Category Archives: social media

Poverty in America vs. Poverty in India: The Making of Bestsellers?

I just wrote this article and uploaded it on Thingser, the only social network that lets you do this – write an article and post it on the platform – if you don’t believe me, try doing this on Facebook!

It comes with the Thingser logo as a featured image to draw attention to this special feature:

And here’s the article:

POVERTY IN AMERICA vs. POVERTY IN INDIA: A JUICY SUBJECT FOR BESTSELLERS?

 

Featured image on NYT review of Evicted, published February 26, 2016

 A book about poverty, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist and Harvard University professor and Co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, was defined by the New York Times as “an astonishing book”. Before going on sale on March 1, 2016, it had already 23 positive “customer reviews” on Amazon. The publisher, Crown Publishers, is ensuring this will be a smashing hit, including pricing the hardcover edition lower than the digital edition. The objective? Echo Katherine Boo’s success with her 3-year study of a Mumbai slum. Here are the reasons why such a book, in spite of its dark, depressing content, is very likely to make it as a major best seller and perhaps even as a future blockbuster movie.   

In a recent and impassioned review of Matthew Desmond’s latest book, Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City, to be published shortly (on 1 March 2016, Crown Publishers), the New York Times wryly noted: “Poverty in America has become a lucrative business, with appalling results”.

The author of the review is Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted political activist who was perhaps the first one to publish a best seller about the subject of poverty,  Nickel and Dimed that came out in 2001.

It caused a stir and inspired others to follow in her path, including Adam Shepard with Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream and Charles Platt with his blog “Boing, Boing”.

Ms. Ehrenreich is also the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) dedicated to “supporting journalism, photo and video about economic struggle”. EHRP is run by editor-in-chief Alissa Quart, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and author of a socially-oriented non-fiction book Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers .

Published in 2003, it was considered a “substantive follow-up to Naomi Klein’s No Logo” (Publishers’ Weekly).

In 2012, Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist and recipient of a Pulitzer prize, erupted on this American scene focused with her best selling book about poverty in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum .

It instantly earned praise from everyone that counts (1,851 customer reviews on Amazon, over 8,000 reviews on Goodreads) and an accolade from best-selling author Junot Diaz on the New York Times, calling it “a book of extraordinary intelligence and humanity…beyond groundbreaking”.

What have all these authors in common?

They all did something unusual…

Click here to read the rest.

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Click with Compassion

That’s what Monica Lewinsky tells us in her moving TED talk that has just come out, a talk that is a call for action against our “culture of humiliation”, magnified by the Internet, where, alas, cyber-bullying is too often the order of the day.

You can see her talk here:
It got a standing ovation, a rare event on TED and (in my view) well deserved.

Before that talk, she had written an essay on Vanity Fair (published in June 2014, you can see it here). Titled “Shame and Survival”, it is brilliantly written and was even nominated for a National Magazine Award for best Essay Writing. In a way, more than the TED talk itself, it constituted for Monica a real comeback, after over a decade of silence as she tried to rebuild her life. Much of what she says in the TED talk is already there, in the essay.

Two things stand out in that essay: one, the headline picture which shows us a sophisticated woman, eons away from the beret-wearing girl with the blue dress that we all remember:

The other thing is something she quotes towards the end of her essay, a snippet from a “New York Supergals” cocktail party conversation held at a chic New York City restaurant, Le Bernardin, in January 1998, to discuss, a week after the scandal had exploded in the media, what it really meant from a female/feminist point of view. That conversation was recorded by writer Francine Prose and published in The New York Observer under the telling title “Supergals Love that Naughty Prez”.

Yes, the feminists took President Clinton’s side – and what a coterie they were: writers Erica Jong, Nancy Friday, Katie Roiphe, and Elizabeth Benedict; Saturday Night Live writer Patricia Marx; Marisa Bowe, the editor of Word, an online magazine; fashion designer Nicole Miller; former dominatrix Susan Shellogg; and their host, Le Bernardin co-owner Maguy Le Coze. 

