we work to help independent sellers succeed, including Fulfillment by Amazon

We’re fortunate to have incredible businesses selling in our store. There are about 500,000 independent businesses of all sizes in the United States who choose to sell on Amazon, and these businesses have created 1.5 million U.S. jobs. We want them to succeed, we work hard to help them do so, and we’re very proud of their success.

Amazon’s store didn’t initially include third-party sellers. Early on, Amazon followed a well-worn retail path: we purchased products in bulk from brands and distributors, then we sold them directly to customers. In 1999, we began to build on that foundation. To provide customers with an even better experience and greater selection, we invited independent, third-party sellers into our store. Our initial attempts, including having different sections on our website for independent sellers, failed to resonate with customers—they were too confusing or required customers to do too much work to find the best offer. Believing that customers wanted a simple experience, we invited independent sellers to sell right alongside products sold by Amazon. And we even took it a step further—if more than one seller offered the same product (whether or not one of those sellers was Amazon), we listed those offers on the same product page. This single product page included key information about the product and the available offers to choose from, such as the names of the sellers, offer prices, and delivery options. By listing all offers together, customers could easily compare all of the available options for a single product and select the one that was most appealing to them.

In the two decades since we took the procompetitive step of opening our store to other businesses and inviting them to sell alongside us, sellers have gone from 0% to over 60% of sales on Amazon.

This result is not by accident. Amazon is a trusted partner for millions of sellers worldwide because we provide the most effective set of services for creating thriving, successful businesses. We have invested billions of dollars in people, resources, and services to support sellers at every stage of their journey. We regularly provide them with new data and insights about selling on Amazon, the capability to tailor products and listings to customer needs, and recommendations and advice to help grow their businesses. We also offer features that help sellers create and manage product listings, track sales, fulfill orders, respond to customers, and more.

One of the most helpful services we provide to sellers is Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA). This is an optional service for sellers where we’ll handle product storage, packaging, shipping, returns, and customer service—letting them focus on growing their businesses. FBA was made possible by years of investment to build a logistics network that could reliably get packages to customers quickly and handle customer service issues when they arose. As we built this network for ourselves, we decided to offer it to independent sellers to provide them a fast, reliable, and cost-effective option for serving customers. This is a big benefit for independent businesses and, in building it, we’ve created over a million jobs and made significant investments in the American economy.

FBA is a best-in-class, very competitively-priced service that’s offered to businesses selling in our store at very competitive prices. Sellers can choose to use their own fulfillment options as they see fit, and many do, or they can use the option we’ve developed. Many of them choose FBA because Amazon takes care of so much of the heavy lifting of logistics (e.g., storage, picking, packing, shipping, etc.) while also offering fulfillment fees that are an average of 30% less expensive than standard-shipping methods offered by other major third-party logistics providers, and an average of 70% less expensive than comparable two-day shipping alternatives.

Another optional service we provide to sellers is advertising. Like with logistics services, sellers have many choices for how to advertise their products. But sellers often choose our services because they provide better value than the alternatives—helping them grow their businesses and serve more customers.

The FTC’s allegation that we somehow force sellers to use our optional services is simply not true. Sellers have choices, and many succeed in our store using other logistics services or choosing not to advertise with us. We also enable sellers to use the trusted Prime badge when other logistics services are able to meet our Prime customers’ high expectations for fast, reliable delivery. When sellers have multiple options and can choose the right fit for them, the result is increased competition for those services, better prices, and a better experience for both sellers and the customers we all serve.

Innovating to make Amazon Prime a great deal for customers

Invention is core to Amazon’s DNA. Our innovations are often driven by our obsession with delighting customers, and we invent things customers may not even be asking for yet. For example, Amazon Prime started as a free shipping program, but has since become a lot more—even though customers already loved it. That’s because, as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos noted in his 2017 Letter to Shareholders, customers are “divinely discontent.” With customers, “yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’,” so we know we have to keep innovating to keep customers happy.

Prime has been successful because we continue to invest in making it better and better for customers. For example, we hit our fastest Prime speeds ever last quarter. Across the top 60 largest U.S. metro areas, more than half of Prime member orders arrived the same or next day.

 We also recently launched the ability for sellers to offer Prime shipping on their own direct-to-consumer sites via Buy with Prime, and many sellers have already signed up. Early results show sellers who add Prime on their own site as an additional option for customers increase their sales—a clear demonstration of the value to consumers and sellers, even outside of the Amazon store.

Our customers love Prime because it’s such a great experience—which makes it hard to understand why the FTC attempts to paint the value of Prime as somehow anticompetitive. Antitrust laws encourage companies to compete vigorously by offering the best deals they can for consumers. We’ve done that with Prime. This has been good for competition, consumers, and sellers in our store, and we’ll vigorously oppose any attempt to degrade or destroy Prime.

Amazon operates in a thriving retail industry that is dynamic, vibrant, and varied

The FTC’s complaint grossly mischaracterizes the retail industry and the dynamic competition that consumers benefit from every day. Consumers today still buy over 80% of all retail products in physical stores. And as any shopper knows, you can buy the same products at any number of different retailers that compete vigorously with each other, including brick-and-mortar stores, online stores, and quickly growing hybrid models like buy-online-pick-up-in-store. This multitude of options gives customers the ready ability to shop around for the best deal. All of that competition leads to low margins for retailers, but lots of options for sellers to sell their products and better prices for customers wherever they choose to buy.

The FTC pretends that this everyday retail competition doesn’t exist. But its attempt to gerrymander alleged markets into narrow subsets of retailers (who in reality compete with other retailers on the same products) can’t make Amazon into something it is not. Amazon may not be the small business it once was, but we’re still just a piece of a massive and robust retail market with numerous options for consumers and sellers.

Maintaining the benefits of Amazon’s store for consumers and sellers

We’re proud of the ways we’ve helped to spur low prices, innovation, and competition across retail, and we intend to keep doing that for years to come. We fundamentally disagree with the FTC’s allegations—which are in many cases wrong or misleading—and with their overreaching and misguided approach to antitrust, which would harm consumers, hurt independent businesses, and upend long-standing and well-considered doctrines. We will contest this lawsuit, and we will also continue inventing to put our customers—both consumers and the businesses that sell in our store—first.

Link to the rest at Amazon

FTC Sues Amazon for Illegally Maintaining Monopoly Power

Today’s Press Release from The Federal Trade Commission:

The Federal Trade Commission and 17 state attorneys general today sued Amazon.com, Inc. alleging that the online retail and technology company is a monopolist that uses a set of interlocking anticompetitive and unfair strategies to illegally maintain its monopoly power. The FTC and its state partners say Amazon’s actions allow it to stop rivals and sellers from lowering prices, degrade quality for shoppers, overcharge sellers, stifle innovation, and prevent rivals from fairly competing against Amazon.  

The complaint alleges that Amazon violates the law not because it is big, but because it engages in a course of exclusionary conduct that prevents current competitors from growing and new competitors from emerging. By stifling competition on price, product selection, quality, and by preventing its current or future rivals from attracting a critical mass of shoppers and sellers, Amazon ensures that no current or future rival can threaten its dominance. Amazon’s far-reaching schemes impact hundreds of billions of dollars in retail sales every year, touch hundreds of thousands of products sold by businesses big and small and affect over a hundred million shoppers. 

“Our complaint lays out how Amazon has used a set of punitive and coercive tactics to unlawfully maintain its monopolies,” said FTC Chair Lina M. Khan. “The complaint sets forth detailed allegations noting how Amazon is now exploiting its monopoly power to enrich itself while raising prices and degrading service for the tens of millions of American families who shop on its platform and the hundreds of thousands of businesses that rely on Amazon to reach them. Today’s lawsuit seeks to hold Amazon to account for these monopolistic practices and restore the lost promise of free and fair competition.”

“We’re bringing this case because Amazon’s illegal conduct has stifled competition across a huge swath of the online economy. Amazon is a monopolist that uses its power to hike prices on American shoppers and charge sky-high fees on hundreds of thousands of online sellers,” said John Newman, Deputy Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition. “Seldom in the history of U.S. antitrust law has one case had the potential to do so much good for so many people.”

