Week of 31 January 2011
Update: Sunday, 6 February 2011 12:16 -0500
Barbara's dad seems to be recovering well. She didn't go over to visit
this weekend, but her sister took their dad out for shopping and other
errands and said he held up well. He's 88 years old, but he's tough.
see that Michigan police have arrested a California man on suspicion of
intent to blow up a Detroit-area mosque. The article says the man
possessed explosives, but on further reading it turns out that the
"explosives" he had in his vehicle were Class C fireworks, an obsolete
term for Consumer Fireworks, which is to say firecrackers. Rumor has it
that he was also found to be in possession of a squirt pistol. Well,
okay. I started that rumor. And, although I can't endorse blowing up
mosques--think of the innocent bystanders--I certainly have some
sympathy for the guy if that was in fact his intention. Islam is the
enemy of humanity in general and civilization in particular. No
rational person wants nests of them here in the US, or anywhere else,
come to that.
Amazon says the Kindle is good for 30 days of
reading between charges. I read several times faster than
average--call it 800 to 1,000 words/min for recreational reading--so I
knew it wouldn't last that long, but I was curious as to just how long
the charge really would last. It turns out the answer is six days.
Well, maybe seven. When I turned on the Kindle yesterday, the battery
indicator was down near empty, so I put it on the charger. During the
six days since the Kindle arrived and I charged it completely, I'd read
six full-length novels (Lois McMaster Bujold Vor Saga series) and
several shorter pieces, totaling maybe seven novels' worth of text.
That's with Wi-Fi turned off the whole time, so it appears I'll get the
equivalent of maybe seven or eight full-length novels per charge.
That's not bad, and I suspect Amazon's estimate is probably pretty
close for their average customer, who probably doesn't average more
than a book or two per week. (It's apparently not how long you
have the Kindle turned on that matters; it's how many pages you turn.)
Well, the bookstore chain Borders is basically toast. It's been
circling the drain for the last couple of months, but their press
release Sunday was probably the final straw. They'd previously admitted
that they didn't pay publishers in December, but Sunday they announced
they weren't paying for January, either. Worse still, they've stopped
paying rent. The $500 million bailout loan announced a couple weeks ago
almost certainly isn't going to happen. It was contingent on Borders
getting $100 million plus in junior financing, which is extremely
unlikely at this point. Lending money to Borders would be throwing
money down the proverbial rathole. There's not even any point to
Chapter 11 reorganization. I suspect we'll see Borders going into
Chapter 7 liquidation soon.
That leaves only Barnes & Noble,
which isn't in much better shape than Borders. Ironically, Borders and
Barnes & Noble drove most independent bookstores into bankruptcy
and are now themselves being driven into bankruptcy by Amazon and
other on-line booksellers. That, and of course the e-book tsunami,
which is already huge and is growing exponentially.
I saw a
credible estimate yesterday that there are now about 10 million e-book
readers in use, most of them Kindles. As impressive as that number is,
it's just the beginning. I expect we'll see a $99 Kindle this
year, and probably a $69 model in 2012. At that price point, buying an
e-book reader becomes an impulse purchase. We'll see e-book readers
reach the kind of numbers that MP3 players reached several years ago,
crossing 100 million units before long and eventually passing a
billion. Before too much longer, anyone who wants an e-book reader will
have one. And that signals the death of printed books, or at least
Most of my friends disagree with me about the death of
printed books. They think printed fiction will remain common for the
next 10 or 20 years or more, with print sales gradually dropping and
e-books eventually becoming dominant. I think they're wrong, because
print publishing depends on high volume sales, and sales volumes for
printed books have already dropped into a critically low range both for
hardbacks and paperbacks.
The problem is the mix of fixed and
variable costs. Print publishers have very high fixed (overhead) costs,
and there's not much they can do that they haven't already done to
reduce those. Every book sold has to contribute to paying for rent and
lights and staff salaries and insurance, which for the Big Six fiction
publishers amounts to tens of millions of dollars per month, each.
Furthermore, there are high fixed costs associated with publishing each
individual title, whether you print (and sell) 100 copies or 10,000 or
1,000,000. Distributing those fixed per-title costs over a few thousand
copies is very different from distributing the same fixed costs over
tens of thousands of copies. That's why mid-list authors have been
suffering badly for years, and why the publishers keep increasing the
emphasis on best-selling authors and titles. If they're going to
publish a book, it needs to sell a whole lot of copies to make the
But the real killer for print publishers
is that, for historical reasons dating back to the Great Depression,
bookstores don't actually buy books from publishers. The publishers put
those books in bookstores on consignment. In other words, the
publishers don't get paid for the books until they are actually sold.
(And sometimes, as with Borders currently, they don't get paid at all.)
