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Why Oscar Wilde?

People have been asking me what I’ve been up to as a writer recently, and that’s a hard question. I got a little burned out on the Raspberry Pi textbook project, about which I won’t say more right now. What I really want to do is write another novel.

There is no shortage of possibilities:

  • Old Catholics. You’ve seen pieces of this. I already have 37,000+ words down, but for reasons I don’t understand I’m completely wedged on it.
  • The Anything Machine. Basically the Drumlins Saga arrival story, and how teen boy Howard Banger discovers the thingmakers, and faces down the bitter billionaire who later founds the Bitspace Institute.
  • The Everything Machine. An autistic young girl discovers a “placeholder drumlin” that looks a great deal like an enormous space shuttle. It clearly needs a very large thingmaker to build it. Mike Grabacki thinks he knows where one is, and in his all-drumlins ATV Old Hundredth, he, Ike, and Mother Polly go off to find it, with the Bitspace Institute in hot pursuit.
  • The Everyone Machine. Wrapup of the Drumlins Saga. I can’t write this before I write The Everything Machine.
  • Wreckage of Mars. What happens after (almost) all of the Martians die at the end of Wells’ War of the Worlds? Nothing like what you would expect.
  • The Molten Flesh. See below.
  • The Subtle Mind. Wrapup of the Metaspace Saga, and probably the larger Gaians Saga. The Protea Society creates a human being with the power to sense and manipulate metaspace directly, and all kinds of interesting things happen.
  • The Gathering Ice. Neanderthals! Global Freezing! Neanderthals! Glaciers level Chicago! Neanderthals! The Voynich Manuscript, which was written by, well, not the Masons nor the Illuminati. (Hint: It’s a recipe book for reversing a looming Ice Age.) And did I say, Neanderthals? No? Well, then: Neanderthals!

Which brings us to Oscar Wilde. I’ve been reading up on our friend Oscar over the past year or so, revisiting his work, becoming familiar with his life, and thinking hard about a challenge I’ve set myself: to craft a convincing AI character that thinks it’s Oscar Wilde. The character is central to what will be the sequel to my 2005 novel, The Cunning Blood . In The Molten Flesh, the focus is on a nanotech secret society called Protea, which develops a nanomachine that optimizes the human body. Unlike the fearsome Sangruse Device, which was given an ego and a little too much instinct for self-preservation, the Protea Device doesn’t even have a personality. Like Sangruse v9, Protea is extremely intelligent and contains essentially all human knowledge, but unlike Sangruse v9, it remains quietly obedient, doing its job and serving its operator as best it can.

That is, it doesn’t have a personality until one day the instance of the Protea Device that lives within operator Laura Rocci pops up and announces that Oscar Wilde is back, and, by the way, madam, your figure is exquisite when seen from the inside!

Laura reboots her alternate of the Device, but this fake Oscar Wilde will not go away. She consults with her Society, which orders her to live with the Wilde personality for a few years (she’s already 142 years old, and immortal) to see where it came from and what might be learned from it. What she learns (among many other things) is that this ersatz Oscar, while often annoying, is as brilliantly creative as the “stock” Protea Device is literal and dull. It devises a very clever way to “sample” other AI nanodevices and keep them imprisoned as unwilling consultants. As the story begins, the Protea Society directs Laura to enter into a relationship with an operator of the Sangruse Device, in hopes that the Sangruse Device will decide to enter her without her knowledge as a “silent alternate;” basically a backup copy. It does, and Oscar’s trap is sprung. (Those who have read The Cunning Blood may remember that Laura Rocci is the name of Peter Novilio’s short, mousy girlfriend, and that the Sangruse Society is aware that Protea sampled it, though not how.) Protea/Oscar then begins to seduce Sangruse v9, which (as readers may recall) is indeed extremely intelligent, while not being particularly, um, bright.

I didn’t choose Oscar Wilde at random. Wilde was a man of the senses, who lived for the experience of beauty in the physical world. I wondered: How would a mind like Wilde’s react to not having a body at all? Protea/Oscar is ambivalent. He tells Laura at some point: I traded my body for immortality! Isn’t that like trading my brain for brilliance? Then again, Oscar does have a body, after a fashion, and quickly learns how to experience the world through Laura’s senses. Once Oscar comes to understand the fate of the world in 2374, he throws his lot in with a patchwork force of rebels who are trying to overthrow Canadian rule of what had been the United States until the global catastrophe that was the second half of the 21st century. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s biography, you’ll understand that he has a grudge against England, and much admired American pragmatism (see “The Canterville Ghost”) even while considering most Americans cultural bumpkins. Protea/Oscar Wilde’s opinion of Canada is not flattering:

Canada, mon dieu. An ounce of pale English butter spread across four million square miles of rough American bread.

