The Monster Publishing Merger Is About Amazon

From The Atlantic:

In 1960, Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, William Rogers, read the paper with alarm. He learned that Random House intended to purchase the venerable publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Rogers began making calls to prod his antitrust division into blocking the sale. In those days, monopoly loomed as a central concern of government—and a competitive book business was widely seen as essential to preserving both intellectual life and democracy. After checking with his sources, Rogers discovered that the merger would yield a company that controlled a mere 1 percent of the book market, and he let the matter drop.

Not so long ago, Democratic and Republican administrations alike wouldn’t hesitate to block a merger like the one proposed today, which intends to fold the giant publisher Simon & Schuster into the even more gigantic Penguin Random House. How big would the combined company be? By one estimate, it might publish a third of all books in the U.S. This deal is so expansive that it’s hard to find an author to write about it who isn’t somehow implicated. Based on the odds, I suppose, it’s not terribly surprising to reveal that I’m published by Penguin Random House.

. . . .

On paper, this merger is deplorable and should be blocked. As book publishing consolidates, the author tends to lose—and, therefore, so does the life of the mind. With diminished competition to sign writers, the size of advances is likely to shrink, making it harder for authors to justify the time required to produce a lengthy work. In becoming a leviathan, the business becomes ever more corporate. Publishing may lose its sense of higher purpose. The bean counters who rule over sprawling businesses will tend to treat books as just another commodity. Publishers will grow hesitant to take risks on new authors and new ideas. Like the movie industry, they will prefer sequels and established stars. What’s worse, a giant corporation starts to worry about the prospect of regulators messing with its well-being, a condition that tends to induce political caution in deciding which writers to publish.

But this merger is not the gravest danger to the publishing business. The deal is transpiring in a larger context—and that context is Amazon. The rise of Amazon accelerated the demise of Borders and the diminishment of Barnes & Noble. If it’s correct to worry about a merged company that publishes perhaps 33 percent of new books, then surely it’s correct to worry more about the fact that Amazon now sells 49 percent of them.

In the face of Amazon’s dominance, book publishers have huddled together in search of safety. Amazon’s size gives it terrifying leverage over the industry. Amazon, with its heavily visited home page, its emails to consumers, and its control of the search box on its site, has the power to make or break a title. To counter Amazon, publishers have sought to increase their bargaining power. They believe that they can match Amazon’s size only by growing their own.

When the government intervenes in a market, its actions are never neutral. One of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration was the 2012 suit it brought against book publishers for working in concert to cut an e-book deal with Apple. The issue is not that the publishers were acting virtuously: They behaved like a cartel, which is illegal. It’s that the publishers were hardly the worst offenders. The government flogged the publishers for a technical violation of antitrust laws rather than constraining the most egregious monopolist, in spirit if not in letter.

It must not repeat the same mistake. The arrival of a new administration represents a moment to finally address Amazon’s lock on the book business; it’s a moment to focus on the core of the problem. Yes, publishers are oligopolistic and hardly sympathetic, but their continued health is essential to the survival of the book business, and thus the intellectual life of this country. If the government constrains publishers without constraining Amazon, then the government will merely accelerate the accumulation of untenable power in one single company.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to DM for the tip

PG will limit himself to a short rant.

The attempt of all but one of the largest publishers in the United States to combine with Apple in order to take down Amazon’s books business was comically inept and stupid, a black-letter violation of US antitrust law. Once outside attorneys were hired (and presumably told their clients they would lose if they tried to fight the charges), each of the publishers promptly caved, plead guilty to antitrust charges and received punishment for their misdeeds.

Apple fought the antitrust charges and lost at every level from trial to the US Supreme Court. Under US law, you can’t lose in any more places than those.

The OP includes the following:

On paper, this merger is deplorable and should be blocked. As book publishing consolidates, the author tends to lose—and, therefore, so does the life of the mind. With diminished competition to sign writers, the size of advances is likely to shrink, making it harder for authors to justify the time required to produce a lengthy work. In becoming a leviathan, the business becomes ever more corporate. Publishing may lose its sense of higher purpose.

PG agrees that consolidation is a lose-lose situation for the large majority of traditionally-published authors. James Patterson will survive. JK will be OK.

Concerning the diminishment of “the life of the mind,” and “Publishing may lose its sense of higher purpose,” if you listen carefully, you may hear PG guffawing.

When a publisher is owned by a large international conglomerate, its sense of higher purpose is focused on what the big boys higher up the ladder (and they are mostly boys in this case) will think in Gütersloh, the 16th arrondissement of Paris, Gaensheidestrasse 26 Stuttgart, and wherever Rupert Murdoch happens to be at any given moment.

The OP also includes:

Yes, publishers are oligopolistic and hardly sympathetic, but their continued health is essential to the survival of the book business, and thus the intellectual life of this country.

PG says, “Yes, they’re oligopolistic and not the least sympathetic and a lot of other nasty things, but no, they’re not essential for anything. They are anachronistic tools that have lost their utility. Edsels.

“In the early to middle part of the last century, traditional publishers did make significant contributions to the intellectual life of the United States, but they stopped doing that quite a long time ago. This stoppage began with the arrival of corporate drones and poseurs in high positions and has only gotten worse over time.”

End of rant. PG feels much better now.

Penguin Random House Parent to Buy Simon & Schuster

From The Wall Street Journal:

ViacomCBS Inc. is selling book publisher Simon & Schuster to German media giant Bertelsmann SE for almost $2.18 billion, ViacomCBS said Wednesday, in a deal that would create a publishing behemoth accounting for about a third of all books sold in the U.S.

The transaction would put the publishers of some of the world’s bestselling authors including Stephen King, Bob Woodward, Dan Brown and John Grisham under the same corporate umbrella. Bertelsmann SE’s Penguin Random House already is the U.S.’s largest publisher by books sold, while Simon & Schuster is the third largest, behind News Corp’s HarperCollins Publishers.

ViacomCBS put Simon & Schuster up for sale in March, saying it would use the cash proceeds to further invest in its streaming-video efforts.

. . . .

Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House, said the deal shouldn’t raise competition concerns. “If you look at the book market, it is unconcentrated,” he said, adding that over the past decade many small new publishers emerged. “There have been a lot of new successful entrants in the market.”

Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, which owns HarperCollins Publishers, said the deal would harm distributors, retailers, authors and readers. “There is clearly no market logic to a bid of that size—only anti-market logic,” he said in a statement. “Bertelsmann is not just buying a book publisher, but buying market dominance as a book behemoth.” News Corp also owns The Wall Street Journal.

. . . .

Including Simon & Schuster, that U.S. market share would rise to about 34%. HarperCollins Publishers, the second largest publisher by unit sales, accounted for about 11% of print books sold in the U.S. during the same period.

Richard Pine, a well-known New York literary agent, said he is concerned the creation of such a large publishing house would “lead to an unhealthy obsession with publishing mega bestsellers.”

“It’s like baseball, you need the minor leagues,” Mr. Pine said. “Authors need to be nurtured. If you have a system of one book and done when the magic didn’t happen, then those writers will be left behind.”

Lorraine Shanley, president of the industry consultants Market Partners International Inc., said adding Simon & Schuster to Penguin Random House’s portfolio “would make it increasingly difficult to compete, not just for the other big publishers but for the smaller publishers. Penguin Random House is also a major distributor, as is Simon & Schuster. Between the two they’d have a very large segment of the market when it comes to distribution.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Germany’s Bertelsmann To Buy Simon & Schuster for US$2.175 Billion

From Publishing Perspectives:

In news just released this morning (November 25) from Gütersloh and New York City, Bertelsmann, the parent company of Penguin Random House (PRH)—already the world’s largest publisher—has announced that PRH intends to purchase ViacomCBS’ Simon & Schuster for US$2.175 billion.

Of course, industry response will quickly include speculation about how regulators will look at a question of the largest Big Five publishers buying another Big Five house.

Among write-ups in the overnight drumbeat before the announcement, Benjamin Mullin and Jeffrey A. Trachtenburg at the Wall Street Journal wrote, “The deal could draw attention from the US Justice Department, [according to] David Meyer, a Washington antitrust attorney who served at the Justice Department as a deputy assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush. ‘Their combined share would be sufficient to motivate a close look at the transaction,’ he said.”

This echoes comments from News Corp CEO Robert Thomson who, at his stockholders’ annual meeting on November 18, said, “I would make one observation about Simon & Schuster. It will clearly be a serious antitrust issue if Bertelsmann acquires Simon & Schuster. However cute and clever the structure, if Bertelsmann is their beneficiary, it will be a book behemoth. And this will certainly be a profound antitrust issue for the entire book industry and, no doubt, for authors around the world.”

. . . .

Jonathan Karp, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster says, in a message to his staff members just provided to Publishing Perspectives, “We expect the transaction will likely close in the second half of 2021 at the earliest, subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory approval.

“I understand that many of you will have questions about how this transition to new ownership will affect your work, and your benefits. I assure you that as this process unfolds we will share information with you, but understand that this will be a long process.

“Expect no sudden changes beyond the normal decisions we make in our regular course of business.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Libraries of My Life

From The Paris Review:

I was thirteen and wanted to work. Someone told me that you could get paid to referee basketball games and where to go to find out about such weekend employment. I needed income to bolster my collections of stamps and Sherlock Holmes novels. I vaguely remember going to an office full of adolescents queueing in front of a young man who looked every inch an administrator. When my turn came, he asked me if I had any experience and I lied. I left that place with details of a game that would be played two days later, and the promise of 700 pesetas in cash. Nowadays, if a thirteen-year-old wants to research something he’s ignorant about, he’ll go to YouTube. That same afternoon I bought a whistle in a sports shop and went to the library.

I wasn’t at all enlightened by the two books I found about the rules of basketball, one of which had illustrations, despite my notes and little diagrams, and my Friday afternoon study sessions; but I was very lucky, and on Saturday morning the local coach explained from the sidelines the rudiments of a sport that, up to that point, I had practiced with very little knowledge of its theory.

My practical training came from the street and the school playground. My other knowledge, the abstract kind, stood on the shelves of the Biblioteca Popular de la Caixa Laietana, the only library I had access to at the time in Mataró, the small city where I was brought up. I must have started going to its reading rooms at the start of primary school, in sixth or seventh grade. That’s when I began to read systematically. I had the entire collection of The Happy Hollisters at home, and Tintin, The Extraordinary Adventures of MassagranAsterix and Obelix, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators at the library. Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were devoured in both places. When my father began to work for the Readers’ Circle in the afternoons, the first thing I did was buy the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels I hadn’t yet read. That’s probably when my desire to own books began.

The Biblioteca Popular de la Caixa Laietana acted as a surrogate nursery. I don’t think children today have to write as much as we did in the eighties. Long, typed-out projects on Japan and the French Revolution, on bees and the different parts of flowers, projects that were a perfect excuse to research in the shelves of a library that seemed, then, infinite and boundless; much greater than my imagination, then anchored in my neighborhood and still restricted to three television channels and the twenty-five books in my parents’ tiny library. I did my homework, researched for a while, and still had time to read a whole comic or a couple of chapters of a novel in whatever detective series I happened to be enjoying. Some children behaved badly; I didn’t. The twenty-five-year-old librarian, a pleasant, rather custodial type, who was tall, though not overly so, kept an eye on them, but not on me. I’d go to him when I needed to find a book I couldn’t track down. I also began to hassle Carme, the other young librarian, who saved us from her older, pricklier colleagues with clever bibliographical questions: “Any book on pollen that doesn’t just repeat what all the encyclopedias say?”

I mentioned my parents’ micro-library. “Twenty-five books,” I said. I should explain that Spain’s transition from dictatorship was led by the savings banks. Municipal governments, busy with speculation and urban development, delegated culture and social services to the banks. Mataró was a textbook case: most exhibitions, museums, and senior centers, as well as the only library in a city of a hundred thousand inhabitants, depended on the Laietana Savings Bank. At the beginning of this century, during my (now real) research into Bishop Josep Benet Serra for my book Australia: A Journey, Carme, who has since become an exceptional librarian in Mataró, opened the doors of the Mataró holdings to me. I wasn’t then aware of that defining metaphor, the 2008 economic crisis hadn’t yet revealed the emperor’s nakedness: Mataró’s document holdings, its historical memory, wasn’t in the municipal archive, wasn’t in the public library, but in the heart of the Laietana Saving Bank’s People’s Library. During the Spanish transition to democracy, the so-called duty to look after culture was assumed by the savings banks without anyone ever challenging them; it only became evident when one of them published a book, which they sent to all their customers as a free gift. I have one in my library that I inherited or purloined from my parents’ house, Alexandre Cirici’s Picasso: His Life and Work. The title page says: “A gift from the savings bank of Catalonia.” It is the only institutional message. Although it’s hard to credit, there is no prologue by a politician or banker. There was no need to justify a gesture that was seen as natural. Over half of my parents’ books were gifts from banks.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Noble Volunteers

From The Wall Street Journal:

Few stereotypes from the American Revolution are as well-developed as that of the soldier who fought for Britain. The caricature is ubiquitous: A one-dimensional “lobster,” the “bloody-back” regular, motivated by selfishness, who fought for the love of money. He was heartless and cowardly; a pawn of the king, inept on the battlefield because of his old European ways. Here was a convenient foil for the resourceful Patriot, who fought valiantly on the winning side and for all the right reasons—family, farms and freedom. In “Noble Volunteers,” Don Hagist invites us to peer beneath the red coat. What do we find?

