Week of 7 February 2011
Update: Sunday, 13 February 2011 15:16 -0500
Barbara and I saw none of it, but I understand Packers, Inc.
beat Steelers, Inc. in the Super Bowl, Inc. What kind of insanity
would possess someone to pay $1,200 for two nights at a Super 8 motel,
another $1,200 for a parking place, and $2,500 to $25,000 per ticket
for this non-event? Apparently, the most newsworthy incident of the
non-event was some twit forgetting the words to the National Anthem.
Chuck Waggoner has some cautionary words about the Kindle.
I can't say his criticisms matter to me. I just use the Kindle for
reading e-books, for which it's excellent. As to Calibre, the only
thing I've used it for is converting e-books in formats that Kindle
won't read into a format that it will. Calibre works fine for that, and
presumably also for stripping DRM from e-books.
I wonder how
much longer the "e-" will persist for e-books. I suspect that within
the next few years, e-books will be called simply "books" and the
"print" qualifier will be needed for old-style p-books. Which reminds
me of a debate going on right now in Winston-Salem.
our moron voters approved a bond issue for $40 million to build a new
main library and make some improvements to a couple of the branch
libraries. Our commissioners are now split 3-3 about whether to go
ahead with the bond issue, with the seventh commissioner undecided.
Disregarding that now is not the time to be spending $40 million on
low-priority items, one has to wonder if there's any point to investing
money in libraries at all. It's not like one needs a lot of space to
store e-books, and it's not like one has to visit a library to get an
Although it won't happen immediately, the advent of
e-books means public libraries will eventually go the way of the livery
stable and the village blacksmith. By the time this new library could
be completed, if it's ever actually built, print books will be well on
the way to disappearing entirely. Even now, one doesn't visit a Forsyth
County Library System branch to "borrow" an e-book; one logs on to the
web site and checks it out electronically. That should tell the
decision makers something, but apparently it hasn't.
need more, bigger, and newer branch library buildings; we need fewer of
them, and the need will continue to decline over the coming years.
Public libraries are going the way of bookstores, and the last thing we
need to be doing is spending $40 million on a white elephant.
I've been talking about the impact e-books is having on print books,
but there's another aspect that may be even more significant. I
saw the following reader comment on Joe Konrath's blog this morning,
and it's by no means an isolated case.
"I have two TBR piles right now. One of print books in an actual pile next to my desk. There are 8 of them.
My digital TBR is somewhere north of twenty.
I started reading ebooks I averaged probably 3-4 books a month. In
January I read 17 and I don't even have an ereader yet."
which is in a position to know, has said that people who buy
Kindles start buying e-books at three times the rate they'd formerly
bought print books. And that ignores the many, many free e-books that
one can load on a Kindle without buying the book from Amazon. I, for
example, have probably 40 free Baen e-books already, including those of
several Baen authors I've never read before. By all accounts, my
behavior is pretty typical of Kindle owners.
All of which makes
me wonder if we'll see a profound shift in the way many people choose
to spend their leisure time. Most intelligent people like to read, but
only a small percentage of them are heavy readers. I wonder how much of
that is a result of the relative effort involved for reading versus
watching TV. To read, one has to obtain books, which is relatively
difficult. It may mean a trip to the library or
bookstore--which in both cases means the selection of books one
wants to read may be limited--or placing an order on Amazon. Getting a
new book involves spending time, effort, and often money. Conversely,
watching TV requires just pressing a button on the remote. Well, that
and paying one's monthly cable and Netflix bills.
words, TV may have been winning all these years only because it had
been so much easier to spend hours watching TV instead of doing
something more productive, like reading. But e-readers and e-books mean
that it's now also just a matter of pressing a button to get whatever
book you want, to get it instantly, and to get it at a pretty low
price. TV is no longer the only easy option. It's on an equal footing
Now, I don't believe this will become universal.
Many people simply don't like to read, either because they have poor
reading skills or simply never developed the reading habit. But an
awful lot of people who do like to read have been reading less than
they otherwise might have because TV was the path of least resistance.
So I have to wonder how a big increase in reading is going to affect
TV, DVD, and other video. Or, for that matter, music. After all, people
have only so much free time available. So I suspect we'll see
viewership declining as more people start reading more.
still on the very early part of the curve. As the price of e-readers
and e-books continues to drop and both become ubiquitous, the impact on
other forms of entertainment may become significant. I'll have to
remember to look at this issue again when Kindles are selling for $59
and popular mainstream e-books are selling for $0.99 each. And that's
where we're heading.
