the power of visualization

August 7, 2010

I may need to stop reading comments posted at mainstream media sites because they make me think the world has gone off its rocker completely. This morning, responses to an Al Franken commentary on the importance of net neutrality would lead me to conclude that a sizable percentage of Americans actually believe net neutrality is a government takeover of the Internet.  Someone used the phrase “socialized free speech.” Apparently it’s a whole hell of a lot better if speech is owned by the private sector; the government should just lay off their plans to prevent business from ruling the waves. Anything proposed by anyone in any way affiliated with our black president (as in voted for) is in the cast of bad guys in an action film long on thrills but without a coherent plot. Wait, logical reasoning is a plot! a plot against us! Take to the streets – but first, sell them to the private sector and pay a toll to use them, because right now the government is in charge of public roadways and that’s just wrong.

I’ll wait for some rhetorician to do the dirty work of analyzing those comments and from which black lagoon they arise. For now, I’ll just avert my eyes. Thanks to Siva via Talking Points Memo via Breakup Girl! via GraphJam for this moment of blissful logic. (See? Told you it was a plot.)

the future: TK*

April 5, 2010

My pal Josh Hadro just tumbled an article to FriendFeed that I almost certainly would have missed otherwise: a Harvard Business School Q&A with Peter Olson, a refugee from big book publishing who now has washed ashore at the B school. (Yes, the one that will license its Review to libraries but won’t let professors link to it in their courses. For that, you pay extra. You know the hand gesture that indicates togetherness, usually to illustrate the phrase “Me and X are like this”? Me and the Harvard B School are better illustrated by a much ruder British two-fingered gesture. )

The former CEO of Big Random comments on the iPad launch and all the downloading of books that come with it,

“Traditional trade book publishers are scared,” says Harvard Business School professor Peter Olson. “The world that they have known, of print books and brick-and-mortar bookstores—the whole fiscal distribution system—is on the cusp of changing fundamentally.”

Quite rightly, he puts his finger on it when he says all the pricing and distribution issues, while vexing, are short-sighted distractions.

“The odd thing is that no one is really focusing on the reader. A disproportionate amount of publishers’ resources are dedicated to the manufacturing and physical distribution of books, when in fact their key function is editorial in nature. In a sense, many book publishers are trying to buy time, to postpone a reckoning with reality.”

Right. But here’s where I think he’s worrying about the wrong thing:

“The fundamental question at the very bottom of this is, will people read books at all?”

I know the answer to that one. Yes, they will. People like to read, they need stories, they crave stories, and they’re reading more than ever, contrary to doom-and-gloom scenarios.

How can publishers feed the craving for books without losing readers? First of all, forget everything you know about the publishing industry. Think about what really matters: finding good books, making them better, helping them connect with readers. Find out from readers what they want (and stop assuming they’re on the endangered species list, at least until you’ve observed them in their natural habitat). Talk to people who are good at making the connections – booksellers and librarians – and start over with a blank slate.

But bear one rule in mind above all others: don’t mess with readers. The more you frustrate them on the way to a brave new world, the more likely you’re putting the finishing touches on The End.

Image courtesy of mag3737.

*if you’re wondering what TK means, it’s what publishers put as a place holder when things like dedications are “to come” – though why K? I don’t know.

books locked out of prison

February 5, 2010

The Texas Bureau of Prisons does not want hazardous materials in the hands of its inmates, according to an expose in the Austin American-Statesman, so it has banned 89,795 books and magazines, including works by Alice Walker, Edwidge Danticat, Pablo Neruda, John Grisham, and – wait for it – Jenna Bush. I guess she set a bad example or something, and Neruda was a socialist, but I’d like to know the charges against Danticat. Provoking thought in a dangerous manner?

Texas prison officials said restrictions on reading material are for the good of both guards and inmates. “We have to protect the safety and security of our institution, but also aid in the rehabilitation of our offenders,” said Jason Clark, an agency spokesman.

“And what may not be judged inflammatory in the public at large can be inflammatory in prison.”

No shit. Mention unalienable rights or free speech in there and no telling what might happen. But one thing you can say for Texas officials. They keep very accurate records of how many books they’ve banned.

photo courtesy of curium.

public service announcements and reps x two

February 3, 2010

First, a funny video riffing off the side effects listed in pharmaceutical television ads. Nice job, Unbridled Books! I especially love the literary references to Tolstoi et al.

