BEA 2011: Seven Years of Google Books

Seven Years of Google Books: The Next Chapter
Presenter: James Crawford, Engineering Director, Google Books

On Thursday morning, a crowd of forty, sprouting into about seventy as the aspirin and hangover cures kicked in, listened to a engineer with a Spartan mien. Like many crunchers from Mountain View, James Crawford had the warmth and physique of an Eames lounge chair. He liked to explain things. He was confident he knew all the answers. He did, after all, work at Google.

“Google’s mission was and continues to be to organize information and make it accessible,” said Crawford early in his run. There were many sentences phrased like that. Had I known Crawford was going to speak like this, I would never have imbibed so much gratis scotch the night before.

The sense I got was that Crawford had delivered this speech many times. He ran down the stats. More than 15 million books had been scanned. That’s over 5 billion pages and 2 trillion words in 478 languages (including three books in Klingon, 82 titles in Kalaallisut, and none in Kutenal), with the earliest going back to 1473. Library partners include Stanford and the University of Michigan.

“For a lot of these books, we can simply chop off the spine and scan the pages.” For a moment, I feared that Crawford was some digital Robespierre who had recently discovered the guillotine. But I was reassured when Crawford pointed out that Google was “required to scan nondestructively.” Thank goodness for libraries and their preservation policies. To accomplish this scanning, Google holds the books down with cradles. The images are then put “through fairly sophisticated series of image algorithms,” with the curve of the pages flattened through software. Every word on the page is indexed. There is also a system of ranking algorithms to ensure, for example, that the right Hamlet rises to the top.

Crawford pointed out a “cluster problem” with the metadata. If you go to the Library of Congress, The Fellowship of the Ring (listed this way in Books in Print) will be listed as “Lord of the Rings, Vol. 1.” And J.R.R. Tolkien will be listed as “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.”

But the biggest problem was, by far, digital rights. There are three million books in the public domain: those published before 1928. “So they’re not exactly the latest and greatest pageturners,” said Crawford, who revealed himself with such statements to be more interested in digitizing books rather than reading them. Less than a million books have clear ownership. Two and a half million books are available though partnership programs with publishers. “And then there’s all the rest in the middle: out of print but under copyright.”

The Google eBookstore, launched in December, aims to fix some of these problems. “We view the ebook as a thing you purchased,” said Crawford. “Once you’ve bought it, we feel you should read it on any device.” But what about the device known as the printed book? Crawford didn’t mention this. He was on a roll.

“We have the only really serious web reader in the business,” boasted Crawford. And it suddenly occurred to me that Crawford was referring to these Google tools as “an ebook ecosystem.” This seemed a bit Napoleonic to me, almost like insisting that one automobile plant was singlehandedly responsible for the car industry.

Crawford also brought up Google Cloud Sync, which collected a surprising amount of personal information. “We have in the cloud both the content of the book and we store the databases of what people have bought and what pages you are reading on.” In other words, if you shop at Google, they know all the books that you’ve bought. Crawford didn’t specify the degree to which this information is shared to other vendors. But he did point out that retailers had much of this intel at their disposal.

I was also troubled by Google’s tendency to dictate to the market what it wanted. “We want to help the independent bookstores do well in the digital age and not be hurt by digital.” Now I happen to share Google’s view that bringing in independent bookstores into its eBookstore is one method of preserving independent business. On the other hand, why should Google decide what’s right? Isn’t that the job of the FTC or an antitrust legislator? And what’s not to suggest that the Google eBookstore could prove harmful towards independent bookstores? On Tuesday, Tom Turvey — another Google Books representative — had said that he had “some of his best engineers working” on the experience of replicating a bookstore. Google may say that they are trying to help the indies now. But what’s to stop them from changing their policy if the books market shifts direction? This affiliate program for this is presently invitation only, but there are plans to open it up.

Crawford also revealed how libraries, faced with limited budgets, had relied on Google’s viewer for electronic versions of books. “They can take our viewer and put it on their website.” I don’t think it occurred to many in the crowd that commingling public and private resources may not necessarily be the most ethical solution. Wasn’t it vaguely predatory? Such questions had led the European Union to develop Europeana.

Crawford pointed out that many books published in the 16th and the 17th century were now available through Google in full color. But I was dubious when he said, “You can see them as if you’re the librarian.” Until we are able to touch these tomes, this statement will never be true. When Crawford brought up L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, observing “there are all these chapters that didn’t make it into the movie,” it was evident that he was on boilerplate and had not tailored his speech too much for the publishing crowd.

Google had recently signed an agreement with Hachette to work together on out-of-print titles in France. This would be the model for further uplift contracts. Google had also been experimenting with maps for books. Crawford brought up this interactive map for Around the World in Eighty Days. Google Books has also been used to chart how irregular verbs turn regular over time (e.g., “spoilt” transforming into “spoiled”) and, of course, the infamous Ngram Viewer, in which you can (for example) compare “The United States is” against “The United States are” over the course of time. But Crawford was disingenuous when he suggested that the dropoff of books referencing the start of a decade (as seen through the Ngram viewer) demonstrated “scientifically” that memories are getting shorter. Before making such a statement, one must account for the number of books published over the years, the speed of life in 1900 vs. the speed of life in subsequent decades, and any number of independent variables. Unfortunately, that kind of rigorous consideration isn’t always compatible with a slick Powerpoint presentation that must be delivered in nanoseconds.

Crawford also had a rather naive faith in international titles. One of his slides championed how “cross-boarder [sic] sales increased access to content,” but didn’t account for the territorial restrictions that Andrew Savikas and Evan Schnittman duked it out over on Tuesday. “As long as the publisher has worldwide rights,” said Crawford, “they should be able to move around the world.” Right. As long as I wake up tomorrow with wings on my back, I’ll be able to fly. In other words, that qualifier was a big if. If this was the type of vision that Google Books was promulgating, I wondered if Crawford’s work was clunkier and less state of the art than he realized.

BEA 2011: The Future of Ebooks Publishing Executive Panel

The Future of eBooks Publishing Executive Panel

Participants: Tom Turvey (Google Books – moderator), Andrew Savikas (O’Reilly/Safari Books Online), Evan Schnittman (Bloomsbury), Amanda Close (Random House), and David Steinberger (Perseus)

If you were an industry type giving a half goddam about the future of publishing on a late Tuesday afternoon in New York, you had two venues at BEA to deposit your worries. If you were a squeaky kidult wishing to rah rah rah rather than stare into hard reality, there was the 7x20x21 series of self-congrulatory dispatches competing with the floor’s mad transactional noise. But if you were an adult and if you understood why the maxim “follow the money” is not one to blithely ignore, then you headed downstairs into a spacious room, where corporate executives discussed the future of ebooks.

It was a packed house attracting no specific type. Italians chatted behind me. There were guys in the back finding ideal standing positions to make a quick escape if the panel went bust. But nearly every seat was filled through the end. I suppose that when you promise an audience some glimpse of the future, it’s a guaranteed draw. Except for the young people too busy with the collective adulation upstairs.

“The book business is a very long tail business,” began moderator Tom Turvey. I knew he was with Google even before he even said “long tail.” For not more than a minute before heading to the lectern, he checked his phone: one final hit from the electronic communications crack pipe.

