Rocket Bomber - commentary

Home repair and book production

filed under , 28 October 2014, 16:33 by

Long-time readers of this blog know how much I love making analogies -

If you want to, say, update your kitchen, or build an addition on the back of your house you have some options:

  • A real do-it-yourself-er and general handy-type might need to call a plumber or electrician but otherwise is fine with doing the framing, hanging wallboard, hanging cabinets, setting tile, installing carpet, and all the finish work — not just plaster and paint, but wood trim, weatherstripping and caulk, maybe some wallpaper. And when all that is done, our intrepid homeowner also does their own interior decorating, furnishing the space to as-seen-on-TV standards buying salvage & fleamarket and doing their own refinishing on vintage and near-antique pieces.
  • More realistically, you get on Google and read online reviews and ask around and you subcontract all that other crap out — you maybe take care of your own demolition (yeah! break stuff!) but you get the real professionals to come in and fix it. You end up juggling different schedules for weeks (or months) and dealing with multiple contractors (first the concrete pour, then the framing, exterior siding, interior walls, windows & doors, floors & finishes) and when it’s all done, you look at your newly-fattened credit card bills and sob — while sitting in the beautiful new addition to your home. bittersweet.
  • You can cede even more control (and more money) in the process by hiring a general contractor — someone to take point on the job and juggle the various subcontractors for you. The drawback is that you’re paying costs plus fees (to the GC) but the tradeoff is that maybe you get to keep more of your sanity. Plus (and this is often a big plus) the General Contractor has done all this before, projects both bigger and more complicated than your little bathroom re-do or new screened porch.

The tradeoffs are obvious: you can keep control, and spend less money, while doing more of the work — or you can choose to spend money to solve problems and take a more hands-off approach.

As a writer who wants to ‘build’ a book (either from the bones of a draft or doing some small repairs on a mostly finished manuscript) you have the same options as our hypothetical homeowner: Do the work yourself, coordinate a bunch of subcontractors (free lancers) to get the work done, or maybe try to find a ‘book packager’ to work as your general contractor and bring the book to print.

Your fourth option is to sign a book deal with a publisher, but that’s not really your option – it’s theirs. (Getting an agent and landing a book deal would be a different analogy.) Let’s just assume for now that it’s your ‘house’ and you’re the one building it.

When dealing with home repairs and renovations most of us are clueless — unless and until we’ve done it a few times. But most homeowners know the general scope of what’s about to happen, and they’re willing to do a little research (months or even years of on-again-off-again plans) before they make any calls or write any checks. And because we live in houses, we have a pretty good idea of what the final space should look and feel like, even if we’ve never lifted a hammer or trowel before.

When writers have the same opportunity to ‘fix up’ a book, they often go the do-it-yourself route, underestimating the scope of the work and (perhaps) overestimating their own skills as self-editor. The primary reason to do this is of course the cost — either we begrudge the expense or we just don’t have the extra cash right now to pay a freelancer to do the work for us.

To get the job done, we can also borrow against the ‘equity’ in the book: trading rights or revenues to get the book into salable condition, either with a small publisher or a digital-only publisher. There are risks, of course, but no money is required up front* and the other option, keeping the manuscript in a drawer for who knows how many more years with no potential for readers or sales at all — well, we all know how that would work out.

* …goes without saying: if a publisher asks for money it’s likely a ‘vanity press’ or some similar scam. caveat emptor.

To authors, all I can do is caution you to think things through. It might not be a bad idea to get some professionals to help — even the most die-hard DIY weekend-warrior will hire an electrician or plumber. And instead of trading equity in the book, maybe think of editing and production like any other household and/or life expense, and find some other way to pay the money out of pocket to get the work done. Be a smart book owner: do your research, consider your options, treat the pros you hire to work on your book the same as a contractor who works on your home (i.e. with respect, with open communication about scope of work and expectations, with a clear outline for when the work is complete and when payments will be made). (There isn’t a Yelp for online freelancers—that I know of—but as the market grows, maybe there will be? Never be afraid to ask for references or a portfolio …or to ask other writers for recommendations.)

Just like a major change to your home, you’re going to have to live with the results for a long time, maybe the rest of your life.



Gundam Reference

filed under , 12 October 2014, 18:09 by

There are more than 700 “episodes” of Gundam (broadcast TV, movies, OVAs, shorts — and not counting the manga, video games, or plastic model kits) and the history of Gundam—more formally Mobile Suit Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム Kidō Senshi Gandamu)—goes back 35 years

35 frickin’ years

…so when we get news that Sunrise is finally getting serious about making Gundam available to American fans its a Big Freakin’ Deal, Kids. (well, for a certain stripe of anime fan, anyway.)

The sheer size of the franchise though, combined with all the twists and turns and alternate timelines, is daunting (to say the least) for the casual anime viewer. All the information you need is available from Wikipedia and other sources, but once again, the volume of material is a huge barrier to entry. Where do you start?

I still can’t tell you where to start – but I can give you a list:

Odds and ends:
1988 SD Gundam (13 OVAs)
2010 SD Gundam Sangokuden Brave Battle Warriors (51eps, 10min shorts)
2010 Model Suit Gunpla Builders Beginning G (3 OVAs)
2013 Gundam Build Fighters (25eps) season 1
2014 Gundam Build Fighters Try – currently airing
2014 Mobile Suit Gundam-san (13 3min shorts)

“After Colony” timeline:
AC0195 Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995) (49eps)
AC0195 Gundam W: Operation Meteor (1996) (4) – compilation OVAs, also known as “Odds and Evens”
AC0196 Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz (1997) (3 OVAs) – also edited into a theatrical movie release in 1998

“AD” timeline, presumably our (sci-fi) future:
AD2307 Gundam 00 (2007) (50eps)
AD2314 Gundam 00 the Movie Awakening of the Trailblazer (2010)

“Advanced Generation” timeline:
AG0115 Gundam Age (2011) (49eps) – there are three generational story arcs, each about 25 years apart.
AG0140 Gundam Age: Memory of Eden (2013) (2 OVAs) – re-edit of the 2nd Gundam Age story arc

“After War” timeline:
AW0015 After War Gundam X (1996) (39eps)

“Correct Century” timeline:
CC2435 Turn A Gundam (1999) (50eps) – the 20th Anniversary Gundam, “affirmatively accepting all of the Gundam series“ but still in it’s own alternate timeline.

“Cosmic Era” timeline:
CE0071 Gundam Seed (2002) (50eps)
CE0073 Seed Destiny (2004) (51eps)
CE0073 Gundam Seed C.E. 73 Stargazer (2006) (single OVA)
Gundam SEED MSV: Astray – two 5min shorts, in Japan included on the Stargazer release
[Tokyopop & Del Rey published quite a bit of the Gundam Seed manga adaptation – 17 volumes – starting back in ’04. just mentioning it as an aside]

“Future Century” timeline:
FC0060 Mobile Fighter G Gundam (1994) (49eps) – oh boy. see comments below.

“Regild Century” timeline:
RC1014 Gundam Reconguista in G (2014), 25 episodes, currently airing. According to Wikipedia, the Regild Century comes after the UC timeline, below. So I guess it’s in continuity?

