Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, some of which are centuries old in Internet time.
At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 14
Saturday December 30, 2000
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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At The Margin is sponsored by Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, but the relationship is only one of sponsorship. At The Margin's opinions, observations, and coverage areas originate in the mind of Floyd Kemske, who writes pretty much what he likes and often irritates his sponsor thereby.
1. Hypothesis: Bigger Books Sell Better
2. Fair Use Becomes Unfair
3. Harry Potter and Global Warming
4. Production Notes
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words
1. Hypothesis: Bigger Books Sell Better
Salon.com is the wittiest general-interest site on the web, and it is often thought-provoking as well. It has been offering the Salon Book Awards annually since 1996. They described this year's books by1 saying, "The 10 books we present to you here aren't necessarily the most critically acclaimed, or by the most widely revered authors, and you won't find many bestsellers among them, either. But we loved them, we couldn't put them down; we rifled through their pages like a thief through a jewel box, knowing that we'd found treasure."
They picked five books of fiction and five of nonfiction:
Richard Slotkin, Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln
Jim Crace, Being Dead
Mark Salzman, Lying Awake
Denis Johnson, The Name of the World
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Debra Dickerson, An American Story
Nasdijj, The Blood Runs Like a River through my Dreams
Diana Preston, The Boxer Rebellion
Ann Wroe, Pontius Pilate
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Social Lives of Dogs
Even without knowing the books, you can tell the lists are informed by a particular sensibility. The average length of the fiction entries is 287 pages. The average length of the nonfiction ones is 297 pages. By contrast, the Publishers Weekly bestsellers for 1999 are 392 pages (fiction) and 334 pages (nonfiction). The Salon Book Award fiction books range from 129 pages (The Name of the World) to 478 pages (Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln). The 1999 bestsellers range from 223 pages (Granny Dan by Danielle Steel) to 523 pages (Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King). In 1998, the Publishers Weekly fiction bestsellers averaged 442 pages: from 170 pages (All Through the Night by Mary Higgins Clark) to 901 pages (I Know this Much Is True by Wally Lamb).
This isn't a scientific investigation, of course, but it looks as if novels that get favorable critical notice tend to be shorter than novels on the bestseller list. Perhaps there is even a relationship between the size of a book and its chance to become a bestseller. If that's true, what causes it? Do the general public demand oversized books the same way they apparently demand oversized restaurant meals? Does Oprah (to whom the public, in order to find more time for television watching, has delegated custody of the bestseller list) prefer longer books? Does the increased shelf space needed for a larger book give it a better opportunity to make a sale? Is there a combination of forces at work?
The Salon Book Awards is online at the Salon.com site: http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2000/12/18/bookawards/index.html. The Publishers Weekly bestseller lists are at Infoplease.com: http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0855499.html. You can find the length of nearly any book by searching for it at Bookfinder.com: http://www.bookfinder.com. Anyone who decides to take this important research project on, please let At The Margin's readers know what you find out.
2. Fair Use Becomes Unfair
On October 28, 2000, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act took full effect. This legislation, enacted in 1998 (with a two-year delay on some provisions), was Congress's attempt to make copyright law conform with international treaties and the digital age. You can expect to see much greater use of encryption and copy prevention schemes, because this act protects them. A user who circumvents a copy prevention or encryption scheme on a copyrighted work is now subject to 10 years in prison or a $1 million fine.
What does this mean? It means if you buy an ebook (either by download or on a CD-ROM) that is encrypted so that it will only display on your computer and you finish reading it and want to sell it, and if you use some technological means for circumventing the encryption so your buyer can display it on another computer, you go to jail. It's a hypothetical situation now, of course, since such encryption schemes are not common, and the people with the technical skill to circumvent them are not common, either. But if you buy software that would circumvent protection, using it could land you in jail. This being the situation, it is very unlikely that a trade in used ebooks will ever develop. Record companies will doubtless try to have v-chip style protection circuitry mandated for CD players so you won't be able to sell or give away used CDs.