The FTC and states allege Amazon’s anticompetitive conduct occurs in two markets—the online superstore market that serves shoppers and the market for online marketplace services purchased by sellers. These tactics include:

  • Anti-discounting measures that punish sellers and deter other online retailers from offering prices lower than Amazon, keeping prices higher for products across the internet. For example, if Amazon discovers that a seller is offering lower-priced goods elsewhere, Amazon can bury discounting sellers so far down in Amazon’s search results that they become effectively invisible.
  • Conditioning sellers’ ability to obtain “Prime” eligibility for their products—a virtual necessity for doing business on Amazon—on sellers using Amazon’s costly fulfillment service, which has made it substantially more expensive for sellers on Amazon to also offer their products on other platforms. This unlawful coercion has in turn limited competitors’ ability to effectively compete against Amazon.

Amazon’s illegal, exclusionary conduct makes it impossible for competitors to gain a foothold. With its amassed power across both the online superstore market and online marketplace services market, Amazon extracts enormous monopoly rents from everyone within its reach. This includes:

  • Degrading the customer experience by replacing relevant, organic search results with paid advertisements—and deliberately increasing junk ads that worsen search quality and frustrate both shoppers seeking products and sellers who are promised a return on their advertising purchase.
  • Biasing Amazon’s search results to preference Amazon’s own products over ones that Amazon knows are of better quality. 
  • Charging costly fees on the hundreds of thousands of sellers that currently have no choice but to rely on Amazon to stay in business. These fees range from a monthly fee sellers must pay for each item sold, to advertising fees that have become virtually necessary for sellers to do business. Combined, all of these fees force many sellers to pay close to 50% of their total revenues to Amazon. These fees harm not only sellers but also shoppers, who pay increased prices for thousands of products sold on or off Amazon.  

The FTC, along with its state partners, are seeking a permanent injunction in federal court that would prohibit Amazon from engaging in its unlawful conduct and pry loose Amazon’s monopolistic control to restore competition.

Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin joined the Commission’s lawsuit. The Commission vote to authorize staff to file for a permanent injunction and other equitable relief in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington was 3-0.

NOTE: The Commission issues a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest.

Link to the rest at The Federal Trade Commission

PG will spare visitors to TPV by not embedding the entire 172-page complaint.

If you need a bigger US v. Zon fix, the complaint is available for download at the FTC link above.

FTC Sues Amazon, Alleging Illegal Online-Marketplace Monopoly

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Trade Commission and 17 states on Tuesday sued Amazon AMZN -4.35%decrease; red down pointing triangle, alleging the online retailer illegally wields monopoly power that keeps prices artificially high, locks sellers into its platform and harms its rivals.

The FTC’s lawsuit, filed in Seattle federal court, marks a milestone in the Biden administration’s aggressive approach to enforcing antitrust laws and has been anticipated for months.

The agency’s chair, Lina Khan, is a longtime critic of Amazon who wrote in the Yale Law Journal in 2017 that earlier generations of competition cops and courts abandoned the law’s concerns over conglomerates such as Amazon. She has had trouble convincing courts of her antitrust views, however, having earlier lost cases against both Microsoft and Meta Platforms.

The federal agency and the states alleged that Amazon violated antitrust laws by using anti-discounting measures that punished merchants for offering lower prices elsewhere. The government also said sellers on Amazon were compelled to use its logistics service if they want their goods to appear in Amazon Prime, the subscription program whose perks include faster shipping times.

The FTC said sellers feel they must use Amazon’s services such as advertising to be successful on the platform. Between being paid for its logistics program, advertising and other services, “Amazon now takes one of every $2 that a seller makes,” Khan said at a briefing with the media Tuesday.

“The lawsuit filed by the FTC today is wrong on the facts and the law, and we look forward to making that case in court,” said David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel and head of public policy. “The practices the FTC is challenging have helped to spur competition and innovation across the retail industry, and have produced greater selection, lower prices, and faster delivery speeds for Amazon customers and greater opportunity for the many businesses that sell in Amazon’s store.”

The federal agency’s claim that Amazon prevents vendors from offering lower prices on competing websites echoes a claim made in a suit brought last year by the state of California.

“Amazon is now exploiting its monopoly power to enrich itself while raising prices and degrading service for the tens of millions of American families who shop on its platform and the hundreds of thousands of businesses that rely on Amazon to reach them,” Khan said in a statement.

The FTC said it is seeking a court order “that would prohibit Amazon from engaging in its unlawful conduct and pry loose Amazon’s monopolistic control to restore competition.” The lawsuit doesn’t say whether the FTC will ask the court to break up the company, and Khan declined in a briefing with reporters to say whether it would.

“The FTC doesn’t have a particularly good history of bringing monopolization cases,” said Rick Rule, who headed the Justice Department’s antitrust division during the Reagan administration. “Most of the last ones that they brought were in the ’60s and ‘70s and lasted into the ‘80s, and there were various theories but they never went anywhere.”

. . . .

Until recently, it has been rare for federal agencies to file monopoly lawsuits seeking to break up companies accused of anticompetitive behavior. While the FTC and Justice Department regularly seek to block what they see as illegal acquisitions, the government doesn’t often move against companies for anticompetitive behavior unrelated to acquisitions.

. . . .

The FTC’s lawsuit alleges that Amazon, despite its reputation for low prices and convenient delivery among many consumers, steadily grew from an online bookseller into a gatekeeper of online commerce that used its size to squash any budding rivals.

The Justice Department, in its lawsuit over Google search, similarly alleged that Alphabet used its scale to thwart competition. In that case, the government said Google used restrictive agreements with Apple and others to be the default search provider. That enhanced Google’s reach while starving other search engines of the data they needed to improve, the DOJ alleges.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

On a list of the many things PG is not, an antitrust expert or a political analyst would be among the most prominent.

That said, he wonders what the PR issues will be in the Justice Department suit. Amazon has about 230 million customers in the U.S. (out of a total adult population of about 260 million.)

Amazon is unlikely to do anything as a company to stir up the populace, but PG would be surprised if various groups of Amazon customers don’t arise to encourage their elected representatives to criticize the Amazon lawsuit.

Amazon also has 1.1 million sellers in the U.S. Per PG’s quick and dirty online research, KDP has over 1 million authors that publish through the platform. Informed estimates of total royalties paid by KDP to authors in 2022 place the amount as over $500 million.

In a popularity contest, Amazon would crush the Federal Trade Commission and, likely, the entire government of the United States.

Antitrust counsel representing Amazon will take a firm grip on official comments about the lawsuit coming from Amazon and its executives.

However, PG expects the formal and informal web of Amazon sellers will get vocal about this once the word gets around. Ditto for authors who earn most of their royalties from Amazon sales.

Antitrust lawsuits against large, well-known companies in the United States are relatively rare. In 2022, the Justice Department filed only 242 antitrust lawsuits, mostly involving companies/parties even the well-read group of people who visit TPV are unlikely to recognize.

PG is going to follow the progress of this lawsuit from afar and will provide whatever reports he believes would interest visitors to TPV.

Let characters’ emotions spill in unpredictable ways

From Nathan Bransford:

One of the strangest things about writing fiction is that it often needs to make more sense than real life.

In real life, people fall into grief-stricken states of paralysis, wander around aimlessly without knowing what they’re looking for, and endlessly endure unpleasantness without trying to change anything about their circumstances. It’s extremely difficult to make those things interesting in a novel.

When we’re reading novels, it’s confusing and even frustrating when a character doesn’t act in accordance with their desires. To put it more simply: characters who care about something need to act like they care about it. They need to prioritize coherently (if not always rationally).

If they’re terrified, they need to act terrified. They shouldn’t be in the mood to stop in a place of danger and engage in endless breezy banter.

If they’re stuck, it’s helpful to see them at least try to escape so we can grasp the contours of their obstacles.

But there’s still plenty of room for humans to be human. One way you can give your character more latitude to act irrationally and convey to the reader that they really do care is to let their emotions spill out unpredictably.

A character under stress should act like it

Particularly when a writer has fallen a bit too in love with their dialogue, they can unintentionally create incongruities where it feels like a character can’t possibly care about what’s happening in the narrative if they are so unruffled that they have all the time in the world to engage in witty banter.

Now, this can be made to work. The James Bond-ish unflappable hero is an archetype for a reason. But the way to pull this off isn’t to show nothing at all getting to the protagonist. It’s to show stress building and then leaking out in unpredictable ways.

