PG’s Thoughts (such as they are)

Thoughts on Apple Books

25 January 2018

From Digital Book World:

The news of Apple rebranding the iBooks Store to Apple Books, and preparing a fresh new entry in the digital publishing landscape, is welcome.

Apple’s bookstore, much like many other parts of the company these days, has suffered from neglect. The store, as it is currently, evokes a vision of tumbleweed blowing through an empty desert: nobody’s home, nobody cares, and it’s quite clear there is no larger strategy present.

Apple did the right thing by going outside the company and hiring Kashif Zafar, by all appearances an accomplished publishing business mind, originating out of an engineering background. That is, frankly, exactly what Apple needs, as their digital book store needs to be re-engineered from the ground up.

. . . .

1) Deploy iBooks Author anew

Apple, believe it or not, comes right out of the gate with one strong competitive advantage: they have a relatively-easy-to-use, vertically-integrated, HTML5-based authoring tool that has grown an international user base since it was introduced in 2012.

When iBooks Author was first released, it was ahead of its time. And like everything that is ahead of its time, it was poorly understood and not nearly as well utilized as it should have been.

Fast forward six years later, and digital book readers are clamoring for new types of experiences.

The biggest problem with iBooks Author has always been the mediocrity of the iBooks Store. Publishers producing phenomenal content using iBooks Author have met poor sales, thanks to poor searchability and poor discoverability, over and over and over again.

. . . .

3) Apple Books needs to match Amazon on key criteria

The Apple Books Store needs to be as searchable as Amazon. Historically, the search function within the iBooks Store has been flat-out broken.

The Apple Books Store needs to be creative in how it makes books discoverable.  Undoubtedly, this will be a combination of algorithmic competency and human curation.

With both searchability and discoverability, Siri needs to play a role as Apple ramps up their voice-first computing efforts. Intelligent voice integration needs to be part of the fabric of the Apple Books experience.

The Apple Books Store needs to be author and publisher-friendly. This means giving authors and publishers deep flexibility with pricing (including bundling / discounting), deep flexibility in how their books are represented within the store (control over author-specific landing pages would be a good place to start), and deep flexibility in marketing (including ability to have hosted video book trailers, deep control over sample content, and more).

There is plenty of opportunity for Apple to compete here. Every single product page on Amazon.com looks precisely the same way, in exactly the same format. Amazon’s practical blandness can be bested by a highly-functional, colorful and vibrant, individualistic approach that holds serve in key areas while innovating beyond what Amazon offers in others.

. . . .

5) Go cross-platform anywhere and everywhere

Apple’s walled-garden approach is not compatible with the interests of readers, who want to be able to read their purchased books on whatever device they choose.

. . . .

The publishing industry – the ENTIRE publishing industry, which goes far, far beyond just traditional publishers obviously – desperately needs a viable competitor to Amazon.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

PG says competition is always good.

Apple used to be a fierce competitor and achieved dominant success in the iPhone/iPad markets.

Apple also did a phenomenal job of linking its products to a cool personal style/lifestyle image. You might be working a temp job for minimum wage and living in a sub-basement closet, but when you hit the street, your iPhone instantly improved your image so much you took a selfie.

Because of high product quality and that image thing, Apple managed to price its products higher than its competitors and still maintain a dominant sales position.

In some categories.

In personal computers, Apple had a 7% share worldwide in 2016 compared to Lenovo at 21%, HP at 20% and Dell at 16%. Apple makes great computer hardware, but it’s dominant only in some niche markets in a Windows world. iPhone and Windows desktop/laptop is a typical tech combination.

For a growing number of small web startups, Chromebooks are the thing for everybody who is not a programmer. Marketing doesn’t need Macs to run the blog, build a presence on Twitter and Instagram and check out what competitors are doing online.

Apple is really a phone company. It doesn’t dominate any other significant markets. (And Apple is definitely not dominant in major Asian phone markets.)

PG isn’t the only one who suspects that Steve Jobs was the head magician who made all the sub-magicians at Apple work right and not do ordinary things.

The most important post-Jobs product launch happened with the iPhoneX in September.

Apple-watchers more expert than PG think the Apple magic that usually accompanies a major iPhone launch just wasn’t there. Apple fanboys and fangirls all stood in line and jumped in right away, but the far bigger wave that usually follows may not have been so large. Apple’s first post-iPhoneX earnings report is anxiously awaited.

Back to the main point, PG thinks the ebookstore ship has sailed – from Seattle. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a good first impression and Apple blew that chance with its first store. From an author standpoint, PG marked it as undesirable right after its opening when it appeared that Apple hardware was necessary to prepare books for the store.

The Amazon bookstore is 100% platform agnostic and Amazon doesn’t care if you access it from an iPhone or a homebrew Linux computer. Amazon works hard to create a single great customer experience without spending any time or money on enhanced Apple-only features.

Plus Amazon has a huge cache of data about how to sell books and what the world’s largest collection of online customers buys – both inside and outside of the bookstore. In the US, in France, in Canada, in Scotland, in Chicago, in Dayton, in Boulder, in Bel Air, in Steamboat Springs, in Rocky Comfort and Rhyolite.

PG doesn’t see many people talk about the huge value for prospective customers that lives in Amazon’s product reviews, including the millions of book reviews it has collected.

It’s easy to make snide comments about the intelligence, education and motivation of some of the reviewers, but most book buyers have developed a pretty good filter to distinguish quality Amazon reviews from those that originated in a packed room in India.

PG suggests that large numbers of reviews and the metadata Amazon presents when a book has received a large number of reviews – Top Customer Reviews, Most Recent Customer Reviews, Also Boughts and Rated by Customers Interested In, which shows how the customers interested in specific topics rated the book PG is considering, are valuable assets for shoppers of all tastes.

Even if Apple copies all of Amazon’s bookstore features, the lack of this giant pile of data from previous buyers will produce an inferior experience.

As far as indie authors are concerned, the key indicator for PG will be whether Apple is willing to meet or beat Amazon royalty rates.