Wednesday, 9 February 2011
- It's a measure of how insane things have become in this country that a debate like this
can even occur. I don't know how much a six-day hospital stay costs,
but it can't be cheap. And this woman, who is a criminal immigrant, is
complaining that American taxpayers have picked up the tab for her
hospital stay but refuse to pay tens of thousands of dollars more for
her surgery? The word chutzpah comes to mind.
I don't think
taxpayers should have to pay for anything beyond true emergency care
even for US citizens, let alone criminal immigrants. Our emergency
rooms have been overrun by people, many of them criminal immigrants,
who expect medical services for even the most minor problems. Those of
us who actually pay the costs of maintaining these facilities can no
longer depend on them. When my wife's father had a medical emergency
recently, his wife called 911. One of the EMTs commented later that it
was fortunate they'd done so, because if they'd just showed up as
walk-ins at the emergency room my father-in-law might have died while
waiting to be seen.
So, here's my proposal, which I think is
quite reasonable: anyone who shows up at an emergency room should
receive treatment if they are in fact suffering from a life-threatening
condition. As soon as the patient is stabilized, it should be
determined (a) if that person has insurance, either private or
Medicare (not Medicaid) or has the means to pay directly for treatment,
and (b) if that person is a US citizen or legal resident. If the person
has insurance or private means, treat him. If the person has no
insurance but appears to be a US citizen, all treatment should cease
and the person should be discharged onto the street. If there is
reasonable cause to suspect the person is not a US citizen (physical
appearance, accent, clothing, and so on), that person should be turned
over to the immigration authorities. If that person cannot establish
that he is a US citizen, the immigration authorities should immediately
put him on a bus bound for Mexico. There's no need for a trial or other
legal formalities. If he is not a US citizen or legal resident, he is a
criminal immigrant and not entitled to any consideration.
of poor US citizens? As I've been saying for years, we need to get them
out of the emergency rooms, which are the costliest form of medical
care. We should set up clinics in poor areas, staffed by nurses, nurse
practitioners, physican assisants, and other relatively inexpensive
staffers, with perhaps one physician per clinic. Make the clinics and
their staffs legally immune from liability lawsuits. Stock them with
cheap generic drugs. Such clinics could provide 99% of the medical care
needed by poor Americans for probably less than 10% of what we're
- USA Today just ran an article on Amanda Hocking, the poster-girl for self-publishing.
Amanda is 26 years old, from small-town Minnesota, and has never had a
traditionally-published book. She's done all this on her own. In
January, she sold 450,000 copies of her nine books, almost all of those copies as e-books. Her e-books
sell for $2.99 down to $0.99. The article didn't break out her
sales by royalties, but I think it's safe to say she earned at least
$500,000 in January and probably more.
course, Amanda is exceptional. There probably aren't more than a
dozen other self-published authors who are earning even $50,000
per month, and probably not more than a few hundred who are earning as
much as $5,000 per month. Of course, the vast majority of
traditionally-published authors aren't making even $5,000 per year,
so it's no wonder this e-book goldrush is continuing to grow
exponentially among mid-list authors. Within a year, I expect
essentially all mid-list authors to be self-publishing. It simply makes
no sense to do otherwise.
What it will ultimately come down to
is writing speed. I'd define any fiction author who can't write 1,500
words per day, every day, as slow. (I sometimes write 1,500 words in a
day almost by accident; just today's entries here are about a thousand
words.) At 1,500 words per day, one writes 135,000 words--one
full-length novel--every 90 days. Any fiction author who can't write
four books a year belongs in a different business. A fast author should
be able to turn out a book every two months, or even a book a month.
(We're talking fiction here; non-fiction takes a lot longer.)
it's important for self-pubbing authors to have lots of titles
available. They feed on each other. Many people hesitate to start a
series unless there are at least three or four titles in the series.
