The Sounds of Silence

PG apologizes for no posts yesterday.

He understands the omission would not be regarded as evil or careless by most visitors to TPV, but PG does try to put up a few items every day. When he has missed posting for a day or two on prior occasions without advance notice, he has received a handful of messages expressing concern for his welfare and regrets that his inaction has caused any concern among regular visitors.

Perhaps he can blame the bizarre lifestyle and physical/mental torpor that accompanies social distancing, sheltering in place, and not having the regular regular face-to-face interaction with friends he enjoys, but PG just sort of checked out on Sunday.

He was kind to Mrs. PG and sent an email to his daughter, but his fingers didn’t manifest their usual itch to tickle a keyboard.

However, PG is happy to announce today that he’s back again and better than ever.

When I finally walked

When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany,” [Dorothy Parker wrote]. “In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man.

Dorothy Parker

High-Speed History

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Dec. 14, 1932,Germany’s head of state, President Paul von Hindenburg, a former general, a Prussian’s Prussian, hosted a party in honor of Ernst Lubitsch, a German Jew who had emerged as one of Hollywood’s finest directors. As two German writers, Rüdiger Barth and Hauke Friederichs, relate in “The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic,” another guest asked Lubitsch why he no longer worked in Germany. “That’s finished,” he replied, “nothing good is going to happen here for a long time.” Less than two months later, von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Germany’s chancellor.

The Last Winter” is a day-by-day retelling of Weimar’s final collapse. After a brief introduction, its authors turn their attention to Berlin on Nov. 17, 1932, a day dominated politically by the question of who should become Germany’s new chancellor. According to custom, the job should have been offered to Hitler, leader of the largest party in the Reichstag, but the Nazis had lost ground in elections held earlier in the month, and those who still controlled Germany were not ready for Hitler, not quite yet. “The Last Winter” concludes on Jan. 30, 1933, when, after weeks of intricate maneuvering deftly sketched by Messrs. Barth and Friederichs, von Hindenburg hands the chancellorship to Hitler.

. . . .

[T]he pointillism that comes with being written diary-style is effective, and even when the detail is trivial, it can be startling: Goebbels played the accordion? We are told that the outgoing chancellor, the clever and devious Kurt von Schleicher, displayed little emotion as he said farewell to his cabinet, although one colleague observed that “this experience has been a matter of life or death to him.” A little over a year later, von Schleicher was murdered by the SS during the Night of the Long Knives; the dangerous game, well described in this book, that he had been playing had come to an end.

What comes clear in the authors’ account is how few understood the extent of the abyss that lay ahead. Normal life went on: Department stores held linen sales in the week that Hitler took over. Well, why would they not? And then there were the politicians who thought that, by bringing Hitler into what they imagined was a coalition, they could use and control him—a view initially shared by many, if not the Swiss journalist, quoted by the authors, who wrote that “a bear is still a bear, even if you stick a ring through his nose . . . .”

The authors’ account of the January day Hitler was named chancellor is understandably focused on the Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin’s government quarter, but they keep to the mosaic approach that serves their narrative so well. As expected, there are torchlight parades and a brawl between communists and Nazis. But we also read of an American labor organizer discovering that there are no tickets left for the play he planned on seeing, and of a group of German writers deciding their best option is to wait things out. One, Carl von Ossietzky, warns that the nightmare will last longer than they think: In an epilogue, it’s revealed that he will be in a concentration camp within months. The more the reader knows about the horrors to come, the darker “The Last Winter” seems.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

Why I’m Leaving Facebook

From Patreon:

I’m getting ready to quit Facebook and generally pull back from social media.

. . . .

My reasons for this are complicated and are expanded on below, but I know that most people (and this is part of the problem) only like to read a tiny bit of text before forming strong opinions. It’s almost as if they already had their opinions are just using the posts on social media to rage-surf. 

So, for those who love brevity, here are the TLDR reasons I’m leaving Facebook (and most of Social Media):

  • It is addictive without substantive reward
  • The application interfaces are terrible and only serve the platform, not the user
  • The concentrated engagement of attention and time on social media are destructive to cooperation and unity
  • The platforms are rife with bots and agents that seek to divide us
  • The platforms create the illusion of accomplishment

[PG comment – The list continues]

. . . .

The main reason I joined Facebook was to chat and “play” with my friends. Facebook has an algorithm, an invisible agent that works to decide what you see and who sees you. I have more than a hundred real-life friends on Facebook. Because of this stupid algorithm, I only see 10 to 15 people’s posts.

There is a button that lets you change from “Top Stories” (the Facebook bot-controlled fascist view) to the “Most Recent” (theoretically, the “real-time” look at your friend’s feed). Nearly all of my friends want the Most Recent, but we all get reset to Top Stories. Why? It doesn’t really matter why. I assume it’s because it’s easier to control the ad flow if the algorithm dictates your view, but from a user-experience perspective, this is the same as having a Word Processor that intermittently changes your fonts to COMIC SANS throughout the day no matter what setting you pick.

Facebook encourages creative people to build Facebook Groups. Recently I started one for my podcast In reSearch Of… and immediately began to get spammed with notices that “more people could see your post if you ran an ad.”

Link to the rest at Patreon and thanks to R. for the tip.

PG closed his personal FB account a few years ago because of concerns about Facebook’s attitude towards user content and significant privacy concerns.

He’s set up one or two dummy accounts with phony names, minimal phony demographics, etc., that he uses solely for looking at posted information that is supposedly ”really great” or of otherwise of potential interest to him. If/when he goes, he is most likely to be somewhat disappointed.

He also uses FB on occasion solely as an anonymous outbound channel for spreading little creations (no, they’re not good, have nothing to do with the law and/or indie/traditional publishing, are not in the least racy or pornographic, tap into the back side or underside of PG’s brain, the right and left sides of which are otherwise occupied) and PG would be embarrassed to be associated with them except by a very small group of years-long friends who are highly understanding of PG’s numerous shortcomings and inadequacies.

If someone wants to be PG’s Facebook friend, he/she/it must have known PG extremely well for at least twenty years. Longer is preferable.

How low pay and low pay transparency undermine the publishing business

From The Bookseller:

Last Sunday, I shared an article from my personal website about the difficulties of progressing in the publishing industry. Since then, I have been inundated with messages from people in the business sharing similar experiences with me. I’ve spent the past week reading these messages and speaking to chief executives, union organisers, HR people and many, many, many publishing workers to try and understand what is going on in our business, and I have come to the following conclusion: it is impossible for publishing to fulfil its own diversity agenda while continuing to pay low wages to most workers and to maintain its decades-long secrecy over pay and progression.

. . . .

According to a survey by bookcareers.com, the average overall salary in publishing in 2017 was £32,228. The average starting salary was £20,740. This data is partial—it relies on participants in a survey, rather than data from the industry itself and the participants were younger than average—so it’s likely the actual average salary is a little higher than this.

So, let’s be generous to the industry and assume that the average worker in publishing might be earning around £38,000. In my experience, unless you are an exception, it can take about ten years of work to get to that level—which is the age at which many people start to have children, so I am including childcare costs in the below calculations.

£38,000 p.a. is around £2,456 take home pay per month according to the jobs website reed.co.uk

Costs (all are per calendar month, approximate and arguably on the low side)

Rent for a one-bed flat: £1,200

Fulltime childcare costs for one child: £1,000

Transport from Zone 3: £140

Bills, including phone, council tax, gas & electric: £300

Total £2,640

This worker would be in the red before they had even bought food.

For a new starter on £24,000 (probably the highest starting salary in the business) with no children, their monthly take-home pay is around £1,600. This person’s costs might look something like this:

Rent for a room in a shared house: £700

Bills including council tax, gas and electric, phone: £200

Travel from Zone 2: £120

Total £1,020

This leaves around £500 or £125 per week for food, socialising, loan repayments, saving for a deposit, taking a holiday, whatever. Many new starters earn less than this (anecdotally, it can still be as low as £18,000).

. . . .

As you can see, for the average publishing worker, it is quite simply impossible to build a financially independent life around this business. It works for those who are in it because they are in relationships (often with people who earn a lot more) or they have family living in London, or family money, or they do not have children.

. . . .

While getting the facts straight about money is important, let us avoid recriminations of any sort because it just distracts us all from the fundamental fact, which is: for most of us, publishing does not pay. Another argument is that plenty of jobs pay around £38,000, even after ten years. That is true, but it is more likely you can do those jobs outside the capital, where rent, childcare and transport are much cheaper. Also the fierce competition for entry-level jobs in publishing means that new starters are often highly qualified graduates who could expect to earn a lot more after ten years in other industries.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The author of the OP described the pay problem at traditional publishers, small and large, more eloquently and in more detail than PG could.

His only added observation is that, given what PG suspects will occur in the traditional publishing and physical bookstore businesses until well after the onset of a vigorous financial recovery, he suspects that things will become significantly worse in those businesses before they become better, if they ever do.

He will also add that the Wall Street hedge fund that owns controlling interest in Barnes & Noble, Elliot Management, is unlikely to have the slightest emotional connection to the bookstore business and will be willing to cut expenses by huge margins, close stores and lay off headquarters staff or even take BN through bankruptcy court if the fund believes that is the best way to generate the most money from an investment that, in retrospect, may appear to have been poorly-timed.

California Is Examining Amazon’s Business Practices

From The Wall Street Journal:

California investigators are examining Amazon.com Inc.’s business practices as part of an inquiry into the tech giant, according to people familiar with the matter.

The state’s review focuses at least in part on how Amazon treats sellers in its online marketplace, these people said. That includes Amazon’s practices for selling its own products in competition with third-party sellers, one of the people said. Neither Amazon nor California has disclosed an antitrust investigation.

The inquiries come as Amazon faces antitrust scrutiny from Washington, D.C., and abroad. The European Union is planning formal antitrust charges against the firm over its treatment of third-party sellers, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

. . . .

“It would be hard to believe that you’re not going to look at a company like Amazon, given how pervasive it is,” [California Attorney General Xavier Becerra] said in an interview, pointing to how much data the firm collects. “Are they using all of this data in ways that allow them to essentially kill real competition?”

