Once upon a time

Thanks to gifts from various sources (including the National Health Service, where we’d gone for a checkup), Berry has a few books now. Most of them have lots of pictures (the only book we’ve bought for her is simply a collection of animal pictures). Some have text as well. And it is that that is rather underwhelming.

I don’t know the target age group for most of these books, but the stories seem damn lame to Pinky and me. In my opinion, a good children’s book (or show) should not only be interesting for the child, but also for the parents – it is not often that the child uses the book or show alone. And from that perspective, a lot of these books Berry has got don’t pass the muster.

The books I had when I was a kid may not have been particularly optimised for a child. The illustrations weren’t great. The paper quality was underwhelming as well (one thing Berry can’t do with her books is to tear them! A useful quality for sure for children’s books). But the stories were fantastic. And things that I still remember.

Most of these stories came from the Panchatantra, which is a collection that “evolved” over time. This memetic evolution means that the stories that have come till today are “fit”, and fantastic. It’s similar with Aesop’s Fables – their age means that stories have evolved sufficiently to become damn interesting. And of course, this applies to the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well (and NOT to Christian myth, which didn’t get time to evolve and is thus rather boring).

Speaking of myth, I recently read Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology.  It’s a good book, and I’ll make Berry read it before she is five. But the stories themselves were all rather underwhelming and devoid of complexity. Considering it’s an ancient myth, which had sufficient time to evolve being written down, the simplicity of plots is rather surprising. Or maybe it’s the way Gaiman told the story.

I’m reminded of this “one Shloka Ramayana” that I’d been made to mug up as a kid (I still remember it “by heart”. Maybe Gaiman’s book is the Norse equivalent of this?

Poorvam Rama Thapovanadhi Gamanam
Hatva Mrigam Kanchanam
Vaidehi Haranam, Jataayu Maranam
Sugreeva Sambhashanam

Bali Nigrahanam, Samudra Tharanam
Lankapuri Dahanam,
Paschath Ravana Kumbhakarna Madanam
Ethat Ithi Ramayanam

In any case, considering the lack of plots in “modern” children’s books, we’re seriously exploring the idea of bringing back truckloads of Amar Chitra Katha when we visit India later this year.

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.

 

I completed the manuscript of my book

I had set myself an April 15 deadline to finish the first draft of my book, and I’m happy to let you know that I’ve achieved it. This draft weighs in at around 75,000 words, which is probably longer than I’d expected.

Now the hard part begins – of finding publishers, editing, promotions and all that jazz. I don’t even know where to start and which publishers to approach. This is a popular economics book where I use the concept of market liquidity (from finance) to explain why certain markets are structured the way they are, and how markets can be made more efficient.

Here is a brief introduction of the book that I’ve written. I’m yet to give it a name, but the subtitle is “How financial markets explain life”:

Why do people with specialised skills find it hard to switch jobs? Why do transfer fees for footballers always seem either too high or too low? Why are real estate brokers still in business despite the large number of online portals that have sought to replace them?

The answer to all this lies in liquidity. Broadly speaking, market liquidity refers to the ease with which a product or service can be bought or sold in a particular market. With its origins in financial markets, the concept has far-reaching implications in a large number of markets.

In this book, Karthik Shashidhar, a management consultant and public policy researcher, explores a large number of markets, financial and otherwise, and explains why they are structured the way they are. From relationships to property rights, from big macs to public transport, a large number of markets are dissected to show why liquidity remains a useful concept well beyond financial markets where it originated.

Now, while many of the examples are from India, I’ve written this book with a global audience in mind. Hopefully I should be able to publish and sell this book internationally.

There is a full chapter on the economics of Uber, and how surge pricing is critical to creating liquidity in the rides marketplace. There are also chapters on matchmaking, obsolete technologies, agricultural markets and why most Indians cook at home.

