Writing on the Ether: Amazon Speaking Softly

#DBW12, #toccon, #WDC12, Amazon, author, AWP, B&N, Barnes and Noble, book, confab, conference, critic, criticism, critique, DBW, Digital Book World, e-book, e-reader, ebook, ereader, Jane Friedman, publishing, Tools of Change, writer, writing

Table of Contents

  1. Authors: How’s the flock holding up?
  2. Amazon: Speaking softly in sticky times
  3. Libraries: Nowhere near eye to eye
  4. Big Data: Mind if we read along?
  5. Industry hysteria: No, you started it
  6. Confabs: The ‘unconference’ ahead of ToC
  7. Social media: Obey Anne R. Allen
  8. eBooks: Is your Jeremy Lin ebook out yet?

Authors: How’s the flock holding up?

Is this industry ready to talk about its writers yet? You’re invited to start chatting it up.

On Friday at 4p Eastern (1p Pacific, 2100 GMT), I’ll be joined by Dan Blank of We Grow Media in co-guest-hosting the weekly #FollowReader Twitter chat, at the invitation of Kat Meyer, co-chair with Joe Wikert of the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change Conference (ToC) just held in New York last week.

Our theme will be the wide-open question “How are authors faring in the new world of publishing?”

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This is not a gripe-‘n’-snipe fest, nor a Kumbaya campfire about the glory o’ story. No, this is business, exploratory business, and it’s open to anybody who has a stake in publishing. I hope you’ll consider coming by and hashtagging with us.

Here’s one thing I’m wondering: Can real sense ever be made of the digital disruption of publishing — mothership retailers hovering in cyberspace over flocks of woolgathering independents in pastures below — if the core industry’s relationship with writers isn’t addressed?

During discussions of the new incident between Amazon and the Independent Publishers Group (more on that below), I’ve been reminded by our colleague, Andrew Rhomberg in London, of the phrase “creative destruction” from economic theory.

Wouldn’t it be smart to take advantage of the fact that the wheels have fallen off the publishing wagon? New models and vehicles are being tried and tested. Why not embrace this question of the industry’s dependence on a class of workers who don’t always feel  recognized as peers by publishing professionals? — and sometimes live down to that condition?

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Rich Adin, in The Failure of the Gatekeepers at An American Editor, writes this week:

The…function…of nourishing new writers, has been falling by the wayside in the last decade. Financially, traditional publishers are struggling…the competition has turned fierce. … Fewer blockbusters are being published so there are fewer blockbusters available to generate the kind of income needed to nourish non-blockbuster authors. And authors are increasingly going their own way because they get to keep more of the money and don’t need to worry about publisher rejection.

As I wrote in last week’s Ether, I left ToC concerned that the best discussions about the industry’s future are going on largely without the authors, the people who might form an unprecedented robust and innovative part of the answer to publishing’s dilemmas if they had the chance to engage in the conversation.

Writing community specialist and University of Cincinnati professor Jane Friedman, who hosts the Ether here at her site, posted her excellent warning, Authors: Don’t Pay Money for BEA Book Promotion, just as I’d been reading an arresting series of comments on a blog post titled Who Controls Your Amazon eBook Price?

I’ve seen, first-hand, what Friedman is warning writers about. I’ve had self-published authors approach me at BEA, asking me to take a copy of their book to review – because even in the best spot in the outback of BEA’s perimeter, nobody “can ignore 10,000 other things happening at the same time,” as Friedman puts it. Your book may as well lie under the brightly-colored carpet of one of the Big Six pavilions.

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And in Jim C. Hinespiece on Amazon ebook pricing, you meet an author who writes fantasy, both in traditional and self-publishing circumstances — the “hybrid” publishing approach.

What Hines describes is a relatively mundane but annoying experience at Amazon. The price of a self-published ebook title selling for $2.99 at other outlets was reduced inexplicably by Amazon for some time to 99 cents, although no rival site was underselling it.

A couple of points are involved here:

(1) Amazon’s contract apparently allows the company — to quote Hines on the Kindle Direct Publishing terms — “sole and complete discretion to set the retail price at which your Digital Books are sold through the Program.”

