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August, 2014:

Odd Lots

  • Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
  • How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
  • If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
  • Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Bar├░arbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (├░) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
  • Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
  • To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
  • Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
  • Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
  • That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Godzilla’s Gumball Machine

This is Part 2 of an entry I began yesterday.

Nine years ago, I called for the creation of a digital content gumball machine; that is, a Web site that would accept payment and send back a file of some sort, whether a song, a video, or an ebook. It was the start of a popular series and I got a lot of good feedback. I’ve since walked back on several of the original essay’s points, primarily the notion that every author should have his or her own ebook gumball machine, but also the notion that DRM needs to be accomodated. At the time, I thought that while DRM might not help much, it wouldn’t hurt. I think the experiences of Baen and Tor (and probably other imprints) have proven me wrong. Lack of DRM helps. Besides, DRM is what gave Amazon its market-lock, and publishers demanded it. Petard, meet hoist.

The really big lesson Amazon taught us is that Size Matters. What we need isn’t a separate gumball machine for every author or publisher, nor even a clever P-P network of individual gumball machines, though that might work to some extent. We need Godzilla’s Gumball Machine, or Amazon will just step on it and keep marching through the ruins. To compete with Amazon, all publisher/author storefronts must be searchable from a single search prompt. Payment must be handled by the gumball machine system as a whole, via Paypal or something like it. Publishers will probably sell direct, and pay a commission to the firm operating the system.

This could be done. It wouldn’t even be hideously difficult. The technology is not only available but mature. Best of all, well…it’s (almost) been done already. There is a second e-commerce titan in the world. Its name is EBay. (Ok, there’s also Alibaba, which I have never used and know little about aside from the fact that it’s bigger than Amazon and eBay combined. Oh, and the fact that their TMall site is already hosting stores for Chinese print-book publishers.)

I’ll cut the dramatics and get right to the point: The Big Five need to partner with eBay and possibly Alibaba to produce a digital content gumball machine (or two) as efficient and seamless as Amazon’s. EBay’s affiliate store model is a good one, and I’ve bought an awful lot of physical goods on eBay, both new and used, outside the auction model. In fact, in the last few years I’ve bought only collectable kites at auction. Everything else was a fixed-price “buy it now” affiliate sale.

Admittedly, eBay has some work to do to make their purchasing experience as good as Amazon’s. However, they are already providing digital storefronts to physical goods retailers. I haven’t seen any plans for them to offer digital content so far, but man, are they so dense that they haven’t thought of it? Unlikely. If eBay isn’t considering a content gumball machine, it can only be because the Brittles won’t touch it. That’s a shame, though I think there’s an explanation. (Stay tuned.)

A large and thriving eBay media store would provide several benefits to publishers:

  • Print books could be sold side-by-side with ebooks. Publishers could sell signed first editions to people who like signed print books (and will pay a premium for them) and ebooks to everybody else.
  • Selling direct means you don’t lose 55% to the retail channel. Sure, there would be costs associated with selling on such a system, but they wouldn’t be over half the price of the goods.
  • Cash flow is immediate from direct sales. It’s not net 30, nor net 60. It’s net right-the-hell-now.
  • Publishers could price the goods however they wanted, at whatever points they prefer.

So what’s not to like?

Readers who have any history at all with the publishing industry know exactly what’s not to like: channel conflict. In our early Coriolis years, we sold books through ads in the back of our magazine. They weren’t always books we had published; in fact, we were selling other publishers’ books a year or two before we began publishing books at all. The Bookstream arm of the company generated a fair bit of cash flow, and it was immediate cash flow, not the net-180 terms we later received from our retailers. Cash flow is a very serious constraint in print book publishing. Cash flow from Bookstream helped us grow more quickly than we otherwise might have.

However, we caught a whole lot of hell from our retailers for selling our own products direct. That’s really what’s at stake here, and it’s an issue that hasn’t come up much in discussion of the Amazon vs. Hachette fistfight: Publishers can’t compete with Amazon without a strong online retail presence, and any such presence will pull sales away from traditional retailers, making those retailers less viable. If the Big Five partner with somebody to create Godzilla’s Gumball Machine to compete with Amazon, we may lose B&M bookstores as collateral damage.

Then again, the last time I was at B&N, they’d pulled out another several book bays and replaced them with toys and knicknacks and other stuff that I simply wasn’t interested in. The slow death of the B&M retail book channel has been happening for years, and will continue to happen whether or not the Big Five create their own Amazon-class gumball machine.

Alas, the Amazon-Hachette thing cooks down to this: Do we want Amazon to have competition in the ebook market? Or do we want B&M bookstores? We may not be able to have both, not on the terms that publishers (especially large publishers) are demanding.

And beneath that question lies another, even darker one: If eBay/Alibaba/whoever can provide an e-commerce site with centrally searchable ebook gumball machine for anybody…do we really need publishers in their current form? Publisher services can be unbundled, and increasingly are. Editing, layout, artwork, indexing, and promotion can all be had for a price. What’s left may be thought of as a sort of online bookie service placing money bets against the future whims of public taste. People are already funding books with kickstarter. B&M bookstores may not be the only things dying a slow death.