When you walk into a Barnes & Noble and see row on row of new books
waiting to be sold, those books don't actually belong to Barnes &
Noble. They belong to their respective publishers. And, if they don't
sell-which the vast majority don't--they go right back to the
publisher, who gets to shred boatloads of books that it paid dearly to
produce and ship. And those return rates are very high now and
increasing. Some paperback imprints have 80% return rates. For every
five books they print, only one sells and four end up being shredded.
One copy has to cover the costs of five copies.
In other words,
print publishing doesn't scale down. It's predicated on producing and
selling X number of books. If publishers find themselves selling only
0.5 X, it's not a simple matter of laying off some staff and printing
fewer books and fewer copies of each. As volume drops, the business
model itself quickly becomes unsustainable. When it collapses, which it
inevitably must, it's not a question of the number of different titles
and copies of each title falling to some fraction of the former
numbers. It's a matter of the publishers themselves collapsing because
they can't sustain the costs required to produce any books at all.
of this has huge implications for fiction authors. It used to be that
traditional publishing was considered the safe choice. That's no longer
true, if it ever was. Because publishers aren't the only ones that
aren't getting paid. Increasingly, authors will find that publishers
are unable to pay them the royalties they're due. They could sue the
publishers, sure, but there's really no point to throwing money down
that rathole. As they say, you can't get blood from a turnip.
increasingly, the safe choice for fiction authors will become
self-publishing. Which also happens to pay better than traditional
publishing. Much better. A few of the "big-name" authors are already
starting to recognize the new reality and keep their new material for
themselves, which is just another nail in the coffin of traditional
publishers. As more and more bestselling authors begin to self-publish
their new novels as e-books, the decline of traditional publishing will
hit the cliff part of the curve.
Wednesday, 2 February 2011
I'm getting a lot of email about Kindle, traditional publishing, the
death of publishers and bookstores, and so on. This one's pretty
From: Gary Mugford
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Wed Feb 2 10:04:29 2011
Re: The future of publishing
agree with you that traditional publishing houses do have a finite life
span and that it's unlikely to be as much as ten years. The same goes
for newspapers. And that hits home with me. I spent the first decade
and a half of my professional life as a sports reporter for a local
newspaper and two of the three major Toronto dailies. And I had a book
in place at a big Canadian publishing house until a split with my
co-author and a downsizing at the publisher cost me my editor, and my
this revolution does hit a little close to home. But I do see remnants
of the old system surviving. Two aspects of publishing remain that any
writer should be happy to avail themselves of. First, any writer needs
an editor. We all read what we WANTED to appear on the screen, not what
we actually wrote. And sometimes our voice is just a little off.
Editors are worth their price, good ones at good prices, great ones
being priceless. And most writers are clueless about PR. Admittedly, PR
will be changing along with the revolution. Experts at getting book
readings and signings at book stores will be less of a necessity. But
PR experts who can get your book before opinion-makers on the web will
be worth their cost too.
the second level, you'll see book cover designers (Worth a thousand
words ... etc.) and Print-On-Demand services. Authors will run a bunch
of pre-sold limited edition autographed copies off for die-hard
only one of the lot that can't work from home wearing their jammies is
the POD service. And some of the newer book-creation machines I've seen
could be run down in the basement. And wouldn't even need a
& Noble down your way and Chapters Indigo up here won't be around
forever. They just don't know it yet. And when they're gone, you'll see
a bunch of small independent book vendors spring up. They'll all be
called So-And-So's Antique Books or somesuch name.
And the circle will be complete.
Bramalea ON Canada
course editors, layout people, cover designers, and other skilled
people are still essential, at least for any author who has any sense.
Those people will survive the coming crash in publishing and will
prosper. Some of my readers have commented that publishers may morph
into companies that provide these services, but I don't think so.
Publishers have historically provided all of these services, but that
wasn't the reason they survived. The ace of trumps in publishing was
always their control of distribution channels, which is rapidly
disappearing. Once publishers are no longer needed for distribution,
they have no reason to continue to exist.
Speaking as an author,
I have no wish to hire a redefined publisher to provide these services.
I'd prefer to order a la carte, choosing a good editor, a good layout
person, and so on. The best of these will be working for themselves, or
perhaps in very small companies made up of individuals with different
skill sets. Well, O'Reilly may survive and prosper, because it's
already essentially doing that. In the 15 years or so I've been working
with O'Reilly, I have never encounted even one O'Reilly staffer who
wasn't superb at his or her job. It may be that over the next ten years
or so O'Reilly will morph into a top-notch author services company. If
that happens, I'll definitely contract out work to them.
a lot of the self-pubbed authors who are selling big numbers right now
are making a huge mistake. Reading reader comments on Amazon frequently
turns up remarks about poor or non-existent editing, covers that are
just a stock photo with some text slapped on in Photoshop, and so on.