I haven’t really seen any other popular economics books from India, so don’t know where to start my publisher hunt. Any leads will be welcome. I’m currently in Barcelona, but will be returning to Bangalore in mid-May.

Oh, and there is very little intersection with this blog, or anything I’ve published so far. One chapter intersects one blogpost here, and another draws from a Mint piece I’ve written, but the rest is all fresh material. So, you people have no excuse but to buy the book when it does come out!

Wish me luck!

The Economics of Shakespeare and Company

During my vacation, I finished reading Salil Tripathi’s Detours, an enhanced collection of his columns in Mint Lounge of the same name. I quite liked the book. In fact, I liked it much more than his columns in Mint Lounge. I think the lack of word limit constraints meant he could add depth when necessary making it a steady and pleasing read (read Sarah Farooqui’s formal review of the book here).

In one of the chapters, he describes Paris in the way Hemingway saw it (literature and art are constant figures in this book, and the fact that I could connect to it (the book) despite my general lack of interest in these topics speaks volumes about the quality of the book). More specifically, this is about the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris where Hemingway occasionally lived, and wrote his books.

George Whitman, a US army veteran who settled down in Paris after the Second World War, bought the store and ran it until his death. During these years, he hosted writers who wanted to visit Paris in an upstairs room, allowing them to basically live in the store as they wrote. There were frequent readings organised in the store where writers could connect with their readers, and writers and other regular patrons were frequently allowed to use the bookshop as a library – to simply read rather than buy books.

There was an occasion when Whitman’s store license ran out and he got into a dispute with the municipal authorities who refused to renew it, to which he responded by stopping the sale of books and running the shop as a library until the license was ultimately renewed.

While Salil describes this as a measure of Whitman’s commitment to good literature and helping authors, it was hard for me to read this chapter without wondering about Whitman’s finances, for none of the above is cheap. One of the biggest costs to running a bookshop is the cost of real estate, and if Whitman had an upstairs room for writers to live and write in, and could redeploy his shop as a library, it came at a significant cost of real estate. While readings might help sell additional books (most readers who attend buy at least a copy of the book that is being discussed), it can disrupt the regular flow of business in the store, and affect sales. The question that I couldn’t escape while reading the book was about the store’s finances and how Whitman managed all these activities.

One hypothesis is that he had alternate sources of funding (patrons of literature’s contributions, or family funds, for example) that allowed him to spend in writer welfare. The other is that margins from the book selling business were fat enough to allow Whitman to spend on writer welfare, and this spending paid him back by way of improving overall sales from his store. Back in the day when you could only buy books from shops, shops that curated well or stocked rare books could afford to charge a premium, and make significant margins which could go into activities such as writer promotion and welfare.

If this hypothesis is correct, it could explain why the traditional literature industry, including authors, are so incensed by Amazon’s rise, even if it leads to significantly better revenues. What Amazon allowed, by its initial print book mailing model, was for readers to access the “long tail” of books which they could purchase at a reasonable cost (they weren’t beholden to curator-bookseller any more). While the more passionate readers remained loyal to their curator-bookseller, the mass moved to the cheaper option.

While this created value for readers (in terms of lower prices for their books), it had the effect of cutting retail margins for books by a significant amount. Several bookshops became unprofitable under this new regime, and with the new margins not compensating for increasing real estate costs, many of them (including chains such as Borders) closed down. Writers weren’t directly affected economically – for readers who would have earlier purchased in such shops could now simply purchase the same books at Amazon for a lower price, but the dropping profitability of conventional bookstores affected them in other ways.

As Salil’s chapter on Shakespeare & Co illustrates, independent bookshops performed a social function far higher than curating and selling books – they provided an author a platform to connect with readers and enabled authors to meet and exchange ideas. They organised events for authors which raised their profile, and helped sell more books.

