An American Editor

March 31, 2010

On Books: The Death of American Virtue

As I have written in earlier posts, I like to read nonfiction history. As is true of many readers, I have subject area interests, some broad, some narrow. For example, I am interested in antisemitism as a broad topic and more narrowly the Alfred Dreyfus Affair that rocked late 19th century France. I am interested in World War II, mainly the European theater, but more narrowly on the Nazis and the Third Reich and its antisemitic and genocidal behavior. I am not much interested in the FDR presidency (surprising, I suppose, since I live near his presidential library) except for his failed attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. I am also very interested in the history of slavery and the American Civil Rights movement.

But one thing that has fascinated me is the impeachment process. I guess my interest was first aroused listening to the Watergate hearings and Senator Sam Ervin. I was appalled by the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon’s attempt to quash the investigation — America is not supposed to work that way — and pleased with how the independent counsels approached our constitutional crisis, displaying both a sense of fairness and justice along with a regard for history. I thought I was living in rare times, witnessing events not seen since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and unlikely to be seen again in my lifetime. I didn’t know how wrong I was.

Twenty-five years later history was to repeat itself in the form of William Jefferson Clinton. But this time, things were different.

Today many of us are appalled at the partisanship displayed by elected officials. Even at my local county level, the partisanship is appalling — and it gets worse as each day passes. This partisanship, I think, is one of the lasting legacies of the Reagan presidency. I think Reagan gave birth to the divide and subsequently elected presidents and congressman have consciously worked at making it worse, not better.

Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr is an excellent telling, in neutral terms, of one of the major political divides and one of the foundational pillars of our current partisanship. I found the story and the writing compelling; I had great difficulty in putting the book down for the night.

Let me say upfront that I was one of many Americans who thought Clinton’s impeachment was wrong. My view, like that of many fellow citizens, was that lying about sex between consenting adults is simply not an impeachable offense. I saw the process simply as wasting taxpayer dollars in an attempt by the right to remove a president who was too far left for their liking. Had the president had sex with a child (i.e., someone not older than 21) or with a spy for another country, then impeachment would be proper; but sex with a 24-year-old consenting adult who was not a spy and was not promised a job was none of my business. Like many Americans, I wasn’t interested in what was to me a family problem. I had little respect for Ken Starr and the Office of Independent Counsel. All I saw was a rigid moralist who was out to get a left-leaning president any way he could.

Gormley’s book provides a more balanced and nuanced perspective. Although my overall opinion hasn’t changed, I better understand the dynamics between the parties. Gormley interviewed nearly all of the key players in the investigation and impeachment, including, Clinton, Starr, Tripp, and Lewinsky. What comes out is that the investigation was a tragic comedy of errors. Probably the most important revelation is how Ken Starr, a well-respected judge and lawyer, was such a mismatch for this investigation.

The tragedy begins with Paula Jones. What started as a minor diversion that would not have amounted to anything had the accused been anyone but the president, soon escalated with the help of “elves” — conservative lawyers who began pushing Jones, seeing her lawsuit as a vehicle to get Clinton, but pushing and aiding in the background, never coming to forefront. Jones began with high motives, but soon got sidetracked as her husband kept pushing her, making increasingly impossible demands of Clinton and finally quashing a settlement.

The investigators had their own problems. Starr was involved in the Jones case, albeit peripherally, but failed to disclose his involvement when offered the post of independent counsel. Starr also had poor management skills, preferring to manage by consensus rather than exercise his own judgement, leading the stronger-willed, more conservative attorneys to become the decision makers and pushing their own anti-Clinton agenda.

The real victim in this fiasco was Monica Lewinsky. She was abused by everyone: by her best friend, Linda Tripp, who surreptitiously tape recorded conversations with her; by Clinton, who took advantage of a woman who thought she was in love with him; by Star and his staff, who braced her repeatedly and denied her requests for a lawyer and who threatened and coerced her mother and father as a means of putting pressure on her; by one of her attorneys, whose methodology didn’t protect her; and by the judges, who should have supervised more closely and not promoted their own agendas.

American virtue began its death march in the Reagan administration (Iran Contra being but one example), but it had its full outing in the Clinton impeachment. Ken Gromley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr adds perspective to the events that led to the constitutional crisis of the late 1990s. This is a book that every American should read, regardless of whether they believe Clinton should have been impeached or not, because it is the story of a system run amuck, the story of what happens when politics is more important than the American people whom the politicians ostensibly serve, and because it is a warning about our current state of partisanship — the destruction it could lead to if allowed to continue along its current path.

Well written, informative, and important are the words that describe The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, perhaps the most important book on recent American history published in recent years.

March 30, 2010

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free

Repeatedly commentators write that information wants to be free in the Internet Age. In my own contrarian way, I’ve concluded that information doesn’t want to be free; rather, it wants to be universally accessible.

Okay, I know this isn’t the popular perspective but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, information doesn’t have its own life. Someone created that informational bit that you seek — it wasn’t just there waiting to be grabbed.

A story is information. The information is contained in words. I’ll grant that the words may be just there for the grabbing — but not in the sequence of the story. You can grab “car,” “she,” “thus,” “red,” “motor,” “bought,” “the” – all the individual words, perhaps for free — but what you can’t grab is the construction that takes those words and puts them in the sequence “Thus she bought the red motor car.” The words themselves, absent their sequencing, are meaningless information; it is the sequencing of words that provides meaning, which is the information we seek.

Someone needs to take those words and sequence them. If the person who does it is a writer and the sequence is part of their Great American Novel, they may well want to be paid for their effort. The words are indifferent to whether they are free or costly; the writer/sequencer of the words is not indifferent.

