How to Use Real People in Your Writing Without Ending Up in Court

From Helen Sedwick:

Scarlett Johansson won a defamation suit against a French writer for creating a promiscuous character who happened to look like the movie star. A Georgia jury awarded $100,000 to a woman who claimed a character in The Red Hat Club falsely portrayed her as an “alcoholic s**t.”

Writers face three big risks when using real people in their writing: defamation, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation of the right of publicity. Yet every fiction writer bases characters on real people. Memoirists and nonfiction writers identify people by name. How can writers use real people in their work without risking a lawsuit?

First, a simple rule. If what you write about a person is positive or even neutral, then you don’t have defamation or privacy issues.

For instance, you may thank someone by name in your acknowledgements without their permission. If you are writing a non-fiction book, you may mention real people and real events.  However, if what you write about identifiable, living people could be seriously damaging to their reputation, then you need to consider the risks of defamation and privacy and how to minimize those risks. I am not talking about portraying your mother-in-law as a bossy queen bee; I am talking about portraying your mother-in-law as a drug dealer.

Common sense and a cool head are key.

First, let’s start with a quick summary of United States law. (The laws of other countries are more favorable to the targets. In today’s Internet environment, you could get sued in France for a blog written in California.)

Defamation

To prove defamation, whether libel for written statements or slander for spoken ones, a plaintiff (target) must prove all of the following:

False Statement of Fact.

If a statement is true, then it is not defamatory no matter how offensive or embarrassing. Opinions are also protected because they are not “facts.” Couching something as an opinion is not bullet-proof. Courts see no difference between “Joe is a pedophile” and “In my opinion, Joe is a pedophile.” The more specific a statement, the more likely it will be seen as a statement of fact. Parody is not defamatory if the absurdity is so clear no reasonable person would consider the statements to be true.

Of an Identifiable Person:

A defamatory statement must contain sufficient information to lead a reasonable person (other than the target) to identify the target. Typically, the target must be a living person, but companies and organizations have sued for defamation. Oprah Winfrey was sued by a group of Texas ranchers after saying she had sworn off hamburgers because of mad cow disease. (Oprah won the case.)

That is Published:

One person (other than the target) must read or hear the statement.

Causes reputational harm:

The statement must be more than offensive, insulting, or inflammatory. It must “tend to bring the subject into public hatred, ridicule, contempt, or negatively affect its business or occupation.”

Made With Actual Malice or Negligence:

If the target is a public official or a public figure, then the plaintiff must prove the statement was made with actual knowledge that it was false or with a reckless disregard for the truth. If the target is against a private individual, courts generally require some fault or negligence by the defendant.

Invasion of Privacy Claims

Even if you publish the truth, you may still be sued for invasion of privacy if you disclose private information that is embarrassing or unpleasant about an identifiableliving person and that is offensive to ordinary sensibilities and not of overriding public interest.

The target must have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Any conduct in public is not protected, particularly today when everyone carries a camera in their pocket. Similarly, public figures can have little expectation of privacy. A movie star lounging topless on a yacht should not be surprised that a camera with a long lens is pointing her way.

The disclosure must be more than embarrassing; it must harm a person’s personal and professional reputation. Typically, these cases involve incest, rape, abuse, or a serious disease or impairment. Sex videos have triggered a number of suits.

Even if the information is highly offensive, courts often decide there is no legal liability if the information is of public interest. Public interest does not mean high-brow or intellectual. Gossip, smut, and just about anything about celebrities is of public interest.

Frequently, courts find stories of rape, abuse, and incest to be of public interest if they are disclosed by the victims. As you can imagine, judges and juries are not sympathetic when the perpetrator makes a privacy claim.

In any situation, however, writers should try to get releases from people who will be recognizable in their work.

If you cannot get a release, then consider changing the person’s name and identifying characteristics. Yes, this is permissible, even in memoirs.

Another flavor of invasion of privacy is called false light. Suppose you post a photo of a criminal arrest. Jane Doe, a bystander, appears in the picture, a true fact. If the photo creates the impression that Jane was arrested and you do not take reasonable measures to dispel that impression, Jane could sue you for portraying her in a false light.

Misappropriation of the Right of Publicity

Using someone’s likeness, name, or identifying information for advertising, promotional, or commercial purposes may get you sued. Whether the person is a private individual or public figure, you would be liable for damages, including punitive damages. If the person is dead, you could still get sued in some states and foreign countries.

Right of Publicity claims are limited to:

  • Advertising: Using a person’s image in an advertisement. Same applies for using look-alikes or sound-alikes. Bette Midler won $400,000 from Ford after they used a singer to mimic her voice in an automobile commercial.
  • Merchandise: Selling t-shirts, mugs, greeting cards and other products with unauthorized images.
  • Impersonations: Impersonating a celebrity for commercial purposes. Yes, all those Elvis impersonators either have permission from Elvis’s estate or are taking legal risks.
  • Implied endorsements or relationship: Wrongfully implying that someone has endorsed your work or was involved in its production violates a number of laws.

Link to the rest at Helen Sedwick

Ms. Sedwick is an attorney who appears to have transitioned into an indie author. A check of the records of The State Bar of California shows her as inactive which means she is an attorney in good standing with the California Bar who doesn’t presently practice law.

To be clear, this is a voluntary status that a member of the California Bar can elect if she/he no long wishes to be involved in the practice of law, but does want to keep the option of returning to active practice open if she/he changes her/his mind in the future. The last time PG checked, an inactive member still has to pay some bar dues, but doesn’t have to spend the time and money to attend Continuing Legal Education classes.

PG is also a member of The State Bar of California. He is currently on Active status because he is practicing law.

When PG became a member of The Missouri Bar many years ago and practiced law exclusively in that state, he switched to inactive status in California. He kept that inactive status through his subsequent employment as an executive and in-house attorney at several high-tech companies, then changed to active status again when he resumed practicing law focusing on legal and contract problems faced by authors and small publishers.

Ms. Sedwick has written a book titled, Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook. PG hasn’t read the book, but based upon what she has written in her blog post, he would expect that Ms. Sedwick knows a lot about this topic.

PG will caution that some elements of defamation, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation of the right of publicity exist under federal law and state law and, while the general rules may be similar, there may be some borderline cases that are actionable in some locations and not actionable in others.

The internet has added a whole new element to defamation law because a defamatory remark may originate in one state or nation but appear in all states and nations via the internet. There is even something called Twibel, libel via Twitter – See Pillsbury: Internet+Social Media for a discussion of Twibel.

Stillwater: Amanda Knox Reaction & Murder Case Controversy Explained

From ScreenRant:

It’s not strange for filmmakers to take inspiration from real-life people and events, but sometimes, the way these are handled in fiction does more harm to the people they are based on – such is the case of Stillwater, based on the Amanda Knox case and who has called out those involved for profiting off her controversial and complex case. The coronavirus pandemic forced studios to delay their releases and reorganize their schedules, and one of those movies that went through a couple of date changes is Stillwater, directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Matt Damon. Stillwater is finally out, but not without a lot of controversy.

. . . .

Stillwater tells the story of Bill Baker (Damon), an unemployed oil rig worker from Oklahoma who sets out alongside a French woman called Virginie (Camille Cottin) to prove his convicted daughter’s, Allison (Abigail Breslin), innocence, who had spent four years in prison for the murder of her roommate. Stillwater premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July 2021 and was released in theaters at the end of the month, but instead of making headlines for its quality, the movie has been involved in controversy for using Amanda Knox’s case as inspiration without her consent, with her calling out Damon and McCarthy on social media.

. . . .

Amanda Knox took Twitter to call out those behind Stillwater for using her story for profit and dragging her name into it for the sake of marketing. Knox explains that Stillwater has been marketed as being “inspired by the Amanda Knox saga”, focusing on the sensationalist side of what happened to her rather than on facts. Knox also explains how authorities and thus the media focused on building a specific image of her, even though she’s innocent and wasn’t involved in the murder she was accused of and continues to be linked to by the media. Of course, there’s also the fact that her story was used without her consent and fictionalized, once again painting her under the wrong light, with the movie “reinforcing an image of her as a guilty and untrustworthy person”. Knox also invited McCarthy and Damon to her podcast so they can clear all this up, but there hasn’t been a response from them yet.

. . . .

In 2009, Amanda Knox was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Meredith Kercher, her roommate in Perugia, Italy. What led to that and what followed for years was a messy investigation by Italian authorities in which Knox and her boyfriend at the time, Raffaele Sollecito, were portrayed in a negative light, leading to a lot of controversy as the interrogations and the overall investigation was put into question by U.S. lawyers and forensic experts. After a long and tiring legal process, during which Knox points out she had “near-zero agency” and no control over the image the media was building around her, Italy’s highest court exonerated Knox and Sollecito in 2015, but she had already spent almost four years in prison. Knox returned to the US, completed her degree, and wrote the book Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, and has worked as a journalist and activist ever since.

. . . .

Stillwater isn’t the first movie to take “inspiration” from Amanda Knox’s story, such as Lifetime’s Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy, for which Knox actually sued them over.

Link to the rest at ScreenRant

Writing my Way Through Trauma

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I never kept a diary or a journal. Writing was never my thing. I am a talker. Put me in a room with people and I will talk non-stop. Don’t get me wrong, I like to write, but it was never something I really did.

All that changed in 2010.

I was pregnant with my second child (after multiple miscarriages), and I went into early labor. This wasn’t just a little early. This was seventeen weeks early – meaning I was only twenty-three weeks pregnant. It was too soon. I had to make it to that magical viability mark of twenty-four weeks.

I spent six days lying in a hospital bed trying desperately not to give birth. My head was tilted down thirty-degrees below my feet. All the blood had rushed to my head. I was in pain, scared, and the only thing I could do was keep my eyes closed and breathe. I didn’t talk much those six days. Talking made me emotional and being emotional made it hard to lay still and stay calm.

My son, Sam, was finally born at twenty-four weeks and two days and weighed in at a whopping one pound twelve ounces. Two days after having Sam, I was alone for the first time in a week and it all started to hit me. Everything I had been through. Everything I had experienced. I was overwhelmed and felt like I was suffocating with all the thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head.

It was late at night, and the only thing I had nearby was my tablet. I opened it up and began writing an email to my brother who was living in Lesotho at the time. I wanted to update him on how his nephew, and I were doing.

Once I started writing, however, the email to my brother took on a life of its own. I ended up writing a long missive that was dumping ground for everything that was trapped in my head. I released it all on “paper”. The anger, the fear, the pain, the hope… all of it. When I was done, I felt relief. I was no longer weighed down by the thoughts swirling in my head.

The next day, after a long, hard day of learning about the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and what lay ahead for me and Sam, I turned to my tablet once again. Writing allowed me to process all the information I had gotten during the day and gave me a safe space to work through the trauma of it all.

It was then that I knew writing was going to save me. I quickly purchased a URL and installed WordPress. Two days after my son was born, my blog, Tales of the Anti-Preemie, was born. At first, the blog was just for my friends and family. But soon, I started seeing comments from total strangers who had either been sent my blog or found it on their own.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

And here’s a link to Tales of the Anti-Preemie where, if the photo correctly depicts him, it appears that Sam is doing well.

Chapter Titles Are a Great Marketing Tool in the Age of E-Books

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog with Ruth Harris:

“Chapter titles!?” sez you. What is this, the 18th century? What am I supposed to write? Something like this?

Chapter the first, in which our hero is born, discovers that fire is hot, learns to pull up his own breeches, and slays a smallish dragon.

Hey, those 18th century writers knew their marketing. A reader flipping through a book in the shop could get an idea what kind of things were going to happen in the novel if it had descriptive chapter headers.

But yes, I know chapter titles went out of style in the age of modern minimalism.

Hemingway didn’t need no stinkin’ chapter titles. Neither did Fitzgerald or Faulkner.

However, some of the postmoderns later ventured into chapter title waters. David Foster Wallace used them in Infinite Jest, and John Barth titled his chapters in The End of the Road.

And in the 1990s, Annie Proulx used chapter titles to great effect in her Pulitzer Prize winner The Shipping News. Most of the chapter titles are the names of sailors’ knots, or other naval terms. Each chapter embodies a certain kind of knot, like “Love Knot”, “Strangle Knot” and “A Rolling Hitch.”

These literary authors used the chapter titles to enhance and comment on the content of the chapter.  Even though they wrote before the era of e-books, they used the chapter titles in a reader-enticing way.

Chapter Titles are Essential for the “Look Inside” Feature on Your Buy Page

But chapter titles are making a big comeback in the age of the e-book.

Why?

Because of the “Look Inside” function on a book’s buy page at most online retailers. This is where you make or break your sale, as Ruth showed us in her great post on How To Lose a Book Sale. Most retailers insist on a Table of Contents in your opening pages. And the average Table of Contents of a novel looks like this:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Bored yet?

Is that really what you want taking up the valuable real estate in your “Look Inside”?

Compare that with Rick Riordan’s current #1 Bestseller, The Red Pyramid

  1. A Death at the Needle
  2. An Explosion for Christmas
  3. Imprisoned with my Cat
  4. Kidnapped by a Not-So-Stranger…

Which table of contents is more likely to intrigue a reader?

Chapter Titles Aren’t Just for Children’s Books Anymore.

“Yeah, well,” sez you. “Rick Riordan writes for kids. I write for adults!”

It’s true that chapter titles are much more common in children’s literature, but savvy adult authors are using them too.

Delia Owens used chapter titles as well as titled sections in her runaway bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing. The titles intrigue readers as well as orient them in time and space.

The Crawdads Table of Contents looks like this:

Part 1—THE MARSH

Prologue (Yes, there’s a dreaded prologue. Owens breaks pretty much every rule, and sells millions.)

  1. Ma
  2. Jodie
  3. Chase
  4. School
  5. Investigation
  6. A Boat and a Boy
  7. The Fishing Season
  8. Negative Data
  9. Jumpin’
  10. Just Grass in the Wind…

The chapter titles tell us who the chapter is about, and then show how the story will develop — without offering any spoilers. Owens’ chapter titles also give the reader a sense of place. 

It sure is more interesting than a list of numbers isn’t it?

Delia Owens not only hit the NYT bestseller list with a debut novel — an amazing feat in itself — but she stayed there through 2019 and part of 2020. I wonder if her chapter titles had anything to do with her initial sales?

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog with Ruth Harris

The Ant Man’s World

From The Wall Street Journal:

A well-known portrait of Edward Osborne Wilson shows the smiling Harvard professor hovering, like a benevolent god, over some models of his cherished leafcutter ants. The photograph serves as the cover of “Tales From the Ant World,” Mr. Wilson’s most recent and, by my count, 35th book. The large ant right beneath Mr. Wilson’s chin, a mix of Mars Rover and de Chirico mannequin, wields a leaf almost as big as the entomologist’s head. The proportions seem off, but in a larger sense they really aren’t: As Mr. Wilson, now in his 90s, has reminded us over a long, distinguished career, ants can more than hold their own against humans. There are, by some rough estimates, 10,000 trillion ants in the world at any given moment, and their combined weight (Mr. Wilson, who likes to mock his ineptness at math, nevertheless supplies numbers whenever he can) would match the total weight of the planet’s human population.

Mr. Wilson has always had a knack for reducing complex problems to simple number games, easy-to-grasp metaphors or memorable anecdotes. A world-famous scientist, winner of many medals and honorary doctorates, celebrated for his research on ant communication and evolutionary equilibrium in island settings, he has also swept up awards in the field of literature, including two Pulitzers and, for his novel titled (what else?) “Anthill” (2010), the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for fiction. Earlier this year came the ultimate literary sanctification, inclusion in the venerable Library of America, where Mr. Wilson is now rubbing shoulders with just a handful of other nature observers: John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. And, as if further corroboration of Wilson’s eminence were needed, we now also have “Scientist,” a full-length biography by Richard Rhodes, whose previous work in the genre includes the popular “John James Audubon: The Making of an American” (2004).

. . . .

Mr. Wilson’s career as a naturalist began during a summer vacation on Paradise Beach, Fla., with an incident so far from paradisal that it would have ended a lesser man’s aspirations: A pinfish the boy had caught jumped and pierced his right eye, blinding it. Yet, although he would later lose some of his hearing, too, young Wilson never wavered in his determination to become a naturalist. He settled on entomology: Keeping his surviving eye trained on the ground, he would track the motions of animals too small to rise to most people’s attention, creatures whose world was ruled not by sight and sound but by taste and smell. “I opened logs and twigs like presents on Christmas morning, entranced by the endless variety of insects and other small creatures that scuttled away to safety.”

Born into a complicated, nomadic family, young Wilson attended more than a dozen schools in 10 years, with no apparent damage to his intellectual development. His sixth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C., noted on his report card: “He writes well and he knows a lot about insects. If he puts those two things together, he might do something special.” And “something special” he did with “those two things.” One of the great pleasures of the new, lavishly illustrated Library of America edition is the opportunity to appreciate the many ways in which Mr. Wilson fuses literature and science. His blend of wisdom and wit even extends to his footnotes: He never saw the Emperor of Germany bird of paradise in the wild, Mr. Wilson admits, but “many Paradisaea guilielmi probably saw me.”

. . . .

Works by scientists don’t, as a rule, contain such perfectly paced sentences as the following tribute to Bulum Valley, New Guinea, where Mr. Wilson went in 1955 to collect ants: “A flock of sulfur-crested cockatoos circled in lazy flight over the treetops like brilliant white fish following bottom currents.” And not too many fiction writers would dare insert such precisely observed passages into their novels as the following, taken from Mr. Wilson’s “Anthill,” a description of a particularly scrappy ant species: “The swollen posterior lobes were filled with adductor muscles that closed the jaws with enough force to cut through the chitinous exoskeleton and muscle of most kinds of insects.“ If you think such language is entirely too technical for a novel, you have a point. But I would still suggest that you give “Anthill” a try—the combination of ant lore and human plotting works well enough for Margaret Atwood to have tagged Mr. Wilson, in a review of the book, the “Homer of the Ants.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link. If the WSJ does something to make it decay with use, PG apologizes if you hit a WSJ paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG found Mr. Wilson’s Amazon Author page fascinating for his prolific popular output which was almost certainly accompanied by a lot of publications in academic journals.

NOTE: The WordPress Kindle Embed function has been blowing up whenever PG hits the Free Preview link below the image of the book cover. If you click the Buy on Amazon link, that will take you to the book’s site on Amazon where the Look Inside feature works fine.

PG hasn’t been able to track down the source of the problem. If someone else has, PG would appreciate an explanation or fix via the Contact PG link at the top of the blog.

Contest Alert: Bardsy’s “The Short and Long of It”

From Writer Beware:

Yes, folks, it’s another of my posts about problematic writing contest rules.
I do a lot of these, and the issues are often pretty similar from post to post. But because writing contests are so popular, and poor rules language is so common, it never hurts to blast another warning out there.
Bardsy offers products and resources intended to help writers “Optimize Your Writing Process”, including writing tools, templates, video courses, automated tips and prompts, and something called the “Bardsy Method”. Bardsy members can publish their stories to the Bardsy Library, where they can be accessed and read by other members, or submit to Bardsy anthologies for possible publication. All of this is accessible for a monthly membership fee of $12.99.

Right now, Bardsy is running a “NoNoWriMo Prep Contest” called “The Short and Long of It”. Writers can enter unpublished short stories of between 1,200 and 3,000 words. The winner will get a cash prize of $299, plus a free six-month Bardsy Elite membership (Elite membership normally involves an invite from Bardsy and a higher monthly membership fee). An unspecified number of finalists will receive a  50% discount on regular Bardsy memberships for six months (a prize, in other words, that they will have to pay to take advantage of). There’s no entry fee. Notably, there’s also no guarantee of publication–even though Bardsy does claim publishing rights.
And that’s where the problem arises. Specifically, in the Additional Rules section of the contest guidelines: 

There are several issues here. First, simply by submitting to this contest, you’re granting publishing rights to Bardsy–whether or not you win or are declared a finalist.

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

Either Bardsy is malevolent or filled with idiots.

If Bardsy’s attorney recommended this language, PG would welcome a conversation to set her/him straight about why this was a really stupid drafting error and a vast rights overreach. If counsel picked this provision from a law firm form file, somebody intelligent needs to go through that file to make certain it’s not filled with other garbage.

Writer Beware posted the OP yesterday and, when PG checked today, the rights grab language was still there.

Either way, PG suggests watching your wallet if you deal with them or, even better, finding similar services from someone else.