This doesn't just affect those who want to resell content. It puts real limitations on scholarship and on libraries. Academics and librarians are considerably exercised over this law, and as recently as November tried to press their case with the U.S. Copyright Office. Academics want to make sure they can share online material with students and scholars, but the Copyright Office, which is supposed to send a report on this to Congress in February, was little moved by their concerns, and so far has sided against them on similar issues. Arrayed against the academics and librarians are the Motion Picture Association of America, Time Warner Inc. (or whatever it is called now that it is owned by America Online), the Association of American Publishers, and other corporate groups that like to think of themselves as content creators. Here's a story about the academics and the copyright office in Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/free/2000/11/2000113001t.htm.
The Librarian of Congress has fashioned two exceptions to the provision for jailing copyists and code breakers. One has to do with web filtering software (the stuff they use in libraries and schools to protect children). Web filtering software generally encrypts its internal list of "dangerous" websites, because the software makers feel the exact lists they use constitute proprietary information. If you decrypt the list for purposes of criticizing the software or just to see what sites are being filtered out, that can be considered fair use. The other exception is related to malfunction, damage, or obsolescence. If you have protected software that doesn't work because it's out of date or damaged, and you are licensed to use that software, you can circumvent its protection features under the fair use doctrine.
The Librarian of Congress was the last hope of libraries, educators, and civil liberties advocates for a liberal fair use clause. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act puts us well on the way to becoming a pay-per-use society. See the DMCA writeup by the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the EFF's website: http://www.eff.org/effector/HTML/effect13.11.html#I.
3. Harry Potter and Global Warming
We like to think that online shopping is a green activity. After all, it uses a lot less gasoline than going out to the store. But did last July's promotion of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire obviate most of the environmental benefits of the web as a shopping medium? In case you missed the hype, the publisher set the publication date on a Saturday and embargoed the book until midnight Friday. Smart bookstore managers set up all kinds of midnight activities for the young readers who wanted to get the book as soon as it was available. But Amazon.com, not to be outdone by its bricks-and-mortar competition, promised that all pre-orders of the book would receive Saturday delivery by FedEx, no charge. So you could go to a midnight party at a bookstore and get the book in the middle of the night, or you could sleep in and have FedEx deliver it (40% off list price) to your door a few hours later.
Was it advantageous to the environment for a quarter million customers to receive the book by Saturday FedEx delivery? Consider that most of the copies shipped to bookstores went the entire distance by truck, and all the copies shipped by FedEx went at least part of the way by airplane (at five times the amount of fuel per ton-mile). FedEx, in fact, dedicated a fleet of 100 airplanes and 9,000 trucks just to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If this doesn't seem excessive to you, remember that many of the world's poorer countries don't have air forces with more than 100 planes.
Second, each of the quarter million Amazon.com copies went in a package by itself while the books shipped to bookstores went in cartons, maybe even on pallets. If FedEx delivery uses a box for each book and bookstore shipment uses a box for maybe 10 books, it doesn't mean the FedEx deliveries used 10 times as much packaging, but nearly so.
It would be difficult to calculate how much gasoline was saved by the quarter million customers who got home delivery of the book, but we need to remember that events like the Goblet of Fire promotion are not protecting us from global warming. It is possible all that fuel savings was offset by the additional air transport and the excessive packaging that now resides in landfills. In environmental terms, it could even be a net loss.
The facts in this story, and the very idea of Harry Potter's environmental cost, are in an article, "How Much Did Harry Potter Cost?" in the web-based publication, Information Impacts Magazine: http://www.cisp.org/imp/november_2000/11_00matthews.htm.
4. Production Notes
This issue has only three "stories," so it is a little lighter than most, but I figure many of you are away enjoying the holidays anyway and probably won't have much time to devote to reading it when you get back and find it in your IN box.
