Can Amazon keep growing like a youthful startup?

From The Economist:

Next month Amazon will turn 9,500 days old. But for Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and chief executive, it is always “Day 1”. Amazon, he has insisted since its founding in 1994, must forever behave like a feisty startup: innovate aggressively and expand relentlessly.

Adherence to this rule has made Amazon as convenient to consumers as it is feared by businesses which stand in its way. Today roughly $11,000-worth of goods change hands on Amazon’s e-commerce platform every second. The company delivered 3.5bn packages last year, one for every two human beings on Earth. Amazon Web Services (aws), its cloud-computing division, enables more than 100m people to make Zoom calls during the day and a similar number to watch Netflix at night. In all, Amazon generated $280bn in revenues last year.

This year Amazon has become not just convenient, but essential. The smiling brown package left at the threshold as the neon-vested delivery worker backs swiftly away has become the hallmark of the locked-down pandemic. Shopless and officeless life would be unimaginable without deliveries and cloud-based work—and insufferable without distractions like video-streaming. Investors see this as an acceleration of a long-term trend towards life online from which the world will not turn back. “The explosive demand created by covid-19 catapults Amazon straight into 2025,” says Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, a venture-capital firm.

Amazon’s market capitalisation doubled to $734bn between 2016 and 2018. Since then it has close to doubled again. Its shares trade at 118 times earnings, compared with 25-35 times for Apple and Microsoft, the other members of the trillion-dollar-company club. Up and down Wall Street, brokers tell clients to hold Amazon shares if they have them, or buy them if they don’t.

. . . .

No firm bestrides the physical and digital worlds in the way Amazon does. In the physical world, it has a logistics system second to none. The 150m customers who subscribe to its Prime service get all their purchases delivered promptly—as well as perks like free streaming of videos and films—for a flat fee, with same-day delivery in some places. The convenience leads them to shop more. The logistics system is also used to fulfil orders for other companies. In 2018 “third-party” sales accounted for 58% of sales through the platform.

The scale of its retail operation gives Amazon an unparalleled collection of data on the desires and decision-making of hundreds of millions of shoppers—the sort of data that advertisers love. Amazon’s advertising revenues are now $11bn; its 7% share of the global online-ad market is larger than any save Google’s (38%) and Facebook’s (22%).

Link to the rest at The Economist

To show how easy it is for plagiarized news sites to get ad revenue, I made my own

From CNBC:

Last month, a story I’d written had just gone live. I punched a few keywords into Google search to pull it up so I could grab the link.

That was when I noticed a publication called the “New York Times Post” had also just published a story with the exact same headline.

When I clicked the link, I noticed that it was my story in its entirety. And it had ads all over it.

. . . .

These phony “news” sites with realistic names and stolen stories aren’t new — they’ve been ripping off publishers and taking advertiser dollars for years.

But as the pandemic hits the publishing industry and news sites like Conde Nast, Vice and Vox cut pay and lay off more employees, the issue feels more pressing than ever.

Many advertisers don’t want to advertise on publishers’ coronavirus stories out of fear they’ll face negative brand connotation for being alongside that content. Yet, through the muddy supply chain of digital media, many are ending up on that content anyway. Only here, it’s stolen.

A two-year study by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers and PwC articulated with new clarity how the digital media ecosystem hemorrhages cash on its way to publishers. It tracked 15 UK advertisers, including Disney and Unilever, and found that half a brand’s digital marketing spend is absorbed by middlemen before reaching a publisher. Worse, it found that about one-third of the supply chain fees advertisers pay cannot be traced, meaning that it’s impossible for advertisers to know exactly where their money is going.

Link to the rest at CNBC and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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Hosting Issues

PG has been having significant problems with the prior hosting provider for The Passive Voice.

As he has mentioned before, PG started using Hosting Matters as a hosting provider many weeks ago and has been very pleased with both the quality of the hosting and the excellent customer service he has received from Hosting Matters.

Yesterday, PG discovered that his previous hosting provider, HostMonster, had terminated his account with zero notice and no provision to reactivate the account that PG could locate.

PG and Hosting Matters had been trying to transfer all of PG’s various domains registered through HostMonster to Hosting Matters with limited success. Some domains had come over and others hadn’t. Suffice to say, HostMonster has not provided a transparent and efficient process for concluding the transfers of all of PG’s domains to somebody else.

