June 30, 2008
A scientific defense of fiction
Students learn mathematical principles better when taught in abstract terms, not when taught using "concrete examples." Research conducted at Ohio State University showed that using real-world examples when teaching math "obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems."
I think this is more good evidence for why "real" morality tales are often the worst way to teach morality.
A while back, LDS church magazines succumbed to this notion that all narratives must comport to standards of reportorial "realism." This not only encourages the Paul Dunn problem--"just so" stories that really are too good to be true--but also encourages the solipsistic consumption of art simply for palliative purposes (because it's "good for you").
What the Ohio State University researchers may have discovered is an analogue to the concept of aesthetic distance, the "ability of human beings to enjoy objects and people without bringing into play their practical needs or personal desires," to see things as "fascinating in themselves" (paraphrasing Kant).
Practically every Sunday school lesson on "turning the other cheek," has somebody protesting, "Well, what if your house got broken into?" or "What if you got mugged?" After which the discussion degrades into an argument about gun control and capital punishment. The "noise" from the real-world "example" pollutes the application of the injunction.
In pursuit of the "real," the point of a parable gets lost. "Whoever has ears, let them hear," it says in Matthew 13:9. Or as Louis Armstrong said about jazz, "If I have to explain it [in concrete terms], you're not going to understand it." Like mathematics, "concrete" shortcuts to moral instruction may sacrifice much deeper understandings.
Down with literacy
Good books don't have to be hard
June 29, 2008
Rachel quotes from Macbeth (Act V, Scene 5):
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Hierarchal organization of the Mormon church (simplified).
The bishop (ward) presides over 200 to 500 members (a lay position). The stake president (stake) presides over dozen or so wards (a lay position). The stake high council is made up of twelve high councilors (a lay position), who represent the stake president at the ward level.
The Area Seventies (a compensated position) preside over geographical areas defined by the total population of Mormons in that region, (see here for a list). The Seventies (the term comes from Luke 10) report to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles (a compensated position).
In secular terms, think of the Quorum of Twelve as a corporate board, with the Prophet as president and CEO.
June 28, 2008
Chapter 2 (Winter Splendor)
泰麒蒿里（高里要） [たいきこうり(たかさとかなめ)] Taiki Kouri (Takasato Kaname). "Kouri" is the on'yomi (Chinese reading) of Taiki's surname. "Takasato" is the kun'yomi (Japanese reading) of his surname.
June 26, 2008
Erica Friedman watches the Ikki Tousen sequel and finds the plot even sillier, the breasts even bigger, the brows even lower and the panty shots even more gratuitous than last time. If you harbor any doubts about where the producers want your attention focused, check out the website.
For your further enlightenment, the first kanji is baku'nyuu (爆乳), which could be translated as "huge tracts of land." The second kanji is bakuretsu (爆裂), meaning "explosive." The other captions are "Beautiful fighters" (美しき闘士たち) + "Hyper-battle" (ハイパーバトル) + "Once again" (再び).
June 23, 2008
The Emperor's Shadow
When's the last time you saw an actual Hollywood epic? I mean, when the vistas were vast, and casts of thousands weren't pixels? We're talking David Lean territory, and the only place to find it these days is in China, where the historical epic is alive, and, well, really epical.
The Emperor's Shadow again focuses our attention on Ying Zheng, the king of Qin, protagonist of The Emperor and the Assassin, ostensible good guy in Hero, and first (if temporary) emperor of all of China. A George Washington kind of guy, about whom there's always another inspiring bio-pic waiting to be made. That is, if George Washington were a brilliant, Solomaic, ruthless, and by today's standards, completely sociopathic dictator. With a refined taste in music.
British historical fiction makes for better comparisons. Think Richard III meets A Man for all Seasons, with shades of Hamlet and a Jack the Ripper ending. Wen Jiang does look a bit like a lean Henry 8th. This time around, though, Thomas More is a musician. The soon-to-be emperor-of-everything wants his childhood friend, Gao Jianli (who shows up like Rasputin in all these historical dramas), to compose for him a national anthem. I mean, really, really, really wants him to.
