Monday, June 19, 2017

TRAVEL MUSINGS - EUROPE 2017

I promised a report on our thirty days traveling Europe from London to Spain to France and Italy. Here are my observations, and they are based on a lot of travel over the years. Except two or three western Mediterranean stops, we previously had visited most of these cities over the last twenty or more years. I could have written ten thousand words, so consider yourselves spared.

We have been traveling to England and Europe since 1989. My wife has written four books on the gardens of England, and I’ve included many of these locations in my own stories.

Sadly, a few events happened in England while we traveled – the Manchester horror, and the killings in London’s Borough Market area (we were visited just a few days earlier). We were also there for the British snap election, the ongoing Brexit issues, and watching their media treat Prime Minister May like Donald Trump. I have to say the Prime Minister reacts with a lot more style.

Regarding the terror attacks, the British seemed resigned, stiff upper lip and all. The press rants and raves but not once did I see a serious discussion of why this is happening, which requires a difficult level of introspection. The press wrings their collective hands and interviews every politician who will sit for their cameras. It was convenient that they were still set up for the post-election interviews only days after Borough Market, and many of these same talking heads – both political and media, said the same things.

The Shard from Borough Market - London
I think my most interesting observation is that the Moslems in London (visitors, refugees, native born) were significantly more visible than in any of the other countries we visited. Women wore their hajibs, chadors, and burqas everywhere. I saw no other burqas and very few hajibs anywhere else on our travels, but they were ubiquitous in London. To stroll through Harrods (owned, as I found out, by Qatari royal family), one believes they are in an Arab souk, almost to the point of intimidation. I doubt that Moslems are any less devout in Spain or Italy, but they certainly are making their collective presence known in London. England, for more than a thousand years, has gone out of its way to accommodate everyone who comes to their island. There now appears to be a very palpable wariness and weariness on the part of the English toward Muslims. I believe there are many on both sides who are very afraid, and these “rogue” attacks only heighten that fear.

London itself was extremely busy and almost chaotic, street traffic was the worst of all the cities we visited. To try and reduce the traffic, they tax you for entering the core of the city with cameras checking your license plates or something. A taxi driver said to us, “No one bloody cares, they still drive in!” The stores were crowded, young people were everywhere, the usual tourist venues were packed. The pound’s drop in value to the dollar made things, even in expensive London, more affordable to us. It was twenty-five percent higher during our last visit four years ago.


The Ramblas in Barcelona
Barcelona was also busy and almost as crowded as London. The beaches (some of the best urban beaches in Europe) were packed, and the international tourists were in full throat and wandered in thick packs. Again the young dominated the streets and restaurants. Everywhere the Chinese (the latest mass tourist movement), moved in busloads, walked in groups, and as the Japanese of the 1990s, were everywhere. I assume that China’s travel agencies are having a great year. Many Russians and Eastern Europeans as well. There were also more families traveling together, from all countries and age groups, than I’ve seen before. Why someone would travel with children under eight years old is beyond me. Hardly the relaxing time you imagined. However, it is a sign of the world’s expansion of wealth; two travelers are expensive, but a family (often extended with relatives and grandparents) is something else again.

The Royal Princess in Cartegana
Our ship for the seven-day cruise during the middle leg of the journey (from Barcelona to Rome) was the Royal Princess. She is one of the twenty largest cruise ships in the world, and even though, at 3,500 passengers, it never seemed crowded. The smaller ships may have lower passenger counts, but there is also less ship square footage – I believe they seem more crowded. An inordinate number of our fellow cruisers were from Australia and New Zealand (it’s their winter right now). Great fun and attitudes, we seemed to have bonded with a few of the Aussies in the laundry room. I’ve never met an unhappy Australian.

We visited small cities on the Mediterranean. We docked at Cartagena, Spain and Gibraltar (still English and proud of it), Marseilles for Provence, Genoa for Northern Italy, and Livorno for Tuscany, and eventually Rome. The ship’s massive size requires significant port facilities, its one drawback for visiting smaller cities.

Cruise Travel Observations:
First off, I realize that there are many who think traveling on a cruise ship is expensive, boring, restrictive, and uncomfortable. I thought that at one time. Now, not at all. We spent far more on land costs (hotel, meals, entertainment) per day than we did on a daily basis for our cabin (which includes room, food, entertainment). If you throw in the air and land travel costs, from city to city, cruising is even less expensive. Essentially you can participate as much or as little as you want. You can engage other passengers or not. It is a wonderful hotel that travels wherever you want to go. There are hundreds, if not thousands of venues (countries, cities, historical locations), on dozens of cruise lines, at multiple price levels, that can literally take you anywhere in the world (including rivers and canals). We are hooked, try it. I’m sure that you will like it.

