Archive for the ‘Thoughtabouts’ Category

Do literary characters need genders?

August 11, 2014

Do literary characters need genders?

There has been a lot of talk recently about the need for greater diversity in literature (and other entertainment).

This is especially true in the geek community (of which I am a proud member), but has also been a topic of discussion for children’s books, and for books in general.

While issues of race and other elements are also important, let’s take a quick look at recent gender controversies in the geek community:

  • The lack of a female-led superhero movie in recent years
  • A bizarre comment by a videogame maker that they didn’t have a playable female character because women were too hard to animate
  • A powerful and important female character in the Ant-Man movie being diminished to motivation for the male hero (diminishing might be appropriate for Ant-Man, but not in this case)
  • The initial lack of female characters announced for the new Star Wars movie
  • In my own review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I noted the lack of strong female characters
  • The paucity of Gamora (a female member of the Guardians of the Galaxy) merchandising

That’s just a sampling.

Female-led  movies and books have, of course, done very well (Lucy, The Hunger Games, Bridesmaids)…there just aren’t that many of them compared to male-led works. In case you are thinking that might be because the audience is predominantly male, that’s not the case. Besides, that suggests that men wouldn’t appreciate works where females are the driving characters, and I don’t think the evidence is there for that.

That gets me to the point of a little game I did recently in this blog. Let me explain a bit more first.

One response to the above complaints is to flip male characters into female characters. Marvel Comics’ Thor is going to have a female incarnation. Ghostbusters is reportedly going to be rebooted with all female leads.

Does that solve the problem, though?

If the problem is that people won’t empathize with characters who are fundamentally different from themselves, aren’t you just going to discourage the other gender from embracing the new versions?

We recently did something at work where we tied into heroes, and people came as their favorite heroes (fictional or historical…no family members/friends, no one living). A lot of people seemed to take it to mean superheroes, although that hadn’t been the point. One person who got it, for example, came as Clarence Darrow.

In the discussion, one of my co-workers said that the heroes “…didn’t look like me”, and that explained why that person hadn’t chosen someone.

Well, it did occur to me that if you weren’t a body builder, most of the heroes probably didn’t look like 99% of the readers. ;) That wasn’t always true, and that was part of the appeal of Spider-Man, who wasn’t pure muscle. By the way, I’ve always wondered: if Superman has inherent super strength, why does the Kryptonian need all those muscles? Kal-El should be able to have the build of a ninety-eight pound weakling and still move planets…but I digress. ;)

My fictional heroes include Spock from Star Trek and Doc Savage, a pulp hero…and they really look almost nothing alike (Spock is an ectomorph ((slender)), Doc is a mesomorph ((big muscles))).

Clearly, I don’t only like characters who look like me…or are like me.

They don’t need to have the same gender, race, or pretty much anything else…I can still empathize with them and find them interesting.

As regular readers here know, I make an effort not to reveal my gender online. It’s one of the things I love about the internet: if you choose not to be judged by your inherent characteristics, its possible to put your ideas out there without revealing it.

I don’t do it myself to make it easier for other people who don’t want to do it…they can feel more comfortable.

When I write stories on this blog, like my humor pieces, I generally don’t use gender.

So, I was thinking…would it work to have mainstream novels where the gender of the characters are never revealed…and where no point is made of that?

Of course, I realize that people will generally assign genders to the characters anyway. It’s one of the fundamental ways that people define other people (and it makes sense that there is some evolutionary imperative to do that). If you had only slight interaction with someone in a meeting and asked someone else who it was later, that would be one of the ways you’d be very likely to be able to describe them…even if you couldn’t say race or even height.

Regular readers also know that I don’t visualize when I read, generally. I’m not sure if that would make non-identified characters easier or harder for most people. Since most of you are going to picture the characters anyway, I assume you’d provide a gender, whether the book did or not.

Another thing is that we have names in English that are generally indicative of gender…that might be an issue.

Anyway, I was curious to see if people would notice it is I pulled gender references out of some public domain works.

Let me be very clear: I don’t recommend altering existing works. More than four years ago, I wrote

The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

I believe that works should be published as they were written…even though they may have words and concepts that are offensive today, and may not have been then. I wouldn’t pull the “n word” out of a book, for example, although I would warn people about it, and try to explain the context.

That doesn’t mean that I think people shouldn’t be allowed to make those alterations, either…but I don’t want the original works to disappear or become unavailable to those who want to read them as they were. Changes should be clearly labeled.

I did excerpts from three popular downloads at

Project Gutenberg

and altered them to remove gender references.

I will freely admit that the original versions are better. :) I didn’t make a real effort to make mine artful, and I’d never claim to be able to write as well as the authors of these classics.

I’m going to give you my version, then the original:

“William Lucas, and Maria, a good-humoured child, but as empty-headed as the older Lucas, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise. Elizabeth loved absurdities, but had known William’s too long.”
–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (made gender neutral)

“Sir William Lucas, and his daughter Maria, a good-humoured girl, but as empty-headed as himself, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise.”
–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (the original)

“I went down to the front garden and clumb over the stile where you go through the high board fence. There was an inch of new snow on the ground, and I seen somebody’s tracks. They had come up from the quarry and stood around the stile a while, and then went on around the garden fence. It was funny they hadn’t come in, after standing around so. I couldn’t make it out. It was very curious, somehow. I was going to follow around, but I stooped down to look at the tracks first. I didn’t notice anything at first, but next I did. There was a cross in the left boot-heel made with big nails, to keep off the devil.”
–Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (this one required no alteration*)

“Yesterday, however, just as I was thinking of leaving the office, my clerk entered to say there was someone waiting who wished to see me upon business. My clerk brought up a card, too, with the name of ‘Colonel Lysander Stark’ engraved upon it. Close behind came the colonel, who was rather over the middle size, but of an exceeding thinness.”
–The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb by Arthur Conan Doyle (made gender neutral)

“Yesterday, however, just as I was thinking of leaving the office, my clerk entered to say there was a gentleman waiting who wished to see me upon business. He brought up a card, too, with the name of ‘Colonel Lysander Stark’ engraved upon it. Close at his heels came the colonel himself, a man rather over the middle size, but of an exceeding thinness.”
–The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb by Arthur Conan Doyle (the original)

Now again, mine are absolutely clunkier. Part of that is due to retrofitting…if the original authors had written them to be gender neutral, they would undoubtedly have been better.

