Life Behind the Iron Curtain

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
By Vladimir Voinovich (1969)

Most Soviet satires feature a protagonist of (at least) average intelligence who can comment on the inadequacies of the communist system. But Ivan Chonkin is more of an Ivan the Fool, the archetype of Russian folklore. When the Red Army deploys him to the countryside to guard a downed plane and then forgets about him, the bowlegged soldier must fend for himself. But Chonkin, determined to fulfill his one and only order, eventually becomes the target of the (equally inept) secret police. First circulated in samizdat, “Ivan Chonkin” criticizes Stalinist Russia’s most sacred institutions, prime among them the Red Army and the secret police. In the novel an ex-prisoner exalts labor camps as a better alternative to regular life: “Movies, amateur shows, a bath every ten days. The amateur shows are better than we’ve got in the city. We had one People’s Artist in the camp and two Honored Artists and I didn’t keep track of how many plain regular ones.”

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

Farm Girl, A Wisconsin Memoir

From The New York Times:

My grandfather died many years ago, but I still remember his stories of growing up in the Texas Hill Country in the early 20th century, walking two miles each way to a one-room schoolhouse and doing chores that were, to me, unfathomable: making laundry soap out of lard and lye, plucking chickens, hauling water from the well. I thought of him often as I read “Farm Girl,” Carlson’s spare, charming memoir of her Depression-era childhood.

Carlson grew up on her parents’ farm outside Plum City in western Wisconsin, where she was born in 1926. (Family lore has it that the doctor who delivered her exclaimed: “Well, this is a nice, big one! Nine or 10 pounds.”) She and her three siblings roamed through “80 acres of beautiful, rich, fertile Wisconsin cropland, pasture and woodlot” while their parents shielded them from the worst economic woes of the period. Her memories, mostly rosy, are punctuated by descriptions of the era’s terrible droughts. “We could hear the cattle bawling as they searched the dry pastures for a bit of grass,” she recalls, and “we saw the leaves on the stunted corn plants in the sun-baked fields curl to conserve moisture.”

“Farm Girl” isn’t chronological. It’s split into two sections — one on her family, the other on the seasonal rhythms that define life on a farm — and divided into thematic chapters, some as short as two pages: “The Party Line Telephone,” “Butternuts and Maple Sugar Candy,” “Sunday Dinner,” “Long Underwear” (“nothing, nothing separated the farm kids from the town kids like the dreaded long underwear … the scourge of Wisconsin winters”).

Link to the rest at The New York Times

For those who have never lived in a place with extremely cold winters, long underwear is an important winterwear component. If the electricity goes out or the schoolbus becomes stranded during a cold snap, long underwear can become very important.

That said, long underwear is seldom regarded as a fashion-forward piece of clothing other than among the old guys sitting around a hot wood stove at the local grain elevator, spinning stores about the winters of their childhoods when winters were really something and, when you woke up, crawled out from under five or six blankets and your bare feet hit the linoleum floor, you got dressed in a big hurry, then went out to help your father thaw out the water pump because Mom couldn’t make oatmeal without water and refused to use melted snow because who knew what might have been done on that exact spot by some creature or another.

Who wants to hear

Who wants to hear about brave deeds when he’s ashamed of his own, and who likes an open, honest tale from someone he’s deceiving?

Watership Down

Watership Down author’s estate wins back all rights to classic novel

From The Guardian:

The estate of Watership Down author Richard Adams has won back all of the rights to the late author’s classic novel about anthropomorphised rabbits, in a high court ruling against the director of the famed animated adaptation.

The high court in London ruled on 27 May that Martin Rosen, the US director of the 1978 adaptation of Adams’s novel, had wrongly claimed that he owned all rights to the book, in which a group of rabbits fight to survive the destruction of their warren.

The court heard that Rosen, who owned the motion picture rights to Watership Down under his original 1976 contract, had entered into contracts worth more than $500,000 (£400,975) while claiming that he held all rights to the novel. Rosen also made $85,000 from an unauthorised licence for an audiobook adaptation, and also failed to pay the estate fees and merchandising royalties from the 2018 BBC/Netflix television adaptation, on which he served as an executive producer.

In his ruling, Judge Hacon ordered Rosen and his companies to pay an initial $100,000 in damages for copyright infringement, agreeing unauthorised license deals and denying royalty payments. Rosen and his companies were also directed to provide a record of all license agreements involving Watership Down, and pay court costs and the estate’s legal fees totalling £28,000. Rosen is set to pay additional damages, to be determined at a later hearing.

The court also terminated the original contract in which motion picture rights for Watership Down were granted to Rosen.

. . . .

“As custodians of this most beloved novel, our family has an obligation to protect the publishing and other rights for Watership Down and to preserve the essence of our father’s creation,” Johnson said. “After many years trying to resolve matters directly with Martin Rosen, we are extremely pleased with the high court’s ruling. We can now look forward to the future and develop new projects that honour the powerful and pertinent messages of Watership Down about the environment, leadership and friendship.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Johnson said she was “utterly exhausted … it has taken a long time to pull it all together and say, dad didn’t get his due.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Lockdown diaries: the book marketer

From The Bookseller:

If you’d asked me how I was coping a month ago, the truth would have been not so well actually. I let the anxiety that so many of us have been feeling overwhelm me, and I was tired of all the Zoom. SO TIRED.

