Category Archives: Amazon

“The new phone book’s here!”

My print copy of the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style just arrived from Amazon.com, though the official publication date is not until the end of August.

Here’s an interesting change: the 16th edition of the CMOS, like the new edition of the AP Stylebook, now embraces “website” (instead of the more formal “Web site”) as well as “the web” and “web page” (see 7.76 and 7.85). For more on “Web site” vs. “website,” see my earlier post on the subject.

For a list of some of the other changes in the 16th edition, see The Subversive Copy Editor’s “16th edition Sneak Peeks and Retired Rules.”

If you prefer your reference works in digital form, see The Chicago Manual of Style Online for online subscription options.

By the way, in the package with the CMOS was another new style manual, The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World. When I have more time, it will be interesting to explore and compare the two works.

Amazon threatens publishers again

This morning brings news (from an article in the New York Times and a blog post in MobyLives) that Amazon “has threatened to stop directly selling the books of some publishers online unless they agree to a detailed list of concessions regarding the sale of electronic books” (NYT).

Amazon is trying to prevent publishers from making deals with Apple to sell their ebooks on the iPad using the agency model. Amazon is apparently refusing to negotiate an agency model with any publishers other than the five majors who’ve already made deals with Apple. According to the MobyLives post, independent publishers are being told that “if they switched to an agency model for ebooks, Amazon would stop selling their entire list, in print and digital form.”

Amazon and Apple are each requiring publishers to agree to restrictive terms, which may in effect force publishers to choose between Amazon and Apple. From the Times article:

Five of the country’s six largest publishers — Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins and Penguin — have already reached deals with Apple to sell their books through its iBookstore, which will be featured on the iPad. (The holdout is Random House.)

Under those agreements, the publishers will set consumer prices for each book, and Apple will serve as an agent and take a 30 percent commission. E-book editions of most newly released adult general fiction and nonfiction will cost $12.99 to $14.99.

Amazon has agreed in principle that the major publishers would be able to set prices in its Kindle store as well. But it is also demanding that they lock into three-year contracts and guarantee that no other competitor will get lower prices or better terms.

Apple, for its part, is requiring that publishers not permit other retailers to sell any e-books for less than what is listed in the iBookstore. So the publishers have sought to renegotiate agreements they have with Amazon under which they sold books to it at wholesale, allowing Amazon to set the consumer price….

According to three people briefed on the discussions, publishers are reluctant to sign three-year contracts because the digital book world is changing so rapidly and they want room to adjust as it takes shape.

Amazon has also begun talking with smaller publishers that have not yet signed contracts with Apple. In those conversations, according to one person briefed on the discussions, Amazon has said it prefers to retain its wholesale pricing model, as opposed to Apple’s so-called agency model.

But some of these smaller publishers have begun talking with Apple, which has effectively said that any publisher that wishes to sell its books on the iPad must offer the same terms to all booksellers. In other words, to do business with Apple, publishers must export Apple’s business model to all retailers. Amazon, by contrast, has not promised to adopt the agency approach for any but the largest publishers.

Amazon appears to be responding to the Apple threat by waging a publisher-by-publisher battle, trying to keep as many books as possible out of Apple’s hands, while preserving as much flexibility as it can to set its own prices.

But if Amazon tries to enforce its demands by removing “buy” buttons from some pages again, some believe it could harm its reputation in the eyes of customers and the publishing industry….

Amazon may have more leverage with smaller publishers, which typically sell their books in fewer outlets and thus tend to rely more on Amazon for sales. Amazon may believe that if it can keep those publishers from moving to an agency model, Apple will choose not to sell their e-books, and Amazon will be seen as having a broader selection.

For those of you who want a reminder of the Amazon/Macmillan boycott battle and the ebook agency vs. wholesale sales model controversy, here are links to a two of my blog posts about it from late January and early February:

More breaking news: Amazon is selling Macmillan print books again

It looks like Amazon has begun to restore Macmillan print books–but not Kindle ebooks– to their website. All week I’ve been spot-checking various titles throughout the day, and when I last checked at 3:45pm PST, these print books were finally available for sale again:

Update:  The New York Times Bits blog has confirmed it in their post, “Macmillan Books Return to Amazon After Dispute“:

Electronic and paper books from the publisher Macmillan were returning to Amazon.com Friday evening, ending a week-long public conflict as the parties negotiated over the future price of e-books.

