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Julian Gough’s Crash: How I Lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love is a satirical novella about a serious subject, the EU/IMF bailout of post-financial-crash Ireland. After five years of austerity and hand-wringing, most people’s eyes glaze over at the mention of banks or bailouts. But, Gough does something very subtle and effective in his ebook-original novella, he provides a better lesson in austerity economics than most journalists and professors have been able to come up with since 2008.

Julian Gough's CRASH! Julian Gough is a poet, dramatist, novelist, and once upon a time was the lead singer for cult Irish rock group Toasted Heretic. His short stories have won the BBC short story award and irritated the biggest multinational corporation in the world. He’s already poked fun at the financial sector in his play “The Great Goat Bubble,” but clearly he hasn’t ceased to find the world of politics and high finance ridiculous. While everyone else has been wailing and gnashing their teeth over austerity, he’s been writing a satirical novella. Perhaps he’s been insulated slightly from the fatalism of the “we have no option but austerity” so-called debate about the financial crisis in Ireland by virtue of living in Berlin? But enough background info, it’s time to meet Jude…

Gough’s regular everyman, Jude (a slightly different character than the Jude in his novels Jude: Level 1 and Jude in London), has the distinction of being the last person in the country of Squanderland to purchase property. He preferred to avoid the credit economy because he “didn’t understand how everyone could get richer by increasing their debt.” He finally succumbs to an insistent bank official because he admired the man’s tenacity (this banker, of course, ends up in the government). Naturally, this last undeveloped piece of real estate is staggeringly expensive. It’s also a wooden henhouse, with no roof. (“‘Ah, now,’” said Jude. “‘There are a number of planks still in place, and not all of them are rotten.’”) For this bottom rung on the property ladder, Jude finds himself the most indebted man in the world. Thankfully, Jude has a sunny disposition, and doesn’t let this prey on his peace-of-mind. From his point of view, things are not too bad. His chickens are laying, so he has food, and water (i.e. rain) is plentiful. Compared to his previous life living rough in a bog, things are looking up.

Barnes & Noble

The collected wisdom of Helen Dunkel, the Chancellor of Frugalia, the rational nation of compulsive savers, and Bertrand Plastique, the President of the European Bank of Common Sense and Stability, aided by the banker who sold Jude his henhouse, arrive in Squanderland intent on mobilizing “the financial firepower of Europe to put a roof on this henhouse, and stabilize its debt,” so that “the markets will be reassured.” There follows a ludicrous scheme to build a roof over Squanderland and harvest its water to pay its debt, leaving environmental and social ruin, rampant emigration, and a string of bankrupt business in Frugalia. This provides a good chuckle until you reflect on it and see just how closely the satirical roof scheme mirrors the broad strokes of the actual European bailout and austerity policies currently the Band-Aid of choice for Europe.

As usual, Jude meets whatever life throws his way with plain common sense, and a positive attitude, which only serves to throw the bad ideas the so-called educated elite offer as a panacea into starker contrast. No matter how bad the idea is, the markets must be reassured.

Crash is a timely and witty reminder that as usual the Emperor has no clothes on, and the courtiers have been smoking something harmful to their intellect. Jonathan Swift would surely pause for a moment in his ceaseless spinning and feel a moment of pride that Irish satire is alive and well, even if, like its money, it does reside in Germany now…

–Rich

 

Notes

Crash is available as an eBook for the Kindle…

Rumor has it that physical copies can be printed by the excellent Harvard Book Store on their fancy book-making robot machine thingy. But, I couldn’t find corroboration of that fact online, and can’t remember where I heard that piece of info.

Crash is published by DailyLit. Learn more about their project…

Julian Gough maintains a website at www.juliangough.com but is more likely to be found on Twitter…

I reviewed Julian Gough’s hilarious novel Jude: Level 1 yonks ago…

 

So AMZN pulled the buy buttons from all Macmillan’s books this weekend. At issue is the publisher’s ability to set the base price for their ebooks (as they do for their print books). AMZN’s response is the nuclear/6-year-old tantrum option (pick your metaphor, there have been plenty floating around Twitter all weekend)–their way or the highway. Authors are concerned their sales will suffer. Other publishers watch eagerly.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent explains why the two giant companies are at odds.

The authors’ view:

John Scalzi at Whatever — lots of discussion in the comments!

Cory Doctorow at boingboing

Several commentators attempt to unpack the bigger picture:

Charlie Stross at Antipope

Tobias Buckell UPDATE: Tobias’s site is went down under the strain. His post is mirrored at SFWA.

Chris Meadows at Teleread

Mashable on the The Great Ebook War (a title worthy of many of Macmillan’s affected authors).

