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Borders backtracks and sidetracks, but still seems headed off-tracks

Borders Group Inc. seems to be in free fall.

According to a New York Times report by Julie Bosman, yesterday the company compounded anxiety about its future by announcing that it “was not in a liquidity crisis and that its stores were well-stocked” — this despite a press release four days ago in which it announced that it was experiencing a “liquidity shortfall” (see yesterday’s MobyLives report), and despite numerous reports that stores were looking low on inventory … which seems likely as several major accounts have stopped shipping books to the chain since its announcement.

Meanwhile, while the company gives out contradictory statements that it’s not have cash problems but that it isn’t paying accounts either, Bosman reports that it will be holding “hastily arranged meetings in New York later this week” with major publishers at which company CEO Mike Edwards will be present. A spokesman explained “We value our relationships with them, which is why we’re engaging in discussions with them.”

Whatever. The wheels seem to be flying off the vehicle. As Bosman’s report continues:  The company “will enter the talks without two top Borders executives whose resignations were announced on Monday: Thomas D. Carney, the company’s general counsel; and Scott Laverty, the chief information officer.”

As Jeffrey Trachtenberg reports in a Wall Street Journal story, the resignations — which the company revealed not in any public admission of turmoil but only through a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission made public yesterday — are “a new sign of turmoil amid the retailer’s dire finances.”

Asked for comment, a Borders statement to the paper would say only, “We have evaluated our leadership structure and, as a result, some positions have been eliminated.”

All of which was thrown into stark relief yesterday by the news that Barnes & Noble had experienced phenomenal sales during the lead-up to Christmas, including the “largest retail sales day ever in the company’s nearly 40-year history on December 23, 2010,” according to a company press release.

Nonetheless, something important things to note about the Borders collapse: While more publishers than have been reported have stopped shipping books to BGI, one of its very biggest suppliers, the wholesaler Ingrams, announced it would continue supplying the chain, accordng to Trachtenberg.

Then there’s the fact that they obviously must have some confidence that the tactic of withholding payments from accounts will force a re-negotiation of debt payments. After all, they haven’t declared bankruptcy yet.


2010 Summary: libraries are still screwed, by Eric Hellman


In mathematics, catastrophe theory is the study of nonlinear dynamical systems which exhibit points or curves of singularity. The behavior of systems near such points is characterized by sudden and dramatic changes resulting from even very small perturbations. The simplest sort of catastrophe is the fold catastrophe.

When a fold catastrophe occurs, a system that was formerly characterized by a single stable point evolves to a system with no stability. The point where stability disappears is known as the tipping point.

One of my goals for this past year was to raise awareness of the tipping point for libraries that will accompany the obsolescence of the print book. In January, I noted that Hal Varian’s equation describing the economic value of libraries also predicts that libraries of the current sort won’t exist for ebooks.

In March, I put the question directly to John Sargent, Macmillan’s CEO. His response, that ebooks in libraries were a “thorny problem” got quite a bit of notice. Unfortunately, the big trade publishers have yet to actually do much to address the thorns.

In May, I was pleased that the editors of Library Journal were putting together an “eBook Summit” virtual meeting to address some of these issues, and even more pleased to be invited to write a series of articles to help frame issues for the Summit. The event ended up being titled ebooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point. For me, the highlight of the summit was Eli Neiburger’s talk on How eBooks Impact Libraries. This talk is destined to be known forever as the “Libraries are Screwed” talk, and if you’ve not viewed it I urge you to do so forthwith.

Several other contributions raising awareness of the library-ebook catastrophe are worth noting. Emily Williams’ commentary on Eli’s talk is worth reading and her attention to the issue has been consistent. Library Journal’s Heather McCormack is another persistent voice- I particularly loved the story she told in a column written for O’Reilly Radar. Tim Spalding’s post on “Why are you for killing libraries is another favorite.

So at the end of the year, what have we accomplished? One disappointment for me was that although Library Journal’s eBook Summit was quite popular with librarians, it appears that very few publishers took notice. On the rare occasions when publishers took notice of the role libraries could play in the ebook future, they tended to be depressingly reactionary, such as when the UK’s Publishers Association set out their plan to marginalize libraries while apparently thinking they were boosting them.

Similarly, Amazon announced yesterday the addition of a lending feature for the Kindle. This feature seems designed to compete with a similar feature in the Nook, but nowhere in the announcement is there any mention of libraries as being anything other than the books on a user’s Kindle.

Meanwhile, adoption of ebooks and ebook readers has accelerated. Amazon announced that the third-generation Kindle is the bestselling product in Amazon’s history. Barnes&Noble fired back, reporting that the NOOKcolor is the best selling product in its history. In comparison, this month’s announcement by Overdrive that it (finally!) has released apps for reading its library ebooks on Android devices and iPhone seems a bit too-little-too-late. (sorry, no iPad version!).

Perhaps the time is over for raising awareness about the catastrophic future of libraries. In 2011, let’s build things that change the system dynamics.