In April, the Journal reported that Amazon employees used data about independent sellers on its platform to develop competing products. Following the story, lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee called on Amazon Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos to testify on its private-label practices.

. . . .

The House Judiciary Committee is also examining Amazon, its competitive practices and impact on markets. Lawmakers have said Amazon hasn’t fully responded to requests for information about its relationship to sellers.

“Seven months after the original request—significant gaps remain,” said a letter sent from senior members of the House Judiciary Committee to Mr. Bezos in early May.

In a May 15 letter to the committee, the company said it is providing significant information to the committee and is “prepared to make the appropriate Amazon executive available,” without committing to Mr. Bezos making an appearance.

The formal charges in Europe would be the commission’s latest step in a nearly two-year probe into Amazon’s alleged mistreatment of sellers that use its platform.

The charges—called a statement of objections—stem from Amazon’s dual role as a marketplace operator and a seller of its own products, the people said. In them, the EU accuses Amazon of scooping up data from third-party sellers and using that information to compete against them, for instance by launching similar products.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

PG notes that he casts an even more-jaundiced eye than usual on the actions of government officials during an election year.

He’ll sharpen his eye to double-jaundiced given the highly-charged political atmosphere in the US lately.

Revisiting Brideshead on Its 75th Birthday

From The National Review:

Beetween December 1943 and June 1944, English author Evelyn Waugh took unpaid leave from the army to finish his novel Brideshead Revisited, now considered by many to be his greatest. The book (which Waugh first suggested calling “A Household of Faith”) has many themes — Catholicism, aristocracy, youth, redemption — but the author’s specific focus was, in his own words, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.” Today Waugh’s religiosity, much like his traditionalist tastes, may seem niche or archaic, but his treatment of the human experience of time is — well, timeless. In an updated preface, Waugh offered Brideshead “to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.” While nostalgia functions both as a theme and a narrative device in the novel, what is often overlooked is how masterfully the two themes, nostalgia and grace, are interwoven.

Like The Great GatsbyBrideshead is narrated by a protagonist who is also a character in the story — Charles Ryder, now a commander officer in the British army. Ryder reflects back on his life before the war. He is temporarily stationed in the English countryside, where he stumbles across an abandoned manor. He was once intimately connected with its former inhabitants, an eccentric aristocratic Catholic family. The rest of the story is told through flashbacks, beginning with his student days at Oxford.

At Oxford, Ryder meets and befriends the impossibly charming Sebastian Flyte, who, though later redeemed (unlike the similarly flawed protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), squanders his youth and beauty through foolish and hedonistic pursuits. Julia, Sebastian’s sister and, later, Ryder’s love interest, parallels her brother’s self-destruction in her ill-advised marriage to the agnostic Canadian businessman and politician Rex Mottram. At one point Julia and Sebastian’s pious younger sister, Cordelia, references G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story in which the thief is attached to “an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Such is the operation of divine grace upon the soul, and “Twitch upon the Thread” is, not by coincidence, the name given to the novel’s third part.

Nostalgia, in terms of character psychology, allows for a certain plasticity of time. From the outset, for instance, there is something peculiarly childish about Sebastian. At Oxford, he carries around his teddy bear, eccentrically named “Aloysius,” calls his mother “mummy,” and is emotionally dependent on his nanny. When the young Ryder (prior to his conversion to Catholicism) asks how Sebastian can possibly believe the wackier tenets of the Catholic faith, he answers that he thinks it “a lovely idea.” That, to Ryder, seems proof enough that the whole thing is ridiculous, a belief he repeats to Julia more forcefully when she feels incapable of “living in sin” with him. He tells her “it’s a thing psychologists could explain; a preconditioning from childhood; feelings of guilt from the nonsense you were taught in the nursery.”

. . . .

Orwell was right that the first-person narration can at times feel mawkish. Waugh himself worried about this. “The book is infused with a kind of gluttony,” the author wrote in a later edition, “for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.” Take, for instance, Ryder’s longing for the interior decoration at Brideshead (the name of Sebastian’s lavish family home): “I often think of that bathroom — the water colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair — and contrast it with the uniform, clinical, little chambers, glittering with chromium-plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.” Nevertheless, the point of this is how such objects, as they were, or are, influence how a character conceives of himself. A good example of this is Anthony Blanche, who, Ryder tells us, in later life “lost his stammer in the deep waters of his old romance. It came floating back to him, momentarily, with the coffee and liqueurs.”

Link to the rest at The National Review

How to Fill a Yawning Gap

From The Wall Street Journal:

Is boredom really all that interesting? Thanks perhaps to the subject’s dreary durability, it has generated a considerable literature over the years. Alberto Moravia wrote an engaging novel called “Boredom,” and psychologists, philosophers and classicists have also had their say.

Out of My Skull,” the latest work on this strangely alluring topic, has an exciting title, but nothing about the book is wild or crazy. James Danckert and John D. Eastwood, a pair of psychologists in Canada, know an awful lot about the subject (Mr. Eastwood even runs a Boredom Lab at York University), and they examine it methodically. “In our view, being bored is quite fascinating, and maybe, just maybe, it might even be helpful,” they write, echoing predecessors who find boredom salutary. “Boredom is a call to action, a signal to become more engaged. It is a push toward more meaningful and satisfying actions. It forces you to ask a consequential question: What should I do?”

A taxonomy of boredom, if it’s to avoid exemplifying what it describes, ought to be simple. So let’s just say that boredom is of two kinds. The first is better known to us as ennui, and the democratization of this once-rarefied feeling is one of civilization’s triumphs. At first the preserve of aristocrats and later taken up by intellectuals, nowadays it is available to affluent citizens everywhere. Our endless search for palliatives in the face of this affliction underpins the consumer economy.

The other kind of boredom is the version that most of us get paid for. Commentators on boredom usually genuflect briefly toward factory workers, nannies and other hard-working members of the hoi polloi whose tasks can be mind-numbing. But such people live with a version of boredom that intellectuals find, well, boring. So the focus is usually on the self-important existential variety.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

With a Plunge in Returns, Net Sales Fell 3.5% in April

From Publishers Weekly:

Net publishing sales fell 3.5% in April compared to April 2019 for the 1,361 publishers who report revenue to AAP’s StatShot program. The small decline, however, is deceiving. Gross sales fell in the monthly comparison, dropping 16%, but were offset by a nearly 49% drop in returns. (AAP calculates net sales by deducting returns from gross sales.) Returns were down in every category and point to an issue that many publishers are keeping an eye on—the possibility of heavy returns when bookstores reopen after closing because of the pandemic.

Nearly all college stores were closed in April, leading to a 57.9% decline in returns to publishers of higher educational course materials in the month compared to 2019. And even though gross sales fell 30.8% in the month, the plunge in returns led to a 139.8% increase in net sales in the category. The AAP said it expects an increase in returns in the category in future months as stores, distributors, colleges, and universities reopen.

. . . .

The same, but less extreme, pattern was seen in the two trade categories. Gross sales of adult books fell 16.4% in April, but returns dropped by 46.3%, resulting in a 7% decline in net sales. Many chain and independent bookstores were closed in April and unable to return books, but they are now slowly reopening and may soon start shipping back unsold copies. 

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Requiem for the Printing Press

From The Wall Street Journal:

The finest moment in the finest movie about newspapers ever made—“Deadline—U.S.A.” (1952)—comes in the final scene.

The editor of a dying newspaper, played by Humphrey Bogart, is down in the pressroom. The paper is planning to print a story accusing a crime-syndicate boss of murder. The mobster manages to reach Bogart on the phone and threatens to kill him if the story appears.

In response, Bogart signals to the pressroom foreman to start the run. Bogart holds the phone up toward the presses as they roar to life.

The mobster, in his apartment, recoils. He yells into his phone: “That noise—what’s that racket?”

And Bogart says: “That’s the press, baby. The press. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing.”

. . . .

That scene comes to mind as local newspapers try to deal with the industry’s widely reported woes. While many papers are struggling to remain solvent, one media trend has attracted surprisingly little attention: More papers are shutting down their presses and, to save money for distant corporate owners, printing their daily editions at other newspaper headquarters hours away. The papers still bear the names of the cities where they’re read, but they roll off presses elsewhere, sometimes in different states.

This week the Miami Herald announced that it is officially moving out of its offices. Because of Covid-19, its reporters and editors have been working from home, and without a newsroom they’ll do that until at least the end of the year. Since April, the Herald has been outsourcing its printing to the presses of its major rival, Fort Lauderdale’s South Florida Sun Sentinel. Ohio’s Cincinnati Enquirer is now printed in Louisville, Ky. Indiana’s South Bend Tribune is printed in Walker, Mich.

When this happens, trucks have to make intercity deliveries, pushing deadlines earlier. Late-breaking stories and nighttime sports events may not make the morning paper. Another casualty: No longer seeing the guys who ran the giant presses downstairs donning their squared-off paper hats, which they made each day from the latest edition.

And forever, when those presses in a newspaper building would start up late at night, the reporters and editors upstairs could feel it in their feet. The vibration from the presses would shoot up through their shoes. It was glorious, part of the romance of newspapering. The shorthand for “reporters”—the press—derives from those printing presses.

The loss has a powerful, bittersweet symbolism. As Brent Batten of Florida’s Naples Daily News, whose presses have been silenced and printing operations sent to Sarasota, about 100 miles away, put it: “We’re an office building attached to the most amazing piece of machinery any of us are ever likely to behold. Without it, we may as well be in a strip mall.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

On PG’s second job out of college in Chicago, working at a large advertising agency, he went on a couple of tours, one included a major newspaper’s printing presses and the other was of a large press used for printing high-end, slick-paper four-color magazine advertisements.

This was long before computerized printing and color photos were printed by four separate presses, one for cyan, another for magenta, the third for yellow and, finally, black. Color separations were performed with the original photograph and four separate curved pieces of metal were made, one for each of the colors.

There were always dots that made up the images. Newspaper photos had relatively large dots on one curved plate that printed black and various shades of gray. High-end presses for slick paper illustrations had very small dots on four curved plates, one printing cyan, another magenta, then yellow and finally, black if PG’s recollection is correct.