Details of the resolution have not been made public, but the restoration of Macmillan books to Amazon’s site indicates a peaceful settlement was reached. “I am delighted to be back in business with Amazon,” John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, said in an e-mail message…

So what did Amazon hold out for? The company would not comment, but it is likely that Amazon demanded that no other e-book vendors, such as Apple, get preferential access to new titles, or any kind of pricing advantages. Amazon may also have negotiated terms into its agreement with the publisher that would allow users of Kindles or Kindle software to lend e-books to each other.

Breaking news: Hachette joins Macmillan, Justice Dept. still doesn’t like the Google Book Settlement

Two pieces of breaking news tonight:

Hachette joins Macmillan

David Young, the CEO of Hachette Book Group, announced that Hachette is adopting the agency model for ebook pricing. Here’s the GalleyCat article, which includes the text of Young’s letter.

For those keeping score, there are six major U.S. publishers: Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Random House. Five of the six (all except Random House) made a deal with Apple to sell their ebooks on the iPad using the agency model. So now that Macmillan and Hachette have publicly committed to adopting the agency model for all of their ebooks (and with HarperCollins likely to as well, based on statements Rupert Murdoch made yesterday), it’s probably only a matter of time before the rest join in. But when will Amazon stop boycotting Macmillan books?

The Justice Department doesn’t like the amended Google Book Settlement, says “class certification, copyright and antitrust issues remain”

The Department of Justice submitted its views to the court on the amended Google Book Settlement. (The fairness hearing is on February 18th.)

James Grimmelmann summarizes:

The United States has filed a new Statement of Interest. The tone is balanced, but the conclusion is clear: the Department of Justice thinks the settlement is beyond the court’s authority and still problematic on antitrust grounds. It’s a careful, detailed brief, that raises fundamental objections to the settlement. These issues will not be resolved with quick patches, even if the parties were in the mood to revise and resubmit a second time.

The battle has been truly joined.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release issued by the Department of Justice:

The Department of Justice today advised the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that despite the substantial progress reflected in the proposed amended settlement agreement in The Authors Guild Inc. et al. v. Google Inc., class certification, copyright and antitrust issues remain. The department also said that the United States remains committed to working with the parties on issues concerning the scope and content of the settlement…

In its statement of interest filed with the court today, the department stated, “Although the United States believes the parties have approached this effort in good faith and the amended settlement agreement is more circumscribed in its sweep than the original proposed settlement, the amended settlement agreement suffers from the same core problem as the original agreement: it is an attempt to use the class action mechanism to implement forward-looking business arrangements that go far beyond the dispute before the court in this litigation.”

Here’s the link to the Justice Department’s full “Statement of Interest of the United States of America.”

Here’s the New York Times article about it, noting: “While the Justice Department did not explicitly urge the court to reject the deal, as it had the previous version, its opposition on copyright, class action and antitrust grounds represented a further setback for Google and the other parties to the deal.”

For more on the Google Book Settlement, see my earlier posts.

And now for something completely different…

Today is day 7 of Amazon’s boycott of Macmillan print books and ebooks. John Scalzi summarizes the current state of affairs in a very entertaining way in his new blog post, “A Quick Interview of Me, By Me, To Catch Up With Everything Amazon.” And Matt and I spotted this today in a full-page ad in the New York Times for Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto:  “Available at booksellers everywhere except Amazon.”

I realize that not all of my readers are as obsessed with this subject as I am, so I will give you a break and blog about some other things today:

Google Book Settlement

The Google Book Settlement fairness hearing will finally be held on February 18th, and the deadline to opt out or object passed on January 28th. James Grimmelmann has been posting lots of great links about the GBS on his Laboratorium blog:

Clarion and Clarion West Writers Workshop deadlines approaching

Applications are due by March 1st for the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, “an intensive six-week workshop for writers preparing for professional careers in science fiction and fantasy.” The 2010 workshop will run from June 20th to July 30th, and the instructors are Michael Bishop, Maureen McHugh, Nnedi Okorafor, Graham Joyce, Ellen Datlow, and Ian McDonald. See the Clarion West website for more information.

