43 thoughts on “Overture

  1. Joe Loveland says:

    Welcome William. We’re thrlled to have you join us. I’m officially intimidated. (Crap, that wasn’t conventional wisdom or poorly written, was it?)

  2. Dennis Lang says:

    This is fantastic! Yes, I remember an article in the Star-Trib, lamenting as I recall the passing of inventive, probing, narrative nonfiction replaced by the urgency of the Internet, and some of the adversarial readers’ comments–like “do we really need eloquence and creativity and journalism?” Welcome!

  3. PM says:

    If you can hold up hitchen’s standards, then more power to you! (“letters” is one of my favorite books–gave it to my daughter as she went off to college as a standard to aspire to…so far so good).

    Do, of course, bear in mind how Socrates ended up….
    and never forget the wisdom that can be found in a glass or two of beer or wine!

  4. Ellen M says:

    Welcome, William. We’re, indeed, honored to have you join us and predict we will behave nicely for a few days in an attempt to impress you with our manners. And then…

    “The natives listened very carefully to what the missionary had to say. And then they ate him.”

    Ellen

  5. PM says:

    BTW, what makes Bezos a sociopath?

    tossing off such accusations with nary a word of support really isn’t a good way to start out…..

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      The thing is MK, “the old way”, the reporting of Talese, or Krakauer, Rosenbaum and Red Smith will become something of the foggy past when studies tell us the average consumer can manage a max of 328 words in an Internet story–and the Internet is the present and future of journalism. Foolish to hold John Hersey as a model of nonfiction mastery for today’s brightest aspirants when there’s no publishing industry left to hire them or audience that will miss the kind of writing he represents.

  6. Mike Kennedy says:

    Let me just try to sum this up elegantly………………….bullshit.

    Journalism was changing long before the internet came along. I was there.

    Anyone remember the hoooyaaaa wonder of the “eight inch” front page story (which led some of us at USA Today to taunt each other with things like “mine might be shorter than yours today, but it has more force and impact.” (ah, the fun and joy of blatant sexual innuendo — the good old days before newsrooms became so PC, sanitary and boring that you had to pause and edit yourself before speaking, but I digress).

    Journalism and literature isn’t immune to change. It’s evolution and we all believe in that. Right?

    I’m sorry but the Bezos comment just wasn’t very impressive. That was my point.

    Taking a shot at a guy who has made book buying and reading more accessible? Interesting.

  7. Mike Kennedy says:

    Before any punctuation Nazis come after me, I apologize for the errors with the parentheses and dropping the question mark in the third paragraph. I simply don’t want anyone thinking I was poorly trained by Mrja, Benidt or Gaterud……sounds like a good law firm.

    They also are not responsible for teaching me to cuss.

    1. Until he was foiled by Apple and its iPad, Mr. Bezos (who is the CEO of Amazon) was determined to destroy the printed book…and along with it the traditional business model involving publishers, editors, agents, bookstores, and, not incidentally, a large number of authors who already have enough trouble trying to scratch out a living. And he didn’t set out to accomplish this through brilliant new technology or by riding the Internet tsunami, but rather via the oldest capitalist scheme there is…predatory pricing calculated to establish a monopoly. Amazon bought books from publishers for around $13 and then sold them as ebooks for their Kindle reading device for only $9.99. The idea was to establish a “proper” price for books, force them all onto one platform, and then let everyone involved…readers and authors that is..adapt. If Bezos loves books…and I have no idea if he reads…this was a strange way to show it.

      The book of the future may well be digital, but I’d prefer to see that evolution take place in a free marketplace and not at the insistence of a single powerful gadget peddler. The written word has been for centuries the central pillar of human culture. We should take care to preserve its integrity, or else risk pulling down the temple.

      1. PM says:

        Oh, come on–you really think that his goal was to destroy the printed book?

        His goal was simply to take advantage of a new technology and apply it to the sale of books (and then to almost everything else, of course).

        Perhaps it might be possible to make a case that his goal was to destroy bookstores, but clearly his goal was to sell more and more books to more and more people, and that hardly seems to me to be consistent with destroying the concept of printed books.

