21 March 2013

A Little Rain on VerseDay

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:00 am

Equinox x2500I’ve now been tweeting my verse Equinox for six months, which means it’s halfway through, and in honour of the actual equinox—autumnal where the book is set, vernal where I am now—I’m releasing the whole thing as an e-book through the Kindle Store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR). Naturally I’ll keep tweeting the rest of the book as normal, to secure the coveted prize of First Verse Novel Tweeted in its Entirety, but if you want to see how it ends now you can pick it up for the low introductory price of £0.79/€0.89/$0.99.

Equinox tells a story of Sydney over four seasons. The days lengthen and fortune shines, until the earth swings from the sun and into a long winter. The city-dwellers all draw the same curve with their lives: the bright spark whose job is killing him in any number of ways; the deckhand trying to shunt her father through his life; the beauty queen who finds the city a jealous rival; even the homeless man wandering like a frightened angel. They struggle through different parts of the city—though their paths may meet, and they may help each other back to the spring. 

Each day in the city’s year is told in a sonnet, capturing some of the patterns and rhythms of the story. Each sonnet is an impression, strung together into the moving image of a city and its many parts, its rivers and gardens, its towers and suburbs, its pubs and empty streets, and the people who cling to it as if to a ship in high seas.

The characters’ fortunes are mapped to the length of their days and nights; now, halfway through the story, early hopes have been disappointed and dreams complicated, with the sense that worse is to come. While a solstice suggests a slowing and a pause, an equinox is a time of rapid change, and the steepest part of the sine curve that describes the day’s length throughout the year. The point of equality is where the derivative, the change in the change, reverses its direction: an infinitesimal shift more sensed than observed:


The equinox, the height of autumn
if autumn ever had a height,
contains both post- and ante-mortem,
the morning after and the night.
Between its tallest and its deepest
the curve of day and night is steepest
here at the point of its inflection.
The city basks in its protection:
the rain has stopped; the air is balmy;
a sense of balance and of stasis
converts the flood to an oasis
and checks the gathering tsunami.
The city hides within its folds
and wonders what the future holds.

This launch is timed not only to coincide with the equinox, but also to tie in with VerseDay 2013, an initiative of the brilliant VerseNovels.com, your only source of verse novel news and reviews. When I first came to write Solstice in the early 1990s, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate stood almost alone as a contemporary novel in verse; since then there has been a veritable explosion of them, most notably in the young adult arena. Any parent knows that kids love poetry, the energy and familiarity and surprise of language arranged according to its tones and its cadences as well as by its meaning, and there’s no reason this should stop with Dr Seuss and Hairy Maclary—there’s no reason it should ever stop. So it’s terrific to see so many verse novels doing so well and being discussed so widely, and writer Gabrielle Prendergast is doing a great job keeping track of it all. There’ll be at least one VerseDay blog every Thursday in 2013 and I’m delighted to be part of it.

To celebrate the launch, my other verse projects have been reduced to the same low price: that’s both the new edition and the original play of Solstice, and my play Fortinbrasse. 

Happy equinox, and happy VerseDay!

22 January 2013

Two plays in verse

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:58 am

Fortinbrasse CoverWhen I published the new digital edition of Solstice late last year, I got some delightful responses from people who had seen the theatre adaptation, which was staged very beautifully in the outdoor amphitheatre at the Festival Centre as part of Barrie Kosky’s 1996 Adelaide Festival. It’s likely that many more people saw the play than read the book: it was sold out most nights, and only rained out once. I’m sure the play’s success was entirely thanks to the stellar cast and the terrific musicians, led by Kate Ceberano and Barney McAll (or “KC and the Solstice Band” as they called themselves for a couple of unforgettable side gigs)—but I like to think that the script at least kept out of their way while they all did their wonderful stuff. 

Because the music was largely improvised it’s now more or less lost to history—last I heard, the State Theatre Company has at least one performance on tape but it’s tricky to get at because of rights clearances—but the text is happily mine and so I’ve made it available in its own digital edition for the introductory price of £0.79/€0.89/$0.99 in the Kindle Store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR) with other outlets, as I keep saying, to follow. Check it out if you’re nostalgic for the play, especially if you’d like to mount it again, in a professional, amateur or educational capacity!

