An American Editor

January 31, 2011

A Few Interesting Statistics

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion — Rich Adin @ 8:39 am

The past few years have brought significant change to the United States –some good, some bad. Here are some of the changes, according to the current issue of The Atlantic:

  • Daily consumer spending has dropped from $91 (2008) to $62 (2010)
  • Book sales declined $1.1 billion between 2007 and 2009
  • The U.S. Treasury collected $164,856,000 more in tax from the sale of firearms and ammunition since the election of Barack Obama as president
  • During this same time, 9% more people thought it was more important to protect gun owners’ rights than to control guns
  • In 2007, teenagers (15-19 years old) spent an average of 16 minutes each weekend day reading; by 2009 that had dropped to 5 minutes per weekend day
  • In contrast, the average time teenagers spent using the computer for leisure increased from 46.8 to 61.2 minutes per weekend day
  • The number of people living in poverty increased by 6.3 million from 2007 to 2009.
  • In 2007, only Wisconsin faced a budget shortfall; in 2010, only North Dakota and Wyoming are not facing a budget shortfall — 48 states are
  • Between 2000 and 2007, 27 banks failed; since 2008, more than 314 have failed
  • Since the election of Barack Obama, the number of active militias has risen from 43 to 127 (as of 2009)
  • The number of violent crimes per 100,000 people dropped from 472 (2007) to 429.4 (2009) 
  • The percentage of Americans who think Barack Obama is a Muslim has increased from 12% in 2008 to 18% in 2010
  • Those with a favorable view of Sarah Palin dropped by 18% (from 40% to 22%) between 2008 and 2010

January 26, 2011

On Words: Zombie

It has been a while since I wrote about the etymology of a word, so I thought I’d try to turn back to the roots of this blog, at least for this post.

In recent years, there have been a spate of books and movies involving zombies. Have you ever given thought to the origins of the word?

Zombie (also zombi) is of early 19th century West African origin, deriving from nzambi, the Bantu name for a West African python god thought to raise the dead, and zumbi, a good-luck fetish (Kikongo). In voodoo, zombie refers to the snake deity or to a supernatural force that occasionally reanimates corpses.

Zombie also refers to the belief that voodoo magicians have the power to revive corpses and use them as robot-like slaves. It is speculated that real zombies may have been created from the living by the use of drugs, which led to the belief of rising from the dead.

A derivative of zombie is the U.S. slang phrase zombie food. This phrase means either that eating the particular food will make one a zombie or that little intelligence is required to prepare the food (e.g., opening a jar or microwaving a frozen dinner). Needless to say, it is also an observation about the person willing to eat such food.

 The figurative use meaning “dull, slow-witted person” originated in the 1930s. The transferred sense of a stupefied, stupid, or lethargic person first surfaced in American English in 1946. The idea of a zombie being a brain-eating monster arose with Hollywood and can be traced to Bela Lugosi and the 1932 movie White Zombie. Today, it has evolved into an alcohol drink, so one can get zombied.

January 24, 2011

Making B&N Number One

As we know, the two ebooktailer giant in the United States are Barnes & Noble and Amazon. And, as we know, Amazon is currently the number 1 ebooktailer. But there is no reason why B&N, with a bit of shrewdness, can’t move closer to or takeover the number 1 position. I’m prepared to make one suggestion along this path.

Currently, B&N is trying to get people who do not currently own a dedicated ereader to buy a Nook. Why not work on getting people who already own a dedicated device — e.g., a Kobo, Sony, or Kindle or other brand — to move to the Nook? Why not offer a trade-in:

Bring us your working device and we’ll exchange it for a brand new nook! Want the Nook Color, you can have it for your working device plus $75. In addition, we’ll give you a $50 B&N gift certificate for buying ebooks.

I’ll admit that the offer wouldn’t tempt me considering the current state of the Nook as compared to my Sony 950, but I think it would tempt a lot of current owners of other brands. And B&N could make back some of its loss by eBaying the working exchanged devices.

