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A response to Amazon’s editors: my own suggestions for a well-read life

A few months ago, the “Amazon Book Editors” put up a list with the description “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime: A bucket list of books to create a well-read life”.

It contains some good (1984, Pride and Prejudice, The Right Stuff), some decent-but-thought-provoking (Man’s Search for Meaning), some leftist cant (Silent Spring), and a disproportionate amount of lightweight fiction, books for children, and books for young adults. I’m guessing this is a consequence of Amazon editors skewing rather young.

I think the list lacks broad perspective. It is weak on science, with only the often-purchased-but-seldom-read Brief History of Time plus an obscure book on nutrition. There’s nothing on technology, nothing on business unless you count Moneyball, nothing military (though it does have two books about the victims of WWII), and weak on history. 

Fittingly for a Seattle-based company, the list leans left. I mentioned that Silent Spring is there, which is disturbing given the damage and death caused by its inaccuracies and environmental hysteria. It also contains Fahrenheit 451, which is the soft lefty’s go-to entry when they think they just have to cite a science fiction book. I could name a hundred better science fiction books off the top of my head, but most are from authors who have a nasty habit of not leaning left.

While the list is worth browsing through, I thought the largest bookseller in the world should have done better. That started me thinking about the list I would recommend. My list would contain books that gave me some of the greatest return on investment in reading them. That might be by changing or refining my worldview. It might be simply great entertainment. Some of the very best combine both.

It would be the best books I could name from a wide variety of fields. Being easily bored, I’m more of a generalist than a specialist, and I like to read lots of different kinds of books. So I began composing a list, and extended and refined it several times over a few months.

Creating such a list involves some tough choices between certain books that cover the same territory. I have dodged that by having some of my entries be categories, in which I think a well-read person should be exposed to the category, but not necessary any single work in the category.

For some works and authors, I also included some follow-on suggestions.

I ended up with about 50 books and categories. Here, then, are the books I think ought to be a bucket list for a well-read person, in alphabetic order except that I separated out the science fiction and placed it at the bottom.

The ones that are also on Amazon’s list have an asterisk. No doubt I’ve left off some obvious works, and no doubt our sharp and excellent commenters will remind me.

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California’s Amazon tax has been successful…

…In encouraging Internet entrepreneurs to leave California. Who saw that coming? Besides, you know, everyone outside of Sacramento.

Last month, news broke of one California-based online entrepreneur who had decided to ditch California and move to Nevada in the aftermath of Gov. Jerry Brown signing the law.  ”I always figured that in California, home to Silicon Valley and a million tech startups, they’d never pass a law like this,” said Nick Loper, who formerly operated ShoesRUs and has now opened a new venture, ShoeSniper.

Per the piece in which Loper is quoted, more than 70 affiliates had at that stage already left California, according to online businesses.

Then, last Thursday, another online entrepreneur, Erica Douglass, posted a mock “It’s Over” letter to California on her blog. Douglass, who sold an internet company she had built for $1.1 million in 2007 when she was just 26, cited multiple reasons for moving to Austin.  Among them were unnecessary paperwork requirements mandated by the state, and high taxes as well as business fees.  However, the straw that broke the camel’s back, was according to Portfolio, Brown signing the Amazon Tax into law.

Apparently, the thinking was that Amazon would never halt its California affiliate program—though they’ve done so in every state that’s passed a similar law—and, Lord, the money, it would start rolling in! And even if Amazon did close down the California affiliate programs, why, the affiliates would simply switch to other affiliate programs, and the state would still get it’s money. It was a win-win for everyone.

Well, Sacramento was right about one thing: The affiliates are switching. To other states.

To be fair, it was slightly more realistic than Sacramento’s other plan, which was that flying unicorns would swoop in to sprinkle magic pixie dust on the state’s economy. Sadly, that plan was tabled in the Assembly’s budget committee. At least if they’d gone with that, I’d still be able to make a little spending money off Amazon.

Is it just me, or is the Tree of Liberty looking a little…parched?

~
Dale Franks
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The democratization of publishing

I love stories like this because the demonstrate the momentous changes that have been introduced by technology which has democratized publishing and not just opened the gates to everyone, but flat torn the gates down:

John Locke, 60, who publishes and promotes his own work, enjoys sales figures close to such literary luminaries as Stieg Larsson, James Patterson and Michael Connelly.

