Richard Russo: Eloquence and the “Amazon Jungle”

In the early fall of 2002, I herniated a disk in my lower back and spent three weeks lying on various floors in my house: The family room, the bedroom, my office. My family’s memory of that time is bringing me dinner while I was lying on the ground and how interesting it was to find me lying on the floor next to the bed at night like a loyal pet.

For me, the memory is of Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Empire Falls. A timely, eloquent story of decline, fall and a middle aged man who must come to grips with the choices he has made in his life.

Ironically, the Kindle version would have been handier while I was stuck on the floor.

Time and hydrocortisone injections can heal wounds. The memory of physical pain quickly fades. While I could easily picture and identify with the fading New England mill town featured in the story, there was really nothing in Miles Roby’s life that remotely mirrored mine.   So I was able to move on and heal and be grateful to Mr. Russo for a comforting and interesting read at a time when I really needed one.

In Monday’s New York Times, Russo wrote a very thoughtful Op-Ed piece entitled “Amazon’s Jungle Logic” that bears close reading. In it he discusses a series of emails he exchanged with other American writers as he solicited their opinions on Amazon’s smartphone app.

If you’re an avid reader, bookstore browser, library user, novel collector, wouldn’t you love to be able to exchange emails with the likes of Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Ann Patchett, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Andre Dubus, III?

What was perhaps most interesting, to me at least, was the rather balanced, almost resigned approach the authors took to the latest flare up regarding this internet retail giant.

Blockbuster seller (and blog topic) Stephen King acknowledged that Amazon had done well by him in selling his books. He has a Kindle that he loves. But maybe the promotion was a “bridge too far.”

Other authors like Scott Turow offered more lawyerly thoughts. However I think Ann Patchett, author and now part owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville Parnassus Books summed it up best when she noted that:

There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace. I don’t think they care.”

(Bold face emphasis mine)

Russo summed up his piece with this memorable thought:

“Is it just me, or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with it’s own algorithms?”

Not a computer, Mr. Russo. Most likely a whole team of very well educated, highly paid, nicely talented, and probably rather friendly staffers who believe in those algorithms and can show you lots of charts and graphs (with the appropriate circles and arrows) that point out why what they are doing is right. The Amazon brass left them in charge because they make money and improve shareholder value.

There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about making money or improving shareholder value. We can certainly agree that giving consumers a “good deal” is a worthy goal. But unless we want our future to look like a grimer version of Max Barry’s “Jennifer Government” we should probably decide on which comes first, community or shopping; and how we balance the two.

Thoughts on Amazon’s Price Check App and Independent Bookstores

The American Booksellers Association responded to Amazon’s Price Check App promotion yesterday. In the letter, CEO Oren Teicher pointed out:

We could call your $5 bounty to app-users a cheesy marketing move and leave it at that. In fact, it is the latest in a series of steps to expand your market at the expense of cities and towns nationwide, stripping them of their unique character and the financial wherewithal to pay for essential needs like schools, fire and police departments, and libraries.

Although the app does not directly apply to books, many independent bookstores are clearly upset as the app could apply to their sideline items like cards, gifts and games. Already under enormous pressure from the online retailer, many retailers are clearly fed up with customers who come in, check prices, look for new things to read and buy, then leave to get them more cheaply, and often without having to pay local sales tax, on Amazon.

What does the future hold for independents. Survive? Thrive? Extinction?

There’s a school of thought out on the ether that the internet always wins. Most likely true. We will be a poorer society if thirty years in the future we buy everything online and public spaces and daily routines are limited to a few mega corporate show rooms. While nature may abhor a monopoly, the crash that occurs when monopolies fail, as they ultimately do, is not something anyone should have to live through. Especially when we don’t need to have monopolies (except as fun board games).

Does Amazon play fair?

I’d like to offer three additional thoughts regarding this issue:

1) Amazon’s policy with regards to hiring, firing, and maintaining warehouse facilities is simply wrong. The use of “facilities” companies and hiring these workers at extraordinarily low wages and as “temporary” workers when they  really are full time employees is inexcusable. I know, they do it so I can buy stuff from them at incredibly cheap rates. But I don’t want to be responsible for the fact that some person in another state has to work two jobs so she can drive a twelve year old car and skip lunch so her kid can have cough syrup just so I can buy a cheap scarf or the latest Stephen King novel for half the price I would pay at Anderson’s Bookshop. It’s just wrong.

2) Their efforts to not have to charge local taxes  strikes me as rather unpatriotic. No one likes to pay taxes. I’m self employed so I know what it’s like to feel overburdened with taxes, paperwork and health insurance. No, it’s not like a major corporation, or even a small one. But I get it. However, I live in a community. That means I have responsibilities. I want my roads paved, my police and fire. I want safe water. Roofs on schools. Taxes are a part of life. Deal with it.

