Monthly Archives: May 2018

Riggio Rallies Booksellers at BookExpo: ‘Open More Stores Than We Close’

31 May 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

‘There can never be too many bookstores in America,’ Barnes & Noble chief Len Riggio tells an appreciative crowd at the bookseller-oriented 2018 BookExpo in New York.

. . . .

And as if that grass doesn’t always seem greener than publishing’s, another departure awaited Wednesday’s industry BookExpo-goers who gathered to hear Barnes & Noble’s Len Riggio speak: he was introduced, and graciously, by Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA).

. . . .

In case the irony isn’t apparent, Barnes & Noble has at times in its history been bitterly criticized for closing the essential mom-and-pop bookstores of the association’s rank and file with its big-box clout. In fact, before Amazon had become retail’s most profitable nightmare, Barnes & Noble was the enemy in the eyes of many independent booksellers.

Teicher did his part to try to bolster Reed’s “reimagined BookExpo” effort by saying that “It’s hardly a secret that lots of industry trade shows in a whole range of industries have had some challenges of late.” He congratulated Several and his team for this year’s emphasis, which is on booksellers and their relationship with publishers—”reimagined,” purposefully, with the bookshop keeper in mind.

And to his credit, Teicher didn’t try to duck the fact that “My standing here, doing what I’m about to do”—introduce Barnes & Noble’s chairman—”would have been impossible to imagine several years ago.”

We all need, however, he said, “to recognize that things change. … The simple fact is that our business is stronger and American readers benefit when there is a vibrant and healthy network of brick-and-mortar bookshops all across the country.”

It’s a good bet that Amazon Books, those brick-and-mortar stores being rolled out by Seattle, aren’t the storefronts Teicher had in mind as he spoke, but he did concede that “In 2018, the Internet has its place,” without going so far as to add that online retail may be, in Cader’s phrase, the place that’s “driving half of book sales or more” in the States.

. . . .

While Barnes & Noble in its long life has sold more than 6.8 billion books, Riggio told us, David Leonhardt at The New York Times wrote on May 6 what everyone in publishing and finance has known for years while watching the bookstore chain try various error-prone “reimaginings” of its own: “Barnes & Noble is in trouble … And you really see the problems if you dig into the company’s financial statements.”

. . . .

Such lines as “a single book can change a person’s life,” however true, are the province of motivational speakers and retreat directors. Riggio offered that reassurance, as well as some handsome phrasing: “We are the showrooms for the publishing industry”—a fine concept until you remember that “showrooming” today can mean finding a book in a physical store and immediately ordering it from Amazon on one’s smartphone at a better price than that store can afford to offer.

. . . .

The one plea he made was cordially couched but aimed at publishers and their pricing. “The problem remains,” he said, “that today the average paperback costs two and half times the minimum wage, as compared to one and a half of the minimum wage when I got started. How sustainable can this be, when Google promises all the world’s information for free? … My dear publishers, serving the mass market is of critical importance to the performance of our industry, precisely because we need to attract more citizens, particularly young people.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Reading between the lines of the report on Riggio’s speech, PG sees “Please don’t sell any more Barnes & Noble stock.”

Professionalism in art

31 May 2018

Professionalism in art has this difficulty: To be professional is to be dependable, to be dependable is to be predictable, and predictability is esthetically boring – an anti-virtue in a field where we hope to be astonished and startled and at some deep level refreshed.

John Updike

Erratic Posts

31 May 2018

PG’s daily schedule will be a bit unpredictable for the next couple of days.

Nothing bad has happened, but posts on TPV will appear at different times than usual.

Predictive Keyboard

31 May 2018

From Bloomberg:

Botnik is creating an unusual predictive keyboard—suggesting words based on what’s been typed—to generate everything from scripts for new episodes of Seinfeld to funny Valentine’s Day recipes. The results are by design weird as hell.

. . . .

Art created by artificial intelligence has become a reliable success in the finicky world of viral content, resulting in everything from eerie cat drawings to dadaist punk music. Botnik’s interactive keyboards let anyone create surreal rearrangements of familiar words.

. . . .

