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Oct 23 14

Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers

by Richard Sutton

This has been reposted from Vox. Matthew Iglesias takes a well-balanced, reality based look at all the red-flag waving against Amazon. I’ve followed the silly Hachette-Amazon bout with some interest for it’s entertainment value. Yesterday, seeing that S&S and Amazon came to pricing terms easily before their contract expired brought me to the realization that it’s all been just business as usual. The hysterics were mostly prompted by Hachette’s refusal to see the facts on the ground for what they are… and also a general belief that their old, tired alurels mean they have a lot more power in the marketplace than they actually do. Anyway, I cede the floor to Matt Iglesias and his well-considered arguments…

There's a reason he's so smug.  Steve Jurvetson Photo

There’s a reason he’s so smug. Steve Jurvetson Photo

Here’s a little real talk about the book publishing industry — it adds almost no value, it is going to be wiped off the face of the earth soon, and writers and readers will be better off for it.

The fundamental uselessness of book publishers is why I thought it was dumb of the Department of Justice to even bother prosecuting them for their flagrantly illegal cartel behavior a couple of years back, and it’s why I’m deaf to the argument that Amazon’s ongoing efforts to crush Hachette are evidence of a public policy problem that needs remedy. Franklin Foer’s recent efforts to label Amazon a monopolist are unconvincing, and Paul Krugman’s narrower argument that they have some form of monopsony power in the book industry is equally wrongheaded.

What is indisputably true is that Amazon is on track to destroy the businesses of incumbent book publishers. But the many authors and intellectuals who’ve been convinced that their interests — or the interests of literary culture writ large — are identical with those of the publishers are simply mistaken.

Books are published by giant conglomerates

The CEO of Simon & Schuster's parent company earned $67 billion last year (David Shankbone)

The CEO of Simon & Schuster’s parent company earned $67 million in 2013 (David Shankbone)

Wisdom on this subject begins with the observation that the book publishing industry is not a cuddly craft affair. It’s dominated by a Big Four of publishers, who are themselves subsidiaries of much larger conglomerates. Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, Penguin and RandomHouse are jointly owned by Pearson and Bertelsmann, and Hachette is part of an enormous French company called Lagadère.

These are not tiny, helpless enterprises. Were their owners interested in the future of books and publishing, they could invest the money necessary to make their own e-reading apps and e-book store and render Amazon entirely superfluous. But the managers of these conglomerates don’t really care. If they can get famous authors to lobby the government to stop Amazon from killing them for free, then they’re happy to take the free labor.

But they don’t want to invest actual money and energy in competing with Amazon, they’d rather wring whatever remaining profit there is out of book publishing and dedicate the money to dividends or other industries they’re also involved in.

Amazon faces lots of competition

It is undeniably true that Amazon has a very large share of the market for e-books. What is not true is that Amazon faces a lack of competition in the digital book market. Barnes & Noble — a company that knows something about books — sells e-books, and does so in partnership with a small outfit called Microsoft. Apple sells e-books and so does Google.

These are not obscure companies. It is not inconvenient for customers to access their products. And since these are companies that are actually much bigger and more profitable than Amazon, there is absolutely no way Jeff Bezos can drive them out of business with predatory pricing.

Amazon’s e-book product is much more popular than its rivals because Amazon got there first, and the competition has not succeeded in producing anything better. But consumers who prefer to buy a digital book from a non-Amazon outlet have several easy options available, and thus a book publisher who chooses to eschew Amazon will not actually be unable to reach customers.

Publishers are superfluous

In the traditional book purchasing paradigm, when a reader bought a book at the store there were two separate layers of middlemen taking a cut of the cash before money reached the author: a retailer and a publisher. The publisher, in this paradigm, was doing very real work as part of the value-chain. A typed and printed book manuscript looks nothing like a book. Transforming the manuscript into a book and then arranging for it to be shipped in appropriate quantities to physical stores around the country is a non-trivial task. What’s more, neither bookstore owners nor authors have any expertise in this field.

Digital publishing is not like that. Transforming a writer’s words into a readable e-book product can be done with a combination of software and a minimal amount of training. Book publishers do not have any substantial expertise in software development, but Amazon and its key competitors (Apple, Google, and the B&B/Microsoft partnership) do.

Publishers would like writers to believe that the pressure they are feeling from Amazon will trickle down and hurt authors as well. But there is a big difference. Even in the brave new world of e-publishing, authors are still making a crucial contribution to the industry by writing the books. Publishers are getting squeezed out because they don’t contribute anything of value.

Read the rest of this excellent article here…

Oct 22 14

Loved, but unwanted…

by Richard Sutton

notinkersMost of us have seen similar handbills and postings from the past. Signs hung in shopkeepers windows for example, advising the reader just what kinds of people should stop in to ask about the offered job, and what kind should not bother. Even here in New York City, in the mid-1900s it was common to see signs ostracizing both Italian and Irish immigrants. Seems very strange given that those ethnicities make up large portions of modern populations here. I recall laughing as a child, seeing old tavern signs from the river towns along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers telling both Horse Traders and Lawyers to take their trade elsewhere. Seems that many upstanding communities simply did not wish to share their towns with such rabble.

