Born Isabella Baumfree to a family of slaves in Ulster County, New York, Sojourner Truth sits for one of the war’s most iconic portraits in an anonymous photographer’s studio, likely in Detroit. The sixty-seven-year-old abolitionist, who never learned to read or write, pauses from her knitting and looks pensively at the camera. She was not only an antislavery activist and colleague of Frederick Douglass but also a memoirist and committed feminist, who shows herself engaged in the dignity of women’s work. More than most sitters, Sojourner Truth is both the actor in the picture’s drama and its author, and she used the card mount to promote and raise money for her many causes: I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.
Amazon continued its momentum from Black Friday and Cyber Mondaythroughout the holiday, clocking in with its biggest holiday season ever. Including record shopping, record Prime membership trials, record sales of Amazon Devices, and more, the holiday season undoubtedly helped set the e-commerce giant up for an enormous fourth quarter.
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5. Parents love Fire Kids Edition Tablets. Sales of the Amazon tablet were up 2.4 times compared to the same time last year.
6. Amazon’s fulfillment and shipping network grew significantly. Between last year and this year’s holiday season, total square footage in Amazon’s fulfillment and shipping network increased by 30%.
7. Mobile shopping skyrocketed. The number of customers who shopped on the Amazon App increased nearly 70% this holiday season compared to the same period last year.
Expect this momentum to continue
Despite how extraordinary this growth is, Amazon is still preparing for one more big shopping day before the year closes. On Dec. 29, customers will be able to save “up to 80% on over 5,000 apps, games, movies, eBooks, and more,” Amazon said. Building on the momentum it saw last year with its new Digital Day holiday, Amazon said it will offer 40% more deals this year compared to last year.
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Amazon is guiding for huge growth in its fourth quarter of 2017, expecting net sales between $56 billion and $60.5 billion, up 28% to 38% compared to the year-ago quarter.
This fall, at a moment when retailers traditionally look forward to reaping holiday profits, the owner of the fourth-largest bookstore chain in the country surrendered to the forces of e-commerce.
Book World, founded in 1976, sold hardcovers, paperbacks and sometimes tobacco in malls, downtowns and vacation areas across the Upper Midwest. It had endured recessions, the expansion of superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, and then the rise of Amazon. But the 45-store chain could not survive the shifting nature of shopping itself, and so announced its liquidation.
“Sales in our mall stores are down this year from 30 to 60 percent,” said Bill Streur, Book World’s owner. “The internet is killing retail. Bookstores are just the first to go.”
As e-commerce becomes more deeply embedded in the fabric of daily life, including for the first time in rural areas, bookstores are undergoing a final shakeout. Family Christian Stores, which had 240 stores that sold books and other religious merchandise, closed this year, not long after Hastings Entertainment, a retailer of books, music and video games with 123 stores, declared bankruptcy and then shut down.
“Books aren’t going away, but bookstores are,” said Matthew Duket, a Book World sales associate waiting for customers in the West Bend, Wis., store.
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Replacing Book World as the fourth-largest chain, Publishers Weekly says, will be a company that had no physical presence a few years ago. That would be Amazon, which having conquered the virtual world has opened or announced 15 bookshops, including at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.
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The [Book World] chain swung from a profit in 2014 to break-even in 2015 to a loss in 2016, although Mr. Streur declined to provide numbers.
“There was nobody interested in buying us,” he said.
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The store in Mequon is in a strip mall with at least eight empty storefronts. In Oshkosh, the store is on the main street, but at 10 a.m. there was no foot traffic. The stores in Fond du Lac and Manitowoc were almost as bleak.
These streets look as if an overpowering recession had hit, but the unemployment rate in Wisconsin fell this year to a 17-year low. Mequon is especially affluent: Its household income is double the national average. This is Amazon Prime territory, its shoppers drawn to the fast-shipping membership program that some analysts say half the households in the country have joined.
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“To draw people into a store now is a monumental challenge. This is a huge sea change for retail. I don’t see any end to it.”
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“The age of the physical chain of bookstores is behind us — unless you don’t need to be profitable,” said Daniel Goldin, the owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, the sole surviving descendant of a local chain that began in 1927.
Four years ago, on the old site, I wrote about how Archive.org’s OpenLibrary project was systematically violating the copyrights of a number of authors, including Diane Duane and Mercedes Lackey. Archive.org seemed to feel that making digital copies of paper books and loaning them out as if they were the paper books as long as it restricted the paper books from circulating while the digital media were out was a fair use of those books. Even though the Authors Guild had been absolutely gung-ho about chasing Google all the way to the Supreme Court just for serving up snippets, the Internet Archive checking out entire books was somehow beneath its notice.