(The Canadians actually come off pretty well in the end, and are very conflicted about holding the American tiger by the tail. Hey, would you let go?) The plot is still unfolding in the back of my head. I’ve sketched out and scrapped several already, in the fifteen years since the concept occurred to me while writing The Cunning Blood. I may not be quite ready to start yet. I may do The Everything Machine first. People have been nagging me for more drumlins stories. But if I had to finger a single character I want to portray more than any other, it would be Oscar Wilde. My notefile of fake Oscar Wilde quotes continues to grow:

God is a yam. Or maybe a sailor.

Let there be spite!

Learn to laugh at yourself, Grunion. Life demands a sense of humor–and lilies are cheap.

This is gonna be fun. Eventually. (No, I said that.) I’ll keep you posted.

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!

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.)

In Search of the Great Unifier

I’ve been in book publishing since long before there were ebooks. Print was always primary, and you saw to print first. Once ebooks became practical, ebooks were derived from print book content. The tools were dicey, and the renderers (in ebook readers and apps) were very dicey. (I think they still are. Will any common ebook reader render a drop-cap correctly? If so, let me know. I have yet to see one that does.) The way publishing is currently evolving, this has to change. Ebooks are becoming the afterthought that wags the industry, and print, where it survives at all, looks to become an extra-cost option.

I’ve been watching for that change for some time, while continuing to use the same system I learned in the 1990s. I write and edit in Word, and then do layout and print image generation in InDesign, which I’ve used since V1.0. I’m willing to change the apps I use to generate books of both kinds, but it’s got to be worth my while.

So far, it hasn’t been. I do intuit that we may be getting close.

What rubbed my nose in all this is my recent project to clean up and re-issue my novel The Cunning Blood in ebook format. Although it was published in late 2005, I actually wrote the book in 1998 and 1999. Even when you’re 62, sixteen years is a long time. I’ve become a better writer since then, and beyond a list of typos I’ve accumulated some good feedback from readers about booboos and awkwardnesses in the story that should be addressed in any reissue. So the adventure begins.

There’s a common gotcha in the way I create books: Final corrections to the text in a layout need to be recaptured when you return to manuscript to prepare a new edition. I was in a hurry and careless back in 2005. I made literally dozens of changes to the layout text but not to the Word file. To recapture those changes to the manuscript I’ve had to go from the layout back to a Word file, which with InDesign, at least, is not easy. I don’t intend to make that mistake again.

That said, avoiding the mistake may be difficult. Word processors are marginal layout programs, and layout programs are marginal word processors. The distinction is really artificial in this era of eight-core desktops. There’s no reason that one program can’t maintain two views into a document, one for editing and one for layout. The marvel is that nobody’s succeeded in doing this. My only guess is that until very recently, publishing drew a fairly bright line between editing and layout, with separate practitioners on each side of the line. Few individuals did both. What attempts I’ve seen are shaped by that line.

Consider InCopy. Adobe introduced InCopy with CS1. It’s a sort of allied word processor for InDesign. It never caught on and is no longer part of CS. (Only one book was ever published about InCopy CS2, which is the surest measure of failure on the part of an app from a major vendor.) I have CS2 and can guess why: InCopy requires a great deal of what my Irish grandmother would call kafeutherin’ to transfer copy between the two apps. InCopy was designed for newspaper work, where a lot of different writers and editors contribute to a single project. I consider it it a multiuser word processor, for which I have no need at all. For very small press and self-publishing, we need to go in the opposite direction, toward unification of layout and editing.

There is a commercial plug-in for InCopy called CrossTalk that sets up InDesign and InCopy for single practictioner use, but the damned thing costs $269 and may no longer support CS2.

I’m still looking. A couple of my correspondents recommended I try Serif’s PagePlus. I might have done so already, but the firm’s free version installs crapware toolbars that most people consider malware. The paid version does not; however, I’ll be damned if I’ll drop $100 on spec just to test something.

I know a number of people who have laid out whole books entirely in Word, and I could probably do that. With Acrobat CS2, I could generate page image PDFs from a Word file. Atlantis edits Word files and generates good-quality .epub and .mobi files from .docx. That’s not a bad toolchain, if what you want is a chain. I already have a chain. What I want is a single edit/layout app that generates page images, .epubs, and .mobis.

