Rocket Bomber

Aer.io Retail Platform: First Thoughts

filed under , 30 March 2015, 12:45 by

The Pitch:

[see it yourself]

“Make a store with our 2MM books, DVDs, graphic novels, and more.”
“Sell products your audience will love at any point of interest or engagement.”
“Aer.io’s Native Retail puts products you select on your site and into your social streams, both desktop & mobile.”

The Product:

Aer.io is a retail effort from Aerbook, and if you pop on over to the Aerbook side of their site, you’ll see options for authors and creators to upload and sell their own epub or PDF files.

Aerbook has been around since 2010, and while the Aer.io platform is ‘new’, this has been in the works for at least two years

4 September 2012 : PBS Media Shift : Aerbook Maker, Kwik Help E-Books Come Alive with Multimedia
January 2014 : Book Business Magazine : Aerbook Ebook Platform Introduces Publishers to Native Retail
14 March 2014 : Publisher’s Weekly : Aerbook Turns Social Media Into a Virtual Bookstore

“Over the years since I’ve been writing for PBS MediaShift I’ve looked to Aerbook founder Ron Martinez’s innovations for a peek into the future of publishing. I’m happy to report that his products have finally landed in the present, for everyone, not just the tech-adventurous. Aerbook began as a fixed-layout multimedia e-book creation tool with Aerbook Maker. Martinez then added the capability for authors to create social fliers that allow authors to send news of their book down the social stream where readers can sample and buy books directly from Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. The new Aer.io product (in beta) perfects this strategy and takes it to the next level to allow anyone to build a bookstore on your own website for fun and profit. With this ability to so easily build a bookstore I expect that many tech-savvy authors will create niche sites in order to promote their own titles.”
How Self-Publishing Services Blossomed in 2014, Carla King, Publisher’s Weekly, 31 December 2014

11 December 2014 : Ink, Bits, & Pixels [formerly The Digital Reader] : Gumroad Goes Where Aerbook Already Treads
19 January 2015 : Publishing Perspectives : Aer.io from Aerbook Lets You Curate Your Own Online Bookstore
12 February 2015 : press release : Morgan James to Preview and Directly Sell Print and e-Books on the Mobile, Social Web, and Enable Sales by Aer.io Retail Network
15 January 2015 : Publisher’s Weekly : S&S and Harper Grow Direct-to-Consumer Programs, “HarperCollins introduced a pilot program with e-book previews, and purchasing options, to social media users via Aerbook.”
26 January 2014 : Futurebook : ‘You are the destination’: Aerbook’s ‘native commerce’ for publishing

So What Is It?

For the customers purchasing books, Aer.io offers fulfillment via Ingram (for paper) and direct downloads for e-books — their FAQ for ebook purchasers points consumers to the Bluefire Reader (if they don’t already have a way to open the epub file) with additional instructions for Kindle & iBooks users.

[aside: files are amazingly agnostic; the Apple/Amazon trick is to fool you into staying within their respective platforms]

The actual purchase screen is simple and sparse (ready-made for mobile and smaller screens on phone and tablet) and rather straightforward. From a customer’s perspective, well, it’s not Amazon — but this is certainly on par with direct sales at nearly any other web site I’ve seen.

On the aspiring internet retailer side, Aer.io offers an web-based interface to easily add books, and even provides you with your own store on their site: mine looks like this – https://aerbook.com/store/The_Bookshop_at_RocketBomber

The store is embeddable, so you can easily add this to your blog (say, under a “store” tab or menu item) or — if you happen to have a subdomain available — you can drop a frame directly onto your own URL. Something like bookshop.rocketbomber.com.

Buy Now

Sales cards for books are also embeddable, and from the back-of-store side of your sales site, you can build widgets for individual titles. The embed code is probably optimized for something like Wordpress; as we can see to our right, if you drop it into some oddball CMS like the one running RocketBomber, we get wonky results that I’ll have to go in and correct manually.

Who is it for?

Aer.io makes it trivial to set up your own store. Really, it took me 15 minutes. 15 minutes — from not even having a sign-in and password to having a Aerbook store URL and 500 or so titles ready to purchase.

What Aer.io won’t provide are any customers.

If you have a book review site, or fan culture blog or podcast, or a news aggregation site with decent traffic, an Aer.io book store could be a great feature to add — maybe pitched as a service (“hey, here are the books we mentioned in the show this week”), maybe as a revenue source (I wouldn’t bank on it), or just to have.

If you were a creator, author, or comicker and wanted to sell your own stuff, then you could certainly make use of Aerbooks to do so — in fact, that was part of the functionality before the Aer.io platform. Now you can also add other items (DVDs, for example) and maybe make a few bucks. The appeal for an author might be the speed with which a store can be set up — even if all you plan to sell is your own book.

When you add books to your store ‘inventory’, you also get to select the discount — though you can only cut so deep. If you attempt to go below the ‘minimum’ price (presumably, Ingram’s price on the physical book, or the publisher’s maximum discounted price, whichever applies) then the Aer.io store will automatically revert to that minimum. Discounting books also cuts into your margin (hey, just like ‘real’ retail) so if you were looking to Aer.io to make money, you won’t be able to cut too deep…

Buy Now

However, you can also apply a ‘negative discount’ — you set the price, so if you want to you can charge more. The example to our right, Midnight Madness (the worse movie I could think of, spur-of-the-moment) is currently marked up 100% in my little web store, because I don’t want you to buy it. If the goal of your web-shop is not to undercut Amazon, but instead to raise funds (say, for charity) then that functionality is built in too.

“Make a one-time donation of $50, and in addition to helping RocketBomber you’ll get a copy of this great book, too! Our fulfillment partner will take care of shipping, and charging your card, so all you have to do is click this link! Thanks for helping out!”

The Highlights:

The user interface is intuitive and (at least with the numbers using it in this beta) moves fast. I was able to plug in a few of my favorite publishers (Viz, Vertical, Yen Press, Dark Horse, Seven Seas, DMP — and yes, all those were in there) and the search quickly pulled up more manga than I expected. The boast of 2 Million titles quickly proves itself. Each individual product page has the social media buttons baked in — Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest — making sharing a two-click affair, for you or for any of your followers/readers who’d care to help.