I'm happier if there are 20 or more. And, with e-books priced at $2.99
or even less, someone who likes one of the titles will probably go out
and buy all of the rest of them. Why not? For years, I've been buying
hardback books. I can get 10 e-books for the price of one hardback. If
I like the series, there's nothing even to think about. So, instead of
selling one copy, the author sells ten copies, and I have them on my
Kindle instead of having to cruise the library or used bookstores.
a lot of optimism among the commenters on Joe Konrath's blog and
similar blogs. Wannabee authors expecting to hit it big. Most of them
won't, obviously, and the reason is that they're not really authors,
even if they've written a book. Authors write. It's what we do. Most
people don't have even one book in them. Most of those who do have only
that one book. It takes a real author to sit down every day and
continue churning out prose. Those who can and do will do well with
self-publishing. Those who can't or don't will fall by the wayside.
of this almost makes me wish I was interested in writing fiction, but
I'm already committed to science education books and kits. Ultimately,
that's a better use of my time, if nowhere near as potentially
profitable. Still, once I get things up and running with the science
kits, I may take a month off at some point and see if I can knock out a
decent novel. Looking at my schedule, though, it appears my first
opportunity to do that would be in May or June of 2014.
Thursday, 10 February 2011
- I just bought my first e-book yesterday. It was linked to in that USA Today article I mentioned yesterday.
Shanley of Market Partners International, a publishing consulting firm,
recently enjoyed Deed to Death by D.B. Henson, a self-published e-book
she downloaded to her iPad.
The 99-cent price made her try it."
So, I decided to go check it out in the Kindle store. The
description sounded interesting, it had excellent reviews, and, hey, it
was a buck. That's not even worth thinking about, let alone downloading
the free sample and transferring it to my Kindle. It sounded like a
book Barbara would like, and it's not available in print, so I
downloaded it for her.
At $2.99, I'll think about clicking the
Buy button for a book by an author who's unknown to me, and I may even
check out the free sample. But at $0.99 life is too short to worry
about making a bad buy. If it turns out the book sucks, despite all the
good reviews, I may go over and post a savage review on Amazon. But
more likely I won't bother. So, D.B. Henson, whoever she may be, just
made $0.30 from me.
My life seems to be a continuing cycle of designing lab sessions,
writing them up, and doing them. Which is fine, because I like doing
all those things.
The home biology book is at the point where I
really need to put together a prototype kit for it. My microscopy work
area is pretty well equipped, and so far I've just been grabbing what I
need from the shelves around it. But readers won't have that advantage,
so I need to get in the habit of using only things that are destined to
be included in the kit. There are few things more frustrating for a
reader than needing something they don't have and can't easily get, and
the whole purpose of the kit is to avoid those frustrations.
also have people clamoring for the microchemistry kits. I plan to start
shipping those in time for summer session, which means I need to get
quite a few more items crossed off my to-do list, not least of which is
incorporating and all the details that entails.
I scrapped one
lab session yesterday that I'd already written up in full, and I
thought seriously about whether or not to scrap it. The problem was, it
didn't work, or at least it didn't work reliably. On the one hand, it's
nice if the lab sessions work as they're intended to, every time. On
the other hand, that's not how science actually works.
chemist, for example, has had the experience of finding a synthesis for
a particular compound in the literature, repeating that synthesis, and
finding out it doesn't work as advertised. It's not that the person who
wrote up the synthesis was lying; it's just that not every synthesis is
reliably repeatable. The write-up, for example, may report an 85% yield
and straightforward purification. But when you attempt that same
synthesis you get a 10% yield and a mess of tarry sludge that
makes it very difficult to isolate the pure product.
difference is usually in the minor details. The original author may
have used purer reagents than you did (or less pure reagents, strange
as that sounds). Or the reaction conditions may have been subtly
different. That, incidentally, is how chemical engineers make
their living. Not just scaling up laboratory syntheses to industrial
levels, but making sure that the synthesis works exactly as intended,
every time. Getting 100 mL of tarry sludge in a laboratory-scale
synthesis is annoying; getting 100,000 liters of tarry sludge in an
industrial synthesis may be catastrophic. The devil really is in the
Despite the fact that failures can be more instructive
than successes, I did decide to scrap the lab session. Beginners need
successes. They'll learn soon enough about failures.
