Monthly Archives: November 2014

My People

30 November 2014

My people were brought from the great plains, and the dark, green jungles. On the long chained journeys to the coast they died by the thousands. Only the strong survived. Chained in the foul ships that brought them here they died again. Only the hardy Negroes with will could live. Beaten and chained and sold on the block, the least of these strong ones perished again. And finally through the bitter years the strongest of my people are still here. Their sons and daughters, their grandsons and great grandsons.

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

New Facebook Rules Will Sting Entrepreneurs

30 November 2014

From The Wall Street Journal:

Chrisy Bossie built a $100,000-a-year gemstone e-commerce business by sharing information about her products on her company’s Facebook page several times a week.

“Steals in the Shop! I have a TON of new 36-inch-long necklaces, most priced at $15, available in amethyst, lapis, watermelon tourmaline, turquoise…. Shop them all here,” she wrote in a recent marketing post on a Facebook page for Earthegy, the business she runs from her home in rural Kent Store, Va. She also included photos and links to the products, hoping the business’s 70,000 Facebook fans would share the posts with their own Facebook friends.

But small-business owners like Ms. Bossie will soon get less benefit from the unpaid marketing pitches they post on Facebook. That’s because, as of mid-January, the social network will intensify its efforts to filter out unpaid promotional material in user news feeds that businesses have posted as status updates.

The change will make it more difficult for entrepreneurs like Ms. Bossie, the founder of four-year-old Earthegy, to reach fans of their Facebook pages with marketing posts that aren’t paid advertising.

Businesses that post free marketing pitches or reuse content from existing ads will suffer “a significant decrease in distribution,” Facebook warned in a post earlier this month announcing the coming change.

The upshot for Ms. Bossie is that “if I do not pay to promote the post or boost it, it’s hardly reaching anyone,” she says. Now, more than half her sales come via her Facebook posts, she estimates.

. . . .

Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president of small business, says that Facebook’s paid-advertising options have become more effective recently and that companies should view Facebook as a tool to “help them grow their businesses, not a niche social solution to getting more reach or to make a post go viral.”

He says he has “a lot of empathy” for business owners who “are feeling this evolution” in the reduction of what he describes as organic reach. But, he says, organic reach is only one of several reasons companies benefit from having a presence on Facebook. Last month, there were more than one billion visits to Facebook pages directly. “Having a presence where you can be discovered still has a ton of value,” he says. “We don’t want them to spend any dollar with us unless it’s doing something spectacular to help them grow their business.”

Facebook’s push toward paid advertising is likely to aggravate an “already tense relationship between small businesses and social platforms over audience ownership,” says Steven Jacobs of Street Fight, a Colorado-based media-and-events firm covering local digital marketing. Businesses used to own their consumer relationships through email or other in-house marketing channels, or to buy them from newspapers, television and other traditional media outlets through ads. “But Yelp and now Facebook are trying to peddle a third model, he says: “renting—in which a business can build a community but never own an audience on a platform.”

. . . .

Ms. Bossie says that she has used both “unpaid” and “paid” Facebook posts to spread the word about her business and that the unpaid promotional posts are becoming less and less effective at driving sales as other content crowds them out. She expects to pay $1,500 a month next year on Facebook advertising, up from $1,200 this year, and she plans to allocate about three-quarters of her spending to promoted posts.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Obama Buys 17 Titles At Independent Bookstore

30 November 2014

From The Huffington Post:

President Barack Obama tried to draw attention to independently owned businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a day that is increasingly being marketed as one for deal-hungry consumers to remember to patronize these mom-and-pop outlets while doing their holiday shopping.

He bought bags of books — 17 titles in all — during a stop at Politics and Prose, a popular Washington bookstore now owned by a former Washington Post reporter and his wife, also a former Post reporter who also worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House and State Department.

In recent years, the Saturday after Thanksgiving has been advertised as “Small Business Saturday.” It’s designed to drive foot traffic to independent businesses in between the frenzy of Black Friday sales at mass retailers and the Cyber Monday deals available online.

. . . .

