Another bad review for Senator! (Also, reading a book on an iPhone)

At the risk of running counter to the purpose of this stupid blog, which is to persuade people to buy my stupid ebooks, I’d like to highlight a one-star review of Senator that just showed up on Amazon:

Too soon after the elections. Just one more book that proves that politicians are first grade liars, and will do anything to stay in power.

It’s easy to be snarky about a review like this. The obvious remedy for the reader’s problem with the book is to read it when she’s not sick of politics. It’s not the book’s fault that she read it right after the election!

On the other hand, this highlights something important about the fickleness of everyone’s judgments about books (and movies and music…).  We encounter them at a specific time and place, and our judgments about them are inevitably colored by those circumstances.  Sometimes you’re too young for a book; sometimes you’re too old.  The books I enjoyed before I had kids may not be the ones I’d enjoy after I had kids.  It’s impossible to be completely objective in your assessments of books, and an author shouldn’t blame a reader for not trying.

Based on a recommendation from one of my very fine readers, I recently read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which is number 30 on the list of the greatest English novels of the twentieth century.  (He changed the title of the novel, and also his last name.  Read Wikipedia to find out why.) Just for kicks, I read the book in the Kindle app on my new iPhone.  And I hated it!  But now I’m never likely to be able to fully disentangle my assessment of the novel from the modality by which I encountered it.  I thought that reading a book on an iPhone was pretty claustrophobic, with the small screen size giving you such a small view of the text.  And guess what — I found The Good Soldier to be claustrophobic as well, with the narrator’s obsessive telling and retelling of his story of the interactions among several decidedly unpleasant people.  So, what can I make of the novel?  Reading it was at best a two-star experience for me, but maybe reading a leather-bound critical edition of the book would have caused me to give it an extra star or two.  Maybe if I hadn’t read parts of it while waiting to get my hair cut, or during half-time of a Patriots game in which the secondary once again wasn’t getting the job done…

That’s why an author should be eternally grateful when he encounters readers who seem to understand and enjoy what he’s trying to do.  There are so many ways in which that can fail to happen.

Should we be worried that Jonah Lehrer’s ebook has melted into air, into thin air?

. . . and leaves not a rack behind?

Jonah Lehrer, you may recall, is the young author who made up some Dylan quotes in his book Imagine and was caught self-plagiarizing on his New Yorker blog and elsewhere.  See here and here.  It’s not a good time to be Jonah Lehrer.

Imagine, not surprisingly, has been withdrawn from the market, without any online explanation of what happened.  Now an Atlantic writer worries that the disappearance of the ebook from ebook shelves is a bad thing.

There are now links to used copies on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble; original links to the items are still inactive, and at the original time of writing, there were no links at all, used or no. Lehrer’s author site on Amazon still does not link to any of the marketplace vendors.

She connects this situation to the time Amazon disappeared copies of some editions of Orwell novels from readers’ Kindles because of copyright violations.

When Orwell pulled a Kindle disappearing act, David Pogue called Amazon’s actions, “ugly for all kinds of reasons.” Even though (as far as I know) no purchased copies of Imagine have disappeared off of electronic readers, the ugliness is just as strong in the current reaction to Lehrer’s missteps. It is worrisome that the book has virtually disappeared from the most prominent online retailers—and the publisher itself. A simple note saying that sales have been halted pending further verification, or something to that effect, would have been a much more honest, transparent solution. When contacted for comment on the specifics of the decision, Amazon stated simply that, “At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s request, we halted sales of ‘Imagine’ in all formats.” No reply was made to the specific issue of how the request was handled. HMH did not provide a response, nor did Barnes and Noble.

To me, this seems like much ado about nothing (to bring Shakespeare into the post again).  Imagine is still easily available as a used hardcover on the Internet.  No one has removed the existing ebooks from peoples e-devices.  So Imagine is certainly leaving a rack behind. (In this sense a rack, the Internet tells me, is a fast-moving cloud, a vapor.)

