Monday, October 29, 2012

Amazon: You don't own the e-books on your Kindle

An Amazon Kindle, bottom, and a Kindle Fire. (AP photo/Toby Talbot)

     Last week I read about a horror story (well, in tech terms and for book lovers) about a woman whose Amazon Kindle account was closed against her will and without her foreknowledge. All the Kindle books she had downloaded to it may also have been deleted (though some bloggers say she could still have read them on her computer or maybe even on her Kindle, except that the Kindle was broken). The entity informing her of this was Amazon UK, although she said her account was through Amazon in the U.S., not the UK.
     The reason for the closure: They claim her account was associated with another account, and something or some things were done on that other account that were contrary to their terms of service, and so her account was deleted with extreme prejudice, and no new account she might attempt to open would remain open. The exact nature of the breach of contract was never named or explained to her.
     So she did what anyone would do, and complained to her friends, one of whom is martin Bekkelund, a tech writer/blogger of some renown, who blogged about the incident, which set the whole blogosphere abuzz. By the next day, Amazon had reopened her account, though with no explanation of why they had closed it in the first place or why they had reinstated it. Oh, and by the way, Amazon claims the guy who signed the email telling her that her account was closed doesn’t even work for Amazon UK (though they somehow had a phone number for him in Ireland).
     Surprisingly, many of the publications, bloggers and commentators weighing in on the incident in effect took Amazon’s side. They assumed or presumed that the woman did something wrong, and that Amazon was within its rights to close her account. Others blame the woman for not taking the simple step of stripping the DRM -- the digital rights management software in the e-books that, among other things,  allows them to be deleted remotely -- from her e-books, even though doing so is a violation of terms of service in and of itself. Others point out that you never really own the e-books you buy. You actually just buy a license to read them on the Kindle, and that license can be revoked at Amazon’s whim; they don’t even need a reason.
     Now I’ve never had a bad experience with Amazon, but I’ve never owned a Kindle or any other e-book reader either. If this story is essentially true, then Amazon owes her and every Amazon Kindle customer or prospective Kindle customer an explanation. At the very least I’m less open to the idea of purchasing a Kindle now.
     Because many of these sites have different takes on what may or may not have happened, and because the comments are among the most interesting -- and scariest -- parts of the stories, I’m including links to every article I found and read on the web. Bekkelund references an NBC article which includes his friend’s own interview. Other articles and blogs opining on the subject include CNET Australia, the Guardian UK, Gizmodo, TMCnet, Boing Boing, Computer World UK, Huffington Post, Raw Story, Tom’s Guide, ZDNet, International Business Times UK, The Blaze and The Toronto Star. Forbes has two: Tim Worstall of Forbes assumes that the woman violated “territorial” rights, while the same site’s Venkatesh Rao attributes the whole incident to clumsy PR by Amazon, and says they need to have a “public editor.”
          Do you own a Kindle? What’s your experience been like? And how do you like the idea that you don’t “own” those books you paid to download?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Is there a Steampunk Shakespeare conspiracy?