At the New Yorker, Mankoff created the caption contest, spawning a huge data set mined by Google. This piqued his interest in AI, and he got in touch with Brew, who’d been exploring the topic by sending texts on the iPhone’s predictive keyboard. Botnik made its debut in 2016, then landed a $100,000 contract from Inc. to help make its Alexa AI assistant sound more human.

. . . .

Ultimately, Brew looks at the content created by the broader Botnik community as advertisements for the real product: the virtual keyboards themselves, which roughly 1,000 people per day play around on. Two full-time programmers have been working on a broader platform evolved from the keyboards, to be unveiled this summer. Eventually, Brew and Mankoff hope to charge for access to the platform.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

Lost in Robo-Translation

30 May 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

A few days before I left for a trip to Japan with my husband, I signed up to rent a translation device called Pocketalk. According to a press release from January, when the device debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Pocketalk “learns as you go, fits in your pocket, and allows for customers to speak in full conversations, not just statements.” (It begins shipping to the United States this month.)

I was looking forward to friendly, meaningful interactions like the one in the Pocketalk promotional video, in which an American man and a girl who is, one assumes, his daughter are window-shopping at a bakery, or maybe a candy store, and are mystified by the goods in the window. The shopkeeper—an older Japanese woman in an apron—appears. “Why is that green?” the girl says, speaking into the small handheld device that is the size and shape of a well-used bar of soap and pointing at something that looks like a small bunch of grapes or verdant donut holes on a stick. Almost immediately, the machine broadcasts a string of Japanese words.

On hearing this, the shopkeeper smiles broadly. She understands! The girl and her father smile back. They understand that she understands! The shopkeeper takes the Pocketalk from the girl and speaks into it in Japanese. “Because they are made with herbs,” we hear the machine say after a bit, and everyone nods as if this makes perfect sense.

. . . .

[T]he Japanese government . . . has been pouring billions of yen into the development of artificial intelligence-based translation apps and gadgets in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, hoping they will encourage tourism. “The [internal affairs] ministry wants to provide real-time machine translation services… to help visitors who may feel hesitant about coming to Japan because of the language barrier,” I read in the Japan Times.

. . . .

I picked up my Pocketalk at the same kiosk in the Narita airport where I was renting a wifi hotspot. I needed the hotspot to use the machine, which relies on an Internet connection to access the databases where artificial intelligence sorts through millions of common words and phrases, looking for ones that best match the ones I spoke into it. It uses those matches to translate what I, or my Japanese counterpart, are saying. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, as anyone who has used Google Translate knows…

“All bets are off,” I said to my phone using the VoiceTra app when I was still in the US, and asked it to translate my words into Japanese, which it did. But when I checked what the app said I’d said—VoiceTra has a useful reverse translation feature—it wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was a single word: “Sure.” So, all bets were off, though I was still hopeful that a dedicated translation device would do better than an app on my phone.

. . . .

Finally, as I was walking through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo one morning, I saw a woman and an Akita standing beside a poster that seemed to indicate that the dog did some kind of therapy work. I was too curious not to stop. I turned on the Pocketalk and said, “Beautiful dog.” I wanted to ask if I could pet the dog, but the device hadn’t yet translated “beautiful dog,” and I didn’t want to confuse it. “We have to speak to the machine concisely and targeting the microphone precisely,” Eiichiro Sumita had cautioned me in his email. “If you don’t do that, the speech recognizer takes a long time and returns erroneous results and translator generates crazy sentences.” Eventually, “beautiful dog”—or possibly something else—came out of the device in Japanese, so I tried to pass the Pocketalk to the woman just as in the promo video. She looked at it, and me, skeptically, and did not take it. She did say something, though it was probably not, as the Pocketalk announced, “special king dog.” 

One reason Japanese is a difficult language to translate, Sumita told me, is that “people often omit subjects because Japanese people understand each other without mentioning subjects.” In this case, I think we were both clear that the subject was the dog, which sat there patiently and unconcerned. No doubt, it was well-acquainted with the problems of translation. As I turned to leave, a woman standing nearby spoke up. “This is a specially-trained hearing-aid dog,” she said in perfect, British-inflected English. “They are here to raise public awareness.” I thanked her and put the Pocketalk away. It was days before I took it out again.

“Why are you wearing a rubber Donald Trump mask?” I asked a Japanese man two rows behind me at an amphitheater in Kyoto.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

More information about the Pocketalk is here, where one sub-head says, “Expericence true communication” .