Also due by March 1st are applications for the 2010 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UC San Diego, which runs from June 27th to August 7th. The 2010 instructors are Delia Sherman, George R.R. Martin, Dale Bailey, Samuel R. Delany, Jeff VanderMeer, and Ann VanderMeer.

Library budget cuts

Small Beer Press

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant’s Small Beer Press will bring back into print two books by writers Matt and I really like– Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life in October 2010, and Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire in January 2011. They are joining a fine group of other writers published by Small Beer Press, including John Crowley, Elizabeth Hand, Geoff Ryman, Sean Stewart, and Kelly Link, among others.

And finally…

Introducing the iCodex:

Today, St. Stephen of Jobs announced the newest creation from the monks at Abbey Apple: the iCodex, which he believes will revolutionize the way people work and play…

With the iCodex, people can now store multiple items in one, easy-to-use package. A user could, for example, enjoy both cooking recipes and psalms, or mappa mundi and instructions on marital relations. Since the iCodex’s pages are bound together in an easy-to-turn format, things stored at the end of an iCodex are as easy to access as the beginning…

Excitement for the product could be felt all over the literate world. At the Library of Google, scribes were busy transferring hundreds of years of scrolls onto codices. “We hope to copy the entire history of human writing into codex form within the next few decades,” said Larry the Page, Google’s founder….

Go read the whole thing on Tom Elrod’s Wordism blog.

Will Amazon boycott HarperCollins’ books next?

According to this Galleycat report, Rupert Murdoch today “hinted that HarperCollins will join Macmillan in negotiating higher eBook prices.  All Things Digital reporter Peter Kafka has been liveblogging an interview with Rupert Murdoch about News Corp.’s fourth quarter earnings this afternoon. The company owns HarperCollins, so talk turned to eBook pricing.”

Here’s Kafka’s “on-the-fly transcription and paraphrasing of Murdoch’s comments re: Amazon, Apple and e-book pricing”:

We don’t like the Amazon model of $9.99….we think it really devalues books and hurts all the retailers of hardcover books. We’re not against electronic books, on the contrary, we like them very much,” because they cost us less to distribute, “but we want some room to maneuver.” The Apple deal…”does allow some flexibility and higher prices” though they will still be lower than print. And now Amazon is willing to sit down with us again and renegotiate.

Well, that didn’t take long. Anyone want to place bets on how long it will take the other big publishers to join them?

I wonder whether Amazon will also “temporarily” boycott HarperCollins’ print and ebooks for leverage in the negotiation process. HarperCollins‘ imprints include  HarperPerennial, William Morrow, Eos, and Ecco, to name a few.

Disclosure: HarperCollins is the publisher of Matt’s two most recent novels (Bad Monkeys and Set This House in Order) and his current novel-in-progress (The Mirage).

Day 5 of Amazon’s boycott of Macmillan books (and authors)

This is day 5 of Amazon’s boycott of Macmillan print books and ebooks. (See my two previous blog posts if you are still catching up.) There has been no statement from Amazon other than Sunday’s unsigned post on the Kindle forum, and the “Buy” buttons have still not been restored.

John Scalzi’s new post, “A Call for Author Support,” highlights the damage this is doing to authors and notes that the best way to support authors is to buy their books. You have lots of choices as to how/where to do this.

Dennis Johnson at MobyLives has a good roundup of the latest reactions to the ebook war.

Kassia Kroszer at Booksquare continues to post new links of interest.

K Tempest Bradford has a post about “ebooks, eReaders, and why you need to keep up with the tech.”

And be sure to read Laura Miller’s excellent Salon piece on some of the less-understood elements of all this.

Update 1: The New York Times “Bits” blog has a new post titled “Macmillan Books Still Mostly Absent from Amazon.com,” which notes that “the battle is still raging… ‘We are talking,’ said John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, of discussions with Amazon. An Amazon spokesman declined to comment. Amazon is most likely withholding the books to maintain its leverage in negotiations, trying to get the best possible terms under the new agency model. Stay tuned.”

