The Mournfulness of Cities

EDWARD HOPPER, HOTEL WINDOW, 1955, OIL ON CANVAS, 40 X 55″. PUBLIC DOMAIN, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

From The Paris Review:

I am puzzled by the mournfulness of cities. I suppose I mean American cities mostly—dense and vertical and relatively sudden. All piled up in fullest possible distinction from surroundings, from our flat and grassy origins, the migratory blur from which the self, itself, would seem to have emerged into the emptiness, the kindergarten-landscape gap between the earth and sky. I’m puzzled, especially, by what seems to me the ease of it, the automatic, fundamental, even corny quality of mournfulness in cities, so built into us, so preadapted for somehow, that even camped out there on the savannah, long before we dreamed of cities, I imagine we should probably have had a premonition, dreamed the sound of lonely saxophones on fire escapes. What’s mourned is hard to say. Not that the mourner needs to know. It seems so basic. One refers to certain Edward Hopper paintings—people gazing out of windows right at sunset or late at night. They’ve no idea. I don’t suppose that sort of gaze is even possible except within the city. You can hear the lonely saxophone-on-fire-escape (in principle, the instrument may vary) cry through Gershwin. Aaron Copland. You remember Sonny Rollins on the bridge (the structure varies, too, of course). So what in the world is that about? That there should be a characteristic thread of melody, a certain sort of mood to sound its way through all that lofty, sooty jumble to convey so clear and, as it seems, eternal a sense of loss and resignation. How in the world do you get “eternal” out of “saxophone” and “fire escape”? It doesn’t make much sense. That it should get to you—to me at least—more sharply, deeply, sadly than the ancient, naturally mournful, not to say eternal, sound of breath through reed or bamboo flute.

Not too many years ago, as I began to wonder about the mournfulness of cities—its expression in this way—I brought a recording of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City concert piece to my then-girlfriend Nancy’s house on a chilly winter evening. She had friends or family staying, so we slept in the front bedroom, which, because of its exposure or some problem with the heater, was quite cold. So I remember all the quilts and blankets and huddling up together as if desperate in some Lower East Side tenement and listening to this music break our hearts about ourselves, our struggling immigrant immersion and confusion in this terrible complexity. The lonely verticality of life. And why should sadness sound so sweet? I guess the sweetness is the resignation part.

I’d like to set up an experiment to chart the sadness—try to find out where it comes from, where it goes—to trace it, in that melody (whichever variation) as it threads across Manhattan from the Lower East Side straight across the river, more or less west, into the suburbs of New Jersey and whatever lies beyond. This would require, I’m guessing, maybe a hundred saxophonists stationed along the route on tops of buildings, water towers, farther out on people’s porches (with permission), empty parking lots, at intervals determined by the limits of their mutual audibility under variable conditions in the middle of the night, so each would strain a bit to pick it up and pass it on in step until they’re going all at once and all strung out along this fraying thread of melody for hours, with relievers in reserve. There’s bound to be some drifting in and out of phase, attenuation of the tempo, of the sadness for that matter, of the waveform, what I think of as the waveform of the whole thing as it comes across the river losing amplitude and sharpness, rounding, flattening, and diffusing into neighborhoods where maybe it just sort of washes over people staying up to hear it or, awakened, wondering what is that out there so faint and faintly echoed, faintly sad but not so sad that you can’t close your eyes again and drift right back to sleep.

It isn’t possible to hear it all at once. You have to track the propagation. All those saxophones receiving and repeating and coordinating, maybe, for an interval or two before the melody escapes itself to separate into these brief, discrete, coherent moments out of sync with one another, coming and going, reconnecting, fading out and in again along the line in ways that someone from an upper-story window at a distance might be able to appreciate, able to pick up, who knows, ten or twenty instruments way out there faintly gathering, shifting in and out of phase along a one- or two-mile stretch. And I imagine it would be all up and down like that—that long, sad train of thought disintegrating, recomposing here and there all night in waves and waves of waves until the players, one by one, begin to give it up toward dawn like crickets gradually flickering out.

In order to chart the whole thing as intended, though, we will need a car, someone to drive it slowly along the route with the windows down while someone else—me, I suppose—deflects a pen along some sort of moving scroll, perhaps a foot wide and a hundred feet long, that has been prepared with a single complex line of reference along the top, a kind of open silhouette, a structural cross section through the route, with key points noted, from the seismic verticalities of Manhattan through the quieter inflections of New Jersey and those ancient tract-house neighborhoods and finally going flat (as I imagine, having no idea what’s out there) into what? Savannah, maybe? Or some open field with the final saxophonist all alone out there in the grass.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG’s in a distinctly contrary mood today. The title of the OP, The Mournfulness of Cities (which the first line narrowed to American cities) suggests sadness is embedded in their general character.

Then, the rest of the OP talks about New York City and New Jersey.

You got cold one night in Manhattan? Try Minneapolis in January!

Minnesota dogs stick to the sidewalks in January.

People plug in their gasoline-powered cars so electric engine block heaters will help to make sure their engines aren’t a solid block of frozen metal in the morning.

Minneapolis people go to Manhattan in January to warm up.

(I’m not forgetting you in January, Winnipeg. I know you go to Minneapolis to work on your tans when the Minneapolis people are all in Manhattan and hotel rooms are really cheap.)

Setting aside the weather, what about all of the other cities – Chicago, Denver, San Diego? All the same as Manhattan?

Au contraire tu es fou!!

PG has spent a lot of time in New York City, lived in Chicago, and spent lots and lots of time in many other large American cities.

He has to work hard to identify a city that is truly mournful. The only one that comes immediately to mind is Gary, Indiana. PG hasn’t been back to Gary for a long time, but it was pretty mournful when he last passed through.

You can certainly be downcast anywhere, including New York City, but PG’s memories of Manhattan (he’ll not speak to the Bronx) are filled with how much energy he picked up walking down the streets at all hours of the day and night.

He named Chicago (terrific city!), Denver and San Diego, but could have named dozens more that have an upbeat, unique vibe that isn’t really replicated anywhere else.

Outside the United States, he loves London and Paris. Oxford feels like he was born in one of the colleges. If heaven looks anything like Florence, PG can’t wait to get there. No mournfulness in Florence for PG.

Contrary and upbeat! That’s PG for the next ten minutes, maybe more!

Hot People Unlearn Fatphobia and Stories+Spells for the Dog Days – the latest from Bookshop.org

From Bookshop.org:

Bookshop.org Reaches $15 Million Earned for Independent Bookstores in Support of the Fight Against Amazon

Bookshop.org, the ethical online marketplace which supports independent bookstores, announced today that it has generated $15 million for its affiliated stores since the site launched in January 2020.

The platform financially supports over 1,200 indie bookstores across the US, with an additional 26,000 non-store affiliates contributing to the impressive results by offering online shoppers an ethical alternative to Amazon that supports local businesses. With a 17% year-on-year growth, Bookshop.org has demonstrated the value of the young start-up not only during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as the bookstores, and the local communities they serve, face the ever-growing threat of Amazon.

Booksellers using the platform have reported the many ways in which Bookshop.org has been a financial lifeline in a particularly challenging time, with the additional income allowing many to survive the challenges of the pandemic, pay rent, create corporate orders for e-gift cards, and even open new stores.

Fawn Fernandes, Owner of Curious Capybara Bookshop (Hendersonville, TN), said: “I opened my children’s bookstore in September 2020 – right smack dab in the middle of a world-wide pandemic. I did it because I believed our area needed a children’s bookstore, now more than ever. And I was right! But of course, with the struggle of opening any new business, let alone a bookstore, let alone during a pandemic – well, it’s not been easy. We received our semi-annual Bookshop.org funds at a time when I wasn’t sure we would be able to make rent. And while it may not make a huge impact on some of the larger stores, for my small start-up it was literally a game-changer. But it gave me more than funds in my bank account. It gave me hope. It gave me encouragement that not only could I make this work, but I had a huge network of people – other bookstores, the staff at Bookshop, people who SHOP at Bookshop.org – that had my back, that loved books as much as I did, that wanted me to succeed with my little shop. These funds mean more than money. It means community to me. And for that, I will be forever grateful.”

In addition, Bookshop.org has been offering more than just financial support to booksellers: it’s been strengthening their online presence, helping them with social media exposure, enabling them to reach wider audiences, expanding their offer and inventory, allowing them to share personalised lists and recommendations with customers, and creating a sense of community.

Link to the rest at Bookshop.org via Midas Public Relations Ltd.

PG will be happy to hear contrary opinions, but primarily positioning your company as fighting against one of the world’s most-admired companies seems to be a marketing proposition that’s much more attractive to the PR firm’s client than it will be to the general English-speaking world of readers and other book purchasers.

PG doesn’t doubt that the owners of most physical bookstores don’t like Amazon, but how much further does that attitude extend?

PG is willing to agree that most of those working for traditional publishers don’t like Amazon, even though Amazon is their largest customer, miles larger than whoever is #2 this month.

That said, as regular visitors to TPV will know, PG is of the opinion that most employees of traditional publishers are there because they can’t get a job anywhere else (excluding the fast food industry), so what would you expect?

Do most people who buy books really dislike Amazon?

Do most people who don’t buy books right now, but might consider doing so in the future really dislike Amazon?

UPDATE: PG just went to Bookshop.org to check out what the purchasing experience was like.

One of the site’s featured books was How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith.

The following editions of Mr. Smith’s book were on offer:

  1. Hardcover English$26.68, marked down from $29.00
  2. Hardcover English – Large Print$28.52, marked down from $31.00
  3. Compact Disk English – $36.80, marked down from $40.00

A quick online trip to Amazon revealed the following editions of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America on offer:

  1. Kindle – $14.99
  2. Audible Audiobook – Free with Audible trial, $29.65 otherwise
  3. Hardcover English – $17.84

All three editions of Mr. Smith’s book were ranked in the top five of Amazon’s best-seller list for African-American Studies/African American History and Historiography, which likely generated additional sales of the book.

