The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale

With the movie forthcoming, it seemed time to read Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, the story of a post apocalyptic society in which children are forced to fight to the death in an arena both as a way to assert control over the populace and entertain the ruling class.  Ruthless, yet endearing, it’s the story of Katniss Everdeen, the contestant from District 12 who volunteers in place of her younger sister knowing full well she’s signing her own death warrant.

However, this is not the first time a writer has addressed the idea of a dystopian society sacrificing their children to appease a government that rules the people, rather than being ruled by them.  Koushun Takami tackled a similar storyline in his 1999 novel, Battle Royale, which became a film in his native Japan in 2000.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and it seems a good follow on from The Hunger Games.  Has anyone read both?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  For now, here’s The Hunger Games trailer:


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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the eBook Revolution

It seems like you couldn’t look at a book blog the past week without seeing a post on Amazon’s recent press release, noting that they’re now selling more Kindle books than print books. From their  May 19, 2011 press release:

  • Since April 1, for every 100 print books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books. This includes sales of hardcover and paperback books by Amazon where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.
  • So far in 2011, the tremendous growth of Kindle book sales, combined with the continued growth in Amazon’s print book sales, have resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon’s U.S. books business, in both units and dollars, in over 10 years. This includes books in all formats, print and digital. Free books are excluded in the calculation of growth rates.
  • In the five weeks since its introduction, Kindle with Special Offers for only $114 is already the bestselling member of the Kindle family in the U.S.
  • Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010.
  • Less than one year after introducing the UK Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk is now selling more Kindle books than hardcover books, even as hardcover sales continue to grow. Since April 1, Amazon.co.uk customers are purchasing Kindle books over hardcover books at a rate of more than 2 to 1.

Pretty amazing, considering the Kindle has only been around since 2007.  Revolutionary even.  Of course, every revolution has its casualties and the eBook revolution looks to continue that trend.  There will be repercussions for the publishing industry, retailers, and eventually the consumer.  Let’s explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of the rise of the ebook.

The Good:

  • Ebooks look like they’re here to stay, either in physical format (Kindle, Nook, Kobo et al) or as apps on other platforms such as the Apple iPad or Blackberry Playbook.  Great news for those of us who jumped on the bandwagon early.  No more worries about “niche” markets or disappearing fads.
  • Now that eBooks are no longer unproven technology to publishers, maybe they’ll take a look through the back catalogs and transfer some if not all of their out of print titles to digital format.  It’s always frustrating to hear of a good book only to find that you’ll have to pay through the nose to acquire a rare copy or to find that only selected books in a series have been translated to digital format.  Just recently I was looking for Flashman by George MacDonald Frasier and discovered that the original is not available on Kindle but Flashman and the Tiger is.  (Book eleven?  Really?!)
  • eBooks are discounted in comparison to physical print.  Generally, a new release hardcover costs the same as a pocket novel when bought in eBook format.  The consumer gets a break, and the publisher certainly doesn’t have the overhead that they would with print and shipping costs.
  • It’s much easier for anyone to publish a book.  No more book agents, rejection letters, etc.  Simply write your book, pay your fees to have it digitized, set your price and go.  eBooks could lead to greater variety at lower prices.

The Bad:

  • It’s much easier for anyone to publish a book.  Think about that for a second.  Bad writing, bad or nonexistent editing, spelling errors–publishers have editors work with aspiring and established writers for a reason.  Sifting through a lot of crap to find that rare gem is not something to look forward to.
  •  How is this going to affect editors, literary agents and publishers as a whole?  They’ll still be working with authors to bring product to market, but many authors will forgo their services and self publish in hope of garnering a greater return.  After all, why take a percentage when you can take the whole thing (minus your own minimal costs)?  Furthermore, will literary agents become redundant?  Remember, it was only a few years ago that travel agents were a real thing. (Okay, technically they’re still around.  Used one lately?)

The Ugly:

  • Now that retailers such as Amazon have a foothold on the market, will they (and the publishers) still feel the need to sell eBooks at a reduced price?  One of the biggest draws of eBooks (for me) is their affordability, but as eBooks proliferate the market, what’s to stop the prices from slowly increasing until they are comparable to physical print?
  • Physical print–with the increased pressure of eBook sales and diminished interest in a physical product–will book prices increase?  Will print runs become shorter (and therefore more expensive) due to reduced demand?  Who’s going to pick up that greater expense?
  • What of brick and mortar book stores?  Are they going to go the route of the video store?
  • Technically, you don’t own an eBook, you lease it.  Libraries have already run into problems with publishers who want them to pay up again (re-“lease” their titles) after a certain number of reads.
  • Finally, how long will retailers maintain your eBook catalog?  Say Amazon has a couple of bad years and ends up in bankruptcy.  Then what?