One central insight is that “there was no ‘typical’ British soldier.” British regulars encompassed “such a range of nationalities, ages, skills, and socioeconomic backgrounds” that we are better off “appreciating how they were different rather than how they were the same.” What, for instance, motivated them to enlist? The reasons were as many as the men who joined, with neither unemployment nor impoverishment ranking high on the list. Most were between the ages of 20 and 25, but little else united them. Some sought new careers. Others to escape overbearing mothers, or wives. Others still were moved by wanderlust or boredom. Mr. Hagist is skeptical of accounts, such as Sylvia Frey’s “The British Soldier in America,” that draw conclusions about soldiers’ motives from quantitative data. Too much was idiosyncratic, a mystery.

Mr. Hagist concentrates on the particular. We follow the British soldiers in America from Boston in 1773, before hostilities break out, to Yorktown in 1781. But it is not the battlefield that is most intriguing here; it is instead Mr. Hagist’s wealth of detail about all other aspects of a British soldier’s life. Recruitment in Britain (and elsewhere); monthslong transport in private vessels across the Atlantic, its trials and wonders (“flying fish, sharks, sea turtles, seals, and icebergs”); soldiers’ wages, within and without the army; literacy rates; training exercises; living arrangements in barracks, huts, wigwams and encampments; what they wore, ate and drank; the diseases they contracted; their desertions; “the plunder problem” (“the army’s Achilles’ heel,” says Mr. Hagist, because of its effect on the “hearts and minds” of the local populace); soldiers’ prizes, promotions and demotions; drafts and impressments; punishments and courts-martial; entertainments; religious dispositions; injuries, imprisonments and, occasionally, deaths; and, for some, their postwar lives. It is all here.

Every reader is sure to learn something, and in the process will come upon a favorite among the British soldiers. One of Mr. Hagist’s is Roger Lamb, whom he wrote about previously in “British Soldiers, American War” (2012). Lamb, from a middle-class Dublin family, enlisted with the 9th Regiment of Foot in 1773, at the age of 17, having lost all his money gambling. In America he saw heated action in two major campaigns; was captured twice; and, twice escaping, rejoined the British army each time. Returning to England in 1784—and discharged (from the 23rd Regiment) but “denied a pension because he had served only twelve years and had no disability”—he became a schoolteacher and published author, living until 1830.

Or, take William Crawford. An “ardent disposition for adventure” led him to join the 20th Regiment knowing that meant war in America. Captured, he was interned at Saratoga, N.Y., and marched for months throughout the north, then south to Virginia. Escaping, he was recaptured and jailed. Not to be so easily outdone, he befriended the jailer’s daughter hoping she would release him. Things didn’t go quite as he planned. “She forged a marriage certificate, spirited him out of jail, and presented him to townspeople as her husband.” Crawford accepted his fate. Others also remained in America, many with land grants. Still, most soldiers’ lives were not as well documented, and many ended in much darker places.

. . . .

[T]hinking historically about the war is difficult. It requires us not only to forget how events turned out, but also to recapture very particular moments from the participants’ perspectives. “Standing sentry on a storm-swept shoreline in the middle of a winter night, fending off a rising fever while fearful of imminent attack by assailants unseen, may have been one man’s most difficult hours of an eight-year war,” writes Mr. Hagist, “but histories focused on pivotal campaigns are unkind to such personal experiences, trivializing or entirely overlooking most of the hardships endured by most of the soldiers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG is not an expert on military history, but he has read enough books about people fighting in war to conclude that for those actually and physically engaged in the front lines of battle, the experience is far more random than that described by the memoirs of the generals and admirals or the books written by historians based on copies of the orders, after-action reports and official histories describing the wars and interviews with the generals or admirals and examinations of the personal letters and memoirs the commanders wrote about the wars.

PG is not aware of any general who instantly died in the 20th century wars because he was inattentive or caught off guard for a split-second.

One of PG’s neighbors from many years ago had served as a Captain in the Army in Vietnam. During his service, he was engaged in extremely close-quarters and intense fighting on more than one occasion.

Like many veterans who have experienced close, person-to-person fights where lives were in immediate peril, PG’s neighbor did not spend a lot of time talking about his Vietnam fighting experiences.

However, on one occasion, he told PG that the only reason he was alive to converse about the war was because an enemy soldier had failed to clean his gun.

In the thick jungle where he and his men were actively engaged in a firefight, an enemy soldier sneaked through the jungle and emerged about five yards behind the Captain, pointing his AK-47 directly at him. The Captain, focused on the fight going on in front of him, heard something behind him, looked back and saw the soldier pointing his gun directly at him, pulling on the trigger. However, the submachine gun did not fire and the Captain was able to turn and fire his rifle in time to kill the Viet Cong soldier.

After the fighting ceased, the Captain examined the enemy soldier and his gun.

The gun was fully-loaded and ready to fire, but it had jammed because the soldier hadn’t cleaned out the powder residue present as a result of one or more earlier fights during which the soldier had evidently fired the gun a lot.

After the battle was over, while a few of his men were watching, the Captain picked up the AK-47, cleared the jam, examined the firing chamber then took out his knife and scraped away some of the built-up gunpowder residue he found. He then closed the action and the gun fired instantly when he pulled the trigger.

He said it was a good object lesson for his men about the importance of maintaining their weapons carefully.

PG doesn’t remember General Pershing or Generals Eisenhower or Montgomery describing any similar experience in the accounts of their wars.

Encouraging Reading for Pleasure While The World Is on Fire

From Book Riot:

Reading for pleasure has never been more important. Yes, the world might seem slightly less on fire after November 7, but it’s still a pretty scary place.

. . . .

I’ve written before on the importance of reading for pleasure and empathy. We need these books more than ever.

. . . .

Here are some of the ways I’m trying to create a safe, welcoming place in the library, and how I hope that they will forget some of their worries for a little while when they enter the doors within the school.

READING ALOUD

Reading aloud carries with it several benefits, and not just for those under ten. I read aloud to ages 11–13 on a daily basis. One of the fun ways I read aloud are using Choose Your Own Adventure stories. I read a few pages, or I get a student to read aloud a few, then the class votes on the direction the character can take. It generates a lot of debate, a lot of laughs, groans and students asking if we can start all over, which is great. Also, reading aloud a story that explores different emotions and situations provides a safe space for students to have those feelings and experiences alongside the characters.

. . . .

MANGA CLUB

Our manga club is more popular than ever. We are in our ninth year at Glenthorne High School, and we watch anime, do crafts, play games, have quizzes, and of course talk about manga. I purchase a lot of manga for the school, rely on the students for suggestions and have older students work with the younger ones to create art, enter competitions, and simply have a lot of fun. It’s an escape that’s important to them, which is evident in the large numbers of students who are coming in to take part after school.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Audible bows to pressure and changes returns policy

From The Bookseller:

Audible has announced an alteration to its returns policy, following an open letter signed by over 10,000 authors and industry representatives calling for it to make changes.

From 1st January 2021, the company will pay royalties to authors for any title returned more than seven days following purchase. The company currently deducts royalties from authors’ and narrators’ accounts when a purchased audiobook is returned or exchanged within a year.

. . . .

“In instances where we determine the benefit is being overused, Audible can and does limit the number of exchanges and refunds allowed by a member. But as designed, this customer benefit allows active Audible members in good standing to take a chance on new content, and suspicious activity is extremely rare.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG can visualize how returning an audiobook an individual has purchased and listened to could be carried out. That said, thieves gonna thief and that has been a fact of life for centuries.

(“Visualize” means PG can imagine how it might conceivably be done, not that PG could actually execute his visualization with mere bits and hardware. PG’s visualized world works so much better than the alternative, it’s quite frustrating at times.)

Long Live Work!

From The Paris Review:

A Bulgarian grocery store opened for business in my Amsterdam neighborhood. On the inside of the plate-glass window they hung a Bulgarian flag, making the store highly visible from the outside, but dark inside. They sell overpriced Bulgarian groceries. And the same can be said of almost all the ethnic markets. First come the migrants, and after them—the markets. After a time the ethnic food markets disappear, but the migrants? Do they stick around? The number of Bulgarians in the Netherlands is clearly on the rise; two Bulgarian markets have opened recently in my neighborhood alone.

And as to those with a “Balkan tooth,” they have famously deep pockets as far as food is concerned; they’ll happily shell out a euro or two extra to satisfy gourmandish nostalgia. The markets sell Bulgarian wine, frozen kebapcheta and meat patties, cheese pastries (banitsas), pickled peppers and cucumbers, kyopoloupindjurlyutenitsa, and sweets that look as if they’ve come from a package for aid to the malnourished: they are all beyond their shelf dates.

The store is poorly tended and a mess, customers are always tripping over cardboard boxes. Next to the cash register sits a young man who doesn’t budge, more dead than alive, it’s as if he has sworn on his patron saint that nobody will ever extract a word from him. The young woman at the cash register is teen-magazine cute. She has a short skirt, long straight blond hair, a good tan. Her tan comes from her liquid foundation; her cunning radiates like the liquid powder. She files her nails, and next to her stands a small bottle of bright red nail polish.

The scene fills me with joy. She grins slyly. I buy lyutenitsa, Bulgarian (Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Serbian) cheese, and three large-size Bulgarian tomatoes. DovizhdaneДовиждане.

. . . .

The division into those who work and those who do not—the hardworking and the indolent, the diligent and the ne’er-do-wells, the earnest and the couch potatoes—is hardly new, but over the last few years it has become the basic media-ideological matrix around which revolve the freethinkers of the general public. Joining the category of the indolent, ne’er-do-wells, and malingerers are the ranks of the jobless (for whom the employed claim they are simply incompetents and bumblers), along with the grumblers, indignants, and the groups defined by their country, geography, and ethnicity (Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians—all shiftless riffraff!), anticapitalistic elements, hooligans, vandals, terrorists, and Islamic fundamentalists.

In response to the question of how to become a multimillionaire, one of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs replied, “Don’t you forget, I work seventeen hours a day!” The very same answer is given by criminals, thieves, politicians, porn stars, war profiteers, celebs, mass murderers, and other similar deplorables. They all say seventeen hours a daymy career, and my job with such brash confidence, not a twitch to be seen.

On Meet the Russians, a TV show broadcast by Fox, young, prosperous Russians, many of them born, themselves, into money, fashion models, fashion and entertainment industry moguls, pop stars, club owners, and the like, all use the following phrases: I deserve thiseverything I have, I’ve earnedmy time is moneyI work 24/7I never give up.

. . . .

The native armed with bow and arrow, railway line, village, town, may the country thrive and grow, long live, long live work. These are the lyrics of a song that was sung during the Socialist period, when workers’ rights were much greater than they are today.

I confess I never made sense of these verses, perhaps because I didn’t try. What possible connection could there be between a native armed with bow and arrow and railway lines, villages, and towns, unless the lyrics are an anticipatory tweet about the eons of history of the human race: in other words, thanks to the appeal of hard work, natives traded in their bows and arrows for railways, villages, and towns.

Or, perhaps, it’s the other way around: without the redeeming balm of work, those same natives would have to return to the age of bows and arrows, while weeds would engulf the railway lines, villages, and towns. Although the everyday life of socialism in ex-Yugoslavia was like a hedonistic parody of the everyday life in other communist countries, Yugoslavs shared with them a packet of the same values, a set of common symbols, and their imaginary.

And at the center, at least as far as symbols and the imaginary go, was work. Work was what persuaded the native armed with bow and arrow to evolve from the ape, and the “peasant and worker” and “honest intellectuals” evolved thereafter from the native.

“The workers, peasants, and honest intellectuals” were the pillars, in the socialist imaginary, of a robust socialist society and were cast in a powerful positive light, especially because the honest intellectuals were separated from dishonest intellectuals just as the wheat is winnowed from the chaff.

The “bureaucracy” was the necessary evil, the “bureaucracy” flourished, while feeding, parasite-like, on the people. In any case, the word “work” was heard everywhere: in the news shorts that played before films in Yugoslav movie theaters, in the images of eye-catching, sweaty, workers’ muscles, in my elementary school primers where the occupations were unambiguous (male miners, female nurses, male blacksmiths, female backhoe-operators, male construction workers, female teachers, male engineers, female tram-drivers), in the movies, and in the First-of-May parades—pagan-like rites, honoring the god of labor as tons of sacrificial steel, coal, wheat, books were rolled out.