Searches by title/author are perhaps the best way to find books to add; by title particularly for numbered series, by author for nearly anything else. Collection of books are also available (called ‘playlists’ by Aer.io — perhaps an artifact of some other application of this software) and you can either select some that are ready-made, or roll your own. Adding titles to a playlist is a little slower, as each title must be added individually, as opposed to the ‘select all’, ‘add selections’ options I gladly used when building the store.

There is also an ‘import your books from GoodReads’ option — with the ability to only include those you rated at 3, 4, and/or 5 stars. If you’ve already invested a chunk of time building your virtual bookshelves there, you can quickly flip that into a virtual book store.

Payments are handled by Stripe, as are pay-outs (assuming I ever get to that point) but there’s no need to fill out any of those forms to set up your login and store front. (only when, and if, you want to cash out your commissions. there’s a $10 minimum on payments)

[more on Stripe Marketplace – 5 June 2013 : Techcrunch : Stripe Makes It Easier For Marketplaces To Collect And Distribute Payments To Multiple Accounts]

As stated, it’s easy to get up and running. For a web admin or author looking to add just a few items with buy links to a sidebar, or a quick-and-dirty shop add-on, this will take a single afternoon.

The Drawbacks: (call it, ‘room for improvements’)

[And note: this is the beta version so of course any complaints should be seen in that light]

A larger shop will take time to build, and getting the frames/embeds to actually look good on your website/CMS across multiple browsers might take you several hours, depending on your particular platform and your familiarity with HTML/CSS and whatever scripting you’ll get into. It took me 40 minutes or so to drop a frame into The World’s Most Basic HTML File without the annoying double scroll bar, mostly because I don’t think I’ve ever used frames before. (It turns out, there is an easy solution but it will only work on modern browsers. No support for IE8. …that might actually be a feature)

Even with the seemingly huge selection of titles on Aer.io, I still quickly found gaps. The Gundam series, for example: I was only able to find 4 of 10 volumes of Gundam: The Origin, and volume 1 is incorrectly listed as volume 10. This is a weakness on the part of Ingram, I’d bet – the Aer.io site makes everything easier but still relies on the databases and item descriptions provided by their fulfillment partners.

Speaking of problems with databases, those 2 Million titles include the annoying straight-from-wikipedia print-on-demand books that clog a number of sites, including Amazon and B&N. I don’t suppose there is any way to exclude these — but the good news is that only you see them on the back end, when searching for inventory to add. These will not appear in your storefront unless you’ve specifically added them.

Only twice did I manage to make the interface ‘clunk’ — once because I managed to select a ‘custom field’ option that I don’t think was supposed to be visible, and again when I gave the search too much to chew on (I think) and then got impatient and tried to back out. Neither error was fatal, and easily fixed by going back to the right-hand menu and starting over.

Wrap-up: final thoughts.

Aer.io is not a complete product but what is currently available is pretty damn amazing. If I all I needed was a way to sell a handful of books (say, my own output as an author) then this would be an excellent alternative to affiliate links, Amazon widgets, or even more convoluted work-arounds.

It’s not a way for every aspiring Bezos to launch an online bookstore, though. What you can assemble (in an afternoon) is suitably impressive but the UI, UX, and purchasing experience won’t match a dedicated internet sales site. But I doubt it is supposed to, at this phase.

As Aerbooks put the polish on this platform, I think we’ll see even more value to users (and the users’ customers). My own wish would be for even more book and DVD titles (and perhaps other products?) but that’s because as a one-time corporate ‘big box’ bookseller, I’m used to sitting atop an inventory system that has twelve million listings, not just two. The ‘social media’ side of the pitch makes for good press releases, but the integration isn’t quite as seemless as is currently promised — don’t think this adds ‘one click’ shopping to your tweets. Clicking the social media buttons is certainly easy enough, though (at worst, you’ll have to copy and paste some html, the same that Amazon affiliate links require).

I plan to continue playing around with the store and the widgets, and testing the limits. Indeed, I may have to go back to writing up book reviews, just so I have a place to put the links. :)

Aer.io is still in beta, so I expect a lot of ‘fixes’ will be put in place before there are public sign-ups. The core functionality here (the idea of a quick, seamless online store that any blogger or creator can implement) holds a lot of promise, though. I’d ask Aerbooks to work hard on the supply side, making more books available (and getting publishers and distributors to fix the online listing info!) while keeping this particular back-of-store interface and feature set largely intact — I found nothing in the beta that was ‘broken’.



Test Post for an Aer.io Bookstore

filed under , 29 March 2015, 13:48 by

I’m about 15 minutes into the process of setting up my own online bookstore, using the Aer.io platform from Aerbook

If I’m doing this correctly, then somewhere below you should be seeing the cover for volume 1 of one of my all time favorite manga.

As promised (on twitter) I’ll be following up with a full write-up on the process, along with any impressions or opinions I form along the way. (I was just at a point where I kind-of immediately wanted to see if it worked)

Buy Now










Hardwired for Stories

filed under , 12 November 2014, 16:27 by

Pareidolia is the scientific term for our tendency to see faces in objects.


image credits, left to right: Tim Hentoff, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, Aldan-Sally, Flickr – Creative Commons licenses

Actually, pareidolia is more than that — it encompasses several phenomena, from seeing animals in cloud shapes to hearing ‘hidden messages’ on records played backwards. When presented with random or incomplete stimulus, our brains labor to find patterns or significance. So, we see faces in things that have no face. :)

(the broader term is apophenia, finding patterns in randomness, which also applies to the Gambler’s Fallacy, hindsight bias, and Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.)

Similarly, I think our brains are addicted to stories, and strain mightily to find a narrative even when presented with random (or contradicting) events. We want to identify a hero and a villain, we will find some side to root for, and we imagine that every course will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There will be a conflict, a decisive outcome, and a happy ending (or a cathartic release after tragedy). We want to tell stories, and we’ll make them out of the flimsiest of figments, connecting dots and assigning roles as required — facts be damned.

