Monthly Archives: May 2010

Wardrobe Malfunctions Plague BEA

You know the cliché that goes “If they can put men on the moon they should be able to (fill in the blank)?  Well, I have one for you. If they can put men on the moon they should be able to make a conference name tag that works.  But if wardrobe malfunctions at the recent Book Expo America are any indication, we are as far from producing a sensible name tag as we are from establishing a colony on Neptune.

The book conference’s name tags, suspended around the neck by a lanyard, were certainly large enough – about 4 inches square – and the typeface a highly legible 18-point sans serif bold.  The problem was that the tags tended to twist on their lanyards, displaying their blank reverse sides and forcing the viewer to resort to a variety of unsatisfying strategies to identify the wearer.  Such as…

  • hoping an errant breeze will spin the tag back to obverse
  • hoping a third party will address the person by name
  • presenting your card and praying the presentation will be reciprocated
  • asking the person’s name and learning that he or she is the CEO of a major publisher
  • asking the person’s name and learning he or she is someone you recently dined with…or slept with

The solution is obvious: print names on both sides of the tag.  But it’s clearly more obvious to me than to the Expo’s planners and it’s not a laughing matter. In this age of social networking, the failure to know whom you’re talking to is not just embarrassing, it could mean lost business.

But I’m not through.

Lanyards are poor devices for displaying identification. Name tags depending from them hang down to the nether regions, requiring one to gaze awkwardly at the bearer’s belly. Short of pretending to tie one’s shoelaces to effect a surreptitious glance at the name tag, it means another business opportunity missed.

It does not require an advanced engineering degree to perceive that the best location for name tags is the chest, but even that solution is fraught with issues.  Many people like to show off their attire and resent having their fashion statements compromised by a name tag. Some of us worry that the tags’ pins will leave unsightly and irreparable holes in dresses, blouses or jackets.

That problem led to the creation of paper “Hello My Name Is” tags with peel-off backings, which are great unless the adhesive is so strong that it leaves a rectangular patch on one’s clothing, or so weak as to cause the tag to curl up or simply fall to the floor.  It can be jolly fun to attend a conference and count the number of paper name tags adhering to attendees’ shoes. I once observed a significant publishing executive walking about with someone else’s name tag stuck to his behind like a Kick Me sign.

But I’m still not through.

If you attend a party or conference that uses paper name tags you owe it to fellow attendees to print largely and neatly.  All too many people write their names in tiny script or illegible scribbles, forcing  one to gape boorishly at a woman’s embonpoint when he’s simply trying to get a good gander at her name. Honestly, lady, I’m not staring at your bosom. I’m just trying to read your damn name tag.

And talking of boors, are there any more pretentious than those who feel they’re so notable they do not need to wear a name tag at all?

So yes, if they can send men to the moon, can they not produce a sensible name tag? I hope so, and maybe they could have it ready for next year’s BEA?

(Hello. My Name Is) Richard Curtis


Physics Library? Turn Left at the First Higgs Boson

Stanford University is about to take its physics, engineering and computer science library virtual.  Calling it a “bookless” library, the learning center will pack away its paper and replace it with digital information.

“Stanford is running out of room, restricted by an agreement with Santa Clara County that limits how much it can grow,” writes Lisa M. Krieger in Mercury “Increasingly, the university seeks to preserve precious square footage. Adding to its pressures is the steady flow of books. Stanford buys 100,000 volumes a year — or 273 every day.”

Other colleges have similar problems, but Stanford is taking the most aggressive measures to solve them.  Replacing the paper library will be a state of the art study center. “It is only half the size of the current Engineering Library,” writes Krieger, “but saves its space for people, not things. It features soft seating, ‘brainstorm islands,’ a digital bulletin board and group event space. There are few shelves and it will feature a self-checkout system. It is developing a completely electronic reference desk, and there will be four Kindle 2 e-readers on site. Its online journal search tool, called xSearch, can scan 28 online databases, a grant directory and more than 12,000 scientific journals.”

