Walt Whitman Championed Democracy and Fought for Copyright

18 November 2018

From The Illusion of More:

“Publishers move without concert, harmony, or agreement. There is no law to regulate their rights, and they have none (which are respected) by courtesy.  They print the same book, and the spirit of competition is such as to destroy all correctness, all taste, and all chance of profit.  The result is, that the author gets nothing, the publisher is subjected to losses, and the public are never satisfied.  An international copyright law would remove these evils.”

 — Nahum Capen, 1844 —

This excerpt from a Memorial written by a notable Boston author, editor, and publisher fairly well sums up the state of book publishing—and most creative work—in the embryonic America of the mid-19th century. It is not mere coincidence that the evolution of an American artistic voice parallels the development of U.S. copyright law; and the passage of an international copyright statute in 1891 was a key milestone—culturally, economically, creatively, and politically—in the nation’s progress toward global maturity.  One important advocate of that law also happened to be one of the nation’s first truly domestic creative voices—the poet Walt Whitman, who viewed the adoption of international copyright as a matter of democratic principle even more than a matter of economic purpose.

Creativity today is entirely democratic.  We understand that works of great genius and value might come from anywhere.  But many of America’s most influential authors and thinkers, during the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, believed that literature should remain tethered to classical, elitist traditions.  Thus, while American copyright law evolved throughout the 19th century, charting a course distinct from the antecedents of English common law, a new American creative voice was emerging at the same time.  Indeed, there was a conscious, creative/political movement that may be roughly bracketed between an 1837 speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the literary apotheosis expressed in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855.

It was August 31, 1837, when Emerson spoke to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University in which he called upon young, domestic authors to write the narrative of the new nation rather than to continue to “feed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.”  Emerson’s address helped galvanize a broad, cultural shift that was just percolating among the first post-Revolution, literary figures in the nation, and among these was Whitman, who published his first short stories in a new periodical founded on the principles of this movement—the United States Magazine and Democratic Review.

Link to the rest a The Illusion of More

KDP Books Unavailable To International Readers

18 November 2018

From David Gaughran:

A situation blew up at Amazon over the weekend which has made most KDP ebooks unavailable to purchase for international readers who use the US Kindle Store — one which has also exposed a glaring security problem.

This issue — which is either a bug or a badly bungled roll-out — is causing great confusion as its effects are only visible to those outside the USA, which might explain why Amazon has been so slow to address it, or even understand the problem, it seems.

The first reports were from a few weeks ago, when Australian readers who use the US Kindle Store were unable to see a handful of new releases. It seems to have spread significantly since then. This weekend I noticed the issue myself for the first time. Buy buttons had disappeared from a couple of my ebooks and they were no longer appearing in Search results or on my Author Page. It was as if they had been ghosted. Readers around the world confirmed the same thing — except those in the USA, where all these books continue to be visible in search and purchasable by readers there.

Looking around the Kindle Store this weekend, it seemed like half of the KDP books I checked were unavailable for purchase to international readers, and similarly missing from search results (and, in some cases, author pages). They were undiscoverable by international readers, in other words, and even if those readers navigated to the pages of those Kindle editions directly, price tags were gone and Buy buttons had been removed.

. . . .

So the system seems to think that I shouldn’t be using the US Kindle Store — even though, like many Irish people, I’ve been using the US Kindle Store exclusively since 2011 — and it is blocking me not just from purchasing this title and many other titles, but is also rendering them invisible in search too, so customers don’t even know there is an issue unless they somehow go directly to the book’s page on Amazon. New-to-you readers internationally who use the US Kindle Store won’t even know the problem exists otherwise, or that your book does, I guess.

It gets weirder because this bug or glitch or whatever it is seems to be very inconsistent. All of my non-fiction is unavailable to international readers. Some of my fiction is gone too, but not all of it. If I Iook at someone random from the charts like Bella Forrest, all of the books of hers I checked are gone.

. . . .

I spoke to Amazon customer service yesterday and tried to explain the issue. Amazon didn’t seem to understand it, and just inserted a US postal address in my account instead, which “fixed” the problem as far as they were concerned. And, yes, I can now see my books and all the others which were invisible to me beforehand, but everyone else internationally still can’t see them or purchase them in the US Kindle Store – which is the only place that millions of international readers are able to purchase ebooks (this point must be repeated again and again as misunderstanding abounds — not everywhere has a local Kindle Store and such readers are supposed to use the US store).