Update 2: Nicola Griffith has commented below that “Amazon wins, no matter what,” and she has linked to an interesting paidContent.org article by James McQuivey titled “In Amazon vs. Macmillan, Amazon is the Winner.

Agent Nathan Bransford’s new post, “What Should an E-Book Cost?“, discusses in detail the costs of producing ebooks and print books and various pricing issues.

Update 3: Tech writer Glenn Fleishman’s article, “Is the iPad a Kindle Killer?“, directly compares the Kindle and the iPad. Here’s his take on the Amazon/Macmillan ebook war:

For major publishers, Amazon pays 50 percent of the list price of the current cheapest print format book. If a book is only in hardcover – a new release like a Dan Brown blockbuster – the cover price might be $30 and Amazon pays $15. When that book goes into paperback format and sells for $12, Amazon pays just $6.

However, Amazon wants ebooks to be cheap, and thus charges $10 for books still available only in hardcover. It subsidizes the price of these books to set the overall price low, and reaps its profit margins from cheaper books for which it makes its full 100-percent markup – or even more. Since Amazon is the dominant ebook seller, it may be marking up books higher that are cheaper for it to license…

As I write this, Amazon is fighting a public battle with Macmillan… Macmillan wants to set a higher list price for newly published books as they appear in electronic form (that $13 to $15 mentioned earlier) and give Amazon 30 percent of that list price. If Amazon doesn’t want the new terms, Macmillan would offer a far smaller catalog than it currently provides when it starts its new ebook pricing system in March 2010…

Macmillan is in part trying to prevent the erosion of revenue from the big push for new big books in hardcover. If Amazon can sell such titles for $10, even at a loss, even if Macmillan makes $15 from Amazon selling at that price, it sets the wrong expectation, and overturns some of the economics for both blockbusters and mid-range books. (The blockbusters’ margins make possible more interesting books that sell vastly fewer copies.)

Amazon balked, and not only pulled Macmillan’s ebook titles, but also stopped selling all Macmillan print books temporarily. That’s the biggest hissy fit I’ve ever seen a company pull…

On the face of it, this seems like a bad deal for consumers. Wouldn’t you rather pay $10 than $15 for a book? Absolutely. But in the long run, Amazon would achieve a de facto control over book pricing, which would hurt small and large publishers.

But it’s not that Macmillan wants to sell books for $13 to $15 forever; rather, “Pricing will be dynamic over time.” That is, Macmillan can price books in response to demand, instead of being stuck either in whatever pricing system Amazon wants to impose, or the heavily discounting books off cover price in print.

With more control on the supply side, Macmillan can reduce prices as demand lessens. Those who desperately want a book immediately might pay $15 at its launch; Macmillan would also guarantee print and ebook editions would be issued at the same time. If you can wait, you might pay less and less…

This is good for readers, writers, and publishers, as well as the ebook distributors including Amazon and Apple. More books will be sold this way, and more revenue directed at the creators, not the middlemen….

The morning after

Amazon has still not restored the Macmillan print books or ebooks to their inventory, so though it is being widely reported that Amazon has conceded, their boycott of Macmillan books and authors continues. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, see my previous blog post or this New York Times article, “Publisher Wins Fight With Amazon Over E-Books.”)

According to this Shelf Awareness article, “The Macmillan ban went beyond Amazon’s website: reportedly without notice to Kindle owners, Amazon went into the devices and removed Macmillan titles from wish lists and removed sample chapters of Macmillan titles. This move was reminiscent of the retailer’s quiet pulling last year of some e-titles whose copyrights were in question.”

Here are links to some new and interesting blog posts, analysis, and commentary about all this:

Amazon declares war on Friday, concedes on Sunday (updated)

Well, this has been an unusually interesting weekend. For those who haven’t been glued to the interwebs, on Friday Amazon stopped selling all print books and ebooks published by Macmillan and their many imprints, including Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Tor, Henry Holt, and St. Martin’s Press.