Over the past few years, there seems to be a new group of people making themselves unwelcome in the evolving communities of the internet. It struck me as an unusual group to scorn, and not just because I’m a member. I grew up having a great deal of respect for authors. Really, for writers of all kinds. Wordsmiths whose raw materials filled the dictionaries and whose results became stories that transported me away to new worlds, or made difficult concepts crystal clear, or explained how an odd twist of historic fact still affects life all these years later; all of these and more were my heroes. Writers were to be respected. More than that, their conversation and notice was to be proudly discussed and proclaimed.

Those days of childlike naiveté seem to have vanished with the last of the morning fog. In their place comes the flinty, cynicism of our present times. It’s supporting entire communities of interest and discussion in what is rapidly becoming the streets and marketplaces of our communities: the internet. In many of those communities, I am seeing more and more, expressions of a general feeling that those who write are not welcome or are barely tolerated.

Now, if it were true that every writer was a non-stop self-promoter, complete with drumbeat and straw hat, constantly hawking their goods, I could certainly understand that; but since those are not in my own experience at least, all that common, there must be additional reasons why authors are not engaged in focused interest discussion online unless they keep a very low profile. Has the very profession become distasteful?

A few places where it still bothers me to see a general distaste for writers, are online reading interest groups. In some places online, if a writer dares to reveal their pursuit of letters, they will be virtually tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail to the shouts and jeers of mobs of trolls. Seems counter-intuitive somehow, that groups of readers don’t want to discuss reading with those who provide the words on the page, but it seems to be rapidly becoming the norm. Goodreads, for example, hosts several active groups whose main raison d’etre seems to be to bash writers who make the unforgivable mistake of reacting and responding to bad reviews. I made the mistake once of wading into that murky sandbox, intending to offer explanation of some regrettable behavior other writers have engaged in, and was dispatched quickly and completely. In addition, my own books now rest in several “Won’t Read Until Hell Freezes Over” lists. Another good example is the recent furor over a UK author’s terrible stalking of a reviewer who left a bad review. Salon covered this media tempest in some detail this morning.

Some say that all writers have now been tarred by the same brush. The brush, I expect, that was dipped specifically for the exploding crop of self-published authors. True, that there are more writing voices out there competing for readers’ time than ever before. True also that not all of the new volume of work is of a high standard, but that alone is not new. I grew up in the waning days of the pulp novel. For a couple of bucks, you could buy a gripping tale — at least given the lurid cover — that by the middle had so infuriated you with cliched flatfoot jokes and big hearted dames, that you just had to either put it in the trash or laugh out loud. Entertainment it was. Not always top drawer.

Even then a writer’s life was for most, not a relaxing, wealthy one of constant acclaim, tweed jackets with elbow patches and cocktail parties. When John Lennon’s song Paperback Writer got airplay, I was old enough to understand the kind of scramble for fame or even rent money that the song exposed. I guess my own belief in the glamor of the profession had faded somewhat. After some of the assigned reading in high school, I was convinced that writers were either hacks or geniuses. I saw little room for those that fell in between those two poles.

Looking back, I realize that I expected quite a lot from a writer. I expected each book I opened to reveal scathing Truth. To peel scales from my eyes. To carry me bodily into worlds I’d scarcely imagined. To inhabit my heart of hearts with incontrovertible meaning. That’s a lot to ask from any story, I know, but I suppose it took a few more years before I realized that writing stories was a talent that some people had. Some of them were able to earn a living doing it while others either could not, or did not even attempt it. There’s always more to making a living doing something than there is simply in pursuing that discipline for the joy of it.

Despite what many seem to believe, writing is hard work, even without the solemn Spectre of Publication hovering above you at the keyboard. More attempts end up going exactly nowhere than actually get spun out into a tale. I have a friend whose first book is selling well enough, but it took him fourteen years to write it. He’d have to make a huge pile of lucre to offset the low hourly payback rate. In my estimation, he should earn a ribbon for his effort and confidence alone, but those are things that are rapidly losing their perceived value.

Today, it seems to be strictly the results of selling your product, in monetary figures, that is the determining factor as to whether you are worthy of respect. The bigger the bucks, the bigger the respect. Since there are so many writers now taking the risk and doing the work; and so few reaping the big bucks, maybe that is enough reason for the public view of the profession to have declined. I don’t know, but recently in a focused interest group that I had joined online primarily to see what was “happening” in this research area (a lifelong interest of mine); a post about an upcoming seminar specifically mentioned that book authors were not welcome to attend as it was for those actively engaged in ongoing field studies.

Okay. I get it. Authors need not apply. In the interest of our continued evolution as a species, we writers need to get a grip on those behaviors we exhibit which so annoy readers. They may love our books, but for some reason, they seem to hate us. If we wish to survive, we better wise up. Fast.

