We will need writers who can remember freedom

23 November 2014

From parker higgins dot net:

Ursula K. Le Guin was honored at the National Book Awards tonight and gave a fantastic speech about the dangers to literature and how they can be stopped.

Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine.

. . . .

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Link to the rest at parker higgins dot net and thanks to Felix and several others for the tip.

Apple $450 million e-book settlement gets final court approval

22 November 2014

From Reuters:

A U.S. judge on Friday gave final approval to Apple Inc’s agreement to pay $450 million to resolve claims it harmed consumers by conspiring with five publishers to raise e-book prices.

During a hearing in Manhattan, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote approved what she called a “highly unusual” accord. It calls for Apple to pay $400 million to as many as 23 million consumers if the company is unsuccessful in appealing a ruling that found it liable for antitrust violations.

The $400 million comes on top of earlier settlements with five publishers in the case, which provided $166 million for e-book purchasers.

. . . .

Apple agreed to the settlement in June, ahead of a damages trial set for two months later in which attorneys general in 33 states and territories and lawyers for a class of consumers were expected to seek up to $840 million.

Link to the rest at Reuters

‘Amageddon': How Amazon’s culture is taking a toll on Seattle’s future

21 November 2014

From GeekWire:

When I arrived in Seattle in 1991, Tim Wistrom’s artplayfully epitomized post-apocalyptic Seattle. But increasingly, the city’s likely doom appears much less fantastic and closer: an unaffordable traffic-filled metropolis dominated by white males and devoid of independent culture — fueled by Amazon.

In May, I calculated that Amazon’s planned office space would employ five percent of the city of Seattle — but that was before it inked deals to build or lease an additional 1.37 million square feet; it’s now on track to employ 45,000 locally or seven percent of the city.

Columnist Danny Westneat recently wrote that locals are openly asking in jest, “Do you think they’ll let us stay?” Assuming they do, what values do our city’s most populous neighbors share?

During my time at Microsoft during the ’90s, people spoke of “drinking the Microsoft Kool Aid”. For me, that included turning a blind eye towards Microsoft’s domineering, monopolistic practices; to employees spending their day on the company’s isolated suburban campus, the company couldn’t do much wrong. That changed for me in the years after I left and got psychic distance from the company and ultimately when I reported on the hypocrisy of its executives’ education advocacy in the shadow of its billion-dollar Nevada tax dodge.

If Amazon employees are similarly absorbing the values of the company and its founder, Jeff Bezos, just what are those values and what might Seattle look like a decade from now?

. . . .

Seattle is the fastest-growing city in the country; now larger than Boston. We have the fourth worst traffic in the country. We rank twelfth of major cities for public transportation with less than half the trips per capita of San Francisco. Puget Sound Business Journal reports, “there are more than 100 construction projects in Downtown Seattle,” a third more than the previous high from 2007. “Over the past year, the amount of office space under construction has nearly doubled … to 3.2 million square feet.”

. . . .

So a lot about our Amazon-fueled future is just plain obvious: Seattle will be more male, even more white, wealthier and less diverse, unaffordable to those with lower incomes including the firestarters of culture, artists. The city’s spacious skyline, which offered scenic views from many areas of town, will be forever transformed; anyone who lives here knows it already has been. Many parts of Seattle are unrecognizable from last year let alone a few years ago.

. . . .

In addition to fast-rising rents, parts of the home market are on fire. Zillow forecasts my home’s value will increase to $960,000 next year from $649,000 in 2012, an increase of nearly fifty percent in just three years.

I admit I’m part of the problem. Not only did I come to Seattle for the opportunity to work at a large technology company, but it made me wealthy, as well. I’m not saying that Amazon shouldn’t grow and that others shouldn’t benefit from the opportunity, I just believe the company’s growing irresponsibly and beginning to have an irrevocably damaging impact on Seattle’s character and quality of life.

. . . .

