The Egatz Epitaph

Reports on management, employment, and all things Egatz.

The Chattahoochee Time Warp

Kids, don’t try this at home. You’re about to read the worst advice a young writer can ever hear.

For the past decade, or so, I’ve rarely submitted unsolicited writing to publications of any kind. I feel pretty fortunate some editors seek me out. The ones who do are the ones who’ve published me better than 90% of the time for the past ten years, or so.

As the poet Thomas Lux said to me, “Ronnie, editors are not going to come into your home and open your desk drawer to search for poems.” Even spending an hour a week getting your submissions in the mail is critical (if you’re ready to be published), but my track record proves I’m incapable of even that.

Read the rest of this entry »

Oh, What a Difference a Half-Year Makes

Hello, readers. Thanks for your kind emails during my half-year hiatus. We’ve had much happening at the loft, and outside events have essentially taken over my life for the past six months. They include family illnesses, freelance work, readings, radio interviews, a lot of spouse time, legal maneuverings, and a host of other matters both good and bad. The massive amount of emails from FoEs and regular readers alike are most welcome, and the encouraging messages helped get us through. It reminded me of the last time I shut down The Egatz Epitaph at the end of the 1990s, when regular readers got seriously pissed. This time, though, I don’t intend to quit. Enough with the personal issues for now.

Out in the real world, much has happened in the technology and book vending industries since I last posted. As chronicled on this site, Borders has finally completed its long march into the history books. After a seemingly endless series of executive and managerial missteps, the 40 year old company collapsed, leaving many vendors in red ink, and 10,700 people without jobs.

My wife Jenny and I did our part, though. With many publishers and authors still sending me books to review, we keep our book purchases to a minimum. We are, after all, running out of room for books. Hello, iBooks, but I digress. We visited our local Borders, but the garage sale atmosphere was just too depressing. It felt like people were picking over the carcass of an old friend. Read the rest of this entry »

Borders on the Edge

Borders

Our favorite of the rapidly-thinning herd of massive chain bookstores, Borders, is still on the ropes, and barely able to protect itself from body blows raining down on it.

One month ago, the former CEO of Borders U.K., Philip Downer, published a point by point dissection of how management ran Borders into the ground. His three charge indictment:

  1. Regarding the Internet, Borders let the cluetrain leave the station without hopping aboard.
  2. The internal hardware and software Borders used for tracking inventory was antiquated. Penny wise, pound foolish.
  3. Excessively rapid expansion. Too fast in too many countries.

Downer’s blog is worth following, but it appears too late for the management of Borders to learn the lessons he offers. Bankruptcy was declared February 16th, and BusinessWeek just pointed out Borders will be closing 25 stores in 14 states. Other sources claim 28 stores. The bankruptcy paperwork claims assets of $1.275 billion, liabilities of $1.293 billion. They owe $302 million on inventory. That’s a lot of books waiting to be paid for, not to mention authors waiting for checks. Those pesky authors—always looking to get money, always the last in line waiting for the trickle-down.

With 200 stores already liquidating by the end of April, 28 more on the way, and the Ann Arbor headquarters up for grabs, things are bleak for the monster from Michigan.

Peter Osnos, writing in The Atlantic, claims the real trouble with Borders began in 1991, when Tom and Louis Borders cashed out to Kmart for $125 million. As we’ve documented here before, Borders has suffered a series of management shuffles, which is rarely a good thing. Osnos claims executives were brought in “from supermarkets and department stores.” This isn’t unlikely, and again, isn’t a good move. Widgets are not widgets, particularly in the red herring industry known as publishing. This fact is something countless beancounters at multinationals have been unable to balance both on spreadsheets and in their own minds after their parent corporation has gobbled up a publishing company.

Meanwhile, on the other side of chain bookstore saga, embattled Len Riggio and his team have been unable to find a buyer for Barnes & Noble. The vultures are circling, but the price is still to high to start nibbling. Even Ron Burkle, minority shareholder and ever-present millstone around Riggio’s neck, isn’t buying more shares, according to sources. With the Nook e-Reader claiming 22 percent of the e-Reader market, the hopeful are praying the device will save Barnes & Noble from collapse.

