Monthly Archives: July 2010

Why Kindle-Killers Haven’t Killed Kindle

R. I. P. “Kindle-killer.”

After posting countless blogs using the phrase we are hereby retiring it – subject to our right to change our minds on the day that a device comes along that truly exterminates the Kindle.  But we’ll want to see a death certificate, because at this point that prospect is impossible to conceive.

This declaration is triggered by Amazon’s recent announcement that sales of e-books have finally surpassed sales of hardcovers on the amazon.com website.  We also cite as Exhibit B Amazon’s  earnings report for the second quarter of 2010 showing a 45% profit growth over the prior year. (Wall Street was actually disappointed that the jump wasn’t higher. Oy!  $207 million earnings should happen to us!) If these developments don’t put paid to speculation on the demise of Kindle, nothing will.

How has Amazon endured against the attacking swarm of competitors and corporate adversaries? Among the many reasons are that it’s an elegant product with superb functionality, it’s backed by first-rate service, its library is all but infinite, its name has become as branded as Band-Aid or Frigidaire, its list price has remained competitive, and, like a wasp laying eggs in its living victims, Amazon has embedded its kindle apps in the bowels of its rivals.

Perhaps the most cogent explanation of Kindle’s enduring dominance – especially vis a vis the most touted Kindle-killer of all, the Apple iPad – was expressed by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic (and the italics are ours):

“Ultimately, I’m not sure how much Amazon cares how much profit it makes on the Kindle – the machine is a way to sell more content, not a profit center on its own. So far, Apple is trying to pull all of its profit out of the device, not the content stream, but I wonder if that will last. The more powerful Apple gets, the more disenchanted the hard-core tech fans become. Meanwhile, they’re getting stronger and stronger competition from devices like the Droid, which may push their margins down the way they pummeled the margins on the Kindle.”

McArdle’s article is worth reading in its entirety despite a headline that was a cliche ten years ago: E-Books: The Future Is 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 Atlantic Monthly.

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Leonard Maltin’s 2011 Movie Guide is Out. Sorry, No Comps

Our client Leonard Maltin’s 2011 Movie Guide has just been released and suddenly we’ve made an awful lot of new friends who just happen to be wondering if we might have a copy lying around. The answer to all comers is, go to your nearest bookshop or Amazon or Barnes & Noble and buy one.

Leonard has written a little message for his fans:

I know, I know: the idea of publishing a reference book in the age of instant communication sounds positively quaint. But the 2011 Edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is just out, in two paperback formats—mass-market and a larger “trade size”—still alive and kicking after forty-one years (!). True, we can’t offer the immediacy of the Internet, but I still think the book is relevant, and so do a substantial number of readers around the world, thank goodness. We’ve added 300 new reviews, as recent as Sex and the City 2 and Iron Man 2, bringing the book up to a whopping 1,643 pages, and as always we’ve made hundreds and hundreds of changes, corrections, and additions.

For more details of what’s in the new edition, visit Leonard’s Movie Crazy website.

If a film is remade or followed by a sequel, turned into a TV series or Broadway play, we say so. If an actor who wasn’t well known when a film was made is now recognizable, we add him or her to our cast list, or point out their appearance. We’ve noted early credits for Jay Baruchel, Thomas Jane, Jane Lynch, Bill Nighy, Michael Cera, Rainn Wilson, January Jones, Jeremy Piven, Jane Adams, Hugh Laurie, Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, and Jonah Hill, among others, this time around.

It’s a point of personal satisfaction to lead people to good movies they might not otherwise watch, and in this edition we cite such worthy small-scale films as Summer Hours, In the Loop, The Answer Man, The Tiger’s Tail, Five Minutes of Heaven, Big Fan, World’s Greatest Dad, That Evening Sun, The Maid, Trucker, Me and Orson Welles, and Skin. I hope our reviews will inspire some readers to try them out.

Most of all, my valued team of collaborators and I work very hard to be as accurate as possible, whether it’s confirming a running time or the spelling of an actor’s name. When we do make a mistake, our readers let us know and we’re able to fix the problem in our next edition.