“Universal Century” timeline:
This is ‘main line’ Gundam – the 1979 series was set in the Universal Century, and Sunrise didn’t start messing around with alternates until 1994. However (and it pains me to bring this up), some of the material in UC represents a re-edit and re-release of older material (for theatrical releases) which was on occasion also changed so there are “canon” and “non-canon” versions — which I’m not going to go into.(Note, this is UC timeline order, not our-boring-AD-calender order) -

UC0068 Gundam: The Origin, currently scheduled as a 4 episode OVA series for 2015 – though with ‘event screenings’ in theaters (in Japan, anyway).
UC0079 Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) (43eps) – or as some call it, “OG” (original gangster) Gundam
UC0079 Gundam Movie Trilogy (1981-2) – 1979 series re-cut into 3 movies, each ~2hrs 20min in length
UC0079 The 08th MS Team (1996) (13 OVAs)
UC0079.1 MS IGLOO The Hidden One Year War (2004) (3 OVAs)
UC0079.2 MS IGLOO Apocalypse (2006) (3 OVAs)
UC0079.3 MS IGLOO 2 The Gravity Front (2009) (3 OVAs)
UC0080 War in the Pocket (1989) (6 OVAs)
UC0083 Stardust Memory (1991) (13 OVAs) – re-cut into a movie in 1992, released as Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: The Last Blitz of Zeon
UC0087 Zeta Gundam (1985) (50eps)
UC0087 Zeta Gundam – A New Translation (2005) – similar to the 1981 movie trilogy, a re-cut of Zeta Gundam into 3 films for theatrical release
UC0088 ZZ Gundam (1986) (47eps)
UC0093 Char’s Counterattack, Movie (1988)
UC0096 Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (2010-2014) (7 OVAs, 60min each)
UC0123 Mobile Suit Gundam F91, Movie (1991)
UC0153 Victory Gundam (1993) (51eps)

Commentary:

  • Like many anime fans (at least, mecha and robot anime fans), I am super-aware of Gundam but have seen remarkably little of it. So there’s that; Wikipedia is the better place to go for information on Gundam, but I am quite happy to share with you my impressions of it.
  • Outside of any ‘official’ timeline—though technically UC—is the SD (superdeformed) Gundam specials, and the more recent Gundam-san show (based on what is apparently a popular 4-koma). For Gundam fans, these excursions into comedy are likely a lot of fun, but for most of us it would just be confusing. I doubt Sunrise & Rightstuf are bringing these over, though we may see them as extras on some of the box sets.
  • 1993 Mobile Fighter G Gundam is of, ah, *special* note: 49 episodes of mecha-as-pro-wrestlers. This got a Cartoon Network broadcast in 2002, so some of you may have fond memories of it. It’s very different from the rest of gundam, though. “This hand of mine is burning red!”
  • 2013 Gundam Build Fighters and 2014 Gundam Build Fighters Try – where kids build and fight with model Gundams, could be thought of as Pokémon Gundam if we’re being uncharitable. (the more direct comparison would be 2001’s Angelic Layer or 1983’s Plawres Sanshiro, but yes, they’re all proxy fighters). There were 25 episodes in the first season; the second season is currently airing. I’m pretty sure anyone could pick this up as it really is a stand-alone, but I’m guessing knowing about the mecha makes it more entertaining. (Apparently, there are also lots of easter eggs in this show, too)
  • The entry point for folks in North America is probably still Gundam Wing, which was on Cartoon Network in 2000 (Gundam Wing was the first Gundam series to be broadcast on U.S. television) and is available on DVD (sort of; check Ebay and Amazon and budget for ‘collectible’ price points) — Gundam Wing matched the Gundam mecha designs with bishonen pilot character design, with a side dish of politics and a heaping helping of dialog. Gundam Wing exists in its own timeline and is different from the rest (though not so different as G Gundam) but still, for many, this was their first and so colors their perception of the franchise.
  • If you’re more interested in action, The 08th MS Team also got a DVD release, it’s much shorter, it’s more military-oriented (as you might have guessed from the name) and while part of mainline UC Gundam, it works pretty well as a stand-alone story. This was my first Gundam (via Netflix rental) ten years ago.
  • Easiest entry point? 1979 OG Gundam, probably, as that’s where the whole story started. A close second though may be the other series Sunrise and Rightstuf are leading with: Turn A Gundam. As the 20th Anniversary series and given both the involvement and the comments from Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, it would seem Turn A aspired to be more “Gundam” than the original Gundam. I look forward to watching it. While I will likely buy both (for the sake of the collection and my OCD) I will be purchasing Turn A first.
  • Cautionary warning, for those seeking out Gundam DVDs: there are several companies that licensed bits of Gundam over the years, with various dubs produced. Actors aren’t always consistent from release to release and the quality of dubs is more miss (well, middling) than hit. Just sayin’. I don’t mind reading subtitles so it was never an issue for me, but you might find this overview at Otaku Revolution helpful.

I’m sure I missed something; please post any [mild, factual] corrections in the comments.



Kitchen Journal

filed under , 2 October 2014, 15:17 by

In the past, I’ve kept notes for recipes on my computer — bookmarked links, mostly — while also using what might be called “grandma measures” when cooking day-to-day: grandma never needs to measure anything because she’s made each of those recipes so many times — she can eyeball it and knows when a dish ‘looks right’ or ‘feels right’.

That said, I did have to get a bit more scientific in the kitchen last year when I tried making my own sourdough starter. I have a text file on my hard drive where I tracked a dozen or so various iterations on whole wheat sourdough bread, but that stalled when my baking experiments shifted to biscuits and tortillas (both of which are yeast-free, so easier to make on the spur-of-the-moment) (also, the key to both: give your dough an hour to rest in the fridge so the flour has a chance to fully hydrate – makes a world of difference).

The sourdough starter prompted me to buy a digital kitchen scale, which came in handy later when I also found myself trying out some DIY Soylent (It’s not as gross as you think, especially when you mix your own and know what went into it — think oatmeal smoothie, not 70s Heston).

So quietly, behind-the-scenes, I’ve been doing quite a bit of ‘kitchen science’ while attempting to keep myself fed (and lose some weight) and while I might not get around to blogging any of it any time soon, I just wanted to say that keeping a kitchen journal is a great idea for even a casual chef. Whenever you’re forced to make a substitution (yogurt for buttermilk, say, or banana for eggs in a bread or brownie mix) or are just trying something new — write it down! Make notes not just on the results but also the process, and the motivations:

“Ran out of eggs so I’m going to try half a can of pumpkin pie filling as a substitute in a muffin recipe. Found the suggestion after Googling ‘egg substitutes for baking’”
“Pumpkin pie muffins were Aces! Repeating recipe but dropping a chunk of cream cheese in each”
“Cheese filling was OK but could be better: switching to a mix of mascarpone with a drop of vanilla and a little sugar”
“Mascarpone filling in the pumpkin muffins was fantastic – really, really good. Doing the same with blueberry this Sunday”
“Had a little bit of the mascarpone muffin filling left, didn’t want to throw it out. Made french toast and sandwiched the cheese filling inside — just enough for one! really good with syrup. might be good with pancakes too”

You don’t have to keep a kitchen journal like you would a log book for your college chemistry class — brief notes are all you need. Reminders, sign posts, warnings, just a little something to keep you on the right path. Think of it as a map — a treasure map, even, as you never know when you’re going to go from Googling for an egg substitute to instead find yourself, 11 recipes later, enjoying pecan-pumpkin pancakes and maple-candied bacon for brunch.