And (2) the famous 70-percent royalty an author is paid in this setting by Amazon seems to be figured on the actual price of the sale (in this case, 99 cents) rather than the author’s list price ($2.99), despite the fact that the author didn’t know about the discount that doesn’t seem to have been in response to any competitive price pressures.

Hines explains that KDP responded promptly to him and restored the list price he had set, once he pointed out to them that there was no low-ball seller requiring the 99-cents sale price. However, he writes:

Self-publishing puts you in charge of every aspect of your career. Meaning when Amazon messed with one of my books, it was on me to challenge them and get it fixed. They did restore the price, as I said, but what exactly would I do if they said “Deal with it.” Sue them?

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My purpose in bringing this to you is not to focus on Amazon’s terms and conditions with self-publishers. I’m more interested in what I see in reading through the 54 comments lodged in a couple of days’ time on Hines’ post.

Here are authors, some angry and bewildered, some savvy and sardonic, some represented by agents, some not, some traditionally published, some not, but all of them engaged, either questioning Hines further to follow his arguments, or offering guidance, or worrying aloud for their own publishing situations.  Some phrases:

…they are the best game in town for selling my backlist. Still, with terms such as these I start to twitch when some authors sing their praises with such enthusiastic fervor…

…I’d like to expand on your statement about anyone thinking Amazon is in it for authors being a fool…

…They fixed the price. They have not fixed the royalties, and according to their terms of service, they don’t have to…

…I think we authors should advocate (and I have) that Amazon give us more control over our promotional pricing, so that this happens less often. Kobo is infuriatingly slow to change…

…While this sucks, I see the same thing in traditional publishing contracts all the time….

…Actually, regular contracts ARE better because the publisher is constrained from changing the rules as it goes along…

…Do you have a publishing contract that actually specifies the price your book will be sold for? Because I’ve been around awhile and I’ve never seen such a thing…

…It’s a competitive environment, and if you believe otherwise you have spent too much time on Joe Konrath’s blog. Amazon, however, controls 70% of the ebook market…

…Jim do you know if other self-publishing platforms (Smashwords, Lulu, etc.) have had the same issues?

…I’m working on my first novel and self publishing was the route…

…I have published 15 books through traditional publishers. Never once was I asked what price I wanted to set for my books…

It takes a lot of time to wade through the whole raft of comments. But taken as a whole, they offer a striking, alarming overview of how profound is the confusion among writers, including authors published many times over, about (a) where they stand in the industry, (b) what the new “freedom” of digital publishing really means for them,  and (c) how the core industry is debating the business’ future.

I seem to be on an Arthur Miller jag of late. At some point “attention must finally be paid” to this Internet-swollen army of talent. So come talk with us Friday afternoon. #FollowReader.

Don’t make me send the sheepdogs out to round you up.

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Amazon: Speaking softly in sticky times

 It’s a gutsy move and we’ll see who blinks first, but I applaud Mark (Suchomel) and wish him and IPG’s clients luck because this is only the first of many of these battles that distributors and those who sell direct will face on this front.

Following Michael Cader’s write Amazon Removes Kindle Versions of IPG Books After Distributor Declines to Change Selling Terms at Publishers Lunch — and Laura Hazard Owen‘s extensive update at paidContent, Update: Amazon Yanks 5,000 Kindle Titles In Fight Over Terms Don Linn quietly opens the tackle box at Bait ‘n’ Beer to reel in some context on what he gauges “a significant move by both parties.”

In simplified terms, what has happened is that the Independent Publishers Group’s (IDP), which reps some 200 smaller publishers to Amazon, didn’t like renewal terms Amazon has asked for on ebook pricing. IDP president Mark Suchomel has decided to say no to those terms.  Amazon, in turn, has removed IDP client-publishers’ ebooks (not print, just ebooks) from its online store.

