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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

E-Book Excitement at the Book Fair

I’d like to share some great insights on the e-book market that I recently picked up.

I introduced a panel on e-books at the Miami International Book Fair on Nov. 20. It was organized by Christopher Kenneally, of Copyright Clearance Center, and included Ami Greko, of the Kobo e-reader, and Argentinean publisher Ana Maria Cabanellas. The classroom was packed for their discussion and there were plenty of questions from the audience.

Greko was particularly giddy over Japan’s Rakuten recently acquiring Kobo for $350 million. Not only does that validate the importance of e-books, it should give Kobo access to more international markets, especially Asia and Brazil. Right now, e-reading is strongest in North America, Greko said, but international expansion could open doors for many authors.

“Small publishers have realized that their audience has been magnified tenfold because of the international market,” Kenneally said.

Still, downloading e-books is more difficult in Argentina and much of South America, Cabanellas said. They usually can’t be downloaded directly to mobile devices and there isn’t a large enough selection of Spanish books in digital format. Yet, the demand is there. Some “e-pirates” have copied thousands of books onto a CD and sell them all for $20, she said. 

“If the book is ready in digital and at a good price, the pirates don’t do it,” Cabanellas said.

Greko touted some of the unique features of e-books. Kobo allows readers to share their favorite passages of a book on their Facebook and Twitter networks. An optional feature allows readers to track their reading speed. Internally, Kobo is debating whether it should share information with publishers about when readers stop reading certain novels. 

Would it be helpful for publishers and authors to know that a certain chapter made many readers quit? By the time the book is already for sale, it’s probably too late to do much good. Greko noted that publishers are divided on whether they want this information.

I’m hoping that the launch of my novel Mute with Silver Leaf Books next year will be an international affair. I already have some fans in the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand that I met on Authonomy. 

To hear this discussion from the Book Fair in full, check out the podcast at www.beyondthebook.com

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Who would banker Alan Levan be in scifi/comics?

Alan Levan pulled off a galactic-sized deal today. The chairman and CEO of BankAtlantic Bancorp (BBX) agreed to sell the good assets of his bank to BB&T while leaving the more problematic assets and the corporate debt with the holding company. You can read the serious part of my story at the South Florida Business Journal. But, here I will ask the bigger question from the perspective of a novelist:

If Alan Levan was a scifi or comic book character, who would he be?

The deal came after many people were betting for shares of BBX to plummet. One stock analyst told me that he wouldn’t cover the company because he doubted it would survive. I got calls from stock traders who told me its shares were worthless.

And yet, it’s last laughs for Levan.

To accomplish all this, Levan raised capital from shareholders and his BFC Financial holding company at a time when few banks could do so. He endured a nasty class action securities fraud trial and got the judge to toss out the verdict against him. He had regulators all over the bank, including a “cease and desist” order, an SEC investigation and an overdraft fee investigation. And he swung a deal to sell the bank that avoided the immediate repayment of a ton of corporate debt. 

That’s sort of like dodging a speeding train, leaping over a pit of alligators and then climbing up a wet chain with fire at your heels. So is Levan the elusive Flash? 

Hmm, BankAtlantic is all about red outfits. But it’ hard to call banking flashy. 

It’s not fair to call Levan a runner. If anything, he doesn’t shy from confronting critics. He took on banking analyst Dick Bove and ABC News in court. He won a motion for sanctions against the class action securities attorneys that dragged him to trial – and then he appealed because he wanted MORE damages for the sanctions. He has waged public battles as a shareholder of restaurant chain Benihana and (briefly) Office Depot. 

And if you don’t pay your mortgage to the bank, well, just ask developer Dan Catalfumo what happens.

The bottom line: don’t mess with Alan Levan.

Maybe a more appropriate character for Levan would be Nightcrawler from X-Men. Not only can he teleport to escape danger, but he is an expert swordsman. If you can somehow catch Nightcrawler, he will make you pay.

Of course, Levan isn’t blue and nor does he have a tail. Moreover, Nightcrawler prefers to hide in the shadows and he rarely takes a leadership role with the X-Men. Levan is almost always the top guy at his companies and he certainly doesn’t hide.  

So who is a leader, evasive from danger and tough in a fight? Let’s travel to Star Wars and pick Han Solo.

Imperial Star Destroyer (federal regulators) on his tail? Light speed, Millennium Falcon! Leading the rescue of a princess (or his shareholders)? Blaster ready! Frozen in carbonite (wrong side of a jury verdict)? Friends and lawyers set him free. 

And remember that Han Solo was able to fend off Jabba the Hut, who wanted to collect on his debt. Levan has confronted issues with debt on soured real estate deals at Levitt & Sons and Core Communities but he exited those properties without the creditors coming after him.  

So there you have it: Alan Levan is the Han Solo of banking.

What does that make his son Jarett Levan, the president/CEO of the BankAtlantic subsidiary? I’m torn between the child prodigies of Children of Dune and Ender’s Game. Is running a bank at a young age more comparable to riding a giant sand worm or piloting a spaceship against an alien horde?