He noted that the latest (and last?) version of the Nook Store has a top indie royalty rate of 65%. That the big brains at Barnes & Noble couldn’t bring themselves to go all the way to 70% is one of the many reasons why the company is circling the drain.

When the big brains at Apple hit speed dial to call PG about their new bookstore, he’s going to say, “75%. 80% for bestsellers.”

PRH Buys Rodale Books Assets

10 January 2018

From Publishers Weekly:

After completing its purchase of Rodale Inc. last week, the Hearst Corp., which announced the deal in October, quickly turned around and sold Rodale’s trade book publishing assets to Penguin Random House. Terms of the acquisition, which involves more than 2,000 backlist titles and 100 frontlist books, were not disclosed.

With the purchase, Rodale Books’ adult nonfiction titles will be released under the Rodale Books imprint. It will become part of the Crown Publishing Group, and will be an imprint of its Illustrated and Lifestyle division, comprised of the Harmony, Ten Speed Press, and Clarkson Potter publishing programs, overseen by Aaron Wehner, senior v-p of the unit’s imprints.

. . . .

It wasn’t clear if any Rodale employees will be making the move to Crown. A PRH spokesperson said the company’s priority is to publish Rodale’s frontlist and backlist books “with care and enthusiasm.”

. . . .

For an interim period, Rodale’s staff will assist with the transition.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The release of this news is a good time for PG to remind Rodale authors and other authors who have signed publishing contracts that did not include written versions of the promises, proposals, etc., that were discussed prior to signing that those promises are almost certainly not enforceable against PRH.

As indicated in the OP, it sounds like some or all of the Rodale people will be fired, so any moral obligation to do something for an author that the original Rodale editor might feel is also out the window. The new PRH editor may or may not care as much about your book as the departed Rodale editor did.

Since the typical publishing contract with a traditional publisher ties up an author’s book for the full term of the copyright (the rest of the author’s life plus 70 years), PRH may sit on an author’s book for a long time or issue a quick and dirty ebook only version with no promotion if the publishing agreement requires “publication” within a certain period of time, etc.

The OP is also a reminder that the typical publishing contract can be sold or transferred to another publisher, including a publisher the author specifically did not want to work with.

When innovating in publishing, we must always ask why

9 January 2018

From The Bookseller:

Innovation in publishing – at least of the core product, the book – has been slow, minimal and incremental. Yet at every turning point it has been met with sometimes hysterical, often reactionary, zeal.

The introduction of the printing press, the paperback revolution and latterly the introduction of the e-book are three key changes we’ve witnessed over the last several centuries, and none have done an awful lot in reality to change the basics of what we understand to be a book.

Why?

Perhaps because innovation so often arises from solving a consumer pain point.  And yet on the surface at least, there hasn’t appeared to be much of a consumer pain point to fix.

Whilst in reality the changes have been far from revolutionary, they have been greeted as controversial due to the sacred status of books. And I think the issue with the gravitas that has been attributed to them, and the rabbit holes that these changes have sometimes sent us all down, is that they have provided a terrible distraction from the real disruptive change that has been happening under our noses.

That is, the enormous drain on people’s attention driven by much more extreme and impactful innovation in other sectors.

Disruptive innovators like digital TV, and other new content and social media platforms are providing fantastically designed, high quality, consumer-insight-driven, entertaining distraction to audiences that far outweigh our own – with content that frankly is often much less hard work to digest.

. . . .

At last month’s Futurebook I asked the question, ‘Why should the consumer care about our books, let alone us?’ And it is by asking this question non flippantly, and genuinely seeking the answers to it, that innovation will flourish.

. . . .

But real innovation is hard. Much of what we see in publishing is more ‘innovation theatre’ than innovation that genuinely answers a consumer need or delivers on business goals.

. . . .

At Pan Mac we’ve successfully used a ‘lean canvas’ approach to provide a streamlined framework for developing ideas and stress testing them against the market. Using the lean canvas approach we quickly developed our idea for our partnership with The Pigeonhole to create an exclusive online book club to build super-fan engagement and buzz for Ken Follett’s A Column of Fire. From the project we grew our Follett fan database by 30% and are engaging with these super fans as his ambassadors.

. . . .

Third, never apply technology for technology’s sake. Don’t think that just because a technology makes something possible, it should be done. Always work back from the consumer need. When looking for ways to gather consumer data through events, we thought about 100 ideas involving tablets, but finally agreed on an idea which solved a consumer need whilst delivering us the insight we craved. We delivered cups of takeaway coffee to fans queuing for their books to be signed — Pan Mac branded, of course, and featuring two or three quick survey questions for them to fill in and return to us once they’d finished their drink.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG says coffee-cup surveys of people standing in line at book signings don’t strike him as terribly innovative or terribly useful for gaining information about a representative sample of customers or potential customers for a large traditional publisher. If it’s mostly a publicity stunt, book marks are way cheaper.

One of the most important parts of conducting a survey that provides meaningful results is to carefully pick a sample that is representative of the larger population whose opinions/behavior you’re trying to understand.

What demographic group of a meaningful size is represented by people who stand in lines at book signings? How about their book purchasing habits?

Do they differ from people who buy physical books at bookstores and don’t care about book signings?

How about people who buy books at Amazon, which sells far more books than any bookstore chain? Are Pan Macmillan’s Amazon customers different in meaningful ways from Pan Mac’s book-signing line customers?

Is there a gender or age difference between Ken Follett customers standing in a book store signing line at 4:00 pm on Saturday and those who buy Ken’s book somewhere else at a different time?

So your coffee cup survey is probably limited to people who are not the same as most physical bookstore customers. And not the same as people who buy physical books online. And not the same as people who buy ebooks. And (assuming we’re talking about a Ken Follett book signing) not the same as people who haven’t read a Ken Follett novel in years or never at all.

And your survey consists of “two or three quick survey questions.”

PG suggests the results of the survey are not going to tell Pan Macmillan anything about the people who buy 99.99% of their books. And not much about the 0.01% who drink free coffee while standing in line at Ken Follet signings.

