Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amazon Can't Take Back My Books

Hasn't everyone, at one time or another, bought a book from Amazon? You figured on owning it for life, yours to keep forever and forever, to sit on a shelf or make the rounds of your friends, at your choosing.

Due to the current disagreement between Amazon and Macmillan, some chapters of Macmillan books that were downloaded from Amazon have disappeared. As in, Amazon is feuding with Macmillan so you, who wanted to read those chapters, are out of luck.

What you download to your fancy, expensive Kindle isn't yours at all. That $9.99 you paid for a novel? It's not to buy the book. That's the price Amazon charged you for the privilege of reading the words on a device that you spent a small fortune to obtain.

The books on your shelf that you bought from Amazon? They can't take those back.

Jeff Bezos can't waltz into your home and lift hard copies. No matter what war may wage between Amazon and Macmillan over fair pricing for e-books, Mr. Bezos can't push a button and make your real books disappear.

Good news here for Apple's new iPad. The suits at Apple worked out deals with five of the six major publishing houses, avoiding the "my way or the highway" scenario that's come to a nasty impasse. Go out and buy your iPad. You can get all the Macmillan books available, and Amazon can either give in or face mounting competition.

Better yet, go to your local independent book seller and browse the shelves. Touch a real hard-bound book, smell the pages of a freshly printed copy. Read the opening paragraphs. Study the author's portrait and biography. Peruse the acknowledgements. Check out any page you like. Any one at all.

Buy that book and it's yours. Download it and know that your possession is temporary, until someone at Amazon decides you can't have it anymore.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tablet Versus Kindle, No Holds Barred

By making the iPod bigger, Apple created competition for Amazon's Kindle.

Publishers are rejoicing. They're so happy that several of the major houses have already signed agreements with Apple to provide content (i.e. books) at prices they can live with.

Take that, Amazon. $9.99 for a Kindle version that hurts the bottom line of the publisher? Just try to get content from the big publishers now.

Concern about a monopoly drove the likes of Macmillan into Apple's warm embrace. With the Kindle as the only game in town, and Amazon setting the pace, publishers were afraid that it would be a case of take it or leave it, and no one wanted to risk getting left behind as the great e-book revolution rolls along.

By offering a higher price, Apple's tablet gives hope. It's a matter of withholding rights from Amazon for e-books if the behemoth won't cooperate and lift that $9.99 mark a little higher. Certainly Amazon could claim collusion to fix prices, but a monopoly stands on shaky ground when it argues about price fixing. Without the giant iPhone reading device, it's Amazon doing the price fixing, to the detriment of its content suppliers.

Thus far, Random House is holding out, to see which way the e-book wind blows. Will people flock to buy the Apple tablet because it does more than a Kindle? Will its high price be off-putting, or seen as better value overall?

And considering the state of the economy and the general lack of disposal income, will book sales continue to slide, in both digital and analog formats?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Transportation As A Choice

All those trouble-making Irish, all those starving masses who stole food out of desperation, all of them clapped into shackles and put on board prison ships bound for Australia. Such was life during the Great Famine and beyond, until 1867 when the practice of exile was stopped.

With such a history, you'd think that the Irish wouldn't have a positive outlook about the place.

Turns out that plenty of people are leaving Ireland, willingly, bound for the land down under. They're heading to a country that was created by convicts, by the ancestors of those who have given up on Ireland now that the boom times have come to a crashing end.

Australia has been busy promoting itself to Ireland's professionals, hoping to attract engineers and skilled laborers. There are jobs Down Under, and while it's no longer legal to arrest someone and force them to go work in Australia, it's possible to appeal to the desperate.

Plenty of people are out of work in Ireland, with no real hope of finding a good job in the near future. They're tired of the government, fed up with the national health care system, and who wouldn't give serious consideration to a place that can boast of a sunny, warm climate?

The young and eager are taking flight once again, as they did in the Eighties, finding nothing to hold them in Ireland and nothing but opportunity elsewhere. It's not America anymore. No jobs are to be found there, not like the old days. It's Australia that holds the promise of a good future, financial security and a culture that's familiar.