Of course, the king got him to court in the first place by conquering his country and slaughtering everybody he ever knew. So this Thomas More is doing everything he can to get the king to kill him and the king keeps having to come up with good reasons not to, all the while inspiring him create Great Art.
Complicating the king's life is his daughter, a pretty bent nympho dominatrix who would rather not marry the psycho son of Ying Zheng's number one general. I can't comment on the actual facts, but I'm pretty sure history takes a back seat to soap opera and spectacle in this version. Yes, the occasional kingdom falls to armies of millions, but unlike The Assassin and the Emperor, the emphasis is on court intrigues, not that boring nation-building stuff.
Still, every twenty minutes or so you are treated to a scene that makes you sit up and say: Holy Freaking Cow! Nature's violence dwarfs man's while rivers literally run red with blood (for some reason, two thousand year-old war crimes are so much more entertaining). It leaves you wondering if you're supposed to love Ying Zheng or loathe him. It's hard to conclude that director Xiaowen Zhou wants you to loathe him, despite the rivers of blood.
This moral ambivalence lends the film a weight heavier than its substance justifies. After all, Ying Zheng tried so damned hard, and barely lived to realize his vision of a united China when it faded like the morning frost. "It's all about Hearts & Minds," he lectures the neurotic and self-destructive Gao Jianli over and over again. "That's what your anthem should do." Yet it seems to have been a tune he never could quite hear himself, not until his world was laid waste all around him.
The Emperor and the Assassin
June 22, 2008
"A" marks the spot. A block west and north of Eagle Gate Plaza is Temple Square. The silver dome is the roof of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Directly to its right is the Salt Lake Temple.
In 2000, the Mormon church purchased the one block section of South Main Street directly to the east of Temple Square, expanding the original "square" into a rectangular plaza that includes the Joseph Smith Memorial Building (previously the Hotel Utah) and the Church Office Building, the large structure bordering East North Temple.
The ZCMI Center Mall has since been demolished to make way for the City Creek Center project. Ken Garff Mercedes is located six blocks south on South State Street. deCODE genetics is a real company, based in Reykjavík, Iceland.
June 21, 2008
Chapter 1 (Winter Splendor)
冬栄 [とうえい] Touei (winter splendor)
"Winter Splendor" might be better described as a long footnote to The Shore in Twilight. The story takes place during chapter 14, and provides some additional background about Renrin, the Royal Ren, and the Kingdom of Ren.
The Minister of Earth, or Daishito (大司徒), is in charge of the census (specifically the allocation of farm allotments), tax collection, flood control, mapmaking, and the administration of lands under direct Imperial control.
June 19, 2008
According to the New York Times, Amazon is paying the wholesale (paper) price to publishers for its Kindle-compatible ebooks.
Publishers say that they generally sell electronic books to Amazon for the same price as physical books, or about 45 percent to 50 percent of the cover price.
Brilliant! Obviously because this business model worked out so well for the music business!
Seth Godin wonders what's in it for the publishers (other than obscene profit margins), pointing out that book publishers aren't in the tree-growing or papermaking or offset printing or shipping businesses. He concludes,
Many businesses act as if they have a stake in their suppliers and other vendors. Instead of scaling the part of their business that can move quickly and well, they defend the part they don't even own.
This is somewhat out of left field, but Bill Steigerwald comes to the same conclusion about mass transit:
For most transit agencies in the United States, if they were to write a mission statement that is reflective of what they do, they would indicate that they exist for the purpose of serving their employees and vendors.
You could say the same thing about public education. Steigerwald's article also contains a fascinating short history of the Tokyo subway system (profitable, largely privately-owned, answering to supply and demand).
UPDATE: Seth Godin adds in a subsequent post, "The pricing of [Kindle] books is whacked. $9.95 is a publisher-friendly price, not an author-friendly or reader-friendly price."