As he visualizes the survey process, it seems likely to PG that it costs quite a bit per respondent. Think of the steps involved. (He’ll assume this is still a Ken Follett book tour.)

For each stop on the tour, a book publishing professional needs to:

  1. Identify a coffee shop that’s close to each bookstore.
  2. Make arrangements with that local coffee shop to participate, including how payments to the shop will be made. And how does Accounting determine whether these payments are for real cups of coffee or just a number the coffee shop manager made up?
  3. Print a bunch of Pan Macmillan survey coffee cups and ship them all over to either the bookstore or the coffee shop.
  4. Have someone on site to collect the used coffee cups (ick!) with the (hopefully filled-out) survey questions. Will rubber gloves be provided to the coffee cup collector? A face mask? Is there a location for disposal of the unconsumed coffee left in each cup?
  5. Are we shipping dirty coffee cups back to Pan Mac Central Command to be properly tabulated by professionals or is someone at the bookstore totting up survey answers after the book signing sitting next to a pile of dirty coffee cups (and wondering what 7-11 is paying these days while deciding whether he/she can just make up survey numbers without anyone ever finding out)?

PG suggests that there are many good reasons why Nielsen and other professional research organizations don’t generally conduct coffee cup surveys.

PG suspects the cost per respondent for a professionally-designed and executed survey would be less than the cost of Pan Mac’s café au lait survey once all the costs of the pretend survey were calculated. And, with a professionally-conducted survey, Pan Mac could ask more than two or three quick questions.

As the OP states, “real innovation is hard.”

Paying to Play: On Submission Fees in Poetry Publishing

3 January 2018

From the Wordfence blog:

Things we need:
1. Money

Someone wrote the above text on a whiteboard in the Fort Des Moines Museum earlier this year. I’ve returned to it often, ever since a friend retweeted a photo of it, as a reminder of the inherent difficulty in critiquing small presses and literary magazines’ funding practices, especially in light of renewed interest in eliminating the government allocations for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (whose FY2018 allocations are still under congressional consideration).

Each time I revisit this tweet, I imagine being in the conference room for this theoretical planning meeting in Iowa, and I think of the similar scarcity-driven discussions I’ve participated in both as poet and editor, largely—in either role—as unpaid labor.

. . . .

Whatever the reason we each write or publish poetry, it’s safe to say none of us make this art for its promise of riches—and nor should we. Despite this essay’s abundant economic wonk (you’ve been warned), I refuse to make a capitalist argument for poetry on behalf of poet, press, or journal. None of us should turn to profit as the sole engine driving our artistic and professional decisions. I wish to distinguish, early on, this commodifying argument from the claims regarding fair compensation and best financial practices in poetry publishing that follow below. Somewhere in the vast space between profit and solvency, a fraught practice in poetry publishing comes to the fore: the submission fee. Charging a fee in order to have one’s work read by a journal has become increasingly commonplace in our industry, and charging for book-length poetry contests and open reading periods has long been the norm for small independent and university presses. Today, a standard literary journal submission fee hovers around $3 to submit (usually) 3-6 poems, and a book-length submission costs a writer roughly around $25.

. . . .

[I]ndividual magazines represented 30.5 percent of the overall number of sponsoring organizations for contests in 2014, with presses close behind at 28 percent and government agencies at 3.5 percent. These percentages represent a shift towards more press and magazine contests and fewer government contests: the press and magazine share of the contest sponsorship pie has increased from 2004 to 2014 by 56 percent for magazines and 29 percent by presses, while 39 percent fewer government agencies sponsored contests over the same time period. This left us, in 2014, with 94 presses, 103 magazines, and 11 government agencies sponsoring writing contests. If government participation has lessened while fee-dependent contests have increased in number over the past decade, presses and magazines likely rely more heavily than they did 15 years ago on submission and contest fees to stay solvent; if we lose government funding for the arts, these same organizations may depend on fees even more.

. . . .

How much are poets spending to get their full-length books published? How much do presses and journals depend on submission fees for funding, and what other sources of funding are primary for them? Is the submission-fee model equitable or sustainable for poets and for presses/journals—and if not, can we make it more equitable for either or both groups? What alternatives do we have to the submission fee, both as submitters and publishers?

I found that nearly all surveyed poets spent out-of-pocket money to publish their books, up to—in this survey—$3,000. Royalties and prize money recouped costs for some poets, but not all, and inconsistently. This means poets who financially depend on recovering their costs post-publication cannot dependably publish their books in this model.

. . . .

If a sizable majority of poets must spend money to secure publication for their books (and, ever increasingly, to submit to journals), and it’s uncertain whether or not those costs will be recouped upon publication, is the submission-fee model equitable for poets? By equitable, I mean accessible across, here, class: can a poorer or working-class poet submit her manuscript as often as a wealthy or institutionally supported poet? The data is unequivocal: no. So long as we maintain poetry publishing’s status-quo reliance on the submission fee, this system will favor publishing poets with money—poets for whom it’s more of an inconvenience than an impossibility to lose money or break even on a book, or to recover fee costs slowly or unpredictably. And when considering a published collection’s role in accessing other markers of success, including financial success, in the poetry community—the ability for poets to apply for certain academic jobs, be eligible for certain prizes, or secure well-paying reading gigs—this inequality magnifies even further.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG spent a great deal of his time as an undergraduate reading and analyzing poetry. (Homer, Sappho and Sophocles had recently ended their careers, but newer poets, not all of them Greek, were eagerly anticipated.)

Some are surprised that the rigorous analytical approach PG learned to apply to poetry has served him quite well in analyzing contracts and other legal documents.

One of the elements in a proper analysis of a poem is the prosody of that poem – the patterns of rhythm and sound of the words of the poem.

Since prosody is very much a learned taste, PG will provide only a short introduction.

