Month: February 2010

Sugar, We’re Goin Down #VX22

Hello from flight VX22 from SFO to New York. I’m heading from coast to coast for TechCrunch Disruptwhich starts on Monday. Virgin America is amazing: not only do I have an entire exit row to myself (see below), but I also have really fast wifi and a power outlet. I’m having a fucking ball.

Also on the plane is half the Internet. Gabe Rivera has created a FourSquare venue for the flight, MG Siegler is rocking the #VX22hashtag on Twitter. Keen to get into the spirit, I’ve made a special VX22 plane crash Spotify soundtrack. Yunno, just in case.

Spotify users can access it here; for everyone else, here’s the track listing…

Mia – Paper Planes
Crash Test Dummies – Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm
Bender – Turbulance – Original Mix
Fall Out Boy – Sugar, We’re Goin Down
Savage Garden – Crash And Burn
Semisonic – Down In Flames
Ash – Burn Baby Burn
Metric – Help I’m Alive
Destiny’s Child – Survivor
Fall Out Boy – Sending Postcards From A Plane Crash [Wish You Were Here]

Playing catch-up… Or ceci n’est pas une column

When I was at school, I almost never took sick days. This wasn’t because I enjoyed going to school – I really, really didn’t. Rather it was because I knew exactly what would happen if I dared to skip even a day of classes.

A duck would somehow get into the school dining hall.

Or an explosion would destroy the chemistry lab.

Or two of my teachers would be caught having sex.

Or someone would die.

The specific incident isn’t important; the point is that I could guarantee that the one day I decided to skip school would be the day that something extraordinary would happen. Something that all of my friends would be talking about for the rest of the year while I was left to sit and sulk at having missed out.

It’s a curse that has followed me through life: I could go to parties six days a week and you can be sure that the seventh is the one where the knife fight happens. The conference I skip is the only one where the wifi doesn’t suck ass. The episode of Quantum Leap I miss is the one where Sam Beckett briefly makes it back home. And so apparently it is with my gig at TechCrunch.

Regular readers may have noticed that I didn’t file a column last week. This was because for the past ten days or so I’ve been completely out of circulation: racing to finally submit the very, very delayed manuscript for my new book. I finally dragged myself over the finish line on Tuesday and since then I’ve basically been recovering: catching up on things like sleeping, eating and experiencing daylight. During that time I’ve barely glanced at the Internet – or at least not at any technology news. All hell could have broken loose in the past few days and I wouldn’t have had a clue.

And so, of course, it did. Knowing that I was out of action for a few days, the tech world took the opportunity to go absolutely ape-shit mental.

It’s as if every kooky, ridiculous or hilarious story – the stuff of which columnists’ wet dreams are made – waited until I closed Techmeme for the last time ten days ago before it broke. The last piece of news I saw before I disconnected was the launch of Google Buzz. “Meh,” I thought, “if that the best this week has to offer, I can definitely take some time off.”

I mean, at a push, I might have been able to churn out a column about how desperate Google’s new product launches have started to look. How they have started to look like an over-keen salesman at a Turkish Bazaar. “You don’t like Wave? Ok, ok, wait Sir, I have this.. you like Buzz? I do you good price.”

But the precise moment I shut down my browser, the whole thing went to shit: it turned out that, unless you chose otherwise, Buzz would automatically display the names of the people you emailed most frequently.

I mean – come on. This is Google – a company that sparked an international incident recently when it accused China of hacking its Gmail service to identify dissidents – and now it’s actively doing the spies’ work for them? 1300 words would have flowed like water as I speculated whether Google is trying to prove to China that anything communism can do, capitalism can do better. You want to expose a few dissidents? Fuck that – we’ll expose all of them.

And why stop there? You only wanted us to remove photos of tanks in Tienanmen Square from image search. Pah! We’re going to remove all pictures of tanks, and all squares. In fact we’re going to delete anything that’s even in the shape of a square. See you later, Spongebob! Take that, Commies!

A few days later, Apple took up the ‘you have got to be kidding me’ mantle by banning thousands of apps which contained even mild sexual content. Had I written a column about that, I’d probably have taken the controversial position that, actually, I agree with Apple: sexy apps should have been banned a long time ago. Not for their sexual content, you understand, but because they’re all really, really crappy.

