As many of you know, I follow stories and read articles written about publishing (and writing). I pay special attention to the stories like, “James Patterson: If I were Amazon’s Jeff Bezos,” (which you can find at http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/07/opinion/patterson-if-i-were-jeff-bezos/index.html?iref=allsearch). After reading the article (any article) I find the comments are often more insightful about how people feel regarding the issue than the article.
So far I’ve discovered a reality about ebook readers who comment that seems sadly (at least to me) universal. They don’t value story. They don’t value quality. They don’t care about anything but price. Very few have bothered to educate themselves about the costs that go into producing a book, ebook or audiobook.
The arguments that I see over and over again in the comments are that, ‘data is nearly free’ and that, ‘…it costs less then $0.01 to make an ebook…’ or that, ‘all costs in book production have to do with printing, shipping and storage.’
According to the majority of ebook readers commenting it appears that they see no value in the author’s time, having a work curated (quality/writing level established), editing (any form of), layout & design, cover art, nor even in the storage of files. The only thing they appear to value is the cost to them. Basically an ebook is barely given the value of the weight it possesses in the physical world.
It’s actually taken me some time to accept this about the majority of ebook readers/writers commenting. I don’t believe they all feel this way. I don’t believe that book readers feel this way. But I am now accepting that the majority of people commenting do feel this way.
When I bring up the cost of editing, I’m called elitist. If I try to talk about curation (quality/level of writing coupled with suitability of subject) I’m called a snob and much worse. Just try and talk about punctuation, wow! The fact that all these factors are about the ability of the author to communicate effectively to their desired audience means nothing.
The fear that Amazon’s approach to books would devalue story has come to pass. After all, anyone can run a marathon and anyone can write a book (thanks to writing programs you can write several books a week). Anyone can upload anything and anyone can pay for 5 Star Reviews (I’ve got an offer in my inbox when I started writing this article). The writer of today doesn’t need to know grammar and punctuation, forget editing or even how to spell. And if you want to be a successful ebook author all you need are deep pockets…
Actually this is nothing new. Lets be honest, vanity presses have existed and do exist, but no one takes a vanity author seriously. Why? Quality. I’m not saying that all vanity published authors do not produce quality work, only the majority don’t. But currently the argument appears to be that when it comes to ebooks the reader should curate, edit and pay for the privilege of doing so.
Oh, and the biggest argument and the one that has me flummoxed is being made by people who have the most to gain by not having more competition, especially from people with edited, curated and polished works. If, over all, an author produces a superior product (sorry, the ability to communicate effectively counts as higher quality) why would you want such next to your (developing—I’m making the assumption that the majority who have read this far are working on improving their craft) work? If you’re priced lower, then according to your own arguments, you’ll get more sales. That is, unless the consumer can get a better product for the same amount.
The content creator (that’s the person writing) gets a benefit from higher prices from the curated works. Only the content provider gets a benefit from having better work available. So having lower ebook prices of higher quality work is not in the writers best interest but certainly is in the case of the distributor (and that isn’t just Amazon).
If people are reading your work and you’re working to improve your quality or you started with a high quality product, then you win again with having your product priced lower. So I’m confused, but I’m confused about a lot of things.
If I thought that way that most of the commenters appear to think and I were (and I am) one of the majority of ebook authors who don’t make enough on my ebook sales to buy a cup of coffee (tea in my case) then I definitely would want less competent competition (As far as I’m concerned, as long as people are reading in the genres I write, I gain market because people read more than one book a year and more people reading means a larger market, but that’s me).
Hey, keep writing, keep working on craft because a lot of readers really do care!
I’ve been following the demise of the written word for some time now. It’s taking place primarily through one of it’s main forms, story. The ‘story’ can be housed in either a physical or electronic form.
The first step was to remove the value of story by converting story to a widget. Of course, those of you with like minds who have been watching the drama might say that it already happened, but I will argue that no, it hasn’t, not truly. I do admit we’re on the cusp. The quality of story has definitely overall plummeted—but it is not yet gone. I will also argue that unlike other things (like butterflies) that once gone we can not bring back, story will always be with us so long as we are human.
