Your money or your life

The current ruckus between retail giant Amazon.com and publisher Hachette will have a huge impact on the publishing industry. Amazon already dominates the retail book business. There used to be numerous bookstores along Bloor Street over the 10 km between my house in the west end and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. Now there is one.

To date, no one has given much consideration to authors, nor is that likely to change. A group of 900 authors took out a full-page ad last week in the New York Times to protest Amazon's monopoly power, but the public won't rally to the cause. They like the convenience of e-books online; lower prices are a bonus. The standard price for an ebook is $16.99. Amazon wants to sell at $9.99. If that happens, the outcome will be costly for authors and publishers who are, after all, two of the three legs in the book sales stool. 

Readers have already been getting a good deal. Hard cover book prices haven't even kept pace with inflation. In the thirty years I've been writing books the retail price of a book has risen 50 per cent while inflation is up more than 100 per cent. As for income, royalties remain 10 per cent of list whether it's a hard cover or e-book. At $9.99, an author makes $1 versus $3 for a hardcover. As e-books increase as a proportion of sales, author incomes will fall. In times past, 25,000 hard cover books at $32.95 yielded $82,000; 25,000 e-books at $9.99 is $25,000, more than a two-thirds drop. There is no sign that a cheaper ebook version will sell more copies than a fully-priced hard cover did. Even as ebook sales have increased to one-fifth of sales, overall sales are flat. 

So here's the bottom line. You can have lower prices if you want, but you'll have fewer authors and fewer books. Is that a worthy choice? 

Robin Williams 1951-2014

The suicide of Robin Williams is a chilling reminder of what's important in life and what's not. The only time I ever saw Williams in person was in Florence a decade ago. He was ambling alone along Via dei Calzaiuoli, one of the pedestrian streets in the city's historic centre, carrying a large Dolce & Gabbana shopping bag. Despite dark glasses and a stubble beard, he was instantly recognizable. People were gawking at him and popping out of shops for a better look.

His body language was fascinating. His eyes were fixed on the pavement two metres ahead. Every once in a while, he'd veer toward a shop and peer intently in the window, then resume the same slow pace. He was smirking, as if trying out jokes in his head. While he didn't seem to be seeking recognition, if someone stopped him to say hello or take a photo, he was happy to oblige.

It struck me that Williams was afraid to make eye contact in case that individual didn't know who he was or couldn't remember his name and had to ask. What a catastrophe that would be for a needy comic who requires constant feeding and attention. The way Williams was comporting himself was safe. If a stranger was flummoxed, it didn't matter, because Williams was unaware. He was lonely but would be satisfied by nothing less than adulation. 

Janis Joplin suffered similarly. She used to complain that she spent the evening with 10,000 fans at a concert and then passed the night alone in her hotel. She died of a drug overdose in her search for happiness. Whether it's Williams, Joplin or Philip Seymour Hoffman, the message is the same. Fame isn't what it's cracked up to be. 

A tale of two teams

On my way to the Blue Jays game last night, I caught up and passed another fan wearing an Arencibia shirt, the worst-hitting catcher we've ever had. We traded J.P. to Texas but he got his vengeance when he clubbed a three-run homer last time he was through town. Anyway, I asked this man, "How are we going to do tonight?" To which he replied, "Depends on which team shows up."

Indeed. The Bad Blue Jays showed up and we lost 9-3. I've been down to the ballpark nine times so far this season and the Bad Blue Jays have shown up for six of those games. I've only seen three wins.

Fortunately, there's a rhythm to these events that begins well before I'm seated. There's the flow of fans along Front Street, the piper in front of the convention centre with his left shoe tapping the pavement, a stop at the Don Juan chip wagon for a hot dog and fries, the scalpers and the panhandlers, Batman and Spiderman (where's the silver Elvis?), and Ralph, who's been selling programs since the Jays played at the CNE. Ralph and I always have the same conversation. I say, "Hi Ralph." He looks at me quizzically and asks, "Where do I know you from?" And I say, "Here, Ralph," and keep walking.

On the field are more rhythms: R. A. Dickey's pump-handle windup, Jose Bautista's back-bending antics with his bat while he's on deck, Edwin Encarnacion spitting in his glove, and the choreographed moves of Jose Reyes greeting a teammate who hits a home run and arrives back in the dugout.

The Jays organization has gone to some trouble this year to reach out to fans through social media. As a result there's all kinds of silly contests involving tweets and something called the Chirp Chair where famous players from the past like Robbie Alomar sit and smile for the camera.

Instead of all this jim-crackery I'd prefer another month like our high-flying May when anything seemed possible. Meanwhile, just don't mess with the rhythms of the game. 

Shavian success

Never take seriously what a theatre critic says. That's never been more true than it is about The Philanderer, now playing at the Shaw Festival. Robert Cushman of the National Post tells chapter and verse about the plot but never quite gets around to saying whether he likes the play or not. At one point he even says he's going to plagiarize himself from a 2007 review by joking he "would never have joined any club that would have me as a mentor." Of course, Cushman is also sampling Groucho Marx, not just himself. 

Globe and Mail critic J. Kelly Nestruck's review calls the play "so-so" with only Richard Ouzounian of the Star giving the play four stars out of four. Shaw had a jaundiced view of critics. In The Philanderer, Shaw puts these words in the mouth of Leonard Charteris (ably played by Gord Rand), "He's a dramatic critic. Didn't you hear me say that he was the leading representative of manly sentiment in London?" Replies Julia Craven (Moya O'Connell), "You don't say so. Now really, who'd have thought it! How jolly it must be to be able to go to the theatre for nothing!" 

My daughter and I headed for The Philanderer worried that the critics were right. They weren't. The nine-member cast was superb, the staging excellent, and the repartee and wordplay were marvelous, just as you might expect from Shaw, who also said, "Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance."

Make mine sugar-free

My problem with Sugar Beach is not the three dozen pink umbrellas that cost $11,000 each or the $500,000 spent on decorative rocks. No, my problem is that you feel like an idiot sitting in one of those white Muskoka chairs with nothing much to do and even less to look at.

Mind you, I'm fair-skinned so sun tanning is taboo, but what kind of a beach has no access to nearby Lake Ontario for wading or swimming? Moreover, since there's no place to walk, there's no way to admire bikinis going by, either.

Depending how early you arrive, your view is most likely to be to the west, directly into the Redpath Sugar refinery and the pier where ocean-going ships deliver raw cane. As for the smell of production, let's call it sickly sweet with a touch of sewage. And at sunset, your view is blocked so you can't watch the sun slipping into the water while someone plays Amazing Grace on the kazoo.

Sugar Beach is nothing more than a 2-acre sandbox. Just another dud destination on Toronto's wasteland waterfront.