Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kindle pricing & analysts

I recently saw some news pieces about Kindle book pricing based on a statement by analysts from a think tank called Bernstein Research. From the start this sounded odd - Amazon doesn't even release sales numbers for Kindle so how could anybody come up with good financials? Of course they couldn't and ended up either inventing numbers or analyzing available data, depending on how you want to view it. The only reason I'm spending any time on this isn't because it's important - the report is misinformed and will quickly vanish - but because it shows a type of thinking I see often in business world people where they base judgments on something they don't understand.

I can't find the original but the most detailed report is called Analysts: Kindle Book Price Hikes Are Coming. Interesting headline that's strictly accurate but not really true: analysts do indeed say that there will be price hikes but the force of the headline is that price hikes will happen when this is really just a guess.

Look at the first chart ("Exhibit 34"). Where did they come up with a COGS of 8.73 on a 9.99 e-book? At about 13% that's a much lower margin than a physical trade book which ranges from 40-46%. For all I know it's completely accurate (it's an open secret that e-books are artificially priced too low) but it doesn't seem right. What does appear wrong is that when they bump the price point up to 12.50 they increase the COGS. Why? Is it to disguise the fact that basically all the analysts are saying is that if you increase a selling price while maintaining steady costs then you'll have more profit? For e-books the cost should be fairly stable since there are no physical materials - in fact for Amazon the physical costs, warehousing, print run size, etc won't matter since the COGS is what they're paying the publisher. If the publishers are creating Kindle e-books then it seems as if the COGS could be whatever they want, even the standard 40%.

But then this doesn't even match the other charts. Chart two shows the same breakdown for the 12.50 book that's on the first chart but chart three for 9.99 shows different numbers. Chart three now has a 50% margin instead of the original 12.6% with no obvious reason except that it makes the publisher profits smaller than the first chart. Because if you use the original numbers then this calculates out to a 52% margin for the publisher, oddly enough exactly what the analysts say you'd get with the higher price point.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Very Short Introductions

When Oxford University Press introduced its Very Short Introduction line a few years ago (Wikipedia says 1995) most of us expected just more of those little superficial overviews that nobody really needs. The surprise is that these are generally solid and imaginative little books that offer something even if you're familiar with the subject. I've read a couple of dozen and perhaps only Pat Aufderheide's Documentary Film is the kind of compressed study notes that the series seemed to promise - it's a decent enough book but if you know anything about the topic there's no reason to read it. (And special mention should be made for Norman Solomon's badly botched Judaism, one of those books you can feel pulling knowledge out of your head.)

But take Mary Beard & John Henderson's Classics which uses the temple at Bassae to explore various facets of classics: architecture, religion, the limits of what we know, archaeology, travel and even the debate about where antiquities belong. The authors realize that "very short" means not enough space for a usable overview and that the "introduction" is more important (and more interesting). Catriona Kelly's Russian Literature similarly uses Pushkin as an entry to various parts of her topic; the book is no quick history. Both of these benefit from a focus on how scholarship works and from the feel of actual authors rather than a deliberately anonymous textbook tone.

Of the two VSIs that I read recently Ian Shaw's Ancient Egypt is closest to that approach (though different books in the series use different methods). He starts with the Narmer Palette as a jumping off point but doesn't always stay focused. At times there's too much information about the Palette while key elements otherwise go unexplained. For instance, he just assumes we know about the chronological system but even after reading this book I have no idea what the Middle Kingdom was or why it deserved its own name, or even how the dynastic numbering worked. There's a little chart in the back but it's just names and numbers - imagine giving somebody several centuries from now (or most Americans at this moment) a list of British kings and what they might know of the differences between say Richard I and Charles I or the two Elizabeths. Still, the book is only meant to be a, well, very short introduction and it mostly works for that.

Nicholas Boyle's German Literature is perhaps too idiosyncratic. I get the impression that he really would have rather been writing a political history rather than about literature. He seems to see the latter as mainly the result of and a commentary on class struggles or at least philosophy but the vulgar Marxism is quaint (which is odd when he criticizes Brecht's more didactic works but then again who doesn't nowadays) and at least there's no post-structuralist jargon. Plus he could have used a stronger editor:
The subjection of women to male purposes became, perhaps unwittingly, the main theme and symbol in the poetry and drama of Friedrich Hebbel (1813-63), one of the last representatives of aesthetic idealism trying to give voice to the new spirit of social and material determinism, who was supported through his early struggle to write his way out of poverty by a mistress whom he discarded, and then by his wife, one of the foremost actresses in Vienna.

