Evil-free internet shopping (or how to read books on an iphone without patronizing Amazon)

My many devoted readers will know about my obsession with Lorrie Moore.

This has been such a busy year that I completely missed the fact that she has a new short story collection until I sat down one Sunday in November to review the PW Best Books of 2014 list and saw it there: a new short story collection, Bark.

My first instinct was to go straight to Amazon and get it immediately–and then I thought, well, okay, this is a book I can by at any bookstore in America. Every book on this list is going to be available at any bookstore in America. Shouldn’t I maybe do that instead?

We all know why Amazon is evil, but just for a little refresher, here are some highlights in order of terribleness in my personal opinion:

8. Disappearing Kindle content.

In what everyone has already acknowledge was an ironic turn of events, 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from Kindles everywhere Friday July 17 2009. The discount ebooks had been posted in violation of U.S. copyright law; Amazon, informed of the issue, made the illegal books disappear and distributed refunds to customers. Everyone was furious, not so much about the loss of their purchases as the overwhelming creep factor involved in the experience. (You’d think this incident would have given Apple some clue that the magically appearing U2 album of September 2014 would be unwelcome.)

7. Marketplace sellers

One of my least-favorite features as an Amazon customer is the difficulty in telling when you’re buying from Amazon, or from some guy in Minnesota who will take two weeks to mail a package and has a totally different return policy. But there’s an actual reason, other than mild-inconvenience, why the trend toward marketplace sellers is problematic. Basically, Amazon has successfully created an environment in which the only way these sellers feel they can survive is by selling through the Amazon platform; the company has found an ingenious way to earn a fee through sales by its direct competitors, further homogenizing everything.

6. Price fixing

Between the anti-Amazon author coalition, the Apple/DOJ settlement, and the rash of Amazon agency-model deals squeezing in before year end, this one can be a bit hard to frame. Is it the big six who have the problem, or Apple, or Amazon–or is it all some massive conspiracy? The general consensus seems to be this: in initial rounds of ebook negotiations back in the early oughts, publishers failed to appreciate the impact and importance of what would become the Kindle. When the deals were done and $9.99 or lower became the standard Amazon price, publishers felt threatened by low (and falling) ebook prices conceived the agency model, which put pricing at publisher’s discretion, rather than retailers’. Amazon argued that a lower price point would lead to bigger sales; the publishers argued that a higher price point reflects value.

5. Censorship.

In 2009, the company was shamed for excluding feminist, gay, and liberal texts from sales rankings. Because those kinds of books don’t count, obviously. Amazon has been known to employ such tactics as removing the ‘buy’ button from all Macmillian titles (2010), or more recently jacking up prices and delaying shipments of Hachette titles (2014) as part of a contract negotiation tussle, infuriating basically every author whose name you know.

4. Taxes

Or lack thereof. Amazon doesn’t pay state and local sales tax, and it passes those savings on to you. And your roads. And your public schools. And your emergency services. The company also avoids taxation internationally, sparking anger in the UKJapanGermany, among others. It’s not that they’re actually breaking laws (except maybe in Japan)…more taking advantage of outdated laws written with normal-sized businesses in mind and some extremely adept lobbying.

3. Differential pricing

That is, charging different customers different amounts based on previous internet traffic and buying patterns.

2. Undercutting indie booksellers

(And even corporate booksellers. Remember back in the day when Barnes and Noble was the bad guy?) Amazon’s business plan has always included strategic low-pricing: in the early days, selling print books below cost and eating shipping fees was designed to increase market share and eliminate brick and mortar competition. The same strategy has persevered in the ebook market, where Amazon beats out the competition by roughly $2.00. Of course, avoiding state and local sales tax probably makes this a lot easier.