I asked people if they could tell what was the same about them. One of my regular readers and commenters, Lady Galaxy, compared the texts with the originals and correctly identified the main thing…that I had removed gender references.

I had sort of hoped that people wouldn’t do that: I wanted to see if it was inherently obvious, even in these short passages, that gender wasn’t being identified…and if that would be bothersome.

Since it’s not the way things are normally written, I think it would be much more obvious over two hundred pages than over two hundred words…but would that mean people would reject the book?

How important is it to you that inherent characteristics be identified in books? Would it irritate you not to be told if a character was male or female? I think it says something about us that descriptors like that likely bring strongly into us our expectations. If we read that someone is typical of a particular country, or that they are a specific religion in a book, does that make them much more three-dimensional? If so, that says something about what we assume about people.

This is an old logic puzzle:

“The police hear that a man named John who has recently committed a murder is playing poker in a particular house. They don’t have any more description than that. They raid the house, and see a truck driver, a carpenter, a prize fighter, and a mechanic playing cards. Without asking any more questions, they immediately take the prize fighter into custody. How did they know they had the right person?

Answer: The prize fighter was the only man there…the rest were women.

Even though you might have know this was a trick question, did you picture the other three as women when you first read their job titles?

The prize fighter could have been a woman too, of course…ask Laila Ali, for example.

I guess my real question is this: do you think you could enjoy a book as much if the genders of characters weren’t identified?

I was tempted to add a poll here, but I think it would be a hard question to answer until you’d tried it…and tried it without knowing. I am interested in what you think about this idea, though. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me and my readers by commenting on this post.

* It was interesting to me that Huck, who is not well educated, uses the indefinite pronoun “they” to refer to an individual. I do that myself a lot, and it has become more accepted, although some people complain when it it is applied to one person, since “they” typically means more than one

Join hundreds of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

 

Keepers

July 8, 2014

Keepers

Yesterday, I mentioned the book

 Alas, Babylon (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Hopefully, some of you bought it then…you could have saved $7 over today’s price. :)

One of my regular readers and commenters, Lady Galaxy, mentioned that a former student still had the copy they had used in Lady Galaxy’s classroom…close to forty years ago.

That got me thinking…

I have some p-books (paperbooks) where I have held on to the specific copies for years.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve held on to all of my p-books (unless I bought them to give them away), but still…these are different. :)

For example, I have one copy of Tarzan of the Apes which I’ve had for longer than Lady Galaxy’s student has had Alas, Babylon.

I have lots of other copies, but this one is special to me (even though it is falling apart).

Clearly, it’s intended to be a copy for kids…and I got it when it was age appropriate for me.

It does have something special in it.

It has an English-Mangani dictionary.

The Mangani are the “apes” that raised Tarzan. I put “apes” in quotation marks, because, if you read the books, they clearly aren’t any of the ape species that we know…and are most likely to be a different species of human (than Homo sapiens…that’s us).

There were rumors of “hairy bipeds” in Africa (as there are in the USA with Bigfoot or Indonesia with the Orang Pendek), and I’d be surprised if Burroughs didn’t intend them to be genus Homo rather than being pongids.

For one thing, they have a language.

Fortunately for us, as far as I can tell, the syntax is pretty much like English. ;)

There are quite a few words in the books…enough so that I’ve been able to translate things into Mangani.

I’ve also in the past made up new compound words. For example, I used “unk-dan-sopu” for a car. “Unk” is Mangani for “go”, and “dan-sopu” is a nut (from “dan” for “rock” and “sopu” for “fruit”). A car reminds me of a nut with a shell (and many cars do have a nut in them…at least, based on the way they are driven). ;) and it goes, so…

So, even though you can find interesting Mangani-English dictionaries on line:

English-Mangani/Mangani-English Dictionary by Peter Coogan

from

Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton site

I still want to hang on to that particular copy.

Yes, despite having several other editions of Tarzan of the Apes.

Part of me feels like that is wrong. That book might have the same impact on a child today that it had on me…am I denying the book to someone else because of my sentimentality?

However, there are two mitigating factors for me.

One is that the book is not in good shape…it would likely fall apart if read enthusiastically while hanging upside down from a tree limb…or while skateboarding through a concrete jungle. ;)

The other is that Tarzan is readily available free as an e-book…legally.

So, I feel like my copy wouldn’t be worth that much to a child, and that the book is widely accessible. You can get e-books free online and through public libraries.

I did give away a Kindle earlier this year

Give a Kid a Kindle

and I may do that again (maybe in the last quarter of the year). There didn’t seem to be much interest in it, though…I didn’t do it just to engage an audience, it felt good to do. However, if the opportunity to get the Kindle isn’t reaching very many kids, it reduces the chances that a kid who could change the world because of having had that vast free library gets it.

I don’t have a lot of copies like that…in most cases, if I could replace the books with e-books, I would. I might even (breathe! breathe! Inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale) donate my books if I could do that.

I’m not quite there, yet, emotionally.

Looking at that, though, it’s interesting that I’m okay with only owning e-book versions of the new books I get. Why shouldn’t it be that once I have an e-book of a p-book I own, I’m okay with getting rid of the p-book?

Maybe some day. :)

What about you?

Are there particular copies of books that you want to keep forever (or pass down to  descendants)? If so, what is it about them that makes them keepers? Is it who owned them, or gave them to you? Is it your specific memories of where you read them? What’s the longest that you’ve owned a specific copy of a book? Do you have any that you “inherited”? Feel free to tell me and my readers by commenting on this post.

Join hundreds of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

What’s happening to Amazon’s core principles?

May 24, 2014

What’s happening to Amazon’s core principles?

I have loved Amazon.

There has never been a company with which I have had a better relationship, and I can’t imagine another one that is out there right now which would be as good.

However, for the first time, I’m getting a little concerned about the future.

I’ve staked a lot on having an ongoing connection to Amazon. I’ve said before that I think it is more likely that my descendants will have access to my Kindle books than to my paperbooks.

One reason I thought that is that Amazon has three core principles:

  • Price
  • Service
  • Selection

Jeff Bezos has mentioned how those three are the same all over the world. While delivery methods might be different in different countries, you aren’t going to find someone who says, “I wish you had fewer choices that cost me more and got them to me more slowly.”

Recently, though, Amazon has done some things which seem to me to be moving away from those principles…and that concerns me.

Let’s start with one particularly clear example.

