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2007 February | The litter in littérateur.
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Inc. magazine’s second story on Kepler’s

The second part of Bo Burlingham’s three-part series on Kepler’s appears in the March issue of Inc. magazine. Burlingham recounts the struggles that Anne Banta, Clark Kepler, et al have had over the past year or so after the store reopened in October 2005. It seems that Banta has finally come to some conclusions that she should have reached a long time ago. She’s quoted, “I feel hopeful about how it’s going. But the idea of people from high tech coming in to save the day—it was so naive to think that we could. We have to find other people who know the industry–an advisory board or something. If we can tap into some industry experts, it would make a big difference.”

The only problem here is that the sort of industry experts she seeks out are people like Michael Hoynes, who recommend diversifying product lines, targeting the store to families, and other marketing nonsense that has nothing to do with books or how to reach people who care about books and are willing to spend money on them.

In September of 2005, I wrote a letter to the San Jose Mercury News criticizing the composition of Kepler’s board of directors and suggested that they include someone from the literary community on the board. They still have not done this. (You can read the letter reprinted below, if you click on the “more” link.)

Burlingham’s article definitely provides some hope that the store is on the right track and that Banta and Kepler have finally realized that the store can’t be everything to everyone—that it needs focus, and having focus inevitably means alienating some people. At one point in the article, Burlingham quotes Banta when she exclaims, “But I don’t know what we want [the store] to be!”

I obviously love the store quite a bit. I still buy most of my books there—about 100 a year. I claim at least some responsibility for the store’s revival, and yet I also understand that in order to reshape itself to survive, Kepler’s may, in fact, alienate me. I sure hope they don’t, that they beef up their literary fiction section, stop cutting back on periodicals, and find some way to finance doing so. If that means selling ridiculous games and diaries and DVDs and Christmas cards, then so be it. But I think they still need to figure out a) How are we going to make money? and b) What are we going to invest that money in? What is going to give us the greatest return? And what is going to be of long-term, literary value to our customers? This is a decision that you can only make with strong leadership and leaders who are interested in books and business. When I used to travel more and visit new bookstores on a regular basis, I had two tests for whether the store was good or not: 1. Did they stock all books by F. Scott Fitzgerald? (He died at 44, after all, and only has about a dozen books.) and 2. Do they have The Recognitions by William Gaddis. Fail both, and you’re out of the running. Those tests have not changed in years, and I don’t expect them to.

On a final note, the article mentions setting trackable benchmarks for the staff, which I completely agree with, but the question is this: Can a metrics-driven business model be compatible with an art form that is not. Seriously, if the literary business was entirely driven by sales, we would have only be able to choose a bunch of crappy best-selling novels by John Grisham, Michael Crichton, et al.

As Banta had come to realize, Kepler would have to learn an entirely different management style if the company were to be turned around and set up to last for another 50 years–the goal set by Méndez and the board. He would have to put managers in place, give them real responsibilities, and hold them accountable. He would have to commit to a plan with realistic projections, quantified goals, and specific benchmarks. Banta and her colleagues had already identified the key areas to concentrate on. They were the six imperatives that made up her “bubbles of focus.” The first bubble was the core: doing the things that defined Kepler’s mission of being the local area’s community and cultural destination. The second: sell more effectively to current customers. The third: expand and diversify the customer base. The fourth: expand and diversify the store’s product line. The fifth: develop an employee culture of empowerment with total customer focus and an understanding of person-to-person marketing. The sixth: reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Banta wanted the participants in the meetings to lay out all the ideas they had for addressing the imperatives. She then wanted them to decide on the three to five most promising ones in each area, estimate the costs and returns, assign responsibility, and settle on the measurements they would use to monitor progress.

While I was living in New York four years ago, I ran into a former Kepler’s employee, who recounted Clark Kepler’s ridiculous rules for his employees, which included not being allowed to sit down or read while on the job. Burlingham seems to suggest that these rules were actually legitimate.

As a manager, he was a one-man band. Every significant problem came to him. He wasn’t even willing to delegate responsibility for checking the suggestion box. On top of that, he had an elaborate set of written rules governing everything an employee might do. Aside from contributing nothing to the business, the rules sent exactly the wrong message to the staff: You are not empowered to think for yourself.