June 17, 2008
Following the creation of a new imprint by HarperCollins (HarperStudio) that will not accept book returns, the CEO of retailer Barnes & Noble similarly called the practice "insane." This NPR story goes into considerable depth about what happens to those returned books, how the practice got started, and the heavy costs it imposes. More commentary at the Dear Author blog, with some suggested solutions. I'm not surprised that Harlequin is there at the innovative forefront.
June 16, 2008
"Shadow of the Moon" revisions
Chapter 61 / 8-2
TP is the TokyoPop translation. EW is my translation.
1. TP: The next morning, Yoko was awakened by a female servant and reluctantly followed her to the royal breakfast table. She answered the expectant stares of the others with a shake of her head. Rakushun, in rat form today, sat with his head drooping, stroking his whiskers. The Ever-King and Enki also seemed a bit crestfallen. I'm not ready to tell them.
EW: The next day, Youko was awakened by her lady-in-waiting. When she took her seat for breakfast, to the question on everybody's face, she shook her head, no. Rakushun came as a rat. He nodded and fluttered his whiskers. The En and Enki showed only small signs of disappointment.
The additions are not in the original. The first sentence is actually a long relative clause. LIT: "Youko, who was awaked the next morning by a lady-in-waiting and took her seat at the breakfast table, shook her head in response to the inquiring looks in her direction."
2. TP: But Enki immediately spoke up. "Whatever happens, I'm not making a shoku for you. Convince Keiki to take you if you want to go home that badly."
EW: "Frankly, I'd rather not," said Enki. "When the time comes, I'll get Keiki to do it."
Enki is addressing the Royal En. The personal pronoun should be dropped: "When the time comes, get Keiki to do it."
3. TP: "You seem to be unaware of this, so I'll tell you," continued the youthful kirin.
EW: "Since you're playing dumb, I'll fill her in.
Enki begins by addressing the Royal En, and then switches to Youko.
4. TP: I heard some terrible things happened in Kou during the shoku that brought you Here; but all in all, it was pretty light considering that a king passed over the Void Sea. I doubt we'd be so lucky next time, and I've no intention of helping you."
"Well, if I do end up going home, I'll be sure to do it in such a way as to not inconvenience you, Enki."
"I'll see that you don't," the boy said, scowling.
EW: When you were brought here, the shoku caused widespread damage in Kou. But that was when your kingship wasn't so big a deal. That's not bound to be the case next time. If it was up to me, I'd have no part of it."
"If I am able to go home, I wouldn't want to impose so on Keiki."
"Suit yourself," he said with a rather sardonic smile and a bob of his head.
TokyoPop is correct: "When you were brought here, the shoku caused widespread damage in Kou. But considering that it was royalty crossing the Kyokai, it was a pretty minor catastrophe."
5. TP: As long as the Naze-King wants me dead, I'll never escape his demons. He'd probably send them Over There again. I would wreck this land on my departure, and when I arrived I'd come bringing a host of demonkin monstrosities. I would descend upon my hometown like a goddess of death. Me going home would be terrible for both worlds--for everyone that I know. That's assuming the false king doesn't kill Keiki outright, and thereby kill me, of course. So how come I still can't make up my mind?
EW: As long as the Royal Kou refused to relent, he could still send youma after her. Her return as well would likely occasion natural disasters. She was bad luck, a jinx. Here or there, going home would be no good for anybody. But even knowing this, she couldn't make up her mind.
This is all internal dialogue. I missed a sentence: "Her return as well would likely occasion natural disasters. Innocent bystanders would get caught up in youma attacks."
"She was bad luck, a jinx." is probably not strong enough: "She was a goddess of death."
The second addition is not in the original.
6. TP: Yoko smiled bitterly and lowered her head. "I'm left with little choice." She took a deep breath. Now I'm ready.  "I ask for your assistance. And . . . I am sorry to have disappointed you with my indecision until now." 
EW: Youko bowed, a thin smile on her lips. "I thank most kindly. I apologize for giving you nothing but reasons to be disappointed by my presence."
