Amazon Targets Unprofitable Items, With a Sharper Focus on the Bottom Line

From The Wall Street Journal: Inc. has trained people to buy everything from major appliances to daily staples online. Now it is having second thoughts about some of those sales because they don’t make money—and is pushing big brands to change how they use its site.

Inside Amazon, the items are known as CRaP, short for “Can’t Realize a Profit.” Think bottled beverages or snack foods. The products tend to be priced at $15 or less, are sold directly by Amazon, and are heavy or bulky and therefore costly to ship—characteristics that make for thin or nonexistent margins.

Now, as Amazon focuses more on its bottom line in addition to its rapid growth, it is increasingly taking aim at CRaP products, according to major brand executives and people familiar with the company’s thinking. In recent months, it has been eliminating unprofitable items and pressing manufacturers to change their packaging to better sell online, according to brands that sell on Amazon and consultants who work with them.

One example: bottled water from Coca-Cola Co.Amazon used to have a $6.99 six-pack of Smartwater as the default order on some of its Dash buttons, a small device that allows for automatic reordering with a single press. But in August, after working with Coca-Cola to change how it ships and sells the water, Amazon notified Dash customers it was changing that default item to a 24-pack for $37.20.

That raised the price per bottle to $1.55 from $1.17. And Coca-Cola will start shipping those orders directly to consumers, sparing Amazon the expense of shipping from its warehouses. Manufacturers shipping from their warehouses is something Amazon has asked more brands to do to cut its own costs.

Amazon told Coca-Cola that it was losing money on the smaller, cheaper shipments, according to people familiar with the matter.

Coca-Cola responds that it works with partners to learn together and constantly evolves its offerings.

. . . .

For big consumer brands, not being on Amazon “is not an option anymore,” said Guru Hariharan, chief executive of Boomerang Commerce, which makes e-commerce software. “They have the power; they have the shoppers.”

Amazon also has greater leeway to curb CRaP items because of the rise of independent sellers on its site. They have added hundreds of millions of items, helping ensure that Amazon’s virtual shelves are stocked with the variety shoppers expect. And those sales tend to be more profitable for Amazon, which typically collects a 15% cut plus fees for warehousing.

. . . .

Mr. Bergstein said his company has developed new product formats that are more profitable to sell online—on Amazon or elsewhere. Amazon is “really clear that they have a profitability threshold,” he said. “We’ve been clear about saying, ‘Let’s make sure what we’re selling is profitable, and we’re not just lining Amazon’s pockets.’”

That has meant selling smaller, lighter laundry products like detergent pods and skipping cheaper paper towels. Instead of promoting a three-pack of dish soap, Seventh Generation recently started advertising a 6-pack for $17.70, and it created a larger, 504-count package of baby wipes for $19.91 for sale on Amazon and elsewhere.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

As PG has noted previously, ebooks are an ideal online product for Amazon with extremely low storage and delivery costs.

PG suspects the same could be said for ebooks and traditional publishers although, unlike Amazon, publishers share far less of the money they receive from ebook sales with authors than Amazon does.

Of course, traditional publishers opted to fight with Amazon instead of embrace it as a marvelous way of increasing sales without increasing publisher overhead. They bet their money on Barnes & Noble instead.

While PG is rolling, he’ll briefly address an apparently evergreen story that pops up among various traditional and nontraditional media outlets: Amazon’s warehouse workers.

PG speculates that none of the authors of those articles have ever worked in a warehouse.

By virtue of a summer job during his college years, PG can claim familiarity with warehouse work. It was hard work that involved lugging semi-heavy objects (30-60 pounds) around all day. The surroundings were much dirtier than Amazon’s warehouses, if contemporary photos are accurate. Climate control at PG’s warehouse job consisted of opening a bunch of doors to allow air to circulate at ambient temperatures.

PG expects that if he went on an inspection tour of today’s warehouses, he would find a great many that hadn’t changed much since his college days.

Way back when, PG earned minimum wage. A lot of warehouse workers still earn minimum wage.

In virtually every way, Amazon treats its warehouse workers better than warehouse workers are treated by other American businesses, small or large. Amazon workers earn more than minimum wage. Amazon provides medical insurance. Amazon provides opportunities for promotion. Amazon will pay for further education of its warehouse employees, whether the education is in a field that benefits Amazon or not.

So why are Amazon warehouse stories such an evergreen topic?

Amazon doesn’t want labor unions in its warehouses. For reasons that are not difficult to discern, Amazon believes that unionized employees will not increase productivity at its warehouses. In the US, the number of workers working under union contracts peaked in 1980 and has been declining ever since.

Again in the US, companies with unionized workforces are overwhelmingly operating in old-time bricks and mortar industries. Virtually none of the technology companies that have driven so much economic growth in the US for the last 20 years are unionized.

A common tactic of US labor unions when they’re trying to pressure an employer into agreeing to unionize its employees is to spread horror stories about the working conditions inside of the target employer. The bad PR is supposed to pressure the company into agreeing to permit labor unions into its business. Whether the horror stories are true or not is beside the point.

Amazon presently employs more than 600,000 people. Not all of those people are happy every day. Not all of those people love their jobs.  PG gently suggests that unionized Amazon warehouses won’t change that.


The Color of the Year

PG lives a sheltered life, so removed from modern culture and civilization that only this morning, he learned that the color of 2019 is Living Coral.

From Time:

Pantone has announced that Living Coral is the 2019 color of the year. The color authority has bestowed the honorable title on a special hue every December for the past 20 years, taking into account fashion, decorating, design and cultural trends, as well as “how colors can embody our collective experience and reflect what is taking place in our global culture at a moment in time,” according to press release from Pantone.

This year’s color, PANTONE 16-1546 Living Coral, is an animating shade of orange with a golden undertone, which reflects the warmth, nourishment, and shelter of coral reefs to sea life. Pantone notes that this year’s selection symbolizes an “innate need for optimism and joyful pursuits” and “authentic and immersive experiences that enable connection and intimacy” — the latter carrying extra poignancy in a cultural landscape that is increasingly dominated by digital technology and social media.

. . . .

“Color is a language and color is inextricably linked to the culture,” Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, tells TIME of this year’s selection of the color coral. “We see the environment taking on an even greater role in the world we live in today for two primary reasons, one being how connected we are to technology. Because we are so connected to something that’s not real, so to speak, we really need to find that balance closely and intimately with something that is real and you don’t get more real than nature.”

Pressman says the second aspect is “our understanding of our natural resources…we look at the concerns of what’s taking place in nature, the depletion of natural resources. One of the things that we get from nature is energy. When we think about the shifting nature of our world, here’s a color that’s animating and life-affirming.”

Link to the rest at Time

Who knew a single color could be so powerful?

Everybody knows that dozens of colors can change the course of history, but will only one color distinguish 2019 from all the years that came before?

PG learned that pasting PANTONE 16-1546 into a Google search box will bring up lots of examples of Living Coral, including the definitive standard from Pantone.



Of course, a color cretin like PG is probably not seeing the true beauty of 16-1546 TPX because he is viewing it through a computer monitor that has not been properly calibrated to show really, really true colors (although it looks about the same on his phone).

With that caveat, PG is not certain how he will involve Living Coral in his life during 2019 (he almost typed 1919).

A quick glance into PG’s closet would confirm that the widest collection of colors is found where his ties congregate, but he can’t visualize Living Coral around his neck with a suit.

PG’s socks run the color gamut from navy blue to black with some white ones for the gym. Maybe there is room for 16-1546 TPX near the bottom of the personal  palette that is PG clothed in all his colorful glory.

16-1546 TPX socks might create a Living Coral-assisted mating-season sort of look, which might not work because PG is firmly mated to Mrs. PG and happy to have that connection continue into the distant future.

But he so wants to be “animating and life-affirming.”

It is clear that PG will have to devote much more time to the contemplation and management of color than he has during the decades leading up to 2019 if he wants to establish a fashion forward image “inextricably linked to the culture” when “inextricably” is practically PG’s middle name.

Expect to see much more about Living Coral in upcoming posts on TPV.

Your Basket is Leaking

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

In October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy. The form of bankruptcy the corporate heads chose was something called Chapter 11 here in the U.S. It means that the company—once the largest retailer in the entire world—will be able to reorganize and, if they’re lucky and the folks running the company are smart, they might be able to emerge from bankruptcy with some of the business still intact.

The key here isn’t the details of Sears’ bankruptcy. It really isn’t even Sears itself which, when I was a child, fifty years ago, was a fixture in America. It’s the trajectory of the company.

. . . .

By early 1940s, Sears’ catalogue became  known as the Consumer’s Bible. In the 1950s or so, Sears started opening brick-and-mortar stores, and by the mid-1970s, the brick-and-mortar business overshadowed the mail order catalogue.

Mismanagement, a failure to keep up with the times, and a large corporate structure led to a decline starting in the 1980s, exacerbated by the rise of Wal-Mart in the 1990s. Sears still had a lot of value after the turn of the 21st century, but not in retail. The value was in its properties and its stock, and eventually that declined as well.

And now, Sears—mismanaged to pieces, its mail-order business (and famous catalogue) a distant memory—has almost thrown in the towel. They’re fighting for their existence. Very few adults alive remember the store in its heyday.

But look at that trajectory. Mail order on one item only. Then more items. Then unrelated items. Then becoming one of the biggest companies in the world. Then adding brick-and-mortar.

Does that sound familiar? Think of it this way: instead of mail order, think online. Instead of watches, think books. And then realize that Amazon shares much of Sears trajectory, only on a slightly accelerated pace—and without the name changes and the obvious added partners.

Sears to Wal-Mart to Amazon. There is a direct line. Wal-Mart is still fighting for dominance, but they’re no longer fighting Sears. They’re fighting Amazon. And Amazon is probably fighting some other company with a good idea, some company that I’m not entirely aware of.

Why is that important?

Because currently, Amazon is the biggest online retail company in the world. (Wal-Mart is still the largest retailer, but Amazon has moved up to second there as well.)  Amazon is exceedingly important to the indie writer movement. In fact, indie publishing would not be where it’s at without Amazon’s innovation with the Kindle ereader ten years ago.

In that time period, a lot of self-published authors have used Amazon’s ecosystem to make themselves, if not wealthy, then at least comfortably well off.  Many of those writers don’t even market their work outside of Amazon at all, preferring to use the tools provided by Kindle Select to promote their series and their work.

Early on, writing advice for indies (as I’m going to call writers who work outside of traditional publishing) centered on an Amazon-only strategy. If you look at my earliest blogs on the publishing industry, back in 2009/2010, you’ll see me constantly defending myself against that very argument. I learned as a young freelancer to go wide—and that was back in the early 1980s. Relying on only one source for income—no matter how large that source is—is never a good idea.

. . . .

Having been in traditional publishing, with its weird rules and limitations, meant I had learned early on how angry readers get when they can’t get a book that they want. I didn’t want to replicate that experience for them, particularly as I took back control of my publishing, so I never even considered Select.

Although, I had to admit, I was envious at times of writers who could manipulate that system to raise their profiles—at least on Amazon. It would have been nice to have access to the same tools. Eventually, I developed a few new pen names (for a variety of reasons, and no, I’m not telling you who they are), and they experimented in Select.

The Select promotion tools are good until they’re not, as everyone who plays in that ecosystem knows. Amazon changes the system, and then the indies figure out how to best use that system, and then Amazon changes it again.

There have been complaints about Amazon and its practices from the start. But savvy writers have known that Amazon started this revolution, and no matter what they’ve done, we all owe them big for that.

But…then there’s the argument I’ve been making on this blog since at least 2010. Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Even if that basket is the biggest online retailer in the world.

I still get pushback on that advice. But not as much as I used to. Because some of the big pro-Amazon indies are beginning to see cracks around the edges of Amazon. There’ve been too many changes to Select, too many broken promises, too many costly mistakes.

Some of the formerly pro Select-only gurus are now quietly going wide. A few others, trapped in the ecosystem, are using other tools to make their novels available before they put the books into Select. They’re still gaming Amazon’s system, but they’re gaming it to keep the income coming—until they can move out of the exclusivity trap that they had allowed Amazon to build around them.

For the writers, though, who continued to argue that Select was the only viable place to play, October and early November were a difficult time. Writer after writer here in the U.S. noted that their international sales had declined dramatically.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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.

PG says that very few, if any, large organizations are unchanging.

Since he has watched the tech world, from the inside and the outside, for a long time, he has seen a great many changes.

Microsoft is not the same organization it used to be. Neither is Apple.

WordPerfect was a wonderful product and a superb organization in its day, but it’s gone now. Ditto for Lotus 1-2-3, Novell and Netscape. In some cases, former tech giants continue as zombie caricatures of their former selves, but the spark is gone.

The personal influence of a strong executive can profoundly shape an organization. Think of Sam Walton and Walmart. When that entrepreneurial executive leaves or dies, it is quite common for such organizations to change. The Sam Waltons and Steve Jobs of the next decades aren’t working for today’s Walmart and Apple. They wouldn’t fit.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon have a similarly tight bond. Amazon has mirrored Bezos’ personality in many ways.

But Amazon has become an extremely large company and the Bezos influence travels through lots of management levels and and subordinants’ decisions before it reaches indie authors and individual consumers. Bezos simply can’t know about everything Amazon is doing today and he’ll know even less next year.

PG thinks the Amazon plan to have two headquarters locations, which later morphed into three headquarters locations is Exhibit A in demonstrating that Bezos has taken his hands off the wheel.

While widely-dispersed major “headquarters” locations may make it easier to tap into a larger geographic pool of talent to fill the entry-level and middle-management jobs, PG suspects it’s going to be a management mess with queens and kings of little Amazon kingdoms sprouting everywhere.

Bezos’ ability to effectively provide vision, leadership and shape Amazon’s corporate culture is going to be substantially diminished. Any future Jeff Bezos-type Amazon employees who might have the talent to continue the level of innovation and organizational excellence he established are not likely to rise through this type of management structure. And their chances of catching Bezos’ attention and obtaining his help in rising through Amazon by their job performance will be slim.


The UK’s 2018 ‘Building Inclusivity’ Conference: A Safe Place for Discussion

From Publishing Perspectives:

There were several key messages highlighted in the UK’s third conference on Building Inclusivity in Publishing, presented by the London Book Fair and the Publishers Association on London’s South Bank on Tuesday (November 27).

. . . .

  • Inclusion should be a given, not an exception
  • Unpaid internships should disappear completely
  • Publishers should establish “safe places” in which conversations concerning issues like identity can take place
  • Children’s publishers need to recognize how important it is for black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) children to see themselves in books

Self-defined “queer working-class woman” Kerry Hudson—whose memoir Lowborn Growing Up, Getting Away, and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns is to be published February 5 by Penguin Random House’s Chatto—noted that strides have been made to improve inclusion.

One example Hudson pointed to is the Good Literary Agency, specifically set up with the purpose of reaching marginalized voices, for example—but she also pointed out that a recent report funded by the the Arts and Humanities Research Council and titled Panic! 2018 Social Cass, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries (PDF), suggested that only 12.6 percent of employees in publishing are of working-class origin.

“Marginalized writers aren’t looking for a scheme or a month of open submissions when for the rest of the year they feel as isolated and overlooked as ever,” Hudson said.

“We want an industry where inclusivity is the norm and not the shiniest new project. The aim must be not for superficial changes but actually changing the bones, the very structure of what this industry is. That means moving away from pilots, meetings, and mission statements and looking at how to roll-out, scale up, and truly integrate these principles.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests that traditional publishing is built upon a foundation that is exactly the opposite of inclusive. Publishing drones sift through the never-diminishing slush pile looking for the rarest of manuscripts. They automatically exclude 99%+ of the voices who want to be heard in the broader society.

One might argue that the principal value of traditional publishers for most readers is to create an exclusive collection of books that will appeal to those readers. If a publisher doesn’t exclude manuscripts its readers will, for whatever reason, not enjoy, the costs of publication, overhead, etc., will quickly exceed the publisher’s income and the publisher will disappear.

Self-described “curators of culture” can’t open the gates to just anyone without failing in their curational role, the only value they provide in a world in which self-publishing is becoming more and more widely accepted.

One might also ask if traditional publishers are providing a useful service to marginalized authors by inviting those authors into a business structure in which, “Don’t quit your day job,” is the most common piece of honest advice publishers give to debut authors.

Isn’t Kindle Direct Publishing “actually changing the bones, the very structure of what this industry is” to a far, far greater extent than conferences held on London’s South Bank?

Won’t more marginalized authors succeed in sharing their unique viewpoints with the world by self-publishing? Won’t most marginalized authors find a life as a professional writer easier to attain by selling their work in ebook form on Amazon?


Medallion Press Files for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

From Publishers Weekly:

Medallion Press filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy October 18, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of Northern District of Illinois. In its filing, the publisher listed assets of $100,001 to $500,000 and liabilities in the same range. It cited between 200 to 999 creditors.

Under a Chapter 7 filing, a trustee will liquidate a company’s assets in order to earn as much money as it can to pay creditors.

. . . .

Medallion was founded in 2003 by Helen Rosburg, a published romance author and great-granddaughter of Wrigley Co. founder William Wrigley. The house initially focused on publishing mass market paperbacks in the categories of general fiction, romance, fantasy, paranormal, science fiction, mystery and thrillers.

After growing steadily from its launch to 2010, Medallion formed with Medallion Media Group and put an eye towards entering the movie and music business.

. . . .

Since word of the bankruptcy started to spread, agents have been working to retrieve the publishing rights of their authors from the company.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Several lifetimes ago, as a volunteer lawyer working with Legal Aid (an organization that provides legal assistance to poor people in the US), PG filed a lot of Chapter 7 bankruptcy petitions. That said, he has not remained current on bankruptcy law and does not provide any legal advice for those involved in bankruptcy proceedings. He especially doesn’t provide legal advice via blog posts on TPV.

