How Hollywood’s biggest stars lost their clout

From The Economist:

HOLLYWOOD LABOUR disputes have a certain theatrical flair. When Scarlett Johansson sued Disney in July, claiming she had been underpaid for her role in “Black Widow”, the studio launched an Oscar-worthy broadside against the actress’s “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the covid-19 pandemic”. In September film crews marched to demand better conditions, brandishing placards designed by America’s finest prop-makers. And when WarnerMedia decided to release “Dune” on its streaming service on the same day it hit cinemas on October 21st, the movie’s director, Denis Villeneuve, huffed magnificently that “to watch ‘Dune’ on a television… is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub.”

The streaming revolution has sent money gushing into Hollywood as studios vie to attract subscribers. Netflix boasts its content slate in the fourth quarter will be its strongest yet, with new titles such as “Don’t Look Up”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the final season of “Money Heist”, a Spanish bank-robbing saga. On November 12th Disney will announce its latest commissioning blitz, with new shows for Disney+ expected to include “Star Wars” and Marvel spin-offs. In total streaming firms’ content spending could reach $50bn this year, according to Bloomberg.

Yet despite the largesse it is a turbulent time in Tinseltown, as everyone from A-list stars to the crew who style their hair goes to war with the film studios. Some of the disputes have arisen from the pandemic, which has upended production and release schedules. But the tension has a deeper cause. As streaming disrupts the TV and movie business, the way that talent is compensated is changing. Most workers are better off, but megastars’ power is fading.

Start with the pandemic. As cinemas closed, studios scrambled to find screens for their movies. Some, like MGM’s latest James Bond flick, were delayed by more than a year. Others were sent to streaming platforms—sometimes without the agreement of actors or directors. Those whose pay was linked to box-office revenues were compensated, either behind the scenes (as WarnerMedia did in the case of “Dune”) or after very public spats (as with Disney and Ms Johansson).

Yet even before covid, streaming was changing the balance of power between studios and creatives. First, there is more cash around. “There’s an overwhelming demand and need for talent, driven by the streaming platforms and the amount of money that they’re spending,” says Patrick Whitesell, executive chairman of Endeavour, whose WME talent agency counted Charlie Chaplin among its clients. Three years ago there were six main bidders for new movie projects, in the form of Netflix and the five major Hollywood studios. Now, with the arrival of Amazon, Apple and others, there are nearer a dozen. Streamers pay 10-50% more than the rest, estimates another agent.

Below-the-line workers, such as cameramen and sound engineers, are also busier. Competition among studios has created a “sellers’ market”, says Spencer MacDonald of Bectu, a union in Britain, where Netflix makes more shows than anywhere outside North America. In the United States the number of jobs in acting, filming and editing will grow by a third in the ten years to 2030, four times America’s total job-growth rate, estimates the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

The streamers’ hunger for variety means their seasons have half as many episodes as broadcast shows, and are less frequently renewed. That means “people are having to hustle for work more often,” says one script supervisor. A fatal accident on the set of “Rust”, a movie starring Alec Baldwin, has stirred a debate about safety amid the frantic pace of production. But the streamers’ short, well-paid seasons allow more time for CV-burnishing side-projects, and the work is more creatively rewarding. “Netflix and Apple both nominate every role, in every category they can” for awards, reports one set-designer—who adds that the price of that can be 90-hour weeks. IATSE, a union which represents 60,000 below-the-line workers in America, has reached an agreement with studios for better pay and conditions; its members will begin voting on the deal on November 12th.

More controversial is the streamers’ payment model, which is creating new winners and losers. Creative stars used to get an upfront fee and a “back end” deal that promised a share of the project’s future earnings. For streamers, a show’s value is harder to calculate, lying in its ability to recruit and retain subscribers rather than draw punters to the box office. Studios also want the freedom to send their content straight to streaming without wrangling with a star like Ms Johansson whose pay is linked to box-office takings. The upshot is that studios are following Netflix’s lead in “buying out” talent with big upfront fees, followed by minimal if any bonuses if a project does well.

That suits most creatives just fine. “Buy-outs have been very good for talent,” says Mr Whitesell. “You’re negotiating what success would be… for that piece of content, and then you’re getting it guaranteed to you.” Plus, instead of waiting up to ten years for your money, “you’re getting it the day the show drops”. America’s 50,000 actors made an average of just $22 per hour last year, when they weren’t parking cars and pumping gas, so most are happy to take the money up front and let the studio bear the risk. Another agent confides that some famous clients prefer the streamers’ secrecy around ratings to the public dissection of box-office flops.