Bookshop.org’s Bestsellers of the Week list did not include any of Mr. Smith’s books, although PG is pretty certain that Bookshop.org has a lock on the market for audiobooks on CD.

Additionally Bookshop.org’s other bestseller lists did not include any of Mr. Smith’s books. For your general information, other than Bestsellers of the Week, Bookshop.org’s bestseller lists which PG was able to find were as follows:

  • Queer Books by Black Authors
  • Special Abilities
  • Staff Picks, Summer 2021
  • The Natural World
  • All We Can Save: More Nonfiction from the Climate Anthology Contributors
  • stories + spells for the Dog Days
  • Ancient Greek Myth Retellings
  • Kristen Radtke’s Must-Read Graphic Novels for 2021
  • 100 Books Every Teacher Needs to Read 2021
  • Hot People Unlearn Fatphobia (PG’s personal favorite category)
  • History
  • Immigration
  • Pen Parentis Writers – Books adapted for the Screen and Stage
  • Celebrate National Foreign Language Month with Your Child!
  • In this Week’s Newsletter

PG finds some of these bestseller lists to be . . . whimsical . . . although he certainly knows where to go for all his fatphobia reading needs.

See even more at Bookshop.org

Political Science Has Its Own Lab Leaks

From Foreign Policy:

The idea of a lab leak has gone, well, viral. As a political scientist, I cannot assess whether the evidence shows that COVID-19 emerged naturally or from laboratory procedures (although many experts strenuously disagree). Yet as a political scientist, I do think that my discipline can learn something from thinking seriously about our own “lab leaks” and the damage they could cause.

A political science lab leak might seem as much of a punchline as the concept of a mad social scientist. Nevertheless, the notion that scholarly ideas and findings can escape the nuanced, cautious world of the academic seminar and transform into new forms, even becoming threats, becomes more of a compelling metaphor if you think of academics as professional crafters of ideas intended to survive in a hostile environment. Given the importance of what we study, from nuclear war to international economics to democratization and genocide, the escape of a faulty idea could have—and has had—dangerous consequences for the world.

Academic settings provide an evolutionarily challenging environment in which ideas adapt to survive. The process of developing and testing academic theories provides metaphorical gain-of-function accelerations of these dynamics. To survive peer review, an idea has to be extremely lucky or, more likely, crafted to evade the antibodies of academia (reviewers’ objections). By that point, an idea is either so clunky it cannot survive on its own—or it is optimized to thrive in a less hostile environment.

Think tanks and magazines like the Atlantic (or Foreign Policy) serve as metaphorical wet markets where wild ideas are introduced into new and vulnerable populations. Although some authors lament a putative decline of social science’s influence, the spread of formerly academic ideas like intersectionality and the use of quantitative social science to reshape electioneering suggest that ideas not only move from the academy but can flourish once transplanted. This is hardly new: Terms from disciplines including psychoanalysis (“ego”), evolution (“survival of the fittest”), and economics (the “free market” and Marxism both) have escaped from the confines of academic work before.

The “clash of civilizations” hypothesis is a good candidate for one of the more disruptive lab leaks in political science’s history. When the Harvard University scholar Samuel P. Huntington released his article “The Clash of Civilizations?” (note the question mark, which disappeared in later versions) in Foreign Affairs in 1993, he spread a bold and simple hypothesis about the course of the post-Cold War world: “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. … The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Huntington’s thesis was not a conjecture based on careful empirical study—it was a speculation looking forward based on some cherry-picked contemporaneous examples. Many academic articles that sought to rebut Huntington by testing his hypothesis fell into this trap, attempting to show him wrong with sometimes quite impressive tests. But Huntington could not be disproved by mere facts. His idea was primed to thrive in the wild, free from the confines of empirical reality.

Facts, indeed, often appeared secondary to Huntington’s larger political project. In his follow-up book on the subject, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he illustrated his argument by sketching what he considered a plausible scenario: a Sino-U.S. conflict over Vietnam leading to a racialized third world war that ends with the destruction of Europe and the United States while India attempts to “reshape the world along Hindu lines.”

This writing led not to Huntington being ostracized but enhanced his reputation, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks made his claim that “Islam has bloody borders” seem plausible to mainstream audiences. As late as 2011, the New York Times columnist David Brooks praised Huntington as “one of America’s greatest political scientists”—and even though that column ultimately judged Huntington as having gotten the “clash” hypothesis wrong, it did so with kid gloves: “I write all this not to denigrate the great Huntington. He may still be proved right.”

Another contender is the idea of managing great-power competition through game theory. During the 1950s and 1960s, political scientists and their counterparts in economics and elsewhere sought to understand the Cold War by using then-novel tools of game theory to model relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. In their earliest forms, these attempts reduced the negotiations and confrontations between the two sides to simple matrices of outcomes and strategies with names like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken, and the Stag Hunt.

The allure was obvious. Make some simplifying assumptions about what the players in these games want; specify the strategies they can employ to achieve them; assume that players know what the other players know; and calculate that they will choose their strategy based on the choice the other player will make to maximize their well-being. Voilà—a science of strategy.

It is easy to mock this approach—too easy, in fact. These simple assumptions perform pretty well within their theoretical boundaries. Every semester (when the world isn’t in a pandemic), I use in-person simulations of these basic games with my undergraduate students to show that changing the rules of the game can influence players’ willingness to cooperate, a finding well attested in generations of scholarly tests.

Yet there’s a huge leap in jumping from these general, aggregate findings to believing that such simple ideas can guide the behavior of complex states without an incredible amount of additional refinement. In international relations, the specific strategies that can be employed are vast (and new ones can be invented), the stakes of every contest are unknowable, actors have incentives to hide what they know from others, and, perhaps most important, players interact again and again and again. Even when playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game concocted to make cooperation a fool’s strategy, simply changing from playing a game once to playing it repeatedly can make cooperation an equilibrium.

Nevertheless, the general tendency of a certain influential sect of social science was to embrace the idea that game theory (to be fair, in somewhat more sophisticated terms) could provide not only insights into general features of world affairs but specific foreign-policy recommendations to guide the United States through the Cold War. In influential books like The Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence, the game theorist Thomas Schelling used those tools to make the Cold War seem easy to manage—an interaction in which cool head, logic, and a steely command of risk could make confrontations from the Taiwan Strait to the Berlin Wall explicable and winnable.

All of this would have been harmless if these ideas had stayed inside the lab.

Link to the rest at Foreign Policy

Exhibit #MXWT-94837 in support of the proposition that smart people are perfectly capable of believing and doing really dumb things.

Some might argue that the conceit of thinking one is really smart will likely lead to doing more dumb things on a far grander scale than than will occur in the life of someone who is reasonably intelligent and believes her/himself to be reasonably intelligent. The second person will, of course, make mistakes, but, not extraordinarily large and incredibly stupid mistakes.

Which brings us to Hubris and Nemesis

From Greek Mythology:

Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution and revenge, who would show her wrath to any human being that would commit hubris, i.e. arrogance before the gods. She was considered a remorseless goddess.

. . . .

One myth concerning Nemesis is that of Narcissus. He was a young man who was very arrogant and disdained those who loved him. Nemesis led him to a pool, where he saw his reflection and fell in love with it. Unable to abandon his reflection, he died there.

Link to the rest at Greek Mythology

Examples of Hubris:

The Fall of Icarus

The story of Icarus was first written down in the first century AD in the Pseudo-Apollodorus, but the tale has a much older oral tradition. In the story, Icarus’s father made him a pair of wax wings and cautioned him not to fly too high with them. Becoming overconfident, Icarus flew as high as he wanted. The sun melted his wings, and he fell to his death.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex is a play by Sophocles, which was first performed about 429 BC. In this play, Kind Oedipus defies the gods’ prophecy that he will kill his father and murder his mother. Attempting to control and evade his own fate, he kills an old man who turns out to be his father. Later he marries the queen of Thebes, who turns out to be his mother. His attempt to defy the gods was considered hubris.

. . . .

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer offers another example of hubris. Written in the late 1300s AD, it includes the character of Chaunticleer, a rich and educated rooster. His pride in his wealth and accomplishments leads him to lose track of what is real, and he is easily duped by a fox that flatters his vocal ability. The fox eats him.

. . . .

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Written in the late 16th century, Doctor Faustus tells the story of a man who is so proud of his own academic accomplishments and intelligence that he sells his soul to the Devil for more knowledge and academic superiority. He receives eternal damnation as a result.

Link to the rest at Your Dictionary

From The Rand Corporation:

[The Hubris-Nemesis] complex involves a combination of hubris (a pretension toward an arrogant form of godliness) and nemesis (a vengeful desire to confront, defeat, humiliate, and punish an adversary, especially one that can be accused of hubris). The combination has strange dynamics that may lead to destructive, high-risk behavior. Attempts to deter, compel, or negotiate with a leader who has a hubris-nemesis complex can be ineffectual or even disastrously counterproductive when those attempts are based on concepts better suited to dealing with more normal leaders.

Link to the rest at The Rand Corporation

What Authors Have Found in Substack

From Publishers Weekly:

When I first moved to California, it was a dream come true: an office right on the beach in Santa Monica in January. At break time, I ran out onto the sand to the water’s edge and stared in awe at the surf, the sun, and the people playing at the edge of the world. My colleagues chuckled and made comments along the lines of, “You must be new.”

I soon learned that the company I had joined, like so many others, was a bit of a way station for many of its employees. “What do you do?” I’d ask, to replies of, “Oh, I’m an actor,” or, “I write for TV,” or, “I do stand-up comedy.” Not a week went by without someone asking me for some time off to rush to an audition. It seemed LAX was overrun with arrivals dreaming the same dream. Nowhere did I see this more than in the restaurant scene, from Geoffrey’s in Malibu to Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica or Eveleigh’s on the Sunset Strip: everyone working the tables was an actor or writer or artist of some form.

