Tag Archives: Book review

Death of the Euro: Thinking the Unthinkable

Impakter Magazine just published my latest article, here it is:

BOOK REVIEW “THE EURO: HOW A COMMON CURRENCY THREATENS THE FUTURE OF EUROPE” BY JOSEPH. E. STIGLITZ (PUBLISHED BY W.W. NORTON & CO, AUGUST 16, 2016)

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s latest literary effort, a new book about the travails of the Euro and Europe, published in August with the apt title “The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe” couldn’t land in the muddy European political waters at a more appropriate time.

The summer of 2016 was a turning point for the so-called “European Project” – Europe’s long-run attempt to build a United States of Europe that began with the 1957 Treaty of Rome setting up the European Economic Community (EEC) with six founding members (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg), and continued in 1993, with the Maastricht Treaty, the European Union (EU) with (up to now) 28 member countries.

 

Problems have piled up this summer, relentlessly.

The opening salvo came in June with the UK referendum that unexpectedly led to “Brexit”, the decision to leave the European Union with 17.4 million Brits voting in favor. For the first time since its foundation, the EU is expected not to expand but to contract, down to 27 members – probably by 2019, when UK exit negotiations will be completed.

 

The most recent problem came in October with another referendum, this time in Hungary, calling on the population to disregard EU policies on refugees and reject quota obligation to accommodate asylum seekers. The referendum did not break the 50% threshold and the result was therefore declared illegal, but it did demonstrate that once again, a hefty minority, 3.6 million Hungarians (43% of voters), supported their government’s continuing opposition to Brussels.

 
Against this background, Joseph Stiglitz’s book has special resonance.
 
As he convincingly argues, the Euro was supposed to bring the European project forward but it has done nothing of the kind – if anything, the European Project has suffered setbacks just as much outside as within the countries of the Eurozone, the 19 EU members who use the Euro as a common currency. Incidentally, this is not a minor currency: The 19 European countries together account for roughly 14 percent of world GNP, making it the third largest economy in the world, after the United States (20 percent) and China (18 percent).
 
Do not delude yourself into thinking this is not important for the rest of the world: should the Euro collapse, the shock would shake the whole world.
 
It could even start another Great Depression.

A SLOW DEATH

Stiglitz minces no words in roundly chastising European leaders for “muddling through” a succession of Euro crises, ever since the first Greek debt scandal broke out in 2010. The book is a convincing diagnosis of what went wrong and why successive “bailouts” of Greece (three so far) have failed miserably, leaving the country six years later with an inexorably rising debt and a Gross Domestic Product diminished by a quarter, while the exceptionally high unemployment (a mind-boggling 50% for the young) won’t budge – really as bad as a war. Stiglitz’ detailed description of the Greek case is harrowing. A must read for anyone who hasn’t followed the drama closely.

And he is equally convincing in arguing that Ireland, often promoted (mostly by Germans) as the “poster child” of the success of Europe’s monetary and austerity policies is no such thing. EU-imposed austerity measures “helped ensure that Ireland’s unemployment rate remained in double digits for five years, until the beginning of 2015, causing untold suffering for the Irish people and a world of lost opportunities that can never be regained.”

Tough words that apply equally well to the other “crisis countries” of the Eurozone. For example, Portugal, also promoted by the IMF as a “success”, is far from that: The facts are that “the government might be borrowing with more ease, but the Portuguese people never experienced a real recovery.” Indeed, across Europe, excessive reliance on austerity and monetary policy “has resulted in even greater inequality: the big winners are the wealthy, who own stocks and other assets […]; the big losers are the elderly who put their money in government bonds, only to see the interest rates generated virtually disappear.”

 

The reason for such a deplorable state of affairs?  

First, a misplaced belief in what another famous economist, Paul Krugman, calls the “confidence fairy”: the idea that with austerity and a balanced budget, business confidence will be restored, which overlooks the simple fact that when consumer demand is depressed, business has no incentive to invest. In a recession, the confidence fairy, as Krugman says, becomes a zombie.