The curious case of the midsized publishers

From Nathan Bransford:

Now that Workman has been acquired by Hachette and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been acquired by HarperCollins, where have all the midsized book publishers gone? Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly surveys this dying breed and cites the difficulty of building a backlist, the capital needed to grow into midsized publisher, and ongoing acquisitions by bigger players, but there are still publishers like Kensington who are holding on by focusing squarely on their niche.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG suspects that midsized book publishers are having the same financial problems as the rest of traditional publishing is experiencing. The small folk just don’t have the financial resources that the big publishers do.

When a little publisher is swallowed by a big publisher, those people working at the little publisher who aren’t fired outright get new bosses and any promises the survivors made to the little publisher’s authors disappear into the wind.

If a commitment is not inserted into a written contract, for virtually all legal purposes, it doesn’t exist. Certainly, it doesn’t exist for the big company because it took over the rights and obligations in the written contract.

That said, PG suggests that the big publishers are facing exactly the same market forces that battered the little publishers into selling out.

The Titanic will take longer to sink than a fishing boat.

Public Domain

PG apologizes for the sloppy Photoshop job, but he was in a hurry.

Spiders, Snakes, Public Speaking, and Not Querying Agents

From Writer Unboxed:

A while ago, a writer friend of mine was talking about her first query letter. She’d let me read it and I thought it was well done. This wasn’t a surprise. She’d spent a lot of time on it, she’d researched, revised, and sent it out to critique partners for their honest opinions. It was at a place where further effort was just spinning her wheels, at least until agents started to weigh in.

But she was frozen in place, terrified to send it out. She admitted that even though she knew the query and the manuscript were both in excellent shape, she couldn’t pull the trigger. “What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t like…me?

“They won’t,” I told her in my usual too-blunt way. “At least, most of them won’t. That’s just the way it works. But they don’t all have to like you. Only one has to like you.”

She laughed and said, “Can you imagine going out on stage in front of a large audience, singing a big emotional ballad that you wrote yourself, and when you’re done the audience is silent except for one person, slow clapping in the back row?”

She had a point.

It occurred to me that as writers, we really are true performers, and not so different than any other artist whose platform is a stage or a gallery wall. My friend couldn’t send out her query because she was suffering from good old-fashioned stage fright.

Based on my research, social anxiety and fear of public speaking/performance affect 22 million Americans and are two of the top-twelve most common phobias (along with fear of spiders, snakes, heights, flying, dogs, storms, needles/injections, germs, and both wide open and small spaces). These phobias are evolutionary and have been key to our survival—keeping us away from poisons or getting too close to a cliff edge and falling to our deaths. But now, with our day-to-day lives being lived in much safer environs, those evolutionary anxieties have less purpose while being no less present. Even when there’s no actual threat to our safety, our bodies often want to flee, or they just freeze up. Not surprisingly, these fears attack self-confidence and cause people to avoid stepping up to the podium even when doing so could lead to long-term success.

Getting back to my friend and her query letter, she’d admit that her stage fright comes from her need to be perfect and her fear that she never will be. Well (here’s me being blunt again), she’s right about that. She never will be perfect. None of us will. Check out this 1-star review for the King James Bible:

“I would have given it 5 stars if not for the 2 typographical errors that I’ve found (so far).”

For some, simply acknowledging that perfection is not attainable may be all it takes to gather the courage needed to put their writing out there for others to see, to judge, to love, or to hate.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

A Writer Says Goodbye to the Twittersphere

From Publishers Weekly:

A novelist friend told me that social media is pretty much mandatory these days, otherwise I could expect to remain plankton in a sea of fish all swimming toward the same accolades. As a poet, I’m already used to being a small fry, yet as I move into writing journalism and creative nonfiction, I’ve wondered whether I should log back on.

I quit Facebook in 2014 after a manic episode that reared its Medusa-like head online. My wall was a mess of incoherent thoughts, followed by all the email rejections I’d ever received, copied and pasted from my inbox. For the grand finale, I wrote that I would stage a hunger strike to protest the government’s lackluster care for those living with mental illness. Soon after my last post—but not before I typed out the addresses, emails, and phone numbers of my closest friends (should the news media want to reach out to them for comment)—I was hospitalized and newly diagnosed with bipolar I.

As it turns out, extreme social embarrassment is an excellent way to curb a Facebook addiction. A true introvert and a perpetual validation seeker, I knew my pictures were never cute enough, my posts never witty enough, and I spent hours looking at the profiles of women that guys had dumped me for. “She rides an old-school motorcycle,” I’d think. “Makes sense.”

Post-hospitalization, my friends gently reminded me that their personal information was still online. I deleted my account for good.

My pact to stay off social was tested when I started looking for an agent. I scanned interviews and attended panels in which agents said that a strong social media presence was something they looked for in a client. I read manuscript “wish lists” that expressed a keen interest in working with influencers. I noticed that writers in my social circle had, on average, 20,000 Instagram followers, and some had upward of 50,000 Twitter followers.

At the start of 2021, I gave it a try. One agent advised writers to pick a platform and get good at it. I guessed my strong suit would be Twitter. Like an endless Pez dispenser, I can come up with wisecracks all day. With a few quips queued up, I started an account, waited for something spectacular to happen, and pressed delete the next day.

It just didn’t feel right. As a 41-year-old woman, I chafed at the idea of building a “me” brand. I also objected to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for moral and ethical reasons. I didn’t want to support men who had supported the rise of hate groups, conspiracy theorists, and a racist megalomaniac who committed human rights atrocities at the U.S.-Mexico border that this country has yet to properly acknowledge or reckon with. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey put profit before people—demonstrating how easy it is for tech to manipulate government and destabilize democracy.

I do not wish to discount how essential social media is for connecting people amid a global pandemic. Nor do I wish to ignore or dismiss how critical these platforms have been for social justice movements such as the Arab Spring, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and even #PublishingPaidMe, which revealed deep racial disparities in the amount writers are paid and the ways publishing continues to be predominantly white—from literary agencies to the Big Five (or is it the Big Four?) publishers.

By now, publishers expect writers to become their own publicists and marking team—and I imagine that landing a viral tweet must feel incredible. For me, though, as someone who lacks self-discipline, easily gets addicted to things, and still manages to spend time on Twitter (snooping, sleuthing, and lurking) without an account, social media would put a stake in the heart of my career.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Hubris

Hubris is character trait that features excessive pride or inflated self-confidence, leading a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or violate an important moral law. As a literary device, hubris is commonly exhibited by a tragic hero as their tragic flaw, or hamartia. The extreme pride or arrogance of hubris often consumes a character, blinding them to reason and resulting in their ultimate downfall.

. . . .

Examples of Hubris in Fictional Characters

Hubris is a common literary device applied to fictional characters whose excessive pride, self-importance, or arrogance leads them to negative consequences. Here are some examples of fictional characters that exhibit hubris:

Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)
Gaston (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)
Prince Humperdinck (The Princess Bride)
Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary)
Troy Maxson (Fences)
Willie Stark (All the King’s Men)
Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
Doctor Faustus (Doctor Faustus)
Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar Named Desire)

. . . .

Difference Between Hubris and Pride

Though pride is often used as a synonym for hubris, there are differences between the two. Hubris indicates an excess of pride, confidence, and self-importance. Pride, in its authentic nature, is considered positive and desirable. Pride is associated with healthy self-esteem, self-evaluation, and self-confidence. The outcome of authentic pride as a character trait is generally an individual who is considered conscientious, emotionally stable, and agreeable.

However, hubristic pride is considered negative and undesirable as a character trait. Hubris is characterized by low internal self-esteem, arrogance, egotism, aggression, disagreeableness, and even shame. In addition, the outcomes associated with hubristic pride are recklessness, impulsiveness, disregard for the well-being of others, and heightened attention to the individual’s image or persona.

Link to the rest at Literary Devices

Facebook is nearing a reputational point of no return

From The Economist:

Disaster struck the world’s biggest social network on October 4th when Facebook and its sister apps were knocked offline for six hours. It was one of the less embarrassing moments of the company’s week. The next day a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, told Congress of all manner of wickedness at the firm, from promoting eating disorders to endangering democracy. Some wondered whether the world would be a better place if the outage were permanent.

A share of the opprobrium heaped on Facebook is incoherent. Politicians are angry but so far seem incapable of co-ordinating reform to rein it in. And investors have kept buying the stock, regardless of the bad headlines. Yet the company should take no comfort from this. The blind fury unleashed shows that its reputational problems have got out of hand.

Some of this week’s criticism was tendentious. Reports highlighted internal research showing that Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing app, makes one in five American teenagers feel worse about themselves. They paid less attention to the finding that Instagram makes twice as many feel better about themselves. Facebook’s critics are right that it should be more open. But the firm has half a point when it says that the hysterical reaction to unsurprising findings will lead companies to conclude that it is safer not to do such research at all.

Other complaints are really criticisms of the broader internet. The question of how to regulate viral content for children goes beyond Facebook, as any parent who has left their child with YouTube knows. Likewise, dilemmas over how the firm amplifies attention and how to draw the line between upholding free speech and minimising harm. Facebook repeated its plea that Congress should weigh in on matters such as minimum ages, rather than leaving it to firms. It has made a better stab than most at settling free-speech questions with its “oversight board”, a pompous-sounding but quietly useful body which dispenses rulings on matters from misogyny to misinformation.

The most damaging claim this week gained the least attention. Ms Haugen alleges that Facebook has concealed a decline in its young American users. She revealed internal projections that a drop in teenagers’ engagement could lead to an overall decline in American users of 45% within the next two years. Investors have long faced a lack of open disclosure. Misleading advertisers would undermine the source of nearly all the firm’s sales, and potentially break the law. (The firm denies it.)

. . . .

But fury may matter. Facebook is nearing a reputational point of no return. Even when it set out plausible responses to Ms Haugen, people no longer wanted to hear. The firm risks joining the ranks of corporate untouchables like big tobacco. If that idea takes hold, Facebook risks losing its young, liberal staff. Even if its ageing customers stick with the social network, Facebook has bigger ambitions that could be foiled if public opinion continues to curdle. Who wants a metaverse created by Facebook? Perhaps as many people as would like their health care provided by Philip Morris.

Link to the rest at The Economist

London Chef Elizabeth Haigh’s Cookbook Withdrawn After Plagiarism Allegations

From Eater London:

The worlds of London food and international cookbooks are rocking after far-reaching allegations of plagiarism by a highly regarded chef. Cookbook publisher Bloomsbury Absolute has withdrawn Makan, the debut cookbook by Mei Mei owner Elizabeth Haigh, after allegations of plagiarism from Sharon Wee, the author of Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, a cookbook memoir published by Marshall Cavendish in 2012.

Wee issued a statement on her Instagram on Thursday 7 October, saying that she had been “distressed to discover that certain recipes and other content from my book had been copied or paraphrased without my consent in Makan by Elizabeth Haigh, and I immediately brought this matter to the attention of the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury Absolute.” Wee’s book is set to be republished in November 2021.

Eater contacted Wee, Haigh, and Bloomsbury for comment. Wee told Eater that she cannot elaborate on her statement for legal reasons; a spokesperson for Haigh said, “Elizabeth Haigh is not able to answer your questions, for legal reasons.” Bloomsbury Absolute initially returned an out-of-office auto-reply, before pointing to a statement given to industry publication The Bookseller, which followed a report in the Daily Mail: “This title has been withdrawn due to rights issues.”

. . . .

The email then presented examples from both books side-by-side:

Wee:

“My mother, like many of her friends, placed their most frequently used condiments and ingredients within easy access while they cooked. That often meant a plastic tray . . . where there were small bottles of soy sauces, sesame oil, and jars of minced garlic, salt and sugar. In the past there would also have been a metal container to hold recycled cooking oil.”

Haigh:

“My mother . . . kept her most frequently used condiments and ingredients within easy reach of where she cooked. That often meant a plastic tray full of little jars of oils, crispy-fried shallots or garlic, crushed garlic, salt and sugar. There was also usually an old metal pot for recycled or discarded frying oil.”

Wee (on transcribing her mother’s recipes):

“It faced many challenges along the way. It first started with converting her handwritten recipe measurements from katis and tahils (old Chinese measurements) and learning the different daum (or herbs) and rempah (spice pastes).”

Haigh:

“It faced many challenges along the way. It first started with converting her handwritten recipe measurements . . . and learning the different daun (or herbs) and rempah (spice pastes).”

Wee:

“Ginger is thought to ‘pukol angin’ (beat the toxic gases and dampness out of you to relieve aches and pains). Hence, post-natal mothers were given lots of ginger to ‘beat the wind.’ In my case, a backache, especially in the winter, was often remedied with a knob of ginger, with the sliced surface dipped in brandy. The brandied ginger was used to rub my back and it left red streak marks, indicating the wind in my flesh and bones. It always worked.

The ginger flavour is strongest just beneath its skin. Therefore, leave the skin on to get the most of the flavour.”

Haigh:

“Ginger is thought to have healing properties – pukol angin (to beat the toxic gases and dampness out of you to relieve aches and pains). This is why postnatal mothers were given lots of ginger to ‘beat the wind’ . . . The strongest ginger is just beneath the skin, so to get the most flavour out of it don’t peel it.”

Further allegations followed, suggesting that recipes had been lifted from more than one source. Singaporean poet and critic Daryl Lim shared two Instagram posts detailing similarities between Makan and other recipes, from blogs and other cookbooks, as well as between Haigh’s book and Sharon Wee’s.

Link to the rest at Eater London

Are Recipes and Cookbooks Protected by Copyright?

From The Copyright Alliance:

Recently, the owner of a website that aimed to “fix online recipes” by removing ads and stories apologized and removed the website after receiving complaints via social media. While the website hoped to create an easier reading experience for visitors, the owner acknowledged that a great deal of time, money, and effort go into creating these recipes and the content that accompanies them.

Given the recent controversy, we thought this would be a good time to discuss the copyrightability of recipes. Can you copyright a recipe and, if so, which elements? What about copyright protection for cookbooks?

What Copyright Law Protects

Copyright law protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. So, a work needs to be original, independently created by a human author, and possess at least some minimal degree of creativity while also being set in a sufficiently permanent form.

Recipes easily meet most of these requirements. For instance, they usually satisfy the “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” factor by being recorded in a cookbook or website or even on a piece of paper. They are also independently created by a human author — usually someone’s grandma, it would seem. However, despite meeting most of the requirements, standing alone, recipes are usually not protected by copyright.

Can You Copyright a Recipe?

Recipes are usually not protected by copyright due to the idea-expression dichotomy. The idea-expression dichotomy creates a dividing line between ideas, which are not protected by copyright law, and the expression of those ideas, which can be protected by copyright law.

There are rare times where the idea and the expression of the idea are so intertwined that there is only one way, or very few ways, to express the idea. When this is the case, that expression of the idea is not protected by copyright law. A recipe’s list of ingredients, or simple directions, is so intertwined with the idea of that recipe that there are very few ways to express this idea; so, a simple list of ingredients or simple directions will not usually be protected by copyright.

Based on this reasoning, the United States Copyright Office Compendium, the Office’s manual for examiners, states that a mere listing of ingredients or contents is not copyrightable, as lists are not protected by copyright law (chapter 314.4(F)). The Office has also stated that a “simple set of directions” is uncopyrightable.

In addition, courts have found that recipes are wholly factual and functional, and therefore uncopyrightable. As the Sixth Circuit described in Tomaydo-Tomahdo, LLC v. Vozary, “the list of ingredients is merely a factual statement, and as previously discussed, facts are not copyrightable. Furthermore, a recipe’s instructions, as functional directions, are statutorily excluded from copyright protection.”

Further, in Publications Int’l., Ltd. v. Meredith Corp., the Seventh Circuit explained that certain recipes may be copyrightable, as there is a difference between barebones recipes and those that “convey more than simply the directions for producing a certain dish.”

Recipes can be protected under copyright law if they are accompanied by “substantial literary expression.” This expression can be an explanation or detailed directions, which is likely why food and recipe bloggers often share stories and personal anecdotes alongside a recipe’s ingredients.

A recipe can also be protected by copyright law if it creatively describes or explains the cooking or baking process connected to the list of ingredients. Even if the description of the recipe is sufficiently creative and copyrightable, the copyright will not cover the recipe’s ingredient list, the underlying process for making the dish, or the resulting dish itself, which are all facts. It will only protect the expression of those facts. That means that someone can express the recipe in a different way — with different expression — and not infringe the recipe creator’s copyright.

Cookbooks Can Be Protected as Copyrightable Compilations

What about a compilation of recipes, like those found in a cookbook? A cookbook can be protected under copyright law as a compilation if the selection, arrangement, and coordination of the included recipes is creative.

The copyright for a compilation does not cover the individual works included in the compilation, such as the individual recipes within the cookbook.

Link to the rest at The Copyright Alliance

Even if it were possible to copyright recipes, the Guardian’s account indicates that the offended chef was not the creator of the recipes and that the chef transcribed her mother’s recipes:

It first started with converting her handwritten recipe measurements from katis and tahils (old Chinese measurements) and learning the different daum (or herbs) and rempah (spice pastes).”

PG claims no special expertise about UK copyright law, but some quick research on the UK Copyright Licensing Agency website indicates that recipes may not be copyrightable under UK law for the same rationale as applies to recipes under US law.

From The Guardian in 2006:

Can a recipe – as some of the world’s top restaurateurs and food experts are now asking – ever be considered intellectual property?

An altogether more complex dish has prompted this debate on the online food forum, eGullet, this week. The recipe, in brief: prawns are pureed using an enzyme called transglutiminase, extruded into a noodle, cooked, and served with smoked yoghurt, paprika and nori. Not the sort of meal that two chefs separated by 10,355 miles are likely to invent at the same time.

Still, identical versions of this dish did appear simultaneously on the websites of two cutting-edge restaurants – Melbourne’s Interlude, run by a 31-year-old British chef, Robin Wickens, a former student of Raymond Blanc; and Wylie Dufresne, head chef/owner of WD-50, a restaurant in New York’s trendy Lower East Side. The former, it quickly transpired, had copied the latter, without crediting the innovator. Interlude also appeared to have produced direct replicas of recipes from several other restaurants, leading to one eGullet poster to warn Wickens to prepare to be labelled a “fraud”.

Wickens told the Guardian that the near-identical dishes were a result of a research trip to WD-50 and said that, “At no time did I try and claim that I invented any of the dishes that I had experienced in the US and recreated at Interlude.”

“It might be a bloody cheek. But so what?” says restaurant reviewer Egon Ronay. “It goes on all the time. Chefs travel the world looking for dishes and try to imitate them in their own menus. That’s how good cooking spreads – it’s what food is all about. Frankly, in my view, it doesn’t matter a damn.”

Dufresne is reluctant to criticise Wickens, who recently sent him a letter of apology. Whatever his justification, Wickens has opened a pandora’s box. As an eGullet editorial put it: “We believe the Interlude controversy is not a simple matter of a lone Australian restaurant copying a few dishes from halfway around the world. Rather, it’s one of the most significant issues facing the global culinary community today.”

But can you copyright a recipe? Could Heston Blumenthal register his roast spiced cod with castelluccio lentils? Or St John’s Fergus Henderson his roast bone marrow with parsley salad? No, says Alex Papakyriacou, of intellectual property law firm Briffa. “Case law suggests that reproducing a written recipe in the preparation of a dish is not copyright infringement. The same goes for recipes that have been communicated aurally or by a chef deciphering the ingredients and method involved in the preparation of a recipe by sampling a dish prepared to it.”

Nor is it possible to patent a recipe, either in the UK or US, because the organic development of food will never constitute an “inventive step”. In short: you will never know definitively where your pizza or prawn noodle originated.

But if there is no legal basis crediting a dish, is there a moral incentive? “Only if it’s a signature dish by one of the very few truly original chefs in the world,” says Richard Corrigan, the chef owner of two of London’s top restaurants, Lindsay House and Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill. “Everyone has been robbed in the middle of London, it’s normal. But it doesn’t bother me; I’m sometimes tickled. Every restaurant in London is after my bread recipe, for example, and it’s not easy to keep it a secret.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Even if it were possible to copyright recipes, the Guardian’s account indicates that the offended chef was not the creator of the recipes and that the chef transcribed her mother’s recipes:

It first started with converting her handwritten recipe measurements from katis and tahils (old Chinese measurements) and learning the different daum (or herbs) and rempah (spice pastes).”