The end is not in sight for book buyers just yet. Sure, it looks like the big chains will, sooner or later, go by way of Tower Records, but there may still be hope for the long-suffering independent bookstores. You remember those? The ones where the clerks cared about what they sold, and knew their regular customers’ reading habits? Check out Edward McClelland’s insightful piece on the matter at Salon. Like the moon and tide, these things return. We can only hope so.

Nanook of the West Side Highway

It is rare when physics, love, meteorological events, trust and superhuman efforts converge to teach us something about ourselves and those we love. This was one of those times.

I was helping my wife Jenny with a gourmet craft services gig at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Although she works in the industry as a wardrobe stylist, her original cooking is to die for, and it’s something I’ve encouraged her to share with the world long before we were married. On this particular gig she had four huge travel bins full of gear, two coolers, and assorted boxes of stuff which we had to get back to the loft after a fashion shoot. The loft is about 38 miles away in northern Westchester County.

It would interest readers to know more about the client, or what went on at the shoot, or what minor celebrities were milling about, but we each signed legal documents which promised men in long coats would come to our loft late at night and do bad things to us if we revealed any details whatsoever. Read the rest of this entry »

The Strong of Stomach at Year’s End

2010 is wrapping up like a 77-0 football game. Many experts are sifting through endless spreadsheets, looking for patterns in the numbers which will help justify their relevance to both the publishing and computer industries. Others are checking their offshore accounts. Still others are drafting wills.

The Association of American Publishers has reported e-book sales are up 192.2% this year to date, according to Lauren Indvik at Mashable. The strong of stomach can read the rest of her summary here. Aside from e-book growth, the AAP also reported largely dismal numbers for September book sales.

Champion of all things digital, Nicholas Negroponte is predicting the book as we know it will be dead in five years. Predictions have always been a risky venture in the technology industry, with the vast majority of pundits getting it wrong. This is one time we hope Negroponte is not on the money, although for the sake of the the environment, an unselfish part of us hope he’s correct.

The news for dead tree editions isn’t all horrible, though. Printed books seem to be making nominal gains in selected categories. Educational titles, for instance, are up, barely breaking the double-digit mark, but they’re still up. Perhaps this is because students are smart enough to realize they don’t want to spend money on educational e-book titles which will be deleted from their eReaders at the end of the semester.

At year’s end, the shakeup in the computer business seems to also continue unabated, just like the publishing industry. With even Ray Ozzie—executive at a company not known for innovation—predicting a period of “post-PCs,” multi-function eReaders are the wave of the immediate future. Pundits on all sides of both industries are pointing to reasons why laptops are being shunned for tablets, with compelling evidence, for example, you never need to take your laptop on vacation again.

At less than a year old, the iPad is still the favored tablet if you want a device which can do more than just display e-books. With Amazon continually improving their Kindle software for the Mac, Team Bezos is trying to cover all bets, even though their Kindle is hemorrhaging sales to the beast from Cupertino. Apple’s iPad is shaking things up everywhere, including for hard drive manufacturers, who clearly see themselves being phased out of existence. With less demand for laptops and desktop computers, you don’t need a time machine to start betting on alternative data storage solutions.

As 2010 heads for the history books, we can only hope the sales of physical books don’t completely disappear, but I’m sure a lot of people felt that way about witty telegrams, beloved horses used for transportation, and the handsome ice man. With John James Audubon’s Birds of America selling for $11,567,575 at auction this year, it would be nice to have some reassurance books will not only belong to the wealthy in the future.

Newspapers, on the other hand, are clearly in trouble, and have been since the era of deregulation began. In a wave which may predict what will happen to physical books, the shrinking audience for newspapers will force them to become specialty publications being sold for correspondingly higher prices, even if they go digital and plan to pay their reporters, editors, and designers for content.

