The Enduring Value of Printed Books

In a day of otherwise sobering news, I found something uplifting: the resurgence of print in our digital age. Read the article that appeared in today’s New York Times.

Here’s a link to the article:

The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead – The New York Times

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Vive la Différence!

Let’s celebrate red, white and blue support for books! No…not our red, white and blue….I’m talking about France.

Small book stores are thriving in that country. And in the July 10 issue of the New York Times, Pamela Druckerman provides a fascinating insight into the “why” of that equation. Their secret? Price fixing.

Before your get your capitalist hackles up, consider this quote from Vincent Montagne, head of the French Publishers Association: “The French government classifies books as an “essential good,” along with electricity, bread and water.”

Now…take a moment and read Druckerman’s article.

And let me know what you think.

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Farenheit 2014


“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902)

Attention all you bargain hunters out there! Thanks to you, Amazon has become the largest, most powerful bookseller in modern history.

And what’s the point of being a giant, if you don’t wield your power? In its latest attack on publishing, Amazon has done just that. An article on the front page of today’s New York Times reports that Amazon is retaliating against publishers by delaying shipments on two continents and even removing titles from its site. The reason? Amazon wants more control over e-books (read: more money) and is holding physical books hostage in order to force publishers into compliance. Some would call such a move “just  bidness.” Others would (and do) label it extortion.

Read the full article here:

As Publishers Fight Amazon, Books Vanish

May 23, 2014 7:24 am

Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before.

Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention.

“How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it,” asked Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, echoing remarks being made across social media.

Amazon is, as usual, staying mum. “We talk when we have something to say,” Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive, said at the company’s annual meeting this week.

The battle is being waged largely over physical books. In the United States, Amazon has been discouraging customers from buying titles from Hachette, the fourth-largest publisher by market share. Late Thursday, it escalated the dispute by making it impossible to order Hachette titles being issued this summer and fall. It is using some of the same tactics against the Bonnier Media Group in Germany.
But the real prize is control of e-books, the future of publishing.

Publishers tried to rein in Amazon once, and got slapped with a federal antitrust suit for their efforts. Amazon was not directly a party to the case but has reaped the rewards in increased market power. Now it wants to increase its share of the digital proceeds. The publishers, weighing a slide into irrelevance if not nonexistence, are trying to hold the line.

Late Friday afternoon, Hachette made by far its strongest comment on the conflict.
“We are determined to protect the value of our authors’ books and our own work in editing, distributing and marketing them,” said Sophie Cottrell, a Hachette senior vice president. “We hope this difficult situation will not last a long time, but we are sparing no effort and exploring all options.”

The Authors Guild accused the retailer of acting illegally. “Amazon clearly has substantial market power and is abusing that market power to maintain and increase its dominance, which likely violates Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act,” said Jan Constantine, the Guild’s general counsel.

Independent booksellers, meanwhile, announced they could supply Hachette books immediately. The second-largest physical chain, Books-a-Million, advertised 30 percent discounts on select coming Hachette titles. Among the publisher’s imprints are Grand Central Publishing, Orbit and Little, Brown.

Amazon is also flexing its muscles in Germany, delaying deliveries of books from Bonnier. “It appears that Amazon is doing exactly that on the German market which it has been doing on the U.S. market: using its dominant position in the market to blackmail the publishers,” said Alexander Skipis, president of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association.

The association said its antitrust experts were examining whether Amazon’s tactics violated the law.“Of course it is very comfortable for customers to be able to order over the Internet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Mr. Skipis said. “But with such an online structure as pursued by Amazon, a book market is being destroyed that has been nurtured over decades and centuries.”

Christian Schumacher-Gebler, chief executive for Bonnier in Germany, said the group’s leading publishing houses noticed delays in deliveries of some of its books several weeks ago and confronted the retailer.

“Amazon confirmed to us that these delays are directly related to the ongoing negotiations over conditions in the electronic book market,” Mr. Schumacher- Gebler said. The retailer began refusing orders late Thursday for coming Hachette books, including J. K. Rowling’s new novel, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

In some cases, even the web pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons’s new novel, “The Girls of August,” coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $30).