Caleb Crain at Steamthing

Can a publisher insist on minimum pricing? Apparently so.
Can a retailer refuse to sell a publisher’s books (some or all)? Of course.

Every bookstore passes on some of a publisher’s books because they’re not right for that store’s customer base. However, using a publisher’s entire print catalog as a bargaining chip in a separate negotiation is a completely different order of magnitude.

Personally, it’s my understanding that publishers are prohibited from charging one retailer a lower price for their physical books than all the others. I don’t see why it should be any different for ebooks.  (Not being privy to the discussions, I have to assume Macmillan’s desired pricing would be the same for all ebook retailers.)

AMZN think they can get away with this because they are the largest gorilla in town. Macmillan seems to be anticipating Apple quickly establishing themselves as an equally large gorilla in the ebook business. AMZN have one thing to bargain with that Apple does not, the sale of physical books.

Indie booksellers have sensed the opportunity to use this brouhaha to support Macmillan authors and take some mindshare from the behemoth. WORD in Brooklyn are doing their part to publicize what’s going on, and the ABA have added banners highlighting the availability of Macmillan’s books to the indiebound.org website. These are encouraging first steps, but I hope to see indies following up with events and promotions that lead directly to tangible sales for the affected Macmillan authors. This is not only a chance to serve the large market of readers that AMZN have chosen not to serve,  it’s also a chance to re-emphasize indies’ vital role in bringing a wide choice of books to their neighborhoods and to connect readers with writers. Two roles that indies will not relinquish in an effort to corner a different market.

Update:

New links added as I find them.

Digital Book World’s roundup of discussion.

Galleycat readers discuss.

Brenda Cooper.

A heavy reader who sides squarely w/ AMZN (even above the authors he enjoys).

Author Jay lake weighs in by severing his connection with AMZN.

Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, does the same.

Ed Campion says “not a single bookstore chain has ever discriminated against a publisher like this before”

Update #2.

Amazon claim to “capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms.” Although, right now (Sunday 6pm) the “buy” functionality does not appear to have been restored to Macmillan titles.

Update#3.

Finally, Macmillan buy buttons reappear (6pm ET, Friday Feb. 5, 2010).

I have one problem as a reader, and one problem only: I do not have enough time to read everything I want to read. That’s it. No problem finding cool books to buy; no pseudo-problem that can give me the impression of being solved through the acquisition of an expensive reading device; and, no lack of desire to read. My only problem is time: with everything else going on in my life I don’t have enough time to read everything I want to read.

The first publisher who solves this problem for me will win a greater share of my reading dollars. I thought, briefly, that ebooks might help me read more as one can apparently read faster down thin columns than across wide pages, but the inconvenience of keeping devices charged and at hand, and the challenges of coordination between print and electronic versions of books – even if I was able/willing to purchase both – have caused ebooks to lose their luster for me.

So enough smoke and mirrors and shiny new tech. Help me get through more of the books I want to read and I’ll buy more.

Cat Mini Book 2

(cc) B_Zedan (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)

Over at the Vroman’s blog, Patrick Brown recently discussed the latest moves by AMZN to patent the practice of putting ads in books (E- & POD). I’m not going to recap that story here, but this new focus on in-book advertising does occasion some interesting speculation.

First, isn’t the underlying implication behind these plans that the book is perfect as it is? Does the desire to place paid ads in book reflect a strategy to squeeze more dollars out of readers by making a substandard product the new norm (book with ads) and thus making a traditional book (no ads) the premium product? If so, is that a sign that AMZN have finally realized that the discount wars have only hurt themselves, and are looking for ways to make readers want to pay the cover price, and thus grow the overall value of the book market?

I doubt it.

I could understand that reasoning, but I don’t think that’s the way AMZN are looking at it. I don’t think the mass market (audience, not the format) will have much of a problem with ads in books. As Patrick acknowledged in his post, cigarette companies used to subsidize paperbacks, and ads don’t seem to be stopping people enjoying streaming TV shows via Hulu. So there may not be any more demand for premium, ad-free books than there currently is for non-discounted books. On the contrary, cheaper, subsidized books may further reduce the industry’s overall revenue from books because the ads themselves will do nothing to grow the audience for books, while their presence will likely bring some consumers to view these books as less-desirable, flawed products. The closer books are associated with advertising, the less favorably they may be viewed. That’s why I don’t see in-book ads as being a positive influence on the book industry.

Ads in books may only drive deeper discounting, as AMZN seeks to maximize sales of those “ad-enhanced” titles at the expense of books without ads. AMZN are only seeking to squeeze more dollars out of someone else’s product, and by doing so will likely benefit from further harm to the overall book industry.

Steven Johnson’s article on the changes digital readers may bring to the book world in the Wall Street Journal sparked another interesting round of the ongoing bookworld meta-conversation (via Twitter) the other day: what does the digital realm mean for books and bookstores?