The playscript presented a few new challenges for e-book formatting, since the old Kindles and the Kindle apps aren’t very good at fixed layout elements, and the smaller screens make it dangerous to work around these limitations with tricks like invisible tables and so on. So the script doesn’t look exactly like the script we used for the actual production, but I think it’s as clean and readable as possible. Anybody who ever wants to stage the play can e-mail me for a more tractable format. 

Anyway, while I was working out these issues I thought I’d try them on another of my plays in verse. This is Fortinbrasse, the tragedy of the Prince of Norway, who is referred to rather obliquely but recurrently in Hamlet. Instead of sonnets and iambs, this one is written in fornyrðislag (“old-story metre” or “metre of ancient utterance”), the old Norse alliterative verse form used in the Eddas and later in Beowulf. Its language and symbolism take advantage of the rich pantheon of Norse mythology and the traditions of kenning (“whale-road” for ocean, “sword-water” for blood); its plot fills in the arc sketched by the Second Quarto Hamlet  (which has the most extensive treatment of events in Norway, and hence my spelling) with additional details from Shakespeare’s sources and their sources (François de Belleforest’s Hamblet, Saxo Grammaticus’s Amleth, you name it) and my own embellishments to tell the tragic tale of Hamlet’s mirror and foil. 

Fortinbrasse hasn’t been performed yet: it’s got quite a large cast, it’s in alliterative verse, and it’s possible that not everybody is as big a Hamlet tragic as I am. But I think it would be great to read or even stage in conjunction with Hamlet. Check it out if you’re a fan of fornyrðislag, or if you’ve ever wondered why Fortinbras(se) is so bummed when he arrives at Elsinore and Horatio hands him the keys, or indeed what he’s doing marching across Denmark to get to Poland when it’s not really on the way. Fortinbrasse is available from the Kindle Store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR) for the same low introductory price as Solstice

18 December 2012

Solstice: a new digital edition

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:48 pm

Solstice Cover

My first novel, Solstice, is now available in a new digital edition from the Kindle store, with other platforms to follow. 

I started writing Solstice when I was eighteen and had just read Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate in my English literature class at university. It blew me away and, like a teenager, I decided that the best way to express my admiration was to write something similar. 

I set it in Adelaide, where I lived, following five characters over the 24 hours of the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. I guess I took the timeframe from Ulysses, Under Milk Wood and Aristotle’s unity of time—I was quite pretentious—and the day itself from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because I didn’t want to copy Vikram Seth too exactly I decided to write it in Shakespearean (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG) instead of Pushkin (ABAB CCDD EFFE GG) sonnets, but I was persuaded by Seth’s arguments favouring tetrameter over pentameter. I had the early images of the day breaking, the city waking, the characters who found themselves in Adelaide on that day, and a kind of darting perspective that bound their stories together.

After almost a year of writing I had 600 of these sonnets, one for every two or three minutes of the day. I printed them all out on a dot-matrix printer, photocopied my manuscript at the SA Writers’ Centre and sent it in an Express Post satchel to the Australian/Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by authors under 35. The winner that year was Helen Demidenko/Darville’s The Hand that Signed the Paper, but Solstice was shortlisted and was published the following year by Allen & Unwin.

My editors were quite indulgent with the manuscript, which I liked at the time, but they corrected the worst solecisms, suggested I might reassess my affection for semi-colons, and asked that I reduce the number of sonnets by about a hundred, so the book wouldn’t wear out its welcome. I secretly railed against the last request, and plotted to restore the lost sonnets in a full author’s cut one day.

Of course, now that the digital age has given me the means to release another edition, only a couple of the lost sonnets have been reinstated—and many of the published sonnets have been combined or deleted to improve the pacing and curtail some of the more pointless diversions. I’ve also slotted in a few of the new sonnets I wrote for the stage adaptation. This all nets out to 480 sonnets, exactly one for every three minutes of the day, which is kind of mathematically satisfying—and certainly would be for my somewhat nerdy protagonist.

