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.

An Ism

Odd how ethnocentrism (and other isms) can sneak into your thought processes and whap you upside the head.

Case in point: I was thinking about my favorite movies recently, and realized they had something in common.

Let me digress for a moment. My favorite movies fluctuate. My all-time favorite changes frequently, though it’s usually one of three, and I’d have a hard time coming up with a top ten list, because I don’t see enough movies to have collected that many that stay with me.

But, back to the point. Those top three actually have a fair amount in common. They’re all filled with digressions, and to a great extent they depend on an ensemble cast for their success. What struck me the other day is another similarity I hadn’t considered before. In a way, they’re all road movies.

Cold Fever is a weird Icelandic/Japanese road movie–in fact, it was billed as the “best Icelandic-Japanese road movie of 1995.” Yeah, that was done as a bit of a joke, but that’s beside the point. Everything happens on the way somewhere; the destination is almost irrelevant.

Tampopo is a weird Japanese road movie. Or, from one perspective at least, a movie about the road. Two of the main characters are truckers. Many of the diversions are related to the road, trains, or travel.

And Return of the Secaucus Seven is a weird little film full of comings and goings, travelings to and from, and even a nod to going around and around at the race track.

Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch to call the latter two road movies, but there’s a theme there. Maybe not enough for a dissertation, but a dedicated critic in desperate need of an article could make something of it.

But, to get back to the original point of this post, did you catch the ism? Yup. “Icelandic/Japanese movie,” “Japanese movie,” “film”. Despite what Hollywood would prefer you to think, film is hardly a uniquely American creation, nor is American cinema the root stock from which all other countries have sprouted as twigs.

The mode of thought that says “the way we do it here is the only correct way,” is the cause of far too many problems. It’s disheartening to trip over it in one’s own thoughts.

Feeling Lucky?

It’s raining here. I say this, not to evoke sympathy–after all, I’m inside, warm and dry–but to set the stage.

Rain is coming down, and Casey is under-caffeinated. A messy combination that usually leaves me staring out of the window at the rain instead of doing what I should, i.e. writing a blog post.

There’s a soggy crow on the nearest street light, an even soggier deer halfway up the hill across the road, and what looks like the paper wrapper from a fast food burger disappearing around the corner.

This is all fascinating when I need to make another mug of tea.

Suddenly, my idyll is interrupted. An unmarked white van pulls up across the street. No more than three seconds pass before the driver, who’s wearing a dark-colored hoodie with the hood up, leaps out and takes a single step toward the house.

He hurls something over the front fence, frisbee-style. Before the object touches down, the driver is back in his van and halfway down the street, chasing the hamburger wrapper.

Folks, earlier this week four people were shot less than a block away from here. The police believe they were targeted, but say they have no suspects and no motive.

So I did what any sensible person would do: I got the hell away from the window.

I waited a couple of minutes, and when nothing had gone boom, I figured it wasn’t a bomb and went to investigate.

Turned out to be small padded envelope decorated with the Amazon logo. Considerately, it had been wrapped in a large plastic bag to protect it from the rain. I’m fairly sure it isn’t explosive.

I’m not about to open it. Not because I think I might be wrong about its explosive properties, but because it’s addressed to Maggie. But it’s sitting on the dining room table. Who knows what it might do half an hour from now?

I hadn’t realized I was this nervous.

But, sleepy paranoia aside, the situation is ridiculous, and not in a humorous way. In today’s restive–I might even say “hair-triggered”–environment, how many people would have taken a shot at the driver? “I was scared! It could have been a bomb!”

How long will it be before someone does disguise an explosive device in an Amazon box?

Gig economy drivers are even less visible than salaried, uniformed drivers in trucks bearing corporate logos.

It’s a hell of a murder method. You don’t need to shell out for anything but a box: no uniform, no rented truck. And, unlike a mail bomb, you’ve got complete control over when it gets delivered.

Like Herding Cats is going out to the beta readers nowish. Maybe I should take advantage of my time away from it to write something cheerful. (Which is not to say LHC is a depressing book, but it’s not all rainbows and unicorns either.)

