Writing on the Ether: The Age of Amazon

Janus: One hairy eyeball on 2012. (iStockphoto / xochicalco)
Janus: One hairy eyeball on 2012. (iStockphoto / xochicalco)

Flirting with foolishness
Top of the year to you
The Age of Amazon
The Passion of the Author
A man and his social media
Driven to distribution
“Digital-first” publishers and ebook pricing
Publishing with its pants down again?
Quick whiffs of fresh Ether
“Laws that we happen not to be enforcing”
Checking out libraries this week
“Occupy Language”
Christopher Hitchens

Special note added Friday 23 December:

An Ethereally italicized salute from the Tropic of Porter to #JaneFriedman, hashtag unto herself, whose JaneFriedman.com: Being Human at Electric Speed was just named one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2011/2012. The Ether could not have a finer host, and our publishing community couldn’t be led by a smarter analyst, teacher, and friend. Congratulations, Jane

(Writers: Jane is one of the leading lights in the strong lineup of speakers at Writers Digest Conference (#WDC12) — more about that is in this edition of the Ether here, with my secret code for a discount. Do join us there.)

Flirting with foolishness

I don’t make predictions. Especially at this time of year. It lies before us, the future does. ‘Tis the reason: I just don’t know.

I think even less of “year in review” rolls in the heyday — columns, posts, StoryCorps-weepy workovers. Remember how we got lost in the Amazone after the opéra bouffe  “Ah, Borders” became no longer hummable? Dude, we were there. Keep your coals in your own Christmas stocking. We have onboard memories, you know. Who asked to be put through it all again? 2011 was a dog of a year. Let it lie.

Hold, instead, two developments in your mind as current motifs–two contextual overrides that didn’t “happen,” as the year-enders love to tell us, but that simply have become unavoidably apparent. As Rumi seems to have said all those centuries ago, they are “the here and now.”

  1. The Age of Amazon is upon us; and
  2. The Passion of the Author, an unholy Oberammergau, is curtain-up at last.
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Get past that unseemly business of the Amazon price-check app and the fact that your Kindle Fire needed its 6.2.1 update (thank you, Laura Hazard Owen). And stop backing the bookmobile over Farhad Manjoo for writing ill of independent bookstores. The pax Amazonia simply hovers more imposingly over the major cities of Earth than we expected it would. I’m going to offer you a thoroughly helpful article about that.

And even as the Big Sick publishers writhe under their new overlord, authorial authority raises its keyboard-imprinted head and starts speaking aloud. I’ll give you that one, too. It’s a PR director’s Badlands dream.

Now, the exception to most rules has weighed in: Don Linn in 2012: Revenge of the Plumbers observes, “Some very exciting things are said to be forthcoming (or at least hoped for) for the coming 12-24 months. Some may actually happen.”  But he goes on, rightly, to caution:

Let’s not forget that we’ll need lots of new systems, software, infrastructure and yes (in many cases) people to make these things work properly…the nerds, geeks and dirty-fingernail men and women who make things work behind the scenes so that the shiny new products and services the public sees work…They’ll be the heroes, even if largely unrecognized, this year. Publishers overlook them at their risk.

Sibyl from Sam Missingham's futurebook predictions parts 1 and 2
I’ve lifted Sam Missingham’s lovely Sibyl, the prophetess, from her compendia of 2012 predictions at TheFutureBook.

And I’m also adding Sam Missingham‘s two-part compilation of many of our predictions (I phrased mine as Shatzkinian questions, see below). TheFutureBook’s 2012 publishing predictions part 1 and 2012 publishing predictions part 2 pull together so many leading voices that they really bear a few minutes of your time and thought.

Have a drink in hand. It’s going to be a bumpy year.

We’re told by Derek Thompson, boy editor at The Atlantic, that Last Year Had the Slowest U.S. Population Growth in 70 Years. Well, Derek. That’s because every American already born was at the National Kitchen Table writing her or his masterpiece. No time to do the other thing. And there’s no time to look back in queasiness, either.

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This is why I’m grateful to have Mike Shatzkin rescue us all with the still small voice of sanity we need most to hear, as the odometer prepares its forward somersault. His new write is No predictions this year; just questions. Smart already, see? That’s why Mr. Mike floats highest on this week’s Ether.

Shatzkin tells us: “Any honest futurist (and I try to be one) has to admit that questions outnumber answers.” Maybe you need his decades in the business to get past fortunetelling fever and concede this. He did take a whack at it for Digital Book World, mind you, on two points: thumbs up for better digital royalties, but potentially thumbs down for some publishing workers amid reorganization.