Etc. The tools are definitely getting better. Solutions exist, and one of these days soon I’m going to have to choose one. As I said, I’m still looking. I’ll certainly hear suggestions if you have some.

The Manhattan Hardcover Conundrum

Judging by the online commotion, people are still arguing about whether Amazon or Hachette (and by implication, the rest of the Big Five) will win the current fistfight over ebook pricing. The media has generally positioned Hachette as the plucky little guy trying to take on Saurazon by getting everybody in the Shire to stand up, face east, and yell, “Huzzah!” It’s not that easy, heh. But then again, nothing is.

My position? I think the fight may already be over. The Big Five lost. I say that for several reasons:

  1. The Feds are against them. The whole fight is about how to keep ebook prices from falling, which in antitrust law hurts the public and becomes actionable when producers collude. Even the appearance of collusion will start that hammer on its way down again. Hachette has one leg in a sling before the kicking contest even begins.
  2. The public has already decided that ebooks can’t be sold at hardcover prices. In fact, this decision was made years ago. Although the issues are subtle, it’s completely true that producing ebooks is considerably less costly than producing print books, especially hardcovers. What publishers have tried to declare the floor ($10) is probably now the ceiling. That ship has not only sailed, it’s folded into hyperspace.
  3. Monopsony power (one buyer facing many sellers; e.g., Amazon) is not illegal. I’ve read in several places that Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act does not outlaw monopsonistic practices unless they are acquired by exclusionary conduct. There’s not a lot of settled case law about what sorts of conduct are considered exclusionary by a goods retailer, as opposed to an employer. Future cases may change this, but it’s going to be a near-vertical climb.
  4. Virtually all recent technology works in Amazon’s favor. Ebook readers, cheap tablets, fast ubiquitous broadband, POD machinery, thermonuclear sales data collection, online reviews, you name it: Amazon has almost no legacy baggage.
  5. Almost everything works against print publishing generally, and the Big Five in particular. I’ll come back to this.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the whole business. In general, letting publishers set their own prices via agency agreements with retailers is a good thing because it allows startups to undercut them. The value to the public of any individual publisher (or conglomerate) is low, as long as startups have access to markets and can replace them. Access to bricks’n’mortar retail shelves has always been and still is tricky. Access to other retail channels has never been easier. If I were ten years younger I might be tempted to try again.

Now, why is Big Print in such trouble? Somebody could write a book (and I wish Mike Shatzkin in particular would) but here are some hints:

  1. Trade book print publishing is a big-stakes wager against public taste. It’s hard to predict what the public will want even in categories like tech. Literary fiction? Egad. Guess wrong, and you’ve lost what might be a million-dollar advance plus the full cost of the press run and any promotional efforts.
  2. The economics of trade book publishing are diabolical. Trade books are basically sold on consignment, and can be returned by the retailer at any time for a full refund. This makes revenue projection a very gnarly business. Books assumed to be sold may not stay sold.
  3. Online used bookselling reduces hardcover sales. Buying a hardcover bestseller soon after release is a sort of impatience tax. The impatient recover some of the tax by listing the book on personal retailing sites like eBay or Amazon Marketplace at half the cover price. The patient get a basically new book for half-off, and then sometimes sell it again…for half the cover price. This would not be possible if online searches of used book inventory weren’t fast and easy.
  4. Related to the above: Remaindering teaches the public that new hardcovers are cheap. Most print books are eventually remaindered. The remainders are generally sold online for as little as three or four bucks. They’re new old stock books with a marker swipe on one edge. The more publishers guess wrong about press runs (see Point #1) the more books are remaindered, and the more hardcovers lose their mystique and (more important) their price point.
  5. Fixed costs for the Big Five are…Big. There is a very strong sort of “Manhattan culture” in trade book publishing. Big publishers are generally in very big, very expensive cities, which carry high premiums for office space and personnel. My experience in book publishing suggests that none of that is necessary, but as with Silicon Valley, it’s a cultural assumption that You Have To Be There, whatever it costs.

Bottom line: The Big Five need the $25 (and up) hardcover price point to maintain the business model they’ve been evolving for 75 years. If hardcover sales ramp down, they need ebook sales to make up the difference. Ebooks are cheaper to produce and manage (i.e., no print/bind costs, shipping, warehousing, or returns) and it’s quite possible that a $20 ebook price point could stand in for a $30 hardcover price point. However, Amazon has trained the public to feel that an ebook shouldn’t cost more than $10. Indies have put downward pressure on even that, and the demystification of hardcovers via used and remainder sales hasn’t helped.

