*grr* I’m sorry, but I just flat-out don’t believe what some of my friends and fellow travelers seem to; that the reason the publishers want to control and initially raise the prices of e-books is that they need that control and increase…in order to DECREASE prices in some indeterminate future. Not buying it, folks.

What I’m seeing on the ground is that they could do that now if they wanted to, but they don’t. I had been waiting to buy So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser (had heard good things) until it dropped to $9.99 for my Kindle, but I failed to catch that text-to-speech is disabled. So in car last weekend, and wanted to just listen…no joy. Yes, I know publishers have to protect audio-book sales. Spare me.

So, already irritated by that this morning, nevertheless I thought about buying a digital copy of a book I already own, in hardback; Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. I’ve started the book several times, and I always get so angry I have to put it down…not a good choice of book to carry physically and double my bag weight. But dumped on the Kindle and available whenever? I just might get through it.

I found it in the Kindle store; excellent! Then, all downhill: “Digital list price”, $30; crazy! Kindle price, $16.50; insane! “Text to speech, disabled”; not going to happen. I’ll finish it in physical form, someday. I suppose.

Note: this book was published in 2001. It’s no longer in print, as far as I can tell. I bought it as a hardback on a bargain shelf a couple of years ago for I think about $7. I would have bought the book AGAIN if it had been available for the Kindle for $7 (with text-to-speech enabled; without it, either no-go, or maybe $4.99 or less). There’s no hardcover in print for e-book sales to parasitize; this e-book pricing makes no sense whatsoever, in my opinion. They just lost a sale is all I know…and at a current ranking of 140,479 in the Kindle store, they’re not exactly making a huge case for the price discrimination strategy.

As for the text-to-speech issue; yes, I know I can crack the DRM and listen to these books…that’s not the point. Get a clue for how I might want to use a book, and I might even pay more! (O’Reilly, for example, sells technical books without DRM, in multiple formats whenever possible, allows you lifetime updates, and use on any supported device. The last e-book I bought there was almost $21 on sale…but with copies I can put on my phone and my Kindle, and updates forever, I was OK with that.)

Zoinks! I was offline for much of Saturday, so it wasn’t until Sunday morning until I caught up on the Amazon – Macmillan feud: Amazon and Macmillan go to war: readers and writers are the civilian casualties. Amazon, in a disagreement with Macmillan over a change in pricing model (brought on primarily, IMO, by the sense of increased leverage that the release of the iPad has given Macmillan) has temporarily removed ALL Macmillan books, both printed and electronic, from the Amazon website. Panic ensues. *grin* (UPDATE: Amazon has already [as of Sunday night] acknowledged that they’ll have to capitulate to Macmillan’s new [and higher, in some cases] pricing model.)

It’s been REALLY interesting to watch the reactions, though. One of the main US science fiction publishers (Tor) is a Macmillan line…so they were affected. And a number of the bloggers that I read online are science fiction writers; many for Tor! So the comments have been flying fast and furious; some of the best at Charlie Stross’ blog. First, Charlie wrote up his own thoughts, which begat a giant, interesting thread of comments. Then he went and gathered up links to several other thoughtful responses (mostly authors, but also lawyers, editors, etc.). Great stuff.

I love most of these guys, but I do find it interesting to see them dealing with business model changes, technology shifts, digital rights management, etc. within their own industry, after having seen them discuss the issues from a safer, more objective vantage point for years with regard to music and movies. Not to suggest that these guys have never talked about how this will affect publishing; they have. But now…I think the enormity of the change is starting to sink in. Think about this passage from Cory Doctorow’s essay Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet in Content. (note: I wouldn’t say that Cory speaks for all authors here, but the point, to me, is clearly relevant)

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. Seventy years later, Napster showed us that, as William Gibson noted, “We may be at the end of the brief period during which it is possible to charge for recorded music.” Surely we’re at the end of the period where it’s possible to exclude those who don’t wish to pay. Every song released can be downloaded gratis from a peer-to-peer network (and will shortly get easier to download, as hard-drive price/performance curves take us to a place where all the music ever recorded will fit on a disposable pocket-drive that you can just walk over to a friend’s place and copy).

But have no fear: the Internet makes it possible for recording artists to reach a wider audience than ever dreamt of before. Your potential fans may be spread in a thin, even coat over the world, in a configuration that could never be cost-effective to reach with traditional marketing. But the Internet’s ability to lower the costs for artists to reach their audiences and for audiences to find artists suddenly renders possible more variety in music than ever before.