For business organizations, a typical bankruptcy will be filed under Chapter 7 (the business can’t pay its debts and its assets will be liquidated and the proceeds divided among its creditors) or Chapter 11 (if the bankruptcy court will hold the creditors at bay, the business can reorganize itself, stretch out some payments, get out of some contracts and once again become a viable business entity).

The OP says Medallion has filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If the legal process is carried through to conclusion, Medallion will cease to exist after a period of time during which its assets are sold and, under the supervision of a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, the proceeds divided among its creditors according to priorities set in the bankruptcy laws. Any current or future lawsuits against the company get rolled into the bankruptcy process along with the claims of all creditors, including authors who haven’t been paid their royalties.

The OP says literary agents have been working to retrieve the publishing rights of their authors from Medallion. Unless the agents have retained competent bankruptcy counsel, that isn’t going to happen. Medallion no longer controls the publishing rights. Upon the filing of the Chapter 7 petition, which has already occurred, the bankruptcy court controls the publishing rights and all other assets owned by Medallion. Whoever may answer the phone at Medallion can’t do anything with publishing rights, regardless of how persuasive a literary agent may be.

PG is not aware of any special provisions of the bankruptcy laws that place authors in a privileged position in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy of a publisher (although he would be very happy to learn such provisions exist).

Absent such provisions, the publishing agreements between Medallion and its authors are assets that the bankruptcy trustee will try to sell for the best price possible to whoever will pay that price. Any claims for unpaid royalties owed to authors will likely be rolled into the pile of unpaid debts of Medallion and cash resulting from sales of assets will be divided among the printer, the utility companies, UPS, the bookstores that have returned Medallion books for a refund and not been paid, etc., etc., etc., and the authors.

Absent unusually valuable assets, PG suspects the authors will receive a small fraction of their unpaid royalties.

But what about the publishing rights the agents are apparently attempting to retrieve?

In a variety of different business contracts, somewhere back in the boilerplate provisions, there is a bankruptcy clause that is worded something like the following:

In the event that either Party files for protection under bankruptcy laws, makes an assignment for the benefit of creditors, appoints or suffers appointment of a receiver or trustee over its property, files a petition under any bankruptcy or insolvency act or has any such petition filed against it which is not discharged within sixty (60) days of the filing thereof, then the other Party may terminate this Agreement effective immediately upon written notice to such Party.

Unfortunately, upon the filing of a bankruptcy petition, this contract provision becomes unenforceable.

The bankruptcy court determines what happens under the contracts that are held by the individual or company filing for relief under US bankruptcy law. As stated above, generally speaking, under Chapter 7, the bankruptcy trustee tries to sell the assets owned by the person or company filing for bankruptcy relief to whoever offers to pay the highest price.

As an uninvolved observer (and not as an attorney), PG expects the publishing contracts between Medallion and its authors will be sold to an individual or company and (voilà!) – all the Medallion authors will have a new publisher!

The new publisher might be Random House or it might be Kevin the Krusher, New Jersey junkyard magnate, who buys the publishing contracts as a gift for his spoiled son, Digby, who has always wanted to be a member of the literary set.

If the Medallion publishing agreements include the most unfortunate, but quite common provision by which the author granted Medallion the right to publish his/her books for the full term of the copyright the author owns for the book (typically, the rest of the author’s life plus 70 years in the US), each of the Medallion authors can look forward to receiving royalty statements (or not) from Digby every once in awhile accompanied by royalty checks (or not).

After Digby retires, Digby, Jr., may become the publisher followed by Digby III (or not).

Or, if the circle of life applies to publishing contracts, perhaps Digby will burn through all his father’s money and file a petition for relief under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code.

Politics and The Passive Voice

For visitors from abroad, over the course of his first two years in office, President Donald Trump has generated a tremendous amount of emotion among the citizens of the United States. His supporters are usually solidly supportive of his performance and his opponents are extremely antagonistic towards his person and his policies.

The heat of political dialogue in the United States far outweighs the light these days. It is almost impossible to avoid.

The Passive Voice is not a blog about politics. PG doesn’t know that it qualifies as an island of reason amid a storm of emotions, but it’s not about politics, American or otherwise.

TPV occasionally includes items that relate to copyright law and changes thereto in the US and other countries, but PG doesn’t remember any instance in which copyright law sent hundreds of protesters into the streets and drove online denizens mad with rage. If it ever does, he’ll deal with it at that time.

PG has encountered and removed a number of comments that have included political commentary relating to the current resident of the Oval Office and his policies. He requests that discussion on TPV not include the commenter’s views about President Trump either directly or via characterizations of his person or policies closely associated with him.



Murakami Withdraws from The Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature

From BookRiot:

Japanese author Haruki Murakami has asked to withdraw his nomination as one of the four finalists for The New Academy Prize in Literature, also known as the alternative Nobel Prize in Literature.

According to The New Academy’s press release, Murakami is deeply honored by the nomination; however, he wishes to withdraw to focus on his writing and avoid the distraction that the media attention will bring.

The jury of The New Academy will continue its work to appoint a winner from the remaining three finalists–Maryse Condé, Neil Gaiman, and Kim Thúy, who all have expressed their enthusiasm over being nominated.

. . . .

The New Academy is a Swedish non-profit organization founded in the spring of 2018 in response to the Swedish Academy postponing the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature because of the many scandals that erupted earlier this year. The New Academy is not affiliated with either the Swedish Academy or the Nobel Foundation.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

PG wonders if it was wise for The New Academy Prize in Literature to announce that one of its prize nominees had declined to participate in the prize business.

Had anyone asked PG whether a startup prize company should issue a press release announcing that someone famous had refused in advance to receive a prize, PG would probably have suggested that the PR team find another subject.

Why might Murakami have taken this step?

Answers could include:

  • The flight from Tokyo to Stockholm has to be a killer.
  • On the date of the prize ceremony, December 10, the beaches of Thailand might be more appealing than the shores of the Baltic.
  • Can a literary prize that is funding a “Gala Dinner and Prize Ceremony” with a Kickstarter campaign be all that prestigious?

Or Murakami might have visited the New Academy’s website:

The New Academy is a non-profit organization, politically and financially independent. It consists of a wide range of knowledgeable individuals. The New Academy works within the time frame of the Swedish Academy and in five different committees.

. . . .

The New Academy will be dissolved in December.

While the lure of “five different committees” comprised of “knowledgeable individuals” is powerful, PG hereby respectfully declines to be nominated for a quasi-Nobel Prize for Champerty, Maintenance and Barratry.

You Don’t Own the Music, Movies or Ebooks You ‘Buy’ on Amazon or iTunes

From Two Cents:

When you purchase music, movies or books from Amazon or Apple’s iTunes store, you might be under the impression that that material is yours to enjoy forever; that’s how CDs and paper books work, after all. Why rent You’ve Got Mail for $3.99 every few months when you can “own” it and watch it whenever, forever, for $9.99?

But you’d be mistaken. Anything digital is temporary, even if you clicked “purchase” rather than “rent.” One unfortunate side effect of that you won’t experience with a physical book or record: Your purchases may just disappear if licensing agreements change.

. . . .

As outlined in the Twitter thread, Apple states the content provider of the movies in question removed them from the store. And that removed them from the user’s library, even though he had paid money to buy them. It’s easy to see why that’s frustrating (especially since Apple wasn’t willing to cough up a refund for the purchases he no longer has).

“This wouldn’t happen in the physical world. No one comes to your door and demands that you give back a book,” Aaron Perzanowski, a Case Western Reserve University law professor, who studied these digital purchases, told the LA Times in 2016. “But in the digital world, they can just go into your Kindle and take it.”

. . . .

For example, Amazon notes in the fine print that “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. The Content Provider may include additional terms for use within its Kindle Content.” You also can’t sell or redistribute your ebooks, as you might with a physical copy. Apple’s fine printstates that the licensor “reserves the right to change, suspend, remove, disable or impose access restrictions or limits on any External Services at any time without notice or liability to you.”

. . . .

The best option? If you can, buy a physical copy of a movie or TV show that comes with a digital download. At least you’ll have a backup in case your digital copy disappears—assuming you still have a player to watch it on.

Link to the rest at Two Cents

When PG read the OP, one of the first things to pop into his mind was, “born yesterday”.

The author of the OP apparently discovered licensing of intellectual property shortly before writing the article and assumed at least a portion of the Lifehacker audience didn’t know much about the topic either.

“Born Yesterday” was the name of a Broadway play with two revivals plus three different movies.

Here’s a plot summary of the original Broadway play, Born Yesterday, which premiered in 1946, from Wikipedia:

An uncouth, corrupt rich junk dealer, Harry Brock, brings his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn with him to Washington, D.C. When Billie’s ignorance becomes a liability to Brock’s business dealings, he hires a journalist, Paul Verrall, to educate his girlfriend. In the process of learning, Billie Dawn realizes how corrupt Harry is and begins interfering with his plans to bribe a Congressman into passing legislation that would allow Brock’s business to make more money.

As a general proposition, the creator of intellectual property is its owner. Everybody else who wants to observe, read, listen to, etc., etc., that intellectual property is not the owner of the IP, but only has limited rights created by statute or license to do some things with their copy of the IP.

The owner of a physical book can’t make copies of the book and sell them to others because the book’s owner doesn’t own the IP depicted in the book. He/she is only the owner of the paper, ink and binding of that particular copy of the book. The copyright law (statutory and otherwise) which creates and defines the IP in the first place permits the book’s owner to do certain things with the physical book – read it, lend that copy to someone else, sell that copy to someone else, donate it to a library, deface the book, use excerpts or quotes from the book for various purposes, etc., etc.

The same basic rules, adapted to different media by which IP can be duplicated, transmitted, etc., govern copies of the IP in digital form. Just as making a copy of a book to give or sell to someone else is a violation of the creator’s IP rights, generally speaking, making a copy of a CD, a digital file, a photograph, or other protected medium incorporating such IP to give or sell to someone else is, absent permission from the creator or permission granted via copyright law, a violation of the creator’s IP rights.

Enough of this type of blathering.

The OP caused PG to wonder whether an author self-publishing with Amazon via KDP could make digital copies of his/her ebooks disappear from Kindles everywhere by unpublishing the ebook.

The short answer is probably not.

Here are some excerpts from the current Kindle Direct Publishing Terms and Conditions that describe what rights an author grants to Amazon:

Paragraph 3 Term and Termination (excerpt with PG highlights)

Following termination or suspension, we may fulfill any customer orders for your Books pending as of the date of termination or suspension, and we may continue to maintain digital copies of your Digital Books in order to provide continuing access to or re-downloads of your Digital Books, as well as digital copies of your Books to support customers who have purchased a Book prior to termination or suspension. . . . All rights to Digital Books acquired by customers will survive termination.

Paragraph 5.1.4 Book Withdrawal (excerpt with PG highlights)

All withdrawals of Books will apply prospectively only and not with respect to any customers who purchased the Books prior to the date of removal.

Paragraph 5.5 Grant of Rights (excerpt with PG highlights)

You grant to each Amazon party, throughout the term of this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, right and license to print (on-demand and in anticipation of customer demand) and distribute Books, directly and through third-party distributors, in all formats you choose to make available through KDP by all distribution means available. This right includes, without limitation, the right to: (a) reproduce, index and store Books on one or more computer facilities, and reformat, convert and encode Books; (b) display, market, transmit, distribute, sell, license and otherwise make available all or any portion of Books through Amazon Properties (as defined below), for customers and prospective customers to download, access, copy and paste, print, annotate and/or view online and offline, including on portable devices; (c) permit customers to “store” Digital Books that they have purchased from us on servers (“Virtual Storage”) and to access and re-download such Digital Books from Virtual Storage from time to time both during and after the term of this Agreement

It appears to PG that Apple’s agreement with the owners of the copyrights to some iTunes movies did not include anything like the language in the KDP T&C’s and that the movie owners could force Apple to terminate rights of its customers who had paid for licenses to those movies.

It appears to PG that an author or publisher operating under the KDP T&C’s or something similar can’t force Amazon to terminate a customer’s rights to access an ebook they bought through Amazon. Amazon can decide to do so, but an author can’t make Amazon pull a digital move like iTunes did.

As usual, PG is a lawyer, but nothing PG posts on TPV is legal advice. If you would like to obtain legal advice, you need to hire an attorney to give you that advice, not read what a lawyer might post on a blog.

PG invites comments that agree or disagree with his half-baked (or fully-baked) blatherings on this topic.

European Parliament Approves Catastrophic Copyright Bill That Threatens the Internet

From Gizmodo:

Members of the European Parliament voted Wednesday to approve a sweeping overhaul of the EU’s copyright laws that includes two controversial articles that threaten to hand more power to the richest tech companies and generally break the internet.

Overall, MEPs voted in favor of the EU Copyright Directive with a strong majority of 438 to 226. But the process isn’t over. There are still more parliamentary procedures to go through, and individual countries will eventually have to decide how they intend to implement the rules. That’s part of the reason that it’s so difficult to raise public awareness on this issue.

Momentum to oppose the legislation built up earlier this summer, culminating with Parliament deciding to open it up for amendments in July. Many people may have thought the worst was over. It wasn’t—but make no mistake, today’s vote in favor of the directive was extremely consequential.

The biggest issue with this legislation has been Articles 11 and 13. These two provisions have come to be known as the “link tax” and “upload filter” requirements, respectively.

In brief, the link tax is intended to take power back from giant platforms like Google and Facebook by requiring them to pay news outlets for the privilege of linking or quoting articles. But critics say this will mostly harm smaller websites that can’t afford to pay the tax, and the tech giants will easily pay up or just decide not link to news. The latter outcome has already happened when this was tried in Spain. On top of inhibiting the spread of news, the link tax could also make it all but impossible for Wikipedia and other non-profit educational sources to do their work because of their reliance on links, quotes, and citation.

The upload filter section of the legislation demands that all platforms aside from “small/micro enterprises” use a content ID system of some sort to prevent any copyrighted works from being uploaded. Sites will face all copyright liabilities in the event that something makes it past the filter. Because even the best filtering systems, like YouTube’s, are still horrible, critics say that the inevitable outcome is that over-filtering will be the default mode of operation. Remixing, meme-making, sharing of works in the public domain, and other fair use practices would likely all fall victim to platforms that would rather play it safe, just say no to flagged content, and avoid legal battles. Copyright trolls will likely be able to fraudulently claim ownership of intellectual property with little recourse for their victims.

. . . .

Joe McNamee, executive director of digital rights association EDRi, recently told The Verge, “The system is so complicated that last Friday the [European Parliament] legal affairs committee tweeted an incorrect assessment of what’s happening. If they don’t understand the rules, what hope the rest of us?” As we come closer to living parallel lives online and IRL, such sweeping legislation is dangerous to play with.

In a statement sent to Gizmodo, Member of European Parliament Julia Reda said, “Unfortunately, all the concerns by academics, experts and internet users that led to the text being rejected last July still stand.” She said that the EU is relying on “wishful thinking” rather than addressing the clear problems in the directive. Her overall assessment of the vote was blunt: “Today’s decision is a severe blow to the free and open internet. By endorsing new legal and technical limits on what we can post and share online, the European Parliament is putting corporate profits over freedom of speech and abandoning long-standing principles that made the internet what it is today.”

Link to the rest at Gizmodo and thanks to Kat, who points out that this could impact TPV (although it might be a “small/micro enterprise”), for the tip.

Although he claims no deep knowledge of the language of the legislation and its potential impact on TPV or elsewhere, PG says one possibility springs (or limps) to mind would be that it could create a sort of digital Dark Age for websites originating in the EU.

Who is going to quote or take the risk of linking to a European website that may trigger a “link tax” or otherwise expose the site owners to jurisdiction under a complex EU legal regime?

It is not difficult for PG to imagine a new WordPress plugin that automatically screens the IP addresses of linked articles or online visitors to a blog and blocks access to the linked website in general or for visitors with a European IP address. This type of digital censorship system will almost certainly be over-inclusive if the penalties involve exposing a US, Brazilian or Japanese blog to some sort of EU regulatory framework.

If the impact of such an initiative creates one or more digital “no-go” zones, the individuals and organizations in those zones could suffer a much greater harm than any offsetting benefit to the relatively small number of IP rights holders in any nation.

But, as usual, PG could be wrong. As mentioned, he only knows what he reads online about a wide variety of subjects these days.

While he believes himself to be a staunch advocate for the rights of authors and other creators to reasonable legal protections for their works, PG thinks a couple of items about the potential harms of rent-seeking are relevant.

From Wikipedia:

In public choice theory and in economics, rent-seeking involves seeking to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking results in reduced economic efficiency through poor allocation of resources, reduced actual wealth-creation, lost government revenue, increased income inequality, and (potentially) national decline.

Attempts at capture of regulatory agencies to gain a coercive monopoly can result in advantages for the rent seeker in a market while imposing disadvantages on (incorrupt) competitors. This constitutes one of many possible forms of rent-seeking behavior.

. . . .

Rent-seeking is an attempt to obtain economic rent (i.e., the portion of income paid to a factor of production in excess of what is needed to keep it employed in its current use) by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth. Rent-seeking implies extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity. The classic example of rent-seeking, according to Robert Shiller, is that of a feudal lord who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee (or rent of the section of the river for a few minutes) to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is not adding value in any way, directly or indirectly, except for himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free.

. . . .

Rent-seeking is distinguished in theory from profit-seeking, in which entities seek to extract value by engaging in mutually beneficial transactions. Profit-seeking in this sense is the creation of wealth, while rent-seeking is “profiteering” by using social institutions, such as the power of the state, to redistribute wealth among different groups without creating new wealth.

And some relevant quotes:

I readily acknowledge that it may be difficult to know where to draw the line between ‘corruption’ and ‘rent-seeking behaviour’…. The latter term is generally used to refer to the process by which interest groups adopt (lawful) means to secure competitive advantages from the political process and is a phenomenon widely recognised as influencing law and legal institutions in industrialised societies and is the subject of a huge literature . . . . Rent-seeking may, indeed, impose costs to the economy as high, if not higher, than those arising from corruption (narrowly defined).

