PG’s Thoughts (such as they are)

Hoopla Digital and HarperCollins Disrupt Library E-Lending

25 June 2017

From Copyright and Technology:

An announcement this week by hoopla digital and HarperCollins augurs big changes in the ways that public libraries make e-books available. It sets the stage for realignment of the relationships between publishers and libraries, and it could have longer-term ripple effects on the entire e-book market.

For more than a decade, public libraries have been able to “lend” e-books using a certain model: the library “acquires” a title through an e-lending platform such as OverDrive; the library then has one “copy” that it can make available to patrons at a time. The platform sends each patron a DRM-protected file that allows reading for up to the library’s lending period. If one patron has the e-book “checked out” then another patron can’t read it until the period expires or the first patron “returns” it.

The library technologist Eric Hellman calls this model “Pretend It’s Print (PIP),” while the industry term is “one copy, one user.” PIP is an apt term because the library pays a fixed price for the title, just as it would do if it were acquiring a print book, and the publisher can account for it much as if it were a sale. If a library wants to enable more than one patron to read the title at a time, it has to “acquire” multiple “copies.”

. . . .

Hoopla digital, an OverDrive competitor, is a digital “lending” platform for libraries run by Midwest Tape, a leading supplier of library-ready physical media products (such as CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs). It had been licensing digital audiobooks from HarperCollins since last year (as well as from many indie publishers). The new deal expands the relationship into e-books. HarperCollins will make over 15,000 titles available, though apparently not including frontlist titles.

What’s new here? Instead of libraries paying a fixed upfront price, as in the PIP model, they pay per “loan,” and there are no longer any limits on how many people can read an e-book at the same time. This is a boon to library patrons: it means that all titles can be available at any time, with no waiting lists. Otherwise the reader experience is much the same as with PIP, as is the technology used to deliver and display e-books.

The innovation is really on the financial and licensing side. At a basic level, this arrangement is risky for libraries. With the hoopla digital model, Libraries can’t budget for “acquisitions” as they have done with print books for centuries; instead they have to bear less predictable costs that rise and fall with demand for titles. At the same time, it enables libraries to license long-tail titles that they wouldn’t normally “acquire” because they don’t expect sufficient demand to make the one-time price worthwhile. That’s another benefit to users.

Publishers, meanwhile, get paid based on actual readership, not on a per-title basis. That’s good for them conceptually, because it makes libraries more like channel partners. So why are publishers slow to embrace this model — which hoopla digital has offered for e-books since 2014?

One reason is author contracts. Many author contracts don’t provide for handling royalties on much other than simple book purchases. From the perspectives of rights management and royalty processing, both e-book retail and PIP library e-book revenues can be treated similarly to print book sales. Things get difficult for publishers when they license into access models that fall short of purchases: sometimes they have to pay authors for each access as if it were a purchase, even if a user only reads a few pages, because the author contracts won’t allow otherwise.

. . . .

Trade book authors typically own copyrights in their works and only license publishers for specific purposes, such as print book sales; so publishers have little flexibility to enter into innovative license agreements without having to renegotiate author contracts. And renegotiating author contracts is, to put it mildly, not scalable.

. . . .

CPC is tantamount to an e-book rental model. (When I asked Eric Hellman for a name for this model along the lines of PIP, he replied “it’s just rental.”) Some early e-book services in the U.S. offered rentals, which were met with indignant backlash from people who insisted that “ownership” was the only acceptable model — never mind that whether you actually own a downloaded e-book is debatable — and that rentals were some sort of evil plot to deprive people of their rights (although e-book rental has been successful outside the U.S., such as in Japan and South Korea). Now libraries are eagerly embracing rentals, albeit ones users only pay for indirectly through taxes; Hoopla digital has already signed up public library systems in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Link to the rest at Copyright and Technology 

PG says this one more problem for traditional publishers who have used publishing contracts that provide for different (usually higher) royalties for the licensing of rights than they do for the sales of physical books or the “sales” of ebooks (which Amazon and others say are “licensed, not sold” to Amazon customers by publishers).

So far, most publishers have ignored this problem (by choosing the lower royalty rate for ebooks by pretending they are sold, of course) instead of facing it by amending their publishing contracts for ebooks to clarify royalties (and hopefully raise them for authors).

PG has written extensively about this problem, for example, here and here.

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Amazon Bites Off Even More Monopoly Power

21 June 2017

From The New York Times:

Amazon on Friday announced plans to acquire Whole Foods, the high-end grocer. If approved by antitrust enforcers, the $13.7 billion deal would give Amazon control of more than 400 stores, an extensive supply chain and a new source of consumer data.

Amazon will argue to federal authorities, most likely the Federal Trade Commission, that the deal should be blessed because the combined entity’s share of the American grocery market will be less than 5 percent.

But antitrust officials would be naïve to view this deal as simply about groceries. Buying Whole Foods will enable Amazon to leverage and amplify the extraordinary power it enjoys in online markets and delivery, making an even greater share of commerce part of its fief.