One of the domains that had not yet been transferred to Hosting Matters is thepassivevoice.com.

A bit of research with WHOIS via ICANN disclosed that the registrar for thepassivevoice.com is shown as Fast Domain Inc. The domain’s nameservers are fortunately shown as those of Hosting Matters. PG registered the domain through Hostmonster many years ago.

PG doesn’t understand enough about the nuts and bolts of domain registration to know whether termination of his business relationship with HostMonster will have any impact on the continued operation of TPV in its ordinarily bright and perky manner sooner, later or never, although he suspects never is the least likely of these alternatives.

PG be working with Hosting Matters customer support to figure out how to complete the process of transferring all the remaining bits, pieces and rights relating to thepassivevoice.com over to the comforting arms of Hosting Matters.

In the event of any interruption of access to thepassivevoice.com, PG has registered thepassivevoice.org with Hosting Matters and will operate TPV from that URL as necessary.

PG realizes that .org domains were originally intended for nonprofit organizations (although PG has never discerned any enforcement of that intention).

Considering the income PG generates through his legal practice on a good day (or a good hour) and the hours he spends on TPV, if questioned, he believes he can justify treating this online operation as nonprofit.

Disasters

All natural disasters are comforting because they reaffirm our impotence, in which, otherwise, we might stop believing. At times it is strangely sedative to know the extent of your own powerlessness.

Erica Jong

Global Association of Literary Festivals Holds First Online Webinar

From Publishing Perspectives:

Our regular readers will remember the formal establishment we reported on May 12 of the Global Association of Literary Festivals.

. . . .

And in a way, the development of the new association may well have come at a surprisingly good moment during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. With festivals driven to consider online evocations of their usual offers, there’s temporarily less organizational burden on them, a chance to reflect and strategize.

The downside, of course, is that revenue has also come to a standstill for many if not most festivals, and while we’ve seen one sterling example of a huge success on the ether this spring—the UK’s Hay Festival with its 490,000 streams served out in a two-week offer of sessions—few festivals start with the heft of the Hay and the fundraising capacity that program was able to mount so it could stage its digital presentation.

Wednesday’s session, then, is a consideration of the issues and the imperative faced by many faces during the pandemic–which health officials caution is still in its first wave, and not subsiding.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests that the timing of the creation of the Global Association of Literary Festivals is sadly ironic because, as indicated in the OP, literary festivals have stopped happening since last spring.

After sheltering in place and avoiding airline travel for several months (and likely several more to follow) PG wonders how many people who are not traveling on corporate expense accounts will be interested in flying to book festivals.

In the US, the National Football League, the source of more television and ticket revenue than any other sport, may well be operating under rules that will keep 50% or more of the seats in NFL stadiums empty. Both the pre-season, which attracts both fans and viewers, as well as the season itself are likely to have many fewer games than is normally the case.

PG wonders how many exhibitors, typically a large source of revenue for commercial gatherings, such as literary festivals, will be willing to pay the necessary exhibitor’s fees, pay for the creation and shipping of exhibits and pay travel, food and lodging costs for publisher’s personnel to staff and mingle, etc., with sales of traditionally-published books entirely in the tank (other than via Amazon).

As far as attendees are concerned, PG can’t help but believe that numbers will be impacted by the absence of a great many retiree readers who are likely to be extra-cautious about venturing forth prematurely.

If the Association of Literary Festivals is holding a webinar, why not webinars to introduce big books from traditional publishers? Or webinars for sci-fi or fantasy fans?

PG is not an expert on the world of romance and authors and fans, but why not a Romance webinar?

A commercial webinar need not consist only of individuals sitting at their desks peering into the screen. Nothing precludes a festival that features authors in local professionally-operated studios speaking about their books or being interviewed, perhaps from a distance, by an expert and experienced interviewer?

Publishing revenues to plunge and thousands of jobs at risk

From The Bookseller:

Publishing, including books, newspapers and magazines, could see a £7bn fall in revenue and 51,000 jobs axed due to Covid-19’s effect on bookshop closures and print sales, a report claims.

In total, 400,000 jobs could be lost across the creative industries amid projected weekly revenue losses of £1.4bn a week in 2020, according to research by global forecasting firm Oxford Economics. It predicts publishing will see a 40% decline while 26% of jobs could go.