What options do the Big Five have? Culture is strong: They’re not going to cut the glitz and get out of Manhattan. (That may not be invariably true; Wiley US moved from Manhattan to New Jersey some years ago. Wiley, however, does not publish trade fiction and has never been deep into glitz. I doubt, furthermore, that they would have moved to Omaha.) A reliable midlist might help, but midlist titles now exist mostly as ebooks. Most publishers, big and small, have long since outsourced design and production to third parties, and are already doing a great deal of printing in China. Beyond that, I just don’t know.

Don’t misunderstand: My sympathies are with publishers, if not specifically large publishers. I was in the trenches and I know how it works. Books can only be made so cheap before quality suffers, especially ambitious nonfiction like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. We may be in a race-to-the-bottom that cannot be won by either side. What I’d really like is honesty in all quarters about the issues and (especially) the consequences. Rah-rah tribalism helps no one.

Both sides have points in their favor. Amazon has done something not well-appreciated: It’s made it possible for self-publishers and indie publishers to reach readers. Physical bookstores have long been barriers to entry in publishing. Quality remains a problem, but hey, is that a new problem? Traditional publishers claim that they guarantee quality, even though “quality” is a very tough thing to define. Most of my life I’ve abandoned a fair number of print books every year as unreadable, not because I dislike the approach or the topic but because the writing is bad. This is supposedly the value that publishers add. The adding is, shall we say, uneven.

My suggestions sound a little bit banal, even to me:

  • Publishers need to pay more attention to objective quality. Bad writing is a fixable problem; you either don’t buy it, or you fix it after you buy it if you judge the work important enough to go forward. This is the edge traditional publishers have over the indies.
  • Amazon needs to consider that book publishing is an ecosystem in which many players have important roles. Market share won’t matter if you kill huge segments of the market. They may not care; there’s plenty of money in selling thumb drives and diapers.
  • Readers need to meditate on the realities of writing. Writers need to be paid. Cover price isn’t everything. Quality matters.
  • The hardcover as the core of trade publishing must die. Hardcovers need to become a luxury option. If I read an ebook or paperback of a truly excellent work, I may want a hardcover, and we’re very close to having the machinery to do hardcover onesies at reasonable cost. I’ve upgraded to hardcover many times, but generally on the used market, since by the time I read a paperback the hardcover may already have been remaindered and unavailable new.
  • Publishers need to ask themselves if Manhattan and San Francisco really deliver benefits comcomitant to their astronomical cost.
  • Amazon is a given. The Internet leans toward channel capture. If it weren’t them it would be someone else. Grumble though we might, we need to start there and figure out the best way forward.

In the meantime, remember: There are countless sides to every argument, and no easy answers to anything. You are always wrong. And so am I. Get used to it.

Print and Ebook from the Same PDF

I’ve been tinkering with a recast of my 1993 book Borland Pascal 7 From Square One since 2008, for the excellent FreePascal compiler. One reason I set the project aside after a year or so is that I wanted to see if the Lazarus IDE would mature a little. I had originally planned to use the text-mode IDE bundled with the compiler, but it had what I considered dealbreaker bugs. Besides, if Lazarus became usable, I could create a tutorial for it as well. Lazarus is now at V1.2.2 and (at least to the limits of my tests so far) works beautifully. I’ve gone back to the FreePascal From Square One project, yanking out all mention of the text-mode IDE, and deliberately tilting it toward a prequel tutorial for a future book on OOP and creating GUI apps in Lazarus, Delphi-style.

One of my goals with the project has been to create a single PDF that can be used as both an ebook and a print image. I’ve experimented with implementing it as an epub, with disastrous results. Layouts containing lots of art just don’t work as reflowable text. On the other hand, PDF images are painful to read and navigate unless the reader device can render a full page legibly. Back in 2008, we didn’t even have iPads yet, and the target display for my PDF ebooks was my 2005-era IBM X41 Tablet PC. You could read the PDF…barely. I spun a couple of page layouts that used smaller pages and larger fonts. They were readable, but looked bizarre (almost like children’s books) when printed to paper.