6.1. The addition is not in the original.
6.2. The expression Youko uses here is "Yoroshiku onegai shimasu" (よろしくお願いします), a set phrase used to thank somebody in advance when you ask them to do something or they offer to do something for you. It can mean, "My best regards," or "I look forward to doing business with you," depending on context. Considering the gravity of the situation, Youko is being a tad sardonic. A better translation might be: "If you wouldn't mind."
7. TP: "Indeed. Mortals excel at making trouble. The kirin of Tai mortal name Over There, incidentally, was Takasato. He was roughly the same age as you are, I'd think."
EW: "Where there are people, there are complications. His name is Kouri. In human years, he would have been about your age."
TokyoPop is correct. "Kouri" is the on'yomi (Chinese reading).
8. TP: "Yes. We form a kirin's title by putting -ki after the kingdom name, if we are speaking of one who is male. A female kirin title is made with -rin--so a girl kirin of Tai would be named Tairin, you see? Taiki was a handsome black kirin."
EW: The ki in kirin indicates a male. The Tai kirin was a beautiful black unicorn."
The addition is not in the original.
9. TP: "Yes. Have you ever seen a kirin in its true form?"
"No--only in human shape," said Yoko.
EW: "Have you ever seen a kirin?"
"Just artist's versions."
TokyoPop is correct: "Only in human form."
10. TP: Yoko nodded, trying hard to imagine what a black kirin with a back of silver would look like.
Youko just says, "Huh."
11. TP: "If Taiki is truly dead, then the Peace-King cannot be alive. And it would follow that a fruit would have grown on Houzan, the Mountain of the Sage's Brush--the eggfruit of the new Taiki. Yet there are no signs of this."
"A Taiki eggfruit?"
"The tree upon which kirin grow is high on Houzan's slopes. Whenever a kirin dies, an eggfruit bearing a new kirin appears there. If Taiki had been killed, then the next Taiki would be growing on Houzan . . . but there has been no new fruiting, so he must still live."
EW: "If Taiki had indeed died, the Royal Tai could be expected to pass away as well. The Tai-ka--the fruit bearing the Tai kirin--should have appeared on Mt. Hou . But there was no sign of it."
"The tree that bears the fruit of the kirin is on Mount Hou. When a kirin dies, at the same time, the ranka of the new kirin should begin to grow. If Taiki had died, it would become the next Tai kirin. In the case of a female, then Tairin, from the second syllable of kirin. That ranka is bestowed with its royal name, in this case designated the Tai-ka. However, there was no Tai-ka to be found on Mount Hou . So he still must be alive."
A better translation might be: "The ranka is named according to the name of its kingdom, in this case designated the Tai-ka." For some reason, TokyoPop moved this section up several paragraphs.
12. TP: "Please," said Enki, rolling his eyes.
"There's nothing to hide," the king went on.
EW: "That's enough."
Enki said, "Look, it's no big secret.
The additions are not in the original.
13. TP: "I'd think it must have been difficult for the Naze-King of Kou--he must have really let down Kourin."
EW: "The Royal Kou apparently wasn't scared of letting down Kourin."
Better: "The Royal Kou must not have feared causing Kourin similar distress."
14. TP: Yoko's heart was heavy. She could only nod. "I'm scared ..."
"Yes. I don't know if I could do any better."
EW: His words hit home like a punch to the solar plexus. Youko could only nod. "It's scary."
"Yeah. I can't imagine doing something like that."
I switched the subject and object in the following paragraph as well:
"Yeah. I can't help feeling I've just caught a tiger by the tail."
The En smiled softly. "The kirin cannot deny the king. But that doesn't mean that he will do everything you say without objection. Never forget you're just a dumb human. That's the best way to let your other half help you out."
"My other half?"
The online and offline browser versions have been updated. More corrections here.
June 15, 2008
"Deseret Children's Hospital" is my nom de plume for Primary Children's Medical Center. The Utah territory was originally called the "State of Deseret." In the Book of Mormon, a deseret is a kind of honeybee. Utah is the "Beehive State." The Deseret News is one of the state's two major dailies.
