May 31, 2009


Books. How many do we read every year? Does anybody really believe that having an electronic gadget will improve our reading habits? Will we read pirated books in the future as we used to listen to pirated music? Is the publishing world safe or it will crumble like the record industry did courtesy of Napster and iTunes? Four people still in charge of the business tried to answer to some of these questions on Thursday in New York at the opening of BookExpoAmerica, a massive gathering of publishers from NorthAmerica whose size can easily overwhelm the visitor (there are 1500 exhibitors) but whose content this year, besides new book titles and the usual autograph booths, could actually be reduced to one simple question: How the future looks like for the publishing world?

If we had to judge by the words of Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide; Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, Inc.; John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan; and David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus Books Group, the future is shiny and bright. Sitting comfortable on their chairs, looking at us up from a stage, they tried to sound in charge of the future. "We have learned from all the mistakes the record industry made and we are trying to go as fast as we can. The big challenge for us it's working with all these other industries we did not work with before, such as the software and electronic industries" said Brian Murray. In fact, that was the biggest mistake of the record industry: delaying their entry in the legal digital world, with the clear consequence of having other players –aka iTunes- taking over a business that they could have controlled if they were smarter.

So far, though, it doesn't look like publishers are the big players in the digital e-book world either: it's Amazon who, thanks to the success of the e-reader Kindle, controls this apparently booming business (funny enough, Amazon doesn't release numbers although publishers say only about 2% of their sales come from e-books). But prices of $ 9,95 for an e-book aren't good enough for publishers. They 'd like more profit -it sounds familiar?-, and to me that's probably their biggest mistake. "If it is true that people buy more e-books than physical books, lets say a 30% more, then 9,95 it's a fair price. If not, the math doesn't work for us" said John Sargent, CEO of MacMillan. It seems he' s not aware of an already going on campaign of readers against e-books which exceed the ten dollar price. In fact, the paradox is that it's possible to find paper books online that cost less than their e-book version! You can't donate or share an e-book with friends or libraries but a publisher saves thousands of dollars publishing digitally so, those readers have a point. But as it happened before with iTunes, big bosses aren't happy about the profit Amazon is making with Kindle so they seem impatient to see a future in which any electronic device will allow readers to have e-books on them. "That will be the real revolution of e-books" Carolyn Reid said. They are already working on how to profit from those. Kindle is already a missed business for them.

Yet, why do they feel more ready to the digital challenge than their record business counterparts? "We have done something good. We have made an agreement with Google -after a contentious lawsuit against their Google Book Search Service- that will allow us to have control of how books circulate around the web. Google is creating a registry of books and it will have to pay us and the writers" said Sergent. The settlement is already under investigation of the Justice Department because it seems it will give Google an exclusive license to profit from millions of books whose authors cannot be found or whose rights holders are unknown."The negotiations with authors are even more difficult than with Google" complained Sergent after the panel. Still, they will control every copyrighted book that is under the publishers' umbrella.

Surprisingly, he and his colleagues barely talked about piracy -isn't it out there threatening the business???- but Sergent said to me, after the panel, that "at least 9 out of 12 e-books that circulate online have a pirated copy". Carolyn Reidy, from Simon & Schuster, seemed not to be too worried about it: "We don't have any numbers, we know piracy is out there but we also know that it's much more difficult to copy a book than a song. Besides, most book files are protected" she said to me. "The record industry failed because people wanted single songs and record companies wanted to sell whole records. Books are different" Reidy said. Really? Her job might be trying to not spread the word about book piracy but she can't deny reality and she's probably well aware of sites where piracy is rampant like Scribd, Wattpad, and file-sharing services like RapidShare. I wonder... who will win the battle this time?

May 27, 2009


This is a very old story: we need things, a company provides, we don't give much thought about how those things get to us, we just consume them, we feel happy. That's how bananas entered the USA during the 20th century, through United Fruit Company, a multinational that in order to keep its power in Central America supported some of the most horrifying dictatorships in the area, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica... all to provide us with things we learn to need.

So, where is the oil to power your car or your AC coming from today? From places like Nigeria -the 8% of the total US imports come from there, it is also the 4th provider of oil for Spain- Nigeria is the tenth most petroleum-rich nation worldwide. Almost twenty years ago an activist movement grew out in that country against Shell for appropriating land and polluting the air and water in the Ogoni homeland, an indigenous area around the Niger Delta region of southeast Nigeria, where most of the oil reserves land. According to Amnesty International 70% of the six million people in the Niger River Delta live off of less than 1$ US per day. The leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was the author Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led a non-violent campaign against the environmental degradation of the area and against the corruption of the Nigerian government, at the time ruled by ruthless Sani Abacha.