     Two months ago I blogged about the Steampunk Shakespeare anthology The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes and His Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter. I was reluctant to write the post because, as I revealed, I had submitted a story to the anthology that was rejected, and because I had objected to some criticism by one of its editors towards Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I feared that any criticism I had of the book could be perceived as sour grapes or childish payback. 
     When no one else seemed to be reviewing the book, however, I decided to risk it. So far I’ve received no response to the review post, good or bad. I also have seen no mainstream reviews of the book. There was one micro review on, another on Good Reads and one in praise of it on a Canadian blog.
     I also noticed that even the bloggers among the anthology’s contributors were remaining very silent about the book, or only mentioning that they had a story in it, or that the table of contents had been announced or that the book was being published in May. Prominent blogger and multicultural science fiction scholar Jaymee Goh, the co-editor as well as a contributor, was almost conspicuously silent once she announced the final table of contents.
     Most surprising, the website of its “publisher,” Doctor Fantastique Books, doesn’t even list the book for sale (a link to where you could buy it that I found on another blog leads to a Doctor Fantastique “error” page), or indeed acknowledge its existence. So far as I know, the only way to purchase the book is through or Barnes and Don’t imagine you’ll perchance find it in a bookstore; it’s pretty much available only as an e-book or print-on-demand title.
        I spot checked its Amazon sales rank recently: it was in position number 2.4 million for print, 667,000 for Kindle. Every other steampunk book, new and old, does better than that, including Kindle-only titles. The academic essay collection Steaming into a Victorian Future: A Steampunk Anthology costs almost three times as much as Omnibus and was published a month ago, but its sales rank is better than 200,000. Its Kindle edition, which costs more than six times as much as Omnibus, is at 460,000.
     This has me wondering if the book is somehow a scam, or perhaps a joke that I’m not in on. It does exist -- I have a copy to prove it -- but there seems to have been many times more effort expended to solicit submissions for the book than there have been attempts to sell the actual book.
     I have no answers, but a few theories:
     1. The publisher doesn’t want the book to sell. Contributors received no advance payment  from the publisher, only the promise of royalties. Perhaps the publisher is cash-strapped or overwhelmed and would prefer that there be few sales and thus few royalties to distribute. Contributors may have concluded that since royalties are not forthcoming, there’s no reason for them to push the book either. It’s become essentially a vanity press item, a book they can put on their shelves or send to family and friends in whatever quantity they wish.
     2. The publisher doesn’t know how to market a book. While the title is certainly eye-catching,  it fails to mention the words Shakespeare or steampunk until you get to the subtitle (which, on the book’s cover, is at the bottom of the page, and is not included in the Amazon or Barnes & Noble title listing). Also, the cover features a portrait of William Shakespeare in what may be Victorian or Edwardian garb, but wearing a monocle. I’m not saying I’ve never read of anyone with a monocle in a steampunk story -- if anyone wears one in this anthology, I missed it, though -- but it certainly isn’t iconic. Goggles and airships are cliches, but they are iconic and also appear in stories in the book.
     3. The steampunk community is upset with the publisher and/or one of the editors and has decided to freeze out the book. If so, I wish someone would tell me (
     Of course, there may be other reasons. Steampunk may not be as popular as the number of titles out there suggests (it looks like Steampunk Poe has already been remaindered).
     Maybe I’m a little obsessive on this subject because I tried to be a contributor to the book and, if I had succeeded, would want it to do well. I still wish it well. Maybe another publisher will pick it up, change the title and cover illustration, add and/or subtract a few stories, actually try to sell it and it will succeed. For now I fear its contributors remain locked in the cabinet of Doctor Fantastique.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Audiences shrug at 'Atlas Shrugged II'