The consumer, given the choice between paying $10 or $0 for the sequenced words will generally choose $0. That’s the way of life. Given the choice to pay $10 or not have access to the sequenced information,  the consumer will balance the value of the sequenced information to him or her against the price. The closer the two are to being in equilibrium, the more likely the information will be paid for; the more in disequilibrium, the less likely the information will be bought or the lower price that the information seeker is willing to pay. But nowhere in this formulation is the sequence screaming “set me free!”

The original statement that information wants to be free is attributed to Stewart Brand, at a 1984 hacker’s conference, where he said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

When read in complete context, the free was referring to the ability to adapt and use the information, not the price of the information or whether or not it should be paid for.

What happened is that a pithy slogan was created by taking words out of context. The slogan became a rallying cry with consequences that were unintended by the originator of the idea. The information wants to be free rally took on its own force through repetition without any consideration of what the underlying concept really was (reminds me of the more recent political slogans Death Tax and Death Panels — two misleading slogans that rally people to oppose a cause while preventing discussion of the important underlying issues).

Some ebookers have adopted information wants to be free as their slogan, with the meaning that ebooks should be very-low-cost (to no cost) and DRM-free. But it ignores the value of sequencing and the right of the sequencer to be paid for his or her work and protected from theft of his or her efforts. In this regard, sequencer includes both the author and the publisher, not just the author. It might be better to say information wants to be available — today and tomorrow, which would better reflect what the vast majority of ebookers really want.

Most ebookers I communicate with are uninterested in the problems of DRM except as it may limit their future ability to read an ebook on the device of their choosing. Their primary concerns are price and availability, and it is not until the discussion turns to the idea of future reading devices that DRM joins the discussion. These ebookers do not think information wants to be free, they think it wants to be available.

Rather than sloganeering that information wants to be free, ebooker efforts might be better spent in rallying support for a universal DRM scheme similar to DVDs. A universal DRM would reduce DRM costs and would ensure that purchases were device agnostic. It is certainly a more winnable cause than that of setting information free.

We know that the publishing industry is a little slow in focusing on the real problems of ebooks and ebookers, but this is one lesson that the panjandrums of publishing can readily learn simply by looking in their own living rooms. How happy would the CEO of any publisher be if he or she had to own and have connected 5 different DVD players in order to play movies they purchased or rented because each movie studio used its own DRM scheme? How happy would they be if they upgraded their DVD player next year only to discover that the 200 DVDs they currently own all had to be replaced because the new players couldn’t play them?

If movie studios can recognize that a single, universal DRM scheme is necessary, and if publishers can look in their own living rooms to see the value of a single video DRM scheme, how big a leap is it to conclude that ebooks, too, would benefit greatly from a single, universal DRM scheme? Seems to me that it’s really a baby step, not a giant leap — what we used to call a no-brainer – but with current publishing industry thinking patterns, a mountain is being made out of a molehill as an excuse not to act in both the publishers’ and the consumers’ best interest.

Rallying around a universal DRM scheme that lets us buy ebooks and transparently use ebooks today and tomorrow strikes me as the single most beneficial thing ebookers can do to enhance the their ebook reading experience.

March 29, 2010

Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses

I read a lot of nonfiction books, both in my work and for pleasure, and one of the most annoying things to me is improper thought given to footnotes, endnotes, and references.

Many years ago, an academic client told me, in response to my question about why a 50-manuscript page chapter had nearly 1,000 references — a bit of overkill, I thought — that in his academic circles, if he wanted to move up the ladder his writings had to have lots of references. He went on to say that it was not unusual for people to look at the quantity rather than the quality of the references.

References do have a legitimate purpose, but this comment made wonder — and I continue to wonder — about notes (notes being the inclusive term for footnotes, endnotes, and references). Granted, I am as guilty as my client’s academic peers in that if I see a book on a heavy subject that purports to be the comprehensive study of the subject to date that has only a few references, I wonder about the quality of the work. On the other hand, if I find every other word bearing a reference, I wonder if any real effort was placed in the writing; is there any original material to be found between the covers? There is a fine line of too much and too little referencing.

There is also the problem of quality vs. quantity, especially when many of the notes cite references that are citing other references, that is, a cite of a cite of a cite or the syndrome of inconsequential citation. If Jones cites Smith who cites Waterloo for a proposition espoused by Spinster, and Jones hasn’t verified (a) that Spinster actually espoused the proposition, (b) that Waterloo has correctly cited and attributed to Spinster (as, e.g., in correctly quoting Spinster), and (c) that Smith is correctly citing Waterloo, of what value is the cite other than to take up space? And if Jones is going to go to the trouble to verify the sources, as Jones should, then why not bypass Smith and Waterloo and directly cite Spinster?

Referencing is necessary in serious academic work. I don’t dispute that. But how it is done is problematic. Is it more important that I note the references or the text? And what about footnotes (and endnotes) that provide their own discussion or explanation of the material? I still shudder when I come across a footnote that is many paragraphs long and has umpteen cites to support just the footnote. I have always been of the view that if it is important enough to be in an explanatory note, it should be incorporated into the main text.

Unlike end-of-book references, footnotes and endnotes are distractions. They interrupt the reading flow. If they give no more information than a reference cite, why distract the reader from the text with a callout to the reference? If they provide additional details that the reader should be made aware of, why not incorporate that information in the text body? If it isn’t important enough to be incorporated into the main text, perhaps it is not important enough to interrupt the reader’s concentration on the text.

