The Desolate Wilderness

23 November 2017

An annual Thanksgiving piece from the Wall Street Journal:

Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

This editorial has appeared annually since 1961.

And the Fair Land

23 November 2017

An editorial published annually at Thanksgiving by The Wall Street Journal:

Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

This is indeed a big country, a rich country, in a way no array of figures can measure and so in a way past belief of those who have not seen it. Even those who journey through its Northeastern complex, into the Southern lands, across the central plains and to its Western slopes can only glimpse a measure of the bounty of America.

And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.

So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. Yet the visitor, if he is to make an honest report, must also note the air of unease that hangs everywhere.

For the traveler, as travelers have been always, is as much questioned as questioning. And for all the abundance he sees, he finds the questions put to him ask where men may repair for succor from the troubles that beset them.

His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.

How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places—only to find those men as frail as any others.

So sometimes the traveler is asked whence will come their succor. What is to preserve their abundance, or even their civility? How can they pass on to their children a nation as strong and free as the one they inherited from their forefathers? How is their country to endure these cruel storms that beset it from without and from within?

Of course the stranger cannot quiet their spirits. For it is true that everywhere men turn their eyes today much of the world has a truly wild and savage hue. No man, if he be truthful, can say that the specter of war is banished. Nor can he say that when men or communities are put upon their own resources they are sure of solace; nor be sure that men of diverse kinds and diverse views can live peaceably together in a time of troubles.

But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere—in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.

This editorial has appeared annually since 1961


22 November 2017

Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.

William Arthur Ward

Soft July for Trade Sales

22 November 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

Sales of adult books dropped 9.8% in July, compared to the same period in 2016, while sales in the children’s/young adult segment fell 36.8%. The statistics are derived from figures released by the Association of American Publishers as part of its StatShot program.

The plunge in children’s/ya sales was due to the release last July of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which was a huge hit in 2016. The publication of Potter had the greatest impact on the children’s/ya hardcover format, where sales fell 61.1% in July compared to a year ago. E-book sales were down 16.0%.

. . . .

In the adult books segment, mass market paperback and physical audio saw declines of 26.3% and 41.7%, respectively.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Temperature check from two US CEOs at Frankfurt 2017

22 November 2017

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

It is no surprise that the public remarks at Frankfurt by Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle and Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy contain gems worth pondering. Book publishing has been fortunate to have really smart people leading the biggest companies during our period of digital transition. The apparent collusion over the implementation of agency pricing — which is itself proving to be a mixed blessing — was definitely a collective setback and has to be seen as a very big mistake (that I didn’t see that way at the time.) But, for the most part, book publishers have done very well in a time of great turmoil, certainly better than other publishers of print or any other big media from the 20th century.

Now we have settled into a period of apparent stability. The two big shifts that were big challenges to navigate — from printed books to digital books and from in-store purchase to online purchase of the content — are no longer occurring at a dizzying pace. From the commercial publisher’s perspective, the ebook market is flat or declining and the print book share is holding its own.

. . . .

Dohle’s speech delivered virtually unqualified optimism. He is jubilant about the stability in the market with print holding an 80% share. (He takes a dig at the fact that prognosticators would have predicted that it could be ebooks that would hold the 80% share by now.

. . . .

Dohle points out that his company is now publishing John Green’s follow-up to “The Fault in Our Stars”. I’m sure his marketers will tell him that they’re aiming for lots of adult readers with their efforts, whatever the original intentions of the author were about the audience.

. . . .

Two observations from [Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn] Reidy seemed extremely important to take on board. One is that self-publishing is taking a growing share of the market. She characterized the self-publishing share in America as “huge, no matter what statistics you use.” And the companion observation should be a wake-up call to publishers. As she was quoted by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch:

“The romance market, which used to be huge in mass market, has pretty much dried up and gone to digital original. [And] it has put pressure on pricing of all ebooks…. Those are consumers who, if they wanted a book, they used to come to us, and now they go elsewhere.”

. . . .

The other elephant in the room which got no mention, as near as I can see, from either CEO, is Amazon. That growth in print sales that publishers are so happy about was given a huge boost by Amazon shifting promotional dollars from ebook-discounting to print-discounting when Agency forced them to reconsider their strategy.