The company has established its level of dominance because of the failings of our current antitrust laws. To understand why, you first need to understand the scope of Amazon’s power. It has captured 43 percent of all internet retail sales in the United States, with half of all online shopping searches starting on Amazon. In 2016, it had over $63 billion in revenue from online sales in the United States — or more than the next 10 top online retailers combined. It controls 74 percent of e-book sales, is the largest seller of clothes online and is set to soon become the biggest apparel retailer in the country.

. . . .

 Think of Amazon as a 21st-century version of the 19th-century railroads that connected consumers and producers. Because of their gatekeeper role, railroads had power to discriminate, both among users and in favor of their own wares. These middlemen could tax the farmers and oil producers who depended on their rails — or deny them a ride and sink their livelihoods.

. . . .

In several key ways, Amazon uses its power as the railroads did. By integrating across business lines, Amazon now competes with the companies that rely on its platform. This decision to not only host and transport goods but to also directly make and sell them gives rise to a conflict of interest, positioning Amazon to give preferential treatment to itself.

The vast troves of information it collects enable it to self-deal with great finesse. News accounts tell how Amazon exploits data collected on the businesses using its platform to go head-to-head with them.

And like the railroads of yore, Amazon dictates terms and prices to those dependent on its rails. During negotiations with the publisher Hachette over e-book pricing, Amazon showed its might by effectively disabling sales of thousands of Hachette’s books overnight.

. . . .

Antitrust laws, which were passed by Congress to prevent these kinds of concentrations of private power, have been largely reduced to a technical tool to keep prices low. The change in thinking traces back to the Chicago School revolution of the 1970s, which ushered in decades of mergers and consolidation.

Embodying this “consumer welfare” regime, Amazon has largely avoided government scrutiny by devoting its business strategy and rhetoric to reducing prices. The company has marched toward monopoly by exploiting the defects of contemporary antitrust law.

Preventing Amazon from concentrating even more control will require that antitrust enforcers block the company’s bid for Whole Foods. But lawmakers and officials should go even further, embracing the original goals of antitrust law and adopting a competition policy fit for the digital age. Unless we recover our antimonopoly tradition, Amazon will centralize exceptional control.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Somehow, PG has problems with the logistics of “embracing the original goals of antitrust law” while “adopting a competition policy fit for the digital age.”

Consider the dates the principal antitrust statutes came into being: the Interstate Commerce Act – 1887, the Sherman Act – 1890, the Clayton Act – 1914, the Federal Trade Commission Act – 1914, and a newcomer, the Robinson–Patman Act – 1936.

These laws were passed primarily to deal with market abuses by railroads and oil companies. The classic problem this legislation was designed to solve was a farmer in Iowa who, in the absence of any network of reasonable roads, had only one railroad available to ship corn to market. If the railroad raised shipping rates, the farmer had to pay those prices or not sell the corn.

So, Amazon is exactly like a railroad because, when you open your web browser, the only place where you can buy anything online is Amazon. Walmart is completely inaccessible. So is Google Shopping. And Apple? Forget about it. It’s absolutely impossible to buy anything from them. Ebay, Rakuten, JD.com? Not a chance. The internet train tracks don’t run there. How about Alibaba, whose 2016 profits were 55% greater than the combined profits of  Wal-Mart, Amazon and eBay. They can’t sell anything because Amazon.

The author of the OP is a “legal fellow” (is that sexist?) at “the Open Markets Program at New America.” From a quick visit to their website, the fellows appear to dedicate themselves to Amazon bashing.

And this “New America” organization?

New America was founded in 1999 to nurture a new generation of public intellectuals—scholars, policy experts, and journalists who could address major social, economic, and political challenges in ways that would engage the public at large—and to provide a set of blueprints for American renewal in an era of globalization and digitization. The initial challenge, which continues today, was to find the minds and foster the debates needed to guide American renewal in an era of profound, exhilarating, but often threatening change.

Further, “New America is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and all donations are tax deductible”, which means that, unlike Amazon, New American pays no income taxes and is excused from paying lots of other taxes as well.

But nurturing a new generation of public intellectuals doesn’t come cheap.

New American receives most of its funding from other organizations that also don’t pay any taxes. The minority of listed donors who do pay taxes includes Google, Walmart (plus the Walton Family Foundation), Netflix, Comcast, DISH Network Microsoft (plus the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and Facebook.

If you identified any competitors of Amazon among New America’s donors, you would be correct.

By mere coincidence, neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos are listed as donors. Perhaps if Jeff wrote a check, New America would discover that Amazon’s business practices fit perfectly into “a competition policy fit for the digital age.”

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Update

8 June 2017

PG usually doesn’t share much in the way of personal information on TPV, but felt it might be beneficial to some visitors if he shared a few of the recent experiences he and Mrs. PG had experienced along with some lessons he learned.

About 2:30 AM on April 29,2017, two police officers knocked on the door of our home. They brought news that our 32-year-old son had committed suicide.