The opening passage of Bleak House by Charles Dickens is not a poem, but demonstrates an appreciation of the interaction between the sounds of words and their meaning. Sounds are repeated throughout the passage to create an impression and atmosphere that reinforces the literal meaning of the words. Note particularly the repetition of words and sounds in paragraphs 2-4. Feel free to read them out loud so the sounds and repetitions of sounds become more obvious:

Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river . . . fog down the river . . . . Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping . . . fog lying . . . fog drooping . . . . Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners . . . . fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers . . . . a nether sky of fog . . . .

Gas looming through the fog . . . .

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction . . . . And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

PG suggests that the sounds of these lovely Dickensian words, as well as their dictionary definitions, combine to carry a dreary and dark message more powerful than would have existed without the repetitions and sensitivity of Dickens to creating a scene that sounds oppressive and overpowering.

“Water droplets in the atmosphere” would not have conveyed the same meaning.

Back to paid submissions by poets.

In PG’s oppressively humble opinion, much of modern poetry is built upon literal meanings of words (and abstract words they are) and not the character and sounds of words. Such poems would be more at home in a doctoral thesis than a Dickens novel.

Here’s a comment about contemporary poetry by Adrienne Rich:

I think there’s been a great denial of the kinds of poets and poetries that could speak to a lot more people. Poetry has been kind of hoarded inside the schools, inside the universities. The activity of writing about poems and poetry–the activity of making it available and accessible–became the property of scholars and academics and became dependent on a certain kind of academic training, education, class background.

Here’s an excerpt from “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” by Stephen Pinker, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American
professoriate may be the prose style called academese. An editorial cartoon by Tom Toles shows a bearded academic at his desk
offering the following explanation of why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: “Incomplete implementation of strategized
programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development.” In a similar vein, Bill Watterson has the 6-year-old Calvin titling his homework assignment “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes,” and exclaiming to Hobbes, his tiger companion, “Academia, here I come!”

. . . .

Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. They dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

Though no doubt the bamboozlement theory applies to some academics some of the time, in my experience it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do groundbreaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas, and are honest, down-to-earth people. Still, their writing stinks.

The most popular answer inside the academy is the self-serving one: Difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of our subject matter. Every human pastime — music, cooking, sports, art—develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to use a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in one another’s company. It would be tedious for a biologist to spell out the meaning of the term transcription factor every time she used it, and so we should not expect the téte-a-tete among professionals to be easily understood by amateurs.

But the insider-shorthand theory, too, doesn’t fit my experience. I suffer the daily experience of being baffled by articles in my field, my subfield, even my sub-sub-subfield. The methods section of an experimental paper explains, “Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word. ” After some detective work, I determined that it meant, “Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false. ” The original academese was not as concise, accurate, or scientific as the plain English translation. So why did my colleague feel compelled to pile up the polysyllables?

A third explanation shifts the blame to entrenched authority. People often tell me that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness. This has not been my experience, and it turns out to be a myth. In Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Helen Sword masochistically analyzed the literary style in a sample of 500 scholarly articles and found that a healthy minority in every field were written with grace and verve.

. . . .

Thomas and Turner illustrate the contrast as follows:

“When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside — and expect the author to put aside—the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? … Classic style similarly puts aside as inappropriate philosophical questions about its enterprise. If it took those questions up, it could never get around to treating its subject, and its purpose is exclusively to treat its subject.”

It’s easy to see why academics fall into self-conscious style. Their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing self-consciousness.

PG suggests that one of the problems of the MFA-as-poet model is that way to advance in MFA World is to write in ways the professors who teach MFA students wrote in order to be hired as a professor. If you’re teaching MFA’s, you must write for a very narrow audience – other MFA professors. Writing for the common man or woman won’t get you anywhere.

In conclusion (PG realizes this should have come earlier), Dickens wrote to sell his books. Shakespeare wrote to goose the attendance at his plays.

In his preface to Lyrical Ballads (first published in 1798), English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge described their work (PG won’t shorten sentences or break up paragraphs in the original. Period spelling will remain.):

The first volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart.

I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect of those Poems: I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure: and, on the other hand, I was well aware, that by those who should dislike them, they would be read with more than common dislike. The result has differed from my expectation in this only, that a greater number have been pleased than I ventured to hope I should please.

Several of my Friends are anxious for the success of these Poems, from a belief, that, if the views with which they were composed were indeed realized, a class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the quality, and in the multiplicity of its moral relations: and on this account they have advised me to prefix a systematic defence of the theory upon which the Poems were written.

. . . .

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.

. . . .

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.

It has been said that each of these poems has a purpose. Another circumstance must be mentioned which distinguishes these Poems from the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.

Lyrical Ballads included some of the most famous and lasting poems the the English language. Most of the poems were written by Wordsworth, but one of the Coleridge poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, likely his most famous. Wordsworth poems include, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways, A slumber did my spirit seal.

Lyrical Ballads is considered a central work in the English romantic literary tradition and the archetype for romance literature. As indicated in the introduction above, the poems posited that “good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” a major and lasting change from previous poetry. The book was revolutionary in its time in that it was written in the vernacular language and focused on the feelings and emotions of uneducated country people.

PG doesn’t claim to be an expert on all 21st century poets and writers, but doubts any have written anything like the following excerpts:

I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Wordsworth, The Solitary Reaper, 1807

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 1798

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

 

Big Chap

1 January 2018

PG is going on a short PG Wodehouse trip. First (and maybe last) will be some indubitably Wodehouse character descriptions, but PG makes no promises about going astray.

Big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at 60 paces.

PG Wodehouse

.

Lest anyone fear an ego trip, PG of TPV is not comparing himself to Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse KBE, pictured below with a bonus quote which, strictly speaking, is probably not a character description (although PG of TPV might contend that almost everything in a Wodehouse story is about character), to help start the series:

.

A traditional yodeling class

1 January 2018

Perhaps because PG has been reading too many Wodehouse quotes, when an email advertising a tour of a European country arrived in his inbox, he noted the following:

From a traditional yodeling class and private tour of Sigmund Freud’s living quarters to a mask-carving workshop and look inside a defunct nuclear power plant, this carefully curated week is designed to offer . . .