Endnotes are worse than footnotes because they prevent the reader from easily scanning the note to see how worthwhile interrupting reading the text to read the notes would be. One needs to locate the endnote by physically turning to a new location in the book. How frustrating to get to the endnote to discover that in its entirety it reads: Ibid. That bit of information was certainly worth interrupting concentration on the text! Noting distracts the reader, usually for no intellectual gain.

The problem is academia. Too much emphasis is placed in unimportant things. It is the form rather than the substance that dominates. Not so many years ago, in a discussion with academics at a local college, it was made clear that if someone wanted to get tenured at the college, they had to write a peer-reviewed book that was published by a publisher from an approved list, which list was in rank order; that is, the closer the publisher was to the top, the better the chances of obtaining tenure. It was also made clear that there were specific expectations regarding noting, including a minimum number of expected notes.

It seems to me that the communication of knowledge should be the primary focus of an academic book. Scholarship should be judged on the information conveyed within the main body, not the number of times concentration is interrupted. In fact, interruptions should be minimized and minimal interruptions should be rewarded.

Readers assume that if a work is cited in a note or reference that the book’s author has actually read the cited work rather than relied on someone else’s summary of the work. Reader’s also assume that the cited work actually says what is claimed or relates to the material for which it is being cited. Are these valid assumptions? I know that as a reader I do not have either the time or the desire to check each cite for accuracy — neither for accuracy of the cite itself or for the content for which it is cited; I wonder how many people actually do check each and every cite or are we simply impressed and overwhelmed by the number of cites?

I think that scholarship can be better served by more effort placed in writing the main text, fewer footnotes (and no endnotes), and a comprehensive reference list at the end of the book that is divided into two parts: references relied on for the book and recommended additional sources of information. If the author has a message worth communicating, it is worth not interrupting and worth not going down the side roads to which footnotes and endnotes often lead. Occasional footnotes, even lengthy explanatory ones, are appropriate, but it is inappropriate, in my thinking, to bombard the reader with hundreds of distractions.

Another questionable practice as regards footnotes, endnotes, and references is the citing of online material. Here today, gone tomorrow is, unfortunately, the reality of a lot of online material. Unlike a book that gets stored in libraries for future generations to use, online material often shifts or disappears and is difficult to verify. Today’s valid URL is tomorrow’s Not Found error.

When I see a book that relies heavily on online sources, I wonder about the content. Online material isn’t always scrutinized for verity, making it highly suspect. Along with overnoting and poor noting, relying on online sources is not a sign of quality; rather, it is a sign of quantity.

Something authors should keep in mind: The purpose of writing a nonfiction book is to advance knowledge, spread it around; it is not to create a book that simply sits on the buyer’s bookshelf. It is better to be remembered for what one wrote than for what one noted.

March 26, 2010

On Words: Panjandrum

I hadn’t read anything that used the word panjandrum in decades. Truth be told, I’d forgotten what it means, even that it exists, until a couple of weeks ago when I read the following in The Economist in an article about President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel:

Mr Emanuel is famous for being the president’s pugnacious panjandrum.…

One thing I can say about The Economist, it doesn’t mince language. By reputation, not by pronouncement, it is the newspaper/magazine, and it tends to choose words to describe events that one rarely encounters in daily American English. Panjandrum is just the most recent example.

Probably the best place to start is with its meaning. I confess that upon reading panjandrum I immediately reached for my dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11e, panjandrum means “a powerful personage or pretentious official.” Well, there’s no doubt about Rahm Emanuel’s power or pretentiousness.

The word comes from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense passage written in 1755 by Samuel Foote, an English actor and dramatist, to test the vaunted memory of the actor Charles Macklin, who claimed he could repeat anything after hearing it once. The memory-testing passage was:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming down the street, pops its head into the shop. What! No soap? So he died, and she very imprudently married the Barber: and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the great Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

I don’t know if Macklin lived up to his boast, but this is surely a passage to test one’s short-term memory!

Nat Hentoff used the word to describe “a panjandrum of the publishing business.” Salman Rushdie used the term in his novel, The Satanic Verses: “Look: there she is, down there, sitting back like the Grand Panjandrum.” George E. Farrow, in his Dick, Marjorie and Fidge: A Search for the Wonderful Dodo, wrote, for example,: “Panjandrum is a very severe one” and “I am the Ambassador Extraordinary of his Magnificence the little Panjandrum, and you tell me that you have seen the Dodo; that is enough.” E. Cobham Brewer wrote, in his Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama (1892), “The squire of a village is the Grand Panjandrum, and the small gentry the Picninnies, Joblillies, and Garyulies.” And Jessie Hubbell Bancroft, in her Games for the Playground, Home, School and Gymnasium (1922), listed one of the instructions as: “One player is chosen to be the Panjandrum, an important personage requiring a body guard.”

In the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), also by E. Cobham Brewer, panjandrum was defined as “The Grand Panjandrum. A village boss, who imagines himself the ‘Magnus Apollo’ of his neighbours.”

In the 1922 Roget’s International Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, the word was placed amidst more sinister words: “…TYRANT, disciplinarian, precisian, martinet, stickler, bashaw, despot, the Grand Panjandrum himself, hard master, Draco, oppressor, inquisitor, extortioner…”

Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), a great 19th century children’s book illustrator and author and for whom the Caldecott Prize is named, illustrated a book titled The Great Panjandrum Himself (Samuel Foote was the named author although Foote had died in 1777) and authored and illustrated The Panjandrum Picture Book.

Panjandrum was also a Broadway musical by Woolson Morse and J. Cheever Goodwin. It had a short run by today’s standards, opening May 1, 1893 and closing in the following September.