1. Labor practices

Amazon fulfillment centers have been described as Industrial Revolution style assembly lines monitored by overseers in charge of of maintaining quotas, who doll out reprimands to workers for things like talking to one another and pausing to catch their breath. The list goes on: per hour quotas that rise in step with length of employment, culminating in eventual firing. Failure to meet expectations, or a clever way to get rid of people who are now entitled to benefits? Searches on entering and leaving the warehouse. Lack of climate control; workers collapsing from heatstroke or working in subzero conditions. Hiring temps, again, in order to skimp on benefits. Union busting.

So: no Amazon. I started to look into alternatives.

The status quo:

Amazon Kindle version is $9.99. I can order it and have it open on my phone in under a minute from anywhere. The same book is also available on my kindle and my home computer, all three of which sync against each other, so I never loose my place. My book is stored in the Amazon cloud, so I can download it again anytime I get a new device and I’m not responsible for maintaining the files myself; it’s also in Amazon’s own proprietary file format, which means its tied to an Amazon device or app. Its not clear what would happen for example, Amazon failed, or started charging a monthly service fee or any one of a dozen other business models. Plus, as previously discussed, there’s the evil.

The alternatives:

Disclaimer: I’m going to ignore the many awesome sites that offer out-of-copyright books (Project Guttenberg) or those that are specially for self-published authors (Smashwords, Lulu); I’m interested in buying a best seller.

iTunes

For those more concerned with issues of format and ownership than buying into a massive corporate machine, there’s always this old standby. Books from the iTunes bookstore are delivered in ePub format, an open ebook standard which you can use across virtually any device except the Kindle. Just like your music, iTunes ebooks are available across a limited number of devices. You, the user, own your file, and you are responsible for backing it up.

Google

Everything I just said about iTunes can be said with equal truth about Google Play ebooks. If you care about the supporting the indies or screwing the man, this is obviously not recommended. To their credit, Google did actually try an indie-driven model, but it didn’t work out. The devious thing about Google is that they know your search history, and, if you’re a Chrome user, they know your Amazon browsing history as well, so your first visit to the Google bookstore will include pretty much exactly what you might expect.

Google books come in a few formats: for those out of copyright, pdf scans or ePubs are the norm. Those for sale from a mainstream press will still be in ePub format, but will have the .ACSM file extension. This is an Adobe software used to keep you from steeling. The price for Bark is an identical $9.99 and like all things Google,  your books live in the cloud, and you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the files.

Barnes & Noble

Everyone knows that B&N’s online bookstore and Kindle-like device, the Nook, aren’t doing so hot, so we can more or less skip this one. For the sake of argument, though, you can get Bark for $11.99 at barnesandnoble.com in ePub format, which you can then read on your Nook. Nook will also read ePub files from other stores, for example, you can transfer books from your Sony reader to your Nook, but it doesn’t go the other way, ie you can’t read Nook books on another reader. Be warned: the end is nigh.

Kobo.

Since it was acquired by the rapidly growing Japanese e-commerce beast Rakuten in 2011, shopping at Kobo really isn’t all that different from shopping at Amazon. Your buying from a company that sells 100 million different items and promises to deliver them all overnight (this is not an exaggeration; its from their Wired profile two years ago). (Incidentally, they also own a big old share of Pintrest–I still haven’t worked out how Pintrest makes money, but all that crap made out of mason jars is looking pretty corporate about now.) Anyway, direct from the Kobo site, Bark in ePub format will cost you $11.99. You can actually get the paperback from the Rakuten website and have it shipped for another fifty cents.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Kobo partners with brick-and-mortar indie bookstores (a full list is available on indiebound.org), allowing them to sell ebooks on their own store sites. I can get that same $11.99 ePub copy from the website of San Francisco’s own Green Apple books–or at first glance, it seems like I can.

A little background on book sales here. Typically, only stores big enough to take advantage of graduated bulk discounting buy direct from publishers, everyone else goes through a book distributor (Ingram or Publishers Group West are big out here in California) who can buy books in enough volume to take advantage of publisher discounts, save small presses the expense of in-house indie sales staff, and sell the books to independent booksellers at a better price than they’d get on their own. The publishing industry also has a bizarre depression-era returns policy which allows booksellers to return unsold books to the publisher for credit. There are some exceptions (magazines and certain mass market paperbacks are not eligible) but generally, if the public doesn’t buy it, it goes back and probably ends up getting pulped. This is why those of us in the publishing industry love it when authors go to bookstores and sign every copy–they can’t be returned!