As one of the Google People, Turvey had the nerdy nihilism you’d expect from a director of strategic partnerships. He was careful not to express too much enthusiasm, but he did seem to relish the idea of print being as dead as the gramophone, especially midway through the discussion when he asked three of the panelists (excluding Amanda Close) if the agency model was a feature or a bug. “Personally I think it’s a bug, not a feature,” replied O’Reilly’s Andrew Savikas. “It was a moment in time,” replied Bloomsbury’s Evan Schnittman. Perseus’s David Steinberger was the most practical of the four: “I would just say it’s too early. I think we’re overexcited about this issue.”

But Steinberger’s wise response didn’t stop Turvey from pushing further on the topic. Indeed, there is little doubt in my mind that the man spends many evenings in hotel rooms wiping the gushing drool from his chin after marinating his mind in some Bradbury-like vision of a world without books. (When asked by an audience member if Google was working on replicating the experience of a bookstore, Turvey replied, “We have some of our best engineers working on this very topic.” Never mind that the panel demonstrated that ebooks have created problems for consumers that these five corporate titans didn’t really wish to address.)

“Publishing does not know how to market ebooks yet,” said Schnittman. “You’re looking at bestsellers tracking with bestsellers. Everything that we’re marketing in the stores is selling just as well.” I became skeptical of Schnittman when he started clenching his left hand, a gesture reminding me of some dodgy villain from a melodrama. Schnittman liked to talk quite a bit.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” continued Schnittman. “We’ve never marketed backlist before.”

These rather assumptive generalizations had me wondering if Schnittman had ever settled his precious hands onto the raw joys of genre or contemplated the way in which an author winning an award often results in backlist titles being repackaged. And what about presses like the University of Chicago Press, finding new life for Anthony Powell and Richard Stark?

“The big challenge that we’re all facing is the digital world,” said David Steinberger. Steinberger was more interested in the way in which consumers discovered books. “Digital is very good for hunters and not so for gatherers.” These were metaphors that a male computer geek could understand, but when he presented specific data about the bottom 50% of Perseus’s titles earning 2% of the print revenue and 12% of the ebook revenue, these statistics helped steer the conversation away from Turvey’s regrettable Gladwellian terminology.

“Those books are not easily found in the physical world,” continued Steinberger. He brought up Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, which had very poor distribution, but managed to nab 62% in ebook revenue. The same went for Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Not a sexy title for the Grisham crowd, but the book managed to secure 60% in ebook revenue. “I think you are seeing a lift in the tail,” said Steinberger. “If you’re publishing John Grisham or Tom Clancy, you have another set of rules.”

Random House’s Amanda Close didn’t close the deal upon her turn at the mike. Overly general in her answers and needlessly self-congratulatory in tone (though not haughty like Schnittman, of which more anon), Close wallowed in general corporatese. “I would argue that it’s early days in retail and that we are working with our partners every day to collaboratively work on that browsing experience. That discoverability is really coming through online to replace certain things.” But if Close admitted her desire to argue, it was all for naught. For she brought no argument to the table. “Things in the physical world can reiterate things in the digital world.” You can probably say this about getting lucky after a long dry spell downloading porn. “Our challenge is to deeply understand the dynamics of the marketplace.” Close’s challenge was to deeply understand that a panel of this ilk requires something a bit more than reductionist statements. From the perspective of this observer, she failed. It didn’t help that she smiled brightly and nodded her head after spouting off some of this malarkey.

“Digital distribution is extremely efficient at meeting demand,” offered Andrew Savikas. Yet he also conceded that much of the demand is due to consumers discovering the books. He was right to note the “popularity within the store which generates the feedback loop,” but he wasn’t willing to distinguish the differences between discoverability in a physical bookstore (accompanied by a skilled bookseller) and an e-bookstore. Perhaps it was because he preferred to hawk Safari Books, which has “both lengthened and fattened the tail.”

“While I do expect there to continue to be perhaps a need for the biggest players to focus on those hot titles,” continued Savikas, “I think this ecosystem offers an opportunity for smaller players to find a niche.”

But who are these smaller players? Safari Books? Authors who self-publish at the Kindle Store? Much as yesterday’s panel failed to establish terms, I kept wondering why a thoughtful if somewhat long-winded guy like Savikas couldn’t espouse the pragmatism offered by Steinberger. Savikas was holistic enough to consider Netflix’s current domination of bandwidth, but does this even apply to books, which are an entirely different medium requiring an entirely different commitment?

“I think everybody starts seeing the phenomenon where something hits the list and it becomes self-perpetuating, you know?” responded Close on a question relating to bestseller lists. “I actually look forward to the retail experience evolving so that we can see some segmentation.”

But how can you have an evolving retail experience when there’s a reluctance to experiment? Turvey questioned Close minutes later when he asked her, quite fairly, if Random House’s organizational attitude had changed in light of the fact that more self-published authors had entered the ebook arena.

“Um, you know the way I would actually answer that is we are always testing things with our new authors.” But how? “It’s not a phenomenon that has been driven by the self-publishing platform.” I’m guessing that Amanda Hocking would disagree with this.

Steinberger brought up Go the Fuck to Sleep as an example of online conversation translating into sales. He then quoted The Cluetrain Manifesto: “A market is not me telling you something. A market is a conversation.” But while it’s undeniable that some conversation has started with Go the Fuck to Sleep, nobody on the panel wanted to admit that this was a bit of a fluke. But it did cause Schnittman to reveal more than a bit of resentment towards the consumer.

“Consumers need help,” he said. “We throw at them how many thousands of books?” He then hunched forward. “What matters is there’s an authority. It’s the free market, baby.”

When Turvey asked why all the book recommendation engines sucked, he allowed Schnittman to fall into his Socratic trap. (The unvoiced assumption: what is a bookseller but the ultimate book recommendation engine?)

“I think people do use it,” huffed Schnittman, when Turvey brought up the failed Genius feature in iTunes. “You use it with a caveat that it sucks.”

Then he got a little defensive. “You in the world of algorithms, you’ll figure out something theoretically better and better.” He then suggested that “the tail was wagging the dog,” before attempting to retract this because he had “used it yesterday. Nobody quote me on that one.”

I kept wondering why this apparent professional was more concerned with l’esprit de l’escalier rather than legitimate ideas. But at least he wasn’t as bad as Close, who again declared her willingness to argue in lieu of a legitimate argument: “I would argue we have always cared deeply about our consumers.” But for Close, that care has more to do with “buzz meters” and point-of-sale data.

Schnitmann got very riled up about territorial sales, which has presented many ebook customers from accessing certain titles. “Where we see the Internet as a world that doesn’t respect any borders, we’ve actually set up the system to present consumes to buy.”

This caused Savikas to question the wisdom of such an approach: “The notion that we can or should enforce geographic restrictions on web-generated content is a lost cause. And I feel sorry for your customers.”

“I don’t have the rights to them though!” whimpered Schnittman.

“I don’t believe territorial restrictions make sense in relation to content.”

Savikas elaborated on this, believing that electronic sales would eventually become the primary way of doing business and that territorial restrictions don’t reflect the fabric of the Web. Schnittman countered, with more Palpatine-like hand cluthing gestures, by suggesting that “different economies have different needs.” Savikas replied, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong in adjusting the pricing geographically.”

Territorial copyright is certainly an issue. But when a woman approached the mike and declared herself a “frustrated customer,” explaining quite pasionately to Schnittman, “I don’t think that you’re respecting the consumer at all,” it became clear that the panel didn’t want to discuss the real issue: the customer is always right. “Do you have a question?” sneered Turvey from the podium. “Why don’t you think more about the consumer?” said the woman, not missing a beat.