And of equal importance:

3) Markets need to be flexible. When markets consolidate in the name of efficiency, what you really have happen is the market becomes fragile. We’ve seen it in the newsstand business with the consolidation of magazine wholesalers. The fewer there are, the more fragile the market becomes if a major player gets into financial trouble. Or, if you, as a member of the market fall foul of one of the few remaining major players. If ultimately there are only three or four places to get either your e-books or your physical books, how healthy is that market? How much will the consumers choice be at the whim of the remaining major players?

I would contend that a community that is a mixture of independent and small franchise retailers and national chains is a healthier community than one with an empty downtown and a strip center on the outskirts full of big box stores and the usual remora retailers. The money stays local. The jobs stay local. The rents are reasonable.

This isn’t a screed against big, corporate America. I am enough of a realist to know how things work and understand that nothing is ever how it was and there are no clocks to turn back. But what I am opposed to is movement without thought and reflection. What, exactly, are we building and will it be better than what we have? Amazon is not inherently evil and independent retailers are not always good citizens. However, there’s no reason that we can’t have Amazon and independent bookstores. There is no reason they can not strive to provide not only affordable goods but also quality service. One does not have to be the death of the other. Both can be good corporate citizens.

The Top Ten Magazine Covers of 2011: The Completely Biased, Highly Subjective and Unscientific List

Every year around this time, newspapers, magazines, blogs and digitally based publications swamp us with their “Top Ten” lists. They cover everything from ‘The Year in Review’ to what not to wear to a holiday party to the ‘Hottest Songs of the Year”. Inevitably, we come across the “Top Magazine Covers” of the year.

The presentations are interesting and offer up very attractive covers. But they’re rarely from the perspective of people who have to work with the results of the art and editorial departments. You know, the circulation folks. You know, those guys and gals at the back of the office? The ones that flinch every time the CFO walks by?

Halfway through this year, the Foredeck posted what we thought were the best covers so far.

So what’s changed? Who stayed on top from that list? Who’s dropped off and who’s been added? You’ll see below. And because there were so many really great covers put on the newsstands this year, I decided to add a new category: “Honorable Mentions”.

1. Vogue Magazine – January 2011 Featuring Natalie Portman: When I first saw this cover a year ago, I swore it was one of the best covers I had ever seen. Only two other covers have ever affected me like that: A neon colored Vanity Fair cover of rock stars, and a Chicago Magazine whimsical creation that offered up the “Secrets of the City”. The coloring, the positioning of the actress, the class and elegance that exude from this cover are the elements that do it for me. Heck, I actually bought a copy! And no, it wasn’t the best selling cover of the year. But it did well.

Vogue's Natalie Portman cover gets first position in the life boat.

2. Interview Magazine – September 2011 Featuring Anne Hathaway: This fascinating cover made it on my October “Two More Contenders For Best Cover of the Year post from October. I hadn’t paid any attention to Interview Magazine on the racks for a number of years, but this cover was front and center and jumped off the rack at me. Generally I warn clients to stay away from arty black and white covers. But the editors at Interview have clearly figured it out. Guess what? This does appear to be one of the best selling issues of the year.

Looks like Anne get's a seat next to Natalie!

3. Outside Magazine – May 2011 Featuring Steven Colbert: I pointed out in my June “So Far” review that aside from the great cover image, one of the selling points for me on this cover was Outside’s use of the skyline above their logo. They use it well. Moreover, while this longstanding newsstand favorite uses a lot of cover lines, their lines for the Colbert story are clever and funny without being too cute. That’s rule #1 in my book for cover lines. You can always be too cute. Was this one of their best selling covers of the year? No, it was not. Didn’t I say this was subjective and unscientific?

We'll let the Comedy Central funny man steer the lifeboat, but he loses points for a low sale. It happens sometimes.

4. Bullett Magazine – Vol. #4 Featuring Saoirse Ronan: This  magazine lives in a well traveled niche covering the world of fashion, art, music, film and entertainment. They compete directly with the likes of Interview Magazine in a category that is so crowded, you have to ask what makes you so different? Your editorial will certainly differentiate you but how do you grab readers from a crowded bookstore newsstand? If you’re Bullet, produce cover after elegant cover with the newest stars. Volume 3 features a close up of the striking Irish actress Saoirse Ronan of Hannah.

Yes, it does appear to be on of their better selling issues this year.