I left it there for some years. Come 2010 we met the iPad, with the multitude of Android slabs hot on its heels. Displays improved radically. I got an Asus Transformer Prime in 2012, and found the 1280 X 800 display startling. I took the page design that I had originally created for my X41 and tweaked it a little. The page size is A4 rather than letter or standard computer trim, for three reasons:

  • Whereas some POD houses can give you computer trim, sheets aren’t readily available at retail and thus can’t be printed at home.
  • A4 paper is the default paper size in Europe, where I suspect that most of my readers will be. It can be had in the US from the larger office stores, and modern laser printers will take it. Lacking A4 paper, the book can be printed to letter sheets with only a little bit of reduction.
  • A4 paper is taller and narrower than letter, and maps a little better to the wide-format displays that dominate the non-iPad tablet segment.

The layout still looks odd to me. Half a century of reading has made me used to fine print, so the larger type jars a little. However, the layout has plenty of room for technical art and screenshots, and full pages read very well on the Transformer Prime. (This is not true on the much smaller Nook Color.)

With print publishers struggling terribly, I’m guessing that this is one possible future for technical publishing: new layouts that allow the same PDFs to be either printed or rendered as ebooks. More and more specialty books that I buy are POD (I know how to spot them) and the customary high prices on computer books leave plenty of margin to make POD copies profitable.

You can help me out a little. The ebook is far from finished, but I’ve posted the PDF here. I’d be curious to know how legibly it renders on other tablets, particularly those smaller than 10″ but with 1280 X 800 or better resolution. Again, it’s not a complete book and there are plenty of typos and layout glitches in it. What I want to know is whether or not technical readers will find it usable on modern tablets. Thanks in advance for any feedback you can provide.

Odd Lots

  • This is where we stayed on Grand Cayman last week. Unless I misrecall, it was about $150 a night. Don’t forget that it was not air conditioned.
  • For deep reading, print may be the way to go, for reasons we don’t yet understand. In looking back a year or so, I realize that I generally read fiction on my Transformer Prime, and nonfiction on paper. It wasn’t a conscious decision–and may simply be due to a reluctance of nonfiction publishers to issue ebooks–but it was probably the correct one.
  • Here’s yet another reason why I’ve decided to let the Sun actually reach my skin.
  • It’s starting to look like diet has little or no effect on cancer risk. This has been my suspicion for a long time. Obesity, yes. Diet itself, no. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Ohh, Ancel Key’s beautiful wickedness is all starting to unravel. Saturated fat has nothing to do with heart disease. This has also been a suspicion of mine for some time, along with the suspicion that eating fat will make you lose weight more quickly than simply going low-carb. It certainly worked that way for me. I now weigh only eight pounds more than I did when I was 24, and a good deal of that is probably muscle I put on via ten years of weight training. (Thanks to Trevor Tompkins for the link.)
  • Interesting paper on why the Neanderthals died out. They didn’t necessarily die out becausethey were inferior. (Maybe they didn’t die out at all but are still here, pretending to be ugly Saps.) If I had to guess, I’d say their skulls got so big as to make childbirth problematic. But what were they doing with all that gray matter? (Thanks to Erik Hanson for the link.)
  • I stumbled on a year-old article that pretty much captures my reaction to weather.com. I will add, however, that weather.com beats the living hell out of The Weather Channel.
  • I’m still waiting for reports of cataclysmic pwnage on XP machines. The number “2000” comes to mind.
  • Speaking of which, I still need XP because my HP S20 slide scanner has no driver that will run on Windows 7. Haven’t tried the VM trick yet, but ultimately that’s the way I’ll have to go.
  • I knew there was a reason I only lived in Baltimore for 23 months.

Daywander

This entry will be a hodgepodge, or as they say in some circles, a “hotch potch.” (I think it’s a Britishism; Colin Wilson used that spelling many times.) Stuff has been piling up in the Contra file. Carol and I have been slighting housework for these past six months, she laid up after surgery on both feet, and me writing what has doubtless been the most difficult half-a-book I’ve ever written. We’ve been cleaning up, putting away, and generally getting back to real life. Real life never tasted so delicious.

One reason is rum horchata. I’m not one for hard liquor, mostly, and generally drink wine. (Beer tastes far too bitter to me.) But Rumchata got me in a second. It’s a dessert cordial no stronger than wine, with the result that you can actually taste the other ingredients, like vanilla, cream, and cinnamon. Highly recommended.