Primary Children's Medical Center was founded by the Mormon church. It is now run by Intermountain Health Care and the University of Utah Department of Pediatrics. The name comes from the Primary Association of the Mormon church, a Sunday school organization for children.
June 14, 2008
Kasho no Yume
The Wikipedia Twelve Kingdoms entry translates Kasho no Yume (華胥の幽夢) as "The Dream of Prosperity." The word kasho (華胥) comes from the legendary Chinese "Yellow Emperor" (黄帝) who dreamed of a utopian "Land of Kasho" (華胥の国).
Its etymological equivalent in English might be "Shangri-La" or "la-la land." Kasho has also come to mean "siesta."
The Kasho Kada (華胥華朶), the "resplendant branch of Kasho," is the Imperial Regalia of Sai. The person holding it sees in dreams a vision of the ideal kingdom.
So I've translated the title as "Dreaming of Paradise." The first story from the collection is "Winter Splendor" (冬栄), which I'll begin posting next week.
June 13, 2008
C.L. Hanson at the Letters from a Broad blog reviews Angel Falling Softly:
In Angel Falling Softly, as in his earlier novel The Path of Dreams, Woodbury captures human relationships with realism and depth of feeling. He also paints a warm and homey portrait of Utah Mormon culture as seen from a sophisticated worldly perspective. All of this is woven into a suspense-filled tale of a dangerous friendship as two women--born lifetimes apart--find the desperate courage to bet it all.
This is somewhat off topic, but that last line and Hanson's description of Milada as "a master of the art of the deal who has put her centuries of youth to good use in pursuit of lucrative business acquisitions" reminds me of a fascinating interview series by Michael Malone called Betting it All.
The series profiles successful businesswomen who "risked everything to achieve [their] dreams." I've been watching it on the Utah Education Network. Unfortunately, it isn't available to the general public or from Netflix. But if it ever shows up on a PBS station near you, definitely tune it in.
The material in the documentary seems to be an expanded subset of the book.
June 12, 2008
Forty-one years ago today, the Supreme Court unanimously handed down the "Loving Decision." Mildred and Richard Perry Loving had been charged under Virginia's "Racial Integrity Act," banning interracial marriages. The Loving v. Virginia ruling declared such laws unconstitutional.
A decade later, the Mormon church finally got around to lifting its own ban on ordaining black men of African descent. Nevertheless, it took at least another decade (if even then) for the church to muffle its quasi-official imprecations of interracial marriages (never codified, but "frowned upon").
In The Path of Dreams, these lingering prejudices contribute to the long estrangement between Elly's mother and grandfather. As her Aunt June explains,
The proclamation about blacks and the priesthood had just come out and not everybody was comfortable with the fact of a racially-integrated church. Scratch the surface of any Utah ward and you'll find a redneck or two.
Don't ask me to explain, comprehend, or defend it. As David Knowlton writes, the whole thing "deserves to go into the dustbin of LDS teaching," much like the ugly relationship between the Southern Baptist Convention and slavery. As June says, "People change. That's what's important."
June 11, 2008
Gender in plot and character
Razib at GNXP ponders in supply and demands terms how biological differences might account for evolving literary tastes over the past millennia. Noting that women are the overwhelming consumers of contemporary fiction, he sees a demand-side shift toward female readers and speculates as follows:
[M]en are into plot, while women are into character[,] fiction [that] emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat, monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists.
He's got a point in terms of trends and perhaps psychology, though when it comes to romance, horror and mystery, plot still figures overwhelming. Translated into Hollywood terms, it's unironically called "high concept." This means a movie's premise could be shouted across a parking lot.
Most movies contain the plot of a short story, which is why the one-hour television drama is the current king of storytelling. In the longer book format, romance leaves a lot of room for character and setting. Nevertheless, what makes lowbrow and middlebrow fiction so popular is that there is indeed a PLOT.