We see this in journalism — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Finding the story or through-line can help us make sense of new and unfamiliar information, and a well crafted narrative makes the end result more readable (or watchable, in the case of documentary film). Indeed, this is why one term used for journalistic output is story, and also why History is History. (actually the etymology there is reversed – we derived ‘story’ from Greek/Latin ‘historia’)

The problem comes with the constant, always-on, 24 hour news cycle of Cable TV, newswires, and internet feeds. We are presented with so much random stimulus, our brains are begging to see the story behind it all, even when there isn’t a ‘story’ per se.

If one already has a story in mind (say, that everything is the fault of Reptilian Aliens working in concert with the Ancient Bavarian Illuminati) then it is easy enough to bend whatever smaller stories you see on Cable News to fit that larger narrative (confirmation bias) — if you watch Fox News, they’ve already done that heavy lifting for you. (* disclaimer: I don’t know for a fact that Fox believes in aliens or illuminati, though I’ve seen enough old scaly white men as commentators and ‘experts’ on the network that I’ll spot them the reptiles.) Forcing events to fit the narrative is easy, especially if you don’t care about the actual facts.

##

Strangely enough, though, and worrisome for authors is that Readers so love story, if you don’t explicitly give them a story in your book (or other work) the audience is going to dock you points for it.

The same brains that will quite happily invent a narrative to cover random, real-world events will not do the same for a half-assed, sloppily written book.

We love stories, good versus evil, beginning-middle-end, and plot — a plot evolving naturally from motives, consistent with character, and with consequences. If all you write is a collection of scenes but the main character doesn’t do anything (and also, by the end of the book, has shown no growth) then readers are going to be disappointed.

That’s not to say that you have to slavishly follow a Five Act Play plot structure and stick to tired tropes — nor that every book is going to be a Good vs Evil Grudgematch with young Hiro Protagonist always fighting Dread Lord Darkenskaery. We can play with the tropes, and surprise the reader. Anti-heroes are in this year. (Antiheroes are always ‘in’.) Every villain has a backstory, every hero can be a dick (and often is), the Princess can swear and kick ass and decipher the ancient runes no one else can read.

Indeed, our favorite parts of many stories are often the ways the author twisted expectations.

That said: readers will know when there isn’t a plot. They’ll scream. You can play with the tropes, but the cliches are old and hoary and still around for a reason.

We all love stories, so if you are a manufacturer of fiction, remember that your audience is skilled in finding them. Indeed, we’re hard-wired to connect dots and string scenes together — but we do that in the real world, where the amount of material to work with is literally seven billion lives, all of past history, the whole planet, and a galaxy beyond that. As a writer, you are working in a much smaller space and you only have what you brought in with you. If you want a reader to connect the dots, you need to paint all the dots — and maybe an arrow or two so readers know which direction to head toward.



Home repair and book production

filed under , 28 October 2014, 16:33 by

Long-time readers of this blog know how much I love making analogies -

If you want to, say, update your kitchen, or build an addition on the back of your house you have some options:

  • A real do-it-yourself-er and general handy-type might need to call a plumber or electrician but otherwise is fine with doing the framing, hanging wallboard, hanging cabinets, setting tile, installing carpet, and all the finish work — not just plaster and paint, but wood trim, weatherstripping and caulk, maybe some wallpaper. And when all that is done, our intrepid homeowner also does their own interior decorating, furnishing the space to as-seen-on-TV standards buying salvage & fleamarket and doing their own refinishing on vintage and near-antique pieces.
  • More realistically, you get on Google and read online reviews and ask around and you subcontract all that other crap out — you maybe take care of your own demolition (yeah! break stuff!) but you get the real professionals to come in and fix it. You end up juggling different schedules for weeks (or months) and dealing with multiple contractors (first the concrete pour, then the framing, exterior siding, interior walls, windows & doors, floors & finishes) and when it’s all done, you look at your newly-fattened credit card bills and sob — while sitting in the beautiful new addition to your home. bittersweet.
  • You can cede even more control (and more money) in the process by hiring a general contractor — someone to take point on the job and juggle the various subcontractors for you. The drawback is that you’re paying costs plus fees (to the GC) but the tradeoff is that maybe you get to keep more of your sanity. Plus (and this is often a big plus) the General Contractor has done all this before, projects both bigger and more complicated than your little bathroom re-do or new screened porch.

The tradeoffs are obvious: you can keep control, and spend less money, while doing more of the work — or you can choose to spend money to solve problems and take a more hands-off approach.

As a writer who wants to ‘build’ a book (either from the bones of a draft or doing some small repairs on a mostly finished manuscript) you have the same options as our hypothetical homeowner: Do the work yourself, coordinate a bunch of subcontractors (free lancers) to get the work done, or maybe try to find a ‘book packager’ to work as your general contractor and bring the book to print.

Your fourth option is to sign a book deal with a publisher, but that’s not really your option – it’s theirs. (Getting an agent and landing a book deal would be a different analogy.) Let’s just assume for now that it’s your ‘house’ and you’re the one building it.

When dealing with home repairs and renovations most of us are clueless — unless and until we’ve done it a few times. But most homeowners know the general scope of what’s about to happen, and they’re willing to do a little research (months or even years of on-again-off-again plans) before they make any calls or write any checks. And because we live in houses, we have a pretty good idea of what the final space should look and feel like, even if we’ve never lifted a hammer or trowel before.

When writers have the same opportunity to ‘fix up’ a book, they often go the do-it-yourself route, underestimating the scope of the work and (perhaps) overestimating their own skills as self-editor. The primary reason to do this is of course the cost — either we begrudge the expense or we just don’t have the extra cash right now to pay a freelancer to do the work for us.

To get the job done, we can also borrow against the ‘equity’ in the book: trading rights or revenues to get the book into salable condition, either with a small publisher or a digital-only publisher. There are risks, of course, but no money is required up front* and the other option, keeping the manuscript in a drawer for who knows how many more years with no potential for readers or sales at all — well, we all know how that would work out.

* …goes without saying: if a publisher asks for money it’s likely a ‘vanity press’ or some similar scam. caveat emptor.