I suppose in some ways it’s easier to disappear ebooks than to destroy physical books, but as readers at Andrew Sullivan’s site point out, in other ways it’s much easier to save an ebook, if you think it’s worth saving:

Jonah Lehrer’s book was bought and downloaded by thousands of readers before it was recalled. The tools to remove an e-book’s DRM encryption are freely available and trivial to use, even for a low-tech buyer with a cheap PC. Once the book is decrypted, it’s just another file on a computer, as easy to copy and send around as any photo or Microsoft Word document. E-book files are tiny compared to other commonly-pirated media like movies and music; most are under 10 megabytes, which is small enough to send as an email attachment. And if they’re stripped of their fancy formatting and converted into plain text, they get even smaller. Project Gutenberg’s entire collection of over 40,000 public-domain titles would fit comfortably on an average iPod.

And then there are the increasing numbers of ebooks (like mine) that don’t even have DRM.  I’m basically trusting that most people aren’t jerks.

And here’s another angle: I wonder if Lehrer would have any difficulty getting the rights to Imagine back from the publisher.  If he did that, he could get rid of the made-up stuff, write a new introduction explaining that the devil made him do it, mistakes were made, or whatever, and sell the ebook for $2.98 or some other fraction of the publisher’s original ebook price.  I’m sure he’d sell a bunch of copies!  Step 1 in his rehabilitation.

When I started my ebook venture, I went looking for an unpublished novel of mine that I thought might be worth self-publishing as an ebook.  Couldn’t find the hardcopy.  Could only find softcopy of the first draft.  Yikes!  I vaguely remembered sending a copy to my friend Jeff, so I dashed off a desperate email.  Twenty minutes later I had my novel back.

Computers are our friends.

Here come the ebook price cuts

Apparently we were waiting for a federal judge to sign off on the settlement between the DOJ and the three publishers — Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins — before we got them.  Here‘s the story in the Times.

The settlement approved on Thursday called for the publishers to end their contracts with Apple within one week. The publishers must also terminate contracts with e-book retailers that contain restrictions on the retailer’s ability to set the price of an e-book or contain a so-called “most favored nation” clause, which says that no other retailer is allowed to sell e-books for a lower price.

For the next two years, the settling publishers may not agree to contracts with e-book retailers that restrict the retailer’s “discretion over e-book pricing,” the court said. For five years, the publishers are not allowed to make contracts with retailers that includes a most favored nation clause.

In other news, Amazon announced a new generation of Kindle Fires, probably putting them in direction competition with iPads.  (And who knows what Apple has up its sleeve at its announcement next week?)

So, clearly Amazon is going to cut ebook prices, presumably to help Kindle sales and freeze out other vendors:

Amazon, which in April called the settlement “a big win for Kindle owners,” has vowed to drop prices on its e-books, probably to the $9.99 point that it once preferred for most bestsellers and newly released e-books.

Then what?  Presumably some or all of the following:

  • Barnes & Noble and other ebook vendors will try to cut prices to match.  Maybe they won’t be able to, and they will lose their reason for existing.  Apple will obviously continue to exist, but they’re not gonna be happy about having to compete with Amazon.
  • There will be increasing pressure on the other three publishers in the suit to settle, as their ebook prices start looking ridiculously high next to those of the competition.
  • Brick & mortar bookstores will also come under increasing pressure, as lower ebook prices and better devices on which to read them cut into their business model.
  • Publishers will therefore need to reevaluate their own current business models, which rely on ebooks to be priced high enough not to cannibalize sales from print books.  With less ability to sell print books, some of them may lose their reason for existing.
  • New online ebook vendors will pop up that can figure out a way to compete with Amazon.  (Buy ten ebooks and get one free, 40% off all fantasy novels this week only, etc.)

What did I miss?  Whatever happens, the publishing world will start looking a lot different over the next couple of years.

The ebook settlement with the states

The three publishers (Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins) who settled with the Feds and the state AGs over collusion in ebook pricing have settled with the states.  Here‘s a good summary.  Recall the basics:

The feds’ lawsuit demands that publishers change their pricing model so that Amazon and others can set the price they want (even it the price is below cost). The lawsuit by the states is instead about money; the states want to collect refunds on behalf of ebook buyers.