Via Eric Hellman’s Go to Hellman blog


On Christmas Eve, frantic shoppers still find it fun|Lastest Kindle News]

On Christmas Eve, frantic shoppers still find it fun
So, by Friday afternoon, tens of thousands of last-minute shoppers had only the malls and shops around the region to find the perfect DVD, sweater, book, video game or gadget to pick up and slide, just in time, under the Christmas tree.
Read more on Washington Post


On Christmas Eve, frantic shoppers still find it fun|Lastest Kindle News]

On Christmas Eve, frantic shoppers still find it fun
So, by Friday afternoon, tens of thousands of last-minute shoppers had only the malls and shops around the region to find the perfect DVD, sweater, book, video game or gadget to pick up and slide, just in time, under the Christmas tree.
Read more on Washington Post


Ebook marketing still needs a lot of work

images.jpegThe NY Times has a general ebook roundup and I found the following snippet of interest that ties in with the Mike Shatzkin article below:

But even with widespread access to e-books, publishers have not yet figured out how to sell them more effectively to consumers. Debut fiction and so-called midlist titles — books that are not large commercial successes — are particularly tough sells in digital form, said Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group, a book market research company.

“You can have all the availability in the world, but if people don’t know the book exists, it doesn’t matter,” Mr. Hildick-Smith said.

A look at the Kindle best-seller list on Amazon shows that it is typically stocked with titles that are also on the print best-seller list — this week, for instance, new novels by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell and David Baldacci. Early next year The New York Times will begin publishing e-book best-seller lists in its book review section.

“We’ve certainly learned the technology of creating e-books and distributing them,” said Laurence J. Kirshbaum, a literary agent. “But the marketing side is still the Wild West. There’s a lot of digital availability now, but we still haven’t turned the key and opened the lock on how to sell e-books.”


Microfiction writing site Ficly.com: 22,000 ficlets in and still going

Our main mission here at TeleRead is cover the ways that electronic media have changed reading. But occasionally we also talk about how it changes writing, because after all, writing is just the flip side of reading. And there are a number of sites where writing is only half the equation, because after someone has written something electronically, then naturally other people are going to need to read it electronically.

One such site, which I have discussed here before, was Ficlets.com, begun in early 2007 as a subsidiary of AOL. Ficlets was based on a simple idea: let people write stories 1024 bytes at a time, with other people free to spin their own stories out of those others have created. The stories, called “ficlets”, were released under a Creative Commons Attribution/Sharealike license, meaning that other people could reuse them however they wanted as long as the reusers did not impose further restrictions.

Requiem for Ficlets

I first learned about Ficlets when two well-known Internet personalities became involved with it and endorsed it—child-actor-turned-geek Wil Wheaton and geek-turned-SF-writer John Scalzi. (In fact, I think that’s also how I first heard of John Scalzi, too—his involvement in Ficlets. I heard about it from Wheaton; he heard about it from Scalzi.) I went there and had fun.

Both Scalzi and Wheaton eventually burned out on it—not surprising, I guess, as busy as they are with other projects—but I and a number of other writers continued participating. Even after Kevin Lawver, the site’s creator, left AOL, and AOL never replaced him, the site continued chugging along, rolling up a remarkable 49,000 story segment contributions before AOL finally pulled the plug. (My blog post here ended up being reblogged by Wil Wheaton himself, I was astonished to notice.)

But fortunately, the Creative Commons license came to the rescue. Since all the content of the site was licensed under Attribution/Sharealike, Lawver was able to rescue and archive all of the stories. (Lawver said on his blog that though he’d always thought Creative Commons was a good idea, he hadn’t ever imagined that he would be one of the beneficiaries.) Though he couldn’t get the login information, which could have been used to let people “claim” their ficlets on the new site, he could at least make all 49,000 of those ficlets available for people to read.

Enter Ficly

And he was also able to create a revised, improved version of the site, called Ficly.com, to continue the idea of Ficlets from where it had left off, even making a couple of improvements along the way. It took a while to get the site up and running (during which time someone else tried to float his own successor site called “litlets.com”; not sure what happened to it but the domain name no longer resolves and the last post to its Twitter account was in February 2009), but once it was a number of the old writers returned and continued or created new stories from where they left off. Including me, for a while. The first story was posted on May 16, 2009, and in the intervening 19 months just over 22,600 ficlets have been created at the new site.

I gradually found other things to do with my time (such as writing more frequently for TeleRead) and hadn’t been back to the site for several months when my fancy took me to visit and write some more there a few days ago. And looking it over, I was a little saddened to see that activity had fallen off considerably. In fact, it looks like only a couple of dozen people at most are still writing with any regularity—there are only about a dozen or so posts per day, and the average story segment only gets read by about 5 to 15 people.

I suppose that without big-name Internet bloggers bringing it attention, it just became too obscure for people to discover easily. It has gotten the occasional mention in writing blogs (such as this one collecting five micro-fiction sites for fast writing inspiration, or this one from a writer reposting one of his works), but it doesn’t seem to be widely known anymore. And that’s a pity

The Writing Experience

Writing for Ficlets or Ficly was always a bit challenging. For the most part, it’s a fun challenge: how much can you say in 1024 bytes? Do you keep descriptions sparse so you can show more events, or do you build a 1024-byte word picture in which nothing much actually happens? What if you alternate between the two? What if you tell a story entirely in dialogue so that only the words come across, like in an old-time radio show? And should you try to come out to 1024 bytes exactly, or intentionally go a little long and then go back to try to tighten things up?