For the first run of a slick-paper color advertisement, someone from the advertising agency, usually a creative director or art director would be there to examine the first few prints off the press to make certain everything looked the way it should. Rerunning hundreds of thousands of advertisements was an expensive proposition that the agency hesitated to charge to its client.

During a visit when PG tagged along, the art director responsible for the the advertisement design and appearance saw a problem with one of the food photographs during a test run, the color of the cheese to be specific. It was not the right shade of yellow-gold. It looked fine to PG, but he wasn’t the art director.

The printing technician pulled some very fine sandpaper from his pocket and, using the test run prints for reference, did about five minutes of lightly sanding small parts of two or three of the curved metal plates while they were still mounted on the press.

After the sanding was complete, the press ran another few test copies, the color of the cheese was perfect (even PG could see a slight difference when the before and after proof copies were laid side-by-side) and nothing else had changed in the image.

The art director approved and the giant press cranked up and hundreds of gears were rapidly turning. The whole apparatus made a wonderful mechanical collection of sounds, more complex than the movie clip captures.

When PG uses Photoshop or another image-manipulation program on his computer to tweak various of his photos, he occasionally thinks of the guy with the sandpaper and the many years of experience required to know exactly where and how much to sand.

Sweden’s digital audio subscription market will shrink 25%, says a Mediavision survey

From The New Publishing Standard:

It’s been so long since we heard anything negative about Sweden’s experiment as the world’s audiobook subscription Petri dish that it sometimes seems digital subscription, led in the Nordics by audiobooks, can do no wrong.

But if a Mediavision survey is correct, the good times may be coming to an end.

According to the Swedish news site BreakIt (auto-translated),

One in four subscribers to the audiobook companies plans to cancel the subscription or change service within 12 months.

This says BreakIt, equates to 195,000 households.

. . . .

It’s not clear from this how much the anticipated shrinkage will be due to genuine disaffection with the service and format, or how much any particular operator is likely to be hit or to benefit.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG doesn’t watch audiobook pricing as closely as he does ebook pricing.

When PG checked, the top five New York Times Best Sellers for audio versions of bestselling books were priced as follows on Audible (a quick check of Barnes & Noble audio CD prices for these books surprised PG because the CD pricing was very close to and sometimes lower than the downloadable audio price from Amazon):

  1. Where the Crawdads Sing – $31.50
  2. Hideaway – $31.49
  3. Fair Warning – $26.94
  4. Camino Winds – $31.50
  5. If It Bleeds – $27.99

A couple of questions occur to PG:

Should audiobooks be less expensive?

Each of these tradpub audiobooks have a price tag which is about twice what the ebook version of the same title is.

Is the price of audiobooks too high?

PG understands that a narrator who has likely spent time developing his/her talents is involved and will require payment. He also understands that audiobook recording studio time and/or recording equipment and a home audio setup won’t come free, but, is the price of audiobooks depressing sales?

Particularly during a serious world-wide economic downturn?

Just as with ebooks, once the original version of an audiobook is created and uploaded to Amazon, all each purchaser is receiving is a bunch of organized electrons. (He’ll set aside CD version as the equivalent of a hardcopy printed book.)

For an organization with as many hard drives as Amazon, electrons are pretty close to free. Delivering 100 copies of an audiobook to 100 purchasers doesn’t cost much more than delivering a single copy of an audio to a purchaser.

What would happen to audiobook sales if an audiobook was priced at 99 cents? Or $2.99?

Or if someone purchasing an ebook could get an audiobook of the same title for $1.99 more?

Is the best opportunity to sell an audiobook at the same time a customer is purchasing an ebook of the same title? Or vice-versa?

Sophisticated retailers, online and offline, work hard to increase the amount of money their customers spend with them. Cross-selling, up-selling, free shipping thresholds, selling related products are goals for any smart retailer. Gaining a greater share of the customer’s purchasing activity is an obsession with well-run business organizations.

Which, of course, raises the perennial question about why commercial publishers aren’t managed very well. Maybe publishing is just too special to be subject to market forces.

That would be of little concern to PG if authors didn’t ultimately bear a great deal of the financial burden created by ineptly-managed publishers.

KKR Completes OverDrive Purchase

From Publishers Weekly:

The investment firm KKR has completed its purchase of OverDrive. On Christmas Eve, KKR announced it had reached an agreement to acquire the digital reading platform from the Japanese conglomerate Rakuten. The deal was expected to be closed in the first quarter of 2020; it is not known whether the pandemic caused a problem in completing the agreement.

“With the sale completed, we are excited to begin working on the opportunities to grow our digital content platform with KKR’s support,” said Steve Potash, OverDrive founder and CEO, in a statement. “We are pleased to have an investor with global resources that knows our industry, believes in our mission and is committed to helping us and our library and school partners succeed.”

In addition to OverDrive, KKR owns RBmedia, one of the largest independent publishers and distributors of audiobooks. The OverDrive acquisition, like that of RB, was overseen by Richard Sarnoff, one-time executive at Random House who also was president of Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments until leaving for KKR in 2011.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG hopes this doesn’t mean that libraries get squeezed by higher ebook expenses.

It also occurred to PG that KKR, a good-sized investment firm, might be thinking of doing something big with ebooks and audiobooks. He suspects Amazon has been watching this deal develop with more than casual interest.

“Do better, publishing people”: an open letter to the industry

From The Bookseller:

I have to start by admitting that when I began writing this letter last week, I was boiling mad and ready to take everyone on. Now, in its tenth or twentieth draft (I don’t know which) I’m still boiling mad, but most of your gaslighting social media posts that sent me over the edge have gone, so I’ve calmed down a little. A little.

I am still boiling mad and I still think you need to know a few things. Firstly – and most importantly – you need to know: publishing is a hostile environment for Black authors.

I’m not talking about the inclusive indies, the ones who’ve been forging their way ahead, I’m talking about the major players in publishing. Yours is an environment that the world thinks is welcoming, liberal, ‘right on’ and intellectual, but in reality can be extremely damaging for Black authors.

Let me also be clear: Black writers do not want special consideration, we do not want special treatment, we want a level playing field, an equality of opportunity, the chance to write books and explore as many subjects and genres as our white counterparts. We want to look around and see other Black people being as successful as us in all different genres in all branches of the publishing business. And that is not the experience for most of us when we come to write our books or have them promoted or see them on the shelves.

When we try to enter the world of publishing, a lot of us already have so much on our shoulders. Black writers know that every word we write, every story we tell, will be taken up as speaking for every single black person that ever lived. We are often seen as a monolith and everything one of us does is often used to represent all of us.

. . . .

Agents are the first gatekeepers most of us encounter and we very often hear from them that they can’t connect with ‘Black’ stories, they don’t understand ‘Black’ voices, the story isn’t teaching them anything. And yet, we can see with our own eyes that they very often represent white authors who are telling stories about Black people and earning millions and accolades whilst doing it.

. . . .

Showcasing black pain? Tick

Willing to constantly talk politely about race and nothing else? Tick

Making white people feel comfortable? Tick

Teaching white people something about the ‘Black experience’? Tick

No one in publishing will admit this, but you can tell by the rejections you receive, the conversations that you have about a book, suggestions that are made that this checklist is – often unconsciously – there.

As we move through the publishing process, what do we come up against next? People who don’t ‘get’ Black voices so set about changing our words to fit the stereotypes in their heads. Editors who need subtle, modern-day ‘slave’ narratives added in even if it doesn’t fit the story arc. Those who ask you to find redemption for a white antagonist so as not to put people (read: white people) off. Publishers who want you to make characters racist because that’s obviously what’s missing from your rom-com. Editors who pick apart every single word to make sure you don’t get uppity and think you might just be good at this writing stuff.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Can Rivals Take Advantage of Amazon’s Pandemic Woes?

From The Wall Street Journal:

When coronavirus lockdowns sent Americans into a frenzy of panic buying, the bad news came almost as quickly as the good for online organic grocer Thrive Market.

In March, the company that aims to compete with Amazon.com Inc. in the health-food sector suddenly found customers flocking to its site as its giant rival struggled to handle its own pandemic business surge. Thrive notched record sales and membership sign-ups.

Then it buckled. Orders ballooned to five times what Thrive could handle. Delivery times for some customers reached two weeks. About 30% of items were out of stock on some days. To keep delivery times from slipping further, Thrive made the previously unimaginable decision to throttle demand by limiting shopping hours.

“It was excruciating,” recalled co-founder and Chief Executive Nick Green. “It felt like a pick-your-poison moment.”

Thrive Market, based in Los Angeles, is one of a host of retailers that have spent years trying to compete against the Amazon retail juggernaut. The coronavirus pandemic provided a fleeting window of opportunity. Amazon, overwhelmed by a wave of orders, temporarily reoriented its business toward essential items, leading consumers to begin looking elsewhere.

But capturing that opportunity—and trying to ensure it is more than a temporary blip—brought extraordinary challenges for Thrive and others, demonstrating the difficulty of competing with even a weakened Amazon.

. . . .

The pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping and devastated traditional retailers, including Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and J.Crew Group Inc., which have filed for bankruptcy protection. Financial-services firm UBS Group AG recently predicted the percentage of groceries sold online will rise from 3% this year to 15% by 2025.

. . . .

Mr. Green calls Thrive the “un-Amazon” because, he says, it offers a curated selection of merchandise. Early on, many reluctant investors had the same question: How would it compete with Amazon or Whole Foods Market?

Mr. Green was betting that consumers would try it out for its carefully selected inventory and competitive prices and stick around because they feel good about shopping there. He also billed the company as socially conscious by adhering to such practices as not offering genetically modified products.

Thrive, which is privately held, eventually raised more than $160 million. It now has more than 800,000 members who pay $60 a year. Although Thrive doesn’t disclose sales, Mr. Green said they were in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

On March 11, Mr. Green was preparing to leave work when he glanced at a computer monitor showing the company’s financial metrics. That day’s revenue line shot up like the handle of a hockey stick.

He messaged an executive to make sure there wasn’t a bug in the system. There wasn’t. Checking CNN’s website, he learned the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus a pandemic. People were buying in a panic.

. . . .