But plot as the scaffolding rather that the entire structure. Boys meets girl--the bad guy gets caught--that framework must be there. All the characterization in the world can't lend a spine to an invertebrate mass. But given some plot and some characterization, I find that my preferences shift in emphasis according to the medium.
Manga is a good test, because it divides up rather evenly by sex. I tend to prefer shoujo/josei material aimed at girls that features simple plots and straightforward conflicts--typically boy meets girl (or girl meets girl, in the case of yuri)--and compelling characters evolving in their relationships to each other and the world.
Granted, there must be momentum, progression toward resolution, not just a bunch of people sitting around "relating" to each other. Shounen romances like Oh My Goddess become incredibly frustrating, with the lead treading water episode after episode, like a pitcher who spends the whole game just trying to pick off the runner at first base.
For example, I never seem to like Miyabi Fujieda as much as I feel I'm supposed to. Even though his characters are ostensibly yuri, his stories seem to be more about "stuff happening" than about characters evolving. Like Hamlet, before "tak[ing] up arms against a sea of troubles," I want to see a bit more contemplation and self-reflection.
So with a few exceptions (that prove the rule), I rarely buy shounen manga because I know I'll start and never finish. Shounen manga fits Razib's description perfectly: lightly sketched characters--conforming to established "types"--who engage in plot-heavy adventures. The typical storyline could be described as: "And then a whole bunch of stuff happened."
Except that I generally do enjoy this kind of anime. Yes, there must be compelling characters and relationships. One action sequence after another gets dull fast. As "Dirty Harry" notes on the Libertas blog,
Great action scenes are not what draw us back again and again to great action movies. When you think of Die Hard, you think of John McClane playing coy mouse to Hans Gruber’s Euro-trash cat. Closer to home, it’s the relationship between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel that keeps the warm fires of The Karate Kid stoked in our mind.
At the same time, the "exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes," as Razib puts it, is what draws me to series like Eureka Seven and Ghost in the Shell: SAC and even Tweeny Witches.
And I usually stop watching shows like CSI when they start "soaping" things up--when plot and conflict and resolution give way to angst and melodrama, with characters constantly tripping over their neverending existential woes. "Okay, fish or cut bait," I find myself saying. "If you're that dysfunctional, then own it, like House or Monk."
In the meantime (to quote Peppermint Patty), "Quit hassling me with your sighs."
In series television, these kinds of story devices are typically used to draw the viewer into the "arc" of the season rather than into the mechanics of the episode. As Kate argues here, they are a necessary evil that, by making their characters victims of circumstance rather than captains of their fates, more often than not wreck the shows they are trying to save.
With books I split the difference. "Hard" science fiction--"plots, not people"--generally leaves me cold (though I read Asimov avidly as a kid). I want big ideas, but want to concentrate on equally compelling relationships that I can imagine growing beyond the confines of what's between the covers.
June 10, 2008
"[Angel Falling Softly] isn't a vampire story," says Moriah Jovan, who calls the novel "haunting" and "poignant."
It's a character study of the things we might do when pushed into a corner with no apparent way out. It asks if we have faith in what we say we believe . . . . Moral ambiguity amongst faithful Mormons: More, please.
June 09, 2008
Labels: angel falling softly
June 08, 2008
I employ some literary slight of hand in this chapter, first comparing Salt Lake City to Yonkers, and then easing in a reference to Salt Lake County. The county actually has five times the population of Yonkers. Nevertheless, there are truly vast differences in area and population density. As the table below shows, Salt Lake County has over twice the area of New York City proper, and sixty percent of the area of Long Island.
Area and population density are in square miles.
June 06, 2008
Tokyo South is dead
Long live Tokyo South!
I haven't been keeping up on church reorganizations in Japan, so this news comes to me rather late. But an email from a recent Tokyo South RM confirms that the mission is no more. A bit of research turned up this note in the Church News, February 10, 2007:
Portions of the Japan Tokyo North Mission and Japan Tokyo South Mission are being consolidated and will be known as the Japan Tokyo Mission. The newly aligned Japan Tokyo Mission will be concentrated around the greater Tokyo metropolitan area and its 10 stakes.