Their replacement by low-cost retailing models has cut out this additional social function they performed (without direct rewards). Without independent bookshops organising readings and offering writing spaces, writers have lost something they had access to earlier (though they’ve been monetarily compensated for this by means of higher sales driven by lower prices on Amazon). Hence it’s no surprise that writers have taken sides with their publishers in the battle against Amazon, online retailing and e-books.

In this context, this old piece by Matthew Yglesias in Vox is worth reading, where it talks about why Amazon is performing a socially useful function by curtailing the book publishing industry. Yglesias writes:

My best guess is that this is too pessimistic about the financial logic behind giving advances. It is not, after all, just a loan that you may or may not pay back. An advance is bundled with a royalty agreement in which a majority of the sales revenue is allocated to someone other than the author of the book. In its role as venture capitalist, the publisher is effectively issuing what’s called convertible debt in corporate finance circles — a risky loan that becomes an ownership stake in the project if it succeeds.

 

An unauthorised biography of an unauthorised biography

I just finished reading a book which was like a Telugu movie – the beginning promised much, as did the reviews. About a third into the book, I was sending excerpts from its chapters to friends. Two thirds in, I was rather engrossed. And then it all fell apart, going into polemic territory in the last third.

I’m talking about Felix Martin’s Money: The unauthorised biography. When I found the book on the shelves of Blossom Book House two weekends back, I immediately reached for my phone and checked for reviews. Largely positive reviews by The Guardian and The Economist meant that I was compelled to buy it. And the first two thirds of the book was pretty excellent.

There is one very strong idea in the book – that we should look at money not as a commodity but as a system of maintaining credit. Martin gives the example of the Fei in a Pacific Island called Yap to illustrate this, and makes a rather compelling case for not treating money as a commodity.

And he does this by giving examples from ancient and medieval history – the book is peppered with nice examples from Mesopotamia and Greece and the Warring States of China. In between he returns to modern times and talks about how Argentina in the 2000s and Ireland in the 1960s reacted to closure of banks – all of it lending further credence to his theory of money being a means of credit rather than a commodity.

He talks about the pyramidal structure of credit in medieval Italy and the fairs of Lyons. Considerable footage is given to the formation of the Bank of England and John Locke’s recommendations on debasement of the currency (these parts were easier for me to appreciate, having read Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle) and John Law’s exploits in France.

And then, with the book nicely set up two thirds in, he turns it into a polemic against investment banks and what prompted the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Again, some of the stuff is impressive, like Walter Bagehot’s recommendations following a credit crisis in the 1860s, and Keynes’s recommendations after the First World War. But the last sixty pages or so are close to unreadable, especially for someone who’s fairly closely followed the 2008 crisis.

This is not the first time that a book on history falls away when it gets to modern history. Another example of this is Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which again begins extremely strongly in its description of prehistory and ancient history, but somehow falls away when it comes to the modern world (ending with a rather unreadable chapter on immortality and the Methuselah project). There are more examples that I can’t currently recall of books that do a great job of ancient history but fall apart when they come to modern times.

Money would have been a significantly better book had it stopped at around the 220th page or so, following the recommendations of Walter Bagehot – but maybe with some final recommendations. Till then it’s a fantastic book, but then there seems to be a compulsion to provide recommendations, where it falls away (this is again a common bugbear, where books fall apart when they try to provide recommendations). I’d recommend you read it, but not beyond page 220 (totally ~280 pages).

Oh, and for a change I read the physical copy of the book (since I found a copy at Blossom Book House), so that copy is available to be lent out.