I was pretty good at keeping ‘work’ at ‘work’ before all this – I’d just stay in the office late before going to the theatre, a gig or dance class. I worked late a lot. My brain likes being alive in the evening. I was made for the London culture life! So what happens when that’s taken away? The PMS Pandemic breakdown is what happens. And what a rollercoaster of emotions that was.

Today I’m working hard on keeping balance and boundaries in place. I’m grateful for the new ‘hide self view’ update in Zoom – I love seeing other people but I found it tiring to see myself, I know I’m not alone in this. I never really took proper lunch breaks in the office, now I’m militant about that full hour. Ten minutes of morning yoga has become such a habit that I automatically roll out my yoga mat after making my bed now. Every morning. WHO am I?!

Usborne recently held a well-being seminar as part of Mental Health Awareness week, and I discovered the word bibliotherapy. Isn’t that lovely? I’ve never really been that much of a self-help reader but that’s what I’ve found myself steering towards during these times. I’ve felt the need to educate and reflect. If you’ve been feeling similar, I’d highly recommend listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on overwhelm in the time of Covid19. It’s wonderful, and might just be the conversation you also need to hear today.

Speaking of conversations, have you found that we’re having more valuable ones? As a marketer, the audience is always at the forefront of your mind, however, never have I felt such a strong desire to be truly connecting with them. I run a niche YA Instagram channel, which I often just about found the time to fit it in around campaigns, however the moment lockdown was announced my approach to this social channel changed. I officially introduced myself as a person to our followers in week 1 by sharing my private collection of comfort reads, and the conversations have blossomed from there. We’re ten weeks into the Usborne YA Social Distance Bookstagram Bingo and I cannot begin to express just how amazing these discussions have been.

Although I may be struggling to get through books at the pace I once did, I’m certainly not finding it difficult to talk about them. And that’s a marvelous thing. Thanks to the conversations I’ve had with our readers the last few months, we’ve collaboratively built The Usborne YA Book Club. It launches in a few weeks and I’m really excited to see how this grows and what learnings crop up.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Book Promotion 2020

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

They worked in Manhattan, which was too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. They didn’t make enough money to buy their own apartments downtown, but they’d never think of moving to Brooklyn or Queens or any of the outer boroughs. Mummy and Daddy had the money, boatloads of it in many cases, and Mummy and Daddy believed in appearances. So, if Second Son needed a place to live, well, then let’s just buy him something in the right neighborhood, so that he can live in relative comfort.

Second Son had use of the summer house upstate or in the Hamptons (before, y’know, it got discovered by [sniff] celebrities) and in due time, Second Son and the wife would move to Connecticut to raise the kids, commute into the City to do Important Work.

What Important Work? Publishing, of course. Perfect work for the Second Son or the Third Son or the Fourth. Perfect way to use that expensive education without really going into Trade or soiling the hands on something a little less…dignified.

Most of the people running publishing companies in those days were the children of old money who were not expected to make a profit at what they did. They were expected to do good work, to influence the culture, to put their minds and hearts behind good (or at least the right sort of) causes.

The people who started or ran the companies were, for the most part, male. All of them were white. And only a handful—the most innovative (and the most underrated)—were not from old money. Ian and Betty Ballantine, for instance, started Ballantine Books in their apartment in 1952, which was not the way most publishing houses started in those times. Ian and Betty were the anomalies.

The children of old money were not anomalies. Their influence pervades publishing even now, when all that remains of their companies are dusty old names that have long since been sold to corporations.

When I came into the business, though, handshake agreements were common, particularly with agents, who talked about things like “gentlemen’s agreements,” and “honor,” even though most of them had as much honor as any thief.

The publishers, though, the publishers truly were not interested in making a profit. They wanted enough money to keep their Manhattan offices, and to publish prestige products. They liked bestsellers, although they often manipulated the lists so that the worthy books could be considered bestsellers, and they really liked dominating the conversation around the entire country.

The books that made profits for the publishing houses—well, we don’t discuss those much. The “trashy” novels. Science fiction. Mystery. Romance. The [sniff] genre titles, they funded the literary titles, and made the prestige books possible.

But, long about sixty years ago, the culture was changing. The masses—always a problem when it came to prestige products—had a lot of disposable income, and wanted—not the most prestigious book—but something fun to read. Sure, they bought the prestige book, and displayed it on the coffee table so that their neighbors thought they were erudite, but the books they read lurked in the bedroom closet or the enclosed end table or the basement, and those had lurid covers and shocking subheadings.

The problem was that a lot of the racks around the nation that handled books wanted books to sell, not books to impress. The handful of bookstores weren’t enough to make the requisite amount of sales, so somehow, these publishers had to convince the department store book departments and the grocery stores and drug stores and the truck stops to take prestige books.

Truck stops never did, and neither did drug stores, but department stores…they could be lured by prestige. Just like university bookstores and libraries—with the right promotion.

What was the right promotion? Well, that was the question, wasn’t it, in a mass market world. How to make books that are good for you, or at least books written by the right sort (our kind of people) sell better than they naturally would.

The editors who actually believed in the product, and the sales force who were, in those days, an actual force, unique to the company, had the job of making those books profitable. And sometimes, that was impossible. 

. . . .

