Monthly Archives: June 2012

50 Shades in 23 Ways

Jonathan Segura -- June 29th, 2012

Since it came out in paperback on April 3, 50 Shades of Grey has ridden high on the bestseller list. It, plus the other two volumes in the series – and now, a classy boxed set of the trilogy – have sold a combined 7,380,472 print copies at outlets tracked by Nielsen BookScan. That’s a lot of books. But sales figures only tell part of the staggering success story. What does 50 Shades mean in terms of Hummers? Or Empire State Buildings? Or Chicago Bulls? These were questions the mathematically hopeless editors at PWxyz just had to find answers to. So we burned out a Radio Shack’s worth of graphing calculators on our quest for the truth about America’s top book. Here’s what we came up with – 50 Shades, done 23 ways.


2,863,541: total weight in pounds of print copies of 50 Shades of Grey sold

–equivalent to 433 Hummer H2s

1,264,443: total weight in pounds of print copies of 50 Shades Darker sold

1,257,657: total weight in pounds of print copies of 50 Shades Freed sold

347,264: total weight in pounds of print copies of 50 Shades boxed set sold

5,732,905: total weight in pounds of all editions sold

– equivalent to 867 Hummer H2s

51 miles: height of all copies of 50 Shades of Grey stacked up

- equivalent to 187 Empire State Buildings

112 miles: height of all volumes of 50 shades trilogy stacked up

- equivalent to 407 Empire State Buildings

2 seconds: how often a copy of 50 Shades of Grey has sold since going on sale

199,289,998: hours spent reading, at 1 minute per page (all books in trilogy, not counting boxed set)

- that’s about 22,750 years

- or 290 lifetimes, at a 78.5 year life expectancy

927 miles: distance copies of all editions sold would stretch if lined up

-that’s about how far it is from L.A. to Seattle

$75,984,262: amount spent on print copies, based on average online discount prices

-which is enough to pay the Chicago Bulls payroll for a year ($69,213,149), and have

-$6.7 million left over to buy 34 Virgin Galactic tickets – at $200,000 each — to take the players and their wives on trips to outer space

12: number of Olympic swimming pools you could fill with all copies sold

195.5: acres covered if you set out all copies next to one another

-equivalent to 1.3 x the floor area of the Pentagon


(These figures are real, by the way. We used the dimensions, weight, and page count listed on Amazon; online discount price is the average sale price of the books at,, and Hat tip to WolframAlpha.)

Authors: say yes to libraries!

Peter Brantley -- June 28th, 2012

One of the things I have been thinking about recently is alternative ways that libraries can be agents for change on their own behalf by engaging more directly with the publishing industry. New tactics might enable a larger number of books to be available for lending.

Efforts that straddle public access and traditional publishing are growing, including Eric Hellman’s, the Harvard Library Innovation Lab’s Library License, and exploratory work developing at Berkeley Law. All attempt to provide greater access and library lending with the consent of the publisher or author, as rightsholder. These are creative approaches to the access problems raised by digital content. In the print world, no separate exception or limitation was necessary for lending, because at least up until recently, the First Sale Doctrine meant that a library could re-use the book as it pleased. However, for digital materials, access, reproduction, and distribution are restricted through licensing, and the concept of digital first sale, which might enable automatic lending rights, is subject to uncertain interpretation. Continue reading

The Best Short Stories: PW Staff Picks

PWStaff -- June 28th, 2012

The great thing about PWxyz asking PW Staff for their reading recommendations is that they’ll always tell us and they’ll do it for free! We have tricked them. This time, we bamboozled them all for their all-time favorite short stories. And we’d like you to tell us your favorite short story in the comments. We promise–it’s not a trick.

Adam Boretz, reviews editor:

“The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s wending prose perfectly captures the skewed thinking of the depressed (and anxious) person with one awful, self-conscious — and wickedly funny — mental spiral after another. Readers in the midst of a crack-up of their own may, of course, find this story less entertaining and more, well…depressing.

