Marion on September 24th, 2014

With everyone now doing at least some of their reading on devices, it may be a little late in the day to go back to the early arguments against e-books, yet Amazon itself has recently begun to point out some of the limitations of the format.

Seven years ago when the Kindle was introduced, there was a lot of talk about whether e-books and e-reading devices would even catch on at all. Kindle launched with a video of Toni Morrison – writer, editor and literary grande dame – speaking about her love for the new tschotke. She hit several important talking points that would be repeated mantra-like through the years – you could travel with a lot of books, you could read trash without other people’s knowing, you could set the print large enough so that you wouldn’t need glasses. There was other stuff too. You could look up words without getting out a dictionary. She didn’t mention price though. She didn’t say the books could be cheaper, though if you followed the early Amazon forums, the public certainly thought they should be. Content was an issue back then. Readers wanted bargains, and the big publishers weren’t playing along. Amazon tried to cap ebook prices at $9.99. War ensued. These days the cold war between Amazon and publishers is still ongoing. And why not? Amazon has clearly stated its goals including cutting out the “middleman” between readers and content – whether that be agents, publishers or maybe authors eventually if they figure out how to automatically generate stories.

Early on, some brought up aesthetic issues. Print is just better looking. It’s not a question of “sharpness.” It’s about the look of books – the fonts, the covers. You may not always be able to judge a book by its cover, but you could judge people by the sorts of books they keep on the shelves or what you see them reading on the train. But these arguments, seemed elitist somehow, and publishers really didn’t pick up on them. Yet, the very physicality of books continues to be a selling point. Watch any talk show where an author is plugging away. You won’t see the host holding up a Kindle.

From a consumer point of view, of course ebooks should cost less. There’s no warehouse required. No shipping. There are production costs – writing, editing, cover design, publicity etc, but no manufacturing ones. No paper. No binding. No warehouse required. No shipping. If you go back and look at the Amazon forum posts in the early days of Kindle, you’ll see major sticker shock as the first adapters realized that stocking their kindles with bestsellers would not be cheap. When the pricing war first began, Amazon was able to offer consumers the cheap content they craved through public domain titles and self-published genre novels. Best selling authors on Kindle may have been authors that no New York publisher had even heard of.

Publishers have always seen the manufacturing costs as irrelevant. For them, ebooks are part of a whole. They need to be assured they’ll get back what they invested. They put out a number of books and some of them may not make money. You can’t price too low or people will stop buying print, then you lose stores and stores are places people go and browse and see and feel and touch books, places where they may even go to meet authors – see and hear them in the flesh. When an author goes on a talk show, the host doesn’t hold up a Kindle to show the audience. Amazon took a different approach to marketing. It invented a new way of browsing that could be done anywhere, anytime, and on almost any electronic toy, but always within the confines of their electronic marketplace.

Of course, pricing ebooks too low couldn’t be good for publishers. Even if Amazon’s figures about the numbers of people who will buy at a lower price are correct, Amazon’s entire system is designed to make “publishers” irrelevant.

And so the war continues to simmer. Hachette holds out for higher ebook prices. Amazon argues that they’ll sell more volume at lower prices. Independent bookstores may offer ebooks through companies like Kobo, but they can’t make much on them. If print fades away, and bookstores are lost, and Amazon gains an even bigger market share, we (readers and writers) will be screwed.

But here’s something to keep in mind — Amazon originally sold its Kindle device on the premise that ebooks were as good as, maybe better than print. They were pretty clear on this. In that Toni Morrison video, one of the things that excites her was that you could “mark” your books – highlight them, individualize them and therefore “own” them. The first kindles had physical keyboards for that reason – so you could add your notes.

The idea of “ownership” of books was an integral part of Amazon’s early strategy and is still important.“A thousand books in your backpocket” was one tagline stated by a consumer in a commercial for a Kindle Paperwhite. The implication being that you aren’t just reading “content” but books – that you own, like real ones.

But now Amazon is sending out two different messages. On the one hand they continue to tout ebooks as the superior choice. On the other, they now point to some of the disadvantages of ebooks as reasons why they should be priced lower. In their infamous letter asking indie-authors to support them in the Hachette fight they stated that one of the reasons ebook prices should be capped is because you can’t resell an ebook. While they’ve improved “lending” it’s still a different experience that lending a physical book, and it’s still at Amazon’s discretion – because you do not in fact “own” the “books” you purchase. You own a license to read those books – a licence which can and has at times, been revoke. You can’t really even “give” someone an ebook. You can send them a gift certificate for the book, which they may or may not use to buy the gift. Remember when you used to scrap off the price tags on a book you were giving someone? That’s another thing you can’t do with an ebook. In fact, you can’t even look at all those books on your TBR that you won’t ever read and give them away to people who will.

