In the past I have both 1) praised Jeff Bezos for displaying what looks like a true love of books and reading, and 2) highlighted Amazon’s bullying and heavy-handedness in the publishing industry by linking to Steve Wasserman’s damning 2012 article “The Amazon Effect,” in which Wasserman, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Books Review, explains how his early positive view of Bezos and Amazon soured over time as it became evident that the company is intent on “bulldozing any real or perceived obstacles to its single-minded pursuit of maximum clout” by imposing “increasingly harsh terms on both its competitors and its clients.”
Recently it’s looking like the scale has tipped definitively in favor of the negative judgment on both Bezos and his company. Or at least that’s my take, which is based on the fact, revealed just last week, that Amazon is now flat-out blackmailing publishers and authors into complying with their draconian demands by charging higher prices and delaying shipments for products from companies that resist them. Various other tactics are also involved, such as removing entire promotion pages for some books. What’s more, Amazon isn’t afraid to play this kind of hardball with books by big-name authors. Titles by J. K. Rowling, Anne River Siddons, and James Patterson are among those that have been affected.
Says The New York Times‘ David Streitfield and Melissa Eddy:
Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before. Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention. . . . No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m personally fed up with this kind of crap, and this feeling applies to more than just the Amazon situation. Amazon is emblematic of a major cultural shift that has taken place in the Internet era as megacorporations representing various sectors of the business world and cultural life at large have attempted to hold us all hostage by playing an egregiously monopolistic game. And it all seems doubly sinister in a way that’s distinct from the monopolies of a past age, since this time the imperialistic and totalitarian business practices are hitched to, and also — or so the corporate titans hope — enabled and sweetened by, the digital-populist tone of “personal freedom and empowerment” that still attends the Internet like a lingering morning mist at midday.
This kind of thing makes me remember all over again why I ditched Facebook and Twitter. Among other reasons, I just got sick of being a willing pawn in the war of the Digital Overlords, where my personal data and decisions are used as leverage and ammunition. I’ve been thinking for many months that it may be time to ditch Amazon as well, and this recent revelation adds some serious weight to that consideration. This would of course mean going back and removing all of the Amazon affiliate links here at The Teeming Brain. I also own a Kindle and subscribe to Prime, so, you know, I’m pretty deeply entangled. And don’t think for a minute that I’m not aware of the tarry syrup of irony that automatically coats every word I type here, on a blog, using a computer that’s running a Windows operating system, thus reinforcing the basic thrust of the entire digital economy and cultural technopoly that I’m ostensibly criticizing.
I would be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on this issue. Is Amazon really a tyrant? Would a personal boycott be advisable? Would it even be meaningful? More broadly, is the future just a giant playing field for megacorporations where the role of us peasants is simply to be trampled underfoot while saying thank you for it?
Image courtesy of mack2happy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I’m pleased to announce that my mummy encyclopedia is now available for preorder from the publisher, and also from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere. The scheduled publication date is November 30.
From the official publisher’s description:
Perfect for school and public libraries, this is the only reference book to combine pop culture with science to uncover the mystery behind mummies and the mummification phenomena.
Mortality and death have always fascinated humankind. Civilizations from all over the world have practiced mummification as a means of preserving life after death — a ritual which captures the imagination of scientists, artists, and laypeople alike. This comprehensive encyclopedia focuses on all aspects of mummies: their ancient and modern history; their scientific study; their occurrence around the world; the religious and cultural beliefs surrounding them; and their roles in literary and cinematic entertainment.
Author and horror guru Matt Cardin brings together 130 original articles written by an international roster of leading scientists and scholars to examine the art, science, and religious rituals of mummification throughout history. Through a combination of factual articles and topical essays, this book reviews cultural beliefs about death; the afterlife; and the interment, entombment, and cremation of human corpses in places like Egypt, Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. Additionally, the book covers the phenomenon of natural mummification, where environmental conditions result in the spontaneous preservation of human and animal remains.