Among the books in the president’s shopping bags for mature readers were “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China” by New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by surgeon Atul Gawande and “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr.

For younger readers, Obama’s purchases included three titles in the “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques, two titles in the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park and “A Barnyard Collection: Click, Clack, Moo and More” by Doreen Cronin.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Jodi Picoult: “It’s really hard to love America sometimes”

30 November 2014

From The Telegraph:

Before meeting Jodi Picoult, I had it in my mind that she wrote big, sweeping romance novels, guilty pleasures for hot beach holidays, and so set about my research with barely concealed glee.

This glee did not last long. The backdrop to Picture Perfect may be Hollywood, but only as the setting for a tale of horrific domestic violence. The Pact is billed as a teenage love story – only it is one that ends with a bullet in the girl’s head. My Sister’s Keeper, turned into a Cameron Diaz movie, is about childhood leukaemia and stem-cell research. Second Glance: eugenics. The Storyteller: the Holocaust. Nineteen Minutes: a high-school shooting. Lone Wolf: assisted dying. I felt quite bleak by the time I got round to reading her latest, Leaving Time, whose ending I have been banned from revealing, but suffice to say, it didn’t leave me feeling particularly cheery.

. . . .

Yet despite this success – 23 novels in 22 years, eight of which have been number one on the New York Times bestseller list – she struggles to be taken seriously. “I write women’s fiction,” she says, an ‘apparently’ hanging in the air. “And women’s fiction doesn’t mean that’s your audience. Unfortunately, it means you have lady parts.”

The 48-year-old orders a pot of tea and says goodbye to her husband, who is accompanying her on this leg of her three-month book tour. Picoult does this every year with every new novel – she has a rock-star schedule matched only by her following, nicknamed the #jodiverse on Twitter.

Struggling writers might think that this commercial success should negate any need for literary fanfare, but it sticks in her craw. “If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Corrections about, by Jonathan Franzen? It’s about a family, right? And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction? I mean, I can’t tell you. When people call The Storyteller chick-lit, I actually break up laughing. Because that is the worst, most depressing chick-lit ever.”

Has she ever thought of writing under a pen name?

“I did once,” she says. “So let me tell you what happened. I wrote a book under a man’s name. It was years ago, my kids were really tiny. It was when The Bridges of Madison County [by Robert James Waller] had been published. Nicholas Sparks was becoming big [as a romantic novelist]. Please don’t get me started on Nicholas Sparks,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I haven’t had enough caffeine yet.” But anyway.

“I was so angry about these men who had co-opted a genre that women had been slaving over for years. There are some really phenomenal romance writers who get no credit, who couldn’t even get a hardback deal. And these men waltzed in and said, ‘Look what we can do. We can write about love. And we are so special.’ And that just made me crazy.” Her agent tried to sell her pseudonymous book, but was told it was too well written for the male romance genre. “So there you go,” she says, angry, and yet ever-so-slightly pleased.

Link to the rest at The Telegraph and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

VAT rules to catch Amazon will incidentally crush small businesses

30 November 2014

From author Juliet E. McKenna:

Ah, the law of unintended consequences. You really would have thought legislators would know about that one. Apparently not. New VAT legislation to stop the likes of Amazon sneaking round their tax liabilities has a massive flaw. The turnover threshold is set at £0 which means small online retailers of ebooks and other digital products will have to compile VAT returns including details of the countries where each and every customer is based.

There’s more information at Cheryl Morgan’s website since unsurprisingly, this will make life for Wizard’s Tower Press untenable. Which will make earning any sort of income significantly harder for me and all of her other authors.

Just to give you some idea of how bad this is, Cheryl says –

The implications for any small company selling digital products are so horrendous that the Head of Tax at the Institute of Chartered Accountants (England & Wales) has apparently suggested that small businesses stop selling in Europe to avoid all of this mess. Except, how can you? The digital world is global by nature. The better-written platforms, such as Amazon, will at least allow you to block sales via their EU-based sites. However, there’s nothing to stop someone in, say, Finland, buying one of my books via Amazon US, or Amazon UK. If they did, I may be legally obliged to account for that, and Amazon’s systems don’t give me enough information to do that.