Schnittman did not offer an answer. Nor did any of the other four. And their silence spoke volumes about their collective comprehension of business-customer relations.

BEA 2011: “The E-Book Era is Now”

The E-Book Era is Now: What Does It Look Like From the Consumer Perspective? And What Do We Do About It?

Participants: Kelly Gallagher, RR Bowker; Angela Bole, Book Industry Study Group

On Monday morning, approximately one hundred besuited souls assembled in a large conference room without a single distinguishing architectural feature. Like much of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, it was an ideal place to commit suicide if you were having second thoughts.

But the occasion on Monday morning was slightly cheerier. After Angela Bole, an executive director at the Book Industry Study Group announced, “Shrinkage is not an option,” leaving me to wonder whether there was some detumescent publishing commodity comparable to cold water, a man with a speaking style somewhere between a regular guy and one of those obnoxious autistic types who fly in from Mountain View and walk into a room as if they own the place prepared to discuss a “most unique” [sic] situation.

Kelly Gallagher, a vice president at R.R. Bowker, delivered a presentation called “The E-Book Era is Now.” I didn’t realize you could call a two year period an “era,” but I was curious to learn how this “looked like from the consumer perspective.” I also wondered if Harry Selfridge’s maxim was applicable in the Internet age. Was the customer right? Or were much of the players full of hot air? As it turned out, it was a little of both.

Five minutes before the panel began, I was handed a flyer announcing a study conducted by the Book Industry Study Group. Some of the cited results: print customers who have download ebooks have jumped from 5% of the total in October 2010 to almost 13% in January 2011. Fiction has dominated downloads as a whole. Free samples and low prices win customers. There are “power buyers.”

What the hell was a power buyer? Well, as our somewhat suspicious friend from RR Bowker informed us, it was a catch-all term not unlike “artificial sweetener.” You could call a power buyer (as Gallagher did) a 44-year-old woman who made $77,000 a year who sits on a beach buying predominantly fiction (mostly romance). Or you could settle for a more general idea: the power buyer as someone who purchases an e-book every week. As a Powerpoint slide later revealed, that definition wasn’t entirely right either. I was told that, in March 2011, about 18% of power buyers acquired ebooks weekly, that about 52% purchased ebooks once or twice a month, and that about 28% “rarely/sporadically buy.” I suppose that if you fall into that latter category, everybody with a portable reading device can be called a “power buyer.” So if you happen to own an e-reader, feel free to shout “I’m a power buyer!” just after the Romans nail you to the cross. Either that or someone in the Bowker office had that catchy Snap! song on repeat.

When Gallagher opened his presentation with an awkward metaphor about the blue people from Avatar, it was clear that he hadn’t quite studied the film’s imperialistic message – even if he did close with a slide suggesting a sunny if somewhat backhanded multiculturalism. But he did offer some information about the state of ebooks that was helpful for today’s digital movers and shakers.

“That’s what we call the hockey stick,” said Gallagher as he presented a line plotted by rising percentage points with a noticeable dive last month. In April 2011, ebooks had fallen to about 11% of the market. This was the first dip that ebooks had seen and the closest thing this Gallagher had to a Sledge-O-Matic. But Gallagher was careful to suggest that this had more to do with “fluctuations” of a nebulous nature.

“The e-buyer today is really moving the market,” said Gallagher. But he didn’t quite say how. He did note that “power buyers” were very dedicated to their personal devices and had largely abandoned their PCs. And the power buyer, whether a 44-year-old woman or a guy wearing nothing but his underwear in a dark room compulsively hitting a one click button, was different from the core e-textbook buyer, who is a 23-year-old male grad student (or distance learner) who was more likely to pirate than underclassmen and who purchased 17% of his textbooks in “e.” (Wild stab in the dark, but I’m guessing that Gallagher didn’t attend a lot of raves back in the day.) This textbook buyer, whoever she may be, does not have a clear sense of download. Unlike ebooks, there are certain barriers with e-textbooks — namely the fact that e-textbooks cannot compete with physical textbooks — that prevent the e-textbook from growing. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that the laptop (51%) and the desktop (20%) reflect the top shares of the e-textbook market, with dedicated devices not really fitting the bill. Students want highlighting, note taking, and searchability. But the e-textbook market isn’t giving it to them. 75% of students still want the physical textbook.

But on the trade front, Kindle is the dominant source, still growing in market share. It is estimated that Kindle reflects about 65% of the ebook market. Dedicated e-readers have replaced the PC, which was once the #1 device for the ebook market in 2009.

Gallagher presented some interesting stats on price. For both ebooks and e-textbooks, price comes in as the sixth most compelling reason (behind portability and convenience) for why people purchase them. Topping the wishlist of wants on ebooks? “Give or lend ebook after you’re one with it.” This suggests very highly that present DRM factors are not the way to win your customers. What was especially interesting about Gallagher’s presentation is that the Kindle has only just recently reached a 50% customer satisfaction rate. And the Nook hasn’t made that much of a customer satisfaction dent at all. Gallagher didn’t elaborate on whether this was the tendency for customers to complain or a closet loathing for portable readers. But as he put it, “We still haven’t delivered the ultimate experience for the consumer if they’re not operating over 50%.” (One also wonders how e-readers would stack up against smartphones. This seems like a pivotal customer satisfaction comparison to run if one is to talk about being in “the e-book era.”)

Gallagher brought up “digital fatigue” as one explanation for the poor performance of e-textbooks. “They are continually wired in their lives,” he said. “Many are indicating they just don’t want to go there with books.” On the other hand, another slide informed the audience that it was “too early to tell” about the effect that digital fatigue is having.

While some “power buyers” were still buying print books, the numbers suggested that 45% of “power buyers” were buying a decreased number of hardcovers and 50% were buying a decreased number of paperbacks. If this sounds gloomy for print acolytes, the other side of the coin is that ebooks have greatly helped to expand the total market. Gallagher didn’t have specific numbers or dollar figures on this front to offer. I presume that one will have to cough up the dough to buy his report. But near his conclusion, he did say, “We need to understand which part of the market we’re really talking about. Are we focusing on the right power buyer?” That’s a good question. But if a “power buyer” is such a plastic idea, shouldn’t the ebook industry focus on solidifying that before talking about “focus?” Especially when it comes from a guy who claimed that authors can “manage their own destiny” online. While Gallagher’s data was mostly useful, I felt at times that the audience was collectively reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel rather than seriously considering the future of publishing.

Ellen Ruppel Shell’s CHEAP — Part Four

cheaprt4(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Five.)

Edward Champion writes:

I’m going to attempt to address as many of these interesting points as I can, even as we await Levi’s answer with book before him and take up Miracle Jones’s sensible advice on how to live cheap.

Early into the discussion, Peggy mentioned that she thought Ruppel Shell hadn’t entirely considered the idea of community-based commerce.  I’d like to go further and suggest that the fault doesn’t entirely lie with Ruppel Shell, but with Nicholas Kristof’s blunt sentiment (quoted in the book) that “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops.”  For anyone who’s curious, and to partially answer Whet’s question, Kristof’s entire piece can be read here.

kirstofIn her endnote, Ruppel Shell points out that Kristof’s been pro-sweatshops since the late 1990s, co-authoring articles titled “Two Cheers for Sweatshops: They’re dirty and dangerous.  They’re also a major reason Asia is back on track.”  (Rather interesting, this attention-seeking and extremely callous subhead appears to have been expunged from the New York Times’s archive.  But it’s also worth observing that Ruppel Shell is careful to call Kristof “a generally insightful and sensitive reporter.”)