For example, a young protagonist who suffers an indignity from a teacher at school may not be able to immediately channel their frustration. If they were to lash out at the teacher, they’d get in still-more trouble, so they may well bite their tongue in the moment. But instead of simply moving on, the injustice should build and fester, and the protagonist might lash out at a safer target, like a friend or parent, or engage in some risky or uncharacteristic behavior. That acting out may well compound the stress even further.

In other words, the conflict isn’t just allowed to dissipate. It’s more like a ticking time bomb.

The most important principle here: Don’t let a good conflict go to waste!

Don’t let your character’s emotions just disappear. Pour them into an increasingly unmanageable bucket that might spill over at any time.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

The State of the Printing Industry

From Publishers Weekly:

Questions surrounding the future of book printing drew a capacity crowd of 155 publishing professionals to the BMI (Book Manufacturers Institute) Book Manufacturing Mastered conference, held September 14 at Penguin Random House’s New York City headquarters. And though the book manufacturing sector was booming during the pandemic, economic conditions have softened and costs for most materials are continuing to go up. Still, speakers at the conference said book printers are generally in a good place, albeit with a host of challenges ahead of them.

In addition to rising costs, topics discussed at the daylong conference included the renewed postpandemic threat of work moving off-shore, sustainability concerns, the shift from offset to digital printing, and labor shortages.

“We’re basically where we were back in 2014,” said Marco Boer, v-p of IT Strategies, in the opening presentation. “We haven’t lost all that printed book volume that people were worried about when e-books came in, and so we all say this is okay. People are continuing to read and print, and that’s great.”

But a deeper look at the numbers and trends reveals some challenges to be addressed, Boer continued, noting that, after some strong years during the pandemic, the printing market is not stable. “Yes, we’ve had a great 2022. But it’s getting a little bit more complicated as we go forward.” He pointed to logistical challenges, uncertainty over how Amazon will impact the market, and rising paper costs, citing a projected annual 3% decline in supply.

In addition, Boer pointed to another key factor that portends change: the end of the megabestseller. He attributed that trend in part to increased competition from other sources of entertainment, pointing out that the Harry Potter series (whose final volume was published in 2007) were the last to sell tens of millions of copies. “Last year, the bestselling titles were by Colleen Hoover, and she sold 2.75 million books.”

Still, Boer said that unit sales in 2022 were stronger than they were in 2019. “So again, things are not bad,” he noted. “But [the instability] means you have to get more efficient.”

On two follow-up panels—one featuring printers and the other publishers—speakers noted that pressure from publishers and consumers for printers to become more environmentally responsible will also add to pricing pressures. For one thing, they said, the cost for postconsumer wastepaper needed for making recycled paper is the highest it’s been in years. But the printers agreed that the book manufacturing sector needs to invest in an environmentally sustainable future. Todd Roth of Thomas Reuters’s core publishing solutions business (which prints about 30 million books per year) said his company’s goal is to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% by 2030. Linnea Knollmueller of Penguin Random House said her company has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030 and continues to up its use of certified paper (as of 2021, 96% of PRH’s paper came from certified mills).

Roth was one of several panelists who agreed that labor costs for book manufacturers will continue to rise, noting that his company is paying premiums for people to work on second and third shifts as a way to try to attract new talent. The company is also using younger employees to recruit much-needed workers.

While the consensus from the printers’ panel was that prices will have to rise as costs do, the panelists were cognizant that too many increases would negate some of the gains achieved during the pandemic in bringing back work from overseas, particularly from printers in China. David Hetherington of Business International said printers need to work together to convince publishers to support domestic book manufacturing.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

It’s like an instant replay that you’ve seen over and over. It’s way more expensive to ship dead trees than it is electrons over the internet. It’s way more expensive to get physical space in warehouses for dead trees than it is to have some organized bits of information sitting on a big hard drive or collection of big hard drives.

Hard-copy books are inherently more expensive to create, distribute and sell than ebooks are and publishers (or self-publishers) earn far higher profit margins with ebooks than they do with any sort of printed book.

PG is not predicting the imminent collapse of the market for printed books, but printing books is a business that’s going to get smaller and smaller over time. Eventually, printed books will become another category of collectibles.

The Band of Debunkers Busting Bad Scientists

From The Wall Street Journal:

An award-winning Harvard Business School professor and researcher spent years exploring the reasons people lie and cheat. A trio of behavioral scientists examining a handful of her academic papers concluded her own findings were drawn from falsified data.

It was a routine takedown for the three scientists—Joe Simmons, Leif Nelson and Uri Simonsohn—who have gained academic renown for debunking published studies built on faulty or fraudulent data. They use tips, number crunching and gut instincts to uncover deception. Over the past decade, they have come to their own finding: Numbers don’t lie but people do. 

“Once you see the pattern across many different papers, it becomes like a one in quadrillion chance that there’s some benign explanation,” said Simmons, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the trio who report their work on a blog called Data Colada. 

Simmons and his two colleagues are among a growing number of scientists in various fields around the world who moonlight as data detectives, sifting through studies published in scholarly journals for evidence of fraud. 

At least 5,500 faulty papers were retracted in 2022, compared with 119 in 2002, according to Retraction Watch, a website that keeps a tally. The jump largely reflects the investigative work of the Data Colada scientists and many other academic volunteers, said Dr. Ivan Oransky, the site’s co-founder. Their discoveries have led to embarrassing retractions, upended careers and retaliatory lawsuits. 

Neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne stepped down last month as president of Stanford University, following years of criticism about data in his published studies. Posts on PubPeer, a website where scientists dissect published studies, triggered scrutiny by the Stanford Daily. A university investigation followed, and three studies he co-wrote were retracted.

Stanford concluded that although Tessier-Lavigne didn’t personally engage in research misconduct or know about misconduct by others, he “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record.” Tessier-Lavigne, who remains on the faculty, declined to comment.

The hunt for misleading studies is more than academic. Flawed social-science research can lead to faulty corporate decisions about consumer behavior or misguided government rules and policies. Errant medical research risks harm to patients. Researchers in all fields can waste years and millions of dollars in grants trying to advance what turn out to be fraudulent findings.

The data detectives hope their work will keep science honest, at a time when the public’s faith in science is ebbing. The pressure to publish papers—which can yield jobs, grants, speaking engagements and seats on corporate advisory boards—pushes researchers to chase unique and interesting findings, sometimes at the expense of truth, according to Simmons and others.

“It drives me crazy that slow, good, careful science—if you do that stuff, if you do science that way, it means you publish less,” Simmons said. “Obviously, if you fake your data, you can get anything to work.”

The journal Nature this month alerted readers to questions raised about an article on the discovery of a room-temperature superconductor—a profound and far-reaching scientific finding, if true. Physicists who examined the work said the data didn’t add up. University of Rochester physicist Ranga Dias, who led the research, didn’t respond to a request for comment but has defended his work. Another paper he co-wrote was retracted in August after an investigation suggested some measurements had been fabricated or falsified. An earlier paper from Dias was retracted last year. The university is looking closely at more of his work.

Experts who examine suspect data in published studies count every retraction or correction of a faulty paper as a victory for scientific integrity and transparency. “If you think about bringing down a wall, you go brick by brick,” said Ben Mol, a physician and researcher at Monash University in Australia. He investigates clinic trials in obstetrics and gynecology. His alerts have prompted journals to retract some 100 papers with investigations ongoing in about 70 others.

Among those looking into other scientists’ work are Elisabeth Bik, a former microbiologist who specializes in spotting manipulated photographs in molecular biology experiments, and Jennifer Byrne, a cancer researcher at the University of Sydney who helped develop software to screen papers for faulty DNA sequences that would indicate the experiments couldn’t have worked.

“If you take the sleuths out of the equation,” Oransky said, “it’s very difficult to see how most of these retractions would have happened.”

The origins of Data Colada stretch back to Princeton University in 1999. Simmons and Nelson, fellow grad-school students, played in a cover band called Gibson 5000 and a softball team called the Psychoplasmatics. Nelson and Simonsohn got to know each other in 2007, when they were faculty members in the business school at the University of California, San Diego.

The trio became friends and, in 2011, published their first joint paper, “False-Positive Psychology.” It included a satirical experiment that used accepted research methods to demonstrate that people who listened to the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four” grew younger. They wanted to show how research standards could accommodate absurd findings. “They’re kind of legendary for that,” said Yoel Inbar, a psychologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough. The study became the most cited paper in the journal Psychological Science.