This is the first shot with real bullets in the war over the future of ebook pricing. It can’t be a coincidence that it happened this week, after Apple announced the iPad and the iBooks app/bookstore and its deal with five of the six major U.S. publishers–of which Macmillan is one. Amazon has gained ebook market domination by selling many new ebooks for its Kindle at a loss. (Under the wholesale model, for new books (print or ebook) big retailers like Amazon pay the publisher 50% of the hardcover list price but can sell it for whatever price they want.) Amazon set the retail price for many ebooks at $9.99 even though it often had to pay the publishers more than that in order to drive sales of its Kindle and the Kindle-only formatted ebooks. Most other ebook retailers can’t afford to take a loss, so their prices are higher than Amazon’s, which convinced more people to buy the Kindle and increased Amazon’s market share. (This is the same thing that happened with print book pricing in the Amazon vs. independent booksellers battle.) But publishers feared that once Amazon completely dominated the ebook market, it would start putting pressure on them to lower their wholesale prices so that they could continue to sell ebooks at $9.99 and make a profit, but push the losses onto the publishers and authors. To try to regain a bit of control, some publishers began to withhold their ebooks from Amazon or delay them until a few months after the release of the hardcover.

Then Apple comes along and makes a deal with the publishers to sell their ebooks on the iPad. Publishers could set their own prices (ebooks would be priced individually, according to a formula tied to the print price, with most new ebooks between $12 and $15 and lower prices for backlist titles) and Apple would take 30% (this is the agency model, to be explained below). To the publishers, this seemed like a much better (more sustainable and profitable) idea, especially since Apple is one of the few companies that could take on Amazon and open up the ebook market to some real competition. If publishers could sell their ebooks profitably through Apple’s ebook store, they could resist Amazon’s push to lower their prices to a level that publishers believe would be disastrous to the industry.

So now that publishers have found an ebook pricing model they can live with, they want Amazon to agree to it as well. It would allow everyone (including Amazon) to make a profit, ebooks will still be priced significantly lower than print books so the ebook market would continue to grow, ebooks would be available simultaneously with the hardcover publication, and the price of ebooks will drop throughout the life-cycle just like print books do. Amazon, however, might lose their market advantage if they can’t significantly undercut everyone else on price. If Amazon chooses to stay with the current wholesale model and set their prices below everyone else to gain market share, publishers can accordingly choose to withhold or delay the release of the Kindle ebooks. As my husband commented this morning, it’s the clash of the monopolists, and he’s strangely unsure who to root for in this fight.

Apparently Amazon has decided to make an example out of the first publisher to try to renegotiate ebook terms. As recounted by John Sargent, the CEO of Macmillan, in a letter released yesterday:

This past Thursday I met with Amazon in Seattle. I gave them our proposal for new terms of sale for e books under the agency model which will become effective in early March. In addition, I told them they could stay with their old terms of sale, but that this would involve extensive and deep windowing of titles. By the time I arrived back in New York late yesterday afternoon they informed me that they were taking all our books off the Kindle site, and off Amazon. The books will continue to be available on Amazon.com through third parties.

I regret that we have reached this impasse. Amazon has been a valuable customer for a long time, and it is my great hope that they will continue to be in the very near future. They have been a great innovator in our industry, and I suspect they will continue to be for decades to come.

It is those decades that concern me now, as I am sure they concern you. In the ink-on-paper world we sell books to retailers far and wide on a business model that provides a level playing field, and allows all retailers the possibility of selling books profitably. Looking to the future and to a growing digital business, we need to establish the same sort of business model, one that encourages new devices and new stores. One that encourages healthy competition. One that is stable and rational. It also needs to insure that intellectual property can be widely available digitally at a price that is both fair to the consumer and allows those who create it and publish it to be fairly compensated.

Under the agency model, we will sell the digital editions of our books to consumers through our retailers. Our retailers will act as our agents and will take a 30% commission (the standard split today for many digital media businesses). The price will be set for each book individually. Our plan is to price the digital edition of most adult trade books in a price range from $14.99 to $5.99. At first release, concurrent with a hardcover, most titles will be priced between $14.99 and $12.99. E books will almost always appear day on date with the physical edition. Pricing will be dynamic over time.