Books and Kindle Singles

Recently I started re-reading Vikram Chandra (the novelist and Berkeley academic)’s book “Mirrored Mind”, which has been published in the US as “Geek Sublime”. I hadn’t read it earlier – I had only read the Kindle sample and then discarded it, and I recently decided to pick it up from where I had left off.
In fact, that was hard to do, so I decided to start from the beginning once again, and so went through the introduction and preface and acknowledgements and all such before diving into the book again. This time I liked it better (not that I hadn’t liked it the first time round), and so decided to buy the full book. But somewhere midway through the full book, I lost enthu, and didn’t feel like reading further. My Kindle lay unused for a few days, for the “loaded” book on that was this one, and there was absolutely no enthu to continue reading that. Finally I gave up and moved on to another book.So one point that Vikram Chandra makes in the introduction to the book is that he initially planned to make it a Kindle single, but then decided, upon the urging of his wife and others, to make it into a complete book on coding and poetry. While the intent of writing a full book is no doubt well-placed, the result doesn’t really match up.

For when you try and turn a Kindle single into a full book, you try to add words and pages, and for that reason you write things that aren’t organically attached to the rest of the book. You want to add content, and depth, but instead you end up simply adding empty words – those that you could have done without, and chapters which are disconnected from the rest of the book.

And so it is the case with Vikram Chandra’s Mirrored Mind. There is a whole chapter, for example, on the sociology of the Indian software industry, which is clearly “out of syllabus” for the otherwise excellent novelist, programmer and creative writer Vikram Chandra. He goes into long expositions on the role of women in the Indian software industry, the history of the industry, etc. which are inherently interesting stories, but not when told by Chandra, who is clearly not in his zone while writing that chapter.

And then there is the chapter on Sanskrit poetry, which is anything but crisp, and so verbose that it is extremely hard to get through. There is nothing about code in the chapter, and it is very hard to cut through the verbosity and discern any references to the structure of poetry, and that lays waste to the chapter. It was while reading this chapter that I simply couldn’t proceed, and abandoned the book.

This is by no means a comparison but I’ve gone down this path, too. I’ve written so many blog posts on the taxi industry, and especially on the pricing aspects, that I thought it might make sense to put them all together and convert them into a Kindle Single. But then, as I started going through my posts and began to piece them together during my holiday in Barcelona earlier this year, I got greedy, and I thought I could convert this into a full “proper” book, and that I could become a published author.

And so I started writing, mostly in cafes where I went to for breakfast (croissant and “cortado”) and for coffees. I set myself ambitious targets, of the nature of writing at least two thousand words in each session. This might help me get out a skeleton of the book by the time my vacation ended, I reasoned.

Midway through my vacation, I decided to review my work before proceeding, and found my own writing unreadable. This is not always the case – for example, I quite enjoy going back and reading my own old blog posts. I’m quite narcissistic, in other words, when it comes to my own writing. And I found my own work-in-progress book unreadable! I immediately put a pause on it, and proceeded to fritter away the rest of my vacation in an offhand way.

I got back to Bangalore and sent the “manuscript”, if it can be called such to editor extraordinaire Sarah Farooqui, I don’t know what trouble she went through reading it, but her reaction was rather crisp – that the “book” was anything but crisp and I should cut down on the multitude of words, sentences and paragraphs that added no value. The project remains stillborn.

So based on these two data points, one from a great novelist (none of whose novels I’ve read), and one from my not-so-humble self, I posit that a Kindle single once conceived should be left that way, and authors should not be overcome by delusions of grandeur that might lead them to believe they are in the process of writing a great work. The only thing that can come out of this is a horribly overblown book whose information content is no greater than that of the Kindle single originally conceived.

Long ago on this blog I had written about “blog posts turned into books”, after reading Richard MacKenzie’s book on pricing (Why popcorn costs so much at the movies). The same holds true for Kindle singles turned into books, too. And when I started writing I intended to be a 500-word blog post, not the 900-word monster it has turned into. I wouldn’t blame you if you if you didn’t get this far.

Reading fiction

In the semester of January-May 2004, I took a course on Indian Fiction in English. This was in order to satisfy the quota for “humanities” credits at IIT Madras. The course was mostly good, and taught well, and we got a glimpse of how Indian writing in English developed, and the motifs that have been unique to such writing. There are a number of short stories we read as part of the course that I still remember vividly. But then there was the book.

For a one semester course, having lots of short stories makes sense, but no course is complete without analysing a novel, and so we were asked to read Jaishree Misra’s Ancient Promises, a truly depressing and mindfucking piece of literature. I don’t know if it was a consequence of that, or that I didn’t read much anyway, that the number of books of fiction I’ve read since then can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Soon after graduating from IIT (after some wrangling – I had attendance issues in the said Indian Fiction in English course, thanks to all the IIM interviews and some casual bunking), I paid Rs. 95 for Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone and devoured it. Fresh out of IIT (and having spent a summer at IIT Delhi, I could relate to the settings in the book), I must say I loved it. A few days later I borrowed To Kill A Mockingbird from God. Loved that, too. Then I borrowed (from God, again) Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Never got past the initial pages. I don’t think I even returned the book to God.

Then I bought Catch 22 and didn’t read it (the book was soon in tatters and I gave it away). Through IIM, I was too busy reading the Business Standard and blogging and indulging in unsavoury activities to have any time for reading. And after graduation I turned to non-fiction (I started with Duncan Watts’s Six Degrees, then James Suroweicki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Freakonomics, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, James Gleick’s Chaos, etc.) – mostly books on science and history and economics. I was hooked and for the last eight years this is what I’ve mostly read. The only book of fiction I remember reading in this intervening time period was Amit Varma’s My Friend Sancho. I had gone for the book’s launch in Delhi (more of an excuse to meet Amit and other friends who were going to turn up there), bought it out of sheer social pressure at the occasion and read it. I must say I quite liked it (though I like Amit’s recent writings on risk and ancient writings on freedom much better).

So scroll back (or forward – depending on which frame of reference you are in ) to about a month back, after I had left twitter and facebook when I decided I must use the now available time to read some fiction. I started off with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (free Kindle edition), struggled though to about 50% and promptly gave up. I needed some fiction that would inspire me.

Some ten years back Madness had recommended that I read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I promptly ignored him. Eight years back he made the same recommendation. I ignored him again. In 2008 I decided to read the book, but couldn’t find a copy (pre-Kindle days, remember). Sometime in 2009 or 2010 I found a copy in Blossom, and bought it, and it was sitting in the back of my bookshelf till two weeks back. I didn’t start reading from that, though.

When I had my accident in Rajasthan back in 2012, I had injured the ligament in my left thumb, and the greater injury of my fourth right metacarpal had meant that I had ignored this ligament injury until it was too late. So I have a weak left thumb. And that means it is hard for me to hold open a paperback with my left hand – it has to be placed somewhere. This means most of my reading in the last two years has been on the Kindle.

And so I got a sample on my Kindle. The first scene involving movement of currency in Shanghai had me hooked. Soon I was through the sample. Before I hit that “buy” button on my Kindle, though, I checked the bookshelf to see if the physical copy still existed. It did, though it was yellow (perhaps it was already yellow by the time I bought it). So I picked up the physical copy. And over the last ten or twelve days I’ve read it. All 918 pages of it.

It’s been a fabulous book (if a work of fiction has to hold my attention for this long it ought to be fabulous – my ADHD makes me a very good judge of books and movies). Insane fundaes on cryptography, privacy, the second world war, American legal system and just about everything else. It’s been so insanely full of fundaes that I actually sat through 918 pages of it! Can’t recommend the book enough!

I wonder if I would have read it had I still been on Twitter and Facebook. I probably would have – despite being on these media I did read a sufficient quantity of non fiction in the last 2-3 years. But I had the kind of mental space I didn’t for a long time (possibly in part with living alone). And so I read. It’s been fabulous.

The next two books I plan to read are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (I’d begun reading it two years back and liked it before I had a problem with that Kindle and had to exchange it) and Dr. Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga (considering I’m traveling to Catalunya next month). I still don’t know which one I’ll pick up next (figuratively – both books are on my kindle).