On a more positive note, perhaps the chaos in these industries we track gives us a moment of pause. While both manmade and natural disasters have rocked 2010, and publishing industry darlings have grappled to hang on to power, this has been far from the best year on record. It’s a good time to look to those we love and those we work with to find more important goals than merely keeping shareholders placated each quarter. Here at the Egatz Epitaph, for instance, we’ve renewed personal relationships and are working again on some new books we’ve been neglecting. We’ve also cleaned house on some relationships which weren’t so good for us. It’s a time of peace and forbearance. It’s a time of forgiveness and high hopes for the future. It’s a time for enacting new plans and resurrecting the best of old plans. Ultimately, for us, it’s about art and love and fulfillment. We hope it is for you, too.

Defying Conventional Wisdom

Two weeks ago I was treading the boards for Beneath Stars Long Extinct in the beautiful city of Portland. For the past twenty years, the United States has seen chain superstores expand in the book retail business faster than the national debt. With their Walmart-like invasion across the dark fields of the republic, as Fitzgerald wrote, we’ve seen independent bookstores disappear at a steady pace.

The new century has witnessed many of the larger independent bookstores going away forever, let alone the smaller bookshops. Larger indie retailers in New York City such as Gotham Book Mart and Coliseum Books are no more, but New York is not alone. Most major American cities have seen their long-established independent stores go the way of the dinosaurs. Cody’s in Berkeley, Midnight Special in Santa Monica, and A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco have disappeared on the West Coast, leaving California particularly hard hit. You know a current event has passed into the realm of common knowledge when Hollywood acknowledges it, such as it did with the film You’ve Got Mail in 1998.

Throughout this decimation, one of the rare establishments to defy the conventional wisdom that independent bookstores can no longer thrive is Powell’s Books in Portland. Powell’s is the blueprint for any smaller independent bookstore to follow if they want to not only stand against the generic sterility of a Barnes & Noble or Borders chain store, but surpass them in every way. What follows are a few reasons it seems the staff and management at Powell’s knows what they’re doing, and they continue to do it well.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Art of Writers’ Sites

My friends at Red Hen Press (publishers of Beneath Stars Long Extinct) have asked me to write a brief article on self-run sites by writers. If you’re a writer or published author and want to get the word out about your writing, a well-conceived site written, run, and updated by you is critical. It should be the go-to place on the Internet for anyone doing research about you. It must be the one-stop resource containing everything you want readers to know about you and your writing.

Your first order of business should be to get your own Internet domain. There’s little excuse these days to not have one. If someone goes to your site and you have an address like http://www.somehost.com/yourname/index.html or, worse, http://www.facebook.com/yourname/, it simply isn’t professional. Ideally, you can secure a domain such as yourname.com. If not, try to go with something which won’t mark you as an amateur. For example, seeing a URL like www.nimbusbutterflypoet.com makes most seasoned readers think this will be a site of bad, amorphous, new age-type poetry. Likewise www.darklordscreeds.com will foretell a site of bad gothic rants against gun control and abusive mothers. These may be unfair, but they are generalizations and associative leaps people will make before they visit your site. You can curtail this loss of traffic before it happens by having a reasonably sober Internet domain.

The next thing to do is find a good Internet Service Provider to host your domain. There are countless ISP businesses willing to take your money every month to host your domain, and all the criteria choosing one is beyond the scope of this article, although I might address it in the future. Do your comparison shopping on the Internet. Beware of cost overages and surcharges if you should be fortunate enough to generate a lot of traffic to your site. Find out these costs above and beyond standard monthly fees. Beware of punitive contracts locking you in for more than a month at a time. Most critically, do they have 24-hour technical support? Vote with your dollars, and move accordingly.

Thanks to blogging engines such as WordPress, it’s quite easy to get your own blog component of your site up and running with a minimum of hassle. If your ISP doesn’t support something like WordPress, it’s time to find a new ISP.

