The Future is Now: Books in a digital age

In today’s paper edition of Dagens Nyheter there’s yet another news item about a smallish book publisher in crisis. Last year was all time low for the book business in Sweden, with a record low turn-over in bookshops all around.

So, let’s look at bookshops. Do they sell books? Well, yes, but not mainly. The people owning the large chains, like Akademibokhandeln, have decided people don’t buy books… so instead they have turned into miscellanea shops. Things like paper and pens – that’s no big leap. Same with magazines. DVD’s? Chocolates, olive oil?!?! An instore Apple store?!

Well, I can actually see the justification for the Apple store BUT if you’re really committed to the digital age, perhaps you should have other brands as well… But no.

Space isn’t infinite, and these new things has pushed actual books to the back of the shops. And as someone has made the (insane) decision that people shop based on book covers covers should be exposed, not spines, which results in even less books per available shelf. And with little space you have to restrict yourself to a few best selling titles… and suddenly the difference between the book rack at the line to the check out counter at the supermarket and the bookshop has diminished beyond recognition.
And I don’t go there, because I can’t find the titles I’m interested in.

Talk about digging one’s own grave.

At the same time lots of people are talking about ebooks. I’ll hereby state that I love paper books. I love my shelves and the atmosphere the lend our flat. I love the touch and smell of books, of pulp and printers ink. I also enjoy ebooks, for their portability and for sheer reasons of space – my shelving space, like that of the bookshops, is not infinite. Those books that I own in an electronic format are actually e-editions of books that I already own, in paper format. This, to the publishing business, is actually a chance to larger sales. But the people up there doesn’t read books, apparently, and don’t socialise with people who do it either, not beyond the supermarket trash/flash. So they don’t know about patterns and opportunities like these.

On another level ebooks are considerably easier to make – yes, some manual work if the original file doesn’t use correct mark up, but beyond editing and proofing it’s just straight to the desired medium – no stock except the digital file, no costs for printing, no costs for shipping, no costs for handling unsold copies…
Marketing and editing still will be very much needed, but at the same time the possible audience has grown to encompass the whole globe and just not a specific country or region.

The possibilities are overwhelming. An online acquaintance, situated in Australia, complained yesterday that getting his hands on a certain graphic novel because the shipping, from France, would equal a week’s salary. So the publisher won’t do that sale.

Some of them publishes some books in e-format. But often just odd books, or best sellers.

In reality book sales would benefit hugely if all back catalogues were reissued as ebooks – especially for genre writers, like crime, mystery, science fiction… the back catalogue is essential, because they tend to write more than one book featuring a special character, be it officially labelled as series or not. Not to mention that niche writers would be cheaper to publish, and would more efficiently find their way to their readers.

But we all know why the publishing houses won’t rise to this. They would have to scrap most of their present infrastructure, including the knowledge of how to write contracts. Hugely impopular, especially with leaders, owners and managers that are clueless in the digital landscape.

So they sit there, with their financial losses, watching sales decline and blaming it all on the “financial crisis”, while we, the readers, lose our access to good books.

Idiots.

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Confessional schools, and the future

Swedish law states that schools operating within the public framework has to be non-confessional. The reason for this is the state – in this specific case the municipalities – should not pay for religious schools. Schools operating within this framework are subsidised (I’ll not go into the technical details, this is just an intro for those who aren’t familiar with the background) and grades earned can be used to enter into higher education.

Recent years has seen an explosion in privately run schools, approved by the National Agency for Education, that features confessional elements. The schools are both Christian and Muslim (and others) and the whole gamut is present, from sectarians to people who barely would be accepted as Christian in an US context or as Muslims in Saudi Arabia. They aren’t allowed teach creationism. They have to promote equal rights. And they have to comply with the national grading system and the national tests. Confessional elements are allowed on the grounds but not inside what is considered the curriculum.

This leaves a lot of manoeuvring space. As an example saying the graces is allowed if it’s not compulsory. But what child wants to differ from everyone else?

