February 3rd, 2010

Recent activities: bike, toys, snow

Lost and Found

A little over a week ago, the four of us went out to dinner at Julie's Place, deploying the usual art supplies to distract T. while waiting for our food to arrive. While I thought I had cleared everything up before leaving, I somehow missed the Mickey Mouse scrapbooking punch. I eventually called the restaurant about a week later and asked about it, but it's a scrapbooking punch. Explaining one of those is not easy, even to someone who has used one. Yesterday, T. and I went back there for waffle and soup and in person I was able to supply enough detail that it was found. Small parenting victories. This one mattered mostly because it appears to not be sold through the Disney Store, so a replacement would have involved a call to the resort and hope it wasn't sold out and discontinued. T. might or might not have ever cared, but I kinda did; it's fun to play with.

A lot of T.'s snow clothes came off on that ride, and we later went to the bank and the toy store in Concord. That is a great shop for spending time in; it is a terrible place to try to do an in-and-out. They have a fairly large gauge railroad running on an elevated track, and that's in addition to the wooden train table and the Wow activity table. And the quadrilla setup. You get the idea. T. wanted some Star Wars legos, but it wasn't that long ago that he was swallowing small plastic items at the preschool. I'm going to wait a bit before we risk that.

Crazy is as Crazy Does

Yesterday's bike pickup was interesting. T. really didn't want to ride the bike and produced words to that effect. With vehemence. B. had called in sick and R. had taken a half day and was sleeping with A. -- unresponsive to a phone call to try to be rescued. I asked T. if he wanted to walk, and that was okay with him. This time, I stuck very closely to sidewalks and crosswalks. T. has gotten very good at school lately about holding hands with his partner when the kids are all walking to the gym, and after a little bit, he started holding the bike handle. He switched from my handle to one of his handles when he realized it wasn't comfortable reaching up that far and trying to walk under my outstretched arm. A little while after that, he reached for his helmet in the basket and tried to climb on the bike. That doesn't work great in snow pants -- he needs some help mounting. Off we went.

Last night it snowed, so R. drove him in. The snow pants were still in my car from our outing the previous day, so I rode the bike in by myself to deliver the pants. The road was wet with puddles but no ice or snow or even much slush. The sidewalks hadn't even been plowed because it was so little snow; I didn't try to ride on them or in our driveway. It was uneventful, but I went slow because anything over 10 mph at this temperature makes my eyeballs hurt. Or something in that general area, at any rate.

Trouble in Content Land

http://www.observer.com/2010/media/after-three-months-only-35-subscriptions-newsdays-web-site

R. told me about this a weekish ago when the news was fresh. Newsday, a New York newspaper you probably don't read, lost a bunch of money last year and decided it was time to start charging their online readers. Three months ago, they rolled it out. R.'s summary was that 35 people subscribed. To be fair, a Whole Lot of People get free subscriptions (like, anyone with a paper subscription or cable service in the area); nevertheless, traffic to the website has taken a substantial hit and one can only imagine that in addition to not paying enough to cover the cost of making the website subscriber only, the paying subscribers are also not paying enough to cover the loss in advertising revenue which will materialize if it has not already.

I am in no way suggesting that Newsday should not have done this. I'm not much of a believer in "information wants to be free", altho I do believe that people often will take free things that they wouldn't even pay a penny for. A penny that someone handed them to give back to "pay" for it. I actually don't think there's a good way out of the hole that newspapers are in.

I will further note that while I still cannot bring myself to subscribe to the New York Times, either online, on a kindle, or on paper, if Gail Collins were to make it so that I had to pay someone something for me to read her column, whoever was collecting could probably stick me for up to $10/week for the privilege of reading the two columns and, when I felt like it, the one she does with what's-his-name. There are bloggers out there who charge for the privilege of reading them, and while I haven't stepped up to pay for any of that, either, if Calculated Risk and/or Nate Silver decided to stick it to their readers, I'd probably pony up a similar amount to them, possibly more, because they produce a larger quantity of stuff I like to read about. In other words, I'd pay $30/week, or a little over $1500/year for the privilege of reading the output of three-five people. There are hypothetical online newspapers that could make a bundle by, er, bundling popular bloggers and columnists.

When I was in college, there were a number of people in my degree program got quite heated about how the world needed a good online micropayments scheme. Had such a thing come to pass (which it very much did not, and if you say PayPal, I will laugh at you), that might have created some space between free and detectable amounts of cash -- that step is nearly insuperable right now.

In any event, while it is clear that the troubled content providers (aka newspapers and their relations, magazines) are hoping that the kindle and/or iPad might provide some assistance, that stream seems awful small right now to attempt to factor into any analysis of the future of e-readers.

Apparently this is what comes of giving it away for free.

