Amazon vs. Publishers, Little Fish vs. The Whale?

Earlier this year, I read “Cheap Words” on the New Yorker, “Amazon is good for customers, but is it good for books?” by George Packer.

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Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?

I wanted to write about it but didn’t.

This morning I just read “The War of the Words” on the Vanity Fair, by Keith Gessen. It is on the same topic, Amazon vs. Publishers. It did a great job documenting the evolving relationship between Amazon and Publishers, and summarized the conflict of today.

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Amazon’s self-published authors’ books were particularly inexpensive, and also something else: they were a particular kind of book. In publishing terms they were known as “genre” books: thrillers, mysteries, horror stories, romances. There were genre writers on both sides of the dispute, but on the publishing side were huddled the biographers, urban historians, midlist novelists—that is, all the people who were able to eke out a living because publishers still paid advances, acting as a kind of local literary bank, in anticipation of future sales. Some pro-Amazon authors boasted of the money they’d earned from self-publishing, but the authors of books that sometimes took a decade to write knew that this was not for them—that in an Amazon future they would be even more dependent on the universities and foundations than they already were.

As a reader, the question is do i want to continue reading the serious book written by authors spent a decay research and produce?

It is actually a very similar argument seen in today’s world that’s filled with 140 characters sound bites.  They are fast-food culture. They are amusing. They keep me entertained every seconds of my day. But what if i still want to have the option to read serious biography, history, or great novels by the masters of words.

Kindle and Amazon’s efficiency did get more people back to reading, thank god. But reading what?  Do we want a world with only genre entertainments?

It reminded me of a conversation from Giovanni’s Room that i loved. It is on the topic of America vs. Europe.

   “Anyway,” he said mildly, “I don’t see what you can do with little fish except eat them. What else are they good for?”

“In my country,” I said, feeling a subtle war within me as I said it, “the little fish seem to have gotten together and are nibbling at the body of the whale.”

“That will not make them whales,” said Giovanni. “The only result of all that nibbling will be that there will no longer be any grandeur anywhere, not even at the bottom of the sea.”

“Is that what you have against us? That we’re not grand?”

I loved the Keith Gessen article on Amazon’s efficiency when he visited Amazon’s wearhouse.

So much ingenuity had been deployed to solve the problem of “reading”—in their different ways by the Kindle engineers, by the warehouse-software specialists, by Otis Chandler at Goodreads. And I remembered something a book editor, one of the best I know, had said to me about the Amazon situation. “They’re always talking about inefficiency,” he said. “Publishing is inefficient; print is inefficient. I mean, yeah. But inefficiency, that’s human. That’s what being human is.” The Kindle really is an extraordinary device—the fulfillment centers are wonders of undeniable efficiency. They too represent a remarkable human achievement. But art by definition is something for which there is no practical use.

What put a cold shiver down my spin is how close the future that Amazon is peddling resembles China.  The books are super cheap in China. No one, not even the most popular writers can afford to live on writing along. Only writers who can earn a decent living are those who joined the state sponsored “writer’s institution”. They are paid a regular salary by the government. All through Chinese history, the great books were either written by genius who died of poverty (“The Dream of Red Chamber”), or by state supported historians (“The Records of the Grand Historian” 史记).

I don’t want a world where published words can only go through Amazon. Yet, i don’t want a world that can only go through the old publishing house either. During my involvement during the Ping Fu scandal. I saw the worst of the elite publishing house world.  Amazon was the only place allowed “little fish” to speak up.

I want a world where little fish and the whale can co-exist somehow. Is that possible?

 

 

“May the force be with you.”

Noah’s initial encounter with R2D2 happened a couple of weeks ago, when he has yet to be introduced to Star Wars story line. I set off to correct that right away.

So far Noah has watched the first two episodes from the original trilogy–“Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back”. R2D2 becomes his favorite character. He knew who Luke is. He was mesmerized by the ending sequence when Luke and his comrades piloting fighter jet to destroy death star. He laughed when Yoda appeared for the first time, and quickly commented that “he was hungry” when Yoda sneaked a bite off Luke’s food. He knew Luke got the saber from “the good old man 好人爷爷” (obi one kenobi). He was very troubled when i first tried to explain the revelation that Darth Vador (“The bad guy 坏人”) is Luke(“The good boy 好人小哥哥”)’s dad.

When i watched the two episodes with him, I sometime would repeat the line “May the force be with you” when the heroes going to battle. Noah never repeated after me. If he understood what it meant, he didn’t let it show. I just thought it went over his head. Whenever he talked to me about the movie, he usually talks about R2D2, explosion, spaceship, etc. Never “the force.”

