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Our passion for libraries

GLMI would not be the person I am without libraries, a lot of libraries. Berkshire Publishing would not exist today, but for the Poplar Bridges Elementary School Library in Bloomington, Minnesota, and the Cupertino Public Library in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

When I ran away from home in Cupertino at age 14, I went to a commune in southern Oregon. What did I do the first week? Joined the public library in Myrtle Point – using a false name, naturally, since I was listed on a police missing persons list by then.

I have belonged to libraries in every place and every country I have lived, usually to more than one library at a time.  When I first went to England in 1977, the Frimley Green Library is where I discovered the garden writer Beverly Nichols, for example.  As a student at UC Santa Barbara, I used the campus library and the public library, and I found the food writer M. F. K. Fisher there, as I browsed the shelves. The library in Sydney, Australia, gave me a chance to read most of Trollope – no small matter – the summer after college. I joined many different London libraries as I hopped from flat to flat in my early years there, and Camberwell Public Library got me some of the books I needed to write my own first book, and provided the lovely wooden bookshelves on which I arranged my research collection.

And today, I am a happy patron of the beautiful Mason Library in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, as well as the New York Public Library and frequent visitor to the Simon’s Rock College Library, the staff of which has been a frequent help with questions small and projects large. We’re delighted to make the Good Library Manual available now as a free ebook.

How about you? We’d love to hear about the libraries that have changed your life!

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Antitrust investigation of Amazon called for

Amazon_logo_parodyAmazon just celebrated its 20th birthday with something called Prime Day. The Authors Guild simultaneously announced a call for a Department of Justice investigation of the company. You may remember my letter last August, “Amazon update: when will the Justice Department step in?” I wrote: “I suspect that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is alert to the possibility of an antitrust investigation. One has to wonder how that figured into his decision to buy the politically influential but money-losing Washington Post. Does a politically sensitive justice department want to begin an investigation into a company controlled by the owner of the newspaper that is on the doorstep of every DC decision maker?”

The Authors Guild and other organizations have been studying the effects of Amazon and analyzing the completely new legal issues raised by an online Goliath with massive reach and no need to compete on a level playing field. It’s the conclusion of the letter to the US Department of Justice , written by Douglas Preston and Barry Lynn in cooperation with the Authors Guild, that provides the call to citizens:

“Over the years, Amazon has benefitted readers and authors in many ways. But no temporary price cut can compensate for the costs to free expression and the health of America’s book industry that have resulted from Amazon’s abuse of its dominance in the world of books. Accordingly, we respectfully request that the Antitrust Division investigate Amazon’s power over the book market, and the ways in which that corporation exercises its power, bearing in mind the very special constitutional sensitivities that have historically been applied to any business that has established effective control of a medium of communication.”

Does this mean I don’t shop at Amazon? I boycotted them for a while, as a seller and as a buyer, but once I capitulated on discount (after holding out for several difficult months), that didn’t seem consistent. I sell a lot of books via Amazon and have to value that arrangement, even while I hate the percentage they demand and the coercive tactics they’ve used. And I am a huge admirer of Amazon technology, their data management, and some of their customer engagement. I am often floored by just how well Amazon works, though we’re certain that they must lose money on most of our orders. Last Sunday afternoon I ordered a $9-box of collar stays and two boxes of washing powder. The items arrived, free of charge in Manhattan, on Monday, in two separate deliveries.

Choosing the products and placing the order took less than five minutes. I was in a rush (those collar stays were going to Beijing) and looking for laundry powder I couldn’t get locally (unscented products are amazingly hard to find in supermarkets). Here are some thoughts on dealing rationally with Amazon:

  • Spread your purchasing – shop at local, and locally owned stores, especially for books
  • Go around Amazon by getting a producer’s name on Amazon and going directly to their website (you can do this for Berkshire Publishing titles – come to us and we’ll match or beat the Amazon price)
  • Encourage Amazon’s competitors to do better – the website is terrible by comparison, and dealing with them as a distributor is fraught with problems, but I really hope they can get their act together and try to buy from them now and then
  • Understand the numbers – Amazon is not competing fairly – and if you happen to be a stockholder, use your influence
  • Write to the Department of Justice (The Hon. William J. Baer, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, United States Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20530
  • If you’re an author, join the Authors Guild
Click here to read more at the Authors Guild blog. And let me know what you think!
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What Did Greece Ever Do for Us?

Tom & Eddie in Athens

When I look at the New York Times and half the headlines are about Greece, I wonder if the world has gone nuts. Then I get a lecture on the European Union and the role of Germany, and international lending and globalization, and social welfare. But, I argue, there are a lot more important places, and bigger issues. What the heck is it about Greece? What did Greece ever do for us?

William H. (Bill) McNeill spent a lot of time in Greece during World War II and wrote a book about it for Arnold Toynbee, at Chatham House in London. When I was working with him on the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, this came up. I said, “Bill, why don’t you write about ancient Greece and tell us why it matters?” He did, and I’m happy to share that article with you today.

Professor McNeill explains how Greece has influenced our political systems, our art and literature, and our ideas about morality: “No other ancient civilization centered so much on merely human affairs or unleashed human imagination and reasoning from sacred traditions so recklessly. . . .” His essay concludes:

. . . Pagan philosophers’ ideas provided an educated upper class of citizens in Hellenistic and Roman times with ready answers to a wide range of personal and scientific questions, independent of any sort of religious authority.

