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Noted with Interest, November 2011

Nov 30, 2011

One Nation, Under Arms
By Todd S. Purdum. The release of George Kennan’s personal papers has been a revelation: “What is being done to our country today is surely something from which we will never be able to restore the sort of a country you and I have known.” From Vanity Fair, January 2012. Accessed November 30, 2011.

This Is What Revolution Looks Like
By Chris Hedges. As the parks are cleared by the forces of the corporatocracy, Hedges sees victory on the horizon. From Truthdig.com, Nov 15, 2011. Accessed Nov 15, 2011.

Breathing New Life Into Our Democracy: Part I of III
By Deborah Coyne. From Canadians Without Borders, undated. See also Part II and Part III. Accessed November 12, 2011.

Wall Street Isn’t Winning—It’s Cheating
by Matt Taibbi. From Rolling Stone, October 25, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2011.

Finding Freedom in Handcuffs
by Chris Hedges. From Truthdig.com, November 7, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2011.

tags: Noted with Interest

The New Anarchy

Nov 13, 2011
We are in a new age now. An age in which the many are subservient to the few. In which the wealth accorded those few outstrip the most magnificent treasuries of medieval monarchies or eastern potentates. In which anxiety, suffering, and want is, increasingly and inexorably, to be the lot of the 99%.

We have 25 million unemployed Americans and no jobs for them, either today or on the horizon. We probably have another 25 million or more working at part-time and/or low-wage jobs which barely—or don’t—allow them to scrape by. We have over 46 million Americans living without an income our government says is necessary to afford the basic necessities of life. And our government’s idea of what those necessities are is cruelly basic, indeed. Can you imagine supporting a spouse and two children on a gross salary of $22,350 a year?

The employment situation is not going to improve because the 1% have figured out how to prosper without the services or consumption of the lion’s share of the 99%. Scarcely anyone is needed to raise our food anymore, now that the “green revolution” and factory farming are well in place. Scarcely anyone is needed to manufacture the goods we consume, now that most manufacturing has been shifted to low-income labor in nations unhindered by environmental, safety, or other annoying considerations. Scarcely anyone is needed to perform a wide spectrum of services, from technology support, medical assistance, and legal research down to flipping burgers and pumping gas, now that the benefits of technology are maturing. Certainly no one is needed to vote any longer, our democratic institutions having been privatized by the corporatocracy.

Webster’s first definition of anarchy is “absence of government.” What we are experiencing is what I would call the New Anarchy, where institutions of public welfare, shared societal goals and responsibilities, and commonly held aspirations and the structures supported to realize those aspirations have been allowed to fade and disappear before our eyes. The “Me Generation” has been succeeded by the “Only Me Generation.”

Without a significant attitude adjustment to halt the runaway and quite literally antisocial train we find ourselves on, a great crash is in all our futures. A dog-eat-dog world can only end in a lonely death for the one dog left standing.

There is a better way, and it has been preached by preachers and sociologists and community organizers and philosophers and politicians since time immemorial. Ben Franklin may have said it best: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The gibbets are in place, and the bodies are beginning to pile up.
tags: ATN | New Political Party | Politics

The End of Libraries, Part IV

Nov 12, 2011
There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the Internet over Amazon’s new Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. A Google search will turn up many more instances than I could hope to footnote here. Be sure to read the reader Comments on the news articles for a full helping of the panic and despair sweeping the world, particularly among writers.

I am not sure they have as much to worry about as they think they do. However, Amazon has been less than forthcoming regarding the details of their financial arrangements with publishers and authors. Let’s look at what we know about those arrangements so far.

In a Wall Street Journal article published the day after the Lending Library was announced,1 the following was revealed regarding the finances of the deal:

Russell Grandinetti, vice president for Kindle content, said “the vast majority” of participating publishers were receiving a flat fee for their titles, while a more limited group is being paid the wholesale price for each title that is borrowed. “For those publishers, we’re treating each book borrowed as a sale,” he said.
Let’s look at these two remittance models, starting with the flat fee arrangement which covers “the vast majority” of titles. I at first thought a flat fee arrangement would have to favor one party over another. However, an article from Bloomberg via Gulfnews.com2 reports that Amazon’s flat fee payment for “a group of books” is good only “over a period of time.” This being the case, one assumes the parties would be able to renegotiate terms after that period of time (whatever it may be) had expired.

However, it is this arrangement which may deservedly cause concern among writers regarding where their share is coming from and how much it will be. Until more is known about the details of this arrangement, I cannot come to any reliable conclusions. If I were an author, however, and my book was included in the Kindle library under this remittance model, I would be speaking with my publisher by now, if not my lawyer.

I feel on firmer ground when examining the other arrangement, wherein Amazon purchases a copy of a title when it loans it out. On first glance, this struck me as a lunatic move, but upon closer consideration I think it reveals Amazon to be crazy like a fox.