But panjandrum never dies. In World War II, panjandrum was a massive, rocket-propelled, explosive-laden cart designed by the British military. It was one of a number of highly experimental projects developed by the British Admiralty’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development in the final years of the war. The cart never was used in the war. Tom Wolfe mentioned this project in his 1979 book The Right Stuff. On June 5, 2009, the Daily Mail ran an article about the panjandrum experiment and the online version includes a video of the Great Panjandrum (reconstructed) in action.

Great Panjandrum also appears in Jasper Fforde’s 2003 novel The Well of Lost Plots, featuring literary detective Thursday Next. The Great Panjandrum is the leader of BookWorld, where the action takes place.

So even though I haven’t seen the word used in years, it obviously has been, albeit sporadically. Now that I have reencountered it, I think I will try to incorporate it into my vocabulary, especially when discussing politics. After all, a nonsensical word seems a most appropriate appellation to use when discussing politicians. And I will watch for its next appearance in my readings.

March 25, 2010

Books and Buggy Whips: Publishing in the New World

Levi Montgomery, today’s guest writer, is a novelist and blogger. His books are available at multiple places, including via his website. Levi drew my attention with his comment to my article On Words: Give Me a Brake. After reading his comment, I asked Levi if he would be interested in expanding on his views as a guest writer — the more viewpoints available for discussion, the better the discussion. The result is the article that follows. However, I suggest that you not only read Levi’s words below, but that you also read his original comment, which initiated the invitation.

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Books and Buggy Whips:
Publishing in the New World

by Levi Montgomery

The publishing industry is dying.

It’s been said so many times by so many people that it’s become one of those things that “everybody knows.” Whether it’s true or not, everybody knows it. Whether it’s helpful or not, everybody knows it. Well, everybody knows that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake,” too. Except she didn’t, and the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere in our lifetimes, either.

Face it, it’s a consumer-driven world. What one person wants badly enough to be willing to pay for, another person will find a way to provide, and we have so many people now sifting the Internet looking for something to read that the entire “content mill” industry has arisen to fulfill that need. As long as some of us write stuff and others of us read it, there will be a publishing industry. But I think that industry is in for some deep (and much-needed) changes.

People are fond of referring to the buggy-whip industry. It serves as a multipurpose metaphor. It was the industry that refused to adapt, and it got run over by the car industry. It was the poor, local workers, driven out by the big bad corporations. It was whatever you need it to be in order to grind whatever edge you have in mind. But I doubt that there ever was a “buggy-whip industry” at all. There was a market.

There were people who tooled around town in their buggies, who needed whips, and there were people with deep enough pockets to set up the machinery needed to meet that demand. When the car came along, no one needed whips any more (well, not very many people, anyway), and those deep-pocketed businesses simply began making other things, things the new buyers in the new age needed. Things like leather car seats and steering wheel covers.

The only reason there is an industry called the “publishing industry” at all is because owning the means of producing and distributing books was such a staggering cost. If I lived in Podunk, Anystate, and I wanted you to read my novel, wherever you are, I had to do one of two things: either buy a printing press and a signature-sewing machine and a binding machine and a truck, and drive it out to you, or find someone who had all of those things already. And because each and every one of us who wrote a book and wanted you to read it had to do make the very same choice, the people who already had all that stuff acquired a vast power, both over what you see in the bookstores, and over what the writers can put in the stores.

What does it mean when a writer is said to be “seeking publication” of a new novel? What does that really mean? Strictly speaking, it should mean nothing more than the author is seeking someone who has all the machinery in place to make a bunch of books and ship them to stores, but in today’s world, it has come to have a disturbing second meaning: The author is, to one extent or another, seen as seeking permission to place that manuscript in the hands of readers.

The ownership of the machinery has placed the publishers in the position of gatekeepers, guardians of the public good, someone to keep the riffraff at bay. The business model of today’s publishers is built on maximizing profit from each book produced, and since the traditional way of doing business is to make a huge stack of books, truck them halfway around the world, pay bookstores to put them in strategic places on the shelves, and only get paid at all for the ones that eventually sell, the need to make a profit turned into the need to create blockbusters. Who cares if it’s well written? Who cares if anyone reads it? Just make a bazillion bucks on it, and you’ll be all right.

Well, the cost of producing books in today’s world is a fraction of what it was, and getting smaller. What cost there is can easily be paid in tiny increments, as a book sells here today, and another couple sell over there tomorrow. If a publisher produced a book in 1985 that only sold four copies, it lost money. A lot of money. Today, a person somewhere loaded a file to Lulu, or to CreateSpace, that will sell four copies. That person might make money, depending on the path they took getting their book on the market, and Lulu or CreateSpace definitely will. The profits in tomorrow’s publishing will lie in the long tail of the popularity chart as much as they do in the fat middle, and the new publishers are the ones who will recognize that fact. They are the ones who will help authors find readers. They’re the ones who will help readers find authors.

Self-published books are no good, because they’re not well edited. They’re no good, because they have terrible, cookie-stomper covers. They’re no good, because they have no distribution and marketing, so you’ll never find them, anyway. Well, maybe. And maybe not. Maybe there’s a self-published book that’s a great read, but it needs to be edited, it needs a better cover, and it needs a better marketing plan. Maybe, in fact, just maybe, there are a whole bunch of them.

The old publishers are the ones who set up to meet the needs of the authors of their day, the need to have all that machinery in place in order to get a book to market. That need no longer exists. I’ve put six books on the market without ever leaving the desk where I sit now. Well, the first one was done from the kitchen table, but we’ll ignore that. The needs I had weren’t editing needs, either. What I needed (and couldn’t find) were cover design services and marketing services that got paid on the same model on which the old publishers got paid for their machines: by selling books. My early covers suffered for it, and all of my books still suffer from a lack of marketing, but I still hold out hope, because where there’s a need, where there’s a market, people will step forward to make money off that need. I would gladly pay a percentage of a book’s income to a cover designer who was willing to work the way I did, by putting the work out in the belief that it would sell.