However, its definition of publishing includes directories, newspapers, periodicals and other activities alongside books—a total sector employing 177,000 people with a total turnover at the start of the year of £16.3bn.

That is substantially more than the £6bn the PA says book publishing brings in alone each year. Figures for book publishing have not been broken out in the Oxford Economics report.

The Creative Industries Federation, which commissioned the research, has warned of a “cultural catastrophe” facing the entire creative sector. It predicts the sector will be hit twice as hard as the wider economy, with a combined revenue drop of £74bn this year and one in five jobs expected to be axed.

. . . .

“Publishing could lose £7bn in revenue and 26% of jobs, affected by the closure of bookshops and decline of print sales. As we emerge from lockdown, we will need imagination and creativity more than ever. We will need those who can take specks of ideas and carve them into a vision for the future. But for that, we need our creative industries.”

. . . .

“The freelance community has been hit really badly by Covid-19 and many freelancers haven’t been supported by any of the government schemes. People are losing their jobs and their businesses.  I worked in publishing for 30 years, and know there’s an incredible creative and innovative eco-system in publishing, in and out of house, from editors and agents, to production, sales and designers. I think what’s been proven is those jobs aren’t going to go anywhere, they’re not going to be automated. The industry is still going to need that ecosystem and it will impact publishing if we lose it.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Hong Kong Publishers

PG realizes he went on a rant titled, “Don’t Do Business with Crooks” yesterday.

He’s going to post another rant today, but promises not to become a Serial Ranter.

For one thing, the internet already has more Serial Ranters than any one person, even if she/he were very, very, very angry or the hugest giganticast Ranter Fan ever, could read in a hundred lifetimes.

(Incidentally, rant.com is for sale.)

PG has had several people ask him to review an unsolicited publishing contract the have received from a “Hong Kong publisher” with a name that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere online.

At least some of the Hong Kong contracts PG has scanned are pretty close to identical in their wording and others are a bit different.

However, all of these contracts share some similar features, including:

  1. The author hadn’t pitched a book to any publisher in Hong Kong.
  2. From front to back, each contract was terrible.
  3. There were no audit rights (PG isn’t certain, but there might have been one contract that included an audit clause, but the audit had to take place in Hong Kong and only what appeared to be Hong Kong’s version of a Certified Public Accountant could conduct such an audit.
  4. When PG did a short bit of online searching, he couldn’t find a website for the Hong Kong publisher.
  5. Ditto for a publisher search on Amazon (US).
  6. The contract granted the publisher rights to the book for the full term of the copyright (sometimes in Hong Kong and sometimes everywhere) and for all languages.
  7. If the author got mad and hired a (Hong Kong) lawyer, the dispute would be heard in Hong Kong pursuant to the laws of Hong Kong in front of a Hong Kong judge.

How could anything go wrong?

The reason the indie authors (they were all indie) gave was that they didn’t have anything going in Hong Kong and probably wouldn’t, so, what the heck?

Yes, some people will just pirate your book outright. You send notices to Amazon (does anyone bother to send notices to Nook?) and Amazon pulls the book down.

Such actions may not stop a dedicated thief, but they may deter a thief with an IQ above room temperature.

The thief wants to stay below Amazon’s radar. If the thief is posting copies of dozens of books online, it’s safer for the thief to put up books that don’t generate an objection than to face Amazon freezing the thief’s account (which may have some royalties on sales of other counterfeit books that haven’t been paid yet the thief may forfeit) so the thief has to open another account and start again.

(PG has heard unconfirmed rumors that if a book is pirated on more than a few occasions, Amazon may require a more complex process for anyone who wants to post the same or similar book again. If Amazon wanted to do so, since it owns owns the largest cloud computing platform in the world, PG speculates that the company could set up a system that would do a quick textual analysis of every book uploaded and compare the analysis against those already uploaded (PG suspects a unique digital fingerprint for each book might be involved if Amazon were to do something like this) to help identify book thieves.)

PG apologizes for his digression, but his bottom line is, if an indie author receives an unsolicited proposal or publishing contract from Hong Kong, that author should:

  • Stop.
  • Think.
  • Don’t feel flattered that someone noticed your book.
  • If you want to waste the scammer’s time, ask for an advance payment from the “publisher” to demonstrate that the publisher is operating in good faith and is really interested in your book. PG might call such a payment an Advanced Advance.

