Archive for the ‘Books & Writing’ Category
Thursday, 30 October 2014 • 0 comments
I have a story at the Journal of the American Revolution about the absolutely true tale of Westmoreland County, a piece of northeastern Pennsylvania claimed by Connecticut as part of King Charles’s grant creating the colony:
The Susquehannah Company was founded in July 1753, when 152 subscribers adjourned in Windham, Connecticut to pay “Two Spanish Mill’d dollars” to join a new joint-stock venture. Declaring “Thatt Whereas we being desirous to Enlarge his Majesties English Settlements In North America and further To Spread Christianity as also to promote our own Temporal Interest,” their aim was to settle an area of the Susquehanna River beyond New York’s borders. … The Company proposed to settle at Wyoming, on the west bank of the river about 50 miles southeast of Tioga. Its clean soil and the scarcity of Native American settlements made it ideal to the Company members. More to the point, they believed the area was included in the Connecticut grant as per the 1662 charter.
I’ve mentioned before how, in the mid-aughts, I shopped a book idea called Lost States, detailing efforts at American state making that went pear-shaped. The book’s sample chapter, all 18,000 words of it, dealt with the first half of the Westmoreland story; this would have been followed by second and third chapters on the Republic of Vermont (using Ethan Allen’s involvement in the Susquehannah Company to segue into the conflict between New York and New Hampshire) and the resolution of the Westmoreland project. Lost States never went anywhere, and I very briefly sent around a proposal focusing solely on Westmoreland until I finally realized not everyone was as fascinated by the history as I was. Fortunately, the editors and readers at the JAR love this kind of stuff. My article is a distillation of that sample chapter.
Even today Westmoreland continues to mesmerize me, especially the religious angle. Was the Company’s obstinate refusal to take no for an answer a result of the New Light zealotry of its members? There are so many noteworthy tidbits too, like the forgotten Battle of Wyoming and subsequent retaliation against the Iroquois, or the likelihood that the Cowboy State took its name from a poem based on that battle.
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 • 0 comments
Tracking the Horseman. “Irving is pretty specific about the route Ichabod Crane takes while fleeing from the Headless Horseman.” So noted Scouting New York’s Nick Carr upon rereading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, inspiring him to visit the Hudson Valley town and retrace one of the most famous chase scenes ever put to paper. His photo safari captured the landmarks of Crane’s flight while explaining their historical significance. Unfortunately it seems the site of Crane’s fateful terminus has been lost to time.
Speaking of Hollows. I recently learned a new word: holloway. Also called sunken lanes, holloways are tunnel-like paths so worn by centuries of traffic that they lay below the grade of the surrounding landscape.
Raising Jakarta. Indonesia announced a 30-year, $40-billion plan to save their sinking capital by creating a sea wall and 17 artificial islands. This story notes that rising sea levels aren’t the main source of Jakarta’s flooding problems; instead, “the city has pumped its water out of deep underground wells for years — leaving empty chasms that are now sinking.” This is somewhat reminiscent of New Orlean’s problem, where the organic material in the wetland, preserved in anaerobic conditions, is exposed to air by construction and decays. The soil, having lost mass, then packs down and the buildings sink.
Saturday, 9 August 2014 • 0 comments
To counter Preston et al., Amazon posted an open letter to the world rehashing many of the points made in its July 29 posting. It also suggests e-books fill the ecological niche abandoned by the extinct mass-market paperback, an observation I’ve long shared. Still, I have to confess they should’ve quit before the final grafs wherein they beg readers to hassle Hachette on their behalf, complete with bulleted talking points. It strikes me as grasping and gross. Just because I’m rooting for Godzilla versus King Ghidorah doesn’t mean I’m going to pick up a kitchen knife and stab a kaiju in the toe. You’re so big and tough, use your radioactive breath or something. Jeez.