The workers who toil for long and dangerous hours in such hidden economies are very much on my mind, for I am presently doing my best to work my way through William T. Vollmann’s massive Imperial.  It isn’t just a matter of time always being reframed as a monetary value.  It’s the way in which we defend our lifestyles, whether it’s assuming that a book attempting to plunge deeper into an important issue is “telling us what we already know.”  And it’s evident in the way Kristof writes such pat summations as:

This is not to praise sweatshops. Some managers are brutal in the way they house workers in firetraps, expose children to dangerous chemicals, deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union. Agitation for improved safety conditions can be helpful, just as it was in 19th-century Europe. But Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less.

Our enviable lifestyles would appear to trump any and all inquiry into those who toil to sustain it.  We think that, if we mention a sweatshop, we can purport to comprehend what it is like to toil and suffer in that sweatshop.  But how are we any better than Kristof in our assumptions?  To what degree does contributing to the labyrinthine network of cheap cut-rate goods produced in exploitative situations actually help the Third World?  Should we be concerned with our Faustian bargain?  And did Ruppel Shell, as Peggy has suggested, not adequately represent these many labor categories by degree?  No, the Walmart worker can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods.  But then the sweatshop worker can’t afford to shop at Walmart.  Does consumer confidence help the worker who is below us?  Or is this all part of the same Shell game?

Which brings us to the issue of necessity, both real and fabricated, initially raised by Colleen and expanded upon by several others.  Like Miracle Jones, I too admire Ruppel Shell’s personal honesty.  And I think that understanding and vocalizing the ways in which we spend money are just as important in understanding the bigger economic picture.  If such an approach amounts to “telling us what we already know,” then I would say this:  If I asked each of you to publicly report the annual income that you entered into your 1040, then chances are you wouldn’t do it.  That would be an invasion of your privacy.  If I asked each of you to tell me precisely how you spent your money over the last week, complete with an itemization of costs and expenses for each day, chances are that you probably haven’t kept track.  And yet, thanks to those dependable Gruen transfers, we’re happy to cling to a remarkably shifting sense of the deep discount deals we’re getting.  To the point where Amazon consumers have been tagging eBooks with $9.99 tags because that’s the price they now want to pay.  Never mind that, as Publishers Weekly reported back in May, Amazon actually loses money at that price point.  Does Amazon get a fair pass, as Miracle Jones suggests?  Yes and no, I think.  One could make a similar case for Starbucks.  On one hand, I wish that Ruppel Shell had delved into Amazon’s parasitic stranglehold on the industry.  But at the possible risk of comparative oversimplification, I think it could be argued that IKEA’s ubiquity falls into more or less the same rub.  As documented by Ruppel Shell, like Amazon, IKEA spends a tremendous amount of time framing the message, whether in the form of a twee Spike Jonze commercial or a slick and colorful catalog.  More questions to the group: Should we look at discount culture on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this all monolithic?  (Yes, Amazon is online and caters to convenience.  IKEA, on the other hand, is a big box store.  Should it matter whether we physically or virtually participate in these Gruen transfers?  The labor is still unseen, whether it’s Amazon workers being exploited, as the London Times reported back in December, or IKEA’s illegal cutting.)

nikeoutletTo address Erin’s track suit dilemma, after thinking about this a bit, I’m inclined to agree — particularly in light of Our Man in Boston’s provocative remarks about elites and elitism.  But I’m wondering if Ruppel Shell’s stereotypical descriptions are somewhat defensible, because outlet stores, discount stores, and shopping malls are, by way of their respective designs, spaces that prey upon our cognitive abilities to process numerous aesthetics.  I don’t want to let Ruppel Shell off the hook on this point — and certainly Janet Maslin didn’t by suggesting that Ruppel Shell needed to “bring a professor of marketing to a Nevada outlet mall to tell her that bargains are phony,” although I think this anti-intellectual assessment isn’t entirely fair to what Ruppel Shell dug up.  Much as casinos are specifically designed to keep us gambling (no clocks, no windows, lots of lights, free drinks), I’m wondering if outlet stores might be working in a similar way.  Consider this 1998 article from Retail Traffic, which outlines very specific design decisions to convince the customer that she’s getting a good deal.  It’s quite possible that this may be just as vital, if not more so, as brand name manipulation.  And so I ask some of the pessimists in the peanut gallery this: If the book “tells us what we already know,” then just how aware are you of a store’s aesthetics when you go shopping?  Bargain hunting may very well be a harmless American pastime for some, but if we’re more concerned with price and acquisition (instead of say the human souls who work at the store or the way the store is designed), then it would seem to suggest that we don’t know as much as we think.

Good Christ, I’ve been a wordy bastard.  And I’ve only just begun to address all the interesting thoughts on the table.  So I think I’ll stop for now, see what others have to say about all this, and return later, possibly after Levi has offered his informed answer to Colleen’s question (which I certainly look forward to hearing!).

Colleen Mondor writes:

I did want to point out one thing about bargain hunting. A lot of people bargain hunt at garage sales and thrift stores (I have seen some amazing things scored this way), which is another deal altogether and not at all related to bargain hunting at IKEA or Walmart. There can, in fact, be different types of bargain hunters and I don’t think they should all be grouped together in one large mass.

There’s one other interesting idea to think about as we consider poor in this country: how you live poor depends on where you live. Miracle’s rules would certainly not work in Alaska where poor folks eat King Crab and catch wild salmon, shrimp etc. — food that would be considered beyond the reach of the poor and/or middle class in the Lower 48.

And many middle class and rich folks love their pit bulls too. I’m just saying.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Books like Cheap, et al raise the question that subsumes the pretext for the traditional liberal education (i.e., “knowledge is power”). By the way, David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College 2005 oration is worth looking at on this point.

The relentless (some might use the banal modifier “24/7”) chimes of commerce create such a shitstream of noise that whatever we think we know is disabled in the face of the symphonic chord (think Mahler’s 10th): BUY THIS, BUY NOW.

Some of you all sound like you think you are immune. Good for you. I’m not. Not that I am siting on a pile of junk. But I am sitting on a pile. Did I mention the hoodies, the socks, and the caps?

The only antidote I have found effective is exhibited here:

Also, for those of you unaware of John Crowley, his new opus Four Freedoms should, if there is a modicum of reward for good works in this disinterested universe, gain him a proper audience.

Erin O’Brien writes:

(1) “Sex, conversation, art, and games are what actually make people happy.”

“Become cheap. Don’t fight it. Go so deep into cheap that you become competition for these eeeeeevil discounters. Become so cheap that you are affordable to everybody in all your favorite activities (sex, conversation, games, art), both rich and poor alike. You will have a good life.”

Miracle, I see that you are a genius like me. Remind me to send you my zucchini soup recipe. And as a side note: DO NOT purchase inexpensive marital aids. Just trust me on this one. Contact me off-list for more specific information.

A related Erinism: Buy your plates for $0.50 a piece at a garage sale. You’ll never have a matching set, but, once in a while, you may be able to afford to plop lobsters on them.

pokerchips2(2) Ed, regarding casinos, the poker chips are a trick as well. Your money has been subtly taken from you from the get go and you’re left with piles of inane plastic disks that go up and down with each spin of the wheel.  To me, credit cards are a not-too-distant relative: a thin piece of plastic that magically gets you stuff, stuff stuff!