Here’s an excerpt (slightly condensed) from my introduction to the book: Read the rest of this entry
From an essay by Philip Van Doren Stern that was first published in Virginia Quarterly Review in January 1942, immediately after America’s entry into the Second World War and several decades into the rise of modern mass culture:
Bookselling itself has changed. It has taken a lesson from the department store which long ago learned that it did not pay to stock thousands of titles when it was more profitable to promote a few vigorously and take orders for the others only if the customer insisted on having them. This stripped-stock method of merchandising obviously favors the bestseller. The book clerk naturally tries to persuade the customer to take a title from stock; books that are not displayed are not likely to be purchased; and if the customer asks for “a good book” the clerk will, of course, attempt to sell him one which he knows has already met with approval. (It should not be forgotten that the store makes more profit from buying a large quantity of one title at a long discount.) Stripped-stock selling has become so firmly established that the sales manager of one large publishing house candidly admits that it is easier to sell a store a hundred copies of a book the publisher is going to promote heavily than it is to persuade it to take even two copies of a good substantial book for which no ballyhoo is promised.
. . . Damning the best-seller is very much like cursing at our machine civilization. It is part and parcel of the world in which we live, as normal to our mode of existence as the automobile, as sure to continue with us as the machines themselves. It traces its ancestry back to Gutenberg; it received a terrific impetus from the invention of the steam rotary press, and every mechanical and social change since then has served to establish it more firmly. It is here to stay, no matter what form our economic system takes.
In a world which faces vast revolutionary upheavals the problem of best-sellerism may seem trivial. Actually it is not, for as has been shown, the best-seller is closely allied with the forces that are shaping our age. And if one believes that literature is important, the influence of the best-seller on publishing merits careful examination and analysis. It is not absurd to suppose that historians of the future will write elaborate treatises showing how the literature of the first half of the twentieth century was molded by mass audiences who got their reading matter in the form of best-sellers. We know the effect a small, highly educated circle of readers had upon the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We have seen how Dickens was able to dominate the nineteenth century novel by means of the steam press and serially issued installments. Surely it is not unreasonable to believe that millions of readers devouring millions of machine-made books will leave their impress upon the literature of our time.
The effect this mass audience may have upon literature is not easily forecast, yet one can already perceive certain tendencies. Everything is subordinated to the story; characters simply further the action without having any inner significance of their own; the deep underlying motives which govern human behavior are slighted because they hold up a rapidly moving narrative; atmosphere and background become nuisances which impede the progress of the plot, and philosophical speculation is ruled out entirely. Our novels are becoming as rigidly streamlined as our airplanes or automobiles; our non-fiction is written in a high-grade journalese which stems from the penny pamphleteers rather than from the great masters of English prose style.
And our readers who confine themselves to best-sellers are like motorists whose chief aim in life is to cover six hundred miles a day. You see very little while driving at seventy miles an hour — you gather very little from the galloping pages of a breathless narrative. Both are fun while they last, but what can be remembered of them except bright streaks of color, the feeling of rapid movement, and a temporary sense of excitement? The hurrying traveler is isolated by his speed; to his narrowly concentrated vision the world becomes a twenty-foot strip of road. Another six hundred miles — or pages — and he is just where he began. In his mad haste he has seen nothing, experienced nothing. Far back from the highway down which he raced there were a hundred towns and villages whose existence he did not even suspect. In them life goes on, lived in all its fullness, but what can be grasped of life or literature by a man who takes only the main-traveled roads and who never attempts to explore for himself anything that lies beyond the horizon’s rim?
More: “Books and Best-Sellers“
Here are some highly interesting remarks and reflections on the rise of electronic reading and the shape of the literary future (and present) from Yale University literature and reading scholar Jessica Pressman, whose “current research focuses on how 21st century literature — both in print and online — responds to the threat of an increasingly paperless and multimodal society.” The excerpts come from a recent installment of the always-worthwhile series of “FiveBooks Interviews” published by The Browser. Note that Dr. Pressman references several specific texts that are pertinent to the question of what books and literature can and may become.