Those artists can use the Internet to bring people back to the live performances that characterized the heyday of Vaudeville. Use your recordings — which you can’t control — to drive admissions to your performances, which you can control. It’s a model that’s worked great for jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish. It’s also a model that won’t work for many of today’s artists; 70 years of evolutionary pressure has selected for artists who are more virtuoso than charismatic, artists optimized for recording-based income instead of performance-based income. “How dare you tell us that we are to be trained monkeys, capering on a stage for your amusement? We’re not charismatics, we’re white-collar workers. We commune with our muses behind closed doors and deliver up our work product when it’s done, through plastic, laser-etched discs. You have no right to demand that we convert to a live-performance economy.”

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. As bands on MySpace — who can fill houses and sell hundreds of thousands of discs without a record deal, by connecting individually with fans — have shown, there’s a new market aborning on the Internet for music, one with fewer gatekeepers to creativity than ever before.

Point that same argument at authors rather than musicians, and I see a lot of resonance. It seems to me I read a lot of statements from authors that want the status quo to remain in place; who want what technology giveth, but not what it taketh away. But honestly…I’d love to see some of them strike out with really wild ideas, things outside the status quo. Maybe Amazon’s new Terms and Conditions for ebooks; maybe Cory’s experiment With A Little Help...I don’t know. But I know that, for example, I’d much rather see Peter Watts get State of Grace published on Lulu, or in Amazon’s e-bookstore, than not at all!

And I don’t think all the criticism of Amazon is wrong, by any means. This is a complicated story. But times, they are a-changin’.

So, I may have smoked my last clove cigarette, and not even known it? How did THAT happen?

Honestly, that’s not completely true…but the clock is at three months and ticking, thanks to the recently passed Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act:

“Beginning 3 months after the date of enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke.”

Nice job, Philip Morris. Note a couple of things here. 1) I kept a certain level of attention on this legislation, and I was aware that packaging rules were being severely changed, the FDA was being given new powers, etc.

But I had NO clue that clove (and most other flavored cigarettes) were being permanently banned. There doesn’t seem to be much (domestic – more on this later) news talking about this; the focus is on the other aspects of the bill. Admittedly, I’m not a big clove smoker by any means…on the order of a handful a month, at most. But I checked around, and people I thought would be aware, aren’t. This may not have been stealth legislation, but it certainly wasn’t highlighted.

And 2)…note the exemption. Menthol. The flavoring ban is “for the children”, of course…but exempting menthol is a pretty big hole in that, unless you’re simply trying to get Philip Morris to drop their objections. Which Congress was, and Philip Morris did. Gak.

While the flavoring ban has flown under our radar, Indonesia, OTOH, is more than a little pissed. Cloves are a fairly niche product in the US, but there are a lot of fans, both native-borne and immigrants (these cigarettes, known generally as kreteks, are of Indonesian origin). Jakarta is threatening WTO action based on the menthol exemption (favoring a domestic product over an import).

That could be a monkey wrench for the ban, but who knows how far that will go. The only thing more confusing and uglier under the covers than domestic law-making is international legal action.

I could just stop being naive, and accept that this is the way the world works (which is, to a certain extent, absolutely true). But in the spirit of Shaw’s unreasonable man quote, you have to stand up at times for progress to occur. This is one of those times. This law, as passed, is really just execrable.

We’ve banned flavored cigarettes, arguably (one might say) as a first step to banning them all. Except we’ve exempted the largest domestic flavoring, and there’s not even a hint of banning tobacco PRODUCTION. But why would we continue to grow a crop we can’t sell?? Because we’re selling it abroad. A crop too dangerous to sell here is returning to it’s former status as a premier cash crop for export. That’s low. That’s truly low.

For more background on the bill (and the previous one in 2004, which seems to have been “Part 1”), this article is well worth reading: “Lost In The Weed“.

What do we do? The damn thing’s already passed, so I don’t know. But we certainly don’t have to be quiet about it, and maybe, just maybe, a little sunlight can still make a difference.

Whether or not the point makes it across, it’s good to see articles like this one at The Atlantic, or Stiglitz’ Vanity Fair piece getting some attention. They highlight the fact that our current dire economic situation isn’t all that novel; we’ve been playing a game that many other nations do, just with more chips and for higher stakes. When you’ve got a bigger bankroll, it’s certainly harder to fail; but when it happens it’s a loonnngg way down the well if you’re not careful.

The Quiet Zone:

Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders. When a country like Indonesia or South Korea or Russia grows, so do the ambitions of its captains of industry. As masters of their mini-universe, these people make some investments that clearly benefit the broader economy, but they also start making bigger and riskier bets. They reckon—correctly, in most cases—that their political connections will allow them to push onto the government any substantial problems that arise.

Sound familiar? That’s why I’ve always hated terms like “America’s CEO”. America is not a freakin’ corporation; The United States doesn’t have shareholders, employees, and management. It’s better than that. Or should be.