Polls and Polling – Referendum Discussion At the Parliament

My wife and I went to listen to a panel discussion yesterday about polls and polling held at the Scottish Parliament as part of the Festival of Politics.

The context is the referendum on the 18th September on Scottish devolution.

Here are a couple of snippets that came up during the discussion.

Mark Diffey of IPSO Mori pointed out that the problem with polling people on mobile phones is that there is no geographical tag on a mobile number.

So if you want to ask people about the Scottish referendum and want to ask only Scottish people in Scotland, you can’t poll them by their mobile phone numbers. That’s because the person could be anywhere in the UK.

He also mentioned that the referendum polls show that one third of No voters think the YES campaign is running a better campaign.

Mike Smithson of the blog political betting said that people who opted to vote by postal vote tended to return their vote early. That meant they had cemented themselves into a YES or NO position and were not susceptible to late swings in the campaigns.

Tom Costley of TNS Polling countered that the majority of voters who had a strong opinion one way or the other, did not change their votes – so it was irrelevant that they denied themselves the opportunity to change their vote because they would not anyway.

I am not sure how reliable that is. People tend to behave in conformity with their declared intent – so once they have fixed their position they are likely to say that they wouldn’t change it anyway even if they could.

Mark Diffey again – he said that 16-24 age group were more volatile, i.e. more changeable in the views.

Polly Toynbee and the Yes vote

We went to see Polly Toynbee and David Walker speak at The Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday.

Polly Toynbee made a heartfelt plea for Scotland to remain in the UK so as to balance the horrible Tories who are running things.

At a couple of points during the Q&A, the question of the Scottish referendum Yes versus No vote was voiced by the audience.

From the cheers in the audience there was an obvious majority for Yes.

Bearing in mind that the people who came to that event are likely to be Left leaning and it is maybe no surprise that they favour Yes.

Bearing in mind that they are very probably well above average in earning power and available capital and maybe the fact that they favour Yes is revealing.

The polls put the No vote ahead. But I’m not so sure.

Amazon and that George Orwell quote in full

I got an email today from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

The email is a cry for help. It asks everyone who has signed up to KDP (I have but I haven’t published anything through KDP) to complain to Hachette.

Here are the opening two paragraphs of the email (I’ve copied the complete email at the end of this article.)


Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

What?! George Orwell said that? George Orwell was suggesting collusion against the masses? Did he really say:

…if publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.

Let’s look at more of the quote.

I searched on Google and found the page of the Press Office of Penguin Books.

Here is more of the quote and the text before it and the quotes around it from their Press Office page:

Penguin became a separate company in 1936 and set up premises in the Crypt of the Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road, using a fairground slide to receive deliveries from the street above. Within twelve months, it had sold a staggering 3 million paperbacks. Traditional publishers tended to view Penguin with suspicion and uncertainty, as did some authors.

‘The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them’
George Orwell

But it also had its supporters.

Dear Lane,
These Penguin Books are amazingly good value for money. If you can make the series pay for itself – with such books at such price – you will have performed a great publishing feat. Yours sincerely,
J. B. Priestley

Orwell says Penguin paperbacks are splendid. He doesn’t say they are rubbish. He says they are splendid – so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would try to do away with them – strangle them at birth and bury the bones.

But why? A bit more digging and I found the complete text reprinted in Milton Friedman’s Price Theory. It was originally published under the title Review of Penguin Books in New English Weekly, 5 March 1936, as reprinted in ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, I. 165-57.

Here it is:

The Penguin books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them. It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way about. If you have, for instance, five shillings to spend and the normal price of a hook is half-a-crown, you are quite likely to spend your whole five shillings on two books. But if books are sixpence each you are not going to buy ten of them. because you don’t want as many as ten: your saturation point will have been reached long before that.

Probably you will buy three sixpenny books and spend the rest of your five shillings on seats at the “movies.” Hence the cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books. This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn`t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher. the compositor. the author, and the bookseller it is a disaster ….

If the other publishers follow suit. the result may be a flock of cheap reprints that will cripple the lending libraries (the novelist’s foster-mother) and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be at very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money – well, finish it for yourself.

[If you are not familiar with pre-decimalisation coinage, five shillings is twice half a crown, and sixpence is one fifth of half a crown.]