 

Sears Stopped Buying National TV Ads in Critical Holiday Season

1 January 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

The struggling parent of the Sears and Kmart stores hasn’t run paid national television commercials since late November, according to ad research firm iSpot and a person familiar with the situation. The Kmart brand has been absent from national TV networks since Nov. 24, , iSpot said, while Sears hasn’t run a paid national TV spot since Nov. 25—the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.

That compares with about $8.4 million the Sears brand spent on national TV ads in December last year, while the Kmart brand shelled out roughly $6.5 million during the same period, according to iSpot estimates.

Sears Holdings Chief Executive Edward Lampert has championed the use of digital marketing over traditional TV and print advertising, arguing that digital is more cost-effective and quantifiable.

. . . .

For a retailer to back off of TV ads during the holidays is a highly unusual move, ad experts said. “Retailers establish their value and relevance with consumers during key shopping times,” said Dean Crutchfield, a corporate branding expert.

Indeed, retail rivals such as Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. spent tens of millions of dollars during the final month of 2017.

. . . .

Sears spent $285.1 million on paid advertising in 2016, down from $664.2 million in 2011.

. . . .

In meetings over the past year or two with [Sears CEO Edward] Lampert, Sears executives produced data showing that the deep cuts to TV and newspaper advertising had hurt sales, particularly since the majority of Sears’s revenue still comes from brick-and-mortar stores where commercials and circulars are particularly effective at driving foot traffic. According to retail research firm eMarketer, 11% of Sears sales come from e-commerce.

But the executives were overruled

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG suspects Sears may be having cash flow problems as foot traffic in its physical stores continues to plummet under Sears’ “managing the decline” strategy.

Fewer and fewer people are going to physical stores to buy all sorts of different items, preferring an online experience and pricing.

But the public position of legacy publishers is that bookstores are different than all other retailers and people will always want to travel to physical bookstores to buy books.

PG wonders when Amazon will schedule meetings with major publishers to revisit agency pricing so Amazon can once again discount books from those publishers to price levels that will increase sales.

Or perhaps Amazon has a long memory and will simply allow publishers to continue to overprice their books and die by inches.

Between indie authors and Amazon’s own publishing imprints, Amazon has positioned itself to continue to increase its book sales regardless of whether New York publishers walk off a cliff or not. Amazon will still have a larger collection of books for sale than any other commercial entity.

Ironically, PG suspects the decline of Big Publishing because of poor pricing decisions will more effectively kill off traditional bookstores than anything Amazon is doing.

If Randy Penguin cuts the number of its titles in half to save money or if the gnomes at Bertelsmann decide the US book market is a long-term financial loser and shuts down US trade book operations, bookstores lose a lot of bestselling titles and authors that are one of the few attractions that may still bring people into the stores.

The Kindle Changed the Book Business. Can It Change Books?

21 December 2017

From Wired:

In 2007, A small team of Amazon employees had been working for a few years on a new ebook reader project they’d eventually call the Kindle. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was eager to finish and sell the thing; he was certain Apple or Google was working on something similar, and didn’t want them to beat Amazon to market. The team, sequestered away in an old law office in Seattle, working among racks of the very books they planned to make obsolete, had already gotten a lot of things right. But one part still eluded them.

. . . .

“We knew we wanted it to be a wireless device that had no contract for customers,” Kessel says, but nothing like that existed. So Amazon worked with Qualcomm to build a system called Whispernet, which gave every Kindle owner free 3G connectivity so they could download books from anywhere. The feature felt like magic—both to the Kindle team and to early Kindle buyers. If you had to pick just one thing that made the Kindle a success, it was this.

. . . .

Since then, the device has torn through the publishing landscape. Not only is Amazon the most powerful player in the industry, it has built an entire book-based universe all its own. “Kindle” has become a platform, not a device. Like Amazon tends to do, it entered the market and utterly subsumed it.

Now, however, Amazon’s ebook project comes to a crossroads. The Kindle team has always professed two goals: to perfectly mimic a paper book, and to extend and improve the reading experience. That’s what readers want, too. In a world filled with distractions and notifications and devices that do everything, the Kindle’s lack of features becomes its greatest asset. But readers also want to read everywhere, in places and ways a paperback can’t manage. They want more tools, more features, more options, more stuff to do. Amazon’s still working out how to satisfy both sides.

. . . .

Everyone at Amazon likes to say that paper is great technology, and they seem genuinely uninterested in rendering paper obsolete. They’re just trying to make paper that connects to the internet. The Kindle they’ve always imagined is thin as paper, as light as paper, as flexible and durable as paper.

. . . .

Next up, flexibility seems at the top of the Kindle team’s minds. Building a Kindle “like paper” would mean one that can be rolled, folded, dog-eared, and turned into a paper airplane, and the beginnings of that tech is already showing up in prototypes and concept devices around the world.

. . . .

“The more that we’re distracted, the more valuable solitude becomes,” says Dave Limp, Amazon’s head of hardware. “The last thing I want is being absorbed into an author’s story, and get an uplevel notification for Angry Birds.” Reading is about focus, about falling out of your life and into a story, and so the Kindle is about those things too.

. . . .

Amazon won the ebook market in a landslide, though it’s not clear how large a prize that really is. Some data shows ebook sales declining as print makes an unexpected surge, while other studies say digital reading continues to grow steadily. What’s crystal clear is that ebooks won’t unseat print anytime soon. People like the feel of a book, like the sense of place they get from holding the opened pages in their two hands, like the way they look on a coffee table. The Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of US adults said they’d read a print book in 2016, out of 73 percent who said they’d read a book at all. The only thing that will kill print books is when people stop reading altogether.

There is one part of people’s reading habits has changed dramatically over the last few years. That same Pew study found that people were nearly four times as likely to read a book on a tablet in 2016 as they had been five years earlier. They were also nearly twice as likely to read on their phones, and reading on a laptop or desktop PC spiked as well. All three are now more popular than reading on an e-reader.

. . . .

Limp says there was a debate over what to do, but also says it didn’t last very long. “You can’t tell them where they want to read,” he says. “They’re going to tell you where they want to read, and you have to be there.” So they built apps for everybody’s phones and tablets, and even the Chrome browser.