But unlike these heavyweights of the writing world, he has achieved it without the help of an agent or publicist – and with virtually no marketing budget.

Instead the DIY novelist has relied on word of mouth and a growing army of fans of his crime and western novellas that he has built up online thanks to a website and twitter account.

His remarkable achievement is being hailed as a milestone of the internet age and the beginning of a revolution in the way that books are sold.

His achievement is doubly impressive because of the way he accomplished this:

He saw that many successful authors were charging almost $10 (£6) for a book and decided that he would undercut them – selling his own efforts for 99 cents (60 pence).

"I’ve been in commission sales all my life, and when I learned Kindle and the other e-book platforms offered a royalty of 35 per cent on books priced at 99 cents, I couldn’t believe it," he said.

"To most people, 35 cents doesn’t sound like much. To me, it seemed like a license to print money.

"With the most famous authors in the world charging $9.95 for e-books, I saw an opportunity to compete, and so I put them in the position of having to prove their books were 10 times better than mine.

"Figuring that was a battle I could win, I decided right then and there to become the bestselling author in the world, a buck at a time."

Or, he figured that the opportunity of self-publishing allowed him the freedom to decide how much to charge and take advantage of the royalty being paid a lower price.  Obviously you have to have something worth selling, but he’s figured out that formula as well – what most of us would consider “pulp fiction” with mass appeal:

His books – which centre around characters such as Donovan Creed, a former CIA assassin "with a weakness for easy women" and Emmett Love, a former gunslinger – are unlikely to trouble the Booker Prize judges.

But nevertheless they are immensely popular among the new e-Book fraternity, selling a copy every seven seconds and making him only the eighth author in history to sell a million copies on Amazon’s Kindle – a milestone he passed this week.

Phenomenal.  Kudos to Locke … John Locke, that is.   Great name.

The gate no longer exists and that has to make publishers as nervous as the news media is anymore.  Anyone can publish just about anything and, unlike before, the market gets to decide what is or isn’t worth the money and reward – directly – those who manage to give it what it wants.

What’s not to like (our own Martin McPhillips may be able to give us a little insight into this phenomenon – and it will give him a chance to plug his book)?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Tax Internet Sales – “Fiscal Relief” For The States

Down economy? Tax revenues in the toilet? Don’t worry Bunky, government will always find a way to keep it’s revenue stream full:

The days of buying online to avoid paying sales taxes may soon be over.

A bill is expected to be introduced to Congress this week that would force retailers like eBay and Amazon.com to start collecting sales taxes on behalf of states from people who shop online or through mail order.

Of course if you know anything about government you also know this was inevitable. However, it is lines like the following which make my blood boil:

“This would be fiscal relief for the states that wouldn’t require any money from the federal government,” said Neal Osten, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is drafting the bill.

Osten pointed to a recent study that said state sales tax collections fell to their lowest levels in 50 years at the end of 2008.

My earnings are not there to be “fiscal relief” for profligate states who find themselves with budget shortfalls due to poor budgetary practices. Osten seems to think this is some sort of money tree he’s discovered. More importantly, he seems to view the money as rightfully the government’s, not that of the wage earner. And notice, it is a lobbying group with a vested interest in the outcome writing the legislation. What happened to that promise about “no lobbyists” the new administration made? Special interest democracy is alive and well.

Of course a recession is a great time to pass tax legislation like this – why not cool another segment of the economy by giving priority to government tax collections over spurring economic growth?

The more I observe these lunatics and consider their blinkered and ignorant view of the economic world, the less confidence I have that they’ll figure out that the way out of a recession is to cut taxes, not pass new ones.

~McQ


Amazon Kindle 2 Review

I am a reader.  I am, in fact, a serious reader.  For most of my life, this was a bit of a financial burden, and over time, an even greater physical burden, since I acquired a library of hundreds of books.  A couple of years ago, I was liberated from much of this by the acquisition of a Sony PRS-500 eBook Reader.  As of this last Tuesday afternoon, my Sony Reader had 400 books stored on it that I had acquired over the last three years.