Johnson seems most impressed at the ease by which the (non-digital) reader can go from one book to another (inspired either by references therein or sheer boredom) on a digital reader, paying a little more each time. He goes on to speculate about readers paying for books by the chapter and this changing the way writers handle plot development and pacing to hold readers’ attention all the way through a book. But, I was most struck by the assumptions about how people read (or don’t read) now.

Don’t serious readers (defined as anyone who reads more than simply the “must-read” book of the year) already drop one book for another in mid-chapter if boredom or burning curiosity take hold? Can’t we already satisfy our craving for (near) instant gratification by ordering online or picking up the phone? Isn’t the point (conscious or not) of collecting your books in one place, of hanging onto everything you’ve ever read (even those ancient college textbooks you have in a box in the attic) and creating elaborate (or not so-) systems of organizing your books intended to facilitate that exact skipping from one text to another, the hunting down of obscure references, the application of a palate-cleansing chaser of short fiction to wash the taste of a badly written biography away? In short, don’t we already mix and remix our reading in exactly the way that Johnson seems to think ereaders newly facilitate?

Yes, perhaps they make it easier (as in faster — getting up off the couch and walking across the room is such a chore) to switch between books, and easier for everyone involved to have a financial stake in that switch (take that pesky used bookstores!), but I don’t know that this is fundamentally any different to how serious readers use books right now. Yes, there are some serious profits to be made during the adoption phase of ereaders, but surely those sales will soon slow and then plateau just like music and DVD sales did after the introduction of their various new technologies. (For example, everyone started buying DVD players and many bought DVD copies of movies they already owned in VHS format, creating high sales numbers that simply could not be sustained once those serious movie buffs had completed their library upgrade.) Look at Borders’ financial reports for the last five or six years, just about every one blames their declining financial performance on “softness” in the music and DVD categories. Go back ten years and they were praising those categories as their major growth centers.

So while the article is worth reading and thinking about, and while there are definitely serious concerns that ebooks are not going to benefit the current champions of serious reading — the bookstores — I really question the assumption that digital readers will change the way serious readers utilize books and the knowledge they contain. Will the convenience of theoretically carrying thousands of books around on your phone turn more people into serious readers? Did the introduction of the DVD turn more people into serious movie buffs?

Symtio is the hot topic in bookselling this week. Basically, it’s a plastic card (like a gift card) sold in a rack (at least as currently being tested in CBA stores) which you take up to the cash wrap and purchase. Then you take it home, input the code into your computer and download an electronic audio file or an ebook of the book you wish to “read.” The bookseller gets a percentage of the sale.  To me this is a simple (and pretty good) idea made needlessly complicated.

Space
For one thing, most bookstores are small spaces and adding a large fixture (as shown in the video) would either further clutter the sales environment or displace shelves of real books. I don’t see many bookstores taking the gamble of replacing a proven desired commodity (the physical book) for something that seems of such limited utility. Maybe as a shelftalker displayed alongside the book the card might seem simply another option, but then again this would only heighten the contrast between the instant gratification of the physical book and the nebulous uncertainly of the delayed download.

Short shelf life of tech
I can already see the cards being replaced (far more cheaply) by QR codes on shelf talkers, or even plain old barcodes. Take a picture of the QR or barcode with an app you download to your smartphone for free and be taken to a page to buy and download the ebook. The store could get a cut, the shelftalker would be cheaper (and greener) than packaged plastic cards and they could be bundled as part of a coop program. Yes, plastic cards are shiny and doubtless rugged, but so what? How long is the viable shelf life of the average frontlist book? (Don’t answer that. You’ll only cry.)

Tech is changing so fast that I foresee reluctance on consumers’ parts to commit to another unfamiliar technical thingummy – and being asked to do so in the narrow aisles of a crowded store would not inspire confidence. I think many would prefer to go home and think on the purchase; and, once home they’d find all the info they need online and would likely make the purchase there. The card is just another intermediary between the book and the reader. The nature of digital communication is to remove the intermediaries: readers already interested in electronic texts will download them online, readers vaguely curious about electronic texts are more likely to be chased back to the known quantity by new and  unfamiliar intermediaries, and, bookstores don’t want another account to manage when they already do business with the books’ original publishers.

It’s the right idea (give the bookstore a cut of the electronic sale and get POS placement), but I think it’s the wrong implementation.

Links
Promotional video for Symtio:

Harper Studio blog post about Symtio

On Twitter, someone asked “what do indies think about ebooks?” I didn’t have an answer at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it. My sense is many indies are a little terrified, but feel unable to say or do anything as the means of distribution is out of our hands. People are afraid of being bypassed, so are trying to ignore them. While I feel the fear, I’m also kind of intrigued and excited about the ease and speed of access they afford (and the anecdotal  suggestion that you can read faster on an ereader than a traditionally formatted book) even though I prefer a physical copy for myself. However, I don’t yet know how to make them work for the traditional indie bookstore.

