Briefly noted: Kindle Voyage

For a while I’ve had a Kindle Voyage. It’s functional and the screen is nice. Not much has changed since this 2010 post. Amazon still has no good system for organizing and sorting books, and Amazon doesn’t want you to use desktop computers and that shows in their whole ecosystem design.

The Voyage hardware is, at best, slightly better than the last Kindle iteration I used. Really, though, the improvements are so marginal that I can’t imagine anyone buying the new version unless their old one dies or is lost, as happened to me: Amazon will often knock some money off the new version if you ask them to “repair” the old version. To get the discount, Amazon requires that you send the broken Kindle to them. I don’t know what happens after that. Probably Amazon trashes it, but I’d like to imagine that it’s refurbished.

A lot about the Kindle Voyage is okay. There’s little to love. If you’re going to bother buy a Kindle the Voyage is a better choice than the regular Kindle Paperwhites because it has buttons, albeit buttons that aren’t as prominent or tactile as I’d like.

I don’t use the Kindle for books much, because I still prefer paper and Instapaper is my killer app. At the margins, I now read more nonfiction and fewer books in general, including novels. You’ve probably read or noticed that too many popular nonfiction books are just unsatisfactorily elongated articles. Preferring to read those rather than just clicking the “buy book” button is easier with Instapaper.

This review is thorough and says most of what I’d say. I don’t know how people produce many thousands of words in Kindle reviews. It’s a device without a personality. Which isn’t bad: It just is. There are good use cases for it, but not for me using it.

I still find button presses annoyingly too easy.

 

“Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”

I have read many lamentations about the evils of Amazon but have yet to see anyone effectively rebut Matt Yglesias’s points in “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers.” The section about marketing is particularly interesting, since seemingly everyone agrees:

When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it’s easy to whine that other people aren’t marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct. [. . .]

The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books.

Publishers also appear to be bad at identifying which books readers want to read and which books readers don’t want to read; we’re now going to find that out by writers writing and then releasing their books into the wild.

Incidentally, though, it’s hard for me to find good books that are either self-published or conventionally published; if you have any suggestions please email me.

See also “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz.”

Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz

In “What is the welfare cost of Amazon supply restrictions on books?” Tyler Cowen writes on whether Amazon’s much-publicized maneuvers against publishers are welfare-enhancing or welfare-destroying; most of the former answers tend to come from readers and indie publishers, while most of the latter answers tend to come from publishers and established authors. I however was compelled to comment on a separate and to my mind under-discussed issue: the lack of any sense of history in most of these discussions.

The same class of writers who five years ago were aghast at the lack of support for literary fiction among publishers now decry Amazon; they’re supporting the same publishers who were until recently the cravenly commercial forces destroying “quality” literary fiction. “The plight of literary fiction” has been an evergreen essay topic for as long as I’ve been cognizant of literary culture. Literary fiction was (or is) in plight because publishers supposedly don’t support and readers are too busy masturbating to romance fiction or science fiction tech fantasies (or whatever) to read lit fic.

Tangentially, I’m also amazed that, in rereading the preceding sentence, it seems to make sense and flow nicely without any commas. Perhaps it is the influence of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which I bought naturally from Amazon and which has me thinking about nesting and recursion more than any time since CS 102.

The link in the preceding paragraph also goes to Amazon.

The latest Amazon wrangle, and the challenge of growing new writers

I’m a bit late to this chat—”real work” keeps obnoxiously interfering with blog writing and other activities—but Charlie Stross discusses the latest publishing imbroglio in “Amazon: malignant monopoly, or just plain evil?“, but like George Packer before him he is distinctly anti-Amazon. It’s a somewhat justified point of view, but I think his followup, “A footnote about the publishing industry,” is less vituperative and consequently more interesting. As usual with these kinds of stories Stross ignores an important point: Amazon is great news for readers and writers who don’t have (or, sometimes, want) a big publisher (like yours truly) but not particularly good news for those who already have a publisher.

But there’s a more interesting and often overlooked point embedded:

But [the reading business is] still a more or less global zero sum game (competing for readers eyeball-hours). And because the rate of individual production is relatively low and the product is still produced artisanally by cottage industries, product lead time is measured in years, time to achieve net positive revenue is also measured in years, and it’s important to keep the back list on tap because it can take decades to grow an author’s career. Stephen King was an overnight success with “Carrie” after a decade of learning to write, but Terry Pratchett took about 15 years to finally break big. J. K. Rowling took 3 books to really get rolling, and she grew eye-wateringly rapidly by industry standards. And some authors are slow-burn successes: my big breakthrough book was my tenth novel in print (“Halting State”). J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was in print for a decade or more before it really took off in the 1960s. If you practice ruthless commercial Darwinism, weeding out any hopeful mutants that aren’t immediately successful, you will miss out on a lot of huge opportunities.