When the trio launched Data Colada in 2013, it became a site to air ideas about the benefits and pitfalls of statistical tools and data analyses. “The whole goal was to get a few readers and to not embarrass ourselves,” Simmons said. Over time, he said, “We have accidentally trained ourselves to see fraud.”

They co-wrote an article published in 2014 that coined the now-common academic term “p-hacking,” which describes cherry-picking data or analyses to make insignificant results look statistically credible. Their early work contributed to a shift in research methods, including the practice of sharing data so other scientists can try to replicate published work.

“The three of them have done an amazing job of developing new methodologies to interrogate the credibility of research,” said Brian Nosek, executive director of the Center for Open Science, a nonprofit based in Charlottesville, Va., which advocates for reliable research.

Nelson, who teaches at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, is described by his partners as the big-picture guy, able to zoom out of the weeds and see the broad perspective.

Simonsohn is the technical whiz, at ease with opaque statistical techniques. “It is nothing short of a superpower,” Nelson said. Simonsohn was the first to learn how to spot the fingerprints of fraud in data sets.

Working together, Simonsohn said, “feels a lot like having a computer with three core processors working in parallel.”

The men first eyeball the data to see if they make sense in the context of the research. The first study Simonsohn examined for faulty data on the blog was obvious. Participants were asked to rate an experience on a scale from zero through 10, yet the data set inexplicably had negative numbers.

Another red flag is an improbable claim—say a study that said a runner could sprint 100 yards in half a second. Such findings always get a second look. “You immediately know, no way,” said Simonsohn, who teaches at the Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain. Another telltale sign is perfect data in small data sets. Real-world data is chaotic, random.

Any one of those can trigger an examination of a paper’s underlying data. “Is it just an innocent error? Is it p-hacking?” Simmons said. “We never rush to say fraud.”

. . . .

Bad data goes undetected in academic journals largely because the publications rely on volunteer experts to ensure the quality of published work, not to detect fraud. Journals don’t have the expertise or personnel to examine underlying data for errors or deliberate manipulation, said Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals. 

. . . .

Thorp said he talks to Bik and other debunkers, noting that universities and other journal editors should do the same. “Nobody loves to hear from her,” he said. “But she’s usually right.”

The data sleuths have pushed journals to pay more attention to correcting the record, he said. Most have hired people to review allegations of bad data. Springer Nature, which publishes Nature and some 3,000 other journals, has a team of 20 research staffers, said Chris Graf, the company’s research integrity director, twice as many as when he took over in 2021.

Retraction Watch, which with research organization Crossref keep a log of some 50,000 papers discredited over the past century, estimated that, as of 2022, about eight papers have been retracted for every 10,000 published studies.

Bik and others said it can take months or years for journals to resolve complaints about suspect studies. Of nearly 800 papers that Bik reported to 40 journals in 2014 and 2015 for running misleading images, only a third had been corrected or retracted five years later, she said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Amazon restricts authors from self-publishing more than three books a day after AI concerns

From The Guardian:

Amazon has created a new rule limiting the number of books that authors can self-publish on its site to three a day, after an influx of suspected AI-generated material was listed for sale in recent months.

The company announced the new limitations in a post on its Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) forum on Monday. “While we have not seen a spike in our publishing numbers, in order to help protect against abuse, we are lowering the volume limits we have in place on new title creations,” read the statement. KDP allows authors to self-publish their books and list them for sale on Amazon’s site.

Amazon told the Guardian that the limit is set at three titles, though this number may be adjusted “if needed”. The company confirmed that there had already been a limit to the number of books authors could list a day, but declined to say what this previous limit was.

The post stated that Amazon is “actively monitoring the rapid evolution of generative AI and the impact it is having on reading, writing, and publishing” and that “very few” publishers will be affected by the change. Authors and publishers will also have the option to seek an exception to the rule.

The rule change will “probably not” be a “gamechanger for managing the influx of AI-written content on Amazon’s platform,” said Dr Miriam Johnson, senior lecturer in publishing at Oxford Brookes University. “It will dent the numbers a bit, but for those who are making money by flooding the market with AI-generated books and publishing more than three a day, they will find a work-around.”

The three-book limit announcement comes a week after Amazon introduced the requirement for authors to inform the company when their content is AI-generated and added a new section to their guidelines featuring definitions of “AI-generated” and “AI-assisted” content. Johnson said that though the disclosure requirement is a “nice idea”, she questions how Amazon would check whether authors are disclosing AI-generated content.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

‘Boss’: From a Head Honcho in Dutch to a Rock Star in the U.S.A.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that Bruce Springsteen’s birthday, Sept. 23, would be formally recognized by the state as Bruce Springsteen Day. “Truth be told, I know my place in the hierarchy of New Jersey,” Murphy joked when presenting the official proclamation. “After all, I may be the 56th individual to be called ‘governor,’ but there will ever only be just one ‘Boss.’”

The moment was reminiscent of the 2016 ceremony in which then-President Barack Obama bestowed Springsteen with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I am the president, he is ‘The Boss,’” Obama acknowledged.

Springsteen himself has never been fond of the nickname. Biographers have said have said that early in his career, his bandmates called him “The Boss” when he collected money from concert venues to distribute to the band. That appellation extended to his onstage authority, and the music press picked up on it when he became a star in the mid-1970s.

In a 1980 interview, Springsteen plainly stated, “I hate bosses. I hate being called the boss.” His reluctance to embrace the word “boss” is understandable given the way it has been used both approvingly and disapprovingly over its history.

“Boss” first entered English during the American colonial era, when settlers from England and the Netherlands interacted along the Atlantic coast. In Dutch, the word “baas” meant “master” and could refer to an employer or foreman overseeing workers. A fuller form, “werkbaas,” or “work-boss,” was used by Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop in a 1635 journal entry about an engineer building fortifications.

Early usage of “boss” centered in New York, where Dutch influence was the strongest, spreading out to other regions in the 19th century. In her 2009 book “Cookies, Coleslaw, and Stoops: The Influence of Dutch on the North American Languages,” Dutch linguist Nicoline van der Sijs observed that “boss” was “an acceptable alternative to ‘master’” for English settlers who “wanted to do away with the hierarchical relations customary in their homeland.” As the English traveler James Flint wrote in an 1818 letter from America, “‘Master’ is not a word in the vocabulary of hired people. ‘Bos,’ a Dutch one of similar import, is substituted.”

While “boss” may have originally sounded better than “master” to American ears, it would not be long before more negative connotations began creeping in. In the 1860s, when William M. Tweed rose in the ranks to take control of New York City’s government, he earned the title “boss,” and newspapers began to label him regularly as “Boss Tweed.” As the extent of Tweed’s rampant corruption in his Tammany Hall political machine became widely known, the word “boss” was tarnished, with “bossism” coming to refer to the domination of a political organization by a single dictatorial leader. In the early 20th century, “boss” worked its way into the criminal underworld as well, as in “mob boss” or “gang boss.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Not a fast writer? You can still build a successful publishing strategy

From Nail Your Novel:

The classic advice for authors, particularly indie authors, is to pump out a lot of books fast to build a big backlist and keep your readers interested. But that pace of writing and production doesn’t suit everybody.

Exhibit A, the introduction to my newsletter.

I write books slowly.

I probably won’t have a new release for a while but I’ve always got adventures to share. My newsletter is my diary of what’s mattered to be in a month, as a writer, editor, book adorer, storybrain for hire.

For a long time, slow-burn authors in the indie world weren’t getting seen or acknowledged. Most of the guidance was geared to fast producers. It seemed that if you didn’t put out several titles a year, and have a backlist that would fill a car boot, you wouldn’t be able to build a readership. What about the people whose work didn’t fit that pattern?

link to the rest at Nail Your Novel

How to Write a Compelling Transition Sentence

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

At a writers’ workshop, I once heard a beginning writer talk about how it had taken him almost all day to write a paragraph describing his character waking up in his bedroom upstairs and going to the kitchen downstairs to make breakfast.

“He made eggs and toast,” continued the writer.

“And then what happened?” I asked.

“He got some strawberry jam out of the refrigerator.”

Not much of a story, I thought. “The jam was poisoned?” I prompted.

He shook his head. “He found a body near the stove.”

Which meant the writer needed to beware the dreaded narrative-crushing, throat-clearing set up.

Which also meant he needed to learn how to write a compelling, effective transition sentence.

What is a transition sentence?

Transition sentences are the crucial bridges that link one thought to the next or one scene to the next.