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Amazon Debuts Gen 3 Kindle, and That’s Only Half of Jeff’s News

The following message from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos introducing a third generation of Kindle was posted on Amazon.com’s home page  today. PC World described the device as “the most enticing Kindle yet.” Click here for PC World’s review.

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Dear Customers, I believe in the transformative power of reading—the ability of an author to transport you to new worlds, introduce you to new people, and even alter your perspective. Reading is important. Reading is why we build Kindles. Reading is why millions of people use Kindles.

Today, we’re excited to introduce a new, third generation of Kindle. We kept everything readers love about Kindle and made it even better.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Books in 60 Seconds: Think of a book and start reading it in 60 seconds. Kindle uses the same 3G wireless technology as advanced cell phones. But unlike cell phones, there are no monthly bills and no annual contracts
  • All-New, High-Contrast E-Ink Screen: 50% better contrast than any other e-reader
  • Read Even in Bright Sunlight: No glare
  • New Sleek Design: 21% smaller body with same 6” size reading area
  • 15% Lighter: Only 8.7 ounces, read comfortably for hours with just one hand
  • Battery Life of One Month: A single charge lasts up to one month
  • Double the Storage: Carry up to 3,500 books wherever you go
  • Buy Once, Read Everywhere: Read your Kindle books on all your devices
  • Worry-Free Archive: Delete with abandon. We automatically keep an archival copy of your Kindle books—re-download for free, anytime
  • Global 3G Wireless: At home or abroad, wireless works in over 100 countries
  • Built-In Wi-Fi: In addition to the 3G wireless, you can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots

This latest generation Kindle is $189—you can pre-order now, and it will ship on August 27.

That’s half the news. We’re also excited to introduce a new Kindle family member—Kindle with Wi-Fi only. Kindle Wi-Fi is only $139. Kindle Wi-Fi is identical to our new $189 Kindle, except it doesn’t have our go-anywhere 3G wireless. If you’re going to use your Kindle primarily in locations where you have access to a Wi-Fi hotspot–like at home–then Kindle Wi-Fi is a good choice. At $139, we expect many people will buy multiple Kindles for the home and family.

You can pre-order the $139 Kindle Wi-Fi now, and it will ship on August 27.

Both new generation Kindles have access to the same Kindle Store with the largest selection of books people want to read—over 630,000 titles including 109 of 112 New York Times Best Sellers, plus top newspapers and magazines. Over 510,000 of these books are $9.99 or less, including 80 of the New York Times Best Sellers. Our vision is to have every book, ever written, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds.

Readers have made Kindle the #1 bestselling, most-gifted, most-wished-for product on Amazon for two years running. Kindle also has the most five-star reviews of any product on Amazon. We’re excited and energized by this reception. We hope you enjoy our most advanced Kindles yet.

Thank you for being a customer.

(signed) Jeff Bezos Founder & CEO

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What Your Tweets Tell About You

Last spring the U.S. Library of Congress announced – via Twitter of course -that it has acquired the complete archive of Twitter messages back through March 2006. The trove of 140-character message-toids is expected to yield a treasure of revelations about how we interact and who we are individually and collectively in the first full decade of the Digital Era.

But we don’t have to wait until analysts have divined the archive’s significance. Some researchers at Harvard and Northeastern University have already extracted some fascinating patterns from a sampling of 300 million tweets, and they’ve even mapped them.

The New York Times, reporting on the study, informs us that “You’re probably happiest in the morning and least satisfied about noon. Analyzing words in those posts, researchers found that Thursday is the saddest day; Sunday, the happiest… The moods were mapped, showing happy times [the greener areas in the video] and unhappy (red areas).”  It looks like folks on the west coast are generally happier than us grumpy northeasterners.  Can we get some of what they’re smoking?

Compare your mood swings to those in the video, and if you’re out of sync with them, well, hell, folks, get with the program!

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.