     Once again a film in the Atlas Shrugged trilogy has opened, once again the mainstream media (MSM for fans of Rush, Beck, Fox News in general and conservatives) has virtually ignored it, and once again so have moviegoers. The film opened in 11th place, with less than $2 million in its opening weekend box office.
     Of course, it's easy for MSM critics and reviewers to ignore something when they aren't allowed to see it before it opens. The producers did this because they want to control the message, and feared that the MSM would just shoot them down. But controlling your message means you have to have a message, and you have to communicate it. That requires time and an adequate advertising budget. I saw little advertising.
     Despite the failure of this approach with part one, the producers doubled down for part two. 
     Atlas Shrugged is a popular book as books go, especially books more than half-a-century old, but that's still a minimal audience for a film. It could have used some help. As the aphorism goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity, though maybe it should be that bad publicity is better than no publicity.
     I could be wrong, but I think Fox News would have been happy to promote the film. Even Comedy Central's The Daily Show and Colbert Report might have been interested. Sure, they might jeer a bit, but they're not rude to the guest's face even when they disagree.
     As I pointed out in an earlier column, Atlas Shrugged is science fiction. There are a lot of sf fans who are conservative and might have been interested in plugging the film on their blogs or social media.
     Even if the first film's 5 million or so moviegoers were augmented by those who saw it on DVD, if they didn't know it was opening, how would they find out about it? ran a review, but how many people look to for movie recommendations? Without appealing to the MSM for publicity, they were clearly counting on word of mouth. If so, they miscounted. According to Entertainment, the second film's opening weekend audience is almost exactly the size of the first's: 1.7 million versus the first's 1.6 million. And this time the film opened in twice as many theaters (it played in three theaters in Macomb County alone).
     It also cost twice as much to make, due in part to the fact that the first film's entire cast seems to have been replaced, as has the director.
     Despite the producers' complaints that the MSM wasn't fair to the film, this might suggest the producers weren't too happy with the first film either. That was a risky move. A conservative colleague hearing this decided the first film was probably pretty bad or they wouldn't have replaced everybody.
     There could be other factors. Since the first film didn't do well, and the producers weren't sure they would do parts two or three at first, the cast might not have been locked into appearing in the followup films in time. Actors need to work to pay the bills, and they might have found other projects before the sequels were scheduled. But none of the leads? It raises the obvious question of whether the new cast will return for part three, if there is a part three, or if it's time for musical chairs again.
     Then again, maybe the producers have gotten what they wanted. Maybe they wanted the film to succeed or fail on its populist message (if you interpret its story of genius fat-cats going on strike to teach the looters and the masses a lesson as populist) and word of mouth alone. I would argue that it's no good having a good product if the people who need or could use your product can't find it or don't know about it, but that's just my opinion.
     Conservatives object when President Obama blames President George W. Bush for the sluggish economy. I wonder what excuse the producers will use for the failure of Atlas Shrugged: The Strike.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

'Atlas Shrugged II' opens

     "Real heroes don't need capes."
-- Web advertisement for Atlas Shrugged II

     Yes, part two of the epic film adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is now opening, again without much advertising (I stumbled upon one web ad, containing the above ad line and a portrait of Samantha Mathis as Dayny Taggart, but clicking on it didn't blow it up or connect me with anything, not even the movie's official website, so apparently they're still trying to do this on the cheap).
     There's a fawning, true believer's review on that doesn't even pretend to start from a position of objectivity. The film is a must-see, he said, because it's based on the magnificent Atlas Shrugged, the greatest and most important novel ever written.
     As I have previously written, Atlas Shrugged is an extremely poorly written book. It's characterizations are of a kind with the Saturday afternoon movie serials of the 1940s where you can tell at a glance who is the bad guy because he twirls his Snidely Whiplash mustache and says, "I'm the bad guy." The characters don't have conversations; they make speeches. And Dagny Taggart falls in love not because of personality or physical traits or kindness shown to her, but based on their business and scientific excellence. She's in love at various times with three of the book's heroes, and they with her because apparently she is the most -- the only? -- admirable woman in the world.
    Atlas Shrugged is also science fiction. I don't say that pejoratively -- I like good science fiction -- but it's never marketed as such. If you pick up the book and aren't prepared, you might wonder WTF happened when super metals, sonic death rays, free-energy machines and the like suddenly pop up. There's a valley, owned by the good guys, concealed by a force field that makes it invisible and also prevents any vehicles from entering without having their engines fail.
      Conservatives and tea party enthusiasts seem to love Rand, particularly Atlas Shrugged, but often overlook her atheism. When called on it, as Paul Ryan was earlier this year, he recants, claiming he likes some of her ideas but never liked the woman or her books. Then tapes surfaced of him saying that he required interns and workers in his office to read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, something that he denied.
     The novel involves a U.S. where the producers -- the job creators, I suppose we would say now -- decide to protest the unfair taxation and government regulation under which they labor by going on strike. That is, they leave their factories, their typewriters, their labs, their pianos, their easels and their banks, go to the aforementioned secret valley and wait for civilization to end or come to its senses. This group is considerably smaller than Mitt Romney's one percent, so the vast majority of people, most innocent, are going to suffer. That, I think, is what appeals to the conservatives and the tea party. All those moochers, even the ones raising a family on minimum wage salaries, are going to pay for not letting the super rich get even super richer. Rand is honest about this. The first character we meet in the novel, Eddie Willers, works with Dagny, is in love with Dagny, and is a decent though not exceptionally talented man. In the end, he is left alone, stranded, presumably to die; he is not worthy of living in the valley. He is not one of the heinous ones who are responsible for the socialization of America, but the scene shifts from his moment of symbolic, existential death to the strikers planning their new constitution (a godless meritocracy apparently) with not even Dagny giving Eddie or the countless millions who are reverting to tribalism and anarchy a second thought.
     But that happy ending is for Atlas Shrugged III, if it's ever made.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ironic 'Pity the Billionaire' slams right, left