The publishing industry is going to change. There is no doubt at all about that. The changes will be as fundamental as any change in any industry ever is, but the industry isn’t going away. The new publishers will act as service providers to authors as much as goods providers to readers. The new publishers will offer cover design services, editing services, marketing and sales plans, distribution of review copies and so forth, not on a paid-up-front scheme (read “scam”), but in the hope of making money off the sales. The new publishers will recognize that they no longer hold the power of refusal to the market, and they will act accordingly. Gone are the days when a book will come out with a cover the author hates, because the publisher knows that the author can simply go to Lulu. No more spoilers on the back cover, because the author will have veto power over the back-cover copy. If you want to publish my book, if you don’t want me to go to CreateSpace and do it myself, if you want to make money off my book, you will need to recognize that gray looks ugly with an A in the middle, that Dr and Mr and Mrs look terrible with periods, and nobody gets to override me on hyphens. It’s my book. Do it my way, because I know someone who will.

The new publishers will see writers as their customers. They will sift through the products of the various free services, and they will woo authors they think they can make money from. And when they come to the table, they’ll come with something in their hands besides a grasping greed. Better design, better editing, better back-cover copy, better marketing, better sales, better distribution; all paid for by a percentage of sales income, these will be the hallmarks of the new publishing industry.

Readers will be able to go online to authors’ websites, to the free services, to online bookstores, and take a chance on an unknown book self-published by an unknown author, and no one will say either that they do not have that right, or that authors do not have the right to self-publish, but the less adventuresome majority of readers will feel more comfortable buying from the new publishers, because they’ll be able to feel more certain of their choice. Because every book in this brave new world is either an ebook of some sort, or is printed on demand, there will be far less upfront cost to recover. Those costs, of course, will vary from book to book, and the publisher will choose what books to pick up based at least partly on how much editing, cover design, etc, needs to be done, but the profits in the long tail of tomorrow’s publishing world will be as important as the profits in the middle of the graph.

I don’t think the readers of the world are going to stand for the ankle-deep sludge that seems to be washing over our thresholds now. I think they are going to demand that someone sort through all that sewage and find the books worth reading. The buggy-whip makers who survived the automobile revolution were the ones who took their leather-working skills and put them to work making car seats, and the publishers who will survive this revolution are the ones who will take their production and marketing skills and use them to create services that bring together readers who demand merit in what they read and authors who demand it in what they create.

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I find Levi’s article thought-provoking (and it has given me several ideas for future commentary), although I disagree with his views in several aspects. I think, however, that Levi has thrown down a gauntlet that needs to be picked up. His challenge to the publishing industry is in sync with the challenges presented by ebooks and ebookers to the nascent ebook market. What do you think?

March 24, 2010

A Musical Interlude (I)

Filed under: A Musical Interlude — americaneditor @ 7:25 am
Tags: , ,

Sometimes in the rush of work and in thinking heady thoughts about language and books :), I forget that there are other senses that need coddling. With that in mind, I’ve decided to occasionally not write about books and language and instead to coddle some of my other senses with musical videos.

What follows are the first musical video interludes. Suggestions for future interludes are welcome. In the meantime, let’s soothe our savage beasts and enjoy these music interludes.

The first video is Stand By Me performed by musicians around the world.

This video demonstrates how realistic computer animation can be and the imagination that can be used to create a Fantastic Machine for music.

This final interlude is selections from La Traviata performed in a food marketplace. I would love to wander into my local food emporium and find the staff serenading me with opera selections; I’m a big opera fan.

I hope you enjoyed this change of pace. As much as I love books and language, our world has much more to offer. Partaking of food for our other senses can only be good.

March 23, 2010

The eBook Wars: Amazon vs. Apple

The hot topic in ebookland in recent days has been the battle over pricing. The first gauntlet was thrown by Apple when it offered an agency model to publishers for its new bookstore to support its iPad. The battle began in earnest when Macmillan demanded Amazon accept the agency model. Now it is all-out war.

There are a lot of shaky assumptions underlying this war, the shakiest being that Apple will be as big a player in ebooks as Amazon. Publishers signing on with Apple and who are willing to imperil their relationship with Amazon are gambling that the Amazon’s glory days as a dominant bookseller are past. If I owned stock in Macmillan, I’d be thinking change the leadership because this gamble is much too risky.

Let me confess that I am not a fan of Amazon. I don’t buy from Amazon, preferring to pay more to buy the same book elsewhere. I think Jeff Bezos and company — the whole arrogant lot of them – need to be taken down a whole bunch of pegs. But Steve Jobs and Apple aren’t any better. The two CEOs and companies could be identical twins. If either or both crumbled, I wouldn’t shed a single tear.

Similarly, there is something amiss in the big publishing houses; not one can claim having taken the high road in ebookland without causing a loud chorus of snickers. But what truly is amiss is the reliance on Apple to topple Amazon. What happens if Apple turns out to be a bit player? Or if after the initial rush to buy the iPad, sales fizzle? Or if it Apple becomes dominant and decides that ebook DRM is hindering sales and demands that it be removed? Or if… [fill-in your own question here]?

Amazon is a fighter; we’ve witnessed that over the years. Bookselling is its core business and like a lioness who will fight against all odds to protect her cubs, Amazon will fight to protect its core business. Books are not a core business for Apple. The iPad can be successful and never sell a single ebook because Apple’s core business is not bookselling.