Linn’s post, You Had Me at “No,” is worded in a way I hope you’ll allow to throw some balance into your thoughts about the situation. More and more, we need level heads on the field of Amazonia. Industry hysteria misleads the amateurs and exhausts the pros. Here is Linn:

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a bit know I’m no Amazon hater and in fact I’ve been a booster some of the time. But ALL of the time, I’ve said if you don’t like how they compete, then change the game. Mark Suchomel, who’s a friend, has decided to do that by refusing to be forced into new terms that he knows will ultimately make it difficult for him to maintain his business. He also apparently has the support of his publisher clients, which is huge. Amazon can hardly say it is selling ‘any book you want in print or digital format’ if they don’t carry digital titles from IPG’s 200+ clients.

For his part, Suchomel writes in a memo to the client-publishers – included in Owen’s report – several very clear requests for how customers can be directed to outlets still selling the ebooks in question. Among them, he asks publishers to inform consumers: “This book is available in print or electronic edition at your local independent bookshop,  www.BarnesandNoble.com, www.indiebound.org, iTunes, Kobo, and elsewhere. It is not currently available in a Kindle edition.”

Because IDP’s print editions are still sold by Amazon, we can assume that the publishers served by IDP can ill afford to have those print sales lost in the anger of an ebook standoff. And so Sumochel goes on in smartly measured tones:

Remember that Amazon continues to be an important account that sells a lot of units. This is a business decision on Amazon’s part, and hopefully they will soon decide to reverse it and buy at our standard terms.

And for his part, Linn helps us all see that this is not just a staring match over ebook pricing. It gets us into an arena of distributor resistance. Some key values beyond just the price of ebooks are at stake. As Linn writes:

Distributors play an important role in maintaining the vitality of smaller, independent presses and their disintermediation would be an unfortunate event in the lives of those presses (who seldom publish books about Snooki or Justin Bieber).

Cader has some info on the scope of the yanked ebooks in A Little More On IPG and Amazon:

IPG president Mark Suchomel told Crain’s Chicago and the WSJ that ebooks comprise less than 10 percent of the distributor’s revenues. And he told the Chicago Tribune “that the e-books sold through Amazon’s Kindle tablet account for about 5 percent of the company’s business.” (Their lists are not particularly deep in leading ebook categories like popular fiction and romance.)

There’s also a write from the Times’ David Streitfeld, Amazon Pulls Thousands of E-Books in Dispute, in which Streitfeld reminds us of a driving Amazonian perspective.

The only two essential parties in the reading experience, Amazon executives are fond of saying, are the reader and the author.

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Amazon: Readers don’t shop the spine

If big authors jump ship to Amazon or elsewhere, readers will follow them. If the Big Six collapse entirely, most readers will not care, provided they can still find decent books to read. So publishers: it’s time to embrace technology, put your customers first, and entirely revamp the logistical architecture of the industry, or Amazon’s publishing arm will do it for you (and nobody wants that).

As the power of Amazon comes into deeper focus in incidents like the IDP disagreement above, the consumerist basis for that strength can never be overstated.

Nico Vreeland is here in a post that Paul Biba put up at Teleread. Despite the bark of its headline, It’s time to start blaming publishers for the troubles of the publishing industry Vreeland is getting at something too fundamentally correct to overlook:  As with television networks, recording labels, and potato-chip manufacturers, the public’s loyalty is not to the corporation behind a show, an artist, or a Dorito. The public follows the actor, the singer, the flavor.

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In a responding post from one “Joanna,” a Canadian Is Amazon evil, or are they just really good at business? — there’s a 1-Click understanding of why Amazon holds the power it holds today. She sees not “predatory” or “monopolistic,’ but smart:

Amazon is not evil. They have just figured out what the customers want better than anybody else has so far, and they are giving it to them. Vreeland points out, correctly, that customers don’t buy ‘Random House books’ or ‘Penguin Books.’ They buy Stephen King books or James Patterson books or whomever…The way to beat Amazon is not to complain about how evil they are. It’s to build a better website. If you want to compete, compete! Build a better website. Nobody is stopping you.