It certainly doesn’t seem overly leveraged, but could Amazon one day collapse as Washington Mutual did? It’s unlikely but not completely outside the realm of possibility. Any sudden broader economic downturn could hurt the retailer’s cash flow which is the lifeline to Seattle’s current growth.

Link to the rest at GeekWire

PG remembers Seattle before Microsoft. After the end of the Vietnam War, Boeing, Seattle’s only big business, laid off tens of thousands of well-paid employees, the city went into a long economic slump and a huge number of people left. Housing costs were a bargain because so many houses were for sale. A billboard appeared near the airport that read, “Would the last person leaving Seattle please turn off the lights.”

Some people want increased prosperity without change. During the 80’s and 90’s Microsoft was the company that was “ruining” Seattle and “Microsoft mansions” were popping up all over. It’s a matter of personal taste, but PG liked the post-Microsoft Seattle much better than the pre-Microsoft Seattle.

Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country

20 November 2014

From James Patterson via Salon:

Last week, Amazon and Hachette Book Group announced they had reached an agreement on a multi-year contract, ending a lengthy stand-off that prompted hundreds of authors to speak out against Amazon’s negotiation tactics. One of the highest-profile voices was bestselling novelist James Patterson.

. . . .

Next week, Patterson will launch a new public awareness campaign to encourage reading. The campaign includes a television ad featuring a public book burning, and a request to President Obama that he pledge to make reading a national priority. And in an interview earlier this week, Patterson says Amazon could be doing more to encourage reading.

. . . .

Tell me about the new campaign to encourage reading and book-buying.

We really try and discourage apathy and neglect as much as anything. You know I mean, look, we’re in this transitional period with e-books. And what’s happened in the last ten years or so is we’ve gone from 10,000 or so bookstores to less than 3,000. I don’t think that’s great. We have teenagers now reading books less than eight minutes a week. I don’t think that’s great. And I don’t think people are paying much attention to it. So not to go crazy with puns, but I really want to try to light a fire under the issue and get people to pay more attention.

When the Amazon thing came up, I can’t say that I did it by myself, but a few writers got up and we did light a fire under a lot of writers. And I think the same thing can happen here in terms of getting people upset about, hey, what is going to happen to our books? What is going to happen if we don’t have any publishers around?

. . . .

But what would be the sign that it was? What’s the goal here? More independent bookstores, more book sales?

I think the goal is just more people reading. And to do that, a lot of things have to happen. Actually, to me, the group that can do the most good here is Amazon. Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country. It really could. And that would be the easiest fix, directionally.

I think they probably think they’re doing that, but they’re not, at least not yet. Yes, they want to lower prices, and you know, theoretically that’s fine, but I don’t know how we’d do that on a practical level and keep stores… You know, in terms of evolving the system as opposed to fracturing the system, [Amazon is] in a position to do something. The government is in a position to do something. Ironically, you know, we have a very liberal president, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in the subject, unfortunately. I know he’s got a lot on his plate already, but you know. I mean, look, all over Europe you have governments who protect the publishers and protect books.

Yeah, there was that New York Times Bookends piece recently about how France treats books as an “essential good,” like food and utilities. They’re taxed at lower rates, price discounts are pretty severely controlled. Is that a model that you think would be useful?

No, I don’t think it’s a model, but I think it’s something to pay attention to. I think the government could be more involved. I mean, obviously the government has stepped in when banks were in trouble and the automobile business was in trouble. I think it’s something that local, state and federal government could be doing more.

This is once again symbolic, the kind of leadership pledge, you know. We’re gonna ask people to write to the President, write to their Congress and their representatives. And have the President take a pledge that once a month, he’ll appear in public carrying a book, he’ll visit a library store, or you know, the local representative.

. . . .

Yeah, that’s pretty accessible stuff. Well you mentioned earlier that Amazon could be doing more. What do you think Amazon could be doing more of? 