So what is Orwell saying? I don’t think he was suggesting collusion. I think he was making an observation. He is saying that people won’t buy more books just because they are cheaper. They will reach saturation point and cheap books will put publishers out of business.

He may have been right about that in 1936 when he wrote it, or he may have been wrong. I’ve no idea how many publishers went to the wall with the rise of paperbacks. But I don’t think he was suggesting anything other than that money wins and art doesn’t.

Meanwhile today in the Guardian I read that 900 authors have taken out an ad in the New York Times asking Amazon not to penalise them because of Amazon’s beef with Hachette.

Readers of the New York Times will have to steel themselves this weekend, as the unseemly brawl between Hachette and Amazon erupts on to the tranquil pages of the Grey Lady. Perhaps the most incendiary item in Sunday’s edition is due to be a full-page ad paid for by a group of bestselling authors – and backed by over 900 other writers – calling on Amazon “in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business”.

I don’t know how to judge the war between Amazon and Hachette.

I know this. We all use Amazon and a lot of us are ambivalent about it even though we use it.

I lament that kids tomorrow won’t be able to rummage in the bookcase and find stuff their parents read years ago.

And I lament that electricity is needed to power e-books. It just seems wrong to need an outside source to read a book.

But I am not reading less because of e-books. I am reading more – traditional paper books and e-books – because it is so easy to order a book from Amazon.

It feels as though sometimes I buy a book almost before I realise I am doing it.

My ‘to read’ pile is bigger than it ever was. I sift through the pile sometimes, remembering a book I had forgotten I bought, still waiting patiently to be read.

And I look through my list of e-books as well – just not as easily because I don’t like moving out of my place in an e-book. I just don’t have faith that I will get back to my place easily when I want to return to it.

About the dispute – I think that all the high-flown talk about democratising authorship and making titles available to readers is bollocks.

I doubt very much that is any major publisher’s driving force.

I am sure it is the driving force of some publishers. Just not the driving force of the juggernauts. I could be wrong of course, and if so then I humbly apologise.

Amazon is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Hachette is worth billions. It’s just crazy to think that either of them is riding in like the seventh cavalry motivated above all by a passion to save the day for us poor readers.

And I think that was Orwell’s observation.

So, Dear Amazon, don’t ask me to join your fight.


The KDP Email In Full

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read). A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures. And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
- Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
- Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
- Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

Future Makeup

future-makeup

I saw a painting from Japan that had been painted on glass. It was painted on the back of the glass, which meant that the artist painted the foremost features first.

Then he/she painted the parts behind. How clever and how difficult.

[This isn't the painting: This is a photograph I took of a mannequin.]

The painting on glass gave me the idea for future makeup.

A person will dial in their preferred makeup and the machine will make a sheet of clear plastic with the makeup on in reverse – with the foundation on top.

The sheet will be moulded to the shape of that person’s face.

The person will place it on their face and the heat of their face will transfer the makeup in a few seconds.

Peel off the plastic sheet and voila! – makeup all done.

It will be a flop at first because people like to make their own makeup – like people liked to do their own cooking.

But then it will take off big time.

And everyone will be happy.

Monty Python Was Intellectual, But The Young Ones Made Me Laugh

There’s a bit in Monty Python set in a courtroom. The judge passes sentence and says “Take him down,” and the policeman puts his hand on the convicted man’s shoulder.

We don’t just see it. We hear the sharp sound of the policeman’s hand dropping onto the convicted man’s shoulder.

It’s the sign, the signal, that his prison sentence starts now.

Then from outside the door, a hand and arm appears and drops onto the policeman’s shoulder.

The policeman looks surprised.

Where did that come from? What’s going on?

Then we hear the sound repeated again and again. We imagine a long corridor with a line of men, each one dropping his hand onto the shoulder of the man in front.

And we imagine each man surprised to have been ‘taken’ – to have become the person onto whose shoulder a hand has dropped.

It’s classic existential Python.

But somehow in The Young Ones, when Vyvyan knocks Rick’s head off to show who’s boss, it’s funnier. It grabs me by the bits inside and makes me laugh.

It’s existential too, but somehow I am with them. With Python, I admire them but I am not with them.

Warm and cold. I wonder why?

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