New York City
1. Does anybody out there believe Macmillan wants to sell electronic books? I don't think they do.
There was an exciting and dramatic showdown this weekend between Amazon.com and Macmillan, the parent company of many top book publishers including Farrar Straus Giroux, Times Books and Tor. Amazon wants to price e-books at $9.99. Macmillan wants to price e-books higher and introduce tiered pricing so that an e-book costs more when it's new. Amazon tried to kick Macmillan where it hurts by suddenly refusing to sell their books on Amazon.com, cleverly timing this surprising move for a weekend so as to blunt the press response. Macmillan held strong and Amazon gave in on Sunday afternoon.
Most of the commentary has followed the "Amazon blinked!" line. Obviously their gambit failed, and their strategy in threatening access to Macmillan's books does not seem to have been well-chosen. Their strategy in pulling this stunt on a weekend failed too, because this is the weekend between the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl and the suspenseful Amazon/Macmillan standoff only provided the gridiron battle football fans were missing. Still, I'm not joining the anti-Amazon cheering section today, because I believe a $9.99 price point will help e-books flourish. Book publishers are wary of e-books, and may use higher price points as part of a strategy to discourage and delay customer acceptance of electronic publishing.
If you've been around here a while, you know where I stand on book pricing. I think premium-level/tiered pricing is an archaic and dysfunctional tradition that discourages impulse buying and customer experimentation. I don't understand why Amazon thought this weekend's showdown would work, and I also don't understand their use of the word "monopoly" to describe Macmillan (of course a book publisher has a monopoly on its own titles!). But Amazon is trying to create a new electronic marketplace for books, and Macmillan's action to tightly control e-book pricing amounts to a chokehold for this marketplace. I'll ask it again: does anybody out there really believe Macmillan wants to sell e-books at all? Sure, just as much as record companies want to sell MP3s instead of CDs.
This was a fair battle and Macmillan won, but the e-book pricing situation reminds me of Barack Obama's smart question about health care reform during this week's State of the Union address: "does anybody have a better idea?". Macmillan's victory is a victory for traditional premium/tiered book pricing. MobyLives's closing line above says it best: "this ain't over yet".
2. I'll be part of a panel discussion titled "The Oldest Media Goes Social" this Wednesday at 12 noon in New York City, along with author A. J. Jacobs, publicists Natalie Lin and Meryl Moss and BlogAds.com entrepreneur Henry Copeland.
3. Notable novelists playing cards. Shut up and deal ...
This isn't widely remembered today, but for about fifteen years Patti Smith was nearly as reclusive as J. D. Salinger. First she helped invent punk rock and released four superb albums in the 1970s, then she disappeared to marry fellow musician Fred "Sonic" Smith and live quietly as a mother and wife on the shores of Lake St. Clair in Michigan. She magically reappeared and resumed her transformative performance art in the mid-90s after her husband's sudden death, and now can be spotted happily walking around the vicinity of McDougal Street and Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, as natural as if she'd never left.
All of which is to say that there are many reasons why it would have been hard to believe several years ago that a memoir by Patti Smith would ever appear on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. One reason is that it's still hard to believe that Patti would ever write a memoir; another is is that, until fairly recently, the New York Times Book Review was rather too stodgy to have put her on the cover if she had. And when did the NYTBR stop being so stodgy? I've met editor Sam Tanenhaus, who has built his career upon "stodgy". This cannot have been his idea, so one of his deputies must get the credit.
Patti's memoir is called Just Kids and it's about her early years in the Warholesque New York City/St. Marks Place scene with her BFF Robert Mapplethorpe. Of course I'll read the book, and I don't really need to consult Tom Carson's mostly positive review to know there's a 99% chance I'll love it. Maybe someday she'll write about her 15 year seclusion and her return to live performance as well.
Candy Slice naturally eclipses the rest of this weekend's publication on first glance, though there's much else good here. Young novelist Wells Tower appraises his elder T. Coraghessan Boyle's Wild Child: Stories and delivers a carefully reasoned verdict: Boyle pulls off the title story (about the Wild Boy of Aveyron) but is elsewhere too haphazard, too careless with his ambitious plots. I'm impressed by Tower's analysis, though it's strange that he spends a full page describing Boyle's handling of the Wild Boy of Aveyron story without mentioning that Francois Truffaut made a great movie about the same subject, also titled Wild Child in English. Was Boyle's story inspired by Truffaut's film? Does Tower even know that this film exists? I'm sure I'm not the only reader stopped short by this question.
Liesl Schillinger frames Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God attractively, and I'm glad to learn that this book is a novel. I had seen its title but understood it literally; I'm glad it's a fictional treatment, because I already sat through Philosophy 101. Kaiama L. Glover introduces us to the main topics covered in Chinua Achebe's essay collection The Education of a British-Protected Child, and Amy Bloom steps us through some familiar but still important questions about the nature and sustainability of happiness in an endpaper that sweeps through a few recent books promising to help us attain it.
I'm sure a memoir by Patti Smith will bring more happiness than any self-help book, and on the Patti account I have only one slight complaint: several mentions in this Book Review might lead a Patti neophyte to think that her fame is based on her 1978 hit single "Because the Night". That song was a chart success, but I have one word to say to anybody who wants to know what the fuss was really about. Horses.