The heroes of the day were the record-breakers, the men and women who went above and beyond the norm. The heroes of today are pop stars, Marko Perković Thompson and Severina, and the many clowns who surround them.

. . . .

Today the vistas I see are post-Yugoslav. Perhaps the view is better in the postcommunist countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary … I hope representatives of other postcommunist countries don’t hold against me my geopolitically narrow focus. Everything I’ve said refers only to little Croatia, little Serbia, little Bosnia, little Macedonia … And this crumb of badness in the sea of postcommunist goodness can easily be ignored, can it not? Although to be honest, research from 2007 shows that fewer than half of the Germans living in what used to be East Germany were pleased with the current market economy, and nearly half of them desired a return to socialism. As a return to the previous order is now unimaginable, the lethargic East German grumblers have been given a consolation prize, a little nostalgic souvenir, a MasterCard and on it the face of Karl Marx, designed and issued by a bank in the city known today as Chemnitz, though earlier it was called Karl-Marx-Stadt.

. . . .

In Russian fairy tales, Ivan the Simple earns his happy ending and wins the kingdom and the queen. Does he do this by working seventeen hours a day? No he does not. He does this thanks to his cunning and his powerful helpers: a horse able to traverse miles and miles at lightning speed, a magic shirt that makes him invincible, a fish that grants his wishes, Baba Yaga who gives him sly advice, and powerful hawks and falcons for brothers-in-law. Even our hero—Ivanushka, grimy, ugly, slobbering Ivanushka Zapechny, he who is the least acceptable, who lounges all the livelong day by the tile stove—even he, such as he is, wins the kingdom and the princess without breaking a sweat. Our modern fairy tale about the seventeen-hour workday has been cooked up as consolation for the losers. Who are the majority, of course.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review (PG added a few paragraph breaks.)

PG recalls one of the impressions of a college friend who studied and extensively traveled all over what was then known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – “Anything that is not at least 75 years old looks like it was put up cheap.”

On a brighter note, PG is greatly enjoying reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. It is the second volume of quite a nice four-volume set by Robert K. Massie, The Romanovs. The series starts with Peter the Great (Pyotr Alekseevich), born on February 8, 1672, crowned as Tzar at the age of ten, and ends with The Romanovs: The Final Chapter that, according to the book’s description, begins at the end of the end of the Romanov line in Siberia with “the infamous cellar room where the last tsar and his family had been murdered” on the night of 16–17 July 1918.

PG seldom provides book recommendations on TPV, but will say he is greatly enjoying this history. While by no means any sort of historian, PG has read quite a number of well-written accounts of various times past and Catherine the Great would be up towards the top of PG’s “best of” list.

FYI, he doesn’t think you necessarily need to read the books in sequence. Each one is very good at setting its current subject in her/his times and place in history.

PG notes that Amazon list used hardcovers for very reasonable prices. That said, “Catherine” is 656 pages and, since PG does a great deal of reading in bed, he is happy to have his featherweight Kindle Paperwhite on his chest instead of the hardcover.

A note on PG’s experience with his Paperwhite – He doesn’t mind the ad-supported version because, at least in his, he almost never notices the ads. While PG also has an iPad, he much prefers his Paperwhite for book-length fiction – much lighter, longer battery life and, at least for PG, a much better screen for reading text than the iPad (or the Fire or any of the android tablets PG has owned in the past).

PG is not terribly familiar with the differences between the earlier generations and current generations of Paperwhites. His is a first-generation model and, if it stopped working, he would probably by another that was identical if it were available.

Institutional customers have “moved wholeheartedly to digital formats” – Association University Presses survey

From The New Publishing Standard:

A survey of the 154-member Association of University Presses (AUP) reveals the pandemic has set in train a rapid and likely unstoppable transition to digital.

As reported by the UK trade journal The Bookseller, the Cambridge University Press (CUP) saw the expected fall in sales as lockdown closed schools and universities, but while print sales are reviving, the pandemic has, according to CUP’s MD of Academic Publishing Mandy Hill,

accelerated the shift to digital for both institutional and individual customers.

Per The Bookseller’s summary, Hill expects that trend to continue.

Anthony Cond, MD of the Liverpool University Press (LUP), said the pandemic had presented uni presses with,

the unique opportunity to reset spending.

Cond said the shift online of conferences and events had delivered increased engagement and financial savings.

. . . .

David Clark,managing director of the academic division of the Oxford University Press said that institutional customers have,

moved wholeheartedly to digital formats.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Having worked in the university library during his freshman year in college, PG has no doubt that college and university libraries find that ebooks save lots of money that would otherwise be spent on employees returning physical books to their proper place in the stacks, helping confused students find where the Armenian Anthropology books reside, etc.

As PG discovered, if the library is large enough, a book reshelved in the wrong location is as good as lost. More than one student who pulls out a physical book on one floor of the library who can’t find a study carrel on that floor or is meeting friends for joint “study” on another floor will quite often put the book on the most convenient shelf available on the way toward the closest exit.

PG once discovered a thin volume that had slid down a gap between two large metal bookcases that were placed back to back. How long the book had been hidden in that location between the bookshelves, PG could not speculate other than to say there was a great deal of dust on it.

One in Four Books Is Purchased in the USA During the Holidays

From Publishing Perspectives:

Just to clarify the importance of the decorative season we’re entering, the NPD Books‘ Kristen McLean is clarifying today (November 23) that the United States’ book market is dependent on the winter holiday season for 25 percent of its annual print sales.

Almost 173 million books were sold in November and December last year, the company’s data shows.

McLean, who’s the lead books industry analyst for NPD, is bullish on the chances for the American industry to end this strange year strongly, telling the news media, “Book sales have been stronger than normal throughout the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, so publishers have reason to be hopeful for good holiday tidings, and a strong finish to 2020.

“Historically,” she says, “the uptick in sales begins in the first week of November, but as the country continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are watching closely to see if we see the same book shopping patterns as in previous years.”

. . . .

“With volume 20 percent higher than the same week in 2019, this week marks the highest week of unit sales for the print market so far this year. The volume of 15.5 million units signals the start of the seasonal climb.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Cottagecore Debuted 2,300 Years Ago

From JSTOR Daily:

If there’s a style that defines 2020, it has to be “cottagecore.” In March 2020, the New York Times defined it as a “budding aesthetic movement… where tropes of rural self-sufficiency converge with dainty décor to create an exceptionally twee distillation of pastoral existence.” In August, consumer-culture publication The Goods by Vox heralded cottagecore as “the aesthetic where quarantine is romantic instead of terrifying.”

Baking, one of the activities the quarantined population favored at the height of the pandemic, is a staple of cottagecore, whose Instagram hashtag features detailed depictions of home-baked goods. Moreover, the designer Lirika Matoshi’s Strawberry Dress, defined as The Dress of 2020, fully fits into the cottagecore aesthetic. A movement rooted in self-soothing through exposure to nature and land, it proved to be the antidote to the stress of the 2020 pandemic for many.

Despite its invocations of rural and pastoral landscapes, the cottagecore aesthetic is, ultimately, aspirational. While publications covering trends do point out that cottagecore is not new—some locate its origins in 2019, others in 2017—in truth, people have sought to create an escapist and aspirational paradise in the woods or fields for 2,300 years.

. . . .

Memories of Arcadia


Ancient Greece had an enduring fascination with the region of Arcadia, located in the Peloponnesus, which many ancient Greeks first dismissed as a primitive place. After all, Arcadia was far from the refined civilization of Athens. Arcadians were portrayed as hunters, gatherers, and sensualists living in an inclement landscape. In the Hellenistic age, however, Arcadia became an idea in the popular consciousness more than a geographical place.

Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, had become a metropolis of more than a million people. The city was filthy, polluted, and ridden with disease. Its citizens developed what we can now call nostalgia for simpler times. They turned to Arcadia, which came to represent both an untainted, yet benign countryside and the spiritual haven of a simple life.

The Sicilian-born poet Theocritus (316–260 BCE), widely credited as the inventor of pastoral poetry, gave form to this longing for a return to the simple life. He wrote many Idylls, where shepherds and shepherdesses frolicked in nature and engaged in poetic and song contests. Theocritus raised shepherds and country people above their social and cultural status: they speak sophisticatedly, and they spontaneously engage in poetry contests. The target audience for this poetry, however, was the educated urban class who wanted to escape to the countryside while preserving their own refinement: “Theocritus’ shepherds (who seem to spend more time in pleasant conversation and lively love song contests, lying lazily during the resting hour on the grass by a river or spring, under shady trees, than in tending their flocks) move in an atmosphere of peace, quiet and happiness that is far removed from the harsh reality of pastoral life in all times and places,” write the scholars J. Vara and Joanna Weatherby in Mnemosyne.

. . . .

But it was in Elizabethan England that the pastoral genre really became in vogue. Shakespeare has two pastoral plays, As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale, whose source material includes the tale of Daphnis and Chloe. As You Like It contains a debate between pastoral and anti-pastoral: one character, the jester Touchstone, feels better at court, while he looks down on country people, while the shepherd Corin defends his own lifestyle. It’s actually not clear who wins the debate. What’s more, Shakespeare’s plays, including As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale, feature aristocrats play-acting being shepherds and falling in love with shepherdesses, but only marry them when they find out that said shepherdesses are abandoned royalty themselves.

Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” is one of the best-known examples of English Renaissance pastoral poetry, with a shepherd inviting his beloved to enjoy a romp in his own version of Arcadia, a vision of eternal spring. It inspired poetic replies from other poets, from John Donne to Dorothy Parker. Quite tellingly, the most famous reply comes from sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), who had the shepherd’s beloved rebuke him, uttering words such as:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten: In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

She points out, in other words, that the idea of Arcadia is rooted in fallacy.

Pastoral poetry, while detached and elitist in theme and style, is still marked by a sense of community, which is expressed through the form of invitation. “The invitation demonstrates that the pastoral landscape has something to offer, whether it is a rustic feast, country entertainments, or simply a homely cottage in which to rest for the night,” writes the literary scholar Kimberly Huth in Studies in Philology. Huth examines the spoken act of invitation in the context of early modern pastoral poetry, writing:

It acts as the first step in extending that community to others who may be passing through the pastoral world by offering not only a comfortable place to rest but also fellowship and belonging. The pastoral landscape is often imagined as an ideal world of respite from corruption of the court or city, but it is actually the invitation that creates the ideality of that world, which is only recognizable through interactions with other people in the landscape.

Cottagecore too has a strong community aspect, even if its invitations are mostly digital.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

The Tennessee Solution to Disappearing Book Reviews

From The New Yorker:

Long before the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the devastation of newspapers and media outlets of all kinds, book reviews around the country had already started to disappear. Papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post eliminated their standalone sections; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Dallas Morning News let their book editors and staff critics go; coverage evaporated in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Orlando Sentinel. News outlets that once reviewed more than five hundred books every year—and, in some cases, three times as many—now rarely cover them at all.

That national crisis came for the Volunteer State just over a decade ago. Tim Henderson, the executive director of Humanities Tennessee, the state’s affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, remembers noticing fewer book reviews and fewer publications, but also talking with struggling local arts and culture writers. “When we saw the disappearance of arts coverage across the state, it was obvious we should respond,” Henderson said, “but not how.”

Humanities Tennessee eventually created something called Chapter 16: a part-digital, part-print publication that covers literature and literary life in the state by doing what almost any other outlet would—running reviews, profiles, interviews, and essays—but also by doing what almost no other outlet could afford to do: giving away its content for free, not only to readers but to any publication of any kind that wants to reproduce it. “We knew there was an audience for this, and we serve readers, not a bottom line, so we wanted to find a way to provide this free of charge,” Henderson said.

That is why, every week, as many as half a million people read something from Chapter 16, and it is why, although the outlet calls itself “a community of Tennessee writers, readers, and passersby,” it offers what might be a model of sustainable arts coverage for the rest of the country.

. . . .

 “The creative talent was there, and the readers were there,” Gerbman said, “and we felt like it was our responsibility to showcase it.”

Years before, Gerbman had driven the Tennessee novelist William Gay to and from a reading in Clarksville. They got lost that night on the way home, and a long conversation turned longer; in the course of it, Gay, who had spent much of his life hanging drywall and painting houses, and hadn’t published anything until he was in his late fifties, got to talking about his sadness that Tennessee didn’t show as much pride in or offer as much support for its writers as neighboring Mississippi. “That struck me,” Gerbman said, remembering Gay, who died in 2012. A few years later, she thought of his words again, when the novelist Inman Majors came home to Knoxville for a reading and confessed his disappointment that no newspapers in Tennessee had covered his book.