Actually, you could do some of the above. You could hack the DRM and copy it a thousand times, but that would be illegal, a violation of the author’s copyright and of Amazon’s rules, which you agreed to somewhere along the line. This of course brings us to another reason that ebooks need to be cheap – piracy. The I-Tunes strategy of making content cheap enough so that most people will legally purchase it has often been mentioned as a model for ebooks. The problem is, it’s not a sustainable model. Musicians can sell themselves – their ability to excite an audience in a live performance in a way that’s completely different from the experience of listening to music on your headphones. No one is going to shell out $500 for front row seats to Stephen King reading from Carrie. Most fiction writers, even the successful ones, have depended on things other than book sales to make a living – movie options, teaching gigs, even fellowships and awards for a few, but getting at least some income from the sales of books is important.

I don’t think Amazon is the great Satan. Long before ebooks, independent bookstores disappeared as the great chains moved in. Than those behomoths emptied out as people began to buy more books online. The same is true for retail generally. There was talk twenty years ago that all the new tech was killing reading and the book business. The conglomeratization of publishing was already a thing. While Oprah and others popularized “book clubs” and shared reading experiences, the truth is people still read less fiction – especially challenging fiction – than they used to. Check the New York Times combined print and ebook sales and you’ll find that while a few non-genre books make it, most of what people buy are thrillers and romances. Amazon has actually done a lot to sell content and get people talking about books – even if a lot of the books they talk about aren’t particularly “literary.”

As a consumer, I don’t want to pay a lot for a book I don’t actually own and can’t hold, and I would contend that even the most ardent fans of ebooks feel the same way. There have been very few times I’ve spent more than $8 on an ebook. Usually, it was impulsive – a book was new and I wanted to read it THAT second. Generally, if the used paperback costs less (including shipping) than the ebook, I’ll go for the used paperback – which gives the writer a royalty of NOTHING.

As an indie-writer, I’m thankful that Amazon gives me access to readers who might find my books. But I know they didn’t do this to be my friend. I’m fine with big publishers keeping their ebook prices high because low price is one major advantage that self-publishers can offer.

Perhaps it would have been better for the big publishers if they NEVER had made their books available electronically at all. Sherman Alexie and the other early opponents were probably right. A book is a book – a license to read words on a screen, is not. The publishers should have just said no. Instead they initially kept the prices high allowing Amazon to look downright generous and progressive for wanting to lower them.

Why didn’t they band together to say, “We don’t like this format. Period. It’s inferior.” Why didn’t they let Amazon throw public domain classics and all the publishing-rejects in the world on Kindle, but leave the good stuff exclusively in print? Publishers could have purchased digital rights from authors but with stipulations like no ebooks until two years or five years or six months after publication, depending on the book and how they thought it should be marketed. Instead they bought in to Amazon’s vision – even as they fought for a bigger piece of the pie. They should have just rejected the pie. They could have invented a model more like their own model for hardcovers and paperbacks. First comes the expensive hardcover, then the slightly less expensive trade paperback followed by the mass market paperback, and finally the ebook would come out – giving new life to the work and hitting another audience segment. If consumers really demanded the ebook format for its convenience, and couldn’t wait, publishers could have offered an ebook matched with each print sale. They could have offered their own straight-to-ebook imprints for cheap thrillers and romances – as many are just starting to do now.  Meantime, they could have pushed the message that books are books – used some of their vast wealth and power to promote the sexiness of those square edges and hardcovers, the casual relationship one might have with a paperback, even leaving it on a park bench for some stranger to find. They could have shown commercials – A couple arrives at the young man’s apartment. He goes to get her a drink. It’s her first visit. She checks out his books while he’s in the kitchen. By the time he’s back, she’s gone.Or maybe it’s the other way. By the time he gives her her cosmo, she knows he’s the one for her. Tagline: Books they say a lot about you.

Granted, in the end tech usually wins, but I don’t buy into the idea that we are now a “sharing” and society, therefore everyone is good with “licenses.”  Books have always been sharable. Libraries and used bookstores have been around for quite a while, yet people still get excited and pay for the latest releases by their favorite authors.  In a world of cars, we still ride bicycles, and some of us still love to dine by candlelight. Slow food has became a thing. If print disappears it won’t be Amazon’s fault. It’s the publishers job to save publishing and print. They’ve done a lousy job.

(These are just thoughts from somebody not paid much to think these days. If you enjoyed reading this, you should check out some of my fiction, or click on any of “my picks” above, and then if you buy anything over at the Amazon they’ll give me pocket change which I won’t be too proud to accept.)

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This year we will be winging it at the Met. Our “to see” list is long. So why didn’t we get a subscription? After all, subscriptions have their advantages. Here are some of the pluses that you get as a Met subscriber:

  • Significant discount on ticket prices.
  • Reserve seats before they are on sale to general public.
  • Opportunity to buy non-subscription tickets before they go on sale to the public for additional operas, including hot new productions unavailable by subscription.
  • Payment plans so you don’t get a big bite out of your credit card all at once.