~ Anthony Ogus

Time, talent, money, knowledge, and resources that could be used to protect people and cure deadly diseases are instead being wasted, siphoned off by rent-seeking because the government needs to…protect us.

~ Lisa Casanova

As soon as the state takes upon itself the task of planning the whole economic life, the problem of the due station of the different individuals and groups must indeed inevitably become the central political problem. As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power. There will be no economic or social questions that would not be political questions in the sense that their solution will depend exclusively on who wields the coercive power, on whose are the views that will prevail on all occasions.

~ Friedrich August Hayek

Germany’s Bertelsmann Reports a Half-Year Decline at PRH

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its report arriving overnight from Gütersloh, Bertelsmann—parent of Penguin Random House—is reporting that its overall 2018 first-half revenues rose to €8.2 billion (US$9.6 billion), its highest result, the company says, in 11 years, with a group profit of €501 million (US$584.4 million).

The news on Penguin Random House, however, is different, recording “declines in sales and earnings” in the same period, the first half of 2018.

And in a letter to staff dated today (August 30), Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle writes, “I’d like to give you some context and perspective on those numbers, highlight some of our key global achievements so far this year, and, especially, thank you for all you are doing on behalf of our books.”

. . . .

To Penguin Random House staffers, Dohle writes, “Even though the reported Bertelsmann headline numbers were down for its book division in euros, the underlying operating revenue and profit numbers for Penguin Random House in US dollars have been stable year-over-year.

“This means that the quality of our business and our earnings have been on the same—high—level as in the prior year. Our core business remains very strong globally.”

. . . .

Dohle’s message is, in essence, better things are ahead. “We have a terrific publishing lineup worldwide to carry us to this year’s finish line,” he writes, ” with new potential national and local bestsellers on the schedule from now through December.

. . . .

Overall, Dohle’s messaging asserts, all is well and getting better, despite disappointing financial reportage from Germany. “In this year of ongoing unrest and anxiety worldwide, our authors’ books across categories are needed more than ever,” writes Markus Dohle.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG says the Bertelsmann report that prompted Dohle’s pep talk letter to PRH employees said the first-half revenues of PRH were down 3.3% from last year. Operating EBITDA fell by 17.0 percent.

What interested PG even more was another section of the Bertlesmann report was the following:

“In the United States, Penguin Random House had 178 titles on The New York Times bestseller lists in the first half of the year, 25 of them at No. 1. The biggest bestsellers of the reporting period [included] … Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, which served as the basis for the eponymous Steven Spielberg movie, and was also very successful as an audiobook.

“In the United Kingdom, 41 percent of all books on the The Sunday Times bestseller lists were Penguin Random House titles. In addition to the above-mentioned works that were successful in the United States, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Still Me by Jojo Moyes sold particularly well in the United Kingdom.

. . . .

“In Germany, Verlagsgruppe Random House had 251 titles on Der Spiegel bestseller lists, 11 of them at number one.”

Unless PG has missed something in recent months, Amazon doesn’t share its book sales data with The New York Times, The Sunday Times, etc., for purposes of those publications’ bestseller lists.

A few months back, Mike Shatzkin said that 69% of book sales (print, ebooks and audio) are happening online and only 31% in physical bookstores. The online number for adult fiction and non-fiction is now about 75%.

Let’s put things together:

  1. PRH is killing it on the traditional bestsller lists.
  2. PRH revenues are down.
  3. Amazon sales aren’t reflected in the bestseller lists.

PG admits other factors come into play, but if he combines these reported facts, he suspects that PRH is underperforming on Amazon. PRH books compete quite successfully in the traditional bookstore world, but they can’t compete on Amazon.

Bertelsmann says PRH’s declining sales and earnings are “due to exchange rate effects, among other factors.” PG suggests that among the “other factors,” not being able to sell very effectively on Amazon might be significant.

Of course, whether Barnes & Noble continues to circle the drain or actually goes down the drain, sales on Amazon will become even more important to Big Publishing’s financial performance.

Is Quality, Like Beauty, in the Eye of the Beholder? The Elusive Art of Book Reviewing and Its Influence

From No Shelf Required:

What is a book review? Many have attempted to answer this question over the last few decades in a multitude of ways—from informed scholars, librarians, and booksellers to publishers, authors and readers. While their views differ widely on how successful book reviews are in bringing us closer to a book’s quality—and whether this is even possible—their definitions of book reviews and their core purpose seem to be in sync. To start, book reviews are a ‘genre’ in their own right, as they have features specific to them, and they can be as entertaining to read as the books they put under the microscope. These features, of course, depend on the context in which the books are reviewed (e.g., reviews found in academic journals are more in-depth and lengthier than those found in mainstream newspapers and magazines), but the general purpose of book reviews is always to serve as kind of an economic model, helping readers—whoever they may be—to decide if they should spend their money on a book, be it for entertainment, enlightenment, or scholarly pursuit. In other words, the main purpose of book reviews is to reduce search costs and uncertainty (Clement & others 78).  In this sense, then, readers hope that book reviews will guide them in the direction of the books they both want and need.

If we examine how information professionals and scholars have perceived book reviews over time and in varied settings, we can conclude that despite their imperfections and sometimes contradictory performance and impact, the presence of book reviews in scholarly and mass communication is understood to be both necessary and helpful, not only to guide readers through the maze of published literature—which today exceeds 2.2 million new titles in any given year, according to UNESCO estimates published in 2017—but also to point to the cultural conditions of our time and to give us alternate views on particular subjects. Indeed, the world needs different opinions. As Peyre put it, “unanimity in any acclaim for a book (whether or not by a Nobel Prize winner), a play, a concert performer, or an artist, even if he has become as venerable as Picasso or Chagall, should arouse suspicion. It can only be a sign of conventionality, of intellectual laziness, or timidity” (Peyre 130).

Yet despite such explanations for the necessity of diverse opinions, there has been no shortage of views pointing, sometimes harshly, to the inherently self-defeating nature of book reviews.

. . . .

Book reviews are studied usually in terms of several criteria: review length, lag-time, orientation, evaluative slant, and reviewer identity (Rehman 127). They are also studied in terms of their influence on author reputation and career advancement, as well as in terms of their power to predict a book’s critical reception and, ultimately, its financial success. Questions that appear frequently in such studies include, for example: How have book reviews and our perception of them changed over time? How often are critics truly objective in their analysis? Should they strive to be more descriptive and less prescriptive in their analysis? Are book reviews only about the book or do they also reveal details about the critic? What is the impact of negative reviews on a book’s sales and on an author’s public image? What is the role of professional editors in the process of preserving ethical standards behind book reviewing? How much influence do editors have in deciding what books are reviewed in professional publications and by whom? How often and in what ways are book reviews used as marketing tools by publishers, authors, and such middlemen as PR agents? And, perhaps most relevant, just how many books can possibly be reviewed in a world that sees 2.2 million titles published annually?

. . . .

Upon closer examination of available literature (and based on my own experience as a professional book review editor at Library Journal), I have come to identify four major types of book reviews: academic reviews; trade reviews; mainstream media reviews; and, since the advent of modern technologies and social media platforms, user reviews. The first three types refer to the book reviews written, edited, and published by professionals, while the fourth refers to the reviews we encounter online and all over the Internet; they are usually written by amateurs who voluntarily share their thoughts about a book (often anonymously).

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

PG suggests that, as a means of informing a purchase decision for a particular book, user reviews are likely, on a collective basis, to be far more influential for a given individual reader (especially a reader of ebooks) than any of the other categories of reviews written by “professionals”.

While an individual user review may be useless for deciding about a prospective ebook purchase, collectively, a group of user reviews is often quite valuable for PG.

The consequences of an unwise ebook purchase are also smaller than an unwise printed book purchase for several reasons:

  1. Generally speaking, ebook prices are lower than printed book prices, so less of the reader’s money is at risk.
  2. If an ebook proves unsatisfying, it can usually be returned for a refund with a mouse click, a much simpler process than trudging back to a physical bookstore with printed receipt in hand. (PG is likely not the only person whose physical bookshelves include poor purchase decisions for which the return process wasn’t worth his time. They sit there, like awkward distant relatives one prefers not to speak with, but still have some embarrassing connection with the observer.)

The other problem with “professional reviews” is that a great many of the publications in which they were formerly published have gone out of business or are otherwise unable or unwilling to pay a “professional” for a review. How many people actually read online publications that include “professional” reviews. Does a book reviewer who writes “professional” reviews still qualify as a professional if he/she isn’t paid at all or is paid so little that a day job is required for sustenance?

The New York Times book reviews were very influential in days now past because of the large number of the paper’s subscribers and their attractive demographics (nice income, good education). Today, the Times’ overall audience is far smaller (particularly in comparison with other online destinations) and who knows how many people actually read the book reviews as opposed to seeing a link to a book review or opening a page that includes a book review, then heading elsewhere? (PG will note in passing that online web traffic analytics for this sort of thing are notably inaccurate. Here’s a link to a short article that describes a variety of estimation methods and points out their shortcomings.)

As times change, some people change and others do not. Yesterday’s profession, regardless of how valuable it might have been back in the day, may not have the same value today. While not wishing bad fortune on anyone, PG notes that today’s “professional” can be tomorrow’s barista.


Publishers Are Tiring of Revolving Door in Barnes & Noble’s C-Suite

From The Wall Street Journal:

Book-publishing executives expressed concerns to Barnes & Noble Inc. BKS 0.83% about continuing management instability at the retail giant and the direction of the business, in the wake of the sudden firing last month of Demos Parneros as chief executive.

Mr. Parneros was terminated without severance in July for violating company policies. The company said at the time that his dismissal was unrelated to issues of financial reporting or fraud, but offered no further guidance.

The next CEO will be Barnes & Noble’s sixth since 2013. During that stretch, the company’s sales have eroded significantly despite various turnaround strategies under multiple management teams, from store closures to stepped-up marketing of toys and gifts, to opening stores with restaurants.

Publishers relayed their concerns in meetings with Barnes & Noble in the weeks following Mr. Parneros’s exit, people familiar with the matter said. They indicated that they have a strong interest in Barnes & Noble running a healthy and stable business, to counteract the clout of Inc. in book retailing.

The invitations to the private meetings were extended by Leonard Riggio, the bookseller’s 77-year-old executive chairman and largest shareholder. He was joined by Timothy Mantel, the chief merchandising officer who is on the rise at the company, the people said. He is one of three executives who report directly to Mr. Riggio and are running the company until a new CEO is hired.

. . . .

According to one publishing executive who met with Barnes & Noble, Mr. Riggio said he was fully committed to the business and that there was a plan to turn things around. “I expressed frustration that if they had a plan, we didn’t know it,” the executive said. “We all want them to survive.”

Another publishing executive indicated frustration with the direction of the business. “You’re trying to focus their attention on what they can do to effect change,” the executive said. “They’re defensive about the CEOs.”

A third publishing executive, who voiced concern about the physical state of the stores, said Mr. Riggio promised new stores with a smaller footprint but didn’t indicate any plans to update existing stores. “I get the logic of that if they can move forward at an aggressive pace,” the executive said.

Mr. Riggio said in an interview that he wanted the publishers to know that he was “up to the job” and that he still “loves the business and its mission.” He disputed the suggestion that publishers had expressed unhappiness with the most recent management change or the direction of the business.

. . . .

“My top priority is building sales,” said Mr. Riggio, adding that the continuing declines in store traffic affecting many retailers can be reversed through better promotions and advertising. Mr. Riggio said, “What brought us here is books. We have to stay book-centered and we have to have a super large title selection.”

. . . .

One industry expert said turnover in the C-suite made it more difficult for Barnes & Noble to maintain a consistent strategy. “Anybody who comes in at the top thinks they are being asked to solve a problem that needs solving,” said Amy Rhodes, a principal at publishing-industry consulting firm Market Partners International. “Presumably if they make a quick exit, the next person comes in with a new idea.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal and thanks to Nate for the tip.

PG says the US economy is growing at a rapid pace, the best in years. Many companies are working hard to meet increasing customer demand, expand their businesses and overcome the many other challenges of handling explosive growth. They’re having problems finding quality executives because everybody is looking for quality managers.

In a market for top executives that looks like this, what competent executive would even consider interviewing with Barnes & Noble?

The smell of death is strong in the largest shrinking bookseller in the US. The guy who really runs the business, Riggio, is more and more out of touch with current market realities. Barnes & Noble was in an excellent position to gain a large share of the ebook market several years ago, but completely blew the technical and design side of online sales and marketing. Incompetent executives managing incompetent tech people couldn’t do anything right.

Back then, the question was the same as it is today – what talented executive or technologist would go to work for Barnes & Noble when there are so many really good companies with bright futures who are hiring?

BN is going to be choosing its next CEO from among those people who can’t get another job during the best job market in decades.

PG says you should expect another Joe-Bag-O-Donuts manager to come stumbling into BN in a few months and go stumbling out a few months later. The march of the stumblebums will continue until BN finally stumbles into bankruptcy, paying out dividends to Riggio until the last possible moment.

And Barnes & Noble’s competition is Amazon.

Leisure sickness: why you should not relax on holiday

From The Times of London

My suitcase is on the bed, I’ve printed the boarding passes and even remembered the travel plug. I may be burdened by a year’s aggregate of fatigue and stress, but that’s OK, I am finally heading off on my summer holiday. It’s really not the moment to spot a report that says, badly handled, my two weeks in Greece might be the death of me.

According to a study by Liverpool University, if you’re middle-aged, and even if you’re reasonably active day to day, a “holiday” doing nothing may be ill-advised. The study conducted by Dan Cuthbertson, an honorary consultant at the university’s Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease, examined the effects of two weeks’ relaxation on 45 healthy men and women with previously good metabolic health. They had all been used to walking an average 10,000 steps a day or more, but for the study were asked to limit their steps to less than 2,000 a day and to sit for up to three and a half hours a day longer than usual.

Overall, while younger participants recovered reasonably quickly, the inactivity in older people led to a slowing of their metabolism. Also, blood sugar and “bad” cholesterol levels increased while insulin sensitivity decreased. These are contributory factors to type 2 diabetes. What’s more, muscle mass diminished and fat deposits increased, especially around the abdomen, a contributory factor to heart disease.

“The public health message is certainly not ‘don’t go on holiday’,” says Cuthbertson. “But it’s that, especially for the older demographic, as you get older there is a constellation of physiological reasons that make it harder to win your health and fitness back.”

. . . .

“No one’s saying holiday has to become a boot camp,” says Cuthbertson. “In fact exercise should feel good physically and mentally. Go for a daily swim and see if you can add a couple of lengths each day.” The doctor, who is no slouch himself — he has run 20 marathons and 200 half-marathons — follows his own orders. “On holiday in Scotland recently I did a park run, which is a really good public health initiative.”

Inactivity on holiday is not the only holiday health pitfall. Scientists and researchers now believe that the sudden decompression that holidaymakers go through when they switch from work to holiday mode can play havoc with their wellbeing. Ever got your keys to the villa, opened the shutters and admired the pool only to retire to bed feeling ill? You may have succumbed to a phenomenon that Ad Vingerhoets, a professor of clinical psychology from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has called “leisure sickness”. Its symptoms include headache, insomnia, depression and anxiety, or flu-like symptoms.

. . . .

“The statistics suggest it’s growing,” she says. “Highly stressed people or workaholics tend to suffer holiday burn-out most. They’re at optimum stress completing tasks before the holiday and then they may suffer an immune-system crash. But the surprising thing is the group we call ‘inactives’ who enjoy a lot of unconditional leisure time on a day-to-day basis, they suffer leisure sickness too. Too much freedom is not good.”

Link to the rest at The Times of London

At this point in his life, PG has a number of grandchildren who are often involved in the vacations he and Mrs. PG take from time to time. The grandchildren are the perfect antidote to the problems of too much inactivity and relaxation during vacation. Casa PG and its many keyboards are sometimes a welcome respite from vacations.

Here is approximately 3 seconds from a recent visit from PG offspring.

You might not be too impressed by this young man’s diving skills, but it does qualify as a new yardstick for activity. PG will call it an Offspring Activity Event (OAE).

Onlookers are anything but relaxed. For one thing, it is desirable for this type of OAE to end with the offspring coming back to the surface of the water. Generally, one or more adult vacationers are observing to make certain this happens within a reasonable period of time.

PG purposely chose a record of one of the simpler OAE’s during a vacation. If you modify this OAE slightly to have it end with Offspring 1 landing on Offspring 2 who is already in the pool, you’ll be looking at a multi-OAE situation which will helpfully prevent adults from remaining completely relaxed to the detriment of their health per the OP.

A bit of simple math demonstrates why visits with Offspring are not appropriately grouped with problems triggered by too much inactivity and relaxation. We will set aside multi-OAE to simplify calculations.

If you start with your basic 3-second OAE, you’ll see this turns into 1,200 OAE’s per hour. Now, each OAE is not a disaster, but nearby adults tend to subconsciously monitor nearby OAE’s as a fundamental part of their disaster preparedness regime. You don’t want an OAE involving a screwdriver and a younger sibling’s eye to catch you napping.

Taking the 1,200 OAE’s per hour further, indisputable mathematics says there will be 28,800 OAE’s per day and 201,600 events per week.

Now, persnickety doubters might claim that sleeping children do not generate 1,200 OAE’s per hour. This may be true in a strict sense, but that takes us into the realm of OAE severity ratings.

Without getting into complex equations, we will simply observe that Offspring Activity Events that occur in the middle of the night tend to be more severe than daylight OAE’s. Offspring Vomiting in bed at 1:00 AM will certainly protect adults from experiencing too much vacation relaxation more than subconscious observation of Offspring Activity during the day at a swimming pool.

The mathematics underlying the science of Offspring Activity Events becomes exponentially more complex if you assume there is more than one Offspring engaging in activities simultaneously. Five Offspring will generate over one million OAE’s during a week with a huge increase in multi-intersectional OAE events.