 

To read the rest, click here

NOTE TO MY READERS: Stiglitz’s advice on how to fix the Euro is truly excellent, and I sincerely hope our political leaders will read this book and act on it. I’ve tried to focus on the policy measures that are really doable among the many ideas Stiglitz presents. Eminently practical, they would take VERY LITTLE EFFORT… if only Germany would stop focusing on stupid austerity policies that are destroying Europe!

Go over to Impakter to read about those policy measures and tell me what you think!

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How to promote your book and win reviews at the same time

Reviews sell books, right? But the problem is to get them. Ads are easy, you pay for them but they tend to be ignored unless you tie them to a promotion, making your book free or at 99 cents for a short period. The grand-daddy of book promoters is of course BookBub, recently joined by EBookBargainUK and EbookSoda, all excellent sites if you want that kind of promotion.

But how about tying your efforts to garner reviews with free book promotions? 

Story Cartel has the answer, to check it out, see here. I thought I’d test it out. I recently joined and here’s how my book looks on the Story Cartel site: free digital copies are distributed in exchange for honest reviews, though no one is required to post a review.

Looks nice, doesn’t it? It’s sitting there together with related books and a notice clearly indicating how long the offer lasts (at the time of this writing, 17 more days). To see it on the Story Cartel site, click the image.

Actually offers on Story Cartel are meant to last 20 days (I already lost 3 days in telling you about it!). And when the promotion is over, Story Cartel organizes a sweepstake among reviewers and the winners get a free printed copy that I have agreed to provide, in total 5 print copies (offer limited to the US).

So if you enter, you can even get a free print copy delivered to your home!

I don’t know how well such a promotion works – I shall let you know asap. If anyone has used it, please leave a comment about your experience! 
And there are already some very positive evaluations of Story Cartel, see here:

Cover Wars: Vote for your favorite book cover and don’t forget to vote mine, (grin) it’s “Crimson Clouds”. Check it out here. They all look great (even if I really like mine)!
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Customer Reviews: the Best of Marketing Tools or the Worst?

Customer reviews are the latest buzz in marketing:

Illustration of DNA

Image via Wikipedia

They are used by everyone, from hotel keepers to fiction writers. As marketing tools go, they are cheap by definition: a customer review is meant to be a customer’s own independent opinion.
It’s no surprise that when you travel, you find them on TripAdvisor, when you go to a restaurant, you find them on Zagat, when you’re looking to buy a book, you find them on Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing.com, the Reading Roomand a host of virtual book clubs, both in the US, the UK and all across Europe.When Customer Reviews Boomerang
Problems have turned up with customer reviews in all these areas and for obvious reasons. Chief among them: corruption. It is understandable that in a highly competitive market, all shots are allowed. If not allowed, at least tried. Friends will write favorable reviews. Businesses will be tempted to provide incentives (say a discount) for good reviews.

But – there’s always a but! – if the customer review system is broadly corrupted, it collapses. Nobody believes in it anymore, potential clients run away. The best of marketing tool suddenly boomerangs, and turns into the worst.

So those who run customer review systems have to be very, very careful and constantly weed out the offenders.

The Amazon Solution
Amazon is probably one of the most adept at this sort of game – mainly because it uses a double prong.

On the one hand, it has set up boxes for customer reviews (with one to 5 stars) as well as buttons for “likes” just below the book title (for those who can’t be bothered to write reviews) and buttons for “tags” (to indicate agreement with descriptive keywords that help in searching for the book – you the reader can also provide the tag you feel best describes the book).

On the other hand, Amazon keeps track of every customer’s past acquisitions. In other words, it uses social feedback and buying behavior. That’s what I mean by a double prong. What doesn’t come out right with one is corrected by the other.

Very clever, and no doubt it explains to a large extent the success of Amazon as a virtual bookstore, where much of the book discovery work is already done for you, and you are directed into virtual shelves that contain books similar to what you have bought in the past and that correspond to your tastes.

Trouble is: what happens if you want to get out of your past purchases and try something new? It recently happened to a friend of mine: in a bout of enthusiasm, she had filled her newly-bought Kindle with all sorts of 99 cents books, just to see what they were like. After a while, disappointed by most of them, she had decided she wanted to try something else. A different genre, a different price range. She knew the sort of thing she liked, but Amazon didn’t. And at that point, finding a book became very, very difficult. She should have probably started from scratch and moved into the Amazon site incognito!