We’re talking about digital textuality and what happens to literature when it interfaces with the prospect of the digital — of digital technology and digital culture. And we’re talking about readers who are becoming literate, and perhaps even more literate, on the screen rather than on the page … [P]eople are just reading in different ways online. Rather than engaging with a single book and a single author for a sustained amount of time, people are reading in the kind of Web 2.0 social networking ways … [T]hey’re reading hypertextually across web pages, and they’re also producing their own content … I think the place to look to see these changes is the location where conventional print literature and digital literature meet. That’s where these works live — House of Leaves , The Raw Shark Texts , and digital literature too — at the interstices.
— “Jessica Pressman on Electronic Literature,” The Browser, October 18, 2012
Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
It’s official: Realms of Fantasy magazine is now history, as announced by publisher Warren Lapine at the magazine’s website today (“A Farewell Note from the Publisher“) and repeated by Locus (“Realms of Fantasy Folds“).
We’ll all recall that ROF previously announced they were folding early last year. Some of you will also recall that I discussed this here at The Teeming Brain in post about the raft of economic troubles plaguing speculative fiction publishers these days (“Economic doom indeed: Fantasy, SF, and horror publishers and publications scaling back and shutting down“).
In that post I observed not only the troubles plaguing ROF but the ones plaguing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Mad Magazine, and I referenced the folding of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and the economic troubles in Hollywood that were delaying the release of various films.
Looking at the wider causes and implications of the trend, I said:
[T]he drumbeat of doom for speculative fiction books, publishers, and magazines isn’t just a matter of our current economic disaster. The advent of the Internet began causing problems in the print publishing world — and not just the speculative fiction wing of it — well over a decade ago, and this has been the topic of much discussion. And even before that, the publishing industry in general was suffering something of an identity crisis, accompanied by problematic changes in sales patterns, as traditional business models came into conflict with the new realities of a globalized marketplace (and mindset) and a mass audience whose sensibilities are shaped more by visual media than the written word.
. . . . In light of all these things, I think I can say with confidence that while we’re not going to be seeing nearly as many movies as we used to, and while we’re certainly not going to see as much genre writing on bookstore shelves or newsstands as we’ve grown accustomed to having, one thing’s for certain: we can all see the writing on the wall.
Then, of course, Warren Lapine, veteran refashioner of failed publications that he is, swooped in and took over ROF, giving it an injection of new life. These 20 or so months later, he says in his farewell note that he had high hopes, and that he tried every trick in his considerable arsenal of publisher knowledge and skills to make ROF turn a profit.
But none of it worked. And now he says the following, which resonates in unpleasantly harmonious ways with what I was intuiting about the shape of things last year:
I invested more than $50,000.00 of my own money into reviving this magazine. I tried every traditional method I could think of to increase the circulation, but nothing worked. I also spent a great deal of money trying nontraditional methods. I advertised online with Google and Facebook, neither of which came close to covering their costs. And we created DRM-free electronic versions of the magazine to see if that would help increase our circulation. Sadly, the DRM-free versions never sold more than twenty five copies per issue, and the Kindle editions sold fewer still.
. . . . Ultimately, I believe Realms failed because of a terrible economic climate. When I purchased the magazine I did not believe that the worst economy since the Great Depression would actually get worse; that was a mistake.
So there you have it. For more in a similar economic-doom-for-entertainment vein, consider that movie-industry titan MGM has had its future publicly questioned in the last few months over economic troubles that seriously hindered its operations, as seen in the fact that, e.g., its production of a new James Bond movie has been indefinitely delayed. MGM’s entire movie production arm is pretty much shut down. And now, in just the past couple of weeks, they’ve begun working their way through a prepackaged bankruptcy pending debtholder approval. Oh, and their chairman and co-CEO just left.
Meanwhile, Borders shut down its U.K. division, and Barnes & Noble puts itself up for auction a few weeks ago.
So the closing of Realms of Fantasy occurs in this wider context. Note that Warren is also closing his other magazine, Dreams of Decadence. Both have been prominent fixtures in every major bookstore’s periodicals section. Now they’re gone. Douglas Cohen and Shawna McCarthy, the editor and fiction editor of ROF, have also offered their public farwells.