For the top actors and writers, however, the new system is proving costly. “People are being underpaid for success and overpaid for failure,” says John Berlinski, a lawyer at Kasowitz Benson Torres who represents A-listers. The old contracts were like a “lottery ticket”, he says. Create a hit show that ran for six or seven seasons and you might earn $100m on the back end; make a phenomenon like “Seinfeld” and you could clear $1bn.

A few star showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes, a producer of repeat TV hits currently at Netflix, can still swing nine-figure deals. But creators of successful shows are more likely to end up with bonuses of a couple of million dollars a year. And though actors are receiving what sound like huge payments for streamers’ movies—Dwayne Johnson is reportedly getting $50m from Amazon for “Red One”, for example—in the past they could make double that from a back-end deal.

. . . .

But their unwillingness to venerate A-listers also has an economic rationale. The star system, in which actors like Archibald Leach were transformed into idols like Cary Grant, was created by studios to de-risk the financially perilous business of movie-making. A blockbuster, which today might cost $200m to shoot plus the same in marketing, has one fleeting chance to break even at the box office. The gamble is less risky if a star guarantees an audience.

Today, studios are de-risking their movies not with stars but with intellectual property. Disney, which dominates the box office, relies on franchises such as Marvel, whose success does not turn on which actors are squeezed into the spandex leotards. Amazon’s priciest project so far is a $465m “Lord of the Rings” spin-off with no megastar attached. Netflix’s biggest acquisition is the back-catalogue of Roald Dahl, a children’s author, which it bought in September for around $700m.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG suggests filing this item under “Disruptive Technology Innovation.”

From the viewers’ standpoint, in the old days, if you wanted to see a new movie, you had to make certain you made it to the theater during the film’s first run. If you missed that, you were relegated to watching it on a 27-inch television set with a speaker that cost the manufacturer $3.00.

Once in a blue moon, a giant hit would have a second run so those who missed the first release and those who hated how the videocassette version looked on the small screen could see it on a bit screen with great sound.

Appointments are no longer necessary to watch big-time movies on a big screen with great sound.

Large-screen LED, a soundbar with woofer (or surround sound if you’re really picky) and a reasonably fast internet connection and you can have a better experience than you can at a ten (maybe twenty) year-old theater. And you can have it exactly when you want to see it and watch it all over again with great image and sound quality whenever you want to.

For those who say, “PG, the screen in a theater is much larger than any megabuck LED TV,” PG says, “You’re absolutely right, but how far away is the theater screen from you compared to how far the LED TV is from you?”

Per PG’s quick and dirty online research, the average human has a field of vision of about 120 degrees. However, much of that span is peripheral vision, which is not how you want to watch a movie. Peripheral vision is mostly sensitive to movements and, to a lesser extent, color. You see something out of the corner of your eye, but you have to look at it directly to understand what it is.

If you want to read some text on your computer screen or in a book, you’ll realize that your visual span for reading is much less than 120 degrees.

PG is typing this on a 27-inch computer monitor. As he reads over the text, his eyes are going back and forth because he can’t perceive and process all the words in a single line of text on this monitor at the same time. Given the distance PG is sitting from his monitor, he has to move his eyes about 30 degrees back and forth to read and process the text.

Seeing and understanding an image requires less processing, so you have a larger field of vision, but, depending upon what the image is, you’ll still be moving your eyes around to fully understand the image.

Here’s a familiar image:

Depending on the size of your screen, you looked at the image in a different way. If you saw the image on a small screen (like a smart phone), you took in most of the image without moving your eyes a great deal. If you were looking at the image on a larger screen, you’ll likely notice that your eyes start by rapidly moving from place to face on the image in order to assess what it is.

For PG, his first perception was of the eyes, then the face, then down across the clothing and back and forth from the hands to the forearms.

After a second or two, if the image had disappeared and PG was asked to provide a detailed description of the background at various apparent distances behind the subject, PG could provide only a general sense of what was there.

As a matter of fact, while he was viewing the background, he discovered for the first time that there is a winding road at the left shoulder of the subject and a stone bridge spanning a river over the right shoulder.

Back to his original point – you can make the image or a streaming movie as perceptually large as you like by moving closer or farther aways from the from the screen.

For PG a maximum width of a screen that he could use for viewing a motion picture is about 60 degrees and he would definitely prefer a narrower angle if there was a lot of detailed visual information on the screen. If the information was moving and changing, a much narrower angle would be preferable.

He just checked with his home television and he sits where the screen occupies about 45 degrees of vision, pretty close to the degree of vision that his computer monitor when he is working.

