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Another victim of the changing technological winds gives up the ghost

Video killed the radio star; streaming killed the video store.

So it is with Hastings Entertainment. The company has thrown in the towel and is in the throes of its final liquidation sales. Once upon a time, it was a source for books (at that time printed on paper) and music (at that time recorded in the grooves of vinyl platters). Video (at that time magnetically recorded on half-inch tape) and video games (at that time recorded on various types of electronic media) came later.

I found my first Hastings in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Amarillo, Texas. Rock music blared from speakers, the record section was huge, the book section was enticing, the posters on the wall bright with color. Some of the stores were found in those temples of consumerism, the indoor mall, but others could be found in the old-style strip shopping centers or stand-alone buildings.

When I went back to New Mexico, I found Hastings already had invaded, including a couple of stores in Santa Fe. Once the legality of home viewing of Hollywood movies on rental tapes was confirmed, Friday nights became busy places as individuals, couples and whole families came in looking for a weekend’s entertainment possibilities. Sometimes all copies of the movie they wanted were all gone, setting tempers on edge. A waiting game was sometimes played as employees brought in the returns from the drive-up drop-off bin. That paid off only occasionally, but for some customers, always worth the chance.

I worked one summer at one of the SF Hastings stores. I was assigned the Books section (naturally), and found that the chain practiced what I call the “shallow inventory.” This meant only those books that moved fairly quickly were stocked and if they didn’t, they were out. Even so, the sheer number of books was amazing. Once, the entire staff stayed all night doing a “purge” — the managers called it “inventory” — where we pointed a hand-held electronic device at the UPC code (the store pasted its own code over the publisher’s before the book went on the shelf) and if it beeped, the book was pulled. By daybreak, the aisles were jammed with the new rejects, which soon disappeared from the store, probably as fodder for the pulp mills. Or to return as bargain books to be placed on the special shelves. You could get some pretty good books for little money but of course the authors don’t get a cut of sales. Cheap for you, total loss for them.

Stocking the shelves was the Task That Would Not Die. The guys in receiving would cram wheeled carts with the night’s arrivals and they’d be waiting when I reported for work. Morning, noon or night, those damn carts never seemed to empty. Help a customer find a book, go back to shelving the new ones. Clean up the children’s section — another constant task; kids, you know? — go back to shelving books. Make the four thermoses of coffee in the morning, go back to shelving books. Put away the magazines and books left on the chairs where the customers had been reading and drinking coffee like the place was Starbucks (also just getting going), go back to shelving books. It lasted until it was time to play janitor and vacuum around the Books desk, the last task if you were the closer. During the night, some strange magic would be performed and the stocking carts would appear the next day loaded to the point of collapse again.

The only respite came when I was assigned to a cashier slot. I hated that, I’d rather shelve books than cashier. I’m not a people person, so being pleasant to a long line of customers was a real trial. Most of the customers were video renters, and if late charges showed up their accounts, they could get nasty. Gift certificates — not cards then, paper, another sign of antiquity — took special processing. And the soda companies thought it’d be fun to stick coupons for free drinks on the caps of the plastic bottles, creating another pain for cashiers.

Vinyl records were still the main option for music when I started. There was something zen about standing flipping through the eye-catching art on the sleeves. But, technology changes, as it always does, and new gadgets started rolling in. First it was cassette tapes (eight-track tape cartridges had pretty much withered away), then CDs slowly started to proliferate. (Digital audio tapes, DATs, came and went practically unnoticed.)  Vinyl is having its last laugh, though, rising from the dead on wings of audiophile preferences.

On the video side, VHS won the war against Betamax, but soon they were succumbing to DVDs. Tech advances add new capabilities, but the disks seem to be the end of physical media. Streaming is the new paradigm for now, as it is for music and video games. Books still cling to printed life against e-books, but Hastings evidently missed the import of all this streaming and electronic downloading and such. So it has to pay the piper, as it were.

One time my friend and I were waiting our turn to get a Saturday night movie when a woman in the next line freaked because she didn’t want her name entered in the store’s computer. That’s Santa Fe, N.M., folks, and that’s not unusual. She asked if there was a video store that didn’t use computers, and, that again being Santa Fe, of course there was.

(That store was called Video Library, and Hastings reportedly opened a second store in SF with the express purpose of running them out of business. Didn’t work; they’re still renting VHS tapes and DVDs and still keeping track of them on file cards filled out with pencil. The locally owned bookstore, Collected Works, also has out-lasted Hastings. The record store, alas, didn’t.)