A lot of things were tried, and a lot of things failed. But the successful things, well, some were done utilizing the Right People Who Had Jobs in the Right Places, things such as:

  • Convincing that one reviewer to read the book and maybe, in exchange for a lovely lunch, write a slightly more positive review than usual.
  • Planting interviews in the right magazines and newspapers, read by the right people
  • Sending copies to the influential bookstores ahead of publication, so that the store owner felt involved in the process and might encourage the influential in the community (including the reviewer at the local paper) to cover the book.
  • Sending the author to universities, to talk to professors and other influencers (although that term wasn’t used then).
  • Sending the author, and copies of the book, to the influential bookstores. Initially, the authors gave lectures there as well, but most authors are dull as dishwater even when someone poured a lot of liquor into them, so the talks evolved into signings only, and more than one per day.

. . . .

But for the most part, the book publicity you still see today started around 1955 or so, and changed only as book buying changed. The sales force went away—why have a sales force when all you had to do was sell to the single buyer for the nationwide chain? And then the right magazines became shadows of themselves, the struggling newspapers cut their book sections, and the author tour became a way to get bookstores around the country to order enough copies of the book to get on the New York Times list.

But that was that.

Ads on television, still in its infancy in 1960, didn’t really work, especially with Our Sort, because television by its very nature appealed to the masses. Jaqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls, revolutionized book publicity, but it was commonly accepted that she wrote trash, and the techniques she used were unique to her.

(They weren’t. They were the same techniques most companies used at the time to sell any brand name item. Techniques all snubbed by traditional publishers at the time because of the whiff of the masses…snubbed until they actually needed those techniques to get their books on the shelves.)

Book publishing rolled in a few more techniques—the book fairs, like the LA Book Fair and a few other “accepted” methods of promotion—but for the most part, until January 2020, the promotion done for books by traditional publishers was the same kind of promotion done by traditional publishers 60 years ago.

. . . .

Only now, the Right People don’t control the media. Corporations do. And there’s too many diverse voices and too many influencers not under the control of Our Sort.

The right magazines are gone. The newspaper book sections are gone or styled back to one review.

But that doesn’t matter. The booksellers…they’re Our Sort. They will come through. We can market to them, support them against the Big Evil Amazon, and our books will sell enough to make a decent profit, enough to keep our little division of our books in the black.

Let the authors handle the online promotion. We’ll set up a book tour, and maybe some direct-to-bookstore marketing, and all will be well.

But problems lurked on the horizon.

Bookstores were struggling. Big or little, it doesn’t matter. Barnes & Noble, the last big store, was being mismanaged into oblivion. The little stores were hanging on by finding their niche, but that niche wasn’t always The Right Book. Some of the most successful stores were genre—mystery, science fiction, and quite often, romance.

Even so, they weren’t making a big profit, and it had become a sad ironic joke in the industry that book buyers would use the stores to pick up a book, maybe read the opening, and then order the ebook online. Or the hardcover from Amazon, where the price was half of what the bookstore was doing.

Still, the book tours continued and the promotion wheel geared up, and writers occasionally appeared on the Today show (but not on Ellen or any of the talk shows, which were more focused on performing than ever).

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

PG keeps thinking one day he’ll disagree with one of the posts Kris writes about the book business, but he’s probably wrong.

The “business” end of the traditional book business is full of people who would have a difficult time being hired by any revenue-generating employer other than a publisher. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, they genuinely believe they are good business people despite growing evidence to the contrary.

Jeff Bezos knows how to sell books. Random House, not so much.

For visitors to TPV who may be aghast at PG’s opinion, he would ask how many books Amazon sells each year vs. how many books a traditional publisher sells each year.

Ditto for how many books Amazon sells each year vs. how many books Barnes & Noble sells each year.

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

What Could Kill My New York Bookstores?

From The New York Times:

Every weekday I drive to my four bookstores, pick up our customers’ orders, wedge them into the back of my car and take them to the Cooper Station post office. My route takes me to Williamsburg to Downtown Brooklyn to the South Street Seaport, and ends at my original store in NoLIta.

I sweep the deserted sidewalks — if you own a shop, you’re responsible for the sidewalk — and I wonder how many of the stores and restaurants around mine will be able to reopen and pay the debts they accrued during the lockdown.

So many closed long before the pandemic. I miss my old neighbors in NoLIta, the restaurants and their chefs, the bodega that magically had everything I needed, like Mary Poppins’s carpetbag, the Buddhist monk from the Tibetan store who gave me cardamom for tea, the bar where I had the most beautiful date of my life.

How many more distinctive stores and restaurants can our city lose before we find that we are no longer New York, but a dead-faced simulacrum?

. . . .

Years before Covid, many city blocks had been reduced to a few overlit national chains — Dunkin’ Donuts, Metro by T-Mobile, Subway, Starbucks — and a whole lot of dark, depressing vacancies. Almost every business owner I spoke to or read about seemed to give the same reason: soaring rents. In some neighborhoods, even as vacancies are increasing, rent keeps rising.

When you think about it, this violates everything we think we know about free markets. From 2007 to 2017, vacant retail space roughly doubled, according to a report by the New York City Comptroller’s Office. Logic would dictate that rents would drop — if no one wants your space, wouldn’t you lower the rent? But in fact, in Manhattan, retail rents rose by 22 percent in that period, according to the report.

In 2018, even the national chains began closing more spaces than they opened. Rents have come down somewhat in a few heavy shopping arteries, but on the streets where I was looking to open stores, rents didn’t seem to budge. In 2019, rent for my NoLIta store jumped from $360,000 a year to $650,000.

You might think that small businesses in New York are simply natural victims of a Darwinian system that favors chains and e-commerce. Amazon makes a good villain. Every time I see a postal worker pushing a dolly full of boxes, I search for a single non-Amazon package — just one to break the feeling that I’m trapped in an Amazon-branded virtual reality. I am usually disappointed.

