Nicolas Cage Gets It Half Right

Nicolas Cage recently did a webchat over at Empire Online. He takes fan questions and talks about his movies and approach toward acting. Too much fun. Moviefone picks up on it, too, under the headline, “Ridiculous Quotes From the Oscar-Winning Actor.” Dunno. That last one looks a little like link-bait to me.

First things first. There is no mention of “The Frozen Ground,” the movie based on the Robert Hansen story, which was first chronicled in “Butcher, Baker.” Or Cage’s role in that movie, as Glenn-Flothe-cum-Jack-Halcombe.

No surprise there. It’s still too early for promotional appearances for that film, which is currently in post-production. But there is one juicy quote, at least from my perspective, because it provides possible insight into the evolution of Cage’s Alaska State Trooper character in The Frozen Ground.

The Quote

The way I can realise my film acting dreams of abstract expression is by finding characters that are flawed in some way that will provide a context where that expression still works: for example, Ghost Rider is a demon, a fallen angel. Blaze feels the pain of the transformation.

That pain provides a context where I can be very abstract in my vocalisation and my movements. Bad Lieutenant, I play a cop who’s high on drugs. Those drugs are why he can be so extreme in the portrayal. These ideas are not always popular with critics, but there is a school of thought that says if you piss the critics off, you’re probably doing something right – and all of my heroes, whether it be in music or painting or cinema, have pissed the critics off.

Maybe that explains why Cage ditched the real-life Sgt. Glenn Flothe character. I know Glenn Flothe and, while he’s flawed, I don’t think he’s flawed enough to serve as a model for Nicolas Cage. Flothe is relentlessly nice. Cage’s favorite characters, not so much.

The Odds and the Ends

Apple has more than 200 million iTunes accounts. Amazon doesn’t publish its account numbers, but according to Matt Shatz, former VP of Digital for Random House, a reasonable guess is over 100 million. Here’s why that’s important:

With those 100 million billing and messaging relationships, Apple and Amazon would only need to achieve a reasonable 1 percent conversion rate to help an author sell 1 million books, a level few authors today reach.

Actually, Matt, with Apple it only takes 0.5 percent. Hey, I’m not quibbling. But the question remains: what about traditional publishers? Shatz is less optimistic that large publishers will successfully transition to the digital world in ways that rival what Amazon and Apple are doing.

Publishers have been taking steps in this direction by shifting their ad spending to online, and having staff get up to speed on Facebook and Twitter as promotional outlets. But for the most part, this effort has been limited to a few relatively junior people working on a campaign-by-campaign basis and trying small-scale experiments.

In short, I don’t think publishers will figure all this out in time, which is why retailers will dominate the customer relationships in the future.

Ok. But let’s remember that we’re still in the early days. And that Amazon and Apple are still in the experimental stages, too. Jeff Belle, VP of Amazon Publishing, has this to say in a January 30 Businessweek cover story on Amazon:

“What we’re building is more like an in-house laboratory where authors and editors and marketers can test new ideas. Success to us means working with authors who want to find new ways to connect with more readers.”

So it’s a lab project? Well, I’m with Shatz here, but Belle’s words don’t exactly ring out like the words of the revolution, do they? Maybe he’s just being cautious. After all, even Nancy Pearl is taking heat for her recent Amazon deal. Says Pearl, “I suspected people would not be happy with this. But I didn’t expect the vitriol.”

I don’t understand it either.

Bloomberg Businessweek -- Amazon cover story
Photo: Bloomberg Businessweek

eBook Reality vs. Optimism

I am on record as someone who believes the eBook will ultimately rule the waves — until the next “big thing” comes along. Sometimes it’s nice to get a little slap of reality.

A recent study by Bowker and the Book Industry Study Group shows that last year’s eBook growth was, as Laura Hazard Owen points out on mocoNews, “Incremental, Not Exponential.”