One worthwhile criticism I’ve read of Amazon is the question of whether monolithically pricing e-book editions of traditionally published books at $9.99 will hurt independent publishers, who (allegedly) price their e-books lower than the big houses as an advantage. I would imagine indy publishers are not competing on price alone; and yet, what if they are? The History Press prices their e-books (which I believe are now published concurrently with the print editions without any staggering) at $9.99 and holds firm at that price without discounts, a strategy I approve of. But if $9.99 becomes the norm, will sales drop? Which would perhaps lead to discounting to regain the advantage? I would be interested in hearing opinions on the matter, yea or nay.
And oh — this week Chaosium started offering a few of their latest fiction releases as epubs, mobis, and prcs. Onward and upward.
Thursday, 31 July 2014 • with 2 comments
After months of wondering whether the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute was over the pricing of e-books, Amazon has finally revealed that the fulcrum of the argument is indeed the pricing of e-books:
A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book.
Even without knowing the exact details I’ve been on Amazon’s side since the beginning based simply on my belief that most publishers are idiotic criminals. No, I’m not just referring to the DoJ’s suit against Hachette and others for conspiring to fix e-book prices — by “criminal,” I mean many publishers are too stupid and lazy to earn their money sensibly, so like purse-snatchers they must resort to stealing it.
How else to explain the atavistic business model of publishing heavy, antiquated hardbacks for $30, then a year later a less-expensive paperback edition? Or delaying an e-book version until well after the print copies have laid on the bookstore tables? Or not offering e-books at all, even though sales of print books are estimated to be down 8 percent since 2008, the year after Kindle was introduced?
Consider these three personal anecdotes:
- Earlier this month, it was announced that Arcadia Publishing would be acquiring The History Press, publisher of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer. All well and good. Yet buried in the Publisher’s Weekly article was this fact: although Arcadia has a catalog of 9,000 titles, only “about 4,000″ of them are offered as e-books. The CEO explained, “Since Arcadia’s titles are heavily illustrated, it has been cautious in moving them into digital format.” Except the postcards and photos included in most Arcadia titles are already black-and-white, which means they would translate well to Kindle’s E Ink or a Nook, let alone a tablet. I can understand how the nature of Arcadia’s books might slow down the conversion process — but less than half their catalog? The article also notes, “nearly all of History Press’ titles are already sold as e-books.” Methinks Arcadia, raising their serpentine necks from the mire with mouths full of water weed, saw the comet tail in the heavens and sought to stave off extinction by very quickly diversifying their backlist.
- While standing at the school-bus stop one day, my neighbor who works for a well-known publisher in New York mentioned his efforts to digitize some of the processes at the company. I asked, Is this part of a green initiative to use less paper? He said it was an attempt to use less paper period. He then went on to tell me that no part of the process for publishing a book at his company was digital, save for the copyediting — and that, he said, was a recent development. The author submitted a hardcopy manuscript, edits and additions were made in hardcopy, and eventually the whole thing was shipped off in a big box to the printer in Quebec who, as my neighbor said, “somehow makes sense of it.” I was gobsmacked; the process for Smedley was entirely digital. But then again, small companies like The History Press don’t have cash to waste like the big houses do. So authors: when the publisher tells you it can only spare an eight-percent royalty, now you know the other ninety-two percent goes to Dunder Mifflin.
- Chaosium mainly designs role-playing games but they also publish a line of Lovecraftian fiction. I’ve been interested in checking out a few titles, if only to read (and support) my old pen-pal Jeffrey Thomas, whose work appears in some of their releases. Yet Chaosium doesn’t offer e-book editions of their fiction. At all. In the year 2014. Because plugging the completed manuscript into, say, Jutoh and spitting out a .mobi or .azw is just too tough. This week I wrote the company asking if they had any plans to offer e-books. I haven’t received a response.
Meantime, Amazon has had to teach the concept of price elasticity to Hachette, a giant multinational company:
It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.
What dark sorcery is this? Is this so-called “price elasticity” some new, overwrought theorem clawing its way out of the black pits of the Chicago school of economics? No, wait — price elasticity in regard to e-books has been bandied about since at least January 2010, at a time when self-publishers, wondering how to price their e-books and unencumbered by the publishing industry’s arch-conservatism, had a crash course in the subject and determined pricing lower was better.