But this hardly explains our rising rents. If New Yorkers insist on shopping online, then there should be less demand for New York retail space, and it should become less valuable, not more. It is natural for landlords to want to charge as much as they can, but in a rational world, with citywide vacancy rates estimated at about 6 percent to 20 percent, you’d think landlords would prefer some rent to no rent. But when landlords have sufficient income from residential rent, they can afford to leave stores vacant.

. . . .

Every part of New York has different issues with real estate, but in the neighborhoods I know, landlords are holding out for higher rents, or they feel they can’t lower our rents because of the terms of their mortgages. That makes us victims of the financial industry, not of the free market.

A lender provides a commercial mortgage based on a building’s appraised value, which is based on its rent roll. If landlords lower rent, their buildings become less valuable. Moreover, if a landlord owns many buildings in the same area, and she lowers the rent on even just a store or two, her entire portfolio loses value in the eyes of the bank, because future appraisals will assume a lower market rental rate. That’s why an empty store that theoretically commands a high rent can be a safer option for a landlord than a reliable tenant paying a reasonable rent.

. . . .

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, have spoken out in favor of a tax on empty storefronts. The District of Columbia imposed a similar tax in 2011, and San Francisco followed suit this year. Although it doesn’t address the mortgage issue, this could be a terrific first step to encourage landlords to charge realistic rents that reflect the actual value of their spaces.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG says that it seems like everything is more complicated in New York City.

That may be one reason why the state of New York has more attorneys than any other state in the United States.

It’s even ahead of California, which is #2, even though California has about twice as many residents as New York does.

Let me write

Let me write the songs of a nation; I don’t care who
writes its laws.

Andrew Fletcher

Girl Decoded

From The Wall Street Journal:

What if the disinterested machines that surround us and encroach on every aspect of our lives were sensitive to our emotional states? Imagine fridges reprimanding us for our furtive late-night snacks. Or cars decelerating when we are anxious, or preventing us from driving when we are distracted. Consider laptops offering gentle words of consolation or praise, or washing machines groaning with indignation and wristwatches chastising us for our misdemeanors and lack of attention.

In “Girl Decoded,” Rana el Kaliouby’s compelling vision of an emotionally imbued future for artificial intelligence, indifferent machines are elevated into magnificent humanlike creations. While lacking—for now—the authentic emotions of their human counterparts, emotionally enhanced automatons might nevertheless do a perfectly good job of imitating them.

Such devices, in addition to invigorating human-machine relations, have the potential to convey emotional awareness to people—such as those with autism—who struggle to navigate routine emotions. They may also help track emotional states, predict depressive crises and detect the loss of emotional expression that often accompanies diseases like Parkinson’s. Marketing companies could engage them to evaluate reactions to new products. Had Shakespeare’s Othello possessed such a device, he might have been better equipped to understand Desdemona’s intentions. But how might such an imagined world of machine-facilitated emotional enlightenment be brought to fruition?

Ms. el Kaliouby’s brilliance is demonstrated in the simplicity of her solution. While earning her doctorate at Cambridge University, she learned the importance of nonverbal information as she communicated with her geographically distant family back home. She suspected the intricate facial muscles that enable us to grimace, smile, laugh and frown might provide a conduit into the lexicon of human emotions. Once a range of expressions is defined, they could be incorporated into the anatomical structures of emotionally enabled automatons.

Former archivists of the anatomy of emotions, such as Charles Bell in “Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting” (1806) and Charles Darwin in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872), established the foundations of the science of emotions. Darwin’s unique use of photographic representations was itself rooted in artistic exposition, perhaps influenced by the drawings of the Renaissance painter Giovanni Agostino da Lodi, whose early-16th-century “A Man With Eyes Shut Tight” documented a dystonic facial expression in a remarkable level of detail.

A Man With Eyes Shut Tight
Giovanni Agostino da Lodi

Inspired by Rosalind Picard’s seminal book “Affective Computing” (1997)—which emphasized the importance of emotions to intelligence, rational decision-making, perception and learning, and reimagined our relationship with machines—Ms. el Kaliouby set out to construct a “mind-reading machine” or “emotion decoder” based on the deciphering of facial features. Given the potential universality of emotions, such a device would need to be relevant to all ethnic groups and cultures.

[Note: PG couldn’t find the book. The link to Affective Computing goes to a 1995 paper published in the M.I.T Media Laboratory Perceptual Computing Section Technical Report No. 321]

A fortuitous encounter with Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism expert, led Ms. el Kaliouby to his unique archive of videos that captured people displaying a wide range of emotions. With the help of sophisticated machine-learning algorithms, and later innovations while she was a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, Ms. el Kaliouby’s machines eventually learned to recognize a rudimentary “emotional palette” encompassing six different human emotional categories.

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

The reference to Dystonia in the the OP in connection with the image of the man with his eyes shut sent PG down a Dystonia rabbit hole.

From The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

What is dystonia?

Dystonia is a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions that cause slow repetitive movements or abnormal postures. The movements may be painful, and some individuals with dystonia may have a tremor or other neurologic features. There are several different forms of dystonia that may affect only one muscle, groups of muscles, or muscles throughout the body. Some forms of dystonia are genetic but the cause for the majority of cases is not known.

What are the symptoms?

