Monthly Archives: March 2017

Amazon and the socially conscious Seattle customer

30 March 2017

From the Seattle Times:

Amazon’s nascent grocery store venture puts Seattle residents between a rock and a hard spot. Rock: Many of us treasure our local retailers. Hard spot: Amazon is a locally headquartered company of enormous value to the city.

. . . .

I never did like the term “consumer.” It conjures the image of an insatiable creature consuming the resources of an overcrowded planet (the cheaper the better), a number to aggregate by giant corporations and their environment-stressing 10,000-mile supply chain.

Customers, on the other hand, realize that every purchase they make have consequences. Each potentially is a vote: for sustainability, responsibility and, not least of all, the health of their local economies. The more votes given to big corporations, the less viable are the local, or local branches of, retailers that are essential to the strength and fabric of their communities.

. . . .

Most Americans are consumers, so the battle will be between Amazon and other giants, especially Wal-Mart. But Seattle has plenty of socially conscious customers — and Amazon puts them in a bind.

On the one hand, e-commerce generally and Amazon specifically have put innumerable local shops out of business here, their empty storefronts filled by restaurants (how many restaurants can a city sustain?). What’s lost is community leadership on the part of owners, as well as providing employment and mentoring of new local retailers from their former employees. Like other giants, Amazon is “cheap,” but also expensive. The costs are tallied up quietly over many years in a city more drab, more conformist, more part of the international corporate Borg.

On the other hand, Amazon is the biggest driver behind Seattle’s remarkable prosperity, bringing capital and talent at prodigious rates. Without Amazon, the city wouldn’t be sweet Seattle circa 1990. It would more likely be like other struggling American metropolises, with a dash of Microsoft. Also, the fees and taxes brought in by Amazon’s construction pay a big part of Seattle’s most cherished progressive programs.

I face this dilemma as an author: Amazon carries and sells my books to a wide audience. But Amazon is also the enemy of the local independent bookstores that were essential to launching and maintaining my book-writing career. Plus, Amazon is largely making my neighborhood, Belltown, better. In our family, we try to spread the love: spending as much as possible at downtown and local retailers, including Pike Place Market. But we also inevitably buy from Amazon when a product can’t be had nearby.

Link to the rest at the Seattle Times and thanks to J.A. for the tip.


The Unglamorous Ordeal of Recording Your Own Audiobook

29 March 2017
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From Literary Hub:

It was around noon of my third grueling day recording the audiobook of my first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, when my innermost self cried out to be heard. I mean this literally. The disembodied voice of my director burst into my headset to inform me that my disgruntled, empty stomach was grumbling loudly enough to be picked up by the hypersensitive microphone; my solo performance had inadvertently become a duet. To muffle these protests from within, I finished the chapter with a pillow pressed against my belly.

Truth be told, my cantankerous abdomen spoke for the rest of me, too. For the marathon task of recording my own audiobook over four long days proved far more demanding than I had expected.

Getting the gig was deceptively simple. Following the audiobook producer’s instructions, I sat at my desk at home and read the five-page prologue into my iPhone’s voice recorder. Written in the first person from the perspective of a middle-aged man recalling his childhood, the scene is a dreamlike account of a four-year-old boy being carried at daybreak by his father across the majestic ruins of New York’s old Penn Station, the felled granite columns strewn like giant pick-up sticks across the marshy junkyard of New Jersey’s Meadowlands.

Those 13 minutes were all the producer had asked for. But to be sure she was in a position to evaluate my ability to read dialogue, I also recorded a comic sequence in which a 13-year-old smart-aleck meets a self-importantly pious boy at a party, lures him into a Socratic verbal trap, and then obliterates him with a torrent of absurdist, Pythonesque ridicule.

It was my concern about having a stranger narrate these humor-infused episodes—the high-spirited buffoonery of precocious teenage innocents pinballing into each and the world—that led me to audition in the first place. I have a good deal of respect for professional audiobook narrators, and I had little doubt that any number of them would have done a fine job reading my descriptive prose. But I had, in my mind’s ear, a very specific way I wanted the boys’ dialogue to sound, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable handing that task over to an unknown voice actor who might not share my sense of humor.