“The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”

When my employment prospects improve and I move past a beans-and-rice survival diet, I think I’ll go back to posting ‘sunday supper’ recipes once a week. I came across the Adam Savage quote, though, and it prompted me to write about how important just ‘writing things down’ can be. Get a cheap spiral bound notebook (note: cheap, as it *is* going to get stuff spilled on it) and keep it on your counter (maybe next to or under the paper towels). Take notes. Drop some science on it.

You’ll likely be surprise how much it will augment, and improve, your skills in the kitchen.



A Once-in-a-Century Opportunity to Re-invent Publishing, and Books

filed under , 28 May 2014, 20:11 by

The working title for this article was, “These Days, Monopoly is Just a Board Game.”

I started to argue that Amazon wasn’t and isn’t a monopoly, but then I also managed to argue myself out of becoming an Amazon Cheerleader. Since I was looking into anti-trust statues and case law (spoiler: it’s dry) we’re going to wade into that half of the post first. But stick with me; I hope by the end I’ve also convinced you of the promise of that over-ambitious title up there.

I’ve set up a shortcut for those that want to skip Supreme Court Case precedents (no blame attached) and get to the second part: click this link

Also, I’m not a lawyer: just throwing that out there before we get started.

##

“Proponents of Amazon’s lower pricing strategies argue that Amazon is the underdog in the publishing monopoly, not the other way around. But the fact remains that Amazon is a company that singlehandedly controls 30% of the market share of the entire publishing industry. And unlike its competitors, it has a publishing arm, a distribution arm, and a retail arm.”
Amazon strongarms publisher, won’t allow pre-order of new J.K. Rowling book : 24 May 2014, The Daily Dot

“Amazon’s strategy against Hachette is that of a bullying combine the size of WalMart leaning on a much smaller supplier. And the smaller supplier in turn relies on really small suppliers like me. It’s anti-author, and in the long term it will deprive you of the books you want to read.
“Final note: some time in the 1980s the US Department of Justice’s anti-trust lawyers changed their focus from preventing monopolies from forming to preventing companies from colluding to preserve their margins (‘price fixing cartels’). As a result, Amazon very nearly gained a monopoly of ebook sales; they’re still around the 85-90% mark in the UK, and peaked at over 80% in the USA. (The irony of the DoJ-Apple iBook store settlement is that the DoJ went after the market incomer with the higher prices and 10% market share, rather than the near-monopolist who was using predatory pricing to drive their competition out of business.)”
Amazon: malignant monopoly, or just plain evil? : 26 May 2014, Charlie Stoss

“People have a choice on where to buy books. Amazon being the biggest bookseller on the planet doesn’t make them a monopoly or monopsony. If readers demand Hachette books, Amazon has not prevented them from being sold. There are thousands of other retailers who sell Hachette titles.
“I have five books published through Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, and more than a dozen self-pubbed through Createspace. Guess what? Indie bookstores and B&N don’t stock my paper books. And they are allowed to make that choice. And I don’t publicly whine about it.” …
“And there is a big difference between sales and profits. But no matter how you slice it, Hachette isn’t a helpless neophyte. They have power and capital and lawyers and have been around for almost 200 years. Amazon has the power advantage here, because they have customers Hachette wants access to. If Hachette wants to reach those customers, it will either accept Amazon’s terms or withdraw its catalog. And if Amazon can’t stand the idea of losing Hachette’s sales, it will back down.”
Fisking Charlie Stross: More on Hachette/Amazon : 27 May 2014, Joe Konrath

##

“The Rule of Reason is a doctrine developed by the United States Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The rule, stated and applied in the case of Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911), is that only combinations and contracts unreasonably restraining trade are subject to actions under the anti-trust laws. Possession of monopoly power is not in itself illegal.
“The Rule of Reason can be therefore considered a complement to per se illegality. Under the latter, the action, without consideration for circumstances, is illegal. Under the rule of reason, the circumstances in which the action was committed must be considered.” …
“On the same day, the Supreme Court also announced United States v. American Tobacco Co., 221 U.S. 106 (1911). That decision held that Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which bans monopolization, did not ban the mere possession of a monopoly but banned only the unreasonable acquisition and/or maintenance of monopoly.”
— Wikipedia: Rule of Reason – see also the entries for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey v. United States and United States antitrust law

I also like the finding (in other cases) that ‘geographical market division’ is straight up illegal, and I wonder how that could be applied to, say, cable companies in an argument. Do the cable companies collectively form a price fixing cartel more pernicious than, oh, I don’t know, Apple and 5/6ths of the Big Six publishers?

The phrase used is “illegal per se“ — in and of itself illegal, ‘inherently illegal’ —
“The United States Supreme Court has, in the past, determined activities such as price fixing, geographic market division, and group boycott to be illegal per se regardless of the reasonableness of such actions. Traditionally, illegal per se anti-trust acts describe horizontal market arrangements among competitors.The illegal per se category can trace its origins in the 1898 Supreme Court case Addyston Pipe & Steel Co. v. U.S., 175 U.S. 211 (1898).” – wikipedia

Cartels are illegal, a monopoly in-and-of-itself isn’t (in 1911).

Modern day Justice Department lawyers (in my opinion, burned in 1999-2001 when the Microsoft monopoly case amounted to a whole-lotta-nothing) have been skittish, loath to prosecute, and have also taken a very narrow view of antitrust laws: Monopoly power when exercised to deprive consumers of “the benefits of competition” is illegal — and the US Dept. of Justice sees the price charged to end-consumers as the only yardstick to measure that by. (The final price is only one benefit of competition and healthy markets, but whatever.)

It would also seem that players in an industry can collude all they want, too — so long as they do so in the open, in public view, and have excellent lobbyists. This is the reason the cable companies can all charge $90 a month, and raise rates every year, while offering neither better service nor more programming options. The mistake that Apple and the publishers made was attempting the old fashioned back-room deal: They should have hired more lobbyists, set up a think-tank or two, and then debated the ‘issue’ in back-and-forth newspaper editorials and NPR interviews; heck, the CEOs could legitimately spell out the whole deal, in the context of a cable news appearance. After six months of that, they could legitimately claim Agency Pricing was just ‘natural’ and the way ‘everyone’ was doing business.

Or at least, that seems to be the MO of the Cable Cartel — in my opinion.

##

Coke isn’t a monopoly, because Pepsi.

Visa isn’t a monopoly, because Mastercard.

McDonalds is big and profitable and ugly, but isn’t a monopoly.

Walmart is pernicious and certainly isn’t playing fair in several ways, but they do not have a monopoly.

