Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Love Affair With Apple

Macintosh Plus - my first

I am often amused (and poorer) by my addiction to Apple. Their products, since the early days of the 1980s with the Macintosh Plus and the later Mac Classic, have provided computers for my alternative life as a writer. Macintoshes, Apples, iPods (too many to mention), PowerBooks, MacBooks, printers, scanners, ImageWriters, Performas, iPods (Shuffles, Touch, Minis, nano), MacPro, iMac, iPads, so many pieces of hardware I’m embarrassed by the shelves and cartons stuffed with used equipment. And did I mention the iPhone? For the list Click Here.

I have always enjoyed the technology as well as the clean elegance of their products. Most are intuitive and more than user friendly. This one company has also turned on their collective heads the music and publishing industries (iTunes just to mention one subversive operation). There have been failures, some monumental, but they learned and refined and eventually found products that are helpful and are now standards in their particular genre (i.e. Garageband, iMovie, apps, iBooks Author, etc.) And, with the iPad, they have the best version of the ebook reader (that I invented in 1988 – see here for a kick).

I write while I travel. Planes, ships, trains, and early morning hotel rooms are my haunts when I have a book underway. My first travel computer was the PowerBook 165 and at maybe ten pounds it filled my bag like a giant black brick – but I loved it. Then the PowerBook G3 weighing in at 7.5 pounds, an improvement. Jump to the 21st century and the MacBook down to 5.2 pounds and so much horsepower (for writing) it lasted almost seven years – and actually it still runs fine. All to the good.

But with the iPad I found that it was difficult and almost impossible to write my way. I tried the remote keyboard (Bluetooth) and it performed well, but between the keyboard, the case and the bits, the weight issue climbed. And to make matters worse, the lack of Word software and no slot for my memory sticks added to its inability to perform at the level I needed. I love my iPad but its use as a computer substitute just fell short.

I have a long trip ahead of me. Lots of photos, articles to write, notes to take, and two books underway (one in editing); my iPad was not going to make it. And my old PowerBook couldn’t be upgraded to use the iCloud to store progress work in case the “worst” happens to my equipment.

Solution? Actually two solutions. The iPad for all its uses and apps is still heavy and too large to fit in my pocket, yes maybe my Scottevest travel vest, but still heavy – Solution 1: the iPad mini. It is everything the larger iPad is but weighs almost nothing and can fit inside a jacket pocket. And, with my iPhone, gets me everything from email, and movies to books. What I really like is that travel maps are easily accessed and can be quickly enlarged for my old eyes. Done.

Solution 2: The MacBook Air, 11.6 inch screen, and at 2.4 pounds (with neoprene cover) less than my iPad with all the required support. Memory slots, full keyboard, very bright screen, great memory (three times my old MacBook) and pretty good battery. Everything required for all three pieces (phone, pad, computer) weighs less than five pounds and fits in my backpack and/or vest. And with the battery backup (less than six ounces) I have enough power to run my iPad mini for the eleven hour airplane ride. And what’s great is that I have a full blown computer to use during the trip that can go everywhere.

As a traveler and writer, technology has made it more convenient to work and entertain myself. These tools are helpful and now almost seamless with their cross compatibility. But they are just that: tools. But wondrous and creative tools they are and with solar charging (not yet in the bag) we can work anywhere completely disconnected. But who wants to do that?

More later . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

WOOL - A Self-Publishing Triumph

The novel Wool, by the American writer Hugh Howey, is the end result of a very successful five book series of novellas that Mr. Howey published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). He chose this route so he would have the freedom of self-publishing. Initially released as 12,000 word, 60 page novelette it grew through a series of additional books until the full story was told. This was accomplished over a very short period of time starting in the summer of 2011. It is a brilliant success story that has resulted in the full novel being released through Simon and Schuster less than eighteen months later. I say through instead of by because Mr. Howey has retained a significant number of his rights as the author of the work. Something unheard in the publishing industry less than four years ago.

Here are some numbers as posted in the Wall Street Journal about the work (click here):

  • More than 500,000 ebooks sold (prices escalate through the series - $0.99 to $2.99)
  • More than 5,000 reviews posted on Amazon
  • 2,000 plus reviews on Goodreads
  • Film rights sold to Ridley Scott – $ number not released
  • Turned down numerous publishers until Simon & Schuster offered a print-only deal
  • Book prices: Paperback $15.00, hard cover $26.00
  • Howey’s digital ebook - full book, $5.99
  • Review rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars
  • Foreign rights in more than 24 countries
  • At 70% royalty (Amazon ebook standard) he was making $40,000 a month in mid-year 2012
  • By the end of the year his royalties were $120,000 a month
  • In a promotion Amazon offered Wool (the whole book) for $0.99, it sold 20,000 copies in one day

What is more stunning is how the publishing industry is finally facing up to the fact of the self-published author. For the last five years (post ebook) this staid industry has fought self-published writers. If I’ve heard more than once, “Oh, you have already published that on Amazon, we don’t work with writers who have done that!” I’ve heard it a hundred times. Howey sold a half million and they begged to print his book. Every industry needs to be shaken, if not just to knock some sense into the way some things have atrophied. The car industry (Japanese cars), housing (mass production), television (cable and CNN), and now books. Look at it as what Mr. Howey called, “A cleaning.”