Amazon’s “fix” had a number of unintended side-effects. As Amazon now seems to think I’m based in America, I no longer get charged VAT on ebooks. Instead, a test purchase I made applied Washington state sales tax of 6.5% — the customer service person put in Amazon’s Seattle HQ as my address — instead of the 23% rate of Irish VAT that Amazon is legally required to apply to ebook sales to me.

. . . .

Related issues aside, I hope Amazon starts making an effort to understand what is happening here as this is a particularly bad situation for international self-publishers whose readers will naturally trend international too, and who will be disproportionately affected. It also prevents self-publishers around the world from checking their books on Amazon.com — which they need to do for innumerable reasons.

Whether all this is a (bungled) feature or a bug, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Amazon is taking its eye off the ball in so many aspects of its business right now, at least pertaining to books. Amazon’s greatest strength is that it still has the scrappiness and innovative outlook of a start-up — which seems to be achieved by essentially having 1000s of start-ups incubating under one big Amazon tent, who seem to compete with each other for resources and attention and site real-estate.

. . . .

At times like these, Amazon feels incredibly atomized, made up of 1000s of departments who don’t (and won’t) communicate with each other, For example, if you have decided to make hundreds of thousands of ebooks suddenly invisible and unavailable to millions of readers unless they switch to a different Kindle Store maybe — I dunno, radical idea here — email people about it? And if it is just some horrible bug, which has been growing for several weeks to the point where most self-published books are now ghosted to international readers, maybe start working on fixing it? Just a thought.

Link to the rest at David Gaughran

PG notes that David’s post is from November 12. This is the most recent post on David’s blog, so PG assumes the problem he describes may be continuing.

Our book launch was botched and it’s been crazy at work trying to fix it

18 November 2018

From Medium:

I’m trying to remember when it was last this crazy at work. Before we spent a month fighting poor planning and terrible execution on the publication of our new book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work. Was it when we got DDoS’ed over two days and were fighting to keep Basecamp on the internet? Was it when we touched the third rail and spoke about customer data in public? Or do we have to go all the way back to the early days when Basecamp went down whenever I, as the only technical person at the time, would get on an airplane?

Whenever it was, it’s been so long that I had almost forgotten the cocktail of feelings that go with it. That mix of frustration, exhaustion, exasperation, and, perhaps for a fleeting moment, even disbelief. Why is this happening! How could we be this stupid?

But now it’s back. Oh it’s back. Publishing It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Workhas been the most frustrated, exhausting, exasperated, and even unbelievable process. For the dumbest reasons too.

It started with the design. When we signed on with our new publisher, the shared intent was to publish a new book in the same format as REWORK and REMOTE. So we designed a powerful new cover to the same dimensions, and felt really proud about how clean and clear we managed to make it. We were so invested in the impact of the cover that we didn’t even put our names on it!

But when we saw the final book, our hearts sank. This wasn’t right. The book wasn’t the same format. It was taller, so the dimensions were off. And the translation of our design was a complete hack job. It wasn’t even centered on the page!

Yeah, nobody else is likely to notice. Nobody else knows what it was supposed to look like. But we did. We noticed. And when you pour your heart into a book like this, which we’ve been thinking about in some form or another for almost a decade, it hurts.

Okay. Mistakes happen. We were partly to blame. We could have triple checked. We fell for the illusion of agreement, because we weren’t looking at the final thing. Whatever. The second printing would get it right. Bygones.

Forgiving what happened next proved to be much harder.

Harper Business bought the rights to publish It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work with a mid six-figure offer. They outbid another publisher who were in the final running for the rights by a fair margin. Awesome, we thought. This means they’re really invested in blowing this out! This is going to be great.

It was not great.

Despite paying top dollar for the book, Harper Business decided to only print 14,000 copies in the first run. That 14,000 was based on the first orders from retailers. Barnes & Noble wanted 4,000 copies. Amazon wanted 3,300. The rest went largely to independents and wholesalers, and a few for overseas. Once everyone had gotten what they had ordered, Harper Business had no books left. The whole first run was spoken for.

This is where I kick myself. You think when you’re dealing with a major publisher like Harper that you’re safe to leave the details of the printing and the publishing in their hands. This isn’t some upstart publisher. They’ve been around forever. They publish so many books. They’re the professionals, right?

But if we had dared to question that premise — that they’re the professionals, they know what they’re doing — we’d have remembered that we printed 34,000 copies of REWORK. Our first book! The one that went on to sell more than half a million copies around the world. So why were we printing so few books this time around? We’d soon try to in vain to answer that question.

. . . .