They can save reading. They can get in there, they can just encourage people to read. One of the things, and I actually talked to Jeff Bezos about this, was when it was in their business interest to really get people knowing about the Kindle, I mean, you could not go on that site without getting tempted and blasted about, Try this Kindle, try this Kindle, you gotta try this, it’s free, we’ll give you a million dollars if you try this.

Right now what’s happened is you’ve got about 30% less people going into bookstores, and that includes a lot of parents and grandparents or whatever. Kids have not switched to tablets for reading. That has not happened. They’re not reading e-books. So what you have in a third of households now, is the kids aren’t reading any more. The parents aren’t going into the bookstores and they’ve switched to e-books, but they haven’t switched their families. And what I said to Jeff was that you really need to educate all these people that are using the Kindle that a) It’s okay to have more than one in the house, just like you have five phones in the house, it’s okay, and secondly, don’t be afraid that your kids are gonna wind up buying a dozen books in a year. That’s okay too. That’s excellent, actually.

Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Barry for the tip.

As PG read this, he realized what a terrible fix the world would be in if James Patterson ever stopped telling everyone what to do.

Preston: ‘Authors United will fight on’

20 November 2014

From The Bookseller:

Campaign group Authors United will continue its “efforts to persuade” the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department in the US to look into Amazon’s market practices, saying there are “still many open questions about Amazon’s market power”.

. . . .

In a letter to the writers who signed petitions trying to persuade Amazon to agree terms with HBG – including names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, Tracy Chevalier, Sophie Hannah and Philip Pullman – Preston wrote that the deal between the two companies, which allows HBG to set consumer prices for its books, was “not unreasonable” as he understood it.

“I want to thank all of you for your courage in facing down Amazon,” he continued. “Each one of you risked retaliation and potential damage to your career to sign our letters. As a Hachette author, I want especially to thank those many non-Hachette authors who had little to gain and a great deal to lose by taking a public stand.”

. . . .

Preston said: “There are still many open questions about Amazon’s market power. Those questions are best explored, not in an atmosphere of confrontation and high emotion, as we have just passed through, but in a reflective way that considers the long-term economic health of the book industry and the ability of authors to earn a living — as well as the larger issues of freedom of speech, diversity and healthy competition in the marketplace.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller and thanks to T.M. for the tip.

PG says “’not unreasonable’ as he understood it” means Preston hasn’t a clue what’s in the Amazon/Hachette contract.

During the dispute, Hachette was clearly feeding Authors United talking points about the status of contract negotiations, effects on sales, etc., and AU’s one percent spokesauthors were dutifully shouting out the party line.

Now that the AU members have done their job, it’s time for them to go back to the plantation.

(Yes, PG knows he mixed a zillion metaphors, but since he never puts metaphors into contracts, PG had a backlog in his head.)

Amazon Robots Get Ready for Christmas

20 November 2014

From The Wall Street Journal: Inc. ‘s robot army is finally falling into place.

The Seattle online retailer has outfitted several U.S. warehouses with squat, orange, wheeled robots that move stocked shelves to workers, instead of having employees seek items amid long aisles of merchandise, according to people familiar with the matter.

At a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in Tracy, Calif., about 60 miles east of San Francisco, Amazon this summer replaced four floors of fixed shelving with the robots, the people said.

Now, “pickers” at the facility stand in one place and wait for robots to bring four-foot-by-six-foot shelving units to them, sparing them what amounted to as much as 20 miles a day of walking through the warehouse. Employees at some robot-equipped warehouses are expected to pick and scan at least 300 items an hour, compared with 100 under the old system, current and former workers said.

. . . .

At the heart of the robot rollout is Amazon’s relentless drive to compete with the immediacy of shopping at brick-and-mortar retailers by improving the efficiency of its logistics. If Amazon can shrink the time it takes to sort and pack goods at its roughly 80 U.S. warehouses, it can guarantee same-day or overnight delivery for more products to more customers.