There’s no punchline here. There’s just the obvious observation that we’re all living in precarious and uncertain times. Personally, I continue to love the Kindle I got last year, and more and more of my reading — an increasing amount of which consists of free material gleaned from the Internet — is shifting to it. So I’m a participatory part of one trend that’s crucifying the publishing industry as we know it. At the moment I’m thinking there’s nothing to do about the digital publishing revolution but ride the inevitable wave — while bearing always, always, always in mind that the seismic shifts beneath the surface of our way of life continue, and that our globally networked and financialized economy really is a house of cards, or rather a gas bubble, or rather a crazy-tilting house built on a catastrophically cracked foundation. Of course, the same metaphors apply equally to our wider way of life at large here in Imperial McWorld.
Economic doom indeed: Fantasy, SF, and horror publishers and publications scaling back and shutting down
Okay, so this developing trend doesn’t rank up there in severity with things like peak oil, spiking unemployment, riots around the globe, and dead bees. But it’s still quite interesting, at least to somebody like me, who has written horror for years, spoken on panels at several genre conventions, and made a lot of personal friends in the industry.
FYI, I’ll point out in advance (before you read what follows) that the drumbeat of doom for speculative fiction books, publishers, and magazines isn’t just a matter of our current economic disaster. The advent of the Internet began causing problems in the print publishing world — and not just the speculative fiction wing of it — well over a decade ago, and this has been the topic of much discussion. And even before that, the publishing industry in general was suffering something of an identity crisis, accompanied by problematic changes in sales patterns, as traditional business models came into conflict with the new realities of a globalized marketplace (and mindset) and a mass audience whose sensibilities are shaped more by visual media than the written word. So bear in mind that those factors are definitely in play as well.
That said, read it and weep:
ITEM: The major genre magazine Realms of Fantasy has announced that it’s shutting down, as reported at SF Scope. Note the ominous tone of some of the story
Realms of Fantasy is closing down following publication of its April 2009 issue. Managing Editor Laura Cleveland told SFScope the news came very suddenly, indeed, even Editor Shawna McCarthy (currently on vacation in Italy) hadn’t been informed yet. The only reason we got the story is that rumors broke through the blogosphere today.
Cleveland said the April issue is currently at the printer, and will be published. The reasons she was given for the closure were plummeting newsstand sales. “Subscriptions are good, and advertising, until very recently, was fine.” She blamed the economic downturn and newsstand distribution for the closure.
Publisher Sovereign Media first got into sf magazine publishing with Science Fiction Age, which Scott Edelman edited through its eight-year life. SFAge was closed while still profitable to make room for an even more profitable wrestling magazine. Realms of Fantasy has been with us for fifteen years and “was coming up on its 100th issue,” Cleveland said. “We were excited about the special Halloween issue we’d been planning, which would have been our first.”
The staff is obviously harried by the news, and that it’s become public so quickly. Cleveland had been hoping to tell the authors and artists the news before it broke publicly. The magazine wasn’t carrying a large inventory, she said, although she did note that they’d recently purchased a number of stories which now won’t be published.
I truly feel for all of those writers who are now discovering that their pleasure at having been accepted by such a fine (and well-paying) publication is now short-circuited.
On another note, a brief news item about this event at the Website for Locus, the industry-standard magazine about speculative fiction publishing news, offers this bit of intel that would seem to add some weight to one possible answer to the question of whether reading as a pervasive pastime will experience a resurgence during this new era of economic devastation: “The closure is primarily due to plummeting newsstand sales, the problem currently faced by all of the fiction magazines. ‘We’re shelved in the back of the bookstores’ [says managing editor Laura Cleveland]. ‘Nobody can even find us.'”
ITEM: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, one of the true giants among current fantasy-SF-horror mags, has announced that it’s cutting back from a monthly to a semi-monthly publication schedule (six issues per year). The announcement was made by the publisher and editor, Gordon Van Gelder, in a blog post:
The March 2009 issue will be the last monthly issue. Starting with the April/May 2009 issue, we’ll be publishing one issue every two months. Each issue will be 256 pages (16 pages longer than our last Oct/Nov issue) except for this year’s anniversary issue, which will be a jumbo.