Well-constructed transition sentences, unlike London Bridge, do not fall down. Instead, they structure a smooth-flowing story, ensure forward progress, escalate suspense or tension, and, in turn, create page-turning, can’t-put-it-down fiction.

We’re talking about the hard working sentences that move your story from here to there, from him to her, from good guy to bad guy.

The transition sentence seamlessly moves the reader from one character, scene, place or mood to the next.

For example:

“As up-and-coming country singer, Joe Bob Smith, knocked on the door of the Memphis company’s hottest hit maker, in cold, snowy Moscow, his sister, CIA super agent Daphne Smith, bundled in thick sheepskins, skulked along the wall surrounding the Kremlin.”

So here we are: all the way from Memphis to Moscow, from pop music headliner to tense thriller in a single sentence.

The transition sentence can also link one thought or mood to another:

“She loved him, but she was already late for work and he’d left the car’s fuel gauge pointing to empty. Which meant she would have to stop at the gas station first and would make her even later.

“Which also meant she wanted to kill him.”

Three sentences that shift the mood.

Whether the tone is mystery, thriller, or comedy depends on genre.

How to write a powerful transition sentence.

The transition sentence must be clear, simple, and direct as it moves the reader’s attention from one focus to another and provides the connective tissue that supports compelling narrative.

It might link AM and PM, Wednesday and Friday, Spring to Summer — or one place to another — from Memphis to Moscow, from the kitchen to the living room, or from one thought or mood to another.

“Leaving the hot, steamy kitchen and the winey beef stew for which she was locally celebrated, Linda Jones checked the mirror to refresh her makeup and tidy her hair. She wanted to look her best when the tall, Cary Grant lookalike United Parcel man rang her doorbell even as she fretted about what she could do to keep her husband from finding out about him.”

The well-crafted transition sentence can compress or expand time.

“As Henry Tailor gunned his silver Ferrari into merging traffic, he recalled the time almost fifteen years ago when he’d been dead broke. He’d vowed never to be poor again, and he’d lied, stolen and cheated to make his way to the top of the Hollywood heap as CEO of Colossal Pix.”

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Generative AI vs. Copyright

From Publishers Weekly:

The balance between copyright and free speech is being challenged by generative AI (GAI), a powerful and enigmatic tool that mimics human responses to prompts entered into an internet search box. The purpose of copyright law, according to the U.S. Constitution, is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their exclusive writings.” The problem is that GAI’s ability to incentivize progress and innovation threatens the entertainment industry’s dependence on copyright to protect creative works.

Copyright law strikes a balance between those who create content and the public’s interest in having wide access to that content. It does this via granting authors a limited monopoly over the dissemination of original works by giving them the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, and create derivative works based on copyrighted material. However, the concept of exclusive rights doesn’t really apply to artificially intelligent robots and computers scraping ideas and facts from public websites.

Because copyright does not protect ideas, facts, procedures, concepts, principles, or discoveries described or embodied in works, copying alone doesn’t constitute copyright infringement. To prove copyright infringement, one must prove that the defendant had access to the copyrighted work and that the defendant’s work is substantially similar to protected aspects of the first work.

For AI output to infringe upon a book, it must have taken a substantial amount of copyrightable expression from the author’s work. When it comes to text, GAI is an artful plagiarist. It knows how to dance around copyright. The predictive model emulates, it doesn’t copy. Insofar as text generated in response to a prompt is not substantially similar—a legal term of art—to the data it is scraping, it is not an infringement. In other words, don’t overestimate the value of litigation.

The fair-use doctrine is another limitation on the exclusive rights of authors. Its purpose is to avoid the rigid application of copyright law in ways that might otherwise stifle the growth of art and science. Fair use is highly fact specific. Which is another way of saying it’s a murky and contentious area of the law.

Several cases decided before the advent of GAI suggest fair use encompasses the ingestion and processing of books by GAI. For example, in 2015, in Authors Guild v. Google, the court ruled that Google’s digitizing of books without consent to create a full-text searchable database that displayed snippets from those titles was a transformative use that served a different purpose and expression than the original books.

Fair use favors transformative uses. However, over time, the concept evolved from using a protected work as a springboard for new insights or critiquing the original to taking someone else’s photographs or other images and including them in a painting and declaring it a fair use.

In 2023, in Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the claim to fairness is severely undermined “where an original work and copying use share the same or highly similar purposes, or where wide dissemination of a secondary work would otherwise run the risk of substitution for the original or licensed derivatives of it.” AI-generated works can devalue human-created content, but is that the kind of economic harm contemplated in the Supreme Court’s decision?

To sum up, on a case-by-case basis, courts must determine if substantial similarity exists and then engage in line drawing—balancing free expression and the rights of creators.

. . . .

In an age of disinformation, an author’s brand, a publisher’s imprint, and the goodwill associated with them are valuable assets. I believe the industry is less vulnerable than many think. But, to quote Nick Lowe, “Where it’s goin’ no one knows.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that the author of the OP is an attorney, so he will cut and paste his disclaimer from the post he just published so no one who reads only this TPV post will not be misled.

PG notes that nothing you read on TPV constitutes legal advice. If you want legal advice, you need to hire a lawyer, not read a blog post.

PG will also note that the OP includes some other suggestions by the author, who is an attorney, which you may want to consider, but hire your own lawyer because, just like PG, the author of the OP is not your attorney and isn’t giving legal advice by writing an article for Publishers Weekly.

Using Generative AI? Consider These 7 Tips From a Legal Expert

From Learn2G2:

As G2’s General Counsel, it’s my job to help build and protect the company, so it’s likely no surprise that generative AI is top of mind for me (and lawyers everywhere!).

While AI presents an opportunity for organizations, it also poses risks. And these risks raise concerns for all business leaders, not only legal departments.

With so much information out there, I recognize these waters can be difficult to navigate. So, to help get to the crux of these concerns and boil them down into a helpful guide for all business leaders, I recently sat down with some of the top minds in the AI space for a round-table discussion in San Francisco.

There, we discussed the changing landscape of generative AI, the laws affecting it, and what this all means for how our businesses operate.

We came to the agreement that, yes, generative AI tools are revolutionizing the way we live and work. However, we also agreed that there are several legal factors businesses should consider as they embark on their generative AI journeys.

Based on that discussion, here are seven things to consider when integrating AI into your company.

Understand the lay of the land

Your first task is to identify whether you’re working with an artificial intelligence company or a company that uses AI. An AI company creates, develops, and sells AI technologies, with AI as its core business offering. Think OpenAI or DeepMind.

On the other hand, a company that uses AI integrates AI into its operations or products but doesn’t create the AI technology itself. Netflix’s recommendation system is a good example of this. Knowing the difference is pivotal, as it determines the complexity of the legal terrain you need to navigate and deciphers which laws apply to you.

G2 lays out the key AI software in this developing field. When you have a bird’s-eye view of the possible tools, you can make better decisions on which is right for your business.

Keep an eye out on the latest developments in the law, as generative AI regulations are on the horizon. Legislation is rapidly developing in the US, UK, and Europe. Likewise, litigation involving AI is actively being decided. Keep in touch with your attorneys for the latest developments.

Choose the right partner, keeping terms of use in mind

You can tell a lot about a company by its terms of use. What does a company value? How do they handle the relationship with their users or customers? The terms of use can serve as a litmus test.

OpenAI, for instance, explicitly states in its usage policies that its technology shouldn’t be used for harmful, deceptive, or otherwise unethical applications. Bing Chat requires users to comply with laws prohibiting offensive content or behavior. Google Bard, meanwhile, focuses on data security and privacy in its terms – highlighting Google’s commitment to protecting user data. Evaluating these terms is essential to ensuring your business aligns with the AI partner’s principles and legal requirements.

We compared the terms of use and privacy policies of several key generative AI players to help us determine which AI tools would work best for our company’s risk profile and recommend you do the same.

Between your company and the AI company, who owns the input? Who owns the output? Will your company data be used to train the AI model? How does the AI tool process, and to whom does it send personally identifiable information? How long will the input or output be retained by the AI tool?

Answers to these questions inform the extent to which your company will want to interact with the AI tool.

Navigate the labyrinth of ownership rights

When using generative AI tools, it’s paramount to understand the extent of your ownership right to the data that you put into the AI and the data that is derived from the AI.