Amanda Hocking, for example, has now sold half a million e-books on
Amazon, and is probably earning $1,000,000+ per year. But her covers
are amateurish, and I think that'll come back to bite her. She should
be spending some of that money to make her books and covers as slickly
professional as possible. Otherwise, she's going to find herself
eventually losing readers to other authors who take more care with
their products. She's basically a sprinter, but I think she needs to be
looking at this as a Marathon.
I'd be surprised if bookstores
survive at all. They're going the way of the village blacksmith and
livery stable. I'm sure major cities will have one or two bookstores
that specialize in rare and collectible books, just as they do now. The
custom bookbinders will also survive here and there. But for the rest
of us, we'll be buying collectors editions, if we're so inclined, over
Thursday, 3 February 2011
When Barbara got home from work yesterday, she handed me a small, heavy
bag. At first, I didn't realize what it was. Then I remembered that I'd
asked her, the next time she stopped at the bank, to pick me up a bunch
of rolls of pennies. The microchemistry kits don't assume the user has
a balance, and for the session on specific heats of metals I needed
known masses of metal of known composition. Pennies fit the bill. Those
made from 1962 to 1981 (and some 1982's) are solid brass, 95% copper
and 5% zinc. Some 1982's and everything since have been made of 97.5%
zinc and 2.5% copper as plating. Interestingly, the specific heats of
copper (0.385 J·g−1·K−1 or 24.465 J·mol−1·K−1) and zinc (0.387 J·g−1·K−1 or 25.302 J·mol−1·K−1)
are very close on both a mass and molar basis, so for all practical
purposes they can be considered identical. All that matters is the
mass, which differs significantly between the pre- and post-1982
pennies. So I needed specimens to weigh.
I asked Barbara to pick
me up $10 worth of pennies, twenty rolls of 50. She came back with only
$5 worth, which is fine. But the reason she came back with only $5
worth is interesting. The bank clerk didn't have any rolls of pennies
in her drawer. She had to go off in search of some, and finally found
$5 worth in the back room. I knew that no one uses pennies any more,
but I didn't realize that's apparently true of banks as well.
US government desperately wants to eliminate pennies, which now (even
made of cheap zinc) cost them about 25% more to make than their face
value. The government stopped issuing actual coins in 1964. Before
that, silver coins were actual coins. That is, a dime contained $0.10
worth of silver, and a quarter $0.25 worth. Post 1964, the government
started issuing tokens, in which the metal content was worth much less
than the face value of the token. People still called them coins, but
they weren't. They were tokens. But by the mid-70's the government
found itself accidentally issuing coins again, because the metal value
of the copper in a penny approached and then exceeded one cent.
something had to be done to eliminate the actual value of the tokens.
The government flirted briefly with issuing aluminum one-cent tokens,
but was talked out of doing so on numerous grounds, not least that they
would be toxic if swallowed and very difficult to locate with X-rays.
So they went to the copper-plated zinc cents in 1982, and now find
themselves once again in the position of unintentionally issuing coins
rather than tokens. Nickels, with their 25% nickel content, are even
worse from the government's point of view.
It's unfortunate that
the government won't consider going back to issuing actual coins again,
by intention. Revalue the currency to make silver worth $1/ounce and
start coining silver dimes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars again.
Bring back the silver certificates. Make our coins and currency actual
money again, rather than the fiat currency it's been since 1964. Ah,
well. The chances of that happening are zero, more's the pity.
see there's a major collision imminent between Apple and Amazon. Apple
wants its standard 30% cut on e-book sales, and there's no way Amazon
can (or should) agree to that. Owners of iPads should be outraged at
Apple's attempt to set up a toll booth for content, but if the past is
any indication they'll not just tolerate this extortion but make
excuses for Apple.
Here's how it currently works. Amazon sells
an e-book to an iPad owner who clicks on the buy button from within
Amazon's Kindle for iPad app. Amazon collects $10 for the e-book, of
which they keep $3 and the author or publisher gets $7. Amazon does all
of the work. The book is delivered from the Amazon server. Apple is not
involved, provides no service whatsover, and is not paid anything.
That's all as it should be.
Here's the way Apple wants it to
work. Amazon sells an e-book to an iPad owner. Apple collects $10
for the e-book, of which they keep $3, and give Amazon $7. Amazon
has to pay that full $7 to the author or publisher, and gets nothing
for itself. What's wrong with this picture?