Same advice for a publishing contract from Moscow.

Women’s Ways of Aging

From Public Books:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, it intensifies fears of aging and debility that characterize our culture of fitness and drive our aspirations to bodily invincibility. The stigma of aging affects women differentially. While feminists have touted the achievements of older women and insisted that the later years can be the best, we now find ourselves on the other side of an increasingly solid barrier between a “younger” population and an “elderly,” “older,” or “old” one. Those of us who are age 65 or older are the most vulnerable and at risk, both in need of extra protection and most likely to lose out in the triage battle for hospital beds and ventilators. At the same time, our vulnerability to the virus makes it impossible for many of us in this age cohort to participate in the historic street protests we are condemned to witness from afar.

This is therefore a good moment to assess our experiences of aging, and to face our own attitudes more squarely. Rather than battling an ageist and sexist media by insisting that older women can do and be more than ever before by working and playing harder, might we instead focus on care and interdependence, accepting rather than disavowing bodily, emotional, and social vulnerabilities? Rather than celebrating individual victories against aging and mortality, we might embrace a communal ethos of mutuality to which the old have a great deal to contribute.

In proclaiming older women’s powers, the titles of two recent books give a clear sense of their tone and mission: No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, by journalist Gail Collins, and In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead, by communications and media scholar Susan J. Douglas. Indignant about the blatant disparagement of older women that characterizes our moment, Collins and Douglas take a celebratory, if not outright triumphalist, tone. Both search for greater social importance and acceptance of older women in earlier historical periods and find examples of their unrelenting energy and productivity today. Both books encourage all women to fight against gendered ageism. They call for forms of cultural recognition that would better represent what their authors see as older women’s mostly positive experiences of aging.

. . . .

In a whirlwind journey through United States history, from the colonial period to today, No Stopping Us Now traces changes in opportunities for and attitudes toward older women. With spirit and energy, Collins leads us through the lives of numerous, mostly well-known older women who wielded considerable influence at different historical moments. Although the book touches upon larger economic arguments about shifting social roles available to mature women—brought about by the need for their products in colonial times, for example, or the opportunities for widows to run their husbands’ farms or businesses—Collins is more interested in how individual women were able to circumvent prejudices and taboos, and thereby thrive in their later years. Collins’s story is one not so much of steady progress as it is of a series of gains and losses, advances and declines—a story that leads to what she sees as today’s open future of increased possibility.

Thanks to Collins, one certainly gets a sense of women’s energy and activity, which is hard to reconcile with popular attitudes of gendered ageism, then and now. She paints vivid portraits, for example, by following the writing, publishing, and public-speaking “adventures” of 19th-century luminaries like Sarah Josepha Hale, who continued writing until she was 89; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged middle-class women to start a whole new life in their 50s; Catharine Beecher, who took courses at Cornell in her 70s; and Jane Addams, who advocated a postponement of old age.

Notably, historians studying American women have analyzed the feminist strategies these and lesser-known women used to advance their work: by seemingly conforming to set gender roles, even as they radically subverted them. Collins, meanwhile, is content to tell these stories chronologically, ending with encouraging contemporary examples that range from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nancy Pelosi to Gloria Steinem and Helen Mirren. She does fold these individual white women into a broad historical sweep that also includes exceptional African American figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, and 98-year-old National Park Service ranger Betty Reid Soskin. Yet she only mentions—without analyzing in any depth—how gendered prejudices are structurally inflected by racial, economic, and other social inequalities.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The Correctors

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

pecters haunt the history of publishing and of humanistic scholarship in early modern Europe: lean, shabby ghosts. Correctors, as they were usually called, prepared manuscripts for the press, read proofs, and often added original material of their own. They were everywhere in the world of print, and many early modern humanists—including those whose names remain familiar—either praised or denigrated them and their work.