One of my regular readers and commenters, Lady Galaxy, alerted me to this…and I had flipped a couple of articles about it into my

Free ILMK magazine at Flipboard

Here’s one that gives an interesting perspective:

The Bookseller post by Sarah Shaffi

I’ve already written about an apparent dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette:

Is Amazon delaying Hachette books?

but this new development seems a clearcut violation of the three principles.

The story is that Amazon is removing the ability to pre-order some Hachette Kindle books, including J.K. Rowling’s (writing as Robert Galbraith) next novel.

Well, at this point, I don’t see that novel listed at all in Kindle format…and you can’t pre-order the hardback (that may be a change since the article was written). It simply says the hardback is unavailable, and that you can sign up to be e-mailed when it is.

I’ve always pictured people in a meeting in Amazon being challenged by any proposal with the three principles. In other words, they would have to justify how the new idea fits at least one of them (without, presumably, throwing the balance off by making the other two much worse).

Does having the book be unavailable help with selection? No, it hurts selection. Selection has to mean “what is available to the customer now”, not what will be available at some point, at least if your competitors have it. I could pre-order that book right now, as a hardback or an e-book, from Barnes & Noble.

Does having the book be unavailable help price? No. It doesn’t offer something at a lower price to fail to offer it at all. I suppose you could argue that the customer isn’t spending the money, but it doesn’t work that way emotionally for people.

Does having the book be unavailable help service? No. If a customer does want the book, they would have to wait to get an e-mail, then click (presumably) on a link in the e-mail…as opposed to just 1-clicking a pre-order button on the book’s product page.

So, if the idea was brought up in a committee, I would have hoped it would be rejected on those grounds.

Now, is it possible that it actually serves the principles in some way we can’t see?

Could it be that Hachette’s terms were so difficult that agreeing to them would have hurt future selection, service, and/or price? Maybe…but if we can’t see it, it’s hard to not feel the loss of the book’s availability…and that can affect customer loyalty. I’ve said before that I think market leaders can lose that position when they overestimate customer loyalty (as opposed to when they underestimate the competition, which is what many people think happens).

According to a book I’m just finishing (I’m in the end matter):

Thinking, Fast and Slow (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

people consider a loss to be much more impactful than a gain. Losing ten dollars hurts more than gaining ten dollars feels good.

This is a loss. We would have to gain something many times as good before we felt that this move on Amazon’s part was a plus for us.

If this was the only such action on Amazon’s part, I could construct some sort of “prospiracy theory” (a prospiracy is the opposite of a conspiracy…a secret plan to do something good) that would explain it.

However, as I wrote in

Kindle New York Times bestsellers shockingly up almost $1 a month so far this year

and as another of my regular readers and commenters, Roger Knights, predicted, prices have been rising rapidly (at least on New York Times bestseller hardback equivalents).

That doesn’t serve the price principle, and I can’t see how it benefits selection (unless the publishers were going to withdraw the books if Amazon didn’t raise the price) or service (you don’t get them any faster or have a better return policy).

Then, and this will seem minor to many, there has been a major overhaul of the

Kindle Help Community (at AmazonSmile)

I have tried and tried to see how the changes are better…but so far (and I’m quite imaginative) I have failed at the task.

I am a “Kindle Forum Pro”. We aren’t Amazon employees, but we have been designated by Amazon as being particularly helpful to other people who use Amazon’s customer forums. That has also been something where I thought Amazon was doing an incredible service. They freely allow criticism of Amazon in these forums, and they allow great speculation and helping of each other. Sure, that can save Amazon some Customer Service cost, but most companies’ forums just aren’t this free.

What changes did they make?

  • You used to be able to tell to which threads you had posted recently…that made it much easier to get back to help someone who asked a question, you asked a clarifying question (such as which model they have) and then they answered it
  • You used to be able to preview the thread without opening it…that was a quick way to tell if the question had already been answered. Now, I have to open each thread just to tell if they need help. I used to love going that forum to help people…I recently mentioned that I now approach it with the same feeling I have going in for a teeth cleaning at the dentist. I still now it’s a good thing, but it’s not comfortable…
  • They took away our Kindle Forum Pro badges (which was something which officially identified us to customers). I was helping people long before I had the badge, and will continue to do without…but for customers, it raises the signal to noise ratio. We certainly see people give answers which are wrong, and sometimes harmful. While we “Pros” didn’t always know everything, we were a pretty reliable source. In a way, I suppose it was like those “Volunteer” vests you sometimes see people wearing at conventions…it lets you know you can trust them, even if they aren’t employees

I know I would have to prove that these actions are different from what Amazon did in the past. After all, Amazon did remove the Macmillan buy buttons back in 2010, when they were fighting the Agency Model. That one, though, really felt like it was about us, the customers. I don’t know what Amazon and Hachette are tussling over, but this one just…feels like it is about Amazon.

Some of you may also bring up the price raise in Prime. That one didn’t bother me much, given the amount of raise and how long it had been since it had been raised before. It’s logical that costs have gone up considerably for Amazon during that time for that part of the business.

Why do I think this is happening?

If Roger (see above) is right, this could certainly be due to pressure to show more of a profit.

I don’t think that Jeff Bezos is short-sighted, though…quite the opposite. It needs to be true that everyone making these sorts of decisions takes the long view…not just Jeff. Jeff may certainly be turning some attention elsewhere, and eventually (hopefully a long time from now…knock virtual wood) someone else will be the CEO.

That’s assuming Amazon outlasts its defining founder.

I think it will.

My (perhaps incurably optimistic) thought is that this is a temporary aberration. Someone is going to glance up at the wall (or on the screensaver, perhaps…I don’t know) and see those three principles displayed:

“Price…Service…Selection…Price…Service…Selection…Price…”

They’ll look at someone else, look at the principles, tilt their head and raise one eyebrow.

I expect a lot of good things in Amazon’s future…as long as they listen to themselves, and follow their three North stars.

I welcome the thoughts you share with me and my readers by commenting on this post.

===

Bonus deal:

This is good at time of writing, but do check. You can

Get 200 Amazon Coins (at AmazonSmile)

for each of these five free apps you license (“buy”). That’s up to $10 worth to spend on apps in the Amazon Appstore and in-app purchases.

If you already have one of these apps (I did), I don’t think you can get the  200 coins for that.

Otherwise, why not? :)

New! Join hundreds of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

 

How old were you when you read…

May 20, 2014

How old were you when you read…

Edmund Wilson (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) is credited with having said, “No two persons ever read the same book.”