Days later, the country shifted into lockdown mode. Within a week, Amazon was struggling to meet orders promptly. On March 17, it said it was prioritizing the shipments of medical supplies, household staples and other high-demand products. Toilet paper and many cleaning supplies became unavailable, and shipping was taking weeks for some products. Amazon retooled its website to encourage shoppers to buy fewer items.

A survey by investment bank Jefferies Group LLC showed that almost one-third of respondents said they turned to non-Amazon sites during the pandemic because of delivery and inventory problems.

At Thrive, new paid membership sign-ups in March and April were up threefold from the prior year. But the same problems that plagued Amazon ravaged Thrive. Customers rushed to buy cleaning supplies, canned food and other essentials. A six-month supply of toilet paper ran out in three days. Mr. Green wasn’t sure how quickly the company could address the backlog.

Earlier in March, Chief Financial Officer Karen Cate had asked Thrive’s supply-chain director to order five times the usual amount of canned goods and cleaning supplies. She left out toilet paper. “If I could go back, I would change that one,” she said.

. . . .

To some, limiting online store hours seemed a sensible middle ground. Ms. Cate, the CFO, was skeptical. She said she felt Thrive could gain control of its order backlog without limiting members to ordering during working hours. She worried that members who worked during the day—including her daughter, a nurse at a hospital in Pasadena, Calif.—would be shut out.

She relented after seeing internal metrics that showed delivery times would only increase. “OK, I surrender,” she recalled thinking.

On a midnight call, Mr. Green and co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Sasha Siddhartha decided to move forward with limiting the hours. They told other executives the next day and instituted the new policies on March 25.

. . . .

The stress mounted for Mr. Green, whose wife had just given birth to their second child. He was getting a handful of hours of sleep per night and didn’t shave for a month. He stopped working out. Outside of work hours, his time was consumed by his newborn son and late-night emails and calls with executives.

It was difficult to concentrate from his setup in the family’s guest bedroom. He took two monitors and his MacBook Pro and set up an office in his closet, placing the equipment on shelves near his T-shirts and jeans. He scrapped a strategic plan and built a new one, staying up one night until 3 a.m. to finish it. The plan re-examined hiring goals and when the company should expand its fulfillment network, among other things, to ramp up faster.

. . . .

Holding on to customers became harder as Thrive struggled to handle the order influx. Online, customers were threatening to leave over the delays. Members were frustrated and questioned why Thrive was taking on new customers.

. . . .

By early April, Thrive Market was hiring as many as 30 warehouse workers a day. Using several recruiting agencies, it hired more than 300 warehouse workers in less than two months, adding to the roughly 500 it had. Labor costs jumped 20%.

The company also removed nonessential items such as water bottles and yoga mats from its website to concentrate on delivering essentials like food and cleaning supplies. It tinkered with its fulfillment processes, processing orders for high-demand products in one section of warehouses. It prioritized orders with the longest delivery times. It stopped selling low-demand items in the back of the warehouses, partly so workers wouldn’t have to waste time fetching them.

. . . .

Higher costs have reduced the percentage of profit made on orders, Mr. Green said. And the store has had to dip into its cash reserves to pay for a spike in inventory expenses. But the year’s revenue projections have risen, and the company is in a strong cash position, he said, although he declined to provide details.

Thrive’s goal to reach profitability by the end of 2022 hasn’t changed, he said. “With our growth accelerated,” he said, “we expect to get profitable even faster.”

. . . .

The lessons from the pandemic have changed its fulfillment processes. Mr. Green said the company will hold 20% more inventory and will work with a larger number of suppliers. Its technology team plans to roll out improved recommendation functions on the website for when items are out of stock.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

PG has a soft spot for scrappy young tech startups and was heartened by the apparent survival of Thrive as depicted in the OP. For PG, a couple of smart young gals/guys who put it all on the line to start their own internet business is the cutest thing since puppies. That’s one reasons why he appreciates indie authors.

PG remembers when he first heard about Amazon from a friend and read an interview with Jeff Bezos. Later, PG created quite a few posts as the illegal Apple/Big Five Publishers scheme to kill Amazon fell apart.

Of course, Amazon has probably been the best single thing to happen to authors and readers in the last twenty years. Gatekeepers of dubious ability knocked back on their heels. Talented authors who want to move fast and write a lot of books unchained. Indie authors who know their readers because they pretty much are their readers instead of believing most people are more like their classmates at Swarthmore and Princeton than anything else.

Literati will go to their graves without admitting it, but Amazon has also helped Big Publishing to avoid becoming Semi-Big or Largish-Medium Publishing during the same time-frame. Since a great many publishing executives fall into the category of smartish, Amazon may have even prevented Big Publishing from becoming Chapter 11 Publishing.

Based upon a whole bunch of authors that he knows and carefully monitoring of what authors, particularly indie authors, are sharing about the business side of their art, PG feels comfortable in stating that Amazon’s self-publishing programs have made it more possible for many, many more authors to quit their day jobs than any other organization or collection of organizations on the planet.

As he has mentioned before, PG hopes JB’s style and savvy doesn’t slowly fade away at Amazon since he’s becoming less and less involved in the management of the company. Amazon works in a tough neighborhood. The list of huge, well-known retailers that have lost their mojo and disappeared into Chapter 11 or, at best, irrelevance is a long one and if Amazon ever starts taking its customers for granted, it might join the Wikipedia throng of giant retailers that are no more.

Fast or Slow

PG just discovered an interesting and potentially useful website.

Called Fast or Slow, it checks how responsive your website (or, apparently, any website) is in responding to various locations around the world.

Fast or Slow

PG is not certain exactly how accurate it is, but it seems (to his untutored eye) to provide potentially useful data. It’s sponsored by Wordfence, a reputable website security plugin.

Ten Publishing Things That Will Never Be The Same

From Publishing Perspectives:

In Publishing’s Post-Pandemic Future

No longer will we print 200 copies of an academic monograph, ship 150 to warehouses around the world, then on to university libraries, and hope the remaining 50 will evaporate somehow over time. Should any library actually want a print copy for archival or other reasons it’s perfectly easy to produce one on a print-on-demand basis and that single copy will cost less in money and damage to the environment.

  • As it happens, the same technology and attitude will pervade the thinking of general as well as academic publishers when maintaining the availability of backlist titles.
  • This will of course lead to a complete revision and rethinking of reversion clauses.

Scientific publishers will abandon any semblance of print production including the age-old tradition of printed offprints of an author’s article.

  • Print in the new world is akin to the old French tradition of delivering the mail by postmen on stilts—charming but ridiculous.

And how about the absurdity of sending printed copies to media for review?

  • During the lockdown, newspaper mailrooms have been empty and it has been pointless to send printed books. It turns out that for the purposes of review and criticism, a PDF is perfectly adequate in all but heavily illustrated art, lifestyle, and children’s books.
  • Of course the reviewer will find it hard to sell the PDF on eBay as a way of supplementing the paltry reviewer’s fee but perhaps it’s about time that reviewers were paid properly for their important function.

. . . .

Can anyone imagine any learning environment without a significant digital dimension? From the library to the lecture theater or classroom, the buzzword in educational publishing for schools and colleges has been “blended learning”–essentially a teacher, a book, and some digital supplements.

  • This will be reversed and will become a digital course supplemented by a teacher and the very occasional printed textbook.
  • It will still be blended learning but as in any blend everything depends on the proportions of the ingredients. In education, these proportions will never be the same again.

. . . .

With more people working from home, how can our industry justify typical midtown offices? How can senior executives justify large offices for themselves and battery-hen cubicles for lower-level staffers?

  • Old-fashioned offices and structures will not survive to be replaced by more employee-friendly work spaces and work practices.
  • Adieu, 9-to-5 work schedules. I’m very glad I haven’t invested heavily in big-city commercial property, and I’m pretty certain that most publishers will be looking to reduce their rent bills by taking less space and renegotiating leases.

. . . .

No more sales conferences in exotic places.

  • No more teeming academic conferences.
  • No more all-company rallies.
  • No more flying around the world when a phone call would suffice.
  • Leaving parties will be sadly frequent but less grand.

And finally, of course, the parties.

  • No more book launches in lovely but pokey independent bookshops.
  • No more cheap white wine.
  • No more self-serving speeches by the publisher.
  • No more shushing in order to hear the author’s speech or reading.
  • No more air kisses and mwah mwah.
  • No more trying to persuade staffers to mingle.
  • No more sucking up to journalists in the hope of a one-line mention in a diary column.
  • No more bundling up the unsold books to return to the warehouse.
  • The post-COVID-19 launch parties will be digital. Many more people can and will attend. The wine and refreshments will be top-notch. The author can be heard and seen. The event can be recorded and shared universally.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Writing and Hiking

From Writer Unboxed:

Charles Dickens died this day, June 9, 150 years ago. He gave many pieces of writing advice throughout his incredible career, the most famous, and probably best, of which was: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” It was the motto against which he judged his own work.

He also recognized the toll writing can take on an author, the “wear and tear,” and saw the importance of taking a break from writing, of having distractions away from quill and ink, computer and keyboard.

You must remember that in all your literary aspiration, and whether thinking or writing, it is indispensably necessary to relieve that wear and tear of the mind by some other exertion that may be wholesomely set against it.

For many writers, that relief comes from walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For Nietzsche, “Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.” And JK Rowling finds inspiration in walking too: “Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.”

. . . .

Research backs up the idea of walking to improve creativity. A 2014 study by behavioral scientists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University stated that, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

The study, entitled Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, goes on to say that, “Walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.”

. . . .

There are many parallels between walking and writing. Just as walking is about putting one foot after another, writing is – in its very basic form – one word after another. Remembering that as you go for a walk, especially a long walk, can help you get over any blocks you might be experiencing in your writing.

Five, ten or fifteen miles can seem like a long way when you first set off, just as the prospect of writing an 80,000 word novel (perhaps more the equivalent of the entire Pacific Northwest Trail) can be daunting. But one foot/one word in front of the other eventually gets you there. And the sense of achievement at the end can be exhilarating. Even more so, I’d argue, when completing a novel.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Doctors’ Money

While responding to a comment to another post from a couple of days ago, PG was reminded of a term, “Doctors’ Money.”

This is an example of a cognitive error often called, “transference of expertise.”