When Santa Fe raised the minimum wage, Hastings retaliated by closing one store (the one I had worked at, but I’d long since left). That left the one in the DeVargas Mall Center, which needed a viable store badly at the time as malls themselves were being rattled by changes in shopping habits. It wasn’t the only video store in town, but the Friday and Saturday crowds made it seem so.

In their heyday, the stores became nodes for pop culture. Comic books became a staple, and the stores stocked theme merchandise, everything from bobble-head dolls to clothing to posters to kids toys. Some electronics, too; headphones, portable players, that sort of thing. The last time I saw a Hasting store, the shelves were jammed, the music loud, the lights flashing. What they looked like the day before the bankruptcy was announced I don’t know.

The other cultural phenomenon Hasting rode for a while was the rise of the “speculation genres” — science fiction, fantasy, horror — into the mainstream of popular culture. The revolution in special effects in movies made possible by computers helped spark this boom. It was necessary. Harry Potter had jolted popular culture with a huge blast of storytelling magic. Seeing the movie version with the old special effect methods would have made them laughingstocks. Suddenly stories that had been around for years — Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Beowulf — became fodder for the new tech in the new movies. Along with that was the realization that books for children and young adults held some great source material for Hollywood producers eager to get a share of the disposable income the new generations of entertainment-savvy youngsters had rattling in their pockets.

I asked George R.R. Martin during a signing in the DeVargas store why he, having spent time in Hollywood working on TV shows, thought the old, venerable tales like Lord of the Rings had to be made into movies. He gestured around at the store with its mass of merchandise and said something like “it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” Uh, yeah, I said, but beyond money, isn’t just reading books good enough any more? We did agree that visual storytelling pulled in more people to the material than just books could, and perhaps some of them then would turn to the original sources, which was a good thing. Thus was Hasting’s mission defined: To be a conduit for fans to get access to their favorite stories be it videos, CDs, books, video games or music.

(This conversation likely took place around the time of the publication of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Yes, it was possible to have a conversation with George at a signing because not many people showed up that day. Not like now, when such an event would cause eager fans to form a line that would go out the door, up the highway and into the next county. Plus, at that time, he had no desire to make a movie or TV series out of his tale. Ha, ha, ha, how quickly things change, right?.)

I don’t mean to suggest that Hastings was a haven for all that was cool and hip. It was a corporate operation that looked upon all that merchandise with a cold eye for profits, not cultural milestones. The stores looked pretty much the same inside wherever they were. The music playing on the sound system generally was top-forty, with only an occasional foray into something cutting-edge. (And when that happened, it was quite noticeable.) The trailers playing on the monitors above the cashier stations were for that week’s new movies, but if you wanted something more esoteric — small independent, foreign, cult, obscure — your best bet was to hit one of the local video stores. Same with the books. Same with the games. Same with the music.

The shutdown of the chain signifies the end of another American cultural touchstone, like the passing of the malt shops of the ’50s or the malls of the ’70s, and ’80s. And while Gen-Xers and Millennials might look upon this as just another Baby Boomer lamenting the passing of his childhood, it could be worse — this could be about head shops with their psychedelic posters, background sitar music, albums (vinyl, of course) with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix and such filling the racks, all in a haze of incense (and perhaps something, shall we say, more pungent). So count your lucky stars.

So long, Hastings, you were a bright and noisy source for home entertainment and the occasional community hang-out for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy some stuff from Amazon.com.

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The spat is over, just in time for the holidays

Certainly glad to hear Amazon and Hachette have settled their tiff about e-book pricing. While its good for customers and fans, the authors caught in the middle should come out better once the buying and rating systems are restored for their books..
I don’t know if the boycott did any good — I doubt my not buying anything from Amazon made much of an impression. Perhaps the effort led by Douglas Preston and others nettled Amazon corporate honchos enough to give ’em a little extra incentive to stop being jerks. I hope so. I hope no one forgets the authors were hurt the most by this.
I support the effort to bring Amazon’s shenanigans to the attention of the Department of Justice, even if nothing happens there. Regulators need to be made aware that even one large company can strangle free enterprise without much risk on that company’s earnings.
Some people are saying the Amazon boycott should continue, but I’m not so sure. I think we ought to buy as many Hachette authors as we can for the next few months to show Amazon that they can suffer from bad business practices, too. Plus, its a good way to let those authors know we missed them and still support them.
I’m still wary of both companies despite this sudden breakout of amity. These two giant corporations still can — and do — new methods to screw the writers and artists. We must watch both sides constantly or face the possibility of losing a lot more than delayed deliveries or loss of sales. The stakes remain large.