Monica imagines herself participating in that meeting, inserting in their conversation her own remarks in italics – it’s an interesting exercise in trying to reshape the past, and I quote it here from the VF article:

Marisa Bowe: His whole life is about having to be in control and really intelligent all the time. And his wife is really intelligent and in control all the time. And the idea of just having stupid sex with some not-brilliant woman in the Oval Office, I can see the appeal in that.

Imaginary Me: I’m not saying I’m brilliant, but how do you know I’m not? My first job out of college was at the White House.

Susan Shellogg: And do you think it’s tremendously selfish? Selfish and demanding, having oral sex and not reciprocating? I mean … she didn’t say, “Well, you know he satisfied me.”

Me: And where exactly “didn’t” I say this? In which public statement that I didn’t make? In which testimony that’s not been released?

Katie Roiphe: I think what people are outraged about is the way that [Monica Lewinsky] looks, which is interesting. Because we like to think of our presidents as sort of godlike, and so if J.F.K. has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s all in the realm of the demigods…. I mean, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.

Me: Well, thanks. The first picture that surfaced was a passport photo. Would you like to have a passport photo splattered across publications around the world as the picture that defines you?

What you are also saying here is that the primary quality that would qualify a woman to have an intimate relationship with a powerful man is physical attractiveness. If that’s not setting the movement back, I don’t know what is.

Erica Jong: My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease.

Shellogg: What do you think will happen to [her]? I mean, she’ll just fade out quietly or write a book? Or people will forget about her six months from now?

Nancy Friday: She can rent out her mouth.

Me: (Speechless.)

Jong: But, you know, men do like to get close to the mouth that has been close to power. Think of the fantasy in the man’s mind as she’s going down on him and he’s thinking, “Oh my God.”

Elizabeth Benedict: Do for me what you did to the President. Do that.

Me: (Still speechless.)

Jong: I think it’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that we’re not trashing Monica Lewinsky.

Mmm, yes, of course they were the feminists of 1998. Times have changed (I hope). What strikes me in all this is Monica Lewinsky’s basic contention that “the price of shame” exacted by the Internet is much higher than it would ever have been possible without it.

Hugh Merle’s painting – Scarlet Letter

And perhaps that explains why over here, in Europe and particularly in France, as we watched the scandal unfold in the USA, we wondered why American society was reacting so violently to what seemed like a minor case of “sex at work” – hardly something to write home about. I remember we all figured that Americans were over-reacting to their President’s philandering out of puritanism; after all, those were the roots of American culture, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous Scarlet Letter etc.  etc.

But we tended to overlook the fact that in 1998, the Internet was not present in Europe the way it already was in the US. And now that the Internet has invaded Europe (and the world for that matter), the philandering of powerful political figures is no longer taken so lightly. The French have notably changed their mind in how they view President Hollande’s whizzing about on a motorbike to see his latest paramour or Dominique Strauss Kahn‘s sexual pranks.

The Internet does change how people view other people’s lives. As Monica Lewinsky says, “how do we cope with the shame game as it’s played in the Internet Age?”

In closing her essay, she tells us that her current goal is to “get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums”. She has certainly started doing that with a bang and should be congratulated for the courage she is showing in coming out. 

So please, let’s follow her advice, let’s call on everyone to click with compassion!

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Is the Amazon Customer Review System Broken?

English: Studio publicity portrait of the Amer...

In principle, book reviews spur sales. But on Amazon, they don’t seem to. Any author who’s following the sales of his/her books can testify to this: when good reviews come in, they rarely signal a spurt in sales. Yet book reviews are needed to be able to use the better advertisers like BookBub that will not take an author’s books unless a sizeable number of reviews can be shown, and particularly reviews from “authoritative” sources.