This was apparently attributed to Wilson in the 1970s, but there is another quotation from Wilson from 1938 (in the Triple Thinkers) which intrigues me more right now:

In a sense, one can never read the book that the author originally wrote, and one can never read the same book twice.”

It’s that second part.

Does it matter when in your life you read a book?

Did you read a book when  you were a child, and then re-read it as an adult and have an entirely different take on it?

How about when you were in college versus later in your life when you were more settled?

I’m not a big re-reader of books (although I am reading the L. Frank Baum books again right now), but I wonder about how my age (and/or life experience) has affected the way I see certain books.

When I list my fictional heroes, I realize they are all people I first encountered when I was a child (including being a teenager): Doc Savage; Kwai Chang Caine; Mr. Spock. When I think of authors like Gerald Durrell and John A. Keel, the same is true.

When I read a book now, I may be very impressed and marvel at the author, but I don’t think the books have the same capability to be ingrained in me for life.

Perhaps, more accurately, I should say that I may not have the same capability to take them into my being.

My guess is that tends to be true…that literary characters and authors you find when you are young are the ones that become part of you. You are in a super-learning part of your life…of course, the vast majority of words you learn you learn before you are settled.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t learn some new words later, or enjoy some new characters…but is it…more of an acquaintance of equals than you aspiring to be like someone you see as greater than yourself?

Since I’m using the term “settled” (not to suggest inert…just stable and reasonably satisfied), I wonder if people who are in more insecure situations later in life are more able to have that integrative reading experience?

Take a moment to think about the books that have transported you, transformed you, and enthralled you. The ones where you still randomly imagine yourself to be that character. Maybe you are on vacation or just walking down the street, and you see something…a wall, a bit of litter, a person half seen in the shadows, and for a moment, you see them through fictional eyes.

Who are the ones you quote in conversations with loved ones…because what they say is better than anything you could say at that point?

When did you first read them?

I’ll say, I’m not really comfortable with those age breaks…I know some societies make a big difference between twelve and thirteen, but I’m not sure that matters that much to what you read. High school (which I didn’t break out) could make a bigger difference (at least in the USA), because you might be exposed to considerably different books (both in the classroom and from your friends).

I have to say, I don’t think I’m feeling that different about the Oz books now than I did when I was a kid…although I’m definitely getting more detail and insight, the basic feel of Oz and the way I feel about the characters is similar.

I’m sure in the case of some books, I would be more put off by chronocultural prejudice

The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

but I think I would still see the character as the same. I think I would tend to judge the world more than the author.

I love reading, and I love my current discoveries…but I would say I do miss that tendency to memorize an entire book, and to project myself into the characters’ worlds…and to have them project into mine.

That may happen again in the future, but for now, I have to recognize that the relationship has changed.

What do you think? Are there books that you re-read over and over again  (I know of someone who reportedly just alternated Gone with the Wind…and Helter Skelter)? Is it because they are different each time, the same…or both? If certain ages are more impactful, would it be possible to engineer someone’s life (a la Lord Tyger ((at AmazonSmile))by Philip Jose Farmer, which I recommend and think would make a good movie) by introducing certain books into their life at certain ages? Are there books you wish you hadn’t read until you were older…or that you had read when you were younger? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

New! Join hundreds of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Don’t judge a box by its content

April 19, 2014

Don’t judge a box by its content

We’ve probably all heard the old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

The idea is that the cover of a book may mislead you. It might be bland, while the book inside is exciting…or the opposite might be true.

There have been some pretty hilarious covers, like the ones in this

Trivia Happy post

Of course, nowadays, we may not even see the same cover for an e-book we are going to buy.

I haven’t heard about this happening, yet, but I  certainly anticipate it.

As you shop in different sections of a site, the cover for the same book might change its appearance to match the section. A Christian mystery might have a conservative cover in the Christian fiction section, and a flashier one in the Mystery section.

That idea just occurred to me, but it fits right in with a book I’ve just read:

Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy (at AmazonSmile)
by Richard Scoble and Shel Israel

and which I do recommend (I’ll write a review of it on Goodreads). They are talking about the  convergence  of five forces in technology (mobile, big data, sensors, location, and social media) and how they will create a context society, where our devices (and organizations) know much more about who we are and what we are doing, and tailor communications to match.

In fact, there is probably a real opportunity for a business there (if not for Amazon itself). Something that can algorithmically customize covers. I would think it might be very effective for the system to go find a picture of you (on a profile or on the web) and subtly merge elements of your appearance with that of a cover character. When that sort of morphing has been done, people tend to find the morphed picture (which they don’t know was morphed) to be a lot more trustworthy. I also saw something recently about people on dating sites tending to pick “themselves” more often.

Sure, we would sometimes want to see something exotic…and might not want to be the murderer on the cover. If, though, you stuck somebody in the background that had the morphing done, I bet that would work.

However, I digress. :)

I wrote this post to update that old saying.

When you buy an electronic gadget (and to make the saying work best, I’m calling all of those a “box”, whether it is a Kindle Fire HDX (at AmazonSmile: support a non-profit of your choice by shopping*), a Amazon Fire TV (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*), a Kindle Paperwhite, 6″ 2nd generation, wi-fi only, with Special Offers (at AmazonSmile), or something else), don’t judge it by the content it has.

That can change…and rapidly.

When the Fire TV was first released, there were a lot of very low starring reviews based on the fact that it didn’t have HBO Go. There were one and two star reviews…from people who didn’t even have the device yet.

I can absolutely see saying that it didn’t serve your purposes at that point, so you weren’t going to buy it yet…but that’s a very fluid characteristic on which to judge a gadget.

One of the interesting things is that Amazon included HBO GO in its comparison table…showing that they didn’t have it.

Why do that?

I think it’s because they are likely to get it.

Why don’t they have it already?

They have to negotiate it.

Let’s imagine you were HBO.

Right now, your customers want to watch HBO on their devices.

You have an app: it even works with Amazon’s Kindle Fire:

HBO GO (Kindle Fire Edition) (at AmazonSmile)

Your customers still have to have a subscription to HBO through a TV provider (like a cable company, or satellite) to use it…so you are making money from it.

Amazon wants to license it for their new streaming device, the Fire TV. It will attract customers to their gadget.

Your reasonable response might be, “What’s it worth to you?”

Makes some sense in the beginning… you don’t even know how many people are going to buy one until it is released.