To authors, all I can do is caution you to think things through. It might not be a bad idea to get some professionals to help — even the most die-hard DIY weekend-warrior will hire an electrician or plumber. And instead of trading equity in the book, maybe think of editing and production like any other household and/or life expense, and find some other way to pay the money out of pocket to get the work done. Be a smart book owner: do your research, consider your options, treat the pros you hire to work on your book the same as a contractor who works on your home (i.e. with respect, with open communication about scope of work and expectations, with a clear outline for when the work is complete and when payments will be made). (There isn’t a Yelp for online freelancers—that I know of—but as the market grows, maybe there will be? Never be afraid to ask for references or a portfolio …or to ask other writers for recommendations.)

Just like a major change to your home, you’re going to have to live with the results for a long time, maybe the rest of your life.



Links and Thoughts 37: 27 October 2014

filed under , 27 October 2014, 08:05 by

Oscar Peterson – C Jam Blues

Good Morning.

I’m in a backlog-clearing-mode so this is going to be a much longer link dump carefully curated set of thought-provoking articles. All of these would normally post under the Cities and Citizens tag — urban planning and development being one of my more prominent ‘hobby’ interests.

[No diary entry for this post, but there is a book recommendation this week — somewhere down there, after all the links.]

“Restaurants are the leading force behind reclaimed waterfronts and regenerating neighborhoods, and are a key component of mixed-use development and urban retail. When a part of the city puts itself on the map, it’s often because of a wave of trendy eateries have opened there.”
Restaurants Really Can Determine the Fate of Cities and Neighborhoods, Anthony Flint, 22 July 2014, Citylab [citylab.com]

“But Tennessee is one of 20 states with laws on the books that pose barriers to community broadband efforts—laws that in many cases were pushed by cable and telecom industry lobbyists. Thanks to Tennessee state law, EPB is prohibited from offering internet and video services to any areas outside its service area.
EPB is asking the federal government to use its authority to preempt that state law, so that it can bring its service to the underserved, largely rural areas surrounding Chattanooga. Wilson made a simultaneous filing Thursday. “
Two Cities Asked the FCC to Bypass State Laws Banning Municipal Fiber Internet, Sam Gustin, 24 July 2014, Motherboard [motherboard.vice.com]

“Some say that cities are on the rise, and suburbs are declining. I don’t think it is that simple. Rather, the new dream is based on the idea of ‘Place.’ When you go to a community with layers of history, with charm and character, where many people gather, you react emotionally and psychologically. That feeling, which everybody has experienced, is known as ‘sense of place.’ That sense has value. After six or seven decades of sprawl, many people seek it. Whether they get it in a central city, small city, suburb, or small town doesn’t matter.”
Why ‘place’ is the new American dream, Robert Steuteville, 1 Aug 2014, Better Cities & Towns [bettercities.net]

“Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts proclaiming that cities are back: that millenials want to drive less and live in cities, and that suburbs as we know them may even be dying.
“I agree that many consumers demand more walkable development, both in cities and in suburbs. But even in relatively prosperous, safe cities, the political obstacles to meeting this demand are enormous.”
Mission Accomplished? Not Yet, Michael Lewyn, 5 August 2014, Planetizen [planetizen.com]

“Almost all movement in a major city now begins with a phone. Mobile apps and interfaces help people do everything from sort through route options to locate an approaching bus or hail a taxi or for-hire vehicle. While cities and transportation regulators have released data and encouraged innovation through contests and hackathons, no U.S. city has aggressively pursued development of an integrated app that enables users to plan, book, and pay for trips across multiple travel modes. Instead, it’s the likes of Uber and Google Maps and CityMapper and RideScout that have demonstrated what is possible, and controlled the movement market to date.”
The Most Important Transportation Innovation of the Decade Is the Smartphone, Eric Goldwyn, 4 September 2014, Citylab [citylab.com]

“However improbable it might have seemed twenty, five, or even two years ago, Detroit could well be on the verge of a major turnaround that could make it one of the biggest success stories in urban America over the next decade. Yes, that goes against conventional wisdom: The standard narrative for Detroit has been about a bankrupt, vacant, decaying, post-industrial wasteland; an environmental, social and economic disaster. Detroit has been the quintessential ‘shrinking city,’ the poster child for everything that has gone wrong with the post-industrial Midwest.
“(I never did buy the ‘shrinking’ part, by the way. What really happened was a hollowing out, as central-city residents fled for the suburbs. The population of metropolitan Detroit has actually been close to stable over the past few decades due to suburban growth offsetting inner city losses. But there has been a lot of truth to the rest of the story.)”
Is it time to change the narrative about Detroit?, Kaid Benfield, 8 Sep 2014, Better Cities & Towns [bettercities.net]

“Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut used to like to say that ‘you can’t be a suburb of nowhere.’ This is the oft-repeated notion has been a rallying cry for investments to revitalize downtowns in America for three decades or so now. The idea being that you can’t have a smoking hole in your region where your downtown is supposed to be. This created a mental based on a donut. You can’t let downtown become an empty hole.”

“In this model, the old donut is inverted. What used to be the ring of health – the outer areas of the city and the inner suburban regions – are now struggling. Whereas the downtown is in pretty good shape, and the newer suburban areas are booming.”

“We’ve got three decades of experience in downtown revitalization, but much less in dealing with this newer challenge zone. I’ve said that suburban revitalization may prove to be the big 21st century ‘urban’ challenge. This is where it is happening in many cases. These areas have an inferior housing stock (often small post-war worker cottages or ranches), sometimes poor basic infrastructure, and are sometimes independent municipalities that, like Ferguson, MO, are often overlooked unless something really bad happens. Unlike the major downtown, they are often ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for most regional movers and shakers.”
The New Donut, Aaron M. Renn, 14 September 2014, Urbanophile [urbanophile.com]

“The transportation futures of these cities will largely be defined by whether these new efforts pan out or fall flat. Before elected officials and transportation authorities in these cities look too far ahead, they might be wise to glance back. During the past 50 years, citizens in Houston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles rejected transit plans only to see elements of those same plans re-emerge in today’s growing systems. By delaying the development of mass transit within their most densely populated corridors, in some cases for decades, all three cities missed opportunities to expand mobility, contributing to many of the problems they face today.”
What Old Transit Maps Can Teach Us About a City’s Future, Kyle Shelton, 10 October 2014, Citylab [citylab.com]

“One of the myths of Detroit is that it’s a frontier town — wide open, and a place where anyone can make a mark. Like a lot of frontiers, though, fences have already been laid, even if you can’t see them. Much of the downtown that is south of Adams Street is owned by Dan Gilbert. Gilbert made his fortune by starting Rock Financial, an internet-based mortgage company. He sold it to Intuit in 1999, at the peak of the first dot-com boom, for $532 million, and then, after the bubble burst, bought it back for $55 million. By then Intuit had renamed it Quicken Loans, which it’s still called today.”