        As for e-books and the future of books as a whole, i highly doubt that printed books will disappear, but i expect that they will no longer be THE media in which to reach the masses. The logic/economics of digital media makes that an obvious conclusion, and nothing Bezos did affected that. With or without Bezos, this was going to happen, and to ascribe intent to Bezos is stupid.

        Frankly, my guess is that the price of e-books will end up far below $9.99–given that the marginal costs are zero. What bezos was doing was to try to break the monopolistic practises of the traditional business model.

        Do you really expect that the forces that are transforming journalism are going to ignore book publishing as well? I suppose your narrative explanation demands a devil…..

        Oh, and by the way, human culture grew and thrived for millenia before the written word….and i do not think that the written word is in any way central to culture. You are confusing an outmoded (possibly) technology with the thing that that technology does–communication. Communication is central to human culture, and it really matters little to our culture how we communicate–just that we do so.

        Is your next post going to be about buggy whips?

    2. John Gaterud says:

      Less concerned about Graf 3 than No. 4 in your previous reply, Mike (though you’re correct in catching points re parenthetical punctuation).

      “Journalism and literature,” as compound subject (1+2), requires plural verb “aren’t,” not “isn’t.”

      And “It’s evolution and we all believe…” requires comma at coordinating conjunction “and,” as this is a compound, not complex, sentence.

      Just checking.

      More troublesome, however, is casual (and, I trust, unwitting) use of “Nazis” in identifying, in this post, grammar cops. Its appearance in a variety of contemporary pop-culture settings—ranging from Seinfeld’s (oddly) celebrated “Soup Nazi” episode to Limbaugh’s term of endearment, “femi-Nazis”—does great disservice, in my view, to the real weight and historical meaning attached to the word. I guess I “get” how it’s employed in such references (“Just trying to be funny,” nudge nudge wink wink), but as a writer and student of history—and kid of parents whose generation fought against the barbarism of A Thousand Years of Darkness embodied in the Nazi ideal—I find its use in these and similar contexts inappropriate.

      As for public profanity, my grandmother (and yours as well, I suspect) may have something else to add.

      1. Mike Kennedy says:

        John:

        Thanks. I knew I could count on you to correct me. It’s just like old times, some 30 years later. The teacher is still teaching. The student is still learning.

        Yes, good point on the Nazi reference. Perhaps I should have used “grammer cops.”

        Uh, what my grandmother would say I probably can’t print here. She was every bit as Irish as my grandfather, and she could make a sailor blush. Damn, that must be where I learned it.

  8. Mike Kennedy says:

    Funny how the so called “monopolists,” such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates, Bezos……..yadda, yadda, yadda, wind up scaring the shit out of everyone, only to produce products and services cheaper and in greater quantities than ever before. I guess I’ll take that kind of monopoly.

    As you state, Mr. Bezos grand visions of overtaking the world already is going up in flames with the advent of competing devices.

    Yes, I bought a Kindle right out of the chute a month after they came out.

    The predatory pricing is more often than not a myth. Prices for books via the Kindle are increasing, not decreasing, at least for many of the books people actually want to read. That turned me off.

    Second, I dropped the device from about four feet onto a wooden floor and the screen wouldn’t work anymore.

    Sayanora, biatch. I’m back to buying real books and may consider an I Pad or some other reading device in the future.

    I think your concerns are overblown. But that’s just me.

    1. Well, you’re remaking my point and adding a personal testimonial as to the overall crumminess of the Kindle. Yes, Kindle ebook prices are up…but only because Apple and some publishers put up a fight in time to save us from Amazon’s evil plan.

      As for my concerns being “overblown”…well, apart from the fat paycheck I’m now collecting from this blog, pretty much all of my income is from writing books. So it’s personal.

  9. Mike Kennedy says:

    Well, I’m not making as much this year as I have in years past, but then I chose this profession.

    You seem to have a conspiracy bent. How did you come to this knowledge of the Bezos grand plan?