In her Instagram post decrying the use of these recipes, Ms. Wee wrote, “I wrote my book in loving memory of my mother. I credit her and her peers for their anecdotes, recipes and cooking tips. This was their story.”

PG suggests that this statement, if true, could be interpreted to mean that all sorts of people besides Ms. Wee’s mother used the recipes in her cookbook and even Ms. Wee’s mother was not the creator of the recipes which Ms. Wee wishes to take credit and prevent others from copying.

The fact that Ms. Wee was the first person to write down these recipes in English and publish them doesn’t make her any sort of a creator of the type that copyright laws are designed to protect.

To be clear, plagiarism may rightly be regarded as bad behavior, but unless the plagiarist violates copyright law, there’s no foul under US law.

Silverview

From The Wall Street Journal:

When writers die they typically leave behind false starts and unfinished manuscripts, but, unless the death is sudden, it’s less usual to find an entire novel complete and unpublished. But that’s just what we have in John le Carré’s “Silverview,” now sent into the world by the author’s son, Nick Cornwell, who tells us in an afterword that the book was essentially finished, needing only a bit of editorial tweaking. His father, he says, began the novel right after “A Delicate Truth” (2013)—an angry work that helped bring the expression “deep state” into common parlance. That novel amounted to a well-wrought exercise in contempt for the increasingly privatized and deeply corrupt “War on Terror.” It has all the ingredients of most of le Carré’s post-9/11 work: American mischief, for-profit military forces, black ops, deniability, “extraordinary rendition,” “enhanced interrogation,” an idealistic innocent and a British civil servant on the take.

“Silverview” has some of that, but le Carré continued to withhold and rework it, moving on instead to publish “A Legacy of Spies” in 2017. Expanding on elements from “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and dragging an ageless Smiley out of storage after a quarter of a century, that novel had a bottom-of-the-barrel feel. Finally, with “Silverview” still sequestered, le Carré produced his last novel, “Agent Running in the Field,” a blast against Brexit and Trump—and, once again, not one of this great author’s best. But here at last is “Silverview,” the novel we didn’t know we were waiting for.

Julian Lawndsley, 33, has opened a bookstore in a small town on the coast of East Anglia. Perhaps le Carré means to pay homage to Penelope Fitzgerald’s fine little East Anglian novel “The Bookshop” here, but he has done his own proprietor the favor of equipping him with a fortune, acquired as a trader in the City. What Julian really lacks, however, is any knowledge of bookselling or, indeed, of literature, something which is beginning to oppress him. One day, the “sixty-something” Edward Avon enters the shop, expresses his great pleasure that it exists, and suggests that Julian stock W.G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” another novel set (in part) in East Anglia—and one with which “Silverview” shares some preoccupations. It later turns out that Edward went to school with Julian’s father—thus, a bond is forged. Edward becomes Julian’s adviser, popping into the shop to use the computers to track down the out-of-print books he believes the shop should carry.

But, really, who is this fellow? When asked, Edward replies, “Let us say I am a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” He turns out to have been born in Poland and is married to Deborah Garton, a wealthy, wellborn Englishwoman, who at one time was frequently away working for various quasi-governmental organizations—she says—but is now dying of cancer. Seeking more information on his new friend, Julian pays a call on a neighboring shopkeeper, Celia Merridew, of Celia’s Bygones, a junk shop by any other name. Celia, a font of gossip and gripes, invites him in for a “ginny” (served, like Mrs. Gamp’s, from a teapot). She tells him that she and Edward used to run a nice under-the-table business, with Celia and her shop fronting for Edward who was—he said—buying and selling Ming porcelain over the internet. In return she received frequent envelopes of cash—until recently when Edward’s Lady Muck wife put an end to it.

Elsewhere we meet Stewart and Ellen Proctor, depicted by le Carré with his customary genius for class taxonomy and attributes, conjuring up their understated privilege—good schools, garden parties, arch family sayings, infidelities and societal role in the secret services, “the spiritual sanctum of Britain’s ruling classes.” Stewart is, in fact, Britain’s “chief sniffer-dog”—he’s head of Domestic Security. He has recently been given a sealed envelope from Deborah, delivered by her testy daughter, Lily. Stewart has just learned of “a five-star breach” in security which takes him off to visit Orford and a joint British, American and NATO base on the coast, a “military Disneyland of dazzle-painted hangars and black bombers.” Three hundred feet below it lies “a dedicated nuclear hellhole,” chambers designed for nuclear weapons. A maze of tunnels running under East Anglia supplies a closed-circuit fiber optic system linking the base to others in the region, but unconnected to the outside. Still, there has been a breach, and it’s a puzzler.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The Space in Between: An Empath’s Field Guide

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

One of the blurbs offered for my book The Space in Between: An Empath’s Field Guide generously states that I “put words to the wordless,” which honestly, was the most gratifying praise I could have received. It also partly explains why it took me so long to write my book—nearly ten years of countless revisions, exploring how to articulate my intuitive sensory existence.

For many empathic persons the world can be confusing and isolating; particularly for those who are unaware that they receive extrasensory information from the environment and unwittingly accept what they feel as their own. Or for those who are aware that they are empathic, yet feel a disconnect due to a lack of definition and understanding of what that means within society. Most dictionaries, in fact, place the origin of “empath” in science fiction and fantasy, which hints at the difficulties people with such sensitivities and abilities face in communicating how they experience the world.

How do you validate your sensory experiences of feeling emotions, thoughts, and physical discomfort of others when even the dictionary—the authority on language—only affords you an existence in science fiction or fantasy?

The effort of giving language, and thus form, to the nebulous-yet-visceral experiences of an empath undeniably challenged me. My intention throughout my writing process was to demystify the empathic experience for anyone, empath or not, and that meant I needed a way to let the reader into my world. The irony is not lost on me that “world building” is typically a task for fantasy and science fiction writers and not one for a nonfiction writer describing the physical world we all inhabit in the here and now.

And there’s the rub; empathic or not, we don’t all inhabit the same view or perception of the world. Once I recognized that the dictionary’s definition of an empath revealed more about the collective mainstream beliefs and biases than what an empath was, beyond labeling it a paranormal ability, my book’s structure emerged, as did my sense of purpose. I would be a guide to the reader, supported by ancient Greek poet Pindar’s prompt, which has been my personal touchstone and is quoted in the early pages of my book: “Learn who you are and be such.”

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

The Weirdest Schools in Literature

From Electric Lit:

Schools have their own set of rules and morality, rituals and language. What makes sense in an elite private Manhattan school—good grades, fancy clothes, the competitive sports of the wealthy (squash and tennis) can be entirely anathema in a progressive school where cooperation, eschewing of labels, and creativity are valued. In a small community, an outsider can never fit in or understand what goes on in the center. Sometimes the most ordinary school can be rendered creepy. The inhabitants—students and teachers—are stuck there after all until they graduate or retire. Throw in a charismatic leader, secret society, or strange ideology, and what you have is a cult.

. . . .

Many of us remember our high school years with the intensity as if they happened yesterday. I can barely remember anything that happened the year before the pandemic, but I can still smell my high school cafeteria at noontime. Bewildering things happen in schools all the time and there are often no other adult witnesses. The wildest things happen in schools: violence, sex, breakdowns and breakups, abusive teachers, bullying, tragedy, but comedy also. Boarding schools are especially ripe settings for novels and I’ve included four novels that take place in them. Carrie is the most American, most John Hughes of all the high schools on the list and Curtis Sittenfeld’s is perhaps the most benign. Ishiguro the most heartbreaking—the students are doomed from the start.

. . . .

The Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA) in Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

As grownups, we look back on our school years with bewilderment and sometimes bewitchment. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise has all the culty elements I appreciate in a novel: an ’80s school culture I recognize, teenage romance, artistic ambition, unreliable narrators, surprise twists, and a dangerously charismatic leader. The Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA) is a high school for talented drama students. The first third of Trust Exercise, features Mr. Kingsley, a charismatic teacher with an arbitrary set of rules and criteria for succeeding:

“His very way of gazing told them plainly how far they fell short….they felt their deficit all the more sharply because the unit of measure was wholly unknown.”

The last two-thirds spin the entire book on its head; the author pulling us through the high school gauntlet experientially: elliptical, circuitous, gaslighting.

. . . .

The Leoncio Prado Military Academy in The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargos Llosa, translated by Lysander Kemp

Originally titled La Ciudad y Los Perros, “The City and the Dogs”, this 1963 novel is set at the military academy in Lima that Llosa himself attended as a teenager and deals with the death of a student and the school’s subsequent cover up. This nonlinear story is told from multiple perspectives and was influenced by Faulkner who Vargas Llosa said he read with pencil and paper in hand trying to attempt to distill Faulkner’s style. The abuse and violence described was directly related to Vargas Llosa’s own 1950s experience as a student there in the 1950s and the publication of the novel so angered the administration that they went on to publicly burn 1,000 copies.   

. . . .

Ault School in Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Upper-class waspy prep schools are something I can’t get enough of. A club so elite they’d never accept me? Please, tell me more. I devoured this book when it came out. Being a Midwesterner myself, I also pined for the J Crew catalog-looking East Coast boarding schools and begged my mother to attend one. However, because we were not rich and I was a fairly terrible student, it was never going to happen. Prep is the quintessential fish out of water story: Lee is Midwestern, not rich, not schooled in the ways of the monied East Coast elite, but she wants desperately to fit in. She finds herself, at least initially, with the outsiders on the margins, but rejects them as she moves closer to the center. Ault School is full of the sort of arcane rituals one expects: names like Tig and Cross and Gates, summers in Nantucket, and the game of Assassin played throughout campus.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

A Writer Says Goodbye to the Twittersphere

From Publishers Weekly:

A novelist friend told me that social media is pretty much mandatory these days, otherwise I could expect to remain plankton in a sea of fish all swimming toward the same accolades. As a poet, I’m already used to being a small fry, yet as I move into writing journalism and creative nonfiction, I’ve wondered whether I should log back on.

I quit Facebook in 2014 after a manic episode that reared its Medusa-like head online. My wall was a mess of incoherent thoughts, followed by all the email rejections I’d ever received, copied and pasted from my inbox. For the grand finale, I wrote that I would stage a hunger strike to protest the government’s lackluster care for those living with mental illness. Soon after my last post—but not before I typed out the addresses, emails, and phone numbers of my closest friends (should the news media want to reach out to them for comment)—I was hospitalized and newly diagnosed with bipolar I.

As it turns out, extreme social embarrassment is an excellent way to curb a Facebook addiction. A true introvert and a perpetual validation seeker, I knew my pictures were never cute enough, my posts never witty enough, and I spent hours looking at the profiles of women that guys had dumped me for. “She rides an old-school motorcycle,” I’d think. “Makes sense.”

Post-hospitalization, my friends gently reminded me that their personal information was still online. I deleted my account for good.

My pact to stay off social was tested when I started looking for an agent. I scanned interviews and attended panels in which agents said that a strong social media presence was something they looked for in a client. I read manuscript “wish lists” that expressed a keen interest in working with influencers. I noticed that writers in my social circle had, on average, 20,000 Instagram followers, and some had upward of 50,000 Twitter followers.

At the start of 2021, I gave it a try. One agent advised writers to pick a platform and get good at it. I guessed my strong suit would be Twitter. Like an endless Pez dispenser, I can come up with wisecracks all day. With a few quips queued up, I started an account, waited for something spectacular to happen, and pressed delete the next day.

It just didn’t feel right. As a 41-year-old woman, I chafed at the idea of building a “me” brand. I also objected to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for moral and ethical reasons. I didn’t want to support men who had supported the rise of hate groups, conspiracy theorists, and a racist megalomaniac who committed human rights atrocities at the U.S.-Mexico border that this country has yet to properly acknowledge or reckon with. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey put profit before people—demonstrating how easy it is for tech to manipulate government and destabilize democracy.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG may have mentioned that he quit using his Facebook account several months ago after changing a lot of personal information about himself to information about nobody. He expects that anyone who may stumble upon his moribund account and knows him will likely conclude his account has been hacked.

PG used this tactic after being unable to locate any way to simply close his FB account. He changed his Facebook password to a long random string of numbers and letters without keeping a copy so he wouldn’t try to revive his account in a moment of weakness.

PG’s motivation for departing from Facebook World was an unanalyzed feeling that Facebook was getting a little creepy, almost stalking him during his online travels.

The recent disclosures of how much information which many might regard as private the company collects from its users has confirmed PG’s sense of FB creepiness.

So he’s off FB for good. If for any reason he decides he needs to go onto FB again to check out something, he’ll create a phony profile for that purpose, use it, then abandon it again.

Yes, PG regularly clears his browser cache of cookies and trackers. He also deploys a VPN that lets him appear to be logging in from Greece or Taiwan with an anonymous browser program that doesn’t keep anything when he wanders into places he suspects may try to track him in some way. He also has a bunch of burner email addresses he uses strictly for signing up for a single service (if you’re willing to use long nonesense Gmail addresses a few times as burner email accounts, PG hasn’t found any noticeable objection from Google so far. If he sees a report of Google cracking down on Gmail abuse in Taiwan, he may change this strategy.)

If PG were an author who was ordered to establish a social media presence in connection with a book or books, he might use some or all of these tactics to exploit FB without being exploited by FB in return.

Amazon Fake Reviews Scam Exposed in Data Breach

From Safety Detectives:

The SafetyDetectives cybersecurity team uncovered an open ElasticSearch database exposing an organized fake reviews scam affecting Amazon.

The server contained a treasure trove of direct messages between Amazon vendors and customers willing to provide fake reviews in exchange for free products. In total, 13,124,962 of these records (or 7 GB of data) have been exposed in the breach, potentially implicating more than 200,000 people in unethical activities.

While it is unclear who owns the database, the breach demonstrates the inner workings of a prevalent issue affecting the online retail industry.

How the Process Works

The information found on the open ElasticSearch server outlines a common procedure by which Amazon vendors procure ‘fake reviews’ for their products.

These Amazon vendors send to reviewers a list of items/products for which they would like a 5-star review. The people providing the ‘fake reviews’ will then buy the products, leaving a 5-star review on Amazon a few days after receiving their merchandise.

Upon completion, the provider of the fake review will send a message to the vendor containing a link to their Amazon profile, along with their PayPal details.

Once the Amazon vendor confirms all reviews have been completed, the reviewer will receive a refund through PayPal, keeping the items they bought for free as a form of payment.

The refund for any purchased goods is actioned through PayPal and not directly through Amazon’s platform. This makes the five-star review look legitimate, so as not to arouse suspicion from Amazon moderators.

. . . .

2. Data related to the reviewers

Messages on the ElasticSearch server also contained other forms of directly and indirectly identifiable personal data exposing the reviewers themselves, such as:

  • 75K links to Amazon accounts/profiles of review sellers
  • PayPal account details (email addresses)
  • Email addresses
  • ‘Fan names’ – supposedly usernames, often containing names & surnames

Leaked PayPal account details and ‘fan names’ outline email addresses and what seems to be the usernames of people providing fake reviews. These details could be used to indirectly identify individuals, while many of them contained full names and surnames.

The Gmail addresses of reviewers were also provided to vendors directly via message. In total, 232,664 Gmail addresses have been exposed on the server, though some of the email addresses were duplicates.

. . . .

The ‘Gmail’ figure covers only those individuals who use Google as their mail provider. When we factor in the presence of other types of email accounts, such as Outlook, the enormity of this breach becomes apparent. 75,000 Amazon accounts were leaked as well, although there are potentially several duplicates included in this figure. Along with Amazon vendors compromised through their contact details, it’s reasonable to estimate that around 200,000-250,000 people were affected by this breach.

The server appeared to be located in China, and it is thought the leak affected citizens from Europe and the USA (at a minimum). In reality, the leak could have affected individuals from all corners of the world.

Link to the rest at Safety Detectives and thanks to O. for the tip.

Who Is the Bad Art Friend?

From The New York Times:

There is a sunny earnestness to Dawn Dorland, an un-self-conscious openness that endears her to some people and that others have found to be a little extra. Her friends call her a “feeler”: openhearted and eager, pressing to make connections with others even as, in many instances, she feels like an outsider. An essayist and aspiring novelist who has taught writing classes in Los Angeles, she is the sort of writer who, in one authorial mission statement, declares her faith in the power of fiction to “share truth,” to heal trauma, to build bridges. (“I’m compelled at funerals to shake hands with the dusty men who dig our graves,” she has written.) She is known for signing off her emails not with “All best” or “Sincerely,” but “Kindly.”

On June 24, 2015, a year after completing her M.F.A. in creative writing, Dorland did perhaps the kindest, most consequential thing she might ever do in her life. She donated one of her kidneys, and elected to do it in a slightly unusual and particularly altruistic way. As a so-called nondirected donation, her kidney was not meant for anyone in particular but instead was part of a donation chain, coordinated by surgeons to provide a kidney to a recipient who may otherwise have no other living donor. There was some risk with the procedure, of course, and a recovery to think about, and a one-kidney life to lead from that point forward. But in truth, Dorland, in her 30s at the time, had been wanting to do it for years. “As soon as I learned I could,” she told me recently, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she and her husband were caring for their toddler son and elderly pit bull (and, in their spare time, volunteering at dog shelters and searching for adoptive families for feral cat litters). “It’s kind of like not overthinking love, you know?”

Several weeks before the surgery, Dorland decided to share her truth with others. She started a private Facebook group, inviting family and friends, including some fellow writers from GrubStreet, the Boston writing center where Dorland had spent many years learning her craft. After her surgery, she posted something to her group: a heartfelt letter she’d written to the final recipient of the surgical chain, whoever they may be.

. . . .

The procedure went well. By a stroke of luck, Dorland would even get to meet the recipient, an Orthodox Jewish man, and take photos with him and his family. In time, Dorland would start posting outside the private group to all of Facebook, celebrating her one-year “kidneyversary” and appearing as a UCLA Health Laker for a Day at the Staples Center to support live-organ donation. But just after the surgery, when she checked Facebook, Dorland noticed some people she’d invited into the group hadn’t seemed to react to any of her posts. On July 20, she wrote an email to one of them: a writer named Sonya Larson.

. . . .

When it comes to literary success, the stakes can be pretty low — a fellowship or residency here, a short story published there. But it seemed as if Larson was having the sort of writing life that Dorland once dreamed of having. After many years, Dorland, still teaching, had yet to be published. But to an extent that she once had a writing community, GrubStreet was it. And Larson was, she believed, a close friend.

Editors’ Picks

Over email, on July 21, 2015, Larson answered Dorland’s message with a chirpy reply — “How have you been, my dear?” Dorland replied with a rundown of her next writing residencies and workshops, and as casually as possible, asked: “I think you’re aware that I donated my kidney this summer. Right?”

Only then did Larson gush: “Ah, yes — I did see on Facebook that you donated your kidney. What a tremendous thing!”

Afterward, Dorland would wonder: If she really thought it was that great, why did she need reminding that it happened?

. . . .

They wouldn’t cross paths again until the following spring — a brief hello at A.W.P., the annual writing conference, where the subject of Dorland’s kidney went unmentioned. A month later, at the GrubStreet Muse conference in Boston, Dorland sensed something had shifted — not just with Larson but with various GrubStreet eminences, old friends and mentors of hers who also happened to be members of Larson’s writing group, the Chunky Monkeys. Barely anyone brought up what she’d done, even though everyone must have known she’d done it. “It was a little bit like, if you’ve been at a funeral and nobody wanted to talk about it — it just was strange to me,” she said. “I left that conference with this question: Do writers not care about my kidney donation? Which kind of confused me, because I thought I was in a community of service-oriented people.”

It didn’t take long for a clue to surface. On June 24, 2016, a Facebook friend of Dorland’s named Tom Meek commented on one of Dorland’s posts.

Sonya read a cool story about giving out a kidney. You came to my mind and I wondered if you were the source of inspiration?

Still impressed you did this.

Dorland was confused. A year earlier, Larson could hardly be bothered to talk about it. Now, at Trident bookstore in Boston, she’d apparently read from a new short story about that very subject. Meek had tagged Larson in his comment, so Dorland thought that Larson must have seen it. She waited for Larson to chime in — to say, “Oh, yes, I’d meant to tell you, Dawn!” or something like that — but there was nothing. Why would Sonya write about it, she wondered, and not tell her?

Six days later, she decided to ask her. Much as she had a year earlier, she sent Larson a friendly email, including one pointed request: “Hey, I heard you wrote a kidney-donation story. Cool! Can I read it?”

. . . .