Dystonia can affect many different parts of the body, and the symptoms are different depending upon the form of dystonia. Early symptoms may include a foot cramp or a tendency for one foot to turn or drag—either sporadically or after running or walking some distance—or a worsening in handwriting after writing several lines.  In other instances, the neck may turn or pull involuntarily, especially when the person is tired or under stress. Sometimes both eyes might blink rapidly and uncontrollably; other times, spasms will cause the eyes to close.  Symptoms may also include tremor or difficulties speaking.  In some cases, dystonia can affect only one specific action, while allowing others to occur unimpeded.  For example, a musician may have dystonia when using her hand to play an instrument, but not when using the same hand to type.  The initial symptoms can be very mild and may be noticeable only after prolonged exertion, stress, or fatigue.  Over a period of time, the symptoms may become more noticeable or widespread; sometimes, however, there is little or no progression. Dystonia typically is not associated with problems thinking or understanding, but depression and anxiety may be present.

Following is another example of dystonic facial expression depicted in art. According to Google Translate, the meaning of hargneux includes surly, aggressive, fractious, angry, snappish, crabbed, waspish or shrewish. A snarling dog is sometimes called a hargneux.

Chien hargneux a toujours les oreilles déchirées translates to “A snarling dog always has torn ears.”

Le hargneux (Soult)
Honoré Daumier

According to PG’s quick and dirty research, Soult refers to French Marshal General Jean-de-Dieu Soult (1769-1851), described as Napoleon’s most able Marshal. Soult appears to carry a secondary meaning of a stern or aggressive appearance. PG is happy to have any of his errors corrected in the comments.

The Pandemic’s ‘Acceleration of Trends’

From Publishing Perspectives about the ‘Digital Publishing Summit / Readmagine 2020:

Today (June 2), Wischenbart has given a Presentation of the Digital Consumer Book Barometer in the first of the day’s two sessions. A man of several brands, Wischenbart produces, among them, the Digital Consumer Book Barometer as one of his projects. Others are the Global Ebook Report and the Global 50 Ranking of the Publishing Industry, along with Frankfurter Buchmesse’s CEO Talks series.

. . . .

The “barometer” looks at developments relative to ebooks and audiobooks primarily in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—the German-language core markets, in other words—with additional input from Italy, Spain, Brazil, and Mexico.

And in the case of this year’s report, it’s important to note that Wischenbart’s observations take us to the time just before the world pandemic of the coronavirus COVID-19 began to lock down the hardest-hit markets on which the report focuses. In that sense, then, the research can be seen as a kind of baseline before the damage—in some cases wreckage—would begin to upend publishing in the Worldometer system tracks as 213 countries and territories.

. . . .

Wischenbart tells Publishing Perspectives in an exchange prior to his presentation online today, that the status quo before the COVID-19 crises was already characterized by “some significant developments and challenges.” He lists:

  • A growing pressure on prices in the digital offer
  • Consumers who naturally switch between digital and analog formats
  • Consumers who similarly switch between reading and listening—or may be gradually changing their primary mode
  • Purchase vs. subscription
  • Streaming capabilities and library lending
  • Steady growth in downloaded audiobook sales, although the format’s sector remains a small percentage of most markets—in the audio-friendly US market, for example, 8.9 percent in March, per the Association of American Publishers’ StatShot

“These trends and patterns shaped the year 2019,” Wischenbart says. “It’s to be expected that these deep shifts will have an even greater impact on publishers and retailers in 2020″—and that would have been the case even had a novel coronavirus not imposed historic barriers to sales and production worldwide.

Another interesting, associated effect of the pandemic was the UK government’s sudden decision to drop its VAT on digital reading seven months before it had been planned, to help locked down readers find safe digital reading material while being asked to stay home. That was a case of a long-overdue correction to an anomaly in a market that long had charged zero VAT for print, but 20 percent for digital products.

. . . .

“Publishers certainly earn money with higher-priced offers with comparatively low sales,” Wischenbart says, “up to €15 euros for an ebook and more than €20 euros per download for the audiobook. But the price trend was clearly pointing downward.”

Wischenbart says he sees a hardening of the price ceiling in Spain and Italy, he says, where before the pandemic hit, €10 had become the most that consumers would pay to download an ebook. And overall, he says, the trend was universal toward “the cheapest offers” in the digital markets he was studying.

. . . .

The importance of bestsellers, Wischenbart says, has generally been seen to increase in ebooks much more than in audiobooks. In audio, in the markets he’s looking at, he says he sees romance, children’s and YA books, the midlist and backlist being more prominent than bestsellers.

. . . .

Like most specialists, Wischenbart says he sees an upturn in digital reading consumption during the pandemic. This is something stressed by Xu Hai of China’s vast Phoenix Publishing & Media in his interview with us for our Coronavirus Worklife series.

Wischenbart agrees, though, of course, that it’s yet to be seen how lasting the virus-driven changes in consumer behavior may be.

And as he looks forward to what may be effects in play from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, he lists:

  • The question (as raised by Xu Hai in China) of hybrid users: are consumers who may have been print-bound, so to speak, now more open to digital–and even more attracted to digital?
  • Ever greater competition between various media, formats, and the battle for consumers’ attention and time—what Rakuten Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn (who speaks on Thursday for Readmagine) has called “the attention economy” in which all publishers must “fight for time,” the limited time of consumers
  • More competition between established “core actors” in the publishing space and newcomers, new entrants into the markets

. . . .