  • “The number of book buyers who also purchased an e-book increased by 17 percent in 2011, compared to 9 percent in 2010 – well below the 25 to 30 percent growth that some had hoped for.”
  • “Seventy-four percent of book buyers have never bought an e-book (and 14 percent of those actually own an e-reader or tablet but choose not to use it to read e-books.”

If there is cause for optimism, though, it’s in these two numbers:

  • “E-books now make up 26 percent of adult fiction purchases, compared to 11 percent of children’s book purchases and 3 percent of cookbook purchases.”
  • “Meanwhile, e-book power buyers make up 35 percent of the overall e-book buying population, but they drive 60 percent of overall e-book purchases. In other words, about a third of the overall buyers drive two-thirds of overall purchases.”

The latter figure compares to print power buyers, who make up 22 percent of the overall print book-buying population, and drive 53 percent of print book purchases overall. So there’s some room there for non-power buyers to make a larger overall contribution to eBook sales.

Oh, and the other cause for optimism?

Recent analysis from the esteemed Horace Dediu shows that if the iPad were its own company, it “would be the largest PC vendor.” Dediu adds that the iPad “competes for time and purchase decisions across all computing alternatives and though many times it’s additive, it is also substitutive and will become increasingly so.”

Horace Dediu: Units Shipped (iPad Included)

Although analysts keep saying so, and it remains more promise than reality, I think that other companies will eventually add to the tablet market in ways they haven’t heretofore. Microsoft’s Windows 8 tablets (which they insist on calling slates; they’ll get over it), should be a credible entry in this category, for example.

The takeaway here is that the PC will increasingly look like a tablet. Everything else will look like a truck. As the tablet becomes more ubiquitous, book purchases should follow; hey, you can carry a library on a single device and you can read almost anywhere (not recommended for the bath, but you can take them to bed).

Yeah, ok… Still a long ways to go… One shouldn’t forget those seventy-four percent of book buyers who’ve never purchased an eBook. Or the format and distribution battles that don’t seem likely to end soon. But doesn’t that mean there’s plenty of upside? Doesn’t it?

Todd Communications (Redux)

[EDITOR’S NOTE]

This post comes from a difficult time. There were many misunderstandings, none of which were helped by the geographic distances between all the parties involved. Anchorage – New York – Seattle isn’t always the best route to anything.

The good news is that everything was resolved quite to the satisfaction of all parties. Please see Getting to Go for the latest update.

[Ed. note: Flip Todd’s a great guy, actually. You just have to get to know him, as I had the chance to in November 2013.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is now January 25, 2012. The October 2011 edition of “Butcher, Baker,” by Todd Communications, is still on offer on Amazon. Previous reporting indicated Todd was responding to our request to cease & desist.

Butcher, Baker: Todd Communications edition at Amazon

I have since learned, however, that Amazon has a copyright infringement reporting policy in place.

Amazon Copyright Violations

Hmmmmmm…

[Ed. Note: The books on offer from Amazon are all from wholesalers who purchased the book from the publisher, Todd Communications. The publisher no longer controls sales once the wholesaler makes the purchase.]

eBook Chemotherapy

Amazon recently announced KF8, which adds HTML5 interactivity to ebooks sold on the Kindle Fire (and later other Kindles). In a counterpunch, Apple recently announced the Apple iBooks format (.iba), which adds new levels of interactivity to ebooks produced for Apple’s iBookstore.

It’s not like they’ve abandoned their previous formats, however. They’ve simply added new ones. New ones that are… somewhat proprietary. I say somewhat, because the epub format is at the core of both. I can start with an epub formatted ebook, for example, and use KF8 to generate an Amazon-valid eBook in the .mobi format. An unzipped Apple iBook Author document (.iba) looks like this, with an epub sitting in the middle of the thing, big as life.

[Hint: to get this result, one must Export from iBooks Author, then change the .ibooks extension to .epub. From there, you can unzip the file.]

iBooks Author unzipped package file

There’s been a bit of back and forth between Daniel Glazman, co-chair of the W3C CSS Working Group, and John Gruber, of Daring Fireball, as to whether the new Apple format is a helpful development. (I hope they get to Amazon’s KF8, as well. Because, as I said elsewhere, this is a salvo in the eBook Store battle between Amazon and Apple.)