There've been two
common responses to this in the comments sections of the articles that
reported on Apple's extortion attempt. Most, the innumerate ones,
suggested Amazon keep the price at $10 in their own store and raise the
price in the Apple store to $13. The more numerate ones, alas a small
minority, suggested that Amazon keep the price at $10 in their own
store and raise the price for the same book in the Apple store to
$14.29. Those schemes won't work. Obviously, Apple wouldn't tolerate
Amazon charging Apple users a 42.86% premium, but more importantly
that's not how the agency model works.
What's more likely to
happen is that Amazon will simply pull their Kindle for Apple app. Any
Apple user who wants an e-book will have to buy it directly from Apple,
which by all reports I've seen is a grossly inferior experience. Of
course, anyone who buys into Apple's walled garden deserves whatever
I'm back to reading printed books. I was half-way through one Beverly
Connor mystery when the Kindle arrived, so I figured I'd better finish
it before I forgot everything I'd read. Also, Barbara's brought me a
stack of library books that I need to get read and returned so other
people can have them.
I develop new habits easily, apparently. I
remember back in 1993 or so when I was driving my mother to Greensboro
for some reason. I'd been playing Chuck Yeager's Air Combat pretty
intensively for the prior month or so. I-40 to Greensboro passes the
Triad International Airport and is under the flight path. So, there I
was, driving along I-40 at 65 or so when an airliner crossed at a
couple hundred feet elevation. I actually pulled back on the steering
wheel to climb and get on its tail.
So, last night I picked up
the Beverly Connor novel, which I had bookmarked at the start of a
chapter. I read those two pages and then pressed down with my thumb on
the edge of the page to turn to the next page.
I've had quite a
bit of email from readers about the iPad/Kindle issue. Most of them
point out that one can simply download books from Amazon through the
browser. That wasn't my concern. If Apple demands 30%, Amazon simply
isn't going to agree. If Apple then kills the Amazon Kindle app, which
they certainly could do and, based on past performance, are not
unlikely to do, the iPad becomes unusable for reading Kindle books,
Amazon would hate to lose the iPad, obviously. They've
been making a big deal about being able to read Kindle books on any
device. But in the long run it really won't matter much to Amazon. They
don't release sales numbers, but from what I've read it seems likely
that Amazon is selling at least as many Kindles as Apple is selling
iPads, and Amazon has only just begun to penetrate the market. Everyone
I've heard from who owns both products has said that, compared to the
Kindle, the iPad sucks dead bunnies for reading e-books. It's too big,
too heavy, hard on the eyes, and has short battery life. With the
continuing decrease in Kindle prices, I think it's likely that most
people who own or buy iPads are likely to keep a Kindle for reading
Speaking of the iPad, I see that Rupert Murdoch has introduced his new
e-newspaper, solely for the iPad. He's charging a buck a week or forty
bucks a year, which is about a buck a week or forty bucks a year more
than most people are willing to pay for on-line news. Apparently, he's
invested $30 million so far, with expected running costs of $500,000 a
week. Since 50% of the subscription fee goes to Apple, that means
Murdoch needs to have more than one million subscribers just to cover
ongoing operating costs, and that's ignoring ROI. That seems very
unlikely to happen. Murdoch continues to confuse Wall Street Journal
readers with the general population, and I suspect the subscription
numbers for his new service are going to reflect that in spades.
mean, there are, what?, 10 million iPads out there now? Murdoch is
expecting 10% of iPad owners to subscribe and continue subscribing?
That seems very unrealistic, to put it kindly. Even growth in iPad
ownership isn't going to help much. Now consider that Murdoch is the
guy behind FoxNews, which is widely despised by liberals, and that
Apple ownership skews liberal. In other words, Murdoch is trying
to sell what amounts to FoxNews to a group of people who probably
overwhelmingly voted for Obama. Of course, it's possible Murdoch will
give his new news service a liberal slant. Possible, but not likely.
This looks to me like a slow-motion trainwreck in progress. I give it six months.
Saturday, 5 February 2011
I'm hearing from a lot of people who warn me not to let Barbara touch
my Kindle. A typical story goes something like this: "My wife loves
printed books and swore up and down that she'd never read e-books.
Foolishly, I downloaded the e-book of the book she's currently reading,
and showed it to her on my Kindle. Now it's her Kindle, and I have to
read everything on my iPad."
Apparently, the average age of
people who use Kindles is dropping dramatically. Originally, the Kindle
was most popular among older people, apparently because it lets one
turn any book into a large-print book. All of that changed fast over
Christmas, when apparently millions of kids found Kindles under their
Christmas trees. There's since been a huge bump in sales of Y and YA
The Kindle may do more than even Harry Potter did to, uh, kindle a renaissance in reading among young people. The New York Times ran an article
the other day that talked about kids forgetting to watch their regular
TV programs because they were too busy reading books on their new
Kindles. This may be a temporary phenomenon. Let's hope not.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010,