Gibraltar
Gibraltar and Cartagena survive on tourists and the cruise ships. Beyond being entry ports to the inland regions of Spain and their long and important histories, today there is little else in these two cities of serious importance. Cartagena has an ancient Roman amphitheater and museum, a street of shops, and an interesting harbor. Outside of those, not much else. Gibraltar, because of its small size (3 square miles – most of it a mountain) needs to employ Spaniards from the nearby cities for its restaurants and services. We were told that the Spanish cities surrounding Gibraltar have high unemployment so this city is important to the region. The citizens of Gibraltar are concerned by the effects of Brexit – it could be significant for them. Spain is rumbling to take Gibraltar back, though I doubt it will happen. Over ninety-five percent of the residents voted to stay with Britain in a past election. Gibraltar and its famous monkey’s were on my bucket list, they are now checked off.

Portofino near Genoa
Genoa was a surprise; visually it’s a magnificent city that climbs the hills that wrap the ancient harbor. Traffic was intense and, as I found throughout Italy, seems to belie the reports that Italy is a financially sick country. The roads were busy with bright new cars, the restaurants wonderful, the trains beyond full, the people seemed happy – but what do I know. Italy is a major (if not the number one) world destination for travelers and tourists. The major cities are intense, noisy, and exciting. However, hotels are popping up that are marginal and some, absolutely god-awful terrible (we found this out in Rome and left one after one night), never believe the internet or even the reviews. Stick to the big hotels and brands – it is worth it, spend the bucks, you usually won’t regret it. Taxis are affordable, there is buses and transit in all the cities, but they are beyond crowded. Taxis, while costly, make better use of your time.

Visit Lucca; it is worth the quiet and the chance to reflect and wander a city that once was an important Roman city. During the Renaissance, it had a history of battling Florence and other of Italy’s city-states. It has surrounding defensive ramparts and earthworks that are now trails and parks, all very cool. Some famous Italian musicians and composers came from Lucca.

Rome is eternal—there I said it. Unfortunately, I grew tired of the rough cobblestones of the streets and sidewalks. The number of sprained tourist ankles has to reach the thousands every year. The buzzing of a million scooters and motorbikes, tiny cars, taxis, buses, and crowds all add to the cacophony. Everywhere there are tour guides holding up some type of flag, pompon, or number. They (yes, we did it in Lucca) all wear little radios around their necks to listen to the live commentary in their own language. Some are very good, others not so much.

The Pantheon - Rome
A fun moment was over a pizza we were having in Piazza Navona. We were in a corner bistro watching tourists – and Rome is very good for watching tourists, even if you are one yourself. Groups, one after the other, came through a nearby passage, stopped, took a breath and then collectively raised their two hands in adoration of the magnificence of what lay before them. Like a prayer was being offered to the gods that were once worshiped here. Well, actually they were all raising their phones to take a picture or a selfie. The preening and posing, especially by the girls before a selfie, is actually quite humorous – we are a very self-absorbed species, I can tell you that. Must see locations are the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, and the small neighborhoods that make up the city’s older parts—but be prepared for crowds.

The Vatican

Regarding my comments that led off this article, I saw little of the ethnic and religious posturing in Spain and Italy that I saw in England. Why I’m not sure. Italy has absorbed ten of thousands of refugees from Africa (and buried thousands that drowned trying to escape the strife of the North African nations). Every plaza and venue in Rome and Florence had well-armed police and army personnel patrolling. While there’s some petty crime, pickpocketing, and the usual gypsies, I never felt the same fear that one can get in some big American cities. Maybe it’s the swarm/school mentality of travel; in great packs of tourists you feel safer, it’s the old and wounded that get picked off.

Florence, Italy and the Arno River
Florence and Venice are delightful, but I suggest traveling in winter or early spring. Like other places, they were crowded. Food, when traveling can be hit or miss. We were lucky, and the best meals were impromptu affairs. A delightful discovery is the Padua, Italy made, Aperol aperitif. This spritzer is a bright, orange-colored aperitif, mixed with Prosecco and club soda, add an orange slice for effect. I’m a scotch drinker, but in London, we were offered an Italian martini made with Sabatini gin. That and another discovery, Vallombrosa gin, are now on my menu.