The name of the game is not device owners but getting people to buy ebooks. The device is essentially a one-time sale. Most people buy the device and won’t consider buying an upgrade or newer device for several years, if not longer. In my case, I used my Sony 505 for 3 years before buying the 950 and if I had know that my wife was going to ultimately decide that she still wanted the print version of the New York Times, I would still be using my Sony 505 and would not have bought the 950. I upgraded for a specific reason that turned out to be a failed experiment.

And when I look at what other ebookers list as their device, I note that many ebookers are still using the even older Sony 500 and Kindle 1. There isn’t a groundswell that compels the average ebooker to upgrade the device. After all, the Kindle 1 and the Sony 505 still perform the function for which they were designed — enabling the user to pleasurably read ebooks.

Consequently, with the exception of the cadre who must have the latest and greatest technology, the device is not a revenue generator. Rather, it is ebooks that are the revenue generators and what both B&N and Amazon need to do is get device owners to regularly buy ebooks from their ebookstores. Thus, although exchanging other devices for the Nook would mean taking a one-time hit to the financials, if B&N got its act together, it could turn the person who buys 1 or 2 ebooks a year, or who only “buys” the free ebooks, to buy (for dollars) 10 to 12 ebooks a year.

Of course, should B&N try this it would have to be prepared for the tit-for-tat comeback by Amazon, offering an even better deal for people who exchanged their non-Kindle devices for a Kindle. To my mind, the only defense that B&N would have would be if it came up with superior customer service, aggressive marketing, and — before embarking on an exchange program — a better device.

It isn’t that the Kindle is a better device than the Nook; it is that people believe it is. Neither device is particularly well designed and both can stand some significant improvement, but B&N needs to convince users that everything about B&N is a better ebook experience than can be had at Amazon. B&N can begin by improving its customer service and the Nook. But the real ace in the hole for B&N is its bricks-and-mortar stores.

Some creative thinking about how the b&m stores fit with the Nook experience could let B&N pull rapidly ahead of Amazon in the ebook game. Here’s one thing I would do if I were in charge:

Come into the b&m store with your Nook. Browse our shelves for a book. Bring the pbook and your Nook to the special Nook counter and you can buy the ebook version at 15% off the current ebook price. And if you want to buy both the ebook and the pbook, you’ll get the 15% off the ebook and an additional 15% off the pbook price. (For B&N members this would be in addition to their member discount. Not a B&N member? Join on the spot and get the member discount plus the 15% discount.) And as long as you are here buying a book, have a coffee on us.

I would also have special sale events, worked out with publishers, that are only available in store, such as enabling a customer to obtain the first ebook in a series free if they buy the second and third together.

And why not have special Senior Citizen Nights. If you are a senior citizen, you can learn — one-on-one — how to operate your Nook and while learning how to use it (overcoming the technophobia that is often seen in seniors), we have special discounts for you, and even special subscription deals. OK, I know you are itching to hear more about this idea, so here goes:

If I were B&N’s chairman, I would be calling all of the major publishers, notably the big 6, and try to convince them to offer a special subscription to seniors. For $x per month you can “borrow” any new release for up to 3 weeks. If you haven’t finished it in 3 weeks, you can borrow it again until you do as long as you are a current subscriber. Finish the book in 1 week? Then borrow another book. The subscription fee is for 1 month for 1 device for an unlimited number of books — just 1 at a time — but you can’t keep or lend the book. Essentially it is librarying books for senior citizens with B&N and the publisher each getting a cut. 

Even if you don’t like any of these ideas, the point is that B&N needs to turn its b&m stores into an advantage in the ebook world and it needs to increase the number of Nook owners and users. I’m certainly open to suggestions, and based on what I read about B&N, it should be open to suggestions.

January 19, 2011

What If: Where Does Your State Stand in the World Economy?

Filed under: Worth Noting — Rich Adin @ 8:06 am
Tags: ,

As I’ve noted in prior articles, I am a long time subscriber to The Economist; in fact, my current subscription runs for another 6 years. Although I always find reading The Economist enjoyable and informative, every so often it publishes something that has little real value but is, nonetheless, fascinating.