Naturally, if a lot of people start using them and it starts cutting into the market for other boxes (the Roku, for example), that might shift some of the balance of power to Amazon. If people buy the Fire TV and you aren’t on it, they might decide they just don’t need you any more.

That’s not in the beginning, though…you might be able to wait to see what happens.

Would Amazon like to have had it at launch? Sure, but they can’t hold up the whole product waiting for one license. According to the documents in the Apple Agency Model conviction (for fixing prices), Apple was trying to negotiate quickly to get enough of the big publishers on board for iBooks when the iPad came out. That haste might have contributed to the eventual woes (with five publishers settling, and Apple losing…although they have appealed).

Personally, I’m not a cynical person. I tend to think good things about people and organizations.

I don’t quite get the cynical attitude. It would be like…putting shoe polish on your tongue before you went to dinner: it would just make everything taste bad. ;)

That doesn’t mean I was surprised when people said that Amazon’s voice search on the Fire TV only worked on Amazon Instant Video because they don’t want you to use competitors.

Amazon seems to be fine with you using competitors…you can get apps for your Kindle Fire from Amazon for direct competitors, such as

Netflix (at AmazonSmile)

and

Hulu Plus (at AmazonSmile)

…both of which came installed on the Fire TV!

Does it seem logical that they would let you use the app on the Fire TV, and then block you from using the voice search for those apps (even though you can key in a search), in an attempt to keep you from using them?

The voice search needs its own negotiation.

Why?

You need access to the company’s product database, which changes every day.

According to this

press release

Amazon has signed deals with Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Showtime to have the voice search work with their catalogs later this year.

I’m sure they are working on Netflix, too.

Oh, and I should point out, not all the competitors return the favor by featuring Amazon in their stores. Many bookstores have refused to carry books published by Amazon. Google Play still doesn’t recognize the Kindle Fire as a device…my best guess is that Google is making that choice. After all, we can commonly get apps that are at Google Play from other (legal) sources for the Fire (including Amazon’s own Appstore, and 1Mobile.com). I doubt Amazon is choosing to stay out of the Google Play store online (their Kindle reader app is available there, after all). Now, Amazon might not want to pay some fee to put Google Play directly on their devices…but the forked nature of the Android version Amazon is using might also have something to do with that.

If I don’t think you should judge a box by its content, do I think it is okay to judge it by its interface? After all, that could change in the future too, right?

Well, I do think that’s different. The interface (how a user interacts with it) not only tells you about how they feel about customers, they can largely develop the feel of it in house. They don’t have to negotiate with somebody to have a way to remove something from the “Recent” (which the Fire TV has). If something had an interface that made you put in, or, your astrological sign each time you wanted to do something, I could see saying that made it a less desirable device.

I would judge a gadget by:

  • The hardware specifications (does it have the power and connectors you want?)
  • The company’s Customer Service
  • The strength of the company
  • The interface
  • The openness
  • The  compatibility with other things you own…at lest the philosophy of that. That one could change, though

Oh, and yeah, sure…the coolness factor. ;)

Last point: I’m not saying you should buy something that doesn’t have what you want. Not buying it is not the same as denigrating it…

What do you think? How does Amazon treat its competitors on its devices and on its website? What do you look at before you buy a product? Would you write a bad review of something, because it didn’t have a license you wanted? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Long form reading: it was a fun game while it lasted

April 13, 2014

Long form reading: it was a fun game while it lasted

Humans love to make up rules for themselves that require them to act counterinstinctually.

No, really.

That’s what games are.

Did you ever play that the “floor was lava” when you were a kid? You had to get around the room while walking on the furniture (jumping from couch to chair), so you didn’t “burn up”?

If something scared you and you just took off running, you wouldn’t climb around on the furniture…you’d make a straight line across the floor.

We think it’s fun to make ourselves behave in ways that are hard, or unnatural.

In addition to managing a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I also managed a brick-and-mortar gamestore, so I’m pretty familiar with them.

We not only think it’s fun: we think it’s virtuous.

Think about sex (you know, if you weren’t already). ;)

There are all kinds of rules about what you can show to whom when.

You might counter that other animals (which you might define as not having intellects, but just reacting instinctually…I don’t, but you might) sometimes have elaborate mating rituals.

Yes, but ours vary from culture to culture, which shows that they aren’t ingrained.

What you could show in New York City one hundred years ago isn’t the same as what you can show now.

If you violate the rules, someone might insult you by calling you an “animal” (again, using it as shorthand for “unthinking”).

I’ve hired and trained a lot of trainers, and one of the things I look for is someone who is able to think about one thing while doing something else.

I have a pretty simple test for that.

I tell someone to stand up and tell me what in their lives brought them to this moment…without using the word “I”: go!

Most people are terrible at it…they may lock up completely, or be able to go for a few seconds before they make a mistake.

Someone who will be a good trainer makes it work right away, and could go for minutes. One thing they do is refer to themselves in the third person. Instead of saying, “I grew up in Chicago,” they say, “There was a person, me, who grew up in Chicago.”

In order to get a good assessment, you have to try this spontaneously (I used to be part of an improv  troupe), so you can’t prepare yourself.

As soon as that’s over, though, they go back to speaking normally.

My point is that people are able to make themselves do things which are unnatural, but that it takes effort. They’ll revert back to the natural behaviors, given a choice.

Unnatural things…you know, like walking on your hands…or reading a novel?

I would guess just about everyone reading this blog has had a reading session with one book which was at least an hour long.

Is that a natural thing to do?

I don’t think so.

If you were a hunter/gatherer, I’d have a hard time coming up with one thing you would be doing that would require your undivided attention for an hour.

Stalking an animal doesn’t take that long, usually…and you sure better be paying attention to other things while you do it!

Someone can sit with their “nose in a book” for an hour, paying the rest of the world no heed.

Or at least, they used to be able to do that.

This

Sydney Morning Herald article by Michael S. Rosenwald

looks a the scientific concern that we are losing the ability to read in a linear fashion for a long period of time.

This isn’t because the quick skimming reading we do on the internet is evolving us in a new direction.

I don’t think we ever really evolved in the old one.

Before Gutenberg (mid-1400s), books were rare objects…and arguably, largely in the hands of people who weren’t part of the breeding population.

Mass market paperback books, which made novels much more available, only go back to the 1930s…maybe four or five generations ago. That’s not enough time for evolution to have changed anything in our brains.

I think for a while,we have “played the game” of reading long form.