This is all conjecture for the moment.  The industry is too new and the numbers too fluid to make anything but predictions, however, just like any revolution, the eBook revolution will radically transform the publishing industry in a very short period of time. 

 *For further reading on the subject, try John Steele Gordon’s article, ” The End of the Book?”  at the American or a really interesting article by Narasu Rebbapragada at PC World entitled, “E-Book Prices Fuel Outrage–and Innovation.”

The Manual Typewriter: 1870-2011?

 

The end of an era?
 
 
When I was a kid, I used to read a lot of Stephen King novels, and one always stood out in my mind.  Misery, the story of Paul Sheldon, held against his will by the crazed Annie Wilkes and forced to resurrect the main character of a series of novels that have, shall we say, “held her attention” for a long time.  During the course of his detention, he taps out Misery’s Return, and (spoiler alert) when he gets the chance, clocks her with the aforementioned typewriter.  Try doing that with a laptop and doing any significant damage.
 
The point I took away from the story wasn’t so much that typewriters can be used as lethal weapons, but rather that I’d like to be a writer, pecking out the great Canadian novel (alas, the great American novel is beyond me, both by way of birthplace and temperament) on one of those nifty manuals, whipping out sheet after sheet of brilliant prose and leaving them in a pile to be edited later with a nice red pen.  It didn’t seem too unrealistic a dream either. I’m not too young to remember manual typewriters, having been exposed to them in grade school.  No power assisted key-strokes, just good old-fashioned manual labour.  If you’ve ever tried to make your mark with one of these leviathans, you’ll know what I mean.
 
Eventually, time and progress overtook the manual typewriter.  First it was the electric typewriter, later simple word processors, and finally in recent years, the laptop.  I can even remember when the name “typing class” went out of fashion.  Suddenly, we were taking “keyboarding” lessons, and not only the manuals, but the electrics, were quickly phased out of the local high school.
 
There is irony in nostalgia, however. 
 
After all, today’s word processing programs make writing and editing so much easier than back in the day.  No more reams of wasted paper, no more fiddling with either ink or eraser ribbon, not even that one letter that always seemed to rise slightly above the type. The reality is this: today it is a much easier world in which to be a word smith.  Just a tap of a button and your revision is done.  So, it shouldn’t come as a shock to read that the last maker of manual typewriters has finally stopped production. 
 

     “Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd. has shuttered its facility in Mumbai, India, where as recently as 2009 the company was making 12,000 mechanical typewriters a year.”

 
 
So, is that all she wrote for the typewriter?
 
Well, not exactly.  The key word here is, “manual.”  The good people at the Chicago Tribune have looked further into the matter and for what it’s worth–the typewriter may be in its death throes, but it’s still got a bit of life left.
 
So maybe my dream of sitting in front of an old Underwood with a pile of fresh paper on one side and that great novel on the other, celebratory bottle of whiskey off to the side for the moment I declare my work done, isn’t quite a pipe-dream yet.  Perhaps it’s time to browse eBay.

License Revoked!

So, you’re a Librarian, eh?

In a February 25, 2011 article by Josh Hadro of the Library Journal, it was noted that HarperCollins is instituting a new program regarding licensing of ebooks to libraries.  As discussed in my earlier post, the long and short of it is, “26 reads and your license is revoked.”  HarperCollins take on the subject was that 26 viewings was the equivalent of about a year and a half of circulation for a physical book and also the average lifespan of said physical book.  While I understand their rationale, it’s pretty much bogus.  If you were to extend it to its logical conclusion, then libraries would have to send back any title that had been checked out 26 times, whether in good condition or not.

So, today is another day, and feeling the need to justify their actions (Honey, why do you make me hurt you?), HarperCollins responded to criticism in an open letter to Librarians, explaining their position in further detail:

   

March 1, 2010

Open Letter to Librarians:

Over the last few days we at HarperCollins have been listening to the discussion about changes to our e-book policy. HarperCollins is committed to libraries and recognizes that they are a crucial part of our local communities. We count on librarians reading our books and spreading the word about our authors’ good works. Our goal is to continue to sell e-books to libraries, while balancing the challenges and opportunities that the growth of e-books presents to all who are actively engaged in buying, selling, lending, promoting, writing and publishing books.