Whew. Boyle also is more interested in high art so while we get an overview of German lit it feels incomplete or even more incomplete than a very short introduction should be - if there are German equivalents for Defoe or Burroughs (either one) or Dr Johnson or Kipling we're left in the dark. And though that particular passage was chosen for effect much of the book has a bit of that hazy, quasi-philosophical tone. Not for Boyle discussions of actual artistic development or technique. He does briefly discuss why the novella was more prominent in Germany than elsewhere and the realist novel less so but otherwise there's not much sense of what the books might actually be like, at least not unless you can get anything from "he interpreted modern economic life as an extension of the total mobilization of wartime: he rightly saw that the extinction of the bourgeoisie and proletarianization of the middle classes, already far advanced in Germany, was destined to become universal, but he wrongly assumed that only a bureaucratic and military command structure could organize the resulting industrial society" (about Junger's The Worker). And of course he leaves out non-German writers, even considering how loose that concept is, so no Kafka or Walser or Trakl or Rilke or Handke. Actually I almost wish the book had been about Austrian & Swiss literature.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Can Marvel & DC make it any more confusing?

One reason comics have limited and even lost their audience is the tendency of the Big Two to create cross-over stories that take an unusual amount of dedication to simply find the books. Storylines flip-flop through various series, rely on seemingly unrelated stories and use non-obvious or even incoherent numbering/naming. (The most infamous and controversial recent example is the killing of Max Lord being shuffled to an issue of Wonder Woman rather than Infinite Crisis. The manager of my comics store gave me a heads-up because otherwise I and most readers would have no idea a major story event happened somewhere completely else. She told me to just stand there and read it.) I'm not even sure what the publishers are thinking. I get the idea of a big event story or even smaller ones that affect several characters but how can this be a good way to read the books? One unintentional effect is that many people will just wait for the trade rather than trying to pick their way through the maze. After the first flush of movement into the trade market a few years ago the Big Two continue to show that they just don't understand it, despite this most likely being their real future.

For instance, some current Marvels advertise Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia which will alternate between two issues each of those titles. Fair enough even though this is usually pretty annoying to me if you're only reading one series. But Utopia has more traps. It starts with an issue titled Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia before the four regular series issues and then concludes with one called Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Exodus. So if you read Dark Avengers #7 will you already be in a story that started with Utopia? And I'm guessing that there's something to tell you the story ends in the Exodus issue. But that's not all. Marvel decided to add an epilogue called Dark X-Men: The Confession #1. Why is an epilogue numbered 1? I'm guessing the event leads to a new ongoing though I can't find confirmation - in any case that probably wouldn't be the title (confession?). Basically we end up with a seven-part story that appears in comics with five different titles, only two of which are sequential. I didn't even mention the tie-ins: three issues of Dark X-Men: The Beginning and two of X-Men: Legacy (the latter was previously called New X-Men and before that X-Men but is not the same as the series called The X-Men aka The Uncanny X-Men - clearly Marvel doesn't have a marketing department or even much common sense).

I recently read a one-shot called Timestorm 2009-2099: Spider-Man which teamed the two dates' Spider-Men and should have been the kind of goofy time-travelling thing I'm a sucker for. The issue even says "one-shot" on the cover and has a #1 but the opening page is several paragraphs of text explaining how we got to this point in the story. Uh, what? A one-shot that continues another story? It gets worse. The issue does come to something of a conclusion but not entirely since it apparently continues in another "one-shot" devoted to the X-Men. Apparently these are related to a Timestorm mini-series that I had successfully ignored but the whole thing shows poor planning.

Something similar to the Utopia mess happened with the New Krypton story. Ten issues spread among four series (Superman, Supergirl, Action, Adventure) is bad enough but there it started with a Superman - New Krypton Special (this isn't counting a lead-in that appeared as Superman's Pal - Jimmy Olsen Special). And part three of the story was Adventure Comics Special - The Guardian. Admittedly the Guardian issue was completely worthless but still that's not exactly making this easier to follow. I heard from some comic store people that many readers missed issues or weren't clear about reading order despite the fact that they were trying to follow it. The issues did have a little diamond with the number of the reading order but that's all it was: a diamond and a number. The diamond didn't indicate "New Krypton" or anything that might tell you what it was for. (Turns out that this numbering has continued into current issues of those series though I'm not sure if there's some kind of meta-story, haven't been reading them since even though I read New Krypton it wasn't interesting enough to continue.)