The changing of the form from a physical to electronic medium allowed value to be moved from story (content) to the medium. Altering medium also made the switch to something of intrinsic value with a long life and small environmental footprint to a product that is a short life consumable with a very large environmental footprint and for the first time the medium would require constant input, further increasing it’s already outsized environmental costs.
Since the value is now the medium, content has become a secondary factor, hence it plummeting quality. Content has also become a huge income stream for the main players in the drama.
What one party will view as a strength, others view as weakness. This truth is never more realized than with the two mediums that now deliver story.
For the physical, it’s physicality gives it permanence which is seen as a strength by many. From the tree farms to the environmentally biodegradable inks, glues and local printing it takes physical space. Story in this form delivers jobs, green space primarily used by wildlife between cutting and planting and is itself a carbon sink, but that very physicality requires space. Space to grow the trees, to grow the plants that produce the inks, to process it in environmentally regulated production facilities.
The physical has weight, volume. It takes up space in your life. The physical is also fixed. Its form once created exists unchanging. I would argue it’s main value is not in its decomposable matter, but that it is unchanging. That it will be almost five hundred years before those reading the story in todays’s language would need help deciphering it. That if hidden away, the physical could be rediscovered and thus story remains.
Point of view is everything. The space needed to produce the physical can be turned to much more profitable intensive monocultures, be reutilized for resource extraction or consumed for some other uniquely human need. The factories are highly regulated, thus have limited profitability, moving them to less regulated areas where the damage can go unnoticed by the consumer is SOP found in any corporate manual.
The new medium by contrast is primarily created in such a way that the consumer can easily ignore it’s production costs. The medium is heavily wrapped in marketing to discourage scrutiny. To further draw attention from its constant cost to the consumer (through power use) catch phrases like dead tree are used to throw aspersions onto the physical form.
The biggest change is that the medium’s nature means that story suddenly is not permanent. Some argue that this is the best feature of the medium, the ability to change story with a stroke of a few keys. To alter meaning, shorten length, remove or adjust language within story, thus finally making story a true widget and completely adjustable to market pressures from the bottom up, top down or other financial motivation. There has been surprisingly little upset with this feature of the medium, even as it is employed by schools, religious groups and corporate governments. Consumers will adjust to almost anything if the changes are instituted in small enough increments. Now that the consumer is becoming conditioned to these aspects of the medium, continuing alterations to direct consumer behavior and expectations is and will give those in control of the medium tremendous influence.
There are also three connectivity areas to consider. The first is access to power, should it be limited or halted for any reason, the medium has only a short period of time before a power source must be located. The constant use of power is a revenue stream meaning that story is finally a true consumable. The second is that the medium must connect to a source of content. Managing content, owning content, supplying content are all highly valuable areas that allow access for media exploitation. Medium obsolescence is the third and though not considered as important as other areas, it will drive device value and consumption.
The medium’s main benefits are it’s ability to carry vast numbers of stories, it’s lack of physical space and weight and it’s ability to adjust font size. It’s environmental footprint aside, the medium allows many who struggle with the reality of the physical form to enjoy story.
For those of us who love words, that believe in an intrinsic value to story, who do not believe that story can be just another widget, we must act. We buy the world we and our children will live in. When we buy the physical story, we must spend wisely and only on those products that are produced in a biologically sustainable manner, created by environmentally regulated industries, supplying jobs in locally, not globally—where costs are so easy to hide—locations. When we use medium to consume story, we must buy quality over quantity, for we are investing in the value of the work that created story. Always be vigilant that medium doesn’t control story, that the story’s core is not compromised for the medium. When a particular story moves you so much that its physical presence is something you want, read deeply. Compare. If we love story, if words have value that is not tied to a dollar sign then we must guard against censorship in all its forms.
I wrote this short story after watching several late sixties early, seventies disaster movies. It was accepted for publication and can be found in Voices 13-1. I hope you enjoy:
As the Walls Come Down
Lincoln Hotel, Washington:
“Explain it to me and keep it simple,” Harold Williamson said to the nervous young white man. His daughter, had given him the man’s name: Dr. Cole Laudy. If she was right, then he was the key to the threat. To understanding what was happening. To understanding how sane people, scientists for God’s sake, were making bombs and killing millions.