[T]he overriding impact of the pandemic on digital publishing might be as an accelerant. The advent of the inconveniences and impositions of the locked down experience may have caused existing trends such as more segmentation between consumer sectors to speed up.

If indeed the pandemic has collapsed time in speeding up consumer adoption of one form of reading or to speed up consumer transfer from, say, reading to more film and television consumption, then the most watchful and agile publishers are the ones who’ll be ready to respond as these effects become more evident.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

21 Excellent Books with Happy Endings

From BookRiot:

If there’s ever been a time to escape into book with happy endings, it’s now. 2020 is not the time for novels that ambush us with anything less than that. Romance novels are a good bet – a happy ending being the defining attribute of the genre – and so, in a way, are murder mysteries, where we know the killer will be caught and justice will be done. At Book Riot, we’ve put together a list of books with happy endings for a heartwarming read. No spoilers here, so I won’t tell you why the ending is happy – though in some cases, like those romance novels, it’s more obvious than others.

. . . .

THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER BY EMILY X. R. PAN

Although the theme of this book is grief, the ending is redemptive – after losing her mother to suicide, Leigh Chen Sanders finds herself through family history, art, and love.

THE BOOKISH LIFE OF NINA HILL BY ABBI WAXMAN

This book made me feel like I’d been hugged when I finished it. It’s the perfect tonic for these times – the story of a young, introverted bookworm whose life is turned upside down when she discovers a whole family she never knew she had. She also meets a boy at her trivia night and has to help her bookstore fight closure, but beyond all the adventures it’s the warm and witty voice that really does it for me.

. . . .

THE COLOR OF BEE LARKHAM’S MURDER BY SARAH J. HARRIS

Jasper is face blind. He also has synaesthesia, which means he sees the world in more colour than neurotypical people: feelings can be red, and voices can be cobalt blue, like his mother’s, whom he deeply misses. This one is a mystery with a happy ending – it’s not just about solving the mystery of Bee Larkham’s murder, but also about Jasper growing, and his dad learning to

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Comments vs. Spam Filter

PG found some comments by long-time visitors to TPV that for some reason, became enmeshed in the TPV spam folder.

TPV has been receiving particularly large amounts of spam lately (as well increased numbers of hack attacks from various parts of the world), so, perhaps the guardians of the blog have become exhausted and a bit inaccurate.

All is fixed and the wrongly-accused comments have been approved. PG apologizes on behalf of his system, including its various servers and each of its guardians.

The Windy City

Excerpt from The Windy City, a poem by Carl Sandburg, published in a book titled Slabs of the Sunburnt West:

It is easy to come here a stranger and show the whole
works, write a book, fix it all up–it is easy to come
and go away a muddle-headed pig, a bum and a
bag of wind.

Go to it and remember this city fished from its
depths a text: “independent as a hog on ice.”
Venice is a dream of soft waters, Vienna and Bagdad
recollections of dark spears and wild turbans; Paris
is a thought in Monet gray on scabbards, fabrics,
façades; London is a fact in a fog filled with the
moaning of transatlantic whistles; Berlin sits amid
white scrubbed quadrangles and torn arithmetics and
testaments; Moscow brandishes a flag and repeats a
dance figure of a man who walks like a bear.
Chicago fished from its depths a text: Independent
as a hog on ice.

Link to the rest at Slabs of the Sunburnt West

And, a better known Sandburg poem about Chicago.

Chicago

Hog Butcher for the World,
   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
   Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
   Stormy, husky, brawling,
   City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
   Bareheaded,
   Shoveling,
   Wrecking,
   Planning,
   Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
                   Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Radical Publishing in a Pandemic

From Tribune Magazine (UK):

The Covid-19 pandemic has had disastrous consequences across the economy, and with the IMF predicting a 3% contraction of the economy this year, that will only get worse. While this will hit many industries hard, there is a particularly deep fear for those in the relatively privileged cultural industries. Many musicians, DJs, artists and performers have seen their income drastically cut, and with companies across the world scaling back their advertising, and with shops selling non-essential items remaining closed, many magazines and newspapers are facing a threat to their very survival. So far, for the most part, the publishing industry has remained out of the news. Yet in an industry such as this, one whose future already seemed uncertain, squeezed as it is by the Amazon behemoth and huge corporations churning out pulpy biographies and endless cookbooks, the results could be just as catastrophic.

Smaller publishers and radical publishers, in many ways the cultural and intellectual lifeblood of the industry, face particularly increasingly uncertain times ahead. Often with tiny backlists, and little to no cash reserves, any halt to their distribution can be disastrous. While many of the major publishers have decided to delay the release of their big summer titles to later in the year, in the meantime hoping to ride out the uncertainty, for smaller houses the choice is far starker.

Kit Caless runs the small London publisher Influx Press. He describes the situation as “savage.” “In terms of trade sales we’ve gone from a decent January and February to sales disappearing overnight. I’d guess we have 5% trade sales of what we’d usually see in March and April.” Without strong back catalogue favourites to rely on, pushing a title back by just a few months can drastically reduce a publisher’s revenue. Influx have cancelled 25 forthcoming events, including appearances for their authors at major literary festivals. “Coronavirus has changed the atmosphere” says Zeljka Marosevic, the publisher of Daunt Books, “publication dates that seemed appropriate in January 2020 no longer do.” The company, which grew out of the London-based chain of bookshops, have also significantly changed their plans due to the crisis. Books have been pushed back to later in the year, or even into next, and as Marosevic notes the closing of shops has hit them hard – “publishing is social; books are social”

. . . .

