Scam Much?

How about a quick tale of greed and gaming the system to start your week off?

This one’s all over the Young Adult publishing community, so my apologies to those of you who are tapped in there for repeating old news.

For the rest of you, the best overview of the story I’ve found is at Pajiba.

You should read the whole piece, but if you’re in a hurry, the core of the matter is that someone seems to have concocted a scheme to get a book onto the New York Times bestseller list. Not because they wanted to jumpstart sales of the book, but in order to get financing for a movie based on it.

Right. A movie based on a book nobody’s read. But wait, it gets better: the publisher is a website nobody* visits anymore. The author of the book is set to star in the movie. The cover may have been plagiarized.

* Though, to be honest, they get way more traffic than I do.

How’s that for entertainment?

The most startling thing I learned reading about this is that you can get onto the NYT list with 5,000 copies sold in a week. I know it’s a common complaint that reading for pleasure is a dying art, but it still boggles me that the threshold is so low.

But that’s what made this scam possible. Somebody–or rather, several somebodies–placed phone orders for multiple copies of the book through bookstores across the country. The orders were sized to be just small enough to be counted as individual sales, rather than corporate bulk orders.

The book isn’t actually available, so all of those orders will eventually be canceled, but they hung around long enough to be reported as sales. More than 18,000 sales, in fact. As a result, the book jumped straight to Number One.

A book you can’t buy, with few legitimate reviews knocking a title that’s been sitting in the top spot for a couple of month? Not gonna happen. So people got suspicious. Much Twitter discussion and detective work followed. The upshot is that the NYT released a new bestseller list for the week which does not include the work in question.

Note, by the way, that I haven’t mentioned the book’s title or the author’s name. I don’t see any reason why I should give them any additional publicity. If you want to know, read the article I linked at the top of the post.

But that’s really what I find most depressing about this affair: the author and the team behind the movie have gotten far more publicity than they expected–it seems clear that the whole point was to use the “bestseller” status to get the movie deal done; publicizing it ahead of the signing probably wasn’t part of the plan.

As we all know, however, there’s no such thing as bad publicity in Hollywood. I’ll be very surprised if the movie doesn’t get made. And when it comes out, I’ll be even more surprised if it doesn’t use a “Based on the NYT bestselling book!” line in the ads. Because it did appear on the list, even if the paper has since disavowed it. And people will go see it because they’ll vaguely remember the title, without remembering why they heard of it.

I have to wonder: if the crew behind this scam hadn’t gotten greedy enough to go after #1 instantly, but instead spread those 18,000 orders over a few weeks, debuted in the middle of the list, and then jumped upward, would anyone have noticed? Well, assuming they had taken the precaution of making it possible for people to, you know, actually buy the book.

I suspect if they had gone that route, they would actually have sold enough copies to crack the list legitimately. Probably not the top of the list, but still…

Of course, then the reviews would have come in. If it’s true that good reviews sell books, it’s also true that bad reviews do the opposite (though not as strongly–don’t forget the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon as well as the conspiracy theories: “if so many people are trying to kill it, there must be something there They don’t want us to see.”) And, by all reports, the reviews wouldn’t have been kind.

Speaking of reviews, by the way, consider this one of my occasional reminders that if you’ve read The RagTime Traveler, I’d appreciate you posting a review on Goodreads, Amazon (or wherever you bought it), or anywhere, really. I doubt we can push TRTT onto the New York Times bestseller list, but I’d love to be proved wrong. Hey, it’s only 5,000 copies in a week, right?

A Very Special Event

So a thing happened last weekend. You may have heard me warning you about it. Yeah, that. The event* at Borderlands. I’ve never been a special event before. Nor did I know beforehand that it was going to be special, or I would have publicized it that way.

* Loosely speaking, there are three kinds of author appearances: signings, readings, and events. The names should be obvious, but in order to get the word count on this post up**, I’ll spell it out. When the author sits behind a table, chats briefly with everyone who shows up, and scribbles something semi-legibly in their books, it’s a signing. If the author also reads part of the book aloud to the audience, it’s a reading. And if the author does anything else–reads part of another book, sings and dances, juggles flaming chainsaws–it’s an event.

