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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 5, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Brown Sugar, Lock & Lock, and Audible on Kindle

I'm a brown sugar kind of guy. I know people who sprinkle granulated sugar on their cereal, and others who have to have powdered sugar on their waffles or pancakes. But I view such effete practices with an earthy disdain.

Brown sugar, with its admixture of molasses, has, in my opinion, more flavor, which I happen to like. I grew up with all three sugars and this is the one I like best.

I put brown sugar on waffles and pancakes. I butter them and them spread brown sugar over them. To me it tastes better than maple syrup. (I also like to put cottage cheese on pancakes and waffles, but not at the same time as sugar or syrup. That would be wrong.)

Because I was raised by parents who grew up during the Depression, I also acquired a taste for brown sugar sandwiches -- which, when you think about it, is a way healthier dessert than, say, Twinkies. You lightly butter two slices of bread and spread a thin layer of brown sugar between them.

When I was young, I would pack on the sugar, but then that's all that you can taste. A thin layer lets you taste the bread, the butter, and the sugar, and is much better.

Even as I write this, I can hear dentists crying.

The point of this is not to tell you which brown sugar is best. Someday maybe I'll sit down with several kinds of brown sugar and several kinds of molasses and make a judgment, but at present I don't care. Common light brown sugar is good enough for my use.

But brown sugar thrives on moisture. Unlike the white sugars, which must be kept dry, brown sugar must not lose its moisture. And that's the rub.

You see, I don't use brown sugar very often. (There, mop your eyes, O dentist; it's not as bad as you thought.) I don't eat pancakes and waffles more than a few times a year, and brown sugar sandwiches appear perhaps twice a decade.

The most common use of brown sugar is therefore chocolate chip cookies, but I haven't made a batch of those in at least a year.

So in between uses, a lot of weeks and even months go by. And when I open the brown sugar bin, with its supposedly tight plastic seal, the sugar inside is hard as a rock.

It's an easy thing to fix -- you just moisten a paper towel, lay it across the top of the bin, then put on and seal the lid. The next day, the moisture from the towel will have gotten into the air inside the container and from there seeped into the sugar until it's soft and workable.

But when I open the brown sugar bin, it's not because I'm planning to make cookies or eat pancakes tomorrow. I want soft brown sugar now.

It is a terrible thing for a person with a jones for chocolate chip cookies or brown sugar waffles to be stymied. It should be avoided if at all possible.

So my wife went in search of containers with a truly airtight seal. Obviously, despite claims of airtightness, the ones we had used before -- even those bought at parties -- had allowed air -- and the moisture in it -- to pass out of the containers.

Her find? Right there in the grocery store aisle: Lock & Lock food storage containers. Instead of burping them and then hoping that negative air pressure will keep the lids tightly fastened, these containers have flaps that lock down all four sides of the lid.

The result -- after months had passed -- was brown sugar that was as soft and moist and malleable as when we first put it in.

Even if you don't care about brown sugar, you are free to extrapolate about what Lock & Lock containers will do for anything that needs airtight storage. It's nice when advertising claims turn out to be true, don't you think?

If you can't locate them in a local store, you can see and buy them at Heritage.com: http://snipurl.com/locklock1, or at Amazon.com or Drugstore.com.

*

A few weeks ago at Barnes & Noble, there was a display of games from Gamewright. One of them we knew and loved -- Rat-a-tat Cat. It was that rare thing, a game that kids from six on up could grasp, yet adults could still enjoy.

So I picked up several games, and last Sunday night we tried out Duck Duck Bruce. It's also an age-six-and-up game, and even though the directions were just confusing enough to cause us a bit of woe at first, once we got it, we loved it.

Like Rat-a-tat Cat, it's a card game, but instead of rats and cats, you have ducks and a big dog named Bruce. The many duck cards have numbers from one to four, and come in nine suits. There are only a few Bruce cards.

You put the shuffled cards in a stack. On your turn, you draw the first card and lay it on the table. You can keep drawing as long as you want, laying the next card in line beside the one before, stretching across the table ... until:

1. You decide to take them all and put them in your own pile. (You can do this as soon as you turn over the first card, if you want.)