You might assume your neighborhood books store has the same arrangement with Kobo as with their normal distributor, with a discounted business-to-business price and a similar profit margin, but this is not, in fact, the case. The language is vague here, but you’re not really buying the ebook from the bookstore. They don’t own it, even on a credit returns basis, and they aren’t making normal profits from its sale. Instead, they receive a kickback more akin to the Amazon ‘Smile’ program, or what your grocery store might do to support the local schools: a ‘portion’ of each sale goes to the store you’ve selected, but you’re still buying the book from Kobo, who bought the right to sell it from the publisher.

So, not great. But getting better.

Initial set up is a little worky. You’ll need to add the Kobo Indie App on your ereading device(s) and specify which participating Indie seller you want to receive a little boost from your purchases. Kobo, like Amazon, has a cloud where your activity is stored. You can download your books again; if you loose your files, its going to be okay.

The Public Library

Yes, your friendly neighborhood library has ebooks. If you go there once a decade, you probably already know this.

There are a couple of different ways this can work on the business end of things, depending on the service. In some models, libraries essentially have a subscription to a publisher or distributor’s titles. Often, this arrangement includes a cap on how many ‘copies’ the library can use; alternatively, the library may pay incrementally for whatever their patrons check out over a certain threshold. Many libraries have formed consortiums specifically to take advantage of programs like this, sharing e-resources across several institutions.

For example, Berkeley Public Library subscribes to OverDrive, an ebook distributor who’s subscription-based model allows libraries to create their own digital collections with their own specific numbers of e-copies available. In effect, if one patron has ‘checked out’ the library’s e-Bark, it’s not going to be there for me to check out until they ‘return it’.

In another model, which I’m sure is publisher preferred, the library buys and owns the title, but its only good for a certain number of reads. In imitation of a print book, the ebook version gets artificially worn out over time and must be replaced. This seems to be on its way out, as the restrictions make everyone angry.

Obviously, like all libraries, you have to give your ebook back. Conveniently (if you’ve finished the book; if not, perhaps less so) it will magically vanish from your account when your lending period ends.

Feedbooks

In common with Amazon, Feedbooks is a distribution platform for mainstream titles as well as a publishing platform for indie authored titles. Unlike Amazon, it supports the Creative Commons licensing, and is very much focused on establishing format standards and protocols that will allow for cross platform use.

The search functionality and browsing aren’t nearly on par with what you’d see on a Google Play or an Amazon, but if you know what you’re looking for, getting it is easy.

Compatibility wise, Feedbooks titles are better than most, though still complicated and imperfect. Anything out of copyright can be read on multiple platforms, including Kindle. Copyrighted DRM material (anything you paid for in the store, basically) will not run on Kindle, but will work on devices that read Adobe Digital Editions, and of course there are apps for every device (again, other than Kindle). Bark is available at $11.99. Again, interface is a little rough…there’s no ‘send to’ function, but you can download from more than one device, apparently with no specific limits.

So here it is: my very own digital edition of Lorrie Moore’s Bark, on my very own power guzzling iphone, ready for action.

A sofa is forever

Before I moved into my last apartment, I was obsessed by this idea of a sauce pan. I had a big sauce pan (like for popcorn, or once-a-winter huge stew), and a tiny sauce pan (like for actual sauce), but no mid-sized sauce pan (like for any normal thing that you might conceivably cook). I actually had nightmares about this. Like wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night cannot-go-back-to-sleep anxiety dreams.

As I prepare to move into my new place February 1st, my obsession with housewares has returned–only this time, the thing I can’t stop thinking about is a sofa.