I wanted to let you know that I have begun the process of archiving back issues of ATM at my own website. Of the 14 issues, I have put up six at this writing. Each issue gets its own web page, so it's incumbent on me to provide actual links instead of text URLs, as I do in this version, which means there are quite a few links to make. I also figured I should use boldface and italics, since HTML allows me to do it. But this means changing some expressions back from all uppercase, which is our less-than- satisfactory representation of italics. I have automated some of the steps, and I do the finishing work in an HTML authoring program, but each issue still needs to be examined line by line.
I hope you don't think I'm complaining, but this is the most tedious work I have ever done without a snow shovel. It surprises me how much drudgery there can be in front of a computer. The back issues are at http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM.html.
My latest novel got a brief review in The New York Times Book Review for December 31. The review mentioned the book's "irony and wit." Labor Day is my fifth novel, but this is my first NYTBR writeup.
5. Messages to the Editor
ATM in Competition with Technical Pubs
I just finished reading through this month's At The Margin, and wanted to write to say how much I enjoyed it.
Thanks for making this newsletter. It is consistently interesting, and has added value to my life for the serveral months I have been subscribing to it. ATM is easily the most intelligent and worthwhile newsletter I receive (though, to be fair, its main competition is technical publications).
Thanks again for your efforts, it is much appreciated.
Now You're Turning My Head
Just wanted to drop you a line to reaffirm that ATM is just about the most lucent, pleasant piece of e-mail -- heck, regular mail -- that I get on anything like a regular basis.
The most recent issue's mention of Steve Martin at the NBA reminded me that Thomas Pynchon had Professor Irwin Corey appear in his place, to accept the NBA for Gravity's Rainbow. Corey's acceptance speech was by all accounts bizarre and/or hilarious, and appeared in an issue of a journal called SmokeSignals. I haven't been able to find a copy of it anywhere online though, at least via Google or Northern Light (my preferred engines).
On another topic, do you know of the magician/card wizard named Ricky Jay? I've been reading Life Stories, a collection of profiles which originally appeared in The New Yorker, which includes a profile of Jay. Apparently he's considered quite the authority on the history of magic, sideshows, and such. He's written a couple of books, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women and Cards as Weapons(!). The former is still in print, at least in paperback. As for the latter, an interesting exercise is to look for it at Alibris (www.alibris.com) and check the asking prices... as of a moment ago, the cheapest one offered was $557 for the hardback with dust jacket; one paperback copy is offered for $938. Sounds like a complete cottage industry in itself! (By contrast, Crossed Wires is currently going there for $37 max. Be still my humbled heart.)
John E. Simpson
[Editor's Note: for those who missed the detail when he edited an issue of ATM for me last summer, John Simpson is the author of Crossed Wires, which considerably adds to the humor of his message. But I managed to find Cards as Weapons (trade paper) at Bookfinder.com for $275. That's still pretty steep, but compared to the Alibris price of $938, it should serve as a reminder that there have been times in human history when the people running that outfit would have been put in jail for their pricing policies. If anybody has information about the Professor Irwin Corey speech on Thomas Pynchon's behalf, please share it: email@example.com.]
At The Margin has 817 readers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 816 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (firstname.lastname@example.org).
6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to email@example.com.
Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.
This Issue's Sentence:
"Nothing ever happens to me."
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
The coming of Diotti to America had awakened more than usual interest in the man and his work.
Nobody tried to guess this time, but you will none of you kick yourselves when you find out. It's just too bizarre.
The sentence is from The Fifth String by John Philip Sousa. Yes, that John Philip Sousa.
Here are the book's first two paragraphs:
"The coming of Diotti to America had awakened more than usual interest in the man and his work. His marvelous success as violinist in the leading capitals of Europe, together with many brilliant contributions to the literature of his instrument, had long been favorably commented on by the critics of the old world. Many stories of his struggles and his triumphs had found their way across the ocean and had been read and re-read with interest.