After that, the strangest thing happened: nothing.
For four years, Archive.org has chugged right along digitizing books and setting them up for checkout, without the Authors Guild or anyone else saying one word about it. And while I will admit that, in at least one case, this let me find a long out-of-print book I’d been wanting to get my hands on, it’s still not exactly legal. (Or, at least, it hasn’t been shown to be. More on that later.) Even the X-COM novel that originally prompted me to make that discovery is still up and available.
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Authors Guild Executive Director Mary E. Rasenberger replied:
This is something we are actively following. We have had letter/email exchanges and conversations with the InternetArchive, and indeed offered to work with them on this project to assist in getting rights from authors of out of print books, but only if they would do it within the bounds of the copyright law. But it appears they are not. Some of what they are doing is arguably fair use under the Haiti Trust and Google Books decisions, but the notion of relying on the first sale doctrine and fair use to allow IA to provide a digital copy to any library that owns a hard copy of a book in their collections and then e-lend that digital copy is ludicrous. I believe they are relying on an argument made in an amicus brief the IA signed onto in the ReDigi case, which is not going to fly. Yes, fair use even today does have some limits.
Finally, a few days ago, mention of OpenLibrary’s putative copyright violations showed up, posted by authors I follow on Facebook—and as I learned from a reader email today, this is because the Authors Guild finally deigned to alert its members that OpenLibrary was scanning and checking out their books without permission.
If 2017 is remembered for anything in entertainment, it might be the year everyone gave up on trying to stop reboots. Hollywood’s output this year included Kong: Skull Island, Power Rangers, The Mummy (ostensibly kicking off Universal’s Dark Universe), Beauty and the Beast, It, Saw, Ghost in the Shell, Jumanji, Baywatch, and even Murder on the Orient Express, which is somehow also getting a sequel. Several of these properties originally began life as books, while Power Rangers was a recut version of a Japanese TV show. This was also the year we got Spider-Man: Homecoming, the third attempt to start a filmed Spider-Man franchise in 15 years. Though some of these films have stumbled at the box office, there has been little to suggest an ebb in the commercial forces that squeeze them out like imitation diamonds.
At best, these entertainment products use an established brand as a sort of artistic Trojan horse to smuggle a new set of ideas and characters past the foreboding gates that prevent so much work from getting funded.
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For the most part, the rebooted films range from “excruciating” to “tolerable,” with even the better ones benefiting enormously from low expectations.
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Blazing Transfer Students is a Netflix-backed, live-action adaptation of Blazing Transfer Student, a cult classic manga and anime from the 1980s about Takizawa Noboru, a transfer student who discovers that students at his new high school resolve all conflicts through boxing matches. This new version stars the seven members of Japanese boy band Johnny’s West as transfer students, each named Kakeru, who are all pressed into service as Blazing Transfer Students—in this iteration of the series, “agents who infiltrate troubled schools and stamp out the evil that affects them.”
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Each frame of Blazing Transfer Students is carefully composed, contrasting the loud colors of a boy band and an anime and highlighting the exaggerated features of the Kakerus to create the moving equivalent of comic book panels. It helps that the series liberally applies action text—practically the first shot of the series captures one of the Kakerus skidding on the pavement toward his first day at the school, caption “SLIDING.” Other shots are punctuated with words like “SWOOSH,” “CRACKLE,” and “RHINO.”
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The show’s rubbery grip on reality—and its willingness to explicitly address its existence as a reboot—reaches its apex in the season’s penultimate episode, “Blazing Sports Festival!!” The Kakerus are confronted by Kazuhiko Shimamoto, the creator of the original Blazing Transfer Student manga, who has assembled his own group of older, frumpier, off-brand Blazing Transfer Students. They go only by their numbers and are intended to challenge the Kakerus’ appropriation of Shimamoto’s work. In their view, the Kakerus are “much too lukewarm,” and lack the passion to be true Blazing Transfer Students. During the scene, Shimamoto clutches his heart, threatening to tip over at any moment, and bemoans his presence: “So this is the fate of an artist who gave away his copyright.”
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This has to be a joke, right? It is, though not a very funny one to the scores of artists who have seen their work transformed again and again into someone else’s cash cow.
I’ve been trying to get my arms around what’s going on with traditional publishing for about a week and a half. I have varied reports from other writers, still working traditionally. I have been perusing back issues of Publishers Weekly, looking at other news sources, and reading some of my list serves.