It’s about the authors, stupid

When you try to take over the world, you sometimes do really odd things.

Amazon.com wants to be the world’s merchant, so it’s picking fights with other retailers or suppliers to make them fall into line on pricing and supplies. One of the biggest arguments is with Hachette Book Group over pricing of e-books. Hachette owns several American publishing houses (among them Grand Central Publishing; Little, Brown and Company; Hachette Books and Orbit), and is in turn owned by a larger company in Europe. So we’re not talking about a mom-and-pop operation here; this is a Giant Corporation.

Hachette still publishes books on paper, although it does publish most if not all books as e-books also. Amazon worships e-books. The company sees the technology as the key to controlling all publishing.

Amazon.com is telling publishers what they should charge for e-books. Hachette disagrees and wants to set prices for its own products. In retaliation, Amazon has delayed delivery of Hachette books, deleted the pre-order button on some, sent customers notices that instead of buying a particular Hachette author perhaps they would be interested in a book from a publisher that’s hewing to the Amazon.com line or perhaps a copy from one of Amazon’s used-booksellers (which bring no income for the original author) and perhaps other things to gum up the ordering of Hachette books.

So it’s a pissing match amongst corporate giants, so what? Well, it’s the authors who will be suffering. Many famous ones, some not so famous. Some fiction writers, some nonfiction writers. Authors need sales to continue to write, to continue to make a living (though only a small percentage make their living through writing only). Amazon’s tactics, while aimed at the Big Corporation, sweeps up writers as collateral damage.

And now, Amazon is recruiting writers and readers to help them in battle. Authors who have books on their Kindle e-book system found an e-mail in their inboxes rallying the troops for the big conflict: “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.”

Then they give an e-mail address to Hachette and also tell you what you should say:

 

– 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.

 

The “illegal collusion” mentioned was the antitrust suit brought against publishers for getting together with Apple to fix e-book prices. They lost, and now Amazon’s crowing about it. People who opposed the suit are now saying “we told you so.” The point was, it’s illegal to collude to fix prices and the publishers were rightly shot down. Now victorious Amazon is telling everyone else how they should price their products instead of letting the market decide. Amazon is acting the role of the monopoly now but because it’s one company, it doesn’t face scrutiny.

It’s disingenuous for Amazon to say “stop using your authors as leverage” when the company is doing just that. The authors are caught in the middle no matter who started it. Amazon touts its big royalties to authors, but you can bet the farm that if it prevails in this, it’ll find ways to cut those payments. Amazon is not looking out for the interest of authors, it’s only looking out for itself. Once it’s got the power to set all prices, it will bring its corporate power down and squash the talent. The talent always gets squashed; look at what happened to the creators of comic-book superheroes.

And that last line about authors not being united about this is a laugh. Of course they’re not united. Authors tend to be a fractious bunch anyway, but I think a general key here is authors within the traditional publisher realm versus authors of e-books and “independent” publishers. The Amazon e-mail says a petition against Hachette garnered more than 7,600 signatures. What it doesn’t say, though, is how many of those are strictly e-book authors, how many are with the big houses but who have e-books also for sale, and how many people just signed it because they hate the big publishers. Many, many people would like to see the “middlemen” — agents, editors, publishers — done away with, but the percentage of e-book authors with bestseller status is very small. Some people can do it that way, and more power to them. But there is still a place for traditional publishing.

Amazon’s cute e-mail is in reaction to an ad appearing in the Aug. 10 New York Times signed by around 900 authors calling on Amazon to stop being jerks. The petition is described as being from bestselling authors, but my name is on that petition and I’m far, far from the bestseller lists. Most of the signers aren’t either, but they are concerned that Amazon’s tactics are hurting them — or their friends, as I said in a previous post.

