Monthly Archives: July 2016

7 Fantasy/Science Fiction Epics That Can Inform You About the Real-World Political Scene

31 July 2016

From Learn Liberty:

The politics of science fiction and fantasy series may seem like a frivolous topic at a time when we have so many serious real political problems. But it’s nonetheless worth considering, if only because far more people read science fiction novels, and watch genre movies and TV series than read serious nonfiction literature on political issues. Besides, the politics of imaginary worlds is a lot more fun to contemplate than the dismal real-world political scene.

. . . .

Babylon 5

Set on a strategically located space station that seeks to bring together warring powers, Babylon 5 is perhaps the most underrated science fiction TV series of the last several decades. Its politics are vaguely left of center, but often hard to pin down.

Yet one noteworthy theme does shine through: the dangers of nationalism. Otherwise admirable characters such as Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari and Narn leader G’Kar end up causing enormous harm because of their single-minded desire to increase the power and prestige of their peoples.

Londo is so intent on making the Centauri Republic great again that he seals a dangerous bargain with the nefarious Shadows that ultimately results in the death of millions and the devastation of his homeworld. Outbreaks of nationalist fervor also lead to repressive and counterproductive policies in the Earth Alliance. It’s a lesson worth revisiting in the age of Donald Trump, which has also seen a resurgence of nationalism in Western Europe, Russia, and elsewhere.

. . . .

The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece is probably the most influential fantasy series ever. Tolkien’s strong suspicion of government power permeates the story. The Ring of Power after which the book is named allows the wielder to control the will of others and eventually corrupts himself as well. It is a metaphor for political power. Significantly, not even good people like the wizard Gandalf can be trusted with the Ring. If they try to use it, they will inevitably be corrupted by it. The only way to eliminate the threat posed by the Ring is to destroy it. It cannot be used for good. This view stands in sharp contrast to the more common belief that political power can be a force for good if only it is wielded by the right people.

Even more explicitly antigovernment is the symbolism inherent in the chapter entitled “The Scouring of the Shire.” When the secondary villain Saruman temporarily takes over the Shire (homeland of the hobbits), he and his henchmen institute a system of “gathering and sharing” under which the state expropriates the wealth of the population and transfers it to politically favored groups. The episode was likely inspired by the wartime rationing system that the left-wing Labor Party government continued even after World War II. More broadly, it represents Tolkien’s critique of socialism.

Link to the rest at Learn Liberty

It was the dawn

31 July 2016

It was the Dawn of the Third Age of Mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal .. all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last, best hope for peace. — This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Season 1 opening monologue, Babylon 5

Books Are an Agent’s Game

31 July 2016

From Inverse:

This week, we spoke with Molly Friedrich, a top literary agent with over thirty years in the game, having represented the likes of Frank McCourt, Sue Grafton, Terry McMillan, and Jane Smiley.

Because you’re so established, do you still feel the need to keep up with industry trends?

I would never run my business according to any kind of trend. At writers conferences, people talk about what’s selling. You see people poised with pens, and you think, “By the time you write it down, it’s going to be over.”

Do you usually try reading the book of the moment?

If three people tell me to read a book, and they’re not in publishing, I make a point of reading it. Sometimes, like with Fifty Shades of Grey, it takes ten days. Other times it can take years.

. . . .

You mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey — when that was at the height of popularity, people outside the book industry were bemoaning it. As someone in the industry, did you share those concerns?

No, there were people who have not read a book since college reading it. But, often with a book like that, you’ll see moms reading it, and then the teenage girls will read it. The idea that your first sexual experience would be anything like an introduction to sex as illustrated by Fifty Shades is really sad. But, any book that rises above and beyond itself is, to me, a cause for celebration.

. . . .

I sold one book where the editor said, “This is the book I’ve been waiting for all of my career.” And everything that happened with that book went wrong. It didn’t get great reviews, the sales reps didn’t love it as much as he and I did. It just didn’t work. A lot of times when books seem to work, the author has secret help. There’s advertising money kicked in, or the author has an uncle who is famous and that rolodex is being pushed around. But I’m talking about the pure debut when the author has no MFA, no set of connections; just the book. That’s disappointing when that happens, because you don’t have anything to do except try your hardest. Some books are more successful than others. Sometimes there’s something that gets perceived as an unfortunate step, and you rebuild. That’s hard but incredibly important to be able to do. That’s the business of calling upon relationships and being profoundly collaborative with the publishing house to figure out how we can resuscitate this person’s book career. It can be done.

. . . .

As the industry is changing with the rise of ebooks, has that impacted you much?

Ebooks have been very healthy for publishers. They have not been healthy for authors. Publishers are making a load of money — very little of which is going to the author’s statement.

Link to the rest at Inverse and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Fail Safe

31 July 2016

From author Steve Hockensmith:

There are certain moments a writer dreads. Reading an email that begins “Thank you for your submission, but….” Seeing a one-star review pop up on Amazon. Finding one of your own books in the remainder bin — or, even worse, realizing you’re not in the damn Barnes & Noble in any way whatsoever.