Publishers like Hachette, by pricing e-books at $14.99 or $19.99, want them to be comparable to their paperback editions, which by their nature they cannot be and which the public, realizing this, rejects. And yet the dinosaurs insist because they perceive e-book editions as competitors against the print editions of the same title. They think the cheapest edition will cannibalize sales of other editions. While that’s definitely true of hardbacks, in my experience sales of paperback vs. e-book come down to preference. People like one or the other but both can live alongside. A frustration with Smedley was the nine-month delay between publication of the print and e-book versions; while promoting the book in 2011, I had many would-be customers ask me if it was available as an e-book. Alas, at the time it was not. Those were lost sales. But the publishers in their skyscrapers never see this, so they stagger the release of editions and try to hike the prices of e-books.
Unable to adapt either processes or economics, publishers — the large ones, anyway — instead resort to gouging readers, shafting writers with low royalties, and colluding to form trusts. Rather than hate the orange smile, I see Amazon as the asteroid that is cleansing the Earth of predatory gargantua, allowing the rest of us small, shrew-like mammals to rise.
Update: I added a link to a New Yorker article to illustrate a point above about cannibalizing sales, but the story criticizes Amazon on several other issues worth noting:
For one thing, he said, Amazon doesn’t actually get to decide what share of revenue publishers pay authors, a fact that the company is aware of. Its call for a thirty-five-per-cent share sounds nice, [literary agent Brian] DeFiore said, but it means little.
So how is that Amazon’s fault? That’s an indictment of Hachette, not Amazon.
DeFiore also pointed out that Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.
Yes, usually authors do receive a higher royalty on hardbacks. (A conspiracy theory of mine: publishers offer higher royalties on hardbacks than on the paperback rights because they know damn well about price elasticity, and realize they stand to sell greater volume of paperbacks and hence make more money on them.) But, over time, how many $30 hardbacks do you think an author will sell compared to its $9.99 e-book counterpart? The conclusion in the above graf does not follow from its preceding sentences.
If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.
I admit this is a legitimate concern. If we only read e-books and Amazon is the solitary stall in the marketplace, that would be bad. But again: whose fault is that? The reason we’ve arrived at this destination is because Amazon moved faster and more nimbly than legacy publishers; it’s the Year of Our Lord 2014, and publishers can’t decide on a strategy for e-books or, like Chaosium, whether they should even offer them at all. As a writer of alternate histories, I can imagine a world where publishers established their own online market site to sell their products, bypassing Amazon altogether.
In the end, what confuzzles me most is why so many authors loathe Amazon for theft and bullying that has yet to occur while meanwhile defending publishers like Hachette, who are stealing from and bullying them right this minute.
Friday, 20 June 2014 • 0 comments
You may be aware that a few years ago, I began writing 19th-century alternate histories as a literary vacation after Smedley. The series soon morphed into a stream of weird Westerns, ghost stories, and even a little steampunk; while simultaneously their creation transformed into a kind of palliative during the Years of Real-Estate Madness. Distracted by garages, painting, buying, selling, and restorations (not to mention paying employment), my attention was too fragmented to think about more books or even short nonfiction with its relevancy demands and expiration dates. The great thing about short fiction is I can write something, walk away for weeks, and then come back to pick up where I left it.
In keeping with a theme of endings and new beginnings, it’s time for Strange Wests to ride off into the sunset as I readjust my focus toward longer projects and nonfiction. Nobody has been more astonished than me by Wests’s reception from editors and readers. A bunch are in various stages of the pipeline, which means there’s more to appear, and never say never: I’m happy to write fresh material as the inspiration or invitation strikes. And I’ve come to depend on fiction writing as an analgesic too much to quit it altogether. I will still be writing historical shorts as time allows, only these, for the immediate future, will be set in New England.
My goal is to bundle Strange Wests into an e-book collection to be published in 2015.
Friday, 13 June 2014 • 0 comments
It never ceases to amaze me as a professional writer how often I am solicited to write for free. I’ve been having a simmering dispute with a longtime market of mine over language (or lack thereof) in our contracts, and I had thought the matter resolved but then this week it erupted again. Without going into the nitty-gritty, the company basically said to me, Jackson, we’ve enjoyed your work so much all these years that instead of paying you, we want you to write for free. But don’t worry — if we happen to find any spare change under the couch cushions, we’ll think about sending some your way! Unwilling to continue under their absolutely Mephistophelean terms, I resigned this past Wednesday in cold disgust.