But this book got off to a roaring start. We flew up the Amazon best seller list, making it to #24 one of the first days. Then we sold out their entire stock in less than 5 days. What joy! What celebration!

If only. Amazon selling out their stock right away was a disaster. Not because of the copies sold, but because Harper seemed to be taken completely by surprise. They had no books ready to restock, because they printed so few in the first place. The first reprint wasn’t even set to go, because they dillydallied fixing the busted cover design. And worse, the remaining 11,000 books that had gone to Barnes & Nobles and wholesalers and independents could barely be accounted for. We couldn’t get straight answers on who had the books, or whether any of them could be sent to Amazon, since that was clearly where people wanted to buy the book.

The bookscan numbers for the first week hammered this point home. While Amazon had sold 3,300 books, Barnes & Noble — who had ordered even more than Amazon for their first order! — had sold a pathetic 240 copies. And at least 10% of those sales were either us or friends or family excited to see the book in a physical bookstore.

Here’s what worse: Harper knew this would happen. They had told us that Amazon on some titles were 70–90% of sales! In our case, Amazon was over 90% of hardcover books sold the first week, despite the fact that we had gone out of our way to guide sales to B&N during the pre-order phase.

So let’s do the math here: You print 14,000 books for the first printing. You know that Amazon is going to be up to 90% of sales. Wouldn’t you then reserve a good 10,000+ books for Amazon? Harper’s excuse? Amazon’s buyer just said they wanted 3,300 copies, so that’s all we gave them, and we held nothing back for a restock…

And that’s even accepting the premise that 14,000 copies is a good number of books to print for a title you’ve paid mid six figures to acquire. It costs less than $2 to print a book. So Harper spent less than $30,000 to print books, because their planning department didn’t want to risk sitting with $10,000 worth of unsold inventory if the book should bomb.

That’s what the team at Harper literally told us.

. . . .

All of this would just have been a funny anecdote about how dysfunctional large bureaucracies can be, if it wasn’t for what happened next. Taken aback that the book was selling(?!), Harper then had to scramble to get the second printing together. That took a month. Today is the first day that Amazon actually have books in stock ready for delivery tomorrow. They sold out on October 6th.

In that month, all our sales momentum for the hardcover book died out. We had all this publicity lined up. An incredible review by The Economist. Wonderful write-ups in WSJ and The Times UK. Podcast appearances coming out the wazoo. All the built-up excitement for a book that’s hitting right in an industry-wide discussion about toxic work environments and the cost of burning people out. It’s hard to have timed all this better, or, I suppose worse.

Because what good is having a wonderful launch campaign, if you have no books to sell? After Amazon sold out, our book page would scare away potential readers away with a 2–4 week delivery time notice. One time it even said it might be 2 months before the book was back in stock!

. . . .

So why did it take Harper Business a month to get our newly released book back in stock? Because of Trump. Because of tariffs. Because of paper shortages. Because there were a lot of other big books being published at the same time. Because of consolidation in the book printing business. I kid you not, these were all excuses pitched by Harper as to why there were no books.

. . . .

But no one else at our scale had their launch quite this spectacularly botched by the publisher not doing the due diligence to account for these challenges. Out of all the other new releases that broke into the top 50 on Amazon, we were the only title out of stock for a long time.

We’d get these long serenades about how they too were really frustrated. How these things just happen! How it was going to get fixed any day now, but they just weren’t exactly sure when. How mad they were and what loud noises they were making when talking to the departments in charge.

Every possible excuse except for “the dog ate my homework”. Which, really, would have been a more compelling excuse than “tariffs”. Because that’s really what it comes down to. We botched our launch because someone didn’t do the homework. They didn’t print an appropriate amount of books to the scale of the book, they had no solid plans for a second printing when the first one ran out, and they had no capacity for anticipating that all the factors that had been in play for months (like paper shortages or tariffs or, ffs, Trump) would impact the process.

They were unprepared for and proved incapable of doing the one job you absolutely must do as a book publisher: Print. The. Books.

. . . .

Anyway. It’s been crazy at work. Needlessly so. Painfully so. Frustratingly so. But, like all moments of crazy, it also held a buffet of lessons for us to take. Like, never work with Harper Business on another book again… kidding… sorta… maybe… 😂

No really. We went for the publisher who bid the highest, and we assumed this meant they had real skin in the game. We went with a major publisher, so we assumed they all knew what they were doing, and we didn’t have to double check every publishing decision. We made a deal with a single acquiring editor without meeting the rest of the team, because that played to our bias that someone entrusted to write a mid six-figure check on their own would have the authority to call the shots that mattered, but we still ended up haggling over $10,000 in costs to print books.

