Makers and Takers?

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Here’s a story–the story of the history of Fender Musical Instrument Corporation.

In the 1950s, Leo Fender invented the Telecaster, and with it, the Fender company. Also coming out of Leo Fender’s mind (and shop)? The Precision Bass, the Jazz Bass, the Stratocaster, the Twin Verb amplifier, the Bassman Amplifier. Ground-breaking and industry (co) leading musical tools. He focused on innovation, and on quality.

Eventually, Mr. Fender was approached by CBS Corporation, and he sold his company to them. Eventually, the suits at CBS began to cut corners. It started with little things like using three bolts instead of four on the plates that secure the guitar necks to the guitar bodies. You see–the suits thought that they could continue to move product–that the thing was just a widget–and the quality of the product didn’t matter at all.

Sales fell off a cliff. New competitors–like Ibanez, Jackson, Charvel, Paul Reed Smith–even Leo Fender’s own new company, G&L—rose to fill the quality gap.

(As an aside, this was the same time that CBS Corporation was destroying the New York Yankees’ legacy. See a pattern?)

Eventually, CBS gave up and the employees were able to buy back the company, and they’ve completely re-built the company.

But here is the point. Leo Fender was a “maker” and an entrepreneur and a risk taker. He innovated, he made quality products. The guys at CBS? The suits? The ones who differ from, say, Bain, only in that their company also had a core business (broadcasting) while Bain and others have none? What was there contribution? They unwittingly attempted to dismantle and destroy a company in the name of squeezing every cent they could imagine out of it. In a way, they “unwound” all of the true value in the company that Leo Fender had built into it.

So which are the Makers, and which are the Takers? Wouldn’t a group of people trying to enrich themselves by squeezing value out of someone else’s innovation qualify as “Takers”?

So when Mitt Romney complains about “Takers,” about whom is he talking? Wealth per se isn’t proof of creativity. Or value-adding. Rather, in many cases it seems, it is evidence of value-taking–value destruction. For example, a private equity fund that pays itself by loading a business with debt, leaving what should have been a viable business in bankruptcy. But also consider a case like Staples—taking market share from smaller supply stores. Traditionally, one would see this as “creative destruction,” a competitor enters the market and outcompetes. Another way to see this, though, is that this is a kind of deflation–there is more efficiency, but there are also fewer jobs that pay less; and most of the benefits accrue to the Funds and the Fund owners. I’m not suggesting that there is necessarily anything wrong with this, as such. But I am saying that Governor Romney’s success here is, rather than a kind of making, is a kind of taking.

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Geek Role Models: Why the Spider-Man “One More Day” Storyline Was A Great Abdication of Responsibility

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OK, so I acknowledge that I’m coming at this issue a few years late. But I left comics fandom in 2007 when Joe Quesada promulgated the “One More Day” Spider-Man storyline. Certain persons at Marvel had, for decades, attempted to undermine the Peter/Mary Jane marriage (you may recall, this was the underlying impetus for the horrid Clone Saga).

I’m a child of the 70s. When I got to the Spider-Man books, Gwen had already been dead for some time; I grew up with Peter and Mary Jane. And it was a major milestone when they got married. But this isn’t just about what I like. It’s about comics’ and comic-related materials’ impact on the views and values of the population reading and consuming it—largely, young men who have difficulty with women.

Put simply, Peter was a role model for geeks. Not just as a superhero, but as a man. And I’m writing this now, having taken a quick look a few days ago at the Spider-Man entry in Wikipedia and seeing Quesada’s rationale for why he wanted to do what he wanted to do. He insists that “Peter being single is an intrinsic part of the very foundation of the world of Spider-Man.”

Well, no, for me, it wasn’t. I grew up with a Peter Parker in a long-term relationship, and, after that, married (thank you, Danny Fingeroth!). For me, the relationship with Mary Jane is the intrinsic part of the very foundation of the world of Spider-Man. But this isn’t just about me, or about what I would prefer. Because a character with this kind of reach, into this kind of population, has great power. And with great power—well, you know the rest. Or at least, Quesada should.