Another generation will be lost. Another generation will grow up with strangers for grandparents. Another generation will grow old, alone, and end up in nursing homes, alone, because the children are far away.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Sweet, Sweet Synergies

On the heels of Barry O'Callaghan's ill-fated spending spree comes word that Kraft has agreed a deal with Cadbury. Financial gurus are all quick to note that Kraft did not appear to pay too much for Cadbury. The deal is sound, unlike the Riverdeep Houghton Mifflin Harcourt fiasco.

The last of the Cadbury Roses are but a sweet memory around here. Christmas is unquestionably over. Will it have been the last to feature the rich chocolate and voluptuous cream fillings that makes Cadbury's chocolates so decadent?

While it's been said that Kraft arrived at a reasonable price, it's also to be noted that the two firms have to be melded into one. It's Riverdeep merging with Houghton Mifflin, duplicate departments hunted down and brought to heel. For Kraft to make their merger work, they have to find a way to save $675 million per year for the next three years.

A candy company can cut costs by changing the recipe, reducing the amount of costly ingredients and adding cheaper substitutes. Kraft could add enough wax to Cadbury chocolates that they would serve as candles in an emergency. Imagine a box of Roses with wicks, to be inserted and lit in the event of a power failure.

High fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, even though the flavor and texture isn't the same. A slight tweak, however, would not be expected to hurt sales significantly. After all, there's Mars to contend with, and Kraft wouldn't want to cheapen the Cadbury brand.

And then there are the employees.

Just like the unfortunates at Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt when Barry O'Callaghan whacked them with his synergy stick, the workers at Cadbury have become costs and potential savings.

One accounting department is all that is needed, so farewell Cadbury bean counters. There will be redundancies found in the sales and marketing departments.

In the end, Cadbury's can't possibly be the same. We can only hope that Kraft won't tamper, changing the Cadbury Rose into an artificial confection as unpalatable as their so-called "cheese" products.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Goodbye To The National University

Money is tight in Ireland and difficult decisions have to be made. Savings must be found and realized.

That being the case, the National University of Ireland will have to go.

The body was founded a century ago to oversee doctoral degree programs at Ireland's universities. It was, in essence, a bureaucracy that tended to its little niche in higher education, approving courses of study at University College Dublin or Maynooth or Galway, while lower education ran along its own track.

At a potential savings of a couple of million euros, it's been determined that the individual universities can oversee their own Ph.D.s, using existing office space and staff. They can pay the bills from their own coffers, hire and fire, and all the rest.

The fifteen people who were employed by NUI will thus be made redundant.

Naturally, those fifteen people are lobbying to hang on to their jobs, with the Chancellor leading the call. In Dr. Maurice Manning's eyes, to dismantle his bureaucracy would be to dismantle a national brand. Higher education in Ireland would fall to pieces without NUI to manage things.

For the past hundred years, the universities haven't been involved, so they'll be starting from scratch, and won't that be a disaster in the making?

Not if you ask the presidents of University College Dublin or Trinity College. They see NUI as a drag on their own efforts to create a highly marketable brand, and they'd be happy to see the back of Dr. Manning as he walks out the door.

Dr. Manning is wishing that the final decision will be delayed until there is a change in government, in the hope that Fine Gael will win the next election and spare NUI. Unfortunately, it makes no difference who is in government. There is no money.

Two university presidents are in favor of a cost-cutting deal that will save some taxpayer cash when it is all about trimming anything resembling fat. They believe they can get to where Dr. Manning would like the nation`s universities to be, but without Dr. Manning and his fiefdom. Hard to argue with money when it speaks with a loud voice.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lay-Off Lit With A Fresh Face

According to the New York Times, there`s a new genre hitting the shelves.

Sad tales of life after a lay-off are arriving in book stores near you. You might have read something similar a few years back. Jen Lancaster wrote it.