We, as individual consumers, may not like some very successful firms because we dislike how they do business — or object to the business entirely — and so we don’t eat at McDonalds or shop at Walmart or drink either brand of fizzy diluted corn syrup.

De Beers is a straight-up monopoly — (not that this will ever be an issue, but) if I ever find myself needing a diamond ring, you can bet your ass I’m shopping vintage, or even going to a pawn shop, and if need be having the stone reset, rather than giving them any money.

Even when consumers exercise choice (free market, etc.) there are always times-and-places where some non-Monopoly with plenty of competition still ends up being the only choice. Cable TV and Broadband Internet are two lovely examples — as I can all but guarantee you have only one choice for each, and it’s the same company. For rural US customers, away from the coasts, Walmart may not just be the only discount department store, but the only grocery store for miles.

Walmart is a monopoly to the folks out in Podunk and West Bumble, though those folks are often glad to have them there. The options that existed before were both limited and more expensive. I still don’t think Walmart is ‘doing good’ but they’re serving markets, and if all we consider are outcomes and prices (and not awful practices) then Walmart deserves (some, slight) praise.

Amazon isn’t a monopoly… right?

Amazon has ‘competitors’ in the book market, and the small electronics market (that’s their real retail bread and butter), and online streaming video, and music downloads, and cloud computing services, and small goods (anything that fits in a box). Amazon has barely started in the grocery delivery market — a market which doesn’t even exist yet, honestly* — and in a number of other fields-of-competition, Amazon is in 2nd place, 3rd place, or worse. There is no way** to call Amazon a monopoly

* natural monopolies in markets where no active market previously existed have also been addressed by the courts; we’ll get to that eventually.

Amazon is much more than a bookstore these days anyway. No matter how small a percentage of the business, though, Amazon is always going to sell books — because books are the key to everything else:

“[B]ook markdowns are extremely visible. Sellers can tout their low prices compared to what’s on the back of book covers, the price publishers want to sell it for. And that can be a convenient psychological device — especially if you’re a big retailer with lots of other stuff to sell. ‘When the customer sees a book at 40, 50 percent off,’ Teicher says, ‘the presumption is that everything else that that retailer is selling is also equally inexpensive.’ And books bring in some pretty attractive consumers. ‘Book buyers are good customers,’ Teicher adds. ‘They tend to be slightly more affluent, they tend to be consumers who shop and therefore are always in the marketplace for other products.’”
Why books always seem to have a discounted price : 8 May 2014, Marketplace

Amazon can and should price books however they want. They do the same for MP3 players, hard drives, digital cameras, headphones, blenders, kitchen wares, blu-ray players, electric razors, board games, golf clubs, auto parts, and industrial shop equipment.

Amazon is just doing what every retailer does, though: sell at a discount. Nearly every manufacturer or supplier has a MSRP — notably the “sticker price” on the window of a new car; publishers aren’t the only ones who print the price on the ‘cover’ — and nearly every retailer ignores it.

Sometimes the items are discounted right out of the gate — especially on the fourth Friday in November. Those of us who shop for clothes know that the retail ticket price is only there to make the eventual clearance/close-out discount seem that much more attractive. If you’re shopping for a TV set, I’m willing to bet that the MSRP is also the in-store list price on 90% of the new models on display; there will be one “flyer” item on sale, to get you in the store, and of course last year’s models are discounted (to 15% margin instead of 50%).

There was one notable retailer exception: book stores. Book stores charged the price on the book. Books as a commodity are different, though — the exact same book will be available in at least two formats, with a price differential between ‘prestige’ hardcovers and the soft cover. Having two paperback versions (‘trade’ and ‘mass-market’) further clouds the picture, as do remaindered hardcover books. It is technically possible to walk into a bookstore and find a $6.98 hardcover, a $8.99 mass market paperback, a $18.00 trade paperback, and a $28 ‘new’ hardcover all of the same book, same words on the inside and everything, with only a matter of size and paper quality (or the detail of a remainders auction) to differentiate them.

So books were being discounted; the publisher just found a very convoluted way of doing it, and the booksellers were more than willing to play into it. Customers know the score, and they buy — or wait, and wait — depending on the current format and asking price, and their enthusiasm for the book.

Book stores used to be an exception in that they “always” charged the cover price — but only up until the chain booksellers began to routinely and without exception discount their bestsellers, not because of online prices (not at first) but rather to compete with the likes of Costco and Sam’s Club — which were selling the headline, bestselling authors’ books at discounts of 30% or more. That was in the early 90s, before Bezos had turned his bookstore into a behemoth. Amazon didn’t invent the discounted hardcover, they just had lower overhead, and so they could do it even better.

Amazon entered into the book market, where pricing and formats were already a muddled mess, and then further complicated things: by organizing a network of 3rd-party resellers of used books, by lowering their own margins on all books including the backlist, and (the clincher) by choosing to list all editions—new, used, remaindered, 3rd party sellers, paperback, hardcover, and collectible signed first editions—on a single product page. “Oh look, this book is only $2!” exclaimed thousands of customers simultaneously, even if they then went on to buy the book for $5.99 or $18.79 or $65.

Customers’ perception of [physical] book prices had already changed by the time the Kindle launched in Nov. of 2007 — and immediately sold out. Others had tried to sell ebooks online, and ebook readers pre-date the kindle by 10 years but Amazon had an edge: their customer base consisted of early adopters, avid readers, folks comfortable with or at least willing to try new technology if it meant they could save money, and folks affluent enough to drop $300+ on a gadget — no, those last two points aren’t a contradiction: I think the mindset is that books are a commodity good so of course you buy for the cheapest wherever you can find ‘em, but a gadget, especially the best-in-class gadget, is a one-of-a-kind (and potentially, a must-have) so price is no object. (‘Best in class’ and a price insensitive fan base is Apple’s whole business in a nutshell.)

The major selling point of the kindle was $9.99 brand new bestsellers; the initial price on the Kindle was $399. Enough people did the math and figured it was still cheap at that price. It shouldn’t be surprising — Amazon didn’t launch Kindle without knowing their market. When you have a database of the customers who buy at least two New-York-Times-Bestselling books a month, and can send them an email, you’ve already done that math.

[more on ‘$9.99’: NYTWashington PostAmazon itself]

Amazon launched into a market that didn’t really exist, and so quickly became the only major player worth talking about. Barnes and Noble (fatally?) took two years to enter that market, and Apple now famously only entered the market in 2010 as an ‘add-on’ and initial hook for their new iPad — and when they could stack the deck in their favor. So it should be no surprise that Amazon is the major player, with 60-75% of the ebook market (or more, and growing).