The agency model would allow Amazon to make more money selling our books, not less. We would make less money in our dealings with Amazon under the new model. Our disagreement is not about short-term profitability but rather about the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market.

So, Amazon is punishing Macmillan by refusing to sell its ebooks or printed books and is sending a message to the other publishers as well. (Yes, you can buy Macmillan books and ebooks elsewhere, but considering Amazon’s market dominance, this will still hurt the publisher and the authors.) Right now, Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla, so they are acting now before the iPad comes out to try to shut down this publisher rebellion before it gains traction. But if the publishers hold firm and rally together behind this new 30% commission/agency model, Amazon is faced with a problem. Are they really going to banish all of the major publishers from their site? By refusing to sell books their customers want, Amazon’s revenue will suffer and customers will be forced to shop elsewhere. As my grandmother would say, they are cutting off their nose to spite their face. With Apple looming on the horizon, it seems like an act of desperation.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere over ebook pricing, which I won’t rehash here (see the TeleRead blog or the various publishing/book blogs in my sidebar for background). However, I do think a dynamic pricing scheme for ebooks makes sense. In most cases, a book is published first in hardcover at a higher price (usually between $24 and $28, though Amazon and the other big discounters sell them at 30 to 50% off that price). About a year later, the book is published in trade paperback at a lower price (usually between $12 and $16, with fewer/smaller discounts). If you want to read a book when it first comes out, you have to pay a premium for it, as you would when a movie is first released. If you don’t want to pay this premium, you have to wait to buy it at a lower price or borrow it from your local library. As most ebooks are priced below the price of a trade paperback or discounted hardcover, you can see why some publishers don’t want to make them available until after the hardcover has run its course. (It’s the hardcover sales to the public and libraries that allow publishers to recoup much of their costs, and authors receive far more per book from hardcovers than they do from paperbacks.) But in the same way you release the book twice–first in hardcover at a higher price, later in paperback at a lower price–why not release an ebook at the same time as the hardcover at a lower price than the hardcover (for example, the price of a trade paperback, to account for lower production/distribution costs and the fact that unlike a paper book, you don’t really own it because of DRM and can’t resell it)– say $12 to $15– and then lower the price of the ebook to $10 or less when the trade paperback comes out.

With a dynamic pricing model, consumer behavior will eventually set pricing levels. If consumers are willing to pay more for immediate access or are willing to wait in order to pay less (like with print books), then that will become the standard. If consumers demand immediate access to ebooks but will only pay $10 or less, publishers may have to reconsider their entire model–perhaps abandon the hardcover and release new books in trade paperback to keep the prices between print books and ebooks more in line with each other. Consumers would love this, as it would lower book prices, but the publishing industry would have to change significantly, much as the music industry was forced to.

Authors, of course, are the collateral damage in this fight. Here are some blog posts of note, some by authors whose books are no longer for sale on Amazon:

Update 1IndieBound, the collective website of U.S. independent bookstores, has posted a reminder that “Macmillan books available here – and at thousands of independent bookstores across the country!” You can search for your local independent bookstores on the IndieBound website. If you are looking for an online bookstore, check out Powells.com, which sells new, used, and out of print books and ships worldwide.  By the way, Powells and IndieBound also have affiliate programs, in case you are thinking about switching your book links away from Amazon.

Update 1.5: Another option for those looking for online booksellers who have affiliate programs and will ship internationally is The Book Depository, recommended by Cheryl Morgan. The Book Depository (.com for the U.S. or .co.uk for the rest of the world) offers free worldwide shipping.

Update 2: This just in from Nick Mamatas’ blog. The following announcement about Macmillan was posted on Amazon’s Kindle community board at 2:22pm (PST) today, signed by the Amazon Kindle team:

The Amazon Kindle team says:

Dear Customers:

Macmillan, one of the “big six” publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!

Thank you for being a customer.

I just checked, and Macmillan books are still not available for sale on Amazon. I wonder how long this “temporary” boycott of Macmillan books and ebooks will continue.

The news of the announcement is racing throughout the blogosphere and Twitter. Here’s the New York Times blog post, titled “Amazon Concedes on Electronic Book Prices.”