“Walking around downtown during business hours, you get the feeling that someone has assembled a collection of young white men in v-neck sweaters and stylish eyeglasses and scattered them over the urban street grid. That someone would be Dan Gilbert.”
Behind every crumbling downtown is a billionaire who wants to save it, Heather Smith, 7 October 2014, Grist [grist.org]
via Can Billionaires Revitalize Decayed Downtowns?, Philip Rojc, 17 October 2014, Planetizen [planetizen.com]

Gentrification:

“These dismissals, which focus on gentrification as culture, ignore that Lee’s was a critique of the racist allocation of resources. Black communities whose complaints about poor schools and city services go unheeded find these complaints are readily addressed when wealthier, whiter people move in. Meanwhile, long-time locals are treated as contagions on the landscape, targeted by police for annoying the new arrivals.
“Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.
“Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.”
The peril of hipster economics, Sarah Kendzior, 28 May 2014, Aljazeera America [aljazeera.com]

“Urban scholars rail against the process of gentrification and its destruction of working-class communities. We read about the waves of gentrifiers and the kinds of cafes, boutiques and new amenities that they bring. We express worry to our peers that the city is going to become a bastion of elitism or a generic suburb stripped of diversity. Often, we treat gentrification as a contemporary form of urban class and racial warfare (Smith, 1996). As urbanists, however, we increasingly notice an elephant sitting in the academic corner: many (dare we say most — ‘mainstream’ and critical) urbanists are gentrifiers themselves. As Brown-Saracino (2010: 356) suggests, ‘many of us have firsthand experience with gentrification’. But what difference has this made on our research? Very little. We have created an artificial distance in our analysis because we do not examine our own relationship to the data.”
A Gentrifier? Who, Me?, Aaron M. Renn, 24 July 2014, Urbanophile [urbanophile.com]

“[T]he billion dollar question for economic developers and planning agencies throughout the United States: is urban revitalization of neighborhoods possible without the subsequent gentrification and displacement of current residents?
“Jared Green asks this important question in a recent post on the American Society of Landscape Architect’s blog, The Dirt. The most recent wave of “urban revitalization” that began in the 1990s to increase wealth in cities is noted by supporters as benefiting everyone, while critics are increasingly calling these initiatives gentrification.”
Is Urban Revitalization Possible Without Displacement and Gentrification?, Maayan Dembo, 18 October 2014, Planetizen [planetizen.com]

Atlanta – for better or for worse, my home town:

“However, despite some areas being ripe for development, much of the growth around the airport has been piecemeal, failing to leverage the airport as an economic engine, or to seamlessly connect to the airport or welcome visitors to a world-class city and region. Local residents and workers desperately seek a higher quality of life, better access to transportation options and more livable communities. Complicating the area’s development is the fact that three counties and several municipalities including Atlanta, Hapeville, College Park, East Point and Forest Park all have strong, and often competing, interests in regard to airport-area growth.”
Atlanta’s untapped potential for creating a thriving aerotropolis, Garrett Hyer, 16 July 2014, Better Cities & Towns [bettercities.net]

“‘People have been looking at these parking lots for decades wondering why they were just sitting there,’ says Amanda Rhein, senior director of transit-oriented development at MARTA. ‘It’s clear there’s a significant amount of in-town resurgence, based on the development that’s happening here, and the majority of it is within close proximity of our stations. So this is really just MARTA finally participating in that activity.’”
The Atlanta Transit Agency’s Big Plan to Convert Parking Lots into Housing, Eric Jaffe, 21 July 2014, Citylab [citylab.com]

“The highly-anticipated plan to turn Bellwood Quarry into Westside Reservoir Park, a proposed 350-acre greenspace in northwest Atlanta, has been in the works for the past eight years. Once it’s built – whenever that happens – it’s envisioned to include a 45-acre reservoir, fields for activities, and a clear view of Atlanta’s skyline. And one city councilman wants to add another amenity to that list: a new civic center.
“Earlier this week, Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond introduced a resolution asking Mayor Kasim Reed to consider replacing the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center, the 47-year-old city-owned arts and entertainment venue in Old Fourth Ward that’s likely to be sold and redeveloped, with a new facility adjacent to Bellwood Quarry.”
Should Atlanta’s next civic center be built near Bellwood Quarry?, Max Blau, 24 July 2014, Creative Loafing [clatl.com]

##

Today’s Book Recommendation comes to us via a blurb at Better Cities & Towns:

“We drew inspiration from places as diverse as Detroit, Baroda, Marquette, Flint, Grand Rapids and Traverse City in an effort to chronicle the amazing work that is already underway and provide a blueprint for others moving forward. We believe that the book is equally important for those outside of Michigan as it is for those who reside in the Great Lakes State.”

Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities, from the Michigan Municipal League, 20 September 2014, paperback, isbn 9781929923007

From the publisher’s website:
“This book goes beyond placemaking as a concept, to offer real-world examples of economic drivers and agents of social and cultural change in Michigan’s own backyard. They represent some of the many place-based catalysts that can spark the kind of transformational changes that reinvent and revitalize a community, with tangible payoffs in terms of livability, social and cultural enrichment, and economic development. But most of all, they show us that placemaking is an art not a science, and displays itself in as many shapes, sizes and colors as a community can imagine.”