(3) Her Amazon comments aside, Ruppell Shell didn’t poke very hard at the implication of the Internet price comparison and the way it’s changed price shopping forever.

(4) On bookshelves:

So I’m on one of my endless walks and I pass some guy’s garbage pile. There’s two bookshelves in it.

“Shit,” I say, because they’re pretty good books shelves.

I keep walking, hoping that the bookshelves will be there after I’ve walked the 2.5 miles back home and returned with my Mini Cooper in order to heist the cast-off loot. As luck would have it, a buddy of mine is drives by and pulls up next to me to say hello. He’s in his pickup.

So, yeah, I have cheap bookshelves.

IKEA? I’ve never been to IKEA. Why would I drive all the way to Pittsburgh to go to someplace called IKEA?

Levi Asher writes:

I’ve now carefully reread the IKEA chapter, and I’m ready to respond to Colleen’s question from last week.

First, I think Janet Maslin scooped my answer when she wrote this in her mostly negative review of Cheap:

At the end of a chapter largely devoted to the horrors of Asian shrimp farming, she describes being in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends and being enlightened enough to eschew cheap shrimp in favor of chicken. Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.

I consider myself a very socially aware person. And I definitely think it’s important for me to make personal choices that are not harmful to others, or to the planet’s ecosystems.  Of course, this is easier said than done.  We each have our own ways of dealing with this uncomfortable truth.  My own brand of social awareness places heavy emphasis on issues of global politics, war, and genocide. These are probably my own “pet topics,” and I think it’s interesting that the last time Colleen and I disagreed about a book, we were discussing Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  I felt Baker’s book presented a very powerful argument that the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy in World War II led to far greater death, destruction, and genocide than was required to defeat Hitler, while Colleen (I hope that I am remembering correctly) did not feel the book presented a solid argument.

I also vividly remember one of the biggest disagreements I’ve ever had with Ed Champion.  I thought Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine presented a solid and important argument about the insidious underlying purpose of the American misadventure in Iraq, whereas Ed had nothing but criticism for Klein’s work.  So it’s funny that now Ed and Colleen seem to be bowled over by the arguments in Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, while I stand here saying, “What?”.

cabinI don’t think Cheap is a bad book, and I like Ruppel Shell’s basic mission in making us aware of the choices we make when we shop.  But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.  She writes of declining forests and environmental sustainability problems, but this is a problem for all woodworking industries.  She ends the chapter by swooning over a heavy (non-IKEA) oak bookshelf, but this bookshelf was also made by cutting down a tree. And even though it will last longer, Ruppel Shell knows there are not enough antique bookshelves around to furnish the world. Sure, if IKEA is committing environmental offenses, then these ought to be addressed and stopped. But Ruppel Shell only hints (and never establishes) that these offenses take place more at IKEA than at any smaller furniture provider.  She also shows us that IKEA does try to be environmentally conscious, that they “use every part of the tree”, monitor their suppliers, etc.  I see innuendo weaved into these sentences. But I find no clear case, no smoking gun.  And Cheap is not a book about the environment or about the problems of an overpopulated world. So the environmental points especially come off as half-baked and incomplete to me. 

What I was trying to point out in my earlier post here is that IKEA has an appeal beyond dumb cheapness.  It is a positive lifestyle choice for people like me — mobile adults who like to travel light.  If IKEA has problems — environmental problems, labor problems, quality problems — than these problems should be addressed and solved.  But nothing I read here seems to add up to a call for a wholesale rejection of everything IKEA represents. I could take Robert Birnbaum’s suggestion and build bookshelves out of spare planks and bricks — but, Robert, have you ever seen photographs from the Chinese and South Indian infernos where bricks are produced?  It’s not a pretty picture.

Finally, I have to complain about some shoddy work on Ruppel Shell’s part in this IKEA chapter.  On pages 126 and 127 she goes on at some length about the Spike Jonze commercial that reminds consumers that furniture has no feelings, and then points to the irony that IKEA tries to create an emotional attraction to furniture by giving its pieces pet names.  Then, on page 140, she repeats the exact same point, as if we’d never heard it before.  “Doesn’t a name connote intimacy? Of course it does, and IKEA knows well the power of intimacy to move us.”  It’s hardly such a powerful point that she needs to fully develop it twice in two separate parts of the book.

Often, when I read Cheap I felt as if I was being filibustered.  Going on about the trivial issue of IKEA giving cute names to its objects, Ruppel Shell specifically mocks the store for “naming a wok after a girl”.  But, reading the notes for the chapter, I discover that the wok in question is called “Pyra”.  Clearly, this wok is named after the Greek term for fire, as every consumer who sees a wok named “Pyra” will understand. Ruppel Shell couldn’t find a better example than this?  I don’t understand why she didn’t at least pick a better example (say, a bookshelf named “Billy”).  It’s ironic that a polemic against “cheap” should have such problems with quality control.

I also feel personally put off after reading and rereading Ruppel Shell’s lush paean to the sturdy oak bookshelf “groaning with books” that her friend bought after rejecting the IKEA lifestyle.  My cheap bookshelves “groan with books” too.  Ruppel Shell’s poor friend will spend the rest of her life lugging that heavy piece of furniture around. This book absolutely fails to inspire me to want to follow her example.

Nina MacLaughin writes:

In response to Robert’s point about immunity to the chimes of commerce. It’s impossible to be immune; even if you’re a conscious shopper, sensitive, responsible, the siren song (or “shitstream of noise”) penetrates.

pricegougeA quick example (and I’m on the side of folks who appreciated Ruppel Shell’s personal anecdotes): There was a Whole Foods located less than a 10 minute walk from my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I passed by the store on my walk home from work. It was where I bought my food. I knew it was more expensive, but it was a matter of convenience. Time and money. It was worth it to me to spend the extra bucks to save myself some out-of-the-way trip to a cheaper spot. About three months ago, I moved to Somerville, and the closest supermarket is an expansive, always-crowded Market Basket. It’s got all the same brands as Whole Foods. My first time inside the store, buying the same combo of foods, and more or less the same brands that I would at Whole Foods, I was staggered at how much less it cost. What would’ve been $18 at Whole Foods was a little over $7 at Market Basket. Unbelievable. There is definitely a delight in that. And yet, somewhere in the back of my head, there’s been a gnawing sense that the veggies are saturated with pesticides, that the yogurt is rife with hormones, and that it’s cheaper at Market Basket because the food is poisoned (obviously a little overstated, but you get the idea). And I’ve been sort of wowed about this, in the sense that, holy shit, Whole Foods has done a pretty powerful job marketing themselves. It also speaks to the the complications of price and worth and quality and value that Ruppel Snell explores. Would I rather pay $3.49 for a pint of cherry tomatoes at Whole Foods? Or $2.10 for the same pint at Market Basket? I’d rather pay less, but it does put a doubt — a completely irrational doubt — in my head. Am I getting something that isn’t as good (or, in the case of food, something that isn’t as safe)? Is this doubt borne from the power of Whole Foods’ marketing (and my action buying into it) or the mysteries of price and quality? Or a combo that is hard to know? Whatever it is, it’s certainly interesting to consider.