The young man nodded. Though his eyes were grey, he looked like a raccoon. He’d definitely been wearing the same clothes too long.
“Let’s pretend we live at the bottom of a valley.”
“The bottom of a valley, okay.” Was this guy for real? Harold had checked Doctor Cole Laudy’s credentials, twice. Two PHD’s, enough patents to paper a wall.
“And there are these three huge dams that keep out three different types of water …”
* * *
Six Months, three weeks and twelve hours earlier, CDC head office, in Atlanta, Georgia, meeting room:
“We have an estimated eight months.” Doctor Warren Braidwayne closed his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Are you sure?” Dr. Dean Wilson leaned on the table.
“No! We are bloody well not sure!” Dr. Braidwayne slammed his fist on the table. “It’s a guess Dean, a bloody guess!”
“What about Shanghai?” Dr. Leona Chin looked around the large conference table at the twenty-two men and eight women seated or standing. “Any word from Dr. Woo or Jurhrinn?”
The man sitting by the door spoke in a cold deep voice, his normally coffee dark skin looking washed out. “Shanghai went dark four hours ago.”
“So that’s it then.” Dr. Cole Laudy looked around the room. He could hear Lisa’s voice the day she’d left him. “I need to phone London. I owe Phillip some money.”
“We can’t just quit! This can’t be it! I have kids!” Dr. Kevin Black looked around the room.
“Perhaps, Kevin, you should go home, spend some time with them.” Dr. Sandra Long, took a deep breath. “We all have family.”
“So this is it?” Kathi Pott was shaking her head, tears falling from her eyes. “We just accept it?”
“We all knew this was a possibility.”
“Hubris.” Dr. Cole’s voice silenced everyone.
“How long until, it fixes?”
“Last time it took a billion years. Maybe less this time.”
“It’s not the same and you know it!” Kathi Pott shook her head. Her voice was soft. “It’s not the same thing at all. Some things will make it.”
“Yeah, Kat, you’re right, just not us.” Dr. Cole Laudy said.
“There’s a way. We scrub all infected areas.” Dr. Warren Braidwayne put his hands on the table. “Neutron. We scrub.”
* * *
The Lincoln Hotel, Washington, now:
“Three types of water?”
“Look,” Cole ran both hands through his hair and stood. He began pacing. “Yes, salt, fresh and, okay, forget that, just three huge dams holding back the sea. And there isn’t any other land. Okay, just this valley.”
“And we live at the bottom of this valley?”
“Yes!” He was standing, right in front of Harold, eyes dark and almost manic. There was such a thing as being too smart, Harold had seen it. Wasn’t there a movie with a math guy? Too smart and went crazy? That actor, what’s his name. Claire liked the guy, foreign accent, he was in it.
“So we’re at the bottom of this valley. There are some people who start poking holes in the dams.” Cole was pacing again.
“Why?” Harold glanced at his watch.
“For some, it was just to see if they could do it, but for most, it was for money.”
“So they’re flooding the valley with sea water for money?”
“Fresh water then. Okay? They start flooding the valley with fresh water, from the dams. Because at first it looks like you can grow more food with the water. Like you’ll be able to keep growing more food. And generate more power. It looks like you can do anything you want with this extra water.”
“But wouldn’t the valley start to flood?”
“Yes!” Cole was right in front of him, the manic expression back. “Exactly. But at first, you don’t realize that. And the people in charge, they’re making money. They decide, and you go right along, that if a little flooding is good, then lots of flooding has to be better. Everyone is going to get richer so those in charge don’t listen.”
“And the valley starts to fill with water.”
“Right. So finally, people are losing their homes, they’re starting to get sick. The ground it’s been softening, undermining the dams. Now people are scared. But those in charge of making holes just keep doing it. They live high and dry and get to ignore what’s happening. Actually they work hard to hide it, to deny it. They don’t want to believe it could even happen.”
“Why would they keep doing it? Sounds pretty short sighted to me.”
“Oh, well, they’re human. Some of them want to save the valley. They tell themselves that what they’re doing will save the valley. Most are doing it for the potential money. But really it comes down to … hubris.”