A victim of the dot-com bubble, Ms. Lancaster penned a memoir of her life before and after a lay-off. In Bitter Is The New Black, she took a humorous look at getting by financially when no one in the family has a job and the job search comes up blank, day after day after day.

The book was a best-seller and the author was saved from having to work another job as a mind-numbing temp.

It's a good bet that Alexandra Penney's memoirs, due out next month, won't have Jen's wit. The Bag Lady Papers, by the former editor of Self magazine (so yes, she has clout in the publishing world and a very, very large platform), will be full of tragedy and sorrow and there's no telling if people will want to read it. Especially those laid off from publishing houses who won't have a great deal of sympathy for someone with enough money to invest with Bernie Madoff, and not quite enough sense to recognize his scam.

Will anyone anguish over Ms. Penney's sad tale of woe? Can the average unemployed worker relate to a woman who sobbed over the sale of two of her three homes, and commiserated with working friends over lunch at the Four Seasons?

Editors at publishing houses tell themselves that anyone who lost a job could relate to the new memoirists, but booksellers have their doubts.

Most of us who struggle to earn a buck are not in the least bit interested in the hard times visited on the well-to-do. Jen Lancaster's popularity has as much to do with her funny take on life as it does to her background as an average American who attended a state university and was not born with anything resembling a silver spoon in her mouth.

We're waiting for a real memoir of a lay-off. We'd pay money to hear from one of the many synergies that Barry O'Callaghan realized when his little Riverdeep minnow swallowed Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt. What of those who lost jobs because of one man's dream, a dream that turned into a nightmare and is now slipping out of his grasp?

Lay-off lit? There are more interesting stories that might yet be written. But really, Jen Lancaster pretty much covered it already, and is the dot-com debacle all that much different from the real estate bubble-burst of 2009?

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Minnow Makes Good

Queue up. Barry O'Callaghan has promised to make good on his debts, including loans from Anglo-Irish Bank.

He says that he only "speculated what (he) could afford to lose", or rather, what he felt that you, the Irish taxpayer now in possession of Anglo-Irish Bank, could afford to wait in line for.

The man's not skint, not in the least. He still has great faith in EMPG, the enormous whale of a corporation that he created by leveraging debt until the lever proved too weak to lift all the weight.

If you're one of the job applicants hoping for a position in Dublin, take heart. All promised jobs, all 450 of them, will be realized. Riverdeep is going to grow as planned, in spite of the restructuring that must take place.

The question is, however, does EMPG's new majority stockholder plan on Riverdeep growing? Is John Paulson and his hedge fund as keen on Riverdeep as they seem to be on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?

Tired of waiting for the debt to be repaid? Not sure that it ever will be paid? You might consider a trade with Mr. O'Callaghan, who owns both Bentley's Hotel in Dublin and Cliff House Hotel in Waterford. A couple of months stay, free of charge, might cover your losses and allow Mr. O'Callaghan to meet his obligation to you, while you enjoy posh surroundings and all the amenities.

While in Waterford, you could swim in the ocean and dream about a little minnow swallowing a big whale, risking only what it could afford to lose while losing sight of the other fish in the financial sea.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Looking Smart

For a time, Barry O'Callaghan fancied that he looked quite smart in his tailored suits, pockets bulging with debt.

In the wake of a financial crisis that some claim they saw coming, the Irishman doesn't look quite so brilliant. He's about to take an enormous loss on his scheme to create the biggest educational publishing materials corporation, and he's not so popular in the home country either. Anglo-Irish Bank is holding a sizeable portion of his debt and now those losses have devolved to the Irish taxpayers.

The plan is now to convert debt into equity to avoid a bankruptcy. Should first and second lien debt-holders not go along with the plan, there is an alternative in the works. A 60-day brush with bankruptcy and the little minnow will emerge strong like the mighty whale it swallowed. HMH-Riverdeep-EMPG will, it is hoped, survive.