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Do Crime Books Make You a Criminal?

Do crime books make you a criminal?  And if so, do spiritual books make you a saint?

Both questions came up in two articles we came across on the same day.  The first, a New York Times piece by William Glaberson, Prison Books Bring Plot Twist to Cheshire Killings, described the trial of a man charged in a triple-homicide that took place after he and two other men broke into a home in Connecticut, a heinous butchery that drew comparisons to the one described in Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. In fact, the similarity was the point of the article.

It seems that the prosecutors had tried to enter into the official court record the names of books that one of the accused checked out of a prison library before the killings. The plots of those books were  “criminally malevolent in the extreme.” The defense wanted the list thrown out. Writes Glaberson: “The defense lawyers’ suggestion that prison library books could have shaped the crime, or that knowing Mr. Hayes read them could turn jurors against him, has created a strange kind of guessing game about the literary interests” of the accused.

Glaberson raises the question why a prison library would possess the kinds of books that might stimulate – or educate – a potential criminal and push him over the line between intellectual and perpetrator, between art for its own sake and art in the service of a murderer.

At this writing the titles have not been revealed, and as there is a huge First Amendment issue riding on the question, we hope all players in this drama will consider the implications.  We’ve seen this issue before in the form of efforts to use the Patriot Act to seize library records of suspected terrorists.  Here’s a report on that controversy by an attorney whose leanings are obvious and suggest how loaded the issue is.

Balance this story with this one reported by Anna Barker in The Guardian about a man who faced a 60-year prison sentence for drug offenses but who was instead granted probation and sentenced to read. Writes Barker: “With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the death penalty, the US state of Texas seems the last place to embrace a liberal-minded alternative to prison. But when Mitchell Rouse was convicted of two drug offenses in Houston, the former x-ray technician who faced a 60-year prison sentence – reduced to 30 years if he pleaded guilty – was instead put on probation and sentenced to read.”

In this case we’re allowed to know what he read. His reading list included To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar and Of Mice and Men.  “I particularly liked some of the ideas in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty,” says Rouse. As well he might, having tasted liberty’s sweetest gifts.

“Five years on,” Barker reports, “he is free from drugs, holding down a job as a building contractor, and reunited with his family. He describes being sentenced to a reading group as ‘a miracle’ and says the six-week reading course ‘changed the way I look at life.'”

Did books in the first story impel a man to kill?  Did they, in the second, impel a man to reform?  Can we the jury accept the first as true but reject the second as false, or vice-versa?  Some stimulating thought for jurists and philosophers.

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 and The Guardian.

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US Copyright Office Blesses Jailbreakers

The US Copyright Office has just spoiled the fun for that elite cadre of hackers known as Jailbreakers.  Where’s the satisfaction of breaking and entering an Apple iPhone if the authorities tell you it’s fine, be our guest.

But that’s pretty much what happened today, according to Nicholas Deleon of Crunchgear.  The Copyright Office’s decision took him so aback he was all but speechless:”This is easily the biggest tech news I have come across in quite some time—we’re talking years here.” he gasped. “I’m actually going to need a few moments to digest all of this.”

For you boring law-abiding hardworking taxpaying nine-to-five citizens, Jailbreak is a technique for hacking an iPhone to free it from Apple restrictions. “Because the iPhone is far from flawless as Apple created it,” one website explains it, “thousands of iPhone users have flocked to Jailbreak in search of iPhone changes and improvements. iPhone has been held back by limited customizability, text message privacy issues, and a lack of multitasking capabilities. But Jailbreak can solve all of these problems with apps and fixes available in Cydia and Installer. Cydia and Installer are the unofficial “App Stores” of the Jailbreak world. Developers create apps and tweaks and different utilities and upload them to these package managers, which organize everything into categories. The differences between Cydia and the App Store are the lack of an app approval process, and the lack of access limits on the iPhone software — i.e. you can do things Apple did not design the iPhone software to do.”