I’ll give John Scalzi the last word:

Dear Amazon,

Now that you’ve admitted that you’re going to accept Macmillan’s pricing proposal on ebooks, would you mind turning the “Buy Now” button back on for all my Tor books? Pretty please? The longer you wait, the more I’ll have to think you’re just being petulant and foot-stompy about it.

Kthxbye,

JS

P.S.: Come here, have a hug. Let’s never fight again, okay?

No, seriously. Let’s never fight again.

Thanks.

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation
01.05.05.10                                    endeavour
01.05.05.10.02                             searching/seeking
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10               accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

Unlike Jeff Bezos, I love the physical book

I live my life surrounded by books. My husband and I have thousands of them, old and new, in bookcases covering the walls of nearly every room of our house.

Our books are more than just texts. They are artifacts that express who we are and what’s important to us. They are time capsules that can take us back to a particular memory or moment in time. They are symbols of our relationships– with each other, with friends, and with the authors who inscribed their books to us. They are unique, collaborative works of art, a marriage of ideas, language, typography, illustration, and design.

Yes, physical books are heavy and sometimes awkward to handle in bed, but they do have certain advantages over ebooks. They can be read anywhere, anytime, without a special device– no worries about breaking or losing your reader or the batteries dying. There are no problems with formatting, DRM, technological obsolescence, or preservation for future generations. When I am finished reading a book, I can give it to my husband to read, donate it to my local library, or sell it and use the money to buy more books. When doing research, I can have multiple books open in front of me at the same time and easily browse through them.  (Browsing is very different from searching, and it often leads to unexpected and valuable discoveries. Format has an influence on the reading experience and the way we find and process information.)

I am not anti-ebook– I would love to have a Kindle DX if I could afford one. It would be a pleasure to travel with a Kindle instead of bag full of books, or to be able to download digital books instantly. But ebooks could never completely replace all of my physical books. I can’t replicate on a digital reader the experience of browsing through a facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio or a book with beautiful illustrations or photographs, or reading a colorful children’s picture book with my niece and nephew. I wouldn’t be able to share books I love or useful reference works with Matt unless we both have readers and there aren’t DRM restrictions on the works. And I just can’t imagine not having a bookcase filled with every different edition and translation of my husband’s novels, with their colorful and wildly different dust jackets, or the books inscribed to us by our author friends.

There are books you just want to read, and there are books you want to collect. Physical books and ebooks have different advantages and disadvantages, so there shouldn’t be a fight to the death between the two formats– there’s room for both. It would be great to always have both available and be able to choose each book in whichever format would be best for the individual reader. And I can see a lot of situations where I’d want both. I love the beautifully designed and illustrated first edition of Quicksilver that Neal Stephenson inscribed to me and Matt, but it would be great to also have a digital copy of the text to read on vacation, as his books weigh a ton. If I had a Kindle, the first things I’d download would be my favorite public domain works, like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre and the works of Shakespeare, but they wouldn’t replace my physical copies. The real danger to someone like me is that the instant access Kindle gives me to thousands of books, old and new, would be hard to resist.

Why do Jeff Bezos and others who have fully embraced the ebook feel it necessary to dismiss or trash the physical book? Given the state of publishing and the rising influence of digital natives, I can’t help but worry about the future of not only the physical book, but also bookstores and author readings/signings, which help connect authors with readers, and readers with authors.

“I kind of am grumpy when I am forced to read a physical book…”

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, on why he no longer likes to read physical books:

I kind of am grumpy when I am forced to read a physical book. Because it’s not as convenient. Turning the pages … I didn’t know this either, until I started using the Kindles a couple months ago, I mean a couple years ago, I didn’t understand all of the failings of a physical book, because I’m inured to them. But you can’t turn the page with one hand. The book is always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment. They’re heavy. You can only take one or two of them with you at a time. It’s had a great 500-year run. [Audience laughter.] It’s an unbelievably successful technology. But it’s time to change.

This quote was transcribed by Carolyn Kellogg in the LA Times’ Jacket Copy blog from a video of Bezos in conversation with Steven Levy at Wired’s Disruptive by Design conference. Tim O’Reilly transcribed a bunch of other notable quotes from the video on his blog. You can watch the entire video for yourself at Jacket Copy or MobyLives or Wired Video.