"Therefore, when Mr. Henry Perkins, the well-known impresario, announced with an air of conscious pride and pardonable enthusiasm that he had secured Diotti for a 'limited' number of concerts, Perkins' friends assured that wide-awake gentleman that his foresight amounted to positive genius, and they predicted an unparalleled success for his star. On account of his wonderful ability as player, Diotti was a favorite at half the courts of Europe, and the astute Perkins enlarged upon this fact without regard for the feelings of the courts or the violinist."
John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, DC in 1854. He was one of 10 children (the third). His father was Portuguese (although born in Spain) and his mother was Bavarian. His father played trombone in the U.S. Marine band. He began to study music at about the age of six. In 1867, he tried to run away to join a circus band, and his father enlisted him in the Marines as an apprentice. He was 13. He was 18 when his first composition, "Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes," was published. Three years later, he got out of the Marines and took up performing the violin. He rose to theater conductor and ultimately conducted H.M.S. Pinafore (Gilbert and Sullivan) on Broadway.
At the age of 26, he returned to Washington to become the leader of the Marine Band. He led the Marine Band for 12 years and brought it to a new standard of performance. In 1892, he left the Marine Band and formed his own band, which then began touring the U.S. and Europe. He composed 136 military marches, including Semper Fidelis (the official march of the U.S. Marines), The Washington Post, The Liberty Bell, and Stars and Stripes Forever. Between the ages of 25 and 61, he wrote 11 operettas, including El Capitan, The Bride Elect, and The Free Lance. He also wrote 70 songs, 11 waltzes, 11 suites, 14 humoresques, and 27 fantasies. During World War I, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve at the age of 62 and assumed the leadership of band training for the U.S. Navy. He wrote three novels, an instruction book (trumpet and drum), and an autobiography, Marching Along, which was published in 1928. The Fifth String was published in 1902. The other two novels seem to be Pipetown Sandy (1905) and Transit of Venus (1920).
For more about John Philip Sousa (including sound clips of 100 marches!), check out the John Philip Sousa website, compiled, designed, and maintained by David Lovrien and sponsored by The Dallas Wind Symphony: http://www.dws.org/sousa/. I am indebted to Brian Doyle, a reader of eclectic impulses, for the first two paragraphs of The Fifth String and the suggestion of Sousa for this department.
7. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.
BookSense.com is the e-commerce arm of the American Booksellers Association Book Sense program. It presents an electronic retail storefront, but if you order something, the order will be filled by an actual bookstore. It's set up for easy browsing and searches.
The Ebook Appliance as Tinker Bell
Mike Langberg, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury, is not kind to the RCA-Gemstar partnership that is selling eBooks and eBook readers. They are doing "Tinker Bell Marketing," he says, "clapping their hands together in staff meetings, repeating 'I believe, I believe,' and then expecting the public to buy a clearly nonsensical product." An entertaining column.
Boxmind Online Library
Boxmind is a British venture. It bills itself as "the world's premier academic resource directory and ratings agency." It intends to operate as a kind of librarian on the web. You select subject areas and do searches within them. You can even specify what kinds of websites to look in (corporate, academic, etc.). It is pretty new, but it looks promising.
Junk Science and Corporate Ideology
Ann Clark, a researcher in plant agriculture at the Univerity of Guelph, is troubled by the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. "This is not science," she says. "This is technology in advance of science, profit-driven applications of commercial technology unfettered by scientific understanding of basic physiology and gene function, and real world implications for society and the environment. This is a solution in search of a problem." The full interview is at Monkeyfist.com.
Censorship: What a Concept!
Web content filtering programs are what Congress wants schools and libraries to use to protect children on the Internet. It turns out that whatever else these programs are protecting children from, they also protect them from reading about anti-poverty campaigns, women's rights, job safety, labor union solidarity, defense industry conversion, environmental education, and human rights abuses.
If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.
A Commercial Message from Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop
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Avenue Victor Hugo is your bricks and mortar alternative. Let us know what you're looking for. You can even give us a price range! You'll find us at http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com
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(c) Copyright 2000 Floyd Kemske
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