“It’s something a friend said. It’s all hubris. She said that when she left me. She was right, you know.” Cole had a far away look as he stared out the balcony doors. “A lot try to justify what they’re doing, but it really is all about the money, the power to change the world, the power to own everything. You keep telling yourself about all your good intentions.”
“The road to hell?”
“Exactly.” Cole turned and his eyes, those manic eyes, looked at Harold.
“This flooding has to do with the flu and the Megellons epidemics, how?”
Cole shook his head.
“Do you know computers, General?”
Harold raised an eyebrow.
“What, you didn’t think I’d come here for a news reporter, did you? This will never be printed. There’s just too much—money, involved. Let’s call it the ultimate in destructive capitalism. There’s a lot of money to be made before the end of the world.”
“The end of the world?” Harold sighed. “Son, when was the last time you slept?”
Cole smiled, shaking his head. “You’re right, the planet doesn’t care and will keep on spinning without us.”
“Computer languages. We can write them all in English, in Arabic alphabet. But they don’t communicate with each other.” Cole looked at Harold. “Do you understand?”
“Programs in one language can’t talk to others. Yes, I understand that.”
“Even written in the same alphabet. The commands, the codes, they do different things. Right?”
“Yes, Cole. I understand that.”
“What if you made them talk to each other? What if you wrote patches that allowed you to insert a command from, let’s say, Java and inserted into Visual Basic. Just grab a hunk of code and put it into another language. You want the abilities of one language, so you just cut it out and shove it in. Then it gets repeated. Over and over again into your other programs. Of course, it’s being read, and sometimes it does what you want. Sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the time it does a lot of things, more things than what you intended. It keeps getting copied, spreading. Errors creep in. The thing is, you made it so that it will be inserted in every language it finds.”
“No. You’re wrong. We’re not—we wouldn’t …” Harold shook his head.
“You know my degrees? Where I worked?”
“Ever heard of Agrobacterium? It’s a genus of Gram-negative bacteria. We use it extensively in bioengineering. Along with some e.coli that we’ve bred to be resistant to most antibiotics. Agrobacterium is a fungus that allows us to insert DNA into, well into whatever we want, even things we don’t want. The e.coli is tagged to the new genes, we hit it with all the antibiotics and if the genes have transferred properly, then we plant it, grow it, eat it. Put it into whatever life form we want.”
Harold could feel himself frowning. Beth had a cough. His stomach flu …
“The thing is, we’re releasing the stuff constantly, with no off buttons. Why? Because we didn’t understand. We only saw the glory and the money. Hubris.”
“The super e.coli infections that have killed thousands, hundreds of thousands?”
“Patented and owned, but don’t worry, thanks to legislation passed years ago, you, or I, or Joe Public can’t sue the owners for releasing it. Those laws were passed to protect a struggling industry.” Cole’s laugher was sudden, hard and tinged with more than a bit of madness.
“What’s happened, Cole?” Harold could feel a chill run through him. The deaths from the super e.coli had been going on since, what the nineteen nineties? “I thought that e.coli was natural?”
“Oh, come on, General. A super e.coli resistant to eight classes of antibiotics, with ESBLs?”
Harold blinked. He scribbled ESBN on his pad.
“Oh, um, Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamases and no one knows where it came from? Bullshit! We use it in every biotech lab around the world. First you use agrobacterium to insert genes, genes tagged with e.coli that is resistant to antibiotics. Then you dose the new seeds with the antibiotics, or the new improved virus, or bacterium. Those that survive have the genes you want. You grow them. No off switch, just this weird belief that nothing will go wrong. You just don’t think about it … ” Cole’s back was to Harold. He was looking at a stylized painting of whales.
Harold crossed out the N and wrote an L. “Cole, if what you’re saying is true, someone would have said something, done something.”
“That’s someone else’s job. The people in charge of my research were only worried about the next quarter. They didn’t give a fuck about five years later. They don’t even care about next year. They think in quarters.” Cole lifted his hands, his voice low. “Have you seen them? Whales? I always wanted to see them. Karen, my sister, she’s a marine biologist, she sees them all the time. She thinks the last ones will be gone in twenty years, but her boss thinks it’ll be more like fifty years before they all die out. Guess they were both wrong.”