Link to the rest at Medium and thanks to Morgan for the tip.

PG will note that the book has 43 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.6 stars.

I’ve decided to start giving a damn again

17 November 2018

From The Digital Reader

I’ve never been one to mark the anniversary of this blog. I started it in January 2010 on the spur of the moment, and generally maintained that attitude of “hey, now that’s a cool idea – let’s do it”. This tended to get in the way planning things like anniversary celebrations (and back when I attended CES in the first week of January every year I didn’t really have the energy for a celebration, anyway).

But as I sit here today, it is two months and eight days until this blog’s ninth anniversary, and I have decided I am going to do something different.

This time around I am going to celebrate the anniversary of the blog, and also its relaunch.

I don’t know if you noticed, but for the past year and a half or so I have regarded this blog as a failed project. I looked at the falling weekly traffic reports, and counted the ever-declining number of comments, and grew depressed about the inevitability of site traffic eventually dwindling away to nothing. This belief came to be reflected in the care (or rather, the lack of care) I was putting into things like proofing blog posts. (After all, why bother investing in something that is going to die anyway?)

. . . .

I now see this blog as being the metaphorical glass half-full rather than half-empty. (As I said, I have started to give a damn about the blog again.)

So, the anniversary.

I’m going to spend the next couple months thinking about what should be done with this blog. I’m also going to be thinking of how I can thank readers, commenters, and contributors, including those who have been here since the beginning and those who read the blog now.

To put it another way, I have started to give a damn about the blog again.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

PG is not certain whether he first picked up on The Digital Reader when Nate first started it or not.

Regardless, PG has appreciated Nate’s ongoing efforts and found a lot of good information at TDR.

If you follow the link, Nate is asking for ideas on how he should improve the blog.

Food writers can be divided into two branches: sensualists and moralists

17 November 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

You can tell a lot about a person by how they order at Waffle House, but I would suggest that the thing that separates the sheep from the goats isn’t what they regularly order, but rather that they have an order at all.

I don’t think it matters, in other words, if you like your hash browns the way I do—scattered (on the grill), peppered (with jalapenos), smothered (with onions) and covered (with melted cheese). But you should like them some particular way, and you should know how you like them. In the midst of his criss-crossing of culinary America in “Buttermilk Graffiti,” chef Edward Lee stops into a Waffle House and orders “a bowl of chili and hash browns, smothered and covered.” He’s in Prattville, Ala., where “Valerie works the griddle station and belts out rock-and-roll classics all the while, changing the lyrics to make waffle and egg references.”

In these passages Mr. Lee, who runs acclaimed restaurants in Louisville, Ky., National Harbor, Md., and Washington, D.C., is reflecting on the intimacy and social comfort he’s found in this Southern chain restaurant. He contrasts it to a rather awkward series of adventures in Korean restaurants in Montgomery, Ala., of which there are surprisingly many. Oddly, he found, not many of the Koreans running these restaurants wanted to talk to him about the food they were cooking, and though the food was familiar—Mr. Lee’s parents immigrated from Korea—he didn’t feel quite at home. These sorts of questions are the crux of “Buttermilk Graffiti”: Where are we comfortable? How can assimilation and tradition coexist? Why is there such excellent Cambodian food in Lowell, Mass.? How can it be that there are more Korean restaurants per capita in Montgomery than in Manhattan?

. . . .

By that time Jane and Michael Stern’s “Roadfood” had been out a few years; Calvin Trillin had published “American Fried” a few years before that. Those books laid out the pattern for future American food travelogues. What Mr. Trillin did was to insist that good-old down-home stuff was where the fun was. He was thumbing his nose at the fancy-schmancy, insisting that we all avoid “Le Maison de la Casa House” and any place of which the chamber of commerce is proud. In a culinary world that was, by all reports, drenched in thick continental sauces, this was a good message and needed to be spread. But what I experienced in Carlisle, Pa.—and what Edward Lee tracks intrepidly throughout the country—is something different. It’s fresh, comfortable excellence—sometimes a frisson that the newly arrived bring to the table, sometimes a tradition that is just one step outside of the mainstream. In Miami, it is the flavors of Cuban exiles, and in Dearborn, Mich., it is the mint tea with which Mr. Lee breaks his fast at sundown during Ramadan.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal




Which books best examine the nature of loneliness?