This week’s edition published a map of the United States in which it equates each state’s GDP with that of a country. For example, California, were it a country, would rank 8th in the world, with a GDP equivalent to Italy’s. New York’s GDP is equivalent to that of Australia, and Mississippi’s is that of Bangladesh.

Find out where your state ranks by visiting The Economist‘s map. The interactive version lets you run your cursor over a state and get information from a popup display.

January 18, 2011

MLK and His Memorial

Hopefully, in August 2011, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the memorial to him on the National Mall in Washington, DC, will be dedicated. I grew up under MLK’s influence, and I think he is one of the greatest Americans ever to be born. His memorial and its placement on the National Mall is well deserved.

But there is one thing that does bother me about the memorial, and I think it would raise a protest from Dr. King were he able to so protest: It is being sculpted in China!

I know money is what makes the universe go round, but didn’t anyone think about this when deciding who would do the sculpting and foundry work? First, China is not a free society. The Martin Luther King’s of China are suppressed and serving long prison sentences. Tiananmen Square is China’s Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Chinese response to the protestors in Tiananmen Square is China’s equivalent of America’s Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965) —  with a major difference: Our free press system guaranteed continuous coverage of the civil rights movement, whereas China has successfully tamped down coverage and celebration of Tiananmen Square. Would Dr. King have approved of such a repressive regime creating his memorial? Personally, I think not.

Second, and perhaps more important, wouldn’t Dr. King have wondered why American sculptors and foundries couldn’t have been found? After all, Dr. King sought to bring harmony to Americans of all races and creeds and probably would have viewed this project as another way to bring together Americans in a common cause.

I think having China create the memorial is an insult to Dr. King’s dream. Fortunately, this little tidbit of information will be forgotten quickly by visitors to his memorial and within minutes of the dedication the made-in-China label will have been consigned to the dustbin of little known historical facts.

Fortunately for America, Dr. King was not made in China.

January 17, 2011

Change in Habit: The eReading Device Effect

I am now starting my fourth year as an owner of a dedicated ereading device. Three Christmases ago, my wife bought me a Sony 505, my first dedicated ereading device and my first introduction to the eInk screen. This past October, I bought myself a new Sony 950 and passed my 505 on to my wife. As I have noted before, the 505 still works (and looks) as if brand new.

With the 505 I noticed that I began to read more fiction in ebook form, yet my primary reading remained hardcover nonfiction. This really remained true until perhaps six to eight months ago when I noted I began to read more fiction than nonfiction. I assumed that this was just a repeat of my usual reading trends where I would read a particular type of book for months or years then shift to a different type for the next period.

But recently I began to realize that my reading habit has changed dramatically. The change became particularly noticeable after I acquired the Sony 950. I’m still reading fiction and nonfiction, but the dramatic change — at least for me — is that because I find the 950 such a pleasurable reading device, I am now either buying my nonfiction in both hardcover and ebook or just in ebook, and then in hardcover for my library if I discover that I really enjoyed the book or because of the subject matter want it as a permanent part of my collection.

Whereas before I looked forward to picking up a hardcover book to read, now I find it a chore and want to avoid it as much as possible. This is the seduction of the current generation of ereading devices: they not only entice you to read more, they entice you to avoid print.

Alas, it is not quite a perfect world. I can’t convince myself that an ebook has any permanency. At my age, I’m not comfortable with cloud computing or the fact that there is no agreed upon universal standard for ebooks that can cost a lot of money. Granted that we are now down to two competing standards — Amazon’s and the rest of the universe’s — but even so, that is just a format standard. There is still a babel of DRM schemes designed to limit the life of an ebook.

Because I can’t convince myself that it is a good idea to invest in ebooks for a permanent collection of books, I am becoming the double-dipper that I had so fervently wanted to avoid. This is neither good for my pocketbook nor good for the consumer side of publishing because it continues to encourage publishers and ebooksellers to place restrictions on ebooks rather than opening them up.