    I’m afraid if you are going to make arguements like this in a public domain, you are going to need to back them up.

    Sorry, but I’m not remaking your point. Predatory pricing only would work — in theory — if a company lost money like hell, then was able to drive everyone out and then raised prices to make up for the loss and become profitable. Didn’t work. Doesn’t work. Can’t work.

    1. Where do I get this stuff? Thanks for asking.

      One, as a member of the Author’s Guild, I get regular updates on the industry, and on marketing, contractual, and legal developments that affect people who write books.

      Two, I read Ken Auletta’s long, incisive piece in the New Yorker of April 26, 2010…which laid out the ebook battle between Apple and Amazon in chilling detail. Here are just two telling quotes:

      1. From David Young, CEO of Hachette Book Group: “The big concern–and it’s a massive concern–is the $9.99 priciing point. If it’s allowed to take hold in the consumer’s mind that a book is worth ten bucks, to my mind it’s game over for this business.”

      2. “Bezos has declared that the physical book and bookstores are dead.”

      Meanwhile, realize that Amazon gets only half it’s revenue from selling books, printed and digital. It’s really more like WalMart than Barnes & Noble.

      But hey…I am amped to learn that this blog space is public domain, which sounds far more grand than I imagined. I mean…who knew it was that big?

  10. Mike Kennedy says:

    Unfortunately, any idiot with a internet access and a computer or smart phone can get on here — witness me.

    Who the hell is the intelligentsia that should set book prices? The industry? Come on, now. Anyone who tells me the price of something should be xxxx sounds like crickets to me.

    The price should be and is whatever people will pay for it. A book is a commodity and the lowest price will win.

    So Bezos believes books and bookstores are dead? So what? They will be if people want them to be and have alternatives to get the commodity cheaper and in a more efficient form.

    Your infusion of Walmart does nothing to make your point with me. I don’t personally shop there but I’m a fan of cheaper prices, especially for poor people.

    1. Leaving aside the question as to whether books are commodities, the price of a book is determined by the same market forces that set the price of anything. What does it cost to make and transport and market a book? How much will people pay?

      We all want low prices, but at some point low cost impacts quality.

      Do you want to read a book that falls apart in your hands because it’s poorly bound? Do want to read a book that has been edited by a professional…someone who improves the narrative, catches mistakes, insists on accuracy? Do you want to read a book that has a publishing hourse standing behind it to defend it as truthful and to protect its author against unjust accusations and lawsuits? Do you want to read a book written by someone who was paid enough to thoroughly research the subject?

      More generally, are you willing to pay enough for a book that publishing can remain a viable industry and induce smart, talented, hardworking people to assume the often difficult job of “author?”

      1. PM says:

        But all of your concerns about quality are addresses by Amazon–by the reviewers. Crap tends to get reviewed as crap, and doesn’t sell.

        And, people tend to do things as much for prestige as for money. Feed their ego, not their pocketbook. (now there is a sociopath talking 😉 )

  11. Not to go all inside-baseball on this point, but I think you have a misapprehension about how non-fiction books are produced (novels are a different kettle of fish).

    Authors do not get a salary. Authors do not have an expense account. If your project takes three years to research and write and can only be done properly if you spend five months in Lisbon and ten more in Buenos Aires…with the rest of the time grinding away at your laptop in a chilly garret…then everything…your living expenses, your alimony, your travel, whatever research materials you acquire, the aspirin to treat your Portuguese hangover…all of it comes out of whatever advance you get against future royalties.

    So while writers are surely the egomaniacs you suggest we are, without a profitable and sustainable publishing industry we’re done for.

    1. PM says:

      Thanks for the inside tips, but…no new information there.

      sitting here in my garret (a bit chilly this morning it’s true, but generally very comfortable) toiling away at my dissertation simply for the….wait, why the hell AM i doing this? I don’t want to teach, and there are no jobs in academia anyway, and there are no advances on a dissertation and i can’t imagine who would want to read this anyway….and still people do it. Hell, there is the entire self publishing/vanity press industry out there!

