Losing Face

More proof, as if anybody needed it, that Facebook didn’t get where they are today–a dominant force on the Internet, with a bankroll large enough to slide them through public relations disasters that would kill any lesser company–by playing nice.

Not with its users, and certainly not with the outside world.

You’ve probably seen the recent news stories about their detection of several accounts, possibly linked to Russia, that Facebook believes were attempting to sow confusion and create conflict leading up to the November elections.

In brief, these accounts were promoting protests, specifically counter-protests against pro-Nazi–pardon me, Alt-Right–events.

My cynical side wonders whether Facebook would have taken action if the accounts in question had been promoting the original rally rather than the counter-protest, but since there’s no way to know, that’s something of an irrelevant point.

The bottom line here–and Facebook is, of course, focused directly on the bottom line–is they have to be seen to be doing something about Russian interference with American elections.

Not only have they closed the accounts in question, but they’ve taken the additional step of notifying people who expressed interest in the counter-protest that it might be a Russian operation.

Needless to say, this has not been a popular move with the event’s other organizers, who have had to spend the past couple of days proving to Facebook that they’re not fronts for Russian spies, while simultaneously reassuring people that the counter-protest is real.

Naturally, Facebook doesn’t see a problem. They’ve Taken Action! They’ve Caught Spies! They’ve Made Facebook Great Again!

And it’s not like the protest groups are major advertisers, paying Facebook large sums of money to promote their event.

Facebook’s other recent move is to make it harder for their users to see what’s happening outside of Facebook. Until yesterday, it was possible for bloggers to automatically link their blog posts on Facebook. No longer. (It’s not just blogs that are affected by this move, either. Auto-posting of tweets to Facebook won’t be possible anymore, nor will it cross-linking be possible from any other service.)

Sure, you can still manually link a post. Log into Facebook and copy/paste the relevant text or URL. Takes two minutes. Except, of course, if you’re a prolific tweeter, blogger, or what-have-you-er, those two minutes per post are going to add up quickly.

What really stings about this move, though, is that it only affects posting to Profiles, not to Pages.

Grossly oversimplified: Profiles are intended for users–consumers, in other words. Pages are intended for groups or businesses–or, as Facebook would prefer to call them, revenue generators.

Pages get less visibility than Profiles. Unless, of course, the owner of the Page pays Facebook to advertise it.

I did mention that Facebook’s eyes are on the bottom line, right?

So where does this leave me? I make no secret of the fact that I’m on Facebook–with a Profile, not a Page–purely because it’s considered to be a major part of an author’s platform. “How are people–readers!–going to find you if you’re not on Facebook?”

Right or wrong (and I’m well aware of the counter-examples, thanks), that’s the reality we live in right now. Nothing has changed in that regard since the Cambridge Analytica revelations. So leaving Facebook still isn’t an option.

If I want my posts to keep showing up on Facebook, I’ve really only got two choices: post manually, or convert my Profile into a Page (and then pay Facebook to promote it).

Converting wouldn’t stop them from selling my personal information to other advertisers, and I really hate the idea of paying them to sell my information. And I’m not crazy about having to post everything twice (and thank you, Twitter for not setting up a similar block).

This post will get a manual link. Future posts will too, at least for the time being–but I’m not about to link to the Friday cat posts at midnight. My loyal Facebook followers will have to wait until I get to my desk Friday morning.

And we’ll see how it goes. I will undoubtedly forget from time to time. No question that I’ll botch the copy/paste periodically. If the whole thing gets to be too big a hassle, I will give up on Facebook, regardless of the “necessity” of being there.

Because, no matter what Facebook thinks–or, more precisely, wants its users to think–Facebook isn’t the Internet.

Impossible

Let’s talk about “impossible” for a moment.

Have you seen any of the dozens of articles and videos making the rounds under some variant of the headline “This boat is impossible to capsize”? If you haven’t, there’s a good example at Popular Mechanics.

It’s immediately obvious reading the article that the boat can be capsized; the real brilliance here is that it’s designed to flip itself back over automatically.