Fast-forward to present-day Silicon Valley, land of a different dream. As venture capitalist Mark Suster recently put it, “The culture is driven by the 20-something irreverent founder with huge technical chops who in a David-versus-Goliath mythology takes on the titans of industry and wins.” The airports here disgorge a stream of would-be entrepreneurs who dream of creating the next unicorn, or billion-dollar startup. And, just like in Hollywood, reality hits soon and hits hard, with many making ends meet through side gigs in the euphemistically named gig economy, be it via DoorDash, Instacart, Lyft, Uber, or other such services.

What is a self-respecting aspirational author to do in such a world—one turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic? It takes time—an enormous amount of time—to write. It’s not trivial to be an ersatz taxi or delivery driver and write competently at the same time.

Yet most authors know it doesn’t pay much to write. Not all things beautiful, whether writing a book or painting or raising a child, are rewarded financially. The rewards are in the doing and in what the author or the painter or the parent brings to the world around them. Enter a new option: the paid subscription newsletter, the best-known version being Substack.

Originally designed to address the crisis in journalism, wherein the ad-supported business model evaporated like the morning dew and the incremental value of professionally written content drifted down to near nothing, paid newsletters give journalists a chance to be compensated directly for their hard work. Many of these writers were recently let go from their media houses. Others, with strong personal brands, believe they can be paid better as independents in control of their own work. A grand experiment is underway, with traditional media outlets like the New Yorker and the New York Times decrying the unravelling of the fifth estate. Look closer at what is actually happening and you’ll see something else—something that looks very familiar to the waiters in L.A. and the Uber drivers in Silicon Valley. For many writers on Substack and similar platforms, writing a paid subscription newsletter is the new side gig.

Take my example. Having published one book on strategy, I was looking for a way to write the next one. I had so much material and needed time, lots of time: time that was flexible enough to allow me to juggle the responsibilities of raising little children and of contributing to paying the bills, all under pandemic lockdown. Every little bit helps, and being paid while writing makes my dream of publishing the next book that much more of a reality. Or the example of JJ Ding, author of the ChinAI newsletter, who juggles graduate studies with corralling a community of dedicated English-Mandarin translators to make the world of AI research underway in China better understood outside the country, reducing the fear and mistrust between China and the U.S.

Or there’s the example of Animatou Sow, author of the Crème de la Crème newsletter, who juggles writing books, posting Instagram stories, and hosting podcasts, which all feature her incisive cultural commentary, such as, “Books are the answer to rampant 21st-century charlatanism.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG was generally familiar with Substack prior to reading the OP, but is interested to hear from those more knowledgeable about whether writing a paid subscription newsletter on Substack actually generates much money for most people (excluding extreme outliers).

Covid Literature

One of PG’s offspring, eight years old, has been writing a series of stories about two imaginary characters, Fred and Joe.

PG just learned that the latest Fred and Joe story involved an unexpected side effect of Covid vaccinations that caused Fred and Joe to develop four arms.

During a text-message discussion of this literary work, this young author’s mother, PG was informed that Covid RomComs have shown up on BookBub.

This raised a question in PG’s mind – what will the long-term effect of Covid and all its related shutdowns, shelter-in-place, AntiVaxxers, etc., etc., have on literature of all sorts?

Feel free to opine.

(Brief update on PG’s water-in-the-basement adventures: Water no longer seems to be increasing. Wet places appear to be drying out. Another visit from the good plumber expected tomorrow morning.)

I ushered at the Shubert

I ushered at the Shubert in New Haven during graduate school when plays en route to Broadway still went out of town to try out. I worked backstage at summer stock doing jobs from garbage man to strapping on Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg to fixing Gloria Swanson’s broken plumbing in her dressing room with her yelling at me as I worked the plunger.

John Guare

How to Write a Great Summary

From GrammarlyBlog:

A summary is a shorter description of a longer work, covering all of the highlights but not many of the details. It’s used for an overview so that people can get an idea of what the longer work entails without reading or watching it first.

You see summaries everywhere, from book covers to product descriptions to online review sites. However, no matter how many summaries you’ve read, it can still be difficult to write your own when you need to.

. . . .

What is a summary?

Really, a summary is a general term used to describe any writing that briefly explains, or “summarizes,” a larger work like a novel, academic paper, movie, or TV show. Summaries are usually short, from one or two sentences to a paragraph, but if you’re summarizing an enormous work, like all seven Harry Potter books, they can stretch out over pages. 

Summary writing is like a highlight reel, showing only the best parts and ignoring what’s not strictly necessary. A summary example of Hamlet would mention the main plot points like the murder of Polonius, but wouldn’t mention details irrelevant to the plot, like Polonius’s “to thine own self be true” monologue. 

The key to summary writing is to stick to the facts; do not include opinions, analysis, or bias. If it’s written for commercial purposes, such as the summaries on Netflix, it might be intentionally alluring and withhold spoilers. However, for academic papers and more formal writing, summary writing leans towards factual and clinical. 

Summaries appear in many different shapes and forms, including book reports and other school papers. Academics use summaries all the time for research papers when they write an abstract, which is essentially a summary of an entire research paper. 

Really, everyone needs to know how to write a summary at one point or another. Even finding a job requires you to summarize your own professional background and work experience. Learning how to write a good LinkedIn summary can help you land your dream job!

Summary examples: What makes a good summary

Let’s look at some summary examples of famous works to see what constitutes a strong summary. 

On IMDb, the summary for the 2008 movie The Dark Knight is just a sentence long: 

When the menace known as the Joker wreaks havoc and chaos on the people of Gotham, Batman must accept one of the greatest psychological and physical tests of his ability to fight injustice.

Right away, you’ll notice that the specific events of the movie are omitted and replaced by a general explanation of what happens. The main characters are mentioned—at least the protagonist and antagonist—and there is some description given about the types of events, such as “psychological and physical tests.” 

However, the details are absent. To summarize a two-hour movie in a single sentence requires broad strokes; there’s only room for the bare essentials. 

Most summaries, though, are longer than a sentence, like this multi-paragraph summary example for the novel To Kill a Mockingbird from SparkNotes

As you can see, this summary is about the length of a page. It’s far more detailed, too, mentioning secondary characters and adding more context to the plot events. Still, to condense 281 pages into one requires a lot of cutting, so each key event is given just a sentence or two, consisting of only the need-to-know information. 

How to write a summary in 4 steps

Summary writing uses the same best tips for all good writing. If you want to know how to write a summary yourself, we break the process down into 4 basic steps. 

. . . .

 3. Write the summary in your own words

Next, write the first draft of your summary following the lists you made in the previous outlining stage. If you’re summarizing a book, film, or other media, it’s best to use chronological order (even if the story is told out of order). 

The key here is using your own words. While you’re free to copy the occasional direct quote in your summary writing, it’s best to use original language to make it your own. Also, keep in mind the perspective of someone who’s never read or seen the source material. Do you have all the relevant points they need to understand what’s going on? 

Link to the rest at GrammarlyBlog

Although PG has created a zillion written and spoken summaries for a wide variety of audiences and situations – Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury or In short, for example – he has never consciously focused on how to create a good summary other than with some little-used portion of his reptile brain.

In the future, he’s going to see if he can bump summaries up to a somewhat more evolved part of his mind.

The justification of art

The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations.

Glenn Gould

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

John W. Gardner

Water in the Basement

PG apologizes for light blogging yesterday.

A short time ago, PG noticed some dampness in the carpet in part of his basement. Since he had lost confidence in a previous service that sent out someone to check on heating, plumbing and air conditioning and provide preventive maintenance on a periodic basis for a flat monthly fee, PG contacted a friend who builds houses and asked for recommendations for a plumber.

The recommended plumber stopped by the next day. For PG, he had one thing to recommend him besides the referral from PG’s friend – he was a man of mature years. He was also very pleasant to deal with and happy to answer PG’s questions.

Within about five minutes, he pointed out to PG that a prior plumber had re-inserted a plug in an interior drainage access point improperly. Upon, close observation, PG could see how the prior plumber had made a dumb mistake – cross-threading the plug.

(Sorry if that’s too technical, but it’s the same thing that happens when you try to screw a lid on a jar and the lid won’t screw all the way on. You unscrew the lid, line it up properly on the jar and the lid closes as it should. The lid was cross-threaded the first time you tried.)

The earlier plumber appeared to have put a bunch of sealant on the plug which may have delayed the appearance of consequences of his error for a few months.

The new plug was properly installed and the mature plumber went on his way in a short period of time. In an act that will probably get him disinvited from the annual Plumbers’ Ball, the old guy declined to send PG a bill for his services.

All was dry for several days, but then the dampness returned. PG called the mature plumber again. After the plumber examined the situation and found the plug was still in place and working as it should, he said he would send his son to cut open the wall to see why the leak had returned.

It didn’t occur to PG that the dampness problem may have had more than one cause. Problems with more than one cause are regarded by PG (and many others) as more disturbing than problems with a single cause. They tend to be tougher to diagnose and fix.

The mature plumber’s son arrived yesterday as promised, examined the dampness and cut a hole in the wall with his saw. The hole didn’t disclose the type of problem the mature plumber thought might be easily fixable, so the son (who struck PG as a younger version of his father) began a more extensive investigation.

To shorten a long, damp story, one or more of the much younger representatives from the old plumbing service had screwed up in at least couple of different ways – after servicing PG’s central heating and air conditioning, a careless representative had left a pipe that should have been sending condensed water from the air conditioning system down the drain closed. Hence the condensed water was running toward the back of the floor in the furnace room, wetting the back wall, then draining downward to a point where it flowed back forward under the floor to soak PG’s carpet as well as a whole bunch of other things.

