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“Amazon is the Reader’s Friend” debate tonight

Is book publishing an oligopoly, a dinosaur in need of disruption? Is Amazon, which accounts for 41% of all new book and 67% of all e-book sales, a monopoly? Who is doing right by readers and the future of books? I agreed to post the livestream here so our friends and readers can hear different sides of the debate. Read more about it Intelligence Squared. My articles: “Amazon update: when will the justice department step in?” and “How is hurting readers, authors, and publishers.”

Franklin Foer, Former Editor, The New Republic Joe Konrath, Author & Self-Publishing Pioneer
Scott Turow, Attorney & Author Matthew Yglesias, Executive Editor, Vox
John Donvan, Author & Correspondent for ABC News


I just wish there was a female voice in this male line-up!


Berkshire Author Talks Climate Change and China

Berkshire Author Talks Climate Change and China

NCUSCRLogoThe National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR) often offers its members a chance to hear directly from experts after major world events. Last week’s members-only teleconference about the historic US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change featured Alex Wang, professor at UCLA School of Law, and Joanna Lewis, professor at Georgetown University and one of Berkshire’s authors. I want to share what I learned with other Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability contributors and Berkshire friends and colleagues.

The US-China Climate Change announcement on 11 November took many people by surprise. It showed the two nations in unexpectedly close alignment. On this issue, the US and China have “far more in common than not,” said Lewis. Moderator Stephen A. Orlins, president of the NCUSCR, focused the discussion on what the agreement told us about the US-China relationship. I realized how important it is, in any complicated relationship, to find things on which we can align ourselves. In this case, China and the US have a common understanding of their impact on the globe. China is not showing anxiety about being held back or kept down, and the US isn’t playing the exceptionalism card. This is something to keep in mind as our nations try to work out other agreements.

Here are a few of the things I learned from the teleconference (audio now available by clicking here):

  • This agreement is not the end of wrangling over cumulative emissions, an issue we’ll hear about at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. The emerging nations feel as though they got to the party when the kegs were almost empty but they are still expected to spend the next morning cleaning up with everyone else. Their argument is, simply, that developed nations have grown rich and powerful through unrestricted energy use for decades, and that imposing tough CO2 standards on them isn’t fair. They say, quite reasonably, that rich nations, while more efficient today, have much greater overall responsibility for climate change because of the cumulative amount of CO2 emissions they have produced. On the other hand, we need all nations to take action now.
  • Reducing car ownership is not likely to be a part of what the Chinese government does to combat climate change, and both Wang and Lewis saw car sales continuing to grow. I was sorry to hear this because cars have major social as well as environmental consequences, changing the built environment in ways that diminish civic and community life. Already, Beijing sidewalks are disappearing beneath endless rows of Audis and BMWs. I’d love to see a publicity effort in China that would get young people to jump straight to the kind of thinking about car ownership that young Americans are demonstrating. Americans aged 16 to 34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than they did in 2001, and far fewer own a car, or want to own one, than in past decades. Such a leap in China would be similar to the leap directly to mobile phones, skipping over landlines.
  • With this new agreement, big changes lie ahead in science and technology policy in China, with prospects for a new orientation in research funding. Chinese progress in several fields, including solar technology, as well as the ongoing process of replacing outdated coal-fired power plants with modern plants are critical in meeting the goals of the agreement.
  • In China, perhaps even more dramatically than in other countries, there is sometimes a conflict between the need to clean up the air and the requirements of climate-change reduction. Both speakers were adamant that “coal-to-gas” – creating liquid fuel from coal as a way to reduce air pollution in Chinese cities – is not the right way forward.

Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability Vol. 1-10With the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability soon to be published in China, by Shanghai Jiaotong University Press, we’ll be looking for ways to expand our publishing program to support and enrich Chinese research and teaching.

Lewis’s article “Climate Change Mitigation Initiatives in China” from Volume 7 of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, titled China, India, and East and Southeast Asia: Assessing Sustainability is available for free download until 12 December 2014.