“There are so many working writers here, publishing books and doing good work, and we felt it was important for people to see that,” Gerbman said. The founders of Chapter 16 made it the publication’s mission to try to cover every book by a Tennessee author, every book about Tennessee, and every book by any author coming to Tennessee for an event at one of the state’s more than two dozen independent bookstores and nearly one hundred colleges. Even their name reflected that regional pride: Tennessee was the sixteenth state to join the Union.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

And here’s a link to Chapter 16

Promises to Keep

From veteran author and writing coach, Dave Farland:

As a teen, I once read a fantasy novel that had a picture on the cover that showed a wizard fighting with some lizard men. I read the novel, and liked it pretty well, except for one thing: the mage on the cover was too old, and there weren’t any lizard men. I kept thinking, “It must come at the end!”

But the scene never did take place. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of stock art. I didn’t know that publishers sometimes bought high-quality artwork at a bargain rate to grace their covers, and then slapped the pictures on inferior books. So I learned to beware.

You see, every time a publisher did that, they engaged in false advertising. They promised their readers that a cool scene would appear, and it never did. I took it so far as to avoid reading any of the books offered under that imprint.

. . . .

As authors, we tend to make promises that are more subtle. I have seen stories come to me in in the Writers of the Future contest submissions, and on more than one occasion that author has promised, “This is the greatest story ever told.” I’ve even had authors send release forms, asking me to promise not to steal their ideas, etc. Most of us authors don’t take ourselves quite so seriously, but we do make promises. We just tend to be subtle about it.

Very often I’ll get a story in my manuscript pile that starts off being funny. It may be beautifully written. It might have an engaging conflict. But when I reach the end of the story, too often I will find that the humorous piece turned tragic.

The author promised me one thing on page one, but delivered its opposite at the end of the tale.

In fact, as a contest judge, I’m keenly interested in the promises that you make. If you tell me in line one that “Love is forbidden in hell, but Jonas Derringer had gone to hell precisely because he was a bad boy,” then you’re promising me a love story. If Jonas doesn’t fall in love by the end, I’ll reject your story.

Author’s make all sorts of promises. For example, if you start your story writing in a quirky English voice that promises me that you’ll take indecent liberties with the language, you’d better be consistent and end in the same voice. If on paragraph one you open with a gorgeous metaphor, one that shows creativity and a sensitivity to the language, then you had better be creative and sensitive all of the way through the tale.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

As book publishing shrinks during the pandemic, how are India’s printing presses coping?

From Scroll.in:

Anand Limaye of Indian Printing Works in Mumbai is a book printer and publisher. Every year during the festival season, he is “super-duper busy” with Diwali Anksthe bumper-size magazines published in Marathi during Diwali, featuring literary writings and ads in equal measure. “This year, instead of 19 Diwali Anks, we have printed 11,” Limaye said.

This is not too bad for Limaye’s press, which has been operating a single shift in its Wadala and Bhiwandi factories since March. For Limaye and many others like him, the factories are running again post-lockdown. Printing equipment is the life-blood of any printing factory. These machines are expensive and need regular running and maintenance. That they were unable to do this during the lockdown was the biggest problem faced by printers when things came to a standstill.

. . . .

To combat the situation, leading publishers mooted the idea of selling five leading issues at a combined sum of Rs 1,000, plus one free Storytel gift card. The scheme evoked overwhelming response.

The traditional Mecca for print in Mumbai, Shah & Nahar, in Lower Parel, is eerily quiet. Roopesh Sawant of Superlekha, a Mumbai-based printer, says, “After seven months, we are seeing 25%-30% of pre-Covid levels. Promotions are at an all-time low.”

. . . .

Since printing is essentially ink-on-paper, a cursory look at the demand for paper since March gives us a fair idea of how book printers are doing. Deepak Mittal, a paper trader in Bengaluru, said, “Shrinkage of demand has been swift, in a way that has never been experienced by the industry. The writing and printing segment has been the worst-affected owing to its reliance on the education sector, which contributes close to 60% of the demand.” With schools and colleges, barring Classes 10 and 12, unlikely to reopen in this academic year, the situation is grim.

“To add to the problem, commercial and promotional printing, like diaries, calendars, brochures, catalogues, etc have been badly impacted, as a lot of companies have either cancelled their requirements for this year or gone digital,” Mittal said. “The big daddy of diaries, LIC, has called off printing diaries this year, and many other government departments and companies have followed in their footsteps.”

Link to the rest at Scroll.in

How Do We Market Books Now?

From Publishers Weekly:

Covid-19 has greatly affected the publishing industry across all divisions and markets, and the marketing and publicity divisions of trade publishers have required particularly swift and frequent changes to their ways of doing business. In the opening panel of PubTech Connect 2020, which was copresented by PW and NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Publishing and was held virtually this year through Zoom on November 17, the topic of the hour was new marketing strategies.

. . . .

The panel focused on how to capture consumer interest in a marketplace that has shifted to digital sales, the benefits of virtual events, the importance of fleshing out direct-to-consumer marketing, and how libraries are adapting to an emphasis on digital resources.

The word of the day was “nimble,” and Fassler opened the discussion with an emphasis on adaptation in the marketplace. “We’ve learned a lot this year during a time of distraction and disruption,” she said. “I think one of the biggest challenges has been how to conduct effective outreach when we’re hampered by the way we used to do things, like galley mailings. I used to do a lot of creative partnership work at conferences, pitching our books and explaining how our products are aligned. It’s been necessary to be creative even earlier.”

LaDelle was quick to point out that “consumers are holding publishers more accountable” for their marketing plans and execution. It is no longer enough to share pull quotes or cover reveals, she said: “There’s a need to be present and intentional with our marketing content.”

Martinez stressed the importance of direct-to-consumer interactions. “Now is a great time to build a great consumer list. People are hungry to feel connected to the book community, especially at a time when they can’t go to book events or book clubs.” This is even more the case, Martinez said, for independent presses like Soho, adding that developing a vast and effective email campaign is imperative in making sure a book is successful.

“We really have to be nimble and flexible,” Seyfried said, pointing to the shrinking holiday shopping window as a direct example of the sorts of marketing and publicity tools Covid-19 has affected. Penguin Random House’s internal insights team, she added, conducted a marketing study that revealed that 25% or more of book consumers are doing their Christmas shopping early this year due to Covid-related worries like shipping delays. “We pivoted to launching our gift-giving messaging in mid-October,” she said. “Usually we’re still in planning phase in October, but we’ve had to rush it and be more adaptive.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

“Nimble” is not an adjective PG would apply to traditional publishers and their marketing.

Perhaps the “senior v-p and director of integrated marketing strategy” was speaking in comparative terms. “More nimble than usual.”

Sort of like the winner in a nursing home’s annual wheelchair gymnastics tournament for its over-90 residents.

PG suggests the answer to the question posed in the headline is clear – You market books where people are buying books. Today and for at least several more months (and maybe forever) that would be online.

Based on unstructured observations, PG suspects that Amazon’s ad sales in its book department have skyrocketed. Big publishers and not-so-big publishers are paying the Zon a lot of money to move books. If the reading habits of the PG household and the households of the Friends of PG are any indication, this is a good time to be in the book business if you’re a good marketer and can stand out from the crowd. (It’s a good time to be in the streaming video business as well.)

PG also suggests that traditional publishers might consider lowering their obscenely-high licensing fees for ebooks in libraries so libraries can afford to purchase more licenses. (PG’s online library projects some of the ebooks he has been perusing won’t be available for 3-4 months.)

This is a perfect time for intelligent publishers to build a reader base for their promising authors via greatly expanding their presence in library ebook departments.

But, (Heaven forfend!), that might upset Barnes & Noble!

Speaking of Barnes & Noble:

Amazon Releases List of The Best Books of 2020

From BookRiot:

It’s that time of year for everyone to start releasing their “Best Of” lists. Here at Book Riot, we love seeing what other publications choose for the best books of the year.

Yesterday, Amazon released their picks for the best books of 2020. The list, selected by Amazon editors, includes a total of 100 titles from a wide range of genres, including biography and memoir, literature and fiction, mystery and thriller, children’s, science, and more.

. . . .

According to an insider peek from the Amazon Book Review, the majority of the year’s Best Of picks come from Amazon’s Best of the Month series. Editors collect these selections in October and consider any upcoming titles before voting on the best of the year. Many of the books selected are bestsellers, but editors try to include lesser-known titles as well.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

The Top 100 Print Books

The Top 100 Kindle Books

Best Books of 2020 by Category

The Best Books of the Month

Old Man

Shouldering the duffel bag with the Marine Corps bulldog, Old Man knocked Jan’s photo off the bed table. He turned to stone staring down at the photo. His face then splintered into hurt. Tears seeped into his eyes. He grappled for the nearest bedpost and slumped forward on extended arms. His shoulders jerked and head sagged a little while his heart broke. Old Man cried the mute cry of men of his generation.

Ed Lynskey, The Blue Cheer

The Case of the Autographed Corpse

From Smithsonian Magazine:

On a Saturday afternoon in February 1933, at the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona, a White Mountain Apache Indian named Silas John Edwards and his wife, Margaret, stopped by a friend’s place to visit and relax. Edwards, a trim middle-aged man with a penetrating gaze, was an influential figure on reservations throughout the Southwest. Hundreds of followers regarded him as a divinely inspired religious leader, a renowned shaman and medicine man.

When he and Margaret arrived at their friend’s dwelling, a tepee, they found people drinking tulapai, a homemade Apache liquor. Three hours later, the Edwardses joined a group heading to another friend’s home. People who were there reported that Margaret confronted him inside a tepee, demanding to know why he’d been spending time with a younger woman, one of Margaret’s relatives. The argument escalated, and Margaret threatened to end their marriage. She left the party. Edwards stayed until about 10:30 p.m. and then spent the night at a friend’s.

Shocking news came the next day: Margaret was dead. Children had discovered her body, along with bloody rocks, at the side of a trail two and a half miles outside of the Fort Apache town of Whiteriver. They alerted adults, who carried her body home. “I went in the tepee and found my wife in my own bed,” Edwards later wrote. “I went to her bedside and before I fully realized what I was doing or that she was really dead, I had picked her up in my arms, her head was very bloody and a part of the blood got on my hands and clothing.”

He was still kneeling there, holding his wife’s body, when a sheriff and an Apache police officer arrived.

A medical examiner reported that Margaret had been killed by blows to her head and strangulation. Curiously, at least two of the rocks used to crush her skull were inscribed with her husband’s initials: S.J.E.

. . . .

Seventeen years later, in March 1951, Edwards—now 64 and still imprisoned at McNeil Island—wrote a desperate letter. “Up ’til now you have never heard of me,” he began, and then repeated the protestations of innocence he’d been making ever since his arrest. He had affidavits from witnesses who’d said he could not have committed the murder. The White Mountain Apache Tribal Council had unanimously recommended his release from prison. Another suspect had even been found. Edwards had pleaded with authorities for a pardon or parole, but nothing he did could move them.

This letter was a last-ditch effort to avoid dying of old age behind bars. Edwards thought the man he was writing to could get him out. The man was Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason mystery books.

. . . .

At the time Gardner got the letter from Edwards, he was living on a ranch in Temecula, California, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego and just outside the borders of a Pechanga Reservation. (Today, the ranch is part of the reservation itself.) His office was decorated with American Indian artwork, baskets, masks and moccasins. But Gardner, a Massachusetts native, had little knowledge of the religious life or cultural significance of the man who wrote to him from the McNeil Island Penitentiary.

What Gardner did understand were the flaws in the prosecution’s case. A bespectacled man with a commanding gaze, Gardner had spent years practicing law in California. In the early 1920s, he’d started writing mystery stories for pulp magazines. He’d published his first Perry Mason novel one month after the murder of Edwards’ wife. Over the years, Perry Mason—a fictional defense attorney who usually defended innocent clients—became the center of a literary juggernaut, generating sales of more than 300 million books as well as a popular TV show.

Like the hero he’d invented, Gardner felt drawn to cases involving the wrongly accused. He believed America’s criminal justice system was often biased against the vulnerable. In the 1940s, Gardner used his fame and wealth to assemble what he called the Court of Last Resort, a group of forensic specialists and investigators who—like today’s Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law—applied new thinking to old cases.

Gardner’s team rescued dozens of innocent people from executions and long prison terms. Among them were Silas Rogers, a black man sentenced to death for shooting a police officer in Petersburg, Virginia; Clarence Boogie, a victim of false testimony in a murder case in Spokane, Washington; and Louis Gross, who had been framed for murder in Michigan. Gardner persuaded Harry Steeger of Argosy magazine to regularly publish his articles about his organization’s findings. “We are busybodies,” Gardner declared in a letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “If, on the other hand, citizens don’t take an active interest in law enforcement and the administration of justice, we are going to lose our battle with crime.”

The letter from the Apache shaman made a strong impression on Gardner. “This Silas John Edwards case has been preying on my mind,” he wrote to James Bennett, the director of the Bureau of Prisons at the U.S. Department of Justice, on May 2, 1952. “This man is a full-blooded Apache Indian. There is every possibility that he didn’t get justice at the hands of a jury who may not have understood Indian psychology, temperament and custom. I think we should investigate the case.”

