Short Takes

by Fred Ray on January 5, 2009 · 0 comments

What exactly happened to the CSS Hunley?

Its fate has been the subject of almost 150 years of conjecture and almost a decade of scientific research since the Hunley was raised back in 2000. But the submarine has been agonizingly slow surrendering her secrets.

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“She was a mystery when she was built. She was a mystery as to how she looked and how she was constructed for many years and she is still a mystery as to why she didn’t come home,” said state Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston and chairman of the South Carolina Hunley Commission, which raised the sub and is charged with conserving and displaying it.

Was it sunk by a Union ship?

The crew’s bodies were found at their duty stations, suggesting there was no emergency resulting in a scramble to get out of the sub. And the controls on the bilge pump were not set to pump water from the crew compartment, suggesting there was no water flooding in.

The current theory is that the attack was successful but that the crew died of anoxia while waiting for the tide to turn.

Meanwhile things are looking bad for books and magazines. Magazine ad revenues are plummeting:

Wired, which is usually thick with consumer electronics ads, was the worst hit, down 47 percent from a year ago to 43.6 ad pages. Architectural Digest fell 46 percent, to 63.2, from 116.8. Vogue and Lucky were both down about 44 percent.

The book market is doing much better, but not by much. In “Puttin’ Off the RitzTimes writer Motoko Rich looks at the “new austerity” in publishing.

Book sales have deteriorated since the beginning of October, falling about 7 percent compared with the same period the previous year, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of sales. That slide is driving much of the immediate cutbacks, but the publishing industry is also being convulsed by longer-term trends, including a shift toward digital reading and competition from an array of entertainment options like video games and online social networking.

So don’t expect to be wined and dined for the contract on that new Civil War novel you’re writing, then handed a big advance. You’ll be lucky to get a Bud light, a Big Mac, and gas money home.

Still, publishing houses continue to pursue the “blockbuster” strategy i.e. putting a huge amount of time and effort in an attempt to create a bestseller at the expense of everything else. The reason for this is grounded in the economics of publishing. The vast majority of expenses (promotion, printing, etc.) are up front, so there is a huge potential return if you can get past the breakeven point. Unfortunately this means that publishers now ignore any book that does not have that potential. If you’d like a more detailed look read Anita Elberse’s article in the Wall Street Journal.

For micropublishers like myself this is both good and bad. Bad because books are considered a luxury item and, with magazines, are one of the first things people cut back on in a recession. Bad that it’s hard to get distribution of small books because distributors would rather handle big sellers, but good that that we have less “downmarket” competition.

And finally, a look at Google Books.

Ever since Google began scanning printed books four years ago, scholars and others with specialized interests have been able to tap a trove of information that had been locked away on the dusty shelves of libraries and in antiquarian bookstores.

According to Dan Clancy, the engineering director for Google book search, every month users view at least 10 pages of more than half of the one million out-of-copyright books that Google has scanned into its servers.

Google’s book search “allows you to look for things that would be very difficult to search for otherwise,” said Zimmer, whose site is visualthesaurus.com.

I’m one of them. Google has a huge trove of 19th century military-related books that would be difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere. The really neat thing about it, though, is that you can search across thousands of books for a phrase or a name. Now that Microsoft has dropped out, they’re the only game in town.

Still, there are reasons for unease. Google has also scanned a great many copyrighted works (generally speaking, anything older than about 1920 is public domain) and was thus the subject of a copyright suit.

A settlement in October with authors and publishers who had brought two copyright lawsuits against Google will make it possible for users to read a far greater collection of books, including many still under copyright protection.

The agreement, pending approval by a judge this year, also paved the way for both sides to make profits from digital versions of books. Just what kind of commercial opportunity the settlement represents is unknown, but few expect it to generate significant profits for any individual author. Even Google does not necessarily expect the book program to contribute significantly to its bottom line.

Unfortunately, it won’t contribute much to the author’s bottom line either.

For the average author, “this is not a game changer” in an economic sense, said Richard Sarnoff, chairman of the Association of American Publishers and president of the digital media investments group at Bertelsmann, the parent company of Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books.

“They will get paid for the use of their book, but whether they will get paid so much that they can start living large — I think that’s just a fantasy,” Sarnoff said. “I think there will be a few authors who do see significant dollars out of this, but there will be a vast number of authors who see insignificant dollars out of this.”

But, he added, “a few hundred dollars for an individual author can equate to a considerable sum for a publisher with rights to 10,000 books.”


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