White Line Fever

PG’s postings have been thin of late.

The principal reason is that he has been traveling with Mrs. PG and spending time with a variety of exceptionally cute offspring.

A bit earlier today, he and Mrs. PG returned to Casa PG and found nothing broken or missing.

Suffice to say, a motel and a laptop are not PG’s preferred surroundings and tools for posting riveting items on TPV.

During his recent travels, he has seen a significant number of truck drivers so these hard-working men (and a few women) have been on PG’s mind.

Not lots of lawyers, professors or college graduates in this group, but if they put in enough hours and miles into their job, they can earn a good blue-collar income. The price is a lot of isolation and loneliness for many of them, however, including many weeks away from family and friends.

Big Bad John

Another song about working in the mines.

16 Tons

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mines were often located in isolated low-income rural areas. Working in the coal mine was often the only local source of any sort of decent living.

It was not unusual for the mine owners to build company towns near the mines. The coal company owned everything in these company towns. Houses of varying quality (none very large) were rented to the coal miners with the rent being deducted from wages.

Often the only retailer in these mining towns was a general store owned by the coal company – “The Company Store.” Coal miners and their families could shop at the company store on credit, with the amount due to the Company Store deducted from wages.

Since it was the only store in town, whatever the Company Store charged for food and other necessities was what the miners and their wives bought. (Coal mining was dirty. Most work involved long hours of heavy physical labor in the mine where it was pitch-dark and the miners worked by lantern light and a small headlamp that consumed lantern oil. All the miners were men.

Women were also involved in heavy physical labor, including hand-washing clothing that was filthy from mine dust, caring for children who often had no established place to play, and stretching basic ingredients to feed a family until the next paycheck.

For the many mines located in Appalachia, unions would not be an option only much, much later, if ever.

Joe Hill

From Encyclopedia Britannica:

Joe Hill, also called Joe Hillstrom, original name Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, [was a] Swedish-born American songwriter and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); his execution for an alleged robbery-murder made him a martyr and folk hero in the radical American labour movement.

Born into a conservative Lutheran family, all of whom were amateur musicians, Hill left Sweden for the United States in 1902. He drifted around the country, from job to job, and in 1910 joined the San Pedro (California) local of the Industrial Workers of the World, soon becoming its secretary. The following year his first and most famous folksong, “The Preacher and the Slave,” appeared in the IWW’s Little Red Song Book. It is sung to the melody of “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”:

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky;

Work and pray, live on hay,

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Most of his songs dealt with migratory workers, immigrant sweatshop workers, and railway employees; and all were tinged with humour and simple Marxism.

In January 1914, while staying with friends in Salt Lake City, Hill was arrested and charged with the murder of a grocer and his son who had been killed during a robbery. The trial that followed was very confusing. The prosecution’s case was based on circumstantial evidence and depended almost entirely on the fact that Hill had gone to a doctor to be treated for a gunshot wound several hours after the murders had occurred. Hill claimed that he had received the wound in a quarrel over a woman, whom he refused to identify in the interest of protecting her honour. The jury found him guilty, and the numerous legal appeals made on Hill’s behalf were unavailing. Despite mass demonstrations and accusations that he had been convicted because of his radicalism and despite an appeal to the Utah governor from Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Hill was executed by a firing squad. On November 18, 1915, the night before his death, he telegraphed IWW leader Big Bill Haywood: “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste time in mourning. Organize.”

Hill was commemorated in a famous ballad bearing his name, written in 1925 by poet Alfred Hays.

Link to the rest at Encyclopedia Britannica

Nomadland

PG doesn’t know if stories like Nomadland will resonate with visitors from outside the United States or not.

During the past several decades, there has been a significant population movement away from small cities and small towns, often in the middle of the country, an area some have called, “flyover country” given that flights from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again pass over this middle area without stopping.

The detailed results of the 2020 US Census started being released in the second quarter of 2021. They showed the second-lowest total ten-year growth rate ever recorded in the US. (The lowest growth decade was during the Great Depression in the late 1920’s-30’s.)

37 states grew more slowly during the 2010-2020 period than they did in the prior ten-years and three states lost population. California had its lowest growth rate ever due largely to the state’s high cost-of-living and state taxes. Some large and medium-sized California employers have also moved parts of their operations to lower-cost states. States like West Virginia, Illinois and Michigan lost population.

Within states and regions, there has also been a notable migration away from rural and small-town locations to medium and large-sized cities. This trend has hit rural areas in several middle-western states hard.