On Tuesday night, my PRS-500 went Tango Uniform.

The Amazon Kindle 2

The Amazon Kindle 2

A dilemma immediately arose about how best to replace it.  With the Kindle 2 now out, I had the following choice.  Buy a new PRS-700 from Sony, or get a Kindle.  With the new PRS-700, I could transfer all my old books.  But I was stuck with Sony’s horrendously inconvenient book-buying process.  Or I could get a new Kindle 2, which was a bit cheaper, far easier to obtain books for, but would require a massively inconvenient re-acquisition or conversion of my old books to the Kindle.

I made my choice, and bought the Kindle.

It arrived on Thursday, and I have to say that it’s not only signifigacantly better than the Sony, it’s a fantastic book reader in its own right.

The Form Factor

The Kindle is a bit larger than the Sony due to the QWERTY keyboard in the lower portion of the machine.  It’s still small enough, though to be conveniently sized, and easy to handle.  It’s quite thin, and light.  In fact, the deluxe leather cover I purchased with it is almost as heavy as the Kindle itself.

The one downside to the device’s form factor is the QWERTY keyboard–but that’s pretty much an unavoidable downside.  The buttons are small, and set very close together.  This makes typing a bit slow a laborious.  Of course, it’s physically impossible to get a decent keyboard on a small device, so you know going in that typing isn’t going to be convenient.  It’s no different from a Blackberry or palm device.  The surprise isn’t that the keyboard doesn’t allow convenient typing, but rather that there’s a usable keyboard at all.  The Kindle’s keyboard is usable, and that is probably the best that anyone can reasonably expect.

That having been said, the buttons are designed in such a way as to minimize accidental pressing unless you intend to press them, which is a plus.

The controls are well-positioned on the device.  As you can see from the picture, there are six main navigation buttons along the sides.

Left Buttons Right Buttons
Previous Page Home
Next Page Next page
Menu
Back

In addition to the buttons, there is a joystick control placed between the menu and back buttons for navigating the cursor through the menus.

The nice thing about the design of the buttons is that the depress to the center of the device, not to the edge.  This does a great job of preventing you from inadvertantly changing pages, or going to the home screen by accident while you handle the device.  it’s a small, but very convenient detail.  It’s also nice that there are Next page buttons on both sides of the device.  This is the button you’re going to hit most often, after all, so they are conveniently accessible at all times, no matter how you hold the device.  That’s helped out by the fact that they are significantly larger than the other buttons.

Kindle 2 and Laptop for size comparison

Kindle 2 and Laptop for size comparison

The image to the right gives a good real-world size comparison.  As you can see, the Kindle is conveniently small.

One final note on the form factor.  With the keyboard on the bottom, the screen is raised to the top of the device.  This means that when you read in bed, you can rest the bottom of the device on the covers, and the whole screen is visible.  On my Sony, the covers would obscure the bottom of the screen.  Since I read before sleeping every night, this is a noticeable improvement.

The E-Ink Screen

I was a fan of the eInk technology on the Sony, but there were a few drawbacks.  The contrast beteen the gray background and black text could have been better.  The refresh rate of the screen was also noticeably–sometimes distractingly–slow.  With only 4 grayscale colors, book covers and other images were nearly illegible.

That was a first-generation eInk screen, of course, and with the Kindle 2, there have been obvious improvements to the technology.  The gray background is a bit lighter, increasing the contrast.  The page refresh rate is also much, much faster, which makes “turning” the pages far less noticeable.  It certainly takes less time than turning a page in a physical book.

The biggest improvement is in the fact that the screen displays 16 grayscale colors now.  This makes the pictures far more legible and photograph-like.  In fact, every time you turn the Kindle off, a picture of a some author or literary scene is displayed, and they all look good on the screen.

Device Features

The most convenient of the feastures has to be the different font sizes.  The Kindle not only uses a pleasant and easy to read serif font, it offers a choice of 6 different font sizes.  There’s enough variation in font size to make easy reading for practically anyone.

Navigating through the device is very easy.  No matter where you are, you can get to the main menu screen by pushing the Home key.  The back key gets you out of any menus or secondary screens with one click.