** And at what point could we say Amazon is a monopoly?

Of note is the 2nd Circuit Court decision United States v. Alcoa, 1945 —
“Judge Learned Hand held that he could consider only the percentage of the market in ‘virgin aluminum’ for which Alcoa accounted. Alcoa had argued that it was in the position of having to compete with scrap. Even if the scrap was aluminum that Alcoa had manufactured in the first instance, it no longer controlled its marketing. But Hand defined the relevant market narrowly in accord with the prosecution’s theory. Hand applied a rule concerning practices that are illegal per se. It did not matter how Alcoa became a monopoly, since its offense was simply to become one. In Hand’s words,
[blockquote]‘It was not inevitable that it should always anticipate increases in the demand for ingot and be prepared to supply them. Nothing compelled it to keep doubling and redoubling its capacity before others entered the field. It insists that it never excluded competitors; but we can think of no more effective exclusion than progressively to embrace each new opportunity as it opened, and to face every newcomer with new capacity already geared into a great organization, having the advantage of experience, trade connections and the elite of personnel.’[/blockquote]
“Hand acknowledged the possibility that a monopoly might just happen, without anyone’s having planned for it. If it did, then there would be no wrong, no liability, and no need to remedy the result. But that acknowledgement has generally been seen as an empty one in the context of the rest of the opinion, because of course rivals in a market routinely plan to outdo one another, at the least by increasing efficiency and appealing more effectively to actual and potential customers. If one competitor succeeds through such plans to the extent of 90% of the market, that planning can be described given Hand’s reasoning as the successful and illegal monopolization of the market.” – wikipedia

In the end, the 1945 decision was mooted by changing markets —very much like the Microsoft/Internet Explorer decision in 2000 quickly became irrelevant as other browsers ate away at IE’s market share — but Alcoa and Microsoft were both subject to court oversight after being found guilty, and oversight continued until the market caught up. Apple and the courts are still arguing over what “court oversight” might mean in the ebook-pricing case.

[The publishers already submitted to court restrictions when they settled the case before trial. They have to renegotiate their contracts, though the court allowed that these negotiations should be staggered. Hachette is the first of the five on the schedule; say, how is that going?]

Let’s take a second look at “the possibility that a monopoly might just happen, without anyone’s having planned for it. If it did, then there would be no wrong, no liability, and no need to remedy the result.”

See: the 1st Circuit Court decision, Fraser v. Major League Soccer, 2002 —
“The Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s finding that the plaintiffs did not prove that Major League Soccer illegally monopolized the market for player services, and failed to prove the product market and geographic market, because MLS competed with other soccer leagues in the U.S. for players, and MLS competed with soccer leagues in other countries.
“On the charge of a reduction in competition under the Clayton Act, the Court of Appeals held that ‘the creation of MLS did not reduce competition in an existing market’ because no active market for Division 1 soccer previously existed in the United States” – wikipedia

I don’t know what soccer player salaries have to do with author royalties, but I think we all can agree that MLS—which owns every individual team, not just the league—is a de-facto monopoly on US Soccer and that likely does affect 98% of player salaries, no matter what the court found at trial.

However: “the creation of MLS did not reduce competition in an existing market because no active market for Division 1 soccer previously existed”

The same could be said for ebooks in 2007.

On the other side of the coin, the Alcoa decision — where control of part of a market (ebooks for example; just throwing that out there) can be considered as separate from the overall market (all books) — might just be a precedent if someone chose to apply it. Of course, any and all actions taken by Amazon in pursuit of book market share is just “good business”. For Amazon to act differently would be stupid. Bezos is not stupid.

In fact, I’m sure that Bezos knows the distribution centers he’s built in the last decade, combined with the ease of one-click shopping, an engaged and enthusiastic customer base (of readers!), integrated hardware/software that includes dedicated e-readers, andoid-ish tablets, and apps on everything, along with razor-thin margins and customer retention programs like Amazon Prime, all represent very high barriers to entry. The ability to drop a few or a hundred million to buy out a nascent competitor certainly doesn’t hurt. It seems obvious to buy an online bookseller like Abe Books — but more vitally, Amazon is being proactive in acquiring any developing network of readers, including both Shelfari and Goodreads. The business is being won not just in market share but in mind share, and having a lock on enthusiastic readers is apparently worth at least $150 Million (for Goodreads, the purchase price of Shelfari wasn’t disclosed).

“It insists that it never excluded competitors; but we can think of no more effective exclusion than progressively to embrace each new opportunity as it opened, and to face every newcomer with new capacity already geared into a great organization, having the advantage of experience, trade connections and the elite of personnel”

##

Following the precedents, the Apple ebook case makes sense in its own way — price fixing and cartels are definitely illegal. Monopolies in and of themselves are not.

Any theoretical Amazon case would also be a huge mess because you’d have to argue about who Amazon’s customers are: sure, on the surface, Amazon’s only book customer is the end reader — but if Amazon [eventually] controls 90% of the ebook market, wouldn’t an author’s only way to reach those readers be through Amazon? Isn’t the author—attempting to use Amazon’s services to reach Amazon’s reader base—a customer too? Amazon buys books from publishers — but if you’re a [dead tree] genre fiction publisher and Amazon accounts for 50% or more of your overall sales, online or off, who has the power in that relationship? What are your options outside of Amazon?

By placing itself across the whole book industry — and playing different roles in retail, distribution, and publishing but not controlling any of the three — Amazon in a way insulates itself from accusations of monopoly while also becoming a much bigger and more formidable adversary than it might have been otherwise.

In November of 1998, Barnes and Noble (with about 15% of the book retail business) proposed buying Ingram Book Group, which at that point had 11 distribution centers and shipped books, audio books, and magazines to stores nationwide — including to Amazon. While each was the number one competitor in their field, both Barnes & Noble and Ingram still faced strong second-placed competitors, and both parties promised that the merger wouldn’t affect Ingram’s existing distribution deals or customer relationships. The buy-out was dropped in 1999, about six months later, over fears the FTC would axe the deal; the respective companies felt dragging the process out any further would only damage their image, and potentially, their business [and certainly: B&N’s stock price].

[Additional reading on that: AP, NYT, CNet]

Would the union of book retail with book distribution have destroyed competition? — Apparently it didn’t; after 1999 both B&N and Amazon brought distribution in-house (spending hundreds of millions in the process), handling the majority themselves and buying direct from publishers instead of middlemen. But in 1999 the “major” player in book retail (with 15% of the market) was effectively blocked from consolidating its position by anti-trust fears.

And Amazon has 30% of the book market, but isn’t considered an anti-trust candidate by anyone except those suffering from ‘Amazon Derangement Syndrome’.

##

[Enough droning on about Amazon.]

Could the publishers be making major changes to the way they do business? Aw Hells Yes. Amazon is devouring the business like a pack of cheetahs because the old school, New-York based publishing business was and is very inefficient, a half-broken system that was in no way improved by the consolidation of imprints, and the consumption of New York publishers by Big Media conglomerates.

If I were to launch a publisher today, it would not be in Manhattan — well, Manhattan, Kansas, maybe, but not New York. The ghosts of Max Perkins, Book Row, and the Algonquin Round Table seemingly haunt the business —or perhaps, it is the publishers who cling and won’t let go, not the ghosts who are refusing to leave. We’re constantly lamenting either the demise of literacy, of literature, or just of good taste. (that link is a 1959 article in Harper’s on the decline of book reviewing)

So lets rethink this a bit and reframe our mental image of publishing:

By the 1930s, rotary presses, offset printing, and hot metal typesetting had industrialized the manufacture of books, to the point where a paperback could be sold for just 25¢ (in 1939, inflation adjusted $4.15) — while simultaneously, the market for fiction in magazines (high-brow and low) fostered at least three generations of writers, the end result of which we see in Pulitzer Prizes, Noble Laureates, and (even better) the glorious era of Pulp. The modern day publishers were all born in this era (as previously, there was no way to profitably make the books—copies of books, in the manufacturing sense) and in a way, they are all still stuck in it.