Just like playing Blind Man’s Bluff, though, when the game is over, we are going back to what feels more natural.

From the article (which I recommend):

“[Maryanne] Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading, was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the internet and hundreds of emails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (at AmazonSmile).

“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organising my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”

Why disgusted?

As Wolf knows, the brain adapts. It’s really, really good at that. We also aren’t the only species that does it (in my opinion).

We recently got a second dog, after having gotten another one several months earlier.

The first dog is now behaving much better, taking on the role of “supervisor”.

I am quite convinced that the first dog is “proud” of sitting patiently, waiting for food…behaving in a counterinstinctual way.

If you process information on a website by your brain bouncing all over the screen, looking for significant words, its only natural that it would try to do the same thing with a book…making comprehension and retention perhaps more difficult.

My guess is that the website version, which would be like scanning a jungle looking for prey or a predator in  a tree, is much more normal.

If we don’t have to do long form, linear reading will we lose the ability to do it?

Quite possibly: I believe it is a learned skill, not inherent.

What do you think? Is reading the same book for an hour harder now than it used to be for you? Have you noticed any change in kids (especially if you are a teacher)? Would losing that ability be such a bad thing? Should e-books perhaps adapt, maybe having pictures appear and disappear on pages? Is it because it is such a hard thing to do that people want no interruptions when they are “trying to read”? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

** Does Amazon pay royalties when one of their employees sings Happy Birthday over Mayday? Is that a commercial use…or, collectively, a public performance? I don’t know that they should, I just think it’s a possibility

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

 

Pre-order The Sandman: Dream Hunters…for delivery on January 1, 2036

April 8, 2014

Pre-order The Sandman: Dream Hunters…for delivery on January 1, 2036

“I have one more question for you during this interview. It’s just a little thing we like to ask applicants…it helps us get a feel for who might best fit on 0ur team. What do you see yourself reading in the future…like twenty years from now?”

Actually, as somebody who has interviewed applicants, I love that question!

It’s a fascinating idea! Could I have predicted twenty years ago what I would like reading today? Hm…actually, in 1994, I probably would have gotten some of it right, but we didn’t have e-books, and that certainly has changed things.

Think about it for a minute. What do you think you’ll be reading two decades  from now? How many of today’s brand name authors will still be writing? Will you be reading all independents? Will you have shifted more to the classics?

I’m looking forward to the comments on this post!

What prompted this question was finding this listing in the USA Kindle store:

The Sandman: Dream Hunters (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

The interesting part about this Neil Gaiman graphic novel is that you can pre-order now for delivery to your Kindle…on January 1, 2036.

The paperback shows a publication date of June 1st, 2000.

Thanks to that and the hardback, we have 67 customer reviews…with an average of 4.6 stars out of five.

Now, in some cases when I’ve seen a book scheduled far into the future like this, it’s been because the publisher is waiting for the book to fall into the public domain. You can’t do that with modern books, since when their copyright terms expire is based on when their authors expire (life+70…a system I find inherently ageist).

With older books, though, you can predict when something will be in the public domain…as long as the rules don’t change in-between.

No, this is a listing by Vertigo, the publisher of the paperback.

I was trying to think if it could be a mistake, but a typo seems unlikely (January 1, 2016 doesn’t make much more sense to me).

I don’t think it has to do with Gaiman’s birthday, which is November 10.

I’m guessing there might be some kind of administrative reason, but I’m not sure what it would be. Maybe they need to be promoting (or even selling) the e-book to maintain the rights? Hm…

Well, one thing is likely: the price of books may have gone up in two decades, so if they guarantee the price, it might be worth it. :) You are also betting on Amazon being around for two more decades, or someone honoring the pre-order if they aren’t.

What do you think? Why do we see books available for pre-order decades ahead of the stated delivery date? What will you be reading in twenty years? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Reading by channels

February 19, 2014

Reading by channels

I read an interesting

CNN article (originally Wired) by Kyle VanHemert

in my morning Flipboard (at AmazonSmile: support a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) read the other day**.

The thrust of the article was that services like Netflix, Roku channels, and Amazon Instant Video are missing an important element by having us choose what we want to watch each time.

I agree.

Sure, it’s great to be able to choose…to say, “I want to watch this movie now” and be able to do it.

However, it’s also a wonderfully serendipitous feeling to just blunder into something that’s good.

Think about it. I would never ever have to watch something without knowing what it was first. Yet, I do.

Let me give you an example.

In the NBC News channel on my

I can select to watch individual stories, maybe just ones that interest me.

I don’t do that, usually. I start the top news running, and just let it run from story to story.

Why?

I think it’s fun. ;) I think we are geared towards having unplanned experiences…that’s a lot more natural. We have a joy of discovery.

VanHemert has a great point:

“Consider, for example, a strange paradox of the streaming video age: You’ll totally watch an hour of “Ghostbusters” on TNT, but you’d never in a million years start it up from the top on Netflix, even though it’s always right there, just a dozen clicks away.”

I own DVDs of movies, but I’m a lot more likely to watch a show if it just happens to be on than to pull out the DVD (those seem to be more for special occasions…like when my adult kid and an adult friend and I watched all of The Prisoner ((at AmazonSmile)) in one day). ;)

Naturally, that got my mind exploring (most things do).

What if we read like that?

What if there was, say, a science fiction channel, a romance channel, a mystery channel, a non-fiction channel, and so?

You would “tune into” a channel, and see what was on. If you wanted to read it great…start reading.

Now, I don’t mean that everybody would read it at the same time. While we all generally have the same “watching speed”, we don’t have the same reading speeds.

You’d have to be able to download it and read it at your own pace.

I would think you could only have one thing downloaded at a time. When you finished it, you’d “return it”…and see what else was “on”.

I wonder if that would work?

It’s even possible to me that I would read half of a book (a novel if I’ve read it before…maybe a collection of non-fiction essays if I haven’t), but that seems unlikely to have mass appeal. :)

No, I’d see it being with novels and non-fiction books…but short stories might work especially well.

Yes, I would go to a short story channel, and just read whatever came up.

That might work.

The faster you would read, of course, the more opportunity you’d have to read, but I think that’s reasonable.

Don’t see something you like on one channel? Go to another channel…switch from “urban short stories” to “Victorian poetry” to “Penny Dreadfuls” until you found something you liked. Download it, read it, see what else was on.

Would it work economically?

Hard to say.