From a contractual perspective, the answers depend on the agreement you have with the AI company. Always ensure that the terms of use or service agreements detail the ownership rights clearly.

For example, OpenAI takes the position that between the user and OpenAI, the user owns all inputs and outputs. Google Bard, Microsoft’s Bing Chat, Jasper Chat, and Anthropic’s Claude similarly each grant full ownership of input and output data to the user but simultaneously reserve for themselves a broad license to use AI-generated content in a multitude of ways.

Anthropic’s Claude grants ownership of input data to the user but only “authorizes users to use the output data.” Anthropic also grants itself a license for AI content, but only “to use all feedback, ideas, or suggested improvements users provide.” The contractual terms you enter into are highly variable across AI companies.

Strike the right balance between copyright and IP

AI’s ability to generate unique outputs creates questions about who has intellectual property (IP) protections over those outputs. Can AI create copyrightable work? If so, who is the holder of the copyright?

The law is not entirely clear on these questions, which is why it’s crucial to have a proactive IP strategy when dealing with AI. Consider whether it is important for your business to enforce IP ownership of the AI output.

Presently, jurisdictions are divided about their views on copyright ownership for AI-generated works. On one hand, the U.S. Copyright Office takes the position that AI-generated works, absent any human involvement, cannot be copyrighted because they are not authored by a human.

Link to the rest at Learn2G2

The article goes on to discuss several other interesting legal and intellectual property points.

PG notes that nothing you read on TPV constitutes legal advice. If you want legal advice, you need to hire a lawyer, not read a blog post.

PG will also note that the OP includes some other suggestions by the author, who is an attorney, which you may want to consider, but hire your own lawyer because, just like PG, the author of the OP is not your attorney and isn’t giving legal advice by writing an online article.

Should Writers Attend a Book Group that’s Discussing their Own Book?

From Women Writers, Women[s] Books:

On a warm September night, in an English town, a writer steps into a room. Though she has been in this pleasant room before, the writer’s breath comes fast. Faces twist towards her, hard to read. What will happen in the next two hours is out of her control.

That writer, you may guess, is me. Twice in recent weeks, I’ve had the privilege of listening as a book group discusses The Truth Has Arms and Legs, my debut collection of short stories, published by Fly On The Wall Press. In that time, I’ve been delighted, moved – and pummelled. Book groups, I’ve discovered, are not cosy places; or not, at least, for authors. Any writer seeking ego-boosting flattery has come to the wrong place.

Don’t get me wrong: having belonged to one myself for over twenty years, I hold book groups in the highest possible esteem. Where else can women (let’s be honest – it’s mainly women) meet to drink wine (let’s be honest – there should be wine) and swap frank views on literature, life and all things in between?

In the days before my first book group appearance, I felt some trepidation. What if its members did not care for my short stories? To stumble on a one-star review in print can be painful. How much worse, to hear one delivered face-to-face.

Still, I reassured myself, reviews for my collection so far had been favourable. The chance to hear what readers thought, at first hand, was too good to pass up. A friend within the group had been generous to invite me. Surely nothing would go wrong.

At first, nothing did. The responses to my stories were pertinent and thoughtful. And then, as I relaxed, the mood began to change. “Oh – that story – no, no, no,” someone said, shaking her head. “And why did you make that other one so sad?” asked someone else (of a story I’d intended to be funny). A third rebuked me for a detail that (when I checked later) was not written on the page at all.

Before long I was reeling, punch-drunk like a boxer in a ring. Damp-palmed, I parried what seemed like raining blows. But no sooner had I dragged myself upright than another fierce left hook would send me spinning to the ropes.

Self-doubt – which every writer carries deep within their soul – began to surface. What monster of a book had I written? What monster of a person must I be myself?

And then, the way sunshine is restored by the passing of a cloud, positivity returned. Yes, the group agreed, they had very much enjoyed my book. Yes, they would love to read whatever I wrote next. I smiled, a little wanly, and thanked them for inviting me along.

Of course, I should have been prepared. As writers, we know that the words we supply are only half the story. What readers add as they read – their own preoccupations, experiences and desires – completes the process that we have just begun.

Knowing this, intellectually, is one thing. Seeing it play out before you is quite another. That is why, I suggest, authors invited to attend a book group should approach with care. Book groups exist, quite rightly, to serve the needs of readers. The needs of readers and writers do not totally align.

So it is that, on this warm September evening as I arrive at another book group, my mood is less carefree than before. Most likely, all will be well. Yet, like a child returning to the dentist, I cannot shake the knowledge that what happens next may hurt.

As before, the members of the group are talking merrily – but not about my book. They are speaking of their jobs, lives, children, the things old friends share when they regather. At first this does not bother me. I wait, and glug a glass of wine, and wait some more. Countless times, in my own book group, we have done the same. But, attending as the writer, this feels different. Even – as more minutes pass – perturbing. Perhaps the ladies assembled in the room have not liked my stories. Perhaps they would rather speak of other things all night, than say this sad fact to my face. Perhaps – even worse – they have not read the book.

At a point when I am certain my stories are of less interest than the dust upon their shoes, the host calls the group to order. A glow of attention settles on my book. Each person tells me what they think.

“The characters stay with you,” a woman says, beside me.

“It’s not like a novel, where you keep forgetting what you’ve read,” puts in another. “I kept thinking what would happen, after the story’s over.”

From Women Writers, Women[s] Books

Confessions of a Viral AI Writer

From Wired:

SIX OR SEVEN years ago, I realized I should learn about artificial intelligence. I’m a journalist, but in my spare time I’d been writing a speculative novel set in a world ruled by a corporate, AI-run government. The problem was, I didn’t really understand what a system like that would look like.

I started pitching articles that would give me an excuse to find out, and in 2017 I was assigned to profile Sam Altman, a cofounder of OpenAI. One day I sat in on a meeting in which an entrepreneur asked him when AI would start replacing human workers. Altman equivocated at first, then brought up what happened to horses when cars were invented. “For a while,” he said, “horses found slightly different jobs, and today there are no more jobs for horses.”

The difference between horses and humans, of course, is that humans are human. Three years later, when Open-AI was testing a text generator called GPT-3, I asked Altman whether I could try it out. I’d been a writer my whole adult life, and in my experience, writing felt mostly like waiting to find the right word. Then I’d discover it, only to get stumped again on the next one. This process could last months or longer; my novel had been evading me for more than a decade. A word-generating machine felt like a revelation. But it also felt like a threat—given the uselessness of horses and all that.

OpenAI agreed to let me try out GPT-3, and I started with fiction. I typed a bit, tapped a button, and GPT-3 generated the next few lines. I wrote more, and when I got stuck, tapped again. The result was a story about a mom and her son hanging out at a playground after the death of the son’s playmate. To my surprise, the story was good, with a haunting AI-produced climax that I never would have imagined. But when I sent it to editors, explaining the role of AI in its construction, they rejected it, alluding to the weirdness of publishing a piece written partly by a machine. Their hesitation made me hesitate too.

I kept playing with GPT-3. I was starting to feel, though, that if I did publish an AI-assisted piece of writing, it would have to be, explicitly or implicitly, about what it means for AI to write. It would have to draw attention to the emotional thread that AI companies might pull on when they start selling us these technologies. This thread, it seemed to me, had to do with what people were and weren’t capable of articulating on their own.

There was one big event in my life for which I could never find words. My older sister had died of cancer when we were both in college. Twenty years had passed since then, and I had been more or less speechless about it since. One night, with anxiety and anticipation, I went to GPT-3 with this sentence: “My sister was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when I was in my freshman year of high school and she was in her junior year.”

GPT-3 picked up where my sentence left off, and out tumbled an essay in which my sister ended up cured. Its last line gutted me: “She’s doing great now.” I realized I needed to explain to the AI that my sister had died, and so I tried again, adding the fact of her death, the fact of my grief. This time, GPT-3 acknowledged the loss. Then, it turned me into a runner raising funds for a cancer organization and went off on a tangent about my athletic life.

I tried again and again. Each time, I deleted the AI’s text and added to what I’d written before, asking GPT-3 to pick up the thread later in the story. At first it kept failing. And then, on the fourth or fifth attempt, something shifted. The AI began describing grief in language that felt truer—and with each subsequent attempt, it got closer to describing what I’d gone through myself.