All of this is the fault of my ereading device. Like the muses of ancient lore, the device has seduced me. I can’t wait to sit in my recliner and read on my Sony 950; I simply do not want to pick up a printed book. The screen is easy on my eyes, the touch screen a pleasure, the ergonomics excellent for me, and the weight significantly less than most of my hardcovers. It oozes pleasure and an enjoyable time to be had. It also oozes money out of my wallet because I’m reading three to four times as many books as I did before I had an ereading device, and probably a third to a half more books on the 950 as I did on the 505.

So my buying habits have changed, both because I’m reading more and because I now tend to buy a nonfiction book in ebook version either first or along with the hardcover. If only the format and DRM wars would settle, perhaps I could think about giving up hardcovers altogether. Probably not — that is a habit that is really well ingrained, or so I believe today.

January 11, 2011

A Tea Party of the Alice-in-Wonderland Kind

Filed under: Politics — Rich Adin @ 10:35 am
Tags: , ,

The Tea Party movement is all the talk these days. The chances of electing Tea party doctrine adherents to public office is great, as the recent election shows (with the possible exception of the most extreme Tea Partiers like the Senate candidates in Nevada and Delaware). And if Theodore Roosevelt had been able to muster this kind of passion, perhaps his Bull Moose Party would have prevailed.

Yet no one has seriously considered the ramifications of the Tea Party positions. There has been some discussion of the contradictions, such as the desire to do away with Social Security and Medicare for future recipients but the unwillingness to give up their own Social Security and Medicare, but no following of the positions to their logical (or illogical) ends.

Has anyone considered that the final straw that broke the back of the extended family in the United States was the Eisenhower Interstate System, which made traveling across America easy and convenient? That was an unintended consequence of building the system (its original rationale was to create a way to quickly speed troops where they were needed in the event of a Russian invasion), but a consequence nonetheless. So what will the unintended consequences be of electing inflexible Tea Partiers to office? I guess we will soon know.

Consider the idea of going back to only those government agencies identified in the original Constitution. That immediately does away with tons of agencies and multiple cabinet offices, including the Department of Commerce which is responsible for the federal highway system. I can see it now — responsibility for repair and maintenance will fall to the states but without federal funding. Montana will complain loudly because it would have to charge each citizen multiple times what New York or Massachusetts would have to charge its citizens simply based on numbers. Montana has lots of highway miles in a difficult climate but few citizens. How happy will Montana Tea Partiers be? Or will Montana simply let the infrastructure crumble?

I may be one of the few who are bothered by the apparent need for the new Republican House of Representatives to waste time and energy to repeal the health care law, when they know it is purely symbolic. In light of all else that is problematic with America today, I would prefer to see the time and energy devoted to practical things that have a chance of being enacted and helping us on our way to full recovery. The problem with Republicans has always been the need for symbolism, even at the expense of bettering our country. After all these decades of such posturing, one would think the party would finally grow up.

If there was any hope of Republicans and Democrats turning more centrist and putting America first, that hope was shattered by the 2010 elections. I find it to be inherently wrong for any legislator to be so dogmatic that meeting in the middle is considered selling out. Take any congressional district and look at the vote — no candidate for office was elected by 100% of the voters, nor even close to 100%. So does that mean that the elected person intends to represent only a portion of his or her district? In today’s politics, yes, that is exactly what it means.

The rant against the health care legislation is the most galling of the partisanship approaches being taken in the current congress. On the one hand, Tea Partiers and Republicans rail against anything that might be considered a tax increase, at least in so far as it might be an increase for the top 1% of earners. And the cry is often heard that a tax increase will ravage small businesses, which are the economy’s backbone.

Well if the health care law is repealed, my taxes will shoot up because, among other things, I will lose the tax credit I am entitled to for providing health insurance. If the deduction is returned, that will be partial reimbursement, but there is a big difference between a credit and a deduction. So why aren’t the Tea Partiers rallying against that tax increase?

One of the other problems with both Republican and Tea Partiers’ thinking is Social Security. I’m still waiting for the first congressperson to give up his/her pension benefits (paid for by us taxpayers). I’m still waiting for the first Tea Partier to give up his/her Social Security and Medicare. Why is it that under the Republican/Tea Party plans the only ones who need to sacrifice are everyone but them?