These two posts capture how the fray of the day might look to an MOS, the “man on the Street” interviewed by the media after the bomb goes off. The MOS is the one who’s going to tell us in a deeply Southern dialect, “It sounded like a freight train went through here” right after something in pinstripes goes off the higher ledge.

These posts are reminders of how much fire big publishers are playing with if they yell, “Seattle did it!” However you may see the rise of Amazon, James Patterson, by any other imprint, would sell as sweet.

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Libraries: Nowhere near eye to eye

Because libraries are, at most 5% of a publisher’s business and far less of the ebook business, and because the market is changing so rapidly and because every retailer except Amazon can be said to be struggling to carve out a sustainable position in the global ebook marketplace, there are many legitimate reasons for the biggest publishers to take a wait-and-see attitude about libraries and ebooks.

Coming at a good time, Mike Shatzkin’s Libraries and publishers don’t have symmetrical interest in a conversation helps remind us that whatever the lay of the playing field, the stakes in the ongoing confrontation between libraries and publishers are not even.

Of course, libraries view this differently because the big books from the big publishers are a lot more than 5% of their patrons’ interest. This is an imbalance that would explain the difference in attitude of the parties, for anybody who cares to accept the reality of it.

Shatzkin gets very quickly in this essay to an even more defining statement, not easy for many to read, maybe, but important to consider:

We already face the possibility that we’re headed for a single retailer for ebooks and print online called Amazon. Every other channel to the consumer, libraries and retailers both (whether they know it or not) are ultimately fighting for their digital lives.

Going on to get at some specific points of tension with Amazon, Shatzkin stays close to his underlying message, and its a good one. “These aren’t moral decisions” being made in various offices of publishing from New York To Seattle, he writes, “they’re commercial ones (even when they’re being made by not-for-profit entities).”

I always expect an entity to act in its own self-interest, particularly when survival could be involved. (And Amazon, trading at 135 times earnings and facing the likelihood that their sales tax advantage in the United States is on the verge of being eliminated, is entitled to think that way too.) I think we should all understand that intelligent people on all sides feel that they are fighting for their survival. That includes Amazon, the publishers, the competing retailers, and the libraries. Our problem is that the interests don’t align and what I think people sometimes have trouble accepting is that it is possible they never will.

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Libraries: The crisis gets more air

I haven’t seen librarians so upset about anything since the Patriot Act…(Publishers) say that lack of “friction” really changes the business model. And right now there is no uniformity across the publishing industry as a business model.

That’s WCAI Senior Reporter Sean Corcoran (working on series of reports about libraries for WCAI and WGBH) on The Takeaway with John Hockenberry.

A slide from Barbara Genco’s ToC presentaion.

Of course, in her keynote address at ToC last week, Barbara A. Genco of the Library Journal resoundingly rejected the “friction” argument: “Friction is fiction.” At about 7.5 minutes into the video of her talk at ToC, Genco explains that the publishers use the “friction” argument to say that over-the-air transmission of ebooks is “too easy,” creating an uncontrolled distribution model.

Now, Corcoran and Jill Erickson, a librarian at the Falmouth, Massachusetts, Public Library, are heard in this audio clip, Library Access to E-books Worries Publishers, with Erickson describing some perfectly verifiable friction, the frustration of library patrons and librarians with publishers:

Look at yesterday’s New York Times bestsellers. Top 10 fiction hardcover bestsellers. Of those 10, five we can’t buy (as ebooks). Four we can buy. And one we can buy but we can only have 26 circulations, which is crazy…It’s very hard to explain why we don’t have Stephen King’s new book as an ebook, because people want it as an ebook.

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Big Data: Mind if we read along?

Up until now, the ability to track when e-reading devices are being used, how much time is being spent on entire books and sections within the books, whether readers are finishing the book and other data has been limited to device manufacturers who typically have shared only very limited data with publishers. The benefits of mining this data could be very important for acquisition editors, marketing departments and to senior management in making decisions about what and how to publish.

Just what the collection and eager parsing of Big Data might mean to an author’s work – and maybe to her or his future contracts — comes into handy focus in the busily writing Don Linn‘s latest contribution to Firebrand’s Whiteboard, Looking at the Cloud (from Both Sides Now).