We are striving to find the best model for all parties. Guiding our decisions is our goal to make sure that all of our sales channels, in both print and digital formats, remain viable, not just today but in the future. Ensuring broad distribution through booksellers and libraries provides the greatest choice for readers and the greatest opportunity for authors’ books to be discovered.

Our prior e-book policy for libraries dates back almost 10 years to a time when the number of e-readers was too small to measure. It is projected that the installed base of e-reading devices domestically will reach nearly 40 million this year. We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors. We are looking to balance the mission and needs of libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers, so that the library channel can thrive alongside the growing e-book retail channel.

We spent many months examining the issues before making this change. We talked to agents and distributors, had discussions with librarians, and participated in the Library Journal e-book Summit and other conferences. Twenty-six circulations can provide a year of availability for titles with the highest demand, and much longer for other titles and core backlist. If a library decides to repurchase an e-book later in the book’s life, the price will be significantly lower as it will be pegged to a paperback price point. Our hope is to make the cost per circulation for e-books less than that of the corresponding physical book. In fact, the digital list price is generally 20% lower than the print version, and sold to distributors at a discount.

We invite libraries and library distributors to partner with us as we move forward with these new policies. We look forward to ongoing discussions about changes in this space and will continue to look to collaborate on mutually beneficial opportunities.

Sincerely,

Josh Marwell
President of Sales
HarperCollinsPublishers

(Please note that this letter was reproduced from the March 1st column by Josh Hadro and Francine Fialkoff at Library Journal)

So, where should we start?  How about here:

“We are striving to find the best model for all parties. Guiding our decisions is our goal to make sure that all of our sales channels, in both print and digital formats, remain viable, not just today but in the future. Ensuring broad distribution through booksellers and libraries provides the greatest choice for readers and the greatest opportunity for authors’ books to be discovered.”

 Well, fair enough.  It is a business, not a charity.

“We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.”

Also fair.  While I don’t have access to their financials, publishing has never been a business with a high profit margin.  And perpetuity is certainly a long time.  Although…I have never heard of libraries placing “additional” (or any, frankly) pressure on physical bookstores.  People either use libraries or they don’t.  The real pressure on physical bookstores will come with the continuing rise of sales of ereaders and ebooks.  Several large chains have already noted this pressure and responded by marketing their own ereaders.  See Barnes and Noble’s Nook, or Chapters Kobo as two examples.

As for royalties to authors, I highly doubt that library copies of their books are the bread and butter of their existence.  In fact, they’re a great marketing tool.

“Twenty-six circulations can provide a year of availability for titles with the highest demand, and much longer for other titles and core backlist. If a library decides to repurchase an e-book later in the book’s life, the price will be significantly lower as it will be pegged to a paperback price point. Our hope is to make the cost per circulation for e-books less than that of the corresponding physical book. In fact, the digital list price is generally 20% lower than the print version, and sold to distributors at a discount.”

Okay, here’s where I take real issue with HarperCollins position.  It’s great that they will offer a significant discount on repurchases, but their arbitrary “26 reads and you’re out” does not reflect the physical value of a book.  How many times have you been to a library and grabbed a hardcover that dates back to the 60’s?  Hardcover books have a significantly longer shelf life than HarperCollins is asserting, unless they’re farming out production to some sketchy suppliers.

So, what’s the solution?

Well, my thoughts on the subject are to take the circulation limitation off the table and offer up these licenses for a realistic time period.  That would be up to the publisher and their counterparts in the library world to work out amongst themselves, but a fair (to my mind) limitation would be somewhere between three and five years. 

It’s interesting that this issue has finally come to light.  I’m not sure if the general public is aware that ebooks are sold as licenses, rather than a product that’s your own to do with what you will.  In the same article, Hadro links to an ebook user’s Bill of Rights, as a consumer’s defense against constant and arbitrary revision of rules of use.  With the ebook industry still in its infancy, a bill of rights would go a long way to protecting consumers from misuse (such as gouging libraries) of ebook licenses.