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Amazon's Monopoly isn't Books.

filed under , 24 October 2014, 18:52 by

Amazon has a monopoly — but their monopoly power is not a stranglehold on books.

Amazon owns the customer base for books. Amazon owns the readers.

And now you’re about to object to my stark declaration, for obvious reasons: that’s not the way markets work. Customers are the free-est of free agents, and no one (except the government) can force you to spend money if you don’t want to. Companies don’t own customers, they are earned through competitive pricing and excellent customer service.

Customers are usually happy to be associated with a company — maybe just as a satisfied end-user, but perhaps also as a genuine fan of the product, or a smiling repeat customer at a store or restaurant, or an advocate for the brand online (through glowing reviews) — in the best/worst case: maybe you just can’t shut up about how great the damn thing is to friends, family, strangers, the internet, and even—in quiet moments alone—to yourself. A chunk of your personal identity may be tied up in the product. “Guinness Drinker”, “Steelers Fan”, “Apple User”, “Amazon Kindle Author”, Whatever. Who am I to judge? After all, your enthusiasm—no matter how fierce—is dependent on the product continuing to meet your expectations. Loyalty earned can be banked but also just as quickly frittered away; no company can coast on past accomplishments for long.

Unhappy customers are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for emergent monopolies, in fact. When you find yourself grudgingly paying money for something, maybe even something you hate, that’s generally when we know something other than ‘free markets’ are at work. Cable companies, I am looking directly at you.

So it is impossible to say that Amazon owns readers, because no one owns a customer. Except, of course, that Amazon kinda does own us.

Not all readers: there are folks who are definitely book customers, but only buy one or two books a year. There are plenty of people who borrow books from the library, dutifully adding their name to the waiting list instead of rushing out to buy the latest bestseller. There is a small contingent of Amazon haters, an even smaller group that shops online from Powells (and others), and a number employed as booksellers who can pay less than Amazon asks by using their employee discount — well, about half the time. (Amazon prices are really hard to beat.)

So not all readers. But the most avid readers? People who buy more than one book a month (or a week)? Folks who not only buy books the day they come out, but preorder them? The unlucky (or is that lucky?) few who have literally run out of space for books — every shelf is full and every flat surface has a stack of books on it? Oh yeah, these are the Amazon customers I’m talking about.

Amazon owns you. It’s not outright deed-and-title ownership, of course, because free markets etc. etc., but Amazon has your credit card on file—and the fancy one-click patent—so it is so often so much more convenient to just buy stuff there. Pre-orders are even easier, and your card isn’t charged till it ships. Amazon makes suggestions — kind, neighborly suggestions — because it knows you, everything you’ve bought or even just looked for on the site. And, since Amazon had the first ereader device worth owning, Amazon is likely your supplier of choice for your digital library, too.

You could leave Amazon. Indeed, to prove some snarky blogger wrong, you could likely go to your shelf (or lean over and pick one off the table) and hold up a book and say, “See this? This book I bought in a store! I didn’t get it from Amazon. Stuff it, Matt, you’re over-exaggerating again,” and I’d have to sit here and lump it, because even Amazon Prime subscribers and the most avid of readers will have at least one book like that.

Of course. But, he asked with a smile and a glint in his eye, did you find out about that book (or discover the author) through Amazon? Or maybe Goodreads?

Oh yeah, Amazon owns your ass.

##

Amazon, even at 20 years old, is a new business, and a new way of doing business. We can point out parallels to the past (and I have) but even after taking into account the ‘internet’ part, Amazon is still running a business quite unlike anything that has come before.

Monopoly (or monopsony) doesn’t quite fit as a description for what Amazon is doing — obviously, because from 1890 (or maybe 1911) most companies have been very circumspect about even looking like a monopoly.

So maybe we need a new word. Amazonification of a market, “related to or resembling Amazon’s transformation of book markets from 1998 to 2011” — or maybe “bezopoly” would be better. ‘Monopsony’ (currently much in vogue in this discussion) wasn’t coined until 1933, so there’s certainly a precedent for it: new vocabulary for new realities. Ignoring for a moment whatever term we’ll use for what it is – it’s easier to describe what Amazon isn’t, and Amazon is not a book monopoly.

Amazon will likely always face competition — at the very least, the indy bookstores as a group, and Apple in ebooks, and whatever-fills-the-barnes-and-noble-sized-hole that seems inevitable at this point. Outside of the book market, the two other large e-tailer competitors (eBay and Rakuten) are joined by at least two huge competitors for digital content sales (Apple iTunes and Google Play) and three huge competitors for digital services (IBM, Google, and Microsoft). Smaller competitors are also constantly nibbling around the edges, either selling their own product online or completely inhabiting a niche (think ThinkGeek, in this case, or direct-from-manufacturer sales).

In a world where Walmart is still seven times as big as Amazon, it’s kind of hard to make the argument that Bezos runs a monopoly (monopsony, bezopoly, whatever).

but what Amazon will never face off against is another ‘Amazon’ — the barriers to entry are too high: you can’t build a billion-dollar distribution operation overnight. While eBay and Rakuten are both huge online retailers, neither can assail Amazon in the book market. Barnes and Noble still sells $6 Billion in books (and assorted non-book cruft) but their website is a small fraction of that and nowhere on the scale of Amazon.

Amazon’s ‘lock’ on the avid readers can be seen as even more important

Amazon doesn’t have 100% control but it has enough:

  • and when Amazon stopped acting like Amazon (for example) in the Hachette dispute, where Amazon stopped taking preorders, stopped discounting, and shifted from two-day delivery to taking a week or two (or more), both Hachette and other trad-publishing stalwarts cried foul, saying that for Amazon to stop pleasing readers on their behalf was unfair and somehow anti-competitive. The unstated admission is that Amazon owns the readers — or at least, there was no easy way to reach Amazon’s readers without Amazon.

Amazon has the book business locked up, not through a monopoly on books but by focusing on readers. Amazon is the single biggest bookstore and likely always will be. Amazon is more than that, of course, but a huge portion of their public image is invested in books (…and specifically targeting readers as customers is also good business). It would be hard to argue that a company as customer-focused as Amazon would do anything to make anyone (any customer, anyway) unhappy — at least while Bezos is in charge. But Amazon still ‘owns’ us in ways we tend to forget about.

