Monday, April 30, 2012

So, I had an excellent time at Penguicon, and was really excited to see my panel on Library and Librarians in the Information Age so well attended. We had a lot of audience participation, and so didn't get to talk about everything we had on our list of issues. But, that's just more things for me to blog about, right?

First I'll recap what actually was covered before I move further afield. Libraries are repositories of information, and librarians are the caretakers, gatekeepers, and facilitators of these resources. It is there job to develop the collection, make sure the collection stays relevant to their service area, and to provide access to the collection to their patrons.

Libraries house a wide variety of materials. Nearly all libraries collect ink-and-paper books. A public district or community library will generally collect books for all ages in fiction and non-fiction. It is also now standard for libraries to stock CDs, as well as audio books in formats from cassette tape to CD to MP3. More and more libraries are stocking DVDs and BluRays, replacing video rental stores in their communities. Each of these materials comes with their own host of problems. First, they all take up space, and every library has limited space. My library (CADL) is actively weeding our video tape collection, because a video takes up the same space as three or four DVDs or BluRays. Book bindings do not last forever. Discs scratch, and can only be resurfaced a certain number of times. BluRays cannot be resurfaced at all. Any item that incurs water/liquid damage has the potential to grow mold. The upside to all of these materials is that the library owns them outright and can circulate them as they choose.

As technology changes, so are libraries. This brings us to the topic of biggest interest to the panel's audience: e-books and the library. For the moment, aside from small exceptions, there is one company all libraries work with for their digital collections: Overdrive. This is true for Canada as well as the United States. A library will contract with Overdrive, who will then house their digital collection on their servers, facilitate the buying of these materials from distributors and publishers, and provide the programming which allows library patrons to check out materials via their library card. Essentially, it is a complete privatization of a portion of library services. For the most part, libraries cannot opt out of this system, as there is nothing to replace it with. It is not cost effective for a library to try and duplicate these services in house. The cost of just paying someone to build the software alone is price prohibitive. But Overdrive does come with it's downfalls. Not all publishers sell their books to Overdrive, thereby cutting libraries off from their digital editions. This includes most of the Big Seix publishers. Those who are still selling to Overdrive are winnowing their bestseller list, so that e-book editions of major releases are not available to Overdrive and participating libraries until well after that book has released to retailers. It should also be noted that libraries are still free to buy print copies of these books at the same time retailers do, just no the digital copies. Overdrive, not the library, ultimately controls access to materials and those materials' DRM.

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and is essentially a list of rules coded into digital media which restricts its use. Every publisher and distributor has different DRMs, but they often include not being able to freely copy the file. While you can own a paper-and-ink book outright, you often do not own an e-book outright. It comes with terms and conditions. For libraries, DRM always means a limit to how many circulations they own the book for. Once a certain number of people have checked that book out, the library no longer can loan it and must repurchase a licensing agreement. Those limits are also generally less than what an average print book can handle before it falls apart. Also terrifying from a censorship point of view: e-books are insanely susceptible to change. A publisher/distributor can go into the master file and change it, and those changes are reflected in all copies of this file (because with DRM, all copies remain linked together), often immediately and without your knowledge or permission as the 'owner' of that copy. While this is mainly limited to text corrections (typos, spelling, etc), it is very easy for this to turn into a dystopian nightmare. What happens when The Diary of Ann Frank that we know today turns into The Diary of Ann Frank that exists in North Korea? A reader may know that this is not the same book it once was, but will be unable to find any unchanged digital copy, at least legally. The only record of those changes would be in the printed book, provided they are still around.

In conclusion of the first part of this series, I'd point you over to Charles Stross's website and blog. Stross is an SFF author who often blogs about current technology and their potential ramifications. He's done a number of excellent articles on e-books, DRM, their benefits and their downfalls.

Friday, April 27, 2012


I can't believe that April has flown by so fast, and that Penguicon is already here. For those of you who don't know, Penguicon is a general geek convention run on an open source model that happens every year in the Detroit, MI area. Just about anyone who wants to can present a panel on just about everything. Program tracks include science, technology, literature, gaming, web comics, food, and so much more.

The guest of honor this year is none other than John Scalzi, author and blogger extraordinaire. Jim Hines and Saladin Ahmed will also be on several panels throughout the weekend.