Huckleberry Finn gets his mouth washed out with P.C. brand soap.

As readers of this blog may know by now (all four of you!), I am not averse to messing with the classics.  Take some Jane Austen, add a zombie or two and all of a sudden you’ve got Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a new and interesting take on an old story.  You may argue that it’s a violation of the original author’s intent, or a debasement of their art, but hey, as long as the original is around to be read in concert (or instead of) the re-imagining, well, to me it’s no harm, no foul.

Then again, sometimes people edit books for content, taking away from the original rather than adding to it.  Such is the case with Alan Gribben’s, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition to be released in February.  In this revised version of the classic Twain novels, all references to the word “nigger” have been removed and replaced with the word “slave”. (note to readers: that will be the one and only time I use that word in this post…for illustration only)  It should also be noted that the word “injun” has been redacted from Tom Sawyer’s tale.  

Gribben explains away his tampering with the original in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, in which he says,

This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind…Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

He goes on to talk of his discussions with various teachers and how many have become reluctant to teach the novel in the classroom because they felt the source material was not appropriate in this day and age.

For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” Gribbens says. 

Attempting to correct this unnecessary state of affairs, he took it upon himself  to create a version of the classic more “accessible” to modern readers sensibilities and NewSouthBooks picked it up for printing and distribution.

And with that, sometimes we need to be reminded that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Here’s the interesting thing about NewSouth Books: If you go to their homepage and click on the link About NewSouth Books, Suzanne La Rosa (the publisher) gives her insite into what they want to do as publishers:

We gravitate to material which enhances our understanding of who we are and which asks us to stretch in our understanding of others,” she says in a 2008 article with the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Really?  How is it enhancing the reader’s understanding of the ante-bellum South by censoring any reference to the attitudes and word usage of those times?  Twain wrote social commentary in the guise of literature, and challenged the reader to face ugly truths.  Slavery did exist, African Americans were the victims of a truly horrible slur that denigrated their very existence, and to my mind, it shows no courage whatsoever to gloss it over.  Courage would be to confront and examine the text and why Twain would feel compelled to add the “N” word to his tale. 

Tony Norman wrote a great article on the subject in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette this past Friday, in which he calls professor Gribben’s re-imagining,

a misguided attempt to rescue the novel from those who stupidly accuse it of racism“.

and, 

Despite its resemblance to a child’s adventure story, “Huckleberry Finn” is a dagger to the heart of white privilege and its all-pervasive cultural assumptions. That’s why the racists of Twain’s time despised the book. They knew it was a veiled attack. We’re too culturally self-absorbed to see what was obvious to them. We’re so hung up on a word we miss the liberating speeches.”

That’s the point now, isn’t it?  Gribben and his cohorts can’t see the forest for the trees. 

In the final analysis, this is all probably a flash in the pan.  After all, there are numerous editions of Twain’s books on the market, so it’s not as if you can’t find the original text.  As for Alan Gribben, his censorship comes from a desire to do what he thinks is the right thing.  However, if you edit on the basis of what might offend, what comes next?  Christopher Howse asks that same question in the Telegraph.  No more Merchant of Venice because it could be offensive to Jews? 

And in that vein, how long might it be before history texts are edited for content?  Will the Holocaust simply become, “that bad thing that happened?” 

Concentration camp becomes “re-education centre?”

Nazi becomes “misguided soul?”

I exaggerate for effect, but really, how is this much different? If we can’t examine the past in the context with which it happened, then what really can we learn from it?  Rright about now I would love to hear what Mark Twain would have to say on the subject.  I suspect it would be interesting.

Oxford Dictionary (Print edition) just became a collectable.

Now what am I going to showcase on my coffee table?!

As of the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Press will no longer be making print copies available of the complete edition of their venerable dictionary, preferring to go digital and have it only available (in the full version) on-line.  Apparently it’s not commercially viable for the printer to actually “print” copies of the full dictionary…and the numbers bear that out.  Each copy of the Oxford English dictionary costs the buyer £750 (roughly $1200/Cdn) and has never been sold in numbers that make the Press a profit.  In fact, it’s always been subsidized by sales of the Oxford’s other publications. However, an online subscription costs £240/year (roughly $385/Cdn) and garners viewership of 2 million per month (granted, that’s not to say they have 2 million subscriptions!).