When publishers look at Amazon sales they need to look beyond ebooks, which is still an infant market. Most book sales through Amazon are of pbooks, the books that publishers claim are their profit centers. Not having seen the Apple bookstore yet, I can’t say with 100% certainty that Apple will sell only ebooks, but I’d be willing to bet that will be the case. So publishers are gambling as follows:

  1. that Apple can gain the lion’s share of the 5% ebook market; that Apple can reduce Amazon’s alleged current 90% share of that market so significantly that publishers win, albeit only in the ebook market
  2. that it is better to have access to Apple’s share of the ebook market than it is to have Amazon’s share of the ebook and pbook markets, even if Apple’s total book market share is less than 50% of the 5% ebook market whereas Amazon’s total book market share is 20% (or higher) of the combined pbook and ebook markets
  3. that iPad buyers are buying the iPad to use as an ebook reading device rather than for other reasons and purposes
  4. that all of the ebookers who currently have invested in Kindles will suddenly drop their Kindles and their Amazon accounts to adopt the wholly incompatible iPad and Apple bookstore

There are many other gambles that publishers are taking, including the risk that Amazon might retaliate by reducing visibility on its website of offending publishers p and e books, but the biggest gamble, to my mind, is that Apple will become a sufficiently significant player in the whole book market — both p and e — to offset Amazon’s market clout.

As much as I dislike Amazon, I think that is a fool’s gamble.

If the ebook market share was close to 20% of all book sales, the gamble might be worth taking; but at 5%, the risk of losing one of the major, if not the major, movers of pbooks — the publishers’ claimed profit center — makes the gamble too risky. This risk is compounded by the other mistakes the publishers are making, primarily by

  • not convincing ebookers of the value of the publishers’ products — publishers cannot simply declare they are valuable and leave it at that; they must convince ebookers that it is worth $14.99 for a leased book that cannot be shared among relatives or devices
  • raising pricing but not raising the quality of the product
  • not insisting on a single, universal format and DRM scheme for ebooks so that people could shop at any ebookstore regardless of their reading device
  • placing all their hopes for combatting Amazon’s dominance in the single, unproven basket of Apple
  • not recognizing that Apple is likely to be as problematic a partner as Amazon should Apple have success with ebooks (just ask the music industry)

So now Amazon is counterstriking by demanding no more agency-style agreements and 3-years of no lower price guarantees from the 5 agency-model publishers. Who do you think has the upper hand? I think the publishers who sign with Apple are digging themselves a hole that could well turn into their grave. There is no way to ensure that Apple’s ebookstore succeeds on a large enough scale in a rapid enough manner to survive the economic losses that will occur should Amazon carry through on its retaliation. Apple is simply an unproven quantity and no one really yet knows even how good the iPad is for book reading. Plus Steve Jobs has a reputation for vindictiveness — imagine the position of publishers who sign on with Apple and who anger Jobs after having already snubbed Bezos.

I recommend New Orleans for the funeral. At least you will be buried with panache.

March 22, 2010

Misthinking DRM

A client asked me about DRM for his company’s publications. The discussion was about what I call lockdown DRM, which is difficult-to-remove DRM, and social DRM, which is relatively easy to remove. But the more I thought about the conversation and past conversations about DRM, the more I realized that the conversation was misthinking: The type of DRM doesn’t really matter, except to a few (relatively speaking) ebookers; what matters is the universality of the DRM.

Piracy also isn’t a foundational issue. The movie industry proves that no matter how successful your DRM scheme, digital media will be pirated. What really matters is the balance between universality of DRM and price. The more in equilibrium they are, the less piracy there will be; conversely, the more in disequilibrium they are, the more piracy will occur.

It’s a fact of life: There will always be thieves, pirates, crooks, just like there will always be wackos who want to set off a nuclear bomb. One can spend millions of dollars trying to keep ahead of the thieves or can recognize that wiping out thievery can only be done by wiping out humanity. Seems to me that the smart publishers will recognize the futility of their antitheft spending in an attempt to wholly eliminate piracy and instead work to make their product more attractive and universally accessible so that piracy will be minimized and marginalized.

And that’s where universal DRM comes into play. DRM is really a punishment meted out to the honest. It’s just like the local jail. Yes, we lock up the bad folk, but we don’t eliminate bad folk when we do so. What else happens? The honest folk pay and pay. The bad folk are confined, living off the largesse of the honest folk and the honest folk pay more of their honestly earned money to keep the bad folk confined, yet still live in fear of both the still free-roaming bad folk and the up-and-coming bad folk.

DRM is the ebook equivalent of the local jail. I recognize that I have to pay taxes to keep bad folk in jail. I may grumble about it, but I pay. And it does do some good in the sense that instead of there being 1,000 evildoers walking the streets of my community, there is some number fewer — but there is still a large number walking around. And when I buy an ebook I grumble about paying for the DRM but I recognize that the fault lies with the evildoers who force me to pay this tax.

Yet there is another layer of evildoer in the DRM world that doesn’t exist in the jail analogy: publishers who support multiple DRM schemes. May they be recognized by their satanic horns and by their begging of Amazon and Apple to sell their books!! Each DRM scheme publishers support costs money. The costs are passed on to me, the ebooker.