And this power is the power to influence behavior by presentation of role models. Peter is and has been a role model—about how to deal with being a science/photography geek in a jock world. About how you grow up. In this function, Peter stands within the literary tradition—think of fellow nerdy New Yorker Bernard in Death of a Salesman. Geeky, tormented by the jocky Biff and Happy Loman brothers, growing up to argue before SCOTUS.

And I am interested here in Peter’s role-model function in relationships. The relationship with Mary Jane proves to smart, young boys that, yes, you can (eventually—although it might not be until after graduate school) get the talented and pretty girl. And the arc of that relationship shows how to be faithful, and how to be married. And that marriage—the sustained part of a romance—is the best part.

As opposed to the ongoing fashion in Hollywood; that the first meeting—the “love at first sight” is the best part. And when that’s over? When things get “boring”? You bolt. (Just like actors seem to do in real life, FWIW.)

Peter Parker had stood against that. At least, until 2007. Maybe Quesada picked up too much Hollywood influence? Doesn’t matter, though. Because, with great power—well, you know.

And about that power. We still have a geek culture that has trouble with women (RL example—the Felicia Day episode; fictional example: pre-Bernadette Howard Wallowitz and Raj Koothrapali), when we have positive role models for how men should behave toward women, the last thing we need to have is one of the most popular examples of a successful (fictional) marriage torn down.

And. So. No, I have not read comic books* since 2007.

*Except for the JJ Abrams Star Trek prequel. But don’t get me started on “Red Matter” or how it is that all electricity can fail—except, conveniently, our electrically-based nervous systems.

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Shakespeare Wasn’t “Shakespeare”

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No.

I don’t mean in the Anonymous sense that the person named William Shakespeare had nothing to do with the works bearing his name, except that they bear his name but someone else wrote.

Rather, I mean that Shakespeare wasn’t “Shakespeare,” the solitary genius scribbling at his desk, concocting brilliance out of whole cloth. He was William Shakespeare, actor, theater company proprietor, “lead songwriter” of his band of theater-folk.

And I mean “band” in more than one way. Seems to me that Shakespeare—and his contemporary competitors was really the leader of a band of creative collaborators. I think of modern musical bands. William Shakespeare was the Pete Townshend, the Bob Gaudio, of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

And anyone who’s been in a band, even one with a lead (or domineering…) songwriter knows that such a band works best when everyone contributes. A songwriter brings a demo, or a song on paper. And the other musicians critique it; add parts and embellishments to it; in a way, “workshop” it.

These plays, I would venture, were workshopped and honed for months, if not years, before performance. Why are Shakespeare’s characters so complex? Did he do it himself? I would assert, probably, not. The actors assigned to them probably thought deeply about them, and fed ideas about motivation and reactions back into the cauldron, and Shakespeare (probably of idetic memory) put them in the next draft.

At least, to my imagination, that’s, maybe, how it worked…

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All About Editing

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Editors and publishers are the victims of their own success. Or rather, the victims of our own good works.

The “Open” advocates welcome a flood of material. They imagine tearing down the gates, letting everything through.

Sounds good–maybe–in theory. But what they don’t see: All the bad stuff they’re welcoming in. They don’t see all the excreble “writing” passing through writing seminars and slush piles. They don’t see the stuff that editors never read past the first page. Even with science and academic work, they don’t see all the papers sent back for revision. And they don’t see these things precisely because editors reject them.

It seems to me that those attacking the gatekeepers come from two camps. On one side, those actually building business models aimed at competing with–maybe replacing–the traditional editors. The idea–massive content bring massive eyeballs–and with less paid human labor (i.e., no editors, content made for free by amateurs)–supported by advertising. And the economics only work by removing the editorial labor–the most expensive part of publishing.

The other camp: The people who can’t get through the gates. Same market traditionally targeted by the Vanity Press industry; only now they can vanity publish at a much lower cost.