What, then, did correctors and readers do? The account books of some of the great firms survive, and they provide firsthand evidence. The surviving ledger of the Froben and Episcopius firms, for example, records the wages paid to employees from 1557 to 1564. Each list of employees begins with a corrector or castigator: clear evidence that these learned employees, whose names appeared before those of the compositors and pressmen, enjoyed a certain status, which was higher than that of those who worked with their hands. Each list also includes a lector, whose pay is usually half that of the corrector or less. Sometimes the document states that a given corrector or reader received payment for other activities as well. In March 1560, for example, the lector Leodegarius Grymaldus received payment both for reading and for two other named tasks: making an index and correcting a French translation of Agricola’s work on metals. In March 1563 Bartholomaeus Varolle was paid for correcting but also for preparing the exemplar, or copy, of a thirteenth-century legal text, Guillaume Durand’s Speculum iuris, and for drawing up an index for the work.

Correctors did many other things as well. They corrected authors’ copy as well as proofs. They identified and mended typographical and other errors, to the best of their ability. They divided texts into sections and drew up aids to readers: title pages, tables of contents, chapter headings, and indexes. Some correctors composed texts as well as paratexts, serving as what might now be called content providers.

At times, correctors acted as expert intermediaries between an author and his publisher. The corrector seems to represent a new social type: a phenomenon brought into the world by printing and a native-born son of the new city of books that printing created. It seems obvious that the new art created new tasks. The printer confronted many rivals in the marketplace. He or she had to show that a particular product was superior to those of rivals. One way to do so—as printers rapidly decided—was to emphasize, in the colophon or, later, on the title page, that learned men had corrected the text. In Italy and Germany alike, books printed in the fifteenth century promised their readers not just texts but texts “diligently emended,” “vigilantly emended and revised,” or “most diligently and accurately revised” by particular scholars. Hiring someone to correct a text—or claiming to have done so, as many printers did even though they had not—represented a rational and effective way to claim a larger market share.

. . . .

One of the most striking facts about correctors was, and is, depressing: for all the utility of what they did, they usually found themselves the objects less of gratitude than of anger, pity, or derision. As early as 1534, when Viglius Zuichemus described Hieronymus Froben’s printing shop, he mentioned the chief corrector there, Sigismund Gelenius, only to say how much he regretted seeing him employed in this capacity. Gelenius, he explained, was “an extraordinarily learned man, and worthy of far better things.” Pretty much everyone agreed. Jeremiah Hornschuch, the proud corrector and author of a textbook on the craft of correcting, admitted that he himself had taken up the trade to avoid the worse one of a tutor, and that most of his colleagues, if they could, “would be off like a shot from this sweatshop, to earn their living by their intelligence and learning, not their hands.”

Correctors had every reason to feel ill used. Their pay was modest: lower than that of the best-paid compositors and pressmen.

Link to the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly

Don’t Do Business with Crooks

A couple of months ago, PG had a post titled Don’t Do Business with Jerks, explaining that this was one of the more common non-legal pieces of advice he gives his clients.

Recently, PG was reminded of another common piece of non-legal advice he gives to his clients.

Don’t do business with crooks.

If you do business with a crook, sooner or later you’re almost certainly going to regret it.

Certainly, some crooks appear to be selective with their targets. You might feel that, since you don’t fit the target profile, you’ll be safe.

The problem is that given the choice between a friendship/relationship and getting something he/she wants, ultimately the crook’s gonna crook.

A crook may be honest in a dozen small business matters. That is an admirable series of decisions, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the crook isn’t a crook any more ever again, that he/she has turned their life around and will never crook again.

It may mean that the crook has decided that whatever non-monetary or monetary value involved in the non-stealing relationship might be present, such potential is speculative when compared to the direct financial benefit of simply stealing something. Or perhaps the crook decides to see if he/she can get more money by not stealing, thinking that stealing is an option if the first path doesn’t pan out.

Yes, crooks can change their ways, turn their lives around and never steal again. Or they can change their ways, turn their lives around, then revert for one reason or another. The reason may be one that makes financial sense or it can simply be that the buzz involved in pulling off a good heist is just too tempting to resist.

While there are many honest publishers, there are also a few dishonest publishers. While there are many honest literary agents, there are also a few dishonest agents. (In the interest of equity, there are many honest attorneys and a some dishonest attorneys.)

The publisher/author relationship is a potential opportunity for thievery because the publisher has control and access to all the information about sales, etc. The author knows only what the publisher discloses.

Yes, most (but not all) publishing agreements include audit clauses, but conducting an audit using a qualified accountant is nothing close to cheap. A forensic audit/auditor is more expensive than a standard audit. (A forensic audit is an examination and evaluation of a firm’s or individual’s financial records to derive evidence that can be used in a court of law or legal proceeding.)