A blog regularly updated on your site will keep your old fans coming back, and generate links so new ones can discover you. If the reason for your site to exist is to get people interested in your writing, keep your blog entries relevant. This should not be the blog where you detail your laundry schedule, or what you did with your best friend over the weekend, or how your spouse cheated on you. You can grab another domain for that kind of public diary writing because, frankly, it’s just not that interesting, especially to people who want information about your new book of poetry or your about-to-be published memoir.

It’s best to keep your blog focused on your writing career and the books you’re promoting. Announcing readings, discussing a recent review you got, and publicly answering reader questions are all legitimate blog posts for a writer’s Web site. Ideally, your blog should support both your book(s) and the topics you write about. For instance, if you’ve published a book about a rock band, a music review of their latest release is a good idea. If your book has nothing to do with music and you feel compelled to write a review of new CD you got, you should try to sell that review to an appropriate publication, and not diffuse the energy and confuse readers of your site. As politicians are fond of saying, stay on target.

I’ve previously written about the dangers of Flash-based sites, and I’m still committed to avoiding it at all costs. One thing I didn’t address in the article “Flash Fatigue” (which you should read if you’re thinking of using a Flash-based site), is how Flash was not developed with mobile computing devices in mind. Flash files are insanely computationally-intensive, and suck up a tremendous amount of clock cycles to run. Did you ever visit a Flash site on your laptop and hear your computer’s internal fans spin-up? The reason that’s happening is because the CPU is working overtime, and it needs to be cooled down. Both of those events require energy in the form of battery power. The limited technology of today’s battery power is the only thing which has kept mobile computing from becoming even more obliquitous in our daily lives. The way Flash sucks battery power is the largest and unspoken reason why Apple has rejected Flash support in iOS devices such as the iPad and the iPhone. Again, if you need more reasons, read “Flash Fatigue.”

Essentials a writer’s site should contain include the following information, each broken out on a separate page:

  1. A brief biography, including awards and other relevant information.
  2. A publications page, listing your books, and where readers can get them.
  3. An events page, listing in chronological order where you’ll be reading publicly.
  4. A contact page, with your email address, at the very minimum.
  5. A media page, including links to reviews of your work, articles you’ve published on other sites, and video of you reading or lecturing.

Regarding the design of your site, remember you’re trying to attract readers, not alienate them. Clean design is the way to go. With increasing numbers of Internet users on laptops, iPads, phones, and postage stamp-size monitors, this is more critical than ever. Nothing annoys readers more than overly-wide Web pages. Horizontal scrolling is akin to death in usability practices. Keep your pages to 1000 pixels wide or less.

Confusing background images or textures just make things difficult for readers, like oblique, impenetrable poetry. There’s no reason for this type of design. Avoid textures and too many colors as you would avoid bad writing in what you’re trying to sell.

Lastly, a critical thing to avoid is unconventional navigation. You see this most often in Flash-based sites, but it can be found in HTML, PHP, or other more conventionally-built sites. Scroll bars for windows built within pages are not only a pain to navigate, but they’re ugly and confusing. If you’ve got a blog component, make sure it’s easy to navigate to previous posts. Clarity in your terms for navigation are critical. A link called “About,” should go where readers would think it would: to a bio of the writer, and not to a page about the site.

Common sense, clarity, and brevity are watchwords you need to guide you through constructing your own site. Hit the search engines and examine sites belonging to other writers before you start building your own. Make a list of features you like, and do what you best: write your content before you begin coding or hiring a programmer/designer to do it for you. It will save you countless amounts of revision, and that’s time you should be spending on your real writing.

For Sale, Going Cheap

As we continue to watch the American Dream recede in our rearview mirrors, things look no less bleak for the retail book trade. As booksellers everywhere are pummeled from all sides, other industries are both feeling the hits and are in positions to pick up some bargains.

After betting on quick turnaround deals on mortgages by selling homes with punitive loan terms to unqualified buyers, which began a boom of hyper-inflated home pricing, which eventually triggered a global economic meltdown, which resulted in massive corporate layoffs, now Wall Street is blaming homeowners themselves for the foreclosure waves hitting month after month. With the average home worth half of what it was before the Second Great Depression, residential real estate has been a bargain hunter’s dream if you’ve got cash reserves and don’t plan on looking for financial credit.