Sounds great, right? So why didn’t we go for it?

Here’s why:

The current subscription system still has an analog mentality in a digital age. Yes, you can subscribe online, but basically your request goes to human beings who will process it at some later date — weeks or months later. Your actual tickets won’t arrive till long after you’ve forgotten which nights you’re going, what you are seeing,  or which credit card is going to have the charges.  Although the Met has started to update the system a little bit – adding the possibility of exchanges if you can’t make a date in your series, it’s still a clunky system that requires subscribers to deal with customer service if they want to make changes– probably by phone – or to visit the box office.

The main issue is the lack of flexibility. The operas you most want to see may not be locked into the same series. The reviews aren’t out yet and a few of the operas in your chosen series might turn out to be clunkers. You’re booking everything so far in advance, there’s a good chance something is going to come up on one of those nights. And worst of all, while you do get to choose your seating section, you don’t get to choose your actual seats. That’s done for you. Plus, you get the same seats in the same section for your entire series.  This is just unacceptable to most people who’ve come of age in a choose-your-own seats world.

Maybe once upon a time people liked having the same seats every time. They felt a sense of ownership, maybe even started friendships with their neighbors.

But the world isn’t like that anymore. People rent now. They “share.” It’s the difference between buying a car and using Zip Car. If you are going to buy you have to decide the car you want to drive most of the time. If you’re going Zip Car you could go for the Miata when you’re in the mood for something zippy, or maybe a Prius when you’re trying to make a different kind of impression. At the Met, the sound is crystal clear in the cheap seats of Family Circle, but sometimes you might want to be a little closer to the action – like say if there are really spectacular sets, or dancing, or an especially hunky baritone or it’s somebody’s birthday. You can’t mix it up under the current system. You’re committed and defined by your choice. You’re either a Dress Circle Prime swell or a Family Circle Balance bargain-hunter. That’s got to end.

The Met does have some alternatives. After the initial push for subscribers, the Met offers people a “build your own series” option. It enables you to buy tickets before the regular tickets go on sale, but it doesn’t have the advantages of the regular subscriptions. You don’t get a discount. You also still don’t get to choose your own seat or mix seating categories. You don’t even get to buy tickets for the new productions that aren’t on sale to the general public yet.

I don’t work for the Met, nor have I spoken to anyone who does, so I have no idea how successful or large their subscription program is. My guess is a lot of old-timers are content with the way things are and the scalpers aren’t complaining. But if the Met wants to fill more seats with more subscribers – maybe a NEW GENERATION of opera-goers, then they need to innovate. Regular subscribers are good for business. “Special event” opera-goers, are not the frequent fliers they need to fill the house on a regular basis.

Here’s how I’d fix things:

First, keep the “traditional” system for the current subscribers who want it. Send out notices outlining the changes, but if customers want to do what they’ve been doing since Don Draper was the King of MADison Avenue,  allow them a three week period to mail in, call or go online for a “traditional subscription” before the new system comes online. Maybe even outreach via phone to some of the long-term veterans. Allow the “traditionals” to mail-in, go on-line or phone customer service for assistance. (Set up an  “existing subscribers extension” to make them feel special.) Process the subscriptions as they come in and have a one-week additional grace period before the new subscriptions start.

Second add something nice for all subscribers. Swag is nice. Look around at all those feisty Upper West Siders of a certain age with their PBS and QRX tote bags and visors. In some cultures, it’s a sign of respect.

Another way to make the subscribers feel the love, and maybe a prevent a few from getting mad because they hate change, would be to have some kind of educational program and/or subscriber days/activities. I’m not suggesting these be free, but they could be break-even/low-profit and not high-end fundraisers, maybe even at other venues in collaboration with organizations like the 92nd Street Y, Manhattan School of Music, Symphony Space, etc. They don’t even have to be in Manhattan. They could be on CUNY-campuses. I’m thinking of lectures, recitals, previews, interviews, etc. There’d be admission of course, but maybe with special series discounts to Met subscribers and student discounts as well. (Hint: You might try getting people the young people like involved with this. Neil de Grasse Tyson can fill seats with this demographic. No evidence he likes opera, but he’s a reasonable man. He can be converted.)

As for the the new system, it will feature a lot more flexibility in seats, choices of operas, and dates of performances. It will combine the best aspects of “build your own” and traditional subscriptions. It will be mostly be geared toward people able to navigate online, but for those who can’t, help should be available by phone, and even by mail order though that would have to be “let us choose your seats” and might require phoning patrons to make sure they’re getting what they want.

