Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

9780571316298This book is described as Edna O’Brien’s masterpiece on the cover, which is a complete understatement.

Set in the small Irish country town of Cloonoila the opening of the novel focuses on a new arrival to the town. A man claiming to be a healer has recently arrived and is causing a stir. The book flits between various townspeople and their different reactions and interactions with this new arrival. The small town is intrigued by the new figure and the medicines and healing philosophy he has brought with him. None more so that Fidelma who becomes infatuated with the man. When the man’s past finally catches up with him it has devastating consequences on all those who have come in contact with him. Especially Fidelma.

Edna O’Brien’s class as a writer shines through every word. The opening stories of the novel are reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge in the way their chronology and connection is at first not easily determined. The innocence of the townspeople leaches through to the reader and when the grim reality of who the stranger is revealed the repercussions are all the more shocking. The second half of the novel changes tack ever so skillfully and focuses on Fidelma and the fallout she must try to live with and live through.

This is a novel of love and evil; fairy tale and stark reality. It is confronting and challenging yet intensely readable and thoughtful. This is writing truly at its best, full of confidence and subtly that not only sucks you in as a reader but sets you up brilliantly for some expertly done changes of pace and tone. The perfect start to my 2016 reading.

Buy the book here…

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 2

It was either ‘Apple Jumps the Shark’ or ‘Apple Screws the Pooch’. But which do you prefer – the scary apple or the adorable puppy?

This is the second part of a two-part article. To read the first part, click here.

Here’s where Apple made even me suspicious. In its clarification yesterday, Apple said that it isn’t only in-app transactions that it is forcing onto its system, but any transaction. To use Apple’s own words:

We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase.

This great big steaming pile of crap basically means that any platform that wants to make an app for the iPad or iPhone to sell and/or read books has to at the very least give their customers an option to buy books through the Apple-sanctioned method – which gives Apple 30% of the profit. And it’s not just the profit. It’s the transaction – which means Apple can leverage the data collected (who bought the book, when they bought the book, how often they buy books and from which apps) to optimise their own book store – and they get that information for doing absolutely nothing. There’s also a massive doubling up of energy and effort here: Amazon, Google, Kobo, Overdrive and every other book reading app that offers a store already has a store. Apple skimming 30% off the top is nothing but pure greed. And if they stick with it, they will fail. And here is why.

Those who know me well (or know me at all) are probably acquainted with my pile of Apple gadgets and my willingness to justify spending vast amounts of money on the latest and greatest from Cupertino. That’s because despite every anti-competitive, backwards-thinking, mean-spirited thing they do on the iTunes or App stores they still make pretty things. Very pretty things. In fact, they make billions of dollars from selling pretty things for exorbitant prices. Just a small example of this: it was announced today that despite having only having 4% of the global smartphone market share, Apple still makes 50% of the profit from sales of the iPhone. That means there are a lot of people out there who are willing to spend a lot of money on Apple hardware.

And that’s because they make good hardware. It was the reason the iTunes store and the App Store were created. To sell more hardware. Apple may have revolutionised music sales, and made a killing doing it, but they did it by selling iPods – not by selling music. If they try and take complete control of ebooks on iOS (the iPhone and iPad operating system) in this way, then all it will mean is that ebooks will fail on iOS. Books are not like music. There are already quite a few established sellers of ebooks with more market share than Apple. And books are already too expensive, and too unprofitable for Apple to skim yet another 30% off the top.

So Apple have screwed the pooch. What are they going to do about it? The views on this story seems to be entirely negative. Will they try to spin it into something positive for consumers? Or will the famed Apple marketing machine fail? Only time will tell, but unless Apple rolls over on this issue it will be a bad thing for books in general.

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 1

News has surfaced in the last couple of days about Apple and how they’re once again ruining it for everyone. Why, Apple, why? I didn’t want to believe it myself at first, but now Apple have clarified. Yup, definitely evil. But it’s not just evil – it’s really stupid. And here’s why.

To summarise: two days ago, The New York Times reported that Apple had some made some changes to the App Store rules which meant that Sony could no longer sell ebooks through their reading app on the iPhone. Instead, Apple would force Sony to use a system called “in-app purchasing” – which means that every transaction made within an iPad or iPhone app goes through Apple and the iTunes store. That means 30% of every book sold goes to Apple. There was a massive (I argued) overreaction to this, as every man and his dog predicted that Apple was being evil and trying to take over ebooks. I thought they were evil, but I thought they were being evil in the same way they always are. Apple have always had it in for software developers trying to sell things directly through their apps. This is why Kindle’s iPhone and iPad apps force you to go to the browser to buy a book, but Apple’s own iBooks app lets you do it without going to the web browser.