And, of course, for a small number of adults, conscientious OAE monitoring of more than one Offspring at a time is the best protection because it reduces any possibility of relaxation during a vacation to a bare minimum.

This discussion will not delve into the increased burden of Offspring Justice Determinations layered on top of basic OAE observational and management tasks when one Offspring’s OAE improperly interferes with another Offspring’s peaceful exercise of OAE autonomy resulting in a multi-OAE morass. Simply identifying each individual OAE in such a situation is difficult enough without tossing severity calculations into the mix.

Suffice to say, multi-OAE situations are probably the best defense against leisure sickness while on vacation.


Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles

From The Guardian:

 Space is big,” wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Adams’s assertion comes repeatedly to mind when reading David Sumpter’s Outnumbered, which attempts to reckon with the sheer scale of the systems that manage much of our digital lives. It’s easy, when faced with the numbers at hand, to succumb to a kind of vertigo: Facebook has two billion users, who make tens of millions of posts every hour. From this data, along with millions more photos, likes and relationships, Facebook builds models of all of us that extend in hundreds of dimensions – the puny human mind, at best, is capable of visualising four.

Google’s translation systems likewise collapse hundreds of languages into multidimensional matrices of meaning, which generate their own metalanguages unknowable to us – and which contain their own implicit biases. Plugging the UK’s most popular baby names into one such system, designed to understand how words and concepts relate to each other, gives the response: “Oliver is to clever what Olivia is to flirtatious”. “Our future generations’ gender roles,” the author worries, “have already been assigned by the algorithm.”

Sumpter is a professor of applied mathematics; his natural response to such problems is to recreate them and then unpack them – and perhaps deflate some of our wilder fears along the way. Step by step, using the same data as many of the papers he quotes from, he details the maths that underpins each of these systems, laying out the straightforward, if advanced, calculations that govern their outcomes – and their limitations. It’s all very well to apply sophisticated regression models to billions of Facebook likes, but the results are mostly underwhelming: yes, “Democrats are more likely to like Harry Potter” than Republicans, but “it doesn’t necessarily tell us that other Harry Potter fans like the Democrats”. The same no-nonsense approach is deployed to debunk lazy assertions that we are all fooled by fake news stories, or trapped within filter bubbles that mindlessly reassert our prejudices. We are, apparently, both smarter and more aware than that.

. . . .

In example after example, the toxic combination of filter bubbles, simplistic ranking mechanisms and algorithmic recommendation is seen as clearly in elite networks as in more accessible but supposedly less self-aware groups – but, we are told, the effects really aren’t as bad as we’re being told they are: “When we get time for research, we scientists still do it well. Most scientists I meet are motivated by the eternal search for truth and the desire to know the right answer.” Phew.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From The Jakarta Post:

At a time when society is becoming more and more reliant on technology and the internet, there is widespread concern they are exerting too much influence over our lives.

Behind it all are algorithms that have the capability to predict our everyday lives, and to be frank, we’re not entirely sure what they are up to.

In Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to fake news and filter-bubbles – the algorithms that control our lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica), author David Sumpter writes about society’s ever growing concerns about technology, as well as how algorithms work and their capability to run our lives. It is a fascinating read, drawing on real life phenomenon and stories, such as the likes of Cambridge Analytica.

Simply put, Sumpter tells readers that artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are more than what meets the eye.

When it comes to technology and the internet, many see it as an open field, accessible to many and a place where we can freely move around. We easily surf the web, clicking on websites, constantly using search engines to keep up with our daily lives. We don’t really put much thought into what happens after we make a single click, but we are now more aware and sensitive of what happens to our data.

That being said, the internet holds a massive digital archive of our opinions, gathered from the algorithms that lie beneath it. These opinions are then analyzed to become a mold of our preference and interests and manipulated to influence us. So we ask each other why. Why are these data researchers and tech giants collecting our data? And how are they using it? What is it about our data that interests them so much?

In this book, Sumpter investigates and explains it all. A professor of applied mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Sumpter pitches to his readers a model that illustrates how these algorithms work, from how they analyze us, influence us and become us, and what we should and should not worry about.

. . . .

Sumpter explains all his findings through fascinating examples and case studies, such as how mathematicians applied mathematics in an effort to locate Banksy, an anonymous street artist, or how Google’s neural network had the capability to play Space Invaders against a human being, as well as how companies secretly used our data for political use and that one algorithm that analyzes how the number of “likes” and “dislikes” on platforms such as YouTube correlate with popularity. The list goes on and it is mind blowing.

Link to the rest at The Jakarta Post

From Publishers Weekly:

At a time of widespread concern about technology exerting too much influence over people’s lives, mathematics professor Sumpter (Soccermatics) devotes this enlightening book to investigating these fears and explaining clearly what algorithms do. He tackles different examples of their appearance in daily life, starting with in-the-news attempts to use the internet to study and influence voters. He discusses data harvested from Facebook users regarding their preferences in politics and other areas (theoretically, Democrats “could focus on getting the vote out among Harry Potter fans”), observing that, thankfully, the data’s accuracy is limited by the algorithim designers’ own inherent biases. As to the fake news disseminated on Facebook and other content aggregators, Sumpter believes that, for most people, it has little real impact.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From Kirkus Review:

Further frighteningly convincing research about the data infiltrating our lives.

Experts regularly warn us that today’s digital technology can extract our innermost secrets. In this ingenious addition to the genre, Sumpter (Applied Mathematics/Univ. of Uppsala, Sweden; Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game, 2016, etc.) agrees that there is some truth in this assessment but also serious limitations. The book, less a polemic than a combination of investigative journalism and (mostly) painless mathematical lessons, explains how social media, search engines, and merchants extract our opinions and manipulate them with a set of rules called an algorithm, which can often reveal our tastes, personality, and politics. Readers comfortable with ads tailored to previous purchases may flinch to learn that every mouse click such as a “like” under a photo, joke, or film clip enters a massive digital archive that reveals an unnervingly accurate portrait of the clicker. “Unlike our friends—who tend to forget the details and are forgiving in the conclusions they draw about us—Facebook is systematically collecting, processing and analyzing our emotional state,” writes the author. “It is rotating our personalities in hundreds of dimensions, so it can find the most cold, rational direction to view us from.” Persuading us to buy stuff seems benign, but the internet also teems with fake news scientifically designed to influence our votes. Sumpter returns repeatedly to the surprise victories of Donald Trump and Brexit. Wielding his mathematical tools, the author explains how algorithms deal with big data, and it turns out there is less there than meets the eye. Polls only calculate the odds of an event; they can’t “predict” anything. True believers lap up fake news, but it has a barely detectable effect on changing the average reader’s mind.

Link to the rest at Kirkus Review

From Psychologist World:

A subliminal message is a signal or message designed to pass below (sub) the normal limits of perception. For example it might be inaudible to the conscious mind (but audible to the unconscious or deeper mind) or might be an image transmitted briefly and unperceived consciously and yet perceived unconsciously. This definition assumes a division between conscious and unconscious which may be misleading; it may be more true to suggest that the subliminal message (sound or image) is perceived by deeper parts of what is a single integrated mind.

In the everyday world, it has often been suggested that subliminal techniques are used in advertising and for propaganda purposes (e.g. party political broadcasts).

The term subliminal message was popularized in a 1957 book entitled The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. This book detailed a study of movie theaters that supposedly used subliminal commands to increase the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola at their concession stands. However, the study was fabricated, as the author of the study James Vicary later admitted.

In 1973 the book Subliminal Seduction claimed that subliminal techiques were in wide use in advertising. The book contributed to a general climate of fear with regard to Orwellian dangers (of subliminal messaging). Public concern was enough to lead the Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings and to declare subliminal advertising “contrary to the public interest” because it involved “intentional deception” of the public.

Subliminal perception or cognition is a subset of unconscious cognition where the forms of unconscious cognition also include attending to one signal in a noisy environment while unconsciously keeping track of other signals (e.g one voice out of many in a crowded room) and tasks done automatically (e.g. driving a car).

In all such cases there has been research into how much of the unattended or unconscious signal or message is perceived (unconsciously), i.e is the whole message sensed and fully digested or perhaps only its main and simpler features? There are at least two schools of thought about this. One of them argues that only the simpler features of unconscious signals are perceived; however please note that the majority of the research done has tended to test only for simpler features of cognition (rather than testing for complete comprehension). The second school of thought argues that the unconscious cognition is comprehensive and that much more is perceived than can be verbalized.

. . . .

Subliminal messages might gain their potential influence/power from the fact that they may be able to cirumvent the critical functions of the conscious mind, and it has often been argued that subliminal suggestions are therefore potentially more powerful than ordinary suggestions. This route to influence or persuasion would be akin to auto-suggestion or hypnosis wherein the subject is encouraged to be (or somehow induced to be) relaxed so that suggestions are directed to deeper (more gullible) parts of the mind; some observers have argued that the unconscious mind is incapable of critical refusal of hypnotic or subliminal suggestions. Research findings do not support the conclusion that subliminal suggestions are peculiarly powerful.

. . . .

A form of subliminal messaging commonly believed to exist involves the insertion of “hidden” messages into movies and TV programs. The concept of “moving pictures” relies on persistence of vision to create the illusion of movement in a series of images projected at 23 to 30 frames per second; the popular theory of subliminal messages usually suggests that subliminal commands can be inserted into this sequence at the rate of perhaps 1 frame in 25 (or roughly 1 frame per second). The hidden command in a single frame will flash across the screen so quickly that it is not consciously perceived, but the command will supposedly appeal to the subconscious mind of the viewer, and thus have some measurable effect in terms of behavior.

As to the question of whether subliminal messages are widely used to influence groups of people e.g. audiences, there is no evidence to suggest that any serious or sustained attempt has been made to use the technology on a mass audience. The widely-reported reports that arose in 1957 to the effect that customers in a movie theatre in New Jersey had been induced by subliminal messages to consume more popcorn and more Coca-Cola were almost certainly false. The current consensus among marketing professionals is that subliminal advertising is counter-productive. To some this is because they believe it to be ineffective, but to most it is because they realise it would be a public relations disaster if its use was discovered. Many have misgivings about using it in marketing campaigns due to ethical considerations.

Link to the rest at Psychologist World

PG has linked to several reviews of a new book, Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles – The Algorithms That Control Our Lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica) and one short item discussing subliminal messaging because each of the reviews reflects, to varying extents, the idea that masses citizens in free and open societies can be manipulated like pawns on a chessboard by some surreptitious, super-intelligent and powerful group of people for nefarious ends.

Vance Packard’s bestselling book, The Hidden Persuaders, had a huge impact on advertisers and advertising agencies (and politicians as well) in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. For obvious reasons, the idea that a properly-constructed subliminal message could have a substantial effect on consumer behavior was very attractive.

The problem with Packard’s theories is that they didn’t seem to work with consumers. The traditional marketing approach of understanding what consumers wanted and needed (not necessarily the same thing) and creating products and messages that addressed those wants and needs wasn’t enhanced in any measurable way by hidden messages that were not clear and obvious. Handsome men and attractive women were depicted enjoying a product in commercials to catch a viewer’s attention and encourage them to buy a product. Pitching the psychic benefits of a product was not particularly subtle and certainly didn’t pass a secret and influential message below the level of consciousness.

In PG’s observation, large groups of people tend to denigrate those who disagree with them on a subject of some importance as uninformed or stupid. The belief that people make choices or cast votes against their own logical self-interest is widespread among those who believe themselves to be more intelligent or better-informed than those who disagree with them.

PG suggests that the belief that large groups of people are too ignorant or ill-informed to make proper decisions for themselves is a step towards political disaster. One feature of dictatorships is a constant stream of advertising messages about how intelligent, insightful and beneficent the great leader and those who surround him are and how important it is for everyone else to leave important decisions in the leader’s hands.


‘Dire statistics’ show YA fiction is becoming less diverse

From The Guardian:

Despite a raft of diversity initiatives, the percentage of young adult books written by black and minority ethnic (BME) authors has declined steadily since 2010, according to a new study warning that the UK’s “outdated” publishing culture must take rapid action to address a systemic problem in its ranks.

The research is “evidence of what many people already suspected: people of colour are terribly under-represented in books and bookish jobs”, according to its author Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold at University College London. It follows hot on the heels of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s report into character diversity in children’s books, which showed only 1% of books published in the UK last year had a BME main protagonist.

. . . .

Ramdarshan Bold’s study looked specifically at the authors of young adult titles published in the UK between 2006 and 2016, considered the boom period for YA fiction. Drawing from the British Library’s corpus of bibliographic data, she found around 8,500 YA books had been published over the decade, with 8% written by BME authors – well below the 13% of the UK population who have a minority background.

She also found that the proportion of books written by authors of colour had declined over the period: while 7% of titles published in 2006 were by BME authors, this had dropped to 6% in 2016, after reaching a high of 14% in 2008. The number of books written by authors of colour fluctuated between 25 and 64 titles per year.

“Surprisingly, the number of titles written by authors of colour dropped from 2010 onwards, reaching a low in 2014 (5% of titles written by authors of colour), despite 2010-2014 being the most productive time period for YA publishing. Although publishers produced more titles during this period, they were predominantly written by white authors,” wrote Ramdarshan Bold, who published her findings in Publishing Research Quarterly on Friday.

. . . .

Instead, white female authors dominated the young adult market between 2006 and 2016, accounting for 59% of all titles, with white men writing 31%. Of the young adult authors of colour, 6% were women, with men of colour only accounting for 1.7% of books. British men of colour wrote only 0.4% of the young adult books published over the period.

. . . .

“The publishing industry needs to engage in more sustainable action, rather than discussions, to help shift the entire publishing culture, which is clearly outdated for, and not reflective of, the communities it serves. Until this happens, these dire statistics will not change significantly.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Another study that ignores the huge number of YA books self-published and purchased on Amazon.

PG suggests focusing on the faults of the Titanic while ignoring the future of publishing is a silly undertaking. If successful, this campaign will result in many authors of diverse backgrounds published shortly prior to the collapse of the industry. Ditto for people of diverse backgrounds going to work for Big Publishing.

How to Fight Amazon (before you turn 29)

From The Atlantic:

Shortly after I met Lina Khan, her cellphone rang. The call was from a representative of a national organization, regarding a speech it had asked her to give. Khan was courteous on the phone, but she winced momentarily after hanging up. “That was the American Bar Association,” she confessed. “I don’t know if I’ve passed the bar yet.”

This feeling—that Khan’s ideas are in high demand slightly before her time—has characterized much of her life lately. In the past year, the 29-year-old legal scholar’s work has been cited approvingly by the lefty, rabble-rousing congressman Keith Ellison and by a Trump-appointed assistant attorney general, Makan Delrahim. She has been interviewed by NPR and written op-eds for The New York Times.

She has done it neither by focusing on a hot-button issue nor by cultivating a telegenic demeanor. She is just a young adult—one of many, I would learn—interested in an old topic: antitrust law, that musty corner of American jurisprudence aimed at curtailing monopoly power.

. . . .

For the past few decades of American life, the specter of monopoly was generally raised only regarding companies that seemed custom-designed to rip off consumers—airlines, cable providers, Big Pharma. These were businesses that pulled from the long-standing monopolist’s bag of tricks: They seemed to keep prices artificially high, or they formed an unspoken cartel with other industry titans. Typically, consumers worried most about how monopolies would pinch their wallet.
For Khan and her colleagues at the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank based in Washington, D.C., monopoly power includes all of that. But it goes further. Even when monopolies appear to benefit consumers by offering free services or low prices, Khan contends that they can still be deeply harmful. Among the group’s frequent targets are some of the most popular companies in America: Google, Facebook, and the one to which Khan has committed much of her published work, Amazon. She tells a comprehensive story about how these companies make Americans less free.. . . .“There’s a whole line of critique about Amazon that’s culture-based, about how they’re wrecking the experience of bookstores,” Khan told me as we surveyed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest tome. “I personally am less focused on that element.”

Instead, she argues that Amazon has denuded America’s book-buying landscape in other ways. “Amazon has massively—and I’m trying not to use this particular word, but I can’t not use it here—disrupted the business model in publishing,” she told me. “Publishers used to be able to take risks with heavier books that might not be as popular, and they used to be able to subsidize them with best sellers.” But Amazon’s demand for discounts has made it harder to cross-subsidize this way, leading to consolidation among book publishers and reduced diversity.

This is a typically Khanian analysis. In her telling, monopolies don’t just exploit consumers and workers in their part of the economy. Even when they offer low prices to consumers, their influence propagates through the entire system. If one part of an industry consolidates, then all the other parts of the industry will feel pressure to consolidate too.

. . . .

[I]n January 2017, she published the result of that study, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” in the Yale Law Journal. It went viral—or at least as viral as dense legal scholarship can go. Its driving question is simple: How did Amazon get so big?

The answers are nearly as straightforward. First, Khan says, Amazon has been willing “to sustain losses and invest aggressively at the expense of profits.” This isn’t a controversial assertion: Amazon has posted an annual profit for only 13 of the past 21 years, according to The New York Times. Historically, it has plowed any profits right back into cheaper prices and R&D into everything from robotics to image recognition. Second, Amazon is integrated vertically, across business lines. In addition to selling stuff online, Amazon now publishes books, extends credit, sells online ads, designs clothes, and produces movies and TV shows. It is also one of the world’s largest providers of cloud storage and computing power, renting server space to Netflix, Adobe, Airbnb, and NASA.

. . . .

[Judge Robert] Bork’s views become interesting in light of Amazon. Bork thought vertical integration was fine: Since he believed markets were perfectly efficient, he assumed that a lower-cost competitor would always butt in and fight off a would-be monopolist. And predatory pricing? It is “a phenomenon that probably does not exist,” he wrote. The Chicago school, he said, had proved that companies would always pursue short-term profits over long-term growth.