I mean, seriously, who would pay a dollar for a few photos of women in bikinis when you could just open Safari and have access to billions of photos of women without bikinis – for free! Hell, I could have fallen back on the old columnist’s standby of quoting Bill Hicks on how easily sex sells in America…

“Will there be titties?’
‘Uh… sure?’
BOOM! A check falls in my lap.
‘What are these titties gonna do?’
‘Uh… jiggle?’
BOOM! Another check falls in my lap.
‘Jiggling titties! Who’d have thunk it! You’ve answered our prayers out here in Hollywoooood. We can’t write enough checks for you, boy!’

But wait! It gets better. The story of Apple’s new found prudishness broke on the exact same daythat we discovered that the domain name was being auctioned off and that YouTube announced plans to livestream Tiger Woods’ press conference in which he would promise never, ever to have sex with anyone ever again.

Once again, the column writes itself: clearly we’re seeing the start of an online war against sex. In fact we’re seeing the dawn of Web 3.0: the Puritan Web. Say goodbye to and say hello to Forget Viagra spam and look forward to thousands of emails promising to help you “drive her wild with your extra-long… engagement.”

I finally resurfaced late last night, fired up my laptop and started catching up with everything I’d missed. As I paged through all these stories – Google’s epic privacy failures, the war on sex – I cursed my bad luck. Any one of them would have made a great column – but all falling together? It was like Christmas.

And yet of course, in my absence, my esteemed TC colleagues had jumped on them all – like Tiger Woods on a roomful of cocktail waitresses – leaving me with nothing fresh to add. I felt like an obituary writer who decided to go on vacation during that week in 1997 when Princess Diana and Mother Theresa both died.

But then, just when I was about to give up, I noticed one last story. One that knocked all of the others into a cocked hat but that, as far as I could see, hadn’t been covered by anyone else on TechCrunch…

On Friday, a school in Philadelphia admitted using webcams built into students’ laptops to videotape and photograph them in their own bedrooms.

I mean, just think about that for a moment: teachers using webcams to watch children in their bedrooms. Which bit of that story isn’t incredible? That they installed that software in the first place? That kids and parents weren’t told about it? That it was actually used? That the teacher then admitted to a student that it had been used? Or that even now the school is framing this as an unfortunate overstepping of an otherwise perfectly acceptable technological mark? Then there’s the fourth amendment angle, the scary paedophilia angle, the Big Brother angle…. I mean, even a arthritic monkey with half a typewriter could make a column out of that stuff.

Unfortunately it was at this point – about five minutes ago – that I realised the time. I’ve spent so long catching up with everything I missed from the past week or so that six hours have passed. It’s dawn in San Francisco, a matter of minutes before my deadline, and I still haven’t written a word, let alone 1300. That’s the other annoying thing about skipping a week: it takes you another week just to catch up.

Ah well. I guess no column from me again this week.

Sorry everyone.

Another one bites the dust

“… So, yes, the manuscript is done and is with my editor. Nothing I can do now but wait. Like eating in a Wimpy or (I’m told) childbirth, it’s amazing how quickly you forget the pain of the actual experience and start yearning to go through it again. I’m Patty Hearst and Microsoft Word is my Stockholm Syndrome…

…One last thing: lots of people have very generously offered to read through the m/s and give me their verdict. Others have been more open in wanting to know what / if I’ve written about them. The truth is, I’m as keen as anyone would be to know what the verdict is. I honestly have no idea whether it’s a sack of shit, or whether it’s struggle-through-able…”

Iwrote those words just a bit more than two years ago in a blog post entitled “Save > Attach > Send > Vomit“. I’d just submitted the manuscript of Bringing Nothing To The Party and was in a horrible limbo phase, waiting for my publisher to give his verdict.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember anything about those few days – or the previous week or so of writing. I almost certainly spent most of the week that followed drunk. I’m pretty sure the blackout thing was a subconscious decision: a shortcut to my forgetting how much I hate the actual act of book writing, especially as I head towards – and then past – my deadline.