Is Jailbreak legal? Well, it is now. At least in a number of ways, says Deleon. According to rule updates created by the Copyright Office under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, six classes of jailbreaking are now exempt from prosecution:

  1. Defeating a lawfully obtained DVD’s encryption for the sole purpose of short, fair use in an educational setting or for criticism
  2. Computer programs that allow you to run lawfully obtained software on your phone that you otherwise would not be able to run aka Jailbreaking to use Google Voice on your iPhone
  3. Computer programs that allow you to use your phone on a different network aka Jailbreaking to use your iPhone on T-Mobile
  4. Circumventing video game encryption (DRM) for the purposes of legitimate security testing or investigation
  5. Cracking computer programs protected by dongles [defined as “hardware that connects to a laptop or desktop computer for the purpose of copy protection or authentication of software”] when the dongles become obsolete or are no longer being manufactured
  6. Having an ebook be read aloud (ie for the blind) even if that book has controls built into it to prevent that sort of thing

Before you rush to hack that antenna problem in your iPhone 4 you might want to consider advice offered in a tutorial by iPhone Apple iPhone Review

  1. *The folks at Apple know what they are doing. They have not enabled multasking — the ability for apps to run in the background, simultaneously — most likely because it is a huge battery drain. By controlling the user experience, Apple ensures that your iPhone “just works,” and you don’t have to worry about managing battery life or any other technical details.
  2. *Jailbreak could (maybe?) brick your iPhone. “When someone develops something for an Apple product and that development isn’t sanctioned by Apple, you run the risk of it not working as it should, conflicting with the device itself, or just all-around bricking that iPhone,” warns Chris Pirillo, who prefers not to Jailbreak his iPhone because “my iPhone just works already.” But I have never heard of Jailbreak completely ruining an iPhone. The consensus at this forum seems to be that the chance is “extremely slim.”
  3. *Every iPhone update from iTunes disables Jailbreak. Every time Apple comes out with an update for iPhone, they find a way to prevent hackers from cracking the code again. Hackers then scramble to Jailbreak the iPhone again and release the new methods. That means if you like to download Apple’s iPhone updates, you are going to have to figure out each time how to Jailbreak your iPhone yes again. Do you really want to play this cat and mouse game?
  4. *Jailbreak might increase your risk of getting a virus on your iPhone. The only two iPhone viruses ever reported have spread across iPhones that have been Jailbroken. That’s not to say the iPhone platform as Apple built it is totally secure. In fact, some say compromising an iPhone’s security is “child’s play” (i.e. easy).
  5. *Jailbreak voids your iPhone warranty. If your iPhone is bricked because of Jailbreak, or if your iPhone has another problem and it happens to be Jailbreaked, your warranty becomes void. I once saw a sign at the Genius bar of The Falls, Miami Apple Store that warned customers not to Jailbreak iPhones or they would void their warranties. Harsh.

Richard Curtis

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Guild: Publishers Brought Jackal’s Amazon Stratagem on Themselves

This is the text of an Authors Guild release posted on July 26 2010. For background see Will Random House Chicken Out Again?

We don’t know the details of the Odyssey-Amazon agreement, but we can make some informed guesses. The agreement is most likely under the agency model, with Amazon paying Odyssey 70% of the retail price of the books. Wylie and Odyssey are together taking a typical agent’s commission as compensation: 10 or 15% of the 70% received from Amazon. In round figures, this means that the author receives 60 to 63% of the retail price of the book.

For comparison, a typical contract with a traditional publisher pays e-book royalties of 25% of net proceeds. If the e-book is sold under the agency model, the author’s share is 25% of 70%, or 17.5% of the retail price of the book. After the agent’s commission, the author receives roughly 15 to 16% of the retail price of the book.

For a $9.99 book under the Odyssey-Amazon agreement, the author would receive royalties of $5.94 to $6.29 per book, net of all commissions. For a $9.99 e-book under a typical contract with a traditional publisher sold under the agency model, the author would receive royalties of $1.49 to $1.57, net of all commissions. The difference is about $4.50 per unit, a 300% increase in author income.