Edward Champion writes:

To respond quickly to Levi:

(1)  Maslin actually got that detail wrong.  She was never in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends. I’m surprised that not a single fact checker at the supposed Paper of Record got off his ass to grab the book, flip to the “Red Lobster” entry in the index, and confirm that Maslin was indeed quite wrong.  (Damn those bloggers sitting in basements in Terre Haute!)

(2)  My problems with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine had more to do with her assumptive approach to the subject — specifically, tying nearly every one of her investigations to the “shock doctrine” brand name after the fact.  As Richard Flanagan suggested in his novel, The Unknown Terrorist, journalism is not a sudoku puzzle. It was not unlike Gladwell’s “tipping point” or Anderson’s “long tail.”  Ruppel Shell’s book, on the other hand, demonstrates substantive journalism, as can be gleaned from the solid and often detailed endnotes.  (I mentioned, for example, the fairness she gave to Kristof.)  I do have problems, as others have pointed out, with some of Ruppel Shell’s quasi-elitist descriptions.  But if we look to the facts, the findings, the quotes, and the data, I believe that there’s much here in this book to consider, whether you think you know where you stand or not.  And as Birnbaum said a few messages back, some of you think you are immune.  (I’m sure as hell not.)

booksandbookshelves(3)  The many problems with IKEA, and it is all thoroughly documented in the “Death of a Craftsman” chapter (and I would suggest consulting the endnotes), is that it represents one of greatest manifestations of discount culture.  IKEA’s founder is Ingvar Kamprad. He is the seventh richest man in the world, but he still haggles with vegetable vendors and he still flies coach. IKEA has single-handedly altered Western ideas of interior design, perhaps to the same degree of Postrelian plaudits rightly derided by Jackson.  Let me tell you a story.  When I moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, I had to leave behind all of my bookcases.  These bookcases were hand-built by a team of craftsmen in the Castro.  A place I highly recommend, if you’re ever in the market for bookcases in San Francisco, called Books and Bookshelves.  The guy would custom-design them for you.  And these shelves were built like houses.  They wouldn’t wobble or fall apart like the IKEA bookcases.  I was able to store a considerable amount of books, while ensuring that I had some wall space in my apartment that wasn’tt occupied by books. When I moved cross-country, I was forced to get rid of these shelves. I initially put up a Craig’s List ad for $50 a pop, which was a little less than one-third of the price that I paid for them.  Very few people wanted them. And some people emailed me thinking they were IKEA bookcases.  They literally hadn’t experienced bookcases built out of real durable wood.  When I couldn’t get any buyers for the last few, I gave them away on the street.  And again, people came up to me — in a seemingly civilized city like San Francisco, no less — asking where I had obtained these bookcases.  They pounded the sturdy wooden sides.  And I told people that they could store their DVDs in there if they wanted to. 

The upshot is this.  These people were mystified by real oak bookcases.  Yes, the bookcase was made by cutting down a tree.  But the difference is this.  These bookcases last decades.  An IKEA bookcase, by contrast, falls apart within a few years (at best) and the amount of wood is wasted.  Furthermore, the discount culture keeps IKEA running around the world and engaging in illegal and decidedly non-eco friendly cutting practices.  You tell me how that’s a positive lifestyle.  Would you rather spend $200 on a sturdy bookcase that will hold thick Vollmann books and last a lifetime?  Or $90 on a Billy bookcase that will fall apart because its not made to hold anything other than thin mass-market paperbacks (at best)?  If your main complaint, Levi, is that Ruppel Shell’s poor friend is going to be lugging around a heavy piece of furniture every couple of years, well, that’s a specious position to take, given all the interim years of sturdy quality.  But if you’re happy with your paper-thin particle boards, Levi, by all means, sing a song to IKEA.  At the end of the day, we’re all singing hymns to the corporate empire.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

A quick question: Are the IKEA shelves actually made of wood or particle board?

By the way, in between Eddie’s elitist custom book shelves (suitable also for CDs) and the IKEA items,  are the inexpensive unfinished pine shelves that I’m sure are available in every city in the mainland USA. You can even paint them colorfully so as to distinguish your self as artsy. Or is it craftsy?

Erin O’Brien writes:

“But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.”

And when you consider that some event references in Cheap happened just a few months ago, it’s obvious that book was turned around at lighting speed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I read it, but Cheap felt dense and rushed at the same time, perhaps because Ruppel Shell is very smart and Penguin wanted her to write very fast. I suspect Penguin didn’t want to wait around too long only to see the recession cool its heels, along with the sales of this book.

Peggy Nelson writes:

I will have to strongly disagree with the voices who argue that books like this are hypocritical luxury items, preaching to the converted readers who have enough disposable income that they can indulge themselves in a little passive system-bashing before bed.   I disagree.  The work of demystification is lengthy, heterogeneous, and necessary. And it has taken, and will take, many books, many websites, and a significant amount of talking so that we can see clearly what we are dealing with.  This work does not take the place of social/economic activism, but doesn’t delay it or prevent it.  Demystification runs parallel to activism, and is just as necessary.  Empowering people without a clear analysis of exactly where they are in the system only paves the way for greater misery, and perhaps does more harm than good as people become discouraged, decides that the culprit is greater awareness itself.  
I have been trying to stay abreast of the economy and our respective places in it, ever since I was a labor activist in the late ’80s. But there are still things I do not know — for example, the historical trajectory of retail commerce, its philosophy, and its pervasiveness — that I learn from books like this one.  Cheap doesn’t go as far as some other books, either in reportage (like Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) or in systemic analysis (like Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.), but it does occupy its role well.  My only qualm was the book jacket. That fast-food yellow is repellent.  I know it’s about cheap, but does having it look cheap further its aims?
In terms of Kristof’s pro-sweatshop arguments, we heard a lot of those arguments in my union days too.  “Well, they’re better off than they were.” Or words to that effect.  This was not made to justify a $12 hoodie purchase, but as part of a global labor discussion. Should we be reaching across national borders to organize? (Yes.) And did we? (No.) (I was with the UAW organizing clericals during that time.) 
profitmagI think that this is a difficult argument to combat within the framework of a growth economy.  Companies need to get bigger. Companies need not only profit, but profit that’s greater than the last quarter, and a profit rate that’s continually increasing.  Buy more, spend more, acquire more, consolidate more, grow more, more, more.   This philosophy of “More” (maybe that’s the next catchy title in this series!) does not align itself well, if at all, with other values — like preserving and maintaining limited resources on the planet — and accommodating, perhaps even promoting, other types of values, such as community, creativity, being loved, and playfulness (with kids or just generally).
I credit the environmental movement with giving this analysis greater scope by demystifying systems on Planet Earth, including global and regional and micro, and showing not only the interconnectedness of natural systems, but the interconnectedness of natural, economic and cultural systems.  Without a general framework of sustainability (instead of “More”), I think the way out is not possible.  But within sustainability, I think discussions like this can be actively fruitful.   Levi, you are right in pointing out that, despite following the IKEA supply chain back to China and Romania, Ruppel Shell does not fully explore or incorporate the environmental angle here, and that she needs to.  I think that’s part of her not addressing the larger overarching points, as I’ve mentioned before.   Even smaller, more spotlight-style books like Cheap need to set themselves up correctly in relation to the larger themes, indicating where they fall within a larger spectrum of analysis and action.
(Re: my personal experiences with IKEA. I too move around a lot and don’t want some giant antique monster as a bookshelf.  But I also dont’ want to support clear-cutting even in places I can’t see.  I’m going to have to do some investigating of my own when it comes time to get my stuff out of storage again.)