This, generally, seems like a poor way to manage a business, but, hey, what do I know? I’m just a writer. More

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The new n+1

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A few months ago, I wrote a magazine article about the experience of spending a day without any digital devices—no cell phone, no Internet, no computer. Unfortunately, the piece was edited to express almost none of my ambivalence about the state we technology users currently find ourselves in—assaulted all day long by emails, unable to resist using our cell phones, content to set our iPods to shuffle. The article I wish I had written appears in the current issue of n+1′s opening department, “The Intellectual Situation.”

In it, the editors address cell phones, email, and the blogosphere. On email: “. . . it has lately become clear that nothing burdens a life like an email account. It’s the old story: the new efficient technology ends up costing far more time than it ever saves, because it breeds new expectations of what a person can possibly do. . . . The true mood of the form is spontaneity, alacrity—the right time to reply to a message is right away. But do that and your life is gone.”

On the cell phone: “The two effects, for the individual, of the cell phone’s contribution to the decivilizing process are ceasing to be able to be alone, and yet refusing solitude without entering into company. This leads to the loss of one of the great comforts of modern urban life…the fraternity of solitude. Sometimes you eat dinner alone; sometimes you do your grocery shopping alone; often you’ll ride the bus alone. At such times, in a city, there are always other people who are dining alone, shopping alone, sitting in their bus seats alone, in exactly the same situation. The fraternity of solitaries is always there for you to join. . . . Go into a restaurant now, sit near a fellow single diner, and you will see him dial his cell phone during the appetizer and talk through to dessert. The only choices you have are to pull out your own phone or listen in.”

Their point about how cell phones prevent you from being able to be alone, to seek real solitude, combined with the barrier they provide to real connection is dead on. How many times have you been hanging out with someone when their cell phone rings or they decide they have to call someone? It doesn’t even have to happen, but the idea that it can, that it could, prevents us from ever fully being able to focus on individuals for any length of time in our daily lives.

For some reason, I feel like Jonathan Franzen once used the phrase “fraternity of solitude,” but no matter. I’ve been reading n+1 ever since it debuted, and it may now, after its previous issue’s survey of American writing and the 10 pages I’ve read of the new issue, be my favorite magazine. Period.

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Yves Bonnefoy out of obscurity

When I was a freshman in college, I asked one of my teachers to recommend a French poet whose verse contained much lyricism and obscurity, and she pointed me towards Yves Bonnefoy. I picked up a couple volumes of his work, which I read at the time. I saw him read sparingly when I spent a year studying at a university in France, and then I never heard of him again until I read Charles Simic’s review of Bonnefoy’s new collection, The Curved Planks, in the New York Review of Books last week. Simic closes his essay:

He insists that we must face our mortality, that from our finitude comes whatever wisdom we have. His poems strive to remind of of our earliest experiences of solitude, those moments of wordless feelings that shaped our identities. We must return again to that moment when we found ourselves for the first time in the presence of that most ineffable of realities. Poetry for Bonnefoy is a story of one subject, one great emotion. Not much else happens in his poems. There are no cities, no history, and almost no other people. He is a poet of small ephiphanies: some long-ago summer evening when the night forgot to fall while a lone child played on the road and a distance voice kept calling him. This is the secret of his lyricism, the memory of a fragment of time touched by eternity that he cannot let go. Is this one obsession enough for a lifetime of poetry? In a few of his finest poems, Bonnefoy makes us believe that it is.

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Back from Sea Ranch

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When I was in high school, one of my best friends would occasionally tell me that his parents were spending the weekend at Sea Ranch. I imagined a bunch of cows living by the ocean, and he explained, “No, no cows. There’s, like, golf and stuff.” I would respond, “Cows! Moo!” It turns out that there are indeed cows. Sea ranch is a community of vacation homes along the coast about 120 miles north of San Francisco. I finally went there over the long Presidents Day weekend, and did not want to leave yesterday.

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While there, I read an excellent article in the New Yorker about the HP “pretexting” scandal by James Stewart along with a slightly less interesting article about the ramifications of Ruth Lilly’s $200 million gift to the Poetry Foundation. In it, Dana Goodyear portrays opposition to the commercial view of poetry expressed by the foundation’s head, John Barr, whom she quotes, “If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.” He seems to be dead on, if he wants to doom poetry to irrelevance. The problem with his view is that art that considers its audience, art that treats its audience like consumers to be pleased and entertained is exactly the sort of art that becomes stagnant, which is, apparently, Barr’s greatest fear.