The general state of the public schools differ. The ones where I live are generally very good. The parents are engaged in the education of their offspring, which I think is key to a good school, and most schools aren’t that big, which to me is another key.
In other places things are not as well – bullying is overlooked by the teachers, who feel ill used, and the quality of the education suffers from negligent parents who don’t help kids with their homework or manages to see to it that they get enough sleep and food to be able to handle school.
In cases like that people that cares moves their kids to a private but publicly endorsed school, in some cases even to a school founded on religious tenets the parents don’t support only because at least there their kids can get peace and quiet. This last thing, that what is needed is a good environment and that it isn’t the faith or the fact the school is private that makes it better, is generally overlooked (sorry, link in Swedish only).

My personal opinion is that it is gross negligence and bad strategies AND tactics, ultimately destructive for Sweden as a nation, that makes public expenses related to the school system ever tighter. And it is restricted funding that is one of the biggest problems for most schools – a scarcity of textbooks, with a lot of them dated and in pieces, low salaries, no money for equipment, no or few resources for kids with special needs.
The situation has made for a reality where a private school has begun to look like an acceptable alternative, not because parents wants a private school but because they want their kid to get a good start in life and the public school closest to them is in a bad state.
It should be noted that only people well off enough to actually be able to be away from work for extended periods, because private schools often have shorter hours than strictly public ones, or who have the freedom to work flexible hours.
Clearly not for those who works shift hours or who have set schedules.

We live in a world were most manual work, things that are made in factories, have moved to low-salary countries. Much as I oppose it this is the world as it looks like, right now and in the foreseeable future. If we in the western world want to avoid unemployment to surge we need to focus our resources on education and on creating a society that encourages research; we need to have schools that encourages kids to think, to learn methods for questioning and theorising. By cutting the funds to the public schools, and by encouraging confessional schools engaging in fostering mono-cultures, the opposite is what is happening. If this is allowed to go on I’m certain in 50 years time Sweden will be a highly segregated country with a huge portion of the people living in relative poverty and with now way out of it.

This is not the future that I want. In just so many words I think the portion of taxes that goes to funding the educational system should increase. Significantly.
After all, it’s our future. And an equal opportunity educational system is one of the few ways to ensure true social mobility but it’s also the key to a just politic society. Which is what I want.

Politicians can eat a few less tax funded dinners.

Greece – a reflection

So, most of the western world thinks Greece is something amazing. The cradle of democracy and whatnot. And did I mention philosophy? Or the Olympics? Or…

The first time I went to Greece, back in the late 80’s, I had read up on ancient history and was ready to get filled with awe. My most vivid memory is however one of dissapointment. The archeological museum in Athens was a horror. Stacks of pottery chards, old coins and other finds but no story. Just cabinet upon cabinet with historically disjointed finds, organised perhaps to make sense to a scholar but not to me. Then in the markets and shops you could buy cheap imitations of whatever style of Greek pottery you’d like, and miniatures of famous statues or ruins/temples, or cheap touristy stuff.

Somewhere along the road I decided Greece was a country firmly grounded in it’s history, and with as little to do with the now or the future as was conceivably possible.

Repeat visits have only made to confirm this view, with this recent week spent on Crete no exception. If your plot of land looks gorgeous, just look away when you pass your neighbour’s garbage dump and you won’t need see it. Oh, wait, garbage is a natural by-product of civilisation, important for future archeologists, so let’s make their work easier and just leave it out in the open, OK?

On the outskirts of a village I several times passed by a ‘pasture’ for sheep, only the ‘pasture’ mainly consisted of litter, rusty old litter. One part was fenced off and there, on on the worst dump in the whole plot, there lived a dog.

In the beautiful if touristified old harbour of Chania there floated so much garbage I didn’t even want to snap a picture.

The beach west of Platanias, which is west of Chania, was so dirty it wasn’t even a pleasure to walk there, and by the turnabout outside an up-scale beach hotel that we walked past there was so many used condoms and condom wraps it was impossible to ignore them.

And of course the olives or the lemons don’t get toxic by the rusty old cars leaking oil into the soil, or the rusty paint tins, and perhaps the small animals dying in the discarded bottles was vermin anyway. But in my view a civilised country can afford efficient handling of it’s waste.

The tourist industry is a huge source of income in Greece. And perhaps this is the market talking – it simply doesn’t matter if the place is clean – people go there either to see the ruins or to relax completely and the ruin people are so awed with the ruins they don’t care for the rest while the relaxation people only care for cheap food and booze and a decent amount of sun. Don’t make for a high demand on general development.

It’s a sad situation.