Here, I’ll highlight a very few of the 2012 Shatzkinian quandaries, in hopes of steering you over to Idea Logical to see the others where they glisten on the branches of enviably evergreen experience.

  • The biggest publishers: Can their use of tech at scale — SEO and pricing seem like top candidates — add demonstrable value, cost-effective for them and persuasive to authors?
  • Independent bookstores: Will emphasizing the books-as-objects market (gifts and otherwise) work as the customers for narrative text find it less and less necessary to visit physical locations?
  • Authors: How do they know that their agent understands the new range of publishing options and directs their business activity accordingly? (It’s as hard to be effective as your own agent as it is to be your own lawyer.)
  • Agents: How do they make sure the full range of knowledge about the digital publishing alternatives is within their grasp? (if not in their head…)

And that, my hand-sold Ethernaut, is how to face a new year. With questions at the ready.

If you must search out the prognosticators, I’ll recommend the broadly based bevy of them writing for the Neiman Journalism Lab in its Predictions for Journalism 2012. They include Nicholas Carr going on about “appification,” deep in the Shallows of his Internet-diving success.

But for publishing? My money’s on the Shatzkin Protocol. Never mind the predictive prattle of pundits. Say “amen!” to the artful admission of “I don’t know,” sisters and brothers. Then go forth in good faith, with hope in your heart. And a fine brandy in your  eggnog.

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Top of the year to you

As long as DBW has come up, I’ve got two bellwether hashtags for you: #DBW12 and its sister #WDC12. Yes, it’s that second-most-wonderful time of the year and if you’re not registered for Writer’s Digest Conference (20-22 January) or Digital Book World Conference + Expo (23-25 January) you may miss out on the real winter wonderland and all the flight delays that go with it.

I’ll have much more on those and other confab-ulary topics. For now: registration, hotel, flights. Get cracking.

And for #WDC12, by the power vested in the Ether here, I’m authorized to get you US$50 off your full registration if you use my special code WDCTWEET. Our Ether-eal host #JaneFriedman, hashtag unto herself, is on the Writer’s Digest speakers’ roster.  Don’t say I never gave you anything. See you there.

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The Age of Amazon

The current furor over the price comparison app, and the related #OccupyAmazon reaction, is unlikely to elicit any dramatic responses from Amazon. Where other companies might respond with overwrought displays of contrition and dramatic conciliatory gestures, Amazon will likely do the minimum necessary, wait out the storm, and move on.  Amazon dealing with its market is the corporate equivalent of a patient, low-reactor parent dealing with a child throwing a tantrum.

As Eoin Purcell pointed out on his own blog, Venkatesh Rao at Forbes, has one of the firmest grasps yet on the Amazonian temperament, in Why Amazon Is The Best Strategic Player In Tech. This is a long write. Take a pill and read it all, you 21st-century bundle of nerves. As the revelatory write I spoke of above, this one deserves being quoted at greater length than I can do here. But I’ll give you what Rao identifies as Bezos’ potential Achilles heel: PR.

Is Rao right about Amazon’s PR vulnerability and industry “isolation?” As a Prime member who’s not unhappy with the updated Kindle Fire, I say do not hold your breath.

Nobody completely trusts Amazon. There is a degree of social isolation it suffers in the corporate landscape. Customers, suppliers, affiliates, partners — everybody has learned to be on their guard when dealing with Amazon. Nobody ever enters a relationship with Amazon with wholehearted enthusiasm. Only with a certain reluctance. You deal with Amazon mostly because you have to, not because you want to. This lack of relationship capital may start to matter one day. But today is not that day. Today we succumb. Today we welcome our Amazonian Overlords.

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I’ve got a wry treat for you. Consider it a three-years-ago-in-review piece:

Amazon has, so far, created huge value for the publishing ecosystem. Now, as they become more powerful, they need to be especially watchful that they don’t irreparably damage an industry on which they too depend.

That’s the prescient Tim O’Reilly. In April 2008. His post is titled Publishers Beware: Amazon has you in their sights.

Amazon has seemingly embarked on a number of strategies to lock-in both consumers and publishers. It is a free-market economy, and competition is the name of the game. But as Amazon’s market power increases, it needs to be mindful of whether its moves, even those that may be good for the company in the short term, are ultimately destructive of the ecosystem on which they depend. I believe that they are heading in that direction, and if they succeed with some of their initiatives, they will wake up one day to discover that they’ve sown the seeds of their own destruction, just as Microsoft did in the 1990s.