Last night after dinner. We sat together on the sofa and flipped through a few issues of recent “The New Yorker” magazine together. Noah liked its cartoon cover and the cartoons inside. He especially liked a recent cartoon depicting Mrs and Mr Potato Head, whom he had known from Toy Story trilogy and his own toys.

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Then i flipped past a photograph of someone wearing a long black robe standing in the dark. Noah said, “May the force be with you.” I couldn’t believe my ears and doubled back, “what did you say? say it again.” He repeated it, “May the force be with you!” I was astonished! ZM didn’t understand what it meant (he never watched Star Wars before i showed it to Noah recently), so i had to explain to him. Noah listened with a knowing smile on his face.

Now Noah is a true star-wars-fan. “May the force be with you!”

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Saw this outside a cafe at work

The Generation Gap

On Saturday morning we walked through Lucasfilm campus in Presidio and ran into a small filming crew with an R2 holding flowers.

We’ve never played any Star Wars movie for Noah before. So he didn’t know who R2 was, but he knew it was a “robot”. Nevertheless, he was immensely interested and patiently sat down on the ground waiting for the filming to begin so he could watch “robot!” walk.

We waited for about 30-40 minutes, when the filming finally began, the black R2 was unveiled and two droid started moving and “talking”, Noah’s first comment was, “wow, just like Wall-E!”

Green Apple Books and Music – 2nd Store

Green Apple Books and Music – My favorite bookstore in San Francisco – just opened their 2nd store near Golden Gate Park.  ZM and I used to love the original store on Clement for the books that we care about(ZM: Photographer Monographs, Me: used book of certain author i happened to be fascinated with at the time).
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Recently we started taking Noah there and found out they have an amazing children’s book selection, too. It became one of Noah’s favorite places to visit after dinner on weekends.

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First visit with Noah back in April. He picked up a great copy of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”


We visited the new store over the weekend. Fell in love with the children’s section. Noah even picked up a book.
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After we left the bookstore. I walked across the street to pick up some macaroon, and told ZM and Noah to continuing back to the car and i will catch up. Noah was so eager to get going with his new book, they ended up sitting down at a sidewalk garden one block from the bookstore, and Noah started “reading” under street light.

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Green Apple’s co-owner talks about how they thrive in the age of amazon, a fascinating read. 

This is my favorite passage from the interview:

But numbers don’t tell the story. Within our walls are real human interaction (sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much): parents read to their kids in our store, couples meet for the first time, Robin Williams and Dave Eggers once connected over our bargain bins, Tom Waits recently told us which book about him “really sucks,” a man had a heart attack and died in our military history section, a drunk lost control of his bodily functions in poetry, every day a lost soul finds someone to talk to, and it was at Green Apple that I was set up with the woman who became my wife.

Green Apple Books and Music
2nd Store: 1231 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94122
Flagship Store:506 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118

The Last Day of Summer

In San Francisco, the real summer temperature only occurs during Spring or Fall.

The entire September has been sunny and relatively warm, and we even got hit by a heat wave starting middle of last week. Temperature rose to the 90’s in the east bay. I dug out all my short sleeve shirts and managed to wear them all.  I even wore a skirt yesterday!

The children section of the new Green Apple Books is awesome!

The children section of the new Green Apple Books is awesome!

Tonight we checked out the new Green Apple Bookstore in the inner sunset after dinner. The street was filled with people. Lovely days. Even though one could already feel a hint of chill in the breeze after the sun set.  Tomorrow will likely to cool down. Goodbye, Summer!

“In Summer”

by Josh Gad, “Frozen”

 

Bees’ll buzz, kids’ll blow dandelion fuzz
And I’ll be doing whatever snow does in summer.
A drink in my hand, my snow up against the burning sand
Prob’ly getting gorgeously tanned in summer.

I’ll finally see a summer breeze, blow away a winter storm.
And find out what happens to solid water when it gets warm!
And I can’t wait to see, what my buddies all think of me.
Just imagine how much cooler I’ll be in summer.

Dah dah, da doo, uh bah bah bah bah bah boo

The hot and the cold are both so intense,
Put ’em together it just makes sense!

Rrr Raht da daht dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah doo

Winter’s a good time to stay in and cuddle,
But put me in summer and I’ll be a — happy snowman!

When life gets rough, I like to hold on to my dream,
Of relaxing in the summer sun, just lettin’ off steam.