Not everyone is tickled pink. The Physics Librarian, not surprisingly, has mixed feelings.  “When I look back, then there is a certain sadness for me. Any change is hard. And there are moments of joy, when I see bookplates of former faculty who owned and donated the book, and sometimes made notes on the side,” said the librarian, Stella Ota. Imagine her emotions as she triages such Nobel Prize winning physicists as Douglas Osheroff, Robert Laughlin and Steven Chu, current director of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Details in Stanford University prepares for ‘bookless library’

Richard Curtis


Michelle Obama Trumps Angelina Jolie in Search Engine Headline Sweepstakes

The headline of this posting is a shameless trick to drive eyeballs to our website.  We were inspired to use this ploy by David Carr, whose New York Times article Taylor Momsen Did Not Write This Headline focused on how headlines are designed “to get the search engines to notice.”

“Headlines in newspapers and magazines were once written with readers in mind, to be clever or catchy or evocative,” says Carr. “Now headlines are just there to get the search engines to notice. In that context, ‘Jon Stewart Slams Glenn Beck‘ is the beau ideal of great headline writing. And both Twitter and Facebook have become republishers, with readers on the hunt for links with nice, tidy headlines crammed full of hot names to share with their respective audiences.”

We’ll check the metrics on this particular blog to see if they spike.  If they do we’ll know it wasn’t because of our brilliant content (you’ll search in vain for any here). It will all be due to a coldblooded effort to manipulate of our search engines. Read Taylor Momsen Did Not Write This Headline and you may never look at a headline the same way again.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.


Students Give E-Textbooks Failing Grade

In 2009 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an initiative to replace printed textbooks with digital versions.  His motives were purely financial, and who could blame him? His state’s economy was in the toilet, and it still is. But before going all in on e-textbooks The Terminator wanted to get some feedback from end users.

He’s getting it in spades but it’s not what he wants to hear. Students around the nation are flunking the format. They want their paper books back. It seems that e-readers are okay for reading, but textbooks are seldom read immersively like novels, and so far the e-books can’t match the functionality of good old paper. And even when it comes to reading for pleasure, gadgets like the Kindle DX tablet did not fetch high grades.

The first school to check in was the University of Wisconsin after experimenting with the DX for a history course.  As we reported last January, “Many said in response to questions of the baseline survey that they preferred printed books for sustained and serious reading…Within a few weeks after the start of the [first] class several students had opted to buy paper copies of the books for some of the readings…They immediately perceived the cumbersome note-taking features and the lack of reliable pagination… The experimental project has uncovered faults so fundamental that this particular device will never be deployed for mass use by UW–Madison students.” (See Not So Fast, Guv! Wisconsin Students Not Ready to Terminate Paper Books.)

Results are now coming in on the DX from such schools as University of Washington, University of Virginia, Princeton and Reed College, a small campus in Oregon.  Typical were these observations by some students who “complained they couldn’t scribble notes in the margins, easily highlight passages or fully appreciate color charts and graphics,” writes Seattle Times business reporter Amy Martinez. One graduate student commented that “You don’t read textbooks in the same linear way as a novel. You have to flip back and forth between pages, and the Kindle is too slow for that. Also, the bookmarking function is buggy.”

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps was less generous. She simply declared the DX “a dud.”

Here’s one anecdote reported by Martinez:

“Wary of lugging a backpack full of textbooks on the University of Washington campus, Franzi Roesner couldn’t wait to get her hands on a new, lightweight e-reader from Soon after receiving a Kindle DX, however, something unexpected happened. Roesner began to miss thumbing through the pages of a printed textbook for the answer to a homework question. She felt relieved several months later when required reading for one of her classes was unavailable on the Kindle, freeing her to use a regular textbook.”

Educators are more sanguine about Apple’s iPad, but it may just be that it’s the screen medium itself, not the device, that turns students off.

Martinez’s coverage of the story can be read here.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the Seattle Times.