2. You turn up a duck card that is of the same suit as one of the previous duck cards you already laid in the line. If that happens, then the two cards of the same suit and all the cards between them are removed from play, but you can keep any cards that remain from earlier in the line.

3. You turn up a Bruce card. All the cards in the line are removed from play, but you have a chance to steal cards from other players.

There's more to it than that, but in the end, you only get points for the highest- number duck card in each suit; all others are ignored.

Most of the game depends on chance, but it also depends on your nerve, your calculation of the odds, and your choices.

This is a very good family game for children who know their numbers, and the game rewards thinking (so it's not lame like Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders).

Gamewright's website says that the company was "founded in 1994 by four parents whose kids wanted great games. From the start, our mission has remained clear: Create the highest quality family games with outstanding play-value."

As far as my family is concerned, they're two for two. And since everybody in our family is now fifteen or older (some of us much older), the game is obviously not just for preteen children.

*

After my review of Amazon's Kindle 2 a few weeks ago, somebody wrote an angry letter to the Rhino, criticizing me for wasting money on a "toy." It seems that this reader, because he works forty hours a week at ten dollars an hour, thought it was profligate of me to review something so expensive.

I understand the feeling completely, at every level. I had also assumed that electronic book readers were "toys" -- just a waste of money for people with more cash than sense. It was only when readers started writing to me to find out why my books weren't all available on the Kindle that I had to take it seriously enough to buy one and check it out.

So for me, as a writer of books, buying the Kindle was research, not wasteful spending. If this was indeed where books were going, I had to know what it was and make my own judgment.

I also understand the resentment of those who spend money on luxuries during hard economic times. It's one of the images from Depression-era movies. Frank Capra's -- It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It's a Wonderful Life -- depict the contrast between those who lost everything in the Depression and those who still had money -- and the pain of passing from the latter category into the former.

Perhaps better is My Man Godfrey -- the brilliant 1936 version with William Powell and Carole Lombard (though the 1957 version with David Niven and June Allyson is also good). It's about the unconcern of the wealthy for the poor during the Depression, as a daughter of a banker takes part in a scavenger hunt in which one of the things they have to bring back is a "forgotten man."

Godfrey is that "forgotten man," and he is taken on in the household as a butler. They do not know that he is actually of an even higher social class than they are, but he rather falls in love with the family and saves them from their own wastefulness.

For their wastefulness was indeed causing them to slide down that chute into the trough of financial disaster.

What the reader who criticized me didn't seem to understand is that if, because there are hard times for many people, everybody stopped buying anything except what they absolutely needed, our economic malaise would become far, far worse.

Remember how, after 9/11, President Bush asked us all to keep buying things and spending money? That's because the shattering of the airline business was likely to cause a deep economic downturn. The solution was spending.

So when I buy a Kindle and then review it here, I'm helping those who still have disposable money decide whether or not to buy the Kindle and use it as a method of acquiring books to read. Because I think it's a good product, I gave it a good review.

At the same time, though, I had to point out that the economics of it cheat the writers. Now, it happens that as a writer I make a good living, though I'm nowhere near the league of a Grisham or King or Rowling. But there are a lot of other writers who limp along on far less than I make, and since I used to be one of them, I'm keenly aware of their plight.

Back in the 1930s, if you sold a novel to the pulp magazines (Tarzan was first published that way, for instance), you would be paid perhaps $3,000. If that was the only money you made that year, you could afford to keep a couple of servants.

Now, $3,000 is still a common advance for a first-time novelist -- and it's hard for most people to get through a month on that.

So here comes Amazon with the Kindle. They're charging $350 for the appliance itself, and when you buy books for it, many of them are steeply discounted. Plus, they have a huge catalogue of books that are out of copyright, so they cost Amazon very little.

But what the customer doesn't know is the pricing structure. Ordinary books have a cover price. The bookstores pay the publisher somewhere between 50% and 60% of the cover price.

If it's a new, highly touted book, the bookstores have to compete with each other by discounting the lead title. Often they discount it so much they aren't making very much money at all -- but they hope you'll also buy other books that aren't so steeply discounted. Anyway, the bookstore pays for the rent on their building, their wages of their employees, and all their other expenses out of their portion of the cover price.

The author gets between 6% and 15% of the cover price (depending on whether it's a hardcover or paperback and how many copies have already sold). Even if the price is discounted, the author gets that percentage. And the publisher and distributor divide what's left.