Let me back up. Five or six years ago, my parents replaced their living room furniture for the first time in–well, ever, pretty much. And they gifted me their old sofa bed. It was a ridiculous object for a semi-transient 20-something to own–massive, heavy and older than I am by at least three years.

sofa image
The sofa in 2010, with strategic patching

I absolutely adored it. I actually chose apartments based on whether or not it would fit inside. I dragged that thing around through four different moves as it decayed before my eyes, acquiring cat scratches at one apartment, the back growing weak and wobbly in another, the mattress on the fold-out bed compressing, the cushions shrinking like dried sponges. Like some rare and valuable collectable taken out from under the glass, it aged more in five years with me than in 25 with my scrupulous family.

I didn’t care. I had the actual original receipt from when my parents bought it. I remembered building forts out of the cushions as a little kid. I slept on the fold-out for weeks at a time as a teenager, once because I found a mouse in my room, another time as a protest against my white lace-covered daybed. I have a scar on my leg from where the mettle frame cut me once. I loved the way the fuzzy upholstery felt against my face. To this day, I miss that thing like it was a dead pet.

Eventually, though, I was brought to see reason: it was old; it was uncomfortable; it was impossible to drag up and down stairs; no one I knew was willing to help me move it again; even my my baby brother didn’t want it. So, at length I abandoned it with my harpy scank roommates (who are so completely undeserving of the gift that is that sofa, by the way).

Today, a sofa bed has once again become my weird, borderline unhealthy object of transference. I think about it while I go to sleep. Why?

Its not that I’m this big entertainer or anything, but I hate the idea of having a bed as the main focal point of the place where I live. Why not? one might reasonably ask. After all, I lived in roughly 7 different cramped, San Francisco shotgun-style apartment, with no common space and extra beds jammed in the closets and laundry areas since, oh, about 2005. And dorms, before that. So, you know. Its not like I’m shy about having people sit on my bed (though I’d prefer they keep their feet off it).

I don’t know what it is exactly. A living room is sort of a personalized public space. And that appeals to me. And a living room has a sofa, not a bed. That’s not it though; not entirely. I like that sofas are big: they can’t be crammed in here or there. They anchor the place where you live. A sofa is a piece of furniture. I like that sofas last: they’re the kind of thing you pick out in your 20s and still own in your 50s (at least in my family). It’s a big, old, investment; status and stability.

Plus my place is tiny. I need floor space to pace in; it helps me to think.

 

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender

Cover art for The Girl in the Flammable SkirtThere’s really nothing bad I can possibly say about The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I honestly really loved it. Bender strikes a delicate balance between whimsical, eccentric content and constrained, precise prose, juxtaposing magical realist fare against a clear, open voice, threaded with subtle humor.

These short, surreal tales are difficult to summarize, and they probably sound more fantastical in descriptions than they feel when you experience them. A woman watches her lover experience reverse evolution, transitioning from man, to ape, to sea turtle, and beyond; a mermaid and an imp hide out in high school; a girl follows her one night stand down a man hole; an orphaned boy develops a gift for finding lost things; a stolen ruby ring turns the ocean red.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt reminded me of a lot of things. A darker, starker, and more modern Francesca Lia Block; a more feminine George Saunders; a Melissa Bank who writes of people with giant holes through their abdomens, instead of people with cancer. But that’s not to say it isn’t original–Bender definitely stakes out her own spot on the post modern magical realist chick-lit-leaning continuum.

I’m looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

An ode to absent roommates. Six years. Six addresses. 23 roommates. The end of an erra.

credit: Liz Henry, Flickr
Roommate image

I reflect fondly on your boyfriend’s Grey Goose bottle bong, and the incredibly strong weed that sent me to my first ever publishing job still stoned, and thrilled to have my very own rolly office chair to play with.

Also, on the lime green living room with the hammock in it, the mouse that lived in the leather chair, the Katrina fire pit, and the owl with the glowing eyes. The way my bathtub used to vibrate from the base on your speakers, the same song over and over again as you wrote it. The bouncy boxing party when the cops came, that terrible girl who climbed in the window and covered my bed with mud, the way you told her that Native Americans invented the dimmer switch, and the way she believed you.