Even if a book is published as planned, getting them to customers is proving tricky. One of the major things to note about the current crisis in publishing is not in itself a publishing crisis—yet—it is a crisis of distribution. Books will be printed regardless of the economic circumstances, the question now is how those books reach customers. It is also, as Sarah Braybrooke from British and Australian independent publisher Scribe notes, a question of how resilient smaller publishers will be during the ensuing turmoil. “In general I worry that a lot of companies do not have the cash reserves they need to get through a crisis like this – not just publishers, of course…The loss of enterprise that could come out of this time could diminish our culture in ways that are almost impossible to imagine.”

Link to the rest at Tribune Magazine

In Pandemic, Dystopian Fiction Loses Its Luster for Editors

From Publishers Weekly:

The big adult fiction title of this past fall was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. The sequel to the author’s 1985 bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale was unveiled with a 500,000-copy first printing. At the time, The Handmaid’s Tale was benefitting from a surge of interest in its wildly popular TV adaptation on Hulu, and from a renewed interest in dystopian tales following the election of Donald Trump. Now, with the globe seized by a pandemic and millions of Americans hunkered down because of shelter-at-home orders, editors say they are interested in lighter fare—mostly.

So what are publishers interested in buying during a pandemic? According to a number of editors and agents who specialize in adult commercial fiction, escapism is on the rise, to an extent.

“This is the question I think we’re all dealing with right now,” said Harper editor Sara Nelson, when asked if she’s looking for different kinds of books since the Covid-19 outbreak. “On the one hand, we’re so obsessed with our current moment that it’s hard to know what we, let alone most readers, will want to read a year, or a year and a half, from now. I don’t generally buy dystopian fiction anyway, but I am pretty sure I won’t find dystopian novels appealing for the near future.”

Nelson, who has always loved historical fiction (among her notable acquisitions in the genre is Heather Morris’s bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz), added that she is taking even more comfort in these types of books now as “reading about the past becomes even more appealing as we slide into the murky future.”

Peter Steinberg, an agent at Foundry Literary + Media, said, “When there’s an unexpected shift in society, I think it has an almost real-time effect on editors’ buying habits. Because of the overwhelming nature of Covid-19, escapism is one of the better ways to elicit those intense emotions.”

But many agents and editors warned that escapism is an incredibly broad term—one that makes room for everything from romantic comedies to dark thrillers.

. . . .

When asked what she’s looking to buy right now, Jennifer Enderlin, executive v-p and publisher of St. Martin’s Press, said, “In terms of fiction, I wouldn’t say editors want more uplifting books over thrillers or tear-jerkers.” But, she added, “bad-news books, not so much.”

For Enderlin, the term escapism is problematic, insofar as it confers a certain levity. That, she explained, is not necessarily what she wants now. “Escapism doesn’t have to mean fluffy or light. It can be searing, devastating, romantic, suspenseful, hilarious, or transporting.” She noted that she is seeing a huge uptick in sales of her author Kristin Hannah’s 2015 bestseller The Nightingale, which Enderlin described as a “box-of-tissues read.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From “A Way with Words“:

The job of a network executive has never been easy. Picking a hit is a tall order even for someone with what the industry likes to call a “golden gut”—a knack for sniffing out what’s likely to sell.» —“NBC Seeks Vision of TV’s Future” by Ronald Grover BusinessWeek May 1, 2009.

PG suggests that the golden gut approach to product design and selection is one that is fraught with the potential for serious mistakes. Particularly when acquisition editors at traditional publishers are making decisions about books that are unlikely to appear before a couple of years from now, the view of someone living in a relatively-fashionable part of New York City about what readers will want may be wrong.

Given the social and educational uniformity among New York City publishing executives and editors, their ignorance of serious readers more than 50 miles west of NYC is often profound. For example, what do the editors quoted in the OP know about the tastes of readers in:

  • Ithaca, New York
  • Pittsfield, Massachusetts
  • Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
  • Ames, Iowa
  • Watertown-Fort Drum, New York

These were The Five Most Well-Read Cities in the United States according to a 24/7 Wall Street study published in 2018. (For the benefit of visitors to TPV who are a little vague about Ithaca and Watertown-Fort Drum, Ithaca is about 230 miles from NYC and Watertown-Fort Drum is about 310 miles from NYC. Both cities are closer to Canada than they are to NYC. (Since PG has never visited either Ithaca or Watertown-Ford Drum, he can’t say for certain, but he would bet good money that each place is very unlike NYC.)

A few quotes from the study:

According to the Pew Research Center, only about 1 in 4 Americans read a book in the last year. That statistic includes e-books and audiobooks, not just the printed word.

. . . .

24/7 Wall St. reviewed a number of measures associated with literacy to determine which American metropolitan areas are most likely to read books on a regular basis. These include the presence of public libraries in a city, residents’ education level, and the presence of higher learning institutions. The best-read cities range from small cities like Ithaca, New York to major metropolitan centers like New York CIty and Boston.

According to Pew’s research, households with higher incomes are significantly more likely to read books on a regular basis. In most of the metropolitan areas to make this list, the typical household income well exceeds the national median household income.

According to the same Pew study, approximately 1 in 5 Americans have never visited a library. And slightly less than half of all Americans have been to one in the past year.

Educational attainment has a significant impact on how likely Americans are to read on a regular basis. Almost 60% of those with a college education visited a library within the last 12 months, but that figure drops to less than 40% for those with no more than a high school diploma.