In 1993, following protests that were designed to stop contractors from laying a new pipeline for Shell, the army raided the area and destroyed 27 villages, resulting in the death of 2,000 Ogoni people and displacement of 80,000. Saro-Wiwa was arrested along with eight activists that two years later were sentenced to death by a military tribunal. The execution provoked international outrage but it was quickly forgotten: everybody still consumes Nigerian oil pumped among others by Shell (on and off because of continuous attacks of its oil plants), and actually, the area is still immersed in a violent war that nobody wants to call 'war'. In the last few days this no-war has taken a very ugly turn:

After 13 years, a trial against Shell (now Royal Dutch Shell) was supposed to start this week in Manhattan federal court with a lawsuit by three alleged victims of attacks and relatives of seven activists killed from 1990 to 1995, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. The plaintiffs claim Shell’s Nigerian unit assisted the government in the abuse and murder of opponents of the company’s operations in the Niger Delta. (here a link in Spanish)

The trial was once again postponed until June 2. It seems Royal Dutch Shell didn't like the idea of having powerful human rights attorney Paul Hoffman counseling the plaintiffs. Actually, they complained that Hoffman's company harbors a video that it is not to there liking. The judge refused to ban Hoffman from the trial but asked the website to remove the video. Thanks to 21st century technology, it's very difficult to hide things from public view:

May 7, 2009


This view makes you wonder why maybe about three years ago you said that you might leave New York and yet, you are still here. It’s the awesome metal tree sculpture that Roxy Paine has installed on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum. It will be there until October. Just bringing the whole thing up there must have been a nightmare: those trees are made out of 10,000 different pieces welded together. It's worth the effort: now the view is spiced up with a dream-like forest of metal branches that seem to be whispering strange words to New York.

(picture by Michael Berens)

Those trees, lying on the floor, throwing themselves towards the sky, give the visitor a mixed-feeling: you could be entering a scene of Blade Runner (if there were any day scenes in that movie) or you might just be walking through what the artist himself called “a tree in the process of becoming abstract; that is stretching, expanding and contracting, breaking apart and coalescing again or a metaphor for a mental storm, such as occurs during an epileptic seizure”. These sculptures are made with the same kind of tubes that the petrochemical industry uses: I like to think that something that was born to transport dirty and poisoning material can transform itself into this beautiful piece of art.

May 5, 2009

FREE BOUNCY a station near you

I took these pictures on April 25th on the L Train. It was the kind of encounter that makes you remember why you fell in love with New York in the first place. I didn't ’t know why that guy decided to wear a blue duck/dolphin suit, head included, offering free bouncy rides on his lap, on a Saturday night. He wouldn't say it. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. It´s the kind of thing that brings life and laughs into a usually silent train ride. The comments of passengers went from 'he’s a pervert' to 'he’s the best'. As you know, opinions are endless. The girl sitting on his lap is my friend Alessandra, she cracked herself up, me too. It was the funniest ride I ever had on the subway.

Days later, surfing the web, I found out that the duck/dolphin belonged to Club Animals, an only- in-New York-type of thing that "has embraced childhood, and the time when what was valued most was fun, horseplay, and experimentation without worrying about reality", as they explain in their web. Club Animals calls for "a regression from adulthood. Obama said that now is the time to put off childish things, but we could not disagree more. In these times of job loss, government bailouts, and even a potential Depression, Club Animals has turned from adult concerns of money and finances and concentrated our minds on to those of children". They WILL BE GIVING FREE BOUNCY RIDES AGAIN on Thursday May 14th at 11pm on the Lorimer stop of the L train, just because they feel like doing it. Among their 'philanthropic' projects they offer the Human petting Zoo and Fish 'N' chicks. Don't miss their hilarious manifest!

p. d: The main purpose of this blog is having New York, American life and culture as the center of my posts. I said I would try to do it as foreign journalists used to do this job: using their eyes and their ears, walking the streets, talking to people, because the Internet is making journalists forget about physical reality, and that's not right. Of course, there is so much life online that we could spend our days just surfing the web and talking about what we found there. I have done it myself, it seems unavoidable sometimes. Still, as much as I can, I like to write about what I can experience beyond my computer screen. Many of those experiences will never make it either into the newspaper I write for or into other traditional press. It's a matter of how to look.