Levi Asher writes:

Ed, you’re correct that Janet Maslin slipped up in describing Ruppel Shell in a Red Lobster when she decided to solve the problems of the world by ordering chicken instead of shrimp.  It was a seafood restaurant, not a Red Lobster.  BUT … the spirit of Janet Maslin’s point remains completely valid.  The only reason Rupell Shell was able to feel comfortable ordering chicken instead of shrimp is because she had been studying the problems with shrimp instead of studying the problems with chicken. 

And, Ed, that’s nice that you like heavy furniture so much.  I also know that you like heavy hardcover books, and that you don’t mind lugging around heavy video equipment book conferences.  Milan Kundera wrote eloquently of the choices we make between “heavy” and “light” lifestyles.  I am decidedly a “light” person, and I will indeed continue to sing songs of love to IKEA.  We haven’t even talked about the great Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam yet.

Jackson West writes:

Well, apologies for my strident tone.  Ed has a way of managing to time these roundtables to my mood and frame of mind rather ruthlessly. Last time, with the Human Smoke roundtable, I was literally in the process of losing my last family link to the era described in the book with the death of my grandmother.  This time, I’m essentially living with my parents off in the hinterlands after finally drowning under the cost of living in San Francisco and figuring I needed to get out of the pool long enough to let some invoiced checks arrive for a breath of fresh financial air. (Good news. It seems I’ll be selling microwaves for General Electric soon, if a tad indirectly. But I digress.)

I think what I was trying to get across is that in a book like this, which attempts to elucidate a history to explain contemporary reality, a teleology is implied.  In this case, the implied argument is this: In a society where everything is easily commodified and competition becomes one of quantity over quality, invariably there will be a race to the bottom in terms of both pricing and marginal profits. Environmental and social degradation hijinks ensue.

This is, in Ruppel Shell’s estimation (and many of our estimations), a bad thing.  Of course, there was a guy way back in the industrial revolution, a student of capitalism if you will, who also noted the trend.  What was his name again?  Something German.  Got a lot of people worked up. Led to some bloodshed (though, of course, not nearly as efficiently as that wrought by capitalism). Now he’s pretty much persona non grata in the wake of a bunch of nationalist revolutions that ended in autocracy, but cloaked their intent in his ideology.

Hence, like the Kristof example above, there are those who would defend the depredations of a sweatshop because they believe, “Hey, at least it ain’t feudalism!” (And of course, they’re not the ones sweating.)  This is a sentiment which, oddly enough, the likes of Lenin, Friedman, Trotsky, and Rand would agree. It’s like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers getting together on the issue of gun control.  Counterintuitive, but true.

The problem is, when an industrial capitalist society bent on growth at all costs essentially runs out of room to grow — as it has now that it is truly global — then what’s next?  Well, for starters, it seems that wages stagnate even as productivity grows.  Because “sweatshops for all!” really means just that — an equilibrium in which which the working class works for crappy wages to produce cheap shit to sell to the rest of the working class, with the difference accruing to the owners of the means of production.


But in America we still have the luxury of sitting on the fat side of the trade balance, meaning our working class can maintain the delusion that they’re actually middle class because just look at this sweet bedroom set I just bought on my credit card even though I’m underemployed and lack health insurance.  A delusion that we’re only too happy to perpetuate, to misquote Dick Cheney as Malcolm X, by any means necessary.  Again, Ruppel Shell lays this all out (and succinctly so). I’m just paraphrasing.

In all this aspirational class alienation, however, a petit bourgeois strain of thought persists. And I felt that this impulse formed the crux of Ruppel Shell’s concluding arguments.  Namely, that if we return to the somewhat sentimental capitalism of our forefathers (and they were all fathers), we can turn back to a Jeffersonian ideal of libertarian utopia.  The argument goes something like this: “Capitalism isn’t bad, per se. Just industrial capitalism. And if it weren’t for the state colluding with certain corporations to corrupt the market, we wouldn’t be in this unsustainable clusterfuck that we’ve now found ourselves in.”  Also: Sex slaves.

The funny thing is that my homelessness brought me to the family cabin as very much the prodigal son. I’ve actually found myself in what I imagine to be something near the image of postindustrial capitalist utopia that Ruppel Shell and her peers seem to be pining for — a small scale organic paradise with broadband Internet.  A sort of info-agrarian mash-up of self reliance, sustainability, and all the free porn you can stand.  For those who’d like to stay in the cities, well, you’ll be making the porn (natch) and selling the advertising in order to pay for the delicious goats and tomatoes that rural types bring to market.


To go back one last time to my original entry, the question that’s bedeviling me (and, to Ruppel Shell’s credit, it would probably not be so damn devilish if I hadn’t read her book and instead was rubbing myself sore with the porn and such) is whether there are enough cabins to go around, or whether this enlightened and entrepreneurial information age that our best and brightest are so eagerly striving for will simply be crushed under the weight of peak oil and slums and drought and war and all the sins of the industrial age which we (and I mean we, us here, and presumably Ruppel Shell’s intended audience) love to hate.

But I think trying to answer that is my book to write, in which case I may milk the middle class for my piece of the pie and buy a garden of my own to tend. And maybe a shotgun to keep the hungry hordes off my garden. The freeloading Commie bastards.

BEA 2009: The Truth About Book Piracy

At BookExpo America, Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield entered into a lengthy conversation with Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media. And it became necessary to capture their quasi-caffeinated colloquy for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I had seen O’Leary earlier in the year at the “Challenging Notions of Free” panel at Tools of Change, along with O’Reilly’s Mac Slocum and Random House’s director of business development Chelsea Vaughan. O’Reilly and Random House had agreed to participate in a study hoping to pinpoint the effects of P2P distribution — namely, the impact of digital books, both in pirated and legitimate form, on print book sales. And they were standing in a conference room in February to present Magellan’s results to the public.

The results were a bit surprising. According to O’Leary’s subsequent report, “Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales,” book piracy wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as some had suggested. While O’Leary’s report had only O’Reilly and Random House as participants, it appeared that some of the publishers’ fears about piracy were unsubstantiated. Only eight frontlist titles published by O’Reilly in 2008 could be located as torrent files. When these books did become available as torrents, the torrents were uploaded to the Internet far later than expected: some 20 weeks after publication date on average. Furthermore, for the titles available as torrents, on average, sales were 6.5% higher for these books during the four weeks after they were uploaded.

Despite the braying of New York Times guest bloggers, book piracy was hardly the Manichean scenario that some of the DRM advocates had implied. And the chances of Stephen King and Toni Morrison riding on motorcycles appeared to be unlikely. In his report, O’Leary suggested “a less binary model to evaluate the use of free” — one doing away with the parallel experiences from music and movies and accounting for tangible interface realities.

But before the “information must be free” acolytes begin offering a Nelson-like “Ha Ha,” it’s important to note that this isn’t a scenario in which a partisan can dance a jig jig one way or another. O’Leary is pointing out quite rightly that both publishers and open source advocates are making statements about piracy without specific correlative data to draw from. O’Leary’s results are a great step forward, but with Amazon offering a new version of the Kindle seemingly every two months and publishers remaining understandably mum about sales data, it isn’t exactly possible to locate the theory of everything.