If Amazon is buying a copy of a book at the same wholesale price which they would pay to the publisher when and if a customer bought the book through them, then they own that book just as a public library does and I would grant them as much right to put it into their “Lending Library” as any public library could. If they then loan that copy to an Amazon Prime customer and another customer wants it while the first one has it, Amazon will need to buy a second copy of the book before lending it out to two people simultaneously, in order not to be in violation of copyright. I am assuming that is what they are doing.

If so, writers—and readers—should be ecstatic. Amazon, overnight, has declared itself a SuperLibrary. Anyone with a $79 annual Prime membership can check out any of 5,000 titles. If a thousand customers check out any one title under this arrangement in the first month, a thousand copies of their book will be sold to the Amazon Lending Library. Amazon then retains those thousand copies to loan out to additional Prime members who ask for it in the second month, at no additional cost to Amazon.

With this model, everyone wins. The publisher sells as many copies of a title as there are interested Prime customers in a single month, with (I assume) standard royalties accruing to the authors. The Prime customers don’t have to wait to check out a desired title, which most of us have to do now in borrowing through our public library.

You may be sure the one-a-month limitation on loaned titles won’t last once everyone realizes how much money there is to be made by opening the floodgates of digital book lending, though subscribers will undoubtedly pay more for enhanced services.

If Amazon can pull off a real Netflix model for its Lending Library, they will have me as a customer for life. That model, however, must come close to including the following features:
  • Essentially any book I want to read is available to me;
  • I can read it on any eReading device;
  • I can have at least three titles checked out at one time;
  • My annual limitation on loans is determined only by how fast I read;
  • And the price is kept under $2 per title on average (which is about what I pay for Netflix movies). I read about 65 books a year and start, but don’t finish, another 15 or so. To borrow 80 titles a year, I am willing to pay $160, or roughly twice what Amazon Prime costs now.
Publishers and public libraries still have time to forge an alliance similar to the one laid out in Part II of this series. And although I there recommend a lower rate in the public library lending model, I am convinced the substantially higher number of checkouts would more than make up the difference in revenue generation.

With the announcement of the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, the clock is now ticking. If Amazon can pull this off, as I said in Part I of this series, I will still vote to support my public library. Millions of others, however, will not, and public libraries will fade from our landscape as quickly as blacksmiths in a world of horseless carriages.

And Amazon’s triumph will be a national tragedy.
1Amazon, Now a Book Lender, by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Stu Woo, from the Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2011, accessed November 5, 2011. 2Amazon offering free titles in e-library, from gulfnews.com, undated, accessed November 12, 2011.
Books and Libraries

The End of Libraries, Part III

Nov 06, 2011

It has begun. Last Wednesday, Amazon announced its new book-lending add-on to its Amazon Prime service.1 What it offers is fairly meager and the model, particularly in its remittance to publishers, is, to my mind, seriously flawed:

  1. Customers may check out only one book per calendar month.
  2. A mere 5,000 titles are available, and none from the top six U.S. publishers.
  3. Loans can only be read on the Kindle family of products and not on other devices, even if they run the Kindle app.
  4. The service costs $79 per year which, if the customer only uses it for book lending, works out to $6.58 per loan. Many Kindle titles can be purchased for that price or not much more.
  5. Remittance to publishers is either by flat fee, in which case one of the parties is probably getting a crummy deal; or, if I am reading the WSJ story correctly, Amazon is paying the publisher for each loan the equivalent of what they would pay them for a sale.
Regardless of these shortcomings, the door is open, and you may be sure Master Bezos has firmly planted his foot in it. Additional titles, supported eReaders, assorted features, and (undoubtedly) pricing structures will follow as soon as publishers realize how profitable it will be to loan their books to millions of readers instead of selling them to thousands.

Meanwhile, librarians have already begun whistling in the dark2,3, their arguments relying primarily on the weakness of the initial Amazon product. Still, that product is already miles ahead of what is being offered by most public libraries where, if a title is even available to you in eBook format, you will almost certainly have a long wait for it.

In the final analysis, readers want to read and writers want to be read. Any institution which facilitates that relationship will flourish; any that inhibits it will fade. At present, Amazon is facilitating and libraries and publishers are inhibiting the relationship. If the latter don’t get their act together—and fast—they will render themselves redundant. Publishers may come and go, but America will let its public library network fade at its peril. This further blot on our already tattered escutcheon is not one from which we will easily recover, in our headlong pursuit of oligarchy, mediocrity, and irrelevance.

1 Amazon, Now a Book Lender, by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Stu Woo, from the Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2011, accessed November 5, 2011.
2 Why Amazon’s Lending Library Is Not a Threat to Public Libraries, by Bobbi Newman, from Librarian by Day, November 4, 2011, accessed November 5, 2011.
3 Amazon Starts Lending Ebooks, but Head of ALA Says Libraries Still Offer Best Value, by Michael Kelley, from The Digital Shift, November 3, 2011, accessed November 5, 2011.
tags: Books and Libraries | Media

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