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Will Random House Chicken Out Again?

Revolutions produce unlikely heroes, and the Digital Revolution has produced a very unlikely one in the form of a man that many believe is so wanting in ethical principles that he is nicknamed The Jackal. Yet it is on literary agent Andrew Wylie’s fangs and claws that the populist dream of a fair e-book royalty rests as he dares the world’s highest profile trade book publisher to do something about the slap he has administered to its face.

The smart money is on The Jackal, and to understand why you have to think like a jackal.  While pundits debate contract law and publishing ethics, the real war is being conducted on a less visible battlefield. But it is one on which Wylie holds the high ground.

To understand Random House’s reluctance to protect its rights from Wylie and other marauders you need to understand a number of not so obvious factors.  The most salient of them is this: Publishers are loath to sue authors (or the widows and children of authors).

Let’s see how these factors play out in the power struggle unfolding before our eyes.

Random House not confident of its legal position

In 2001 Random House sued Rosetta, an e-book startup that acquired directly from authors the digital rights to books by such Random House lions as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Robert B. Parker and William Styron, books that were still in print in paper format under Random House imprints. Random had published them before there was such a thing as e-books, but nevertheless considered a book is a book is a book whether in tangible or digital form. The courts however rejected Random’s position, denying their request for an injunction against Rosetta. Random filed an appeal and the court turned it down. A second appeal was rejected too, forcing Random to work out a settlement with Rosetta. The critical issue – what is a book? – remained unlitigated and left Random uncertain about its legal position.

Random Backs off from Open Road Threat

When publishing superstar Jane Friedman launched her Open Road e-book venture she declared her intention to start with several works by Styron including Sophie’s Choice and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Confessions of Nat Turner. The problem was, Random House claimed it owned those rights (presumably having recovered them from Rosetta as part of the settlement) and it issued a stern warning to all “third parties” without naming Friedman specifically. Authors, stated CEO Marcus Dohle, are “precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties that would compromise the rights for which Random House has bargained.” By drawing a line in the sand, Random expected Friedman and other potential interlopers to back off or face the full wrath of the publisher’s litigators. (see Random House Serves Notice on Would-Be E-Interlopers)

It is  a fundamental business principle that you don’t make threats you aren’t prepared to act on. And that is why we were flabbergasted four months later to learn that Random House had released e-rights to the Styron estate (See Random Returns Sabre to Scabbard in Styron E-Book Standoff). What was that about?

“The decision of the Styron estate is an exception,” Random executive Stuart Applebaum explained. “Our understanding is that this is a unique family situation.”

Why, after rattling its saber so truculently, did Random give in? In our estimation it’s because ultimately, to make good on their threat, they would have had to sue Styron’s widow and children. And that would be a public relations disaster.

Whether Styron was truly an exception or Random blinked, one thing was clear to publishing professionals: sooner or later there would be further tests of the publisher’s determination. How would Random react the next time?

We’re about to find out.

Don’t Bother Suing Agents

Claiming that he hates the low e-book royalties paid by traditional publishers (see Random House Changes E-Book Royalty Policy), agent Wylie, representing hundreds of distinguished authors such as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and the late John Updike, announced that he is starting his own e-book publishing venture and intends to launch it with books published by Random House and other trade book publishers.

Does he have the right to do that? Wylie says he does: “The fact remains that backlist digital rights were not conveyed to publishers, and so there’s an opportunity to do something with those rights,” he declares.

Despite what happened with Open Road, some industry observers expected Random House to threaten to sue Wylie’s ass into pebble-sized pieces. But Wylie knows they won’t, because, generally speaking, agents are not legally liable for breaches of contract committed by their clients. A lawsuit against Wylie would in all likelihood be thrown out of court, and the judge would tell Random that if they have a beef it’s with Wylie’s authors, they’ll have to sue Wylie’s authors. Which brings us back to our thesis: Publishers are loath to sue authors (or the widows and children of authors).

So? How does Random intend to punish Wylie? “Regrettably,” Applebaum declared, “Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.”