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

“Honeysuckle Cottage” by P.G. Wodehouse

In P. G. Wodehouse’s “Honeysuckle Cottage,” one of the English humorist’s funniest stories, a hardboiled mystery novelist must stay for six months in a cottage once inhabited by his late aunt, a romance novelist, in order to gain an inheritance. The haunted atmosphere of the house soon has a sentimental effect on our hero—and his prose.

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

“The Great Divorce” by Kelly Link

A few summers ago, while teaching an undergrad fiction workshop, I found myself fielding complaints that my assigned reading was “too dark,” and that all the stories were about people being incredibly mean to each other. “But that’s called conflict!” I said. What turned the class around was having them read “The Great Divorce.” Here, the dead can marry the living. Problems ensue when they want to get divorced. I love how Link whimsically transforms the classic miserable married people premise. My summary does not do justice to this delightful, rich, and surprising story. Just go read it. I’m sure you will find yourself, as I did, seeking out all of her books.

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James Bond Book Sells For $21,000

Gabe Habash -- June 25th, 2012

James Massey at is reporting that a first edition of Live and Let Die, the second James Bond book written by Ian Fleming, has vastly exceeded estimates and sold for $21,258. The book, first published in 1954, was expected to fetch only $6,000, but according to Massey early Bond books are in high demand and small supply–the edition of Live and Let Die only has 7,500 copies.

Past sales of the same book include:

2002: Winston Churchill’s personal copy, with a personal message from Fleming to Churchill, sold for $71,700

2009: A copy sold for $11,803

2012: Earlier this year, another auction sold a first edition for $8,500

Please take your hat off when you enter

Peter Brantley -- June 21st, 2012

When I travel, I’m often recognized by my hat, which I wear for warmth when needed, and always in avoidance of the sun. However, always wearing a hat means you can forget to take it off. Visiting Italy for a UNESCO meeting, I strode into an old, famous church, only to see an attendant approach me – smiling – but making a quiet, desperate gesture around his head. Having grown up in a religious family, I should have remembered that I needed to doff my hat when entering a church; I had forgotten my manners. In Milan, I got the message: they were happy to see me: but please remember where you are.

That moment of sudden awareness of the world came back to me while I was reading the flurry of news announcements heralding the return of Penguin to the world of library ebook lending. Libraries have drawn enough attention to the withdrawal of ebooks from library collections by large publishers that Penguin’s partnership with 3M and the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries garnered attention in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times; a striking development in and of itself.

In Penguin’s arrangement with 3M, all of their digital titles will be made available to the two New York City library systems in a provisional test, but frontlist titles will be “windowed” and withheld for a period of six months; further, subscriptions will have to be renewed after a period of one year, an odd measure to mimic the shelf life of a print book. These are interesting restrictions. Most recent studies of library patron’s borrowing and purchasing habits indicate that the most active library users are also the most active purchasers; a new corroborating Pew Internet study of library users will be released on Friday morning. These surveys suggest that windowing will indeed have an impact on sales: it will reduce them, by eliminating their exposure among patrons who would otherwise be among their most fervent marketers.

The mimicking of “shelf life” is another odd restriction. Certainly given the tawdry quality of many recent hardbacks – books whose spines crack and covers droop off like the wings of dead butterflies – it’s hard to argue that the shelf life of print books is short. But that’s an element of manufacturing design, not the innate quality of a book. How long any given book will last is more a function of the care with which it is put together than the number of times it is passed around. Publishers who make crappy books shouldn’t be using their cheapness as an excuse for taxing libraries for putting them to use.

It is also very much the case, as Jame LaRue recently observed, that books which “time-out” and self-immolate after a period of time, or in HarperCollins’ case, a specific number of borrowings, expose public libraries to risk both coming and going. Some licensed books never circulate, and represent a dead loss, while successful books have to be licensed anew. In other words, communities subsidize publishers’ “doorstopper” books, while being forced to pay repeatedly for titles that are already financially successful.

The business world publishers inhabit seems an odd one. Libraries have been trying to buy e-books from publishers since the digital dawn, but the largest and most successful publishers seem eager to avoid doing business at any cost. When they do agree to license their books, they invoke terms that obstruct readers at every turn. In this case, after NYPL’s president, Anthony Marx, importunely suggested that his institution might accept books under conditions that would be anathema to many librarians, Penguin seriously flirted with the requirement that patrons had to physically come to a library branch in order to check out digital books. According to Christopher Platt, NYPL’s director of collections, Penguin eventually backed away from this stipulation. Its extreme nature would have isolated them in public perception at a time when they are trying to innovate in direct customer relationships.