The ability to travel and see the world is a luxury we have during this brief period of world history. There were times during the last century when our adventures were almost unheard of and impossible. Today, the common person can pack up, safely and economically travel almost anywhere in the world. We met people from Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, American expats in Barcelona and a couple that spends six months a year on cruise ships. The staff on the ships and at the hotels are from dozens of countries. Conversations were often too brief, we wanted to know more.

I saw more expensive automobiles in London than anywhere else I’ve traveled. There were more Bentleys, Ferraris, Rolls Royce’s, Maybachs, Aston Martins, Porches, and other types of autos I never knew existed; we watched four (with very stupid drivers) Lamborghinis race through Hyde Park in London. The highpoint was the Bugatti Chiron (3+ million dollars) parked in front of our hotel. This is “in your face” display of wealth, and may also contribute to the tensions…just saying.

Venice
Never stop traveling, get out of your rut, look around, talk to people, eat strange food, discover gins made in Tuscany, realize that there are hundreds of types of wine out there (beyond California boring basic four kinds), and sit and watch the people. And above all, enjoy.

We traveled on a Boeing 787, an Airbus A-346 and two A-319s, sped across Italy on high-speed trains at almost 200 kph. Jumped in and out of taxis, limos, buses, escalators, elevators, ferries, water taxis, vaporetti, and our 1083-foot long cruise ship. The hotel rooms were suites and one-room disasters. The bathrooms were always an adventure; the showers, an exercise in cautionary entering and exiting. However, all were clean and very neat.

And someday, we will learn to travel light.


Bon Voyage!!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Black Swans in Publishing

Published in tandem with my Killer Nashville Blog post on May 30, 2017

Black Swans in Publishing

As a writer who has independently published my own work through my own publishing company, I am amazed at how little authors know about the publishing world they work in. While many writers are brilliant and even inspired, the gobbly-gook of the publishing world is just stuff out there to be handled by their agents and publishers. What I have seen change in the world of academic non-fiction and fiction over the last sixteen years and thirteen books is just, well, dumbfounding. As Dorothy said to the dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Amazon's Jeff Bezos
“Black Swan,” with its roots in a Latin phrase by Roman poet Juvenal, simply means being smacked against the side of the head with something so new, so shocking, and so disturbingly out of the normal as to change the whole direction of a thought, a thesis, a belief system, and even cultures and institutions. Ideas can be Black Swans and can change the course of history. Jesus Christ and Mohammed come to mind, as well as the American concept of democracy. The steam engine, electricity, even double entry bookkeeping radically changed the course of the normal. These things from out of left field can influence systems far beyond the original intent of the concept or invention.


Apple's Steve Jobs
In our world of words and story telling the publishing empire had settled comfortably on a simple, yet profitable, system. Writers write, agents sell, and publishers buy. Then publishers sell through distributors to the ultimate retail outlet, the bookstore. There the customer acquires the writer’s work, and after a hundred fingers claw out their few pennies, the writer declares: “What the hell?” The system obviously isn’t there to help the writer eat, clothe themselves, and live comfortably, but it certainly is there to enrich the publishing industry. Don’t get me wrong, the system worked well, exceedingly well, and many writers became successful and wealthy. But with success came complacency and fortress building. No matter how hard the writers and authors tried to breach the walls, it was very difficult to be invited inside through the well-defended gates. There were many who said enough and started their own publishing companies to get their words out. That was costly, and the doors to the bookstores were still well defended.

In the early part of the first decade of our twenty-first century, two Black Swans flew in by the names of Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs. Jobs and his development and reimagining of the personal computer and eventually the iPad, and Bezos with his new model for selling books (and a lot of other stuff) that led to the Kindle system and retail merchandising on a massive scale. From these sprang the ebook, a notion that had floated around for more than ten years but was impossible to seriously market and distribute (issues of copyrights, distribution, and bad hardware). The iPad (and its many facsimiles) changed how we use and access information on the portable level, the Kindle made it affordable and the software (mobi, epub, pdfs, and a few others), made it available to everyone. The first Kindle was released in 2007, the first iPad in 2010, since then the publishing world has been turned on its head.

With the invention of Print On Demand (POD), your words can be published and in your hand within a few days for minimal cost. POD simply took old copier systems and reimagined them into machines that print and manufacture a paper book with a professional look in minutes. Another system turned upside down.

Whole industries have grown and expanded within this new universe. The number of cover artists, copyeditors, story editors, marketing gurus, ebook facilitators, book builders and designers; have increased because there are now customers (writers) who are willing to pay for a quality product. However, as with any opportunity caution is advisable, costly horror stories have been reported due to ineptitude, unfulfilled promises, and outright fraud.