This is known as the We’ll Cut Off Our Nose to Spite Your Face ploy, and it will avail Random nothing. Wylie’s clients are so coveted by Random’s rivals that if Random made good on its threat you’d see the greatest migration since the Aleuts crossed the Bering Land Bridge.  Jackals are standing by!

Buyer? Seller?

Though legal threats won’t faze Andrew Wylie, handling the challenge of being both an agent and an e-book publisher might. A number of knowledgeable people like Macmillan’s John Sargent have not only deplored Wylie’s decision to put all his authors’ eggs in Amazon’s basket but have questioned whether it’s in the best interests of his authors. There is arguably more money to be made selling not just to Amazon but to Sony, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and other retailers.

Navigating the shoals of conflict of interest between buyer and seller is another daunting task. Even if he is able to build a “Chinese wall” insulating the two functions from short-circuiting each other, Wylie’s own clients will reasonably want to know how it’s going to work: “If my agent is now my publisher, who am I supposed hire to negotiate with him?”

Will Wylie’s stratagem succeed in forcing publishers to raise their royalty rate?  Not a chance.  E-book royalties will eventually go up, but it will be no thanks to Crusader Wylie. But we thank him for articulating the dissatisfaction of authors and agents with low royalty rates and for so fearlessly acting on his convictions.

Richard Curtis

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The Vengeful Duke Didn’t Reckon on “The Gilded Lily”

To Tame a Duke by Patricia Grasso

Set against the turbulent historical background of the War of 1812, a grieving English nobleman has come to America bent on avenging the death of his elder brother who was betrayed to American troops and executed. He is in pursuit of the Gilded Lily, a spy-catcher of formidable reputation and great skill. When he finds his prey, he is dismayed to discover that the Lily is no common soldier. “She” is eighteen-year-old Lily Hawthorn, the raven-haired daughter of a tavern owner with sapphire eyes and a daring spirit.

James kidnaps Lily and her eight-year-old brother and returns with them to England intending to keep them prisoner until the end of the war. To avenge his brother James determines to make her fall in love with him, then break her heart.

A splendid idea until all romantic hell breaks out.

Patricia Grasso fans will be thrilled to learn that E-Reads is reissuing a number of her erotically charged romances.  Tune in frequently to Grasso’s author page for updates.

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With Blurbs like This, Who Needs Enemies?

If you read a blurb that began as follows would you rush out and buy the book?

“Not since Pericles has such eloquence…”

or…

“In a debut novel that beggars Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens…”

or…

“Once in a millennium an author brings forth a work so exquisitely wrought…”

You may scoff but, according to one publisher, no matter how absurdly hyperbolic blurbs may be, up to 62% of readers are sufficiently influenced by them to purchase the book.

This factoid was produced by Laura Miller, senior writer and co-founder of Salon, in an analysis of blurbs inspired by one so extravagant – for a book by David Grossman – that it could easily be mistaken for a parody. It begins “Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before.” It ends “To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.”

Miller’s disquisition on blurbing may shed some light on the process for civilians who have never thought about where these quotes come from.  Among other points of interest:

  • “Blurb” is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. “Blurb” really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.
  • Prominent authors are inundated with far more requests for blurbs than they can handle. They turn down most of them, but “might do it for a good friend or a former student, or as a favor to their editor or agent.
  • Positive reviews are hard to write. Authors who aren’t used to writing them write them badly.
  • “So why is it done at all? Because you, dear reading public, persist in giving credence to it.”

After reading the Grossman blurb you could not be blamed for believing that nothing more absurd could ever be written. How wrong you would be. Inspired by that blurb, The Guardian has held a contest for the worst one its readers can come up, using a Dan Brown novel as the basis for their sendups.  For some laugh-out-loud There’ll Always Be An England wit read the contest entries in the Comments section of The Guardian‘s article. They are, without a shadow of the doubt, the sublimest works ever produced by the human imagination since our emergence from the primordial muck…

Richard Curtis

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