Second, reported in Shelf Awareness, NAIBA begs publishers to keep reps employed and connected to independent booksellers. This is a part of the process of bringing books to the public that isn’t much known to readers but has a profound effect on book culture. Reps are the link between the publisher and the bookstore shelves, and they are ethnographers of the communities they serve.

Restricting field reps to large stores will give publishers a skewed view of what is a very diverse world–independent bookselling. Sales reps take the time to know our stores, what our customers like, and what is on our shelves. They are the industry worker-bees, travelling the region, taking ideas and trends and pollinating other stores. We learn about other stores from them, what others are reading and loving; what is selling; marketing tips; event ideas; what the publisher is doing; and what authors have books coming out in the next season. They make fans for authors out of our frontline booksellers. They cut through the catalogs to make sure we carry what we’ll be able to sell, and their endorsements are why we buy what we might have ignored.

These reasons are why cuts in field sales reps devastate us. Have you really thought about what this stricture will mean to you? Fewer book sales. Without a doubt, we are not ordering as much through telemarketing. We are definitely not focusing on your backlist through tele-sales, and we definitely miss titles from the frontlist. We also don’t buy as much direct, which makes independent bookselling a less profitable business. The vicious cycle is that we buy less because we don’t have sales reps, and then you devalue our business because we aren’t buying as much as we used to.

Cory Doctorow has previously praised the sales force. Three cheers for reps (and three extra ones for Tom Leigh.)

Finally – squeeeeee! The first book review for Through the Cracks came out in Publisher’s Weekly. “Sociology professor Jill McKenzie hires PI Anni Koskinen to find the man who raped her in Chicago’s Lincoln Park 23 years earlier in Fister’s strong sequel to In the Wind (2008) . . . Koskinen connects with an array of well-drawn supporting characters, including other rape victims, the lead investigator on the McKenzie case, and the attorney who helped overturn Taylor’s conviction. Thoughtful attention to the complexities of police work and social justice lift this gritty mystery well above the norm. Koskinen’s empathy with both cops and victims as well as her fierce, brittle independence make her easy to root for.”

another fine mess – Patterson, Amazon, and the commodification of reading

January 30, 2010

I’ve been mulling over how to respond to the amazing profile of James Patterson ™ in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, but this morning’s news that Amazon has instantly removed Macmillan’s books over a dispute on e-book pricing adds an interesting wrinkle.

“Removed” is an oversimplification;  used copies are on sale, because Amazon and the seller make money on those, but Macmillan and their authors do not. There is no indication, of course, that new books exist and could be bought elsewhere. Amazon will sell you the book, just not share profits with the publisher and, by default, the author. Full disclosure: I am one of Macmillan’s authors. I love my editor, and I appreciate them publishing me, but I also enjoy my day job and it’s a good thing because I’d never make a living writing crime fiction. I’m not too bothered that the listing for my forthcoming book is among los desaparecidos. I’d rather you buy it from an indie, anyway.  This is not about me. It’s about books and their future.

Comments on news threads like this tend to fall into patterns:

  • E-books are way too expensive.
  • DRM sucks.
  • My words as an author are MY PROPERTY and you will pry DRM from my cold, dead hands.
  • Traditional publishers should die already.
  • I’m a writer. How’m I supposed to make a living?
  • Amazon is great.
  • Amazon sucks.
  • Why isn’t everyone acting like  Baen/O’Reilly/Cory?
  • Self publishing is the future.
  • Self-publishing sucks.
  • Cut out the middleman. Sell direct.
  • But what about indie bookstores?
  • Indie bookstores suck. I get much better deals at Amazon.

[Sunday update: Amazon blinked, grudgingly. Their relationship remains "it's complicated."] But let’s set all that aside for now. Here’s what struck me about the Patterson profile (which didn’t go into his psychology as a fictional FBI profiler would … now wouldn’t that be interesting ? But I digress.)