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

How the Spanish flu changed the world

From the World Economic Forum:

A couple of years ago, journalist Laura Spinney could hardly believe how little people thought about the Spanish flu pandemic, which swept the globe in three deadly waves between 1918 and 1919.

So she wrote a book – Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World – to bring the tragedy that claimed 50 million lives back into our consciousness,

. . . .

“It seemed to me there was this huge hole in our collective memory about the worst disaster of the 20th Century. It’s definitely not remembered in the same way as the two world wars – there is some different way we remember pandemics.

One of the ways I tried to explain it in my book was that, to me, that pandemic is remembered individually as millions of discrete tragedies, not in a history book sense of something that happened collectively to humanity.”

. . . .

We think it infected about 500 million people – so one in three people in the world alive at that time, and it killed 50 million of them. The death toll could have been even higher because there was a big problem with under-reporting at the time. They didn’t have a reliable diagnostic test.

. . . .

Pandemic flu is much worse than seasonal flu, and we think there have been 15 flu pandemics in the past 500 years. Every seasonal flu started out as a pandemic flu, which was much more virulent because it was new in the human population. Gradually over time, it evolved to become more benign and to live in a more harmonious relationship with humanity.

There are lots of theories for why the Spanish flu was so virulent and they’re not mutually exclusive. Some of them have to do with the inherent biology of that virus, and some of them with the state of the world at the time. That pandemic obviously emerged when the world was at war; there were extraordinary circumstances. Lots of people were on the move, not only troops, but also civilians: refugees and displaced persons. And there was a lot of hunger.

All of these factors may have fed into the virulence of the virus. There was definitely something very abnormal about 1918. If you think about the five flu pandemics we’ve had since the 1890s, none of them has killed more than about 4 million people maximum, whereas we think Spanish flu killed 50 million.

. . . .

There were no commercial aeroplanes, so the fastest way you could get around was by ship or by train. Henry Ford had invented his Model T motor car, but they were still the preserve of the rich, as were telephones. And illiteracy was much higher than it is now, which had an impact because the main way that news was transmitted was by newspapers. In illiterate populations news travelled much more slowly and was often distorted.

. . . .

In the short term, there was a jump in life expectancy, because a lot of people who were very ill with, for example, TB, which was a massive killer at that time, were purged from the population. They were probably the first to die of the Spanish flu because they were already in a weakened state. The people who were ill died and the people who were left behind were healthier.

There was also a baby boom in the 1920s, which has always been put down to the war and the men returning from the front. But there is an argument that the flu could have contributed because it left behind a smaller, healthier population that was able to reproduce in higher numbers. Norway, for example, had a baby boom even though it was neutral in the war.

Among those very vulnerable to the Spanish flu were the 20 to 40-year-olds. Normally flu is most dangerous to young children and to the very old, but in 1918, bizarrely, it was this middle age group. There wasn’t much of a social welfare net, even in wealthy countries, so lots of dependents were left without any means of support because the breadwinners were taken out by the flu.

. . . .

One of the great tragedies of 1918 is that those dependents just vanish into the cracks of history. We don’t really know what happened to them but we get the occasional glimpse, for example, from a study in Sweden we know that a lot of old people moved into workhouses and a lot of the children became vagrants.

Men were more vulnerable than women overall globally, though there were regional variations. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable and had miscarriages at frighteningly high numbers because, to fight the virus, the body took resources away from the womb and the growing foetus. Some of those babies survived and we know now there’s a lifelong effect called foetal programming. That generation was physically and cognitively slightly reduced. They were more likely to suffer from heart attacks and to go to prison – and came of age just in time to go and fight in the Second World War.

. . . .

In many Western countries, there was a turning away from science after the pandemic because people were disillusioned with it. From the 1920s, for example, in America, alternative medicine took off in a big way and spread around the world.

But at the same time, in countries that had not really embraced the scientific method, you see the opposite effect. So China becomes a little bit more scientific after the pandemic. There’s a move to better disease surveillance, better public health, more organized collection of healthcare data, because they saw that to prevent future pandemics they needed to turn towards science.

. . . .

The Spanish flu was democratic on one level. It could infect anyone: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George came down with the flu and Boris Johnson has had COVID-19 today. Nobody is, in theory, spared.

If you look at the population level though, there’s a very clear disparity and basically the poorest, the most vulnerable, the ones with the least good access to healthcare, the ones who work the longest hours, who live in the most crowded accommodation, and so on, are more at risk.

But in 1918, it was a time of eugenics-type thinking and it was perceived that those people who were more prone to the flu were constitutionally somehow inferior, that it was somehow their fault.

. . . .

The dates of the waves were dependent on where you were in the world. They came later in the Southern hemisphere, which meant Australia had the luxury of seeing this thing approach in space and time from the north, and took advantage of that to put in place maritime quarantine.

It managed to keep out the lethal second wave in October 1918, which is one of the rare exceptions of public health measures really working that year. But they lifted it too soon and the third wave of infection of early 1919 came into the country and killed 12,000 Australians. But it would have been much, much worse if they had not put the quarantine in place when they did.

Link to the rest at the World Economic Forum

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Bids for Simon & Schuster

From The New York Times:

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is making a play for Simon & Schuster, the venerable home to best-selling authors like Stephen King and Hillary Clinton that raised a ruckus this year after releasing a string of hit titles critical of President Trump.

The powerhouse publisher was put up for sale by its owner, ViacomCBS, in March, and the company has since fielded more than half a dozen inquiries, according to three people familiar with the process who declined to be named because the matter remains confidential.

In addition to News Corp, which already owns HarperCollins, a leading bidder is Penguin Random House, according to the people. Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher in the United States, is owned by the German media giant Bertelsmann. The French firm Vivendi, a minority owner of Hachette through the publisher Lagardère, has also made a bid.

. . . .

Publishing has become a winner-takes-all business, a circumstance brought on by Amazon’s aggressive pricing, and now a publisher needs size to survive. Tent-pole titles can better offset losses from weaker books. A bigger inventory can generate more data on the habits and interests of book buyers.

Those dynamics underpin the wave of consolidation that has swept the business in the last decade. Penguin and Random House merged, Hachette Book Group acquired Perseus Books, and News Corp bought the romance publisher Harlequin.

. . . .

Should a major publisher win the auction, Simon & Schuster is likely to undergo staff cuts. Departments such as human resources and finance are often slimmed down after a big merger. It is not clear how a deal might affect high-level positions at the company. Jonathan Karp, who was named Simon & Schuster’s chief executive this year after the sudden death of Carolyn Reidy, could be relegated to a lower role or be forced out. Not long after he took over, Mr. Karp named Dana Canedy, a former journalist and administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, as publisher of its namesake imprint, putting a Black woman in charge of one of the biggest publishing houses.

. . . .

Any merger agreement would also have to undergo regulatory scrutiny. A combination with either Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, the two largest book publishers in the country, could raise questions in Washington. Penguin Random House’s sales exceeded $4 billion last year. Annual sales at HarperCollins, which reports its fiscal year at the end of June, were about $1.7 billion.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

First Principles

From The Wall Street Journal:

First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

The subject of Thomas Ricks’s extraordinarily timely book is, in his words, “what our first four presidents learned, where they learned it, who they learned it from, and what they did with that knowledge.”

. . . .

John Adams attended Harvard; Thomas Jefferson, William and Mary; James Madison, the College of New Jersey (subsequently renamed Princeton). Of the first four presidents only George Washington had not received a university education: he spoke no foreign or ancient languages and was not much of a reader. Yet even he was steeped in the classicism of the Enlightenment era, and as he matured into his role as the father of his country he came to be seen as the personification of ancient Roman virtue—his country’s Cato, its Fabius, its Cincinnatus.

“Virtue” had a somewhat different meaning in the 18th century than it does today: in Mr. Ricks’s brief formulation, “it meant putting the common good before one’s own interests,” and looked specifically back to ancient exemplars like Cato, Cicero and Socrates. Adams modeled himself on Cicero as Washington did on Cato. Montesquieu, the Enlightenment theorist who had a greater influence on the founders than any other, famously stated in his “Spirit of Laws” (1748) that virtue was the one indispensable quality in a republic. Washington and Adams, at any rate, heartily agreed with him.

Jefferson brought the architecture of ancient Rome to our shores: Monticello, the University of Virginia campus and, finally, the distinctly Roman look given to Washington, D.C. “Almost single-handedly,” wrote the historian Gordon Wood, “he became responsible for making America’s public buildings resemble Roman temples.”

But as Mr. Ricks proves, Jefferson was always “more Greek than Roman, more Epicurean than Ciceronian.” Indeed, he openly admitted to being an Epicurean, a philosophy he called the “most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients,” and Mr. Ricks points out that his replacement of John Locke’s “life, liberty, and estate” (that is, property) with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” indicates a specifically Epicurean outlook.

Madison, who more than any other founder was responsible for the shape that the U.S. Constitution would finally take, immersed himself in the history of ancient republics and confederations to see what good ideas they could bring to ours. The Roman Republic, which lasted almost five centuries, was of particular interest, but so too were the various Greek confederations, such as the Amphictyonic League, in which the states had the same number of votes (like our Senate today), and the Lycian confederacy, which had proportional votes (like our House of Representatives). Twenty-three of the 85 Federalist Papers cite classical authorities; interestingly, they are more often Greek than Roman.

But Madison took a crucial step to lead the country away from the most important classical precept: he decided that public virtue couldn’t be counted on, and looked for an alternative. The failure of the Articles of Confederation had made it painfully obvious that self-interest usually trumps disinterested virtue. “The present System,” complained Madison, “neither has nor deserves advocates; and if some very strong props are not applied will quickly tumble to the ground. No money is paid into the public Treasury; no respect is paid to the federal authority.”

Now Madison took inspiration from Enlightenment ideas, most memorably formulated in Bernard Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees” and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” that private vices might, when taken together, positively benefit the public.

In Federalist 10 he attacked the classical republican idea that the pursuit of self-interest necessarily violates the public trust: “The causes of faction cannot be removed . . . relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” This must be done by involving “the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government.”

Here Madison departed from Montesquieu by claiming that a large republic would be more durable than a small one; the more individual interests in play, he claimed, the smaller the chance that any one will prevail. (Of course he could not have dreamed of the possibilities opened by mass communications and social media!) Washington still thought the new republic could not exist without public virtue, and said as much in his Farewell Address; but, writes Mr. Ricks, that was “old think.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

No one will ever see books like this again.

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

Three days before I sat down to write this blog post, I finished reading Drama High by Michael Sokolove. I clutched the book to my heart, and thought, no one will ever see books like this again.

Then I mentally slapped myself. I had slipped into traditional writer think.

Drama High was published by Riverhead Books in 2014. Riverhead was once a literary imprint of Penguin Publishing, and got subsumed into the whole Penguin Random House merger. Imprints lose their identity in mergers like this, and Riverhead is no exception. I doubt the imprint would have published a book like this in 2019.

For those of you who haven’t seen the book, and I would assume that’s most of you, Drama High focuses on a high school in Levittown, Pennsylvania, that has developed a highly recognized theater department. The book, written by a former student, is a love letter to teaching as well as to theater. It’s filled with heart and compassion and general quirkiness.

The book ended up becoming a bestseller after it became the inspiration for the short-lived TV show Rise. I have no idea how I found it; probably the Amazon algorithm, because I haven’t been in a bookstore since the pandemic started.

But I got caught in that traditional publishing think: that only trad pub could take a risk with a small book like that and yet make sure it got to the places it needed to go.

And you know, in the limited book world I grew up in, that was true. When I came of age as a reader, there was a mountain of book outlets—not bookstores, per se, but places to buy books all the same. As a kid, I got my books (gothics and skinny mysteries and the occasional weird horror thing) from a drugstore a few blocks from my house.

By the mid-1990s, there were “dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of stores in the country that carried 100,000 titles or more” according to an October blog post by Mike Shatzkin.

That seemed like a lot of books. But we had to buy a title when we saw it, because if we waited, we might never see the book again. I searched for books by Phillip Rock for three decades, because I discover the first in the series in a used bookstore. I might never have found the last two books in his only series if it hadn’t been for Amazon and Downton Abbey.

Quirky books, like Drama High, only got commissioned because someone thought the book would do well enough. Had the book been published in the previous century, someone would have thought the book would do well in niche bookstores.

Only there really aren’t that many niche bookstores anymore. There are barely bookstores right now, because of the pandemic. This month, for example, we are losing one of our oldest bookstores here in Las Vegas. The owner finally decided—with the economic collapse and the pandemic—that it’s time to retire.

Other bookstores have other issues. It’s going to cost money for bookstores to get proper ventilation systems and, in some cases, put their inventory online. It’s not something you can just hire a few college students to do; it takes a true structure.