With a caveat or two. The article above cites three design factors that contribute to the self-righting capability. All are subject to failure modes: “the cabin itself is watertight” (provided no hatches are left open) and “it has a very low center of gravity” and “the cabin is built to be extremely buoyant” (assuming all cargo is stowed properly and nothing heavy is mounted on the upper deck).

This boat was designed for law enforcement, the Navy, and what PM calls “other groups who sail in high-pressure situations”. How many of those organizations are going to want hull-mounted weapons of some sort? Sure, you could counterbalance the guns by stowing their ammunition at the bottom of the hull–but then, are you going to jettison the guns when you run out of bullets?

“Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.” (Rick Cook, The Wizardry Compiled)

It’s not just programming, and the Universe is winning in all fields of endeavor–as I’ve noted before, you can verify this any day on the freeway. All it takes is one person who doesn’t read the directions to undo even the best design.

And that assumes the designers haven’t overlooked anything. Lest we forget, the original “unsinkable” ship, the Titanic, failed to live up to the hype in part because of a design flaw*.

* Accounts differ, but most note that the bulkheads intended to isolate compartments and confine water coming in to a limited area did not extend to the full height of the ship. When enough water had entered the sealed compartments, it began to flow over the top of the bulkheads and fill adjoining compartments.

But I’m not here to denigrate the boat’s designers. Realistically, headline writers are indulging in a bit of click-baitish hyperbole.

I’m on record as accepting the contradictory usages of the word “literally”. But I’m drawing a line here. “Impossible” does not mean “can”. Not even “can, but reversible”.

We need a word to mean “can not under any circumstances”, if only to save writers’ fingers when discussing the likelihood of finding compassion among the Republican’s party leaders.

Don’t sink the Titanic, don’t capsize the Thunder Child, and don’t erode the utility of “impossible”.

The Group W Bench

The latest twist in the publishing industry–and the latest hot topic of discussion among authors, agents, editors, and other industry types–is the morality clause. Rachel Deahl’s write-up in Publishers Weekly is a good overview.

The TL;DR is that, in reaction to the #MeToo movement and high profile cases such as Milo Yiannopoulos, publishers are demanding the ability to drop an author if he or she says or does something the publisher believes will affect their ability to sell the author’s books.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. They range from “I don’t like it” to “I loathe it.”

I’d be less bothered–not okay with it, but less concerned–if such clauses were very narrowly drawn, citing specific causes for termination. Unfortunately, by all reports, current boilerplate contracts are very vaguely worded, giving the publisher free rein to decide what constitutes moral turpitude. As one agent notes in Ms. Deahl’s article, there’s nothing to prevent a publisher from using a morality clause to get out of a multi-book deal that isn’t earning enough.

There’s definitely an Alice’s Restaurant vibe here. Publishers want to know if we’re moral enough to “join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages” (or whatever else it was we wrote about that the publisher liked enough to offer a contract) “after bein’ a litterbug.” Except, of course, they want to make sure we don’t turn to littering after we’ve served our stint as pyromaniacs.

Full disclosure: The contract for The RagTime Traveler does not include a morality clause. I’m free to say and do what I want, hindered only by my recognition of the law, societal standards, and my ability to get a contract for the next book.

Realistically, even under the best, most author-friendly contracts, publishers have plenty of ways to free themselves from an author they’ve had second thoughts about. Ms. Deahl notes the typical clause giving the publisher the sole right to determine if the manuscript is suitable for publication. There are other such clauses, and there are semi- or non-contractural options, including failing to publicize the book or allowing it to go out of print.

But by adding a morality clause, publishers are giving themselves a Get Out of Jail Free card. It’s good to see agents objecting to morality clauses. But publishers still have the final say on whether they’ll modify or drop the clause if the writer and agent object. They already have nearly all of the power in the relationship–only a few of the highest-profile writers have the option of declining a contract over a clause the publisher refuses to drop or modify, nor is self-publishing always an option.

Despite publishers’ claims that morality clauses are solely for self protection and won’t be used for censorship or financial reasons, the bottom line is that the contract is the contract.