I’ve been through them all. More than once. More than twice. More than…well, lots. And for a long, long time, I let each experience mark me. I’d see the rejection, the bad review, the nothing where my books ought to be, and I’d feel the rubber stamp smacking into my forehead.

. . . .

It got really bad a while back when I found myself, for the first time in years, without a book contract. Money got tight. Mickey Rourke’s cheeks after his fourth facelift tight. So tight my wife started to give me a running countdown to doom.

Her: “We have six months before we run out of money.”

Her: “We have five months before we run out of money.”

Her: “We have four months before we run out of money.”

Her: “You got a royalty check today.”

Me: “Huzzah!”

Her: “Yeah. Yippee. We have five months before we run out of money.”

. . . .

Eventually, I reached the moment every professional writer really dreads. The moment you realize you can’t be a professional writer any more. Not of the “make up fun crap in your pajamas all day” variety, anyway. It was time to go back to a day job.

Of course, Fate being the perverted biyatch she is, the second I landed a 9-to-5 gig, contracts started flying at me. Suddenly I had three series to write…and no time to write them. So a “Tarot Mystery” was a little late. Then a “Nick and Tesla” book was really late. Then another “Tarot Mystery” was reeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaalllllllllllly late. I was a pro again, as I’d defined it, but I was stressed out and burned out and disappointed in myself for letting my editors down. And you know what?

I’d reached the ultimate FAIL, in fact: Writing was making me unhappy. It had been for a long time, I realized. Because how can you be happy with that FAIL FAIL FAIL constantly whacking you in the face?

And who was doing the whacking? Not editors, not agents, not snarky reviewers, not even Fate.

It was me.

Link to the rest at Steve Hockensmith

Here’s a link to Steve Hockensmith’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

Technology killed bookstore chains. Can technology save indie bookstores?

31 July 2016

From The Seattle Review of Books:

It’s great when the received narrative gets disrupted, and Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), has heard more than his share during his long tenure at the independent bookstore trade group, where he’s been the boss since 2009 and in other positions before that. The story that is told, news cycle after news cycle, is that indies were always just about to be wiped off the face of the country because of a new challenge.

First, he says, it was that the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks outlets in every mall would kill local stores. Then, the big boxes like Barnes & Nobles and Borders. After that, the deep discounters like Crown Books. And onward to mass merchandisers like Walmart and membership stores like Costco. And, finally, along came Amazon, he says, followed by Amazon selling ebooks.

But after years of shrinking sales and locations, indie stores have seen a slightly accelerating tick upwards since 2009 in new businesses, more stores, a bigger slice of the retailing pie, and a growth in overall revenue. Teicher cites several reasons, but one of them is the same wave of technology that, the story was supposed to go, would drown non-chain stores once and for all.

. . . .

Indie bookstores have taken a truly big hit in the last 20 years, but the trends cited account for only a portion of the roughly 4,000 independently owned stores (including small chains) shrinking to under 2,000 by 2011. Two recessions didn’t help any independent retailer, bookstore or otherwise, and deep bricks-and-mortar and then online discounting certainly bit into sustainability for all kinds of retailers, even those that had been around for many decades — or more than a century. And skyrocketing real-estate costs since the last economic dive, especially in major cities, put a squeeze on stores that didn’t own buildings or have favorable landlords. “You can’t put the bookstore out in the middle of nowhere,” Teicher says.

. . . .

But it’s easy to miss in the “indies failing” story the fact that thousands of mall and big-box locations also closed, starting before the big decline in independents. Crown Books went early, by 2001, from almost 200 stores at its peak. B. Dalton had its most stores (800) in 1986, and shrunk over the next 25 years. Waldenbooks at one time had over 1,200 outlets; when it was sputtering in 2010, it had fewer than 300. Borders, its parent company, had about 500 Borders-branded locations before it shuttered in 2011, taking the rest of Waldenbooks with it.

One analysis, using Labor Department and other data, puts the peak number of bookstores at nearly 14,000 in the mid-1990s and at about 8,000 by 2012. Non-chain stores represent roughly one third of the closures.

. . . .

It’s important to put this in perspective, of course. The most recent comprehensive look at retailer market share is from Bowker’s 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review. A chart from that report tells the story vividly. From 2010 to 2012, large chains’ percentage of consumer purchases dropped from 31.5 to 18.7 percent; online sales swelled from 25.1 to 43.8 percent. Indie stores’ percentage rose from 2.4 to 3.7 percent. (Book clubs had the other big loss, dropping from 11.5 to 6.1 percent of the market.)

Overall retail book revenue in the category has remained relatively flat for years when adjusted for inflation, especially in the “trade” category, which is general fiction, non-fiction, and religious, and excludes most materials aimed at education.

What’s most interesting is that after years of torrid growth, ebooks settled down and lost ground: the saturation point was apparently reached a couple of years ago in the mix of ebook, paperback, and hardback sales. The Association of American Publishers survey for 2015, released July 11, found ebooks were in the second year of slight decline in revenue and unit sales. Some of that change came as publishers were able to push an agency model.