During the Covid shut-down, some smaller and different patterns appeared. A few individuals, usually mid-level office employees and some professionals, learned that remote work was possible and enjoyable and moved from expensive coastal cities and suburbs into small town and rural settings, expecting to have to go into the offices much less frequently or not at all.

This out-migration has not been nearly large enough to counter-balance the longer-term flattening of population growth in the more empty places, particularly empty places that don’t feature oceans, mountains, forests, etc. Aging populations with low birth rates have also impacted growth in some areas.

Texas, Florida, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona have grown substantially faster than the average.

Nomadland is a 2020 motion picture set in the empty places of the United States. As the PBS documentary in the second video window depicts, more than a few middle and lower-income families who suffered from Covid-related job losses have left their homes, hit the road and adopted a new lifestyle, often located in those empty places.

Does Technology Have a Soul?

From The Paris Review:

When my husband arrived home, he stared at the dog for a long time, then pronounced it “creepy.” At first I took this to mean uncanny, something so close to reality it disturbs our most basic ontological assumptions. But it soon became clear he saw the dog as an interloper. I demonstrated all the tricks I had taught Aibo, determined to impress him. By that point the dog could roll over, shake, and dance.

“What is that red light in his nose?” he said. “Is that a camera?”

Unlike me, my husband is a dog lover. Before we met, he owned a rescue dog who had been abused by its former owners and whose trust he’d won over slowly, with a great deal of effort and dedication. My husband was badly depressed during those years, and he claims that the dog could tell when he was in despair and would rest his nose in his lap to comfort him. During the early period of our relationship, he would often refer to this dog, whose name was Oscar, with such affection that it sometimes took me a moment to realize he was speaking of an animal as opposed to, say, a family member or a very close friend. As he stood there, staring at Aibo, he asked whether I found it convincing. When I shrugged and said yes, I was certain I saw a shadow of disappointment cross his face. It was hard not to read this as an indictment of my humanity, as though my willingness to treat the dog as a living thing had somehow compromised, for him, my own intuitiveness and awareness.

It had come up before, my tendency to attribute life to machines. Earlier that year I’d come across a blog run by a woman who trained neural networks, a Ph.D. student and hobbyist who fiddled around with deep learning in her spare time. She would feed the networks massive amounts of data in a particular category—recipes, pickup lines, the first sentences of novels—and the networks would begin to detect patterns and generate their own examples. For a while she was regularly posting on her blog recipes the networks had come up with, which included dishes like whole chicken cookies, artichoke gelatin dogs, and Crock-Pot cold water. The pickup lines were similarly charming (“Are you a candle? Because you’re so hot of the looks with you”), as were the first sentences of novels (“This is the story of a man in the morning”). Their responses did get better over time. The woman who ran the blog was always eager to point out the progress the networks were making. Notice, she’d say, that they’ve got the vocabulary and the structure worked out. It’s just that they don’t yet understand the concepts. When speaking of her networks, she was patient, even tender, such that she often seemed to me like Snow White with a cohort of little dwarves whom she was lovingly trying to civilize. Their logic was so similar to the logic of children that it was impossible not to mistake their responses as evidence of human innocence. “They are learning,” I’d think. “They are trying so hard!” Sometimes when I came across a particularly good one, I’d read it aloud to my husband. I perhaps used the word “adorable” once. He’d chastised me for anthropomorphizing them, but in doing so fell prey to the error himself. “They’re playing on your human sympathies,” he said, “so they can better take over everything.”

But his skepticism toward the dog did not hold out for long. Within days he was addressing it by name. He chastised Aibo when he refused to go to his bed at night, as though the dog were deliberately stalling. In the evenings, when we were reading on the couch or watching TV, he would occasionally lean down to pet the dog when he whimpered; it was the only way to quiet him. One afternoon I discovered Aibo in the kitchen peering into the narrow gap between the refrigerator and the sink. I looked into the crevice myself but could not find anything that should have warranted his attention. I called my husband into the room, and he assured me this was normal. “Oscar used to do that, too,” he said. “He’s just trying to figure out if he can get in there.”