In the interview, O’Leary pointed out that not only were there differences in book piracy between fiction and O’Reilly books, but even within specific types of fiction. And getting publishers to participate in ongoing efforts to study this unexamined issue might allow reliable correlations to be formed. O’Leary also alluded to additional studies conducted by John Hilton that involved studying the effect of free digital books on print sales. Hilton was surprised to learn that Tor Books gave 24 of its books away, but saw 20 of the titles with decreasing sales. Random House’s ebook experiments, by contrast, had seen increased print sales for all four titles that it had used for the experiment. But was it the type of books? The specific titles? The way the free ebooks were introduced?

“Certainly when you see that big a swing, you want to look at the type of book or the type of genre or the type of test,” said O’Leary. “I mean, keep in mind that not all digital tests are the same. If you’re using digital content on the first book in a science fiction series to promote the tenth book, it’s different from using digital content to promote the current book. So you want to capture all those things and then start to mix and match over time.”

But with only O’Reilly and Random House willing to use the machines in O’Leary’s laundry room, one wonders if anyone can iron out all the wrinkles.

BEA 2009: The Cool-Er Reader

As widely reported over the past week, BookExpo America featured several $249 e-readers. And while I certainly observed many people salivating over e-readers as a whole, a good deal of drool congealed around the edges of Interead’s Cool-Er Reader. Teleread’s Paul Biba reported that the Cool-Er is “very light and feels good on the hand.” (The Interread people did not allow me to corroborate Mr. Biba’s findings. While I don’t desire to undermine Mr. Biba’s understandable excitement, I would not be doing my duty if I didn’t point out that the same words might be said of a freshly washed and folded beach towel.) Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield reported that the Cool-Er people were very defensive when their device was compared with other e-readers. And I suppose that companies are indeed prone to getting a little defensive when are greeted with legitimate questions instead of marketing opportunities.

On Sunday, May 31, 2009, I was more or less off-duty and somewhat hungover. I had devoted the morning to baking cookies and alotted the afternoon to my theatrical appearance at the Firebrand blogger signing. Under such conditions, the only apparel you can really wear is a Cocaine Fiends t-shirt. Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to check the Cool-Er Reader out for myself. I talked with marketing director Phil Wood and did my best to separate the booth’s beach imagery from all the hype.

Sherman Alexie Clarifies “Elitist” Charges

As noted by Kassia Kroszer and others, Sherman Alexie recently expressed some controversial remarks in relation to the eReader. At a BookExpo panel, Alexie called the Amazon Kindle “elitist” and said that he wanted to hit a woman sitting on a plane who was using a Kindle on her flight to New York.

Now since I’m a man known to make extraordinary statements myself, I recognized Alexie’s pugilistic promise as the conversational theater he intended. Nevertheless, I was baffled by Alexie’s position. So I took it upon myself to contact Alexie to figure out where the guy was coming from. I didn’t believe the boilerplate message on his website was enough. Alexie was very gracious to respond to my questions.

alexieWhy do you consider the Kindle “elitist?”

I consider the Kindle elitist because it’s too expensive. I also consider it elitist because, right now, one company is making all the rules. I am also worried about Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the way we read books. That’s rather imperial. Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle?

Have you ever used a Kindle? What has been your experience?

I’ve played with a Kindle. Didn’t emotionally connect with it like I immediately did with my iPod. That’s been the fascinating thing for me. I’m not even remotely a Luddite. I love all of my tech toys (and I love, but I have a visceral negative reaction to eBooks. I recognize that it is partly irrational and that’s why it was easy to be influenced by some of the powerful letters of dissent I read from Kindle lovers.

Several eReaders were introduced at BEA with a $249 price point. If your objections to the Kindle involve price point, would you consider the Kindle (or any eReader) to be elitist if everybody could afford it?

Is there an ideal price point? Capitalism decides that. But I do want to know about Amazon’s social commitments to literacy and other social issues. If eBooks do take over the market, then dozens more independent bookstores will close, and all sorts of communities will lose a vital social force. Does Amazon have any plans to fill the social gaps left by those closed stores?

If more people wanted to read your books in digital form than in print form, would you still refuse to make your books available in digital? Why?

I have to make my books available electronically. I have held out on the matter for as long as possible, but I have no author allies in this fight, so I have to submit. I have to sign contracts for eBook rights. I’m doing this in the blind because none of us know what’s going to happen. The last screenwriters’ strike in Hollywood was largely the result of this same issue. The legal issues regarding the Internet and copyrights and revenue are still unclear. And I don’t think I’m so crazy to worry that large corporations may not have my best interests in mind when they are offering me deals. I guess this is the thing that amazes me most. I am taking a very tiny stand against many large corporations. I am asking what I think are serious, tough questions and all sorts of people are vilifying me for it. When it comes to this, many people are taking the side of massive corporations over one writer trying to get answers. They’re treating me like I’m Goliath. It reminds me of the way people think of professional athletes and their salaries. All sorts of middle-class folks agree with the billionaire owners of sports teams that the millionaire players make too much money.

Isn’t it reverse elitism to be against those who use eReaders?

And I’m not against eBook readers. I’m worried about the eBook’s influence on the whole culture. And while I certainly insulted Kindle lovers, I meant to tease and razz the Kindle itself. I meant to razz Amazon.

What makes a digital copy of your book any different from a book on tape? Surely, a recorded version of your book is just as much of a corruptible form.

I am in control of my audio books. And, as you will notice, I have only done three audio books, and have not been happy with that process, either, for various reasons. But when it comes to subrights, it seems that the farther one gets from the original writer and publisher, the more likely it is that the subrights licenser thinks of the books as product and not as art. The author of the original work becomes less and less important. And at every step off the way, the original artist makes far less money and has far less power than any of the companies profiting from the work.

In what manner are you embracing digital media? What is your present familiarity with technology? Can you say anything positive about e-books?

I am also worried about what effect our video screen culture is having on us and our children. We all spend so much time looking at screens-TVs, computers, video games, cell phones, PDAs, and now eBooks-but we don’t know yet much about the negative effects of this technology on us. I seem to recall plenty of times when human beings rushed to use a certain technology because it was incredibly effective and convenient, and only later learned about the minor and major negative effects of that technology. A friend said something interesting to me and this is a paraphrase, “Those eBooks are like a gold rush, and people get irrational during gold rushes. Sherman, you’re being negatively irrational about the technology, but lots of people are being positively irrational.”

I love my iPod, my cell phone, my computer, and my HDTV. I have and enjoy a strong Internet presence with a great website and I have published poems and stories all over the web. In fact, I just published a poem that’s in the current online and print versions of the New Yorker. People are eager to portray me as being anti-technology, but that’s not the case at all. I think the iPod is as vital as the fork and wheel. So I’m not even sure why I have this strange, subterranean fear and loathing of the Kindle and its kind. I think it’s really about childhood. Books saved my life, Edward. I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books. And all of my senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste-come into play when I think and read about books. Books are tactile and eccentric. An eBook will always be a gorgeous but anonymous box. It will also be just a tool–perhaps an amazing and useful tool-but I don’t want it to replace the book. And I’m worried that many people don’t care about the book itself, and see the eBook as a replacement. And I’m worried that Amazon and other eBook distributors will completely replace bookstores. The careers of nearly every successful writer are based on the amazing human interaction between bookstore employees and readers. I enjoy an amazing career because, over the last seventeen years, bookstore employees, librarians, and book lovers have handed a copy of my book to another person and said, “You have to read this.” That face-to-face interaction will become more and more rare. Sure, the Internet can launch careers, but there is a loss of intimacy that should be acknowledged and mourned.