I thought (wrongly as it turns out) that this meant apps like Kindle and Overdrive wouldn’t have to change, because all of their transactions take place on the open web. If you don’t know what that means, let me explain: I open the Kindle app on my iPad; I want to buy a book; I click a button in the app which takes me to the Amazon website; I buy my book; the Kindle app re-opens and I can start reading. In Apple’s iBooks app, on the other hand, I press a special button inside the app; there’s a fancy-pants animation that turns my bookshelf into a secret rotating door; I buy my book; the secret rotating door rotates again and I can start reading. In other words, there’s not that big a difference, save for the magic rotating door.

This is the first part of a two-part article. To read the second part, click here.

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 1

Last week I discussed, among other things, the rise and rise of Amazon’s Kindle in the ebook space over the past few months, and how difficult it is going to be for other retailers to get into this space. Despite this, I’ve been happy with my choice to buy a Kindle, and still think that Amazon has the best overall ebook platform for readers. I also said that I hoped Amazon would not do anything too evil in 2011.

Then I read this. For those who don’t have the time to read a ten-page investigative report on Amazon and the book trade, allow me to break it down for you. For a number of years, Amazon has been using their clout (they are responsible for about 75% of online book sales in the US) to demand larger and larger discounts on sales from publishers. This is pretty much par the course for large booksellers, and it’s been happening the world over since the 80s. What disturbs me more than this, however, is what booksellers call the ‘co-operative advertising’ element of Amazon’s demands on publishers.

For those who don’t know, co-operative advertising, or promotional allowances (known as co-op) is the term used by big booksellers for the fees charged for premium placement at the front of a bookstore for that publisher’s books. For example, if you go into a Dymocks or Angus & Robertson bookshop, the books that are placed right at the front of the store in big carousels and piles are not there by accident. Their publishers have paid to ensure that they get good placement in the store. These payments even extend to the so-called ‘Top 10’ areas in many stores – which are often not even the real top ten or bestseller lists at all, but a list of books that publishers have paid to be placed there. Evil, you might say, but these payments are pretty standard now, and according to the Boston Review article linked to above, publishers (at least in the US) now allocate approximately 4% of their net revenue for co-op payments.

Where Amazon is different is the scope of what they can charge for, mostly because of the technology they have access to. For those of us used to using Google, we assume when we search for products on a store’s website, we’re getting a kind of ‘best pick’ attempt to find what we’re looking for. Apparently this is not so:

“Amazon also may turn off the search options to publishers’ books, making it possible to find a title only when the correct name of the book or the ISBN is entered.” What publishers were supposed to get in exchange for this co-op, was, essentially, not being made to disappear from the Web site.

This is a two part post. Please click here for Part 2.

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 2

The following is the second part of a two-part post. Click here for Part 1.

More amazing to me is the co-op payments involved in Amazon’s recommendation engine. If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, you’ll have seen the panel at the bottom of every screen telling you what other products people who liked this bought. I’ve always seen it as a useful way to discover books I may not have heard of, through the purchases of readers who buy similar books to me. I assumed there was some kind of mysterious Google-like search algorithm at play, and that it was designed for me to find books I want to read. Not so:

Most customers aren’t aware that the personalized book recommendations they receive are a result of paid promotions, not just purchase-derived data.

But wait – there’s more. Not only are Amazon’s explicit advertising, search and recommendation algorithms a result of publisher co-op payments – the very price you pay for a book on Amazon is determined by yet another algorithm.

Algorithms can also affect how much customers pay for books. Individual customers may get different discounts on the same book depending on their purchase history. The practice is euphemistically called “dynamic pricing.”

So, Amazon is certainly not the benign dictator I kidded myself into thinking they were. But here in Australia, where we don’t have a homegrown Amazon distribution network, and people still have to pay exorbitant shipping fees to get their books out here, one has to assume they have far less sway.

That is until ebooks really take off. Despite the fact that we don’t have a local Amazon presence, this makes absolutely no difference whatsoever for Australian ebooks. And Australian ebook sales are overwhelmingly dominated by the Kindle, and are likely to remain so for some time. At the moment, it’s unlikely Amazon is charging these kind of co-op fees for ebook promotion, because very few publishers are making enough money out of ebooks to justify payments. But you can guarantee they will.

So my question for you today – what do you think of Amazon’s bully boy tactics? Is this just the new reality and publishers should simply get used to it? Or should they be fighting the web behemoth every step of the way? Does information like this make you less likely to buy from Amazon? Does it even come as a surprise? Sound off in the comments and let me know.