With cloud-based reading rapidly becoming a reality, it will be possible for publishers to track this data themselves if they choose to operate (or outsource on the right terms) their own cloud readers.

There’s a kicker, though, to Linn’s concise write: “We’ll leave you with one open question: How will readers respond?”

I’d just add: And authors. Wonder how they’ll respond?

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Industry hysteria: No, you started it

Publishers eager to blame Amazon for eBook price wars forget that it was their insistence on DRM, coupled with a disinterest in promoting open standards, that handed the retailer its significant market share in the United States.

Oh yeah. “Forgot” that, huh? Brian O’Leary helps jog our blame-game memories in I’m not angry (anymore). Basing his comments on Mathew Ingram‘s piece, Debunking the “original sin” of online newspapers, in which he’d written of how newspaper executives talk of the “original sin” of not charging for content early in Web life. And O’Leary, on the way to Elvis Costello, goes on:

It’s folly to think that industries fail because they collectively made a single bad decision or were done in by a single bad actor… For a while we could pretend that the disruptions were limited or temporary.  In media today, we can no longer pretend, and that seems to be making a lot of people angry… We’ll make progress when we can say, honestly, “I’m not angry (anymore).”

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Confabs: The ‘unconference’ ahead of ToC

Someone noted that there were few references to platforms like Copia, Small Demons and Pinterest throughout the day, and there’s a good reason for that: none have proven themselves to be more than technological curiosities for which there is little to no consumer demand. Meanwhile, Goodreads is approaching 7 million members — READERS OF BOOKS!!!! — and people are still wondering how publishers can build conversations around their books and connect with their readers?!?! #cmonson

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, a veteran of the Book^2 Camp series of “un-conferences” in New York City, was at the most recent edition. It was un-held on the day before ToC 2012 began its workshops, and gamely hosted by Chris Kubica and Ami Greko (with a tip of that hat to Nick Ruffilo and others for lots of help).

Do have a look at DanBlank‘s Virtual Tour of Book Camp to glimpse “Ami-with-an-i” Greko-on-furniture. And here’s another wrap, Book Camp Feb 2012, from Babette Ross. Funny how that post-event drinks table keeps getting pictured in these roundups. Un-alcoholic, of course.

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In Moving Beyond THE BOOK: Three Takeaways from #Book2, Gonzalez opens with a resonant “Stop It With the New Shiny!!!!” (that’s four exclamation points, I counted). He moves to “Think Beyond the Book.” And he closes with “Remember the Fundamentals.”  Could there be three better instructions for us about now?

Book^2 – which I thoroughly enjoyed, myself – is “un” in the sense that attendees put forward and choose their topics of discussion, then divide a six-hour afternoon among sessions on those subjects. Gonzalez, never one to shy away from the harder tasks, writes (note the reference to the author pool):

I pitched and facilitated a session on (re)Building the Perfect Business Model, starting with the premise that it has to allow for relationships with booksellers, libraries, and direct engagement with readers, and account for a royalty-based system, not just work-for-hire. (Few were comfortable with the idea of turning authors into straight freelancers.)

I was particularly pleased with a session led by Kristen McClean of Bookigee on how we use data. Her premise for discussion had to do with whether we’re taking care to let readers tell us what they need and want, in an industry that for much of its history has tended to announce to readers what they needed and wanted.

And let me offer you this write from Philip Turner, Book Camp–Fostering Innovation Since 2010, who has a wise insight into the impromptu nature of these “un-events.”

Here, people aren’t sure what they think about a publishing question until they’ve had a chance to say it aloud, or listened to a colleague talking about it.

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Confabs: New writings on ToC 2012

Sign of a highly successful conference: new reflections on aspects of O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change Conference, covered extensively in last week’s Ether, continue to be published.