I think both writers have valid points. As Gruber notes, Apple has created a tool that adds considerable value to its own platform. The output, to say the least, is not only gorgeous but truly interactive. It takes eBooks to the next level. And iBooks Author is Apple-easy to use, of course. But there is one point that Glazman makes about the iBooks Author format that sticks the hardest:

[T]his is a bad strategy because publishers are fed up with formats. For one book, they have too many formats to export to. For each format, they have to use tools to convert (usually from MS Word) that are incomplete and all require manual reformatting or validation. Adding an extra format that is almost EPUB3 but is definitely not EPUB3 output by a software that is an isolated island and does not offer any extra help to reduce the publishing burden is representing a huge extra investment…

Yes, of course this format proliferation isn’t Apple’s fault per se. And, yes, Amazon is doing the same thing (neener, neener, children on a playground, anyone?). But a quick perusal of the Wiki page on eBook formats reveals… 17 different versions, twelve of which are still active. No, wait… Add KF8 and IBA and that makes fourteen… This is definitely the “worse” part of the format war. You will have to create multiple versions of your eBook if you want to sell everywhere.

And remember, too, that Apple considers the Multi-Touch books created by iBook Author as separate entities, requiring an additional contract (Source: iBookstore: Publisher User Guide 2.0, January 19, 2012). So even Apple acknowledges there’s extra work here.

The “better” part? Standards are definitely starting to coalesce around the epub format. The Kindle Fire, for example, is said to support epub as well as mobi. Indeed, epub is the most widely supported “vendor-independent XML-based e-book format,” with a wide variety of platforms supported, from iOS, to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, to the Sony Reader, to a bunch of others.

Overall, though, I would say this is like chemotherapy. It’s supposed to make things better, but right now it really feels bad.

iBooks Author: First Look

Apple yesterday introduced a new eBook creation app, appropriately called iBooks Author. I say appropriately named because, if you charge a fee for the eBook so created, you can only sell it on Apple’s iBookstore. In other words, iBooks Author is not, nor is it intended to be, a general purpose eBook creation tool.

iBooks Author license

After a quick tryout and eBook creation exercise, I also conclude that the tool is definitely scoped for textbooks, NOT general purpose eBooks like trade or mass market fiction.

This has much to do with the constraints of the templates, which impose a structure that a straightforward eBook can do without. A Chapter and Section layout is pretty much required. This fits well with textbooks, not so well with other types of content. And, in its current iteration, iBooks Author offers no flexibility here.

Chapter and Section Layout Grid

iBooks Author layout choices

For example, take a look at the two template choosers below. The first is from iBooks Author; the second is from Pages (which, by the way, seems to have served as the code base for iBooks Author). Pages has, well, a ton of templates; iBook Author has six. That’s not intended as a knock; rather, it’s offered as proof of the latter’s limited flexibility.

iBooks Author Template
Six templates. That’s it. Six beautiful templates, though.

iBooks Author templates

Pages Template
Multiple templates. Including the highly flexible “Blank Canvas.”

Pages template

Push Pop Press Lives

After downloading the free E.O. Wilson Life on Earth textbook, created with iBooks Author, I can see where Apple is headed. The Wilson textbook is cut from the same cloth as the Al Gore Our Choice opus, available exclusively on Apple’s iBookstore. They share a very similar navigation, structural and interaction model. I wonder if Apple hired some of the Push Pop Press devs responsible for the Al Gore work. If so, Facebook got the company but Apple got the better deal.

Bottom Line

This leads me to my conclusion: iBooks Author is but the latest installment in the battle between Apple and Amazon over the future of eBooks. Both are moving toward HTML5, albeit in proprietary or otherwise restricted ways. Amazon is offering publishing deals to lock in authors to exclusive contracts. Apple is using its (so far superior) toolset to the same end.