By 2012, China had become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At the core of the climate change challenge is China’s energy sector. Despite a reliance on coal-based energy to fuel its rapidly growing economy, China has made major achievements in promoting energy efficiency and low carbon energy technologies. Many new mitigation efforts are underway, including China’s first ever carbon target and carbon emissions trading programs.


Karen’s Letter: A 97th Birthday Party

Karen’s Letter: A 97th Birthday Party

Gingerbread chocolate cakeWe celebrated Bill (William H.) McNeill’s 97th birthday a couple of weeks ago, in the Connecticut house where he has lived full-time since retiring from the University of Chicago. This year’s party was a last hurrah, a bon voyage, because the following day he moved to an apartment in a senior living complex. Bill took the change more easily than I did. He told me that he was looking forward to a more convivial life, more community, and that he was hoping to meet other professors whom he could introduce to David Christian’s work on Big History (which was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine; This Fleeting World is available from Berkshire as well as from bookshops, and can be downloaded on your preferred ebook reader).

Setting the tableHow many nonagenarians are eager to promote new ways of thinking about the universe? Bill is always asking questions – about China, about the business of publishing, about how Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is promoting Big History. The rhythm of our visits has been a constant I depend on. I struggle to accept that the tide of life is inexorable and that our time with loved ones is fleeting. Bill is still near enough for weekly visits, but the cozy evenings by his woodstove, and supper around the kitchen table, are no longer possible. I miss them already. I miss the drive through quiet Berkshire hilltowns, down the long stretch of Route 183 where there is no cellphone signal and barely a lighted house. I even miss the snowy nights when Bill has been surprised that we could make it to Colebrook. For over a decade, he has been the person I talk to about big ideas and about village life in the 21st century. His book on physical bonding through rhythmic movement, perhaps his most intellectually adventurous effort, opened my eyes to the role of dance and drill in building community.

Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, Second EditionTen years ago, on his 87th birthday, I surprised Bill with the first copy of the first edition of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. This year, I organized lunch for sixteen – McNeill family, friends, and neighbors. Everyone helped. My son Tom made a superb coq au vin, and I produced a birthday cake decorated to reflect Bill’s lifelong love of gardening, one of the other shared interests that have drawn us together.   Not everyone feels the pull to plant and harvest, but Bill and I certainly do. Years ago, he returned an author biography to me with the words “amateur gardener” added to his more obvious qualifications. By that he did not mean a breeder of orchids or roses. Bill had long studied and written about how people secured their food supplies against predators and invading armies. He made me alert to the fact that the potato is more nourishing and produces far more calories per acre than the grains Europeans had depended on, and my children and I have become familiar with the story of Frederick the Great of Prussia, whose military success was a result, in part, of his having introduced the potato as a crop. Growing his own potatoes, and other vegetables and fruits, was a reflection of his self-reliance, and a way to connect with the human past.

Until just a year or two ago, Bill was planting and weeding his own vegetable garden, and he has always taken pleasure in being able to put something on the table that he grew himself. Over the years, we have enjoyed his stewed rhubarb (a rosy-colored variety), summertime lettuce and beans (delicious Kentucky Wonder beans were his standard variety, and he always has a row of yellow wax beans), and September raspberries. For Bill’s birthday, there were potatoes on the table: steamed and tossed with butter and parsley, a classic accompaniment to coq au vin and a salute to Bill’s lifelong loyalty to the foodstuff of his forbearers.

This winter, although we won’t be able to sit round the kitchen table, I’ll still be taking Bill books and cookies, and he’ll continue to ask about how Big History is being received, and whether I’m finding time to work on my book about community. As autumn colors fade and chill air rises from the river valleys, I think about shouldering the work that Bill so brilliantly began, helping people see that the world really is round. Just as many renowned world historians are his heirs, I see more clearly what I owe him intellectually as well as personally, and how much of what Berkshire Publishing does today is a result of knowing William H. McNeill. As I look at the challenges of the US-China relationship today, I come back to something he wrote in the preface to the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History:

“Genuinely inclusive world history is such a helpful, even necessary, guide for survival in the crowded world in which we live.”