When I wrote the first version I didn’t know as much about verse as I do now, and I wasn’t always vigilant enough in avoiding strained and repeated rhymes, as well as pairs that look like rhymes but aren’t really, because they’re too similar. Most of these infelicities have been corrected. I haven’t done anything to the story, or to any of the perhaps adolescent sentiments expressed in the book, because those are so intrinsically part of the original. I’ve also bloody-mindedly left intact the sonnet that prompted one Nobel-prize winner to murmur “dodgy rhymes, indeed” when he read it out at random. But in general this is the same story expressed better: I think it’s a more fitting companion to the later and more fully-realised Equinox—and might even be a better tribute to The Golden Gate.

The new edition of Solstice is now available for $2.99, €2.79 or £1.99 on the Kindle store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR). But it will be free on the 21st and 22nd of December 2012. So you’re very welcome to buy it now and send it up the charts, or wait a couple of days and bag it for free.

And a happy solstice to everyone!

17 December 2012

The Second Amendment is the bug in America

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:33 am

As a teenager I had a series of unpopular computers—an Amstrad instead of a Commodore 64, an Acorn when everyone else had an Amiga—that I taught myself to program from books and magazines. I was never very good at it: most of it was trial and error, and all of it was whatever ended up working; I’m sure I never wrote an elegant or even particularly imaginative line of code. But I still enjoyed it; or, rather, it captivated me—I couldn’t leave the program alone until it worked to some approximation. And I still remember the satisfaction that arose from something finally working, no matter how many hacks and kludges I’d shoehorned in there, no matter how ugly the code or how urgent the compiler warnings. 

When I came to study and then practise law, I found much that was familiar. Many legal documents—statutes and contracts in particular—have a lot in common with computer programs. They’re designed to achieve a particular outcome using specific forms of language. They use variables and constants, and the basic logical operators familiar to any coder: if, then, else, and, not. They employ functions and subroutines. With recent moves towards plain drafting, they’ve even started to look like programs, with nested indentations teasing out the impenetrable paragraphs of the old days. And great chunks of them are dedicated to error and exception handling, trying to ensure that if something goes wrong then the instrument itself can deal with the problem, instead of requiring a court to sort it out—surely the most expensive tech support around (or close).

Even so, sometimes a law or a contract will have a typo in it, or an undefined variable, or an unfortunate choice in language or even punctuation that means that the thing doesn’t work at all, or doesn’t do what you want or expect. That is: it has a bug.

It seems to me that the Second Amendment is the bug in America. 

Don’t get me wrong: I love America. It’s beautiful, it’s brilliant, it has a terrific sense of humour. But it’s a little bit crazy. This terror of government—you can kind of understand it; America’s had some bad luck in the past, you’d want to be careful. But this thing with the Second Amendment: this is batshit. It’s pathological. What other modern state could imagine such unrestricted access to such a range of weaponry? What other country would do so little in response to so many gun deaths? The fact that America stands so far apart from the world isn’t because Americans are parochial or narcissistic. It’s because America itself—as an idea, as an entity—is constituted by, well, its Constitution; and that Constitution has a pretty disastrous bug in its very foundation, in its framework.

There are many passages in the US Constitution that are beautifully written and wonderfully precise. Then there’s the Second Amendment. A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. But how does the first clause relate to the second? What do you mean by “the people”—what do you mean by “infringed”? There have been endless arguments in every direction, none of them altogether persuasive. They all dismiss too much of the language or the historical context. And it was never going to be any other way: there can be no satisfactory interpretation of such a frustrating piece of drafting. And I think it’s precisely this ambiguity that makes the arguments on both sides so heated, even hysterical: they have to make up in zeal what they lack in clear constitutional backing. And so one side goes on about fetishists and gun nuts, and the other grows alienated and paranoid. You have to wonder whether the framers ever really knew what they wanted; in any case, it would be hard to imagine a provision more perfectly crafted to drive a nation insane.