From Perceptual Edge:

People sometimes claim expertise in one field based on experience in another. This is a fallacious and deceitful claim. I have extensive experience in visual design, but I cannot claim expertise in architecture. Any building that I designed would most certainly crumble around me. I’m a skilled teacher, but this does not qualify me as a psychotherapist. That hasn’t stopped me from occasionally giving advice to friends, but without charge, which probably matches its worth. Although these fields of endeavor overlap in some ways, expertise in one does not convey expertise in another. No concert violinist would claim the transfer of that virtuosity to the saxophone, but IT professionals sometimes make claims that are every bit as audacious.

Link to the rest at Perceptual Edge

Basically, as stated at greater length above, the error is that someone who is an expert in one field of endeavor believes she/he is also an expert in another field.

As a baby lawyer working in a securities law firm a long time ago, PG learned that the term, “doctors’ money”, when applied to a stock or a company meant the equivalent of “dumb money”.

Because of a doctor’s extensive education and intellectual abilities in the medical field, many doctors felt their innate intelligence was such that they could listen to a description of a newly-public company or one that was planning a public offering of its stock in a year or so and discern which companies’ stock prices were certain to appreciate. If a startup company was backed by a lot of investments by physicians, this constituted a warning flag for more savvy investors.

There was also a herd phenomenon that sometimes occurred when one doctor found what he/she believed was an excellent investment and told professional associates and friends about it and those people bought the same stock.

Unpacking Wharton’s Library

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1984, George Ramsden, a 30-year-old British bookseller who had never read anything by Edith Wharton, bought her personal library for $80,000. He kept the books in a room above his bookshop where he would invite select visitors to view them by asking if they wanted to come up and see “Edith.” When he finally sold the library (for $2.5 million) to The Mount — the Wharton museum in Massachusetts — he negotiated the right to accompany it across the Atlantic to set up the display himself. He wept as he unpacked the books, demanded solitude as he arranged them, and took a long time to finish the job.

People get weird about libraries, or, to put it another way, libraries seem to accrue values beyond use and exchange. So what does a library mean?

This is the question at the heart of Sheila Liming’s new book, What a Library Means to a Woman. She strives to answer by analyzing the specific library collected by Edith Wharton and what it meant to Wharton herself, her contemporaries, her heirs, and even to the odd custodians and passionate scholars who have guarded and exploited it.

To look for the meaning, in the fullest sense, of a specific material object or set of objects is an inquiry that escapes the purview of any one academic discipline. Accordingly, Liming relies on a dizzying number of research methods and information sources: personal memoir and biographical detail, close readings of Wharton’s fiction and analyses of the annotations she made in the books she read, the history of interior design and the economic data of the book trade, literary theory and the sociology of culture, personal interviews and institutional history. But “multidisciplinary” is a pallid word for this book. It is thinking guided by the object of inquiry itself. It is literary scholarship keyed to a question so specific that it takes on at times the aura of a novel — the concluding chapter about George Ramsden felt like a chapter from a detective story, for example — and, for the same reason, it achieves at other times the general significance of a philosophical meditation.

Over the last seven years, Liming conducted research at The Mount, and while there, she had a chance to observe the reaction of visitors to the sight of Wharton’s books:

Sometimes an allusive remark would serve to express a visitor’s disdain about the library “not being worth” the money that had been reportedly spent on it; others, meanwhile, would bombard their guide (or me) with questions that circled back to discussions of cost and worth: How much does a first-edition Ulysses cost, anyway? Did Wharton have all of her books custom bound or just the expensive ones? I came to see these forms of scrutiny as inspired by the space of the library itself, with its railings and its climate control and its overt physical enforcements. At the same time, I also came to see them as tied to a very specific kind of contemporary illiteracy: most of us in the twenty-first century no longer live with and among books, so we struggle when faced with estimations of their worth. […] [V]isitors to The Mount sense that Wharton’s library has value, but are hard pressed when asked to conceive of its value in terms that defy the logic of monetary worth or simple cost.

What this “illiteracy” blocks, Liming suggests, is the recognition that a personal library is not just a collection of commodities that happen to be books, but a kind of intellectual casing, shell, or home.

. . . .

Liming shows that Wharton’s book-buying choices reveal predilections unusual in a woman of her time: “[U]pper-class women during Wharton’s time (and throughout subsequent generations) were primed for success in social intercourse and received training in subjects that might prove beneficial to their social, rather than their intellectual, development,” but Wharton purchased and read an unusual number of foreign-language books, as well as an unusual number of histories. (Liming cleverly determines this by comparing the ratio of genres on Wharton’s shelves to the ratio of genres published in her day.) Wharton’s development of her book collection gave her the training needed to make a significant contribution to literature, and to be well read in a way atypical of the gendered expectations of her day.

She also used her personal library to establish the social networks that demonstrated her literary eminence and that continue to be associated with her fame ever since. Perhaps her most notable friendship was with the novelist Henry James. And it began as a friendship between readers rather than writers. As Liming recounts:

[Wharton and James] who had nothing to say to each other fifteen years earlier went on to describe themselves as being inseparable, spurred by conversations that centered mostly on the reading of books. Reading, in fact, figured more prominently in their conversations than writing: “I always tried to keep my own work out of his way, and once accused him of ferreting it out and reading it just to annoy me,” Wharton explains.

A library can establish — as it did for Wharton — the possibility of relationship with other people. Like a home, it can be both a shelter and a meeting place. And not just for the one who collected it.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Given their digital nature, one can only imagine what what a future author with the appropriate level of savoir faire will be able to do with a rudimentary understanding of statistical analysis.

Add such knowledge to the ability to persuade Amazon to part the digital curtains just a bit in the interest of understanding the reading habits and patterns of a now-deceased great woman/man. (Perhaps the consent of the heirs might be required to help Amazon feel a bit more at ease.)

Which books did the deceased finish and which were abandoned before reaching the end? What does an analysis of the last ten pages before the deceased electronically closed it reveal about the nature of the decedent?

On a word-per-reading-minute basis, which books were read the fastest? The slowest? Did certain combinations of words cause the reader to stop, then go back to reread the language just preceding those combination? If so, what does that behavior reveal about the decedent’s state of mind at that point in his/her life?

If the will of the deceased requires the executor of the estate to cause all electronic reading records of the deceased to be destroyed, will Amazon comply?

Coronavirus Worklife: Rakuten Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn

From Publishing Perspectives:

A crisis like the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is like a crucible for an industry like publishing—which already has had its share of disruptions, of course.

In a talk delivered to the Digital Publishing Summit and Readmagine 2020 conference that continues this week, Tamblyn expanded on many of the issues and challenges he and his team based in Toronto were just starting to look at when his Kobo Italy staff and Grupo Mondadori worked together in mid-March to deliver free ebooks to quarantined Italians as one of Europe’s most fearful virus outbreaks was taking hold.

. . . .

Tamblyn mentioned that he and his employees were working from home voluntarily—to find out where the pitfalls might lie “on our own terms.”

What he would learn, he says now, was much more and fell into three categories:

  • What was learned about how Kobo works as a company during this (and implications forward)
  • What was learned about readers and relationship to reading
  • What was learned about the industry as a whole

For example, he says, Kobo was accustomed to its factories in China and Taiwan coming to a halt in production during the annual Chinese new year celebrations in January. That, Black Friday in November, and the week leading up to Christmas, he says, are the key tech-industry “high holidays” that normally can affect production and operations.

But of course, this year, the Chinese new year—which he calls “doubly important” because factories close completely in China and Taiwan—was different. “Because everybody who left for new year to go home and visit their families, Tamblyn says, “didn’t come back. For the first time in living memory, the new year holiday at the end of January was extended by a week.” As Wuhan and other zones would become locked down and factory production halted, companies like Kobo were faced with new difficulties in supply.

“How long would it be before we could make new e-readers?” was the question, Tamblyn says.

By February’s end, the company’s manufacturers were back to about 50 percent of capacity.

. . . .

“The least interesting question was the remote work question.” Kobo had had staffers working remotely for five years or longer. “We’re spread across offices in Toronto, Taipei, Dublin, and Darmstadt. And we have a Japanese parent company that has prioritized video conferences as necessary for good communication ever since we were acquired in 2012.”

Being as accustomed as they are to remote working, Kobo has given all its employees the option of working this way until at least January 2021, Tamblyn says. “If we can start to open up, we don’t expect to be able to bring back more than 25 percent of our employees at one time until a vaccine is found. And some will probably stay remote permanently. And that’s okay.”

“Big things” that Tamblyn says they’ve learned from this element of the experience will be part of “the new normal for us” will involve the fact that, “the hard parts of working from home turn out to be child care, roommates, bad connectivity, lack of home-office space.” The most common reasons employees ask to come back to work are just such difficult conditions at home.

. . . .

“It turns out,” Tamblyn says, “it’s never been about the office. It’s always been about the people. And that with the right tools and habits and rituals, culture can be strengthened and maintained without people being in one building.’

As services unlock, he says, “Our headcount will get bigger but it will get more spread out.”

. . . .

“We were able to sell more e-readers with all of our 10,000 stores closed than we had forecasted to sell with them open,” he says.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG thinks Mr. Tamblyn sounds like a smart guy.

Although it has little to do with indie authors, who overwhelmingly work from home, PG has heard and read the same sort of observations from others who are not irrevocably locked into the traditional office mentality.

On occasion, PG has received feelers about various types of employment, but has declined to pursue them because they would have required him to move to a new location. PG has moved a great many times during his life and has lived in his present location longer than he has in any other and enjoys the feeling.

Had any of the job opportunities included a “stay where you are” element, PG would not have politely declined them almost immediately.

Hiring the right employees is the most important task of any successful business. Current technologies (and likely future extensions of those technologies plus other technologies few can imagine today) make physical presence in a physical office of an employer less and less valuable. A great employee who lives hundreds or thousands of miles away provides great value plus her/his employer doesn’t have to pay the recurring cost of a physical office for the employee, which can be extraordinarily high in major metro areas. The more talented the employee, the larger the office he/she will expect.