So reforming the publishing industry is a very non-trivial undertaking.

Which is also why Jeff Bezos picked it as his #1 target when he founded Amazon. He set out to disrupt an incumbent mature industry using the internet, and picked publishing because it was obviously the most dysfunctional. After all, if he’d gone after groceries he’d be competing with sharks like Tesco and WalMart.

It takes an incredibly long time for writers to get good, and publishers may have lost interest in that process. The process also seems especially long relative to what’s happening on the Internet, which is still in its Cambrian explosion phase. In ten years everything touched by Moore’s Law gets a thousand times better, but writers still do our thing at about the same pace. Learning the craft is long, and a lot of it still occurs in a very slow, very old-school master-apprentice fashion. It may be that self-publishing or de-factor self-publishing takes the place of the previous publishing model, and that the publishing of novels becomes more like the publishing of poetry, which the big houses haven’t been doing in earnest for at least twenty years and possibly longer.

Not everyone shares Stross’s views about the evilness of Amazon; here is James Fallows posting an anonymous e-mail from a small publisher who likes Amazon for the same reasons similar to mine (“Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options”). I’m also not real worried about Amazon-as-monopoly; if there’s a book I really want to read, it’s not hard to get it from Barnes & Noble (for now), or the various other sites that have popped up to help authors (Lulu, etc.). Amazon is fighting in a thin-margin business with highly differentiated products in which almost no product is a perfect substitute for another, with the possible exception of some specific genres (romance, thrillers).

EDIT: I forgot to add that most writers are still helped along by editors, and that the self-publishing system doesn’t really help with that. It’s possible to find sympathetic readers, but I’m not sure sympathetic readers can take the place of professional editors for most people. I don’t really foresee a good solution to this problem. MFA programs are one possible measure, but only for some people who do some kinds of writing.

Amazon.com is clever in its use of tracking and follow-up e-mails

I’ve been thinking about selling my camera and buying a smaller one, so I’ve been reading about the various choices and, naturally, looking at prices—including prices on Amazon. This morning I found, unprompted, a random e-mail from Amazon:

Screen shot 2013-03-31 at 8.58.59 AM

Not only has Amazon listed at the top some of the cameras I’ve looked at (like the X100S and RX1), but it recognized the general kind of camera I’m interested in (high-end, fixed lens camera; small mirrorless cameras) and listed a bunch of those too. Some of them are misses—Leica’s cameras look completely silly to me—but the hits are there. I haven’t done more than browse, and browsing alone caused Amazon to kick out an e-mail telling me about their financing credit card. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a retailer do so before.

The Amazon finance card doesn’t interest me and I’m not going to buy a camera today—or one from Amazon, because of they charge sales tax and most online retailers don’t. But I’m simultaneously impressed and creeped out by the company’s nudge e-mails.

This e-mail and post are also useful reminders: virtually everything you do online can be tracked, if someone wants to track you. Amazon does, for reasons that presently seem benign. Nonetheless, next time I move I might delete this account (if that’s possible) and start another one, which won’t have a purchase history going back to 2002.

Is Amazon.com’s Marketplace encouraging buyers to scam sellers by filing a refund claim?

I’ve been selling miscellaneous books on Amazon.com for years, and in the last three months three people have filed requests for refunds or sent messages claiming that their items never arrived. That’s a big problem because the cheapest way to ship books and similar items is through the Postal Service’s Media Mail. Big sites, like eBay, solve this problem by letting buyers rate sellers and sellers rate buyers, but Amazon only lets buyers rate sellers—sellers can’t rate buyers. Sellers have to ship the item and hope for the best, which worked fine until recently, or add a confirmation number, which increases costs to the point that selling books isn’t really worth it for me.

Someone claiming one item didn’t show up could be chalked up to USPS, or bad luck, or whatever. Two could be a coincidence. Three makes me think of enemy action: buyers heave learned to game Amazon’s system.* Looking around the Internet makes it apparent that problems like mine aren’t so unusual bad stories are more common than I would have imagined before I had this problem.

Looking back at the problems I’ve had shows that the buyers are systematically weird. In one case, the name of the person contacting me for a refund didn’t match the name of the person to whom the book was shipped (in most cases, Amazon encourages or requires buyers to contact the seller before filing a refund claim). Another message said, “Recipient has not received the item,” which is curious: most people would say, “I haven’t receive the book.” “Recipient has not received the item” is generic enough to be a bot. The third person has a U.S. address but doesn’t actually appear to live in the United States.

