Month: April 2009

The Revenege of Geography

Eoin Purcell

Robert Kaplan Strikes Again
Kaplan writes an elegant and persuasive article about how Geography affects the world! In many ways it is a plea for a realist view of the world:

Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom? And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

What I like about the piece is threefold
Firstly I enjoy his references to philosophers and historians. The philosophers are Isaiah Berlin and Thomas Hobbes, both with interesting and illuminating things to offer reader. And Google Books has plenty items in Full View for both though frustratingly in the case of Hobbes, not a Leviathan available for extract so instead you get a rather nice but non-downloadable Forgotten books edition! Which seems crazy when the base text is well out of copyright!

His historical references are numerous but Mahan and Braudel stand out! One eye opener was Nicholas Spykman (for more on his truly intriguing views here is a very nice overview) of whom I had never heard but of whom Kaplan say:

Similarly, the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas Spykman saw the seaboards of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the keys to dominance in Eurasia and the natural means to check the land power of Russia. Before he died in 1943, while the United States was fighting Japan, Spykman predicted the rise of China and the consequent need for the United States to defend Japan. And even as the United States was fighting to liberate Europe, Spykman warned that the postwar emergence of an integrated European power would eventually become inconvenient for the United States. Such is the foresight of geographical determinism.

For another thing
Secondly I like his concept of:

geography in the most old-fashioned sense. In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the arrival of political science as an academic specialty, geography was an honored, if not always formalized, discipline in which politics, culture, and economics were often conceived of in reference to the relief map. Thus, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, mountains and the men who grow out of them were the first order of reality; ideas, however uplifting, were only the second.

And maybe I feel that way because I wish to justify my recent (and fabulously cheap) purchase of Keith Johnston’s A Sketch of Historical Geography which is a truly excellent text worth owning and you can read in the lovely Open Library edition here, but I think there is something to what Kaplan says. Something that informs the rest of the piece.

And finally
I like his closing exhorting for us all to:

learn to think like Victorians. That is what must guide and inform our newly rediscovered realism. Geographical determinists must be seated at the same honored table as liberal humanists, thereby merging the analogies of Vietnam and Munich. Embracing the dictates and limitations of geography will be especially hard for Americans, who like to think that no constraint, natural or otherwise, applies to them. But denying the facts of geography only invites disasters that, in turn, make us victims of geography.

I very much enjoy Kaplan but sometimes I’m left with as many questions as answers with him, not that that is a bad thing!

Harper Studio – an internet native publisher

Eoin Purcell

Search keywords are funny indicators
For a while now, (about nine months) I’ve been following HarperStudio. I’ve mentioned them once or twice before and oddly enough people typing in the keyword harperstudio have been driving traffic to the blog pretty much since they started up. They are a new-ish imprint of HarperCollins in the US and their goal is:

partnering with authors to publish books in a way that is effective, creative, and sustainable. We believe books are a vital part of our culture. We believe traditional publishing models are broken and are experimenting with new ones. We believe in embracing technology. We believe the future is now.

It’s the way they do it
It is a pretty ambitious goal. But they are approaching it in a pretty innovative way. I’ve been somewhat harsh on two of Harper’s web projects, Authonomy and the Voyager so its nice to be able to talk about an imprint that has really and truly harnessed the web as a tool. Start by looking at their team all of whom (with the exception of Robert Miller) have their Twitter identities open to all on the TEAM page!

Their blog is very active and features, polls, videos and links. They’ve openly discussed everything about our industry from returns, the failings of publishers and booksellers, to e-books and bundling of paper books and e-books. This is certainly not a corporate voice blog, that much is clear.

It works ya know
And it is the key thing about it, that it is personal and alive with what seems to be the authentic personality of the team. Much as this works for the wonderful Snowbooks, it works for Harper Studio. Not that, I’m sure, it has hurt to have gotten some great mainstream media attention too.

And goddamn it but the thing is, it works. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard reference to their first book, Who Is Mark Twain. Not just online either, but on radio at least once and in print twice (and that’s Irish/UK media). Which is a pretty impressive result.

And yes, they have blogged quite a bit about this book, and why shouldn’t they. It has a lot to offer and if they keep the list compact they can do that for every book.

Is there a bad news story?
If I have one concern it would be that the list is so disparate and lacking focus that they may well fail to keep the community they have built up around their blog as the breadth of their content expands. If they have no core topic to hold their audience it may widen but become shallower at the same time.