I’m beginning to think I can’t figure out what happened to traditional publishing in 2017 because traditional publishing doesn’t know what’s going on in its own industry.
I’m writing this blog on December 26, 2017, and I’ve just seen the data that Amazon released on its various lists. I haven’t had time to go over it in-depth, but I did notice all of the backlist titles with legs on the Amazon lists. I said to Dean, “It’s amazing that traditional publishing still exists as mismanaged as it has been.”
I think that story of mismanagement continues, which is why I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what’s going on. Publisher’s Weekly barely mentions Amazon and doesn’t use its numbers to report its bestseller list, preferring BookScan. For an ebook bestseller list, PW uses the iBooks and (occasionally) Smashwords, which is well and good, but only gets a small picture of what’s going on.
Then there are all the cutbacks in genre fiction from the Big Five. That, and the lack of effective publicity for books. I ordered too many books at the end of this year, because I was looking through PW and was startled that this favorite author of mine had published a book or that favorite author had published two books, and I hadn’t heard of those books.
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It looks, at a casual glance, like the Big Five (Four? Three? Who the hell knows) is cutting its way to quarterly profits, and doing so exceedingly stupidly. In 2017, for example, Randy Penguin dropped its cozy mystery line, which thrives in mass market. Writers whose series were growing or selling at excellent numbers (for this time period) were unceremoniously dropped.
But…smaller traditional publishers, long-established traditional publishers, like Baen and Kensington, publishers not beholden to some international corporate overlord, are scooping up as many of these dropped genre authors as they possibly can, knowing cash cows when they see them.
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I wrote a post earlier in the year about all the traditionally published authors flooding into indie publishing right now, and the lack of patience long-term indies are showing them. That flood was the direct result of the cutting that occurred in traditional publishing.
We’re going to see a lot more hybrid publishing from writers, particularly those who have huge traditional careers. One traditionally published #1 New York Times bestseller just told me that his “test” indie published novella out-earns every single one of his bestselling titles.
I would have expected that from the financial angle—making 65% to 70% of each sale is much better than 12-15% (minus agent fees)—and I said that to him. He corrected me. He said that the novella outsells his bestselling titles as well. And that surprised me.
But the earnings are speaking to him, and he’s not alone. I’ve heard rumors about other bestsellers who are frightened by their sales numbers through traditional, and watching their income decline precipitously. Some of those writers are going hybrid fast.
Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.
As usual, PG thinks Kris is correct about many different things.
PG has used the “Not dead yet!” video from Monty Python to illustrate his view of traditional publishing on a few occasions.
Every month that goes by, PG has an image in his mind of groups of people in the publishing business holding secret celebratory Not Dead Yet dinners in dimly lit subterranean rooms. At the end of each dinner, the gathered publishers solemnly chant in unison, “Not dead yet, not dead yet, not dead yet” over and over before pulling their cowls over their heads, blowing out the candles and departing into the night.
Here are a few “But You’re Dying Fast” counterpoints that float to the top of PG’s consciousness:
If traditional publishing were financially healthy, Barnes & Noble would not be circling the drain.
If traditional publishing were healthy (mentally and otherwise), members of that establishment would not be trashing the world’s largest bookseller (and the publisher’s most profitable account), Amazon, on a continuing basis.
If traditional publishing were healthy, it would regard ebooks as a wonderful and highly-profitable new market, the future of publishing.
PG suggests traditional publishing understands that James Patterson will die someday, their pipeline of star authors, the kind that will be good for 30 years worth of bestsellers in the future, is rapidly drying up and that physical bookstores won’t save them.
But they’re not doing anything about this reality. These publishers still require new authors to jump through a thousand hoops to be published. They still operate on an industrial-age production line that finally spits out a book a year after they receive a manuscript.
Publishers are still in a lockstep shared monopoly in which they offer identical royalty rates and require every author to pay 15% off the top to a third-party agent in order to be published traditionally whether the author needs an agent or not.
I don’t fear death so much as I fear its prologues: loneliness, decrepitude, pain, debilitation, depression, senility. After a few years of those, I imagine death presents like a holiday at the beach.
Not exactly about authors and writing, but PG found this interesting.
From Artificial Lawyer:
Tom Martin, the founder of legal bot maker, LawDroid, has been awarded a contract to build a voice-activated legal aid bot in the US in a major ‘real world’ test of the technology and its access to justice (A2J) capabilities.