Bread Winner

From The Wall Street Journal:

For Jack Lawson, “ten hours a day in the dark prison below really meant freedom for me.” At age 12, this Northern England boy began full-time work down the local mine. His life underwent a transformation; there would be “no more drudgery at home.” Jack’s wages lifted him head and shoulders above his younger siblings and separated him in fundamental ways from the world of women. He received better food, clothing and considerably more social standing and respect within the family. He had become a breadwinner.

Rooted in firsthand accounts of life in the Victorian era, Emma Griffin’s “Bread Winner” is a compelling re-evaluation of the Victorian economy. Ms. Griffin, a professor at the University of East Anglia, investigates the personal relationships and family dynamics of around 700 working-class households from the 19th century, charting the challenges people faced and the choices they made. Their lives are revealed as unique personal voyages caught within broader currents.

“I didn’t mind going out to work,” wrote a woman named Bessie Wallis. “It was just that girls were so very inferior to boys. They were the breadwinners and they came first. They could always get work in one of the mines, starting off as a pony boy then working themselves up to rope-runners and trammers for the actual coal-hewers. Girls were nobodies. They could only go into domestic service.”

Putting the domestic back into the economy, Ms. Griffin addresses a longstanding imbalance in our understanding of Victorian life. By investigating how money and resources moved around the working-class family, she makes huge strides toward answering the disconcerting question of why an increasingly affluent country continued to fail to feed its children. There was, her account makes clear, a disappointingly long lag between the development of an industrialized lifestyle in Britain and the spread of its benefits throughout the population.

. . . .

In preindustrial times, both men and women had faced a fairly set course in life on the edge of subsistence. During the Victorian era, their fortunes rapidly diverged. Many of the best-paid roles within the newly industrialized economy were designated as exclusively male. Those designated as female were very low paid (well below subsistence level). Thus developed the “breadwinner wage” model—the idea being that a man needed to support a family upon his earnings but a woman needed only pin money, her basic needs having been provided by father or husband.

Ms. Griffin’s groundbreaking research tracks the effects of this philosophy through personal autobiographical accounts. Working-class men gained power and personal freedom from the new opportunities and broader horizons. Working-class women, by contrast, faced the same old narrow set of options. This new pattern of gender divergence was most pronounced in urban situations, where the higher male wages were largely to be had, and was attended by a significant rise in family breakdown.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

In the dim caverns of his memory, PG remembers reading that survival and eventual prosperity of married settlers who journeyed to the American West generally required the hard work and often income-producing farming and ranching also required the active physical participation of both spouses to a greater extent than was were the family circumstances of the typical Breadwinner economic model.

In the American West economic model, children were also expected to provide productive labor in the process of obtaining food and income from the farm or ranch.

When PG was a wee lad, he remembers helping to herd livestock and run to get tools from the shed as required by his parents.

His mother was definitely involved in the agricultural and livestock activities on a regular basis. She and PG both were chased by an angry cow as they were trying to give some medication to her calf. PG was 7 years old at the time and discovered a running speed he didn’t realized he possessed as he headed for the fence.

When PG was 11 years old, he learned to operate a Caterpillar D6 (sometimes known as the most important piece of military equipment used in the Pacific theater of World War II) and thought he was the coolest kid around driving it to help his father on the farm.

Unfortunately, PG doesn’t have any photos of himself operating the D6, but here are a few to give anyone who is still interested a sense of the size of the machine. PG remembers that it required about a three-step climb from the ground to the seat.

Military Caterpillar D6
This is a civilian D6
Caterpillar D4 (a little smaller than a D6) practicing landings in preparations for service in the Pacific Theater.
Another D4 in the Army’s Fort Leonard Wood Combat Engineer’s Museum.

Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction

From The Paris Review:

The first time I interview Samuel Delany, we meet in a diner near his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It is a classic greasy spoon that serves strong coffee and breakfast all day. We sit near the window, and Delany, who is a serious morning person, presides over the city as it wakes. Dressed in what is ­often his uniform—black jeans and a black button-down shirt, ear pierced with multiple rings—he looks imperial. His beard, dramatically long and starkly white, is his most distinctive feature. “You are ­famous, I can just tell, I know you from somewhere,” a stranger tells him in the 2007 docu­mentary Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. Such intrusions are common, because Delany, whose work has been described as limitless, has lived a life that flouts the conventional. He is a gay man who was married to a woman for twelve years; he is a black man who, because of his light complexion, is regularly asked to identify his ethnicity. Yet he seems hardly bothered by such attempts to figure him out. Instead, he laughs, and more often than not it is a quiet chuckle expressed mostly in his eyes.

Delany was born on April 1, 1942, in Harlem, by then the cultural epicenter of black America. His father, who had come to New York from Raleigh, North Carolina, ran Levy and Delany, a funeral home to which Langston Hughes refers in his stories about the neighborhood. Delany grew up above his father’s business. During the day he attended Dalton, an elite and primarily white prep school on the Upper East Side; at home, his mother, a senior clerk at the New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen branch, on 125th Street, nurtured his exceptional intelligence and kaleidoscopic interests. He sang in the choir at St. Philip’s, Harlem’s black Episcopalian church, composed atonal music, played multiple instruments, and choreographed dances at the General Grant Community Center. In 1956, he earned a spot at the Bronx High School of Science, where he would meet his future wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker.

In the early sixties, the newly married couple settled in the East Village. There, Delany wrote his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor. He was nineteen. Over the next six years, he published eight more science-fiction novels, among them the Nebula Award winners Babel-17 (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). 

. . . .

In 1971, he completed a draft of a book he had been reworking for years. Dhalgren, his story of the Kid, a schizoid, amnesiac wanderer, takes place in Bellona, a shell of a city in the American Midwest isolated from the rest of the world and populated by warring gangs and holographic beasts. When Delany, Hacker, and their one-year-old daughter flew back to the States just before Christmas Eve in 1974, they saw copies of Dhalgren filling book racks at Kennedy Airport even before they reached customs. Over the next decade, the novel sold more than a million copies and was called a master­piece by some critics. William Gibson famously described it as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

Between the time you were nineteen and your twenty-second birthday, you wrote and sold five novels, and another four by the time you were twenty-six, plus a volume of short stories. Fifty years later, considerably more than half that work is still in print. Was being a prodigy important to you?

DELANY

As a child I’d run into Wilde’s witticism “The only true talent is preco­ciousness.” I took my writing seriously, and it seemed to pay off. And I ­discovered Rimbaud. The notion of somebody just a year or two older than I was, who wrote poetry people were reading a hundred, a hundred fifty years later and who had written the greatest poem in the French ­language, or at least the most famous one, “Le Bateau Ivre,” when he was just sixteen—that was enough to set my imagination soaring. At eighteen I translated it.

In the same years, I found the Signet paperback of Radiguet’s Devil in the Flesh and, a few months after that, the much superior Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel, translated as Count d’Orgel in the first trade paperback from Grove Press, with Cocteau’s deliciously suggestive “introduction” about its tragic young author, salted with such dicta as “Which family doesn’t have its own child prodigy? They have invented the word. Of course, child prodigies ­exist, just as there are extraordinary men. But they are rarely the same. Age means nothing. What astounds me is Rimbaud’s work, not the age at which he wrote it. All great poets have written by seventeen. The greatest are the ones who manage to make us forget it.”

Now that was something to think about—and clearly it had been said about someone who had not expected to die at twenty of typhoid from eating bad oysters.

. . . .

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as a genre writer?

DELANY

I think of myself as someone who thinks largely through writing. Thus I write more than most people, and I write in many different forms. I think of myself as the kind of person who writes, rather than as one kind of writer or another. That’s about the closest I come to categorizing myself as one or another kind of artist.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Here’s a link to the Samuel R. Delany Author Page on Amazon (where his photo shows a world-class beard)

Rivers

Everyone lives downstream. Even those idealists who live with their heads in the clouds live downstream . . . moreso those whose heads are buried in the sand.

 Duane Short

Rivers are the primal highways of life. From the crack of time, they had borne men’s dreams, and in their lovely rush to elsewhere, fed our wanderlust, mimicked our arteries, and charmed our imaginations in a way the static pond or vast and savage ocean never could.

Tom Robbins

Who owns Cross Creek? The redbirds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages. And after I am dead, who am childless, the human ownership of grove and field and hammock is hypothetical. But a long line of redbirds and whippoorwills and blue-jays and ground doves will descend from the present owners of nests in the orange trees, and their claim will be less subject to dispute than that of any human heirs. Houses are individual and can be owned, like nests, and fought for. But what of the land? It seems to me that the Earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers it seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’

Lyndon B. Johnson

Politics is downstream from culture.

Ben Domenech

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

William Shakespeare

Mother Nature is our wild world. A wild, winding river is her autograph.

Duane Short

River, take me along
In your sunshine,
Sing me your song
Ever moving and winding and free
You rolling old river,
You changing old river,
Let’s you and me river
Run down to the sea.

Bill Staines

I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me.

Wallace Stegner

My Experiences Writing and Publishing as a Teen

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

For me, the biggest difference between writing as a teen and as an adult is being able to write how teenagers think, what it’s like to be in school, because you’re not looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, looking back on it with nostalgia; you don’t have to remember what it was like, you’re still there. Even just after having been out of school for a few years, I read my work and think the choices of my characters are somewhat idiotic. But I wrote it when I was their age. When it seemed reasonable. And I’m aware that I have to hold on to that as I get older if I want to keep writing about teenage characters. 

I can see the differences in my writing from when I was teenager, both in that my writing ability has improved, and that my ability to plan and plot has improved. I’ve also moved past the fear that people are only telling me my writing is good because I’m a kid and they want to be encouraging.  

I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I started with fanfiction of whatever was my favourite book, movie, or video game at the time. Eventually, I started introducing my own characters into these worlds and stories, and then I moved on to creating my own world for my characters to live in. I quickly realised that I wanted to be a writer, to publish books, to share my stories. 

The only reason I was able to publish at my age was because of my parents. They saw that I had a passion for writing and were willing to indulge me for at least one book, to pay to have it self-published so that I could have that achievement under my belt. It was their idea that I would write more as a hobby, a side career, but would do something else as a main job. Then my mum, whose favourite author is Tom Clancy, read my young adult fantasy book, and said it was good. Amazing. Better than she had been expecting. 