Look, Hachette is no angel in this. They just seem to be the company that wants to have its own say about how it prices its own products. But make no mistake — they can be as avaricious as Amazon. They can squash talent and take advantage of them as anyone else, and they do. And it’s got income from all sorts of places, so it’s not going to collapse if it loses this argument. This is mostly about the talent, the writers who spend much of their lives sitting at keyboards, writing, revising, editing, trying to come up with stories to entertain and inform fans and the general public. I agree that e-books tend to be overpriced, but I don’t like seeing my friends caught in traps they didn’t make and had no reason to expect.

No, Jeff Bezos, although I have an e-book in your Kindle system (though not for much longer, perhaps), I will not send a reply to Hachette based on your e-mail. I will tell you this: Go suck eggs. You know, the eggs from the golden goose you killed by squeezing literary creators.


Win a date with George R.R. Martin! And help wolves and hungry people!

George R.R. Martin, author of — in case you live under a rock or something — The Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. Game of Thrones, is raising money for the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in northern New Mexico ( the wolf part) and The Food Depot of Santa Fe (the hungry people part).

A $25 donation will get you into the drawing for the grand prize, where the winner will be flown to New Mexico, meet with George, then fly to the sanctuary together (in a chopper most likely, not on the back of a dragon, more’s the pity). There are pretty cool goodies available for other donation levels, but some have already been snapped up. There are 59 days left (as of 6 June) in the campaign, and they’re a tad over half-way there. I don’t think there’s any doubt they’re going to reach their goal (George R.R. Martin! Wolves! Helping hungry people! What’s not to like?). And, mayhap, you’ll even get to see a movie at George’s theater in Santa Fe.

All the information is available at the Prizeo.com site, including how to donate.

 


Tilting at windmills, perhaps, but I have to support my writer friends

Perhaps you’ve heard about the fight between Hachette book group and Amazon.com about pricing on e-books. Amazon is putting the screws to Hachette by not accepting pre-orders or delaying shipping of print books from that publisher. Hachette, like most other corporations these days, is made up of several (relatively) smaller publishers, of which a couple publish books by two colleagues from my New Mexico days.

Walter Jon Williams is the author of many books, including Hardwired, Knight Moves, Angel Station, Days of Atonement, Aristoi, Metropolitan, Implied Spaces, the “Dread Empire’s Fall” series (The Praxis, The Sundering, Conventions of War and Investments, a separate novel set in the Empire’s Fall universe) and his latest works based on social media, This is Not a Game, Deep State and The Fourth Wall. Those last three are affected because they’re published by Orbit, one of those smaller publishers. Walter is an excellent writer. He’s also a smart, gregarious fellow, as you’ll find out if you go to his web page. There you will also find links to his out-of-print-made-into-ebooks, short-story collections and novellas.

James S.A. Corey is an amalgam of two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who paired up for “The Expanse” series, Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate and the new novel, Cibola Burn, coming out this summer. The series has impressed critics and hit the NY Times bestseller list and the first one has been picked up by SyFy channel for a series. These books also are among those caught up in the argument.

Now, it’s not like you can’t get these books at all. Barnes and Noble is still in business, and they have a web site, too. Plus, there’s all sorts of independent bookstores that have managed to survive the online revolution so far, and I’d recommend you patronize your nearest one if you want these (or any other) books. Wal-Mart is reporting a jump in book sales, too, so there’s another option.And I can’t really shed much of a tear for the big publishers; sometimes the way they treat writers borders on criminal. The Corey duo and Williams aren’t going to be hurt that much from this because they’re established and known writers, but as the Coreys point out on their blog, writers with smaller followings or those starting out could be hit kind of hard. After all, Amazon makes it so easy to buy a book. Click and boom!, a couple days later there’s your purchase.

I’ve used Amazon many times; I’ve bought all the Corey book that way. This last Christmas, I bought several gifts from the company. Now, though, I’m not buying anything from Amazon until they stop being jerks. They’re trying to bully Hachette into meeting their demands, but they’re doing it on the backs of the writers. (Why is it everyone hates the writers and creators? Publishers, movie studios, merchandisers, and now Amazon — always stomping on the people who bring them profits.) Maybe Amazon will win this one. And maybe I’ll never use them again.

So be it.

(Sorry, Walter, but I am not clicking on that video of those identical roller-skating, accordion-playing sub-debs singing polkas from hell or anywhere else. Not going to do it, uh-uh, nope, no way. Your nightmares will remain your own, so stay out of mine, thank you.)

 


Ebert and the movies: A one-sided conversation

I can’t say much that hasn’t already been said about Roger Ebert, except for what influence he had on me. An influence that came from what he said and how he said it. He was one of those people I wanted to know how he felt about particular things, and that he was able to help me understand a bit more about movies was an added bonus.