Essentially, the Tokyo mission structure has returned to the state it was in when I stepped onto Japanese soil thirty years ago, a few months after the creation of the Tokyo South mission out of the Nagoya and Tokyo missions. My first senior companions were from the Nagoya mission.
My correspondent describes the final days of Tokyo South as a mirror image of its opening days (a good thing, by the way). In another strange turn of events, Kobe mission was reopened. I'd kept the Kobe mission alive in The Path of Dreams for purposes of plot. Now it's alive for real.
Sociologically, this is a curious move. It's like closing the Los Angeles mission and opening one up in Bakersfield. An effort, perhaps, to save the church from the missionaries.
Tokyo South is alive
June 02, 2008
According to Wikipedia, Lightning Source, the biggest print-on-demand press, "has printed over 41 million books for over five thousand publishers." An essential component of POD publishing is no returns. LS doesn't print the book until it's ordered.
Like the increasingly all-digital music industry, POD technology is changing the tradition publishing business model. HarperCollins recently announced a new book imprint that "won't accept returns from retailers and will pay little or no advances to authors."
If publishers "won't accept returns from retailers and will pay little or no advances to authors," then what, Roger Simon asks, "What's the point of the publisher?" Answering his own question, he muses:
Well, there's editing (which one can get elsewhere) and the fancy publishing house imprimatur, maybe a little help with production and publicity (again available elsewhere--many authors pay for their own publicists anyway).
Simon, an established writer, is being a bit too glib. A publisher that pays no advances but offer the same traditional editorial services is giving the author a huge advance in goods and services. Small publishers stay in business by paying themselves a fraction of what their labor is worth on the open market.
Even if your manuscript has "bestseller" written all over it, copyediting and proofreading are time-consuming and labor-intensive tasks. Add to that layout, typesetting and cover design. Not to mention publicity. Publishers aren't going away any time soon.
This makes the "no returns" policy more important in changing the business model. Dumping a lot of product in one quarter with the explicit expectation that much of it will be returned the next is generally considered accounting gimmickry or cooking the books--unless you're selling books.
A few months ago at a local writer's conference, a Utah publisher described the classic book distribution model as something akin to Click & Clack's "Car Talk Capital Depreciation Fund," which guarantees a "50 percent return of a person's investment."
Meaning that a year later you'd get half out of what you put in. In other words, ship off a thousand books, get half of those back, half of which have been damaged and have to be shredded, send the remaining books out, get half of them back, etc.
A year later, your inventory of a thousand books has been reduced to a few hundred sales. However, making bookstores purchase stocks of non-returnable books would be equally ruinous. Forcing retailers to warehouse and remainder product is the same shell game turned upside down.
Publishers used to have to guess at the expected demand for a book and then ship the pallets in big trucks to their distributors, who then delivered them to the bookstores. Inventory control software combined with POD should make this a thing of the past.
What if you went into a bookstore and there were Kindles everywhere (attached to sturdy chains) on which you could review any book in the inventory? And every bookstore had its own POD press?
This is what I sense Amazon is getting at with BookSurge. Though its decision to prefer BookSurge books over LS--and not to treat LS books as POD--can't but appear predatory in nature. And could cripple the business model in its infancy.
The other big hurdle that remains is the relatively high unit cost of POD book (an almost 100 percent markup) when compared to offset runs in the thousands.
But just as the CD replication costs have dropped to a small fraction of the retail price, even for short runs, I see POD costs falling as well. Kodak's new continuous-feed inkjet digital presses promise to be cost-competitive with full-color offset.
One thing I've noticed buying books in Japan--where most media costs significantly more than in the U.S., especially CDs and DVDs--is that mass market paperbacks are usually cheaper, despite Japan's notoriously inefficient retail sector.
Japanese publishers are probably doing a lot of outsourcing to China and printing shorter runs. But in any case, there's still some give left in the dead tree business.