Perhaps we should be guided by him when it comes to gardening, too. I plan to show him this quotation from Chairman Mao, sent by one of my China pals: 自己動手, 豐衣足食 (zìjǐ dòngshǒu, fēngyīzúshí): “Do it yourself – grow your own food, make your own clothes, do what you can – and you will have sufficient clothes and food.”

Warm regards,
Karen Christensen

Karen Christensen 沈凯伦, CEO & Publisher


Starting work on the Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines

Starting work on the Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines

Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese CuisinesWe’re delighted by the response to news that we’ve begun work on the five-volume, 1.5-million-word Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines, the definitive guide to the world’s most varied culinary terrain. The five-volume encyclopedia will be a “treasure mountain library” (that is a translation of 宝库山, our Chinese name), containing everything about Chinese food and food culture.

Advisory board members include E. N. Anderson, University of California, Riverside; Sidney C. H. Cheung, Chinese University of Hong Kong; Andrew Coe, author, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States; Robert Delfs, author, The Good Food of Szechwan; John Eng-Wong, Brown University; Darra Goldstein, Williams College; (more…)


Author David Christian featured in New York Times Magazine with Bill Gates

The cover story in today’s New York Times Magazine is “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …” but it wasn’t really Bill Gates who had the idea, but historian David Christian, a friend, advisor, and popular Berkshire Publishing author, whose remarkable story is featured in the article.  Bill Gates did see the potential of Big History as a high-school course, and the other Bill in the story, William H. McNeill, also deserves credit for immediately recognizing the importance of David’s work. Bill McNeill was in his 80s when David first contacted him, the grandfather of the field of world history. He reminded us today, when we showed him the article, that he had then described himself as John the Baptist, and David as the Messiah. This always embarrasses David, but Bill persists because it is what he believes. And how nice it was to see him quoted in the NYT when he is nearly 97 !


Amazon update: when will the Justice Department step in?

Amazon update: when will the Justice Department step in?

A lot has happened since I wrote about how Amazon has pressured Berkshire Publishing (“How is hurting readers, authors, and publishers” –  4 June 2014). There have been accusations, petitions, and even a network TV documentary. BBC-Newsnight-tweetI received many thoughtful emails and was interviewed on BBC TV Newsnight and by the New York Times (“Amazon, a Friendly Giant as Long as It’s Fed“). My article was widely distributed and reprinted, and turned into a podcast interview in “Beyond the Book,” a series hosted by Copyright Clearance. (more…)


@BerkshirePubGroup @BIBF

@BerkshirePubGroup @BIBF

Thomas ChristensenThe Beijing International Book Fair takes place at the end of August, and Berkshire Publishing will be represented by Tom Christensen, speaking at the International Digital Publishing Forum Conference on the 29th. Tom has been our “China guy” since he was a teenager. This photo shows him teaching at Langzhou University in western China in 2009, when he was a visiting scholar on a research project organized by Professor Gregory Veeck.

Friday 29 August 1:00-1:25 Reference Publishing case study – Tom Christensen (Associate Director, Berkshire Publishing) Berkshire Publishing, founded in 1998 as a print-centric reference and encyclopedia publisher, has evolved into a multi-channel publisher of print and digital resources on a wide range of topics, with a distinctly global perspective. Berkshire Associate Director Tom Christensen will outline the practical issues Berkshire has wrestled with in moving to digital as a mainstream form of content, and in navigating the print-to-digital transition as a smaller publisher that nevertheless undertakes global distribution.

Tom is also planning some research on Chinese food for our latest project, the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines, by going to the hotels that each province operates in Beijing and talking to restaurant staff about their most important dishes and ingredients.