Amazon’s history seems to belie this claim. For more than a decade, Wall Street allowed the company to plow any profits into price discounts. Partly as a result, Amazon has grown so large that it can undercut other companies just by announcing that it will soon compete with them. When Amazon purchased Whole Foods, its market cap rose by $15.6 billion—some $2 billion more than it paid for the chain. Meanwhile, the rest of the grocery industry immediately lost $37 billion in market value. (Amazon protests that it has no control over how investors value its competitors.)
When a company has such power, Khan believes, it will almost inevitably wield that power far and wide, distorting not just the market itself, but the whole of American life. With sufficient power, companies can commission studies, rewrite regulations, bulldoze neighborhoods, and impoverish education and welfare systems by securing billions in sweetheart tax cuts. When a company comes to monopolize a market—when it grows so big that it can threaten other industries just by entering them—it ceases to be merely a company. It becomes an institution so powerful that it can rule over people like a government.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

PG suggests Ms. Kahn, as an “expert” in antitrust law, is remarkably ignorant about American publishers. Publishers are a classic example of a shared monopoly, offering identical royalty rates and nearly identical contract terms to authors and attacking competitors who don’t join the cartel.

Additionally, there is the inconvenient fact that most of the largest American publishers have already plead guilty to conspiring to fix book prices, a classic antitrust violation, in order to keep Amazon from lowering book prices for consumers. Publishers are, by their own admissions, violators of antitrust laws.

It is possible for an organization to violate antitrust laws by lowering prices to drive competitors out of business, then raising prices once it obtains the monopoly power to do so.

However, lowering prices by itself is a benefit to consumers, not a detriment, and speculation that, at some time in the future, Amazon is going to use monopoly power to raise prices is just that, speculation, without any facts to back it up.

“Predatory pricing” is a characteristic of this type of monopoly activity – cutting prices to drive competitors out of business, then raising prices to capture monopoly profits.

When Amazon starts taking advantage of its market position to force unconscionable price increases on consumers, PG will be happy to condemn the company, but amateur mind-readers who claim this is Amazon’s business plan are simply speculating for purposes that likely aren’t connected to the welfare of consumers at all.

Looking into a crystal ball and perceiving an evil Amazon that will be going into the price-gouging business is a bizarre practice that is often funded by Amazon’s competitors who find Amazon’s consistent price-cutting business strategy offensive because Amazon takes sales away from them or disturbs their way of doing business in their particular fiefdoms.

If we are to speculate, let us speculate about the state of the book business had Jeff Bezos started the company selling something other than books online and stayed out of the book business because he didn’t ever want to upset people like the author of the OP. For the purposes of our speculation, we’ll assume no Bezos clone stepped in to do what Bezos has done.

Would readers be purchasing more or fewer books today? Would the price of books be higher or lower today? (remember that Steve Jobs wanted publishers to fix the retail price of ebooks so there would be no price competition) Would authors be earning more or less than they do today? Would there be a wider or a narrower selection of books offered to readers today? Would more or fewer authors be publishing their own books than do that today?

For any Amazonians who happen to stumble across this post, PG suggests that it might be a good idea for Amazon to consider publicizing how much money they pay directly to individual indie authors each year through KDP and similar programs, bypassing the Big Publishing and small publishing middlemen and middlewomen.

Learned Helplessness

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I was in the middle of a long blog post about writers licensing the rights to their work when the news broke about Donadio & Olson embezzling from their clients. I stopped what I was working on and wrote a different post, because I finally had public proof of something I’d been saying for years: that important, well-known literary agents mismanage and/or embezzle the monies they receive for their clients. This has gone on for decades. It’s not something new.

. . . .

Then another reader wrote an answer post, taking me to task about telling writers not to hire agents.

He’s argued, calmly and politely, with my advice on agents before, so that wasn’t new. We disagree. He has his reasons for keeping an agent. I think those reasons are mired in the 20th century. But that’s his choice. He seems to be making an informed decision, and is taking a calculated risk. I don’t agree with the risk, but it’s his career, not mine. (I do hope he audits his agent regularly. He monitors the payments he knows are coming, but there’s no way to monitor the surprise payments.)

Then…weirdly…I started getting emails, direct messages, and notifications (from friends) of tweets taking me to task for advising that writers not have agents. I was called names. Well-known writers who have never met me wrote that I always give bad advice and that it figures because I’m …pick your hated POV here. (According to the posts, tweets, and emails {depending on who is upset with me}, I’m either bigoted or too PC. I’m against all women or too feminist. I’m always on the wrong side of every issue, and I lie, lie, lie.)

. . . .

Because you can’t fight myths with logic. Even when the myth forces the people spouting those myths to act against their own (and their friends’) interest.

In addition to the tweet-storm, I got some fascinating emails. I can’t share some of them—especially the ones from long-time IP attorneys who told me about the fraud and embezzlement at big name agencies. One IP attorney reminded me of the Harper Lee mess with McIntosh & Otis.  Ironically, according to Vanity Fair,

The agency, known as M&O, was created by Otis and her friend Mavis McIntosh, who had both reportedly left another agency in the mid-1920s after they discovered it to be highly suspect in its practices.

As I said, this crap has gone on for a very, very long time.

I got a lot of sad emails from writers who lost money to fraud, lost major book deals to ineptitude, and have given up on their careers because of agent malfeasance.

. . . .

[A] New York Times bestseller posted on my personal Facebook page that she was surprised people were talking about this issue at all (she was defending the people who were defending agents—although she hadn’t seen the truly vituperative stuff), because no one talks about agents in her experience.

Her comment was followed by a new writer who worried that he couldn’t sell to traditional publishing without an agent. To date, I’ve gotten six public comments, five personal emails and three messages on Facebook just like that, asking the same thing.

I got to noodling all of this in my head—more proof, more stories, lots of us who say we do better without agents, that we can handle our own businesses, and then I went to lunch with a new friend who has worked in the arts for sixty years. She handles her own business affairs, still.

. . . .

Artists are supposed to be feather-brained. Artists are supposed to be bad at business. Artists who are good at business are anomalies or worse. Artists who are good at business are only in it for the money. Artists who are good at business don’t understand art.

Of course, the people who are defining what that art is are mostly professors, who were unable to succeed at the business side of the art, so they have to keep their day jobs.

Some of those professors are writers with big book deals and agents.

As I was noodling all of this, though, what bothered me the most were two things in combination: that comment from the New York Times bestseller about silence and the variety of plaintive messages from beginners who are still pursuing their dreams of being the kind of writer they grew up admiring. But how do you get to one of the big five publishers without an agent?  one of those writers wrote on Twitter this morning.

Well, that assumes that a savvy writer wants a contract with one of the big five. The fact that this guy wrote the question this way proves he’s not savvy. I wouldn’t let anyone go into that shark-fest without a lot of education, the ability to negotiate, and a tough-as-nails IP attorney on their side. And even then, I would hope the writer has a good reason for going traditional, because the best negotiator in the world won’t be able to get the kind of deal that we used to get as a matter of course in the 1980s.

It was the comment though about silence that really got me. Because the New York Times bestseller was right: writers rarely discuss the problems with their agents. Writers only brag about their agent’s successes.

The writers who have been screwed by their agents are either too embarrassed to write a blog post like Chuck Palahnuik’s or those writers have signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of a settlement with that agent. Only a few of us refused to sign NDAs, refused the settlements. And when we talk about what happened to us, we’re called crazy, delusional, and outliers. When we say we handle our own business affairs, we get dismissed because we’re successful so it’s easy for us. We are lucky. Or famous. Or have connections no one else does.

. . . .

Every person in the world who starts a small business—and that’s what writing is…it’s a small business—learns how to conduct the business part of the operation. If the small business owner doesn’t learn that, then they go out of business really fast.

Artists have safety nets that most small business owners don’t have. A professorship based on a few published books and stories (as well as an expensive PhD). Or an ability to get grants. Or an employed and tolerant spouse.

The myth is that artists can’t make money. And before I confuse some of you further, I’m going to stop using the term artist (for dancers, painters, musicians, writers), and hone down to writers alone. But this applies to all of the creative arts. Artists have safety nets.

You’ve all heard that writers can’t make money, so why even try? You’re writing for the love. You’re writing to create something lasting. You’re writing to become famous or well-reviewed or accepted in your own literary circle.

You’re not writing to make money.

Only fools and hacks write for the money. The more someone publishes, the worse their skill must be. The more financial success they have, the more their writing abilities go downhill as they “sell out.”

That’s counterintuitive to the way that humans operate. The more humans practice something, the more they refine their techniques, the closer those people get to the top of their game. Their game might not be as good as someone else’s, but writers—like everyone else—improve with practice.

. . . .

This myth that writers can’t make money plays right into the hands of embezzlers and con artists. Think about it: I’ll handle your negotiations, your paperwork, your money, so you don’t have to bother your pretty little head about it.

Money gets pocketed, writers need those teaching jobs, and the leech who made the offer benefits from the myth. The writer sure doesn’t.

And then there’s the silence.

Silence is the hallmark of abuse.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Colleen for the tip.

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.

As usual, Kris gets to the heart of the matter in a way very few others do.

PG can’t go into any details because of client confidentiality issues, but today he finished reviewing an agency agreement from a large literary agency for a client.

It required more time than it has in the past. Not because the agreement was longer or more complex than the many others PG has reviewed.

It was the CYA paragraphs.

When lawyers are asked to review a contract, in addition to other subjects, clients want to understand what can go wrong if they enter into the contract, what their downsides might be if the whole thing goes south. It took PG a while to work his way through the potential downsides for the client’s proposed agency agreement.

This lead him to think more about the agency and publishing business and why some common practices that would be considered illegal and immoral in other settings are “the way things are done” in publishing.

PG’s Rule #1 for contracts is, “Don’t do business with crooks.”

A client could hire a whole herd (flock? colony? troop?) of lawyers to prepare the finest contract known to humankind. If the counterparty is a crook, the likelihood of the finest contract working out well for the client is still not good.

Crooks gonna crook.

PG just trafficked in a stereotype about crooks.

As a general proposition, while making one’s way through life, it’s not a good idea to deal in stereotypes. Every large group of people includes some that may fit a stereotype commonly associated with the group and others who are much different than the stereotype. In an effort to avoid wrongly stigmatizing those who differ from the group, society rightly takes a somewhat dim view of many varieties of stereotypes.

However, stereotypes can be quite useful and are utilized by most people in one form or another on a regular basis.

Who would you trust more, a drug dealer or an elementary school teacher?

There you go, stereotyping drug dealers.

Long ago, PG learned to be more careful about relying on the statements of a prospective client who was in prison than a prospective client who walked into his law office off the street. Are innocent people sometimes incarcerated? Absolutely. Are most people in prison innocent of a crime? Not really. Are most people really, really, really anxious to get out of prison and willing to do almost anything to achieve their goal? Pretty much.

Do common business standards and practices vary from occupation to occupation? Is an auctioneer expected to be more or less reliable when talking about the value of a piano being sold than a professional appraiser? Is there an unwritten code of conduct for auctioneers that affects their view of appropriate behavior when trying to sell something?

This is a long-winded introduction to PG’s concerns about agents and traditional publishers.

From a purely economic standpoint, an agent needs a good relationship with a handful of acquiring editors working at a small group of publisher much more than an agent needs a good relationship with an author who is mid-list or below in the publishing hierarchy.

Publishers who will pay a $100,000 advance for a science fiction novel are far rarer than science fiction authors are. This and other economic realities strongly influence the behavior of agents.

Looking at what’s really happening in an agent’s life, it would make more economic sense for the agent to work for and receive a commission from a publisher for locating a salable author than to pretend the agent works for the author and puts her interests first before the publisher’s.

This brings PG to customs of the trade.

Many years ago, PG learned about customs of the New York City garment industry while representing a client who manufactured and sold boatloads of inexpensive jackets. Some of the customs of the trade in the garment business were identical or similar to standard commercial law and others were much different. Those who regularly did business in the garment industry were far more concerned with applying the customs of the trade instead of anything the state legislature had ever written.

In this respect, the customs of the trade in New York City bore some resemblance to what was sometimes called “The Law of the Hills” in the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas.

In some cases, juries were more influenced by the Law of the Hills than they were by The Revised Statutes of Missouri or anything the judge might say about the case. While the state law might look askance at a husband beating up his wife’s lover, the Law of the Hills permitted such actions as long as nobody was permanently crippled.

PG posits that the customs of the traditional publishing trade, including the customs of the literary agency trade have created an environment in which an agent can do far worse things than fail to forward payment the agent receives for royalties from Russian sales to an author. The author’s never going to know and such an action won’t harm the agent’s reputation with HarperCollins even if someone at HarperCollins finds out about it.

When faced with a choice between promptly paying every penny of royalties due to an author and keeping the doors of the agency open, the customs of the agency trade dictate that the survival of the agency is paramount. An agent will make the same decision once, twice, three times — as many times as it takes to survive.

Thus, an otherwise honest and honorable group of people can be lead down a path that ends in systematic and large criminal diversion of funds away from authors and into agents’ pockets. PG’s gut tells him that this has happened at a great many agencies, both small and large.

It’s a custom of the trade.

The Mystery Of The Missing Mystery Writer

From author/editor Jim Thomsen in 2009:

To me, it was a mystery worthy of, well, a mystery novel.

A Seattle mystery author publishes three novels. All are reviewed reasonably well; all sell reasonably well. She’s under contract to write two more. But that fourth book never materializes. In fact, the author disappears … and is never heard from again. As an author, anyway.

Fourteen years later, had the trail grown too cold for the truth to emerge?

I decided to find out.

And the solution I found to this mystery is, to many I’m sure, a much greater mystery:

I found a writer who simply didn’t want to be a writer any more.

What — or who — killed her ambition?

Here’s my investigator’s report.

. . . .

In the spring of 1991, I was the Ellensburg correspondent for the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper (central Washington cities, for those of you who don’t know the area).

I was also a voracious reader of mystery novels, in an era when Seattle-based mysteries were going through something of a golden era.

. . . .

And there was Janet L. Smith, the Seattle attorney whose 1990 debut novel, “Sea Of Troubles,” was a skillfully entertaining diversion. In fact, I bought that book at Jerrol’s Bookstore in Ellensburg, where, I learned shortly after, a caravan of six mystery authors would be making an afternoon stop. I don’t remember every name, but the tour included Sequim author Aaron Elkins, the author of several mysteries featuring anthropologist Gideon Oliver; children’s mystery author Willo Davis Roberts, and Emerson and Smith.

I happily flitted around Jerrol’s during the entire visit, schmoozing with as many of the authors as I could. (In fact, I wound up writing features on two, Emerson and Roberts, for the next day’s Herald-Republic.) The event was pretty sparsely attended, as far as I can recall, and I don’t think any of the six sold many books (other than the dozen or so I snapped up, of course). But everybody seemed to have a good time anyway, visiting with the few people who did drop by, and with each other.

I got Janet L. Smith to sign my copy of “Sea Of Troubles.”

. . . .

I got thinking about Janet a few months ago, when I was cleaning up my garage. I came across a box full of old paperbacks, and among them were Janet L. Smith’s three novels: “Sea Of Troubles,” (1990) with the author’s signature still there in faded ink on the inside page; “Practice To Deceive” (1993); and “A Vintage Murder” (1995).

I re-read each one. And I’ll say this: They’re not great, but they’re pretty good. They’re well-paced and well-plotted, authoritative on legal procedure, maybe a little light on character development and distinctive prose style. But I bought all three when they came out … and would have kept right on buying them if they had kept on coming out.

But, of course, they didn’t. And I set out to find out why.

Finding her wasn’t too difficult. A Google research revealed a Seattle law practice for Janet L. Smith. And, as big as Seattle is, I figured the odds of two Janet L. Smiths practicing law there were pretty long.

. . . .

We met Sept. 22 at a Starbucks on Aurora Avenue, not far from the Northgate-area office where she practices eldercare law. A smiling woman in her mid-fifties, Janet let me buy her a latte.

I jumped right in. So … what’s the deal? I asked. Why are you no longer a writer?

Janet smiled.

“When people me ask me that, I say, “Nobody asks someone why they didn’t write another Ph.D thesis.’”

That much fun, huh?

She then cautioned me, still smiling, against the assumption that she had failed.

Then she talked about introverts and extroverts. She was very much the latter, she said. Most authors don’t like being public figures, much preferring to hole up at home and write. That, Janet said, is not her.

“If I was doing writing 100 percent, without talking, I’d go stark raving out of my mind,” she said. But that, of course, is the discipline of novel writing, the one that doesn’t get talked about much. The reality is that writing a book is damned hard work, and requires a concentration that usually insists on isolation from all distraction. Some of us thrive on it. And some of us are like Janet.

Luckily, Janet didn’t have to worry about that, at first anyway, as she was juggling her part-time writing career with her legal work.

. . . .

[H]er fictional alter ego, Seattle attorney Annie MacPherson, solved complicated problems, too. And at the time Janet broke through, heroines like Annie MacPherson were just what the publishing industry was looking for. Mystery authors like Sue Grafton, Sharyn McCrumb and Sara Paretsky, with tough, sexy, self-sustaining heroines, were just completing their ascents into the sales stratosphere.

“I hit a moment in time where what I was selling was what they were looking for,” Janet said. “They wanted women protagonists, a strong regional flavor, nobody who was a cop or an FBI agent.”

That said, breaking in wasn’t a slam-dunk. Janet did what most aspiring authors did in the pre-Internet era, which was write dozens of letters to agents whose listings were found in the annual Writers Market reference books. “No luck,” she said.

. . . .

“I got encouraging rejection letters. That kept me going.”

And, at last, she broke through, with a small Bay Area press called Perseverance Press — an outfit so small, Janet said, that at the time it put out just one book a year. At the time, Janet was working in the state capital city of Olympia and recalls regularly visiting the small mystery bookshop there — Whodunit Books, which is still around — to babysit her book.

Then, mysterious good things happened. “Sea Of Troubles” got a positive review in The New York Times, even though it had never been submitted for one as far as Janet knew.

. . . .