Book buying has changed, although reading hasn’t. As I’ve said in the previous two trainwreck blogs, traditional publishing needs to recognize how book buying has changed.

And it looks like some people in traditional publishing are finally beginning to understand that the changes they’ve been living through these past 20 years are permanent. The way Things Are Being Done has to change.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s Author Page. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

PG says making certain the trains run on time is a different business than building a railroad or building and continually improving a quality ecommerce site.

Traditional publishing (and the big and habit-encrusted European conglomerates that own most of traditional publishing in the United States) is no place to seek innovation and nimble adaptation skills. Their evergreen solution to financial difficulties is to find another blockbuster celebrity book, “Michelle Obama’s Thanksgiving!” – “Tina Fey on Motherhood!” – “Isaac Mizrahi’s Styling Secrets!” AKA making the publishing business run on time.

Does anybody who can get a tech job (or maybe any job) at Amazon ever consider going to work for a New York City publisher? Ditto for Google, Apple, etc.?

What intelligent and aware college graduate is going to look for work at a traditional publisher unless there is no other choice available? (a possibility these days, PG admits). It’s the ultimate low-paying dead-end job. Period. Find a wealthy spouse ASAP.

Some of the senior people in publishing got into the business when it looked like it had a future, but if they’ve truly drunk the big publishing Kool-Aid, PG isn’t certain exactly where they’re going to end up when the consolidation of publishing starts up again. And it will. PG suspects some of the owners of traditional publishing companies are spending serious time trying to figure out who the greater fool might be so they can dump that boat anchor.

Whatever publishers survive will have Amazon to thank for it (although PG doesn’t expect them to acknowledge that fact).

PG is not a futurist, but he’s read enough from smart people who are to conclude that the effects of the world-wide economic shut-down on education, businesses, lifestyles, etc., are not going to end when Covid goes away.

A lot of small businesses that closed aren’t going to reopen. Landlords, many of whom are small businesses themselves, will understandably want to get any sort of tenant that will pay the rent in full and on time. PG doesn’t believe that bookstores will be exempt.

People who are buying lots of stuff from Amazon, including books, aren’t going to immediately snap back to traveling from store to store to buy things.

Later today PG is probably going to post about some of the long-term impact that the Spanish Flu had in the early 20th century that lasted long after the virus had petered out.

UPDATE:

PG promises that he had not heard about CBS trying to sell Simon & Schuster, as documented in the New York Times story he linked to a couple of posts above this on until after he put up the original version of this post earlier today.

He wonders if he needs to obtain some sort of license before displaying his prescience in public again.

The Private Detective

The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.

Raymond Chandler

If you leave me here

“If you leave me here,” the guy on the floor said, “he’ll kill me tomorrow morning.”

Parker looked at him.

“So you’ve still got tonight,” he said.

Richard Stark, Dirty Money

In short

In short, everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of that well.
— Raymond Carver

50 Juicy Questions To Ask Your Characters

From The Reedsy Blog:

Author Elizabeth Bowen once said “characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found”. That’s solid advice, but there’s one small catch — what do you do if you want to write, but a fully-formed character is yet to fall into your lap?

Don’t be disheartened: there are things you can do to speed up the process of finding them, and a character questionnaire is a great place to start!

A character questionnaire is one way for authors to get under the skin of their characters. By asking and answering a few probing questions, a writer gets to know their creations better, building a detailed picture of their personality and history which they can use to add depth to their stories.

Rather than focusing on external characteristics like physical appearance and education (as you might do when creating a character profile), a questionnaire gives you the opportunity to dig deeper, and explore what really makes your character tick.

. . . .

Test your character’s boundaries with these hypothetical scenarios.

  1. You’re at a bar when the one person you don’t want to see walks in. Who are they? How do you react?
  2. How would you react if you were catcalled?
  3. How would you react if you saw a friend who owes you money spending frivolously?
  4. Your friends are speaking unfairly about a mutual friend. Do you speak up?
  5. How would you react if you witnessed a victimless crime?
  6. What would you do if someone brought up your biggest insecurity in front of a crowd of strangers?
  7. How would you respond to an apology from somebody you still can’t forgive?
  8. How would you break up with someone?

Link to the rest at The Reedsy Blog

The Unicorn

The saintly hermit, midway through his prayers
stopped suddenly, and raised his eyes to witness
the unbelievable: for there before him stood
the legendary creature, startling white, that
had approached, soundlessly, pleading with his eyes.

The legs, so delicately shaped, balanced a
body wrought of finest ivory. And as
he moved, his coat shone like reflected moonlight.
High on his forehead rose the magic horn, the sign
of his uniqueness: a tower held upright
by his alert, yet gentle, timid gait.

The mouth of softest tints of rose and grey, when
opened slightly, revealed his gleaming teeth,
whiter than snow. The nostrils quivered faintly:
he sought to quench his thirst, to rest and find repose.
His eyes looked far beyond the saint’s enclosure,
reflecting vistas and events long vanished,
and closed the circle of this ancient mystic legend.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The Secret of the Unicorn Tapestries

Via Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

From The Paris Review:

Nobody knows who made the Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven weavings that depict a unicorn hunt that has been described as “the greatest inheritance of the Middle Ages.”

Without evidence, the La Rochefoucauld family in France asserted that the tapestries originate with the marriage of a family ancestor in the fifteenth century. The tapestries did belong to the La Rochefoucauld in 1793, before they were stolen by rioters who set fire to their château at Verteuil. The family regained possession sixty years later, when the tapestries were recovered in a barn. The precious weavings of wool, silk, gold, and silver were in tatters at their edges and punched full of holes. They had been used to wrap barren fruit trees during the winter.

In late 1922, the Unicorn Tapestries disappeared again. They were sent to New York for an exhibition, which never opened. A rich American had bought them and transferred them to his bank vault before anyone else could see them. In February 1923, John D. Rockefeller Jr. confirmed from his vacation home in Florida that he was the American who had acquired the tapestries for the price of $1.1 million. The tapestries were transferred to Rockefeller’s private residence in Midtown Manhattan.

Fourteen years later, Rockefeller donated the tapestries to the Cloisters, a new medieval art museum he had funded as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The mysterious works were to be on regular public display for the first time in their five-hundred-year history. James Rorimer, the first curator of the Cloisters, had the intimidating task of interpreting them.

On July 26, 1942, the New York Times reported that Rorimer had identified symbols that proved the key to the mystery, among them a knotted cord, a pair of striped tights, and a squirrel. He identified these as symbols in a system that pointed to Anne of Brittany as their owner and decided the tapestries had been made to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII in 1499. No one who read the news that Sunday was able to see the Unicorn Tapestries for another two years. The weavings were moved to a secret location following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Apple Slashes App Store Fees for Smaller Developers

From The Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. is halving the commission it charges smaller developers that sell software through its App Store, a partial concession in its battle with critics over how it wields power in its digital ecosystem.

The iPhone maker said that starting next year it will collect 15% rather than 30% of App Store sales from companies that generate no more than $1 million in revenue through the software platform, including in-app purchases. The fee will remain 30% for developers whose sales through the App Store, excluding commission payments, exceed $1 million—meaning the reduction won’t affect such vocal Apple opponents as videogame company Epic Games Inc.

Apple’s 30% take has been at the heart of complaints this year from other tech companies and some users over how it manages the vast digital world of people who use iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices. The policy is also central to a major legal battle with Epic, and to government examinations in the U.S. and Europe of Apple’s competitive behavior as a gatekeeper between software makers and the hundreds of millions of people who use Apple’s gadgets.

Critics have charged that Apple’s commission is too large, is unfairly levied against different companies, leaves customers footing the bill and leads to workarounds by some developers to avoid the fees.

. . . .

A tiny fraction of developers account for the vast majority of sales in the App Store, which is central to a services unit that brought Apple $53.77 billion in revenue in its latest fiscal year. Research firm Sensor Tower estimates that only about 0.2% of the 1.8 million apps in the App Store generated more than $1 million last year, and says that group accounted for an estimated 92% of Apple’s App Store revenue.

The fee cut, therefore, gives Apple ammunition to rebut claims that its practices hurt smaller developers, while leaving untouched the vast bulk of its App Store revenue.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG was interested in this article because apps and ebooks are really quite similar to each other (although a dropsy epidemic would rage through New York publishing if such a statement were to be uttered within hearing range.)

Apps are electronic code and ebooks are electronic code as well. Apps run on tablets, smartphones, etc., and ebooks “run” on the same devices. Ebook readers don’t use their thumbs as actively as people who play app games on their phones, but, fundamentally, both purchase software for their electronic devices.

Apps and ebooks are sold online through digital storefronts in exactly the same manner.

Unlike app developers, when it comes to royalties, more than a few authors may analogize the sales of ebooks to the sales of printed books with printing costs, shipping fees, physical stores, warehouses full of books, etc., etc.

From the point of view of those who are running ecommerce at Amazon and Apple, ebooks and apps are just two different file formats.

It would be interesting if the people running iBooks caught the spirit of their much larger and more profitable contemporaries in the App department and decided that indie authors are pretty much like small app developers and should be paid 85% of the purchase price of ebooks instead of a much small percentage.

On more than one occasion, PG has been accused of being an Amazon shill because he likes the way Amazon treats indie authors and says so.

However, PG thinks it would be a great idea if Amazon treated indie authors like Apple treats small indie app developers and reduced Amazon’s take on KDP indie ebooks so authors received 85% of the proceeds Amazon collected for their books. (Amazon could also get rid of its ridiculous “Delivery Cost for a Digital Book” charge at the same time.)

Bookstore Sales Down 27.7% in September

From Shelf Awareness:

In the seventh month of data reflecting public health measures taken to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, including the closure of many bookstores for a time and limited access since then, in September sales at bookstores dropped 27.7%, to $609 million, compared to September 2019, according to preliminary Census Bureau estimates.

April and May had the largest drops in sales this year, down 65.3% and 59.9%, respectively, reflecting the first wave of the pandemic. Since then, bookstore sales have been down in a range between 24.7% and 35.4%. During the first nine months of the year, bookstore sales fell 30.1%, to $4.5 billion.

Link to the rest at Shelf Awareness

Amazon Turns Its Sights On Pharmacies: This Could Get Ugly

From Forbes:

Amazon has announced the US launch of its prescription drug service, Amazon Pharmacy, a major incursion into a $300 billion sector dominated by giants like CVS, Walgreens, and RiteAid, all of which have seen their share price dip by as much as 16% on the news.

Amazon is using PillPack, the company it acquired in 2018 for nearly $1 billion as its Trojan Horse; and has appointed its founder, TJ Parker, as pharmacy VP. But PillPack will continue to operate a service for mainly older users who require combinations of medications, which are sent in monthly packages with pills grouped in characteristic white envelopes that the user opens each day, a method that improves adherence to treatment and reduces errors.

The idea behind Amazon Pharmacy is to make the purchase and refilling of prescription drugs — with the exception of Schedule II pharmaceuticals: primarily opiates, stimulants, antidepressants or hallucinogens — as simple as purchasing any other product, including the usual advantages of Amazon Prime for shipping and discounts negotiated by Amazon with drug suppliers, of up to 80% in the case of generic drugs and 40% in the case of brand name medications, prompting some analysts to estimate that the purchase of many products could even be cheaper at Amazon than through the user’s health insurance.

In addition, the company will have to break its characteristic integral architecture of data capture from its users: their information will not be shared, so as to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The company has also integrated the vast majority of health insurance providers in order to receive both the prescriptions and the discounts that each user has established, has created a 24/7 service with pharmaceutical professionals who will answer questions and consultations, and claims to have the infrastructure to validate each prescription and eliminate possible fraud.

Link to the rest at Forbes

PG says that, while everyone else is sheltering in place, Amazon keeps on disrupting.

The Gentle Genre

From Writer Unboxed:

The best choice for readers is what might be called “gentle books,” straightforward tales of ordinary people in mostly every-day, low-key situations.  No psychotics, no wrenching twists, no gore, no vampires or werewolves or demons.

Often comic, sometimes inspiring, these sorts of books were popular from the thirties right through WWII and into the sixties.  Gentle books – the work of Angela Thirkell, D. E. Stevenson, Elizabeth Cadell, and many others – offered readers well-written, character-driven stories that reminded them of their own lives.  Gentle books continued to thrive through the sixties and seventies with Miss Read, James Herriot, and others. Garrison Keillor and Alexander McCall Smith are among those who carry the tradition on today.

But don’t be fooled by the familiar settings and characters of these books. They are notoriously difficult to write well.  It’s just too easy to sink into either banality or saccharine gooeyness – what might be called Hallmark Holiday Special fiction.