In defense of yesterday’s plumber’s father, the Mature Plumber, when he came to visit, PG’s air conditioning had not been running much, so there wasn’t much condensed water. In the last week or so, the weather has been very hot and the AC has been extremely active.

Yesterday’s plumber fixed the AC drainage problem by opening the drain pipe, but also discovered that, apparently due to some sort of improper installation (PG was out of the house on a mandatory task and got the explanation from Mrs. PG), one or both of PG’s two water heaters were also leaking and contributing to the dampness problem as well.

In addition to problems with more than one cause, problems with hidden consequences are also quite disturbing. PG has done some squirming around with a flashlight and confirmed the problems yesterday’s plumber discovered with the water heaters. He’s not sure where to look for the AC drain pipe.

The problem yesterday’s plumber discovered with the AC drainage valve reminded PG of a couple of reasons he quit using his prior preventative maintenance service:

  • After one of the last visits from the prior service, PG discovered that the young technician had turned off the natural gas valve that sent gas to PG’s furnace and neglected to turn it back on before he left. Casa PG became a bit chilly before PG discovered the problem.
  • After the last visit from the prior service, PG discovered that the young technician had turned off the electric switch that powered PG’s air conditioning compressor outside the house and neglected to turn it back on before he left. The fan was blowing inside Casa PG, but no cold air was appearing. PG found and fixed that problem as well.

Throw in a phone conversation with his homeowners insurance agent and with a claims representative and yesterday was chock full of things that PG enjoys less than making blog posts on TPV.

If anyone lives near PG, he has recommendations local plumbing/heating/AC people who are very good and those who are to be avoided at all costs.

Selling and Distributing Your Book: What Self-Published Authors Need to Know

From The Independent Publishing Magazine:

The road to writing a book is fulfilling, but it’s often so much more work than people tend to give it credit for. Even once the rounds of drafting and editing are complete, that’s not the end of the road. Rather, it’s the beginning of the sales and distribution process that actually gets your hard-wrangled book into the hands of readers.

This can be particularly challenging if you’re self-publishing. You won’t generally have the expertise or connections that large publishing houses do or the marketing resources at their disposal. Yet, we live in a world in which technology has broken down many of the traditional barriers to publishing. As such, self-publishing is now not only accessible, it can be a viable form of business.

Let’s take a moment to explore a few of the things that you need to know if you’re planning on diving into self-publishing sales and distribution. What strategies and methods can work for you? How can you best go about reaching your audience?

Build Relationships

One of the most important things to remember when selling and distributing your book is that you shouldn’t go it alone. Yes, you may be an independent author, but attempting to take care of everything is a surefire recipe for burnout. This doesn’t mean that you need to hire a team, particularly if this is your first endeavor. However, it’s about building relationships with people who can make your publishing experience easier and more successful.

If you can make it to the big industry book fairs —  BookExpo America (BEA) in the U.S., Frankfurt and London, internationally — this can be a great opportunity to start cultivating relationships with distributors. BEA in particular has also started to see more ebook distributors attending if you are targeting the digital markets. Major and independent businesses alike will either have their own booths at these events, or they’ll have representatives. Make efforts to get to know them personally. Be interested in what their goals are and how you can help. Even if these distribution representatives can’t take on your book, they may be able to provide you with advice and introductions that can help you move the process forward.

However, you should also make efforts to cultivate relationships with independent bookstores. If your book is in print, booksellers can make a huge difference in where it is featured on the shelves and whether it is recommended to readers. Reach out to stores, particularly if you plan a small tour with readings and events to promote your book. If you’re attending festivals, make inquiries with independents about stocking some copies and the potential for putting together an event at the same time. These relationships are mutually beneficial — you get your book into stores, and independent sellers can compete with the online marketplace.

Focus on Marketing

One of the challenges of selling and distributing your self-published book is making sure that people actually know it exists. This begins with increasing your online presence. Make a clean, professional-looking website that also has personal touches. This should certainly include a blog that you update regularly. Make sure that you are not just present on social media, but active. One of the mistakes too many self-published authors make is to just self-promote their books on their platforms, targeted at no one in particular. Engage with your followers on social media, make content that they actively want to consume — perhaps about the genre you write in or even the writing process itself. Reply to commenters, invite responses to your tweets, and go out of your way to join discussions with other authors in similar fields.

As an independent operation, you have the freedom to take your marketing down some more creative avenues. Merchandise can be a fun method here. Creating t-shirts and other apparel featuring your book’s characters or a witty quote can both cultivate a sense of fandom and also be talking points when people see other readers wearing them on the street. It’s a form of guerilla advertising. Selling and delivering apparel doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, either. If you’re printing items in bulk and shipping them yourself, you can usually save some money with prepaid postage and boxes that are provided by the shipping company. You certainly don’t want to risk paying for damaged items, either, so take the time to pack clothes securely, with the garment protected inside a polythene bag.

Diversify Everything

One of the many things you’ll learn as a self-published author is a need for agility. Without the ability to adapt to various challenges and even roles, you are unlikely to get very far. As such, you can benefit from taking the attitude that you need to diversify everything.

This should include:

●     Your Income

When you’re just starting, you’re unlikely to make a livable salary from your book. As such, it’s worth taking on freelance writing work that you can perform around your publishing efforts. There are additional challenges this presents. Negotiating pay requires some research into the current markets, not to mention confidence to advocate for yourself. You also need to devote time toward outreach to ensure you have enough work, and administrative tasks like invoicing. However, this is largely a matter of good organization, and this can diversify your income in a way that allows you to keep prioritizing your book.

●     Your Distribution Methods

When you don’t have resources, you’ll need to be more agile about how you get your book out there. You may have to make regional deals with smaller distribution companies, rather than conglomerates that also take care of overseas territories. You might also have to take care of ebook publishing on each platform. If you can’t sign an exclusive deal with a provider, this means you need to capture your ebook readers wherever they can find you.

Link to the rest at The Independent Publishing Magazine

For quite a while, PG has operated under the belief that the ebook royalty rates Amazon pays for indie authors who are exclusive with Zon outweigh the extra money indie authors can make by going wide (remembering that every distributor has its own royalty structure).

In other words, a given indie author could make more money from ebooks (the large majority of the money indie authors make are from ebooks) by exploiting the higher rate Amazon pays than using other reputable ebook distributors (Draft2Digital is the one PG hears/reads the most about.)

As PG was reading the OP, he wondered if his belief was still correct or if something has changed with ebook purchasers, ebook distributors, etc., that make going wide a more profitable approach.

PG is happy to hear opinions and would be particularly interested in seeing blog posts and stories from successful indie authors that compare the costs and returns of going wide vs. Amazon.

PG also admits that he is a bit cautious with articles on independent websites focused on information for indie authors like the OP because he’s concerned they may have affiliate income or advertising deals with other ebook distributors that they don’t have with Amazon.

But PG could be wrong about that in more than one case.

The Most Significant Choice Of Your Writing Career

From Jane Friedman:

The most significant choice of your writing career happens long before your story makes its way into the world. This choice impacts every single aspect of your career, and it is a choice you make over and over and over again. This choice could leave you a husk of a writer, ravaged by the publishing industry, bemoaning the success of everyone else around you; or it could propel you to the next stage of your career and embolden you to try things you’d never thought possible. The funny part is this choice has nothing to do with the act of writing, but everything to do with words.

The most important choice you will make in your writing career is how you choose to talk to yourself about said career.

And for 99% of writers I know, the default setting of this conversation is: doubt, worry, and frustration. Fears on repeat include: Why would anyone ever buy my book? My story isn’t important. I’m never going to get an agent. I don’t know how to do this. Somebody already wrote a story like mine…

When we’re Uninitiated and breaking into the industry, we all have these thoughts, and we often feel powerless. But that feeling of powerlessness dissipates when you master your interior dialogue. You go from being a pawn in a multi-billion-dollar industry to an active player with a say in how your career unfolds.

You can change your default mental settings, and as you rewire your brain you may even learn to enjoy the current stage of your writing career.

But the jump from Why would anyone read my work? to My work is great is not natural. If you try to go directly from the former to the latter, you’re probably going to feel delusional, as opposed to empowered.

Rewiring progresses quietly, in stages. Mindset milestones include: That will never happen to me. Maybe that could happen to me. I can do this. I’ve already done it.

Here are a few exercises for both inside and outside your brain to lead you from That will never happen to me to Maybe that could happen to me.

Inside your head

  • Acknowledge how you think is a choice. Negative narrative is on auto-pilot by now, but someone had to turn on the auto-pilot function and that someone was you. Are you ready to turn it off? Does that idea terrify you? What about those negative thoughts are you holding on to? The choice is yours, all you have to do is make it.

For me, clinging to negativity offered a sense of security. I knew how to be an aspiring writer. But owning the fact I was a working writer put me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to realize people may actually read my work and that triggered a fear of judgment on about ten-billion different levels. But stasis equals death doesn’t just apply to our characters. And it’s only by making a choice to think and therefore act differently that I was able to move forward.

  • Notice when you’re having a crap-tastic garbage person way of talking to yourself moment and shut it down. Take a deep breath, and say out loud with your voice-box, “I choose not to participate in this conversation.” Add a physical movement, like snapping your fingers, as well. If you’re in public and catch yourself thinking negatively, you can use the physical movement to interrupt the negative pattern. That way people aren’t staring at you for uttering, “I choose not to participate in this conversation” when you haven’t been conversing.
  • Replace trash talk with a new line of dialogue. Once you’ve asserted your choice to disengage from self-trash-talk a few times, take it a step further. Replace your negative monologue with a question of possibility. I like Why not me? If somebody else has done it, there’s no reason I can’t do it too.