The only conclusion I can draw are that medium-priced items (in the $10 – $30 range) probably aren’t worth selling on Amazon: they’re expensive enough that adding a confirmation number makes them uneconomical, but not so expensive that a confirmation number is a necessity and a small percentage of the price.

Amazon could reduce this problem by providing symmetrical buyer / seller feedback. But Amazon presumably doesn’t want sellers to cancel orders to unproven buyers, and it’s still possible to game feedback systems (as eBay users have discovered). Nonetheless, I sent Amazon a couple of e-mails about the issue, and someone at Amazon did reply to eventually say, “I would also like to let you know that we do have a team that checks on the buyer’s account for any fraudulent activity and take the necessary action on them.” Still, buyers could file claims only on the occasional item. I’m happier knowing that someone at Amazon is at least thinking about the problem. Amazon, however, is a notoriously data-driven company, and I can’t see them taking action unless sellers stop selling on Amazon.

I’m tempted, in the name of science, to buy a moderately expensive item and then claim it never showed up, or showed up damaged, to see if Amazon will refund the money, and, if so, how many times I could do this before Amazon boots me. But I won’t for obvious reasons.


* This is of course a reference to Goldfinger’s rules about coincidence. I should also point out that the items shipped all had normal return addresses; none of them came back to me.

Complaints about Amazon’s rise ignore how long it has taken the company to rise

The latest raft of articles about Amazon and its power over the publishing industry appeared in the last couple of days (“Amazon, Destroyer of Worlds,” “What Amazon’s ebook strategy means,” “Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption”), and the first two note what is the most significant thing about Amazon, at least to my mind: how much better an experience Amazon is than the things it replaces (or complements, depending on your perspective).

Like any incumbents, publishers, as far as I can tell, want the status quo, but readers (and consumers of electronic gear) are happy to get something for less than they would’ve otherwise. Stross gets this—”Bookselling in 1994 was a notoriously backward-looking, inefficient, and old-fashioned area of the retail sector. There are structural reasons for this” and so does Yglesias—”But for consumers, it’s great. An Amazon Prime membership is the most outrageously good deal in commerce today. But competitors should be afraid.” Stross is suspicious of Amazon, and so is the New York Times writer. Their suspicions are worth holding, but the basic issue remains: Amazon is successful because it’s good.

Their books are cheap and arrive fast. Their used section is really great, for both buying and selling. Prior to Amazon and its smaller analogues, used bookstores simply wouldn’t buy books with writing in them. Amazon used buyers, however, don’t care, as long as the book is described honestly. I’m getting ready to move, which means that I’m selling or giving away somewhere between a couple hundred and a thousand books. I sold about 15 through Amazon, resulting in about $100 that I wouldn’t have otherwise. That efficiency is great, but it’s great in a way that publishers don’t like, because publishers would rather have everyone buying new books.

Amazon looks particularly good to me because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to wrangle a literary agent and failing. Five or six years ago, that meant my work would’ve spent its life on my hard drive, and that’s about it. But now that I’m done with comprehensive exams, I have time to hire an editor and a book designer and see what happens through self-publishing. The likely answer is “nothing,” but the probability of nothing happening is 1.0 if I leave the novels and other work on my hard drive forever.

Most of this was predictable: in 1997, Philip Greenspun wrote “The book behind the book behind the book…“, in which he observed: “Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world.” I’m sure others predicted the same thing. The publishing industry’s collective response was to shrug. I guess no one read The Innovator’s Dilemma. If publishers once were innovators, they’re not anymore.

Stross is averse to profit to the point that I think he’s signaling mood / group affiliation to some extent, but his basic economic analysis is good. Stuff like this: “piracy is a much less immediate threat than a gigantic multinational [. . .] that has expressed its intention to “disrupt” them, and whose chief executive said recently “even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation” (where ‘innovation’ is code-speak for ‘opportunities for me to turn a profit’)” could be rephrased; Amazon selling for less means more consumer surplus, and it appears that Amazon’s whole modus operandi is to very low, if any, profit margins; if it had margins as high or higher than what publishers and retailers shoot for, it wouldn’t be such a threat.

Anyhow, I too don’t want an Amazon monopoly or monopsony, but I don’t see a good alternative to Amazon. Barnes and Noble is, at best, second-best; their online prices finally became competitive with Amazon’s a year or two ago, but they still they’re chasing the leader instead of striving to be the leader.