** No, I’m not being paid by the word. I just want enough words to balance the pictures a bit.

The room wasn’t packed, but there were enough people there that I feel justified in calling it a crowd. (I should point out that I didn’t take most of these pictures. Credit and copyright belong to Maggie Young, Eric Zuckerman, and Beth Zuckerman. Thanks, gang!)

Many thanks to Jude Feldman, front and center in that picture, for ensuring everything ran smoothly. Everyone’s first event should have a Jude.

Since this was an event, I didn’t read from The RagTime Traveler. Instead, I gave a 50,000 foot overview of the histories of ragtime music, Scott Joplin–the man who made ragtime into America’s first popular music–and TRTT.

That card on the desk? Let me zoom in and rotate:

Just something I found in the greeting card rack before the event. It seemed remarkably appropriate, so I offered it as a suggestion to the crowd. The card is now hanging on the wall over my desk, where I hope it will encourage and inspire me when the words misbehave.

My thanks to those of you who attended, as well as those who couldn’t make it, but sent good wishes. Hope to see a few more of you at future events. Nothing’s scheduled yet, but there will be more, and naturally, I’ll announce them here.

One final note: You need signed copies of TRTT–even if you’ve already got one, remember that they make great gifts, and it’s never too early to get your Christmas shopping out of the way.

Coincidentally–or rather, conspiratorially–

Borderlands has a stack of signed copies they’d love to sell you. I’m sure they’d be happy to ship one or more to you, even if you’re not in the San Francisco area.

Why not pick up the phone and give them a call?


Today’s a housekeeping day. The dishes are in the dishwasher, there are clothes in the dryer, and we’re collecting estimates to replace our fence.

No, seriously. I know it’s hard to believe, but we actually do dishes occasionally and–what? Oh, yeah, that. Really:

So, that being the case, I might as well do a little electronic housekeeping and clear out the pile of stuff that’s been piling up because they’re not even long enough for a Short Attention Span Theater post.

But first, this commercial message:

On Sunday, I’ll be at Borderlands Books in San Francisco, pushing The RagTime Traveler. The plan is to cover the history of ragtime music and the history of TRTT before I sign copies. That’s darn ambitious for an hour, so if you’re into train wrecks, come watch this one develop!

Moving on.

I’ve griped about greengrocers’ apostrophes before (customer’s what?), so I’ll just note that this is the first time I’ve seen single quotes used instead of double for those darn useless quotes. But why didn’t they put quotes around “customer’s” and “manager”?


In the “you only had one job” category. If that qualifies as a rolled hose, I really want to look inside the bin and see how many scraps of paper, broken tools, and rotting vegetables qualify as not trash.


Back to grammar. The way I read this, it’s perfectly fine for me to play with the condiments for sanitation purposes. My kids will just have to watch. Or I can let them play with the condiments as long as it has nothing to do with sanitation. Hey, kids, how high can you stack the creamers? No, Billy, you can’t clean the spilled jelly off that container; that would be sanitary!


OK, last one.

Lawyers have a strange view of what is necessary and appropriate.

Case in point: a few years ago, our local hospital closed. That’s a whole rant of its own, so I’ll spare you for now. But unwinding its affairs has been a protracted affair.

Earlier this week, both Maggie and I got letters from a law firm representing our county healthcare district informing us that the hospital’s patient records will be destroyed in a few months.

Frankly, that seems like a good idea to me, especially since they’re providing a way for former patients to claim their records if they need them for their new doctors.

But what struck me as odd is that the letters also informed us why we got them. It’s because each of us is either (1) a former patient; (2) a family member of a former patient; (3) an insurance company “known or believed” to have given insurance to a former patient; or (4) “the Attorney General of the State of California.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

They consider it appropriate to send these letters to insurers who might have had clients who were treated at the hospital. OK, so there are no names on the letter; it’s not a privacy violation. But where the heck did they get the names of those companies “believed” to have served former patients? If they were listed in the hospital records, shouldn’t they be considered “known” rather than “believed”? Or did they just send one to every insurance company they could find a name and address for?

The real kicker for me, though, is that this law firm apparently believes there’s a one in four chance that I’m the state attorney general.

Really, guys, it wouldn’t have cost that much more to send a separate letter to the AG? Heck, the savings in ink from not printing Item Four on those millions of letters would more than outweigh the cost of some clerk’s time.