….We’ve made the change because rising costs—especially postal costs—and the current economy put us in a position where we either had to raise our rates severely or cut back somewhere. Given the state of the economy, I decided a cutback in frequency made the most sense. We’ll lose a little more than 10% of our content this year, but we should be in a great position for the coming years.
In light of the terrible economy (and other bad conditions) that we’re facing for the indefinite future, I fear that Gordon’s hopes for a happy ending will be dashed. I’ve hung out with him a couple of times at a couple of conventions and found him to be a very pleasant man. So I do hope things turn out okay. Of course, the original Depression era was the time when the legendary pulp magazines of American cultural history had their golden age — Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, and so on — so maybe this can happen again in a new depression scenario (he said hopefully, while remaining severely skeptical of his own hope).
ITEM: The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, an absolute icon in the genre world (with a 21-year history) and the gold standard among American publishers and readers for where to find the best stories and most important new authors of fantasy, SF, and horror, has just been discontinued by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, as announced by the editors. There’s no indication of the reason, but this occurrence does line up well with the general trend here. Fortunately, Ellen Datlow, who has always edited the horror half of the anthology (and whom I also know and like personally), has announced that she has been offered a deal by Night Shade Books to do a horror-only anthology. But still, this is all rather earthshaking news for the large crowd of us who are involved in and passionate about this wing of the publishing world.
ITEM: Finally, Mad Magazine has cut back from a monthly to a quarterly publication schedule and has pulled the plug on two spinoff magazines. And this news has a wider relevance, for Mad is part of the DC Comics empire — yes, those same DC folks who bring us Superman, Batman, and so on — and Mad‘s cutbacks come as part of a big shakeup in DC’s employment situation. And this shakeup in DC may be a harbinger of much bigger things to come, since DC is itself part of the vast Warner empire. Um, do you note the implications here?
Here’s the Mad news, and also the way its implications extend outward:
Newsarama, January 23, 2009
Today’s economy is tough enough to even make MAD Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman worry, apparently.
The venerable humor magazine today announced that starting with issue #500 in April, it will move to a quarterly publication schedule from its current monthly. The magazine’s version for younger readers, MAD Kids will cease publication with the issue on sale February 17th, while the final issue of MAD Classics will go on sale March 17th. Both of the spinoff magazines launched in 2005. Circulation numbers for the magazines were not readily available.
Handling the news with style typical of MAD, Editor John Ficarra said, “The feedback we’ve gotten from readers is that only every third issue of MAD is funny, so we’ve decided to just publish those.”
MAD is a part of DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Bros. Earlier this week, news broke that the media giant would be cutting costs across its companies, and laying off up to 10% of its workforce, worldwide.
For more about the Warner Brothers situation, see the January 21 Reuters Blog post “Dark days in Hollywood“:
If that notion of a recession-resistant entertainment industry hasn’t already been debunked, just get in touch with one of your pals out in Hollywood. They’ll tell you how bad it is — how jobs are disappearing.
Warner Brothers Entertainment is the latest to cut staff, announcing 800 jobs would be lost, or 10 percent of its worldwide staff. NBC Universal and Viacom have already cut jobs, and industry watchers expect more job cuts to be announced by Walt Disney and Sony Pictures.
Perhaps more than other layoffs, the Warner Bros cuts send a signal of just how bad business looks. The New York Times points out, “While not unexpected — Warner had been quietly preparing Hollywood to expect cuts — the layoffs rattled the movie capital because the studio is regarded as one of the industry’s healthiest. With a parade of hits like ‘The Dark Knight,’ ‘Sex and the City,’ ‘Get Smart’ and ‘Four Christmases,’ Warner recorded global ticket sales of $1.77 billion in 2008, up 25 percent from a year earlier. But DVD sales plummeted in the fourth quarter and orders of scripted television programs — a huge Warner business — are expected to decline as networks cope with tumbling advertising sales.
In light of all these things, I think I can say with confidence that while we’re not going to be seeing nearly as many movies as we used to, and while we’re certainly not going to see as much genre writing on bookstore shelves or newsstands as we’ve grown accustomed to having, one thing’s for certain: we can all see the writing on the wall.