Ten days later, Larson wrote back saying that yes, she was working on a story “about a woman who receives a kidney, partially inspired by how my imagination took off after learning of your own tremendous donation.” In her writing, she spun out a scenario based not on Dorland, she said, but on something else — themes that have always fascinated her. “I hope it doesn’t feel too weird for your gift to have inspired works of art,” Larson wrote.

Dorland wrote back within hours. She admitted to being “a little surprised,” especially “since we’re friends and you hadn’t mentioned it.” The next day, Larson replied, her tone a bit removed, stressing that her story was “not about you or your particular gift, but about narrative possibilities I began thinking about.”

But Dorland pressed on. “It’s the interpersonal layer that feels off to me, Sonya. … You seemed not to be aware of my donation until I pointed it out. But if you had already kicked off your fictional project at this time, well, I think your behavior is a little deceptive. At least, weird.”

Larson’s answer this time was even cooler. “Before this email exchange,” she wrote, “I hadn’t considered that my individual vocal support (or absence of it) was of much significance.”

Which, though it was shrouded in politesse, was a different point altogether. Who, Larson seemed to be saying, said we were such good friends?

For many years now, Dorland has been working on a sprawling novel, “Econoline,” which interweaves a knowing, present-day perspective with vivid, sometimes brutal but often romantic remembrances of an itinerant rural childhood. The van in the title is, she writes in a recent draft, “blue as a Ty-D-Bowl tablet. Bumbling on the highway, bulky and off-kilter, a junebug in the wind.” The family in the narrative survives on “government flour, canned juice and beans” and “ruler-long bricks of lard” that the father calls “commodities.”

Dorland is not shy about explaining how her past has afforded her a degree of moral clarity that others might not come by so easily. She was raised in near poverty in rural Iowa. Her parents moved around a lot, she told me, and the whole family lived under a stigma. One small consolation was the way her mother modeled a certain perverse self-reliance, rejecting the judgments of others. Another is how her turbulent youth has served as a wellspring for much of her writing. She made her way out of Iowa with a scholarship to Scripps College in California, followed by divinity school at Harvard. Unsure of what to do next, she worked day jobs in advertising in Boston while dabbling in workshops at the GrubStreet writing center. When she noticed classmates cooing over Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping,” she picked up a copy. After inhaling its story of an eccentric small-town upbringing told with sensitive, all-seeing narration, she knew she wanted to become a writer.

At GrubStreet, Dorland eventually became one of several “teaching scholars” at the Muse conference, leading workshops on such topics as “Truth and Taboo: Writing Past Shame.” Dorland credits two members of the Chunky Monkeys group, Adam Stumacher and Chris Castellani, with advising her. But in hindsight, much of her GrubStreet experience is tied up with her memories of Sonya Larson. She thinks they first met at a one-off writing workshop Larson taught, though Larson, for her part, says she doesn’t remember this. Everybody at GrubStreet knew Larson — she was one of the popular, ever-present people who worked there. On nights out with other Grubbies, Dorland remembers Larson getting personal, confiding about an engagement, the death of someone she knew and plans to apply to M.F.A. programs — though Larson now says she shared such things widely. When a job at GrubStreet opened up, Larson encouraged her to apply. Even when she didn’t get it, everyone was so gracious about it, including Larson, that she felt included all the same.

Now, as she read these strained emails from Larson — about this story of a kidney donation; her kidney donation? — Dorland wondered if everyone at GrubStreet had been playing a different game, with rules she’d failed to grasp. On July 15, 2016, Dorland’s tone turned brittle, even wounded: “Here was a friend entrusting something to you, making herself vulnerable to you. At least, the conclusion I can draw from your responses is that I was mistaken to consider us the friends that I did.”

Larson didn’t answer right away. Three days later, Dorland took her frustrations to Facebook, in a blind item: “I discovered that a writer friend has based a short story on something momentous I did in my own life, without telling me or ever intending to tell me (another writer tipped me off).” Still nothing from Larson.

Dorland waited another day and then sent her another message both in a text and in an email: “I am still surprised that you didn’t care about my personal feelings. … I wish you’d given me the benefit of the doubt that I wouldn’t interfere.” Yet again, no response.

The next day, on July 20, she wrote again: “Am I correct that you do not want to make peace? Not hearing from you sends that message.”

Larson answered this time. “I see that you’re merely expressing real hurt, and for that I am truly sorry,” she wrote on July 21. But she also changed gears a little. “I myself have seen references to my own life in others’ fiction, and it certainly felt weird at first. But I maintain that they have a right to write about what they want — as do I, and as do you.”

Hurt feelings or not, Larson was articulating an ideal — a principle she felt she and all writers ought to live up to. “For me, honoring another’s artistic freedom is a gesture of friendship,” Larson wrote, “and of trust.”

. . . .

Larson and Dorland have each taken and taught enough writing workshops to know that artists, almost by definition, borrow from life. They transform real people and events into something invented, because what is the great subject of art — the only subject, really — if not life itself? This was part of why Larson seemed so unmoved by Dorland’s complaints. Anyone can be inspired by anything. And if you don’t like it, why not write about it yourself?

But to Dorland, this was more than just material. She’d become a public voice in the campaign for live-organ donation, and she felt some responsibility for representing the subject in just the right way. The potential for saving lives, after all, matters more than any story. And yes, this was also her own life — the crystallization of the most important aspects of her personality, from the traumas of her childhood to the transcending of those traumas today. Her proudest moment, she told me, hadn’t been the surgery itself, but making it past the psychological and other clearances required to qualify as a donor. “I didn’t do it in order to heal. I did it because I had healed — I thought.”

The writing world seemed more suspicious to her now. At around the time of her kidney donation, there was another writer, a published novelist, who announced a new book with a protagonist who, in its description, sounded to her an awful lot like the one in “Econoline” — not long after she shared sections of her work in progress with him. That author’s book hasn’t been published, and so Dorland has no way of knowing if she’d really been wronged, but this only added to her sense that the guard rails had fallen off the profession. Beyond unhindered free expression, Dorland thought, shouldn’t there be some ethics? “What do you think we owe one another as writers in community?” she would wonder in an email, several months later, to The Times’s “Dear Sugars” advice podcast. (The show never responded.) “How does a writer like me, not suited to jadedness, learn to trust again after artistic betrayal?”

. . . .

By summer’s end, she and Sonya had forged a fragile truce. “I value our relationship and I regret my part in these miscommunications and misunderstandings,” Larson wrote on Aug. 16, 2016. Not long after, Dorland Googled “kidney” and “Sonya Larson” and a link turned up.

The story was available on Audible — an audio version, put out by a small company called Plympton. Dorland’s dread returned. In July, Larson told her, “I’m still working on the story.” Now here it was, ready for purchase.

She went back and forth about it, but finally decided not to listen to “The Kindest.” When I asked her about it, she took her time parsing that decision. “What if I had listened,” she said, “and just got a bad feeling, and just felt exploited. What was I going to do with that? What was I going to do with those emotions? There was nothing I thought I could do.”

So she didn’t click. “I did what I thought was artistically and emotionally healthy,” she said. “And also, it’s kind of what she had asked me to do.”

Dorland could keep ‘‘The Kindest” out of her life for only so long. In August 2017, the print magazine American Short Fiction published the short story. She didn’t buy a copy. Then in June 2018, she saw that the magazine dropped its paywall for the story. The promo and opening essay on American Short Fiction’s home page had startled her: a photograph of Larson, side-by-side with a shot of the short-fiction titan Raymond Carver. The comparison does make a certain sense: In Carver’s story “Cathedral,” a blind man proves to have better powers of perception than a sighted one; in “The Kindest,” the white-savior kidney donor turns out to need as much salvation as the Asian American woman she helped. Still, seeing Larson anointed this way was, to say the least, destabilizing.

Then she started to read the story. She didn’t get far before stopping short. Early on, Rose, the donor, writes a letter to Chuntao, asking to meet her.

I myself know something of suffering, but from those experiences I’ve acquired both courage and perseverance. I’ve also learned to appreciate the hardship that others are going through, no matter how foreign. Whatever you’ve endured, remember that you are never alone. … As I prepared to make this donation, I drew strength from knowing that my recipient would get a second chance at life. I withstood the pain by imagining and rejoicing in YOU.

Here, to Dorland’s eye, was an echo of the letter she’d written to her own recipient — and posted on her private Facebook group — rejiggered and reworded, yet still, she believed, intrinsically hers. Dorland was amazed. It had been three years since she donated her kidney. Larson had all that time to launder the letter — to rewrite it drastically or remove it — and she hadn’t bothered.

She showed the story’s letter to her husband, Chris, who had until that point given Larson the benefit of the doubt.

“Oh,” he said.

Link to the rest at The New York Times (unfortunately, there is a paywall) and thanks to D for the tip.

Perhaps PG is feeling a little unfeeling today. He blames an approaching winter storm.

From a strictly legal standpoint, nobody owns a story. The first person who created a story that follows the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl (and all the various gender variations to the basic structure) doesn’t own the story structure.

Copyright only protects a particular expression of a story, not the ideas behind the story. For example, PG can easily recall multiple instantiations of the following structure:

  1. Heroine sets out on a quest to accomplish something important. The quest involves a journey.
  2. Heroine encounters multiple obstacles and setbacks during the journey, some of which seem almost impossible to overcome.
  3. Using strength, skill, brains, and perhaps, luck or divine assistance, heroine overcomes each obstacle and ends up triumphant in the end.

The Odyssey follows this pattern. So does the story of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, along with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In the OP, Ms. Dorland was not the first person to face the emotional stress of donating a kidney, making a great sacrifice, or risking her life to help someone else, known or unknown.

For PG, Ms. Larson’s explanation, that she wrote a story “about a woman who receives a kidney, partially inspired by how my imagination took off after learning of your own tremendous donation” rings true and does not violate any exclusive right of Ms. Dorland to tell such a story. Whether Ms. Larson heard about Ms. Dorland’s experience directly from Ms. Dorland or from someone else is, for PG, immaterial.

To get a bit legalistic about the matter, if Ms. Dorland wished to make certain Ms. Larson didn’t use her experience to write a story, Ms. Dorland should have asked for Ms. Larson to keep the matter confidential at a minimum. Absent Ms. Larson’s agreement to keep the matter secret, for PG, even a request would not grant Ms. Dorland any sort of exclusive right to the story.

Perhaps if the two women had engaged in a lengthy series of exchanges that were clearly intended and understood to remain confidential and the kidney transplant story was part of this series of conversations, Ms. Dorland might have had some legitimate expectation concerning Ms. Larson’s keeping the matter confidential.

But perhaps PG has missed something in the OP that makes his opinions questionable. He’s happy to hear contrary views in the comments. If this is something only two women would understand (but a lot of pairs of women would understand the same way), PG is happy to be told of his male blindness as well.

The Jailhouse Lawyer by James Patterson

From Novel Suspects:

PROLOGUE

I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County. But I’ve talked to the people who were there. I’ve heard the story from all perspectives.

They all recalled that it was a bright day. The morning sun filled the courtroom with light, making the polished walnut benches and vintage millwork gleam.

The county inmates, garbed in orange scrubs, sat together in the front row of the courtroom gallery, bowing their heads to keep the sun out of their eyes. One young man covered his face with his hands.

The district attorney shifted in his chair to peer through the glass panes in the doors leading into the courtroom rotunda. His unlined face wore an anxious expression.

The court reporter’s heels tapped a nervous staccato beat on the tile floor. She turned and whispered to the bailiff, who stood beside the door to the chambers of Judge Wyatt Pickens.

“Well, where is he?” the court reporter said, just as the chamber door opened and Judge Pickens emerged.

The occupants of the courtroom jumped to their feet even before the bailiff’s voice called out, “All rise! The Circuit Court of Douglas County, Alabama, is now in session, Judge Wyatt Pickens presiding.”

The judge settled into his seat. He opened the laptop on the bench before briefly examining a stack of manila file folders. “You may be seated.”

As the courtroom rustled with the sounds of people shuffling back onto the benches, the judge looked out over the courtroom.

His eyes narrowed. “Where is the public defender?”

No one answered. The inmates in orange exchanged glances but maintained perfect silence. The district attorney tugged at his suit jacket and cleared his throat.

The noise caught the judge’s attention. “Mr. Carson? Where is the public defender?”

The young attorney stood and said, “I haven’t seen him this morning, Judge.”

Judge Pickens turned to the bailiff. “Harold?”

“Well, Judge, I’ve been here since about 7:30 this morning. Didn’t see him in the coffee shop or the lobby.”

Judge Pickens sighed. “This is our criminal docket day. We can’t proceed without him.” He turned to his clerk, a pretty woman hovering near the door to chambers.

“Betsy, if you would, please make a call over to the public defender’s office. See if you can raise him.”

“Yes, Your Honor.” She disappeared through the chambers door. The silence in the courtroom was broken by a female inmate.

“Judge? I seen him this week at the jail.” When the judge ignored her contribution, the woman slid back onto her bench.

Betsy reappeared. With an apologetic grimace, she said, “Judge, I just got the answering machine at his office.”

“Call his cell phone.” The judge’s voice was patient, but his face grew ruddy.

“I did, Judge. He didn’t pick up.” After a pause, she said, “I left a message.”

Judge Pickens drummed his fingers on the surface of the bench, the tempo increasing in speed and intensity. Then he stopped and slapped his palm on the wood veneer.

“Harold, you’re going to have to head over there and get him.” The bailiff bobbed his head. “Yes, sir, Your Honor.”

Outside the courtroom, Harold took the century-old courthouse’s marble stairs cautiously, gripping the brass handrail as he descended. He didn’t care to take a tumble. The bailiff wasn’t a young man, and his prosthetic foot made maneuvering the stairs particularly tricky.

He exited the courthouse and headed across the street to a two-story building that had been converted into the public de- fender’s office. The paint on the door designating Rob Ford public defender of the district was still shiny, as though it hadn’t yet had time to dry.

Harold turned the door handle, half expecting the entrance to be locked, but the door opened freely. The reception area was empty.

“Mr. Ford?”

There was no response. When the bailiff stepped inside, the door shut behind him. Harold made a face. It smelled like there was a sewer backup in here, and since the office was county property, Harold made a mental note to tell Judge Pickens so the judge could get the county commission on top of the problem.

As he walked across the reception room, Harold heard the crunch of broken glass under his shoe leather. He looked down and saw a shattered picture frame, facedown on the floor. Bending over with a grunt of effort, he picked up the frame and examined it. It was a family portrait: the public defender, his wife holding an infant, and two young children, a boy and a girl.

The bailiff lifted his head and called out again, “Rob? You in here?

The judge is waiting on you.”

He set the frame faceup against the wall, then walked a narrow hallway where a closed door bore a plastic nameplate, designating it as the office of Robert Ford, public defender. Harold rapped on the door with two knuckles.

“Rob? We’ve got a courtroom full of folks waiting across the street.” The smell of sewage was stronger outside the office door. The bailiff’s head bobbed as he swallowed. His hand shook when he turned the doorknob.

Link to the rest at Novel Suspects

Should fiction writers ever lift stories from other people’s lives?

From The Guardian:

Name: The muse.

Age: Ancient.

Appearance: Let’s start with “complicated”.

Before we start, can I tell you something strange that happened to me recently? No, you can’t! Please don’t.

Why? Because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, will rip it off and pass it off as their own.

But it’s a good story. Stop it! Didn’t you read Who Is the Bad Art Friend? yesterday?

Bad What Friend? It’s the title of a punishingly long article in the New York Times that has set the world alight. It’s hard to sum up succinctly, but the story of Who Is the Bad Art Friend? is basically this: a woman donated her kidney to a stranger, and then a second woman wrote a story about donating a kidney to a stranger.

Right. And it all kicked off. Nobody comes out of it particularly well, but it begs the question: are writers allowed to mine the lives of others?

Yes. But isn’t there something vampiric about leeching off someone else’s experience?

James Gandolfini routinely called the writing staff of The Sopranos “vampires” for exactly that reason, and that was the best television series ever made. But isn’t there a line where things become creepy?

No. I mean, what about Cat Person?

Oh here we go, Cat Person again. At the time it was published, Kristen Roupenian’s short story was heralded as lightning in a bottle; the perfect summation of the female experience. But then this year we learned that Roupenian had wholesale lifted the experience from a woman named Alexis Nowicki, who subsequently wrote a first-person essay about it.

Who would be a muse, eh? Loads of people, that’s the thing. Dante wrote about his childhood crush Beatrice di Folco Portinari in The Divine Comedy. Jane Austen used an old flame as inspiration for Mr Darcy. Charles Dickens based numerous characters on his lover Ellen Ternan. It was all fine and nobody minded.

So what changed? Two words: the internet. Online, everybody gets to create a bubble where they are the star of their own finely honed story. So when someone else mines their life for a different story, it feels more like a violation. Also, who’s to say that Ternan enjoyed being written about? She couldn’t complain on Facebook.

Does this story have a moral? Yes: it’s that writers are terrible people and you should cut them all from your life immediately.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

AAP StatShot Annual Report 2020: US Book Revenues Flat at $25.71 Billion

From Publishing Perspectives:

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) today released the StatShot Annual report for calendar year 2020, estimating that the United States’ book publishing industry generated US$25.71 billion, a slight decrease of 0.2 percent from 2019 revenue of $25.77 billion.

The AAP makes the point that this is consistent with past StatShot reports, the American book publishing industry’s revenue having ranged between $25 billion and $26 billion since 2016.

In a prepared statement, Maria A. Pallante, AAP’s president and CEO, is quoted, saying, “The 2020 results are remarkable and inspirational for a year that people will long associate with an unprecedented public health crisis, worldwide suffering, and colossal business disruptions.

“That publishing is resilient is nothing new, but we should nevertheless take a moment to recognize the incredible dedication and innovation of the industry in serving readers and the public interest during such an isolating and confusing time.”

Here’s a quick breakdown by sector:

  • Trade: In 2020, total revenue, including directly reported and estimated data, in the industry’s largest category, trade (consumer books), increased by an estimated 6.0 percent to $16.67 billion, and by 8.6 percent in directly reported revenue
  • Higher education: Revenue from higher education declined 5.7 percent to $3.10 billion
  • PreK–12:  Revenue declined 12.3 percent to $3.84 billion
  • Professional books: Revenue declined 14.5 percent to $1.68 billion
  • University presses: The smallest category reported that it grew slightly, by 2.9 percent to $391.7 million in 2020

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests that if your revenues have been between $25 and $26 million for 4-5 years, your business is flat, not growing. Yes, it didn’t grow during the Pandemic, but it also didn’t grow before the Pandemic.

Here’s more detail from the AAP report:

While eBook revenue had declined since 2014, during calendar year 2020 the category was up 11.7%, coming in at an estimated $2.12 billion. Downloaded Audio continued to grow, and was up 13.2% as compared to 2019, with an estimated revenue of $1.42 billion for the year.

The Online Retail channel, which includes sales of digital products as well as physical products sold via online platforms, increased 19.2%, reaching $9.53 billion in revenue, and representing 37.1% of all estimated industry revenue.

Bookstores experienced lower foot traffic, and as a result Physical Retail, which comprises all sales to bookstores and other traditional retailers, including their online sales, saw a year-over-year decline of 11.3%, coming in at $5.13 billion. In addition, the U.S. Export market declined 2.8% to $1.27 billion during 2020. The Direct-to-Consumer channel also suffered a significant decline.

In terms of Trade (consumer books) publishers, this year marks the first time that Online Retail represented 50% of revenues, up from 43.3% in 2019. Across all of Trade, Direct fell 45.6%. There was increased revenue for Children’s & Young Adult Fiction and Non-Fiction, however units declined 9.5% for Fiction titles and increased 0.9% for Non-Fiction titles.

In Higher Education, an increase in distance learning helped to further accelerate widespread adoption of cost-effective eTextbooks in both sales and rentals––including models such as inclusive access––resulting in an estimated 5.7% decline to $3.10 billion as compared to 2019. PreK–12 education publishers saw a 12.3% decline to $3.84 billion as compared to 2019.

Link to the rest at Association of American Publishers

The inflation rate from 2016-2020 was not severe, but if the book business was flat on an inflation-adjusted basis during that period, sales would have increased 14%.

In other words, $1 in 2016 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $1.14 today, an increase of $0.14 over 5 years.