That’s not a big problem if they can keep the flow of content and engage with successive audiences for new titles as they come along. The issue mighty arise when they try to re-engage an audience they have already approached, seduced and then lost interest in as the book that audience was cultivated for was released and went through its life cycle. If they don’t continuously cultivate Twain fans for instance they will lose interest and move off. But when a new Twain focused book comes HarperStudio’s way can they re-engage?

Still, that is a problem of success and one I think many publishers would love to have. For now, good luck to HarperStudio, a publisher I think it is fair to say that seems to be the first to have been formed with a tightly integrated web strategy as part of its founding ideology. That’s no mean feat.

Voyager Community Vs Tor Community

Eoin Purcell

A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.
~ William Bernbach

Advertising works you know
And I clicked on the link for the Voyager Books site that I spotted on hoping that I would be brought to a site that offered a more UK based perspective on Sci-Fi and fantasy, because as brilliant and wonder as is (and it is brilliant and wonderful), there are differences between American and European culture, and that gets noticeable after a while. I thought I might find a different perspective with Voyager. Sadly I was completely disappointed by what I jumped to.

A series of bad experiences begins
It’s not just that the front page is not the community page as with nor that the Voyager Books homepage is a page crammed with ads for their books, fair enough everyone has a different approach, not everyone can be as subtle and inclusive as Tor can.

It’s also not just because when you click on the community link the first page that Voyager dumps you at is their competition page which offers you a nice opportunity to win books and then tries to default lock you into sponsor e-mail (bad mojo guys) and the rules exclude non-UK residents and have an error in the details, claiming to be both open until 31st July 2009 and telling is that winners will be notified by January 2009. It is also not just that when you click on the banner on the competition page you are dumped into an error page, oh no, they have warned me on the homepage that this is beta, I know the bedevilling nature of links.

The Bad Mojo Competition Submission

The Bad Mojo Competition Submission

And continues
And it’s not just because the books are organized pretty poorly, for instance if you click on Fantasy/Epic Fantasy all you get is a list. No way to sub-sort by forthcoming or best-seller or release date nothing. Yes you can search (and actually the search is pretty good) but the lack of thinking about how to categories and sort books come out in what should be a really useful page Author Series, which offers not links to all the books of a series by the one author but a text page just listing them. What on earth possessed them? What an easy win linking the books would have been. Contrast that with the the well executed series links that To-Forge have on their actual book site (series are indicated and linked to a series page and each book is numbered by sequence) and you see why Voyager is losing badly here.

To the nuts and bolts
And to top it all the registration page is not really a community registration page, it’s an e-commerce sign up page. Have a look, you will see what I mean. Compulsory address and phone number, why on earth does a community need those things? doesn’t, in fact their sign up page is sparse and the additional profile info is by choice not demand.

The Voyager Registration Page

The Voyager Registration Page

The Tor Registration Page

The Tor Registration Page

And then there is the free stuff
Of course Tor actually gives me something I want. Before my reading on and about Sci-Fi & Fantasy was low, not by design but through lack of interesting online material. Tor has changed that with its new stories, blog posts and links to interesting books. I hoped that Voyager would offer these things too, but no, it has only brought me an e-commerce site, dressed up as a community with nothing new to offer me.

Thumbs down Voyager Books, a poor show on many levels. Perhaps rather than say:

Voyager Books is an ecommerce and community site for science fiction, fantasy and horror fans of all ages from HarperCollins Publishers.

On your about page, you should simply say ecommerce and be done with it?

Bloomsbury’s Online Library

Eoin Purcell

Bloomsbury’s launched a new e-lending service
The details are interesting:

How will it work?
• The Bloomsbury Library Online will be sold on subscription – libraries will subscribe to a bookshelf for a year at a time and will pay according to the size of population served.
• New titles will be added on a continuous basis – free of charge within the subscription year.
• Users will click through from the Library terminals or through an online portal accessible via any web browser (including those found on iPhone and Blackberry) anytime, anywhere in the UK.
• Text accessible through screen readers and therefore available to blind and partially-sighted users.

The system is being run in association with the wonderful exact editions. Bloomsbury claim that it will:

transform the relationship between publishers and libraries, and between libraries and readers

PaidContent have pointed out one possible problem:

If there’s a problem, it’s that the ebook platform market is fragmented – Bloomsbury’s library includes only Bloomsbury’s titles while Exact Editions rival Overdrive carries Penguin, Random House, Hachette Livre and HarperCollins – and, though text can be printed, the experience of reading a book in a web browser is pretty unsatisfying if it’s a novel you’re reading.