The upshot of all this? If you’re seeking a place larger than the average-size American home, we know where you can pick up a real bargain. The only caveat is it’s in Michigan, which we here at The Egatz Epitaph have first-hand experience in, but that’s another story. Does 460,000 square feet sound like enough elbow room?

©Borders Inc.

Yep, that’s right. The corporate headquarters of Borders Inc. is up for grabs in Ann Arbor. The asking price is $18.349 million. At only $40 a square foot, you can’t go wrong. In fact, this is Michigan, so the mere promise of bringing more than five jobs into the local economy means you can probably strong-arm local officials into giving you a healthy tax abatement for the next few decades, at least.

Although we here at The Epitaph like to point out bad business decisions, we feel pretty terrible about this. It’s not good news. Borders was once the recipient of at least $300 a month when they acted as the sole dealer feeding our serious book addiction. If they hadn’t pulled our corporate discount, we’d still be helping them make their monthly nut on that 460,000 square foot location.

As it becomes more and more evident book superstores are going the way of CD retail chains, this is just another unhappy reminder of the state of the publishing industry. With even that old cash cow children’s picture books pulling dismal sales figures, things are not well in a nation which once prided itself on a broad-based educational system which created a highly-literate populace capable of becoming a skilled labor force.

With historically overpriced college textbooks migrating to iPad, even naysayers of that eReader are reconsidering it as a valuable way to consume the written word. Besides that, forests are being saved, and electronic editions are a lot easier to carry around than the dead tree editions, not to mention they’re easier for publishers to update.

We wish Borders, and, more importantly, Borders-employees, our good thoughts. The Kobo leaves a lot to be desired, but here’s hoping you figure out a strategy to save your jobs, your homes, and maybe even that big place at 100 Phoenix Drive. You know what they say about a phoenix. Here’s hoping.

Apple’s Steamroller Advances

The Great and Powerful Jeff Bezos and his Kindle team at Amazon.com continue to do whatever they can in hopes of staunching the excitement over the next generation of Apple iPads. Rumor has it the second generation of the same 9.7-inch form factor will be released in the first quarter next year. A fully-functional computer, which also happens to be the best eReader on the market, will now be equipped with FaceTime technology. As if Apple needed to put yet more features into their eReader, FaceTime will put yet more distance between the one-trick Kindle and the iPad multi-functioning juggernaut.

A recent report from Nielsen has the iPad as tracking heavily with younger male users, and Kindle users being more wealthy. This is interesting, considering Kindles are less expensive than iPads. Since younger generations historically have embraced technology more quickly than older, wealthier invididuals, it’s not hard to see where this one is going to go.

©Apple, Inc.

Apple has long been a champion of open standards since at least OS X was introduced. They’ve done this again with both FaceTime, which they’ve established as an open standard video chat protocol, and they’ve done it with their eBooks, by making the iPad support the .epub format.

If Nielsen is correct, Amazon may temporarily be enjoying a wealthier demographic for the Kindle, but the young are swarming to the iPad because they can do a lot more on it than read public domain copies of Jack London. As Jim Morrison once monotoned, “they got the guns, but we got the numbers.”

Recently I was spammed with offers of refurbished Kindles from Amazon. Why anyone would want to buy a repaired plastic eReader that broke on someone else is beyond me, but there it is. The technology and prices are trickling down faster than any disillusioned back room architect of Reaganomics ever dreamed.

With colleges and universities embracing iPads for their students’ computing needs, plus the easy authoring environment of the .epub format, Bezos has reason to turn the propaganda hose on full between now and the second generation iPad’s release.

Even Amazon.com itself is riding the iPad wave by selling the device along side the Kindle. Things could be stranger in Amazon’s pursuit of dollars, and they are. The New York Times recently documented a bizarre alternative universe where Amazon was charging more for the eBook version of Fall of Giants by Ken Follett than they were for the hardcover edition. Retribution and negative press was swift and righteous, with Bezos being called a bait and switch artist, among other things. If anyone needed evidence American consumers not only see emperor’s new clothes, but are willing to pay more for it, there it is.