Saturday, 12 February 2011
- The Wall Street Journal broke the news yesterday: Chapter 11 for Borders, New Chapter for Books
No surprise to anyone who's been paying attention. My guess is that
Borders won't be in Chapter 11 reorganization for long; its creditors,
primarily publishers, will force it into Chapter 7 liquidation. Anyway,
there's nothing much left to reorganize. Borders' assets, such as they
are, are mostly physical stores that are too large, many of them in
questionable locations, and most of them with long-term leases that
obligate Borders to pay more than current rates.
I'm delighted that Borders is going belly-up. I'm not. I love books and
bookstores. But 2011 will be the end of a long era when printed books
dominated. The dinosaurs--publishers and bookstores--can't move fast
enough to stave off their demise. Their business models are simply
unsustainable against e-books. Printed books will survive a while
longer, but they'll increasingly be niche products, with an increasing
focus on technical books and children's books, which are less suitable
Print fiction will become increasingly endangered in
2011. By 2015 to 2018, you'll probably still be able to find paperbacks
from a couple hundred very popular authors in WalMart and airport
shops, but I expect Barnes & Noble will have closed all of its
brick-and-mortar stores by then. Either that, or converted them to sell
coffee and toys, with a book or two around for ambiance.
will no longer be as dominant in e-book sales. More and more authors
are figuring out that putting DRM on e-books is a losing proposition. A
year ago, it was hard to find any e-book with "Device Usage: Unlimited"
in the Kindle store. Now it's very common and getting more so. I expect
un-DRM'd .mobi e-books to become the norm, which eliminates the lock-in
Amazon gets with .azw files on the Kindle. Anyone can sell unprotected
.mobi files for the Kindle, so Amazon is likely to find itself with
some serious competition.
Books are on track to follow the
pricing model of .mp3 files: any book for $0.99, with no DRM, and the
seller gets to keep $0.297. The author gets the remaining $0.693 per
book sold, which is actually more than enough to make a good living.
There are a slew of newbie authors whose books are selling 1,000 copies
a month already, and we're still on the early part of the e-reader
adoption curve. At 1,000 copies a month, a book earns that author
$693/month, every month, indefinitely. An author who has 10 books
available could easily earn $7,000 per month or more, all from books
priced at $0.99 each, and the reality is that having multiple books out
increases sales of all of that author's books. Of course, nearly all of
the money going into authors' pockets is money that would otherwise
have been going into publishers' and agents' pockets, so none of them
Of course, this goldrush is attracting wannabees,
about 99% of whom couldn't write a decent novel to save their lives.
They'll fail miserably. But this whole phenomenon really is the best
possible news for competent fiction authors who've been struggling in
the salt mines for years. And a very small percentage of the wannabees
may also turn out to be real writers.
As any author can tell you, we hear the same things over and over. I have canned responses to the most common comments:
"I've always wanted to write a book." -- "Yeah, you and everyone else."
"I have a really good idea for a novel." -- "Good! You're about a millionth of a percent toward having actually written it."
just started writing a book myself." -- "Congratulations! Your chances
of actually finishing it are about one in ten thousand."
"I'm about halfway through my first book." -- "Writing or reading?"
I don't actually say those things, of course. But, just like every other working author, I'm thinking them.
I finally got around to unboxing the Brother color laser printer I
bought last May. It works fine. That's one more thing crossed off my
Here's an interesting article
about the Army general who was mistaken for a waiter by a White House
aide. General Chiarelli and the others mentioned in the article are
walking examples of the phrase "class act".
Which reminds me of
a story about the financier J. P. Morgan. Although he was extremely
wealthy, Morgan frequently dealt with people from all walks of life. It
seems that he was in the process of buying up several small and
medium-size companies, planning to merge them into large corporation.
During the acquisition phase, Morgan invited one of the company owners
to a small private dinner at his home. Morgan's guest was a self-made
man, with little exposure to the social niceties. During dinner, the
man picked up his finger bowl and drank from it. Morgan, without
missing a beat, did the same. Some probably assume that Morgan did so
to avoid queering the deal, but from everything I've read about him I
suspect that had little to do with it. Morgan, although a fearsome and
ruthless business competitor, was naturally well-mannered in his
I'm not sure why it surprises most people
when a wealthy person is polite or kind. Most of the truly rich people
I've met--those in the top 0.01% in terms of income and assets--have
been both. They have nothing to prove to anyone. It's the ones one or
two steps below who tend to be obnoxious attention seekers.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010,