Is Amazon’s monopoly on the readership bad? Let me be the first to welcome our new benevolent book overlords. But the key phrase is still, “at least while Bezos is in charge” — at some point, the company will change. If you’re an Amazon customer (we’re all Amazon customers, including Kindle-published authors) my best advice is to enjoy it while you can, but keep an exit in view (or at least, in the back of your mind).

From post-World-War-II until the mid-1970s the Book-of-the-Month Club was the ‘best thing ever’ for readers. Then in the 1980s the mall bookstore chains were the ‘best thing’; in the 1990s and early aughts it was the Big Box Book Superstore. Prices have gone down, selection has gone up, and customers were happy — until the next big thing came along.

If Amazon lets it.

The best thing we could hope for, in my opinion, is Amazon as a “common carrier” for books, where publishers and authors get to compete with each other while having equal access to Amazon’s locked-in base of rabid readers. The reader becomes the product that Amazon then ‘sells’ to publishers — well, I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as access to readers, since even after the door is open you still have to convince the readers to buy from you as opposed to buying literally any other book on the planet.

It’s not in Amazon’s interest to do this, at least not for free — but we can see hints of how it might work just by noting how Amazon treats its large network of 3rd party sellers (for everything other than new books or ebooks). We should shift our thinking away from Amazon-as-retailer and toward Amazon-as-network-provider. Instead of acting like a wholesaler and ‘making’ Amazon buy the books from you for resale, petition for access to the Amazon’s ‘network’ and sell your books directly to Amazon’s readers. If Amazon will let you — my whole point is that Amazon’s real monopoly is on the readers — and I think Amazon will always want to stand in that final space between reader and seller, no matter what the rest of the book industry looks like or how we get there.



Links and Thoughts 36: 14 October 2014

filed under , 14 October 2014, 08:05 by

James Gang – Funk #49

Good Morning.

History:
It’s not a new piece but it was new to me (and likely to you as well): a good long read at the Atlantic on just what Columbus and the rest “discovered” in America -
“Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact”
1491, Charles C. Mann, 1 March 2002, The Atlantic [theatlantic.com]

Science:
“Many people blame this process on human population growth, and there’s no doubt that it has been a factor. But two other trends have developed even faster and further. The first is the rise in consumption; the second is amplification by technology. Every year, new pesticides, new fishing technologies, new mining methods, new techniques for processing trees are developed. We are waging an increasingly asymmetric war against the living world.
“But why are we at war? In the rich nations, which commission much of this destruction through imports, most of our consumption has nothing to do with meeting human needs.”
The Kink in the Human Brain— How Are Humans OK with Destroying the Planet?, George Monbiot, 12 October 2014, AlterNet [republished from Monbiot.com]

Science:
“Apollo didn’t die; it was killed. The Apollo Program might have continued for many years, evolving constantly to achieve new goals at relatively low cost. Instead, programs designed to give Apollo a future beyond the first lunar landing began to feel the brunt of cuts even before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. By the time Apollo drew to its premature conclusion – the final mission to use Apollo hardware was the joint U.S,-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission of July 1975 – NASA was busy building a wholly new space program based on the Space Shuttle. Throwing out the Apollo investment and starting over with Shuttle was incredibly wasteful both in terms of learned capabilities and money.”
The Space Shuttle was fantastic, but c’mon.
Dreaming a Different Apollo, David S.F. Portree, 13 October 2014, Wired Science Blogs – Beyond Apollo [wired.com]

Media:
“What’s going on at Twitter? Not the trendmap which shows whether people are more interested in news of Ebola or The X Factor at any given moment but the social media company itself, where the number of top executive exits has started to trend. Last week it was the turn of Vivian Schiller, the high-profile TV executive recruited less than a year ago to the newly created position of head of news and journalism partnerships. Her resignation follows those of chief operating officer Ali Rowghani and media head Chloe Sladden, two executives she thanked for ‘convincing’ her to join the company in three 140-word farewell notes tweeted last Thursday.
“Yet the fallout from internal conflicts is of less interest and importance than what these departures say about the future direction of a service that has become such an important tool for journalists. If anything, the management meltdown has simply served to highlight an ongoing struggle within Twitter over whether it should largely be a conduit for journalism or PR.”
Can Twitter make money out of breaking news or is it a PR platform?, Jane Martinson, 12 October 2014, The Guardian [theguardian.com]

Wait, should this get the Media or the Technology tag?:
“In November 2014, YouTube will open the new YouTube Space New York to give creators resources, tools, and guidance. YouTube users with more than 5,000 subscribers to their channel will have free access to equipment, workshops, and other events at the space. YouTube already has similar studios in Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo.”
YouTube to Open New Space in New York City to Give Creators Resources, Tools, and Guidance, Glen Tickle, 13 October 2014, Laughing Squid [laughingsquid.com]

Music & Technology:
“Native Instruments is trying to kill that image — or part of it, at least. Its new flagship DJ controller, the Traktor Kontrol S8, is its first to feature built-in multifunction LCD displays. You still connect to a laptop running Traktor Scratch Pro, but the onboard LCDs take the place of many tasks that would normally necessitate burying your head in your laptop’s display”
Video and plenty of pretty pictures of the deck at the link -
DJs of the future won’t be staring at their laptops, Chris Ziegler, 13 October 2014, The Verge [theverge.com]

Cities and Citizens:
“Today, those roiling factories, trains and even the very rails they rode upon are long gone. However, the rotting cavern persists, just a stone’s throw from downtown office towers, the city zoo, several multi-billion-dollar art collections and a growing residential neighborhood, all underserved by transit.
“The seemingly endless potential of the defunct rail line has inspired years of talk — but little action. Now, a new federal planning study is raising hopes for the tunnel once again and could hold lessons for other cities coping with the difficult question posed by abandoned infrastructure.”
Hopes Rise Once Again for Abandoned Philadelphia Rail Line, Ryan Briggs, 13 October 2014, Next City [nextcity.org]

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Amazon Healthcare

filed under , 13 October 2014, 23:05 by

Here’s a thing:


“I want Amazon to run healthcare instead of selling books: customer focused, zero profits, ruthlessly driving down costs, single provider”

Amazon is disrupting an entire industry (at least one — but they started with books) and by-and-large everyone agrees that even if some suppliers are hurt, Amazon’s efforts have resulted in something amazing: readers love it, a whole new class of authors love it, books are bought-sold-read-enjoyed-and-discussed in unprecedented volume and the relentless pursuit of customer satisfaction while ignoring profits (actually: reinvesting all profits in better customer outcomes) has vaulted an out-of-the-garage startup into a $122 Billion behemoth that controls either/both 41% or 67% of the market (print- and e-) in 20 short years.