Two years later and I’m back in that same limbo; the manuscript for the new book landed with the very same publisher three days ago, and there’s nothing to do – again – but wait for his verdict. Again I’m already starting to forget the pain of the actual experience and again I’m starting to think about what to do next, beyond the shit-ton of admin that will come between now and publication day in (I think) July. Assuming that the thing is at least publishable.

The difference this time, of course, is that I can’t even get drunk. Instead I’m just taking some down-time; catching up with reading, seeing friends I haven’t seen for weeks, remembering to eat lunch, all that stuff. One other thing I’ve finally got round to doing is putting the rest of Bringing Nothing To The Party online. You can now read the full contents chapter-by-chapter, complete with clickable footnotes and commenting here.

Right! I have about 24 more hours left of break time (Mike kindly gave me a week off from writing my TechCrunch column) before I have to go back to work. I’m going to download a couple of old episodes of Jonathan Creek and order a takeaway.

I mention that not because I think you’ll care, but rather so that when I look back in another two years, I have at least some idea of where this time went.

Hey, 1997 – Macmillan called, they want the Net Book Agreement back

This time last week I rattled off the world’s laziest column. I was struggling against my book deadline which expired 24 hours later and I simply didn’t have time to write anything else. This week should have been different; I should have finished the book days ago and now be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean, sipping a Diet Coke martini and lazily writing a long, well-thought-out column about some vital issue of the day. Why it’s inadvisable to write a mea culpa in the passive voice (otherwise it’s just a ‘culpa’). Something like that.

And yet, and yet – the fact that, seven days later, I’m still sitting at my desk and I still haven’t delivered the manuscript to my publisher, should give a hint to how perilous things are right now. I’m Wile E. Coyote about five seconds after he looks down and realises he’s overshot the cliff. And yet despite my urge to sack off this week’s column and focus on lessening the size of crater I’m about to leave in the desert floor, there’s something on which I can’t remain silent on any longer. Four words which I’ve been seeing again and again all week, and which threaten to drive me mad…

“A victory for authors.”

That’s how some people are describing Amazon’s capitulation to Macmillan over the pricing of ebooks. They say it in the same tone as people describe more expensive milk as “a victory for farmers” or subsidies for domestic cars as “a victory for American auto workers”, which is to say the same tone as you might use to pity a cat with three legs.

Poor authors, after all, need all the help they can get. They work for years on their Great Novel, probably subsisting on stale cheese and rats’ milk as they do so, and what thanks do they get? A measly royalty, chipped away at by heavy discounting in book stores. Thank God then for Macmillan taking a stand against Amazon and its aggressive discounting. And thank Jesus for all of the other publishers bravely following them.

Oh please.

First a few facts, in the form of a disclosure statement. I am an author. Before that I was a publisher. Although my publisher is now Hachette, I’ve been published in the past by Macmillan, both in the UK and the US. Macmillan were a partner of the publishing house I co-founded, and were responsible for distributing all of our titles. Richard Charkin, the former CEO of Macmillan, was an advisor. I like Macmillan. I feel, then, somewhat qualified to call bullshit on the claim that this deal is good for anyone – including Macmillan and especially including authors.

Much like the monarchy, Macmillan started life in Britain even though it’s now controlled by Germans. Its British roots go to the very heart of their negotiations with Amazon. In America, books have always been available at a discount – with book stores relatively free to set prices as they wished. Of course, publishers still choose their wholesale price, but there’s nothing to stop, say, Borders from heavily discounting bestsellers to get people through the door. Publishers didn’t necessarily like this as it led to booksellers demanding more aggressive discounting (sometimes more than 60% off the cover price), but they didn’t have much of a choice but to accept. The fact is that publishers couldn’t justify opening up their own stores, so if they wanted readers to be able to actually read their books, they had to keep bookstores happy.

But that’s not how things used to work in the UK.

In the UK, way back in 1900, publishers corralled retailers into the Net Book Agreement (NBA); an agreement between British publishers and booksellers that books would be sold at the price specified on the cover. If a bookseller offered so much as a penny discount, then the publisher would simply withdraw all of their books from that bookseller and encourage other publishers to do the same. The arrangement suited everyone; book shops were the only place to buy new books and the NBA meant they didn’t have to worry about rivals undercutting them; this particularly benefited independent bookshops. For their part, publishers knew exactly how much they’d be getting for each title and authors knew how much of that would form their royalty.

