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The Brave New World of Books – a layman’s view April 9, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Books, Communication, Language, Literature, Marketing, Reading.
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I have always had an interest in books, but should have read more than I have.  My excuse?  That the books that matter are too bulky.  The arrival of e-books has totally destroyed this excuse.  My iPad now carries Oscar Wilde Complete Works Ultimate Collection (140+ works), Works of George Bernard Shaw (30+ works), James Joyce’s Ulysses, War and Peace, and The Works of Mark Twain (24 books in a single file).  It weighs exactly the same as it did without them.  Some of the books were even free to download.

The world of books has gone through wrenching change in the last few years.  Prognosis, diagnosis and predictions aside, we don’t quite know what it will look like when the dust settles.  Yet the new world already looks exciting to some, and frightening to others.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of some of the players in it, the world of books is not that different from other industries.  Some generate the product ideas (the authors), some manufacture the products (publishers and printers), some distribute them (booksellers) and others consume them (readers).  There are the usual intermediaries, such as literary agents and editors who work for publishers.

So what does the new world of books mean to all these players in the industry?

Authors

Many published and aspiring authors feel that they are the most oppressed people in the world.  They toil for years to develop their product (the book), only to get serial rejection letters from publishers and biting comments from editors.  With the increasing popularity of e-publishing, authors feel truly liberated.  They don’t have to ask publishers for permission, or beg editors not to change their work.  They can now choose to self-publish anything they want, provided they are prepared to put up with a lot of extra administrative work.

Yet like karaoke, which gives people who can’t sing the illusion that they can, e-publishing gives authors who can’t write or tell a story a similar illusion.  This blog post you are reading could be a case in point.  As the quantity of published material in the market goes up, the general quality comes down.

In other words, authors can now bypass publishers as gatekeepers of “quality”, but there are no more or less “good” authors.  It only means that the work of more bad authors gets out into the market.  Let’s face it, some authors who publish their own works electronically now may not be worthy of publication at all.

The Wall Street Journal reported that some authors also complain they earn less per e-book than they do the physical equivalent.  All we can hope is that a larger number of e-books sell to make up for this shortfall.

Publishers

The manufacturers of books – the publishers – have never been short of raw materials.  They have always been inundated with more manuscripts than they can handle in several lifetimes.  Their trade is also fraught with sometimes substantial risks.  How many titles have they published which don’t even cover the cost of printing, not to mention the occasional advances and huge marketing and distribution costs?

E-publishing has cut the cost of production for publishers to the bare minimum, although physical production probably accounts for a small part of a publisher’s total cost.  A few printers will go out of business.  The cost of distribution has also come down, as there is no real physical handling of an e-book.  Besides, there are now more cost-effective channels for promotion, such as social networking.

The price of an e-book, however, is sometimes 20% cheaper than its paperback equivalent, and sometimes even more expensive.  As e-publishing guts a publisher’s business of costs, book pricing doesn’t seem to have fallen proportionally.  Publisher profitability should have gone up, and the business should be less risky.  Although publishers are also vulnerable to literary agencies selling rights direct to new-world retailers such as Amazon, as Wylie did last year, this doesn’t seem a widespread threat yet.

As purveyors of quality products the reading public wants to buy, publishers should feel secure in their jobs, as long as they continue to keep close to the taste of readers, insist on quality writing, embrace new media and don’t get too naïve about forking out huge advances for celebrity appeal.

Literary agents

Authors love to hate literary agents.  They need them to get to a decent publisher and a wide market, but simply getting to them is a five-year project itself.  With the right confluence of temperament, a literary agent will remain an author’s best friend.  This sometimes cantankerous and oddball breed will likely continue to thrive, and behave just as obnoxiously to the unfortunate writing low-life that dares cross its path.

Booksellers

By all accounts, booksellers seem to have hurt the most.  In an article in Fortune magazine dated June 21, 2010, Borders CEO Michael Edwards defends the raison d’être of bookstores: “If they continue to innovate in the services and experiences they offer…consumers will continue to make bookstores a vital part of their lives…The next chapter is up to them.”  For Borders, that next chapter was Chapter 11, in February, 2011.

My personal experience may be a curved mirror of reality, but it should nevertheless make booksellers stand up and take notice.  Browsing in bookstores is no longer a pastime.  The few physical books I have bought in the last year have either been bargain end-of-the-line titles, or ones I need to share with others.  A few months ago, I saw a title in an exhibition which appeared to be on sale, around 20% cheaper than in bookstores.  There and then, I looked online, found and downloaded an electronic copy at almost half the already reduced price at the exhibition.

Predictions about the demise of anything are usually correct in direction but wrong in timing.  Die-hard physical book lovers will be far bigger in number and slower to change their habits than futurists envisage.  Bookstores will die a slow, painful death.  A few may even survive.

Readers

For the already overloaded reading public, it’s now harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Who cares?  We have always made bad choices anyway, and can now do so at lower cost.  Nor do we need to find bigger bookshelves to house those unwanted and unread titles.  As a life-long reader, I find the immense convenience of e-books simply irresistible.  Similar sentiments may even drive up general readership, and give the book industry needed impetus for growth.

In conclusion

As a reader not in any way involved in the book industry, I am excited by the changes I have seen, but would like to see more.  I want more titles to be available electronically, and at the same time as the hard copy comes on to the market.  I want pricing to come down further.  I’d hate to get caught in the commercial maelstrom, though.