The confrontations with the publishers are the biggest display of Amazon’s dominance since it briefly stripped another publisher, Macmillan, of its “buy” buttons in 2010. It seems likely to encourage debate about the concentration of power by the retailer. No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.

James Patterson, one of the country’s best-selling writers, described the confrontation between Amazon and Hachette as “a war.”

“Bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the crossfire of an economic war,” he wrote on Facebook. “If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed — by law, if necessary — immediately, if not sooner.”
Mr. Patterson’s novels due to be released this summer and fall are now impossible to buy from Amazon in either print or digital form.

Hachette, which is owned by the French conglomerate Lagardère, was one of the publishers in the antitrust case, which involved e-book prices. But even before that, relations between the retailer and the publisher have been tense. Hachette made the case to Washington regulators in 2009 that Amazon was having a detrimental effect on publishing, but got nowhere.

For several months, Amazon has been quietly discouraging the sales of Hachette’s physical books by several techniques — cutting the customer’s discount so the book approached list price, taking weeks to ship the book, suggesting that prospective customers buy other books instead and increasing the discount for the Kindle version.

Amazon has millions of members in its Prime club, who get fast shipping. This was, as Internet wits quickly called it, the “UnPrime” approach.

The retailer’s strategy seems to be to drive a wedge between the writers, who need Amazon sales to survive, and Hachette. But this does not seem to be working the way Amazon might want. Nina Laden, a children’s book writer, was one of many Hachette authors lashing out at Amazon in the last week.

“I have supported Amazon for as long as Amazon has existed,” she wrote in a Facebook posting that she also sent to the retailer:I have supported Amazon for as long as Amazon has existed. I’ve been published for 20 years now and you have sold so many of my books. I am frankly shocked and angry at what you are doing to my new book “Once Upon A Memory” which has just won the Crystal Kite Award and is published by Little Brown. You are punishing me- the author- because you want a deeper discount from Hachette- this is deplorable. She went on to say that she was “frankly shocked and angry at what you are doing” to her new book, “Once Upon a Memory.” “It has made me tell my readers to shop elsewhere — and they are and will,” she wrote. (Amazon customer service wrote back, saying “We will be glad to investigate this issue further” if Ms. Laden would provide additional information.

One of the books made scarce by Amazon’s actions is an updated edition of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.” The book revealed how Mr. Bezos said Amazon should approach vulnerable publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”

“What irony,” said Mr. Stone, a former reporter for The New York Times. “A book detailing Amazon’s heavy-handed tactics in business negotiations becomes, at least in a small way, a victim of those tactics.”

(A version of this article appears in print on 05/24/2014, on page A1 of the NewYork edition with the headline: As Publishers Fight Amazon, Books Vanish.)


You may ask how we got ourselves into such a mess. This situation with Amazon reminds me of one of my favorite lines from the film, “Lion in Winter” (1968). The setting: It’s Christmas, 1183. King Henry II plans a reunion with his sons; his imprisoned wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he plans to marry.

At one point in the film, Henry recounts his mad love for Eleanor when they first met. Musing on the spectacular decline of that relationship, he asks her: “How from where we started, did we ever reach this Christmas?”

She replies, “Step by Step.


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The Death of Romance

In 1986 I attended my first writers’ conference: two weeks at Johns Hopkins University. All in all, it seemed the stars converged to create an experience that was memorable, unique, cherished. I had the great good fortune to study under Richard Bausch, whose talent inspired me as much as did his approach to life.  I enjoyed wonderful conversations about writing with Mary Robison, whose terrific short stories have appeared in the New Yorker as well as other prestigious publications. I  became friends with the poet Pamela Stewart (a friendship that survives to this day, as does my deep admiration for her work). Our workshop also included some fine writers whose talent seemed to create an aura around them. One of my workshop mates included Erik Larson, who has gone on to write best-selling and critically acclaimed non-fiction. Another very talented member of our workshop, Shawn Sapp-Nocher, entered the Hopkins MFA program in creative writing this fall and will, I’m sure, make significant contributions to the world of letters. My own first novel, Dancing With Gravity, was published in 2011.