I’m not sure that the fragmentation matters all that much. What does matter is that Bloomsbury are there first with a clever system that works well and is based on a tried and tested platform.

In fact
I think the existing notes miss three angles on this launch. One, if Bloomsbury can lock in a good number of libraries to their platform, they will have an advantage over their competitor publishers, how many e-platforms will libraries want to use after all?

Two, the installed base of libraries will help Bloomsbury research how readers use e-platforms, the quirks of reading online.

Three, given that Richard Charkin has had extensive experience of building e-platforms or at least of overseeing divisions of a publisher that were building them (I thinking of Nature specifically here but he was a strong proponent of blogging aswell!) I’d bet on this succeeding. It also fits well into the strategy I’ve considered for Bloomsbury previously

IMAGE author evening

Eoin Purcell

For the readers & writers
Thought some people would be interested in this tidbit that came my way this week.

Dear Readers

IMAGE Publications are delighted to announce the inaugural

IMAGE Author Evening

An exclusive Q&A session with bestselling authors CLAIRE KILROY, JOHN BOYNE and ALEX BARCLAY hosted by IMAGE magazine with MC Bert Wright, Administrator of the Irish Book Awards.

Don’t miss your chance to meet three of Ireland’s most successful authors and enjoy refreshments and canapés at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, St Stephen’s Green along with a book-filled goodie bag on April 23 from 6.30pm-8.30pm

Tickets are available from IMAGE Publications at €25 per person, contact Jennifer Ryan on 01 280 8415 or email Tickets are limited so please book early to avoid disappointment.

We look forward to welcoming you on the evening!

It’s a very nice line up with something for everyone in a nice location. Seems like a good evening for those who’d like to meet their favourite authors or learn some more about the writing process. Oh and there is a dead fancy official PDF download too!

Worth the few bob I think!

SXSW – Far From The Madding Crowd

Eoin Purcell

Twitter it up
There has been extensive coverage of the New Think For Old Publishers panel at SXSW on 14 March. By most accounts it was a complete and utter disaster for publishers. Here’s a sample of opinion more here, here and here

As per usual Kassia krozer @ Booksquare summed both sides up pretty well in my view:

Let me be clear. Absolutely clear. Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative. The panel, well, we’ve all heard job descriptions before. The audience? That was one very long line of people saying the same things we’ve been saying to the publishing industry for ten years. And yet the publishing people treated our comments as if they were items to be added to a list.

It got me thinking?
What do we as publishers actually want to change? Are we, like the frustrated audience members angry at things in the industry that we would see change? In an ideal world where we got to direct digital change what would we like that change to be? Would authors join us in this campaign?

What would publishers do?
I think most publishers would like a simple platform that allowed them to offer their content online and be paid up-front for it. That seems easy doesn’t it. Except our cousins in newspaper land have lost their lunch trying to monetize their content online and almost all of them have surrendered to free service with ads and most of them are failing even with that.

What’s more the book is pretty much the most simple platform there is right now and lots of people like it. So moving away from it seems a little wild for most publishers. On top of that authors don’t seem keen to hang round waiting for the digital world to start rewarding them either. Whenever a book deal presents itself, bloggers and journalists all take them.

Where does that leave us for digital distribution and selling? Well e-commerce is nice, except you get Amazon and its crazy glitches and its harsh terms. On the other hand, ebooks seem to be starting to break through but you still have to deal with Amazon for those too!

Of course you might take the perspective that if we were to drive digital change, we would drive it along a path that gave our books (content) more attention (such tools even exist). If we were to drive change we would use it to sell more books directly to our customers in order to learn about them at the customer level and so tailor our products to their taste and their pocket. If we could drive digital we would build communities about our content and aggregate content from other publishers to help support our own. But then I’m just talking crazy!

Maybe I am talking crazy but
The problem I have with the current penchant for beating publishers up is threefold:

1) Many publishers (not to mention authors) are doing some pretty amazing things. Tor is building a wonderful, engaged and exciting community of readers around SF&F, Osprey have already done so around Military History. Penguin have spent a small fortune on trying new tools for reading and writing fiction. Macmillan and Random and Harper have all embraced blogs and Facebook and twitter and the web in general seeking new audiences, fresh feedback and platforms for their authors.