Oct 15 14

Enchanted Circle Scenic Drive, Taos, New Mexico

by Richard Sutton

Enchanted Circle Scenic Drive, Taos, New Mexico From late September through early October, north-central New Mexico’s Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway is a best-of-fall highlight reel. For those beginning and ending the drive in Taos (basically circling…

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Oct 14 14

Top Ten Tuesday – Gifts for Book Lovers

by Richard Sutton

A ‘To the Letter’ bookmark. For the OCD readers who feel the need to precicely mark their progress, and the forgetful readers who can’t quite remember exactly where they got to… Fed up of friends borrowing your books and not giving them back? Then the…

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Oct 11 14

Quotes to inspire your writing

by Richard Sutton

Henry David Thoreau “I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.” ♥ ♥ ♥   Winston Churchill “Writing is an adventure.” ♥ ♥ ♥   Allan Gurganus “Know something, sugar? Stories only…

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Oct 7 14

Cover Reveal – Lost To Me by Jamie Blair

by Richard Sutton

  Title: Lost To Me Author: Jamie Blair Release Date:  19th August 2014   Summary: Lauren Kelling’s prom night is a memory she’ll never forget-in her nightmares. She had the dress, the hair, and romantic first time plans with her boyfriend,…

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Oct 4 14

Five Brands Excelling At Storytelling

by Richard Sutton

There’s a small list of brands that have snuck in under the radar to become the fastest-rising companies over the last year in terms of #storytelling . Let’s take a look at those brands and see what accounts for their success.   Curated from…

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Oct 4 14

Social Media turn offs!

by Richard Sutton

Social media is used to attract more customers and generate sales. But businesses that don’t utilize social media correctly end up losing them instead. Here are seven social media actions to avoid to get what you want. Social media marketing makes…

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Oct 4 14

See These Four Night Sky Sights

by Richard Sutton

See These Four Night Sky Sights Visit stunning stellar grave sites and watch the moon pair up with kings of the celestial jungle for a delightful starry tour this week in sky-watching. The Moon and the Crab In the predawn hours of Tuesday, September…

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Oct 3 14

Lessons from outside the classroom…

by Richard Sutton
Jump in, the water's waiting...

Jump in, the water’s waiting…

Much of my fiction deals with finding a new home and getting acquainted with it, once you’ve found it. It’s a recurring theme in my writing I suppose, because my childhood was one of almost yearly upheaval and change. New towns, new schools, new friends all meant having to learn to be flexible and adaptive. It was a lesson I took to heart from the time I was in first grade.

Some lessons come harder than others, as I’m sure you know, but some of mine seem to have contained nested lessons. Important points safely tucked inside, that would emerge as I matured enough to understand them.

One of these really began my Junior year of high school. We moved to a very rural setting from a mid-sized town. My High School had over seven hundred students when I was a Sophomore. The next year, there were only ninety six. We’d been living in a suburban neighborhood one year and in the woods the next, with our nearest neighbor a half-mile away. It took some getting used to. For example, for any entertainment, I had to either travel forty miles to get to a large enough town, or I had to make my own from what was at hand. Of course, I felt terribly deprived, but I also knew I had to fit in, so I began to wing it and soak up the prevailing rural culture as much as I could. Eventually I noticed how rich the woods were in entertainment and spent more and more time there.

One of the most surprising lessons, hidden within the general lesson of adapting to small town life, was discovering how incredibly resourceful country folks are. While they are not usually ones to blow their own horns, I found they share an ability to find useful benefits and value in almost any situation or even in discards. I learned how to look for value even in junk, which is useful to this day, despite making my wife cringe at the stuff hanging from the rafters in the attic. Ditto the garage/barn.

Coming from the “city” I had swallowed the urban myth of how country people and kids were less sharp, slow moving and slow witted. I found it exactly the opposite. Looking back, I think that year was the one where I really began to appreciate the intricacies of how other people navigate their lives. The tiny town we were situated in wasn’t even close to a monochrome image. There were huge ranges of contrast between those who seemed to live well, even comfortably and the rest of us, including those who lived hand-to-mouth.

In most cases, those who lived well had found resources or skills they could always exploit for gain, while others who scraped by were always trying to ferret out new opportunities, new jobs, new partners. Always changing, always looking over the fence to see if a better deal was to be had. Needless to say, at first, I thought the more comfortable life came from wealth or land handed down. While it turned out to be true in a few cases, in most it was a matter of folks having learned to simply keep working at what they did best, not wasting effort or resources and staying on the path until they reached their goals. It came from the ability to think out of the box, to be resourceful in their approach to life, and to keep it close. Not telling the story of their struggles and their victories to everyone sometimes made them seem closed-mouth or unfriendly, but I learned it was a smokescreen so that they didn’t attract too much attention to distract them.

Today, the lessons I learned that year and later, working in the woods as I entered college, have prepared me better than the lessons learned in the classroom have. It was also my personal introduction to how foolish it is to misjudge people based on outward appearances. In any case, you really don’t know any real truth about anyone else until they share it with you. Shared truth like that is the highest compliment you can give another human being. It comes directly from recognizing yourself in them, no matter how different they may be.

That common ground is our connection to life itself. Being able to marvel at another person’s ingenuity in the face of trouble means you’re learning. Learning is our main job here and it’s the one we are able to perform every single day. The lessons will just keep on coming, as long as we’re alive.

Are there any personal lessons you’ve found to be really important to your understanding of the world? Let me know…