The settlement with the states means people who bought ebooks from the publishers on Amazon or other ebook vendor will get smallish credits someday:

If you bought an e-book from one of the five big publishers between April 1, 2010 and May 23, 2012, you will get a 25-cent refund for each old title you bought and $1.32 if the title was a recent New York Times bestseller. The refund will come in the form of a credit to your Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iTunes account; you’ll get a check if you bought from Sony or Google. The retailers have your email address so it will not be hard to notify you.

That’s fine but, as the article notes, you’ll probably just take that credit and buy more ebooks, so it’s probably not that much of a hardship for the publishers.  Also, it will take years before you actually see the money.

In any case, this is small potatoes.  What really matters is getting Amazon to discount books from the publishers who have settled.  In an article in the Boston Globe, an expert says it’s happening.

“The price reductions are already happening,” said Michael Norris, a senior analyst in the Trade Books Group at Simba Information, a market research firm in Stamford, Conn. “Amazon is already starting to lower the prices of e-books.”

Hmm, I haven’t noticed this happening.  Have you?  A glance through some Simon & Schuster titles still shows most of them at the same old $12.99 price point.  Maybe I haven’t been paying sufficient attention.  I would think that Amazon would start aggressive discounting as soon as it can, to put pressure on its competition and to increase the value proposition for the Kindle.

Lower prices coming on ebooks

The Department of Justice has brought suit in the ebooks pricing case, and three publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster) have settled.  We mentioned the possibility of the suit here.  The government is saying that five publishers and Apple colluded to force the “agency model” onto the ebook business.  In the agency model, the publisher sets the price, and the seller gets a percentage of that price for each sale.  There’s nothing illegal about the agency model; it’s the collusion that got these guys in trouble.  Apparently the government has pretty good evidence of the collusion.  Here’s the DOJ’s statement, which says in part:

During regular, near-quarterly meetings, we allege that publishing company executives discussed confidential business and competitive matters – including Amazon’s e-book retailing practices – as part of a conspiracy to raise, fix, and stabilize retail prices.   In addition, we allege that these publishers agreed to impose a new model which would enable them to seize pricing authority from bookstores; that they entered into agreements to pay Apple a 30 percent commission on books sold through its iBookstore; and that they promised – through contracts including most-favored-nation provisions – that no other e-book retailer would set a lower price.   Our investigation even revealed that one CEO allegedly went so far as to encourage an e-book retailer to punish another publisher for not engaging in these illegal practices.

The three publishers who settled have agreed to abandon the agency model for two years.  Amazon is already saying it’s ready to lower e-book prices:

“This is a big win for Kindle owners, and we look forward to being allowed to lower prices on more Kindle books,” said an Amazon spokesperson, referring to a settlement the Justice Department reached with Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster.

But the Wall Street Journal warns:

The settlement allows publishers to negotiate limits on how much retailers can discount, ensuring retailers can’t lose money overall on e-book sales. Moreover, Amazon may be cautious about across-the-board discounts because its profit margins are already thin.

This is clearly bad news for publishers and bookstores.  Lower prices on ebooks means lower sales of print books.  Amazon may not do across-the-board discounts, but this still opens up the possibility of price-shopping for the best deal on any given ebook.  So it’s good news for ebook readers, at least in the short run.

In the long run, who knows?  What if Apple leaves the ebook business, Barnes & Noble goes bankrupt, and only Amazon is left as a major ebook retailer?  Monopolies aren’t good for consumers.  On the other hand, the barriers to entry in the ebook market are pretty low.  All these vendors have their own reading devices for ebooks, so there is a convenience element to buying and downloading books from their online stores, but I’m not sure how big a deal that will ultimately be.

And, as I mentioned before, this doesn’t affect people like me, who are essentially independent publishers.  Both the wholesale model and the agency model work fine for us, as far as I can tell.  We just have to get people to buy our stinkin’ books.