2) Despite the urge for the new, it doesn’t yet pay for itself and it may never do so. Andrew Keen is right about that if nothing else. Without money, artists will not create and currently the system that rewards both the artistic and the serious (or not serious) non-fiction author is breaking (if not entirely broken) and the chances of fixing it anytime soon are slim. Unless we revert to older methods of financing art and journalism, campaign funding, endowments, patronage and subscription (all being tried in modest enough [and a few large scale] ways) we may lose something pretty valuable.

3) Radicals are not always right. Even if we might accept that in this case it seems like digital is the way forward, that doesn’t mean publishers will survive the shift. Its not unreasonable of them to be reluctant to leap when right now there is a damaged but viable system in place that delivers unspectacular but solid enough revenues and profit figures.

To wrap it up!
Which leads me to my final thought, despite my own leaning towards a digital future, it is still entirely possible that the paper book remains the preeminent (I note not only) form of publication well into the next century and beyond. It currently seems likely to remain the most profitable (not the only profitable form) form of publication too. If you are an exec at a leading paper book publisher, then it’s a big bet right now to put the house on digital. If you get it wrong you’ve cut open the golden egg laying goose to show her insides to the public and have only the guts to show for it, the public were not that impressed and have watched the show for free on youtube. If you get it right you might still loose the golden goose and the people who benefit are your authors.

So to the radicals I say, lay off the publishers, some of them don’t care, but others are actually succeeding in changing the system and many many more are trying to figure out a way to make it happen without going out of business or destroying their companies, a not inconsiderable consideration in the current environment!

PS: None of which changes the fact that I want to be able to buy an ebook version of a novel even if it is only just released in the US and I live in Ireland!

Pirates: not quite the swahsbuckling heroes our movies paint them

Sad Tidings From The East
I read two op-ed pieces today about Pirates and the internet news is full of stories too. One of the pieces is by Robert D. Kaplan in the New York Times and hits the hot button pretty much on the head:

The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists. Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard. You can see how Al Qaeda would be studying this latest episode at sea, in which Somali pirates attacked a Maersk Line container ship and were fought off by the American crew, even as they have managed to take the captain hostage in one of the lifeboats.

So we end up with the spectacle of an American destroyer, the Bainbridge, with enough Tomahawk missiles and other weaponry to destroy a small city, facing off against a handful of Somali pirates in a tiny lifeboat. This is not an efficient use of American resources. It indicates how pirates, like terrorists, can attack us asymmetrically. The challenge ahead for the United States is not only dealing with the rise of Chinese naval power, but also in handling more unconventional risks that will require a more scrappy, street-fighting Navy.

The much shorter and less interesting piece in the Washington Post does at least suggest that:

Bringing partner countries into the fight would ease the burden on major military powers, including the United States. It’s not easy to sustain a major warship, especially in hostile waters. “Where do you get gas? Where do you buy fresh fruit?” Kraska asked. “You can only keep a single ship at sea for so long.”

More thoughts on it
It would be worthwhile putting the piracy into some perspective and in that regard the current issue of Foreign Affairs has an interesting article by the same Robert D. Kaplan that discusses naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean:

The greater Indian Ocean region encompasses the entire arc of Islam, from the Sahara Desert to the Indonesian archipelago. Although the Arabs and the Persians are known to Westerners primarily as desert peoples, they have also been great seafarers. In the Middle Ages, they sailed from Arabia to China; proselytizing along the way, they spread their faith through sea-based commerce. Today, the western reaches of the Indian Ocean include the tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan — constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug smuggling. Hundreds of millions of Muslims — the legacy of those medieval conversions — live along the Indian Ocean’s eastern edges, in India and Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

And a nice Q&A with him, here.

The sad truth of these events is that eventually, the pirates will be defeated (as I wrote this, I got news of this story, detailing the freeing of their current captive and the killing of three of their number). They will eventually overstep the mark and a force will be roused to clear them from the waters they inhabit. That may be sooner than we think. Of copurse even swift action and a scouring of the sea, will not resolve the anarchy on land that allows them to operate, so there may be pirates for some time to come!


** UPDATE **
It is worth reading these posts over on Coming Anarchy Stop Calling Them Pirates and Kaplan’s Latest for more thoughts.
They also point to Political Warfare and Harpers. If you want some background try International Crisis Group of the BBC. The ICG links to a great article from the International Herald Tribune which leads of with:

Strange how an African country can be moving from prolonged chaos to violent collapse and no one in the world notices until a couple of European boats get seized by armed gunmen.

War-ravaged Somalia is in the worst shape it has been in for years – which, for this devastated country that has not had a proper government for nearly a generation, is really saying something.