This body of learning—secular, rational, argumentative and complex—rivaled (and also suffused) later religious worldviews. It ranks among the most significant heritages passed on from Greek antiquity, for in later centuries Greek philosophy and natural science took on new life among both Muslims and Christians, and still colors contemporary thought.

In sum, science, philosophy, art, literature, war and politics throughout the world are still influenced by our complex and tangled heritage from ancient Greece.

To read the full story of Greek civilization and its influence the world we know today, click here for “Ancient Greece by W. H. McNeill.

PS: I’m going to watch the Wimbledon men’s semi-finals with Bill today, and was amused to read this line when I checked the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport article on tennis (yes, this is what a reference publisher does): “The origins of tennis are much debated. The earliest reports date back to ancient Greece.”

And then there’s Greek food

I went to Greece in 2003 to visit Olympia before going to meet my favorite sports historians at a conference in Italy. (With my son and his friend, as you can see in the photo.) As I wrote this post I realized the reason I haven’t wanted to go back to Greece is that the food was boring. Not bad, but the same dishes on every menu, and pretty much the same you’d get at a Greek diner in New Jersey. (Italy, on the other hand, was a continual delight.) I saw this as another sign of Greece’s decline. But here’s a cookbook, one of the three I just found on my shelves, that suggests that there’s more to Greece that meets the eye (or fork) of the casual visitor. The book is The Glorious Foods of Greece by Diane Kochilas. I opened it to a recipe for “onion greens salad” that reminded me of Chinese cuisine in its simplicity and frugality, and the variety of dishes here will change your mind if you think that moussaka and chips is Greek cuisine.

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Slideshow from China Travels, New York to Yantai, May-June 2015

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Today in Guangdong

SIgning ceremony with Guangdong People's Publishing House, BEA, New York, June 2015

I’ll be spending the day with our partners in Guangzhou, the Guangdong People’s Publishing Group, and found this article from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of China an excellent overview of the region. If you don’t know Guangdong, or that Guangzhou is the current name for the city formerly called Canton, this will get you up to speed.

Guǎng dōng 广东 Province is one of China’s most important economic and cultural areas. About the size of Syria, it is China’s most populous and wealthiest province with a gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.07 trillion yuan (US$422 billion). Its location on the southeastern coast of China gives it direct access to the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Macao and Southeast Asia.

The role of Guangdong Province in China is paradoxical. Guangdong has always been a somewhat different and marginal place. Yet this marginal position has been why the province has often played a central role in Chinese history. In recent years Guangdong’s connections with foreign Continue reading Today in Guangdong

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Berkshire in Beijing

Internet restrictions in China make it hard to do ordinary, innocuous things – check the New York Times headlines, post a garden photo to Facebook – but I’m hoping to be able to post updates via my blogs. The sky is blue in Beijing and I’m thrilled to be here again, with many people to see about publishing projects, and a food and wine conference to attend.

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Guanxi is the key to doing business in China

That’s what all the books said, and I was intrigued by the idea that guanxi – relationships – is the absolutely fundamental thing, the starting point, for anyone who planned to do business in China. I didn’t really understand how this was different from doing business in the West, and I didn’t have any special advantages in doing business in China. I did not speak the language. I’m female. And I have a small publishing company, not a glamorous clothing brand or a big engineering operation. But my interest in relationships, networking, and community made me more attuned than most to the concept of guanxi. I also thought that relationships might give me an advantage – an advantage I would need, competing with much larger firms.

I did something very simple: I went to China whenever I could, spend time talking to people, asked a lot of questions, and stayed in touch over the years.

Now, as we sign new agreements and start another phase of Berkshire’s China-focused publishing, I am looking forward to learning about the growth in Chinese direct investment in the United States. Tomorrow, May 20th, the National Committee on US-China Relations will be releasing a report on FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) by US congressional district. Chinese investment is a possibility for Berkshire Publishing, just as it is for many other companies, and I plan to be at the forefront, exploring how we can work together and learn from one another – and, naturally, increase our guanxi.

Here’s information about the public program in New York:

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Au revoir to a global point of reference

Temple of Heaven, March 2007Berkshire Publishing’s tagline is about to change, but before we make the switch I’d like to explain why we have been, for ten years, “A global point of reference.”

This was partly a play on two meanings of the word reference. In early days, we were known for our encyclopedias – reference books that lived in the reference section of libraries. And a “point of reference” means a benchmark or landmark or guiding beacon, which we aimed to be. In fact, our Spanish tagline was explicit: Un faro [lighthouse] mundial en la información.

But what about the reality, given that Berkshire Publishing was located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a small town known for mountain scenery, picturesque farms, and a few excellent restaurants? How global could such a company really be? Continue reading Au revoir to a global point of reference

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Our global team at work

I woke up in Massachusetts and responded to an email from Mar Kaiser, our Germany-based editor, who said she’d just heard from Kara Lozier, who is currently working from Uzbekistan. I sent a WeChat to Tom in Beijing, and then it was time to pour my first cup of tea. There are emails from our production team in India at all hours of day and night, and with BEA (BookExpo) in New York next week, I’ve been on WeChat with people at four or five Chinese companies. I’ve had plenty of emails from Europe saying “You aren’t really awake now, are you?” and at the moment there are plenty of sign-offs “I’m going to bed now” or “Sleep well” – with the appropriate emoticons, of course!