That led to a new deal which saw her second Annie MacPherson book, “Practice To Deceive,” come out in hardcover as well as paperback. And led to her developing a public presence as an author. She attended the major mystery-writer conferences — Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime among them — and became active in the Sisters In Crime organization. She made friends among the Northwest writer community.

. . . .

That part was fun. The actual making-the-books part, not so much.

“For me,” she said, “the process of writing just isn’t fun.”

There were other factors, however, more beyond her control. After three books, her sales were steady but flat, trapping her in what she called “the comfortable midlist.” “Practice To Deceive” had done slightly better than “Sea Of Troubles,” and “A Vintage Murder” had done no worse than “Practice,” but neither represented the great leap forward that author and publisher both hoped for. That was being reflected in her publisher’s so-so support for the books; Janet’s regional tours to promote them were largely self-financed.

“Going from the midlist to something more probably wasn’t going to happen,” Janet said. “I probably wasn’t going to make that leap into Sue Grafton territory. My publisher didn’t see me having gold foil covers.” That’s the point, she said, where “they put you in a box and tell you where you belong.”

. . . .

And she’s left her days an author in the past, too. Well, mostly.

She laughed as she recalled a moment from earlier this year in which she caught her [law] practice’s office manager, during a slow day, reading one of her books — totally unaware that the author was her employer.

“I asked her what she was reading, and she was so embarrassed to be caught that she just said, ‘Oh, just some crap.’ I asked her who the author was, and she looked at the cover. It took her a moment to figure out that I was that Janet L. Smith.

‘I didn’t mean ‘crap!’” the office manager howled.

Janet teased her about it. “‘Not only are you reading on the job,” she recalled saying, “but you’re reading fluff!’ She had to tell everybody in the office about it.”

And that’s about the sum of her literary legacy, she said.

“It’s a trivia fact of my life,” she said. “Not much more than that.”

Link to the rest at Jim Thomsen and thanks to Dale for the tip.

PG says there are many ways in which an author may fail in the book business.

The OP describes a common reason for failure in the days prior to indie publishing – being categorized as “midlist”. Midlist books didn’t sell enough copies to support the physical bookstores, the distributor, the publisher and the author in the manner they desired to be supported.

An indie author in 2018 lives in a different world. Sales of ebooks in numbers that were formerly “midlist” can support an author and an author’s family, particularly when the author can release a book as soon as it is finished without the friction of dealing with various traditional publishing practices and processes.

Barnes & Noble may not have changed much, but Amazon understands that electrons on hard drives cost almost nothing, certainly way less than New York publicists and underpaid bookstore managers, so it needs very little money to support those hard drives and drop a few pennies into Jeff Bezos’ pocket from time to time.

Is there any dishonor in writing books that thousands of readers enjoy instead of books that millions of readers enjoy?

PG can’t remember when he last read a New York Times bestseller. He is not alone in appreciating books that fall well outside of mass market popularity.

Speculating on how those studying the history of books and authors will look back on the period beginning in the early part of the 21st century, PG suggests that this time will be regarded as the beginning of a golden age for books and authors because of indie publishing. Employment and income statistics will show a substantial increase in the number of full-time authors and their average incomes and the number of books sold. Millions of books will be written and read that never would have existed under the Ancien Régime.

The Big Secret Why Behind Everything so Far

From Chuck Palahnuick:

On the plus side I’m not crazy.  For several years my income has dwindled.  Piracy, some people told me.  Or the publishers were in crisis and slow to pay royalties, although the publishers insisted they’d sent the money.

More recently, the trickle of my income stopped.  Not that there wasn’t always a good excuse.  Someone’s mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and needed constant looking after.  The bank’s wire transfer system wasn’t secure, and hackers were a new threat.  You don’t question someone who claims to be the caregiver for a mother with dementia.  You let it slide.  I let it slide.

That’s why my big shows on book tour stopped.  Because the payment for Fight Club 2 and the two coloring books and Adjustment Day never seemed to arrive.  Years of income.  Each of those big shows cost north of ten grand to stage.  Money I paid.  For the glowing beach balls, the severed arms, the $150 leather-bound books as prizes, not to mention the dog toys, the shipping, the candy.  So much candy.  For each event, shopping carts full of candy.  It was justified in my mind because most of my readers had never attended an author reading, and I wanted their first to be exceptional.  But when my income stopped, when I had to choose between health insurance and autographed rubber arms… the shows stopped.  There, I’ve said it.

In comics, you pay your own way.  Invitations arrived from Comic-Cons, Dragon Cons, Wizard Worlds, but my money for travel had dried up.  Instead of income, I got excuses.  But this entire time an idea nagged at me:  What if someone’s stealing?

But that, that was insanity.  I’ve worked with the same team of people since 1994.  To suspect anyone was stealing, I had to be crazy.

And then I wasn’t.  You may have read about this over the weekend in the New York Post.  All the royalties and advance monies and film option payments that had accumulated in my author’s account in New York, or had been delayed somewhere in the banking pipeline, it was gone.  Poof.  I can’t even guess how much income.  Someone confessed on video he’d been stealing.  I wasn’t crazy.

Link to the rest at Chuck Palahnuick’s blog

PG is interested to see a couple of articles describing the literary agency, Donadio & Olson, as a victim of the wholesale theft of client funds.

If a community bank closes because of financial improprieties that have continued for years, is the president of the bank regarded as an innocent bystander? Can he/she credibly point to a clerk and say, “It was all her fault! I had no idea this was happening over all these decades.”

In a criminal trial held in a court of law, the president is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, the president is presumed to be part of the scheme or too incompetent to be responsible for running a bank.

PG suggests that in the court of public opinion, the agents that own (and have owned) and operated Donadio & Olson during the lengthy period of time over which client funds were stolen from authors should be similarly judged.

In the  event of a bank failure or financial difficulties, typically, an aggressive federal agency swoops in late on a Friday afternoon and takes over the books and records and operations of the bank. All the bank’s employees walk out the  door while the government agency figures out what went wrong and who is entitled to how much money. The bank reopens on Monday morning under the direct management of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (Similar enforcement actions by other government agencies if a bank is not federally insured or a savings & loan has problems.)

It is PG’s impression that, like California, New York’s legislature has passed a law about nearly every subject imaginable. New York City prides itself as being the center of the traditional American publishing industry.

Where is the government regulation requiring that, if literary agencies are receiving and holding money that really belongs to someone else – authors – the literary agencies act like banks that receive and hold money belonging to other people and be treated as custodians of funds held to the highest standard of care?

If Big Publishing really cares about authors and doesn’t take them for granted, why don’t the standard terms of a traditional publishing contract include provisions that pay royalties directly to authors and agency fees directly to agents? Publishers will do this if asked by an attorney for the author. Why not make it the default?

As PG has stated before, nothing that is good for the author happens when an agency receives royalty payments to which the author is entitled. Passing funds through the agency bank account adds no value whatsoever and only provides an opportunity for something bad to happen to those royalties.

Charge of the write brigade: How to save the last American bookstore chain

From The Bookseller:

In every great epic, there is the last stand: a waning of hope, a dutiful last charge, and a hopeful moment of deus ex machina.

It’s all too tempting to imagine American publishers in a boardroom today using similar literary tropes in a dramatic analogy involving besieged Barnes & Noble locations and a fight to the last man against Amazonian invaders. Our analogy isn’t far off. Right now, B&N faces death but bravely holds fast to stave off private takeovers and Amazon at the gates a little bit longer.

The death of the last major American bookstore chain is significant. It leaves publishers with few major bookselling channels outside of Amazon, hundreds of American communities reliant on e-commerce for books, and a beloved brand and store experience only a distant memory for readers.

. . . .

Financially, B&N is in dire straits. The stock is trading a hair above $5, less than a fifth of their 2006 price before ebooks and Amazon consumed the market. Since then, stores have seen 11 years of declining sales and dozens of closures. After Feb. 12 lay-offs of 1,800 full-time positions, many stores now have no full-time employees.

B&N’s online sales have been steadily declining more than 25% in the last two years, despite occasional odd attempts at building unique online experiences. Meanwhile, Amazon currently sells one out of every two books in the U.S., according to digital publishing consultants Mike Shatzkin and Hugh Howey. While the overall book market grows a healthy 3% a year, it “is solely due to Amazon’s fast-growing online print sales,” says Howey. Last year, “all other channels shrunk.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG says  the death of the  last American bookstore chain is primarily self-inflicted.

Ditto for the big publishers on life support, down-sizing their way to a brighter future.

Nowhere was it cast in stone that Amazon would dominate bookselling. Barnes & Noble was a household name when Amazon shipped its first book. And its thousandth book. So was Borders.

Each of the two big book chains (plus some other smaller chains) was ideally positioned in the minds of consumers to dominate online book sales. Who do you trust? Barnes & Noble, where you have purchased books for years or that Amazon web thing operating out of  some guy’s kitchen in Seattle that’s liable to take your money, go bankrupt and blame UPS when your book gets lost?

With their unerring ability to locate a sinking ship, publishers jumped on board the SS Queen of  the Livre Papier. Apple always sold its computers and other stuff at list price, so  publishers created an illegal conspiracy with Steve Jobs’ encouragement that had one principal objective – Sell at List Price – and a motto, Discounting is the Devil’s Playground! (except when Barnes & Noble does it)

Ebooks were an ideal product for publishers – no printing costs, no waiting for ships full of books from China, no warehousing charges, no slice of the pie for Ingram. Send some electrons to any online bookstore that wanted to sell them and watch the money roll in.

But no, that would be wrong because Paper!

Shakespeare used paper. So did Mark Twain. And Jane! Jane Austen never allowed a computer in Pemberley. Everybody knows they were geniuses so who are we to question their ways?

Save Barnes & Noble!

From The New York Times:

Barnes & Noble is in trouble. You hear that, in worried tones, when you talk to people in the book business. You feel it when you walk into one of the chain’s stores, a cluttered mix of gifts, games, DVDs (DVDs?) and books. And you really see the problems if you dig into the company’s financial statements.

Revenue from Nook, the company’s e-book device, has fallen more than 85 percent since 2012. Online sales of physical books have also plummeted. At the stores, where business was once holding up, it’s down about 10 percent over the past two years. Several stores — like my local one, in the Washington suburbs — have closed, and many have reduced staff.

The company’s leaders claim that they have a turnaround plan, based on smaller, more appealing stores focused on books, and I hope the plan works. It’s depressing to imagine that more than 600 Barnes & Noble stores might simply disappear — as already happened with Borders, in 2011. But the death of Barnes & Noble is now plausible.

. . . .

The full story revolves around government policy — in particular, Washington’s leniency, under both parties, toward technology giants that have come to resemble monopolies. These giants are popular, because they provide good products and service. But they have also become mighty enough to vanquish their competitors and create problems for society.

. . . .

For most of American history, the government viewed giant corporations of any kind as inherently problematic. Their size gave them too much power — to eliminate competition, raise prices, hold down wages and influence politics. So the government passed laws to restrain businesses and occasionally broke up the largest, like Standard Oil and AT&T.

In the 1970s, however, a new idea took hold: Size was not a problem so long as prices remained low. Bigness could even be good, because it promoted efficiency and thus lower prices. The legal scholar Robert Borkwas the most influential advocate for this view, and it soon guided the Supreme Court, the Reagan administration and pretty much every administration since.

But the theory has two huge flaws, as a new generation of scholars, like Lina Khan, is emphasizing. One, prices are not a broad enough measure of well-being. Wages, innovation and political power matter as well. If prices stay low but wages don’t grow — which is, roughly, what’s happened in recent decades — consumers aren’t better off. Two, regulators have focused on short-term prices, sometimes ignoring what can happen after a company drives out its rivals.

. . . .

The book business is looking like a case study. Amazon is taking over, yet has never run into antitrust scrutiny. It has reduced prices, after all. It sells many e-books for $9.99 and hardcover best sellers at a big discount. So what’s the problem?

Plenty. Amazon has been happy to lose money on books to build a loyal customer base, to which it can then sell everything else. “Amazon isn’t primarily concerned about books these days,” Oren Teicher, who runs an association of independent bookstores, told me. “They are far more focused on getting consumers into their ecosystem so they can sell them every other product under the sun.”

But the artificially low prices have created a raft of problems. Fewer books are commercially viable. Publishers are focusing on big-name writers. The number of professional authors has declined. The disappearance of Borders deprived dozens of communities of their only physical bookstore and led to a drop in book sales that looks permanent.

. . . .

“It’s in the interest of the book business,” Teicher says, “for Barnes & Noble not just to survive but to thrive.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Susan and others for the tip.

PG suggests the fundamental purpose of antitrust law is not to benefit the corporate losers in commercial competitions, but rather to benefit consumers by promoting competition in a variety of marketplaces.

These laws are not intended to punish successful competitors because of their size or to permit courts to choose winners and losers in the marketplace.

In an active marketplace, consumers will be benefited by the improvements in products or services and/or the lowering of prices that result when sellers are competing for the business of buyers. Each seller is focused on capturing and holding the loyalty of buyers by providing a more attractive product or service to those buyers. Buyers vote with their dollars, but no seller can assume that their customers today will be their customers tomorrow unless the sellers continue to attract and serve buyers with features the buyers desire tomorrow, whether they be price, selection, service, a better purchasing experience or whatever buyers value tomorrow.

Consumers are subject to the threat of substantial damage in a market that is not competitive because established sellers are relying on something other than the free choices of buyers to select the most attractive product or service by interfering with the competitive process.

How has Amazon beaten many of its competitors? Better prices, certainly, but also with better service (2-day delivery with Prime and real-time updates on delivery status, for example), a huge selection of goods, lots of customer reviews to provide additional information to prospective purchasers and easy returns and refunds if a product does not satisfy a customer.

As compared with physical stores like Barnes & Noble, an Amazon customer can choose from a far, far wider selection of books than any Barnes & Noble store carries. An Amazon customer can typically purchase books for lower prices than are offered at a Barnes & Noble store. An Amazon customer can purchase a book when a Barnes & Noble store is not open or not convenient to visit or staffed by sullen clerks working for little more than minimum wage.

An Amazon customer can purchase books from independent authors instead of large corporate publishers exercising monopoly power by offering authors substantially identical terms and compensation as other corporate publishers do. When an Amazon customer makes such a purchase, she can do so knowing that much more of the price she pays for the book will be received by the individual author than would be the case if a purchase was made from a corporate publisher. A savvy purchaser will know that she is not subsidizing the victimization of authors by corporate publishers as has occurred on several occasions during recent memory.



Every top New York Times best-seller this year has been about Trump

From CNN:

Since January, each book at the top of The New York Times best-seller list has had one thing in common: President Trump.

James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty” will surely keep the streak alive. Comey’s high-profile launch is also highlighting Trump’s broader effects on book sales.

The No. 1 spot on The Times’ hardcover nonfiction list is incredibly coveted real estate in the publishing industry. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” landed there in mid-January thanks to explosive allegations and a full-throated presidential attack.

“Fury” held onto the No. 1 spot until Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s “Russian Roulette” came along in March. The book — subtitled “The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump” — was on top for three weeks.

. . . .

There is a caveat about The Times list: Psychologist Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules For Life” has been a hot seller for months, and might have ranked No. 1, but because it is published by a Canadian company, it is not counted by the U.S. newspaper.

Link to the rest at CNN

By including this item, PG is not inviting a political war in the Comments section of TPV. There are many other (and better) online locations for those discussions.

Rather, he wonders what this says about Big Publishing and The New York Times bestseller lists.

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, Mr. Trump did win the 2016 Presidential Election. He did so by winning 30 states with 306 pledged electors out of 538 total electors. The results were known on November 8, 2016, 529 days ago.

Like four previous US Presidents (1824: John Quincy Adams, 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes, 1888: Benjamin Harrison and 2000: George W. Bush) Mr. Trump did not win the country-wide popular vote.

On a state-by-state basis, Ms. Clinton won in the most populous state – California – but Mr. Trump won seven out of the ten most populous states: Texas (#2), Florida (#3), Pennsylvania (#5), Ohio (#7), Georgia (#8), North Carolina (#9) and Michigan (#10).

The large New York publishers behind the anti-Trump bestsellers have not, to PG’s knowledge (he’s happy to be corrected),  released any best-selling pro-Trump books or anti-Clinton books.

While it’s no surprise that the New York-based companies hire New York-based employees, the majority of whom quite probably did not vote for Mr. Trump, PG wonders if anyone in New York thought there might be a market for a pro-Trump or anti-Clinton book.

Even before Amazon released constantly-updated bestseller rankings, the methodology behind the New York Times bestseller lists (which is confidential and described only in the most general terms by the paper) was widely-questioned.

In fact, as reported on TPV and elsewhere, it was possible to game the NYT bestseller lists and shadowy companies could (for a fee) guarantee that a book would appear as an NYT bestseller the week it was released. Typically, they accomplished this by using a variety of people to purchase books from retail bookstores known or suspected to be consulted by the Times for its weekly bestseller lists.

The most recent report about such behavior that PG could locate with a quick search was from Vox in September, 2017. Here’s an excerpt:

On August 24, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But as a scrappy band of investigators who congregated in the YA Twitter community discovered, it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading the book. Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem bought its way onto the list, they concluded, with the publisher and author strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the Times removed the book from its rankings.

And on September 4, Regnery Books — the conservative publishing imprint that publishes Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, among others — denounced the New York Times best-seller list as biased against conservatives. Why, it demanded, was D’Souza’s new book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left ranked as seventh on the Times’s hardcover nonfiction list when Nielsen BookScan’s data, per Regnery’s interpretation, suggested it should be first? Regnery concluded that the New York Times was actively conspiring against conservative titles, and announced that it would sever all ties with the Times.

. . . .

Becoming a New York Times best-seller has a measurable effect on a book’s sales, especially for books by debut authors. According to a 2004 study by economics professor Alan Sorensen, appearing on the New York Times’s best-seller list increased debut authors’ sales by 57 percent. On average, it increased sales by 13 or 14 percent.

Besides the list’s effect on sales, it offers prestige. If your book appears on the New York Times list — even just for a week in the last slot of the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous category — you get to call yourself a New York Times best-seller for the rest of your life. You can put that honor on the cover of all of your other books.