Oh the sky would be blue, and you guys will be there too
When I finally do what frozen things do in summer.

Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George

Before today, when I thought of O’Keeffe, I thought of sensual flowers, abstract paintings, New Mexico, subdued color tone. Everything about her was cool, collected and quiet.

The Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George show at de Young changed everything. Her work could actually be so vibrant, colorful and warm. There were so many paintings I have never seen before and they were all so good!

She painted so many beautiful trees! Why isn’t there a Georgia O’Keeffe’s book of trees? I would never grow tired of looking at them.

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And amazing landscapes and even barns.

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And her still life could totally stand up to Cezanne’s. Look at those rich and saturated colors!

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Under comparison, her signature petunia and abstract almost seemed boring.

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The show also quoted many of her own words, which were so beautifully written. Now I’m curious to read more of her writing (e.g. My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz)

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After snap this photo, i’m told there is no photo allowed. So i had to type them down her words on my phone.

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way… things i had no words for.

I had a garden at lake George for some years. The growing of corn was one of my special interests–the light-colored veins of the dark green leaves reaching out in opposite directions. And every morning a little drop of dew would have run down the veins into the center of this plant like a little lake–all fine and fresh. 1976

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Corn, No.2, 1924

March 17, 2014 The New Yorker – Lydia Davis, the Sandy Hook Killer, and Noah the Movie

A good issue again.
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(Noah named everyone in this cover a friend of his at his pre-school class. He named the little boy on the bottom left wearing a “I HEART NY” tank top himself, and little beard dude to his right Daddy).

Long Story Short – Lydia Davis’s concise fiction, by Dana Goodyear
I’ve never heard of Lydia Davis until this article. She won the 2013 Man Booker International prize. She was also Paul Auster’s first wife. She sounds like a very interesting person. I’m not exactly sure i will like her stories, but I’m curious to read them.

The Reckoning – The Sandy Hook killer’s father tells his tory, by Andrew Solomon. Enough said. The only lesson i could draw as a parent from this article is never to keep a child in isolation with his/her parent only. Adolescent might be painful. Isolation is deadly. Children have to learn to adapt to their environment. But then again, in Adam’s case, if his parents had forced him to try harder, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference for Adam himself. Just to force his demon to surface sooner and maybe detected by more people earlier, at least there might be a chance to avert the mass murder at the end.

Heavy Weather – Darren Aronofsky takes on Noah, by Tad Friend.
This is my favorite of the entire issue. I’ve only seen two of Aronofisky’s films (The Wrestler, Black Swan) and didn’t felt too strongly about either. But Noah sounds interesting.

I’m fascinated by this custom-built desk of his.

Aronofsky writes his films on the second floor of his place in Manhattan’s East Village, at a custom-built desk of Bastogne walnut, inlaid with responsibly harvested macassar ebony and pink ivory. Twenty-five puzzles are concealed within it, cunning locks and springs and slides, and the front houses an octave of organ pipes you can play by sliding drawers in and out. As you solve the puzzles, you find hidden pieces of wood, each of which displays a few musical notes. When you put the pieces in order and play the resulting tune on the organ –an Irving Berlin song that was the first thing Aronofsky learned on the piano–it opens a secret safe: the final prize. It took him six weeks to pop the safe, and he had the plans. David Blaine told me, “The desk is a very cool thing that’s a lot like Darren himself–there’s always another twist and turn.”

An interesting anecdote.

 In the mid-nineties, Arnofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years: the stress and the bloody toes his sister incurred in ballet practice became Nina’s in “Black Swan”; his parents’ cancer scares informed Izzi’s cancer in “The FOuntain.” After he wrote a prose poem about Noah for his seventh-grade English teacher, Vera Fried, he got to read it over the P.A. system — “The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air” — and was transformed from a math geek into a writer.

Then there is the celebrity gossip that i didn’t know before. Aronofsky was engaged with Rachel Weisz for five years and had a son together. Then they broke off the engagement, Rachel started seeing Daniel Craig, whom she later married.

A Valuable Reputation

Sunday night, I finished reading A Valuable Reputation from the Feb. 10th issue of the New Yorker. Once again, i felt so lucky to have not stumbled into any of these inherently evil fields: Tobacco, pharmaceutical, military contracting, etc. Freshly out of college, if I had been given a job by one of these big corporations. I had a high chance of taking it. and then 10 years down the line, I could have become one of those employees in the article plotting to destroy a scientist systematically because he spoke the truth.

shudders.