I miss drinking whiskey and torturing the downstairs neighbor. Painting the living room Gothic Rose pink and listening to that one Be Good Tanyas album over and over again. Eating ice cream and watching Bride and Prejudice. Buying bargain bin underwear in Oakland and dancing at the KitKat Club. Even the time you flipped the breaker box for April Fools.

I do not miss the way you itemized the dirty dishes and assigned pantry space based on percentage of total rent. The way you walked through my office (also known as the laundry room) to get outside, even when I asked you not to. The way you ignored my advice then blamed me when things went wrong. That time you locked me out because I said your dinner party was terrible, which it was.

I do not miss your drunk hipster friends passed out in my bedroom, or the vomit dried to a crust in the bottom of the tub when I came back from a long weekend in Santa Cruz. I don’t miss your loud friends playing cards at 3:00 AM on Tuesday, or the way you never cleaned, or the notes you left, complaining about fruit juice on the counter even though the sink was packed with your dirty dishes. I never understood how your boyfriend just moved in one day. I thought your bike was stupid, and I still do.

I hated coming home early the Friday before a holiday weekend to find you passed out on the sofa surrounded by nitrous canisters, and the way you let your cat destroy my sofa, then tried to make me get rid of it because it was so shabby. I hated you for your preachy crap about cars and street parking, your awful “films” and your insistence that I ask you about your day. I hated that restaurant you worked at. I don’t care what you say; it’s a cult. I hated never knowing what might have drugs in it–like those Altoids in the dish in the living room, or those brownies I ate for breakfast once, when I was running late for a PPR meeting, leaving me, once again, stoned in an office chair.

I hated your tantrums, and your made-up stories about your own heroic encounters with famous people. I hated your oily hair, and the way all your texts were always tagged ‘urgent.’ Your crazy cats, who continued the destruction of my sofa and always ran away when I entered a room. Your horror movie sex noises, your disgusting contact lenses, the way your hair stuck to the walls of the bathroom after you blow dried it. Also the hair in the shower drain and the animal hair all over the floors. The sad sound of your dog, crying and flinging herself at the back of your bedroom door. The cat box in the hall closet. The way you never paid PG&E on time, ever, and the self-righteous way you tried to dick me out of my deposit. The dumb shit you said, and the fact that you never ever cleaned anything, except sometimes, after a party.

Good bye, good and bad. It’s hard to feel honestly nostalgic about anything so recent and so nuts, but somehow, I think I’ll manage…

What happened?

Well…school. I’m still here. Just slightly less bored, and slightly over registered.

In the three(ish) weeks since I’ve logged in, I’ve read roughly 12 chapters in four text books, about 35 journal articles and miscellany, and 2 lessons of French, none of which warrants much comment. So far, it’s not actually too challenging or too interesting, which may be a bad sign…but after all a semester is only 14 weeks.

My next non-required reading will be The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by my old SLC classmate Benjamin Hale (yay Ben!). I haven’t even cracked it yet, but given all the buzz around this book (it’s been all over the industry newsletters for the past 18 months, and now that it’s out reviews are hitting all the time) it wouldn’t me surprised if it makes some of the awards lists this year. Pretty awesome…

The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff

Cover illustration for The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren GroffI found The Monsters of Templeton on the free table in the 5th floor lunchroom at my old job, left over, probably, from somebody’s book club. I loved the cover, so I picked it up.

Lauren Groff’s debut is a complex and humorous family saga tracing the lineage of one prominent small town family back through seven generations. Stanford PhD candidate Willie Upton returns to her upstate New York roots after a devastating affair with her older married professor. On the day she arrives back in Templeton (a stand-in for the author’s own hometown, Cooperstown), the corpse of a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass. That might seem like the jumping off point for a whimsical adventurous story about, you know, monsters. But in fact, the dinosaur serves as more of a metaphor–the actual “monsters” are still to come.