Why Book Discovery is so Difficult
Actually, we are touching here the core issue of what makes book discovery so very difficult.

Few books are actually genuinely “discovered”. Trouble is: social feedback – i.e. book reviews – feeds on itself.

What drives public awareness of a book are marketing dollars – especially if movies are involved. When a movie is made out of a book, it becomes the buzz of the town. Of course, that’s what all aspiring writers dream of: that a movie be made from their book. The ultimate consecration. But there are various degrees of consecration like the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize etc. No matter how you view it, the book is there because somebody – usually the Big Publishers – have spent a lot of marketing dollars on it.

So in terms of book discovery, we have a very simple equation: marketing dollars drive public awareness, this in turns drives what is discoverable and recommended. Therefore bestsellers occupy the top of the heap, simply because more people know these books exist. Presumably, that leaves a lot of very good books at the bottom of the heap, undiscovered.

Can this equation be broken?

How to Make Book Discovery Easy: the BookLamp Solution
There is one interesting, experimental website that is trying to do just that: BookLamp.Org.

Arising from the “Book Genome project” started in 2003 by a bunch of students, BookLamp started working a year ago, setting up a new kind of book recommendation engine.  Similar to what Pandora does for music, it is based on what it calls the “story DNA” or “data points” – really the book’s thematic ingredients, covering both contents (physical characteristics, history, environment etc) and the way it’s written (pacing, motion, dialogue, description, density).

So far, it has some 20,000 books in its database, currently tracking over 600 million “data points of book DNA” in their system (and growing!). They started out with  fiction but also mean to cover non-fiction, and they work only with publishers, chief among them Random House and Kensington Publishing Corp.

What’s their objective? Simple: help readers find the sort of book they like to read. As they put it in their FAQs section:  “If you think about it, what we’re basically doing is championing the idea that the contents of a book – what the author actually wrote – should be the primary consideration when finding new books for readers. It shouldn’t matter that one book has a million dollar marketing budget, and the other is from a new author with no track record at all. If the content between the covers is a good match, that should be all that matters.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here is a way of discovering books independently from any marketing push, just focusing on a book’s contents. In other words, it makes the value a book potentially has for a reader the key feature, responding to a given reader’s tastes. And of course, it would be any author’s dream come true.

How does BookLamp do it? By asking you to indicate your favorite title(s), then it searches for similar stuff. The system usually works, except when some “zingers” turn up, as they call it, largely a result of not having yet a sufficiently large database to find suitable matches in every case.  For example, if you have outlying tastes and give them a book title that is unique in style (say cross genre etc), they may have trouble coming up with satisfactory choices for you.

What BookLamp Needs to Achieve its Objective
They admit themselves that they need an extra 100,000 books to smooth out all the crinkles and achieve their cruising speed and main objective – which is of course to sell their tool to publishers. They want to be the book Pandora. If you read their FAQs, you’ll see they repeatedly ask you to suggest publishers names, so that they can add more books to their database.

It is surprising that publishers are not flocking to them. Particularly since publishers have had a notoriously hard time figuring out the “next bestseller” and  finding the way to connect directly with readers. That was, as you’ll recall, the purpose of Bookish launched in May of this year, with the backing of Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Shuster but it’s still not functional. In fact, publishers act very much like huge steamships that are having a hard time turning themselves around in the digital storm.

I don’t know why publishers are reticent and it may well have something to do with being such “huge steamships” (hopefully, not the Titanic variety!).

And I don’t know why BookLamp isn’t willing to turn to Indies: that would be an inexhaustible supply of books to test their search engine with. They needn’t accept everybody: they could call the shots and specify the types of books they want to fill the “holes” in their system. After all, the stigma of self-publication has disappeared now, with the successes of John Locke, Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath et al. Surely BookLamp must have taken notice?

What do you think?
What is your take on this problem of book discovery and the sort of solution provided by BookLamp?

Personally, I worry that their solution is too dependent on restrictive algorithms and that good books will still remain at the bottom of the pile. But I’d be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, until they’ve proven, with an additional 100,000 books in their database, that it really works…

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