Rewriting your brain is hard work. It is physically exhausting to create new neuro pathways. That old wiring for negative thinking will always be there, so rewiring is something we have to practice as frequently as we practice our writing craft. And, just like mastering our craft, adjusting our thoughts and tweaking our mindset is never done—but with practice, your transition time from self-doubt to self-empowerment increases exponentially.

You can do some serious rewiring work on your own, but it has even more impact when you step outside your own brain.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Hotel California

PG is frustrated with what should be the most mundane of internet tasks – transferring a domain from one internet service provider to another.

As he ran the process a second time with a large, but shady ISP after the first one got lost somewhere in the bowels of their subnormally-automated systems, he was reminded of the following lyrics from an old song by the Eagles titled, “Hotel California.”

Relax,” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave.”

Imagine

Imagine that you hold in one hand an oddly shaped stone. You keep this hand closed into a fist, but still you can feel the stone’s curvature and the pointed edges, the roughness—of course, you know the relative size and weight and might even have a mental image of the color of this stone, even if you have not yet laid eyes upon it. Imagine that stone in your hand. Imagine what it is like to know everything about the way it feels, but nothing of how it looks. Hold that in mind for a moment.

Now, imagine that there is a person standing next to you who tells you that she also holds a stone in her hand. You look down and see the clenched fist and she sees yours and you confess the same. Neither of you, it seems, has yet opened the hand and seen the stone. Still, you can only trust each other’s proclamations. Standing together with your stones in hand, the two of you theorize about whether or not your respective stones are similar to one another. You discuss mundane details about your stones (not the special ones—you hesitate to make mention of the sharp point in the northern hemisphere or the flat area on the bottom). Your neighbor finally notes similarities between her stone and yours and you nod with relief and acknowledge that your stones indeed share reasonable commonalities. Over the course of your discussion, you and your neighbor finally conclude, without bothering to open your hands, that the stones you hold must indeed be quite similar.

Are they? It is only suitable to say that they are.

At the same time, and in spite of your desire not to offend, there is no doubt in your mind that the stone you hold bespeaks a greater prominence than that of your neighbor. You are not sure how you know this to be true, but it must be so! And I do not mean that this stone simply holds a greater subjective prominence. It has something of the universal, for it is, indeed, an auspicious stone! Silently, you hypothesize in what ways it must be special. It is possibly different in shape, color, weight, size and texture from the other, but you cannot confirm this. Perhaps, it is special by substance? Still, you are unsure. The very fact of your uncertainty begins to bother you and unleashes within you a deep insecurity. What if you are wrong and your stone is actually inferior to the other…or inferior even to some third stone not yet encountered?

Meanwhile, your neighbor is silently suffering in the same agony. Both of you tacitly understand that, without comparing the two visually, it is absurd to proclaim the two stones similar. Yet, your fist remains clenched, as does your neighbor’s and so you find yourselves unable to hold out the stones before you and compare them side-by-side. Of course, this is possible, but the mutual curiosity is outstripped by an inveterate pride, and so you both become afraid of showing (and even seeing) what you have, for fear that your respective stones will be different in appearance from the model that you have each conceptualized in mind. Meekly your eyes meet and you smile to one another at your new comradeship, but, all the while, remain paralyzed by a simultaneous shame and vanity.

Ashim Shanker

We find the Mayan pantheon peculiar

We find the Mayan pantheon peculiar. By our standards, suicide and human sacrifice are unacceptable. We tend not to notice the peculiarities of our own culture. We accept the thousands of children who wear braces to correct their teeth, yet we consider the Maya odd for filing teeth to beautify them. Each culture defines its own idiosyncrasies and then forgets that it has done so.

Pat Murphy

Only idiots

Only idiots are confident. It requires a great amount of wisdom and knowledge to be confused.

Abhishek Leela Pandey

Waterstones employees not expected to police mask wearing

From The Bookseller:

Waterstones employees will not be expected to intervene or attempt to police mask wearing in stores from 19th July, the retailer has confirmed, after announcing it would “encourage” customers to don face coverings and observe social distancing after restrictions are lifted across England.

On 13th July, Waterstones tweeted it had made the decision because of the “enclosed browsing environment” in stores.

However, the chain’s stance was met with some strong reactions on Twitter. Many praised the store for its measured policy, but some, including former actor and political activist Laurence Fox and Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley Brewer, criticised the move. Brewer said: “I make a point of buying books at my local Waterstones rather than ordering on Amazon because I want bookstores to thrive, but if I go into your store and a member of staff asks me to wear a mask, you will lose my business forever.”

A spokesperson for Waterstones told The Bookseller: “From Monday 19th July, the English government will remove the mandatory wearing of face coverings in public and the legislative requirement to adhere to one-metre social distancing. Whilst we will not enforce mask wearing in our English shops, we respectfully encourage our booksellers and our customers to follow the spirit of government guidance, continuing to observe the same safety measures of wearing face masks in crowded and enclosed spaces, and maintaining the social distancing that have helped to create a safe shopping environment. We also ask our staff to continue employing the three primary control measures (face masks, appropriate social distancing and cleanliness and hand hygiene) that have kept both our staff and our customers secure during the ongoing pandemic.”

Waterstones staff seemed positive about the retailer’s decision. One employee told The Bookseller: “We are glad to see a more sensible approach taken internally and that customers will be encouraged to continue exhibiting the correct behaviours. This will be done through the use of signage with much of our current point-of-sale suite remaining in place for the time being. However there is no expectation that staff intervene or attempt to police this policy themselves, indeed, we are actively discouraged from putting ourselves in a situation that may lead to confrontation.

“Staff are encouraged to put their own safety first, continue to distance from customers and one another, wear a mask where possible and continue with hygiene best practice. With a lack of clear government policy on the issue, staff have no legal backing to enforce any behaviours from our customers and as such mask wearing and distancing will be largely self-policing. Many staff would like to see a stiffening of the wording being used by the government and a U-turn on the current path, with masks and distancing in crowded spaces and public transport remaining a requirement.”

They said that the shift in rhetoric from the government had already seen an increase in the number of people opting not to wear a mask as well as visitors pushing back against the current rules and abusing and challenging staff. “Sadly we expect this trend to continue after the 19th,” they said.

“Some branches have enjoyed a busy past few days. With many customers commenting that they too are concerned about the shift in policy and are looking to get in to our stores and stock up on reading material before going into a self-imposed period of isolation and that they will look to avoid busy/crowded places such as shops and shopping centres until the effects of the changing policy become more apparent.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

As an observer of human behavior, PG is fascinated with the mask/no mask situations that cause a significant number of people to become upset.

A month before Covid appeared anywhere, had one interviewed a representative sample of Americans about a hypothetical pandemic that caused government and health officials to recommend that people in well-defined areas and situations wear a face mask mask as a public as a health safety measure, PG doubts very many interviewees would have had a problem with following those recommendations.

If one then asked interviewees to consider that, after public health officials felt the danger had subsided and informed the public that wearing masks in public areas was no longer necessary for their safety, he doubts that very many of those surveyed would have hypothesized any problem following those recommendations either.

PG doubts that significant numbers of people would have responded that they had serious reservations about following either of those pieces of advice and would not comply.

As reflected in the OP, it appears to PG that at least some residents of the British isles have been behaving in much the same way as some of their American cousins have with respect to masks/no masks health decisions.

In PG’s definitely unscientific observation of human behavior among those with whom he has had interactions during the Covid Episode and news accounts he has read about the behavior of other Americans, he has concluded that there is a great deal of social conflict and argument over the mask issue that he would never have predicted.

For the record, PG and Mrs. PG each were vaccinated at the earliest opportunity and wore masks, followed social-distancing guidelines, etc., when local and regional government authorities advised or ordered that such behavior should be followed when they were in public and observed signs in public and private spaces regarding mask wearing wherever they went outside Casa PG.

After the same government authorities said mask wearing was no longer necessary for people like them, the PG’s quit wearing masks. If a business or proprietor of a public place requested or demanded that masks be worn on its premises, the PG’s complied. PG doesn’t remember becoming upset at being required to put on a mask when he entered a location that was being more cautious than the government authorities said was necessary.

What PG doesn’t view as rational behavior is people becoming upset and abusive toward those who are being more or less cautious than they are with regard their decisions about masks/no masks if public health experts and governments have ceased to mandate masks in public places.

PG has strong opinions about a wide variety of matters, but he doesn’t get upset with someone who holds differing opinions. If he were to ask his friends a series of questions about a variety of subjects and they held different opinions than he did, that wouldn’t bother him or interfere with his friendship with them under virtually any condition PG can imagine.

He doubts that any of his acquaintances hold the opinion that everyone should work hard to run over puppies crossing the street and drive accordingly or routinely insult and attack anyone who is over the age of 30 and under the age of 50, but admits he would probably steer clear of them it they acted that way.

As mentioned here before, PG has worried about the impact of long periods of social isolation imposed on groups like school children or the elderly by efforts to minimize the risk of catching Covid. But, he didn’t think to worry about what would happen to the public interactions between people once the danger was past or mostly past.

Perhaps a genre of books involving Covid horror stories will spring into being and become its own permanent category on Amazon.

Are Fictional Characters Protected Under Copyright Law?

From Jane Friedman:

Jack Ryan, the analytical, yet charming CIA analyst, made an appearance in federal court in Maryland earlier this year. The heirs to Tom Clancy’s literary legacy are fighting over him. Unlike in the movies, he’s not in a great position to fight back.

It all started when Clancy signed the publishing deal for The Hunt for Red October where Jack Ryan made his debut in 1984. In a departure from common practice, Clancy transferred his copyright in Red October to the publisher. A few years later, Clancy realized his mistake and was able to negotiate return of the copyright for the book. He immediately transferred the reverted copyright to his company.