Science fiction author David Gerrold asked an interesting question on Facebook.

“Is it stealing if I download my own book from The Pirate Bay?”

I had to think about that one. And the best answer I can come up with is “It depends.”


Let’s assume Mr. Gerrold owns the copyright on the book in question. Because he’s been around long enough not to have signed a contract that transfers the copyright to the publisher.

So, at first blush, it would seem as though he ought to be able to give himself permission to download a copy.

But, while he owns the copyright on the novel, he doesn’t own the book. His contract with the publisher (presumably) licenses them to produce and distribute a book. That is, either a bundle of pieces of paper with ink on them or a similar bundle of electrons in which the ink or the electrons reproduce the novel.

By that logic, the publisher owns the book, and Mr. Gerrold cannot simply download it.

But wait!

If this book is part of Mr. Gerrold’s extensive backlist, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s been offered for free to encourage the purchase of his other books. This is especially likely if it’s the first book of a series.

If it’s currently free, is it still theft to get it for free from an unauthorized distributor? What if it’s not free now, but it was when someone uploaded it to The Pirate Bay?

While you’re pondering those points, consider the question of royalties. Mr. Gerrold’s contract entitles him to a certain amount of money every time the publisher sells a book. However, (a) many contracts specify the royalty for ebooks as a percentage of the publisher’s net receipt on the sale–but if it’s being sold for nothing, that percentage is going to be zero. And (b) most contracts specify that no royalty will be paid on promotional copies.

On the whole, it seemed to me that the answer to the original question would be yes. But then one final point occurred to me:

Mr. Gerrold’s contract almost certainly entitles him to a certain number of free copies of his book*. These are typically the ones that wind up on the author’s shelves and in the hands of people who helped the author in some way. (For example, if Dad and I thanked you in the Acknowledgements in TRTT, that signed copy you should have received by now is one of our author copies.)

* In case you were wondering, authors also usually have the option of purchasing more copies from the publisher at a significant discount off the cover price. Such sales do not pay royalties, which makes for an interesting question. Given the online booksellers’ deep discounting habits, when you subtract the royalty from the actual price of a copy purchased through Amazon, it may actually be cheaper for the author to get his books that way than to use his discount with the publisher!

It’s usual for the author to take physical copies–nobody’s come up with a really good way to sign an ebook yet–but as far as I can tell, there’s no reason why one or more of them couldn’t be electronic.

So, if Mr. Gerrold hasn’t yet collected his author’s copies, it should be perfectly legitimate for him to download a copy from The Pirate Bay–as long as he remembers to tell the publisher to send him one less physical copy.

They’re Here!

I didn’t remember ordering anything, but there the box was. Being no fool, I let the security detail check it out. Once they assured me there was nothing in it that required their attention (translation: no catnip), I opened it.

Yup. Author’s copies of The RagTime Traveler arrived safely before the release date.

Naturally, I needed a couple of pictures for posterity.

Rhubarb and Yuki were properly awed.


Google I/O is tomorrow, so I’ll be snarking at their latest plans for world domination on Thursday. Today, though, let’s talk about Amazon’s latest move toward global conquest.

I mentioned it last week. Amazon has changed their policy regarding third-party bookresellers. In brief, when you search for a book on Amazon, it may not default to Amazon’s listing. Depending on where you are, what other booksellers are offering the title, and other information, the default “Add to Cart” button could be somebody other than Amazon, with the Big A’s listing being relegated to the “Other Sellers on Amazon” section of the page.

That sounds good for the shopper: who wouldn’t like getting a better price? But there are implications that have the publishing industry in a bit of an uproar. The Authors Guild, for example, believes that Amazon’s move will result in lower income for publishers and authors. If you didn’t read their press release last week, you can find it here.

Amazon’s position is that they’re simply bringing book sales into alignment with the rest of the site. And there’s some truth there.

But the publishing industry works somewhat differently than most others*. When you buy a washing machine, a computer, or box of cereal, the money goes to the seller, they give you the item, and the transaction is finished. That item comes out of their inventory–they’ve already paid the manufacturer. And if they can’t sell all of the washing machines, computers, or cereal they’ve stocked, they take a loss.