Harold was making connections. They weren’t the kind of connections he wanted to make, but things were falling into place. “About the bombs—the neutron bombs?”
Cole laughed again. “We like to kill things. You know why? Because we’re clever apes. Smash-em, mash-em.”
“Cole? The neutron bombs?” Harold leaned closer.
“You say bomb like it’s a bad thing.” Cole shook his head. “Too little, too late, General.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go home to your family. Spend some time with them.” Cole opened the mini bar. He pulled out a tiny bottle of rum.
“Cole. Dr. Laudy, please. What about the neutron bombs?” Harold was on the edge of his seat.
“Neutron bombs, they destroy all life. Think of them as biological scrubbing devices. The group in the U.K., they’re working hard to scrub out the biggest threats. The bombs are an attempt to save …” Cole motioned about the room, a mini bottle of alcohol in each hand.
Cole shook his head. “There’s no magic genie. There’s no guardian angel. There’s no god of profits standing between us and our greed, our hubris.”
“Cole. I need you to focus.” Harold was standing now. He watched Cole throw back the rum. “Panic is setting in. Shanghai went dark. Most of California appears …”
“I know, saying it. Makes it real. People just have a cold. When was the last time you saw a bird? A pigeon?”
Harold shook his head.
“You honestly think the Bye-Bye Blackbird Program was that efficient?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Half the armed forces are down with a cold. This is clearly a foreign … We’re running out of body bags. We’re going to call air strikes on the three groups of scientists making neutron bombs here in the US. They dropped bombs in Brazil and those yahoos in England.” Harold was shaking.
“We knew this was always a possibility. Bacteria swap bits, okay? Viruses swap bits? We made a bridge between the two and spread it far and wide. Now our bacteria and our viruses are becoming the same thing. But we didn’t stop there. We also made a bridge between fungus, moulds and most single cell life forms. We broke down the walls. But we didn’t stop there. We inserted bridges to get around evolved defenses. After all, if you want to see what you can do, you can’t have pesky barriers. You don’t get complicated life forms in that environment. On top of that we undermined our immune systems with poison. You know what a pesticide is?”
“It kills pests.” Harold watched Cole swallow down another rum.
“It’s a poison.” Harold suddenly wanted a drink. Cole downed two more mini bottles, nodding at Harold as he did so.
“That’s right. So we put it into the main ingredients of most of our foods. Which means it’s poisoning us. Weakening our immune systems. Birds went first. Sure, the trans-nationals tried to hide it, but come on? Genetic drift, spraying millions of gallons of pesticides, herbicides, combinations. All of it is cumulative.” Cole was down on his knees now. He downed the last of the rum and had moved on to the scotch.
“The bombs?” Harold felt cold.
“Like I said. Too little, too late. They’re going to try and stop the dams from completely falling apart.”
“From destroying the valley.” Harold had his hand on his phone, his wife was at home. He needed to hear her voice, hear his daughter’s voice. To hear his grandchildren laughing.
“You win the prize, General. The thing is, they’re just trying to make a raft. Think of it as the,” Cole downed a bottle of gin, “as the last quarter.”
“I can’t accept this. Something will stop this. Someone has a plan!”
Cole smiled. The madness in his eyes was back, but there was also sorrow.
“No, General. You have no bombs, no bullets, no magic weapon that will stop the dams now. They have already fallen. The waters have rushed in. We’re drowning, we just don’t know it yet.”
Harold’s phone buzzed. He looked down. Mexico, Texas, Florida and most of western Canada had gone dark.
“We can seal ourselves in. We have bunkers! We have—”
Cole’s laughter was cut off by his coughing.
“When will it be safe to come out?” Harold stepped forward, grabbing the younger man by his shirt. He shook the man. Cole dropped two opened mini bottles. He fell onto the floor and looked up at Harold. The laughter gone. The room filled with the stink of alcohol.
“You don’t understand, General, this was never our world. Now we’ve made sure it won’t belong to our children. Too many holes in the walls.” Cole shrugged. “Anyway, you’re already infected. We all are.”
