Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dean Koontz Invades Virtual World in Bantam Dell Marketing Ploy

By Edward Nawotka

March 15 (Bloomberg) -- Today at 9 p.m. New York time, bestselling thriller writer Dean Koontz will give a virtual reading from his forthcoming novel ``The Good Guy'' (scheduled for publication May 29) at the ``Bantam Dell Book Shop and Cafe'' -- a new virtual destination in Second Life for Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

Second Life is a 3-D online world in which people roam a fictitious but familiar environment in the form of digital avatars -- that is, computer representations that look, walk and misbehave much like real human beings. Since its creation by Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life has attracted more than 4 million users worldwide.

Bantam Dell's virtual bookstore was created by Electric Sheep Co., which has produced Second Life destinations for other companies including AOL, Starwood Hotels and Major League Baseball.

During his reading, Koontz will be represented by an avatar fashioned in his likeness and assisted by a pair of Bantam Dell employee avatars with the literary-sounding names of Beatrice Scintilla and Horatio Ruggles.

Scintilla is actually Betsy Hulsebosch, senior vice president and director of creative marketing for Bantam Dell. She will field audience questions via instant and text messaging and relay them to Koontz, who will answer in his real voice via an audio feed.

Overflow Glitches

Hulsebosch says she hopes that 30 to 40 avatars -- or visitors -- show up, as any more in one Second Life destination can cause computer glitches. To deal with overflow, the event will be simulcast in several other Second Life destinations; an audio feed will be broadcast on Koontz's Web site and on Bantam Dell's.

Those attending will be able to browse almost 100 Bantam Dell titles on shelves, tables and ``dumps'' (those cardboard displays that sit on the floor) in the virtual bookstore. Clicking on a book will take them to a page on Bantam Dell's Web site where they can read an excerpt and, if they wish, buy the book, either from there or from a number of online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Powells.

Publishers have been slow to enter the age of digitized information -- unlike writers and entertainers. The singer- songwriter Suzanne Vega has given a virtual concert in Second Life, and an avatar of Kurt Vonnegut has sat for an interview with a virtual John Hockenberry.

Next Dimension

``We think Second Life represents the next dimension of social networking,'' Hulsebosch says. ``It's three-dimensional. You physically create the world around you. We think the people who are drawn to that sort of experience would also be drawn to books.''

Russ Lawrence, president of the American Booksellers Association and owner of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana, is sanguine about the prospect of virtual competition. ``If publishers want growth, they have to look to reach people where they haven't before,'' he says. ``Second Life is itself a fictional environment. Who knows, selling fiction there might be a pretty good match.''

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Capitalism Goes on Trial, Warren Buffett Eats: New Nonfiction

By Edward Nawotka

March 13 (Bloomberg) -- After 9/11, readers turned to Benjamin R. Barber's 1995 ``Jihad vs. McWorld'' for a better understanding of the world in which they suddenly found themselves. Barber posited a society divided between faith-based tribalists and economic globalists -- opposing forces that both threatened democratic ideals.

Barber's new book, ``Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole'' (Norton, $26.95), offers a scathing critique of late capitalism, blaming run-amok consumerism for the decline of society.

Megacorporations are as much in the business of manufacturing ``needs,'' Barber argues, as of products or services for a population of emotionally stunted consumers.

Why do we buy a raft of inferior and superfluous products? Because these companies have turned us into ``kidults, rejuveniles, twixters, adultescents'' conditioned since birth to buy ``stupid'' brands. The result is a ``civic schizophrenia'' that leaves us vulnerable to megachurches but too disengaged to vote.

``Consumed'' is more vitriolic than admirers of ``Jihad vs. McWorld'' might expect. Some may object to Barber's angry insistence that we, as consumers, have no free will. Although it's great at provoking us to think about our complicity in the phenomenon he describes, a reader may not feel like the total tool of corporate commerce Barber claims we all are.

``Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future'' by Bill McKibben (Times, $25). In a vein similar to Barber's, McKibben offers a clear-eyed reassessment of the meaning of growth, arguing that it's no longer making the world wealthier but instead is ``generating inequality and insecurity'' and ``bumping against physical limits, like climate change and peak oil, so profound that continuing to expand may be impossible or even dangerous.''

``A Weekend With Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures'' by Randy Cepuch (Thunder's Mouth, $23.95). Starting with a six-hour marathon Q&A with Buffett in Omaha, Cepuch offers a travelogue of 24 meetings (and free lunches) throughout the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, for such companies as Citigroup, DuPont, eBay, Google, Microsoft, Playboy, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Walt Disney.

``Jackpot Nation: Rambling and Gambling Across Our Landscape of Luck'' by Richard Hoffer (HarperCollins, $24.95). A Sports Illustrated reporter visits casinos, underground power games and more in a trip through the U.S.'s gaming culture, whose burgeoning condition, he says, is symptomatic of our predilection for get-rich-quick schemes and costs us some $80 billion a year.

``How Countries Compete: Strategy, Structure, and Government in the Global Economy'' by Richard H.K. Vietor (Harvard Business School, $35). A B-school prof examines growth in countries including China, India, Japan, the U.S., Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa and challenges the notion that government oversight hinders economic development.

``The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World'' by Phillip F. Schewe (J. Henry Press, $27.95). The electrical grid is one of the world's great engineering and industrial feats, but one short circuit could leave cities dark for days. Schewe offers an informative look at the grid's history and its increasing vulnerability.

``The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America'' by Allan M. Brandt (Basic, $36). A medical historian examines the role of the tobacco industry in American life, from its contributions to the development of advertising to its role in so many legal and health debates.

``Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders'' by James D. Scurlock (Scribner, $24). The credit industry (Visa, MasterCard et al.) is the villain in this frightening if one-sided expose of ``debt hell.''

``Poor People'' by William T. Vollmann (Ecco, $29.95). The prizewinning novelist and crusading (and sometimes gonzo) journalist traverses the world to ask a cross section of the downtrodden, ``Why are you poor?'' and records their honest and unsettling answers.