I met him once, a lucky moment in time. About 20 years ago he went to Santa Fe, NM to attend a film festival honoring the work of Francis Ford Coppola. I think it was a reception surrounding the premier of Return of the Black Stallion (Coppola was an executive producer). Ebert was standing by himself, so I walked up to him and asked how the TV show was doing. “Great,” he said, and we talked a bit about that, and we talked a bit about Coppola, and we talked a bit about movies in general. A conversation, I like to think, between colleagues. He worked for a newspaper and did movie reviews. I worked for a newspaper and did movie reviews. Of course, his newspaper was in a big city, his reviews were syndicated all over the country and he had that TV show. I worked for a small-town newspaper and, this being the age B.W (before web), that’s as far as anything I wrote got. Still, a colleague is a colleague, and having a friendly chat with someone like Ebert sticks in the mind.

Since then, our relationship has been pretty much one-sided: I read what he wrote (my days of movie reviewing long gone). Once I discovered his web site, I set up a routine. Every Friday evening, I would read every review he posted whether I was interested in the film or not. I learned much about films that way, and if I went to see the movie, I knew what to expect, what was wrong, what was right, the subtleties I should be aware of, and whether or not I agreed with him. I didn’t always expect to, but I made sure my (pretend) arguments with him were thought through and cogent. He wasn’t always right, and sometimes I wanted to yell “Oh, for crying out loud, Roger!” But, so reasonable were his arguments, so telling his points, that upon reflection, sometimes I’d have to mumble “OK, you have a point, but I hate you for forcing me give this terrible movie and/or franchise the benefit of the doubt.” And, yes, once in a while Ebert was flat wrong. (A-hem, cough, mumble, Chronicle.)

Now the impassioned voice for movies and movie culture is stilled. There cannot be another Roger Ebert, much as we wish that were true. There are no reviewers, as fine as they are, right now that I consider a similar friend, someone I can have a dialog with about movies as one-sided they may be. Perhaps that’s because I haven’t given anyone else a chance, and it could change. Still, it won’t be Roger …

For the second entry on this blog no one reads I discussed Martin Scorsese and his love for movies. (Lucky guy, he gets to make them.) Now he’s working on a documentary about Roger’s life, fitting given both men’s passion about the medium.

Martin Scorsese, making a film about Roger Ebert. Pretty damn good for a guy who spent most of his adult life watching movies.


And this is why it makes no difference to me

Steve Alford, the Lobos coach, last week signed a 10-year extension with UNM. This week, he signed a contract to coach at UCLA. See, this is why I have such disdain for college sports: It’s all a game of numbers. There are a lot of numbers floating around as dollars these days. Too many. Way too many. Second only to pro sports.
The big difference, though, is that pro athletes get paid for playing..
College athletes, supposedly being “amateur,” don’t see a dime. This makes them sort of akin to gladiators, performing for the masses in giant coliseums. The big difference is, of course, that today’s college athletes aren’t slaves. They do have the option to go pro, and why not?
I used to think that was a bad thing, but now the “amateur” designation for college sports is just a thin veneer. Everyone else is getting rich off the sweat of some talented athletes. Which is still an abomination, of course. Alford signed for something like $2 million; he was getting $1 million-something at UNM. The athletes he coached might get a shot at the big money on pro sports.
UNM paying more than a million for a coach. It just doesn’t compute.
I doubt many professors at UNM are getting more than a million. After all, they’re just teaching academics. You know, literature, math, science, engineering, philosophy, drama, psychology, medicine, business — things of the rest of the world.
But, you say, successful athletic programs bring in money for the whole university. Do they? I kind of think they go to athletic department salaries, sports facilities, that kind of thing. Here’s what should happen: The federal government should pro-rate whatever federal money these schools get based on the amount of money they receive through sports. Say a college pulls in $30 million in a year for all sports. Well, any grant, contract, scholarship or research money will be cut back at X percent, the holes to be filled with the sports-revenue money. Taxpayers, then, get a little slack and some of that sports windfall does go to help the ostensible reason universities exist.
Oh, and drop all pretense about “amateur” athletics.
(OK, so I did feel a little frisson when U of Kansas blew a 14-point lead and lost. It means UNM doesn’t have a lock on blowing expectations.)