I didn’t read the series and to be honest I wasn’t even aware of the book and its impact on the publishing industry until last month. I’ve spent the last three years pulling together six books so my head has been elsewhere. Yet I have come to admire Mr. Howey’s work and publishing acumen – but what I really like is the story. It reminds me of my days in college and reading through Frank Herbert’s original 1966 novel Dune, where whole worlds are created with their own jargon, rituals, laws, and social structures. While Howey’s world isn’t a desert planet called Arrakis, it is even more frightening – it is the buried and self-enclosed world of a silo-like tube more than 140 stories deep. Every aspect of the reader’s fears of being buried alive, living in a claustrophobic world of spiral stairways, and tiny rooms is enfolded into the story. I haven’t read a book with such overpowering phobic weight, ever. All my visions seem to be filled with the life of living in a submarine, with no chance of ever surfacing. That said, Howey spins a wonderful yarn of social structures, self-imposed rules needed to survive, death verdicts served to preserve society, and hope. Classic dystopian post-apocalyptic fare, and thank god, no vampires.

During some century well into the future, man has succeeded in destroying his planet; the surface is now a toxic wasteland, where, exposed to the elements, it takes only minutes to die. How this happened to the world is never explained – and that’s good. This isn’t a story about the past; it’s a story of the future and hope. It is also the story of a few independent and curious people who stand against the silo’s systems, all trying to understand the why of why they are there. It moves quickly forward in fact it drives the reader, quick short chapters followed by long and involved narrations. There is a fine balance between dialog and narrative, there is little if any preaching (a failure often in these types of books), and the conclusion is satisfactory and open ended. Sequels??

There is not the sense, in the novel, of the original serial book release; the novel has been admirably crafted to blend the five books into one. It is well edited and crisp, if not a little wordy. If I have one criticism it is that during many of the action scenes Howey has such a clear vision of the interior of his world that we get lost in the twists and turns, the ups and downs and the ins and outs as the characters run, climb, fight, and escape within the silo. The story is a mixture of low and high tech, of makeshift solutions and conclusions without the characters knowing the why – all to the good.

What I did enjoy was the relatively few main characters, no more than eight or ten, in a "canned" world of thousands. If there is one aspect that can kill a great novel is a profusion of characters – too many is often too much. Wool is a political thriller, a love story, a psychological page turner, and above all a paean to great works like Mysterious Island, Dune, The Time Machine, and works by Philip K. Dick and even Robert Heinlein. It reminded me of Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama and his subsequent series. I hope that this novel of Mr. Howey begins a career that both challenges science fiction as well as the publishing industry as a whole.

More Later . . . . . . .

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Scott Turow Says Technology is Killing Writers

On Monday the New Work Times published an Op-Ed piece
by the distinguished author of legal thrillers, Scott Turow. His premise is simple: the professional American author is dying. Every market force and even the Supreme Court are unintentionally and intentionally destroying the business of making a living as a published author. Book prices and royalties are being driven into the ground, whether through cheap e-book prices, low royalties on both e-books and traditional books, and an overall general contempt for the writer and their copyrights. Killing the goose that produces golden eggs comes to mind. Here is another comment by the Guardian (Article)
Sure the current best seller list of top selling guys and gals can set their royalties and percentages, this is the power of the cash register. In fact some publishers desperately cling to the sales of just a few of their writers to even stay alive – witness E.L. James and her Fifty Shades of Grey – the sales of her books was the only reason that Random House employees received a bonus last year. “Bondage equals bonus” – kind of poetic I think. But for the rest of us full and part time writers the pickings are thin – no matter the quality of the product.
I’ve published six books, fiction and non-fiction. The production of ebooks costs almost nothing other than time, a manuscript can be converted to an ebook in less than an hour – and don’t let the publishers tell you different. Throw in editing (story and copy) and I would think you would be hard pressed to get to $2,000, book cover another $500. For one of Mr. Turow’s books, probably less, he turns in a better product to his publisher than most authors (I’m also sure his publisher charges a lot more than $2500 against the account). So to cut him a 25% deal is just theft. I can easily understand why some successful writers have migrated to their own publishing houses and are now self-publishing. Outside of distribution, who needs the traditional NYC publisher?

We authors continue to hope to find a publisher for our work, it’s all about validation. And yet, when I think about it, why should they get 90 or 80 or even 50 percent – I did all the work. What do they offer? Marketing? Production? Secret handshakes? Mystic hands passing over my words? PLEEEASE! I’m coming to the conclusion that their days are limited and it’s not sour grapes – it’s simply that if we self-publishers are being screwed by the distributors for the few dollars we make – the big boys are even more in trouble.