(2021 inflation is significantly higher than any year in the 2016-2020 era, up 5.7% so far during the year. but, since 2021 isn’t finished yet, we won’t know how high the year’s total inflation number will be. Unless the traditional publishing world substantially increases its growth rate, 2021 revenue growth on an inflation-adjusted basis will be quite bleak.)

Per Statshot’s 215 report, overall publisher revenue for 2015 was $15.4 billion, down 2.6% from the previous year.

If the traditional book industry’s revenues had been keeping up with inflation during the 2016-2020 era, the 2015 revenue of $15.4 billion would have grown to $17.6 billion in 2020.

Again, compared to the remainder of the economy not just during 2020’s Covid economic mess, but during the years before Covid, traditional publishing has been in a continuous decline for a long time. When PG checked 2010 publishing income, per Publishers Weekly, 2010 trade publishing sold $27.9 billion worth of books during that year.

PG acknowledges that Publishers Weekly data for 2010 from Bookstats, may reflect a different manner of data collection and aggregation than that used by AAP for its StatShot numbers, but PG is fairly confident that the 2020 publishing business generated much less than the 2010 publishing business did.

That said, PG is happy to have visitors to TPV who are inclined to dig more deeply into the data propose corrections/modifications, etc., to PG’s quick and dirty take on the statistics.

(2021 inflation is significantly higher than any year in the 2016-2020 era, up 5.7% so far during the year. but, since 2021 isn’t finished yet, we won’t know how high the year’s total inflation number will be. Unless the traditional publishing world substantially increases its growth rate, 2021 industry revenue growth on an inflation-adjusted basis will be quite bleak.)

How to Write Faster

From the Grammarly Blog:

In a perfect world, deadlines wouldn’t be a thing. You’d have unlimited time to complete everything you need to write, like essays, reports, reading responses, and even the kinds of writing you do for fun, like blog posts and short stories.

Obviously, we don’t live in a perfect world. But we do live in a world where you can learn how to write faster. Writing quickly is a skill that’s helped thousands of writers, especially writers with time-sensitive assignments like interviewers and journalists, meet their deadlines without breaking a sweat.

. . . .

Learning how to write faster is easy. To help you streamline your writing time, we’ve gathered a few helpful writing tips that will have you hitting deadlines in no time. 

Streamline the writing process

You’re most likely familiar with the writing process. It’s the six steps just about every piece of writing goes through to develop from an idea to a published piece. Working through these steps means doing a thorough job of brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and perfecting your work . . . but it can be a slow process. When you’re crunched for time, you simply don’t have the luxury of working through the unabridged writing process.

In a pinch, you can streamline it. One way to streamline the writing process is to combine steps one and two and outline your work as you brainstorm it. This might mean a less coherent outline, but that’s fine—you’ll smooth it out when you write. 

After getting an outline on the page, get right to writing. We’ll later on cover strategies that can help this step go faster. During the writing stage, the goal is to start getting words down. Don’t worry about irrelevant, superfluous, or awkward words winding up in your text—you’ll fix these up when you edit your work.  

Speaking of editing, you’ll also need to cut out an important step in the writing process: editing your work with fresh eyes. Ideally, you’d wait about a day after writing to edit your work so you can catch mistakes more easily. But with a limited amount of time, you’ll need to dive right into editing after you’re finished writing. Depending on how pressed for time you are, you might also have to combine the last two steps in the writing process, editing and proofreading. 

Type faster

It might sound like a sarcastic tip at first, but we mean it sincerely: Train yourself to type faster. You can do this by playing typing games and doing typing exercises that build muscle memory in your fingers. If you look at the keyboard when you’re typing, it’s time to learn how to type without doing that. Similarly, if you’re using the “hunt and peck” method or otherwise using any fewer than all ten of your fingers, it’s time to become a stronger, faster typist. 

Websites like typingtest.com can tell you how accurately you’re typing and how many words you can type per minute as well as providing typing lessons and exercises. The average person types about 40 words per minute, with 65 to 70 being the general target for “fast typing.” Typing 90 to 100 words per minute is considered to be very fast typing, with some of the fastest typists achieving more than 120 words per minute. When you can type faster, you can literally write faster. 

Write what you already have in mind

You might have no idea how to start your essay, but know exactly how you want to support your argument. Skip right to your body paragraphs. 

There’s no rule that says you have to write your piece in order of first to final paragraph. Write in the order that makes it easiest for you to start writing and maintain momentum, which often means jumping right to the parts that you’ve already worked out in your head. 

Writing the parts that you already know you want to say achieves two things:

  • It gets text onto the page: For you, seeing text on the page can be hugely motivating—it’s a lot easier to keep writing when you already have a foundation to build on, rather than starting with a blank screen.
  • It can help you determine what to say in sections you haven’t written: If you’re struggling with an intro paragraph, writing your supporting paragraphs can give you the phrasing and organization you need to introduce them in your opening section. Similarly, if you’re having a difficult time with certain body paragraphs, but you’ve written at least one, determine how that paragraph you’ve written fits into a broader piece. What does it follow? What follows it? Think of the piece you’re writing as a jigsaw puzzle and the sections you’ve written as puzzle corners you’ve completed. Which shapes fit into that partially completed puzzle? 

Link to the rest at the Grammarly Blog

An Amazon shopper faces up to 20 years in jail for $290,000 fraud. Prosecutors say he bought Apple, Asus, and Fuji products, then mailed cheaper items as returns.

From Business Insider:

An Amazon shopper who for five years bought expensive items — including a top-of-the-line iMac Pro — and then mailed cheaper items as returns faces up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud, prosecutors said.

Hudson Hamrick, of Charlotte, North Carolina, on Tuesday pleaded guilty in the US District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, a court filing showed.

. . . .

US attorneys filed charges against Hamrick in September, saying he’d engaged in about 300 fraudulent transactions with Amazon. That included about 270 product returns — some 250 of which were “materially different in value” — that amounted to more than $290,000 in total fraud, said the charging document and another that detailed several transactions as part of Hamrick’s plea agreement.

Many of the transactions followed a simple pattern, prosecutors said: Hamrick would order an expensive item, initiate a return, then mail a similar — but less valuable — item. Sometimes he’d also sell the expensive item, netting him both the return and the resale value, prosecutors said.

In August 2019, for example, Hamrick ordered an Apple iMac Pro for $4,256.85, the US attorneys said. After about two weeks, Hamrick started the return process with Amazon, which then issued a refund.

“Instead of returning the high-end iMac Pro, Hamrick returned a much older, less valuable non-Pro model with a completely different serial number,” said a court document filed by Maria K. Vento, an assistant US attorney.

A week before Hamrick initiated his Amazon return, he sold an iMac Pro on eBay, Vento said.

. . . .

“Amazon has systems in place to detect suspicious behavior, and teams in place to investigate and stop prohibited activity,” the spokesperson said. “There is no place for fraud at Amazon, and we will continue to pursue all measures to hold bad actors accountable.”

Link to the rest at Business Insider

Perhaps PG is assuming too high a standards for Amazon’s fraud detection team, but he would think that the first incorrect return would have triggered some sort of red flag.

He certainly hopes that an Apple newby didn’t order a new $4K Mac Pro from Amazon and receive an old Mac instead.

The great book shortage of 2021

From Vox:

If there’s a particular book you’ve got your eye on for the holidays, it’s best to order it now. The problems with the supply chain are coming for books, too.

“Think of the inputs that go into a book,” says Matt Baehr, executive director of the Book Manufacturers’ Institute. “There’s paper, there’s ink, and there’s getting the book from point A to point B. All of those things are affected.”

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been exacerbating existing problems in the global supply chain for nearly two years now. Add to that pressure a global labor shortage, a paper shortage, the consolidation of the American printing industry, and an increased demand for books from bored stay-at-homers across the US, and you’re faced with what Baehr says is a “perfect storm” of factors to create what some observers are calling a book shortage.

However, that doesn’t mean holiday book shoppers will be faced with empty shelves at their local bookstore come December, cautions Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt. “There is no book shortage as such at the moment because the nature of the publishing cycle is that these books are planned many months ahead,” Daunt says.

Most of this fall’s major releases have already been printed or have their printing runs scheduled, and any delays to those scheduled print runs are expected to be minimal. Still, some titles have seen their publication dates bumped by weeks or even months. Of those, some now won’t reach shelves until next year.

The place where readers are most likely to find themselves in a crunch, though, is with surprise bestsellers. Every year, there are books that do much better than either publishers or booksellers expected them to and sell out their initial print runs. Normally when that happens, booksellers immediately order more books, and publishers are able to print those books and ship them out rapidly. In 2021, that’s going to be a lot more difficult. If a publisher unexpectedly sells out of a book early, it may not be able to send new copies to bookstores until well into 2022.

. . . .

More people are reading books

According to industry tracker NPD Bookscan, printed book sales have increased 13.2 percent from 2020 to 2021, and 21 percent from 2019 to 2021.

“Usually a good year means going up maybe 3 or 4 percent,” says NPD books analyst Kristen McLean. “The growth that we saw last year and this year is pretty unprecedented.”

McLean says it’s clear that the pandemic is what’s driving the growth in book sales, in part because of what kind of books are selling well and which aren’t. As global lockdowns began in March of 2020, sales of traditionally high-performing categories like self-help books and business books plummeted, while sales of educational books for home-bound kids and first aid books for emergency preppers took off.

Since then, McClean says, book sales have tracked closely to the trends of the quarantine era: a lot of bread books early on, a lot of books on social justice and race in the summer of 2020 during the George Floyd protests, and books on politics during the presidential election season. Then, after the election, sales of adult fiction began to really take off — a trend McLean pointed to as telling.

“That’s one of the things I look at really closely,” McLean says. “When someone buys a nonfiction book, that could be because it’s a reference book, or because they want to understand something that they’ve heard. But when someone buys an adult fiction book, generally that’s for pleasure reading. So that is a good leading indicator that people are really engaging with books.”

Reading is one of the hobbies that people have started to pick up over the course of the pandemic. And overwhelmingly, they’re reading printed books, not ebooks.

“Ebook sales did go up last summer,” McLean allows, noting that many of the social justice titles of the summer, such as Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, rapidly sold out in print, driving readers to ebooks for their immediacy. Generally, however, ebooks are holding steady at just 20 percent of the US market.

“There’s just more people who want to read and prefer reading print,” McLean says.

. . . .

The paper shortage begins with the wood pulp shortage. According to a report from the printing company Sheridan, the price of wood pulp rose from $700–$750 per metric ton in 2020 to almost $1,200 per metric ton in 2021. Sheridan cites an environmental initiative in China that shut down 279 pulp and paper mills as one of the major drivers behind the spike in pricing, as well as a global backlash against plastic and the rush to replace plastic products with paper alternatives.

Meanwhile, with shoppers increasingly ordering products online, the price of cardboard in which to ship goods has gone up with demand. So paper factories have begun to invest more in producing cardboard, shifting their resources away from making book-grade paper in the process.

“You have a combination of both fewer mills producing book paper and greater demand for wood pulp elsewhere, so that there is both a price and availability issue,” explains Brian O’Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group.

A shortage of raw materials is also wreaking havoc in the inks market. According to a report by the Business Research Company, the same Chinese environmental initiative that led to a shortage of wood pulp has also led to decreased availability of resins, monomers, photo initiators, oligomers, and additives. Moreover, ink manufacturers are rapidly consolidating. All of these issues combined means ink prices are steadily rising.

. . . .

Most book printing happens in the US. Books with heavy color printing, like picture books, are sent to China, but in order to keep the cost of shipping low, most publishers do the rest of their printing domestically. That’s getting more and more difficult to manage.

Until 2018, there were three major printing presses in the US. Then one of them, the 125-year-old company Edwards Brothers Malloy, closed. The remaining big two, Quad and LSC, attempted to merge in 2020, but then the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit. Quad responded by getting out of the book business entirely; LSC filed for bankruptcy and sold off a number of its presses. Smaller printers have continued to operate, but the infrastructure to keep up with the demand for printed books in North America is in shambles.

So if demand is up, why are so many printers shutting down?

Part of the issue is that printers find themselves squeezed by Amazon in both directions. As a major book buyer, Amazon has a lot of leverage to negotiate on price, allowing it to purchase its books from publishers at very low cost. Publishers pass the resulting losses along to their printing presses. Following the rules of capitalism, printing presses would like to pass the loss along to their workers in turn — but in the rural distribution regions where most of these presses operate, the other major employer is Amazon warehouses. And Amazon has set the floor for wages at $15 per hour.

“I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing,” O’Leary says. “But you’re competing for labor.”

The labor shortage also means that even when printers raise their wages, they don’t have anyone to hire. The industry is chronically understaffed. “Printers, binders, the true book manufacturers, they could all hire an additional 10 to 20 percent of their current workforce without even batting an eye,” says Baehr.

Meanwhile, very few new players are entering the game. Part of the reason is that it costs a lot of money upfront to enter the industry. “It’s a capital-intensive business, printing,” says O’Leary. “You have to spend from several million to more than $10 million on a printing press, and you generally amortize that over a long period of time.”

So right now, publishers and printing companies have to pay more for the paper that makes up any given book, more for the ink that prints the words in the book, more for the time at a printing company to get the book printed, and more for the labor to staff the press to get the book produced.

Then come the problems with shipping.

. . . .

“Los Angeles — which is a major port of entry for the United States — New York, and New Jersey are all pretty full up,” says O’Leary. “We’re hearing reports of delays of weeks for getting things cleared.”

“Containers are not moving out of ports and onto trains quickly enough,” explains Chris Tang, a UCLA business professor specializing in global supply chain management. “And on top of that, all of the warehouses in the Midwest are full. So everything is stuck.”

. . . .

Even more pressing, however, is a shortage of truck drivers. There just aren’t enough trucks on the road to pick up as much stuff as we’re currently shipping around the world. “We’re talking tens of thousands fewer truck drivers than we need,” says O’Leary.

And as stuff sits in warehouses, waiting to be picked up by increasingly scarce truck drivers, the price of storage goes up, adding to overall shipping costs. “It used to be around $3,000 per container,” Tang says. “Now the price is closer to $20,000.”

. . . .

One of the big underlying problems when it comes to printing and shipping books is the same labor shortage that’s currently roiling the rest of the country. There aren’t enough press operators to get books printed, and then there aren’t enough truck drivers to get them to bookstores. Wages have gone up, but there still aren’t enough people working.

. . . .

In the long term, it’s likely that as current agreements between printers and publishers expire, the printers will begin to charge publishers more for their services to better manage the rising costs of paper, ink, and labor. At that point, book prices will likely go up. No one is entirely certain what that increase will do to the book retail market, but it’s unlikely that demand will keep scaling up indefinitely.

Link to the rest at Vox

Wyden, Eshoo press publishers over library e-book contracts

From The Hill:

The largest book publishing companies in the U.S. are facing pressure from Democrats over e-book lending contracts with libraries that advocates and librarians have criticized.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) sent letters to the publishers, Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, on Thursday asking for detailed responses about the contracts and any restrictions on deals made with libraries for e-book licensing.

“Many libraries face financial and practical challenges in making e-books available to their patrons, which jeopardizes their ability to fulfill their mission,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is our understanding that these difficulties arise because e-books are typically offered under more expensive and limited licensing agreements, unlike print books that libraries can typically purchase, own, and lend on their own terms.”
Wyden and Eshoo underscored the importance of remote access to e-books because the COVID-19 pandemic prolonged school and library closures.

Unlike with physical books, which libraries can purchase and lend out for as long as copies hold up, libraries have to adhere to conditions in licensing agreements that constrain how long they can keep e-books in circulation. Librarians and library groups have called out the licensing agreements for prices they say are too high.

Wyden and Eshoo call for the publishers to share data, including the average price of physical copies of books sold to consumers and the average price of e-book licensing to libraries, on their 100 most sold or licensed works in 2020.

Lia Holland, the campaigns and communications director for Fight for the Future, said the group was “thrilled” to see lawmakers taking action on the issue. 

Fight for the Future has been advocating for greater library access to a wide array of digital books. Holland called the “licensing schemes” on digital books “restrictive and expensive.” 

“We hope that legislators will take swift action to ensure perpetual access to knowledge and diverse voices for everyone,” Holland said in a statement. 

. . . .

The Democrats did not target Amazon with their letter. The tech giant until recently had even more restrictions in place — prohibiting Amazon published e-books to be sold to libraries for lending.

The company reached a deal in May to make all Amazon Publishing titles available through the DPLA Exchange, a library-centered content marketplace. Library patrons can access the titles through the SimplyE e-reader app.

Link to the rest at The Hill

Ebooks Are an Abomination

Note: PG posted this less than a month ago. He’s reposting it today because:

  1. He forgot he posted it before (but was politely reminded in by WO in a comment).
  2. It’s a classic in the I-hate-ebooks genre.
  3. He posted a lot of calumnies directed at ebooks today and was on some sort of ebook-calumny roll and couldn’t stop himself.
  4. Despite having taken all his meds today, he’s probably devolving into something slightly above primeval soup and needs to watch some baseball to bring his mind back to its usual level of functionality.

From The Atlantic:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that ebooks are awful. I hate them, but I don’t know why I hate them. Maybe it’s snobbery. Perhaps, despite my long career in technology and media, I’m a secret Luddite. Maybe I can’t stand the idea of looking at books as computers after a long day of looking at computers as computers. I don’t know, except for knowing that ebooks are awful.

If you hate ebooks like I do, that loathing might attach to their dim screens, their wonky typography, their weird pagination, their unnerving ephemerality, or the prison house of a proprietary ecosystem. If you love ebooks, it might be because they are portable, and legible enough, and capable of delivering streams of words, fiction and nonfiction, into your eyes and brain with relative ease. Perhaps you like being able to carry a never-ending stack of books with you wherever you go, without having to actually lug them around. Whether you love or hate ebooks is probably a function of what books mean to you, and why.

When discussed in the present tense, ebooks means Amazon Kindle ebooks. Competitors are out there, including tablets such as the iPad and the various software that can display books in electronic format. Precursors are also many. Ebooks appeared on Palm handhelds in the late ’90s. Microsoft made a reader for its equivalent, Windows CE. The first commercial e-ink reader was made in 2004 by Sony, not Amazon, although you’ve probably never heard of it. Barnes & Noble still makes the Nook, a Kindle competitor that seems like the Betamax of ebook readers. Before all of these, it was always possible to read on computers, portable or not. Adobe’s PDF format, first released in the early ’90s, made it easy to create and share print-formatted documents, viewable on any platform with a PDF reader. And you have been able to scroll through Word (or WordPerfect or WordStar or plain text) documents for as long as computers have existed, even if few would call such an experience reading.

Stop and reread that last clause, because the key to understanding why you love or hate ebooks is pressurized into it. Agreeing that books are a thing you read is easy enough. But what it means to read, what the experience of reading requires and entails, and what makes it pleasurable or not, is not so easy to pin down.

. . . .

Consider, for example, the Kindle DX, a 2009 follow-up to the original, 2007 Kindle reader. The DX’s 9.7-inch screen was 50 percent bigger than the original’s six-inch display, and the newer model could also show PDFs. Seen as a potential disruptor of technical, academic, and other specialized reading uses, the DX was a failure, at least in comparison with the paperback-size original Kindle and its successful follow-ups, including the popular Paperwhite model. Students and technical readers didn’t want to consume documents on the gadget. By contrast, readers of genre fiction or business best sellers were more willing to shift their practices to a small, gray screen.

Reading is a relatively useless term. It describes a broad array of literacy practices, ranging from casually scanning social-media posts to perusing magazine articles such as this one to poring over the most difficult technical manuals or the lithest storytelling. You read instructions on elevators, prompts in banking apps, directions on highway signs. Metaphorically, you read situations, people’s faces, the proverbial room. What any individual infers about their hopes and dreams for an e-reader derives from their understanding of reading in the first place. You can’t have books without bookiness.

Bookiness. That’s the word Glenn Fleishman, a technology writer and longtime bookmaker, uses to describe the situation. “It’s the essence that makes someone feel like they’re using a book,” he told me. Like pornography or sandwiches, you know bookiness when you see it. Or feel it? Either way, most people can’t identify what it is in the abstract.