Seth Godin (a member of the first camp–and, disclosure–I wrote two pieces for a book he packaged in 1991) has suggested that writers should give their work away for free; that writers should not expect to be paid for their work. And he uses poetry–where, according to him–most poets aren’t paid–as an example.

But if you can’t get paid for writing–or any other creative endeavor–you can’t do it full-time. If you can’t do it full-time, you can’t get good (or expert) at it (see: Malcolm Gladwell: ) Which means, without full-time professional writers, the writing we’ll get will, well, it’ll suck.

Which brings me to poetry. Godin suggests that other writers should be like poets–get read, don’t get paid. Except there are two problem with that. The first is that the unpaid poets in the little magazines don’t get read, either. As literary journal editors will tell you–they have many, many more submitters than readers. This is not, I think, the model that even Godin has in mind. Secondly, though, there are poets who do get paid–quite a lot–for their writing. Usually, they set their words to music. And that I would suggest that the poets writing words in broken lines without rhyme or rhythm–they’re not read, and they’re not paid, because they’re not good.

Which brings me back to the second group–those who want to get their work out, without taking the judgment of professionals that maybe their stuff isn’t ready for prime time. (And I say this both as someone who hasn’t himself sold a story although I’ve been a contest finalist, and as an editor.)

So one might even argue that the Godin approach might in the end prove the value of editorial work. After the deluge, the backlash. Readers overwhelmed with masses and masses of bad writing may in time–and sooner rather than later, given Internet speed–will turn back to editorially-curated and developed content. Hopefully, though, there will still be employed, professional editors and writers, when they do.

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Future Bookstores (Brick-and-Mortar Edition)

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There is a presumption in the air that Amazon’s ability—and willingness—to cut into profit margins and even sell at a loss—means the end of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as we know it. (As a corollary, some believe that this may also mean the end of the brick-and-mortar retail store—full-stop—as we know it…)

And this much is true: A stand-alone store cannot compete with an entity like Amazon when it plays the modern Internet version of the old Railroad Rebate game and the “I’ll lose money here, and charge more there, so I can drive my competitor out of business” game. For those who don’t recall the history of the Gilded Age… Before Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive reforms, Robber Barons were able to extract concessions from partners (rebates, for example, on railroad shipping—meaning they paid less than smaller competitors) and target competitors for elimination. Standard Oil could charge more in California while charging less in New York, in order to sell oil in New York below-cost, making it impossible for a New York oil company to compete.

Whether or not someone should step in, call out Amazon’s practices for what they are, and stop them is a discussion for another time. My project here is what bookstores might do to compete, given the way things actually are. And they can compete. Because they can offer something that Amazon specifically (at this time, at least) does not: Human expertise.

I mean, for example, the curation of a bookstore’s collection. I mean, value-added personal recommendations. I mean, human-led in-person book clubs. I mean, in-person author events. Other kinds of classes. Other kinds of in-store events. In short, the kind of human contact, and human experience, that Amazon simply cannot provide. And there’s a prior example for this: The music business.

Not long ago, the music industry was supposed to die. Killed off by Napster and the like. And even the rise of iTunes (more on iTunes in another installment…) was supposed to be too little, too late. And to be fair the record labels are still hurting. But successful bands are doing better. Why? Because they’ve turned the business model on its head. Used to be, the concert tour was a promotional tour—the tour’s purpose was to sell records. Now however, the tour has become the main revenue generator, and the recordings promote the tour. Because you don’t have to buy albums, you can buy single songs for a dollar or less, any time you want. And you can even get them pirated and free. But you can’t get the experience of seeing the band, in person, live, from the Internet. Maybe you can get a grainy phone video on YouTube. But that’s not the same, is it?

So back to bookstores. Traditionally, expert booksellers made recommendations. And they arranged for author publicity stops at their stores. And they did these things for free to get people into the store to buy the books, which was where they made money. Now, though, people buy books on Amazon, both in print and electronically. They may still come into the store for the in-person events, and then buy the book online. Which is ironic, because a bookseller’s added value—over and above the books themselves—is being given away for free.