1. So the New York Times is going ahead with a payment wall for its website. I still say this is a bad business decision. Newspapers have always made more money on advertising than on sales, and newspapers that force readers to pay for online content will significantly harm their advertising numbers without bringing in a lot of subscription revenue. The New York Times is about to get much smaller.
1. Forest Hills. I don't know these people but I feel like I do.
I still haven't mentally returned from vacation, still haven't gotten back into the LitKicks swing. I've been running around a lot, actually, as well as working hard behind the scenes on a new software platform for the site that has so far only succeeded in breaking the Action Poetry pages (they will be back soon, I promise). More soon! Till then ... links:
1. I first spotted New York City "character poet" Bingo Gazingo at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002 doing a crazy improvisation about his lust for an R&B singer named "Mariah Canary". I then caught many more unhinged performances at the Bowery by this elderly Queens rhymer, who, I'm sorry to hear, passed away on New Years Day. The world of poetry may not long remember Bingo Gazingo, despite a brief long-ago moment on MTV, but I hope every poetry nightclub in the world has a weird old geezer like him around to liven up the room.
2. "We are not slumming here, or surrendering to the carnival of the web. Quite the contrary. We are hoping to offer an example of resistance to it." Really! Just by showing up, they're going to do all that? The New Republic has launched it's new book section The Book with a big blast of self-congratulation.
5. Jim Morrison's favorite beatnik cafe.
7. Rani Singh, an old friend, has finally published a book about the oddly great Harry Smith.
10. Scott Esposito ponders writers vs. commentators.
11. The Millions asks a few bloggers to name the best literary readings they'd ever attended. It's a good question, and I had to pause for about three seconds before coming up with my own answer. Then I remembered seeing Allen Ginsberg. The kind of full-body, whole-soul performances he delivered -- funny, dead serious, totally in the moment -- set a standard for me that no other performer has yet matched.
I've really been looking forward to checking out the Nook e-reader, Barnes and Noble's new major competitor to Amazon's Kindle. I had the most positive attitude in the world last week when I showed up at a big new Nook demonstration booth on the ground floor of the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. One reason I've had high hopes for the Nook is that I haven't been impressed by the Kindle's physical specifications or its price, and I'm just waiting for some company to develop a practical, affordable, compact, ergonomic device that will blow the electronic reader marketplace open.
Bob Dylan's new album "Love and Theft" was hitting the streets on September 11, 2001. I was building his website, and by the last week of August I knew I was in trouble.
Dan Levy and I had thrown Dylan's earlier "Time Out Of Mind" website together easily with Perl and a whole lot of BBEdit in 1997. Now these software tools were considered primitive (they were) but I hadn't realized how difficult Java-based server-side programming would be. I'd done some graphic Java programming back in 1996, and I'd built the JSP pages for the iVillage UK message boards (while Evan and Jim handled the server side) and for LitKicks. But now I was responsible all by myself for two complex server-side applications: Jive message boards, which worked fine, and a Lucene search engine for all of Bob Dylan's lyrics, which was dragging badly.
Dan wanted a full working preview on Friday, September 7. It wasn't ready, and I was starting to panic. I didn't want Dan to know how far behind I was, so I started avoiding his calls. My kids stay with me on weekends, so I got almost no work done Saturday or Sunday morning. I brought them back to Meg Sunday afternoon, and began digging in for an all-nighter.
It was stupid of me to think that I could just cruise in, grab some open source Java code and deliver a perfect application in a couple of weeks. Furious at my own bad judgment, I spent Sunday evening staring in dismay at oblique error messages, wondering what would happen if Tuesday, September 11 rolled around and the site was still not ready. The "bobdylan.com" URL was going to appear on the CD's liner notes, and since URLs were novel on CD packages in 2001, it was important that the site be in good shape once everybody showed up. What had I gotten myself into? Sony Music was not going to hold off the release of the CD because Levi Asher was getting Java runtime errors. I felt like I was facing one of the worst and most visible deadline fuckups of my life.
1. I've seen a lot of things in my life, but I've never before had the pleasure of watching a bookstore get born. I met blogger/bookseller Jessica Stockton Bagnulo three years ago when we both joined the Litblog Co-op at the same time, and I noted it here in January 2008 when she was awarded seed money to start her own bookstore in Brooklyn. The store is now about to open and looks just great. I hope to make it to the opening day party this Saturday at 7 pm, and you're invited too ...
(This is chapter 36 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I was just hitting my stride in my new role as Director of Community Services at iVillage when the dot-com stock market began to fall. It happened quietly, imperceptibly. Some trace the start of the crash to a March 2000 article in Barron's magazine naming several Internet companies that were spending money too quickly and likely to go out of business soon.
Given the intensity of new media vs. old media competition during the Internet's early years, it's ironic that a magazine article brought the dot-com economy down.
2. Herta Mueller writes about Romania during the painful years of the Nicolai Ceausecsu regime, and coincidentally I've been reading a impressive new novel about the same subject, Velvet Totalitarianism by Claudia Moscovici. You can find an excerpt from the introduction on the author's MySpace page.