Fleishman and I took a swing at defining bookiness anyway. A book, we decided, is probably composed of bound pages, rather than loose ones. Those pages are probably made from paper, or leaves akin to paper. These pages are likely numerous, and the collection of pages is coherent, forming a totality. The order of that totality matters, but also the form of bound pages allows a reader random access to any page, via flipping and fanning. Books have spreads, made of a left (verso) and right (recto) side. You can look at both at once, and an open book has the topology of a valley, creating a space that you can go inside and be surrounded by, literally and figuratively. Some books are very large, but the ordinary sort is portable and probably handheld. That held object probably has a cover made of a different material from the leaves that compose its pages. A stapled report probably isn’t a book; a coil-bound one with plastic covers might be. A greeting card is probably not a book; neither is the staple-bound manual that came with your air fryer. Are magazines and brochures books? They might be, if we didn’t have special terms for the kind of books they are.

Whatever a book might be, all of the things that an average person might name a “book” evolved from an invention more than two millennia old, called a codex. Prior to the codex, reading and writing took place on scrolls—long, rolled sheets of paper (or vellum or papyrus)—and then on wax tablets, which a sharp stylus could imprint and its tapered end could erase. The ancient Romans sometimes connected wax tablets with leather or cords, suggesting a prototype of binding. Replacing the wax with leaves allowed many pages to be stacked atop one another, then sewn or otherwise bound together. Codices were first handwritten or copied, then made in multiples when the printing press emerged. I’m skipping over a lot more detail—a whole field, called book history, addresses this topic—but the result connects today’s best seller to hand-gilded illuminated manuscripts, the earliest records of the Gospels, and more. Two thousand years after the codex and 500 after the Gutenberg press, the book persists. If something better were to come along, you’d expect it to have done so by now. In other words, as far as technologies go, the book endures for very good reason. Books work.

Given the entrenched history of bookiness, a book is less a specific thing than an echo of the long saga of bookmaking—and an homage to the idea of a book bouncing around in our heads, individual and collective. That makes books different from other human technologies. People have always needed to eat, but methods of agriculture, preservation, and distribution have evolved. People have always wanted to get around, but transportation has unlocked faster and more specialized means of doing so. Ideas and information have also enjoyed technological change—cinema, television, and computing, to name a few, have altered expression. But when it comes to the gathering of words and images pressed first to pages and then between covers, the book has remained largely the same. That puts books on par with other super-inventions of human civilization, including roads, mills, cement, turbines, glass, and the mathematical concept of zero.

. . . .

If you have a high-quality hardbound book nearby, pick it up and look at the top and bottom edges of the binding, near the spine, with the book closed. The little stripey tubes you see are called head and tail bands (one at the top, one at the bottom). They were originally invented to reinforce stitched binding, to prevent the cover from coming apart from the leaves. Today’s mass-produced hardcover books are glued rather than sewn, which makes head and tail bands purely ornamental. And yet for those who might notice, a book feels naked without such details.

Now open the book and turn to its first pages to see another example of how print-book habits die hard. Find the first normal page. I bet it looks the same no matter the book: a mostly blank page showing the book’s title and author. If you turn again, you’ll see that it’s followed by the exact same page, but with more information. Why are both of these title pages here? The first one, luridly known as the bastard title (or half title), was created to protect the full title page behind it during the binding process. That was necessary because printers printed only the pages of a book, which individual readers would send to a binder to encase in leather covers, perhaps to match the rest of their library. That meant that the pages themselves would be cast about quite a bit during transit to and from these varied trades. After binding, some would even cut out the bastard title and paste it to the inside of the cover or to the spine, in order to help identify the book on a shelf. That risk and practice are long behind us, but like an appendix, the bastard title remains.

So do all manner of other peculiarities of form, including notations of editions on the verso (the flip side) of the full title page and the running headers all throughout that rename the book you are already reading. And yet removing any one of these features would, if just in a small way, erode the bookiness of a book.

One site of that erosion, which may help explain ebook reticence, can be found in self-published books. For people predisposed to sneer at the practice, a lack of editing or the absence of publisher endorsement and review might justify self-published works’ second-class status. That matter is debatable. More clear is the consequence of disintermediation: Nobody takes a self-published manuscript and lays it out for printing in a manner that conforms with received standards. And so you often end up with a perfect-bound Word doc instead of a book. That odd feeling of impropriety isn’t necessarily a statement about the trustworthiness of the writer or their ideas, but a sense of dissonance at the book as an object. It’s an eerie gestalt, a foreboding feeling of unbookiness.

A particular reader’s receptivity to ebooks, then, depends on the degree to which these objects conform to, or at least fail to flout, one’s idea of bookiness. But if you look back at the list of features that underlie that idea, ebooks embrace surprisingly few of them.

An ebook doesn’t have pages, for one. The Kindle-type book does have text, and that text might still be organized into sections and chapters and the like. But the basic unit of text in an ebook does not correspond with a page, because the text can be made to reflow at different sizes and in various fonts, as the user prefers. That’s why Amazon invented “locations” to track progress and orientation in a book. You’d think the matter displayed on an iPad screen would feel more familiar—it’s just pictures of actual pages—but oddly it often feels less like leaves of paper than its e-ink brethren does. The weird way you tap or push a whole image of a page to the side—it’s the uncanny valley of page turning, not a simulation or replacement of it.

The iPad’s larger screen also scales down PDF pages to fit, making the results smaller than they would be in print. It also displays simulated print margins inside the bezel margin of the device itself, a kind of mise en abyme that still can’t actually be used for the things margins are used for, such as notes or dog-ears. Ebooks of the Kindle or iPad sort don’t have facing pages either, eradicating the spatial immersion of print books. Random access, the ur-feature of the codex, isn’t possible, and search, bookmarking, and digital-annotation features can somehow make people with a predilection for skimming back and forth feel less oriented than they might in print. For those readers, ideas are attached to the physical memory of the book’s width and depth—a specific notion residing at the top of a recto halfway in, for example, like a friend lives around the block and halfway down.

Some aspects of bookiness do translate directly to ebooks, and particularly to the Kindle. The Kindle is highly portable and easily handheld. It’s small, about the size of a trade book—a format that Apple and other tablet makers more or less abandoned in favor of ever larger screens. The Kindle is also extremely light, making it easy to hold for long periods (something that can’t be said of any iPad). Before computerized books, nobody ever needed to specify that books are appealing because they don’t require electricity, but that’s an obvious corollary of portability; e-ink requires infrequent charging.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Paper Books vs eBooks Statistics, Trends and Facts – 2021

From TonerBuzz:

Paper books vs eBooks statistics show print is here to stay!

Dead Tree Editions Just Won’t Die!

Like the monster in a horror movie, print books just won’t die. The most recent paper books vs eBooks statistics, research, and surveys back this up.

Print books are here to stay!

Let’s look at the most important eBook vs print book statistics, key differences between print and e-books, and where American publishers are taking the industry.

Popularity Contest: Books Versus Print Books

Are print books still popular? You’d better believe it!

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on book consumption and book formats, traditional print is still the most popular reading format for both adults and children.

Survey says:

  • 72% of adults in the United States read a book in some format over the last year
  • 65% of respondents claimed they read a book in the last 12 months
  • 37% of Americans claim they only read print books
  • 28% say they read both print books and e-books
  • 7% say they only read e-books
Ebook vs print book statistics

Demographics: Reader vs E-Reader

Book reading demographics vary according to education and income level.

College graduates make up 90% of book readers, while only 61% of high school graduates read books.

Those who dropped out of school have an even lower readership rate – a mere 32%.

Economics goes hand-in-hand with education. Individuals earning over $75,000 a year make up 86% of readers, while well those earning less than $30,000 annually make up only 62%.

Physical books are still the top moneymakers for publishers. 

Publishing market research shows the economic juggernaut of traditional books. While publishers are experimenting with different media formats — especially audiobooks — they are still investing the bulk of their marketing efforts into physical book sales.

And they should…there’s still big money in old-fashioned publishing!

  • Books sales revenue in 2019 totaled $26 billion
  • Physical books generated 74.7% of the total revenue
  • E-books accounted for only 7.48% of the revenue
  • The remaining part of the revenue was generated by other formats like audiobooks

Book sales statistics

Source: The Association of American Publishers (AAP)

Link to the rest at TonerBuzz

PG notes that TonerBuzz is an ecommerce seller of toner and ink.

Has Amazon Changed Fiction?

From The New Republic:

In 1993, a young Jeff Bezos was contemplating a career change. He wanted to leave his executive job at the high-speed–trading investment firm D.E. Shaw & Co., and while he was mulling his next move, he happened to pick up a copy of The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel about an aging butler who looks back on his life, surveying a landscape of missed opportunity and remorse. The novel’s rueful atmosphere inspired Bezos, or so the story goes, to come up with a “regret minimization framework” for his own decisions. In that spirit, he founded an online bookstore in 1994, books being an ­ideal commodity for an experiment in what is now called e-commerce. His then wife, MacKenzie Scott, was an aspiring author, who had worked as a research assistant for Toni Morrison and would publish her first novel in 2005. In this telling, the world-spanning behemoth corporation that is Amazon is the result first and foremost of literature.

Mark McGurl’s new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, makes the argument not only that books are at the company’s root, but that Amazon itself is a form of literature, an epic narrative of domination that subsumes all of its users as bit characters. It is a force that shapes the creation of all published culture, “offering itself as the new platform of literary life,” McGurl writes. The ways in which the company does this are now so omnipresent as to be subconscious, a fact of culture not worth mentioning, like water to fish. By 2019, Amazon’s digital storefront controlled as much as 72 percent of adult new book sales online and half of all new book sales. Amazon’s Kindle is the most popular e-reader in the world, and, by one estimate, its Kindle Direct Publishing contains over six million e-books. Amazon owns both Audible, the largest audiobook service in the United States, and Goodreads, the pernicious book-review social network that has a reputation for negativity. If that weren’t enough, it also operates 16 of its own imprints for physical books, including a literary-styled imprint, Little A.

Like it or not, we live in the Amazon Era of literature, according to McGurl, just as writers of the late eighteenth century worked in the Age of Johnson; those of the early twentieth century found themselves in the Pound Era; and postwar writers entered the Program Era, which McGurl defined in his previous book as the age of MFA-honed fiction. As well as an economic force, Amazon is an aesthetic one. Literature that is not adapted to its structures, which control the principal ways that books reach readers, will have a difficult time surviving. McGurl dissects this state of affairs in a relatively nonjudgmental way: Rather than arguing that Amazon is destroying literature, or devaluing the artistic act, he attempts to figure out what the house style of the Amazon Era actually is—a style that the author almost perversely enjoys over the course of the book, as part anthropologist and part fan. Unfortunately, that style reads a lot like Fifty Shades of Grey.

.McGurl, a professor of literature at Stanford, focuses less on the innovations of particular works of art than on historical shifts that occurred while art was being made. His 2009 study, The Program Era, took a disinterested approach to fiction, analyzing late–twentieth-century authors as the products of the MFA writing programs they passed through. Among the authors this system produced were Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Tama Janowitz. For all their differences in style and approach, McGurl found “the dominant aesthetic orientation of the writing program has been toward literary realism.” Working in cloistered university departments, with teaching as one of the few ways to earn a living, Program Era authors tended to focus on self-expression, the pursuit of a unique personal voice over large-scale political commentary. The reductiveness of McGurl’s arguments, like laws of physics but for culture, doesn’t hamper their utility or their accuracy: He usually seems right.

In Everything and Less, McGurl holds Amazon-style digital platforms and their effects to the same scrutiny as MFA programs. Though there is certainly plenty to watch, read, and listen to outside of platforms like Goodreads and Audible, it’s through them that a huge number of people find the things they want to consume—the process that Silicon Valley calls “discovery.” Discovery happens primarily through feeds of information: We find new authors or journalists to follow from Twitter retweets; new television shows to watch on the Netflix homepage; and new things to buy—whether novels or blenders—through Amazon, where we might be tempted by its suggestions of other related or highly reviewed products. Each platform presents its own kind of filter for what we are most likely to discover, an organizing principle that determines what gets recommended next. Twitter rewards self-contained brevity and incendiary provocation, just as Instagram prioritizes bright colors and stark contrasts, the hallmarks of the digital minimalist aesthetic, and TikTok promotes songs with danceable snippets.

Platforms for literature subject it to the same homogenizing effects. One of McGurl’s most important test cases is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, which serves as a marketplace of literature the way eBay is a market for stuff. Anyone can self-publish on KDP; it bypasses the publishing world’s usual hierarchy of gatekeepers: agents, editors, and imprint publishers. But the ultimate gatekeeper for KDP is Amazon itself, which rewards specific kinds of books and authors, promoting them through its recommendation feeds. Amazon Literature is serial, with authors publishing new material at high volume every few months instead of every few years. It’s repetitive, with the same tropes, plots, and resolutions happening over and over again, satisfying a readership always ready to consume more through a frictionless tablet device. It usually falls into broad genre categories. The epic, à la Game of Thrones, with its civilization-scale narratives, and the romance, like Fifty Shades, with its intimate scope and mandated happy endings, are major Amazon genres.

. . . .

“According to Amazon, all fiction is genre fiction,” McGurl writes. That includes what we think of as literary fiction, which has to pass through the same filters as everything else on Amazon in order to reach its (dwindling) demographic of readers. He relabels a certain category of highbrow contemporary American fiction as its own mini genre: the “beta intellectual romance.” Whereas the “alpha billionaire romance” genre (think Fifty Shades of Grey) tends to feature brusque, dominating men, the beta intellectual romance serves up a version of masculinity shaped by the basics of feminism and awareness of male privilege. The protagonists are sensitive to a fault.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to J. for the tip.

The OP reminded PG of how much he hated every college class taught by the English Literature department.

Yet one more in a long list of self-appointed curators of culture, the professor is saying, “Amazon bad” and unnamed people or organizations, likely including traditional publishers, “Good”.

PG speculates that the endowment of Stanford University and, thus, the welfare of the university as a whole, has benefitted far more from the donations by those people who like Amazon and donated its stock to the school than from the cumulative contributions from all English Literature Professors anywhere on earth as a group.

But there PG goes again, thinking that virtue is not its own reward and that it requires money from third parties to keep intellectual university employees from having to work at an Amazon warehouse.

PG would also be interesting in seeing a list of what 21st Century books and authors the Stanford professor finds up to snuff, especially authors who earn their living from their writing and the people who purchase copies of what they have written instead of needing a day job talking to rich 18-year-olds.

As indicated in the OP, Professor McGurl is pitching his new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. The book is to be released in a few days and is published by Verso, “the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world.”

Here’s what Verso says about itself in Wikipedia:

Verso Books was originally known as New Left Books. The name “Verso” refers to the technical term for the left-hand page in a book (see recto and verso), and is a play on words regarding its political outlook and also reminds of the vice versa – “the other way around”.

Aren’t they cute?

Verso’s website includes a post titled Bestsellers of 2020

The first book listed is titled The End of Policing. When PG checked, its Best Sellers Rank was #170,723 in Kindle Store. The hardcover version was ranked 962,397 in Books.

The second book listed in Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers is Feminism for the 99%. Its Best Sellers Rank: #363,001 in Kindle Store and the paperback’s Best Sellers Rank: #56,308. PG didn’t see a hardcover version of this book.

#3 on Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers list is If They Come in the Morning …: Voices of Resistance (Radical Thinkers). This book has a Best Sellers Rank: #622,343 in Kindle Store and a Best Sellers Rank: #5,331,334 in Books.

Back to Professor McGurl’s literary output, PG discovered that his upcoming Verso release is not his first venture into trying to sell his writing to the public.

The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James was published in June, 2020, by Princeton University Press. This book has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,552,418 in Kindle Store.

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing was published in 2009 by The Harvard University Press and has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #1,064,212 in Kindle Store.

PG expected that these two books must be hot-sellers in Cambridge and Princeton, but a check of the Harvard Bookstore bestsellers list didn’t show any of Professor McGurl’s books. When PG checked the Princeton University store, it was having a big sale on t-shirts, sweatshirts, vests and jackets, blankets and pillows bearing the Princeton logo. PG eventually Princeton’s books section, but a search for Professor McGurl’s name yielded no products for sale. The Princeton store did offer a cool bottle-stopper, however.

Even The Stanford Bookstore didn’t appear to offer any of Professor McGurl’s books although you can buy a cool Stanford Wrist Shimmer Pom there.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

George Bernard Shaw

Forget Disney. Author Soman Chainani thinks of fairy tales as ‘survival guides to life’

From c/net:

Author Soman Chainani has spent 10 years working on his children’s book series The School for Good and Evil. He finished the sixth, and last, book in the series, One True King, in March 2020, and says he was ready to take the rest of the year to relax and head out on new adventures. But the day after he turned in the manuscript, COVID-19 happened and so he spent most of 2020 pretty much indoors.

What did he do during lockdown? He wrote a new book, called Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales, which has just been released.

Just like The School for Good and Evil, which aimed to upend the fairy tale genre, Beasts and Beauty reinvents 12 classic stories, including Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Peter Pan. There’s a common thread in his approach: Chainani says he thinks of fairy tales as “survival guides to life” and he wants kids to consider the heroes and villains in a completely different way, non-Disney way.

. . . .

“I grew up with Disney fairy tales almost exclusively in our house … and so my entire viewpoint of good and evil is shaped by Disney, and I would honestly say I think most people in my generation and above have their morality shaped by Disney, which is why I’m not surprised that our politics is so polarized,” Chainani explains in an interview for CNET’s I’m So Obsessed podcast.

“Because when you have such a clear good guy and evil guy in all our storytelling … it means that one side has to live and one side has to die, and you’re not going to make any accommodations for either.”

. . . .

As a college student at Harvard University, Chainani reread the original classic fairy tales and learned how much “room for ambiguity and good and grayness and in-the-spectrum-between-good-and-evil there is.” That thinking led to The School for Good and Evil in 2013, which tells the story of 12-year-old friends Sophie and Agatha who go to a magical school where children are trained to become fairy-tale heroes or villains (Evers and Nevers).

Chainani says he wanted to upend “this idea that we brand the evil kids ‘the bad kids’ without understanding who they are and what they’re about and understanding that we all have a different way of approaching life.”

“Once you start experimenting, and giving people the chance to mess with their identity and experience life from the opposite perspective, all hell’s gonna break loose,” he says with a laugh. “But in a way, that’s going to ultimately lead to a more positive reconstruction of the world.”

. . . .

The series has sold more than 2.5 million copies and Netflix is adapting The School for Good and Evil into an original movie set for release in 2022. It’s being directed by Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids and Spy) and stars Charlize Theron, Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh and Laurence Fishburne. “It’s going to be a big huge fairy-tale, action spectacular,” Chainani told his fans.

With Beast and Beauty, Chainani decided to “blow up the fairy tales and retell them as if I was the Brothers Grimm in the 1700s and I could see what the world would look like now.” That’s why Snow White is the only black girl in an all-white kingdom and Red Riding Hood is about how the most beautiful girl in town is marked for sacrifice every spring to a pack of wolves/boys in what he describes as the “ultimate #MeToo experience.”

Link to the rest at c/net

Does Listening to a Book Have the Same Brain Benefits as Reading?

From Well+Good:

While there aren’t exactly a wealth of scientific studies endorsing that binging Real Housewives is good for your brain (clinical trials, get at me), reading is one hobby that has been well-documented to supporting cognitive health. It’s up there with doing crosswords and playing a musical instrument in terms of habits brain health experts always recommend people to do keep their mind sharp.

Sometimes, there is nothing better than curling up in your favorite chair with a paperback. But if you want to multitask and read at the same time, audiobooks can be handier. You can’t exactly drive or deep clean the bathroom with a book in your hands. But as audiobooks have become increasingly more popular, it does beg the question of whether or not you’re really getting the same benefits as traditional reading. Sure, you’ll be able to chime in at book club, but does listening to a book require the same brain power? When it comes to the reading versus listening debate, neuroscientist and Biohack Your Brain author Kristen Willeumier, PhD. has some thoughts.

The brain benefits reading and listening have in common

Most people know that reading is good for brain health, but a lot of people don’t know why. “Reading is a cognitively engaging task that requires higher-level cognitive processing integrating written information and language comprehension,” Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that reading—and then processing what you’re reading—activates different parts of the brain. She says this includes the frontal lobes (involved in cognitive processing, attention, reasoning, reading fluency, and language comprehension), temporal lobes (memory), parietal lobes (language processing), occipital lobes (visually processing the words on the page), and cerebellum (motor control related to visual processing—aka moving your pupils across the words).

“A consistent reading practice strengthens your ability to communicate and will improve your vocabulary, reasoning, concentration, and critical thinking skills while enhancing brain network connectivity. Reading has been shown to promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that lead to greater longevity,” Dr. Willeumier adds. For example, researchers at Yale School of Public Health found that book reading had a 20 percent reduction in mortality in readers versus non-readers.