One piece of advice writers hear over and over at the beginning of their careers is “Don’t accept a publisher’s assurance that [specific term of a contract] is never enforced. Publishing is a business, and that clause is there for a reason. It will be enforced.”

As always, interesting times are ahead.


One housekeeping note: Google I/O begins on Tuesday. As usual, I’ll be writing up my thoughts on the keynote announcements. Since I can’t do that until after the keynote, Tuesday’s post will be later than usual. Don’t panic if you don’t see anything from me in the morning. I haven’t forgotten you.

Another Brilliant Notion

Before I get to today’s main topic, a little bit of housekeeping, loosely following Tuesday’s post.

I will be attending the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival again this year. There’s still time to make your own plans to attend. What better way is there to spend a weekend than listening to great music performed well? In addition to the music, there will be dancing; symposia on ragtime, it’s precursors, and successors; and tours of Sedalia.

And yes, there will be copies of TRTT for sale. I’m not currently planning on a formal signing–though I’m certainly open to the possibility–but I’ll be happy to sign your copy*. I recognize most of you have been resistant to the idea of distributing copies to friends and relatives, so how about an alternative plan? Get ’em for people you don’t know–the possibilities are endless:

  • Send one to Donald Trump. He won’t read it, but maybe dealing with thousands of copies will distract him from tweeting for a few minutes.
  • Slip one to the opposing pitcher before the next ballgame you go to. Who knows, it might distract him enough to give your team a chance.
  • Give them to Scott Pruitt. He needs something cheerful in his life right now. And if he gets enough copies, he can use them to build himself a privacy booth at least as good as the one he made with the sofa cushions when he was a kid.

I’ll be happy to sign any “Strangers and Enemies” copies too. And I’ll add a personal message of your choice!

* I’m still unsure how to sign ebooks. Suggestions welcome!

Admittedly, the weather in Missouri in June is a bit on the hot and muggy side, but for those of you east of the Rockies, it’ll be a nice change from the snow you’re still getting. And better June than September, right?

So I hope to see a few of you at the Liberty Center and around Sedalia between May 30 and June 2.

Commercial over, moving on.

By now many of you have probably heard that the amazingly ill-thought-out Amazon Key program is expanding. If you don’t want Amazon unlocking your house and putting your packages inside–and who would?–they’re now going to offer an alternative: they’ll unlock your car and put your package in the trunk.

Which is, at least by comparison with the original offering, not a bad idea.

Despite San Francisco’s well-publicized problem with smash-and-grab auto robberies, your chances of having your car broken into are probably no higher than of having your house robbed. Assuming, of course, that nobody is following Amazon delivery peons around their routes and texting car delivery locations to a confederate.

Anyway, the service will be offered in conjunction with GM and Volvo initially, and then expand to other makes later. Trunk delivery will also require a recent model with online connectivity, i.e. OnStar.

Which brings us to my major complaint about this iteration of Amazon Key: it’s a reminder that we don’t really own our cars anymore. Ownership should mean control, but a modern, connected car sacrifices control. The manufacturer–and potentially dealers, repair shops, police, and others–can unlock your car, disable features, and display advertisements at will.

Yes, I’m talking capability rather than practice, but policies can change. Once the hardware is in place to, for example, show ads on your navigation screen, you’re never more than one manufacturer-controlled software update from not being able to turn the ads off.

Or one bug–or hack–away from the car failing to recognize the remote relock signal.

That’s true whether you use Amazon Key or not, of course.

Writers’ Pay

Yes, writers really do get paid. Unless they fall for the “exposure” scam that’s reaching epidemic levels in the arts. But that’s a different post.

The Rule of Three applies here, as it does in so many areas.

First, there are writers who are on a salary. Technical writers, advertising copy writers, newspaper staff reporters, and anyone else who draws a regular paycheck. Not exactly exciting, is it?

Second, are the freelancers. They get paid by the piece, typically a set amount per word or per article. Malcolm Harris has an interesting piece in Medium on the economics of freelancing. The TL;DR is that the price per word paid to writers has not increased at the same rate as inflation. That’s certainly true in the genre fiction space. In science fiction’s golden age–roughly, the late thirties and early forties–the magazines paid between one and two cents a word. Today, rates are basically between five and ten cents a word, not the twenty-five cents (give or take) inflation would call for.