Our son had experienced mental illness, at first diagnosed as depression and later bipolar disorder, for about twenty years. Suicidal thoughts were part of his illness from the time he was twelve. He was extraordinarily intelligent and achieved some amazing accomplishments, but his illness seemed to intrude whenever things were looking the brightest for him.

Since that early morning visit, PG has learned that grieving has a physical as well as an emotional impact on him. Physically, he’s been getting sick with every virus or bacterium that comes around and feeling chronically exhausted. Generally speaking, PG is a bounce-back-from-problems kind of guy, but there was no bounce for several days. He is definitely improving, as is Mrs. PG, but still has a distance to go.

Two weeks after our son’s death, PG’s younger brother died in a distant state following an eight-month battle with brain cancer. PG made travel arrangements, but decided he just couldn’t make the trip at that particular time, something that’s never happened to him before.

A few lessons PG has learned:

– PG’s personal religious beliefs and Mrs. PG’s similar beliefs have been extraordinarily important to both of us during these experiences.

– Few people know what to say after a death, particularly a suicide, but saying exactly the right thing doesn’t matter as much as PG had previously believed.

– The support of others, expressed during visits and phone calls or via email, condolence cards or flowers, has been very important for both of us. The ability to articulate detailed comforting thoughts or theology is less important than simply letting someone know you’re sorry they’ve had a death in their family or among their friends and offering to help them in any way you can.

– PG is never going to decide he doesn’t know an acquaintance or friend well enough to avoid some sort of an engagement with that person after a death in their family. The kindness of others, expressed in any manner, is enormously important to the surviving family and friends.

– A great many decisions must be made quickly following the death of a family member – funeral arrangements (casket selection, services the funeral home will provide, embalming or not, etc., etc.), funeral service arrangements, selection of a burial location, notification of the date and location of the funeral communicated to family members and friends, etc. PG hadn’t gone through this process before and was not in the best condition to make such decisions in a hurry. A neighbor who had worked in a funeral home on a part-time basis while he was in college provided important counsel that made the process easier.

– PG and Mrs. PG have decided they will make each of these choices for themselves ahead of time, including selecting a funeral director, casket, gravesite, paying for it all, etc., so their family members won’t have to deal with this upon their deaths. Many of these decisions will affect the cost of these services and, PG believes, are better made before the emotions are at their height.

– PG forgot to notify a couple of relatives who should have received notifications in time to attend the funeral, so he’s putting together an email/phone list for future use.

– PG’s surviving son is handling the property, debts, etc., of his deceased brother with the assistance of a competent probate attorney. This is his way of serving his deceased brother and PG is extremely grateful for that assistance.

– Basically, once a probate case is opened with the appropriate court, you instruct all creditors to file their claims in probate court. Final tax returns will need to be filed. A leased vehicle is involved, so you tell the leasing company where the car is located so they can pick it up.

– You don’t want to start dividing property among the survivors until the creditors have filed their claims and you know whether the estate will have enough cash to pay all debts. It will take time, often several months, but the process is one that probate courts and probate attorneys do all the time so no one has to invent anything new.

– PG had forgotten that thieves sometimes visit the homes of surviving family members during the funeral, so he appreciated the offer of a neighbor to house-sit Casa PG while PG was attending the funeral.

– Some people don’t understand how mental illness can be a deadly disease. While most people don’t die from mental illness, unfortunately, suicide is the way mental illness usually claims its victims.

– While the various treatments PG’s son underwent ultimately were not effective in saving his life, the treatment of mental illness has improved immensely over the many years PG has dealt with the disease in his family. Many people who might have died twenty-five years ago are alive and well today because they received proper treatment. If you wish to support further research into more and better treatments for these diseases, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is one organization that does very good work.

Being the recipient of the many and varied kindnesses of others during the most difficult time of his life has made a deep and lasting impression upon PG. He will never see or speak with those people again without remembering what they did to help him during this time.

 

 

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Principles of Pricing: An Analytical Approach

6 June 2017

This post requires a bit of background.

As all educated persons know, The Chicago Cubs baseball team won the 2016 World Series after a gap of 108 years following its prior world series victory in 1908. The Cubs also won the 1907 world series, something gainsayers of the historic quality of Cubs baseball sometimes forget.

During the last stages of the 2016 pennant race, Mrs. PG was consumed by Cubs baseball and drew PG into her obsession as well. Prior to their marriage, Mrs. PG lived in a high-rise Chicago apartment that looked directly down into Wrigley Field and the premarital PG’s attended some enjoyable baseball games there.

This was during the days that Cubs owner, P.K. Wrigley, still controlled the team. P.K. had an unshakable conviction that baseball was never meant to be played at night, under artificial lights (ugh!). So there were, in that bygone age, no lights in Wrigley Field and all games were played during the lovely afternoons Chicago invariably offers during baseball season. PG slipped out of his employer’s premises on more than one occasion to attend a weekday Cubs game.

All this background is necessary to establish the Cubs bona fides as a legitimate source for citations in scholarly works.