Many of the events of the conference have bearing on elements of our coverage in the new Ether upcoming. Meanwhile, some recent highlights you may want to review include:

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Social media: Obey Anne R. Allen

DO post your Twitter handle somewhere prominent on your home page if you tweet. Don’t just use one of those birdy icons. Make sure you put your whole @twittername up there. I spend way too much time using Twitter’s iffy search engine (why is it so useless?) trying to find the handle for somebody I’m quoting or want to reach. If it’s right up there on your blog home page, people are much more likely to be able to tweet you or follow.

Nobody knows the trouble a busy tweeterina has seen when it comes to trying to find people’s Twitter handles. St. Anne R. Allen clearly had what remains of my sanity in mind when she wrote How to Blog Part V: 12 Dos and Don’ts for Author-Bloggers.

I mean, do you want your stuff tweeted? If not, don’t worry. Make it utterly impossible to (a) guess or (b) find your Twitter handle.

But if you’d like me and other social mediators to schlepp your deathless prose around le tweeterie, you really must put your Twitter handle – the @twittername – out there front and center. Not a link to your page on Twitter (though it’s fine to make your @twittername  a hotlink). Don’t make me or Lady Anne waste time clicking through to Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey and Noah Glass‘ and Evan Williams’  house to find your @twittername and properly credit you with your own work. (And I’m sure Santa Anna is talking now to that comely quartet right now about their funny search engine.).

For now, Allen has more good advice on her list, including this wise note I’ve never come across before:

DON’T die intestate. No matter how young and healthy and immortal you feel…Make sure somebody besides you has the passwords to your blog so if anything dire should happen, they can attend to it and/or take it down…You could get into a parasailing accident while you’re on that vacation in Mazatlan. Or get stuck without power for 2 weeks in darkest Connecticut. Be attacked by angry bees. You don’t want your blog hanging unattended in cyberspace as it collects Ukrainian porn and fake Viagra ads.

What’s wrong with Ukrainian porn?

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eBooks: Is your Jeremy Lin ebook out yet?

The book was written in 72 hours, and built on the powerful Vook platform in 36 hours, and distributed globally in 24 hours. 7 days after Lin’s game-winning three-pointer that made even non-sports fans grin, this book was polished and released.

That particular Lin-grin is on the face of Movable Type Management chief Jason Ashlock as he writes a post, Linsanity: The Improbable Rise of Jeremy Lin, about author Alan Goldsher‘s Vook shot of the same title.

That 15,000-word monograph is, we learn from GalleyCat‘s Jason Boog, just one of seven (7) Jeremy Lin Books for Your Kindle.

Surely, the most inspiriting title among them is The Zen of Jeremy Lin: 17 Nuggets of Wisdom from Confucius to Jeremy Lin about Basketball and Life.

And while you’re studying the wisdom of the young zen master, you’ll be edified to know from AP Sports, I’m sure, that Hachette has thrown Timothy Dalrymple onto the court, to lavish a glacial three months on something called “Jeremy Lin: The Reason for the Linsanity,” due in stores in May.

That one might be copy-edited.

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eBooks: Dance of the Tablets – or how we sell them now

Seeking to advance the narrative that the Nook Tablet is a true multimedia tablet and not just a big expensive e-reader, Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch said in an investor call today that apps are the company’s fastest-growing content area, and “within apps it’s entertainment, movies, Netflix, games, kids.”

From deep inside darkest Confused eBook Sales Land, our intrepid Laura Hazard (good name for the job) Owen reports to us at paidContent on the rather bizarre moves that Barnes & Noble’s Monsieur Lynch is making these days to try to get a Nook into every garage. Her story, headlined with an understated Apps Are ‘Huge’ For Barnes & Noble, lowers the entertainment boom on our literary heads, children, helmets on: “Angry Birds is still the company’s most-downloaded app, while Netflix ‘toggles between #2 and #3.'”

But take heart, maybe it’s not all going to the gamers. Yet. Owen’s story goes on, with quotes from Lynch:

Lynch said that customers who buy Nooks also spend more on print books, echoing the sentiment expressed by B&N’s Jim Hilt at Digital Book World last month. “They not only buy the hardware, accessories, warranties and, more meaningfully from a margin standpoint, the digital content,” he said, “but they also continue to buy phsyical books. The idea that people who are digital readers just stop buying physical books is…not true.” This contradicts recent Bowker research suggesting that the majority of e-book “power buyers” switch to digital books exclusively within a year.