I’d also include ghostwriters in this group; my understanding is that most often ghosts receive a flat fee per book, regardless of how well it does.

One doesn’t get rich writing short stories, or even non-fiction for glossy, comparatively well-paying magazines. Famous–or at least well-known in your field, perhaps, but not rich.

The amounts are less than many non-writers would guess, but the payscale is simple.

Finally, we have books. This is the group most people are thinking about when they ask what writers make, and it’s the most interesting.

Bottom line, writers of books–fiction or non-fiction–get paid by the number of copies sold. How much? Well, that depends on the writer’s negotiation skills. But let’s use The RagTime Traveler as a reasonably typical example.

If you bought TRTT in paperback*, I got 9% of the list price. Yes, even if you bought it at a discount, my percentage is based on the full price. So each copy sold brings me about a buck forty.

* And my very sincere thanks to those of you who did!

Well, right now it does. But it’s more complicated than that.

There’s an elevator clause. Once y’all have bought 3,500 copies–that’s all of you, not each of you–my rate goes up to 12%. Even better, after 6,000 copies, I’ll get 15%.

Not complicated enough? How about the ebook? I get 40% on ebooks, up to 10,000 copies. That sounds really nice. 40% of $15.95 is $6.38. But wait!

My share on ebooks isn’t based on the cost of a paperback. It’s a percentage of what the publisher receives after the seller takes their cut. Amazon’s cut, for example, varies between negligible and outrageous, depending on the list price of the book. (Other sellers work along the same lines, but the exact percentages vary.)

But let’s run with it. As I write this, the Kindle edition of TRTT is selling for $9.99. Amazon will keep 30% of that–call it three bucks. Of the remaining $6.99, I get $2.80. Not quite as good as that mythical $6.38, but a bit better than the paperback rate.

Of course, if the publisher decides to run a sale to encourage people to pick up a copy, my cut drops in proportion. At a sale price of $4.99, I’ll only get $1.40. If they really get aggressive and run a limited-time promotion at $0.99, Amazon takes a much larger cut. As a result, my share would be fourteen cents.

Great fun, huh?

But wait! It gets even more complicated.

See, there’s this thing called an “advance*”. This is (generally) the publisher’s best guess for how much the author’s share of the money will be over the course of the book’s lifetime.

* Historically, this was money paid to the author before the book was finished. The theory was that he could live on the advance while writing the book. Needless to say, this was one case where theory and reality quickly diverged.

There are a number of reasons why it makes sense for the publisher to pay the author up front, though “tradition” certainly ranks high on the list. And, it should be noted, not all publishers pay advances at all, or pay a fixed amount, regardless of how well they expect the book to do.

But in any case, if the writer gets an advance, she doesn’t get any more money until the publisher recoups the advance from the writer’s share of the book’s proceeds.

I got a thousand dollar advance for TRTT. That means I don’t get anything more until it sells about 700 copies. (I’m ignoring the ebook here, as the majority of the sales have been paperbacks.)

Selling enough copies to “earn out” is something of a big deal. Not because you’re getting rich, obviously, but because publishers will look at how well a writer’s previous books did when deciding whether to buy the next one. Earning out is a convenient flagpole: it shows the book did about as well as the publisher expected, and that’s a positive indication for future works.

I’ve simplified this discussion. When you throw in “actual returns,” “reasonable reserve against future returns,” “remainder sales,” “reuse,” and all of the other contract clauses about money, it gets really messy.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into the darkness. I’ll leave you with a couple of simple questions:

Have you bought The RagTime Traveler?

Wouldn’t you like to have it in electronic form?

Oh, Right

Post? What? Oh, yeah, it is Thursday, isn’t it?

Sorry. I’m about to send the main character of my current Work in Progress–let’s call them “Peeby”–off on a quest straight out of their least favorite fairy tales.

After I finish screwing up their life again, just as they thought they was getting it under control*.

* No, I’m still not happy about “they/them” as a singular pronoun, but Peeby insisted. Darn uppity characters.