During his wanderings around the internet, PG discovered Principles of Pricing: An Analytical Approach by Rakesh V. Vohra and Lakshman Krishnamurthi. Professor Krishnamurthi currently teaches at the business school at Northwestern University, a short ride from Wrigley Field on the Chicago L (elevated train), a storied public transit system (using the term, “system,” in its loosest sense). Professor Vohra formerly taught at Northwestern.

In this worthy tome, the authors were inspired to include a reference to Cubs baseball and some of its ticket pricing history. If you look at the second full paragraph in the Google Books excerpt below, you will see a description of one of the ways the Cubs tried to sell tickets during their 108-year dry spell.

However, the most important element of this analysis is found in footnote 16 on the same page. Footnote 16 provides definitive scholarly support for the theory that the billygoat curse was the principal reason for the Cubs’ long world series drought. Perceptive readers will remember PG’s treatises on the billygoat curse last fall here and here.

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Following the Cubs’ inspiring march into baseball history last season, Mrs. PG decided she needed a subscription to MLB.com, Major League Baseball’s streaming television service so she could watch all the Cubs games. So far, she’s only missed a couple of games.

For over a century, Cubs fans ended each season with, “There’s always next year.” While Mrs. PG isn’t entirely satisfied with some of the play this season, the PG’s are confident that last year’s triumph is only the first of many for the team formerly known as the Lovable Losers.

Following is the song that’s sung by Chicago fans after each Cubs victory in Wrigley Field.

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Amazon: The Emporia Strike Back

22 May 2017

From Seeking Alpha:

Over the past week, Barron’s has been working on an article centered on retailers that are resisting the Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) tide. Over that same period, I’ve been doing the same thing, but my focus has been on AMZN, and how the hunter may become the hunted; the disrupter suddenly disrupted. That’s the theme of this article.

As a sense of how even a bull on some non-AMZN retail names gushes about AMZN, the interviewee for that article, Dana Telsey, said this in mildly questioning the extent of AMZN’s stock price surge in 2017:

Amazon’s opportunity to expand in so many categories is amazing.

Yet, I wonder.

. . . .

My reaction to the research I’ve been doing is that AMZN is at risk of another difficult spell. Competitors can possibly exceed it, as shown below. Even Ms. Telsey went on in the next breath to criticize the mighty AMZN, saying:

Amazon does very well on the basic soft offering, but still has work to do to improve the offering and the experience. Retail is a roller coaster. You need to reinvent, remodel, remerchandise. Brands matter. Whether it’s Victoria’s Secret for L Brands; PVH, with Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein; or Coach, they have staying power, and they’re innovating…

Neiman Marcus technology allows customers to compare how they look in different outfits. And more retailers are working to make visiting a store not just about buying an item, but about engagement, creating a social and/or unique experience for the consumer that makes them want to visit again and make a purchase.

I’m not predicting that AMZN is the next BlackBerry or Nokia, but I wonder if the next few years will see a revaluation of AMZN downward and its competitors – the ones that are the true innovators and fighters – upward.

. . . .

It appears that after years of faltering online activity, AMZN’s competitors are taking increasingly effective action. In addition, they may eventually prove that having numerous stores (“emporia” especially when large), having higher profit margins than AMZN, is a huge advantage in this fight:

Ultimately, it’s not too onerous for a large, profitable retailer to add e-commerce capabilities, though it takes time and money to get it right. The price is a temporary strain on profits.

In contrast, it’s impossible for AMZN to develop anything approaching the physical store system that the large, multi-state, and sometimes international, retailers have taken many years, sometimes many decades, to put together.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

PG disagrees with the statement in the OP, “Ultimately, it’s not too onerous for a large, profitable retailer to add e-commerce capabilities.”

The large multistate physical store systems of formerly-profitable retailers like Barnes & Noble, JC Penney, Sears, Aéropostale, Macy’s, Sports Authority, Office Depot, etc., etc., have not done very well lately.

An even bigger question in PG’s mind is, exactly which “large, profitable retailer” has added a successful ecommerce operation?

Walmart qualifies as a large, profitable retailer.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Walmart’s e-commerce sales in 2015 totaled about $14 billion. As a comparison, Amazon’s sales hit $107 billion that year, a figure that included its web-service division.

Walmart’s first ecommerce strategy was to build its own e-commerce capabilities when Amazon was much smaller than it is today. The execs in Bentonville spent gobs of money, but that strategy bombed. It turned out that ecommerce was harder than it looked.

Walmart’s more recent ecommerce strategy is to buy ecommerce companies. Last year, Walmart bought the e-commerce startup Jet, which also owns online furniture seller Hayneedle, for $3 billion. The company also acquired ShoeBuy, a competitor to Amazon-owned Zappos and Moosejaw, an online retailer of outdoor apparel and sporting equipment. Walmart also bought a stake in JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce company that competes with both China’s market leader Alibaba and Amazon.

PG still hasn’t seen any particularly successful ecommerce capabilities show up at Walmart yet.

Here’s the thing with buying technology companies, including ecommerce companies — the best programmers own a lot of stock in the acquired companies. Ditto for the best product managers. Typically, these people are locked into the acquired business with three-year employment contracts as part of the acquisition.