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And suffice it to say, as the year ends, our regular book-industry writers aren’t slow to describe a bigger battle to come. Rachel Deahl and Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly — like Shatzkin, more incliined to ask than foretell — say it this way, in Is Amazon Pushing Publishers to Brink On Terms, Co-op?

More problematically, for many in the industry, the latest talks with Amazon are being described as less of a dialogue than a dictation of terms. As one source explained, the talks have boiled down to “what publishers can do for Amazon, and not what Amazon can do for publishers.” Most ironically, the new terms would allow Amazon to continue to gain market share as it always has: driving book prices down. As one source put it: “If Amazon wants to improve its margins, it should cut back on the discounting.”

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The Passion of the Author

Dear BookBiz Santa,

  • Please give us sales numbers we can actually understand. Make royalty statements as clear as possible re: HOW MANY BOOKS we have actually SOLD.
  • In the same vein, it would be nice to know more often than every 6 months how we’re doing sales-wise. And no, not just Bookscan numbers, which can at times report only up to 60% of our sales…
  • Isn’t it about time to end returns? Stripping and remaindering books is one of the stupidest practices in retail. Shelf times are becoming shorter, there’s no incentive to sell books from either the bookstore or the publisher sales reps, and the amount of money wasted is staggering.

Author M.J. Rose doesn’t stop there. She lists nine more Dear BookBiz Santa points on her note published at Writer Unboxed.

And if I were a “BookBiz Santa” publisher, I don’t think I’d drink the milk or eat the cookies.

Now, an interesting thing happened shortly after this edition of the Ether was published. Rose went into our comments to say that this letter, which appears entirely under her byline and over her footer at Writer Unboxed, represents not her views alone but those of a group of authors. Here is her comment:

Please correct your post about me asap – I was not complaining about my publisher – if you read the letter to Book Biz Santa all the way through it says it was written by me and 20 – that’s twenty – other authors. Only one of those gripes was by me and it applies to all publishers – raise the eroyalty rate.

The post at Writer Unboxed, however, did not make this clear. Her sign-off originally read “Love, M.J.…and many others.” That could simply be a way of saying, “I speak for a whole lot of other disgruntled people.” Neither I nor some colleagues looking hard at this post with me (thank you) could see any reference whatever to a group effort, nor to 20 other writers, nor to only one of the points in the Santa letter being Rose’s own. Nevertheless, I adjusted my original write in the spirit of collegial relations, although I could not verify that there was any mistake in my original write, as Rose asserted.

When I reached Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton of Writer Unboxed to get their sense of this post’s provenance, in fact, I got a very helpful and, as usual, cordial answer: “M.J.’s essay was posted as delivered, and altered this morning to reflect her clarifications.”

“This morning” being after Writing on the Ether was posted and after Rose objected to it. So now, when you see the post at Writer Unboxed, it does have a sign-off that refers to “M.J. … and more than twenty authors.” It also has been given a parenthetical note at the top in which Rose says that she has “collected these requests from more than twenty authors I know.” But it did not say these things originally, as the blog’s management kindly confirms. Writing on the Ether was not wrong on this.

And I stand by my original statement. However many authors, mentioned or unmentioned, write public complaints about bad experiences with traditional publishers? — that’s a PR nightmare for the industry. The dirty linen is out. And whoever is airing it so publicly this time goes on to write:

  • Please don’t tell us that you are going to base your marketing efforts on how many Facebook fans or Twitter followers we have. The way those sites work – ony 20%- 30% of the people who have signed up to our pages or who follow even see our posts/tweets.
  • Can we stop with the lies? No lies of omission. No lies of commission. Do not lie to us about how many ARCs you are sending out. Do not lie to us about how many books you are shipping. Do not lie to us about running ads…
  • And last but certainly not least…isn’t it time to raise the royalties on ebooks? You know it’s not fair. We know it’s not fair.

These are fighting words, aimed at an industry already showing way too much of its stuffing to the world at large. Claimed or not, these are the kinds of pointed questions (Shatzkinian but with the bite of bias) that authors are carrying into 2012. That’s what I mean earlier in this column by a contextual override. Authorial authority, rising. The option of self-distribution, however badly it’s mired in quality problems, has upended the publishing industry. When an author, or authors, pen this? Nobody’s going back.