When it came to the recent Battle for the Cowl event DC tried to follow recent thinking that the story should be in a separate series as well as any tie-ins so that a reader can read just the basic series and have all they need but then pick up anything else that seems interesting. Which I appreciate and so far managed to avoid most of the Secret Invasion and Final Crisis tie-ins. But the final issue of Battle for the Cowl relied so much on the tie-ins that I had to go back to see if I'd actually read the previous issue.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Part 2 of Wired & literature

I won't continue going through the list point by point but there are a few to bring up.

Number 8 is odd for claiming that the long tail "balkanizes audiences" while disrupting canon-building and fragmenting reputation. Odd because the long tail isn't a change and isn't really technological - it's a description of a retail environment that explains the success of some Internet businesses but also decades of brick-and-mortar or even mail-order ones. (I do realize that some specifics of the long tail idea have been challenged but don't see how the basic idea is wrong.) Specialty vendors have always found success in their part of the tail, whether that's selling only punk rock or embroidery thread or hot sauces (to pull some businesses that actually exist). I worked in a pre-Internet bookstore that built a large business by deliberately stocking as much of the tail as possible.

But again I'm not really sure where Sterling gets the idea that the long tail has these negative effects. The only way it can balkanize audiences is if they aren't all forced to buy the same limited choices and then we all saw the same movies, read the same books and heard the same music because we had no choice. Never actually true of course - there have always been people who read only science fiction or mysteries or romances or poetry or Civil War history while ignoring bestsellers.

And how does this disrupt canon building? Think of just living American authors that might be considered major importance and a key to future canons: Pynchon, Roth, Morrison (Toni not Jim), Oates, Ashbery, McCarthy, DeLillo, Mamet, possibly William Gibson. I probably don't know anybody who's read more than one of these (except you Kevin) and you probably don't either. In fact I haven't even read three (Morrison, Oates, Roth). My point is that canons have always been further down in the tail not the bestsellers so if anything the Web-driven access to more might help build canons rather than fragment them.

The only thing I'll say about point 9's "digital public-domain" (why is "public domain" hyphenated?) is the laugh it brings at the end about transforming your "relationship to belle-lettres." If anything it might make belles-lettres more accessible but I have trouble imagining anybody seriously dealing with Swinburne or Henry James or Montaigne this way.

Point 15 is pretty cryptic: "Scholars steeped within the disciplines becoming cross-linked jack-of-all-trades virtual intelligentsia." My suspicion is that Sterling just liked all the buzzwords but if I had to pin it down I might go with the idea that he's claiming people raised or tending towards interdisciplinary approaches are less prone to stay in a home subject turf and to also be more visible on the Net. Which isn't really true as anybody who works in a university or even reads the Chronicle of Higher Education could tell you. Maybe by scholars he means people outside academia but that makes the argument even iffier. The decline of the public intellectual is well documented and most of the ones left tend to be fairly narrowly focused (even Sterling himself).

Point 10 that "contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency" is another one that I wish had examples though again it's probably more Sterling's wishful thinking. He seems to be confusing literature with journalist activism - you don't have to go with art-for-art's-sake or poetry-is-news-that-stays-news to realize what a fundamental misunderstanding this is. Or maybe I've misunderstood Sterling. To see what matters of general urgency literature isn't addressing I decided to look at the most recent finalists for the National Book Award and found them addressing violence, family and the environment (Matthiessen's Shadow Country), Cuba and political involvement in other countries (Kushner's Telex from Cuba), faith, ethnicity and community (Scibona's The End), violence, race and European history (Hemon's The Lazarus Project). Robinson's Home is described as dealing with "nature of goodness and the limits of understanding" so I'm guessing that's not generally urgent.

Sure these aren't necessarily chart-topping bestsellers (though I think most of them did pretty well) but as far as "literature" that doesn't matter. Sterling points out that current bestsellers are in "former niche genres" but so what? Does he really expect to find a lot of serious literature among the bestsellers? Just look at the 1940s bestsellers and see how much had any lasting literary value. Actually just see if you recognize more than a handful of titles and I bet most of those are due to movies that people still watch. (And it's interesting that it's reasonable to expect that many of us have seen these movies without having read any of the books though it's not worth going far enough to claim this is due to the decline of reading - I'd much rather put up with 135 minutes of The Robe (which I have) than the hours it would take for the 500-page novel.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Wired believes it's thinking about literature

The oh-so-hip folk at Wired recently published Eighteen Challenges in Contemporary Literature. All well and good I suppose except it's hard to take seriously even though it's probably meant to be. Bruce Sterling is an official Smart Guy and a founder of Cyberpunk. So how did he produce something this, uh, dumb?