The best programmers have been working 80-100 hour weeks to push the acquired company’s valuation as high as possible. After the acquisition, their main focus is on relaxing and buying expensive toys with a bit of the money they’ve made off their stock. Sure, they show up at work, but they’re also best friends with the local Ferrari dealer. And the local Tesla dealer. And a couple of boat and airplane sales people. Plus they’ve always wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail but never had the time before.

These same programmers are adding venture capitalists and headhunters to their phone contacts. The VC’s and headhunters are happy pay for long and expensive lunches and dinners and share industry gossip about hot new startups until the employment agreements expire.

Problems also arise when the really smart talents from the startup discover they’re reporting to not-very-bright corporate types at the acquiring company.

Microsoft, which is a reasonably competent technology company, has acquired a large number of smaller tech companies over the years. PG has known some of the top talent in those tech companies. They rent a nice house on one of Seattle’s many lakes, disappear into the Redmond maw for three years, then they’re out doing what they want to do, either sailing around the world for a year or, more likely, starting a new tech company. In any case, most of the real value Microsoft (and other large companies) acquired in the tech acquisition walks out the door.

It takes real and rare talent to do ecommerce well and, while getting the user interface right is vital, there are an even larger number of things to get right behind the scenes. Not just any programmer can do this and the behind-the-scenes stuff can be very difficult to copy or reverse-engineer.

Even though it’s a large company, Amazon has shown a continuing ability to attract and retain top-tier technical and marketing talent. It has also demonstrated the ability to constantly push the boundaries of ecommerce. Even if a competitor could build a perfect copy of this year’s Amazon ecommerce platform, by the time the copy was finished, Amazon would have made hundreds of improvements to its systems and deployed thousands of additional warehouse robots. This requires a combination of brilliant management that really understands technology and creative technologists that can respond to extraordinary demands management places on them.

The critical raw material for any technology business or operation is technical talent. With it, you can leap tall buildings and recover from bad business decisions. Without it, you’re going to either be lame or copying other companies’ products.

One final question: Where would a talented computer science major from Stanford or Carnegie Mellon or MIT rather work – Amazon or Calvin Klein?

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Writers’ Union of Canada editorial sparks anger

13 May 2017

From Globe2Go:

The Writers’ Union of Canada has issued an apology and the editor of its magazine has resigned after publishing an opinion piece titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to Indigenous writing.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” began the editorial by Hal Niedzviecki in the spring issue of Write magazine. “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

Some people were enraged, and the fallout was swift: TWUC issued an apology, a board member resigned, TWUC’s Equity Task Force issued a list of demands – and Mr. Niedzviecki left his position.

“I had no intention of offending anyone with the article,” Mr. Niedzviecki told The Globe and Mail Wednesday, after resigning that morning – his choice, he says.

“I absolutely understand why people are upset. I think that I was a little tone deaf, and I was failing to recognize how charged the term cultural appropriation is and how deeply painful acts of cultural appropriation have been to Indigenous people.”

. . . .

The TWUC Equity Task Force issued a statement, saying it was “angry and appalled” by the column, and shocked that it was approved by a TWUC editorial committee – saying it was an indication of structural racism, “brazen malice, or extreme negligence.” It issued a list of demands, including that the next three issues be turned over to Indigenous and other racialized editors and writers, affirmative action hiring for the next editor and future office staff and a future issue dedicated to bringing historical context to the issue.

Link to the rest at Globe2Go and thanks to Tudor for the tip.

A friend of PG’s was, long ago, the editor of an underground newspaper in Washington DC. Underground newspapers were part of the antiwar movement, cultural upheaval and general hellraising that went on during the Vietnam War period in the late sixties-mid seventies of the last century. Underground newspapers printed “news” and opinion that establishment papers were not printing. Such news was invariably inflammatory and reflected an alternate view of contemporary events.

PG and his friend were talking about the friend’s journalistic endeavors during this time and the friend commented, “Whenever we didn’t know how to respond to somebody (with differing views), we called them a nazi and they always froze up and freaked out. It worked every time.”

Name-calling is a propaganda and political control technique that certainly predates the 1960’s.

The name-calling technique links a person or idea, to a negative symbol. The propagandist employs this tool to persuade the audience to reject the person or idea on the basis of the associated negative symbol.

During the Inquisition, for example, successfully branding a political, business or social rival a heretic could make anything the person said or proposed completely unacceptable. Indeed, the only safe response to a heretic was to totally avoid him/her because of the likelihood that the heretic and his/her associates would be executed or otherwise severely punished. Galileo’s opponents branded him as a heretic for supporting heliocentrism in 1633 and his scientific discoveries became completely unacceptable thereafter.

Leon Trotsky, one of the heroes of the Russian revolution of 1917 and its brightest theoretician, was, for a period of time, second only to Lenin in the Soviet political hierarchy. After Lenin died, Trotsky contended with Stalin for leadership of the Communist party and the state. Trotsky lost that battle, was exiled and later assassinated. Trotskyism was anathema to Stalin’s continuing dictatorship. Branding anyone as a Trotskyite effectively removed that person from Soviet society and was often good for an extended visit to the Gulag.