Now, the word processor, digital publishing, and social media have again revolutionized the manufacture of books — In publishing, It’s 1879 All Over Again, and every blogger is a newspaper onto themselves, every online author their own very small magazine or press, and every existing, accepted business model should be assumed to be wrong until proven otherwise.

But instead of seeing the revolution take off (like it has in other areas of tech), enterprising small publishers and aspiring authors still have to contend with the weight of the Book Establishment: the media conglomerates, their gatekeepers, and a self-appointed literary police force that values laurels and prizes over fun and pulp. The Established Book People control every approach to the market: breaking free from the slush pile and into publication to begin with; access to shelves in bookstores, or even better, front-of-store placement; getting your book reviewed by nationally-distributed newspapers and magazines, or even better …Oprah.

How does one crack into this market? Do you have to, anymore, to ‘make’ it as an author? If you go online, is Amazon your only way, or just the only way to reach Amazon’s (numerous and book-hungry) customers? To date, only Pottermore has begun to explore (and exploit) what is possible — though of course we could argue that Rowling is in a unique position to do so. In time (5 years? 10?) others will definitely follow. The next G.R.R.M. will not be a greybeard with an existing publishing contract, but will instead use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and [The Next Great Social Media Thing that Hasn’t Been Invented Yet] to pull readers into a totally independent website, to read appendices and argue minutia on forums and to buy, buy, buy digital copies of the books.

Rowling and G.R.R.M. had a lot of help though: movies and cable TV gave a boost to properties already pretty famous and selling themselves out in the bookstores. 99.999999% of new authors won’t be able to take the same path (or sit on Oprah’s couch, let alone Conan’s) but the idea of doing it all yourself shouldn’t be discarded just because we can’t all win the lottery. Maybe the next G.R.R.M. will get his start writing fan fiction — maybe she has already done so, and just needs a push to go from posting on others’ web sites to building and hosting her own. Sure, reader-outreach and fan interaction might ‘live’ elsewhere (twitter&tumblr, perhaps) but you’ll need more than a few @handles and an Amazon landing page if you want to control your own destiny.

For authors that don’t do it themselves? To go back six paragraphs, “If I were to launch a publisher today” it would be a website, not just an imprint — and the small editorial staff would include writers to maintain the blog, programmers to build the platform, and some social media savvists (yes I just made up that word and invented the job) to find and capture fans — and the staff would be given a mission to curate a small niche of publishing — or a large niche, or a whole genre, but whatever: our target is a target, and we’re aiming for both the authors and the readers. IF I could buy the Analog or Asimov brand names: we’d be off and running, yesterday.

So long as I’m wishing: Give me the modern-day John W. Campbell or Lester Del Rey and let’s do this already. Pitch it as a tech startup to con the VCs acquire some startup capital to pay the bills the first two years and *do it*.

If Vox, Whalerock, Ziff Davis, Conde Nast, or First Look Media want to get in touch with me about starting this new hybrid website-magazine-imprint, I can be on a plane and at your office on Monday. Have the contract ready for me to sign; no takebacks.

##

Publishing is ripe for disruption. Amazon found a couple of cracks and are working the wedges to split off their chunk of the market. Amazon is very successful at what they do; they are the first of a new kind of book company — currently more retailer than publisher, but doing just fine with their house imprints and also, more than willing to share parts of the infrastructure with others (authors; but authors direct and not their publishers) (at least: so far).

Amazon is monopoly-ish but the Justice Department has given them a pass (and will continue to) so long as Amazon isn’t “abusing” their position to raise consumer prices. Anything else that Amazon does, including making publishers squeal, making B&N obsolete, and stomping (or buying) any upstart that even looks like it might be eyeing Amazon’s business: that’s all fine.

HOWEVER,

And this is aimed at the Amazon Cheerleader Squad,

Amazon’s dominant market position isn’t a good thing, in my opinion. It’d be great (and I’d certainly be less apprehensive) if there were a strong, and growing, and decently-popular alternative to Kindle Direct Publishing to threaten Amazon and keep them honest. A Pepsi to their Coke, or a Discover Card (or even a Square) to their Visa/Mastercard hegemony.

I think it’s fine to use Amazon, but one shouldn’t be enamored by it. In the current publishing landscape, Amazon has every potential to become a de-facto book monopoly — a utility like AT&T, maybe, something you don’t notice and with flat rates that everyone gets accustomed to using — but being a comfortable and familiar monopoly doesn’t make it less of one. If you think of Kindle Direct Publishing as a book utility service (which is more of a poetic analogy than a direct one, but I find it fits) and recall the abuses of pre-breakup AT&T, or perhaps that other de-facto monopoly, your local cable company — maybe you’ll pause for just a moment before encouraging everyone to jump on board.

Additionally, there is nothing Amazon does for you that you, as an author, can’t do for yourself. Sure, one can buy into Amazon’s Kindle Ecosystem and that’s great — it’s easy and seductive.

But if you argue that Publishers don’t deserve 95%, or 85%, or 75% for formatting, editing, production, and distribution when one can easily contract that out (for an upfront, one-time fee – not ongoing chunks of the revenue) and the parts that can’t be contracted out have been made obsolete by ebooks…

…then maybe you can also see my argument that Amazon doesn’t deserve even 30% if you’re the one marketing the book, finding fans on facebook, slowly building up your backlist and ‘brand’ — and you only direct them to Amazon because you haven’t set up your own website yet. (for an author, yes, 70% is way better than 5-17% — even the 35% Amazon offers for books outside the KDP Select program is better — but 100% and 100% control should be the goal, right? …right? )

Genre authors who are at the forefront of the Kindle Revolution might want to start reading web comics, and learning about how comickers are monetizing. Some of them even print and sell hardcover books, direct, at a profit, …without Amazon — and that’s after they give away the comics for free. There is a lot to think about here.

##

Like I said, it’s 1879 all over again and we’ve been given a once-in-a-century opportunity to re-invent publishing and books. A whole world of options is out there and a possibly brilliant future awaits.

But we can also learn from the past: let me tell you, no one in 1914 was arguing that Sears & Roebuck was the future of publishing just because they had revolutionized retail with direct-to-customer shipping, were leveraging the possibilities of the network (rail network) to ship faster and cheaper all the time, used massive volume to keep margins and prices low, and their ability to reach and inform millions of customers (through their catalog) was unprecedented, nation-wide, and ubiquitous.

Have it shipped direct and save 70 percent off new fiction!

Publishing was re-invented by the packagers and the pulps, not the establishment players. The revolution was led by the people serializing fiction to sell magazines, and the 25¢ paperbacks sold outside of bookstores — dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of independent players, of which only a handful were successful (those became today’s imprints, handed around like poker chips by media conglomerates) but all of which were making and selling books. The first editors and publishers learned on the job, and often were the authors themselves; we are being given the same opportunity.