A few days after I sent in my audition clips, the producer emailed to say the gig was mine if I wanted it: “You have a great recording voice,” she allowed. “Your performance would add a personal touch to the recording that only you as the author can provide with your voice.”

That was the last moment things were easy.

. . . .

My director, a put-together woman with short, lemony hair and an air of brisk competence, greeted me in a gloomily darkened recording room. Her sound engineer, a nearly silent young woman with a Sphinx-like affect, gave me a nod. Then, after a brief orientation from the director, the engineer shut me in a little sound booth for the long haul.

The cell-like booth, the small square window in its door the only visual connection with the outside world, was about the size of a European train commode. It contained a utilitarian chair and a Formica table with a slanted reading surface. A little frayed-edged carpet remnant rested on this surface, and an iPad loaded with the final text of The Gargoyle Hunters sat atop the carpet remnant.

I sailed into the task of recording my tale. I enjoyed it. Friends had predicted it would be strange hearing my written words spoken aloud, but it was anything but; I always read my prose aloud as I write.

. . . .

I started out strong, charging through the prologue and the rollicking first couple of chapters at a good clip. But before the promise of lunch was even a glimmer on the horizon, a certain weariness set in, and it dawned on me: You’ve barely made it out of the starting blocks here. This is going to be an exhausting, long-distance slog during which, paradoxically, it is essential that you sound alert and energetic the entire time. The book was 334 pages, and if we were to complete the reading in four days—the time normally allotted for an actual professional audiobook narrator—a fairly cracking pace would be required. Author or no, there was no glamour here. I was to read and keep reading, and then read some more.

I’ve always admired actors and radio broadcasters, but not until the middle of the first afternoon did I begin to appreciate what an almost athletic performance was required to keep one’s mouth and vocal chords in shape for the duration. No wonder real actors spend years doing voice training and all those weird tongue exercises.

Before long, my throat grew ragged, a condition that worsened over time. And at the end of the third day, a Thursday, the director told me to take Friday and the weekend off so my voice could recover. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

A computer

29 March 2017

A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention with the possible exceptions of handguns and Tequila.

 Mitch Ratcliffe

Eight reasons that even a good book is rejected by publishers

29 March 2017


Several years ago, as an aspiring novelist with stardust in my eyes, I used to spend most of my waking hours in Yahoo’s Books and Literature chatroom in the company of fellow aspiring writers. I clearly remember how one of the main topics of conversations used to be the number of rejection slips one had received on that particular day (or the previous week), agents/publishers who had requested a synopsis or proposal, and those who had just not bothered to respond. All of us were united by the looming sense of uncertainty, suspense, and the palpable realisation that the odds were firmly stacked against us.

Today, having spent more than seven years on the other side, first as a consultant and then an agent, I think many writers have wrong notions about rejections. While most books are rejected because of poor quality and incompetence (as they should be), there are several other factors that play a role in publishing decisions. And these affect “good” books too.

A book with no market

Good books are often rejected at the acquisitions meetings at publishing companies, where people from sales and marketing factor in the target audience, potential print runs, and profit margins. Rejections are more common in case of fiction ( especially genre fiction), poetry and short story collections. Several publishers have revised their minimum print run from 2,000/3,000 copies to 5,000.

As a result, books with a dedicated readership and market no larger than 3,000 buyers are being turned down. This partly explains the palpable shift towards publishing books written or at least driven by celebrities, or mass market books like the ones by Savi Sharma and Ajay K Pandey.

A book by a writer with no network or marketing abilities

Writers are increasingly being asked to be closely involved in promotional activities for their books. While some of them might be open to the idea, others feel that it is their works that should be doing the talking. One question that writers are sometimes asked: how many books can you sell within your existing networks – both professional and personal?

Sometimes a writer is also asked about their contacts with the media and with celebrities and influencers who can be roped in for blurbs and high-profile launches. In today’s age of literary festivals, it helps to know some influential festival directors as well. Eminently publishable books are at times rejected in the absence of such contacts or commitments.

. . . .