The publishing company deserves its share because they take a huge risk, printing thousands of copies of completely returnable books. They have to pay for the copies they print that don't sell -- and that can be a lot.

The bookstores deserve their share because it costs so much money for the space in which to display the books and the employees to keep the shelves stocked and handle the sales.

But with the Kindle and other electronic book systems, nobody has to pay for unsold copies because none are ever printed. Nor does Amazon have to pay for rent or utilities for bookstores all over the country. They have exactly one bookstore, which is online, so when a book is "displayed" on the website, it is there on display for people all over the world to see it and buy it.

The Kindle would be a worthless toy indeed if there were no books available to read on it. And few would buy it just for old books that are out of copyright. People want to read new books, whose authors are still alive and trying to make a living ...

And Amazon is keeping 65% of the cover price for themselves. The publisher and author have to figure out how to divide the remaining 35% between them -- but lots of publishers are giving their authors only their standard royalties.

Yet neither Amazon nor the publishers are risking anywhere near as much per copy sold as they do with print books. It's an absurd situation, in which the writers -- who could, after all, sell their novels directly online -- produce nearly 100% of the value and get only a small fraction of the earnings. The rest is kept by companies that risk almost nothing and contribute scarcely more to the electronic book.

I don't begrudge them their share. I begrudge them the obscene percentage they keep and the laughable share they give to the author. With electronic books, the authors ought to be getting at least half of the cover price, with Amazon and the publishers splitting the difference.

When Kindle book sales get to high enough levels to be economically significant, Amazon will easily be able to pay for all their expenses out of 15% of the revenue. There is nothing to stock or ship. Ditto with the publishers, who have nothing to print or store.

There are still editorial costs for the publisher and web design and handling costs for Amazon, but they are trivial compared to the costs involved in standard print publishing.

Yet the author gets a smaller share from ebooks than from printed books!

Ideally, the savings would also be passed along to the customer -- a book that sells for $30 in hardcover should sell for $10 or less as an ebook, because most of the expenses of publishing have been stripped away.

The author might get as much as $4.50 for each hardcover sold at $30. The bookstore might get $12 and the publisher the rest. But with the Kindle book, if it sold for $30, the bookstore -- Amazon -- would keep nearly $20! Yet it costs them nearly nothing to display and sell the books!

But if you have a rational royalty structure and sell the Kindle version of the book at $10, the author still gets about as much as before, and the publisher and Amazon both will be able to amortize their costs quite easily out of the percentage that remains.

So when I talk about how authors are getting robbed in the present pricing structure, I'm not whining and complaining, I'm issuing a warning: The Kindle won't really take off until the prices of individual books drop radically -- after all, if you pay the full cover price of a novel and have to pay for the Kindle, too, sales are going to be limited to people with money to burn.

And if prices drop, and Amazon continues to keep its bizarrely large share of the income stream, authors are going to get only a small fraction of what they earn from print books.

So where, Amazon, is the incentive for authors to allow their books to be sold for the Kindle? The economics need to change, and soon.

Meanwhile, though, I like the Kindle. I think it's good to have this alternate way of buying books. Since there are a lot of old books that I like to read, I'm perfectly happy with the selection of books that are available -- it's worth what I paid for it.

In fact, there's another bonus that makes the Kindle even better.

It plays audiobooks from Audible.com.

You buy and download the books from Audible onto your computer. Then you hook the computer to the Kindle, and the Audible Manager software copies the books you downloaded right to the Kindle.

Then you plug a set of earphones into the Kindle (or connect it to your car stereo, if your stereo has an auxiliary input jack), and play the book from the Kindle.

Here's why this is so good, in my view: I don't have to carry around boxes of disks and keep swapping them while I drive. The Kindle allows me to step forward and backward through the book in 30-second intervals, regardless of how frequent the breaks are in the book (though I can still jump from break to break).

And since Audible often sells audiobooks for markedly less than the cover price, my Kindle has already paid for itself.

Yes, that's right. Because I already spend lots of money on audiobooks, between Kindle and Audible (which is owned by Amazon), I'm saving money and getting a superior delivery system.

Meanwhile, I'm helping the American economy by continuing to purchase items made and sold in America.


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