This is not a case where I feel comfortable saying “let the best bookstore win.” Of course, I recognize that the traditional publishing model is also based on exclusivity. But both Amazon and Apple blur the lines between publishers and distributors. It’s difficult at the moment to see how the “best of both worlds” can emerge in this model. Too many walled gardens, I fear.

Other Views

The End of Print?

Long-term there’s no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only. 95% of people will read digitally. Everybody in publishing knows this but most are in denial about it because moving to becoming a digital company means laying off like 40% of our staffs. And the barriers to entry fall, too. We simply don’t want to think about it.

The above quote is from an anonymous publisher, who unburdened herself to writer Sarah Lacey. Sobering words. And at the heart of it is the observation that, unlike traditional print publishers, Amazon does think about the digital transition. A lot.

We’ve written about it before. Skirmishes over publication rights as they relate to Amazon’s eBook lending library. Legal battles over eBook pricing. Accusations of collusion between Apple and the Big Six publishers. In all of this, Amazon is either in the middle of it or standing close by.

As our anonymous publisher notes, the battle lines are primarily being drawn at eBook pricing — and author advances.

When ebooks started, we were pricing ebooks at the same price as the print book, and Amazon was selling them all for $9.99. So they were losing like $3-$4 per book. And they weren’t doing it simply to move Kindles, since they don’t actually make any money on the Kindle unit sales… I think they actually intend to keep print books at their current prices, and they want ebooks to be even cheaper. What they’re actually targeting is the publishers’ margin.

As many authors realize, it’s a select few celebrity writers who keep the lights on. They are the publishers’ margin, since they rake in big bucks and essentially subsidize everyone else. According to anonymous, Amazon is targeting these authors; we’ve said that ourselves. As tribute to how serious they are, they’ve signed Larry Kirshbaum to run their publishing arm. “He’s a savvy vet with 30+ years of publishing experience–and they have some editors, too. And they’ve been paying a ton of money for books.”

Well, not for all books. Let’s stay with the celebrity writer here. Amazon is paying lots of money for those books. Prices that few publishers can afford. Millions instead of six figures. Anonymous: “We can’t pay $1 million for books anymore. Amazon could probably afford to lose $20 million/year in their publishing arm just to put the other publishers out of business.”

I’m with Sarah Lacey when she says she doesn’t feel sorry for the publishing industry. But I am not fond of living in a one-company town either. Some commentators, notably John Gruber, are looking at Apple as the savior on a white horse.

Says Gruber: Apple’s opportunity with books is that there’s already a dominant money-winning bully at the table: Amazon.

The problem with that horse is it is now saddled with lots of legal baggage. Specifically, the U.S. DoJ, the European Commission and a host of states are all investigating possible collusion in eBook pricing. Apple is at the center of that investigation, along with the Big Six publishers; some people in legal circles think they’re the bully.

What to do? Lacey suggests a new publishing model will arise out of the ashes of the old. I suspect that Apple will be part of that, as their iBooks Author and textbook initiatives suggest. Building a better toolset will make it stupid-easy for authors to get onto Apple’s iBookstore; on that front, Amazon is still in the dark ages.

But the onus is still on the Big Six. Or, more precisely, their disaffected executives. Oh wait. I’ve said that before, too. It bears repeating.

The best strategy at the moment is for publishers to get their own houses in order, so they can take advantage of emerging opportunities. That means aggressively embracing new technologies and alternative distribution mechanisms. And building alliances that spread, not concentrate, opportunity.

Pub Options & Tools

I just finished the first draft of a new book. More on that later… For now I want to concentrate on “next steps.” By which I mean the publishing process.

I have a literary agent so that’s taken care of. But, of course, the entire “digital vs. analog” question is before me. As I’ve said elsewhere, all options are in play; I prefer reach, which means both print and all (most?) eBook formats will be supported. That said, a recent piece on “the rise and fall of personal computing” by Horace Dediu caught my attention:

Horace Dediu the rise and fall of personal computing

The above graph essentially shows mobile platforms overtaking the PC. That has strong implications on how we access information going forward. We know, for example, that mobile platforms are ideal for media consumption. We also know that eBooks are the growth component in the publishing industry. That, along with speculation that Apple is coming out with a much-anticipated ebook creation app AND Amazon’s new-found commitment to HTML5, tells me one thing:

The real action is in the ebook space. And given the trend lines, that is not about to change anytime soon.