Transformers – More than Meets the Eye

The subtitle of “James Patterson Inc.” is “How a Genre Writer has Transformed Book Publishing.” There are really two stories here: one aggressively business-minded author has created a highly successful brand and sold millions of books; publishers drool over big hits, and he’s hit his home run farther than anyone other than God when he wrote The Bible (but damn, forgot to inscribe “copyright shall last forever” as the eleventh commandment or he would be rolling by now. Think of all the derivatives! The children’s versions! The movie rights! But I digress.)

The other story is about changes in the book industry that set the stage for Patterson, inc.

Like movie studios, publishing houses have long built their businesses on top of blockbusters. But never in the history of publishing has the blockbuster been so big. Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.

The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.

What did Patterson add to the mix? Television advertising. Swift and strategic development of new product lines for children and romance readers. Outsourcing the actual writing to hungry midlisters. Trusted product that has little swearing or challenges to family values (in one series the manly detective is a single parent of 12 adoptees – “’Cheaper by the Dozen’ meets ‘Die Hard,’ as Patterson describes it”).  But there’s lots of violence, particularly against women – you may want to avert your eyes from this tidbit:

The thriller genre is generally not for the squeamish, but Patterson’s tend to be especially graphic, and the violence often involves sociopathic sexual perversion and attractive young women. For instance, the villain in his second Alex Cross novel, “Kiss the Girls,” is a psychopath who kidnaps, rapes and tortures college girls in an underground bunker; at one point, he even feeds a live snake into the anus of one of his victims.

I can’t help but be reminded of a recent post by Peter Rozovsky on the most disturbing noir song ever, “He Hit Me, but it Felt Like a Kiss.”  But I digress.

The Ecosystem of Books and Reading

This is what I’m taking away from all of this.

Books produced this way are like meals at McDonald’s. They are filling and they’re fast. They provide a satisfying meal for people who have little time and can’t afford to try things they may not like because they work two jobs and just want a little predictable escape for a few hours. These kinds of books are bad for you, not because the nutritional value is harmful so much as the ecological harm they do.

Think about McDonald’s. We stopped growing people food to grow corn to feed cows to butcher and grind up in enormous, karma-destroying meat factories, shipping the resulting pink sludge in ozone-destroying trucks, subsidizing crops that are genetically engineered intellectual property owned by giant corporations that will sue your ass if you save seeds or if seeds accidentally end up growing in your fields without their permission; we import real food from Chile and elsewhere that lots of people can’t afford even if there was a grocery store in their neighborhood. And we wash that burger down with sugared beverages sweetened by subsidized corn in a production process that exhausts both water and land but makes big brands like Coke and Pepsi rich and exportable to the world.

You can’t really blame people for eating at places like McDonald’s if they’re working hard and need fast, cheap, filling food that they can count on. But it’s ruining our planet and our health.

Likewise, if we alter book production so that it’s streamlined, predictable, easily accessed by people who can’t afford to experiment by buying books they might not enjoy, then corporations will be able to churn it out. Okay, there’s a power struggle of Godzilla proportions going on between the book equivalent of agribusiness and McDonald’s, but in the end they’ll settle their differences and readers will suffer.

Some people have already joined the equivalent of a “slow book” movement. Some people will save writers like saving seeds. There will be independent bookstores just as there are local farmers markets and food coops helping members savor flavors they wouldn’t discover otherwise. Lots of people are growing their own stories. But none of that works for the person who works long hours, has little paycheck to show for it (or has a big paycheck but doesn’t read except on airplanes), and can’t spend a lot of time seeking new authors when they know a book with James Patterson on the cover will give them the escape they enjoy. Everything else is for elitists and snobs.

The analogy, thank goodness, doesn’t really hold up.

First, the government doesn’t provide subsidies to publishers to plant more James Pattersons. Avid readers constitute a significant share of the book buying market and they have adventurous pallets. We are likely to see a growing divide – with small publishers providing variety and the big six focused on fast food, or folding because the big bets they place on finding the next Patterson don’t work out. But not all of our arable land will be planted with Patterson-engineered stories because the book business hasn’t swung subsidy deals as agribusiness has.

Second, our ace in the hole: public libraries. They do a good job of helping people get their hands on the books they enjoy without passing judgment, and they are great advisors about what to read while you’re on  a waitlist for the latest James Patterson. Libraries grow readers, and readers love books. All is not lost. But we’re in for some interesting times.

photo courtesy of Libby taken at a free-for-all when a book warehouse in Bristol let people take what they wanted last year. The business’s lease had run out.