The story really begins when Willie’s eccentric mother, Vi, tells her a secret–Willie’s father is not, as she has always been told, one of several San Francisco hippies from her mother’s commune days, but someone from their own community. Vi refuses to tell Willie exactly who her real dad is, but after some nagging she does offer up a clue: Vi herself is related to town founder Marmaduke Temple on both her mother and her father’s sides through two different lines of decent, but Willie is descended from him through three lines. Apparently, Willie’s father is related to Marmaduke too, through “some sort of liaison at some point in the past.”

Armed with this information, Willie sets out to research the family history, locate the missing branch on the family tree, and identify her father. The novel follows Willie’s experiences with her mother, her best friend back in San Francisco, and her former high school classmates during her 2-3 week stay in her ancestral home, but the real focus of the work is her research into her family’s secretive past. Through letters, diaries, and a few unexplained monologues, we become acquainted with the Temple clan one generation at a time. We meet Marmaduke’s slave mistress, Hetty; Sy Upton, who married into the family and brought the baseball museum to town; Jacob Franklin Temple the famous novelist (a cipher for James Fenimore Cooper); his youngest daughter Charlotte, an uptight old maid raising her “nephew”; and many others.

The result is strong, but uneven. Each anecdote is engaging and enjoyable in itself, but the stakes aren’t very high for the reader, and it can be a little difficult to keep track of the various characters, how they are related to one another, and which ones are having affairs (there are a lot of affairs in this book).

In a sort of random fling at post-modernism lite, Groff also includes contemporary alternative narrators, including the Running Buds, a group of cheerful middle aged men who jog together everyday and narrate in the first person plural (we), and the monster itself. There isn’t a lot of plot to be gleaned from these sections of the novel, and they do add to the overall impression of confusion, but I enjoyed them quite a bit as isolated pieces of writing.

Overall, the novel is a good one, a promising start for a young writer–someone with a lot of creativity, a lot of ideas, a great capacity for detail, but issues around mechanics, pacing and structure still to work out. And, hey, she’s already a bestseller.

I’ll end with a quick shout out to Guenet Abraham, the designer of this book–the novel is greatly enhanced by Beth White’s photos and illustrations of the various ancestors rendered in appropriate historical style, as well as by the several versions of the family tree annotated by Willie and updated periodically as additional information is uncovered. It’s a nice touch, quirky, fun and entirely appropriate, and it has the added benefit of helping the reader keep tabs on the various story lines. Rock on!

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, Lorrie Moore

Cover illustration for Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie MooreLorrie Moore, the queen of second person, incisive, witty, precise, intense, and always funny in the saddest possible way.

I’ve been a big fan of Lorrie Moore since my first really great writing workshop during my sophomore year of college, where we read the two Lorrie Moore stories that always make it into every fiction workshop–“How to Become a Writer” and “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)” both from Self Help. Since then, I’ve read Birds of America and Like Life and that volume of Best American Short Stories she edited. But her first (and for many years only) novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, just sat on the shelf until now. I don’t know why.

The adolescent friendship between the narrator, Berie, and her closest friend Sils forms the core of the story. The two girls have been friends since grade school, but their relationship begins to change the summer they are fifteen, when beautiful Sils gets a boyfriend, leaving still-immature Berie uncertain and self conscious. The other details of Berie’s life pinwheel around this friendship–her family, distant and dysfunctional, her fraught marriage, her adult self.

Like all Moore’s work, it’s impossible to say enough about the writing–the language is clever, surprising, evocative, concise, and mildly disturbing. More like a short story than a novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is a single whole–consistent, absorbing, transitioning gracefully, seamlessly through time and place. It’s a one-sitting book.

Similarly, the classic criticisms of Moore apply to this, as much as to any of her short works. It’s pretentious, no doubt. Berie’s character is pretty much indistinguishable from any one of Moore’s other main characters. And Moore doesn’t shy away from displaying her character’s flaws, which can render them a bit unsympathetic.

But overall, I really enjoyed this book and remain a huge fan.