Also of note (at least for me) is that I will be co-presenting a panel on "Libraries and Librarians in the Information Age" at 2 pm on Saturday in the Franklin Room. What challenges do we have? What role are we still serving? What are the needs of the populations we serve? If you're making it to Penguicon this year, I highly encourage you to attend! My co-presenter and I have a lot of ideas to throw at you. I may post an entry or two on the panel and what we discussed later this week if I find some sanity. (Note: Penguicon is not conducive to me finding my sanity, but rather loosing more of it.)

For more information, check out Penguicon's website. Registration can be done at the door, and the new much bigger hotel may still have rooms available.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Short Break

I'll be taking a short hiatus from my blog. I don't even like to think about how long my to-do list is for the next three weeks, and somehow it's just getting more and more complicated. I barely have enough time to collect my thoughts, much less blog.

So, I may pop in and post links to newly posted reviews by me at the Ranting Dragon, but for the most part I'll be quiet. I promise to come back in a reasonable amount of time with new entries.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

I initially found this book at the library. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I've been finding a lot of my books through online resources lately, instead of browsing the shelves for likely candidates. This lovely creature I had the good luck to handle as it was going onto our hold shelves for a patron's request. It's a beauty, with lovely accordian folded pages. In other words, the pages aren't glued into a binding, but fold up like an accordian. One side of the fold is one story, the reverse is another story.

I admit, I was tempted to read this book just on the cool factor. However, I did actually stop to take a look at the back cover blurb (the book comes in a box that acts like a cover), and found it to be about a pair of star-crossed lovers. That sounded fun, so I put it on hold and happily picked it up once the other patron was done with it.

It wasn't until I was actually reading this book that I discovered it was literary fantasy, and not just a literary romance. Granted, there's an emphasis on the literary instead of the fantasy, but I needn't tell you I was pleased as punch by this. The story is about Evelyn and Brendan, who meet in Cornwall during a college break and bond over an obscure medieval Arthurian myth. However, Evelyn's break is just one week long, and at the end of that magical week things go south. After ten years have passed, they mysteriously meet again. I began with Evelyn's side of the story, as that's where the publisher put all relevant publishing information like the copyright and Library of Congress information. So I called Evelyn the beginning. When I was done with her story, I then flipped the book around and read Brendan's story.

Because of the order I read them in, I liked Evelyn's point of view more than Brendan's. Her side is also the more fantastical of the two. When I flipped the book around and started in on Brendan, I got a lock, stock and barrel retelling of Evelyn's story only from Brendan's point of view. There was exactly one point of departure, and that's in the summary of the ten years between their meetings. The dialogue is pretty much the same, with little additions and minor subtractions. I got to know Brendan better, and I can see how he sees Evelyn, but I didn't gain any clearer understanding into the plot as a whole. In the end, even though I enjoyed this book, I only really needed to read half of it to get a well defined story arc. I may have felt differently if I had read Brendan, and then Evelyn.

However, don't let that completely turn you off. The Thorn and the Blossom is only 82 pages long, cover to cover to cover. Essentially, it's two novelettes pasted back to back. I read the entire thing in about an hour, maybe less. Where I would have had serious issues with this book if it were full novel length on both sides, I can forgive the simplicity in the shorter work. Overall, if you're a fan of writers like Jane Yolen, like mythic fantasy with a light, literary touch, you'll enjoy this.

Friday, April 13, 2012

My E-book Pricing Examined: Part III was posted within two hours of the lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice against Apple and five of the six major publishers. I have since had the time to actually read the legalese of the suit itself, so I thought I'd offer this addendum and some corrections. (Honestly, what can I expect when the big news media can't get it right the first time around?)

The key to this lawsuit is that the DOJ is accusing these six companies of violating Section 1 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. This piece of legislation was passed in 1890, and is primarily about ensuring healthy competition between companies operating within the United States. Section 1 reads:
Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, or restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared illegal. Every person who shall make any contract or engage of any combination or conspiracy theory hereby declared illegal shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $100,000,000 if a corporation, or, if any other person, $1,000,000, or by imprisonment not exceeding 10 years, or by both said punishments, at the discretion of the court.
For those interested in doing their own digging, this is US Code Title 15, Chapter One.