But, what if booksellers turned that around and started charging for author appearances, and for book clubs. And for classes. And for recommendations (i.e., a subscription-based newsletter)? And the things that an expert and experienced bookseller can do, that Amazon can’t, become the thing sold? Can a real-world bookstore make a go of it selling the experience? I don’t know; but someone ought to try.

(Actually, someone is trying—still also for free: Public Libraries. Well, classes, book clubs, and other related activities and librarians are available for consultation on request. But not so much author appearances.)

There is one objection, though, other than price point/business model viability. And that is: Amazon could offer some of this—they could hire experts to make recommendations. They could arrange for “virtual author appearances.” And they could do other things. But experts—and by which I mean in part people who do this full time and not interested part-timers—need to make livings. And if Amazon were to recruit people like that, they’d have to pay them. At least as much as they’d get working in their own stores or at their own storefronts. And how long would Amazon be willing to take losses on a service that doesn’t even fit with their core model or with their strengths?

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Publishing Evolution

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In “Amazon’s Jungle Logic,” Richard Russo talks about Amazon attacking—perhaps even dismembering—“literary culture” by attacking brick-and-mortar bookstores with its price comparison app.

There is a point there; the app does make it easier for readers to see—in real time—how much less a given title may be on Amazon. And it also feeds pricing data back to Amazon. Russo sees this as, first, an attack on brick-and-mortar stores (trying to drive them out of business) and, following on from that, an attack on what could be called the literary lifestyle.

But is it? Is it either of those things?

Author Marketing
Sure—it might well endanger the traditional author-promotion channels—the symbiosis between author, publisher, and bookstore. The publisher arranges for an author appearance at a bookstore, intended to promote sales of that author’s book. The author benefits from the exposure and the sales, as do the publisher and the store. And the readers benefit from a rare in-person encounter with a favored writer—I’ve been to more than a few, personally. Some favorites include Kathy Reichs (most recently), Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, and more than a few politically-themed readings at Politics and Prose when I lived in the District (right across the street in fact).

Part of the way this works is the personal interaction the reader gets with the author. But in the social Internet… Will this still be the main way authors will conduct this personal interaction with readers in the future? Would this even be the primary way readers will interact with each other? Rhetorical questions…

So while insurmountable competitive pressure from Amazon threatens brick-and-mortar stores, and the old ways of author networking that went along with them, it does not necessarily threaten the literary lifestyle per se. Speaking personally, I love ereading. I have an iPad (and an Android before that), and I find extremely appealing the ability to download almost any book, at almost any time, from almost anywhere. This convenience—rather than price—is why I don’t tend to buy many paper books in bookstores anymore. (As an aside—the main ebook drawback: You can’t get it signed by the author. Someone needs to make an app that can affix an authenticated author signature to a particular ebook file…)

Book Sale Models
But that aside… All this talk about price undercutting; the death of the bookstore; the attack on the author; the end of Reading As We Know It… Sounds familiar… Where have I heard that before…? Oh, right. When Barnes and Noble went big in the 1980s.

One could argue that the superstores have had a negative impact on the book business. Mostly because they may have led both publishers and booksellers to make poor (read: not content-driven) decisions in an industry driven by content. So you get “novels” that are “written by” starlets like Hilary Duff and Lauren Conrad published by major Houses, getting paid placement in Borders.

And we wonder why Borders went belly-up and the legacy Houses are struggling?

But one thing the superstores did—even before Amazon—was throw a huge amount of material at the customers. And with little curating. Some stores would put “staff pick” labels on some books, or create “staff pick” tables. There could have—there should have—been more of this. But there wasn’t and this as much as anything else created an opening for Amazon as something more than a fulfillment company. Except that, for the most part, Amazon does not use expert curators, but algorithms and “crowdsourcing.” Which aren’t going to be better at it than the subjective judgments of an experienced editor (in my opinion, anyway).