. . . .

The hardest thing about publishing as a teenager was that I couldn’t work full time. I was trying to finish my manuscript to submit while in the last years of high school. I never had time to work on it because I either had school work to do, or I was too stressed out to have any good ideas. 

However, when it wasn’t so stressful, school was the source of my inspiration. I would sit in class and daydream about what my characters running across the rooftops of the other buildings and what adventures they might be off on; what evil they could be fighting while everyone else in the school was none the wiser.

I also came up with ideas as a result of being bullied. I would imagine what it would be like to be the characters in my favourite books; to have problems that didn’t revolve around who I was going to sit with at lunch, and if I could take the constant jibes from a certain girl, always delivered under her breath so no one else would hear. What if I could be Valkyrie in Skulduggery Pleasant, going on grand adventures and saving the world? What would I have to save the world from? Who would my villain be? Certainly, someone I would stand up to for taunting me.

Because of these thoughts I decided that I wanted my main characters to be from different walks of life – at least school life. I wanted to make a scenario where it wasn’t just the quirky kid that gets bullied who goes on a magical adventure, because as much as I wanted to escape some of the people I went to school with, I couldn’t. I wanted to bring the social environment of school into a different situation, and try to experiment with how this would make the characters interact.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Online Marketing Doesn’t Have to Mean Lying, Cheating, or Gaming the System

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

A lot of authors get that deer-in-the-headlights look when I mention marketing books online.

But it’s pretty much the only way to promote books during this “stay at home” pandemic.

So we gotta do it. I understand your reluctance. Social media is full of trolls, scammers, and vast herds of bellicose morons.

And there’s also a lot of unethical and downright criminal behavior that gets labeled as “online marketing”.

Some online marketing “gurus” teach (expensive) lessons in manipulation, lying, cheating, and general flimflammery. I had one contact me just this week. He’d put a Google Alert on “guest blogging” and this blog came up, with my piece complaining about unethical behavior in requesting guest blogposts.

He’s such a lazy idiot that he hadn’t bothered to read the passage of the blog he cut and pasted into the email. But because I used the magic keyword phrase, he expected me to link to his website that teaches people to send unethical guest blogpost requests to bloggers like me.

Um, sure, right, dude. I’ll send my readers to Moron McSleazy University, so they can learn to use Google alerts to harass me.

Here’s the thing: trying to sell your books or services by gaming the system, abusing bloggers, and lying is a very bad idea. Even if you’ve paid a lot of money to learn how. What you want to do is establish a brand that people trust, like Stephen King, Doris Kearns Goodwin or Lemony Snicket—not Scams “R” Us. How do you do that? As Ruth told us last week, you reach success with patience and persistence, not tricks and gimmicks.

. . . .

1) Some Authors Claim Scams are “Genius Marketing.”

Some indie author left a Facebook comment on one of my posts about how Amazon scams are robbing real authors of royalties. His comment:

“What’s wrong with selling a 500-word book for $9.99? I call that good marketing.”

I naively tried to explain, “The reader is going to be angry and disappointed at being scammed and they won’t buy any more of this author’s books.”

The man replied, “Is this book plagiarized? Otherwise, this is genius.” 

I was gobsmacked. This “writer” equated “marketing” with “sleazy, dishonest behavior.” And he admired it.

You know, those Old West snake oil guys only succeeded because they left town the next day to escape being strung up by a posse of disgruntled customers. Not so easy to do on the Internet where you can be doxxed.

There are also “genius marketing” companies that charge thousands of dollars to authors to “buy in” to  99c boxed sets that may possibly get the author “USA Today Bestseller” status. But there’s also a guarantee of no income–because all the money is supposed to go to marketing. But…

  1. Most of these don’t work anymore because readers have bought the sets and found most of the books sub-par.
  2. There is remarkable bad will, bullying and squabbling in these boxed set groups.
  3. Often the companies simply take the money and evaporate. Maybe to teach at McSleazy U.

David Gaugrhan tweeted about a new one just this morning. $5000 to buy in for “guaranteed” USA Today status. Might we say “caveat emptor”?

Online marketing should be about establishing a brand and growing a readership, not getting fake credentials or making a quick buck and skipping town.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

PG will add that, for most authors, success is a journey. Overnight success is a rarity. There has been more than a single one-trick pony who bombed with the second book in the book world. Overnight success that leads to long-term success is even more rare.

An audience of readers who are anxious to check out an author’s next book is the closest thing to gold PG has found in the writing biz. If the author treats them right, they will buy the next book right away when it’s released, giving it a great boost under Amazon’s algorithms. These same readers will tell their friends, post on their blogs, Facebook, etc., about the new book. They’ll post positive reviews with thoughtful comments germane to the book and, often, talking about why readers with similar interests will like this book.

Theoretically, it’s possible to buy a service that will post fake reviews that are convincing, but, to PG’s knowledge, this has never worked. Too many similar reviews, too many generalities, too many exclamation points and a general odor of inauthenticity.

At some point in time, an artificial intelligence engine may be able to digest the text of a book and spit out phony reviews, but, to the best of PG’s knowledge, that hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen in the near future. For one thing, there are much better ways for an artificial intelligence operator/programmer to earn way more money than by selling fake reviews.

For this reason, smart authors work hard to build groups of readers who like their work. Email lists, advance review copies sent to people the author knows personally who won’t grind out something phony or formulaic, engaging blogs with regular visitors, writing reviews of quality books by other authors in the same genre – basic literary marketing blocking and tackling.

Readers who buy well-written books aren’t dumb. If an author exhibits an online personality that’s a genuine reflection of who she is, a personality that may well show up in her characters and her books, people who like the way she writes, thinks and is will tend to stay connected and want to read the next book.

Unless the book promotion shill is a lot smarter than the author’s readers, she/he won’t be able to fool those readers.

But PG could be wrong.

Local Politics and Global Espionage

From The Wall Street Journal:

Investigative journalist Jack Sharpe, protagonist in David Pepper’s intrigue-filled third novel, The Voter File(Putnam, 423 pages, $27), has some major achievements on his resume: “I’d taken down a presidential front-runner . . . and inspired a year of bipartisan reform on Capitol Hill.” But Sharpe is on a slide after being fired from his high-profile job as a TV talking head. He’s desperate for a career-reviving scoop when he answers a message from Victoria (Tori) Justice, a rugby-playing Wisconsin college student and part-time political campaign worker who claims that she has a sensational story: She’s certain that the recent special election for a vacancy on her state’s Supreme Court was rigged (in favor of her candidate) through interference with carefully guarded voter files.

The story might seem of limited interest, but after some digging, Jack begins to perceive a much bigger picture. This local race, it seems, was a test run for a larger conspiracy aimed at affecting off-year elections around the country—a scheme with international origins.

The reader is privy to the action of the conspirators, specifically the Eastern European mastermind of the elaborate operation and his chief U.S. operative: a young woman with fashion-model looks and the heart of a killer. When Jack and Tori’s snooping comes to the attention of these manipulators, the villains don’t hesitate to contract for their elimination by “one of the world’s most high-priced assassins”: a man nicknamed “the Butcher.”

Jack enlists a cable-news reporter whom he had mentored and some police officers whose trust he has earned to help balance the scales in his uneven contest with a group looking to bring about “a sea change to the entire U.S. economy.” Mr. Pepper, who has quickly established himself as one of the best political-thriller writers on the scene, keeps surprising us to the final page.

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

Wallace Stegner and the Conflicted Soul of the West

From The New York Times:

I found my way to Wallace Stegner by accident. Really through three identical accidents, lightning strikes that I’m only now beginning to suspect were signs.

Given Stegner’s lifelong fascination with the American West, a landscape simile seems appropriate. His writing, which includes memoir, history, biography and reportage as well as more than a dozen works of fiction, is like a vast prairie, its fertile valleys and desert patches shadowed by three mighty peaks.

I stumbled on them in reverse order. Sometime in the late 1990s I pulled “Crossing to Safety” (1987), his affectionate, elegiac chronicle of the decades-long friendship between two literary couples, from the jumbled shelf of a vacation-rental cottage during a spell of gloomy summer weather. The same thing happened with the sprawling, multigenerational “Angle of Repose” (1971) in a different cabin a decade later, and with Stegner’s career-making, semi-autobiographical fifth novel, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” (1943), earlier this year. It was waiting for me in a temporary apartment in a faraway city.

The paperbacks I picked up had creased spines and dog-eared pages, coffee stains and smudges — hard evidence of committed reading. But no reader had bothered to bring them home to be displayed on the living-room bookcase. Instead they were consigned to hand-me-down transience, along with the murder mysteries, nautical adventure stories and outdated travel guides.

. . . .

“The dean of Western writers” is the epithet most often attached to that name, but it’s a description that obscures as much as it reveals, and that corrals a large and protean imagination into a parochial, regional identity. Stegner’s books abide in an undervisited stretch of the American canon, like a national park you might drive past on the way to a theme park or ski resort. If you do visit, you find a topography that looks familiar at first glance — as if from an old postcard — but becomes stranger and more deeply shadowed the longer you stay. A tale of frontier adventure turns out to be the portrait of a marriage; a story of courtship and marriage evolves into a tableau of social and technological transformation; a nostalgic rumination on friendship slides toward generational tragedy.

“Western” inevitably carries genre overtones — cowboys and Indians, outlaws and railroad bosses, Zane Grey and Clint Eastwood — as well as political implications. But Stegner trafficked neither in the tall tales of popular culture nor in the mythologies of Manifest Destiny, and was a lifelong and outspoken critic of the ways the West, as an abstract notion and a living environment, had been distorted, misunderstood and abused. 

. . . .

Time is marked by the milestones of family life, rather than the signposted public happenings that festoon historical and self-consciously topical novels. Wars and presidential administrations pass almost without mention, perhaps because, even in the post-frontier West, local matters of settlement and subsistence were likely to feel more pressing. More than that, political and even artistic concerns could seem abstract and insubstantial compared with the warmth and gravity of human relationships.