Add to this the now confirmed fact that e-book sales have gone very badly in recent months and Amazon’s bottom line is showing it. David Streitfeld in an article in the Business Standard, (see here, it was then picked up by the New York Times) has drawn attention to the fact that “to secure its upper hand, Amazon disrupts its own model.”

What Streitfeld is talking about is this: some $250 million in profits that had been expected by analysts somehow went missing last summer. Why? It seems Amazon practiced deep discounts and giveaways, offering free music, videos and e-books and that hurt profits. And of course Wall Street took note.  The argument is that Amazon is doing this on purpose to secure an ever-increasing share of the market – until it will be the only retail colossus on the scene.

But a lot of people have rushed forward with other reasons for the slowdown in Amazon sales, in particular attributing it to the long drawn-out Amazon-Hachette dispute (it last 6 months!) and continuing disaffection from once-loyal clients.

Whatever the reason, there is one thing that works poorly on Amazon and it’s their customer reviews of books. As long as Amazon doesn’t make an effort to organize it better, Amazon’s hope to compete with Hachette or any other “Big Publisher” is doomed. Because traditional publishers have got their buzz-around-books model down pat: they get top reviewers to write in major newspapers and magazines, they organize big prizes like the National Book Award or the Puliter, all events that drive traffic and draw the public. All stuff that’s closed to self-published authors and where authors published by Amazon imprints get little space, if any.

But we all know the arguments: This is the digital revolution that has enabled self-published authors to compete with traditional publishers. And Amazon rankings work to show who are the top sellers. And Amazon’s system in the Kindle Store is totally democratic, driven by the customers likes and dislikes, allowing everyone to express his or her opinion and the sales numbers speak for themselves.

Until they don’t.

You have books with thousands of reviews…and they don’t sell or don’t sell as much as you might expect. You don’t believe me? Look here (a book with over 2,000 reviews and a ranking on Amazon above #6,000) and here (over 800 reviews and a ranking above #10,000). Of course, there’s a high correlation if you check out the pages with books that have over 1,000 four-star reviews and above (see here) – there are nearly a million titles there, and the correlation is strong at first, as long as the number of reviews is above one thousand, but as you keep going through them, the correlation starts to fail you.

First lesson: you need at least a thousand reviews (more or less) to hope to sell steadily in the Kindle Store. But your book can still peter out, like this one, the Shadow of the Wind: over 1500 reviews and a ranking that doesn’t reflect it, at over #5,000 – and that happens to be one of my favorite books, I highly recommend it, it’s an extraordinary combination of dark poetry and suspense.

Second lesson: reviews on Amazon mean relatively little. In spite of Amazon’s policing efforts (they’ve gone after “sock-puppet reviews” in a systematic way since the 2012 scandal), it is still a fact that a 5-star review can be written by a friend or by someone who has absolutely no idea of literature or more simply, doesn’t know the difference between a good read and a bad one.  Ditto of one and two-star reviews.

Consider this one, about Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (click here), a particularly juicy dyad of 2-star reviews; here’s the screenshot:

As the friend who drew my attention to this said: “I’d like to know what Tennessee Williams would have said.”

Indeed. And to think that the second reviewer (“Kona”) is ranked by Amazon as a “vine voice” and “top 1,000 reviewer”… In short, someone whose reviews are appreciated by both Amazon and its customers. Someone who presumably has an “experienced” taste and a professional touch: you get up there in the Amazon Hall of Fame of reviewers by doing lots and lots of reviews and having lots and lots of people clicking that button which says that “they found the following review helpful”.

So what is wrong? I am not going to go into what happens with reviews of other products on sale on Amazon, the endless electronic gadgets, apparel etc – I shall limit myself here to books (a product I happen to know something about).