As Amazon continues to try to figure out eBook pricing and Kindle technology which stands a hope in hell of being as good as Apple’s, they have something else to worry about coming out of Cupertino. Now that Apple has proven the success of iOS 4, there’s more rumors of iPad technology being deployed in a smaller form factor. A seven-inch iPad would be a serious threat to smaller Kindles, and would appeal directly to people wanting to use the iPad primarily as an eBook reader, as opposed to everything else it can do.

In the final analysis, Apple is a technology company and Amazon.com is a retailer—a retailer with very deep pockets, able to throw considerable resources at creating an eReader of quality, but so far, they haven’t shown much for their efforts. Apple, however, as been in the game for a long time, and frankly, there wouldn’t be an Amazon.com if it wasn’t for Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and their desire to change the world in 1970s by building the first computer mortals could purchase and use in their own home. Speculation on whatever else Apple will unleash is speculation, but as they continue to ramp up on many fronts, the possibilities are deep and wide.

For Team Kindle, there is Trouble massing in the South. On Tuesday, Barclays Capital jacked up their Apple target to $385 a share. Their other numbers are no less daunting. As AppleInsider points out, Barclays expects to see Apple sell “40 million FaceTime-compatible iPhones in fiscal 2011, 15 million FaceTime-compatible iPods, and 8 million FaceTime-compatible iPads totaling a crazy 63 million FaceTime devices by the end of the fiscal year.” For 2012, they’re expecting a total of “over 150 million FaceTime enabled devices, which could prove conservative if FaceTime is put in all iPads and all Macs.” The future of live video phone calls they promised us since before the original Star Trek is here.

If Jeff Bezos needed another reason to both fear Apple’s iPad and begin drinking heavily, the announcement Walmart will start selling the Kindle-killer on 15 October should do it. They got the guns, but we got the numbers, indeed.

Barnes & Noble’s Smart Move

The Egatz Epitaph has been accused of being a Barnes & Noble-bashing platform. We call them as we see them, albeit with a healthy dose of commentary you won’t find elsewhere. Here’s a story for the unbelievers.

In Barnes & Noble’s smartest move since Len Riggio duplicated the super store concept of the original Fifth Avenue location he purchased in 1971, Barnes & Noble announced they will be taking on Apple’s iBookstore with PubIt!.

PubIt!, despite the moronic name, misspelled typemark, and exclamation point, will address iBookstore’s most exciting, virtually non-promoted, and grossly underreported feature: the ability of hacks everywhere to publish their own eBook.

With potential hordes of bad writers uploading their material as eBooks, things can shake up the publishing industry, an industry already feeling its way into the 21st Century like Helen Keller dropped off in Death Valley.

Unlike Apple’s straight grab of 30% of the cover price, Barnes & Noble has announced a different profit sharing breakdown with potential authors. They’ll take 35% of the price of eBooks under $10, and a stupefying 60% of titles priced over $10. How’s that for Riggio-math?

Despite this greedy, punitive, and impossible-to-justify policy, Barnes & Noble stands poised to launch a venture which can be highly profitable, and possibly saved their ill-conceived Nook eReader from total obscurity.

Promising the ability to turn anyone’s HTML, TXT, RTF or Word file into the .epub format, PubIt! will enable writers to get their screeds up on the Barnes & Noble eBookstore. This is exactly what Apple had promised with their iBookstore and the iBooks app, although they have completely fallen down on promotion efforts to publicize this functionality. Whomever is running this division for Apple should be swiftly removed and retrained to work as a greeter an as-yet unbuilt Apple Store in Fairbanks, Alaska.

As Cupertino continues their bizarre slumber on promoting iBooks and iBookstore, Barnes & Noble might do something correct for the first time in decades, and likely for the first time since they’ve entered the world in digital media. Kudos to Lenny and the folks responsible for PubIt!. You may have found the way to save that once-great book retailer, Barnes & Noble.