Because that’s what writers do. See, there’s a school of writing that says when you don’t know what happens next, ask yourself “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” and then do it. I don’t usually follow that advice literally, but this time I am. It’s amazingly cathartic, but I suspect it’s taking me down several paths that’ll get cut in the next draft.

But I digress.

Anyway, Peeby’s about to go on a quest. Literally. One of those “Find these things, and I’ll make you ruler of the world,” deals. Of course, they is all “I don’t care what that damned song says, I don’t want to rule the world.” But they doesn’t have a choice because, hey, “worst thing,” right?

The problem with quests, though, is they need an object. Or, in this case, a set of objects. Three to be precise.

Why three? Well, as I’ve said before, I generally subscribe to the “Rule of Three” in my work. And in this case, it makes sense in the context of the story because–well, I’ll save that for another time.

I’ve got three targets for Peeby, but at the moment it’s a Three Bears’ Porridge set of objects. One is just right, but one is more video game than fairy tale, and one is clichéd and boring.

I can work with the video game one. In context, it even makes some sense.

But boring is death and cliché is eternal damnation.

The destination shapes the journey–very literally in the case of a fairy tale quest. I can’t send poor Peeby off on a quest for something that’s going to get written out of the book before they finds it. I need a replacement before they sets out, and so I’ve been on an extended ramble around the Web in search of a quest object.

Yes, I’m fully aware of how meta that is. Questing for a quest. Ha ha.

And that’s why I’d forgotten it was Thursday, and thus had to subject you to my ramblings on the creative process.

It’s all Peeby’s fault for not wanting to rule the world.

State of the Fourth Estate 06

In the latest blog tradition, the annual “State of the Fourth Estate” post is late. Strictly speaking, it should have gone up on Sunday or, since I don’t do weekend posts, last Thursday. But the Facebook contretemps seemed likely to have wider appeal, so here we are. At least I’m closer than last year, when I didn’t get around to the SotFE post until mid-April.

Nothing much has changed on the blog. This is Post 883; on my current posting schedule, that should have the largely-meaningless, but oh-so-round-numbered Post 1000 sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No doubt, I’ll observe the occasion with some modest celebration.

As usual, the infamous leftover sauerkraut post racked up the most hits of any page on the site. It beat the next most popular page, the one about The RagTime Traveler more than five to one.

As usual, the stats don’t include post read on the main page of the blog, through the RSS feed, or via email. So it’s possible TRTT is actually doing better than pickled cabbage. Unlikely, perhaps, but possible.

Speaking of email, it was around this time last year that I set up my newsletter. My thanks to those of you who have subscribed. You may be wondering why you haven’t gotten one lately. Well, it’s a newsletter, and there really hasn’t been any news about my career. No new book sales (or short story sales), no planned signings. So, rather than continue to send out a monthly “Hey, there’s nothing going on!” message, I decided to put it on hiatus until there’s something worth sharing.

What might be worth sharing? Well, selling a book certainly would. Finishing one probably would. And that might happen soon*.

* In the publishing world, “soon” is the equivalent of the software industry’s “Real Soon Now”. Nine characters shorter, because electrons are cheaper than ink and paper. They both translate as “I don’t know when, but it’ll almost certainly happen.”

Like Herding Cats is in beta. Yes, I know I said that back in November. I’m still waiting on one beta reader, for reasons that are nobody’s business but theirs. I understand, and I think the feedback will be worth waiting for. And, once I get it, barring a major surprise, the rewrite shouldn’t take more than a month or two. At which point that will be a finished book.

And, while I wait, I’m not sitting around twiddling my thumbs. I’m working on the first draft of a completely different book. Well, it’s also urban fantasy, so it’s not totally unrelated, but the location, time period, characters, and plot of Demirep* have nothing in common with LHC. I’m about 50,000 words in–about two-thirds of the way, since my first drafts tend to run short–and the plot is mostly in focus, and I’ve got a vague idea of where the ending will be. That’s actually more than I usually know at this point in the first draft. Even better, I’m keeping up with my daily target of 1,000 words more often than not.