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Grammar, leadership and clarity of thought April 26, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Communication, Language, Leadership.
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It has been a harrowing few weeks, and finding time to write original material for the blog has been a challenge.  I tried to recycle material I had received from friends and associates, but that turned out to be quite inadequate as well.

Instead I spent the little time I had to re-read an article by an actor I admire, about a fascinating new product from a company I respect, in a magazine long established as one of the best in the world: Stephen Fry’s article in the April 12th 2010 edition of TIME magazine on the iPad: http://bit.ly/bY9ah5

Doing that opened the floodgates.  I noticed something in the article which I had missed altogether when I skimmed through it the first time – a grammatical mistake!

No, I said to myself, that can’t be true.  A grammatical mistake in a TIME magazine article by a world-renowned actor and author spotted by an ignoramus like me?  That’s not possible.

I rubbed my eyes, and read the offending sentence over and over again.  I concluded that it was a mistake.  Here’s the passage where the error occurs (page 29 of the written article and at this link on the web: http://bit.ly/aP7eWa), as Fry describes Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO:

“…I do believe Jobs to be a truly great figure, one of the small group of innovators who have changed the world. He exists somewhere between showman, perfectionist overseer, visionary, enthusiast and opportunist, and his insistence upon design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability are a huge part of Apple's success..

Job’s insistence on the variety of factors that account for Apple’s success is a singular noun, and therefore should be followed by “is” rather than “are”.  Had the first part of the sentence been written “The aspects of the product he insists on getting right – design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability…”, then it would have been appropriate to use “are”.

Let me be clear: finding a mistake in TIME magazine is a rare occurrence.  Its editors are human and therefore susceptible to the same chances of oversight as everyone else.  To err, after all, is human.

Which is not to argue that we should consider it acceptable, as many writers nowadays do, on the pretext that when the English language becomes more common as the medium of communication among people from different backgrounds, we should be more tolerant towards grammatical mistakes.

That’s codswallop, as it’s tantamount to saying that Pidgin English is good English.  Grammar is a set of rules by which sentences in a language are constructed and therefore understood.  To tolerate grammatical mistakes is to condone fuzzy thinking, which makes for bad leadership.

A simple grammatical mistake does not a bad leader make.  Perhaps, but an important skill of a good leader is the ability to communicate clearly.  How can a leader do so when grammatical mistakes clutter up speeches and proclamations, thereby creating confusion, ambiguity and suspense?  Besides, leaders are supposed to set examples.  If they tolerate sloppy use of language, woe betide their followers when they write and speak.

Recently I came across an excellent talk by Clive James, an Australian raconteur and author who has been living in the UK for some time.  In May 2006 the Australian magazine The Monthly carried an article he wrote on the English language, entitled “The Continuing Insult to the English Language”.  He explains further on his web site:

The piece …attracted a gratifying amount of attention, although I got the impression that I was preaching to the converted, whose numbers were dwindling. Even if that were so, I got the chance of preaching to a lot more of them when Jill Kitson of the ABC asked me to turn the text into a broadcast… 

The broadcast can be heard at this link: http://bit.ly/dhNym5

James continues:

That melancholy long withdrawing roar you hear in the background is generated by all the surviving members of my generation who were taught to parse a sentence. The text of the piece is filed under "Recent Essays" — two versions of the same doomed campaign. 

The text James refers to can be found at this link: http://bit.ly/bbicwT

I am one generation down from Clive James, but if he is right, I must be one of the endangered species of purists who insist on getting things right in language, as I am dead scared of fuzzy thinking.  I am happy to be so.

Sometimes they make it sound like you’re a useless animal… March 15, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Communication.
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A colleague and I changed our travel plans at short notice and decided to take an earlier flight than the one we had booked.  There were no seats available in business class on that flight, so they had to re-book my colleague into economy.  This was the question the kind-hearted person at the service desk put to her colleagues at the gate: “Should I downgrade him first before I send him over?”  After some further exchange, she asked again: “Should I put him down before he comes across?”  Even well-meaning people trying their best to help sometimes make you feel like an animal past its use-by date…

True artistry that reflects the deepest of human emotions and values January 26, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Communication.
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In the mail yesterday I received the following message:
 
This video shows the winner of "Ukraine’s Got Talent", Kseniya Simonova, 24, drawing a series of pictures on an illuminated sand table showing how ordinary people were affected by the German invasion during World War II.  Her talent, which admittedly is a strange one, is mesmeric to watch.
 
The images, projected onto a large screen, moved many in the audience to tears and she won the top prize of about $130,000.00 
  
She begins by creating a scene showing a couple sitting holding hands on a bench under a starry sky, but then warplanes appear and the happy scene is obliterated. 
  
It is replaced by a woman’s face crying, but then a baby arrives and the woman smiles again. Once again war returns and Miss Simonova throws the sand into chaos from which a young woman’s face appears. 
  
She quickly becomes an old widow, her face wrinkled and sad, before the image turns into a monument to an Unknown Soldier
  
This outdoor scene becomes framed by a window as if the viewer is looking out on the monument from within a house. 
  
In the final scene, a mother and child appear inside and a man standing outside, with his hands pressed against the glass, saying goodbye. 
  
The Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Ukraine, resulted in one in four of the population being killed with eight to 11 million deaths out of a population of 42 million.

 

Kseniya Simonova says: "I find it difficult enough to create art using paper and pencils or paintbrushes, but using sand and fingers is beyond me. The art, especially when the war is used as the subject matter, even brings some audience members to tears. And there’s surely no bigger compliment."

 

Please take time out to see this amazing piece of art.
 
 
Very moving artistry that brings out deep emotions and the core values of humanity.