One problem I ran into is that it can be hard to get people to write sequels. Most ficlets just don’t get a sequel—and often, if you write a sequel to someone else’s, they don’t bother to follow you up in return. That’s how it was at the height of Ficly’s popularity, and it’s how it is even more now that there are relatively few active participants. Of course, there’s no guarantee that other people will find your ficlet any more appealing than you find theirs,

Often, I ended up writing long chains of ficlets by myself, without any accompaniment. I always felt a little like I was “cheating”, doing that—or else kind of missing the point of the site. But I suppose that, in a way, it’s the same thing that Charles Dickens and other magazine serial writers of the 19th century always did—just on a much smaller scale. And certainly it’s more satisfying to write 1K of story at a time and get whatever feedback you get, than to work on writing the whole thing at once, never complete it, and so never hear from anybody.

Not a Tragedy of the Creative Commons

But even if people aren’t using the site that much anymore, it still stands as a great example of Creative Commons fulfilling its mission to promote creativity. The relatively non-restrictive license meant that the material from the old site was not lost when AOL shut it down, even though AOL didn’t provide its own methods of exporting content (they actually seriously suggested people should just copy and paste their stories into a Word document)—Lawver was able to scoop the site and reuse the content because it was CC-licensed.

I was also able to make use of some Ficlets content in my “Biblio File” podcast, reading aloud some of the segments that particularly amused me (overriding TalkShoe’s default non-commercial CC license due to Ficlets’s sharealike). I think those shows came out rather well. Maybe I should do more sometime.

And about five months ago, Ficleteers got together and selected a number of their favorite ficlets to publish in a 60-page book for .50 to serve as a fundraiser for the site. (Alas that I wasn’t reading the site at the time; it would have been nice to participate, and maybe get some of my own stories in there.)

And who knows what other uses we will find for this sort of bite-sized content in the future of the net? The 1-kilobyte size would actually be perfect for display on a tablet screen—it’s just about the right size for reading in a single screen at a legible font size. (Sadly, the individual-stories Twitter feed has been down since August 2009, so there isn’t really an easy way to get a Flipboard channel with just Ficly story content at the moment—just the Ficly blog’s feed.)

It really is a lot of fun writing a round-robin story, with neither writer exactly sure where the next one is going to take it. I’d really like to see more writers return to Ficlets and provide a broader pool of interest—the more writers there are, the more writers might want to sequel other writers’ stories.

My own Ficlets story archive can be found here, and my Ficly user page is here. I would like to invite any readers who think it looks like fun to go ahead and give it a shot. There’s no lengthy account creation process—you can use Google, Yahoo, Facebook, or other OpenID providers to sign in.


GoogleBS: It’s still out there …

Okay, so the last couple of days have belonged pretty unequivocally to Google eBooks, formerly Google Editions — despite the best efforts of some of Google’s competitors to distract attention. (Barnes & Noble launched the color Nook. Borders leaked that it wants to buy Barnes & Noble. Amazon announced it was issuing a Kindle widget that would allow anyone to sell ebooks, which will be available in, er, a few months. And Apple — well, hell, Apple’s way too cool to get involved in this kind of pitiful clamoring for the limelight. They just sat back and let everyone make fools out of themselves.)

But what about that other big Google story? You know, the big one — not this new one about how they sell ebooks, but the other one, about how they control ebooks? Right — the Google Book Search Settlement! Whatever happened to that?

Funny you ask. An unattributed and way too brief story in Publishers Weekly notes that “now nearly 10 months since its February approval hearing, the Google Book Settlement, the search giant’s other major book project, remains in legal limbo.”

Don’t freak — a decision hasn’t been rendered yet. But while we all sit around twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and whistle in the dark while bracing for the inevitable (a decision giving Google everything they want, natch), the New York Law School Law Review which, apparently, is published in cahoots with the school’s Department of Redundancy Department — has published a special issue dedicated to understanding what’s involved in the case. PW calls it “perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the legal issues at work.”

As PW summarizes it,

The seven essays in the issue were derived from the D Is for Digitize conference, organized by NYLS professor James Grimmelmann, who along with his students also created the Public Interest Book Search Initiative (PIBSI) in the spring of 2009 to give the public a voice in the digitization debate. Grimmelmann said that when he first organized D Is for Digitize, a conference on book scanning and the Google settlement for October, 2009 his main concern was whether a quick decision to approve or reject the settlement would make the event an afterthought. Turns out he needn’t have worried. In fact, with the settlement still up in the air, the issues covered in the New York Law School Review may turn out to be right on time.


Kindle still good – but NOOKcolor may be best|Lastest Kindle News]

Kindle still good - but NOOKcolor may be best
Q: I'm thinking about giving my father an e-book reader for the holidays. Should I play it safe and get a Kindle, or is there a better alternative? A: The Kindle is indeed the safe bet. It was the first to market, and...
Read more on San Francisco Chronicle