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Week of 7 February 2011

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Monday, 7 February 2011
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08:45 - 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.

In November, 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 e-book.

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.

We don'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.


Tuesday, 8 February 2011
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10:25 - 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.

Before 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."

Amazon, 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.

In other 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 with reading.

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.

We're 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
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08:26 - 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.

What 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 paying now.

12:59 - 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.

Of 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.)

And 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.

There's 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.

All 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
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07:57 - I just bought my first e-book yesterday. It was linked to in that USA Today article I mentioned yesterday.

"Lorraine 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.


Friday, 11 February 2011
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08:23 - 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.

I 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.

Any 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.

The 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 details.

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
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10:00 - 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.

Barbara thinks 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 as e-books.

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.

Amazon 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 are happy.

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."
"I 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.


Sunday, 13 February 2011
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15:16 - 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 to-do list.

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 personal interactions.

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.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.