No Fair Predicting What Is Already Happening

I have been known to call people on predicting things that are already in progress, then taking credit for their precocious prognostication (come on, I _had_ to type that once I'd thought of it). That might not be a fair thing to blame them for. Possibly they just don't realize the trend is already in progress.

I'm willing to allow this, since I've been discussing with R. the last few days/weeks/months/oh, let's not go there what the world will look like should e-readers trip down the path laid down by the music industry -- a path that the music industry is still barreling down with no obvious end in sight. Pete posted in a note over on FB drawing music, books and video content all together and contemplating consumers, pricing and retailing collectively for content which is digitally transferrable. I have been insisting that B&N (BKS) and Borders (BGP) are going to have a helluva a time not being Tower Records (or, for that matter, Virgin's music stores). Particularly since I suspect they have substantial investment in the real estate their stores sit on, and if the Peak Oil and/or Climate Change trends are real, that real estate isn't going to get more valuable over time (in general -- yes, I know there are some urban stores, but many of the stores are suburban). R. noted that BGP was already a penny stock and in danger of being delisted. Today, I thought I'd go check in and see what was going on with those two stocks.

http://www.thestreet.com/story/10672918/1/borders-spikes-on-ackmans-bullish-call.html

"Ackman, appearing on CNBC's "Fast Money," Tuesday night declared that Borders has a better risk/reward than its rival."

Because _that's_ saying a lot.

Someone else is trying to buy enough BKS to match the Riggio brothers' stake; more power to him. I'll just sit over here with popcorn and enjoy the shark feeding frenzy.

R.'s skepticism that these guys are just going to go under is persistent, however, and I was willing to concede they could last a good long time on gift books, occasional book buyers, people drinking coffee and reading magazines, children's books, and the hard core of frequent book buyers that wants physical copies (altho enough of those are die-hard indy bookstore supporters that you do have to wonder how that's going to turn out). I am a lot less concerned about the remaining independents, at least the ones like Willow (Acton, MA) and Toadstool (Milford, NH and Peterborough, NH). They're already selling a ton of non-book items: toys, music, puzzles, maps. They're Third Place kinds of places that are used to scraping something out of a tough environment. One theory R. and I bounced around was that B&N and Borders might decide to go after Hallmark's clientele. The knick-knacks are already kinda thick in the chain stores, and I seem to recall them having greeting cards.

But Hallmark is fighting back with a line of giftable objects that can be customized with your voice or whatever: bears and cards and books which can talk in your voice to the recipient. Hmmmm. So all those people thinking ereaders should be able to support books with movies and crap in them? Bet you can't make those books soft and cuddly.

Where did B&N come from, anyway? It's not like suburban book superstores have always existed. Quite the contrary. I know the Riggio brothers have this whole spiel worked out, but let's not lose track of this:

http://www.barnesandnobleinc.com/our_company/history/bn_history.html

"Through the 1980s, Barnes & Noble experimented with different store formats and sizes, seeking to develop a suburban superstore version of the original Barnes & Noble store. In 1987, the company made its largest acquisition when it purchased B. Dalton Bookseller from Dayton Hudson."

Now, depending on where you have lived, how old you are and how much attention you've been paying, you may or may not have already made the connection that Dayton Hudson is also known as Target (that's a slight oversimplification). Another component of the books = music prediction is that if Wal-Mart and Target are now huge sellers of CDs, replacing places like Tower for the not-buying-online crowd, there's no particular reason that Wal-Mart and Target wouldn't end up selling books in a similar way. They already move a lot of books. A _lot_ of books. If the chain superstores go away, they are what's left that is not online (yes, I know both have online stores. Work with me, here.).

Further in that B&N corporate history:

"The company also acquired Doubleday Book Shops from the Bertelsmann Company and the rights to the Scribner’s bookstore trade name from Macmillan."

Really, what the Riggios did was buy a bunch of crap that the publishers were smart enough to realize they really didn't want to be caught holding the bag on, spend a bunch of money on real estate and branding. It looked kinda smart while it was happening (and yes, I've spent a good chunk of money there and at Borders over the decades), but now? Now it looks like a roll-up of turds. So the next time you're sitting there thinking that publishers are a bunch of idiots who can't find their own butt with a flashlight and a mirror with a long handle that can adjust at an angle, think again. They were smart enough to get rid of the physical real estate.

When I sit here in my rocking chair, happy that I have child care today, and contemplating the demise of BKS and BGP in the next ten years (if you heard it here first, that was purely because you missed someone else predicting it a while back), the survival of some fraction of existing independent bookstores but looking more like content stores that got all jammed up with a card shop and a toy store, I can't help but wonder. The publishers were A-OK with the Sony reader: it was going to be a slow transition and they were going to increase their pricing power. How much of a surprise was it when Bezos pulled the kindle out of a hat? Sure, Macmillan "won" this latest maneuver, but how many negotiations _haven't_ made it to the dying newspapers?