Penguin and Amazon Friend Each Other

According to top Penguin executives, writes Wall Street Journal‘s Jeffrey Trachtenberg, the company has reached a detente with Amazon to conclude a price war that lasted about a month. The behemoth retailer, responding negatively to the agreement Penguin reached with competitor Apple, had turned off the Buy buttons on Penguin titles. The dispute centers on the fact that Apple’s business model is vastly different from Amazon’s, putting the latter at a competitive disadvantage. (For background, read Are We Capitulated Yet? Amazon Turns its Guns on Penguin.)

As part of the settlement, writes Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader, Amazon “presumably” will switch to the same model as Apple, but if experience is any guide, in all likelihood that will result in higher e-book prices that may dampen customer enthusiasm. Penguin presumably understands that and is willing to trade curtailed sales for greater control over the way its books are sold through third parties.



Quaint Brits Cling to Paper

It’s an accepted truth that in matters digital the British are a backwards people.  Their Internet competency trails that of Americans by a decade. With each instance of their technological quaintness we shake our heads and smile indulgently.

A recent poll confirms the archaic mentality of our cousins on the other side of the Big Pond. “Nearly three-quarters of Britons say that they will never totally migrate to a digital-only film or music subscription service,” reports Emma Barnett, Technology and Digital Media Correspondent for  And “Seventy-three per cent of the Britons polled in a survey of over 1,000 consumers aged between 16 and 60 said that they could never see a time when they would move over to a 100 per cent digital-only music or film subscription model.” Another example of their antediluvian mindset: Given a choice, 75% of those polled would rather boot up a DVD than watch a streamed movie.

Most egregious of all is that 95% of those responding to the poll said that they prefer paper books over e-books.  Well, that tears it! If there is a more benighted race on the face of 21st century Earth we don’t know about it.

We must try to understand the values underlying this British perversity if for no other reason than they might yield some sociological benefits.  But more importantly, once we understand them it will be easier to convert the British to modern American values and expand the export market for our Nooks, Kindles and iPads.  So, the question is, do the British know something about paper that we don’t know?

A clue may be gleaned in an observation imparted to the Telegraph reporter by Shaun Hobbs, Home Server manager for HP Personal Systems Group UK and Ireland: “In this technologically driven age,” says Hobbs, “it is easy to get carried away and think that everybody is embracing digital and leaving physical behind. Our survey shows that this isn’t the case. Britons are on an evolutionary journey with media still being bought on multiple formats and enjoyed using a variety of devices. We’re not yet ready to give up the old ways of purchasing media.”

In the spirit of openmindedness we’ll grant that there might be some value in the old media. Perhaps Hobbs has been following the research of social scientists like Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, who wrote that “people read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent… Distractions abound online — costing time and interfering with the concentration needed to think about what you read.”

Or maybe Hobbs had delved into observations by Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, about the possibly negative impact of screen reading on children:  “No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain… My greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).”

Or Hobbs might have read a comment by Professor Gloria Mark, a University of California professor who studies human-computer interaction: “I’d much rather curl up in an easy chair with a paper book. It’s not only an escape into a world of literature but it’s an escape from my digital devices.”

Okay, we’re ready to concede  that digital books may be less immersive than printed ones, that they are far more distracting, that they may compromise reading speed, concentration and retentiveness in children, and that they are less beautiful, tactile and comfortable than paper.   But surely those drawbacks are not too high a price to pay for opening the lucrative British market to Yankee reading devices and an American way of life that is unquestionably the quintessence of civilization. American manufacturers simply must work harder to bring truth and e-books to this primordial, childlike society.

Richard Curtis


What Does a Man have to Read to Get on the Hot Guys Reading Books Website?

Aha! That explains why that girl on the #6 subway train was surreptitiously photographing me.  She was going to submit my picture to the Hot Guys Reading Books website. I’m not sure the cover of my book got into the picture, so whoever you are, FYI I was reading Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant.  So – does that qualify me for your gallery of sensitive but hunky book lovers?