. . . .

The growth of sales at Amazon presents a number of potential challenges to the big houses. It means that their biggest trading partner will push them for more margin. It means that the channel with the growth is one where big publishers don’t have an automatic advantage because of size. And, if the print sales being boosted in relation to digital is because Amazon’s pricing strategy can whipsaw the consumer in that way, it can also reverse itself if Amazon decides to change its strategy.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

One additional point PG would add, the biggest elephant in Big Publishing’s room, is that Barnes & Noble is going to disappear.

Whether it continues to disappear slowly (Barnes and Noble has been closing 15-20 bookstores annually in the US for the last ten years) or if it collapses all at once (like Borders did seven years ago when 511 Borders superstores and 175 stores in the Waldenbooks Specialty Retail division closed and, within a few weeks, disappeared into bankruptcy court).

If Big Publishing continues to hitch its wagon to hard copy books, it will be relying upon a retail distribution network that becomes more mom and pop with each passing year.

A major marketing push for a new title through Barnes & Noble can be a powerful tool in launching books for big publishers. Doing the same thing through a bunch of  shops run by Fred and Ethel that carry inventories perhaps 20% of the size (at best) of a typical Barnes & Noble is a whole different story.

We Take Responsibility for the Content

22 November 2017

From Publishing Perspectives:

In Brussels today (November 21), International Publishers Association (IPA) chief Michiel Kolman participated in the annual lecture event of the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment, or STOA.

. . . .

Kolman’s position in this diverse set of voices was as the day’s central representative of book and scholarly publishing, surrounded as the industry is by data-leveraging technology conglomerates.

. . . .

Asking the rhetorical question, “What is the purpose of publishers in this new world?” what Kolman told them was that “Publishers have an important role to play in stopping the spread of misinformation and fake news.”

His thesis was that formal publishing protocols must stand on prescribed, formalized, mutually agreed procedures in order to ensure quality control.

“We [in book publishing] acquire content,” he said, “and in the past 20 years we have increasingly moved it to platforms online, much like a tech company. Speaking from my experience as a science publisher at Elsevier, we can guarantee that the material we produce adheres to the international standards of scholarship. It has been edited, peer-reviewed, and validated.

“In the process it has been revised and revised again to further improve the quality. Most importantly, it is carefully curated so that it remains accessible–and citable–in the future. In other words, we take responsibility for the content we produce.”

. . . .

Nor, however, did he assert that book publishing is without its occasional missteps. “Even after strict peer review,” he said, “the occasional article will slip through and is published while it should not have been. Luckily there are strict procedures in place to deal with these articles, e.g. through a corrigendum or erratum.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

“We take responsibility for the content.” PG wonders how much that is actually worth. It certainly doesn’t cost these publishers a lot of money.

Science and Technical journals are certainly the most profitable part of the publishing world.

The journals pay nothing for their content. Indeed, a respected science journal will receive far more submissions from academics eager to build or maintain their reputation than the journal can publish. Many journals require a submission fee to accompany a prospective journal article. Some journals may require both a submission fee and a printing fee for accepted articles.

Additionally, the academic journal will not pay any royalties to the author and will generally require that the author assign all of his/her copyright interest in the article to the journal for no compensation.

The expertise necessary to adequately review a journal article would be very expensive if the journal had to pay market rates for peer review of the articles it prints.

However, the more prestigious the journal, the more likely that highly-educated professors will provide peer review services at either no charge or an a nominal charge.

Being a peer reviewer for a well-known journal is a credential-burnishing activity by itself. Peer reviewers will have an expectation that when they submit their own papers for publication with the journal that their unpaid services will carry significant weight in the journal’s decision about whether to accept their own papers for publication.

So, you’re looking at a business with no content acquisition costs, free or almost free third-party editorial assistance. If a publication fee is required of the author, the publisher may significantly reduce its printing costs as well. If the publication sells most copies in electronic form on a subscription basis, the printer’s bill will be even lower.

Oh, and as far as selling the journals, once a publication develops even a modest reputation, major academic libraries will feel obligated to purchase the journal. As implied above, electronic subscriptions will essentially require the libraries to pay for each publication over and over again each year.