. . . .

For a decade, Amazon’s relentlessly offered new ways for people to read books. But even as platforms change, books haven’t, and the incompatibility is beginning to show. Phones and tablets contain nothing of what makes a paperback wonderful.

. . . .

“The Kindle’s aura of bookishness was the modern equivalent of the Gutenberg Bible’s aura of scribalness,” Nicholas Carr, the author and media scholar, wrote in 2011. “It was essentially a marketing tactic, a way to make traditional book readers comfortable with e-books. But it was never anything more than a temporary tactic.” Carr should have been right, but six years later nothing’s really changed.

The next phase for the digital book seems likely to not resemble print at all. Instead, the next step is for authors, publishers, and readers to take advantage of all the tools now at their disposal and figure out how to reinvent longform reading.

. . . .

If Amazon wanted to, it could with a single act bring a new form of book into being.

Link to the rest at Wired

Nate Hoffhelder comments at The Digital Reader:

The thing that many outsiders keep missing is that Amazon won the ebook market by giving consumers exactly the same stories they were already reading, only in a new package. Yes, Amazon invested huge sums in making the Kindle platform friction-free, but when you come down to it the content being delivered was the same as before – the only change was the medium it was delivered on.

And that is why it succeeded where previous attempts faltered. Amazon gave consumers the content they already wanted, only on a new medium that let readers carry hundred of books at a time.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

PG agrees with Nate about the same content in a new medium. PG would also be happy to have something better than a book show up, but, while he has read hundreds of magazine articles about new technology that will replace words on a screen, he hasn’t seen anything that looks very likely to do the job performed by books any better.

Journalists always have the idea that people want movies more than they want books. So text-only books are going to disappear in favor of a book-like thing that will have sound and video and interactive stuff that will magically work together and be better than text on a page or screen.

PG says large numbers of people like movies and TV shows and books, but there is no indication yet that those people really want something that smooshes all of those things together into a single storytelling experience with tiny actors and actresses dancing across a little screen interspersed with a series of MRI images and a video of a doctor explaining the symptoms of foot and ankle injuries.

PG suggests that one of the cool things about ebooks is that they don’t require big production budgets like movies do. If you’re going to create a successful movie or tv show, you need to find a large audience that is collectively willing to pay a lot of money to watch the production or, alternatively, watch a lot of commercials from businesses who are willing to spend a lot of money to interrupt the movie with commercials.

You need a mass market to fund mass market media.

In the age of ebooks, an individual author can fund the complete book creation process all by herself or himself. Creation requires time and a computer of some sort. Even a clunky old computer will serve to operate a word processing program and run a browser for uploading ebook files. You can probably use one at the library for free.

So a self-funded author combines with an ultra-low-cost distribution system like KDP to provide low-priced ebooks. And she doesn’t need a mass market for her books.

The author can make a living by creating books for a much smaller audience than is required for a traditionally-published book where sales have to support (1) Ingram and (2) Barnes & Noble plus pay for a lot of (3) expensive publishing people in New York and also (4) send a bunch of money to France or Germany or somewhere else where the (5) Big Bosses and (6) owners live.

So an indie author can find enough readers on Amazon who are willing to pay $2.99 for mysteries featuring a near-sighted ornithologist as amateur sleuth to quit her day job and live comfortably in Omaha. And another indie author can do the same with a mystery series featuring a far-sighted professor of philately as amateur sleuth while New York publishers continue to desperately search for the next James Patterson because those publishers are stuck in the million-seller business.

While PG has read a lot of tech magazine articles about high-tech devices that combine all possible entertainment options into something that fits in your pocket or purse and will immerse you so totally that you’ll never want to put it down, he doesn’t recall any similar stories about the impact of online bookstores on readers and authors.

Artificial Intelligence and copyright: a happy (or even possible) relationship?

15 December 2017

From The 1709 Blog:

[I]n the realm of IP one of the questions that have been asked with increasing frequency is whether and to what extent AI has the potential to replace humans, including in the creative fields.

As AI machines become increasingly autonomous, can they be regarded as ‘authors’ in a copyright sense and, if so, can the works they create be eligible for copyright protection? If the answer was again in the affirmative, who would own the copyright in such works?

. . . .

For instance, readers with an interest in music might have had the opportunity to listen to the recently released single Hello Shadow, which is the first song extracted from the the first multi-artist music album composed with AI.

This album was curated by Benoit Carré, head of SKYGGE, who collaborated with several musicians and performers, including – in the case of Hello Shadow – Stromae and Kiesza.

The SKYGGE project started as a research project (the Flow-Machines project, conducted at Sony Computer Science Laboratories and University Paris 6) in which scientists were looking for algorithms to capture and reproduce musical “style” [an example being Daddy’s cara song in the style of the Beatles]. However, the novelty and huge potential of the approach triggered the attention of musicians who joined the team.

It is clear that SKYGGE produces music thanks to AI, but there is a substantial human input. But as things have the potential to develop in the sense that AI will be able to create music entirely on its own, without any human input, will the resulting songs be protected by copyright?

. . . .

[A]t the international level there is no definition of who is to be regarded as an ‘author’ in a copyright sense. However, legal scholarship seems oriented in the sense of concluding that, from its text and historical context, under the Berne Convention only natural persons who created the work can be regarded as authors.

In any case, although generally speaking it seems possible “to agree that an author is a human being who exercises subjective judgment in composing the work and who controls its execution”, this does not mean that at the national level there are not situations in which also works created by non-human authors can qualify for protection, or courts have not addressed issues of non-human authorship.

. . . .

Harmonization of the standard of originality at the EU level has been limited. Only the Software Directive (Article 1(3)), the Database Directive (Article 3(1)) and the Term Directive (Article 6) provide that, respectively, for computer programs, databases and photographs copyright protection shall be only available if they are their “author’s own intellectual creation”.

. . . .