Here’s the crux of the current court battle: When Clancy mistakenly transferred his copyright in the book Red October to the original publisher, did the copyright to the character Jack Ryan go with it? Or did Clancy retain the character copyright? In normal practice, the sale of the right to publish a copyrighted story does not stop the author from using its characters in future works.

If Clancy retained the rights to the character when he signed the initial publishing contract, then the rights that reverted from the publisher would not have included the copyright for the character. The reverted rights Clancy turned around and transferred into his company would not have included the character rights. All of which means that the character, Jack Ryan, is part of Clancy’s estate and not controlled by the company he set up.

Jack Ryan is a valuable character with his own copyright separate from the copyright in the book. Everybody concerned, the owners of the company and the heirs to the estate, wants a piece of him, or all of him. And it’s not clear where Mr. Ryan currently resides.

Fictional characters are not listed in the copyright statute as a separate class of protectable work. There’s no application at the Copyright Office for them. But over the years, the law on character protection has evolved.

. . . .

This is important because characters with independent copyright can be licensed separately from the stories in which they originally appeared. It’s another way for authors to divide their rights to create multiple income streams. That’s the beauty of copyright. It’s divisible. An author can keep some rights and license others. It’s what Clancy did and his company/estate is still doing with the Jack Ryan franchise.

Not every character can be protected by copyright. Stock characters cannot be protected—a drunken old bum, a slippery snake oil salesman, a hooker with a heart of gold, a wicked stepmother, a gypsy fortune teller, and so on. They are essentially ideas for characters, vague and lightly sketched. Copyright does not give anyone a monopoly on ideas. Protecting stock characters would prevent as yet untold stories from being told. Depriving the world of new stories is exactly the opposite of what copyright is intended to promote—the creation of more stories, more art.

. . . .

Public domain characters cannot be protected

But new characters created from public domain works can be protected. Consider Enola Holmes, the younger sister of Sherlock. The Sherlock Holmes stories have been slipping into the public domain for years now, to the chagrin of the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. The creative elements of Sherlock Holmes stories that are in the public domain can be used by others to build new stories.

Enola Holmes was introduced to readers in a series of young adult books written by Nancy Springer. Enola does not exist in the Conan Doyle canon; she was created by Springer. She has distinctive traits (high intelligence, keen observational skills and insight, skills in archery, fencing, and martial arts, an independent thinker who defies Victorian norms for women) that combine to make her well delineated and protectable.

. . . .

The “well delineated character” is the most widely accepted legal test used to decide whether a fictional character is protected by copyright, but it is not the only one. The other is “the story being told” test. Sam Spade is responsible for this test.

Dashiell Hammett created Sam Spade when he wrote The Maltese Falcon. Hammett licensed the exclusive rights to use the book in movies, radio, and television to Warner Brothers. Hammett later wrote other stories with Sam Spade. Warner Bros. complained that it owned exclusive rights to the character and Hammett couldn’t write about him anymore.

Ironically, the court protected Hammett’s right as the creator to use Sam Spade in future stories by deciding that the character was not protected by copyright. Sam Spade is just a vehicle for telling the story and is not the story itself. He is the chessman in the game of telling the story. It was the story that was licensed to Warner Bros., not the chessman.

A character is protected under the “story being told” test when he dominates the story in a way that there would be no story without him. This test sets a high bar for character protection. To protect the character, the story would essentially have to be a character study. The Maltese Falcon is not a character study of Sam Spade.

An example of character protection using the “story being told test” is the Rocky franchise. A screenwriter wrote a story on spec using the characters Rocky, Adrian, Apollo Creed, and Paulie. The work was considered to be an infringing use of the characters. The characters were protected because the movies focused on the characters and their relationships, not on intricate plot or story lines. The characters were the story being told. The writer could not avoid the infringement touchpoint of substantial similarity when he took the characters and used them in a new storyline.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG is not entirely satisfied with the OP.

He’ll provide a couple of additional items to demonstrate that court cases aren’t quite as definitive as non-lawyers might conclude from reading the OP. After the lengthy excerpts below, PG will briefly share a couple of his practical thoughts way down at the end.

Copyright designs found weak when derived from common ideas

From Thompson Coburn LLP:

The well-known song says, “a kiss is just a kiss,” but the Ninth Circuit says that some kisses are “thin” and some are “broad,” and on that your copyright lawyer can rely. As time goes by.

The court got into analyzing kisses through a case, Sophia & Chloe v. Brighton Collectibles, involving designs of “Buddha’s Kiss” earrings. A Buddha’s Kiss earring has three elements: a teardrop-shaped earring, the henna symbol for the word “kiss,” and the image of the Buddha. As you might expect, the producer of one Buddha’s Kiss earring sued the producer of another, claiming copyright infringement.

Each of the parties’ earrings contained those three elements. But was that similarity enough to prove copyright infringement? The court said it wasn’t. Because every Buddha’s Kiss earring must contain those three elements, that means that the combination of those three elements is the “idea” of the earring. And copyright law does not protect ideas, but merely particular creative expressions of ideas.

Normally, two different creative expressions are analyzed under a “substantial similarity” test. But the Ninth Circuit held that because there were only a few ways to combine the three essential elements of a Buddha’s Kiss, infringement can be found only if the two designs are “virtually identical.”

Link to the rest at Thompson Coburn LLP

Basics of Copyright 

From The Office of General Counsel, Harvard University:

What does copyright protect?

Copyright does not protect ideas, nor does it protect facts.  It protects only the form in which ideas or facts are expressed.  For example, you may read a copyrighted paper and appropriate its ideas, or facts it conveys, into your own work without violating the copyright.  However, you may not reproduce the actual text of the paper (unless fair use or another exception to copyright protection applies), nor may you evade this prohibition simply by changing some words or thoroughly paraphrasing the content.

What does a copyright authorize the copyright owner to do, or to restrict others from doing?

Subject to certain limitations, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to:

  • reproduce the work by making copies of it;
  • distribute copies of the work to the public by sale, donation, rental, or lending;
  • prepare new works derived from the original (for example, a novel adapted into a play, or a translation, or a musical arrangement); and
  • publicly perform or display the work.

. . . .

What is “fair use”?

Fair use is the right to use a copyrighted work under certain conditions without permission of the copyright owner.  The doctrine helps prevent a rigid application of copyright law that would stifle the very creativity the law is designed to foster.  It allows one to use and build upon prior works in a manner that does not unfairly deprive prior copyright owners of the right to control and benefit from their works.  Together with other features of copyright law like the idea/expression dichotomy discussed above, fair use reconciles the copyright statute with the First Amendment. 

What is the test for fair use?

The fair use defense is now codified in Section 107 of the Copyright Act.  The statutory formulation is intended to carry forward the fair use doctrine long recognized by the courts.  The statute provides that fair use of a work “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use, scholarship, or research)” is not an infringement of copyright.  To determine whether a given use is fair use, the statute directs, one must consider the following four factors:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

These factors are not exclusive, but are the primary—and in many cases the only—factors courts examine.  The following questions consider each of these four factors in turn. 

What considerations are relevant in applying the first fair use factor—the purpose and character of the use?

One important consideration is whether the use in question advances a socially beneficial activity like those listed in the statute: criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.  Other important considerations are whether the use is commercial or noncommercial and whether the use is “transformative.” 

Noncommercial use is more likely to be deemed fair use than commercial use, and the statute expressly contrasts nonprofit educational purposes with commercial ones.  However, uses made at or by a nonprofit educational institution may be deemed commercial if they are profit-making. 

In recent years, the courts have focused increasingly on whether the use in question is “transformative.”  A work is transformative if, in the words of the Supreme Court, it “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message.”  Use of a quotation from an earlier work in a critical essay to illustrate the essayist’s argument is a classic example of transformative use.  A use that supplants or substitutes for the original work is less likely to be deemed fair use than one that makes a new contribution and thus furthers the goal of copyright, to promote science and the arts.  To quote the Supreme Court again, transformative works “lie at the heart of the fair use doctrine’s guarantee of breathing space within the confines of copyright.”

Courts have also recognized, however, that non-transformative uses may be socially beneficial, and that a use does not have to be transformative to support a finding of fair use.  The Supreme Court has cited reproduction of multiple copies for classroom distribution as the most obvious example of a non-transformative use that may be permitted as fair use in appropriate circumstances.  The Court’s emphasis on whether a use is transformative, however, makes it difficult to know how to weigh uses that are for non-profit educational purposes but are also non-transformative.  In addition, it could be argued in some circumstances that verbatim copying of a work for classroom use is “transformative,” in that (to quote from the Court’s definition) the instructor is adding “something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message” in the course of presenting the material. 

Other factors that sometimes weigh in the analysis of the first fair use factor include whether the use in question is a reasonable and customary practice and whether the putative fair user has acted in bad faith or denied credit to the author of the copyrighted work.

What considerations are relevant in applying the second fair use factor—the nature of the copyrighted work?

The two main considerations are whether the work is published or unpublished and how creative the work is.  Unpublished works are accorded more protection than published ones, as the author has a strong right to determine whether and when his or her work will be made public.  The fact that a previously published work is out of print may tend to favor fair use, since the work is not otherwise available.

Works that are factual and less creative are more susceptible of fair use than imaginative and highly creative works.  This is in keeping with the general principle that copyright protects expression rather than ideas or facts.

However, the second factor is typically the least important of the fair use factors.

What considerations are relevant in applying the third fair use factor—the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole?

Courts have taken both a quantitative and a qualitative approach in assessing the impact on the fair use analysis of the amount and substantiality of the portion used.  What percentage of the original work has been used?  There are no bright lines, but the higher the percentage, the more likely this factor is to weigh against fair use. 

Even if the percentage is fairly small, however, if the material used is qualitatively very important, this factor may weigh against fair use.  Thus, for example, in a case in which The Nation magazine published excerpts, totaling only 300–400 words of verbatim quotes, from Gerald Ford’s forthcoming book-length memoir, the Supreme Court held that the third factor weighed against fair use, because the excerpts included Ford’s discussion of his pardon of Nixon and other central passages that the court found to be the “heart” of the work.