During the 1960’s, Cultural Revolution in China utilized “counter-revolutionary revisionist” as a negative brand. Such a person would also invariably be guilty of practicing one of the “Four Olds” – old customs, culture, habits, and ideas. Once someone was categorized as revisionist, society could be certain that anything such a person said or did was tainted with the curse.

PG is not an expert on theories of cultural appropriation in either Canada or the United States, but much that he has read of this and other Social Justice activities currently being applied in various culture wars reminds him of the propaganda techniques described above.

Indeed, “Social Justice” has, for PG, a distinct Maoist/Stalinist ring to it.

 

 

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Amazon’s Taking Another Bite of the Publishing Pie

10 May 2017

From The Authors Guild:

The Authors Guild is deeply disturbed by Amazon’s new policy of allowing third-party book resellers to claim featured status in the “buy boxes” on Amazon. In a move that’s very likely to cut into publishing industry profits even more, Amazon will no longer automatically assign the main buy box for each hard copy, paper, audio and Kindle edition to the copies that Amazon distributes on behalf of the book’s publisher. Rather, a secret algorithm—which reportedly weighs factors such as price, availability, and delivery time, will now decide which seller (i.e., Amazon or a third party re-seller) gets the buy box. Amazon’s new policy states that “eligible sellers will be able to compete for the buy box for Books in new condition.” What this means is that second-hand book distributors—who often sell at extremely steep discounts—will be able to claim that premium real estate if they can beat out the publishers’ copies under the algorithm.

Until now, the second-hand book sellers, who offer books for as little as a penny, have been listed below the featured option, in much smaller font, as second-tier “Used” and “New” copies on a book’s product page, never as the default seller. While Amazon alone has the statistics, common sense tells us that the vast majority of purchases are made via the main buy buttons and not through the links to the other “new” and “used” copies. So, when the buy button is assigned to a third-party seller because its prices are lower and it can deliver quickly, most of the sales will be redirected to that third-party seller. In other words, those $.01 “new” or “new condition” copies that seem to be available for almost every book may well end up featured. (As a practical matter, most second-hand sellers today are slower than Amazon at fulfilling hard-copy purchases, but that could change and we do not know how Amazon weighs the factors.) The problem with this outcome from an author’s perspective is that neither the publisher nor the author gets a cent back from those third-party sales. Only Amazon and the reseller share in the profits. This has the potential to decimate authors’ and publishers’ earnings from many books, especially backlist books. (If you’ve noticed this happening on your own books’ product pages, please let us know at staff@authorsguild.org.)

One might wonder how there can be “new” copies offered by someone other than the publisher and how they can be sold for $.01 plus shipping (the high shipping costs are apparently where these sellers make their profit). The Authors Guild has spoken to several major publishers in the past year about where all these second-hand “new” copies come from, and no one seems to really know. Some surmise that they are review copies, but there are far too many cut-rate “new” copies for them all to be review copies. Could they be returns from bookstores that never made it back to the publisher? Did they fall off the back of a truck? We don’t know. What we do know is that the resellers must be acquiring them at cut-rate price and that there appear to be enough of these copies available that they could replace sales for the truly new copies—those that bring money to the publisher and royalties to the author.

. . . .

Publishers and authors report that Amazon’s justification for its new move is that every other product sold on Amazon works this “best offer” way, and that Amazon has treated books in a special way—until now, that is—by maintaining the publisher’s copy as the first listed seller. In reality, that is not the case for other copyrighted works.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild and thanks to Jacqueline for the tip.

After everything Big Publishing and The Authors Guild have done to help Amazon over the years, how could Amazon possibly do something like this?

And, of course, Amazon invented the practice of selling books for less than their list price so more readers would buy them.

PG says this couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of people than those who inhabit the traditional publishing world and have been mistreating authors for years.

In point of fact, Amazon knows far more about pricing books to optimize sales and profits than Big Publishing does.

The biggest threat to the future of Big Publishing is the people who run Big Publishing.

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‘Screen fatigue’ sees UK ebook sales plunge 17% as readers return to print

27 April 2017

From The Guardian:

Britons are abandoning the ebook at an alarming rate with sales of consumer titles down almost a fifth last year, as “screen fatigue” helped fuel a five-year high in printed book sales.

Sales of consumer ebooks plunged 17% to £204m last year, the lowest level since 2011 – the year the ebook craze took off as Jeff Bezos’ market-dominating Amazon Kindle took the UK by storm.

It is the second year running that sales of consumer ebooks – the biggest segment of the £538m ebook market, which fell 3% last year – have slumped as commuters, holidaymakers and leisure readers shelve digital editions in favour of good old fashioned print novels.

“I wouldn’t say that the ebook dream is over but people are clearly making decisions on when they want to spend time with their screens,” says Stephen Lotinga, chief exeutive of the Publishers Association, which published its annual yearbook on Thursday.