Okay, one more bit of tomfoolery — well, maybe idiocy is a better word choice: If you don’t make cuts to Homeland Security and Defense budgets and you don’t increase taxes, how can you ever balance the budget and reduce the deficit? Even cutting Social Security and Medicare completely won’t do the trick.

I am not opposed to some of what the Republicans and Tea Partiers want in the broad sense. I agree that we need to balance the budget and reduce the deficit. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the Republican/Tea Party idol, Ronald Reagan, never submitted a balanced budget and never reduced the deficit — it took a Democrat, Bill Clinton, to accomplish that and provide a surplus that the Republicans flushed down the toilet.) But some common sense has to be part of the equation, something the Republicans/Tea Partiers, as they move further away from the center and toward the right, increasingly seem to lack.

Perhaps the Mad Hatter wasn’t so mad after all, at least not in comparison to the new Congress.

January 10, 2011

Biting the Dust — Yet Again

This past week has been some week. I’ve been gearing up to write articles with a political bent to them and have hesitated (and thus not put fingers to the keyboard) because this is not supposed to be a political blog.

I was rescued, at least temporarily, by a small notice in today’s New York Times: Key Porter Books, a prominent Canadian book publisher who has been publishing approximately 100 new titles each year, “announced it would temporarily suspend publishing operations.” Another midsize publisher bites the dust. Among its better-known authors are Conrad Black and Margaret Atwood.

Although Key Porter is a Canadian publisher, what I wonder about is why such a previously successful midtier book publisher, especially one whose local competition is minimal compared to the U.S. marketplace, suddenly faced problems sufficiently grave to warrant 100% production stoppage rather than, say, scaling back? Let me state upfront that I have nothing more than personal speculation as to the causes. I also wonder whether this is the first of many major midtier publishers who will bite the dust in 2011, both in Canada and the United States. Now for my speculation, which is more broadly geared to publishing than to Key Porter.

First up is Kobo Books, the worldwide, Canadian-based ebooktailer. Not that Kobo Books isn’t making ebooks available but that it is expanding its geographic reach instead of first addressing the failures of its online ebookstore. To my way of thinking there are two major failures that Kobo needs to address immediately.

Failure one is the inability to order more than 1 ebook at a time. What a pain it is to want to buy 3 books and to have to place 3 separate orders. Neither Amazon nor Sony nor Barnes & Noble work this way. With these ebooktailers, you load up your cart and pay once. Considering that many of the more popular ebooks are agency priced, there is no advantage to buying from Kobo over buying from, for example, Sony.

Failure two is the way one gets the ebooks one has purchased. Kobo (and in this Kobo is not alone) first downloads a file that is a link to the real ebook file. I know this is an Adobe-induced problem, but Kobo (and others like Books On Board) need to gang up on Adobe and say this is unacceptable. I should be able to download directly the ePub file.

As the primary purveyor of Canadian ebooks, Kobo needs to do a significantly better job of obtaining and retaining customers. As probably the most geographically diverse ebooktailer (along with Amazon), Kobo needs to pay more attention to the shopping experience — I would think that every ebooktailer would want a customer to buy many ebooks, not just 1 ebook, so why is Kobo discouraging multiple purchases?

Second up is the erroneous belief that self-publishing is the way to succeed in today’s changing book marketplace. We are repeatedly told of the success that authors like J.A. Konrath are having by self-publishing — Konrath boasts (and provides the statistics to support the boasts) on his blog and in interviews about how much more money he is making than when he was represented by a traditional publishing house — but the one thing missing in the telling of these stories, or if not missing simply mentioned but not emphasized, is that these highly successful authors built a following through the traditional process so that when they decided to go the self-publishing route, they had a fan base to drag along. Konrath and the other former-traditionally-published-but-now-self-published-who-are-financially-succeeding authors do not come to grips with having to start with a zero fan base. It is easier to succeed if you are already successful.

Those who promote self-publishing as the way to go ignore several salient factors, not least of which is that ebooks constitute only 9% of the current market (although that percentage is growing yearly) and that a significant portion of that 9% are romance, erotica, and sci-fi/fantasy books. I don’t know this for fact, but I would bet that if you remove those 3 genres from the calculation that the market share for all other genres is less than 4% — a tiny portion of the overall book market.