Start with the start: "Literature is language-based and national"? Well saying literature is language-based is like saying music is sound-based or painting is visual - it's purely descriptive and in this instance irrelevant. The national part is odd; Sterling really should know better. Despite being taught as "British lit" or "American lit" literature is pretty non-national and writers about as border-crashing as you can get (except maybe musicians). There are countless examples: Shakespeare wrote in an Italian form, based plays on Latin & Spanish originals (Plautus & Cervantes), borrowed from European sources. Jonson and Marlowe were even more open. Johnson imitated Persian, Hugo's most famous play is from Italian history as was some of Shelley's work, Rimbaud & Baudelaire translated Poe. The history of poetry is a history of culture/nation hopping. James, Wharton and after them the high modernists were multinational - Pound and Joyce practically invented their own languages from dozens of others. Many Latin American writers have been huge Faulkner fans and have their own tradition of actual country-hopping (Cortazar, Paz, Bolano). To claim that literature is national is simply pure ignorance.

But Sterling finishes the first statement with "contemporary society is globalizing and polyglot" which is mainly wishful thinking since globalizing is nothing new and our society may be less polyglot than many prior ones. Think back to the intensely global cultures of the 15th and 16th century such as Elizabethan England and Renaissance Italy. Or for that matter much of the Roman Empire which actively encouraged input from provincials such as Herodotus. The late 19th century saw broad chunks of literature (ancient Egyptian & Sanskrit, medieval Persian) hitting Europe. And as for polyglot it's a very safe bet that a larger percentage of people in those times spoke or read more languages than most people today (or even safer, than most Wired readers).

Number 2 about "vernacular means of everyday communication" going where printed text can't follow is a "So what?" statement. Same has been true of phones, radio and movies for decades not to mention the oral tradition for centuries. How any of this challenges literature isn't even remotely clear.

3 about "intellectual property systems failing" overstates the case and as for 4 that the book business is "destablized" is yet another that's simply wrong. I work in that business and the main impact of new technology so far has been Internet shopping and print-on-demand books. It's all falling a familiar retail model, just with the actual players shifting. And not even shifting that much since despite a large number of bookstore closings brick-and-mortars are still doing well (or at least as well as anything right now). Again now either numbers 3 or 4 are challenges to literature isn't clear - pirated books were vastly more significant in the 18th century than today, in fact that was one of the drives to create a copyright law.

Next is the claim that physical book production is an "outmoded, toxic industry" but Sterling is again looking at small portions. Is the production of computers and Kindles really any less toxic? Does maintaining servers and computers use less energy? Are changing file formats more durable than paper? I have no idea but there's a common assumption that ebooks must be better because there's no physical product at the endpoint. And of course how much of the world can afford the ebook world? It might easily be true that this outmoded industry is better environmentally, socially and politically than our brave new cyberworld.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Grown-up movies endangered?

About a month ago Entertainment Weekly published one of those hand-wringing, oh-dear-me pieces about how "movies for grown-ups" or "adult dramas" are in decline. We've heard this before but there's one shocking bit in the piece - The Soloist cost $50 million? As in five-zero million? This is a movie about a journalist and a homeless man so what on earth could justify that much money? I'm sure big chunks went to the two lead actors and they probably paid more for a symphony orchestra than they really should but this just shows the problem right there. To claim that the film only had $30 million of business misses the point (and it doesn't help that by most accounts The Soloist isn't very good - see the review at something called Crosscut for a sharp analysis). The common rule of thumb is that a movie must gross double its budget to start a profit so this would have required $100 million gross, something not many movies make. Especially ones about journalists and homeless musicians. (I didn't see State of Play but it doesn't sound "serious-minded" but more standard crime thriller.)

Of course this is just a throw-away piece that's not really making a strong case. Where's the consideration of the video market? The strong showing of dramas on TV (especially cable). Whether dramas are really more than a niche market. Even whether the U.S. itself is a niche market (Australia grossed more than its budget worldwide and so did Revolutionary Road). And the simple fact that Hollywood gave up serious filmmaking in the 70s.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Peter David interview

When I got interested in comics again a few years ago one of the highlights was this dumb-looking series called Young Justice that turned out to be funny, imaginative and not at all dumb. Turns out the writer was somebody named Peter David so I tracked down more of his stuff. Captain Marvel and Supergirl were great and much of X-Factor almost as good. I only got through the first year and last two to three of his Incredible Hulk run but was not too impressed; maybe the good stuff is in the middle. The first three issues of Fallen Angel seemed fairly pointless and the initial Sir Apropos prose novel was about double how long it should have been. This interview covers most of the bases (though omits Soulsearchers) and it's always interesting to see behind the scenes at the Big Two and how little storytelling has to do with many of their decisions.