The wonderful experiences of those weeks shaped so much of what has followed in my  writing life. But one experience that stays with me was of a very different sort. As part of the program, each student had a conference with a second writer in addition to their workshop teacher. After reading my submission, this other writer, a woman, was generally positive. I nearly collapsed in gratitude. Inexperienced, hopeful and naive, I asked if she thought I could, indeed, become a writer. I realize now how foolish I was to put that answer in the hands of a stranger. But I was nearly desperate for validation.  After a theatrical pause, she answered, “The question is not, ‘can you write’ but ‘must you write’.”  It was a stupidly self-serving comment by an academic, but I didn’t grasp it at the time. Instead, I suffered deep self-doubt and recrimination as I questioned whether I was driven enough, willing to sacrifice enough— and therefore worthy enough— to continue writing.

Here are the facts: writing—good writing—is difficult. It takes us away from the people we love and calls us to the isolation (and excitement) of the page. A novel may take years to complete, even as the reader “polishes it off” in a weekend. In our greed-driven economy, literature is a far second to the product—however badly written—that makes a profit. The more collateral opportunities, the better.   Publishers now seem to view books as little more than commodities like pet rocks or Harry Potter figurines. As for the reading public, the numbers tell the story: we’d rather be titillated by steamy sex scenes than do the work a serious novel requires— and rewards.

Still, some people pursue this line of work—work being the operative word. Writing is not essential, as are food, shelter and medical care. But art feeds the soul. Speaking for myself, I never feel more “myself” than when I’m writing. When I’m working, I am more awake, aware and alive than at almost any other time. But is it “necessary”?Must” I do it? The question itself is romantic. Ridiculous. Worse, it sidesteps the inherent dignity of choice. And commitment.

My interaction with that woman at Johns Hopkins came to mind again today when I read an essay by Alice McDermott. In  ‘If You Can Do Anything Else, Kids, Do It,’ a blog for the New York Times, she offers anecdotes that capture the heartbreak and grief so often associated with the writing life. She also manages to end on a very hopeful note.  While I deeply admire McDermott’s work, I don’t agree with the last lines in her essay.  They’re too sentimental. Bottom line: I have obligations. Debts. I run a freelance business. I do not confuse my own work with work for hire. But I approach both with seriousness and dedication. To write is a privilege, a gift. I am a writer. Not because I lack free will. Not because I am constitutionally incapable of any other work. I choose to write because I love it. Because I respect it. To write is to pay homage…even to pray.

Read Ms. McDermott’s wonderful essay at: ‘If You Can Do Anything Else, Kids, Do It’ –

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Keep Mum and Write On

When I was working on my novel (which, I’ll admit, took an incredibly long time), I made the mistake of sharing that information with people around me. As the weeks, months, and (yes) years passed I alternately worked on/shelved/suffered over my work in progress. I also discovered that, nearly as painful as the stalled work itself, were the well-meaning comments by others asking about the plot, characters and (worst of all) my progress. My answers alternated between spontaneous tears, evasive tactics and genuinely mean defensiveness-turned-aggression.

Blank Slate Press published my novel, Dancing With Gravity, in 2011. My book won some prizes; it also broke my heart. My novel taught me how to write a novel. The publishing process itself taught me other valuable lessons too. I also learned (or hope I have) that nothing substitutes for the writing itself. And that’s between the writer and the page…not anyone else. The last thing a struggling writer needs is an outside source wondering about the work. I assure you, most writers do plenty of that without any help.