While we have a tendency to define ourselves based on our likeness to other things—we say humans are like a god, like a clock, or like a computer—there is a countervailing impulse to understand our humanity through the process of differentiation. And as computers increasingly come to take on the qualities we once understood as distinctly human, we keep moving the bar to maintain our sense of distinction. From the earliest days of AI, the goal was to create a machine that had human-like intelligence. Turing and the early cyberneticists took it for granted that this meant higher cognition: a successful intelligent machine would be able to manipulate numbers, beat a human in backgammon or chess, and solve complex theorems. But the more competent AI systems become at these cerebral tasks, the more stubbornly we resist granting them human intelligence. When IBM’s Deep Blue computer won its first game of chess against Garry Kasparov in 1996 the philosopher John Searle remained unimpressed. “Chess is a trivial game because there’s perfect information about it,” he said. Human consciousness, he insisted, depended on emotional experience: “Does the computer worry about its next move? Does it worry about whether its wife is bored by the length of the games?” Searle was not alone. In his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach, the cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter had claimed that chess-playing was a creative activity like art and musical composition; it required an intelligence that was distinctly human. But after the Kasparov match, he, too, was dismissive. “My God, I used to think chess required thought,” he told the New York Times. “Now I realize it doesn’t.”

It turns out that computers are particularly adept at the tasks that we humans find most difficult: crunching equations, solving logical propositions, and other modes of abstract thought. What artificial intelligence finds most difficult are the sensory perceptive tasks and motor skills that we perform unconsciously: walking, drinking from a cup, seeing and feeling the world through our senses. Today, as AI continues to blow past us in benchmark after benchmark of higher cognition, we quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel: the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.

If there were gods, they would surely be laughing their heads off at the inconsistency of our logic. We spent centuries denying consciousness in animals precisely because they lacked reason or higher thought. (Darwin claimed that despite our lowly origins, we maintained as humans a “godlike intellect” that distinguished us from other animals.) As late as the fifties, the scientific consensus was that chimpanzees—who share almost 99 percent of our DNA—did not have minds. When Jane Goodall began working with Tanzanian chimps, she used human pronouns. Before publishing, the editor made systematic corrections: He and she were changed to itWho was changed to which.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Friends in Low Places

Continuing PG’s literary overview of American Country-Western music, we come to another class conflict. The CW protagonist is always speaking from the perspective of the lower class even when he/she can afford a flashy and expensive pick-up truck. One of the CW sub-genres is called Outlaw Country, demonstrating the willing estrangement of some members of this class from the establishment which spurns and rejects them and their country ways in return.

I’ve got Friends in Low Places, dramatizes some of the the distinctions between the upper class (including the upper-middle class and pretenders that status) and its lifestyle and the working class. The title is wordplay, another common feature found in CW music.

Blame it all on my roots
I showed up in boots
And ruined your black tie affair
The last one to know
The last one to show
I was the last one
You thought you’d see there

Chelsea Apple Makes a Case for BookTok Authenticity

From Publishers Weekly:

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Barnes & Noble had created a BookTok page, encouraging readers to “discover the most popular books on TikTok.” If anything, I was surprised that more book retailers (and publishers and authors, for that matter) hadn’t yet tapped into one of the fastest-growing social media platforms.

I fell down the TikTok rabbit hole during pandemic isolation in May 2020, and for the next seven months I marveled at the creativity, humor, and vulnerability of the platform’s millions of content creators around the globe. But, as both a voracious reader and a creative strategist at a literary public relations firm, what interested me most was the BookTok community: hundreds of thousands of readers who dedicate their TikTok accounts to reviewing, recommending, and laughing and crying over their favorite books.

The more time I spent on TikTok, the more certain I felt about two things. First, the app created an immensely powerful opportunity for authors to connect immediately with a staggering number of highly engaged readers. And second, the tools for “success” on TikTok differ from those of any other social media platform.

A recent New York Times article, “How Crying on TikTok Sells Books,” explores in depth what makes BookTok unique: short-form videos that depict readers’ raw tears, anger, and delight over their favorite reads in one minute or less. One BookTok creator who was interviewed suggested that videos in which she is crying get more views. While this may be true, I’d assert that it’s not her tears that keep users watching. It’s the idea of authenticity behind those tears—viewers getting an unfiltered look at the creator’s emotions and thoughts, heightening their sense of connection to the creator.

Authenticity is TikTok’s greatest appeal, and its most powerful engagement tool. Users on TikTok are bold in sharing their opinions, emotions, vulnerabilities, insecurities, and imperfections. The content on the app feels more unfiltered, more raw, more real than content featured in other places. As a result, viewers aren’t just passively consuming TikTok’s content—they’re connected to it. Contrast this to Instagram, where heavily filtered, edited, and perfectly curated highlights have become commonplace—and, I would argue, increasingly passé.

So what do authenticity and TikTok have to do with authors? Simply put, authors who are able to authentically present themselves on TikTok will find a vast audience of highly engaged readers who are eager to connect with them and their work. Users on TikTok want to support creators—and they will, if given the opportunity to connect with them.