Martin told Artificial Lawyer that it will be the first chat bot/legal bot funded by the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grant Program.
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‘LawDroid will be making a hybrid voice and text-based chatbot that can engage users in guided interviews, provide vital legal information and generate custom legal documents,’ Martin explained.
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[T]he bot will need to handle a variety of legal queries coming to the HELP4TN site, which can range from wills to divorce and from financial planning to employment disputes. It will also need to function via voice and text. And, it will also need to be able to help users complete basic forms.
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The system must also be able to cope with verbal and written input errors, again no small challenge as anyone who has used a chat bot will know. Getting a bot to deal with responses from the user that make no sense yet without running into a dead end, or a logic loop, is not easy. But, such challenges have to be overcome to make the bot function in the real world, where people will introduce typos, misspellings, or use the wrong terms and other errors.
The system must also allow users to have ‘a conversational interview’ with the bot to automatically complete forms. Again, while this may sound relatively straight forward, ensuring that the right information is gathered and inputted in the right places, in the right way, is also not a simple task, especially if operating primarily via voice and with a member of the public who may not be familiar with legal terms or the legal process they are in need of help with.
In short, this will be a very important test that will provide a great proof of concept that legal bots can be used by the Legal Services Corporation and the many entities it supports.
In the US, the Legal Services Corporation is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. It provides most of its services through independent Legal Aid organizations in all 50 states.
In a former life, PG did a lot of litigation for his local Legal Aid. Some of his favorites were big company vs. little gal/guy lawsuits. He’ll resist the urge to share war stories.
PG has always been intrigued with legal automation and has done some work in that area over the years. Any legal process that employs commonly-used document structures or standard forms is an excellent candidate for computerized document creation.
Chapter 7 automated bankruptcy forms for individuals were an early example of complex forms that followed generally well-defined structures and processes. One very nice advantage of even relatively crude bankruptcy automation was that all the numbers added up which was not always the case with forms created manually.
As far as lawyers being replaced by computers, PG’s demurely humble opinion is that if a lawyer can be replaced by a computer program, that lawyer needs to move up to more complex legal tasks.
Another interesting use of AI in writing is the potential creation of formulaic potboiler stories.
Here’s an article about NaNoGenMo – National Novel Generation Month – for computer-generated novels on the Verge:
Nick Montfort’s World Clock was the breakout hit of last year (2013). A poet and professor of digital media at MIT, Montfort used 165 lines of Python code to arrange a new sequence of characters, locations, and actions for each minute in a day. He gave readings, and the book was later printed by the Harvard Book Store’s press. Still, Kazemi says reading an entire generated novel is more a feat of endurance than a testament to the quality of the story, which tends to be choppy, flat, or incoherent by the standards of human writing.
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Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.
NanNoGenMo, Kazemi says, “is more about doing something that is entertaining to yourself and possibly to other people.”
For last year’s NaNoGenMo Kazemi generated “Teens Wander Around a House.” He made a bunch of artificial intelligence agents and had them meander through a house at random, his program narrating their actions. When two characters ended up in a room together, he pulled dialogue from Twitter. One tweet could be a question — “What’s for dinner tomorrow?” — and the next, a statement that also contained the word “dinner” — “Dinner is my favorite meal of the day,” for example. “The result was a conversation that sort of stayed on topic but didn’t make much sense,” he says.
Here’s more on the same topic at Sabotage Reviews:
NaNoGenMo happens where tech and literature overlap: the strange venn intersection that houses computer poetry, electronic literature, and twitterbots. Novel generation draws from artificial intelligence and the quest to create computers that talk or write like people, but it’s also part of the Oulipian tradition of writing from constraint: if you make such-and-such a ruleset, what kind of writing might happen? Computer generation renders Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes beautiful but obsolete, and to my mind poem.exe can hold a 1000 Watt LED candle to Bashō.
NaNoGenMo is not, however, truly about trying to replace the human author. Rather, its entries draw their strange beauty and humour from their failure to be human, from their almost-but-not-quite humanity and their utter inhumanity: most of them are transparently machine-made, but this lends their glitches, coincidences and almost-epiphanies even more fascinating. The writing they produce is closest to is the flattened affect and repetitions of alt-lit, with dashes of uncreative writing, flarf and other post-internet poetics. In other words: as humans increasingly write in dialogue with the internet and machine automations, machines are increasingly being written in dialogue with human literature.
With all that in mind, here are ten of my favourite results from NaNoGenMo. Each is gorgeous and weird in a different way, from extended jokes to eerie half-humanness.