The robots could also help Amazon save $400 million to $900 million a year in so-called fulfillment costs by reducing the number of times a product is “touched,” said Janney Capital Markets analyst Shawn Milne. He estimated the robots may pare 20% to 40% from the average $3.50-to-$3.75 cost of sorting, picking and boxing an order.

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

PG posted about these some time ago, but if you haven’t seen the videos, it’s worth a couple of minutes of your time.



Why Amazon will never lose the book war

19 November 2014

From Quartz:

If you were looking for a simile to describe Amazon’s relationship with authors, you couldn’t do better than picturing Amazon as King Kong and the authors it desperately and clumsily wants to court as Fay Wray. One compelling reason for this analogy is that the courtship between brute and beauty was destined to leave a lot of collateral damage in its wake. The pointless, brutal fight between Amazon and Hachettte that ended somewhat abruptly late last week illustrates the point.

Amazon has been trying to get around publishers and win the affections of authors for some time. There were several strategic moves. Launching the Kindle—which coincidentally took place seven years ago today—was one. The ill-fated hiring of a voluble New York publisher in the hopes that his brash, big advances would entice authors to publish directly at “the world’s largest bookstore” was another. And the purchase of the Good Reads social network for book readers was the third prong in the company’s attempts to build a Platonically ideal publishing platform.

Looking at Amazon’s actions from the outside, the thinking seems to be that the company can rationalize the deeply fickle and irrational book business.

The problem isn’t that Amazon’s strategic thinking is wrong. On paper, authors get a lousy deal from their publishers and Amazon is in a unique position to improve the economics for authors, as it has done with the many genre writers who now publish on the Kindle platform. If you’re an unknown, or write in an unfashionable but popular genre, no New York publisher populated by hipsters is going to get excited and give you a big advance. You’re better off showing your moxie and reaping the rewards of a 70% Kindle royalty rate.

. . . .

Although the transformation is not taking place fast enough for Amazon, the retailer continues to expand its influence over the book market. Lower ebook prices—exactly what Amazon wanted and what Amazon has said they will incentivize the publisher to provide—will only accelerate that trend.

As much as Hachette wants to defend its prerogatives and shore up its physical books business, its profit margins lie not in the choice of format (ebooks are of course much more profitable for publishers because the authors receive a lower royalty and there’s no incremental cost for each additional book sold) but in the publishing house’s ability to generate hits.

. . . .

 Amazon thinks its over-sized royalties should be more than enough to attract authors. (And King Kong thought he and Fay Wray had a future together.) Those royalties are an extension of Amazon’s overall low working capital approach to business. But what authors get from publisher’s advances is more than money. It’s validation, encouragement and support. Those are the human emotions Amazon has to satisfy in order to woo authors into its new version of the publishing business.

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

So emotionally-needy authors should go with traditional publishing and self-confident authors should indie pub. PG says the best validation is earning good money from your books and writing what you want and when you want with nobody bossing you around.

Royal Mail shares fall sharply on concerns over competition

19 November 2014

From the BBC:

Shares in Royal Mail have fallen by more than 8% after the firm warned that rivals – including Amazon – were eating into its parcel delivery business.

Royal Mail said the rise of delivery firm Whistl could wipe £200m off sales.

It also said competition was endangering its government-mandated Universal Service, which guarantees a single price postal service that delivers to all UK addresses.

. . . .

The company also said it faced increased parcel competition and that Amazon’s recently-launched delivery service could singlehandedly dent its business by as much as 2%, in the short term.

In the past six months, Royal Mail’s UK parcel delivery division saw revenues fall by 1%.

Link to the rest at the BBC and thanks to Lexi (who says Royal Mail service is terrible in her part of London) for the tip.

Amazon has too much control over what books get published

19 November 2014

From Salon:

On Nov. 19, at the annual National Book Awards gala, Neil Gaiman will present the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ursula K. Le Guin. At 85, Le Guin could be resting on her well-earned laurels, but she continues to write, mostly short stories, and to explore new fictional terrain, particularly in Earthsea, the imaginary archipelago where some of her most memorable fiction is set.