* I won’t speak to music and other arts; I don’t know enough about typical contracts between the creators and the sellers.

On the other hand, if you buy a book–and to be clear, I’m speaking only of new books here–those sales are reported back to the publisher. Why? Well, for starters, the publisher has to pay the author, and that payment is based not only on the number of copies sold, but (in some cases) the price the book is sold for. Furthermore, if the seller doesn’t sell all of the copies they bought, they’re not stuck with them in inventory. They can send them back to the publisher or destroy them and get a refund.

How does that make a difference? Well, many of those third-party sellers advertise really, really low prices. Like, in many cases, less than a dollar. They make their profit in “shipping and handling charges” that far exceed the actual cost of dropping the book in an envelope–but those fees aren’t counted as part of the purchase price.

So what happens if somebody sells a new copy of The RagTime Traveler* for $0.01 (plus $7.99 shipping and handling)? Well, for starters, Dad and I probably get nothing. According to our contract, we don’t receive royalties on sales where the publisher gets less than it cost them to print the book. Realistically, if the seller is going to make a profit, even with those fees, they’re can’t pay the publisher’s wholesale price.

* Let me be clear here: nobody is selling TRTT at that price. Yet–but that could change after the book is actually published.

Maybe they cut a sweetheart deal with the publisher and got the books at a steeper discount than normal. That can happen, especially if the seller gives up the right to return any unsold books. If their wholesale price is less than 56% of the cover price (which it would almost have to be for them to make a profit), but more than the cost of production, Dad and I do get paid–but only half the normal rate.

But let’s be honest here. As the Authors Guild points out, it’s unlikely that those low-ball sellers have bought their books from the publisher. From their press release:

The Authors Guild has spoken to several major publishers in the past year about where all these second-hand “new” copies come from, and no one seems to really know. Some surmise that they are review copies, but there are far too many cut-rate “new” copies for them all to be review copies. Could they be returns from bookstores that never made it back to the publisher? Did they fall off the back of a truck? We don’t know.

(There’s also speculation in the comments that those books could have come from the publisher: returns being resold at liquidation prices rather than destroyed. In which case, see two paragraphs up.)

And one other point: publishers look at how well an author’s previous books have sold in deciding whether to put out his next one. Any sales that don’t earn a royalty also don’t get counted in making that decision. So our hypothetical one cent copy of TRTT actually reduces my chances of finding a publisher for my current novel-in-progress.

So, bottom line: I doubt Amazon will rethink this policy change. They have a long history of making moves that lower prices to consumers, even if it means taking a loss for an extended period. It’s all about cornering the market. And in this case, Amazon still gets paid. The seller gets paid. The publisher might get paid. And the author? If they don’t like it, they can self-publish and set their own price.

Except, of course, if they want to sell through Amazon, in which case they need to go through Amazon’s self-publishing arm which bases author royalties on sale price.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Sideways

I suppose this could be considered a Short Attention Span Theater post, but I’m not caffeinated enough to think about that.

Step One: The Bay Bridge is still standi–no, wait, I’ve used that joke before. Never mind.

Seriously, the Bay Bridge did take a step forward this week. The bike path between Yerba Buena Island and Oakland is now open seven days a week. That’s actually a very big step.

Mind you, it doesn’t help would-be bike commuters. The path is only open from 6 AM to 8 PM. Any techies planning to bike in for their usual seventy-two hour week are likely to hit the barrier in one direction or the other.

Well, actually, they’re going to discover that there’s still no connection between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island, so unless they’ve got an amphibious bike, they’re only going to get halfway to work. Of course, if they do have one of those gadgets, they don’t need the bike path in the first place. Never mind.

It’s unclear to me whether there’s a plan to open the path at night, and according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a bike path on the western span is at least a decade away. But a scenic ride that’s available seven days a week is a decided improvement over one that’s only open on weekends.

Step Two: I said Tuesday that I would be having signings outside of Seattle. I can now announce the second scheduled event.

On Sunday, July 16, I will be at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. I’ll talk for a while about Scott Joplin and ragtime music, do a Q&A session, and then sign books.

This is breaking news, folks. Borderlands doesn’t even have it on their website yet.