I think publishers might especially like the discovery aspect as a way to “push” lesser known works. There could certainly be a way to buy other works by that author at the end of the piece you read…and/or you could buy it if you wanted to keep it. Gifting might be another income stream.

It could be like television now. Either you pay for it by watching ads, or it is a subser (subscription service…you pay a flat rate for the month or year).

Certainly, there are some things a little bit like this. Science fiction magazines come to mind: we wouldn’t get to choose which stories would appear in which issues. In my Sherlock Holmes blog, 221B Blog Street, you just get each day whatever is the next chapter or story in order (unless you are reading on the website). There are other literary magazines and blogs, of course.

That doesn’t seem quite the same…

This is all just a thought experiment. I’m not at all convinced it would work. Many people have a lot higher standard for what they read than I do…I’m pretty open to reading all different kinds of things. Some people say that they “…don’t have time to read bad books”. I’m not yet convinced that there are bad books…there are better books, but I’ve never regretted reading a book yet.

I also have to say, some of my favorite books (including Doc Savage), I didn’t seek out and read by choice…they were the only books available to me at the time.

Anyway, just a thought…

What do you think? Could this work at all? Have you ever read only part of a novel…on purpose? Maybe on vacation, or in a store? Have you ever read something “by accident”, just because it was there…and loved it? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

Nominate a child to be given a free Kindle at Give a Kid a Kindle.

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

** I’ve written before on this blog about having what I refer to as “Temporal Awareness Disorder” (that’s just my term for it). I really don’t have a good sense of the passage of time. While I don’t remember all things equally, I can’t tell from a memory if it’s old (like a decade ago) or new (like a week ago). I typically have to look at internal clues to figure it out. My Significant Other pointed something out to me years ago. I refer to “today”. I refer to “yesterday”. Everything else that is in the past, if it isn’t “yesterday”, is often simply, “the other day” for me. That could be true if it happened just recently or when I was a kid…

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Why aren’t you reading?

January 26, 2014

Why aren’t you reading?

Do you ever find yourself wondering why you aren’t reading?

You know, you’re doing something, like stirring the oatmeal, and you think to yourself, “Why aren’t you reading?”

That exact experience happened to me today: I was stirring a pot of oatmeal, reading the news crawl on the TV with the sound off (my Significant Other wasn’t out yet), and feeling like it would have been better if I’d set my Kindle up nearby so I could read a book at the same time.

That, despite the fact that I have to keep my eye on the oatmeal at that stage: I’d certainly be flicking my eyes back and forth, and not getting a lot of reading done.

Still, I thought, it would have been better than nothing.

But is “not reading” the same as “nothing”?

Clearly not. There are a lot of valuable things in my life besides reading. ;)

However…

I have to say,  I never feel guilty about having been reading. I also watch videos (TV, movie), although I’m often reading at the same time. I feel like I would have to justify having watched ten episodes of a mediocre TV show in a day…I don’t feel like one has to justify “binge reading” in the same way one does “binge watching”.

We have a new dog (we’ve had Elf* for a couple of months), and the three of us were walking up to the dog park (about a mile away). I didn’t read on the way up, which I would have done years ago if it was just me walking a dog.

Part of that is because I use a cane when I walk, now, and I have to keep looking where I put it: it w0uld not be a good thing to have that cane not provide solid support. That means that, even if I had my Kindle in my other hand, I wouldn’t have “eyes free” to see it. I could listen to text-to-speech, but that would take a major social element away from the walk.

Text-to-speech, though, has been a wonderful thing in the car! I like to say that I now feel like driving isn’t “wasted non-reading time”. ;)

It’s fascinating to me that so many people put reading on such an exalted plane: what can you do that is better for yourself and for the world than read?

However, it’s also clear that many people (perhaps more), don’t feel that way. “You shouldn’t read at the table.” “You should go outside and play”. “You should put down that book and meet people.” “You shouldn’t read while you are riding your bike”…well, that last one might have an argument. ;) I knew somebody who smacked into the back of a parked truck, because they were riding a bike and reading at the same time.

Why do we feel like this?

Reading is the purest interaction we can have with another person’s mind…unencumbered by our perceptions of their physicality.

I’m sure that it’s true that people who read widely are more tolerant of others.

That doesn’t mean that reading is all you should do, of course…there are a lot of wonderful things to be done.

Reading, though? Never a wrong thing…

Bonus deal:

Gold Box Deal of the Day: Top-Rated Kindle Books: Novels, Nonfiction, and More (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

This is a great selection! There are 75 books from HarperCollins (I think they are all from HC), which is one of the five largest trade publishers in the USA…and they appear to each be $1.99!

Looking over the list, I’m struck by the amount of interesting non-fiction.

Remember that you can buy a book as a gift, and delay delivery until the appropriate occasion…this might be a good chance to get some small gifts for later.

Always check the price before you click that Buy button: books can move in and out of a deal, and this deal may not apply in your country.

Enjoy!

Update: by request from one of my regular readers, Harold Delk, here is a picture of Elf:

Elf

Elf weighs about 12 pounds, and is quite long. The vet said that Elf looks like a Dandie Dinmont terrier (mix), and while that would be a bit odd circumstantially, much of it does match (except without the usual fur). My Significant Other has decided that Elf is a mix between a terrier and a Slinky Dog…a “Slinkier”. ;)

What do you think? Do you have a good example of when you suddenly thought to yourself that “…this would be better if I was reading?” Where is the weirdest place where you’ve been reading a book, the one that would most shock non-readers? Have you ever read a book on a roller coaster? Does your hand feel empty without a book in it? If you were a reader growing up, how did that affect other people’s perception of you? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Does Amazon EVER need to make money on e-books?

January 17, 2014

Does Amazon EVER need to make money on e-books?

You can’t keep losing money on something forever and stay in business, right?

Actually, yes…yes, you can.

You can even prosper that way.

The trick is that the thing on which you lose money has to “inspire sales” that make you money.

I’m speaking as a former brick-and-mortar bookstore manager, and that’s one of the main difference between the way consumers see things and suppliers (whether retailers or creators) see things.

Consumers see things in terms of the single transaction they are doing. Let’s say that a soft drink company changes the flavor of your favorite soda. You hate it. They lose you as a customer, and you figure they are going to go down in flames because of it.

However, if ten other people become customers because of the new flavor, it’s a net win for them, right?

Retailers (and creators) think in terms of populations of sales. It’s not each individual transaction which matters: it’s all of them.