. . . .

Not bad for a writer who, wearied by rejections, started sending stories to science-fiction magazines because she thought she might have a better shot there.

. . . .

 The first question I have is about genre, since you’ve written in so many. “Lavinia” is historical fiction and made me think you could easily have had a whole alternate career writing books like those of, oh, Mary Renault. There are some strong similarities between science fiction and historical fiction, but you also write fantasy, poetry, etc. How do you decide which genre to write in — is that part of the plan from the beginning (“I feel like writing a fantasy novel next”) or does it emerge in some other way?

Ah, genre. A word only a Frenchman could love. Well, you ask how I decide which genre to write in, and I have to answer, mostly I don’t. My mind doesn’t work that way.

Way back, around 1960, I did make a conscious decision to see if I could write for the science fiction magazines, because editors in other fields kept telling me they didn’t understand my stories, and I thought maybe sf editors might. I got my first two acceptances in one week. One story sold to a science fiction magazine, and another, not aimed at any market, was accepted by a small literary magazine.  The fact that the sf magazine paid encouraged me to go on learning how to write fantasy and sf. Thirty bucks was welcome back then.

I didn’t follow the sf rules and conventions unless I felt like it; essentially I went on writing what I wanted to write, and they could call it what they liked. To publish genre fiction of course branded me as a sub-literary writer in the eyes of the literary establishment, critics, award-givers, etc., but the great potentialities of the field itself, the open-mindedness of its editors and critics, the intelligence of its readers, compensated for that. Genre fiction was looked at as a ghetto, but I wonder now if realist fiction, sealing itself off in the glum suburbs of a dysfunctional society, denying the uses of imagination, was the ghetto.

A degree of recognition, a fearless agent, several loyal editors, and fiscal solvency allowed me to go on writing what I felt like writing, overstepping boundaries.

. . . .

You’ve been outspoken on both the Google Books settlement and, more recently, on Amazon. And you’re a founder of Book View Cafe, an alternative publishing operation, but you also still publish with small and large presses. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what today’s authors need to know or understand about publishing.

Book View Cafe is a professional authors’ co-operative, relying on member volunteer work. It fills a largely blank place in the publishing field. I do publish when I can with small presses that continue to regard and sell books as books, not as products indistinguishable from other commodities. I think corporate ownership and management of the big commercial publishers has grown steadily more misguided, to the point of allowing commodity marketers such as Amazon control over what they publish, which means what writers write and what people read. Dictatorship/censorship by the market or by government is equally dangerous, and crippling to any art.

There’s still a whole range of options for professional writers — between the poet who has no “market” at all, yet writes and publishes for love of the art, through the ordinary novelist who tries to balance artistic standards and conscience with demands for easy salability, to writers eager to sell themselves and their product to the highest bidder. E-publication has changed the rules, and made self-publication temptingly easy. It’s not easy to know how to be an author these days! I’m way too old to give any advice on the matter to anyone. All I can do is keep on going as I always did, in the direction that seems to promise the most freedom.

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

Small Empires: can Wattpad’s DIY writing empire survive an invasion by Amazon?

19 November 2014

From The Verge:

When venture capitalists are considering whether or not to invest in a startup, there’s a stock question many will ask the founder: What would you do if Google decided to enter your business? You could swap the name of any tech titan — Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon — into that query. The bigger picture is figuring out whether the thing you’re building is a unique and defensible business or just a cool feature these companies haven’t bothered to focus on yet.

This hypothetical challenge has just become a reality for Wattpad, a Toronto startup that has built a community of writers and readers creating millions of new stories each month. Amazon jumped into the game last month with the debut of WriteOn, a service offering the same mix of author tools and a readership composed of the huge audience already using Amazon for ebooks.

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Jan for the tip.

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