And books require special handling. You can like or dislike a book but that is not enough to constitute a helpful review. The next person doesn’t know you and may not share your tastes. So anyone doing a review should always explain the how and the why a book is likeable or detestable: that’s only fair to whoever is going to read your review. And the reviewer needs to come to some sort of conclusion that is reflected in the number of stars awarded. You can’t say something is absolutely transcendentally wonderful and then give it 3 stars because it’s not the kind of book you normally read or like. If something is transcendentally wonderful, then it deserves 5 stars, full stop. There is an organic linkage between the value judgments expressed and the number of stars given.

Reviews are not easy to do.

In fact, since the 19th century at least, book reviews have been in the hands of literary experts, people who are both widely read and know how to express a judgment clearly. This is far from simple and not everyone can do it or has the time to do it. Professors of literature at universities can do this successfully, they have the time and in a way it’s part of their job; best-selling authors can do this, and in general writers are good at this because they were all born readers first. You are never going to be a good writer if you’re not an avid reader in the first place; and someone able to read critically, as Francine Prose has so masterfully explained in her book Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperCollins, 2006) By the way, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

On this blog, I have argued in the past (see here) that Amazon should provide help in guiding book reviews, ensuring that major points normally covered in a professional book review are in fact covered (for example, the setting, the development of characters, plot pace, language/dialogues etc). But if Amazon is not willing to help and possibly fears that this type of guidance would be viewed by its customers as an unbearable intrusion, then there is another way to do this.

Amazon already has in place this Vine Program for reviewers (I blogged about it here). But at the moment, the program covers reviews of any sort, and top reviewers tend to review anything they wish, and remarkably enough, the very top reviewers (highest rank) cover all sorts of products but no books!  No books at all, or very few books, and in a most desultory way, reaping in fact very few votes from online viewers.

What Amazon should do is establish a Vine Program for Books Only. Book review guidelines should be issued and reviewers would be able to maintain their rank only if they follow the guidelines. And, once the system is up and running, the ranking of reviewers could start to take place, in order to arrive overtime at 1,000 top-notch book reviewers. My guess is that those reviewers are likely to be literary types of all kinds, including bloggers who specialize in reading  books in given genres.

Once Amazon has got a Vine Program for Books going, they should consider revamping the book description page, separating customer reviews from Vine Program reviews. That would be very important. Because at a glance, you could read the reviews that you can trust, that you know come from people who love books, read them all the time and can talk about them in a meaningful way.

At that point, and at that point only, would book reviews start to make sense and jumpstart the famous book buzz everyone is looking for, readers and writers alike…

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Why a Best Selling Author Turns to Crowdfunding

I interviewed indie author Marsha Roberts for Impakter to find out why she is turning to crowdfunding for her book, “Confessions of an Instinctively Mutinous Baby Boomer“, a highly acclaimed inspirational memoir that has sold very well so far, many thousands of copies. Here’s the article:

 

https://i1.wp.com/impakter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/large__11702568145-1050x787.jpg

Marsha Roberts, a “Mutinous Baby Boomer”, Turns to Crowdfunding

on 17 November, 2014 at 07:00

Memoirs are all the rage lately, as one Norwegian writer famously proved by reporting minutely on his daily life including his breakfast (no need to refer to him by name here), and Marsha Roberts’ Confessions of an Instinctively Mutinous Baby Boomer recounting major events in her life, has turned out to be one of the most popular self-published books with the Boomer generation. And it’s also a big deal with other generations, including younger people, basically with  all those curious about life and its challenges. It has been acclaimed by customers on Amazon that showered it with 5-star reviews (38 to date, a strikingly high number), the prestigious Kirkus Review has praised it as “an optimistic look at the magic of life”, and the book was an instant success in the Goodreads group I created to discuss Boomer Lit. People have said “I’ve enjoyed this so much that I read it twice”, a rare occurrence.

I wondered why Marsha would use Indiegogo for an already published book, and a successful one at that, and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Your book is so popular, why did you go to Indiegogo, what obstacles are you facing and that you hope to remove with funding?