If the publisher is working hard on short-changing an author, the publisher may have taken effective steps to prevent an auditor from discovering the truth.

Perhaps the person/organization has either initiated or been on the receiving end of several lawsuits. Perhaps the person/organization is constantly involved in public disagreements with others over money or other topics. For PG, both of those are large red flags.

One specific type is an individual who has been married and divorced several times with the breakups involving lots of fireworks, nasty accusations, big legal bills, etc. Again, such things happen even if both spouses are perfectly upright and honorable in every way, but long experience indicates that the probability of this being the case is not high.

Without getting into politics, if a client came to PG for advice on entering into a business deal with Donald Trump, given Trump’s history of lawsuits and other public disputes with business partners, PG would likely remind the client about the benefits of a quietly efficient business and personal life.

All of this notwithstanding, people can and do change, turn over a new leaf, repent of past bad behavior, etc.

In such cases, PG suggests that his clients not be the first new business partner of the repentant counterparty. It’s one thing for a person to change their behavior when the sky is blue and birds are singing. However, if a storm appears on the horizon, newly-acquired virtues may take a back seat to unfortunate old habits.

To be clear, PG is not advocating permanent banishment of someone who has made bad decisions or serious mistakes in the past. However, if a client wishes to be a good gal/guy and help someone who is down on their luck, PG suggests that a purely charitable act, one undertaken with no expectation of a return or profit, may be a wiser approach. With no expectations, one may avoid disappointment and estrangement if the repentance is less permanent than anticipated.

You may want to consider writing person with a dodgy past a check instead of giving them one of your books to publish.

PG’s bottom line is still Don’t Do Business with Crooks.

Anti-Semitism and the Intellectuals

From The Wall Street Journal:

George Eliot was at the peak of her renown in 1874 when John Blackwood, her publisher, learned that she was at work on “Daniel Deronda, ” a new novel. As a literary man, he was in thrall to her genius. As a businessman with an instinct for the market, he valued her passionately dedicated readership. But an early look at portions of her manuscript astonished and appalled him: Too much of it was steeped in sympathetic evocations of Jews, Judaism and what was beginning to be known as Zionism.

All this off-putting alien erudition struck him as certain to be more than merely unpopular. It was personally tasteless, it went against the grain of English sensibility, it was an offense to the reigning political temperament. It was, in our notorious idiom, politically incorrect. Blackwood was unquestionably a member of England’s gentlemanly intellectual elite. In recoiling from Eliot’s theme, he showed himself to be that historically commonplace figure: an intellectual anti-Semite.

Anti-Semitism is generally thought of as brutish, the mentality of mobs, the work of the ignorant, the poorly schooled, the gutter roughnecks, the torch carriers. But these are only the servants, not the savants, of anti-Semitism. Mobs execute, intellectuals promulgate. Thugs have furies, intellectuals have causes.

The Inquisition was the brainchild not of illiterates, but of the most lettered and lofty prelates. Goebbels had a degree in philology. Hitler fancied himself a painter and doubtless knew something of Dürer and da Vinci. Pogroms aroused the murderous rampage of peasants, but they were instigated by the cream of Russian officialdom. The hounding and ultimate expulsion of Jewish students from German universities was abetted by the violence of their Aryan classmates, but it was the rectors who decreed that only full-blooded Germans could occupy the front seats. Martin Heidegger, the celebrated philosopher of being and non-being, was quick to join the Nazi Party, and as himself a rector promptly oversaw the summary ejection of Jewish colleagues.

Stupid mobs are spurred by clever goaders: The book burners were inspired by the temperamentally bookish—who else could know which books to burn? Even invidious folk myths have intellectual roots, as when early biblical linguists mistranslated as horns the rays of light emanating from Moses’ brow.

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

The Power of Pronouns

From Writers in the Storm:

Some of the smallest words in English (and other languages) are pronouns, but they have a profound impact on meaning and emotions. Using them well in our writing is a powerful shortcut to help our readers.

Pronouns can be proclamations of our psyches to the world, about how we feel about ourselves and others around us. Pronouns can bring us comfort and they can bring us pain. Pronouns can drive us to rage or drop us into tears.

Pronouns are declarations separating us from them. They can bring us together. And they can accuse them.