It’s also not only all of the transactions of the same type. Let’s say they changed that flavor of soda, and almost everybody hated it. However, the flavor is part of a line of sodas…and they all got the same sort of change. The other flavors see increased sales because of the change. That’s also a net win.

In that case, it would be logical to discontinue the one (now) bad-selling flavor, right?

What if people who bought sodas also bought chips, and the company made more money on chips than on sodas? With the new flavor, only ten percent as many people buy it…but those people buy so many more chips (maybe the old flavor was saltier…and now they crave chips for the salt) that the company ends up making more money?

In that case, you’d keep making the less salty chips.

I was recently responding to one of my regular readers and commenters, Roger Knights.

Roger suggested that eventually, the investors and/or Amazon would want Amazon to make money on e-books.

That seems logical…but they wouldn’t want that to happen if losing money on e-books was making them more money on something else.

Let’s think about a restaurant.

When you sit down at a restaurant, they typically will give you a glass of ice water for free.

That ice water has significant costs associated with it:

  • The water bill
  • The electricity for the freezer for the ice
  • The capital investment in that freezer
  • The capital investment in water glasses
  • The expense to clean the glasses (water, detergent)
  • The salary expense for the server to bring it…and to keep refilling it, typically
  • The salary expense for the person who cleans the table
  • The expense to replace broken glasses
  • Expenses associated with when people spill the water, especially if it might wreck a menu

I could keep going.

The restaurant is losing money on every glass of water.

However, they may be making money on the meal…and if a restaurant refused to bring you free water, you might not stick around for the meal (or might not come back).

That would be true if the restaurant was in business for twenty years: they’d never have to make money on the glasses on water, because those glasses inspire other sales.

Could e-books be the “glasses of water” for Amazon?

Absolutely.

We don’t have to say the following is true for everyone, but let’s say it is true for a substantial number of Amazon’s customers:

  • They buy e-books from Amazon
  • They want something on which to read the e-books, so they buy a Kindle
  • When they want to get a tablet, they look at a Kindle Fire, because they like the Kindle…and they want the option to read those e-books on the Fire. In my case, part of that is wanting the Fire for text-to-speech in the car, even though I own a Paperwhite
  • When they have the Fire, they get a free month of Prime
  • Once they try Prime, they stay with it…and spend a lot more money on high profit items (like diapers, I would think)

Amazon is then making a profit on that customer, even though they could be losing money on every e-book sale to that person…forever.

Amazon never, ever needs to make money on e-book sales if the e-book sales inspire other sales which make them more money than they lose.

That’s why I don’t really worry about there being a day when Amazon suddenly raises e-book prices across the board. I hear people being worried about that, especially if they end up with less competition.

Even if they had no competitors, they could still lose money on e-books.

Let me give you an analog from when I managed that bookstore.

We sold TV Guide…and the cover price was sixty cents back then.

We gave a ten percent discount on magazines, so we sold it for fifty-four cents.

The profit margin on magazines was considerably below the profit margin on books…let’s say (although I don’t remember exactly) that we paid the distributor forty-eight cents for it…meaning that we made six cents on each sale.

Well, only directly.

We had those “costs of sale”.

We had to pay a sales clerk to sell it. This was some time ago: let’s say they made six dollars an hour, and that it takes a minute to sell the magazine on average. A six dollar an hour salesperson costs about 1.67 cents a minute.

In that one minute to sell it, we are now down to about 4.33 cents of profit.

However, we also had to “receive” the magazine when it came in. That’s more salary.

We had to pay rent on the space in which it sat until it sold.

We had to take into account “shrinkage”, due to shoplifting (yes, they got stolen), and damage (people would pick up a TV Guide just to check something…and maybe bend the pages to where somebody wouldn’t buy it).

We had expenses for doing the payment to the distributor.

We lost money on every TV Guide sale.

However, people who bought the TV Guide often came in every week to get it…and some of them left with several books.

It was because of those “inspired sales” of the other books that we sold TV Guides.

Amazon doesn’t depend on e-book sales, or even p-book (paperbook) sales. They make a lot of their money with web services, and with acting as fulfillment centers for other sellers.

This, by the way, is why the publishers (and many other bookstores) hated Amazon’s $9.99 price point for some well-known books. Amazon was losing money on many of those, but Amazon could afford to lose the money.

Not because Amazon was such a big bookseller, but because they can make their money on other things besides books.

That doesn’t excuse illegal collusion to raise prices. Do people who sell bottles of water have a case against restaurants giving it away? Could they get the Department of Justice to step in and force the restaurants to charge for water? Well, maybe in France ;), where they are passing laws to make customers pay more to get an Amazon book delivered than they used to pay.

Not in the USA, though…not as far as I know.

I also think Amazon isn’t always losing money on e-books, even calculating in costs of sale. That might make a difference legally.

As readers, we reap the benefits of Amazon charging so little for e-books.

I believe authors are likely making more than they used to make. Certainly, that’s true for many non-brand-name authors, who may be making more independently publishing.

Is there a risk that the downward price pressure pushes tradpubs (traditional publishers) out of business? If price-matching eventually drives the price of a new Stephen King novel to $4.99, how can the publisher afford to pay enough to Stephen King to keep the mega-author from going independent? Would the low price point kill the business?

Hypothetically…but publishers can find other ways to monetize books. That includes adaptation rights (for movies and TV shows), and I think it will include subscription services.

I can even see the possibility of paying somebody like Stephen King a salary, rather than royalties. Sure, it would be a big salary, but it might be worth it.

I’m sure a lot of authors would take a $50,000 salary, with a requirement to turn out x number of books a year as a deal.

That may, actually, be a good way to go.

Stop paying authors based on individual sales, which is a very complicated process.

Pay them a salary (and benefits).

These sorts of things have been done before, and in other industries. Comic book writers are employees, right? TV screenwriters?

I assume that’s how those work. :)

There might be no doubt about exclusivity in a case like that. Amazon could employ authors, and have exclusive rights to their work and adaptations. Writers would be subject to performance reviews, of course: if there isn’t enough interest in what you produce, you could be put on a performance improvement plan…and eventually, if things didn’t pick up, terminated.

Hm…I’ve gone a bit far afield here! :)

The bottom line is that book sales can be below the bottom line for Amazon…as long as they inspire other sales.

What do you think? Does Amazon’s long term strategy include making money on every e-book sale? Is what they are doing “predatory pricing”, or a legitimate business practice? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


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