PG is not terribly impressed when these very wealthy publishing conglomerates “Take Responsibility for the Content.” That high-sounding sentiment is simply a relatively inexpensive cost of staying in a highly rewarding business.


Updates and Improvements

21 November 2017

PG hopes no one is worrying due to the lack of postings for the last couple of days. All is well.

An unanticipated break in access to the Internet should be remedied in full tomorrow – Wednesday – and posts will appear as quickly as usual considering the Thanksgiving holiday.


The evolution of the media landscape (and why you probably won’t finish this article)

19 November 2017

From Method:

At a time when many sectors are ripe for disruption, the publishing industry has been doubly affected. Not only is publishing itself being disrupted by new technology, media and changing consumption habits, but the advertising industry, on which it has relied for so long for a business model, is also under disruption. Failure to act quickly and foresee these changes has left publishing searching for a viable alternative model.

It’s a race to the bottom where eyeballs and clicks are the prizes. Fake news, bot-generated articles, echo chambers and walled gardens make up this new media landscape. How did we get here and how can we expect things to evolve next?

. . . .

While the printing press has benefited from improvements and technological advances over the years, from mechanization to digital presses, the most drastic innovation in publishing came with the advent of the World Wide Web. Where Gutenberg had made the replication of content possible, the Web democratized the distribution, lowering the barrier to the access of information further than ever before.

. . . .

[W]e are now at a point where the Web is instant, pervasive and has more content than anyone could ever consume in a number of lifetimes. Yet the publishing industry is still wrestling with some fundamental questions: How do we profit from published content? How do we uphold quality and integrity amid a tidal wave of user (and bot) generated content? How do we ensure that readers can still have shared experiences rather than retreat into tailored, targeted, personalized bubbles?

. . . .

Content is becoming more and more disposable and nowhere is this more visible than in the advertising-driven sites vying for the eyeballs and clicks of the low attention span reader. The 24-hour news cycle has made us hungry for stories throughout the day, we demand an endless stream of news. With this constant barrage of content, inevitably quality and due diligence fact checking often suffer in the rush to output more and more stories. The fight for clicks is a race to the bottom in terms of quality and this can be seen in successful sites like Buzzfeed and the Mail Online — now the most popular news website in the world.

Link to the rest at Method

Devoted to Service

19 November 2017

A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large.

Henry Ford

This Key Metric Means Amazon’s Strategy is Working — For Now

19 November 2017

From The Motley Fool:

Amazon Web Services (AWS) segment continues to grow in importance for Amazon’s overall bottom line. For example, in Amazon’s third quarter, AWS’s operating margin (segment net sales minus operating expenses) came in at $1.17 billion, up from $861 million in the year-ago quarter. Better yet, these results were on total revenues of just $4.58 billion.

Amazon’s North American retail segment, on the other hand, reported revenues of $25.45 billion and operating income of just $112 million (down from Q3 2016’s $255 million).

. . . .

But it’s important for investors to keep in mind that, beyond AWS, Amazon’s segments are extremely low margin. In fact, Amazon’s international division actually lost $936 million in Q3 2017. Until it scores a win with another one of its businesses, Amazon will be dependent on AWS.

. . . .

AWS’ rise over the past 3 years has been meteoric. Formed just ten years ago, it was broken out from the rest of the company’s results in the first quarter of 2015. As part of that report, investors learned that for the previous year (FY 2014), AWS generated operating income of $458 million. Just two years later, in FY 2016, AWS generated a staggering $3.1 billion in operating profits on revenues of $12.22 billion.

. . . .

Compare these results to the part of Amazon we are all familiar with: its domestic retail operation. Its North America segment generated $360 million in profits in 2014 and $2.36 billion in FY 2016. Decent, but nowhere near AWS’s level. Last years results were at $79.79 billion in revenue.

When you buy shares of Amazon you own the whole company, but AWS’s ability to generate billions in operating cash flow remains an increasingly pivotal contributor to the company’s bottom line. The Amazon bull case revolves around the idea that Bezos & Co. will continue to disrupt any business they believe they can compete in. Only when Amazon attains dominant market share and operational scale in a given market will the company consider harvesting profits. Bezos said as much in his first letter to shareholders in 1997.

Link to the rest at The Motley Fool

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