But if you can’t make it to Sedalia or Seattle, I’ll look forward to seeing you in San Francisco.

And who knows, maybe I can arrange a signing in a city that doesn’t start with an “S”.

Step Minus One: Have you heard that McDonald’s has invented a new eating utensil? You probably have, but if not, the inevitable commercial is here.

Yeah. The “frork”.

As one might expect, the Internet is up in arms about this. To the extent that there’s ever a consensus online, it seems to be that this is the stupidest idea ever.

Having waded through more dumb Kickstarter projects than I can count, I disagree.

Seriously. I just can’t get upset about the frork. Come on, folks, it’s an advertising gimmick. It’s served it’s purpose: getting people talking about McDonald’s.

It doesn’t look like a frork uses any more plastic than the usual fast food restaurant’s plastic fork/spork/spoon, so where’s the harm?

Mind you, it is–as McDonald’s admits–completely superfluous. Toppings that drip out of a fast food burger (or even a slow food burger, IMNSHO) are meant to be scooped up with and licked off of an index finger. Preferably your own–or your date’s*, but whatever floats your boat. Personally, I think fries should be eaten with the fingers as well, but I’m not dogmatic about it.

* But not in a Tom Lehrer/”I Hold Your Hand In Mine” kind of way, please. Even if you’re a zombie, that sort of behavior doesn’t qualify as proper restaurant manners.

So, yeah, not the end of civilization. Not even a serious attempt at bread and circuses.

Small Steps

Another couple of steps closer to The RagTime Traveler‘s launch.

First, if you haven’t pre-ordered because you’re wary of buying a book you haven’t browsed, your wait is over. I’ve updated the information page (click that link in the previous paragraph) to include the first chapter.

It may not be quite as slick as Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, but if you prefer to avoid the Big A, it gets the job done. (If you do use Amazon, you can now “Look Inside” TRTT, but only on the pages for the print book, not the Kindle edition.

The hardback, by the way, is currently ranked at Number 2021 in Time Travel hardcover books. Considering that we’re still a month away from launch, that’s good news. Feel free to order a few more copies–they make great gifts, after all–and push that number even lower.

Second, I’ve booked my first signing. I’ll be at Seattle Mystery Bookshop at noon on Wednesday, June 7. Details are over there at the left side of your screen, assuming you’re reading this on the blog, rather than in email.

If you’re going to be in the Seattle area that day, why not stop by and say hello? Even if you can’t make it, tell your friends. Spread the word.

Don’t feel left out if you can’t make it. There will be other signings in other places.

As I said in the newsletter*, I’m starting to feel like a real author.

* You do read the newsletter, don’t you? If not, why not subscribe? It’s free, it won’t show up more than once a month, and each issue comes packed with goodies you won’t get anywhere else. Short articles about the writing life. Sneak peeks at the book I’m writing now! Chances to win FREE BOOKS!


Yesterday was Dad’s birthday. “Was,” damn it. Not “would have been”. Because, as I’ve said elsewhere, he still had stories to tell, and I’m sure he’s gonna hang around until he finds a way to tell them.

Granted, not in a corporeal sense, because that would just be creepy (and I say that as someone who writes fantasy). But here.

And then there are those other ways he’s still around…

I was making a note for the next draft of the novel-in-progress and realized I had started it with the phrase “We need to find a way to justify…” Even though it’s been six months since I last worked on Mo’less and even though every word of this book is one I wrote, yes, I’m still making notes in the first person plural.

But Dad critiqued multiple drafts of Splat Squad and Lord Peter’s Eyes. He always had good suggestions, even when I showed him individual scenes where he didn’t know who was who or what was going on. I didn’t always agree with his suggestions, but when I didn’t, figuring out why I didn’t like them usually gave me an idea to make the book better.

I wrote 1,524 words yesterday. (It was probably closer to 2,000 words, but there was this familiar voice in the back of my head saying things like “Are you sure you want to say it like that?” and “That doesn’t sound like her. What about…?” So it was 1,524 net words.) Most of them were for a scene that could easily be dismissed as filler. It’s not wildly exciting–but then, I’m not writing an action movie, so every scene doesn’t have to end with an explosion. It’s not critical to the plot*–except that most stories need a reminder that everyday life is going on even while the characters are dealing with The Most Important Thing That Ever Happened. (There’s a scene in The RagTime Traveler–one of my favorite scenes, in fact–where some of our main characters opt out of the ongoing investigation so they can do a load of laundry.)