* Or maybe “Demi-Rep”. Worrying about punctuation in a working title isn’t even on my to-do list.

So what happens if I finish the first draft of Demirep before I get the last beta report on Like Herding Cats? I won’t. No, really, it won’t happen. But, just in case it does, I’ve got, uh, hang on a second…five concepts in my “Possibilities” folder. I won’t be bored, or run out of things to write if it happens. Which it won’t.

Onward into Writing Year Six.

Here We Go Again

A quick question before I get into the main post. This is directed to those of you who have rear window wipers on your cars.

See, we had our first rain of the year yesterday, and noticed that only one driver out of a couple of dozen had turned on their rear window wipers.

So the question is, why not? Do the rear wipers not work? Do you forget they’re there? Do you just not care you can’t see anything in your rearview mirror? (The way many people change lanes these days makes me wonder if they even have rearview mirrors.)

Or is there an explanation I haven’t thought of?

Moving on.

Here we go again. The latest call for technology to rethink the book comes from David Pierce over at Wired. He might charge me with oversimplification, but I’m not seeing anything in his piece that differs from any of the “print is boring, we need to jazz it up” opinions we’ve gotten since the dawn of ebooks.

Mr. Pierce has a few more examples than we’ve seen before, because people keep experimenting, but it’s still the same idea: “books don’t have to consist only of hundreds of pages set in a row.”

Let’s skip the question of what a “book” is. Whether you consider something delivered as a series of tweets, something that allows readers to text with the characters, or something that comes with a musical soundtrack to be a book is beside the point. And yes, I’m including audiobooks as “maybe they’re books, maybe they’re not” here because they’re one of the earliest and most enduring approaches to “jazzing up the book”.

The critical problem with the idea of evolving the book is that people want books to remain books. Mr. Pierce himself points out that what made the Kindle popular was its replication of the reading experience. No pop-ups, no advertisements, no distractions from the act of moving the writer’s words into the reader’s brain. As a reader, you get to choose when to read, where to read, how fast to read, and how you react to what you read.

It’s about control. The more multimedia features you add to a “book,” the more you take control of the experience away from the reader. Add pictures, and you control the reader’s mental image. Add audio and video and you increase that control. Constrain the delivery options, and you limit the ability to decide where and when to read.

I have no problem with experiments in new ways of delivering stories–provided they don’t turn into advertisements–but any claim that such experiments will lead to the replacement of books-as-we-know-them should be regarded with great dubiety.

What I do see happening with books is that publishers will find ways to increase the reader’s control–and successful publishers will use those techniques.

A case in point: I recently purchased an ebook collection of short stories, the complete set of stories about a single character. In the foreword, the author notes that, while she would prefer people to read them in the order they were written, she recognizes that many people would prefer them in order of their internal chronology.

In a printed book, the author and editor would get to decide. If the reader prefers the other option, it means tedious flipping back to the table of contents, then flipping forward to the next story. But an ebook can be built to support both options. In this case, turning the pages as usual gives the “as written” story order, but at the end of each story there’s a link to go directly to the next story in internal chronological order. Either way, it’s a single click/tap/page turn to go to next story. At the reader’s discretion.

Convenience features, ideas to make the act of reading as we already know it more pleasant, are the future of books. Multimedia, text messages, and other bolt-on features are the future of something else.

All the News

Kind of a strange news day yesterday.

It started with the Amtrak train derailment in the Seattle area. Nothing inherently weird about the story itself–sad, depressing, and dispiriting, yes, but not weird. What was odd was that the first mention of it I saw was a tweet linking to a news report on an Irish newspaper’s website.

I have mixed feelings about what Robert Heinlein described as “the unhealthy habit of wallowing in the troubles of five billion strangers.” “Think globally, act locally” is appropriate in many cases–climate change springs immediately to mind–but are we really better off as a species when we can find out about every disaster, no matter how small, anywhere in the world? Maybe if the small triumphs were as widely reported as the failures.

But I digress. My original point was that I find it fascinating that not only does news travel so quickly, but so does news about the news. Taken by itself, I find that cause for a certain amount of optimism: it shows that transparency has never been a more attainable goal.