“There is generally a sense that people are now getting screen tiredness, or fatigue, from so many devices being used, watched or looked at in their week. [Printed] books provide an opportunity to step away from that.”

. . . .

The issue with consumer ebooks aside the UK book industry is in fine fettle. Total sales of print and digital books and journals climbed 7% to £4.8bn last year, the largest growth since 2007 when digital sales were first included.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Randall for the tip.

PG didn’t see any reference to how many ebooks were sold by publishers and authors who don’t report their sales to the Publishers Association. He also didn’t see Amazon’s name on the list of members on the Publishers Association website.

“Screen fatigue” sounds like something the marketing department invented. PG wonders if they considered “bookstore fatigue” or “high prices fatigue” while they were brainstorming.

Here’s a link to an interesting analysis of last year’s Publisher’s Association Yearbook at Publishing Perspectives, ‘As We Trade Less Neurotically’: A Nice Chat About Those UK Publishing Numbers.

The Publishing Perspectives article raises an issue PG would like to address more directly: Absent Amazon Derangement Syndrome, a decline in ebook sales of traditional publishers is hardly something the traditional publishing business should be celebrating.

Ebooks are a great business for traditional publishers – send an ebook file to Amazon and check once a month thereafter to see how much money Amazon sends back. No printing and shipping bills to pay, no inventory to manage (or to pay someone else to manage), no returns to deal with.

If Amazon hadn’t opened the gates to the unwashed horde of self-published authors, demonstrated that lower ebook prices resulted in much larger sales and then started its own imprints when the first ADS plague hit traditional publishing, the Publishing Association would be giving Amazon an award each year at its annual meeting for improving the profitability of UK publishers.

A pound (or dollar) of profit from an ebook licensed to a reader by Amazon counts for just as much as a pound of profit from a printed book sold by Blackwell’s.

A 17% drop in ebook sales is a disaster for the UK publishing business. Any assumption that each ebook not acquired is offset by a printed version that is purchased instead doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

For one thing, obtaining an ebook by touching an iPad screen is a much more effortless transaction than going to a physical bookstore to locate and buy a printed book. The alternative to an iPad ebook transaction may well be tapping on the Amazon Video app to watch a show.

 

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The Greatest Poetry Reading I’ve Ever Seen

14 April 2017

From Literary Hub:

An invitation to represent England at the 100th Anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway was scary enough. But to share a stage with the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the same time: absolutely terrifying. I remember Yevtushenko from the 1960s when I was a Columbia student. He was the pop star of the intelligentsia in those days, everybody’s idea of a poet, passionate, young, courageous, glorious to look at. Women screamed and fainted at his performances.

The conference was to take place in Tromsø way high up above the Arctic Circle in the summer of 2001, a pretty town, an island city right out of a child’s toy chest. The theme was War and Peace—Tolstoy’s grandson as the guest of honor. The moderator of my session asked me if I minded speaking first.

“If you don’t,” he laughed, “you might not get a chance to speak at all.”

“Oh?”

“It is a little, er, difficult to stop this poet once he gets going.”

But there was no Yevtushenko in the theater when the session started. A minute or two into my speech, a figure appeared in the front row. I’m no good at faces, but I was pretty sure I’d spotted him because he stared at me in that disconcerting, unblinking way that Russians do. When I finished, the moderator thanked me especially—and pointedly—for keeping to my 20-minute limit. A Dane spoke after me. When he finished, the moderator thanked him too—again pointedly—for keeping to the 20-minute limit.

Then Yevtushenko approached the podium. He was nearly 70, hair thin, face deeply lined, back no longer straight. Even so it was clear at once what all the fuss was about. This was a hell of a delivery. Maybe his English belonged in a farce, but no Western voice soars and swings like that. Up and down. Loud and soft. Face and body in motion too. He began with an unpublished poem and went on to something about a Russian nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s swans and great big dinosaurs. But he could have been saying anything, anything at all. With a delivery like that, who cares?

And he’s a man who knew how to handle a moderator as well as an audience. After 40 minutes or so, he turned to the moderator—visibly restive by this time—and said, “Is all right? I can finish? You permit?” Then came questions. As soon as the first one started, Yevtushenko leaned across to me and said, “What is phrase seel-kee prose? What this mean?” In my speech, I’d described an American I knew as being master of the New Yorker’s “silky prose.” I explained as best I could. “Is good,” he said. “Is little bit ironic, yes?” I nodded. He leaned back in his chair, then forward again. “You sink?”

Sink? “I’m not sure what you mean,” I said cautiously,

“You sink?” he said louder.

Could he mean think? Could I have said something really stupid? I gave him a puzzled look.

He leaned back in his chair. “You have beautiful voice. All seel-kee.”

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

PG says the best poetry is meant to be spoken and heard. In a tradition going back a few centuries, poets generally wrote and performed their poetry because the sound and tempo of the words was crucial to full understanding of the poem. Poetry was a performance art. Unfortunately, poetry is primarily a subject for academic study today.