In their suit, the DOJ is arguing that the agency model unlawfully restricts the trade of e-books. Further, that the defendants in the case conspired together to deliberately restrict the trade of e-books. The bulk of the document is an interesting list of a chronological order of events which is meant to establish that the CEOs of the corporations in question colluded on price fixing. Keep in mind, the CEOs in question are not themselves listed as defendants and are not being charged with anything. Whoever wrote the document does an interesting game of naming a few CEOs in certain places, but deliberately does not name CEOs or companies in other places. Not being of a legal background, I'm unsure as to the legal reasoning behind this, but as a reader this certainly made me feel like certain companies and CEOs were being targeted more than others.

Also, even though Apple, Hatchette, HarperCollins, McMillan, Penguin, and Simon & Shuster are all listed as defendants, Hatchette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Shuster have all signed a settlement with the DOJ. However, the settlement must be approved by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York before it goes into affect. Random House did not enter into an agency agreement with Apple and other retailers at the same time as the other five, and has therefore avoided any and all conspiracy charges. I should also point out that there are in fact seven defendants listed: Apple, the five publishers listed, as well as Penguin Group, the parent company of Penguin Group USA. I do not know why the London based company is listed along with its New York based subsidiary. All of the five publishers are parts of larger companies, but the multi-national conglomerations are not listed for the other four publishers.

This one is kind of hard for me. I can see where the DOJ thinks it has a case. However, I can see the flip side. In making a move to control prices, publishers actually encouraged having more e-book retailers in the marketplace. While Amazon is still the major e-book player, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Kobo all have healthy positions. I am unsure whether this would be the case had Amazon continued with loss leading most (but not all) of their bestselling e-book titles at $9.99. Competition is now more about user experience than about price, but that's still a very valid method of competition. It's also become and increasingly important method of competition in the digital age. I've also notice a fairly unilateral rise in print book prices over the last year, though no one has complained about that in flame wars across the internet.

I don't know. Maybe I'm still just stuck on the "if you can't afford it, don't buy it" financial ideals I ascribe to. (Before I spark a flame war on myself, this DOES NOT include things necessary for basic survival. This is only in reference to life's little and not-so-little luxuries, some of which are books.) As well, I'm a library advocate. I couldn't afford to feed my book addiction right now if I bought everything I read at retail value. I'd read myself out of house and home if I tried. So, I borrow my books from the library. If indeed e-book prices were too high, consumers would not be purchasing them, and publishers would be forced to adjust the price to a point where they saw healthy sales or they would go out of business. To me, the fact that e-book sales are growing, as are book sales overall, means that e-book prices are not out of line for the market in general. But, just as my legal understanding of this lawsuit may be completely wrong, my understanding of basic economics may be as well. I also worry about what price the authors, editors, and other staff at the big publishers may pay if their product is deeply devalued. I want them to be able to eat, so they can go on keeping me addicted to all their stories.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

My review of The Wolf Gift, Anne Rice's newest book, is up at The Ranting Dragon. This was a fun book, not mind-blowing, but nice. Very very much reminiscent of Rice's early works.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In Part I of this article, I talked about the emergence of the e-book as a mainstream commodity on the open US market. In Part II, I briefly outlined the switch from a traditional wholesale model to the agency model in 2010.

In December of 2011 the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation into Apple and the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, McMillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Shuster) for suspicion of non-compliance with anti-trust laws in using the agency model. These laws are meant to encourage competition, ensure ethical business practices, protect consumers, and to prevent any one company from gaining a monopoly. A monopoly is defined as when a sole entity has the complete control of a commodity in a marketplace. By definition, every media company (whether for books, movies, or music) has a monopoly over it's content because they own the copyright on the material. You can only buy that content from them (or from the companies a media company retails through), and the media company controls nearly all aspects of that product's creation. But the DOJ was worried that the big six had taken this one step further and were colluding with each other to fix prices at a level that was beneficial for them, but not to the consumer. While the monopoly end of media business is the nature of the beast, price fixing is not. The DOJ has also expressed concern over Apple's 'fair nation clause': a publisher who sells its content to Apple may not sell that same content to another company for less than what it was sold to Apple for.