Harold fled the room. His driver was coughing into his hand as Harold hurried into the car. Driving through the streets of Washington, he started feeling cramps, low in his bowel. Out the window he saw a woman in a yellow coat laying on the sidewalk.
“Sir, there seems to be a problem.”
“Keep driving. Get me home!” Harold stared at the quiet streets. More and more bodies just laying on the sidewalks, in the road. Here and there, ambulances were parked. He saw a paramedic, coughing, blood pouring from his mouth, then they were past.
He opened his phone. It rang and rang, finally the machine picked up.
“Beth! Beth it’s me—” the cough startled him. His throat was itchy. His lungs were beginning to feel heavy, like the time he’d gotten pneumonia. “Beth … Beth I love you.”
Three Days Later:
The sun rose on a quieting world. No birds sang, few insects greeted the day. In fields and meadows, deer dropped, choking on their life blood. The oceans of plastic, already dying, were, in the end, the last refuges of complex life.
* * * * *
Gratuitous sex scenes (or violence, or action, or vampires, or zombies – sell )—especially kinky sex SELLS, right?
No, not really, or not as much as one would hope. Oh you’ll make a few sales, you’ll give away a lot of freebies and you’ll get a lot of snickers, but lets be serious, you’re not going to sell a lot of books.
Really? Fifty Shades, ha! Gotcha!
Yes, I’m thinking of 50 Shades, too. First let me say congratulations to anyone who writes and finishes not one, but three books. Edits them, submits, markets and works hard getting their product and name out there. The author E. L. James got people reading and did the near impossible, she sold enough books to retire.
But lets talk about the sex. In the first book, the only real character growth seemed to revolves around the sex scenes (I didn’t finish the first book, but I know many people who did). Friends keep trying to give me the copies they either were given as gifts or bought. Most of whom didn’t finish (or even start) the third book. I found that odd, if you’re invested in the characters, don’t you want to see how the story arc ends? So I asked, and the answer was almost always that the sex got in the way, or that the sex scenes were getting silly, or (the one that really surprised me), the sex was really turning the reader off.
Think about that last one: the sex was turning the reader off. So be careful. The last thing any writer wants to do is turn the reader off.
I believe that any gratuitous scene regardless if it’s sex between two hot lovers or sexy alien vampire zombies looking for love while only wearing latex—if it’s gratuitous, it needs to be cut, period (or put aside and published under a nom de plum).
When you write a sex scene you are showing your character exposed—emotionally, mentally and physically. Does the arrogant, assertive man become submissive, frightened because he’s afraid of rejection, lover? Does the caring man become almost violent? Does the passive, kind woman suddenly pull out a whip or ask to be spanked? Does the ‘wild’ tattooed girl want to cuddle, speaking sweat nothings, full of gentle caresses?
If you include a sex scene it must carry for many readers more weight than a fight scene, or even dialogue in an argument. We, the readers want more than just exposure to an intimate moment, we want to be in the moment, feel the contradictions, learn about the characters. We expect something to be revealed and at the same time to be emotionally drawn in. If the scene is supposed to be sexually stimulating, then we expect it to stimulate us (just like any emotionally charged scene), if it’s supposed to bring up fear, nervousness, danger, etc., then we expect to feel those emotions.
The simple truth is that writing a good sex scene is in many ways harder than writing a good fight scene. Sex scenes should be layered (don’t be too obvious). We should be getting to know the characters in an unshielded intimate way—so a very big WARNING to you new at this. The fastest way to lose readers is a bad sex scene.
I’ll repeat this because it bears repeating—the fastest way to lose your readership is with bad sex scenes. Most people will forgive a bad fight scene, poor spelling, even flat one-dimensional characters as back ups for your mains, but if you mess up a sex scene, so long.
Don’t believe me? Look at sales of books that include a lot of gratuitous sex scenes, poorly done sex scenes, flat, boring, tab A into slot B, scenes (or violence, or car chases, etc.). So master the finesse, the titillation—think impact. Work in layers. Use all your characters’ faults, charms, fears and wants, especially the driving force that keeps them in motion. Do that, and people won’t be turned off but turned on to your writing.