The Fruit Rainforest
Which brings me to my next point: Amazon and Apple’s ongoing rivalry. A look at the morphology here may indicate that Amazon’s recent moves (especially including adding a publishing arm) may have less to do with legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores than it does with Apple.

Apple’s ecosystem dominates (at least) the tablet/reader market. Amazon is trying to dent that with the Fire, but early returns aren’t encouraging–Amazon is neither a hardware nor a software company. In the bookspace, it’s a content delivery company. Except that Apple has used its penetration—starting with the music industry (and let’s not even get in to that industry’s mistakes here…) to try to position itself as the premiere—or only—digital content delivery platform, locking out Amazon, who would be left peddling “dead wood and ink” through the mail.

That is, unless Amazon also controls the content. Which is, I think, why Amazon created a publishing arm. True, it’s one that relies on crowdsourcing and proven writers rather than on new author discovery. But doing so means that Apple can’t afford to keep those books out of the iBookstore, and can’t cut Amazon out by going straight to other publishers. Unfortunately, this World War Digital (lets also not forget about Google and Sony…) has collateral damage—legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar book, movie, and music stores.

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One Week and Counting

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A week ago Wednesday (that’s September 14, 2011), I applied to Duotrope to get listed as a fledgling market. They approved PulpCorner.com the next day.

And I want to take this opportunity to thank all the writers who’ve taken a look at the site, and even more, those who’ve decided to take a chance on the site. I’ve gotten a better response, faster, just from that one listing than I expected. I’ve now got a body of material to finish evaluating, and to send out responses.

This did happen slightly faster than I expected, so I have one or two more details (of the legal/official variety) to sort out before I can start responding. But I hope to have that sorted out by mid-week next week. And then I hope to have the first new stories published by the first week of October. More updates to follow!

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Greetings and Salutations

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Welcome to Pulp Corner!

If you read short genre fiction—personally, I mostly read science fiction—then you’re familiar with the traditional digest-sized pulp magazines. I’m thinking here of magazines like Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Asimov’s or Analog. also Hitchcock’s and others in other genres.

They have their online analogues, too.

The thing about these magazines—and frankly they publish really good stuff—is that you have to buy the whole magazine. Suppose you’re flipping through one at a newsstand, and you see one story that looks interesting. Well, to get that one story, you’ve got to buy the whole magazine; and they retail for about $5. $6 for an electronic edition at FictionWise.

Why? In the digital age, on this Earth, why? Why can’t you buy only the stories that you want, on a one-off basis, at a reasonable price?

One reason has to do with the economics of printing, and the necessity of selling the whole package to support print advertising.

Fine. If you’re still living in print-world.

What about the online magazines, like Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show? You also can’t buy stories on a one-off, but have to buy an entire subscription.

Again, why?

And answering that question—why—is why we’re here.

At Pulp Corner, you can buy only the stories that you want. We’ll give you about 1/3 of the story to sample for free, and if you want it, you can buy the whole story for $.25-$.75, depending on length. (And we’ll sell in PDF and ePub to start with.)

And we’ll share a good percentage (details still to be worked out) of the revenues from those sales—and from display/banner/CPK ad revenue too—with our writers. We’ll pay on the back-end, on an ongoing basis (essentially royalties) rather than up-front for-hire.

This means that we don’t have limits on how many stories we can buy. We’ll publish anything we deem interesting and competent. No more, “You’re story is good, but we sold the last spot in the issue to someone whose work is more popular.” And we intend to take full advantage of web technologies. We plan to have a reader-rating system, and readers will be able to sort by other readers’ ratings.

Oh. And while my background is primarily in science fiction, we plan to publish in any and all genres: Mystery, horror, western, romance… Anything character-and-plot oriented.

Personally, I’m really excited about this new venture. And I want to hear from you. Our forum isn’t built yet, but in the meantime, you can email me at scott.epstein@pulpcorner.com, follow us on Twitter @pulpcorner, and, soon, Like us on Facebook.

 

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Hello world!

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Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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