Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rereading a Favorite Novel and Previewing a Fall Release

I rarely reread books. There are too many books that I want to read for the first time, mostly new fiction releases, but also books from the last 15 years that I didn’t read. Then there are many fiction “classics,” which as a history major in college and one-time law student (my secrets comes out!), I’ve never read. (I am slowly trying to read the ones which interest me most.) Further, despite focusing my squarely on fiction recently, I also love nonfiction. Add to all of this the fact that I read somewhat slowly, and I don’t feel like I can afford to reread! 

And still, revisiting a book can be rewarding. Many people say that you “learn” or “discover” something new every time you reread. This is certainly true. Still, when rereading a book that I once enjoyed, the biggest reward is, once again, appreciating specifically what made me love it in the first place. My latest reread that fits this criteria: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
There were a few reasons why I chose to reread Michael Chabon’s remarkable historical novel. One, amongst the Pulitzer Prize-winning books that I have read, it is one my favorites. Two, with no Pulitzer winner in fiction this year (if you haven’t heard about this see my post here), I wanted to read a “recent” winning book. Three, Chabon’s has a highly-anticipated new release—Telegraph Avenue – coming out in September, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with his most notable work.

As a history buff, I was quickly reminded of why I so enjoyed the novel in the first place. It is historical fiction at its best. Chabon places real people in plausible fictional situations. The protagonists encounter Al Smith as President of the company that owns Empire State Building, where their offices are housed; Salvador Dali, at a party full of celebrities, at a time when the Spanish artist was living in the U.S.; and Orson Wells, just before the premiere of Citizen Kane. Chabon captures American culture and life in the period just before WWII through the time just after. If the Depression is never fully confronted, it is because the protagonists rise above the tough economic times and are able to give the Depression-weary populace comic book heroes to divert their attention. 

Besides history, I loved how Chabon blends “obscure” topics like Jewish mysticism and comic books into a story in which you do not have to know about (or be interested in) either topic to appreciate. I’ve never read many comic books—frankly, I’ve never really cared for the “fantasy” worlds of superheroes—but I fully cared about the characters in the novel that spent their lives creating comic books. I may have even cared more during the reread than the first time around. I found this remarkable because, although I had forgotten many details, I remembered the broad contours of the story and the characters’ lives. I think that we normally care about characters when we do know what is going to happen, when we are living their lives with them.  If we know the eventual end, we are no longer living along with them. And yet it’s the sign of a talented storyteller when you are absorbed in a story, even when you know the outcome.  Even though I didn’t feel like I was experiencing the story for the first time, there was still a sense of anticipation. Part of this was a feeling of awe at the talent of Chabon.

Despite publishing three books since Kavalier and Clay, there is a valid argument that the upcoming Telegraph Avenue is his first traditionally published, full-length, “literary” novel since. The Final Solution was a short novella; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union verged on “genre” (an alternative history detective story); Gentlemen of the Road had been serialized before being published as a book.

Telegraph Avenue is a real street that runs between Oakland and Berkeley, and it seems that the story will take place primarily between these two cities. Set in 2004, it is contemporary, not historical and it seems to have a diverse cast of characters. (I have deduced this from a summary on Goodreads.) I have received a digital review copy, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I might post a teaser before September, but I will likely not post a full review until it is released. Still, it looks exciting, is getting a lot of good early buzz.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

News: Developments in the E-Book Pricing Lawsuits and Further Thoughts

There were new developments on Friday in the ongoing legal disputes over agency pricing. (If you don’t know the background of this dispute, see my post from last month here.) Sixteen states and the District of Columbia DC joined the fifteen states (and Puerto Rico) already accusing publishers of overcharging customers under the agency model. They also filed an amended complaint. (For those interested, that can be found here.)

This lawsuit by the states is separate from the pending action brought by the Department of Justice. The DOJ suit accused publishers of collusion in the establishment of agency pricing, while not taking issue with the pricing scheme itself. In fact, there seems to be a solid argument that under a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the agency pricing model is not illegal at all. (See information on the case Leegin, in my post from March anticipating the DOJ’s actions.) It is important to note that in the settlements signed by HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster shortly after the DOJ’s suit was filed last month, none of the companies had to pay any fines or restitution.

The original lawsuit by the states was filed the same day as the DOJ suit, and the same companies which settled with the DOJ also settled with the states. In the case of the state’s suit, the companies did pay fines and restitution. As it stands right now, two publishers—Penguin and Macmillan—along with Apple are fighting both the federal and the state lawsuits. 

From what I can tell, the companies may have an easier time beating back the state lawsuit. By accusing the companies of overcharging, the states are taking on the agency model itself, something that the DOJ chose not to do, possibly because of the precedent of Leegin.  Although, I am not fully informed on the legal definitions, the issue of collusion in the establishment of agency pricing, brought by the DOJ, seems to be an easier argument to win. Yet, in some ways, the collusion and overcharging arguments are bound together.  With amendments to their lawsuit yesterday, the states made public previously redacted information. The information seems to show that higher prices were the desired effect of agency pricing. There are some excerpts in this article from PaidContent, including an excerpt of a communication from Steve Jobs.

The communication from Jobs seems to shows that, in the publisher’s negotiations with Apple, both were trying to raise the price of e-books above the $9.99 price point that had been established by Amazon as the standard. (For hardcovers with a price range of $25.01-27.50, which represents most fiction, the suggested e-book price was $12.99.) Some might see that as a clear case of overcharging, but price doesn’t tell the whole story. When Amazon was charging $9.99, it was buying e-books under the wholesale model.  Furthermore, the $9.99 price point was likely a loss-leading price point. Publishers did not want Amazon to become essentially the “only” retailer for e-books through their ability to discount. Such power would allow Amazon to negotiate better terms for all books with publishers, leading to less revenue and eventually less ability to development content. Publishers were looking for a way to expand the number of retailers who could sell e-books, and to temper the power of Amazon. Apple was not willing to take a loss to match Amazon’s $9.99 price, and thus Apple and the publishers felt that agency pricing necessitated higher prices. If agency pricing itself is legal, which it seems to be, then higher prices under agency pricing should be legal as well. The only problem is if the agency model was established through collusion. 

This will likely be a lengthy process and I look forward to covering the issue more. This is a complicated issue and I make no claims to have gotten everything right. I welcome your comments.