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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

About What Happened at Harper's

During my last year at Harper's, the magazine was in turmoil, for reasons having to do with both its finances and its leadership. Having spent the better part of my adult life either editing for or writing for that venerable and once-great publication (or translating for it, or stringing for it, or simply reading and admiring and learning from it), I left in grief. I left in grief, but I was comforted by the knowledge that others who'd abandoned the good ship Harper's, writers and editors alike, had found a good home aboard Jim Nelson's GQ. I tried to put Harper's behind me, move on, forgive, forget, let wounds heal, bygones, all that.

But then publisher John "Rick" MacArthur used the occasion of a lecture at Columbia's J School to settle old scores with his staff, and then this week he posted the lecture for free on the web site of the Providence Journal, where he writes a monthly column. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal's responded. The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan picked up on the argument. Reading MacArthur's screed and the responses to it induced some queasy flashbacks to that tumultuous year at Harper's. Keeping quiet made me feel queasier still. So, honoring MacArthur's preference for Letters to the Editor over blog posts, I sent a response to the Providence Journal, which has this morning posted my letter. You can read it here

Apparently you can't, any longer, read it there. You can, however, read it here:

Donovan Hohn: Harper's Magazine, MacArthur and the Web

March 16, 2012


I write in regard to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism lecture by John R. MacArthur that you posted for free on The Providence Journal's New England blog last March 12 under the headline "Internet con men ravage publishing." Reading it was for me a familiar experience. I'd heard it all before, in the offices of Harper's -- indeed, heard it far too many times.
I am now almost 40. During the last year I spent as a member of MacArthur's staff I was 14 years older than "Rick'' MacArthur was when the MacArthur Foundation, at the urging of MacArthur and his father, bought the magazine, in 1980. That foundation then created the Harper's Magazine Foundation, which made Rick MacArthur publisher. I am nevertheless one of the "young people" whom MacArthur invokes as a straw man, though hardly the only, or the oldest.
I am no technophile and do not wish to play the part of MacArthur's antagonist in some worn-out debate that pits caricatured zealots--of print or of the Web-- against each other. As an author, I share some of his concerns about digital piracy.
I also share his devotion to good journalism, and the wish that Harper's remain a kind of lovingly and skillfully tended garden in which writing and thought might flourish. I did two stints on the Harper's editorial staff, one at the turn of the millennium, and another during the depths of the recent recession.
At no point did I ever hear anyone, young or otherwise, begging the magazine's publisher to put the entire magazine up on the Web for free. I did hear plenty of staffers express the opinion that we could use the Web in ways that -- whether or not they generated advertising revenues -- might help the magazine and its writers better prosper.
We wanted to use the Web site to spread the word about the magazine, attracting new readers and keeping old ones coming back for more. Compared to other forms of promotion--for instance, the direct marketing of which MacArthur speaks--a vibrant Web site would be cheap, and it would let us engage our audience and respond to events more frequently than the monthly publication schedule permits.
For a while, the site hosted one of the best literary blogs out there -- Wyatt Mason's "Sentences." But when advertising revenues were not sufficiently forthcoming, MacArthur -- failing to recognize the value of the loyal readership that Mason had attracted, and in the sort of pennywise move he favors --- pulled the plug.
Myself a lover of print, knowing little about Web publishing, I looked to what our competitors were doing. They were doing many different things. Some gave away the print edition for free, but only after it had left the newsstand. Some offered a sampling of articles for free, but kept the rest under wraps. Some treated the Web site as an autonomous entity -- an independent complement to the print edition that built upon the magazine's brand. But all of them, the American ones at least, even those with sturdy paywalls, had this in common: They were doing more on the Web than we were. It wasn't only the health of the magazine that had us youngsters worried.
We also feared for our livelihoods. At the onset of the recession, newsstand sales dropped sharply. Revenues from print ads, already flagging, continued to diminish. So did payroll, which was small to begin with--one reason why the staff skews young. A senior editor in 2010 was earning what a senior editor had earned a decade before, already below industry standards. There were no retirement benefits. Or dental. The standard dollar-a-word rate we paid outside writers, likewise, remained stagnant, unadjusted for inflation. And the staff was being downsized--and there was downsourcing, with more responsibility being pushed on to unpaid interns and junior staffers who could be rewarded with titular promotions rather than compensation.
In early 2010, declaring a fiscal emergency, MacArthur took what seemed like desperate as well as drastic measures. He fired the editor-in-chief without warning, hired a new cover designer (at added cost; it used to be designed in-house), announced yet another freeze on cost-of-living adjustments, asked fewer (and younger) people to work longer hours, and responded to questions and objections and even sometimes to politely worded suggestions with the sort of contempt for the editors on his staff that he has now displayed for them on your Web site.
The Internet wasn't the only thing we questioned him about. We also questioned his decision to remain the sole benefactor of the Harper's Magazine Foundation rather than do what most well-run non-profits do (Mother Jones comes to mind): fund-raise and widen the pool of donors. When I left in early 2011, newsstand sales and advertising revenues were still declining. In short, the biggest problem with the business model of which MacArthur is so self-righteously proud is this: It hasn't worked.
Donovan Hohn is a former senior and contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and now features editor of of GQ
{Editor's note: John R. MacArthur is a paid regular contributor to The Providence Journal.}

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"