As the digital revolution races onwards, both publishers and libraries should be particularly trying to build relationships with the large portion of the population that is “e-unaware” – prospective readers who have not been introduced to e-books, or find their adoption too difficult because of digital illiteracy. Libraries can bridge these divides and increase the number of readers that no bookstore or online retailer would be able to reach. As K-12 schools release students into the summer, children from working class families face the loss of two months of reading skills during the break, while middle and high income children gain ground. Shouldn’t publishers be working with libraries to reach disadvantaged kids, and bring them into the only future for books that counts?

Like everyone else, I am happy to have Penguin come back into the library. But the manner of their arrival leaves something to be desired. Just like my uncouth exploration of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogia, I want to gesticulate wildly at Penguin and exhort, “Please, take off your hat when you enter this place; respect where you are.” I haven’t seen it yet.

Gatsby Dies: A Big List of Literary Spoilers

Gabe Habash -- June 20th, 2012

Now that school is ending and finals are done, we can let the lid off the conclusions of all those books you had to read in class. Here are all the answers to your test. Try not to kick yourself too much–it’s summer, after all. In the spirit of the season, tell us your favorite book spoilers in the comments.

Napoleon loses

Ahab is dragged into the sea

Emma swallows arsenic

Anna throws herself on the tracks

Elizabeth marries Darcy

Heathcliff and Catherine and Edgar die

The old man dreams about the lions

Raskolnikov goes to Siberia and finds love

Gately wakes up on the beach

Frank and April don’t exactly work things out

Holden doesn’t want to talk about it anymore

Molly Bloom thinks things out

Boo comes to the rescue

You have just finished Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler

Benjy drops his flower

Tess’s black flag is raised

Gatsby dies

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

A dead dog is thrown into the ravine after the Consul

The narrator is speaking on the lower frequencies for you

The boy goes with the “good guys”

Death comes for the Archbishop

Pig and man are identical

Selden proposes too late

The gawkers find John has hanged himself

Meursault hopes for a big crowd for his execution

Shadow gives Mr. Wednesday’s glass eye to Odin

George shoots Lennie

Sal grows up, Dean doesn’t

The monster burns itself and disappears into the darkness

The phoenix is a metaphor and society is rebuilt

The assistant reaches for the “crank file”

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

The Buendia cipher is deciphered

Ender looks for the Queen’s home

Gulliver lives in isolation among the Yahoos


A quick bite at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Aunt Sally plans to sivilize Huck, but he has other plans

The only necessary people

Peter Brantley -- June 15th, 2012

This week, a well known technology news site, GigaOM, launched their own digital press, GigaOM Books. GigaOM Books, in turn, is built upon Vook’s publishing platform, which provides an easy-to-use interface for authoring ebooks and distributing them into major online retailers. Also in the news, PressBooks, an authoring and ebook production system built on WordPress, announced that it was working with Columbia Business School Publishing and Harvard Business Review Press, among others, to provide direct-to-author publishing tools. These kind of announcements are becoming commonplace.

What we are witnessing for the first time is the widespread uptake of new, lightweight, internet-based authoring tools by both startup and existing publishers, enabling a reduction in time-to-market as well as the rapid generation of multimedia ebooks and apps. This shouldn’t be a surprise: ebooks are increasingly intertwined with web standards. Although the web is constantly evolving technically, we’ve had over 20 years to develop simple, easy-to-use authoring tools for web sites capable of supporting fairly complex interactivity. As a result, derivatives of those tools are now being adapted to support ebook publishing.

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The Pleasure of Decision in Reading

Gabe Habash -- June 14th, 2012

There’s a moment in the new The Walking Dead video game, toward the story’s climax, in which zombies are finally breaking through the humans’ fortifications and two main characters are being cornered simultaneously by the undead. It’s a crisis point. But whereas most video games, that loud and violent breed, would revert back to type and arm the player with a shotgun or a chainsaw and turn you loose to blast the bad guys to hell, The Walking Dead game gives you no weapons–it makes you choose between saving one character or the other (video here if you don’t mind spoilers). The choice you make alters the rest of the story’s narrative. You have to live with your decision.