So the Constitution needs an urgent patch: it needs a referendum on the Second Amendment. Either replace it or repeal it; it can’t stay as it is. If the requisite majorities really want an illimitable individual right to bear any kind of weapon, let them say so unambiguously. If not, then treat it like Prohibition and repeal it already. That wouldn’t itself result in any fewer guns; but it might allow a more constructive debate about guns, perhaps based more on utility and empirical information—including the experience of other countries—and less on ideology and weird notions of what it means to be American. Modern America needs to decide how it is to deal with modern weaponry: the Second Amendment can do little to help. It’s a bug, not a feature. And for too long, the best advice from too many people has been to just try turning it off and then on again.

And no, I don’t live in America, and it’s none of my business. Except that we’re all Americans today, and it seems like we’re all Americans more and more often lately, and it’s hard not to say anything about that.

11 December 2012

Could I please speak to Kate please

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:41 am

FisherkingMy favourite film in the 1990s was probably Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, which stars Jeff Bridges as radio cult personality Jack Lucas, whose offhand incitement to class warfare prompts a lonely caller to open fire on a yuppie watering-hole, killing seven people and then himself. Jack is dancing around his penthouse, rehearsing a catchphrase for a new TV vehicle, when he sees the news on his three televisions. In Richard LaGravenese’s draft script, Jack is finally silenced by the unfolding report. In the filmed version, he manages a manifestly inadequate, and yet somehow perfect, “Fuck.” You can see in his face that he’s not just worried about his career or the public recriminations: he’s devastated because the world has just revealed to him that he’s an arsehole.

Like most people on this side of the world, I heard the news of Jacintha Saldanha’s death hours before Mel Greig and Mike Christian woke up on Saturday morning. I could only imagine that their reactions were something like Jack’s here. I have no doubt that they’re as shattered, gutted and heartbroken as they say. But their near-identical interviews with A Current Affair and Today Tonight are a little off-putting in their repeated insistence that (a) they weren’t responsible for putting the prank to air, and (b) nobody could have expected or foreseen the consequences. I believe that both these things are largely true, and also that the presenters were lawyered out of expressing anything that might be mistaken for actual remorse—as opposed to being “sorry that this has happened”—for the usual reasons. But it doesn’t hurt to admit that you were an arsehole. And if you ring up a maternity ward and ask to speak to a woman who’s having a difficult pregnancy and pretend to be her relatives by putting on silly voices—I’m sorry, but you’re kind of an arsehole. You don’t need to take all or most or even much of the blame for what ultimately happened, and you don’t deserve death threats or invitations to suicide. But you can’t expect much sympathy either, because you were kind of arseholes, and you might as well just own that and try not to be such arseholes next time. If you have to prank call someone, call someone who could conceivably be argued to deserve it. If things go wrong—or horribly right—maybe bail out of the call. Have a think about what you’re doing, and don’t just rely on “processes” you don’t understand to decide whether it’s a good idea or not. Little things.

In the old tellings, the Fisher King’s wound comes to blight the land around him, so that nothing can grow or thrive until he’s healed by a noble fool asking the right question. The actual question varies, but the most poetic one is simply: “What ails you?”. In Gilliam’s film, the land is blighted already—by rubbish and drunks, violent preppies, heartless yuppies, corporate indifference and empty cults. And Jack is wounded long before the loner opens fire and ruins his life—he just doesn’t know it yet. 

It’s hard to imagine a more blasted land than the one now occupied by 2DayFM and its barrel-scraping competitors. I don’t know who the afflicted king might be in this scenario—I have a horrible feeling it’s Kyle Sandilands, though Southern Cross Austereo chairman Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton makes an intriguing candidate. But Mel and MC might suggest that their cancelled Hot 30 Countdown be replaced by a Noble Fool segment where they just call people up and ask what ails them, and how they can help. They can’t be blamed for the state of commercial radio, but they might be inspired to help fix it. Or maybe that’s just in stories.