Here are the particulars:

A) Simplified discounts. The Met doesn’t need to offer as big a discount as they do for subscribers. Yeah, I know, I’m arguing for higher prices, but honestly by making the subscriptions so last century they’ll lose subscribers no matter how high the discount. They need to make the whole process more appealing so that more people will want subscriptions. Keep it simple. No admin fees, option to add single-tickets, and something easy to remember like  a 5% discount on ticket prices for a five-opera-series and a 7% discount on a seven-opera-series (with the discount to include single tickets bought on the same order as the subscription).

B) People of a certain age and archeologists will recall those old-timey Chinese restaurant menus. Remember one from column A? The Met has to make sure subscriptions work to ensure that newer or riskier productions will have some subscribers. Here’s a simple way to do that while still giving customers a sense of autonomy. Calculate which operas likely to be the most popular – call them “Blue” (as opposed to “Gold” or “A” or anything that indicates that these are “better” than the others. Next categorize the operas that will be probably do well but not as well as the first category. Let’s call them “Red.” Third take your more experimental or less known productions, and call them “Purple. Subscribers will have to pick a minimum number of operas within each category, but they will still be able to put together their own series. For instance, a seven-opera-series might include a minimum of two Purples, and two Reds, with a maximum of three Blues.

C) Combine aspects of “build your own.” Allow people to choose the performances they’ll attend. There can be limits. Some operas will not be available for subscriptions, just as now some new productions aren’t. Some will have black-out nights, including the galas. But subscribers shouldn’t be limited to building a Saturday night series, or a Tuesday night series, or a Thursday night series. They should be able to mix it up and choose dates that will work for them. Let them attend all five in one month if they want. Let them shop nights to find the best seats.

D) This is revolutionary: Allow people to pick their own damn seats online and to mix sections in their subscription. (Why? If you have to ask, you need to move to an adult community in Boca already, and also I’ve already explained.) Those choosing to subscribe by mail, might still be limited to picking a section, but even over the phone a service rep can find seats using a terminal and obeying a customer’s wishes. Most people will be doing this themselves because most people in 2014 prefer NOT to deal with people for stuff they can do online, and even the very old will likely get a beloved grandchild to help them out.

What will my season look like without a subscription? Pretty fantastic. There are at least a dozen productions I’m planning to attend. I’ll be in the orchestra section, and I’ll be doing it on the cheap. Of course I’ll have to earn those cheap seats by sitting on my butt waiting for weekday rush tickets at the Met. This is still the best-deal in the City, even if people (including professional-line-waiters) start showing up mid-morning. Yes, this isn’t an option for those who don’t have flexible work schedules, but for those who do, you can’t beat $20 orchestra seats. And I can also enter the weekend ticket lotteries — though  it means I might have to cancel existing plans if I win. Then again, my existing plans aren’t usually as exciting as a night at the opera.

UPDATE: 9/22/14 — Just read that the Met has completely revamped it’s rush ticket system. Now they’ll be going to a lottery only that can be entered online which means that it’s completely left to chance, and I may never get tickets to anything — ever. Nice little FU to New Yorkers of moderate means. Oh well, guess I’ll just stay home. No Met for me. Thanks a lot Mr. Gelb.

(Find this useful? Mr. Gelb, you could thank me with comps or possibly a “no show” job. Others could please click on something from My Picks above, preferably one of the books I wrote, but anything will do. Thank you much.)

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Marion on September 12th, 2014

This will be a short update. I just want you look above this post at “My Picks.” All of these are books that can be purchased in digital versions for 99 cents to $3.99. These are all books that I think are swell. The genres and styles vary. More than a couple I wrote. Most I didn’t write. They have another thing in common. They are all “indie” books. By indie I mean self-published, even if the writers listed their own personal “imprints” as the publisher. If you’ve never (knowingly) read or purchased a self-published book before because you think they are all crap, any of these books will prove your assumptions wrong. Just click on a couple till you find one with a description that interests you. Then read the sample and decide for yourself if it’s worth investing less money than you spend on Starbucks. It’s that simple. If you don’t own a Kindle machine, you can read it on a device you do own. If you still hate reading fiction electronically, most are available in paperback (although print versions will cost more.) You are a smart cookie. You don’t need any filters beyond my recommendation and a sample to decide if a book is for you. I’ll change up my picks periodically, but I’m committing to only listing sp books because I keep reading online that they suck. 99.5% of what people put up on the Kindle is pretty awful, but it’s not difficult to find the fraction that is actually good. Just check out my picks.

Full disclosure: In addition to the royalties I get if you actually pick a book I wrote, I will get some loose change from Amazon through their Associates Program if you buy anything from them within 24 hours of clicking “my picks”. This does not mean they own me. It’s more like the relationship you have to the homeless guy who hangs out in front of your favorite bodega. Sometimes you give him a dollar, but he still may rant about how you are the devil from time to time.