A book evaluated by the wrong editor

Authors often end up sending their submissions to the wrong editor: a commercial novel may end up in a literary editor’s inbox, or a mind- body-spirit title, in that of the current affairs editor’s. Even when the submission may have reached the right editor, they may not be too familiar with the subject. The more conscientious among the editors will not sign up even an eminently publishable book if they feel they won’t be able to add any value to it. Such misdirected submissions are wasted opportunities, since publishing houses rarely reconsider books, even if they feel they have been read by an unsuitable editor.

Link to the rest at and thanks to Dave for the tip.

For nearly every bookstore Barnes & Noble loses this year, Amazon will open a new one

29 March 2017

From Quartz:

Americans are swapping bookstores.

Bookselling chain Barnes & Noble will lose a total of eight stores across the United States by the end of this fiscal year, but digital behemoth Amazon will fill the gap by December.

Last week, Amazon opened a store in Chicago, Illinois, its first physical bookstore not in a coastal city, and the second of the seven it plans to open this calendar year.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble plans to open four new stores and close 12 by April 30, according to David Deason, vice president of development. It already closed the only general-interest bookstore in the New York City borough of the Bronx. Last fiscal year the company closed eight locations.

Eight was good news for the bookstore chain: It was the fewest closings Barnes & Noble had seen since 2000, says Deason, and five fewer than originally planned.

Link to the rest at Quartz and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG predicts Barnes & Noble will have net closures of more than eight stores during its next fiscal year, ending April 30, 2018.

Sales, Earnings Fell at PRH in 2016

29 March 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

The lack of a new major bestseller was one factor in driving sales and earnings lower last year, compared to 2015, at Penguin Random House. According to PRH parent company Bertelsmann, revenue at the world’s largest trade publisher fell 9.6% in 2016, to 3.4 billion euros, while EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) declined 3.6%, to 537 million euros. Figures include results from Verlagsgruppe Random House, the German publishing group wholly owned by Bertelsmann.

The lack of a breakout smash contributed to declines in both print and e-book sales but sales of digital audiobooks remained strong, Bertlesmann said.

. . . .

In his letter to employees, PRH CEO Markus Dohle said that despite having “a year that felt challenging for all of us,” PRH raised its operating margin to 16.0%. (Operating margin was 15.0% in 2015). A key to maintaining strong profitability levels, Dohle added, has been PRH’s commitment to “preserving a vital and vibrant bookselling community,” as well as “maximizing efficiencies in our cutting-edge supply chain.”

Dohle also emphasized PRH’s commitment to print, saying the house supported the format “even when it was in decline earlier this decade.”

. . . .

In a press conference in Germany, Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Rabe reiterated that the company, which currently owns 53% stake in PRH, is interested in raising its stake to 70% to 75%. Earlier this year, Pearson said it was looking to sell its 47% share of PRH.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly and thanks to Alexis for the tip.

Brick And Mortar Is Dead, Long Live Brick And Mortar

29 March 2017

From Seeking Alpha:

The brick and mortar retail space has seen major devastation over the past several years. The writing has been on the charts for a long time; however, many refused to see it. Or rather, refused to interpret what it means.

. . . .

[S]ome of the most iconic retail brands over the past 12 months have performed horribly. Macy’s and Sears  have lost about 36%, Stage  has lost about 75%, but at the same time, Amazon has returned about 46%.

As we all know, there are many reasons for this, among other:

  • People are shopping more and more online.
  • Specialty stores are taking more market share.
  • The plethora of variety in online stores cannot be matched by traditional retailers.

. . . .

You can make all consumers shop online some of the time, and some consumers shop online all the time, but you cannot make all consumers shop online all the time.

. . . .

According to data from the Federal Reserve (seasonally adjusted), only about 8.5% of retail sales are done online. And if you look at the chart closely, online sales seem to be flattening lately. Is it possible that we have reached peak online sales?

I doubt it; however, I am sure of one thing. At some point, we will reach a point where online sales will peak. I have no idea at what percentage of sales that will happen, but at some point, it will happen.