Combine the relatively small market share with the high volume of self-publishing that is occurring (Smashwords, e.g., notes that it has “published” more than 1 billion words as of November 2010; I say “published” because Smashwords is really a distributor of self-published and small press ebooks, not a traditional publisher in the sense of “published”) and how do you find financial success? It’s not impossible, but it is mighty difficult. And how do you reach the rest of the market so you can build a fan base?

Kobo Books is important because it is currently the only major ebooktailer with global reach other than Amazon. But unless Kobo Books improves the shopping experience, it is more of a drag than anything else on ebook sales for midtier and small publishing houses, sales that could be the difference between being in business and biting the dust. And if small and midtier publishers do not find a way to combat the rush by better authors to self-publishing, what currently is just a small cloud of dust will become a dust storm of publishers going out of business. That will not be good for anyone — authors will have increased difficulty earning a living from their writing and readers will have increased difficulty in finding good books to read.

January 3, 2011

Call for Barnes & Noble! Call for Barnes & Noble!

I suspect most readers are too young to remember the heady days of tobacco company commercials, especially radio commercials, or even the cigarette brand Philip Morris. Its print (1940s) and early TV commercials featured a hotel bellhop carrying a tray with a pack of Philip Morris cigarettes on it and bellowing “Call for Philip Morris!” The radio version (also 1940s), popularly heard on programs like The Jack Benny Show, really was well done.

The commercial came to mind as I digested the recent news about Borders Group’s continuing quarterly losses. It was only a week or two ago that Borders wanted to buy Barnes & Noble. But now — if Leonard Riggio is doing any real thinking about the future — might be the opportune time for B&N to buy Borders.

OK, I hear the naysayers screaming that the last thing that B&N needs is Borders’ bricks-and-mortar stores. True, but that is narrow thinking. By buying Borders, which should be available for almost nothing, B&N can accomplish some important things, such as the following:

  • First, it can immediately close all the b&m stores that currently compete with its own brand. This would increase traffic to its own brand for those of us who like to shop at real bookstores rather than virtual bookstores. And it could convert Borders members to B&N members; there is a lot to be said for loyalty programs.
  • Second, it can replace Borders as a partner in Kobo. This strikes me as a good move for B&N because it would rapidly expand B&N’s ebook reach.
  • Third, B&N could become the partner with ebookstores like the Sony ebookstore, which is currently partnered with Borders. Where else could Sony turn? Perhaps to Kobo but if B&N was a significant partner in Kobo, it would still benefit. If you start adding Sony’s and other “independent” ebookstores that are really run by Borders, B&N could suddenly see a significant rise in its share of the ebook marketplace.
  • Fourth, by replacing Borders as a partner with these other “independent’ ebookstores, B&N would be in a position to incentivize these independents to upgrade to the B&N DRM version of ePub, which would expand its marketplace. (Yes, I know it is relatively easy to strip the B&N DRM, but most people don’t/won’t/can’t do it.)
  • Fifth, it would give B&N a further leg up against both the Amazon and Google juggernauts, something it is going to desperately need it the not-too-distant future.
  • Sixth, if B&N were smart, it could cut a deal with Sony to offer the Sony readers as premium readers — for those people who are willing to pay more for higher quality — and have Sony include perks, perhaps such as wireless access to the Sony, Kobo, and B&N ebookstores, that are not currently available on other devices. This would be a boost to both B&N and to Sony.

Unfortunately, no deal involving Borders is a problem-free deal. There are the debt problems and leases, but the easy way out would be to run Borders through bankruptcy. Inventory debt could be reduced by returning all of Borders’ inventory.

The real issue, I think, is who will be faster on its feet — Google or B&N. An unknown possible player would be Kobo or some of its partners like Chapters, but I don’t see any advantage to them in taking over Borders.

I suppose that someone could pump more capital into Borders but its management team certainly inspires no confidence. Consequently, I think that is a long shot. B&N should strike while Borders is crippled. The question is: Will B&N hear the call?

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