Bullet Magazine Vol. #3

5. Esquire Magazine – May 2011 Featuring Jeff Bridges: I’ve liked just about every single cover that Esquire has produced this year. Even the much hyped but underperforming Brooklyn Decker feature from February actually sold better than this cover. But I chose it to illustrate how even a middling performing cover from Esquire has all of the elements that make a good cover. A great image, cover lines that inspire and ask you to pay attention, good use of color, and a kick you in the seat of your pants use of the skyline. And this year I officially became an old guy so Jeff’s my guy.

We could give Esquire their own lifeboat.

6. Entertainment Weekly – March 17 Featuring Nathan Fillion: There is absolutely nothing wrong with this cover featuring Castle start Nathan Fillion. The colors are right. The cover lines scream exactly the right measure of “OMG” and “FTW”. The skyline has everything an entertainment junkie could like. Have I mentioned that Entertainment Weekly is my favorite magazine?

Keep flying. He will always be Captain Mal Reynolds to me. Maybe he should have taken the helm of the Titanic.

7. The Knot – Spring 2011 Issue: The Gown Guide enters it’s second year of higher frequency publication with a cover that I was sure would be a hard sell (Editor’s Note: XOXO Group is a client.). But look at that dress! And look at those blues! And look at those cover lines! Not only is this cover the best selling of the year, the sales volume in many of the largest retailers was through the roof. In this case, the ice berg warning from the Foredeck was pretty far off. Thank goodness!

The Knot scores with another killer cover.

8. Rolling Stone – May 12 Featuring Steven Tyler: Shouldn’t this magazine for aging Baby Boomers be as cringeworthy as a critique from the American Idol Judge and Aerosmith frontman? Well, no. I picked up this issue of the magazine because the image drew me in. What is Tyler looking at? What about “Game of Thrones”? Many publishers now do what RS does with their skyline, put three different stories up on top. They lose points for simply dropping names, but get them back for solid cover lines in the body and great images.

Steven Tyler on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

9. Kiteboarding Magazine – Feb/Mar 2011: This bi-monthly action magazine from Bonnier shows how to mix action, color  and the right way to to put multiple lines up on the skyline. Rather than simply list names (We’re talking to you, RS!), they let the action picture speak for itself and promise more action with cover lines like “24 Hot Kites” and “World Speed Record Broken”.

Kiteboarders don't need lifeboats.

10. Arizona Highways – September 2011 – Photography Issue:  I’m a huge fan of regional magazines and this venerable state publication shows another way to do a black and white cover that draws you in and says “Pick Me Up!”

You have to take a highway to get here.

But wait, there’s more!

Today’s social commentators have enormous fun pointing out that we live in the age of the participation trophy. Everyone’s special, therefore no one is special and all our standards have been lowered. Nonsense. There’s just a lot more of us now.

And there are more magazines than ever and more selections than ever. So this year, we made room on the Foredeck for some “Honorable Mentions” in the world of newsstand worthy cover images.

1st Honorable Mention. Newsweek -Feb 7, 2011 – Featuring the Egyptian Revolution: Hi Time Magazine! Yes, we’re talking to you.

Feeling a little anxious, are we?

2nd Honorable Mention. Portland (ME) Magazine – Sep 2011 – Featuring Patrick Dempsy: McDreamy goes to Maine? This small city regional manages to get it all right on one cover. A memorable image, great color; sharp, short, snappy cover lines. Oh yes, great skyline.

McDreamy has dinner in the 1st Class Dining Room.

3rd Honorable Mention. Juxtapoz Magazine -Apr 2011 -Featuring Art in The Streets. This one is counterintuitive. When the magazine first arrived in the office (Editor’s Note: I work for High Speed Productions, the parent company of Juxtapoz) my reaction was unenthusiastic. But every store that I visited that carried this issue had it out on the front lip of the front shelf. It was one of the best selling issues this year. Why? A memorable topic (Street Art), simple design, an online ad campaign to back the issue and an image that grows on you.

Art in the Streets sells off the racks.

4th Honorable Mention. Hour Detroit – Jun 2011 – Featuring The Best of Detroit. What I like best about this cover is how different it is from most typical “Best Of” covers. The illustration, the embracement of what makes Detroit a great city.

Hour Detroit's "Best Of" is a winner.

5th Honorable Mention. Lake Superior – Sep 2011: Well, why can’t the greatest of the Great Lakes have it’s own magazine? And why not a really colorful illustration that shows off the fun to be had?

The greatest of the Great Lakes shows off it's best stuff.

So there you have it. The best for this year and five “Honorable Mentions”. While beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, you should always keep in mind that you have many audiences for your cover. Newsstand cover design is a mixture of art, science, algebra, voodoo and strong opinions. For my short hand on how to develope a good newsstand cover, click here.

Are these your favorites? What are your selections for the best covers this year?

Want your own copy of this years’ list? Click here: 2011 Best Covers

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