There are many reasons for this. You cannot buy furniture online. You actually have to feel it, see it up close and sit in it. Yes, you can buy some apparel online, but only if you are sure the size will fit you.

. . . .

The NYT reported that [Amazon] is also thinking of opening furniture stores, home appliances, electronics and more.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

AP Stylebook Updates: Singular ‘They’ Now Acceptable

28 March 2017

From Grammar Girl:

singular they: The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.

The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

. . . .

Oxford Comma (aka serial comma). The new Stylebook emphasizes that clarity is the bottom line. Although the normal style is to avoid the serial comma, use one if it is needed for clarity. This is not a style change, but a clarification because the editors noted that some writers were confused.

Link to the rest at Grammar Girl

Every language

28 March 2017

Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence.

George Steiner

Three Translators Respond to “Arrival”

28 March 2017

From Words Without Borders:

Translation took to the big screen this year in the Academy Award-winning film, Arrival. Indeed, when an ominously oblong spacecraft touches down on Earth, translation proves to be humanity’s only hope. As the world descends into utter chaos, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is sent to the frontlines to attempt to communicate with the mysterious “Heptapods”—to find out what they want and why they’ve come.

We asked three top translators to watch Arrival and to give us their two cents (via email) on the linguacentric feature.

. . . .

Words Without Borders (WWB): What did Arrival get so right about being a translator?

Esther Allen: In “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, on which Arrival is based, the words associated with Dr. Banks are “linguist” and “linguistics”; the word “translate” never appears in the story. Part of what Arrival’s cinematic translation of the Chiang story does is introduce translation. And Arrival is an incredible translation, which takes a short story written in 2000 and adapts, expands, and reinvents it to make a statement that is profoundly and presciently about where we are now in 2017. Reading the story provides an interesting perspective on the film’s origins, but the story’s intellectual and political ambitions are far more limited.

What Arrival gets—far better than the Chiang story does—is that translation is about context. When Banks translates one of the alien symbols as “offer weapon,” the world goes into a panic. But she argues that in context the term could have a number of meanings, “weapon” being only one. This is exactly how a translator deals with the ambiguity that is inherent in every word and particularly challenging when moving between languages. Any given term in one language has the potential to become, legitimately, a range of other terms in translation, depending on context, intention, and a host of other factors.

Hillary Gulley: I like that Arrival so vividly illustrates that what a translator communicates and receives in language has at least as much to do with the subconscious element of language as it does with the information that we receive and reconcile consciously.

Will Evans: The importance of translating the whole experience of language—beyond words, combining the phrase or statement or entire text, adding in context, nuance, phrasing—rather than to think of translation as a direct word-for-word transfer of meaning.

WWB: What did Arrival get horribly wrong about being a translator?

Hillary Gulley: The movie confounds the skill sets of a linguist and a translator, for one thing, and then the separate skill sets of a live interpreter and an ESL teacher on top of that. I couldn’t figure out why Dr. Banks was expected to be all four. Maybe because she is a woman? Women tend to be great at making seventeen disparate jobs look as though they belong to one seamless role. Look at the rest of the characters in the movie, who are all men, each with a single mission—or maybe two: their assigned task, involving either fighting or science, and their seemingly self-assigned duty to second-guess the only woman there, who also happens to be the only one of them equipped to save humanity. At some point I said, this screenplay was definitely written by a man. (I was right—and the same applies to the short story that inspired the screenplay.)

In any case, there is this assumption—in the movie and in life—that a linguist and anyone else who speaks multiple languages is automatically a translator, which isn’t the case at all: some of the best linguists and most fluent speakers of a second language I’ve known are not great translators, and vice versa.

The film also propagates the common misconception that translators are walking thesauruses. Maybe this bugs me because I am the worst thinker on my feet, and prone to blanking on all names and the simplest terms. At home I handle this by using a series of sound effects—there’s a favorite clicking sound I usually resort to—so I can move quickly through a sentence without getting stuck on a word. In the film, whenever someone asked Dr. Banks for a term, I wanted her to pass them a copy of Roget’s instead of obliging herself to answer as if it were part of her job description.

Link to the rest at Words Without Borders

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