All the synergies realized, all the restructuring, and still Mr. O'Callaghan couldn't keep up appearances. Looked smart enough to convince Davy Stockbrokers to recommend an investment, but those who took the facade for a sound structure will be left with nothing but a stake in the international segment of EMPG, along with a hope that they might recover some money should HMH-Riverdeep-et al. show some profit in the future.

John Paulson's hedge fund, which purchased a large part of the $7 billion debt, will end up as the majority shareholder. He's quite happy with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, seeing it as a strong and going concern. Whether or not Mr. O'Callaghan will continue to steer the good ship HMH will depend on Mr. Paulson and the new board that he will control. The same goes for the fate of HMH.

Nothing like a going concern in one's pocket when searching for items to pawn during financial difficulties.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Minnow Cuts Bait In The Emerald Isle

Once again, the minnow that is Barry O'Callaghan's EMPG-Riverdeep-HMH-et al. will be restructured.

Like a person who cannot seem to find the right arrangement for the furniture, EMPG is trying yet another financial grouping in the hope that all that debt will finally fit into a tiny fishbowl.

For the Irish people, it's not good news. Much of Riverdeep's debt was funded via loans from Anglo-Irish Bank, which was on the way to Davy Jones' locker until the government took it over. In essence, there's no return on that particular investment and the Irish are left with the empty pockets.

The highly respected Davy Stockbrokers firm is making calls to the very same people they called a few years back, touting the brilliance of Barry O'Callaghan's scheme. Now they're following up, to inform the investors that their investment is wiped out in a tsunami of restructuring.

What of the nervous little fish manning the offices of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt? Not to worry, say the suits in the corner offices. The fact that EMPG is going to be owned by the banks who loaned all the money won't make a lick of difference in day-to-day operations.

Do worry about the Dail, where your new bosses sit in government. Fine Gael is spouting vitriol at Fianna Fail over their failed policies. It is to be hoped that the politicians don't try to actually run EMPG now that they've snagged it in their bank bail-out net.

From RTE's David Blake comes this analysis, available here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When The Book Tour Goes Wrong

To begin with, how could James William Lewis not have gotten a literary agent to take an interest in his novel?

Aren't murder mysteries and thrillers in such demand that good writing is allowed to slide for the sake of a page-turning story? The premise is classic thriller fodder, with a suave Doctor Chuck Rivers tracking down the rogue government employee who has dumped poison into underground water supplies in a midwestern city, causing the demise of some of the doctor's own friends. The ones who don't drink bottled water, apparently, unlike the doc.

Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis had to resort to publishing Poison: The Doctor's Dilemma entirely on his own.

Was it a lack of platform that worked against the new author? Again, how could he miss? He was, and is, the only suspect in the infamous Tylenol Murders, in which seven unsuspecting Chicago-area residents went to their deaths after ingesting arsenic-laden capsules. The killer had tampered with the head-ache medication, putting tainted product back on drugstore shelves where innocent people bought it, and then died without ever knowing what hit them.

The scenario of his novel has a ring of truth to it, although Mr. Lewis would call it pure coincidence. Or perhaps he is only following good advice and writing what he knows.

Like any self-published author, Mr. Lewis has had to set up his own book tour, and without a publicist, he isn't protected from the sort of audience-stacking that went on at The Cambridge Rag, where he appeared to promote his novel. He assumed he'd be talking about his book, plugging away, but it turns out that the host of the program brought in journalists and friends to ask pointed questions about....the Tylenol murders.

Forty-eight minutes of grilling, and all in the name of driving sales.

At the moment, the e-book stands at #37,805 in the Kindle store, respectable figures that came at the price of great discomfort for the author.

You'd have to suspect that Chicago-area prosecutors and the FBI have all bought their copies. The case remains open, and Mr. Lewis had recently donated a sample of his DNA to the Feds. No word yet on what the FBI's newly formed book group thinks of Mr. Lewis's literary chops.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ask A Contractor

Question: Even though I followed the directions in Lowe's Complete Home Improvement and Repair and Lowe's Complete Home Wiring, followed by further review in Sunset Complete Home Wiring, the Fire Marshall tells me that the family room caught fire due to faulty wiring. Tell me, Contractor, what could I possibly have done wrong?