As certain as Death, Taxes, and 2-day prime shipping

filed under , 23 April 2014, 11:13 by

A recent Bloomberg article revives the old Amazon sales tax debate (if we’re still debating this) so I thought I’d dig up the appropriate links and Wikipedia articles for everyone to reference again:

http://www.ilsr.org/rule/internet-sales-tax-fairness/

[blockquote]

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there was nothing inherently unconstitutional about requiring out-of-state retailers (such as mail order companies and internet retailers) to collect state and local sales taxes on orders shipped to in-state residents. The only question was whether imposing such a requirement would cross the line from an acceptable burden on interstate commerce to an unreasonable one. Technology had greatly eased the burden of collecting taxes for multiple jurisdictions, the Court noted, but concluded that Congress should make the call.

The Court’s ruling left existing policy, under which remote retailers must collect sales taxes only in states where they have a physical presence or other tangible “nexus,” unchanged. But the Court explicitly invited Congress to revisit the policy. “The underlying issue is not only one that Congress may be better qualified to resolve, but also one that Congress has the ultimate power to resolve” the Court wrote.

Today, software and related tax services have largely eliminated any remaining difficulty in calculating and remitting sales taxes for the country’s many state and local jurisdictions. Yet Congress has so far failed to extend sales tax collection to online retailers.

[/blockquote]

So, first: the argument presented by mail-order retailers against their obligation to collect the tax [22 years ago, pre-Internet, pre-online-retail, pre-Amazon] has been made irrelevant by technology.

Second, the Supreme Court took the time to point out Congress could reverse their decision at any time with simple legislation.

Most importantly, though,

“[W]hile remote sellers are not required to collect sales taxes, the tax is still owed by the individual who made the purchase. Individuals are supposed to keep track of these purchases and pay an amount equivalent to the sales tax as a “use” tax on their state tax returns. Less than 1 percent of people do, however, and the use tax is almost impossible to enforce, which effectively exempts these purchases” [emphasis mine]

And again, from another source: http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/sales-tax-internet-29919.html

[blockquote]

Consumers who live in a state that collects sales tax are technically required to pay the tax to the state even when an Internet retailer doesn’t collect it. When consumers are required to pay tax directly to the state, it is referred to as “use” tax rather than sales tax.

The only difference between sales and use tax is which person — the seller or the buyer — pays the state. Theoretically, use taxes are just a backup plan to make sure that the state collects revenue on every taxable item that is purchased within its borders. But because collecting use tax on smaller purchases is so much trouble, states have traditionally attempted to collect a use tax only on big-ticket items that require licenses, such as cars and boats.

[/blockquote]

And from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_tax

“A use tax is a type of excise tax levied in the United States by numerous state governments. It is assessed upon tangible personal property purchased by a resident of the assessing state for use, storage, or consumption in that state (not for resale), regardless of where the purchase took place. If a resident of a state makes a purchase within his home state, full sales tax is paid at the time of the transaction. The use tax applies when a resident of the assessing state purchases an item that is not subject to his home state’s sales tax. Usually, this is due to out-of-state purchases, as well as ordering items through the mail, by phone, or over the Internet from other states. The use tax is typically assessed at the same rate as the sales tax that would have been owed (if any) had the same goods been purchased in the state of residence.” [emphasis in original]

The states of Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming don’t charge income tax so a majority of the state budget has to come from other sources, like sales tax. (Alaska and New Hampshire also don’t charge a state sales tax, but I’m sure local jurisdictions within those states do.)

also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sales_tax#Enforcement_of_tax_on_remote_sales

“In the United States, every state with a sales tax law has a use tax component in that law applying to purchases from out-of-state mail order, catalog and e-commerce vendors, a category also known as “remote sales”. As e-commerce sales have grown in recent years, noncompliance with use tax has had a growing impact on state revenues. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that uncollected use taxes on remote sales in 2003 could be as high as $20.4 billion. Uncollected use tax on remote sales was projected to run as high as $54.8 billion for 2011.” [emphasis mine]

It is not that internet purchases are “tax free” — they’re not. It’s a matter of who collects the tax. If you want to argue that internet purchases shouldn’t be taxed, well, take that up with your elected representatives — but as noted above, this went all the way to the Supreme Court and the ruling came back that tax is still owed even if it is not collected at time of purchase — in both the 1992 case, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota and the earlier 1967 case cited as precedent, National Bellas Hess v. Illinois Department of Revenue. No one was arguing that the tax was not due, only that making out-of-state companies collect the tax constituted an unfair burden (at that time, while suffering either 1967 or later 1992 technology). The tax due is not a matter of where the company headquarters is located, or which warehouse it ships from, of if there is a ‘nexus’ in your state: it’s a matter of where you, the purchaser, live.

When you buy a book from a bookstore, or buy your groceries, or liquor, or a new couch, or a car: sales taxes get collected at the register (as listed on your receipt). Retailers send a check to local and state governments monthly, and the sales tax revenue is an important part of what keeps your local municipalities running: it would be very hard to make payroll (for say, firefighters and police officers, and to be fair, also the really awful people at the DMV – but they deserve a paycheck too) without this stream of income. Even if everyone dutifully paid the Use Tax on internet purchases (a big if) without sales tax revenues trickling in over the course of the year, your city or county would have to borrow the money to make payroll, and then wait until April (or later) to pay those loans back, incurring interest and fees that eat into already small budgets.

“In states that have the tax, households reduced their spending on Amazon by about 10 percent compared to those in states that don’t have the levy. For online purchases of more than $300, sales fell by 24 percent” – Bloomberg, citing a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University

…Well, I think that’s all we need to know about why Amazon spends millions to fight State governments attempting to collect the tax.

Eventually, Amazon *will* collect sales taxes — even if it takes an Act of Congress and a Supreme Court decision, it’s coming. But it’s also certainly to Amazon’s advantage to put off that date for as long as they possibly can.



I wonder if the historical model I should be researching is RCA, not Pocket Books?

filed under , 20 April 2014, 14:40 by

“Thinking of ebooks and printed books as comparable is like assuming that anything conveyed by means of the written word is a poem; plays, novels, stories, film scripts, letters, shopping lists and text messages exist too. Publishers have got to stop thinking of their digital products as ‘books’, and start imagining more expansive ways of communicating information. Until then, the digital revolution hasn’t even begun.”

‘The ebook revolution hasn’t even begun’ : Gaby Wood, 30 March 2014, The Telegraph

##

I wonder if the historical model I should be researching is RCA, not Pocket Books? The argument could be made that the Consolidated Amazon Book Cheetah™ currently thinning the fat, slow publisher herd have more in common with General Electric of the 1910s and 1920s than with cheap pocket paperbacks that appeared in 1939. GE built the devices (RCA radios) while simultaneously developing the content and networks (NBC Red and Blue) that drove demand. The later success of television rode piggyback on the real revolution that had taken place decades earlier.