. . . .

“There is nothing like the physical place to browse and discover titles that you didn’t know about,” Teicher says.

He has a four-legged stool on which he rests the current minor resurgence of local stores. “It’s disingenuous not to acknowledge part of our more recent success is directly, intricately tied to the shop-local movement,” he says. In some cities, bookstores have been rescued after losing a lease or after declining sales through crowdfunding campaigns, membership drives, or a wave of new sales from people who realized they were about to lose a store.

. . . .

Teicher says there are clouds on the horizon. Higher rents, noted earlier, are one of them. Higher wages are another. While Teicher says members want employees to make livable wages, the timing puts a crunch on small retailers more than big ones, in that labor forms a larger percentage of expense, and a small store needs a minimum level of staff that can be proportionately much higher than a store with 10 times the square footage. (Amazon reportedly lured bookstore staff to its Seattle store by offering higher wages, a rarity in the industry.)

Because booksellers can’t easily raise prices, between competition and the recommended list price appearing on nearly every book, there’s no room as in other retail segments and other industries to pass even on modest increases in expense. Only increased volume helps. But the most profitable ABA members have increased their share of non-book items, which often have much higher margins than books, sad to say. He says 17 to 19 percent of total sales at the most successful stores are something other than books.

Link to the rest at The Seattle Review of Books

PG says the OP was just as back and forth – the number of bookstores has crashed since the 90’s, but things are looking up everywhere.

Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House Don’t Want to Talk About Their eBook Sales

31 July 2016

From The Digital Reader:

In past years the Big Five/Six touted their ebook sales as a percentage of total revenue. You sometimes had to dig for the details, but they were there to be found.

That changed this week. Something tells me that they aren’t quite so eager to let us in on just how poor their ebook sales have been since they regained control of their ebook prices in early 2015.

Over the past week three of the Big Five publishers have posted either quarterly, half-annual, or annual reports, and only one even came close to telling a complete story about its ebook sales.

First up is CBS Corp and the few nuggets they shared about Simon & Schuster in the second quarter CBS financial report. Revenues were down overall, and so were ebook sales as a share of said revenues (from 24% last year):

Publishing revenues for the second quarter of 2016 were $187 million compared with $199 million for the same prior-year period. Digital revenues represented 23% of Publishing’s total revenues for the second quarter of 2016. Best-selling titles included End of Watch by Stephen King and Foreign Agent by Brad Thor.

Publishing operating income of $26 million for the second quarter of 2016 was up 4% from $25 million for the same prior-year period, as the revenue decline was more than offset by lower production, selling, and inventory costs.

. . . .

This is the entirety of PRH’s report on ebook revenue stats (aside from a few useless factoids):

Penguin Random House had a solid performance in the first half of 2016 with reduced demand for e-books following last year’s industry-wide digital-terms changes offset by the phasing of further integration benefits.


Link to the rest at The Digital Reader and thanks to Karen for the tip.

How to Beat Procrastination

30 July 2016

From The Harvard Business Review:

Procrastination comes in many disguises. We might resolve to tackle a task, but find endless reasons to defer it. We might prioritize things we can readily tick off our to-do list—answering emails, say—while leaving the big, complex stuff untouched for another day. We can look and feel busy, while artfully avoiding the tasks that really matter. And when we look at those rolling, long-untouched items at the bottom of our to-do list, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed in ourselves.

The problem is our brains are programmed to procrastinate. In general, we all tend to struggle with tasks that promise future upside in return for efforts we take now. That’s because it’s easier for our brains to process concrete rather than abstract things, and the immediate hassle is very tangible compared with those unknowable, uncertain future benefits. So the short-term effort easily dominates the long-term upside in our minds—an example of something that behavioral scientists call present bias.

. . . .

Visualize how great it will be to get it done. Researchers have discovered that people are more likely to save for their future retirement if they’re shown digitally aged photographs of themselves. Why? Because it makes their future self feel more real—making the future benefits of saving also feel more weighty. When we apply a lo-fi version of this technique to any task we’ve been avoiding, by taking a moment to paint ourselves a vivid mental picture of the benefits of getting it done, it can sometimes be just enough to get us unstuck. So if there’s a call you’re avoiding or an email you’re putting off, give your brain a helping hand by imagining the virtuous sense of satisfaction you’ll have once it’s done—and perhaps also the look of relief on someone’s face as they get from you what they needed.

. . . .

Identify the first step. Sometimes we’re just daunted by the task we’re avoiding. We might have “learn French” on our to-do list, but who can slot that into the average afternoon? The trick here is to break down big, amorphous tasks into baby steps that don’t feel as effortful. Even better: identify the verysmallest first step, something that’s so easy that even your present-biased brain can see that the benefits outweigh the costs of effort. So instead of “learn French” you might decide to “email Nicole to ask advice on learning French.” Achieve that small goal, and you’ll feel more motivated to take the next small step than if you’d continued to beat yourself up about your lack of language skills.

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

JT LeRoy

30 July 2016

Thanks to Meryl for the tip.

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