Although this DRM cost seems to be only pennies, it really is much more because I’m one of those honest folk and I’m paying for publishers’ DRM folly in multiple ways. When I buy an ebook at the Sony store, I can read the ebook on many different devices as is. I don’t need to know how to strip DRM nor do I have to break the law (and law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be forced to break the law by publishers). If I buy that same book at Barnes & Noble, I better own a nook, although it has been promised that sometime in the not-too-distant future I will be able to read the B&N ebook on as many devices as I can currently read a book bought at Sony. But that isn’t true of ebooks bought from Amazon or soon-to-be-bought from Apple — and apparently won’t be true any time in the foreseeable future.

Whose fault is this? It’s the publishers’ fault. They are mesmerized by Amazon’s current control of the ebook marketplace and by Apple’s control of the music marketplace. So they give in by doing nothing. What they should be doing is saying to Amazon and Apple and B&N and Sony and all ebooksellers that their ebooks can be sold only in X format with the Y DRM scheme — if you want to use some other format or DRM scheme, you can’t sell our ebooks! This is proconsumer and propublisher.

Does it matter whether Amazon, Apple, B&N, Sony, Smashwords, or some other ebookseller sells more ebooks than any other ebookseller? Should it matter to publishers? Not really. What should matter is that ebooks are being sold and the profits are going to the publishers and authors and the benefits to the consumer. As a consumer, I don’t care if Amazon and Apple collapse like a house of cards tomorrow — both companies are anticonsumer. And the way things are going with ebooks, I don’t care very much if Macmillan or Simon & Schuster or any other publisher collapses with them; publishers are also anticonsumer.

The misthinking about DRM is that it protects the publisher and therefore is beneficial to the consumer. The correct thinking is that DRM is a jail for the honest consumer and is anticonsumer in the absence of a single, universal DRM scheme that enables the consumer to buy from any ebookseller and read that book on any ebook reading device today, tomorrow, and 25 years from now.

Right now Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and publishers are able to ignore the consumer in the nascent ebook market. But the backlash is coming. If Amazon can’t sell ebooks for less than Apple or Sony or B&N, its dominance will not last. Once Kindlers realize that there is no financial benefit to being locked into a Kindle, they may look elsewhere — until they realize that they won’t be able to take their paid-for library with them. That will be the start of the tsunami that will engulf publishing, and when it comes, it will be a catastrophe for all players, not just for Amazon.

The time is ripe for publishers to realize that they can be and should be in the catbird seat on the issue of format and DRM. The switch to the anticonsumer agency model for pricing and the rumbling of consumer anger that it brings because of higher prices and no ebookseller competition should not be enhanced by a refusal to address the one issue that could put publishers in a favorable light: universal DRM. This issue should be addressed by publishers before the nascent ebook market becomes the dominant market for book sales. The backlash now will be like nothing compared to the backlash when the ebook market is even 10% of book sales. Ultimately, consumers will not sit idly by and accept that they cannot freely transfer books they purchased among devices they own. (And consumers will not swallow the lease vs. buy distinction with ebooks any more than they bought the distinction with DVDs — it is a distinction that has merit only in a court of law, not in a court of consumers.) The time to set the universal standards is now!

March 19, 2010

On Words: Almighty Dollar

How many times have we heard or read the phrase “the almighty dollar”? We know what it means, the dollar is the object of universal devotion on the part of Americans. But where did the phrase come from?

It appears that Washington Irving is the coiner of this particular phrase, although it could be argued that Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare and himself an English dramatist, is the coiner because he had used “almighty gold” in 1616 in his Epistle to Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland (“The flattering, mighty, nay, almighty gold”).

Washington Irving coined the phrase in the November 12, 1836, issue of Knickerbocker magazine, writing in his story “The Creole Village”: “In a word, the almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land, seems to have no genuine devotees in these peculiar villages.” Irving, a year later, in the midst of the financial panic engulfing America, wrote the dollar is “daily becoming more and more an object of worship.”

The almighty dollar found itself part of the social commentary in “The Wants of Social and Domestic Life” (Genesee Farmer, November 1852), where it was written, “In the eagerness of our pursuit of the almighty dollar, how prone we are to forget the wants, and neglect the duties of domestic life.” In the  story “The Garden” (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, February 1853), we find: “Their pursuit of the all-mighty dollar is too passionate and intense to admit of interruption from the recreations of horticulture.” In 1857, the Sacramento Phoenix wrote, “In dreams they nod, and mutter ‘God,’ but mean the Almighty dollar.”

Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the related phrase “pursuit of the almighty dollar,” which he used in his 1871 novel The Coming Race.

The almighty dollar also has been alluded to in a variety of ways, for example: In 1855, the Monterey Sentinel wrote, “To-day is ‘steamer day’ every body is astir — the immortal dollar is jingling.” Beadle’s Missourian (1866) wrote: Even the Indian…is moved by the almighty dollar, or, rather, by the almighty half-dollar, for that is the only denomination of specie in which he will receive payment.” The Las Vegas (NM) Gazette (1884) commented: The “street car driver made [him] walk up to the front of the car like a little man and deposit the almighty nickel in the box.”

Newsweek (January 5, 1948) noted, “Something had happened to his standard of value — the almighty dollar — which deeply disturbed him.” And Time (June 16, 1947), said “There is a limit to the sacrifices some Britons would make for the sake of the almighty greenback.”

Today, as our politicians pursue reelection contributions, we can thank Washington Irving for identifying the nearly 200-year-old worship of the almighty dollar. And for those who need more spiritual sustenance, perhaps The Church of the Almighty Dollar is looking the place for you!

March 18, 2010

eBooks & pBooks in Tandem

It appears that Barnes & Noble and some publishers plan to experiment with giving pbook buyers a discount coupon to purchase the ebook version of the purchased pbook. I’ve been wrestling with this idea for quite some time and I’m still undecided about how valuable such a system will be to me.