As part of it's investigation, the DOJ contacted each of the companies named in the investigation, as well as several smaller companies who also follow the agency model but who are not named as being in collusion to fix prices. Smashwords, one of the largest and most well respected self publishing platforms, posted on their blog the information they provided to the DOJ during the investigation, which took place in March of 2012. This is a listing of their sales with Apple's iBookstore from October of 2010 until March of 2012. Remember, under the 'fair nation clause' of their Apple contract, Smashwords and Smashword's authors cannot price their content lower than their Apple iBookstore price at another retailer. Overall, they showed that prices had gradually dropped during the period of agency pricing by a not insignificant amount.

Also in March of 2012, the DOJ offered Apple and several large publishers a settlement agreement. This agreement does not mean that the DOJ found criminal wrongdoing on the part of those it was offered to, it only means that if the parties accept the settlement the DOJ agrees not to take them to court. Because of the large legal expenses involved in going to court, it is sometimes advantageous to settle. The only part of the settlement that I have found that's been made public yet is that it would forbid those publishers who signed it from selling through Apple. Should all of the parties named in this settlement have taken the agreement, that would have effectively been the end of the iBookstore, leaving the field of e-books primarily to Amazon and to Barnes & Noble. However, as we saw in 2009 and 2010, this is a competition that Barnes & Noble cannot win. Over time, the e-book market would shrink to just Amazon, perhaps at great detriment to the publishers. In effect, people like the chief executive of Barnes & Noble are arguing that the breaking of the agency model will result in less competition, not more.

As of today, April 12, 2012, the DOJ has launched a civil lawsuit against Apple, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, McMillan, and Penguin Group. Random House accepted the DOJ's settlement, thereby avoiding the extensive legal costs of this lawsuit. HarperCollins and Hachette are listed in court documents as also having accepted the settlement, so I am unclear as to why they are listed in the lawsuit.

John Sargent, the CEO of McMillan both during the Amazon face-off and through today's struggle with the DOJ, issued a statement regarding the lawsuit. In it he defends his and his company's innocence in price colluding, as well as derides the DOJ's settlement as having large long term negative effects.

So that's the story of why you pay the price you pay for your e-books, right up to today. I'll keep watch over the next few weeks and months, and be back with Part IV once the dust has settled.

Friday, April 6, 2012

In Part I of this article, I talked about the cost of producing e-books as well as the initial domination of the market by Amazon.

To continue our story, in 2010 Apple released the iPad. Much of it's initial marketing included use as an e-reader, so it's launch also saw the launch of the iBookstore. Because Apple had never sold books before, both Apple and publishers were starting with a clean slate. Apple decided that it wanted to follow a marketing model called agency, and not wholesale sell-through. In an agency model, the publisher would decide the list price on the iBookstore, and Apple would take a 30% commission on each sale. After the struggles publishers were having with Amazon, they essentially jumped for joy, said yes please, and Apple became their knight in shining digital armor.

I'll stop here and outline some other players in our tale. The traditional publishers I keep referencing are a set of six conglomerations, who when combined constitute most of the books sold in the United States. Those six are: Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Group, Random House, Simon & Shuster, and McMillan. In February 2010 McMillan takes one for the team, and tells Amazon that it has a choice. Either it can enter into the same agency agreement that McMillan just signed with Apple, or it can face a windowing of McMillan e-book titles. This would mean that e-books would become a version of a paperback, and would be available after the hardcover print version of a book had already been on the market a while.

I should also mention that moving to an agency model was not likely to cost Amazon money on the e-books it was selling. Because Amazon was paying McMillan more than $9.99 for the e-books it was selling, Amazon was taking a loss. By raising the price, Amazon instead gained a 30% profit. While Amazon felt that low e-book prices were the key to selling its Kindle, and that the market would not bear prices higher than $9.99, McMillan felt that such low prices would cause a create deal of long term harm to it's ability to publish new books. Perhaps the key piece of the agency model was that Amazon lost the ability to set the prices on the products it was selling. Instead, the prices consumers paid for their books were set by the publishers.

Amazon had a snit fit at this ultimatum, and pulled all McMillan titles, both digital and print, from it's 'shelves.' You could still find these titles from Amazon affiliates in the used bookstores, but not directly from Amazon itself. This is not the first or only time Amazon has pulled books from it's inventory, simply the largest in the book market that I know of. Amazon then posted a snippy note on their site about why a significant portion of it's inventory had disappeared overnight. McMillan stood it's ground, and by the end of the week, Amazon was selling McMillan titles on the agency model at the higher price. Soon, the other five large publishers, as well as a number of smaller publishers, forced Amazon into the agency model with less fanfare. Other retailers like Barnes and Noble followed, again with little fanfare. Prices for new release bestselling e-books rose across the web, to an average of between $13 and $16 in the United States. There was a lot of grumbling from consumers, but the e-revolution continued unchecked. 2011, which was completely under the agency model rather than the traditional wholesale model, was the biggest year yet for e-book sales.