A Model Privacy Policy Courtesy of XKCD

30 May 2018

As BookExpo and New York Rights Fair Open: Warnings for Publishers

30 May 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

‘Your competitors like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Audible,’ publishers will hear this year at BookExpo and the rival rights fair, ‘are more than willing to fill the gap.’

. . . .

The reality, he says, is that “big data” is not really the stuff of most publishers’ future traction in a digital world. Something that may well seem like “little data” is, because it’s more available, readable, and actionable than the “big data” operations of major tech forces in the marketplace.

And the “invitation to a wild ride” he’s talking about is one that some will not accept gladly. It requires studying and analyzing many available “tracks” and trends at once, right down to what’s in a publisher’s “own backyard,” as we might say. “Who on your staff and around your own house reports back, in some structured way,” he asks, “on what they read, or how their kids operate their smartphones?”

What Wischenbart says he’s seeing is that even in the largest houses, such as Penguin Random House with its armada of imprints “acting like little companies,” the corporation can certainly engage in larger data activities, “but they don’t have the tool set,” he says, “to listen to what their employees are doing.”

. . . .

“[E]ven traditional readers—a majority of them urban, well-educated and older than 40—have seen their ‘mobile time’ rising from a modest 26 minutes in 2012 to more than one hour in 2017.”

Among Millennials, he says, “mobile time” may be expanding to as much as three hours per day.

But look at corresponding numbers in publishing markets that Wischenbart cites in his new article.

In Germany, data in Wischenbart’s report shows more than 6 million book buyers disappearing in the past five years . . . . Today, publishers there, he says, see a maximum audience of some 30 million in a total population of 80 million.

. . . .

Wischenbart has his fictitious publisher say to herself, “We need to stick to our bread and butter, to the rare books that hit the top of the charts, the well-established authors. Well, we even need the copy-cat income, or other cheap thrills, to simply secure a continuous income.”

But is that true? Wischenbart agrees in an interview with Publishing Perspectives that the blockbuster isn’t where publishers can afford to focus today, and not only because we’re in a largely blockbuster-less drought in the US market.

Wischenbart agrees that the buyer of the biggest blockbuster may do no more for the industry and for reading than pay for her or his one copy: these are generally not habitual readers. They’re novelty readers, readers drawn to the occasional breakthrough phenomenon, entertainment patrons who drop in on the world of books to catch a peak moment, then sail off to cinema, video, games, and music.

“I would phrase it this way,” Wischenbart says from his office in Austria. “First, the transformation that has been predicted now is here. It has arrived. We’re not talking about the future.

“And the transformation is much deeper” than many who became fixated on ebooks and perhaps today are transfixed by audiobooks’ uptake might think. “It’s a transformation of consumer behavior and habits.

“Second, such rough waters of transformation are creating higher risk” than publishers may have realized, not least because they’ve thought of “digital” as being about formats and largely now accomplished.”

. . . .

“I do see a difference in the US and UK markets and the rest of the world,” he says, in terms of how in the big US and UK markets, publishing has an upbeat sense that it knows where it’s going. “Hardly anyone in the industry in continental Europe or elsewhere feels so comfortable.”

The sense of greater comfort, command, and solidity in the UK and American markets, he agrees, may come from a plethora of self-congratulatory awards programs and morale-boosting coverage. “They’re always winning,” he says about such trends, which can lead a market to believe that all is going better than may be the reality.

. . . .

“Right now, my inkling is that a lot of truly critical information sits in drawers and on hard disks, underused, if noticed at all.

“We see, day by day, how publishing is getting ever more segmented. From formerly three distinct sectors, trade or consumer versus educational versus professional or academic, we have moved into an ever-thinner slicing of the cake that used to be served in the business of books.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG has long noted that the traditional book business lacks even rudimentary data skills.

Its reliance on Neilson and other data sources that do not include data from Amazon, by far the world’s largest bookstore, is Exhibit A.

Exhibit B is Big Publishing’s schizoid frienemies attitude toward Amazon, its largest customer.

For those who are newcomers to the recent history of Big Publishing’s strategies for dealing with ebooks and Amazon, in 2012, the United States Department of Justice charged Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan with illegally conspiring with Apple to fix ebook prices in the United States.