If DRM on ebooks actually dies—as Stross thinks it will—that will make Barnes and Noble and other players more viable, in the same way that killing DRM on music made Amazon a viable purveyor of music (although a lot of people still use the iTunes Music Store).

Links: Back to Blood and James Wood, Amazon wipes Kindle account, school reform, computing, the female social matrix, and more

* “‘Back to Blood’: Tom Wolfe forgot his own rules: Almost 25 years ago, the author made a case for the realist novel. His silly new book suggests he should reread it.” In other Wolfe news, James Wood doesn’t like it either, although “doesn’t like it” is a pretty stupid phrase, but I can’t find or fashion one better at the moment: Wood’s review is really about how free-indirect speech, registers, and personality function not just in this novel, but in The Novel.

* “A couple of days a go, my friend Linn sent me an e-mail, being very frustrated: Amazon just closed her account and wiped her Kindle. Without notice. Without explanation. This is DRM at it’s worst.” Until there are more robust legal or contractual guarantees on Kindle books, I’ll remain reluctant to buy them. On the other hand, as of this writing, it’s possible to strip the DRM from your ebooks. And it works!

* “Why school reform is impossible.” Maybe.

* “As we watch computing become a central part of the language of science, communication, and even the arts and humanities, we will realize that students need to learn to read and write code because — without that skill — they are left out of the future.

* The Female Social Matrix: An Introduction.

* This is the Era of Nuclear Rejections.

* “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” and what to do about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the things we should have done and should be doing, as discussed in the article.

* “Write My Essay, Please! These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?” This supports Bryan Caplan’s theory that much of education is about signaling.

Amazon.com, Daniel Kahneman, and the future of publishing

Amazon Will Destroy You” says, among other things: “Amazon is going to destroy the Big 6, destroy bookstores, destroy 95% of all agents, destroy distributors (Ingram, Baker & Taylor), and revolutionize the publishing industry by becoming the dominant force. . . . Amazon INNOVATES. That’s the thing you whiners don’t understand.”

My own (very limited) adventures in publishing make me inclined to think this is basically correct; having now dealt a fair amount with agents, I’ve observed enough about their behavior to be suspicious: most appear to simply be judging submissions based on “gut instincts” of dubious predictive value. An increasing body of research shows how horseshit gut instincts are as a guide to most kinds of behavior, and how little we know about the decisions we make. You only have to read Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely to understand this. You can see the same principles in Moneyball, book or movie. Virtually every field that has pitted empirical data or tests against the beliefs of supposed “experts” has found that the data win. In the case of Amazon, the company is basically running a massive experiment by letting anyone who wants to publish, publish, and letting readers sort out who’s good.With the gates open, entrants are numerous—and more numerous than conventional publishers could ever hope to match.

Literary agents and publishers are now in the same position as baseball managers were in the pre-Moneyball era: completely missing the data revolution going on around them.

The gatekeepers are just wrong too much. You can tell as much from the innumerable stories about beloved, or at least popular, books that were rejected dozens or hundreds of times before finding a publisher. This isn’t the fault of agents or publishers directly: if I were an agent and saw the manuscripts for Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Da Vinci Code, I’d have rejected them—and I’d have been wrong, at least as measured by revenue. When publishers had a lock on distribution, however, they could afford to be wrong, because it was virtually impossible for writers to use alternate mechanisms to sell their books. A wrongly rejected book went in the drawer. A lucky break just happened to be a lucky break.

Increasingly, though, writers aren’t going to rely on gatekeepers. They’re going to let the market decide; publishers and agents will step in after a writer is popular. The problem is, once a writer is sufficiently successful via Internet metrics, I’m not sure that agents or publishers will be in much of a position to negotiate.

Amazon knows this. Its strategy is simple: let everyone in and let readers sort ’em out. This will shake out many of the false negatives given by agents and publishers. Conventional publishers, who pay for expensive Manhattan office space and distribution warehouses and paper, can’t afford to do this using traditional methods.

Agents and publishers probably know this, but they know it in the same way Blockbuster knew it had to compete with Netflix.

The world is moving away from mystical hand-waving and towards data / experimentation. Businesses on the wrong side of that divide are going to suffer.

EDIT: I’m reading Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology and, weirdly, came across this contribution, by Cory Doctorow, which discusses a different context that applies to my analysis of the literary marketplace:

We’re bad futurists, we humans. We’re bad at predicting what will be important and useful tomorrow. We think the telephone will be best used to bring opera to America’s living rooms. We set out nobly to make TV into an educational medium. We create functional hypertext to facilitate the sharing of draft physics papers.