Harry Mount laments the death of the Oxford in an interesting article on the history of the Oxford in the Daily Mail (ironically in the on-line edition), decrying the loss of one’s ability to thumb through the dictionary looking for that unexpected gem you might otherwise not come across on-line.  My suggestion…a randomizer button.

The Washington Post also has a nice obit for the Oxford.

 

However, it’s not as if the Oxford is going to disappear from your local school or library.  There are no plans to stop printing the min-Oxford anytime soon and I’d like to think most schools would have both access to the internet and to this quintessential dictionary.

(Note:  Thanks to the UK Daily Mail for all statistics quoted above)

Outliers: The Story of Success.

outliers-malcolm-gladwellWhat is it that makes a man or woman successful?  Is it sheer intelligence?  An undefinable drive to succeed?  Or is the difference between a failure and a success belong in such a simple thing as the date of one’s birth?  Maybe  the intensity of their parents involvement in their upbringing?  Simple tradition and social background? Malcolm Gladwell , former business and science reporter for the Washington Post, and staff writer for the New Yorker, attempts (and succeeds) in asking and answering these questions in “Outliers:The Story of Success.” (Little, Brown and Company, 309 pp.)  It’s a convincing argument, that the measure of success can sometimes be found in a person’s heritage (their family), where they were born and raised, and even when they were born. 

For instance, Gladwell looks at the statistics surrounding minor league hockey in Canada, and Soccer in other countries, and comes to the conclusion that those born early in the year have a much greater chance of success in their respective sports.  Now why is this?  Gladwell suggests it’s the result of simple happenstance.  The cut off date for enrollment is January, therefore, the biggest kids  playing will be those born near the start of the year.  That means a lot when one player is physically more mature than another, especially when the changes are more dramatic at an early age.  Put a 10 year old up against a child that won’t turn 10 for another 8 months, and it’s statistically provable that everything else being equal, the older child will have an advantage.  This advantage snowballs when the older player– by virtue of size or coordination that comes with age– gets more ice time, hence more practice, and generally becomes a better player.  Gladwell supports these assertions with a series of tables chronicling certain winning teams and their player’s birth-dates.

Not convinced yet?  Try chapter 3, “The Trouble with Geniuses,” and the story of Chris Langan, the “smartest man in America.”  Here’s a fellow who is a genius, literally, and yet lives a modest life, unable to function in the world of academics.  Gladwell interviewed him about his upbringing, and found that his parents pretty much abandoned their role in guiding his social life.  Chris was smart…brilliant even, but he did not have the social skills to work the system.  Something as simple as applying for academic assistance would simply not occur to him, a guy with a measured I.Q. of between 195 and 200.  He was able to grasp elusive concepts with ease…and yet couldn’t get through college.

Contrasted with Langan was the story of Robert Oppenheimer, another genius and a theoretical physicist best known for his work on the Manhattan Project.  Oppenheimer had a family that was very interested in his upbringing, and even though he proved to have an unstable nature (once he set a poisoned apple on the desk of his tutor), he had the social skills to get himself out of trouble and generally excel.

 Gladwell also has sections on Bill Gates and Bill Joy, computer software geniuses who were given advantages that allowed them to be ready when the opportunity came to be on the ground floor of the computer boom.  Simple things, like access to computer time in an age where it was generally prohibitively expensive, allowed these men to train the magic “10 000” hours that Gladwell posits is the number that guarantee’s proficiency in any field.   There’s even a neat little section on the Beatles and their 10 000 hours in Hamburg!

Another interesting section of the book deals with pilot proficiency and the pilot’s country of origin.  He demonstrates convincingly that different societies create better (or worse) pilots, and it’s all a matter of their societal traits.  A society rigid in hierarchy, such as Brazil or South Korea, will create pilots less willing to question their superiors when they see  a problem, but societies that believe in equality of social standing, such as the United States, will create pilots willing to speak up, and therefore a safer flight environment.  With minute by minute accounts of the crashes of Avianca flight 52  and KAL flight 801, he presents a terrifying example of societal tendencies creating a situation bound for disaster.

Finally, Gladwell examines his own parentage, to try and discover how a family only a few generations removed from slavery was able to excel while those around remained in poverty.  Shockingly, his claim rings true that it had much to do with the colour of their skin. 

Granted, there are three types of lies.  Lies, damn lies, and Statistics.  But if Gladwell is lying with statistics…he’s done a masterful job.