Amazon acknowledges its “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”

On Monday afternoon, Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener released this statement about the AmazonFail fiasco to the LA Times and other media outlets:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Various sources are reporting that rankings have been restored to some of the affected books. I just spot-checked the specific titles I mentioned in my last blog post, and as I write this some have had their ranking restored, but most have not. Let’s see how long it takes to fix them all. Fixing the damage to Amazon’s reputation and restoring the trust and goodwill that’s been lost will take a lot longer and require more than just this PR statement. That Amazon has not handled this well is a monumental understatement. It would help if they issued an actual apology that showed some understanding or acknowledgment of why the Internet and Twitter exploded. It may have been an unintentional error, but the results and implications of that error and Amazon’s late and inadequate response caused pain to authors and readers alike and felt like a betrayal to those of us who’ve been Amazon customers for years. You can fix this, Amazon. Please try. Hard.

I’ll leave you with one last link for now: Kelley Eskridge’s great post on her Humans at Work blog about the management lessons to be learned from Amazonfail.

Update: On Monday night the Seattle P-I posted “AmazonFail: An inside look at what happened“:

I’ve spoken to an Amazon.com employee who works closely with the systems involved in the glitch… On Sunday afternoon at least 20 Amazon.com employees were paged alerting them that items, possibly many, were incorrectly being flagged as adult. The employees also received links to the Twitter discussion AmazonFail. Thousands of people were angry that gay-themed books had disappeared from Amazon’s sales rankings and search algorithms…

By this time, Amazon.com had upgraded the problem to Sev-1. (Amazon.com breaks down its operational issues in terms of severity levels. Sev-3 means a problem affects a single user. Sev-2 is a problem that affects a company, or a lot of people. Sev-1 is reserved for the most critical operational issues and often are sent up the management chain to the senior vice president level.)

“People got pulled away from their Easter thing when this whole thing broke,” the employee said. “It was just a screwup.”

Amazon.com employees are on call 24/7, and many began working on the problem from home. It didn’t take much digging to realize that there was a data error.

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’)

“It’s no big policy change, just some field that’s been around forever filled out incorrectly,” the source said.

New Update (April 14): All of the books I listed in my original blog post have had their sales ranking restored.

Amazon sets the blogosphere on fire

Thanks to Cheryl Morgan, I discovered that Amazon.com has done something ridiculously stupid and offensive– it has stripped the sales rankings from many books (fiction, nonfiction, and academic) with gay or lesbian subjects or characters, and it is excluding this “adult” material from some searches and bestseller lists.  People are posting lists of books affected online, and I did some quick author and title searches myself, so here are just a few of the books now missing their rankings:

  • Fiction:  E.M. Forster’s Maurice, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, and books by Nicola Griffith, among others.
  • Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs:  Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Dan Savage’s The Committment: Love, Sex, Marriage and My Family, Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant, and Gerald Clarke’s biography of Truman Capote.
  • History: David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, and Tin’s The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience.

Mark R. Probst raised the alarm in his blog and posted Amazon’s response to his inquiry about this:

On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book “The Filly.” There was buzz, What’s going on? Does Amazon have some sort of campaign to suppress the visibility of gay books? Is it just a major glitch in the system? Many of us decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening. As I am a publisher and have an Amazon Advantage account through which I supply Amazon with my books, I had a special way to contact them. 24 hours later I had a response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D

Member Services

Amazon.com Advantage

The Meta Writer blog has a link roundup and has starting compiling a list of notable books that have had their sales ranking removed. Strangely, the Kindle editions of GLBT books still have their rankings– for now.

News of this is raging across the blogosphere, and there are more blog posts about it than I can link to, but here are a few more from Booksquare and Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith. Amazon should quickly reverse itself or else this is going to grow to a public relations disaster of epic proportions.

Update:  Sunday evening news flash from Publisher’s Weekly:

A groundswell of outrage, concern and confusion sprang up over the weekend, largely via Twitter, in response to what authors and others believed was a decision by Amazon to remove adult titles from its sales ranking. On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new adult policy.