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle
and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
By Thomas Frank
Picador/Henry Holt and Company

Covers from Macmillan website

     First, in case you're one of the 1 percent looking for a sympathetic ear, the main title is meant ironically. The subtitle should give you an idea of the book's real intent. Don't expect impartiality or even-handedness here.
     Frank aims his acerbic analytic pen (or, more likely, keyboard) at many targets on the right, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand fans in general, Paul Ryan in particular, Wall Street, but also banks too big too fail, bailouts for the guys who caused the problem but not the little guys who were hurt, and, a little surprisingly, Obama and the liberal Democrats in Washington
     But if you're a conservative Republican, a tea party supporter or fan of Glenn Beck, you're more likely to be offended by Frank's views.
     This is the paperback reissue, which it says has been "fully updated and expanded," but I didn't read the hardcover, so I don't know by how much really. Many critics of the first edition noted that events had to some extent overtaken Frank, so that his continual swipes at Beck seemed out-of-date, given that his Fox News show was cancelled before it was published. I don't know if any such references have been removed, but I don't find the number of times he's mentioned in this edition is excessive, given his many best-sellers and the reverence with which he is held by many in the tea parties.
     Some critics also observed that the Occupy movement got short shrift because of timing, suggesting this was the left wing uprising that Frank lamented hadn't taken place. But the Occupy movement hasn't really moved, not in any meaningful or politically effective way.
     In general I'm sympathetic to Frank's views, but I don't accept everything he says here as fact. And sometimes you have to  check the footnotes to get the whole joke (an example with Michigan connections: he quotes somebody, but you have to turn to the back of the book to find out it's Ted Nugent rather than a politician or economist).
     Frank's main contention is that the banking and housing meltdowns should have led to a call for greater government oversight and regulation of business and bankers, as did the Great Depression before it. Instead the populist anger was redirected by the conservatives to call for less regulation.
     I'm sure a conservative Frank could argue that this was the best course of action, that the over-regulation during the Depression slowed down rather than led to the recovery. As I said, I'm not taking this as gospel.
     While Frank gives the right "credit" for seizing the opportunity, he also blames President Obama for giving the right the ammunition by botching the bailout. Frank points out, as have many conservatives, that Wall Street and the banks got money with little or no strings, its executives got to keep their jobs and bonuses, while the little guy got ... little.
     My favorite part of the book is Frank's analysis of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, a tea party favorite (as has been reported, Paul Ryan allegedly made interns and staffers read the book as a condition of employment). He points out that in many ways it is a version (parody?) of the bad, leftist propaganda novels of the 1930s, and suggests that the book isn't set in the 1950s during which it was written, or the near future, but rather in the 1930s. The obsession with railroads and steel mills, the opening scene where a man is begging for change (Frank repeatedly mentions the song "Brother Can You Spare a Dime") and the almost complete lack of mention of television while radio is everywhere (even John Galt's 80-page speech is only broadcast on radio) all point to the 1930s. Maybe it's an alternate 1930s (is there a version of steampunk where technological advances are delayed rather than accelerated?).
     Amusingly, Frank also points out that a main plot point -- Hank Rearden's development of a new super metal, culminating in his factory being destroyed by a proletariat mob -- is virtually lifted whole from a Little Orphan Annie storyline.
     Ultimately I doubt Pity the Billionaire will change any minds, but it's food for thought.
     For more about the book, visit Thomas Frank's website.