A couple of thoughts about the accident, as long as we’re on the subject. It’s laudable that Amtrak took steps to move their passenger service onto tracks not used by freight service. In theory, sharing tracks shouldn’t be a problem. In practice, the revenue generated by hauling freight has resulted in those trains being given absolute priority. The result has been ever-increasing unreliability in the passenger service, which results in lower ridership, which widens the income gap, and around we go in a spiral that makes it harder and harder to sustain the passenger side of the business.

So there’s that. But the fact that the accident occurred on the very first run over those new tracks suggests strongly that driver training was inadequate. Combine that with American railroads’ persistent unwillingness or inability to adopt train control safety technology that’s been in use everywhere else in the world for decades, and an accident of this severity seems inevitable.

It’s almost enough to make one start thinking in terms of conspiracy theories. Emphasis on “almost”.

Anyway, back to the news.

We also had an unusual example of synchronicity here in the Bay Area. Sunday night, a Richmond police officer began walking around a San Francisco hotel. He was allegedly talking about spirits for some time before he fired half a dozen shots, apparently into the walls. Eventually, he surrendered to the San Francisco police.

Then, apparently to balance the scales in some kind of karmic sense, on Monday a San Francisco police officer pulled into a parking lot in Richmond and shot himself. According to the Chron, he was under investigation, and he was being pursued by a Richmond police officer.

The timing of the two incidents is, of course, coincidental, but they did add a bit of surreality to the day.

Arrrrrrgh

Just a quick commercial message with the Official Gift Giving Season upon us: The RagTime Traveler makes a great gift for your mystery-reading friends. Available at all the usual outlets–if your local store doesn’t have it in stock, they can order it–and I believe Borderlands still has signed copies. End of commercial.

Since we’re on the subject of book sales, let’s talk about piracy. It’s been a hot topic in the genre publishing world for the last couple of months thanks to Maggie Stiefvater‘s tweet about the cancellation of plans to publish a box set of one of her series.

I’ll be honest here. I don’t know Ms. Stiefvater, and I haven’t read the Raven Cycle. But they’re well-reviewed and quite popular.

And that’s the core of the problem. The books are popular, but they’re not selling well enough to make that boxed set economically viable.

Ms. Stiefvater attributes the disconnect to piracy, and as that tweet shows, she’s got evidence to support her position.

Then there’s the contingent of writers who shrug off piracy as free advertising. That’s the position that says “If they can get books free, maybe they’ll try something new, decide they like it, and buy the sequels.”

That group tends to point to the Baen Free Library. SF publisher Baen Books made (and still does make) some titles available free. When the library was introduced, sales of paper copies of the free books jumped, as did later books in the same series.

The trouble is, you can’t generalize from the BFL, which generally only includes the first book of a series, to the broader world where everything is available free. If a reader can go back to the same website where they got Book One and grab Book Two, Three, Four, and Five, there isn’t much incentive to shell out thirty-five or forty bucks for them.

And don’t forget: those early numbers from the BFL that everyone cites came from a time when pirating a book meant scanning every page and then going through a tedious process of OCR conversion and proofreading. Today, it’s a thirty-second task to take the legit ebook and strip off the copy protection. It’s gotten to the point where everything is pirated.

Yes, even TRTT. I know it’s out there–I’ve seen it. Pirating has gotten so quick and easy that totally unknown authors’ works are made available on the off-chance somebody might want them. It’s easier to grab everything published and crack the encryption than to decide what you actually want.

In fact, pirate copies of TRTTstarted showing up on June 7, the day the book was released. That suggests the whole process is automated, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the major distributors has a backdoor somewhere.

I’m not suggesting beefing up the encryption. Music, movies, and games have all tried increasingly-tougher copy protection, and all the attempts have failed. It doesn’t stop the pirates, and it inconveniences legitimate buyers.

I don’t have an answer. I’m fairly sure there isn’t one beyond occasionally reminding everyone that if books don’t sell, publishers and writers won’t be able to put out more.

I can’t stop anyone from pirating. But if you do, how’s about you have a heart and buy a book occasionally? Thanks.