On my way back from Sea Ranch, I stopped at Green Apple and picked up Joan Acocella’s latest collection of essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, most of which first appeared in the New Yorker. The Times Sunday Book Review has an excellent review of Acocella’s collection by Kathryn Harrison. Harrison writes,

What emerges from a reading of “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints” is Acocella’s — and through hers our own — respect and in certain cases even reverence for the dogged faith on which an artistic career is built. We know the seductive alchemy of art. To transform private anguish into a narrative of truth if not beauty; to make sense where there was none; to bring order out of chaos: these are the promises art makes. Fulfilling them requires something else entirely, an attribute closer to blindness than to inspiration — the refusal to give up when the odds predict defeat, again.
. . . .
“The relation between morality and imagination may be a complicated one, but it does exist,” she writes, analyzing the narrowness of Dorothy Parker’s vision, a function, she believes, of her selfishness. “Hope, forgiveness — these are not just moral actions. They are enlargements of the mind. Without them, you remain in the tunnel of the self.” Like Sontag, like every great critic, Acocella is subjective, uncompromising. She has a distinct point of view, a refreshingly not-fashionable one — she salutes Sunday-school virtues! — and writes from her conviction that beneath its hectic, irresponsible, even intoxicated surface, art makes singularly unglamorous demands: integrity, sacrifice, discipline. Hers is a vision that allows art its mystery but not its pretensions, to which she is acutely sensitive. What better instincts could a critic have?

Before Green Apple, I stopped at the Sausalito Taco Shop, which deserves every one of its five-star ratings on Yelp.

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Baseball under the umbrella

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Before going up to San Francisco today, I watched three innings of the Stanford vs. Fresno state game in the rain. I’ve only missed three Stanford home openers in this decade, and I wasn’t about to miss this one after having stayed home on Friday night when the game was rained out.

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Milan Kundera’s The Curtain

I read Milan Kundera’s new book, The Curtain, at Stanford’s Green Library last weekend, and enjoyed almost all of it. The book-length essay, parts of which appeared in the New Yorker, argues for a unified tradition of world literature. Kundera basically suggests that we need to view all work in the context of this tradition, which in turn demands increased ambition from both novelists and readers. He writes,

A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism, reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland.

….

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional–thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious–is contemptible.

I found Kundera’s work to be rather powerful. I have to admit that for years, I only read books written in languages that I could read–English and French–and avoided most literature in translation with some exceptions: Kafka, Murakami, Nietzsche. I wouldn’t even read Nabokov’s russian novels until a couple years ago. I did this, in part, because I care intensely about prose styles when I read and had doubts about reading a translated style that could be entirely different from what the author intended. But reading Orhan Pamuk’s essay, which I blogged about over a month ago and this book by Kundera, I’m more convinced that these things don’t matter. What does still matter and why I’ll continue to primarily read American authors is that they’re mostly the ones who are concerned with the project that I’m trying to tackle by writing a novel: knowing America. Yes, I have in mind Kerouac’s famous line, “Nobody’ll ever know America completely because nobody ever knew Gatsby, I guess.”

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Steve Jobs on DRM

Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Music” on Apple’s website, calling for the music industry to end its insistence on DRM. As many have noted, the statement is aptly timed to address growing pressure on Apple to open the iTunes music store to other digital music players. I’ve never quite understood what the music industry is so scared of, anyway. Though I love my iPod, I’ve only bought 2 songs from iTunes because I couldn’t find them on CDs elsewhere. I still fail to understand why so many people are willing to pay for such inferior copies of songs. Seriously, play an AAC file from iTunes and a real CD; you’ll hear the difference.

Anyhow, Jobs writes:

In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free  and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system.

So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none. If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.

Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries.  Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free.

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Winning Eleven and Amazon

I pre-ordered Winning Eleven Pro Evolution Soccer for Xbox 360 last month from Amazon, and expected it to ship yesterday. However, today I received an email from Amazon stating that the game wouldn’t ship until next week. In my disappointment, I cancelled my order and went out to GameStop to buy a copy of the game. Like many others have said, the game looks like an HD PS2 game, but the classic Winning Eleven gameplay is still there. I’m really looking forward to EA’s UEFA Champions League 2007 game, which is coming out next month. The videos of this game look amazing.

In another disappointing note, being a huge college baseball fan, I was really looking forward to the new EA NCAA baseball game, which also came out today. Unfortunately, the game is only for PS2 and the rosters aren’t even accurate, which makes no sense. EA uses accurate rosters with fake names for their NCAA football and basketball games. Why couldn’t they do the same for their baseball game?

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