24 October 2012

The next iPad mini (or the one after that)

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:07 pm


The original iPad hadn’t been out for a week before we started hearing rumours of a smaller version. I was interested right away: like many people I bought the iPad without knowing all the things I’d end up using it for, but I knew I’d be reading some sort of text on it most of the time (and this turned out to be true, apart from a brief thing with Real Racing 2 HD). And at 13 mm thick and up to 730 grams, the iPad was just big and heavy enough to be a distraction from reading. It felt like quite a sturdy hardback: fine for sitting and reading in a chair or a sofa, but a bit unwieldy when you took it to bed. The big screen was terrific for web browsing and word-processing, but for reading it felt a bit extravagant, just slightly too big for its own good.

The iPad 2 brought small but necessary improvements to size and weight, but there was still this niggling feeling that it could have been thinner, lighter and even smaller. And now it is: the iPad mini is basically an iPad 2 shrunk in every dimension, with most of the same silicon under the hood, and a screen with the same number of pixels only smaller. This means that the text is slightly sharper than the iPad 2, while weight is down to 312 grams at most, it’s only 7.2 mm thick and you can reportedly hold it very easily with one hand. If it had come out at the same time as the iPad 2, I probably would have bought one.

But before that could happen, the (briefly) “new” iPad arrived with its high-resolution display. Reading on a Retina iPad is a whole different thing: a beautiful screen, bright colours, decent contrast, good uniformity, and you almost can’t see the pixels. It looks more like print and paper than any other screen I’ve seen. By comparison, old-style screens look pretty shabby, and again become distracting. The original iPad had a pixel density of 132 pixels per inch; the iPad mini is slightly better at 163 ppi but much worse than the Retina iPads’ 264 ppi. I can’t imagine going back to it, not for reading: I’d rather put up with the weight of a full-sized iPad. For now.

As John Gruber and others predicted, the iPad mini screen has the exact pixel density as the old iPhones, which is no coincidence because of the way liquid crystal displays are produced: you don’t make them individually at their finished sizes; you grow them in great sheets that are later cut into whatever size you want. Apple no longer makes any non-Retina iPhones, so they’ve turned over their 163-ppi capacity to the iPad mini. It’s only a matter of time before Apple stops using 163-ppi screens altogether, and very likely that a future iPad mini will use the remarkable 326-ppi crystal of the current iPhones. 

That will be a tablet to behold. It might not be possible for the next generation, but I wouldn’t think it would come much later than that. The only thing I can imagine holding it back is the question of what to do with the full-size iPads, which may start to look a bit clunky and pointless next to their smaller, sharper siblings. Presumably the bigger models will always be at least a generation ahead in processing power, and their screens may well be of higher quality at the same resolution—pixels aren’t everything. But they may also need to increase their resolution over the current 2048 x 1536—perhaps to 3072 x 2304 to make things easier for the developers. It’s pretty incredible even to be thinking about 489 ppi, but the coming 5-inch 1080p screens aren’t far off at 440 ppi. At some point it really will be impossible to see any benefit from the increased resolution, but the Retina iPad screens still have a way to go. Or maybe they’ll be, like, holograms or something.

In the meantime I think the iPad mini will be a decent general-purpose tablet and a natural choice for anyone who is already in the Apple ecosystem. I’m sure it will do very well, even though it’s a lot more expensive than Android tablets with comparable specifications (specifications aren’t everything either). For reading, though, I’ll probably stick with my old “new” iPad, and perhaps a Kindle Paperwhite, until the next iPad mini (or the one after that) comes around. Or at least until Real Racing 3 HD.

4 October 2012

Death of the Book? Death of the Author!

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:21 am

Death of the Author Dark x2500I’ve been talking rather a lot lately about e-books and alternative publishing models, but I haven’t really put my money where my mouth is: apart from occasional stunts like Equinox, all of my books have been published on paper by traditional publishers. There have been obvious advantages to going this way: very handy advances, excellent editorial guidance, professional design and layout, publicity and marketing. I’m very lucky to have been published traditionally and I still think it, or something very like it, is the best way to go if you have the option, particularly when you’re starting out.