Amazon, like Wal-mart, also aggressively negotiates with suppliers (publishers, in the case of Amazon) to squeeze out anything but survival margins and actively innovates to open new markets and find new ways to satisfy their customers.

I personally feel Amazon is *at least* 49% evil even if they aren’t entirely evil but I’m in the minority on that. But now I’m asking:

If Amazon is so very, very good for customers, a business to be admired and emulated, and a model for how disruption of established industries can only be good for customers

… then where is the Amazon for health care?

Why is there no push for a single-source, nationwide health care provider that would muscle both the insurers and the pharmaceutical companies to stop sucking people dry in the name of profits, and provide comprehensive health care that focuses on customers and outcomes, not the status quo and “you can keep your plan”?

Your plan sucks. My plan sucks. The whole health care mess is ripe, overripe, for disruption on the scale that Amazon has foisted upon an unsuspecting book industry.

The famous quote is “Your margin is my opportunity“. Other than higher education (and college loans are another rant) there is no other industry with fatter margins than healthcare. Amazon’s predatory tactics — excuse me, ‘innovations’ — are given a huge thumbs-up by the Dept. of Justice [“nope nope no threat of monopoly here”] so let’s let Amazon loose on an industry that actually needs a shakeup.

Disclaimer: I personally believe in government supplied, single-payer healthcare – “medicare for everyone”. Which you probably already guessed. That said, I’m also 100% for an ‘Amazon’ Healthcare system where a private company borrows billions — and gets a free pass from Wall Street for at least five years — to provide customer-driven health outcomes at lowest cost, with delivery anywhere, and focused not on what the suppliers have predetermined the market wants but instead is open to actual demand as determined by what customers are asking for.

I invite comments: if Amazon is such a great business model, why in the hell don’t we have Amazon healthcare yet?



Links and Thoughts 35: 13 October 2014

filed under , 13 October 2014, 08:05 by

Jerry Masucci Presents Salsa, Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium, 1973 [1hr 17min]

Good Morning.

Music:
Our first link (and also the musical embed from YouTube, above) go to a great conversation I heard on NPR last Friday, remembering and celebrating “salsa dura”, the music created in New York in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, by Peurto Rican immigrants (and others) in what was called Spanish Harlem. 48 minutes of audio at the link:
“Crisp, hard, irresistible music for dancing. Not the softer, romantic salsa of today, but the driving, percussive salsa you could have heard any night down at the Palladium Ballroom. These days, Spanish Harlem Orchestra keeps it hot and alive. Old school. Still irresistible. This hour On Point: the music of Spanish Harlem Orchestra and bandleader Oscar Hernandez, with salsa dura.”
There Is An Orchestra In Spanish Harlem, On Point with Tom Ashbrook, NPR, 10 October 2014

Cities and Citizens:
“Richer people, the researchers found, tend to own single-family homes and drive cars even when they live in highly urbanized neighborhoods. In other words, even though there is a diverse range of suburban and urban neighborhoods, the affluent people who live in them lead relatively similar lifestyles. As the rich move back to cities, they take their preferences for and abilities to purchase larger home or condos and private cars.”
The Fading Distinction Between City and Suburb, Richard Florida, 6 October 2014, City Lab [citylab.com]

Education:
“About half of the graduating class of 2014 has already found gainful employment. But a survey by jobs site CareerBuilder.com has found about half of those people are working in jobs that do not require a college degree.
“The survey found that 31% are not working at all, while 4% are in internships and 12% are working at temp jobs. Only 51% of those currently working said their position was related to their college major.
“There’s nothing wrong with starting at the bottom and working your way up – as long as you aren’t carrying a massive student loan balance. In some cases, the first post graduation jobs is simply stop-gap employment – on the way to something better.”
Most employed 2014 college grads in jobs that don’t require degree, Mark Huffman, 9 October 2014, Consumer Affairs [consumeraffairs.com]

“Only 44 percent of Americans now say getting a college education is ‘very important.’ That’s down from 75 percent in the same annual poll just four years ago. The real answer is: It depends. If you’re a Columbia grad with a computer-science degree, you can probably write your own ticket. But if you’ve spent six years and gone into debt for a degree in hospitality, you probably won’t get the return on investment that would make it worthwhile. The poll numbers reflect this reality, as people see their children coming out of college and then taking jobs that require no more than a high-school diploma.”
Is college worth it?, Post Editorial Board, 22 September 2014, New York Post [nypost.com]

“There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt. Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty. There are movements to control tuition, to forgive student debt, to create more powerful ‘assessment’ tools, to offer ‘free’ university materials online, to combat adjunct faculty exploitation. But each of these movements focuses on a narrow aspect of a much wider problem, and no amount of ‘fix’ for these aspects individually will address the real reason that universities in America are dying.”
How Higher Education in the US Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps, Debra Leigh Scott, 16 October 2012, AlterNet [alternet.org]

just one more link this morning, an ‘in case you missed it’:

Anime:
“The sheer size of the [Mobile Suit Gundam] franchise though, combined with all the twists and turns and alternate timelines, is daunting (to say the least) for the casual anime viewer. All the information you need is available from Wikipedia and other sources, but once again, the volume of material is a huge barrier to entry. Where do you start?
“I still can’t tell you where to start – but I can give you a list:”
Gundam Reference, Rocket Bomber, posted yesterday (12 October 2014).

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