      So, those of you who are lucky enough to get paid something for doing what you love Congratulations! Enjoy it while you can, though, because if you really are a writer, you’ll do it anyway, even if you don’t get paid, because it is what you love. It is a compulsion, and you’d do it for half the money and still consider yourself lucky. And if you stop, there are 20 people who’d take your place and be glad to do so. And Western Civilization won’t stop because you quit–it won’t even pause.

      Sorry to go all Grinch like on you, but noble suffering sometimes does that to me.

      1. Okay…the “real” writers among us then are capable of turning out their work without ever leaving home or doing any kind of research or reporting that costs money. Instead, we just sit at our desks in silence and think up stuff to say. Geez…I mean, this is great…there ought to be a name for that. Wait…I’ve got it. It’s blogging!

      2. Dennis Lang says:

        I’m the last person to speak for the profession PM, but I’m guessing the lack of genuine career opportunity has directed some of the most perceptive, inquisitive, analytical, and potentially skilled writers elsewhere–maybe corporations to write business to business letters or–heck–public relations. In your day and mine for sure, colleges taught us how to think–or at least attempted it–now I fear it’s vocational training. Sadly, one has to make a living.

  12. “Say! I like e-readers in my hand!
    I do! I like them, Jeff-I-am!
    And I would read them in a boat.
    And I would read them with a goat…

    “And I will read them in the rain.
    And in the dark. And on a train.
    And in a car. And in a tree.
    They are so good, so good, you see!

    “So I will read them in a box.
    And I will read them with a fox.
    And I will read them in a house.
    And I will read them with a mouse.
    And I will read them here and there.
    Say! I will read them ANYWHERE!

    “I do so like e-readers in my hand!
    Thank you! Thank you, Jeff-I-am!”

    OK, Dr. Seuss I ain’t, but my point is that I LOVE my Kindle…and my iPad…and my iPhone…and my laptop and YOUR laptop because as of now they are all places where I can read my books. Thanks to the revolution wrought by Mr. Bezos and others, I’m never without my book any more. I’ve stopped buying real-world books almost entirely.

    This is a very good thing for readers and – I submit – will be a good thing for writers, the environment and the economy once the substantial economic disruption wrought by this new technology works its way through the system. Book prices will stabilize and start to increase, so too will payments to authors. We’ll kill fewer trees, burn less oil and recycle fewer copies of whatever crap licenses Tom Clancy’s name and goes on remainder two months later.

    Mr. Souder lives on the inside of this economy so I don’t for one second minimize the negative impact this change has had on his craft SO FAR. But, we’re not yet at the new equilibrium. And, the world may look a lot different when we get there. The process of disintermediation that ubiquitous processing and connectivity is making possible may mean that authors get to keep more of the revenue from the sales of their books but also have to take on more of the risk of producing them or do more of the marketing. Maybe the concept of selling non-fiction (and fiction) in book-length chunks is as artificial as selling music in album-length chunks. Maybe in the not-too-distant future, we’ll buy Souder by the word or through subscription. Maybe we’ll get his first chapters for free as a teaser or in exchange for ads on the right side of the page or through a sponsorship by Amazon.

    OK, maybe not by Amazon. I think there’s issues there.

    – Austin

    1. I hope some collicky tyke throws up on your Kindle while you’re reading Dr. Seuss to him, thus activating the chip that senses you’ve gotten your device wet and voiding the warranty. Trust me, this wouldn’t happen with the print version.

      As for the future of books,,,whether it’s the way you see it or something else…I’m only arguing that I’d like to not have the game rigged by a single monopolistic entity forcing the issue through predatory pricing.

      1. In another post I wrote this about paper:

        As far as display goes, let’s pause for a moment to pay homage to the reining champ: paper.

        Despite the fact that it’s boring (think Dunder-Mifflin for God’s sake), there are definitely some very good things about this “technology” even today. It’s cheap, disposable, recyclable, portable, flexible and – when used for news – has a density of information that no current digital display technology can match. It has a format that allows for both intense and casual reading, it doesn’t require batteries, a cord or access to a network. If you drop it, you pick it up and keep on reading. If you drop it in the puddle, you throw it away in the recycling bin and replace it for 50 cents via a ubiquitous distribution system of newstands, vendors and racks.