One may wonder how a non-human author can exercise such rights. The question becomes even more complex, if not impossible to solve, if one considers that the CJEU has clarified that the language of that directive imposes that authors are considered as the exclusive first owners of economic rights.

Link to the rest at The 1709 Blog

PG just checked the number of posts he has created for TPV.

The number is . . . . . 16,130.

PG stifled an OCD impulse to figure out a way to determine how many sentences and words are contained in those 16,130 posts.

PG doesn’t think MS Word is up to the task, but he’s never tried. (OCD stifling is going quite well at the moment.)

However, PG wondered if he could create a short program to rearrange segments of the 16,130 posts to create an almost infinite number of new posts and transform TPV into a perpetual blog.

(PG understands that perpetual motion devices are supposed to be impossible, but, since blog posts don’t contain motion, physics may not negate the concept of a perpetual blog. PG will stop trying to think about physics now.)

PG couldn’t stop wondering whether MS Word could be up to some sort of word-counting task for those 16,130 blog posts (OCD scores one point). Quite frankly, he had his doubts about MS Word.

So, he copied and pasted 20 copies of the ms from Mrs. PG’s forthcoming novel into a single MS Word file, expecting the word-counting function to fail.

PG apologizes to all the programmers in Redmond.

20 copies of Mrs. PG’s next book contain:

  • 2081 pages (MS Word manuscript pages, not pages in a printed book or ebook pages)
  • 43,500 paragraphs
  • 1,154,740 words
  • 6,295,780 characters (with spaces)

As PG looks at these numbers, he may need to retract his apologies.

Other than the page count, MS Word says that 1) the number of paragraphs, 2) the number of words and 3) the number of characters in 20 copies of Mrs. PG’s next book are each divisible by 10.

What are the chances of this happening? (PG is becoming tired of numbers, so he won’t go down that path).

Ever dubious, PG suspected a bit of fudging by the programmer responsible for the word count feature in MS Word. Was Microsoft just guessing?

He was about to make an accusation.

But first, he added a single character to this monstrous file.

(pregnant pause)

(no sexism intended)

And . . .

the characters count increased by 1. To a number not divisible by 10.

Then he entered a space and another single character.

And the word count increased by 1 while the character count increased by 2 (one space and one character).

Then he hit the Enter key and another single character.

And the paragraph count increased by 1 with character and word count each incrementing properly.

PG can confirm that the paragraph, word and character counting algorithms in his copy of MS Word appear to be accurate (No, he’s not going to personally count words. He’s an attorney, not an accountant.), at least for a document containing 20 copies of Mrs. PG’s next book.

He unconditionally withdraws any and all disparaging comments directed towards any and all nameless programmers in Redmond.

Stability in the book marketplace does not mean commercial publishers continue to maintain their share

14 December 2017

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

Publishing reporters doing wrap up stories occasionally call me for impressions. From those conversations I have gleaned that the prevailing impression of where the book business is now is of “stability”. The consensus about adult trade is that ebook sales have stalled or perhaps even receded, that print is strong, and that the big publishers have beaten back the threat of disruption from indies that a few short years ago seemed like a massive threat.

But while that picture has accurate aspects, it is really incomplete. The world of commercial publishing — even factoring in the growth in juvie books and audio — is shrinking more slowly than it was a few years ago, but it is still shrinking. One “tell” is that Amazon doesn’t believe ebook sales are reducing, they see them growing. Part of that is that Kindle is taking market share from all the other ebook platforms (except possibly Apple iBooks, at the moment). Part of that is that Kindle has titles nobody else has, as some self-publishing entities just use the dominant platform and skip the rest. Part of that is that Kindle doesn’t just sell ebooks; it provides subscription access through Kindle Unlimited that in the aggregate logs a lot of eyeball hours. And almost no big publisher commercial content is included in Kindle Unlimited.

. . . .

The impression that big publishing is shrinking has anecdotal support. S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy . . . recently acknowledged that romance fiction had become very challenging for conventional publishers. Of course, genre fiction is precisely the area where indie authors and Kindle Unlimited have made the biggest inroads.

. . . .

But while maintaining ebook prices well north of ten dollars may be what Barnes & Noble and indie bookstores need to keep selling printed books, those prices cut publishers off from growing chunks of the market that prefer to choose from the wealth of much cheaper books on offer from indie authors and smaller, often digital-first, publishers.

. . . .

The under-reported media story of the 21st century is how well book publishers have adapted to their new world, better than their counterparts in any other print content business. Top line revenue for the majors is flat or shrinking slightly, but profits have been maintained. One big reason for that is that returns go down as sales move online, and print sales are now in the neighborhood of half online. Profitability in these circumstances underscores the point that Amazon is the most profitable account for just about every publisher. It moves half or more of the books, requires minimal staffing to cover, and has, by normal standards, very low returns.

The challenge, of course, is that Amazon has no interest in being publishers’ most profitable account. Amazon does everything they can to claw back margin from publishers and always has a looming threat with their own publishing program, which at any time could reconsider the idea it abandoned a few years ago of going after big trade books outside the genres.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG was a little hard on Mike Shatzkin in his last TPV comments that referenced one of Mike’s posts.

The process of a particular style of creative destruction, described as disruptive innovation by now-famous Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is something PG has observed over and over, primarily among technology companies, but not limited to that business sphere.

PG is not alone in his appreciation for Professor Christensen. The Innovator’s Dilemma has been included on countless lists of the best business books of all time. See, for example, herehere, here, and here.

A few of the victims of disruptive innovation in the technology world, a space with which PG is quite familiar, include names that were once dominant in their industries: Kodak, Nokia, Blackberry, Wang, Sun, Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland, and Novell, to name just a few.

Disruptive innovation has impacts far beyond traditional technology companies, however.

Apropos of the bookstore world, major retail companies and industries based upon people coming into physical spaces to purchase products have either disappeared or are disappearing in the face of technology innovations including, but not limited to Amazon’s. See, for example:  Sears, Montgomery Ward, Macy’s, KMart, Blockbuster and Borders.

More than 300 retailers have filed for bankruptcy this year, including Gymboree, The Limited, Radio Shack (again) and discount shoestore chain, Payless ShoeSource.