. . . .

No one, not even HMRC, has any idea how this will apply to crowdfunding such as Kickstarter.

Apparently HMRC talked to a ‘small business consultative group’ about all this to satisfy consultation requirements. No one seems to have any details about who was part of that group though.

This notion of sufficient consultation completely misses the point that most small and especially online businesses won’t actually belong to any professional or other organisations who might be expected to represent the reality of their trading models.

And as Cheryl Morgan has pointed out, the HMRC definition of ‘small business’ means an enterprise capable of providing a living for one or more people. This excludes vast numbers of ‘micro-businesses’ which are run from home, predominately online, as sidelines or to fund hobbies. For instance, a lot of people selling their knitting and embroidery patterns reckon they will be shut down by this.

Link to the rest at Juliet E. McKenna

Here’s a link to Juliet E. McKenna’s books

PG says these are the same kinds of problems that would tie up similar businesses in the US if laws are passed permitting the collection of sales taxes from out-of-state sellers.

Penguin Hatches A Cloud Reader For Pelican Books

30 November 2014

From TechCrunch:

It likely hasn’t passed you by that traditional book publishers aren’t having the best of times these days. Indeed, when it comes to reading you could say it is the best of times and the worst of times.

. . . .

Best for the consumption of the written word, given the proliferation of information online — much of it entirely free to read. Worst for traditional book publishers, with their paper-based, price-tag-carrying medium so disrupted.

Book publishers also have the voracious leviathan Amazon and its war on books to contend with. Sure, Amazon may be a huge seller of paper books but shipping dead tree costs Amazon dollar. Dollar Bezos would rather not spend if he can render the book medium back to its informational essence and fire pixels directly into customers’ eyeballs.

Hence the Kindle e-reader, a word delivery device which generally continues to track down in price (especially if you buy an ad-supported version).

. . . .

The long and short of it is that traditional publishers are assailed on all sides. Not least because these hoary old institutions, long accustomed to sitting in the comfortable groves of their own routine page turning, are the easiest targets for disruption.

. . . .

[T]his month U.K. publisher Penguin Books — actually now part of a gigantic publishing entity, after merging with Bertelsmann-owned Random House in April to spawn Penguin Random House — has launched a little digital dabbling of its own, using its resurrected Pelican educational imprint as the medium for the experiment.

What exactly is it doing? It’s making Pelican e-books available to read online in the browser, on any device you fancy. So much like Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader, but trailing in its wake by three years. And only offered a handful of titles. Still, baby steps. (It’s also worth noting that Kindle Cloud Reader does not appear especially beloved by Amazon, and has a relatively basic feature set — so there’s room for others to design and build a better cloud reader.)

Additional features offered by Pelican’s browser-based educational e-book interface include animated diagrams and maps, footnotes that can be summoned quickly by tapping/mousing over them, and a sharing and highlighting study aid-feature. All thoughtful extras, especially for an educational imprint.

. . . .

Still, the initiative appears far more ‘experimental side-project’ than bold new strategy at this point. It was actually dreamt up prior to the Bertelsmann merger — but has evidently not had its wings clipped since the two companies decided to join forces.

The idea apparently came from an internal designer at Penguin, called Matthew Young, rather than out of an executive strategy meeting on combating digital disruption. So it does rather underline that traditional publishers still need to shake a tail feather when it comes to oiling their digital strategies.

“The idea to make these books available to read online didn’t come from a strategic, editorial or marketing position, but was instead born straight out of the Art Department,” Young tells TechCrunch. “I’m a cover designer by profession, and I’m actually a big collector of printed books, but nowadays I do most of my reading on a screen, usually on my phone, on the way to work, whenever I can.
“I love reading ebooks, but as an obsessive, pedantic designer type, I couldn’t help thinking that the actual experience of reading a book on a screen, although good enough, could be so much better. So that’s exactly what I set out to build — the best possible reading experience for these books.”

Link to the rest at TechCrunch and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

Being homeless is better than working for Amazon

29 November 2014

From The Guardian:

I am homeless. My worst days now are better than my best days working at Amazon.