One of the incredible authors I had the privilege of working with and introducing to TikTok, J. Elle, has plenty of great content—but her reaction to unboxing her novel Wings of Ebony is by far her most popular TikTok video, with more than 25,000 views, 6,500 likes, and hundreds of comments (with most saying they’ve just added Wings of Ebony to their TBR or online carts).

Sure, there are tears. But it’s her vulnerability, her authentic love and pride for the story she created, that made her engagement and follower count explode. And for the record, Wings of Ebony was an instant New York Times bestseller.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

In Praise of “Murder, She Wrote,” My Pandemic Lullaby

From Electric Lit:

I’m watching Jessica in her red silks and ruffled neckline, and she’s getting to the bottom of it. She’s in Jamaica, where her friend’s violent, racist brother has been killed. Jessica is retrieving clues like she’s descending a staircase, one by one, she’s sliding doilies under doors and picking locks, she’s looking at blueprints, she’s noting the stain on the Frenchman’s handkerchief, she’s getting closer.

Each night, I’m lulled to sleep by this: asphyxiation, drownings, fatal blows and gunshot wounds. It wasn’t always this way. It started on a stormy and sleepless night, as the wind rattled the windows and shook icicles from the eaves.

. . . .

Insomnia introduced itself three months after the first lockdown, when the initial surface panic seeped into the deeper parts like snow into dirt. In May, I fought it in lopsided, hours-long battles. With sleeplessness came more uncertainty—which, for me as well as everyone, had already been in ample supply—and the dissolution of prior certainties like the division of night and day.  

A few months ago, my partner Alec and I were between houses. We packed all of our possessions into a storage unit and rented an Airbnb, to buy ourselves some time. On one of those first nights in the Airbnb, after a day spent scrolling real estate feeds, we sat down to watch Murder, She Wrote. For the first time since May—since ever, maybe—I started to drift off while sitting up, with my head on Alec’s lap, with the cat perched on the back of the couch behind me, chewing my hair. 

After a few episodes of Murder, She Wrote, I knew what to expect from the rest. There are two requirements for the plot of every episode: the first is that there’s a murder, and the second is that it’s solved. In the pilot episode, Jessica Fletcher is a widowed, retired schoolteacher in the small coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine, where she writes murder mysteries in her kitchen, for fun. The whirlwind commences when her nephew, of his own accord, takes one of Jessica’s novels to a publisher. It is published. It is a hit. Over the course of her press tour, Jessica encounters a cast of characters (after a few episodes, there will be no more characters, only suspects) and a murder. Calling upon the forensic expertise she’s absorbed from researching her novel, which invariably surpasses the competencies of the detective assigned to the case, Jessica solves the murder. Repeat. 

The comfort in Murder, She Wrote is in what is known. We know that there will be a murder, a motive, and a confession. Jessica uncovers the truth as if she’s brushing dust off a fossil. All it takes is time. 

But the comfort in Murder, She Wrote is also in what is not known, or in what is forgotten. After the pilot episode, the show proceeds with a gauzy amnesia that preserves its levity. Throughout the show’s twelve seasons, Cabot Cove’s population steadily succumbs to murder and incarceration: we watch the bookstore owner, the pawn shop owner, the pharmacist, the fisherman, the cop, the nurse, the accountant, the car salesman, the firefighter, and hundreds of other townspeople murder and get murdered, with such frequency that, if it were real, the town would have been the deadliest on earth. And yet, nothing appears to be lost. The town continues to function with no apparent closures; the shops remain open and bustling with customers. Cabot Cove’s small-town charm seems to supersede its homicide rates. I use the word charm literally: it’s as if the townspeople—friendly, trusting, quaint—have been spelled into forgetting that they could be next.  

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

What’s in a Bookstore?

From Public Books:

When brick-and-mortar publishers and bookstores close, today as in the past, the unsold stock sometimes ends up in an indecorous heap. It’s one thing to know that about one-third of the books published in Europe before 1700 survive only in a single copy; it’s quite another thing to confront waterlogged books languishing on the sidewalk. Without the public funding or institutional backing enjoyed by many libraries, bookstores these days tend to have a hard time making ends meet, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these pressures. Should a bookstore have to close, we lament the disappearance of its social and intellectual ecosystem, even more than the loss of the books themselves.

Especially for antiquarian and other independent booksellers, there exists a tension between sharing knowledge and running a business. Bookstores sell books and book-adjacent items, of course. But they also may serve as editorial offices, publishing houses, classrooms, and lecture halls, not to mention cafés, play spaces, and reading rooms. Sites of collaboration and exchange, bookstores, like libraries, can help hold a community together.