        And, paper provides the intangible that I value very highly: the serendipity factor of finding something you didn’t know you were looking for.

        These advantages keep print newspapers in the game – try reading a newspaper on your laptop while standing up on subway sometime to see them in action – but their advantages are narrowing daily.

        But, lest we forget, like Mark Antony come to eulogize Julius Caesar, “I come to bury paper, not to praise it.” Its time on stage – at least as far as the newspaper business is concerned – is rushing to an end. We still have a little work to do before the electronic world outshines the real. Even so, there’s a clear, well-defined path that will – I believe – pull us even and then ahead of paper.

        Yes, there are advantages to the current-and-still-reigning champ of display technology but those are shrinking rapidly. My first Kindle cost something like $400; I can get a newer, better one today for $149. There are e-readers even cheaper and I can add the capability to other devices I already own – iPad, iPhone, computers – for free. I still try not to puke on it, but the costs of doing so are going down all the time.

        One of the things I like about America’s version of the free market (and why I like a strong regulatory capability) is that monopolists and even oligopolists have a hard time hanging on to their advantage. Mr. Bezos used to have a monopoly on digital readers and inordinate influence on book pricing until Mr. Jobs and Mr. Barnes and Noble got into the business (particularly Mr. Jobs who’s got his own monopolistic tendencies that – so far – are being propped up by the fact that he’s making products people want). All of a sudden, Mr. Bezos’ ability to set enforce price levels was seriously undermined. Absent a wholesale collapse of both the market and regulatory oversight, I’m optimistic in this area.

        I can’t ride a horse, but I do know how to drive a stick and I have a computer that reads 3.25 and 5.5 inch floppies (OK, it’s not actually plugged in any more but in theory it works). I’m fighting the tyranny of technology too.

        In my own way.

        – Austin

    2. Dennis Lang says:

      I’m likely missing the point here but isn’t it more than Amazon and industry economics? It’s about the way the Internet conditions the way we think and consume the written word. Give me the nuts of it as soon as the news breaks and be brief about it. It’s the craft that will suffer; the story under the floorboards, because no one cares about it anymore.

  13. Yes. And it’s not just the internet. It’s the tyranny of new technology that reduces everyone to a fearful and confused state in which you either embrace every new gadget and each new soul-killing digitalization or are branded a Luddite, a fogey, and a hopeless slow-poke.

    But I’m not ready for surrender. After all, i drive a Honda…but I also know how to ride a horse.

  14. Mike Kennedy says:

    Sorry guys. I ain’t buying any of it, and most of the next generation after me and the one after that (my current granddaughter) won’t either.

    Can anyone name me one example where the monopoly that was created by predatory pricing actually worked — other than theory? I wait with Caribou breath.

    About the only monopoly I find is in government — never mind if I could deliver the fucking mail more efficiently. It’s illegal for me to do it.

    Shit will be classified as shit and quality will be purchased, and the world will trudge on. I am, however, amused by the attitude that the unwashed masses are too dumb with attention spans too short to appreciate fine literature or quality writing or high brow discourse and that it has to be pointed out and underlined for them.

    Just a tad of elitism there, bro and sis.

  15. The phone company – the old Ma Bell – was a very effective monopoly for decades. If it hadn’t been eventually broken up by the government, I doubt we’d have the internet as we know it today.

    The trusts of the late 19th century and early 20th century were highly effective oligopolies (effectively monopolies given their interlocking governance). Their excesses led to the Clayton and Sherman Acts that were used enthusiastically by two Republican presidents – Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Taft.

    Hence my preference for strong regulatory oversight.

    The government is a pretty poor monopolist, by comparison, at least in the area Mike cites: the FedExs, UPSs and others have cherry-picked the most lucrative parts of the mail delivery business and the internet has diminished its significance even further. In my lifetime, the Postmaster General has gone from a Cabinet-level appointee to a “who?” kind of job.