So what’s my point?

  • Amazon works because it’s a single system through which customers can order damned near any book that ever existed. Any system that competes with Amazon must do the same.
  • Digital and physical goods may not be sellable by the same firm, through the same retail channels. How many record stores have you been to lately? We may not like it, but it’s real.
  • Neither B&M bookstores nor conventional publishers are essential to keep the book business alive and vibrant. We may not like that either, but it’s true.
  • Publishing will probably become a basket of unbundled services. Big basket, big price. Smaller basket (if you can do some of the work yourself) smaller price. (I have an unfinished entry on this very subject.)
  • The real problem in bookselling is discovery. This is not a new insight, and however the book publishing industry rearranges itself, discovery will remain the core challenge. You need to learn something about this, and although I’ll have more to say about it here in the future, this is an interesting and pertinent book.

And to conclude, some odd thoughts:

  • The future of print-media bookselling may lie in used bookselling. Used bookstores seem to be doing OK, and it’s no great leap to imagine them taking a certain number of new books. Expect it to be a small number, and expect them to be sold without return privileges.
  • The book publishing business may fragment into segments that bear little business model resemblance to one another. Genre books work very well as ebooks. Technical books, not so much.
  • Change is not only inevitable, it’s underway. Brittle will be fatal.

Any questions?

Brittle Publishers

I spent a couple of hours yesterday catching up on posts I hadn’t seen before concerning the Amazon vs. Hachette conflict. Most of it was what I call “nyahh-nyahh” stuff, which is easy to spot and click past. My eyes rolled so hard I could see my own pineal gland. I mean, really, is a ten billion dollar corporation “the little guy”?

In truth, the conflict is and will remain a standoff, for two major reasons:

  • Amazon is doing nothing illegal. I’ve covered this in some detail before.
  • Hachette (and the rest of the Big Five) can’t get what they want (in essence, to form an ebook cartel) without running afoul (again) of US antitrust law. (See the above link.)

So there’s nothing left to do but wage a PR war. This was The Latest Thing for awhile, though I think everybody is rapidly losing interest, probably because it’s really hard to make people feel sorry for James Patterson or Steven King. Calls for compromise will fail, as long as “compromise” remains what it is in today’s political sphere:

  • Unconditional surrender of the Wholly Evil Other (WEO) to My Tribe;
  • Self-humiliation of the WEO on national media, with apologies for existing;
  • A pledge by the WEO to do everything My Tribe tells it to do while quietly dismantling itself and vanishing.

What I found fascinating about yesterday’s session is that nobody is talking about what the Big Five should be doing, which is competing with Amazon. Duuhh. In wondering why, I was reminded of a phenomenon I read about twenty or thirty years ago: brittle thinking. In a business context, brittle thinking appears when an organization has been doing things its own way for so long that it literally can’t imagine any change that wouldn’t destroy it. My theory is that brittle thinking is a consequence of narratives that we tell and repeat to ourselves until they become a sort of Holy Writ that cannot be challenged, lest the world end. The older a business is, the more vulnerable it is to brittle thinking. This may be why so many successful companies eventually fail. A narrative, like a habit, is a cable. The Big Five are all tied up in their own cables, and have become what I call brittle publishers.

The Big Five could take on Amazon. They could even win. They probably won’t, because they may be too brittle to imagine the changes that will be necessary. I’ve refined my thinking on this, and will offer a few points, aimed squarely at the foreheads of the Brittles:

  • Break the Snowflake Mindset. Publishing is just a business. It has its quirks, like any other business. There is nothing magical or inherently special about it.
  • Get out of Manhattan and San Francisco. The Brittles’ mantra that nobody outside Manhattan knows anything about publishing is hooey. I used to run Arizona’s largest book publishing company from a dodgy industrial park in North Scottsdale. My fixed costs were probably a third (or less) of what they would have been in Manhattan. My staffers, furthermore, were nothing short of brilliant. If it can be done in Scottsdale, it can be done in Omaha, Denver, Des Moines, or any other mid-sized heartland city. Hell, I bet I could do it in Cozad, Nebraska.
  • Eliminate DRM completely. Many have commented that DRM was what caused the platform lock-in that gave control of the ebook market to Amazon. Yup. And it was the publishers that demanded that DRM. The only way to reduce piracy to manageable levels is to make the product cheap, good, and easily purchased. Oh–and don’t try to claw back what the honest customers have paid for, or you’ll just be giving them a full ride to Pirate University.
  • And now, the biggie: Create an electronic retailer to rival Amazon.

Huh? What? Am I crazy?

Of course. I’m an SF writer. Tune in tomorrow, boys and girls, for our next exciting episode!

Odd Lots

Daywander

CornRoastJeffCarol1969-500Wide.jpg

Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.

On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.

_…_

Two Readers - 500 Wide.jpg

I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.

Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)

Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.

Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.

_…_

ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)

Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.

_…_

Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)