According to Time, 1,500 shopping malls were built in the U.S. between 1956 and 2005, but, today, these great retail inventions of the latter part of the 20th century, are closing down at an increasingly rapid pace. Between 2010 and 2013, mall visits during the holiday season, the busiest shopping time of the year, dropped by 50%.

There are still about 1,100 malls in the U.S. today, but a quarter of them are at risk of closing over the next five years, according to estimates from Credit Suisse. Other analysts predict the number of malls closing be even higher.

Again, in Time:

A growing number of Americans, however, don’t see the need to go to any Macy’s at all. Our digital lives are frictionless and ruthlessly efficient, with retail and romance available at a click. Malls were designed for leisure, abundance, ambling. You parked and planned to spend some time. Today, much of that time has been given over to busier lives and second jobs and apps that let you swipe right instead of haunt the food court. Malls, says Harvard business professor Leonard Schlesinger, “were built for patterns of social interaction that increasingly don’t exist.”

PG says bookstores aren’t special retail snowflakes. The forces impacting malls are no different in their effect on physical bookstores. The only remaining major US physical retail outlet for list-price hardcover/paperback books is, of course, Barnes & Noble. Borders has already disappeared as have B. Dalton, Coles, Crown Books, Hastings, Krochs & Brentanos, Mediaplay and Waldenbooks.

PG suggests that three categories of disruptive change are impacting the traditional book business:

  1. Ecommerce
  2. Ebooks
  3. Profitable self-publishing via Kindle Direct

If ecommerce alone is enough to radically change the world for many physical retailers, imagine what two additional disruptive developments will do to traditional publishers and retail outlets for books.

Mike notes a fourth major development in the OP: Amazon is the most profitable place for major publishers to sell books.

Viewed properly, ebooks are a gift from heaven for traditional publishing profits:

  1. Create and upload a digital file to Amazon and other ebook outlets.
  2. Periodically check to see how much money arrived via bank transfers.

Yet Amazon is traditional publishing’s Great Satan because (with no malice that PG has observed) Amazon is changing power dynamics in publishing.

For one thing, Amazon likes to sell things at low prices, lower than prices charged anywhere else, including other places where books are sold.

For a second thing, one of Amazon’s earliest decisions was to make it easy for authors to self-publish both ebooks and POD paperbacks. Amazon also made it profitable for a great many authors to self publish through royalty structures that are vastly more beneficial to authors than those in traditional publishing contracts.

Easy and profitable. What’s not to like?

In the OP, Mike quotes the S&S CEO as admitting that romance books “had become very challenging for conventional publishers.”

Well, of course.

Why? (besides easy and profitable)

Romance authors have traditionally been treated in a disrespectful and condescending manner by a great many mainstream publishers. Since romance has always (or at least for a long time) sold large numbers of books to loyal readers, PG has wondered why. Perhaps it’s a perceived social or class thing. Publishers may regard romance as a necessary evil of their business, not deserving of the star treatment they provide for authors writing about more respectable characters and subjects, the kind of people who would have attended Wellesley.

Perhaps as a result of past disrespect which has toughened them up, a lot of smart women who write romance were happy to give KDP and other epublishing platforms a try. The computers didn’t care if you attended Wellesley or not, plus ebooks paid a lot better, you were in control and could write as many books as you wanted to. Plus, your readers had no problems locating and purchasing your books without dealing with sometimes-arrogant book store employees.

Amazon hearts romance authors. What’s not to like about that?

(No offence is intended toward Wellesley graduates, whether they write romance or not. PG’s grandmother graduated from Wellesley a very long time ago. She was a very nice person with a college friend she called Bunny.)

In PG’s surpassingly humble opinion, a variety of poor business decisions extending over many years have made it likely that an increasing number of traditional publishers will cease to be profitable in the foreseeable future. Poor profitability has been masked in recent years through a large number of mergers and acquisitions, but eventually that solution will dry up.

When a traditional publisher runs into financial trouble and is acquired by an investment bank or some other entity with a modicum of financial acumen, guess what’s going to happen.

  1. Costs of the newly-acquired publishing business will be examined in detail with particular attention being paid to potential cost savings.
  2. Sources of income will be examined with their fully-loaded costs, including personnel costs associated with each stream of income, to determine their true profitability.
  3. The new owners will determine that ebooks are by far the most profitable part of the publishing business.
  4. The new owners will determine that a huge number of expenses are tied to printed book operations, including a large portion of the firm’s overall personnel expenses and costs of third-party service providers that enable printed book operations.
  5. The new owners will attempt to outsource tasks performed in-house such as editing and as much of the content acquisition labor as possible.
  6. Layoffs, including elimination of layers of management no longer needed in the leaner publishing organization, will be a rational step for new owners who want to harvest income from the publisher.
  7. If the real costs of print books cannot be reduced enough to reach target profitability, print prices will be increased.
  8. If print can’t be made profitable, print rights will be sold to the highest bidder and further layoffs will follow.

Needless to say, all the changes in traditional publishing directed by the new owners will result in substantial anxiety for a great many traditionally-published authors. At a minimum, after selling off remaining stocks of an author’s print books, future print runs will either be substantially reduced or eliminated, depending upon the profitability of the individual author’s print titles when considering all associated costs.

If financial analysis causes a traditionally-published author to fall into the harvesting profits bin, he/she will be a line on a computer ledger and all expenses associated with the author’s books will be cut to bare minimums.

Circling back to Barnes & Noble, PG’s assessment is that the company is coasting along, riding modest waves of print customers who are coming to Barnes & Noble as more and more meatspace retail outlets for physical books disappear. PG reads some of the transcripts of quarterly earnings calls for BN and has observed the quality of top management decline under the revolving-door CEO direction of Mr. Riggio. PG suggests that it is unlikely for any salvational innovation to appear from this group of employees.

In PG’s earnestly humble opinion, Barnes & Noble will either collapse a la Borders or transition into the hands of financial types who deal in distressed businesses a la Sears.

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