Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Perpetual Ocean

Craig Pittman, author and enviro reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, alerts me to this amazing visualization of the ocean currents, brought to you by the wizards at NASA.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Ebooks and the Economics of Book-Selling in 2012

One of my favorite stops on my recent paperback tour was Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA. A book-seller there by the name of Josh Cook recently wrote a long blog-post about the economics of book-selling in 2012. I found it illuminating, and I recommend it to readers and authors alike. 

I'll highlight one section. Concerning the costs of e-books, Josh writes:

To be honest, the persistence in the belief that ebooks should cost radically less than books is a little baffling, given that most of the articles that touch on the issue of ebooks point out that ebooks do not cost significantly less to produce than books. I'll read an article mentioning that the material overhead of production represents about 10% a books' overhead and sure enough someone in the comments field will argue that $9.99 ebooks are a publisher wide conspiracy. But what really baffles me about the persistence of this belief is how it also manages to fly directly in the face of conventional business wisdom. 
No matter what a business does or sells the biggest chunk of its overhead is almost always going to be salaries for employees. This is practically a business axiom. And yet people seem to (or want to) believe that this axiom doesn't apply to ebooks. All of the people who produce an ebook are the same people who produce a book. Same staff, same amount of staff hours, same amount of employee overhead. Why should their prices be radically different? The problem is, of course, (I bet you can guess what I'm going to say) is that early in ebooks Amazon sold ebooks at dramatic, one might even say “predatory,” losses in order to encourage sales of their Kindle and “secure” ebooks market share. They created a price expectation completely disconnected from the actual cost of production. . . .
The thing is, the ebook price of a book should be able to come down over time. Once the overhead of the author's advance, editors' salaries, administrative assistants, janitors, publicity and the like, have been made back, the material cost difference becomes meaningful. Older ebooks, backlist ebooks, or even ebook editions of very popular books could end up in the price range people seem to want. And we already accept this idea of falling prices of books. The first hardcover edition of a book is more expensive, not just because of the cost of materials, but because it is the first opportunity for a publisher to make back all that people based overhead. When it comes out in paperback, the price difference (often about $10-12) doesn't just come from cheaper materials, but from having less of the initial overhead to cover. A fair ebook price would start out at 10-15% off the least expensive print edition (and most retailers would probably add an additional discount on top of that, given how little overhead they cost book stores), drop with each new cheaper print edition, and then, once the initial investment has been made up, drop a little bit further. In this model, they won't hit $.99, but this isn't a pack of gum we're talking about. This is the product of thousands and thousands of hours of work, that you can enjoy over and over again. For readers who put price first, it really isn't any different than waiting for the paperback or mass market edition, or, if you're really stingy, waiting for copies to enter the used book market, or, if you're really really stingy (or have run out of room in apartment), getting the book for free out of the library.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why Read Moby-Dick? Some more answers.

Chad Harbach, interviewed in the New Statesman, fields the question--well.
And then there's Herman Melville. The baseball team in The Art of Fielding is named the Harpooners, an allusion to Moby-Dick.Moby-Dick is a book that I read in college and was astounded by. I think it's the most musical novel in the English language - the rhythms and the prose are incredible. It surpasses anything that anyone has ever done.
It's also a very funny book, which no one ever gives it credit for. Before I read it, I'd always heard it spoken of in these stern and forbidding tones, as if you were being scared away from reading it. But then you read it and you find it's both bold and musical.
An earlier attempt of mine to answer a similar question, in an interview with The New Yorker's Book Bench blog, here. Another one here. And here's a sampling of what I said of the novel in the talk I gave earlier this month at UCSB:
Sometimes when trying to explain my harebrained quest, I simply blame Herman Melville, whose novel I’d read an unhealthy number of times. People think of Moby-Dick as a difficult book, and it does have hard words, and long sentences, and it can at times seem bewildering, or dense. But it’s also funny, raunchy even, and it is full of marvels, and there’s heart-pounding action. All that, and it also contains passages that read like something out of a biblical book of wisdom, like Ecclesiastes, passages like this: “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” That’s like some sort of riddle, isn’t it? Or a Buddhist koan. But turn it around in your head a while.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dreamy Recollections: The Obliteration Room

I find that with travel the best parts are the beginning and the end, but the best parts arise from what happens in between. You can't have a beginning or an end without a middle. So at the beginning your brain swims with dreamy anticipations. And at the end your brain swims with dreamy recollections. The recollections and the anticipations never match, but the mismatch is delicious and, if you're lucky and a bit reflective about it, educational. During the journey itself your brain simply swims. Such is my experience.

Three and some-odd weeks ago, I flew to London, accompanied by family, to help launch the good ship Moby-Duck in UK waters (number one title in the category of books about the city of Bath!). Night flight. Some sleep. Boys zonked out on armrests and shoulders. Then the abruptly wakeful arrival. London. There it was, glimpsed from the freeway, blurring past. A rental on a street with the almost too-perfect name of Barlby Gardens. A day of rest, and for me, editing. Then a bus ride to Trafalgar Square, red bus, double decker, the boys and me on the upper deck, right up front, all eyes. A grand day in London that culminated perhaps on the ground floor of the Tate Modern with a trip inside Yayoi Kusama's Obliteration Room, pictured above.

Some more dreamy recollections to come, if I can steal the time for them.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

La historia de los patitos de goma

Yet another cinematic depiction of the Fable of the Duckies Lost at Sea brought to you by advertisers, this time in Spanish. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Going on the Whale: Nantucket!

A perfect day for a late-winter ferry ride to Nantucket.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Nantucket: Take Out Your Map and Look at It

Fanciful map of Nantucket drawn by  a sheriff.
Tomorrow, I get to go to Nantucket for an evening event at the Nantucket Atheneum. I've never been to Nantucket and am kind of stoked. I read somewhere—I think it was in Nantucketer Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex or else in Philip Hoare's The Whale, and in any case it appears to be true—that Melville had not yet been to the island either when he wrote this:

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it -- a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

MONSTROUS ... and alive!

A dear friend, also on the road (in my native city by the bay, it so happens), picked up this old book-jacket in post-card form  and posted it my way. She draws my attention to the words "monstrous and alive," but also to those in the lower-right corner, "complete and unabridged." The brain is feeling a bit incomplete and abridged tonight. Also a bit monstrous, as usual. And, yes, alive.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Micro-Excerpt: Our Eyes Alone Are Not Enough

Ralph Waldo Emerson,
as caricatured by Christopher P. Cranch
The  theme of the talk I gave at UCSB tonight—our eyes alone are not enough—came from this passage that appears toward the end of the third chapter of Moby-Duck, pages 136–137. 

You might be inclined to see in the controversy over Gore Point the sort of tempest that invariably brews in provincial teapots, especially in geographically isolated provincial teapots like Homer. Rightly or wrongly, I was inclined to see in it something more: a parable of environmentalism in the information age. All the time, all over the world, in the coal towns of Appalachia and Hunan, in the fishing villages of New England and Indonesia, near landfills in Virginia and the Philippines, near incinerators in Hawaii or the Bronx, on farms in the valleys of the Mississippi and the Amazon, similar debates about our vexed relationship to the natural world are playing out. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the fundamental unstated question at the heart of the arguments I heard in Homer was this one: How do you measure the value of a place?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Superguy, the Banana

Something 6 y.o. B. and I made, while in London. The smile was my idea--which I came up with in order to placate 2 y.o. M. with a little puppeteering. The inscription was all B. It reads, "SUPERGUY THE BANANA / WHO BLASTS OFF INTO OUTER / SPACE EVERY MORNING"