In the middle of the twentieth century, several poets were well-known for their performance abilities. Dylan Thomas performed his poems on the BBC during World War II and even wrote and performed a poem, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, commemorating a young victim of a German bombing attack.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko was an accomplished performer of his poetry as well, both in Russian and English.

Below are a couple of YouTube videos of Yevtushenko’s poetry performances, first in Russian, then in English.

The poem is Babi Yar. The first lines of the poem are:

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

Babi Yar is a deep ravine near Kiev where Einsatzgruppen (Nazi SS paramilitary squads who followed the German army to pacify and cleanse the civilian population in conquered territory) killed 34,000 Jews in two days, September 29-30, 1941. Later, additional Jews, gypsies, Communists and Soviet prisoners of war were slaughtered there.

Two years later, while retreating over the same ground, the SS tried to cover up any signs of this atrocity. The bodies were dug up, burnt, and all the evidence destroyed. Babi Yar is the grave of over 100,000 victims of the SS.

Following the war, the Soviet government refused requests to erect a monument at the site and it remained unmarked for over 30 years. An official memorial to Soviet citizens shot at Babi Yar was erected in 1976. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian government allowed the establishment of a memorial specifically identifying the Jewish victims.

In 1962, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor, subtitled Babi Yar.  The first movement, Babi Yar: Adagio, includes choral settings for Yevtushenko’s poems including references to the Dreyfus affair, the Białystok pogrom and Anne Frank.

Following Yevtushenko is a recording of Thomas performing his wartime poem.

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San Diego booksellers succumb

5 April 2017

From San Diego Reader:

Robert Schrader can recall the moment when he decided to close 5th Avenue Books, the cavernous, off-white, brightly lit used bookstore that lasted longer than most on what used to be Hillcrest’s book block. (Bluestocking Books soldiers on, but the Blue Door, Bountiful Books, Grounds for Murder, and the Cook’s Bookshop and now 5th Avenue are no more.) “I came in one morning and there were eight people in the store, and I noticed that five of them — a majority of the customers — were looking at their phones. That’s when I realized that there was so much traffic on Amazon that even those people who come in here were using it as a sample store. Oh, I like this book; I’ll look it up on Amazon and see if I can find it cheaper.”

“The store hadn’t made money since 2011,” he continued, “but I was hanging on, thinking, I can reverse this. I bought from different sources, looking for stuff that wasn’t available on Amazon. But everything’s available on Amazon.” Schrader ran his closing in stages throughout February: 50 percent off on one Friday, 80 percent off the next, then $5 a bag, then $1. I visited on 80 percent day and bought, among other things, a $150 signed copy of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer for $30. Waiting in the checkout line, I started rooting through a box on the floor after spotting a couple of novels by Shusaku Endo. “Hey, whose box is that?” asked a familiar voice. It was Craig Maxwell of Maxwell’s House of Books in La Mesa. Of course he had snagged the Endos before me; he’s a pro.

“I spent $1000 and got some good stuff,” said Maxwell when I visited his shop a few days later (the Endos were priced at $12 apiece). “Lit was probably the best; he had almost every author under the sun. But I found good things in the nautical travels section and the Civil War” — even though World War II is a bigger seller for him and even though “80 percent of the people who walk through the door ask for children’s literature. I know they don’t read themselves because they never look at anything around them.”

. . . .

Asked why he maintains his La Mesa Village storefront, Maxwell paused before replying with a smile, “I just can’t see waking up at home, schlepping to the kitchen in my pajamas and having a piece of toast and then schlepping over to the computer and being ‘at work.’ I think of a brick-and-mortar store as a real business. I know that’s anachronistic, but these illusions are important to some of us.”

Link to the rest at San Diego Reader and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG takes no pleasure in seeing bookstores close just as he has taken no pleasure in seeing newspapers close. The Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media says the newspaper workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 positions, or 39%, in the last 20 years.

However, PG is about to permit his last subscription to a physical newspaper lapse, thus ending a reading habit that began when he was seven years old and mispronounced most of the words he read. He just doesn’t read the physical paper much any more.

Since he spends most of his work day on the computer, PG has no shortage of access to the information contained in his newspaper. Away from his desk, his phone alerts him to breaking news at least 12 hours before the newspaper arrives.

Once in awhile, PG buys a physical book on Amazon, but he hasn’t finished reading one of those in 2-3 years. Despite a lifetime of reading books on paper (think voracious childhood reading, college lit classes, law school, law practice, voracious adult reading), they feel sort of clumsy to him now. On the other hand, he inhales ebooks, particularly titles that would never appear at a Barnes & Noble.

Despite the numbers of pleasant people in the paper book business, it’s going away. There are a couple of large universities not far from Casa PG, but backpacks stuffed with books are an increasingly rare sight. Backpacks are for laptops and tablets. Everybody carries phones and assiduously studies them between classes.

Used book stores will outlast stores that sell new books (and will probably morph into antique book stores) but there won’t be enough of those to employ most of people currently working in the paper book business.

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