    – Austin

    – Austin

  16. Mike Kennedy says:

    Excesses? Of what?

    It’s historical fact that when Standard Oil dominated the oil industry prices actually continued to decline and more people were able to consume and benefit by the new energy source. The same was true when it came to “Robber Barrons” who dominated shipping, steel, autos etc. etc.

    I’m asking for proof of where monopolies and predatory pricing actually harmed consumers. So far, I haven’t seen any.

    Today, it’s Wa Mart. Yes, it has hurt some businesses, but it has provided low prices for hundreds of millions. Again, if that is the effect of monopolies, I submit we have more of them.

    As for FedEx, UPS etc. “cherry picking” business, I’m afraid that is an incorrect statement. They probably will take the whole business, but it is, I say again, illegal for anyone to compete with the Post Office on mail delivery. Now, that is a monopoly. Being too big to compete with is one thing, having the law written to only favor you is another.

  17. Mike –

    The trusts of the time worked – not just in oil but in steel, rail transport and other industries because they stifled competition and they gave the trusts market power in their industries. The price of a commodity is not the sole – or even the most important – indicator of the presence of a monopoly.

    Monopolies are probably not sustainable over the long run in anything other than a closed economy (think the old Soviet Union for example), but even the short term can be counted in decades and billions of dollars. I’m not a big fan of monopolies – whether they are run by the government, my utility company, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos.

    I don’t have any difficulty admiring the entrepreneurship of a Gates, a Brin or a Bezos, appreciating how they’ve made my life better in many ways and also in the next breath contemplating that they may have amassed too much power in the marketplace and should be reined in either through regulation or – in the extreme case – through break-up. The phone company should have been broken up and we’re better for it. I also agree (after the fact) that Microsoft did not need to be broken up. We may get to that point with Google.

    As for the post office, yes, I’m aware that the delivery of mail is a function reserved for the federal government. So too is the provision for a national defense. My point was not that it wasn’t a monopoly, but rather that the government was not a very good monopolist and – at least in this area – an increasingly irrelevant one. Nobody I’m aware of is demanding the right to deliver my Victoria Secret catalogs because – I suspect – there’s not much money to be made there.

    – Austin

  18. Mike Kennedy says:

    Here is a very good discussion of the whole misuse of the term monopoly and some good working definitions.

    I’m certainly not opposed to government regulation. I am, however, completely opposed to the government picking winners or losers in any way shape or form.

    What is interesting is that most of the monopolies that were created in the past that actually did not benefit people were created as a result of government policies, which then had to be changed to break them up.

    http://www.duke.edu/~kem32/cps1/digitalethics/monopoly.html

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Ha! Ayn Rand. A name that hasn’t been uttered here in what seems years. Where’s Keliher, who was last observed in the midst of wrestling with the self-proclaimed “new intellectuals'” collected works while arguing her merit with someone dialing in from a catamaran somewhere in the South Pacific? Come to think of it, whatever happened to that guy/gal? (The Crowd is unbounded physically and philosophically)–and in the central time zone cocktail hour approaches.)

      1. Alan Greenspan, of course, was and perhaps still is a disciple of Ms. Rand…and was famously photographed with her in the Oval Office. Don’t know if he changed his mind after discovering a “flaw” in his understanding of the economy.

        Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who weighed in today (happily and otherwise) in response to my hello posting. Nice talking with you all.

    2. Mike Kennedy says:

      Well, be that as it may, the point is that there are different kinds of monopolies and being against an efficient monopoly because a company is large enough not to prohibit or exclude competition but can provide lower prices and better products doesn’t make a whole lot of economic sense.

      Of course, economic sense doesn’t play a role in much of the decision making we see today — witness a possible increase in the capital gains tax despite evidence that more revenue is collected when it is lower.

      Even Obama can’t defend the bad economics of raising it – preferring to fall instead on the premise that its a “fairness issue.”

      Now there is some clear economic thinking.

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