When the essay, called “Ghosts,” came out in The Believer in the summer of 2021, it quickly went viral. I started hearing from others who had lost loved ones and felt that the piece captured grief better than anything they’d ever read. I waited for the backlash, expecting people to criticize the publication of an AI-assisted piece of writing. It never came. Instead the essay was adapted for This American Life and anthologized in Best American Essays. It was better received, by far, than anything else I’d ever written.

Link to the rest at Wired

Character Type & Trope Thesaurus: Whiskey Priest

From Writers Helping Writers:

DESCRIPTION: A well-meaning priest, pastor, or other religious professional who exhibits moral weakness through a particular vice. Though he is acutely aware of his personal flaws, he continues to carry out his sacramental duties and takes his responsibility toward his charges seriously.

FICTIONAL EXAMPLES: Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (The Scarlet Letter), Father Donald Callahan (Salem’s Lot, The Dark Tower), Friar Tuck (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Imperius (Ladyhawke)

COMMON STRENGTHS: Cautious, Centered, Cooperative, Courteous, Diplomatic, Discreet, Empathetic, Generous, Gentle, Kind, Nurturing, Observant, Passionate, Patient, Persuasive, Private, Protective, Responsible, Spiritual, Supportive, Wise

COMMON WEAKNESSES: Addictive, Compulsive, Cowardly, Evasive, Humorless, Hypocritical, Insecure, Nosy, Self-Indulgent, Weak-Willed, Withdrawn

Struggling with personal demons
Being burdened with a dark secret
Having compassion for others
Feeling deeply compelled to serve God to the best of their ability
Feeling guilty about past mistakes or present weaknesses
Seeking redemption or forgiveness
Willingly making sacrifices for others
Being disillusioned by the cruelties and harsh realities of the world
Going to great lengths to keep his indiscretions secret
Being full of contradictions…

A situation that threatens to reveal the character’s vice
Encountering someone who challenges the priest’s beliefs
Being tempted in a new area…

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

ChatGPT mania may be cooling, but a serious new industry is taking shape

From The Economist:

The first wave of excitement about generative artificial intelligence (ai) was like nothing else the world had seen. Within two months of its launch in November 2022, Chatgpt had racked up 100m users. Internet searches for “artificial intelligence” surged; more than $40bn in venture capital flowed into ai firms in the first half of this year alone.

The craze for consumer experimentation has since cooled a little: Chatgpt use has fallen and fewer people are Googling “ai”. Son Masayoshi, a Japanese investor notorious for diving into already frothy markets, is thought to be interested in investing in Openai, Chatgpt’s creator. But a second, more serious phase is beginning. An entirely new industry centred on supercharged ai models is taking shape. Three forces will determine what it eventually looks like—and whether Openai stays dominant, or other players prevail.

The first factor is computing power, the cost of which is forcing model-builders to become more efficient. Faced with the eye-watering costs of training and running more powerful models, for instance, Openai is not yet training its next big model, gpt-5, but gpt-4.5 instead, a more efficient version of its current leading product. That could give deep-pocketed rivals such as Google a chance to catch up. Gemini, the tech giant’s soon-to-be-released cutting-edge model, is thought to be more powerful than Openai’s current version.

High computing costs have also encouraged the proliferation of much smaller models, which are trained on specific data to do specific things. Replit, a startup, has trained a model on computer code to help developers write programs, for instance. Open-source models are also making it easier for people and companies to plunge into the world of generative ai. According to a count maintained by Hugging Face, an ai firm, roughly 1,500 versions of such fine-tuned models exist.

All these models are now scrambling for data—the second force shaping the generative-ai industry. The biggest, such as Openai’s and Google’s, are gluttonous: they are trained on more than 1trn words, the equivalent of over 250 English-language Wikipedias. As they grow bigger they will get hungrier. But the internet is close to being exhausted. Many model-makers are therefore signing deals with news and photography agencies. Others are racing to create “synthetic” training data using algorithms; still others are trying to work with new forms of data, such as video. The prize is a model that beats the rivals.

Generative ai’s hunger for data and power makes a third ingredient more important still: money. Many model-makers are already turning away from Chatgpt-style bots for the general public, and looking instead to fee-paying businesses. Openai, which started life in 2015 as a non-profit venture, has been especially energetic in this regard. It has not just licensed its models to Microsoft, but is setting up bespoke tools for companies including Morgan Stanley and Salesforce. Abu Dhabi plans to establish a company to help commercialise applications of Falcon, its open-source ai model.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Ken Follett Says Readers Still Like Epic Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ken Follett’s latest novel, “The Armor of Light,” concludes a wildly successful eight-volume series spanning 1,000 years of human civilization. Yet when he first switched to historical fiction decades ago, after years of writing bestselling thrillers, it was against the advice of his publisher.

Few would have predicted that the first book in the series, “Pillars of the Earth,” about building a medieval cathedral, would have wide appeal. But Follett, 74, got the last laugh. Published in 1989, it remains his most popular book. Despite its epic length—a trait of most of his novels—it still sells 100,000 copies a year in the U.S. “When a book is good, readers don’t want it to stop,” he insists. “The evidence is in my bank account.”

With his new book, out next week, Follett returns once again to the site of his cathedral, the fictional English town of Kingsbridge. “Readers like the familiarity and so do I,” he says. Set hundreds of years later, “The Armor of Light” traces the dawn of the industrial revolution in Great Britain in the 18th century, when machines began to enhance the work done by people in manufacturing and then to displace them. “The new machines created social conflict, and social conflict is dramatic,” he says over video from his country house in Hertfordshire, north of London, where he lives with his wife, Barbara. “I like dramas in my stories to arise not merely from my imagination but from historical change.”

Most of his books brim with war, sex, intrigue and battles of will. Yet Follett, who has sold around 190 million copies of his 36 novels in over 80 countries, says the trick for riveting readers is ensuring they care about his characters. “A book may be beautifully written, it may be clever, but if it doesn’t grab the reader emotionally it won’t sell,” he says.

“The Armor of Light” has clear resonances with the current moment. Its characters struggle with rising food prices, disruptive industries, variable weather, exploitative monopolies and an intractable war—in this case with France, to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas to othermonarchies. Follett says it’s “inevitable” that contemporary concerns drive his stories, but he strives to keep his books apolitical: “Look, readers would know if I was skewing the facts to suit a particular point of view.”

Despite his own lavish good fortune—“I do know that money and success sometimes makes people unhappy, but not me, I really like it,” he says—Follett still plainly sympathizes with economic underdogs. “Perhaps it’s because my roots are in a coal-mining community in South Wales,” he explains. His own grandfather was an apprentice coal miner at 13—an experience Follett imagines at the start of “Fall of Giants” (2010), the first volume of his Century trilogy, which chronicled major conflicts of the 20th century through the interrelated lives of five families.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Ariana Grande, Guillermo del Toro, Padma Lakshmi and More Sign Open Letter Denouncing Book Bans and Their “Chilling Effect” 

From The Hollywood Reporter:

Ariana Grande, Guillermo del Toro, Padma Lakshmi, Roxane Gay, Gabrielle Union, Sandra Cisneros, Amanda Gorman, Margaret Cho and Ron Perlman are among the signatories of an open letter calling on creative communities in Hollywood and beyond to leverage their voices to stop book bans.

Upwards of 175 actors, musicians, authors, comedians, reality stars, models, media personalities, academics, activists and more have signed the open letter spearheaded by Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton and published Tuesday via public advocacy organization and political action committee MoveOn Political Action.

The letter encourages signatories and readers to address challenges at the local level across U.S. school districts, while calling out book bans as “restrictive behavior” that is “antithetical to free speech and expression.” It also underscores the “chilling effect” these bans can have “on the broader creative field.”

“We cannot stress enough how these censorious efforts will not end with book bans,” the letter continues. “It’s only a matter of time before regressive, suppressive ideologues will shift their focus toward other forms of art and entertainment, to further their attacks and efforts to scapegoat marginalized communities, particularly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks.”

The letter concludes that signatories will “refuse to remain silent as one creative field is subjected to oppressive bans” and urges artists to “band together, because a threat to one form of art is a threat to us all.”

“It’s embarrassing that we are banning books in this country, in this culture, in this day and age. And it’s dangerous that a handful of individuals are deciding that any book with Black and queer people is divisive,” said Burton, executive producer of the 2023 documentary The Right to Read. “We are calling on everyone to join us in raising their voices to uphold artistic freedom, embrace multicultural history and put a stop once and for all to book bans.”