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eBooks: HarperCollins v Open Road Media

In its recently filed answer,Open Road neither denies nor admits that its digital version of Wolves competes directly with the sale of the book in paper form. As I wrote previously, while the grant of primary rights did not mention eBook rights, a court might find it unfair for Ms. George to collect royalties from HarperCollins, while, at the same, time enjoying a royalty stream for the same work from Open Road. There is, however, scant law on the enforceability of non-compete clauses found in publishing contracts.

Lloyd J. Jassin of Copylaw publishes and comments on the response of Open Road Media to HarperCollins‘ lawsuit over the right to publish Jean Craighead George’s book Julie of the Wolves in ebook format.

What’s next?  Briefs will be prepared and a parade of industry experts will be asked to submit expert affidavits in support of either HarperCollins or Open Road, stating under “penalty of perjury,” that the ability to read text on a screen [did] [didn’t] date back to 1971 (or earlier).

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eBooks: Get over the naysayers, please

Article Sommelier here with a pairing representative of many pieces we’re seeing these days. They reflect the recent Franzenian trend for established literary writers to pan e-literature and cling to their papier like overwrought community theater actors who can’t learn their lines and drop their scripts.

Alternate subhead for this section: Hey, do you think that Internet thing is going to last?

First, Nathan Bransford ‘s nod to the issue. Here’s a line from our earnest friend’s hand-wringer Why Are So Many Literary Writers Technophobic? In it, Bransford includes Jennifer Egan‘s apparent unease about things-tech. It’s on display in Dan Rosemblum’s coverage at Capital of Egan’s talk at Columbia University, The last thing on Jennifer Egan’s mind is the needs of e-readers (although she does say that if HBO can do “something great” with her A Visit From the Goon Squad).

An exasperated Bransford writes:

Doesn’t it seem like there’s some nexus between literary writers and technophobia? Are literary writers more likely to fear our coming robot overlords and proudly choose an old cell phone accordingly (if they have one at all)? Do they know something we don’t?

I doubt they know anything we don’t. They’re just nostalgia-heads. And they’re not happy with electric waffle irons, either.

Which is why I’m grateful for a comparatively eloquent opinion in The New York Review of Books from Tim Parks, E-books Can’t Burn.

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience…In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

And while Parks is gracious enough to shrug amiably at the end – “it becomes harder and harder to see why the literati are not giving the phenomenon a more generous welcome” – one fears that he has answered the question with his own reference to maturity.

I can’t help but return to Henry Miller’s The Cosmological Eye (curses, no Kindle edition yet) for a kind of textual outburst:

You want to communicate. All right, communicate! Use any and every means.

Can’t we just let the Franzenians and Eganites prattle along while we get on with things? Who cares if some of our literary fictionists  are stuck in the muddle of older technology? What shall we do? Back the car over all those e-readers and just stop this digital nonsense?

I’m not tossing out my Albert Camus books just because they’re on paper, don’t be ridiculous. But I am duplicating that collection as fast as editions become available for my Kindle Fire. I want Camus closer to me than paper. My mind hums only a  pixel’s breadth from his in e-life.

Here’s a bit from near the end of his life, a passage in the cahiers of Camus, who could take Franzen and Egan with The Plague tied behind his back. The translation is Ryan Bloom’s:

These twenty days of racing through Greece, I contemplate them now from Athens before my departure, and they seem to me like a lone and lengthy source of light that I will be able to keep at the center of my life. For me, Greece is no more than a long glittering day extended over voyages, and also like an enormous island covered with red flowers and mutilated gods endlessly afloat on a sea of light, beneath a crystalline sky. To retain this light, to return, to no longer give in to the darkness of days…

You just read that digitally. Online. What were you saying about paper?

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This column’s wooly image is an iStockphoto by Lee Torrens


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