But sometimes you don’t have the option. To take a random example: my third novel turned out to be A Little Rain on Thursday (also called Vellum), but for quite a while it was going to be a postmodern serial killer thriller called Death of the Author, a playful and gruesome pastiche about a psychopath called The Reader who preys on the writers attending a Festival of Multiple Homicide Fiction in Adelaide, famously one of the world’s creepiest cities. It quotes Roland Barthes and its form is partly inspired by Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, interleaving the hunt for the killer with extracts from each of the murdered authors’ books and yielding many serial killers for one low price. It pokes loving fun at writers’ festivals and Adelaide, and features a high-speed chase on a guided busway—to my knowledge unique in all of fiction. 

This was the manuscript that got me my first agent, and it was quickly accepted by a very good publisher with a tentative release date set. Unfortunately, the publisher restructured, the fiction editor left, and the book found itself in limbo. By the time everything shook out, it was like the moment had been lost: postmodernism had plateaued, Andrew Masterson’s book had come out with the same title, my agent had retired and I’d moved on to my next project. But now I look back on the book with some nostalgia, almost as a period piece: a tribute to the late 1990s, a fin de siècle, I suppose; a simpler and yet much more unnecessarily complicated time. 

So I’ve decided that for all kinds of reasons this should be my first adventure in independent electronic publishing. It’s as much to get a feel for how the whole thing works from the inside as anything, and I’ve enjoyed tinkering with e-book formats and experimenting with cover designs. I’ve settled on this one, based on macro photographs of printer’s type, reversed of course for the purposes of legibility: it’s simple but I think quite distinctive, and easily adaptable to other titles. 

Death of the Author is now available worldwide from your favourite Kindle Store (US, UK, DE, FR, ES, IT), priced competitively at $US2.99, £1.99 or €2.79 including any VAT. Other outlets will come in the near future, but you can read Kindle books on just about anything these days, and Death of the Author is naturally DRM-free so you can convert it to any other format if you need to. 

As always, you can download a generous sample to your favourite device for free. And let me know if you or anyone you know would like to review the book for a print or online publication, and I’ll send a review copy in your preferred electronic format.

20 September 2012

Equinox is coming to Twitter

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:36 pm

EquinoxI’ll be tweeting Equinoxmy novel in sonnet form, in its entirety over a year starting on the actual equinox, the 22nd of September 2012. 

The novel, which is a sequel to my earlier Solstice, follows four characters through Sydney, Australia over the course of a year, capturing each day in a single Pushkin sonnet. That’s fourteen lines of iambic tetrameter every day, which fit pretty comfortably into seven tweets.

Solstice was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award and published by the estimable Allen & Unwin; Equinox was longlisted for the same award but the verse-novel bubble had burst by then and the book has not been traditionally published. It made its first appearance in serial form  on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, where it started off strongly but received less traffic as time went on. I think this was partly because it kept moving around, to different places on the front page and then to the Books section, but mostly because people forgot or didn’t have time to visit the page every day and lost the thread of the story.

Twitter solves these problems: just follow me at @mattrubinstein and a new sonnet will appear in your stream at the same time each day, along with links to new blog posts and fairly occasional musings and retweets. I’m hoping that people might retweet couplets, quatrains or even whole sonnets they find pleasing, and I look forward to seeing where the whole thing goes.

A couple of prose novels have already debuted on Twitter, as have short stories like Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”. But this is without question the first full-length novel in verse to be tweeted in its entirety in the history of the known universe. We take what we can get.

You can read more about the astronomical equinox here and some stuff about Pushkin and sonnets here. When it comes to iambic tetrameter, I can’t do any better than Vikram Seth’s defence in his inspirational The Golden Gate

Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
Because it once was noble, yet
Capers before the proud pentameter, 
Tyrant of English. I regret
To see this marvelous swift meter
Deamean its heritage, and peter
Into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
But why take all this quite so badly?
I would not, had I world and time
To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme,
To reassert themselves, but sadly,
The time is not remote when I
Will not be here to wait. That’s why.

For endless examples of the “tyrant of English” I refer you to the Pentametron.