This group was conspiring to keep ebook prices high to prop up sales of printed books. Amazon, which was selling ebooks at low prices to help sell Kindle devices and expand the ebook market, was the target of this conspiracy.

In 2013, after each of these large publishers had admitted to acting in violation of antitrust laws, a trial judge found Apple guilty of participating in this same illegal price-fixing conspiracy. Apple appealed and the trial court’s decision was affirmed in 2015.

Exhibit C is Author Earnings, a small organization that does have people with good data skills.

Beginning in 2014, Author Earnings began to release a series of reports that detailed ebook sales on Amazon by both traditional publishers and by individual self-publishers working through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. This series of reports demonstrated that ebook sales indie authors were a large and growing segment of the overall ebook market.

As additional Author Earnings reports were released periodically, they reflected the continuing growth in the market for indie-published ebooks. Indie authors came to dominate ebook sales in the romance, fantasy and science fiction genres.

Had Big Publishing been willing to hire employees with any sort of data skills, it could have duplicated the work of Author Earnings and developed even more sophisticated analyses because of access to its own ebook sales data (which was not made available to Author Earnings).

Big Publishing has consistently elected to base its business decisions on hunches generated by a small group of former English majors running its businesses in Manhattan. The “golden gut” school of publishing management has resulted in Big Publishing missing the ebook train and failing to treat Amazon as a potential window into the rapidly-changing and ever-growing ebook market.

Another disadvantage Big Publishing has is that, by New York City standards, it doesn’t pay very well. A twenty-something with data skills can receive a much larger salary from any number of other employers who are not in the publishing business.

PG will restrain himself from commenting on the blinkered view of the world common in the large European holding companies that own all but one of the largest US publishers. Suffice to say, New York publishing executives are not receiving a lot of phone calls and emails from Europe urging them to invest more in technologies and people that will position the publisher favorably for a new and different future.

Accountant embezzled $3.4M from famed literary agency

30 May 2018

From The New York Post:

A Manhattan accountant cooked the books at a prestigious literary agency that represents top writers, including “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk, bilking its clients of millions and leaving the company on the brink of bankruptcy, according to legal papers.

Darin Webb, 47, faces 20 years in jail on wire-fraud charges for embezzling $3.4 million from storied Manhattan agency Donadio & Olson, according to a recently unsealed federal criminal complaint.

Although the agency, which also represents the estates of “Godfather” writer Mario Puzo and radio legend Studs Terkel, was not named in court papers, a lawyer representing the firm confirmed to The Post that Donadio & Olson was the subject of the alleged theft.

. . . .

The stolen money — allegedly lifted between January 2011 and March of this year — was earmarked for author royalties and advances, the complaint says.

But the theft could be exponentially more, a source told The Post, noting that a forensic accountant is combing through Donadio & Olson’s books all the way back to 2001, Webb’s first year at the agency.

He allegedly fessed up to the theft in March in a videotaped interview with company executives and their attorneys at the agency’s Chelsea office, saying he filed monthly financial reports that “contained false and fraudulent representations in order to accomplish the theft and evade detection,” the complaint states.

. . . .

The alleged theft was first discovered last fall when an unidentified author who was expecting to receive a $200,000 advance from his publisher asked Webb why he had not received the payment.

According to the complaint, Webb put the author off for months.

“The author did not receive the payment because Webb had converted the funds to Webb’s own use,” says the complaint.

Link to the rest at The New York Post

For those who are new visitors to TPV, PG will repeat his previous observations about literary agencies – The agency adds no value for an author by receiving all or any portion of the royalties to which the author is entitled from the publisher.

The solution is split checks – the publisher sends 85% of the royalties directly to the author and 15% to the agency together with a royalties report to each.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time an agent or an employee of an agent has stolen money that should have been paid to the agency’s clients.

According to the OP, this alleged embezzlement has been going on for about 17 years.

What does this say about the agent’s financial management skills? Does the agency ever pay attention to its authors’ money? Does the agency have even the most rudimentary accounting systems and safeguards in place to protect authors? Does the agency care?

The Guardian has a story about Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk who says that he is “close to broke” because of the embezzlement.

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