According to Amazon’s metrics, I was one of their most productive order pickers – I was a machine, and my pace would accelerate throughout the course of a shift. What they didn’t know was that I stayed fast because if I slowed down for even a minute, I’d collapse from boredom and exhaustion.

During peak season, I trained incoming temps regularly. When that was over, I’d be an ordinary order picker once again, toiling in some remote corner of the warehouse, alone for 10 hours, with my every move being monitored by management on a computer screen.

Superb performance did not guarantee job security. ISS is the temp agency that provides warehouse labor for Amazon and they are at the center of the SCOTUS case Integrity Staffing Solutions vs. Busk. ISS could simply deactivate a worker’s badge and they would suddenly be out of work. They treated us like beggars because we needed their jobs. Even worse, more than two years later, all I see is: Jeff Bezos is hiring.

I have never felt more alone than when I was working there. I worked in isolation and lived under constant surveillance. Amazon could mandate overtime and I would have to comply with any schedule change they deemed necessary, and if there was not any work, they would send us home early without pay. I started to fall behind on my bills.

At some point, I lost all fear. I had already been through hell. I protested Amazon. The gag order was lifted and I was free to speak. I spent my last days in a lovely apartment constructing arguments on discussion boards, writing articles and talking to reporters. That was 2012 and Amazon’s labor and business practices were only beginning to fall under scrutiny. I walked away from Amazon’s warehouse and didn’t have any other source of income lined up.

. . . .

I furthered my Amazon protest while homeless in Seattle. When the Hachette dispute flared up, I “flew a sign,” street parlance for panhandling with a piece of cardboard: “I was an order picker at Earned degrees. Been published. Now, I’m homeless, writing and doing this. Anything helps.”

. . . .

I’ve applied for many jobs, and any prospective employer that runs a Google search of my name can see my discontent with my last employer.

. . . .

I don’t know what the picture of the average American homeless person is, but I’m sure it wouldn’t include me. I graduated college. I have been published in a scholarly journal and a social-justice oriented website. I have completed my MA in American Studies. I ditched plans to pursue a PhD because it clearly wasn’t going to be a viable career option: I did not appreciate the so-called privilege to become volunteer labor and work for less than minimum wage as a graduate student, and then maybe, if I were so fortunate, become an adjunct professor. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was living a fantasy, thinking that a student of the humanities would be tolerated, and paid decently, in the corporate world of the modern university. I could never afford to perform an unpaid internship and that damaged my long-term career prospects. I had to work at jobs that paid money, jobs like the one at Amazon, while I went to school and took out loans.

. . . .

My wallet does not contain a single bill. I need glasses. I need winter clothes. I need cash and an opportunity. Anything! I’ve applied for jobs, both professional and with physical labor. Taken my MA off my resume so I don’t look overqualified. I’ve tried everything. Maybe it’s because I protested Amazon; maybe it’s because my credit is wrecked. Maybe it’s because I used homeless services as addresses. Maybe it’s because there really aren’t many jobs available.

. . . .

I’ve worked for places to live in Oregon, mostly cooking and feeding families. It was a kind of Maoist re-education program– a little too much like slavery for my comfort.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Guardian is rapidly becoming PG’s go-to destination for prime Amazon Derangement Syndrome.

Narrative Science Raises $10 Million More for Its Automated Writing Software

29 November 2014

From re/code:

Most funding stories are more or less the same, which is why Re/code tries to avoid most of them: Company raises X amount of money, from Y companies, to do Z thing. Repeat.

And that’s precisely the kind of thing that Narrative Science can now do without any humans at all: The Chicago-based company’s software can sift through big piles of data and automatically create stories on its own.

Some of them you might encounter on the Web: Forbes, for instance, uses Narrative Science to create earnings previews and reports.

But while Narrative Science originally got a lot of attention from journalists (like me) who wondered if it might replace journalists (like me), the bulk of the company’s work now comes from corporate customers, who use it to create internal reports for employees and customers.

Link to the rest at re/code and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

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