One problem is that the sources of tension available to you are, by definition, gentle.  It’s easy to keep readers on the edge of their seats when your characters are trying to escape horrible deaths or fending off the destruction of the world. It’s a lot harder to keep readers interested over whether Bertie will be able to escape saxophone lessons or James Herriot will be the one who receives a cocoa tin full of goat droppings to analyze for parasites (considered an honor in Siegfried’s practice).  Yet readers need to care enough about such minor, everyday problems that they will want to keep reading and will feel satisfied with the conclusion.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Determining Your Character’s Emotional Range

From Writers Helping Writers:

I firmly believe that while readers sometimes do connect with our stories, they more often fall in love with our characters. If we want to really pull readers in, we’ve got to make each protagonist relatable and easy to connect with.

This can be a tall order when you consider that each reader is different. Their geographic location, individual circumstances, personal experiences—no one character can encapsulate all of that for every person who picks up your book. But there’s one thing that every reader and character do have in common: emotion.

No matter who the reader is or what they’ve been through, they’ve experienced the same emotions as the character. The circumstances may be different, but they will connect on some level to a character exhibiting the feelings they’ve felt at important moments in life. For this reason, it’s super important to write a character’s emotions consistently and believably so they ring true with readers. As with many other areas of writing, the best way to do this is through showing that emotion rather than telling it. But before we can write about the character’s feelings, we need to know how those feelings will manifest. In short, we need to establish the character’s emotional range.

Each person (and therefore, each character) has a unique way of expressing their feelings, meaning you can have two people in the same situation and they’ll respond differently. If we’re going to consistently write a character’s emotions, we need to first know her baseline—how she reacts to the normal, everyday things that happen.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Why Odd Couples and Opposites Make For Great Crime Fiction

From Crime Reads:

[W]hen I want to escape into a good book, I always reach for buddy mysteries.

Although there are dozens of awesome fictional partnerships, I think most of greats have at least a smidge of what I’ll call the Odd Couple dynamic. (Bonus points if the pair initially despise—or are at least suspicious of—each other.)

. . . .

Clearly mystery isn’t the only genre that enjoys tossing opposites together and watching the sparks fly. Authors love the opposites attract trope (romantic or platonic) because the tension is inherent and the radically different personalities make for entertaining interactions between the characters.

Oscar and Felix are a classic example of personality differences: laid-back versus uptight. But there are a multitude of differences that make for good reading: class, political views, nationality, and gender, to name a few.

Before I explore some opposites in crime, let’s have a detective duo quiz.

Here are ten of my favorite detective pairs; guess the other half of the pair (try it first without looking up the answer on the internet)

  1. Archie Goodwin
  2. Detective Sergeant Lewis
  3. Captain Arthur Hastings
  4. Captain Sam Wyndham
  5. Carl Mørck
  6. Victor Orlov
  7. Prudence Cowley
  8. Jeremiah Blake
  9. Sarah Brandt
  10. Norville Rogers

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

In the end, I am quite normal

In the end, I am quite normal. I don’t have odd habits. I don’t dramatize. Above all, I do not romanticize the act of writing. I don’t talk about the anguish I suffer in creating. I do not have a fear of the blank page, writer’s block, all those things that we hear about writers. I don’t have any of those problems, but I do have problems just like any other person doing any other type of work. Sometimes things do not come out as I want them to, or they don’t come out at all. When things do not come out as well as I would have liked, I have to resign myself to accepting them as they are.

José Saramago

The Frankfurt Book Fair “will be increasingly supplemented by digital and virtual formats.”

From The New Publishing Standard:

The Buchmesse largely paid lip-service to the digital alternative while holding out hope the in-person event would go ahead. The ugly sister was to get a cheap make-over, but not plastic surgery.

Dressed up as “streamlining and restructuring”, the world’s largest trade publishing fair is finally catching up with the 21st century this year, embracing the digital advantage and opening up the fair to the world.

Of course the Buchmesse has long been a leader in pushing the global element of the publishing industry, but its approach was always, right up until 2020, via the analogue 20th century model that involved hauling people and companies halfway around the world to be paraded before an audience that likewise had to be able to travel half way around the world to engage.

By definition that closed off huge audience reach globally and denied publishing stakeholders in much of the world a realistic opportunity to engage. If a would-be participant or observer could not afford to be there or was not lucky enough to be on the much-valued subsidised invite list then the Buchmesse was just something we got to read about in the trade journals, and then of course only snippets from what the trade journalists had cobbled together. Because with the best will in the world the reporters who were able to be there could only be in one place and monitor one event at a time.

. . . .

Why was it that even as the pandemic took off in the spring of 2020 the Buchmesse, along with almost every other trade event (DBW the notable exception – all credit to Bradley Metrock), was stubbornly insisting the show would go on as it had always gone on?

. . . .

Reporting for the Buchmesse journal Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson said this past week that, having pulled in 200,000 digital participants in October, the Frankfurt Book was,

“modernising its concept” and restructuring some of its staffing (to) “ensure the continued existence of the fair” long-term.

Buchmesse CEO Juergen Boos, assuring us the traditional fair would resume in 2021 assuming Covid-19 conditions allowed, said in a press release,

At the same time, we must open ourselves up to alternative marketing and dialogue formats in order to meet the changing needs of all market participants.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG has read several articles lately written by people whose opinions he takes seriously to the effect that there are going to be some permanent changes, at least in the United States, resulting from not so much the Covid pandemic, but by the adaptations many have made during the pandemic.

Working from home instead of commuting to an office is one of the more prominent examples.

The Wall Street Journal published an article a couple of days ago that reported a significant number of San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech workers who have been working from home have discovered they they are more productive and enjoy their lives more when work doesn’t include a 1-2 hour commute to and from their home each day.

Some are even moving to Nevada, Utah or Idaho to take advantage of lower prices, lower taxes and an improved lifestyle while working for companies headquartered in the San Francisco area. Some parts of these states are also receiving transplanted companies from those Northern California locales.

For those outside of the United States, the cost of living in the San Francisco area, including Silicon Valley, a series of suburbs extending south of San Francisco for many miles, has become extraordinarily high. PG is informed that some lower-paid workers are living in their cars or vans, taking advantage of tech company exercise facilities or health clubs for showering, etc.

According to Zillow, the average cost of a middle-tier home in Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley is over $3 million, up 10% from last year’s average and forecast to increase another 10% next year. Traveling east from San Francisco a little over 200 miles just over the border to Carson City, Nevada, a prospective home purchaser would pay about 10% of the Palo Alto price for a middle-tier home.

On top of the savings from lower housing costs, a typical Silicon Valley tech worker will pay a California state income tax of about 10%. Nevada has no state income tax.

With his forecasting hat on, PG (along with people far more knowledgeable than he is) predicts that more and more employers will be willing to hire knowledge workers who want to work remotely now that Covid has demonstrated that it’s a viable business model.

50 Handy Expressions About Hands

From Daily Writing Tips:

1. “All hands on deck,” from the traditional nautical command for every sailor to report for duty, refers to the necessity of everyone involved to lend a hand, or assist.

2. To bite the hand that feeds you is to be hostile to someone who has been kind to you.

3. To be a dab hand is, in British English, to be an expert.

4. “The devil makes work for idle hands” is a proverb that means that inactive people are susceptible to the temptation to do wrong.

5. To know something firsthand is to be directly familiar with the facts.

6. To force someone’s hand is to compel them to act prematurely or involuntarily.

7. Having a free hand is being given wide latitude about how to carry out a task or responsibility.

8. To gain the upper hand is to obtain control.

9. To get your hands dirty is to engage in a important activity that may not be pleasant.

10. To give a hand is to help, though it also refers to applauding by clapping one’s hands.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Authors Guild Statement on Delayed Royalty Payments

From The Authors Guild:

The Authors Guild stands with the Albert Whitman & Company (“AW&C “) authors’ demands for transparency and immediate rectification of past due royalties.

You may have seen tweets and other posts of AW&C authors recently complaining that they have not been paid their royalties. This is an ongoing problem with the publisher. Over the last few years, the Authors Guild has contacted AW&C on numerous occasions to convey members’ concerns involving delayed royalty payments and the accuracy of accounting reports. In April 2019, we had a phone conference with AW&C’s accounting team and leadership during which we discussed their consistent irregularity in paying authors and addressing the author’s concerns about the accuracy of royalty reporting.

Yet despite having notice of these complaints for years, AW&C continues to neglect its obligations to issue timely and transparent royalty statements and render accurate royalty payments, as is required under its book contracts. The irregularities are not limited to one author or one instance, but multiple authors with multiple complaints. 

. . . .

AW&C’s CEO John Quattrocchi recently stated in a blog post that the publisher will be “making necessary changes to create more honesty and transparency” in the company and setting deadlines to get the authors paid up. 

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

Typically, deadlines for royalty payments are set forth in the publishing contract between an author and a publisher.

PG wonders if salaries are being paid to AW&C executives and employees.

Does the ACLU Want to Ban My Book?

From The Wall Street Journal:

I never thought book banning would be respectable in America, much less that I’d be the target, but here we are. Last Thursday Target stopped selling my book, “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” in response to two Twitter complaints.

One read: “In 2016, @Target, you released a statement affirming your support for transgender customers. @AskTarget why you’re selling a book notorious for its harmful rhetoric against us. Historically, harmful products have been pulled from this shelf, and this should be, too.”

The other: “I think the transcommunity deserves a response from @AskTarget @Target as to why they’re selling this book about ‘the transgender epidemic sweeping the country.’ ”

That’s a caricature of my view. I think mature adults should have the freedom to undergo medical transition. But teenagers are another matter. Social contagions exist, and teen girls are particularly susceptible to them. The book takes a hard look at whether the sudden spike in transgender identification among teen girls is yet another social contagion to befall girls who, in another era, might have fallen prey to anorexia or bulimia.

Many transgender adults, including some I interviewed for the book, agree that teen girls are undergoing medical transition too fast with too little oversight. Others disagree and have written books. Amid a sea of material unskeptically promoting medical transition for teenage girls, there’s one book that investigates this phenomenon and urges caution. That is the book the activists seek to suppress.

“Abigail Shrier’s book is a dangerous polemic with a goal of making people not trans,” Chase Strangio, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy director for transgender justice, tweeted Friday. “I think of all the times & ways I was told my transness wasn’t real & the daily toll it takes. We have to fight these ideas which are leading to the criminalization of trans life again.” Then: “Stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.”

You read that right: Some in today’s ACLU favor book banning. Grace Lavery, a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, went further, tweeting: “I DO encourage followers to steal Abigail Shrier’s book and burn it on a pyre.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG is reflexively opposed to banning books or any form of expressive speech on the basis of its content except for a small group of carefully-delimited topics. Photos of adults having sexual relations with children would be one of those exceptions.

From a legal standpoint, the Constitution is a document that creates a national government, grants it certain rights and, via the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) limits the government’s exercise of its powers in some specified ways.

Target is not, of course, a government entity. As a commercial retailer, Target is free to decide what products it will sell and what products it will not sell.

The ACLU or any other group or individual is free to communicate its opinions about any book. Reviewers do that very thing, likely at least tens of thousands of times each day, on Amazon and other online bookstores, on websites, blogs, Twitter, etc.

That said, PG has concerns about the growing trend in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere) to silence those with whom some groups disagree. Pressuring a retailer (like Target or Amazon) to remove a book from its retail offering is, in effect, silencing or partially-silencing (“deplatforming” is another term) that book’s author.

While the United States Constitution protects the freedom of individuals or groups of individuals to speak, write, etc., their beliefs, it also protects the rights of those who believe otherwise to object to those beliefs, including the right to say that books or other writings that include such objectionable writings should not be stocked or sold by Target or another commercial or non-profit entity.

That said, one of the purposes of the First Amendment to the Constitution that protects free speech is to encourage discussion, writings, even arguments, concerning just about anything. The unstated assumption is that such activities are important for the discovery, discussion, analysis, understanding and, in some cases, resolution of issues that may impact the welfare of individuals, groups and the nation as a whole.

The Preamble to the US Constitution explains the purpose of the specific designation of rights, powers, structures, etc., set forth in the document:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The expressed intent of the authors of the Constitution was to create a structure of government that, among other things, would “insure domestic Tranquility.”

PG will note that there are many places in the United States that do not presently comport with his understanding of “domestic tranquility.”

PG is reminded of a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that created the document:

“Someone shouted out, ‘Doctor [Franklin], what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?’

To which Franklin supposedly responded: ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’”

The Washington Post published a short article in December, 2019, about the origin and various accounts of the wording in the oft-repeated quote.

The Post concluded that the most-likely version of the quote was a response to a question from Elizabeth Willing Powel, a prominent society figure and the wife of Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Powel. Ms. and Mr. Powel had hosted the convention delegates and their wives at their home for various social occasions while the convention was deliberating the Constitution.

Instead of the question being put to Franklin on the street, it was more likely to have been asked by Ms. Powel, a woman known for her wit and knowledge, when Franklin entered a room in her house.

“Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic” replied the Doctor “if you can keep it.”

To which Ms. Powel is reported to have said, “And why not keep it?”

The Post article doesn’t include any information about what Franklin’s answer to the second question was.