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A man and his social media

During the past month, I’ve been testing a Facebook ad campaign for one of my books.

Here’s our friend, author Caleb J Ross in I Lost $75.48 on a Facebook ad campaign, and you can too! -Or- Can Facebook ads sell books? Quick answer: no. Long answer: Noooooooo. You probably have seen less detailed paperwork at a mortgage closing–Ross really went to town.

FacebookBookSales - From Caleb Ross' article
From Caleb J Ross’ article

After 10 days I was already seeing that clicks were not converting into sales. Halving the budget allowed me to continue testing the ad, but without totally losing my ass in the process…

    • Total Amount spent:  $79.48
    • Total Clicks: 152 (strange though that Google Analytics reported only 54 visits…)
    • Total events (clicks from the landing page to buy a book):  2…that’s not a misprint
    • Total estimated value: $5
    • Is the total estimated value for the campaign larger than the total amount spent? Hells no!
    • Average bounce rate: 85.19%
    • Average time on page: 1:22

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Driven to distribution

For many years the choke point in publishing was distribution.  That is no longer true with the rise of the ebook.  So the traditional route of writer-agent-editor-publisher-sales forces-book buyer-bookstore-reader has been broken.  We’ve got writer-reader (of course there is editing, formatting, etc. but that can be outsourced so it’s not a chokepoint any more).

Honestly, I haven’t always been author Bob Mayer’s biggest fan. My initial encounters with his comments on the industry made him seem  one of the loud, angry self-publishing set, a member of the Konrwrath-ful chorus that never feels properly appreciated and angles for some sort of “victory” over the evil traditional publishers.

Nowadays, however, Mayer makes quieter, more measured, less heated sense. “Be assertive but not obnoxious,” he writes. I’m down with that.

And I like the fact that in The real gatekeepers in publishing now? Authors, he’s putting the responsibility on himself and his fellow writers. Caveat: remember, this is another of our major self-publishers whose success is hard to emulate. There’s that 40-book backlist. As he writes, himself (and this is responsible of him, pay attention): “The majority of writers who are having the most success as indies have backlist, which is the sweat equity from the time they spent in the trenches in traditional publishing.”

But Mayer goes on to question the “indie” term for self-publishers, and I’m glad to see somebody query this usage of the term. “‘Indie’ is an interesting term,” he writes, “because in fact, I believe it’s very difficult to succeed on one’s own.  You’re going to need help with the books (editing, covers, formatting, etc) and you’re going to need help with the promoting.” Mayer might like to sell you some of those services;  he’s offering. But it’s good to hear the near-sanctity of that “indie” term questioned from within the camp itself.

For more on what Mayer is talking about here, check Jane Friedman’s superb post, one of her very best in 2011, Self-Published Authors Have Great Power, But Are They Taking Responsibility?

And in Mayer’s comments, I think we’re hearing now from the other side of the first bust-out. Self-publishing still has far too many issues rolling around like marbles on bad linoleum. Until professionalism is defined by demonstrable quality, the stigma will be a problem. That’s why it’s good to read what I hope becomes a kind of agenda-setting statement from leadership figures in Mayer’s last line: “Writers, your fate is in your hands now.”

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“Digital-first” publishers and ebook pricing

I don’t hear a lot of complaints about the digital-first publishers and their high prices… Digital-first publishers like Loose Id and Ellora’s Cave, among others, price their stories very high. Loose Id prices novellas at $4.99 and their full length books at $7.99. Ellora’s Cave charges $7.50 for full novels at their own site…The price isn’t deterring many readers from buying Laurann Dohner’s books. Brawn is a pre order and ranked in the top 50 of romances at Kindle with a digital list price of $8.75 and $6.65 discounted.  To Command and Collar by Cherise Sinclair published by LooseId is No. 66. The digital list price is $7.99 and the discounted price is $6.39.

That’s Jane Litte writing at Dear Author in a post headlined Digital First Publishers: High Price Points and Limited Availability.

Loose Id To Command and CollarIt caught my attention as a good chance to put a whole lot of skin on the Ether.

Just kidding. I’m hot, I mean in hot pursuit of the  concept she puts on the table, one I hadn’t considered: Are publishing houses that produce books initially in electronic form instead of print likelier to value them — and/or price them — more highly?