In “Crossing to Safety,” Stegner (in the persona of Larry Morgan) turns this feeling into something close to a principle: “We weren’t indifferent. We lived in our times, which were hard times. We had our interests, which were mainly literary and intellectual and only occasionally, inescapably, political. But what memory brings back from there is not politics, or the meagerness of living on $150 a month, or even the writing I was doing, but the details of friendship — parties, picnics, walks, midnight conversations, glimpses from the occasional unencumbered hours. Amicitia lasts better than res publica, and at least as well as ars poetica.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Philosophy

Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Rivers of Power

From The Wall Street Journal:

It’s hard to imagine a world without rivers. The continents would be higher, colder and more rugged, and we humans might still be hugging the coastlines. Our iconic cities, situated along rivers, would not have been built. Global trade and travel might never have developed. Even so, rivers’ crucial role in shaping civilization is “grandly underappreciated,” according to Laurence C. Smith, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University. In his important new book “Rivers of Power,” he surveys mankind’s long, shifting relationship with our rivers, ranging from prehistory to the present and embracing nearly every region of the world.

Rain started falling on Earth at least 4 billion years ago. Merging into streams and then rivers, the water launched its eternal assault on the continents, grinding them down and carrying them grain by grain toward the sea. The rivers, over their tortuous course, occasionally slowed and dropped some of their silt, forming tangled deltas and wide valley plains. Perhaps as recently as 12,000 years ago, nomadic peoples in the Mideast and Asia settled these valleys and began to plant crops such as wheat, barley and rice.

The valley soil was fertile, and early farmers learned to divert river water for irrigation, increasing their harvests and producing surpluses of grain. Starting about 4,000 B.C., they built the world’s first great cities, in present-day Iraq, Egypt, India, Pakistan and China. As these societies grew wealthier and more populous, they also became more complex, supporting a ruling class, traders, philosophers and engineers. In fact, these civilizations (the Egyptian, Sumerian, Harappan and Chinese) were so utterly dependent on their rivers (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra, and Yangtze and Yellow) that they have been dubbed “hydraulic societies.”

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

The Shiver Test

From David Farland, Story Doctor:

When you’re brainstorming a new story, how do you know that it will be good?

Recently a young writer presented me with an outline for a novel that was nicely formed, had an interesting protagonist, and appeared to be well designed. She said, “It’s almost all there, but I don’t quite feel that it’s bestseller material yet.”

She was right. It was excellent in several ways, but it felt as if it lacked something. I had to think a minute to decide what that “special something” was. I realized that the story didn’t pass the shiver test.

What’s the shiver test?

It’s a phrase that I came up with years ago. I remember sitting in on a meeting with some producers. I was working as a greenlighting analyst at the time, and we were looking at a script that was nicely written. One of the producers came up with a little plot twist and said, “What if we did this. . . .”

The lead producer in the group said, “Oooh, that gave me shivers!” And the others in the room said, “Yeah, that gave me shivers, too!” I knew immediately that we’d need to rewrite the climax of that film to incorporate the change.
At the time, I recalled hearing an agent and an editor talking about a novel, and both had mentioned that the very concept “gave me the chills.”

A great idea for a story will give you shivers. Your basic concept for a story, even a little short story, should generate the combined sense of wonder and excitement that causes your reader to get chills. In order to arouse that sense of wonder, the idea has to be fresh, perhaps even unique. You can’t arouse wonder with an idea we’ve all seen done before. And the idea has to be weighty enough so that it causes excitement, so that it gets each listener thinking about the possibilities.

Sometimes it’s not the story idea as a whole that gives us the chills, but a smaller component of the package.

For example I might get the chills when I hear a cool concept for a setting, or a stunning idea for a character, or an exciting idea for a conflict. Other times it might be an exhilarating plot twist, or a great way to raise the tension. A great metaphor can give me chills. So can a beautifully written hook or a lovely description.

Link to the rest at David Farland, Story Doctor

Here’s a link to David Farland’s Author Page on Amazon

The Best Crime, Thriller, and Horror Books for Your Quarantine Situation

From Crime Reads:

Over two months ago, I commuted to work for the last time. On the way home, I stopped for gas and groceries. That night, I cancelled a vacation planned for the next week and watched the Project Runway finale with my mom. Since then, I’ve been hunkered down with Mom and three dogs, making only essential trips to the grocery store and the vet. It feels like two years have passed. When the publication date for They Did Bad Things was set last year (which is about a decade in pandemic-time), I didn’t think my book about old college frenemies trapped in an isolated house trying to not to die (or kill each other), would be as fitting for the times as it is. As I prep to launch a book while most of the nationwide shutdowns and restrictions remain in place, I started thinking about the best crime/thriller/horror books to read in quarantine. If you’re stuck with your college roommates, They Did Bad Things might be for you.

Have a different quarantine situation? Want to lift your spirits by reading about someone whose situation is worse than yours? There’s a book here for you.

. . . .

Books for About-to-be-Divorced Quarantining Couples

Ready to set your partner’s belongings on fire if they won’t stop videobombing your Zoom calls in their underwear? Read Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It instead. Forget your partner’s irritating habits by losing yourself in the story of Julie and James, who suffer from nervous breakdowns as a result of the creepy child-like drawings that appear on the walls and the secret passages that keep manifesting themselves inside their newly bought house. You’ll forget all about the dirty underwear on the floor when you start checking out your own window to see if the shouting of the never-seen children outside really are getting closer.

Planning on some couples therapy in the near future? In SJI Holliday’s The Lingering, Jack and Ali Gardiner thought leaving London for a commune in the English countryside would help solve their marital problems. But they probably shouldn’t have chosen a commune housed in a former Victorian mental asylum on land once used for a witch-burning.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Road Trips

Road trips are the equivalent of human wings. Ask me to go on one, anywhere. We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history and stories, feel the ground and capture the spirit. Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our history to carry with us, always. Because stories are more important than things.

Victoria Erickson

Praying for Clients? Pro Tips to Earn Well as a Christian Writer

From Making a Living Writing:

Can you make a living as a Christian writer?

Maybe you’re praying for new clients, wondering if you’re on the right path.

After all, the Christian market for freelance writers has a reputation of low pay or no pay which makes for an unlikely way to make a living.

Median annual salary for freelance writers fell to a historic low of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009, according to an Author’s Guild survey.

And if you’re trying to carve out a niche as a Christian writer, you might think there’s even more gloom and doom to come.

Why? Some Christian writers make even less because many of these publications have low pay for articles and expect you are doing it for “the ministry” instead of the money (which may be true and more about that later).

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve successfully made a living as a Christian writer for many years, and I want to give you some of the “secrets” to following this path…

. . . .

1. Learn to write well in the print magazine area

Even if it is low pay, you’re gaining publishing experience. Book editors and literary agents are looking for authors who have publishing experience.

One of the best ways to gain that experience is writing for magazines. You learn to:

  • Write for an audience
  • Give the reader a solid takeaway or single point to remember
  • Develop good storytelling and writing skills

These are critical skills for every writer—Christian or not.

2. Low-paying articles can lead to higher paying opportunities

While working on a magazine article assignment, I met the leading African American in Promise Keepers when it was the fastest growing faith-based men’s group in America.

No, the magazine assignment didn’t pay all that great. But…

  • My new relationship led to writing a Christian book with Bishop Phillip Porter.
  • That project paid a good fee, but it was also another stepping stone.
  • I was able to work with a New York literary agent and get a six-figure book contract for the second book.

Before you blow off low-paying assignments, take a minute to consider the possibilities. Follow every open door. You never know where it will lead.

. . . .

4. Diversify your writing and income streams

No one has a crystal ball to see the future of publishing. But I have learned the hard way the Christian writer needs to create multiple streams of income. For example:

  • I’ve had full-time day jobs which have suddenly come to an end.
  • I’ve had book contracts cancelled and other unexpected events.

The best protection for any writer is to earn from different places

Link to the rest at Making a Living Writing

BookExpo, BookCon Online Drew Strong Numbers

From Publishers Weekly:

ReedPop has released figures on the number of views its online editions of BookExpo and BookCon generated when they were held from May 26-31. ReedPop created the online forum when it was forced to cancel the in-person BookExpo and BookCon events because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

BookConline (the name for BookCon’s virtual show) proved especially popular in the online world, with its Sunday panels generating nearly 240,000 views on ReedPop’s Facebook page. The Saturday panels were viewed 134,500 times.

The most popular BookExpo event was on the first day, when the library morning sessions had 14,000 views. Sessions 5-6 were viewed 6,800 times.

The Children’s Book & Author Dinner, held last Thursday, generated 11,000 views, and the Adult Book & Author Dinner was viewed 5,800 times. The dinners featured the same lineup of speakers who were set to appear at the canceled author breakfasts; those in-person breakfasts typically attracted no more than 1,000 people.

The adult and young adult buzz panels held last Friday morning had a total of 8,100 views, ReedPop reported. The middle grade buzz panel and the New Picture Book Showcase and the Graphic Novels Showcase combined for 6,000 views.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Here’s a summary of attendance from BookExpo 2019:

the 2019 show featured 8,260 attendees, including 1,954 bookstore personnel–145 of whom were paid to come under a new initiative–and 1,562 librarians. Other retailers comprised 636 people, boosted by non-book stores interested in the “UnBound” area of merchandise added to the show. Media attendance was about flat at 1,245 people on top of that. And over 1,150 of those attendees were actually categorized as guests and speakers.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Life Behind the Iron Curtain

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

Farm Girl, A Wisconsin Memoir

From The New York Times:

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The New York Times

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

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

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

From The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Lockdown diaries: the book marketer

From The Bookseller:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Book Promotion 2020

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

But that was that.

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

But problems lurked on the horizon.

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Could Kill My New York Bookstores?

From The New York Times:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at The New York Times

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

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

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

Girl Decoded

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

A Man With Eyes Shut Tight
Giovanni Agostino da Lodi

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

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

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

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

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

From The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

What is dystonia?

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

What are the symptoms?

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

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

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

Le hargneux (Soult)
Honoré Daumier

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

The Pandemic’s ‘Acceleration of Trends’

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

21 Excellent Books with Happy Endings

From BookRiot:

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

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

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

THE BOOKISH LIFE OF NINA HILL BY ABBI WAXMAN

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

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

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

Link to the rest at BookRiot