Today writers can finish a manuscript and within minutes have it available to the world. It was messy, especially during the first few years, but it has matured to a point where new systems of facilitating software (like the app industry that grew out of the iPad and its camp followers) are ubiquitous. Now everyone is in the pool, Google, Microsoft, the hardware manufacturers like Samsung, Apple, Amazon, and dozens of others, and software from Scrivner, Adobe, and Kindle. There are now millions of authors who keep at their craft because they get the satisfaction of seeing their words in print.

The traditional publishing industry was gobsmacked and immediately fought the revolution and reinforced the fortress. They trashed the ebook, the whole idea of the indie-publisher, and even put the shame and guilt of the collapse of the bookselling industry on the shoulders of Amazon. However, every system, no matter how seemingly successful, needs to be shaken to its core and rebuilt – ‘Creative Destruction,’ coined but Joseph Schumpeter in 1942, comes to mind. Now the publishing industry has thousands of new and experienced writers to consider and offer contracts. Not surprisingly some of these writers know more about the world of publishing and marketing than their own publishers. New genres have developed, expanded, and prospered – romance, erotica, steampunk, poetry, and dozens of others have spun out from the old genres. There aren’t enough genres to identify the subcategories at Amazon and the bestseller lists, and they keep adding new ones.

I’ve published and republished nine books all under my own publishing imprint. As one of those that not only writes but produces the whole package (cover, design, and marketing), I’m now convinced that anyone with even limited skills (or the desire to learn) can become a published author and bring to their customers a quality product. I’m also engaged with a leading publisher to bring out two thrillers next year under their imprint (great experiment here for me), and this particular publisher is one of the leading believers in Black Swans and how to radically change the face of publishing. It is an exciting time for authors and publishers, and more importantly for our readers.

Are there other Black Swans on the horizon? The nature of the phenomenon is sudden surprise and shock. So what might be out there? I see dramatic changes in the marketing of published works directly to the customer both directly and indirectly. There is huge potential for the integration of video into published works.The growth of audio books (commuters, travelers, those with sight issues, and of course that awful hour at the gym) now includes well-known actors and will continue to expand. The impact in intuitive/digital education has yet to be seen. The future is boundless. However, the true nature of a Black Swan is the profound wonder and the chaos that may ensue. It is by nature anarchy—and ain’t it great.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Two Book Deal


Venice, Missing - A New Gregory C. Randall Book
Publisher’s Marketplace Announcement

It’s been a while since my last post, I apologize to all my readers who thought that I either quit blogging or ran off to Tahiti (great thought, BTW). What I have been up to is writing, seriously writing. Finished two books since August, one that was taking in by a publisher, and another that is being shopped by my agent. Every book or manuscript goes through a series of steps or stages, from initial concept through drafts, rewrites, edits, line edits, actually until the thing looks like road kill (and often feels like it too). That’s when you present it to a publisher hoping they too see what you started with, so many months before.

Big Announcement:
What a great way to start the year! I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction for twenty years. I have two active thriller series (see columns left and right) and three others underdevelopment. I’ve self/indie published nine books. Writers want to share our stories with others, and Kimberley Cameron has helped this writer achieve this dream, a real contract with a real big-time publisher. So here you are as posted in the upcoming Publishers Marketplace:

Fiction: Thriller
Greg Randall's VENICE, MISSING, book one of the Alexandra Polonia Series, involving two women protagonists—each carrying heartbreaking burdens from their pasts and seeking retribution for bloody wars and shattered families— as they confront their enemies, personal ghosts, and eventually each other in the ancient city of canals, to Jessica Tribble at Thomas & Mercer, in a two-book deal, for publication in 2018, by Kimberley Cameron at Kimberley Cameron & Associates (world).

I’m going to frame that and put it on the wall.

Not to worry Sharon O’Mara fans, a new book is on the way, hopefully this summer. Sharon and Kevin are in Ireland, nasty stuff happens, but of course our friends manage to win the day.

And not to forget Tony Alfano—our Chicago detective is hard on another case. Fists fly and bodies fall as Alfano chases down another villain during the Century of Progress Fair. Its 1933, those bygone days of yesteryear, when men were men, women soft and lanky, and Chicago politicians acted just the same.

Some new characters are in the works. New Guy: he’s spy in Rome during World War II and a follow-up book in Cairo. Good historical stuff here, OSS and CIA, sexy brunette, and very bad Nazis.

The new year looks very promising, can’t wait to get started.


More later . . . . . .