* Or at least I don’t think it is. For all I know, the most exciting scene in the book couldn’t happen without the events I just wrote. One of the joyous hazards of not being an outliner.

But one of the important lessons I learned from Dad is to let your characters do what they want*. Nothing good will come from forcing them to do what you want.

* Another, arguably more important, lesson is that a mid-afternoon craving for a cookie shouldn’t be neglected. So I had a Florentine concoction of almonds and chocolate in his honor.

And so, when [redacted] wanted to visit [purged] and take him to task for discriminating against [censored], I let him.

At the moment it seems like a good idea, but if it turns out the scene doesn’t add anything to the book, I’ll make another note: “We should junk this.”

And we will.

State of the Fourth Estate 05

It occurs to me that I completely failed to bring you the traditional “State of the Fourth Estate” post last month. Instead of rambling on about what’s happening with my writing, I gave you pictures of Tuxie and Rhubarb.

Many of you probably consider that an improvement.

But tradition must be served (I prefer it barbequed, but I won’t look down on anyone who’d rather have their traditions fried), so here we go, not quite a month late.

Starting with the blog, as usual, the Home Page continues to be the most popular page because most of you are reading new posts there. Which is perfectly fine.

Home Page aside, in 2016, the most popular post was not Using Up the Leftovers: Sauerkraut. Top honors instead go to Four for the Price of One. I’m not naïve enough to think my musings on The BFG, Ghostbusters, or even They Might Be Giants brought in well over five hundred viewers. Nope, most of the credit goes to those three young ladies from Japan*.

* If BABYMETAL brought you to the blog and you’re still hanging around, make a note in the comments, would you?

So far in 2017, the pickled cabbage has reclaimed the popularity lead, but posts about The RagTime Traveler are doing very well. Thank you all for that.

Unsurprisingly, most of the readers come from the US, with Japan, Brazil, the UK, and Canada making up the rest of the top five. (I’m going by page views, as WordPress doesn’t seem to track unique viewers.) There’s been a single page view from each of twenty countries, including (alphabetically) Angola, Faroe Islands, and Turkey. C’mon back, folks. You’re welcome to hang out as long as your network connections last.

Over on the fiction side of things, The RagTime Traveler is, of course, the big news. If you missed the earlier announcement, by the way, you can now preorder TRTT as an ebook. Just click that picture of the cover and choose your format.

When I wrote the 2014 SotFE post, my beta readers were looking at Splat Squad. In 2015, it was Lord Peter’s Eyes, and last year it was TRTT. This year, unfortunately, there’s nothing in beta.

As many of you know, Life rather kicked me in the face in 2016. I’ve got about 41,000 words of the first draft of Mo’less Jones and nearly 50,000 words of the first draft of the still-untitled other novel. Had I spent the entire year on one or the other, I suspect it would be with the beta readers today, but as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “So it goes.”

(For those of you who haven’t been regular readers, my father and co-author of The RagTime Traveler and Mo’less Jones, passed away in October. I do intend to pick up Mo’less at some point, but there are both emotional and practical reasons why it may be a while. And so I’m instead working on The Nameless Novel, which has nothing to do with ragtime or baseball.)

Last March I said that my daily target was 1,000 words a day. More recently, when I started writing again in November, I dropped it to 500 words. As I said last month, it’s not a hard-and-fast goal, and I don’t usually worry if I come up short, but never coming close to 1,000 words was starting to drive me nuts.

But for the past month, days when I failed to hit 500 words have been rare, and I’ve exceeded 1,000 at least as often as not. So I’m officially bumping the target back up. Not only does that feel good, as a sign that my brain is starting to work again, but it means I might just have the first draft of The Nameless Novel done before the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival*.

* Yeah, my first drafts tend to run short. If TNN comes in at 70K, it probably means the draft that goes to beta readers will likely be 80-90K, right on target for a fantasy.

It’s iffy: there are still some major gaps in the plot that I need to figure out, but if it was a sure thing, it wouldn’t be much of a goal, now would it?

Stay tuned!