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter

PG won’t opine at length as he has done before on this topic, but he does think that public schools have a right to select or not select books for students as the teachers and school administrators deem best for their students.

In making such selections, it is reasonable for teachers and administrators to consider the opinions of the parents of those students. After all, these are publicly funded schools, and those parents, as well as the rest of the community, pay school taxes to support them.

It’s a long distance between places like Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Santa Monica and states like Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma. Having known people living in both of those geographic areas, PG can assure one and all that majority opinions about what sort of books children should and should not read diverge quite substantially from opinions in the other area.

PG ended up opining at length and apologizes for misleading any who relied on the truth of his earliest paragraph.

J. G. Ballard’s Brilliant, Not “Good” Writing

From The Paris Review:

Putting Ballard on a master’s course list, as I’ve done a couple of times, provokes a reaction that’s both funny and illuminating. Asked to read Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition, the more vociferous students invariably express their revulsion, while the more reflective ones voice their frustration that, although the ideas might be compelling, the prose “isn’t good.” This is especially the case with students who’ve been exposed to creative writing classes: they complain that the books are so full of repetition they become machinic or monotonous; also that they lack solid, integrated characters with whom they can identify, instead endlessly breaking open any given plot or mise-en-scène to other external or even unconnected scenes, contexts, and histories, resulting in a kind of schizoid narrative space that’s full of everyone and no one.

This second group, of course, is absolutely right in its analysis; what’s funny (and, if I can teach them anything, reversible) about their judgment is that it is these very elements (repetition, machinism, schizoid hypermnesia) that make Ballard’s work so brilliant. Not only are his rhythmic cycles, in which phrases and images return in orders and arrangements that mutate and reconfigure themselves as though following some algorithm that remains beyond our grasp, at once incantatory, hallucinatory, and the very model and essence of poetry; but, mirroring the way that information, advertising, propaganda, public (and private) dialogue, and even consciousness itself run in reiterative loops and circuits, constitute a realism far exceeding that of the misnamed literary genre. If his personae are split, multiplied, dispersed, this is because they are true subjects of a networked and fragmented hypermodernity—ones for whom identification, if it is to amount to anything more than a consoling fiction, must come through man’s recognition of himself (as Georges Bataille put it) not in the degrading chains of logic but instead, with rage and ecstatic torment, in the virulence of his own phantasms.

While Ballard’s more outwardly conventional books may give us solider, more stable realities, what these realities often present—in, for example, Empire of the Sun, which is digestible enough for a blockbuster Spielberg adaptation—is a child (or childlike figure) frolicking against a backdrop provided by the destruction of an older order of reality that the world previously took for granted. It’s a cipher for his oeuvre as a whole: endlessly playing among the ruins, reassembling the broken or “found” pieces (styles, genres, codes, histories) with a passion rendered all the more intense and focused by the knowledge that it’s all—culture, the social order, the beliefs that underpin civilization—constructed, and can just as easily be unconstructed, reverse engineered back down to the barbaric shards from which it was cobbled together in the first place. To put it in Dorothean: In every context and at every level, Ballard’s gaze is fixed, fixated, on the man behind the curtain, not the wizard.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

TikTok is changing the way books are recommended and sold

From The Economist:

First the camera pans across eight books arrayed with hundreds of sticky tabs, flaunting that they have been closely read and meticulously annotated. Next a description runs across the screen: “Books I would sell my soul to read again for the first time”. The music crescendoes, and a manicured hand reveals the books’ covers in time with the beat, featuring authors including Simone de Beauvoir, Elena Ferrante and Sally Rooney.

The user, who is called “buryme.withmybooks”, does not say why she likes them, but that does not matter. On TikTok hyperbole is the name of the social-media game. Around 9.3m people have watched the video and almost 400,000 people have saved it for future reference.

TikTok, which has more than 1bn regular users, is making a mark on the world of publishing. Much of this is done through BookTok, the app’s community of users who comment on books. It is among the largest communities on the app; videos with this tag have been viewed 179bn times, more than twice as many as BeautyTok (beauty enthusiasts splinter into various groups). Adding #reading, #books and #literature pushes views to more than 240bn. Whoever said books are dead has not spent much time on TikTok, nor in bookstores, which now have whole displays touting titles “as seen on TikTok”.

Last year in Britain one in four book buyers used TikTok. The slice of sales directly attributable to the app is still small. Video platforms like TikTok and YouTube drove only around 3% of sales in 2022 in Britain, according to Nielsen, a research firm. But TikTok’s influence is significant and growing. The largest group of book buyers—women aged 54 and younger—are more likely to use the app than their male peers. TikTok recommendations influence their purchases, creating new literary stars and unearthing unlikely past ones, too.

TikTok is not the first online platform to alter the publishing landscape. Wattpad, a self-publishing firm founded in 2006, helped writers publish stories and reach readers online. For years Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (now X) have allowed authors to connect with readers—and sometimes score a book deal in the first place.

However, TikTok functions slightly differently. One way to think about BookTok is as a book club for the internet age. Just as stars like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama can cause copies to fly off bookstore shelves by updating their lists of recommended reads, BookTok does something similar. However, the tastemakers are not usually celebrities but attractive #bookgirlies doing #readingchallenges, often in artfully lit bedrooms. (Although Ms Winfrey’s book club is now on TikTok, too.)

In many ways BookTok has become a new artistic genre, where emoting about characters and plots is glorified, even required. (Unlike those buttoned-up professional literary critics, who do not tend to write about how books make them cry.)

Some old-fashioned bibliophiles may suspect that BookTok is less about books than about people seeking attention by promoting them. But BookTokers are already swaying bestseller lists. Novels categorised as “romance” have enjoyed the biggest boost, as happened with previous technological shifts, including the rise of e-books. Colleen Hoover’s “It Ends With Us” went viral on TikTok in early 2022 and has sold over 1m paperback copies in Britain. Six of the ten bestselling titles in America last year were written by her, too. They pick up similar themes, such as women lusting after hard-to-get men and “trauma bonding”, subjects that fare well on the video-sharing app.

But BookTok favourites are often older releases, with some, including Ms Hoover’s most popular, written before the app was invented. For example, an aesthetic known as “dark academia”, which glamorises gothic-style universities, tweed and classic literature, has brought attention to a 544-page novel published in 1992 called “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt.

The popular Netflix show “Bridgerton”—big on colourful costumes, light on substance—created new fans of period romance and, in turn, inspired young readers to rediscover classic books such as “Pride and Prejudice”. In August Jane Austen’s novel won “Best BookTok Revival” at TikTok’s inaugural book awards. (How Austen would have felt about this honour is another question.)

Because TikTok is so visual, the app has an outsize impact on sales of physical books in particular. E-books do not make such attractive visual props. According to a survey by Nielsen, 80% of Brits aged 14-25 prefer print. BookTokers show off annotations and flick through pages. Filming themselves finishing a book in a single day against a backdrop of hundreds of them on shelves is all part of the performance, and viewers will be extra impressed if the book looks thick.

Many authors remain puzzled by the app. Ms Hoover does not have a TikTok account, and neither do many of her other bestselling peers. Publishers, happy for new sales, are also a bit perplexed;their official TikTok accounts are unpopular by comparison. The challenge is how to keep up. It is not as simple as commissioning more books that make people cry, squirm or shudder and then hoping that people film themselves doing so. Although some editors are doing that anyway.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Admission: PG’s first response to the OP was to dismiss it.

However, he quickly decided he was having a bout of oldcrockitis and needed to open his mind to new possibilities.

While PG is close to 100% ebooks for his personal and business reading, he thinks it’s interesting that BookTokers are drawn to physical books.

He admits that ebooks may get misplaced for a long time on his various overloaded electronic reading devices, but the physicality of a hardcopy book certainly makes it more noticeable around the house/teenage bedroom and somewhat less likely to be forgotten or ignored.

And for a video, a physical book works as a more interesting prop than a Kindle.


What did Colleen Hoover put in this book? #booktok #fyp

♬ Jaws Theme – Jaws

The Blog Today

PG was heavily occupied by a variety of different technical issues that were more difficult for PG to solve than they should have been.

Then, he was reminded of Gay Talese, a favorite author of a much younger PG. So, he downloaded one of Talese’s best from Zon and will do some reading.

PG hopes you enjoy the quotes. El Blogo will look more familiar tomorrow.