Because the game progresses based on character choices rather than a gauntlet of enemies you must mow down (though you do have to dispatch of a few zombies, and gruesomely)–The Walking Dead game’s story feels decidedly literary. Specifically, while playing the game, I was reminded that watching choices play out within a dramatic framework is one of storytelling’s great pleasures–we want to see great characters make good and bad decisions. And more specifically, I was reminded of John Cheever’s short story “The Wrysons.”

Obviously, “The Wrysons” isn’t the only example of story hinging on a character choice (and its consequences), or even the best, but it is one of the most clear and, for me, one of the most memorable. Its exact, climactic moment of decision is so potent and full of such clarity that the reader can feel the shift in the story’s world–that low, tectonic creaking where you know the substrata of the world has been altered for good.

Structurally, “The Wrysons” is very simple. The majority of the brief story is set-up for the climactic question posed at the end, which is why the choice–the answer to this final question–is so memorable.

The story opens with this sentence:

The Wrysons wanted things in the suburb of Shady Hill to remain exactly as they were.

Cheever then beautifully tells us about the unattractive Donald and Irene and their hapless daughter Dolly, stating that their “taste in painting stopped at marine sunsets and bowls of flowers” and that the thing they most care about is upzoning. In short, they are dull and they are inflexible. But, the story tells us, there’s one thing about Irene and one thing about Donald that is odd: Irene has a vivid, recurring dream about the nuclear holocaust in which she has to kill Dolly and Donald makes Lady Baltimore cakes. Neither spouse knows the secret oddness of the other. But through Cheever’s masterful narrative manipulation, the story ends with Donald and Irene in the kitchen, Irene roused from sleep and terrified because of her dream, looking down at Donald and the burned Lady Baltimore cake he’s made in the middle of the night.

The question–the choice–presented to Donald and Irene is: “Will we change, given these new facts?” They have the choice to acknowledge the new developments in their world or swallow them and pretend like nothing ever happened. They choose the latter. What makes this choice more satisfying than the former–and likely why Cheever chose it, though we can only speculate–is because it shows the Wrysons will not change, even though their world has. It’s this contrast of unchanging character in a newly changed world that stays with the reader.

In “The Wrysons,” we don’t need to see what comes after the choice because nothing will be different; the Wrysons have elected not to change and we already know what their world looks like. So, in the case of Cheever’s story, the pleasure comes not from the consequences of the choice but the choice itself. In The Walking Dead, the pleasure comes from the consequences of the choice–how will the story be altered by what you’ve decided?

The game, which is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure, takes decision a step further: there are five crucial decisions your character has to make during the course of the story that irrevocably alter it, and when you complete the game, a screen appears telling you what your decisions were and how many other players made the same decisions as you did. It looks like this:

But while The Walking Dead game takes the role of choice in storytelling to a new, interactive level and Cheever’s story is a more traditional example, both are first-rate, largely because both create wonderful characters that we want to see make decisions. The choice in one story is: Will a suburban couple change?; the choice in the other is: Which friend will you save from being eaten by zombies? In one, you make the choice, in the other, the choice is made for you. But both The Walking Dead game and “The Wrysons” attract our deep-down desire to watch choice, and to see where it takes us.

‘Crime and Punishment’ in Pie Chart Form

Gabe Habash -- June 12th, 2012

If you were some kind of wise guy, you could pie chart Crime and Punishment like this: 95% punishment, and 5% crime. But PWxyz takes pie charts seriously, and we didn’t spend all that money on all this hi-tech pie-making equipment just to mail our pies in. We carefully craft our pies (previously, Underworld pie and Madame Bovary pie) with the finest ingredients.

Raskolnikov said: “The fear of aesthetics is the first symptom of powerlessness.” Well, then we are powerless, Mr. Raskolnikov, for we care about aesthetics. Ah, put down that axe!