Also important in applying the third factor is the nexus between the purpose of the fair use and the portion of the copyrighted work taken.  The extent of permissible copying varies with the purpose and character of the use.  Taking more of the copyrighted work than is necessary to accomplish the fair user’s salutary purpose will weigh against fair use.  In some cases, the fact that the entire work—for example, an image—was needed to accomplish the fair use purpose has led the court to hold that the third factor was neutral, favoring neither the copyright holder nor the putative fair user.

What considerations are relevant in applying the fourth fair use factor—the effect upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work?

Use that adversely affects the market for the copyrighted work is less likely to be a fair use.  This ties back to the first factor, and the question whether the putative fair use supplants or substitutes for the copyrighted work.  The fact that a use results in lost sales to the copyright owner will weigh against fair use.  Moreover, courts have instructed that one must look at the likely impact on the market should the use in question become widespread; the fourth factor may weigh against fair use even if little market harm has yet occurred.

This inquiry is not confined to the market for the original, but also takes into account derivative markets.  For example, if a novel were made into a movie, the movie might not harm sales of the book—indeed, it might help them—but the harm to the derivative market for movie rights would count against fair use.  This principle works in a straightforward way in the case of well-established markets, like the market for movie rights for a novel.  But it becomes much more difficult to apply if there is not an established market.  Consistent with the statutory language, courts have also looked at whether there is harm to a “potential market” for the copyrighted work.  However, if there were deemed to be a “potential market” for every use asserted to be a fair use, then the fourth factor would always favor the copyright owner, since the copyright owner would be harmed by loss of the licensing fee for that use.  One way courts have tried to avoid this circularity is by asking whether a market, if not already established, is “reasonable” or likely to be developed by copyright owners.  In keeping with this approach, courts have concluded that there is no protectible market for criticism or parody, but have considered evidence of harm to markets under development or viewed as attractive opportunities for copyright owners, such as the market for downloads of songs.  In some cases, courts have indicated that the absence of a workable market will tend to favor the fair user on the fourth factor because there is no efficient means to buy permission for the use in question.

This is a difficult and evolving area of the law.  We can nevertheless venture a few generalizations:  Uses that substitute for the copyrighted work in its original market or an established derivative market generally cause market harm that is cognizable under the fourth factor.  Where there is no established market, harm is less likely to be found, but still may be found depending on the facts, especially if the fair use case under the other factors is weak and the “market” in question is under development by copyright owners or obviously attractive commercially.  In any case, the Supreme Court has said, market harm is a matter of degree, and the importance of the fourth factor will vary, not only with the amount of harm, but also with the relative strength of the showing on the other factors.

How should one weigh the various factors in arriving at a determination whether there is fair use?

The fair use test requires an assessment of all the factors together.  The courts have repeatedly emphasized that there are no bright line rules, and that each case must be decided on its own facts.  The factors often interact in the analysis.  For example, the Supreme Court has stated that the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use.  The more transformative the secondary use, the less likely it is that the secondary use will substitute for the original and cause direct market harm.  In reaching a fair use determination, all of the factors should be explored, and the results weighed together, in light of the goal of copyright law to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” (U.S. Const., art. I, § 8, cl. 8).[3] 

To understand better how courts have applied the fair use test in different situations, you may find useful the summaries of selected fair use cases at http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/chapter9/9-c.html.  In addition, the U.S. Copyright Office maintains a Fair Use Index, which offers a searchable database of selected judicial decisions involving fair use, together with brief summaries: http://copyright.gov/fair-use/.

Link to the rest at The Office of General Counsel, Harvard University

PG’s Thoughts

PG will note that the General Counsel of Harvard, like a great many other general counsels, almost certainly prefers a quiet life to one filled with ground-breaking copyright infringement lawsuits.

PG’s bottom line on the subject of the OP is that it uses a couple of cases he regards as outliers to support a conclusion that PG thinks is presented as a more settled matter of law than it actually is.

From a practical standpoint for a non-multi-millionaire author, here are a few thoughts.

Lawyers (or some lawyers) have a general rule that some call the “Pig Test.”

Basically, the Pig Test says don’t try to push right up to the very edge of the boundary between being sued and a quiet life. Don’t try to eat too much in that part of the legal and ethical world.

Don’t call your character Jack Ryan unless he’s an elf who lives in a magical wood filled with fairies and unicorns. Don’t call him Frodo if he does.

Don’t call your character Jane Ryan if she works for the CIA and engages in international intrigue to defeat the former Soviet Union or the Chinese Communists.

Don’t paraphrase paragraphs of action sequences in a book with the assistance of a Thesaurus.

The wealthier the author and the more books she/he has sold, the more cautious you should be about even permissible borrowing of details, settings, characters, etc. Ms. Rowling has publishers, agents, lawyers, readers, etc., looking for that sort of thing.

For most authors, just being sued is more punishment in both the financial and massive distraction arenas than is good for their creative output, even if they eventually prevail in court.

Italy’s Publishers Report 44-Percent Unit Growth, First Half of 2021

From Publishing Perspectives:

Despite what’s described as lingering difficulties in “large-scale distribution,” the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE) today (July 13) is reporting strong book-sale growth in the first six months of this year, both in units and in revenue.

According to analyses conducted by AIE’s research department based on NielsenIQ data, between January 4 and June 20, some 15 million more copies of printed books were sold, a 44-percent jump over the same time period’s sales in 2020. This encompasses all trade book channels, including bookstores, both online and physical, and large-scale distribution, with the exception of schoolbooks.

Even more significant, media messaging from AIE in Milan points out, is the growth compared to 2019, prior to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival. By comparison to the first half of 2019, 11 million more copies of books were sold January to June this year, an increase of 31 percent.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Tradition

To put it mildly, those who occupy the towering heights of American culture don’t look kindly on traditional religion … Why choose traditional religion in today’s culture?

You can get rid of tradition; you can scrap all the traditions you want. But traditions are the answers we have forgotten. Traditions are the answers to questions we have forgotten we even had to ask.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm and Nellie Bowles, Choosing My Religion, Good Faith Effort Podcast

How to turn down the noise that mars our decision-making

From The Washington Post:

A friend of mine was suffering such severe back pain that it was difficult for him to walk or stand. He consulted three doctors about the best course of treatment. The first was adamant that he needed surgery right away. The second advised my friend that he didn’t need surgery and that if he continued physical therapy, his condition would improve gradually over the coming months. The third prescribed strong steroids and recommended that, if his condition didn’t improve in a month, then he should have surgery. My friend followed the third doctor’s guidance, and it seems to be working. But he was mighty upset and confused by all those clashing perspectives. And he is still unsure whether that third doctor’s approach is the right one.

This undesirable variability in professional judgment is an example of noise, the ubiquitous and often-ignored human failing that is the focus of this well-researched, convincing and practical book. “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment” was written by the all-star team of psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, former McKinsey partner and management professor Olivier Sibony, and productive legal scholar and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein. Kahneman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his pathbreaking work with Amos Tversky on systematic biases in judgment. It prompted armies of psychologists and behavioral economists (including Sibony and Sunstein) to study the causes and remedies for many such faults, including overconfidence, stereotyping and confirmation bias — or seeking, remembering and placing excessive weight on information that supports our beliefs.

The authors kick things off by distinguishing between bias (systematic deviations) and noise (random scatter). The book then sustains a relentless focus on explaining and documenting the wallop packed by the simple and omnipresent error of noise — and what decision-makers can do about it. It blends stories, studies and statistics to make a compelling case that noise does at least as much damage as bias: undermining fairness and justice, wasting time and money, and damaging physical and mental health.

Kahneman and his colleagues show how unwanted variation in judgments (evaluations) and decisions (choices) creates “noisy systems” — which plague professionals including criminal judges, insurance underwriters, forensic scientists, futurists and physicians, who routinely make wildly varied judgments and decisions about similar cases. Systems are noisy, in part, because different professionals apply different standards. There is disturbing evidence, for example, that when multiple physicians evaluated identical cases for evidence of heart disease, tuberculosis, endometriosis, skin cancer and breast cancer, they agreed on diagnoses only about two-thirds of the time. In such noisy systems, errors add up rather than cancel each other out. As the authors put it, “If two felons who both should be sentenced to five years in prison receive sentences of three and seven years, justice has not, on average, been done.”

Systems are also noisy because, over time, the same professionals apply inconsistent standards. To illustrate, a study of 22 physicians who each examined the same 13 angiograms two times, several months apart, found that they disagreed with themselves between 63 percent and 92 percent of the time. To explain such swings, the authors use research on “occasion noise”: Fluctuations in a person’s mood, fatigue, physical environment and prior performance that are (objectively) irrelevant, yet shape judgments. Like the study titled “Clouds Make Nerds Look Good,” which examined 682 actual decisions by college admissions officers: They weighted applicants’ academic strengths more heavily on cloudier days and applicants’ nonacademic strengths more heavily on sunnier days.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG will certainly second the notion of judges hearing criminal cases being subject to “noise” in the OP.
Search for “inconsistent sentencing” on Google. You will find that a great deal of research and scholarship devoted to studying why criminal defendants that are convicted of or plead guilty to seemingly similar crimes receive widely divergent sentences from judges who are acting under similar laws.

More severe sentences imposed on racial minorities than on white defendants are the hot button in this legal field. On average, racial minorities in a given jurisdiction receive harsher punishment than non-minorities for the same crimes.

However, female criminals of all races are treated much more leniently than male criminals of the same race who are convicted of the same crimes.