2 September 2012

Calibre Prize 2012

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:54 am

CathachOfStColumbaI am thrilled to announce that my essay “Body and Soul: Copyright Law and Enforcement in the Age of the Electronic Book” has just won the 2012 Calibre Prize for a long-form essay on any non-fiction topic. The prize is administered by Australian Book Review and supported by the Cultural Fund of Copyright Agency Limited.

I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve won anything since my epic undergraduate poem “The 1500 Words of Loretta DeFrupp” took out the Dr Seuss Tribute Competition organised by the Adelaide University Literary Society’s Timely Literary Suppository. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to be nominated, shortlisted and highly commended, I’ve been a finalist and a runner-up, but never outright won anything. I was overjoyed to hear that I’d been longlisted and then shortlisted for the Calibre prize, along with four intriguing essays by accomplished writers: Claire Corbett’s “The Last Space Waltz?: Reflections on 2001: A Space Odyssey and NASA—On Being Earthbound at the End of the Age of Atlantis”, Enid Ratnam-Keese’s “Mapping the Edges of the Night”, Bronwyn Lay’s “Imaginary Exile” and Colin Nettelbeck’s “Now They’ve Gone”. I had most of a blog post written in my head about how winning isn’t everything, a bronze or silver isn’t a loss, and how in my judging experience a shortlisting often means that someone is in there fighting hard for you. It was going to be called “You have won second prize in a beauty contest” and would probably have referenced the Simpsons episode where Lisa is outdone by Winona Ryder and dreams she’s in an almost-supergroup with Art Garfunkel, John Oates and Jim Messina, singing their #2 hit “Born to Runner-up”… But then they went and spoiled it all. Woo!

The essay is about the way a book’s essence and its physical form interact, what that means for the future of books in the digital age, and what that means for copyright law and enforcement in the face of perfect, costless and just-about-frictionless reproduction. It’s kind of a perfect storm of my colliding interests in writing, technology and law, and I really enjoyed researching it and working it up. It begins with the first known copyright dispute:

The most precious manuscript held by the Royal Irish Academy is RIA MS 12 R 33, a sixth-century book of psalms known as an Cathach (‘the Battler’), or the Psalter of St Columba. It is believed to be the oldest extant Irish psalter, the earliest example of Irish writing – and the world’s oldest pirate copy. According to tradition, St Columba secretly transcribed the manuscript from a psalter belonging to his teacher, St Finian. Finian discovered the subterfuge, demanded the copy, and brought the dispute before Diarmait, the last pagan king of Ireland. The king decreed that ‘to every cow belongs her calf’, and so the copy of a book belonged to the owner of the original. Columba appealed the decision on the battlefield, and defeated Finian in a bloody clash at Cúl Dreimhne. No trace remains of Finian’s original manuscript, if it ever existed. Only ‘The Battler’ survives.

Finian v Columba is difficult to reconcile with modern copyright law. The psalms in question were attributed to God, revealed to David, and translated by St Jerome in the fourth century, so Finian’s claim to copyright in the work is unclear. It may be that the pagan Diarmait simply free-associated his judgment from the calfskin of the Cathach’s pages. But any want of judicial rigour is surely redeemed by the king’s early intuition that there is something valuable about a book beyond its physical self, that it has spirit as well as flesh and a soul beyond its body – as well as by the delicious consequences of an actual military war being fought, at least in part, over a single illegal copy, and of that outlawed copy becoming a national treasure.

You can read the whole thing in the September 2012 issue of Australian Book Review, in print or online. If you’re not a subscriber, you can read the essay and a tonne of other great stuff for $6. Thanks, ABR and CAL! 

10 June 2012

The Hub Spoke

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:06 pm

TuffsApple has released a spirited defence to the Department of Justice’s complaint in the e-books price-fixing case (Fortune’s summary: “bite me”). Its recurring motif echoes that of many commentators: that the Department of Justice has played into Amazon’s hands and perversely chosen to perpetuate a monopoly.