But I can’t believe this hasn’t happened yet.

Feeling lucky?

SAST 09

With just a tiny bit of luck, this will be the last Short Attention Span Theater for a while. Barring unexpected events, Like Herding Cats will go out to the beta readers this week and I’ll be able to stop stripping my mental transmission by jumping back and forth among writing, re-writing, and copy-editing.

Which brings me to the first production on today’s program. I could use another beta reader. Now, before you immediately deluge me in requests, let me remind you what beta reading is and is not.

It is not an opportunity to read a book before anyone else. Well, okay, it is, but it’s also a requirement that you read the book critically. I’m not looking for “Hey, great book. I love it!” I want to know what doesn’t work. To that end, along with the book, beta readers get a laundry list of questions like, “Were all of the plot twists properly supported, or was there a point where somebody acted out of character in order to change the story’s direction?” and “Were there any jokes that just didn’t work for you?”

I don’t expect every reader to answer every question, but these are the things I need to know to make the book better, so the more you can answer–and especially, the more faults you find–the happier I’ll be. I want beta readers to find the problems, not agents and editors!

Still interested? There’s one more qualification: you must be familiar with modern urban fantasy, by which I mean you’ve read several works in the field which were published within the past five years. “Several” means “more than one, and by more than one author”.

If you’re still interested, drop me an email. Do NOT apply via a comment on the post, by Facebook Messenger, or by Twitter reply. Thank you.

Moving on.

And, speaking of jobs, I got a weird offer in email recently.

We bought our car from a dealership, and we take it in for maintenance every six months. They’ve got my email address because I like getting a reminder that it’s time for the next visit and because they send out occasional special offers. Yeah, imagine that, advertising done right: opt-in.

So then I got this latest note from them. “Join our team!” says the subject line. Uh-huh. Job listings. And not just sales positions. They’re looking for a mechanic and for a person to check cars in and out of the service department.

Apparently they consider recruiting to be a type of advertising. The email has their boilerplate at the bottom reminding me that I opted-in to receive occasional ads.

I find it slightly amusing, but also more than a trifle creepy. Imagine if the idea catches on. “Hey, I hope you liked the espresso you bought last week. How would you like to be a barista?” “Thanks for making your last credit card payment on time. Wanna join our team? We’ve got openings in the boiler room calling the deadbeats whose payments haven’t come in.”

There’s a place for everything–and that’s not the place for job postings.

Next time I take the car for maintenance, I’ll ask how many job applicants the email generated–and firmly request they remove my name from that list.

Moving on.

It appears our cats know there’s a place for everything. And once in a while, they take a vacation from playing “Gravity’s Little Helper” to put things in the right place.
14-cmf
We’ve taught them that fish comes in cans. So yes, that’s the current incarnation of Mr. Mousiefish, carefully place in a gooshy fud can–presumably so he can be eaten later.

Moving on.

14-psps
I can’t decide if this is so meta it’s hilarious or so cliché it’s painful. Though I lean toward the latter.

Joe, ya shouldn’ta oughta done it.

SAST 08

First things first. Hard as it may be to believe sometimes, this blog is intended to showcase and sell my writing. That means you’re going to get an occasional commercial message.

I’ll be at the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento on Saturday, November 18. There’s no plan for a formal book signing, but the festival store will have copies of The RagTime Traveler, and I’ll be happy to sign them.

Moving on.

Thanks to everyone who voted Tuesday. As I’ve said before, here and elsewhere, we elect people to represent our interests, and elections are how we tell them what our interests are.

Or–to put it in terms the current administration should understand, given their focus on business–elections are their annual review, where we, the employers, tell them how well or poorly they’re doing their job, and what the prospects are for a raise next year.

Tuesday’s election suggests that they’re running a solid “Failed to Meet Expectations” and even a cost of living adjustment is iffy.

My Google News feed is still toxic, but at least I feel like someone’s distributing hazmat suits.

Moving on.

The other big news Tuesday was, regrettably, the death of Roy Halladay.