Being a writer is like being a restaurant owner whose clientele is just as likely to sprint for the door, half-eaten burrito in hand, as to pay you. And yet while anyone — even the culprit, else why would he run? — recognizes dining-and-dashing as theft, no one blinks an eye at not paying a writer. The writer, the artist, the photographer is the first to initiate the chain of commerce but the last to benefit from it, the first to act but the last to be paid.
The majority of my career has been spent freelancing and yet the bulk of my income has always been from web-related services, not writing. The few individuals I’ve known who wrote freelance full-time lived in near poverty. The gravest problem with freelancing is not the low pay — many jobs pay terribly — but the erratic or late payments, making it impossible to depend on them to cover bills (although Mrs. Kuhl is quick to point out that many companies suffer from late or non-payments; the difference is that bigger entities have the capital to ride it out or absorb the losses, whereas a freelancer — a company of one — feels the razor’s edge more sharply). Just ask this Columbia J-School grad, although for what it’s worth she can take solace in the fact I’ve run up much larger tabs than $1,200 with delinquent markets.
I am not a Harlan Ellison I-don’t-take-a-piss-without-getting-paid type but I believe in writing without payment in only two situations. The first is if I’m promoting something — like, say, Smedley or an anthology I’m in. This is easy to double-check because generally the title of the thing I’m promoting is right there in the article. Whatever time and energy I’ve invested in such promotion is a marketing expense, a commercial sent across the airwaves that may, or may not, result in a sale of the thing. If I think my efforts have led to at least one ring of the cash-register bell, then I count myself ahead.
The second instance is when I’m trying to grow my platform or, to put it another way, promote my brand, whatever that is. Writing a personal blog pays dividends, if only to telegraph to readers that the cats haven’t started eating your corpse yet. Where you have to be cautious is when you don’t own or control the content. There is a species of coprophage that will try to entice you to write “for exposure.” Any editor who uses the word “exposure” is a BS artist, because either their readership is too low for it to be worthwhile or it’s so big they could actually pay you in the first place. “Exposure” is the recompense offered by amateurs and thieves.
The big red flag is if an editor or publisher won’t pay but nonetheless charges readers for the content. A few months ago I was asked by an editor for permission to reprint an article of mine in an e-magazine she publishes for tablets and e-readers. The magazine is not free; in fact, its cost is comparable to other e-magazines on the market boasting much higher circulations. The only compensation offered was a link to my website. In sum, this editor is assembling a virtual magazine in her kitchen from contributions she hasn’t paid for — so her overhead is effectively zero — but charging a non-nominal price for subscriptions and single issues, and therefore all of the money she makes on the magazine is profit, or at least goes to pay the salary of her single employee: her. Apparently, working for exposure is fine for some animals, just not for others.
Even if no money exchanges hands, I still have to question how much effort is spent growing my platform versus growing theirs. I cannot believe how frequently I’m asked to commit to regular contributions to other people’s websites. Half of me is flattered and the other insulted. Once in a blue moon I will scribble a post for John O’Neill at Black Gate, and even if my time is wasted doing so, based on what scant behind-the-scenes knowledge I possess, I can hardly complain I’m being taken advantage of. This type of writing is very dependent on circumstances and must be handled on a case-by-case basis, but my natural instinct is always in favor of my time, and hence the answer to regular contributions is always no, and to occasional articles a hard maybe.
While I wish the ending had been less acrimonious, I’m happy I’ve severed ties with the company. Installed in our gorgeous house with the renovations complete, Mrs. Kuhl and I feel that our lives are on a new trajectory, and we’ve been consciously embracing better habits and choices while simultaneously pruning dead wood. I’ve been in this business long enough to understand there are rarely hard breaks or fast stops; rather, writing is a series of waves, often overlapping, in which you write on a subject or for a market for awhile and it builds and it crests but by the time it recedes, you are already surfing another flow.