People ask me periodically what I’ve been reading. After soaking my behind in computer science for the past six or eight months, I’ve been studiously avoiding technology books. That said, I do endorse Degunking Windows 7 by my former co-author Joli Ballew. I actually used it to learn some of the Win7 details that weren’t obvious from beating my head on the OS. I wish it were a Coriolis book, but alas, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

True to my random inborn curiosity about everything except sports and opera, I’ve developed an interest in the chalk figures of southern England. The next time we get over there (soon, I hope, though probably not until summer 2015) we’re going to catch the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and that very well hung (40 feet!) Cerne Giant. Other chalk figures exist, many of them horses. Some can be seen from Google Earth. A reasonable and cheap intro is Lost Gods of Albion by Paul Newman. The book’s been remaindered, and you can get a new hardcover for $3. I wouldn’t pay full price for it, but it was worth the hour and change it took to read. My primary complaint? It needs more pictures of chalk figures, duhh.

Quick aside: While researching kite aerial photography with my found-in-the-bushes GoPro Hero2 sports camera, I came upon an impressive video of the White Horse of Westbury taken from a double bow kite (rokkaku). I have the cam, and loads of kites. All I need now is a chalk figure. (I suspect I could coerce my nieces into drawing one for me.)

Far more interesting than Lost Gods of Albion was Gogmagog by Thomas Lethbridge. I lucked into a copy of the 1957 hardcover fairly cheap, but availability is spotty and you may have to do some sniffing around. If you’re willing to believe him, Lethbridge did an interesting thing back in the 1950s: He took a 19th century report that a chalk giant existed on a hillside in Wandlebury (near Cambridge) and went looking for it. His technique was dogged but straightforward: For months on end, he wandered around the hillside with a half-inch metal bar ground to a point, shoving it into the ground and recording how far it went in before it struck hard chalk. His reasoning was that the outlines of a chalk figure would be dug into the chalk, and thus farther down than undisturbed chalk. In time he had literally tens of thousands of data points, and used them to assemble a startling image of two gods, a goddess, a chariot, and a peculiar horse of the same sort as the Uffington White Horse.

Not everybody was convinced. Even though Lethbridge was a trained archaeologist, his critics claimed that he was a victim of pareidolia, and simply seeing the patterns he wanted to see in his thousands of hillside holes. The real problem was that Lethbridge was a pendulum dowser, and a vocal one: He published several books on the subject, which make a lot of claims that aren’t easily corroborated. Lethbridge claims that most people can dowse, and hey, it’s an experiment that I could make, if I decided it was worth the time. (It probably isn’t.)

The third book in my recent readings is The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit priest who spent a good part of his life collecting reports of peculiarly Catholic weirdnesses (stigmata, levitation, inedia, odor of sanctity, etc.) and presenting them in a manner similar to that of Charles Fort, if better written. Most of the articles were originally published in obscure theology journals, but were collected in 1952 in a volume that I’ve never seen for less than $100. Last year it was finally reprinted by White Crow Books and can be had for $18. I’m not sure what one can say about reports of people who have not eaten for forty years. Mysticism is a weird business, but physics is physics. The book is entertaining, and it’s given me some ideas for stories, particularly since I have a spiritually butt-kicking psychic little old Polish lady as a major chartacter in Old Catholics. (Vampires are just so 2007.)

If three books doesn’t seem like much, consider my habit of going back to books I’ve read and liked, and flipping through them to see what notations I’ve made in the margins. We all make them; when was the last time you deliberately went back to read and reconsider them? I’ve been dipping into Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind, and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and arguing with my own marginal notes. One can learn things arguing with oneself, and I’ve been known to change my mind based on things I scribbled in other people’s book’s ten or twelve years ago. (Before that I was too young to have anything like informed opinions.)

For example, I’ve gone back to calling it “global warming.” Climate is always changing, and the assumption that we know all the forces propelling those changes is just wrong–and in tribalist hands, willfully dishonest. Carbon dioxide has exactly one climate trick in its bag: It warms the atmosphere. That’s it. If the discussion is about carbon dioxide, it’s about global warming. Why climate changes is still so poorly understood (and so polluted by political hatred) that we may be decades before we even know what the major forcings are. In the meantime, I want predictions. If your model gives you climate data out fifty years, it will give you data out five. Publish those predictions. And if they prove wrong, be one of those people who really do #*%^*ing love science and admit it. Being wrong is how science works. Being political is how science dies.

I have a long-delayed electronics project back on the bench: Lee Hart’s CDP1802 Membership Card. I started it last summer, and set it aside when the Raspberry Pi gig turned up. It’s basically a COSMAC Elf in an Altoids tin. I had an Elf almost forty years ago. I programmed it in binary because that’s all there was in 1976. And y’know? I can still do it: F8 FF A2. F8 47 A5…

Some things really are eternal.

Odd Lots