17 November 2018

From The Guardian:

Q: Which books best examine the nature of loneliness?
Thomas Edwards, 21, third year student of international relations at Exeter University

Alex Clark, critic, writer and broadcaster, writes:
You might argue that the vast majority of novels study loneliness in one form or another, given that they spring from an attempt to explore an individual consciousness and its relation with the outside world.

Perhaps the most celebrated is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which, although it frequently portrays its narrator’s interactions with family, friends and lovers, is essentially concerned with the complexities of managing the unruly desires and pains of selfhood. And isolation, too, haunts such classic novels as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in the person of the shellshocked first world war veteran Septimus Smith, and the existential agonies of Albert Camus’s antiheroes.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Jeff Bezos Says ‘Amazon Is Not Too Big To Fail.’ He’s Right

17 November 2018

From Forbes:

Yesterday, CNBC reported that Jeff Bezos, in an all-hands meeting earlier this month, said: “Amazon is not too big to fail…In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.” He was responding to an employee asking if the CEO had learned any lessons after Sears and other big retailers recently filed for bankruptcy.

There are a few reasons why Bezos right. As one retail investor said to me, “the nature of all retailers is to eventually go bankrupt.” It’s a cynical point of view but it reflects reality: Retail goes through cycles. Certain kinds of retailers become popular, but then they fail to adapt and their businesses decline and eventually vanish. We see that over and over again. The retailers who can change are the exceptions, not the rule.

But Amazon is now the second-largest retailer in the United States. How is it possible that a thing that big could vanish?

It’s possible that the company could lose touch with its customer, but that seems highly unlikely for Amazon. That’s the one thing it’s known for being hyperfocused on.

. . . .

It’s well known that Amazon is not judged on its profitability. If it were, its stock price would be a small fraction of what it is now. Amazon has done an incredible job at many different things, and one of them is getting the financial markets to value the company based on its revenue growth, with the assumption that profitability will come later. Amazon explains away its low profits by saying that it uses what profit it makes to invest in new ideas and experimentation to stay ahead. So far, the market has accepted Amazon’s explanation. People I talk to say that as long as Amazon keeps growing its revenue by 20-25% per year, the market will impute future profitability to the company and the stock price will continue to rise.

For over 100 years before it went bankrupt, Sears had everything for everybody and successfully adapted to what its customers wanted.

. . . .

But as Amazon blows past the $200 billion revenue threshold, it gets harder to find sources of revenue that will have the impact it needs on revenue growth. You can’t, for example, double the number of Prime subscribers in the country; there aren’t enough households left to do that and the saturation is already too high. It needs to find new sectors to bring online, like it first did with books. It needs new industries, like grocery, health care, banking or automobiles, that have relatively low online penetration and the potential for conversion to online sales to sustain its revenue growth. But the thing about that is, it’s hard and it’s uncertain. Amazon has owned Whole Foods for well over a year and the conversion to online doesn’t appear to be happening, at least so far.

If Amazon doesn’t find new sources of revenue growth in other industries, its expansion will slow. And because its stock price has been so influenced by revenue growth, it won’t continue to rise. That’s key for Amazon more than for most companies because so many of its middle- and upper-level employees are incentivized by company stock. An important part of their compensation, more than for most other companies, is based on the stock price continuing to rise. If that stops happening, Amazon employees, who are already very sought after by other companies, will be more susceptible to other offers than ever before. When they start to leave, the stock price stagnation will make it hard for Amazon to replace them and the whole wheel can stop spinning in a hurry.

You may say that Amazon is too much a part of people’s daily habits for it to vanish. That’s true for a while, but when a company loses its best people, the ability to innovate goes away, too. It isn’t long before it’s overtaken.

Link to the rest at Forbes

PG suggests that one of the characteristics of business organizations in a capitalist economy is a very high likelihood they will not last forever.

That’s a feature, not a bug.

If a business organization fails, quickly or slowly, to be responsive to customer’s needs, whatever they may be, it will start to decline. If the organization doesn’t turn its focus back to what its customers and prospective customers want and will pay for, that organization will decline and eventually disappear.

Unlike other organizations (dictatorships, for example, or government-owned businesses), business organizations in free economies must continue to please their customers upon pain of corporate death. The opportunity for new companies to start and grow into competitors to established businesses (see, for example, as Exhibit A: Amazon) is an important part of this model.

Without the threat of failure tied to customer dissatisfaction, organizations will almost inevitably turn inward and focus on internal organizational issues as key players compete to succeed under the rules that evolve for internal organizational standards and practices. That can and has happened even in the face of failure.

I specialize

17 November 2018

I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest.

~ Agatha Christie

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