Example: Google in their efforts to flatten every aspect of the real world has stomped on the copyright for my non-fiction book published in 2000. GI Town was a limited success and was my first foray into the world of publishing, my agent found Johns Hopkins University Press and a good home. They did a fine job of printing the book and even brought out a trade paperback in 2003 – these were pre-ebook days. All for the good. I asked for and received my rights back in 2009 and brought out a new edition – print and ebook. All mine, even better. But when I “googled” my name and GI Town I found that Google had found a copy of my book, scanned it, and now offers it for “FREE” through their Google Books and they put advertising all over the page – all for them and their coffers – none for me. My product was reproduced and used to sell their products, all without my permission. And we are concerned about the government – hell, what we have are successful businesses acting criminally and throwing lawyers at you when you have a beef. I am competing with myself to sell a book that they sell for free. Theft by any name is still the same. If I tried to subvert Google by hacking its sites I would feel the weight of not only their hand but the justice department as well. I’m just one author – thousands have been maligned and abused. (And I use Google to power this blog - yes, I have no shame)

It takes nothing to pirate ebooks (they are just bytes and bytes). Buy one copy and distribute it for free to your friends – I ask you, when was someone prosecuted for selling an ebook that had been pirated. Sure if you’re Steven Spielberg and there are billions of dollars at stake you would chase DVD pirates to edge of the world. Google wouldn’t even think about pirating his work and offering it free – yet here we are. Ah to be Steven Spielberg.

Mr. Turow talks about libraries as well, authors have given these great institutions an historic pass, they are integral to the writing profession and to the public. Yet when they distribute an ebook it too can be stolen and the writer gets nothing.

We are in an exciting period where anyone can publish their work – no gatekeepers, none. But we are also in a sad age for writers. Our stories are cheapened to almost no value, in fact the more popular the book the more it’s pirated. Even Amazon wants to resell second hand ebooks (whatever that means) without paying the author anything. It’s equated as a secondhand paper paperback. But unless you drop a few letters and pixels, just to rough it up a bit, it’s as fresh as the day it was made. Sure there are digital rights protections out there but there are easy ways to break through them.

Turow has stirred up a tough and now nasty debate – the haves (NYC published) and the have nots (everyone else). Even a few newly successful writers, such as Hugh Howey, take issue with Turow. But are they taking issue with the industry or Turow? Howey demanded and kept control of his ebook rights. 

We writers need these portals, Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Google, iBooks, and others that allow our works to reach the public. Yet there is an implicit promise that must be met that you will do no harm to the author. Our products are real and sacred, you must respect the work and the copyright. It is the honorable thing to do.

More later . . . . . .

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Incredibly Valuable Tool(s)

Social media is IT and I confess I am not an expert, more like a tourist in a restaurant where I can’t read the menu. The sites and systems are so counter intuitive (at times) it leaves a reasonably intelligent guy scratching his thinly populated head wondering, “Is it worth the brain damage?” Starting with and ending with Zooppa you will find Twitter, Facebook, Xanga, Goodreads (now Amazonish) and over 190 other international social media sites (GO HERE) to waste your time. And, I ask you,  is it that WAYN seems to be used by only Russian woman? Just asking.

In writer's conferences and conventions we are bombarded in session after session that it will be through social media (insert favorite site here) that will you find an adoring public. So you prostitute yourself into spilling your guts: birthday, home town, dog/cat’s name, relatives, favorite vacation spot, grade school, high school, college, reform school, What are ya reading today?, Who’s your favorite singer? Your opinion on whether Elvis is really dead, etc. Really? All sorts of stuff that a really diligent criminal (or stranger. in need of a life) could spend a few hours and, for all intents, become you. And all you want to do is sell a few books.
We blog, we tweet, we select friends we don’t know, we update our pages daily (I want to thank my nieces for the cute cat pictures), and above all lay confess and open our souls to the world. I doubt the Catholic Church could put together a better confessional. Now here’s an idea Pope Francis, a Catholic confessional site. I would call it, what do you think?

As you can tell I’m rambling (another new site idea,, I’ll start it today or is it already on-line?). All these sites are about connecting and finding others with similar interests, all for the good. But often they seem to create a lot of chaff and confusion and, with millions and billions of registered users, one really does believe he is screaming into the face of a hurricane.

But I have found one small part of a larger animal (like the blind men and the elephant) that seems to find resonance. The animal is LinkedIn and the part (or parts) is their groups. My guess is that most of you readers know LinkedIn and have an account, but how many have you looked at the Groups? According to Wiki there are 1,248,019 with memberships that go from one person to three quarters of a million (probably the Taylor Swift group). But I’m strictly talking to writers here.

There are dozens of groups associated with writers, publishers, editors, and similar affiliations. Some have hundreds of members and others, thousands. Each tends to have their active contributors and most are well behaved (if not, be warned, the site’s manager will publicly stone you for infractions). My favorites are Fiction Writers Guild, Books and Writers, The Pen, and Crime Fiction. But there are dozens, do some investigating and read their posts and comments. Find a few you like, get the hang of them, some are actually very good. I’ve met some excellent writers and editors through these groups and the message is clear, you contribute and add to the group and they will help. Use key words such as writers, publishers, ebooks, editors, and author to find groups you may like. Join, they will only take a small piece of your soul.

More Later . . . . . .