Apple’s entry brought competition where none existed. Amazon still has a dominant share in eBook and physical distribution, with significant power it often leverages over the producers and consumers of books to the detriment of both. But prior to Apple’s entry, Amazon effectively stood alone and unchallenged. No longer. Amazon is now forced to compete with Apple, Barnes & Noble, and others. 

In short:

The Government sides with monopoly, rather than competition, in bringing this case.

As far as I know, everything in the Apple defence is true: Amazon used to be the only significant retailer of e-books; the iPad and the iBookstore have driven tremendous innovation and competition on features; publishers disliked Amazon’s discount model and were happy to switch to Apple’s agency arrangements; conversations reported in Steve Jobs’s biography are hearsay and hardly compelling evidence. Even its whimsical description of aikido seems fair enough, except perhaps for the spelling: 

“Akido” is not a team sport like football with a quarterback directing the plays; it is a defensive martial art practiced one-on-one by individuals, requiring use of little strength or power, based on redirecting an attacker’s own force. 

It’s entertaining reading, but most of it is public relations rather than legal defence. The DoJ is alleging that Apple and the publishers have conspired to fix prices, which is a per se violation of section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act (15 USC §1) and isn’t affected by whether the conduct might have had a detrimental or even beneficial effect on competition in any market. Apple’s filing denies that the per se rule applies but doesn’t waste any ink explaining why not—that’s Apple’s right, of course, but the defence does go into quite a bit of detail extolling Apple’s achievements and describing various athletic disciplines and other matters that don’t make any difference if Apple and the publishers have fixed prices in contravention of the per se rule. 

But have they? Since Apple isn’t in competition with the publishers, its involvement in any price-fixing arrangement can only be as the hub in a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy, also called an “A–B–C” conspiracy, where competitors coordinate their prices by passing information through a common supplier or distributor. It’s a somewhat confused area of antitrust enforcement, falling uneasily between horizontal arrangements among competitors (which are generally per se illegal) and vertical arrangements between suppliers and their customers (which are generally fine unless a substantial anticompetitive effect can be proved). 

If Apple had any involvement in a horizontal rather than vertical arrangement, it must have had something to do with keeping some of the publishers up-to-date about which of the other publishers had agreed to the Apple plan. As the DoJ puts it:

As it negotiated with the Publisher Defendants in December 2009 and January 2010, Apple kept each Publisher Defendant informed of the status of its negotiations with the other Publisher Defendants. Apple also assured the Publisher Defendants that its proposals were the same to each and that no deal Apple agreed to with one publisher would be materially different from any deal it agreed to with another publisher. Apple thus knowingly served as a critical conspiracy participant by allowing the Publisher Defendants to signal to one another both (a) which agency terms would comprise an acceptable means of achieving their ultimate goal of raising and stabilizing retail e-book prices, and (b) that they could lock themselves into this particular means of collectively achieving that goal by all signing their Apple Agency Agreement.

Or as Apple sees it:

Apple admits that on occasion in the weeks prior to the announcement of the iPad it provided individual publishers a general sense of progress toward the conclusion of negotiations with a sufficient number of publishers in total to warrant Apple’s entry, but Apple denies that it provided any one publisher with individual or specific information about any other publisher.

Even this is less than ideal: strictly Apple should have just told each publisher what it proposed for that publisher, and not said anything about what was going on with the others; as soon as you share any information about competitors’ intentions there’s a chance for coordination. If Apple did anything to assure publishers that it was safe to sign up because all the other publishers were doing the same thing, that could be a problem.

But it’s probably not a huge problem. If the DoJ’s other allegations are accurate then the publishers didn’t need Apple to help them share competitive information: they were already sending each other e-mails, meeting in the infamous “private dining rooms of upscale Manhattan restaurants” and so on. If Apple hadn’t kept them informed of their progress towards unanimity, it sounds like they would have managed by themselves. If there’s a conspiracy then Apple’s contribution to it seems like an incidental one, and far from the central and even dominant position that hubs usually occupy in these cases.

But is there even a conspiracy? Penguin and Macmillan have now responded to the filing (the other publishers have settled) so we’ll see what they’ve had to say next time.