Ellora’s Cave — which has coined the term “romantica” for its emphasis on erotic romance — is known for having beaten a lot of major houses to a thriving business model built on subscriptions and ebooks.  This has been covered at Digital Book World by both Jeremy Greenfield (DBW Profiles: Raelene Gorlinsky, Publisher, Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.) and by Tim Brandhorst (Learning from Ellora’s Cave).

Susan Edwards is the chief operating officer of Ellora’s Cave.

“We have spent a lot of time experimenting with pricing for our digital books in the past year,” Edwards says. “Our CEO, Patty Marks, worked with a group of authors to try out different pricing strategies and find that sweet spot where readers felt they were getting their money’s worth without devaluing the authors’ work. In so many of the discussions about book pricing, people talk about overhead–such as printing, paper and distribution costs–but not about the author’s investment. Yes, digital books should cost less than print books, and ours do. But digital books do cost money to produce, promote and distribute.

Elloras Cave Brawn“Maybe it’s because Ellora’s Cave was founded by an author (Tina Engler, who writes as Jade Black)  that we place a very high value on authors and their investment in their books; not just in writing them, but also in researching, working through the editing process, rewriting, and then slogging through the very real and exhausting work of promotions. Writing a book is hard work. Selling it is often even harder work for creative people who would rather spend their time writing. We respect our authors too much to put across-the-board bargain basement prices on their work. That said, we, like every other publisher, do have plenty of sales and special initiatives to let readers get to know authors new to them without spending a lot of money to do it, or in some cases, without having to spend any money at all.”

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Publishing with its pants down again?

Regulators, both in Europe and the United States, are worried that shoppers may be overpaying. This month, both the European commission and the US department of justice have announced investigations into ebook sales. They are to lift the lid on a power struggle between the publishing industry and Amazon that could determine the shape of the book trade for years to come.

That’s Juliette Garside taking the issue of agency pricing public in the Guardian. Another sign of these times: pricing battles won’t be fought now between opponents who call each other names sotto voce.  Apple’s struggle to defeat Amazon set to be exposed by European ebook inquiry is a helpful briefing on how agency pricing came about.

Publishers believe Amazon is no longer dependent enough on their industry to care about its wellbeing. Founded by Jeff Bezos in 1995 as an online bookstore, it now earns more money from shifting a panoply of nappies, TVs and golf clubs than it does from books, video and music. Last year, general merchandise accounted for $18.4bn of sales, compared to $14.9bn for media… Regulators must now decide whether agency agreements are a legitimate way to fight back. “

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Quick whiffs of fresh Ether

Many people have long suspected that the only way to clarify the status of electronic rights for older, so-called “in dispute” works is through litigation. Just before Christmas, late in the day on Friday, December 23, HarperCollins has filed the first suit in this unresolved area against Open Road in Federal court in the NY’s Southern District, alleging copyright infringement in their ebook edition of Jean Craighead George’s 1971 classic, JULIE OF THE WOLVES. (Other cases so far have had negotiated solutions, or led to standing but unlitigated disagreements.)

This Publishers Lunch story is behind Publishers Marketplace’s paywall (well worth a subscription) but basically announces what may become a precedent for instances in which ebook editions of existing works are produced in settings of disputed rights. MIchael Cader is the writer here, of Harper Sues Open Road for Infringement Over “Julie of the Wolves” eBook.

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Stop reading writing advice. Like it or not, it’s one of the biggest and most attractive distractions in the world, because it usually comes with community, conversations, and relationships. But you can overindulge in it, especially if you’re constantly telling yourself you’re not “ready” to write. One gets better at writing primarily by doing two things: writing and reading. Mentoring is helpful and essential of course, but only in so much as you’re practicing and producing the work. So get to work.

Jane Friedman in The Secret to Finding the Time to Write, Market, Promote, and Still Have a Life at Writer Unboxed.

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It has become painfully clear that publishers should be looking at the consumers as their main customers, in stead of retailers. The erosion of the retail-based model of the book universe has been going on for some years, fuelled by the online retail revolution and the changing consumer behavior that came with it. Digital publishing has only further hastened the process.

Jürgen Snoeren on Digital strategies for small publishers at FutureBook.

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 Despite a lot of lip service to the contrary, it never fails to astound me how many brands and entertainment properties continue to market at, and speak at, audiences, rather than entering into a discussion that reflects a degree of mutual respect. My sense is that this is due to a combination of major companies not understanding where to start, and their belief that such an approach is not scalable to a mass audience. There may be a modicum of truth there. Nonetheless, for individual artists, communication now seems to be essential.