Register now for IDPF@BIBF! Produced in partnership with the China National Publications Import and Export (Group) Corporation (CNPIEC, the BIBF organizers), IDPF@BIBF is the first-ever International Digital Publishing Forum event in China. The practical program (English and Mandarin simultaneous translation) will feature publishing senior executives and thought leaders and is designed to offer actionable insights and empowering tools for executive, business, and technical leaders in publishing houses and publishing industry suppliers seeking to go out into the global market. To register, email: . The conference price is US$195.


Train Campaign success!

Train Campaign success!

I’ve written before about the Train Campaign, an effort that began in 2011 after author David Christian and I took the existing train line from New York to visit Berkshire Publishing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We received stunning news in July: the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Board of Directors had authorized an investment of almost $50 million in improvements to the historic line to the Berkshire Hills, which now runs only freight trains on tracks dating from the 1920s. The improvements will be to passenger standard, laying the groundwork for passenger rail service between Pittsfield, MA, and Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Read more by clicking here.

West Cornwall Train Campaign meeting, August 2014.

West Cornwall Train Campaign meeting, August 2014.

Here’s an op-ed I wrote to explain how this effort is aimed at creating a model and tools for passenger rail restoration initiatives elsewhere in the United States, and why it fits so well with Berkshire Publishing’s focus on sustainability: Return of rail service within reach. I also wrote about how I was inspired by trains in China. Though the hills and valleys of New England will not allow for high-speed rail, rail connectivity is something that will be every bit as important here.

We welcome information and comments from people anywhere in the world, and you can help the Train Campaign with donations and by signing our Bring Back the Trains! petition at


America’s Dream for Independence Day

America’s Dream for Independence Day

My garden is full of fireflies on these hot summer nights. They sweep through the damp grass, like tiny falling stars. When I was a child in Iowa, we called them lightning bugs and collected them in jam jars to make magical glowing lanterns. Tonight, we’ll have fireworks in the sky above, because it’s the 4th of July, the US Independence Day. Fireworks are an essential part of the celebration. Like lightning bugs, they’re magical and meaningful. A warm hearth or campfire brings a family or a band together, but fireworks are for everyone within view – a symbol of our bigger connections, and of our national unity.

Their brilliance sparks our imagination, and sets off our dreams. Night falls, but light comes. The blazing fountains reach for the sky. This year, they make me think about the dreams and aspirations we have for our country, these United States, this America the Beautiful. Berkshire Publishing is proud to announce the publication of This Is America: A Short History of the United States, which will help students understand the aspirations of our country’s founders and leaders of the past, and to get a better idea of what the American Dream is all about.

In 2014, many people are wondering about the American Dream. Is it about absolute equality or equality of opportunity? Is it about material prosperity and getting rich? Is sustainability the new American dream? A report from the PR firm Ogilvy & Mather found that “local community” was  now the focus for the majority of those polled, and that “consumers didn’t fully understand the idea of sustainability until they found themselves living unsustainable lives – working too hard, carrying too much debt, and not living or planning for the long term. Now consumers are re-imagining their lives for a sustainable future for themselves and their families.” Individuals have dreams and aspirations, and in some sense groups and societies do, too.

Over the past year we’ve heard a lot about the Chinese Dream from president Xi Jinping. This echoes the concept of “The American Dream,” which has been around for nearly 100 years. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently wrote that “It’s Now the Canadian Dream.”  These national dreams reflect human aspirations for happiness and community as well as for economic prosperity, but economics provide the foundation, the base of the human well-being pyramid, and I’m glad we included a good deal about the wealth question in the final chapter of Berkshire’s newest book, This Is America. You can read an extract at This Is America: Unity From Diversity.

Further reading



This Is America: Unity From Diversity

This Is America: Unity From Diversity

This Is AmericaFinal chapters are always difficult, and I put a lot of time into “Unity from Diversity,” the last chapter of This Is America, which we’re thrilled to announce on the 4th of July 2014, US Independence Day.