. . . .

The author and publisher of Handbook for Mortals reportedly hoped that gaming the New York Times best-seller list would make it easier for them to sell the book’s film rights down the road, which is presumably why they were willing to spend the money to get the book onto the list.

. . . .

So all of the different best-seller lists have established their own methodologies to gather sales data — and once they’ve got it, they break it down differently. They put the break between one week and another in different spots (ending on Sunday versus Saturday, for example); they use different categories to sort the lists; they weigh digital and print titles differently.

. . . .

It’s widely rumored that independent bookstore sales are weighted more heavily than Walmart sales [by the NYT], for instance, but the Times has never confirmed this. Some observers have also suggested that it weights print sales from traditional publishers more heavily than it does digital sales from digital publishers or self-publishers, because books that do very well on Amazon’s in-house imprints seem to rarely show up on the Times list

Link to the rest at Vox

PG suspects the NYT bestseller list methodology is focused on generating bestselling books that the NYT believes its subscribers would buy (or should buy. Certain NYT bestsellers are notoriously never read. See below. ).

To be clear, PG says the NYT is absolutely free to do this, but might be a bit more upfront about its objectives.

As organizations comprised largely of people who see the world through the NYT, major US publishers are significantly impacted by the NYT. An editor at HarperCollins receives some sort of gold star if one of her books makes the NYT lists. If she consistently has a book or two that make the NYT lists each year, she gains more than a little job security.

On the other hand, even if our theoretical HC editor could credibly claim one of her authors was killing it in Houston, Miami, Cleveland and Charlotte, but, for some unknown reason, hadn’t made the NYT lists, she’s less likely to brag about it to her boss.

As far as NYT bestsellers that are never read, a long time ago, a NYT columnist even wrote about the phenomenon.

The tale of the emperor’s new clothes has been around a long time. But how about defining another category of mass delusion, the emperor’s new book: the insanely popular, often intellectually intimidating book that sells hundreds of thousands of copies (sometimes even millions) but that few people actually read.

The phenomenon of the unread best seller comes to mind because of the recent publication of ”Ravelstein,” Saul Bellow’s novel about the life and death of his friend Allan Bloom. In life, Bloom was a humanities professor well known only in the academy who gained international fame in 1987 after the surprising success of his dense treatise ”The Closing of the American Mind.” To this day, many consider it one of the prime examples of an emperor’s new book.

Another classic example also comes from the 1980’s: Stephen Hawking’s ”Brief History of Time” remains no doubt the most abstruse volume ever to sell nearly nine million copies around the world.

Figuring out which best sellers go unread is not easy, since most people don’t want to admit to the unfinished state of their reading. Much of the evidence is anecdotal. Bloom and Hawking, for instance, were the universal first responses when a small sampling of people in the book business were asked about unread best sellers. But a somewhat more solid indicator of unread books emerged in 1985 when Michael Kinsley, then of The New Republic, acted on his suspicions about reading habits in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Kinsley and a colleague put coupons redeemable for five dollars each in the back of 70 copies of selected books in Washington bookstores. Two of the books were ”Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control” by Strobe Talbott and ”The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong” by Ben J. Wattenberg. Though neither was a national best seller, they were chosen, Mr. Kinsley said, as the kinds of books Washingtonians were most likely to claim to have read. No one ever redeemed a coupon. The Kinsley report may be as scientific a study as there is.

. . . .

 Michael Willis was the marketing director at the Free Press in 1994, when the company published ”The Bell Curve” by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray.”We thought it was very much the case that both professionals and the general public bought it to have it and didn’t read it,” he says. ”We got the sense even from reviews that people basically read the first chapter and the last.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times


‘In Chocolate We Trust’ Review: A Man, a Brand, a School, a Town

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the early 20th century, Milton Hershey transformed chocolate from a luxury good to a working-class staple. It made him a fortune, which he used to establish Hershey, Pa.—a model company town 100 miles west of Philadelphia and the self-proclaimed “sweetest place on earth.” He also established an orphanage, the Milton Hershey School, to provide housing and education primarily for children from the area.

Hershey and his wife supported the school through a trust, which they established in 1905. By 1918, when he donated his full stake in his chocolate company to the trust, the trust was valued at $60 million. Today it is worth more than $14 billion—ranking it among the largest nonprofit endowments in the nation, on a par with MIT’s—and has maintained a profound commitment to its locale.

Peter Kurie’s “In Chocolate We Trust: The Hershey Company Town Unwrapped” is a study of the town and of its residents’ shifting attitudes toward its institutional trinity of trust, company and school. As Mr. Kurie notes, one of the trust’s most striking characteristics is its controlling interest in Hershey Co. Remarkably, this is not a stipulation of the trust’s official documents; the Milton Hershey School Trust has always been free to sell its shares in the chocolate maker. But as several failed takeover bids over the years have demonstrated, this ownership arrangement has proved surprisingly durable, producing a dense institutional tangle with the trust at its center.

. . . .

Mr. Kurie’s account shows how the town’s dominant institutions both guarantee a shared civic identity and produce tensions that threaten to undermine it. The trust’s imperative to generate more revenue for the school, for instance, has long strained the bonds of the broader Hershey community. Milton Hershey invoked the high costs of the school as justification for why he couldn’t afford a union at his company (his workers formed one anyway). In the 1960s, the trust received permission from a local probate court to expand its mandate and spend $50 million on a medical research and teaching center in partnership with Penn State University. It drew a new cohort of professional families into the community that were less deferential to the authority of the trust and company.

In the 1970s, after struggling to attract enough “true orphans” to the school, the trust opened admittance to “social orphans,” or those deemed to be receiving inadequate parenting at home. These students, many of them African-American, now make up the majority of those enrolled at the school. In reaction, a nostalgia-laced resentment has grown among townsfolk toward the students, who they charge treat the school less as a home than as a “welfare agency” to be exploited.

. . . .

Despite the hopes of some nonprofit leaders that place-based giving might insulate locally rooted philanthropic institutions from the antagonisms that have roiled the rest of the country, Mr. Kurie’s book makes it clear that Hershey is less a refuge from those broader conflicts than a microcosm of them, a fractal of grievances that replicates those of the larger system. Like so many other Americans, Hershey’s residents have been split over suspicions of an out-of-touch elite (the trust’s board, whose members have been accused of extracting outsize compensation from the trust) and over the incursion of outsiders who some feel don’t have the community’s legacy and interest at heart, be they African-American “social orphans” from inner-city Philadelphia or the former Hershey Co. CEO who arrived in town after a stint at Nabisco.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG suggests that, despite the best intentions and the undoubted genius of many of those who have amassed large fortunes, the establishment of a trust or other organization that will perpetually do good in anything close to the way the founder imagined is very difficult, if not impossible.

The OP says that the trustees have expanded the mission of The Milton Hershey School Trust well beyond the bounds originally established by Milton Hershey.

As the OP mentions, in the United States, legal matters relating to trusts typically fall under the jurisdiction of a local probate judge. Probate is the process of processing the estates of deceased persons to make certain any valid debts the decedent incurred while alive (plus funeral expenses) are paid and the remaining proceeds of their estates are properly distributed to their heirs. If the decedent had a will, the probate judge ensures that the assets are distributed according to the decedent’s expressed wishes. In the absence of a will, state law determines how those assets are distributed.

PG is not an expert on probate matters in the State of Pennsylvania, but the office of probate judge typically attracts individuals who enjoy a quiet life with minimal conflicts (no nasty divorce proceedings or criminals) making decisions that are consistent with state laws governing the probate of estates. These laws seldom change.

In some states, probate judges are elected to serve for a set term and may run for reelection. In other states, they may be appointed by the governor for a set term, subject to reappointment on the expiration of that term. There may also be other methods of designating probate judges of which PG is not aware.

Unlike other judges (Federal District Judges, for example), members of the probate judiciary are generally not inclined to throw their weight around or make headlines with their decisions. They are typically conscientious men and women who labor in relative obscurity as far as the larger community is concerned.

As the OP describes, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, The Milton Hershey School Trust is a really big deal. The trustees of the Trust will similarly be major figures of influence in the community. Hershey employs a great many people in the city. While it is part of a larger metropolitan area, the population of Hershey itself was 14,257 in the 2010 census. PG hasn’t been to Hershey for a very long time, but on his only visit, the smell of chocolate was literally in the air everywhere he traveled in or near the city.

PG will bring this long digression to an end by tying it to a mention in the OP that the trustees of the Hershey Trust petitioned the probate court for permission to expand the scope of the trust and the institutions it created and governed beyond the terms of the original trust documents.

While the probate court is theoretically the guardian of the Hershey Trust and the trustees’ obligations to carry out Mr. Hershey’s intentions as set forth in the trust documents he signed, faced with the power and influence of the Trust and its trustees, a great many probate judges would be inclined not to question the reasons presented by counsel for the trustees that an expansion of the Trust’s work into areas Milton Hershey didn’t expect or intend when he created the trust in the first place.

Successful authors who have created or wish to create trusts for charitable purposes may well wish to consider the lessons the OP provides.


Facebook’s Short-Term PR Has Longer-Term Consequences

From Medium:

In her eye-opening piece this week, The Guardian’s SF reporter Olivia Solon opens the curtain on the draconian efforts by Google, Facebook and others to muzzle their employees from speaking publicly about their company’s doings.

Aptly titled “‘They’ll squash you like a bug’: how Silicon Valley keeps a lid on leakers,” Ms. Solon opens with one employee’s tale of his performance review meeting when he was ushered into a room and ambushed by Facebook’s security team armed with incriminating evidence of private correspondences he had had with a journalist he knew.

“It’s horrifying how much they know,” he told the Guardian, on the condition of anonymity. “You go into Facebook and it has this warm, fuzzy feeling of ‘we’re changing the world’ and ‘we care about things’. But you get on their bad side and all of a sudden you are face to face with [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg’s secret police.”

As with any publicly traded company, the importance of controlling material information is crucial. Virtually all centralize their external communications through their PR and IR departments, working alongside legal and the C-suite. On top of that, nearly all have clear employee policies dictating what’s acceptable and what’s not on social media. The New York Times, whose reportorial staff is not shy about weighing in on Twitter, just made news by updating its guidelines:

“In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.”

. . . .

Over the weekend, Facebook’s security guy Alex Stamos thought it was a good idea to opine on Facebook’s latest dilemma wherein a conservative billionaire-funded company Cambridge Analytica hired a Russian professor in the UK to abscond with the personal data of 50 million (!) Facebook users and weaponize it to denigrate one and elevate the other Presidential candidate.

. . . .

I therefore would have to wager that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg not only had advance knowledge these initiatives, but purposely dispatched Messrs. Goldman and Stamos — the company’s ad and security leads, respectively — to tweet about them in a well-intentioned, but ill-conceived effort to set the record straight.

And therein lies Facebook’s PR problem. Rather than get out ahead of this potentially reputation-damaging news, the company waited until the news was upon them before taking remedial action. The lede from Axios sums it up:

“Facebook was caught flat-footed again Saturday as it scrambled to deal…”

You can see this short-sighted PR approach again with the company’s decisionto suspend Cambridge Analytica from its platform. Good move, right?

Link to the rest at Medium

PG says it’s an unwritten article of faith in Silicon Valley that the founders and early participants in major tech companies are the smartest people in the world. The chief evidence of this intelligence is the success of the companies they started.

Of course, this is silly. Very smart people can make stupid mistakes and do so all the time. In addition to intelligence, luck may also be involved, particularly in the early success of a company that has experienced rapid growth.

The other problem is that a great deal of intelligence is domain-specific. The genius programmer with no social skills is not hard to locate in any tech company ghetto. The genius programmer with some social skills has risen to the top of more than one successful enterprise.

The recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica disaster certainly came out of left field for Facebook’s management. However, competently-managed large and valuable companies understand that left field exists and that preparation for an intelligent response to surprises is one of management’s responsibilities.

Facebook has over 25,000 employees. Starbucks has over 250,000 employees. Each of these companies is going to have employees who leak company secrets. The difference is that nobody cares very much about Starbucks’ secrets.

Despite all the non-disclosure agreements in the world, some current and former employees of Facebook are going to talk about what happens inside the company. Trying to discover who these people are is a reasonable response, but it’s far from the most important response to leakers. (And if Facebook employed the smartest people in the world, corporate security would never be able to track down who the inside leaker was.)

The most important response is to be prepared with an honest and proactive explanation of whatever the subject of the leak is. Plus actively working with any press organization that is covering the story. Pulling up the drawbridge is pretty much the worst thing a company can do. It’s an indication of management failure.

By now, regular visitors to TPV are wondering how this relates to books and authors.

One of the ways in which Amazon is an extraordinary company is that it has never experienced the type of negative media storm that Facebook is having and that is something a great many large companies experience.

The Seattle Times and others have tried to create some exposés, but they haven’t really gained much traction in terms of having any real impact on Amazon’s finances. A great many people are currently deleting their Facebook accounts or vowing to stop posting, but PG is not aware of any big bumps in Amazon’s revenue growth arising from stories about exhausting work in Amazon’s warehouses.

Amazon was ranked #2 in Fortune magazine’s 2018 list of the world’s most admired companies (Apple was #1).

Amazon had the same #2 rank in the 2017 list. It was ranked #3 in 2016, #4 in 2015, #2 in 2014 and #3 in 2013.

Facebook did not rank in the top 10 during any of those years despite having one of the highest market capitalizations of any company in the world and close to 100% name recognition.

Although Amazon has impressive technical chops (Amazon Web Services; what is almost certainly the best product recommendation system in the world), Bezos isn’t much like a typical tech CEO. After college, he worked at a telecommunications startup, a bank and a hedge fund before starting Amazon.

Amazon also avoids at least some Silicon Valley groupthink because it’s not located in Silicon Valley. PG understands Bezos initially funded the company out of his own pocket and from friends and family and turned down a venture capital investment, a decision which permitted him to personally control the company’s early business decisions.

It wasn’t until Amazon’s first book-sales website was up and generating increasing profitable sales each month that he accepted a small no-strings investment from a venture fund. PG thinks Bezos’ financial smarts helped keep Amazon away from the types of unwise management decisions that VC’s can force on a small tech company.

None of this guarantees that Amazon won’t someday make a Facebook-style screwup, but PG would bet against it.



50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach

From The Guardian:

The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.

A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica . . . used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

. . . .

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.

However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising. The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election. It comes only weeks after indictments of 13 Russians by the special counsel Robert Mueller which stated they had used the platform to perpetrate “information warfare” against the US.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG is interested in these stories, which blossomed over the weekend not for the political angle (he suspects someone associated with either presidential campaign would have purchased the information from Cambridge Analytica given the opportunity), but as an example of a 21st century quandary over the ownership and control over a sort-of property right to intangible information about individuals.

As a predicate, if you have ever clicked on an “I accept” button in the process of using a website or other online information resource, you have almost certainly agreed that the proprietors of the website can do all sorts of things with the information you provide them in the form of clicks, comments, etc., etc. as you examine this or that on the site.

PG and his ilk are the only people who ever read these Terms and Conditions and then only for ideas that may be helpful in drafting additional Terms and Conditions documents for clients of the ilk. PG speculates that no one reads Terms and Conditions documents unless someone is paying them money to do so.

The ownership and use of the information left by millions of Facebook visitors who post cat photos for their friends is also interesting. Facebook, based upon its Terms and Conditions which cat lovers do not read, asserts that it owns and controls this online information because people came to Facebook and Facebook collected that information from them. Nobody else is supposed to collect personal information that people voluntarily disclose online except Facebook.

If PG understands the OP and related stories correctly, someone created an app and placed it on Facebook per Facebook’s Terms and Conditions for app developers. (Facebook has Terms and Conditions for every commercial occasion.) People who used the app could receive something of value to them if they provided information via some sort of online quiz or test. Those who received this information used it derive more information (which happens trillions of times per day everywhere on the internet).

Then, Russians!

Of course, everyone knows that Russians have superpowers when it comes to US elections. It’s almost as if Supreme Leader Putin himself is marking the ballots of millions of Americans who are too dense (because they don’t live in the New York-Washington corridor) to understand what is happening to them when Vlad’s voice comes into their heads and commands them to vote Trump.

Facebook is bad because it did something it’s done a million times before (including, almost certainly, for Russians and Dr. Evil).

PG says Facebook is innocent because Subparagraph 43.Z.(19) of its Terms and Conditions for app developers says, “No bad people allowed on Facebook. This includes you, Vlad!”

A couple of final thoughts:

  1. Facebook is in the business of making profits from the personal information it collects from each of its millions of users. It induces visitors to disclose various bits of information (I like cat pictures! Give me more!), then sells access to large packets of those visitors to advertisers, political hacks, etc., without regard to the race, religion, political orientation or the hidden evilness of the purchasers.
  2. Nobody cares if Facebook sells a packet of 10 million lovers of cat pictures with all their personal information to an advertiser (Click here for more cat pictures!) so long as Facebook won’t sell anything to people of which the commentariat disapproves. Glasnost and Gorbachev were fine. Vlad is bad.
  3. Regardless of politics, most of the major media organizations in the US (and maybe The Guardian, too) appear to have misplaced their sense of proportion as they dive down one rathole or another in search of a conspiracy theory to explain why some people voted in an unexpected manner. Their collective reasoning abilities seem to have devolved into: Vlad is bad. Trump is bad. Ergo, they must be working together.

Information is amoral and apolitical.

Despite whatever agreements Facebook’s able attorneys can devise, information in electronic form is the slipperiest collection of electrons in the universe. It goes all over the place and you can never track it all down. While it can disappear in an instant, it will still be on someone’s hard drive fifty years from now.

Generally speaking, Terms and Conditions are a sort of legal kabuki dance.

Nobody reads them. Everybody knows that nobody reads them. If, by some accident, a layperson were to read them, he/she would not understand them and could not be certain that he/she was acting in accordance with them.