While the study focused only on physical books and didn’t include audiobooks, here’s what Dr. Willeumier says reading versus listening have in common when it comes to brain function: In both situations, you are processing information associated with story comprehension. Whether you’re reading or listening, your brain is working to connect the pieces of the puzzle, making sense of the plot and attempting to predict what will happen next. But there are some differences in terms of how this information is processed.

Reading versus listening: how the brain benefits differ

“The brain is differentially activated when processing speech versus print,” Dr. Willeumier says. She explains that understanding what you’re reading activates the left brain (in areas associated with language processing), while understanding what you’re listening to activates both (in order to process speech and acoustics).

. . . .

She also says that listening to an audiobook may lead to developing greater empathy because you’re hearing the emotion in the narrator’s voice, not just reading it on the page. “Listening to an emotionally-driven storyteller engages emotional circuits in the brain and can heighten the intensity and imagery of the episodes, leading to deeper processing of the narrative and greater enjoyment of the material than experienced by reading a book,” she says.

Link to the rest at Well+Good

The curious incident of Sherlock Holmes’s real-life secretary

From The Economist:

On a brisk spring morning in March 1975, Chris Bazlinton, a tall, fair-haired, bespectacled 27-year-old, arrived at Baker Street station in central London. He’d travelled from his home in Essex in the hope of getting a job at Abbey National, a British building society. The interview went well: he was offered the public-relations role on the spot. “Oh, one more little thing,” the general manager said. “You will also have to act as secretary to Sherlock Holmes, answering the mail that comes in for him.” He paused, with a slight smile: “How do you feel about that?”

Bazlinton thought his new boss might be joking, but grinned back. “I’d be happy to,” he said.

As Bazlinton would soon discover, the peculiar position of Sherlock Holmes’s secretary had been created more than four decades earlier, in 1932, when Abbey opened its grand, white-marbled headquarters on Baker Street. The art-deco building was so large that it had been assigned ten street numbers, from 219 to 229. Overnight, one of the most famous literary addresses in history – 221b Baker Street, home of Holmes and his partner, John H. Watson – became a real place for the first time.

Ever since Sherlock Holmes made his debut in 1887 in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”, fans had been writing to him from all over the world, believing that the fictional detective was an actual person. At that time Baker Street didn’t go beyond number 85, so the mail went undelivered. Now Abbey was inundated with letters. Rather than ask the post office to stop bringing the correspondence, the company decided it wouldn’t be a bad bit of pr to be aligned with the brilliant sleuth.

Bazlinton was the seventh secretary to Holmes, serving until 1982. Over the course of seven years, Bazlinton estimates that he received nearly 6,000 pieces of mail and replied to each one. I tracked him down out of sheer curiosity: who would be a real-life secretary to a fictional detective?

To the many who wrote simply to praise the character’s remarkable powers of deduction, Bazlinton sent a standardised thank you, though he was careful to dispatch different versions when a whole class of children wrote to him. To people requesting photos of their idol he’d reply: “We couldn’t possibly send a picture of Sherlock Holmes, because that might cause him problems if he were recognised in the street. As a detective, he obviously has to remain anonymous.”

The volume of letters could be overwhelming, Bazlinton says, but he crafted a more tailored reply to the more “interesting” ones, punching them out on his manual Adler typewriter. When I asked him why he was such an assiduous correspondent on behalf of an imaginary person, he looked incredulous, almost like Holmes amazed that his dear Watson had yet again failed to detect the elementary: “Somebody had to answer.”

. . . .

In 1893 Holmes and his arch-nemesis Moriarty fell off a cliff and perished in “The Adventures of the Final Problem”. (“I must save my mind for better things,” Conan Doyle opined to his mother.) Unlike most of us, however, the detective rose from the dead eight years later when, badgered by black-armband-wearing fans and the lure of lucrative publishing contracts, Conan Doyle resurrected his creation.

Holmes mania has barely waned in the ensuing century and a quarter. Around the world, enthusiasts pore over the fictional detective’s cases as if they really happened, playing the Great Game “as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s”, crime writer Dorothy Sayers once observed.

Sherlock Holmes has been adapted for television and film more times than any other literary protagonist, leaving Emma in the Highbury dust. In the bbc’s “Sherlock”, Benedict Cumberbatch trades a pipe for a nicotine patch and investigates terrorism in London rather than murder on the moors. Across reams of fan-fiction, the genius gumshoe has occupied different galaxies and space-time continuums. He’s switched genders and gender-identities. He’s sung and danced in a psychedelic Russian musical and been a dog, a mouse, a gnome and a deerstalker-clad cucumber (the latter in the Christian-themed animated kids show, “VeggieTales”). He’s also picked up family members, as in last summer’s Netflix film “Enola Holmes”, itself based on a series of young-adult novels that tell the tale of Sherlock’s little sister who joins the family business and strikes a blow against the patriarchy. A sequel is in the works.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Seeking vs. Suffering: The Secret of Passive Protagonists

From Writer Unboxed:

I’ll admit it. I fell for the title of Kelsey Allagood’s WU post on September 18th: “Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy”. Upon reading the title my blood pressure rose, not because of the heated word “patriarchy” but because of the chilly suggestion that “active” protagonists are inherently bad and therefore “passive” protagonists are fundamentally good, and maybe even a necessary political tool for activist fiction writers.

Of course, Kelsey was being slyly provocative. She did not strictly mean that writers should see passive protagonists as a weapon of change. Hey kids, here’s a great way to tear down patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, agism, homophobia, racism, capitalism, gentrification and more…let’s be more passive! There’s an idea, eh?

No, Kelsey was mostly speaking of “active” and “passive” in the technical sense in which we apply those words to protagonists in discussing fiction craft. The distinction is important and Kelsey’s point was a good one: not all protagonists are, or need to be, “active” in the sense of being imbued with agency and embarking on a planned course of action. Kelsey said, “I say let’s talk those of us who aren’t always in the driver’s seat.” Today I’m taking her up on that.

Not every protagonist is Odysseus. It is entirely possible that a main character can begin a story in a state of suspension. It’s a human condition to be oppressed, wandering, lost, stuck or even imprisoned. People don’t always make things happen; things happen to them. Naturally, there is no story without a response to an adverse situation. But does that mean a fist fight? Must a protagonist formulate a goal, or—ask me—engage in the more useful business of task, plan, scheme or gamble? Isn’t it enough for a main character to observe, experience, chafe, resist? Can’t a protagonist give voice to the powerless? Can’t a character just yearn?

More: Who says that women protagonists must be kick-ass, anyway? Must plot always drive toward something? Is a story climax always needed? (Whoa, so masculo-sexual!) Can’t a story be built of retreat, running, seeking refuge, healing? Is courage necessarily violent? Isn’t it equally dramatic to endure? Where is the line between passive as strong, admirable and uplifting and passive as weak, degrading and pathetic? There is a line. It has nothing to do with a character’s circumstances and everything to do with a character’s spirit.

This is where passive dissociates itself from the common, pejorative, unhelpful associations of the word. For fiction writers, a passive protagonist doesn’t have a commanding position in the story world but does have an inner light that says that this character is alive, aware, unbroken, strong inside and seeing. A passive protagonist might be helpless but is not hopeless. A passive protagonist may not be marching toward battle but nevertheless is on a journey to someplace better.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

An Erotica Pioneer Goes From Hero to Villain for Dozens of Authors

From The New York Times:

Anne Wills was a mother of four who doted on her children, was an active volunteer with a youth swim team, loved animals and was known to those around her as a generous, nurturing, motherly figure in her small town in rural Virginia.

When that life felt too tame for her, she became Bethany Burke, a bawdy, kink-loving erotica author who also made low-budget spanking films. She wrote them and occasionally even directed them.

She was an early online erotica entrepreneur with her subscription spanking site, Bethany’s Woodshed, and a hero and mentor to dozens of authors, most of them women, whom she published for the first time through Blushing Books, the company that grew out of her original site. Some of those authors started earning tens of thousands of dollars a year from what they had thought of as a secret hobby, not a profession.

Now, to many of those same writers, she is a villain.

“She has you, she owns you,” said Barbara Carey LaPointe, a retired social worker in Camden, N.Y., who writes romance under the pen name Stevie MacFarlane and who, like dozens of other authors, is fighting Ms. Wills to reclaim the rights to the stories she created.

“These are the only things I’ll be able to leave to my grandchildren,” Ms. LaPointe said.

In interviews with The New York Times, a dozen Blushing authors and seven former employees described a haphazardly run business that frequently failed to pay authors on time, and threatened them with lower royalties and defamation lawsuits if they defected. Some writers who spoke to The Times discovered they were not being paid for books that Blushing was selling through certain online vendors or in audio format. Others were locked into contracts that gave Blushing “permanent and exclusive” rights to their books and pen names, which publishing experts called onerous and outside of industry standards.

When asked by authors about the missing payments, Ms. Wills, 63, the chief executive, often called it an oversight or a glitch in the system. But several former employees said that delayed payments to authors were a result of Blushing’s routine mismanagement of finances.

. . . .

In December 2020, the Romance Writers of America, a trade group, announced that, following an ethics investigation, it had suspended the publisher’s membership for three years and barred Blushing from attending its conferences. The Authors Guild, an advocacy group, is representing 30 writers seeking to reclaim rights to their work from Blushing. So far, one of those authors has stopped Blushing from selling her books after filing copyright-infringement notices with retailers, showing that Blushing did not hold contracts for them. Umair Kazi, director of policy and advocacy at the Authors Guild, said that some of Blushing’s contract provisions and its treatment of some authors go against industry standards and raise “many red flags.”

In a statement to The Times, Ms. Wills declined to address specific allegations from authors, and said that her company’s policy was not to speak publicly about any “author’s contractual obligation with Blushing.” She also noted that Blushing had paid “millions of dollars in royalties just in the past five years.”

Under pressure from authors, Blushing has offered more transparency, and says that it is now providing monthly royalty payments, and that since the first quarter of 2020, it has used an automated royalty tracking system to generate payments.

A lawyer for Ms. Wills said that she “believes she has fulfilled her contractual duties to her authors and continues to do so” and that “Blushing wishes to move on from this small group of past authors and disgruntled past employees and put its energy into focusing on the talented and passionate authors they have the privilege to represent.”

. . . .

On top of major companies like Harlequin, Avon and Berkley, which are owned by large multinational corporations, a constellation of smaller, independent romance publishers sometimes operate in a gray area between corporate publishers and vanity presses, which charge authors to publish their work. The independent presses tend to offer writers small advances of four to five figures but a higher cut of royalties, a share of profits. Often, they attract writers, mostly women, who have little professional publishing experience and aren’t represented by lawyers or agents who can help them evaluate a contract.

“Writers who really want to get published are so easy to take advantage of, and there are more and more people out there to take advantage of,” said Mary Rasenberger, chief executive of the Authors Guild.

While every creative field has horror stories about artists who are underpaid and exploited, the dynamics of the romance industry can be especially difficult to navigate. Despite the ascendance of erotica, there’s a lingering stigma attached to the genre, which is written largely by and for women, and is still sometimes dismissed as shameful or unserious. Many romance authors publish under pen names and keep their professional and personal identities separate, and some write in secret for fear of being judged for writing about sex, and more particularly about women enjoying sex.

Ms. LaPointe, 66, became disillusioned with Blushing after she discovered it had added clauses to her contracts without telling her. The additions included claiming rights to foreign editions, audiobooks, and film and television adaptations, according to contracts shared with The Times. Her royalty payments were erratic — she said she sometimes made $3,000 in a quarter, and other times Blushing would claim she owed the company money for advances that it hadn’t made back in sales. She recently started self-publishing and is making far more on her own, but Blushing still has rights to 31 of her books.

She understands now how many questions she should have asked when she began publishing with Blushing in 2012.

“At the time you’re so thankful that a publisher is going to take your book,” she said. “Looking back, you realize how incredibly naïve you were,” she said.

. . . .

As she was building her erotica empire, Ms. Wills ran into legal trouble.

Under her married name from her first marriage, Anne Briggs, Ms. Wills was charged with embezzlement in Charlottesville, according to court records. In 2000, she pleaded guilty to embezzling funds in 1998 from a cafe where she worked as a bookkeeper and to credit card fraud in 1997. Around the same time, she was accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars from a youth swim team, according to reports in The Daily Progress, a Charlottesville paper, but she was never prosecuted. (A lawyer for Ms. Wills said that “the allegations regarding criminal charges are false.”)

In her other life as Bethany, she had grand ambitions for her publishing business, and recruited a large stable of authors. “She would wine and dine you,” said Victoria Rouch, a former editor in chief for Blushing, who writes under the name Ava Sinclair. “She always had this image of being extremely wealthy.”

She added: “She would get new writers and they would be the flavor of the month. She would treat them like queens.”

Ms. Wills bought many books outright as “work for hire,” meaning Blushing bought them outright and no royalties would be owed. For others, she offered a seven-year term to license the work, but in some contracts, she claimed permanent and exclusive rights, meaning Blushing could sell the books forever. To attract new writers, Blushing promised some a large cut of royalties — 50 percent, or 60 percent if authors agreed to publish exclusively with Blushing — far more than the typical 25 percent that most authors make for e-books with mainstream publishers. Those royalties were to be paid quarterly, but Blushing’s most successful authors were offered monthly payments.

. . . .

Some former employees said that they found her endearingly scatterbrained, and that they tried to create automated systems to keep track of royalties and to try to make sure authors were paid on time. Former employees said that they had asked Ms. Wills to create an escrow account for author earnings to protect them until royalties were paid, but she declined. An informal policy was to make sure the best-selling authors, and the ones who frequently complained — called “the yappers” by employees —- were paid first, while others had to wait, according to former employees.

As an avalanche of self-published erotica arrived after “Fifty Shades of Grey” came out in 2011, the dark, edgy category Blushing once thrived in was flooded. Ms. Wills looked for ways to stay visible in a cutthroat online marketplace.

. . . .

One of her workarounds was risky. Several former employees said that Ms. Wills had set up multiple Kindle publishing accounts on Amazon, around 10 at one point, a violation of Amazon’s one-account-per-publisher policy. Ms. Wills told employees that books performed better with Amazon’s algorithm when they came from accounts with fewer new releases. She also told them not to talk about the accounts — if Amazon learned of it, Blushing’s account could potentially be shut down, taking authors’ sales and careers with it.

But some former employees grew suspicious when they saw accounts opened in authors’ names, or when Ms. Wills used employee names, addresses and tax IDs to open an account, including Alta Hensley, a former editor in chief who quit after Ms. Wills tried to open an account in Nevada under her tax ID and address without Ms. Hensley’s permission. Ms. Hensley refused to sign the paperwork and later quit. Ms. Wills threatened to sue her if she said anything negative about the company, she said.

. . . .

At first, Wendy Weston, a clinical social worker who lives in Texas and writes as Alyssa Bailey, was ecstatic to see her books in print. “She published me first and I will always be thankful that she took a chance on me,” she said of Ms. Wills.

But now she fears she has signed away rights to her books forever. The company holds permanent and exclusive rights to 22 of her titles, including her historical romance series, “Lords and Little Ladies,” and her contemporary Western spanking romances. In 2019, her royalties fell to half what they once were. Once, when she received no royalties for eight months, she asked Ms. Wills why she hadn’t been paid.

“She said, ‘Oh we forgot to pay you,’” Ms. Weston said.

Some authors signed contracts that gave Blushing permanent rights to their pen names and series names, making it all but impossible for them to leave without sacrificing their careers and audience.

Ms. Wills also added a clause giving the company “permanent and exclusive rights” to titles, often without informing authors of the change, and instructed an employee to revert to the previous term of seven years only if authors noticed and asked for it, emails reviewed by The Times showed. “Based on what I’ve seen, some of these clauses read as predatory and not standard,” said the literary agent Kimberly Brower, who reviewed language in Blushing’s contracts at The Times’s request. “Some of these publishers count on the fact that authors do not have agents or cannot afford a lawyer.”

. . . .

Anya Summers, whose real name is Margaret Huth, is a former music teacher who lives in St. Louis and now writes romance full time. She started publishing her “Dungeon Fantasy Club” series, about a secret B.D.S.M. sex club, with Blushing in 2016. Her relationship with the company soured last year, when she ended her exclusive agreement with it and began self-publishing books on the side. Ms. Huth was alarmed when her royalty payments from Blushing subsequently plummeted, even though many of her latest Blushing books were ranking higher on Amazon than they had in the previous quarter, suggesting sales remained strong. Royalty statements from Blushing said one of her books had not sold a single copy, when Amazon reviews showed verified purchases.

. . . .

When she emailed Ms. Wills last October to ask why her royalties fell, Ms. Wills replied that her Blushing sales fell because she was self-publishing, and said that unless Ms. Huth agreed to publish exclusively with Blushing, her payments would shrink even more, according to an email reviewed by The Times. Ms. Huth wouldn’t agree to the terms, and subsequently, she said her payments fell by nearly 70 percent, amounting to thousands of dollars a month.

Ms. Huth recently learned that in 2017, the publisher registered a limited liability corporation under her pen name, Anya Summers, and that it also opened a Kindle publishing account in her name without her knowledge or permission.

. . . .

In a way, Blushing’s vast and growing catalog of erotica was itself something of an illusion, a fantasy in more ways than one. Blushing often treated its writers and their work as interchangeable, another kinky story to feed the bottomless appetite of Amazon’s algorithm.

To keep pumping out new releases, Ms. Wills padded inventory by taking older books and repacking them with new covers, sometimes under a different title and pen name, according to several former employees. One former Blushing author said Ms. Wills often rehashed older books as new titles and asked her to lightly rewrite some. “She had thousands of books by all kinds of authors that she claims she just owns and she can put other people’s names on,” the author, who writes as RJ Gray, said.

While Blushing can legally recycle books it bought as work for hire, the practice can trick readers into buying the same story twice.

That’s what happened to some fans of JoAnn Kinder, who started writing for Ms. Wills in 2001 and published more than 200 books with Blushing. When she died suddenly in June 2018, at age 67, many of her books did not have formal contracts.

She was in the process of finalizing agreements that specified that in the event of her passing, her royalties would go to her surviving family, including her husband, her two children and her grandchildren, according to her daughter, Christina Boes.

Ms. Wills told Ms. Kinder’s family that her books hadn’t been making much money and promised to send them a share of royalties, Ms. Boes said. “To say that she wasn’t making any money on her books is a complete falsehood,” said Ms. Boes, a home health nurse in Colorado, who added that her mother used to make $3,000 to $5,000 in royalties every quarter, though payments often arrived late.

Two former employees confirmed that Ms. Kinder’s books, which were written under 10 pen names, including Joannie Kay, still sold steadily.

Nearly two years after Ms. Kinder’s death, the company sent a contract to her husband, promising the family 10 percent of profits for her titles and claiming the right to revise and republish her work under new titles and pseudonyms. On the advice of a lawyer, Mr. Kinder signed the contract, a decision the family now regrets.

Ms. Boes said the family has not received royalties for her mother’s works, apart from $200 that Blushing sent for a chapter she submitted right before she died. The family and Blushing dispute the status of royalty payments. Beyond that, Ms. Boes is upset that her mother’s work is being revised and released, and that her mother would have been appalled by readers feeling deceived.

“They’re still selling all of these books and rewriting them,” Ms. Boes said.

RJ Gray said that in 2019, after Ms. Kinder’s death, Ms. Wills had asked her to add more explicit scenes to Ms. Kinder’s books, something Ms. Kinder had opposed, according to her family.

“She told me that she had access to Joanie’s material and she wanted me to rewrite it,” Ms. Gray said. “Joanie wrote clean, and she wanted to spice up her work and resell it.”

Ms. Gray said no, but Blushing pressed ahead with plans to keep Ms. Kinder’s books coming out posthumously.

. . . .

For a while, Ms. Wills was able to keep authors from speaking about the company through nondisclosure agreements in their contracts. But in 2019, a group of writers rebelled. The author organizing the uprising was Addison Cain, one of Blushing’s top sellers. Ms. Cain had gotten into a copyright dispute with another author after Ms. Cain claimed that her books had been plagiarized, and then discovered that Blushing had never copyrighted her books, a standard service that many publishers provide and that Blushing’s contracts said they would cover. (The accused author filed a lawsuit against Ms. Cain and Blushing, and received a judgment against Blushing, but the suit against Ms. Cain was dismissed after the plaintiff liquidated her company and missed court deadlines.)