Having to navigate through menus with the joystick control is slightly inconvenient compared to the Sony, however.  The Sony provides ten physical buttons that correspond to the menu items, so instead of navigating, you simply push the appropriate button.  On the Kindle, you have to nudge the joystick to move from item to item.

The menu system is faily intuitive, providing you with slightly different menus, depending on what screen you’re looking at on the device.  At all times, you are presented with menus that are relevant to what you’re doing with the device at the time.

If you find you’re doing something where you can’t actually read your book, the Kindle offers a voice-to-text feature that is surprisingly good.  You get the choice between a male or female voice, and can vary the speed at which the voice reads between three different settings.  The voice is obviously computer-generated, but it sounds closer to a human voice than any device I’ve previously worked with.  It still has trouble pronouncing certain words, but for listening while you drive–or ride your motorcycle–it’s a pretty neat feature.  It’s also neat that the Kindle has a built-in speaker, as well as a 3.5mm mini jack for headphones.

In addition, the Kindle will also play MP3 files.

Unfortunately, some publishers threatened to sue Amazon, saying that the voice to text feature was a copyright violation–which it clearly is not.  Amazon, however, rather than getting involved in a legal battle, allows publishers to disable the text to speech feature, so not every book will be hearable.

The Kindle does not take any external storage media, like an SD card.  It does, however, come with 2GB of onboard memory.  That’s enough memory to store about 1500 books, which seems like more than enough to get by.  Any book you buy at Amazon is perpetually available for download, too so, you can always swap out books if you find that 1,500 books isn’t enough.

Going Online

QandO on the Kindle

QandO on the Kindle

The Kindle contains an EVDO modem that operates off the Sprint 3G network.  When you buy a book from the Amazon store, the book is delivered directly to the device via the network.  In addition, the Kindle is assigned an email address, so you can take your text or RTF documents, and email them to that address, and Amazon will, for ten cents, convert the document to the Kindle format, and deliver it straight to the device as well.

eBook prices at the Amazon store are surprisingly good.  The cost of an eBook is significantly less than the paper versions.  I was able to buy Amity Schlaes’ newest book, The Forgotten Man, for $9.57, as opposed to the $25 hardback price.  In addition to that, I was able to pick up modern translations of some classics, such as Livy’s History of Rome, the collected works of Tacitus in one eBook, Xenophon’s Anabasis, The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Julius Ceasar’s Commentaries on the Wars, and The Histories of Herodotus for about $3.50 each.

In addition to wireless book delivery from the Amazon store, you can also transfer books from your computer to the device via the included USB cable. So, if you don’t want to shell out the dime for wireless delivery to your device when you convert a document, you can have Amazon convert the document and send it to your email address for free, then use the USB cable to transfer it to the device.

I buy a lot of sci-fi at the Baen Books Webscriptions web site, which offers books in the Kindle format.  In addition, nearly all of the books from the Gutenberg Project, as well as many other titles, are all available for free in several eBook formats, including the Kindle, from ManyBooks.  Having the USB connection allows the Kindle to be seen as a hard drive on your computer, and you can transfer those eBooks from your computer to the Kindle.

In addition to going online at Amazon, the Kindle is also a web browser, and you can simply go to a web site and read it.  I’m not sure if this is going to be a permanent feature of the Kindle, because I’m sure Sprint wants money for the use of its EVDO network, so this may or may not be a feature that goes away.  On the other hand, it’s a pretty pretty primitive browser.  It takes forever for a web page to load, and you have to use the joystick to navigate from link to link.  It’s not very convenient, so I can’t see someone wanting to use it on a regular basis.

You can, by the way, turn the wireless on and off as necessary, for lots of battery life extension.

Conclusion

I have been extremely impressed by the Kindle.  The speed at which it works, the ease of obtaining books, and the though that has gone into its design make this a definite winner in my book. (Pun.  Deal with it.)  It has been a pleasure to use for the last couple of days, and from my experience, it is vastly superior to the Sony Reader in nearly every way.  It’s been an absolute joy to use.  Now, all I need is a new Palm Pre, and I’ll be set.

My only problem with it has been how easy and seductive it is to get new books for it.  I just purchased Winston Churchill’s 6-volume memoir of World War II for $36.69.  Clearly, I’m going to have to figure out how to reign those impulse purchases in.

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