However, we’ll pretend they’re legally binding and subject to respect and meticulous obedience under the full majesty of the law.

Whenever something embarrassing happens online, attorneys throughout the tech world review the Terms and Conditions of their clients. Since there are no perfect Terms and Conditions, counsel will tweak some provisions, adding several hundred more words.

The new Terms and Conditions will appear. Nobody will read those either. But everybody will pretend the latest problem is solved.


What’s the Best Way to Promote Literature in Translation?

From The Omnivore:

You may have heard that the National Book Foundation is launching a new annual award for best work of translated fiction or non-fiction. It’s welcome recognition for an area of publishing that’s exploded in recent years, and a return to form, since the NBA gave out a translation for sixteen years, before stopping in 1984.

. . . .

How much has changed for the fortunes of international writers since 1984! For one thing, in the US, there are a lot more translations, by a lot more translators. That writers from all over the world are finding audiences is due in no small part to their craft, as well as the indefatigable publishers, periodicals, and university programs that give literature in translation consideration and focus.

Still, translations play the underdog, because America’s reading habits, compared with those of other countries, are notoriously provincial. An often-cited statistic is that, while in most countries between thirty and sixty percent of books published are translations, here it’s only three percent. This is popularly known among translation advocates as the “Three Percent Problem.”

. . . .

To get a handle on the issue, we reached out to Esther Allen, a professor, writer, and the translator of many books, including Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama. “The three percent figure was drawn from a fairly impressionistic 1999 NEA study that covered only literary fiction and poetry — roughly 3% of which (300 books out of roughly 10,000 literary titles that year) was translated from another language,” she said in an email. Allen was part of the research team. But that sampling, she suggests, can hardly have been representative, since literature and poetry make up a sizeable majority of translations. “It was never accurate as a total percentage of all books published, but that has been what it’s taken to mean. If you just look at all books published in 1999 (roughly 100,000) the figure should be more like .03%.”

. . . .

So what about a challenge to address what I’ll call the Zero Percent Problem — that is, finding, translating, and accounting for literature from countries that have otherwise been overlooked by translators, and totally inaccessible to English-language readers?

Three notable examples (and believe me, there are more): Honduras, Thailand, and Vanuatu. Honduran literature, despite being written primarily in Spanish, a language that is well-translated, remains untranslated. Thailand because its language isn’t widely spoken or studied outside of the country — in fact, the first Thai work of literature by a living writer to appear in an English translation officially only did so last year, despite all signs indicating a thriving Thai literary culture. Vanuatu because reportedly only one novel has ever been published by a native Vanuatan, a work that only appeared a decade ago, meaning if you’ve read it, you’ve read all of Vanuatan literature. Crazy.

Link to the rest at The Omnivore

PG cannot resist pointing out that, in the United States, the publishers that make decisions about which books in translation to publish are virtually all located in New York City and mostly staffed by people who grew up and/or went to college within 300 miles or so from New York City.

Thus, the statement made in the OP, “America’s reading habits, compared with those of other countries, are notoriously provincial,” is definitely reflective of parts of NYC, and NYC’s opinions (often based on rumors and stereotypes) of the rest of the United States.

PG suggests that if a person grew up near NYC, went to college in Massachusetts or Connecticut and has taken a couple of trips to the West Coast, he/she is less than an expert on the United States and its reading tastes.

PG has been interested in the East Coast reactions to Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, an author whose family (per the cover description on the book) lived poor in the Appalachian parts of Kentucky, then moved north to Ohio, but were never able to fully escape “the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.”

Here are a collection of excerpts from reviews written by people from pretty much the same background as those who staff New York publishers:

“[A] compassionate, discerning sociological analysis…Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans. Imagine that.” (Jennifer Senior, New York Times)

“[Hillbilly Elegy] is a beautiful memoir but it is equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America….[Vance] offers a compelling explanation for why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to make it…a riveting book.” (Wall Street Journal)

“[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.” (David Brooks, New York Times)

“[Hillbilly Elegy] couldn’t have been better timed…a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations…an honest look at the dysfunction that afflicts too many working-class Americans.” (National Review)

[A]n American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… [T]he most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. (Rod Dreher,The American Conservative)

“J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy”, offers a starkly honest look at what that shattering of faith feels like for a family who lived through it. You will not read a more important book about America this year.” (The Economist)

“[A] frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir…a superb book…” (New York Post)

PG is substantially less startled and amazed by Vance’s story, because variations of that story can be found in hundreds of different parts of the United States of which the reviewers were apparently unaware prior to reading Vance’s book. He suggests a visitor to a welfare services or public defender or Legal Aid office in virtually every state would encounter people with the same sort of problems Vance describes.

On the other hand, should a visitor to the middle-class neighborhoods in the same communities where those welfare services, offices were located would find successful and intelligent people with successes, experiences and aspirations equally alien and unknown to the publishing class.

PG suggests that part of the success of many indie authors and their books arises from the substantially deeper and more nuanced understanding those authors have of enormous swaths of readers and their communities that are terra incognita for the acquisition editors working for publishers in New York City who regard themselves as taste-makers for American readers.

Is arbitration the answer to settling disputes in the art world?

From Apollo:

Privacy has long been of utmost importance in the art world. But in the context of the recent global move towards transparency in business and finance, the art market has increasingly been the subject of criticism for its perceived opacity. A great deal of publicity has been generated by exceptional cases in which criminal investigations have been launched against people alleged to have laundered money through art transactions: take, for example, an embezzlement case being investigated by the US Department of Justice in which Christie’s appears to have been used by the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB to purchase art worth millions of dollars.

However, most collectors, dealers and galleries wish to preserve their privacy not because their behaviour is untoward, but because individuals’ collections are personal and part of their private affairs. Sometimes collectors are compelled to sell artworks due to financial problems that they wish to keep secret; in other cases, privacy can add to the allure of artworks that have been held in an exclusive collection. Obviously, businesses operating in the art market always need to remain vigilant, and be mindful that they do not become vehicles to facilitate money laundering or any other criminal or fraudulent activity; it is only if they are vigilant from within, by keeping strict checks and balances in place and reporting anything that looks wrong, that the market may be able to maintain and preserve the level of privacy at which it often prefers to operate.

Art-related disputes between collectors and dealers, or between buyers and sellers and/or auction houses arise all the time. Such parties often find themselves the subject of court proceedings that are entirely public, and often include the details of private affairs and finances relating to the dispute. The threat of publicity can be such that parties with good claims may abandon them without recompense because they simply do not wish to go through with court proceedings.

If the dispute relates to the authenticity of an artwork, court proceedings can have disastrous implications for that work’s value: where authenticity has been called into question, however weak the arguments, any future prospective buyer is bound to hesitate, and certainly not offer the price they might have done prior to public court hearings.

. . . .

Arbitration, particularly in London (which has a well-developed arbitration jurisdiction), can provide a suitable forum for resolving art disputes in private. Importantly, at this point it is also a good way to make sure that any decision granted can be enforced in most countries around the world, irrespective of the result of Brexit negotiations – which, until there is greater clarity in the negotiations, cannot be said of cases heard in the British courts in respect of other countries in the EU.

In arbitration, disputes are resolved with binding effect by a person or persons acting in a judicial manner in private, rather than by a national court of law that would have jurisdiction unless the parties have prior agreement to exclude it. It requires a decision by the parties, at the time of making their agreement, to take any dispute outside of the court system and have it settled in private by an arbitrator jointly funded by the parties. Such an arbitrator, usually an experienced lawyer, would have the role of a judge, and their decision would be entirely binding and enforceable in most countries under the New York Convention on Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958).

. . . .

Professionals in the art world increasingly prefer to put paperwork in place rather than operating, as in the past, on the basis of handshake agreements.

Link to the rest at Apollo

PG says arbitration has application to the publishing world as well.

Under a typical Big Publishing contract, if there is a dispute, it will be handled in New York City. If the author lives anywhere but the state of New York, either party can file or ask for removal to the US District Court in the Southern District of New York.

This means that a US District Judge will be in charge of trying the case. District Judges are usually well-qualified for their work, but their work is not specialized. They’ll handle criminal and civil cases, including a great many drug cases. It is unlikely that a typical Federal Judge has ever seen a publishing contract before. Since criminal cases take precedence for constitutional reasons, civil cases, such as a dispute between an author and publisher, get bumped to pretty close to the bottom of the priorities list.

The District Judge may also assign the case to a Federal Magistrate who works with the District Judge. While some magistrates are well-qualified, others are less-qualified than a typical District Judge. The magistrates are also overwhelmed with criminal cases.

Most criminal cases are settled via plea bargain or dismissal for errors on the part of law enforcement. Many civil cases are settled by the parties while awaiting trial, sometimes because one party runs out of money. Others are dismissed on pre-trial motions because of defects in pleadings, etc. Only a relatively small number of cases are typically taken to trial before a magistrate and even fewer before a District Judge.

Contested civil cases like a dispute between an author and a publisher which are not dismissed during preliminary jousting between the parties can take 2-3 years, sometimes longer, (and sometimes much, much longer) to actually reach a trial.

By comparison, arbitration is handled by an experienced attorney who is knowledgeable about the subject matter in dispute. The Arbitrator (it can also be a retired judge with similar qualifications) is typically more active during the earlier parts of the arbitration, looking for shortcuts, pressuring the parties to pare away peripheral matters, etc.

The arbitrator is chosen by the arbitration agency (often the American Arbitration Association) based upon his/her expertise and evaluations of prior arbitrations conducted by the arbitrator. However, if either party objects to a particular arbitrator due to something like potential bias, another arbitrator may be appointed.

The arbitrator is paid a fee for arbitration services. Generally speaking, each party posts 1/2 of the anticipated fee. Depending upon the terms of the underlying contract and/or arbitration agreement, the arbitrator may require that the losing party pay arbitration costs and/or attorney’s fees of the winning party. Generally speaking, it’s probably a good idea for each party to assume he/she/it will pay their own attorneys fees and half the arbitration fees.

After the arbitration is complete, each party (or their attorney) is asked to evaluate the arbitrator’s performance, including how quickly the arbitrator moved the case to conclusion. The arbitrator may or may not receive future arbitration appointments based upon the evaluations of the parties.

It is common for the arbitrator to schedule some time for the parties to discuss settlement prior to the hearing. The arbitrator may participate in these discussions to help reach a settlement. Unless the parties and their attorneys are within a relatively short distance of the arbitrator, settlement conferences are often handled by phone.

The arbitration is set for a specific time and place and is very unlikely to be postponed or rescheduled absent serious illness or some similar reason. One of the ways the arbitrator is evaluated is by how long it takes the arbitrator to move a matter to hearing and to deliver a final verdict.

If both parties agree, either in the original contract between them or otherwise, the arbitration can be confidential. By contrast, federal court records are generally open to the public for examination.

In an earlier day, before PG stopped handling litigation matters, he represented clients in both litigation and arbitration matters. The arbitrations were generally faster and the qualifications and subject matter knowledge of an arbitrator with respect to nature of the dispute were better than a typical trial judge, who is a generalist due to the wide range of cases that come into his/her court.

What about costs? Each dispute is unique in some ways, so there are no hard and fast rules. A judge-tried case is overseen by a judge who receives a salary paid by the government. As mentioned before, an arbitrator is paid by the parties. On the other hand, in both a trial and arbitration, typically the parties are each paying their own attorney. If there are a couple of years between filing a civil court case and trial, the attorneys won’t sit around doing nothing during that period and fees will mount up as discovery matters, including depositions, examination of documents and records, etc., happen.

If the losing party is unhappy with the court’s decision, he/she/it may file post-trial motions that require a response from the winning party, through the attorney. If the losing party files an appeal, the winning party has a lot more attorneys fees to look forward to.

In an arbitration of a contract dispute, an arbitrator may be able to take a matter to a final decision within a matter of a few months. Typically, arbitrator’s decisions are not subject to appeal.

In PG’s litigation experience, a drawn-out court matter is a definite drain on the emotions of both parties, to say nothing of their bank accounts. If a case is set for trial, then postponed, that’s an additional drain.

As far as cost differences between arbitration and a civil trial, it depends. If the civil trial is a drawn-out matter, arbitration is probably cheaper, even if the parties are required to pay the arbitrator. A good arbitrator is also a good and active case manager, working with the parties to resolve the case and discouraging or denying permission to either party to try to slow the case down. Since the arbitrator is already an expert in the subject of the dispute, it is not necessary for the parties to educate the arbitrator about the legal background in which the case takes place, unlike the parties would do with a judge.

As usual, PG is a lawyer, but he is not your lawyer unless you hire him to be your attorney. PG’s comments are a general discussion of the topic, so don’t take any of this as legal advice. You obtain legal advice by hiring an attorney.


From Watchmen to Catch-22: can TV tackle ‘unfilmable’ books?

From The Guardian:

In recent months, a spate of books has been adapted for TV, with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s Watchmen in varying stages of production. They share something in common: all have been made into films – none of which have worked. The film versions had prestige directors Mike Nichols (Catch-22) and François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), while Zach Snyder took on Watchmen with a $120m budget. But despite the big names with big budgets, they couldn’t quite pull it off.

Early attempts at TV adaptations of notoriously unwieldy literary creations haven’t been straightforward. Amazon had an ill-advised crack at F Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, the second Fitzgerald project it had taken on after its original series (Z: The Beginning of Everything) about his relationship with his wife Zelda. Widely felt to misfire (“there’s none of the chemistry, the fire and thunder of the great writer” wrote Sam Wollaston), The Last Tycoon went the way of Elia Kazan’s equally soporific 1976 movie, which – despite a cast that included Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Jeanne Moreau, and a Harold Pinter screenplay – fell flat and would be the director’s last film.

TV, with its capacity for long-form storytelling, can suit these “unfilmable” projects. Turning movie adaptations of novels into TV shows has worked in varying degrees. Hannibal, Bates Motel and The Exorcist were huge successes, while others, such as the Stephen King adaptation The Mist, and the woeful Rosemary’s Baby failed dismally. It was clear that material ideally suited to the film format was stretched too thinly to justify a series.

. . . .

So with scorn from authors, and scepticism from fans, what prompts these attempts at the unfilmable? Ego is a consideration, and a desire to succeed where others have failed. With the advance of special effects, previously challenging books are now within the realm of possibility. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the best example of this, with Amazon’s eye-wateringly expensive take on the books currently in development. The need for streaming sites to seek their answer to huge hits such as Game of Thrones may also be a factor. Adaptations of ambitious books make headlines, fuel interest and – if done correctly – can be spun out into decades-long franchises.

Another unfilmable project that fits into the epic lineage is Martin Freeman’s planned series version of John Milton’s 17th-century poem Paradise Lost, which producer Laurence Bowen has described as a “biblical Game of Thrones”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG suggests that John Milton is turning over in his grave.

Milton was buried at St Giles-without-Cripplegate church in London in 1674. Here’s a photo of Milton’s memorial inside the church.



Milton dictated Paradise Lost, consisting of ten books with over ten thousand lines of blank verse, to a series of scribes, including his daughters, because he was blind.

He lived in a turbulent era which included the English Civil Wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, during which King Charles I was tried and executed for treason and his son was exiled.

Religious upheaval was a constant condition during Milton’s life. The establishment of the Church of England as the official religion of the realm and persecution of British Catholics had occurred less than 100 years prior to Milton’s birth. The bishops of the Church of England actively participated in the English Civil Wars.

The Protestant Reformation led to a significant religious and political contention in Europe that carried over into England as Calvinist and other religious dissenters from the Church of England were severely persecuted by the government. Milton lived during the latter stages of the Thirty Years War, fought between Protestant and Catholic European states, and one of the most destructive in European history. For Americans, Milton lived and wrote during a time when English religious minorities, Pilgrims and Puritans, migrated to what would become the United States to escape persecution in Britain.

Paradise Lost was a deeply religious work created during a time when religion played a central role in personal and political life and has had a profound influence on authors and other artists in the centuries following its publication.

Bringing Paradise Lost down to more recent era, in 1942, C.S. Lewis wrote a preface of about 150 pages to a new publication of the epic poem.

Reflecting the times in which it was written, among other things, Paradise Lost is the story of a civil war between heaven and earth, God and Satan.

Milton was also a staunch advocate of freedom of speech during a time when any publication in England required a government license before it could be printed and sold. Such licensing laws first appeared during the Catholic inquisition. In 1644, Milton wrote Areopagitica in support of unlicensed printing.

Areopagitica continues to influence thought about freedom of expression. The United States Supreme Court has referenced Areopagitica in its case opinions interpreting the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

From Wikipedia (citations omitted):

Most notably, the Court cited Areopagitica in the landmark case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan to explain the inherent value of false statements. The Court cited Milton to explain the dangers of prior restraint in Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago et al. Later, Justice Douglas concurred in Eisenstadt, Sheriff v. Baird, citing the pamphlet to support striking down restrictions on lecturing about birth control. Finally, Justice Black cited Areopagitica when he dissented from the Court’s upholding of restrictions on the Communist Party of the United States against a free speech and free association challenge in Communist Party of the United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board. In each instance, Milton is cited by the Court’s members to support a broad and expansive protection of free speech and association.

Quotes from Areopagitica:

Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

. . . .

And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. ‘Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.

. . . .

We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.

. . . .

Where there is much desire to learn, here of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.

. . . .

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

. . . .

It is not possible for man to sever the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the other fry; that must be the Angels’ ministry at the end of mortal things. Yet if all cannot be of one mind — as who looks they should be? — this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian, that many be tolerated, rather than all compelled.

. . . .

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

PG is concerned about the treatment of Paradise Lost, the masterwork of a true literary and moral genius, by 21st century Hollywood movie producers.

Thoughts on Apple Books

From Digital Book World:

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

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

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

. . . .

1) Deploy iBooks Author anew

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

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

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

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

. . . .

3) Apple Books needs to match Amazon on key criteria

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

5) Go cross-platform anywhere and everywhere

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

PG says competition is always good.

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

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

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

In some categories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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