Which, naturally, makes me wonder what Apple’s new app will do to my creative workflow. Right now, I use Microsoft Word for book creation. It’s an old stand-by in the publishing industry and it’s got industrial-strength features. But it does virtually nothing for the creation of eBooks. And that, my friends, is a problem.

What if Apple brings out another tool that makes for a seamless transition between publishing and eBook formats? What if that same tool offers lots of features that support eBook interactivity? Oh, oh… Danger straight ahead…

That Pesky DNA

In these pages, we’ve written about the impacts of faulty memory on criminal cases. We’ve talked about faulty lie-detectors and faulty software used to find lies in “emotional speech.” We have also written about false confessions. We’ve even written about unexpected reactions to violent situations, reactions that, as it turns out, do not fit the TV prescription for guilt or innocence.

Since these behaviors are often fundamental to the arrest and conviction of criminals, they are essential to any consideration of the criminal justice system. When they go wrong, justice is thwarted.

That’s where DNA comes in. It wasn’t that long ago that DNA testing was introduced into criminal proceedings (and I recall my co-author asking at the time what cops could do to challenge it). Now, some twenty plus years later, it is “taken for granted” as a scientific way to show the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime.

As the Innocence Project reports, since 1989 there have been 281 post-conviction exonerations in the U.S. In 45% of those cases, the DNA identified the true suspects or perpetrators. According to the Innocence Project, moreover, we find that:

About 80 percent of wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA testing were single perpetrator crimes. About 75 percent of the single perpetrator crimes involved eyewitness misidentifications (60 percent of the total), and about 75 percent of them were non-homicide cases. In about half of the single perpetrator cases, the real perpetrator has been identified.

Sounds pretty much like a slam dunk. Find the DNA and let somebody wrongly accused go free. Turns out it’s much more complicated. You knew that, right?

Let’s consider the case of Michael Morton, who served 25 years in Texas prison for his wife Christine’s murder. Morton has consistently maintained his innocence, saying his wife was murdered by a third-party intruder. He said that DNA testing would prove it.

For more than six years, the Innocence Project has been seeking access to DNA testing on a stained bandana that was found on an abandoned construction site approximately 100 yards from the crime scene… On June 20, 2011, a testing laboratory issued a report finding that the bandana contained the DNA of a man other than Michael, along with Christine’s blood and hair. The male DNA was put though the national DNA database and has been linked to a convicted offender.

Why did it take so long? Texas District Attorney John Bradley blocked the introduction of DNA evidence. Worse, it now appears that other evidence was suppressed. Exculpatory evidence that pointed toward a third-party intruder. It seems that the prosecution had already made up its mind that Michael Morton had beaten his wife to death because she refused to have sex with him on his 32nd birthday.

Ok, not as bad as the “witch” accusations and “sex-starved-she-devil” tag that Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini put on Amanda Knox, but… That pesky DNA turned up there, too, didn’t it?

More interesting to this crime writer, though, is what such old, old, old evidence does to the prosecution of the criminal case. As Brandi Grissom, writing for The Texas Tribune, notes in her spot-on coverage of the Morton case, “Key witnesses may have moved or died, documents could have disappeared, and evidence-collection standards are now much stricter.”

The new defendant’s lawyer, Russell Hunt, Jr. — who has the task of defending his client against a 25-year-old crime — concurs, saying: “People change over time. People’s memories change over time… Physical evidence gets moved. Physical evidence is stored in different ways.”

It won’t be a slam dunk. But it should have been. Should have been, except for cops and prosecutors making up their minds and putting blinders on to prevent any doubt from creeping in. Stop it, already.