"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Amazon Kills the Buzz: Krugman on the Effects of the Big On-Line Retailer

I had never heard of monopsony until this morning when I read Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times.  It's the undue power of a monster buyer, as opposed to monopoly which is that of a monster seller.  In both cases, the organization wielding this power can influence price and supply--and in the case of Amazon's monoposony, what we read and even think.

Krugman gives a short summary of Amazon's fight with the French-based publisher Hachette over pricing, and then talks about what this means to readers and writers.  Then he writes: "Book sales depend crucially on buzz and word of mouth (which is why authors are often sent on grueling book tours); you buy a book because you’ve heard about it, because other people are reading it, because it’s a topic of conversation, because it’s made the best-seller list. And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place."

He gives as an example two books by recently mentioned prominently in the NYT:  "One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.” Uh-huh."

I'm not sure just what Amazon might be promoting here--are they promoting one kind of right-wing thought over anyother?--but any writer who's had a book effectively unavailable through Amazon knows just how hard it is to fight that kind of non-promotion.  And that's saying nothing about the fact that Amazon sets prices lower than other retailers which mean less revenue for writers whose royalties are based on retail prices.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What Literary Juries Think: Go Figure!

This is the season of prizes.  The Nobel goes to French writer Patrick Mondiano (whom I've never read, and must now), the biggest Canadian prize for non-fiction, the $60,000 CDN Hillary Weston Writers' Trust Prize,  goes to Naomi Klein for This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate, the Booker goes to an Australian guy who was stone cold broke when he finished the book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and our local fiction prize named after novelist Hugh MacLennan will go to one of three names who are not big ones, yet.

The Quebec Writers' Federation short list includes: Jon Paul Fiorentino for I’m Not Scared of You or Anything from Anvil Press, Sean Michaels  for Us Conductors from Random House Canada and Guillaume Morissette for  New Tab from VĂ©hicule Press/Esplanade Books.

Interestingly, neither Heather O'Neill's The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, finalist for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize nor Claire Holden Rothman's My October, finalist for the Governor General's Prize for Fiction,  made the cut.

This appears to be the result of completely different juries having different ideas about what is good, and in the case of the QWF jury,  perhaps a penchant for young writers.  The three finalists are well under 40. 

That's probably all to the good, but I guess I'm going to have to read all the books to decide which jury has the line on quality.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ebola and Other Plagues: A Book to Put Them in Context

Laurie Garrett's book The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance is nearly 20 years old but it offers very interesting background information about the first round of Ebola in Africa, plus important discussion of how diseases develop and spread.   Garrett is now  senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer, as well as being an engaging writer.

I had read this book several years ago when doing research on some medical matter at a time when AIDS was still little understood by the public.  The chapters on Ebola and Marburg diseases were fascinating.  While much has changed  since, the account gives some idea of how diseases emerged out of nowhere and then receded after less than a year.

What is puzzling is that the diseases seemed to burn themselves out.  This does not seem to be happening here, possibly because the outbreaks began in more densely populated, better connected parts of Africa than during the 25 previous episodes of the disease.  (For an interesting comment see: Ebola: The Tolling Bell.)  When people incubating the virus can travel, the risk of them contaminating others is great.  In earlier epidemics, Ebola appears to have been confined to relatively isolated villages and once everyone in contracted the disease and either died or survived and became immune, the outbreak was over.

The video attached is from Outbreak, a blockbuster disaster flick, that ends without the world ending, despite forecasts of universal doom.  Better to read Garrett's book or her trenchant piece Foreign Policy published Oct. 6, 2014.  She writes:  "First, a rapid point-of-care diagnostic that can find Ebola virus in a single droplet of blood must be developed. A point-of-care test avoids the need to ship samples to a laboratory and then wait for days to learn the results....I suggest the use of self-administered implements commonly used by diabetics to make a finger prick and squeeze out a droplet of blood. That droplet would go into a tiny plastic well -- an object about an inch in size that is internally coated with either DNA or antibodies that recognize specific genes or proteins found exclusively in the Ebola virus. If those viral markers are present, the device would glow with bioluminescence or change color -- the result would be observable with the naked eye...

"Finger-prick tests for Ebola are in development now at Senova, a company in Weimar, Germany; at a small Colorado company called Corgenix; and at California-based Theranos...One of these screening tests should soon meet the criteria of speed, accuracy, and ease of use necessary to prevent travelers' spread of Ebola; facilitate contact tracing; and, in the midst of the epidemic, tell who has the virus and who does not."