Answer: Well, first off, I could say that you should have gone to Home Depot, but I digress.

Your first mistake, Mr. Do-It-Yourself, was in believing that Oxmoor House would spend money on the kind of editing that needed to be done to be sure that little mistakes didn't slip through.

You see, even though you used three different books, they all came from Oxmoor House and they all had some minor errors that resulted in you, the homeowner, wiring up your outlets in a manner that would have any electrician laughing his head off.

What makes things really bad is the fact that these books have been in print, with the same mistakes, since 1975. Oxmoor House just kept putting them out, under different titles, and it's only recently that someone figured out that people were being dangerously misled.

Who knows how many DIY types adhered to the guidelines and diagrams in all that time? Makes you want to take a serious look at your wiring and pull every outlet and switch in the house, doesn't it, in case the people you bought your house from thought that they were "handy" and did all kinds of work themselves. Not even a junction box can be considered safe.

In conclusion, then, let us all avoid the false economy of doing your own electric work based on instructions you culled from a book you picked up at the check-out line in Lowe's. Just because you saw something in a book doesn't mean it's real. Haven't you heard? You can't believe everything you read.

Now let's talk about installing crown molding in the dining room.....

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Cougar Of Strangford

To read Iris Robinson's account of her descent into sexual impropriety, you'd diagnose a case of manic depression. Especially if you'd recently finished reading Terry Cheney's Manic.

Behaving impulsively, to the point of danger? Ms. Cheney lays out scenarios that would curl your hair. The fact that Iris Robinson, after being married for almost forty years, had an affair with a nineteen-year-old man, certainly falls into that category of madness.

They can call her the Cougar of Strangford, the older woman who snagged some young and virile prey, and the more 'holier-than-thou' Protestants can rail against her sins, but if Ms. Robinson is indeed suffering from bipolar disorder, she is only to be pitied.

Not only did she cheat on her husband, but she used her political connections as the Stormont representative from Strangford to assist her sweetheart financially. If not for her, it's unlikely that the gentleman would have had the money or the clout to acquire the rights to run a cafe at the Lock Keeper's Cottage, part of a historic area being developed by the Castlereagh Council.

Opposition parties are calling for Ms. Robinson to step down as MP, but there's also a great deal of political fur flying in her husband's direction. He should have known about the shady deals the woman was concocting, goes the line of reasoning, but the man didn't even know his wife was sleeping with Kirk McCambley. If she appeared to be stepping up for a constituent who was the son of a family friend, how would he suspect something untoward was going on?

It was only after the fact, after Peter Robinson was aware of the affair, after Iris tried to kill herself, that he stepped in to make sure the loans were repaid. Should he have alerted the council and Stormont and the press and members of the Ulster Unionist Party that his wife had gone astray, and very badly?

That's the problem with family businesses when that business is government. What a husband wouldn't want the world to know about his wife isn't a private affair at all, but the public's.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Lost In Translation

How does one say "Sorry" in Slovakian?

Ah sure and the unfortunate Slovak speaks English after four years in Ireland. Stand the man to a pint at the local and all will be forgiven.

An electrician from Slovakia was returning to Ireland after spending time with the folks back home, only to be picked by local officials as one of eight Grand Prize Winners.

The lucky man had 3 oz. of plastic explosives tucked into his personal luggage, all without his knowledge.

Don't the Slovaks just love to spring surprises on people? Great partiers, those Slovaks.

Seven stashes of dangerous contraband were found, to the joy of Slovakia's anti-terror squad. Airport security was working. To a large extent.

The electrician managed to land at Dublin Airport with his RDX undetected, however. The Slovakian government then had to ring up Dublin to let them know that, so sorry, our bad, but there's a man with enough explosives to turn a corner of Dublin into rubble and could the gardai maybe stop in and retrieve it?

Retrieve it? A nation that went through decades of IRA bombings did more than that. Irish authorities raided the man's flat, turned it upside down, evacuated the area, and tossed the unwitting bomb carrier in jail after charging him with terrorism. Up the 'RA indeed!