Sit with this simple sentence for a moment:

Look at what they are doing to my city.

More than likely when you read that sentence, your inner voice reacted. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think about?

Consider this sentence below and notice what changing the pronouns does to the tone, feel, and imagery.

Look at what we are doing to our city.  

Pronouns are debated in Washington. Laws are made surrounding them. The usage of the right pronoun can make us feel included. Conversely, the misuse or misattribution of a pronoun can be used as a weapon.

It is for these reasons that the proper use and care of pronouns should be given in our writing. All our writing: articles, books, emails, and social media. As writers, we have a responsibility to use pronouns with the highest level of ethics and personal moral standards.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

I Am the Faceless Woman on the Cover of Your Novel

From Electric Lit:

I feel the most brown facing
a solid, bright background
that seduces preteens
at the Scholastic fair. My long
black-as-licorice braids with their
sweet virginal shine beg for
pity, are maybe a metaphor
for tradition, repression, machismo,
all the miserable Mexican girls that need
to be saved from Mexican men.

I’ve portrayed all kinds
of Mexicans: Puerto Ricans,
Guatemalans, Peruvians, and even
a few Chinese. It’s easy when you’re
faceless: all smooth, tan skin
and thick hair, for a few blue
moon romance novels,
a wide set of hips.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG notes that these are the first two stanzas of a longer poem. You can read the conclusion and another poem by the same author at the link.

The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

As we have been reminded of late, there is an astonishing complexity—and at times fragility—to our mental and physical health, and we owe a debt to the legions of scientists whose insights and discoveries, over the years, have improved our chances of well-being. Alas, too many of them are unknown to us. One name that was once broadly known has fallen into lamentable obscurity—that of Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor who did ground-breaking work on one of the great scourges of humanity. With Judith Hoare’s “The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code,” we have a chance to learn about Weekes’s varied life and, as important, become reacquainted with her work.

Decades before her death in 1990 at the age of 87, Weekes had been a global sensation, reaching millions of people through her books—“transfusions of hope,” she called them. One of the original self-helpers, she believed that sufferers could master themselves without the aid of professionals, and the strategies she gave them were firmly grounded in the biology of anxiety.

Weekes didn’t plan on medicine as a career, Ms. Hoare tells us. In 1928, at the age of 25, she began graduate studies in zoology in London on a prestigious fellowship. When her beloved mentor died of a stroke, she developed severe heart palpitations. Doctors misinterpreted her condition as tuberculous and sent her to a sanatorium. There she fell into a general state of fear. Six months later, doctors retracted their diagnosis, and Weekes, now nearly incapacitated by stress, resumed her research.

The turning point came when she confided in a friend, a World War I veteran, that she suffered from a frenzied heartbeat. “Far from being surprised or concerned,” Ms. Hoare writes, “he shrugged,” saying: “Those are only the symptoms of nerves.” He told Weekes, in Ms. Hoare’s paraphrase, that “her heart continued to race because she was frightened of it. It was programmed by her fear. This made immediate sense.”

The explanation was deceptively profound, going straight to the core of the mind-body connection. 

. . . .

Weekes had hypothesized a “first fear and second fear” process. The first is a reflex—and the problem in many anxiety disorders is that the reflex is set off for no obvious reason. The second is the conscious feeling of fear. Relief of suffering, for her, came when she learned to quell the “fear of the first fear,” thereby short-circuiting the cycle that was set in motion by the original, unbidden rush of panic: the pounding heart. According to Ms. Hoare, Weekes “immediately grasped the point that she needed to stop fighting the fear.” She had cracked the code.

But this insight would not reach the public for another 30 years. After becoming the first woman to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Science at Sydney University, Weekes conducted research in endocrinology and neurology. Eventually she sought a more pragmatic occupation and enrolled in medical school at age 38. During her work as a general practitioner, she felt special sympathy for her anxious patients and began to counsel them to do as she herself had done: “float past” panic, give bodily sensations and fearful thoughts no power. One of her patients asked for written advice. Her pages to him became “Self Help for Your Nerves,” published in 1962, when Weekes was 59; the book rocketed up the bestseller lists in the U.S. and the U.K. As Ms. Hoare shows, Weekes’s contributions to human welfare live on in mindfulness training and forms of behavioral therapy, sometimes combined with medication. Contemporary neuroscience has vindicated her theory.

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

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