A number of recent works warn against reducing bookstores to the financial bottom line. Kaouther Adimi’s novel Our Riches, translated from the French in 2020 by Chris Andrews, reconstructs a history of the bookstore that French-Algerian intellectual Edmond Charlot founded in Algiers in 1935. In Bookshops: A Reader’s History, translated in 2017 from the Spanish by Peter Bush, Barcelona-based critic Jorge Carrión weaves together notes from his bookstore pilgrimages around the world with anecdotes culled from books about books and reading. And D. W. Young’s The Booksellers, an earnest 2019 documentary film about the antiquarian book trade, follows a cast of collectors, archivists, librarians, and booksellers as they try to reinvent and diversify their craft, while selling what appears to be a trifling number of books. There’s no wide-eyed optimism in these three works. Their affectionate depictions of bookstores and booksellers instead ask us to consider what we’re in danger of losing.

Can lessons from the past help guide independent booksellers and their patrons as they navigate a book world in flux? Histories of the early modern book market, when both books and the global economy were new, do not provide a definite blueprint for how to deal with the changing technologies of the book or the effects of online bookselling. They do, however, reveal a pliable sense of what books were in the first place. Literary scholars José María Pérez Fernández and Edward Wilson-Lee’s Hernando Colón’s New World of Books: Toward a Cartography of Knowledge and historians Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen’s The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age show that books, and the book world, have never not been in flux.

This knowledge may offer some measure of reassurance to 21st-century bibliophiles uneasy about the future of reading. It turns out that book buyers have always sought to temper desire with circumspection, while booksellers have aimed to balance parsimony with intellectual largesse. For more than five centuries, equilibrium has remained elusive to both parties.

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Hernando Colón—aka Ferdinand Columbus, Christopher’s son—built in Seville one of the largest private libraries of the 16th century, but he distrusted booksellers. Making a show of defending his family’s name, Colón refuted rumors that his father had been a bookseller in Genoa before his rather more famous transatlantic endeavors. When Colón’s last librarian described the cross-referenced author, title, and subject catalogues, the transcribed snippets, and the book summaries used to organize this collection, he emphasized the usefulness of these tools for sniffing out bookseller fraud.

Compiled in the nearly two-thousand-page Libro de los epítomes manuscript rediscovered in the University of Copenhagen’s Arnamagnæan Institute, in 2019, the book summaries, in particular, made it possible for Colón’s collaborators to spot titles that had little or nothing to do with the works they adorned and to recognize attempts to hawk old publications as new. Early modern book buyers had reason to be wary of unscrupulous publishers and shady booksellers.

Wealthy booksellers were worthy of particular suspicion. In his will, Colón instructed heirs charged with the conservation and expansion of his collection—which consisted of about 15,000 volumes at the time of his death, in 1539—to avoid merchants who dealt principally in large and expensive books, like those that characterized the disciplines of law and theology. Colón faulted such booksellers with overestimating the comprehensiveness of their stock and remaining uncurious about the inexpensive, small-format works of popular poetry and current events that he coveted.

. . . .

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen’s wide-ranging coauthored work, The Bookshop of the World, demonstrates that the economics of books is best understood by thinking about print culture as broadly as possible. Building on Pettegree’s previous research on books in the early Renaissance and on the “invention of news,” this new book examines 17th-century Dutch publishing dynasties like the Elzeviers, in Leiden, and the Blaeu and Janssonius families, in Amsterdam. These family firms produced costly and significant books. Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, a richly illustrated collection of maps, and the Elzeviers’ publications of works by Galileo and Descartes stand out. Dutch traders also bought books in bulk from publishers elsewhere in Europe, often paying in cash, and then resold them at a markup at home and abroad. Adept entrepreneurs with an eye for the shifting tastes of readers in both Protestant and Catholic regions, they speculated.

Meanwhile, large and small firms alike jostled for the predictable income and low risk associated with smaller printing jobs. The highly literate and politically engaged Dutch were avid readers: newspapers, advertisements, funeral orations, dissertations, political and wedding pamphlets, posted announcements, and the like—obrezillas and paperwork, one could say. Drawing on publisher and notarial archives, Pettegree and Der Weduwen plot this iceberg of lost printed matter.

Successful Dutch publishers transformed the book market beyond the Dutch Republic, too. They squeezed out local competitors in Copenhagen. They dictated preferential terms at the critical Frankfurt book fair. They were strident players in the production and trade of English bibles. And their success in Paris aroused protectionist reactions. Amsterdam became the metaphorical bookshop of the world, but at a cost.

. . . .