Minister Dermot Ahern is put out about the Slovaks failing to let him know about the stray explosives for three days, with Irish citizens put at risk by a gang of feckin' eejits in Eastern Europe. What kind of government puts bombs into people's luggage without letting them know? And what kind of moron would think it was a good way to test airport security, anyway?

The Slovakian national has since been released, and is re-considering ever returning to the land of his birth, even though the geniuses in Bratislava managed to convince Irish authorities that the man really and truly was innocent.

Doesn't exactly make us all feel safer about flying, does it?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Change Partners And Dance

I queried Nicole Steen of the Elyse Cheney Literary Agency, but she left.

Whereabouts or future prospects unknown.

On the West Coast, Elizabeth Evans departed from Kimberley Cameron's agency, to shift her allegiance to Jean V. Naggar. Such are the benefits of following agents on Twitter. I discovered this change of venue in a short entry, and I was quick to fire off a query.

Ms. Evans was equally quick to reject it.

I've done my share of querying Michelle Brower, sending my carefully crafted prose to her desk at Wendy Sherman's office and Joelle Delbourgo's place of business. She's done her share of rejecting me.

Like so many others before her, Ms. Brower has traded places. She's now working for Folio Literary Management, and it's safe to assume that she'd be interested in seeing some queries. After all, she'd want to impress her new colleagues and signing up some brilliant authors would fit that bill.

I've sent her a query and now I'll sit back and wait for a response. Or a no response rejection.

Either way, I'll make time in my busy day to work on another manuscript so that I always have a supply of fresh material for fresh queries. Let the agents switch agencies. I'll find them just the same.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Less Than Tasty Wares

The last of the independent book vendors in Aiken, South Carolina, has closed the doors. Ann Carlson gutted it out for three years, but in the end, the difference between expenses and income didn't add up.

The owner of the Book Stall had to deal with stiff competition from on-line book sellers and the massive economies of scale that Amazon can realize.

Then there was competition from the big box retailers, again enjoying economies of scale that an individual shop could never hope to realize. Residents of Aiken didn't think twice about driving to a bigger city to visit the Barnes & Noble, where the same books could be had for less money, although without the friendly help and suggestions from a knowledgeable staff.

What about the product that Ms. Carlson had available? After all, she could only stock what the publishers were producing, and then hope that the likes of Rizzoli or Random House had guessed right.

Word comes from Rizzoli that they will soon lay down a book of hip-hop star Rihanna's deep thoughts. There'll be photos as well, to fill up over one hundred pages. A person wants to get their money's worth when they shell out $38.00.

It will make a perfect bookend to Kanye West's prose, also available from Rizzoli.

There's two examples of publishers paying huge advances for big-name stars. Two examples of books that the literary world isn't dying to sample. A table loaded with celebrity shite won't bring in the reading public, those who look for well-crafted words and compelling storytelling.

How is an indie shop to stay afloat if they're given less than tasty wares to put out on the shelves?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

New Year, New Rejection

Happy New Year from the editors of the college-based literary journal. It's a rejection, but it's a good story just the same and could you send something else?

New year, new decade...same old same old.

So comfortable, to settle into the known and familiar. And how do I respond to renewed rejection?

I send the same story to a bunch of other literary journals. This year, however, I'm selecting those that use a submission manager system so that I can download my clever bits of prose and send them off with the greatest of ease.

The hard work was done in the writing, in the editing and the re-writing. Why put much more effort into submitting than is absolutely necessary?

Another year, another rejection. Well, who'd want to be published in a journal where the editor isn't too hungover on New Year's Day to work? And one in which said editor is firing off rejections on a holiday?

At least the literary agents have the sense to take off for the holiday season. No reading, no rejecting, and not looking favorably on those who dare to submit at such a time. With the new year in full throttle, those same agents should be returning to their desks on Monday. It's time to start up again with a new round of submissions to ring in the New Year.