PG does suggest that keeping a republic is an ongoing task and domestic tranquility will make that task easier.

The Limits of the Viral Book Review

From The Nation:

Have you read a book review recently? The ones that make the rounds, dropped in DMs and threaded down Twitter timelines? They all fixate on a certain quality. Critics—and the authors they cover—seem to be obsessed with self-awareness. Writing about oneself isn’t new at all, but what’s current (and quickly growing stale) is the overtly self-conscious way contemporary writers have chosen to go about it.

Katy Waldman at The New Yorker reads the phenomenon through the lens of contemporary politics, writing, “As the cracks in our systems become increasingly visible, the reflexivity trap casts self-awareness as a finish line, not a starting point.” For her, reflecting on the self in our times means being forced to examine oneself, but instead of addressing one’s privileged position within a system, for example, writers frequently cop to being complicit—and therefore complicated. Voilà, end of story. Lauren Oyler at Bookforum finds the modish, fact-checkable blandness of contemporary autofiction rooted in authors’ efforts at being “the least godlike figure around.” These writers, she argues, forgo editorializing in order to fulfill a desire to be perceived as a “good person” by readers who, “under the terms of popular, social-media-inflected criticism, [are] now judge and jury, examining works for their political content and assessing the moral goodness of the author in the process.” Molly Fischer, writing in New York magazine and referring to Waldman’s and Oyler’s reviews, along with a recent essay by Ryu Spaeth in The New Republic, describes the worst aspects of self-aware writing as such:

The problem is the defensive postures that all the self-awareness seems to produce, among characters and the writers who create them: squirmy half-apologies, self-deprecating irony, piously articulated desires to do better, and, perhaps, an implication that self-awareness is “enough”—that simply acknowledging one’s luck amid the world’s cavalcade of injustice might count as doing something to make it better.

In the same essay, a review of Eula Biss’s recent book Having and Being Had, Fischer recalls Amanda Hess’s piercing observation from 2018 identifying “the obligatory paragraph in much online personal writing now—the one where the writer flogs herself for her privilege, ticks off all of her structural advantages, and basically argues against herself writing the piece.” It’s noteworthy that Hess concludes her tweet by describing this type of paragraph as “weird.”

And it is weird—not necessarily that such disclaimers exist but how they’ve formally come about. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, self-awareness, as a literary tic, doesn’t arise out of thin air. Publishing one’s writing demands that one admit to wanting and needing readers; all this genuflecting occurs for some kind of audience.

. . . .

In her review, Waldman delivers this devastating line: “Rooney, like her characters, seems content to perform awareness of inequality, even to exploit it as a device, but not to engage with it as a profound and messy reality.” It’s certainly true that in her books, dinner party conversations and excerpted e-mails aside, the politics of Rooney’s characters are curiously bloodless, appearing as an aesthetic while the real conflicts of the books—the engines that propel the narrative—are frequently television-esque devices like misunderstandings (Normal People) or love triangles (Conversations With Friends). Yet we’re not really privy to Rooney’s political life or even her material one, except for what she reveals in interviews or nonfiction essays. Does the construction of her novels reflect on her personhood? Does knowledge of her politics imply we might have preferred the text constructed differently? Dancing along this line of inquiry—one that probes for evidence of an author’s ideological preferences and inconsistencies—naturally presents the temptation to get in a dig at the author herself, which critics have always been fond of doing and audiences, especially, of reading.

Link to the rest at The Nation

PG notes that, at least in the United States, snottiness has become much more prevalent over the past several months.

He also wonders how many readers really care whether “the construction of her novels reflect on [the author’s] personhood” or not or whether “knowledge of her politics imply we might have preferred the text constructed differently? Dancing along this line of inquiry—one that probes for evidence of an author’s ideological preferences and inconsistencies—naturally presents the temptation to get in a dig at the author herself.”

Why have so many people adopted the habit of criticizing others for “evidence of [their] ideological preferences and inconsistencies” lately?

Has the philosophy of “live and let live” completely died? Has the culture moved into an age during which only one view or opinion is the proper one?

Has who is a kulak and who is not become the most important categorization of another in a binary society?

Or, perhaps, is this just a collection of symptoms of a new and dangerous wave of mass derangement?

PG is, unfortunately, reminded of the precursors to mass movements and hatreds generated by Hitler and Mussolini over 70 years ago.

Seeing the Book Biz from Both Sides Now

From Publishers Weekly:

Elisabeth Sifton, who edited three of my books and died a year ago, used to put a big X in the margin whenever I mentioned a book that a writer had published. “Writers don’t publish books!” she’d say. “Publishers publish books.” I would dutifully change the wording, but I have to confess that I didn’t understand exactly what she meant—as, indeed, most authors don’t understand what publishers do, other than give them material to complain about.

Well, now I know. Five years ago, with a small group of colleagues, I started a publishing enterprise called Columbia Global Reports. We bring out novella-length works of serious nonfiction—26 thus far—on a wide variety of topics. We began with a charge, and financial support, from Columbia University’s president, Lee Bollinger, who was concerned about the severe contraction of the American press at a time when the immediacy of large international challenges was increasing. Our books are paperbacks, attractively designed and produced in a uniform format, usually based on original on-site reporting that we pay for rather than asking our authors to cover expenses out of their advances.

Doing this work has given me a view of publishing from the other side—the publishers’ side—even as I have continued to write books of my own for other publishers. What is it that publishers know, and do, that writers don’t fully grasp? I can answer that, at least to some extent.

A quick word, though, from where authors are coming from. Authors are like actors, perpetually aware that many more people want to do what we do than the world has room for. Editors and publishers have jobs. We don’t. We feel our status to be eternally provisional.

Being a publisher has changed my attitude about the writer’s place in the world, and it may be useful and encouraging to know what it is that gives a writer real value to publishers. At Columbia Global Reports, we are looking for writers who can do firsthand reporting in faraway places, make original arguments about major issues, and write prose that is a pleasure to read. That combination of skills is very, very difficult to find; anybody who has all three, or even two out of three, is a rare talent, for whose time and energy we always find ourselves competing against others who also want them.

Journalists who write books—that’s most of our authors at Columbia Global Reports—often complain that book publishers edit and fact-check their work far less than a traditional news organization would. As a publisher, it’s easy for me to see where this evidently odd feature of book publishing comes from. Though book publishing is famously dominated by five big companies, the actual work of getting a book out is strikingly decentralized. Small publishers like us have access to an amazing array of service providers who aren’t publishers themselves—such as, in our case, Publishers Group West, which functions as our sales force, and Strick & Williams, which designs our books. As a nonprofit publisher, we can afford to invest in editing and fact-checking, but the one essential function that can’t be outsourced is establishing the identity of the house and drawing attention to its work. Seeing that firsthand has cleared up the mystery (for an author like me) of why acquiring and marketing are the primary tasks for publishers.

. . . .

Are you active on social media? Great. Can you produce an op-ed-length version of the core argument of your book? Even better. Are you adept at being interviewed? Will you turn in a very complete version of your author questionnaire?

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

When PG read the last paragraph of the excerpt above, the first thought that came to his mind was, “Now what is it that traditional publishers actually bring to the table for an author?”

Pandemic Speeds Americans’ Embrace of Digital Commerce

PG doesn’t usually post excerpts of more than one Wall Street Journal each day, but thinks this one includes important information that, among other things, does not bode well for traditional bookstores and (he suspects) physical books.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Brooke Mallers recently bought a used car online, she uses food and grocery delivery services more and she makes telehealth appointments—new habits that she expects to last long after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever go into a car dealership again,” said the 58-year-old retired investor in Boulder, Colo. “It was fun to have an experience that’s new and the internet enables.”

The pandemic’s disruptions have transformed how American consumers behave by accelerating their embrace of digital commerce, and the changes are likely to prove permanent, according to businesses studying and adapting to the changes.

A recent survey by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that about three out of four people have tried a new shopping method due to the coronavirus and that more than half of all consumers intend to continue using curbside pickup and grocery-delivery services after the pandemic is over. Nearly 70% of consumers surveyed intend to continue buying online for store pickup.

The pandemic collapsed into three months a process of adopting e-commerce that otherwise would have taken 10 years in the U.S., the firm concluded.

. . . .

The lockdowns, social distancing and other effects of the crisis forced many consumers to try online shopping, medical appointments, yoga classes and tutoring services. And people new to the e-commerce game are “finding out it’s pretty useful,” said Brian Ruwadi, a senior partner at McKinsey.

This spurred businesses to step up their digital services. “You see significant movement on both sides, and that has to result in a significant increase, a fundamental shift in acceleration,” he said of the changes in business and consumer behavior.

“Consumers won’t go back to shopping the way they did before the pandemic,” said Stefan Larsson, the president of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger parent PVH Corp. “They will go forward into the new normal.”

. . . .

The rapid transition has positioned some businesses to thrive and grow, while others struggle or fail, reflecting the broader economy’s K-shaped recovery. Among the winners are those facilitating the shifts, including online retailers and service providers, technology firms and companies delivering the goods people are buying online. Peloton Interactive Inc. said its revenue more than tripled to $757.9 million in the September quarter. The company is capitalizing on surging demand for at-home fitness equipment, much of it internet-connected like its exercise bikes.

Faltering businesses include those unable to make the transition, such as many restaurants and bricks-and-mortar stores. Retail-store closings in the U.S. reached a record in the first half of 2020, and the year is on pace for record bankruptcies and liquidations, according to a report on the downturn’s severity.

Some pandemic-driven changes in what people spend money on may prove temporary, such as the shift away from activities requiring proximity to other people. With many Americans still shunning air travel and indoor dining, and with entertainment ticket windows still dark from Disneyland Park to Broadway, consumers spent 7.2% less on services in the third quarter than a year before. That left money to boost purchases of goods by 6.9% over the same period. But much of this could reverse once the virus is subdued.

Meantime, the change in how they buy things looks more lasting and spans generations.

“I will never go to a grocery store again in my life because it’s just so convenient and easy” to shop online, said Allan Schilter, an 81-year-old retired accountant in Springfield, Mo.

Mr. Schilter picks up his groceries curbside at Walmart, after ordering them online. “It’s safer; you don’t have to go into the store.”

E-commerce’s share of U.S. retail sales rose to 16.1% in the second quarter of this year, from 10.8% a year earlier and 0.9% of total retail sales two decades ago, according to the Commerce Department.

. . . .

Emily Kennedy said she is glad the pandemic prompted her to start ordering groceries.

“Being forced into that situation made me realize how much time I was spending every week walking those aisles,” said Ms. Kennedy, president of Marinus Analytics, an artificial-intelligence company. “People are realizing the time they save and the money they save,” said the 30-year old, who lives near Denver. “Once they get it, they’re reluctant to give it back later on.”

Shifts in consumer behavior are driving development of new distribution methods, such as online-only stores, or “dark stores,” where online purchases are gathered by workers for distribution to customers. Shoppers aren’t allowed in to browse the shelves or squeeze the fruit.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Retail Chains Shed Stores, but It Isn’t Good for Business

From The Wall Street Journal:

Retailers’ preferred solution for empty stores may only be adding to their problems, according to new research and industry executives.

Retail chains have announced thousands of closures this year after closing a record number of stores last year, as the pandemic crimps demand for nonessential items and shopping continues to migrate online.

The hope is that by cutting expenses associated with physical locations, the chains can become more profitable and start growing sales again as customer purchases shift to their remaining locations and websites. But that rarely happens, according to new research and interviews with industry executives.

“Closing stores isn’t going to solve a retailer’s underlying problems,” said Stephen Sadove, the former chief executive of Saks Inc. “You have to look at why the stores aren’t performing. What is their competitive advantage and their reason for being?”

Even before the pandemic, retailers were closing stores at a record pace. U.S. chains announced the closure of 9,275 outlets last year, the most since Coresight Research Inc. began tracking the figures in 2012. The tally exceeds 8,000 stores so far this year, according to Coresight.

The health of the industry will be on display this week as chains from Walmart Inc. to Macy’s Inc. report quarterly earnings, with the holiday shopping season already under way. Chains began offering Black-Friday-type discounts in October, instead of waiting until the traditional day after Thanksgiving.

Retailers that closed stores in recent years often continued to shrink, sometimes to the point of disappearing altogether, according to research from Citigroup Inc. and BMO Capital Markets.

. . . .

“No retailer ever announces one round of store cuts—it’s always the precursor to a store bleed,” said Simeon Siegel, a BMO senior analyst. “Most companies we looked at had lower revenue and profit than before they started closing stores.”

. . . .

The rise of e-commerce put an end to the store-opening juggernaut. As consumers bought more online, they visited physical stores less, making them less productive and more costly to operate. That led chains to close hundreds of locations with the hopes of stabilizing profits. For some, the strategy hastened their decline.

“When you look at all the retailers that are closing stores now, it’s easy to forget that so many have tried this in the past and they aren’t around anymore,” Citigroup analyst Paul Lejuez said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)