However, the fight over e-book pricing is hardly over. In December of 2011, the Department of Justice of the United States announced that it would be investigating the agency model because they suspected that it broke anti-trust laws.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Even though I'm still puttering around writing my 'first' book (or at least the first one I have real hopes of getting published, however grandiose those hopes may be), I still like to keep an eye on trends in self-publishing and the growing e-book market. Every once in a while, I'm reminded that not all of my acquaintance (both online and offline) are doing the same, so I thought I'd talk a little about the realities of e-books and the shift to digital content. For the purposes of this entry, I'm only going to look at traditionally published material. Self-publishing is an entirely different kettle of fish, and follows a few different rules. I'm also going to do this in three parts. Historian that I am, these parts will be in chronological order. Hopefully you will find this illuminating and thought provoking.

While electronic books have been around in various formats for decades (yes, decades) it wasn't until 2009 that they really began to represent a noticeable market share in the publishing industry. In part, this was thanks to companies like Amazon and Sony aggressively marketing dedicated e-book readers. Since then, more devices have entered the marketplace and e-book sales have grown at an exceptional rate. While print sales have also grown during this period, e-book sales are a growing percentage of total sales. This overnight jump in sales, as well as a shift in American culture, has sent a few shock waves through the publishing world over the past few years. These shock waves will affect how you buy your books (whether print or digital), and what price you pay for them, for the rest of your life.

First, how much should an e-book cost? This article in the NY Times from 2010 does a good job outlining the costs of publishing. In essence, digital publishing only saves the publisher about 30% of the price of traditional printing, which is only the actual cost of physically printing the book. Cover art, editing, formatting, and overhead (I hear offices have electricity bills to be paid), are all still in effect for e-books at the same prices they are for print books. The cheaper a traditionally published e-book is sold for, the less the publisher makes in profit. The less they make in profit, the fewer advances they can afford to pay for new work, and so they publish less in the future.

Books in the United States were sold under a wholesale model until 2010. What this meant is that the retailer paid a wholesale price (50% of what the publisher decided was it's retail list price), and then was free to sell that book for whatever price it wanted. Large retailers like Barnes and Noble could offer their special membership prices, or massively discount bestsellers, because they could sell these items in massive volumes. But these price cuts all came out of Barnes and Noble's profits, not the publishers'. In 2009, in order to push Kindle sales, Amazon took this a step further, and started listing e-book prices below the wholesale price. This is called loss-leading. Amazon was taking a loss on smaller products in order to encourage sales of a higher-profit item, the Kindle. Amazon felt, and was likely correct, that the key to triggering an e-book revolution was price. With the Kindle initially introduced at nearly $300, consumer's were not likely to buy a $26 book to read on it.

This created concern in the publishing world. While it was Amazon taking the loss on those $9.99 bestselling e-books, it was a loss that even Amazon could not maintain indefinitely. Publishers were worried that eventually they would be the ones called upon to take the long term losses associated with a $9.99 e-book price, which they were not prepared to do. Publishers were also worried that if given a choice between a $9.99 e-book and a hardback print edition at $26, they'd take the e-book. This becomes even more problematic, because those hardbacks are priced with a high profit margin. Loosing that profit margin means that the payback on publishing a book takes more sales, and more time. It could mean less profit in total. Publishers were faced with diminishing profits on all fronts should Amazon be allowed to set prices that were good only for Amazon, and not for the makers of their products. This is a similar scenario to what's happened to several companies who produce product for Walmart.

In 2010, Apple arrived on the scene with the iPad and the iBookstore. In Part II of this series, I'll talk about just why that's so important.

Monday, April 2, 2012

While Stewart has done a lot of work for a little game called Magic the Gathering, you might have heard of it, he's also done several wonderful epic and high fantasy covers. In 2010 he won a Chesley Award (the premier award for SFF illustration work), and has been featured in the Spectrum Annual several times. You can peruse his gallery of work here, and even buy prints on his Etsy shop.