To determine the most well-read cities in America, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed a number of measures associated with literacy to determine which American metropolitan areas are most likely to read on a regular basis. Our estimate for the number of public libraries per 100,000 people is based on library listings in the American Library Directory, population estimates are the most recent available, and are from the U.S. Census Bureau. We also looked at education levels and income figures, from the Census Bureau’s 2016 one-year American Community Survey. The number of college and universities in the surrounding county of each city came from the U.S. Department of Education. All age estimates are just that — estimates.

So, where did New York City, center of American trade publishing rank as a well-read city?

#17

Manhattan (Kansas) ranked #6. (The better-read Manhattan is over 1,300 miles from the laggard.)

Once again, PG has ranted for longer than he should have, so he will conclude with his contention that indie authors as a group understand the tastes of readers in the United States far better than Manhattan editors do.

From a his dealings with several of them, PG believes that top-selling indie authors understand their genres and what readers of their genre will look for in a book far, far better than anyone sitting in a tall building in New York City does.

Publishers File Copyright Infringement Suit Against Internet Archive

From Publishing Perspectives:

Today (June 1), four publisher-members of the Association of American Publishers—including three of the Big Five—have filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the Internet Archive, in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The suit asks the court to enjoin the archive’s scanning, public display, and distribution of entire literary works—which it offers to the public through what the association terms “global-facing businesses” branded the Open Library and National Emergency Library. These are found at both openlibrary.org and archive.org.

The Internet Archive, the association states in media messaging this morning, “has brazenly reproduced some 1.3 million bootleg scans of print books, including recent works, commercial fiction and non-fiction, thrillers, and children’s books.”

. . . .

In making the announcement of today’s court filing, Maria A. Pallante, president and CEO of the association, says, “Today’s complaint illustrates that the Internet Archive is conducting and promoting copyright infringement on a massive scale. In scanning and distributing literary works to which it has no legal or contractual rights, the archive deliberately misappropriates the intellectual and financial investments of authors and publishers and brazenly ignores the copyright law that Congress enacted.

“IA operates with profound disrespect for the value chain of copyright, in which authors, publishers, bookstores, platforms, educational institutions, and libraries work together for the benefit of society, whether during prosperity or a pandemic.”

. . . .

The American association has had quick support this morning from its counterpart organization in the UK market.

From London, Publishers Association CEO Stephen Lotinga says, “We stand fully in support of this action by the Association of American Publishers, which reflects the very significant concerns held by publishers and authors about this site.

“The Internet Archive purports to be a library but it is not and behind that guise it is facilitating the distribution of millions of pirated books without paying a penny to the authors and publishers who produce them.

“We are living in unprecedented times, and that’s why publishers have gone out of their way to make content accessible to those who need it, but there’s no excuse for anyone to use the current crisis to infringe copyright in this way.”

. . . .

“We offered to work with Internet Archive in 2017 to create a licensing system that would make the ‘Open Library’ compliant with copyright law, and that offer was rejected. The Internet Archives’ unwillingness to work with authors and publishers to make their program legal unfortunately made a lawsuit the only recourse.”

. . . .

“Despite the self-serving library branding of its operations,” the AAP’s staff writes, “the Internet Archive’s conduct bears little resemblance to the trusted role that thousands of American libraries play within their communities and as participants in the lawful copyright marketplace.

“The Internet Archive scans books from cover to cover, posts complete digital files to its Web site, and solicits users to access them free by signing up for Internet Archive accounts. The sheer scale of the Internet Archive’s infringement described in the complaint—and its stated objective to enlarge its illegal trove with abandon—appear to make it one of the largest known book pirate sites in the world.

“The Internet Archive publicly reports millions of dollars in revenue each year, including financial schemes that support its infringement design.

“In willfully ignoring the Copyright Act, the Internet Archive conflates the separate markets and business models made possible by the statute’s incentives and protections, robbing authors and publishers of their ability to control the manner and timing of communicating their works to the public. The Internet Archive not only conflates print books and ebooks, it [also] ignores the well-established channels in which publishers do business with bookstores, e-commerce platforms, and libraries, including for print and ebook lending.

“As detailed in the complaint, the Internet Archive makes no investment in creating the literary works it distributes and appears to give no thought to the impact of its efforts on the quality and vitality of the authorship that fuels the marketplace of ideas.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes that, among its other activities, The Internet Archive hosts a Malware Museum, including code from which the Archive assures its users, it has removed “destructive routines”.

The Internet Archive also includes a Donation Page, which includes the following message:

We need your help to ensure that anyone curious enough to seek knowledge will be able to find it here, for free. We’re an independent, non-profit website that the entire world depends on.

PG is no friend of the large traditional publishers who have filed this suit and does not like many of the things they do.

However, in this matter, PG is not sympathetic with the Internet Archive’s actions with respect to books. The IA provides lots of other useful services, including scanning copies of public documents, including some patent applications, court pleadings, out-of-copyright materials, etc.

However, considering the world-wide reach of IA, it also provides materials, including entire books, that others can download from anywhere in the world, then, among other things, resell on a commercial basis with little fear of discovery by the original author or punishment.

To be clear, if the Internet Archive stopped accepting material protected by copyright tomorrow and removed all such material from its online collection, that would not mean that book piracy would immediately stop. There are other avenues diligent would-be book thieves could pursue, but it would certainly make their work harder and, likely, less-profitable.