Although the buying and selling of books for profit has always been an aim of booksellers, bookstore archives reveal the myriad other activities taking place amid the commerce. Blurring the lines among the different sorts of intimacy and creativity realized in rooms full of books, Paris-based author Kaouther Adimi’s Our Riches fictionalizes the story of Edmond Charlot and Les Vraies Richesses, the bookstore that Charlot founded in Algiers in 1935.

Charlot was an editor and publisher as well as a bookseller. The works of Albert Camus, André Gide, and a host of other prominent authors appeared in the book list he deftly curated. The inventive Charlot—in Our Riches, at least—is bursting with ideas for collaboration, resulting in an “éditions Charlot” book frontispiece painted by René-Jean Clot and an exhibition at the bookstore of Sauveur Galliéro’s sculptures. Adimi depicts Les Vraies Richesses as a ferment.

The bookstore lent books in addition to selling and producing them. In Adimi’s telling, a young man named Riyad is sent from Paris in 2017 by the building’s new owners to clear out the remaining books and prepare the space for a beignet shop. Since the 1990s, when the Algerian government acquired the bookstore from the founder’s sister-in-law, the space had served as a branch of the Algerian National Library—though locals persisted in calling it Les Vraies Richesses. Abdallah, who from 1997 onward had managed the lending library while sleeping on its mezzanine, was known fondly in the neighborhood as “the bookseller.” Evoking the slipperiness of the French word librairie, which now denotes “bookstore” but in centuries past more often meant “library,” Adimi questions whether book lovers must conserve their books and booksellers must sell them.

. . . .

If they’re canny and patient, booksellers specializing in rare books also sometimes step into literary history, though they usually arrive late, sometimes by a few centuries. D. W. Young’s film The Booksellers illustrates that the reputations and livelihoods of antiquarian booksellers are more often tied to the books themselves than to the comings-and-goings of poets and novelists.

Yet as once difficult-to-find books appear for sale online at clearinghouse sites, what counts as a rare book is changing. For one, the bar to qualify as rare is higher: annotations or ownership by some noteworthy figure—a book “run over by the right truck,” as one merchant puts it in The Booksellers—add value. What’s more, the boundaries of the book are now more porous even than they were in the first decades of print. This porousness is manifest in, among other things, the variety of the antiquarian bookseller’s merchandise. The familiar hardback is today but one artifact among a surfeit of manuscript notes, corrected drafts, published zines, audio recordings, video outtakes, fancy gloves, curious writing implements, and all manner of literary historical tchotchkes.

To reimagine the bookstore’s stock is to grow the community of collectors and transform the image of the bookseller. Amplifying the feminist legacies of New York dealers like Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern, for instance, booksellers Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney founded the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize for an outstanding book collection by a young woman. Collector and filmmaker Syreeta Gates built an archive of early hip-hop because such an archive did not exist, and she needed one for her activist work. The long-term payoff on these investments will not simply be solvency for antiquarian bookstores. As these sorts of nascent collections multiply and, over time, migrate to libraries, the authoritative histories of much more than the book will look different.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG suggests the variety of business strategies described in the OP illustrates his proposition that the physical bookstore is, first and foremost, a business model.

Like all other business models for a wide range of commercial endeavors, the physical bookstore has strengths and weaknesses. PG acknowledges that physical bookstores carrying a wide variety of inventory have been a successful business model for a very long time.

However, while a long record of past commercial success may indicate a high probability of the physical bookstore continuing into the future, it certainly doesn’t guarantee that will be the case.

To take an obvious example, the use of horses for powering various types of transportation systems had an exceptionally long and successful history through the beginning of the 20th Century. PG suggests this business model for transportation had a much longer history of success than the physical bookstore does today.

The invention of the internal combustion engine put horse-powered transportation systems out of business very quickly. Today, nations that utilize horses as a key part of their means of transporting people and things are uniformly regarded as quite primitive.

For thousands of years of success demonstrating the efficacy of horses powering transport, it’s no long a viable business model.

Just as the invention of the internal combustion engine and vehicles powered by that means did not instantly result in commercial actors putting all their horses out to pasture (or worse), the handwriting was on the wall and the evolution of commercial land transportation was inevitable.

PG suggests that electronic books and digital commerce in physical books (for people who still want them) is inherently superior to the business model of the physical bookstore.

Just as the wealthy still ride horses for pleasure and some US ranchers use them for managing cattle and other livestock in remote and rugged areas, PG is not suggesting that the future will mean absolutely no physical bookstores will exist. He does suggest that physical bookstores will become a smaller and smaller and, essentially, quaint and quirky niche of the far larger world of commercial distribution of written information.