And for another take on the writer’s dilemma, I’m enclosing the link to a New York Times piece, “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” by Mark Slouka I think you’ll enjoy. Here’s the link

Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

And here’s a copy of the text:

AUGUST 24, 2013, 3:06 PM
Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

No stage of the writing process — not the editor’s first response to the manuscript, not
the review gauntlet — is as fraught for writers as those first few months of uncertainty:
that miserable time when we think, believe, know with absolute assurance that we’ve
found the key to the novel in our heads, though maybe, probably, definitely not.
Want to lose a friend who’s a writer? Ask her, a month in, how it’s going. Better still, ask
her to describe what she’s working on. She’ll try, because she has to (“Well, it’s about this
friendship between these two, um, friends . . . ”) all the while listening to the magic
leaking out of the balloon, and she’ll hate you for it.

If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in
embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately,
because we’re writers, a k a bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to
share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.

Why? Because we’re unsure — about very nearly everything. Because in our hearts we’re
only as good as our last paragraph, and if the new book isn’t going anywhere, maybe
we’re no good at all. Because we’re running on faith and fumes. In the early stages, before
that magic moment when the voice of the story begins to speak, we want — no, crave —
validation, someone on the outside who will say, preferably with godlike authority and
timbre: “It’s brilliant. You’re on the right track. Just keep going.”

The problem, of course, is that our inner critic, the I. C., is whispering in our ear that
we’re not even remotely on the right track — that we’re blundering around in the
wilderness, in fact. Yet we still try to bully him into submission by recruiting allies from
among our friends. If they confirm that yes, indeed, that first page of “The Something or
Other” is immortal and they’d rather open a vein than be denied the knowledge of what
happens next, maybe I. C. will shut up. It rarely works. Nine times out of 10 (the
exception guarantees a bad book) the I. C. will be rubbing our nose in the truth before the
week is out: the work is as bad as we suspected it was. And the loyal recruit, having
foolishly interfered in this lost cause, will be collateral damage.

Think of the situation as a mouse trap baited with appeals to a friend’s decency, or one of
those Chinese finger-trapping sleeves. There’s your writer, emerging from his study,
sending out sticky little signals: “A good day today,” he’ll say, pouring himself a cup of
coffee; or, “I think I might be on to something”; or, “I’m quite excited.” What’s the
spouse, parent, colleague or long-suffering agent supposed to do?

Let’s just say this is not one of those win-win situations. If the well-meaning colleague
doesn’t ask, she risks seeming unsupportive; ask, and she suffers the consequences: every
syllable of her response will be studied and sifted with forensic care, every attempt at
encouragement grimly accepted or politely dismissed, every stab at honesty received like
a lance through the heart. Within minutes the writer will be conjuring subtexts out of thin
air, divining intention, whipping up context; he’ll misread, unerringly. This will be
entertaining in its own way, but it won’t be pretty.

Which leaves the unsuspecting participant only two possible pre-emptive moves, neither
particularly strong. The first is to play for time, to say something along the lines of “I’d
love to hear about the book, but I don’t want you to talk about it until you’re ready.”
Chances are it won’t work, but at least this way the blame is on the writer: the colleague
counseled caution; the author hanged himself of his own volition. Another is to
adamantly refuse to hear a word until the writer stops asking, at which point the coast is
clear. A third might be to cultivate the company of cowboys — illiterate ones — and be

One might wonder why — besides their own pathetic need for reassurance — writers
would ask others’ opinions at all. It’s an interesting question; the answer comes down to
which writer you ask. Though it may be a failing on my part — the sign of an overweening
ego, or a fragile one — I’ve never understood writers who workshop their stuff with their
50 best friends, then rewrite in view of their criticisms.

Writing, I figure, at least any writing worth reading, isn’t done by committee, and though
I haven’t always been strong enough to live by this precept, I’ll stand by it nonetheless:
Your vision is your own, for better or worse.

These reminders should be on the wall above my desk: 1. Trust a few, necessary voices. 2.
Try, as much as possible, to avoid torturing these brave souls with your own insecurities.
3. Shut up and write.

Mark Slouka is an essayist and the author, most recently, of the novel “Brewster.”
Don’t Ask What I’m Writing –…
2 of 2 8/25/13 10:44 AM

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