Simon Pulman in Thoughts on Louis CK and Crowdfunding for the Mainstream at Transmythology.

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For the first time this year, the Queen’s speech will be available as a free e-book in the Kindle UK store after the address airs on TV and radio. Her 59 previous Christmas messages, dating back to 1952, are also now available free in the Kindle UK store. Publisher: The British Monarchy. I could not find Her Majesty’s speeches in the Kindle U.S. store. I wish Barack Obama’s addresses were available as free e-book downloads.

Laura Hazard Owen in The Queen On Kindle at paidContent.

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“Laws that we happen not to be enforcing”

Now there’s all this pressure to offer [culture] for free because of a misunderstanding of the economics of the media business. Creative work is devalued, because you were under the illusion that you were paying for a thing. You were never really paying for a thing — you were paying for a piece of culture.

Author and former Billboard executive editor Robert Levine talks with Irene Lacher in an LA Times Sunday Conversation about his book Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. The issue

The Internet comes and takes away distribution costs and everyone is rapturous…now everything can be free. But those distribution costs were never really that high in the first place. The expense of printing and distributing a hardcover book is about $3.50. What costs money is making it, reporting those articles in the L.A. Times or doing the research in a book.

I think you’ll see less investment in creative works and less risk or both. Look at the newspaper business — we’re already there. There are fewer reporters than there were, and the result is some stories aren’t being covered. The argument on the other side is that that gap is being met by bloggers. I don’t think that’s true.

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Checking out libraries this week

In a recent post, I promised to suggest ways that we might measure the effects of library ebook lending on book sales. If you think about it, there are many parallels between attempting such a measurement and previous studies that have tried to measure the effect of ebook piracy on book sales.

Eric Hellman (whose site is smartly named Go to Hellman) writes here of trying to demonstrate the presumably salutary effects that library lending has on book sales. In How to Dig for Book Data Treasure, he mines the wise work of Brian O’Leary for leads.

The only objective study I know of was a small study done by Brian O’Leary, and the effects observed in that study were small and in a direction counter to popular narratives (and thus rarely noted in the sort of presentations that cite Attributor advertising).


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“Occupy Language”

Here’s an engrossing bit of work on the “occupy” lingo, from H. Samy Alim of  the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Langauge at Stanford. In What If We Occupied Language? he asks us to consider how malleable our usage can be — something any of us involved in publishing needs to consider. These words are our raw materials, and they hold, according to our handling of them, “the power of language to transform how we think about the past, how we act in the present, and how we envision the future.”

By occupying language, we can expose how educational, political, and social institutions use language to further marginalize oppressed groups; resist colonizing language practices that elevate certain languages over others; resist attempts to define people with terms rooted in negative stereotypes; and begin to reshape the public discourse about our communities, and about the central role of language in racism and discrimination.

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Christopher Hitchens

The morning, it turned out, had been that of June 8, 2010. Hitchens had spent the day in the hospital, at “the sad border post” of health and sickness. Then, he had gone on Jon Stewart, and done the talk at the Y, vomiting before each with “an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion.” He had never let on. What a professional he was, and what a man.

Lauren Collins in her Dinner with Hitchens post at the New Yorker tells a particularly powerful anecdote about this formidable talent, and I want to share it with you here. She refers to it as “the night he wasn’t much fun,” and I find myself grateful for it.

If I seem late to so many Hitchens memorial mentions, it’s because we got news of his death just after last week’s Ether. Still, I want to note this man’s passing here, briefly. And that’s probably because I’m a minister’s son. We feel the struggles of atheists very keenly, some of us who are “born into the faith” and handed, however kindly, the role of first son or daughter of a major sanctuary. And my own leave-taking came at Christmastime in my late teens, the year I noticed that our church’s gorgeously ornate, German-made crèche — depicting the scriptures’ Bethlehem nativity scene — had a blond Baby Jesus. I always thought I’d like to tell Chris Hitchens about that manger with its cherubic but wrong inhabitant. He was a man of marvelous rejoinders, as this short video from Vanity Fair rather delightfully proves.

As he sings (yes, sings) in the opening sequence of that video, “And with that, the pig got up and walked away.”

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Porter AndersonPorter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, and a producer and consultant formerly with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome and INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. As a journalist, he has worked with media including CNN, the Village Voice, and the Dallas Times Herald. He reviews literary fiction at Reader Unboxed, and is based in Tampa.


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