First off, Claude, thank you so much for having me here and for supporting my IndieGoGo campaign. I really appreciate it. As far as what obstacles I hope to remove with funding, in two words: marketing issues! You have researched and written extensively about the world of indie publishing and you know better than most the difficulties we face.

I certainly do, indie publishing is perhaps the toughest marketplace any entrepreneur could get into. How do you see it?

From my perspective, the biggest drawback to being an indie author is that we don’t have the professional publicity and marketing machine that major publishers use to push their main authors. You can only take your book so far without spending a significant amount of money, just like the publishers do. It’s the way business works.

 …

To read the full article and find out more about why Marsha is doing this, go to Impakter, click here.

Marsha, thanks for taking the time to speak to me, and I urge everyone who’s read this to contribute. As little as $5 will go a long way! Click here to go to Marsha’s Indiegogo campaign and help a writer with an undisputed and remarkable talent so she can get her book known to a broader public. There are tons of people out there who need to read this book and don’t know that they need to!

 

Available here

 

 

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The Future According to Google

Cover of "Zoolander"

The United States has historically been a laboratory of the future for the rest of the world: I remember how I was awed when I arrived in New York in the 1960s and saw what the future looked like, with gigantic highways, sprawling suburbs and televisions everywhere.

Now the US is doing it again, if you know where to look. David Leonhardt, heading The Upshot, a new New York Times venture focused on investigative and analytical journalism (and that means data-crunching), recently reported the results of a study done following a suggestion from Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian.

I bet Google’s chief economist hadn’t expected the kind of results shown in that study…

The piece, titled “Inequality and Web Search Trends – In One America, Guns and Diet. In the Other, Cameras and ‘Zoolander‘”, explains how the research was done. Serious stuff, analyzing a decade of search data county by county across the whole of the US, categorized by an income-education-health index and then comparing the results to web searches on Google to uncover people’s interests and concerns at both ends of the income distribution.

What rich people search for on Google compared to poor people.

Leonhardt summarized the picture in a couple of striking sentences: “In the hardest places to live in the United States, people spend a lot of time thinking about diets and religion. In the easiest places to live, people spend a lot of time thinking about cameras.”

The portrait is suggestive.

Rich people are concerned with acquiring the latest technology and traveling to distant lands. The poor worry about their health and look for weight-loss diets (the new poverty in America is associated with obesity).

The article concludes on a note of pessimism, highlighting the fact that the rich are “intent on passing down their way of life to the next generation, via Baby Bjorns and early access to technology.”

As noted by Leonhardt, “That last point may be the most troubling. The different subjects that occupy people’s thoughts aren’t just a window into American life today. They’re a window onto future inequality, too.”

Yes, that’s what future inequality will look like: access to new technology and round-the-world travel will be reserved to the rich and likely to be denied to the masses. Why?  Too expensive.Another NYT article from The Upshot suggests that we may all be stuck in rut: there is evidence that in climbing the social ladder, geographic location matters. The chances that a child raised in the bottom fifth will rise to the top are lowest in the “old South”, around 4% in places like Atlanta and Charlotte. Conversely, they are much better in the North, for example 33% in Willinston, North Dakota. Clearly, parental and school environment matters.

Does this sound depressing to you? To me, it does. Yet, I believe it’s important to know where we’re headed as a civilization. The 20th century saw the rise of the middle class, and that rise continues around the world, as people in developing countries are climbing out of poverty. But the middle class has stalled in America and the on-going (triple dip?) recession in Europe is not helping. It looks like the happy days of the middle class are over in the developed world…

Personally, I hope I’m wrong about that. Still, I did try to imagine our future on the basis of such trends and the result (as all those following this blog already know) can be found in my latest book “Forever Young”. My goal was simple, I did not want to write fantasy science fiction, I wanted to take a “hard” look at what our future would really be like. I only wish this NYT study had come out sooner, as I was writing my book, but at least I feel vindicated: this is confirmation that my premise is sound…Nevertheless, I still hope the trends towards inequality that we see today – especially in a book like Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” – will ultimately prove wrong.