Google Ngram "American Dream"

filed under , 12 January 2014, 18:35 by

Interesting: the “American Dream” wasn’t really a thing until after mass immigration — and the 1929 crash. Have we always been nostalgic for an America that never really existed?

[Google Ngram]

The first generation’s dream was America. Only the subsequent generations start talking about “the American Dream”.

This won’t change anyone’s mind; that assumes rational discourse where long-held beliefs can be challenged by evidence. But it’s so damn interesting



E- versus Print? Burgers and Steak.

filed under , 11 November 2013, 06:09 by

where’s the beef? actually, I suppose that should be “what’s the beef?”

beef /bēf/ noun secondary, informal use: a complaint or grievance. synonyms: complaint, criticism, objection, cavil, quibble, grievance, grumble, gripe, grouse [thank you, Google.]

##

This is not the first time I’ve used a ‘steak’ analogy; something about media consumption generally lends itself to the inevitable comparison. (DVDs have menus, social media and rss both have feeds, we even talk about information diets)

  • Cheaper, faster, available from more outlets? Call that a ‘burger’.
  • More expensive, often considered a prestige item at many vendors, and with a so-called-best expression found at decades-old establishments dedicated to it? Call that a ‘steak’

A steak can cost $25 or more, you make the purchase of it a special event, or part of a ritual. Oh, sure: a steak can be had for $15 from some neighborhood “bar and grill” but somehow the identical cut (often prepared the same) isn’t given the same regard: If you want a decent steak you go to where the chef and the cooks and the staff are all on board with the experience. You go to a steakhouse. If you happen to be at some other restaurant and take a flyer and order the steak, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if it’s any good and honestly, not really disappointed if it’s not. (Unless you’re the asshole who sends back plates at a Tuesdays/Fridays/ApplePepper… dude, …you had that option before walking in the door, don’t torture the staff)

In contrast: Burgers are fast and cheap; not $25 but to be had in under 5 minutes and for as little as 99¢ — and if the 99¢ burger is a little small and not as satisfying, you don’t complain.

For a decent lunch — grabbed on the go — you expect to pay $2.99 or $3.99 (or maybe a little more, if you’ve ordered from this joint before and you happen to really like their burgers — value for the money)

Do the price points I’m citing (or the title of this blog post) give you an idea of where I’m going with this?

##

You go to the bookstore: you get recommendations, some guidance, some free samples [open a book, fool, that’s what they’re there for], they have a comprehensive ‘menu’ and even a comfy seat.

This costs more at the steakhouse; it costs more at the bookstore.

‘Steak’, right? Oh, but steak doesn’t cost $25, you say? You can get a decent rib-eye (about a half pound or so) for $4.99.

Sure you can. If you’re lucky you went to the butcher, but more likely it’s just the cut in a styrofoam tray at your supermarket. And then you’re on your own: how to season it, how to cook it, cast iron or grill? Is either of those even an option?

A cheap steak requires a certain amount of expertise. (AND I glossed over the choice of cut: sirloin, rib-eye, new york or kansas city strip, t-bone, porterhouse, london broil, flank, skirt, flatiron, top and bottom round — and those are the US cuts; a British or Brazilian butcher will take the same cow and divide it differently.) Hell, finding a cheap steak and figuring out what to do with it is work.

Any wonder why some would rather just get it from a steakhouse, inflated price be damned?

##

YES, OF COURSE if one believes in anecdotal evidence, we can all easily relate:

  • that really awesome steak we had for like $12 at some hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop restaurant
  • that $8 burger which was literally the best thing ever, transcendent really
  • the diner with an awesome $4 burger — honestly I order like 4 without sides and that’s all I eat there
  • the highfalutin’ hoity-toity place that made me put on a jacket, charged me $50, and the steak sucked.

Here I will note again: yes. That’s fine. Your experience is valid,
but this whole post is just an extended metaphor.

There are what, one hundred thousand restaurants across the US? More? A million? I don’t actually think it’s a million but hell, call it a million restaurants.

There are at least 129 Million Books and another million get added each year.

Relying on only anecdotal evidence: I could pick any one book and it would either prove or disprove any generalization. I could pick whole genres.

##

Let’s go back to customer experience and expectations:

If your budget is smaller, and you tend to “eat out” often, you’ll naturally gravitate to the Burger-end of the beef spectrum: give us this day our daily burger (and fries) and lead us not unto heart disease.

Expectations are smaller, price points are lower, we need something that satisfies but are not looking for transcendent experiences. You go through the drive-thru. Convenience matters more than quality. Sometimes you celebrate the quick-cheap-and-easy aspects, and might even be caught out saying A Good Burger Trumps a Mediocre Steak in my book, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

(If you plan ahead and make a reservation, are bringing a date, plus fronting $30 bucks a plate just for the entrées: your expectations are higher.)

Let’s say you’re some kind of a douchenozzle and you demand home delivery from a steakhouse — your expectations haven’t changed (and the prices haven’t either) but the beef you end up eating is not what you ordered. (By taking the dining experience out of the dining room you’ve necessarily changed it — not just your time waiting but also the time entrées spend hanging out and cooling: time, distance, reality, etc.)

…so of course the first thing you do is spring to Yelp and write a scathing take down and denounce the steakhouse for not being a drive-thru or delivery joint and for serving you a steak that had already been off the grill for whole minutes by the time you saw it.

##

So. [putting my metaphors in a blender and hitting ‘frappe’]

By taking the ‘bookstore experience’ out of the bookstore: you’ve necessarily changed it.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining about the cost of steak kind of piss me off.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining that the Bookstore (our Steakhouse stand-in) doesn’t serve burger — or sell the burgers at a whole dollar mark up — kind of miss the point of bookstores.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining about the Cost of Steak also kind of miss the point: A good burger, prepared well and plated with exceptional skill, is a meal that often exceeds the customer expectations and also quite often is even more satisfying than a steak. This is attributable to the skill of the staff, and the chef/author, and should be considered only on a plate-by-plate (book-by-book) basis.

One-off experiences are not how we price burgers *or* steak. You had an exceptional meal; great, go you.

A single reaction to a single experience is not how pricing works.

Authors have been turning dog food into Delmonico’s for decades, and the list of genres that started out as pulp that have been rehabilitated into literature starts with mystery and is rapidly gaining on erotica. Science fiction and romance gained on the first rehabilitation, and in the current climate, are still gaining in comparison.

##

So, why is the quality/price dynamic — even with the many context-specific nuances — easy to understand when we talk about Hamburgers vs Steak (with the implied associations provably false as we have all been served transcendent Burgers and Inedible steaks) but in an Ebook vs Hardcover/Paperback debate it always comes back down to price?

No consideration of the discovery process, or the venues that enable the discovery process?
No consideration of the differences between products, and between markets?
No consideration of quality as a differentiator, or something that might—in a completely free and open market—be a factor that demands a higher price?

There is no steakhouse in the hybrid-bookstore-and-ebook model, just varying degrees of fast-food joints?

Since it’s all just beef (just books), it should all be available from just one source and all at a single price point?

This is the position you’re staking out as a starting point?



A Little Silicon in Every City

filed under , 10 November 2013, 15:37 by




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