If you need to convince a gatekeeper that your contribution is worthy before you’re allowed to make it, you’d better hope the gatekeeper has superhuman prescience. (Gatekeepers don’t have superhuman prescience.) Historically, the best way to keep the important things rolling off the lines is to reduce the barriers to entry. Important things are a fraction of all things, and therefore, the more things you have, the more important things you’ll have.

The worst judges of tomorrow’s important things is today’s incumbents. If you’re about to creatively destroy some incumbent’s business-model, that incumbent will be able to tell you all kinds of reasons why you should cut it out. Travel agents had lots of soothing platitudes about why Expedia would never fly. Remember travel agents? Wonder how that worked out for them.

Follow-up to the eBook and publishing post

See the original post here, and pay special attention to the thoughtful and informed comments (which are a pleasant change from the usual Internet fare). They also bring up some points I’d like to address:

1) I don’t think publishers will go away altogether, even if they persist in some as mere quality signals or brands. Among the millions of self-published books coursing through the Internet, making informed decisions as a reader gets even harder than it is now. In the previous post, I mentioned the problem of false negatives—books that should’ve been published but are rejected—without reiterating that most negatives are true negatives—that is, books that are rejected because they’re bad. Readers are having and will continue to have problems in this regard. As Laura Miller says in “When anyone can be a published author: How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?“:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is.

2) As a result of 1), I wouldn’t be surprised if “publishing” morphs into a much smaller, broader-based business in which editor-agent hybrids take on promising writers in a somewhat traditional manner but don’t offer advances or some of the conventional “perks.” Instead, they’ll work with writers to improve the writers’ writing, structure, and so forth, in exchange for somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 – 20% of the book’s profits.

Be very wary of writers who say they don’t need editors. Maybe Nabokov didn’t need an editor, but pretty much every other writer did and does. And editors are expensive—I know because I’ve looked into what hiring one would cost—and writers, especially young, untested writers, don’t have a lot of money. So I don’t think lump-sum upfront payments will work for most writers, particularly fiction writers. Editors might judge who is worth investment based on signals like, say, blog posts.

Laments like this one by Kristine Kathryn Rusch make me wonder about what function editors are performing now; I can’t excerpt it effectively, but it observes the extent to which junior editors at publishing houses treat her like an idiot. If the experience described in her post is routine or commonplace, I think it bodes ill for conventional publishing houses (assuming, of course, there’s not some mitigating factor she’s not describing in the post).

A lot of writers say publishers aren’t doing that much to promote their book as it is, which may be true, but they do at least send a quality signal. I wonder, though, about the cost of books—especially hardcovers, and still think this cost is going to fall. Which leads me to. . .

3) I think self-published writers are, over time, going to put pricing pressure on conventionally published books. If you’re a random mystery reader and don’t have especially high quality standards for prose quality or prose originality and consume a very large number of mysteries, self-published ones that aren’t as polished as commercially published fiction might be just as good. If you’re buying books for $2.99 on a Nook instead of $5.99 – $9.99 via Nook or mass-market paperback, then you get a lot more word for your buck. This is especially true, it seems to me, in genre publishing, where series are common and so are relatively rapid and similar books.

Being the kind of “informed” reader discussed in # 1 doesn’t stop most people from being not very discriminating.

4) Desperation is underrated as an inspiration to change. Jeff observes in a comment: “As an author just barely at the bottom of the midlist, if my choice is between self-publishing and not publishing and all, I’ll choose the former.” Me too, although, like him, I’d choose conventional publishing at this point in time, given the choice. But writers without a “choice” will increasingly lean towards self-publishing.

5) Blogs and other non-publisher signals of quality may become more important over time. If readers are debating an author’s merits, looking at their blog or other online writing may be a useful way to decide whether a writer is worth the time it takes to begin a novel. I suspect most non-established writers know or suspect this by now, but it’s worth reiterating anyway. These days, when people say things like, “I want to be a writer” to me, I ask if they have a blog. If the answer is “no,” that signals they’re probably not very serious about writing. Even if the blog only has one post a month, if that post is a substantial or interesting one I take it as a positive sign.

6) If you’re interested in how the publishing industry works now and why, despite the media portrayals, it works better than it’s sometimes depicted, take a look at Charlie Stross’s series of posts Common Misconceptions About Publishing, which were last updated in May 2010 but are still required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

7) I don’t think most of my analysis is terribly original, and you could find similar analyses elsewhere. Nonetheless, I find the changing business interesting both as a reader and writer / would-be writer.

8) I’m not sure much, if any of this, matters to readers, but it should matter a lot to writers who care at all about making some money from their work.

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