Can the Millennials get us out of the inequality rut?

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To Publish AND Perish – Will the Tsunami of e-books Destroy our Culture?

This article was published on Impakter (under my real name, Claude Forthomme):

https://i0.wp.com/impakter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/paisaje15-1050x582.jpg

To Publish and Perish

on 20 August, 2014 at 09:00

Amazon and its 3.4 Million E-Books: the End of Culture?

For a long while now, people have debated how many e-books Amazon carried it in its Kindle Store, because Amazon has never divulged the data. Some daringly ventured the figure of 1.5 million. Wrong! The real figure is close to 3.4 million and I found it by chance, as I was navigating Amazon’s website for Amazon Associates which provides links, banners and widgets you can upload to your blog to help advertise Amazon products.
Here it is in a screen shot I took on August 19, 2014:
Look at what the red arrow points to: “Results from Amazon Kindle Store…3,376,174 . Three days later that figure had grown by over 9,000 units and stood at 3,385,243, climbing ever closer to 3.4 million. This means that everyday over 3,000 titles are added, that’s over one million books per year – and probably growing at an exponential rate that I cannot calculate for the moment; I haven’t got the data though Amazon does (I wonder whether they are as scared as I am).

Or to put it another way: It takes one hour to add 12 books, one new title every five minutes.

You can bet that in 10 years time the number of titles in the Kindle Store could be anywhere between 20 and 40 million books.

This is as many books as Google is said to have scanned globally, drawing from all the world’s libraries (the latest reported figure dates to last year and was 33 million books).

Surprised? I’m not, not really. Internet guru Jaron Lanier, in his fascinating book “Who Owns the Future” suggests that we should eventually expect as many writers online as there are readers. If he’s right (and there’s not reason to believe him wrong), we still have some way to go. But it will surely happen, and probably sooner than you think.

When that happens, what will the e-book market look like? Lanier reminds us that this is what happened to music already.

Are books like music? Not quite, books are a more complete codification of ideas, they can play on emotions the way music does (for example, a romance novel or lines of poetry) but they also encapsulate ideas and ideology (from Hegel to Marx to contemporary thought gurus, like Lanier himself).

So can we expect our culture to get crushed under the numbers?

Again, Lanier tells us how he sees the future. Books will be increasingly linked to devices – think of how the rise of e-books was linked to the Kindle. When that happens, says Lanier: “some good books from otherwise obscure authors will come into being. These will usually come to light as part of the rapid-growth phase, or “free rise” of a new channel or device for delivering the book experience.” He doesn’t say it, but of course Amanda Hocking and John Locke‘s sudden rise to fame immediately comes to mind. They enjoyed a “heightened visibility” on the Kindle, as they were “uniquely available early on on that device.” And Lanier to conclude: “In this way, an interesting author with just the right timing will occasionally get a big boost from a tech transition”.

Is that good for authors? No, says Lanier, “the total money flowing to authors in the system will decline to a fraction of what it was before digital networks.” The future reserved to authors is exactly the same as what musicians are facing today: “Most authors will make most of their book-related money in real time, from traveling, live appearances or consulting instead of book sales.”

Authors in future will be a vastly different lot from what they are today, no more hiding in the ivory tower as “independent scholars”

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Is Google Plus on its Way Out?

I just published one of my articles on a new cool magazine, Impakter. Here’s the opening:

The geeks are convinced of it, Google is about to snuff out Google Plus. The younger generations, the Millenials in particular, consider Google+ a social media disaster. Something totally useless, even laughable. A month ago, Google Plus’ founding father, Vic Gundotra, resigned and rumors were that Google+ staff was being relocated, possibly to the Android platform.
Does that spell the end for Google+?
A lot of people in the blogosphere think so. Tech Crunch is convinced of it…

To read the rest, click here.

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