I think there are two distinct groups of readers as far as regards ebooks (forgive the gross generalizations), and I find it helpful to look at the technology from both points of view.

A lot of us grew up to revere print. A lot of this category don’t ‘get’ blogs, regard the web as one-way communication and don’t pay for ebooks. If they’re computer savvy, they may dip into the odd ebook (but an online excerpt will likely satisfy them), but only until they decide to finish the story and go buy the pbook to read.

On the other hand, those who ‘came of age’ post-print (i.e. after the time that print was the only option), write blogs, regard the Internet as conversation and buy ebooks. Some will buy a pbook for ‘the archive’ if they really enjoyed the story. That would be a nice trend if it continued. But, maybe those folks are on the cusp between two generations, and pbooks will eventually lose appeal as more people grow familiar with ebooks?

This is where the opportunity lies for booksellers:
Opportunity A: Low-price ebooks as marketing for pbooks.
Opportunity B: Use ebooks to bring readers to authors (publishers and authors need to commit to a mid/long-term relationship — my sense is that this isn’t the norm in publishing now, where I see authors switch houses a lot) — because the marketing needs to sell the author as much as the book of the moment). Emphasize the body of work: encourage multiple sales, use the “stamp of quality” to encourage purchase of physical copies.

Challenges

The print-worshipers currently buy more books and run most bookstores. Do not alienate current book buyers (on either side of the cash wrap).
The post-print generation, however, will determine if anyone buys pbooks in the near future. Do not lose these to other entertainment sources or digital delivery.

We need to involve the post-print generation in bookstore culture, or else they’ll eventually bypass the stores completely. This is not simply a problem for the stores, as without book(store) culture, the most meaningful point of differentiation is price, and nobody wins when it’s a race to the bottom.

[Over at Vromans Bookstore blog Patrick has a good meditation on both the ebook reading experience — he read Cory Doctorow’s Content, BTW, a book I found fascinating — and how ebooks are changing the book market.]

Last year, I read Cory Doctorow’s provocative collected essays on copyfighting, eInk and everything to do with the Internet, Content, and I’ve been thinking back over it and the issues involved quite a lot since then. Among other things, Doctorow certainly raises some questions in my mind about what exactly the typical bookstore will look like in 5 or 10 years. (Indeed, I think of this blog as being partially a result of the metaphorical kick in the pants Doctorow’s book gave me.)

My take on our collective future after reading Content is that if bookstores are around as a third place, they’ll probably be as much virtual as physical, with our role as booksellers morphing into ubercool facilitators of chatspace, book group discussion leaders, and witty remixers of text, creating one-of-a-kind memes to monetize as T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, animated smileys for MyFace pages (I jest, MySpace & Facebook will probably be long gone), etc. All meatspace book discussion may be fueled by high-priced, literary themed caffeine shots — and the caffeine may be the primary thing customers come into the bricks-n-mortar store in search of. Book shopping may be actively moving to primarily online activity (i.e. the researching, interacting with booksellers and ordering may all ultimately occur online (digitally mediated by text, email & tweet), the book pick up achieved at the same time readers perform their ritual caffeine worshiping on the way to work, and their post-perusal hit of book talk will be realized on their blog or through the bookstore’s online discussion group/listserv/MyFace pages). (Yes, ebooks will have a large part in any bookseller’s future, but that’s an issue that needs its own post.)

Thankfully, Doctorow doesn’t predict a disappearance of the physical book, nor the bookstore itself. Instead, he sees the book as being more of a raw material for social connection (along with TV, movies, gaming, etc.), something to be read, then commented upon, remade as an online video, adapted for a skateboard design theme, and blogged about, excerpted as an email signature, and used in ways we haven’t thought of yet. This is how we’ve always used culture, it’s just on a different scale now because of the ease of creation and sharing made possible by the worldwide web. So you can look at it as technology rescuing the book from being a marginalized, fairly exclusive product — one too often placed on a pedestal. Perhaps the power of the web could rescue the book from (relative) obscurity (when compared to movies or TV), but change the reverence with which it’s often treated. Which I think suggests that the bookstore as a relatively separate, peaceful place (or place to find A Separate Peace) will change dramatically, both in terms of the physical use of the space and also in terms of the disappearance of clear boundaries between the store and the rest of the world.

You can download the book for free from the author’s website, but I suspect you’ll want to make notes, dog-ear pages and generally engage with the text, so I urge you to support both your local indie bookstore and Cory Doctorow by buying a physical copy.