January 22, 2010

A task force on the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay has advised that 47 inmates should be held indefinitely without trial, officials say.

This is a US task force, mind you. We have a Constitution. I thought rule of law was back in style. Guess not.

And this, on the day when by executive order, Guantanamo was to be closed. And it said “The individuals currently detained at Guantánamo have the constitutional privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.”

Well, damn.

what is lost

December 26, 2009

I bought and read my first e-book on a phone this year using an iPhone app. I don’t plan to repeat the experience, not because it was horrible but because I know too many booksellers personally and until it’s easy to buy from them I’m not planning to purchase e-books. But I felt as if I needed some experience with e-books.

The good side? It didn’t weigh much when traveling and I could read it in the dark on the long shuttle ride from the airport. The bad side?

Let me count the ways.

First, the pages look ugly. There’s no other way to put it. There is no page design, just letters poured into a mechanical box, no art in the chapter headings, no thought given to initial capitals, words broken in the wrong place, justified lines full of gaps like bad teeth. And of course no page numbers. The design of a page in a printed book is a nearly invisible pleasure. Page design is something I appreciate more since seeing what is lost when it’s absent.

Second, reading on a phone is fine for e-mail and  for short form texts on a web page, but it’s hard to get lost in a book when you have to turn pages every paragraph or so. I also found it strangely disorienting to have only a bar at the bottom of the page telling me where I was in the book. A sense of place, of orientation in the arc of the story is harder to grasp. (I found this also true when I held my most recently published book in my hands for the first time. The last chapters felt different when measured between the thumb and fingers and the growing weight of the left side than when I was scrolling to the end of a document. Though I did read the galleys on paper, I shifted the pages to the back of the stack as I read and so was surprised by how profoundly the anticipation of an ending affects the reading experience.)

Third – I don’t like a future for the book in which sharing is disabled and ownership of an immutable copy no longer exists. It bothers me that a corporation could reach into my personal library and pluck a book back or alter it. I don’t like the fact that there is no such thing as fair use in a world of licensed content and that I can’t give a friend or family member a book I read and loved. Sure, I could buy them a second e-book version, but it’s not the same as handing on the book I read.

Fourth – this post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation spells out just how much we give away to Google and Amazon when we let them be our “bookstore” and “library.” Real booksellers and librarians have stood up for reader privacy. Personal information is a valuable commodity to these corporations. I don’t like the idea of my reading habits becoming a commodity and I don’t like the aggregation of readers’ behavior becoming a huge data mine of our minds.

Google’s new Google Book Search Project has the ability to track reading habits at an unprecedented level of granularity. In particular, according to the proposed Google Books Privacy Policy, web servers will automatically “log” each book and page you searched for and read, how long you viewed it for, and what book or page you continued onto next . . . your Kindle will periodically send information about you to Amazon. But exactly what information is sent? Amazon’s wording — “information related to the content on your Device and your use of it” — reads so broadly that it appears to allow Amazon to track all content that users put on the device, regardless of whether that content is purchased from Amazon. Some security researchers have indicated that the Kindle may even be tracking its users’ GPS locations. Is this the future of reading?

God, I hope not. Cory Doctorow has put some of this in sharp perspective in “How to Destroy the Book” in which he argues that the true pirates are the corporations who are remaking our book culture so that they can be in the center of it, controlling books for the sake of profits. He contrasts this perspective with that of “people of the book” who love books, want to fill their houses with them, and pass favorites on to their children.

Anyone who claims that readers can’t and won’t and shouldn’t own their books are bent on the destruction of the book, the destruction of publishing, and the destruction of authorship itself. We must stop them from being allowed to do it. The library of tomorrow should be better than the library of today. The ability to loan our books to more than one person at once is a feature, not a bug. We all know this. It’s time we stop pretending that the pirates of copyright are right. These people were readers before they were publishers before they were writers before they worked in the legal department before they were agents before they were salespeople and marketers. We are the people of the book, and we need to start acting like it.

What he said.

photos courtesy of brewbooks and Josh Bancroft.


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