Ms. Cain told some other authors, who learned that their books, too, had never been copyrighted. Some found their books on piracy sites but Blushing said it couldn’t do anything and discouraged authors from seeking to have them removed.

“Blushing was risking the livelihood of all of their authors,” Ms. Cain said.

The group, seven authors, hired a lawyer to send a demand letter to Blushing for breach of contract and reached a settlement with Blushing to get their rights reverted, but some had to file copyright-infringement notices with retailers to get Blushing to take their books down.

The departure of many of Blushing’s best-selling authors was disastrous for Ms. Wills, who faced mounting legal bills and shrinking profits, and had just spent $135,000 on an office building in Farmville, which was later sold at a $20,000 loss. She worried that other authors might defect, and she registered trademarks for successful series that she thought she might lose in her company’s name, not the author’s, according to trademark filings.

The conflict escalated in February 2020, when some routine financial paperwork caused everything to unravel.

That month, the seven authors who got their rights back received tax documents from Blushing. One of them, Zoe Blake, said she believed the form incorrectly labeled her earnings. In seeking to have it corrected, she was sent email correspondence that Blushing said was from an accountant, explaining no error had occurred. In fact, the email had been altered by Ms. Wills, according to email records and interviews.

Ms. Wills acknowledged in a phone call that she had changed the accountant’s email, but claimed she had only done so to make his meaning more clear, according to Ms. Lamon, who was on the call with two other employees. (In a statement to the Times, Ms. Wills said she had “never been contacted once by the I.R.S. informing us of any issues with tax documents.”)

Blushing’s production manager, accounts manager and editor in chief all promptly resigned. Before they left, the production manager paid herself and other employees their salaries and paid out royalties, including some that had been delayed, and she listed these payments in her resignation letter.

The next day, Ms. Wills filed a police report claiming that her production manager had embezzled from the company. A few weeks later, the former employee was arrested in her home in front of her husband, the deputy chief of police, and her children, and taken before the magistrate. A group of Blushing authors raised money for her legal fees, and Ms. Wills’s estranged husband and one of her children also offered to help.

Ms. Wills never provided any forensic accounting evidence of embezzlement, a lawyer representing the former employee said, and the charge, which was filed in the wrong jurisdiction, was later expunged, according to the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Ms. Wills filed a new complaint against the former employee, but no charges have been filed. (The woman spoke to The Times about the events that led to her arrest on the condition that her name not be printed.)

Link to the rest at The New York Times

This is a longer than usual excerpt than PG usually posts, but the original NYT article is longer still.

Here are a few bullet-point lessons authors can take from the OP:

  1. Read your contracts.
  2. Read every contract, even if it is supposed to be the same as an earlier contract. You can use MS Word Document Compare to assist in this process and help make sure you didn’t miss something small but important.
  3. You don’t have to accept the wording of a proposed publishing agreement. It’s an offer sent to you to enter into a binding contract. You can modify the wording of the agreement, sign it and send it back to the publisher. In legal lingo, this is a counter-offer. If the publisher signs the modified publishing agreement, that’s the binding agreement, not the first version they sent to you.
  4. In contract negotiations, PG is a proponent of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, and PG begins negotiations in a friendly and cooperative manner. (Academic negotiations studies indicate this is the best way to reach an acceptable agreement, so PG has some scientific justification for his normal instincts in contract negotiations.)
  5. PG also applies his “do unto others” standard to the counter-party as well. If counsel for the publisher is friendly and cooperative, that’s the way PG would respond. If counsel is aggressive or a jerk, PG could move into that negotiation mode even if that wasn’t his first preference.
  6. As a general proposition, if the counter-party appears to be shady and devious, PG’s advice to a client would be not to do business with that sort of person or organization because the likelihood of a bad outcome is very high.
  7. If, as the OP implies might have been the case, these authors were pretty desperate to be published and an author, despite PG’s warnings, asked PG to move forward with contract assistance, PG would have no problem creating a modified version of the original unfair contract for the author to send back to a publisher like Blushing with modifications fixing the original unfair provisions. If PG regarded the original contract wording as devious, his response might well be devious, mirroring the publisher’s contract proposal.
  8. As sloppy an operation as the OP indicates Blushing was, PG would be surprised if anyone in the organization read a signed publishing agreement received from an author.

However, even with a reworded publishing agreement, the author would still not be in a very good position to do much with an organization like the one depicted in the NYT article.

Under a typical traditional publishing agreement, the publisher receives all the information concerning a book’s sales. As stated in the OP, at least some of Blushing authors claim the publisher misrepresented the sales numbers and money received from the sales of at least some of its books to the detriment of the authors. If the publisher was operated in the manner implied in the OP, PG would expect a high likelihood that its financial books and accounting are pretty much a black hole.

The first rule of creating a successful agreement is to make it with an individual or entity that will do what he/she/it promises to do competently. No amount of genius legal drafting will avoid problems if the other side of an agreement isn’t inclined to or capable of carrying out its obligations.

Given the high profile of The New York Times, PG would be surprised if a variety of taxing authorities don’t start audits of Blushing’s filings and financial records.

Amazon and other sellers of books published by Blushing may respond to the information in the article in a variety of different ways.

That said, all that PG knows about Blushing and Ms. Wills is what he read in the NYT article. He has not heard Blushing’s side of the story, which he expects would be much different than that published in the Times.

For the record, nothing included in PG’s commentary represents a legal opinion. You don’t obtain a legal opinion by reading a blog post written by an attorney. You obtain a legal opinion by hiring a competent lawyer who would do much more research than read a New York Times article. Facts not mentioned in the NYT article may have a substantial legal impact that would make some or all of the article or PG’s reflections based on the report incorrect.

PG doesn’t have any desire to get involved in this Blushing matter as an attorney. He’s not licensed to practice in Virginia and, while he spent a lot of time in court during a previous life, he has no desire or ability to enter any courtroom now or in the future unless he’s there as a spectator to watch other attorneys do all the work.

Think Like a Horror Writer to Create Better Villains

From SWFA:

You write speculative fiction for the same reason you’ve read or watched it your entire life. There’s something inside of you that craves tales of relatable characters overcoming adversity. It’s your inner hero, and it manifests on that illuminated screen when you sit alone, clicking away on the keyboard. That something becomes the characters that you put your heart and soul into, hoping to all things sacred that your readers will love them–because after all, they’re a part of you.

But what about the bad guy? Every element in good storytelling exists for one of two reasons: it either builds tension (conflict) or releases it (resolution). Genre fiction often utilizes an antagonist to build its tension. Since horror thrives on developing this character, authors of other speculative genres can learn a lot from horror writers about creating good villains. There are many ways to craft a good bad guy, but this horror author has found that they essentially boil down to three “R”s.

1) MAKE YOUR ANTAGONIST REAL.

Whether your bad guy is a malevolent mastermind from another realm, a big, dumb troll, or a serial killer, your task as a writer is to make me believe he is real within the world you’ve created. After all, how could something phony pose any real threat? If it’s sentient, consider adding a humanistic quality: Jealousy. Genuine anger. A moment of empathy. Maybe even a brief second-guessing of the morality of his actions. Anything with which your audience can relate, and therefore, believe. Unless this character is invisible, be diligent in your physical description of him. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many authors over-describe their heroes, yet under-describe their bad guys. Think of your story in terms of visual-media, and give your antagonist some close-ups. Tell me about his rancid breath as he leans in to place cold, steel chains on your heroine’s wrists. How do the warm drops of sweat feel as they roll off his bald head to land on her face? Are the threads that stick out from the bottom of his robe frizzed? You don’t have to describe every crack in his pinky-nail, but a few cleverly placed details will give him flesh.

2) MAKE YOUR ANTAGONIST REALLY MENACING.

Not just menacing to the world at large, either. This malevolent force should be particularly menacing to your hero or heroine. A manifestation of their fears and past failures. His very existence should threaten something dear, even if it’s only their sanity. Reveal just how terrible he is in increments, as the story unfolds, through acts of treachery. Deviate from your outline, and use him to kill a character you never intended to kill (if it hurts you, it will hurt your readers.) Progressively change the tone of your writing to reflect your hero’s growing distress with each revelation. This will cause the audience to sympathize with them, putting them in your hero’s shoes, and increasing the satisfaction of their ultimate triumph (or in the case of many horror stories, the impact of their failure).

Link to the rest at SWFA

Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp Go Down in Major Outage

From The Wall Street Journal:

Facebook Inc.’s platforms including WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook were down Monday, with users receiving error messages when trying to access the sites.

“We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products,” Facebook wrote in a message posted on rival Twitter. “We’re working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”

The outage comes a day after the whistleblower who provided documents that formed the foundation of The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series went public. Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, said she acted to help prompt change at the social-media giant.

Facebook shares dropped more than 5% on Monday amid a broad-market selloff.

Users began reporting problems late Monday morning, according to Downdetector, a site that monitors website outages. A spokesperson at Downdetector’s parent company, Ookla, said the outage to Facebook and its other companies was “widespread and global in scale.”

Facebook appeared to have made a change Monday morning to its network routing information, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at the network monitoring firm Kentik.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The sites appeared to still be down at about Noon US Pacific time when PG posted this item.

Success Without Self-Promotion

From Writer Unboxed:

Self-promotion isn’t the most famous naughty s-word, but it can still feel like a bad word to today’s authors. I hate self-promotion, you might say. I’m so sick of talking about myself on social media.With more and more options to reach readers directly comes an expectation that authors will do more and more to reach those readers themselves, often without publisher assistance.

So! How do you sell books without a single self-promotional tweet, post, or video?

Simple. In most cases, you actually shouldn’t be promoting yourself. If the goal is to sell books — or at least make people you don’t know personally curious enough about your book(s) to take action — you are not the product. “Buy my book!” doesn’t work if the reader doesn’t know you or know anything about the book in question.

Instead of self-promotion, think of the path to getting your book in front of readers on social media as a railroad track, with two parallel rails: be yourself, and take yourself out of the equation.

Be yourself. There are lots of names for this, and most of them sound like awful corporate-speak: curation! Branding! But let go of the labels. Being yourself on social media doesn’t mean sharing every last little thing. You’re not going to see Instagram posts from me about taking my car to the mechanic last Tuesday or the ancient celery I just found in the back of my produce drawer. But it means posting or talking about the things that interest you, especially where those things overlap with the books you write. If you’re spending some of your time on social media connecting with people who enjoy reading the books you like to read, chances are that when you have a book of your own to talk about, they’ll enjoy hearing about that too.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Dave and Goliath: maverick writer Eggers makes a stand against Amazon

From The Guardian:

The plight of the high street bookshop, struggling against the power of the online giants, is a common complaint either side of the Atlantic. But not often do the prominent players, the authors and publishers, put their words into action and take a stand against the tide.

This month, Dave Eggers, the award-winning campaigning author, is to risk American sales of his new novel, The Every, by limiting access to the hardback copies. Only small bookstores will stock it.

It is a typical move for Eggers, who has long pushed back against the conventions of the industry, setting up his own non-profit publishing house, McSweeney’s, in 1998, two years before his breakout bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But it is also something that fits neatly with the subject of his new book. A sequel to his 2013 hit, The Circle, it is a dystopian satire, featuring a company that looks much like Amazon.

For the US release of the book, on Tuesday, Eggers will allow hardcover editions to go on sale only in small bookstores. Weeks later, Vintage, a division of Random House, will publish an e-book and a paperback version. Even then, customers won’t be able to buy the hardcover on Amazon.

Eggers’s maverick move has been met with great gratitude by America’s independent bookstore owners, who are struggling with the huge post-Covid shift to online services.

“It’s made us feel like the author and the publishing industry really care about the smaller stores,” said Laura Scott Schaefer, owner of Scattered Books in Chappaqua, New York. “It’s been hard to compete with the bigger retailers. Any small advantage we can get in any kind of space is great.”

Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and creator of the Miami book fair international, goes further. He believes Eggers is recognising “the important role independent booksellers play in the ecology of our literary culture”. Kaplan sees Eggers’s innovation as support for stores more than an attack on Amazon, which, after all, has had a negative impact on a wide range of other small businesses. The larger question for Kaplan is what would be lost if independent bookshops disappeared.

“You’d be losing a diversity of voices when you lose a diversity of sellers. The people who sell literature in a community help people to discover voices that might not otherwise be introduced,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to D for the tip.

PG just checked on Amazon (US) and the book is available for pre-order in Kindle, paperback and audiobook formats. It’s scheduled to release on November 16. As usual, no preview was available from Randy Penguin.

PG will let those with more information about sales of speculative fiction in hardback decide whether this heavily-promoted virtue-signalling will save any bookstores or not.

Animals have dwindled in novels since 1835. Is fiction undergoing its own extinction event?

From The Guardian:

A recent study in People and Nature claims that animals are being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world. The German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research searched the entire online Project Gutenberg archive of 60,000 texts, written between 1705 and 1969. They found that since 1835, animal usage in fiction – other than domesticated beasts such as horses and dogs or “threat” animals such as bears or lions – has dwindled to a fraction of its former propensity. Professor Christian Wirth, the study’s senior author, argues that this has implications for our response to the climate crisis: “We can only halt the loss of biodiversity by a radical change in awareness.”I think he’s right, but not because animals have been written out of novels. They’ve just been written in the wrong way.

Like all such headline-making research papers, context is everything. I am not sure that public-domain books only, written in English only, from a western canon only, are fully representative of the rich and increasingly human diverse fictional world today. But the decline in actual biodiversity is terrifyingly real. According to the latest reports from the UN and WWF, we have not only lost 60% of animal populations since 1970, but one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction if we do not act now.

Has that profound sense of loss in fact made animals more attractive to fiction writers? There is certainly no shortage of animals in the world of children’s literature. My latest book, The Wild Before – about tackling biodiversity decline – has a hare as a main character, and an animal cast, following in the tradition of books such as Watership Down. This past year alone has seen critically acclaimed children’s books starring a stranded polar bear, a haunting Greenland shark and a magical talking stray cat.

It is no coincidence that The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and the Beatrix Potter books, early children’s classics of anthropomorphism, emerged out of the Industrial Revolution and the first huge jump in biodiversity decline. It appears that the less connected we are to other species, the more their mystery and appeal deepens. Would either Judith Kerr have invited a tiger in for tea, or Yann Martel set one sailing across the ocean in Life of Pi, if encounters with those endangered creatures were commonplace? Would the bestiary of fantasy creatures, from Tolkien’s wargs to George RR Martin’s direwolves (based on an extinct species), have captured our imagination if real wolves weren’t so absent from our landscape?

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Gilded Edge: Bohemian Tragedy

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Bohemian literary colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., gained notoriety in the early 20th century not only for its drunken bonfire parties, embrace of free love, and hosting of left-leaning poets and writers such as Robinson Jeffers, Sinclair Lewis and Jack London. It also became infamous in those decades for a tragic love triangle that resulted in three suicides.

In “The Gilded Edge: Two Audacious Women and the Cyanide Love Triangle That Shook America,” Catherine Prendergast, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, exposes the myth behind the colony’s creation and the desperate powerlessness and exploitation of two women involved in that circle.

The book centers around the poet George Sterling, his wife, Carrie, and the poet Nora May French. Sterling and French had a passionate love affair, and over the course of the unfurling tragedy, all three ended up taking their own lives.

Ms. Prendergast, in her first work of narrative nonfiction, organizes her book as a dual narrative: the story of the characters in the love triangle, interwoven with her own detective work in the archives. She ties these two strands together beginning in San Francisco, less than a year after the earthquake and firestorms of 1906 that razed much of the city. French takes abortion pills to end a pregnancy, but also writes about the experience amid her painful contractions. “It takes some kind of woman to write a letter about an abortion to her boyfriend while she’s administering it,” notes Ms. Prendergast, who soon adds that it is one of the very few early-20th-century first-person accounts of abortion in existence. French survives that terrible experience, but nine months later, despondent and with “no taste for the poor compensations of living,” she dies in Carrie’s arms, at the Sterlings’ cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

In explaining why this happened, and the subsequent cyanide suicides of George and Carrie, Ms. Prendergast examines the seamy truth of the Carmel colony—that Sterling was, in fact, hired by the Carmel Development Co. to entice his circle of San Francisco friends to what was then “a square mile of nearly barren dirt next to a bay.”

Carrie, whose mother had run a boardinghouse, often found herself single-handedly feeding the colony’s residents in her cottage, struggling to find adequate provisions when money was tight. Meanwhile, George was openly carrying on affairs with women who visited or decamped to Carmel, most notably French but many others as well. Both Carrie and Nora were what were then called New Women, those on “the trailing edge of the Gilded Age who sought to enjoy the spoils of economic expansion.”

Sterling, a protégé of the writer Ambrose Bierce, was San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate and a prominent member of the city’s Bohemian Club. A mostly forgotten poet today, he wrote plays for the club’s midsummer gatherings and was held in high regard by many of its members.

But in the years after French’s death, Sterling struggled with alcohol and faced an uncertain future, with constant financial stress. In 1926, a few days after the 19th anniversary of French’s suicide, Sterling arranged a banquet at the Bohemian Club for the critic H.L. Mencken, but never made it to the festivities. He burned most of his papers and killed himself.

Ms. Prendergast makes a convincing argument that French, who died at the age of 26, was a more gifted poet than Sterling. She was, as the author tells us, “the sensation in her time.” Yet she was repeatedly exploited. “Nora May French, whose reputation was used to bolster the colony’s image, was passed along a line of Bohemian men who treated her as a perpetual ingenue, co-opting her talent in an attempt to claim her as their personal discovery; they plied her with unwanted editorial advice while maneuvering her toward the bedroom.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (The link is supposed to be free, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall. He hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG will not include an Amazon ad showing the cover because, while the marketing department for the idiot publisher (Randy Penguin) likely worked hard to get a Wall Street Journal weekend review, they’re holding to book for its official release date (October 12) to make a big splash in physical bookstores.

PG predicts that more than a few WSJ readers (who, on average, have lots of discretionary income with which to purchase interesting books, antique cars and a lot of other things) will have forgotten about the book and the review in nine days. PG just checked to confirm that The Wall Street Journal is the largest paid circulation newspaper in the US.

With an apparent list price of $28 for the ebook (discounted to $14.99 by Zon), the same price as the hardcover, Randy Penguin is apparently trying to induce people to purchase the printed book, which generates a much lower per-copy profit for the publisher than the ebook does because Bad Amazon or something like that.

Apparently, there is not a review for the book in The New York Times (Sunday issue less than half the circulation of WSJ). If there is one closer to the release date, we’ll know that the geniuses of Randy Penguin mistook the little bang for the big bang in two different ways.

What is Upmarket Fiction? And Book Club Fiction? Are They New Genres?

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Most writers have probably heard of “Upmarket fiction.” But you may have questions about it. Like, when should you use the term? And how do you figure out if your novel fits in the category? Is it considered a genre, like Romance or Mystery? And is it the same as “Book Club Fiction?”

It’s not surprising if you have questions. Because bookstores don’t have a section designated “Upmarket.” And you’re not going to find it as a category on Amazon.

I don’t particularly like the phrase. It sounds kind of snooty, doesn’t it? But I love the books.

And they are a hot commodity in the publishing industry right now.  Agent Jessica Faust says “It’s a term we didn’t use 15 years ago, but one that’s hot today…I’m hungry for more upmarket fiction.”

I’ve had a number of readers ask me about it recently, so I figured I’d better do some research.

So What’s the Definition of Upmarket Fiction?

You can find lots of lists of fiction genres, but you won’t see “Upmarket fiction” included. You may have seen somebody mention “Book Club” novels, but you won’t find that section in a bookstore, either.

According to what I’ve read, “Upmarket” and “Book Club” fiction are pretty synonymous terms, and you can use either when querying an agent.

They define fiction that fills the gap between genre and literary fiction.

These are meaty stories that book reading groups can discuss over a nice chardonnay. They have thought-provoking themes and memorable characters. But they’re not so dense that everybody has to lie about having finished them. 

. . . .

Some Examples of Upmarket Fiction

  • Mexican Gothic — Silvia Moreno
  • About a Boy — Nick Hornby
  • Where the Crawdads Sing — Delia Owens
  • Squeeze Me — Carl Hiaasen
  • Like Water for Elephants — Sara Gruen
  • The Lovely Bones — Alice Sebold
  • She’s Come Undone — Wally Lamb
  • Pay it Forward — Catherine Ryan Hyde

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris