Amazon Continues Blocking Hachette Over Ebook Pricing

The dispute between Amazon and Hachette is in its third month with no signs of resolution, although as it drags on, more statements are being made and news articles written with dire statements of how horrible this all is.

Amazon logo

The latest actual news is that Amazon put up a website called Readers United that currently contains only an open letter making it clear that this is all about making ebooks cheaper. Amazon wants to sell more Kindles, while publishers want to avoid driving customers away from print. There’s a whole lot tied up in this debate, from nostalgic appeals to the way things used to be done to avoidance of change to fear that cost-cutting will make a wide range of books even harder to produce to arguments over who’s going to control book culture to debate over what a fair percentage is for authors to receive.

Many authors have lined up behind the publisher, perhaps because that’s what they’re comfortable with. Any position that tries to argue with a huge company on the basis of “loyalty”, though, is doomed to fail — talk money, that’s the only language they understand. And that’s why Amazon has become so successful. People like buying conveniently for less. Trying to change that behavior on the basis of high-minded ideals is a sisyphean uphill struggle. Many agree with Amazon that ebooks should be much cheaper than print, and under $10 is a good price point.

Since those writing these articles also tend to be authors, or sympathetic to them, we hear a lot about Amazon’s business pressures and struggles, much less about how much of a huge international conglomerate Hachette is part of. They’re doing fine recently, compensating for any potential negative earning effect from Amazon by “the integration of Hyperion, and the takeover of Disney’s distribution activity”, leading to an overall rise in revenue.

I tend to take a Darwinian approach: bookstores (with their carefully curated selection and service) are going out of business because many people value other choices (price and a wider selection) more. Once they disappear, and people get tired of not having the help to find good new reads, then they, or something like them, will reappear, perhaps for a new audience. Look at what happened to vinyl records, now with increasing sales as hipsters rediscover the virtue of warm sound.

It is interesting to see what figures Amazon released as part of this slanted open letter, and what they mean. Andrew Wheeler has a great post on what Amazon might be omitting and why, as well as noting some contract nastiness.

By the way, Amazon briefly used similar tactics for Warner video products. Their new target? Disney. Muppets Most Wanted comes out on DVD on Tuesday, but Amazon hasn’t taken preorders for it for weeks, which eliminates information on audience interest that the studio might find helpful. From the NY Times article:

Preorders are a way for an entertainment company to gauge demand. Consumers have increasingly been trained to want something the moment it becomes available, so if they do not have the ability to order ahead, the companies worry, the customer will not buy a product when it hits the market.

It’s true in my case, particularly since I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I hoped I would. Making it harder for me to get means it’s easier for me to skip it, or wait for an eventual sale.

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Batman: Assault on Arkham

Out on Tuesday is the newest original animated DC universe film, Batman: Assault on Arkham.

How you feel about it will likely be influenced by two key facts about the movie: It’s set in the same world as the Arkham Asylum video game, and it’s badly named, since Batman barely appears. This is a Suicide Squad movie, and some will find that very exciting, while others will be near-disgusted.

I fall in the latter category. I liked the original comic series, written by John Ostrander with a sense of morality and an exploration of various dilemmas around such. The series and concept now, though, is just about forcing bad guys to do even badder things under the threat of being decapitated explosively.

I’ve never played the video games, so I can’t speak to how authentic this is in relation to those, but the tone here feels a lot like the DC New 52 revamp, from the character designs to the relentless grim feeling and violence. (Plus, hints of sex, as Killer Frost is seen topless from the back; like the other movies, this is rated PG-13.) That certainly has its audience, particularly among gamers. Artistically, Batman: Assault on Arkham looks the same as the other recent DC films —- workable, but nothing outstanding.

I did like the TV credit-style intros of the various characters doing despicable things. That way we get both their villain and “real” names, for the following members of “Task Force X”:

  • Killer Frost (voiced by Jennifer Hale)
  • King Shark (voiced by John DiMaggio)
  • Black Spider (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito)
  • Captain Boomerang (voiced by Greg Ellis)
  • KGBeast (voiced by Nolan North)
  • Harley Quinn (voiced by Hynden Walch)
  • Deadshot (voiced by Neal McDonough)

Batman is once again the incredible Kevin Conroy, and Troy Baker does a good job of being creepily insane as the Joker. Matthew Gray Gubler is the Riddler, while I was pleased to hear CCH Pounder as Amanda Waller. Unfortunately, while I was thrilled to see her (and in her old look) running the team, we’re given no reason for her being so mean and bloodthirsty. Other than that’s how everyone is in this world.

She sends the team into Arkham Asylum to kill the Riddler, while Batman is looking for a dirty bomb that the Joker has hidden. That accounts for his few scenes, where he threatens various criminals to get more information. The rest of the time, the lightly structured plot just gives villains more chances to be bad guys. I don’t find wallowing in this fun; clearly, others disagree.

Special Features

A nine-minute sneak peek at Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is illustrated with comic art, footage from this and previous movies, and very preliminary sketches. Writer Heath Corson (the go-to guy for these things, since he also wrote this movie and Justice League: War), creative director of animation Mike Carlin, and voice director Andrea Romano also comment. Corson says that Aquaman is different because they don’t have a character [other than him] with a core of anger and frustration —- what DCU is he reading?

The movie’s commentary is by Carlin, Corson, and executive producer James Tucker.

“The Joker’s Queen: Harley Quinn” featurette (14 minutes) describes her as the funny and sweet “bad girl next door”. Geoff Boucher, writer for Entertainment Weekly, explains how the character was created, with help from Mike Carlin. This would all have been much more interesting to hear from Bruce Timm himself, but he appears only in photos. Paul Dini participates. Original voice Arleen Sorkin doesn’t. Adam Glass, writer of the Suicide Squad comic, does, and he spends a good amount of time justifying his recent take on the character in print, including his thoughts on the Joker/Harley Quinn/Deadshot triangle.

“Arkham Analyzed: The Secrets Behind the Asylum” spends 27 minutes on the setting. After the movie, I couldn’t subject myself to more of this. Too bad we didn’t get anything about the other characters that are assembled here or the history of the Suicide Squad concept. There are also four cartoon episodes included: Justice League Unlimited: “Task Force X”; Young Justice: “Infiltrator”; Batman: The Brave and the Bold: “Emperor Joker”; and The Batman: “Two of a Kind”. (The studio provided a review copy.)

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Hollywood Superstars

I’d never heard of Hollywood Superstars until I got old buddy Nat Gertler’s press release for the new reprint volume. Turns out that it was an abbreviated (only five issues) series that was originally put out by Epic Comics (a division of Marvel) from 1990-1991. It was a comic before its time. There were no superheroes in it (although various action scenes were included). It was an indy comic that would appeal to general audience readers before they were used to buying such a format.

The three main characters were led by Jerry Naylor, a stunt coordinator who left the movie business after an accident. He tried to stop a director from allowing an unsafe stunt which killed some extras but wasn’t successful. Aspiring actress and incompetent secretary Melody Blake is the crush of stand-up comic Leo Haney, which allows for a variety of one-liners in the dialogue. Together, they’re detectives.

Since Hollywood Superstars was written by screenwriter and raconteur Mark Evanier, I knew it would be authentic, since he knows Hollywood. (And at that link, he tells the story of how the book came to be.) Artist Dan Spiegle, who also collaborated with Evanier on Crossfire and Blackhawk, provides clean, classic lines (as I’d expect from someone who started making comics in the 50s). That style is a help in reading this volume, since it’s a black-and-white reprint of a series originally released in color.

The art here is occasionally murky, as can happen with such projects, but this is a convenient, cheap way to read the series without having to hunt down little-known back issues. I believe it’s print-on-demand. In the PDF, there were a few pages where the art was slightly crooked. I don’t know if that’s the way they were originally or an artifact of preparing to reprint, since I didn’t see the physical book. (Then again, you may not even notice; I tend to be obsessive about such things.)

Hollywood Superstars pleasantly reminded me of Hooper, particularly since many of the stories deal with the potential of movie stunts going wrong. The only other case involves an older, jaded, still-aspiring actress who hates men. The stories are told in broad strokes with sometimes blunt humor and the occasional shower scene with one of the women. (Evanier says they were originally trying to target young women, thus the soap opera aspects, but visually, this book is aimed at the usual male audience.) I enjoyed the chance to read comics from a more innocent time. Everyone’s motivations were obvious, the bad guys eventually got what was coming to them, and there were plenty of jokes.

Hollywood Superstars is not available in comic shops, only through Amazon.com. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

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Kurt Cobain: When I Was an Alien

I was looking forward to sampling this graphic novel, translated from the Italian, on the life of Kurt Cobain, since I didn’t know much about him beyond his hit songs and his marriage to Courtney Love (who doesn’t appear here). Unfortunately, that lack of knowledge was a detriment, since I suspect the book reads much better if you already know most of the facts about Cobain. If you don’t, as I didn’t, you’re not given all the information you need.

The most obvious omission in Kurt Cobain: When I Was an Alien is the name of one of the band members in Nirvana. I knew Cobain, and I knew Dave Grohl, but the third guy, Krist Novoselic, is never named anywhere in full in the book. That’s a pretty big omission.

The art, however, is lovely and evocative, and the coloring, a blue-grey wash, suits the material well. The scenes with Cobain as a child and teen, discovering pop music and dealing with his parents’ breakup and trying to start a band, are universal enough that many will be able to relate. The book concludes on the eve of Nirvana’s breakthrough, so future events, including stardom and his suicide, aren’t tackled at all.

There are two pages at the back that identify some of the key music industry cameos in the story. For those of us not already familiar with all of the band’s discography, more annotations would have been appreciated. I get the impression that some of the dialogue and/or scenes might have been selected because they later figured in song names or lyrics, but that’s just a guess, based on the titles in the music credit list at the back.

If you’re a huge fan and you want to see Kurt Cobain in comic form, this isn’t a bad choice. For the rest of us, the read is frustrating more than anything else. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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Bellweather Rhapsody

I got Bellweather Rhapsody from my local library, and I read it through in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down. The publisher describes the book as “full of knowing nods to pop culture classics from The Shining to Agatha Christie to Glee.” True enough.

The Bellweather Hotel is a decaying old Catskills resort, the location of a high school music festival that promises great things for the few who stand out there. Alice and Rabbit, twins, are attending this year, accompanied by their teacher, Natalie Wilson. But everyone and everything has a secret.

Alice is unsure about herself, although she’s confident in her talent. Maybe too confident. Her brother Rabbit has been keeping a significant revelation from her for the first time in his life. Their chaperone is new in town, fleeing her previous job after a disturbing nighttime accident.

While at the hotel, they meet Hastings, the long-time concierge; the scarred Scottish orchestra conductor Brodie; Viola Fabian, the beautiful but vicious head of the program; and Minnie, who as a child 15 years ago attended a wedding at the hotel. There, she saw a bride kill her new husband before hanging herself in room 712, an event that has forever shaped her life. Things get really weird during a snowstorm that traps everyone in place, when Alice’s roommate Jill (who’s also Viola’s daughter) disappears from that same room.

Reveals pile upon each other as the mystery progresses, perhaps with too many neat tie-ups, although I thought author Kate Racculia gave them all sufficient grounding. She certainly creates memorable, three-dimensional characters I wanted to spend time with. At the end, she thanks Ellen Raskin, and the comparison is apt — this is much like one of her books, but for adults. The themes of memory and music as emotional transport and the darkness in human loneliness are resonant.

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Read a Cat Comic for World Cat Day

Twitter says it’s World Cat Day, so what better time to remind you to read A Stray in the Woods, Alison Wilgus’ spooky webcomic. Originally, the story was user-driven, but now that it’s completed, you can find out what’s going on in one sitting. And her cats are so fluid and design-y and lovely to view!

A Stray in the Woods

The problem with not having to wait, though, is that you might lose the dreamy, mystical feel to the story, so pace yourself. You can read it all online or buy the PDF or get a ComiXology copy.

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Interview With Matthew Bogart, Author of The Chairs’ Hiatus

I was really impressed when I stumbled across Matthew Bogart’s The Chairs’ Hiatus a couple of weeks ago, so I asked him a few questions about the project and his history.

Matthew Bogart

You can find out more about his work at his website, which includes full comics to read, and his Kickstarter is already backed with 12 days to go. Just a few more dollars means a new story with the characters, though, so go pledge.

How long have you been making comics? Why and how did you start?

I’ve been making and publishing comics since I was in middle school. Those early comics were 11×17 photocopied sheets folded in half and stapled that my friends and I sold at our local comic store.

I recently wrote the shop owner who let my friends and I sell our comics in his store and told him that, while a Kickstarter doing well is amazing, there’s nothing that compares to having your comics sold in a real live comic shop when you’re in middle school!

I know that some people don’t consider that kind of thing “real” comics, but I do. I’m not sure I’d consider what we made “good” comics but who’s to say?

You seem to be very forward-looking in terms of your use of online tools, with free copies readable on the web, selling PDF downloads, use of ComiXology Submit, a Patreon, and now your first Kickstarter. How successful have the various outlets been for you?

Thanks! I don’t write about it a lot, but I’m really into technology. I feel a pull towards technology similar to when I first discovered comics. I read more tech sites than comics sites. It’s something I really enjoy experimenting with. The trick is to try and balance what is interesting for the creator to play with and what is actually helpful to the reader.

The Chairs' Hiatus page by Matthew Bogart

By far the most rewarding experience I’ve had publishing on the web has been my Patreon. I share weekly video updates, post early versions of my pages, and offer behind-the-scenes posts about how I make my comics. The folks at Patreon, who really seem to have their hearts in the right place, are building something very special for both fans and creators. It’s a wonderful platform.

Am I right in thinking that your Kickstarter is your first time in print?

I could see how you would think that. This is certainly the first time I’ve attempted to have a large print run done of a nicely printed book. I’ve been printing my own work since I was a kid, however. I like to do things that experiment with print as well. I’ve published flipbooks and gate-fold comics. I made a set of cards to be viewed in a turn-of-the-century stereoscope. I’ve even printed a small batch of The Chairs’ Hiatus before, using a print-on-demand publisher. They were black-and-white paperbacks made to take to a few conventions.

What inspired the story of The Chairs’ Hiatus? Why that subject and characters?

That’s a tough one to answer. I’d had an idea for a story about a musician that died and asked a friend of his to complete his final album for him. Around the same time I’d had a friendship dissolve in what seemed like a very permanent way. I can see elements of both of those things in the finished story. I also wanted to tell a story that all took place in one crazy night. I’d read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and thought it was an interesting restriction to put on a story. I’m not sure if it’s totally clear, but in the last panel of The Chairs’ Hiatus the sun is just starting to come up.

Both The Chairs’ Hiatus and Oh, It’s the End of the World deal with major life changes told through substantial use of flashbacks. What determines your use of that structure?

It’s almost always used to make an emotional beat or scene land in the present. For example, in Oh, It’s the End of the World, there’s a flashback about how what a crazy romantic whirlwind the previous summer was for this character named Erin. It establishes how badly she regretted not expressing her feelings for this boy and how, now that he’s back for summer break again, she’s decided to come out and tell him how she feels. This is all to make the moment later in the story, where the reader finds out that he’s actually started hiding from her, more uncomfortable.

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Next DCU Animated Movies Announced: Aquaman, More Batman and Justice League

Some short notes on the next planned DC original animated movies, after next week’s Batman: Assault on Arkham, tying into the video games.

Aquaman in Throne of Atlantis

Next up is Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, described as “the Aquaman origin story”, out in early 2015. That’s the same title used for a comic book storyline facing off against the Ocean Master that ran in Justice League #15–17 and Aquaman #14–16. Aquaman will be voiced by Matt Lanter with Sam Witwer playing Ocean Master.

“Sometime in the first half of 2015″ will bring Batman vs. Robin, “which will feature the first-ever animated appearance of The Court of Owls.”

Finally, Bruce Timm returns to the DCU with Justice League: Gods and Monsters. He is producing the film and developed the story and many of the character designs.

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