I’ll admit up front I didn’t know him or follow his career. But by everything I can see, he was one of the good guys, on the field and off.

“Any man’s death diminishes me,” and Mr. Halladay’s death diminishes us all more than most. I love to see anyone, especially someone as visible as Mr. Halladay, working to help others. He was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award multiple times during his playing days, and he continued his charitable work after his retirement.

And finally, just to end on a cheerier note, I see that Pope Francis has banned the sale of cigarettes at the Vatican. The statement announcing the move says “the Holy See cannot contribute to an activity that clearly damages the health of people.”

It’s interesting that he didn’t also ban the sale of alcohol, but I still like the tobacco ban. I don’t support a world-wide total ban on tobacco products–prohibition doesn’t work–but if this is the first step in a program to encourage Catholics to give up smoking, it’s an idea I can get behind.

SAST 07

Happy Halloween!

We’re not planning to give out any candy this year–although we do have a couple of emergency bags in case someone shows up despite our best efforts to look like we’re not home.

There’s no particular reason we’re being anti-social, just a general lack of holiday spirit.

Beyond that, I am a little distracted at the moment. I’m neck deep in the third draft of Like Herding Cats–I’m hoping to finish before Thanksgiving–and I’m starting to run into the places where I got lazy in Draft 2. See, Draft 2 is written with a pen. On paper. So if I need to add a lengthy stretch of new text, I’ll often just make a note to myself: [Hey, Fred needs to explain why painting City Hall blue was a good idea.]

It’s not that I don’t know why it was a good idea. I just don’t want to have to read and transcribe half a page of my scribbles. And so I defer it to Draft 3, which gets done on the computer.

The downside is that it’s kind of like freeway driving at rush hour in a car with a manual transmission. Cruising along at twenty mph, transcribing the Draft 2 changes. Come to a complete halt while I check my notes–was it robin’s egg blue or sapphire blue–and then creep along at ten mph while I write the scene.

And then get off two exits down the road and circle back because I just came up with a great line that has to go into the new scene.

Anyway, distraction. So you get a bit of a Short Attention Span Theater for Halloween.

Moving on.

Am I the only person out there who got a scam spam of the 419 type from “Jeff Sessions Attorney General” recently?

I know the Trump administration is, shall we say, a trifle challenged, ethically-speaking. But really, Jeff, there are faster, easier, and–dare I say it–even legaler methods to separate fools from their money.

Now, you may say it’s probably not Mr. Sessions sending out these letters, and you’re probably right. Perhaps it’s some flunky in the Justice Department trying to curry favor–or line his pockets at the boss’ expense.

But there’s an more likely explanation. Read the letter I got:

Now ask yourself: who in the current administration is well-known for cranking out dozens of grammatically-suspect, logic-deficient electronic missives in the middle of the night?

Yup.

Donald, put down your phone and go play golf.

Moving on.

A sneak peek at Thursday’s final summation of how I did in predicting the playoffs: I got one of the two World Series teams right. Go, me!

As others have pointed out, it’s far too soon to anoint this the Best! World! Series! Ever! But it’s not too early to say it’s been a great one so far. Close games, mostly not decided until the final inning. Lots of home runs, some interesting strategic decisions to argue about, and a fascinating sideshow in the Yuli Gurriel and Bruce Maxwell stories.

We’re getting Game Six tonight and, if the Dodgers do us a solid, Game Seven tomorrow.

But.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having so much fun with this series, I don’t think even seven games will be enough. I’m hereby petitioning Commissioner Manfred to extend the World Series to twenty-three games. If we alternate two games in each city with a travel day in between, that’ll wrap it up with Game Twenty-Three on November 24, the day after Thanksgiving.

Let’s not forget that Los Angeles and Houston are warm weather cities. No worries about games getting snowed out. And really, isn’t twelve a much more satisfying number than four?

And the best part: consider the advertising tie-ins! Everyone can watch that climactic Game Twenty-Seven on the new TV they picked up that morning in a Black Friday sale.

What do you say? Who’s with me?

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?