There are several considerations. Will I need to buy the hardcover or can I buy the paperback pbook? Buying the hardcover pbook isn’t much of a problem for me as I only buy hardcover pbooks. But where it does have some effect is on which books will come with the discount coupon and how recent will those books be: Will they be brand new releases still on the bestseller lists or will they be part of the long tail only? The answer also affects the price I would be willing to pay (or maybe it doesn’t; let’s see how the discussion unfolds) for both the p and e books.

Considering the state of pricing today, I also wonder if pbooks that come with the discount coupon will be priced differently than pbooks sans the coupon? This hasn’t been raised yet, but considering the shenanigans that currently occur with pricing, I could see publishers choosing to sell what would normally be a $30 pbook for $35 as a way of covering the discount. Unfortunately, we would never know. I could also see Barnes & Noble, whose reputation has taken some pretty heavy hits since it entered the ebook business, telling B&N members that hardcover pbooks without a discount coupon get a 20% member discount; those with the coupon get a 10% discount. The one thing that can be said for B&N is that it cares very little about how it treats its book buyers, especially its members.

Also of concern is whether the tandem books will be just fiction or both fiction and nonfiction. This matters greatly to me because I rarely buy fiction in pbook form. There are a few fiction authors — e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Weber, Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove — whose new releases I buy in hardcover, but these authors are still read-once-then-shelve authors, so I would be disinclined to pay twice for one of their books. Conversely, my nonfiction reading runs largely to history, biography, English language, and philosophy, and these books not only grace my library shelves but they are referred to regularly and sometimes reread in whole. These books I would be interested in both p and e versions if the price and quality of the ebook was right.

My fourth concern relates to the quality of the ebook. If the ebook has the typical quality problems we see today, I am disinclined to spend twice for the same book — especially when those quality problems come wrapped in DRM. We know that ePub works pretty well for straight text, which is typical of fiction, but what about the more delicate needs of nonfiction, such as foot-/endnotes, intricate illustrations, and detailed tables and graphs? Will publishers enhance quality control or remain haphazard in the quality assurance department?

When I buy a nonfiction pbook, the typical price ranges from $30 to $40; occasionally a book costs less and sometimes more than that range indicates. On average, most of the books I purchase cost about $35. So the important question is how much more am I willing to pay to have the convenience of reading an ebook of the purchased pbook?

I admit that if I could, I would gladly read any book I purchase on my Sony Reader. I generally have a hate relationship with electronic devices, especially my computers, but I love my Sony Reader. But it isn’t well suited for reading complex nonfiction. So I’m looking to upgrade my device and the tandem idea might be an incentive — if the price of the ebook part of the tandem is right.

And that’s the kicker — What is the right price? Currently, when I buy fiction ebooks I am unwilling to spend more than a very few dollars – never more than $5 and rarely more than $3 — because quality is so low. Because I buy nearly all my fiction in ebook form, it means there are a lot of fiction authors published by major, traditional publishers whose work I never sample. I will not pay Macmillan or Simon & Schuster or any publisher $9.99 for an ebook whose quality may be poor and which is, for me, a read-once-throw-away product, especially not when I can buy the same book in paperback for less than $7 at a bookstore or in hardcover for less than $7 either as a remainder or in a used bookstore. If I’m going to read it once and then toss it, I want toi go the least expensive route possible, unless I am collecting the author, in which event I don’t want anything but hardcover.

So what is the bright line, that magic number that would encourage me to use the discount coupon and buy both the hardcover and the ebook version of a fiction book? I guess that if the pbook cost no more than $30, I would be willing to pay a maximum of an additional 15% for the ebook version. Anything more than that and I would either just buy the hardcover or not buy the book at all

My bright line for nonfiction, however, is different. I buy and use nonfiction books differently, consequently I would be willing to pay more for the tandem ebook version. For me, buying the hardcover is a given; if I don’t buy the nonfiction book in hardcover, I simply am not interested in the book and will not buy it in any form. Well, if the ebook was less than $5 by itself, i.e., no need to also buy the pbook, I might think about buying some nonfiction in ebook only, but that level of pricing isn’t going to happen. But for a nonfiction book that I am buying in hardcover, I would go as high as 25% of the hardcover price for a well-done ebook version in the tandem deal. Anything more than 25% I would pass on.

But let me add this caveat as far as B&N goes: Given the choice between a 20% minimum member discount on a nonfiction hardcover or a 10% plus ebook discount coupon member discount, I will always opt for the 20% discount and forsake the ebook. But I’ll bet B&N won’t survey active members about their buying habits and opinions on this subject any more than it surveyed members before introducing the nook or its ebook product line. If ever there was a company working hard to dig its own grave, B&N is it.

Update

Since I wrote the above, two things have happened: First, I began reading Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, and second, C-SPAN has made available hundreds of thousands of hours of past broadcasts, which hours include the Clinton impeachment proceedings and trial in the House and Senate. Because of my interest in the impeachment process and proceedings from a historian’s perspective rather than a partisan’s perspective, I would have gladly bought a high-quality ebook that included videos of the proceedings and perhaps interviews of the main players — but only if I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now. I would have gladly bought an enhanced pbook that included a DVD with videos of the proceedings and trial. And I would have readily bought both the pbook and a discounted ebook of Gormley’s book if the ebook was enhanced — and I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now — even if the ebook’s discounted price was 75% of the pbooks price.

My point is this: Certain books lend themselves to tandeming and can command a high price for the tandem. I don’t think fiction can command that high tandem price, but a book like The Loss of American Virtue could if the ebook were enhanced because the enhancements would flesh out and put in historical context the content of the primary text. Something to further think about.

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