I’d had little involvement in creating this book, and I need it as much as anyone because I ignored US history entirely as a student, eager to learn about the rest of the world but dismissive of my own, rather boring country. I made my staff miserable for a week with demands for changes in the final sections, even though I reassured them that the same thing had happened a couple of years ago when we were finishing This Is China: The First 5,000 Years. I become conscious of all the criticisms that could be leveled against us, in summing up a nation. In this case, the section on wealth proved to be even more difficult than the one on religion. Here’s how we dealt with income equality, the Occupy movement, and global capitalism in a few short paragraphs:

The United States is among the wealthiest nations on Earth, with a gross domestic product (based on purchasing power parity, a measure favored by the World Bank for determining buying power) of $52,000, compared with $58,000 in the United Arab Emirates, $35,000 in Japan and Great Britain, $23,000 in Russia, $11,000 in China, and $459 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2011 data). Within the United States, as in many other nations, there is a considerable gap between the people who own most of the nation’s wealth and the rest of the country. The average US household’s wealth has declined and income has been flat for decades. Many economists argue, however, that quality of life for poorer Americans has in fact increased overall, due to the cheapness and ubiquity of consumer products such as flat-screen televisions and smart phones.

One Oxfam report estimated that the 30 richest individuals in the United States owned as much wealth—over $790 billion—as the nation’s poorest 157 million people combined. This disparity is increasing: income and wealth disparities in the United States are now more similar to those in Russia and China than its historical peers in Western and Northern Europe, such as France, Denmark, and Finland. According to Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book, Capital in the 21st Century, this is a matter of simple economics: as long as the income an individual can collect from his or her wealth is a higher percentage than the percentage growth of the economy, the larger this gap will become. In a time of slow growth, the wealthy will take an increased share of national income.

The disparity in wealth in the United Status was brought to the public eye in 2011 by the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the movement’s principles was that the “one percent” was controlling too much of the nation’s wealth, to the detriment of the other “ninety-nine percent” of the population. This, in turn, led to accusations that the wealthy did not pay their fair share of taxes, because they had the means to pay skilled tax accountants and tax lawyers, and capital gains tax rates can be half that of normal income taxes. The wealthy countered that increasing their already high income tax burden would only serve to drive down the nation’s economy; they also argued that wealth distribution is not a matter of fairness or unfairness but rather is a reflection of global economic realities.

One common criticism of the Occupy movement was that it did not have goals or leaders and did not offer much in the way of practical solutions, and while some believe that income disparity goes against the very idea of the American Dream, others argue that the American Dream is, in fact, the market at work. The founding fathers did not have wealth in mind when they spoke of all men being equal.

One result of this growing disparity that is not up for debate is that Americans now have a lower level of economic mobility than do people in most developed nations. In other words, those who are born wealthy are likely to remain so, and if an American is born poor, he or she is far more likely to remain poor than someone who lives in Canada or the Scandinavian nations. This was not the case in the past, and the United States referred to itself as the land of opportunity.

A related issue is that of political spending. In 2010, by a five-to-four margin, the Supreme Court overturned its own twenty-year-old ruling that barred corporations from unlimited spending on political campaigns, sparking widespread controversy. As a result of this decision, corporations and non-governmental organizations have begun spending money on political activities at a greatly increased rate, and often anonymously. The question of how much money individuals and corporations can shower on political parties is one of the more controversial issues in modern American politics.

This Is America is the fourth book in a series called “This World of Ours.” The series is designed for use by non-US students as well as by general readers anywhere in the world. This Is America is also an excellent refresher on US history for Americans, and contains fun things like “China’s (First) Embrace of American Food” – which took place during the Ming dynasty. The book is a perfect springboard for a new edition of Berkshire’s Global Perspectives on the United States. The new edition will cover world opinion about the United States through the Obama years and will include new articles on many topics that have come to the fore since the first edition came out in 2007, near the end of the George W. Bush presidency.

Use this code to get 25% off on your purchase: SUMMER14.