It took until the late 90s for the Restrictive Practices Court to declare that the Net Book Agreement was anti-competitive and should be scrapped. Shortly afterwards, Borders entered the UK market, hundreds of UK independent bookshops went bankrupt and publishers decided to change their contracts with authors. Now, instead of being based on the cover price of a book, the author’s royalty would be based on ‘net receipts’, which is to say the price that publishers actually received from bookshops.

Since 1997, that’s how things have stayed. Authors learned to adjust pretty quickly, especially as fewer than 20% of titles actually ever earn back their advance and start paying royalties. But publishers have remained annoyed. Deep discounting cuts directly into their profits. There was one area, though, where publishers could still make a killing on every sale: hardback books. The fact is that printing a hardback book, as opposed to a paperback, costs a matter of pennies more. But there is a perception amongst book buyers that they are far more expensive, a perception that it has been in no one’s interest to correct as it allows them to be sold for twice the price of paperbacks. Even with booksellers demanding deep discounts, the publishers still make a ton of profit on each hardback sale. By releasing the hardback book months before the paperback, publishers can subsidise a huge amount of their business from hardback sales, while booksellers can still discount highly to get people through the door.

And then along came the Kindle and everything went to hell.

Before e-readers, publishers didn’t care about ebooks. You could tell this by the fact that they gave authors really generous royalties on their electronic sales. It was an easy item to appear generous over – so they could fuck you on the paperback royalty. No one read books on their computer so it was no huge loss. For the same reason, publishers were happy to release ebooks at the same time as hardbacks – it wasn’t like the sales of the former were cannibalizing the latter.

But now, with ebook sales soaring, and with the iPad looking to make them soar even higher, publishers are panicking. Thanks in part to deep ebook discounting by Amazon, but also because the same people who can afford hardback books are the same people who can afford e-readers, people are starting to buy ebooks where they once bought hardbacks. The only cash-cow remaining in publishing is disappearing, like CD sales for music, and DVD sales for movies.

The publishers’ answer to this? A de facto return to the Net Book Agreement, for the whole world. Publishers don’t need booksellers as much as they used to. If an ebook isn’t available from one place – Amazon, say – it will be from somewhere that’s just a click away. Amazon on the other hand, can’t sell Kindles if a huge chunk of popular books aren’t available on it. Furthermore, thanks to the ease of distributing an ebook directly to the customer, there’s nothing stopping a publisher – or group of publishers – from creating their own store. Most sell ebooks directly online already. The balance of power has swung back to publishers, and they’re making the most of it, especially when then know they can play Amazon off against Apple.

For the first time in the UK since 1997, and ever in the US, publishers are able to set – and enforce- their own prices on ebooks. And they will; not to make a fair return on ebooks but rather to cripple their sales in order to protect early hardback book sales. They’ve admitted as much themselves, saying that prices will start high on hardback release, before dropping steadily over time.

The idea that this benefits anyone, least of all authors, is laughable. Every day, thousands more book lovers move to ebooks. These are people who devour books, and who are attracted by the convenience of getting new releases delivered instantly. Yes, there’s a chance that they’ll keep buying hardback books if ebooks go up in price. But now they’ve already invested in ereaders so there’s even more of a chance that they’ll simply turn to piracy to get their fix. It’s like if record labels had tried to encourage people to keep buying CDs by raising the price of mp3 downloads (or slapping restrictive DRM on them). All that would likely have done is drive even more people to Limewire.

Piracy isn’t an industry-killing problem for publishers yet, and if they can keep prices low enough and delivery mechanisms convenient enough, it could even stay that way. Macmillan’s attempt to bring back the NBA though, while it might result in a few more hardback sales in the short term, can only end in disaster for everyone concerned.

As an author, I don’t see a pricing strategy that encourages piracy as a victory. I see it as a backwards-looking quick fix that will do far more long-term harm than short-term good.

Youa culpa, Macmillan.

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