I’ll be looking for my picture on the Hot Guys Reading Books website. This is from their “about” box:

“There are plenty of attractive men in the world, but unfortunately few of them that are avid readers. Welcome to ‘Hot Guys Reading Books’ the blog that scours the internet for examples of luscious literary men and gathers the evidence in one place.”

So, all you hot guys out there, next time you go out, make sure you wrap your copy of Girls Gone Wild in the jacket of a dense and incomprehensibly profound work of physics or philosophy.  You never know when a candid camerawoman will be secretly capturing your image for the Hot Guys Reading Books website.

Richard (my left profile is the better one) Curtis


Books Aren’t the Only Medium Being Windowed

“What might at first seem an arcane matter — precisely when to put a movie for sale on cable systems and at what price — has been the subject of ferocious debate in a film industry that so far has stopped just short of embracing the digital revolution.”

Does that sound familiar to you? Denizens of the publishing industry will recognize the answer instantly: It’s about “windowing” movies.

While the book industry debates the timing of e-book releases of print books, movie companies are trying to figure out the best timing for cable release of theatrical motion pictures. A big difference between the two industries, however, is that the movie business now has US government “permission to activate technology to protect new releases from being copied if they were sold through video-on-demand systems before being issued on DVD.” This according to Michael Cieply of the New York Times.

Cieply writes that the Federal Communications Commission okayed technology called ‘selectable output control’ that “can reach into a customer’s home video player and turn off its video outputs while a pay-per-view program is being watched, to prevent the program from being copied.”

The technology reflects the ire of movie theater owners “who have been fiercely protective of the exclusive period during which they have customarily served up the major studio pictures,” the Times article explains.

You can easily replace the players in this story with “Publishers”, “Authors”, ” E-Books” and “E-book Retailers.  The difference is, the book industry doesn’t have “selectable output control” to regulate windowing – bookbiz-ese for withholding – release of e-books, either legitimate ones or the pirated version.

Read details in Filmmakers Tread Softly on Early Release to Cable



Book Expo America Starts Today

Last year’s BEA was diminished by a combination of the poor economy and turmoil in the book industry. This year’s version will be somewhat smaller and shorter, but there will be more focus on new media and a much higher profile by e-book publishers and retailers.

What’s new and different at BEA 2010? The Expo’s home page says: “Let’s start with three event-packed days and a new mid-week schedule. BEA will showcase more than 500 authors, hundreds of new titles and 1,500 exhibitors (check out Exhibitor Show Specials!) all on one show floor—along with the IDPF Digital Book Zone (learn about the eBook and eReading Revolution!). See and meet authors discussing their books and sharing their back stories during special events and on the all-new Midtown Stage which joins the Uptown and Downtown Stages. Learn and network during the ‘Big Ideas at BEA’ Conference and the ABA Day of Education (open to all BEA attendees). And if you’re in the business of buying and selling rights, be sure to learn more about the International Rights & Business Center”

Here’s the home page Book Expo America, the schedule of events Book Expo Schedule at a Glance and info on Let’s Get Digital!



No, I Haven’t Read Your Book But I Loved Your Trailer

We’ve often said that every day the book business looks more and more like the movie business.  That contention has been reinforced by the tsunami of video trailers promoting books.  Many of these “coming attractions” are clever, some brilliant, and a few worthy of viewing in a movie theater.  And of course a great many more are tacky, pretentious, and painfully amateurish.  Book trailers were a great idea when the first few were released but now, like every other popular art form, the mediocre has debased the good, and everything has been homogenized into a brownish gumbo.

Dennis Johnson, founder of he MobyLives book blog, decided to poll his readers on the best and worst book trailers.  The results, reported by Julie Bosman in the New York Times, include a ” best performance for an author” by Dennis Cass (Head Case) showing him on his cellphone discussing his efforts to hype his paperback. Jonathan Safran Foer did not fare so well, copping a “most annoying” award for his video about Eating Animals. Because it’s human nature to prefer gazing at something terrible than at something good, we’re exhibiting the latter below.

More trailers may be viewed here.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.