“In 2012 Sonja B. Starr from University of Michigan Law School found that, controlling for the crime, “men receive 63% longer sentences on average than women do,” and “[w]omen are…twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted”, also based on data from US federal court cases.” See SSRN

Having represented a judge in one case and a handful of attorneys in other cases in a past professional life, PG can assure you that going to law school or being elevated to the bench does not change a human into a machine.

Determining a suitable sentence for a criminal is anything but a precise process. There are zillions of factors that can come into play – far too many and far too subtle for any legislature to craft written legislation that addresses all of them.

Is the defendant remorseful or not? How remorseful or how not-remorseful? PG can attest that reading a defendant’s words as captured in a court transcript and watching and listening to the defendant as they speak is two different things.

Just as some people are better at fooling others when they are lying than other people, some people are better at conveying truthfulness than others, even when both tell the truth.

There are also different purposes for punishment. Simply punishing an individual for committing an evil deed is the most obvious. This is the simple application of the rule evil deeds must be penalized for fundamental justice in a society.

However, assuming that the defendant will be released from confinement at some future time, deterring that defendant from committing another crime is another purpose. Deterring other individuals from committing similar crimes is another purpose for punishment. Enforcing broad societal standards of behavior is another.

To take an extreme example, if everyone who exceeded the posted speed limit by five miles per hour or more were sent to prison for a minimum of 30 years, that would be quite a powerful deterrent. However, there is an inherent societal value that the punishment should fit the crime.

If our speeding driver received the same sentence as someone who killed another person with a knife, we would not feel that such a system was just and fair.

PG suggests that the “noise” described in the OP and what sounds like an interesting book is not the only reason why human judgment is complex to understand and assess fully.

The cut-throat business of the secondhand book trade

From The Spectator:

I happen to have, by chance, a small library of books about books, including a collection of guides to book collecting. They tend to advise the collector to choose a particular subject — a period, movement, theme, an author — early on in a collecting career, something I have singularly failed to do. They also advise collectors to attend book auctions, to inspect booksellers’ catalogues and only to buy the best — I don’t do that either. Like most normal people, my main source and supply of books (including books about books) has always been among the dross and dreck to be found in secondhand bookshops in unfashionable provincial towns — which is probably what makes the novelist Nicholas Royle’s White Spines seem both so thrillingly familiar and so utterly refreshing.

It’s not a book about the world of grand auction houses and expensive signed editions. It’s an account of how, at some point — around the mid-1990s — Royle decided to start collecting ‘every single B-format Picador paperback published between 1972 and 2000, when the publisher abandoned its commitment to the white spine with black lettering in a more or less uniform style’. He currently has 959 Picadors in his ‘main collection’, including reissues and rejacketed titles, most of them picked up for a couple of quid in unprepossessing bookshops up and down the country.

It’s not exactly a history of Picador, though we certainly learn a lot about the imprint, launched by Pan Books in 1972 by Sonny Mehta. Nor is it exactly a memoir, though there are plenty of details about Royle’s time as a student and his work for Time Out, his teaching and his running of his own small press, Nightjar. There’s mention of a divorce, a new relationship and children — all subtly tipped in, or interleaved, in chapters about various Picador-related matters, including descriptions of book covers.If you think authors are really only interested in writing, Gekoski will quickly disavow you of the notion

What keeps this assortment of reflections and reminiscences hanging together is Royle’s delightful accounts of his trips to charity and secondhand bookshops across the UK: Goldmark Books in Uppingham; George Kelsall Booksellers in Littleborough; Southend; Coventry; Wigtown in Scotland. Over the years, Royle has been everywhere. White Spines is a sort of Bill Bryson for book lovers, wry, cosy and full of amusing asides and lovely cameos.

But the question remains, why? Well, Royle is clearly temperamentally a collector, on a limited budget, which makes £3 charity shop paperbacks the perfect buy. And he collects poetry magazines — also things no one else really wants — and bread labels: ‘You know those little plastic adhesive ties you get around the end of the plastic bag your supermarket loaf comes in? With the best before date on?’ (He sticks them inside his cupboards.) He’s just that sort of bloke. But there’s something else:If I could just acquire a few more Picadors … I’d have a bookcase, a white bookcase no less, full of white-spined Picadors. It would be a thing of beauty. It would be a small masterpiece, and it would be easier to achieve than the masterpieces I was trying to create at my desk in the attic.

Collecting books as a distraction — a displacement, an alternative — from actually writing books. Sounds familiar.

‘I wonder if I might not be the Ronnie Corbett of Contemporary Letters,’ Royle asks himself. (He’s pictured on the dust-jacket wearing large Corbettesque glasses.) ‘And if that’s the case, who is my Ronnie Barker?’ Anyone of a certain age with mild literary proclivities will fondly remember many of the Picador titles he discusses — Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. Which makes us all Barkers to his Corbett.

The great, renowned rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski is another sort of character entirely. He’s like something out of a Raymond Chandler. In Guarded by Dragons he relates the story of one particularly fraught book-related negotiation: ‘The call ended there. I put the phone down, and lit a cigar. “Son of a bitch!” I said in a very loud voice, as I put my feet up on my desk, and said it again.’ He is not a man to be messed with: ‘They might suppose me clever, self-satisfied and disputatious, rich and aggressive, as the clichés demand, but to these putative qualities I would add “relentless”.’

. . . .

Guarded by Dragons is indeed relentless — and clever and self-satisfied and disputatious — which makes it an absorbing read, like listening to your favourite uncle regale you with tales of life and work back in the day when men were men and book dealers were cigar-chomping buccaneers, ready to go to battle at the slightest hint of a rare first edition. The book’s title relates to Gekoski’s sense of having spent a lifetime on a great adventure: ‘There’s something enticing and valuable out there, the intrepid hunter-dealer seeks it out, but it is guarded by a jealous owner-dragon, and other hunters are circling.’

Gekoski’s tales from 50 years on the front line of rare-book dealing — his encounters with writers, institutions and fellow dealers — make the whole business sound like such fun that one is tempted to take it up oneself, not least because the barrier to entry seems so low ‘There are only two things a rare-book dealer must know: at what price is a book buyable and at what higher price one might sell it.’ Alas, it’s not quite as simple as that. In order to succeed you’ve got to be a bit like Rick.

He tells how he gave up a secure academic teaching position to pursue book dealing, starting out with a few D.H. Lawrence first editions, until eventually he ended up handling entire archives, jetting around, smoking cigars, fine-dining, drinking and generally wheeling and dealing across continents at the highest level. You’ve got some original documents relating to the Balfour Declaration? You need to quickly offload some Ulysses first editions? Or you’re Rachel Cusk, looking to sell your archive? Rick’s your man.

Link to the rest at The Spectator

We of the Sabotage Bureau remain legalists

We of the Sabotage Bureau remain legalists of a special category. We know that too much law injures a society; it is the same with too little law. One seeks a balance. We are like the balancing force among the Gowachin: without hope of achieving heaven in the society of mortals, we seek the unattainable. Each agent knows his own conscience and why he serves such a master. That is the key to us. We serve a mortal conscience for immortal reasons. We do it without hope of praise or the sureness of success.

The early writings of Bildoon, PanSpechi Chief of BuSab

Frank Herbert, The Dosadi Experiment

Amazon Gets the Go-Ahead to Track Your Sleep With Radar

From Gizmodo:

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission gave the e-commerce giant clearance to create bedside radar devices meant to track how we toss and turn at night. And while Amazon’s putting the best face possible on the innovation, it’s still all about those ad dollars.

Bloomberg was first to notice the agency had quietly filed a memo that authorized the ecommerce giant to develop and deploy an “unlicensed radar device” meant to track any nearby movement. This was in response to an initial request that Amazon filed with the agency nearly three weeks ago, where the company described its vision for “Radar Sensors”. These devices, Amazon said, would fire high-frequency radio waves to map out movements from anyone nearby.

And because the FCC is the federal body responsible for policing the airwaves, Amazon was legally obligated to get their go-ahead before they began marketing this yet-to-be-licensed radar device.

“By capturing motion in a three-dimensional space, a Radar Sensor can capture data in a manner that enables touchless device control,” Amazon wrote. “As a result, users can engage with a device and control its features through simple gestures and movements.”

This kind of touchless device control, Amazon went on to explain, could be a godsend for disabled or elderly customers who can’t use the company’s bevy of voice-powered assistants because they’re unable to speak. And Amazon’s absolutely right. Despite the ever-growing list of privacy and security concerns packaged with Echos and Alexas, we’ve already seen that these devices can be life-changing for people who are blind or wheelchair-bound. Amazon’s done its best to make these devices just as accessible for folks that are deaf or speech impaired, but there’s only so much you can do when these tools are based on voice.

Thanks to this grant, Amazon has free rein to roll out a new version of the Echo that will let you set your alarms or turn off your TV using a nod or a hand wave or—maybe! hopefully!—sign language. It’s an objectively awesome idea! Less awesome was the other reason Amazon wanted this grant: contactless sleep tracking.

“These devices would enable users to estimate sleep quality based on movement patterns,” Amazon wrote in the initial filing. “The use of Radar Sensors in sleep tracking could improve awareness and management of sleep hygiene, which in turn could produce significant health benefits for many Americans.”

. . . .

 Adding sleep-tracking to its tech means that Amazon is one step closer to offering all the same bells and whistles you’d get from the two undisputed champs of the health-monitoring world: Apple and Google.

Link to the rest at Gizmodo

PG doesn’t know exactly where the line separating usefulness from creepy spy gizmo is for the Big Three Giants of tech, but suspect we’ll discover where the line is when someone crosses it in a grotesque manner.

Not all tech folks, including executives, are sensitive to the difference between really cool and weird.

Summer Book Kit Giveaway at The New York Public Library

From The New York Public Library:

Starting Monday, July 12, visit your local NYPL branch in the Bronx, Manhattan, or Staten Island, and pick up one of our free summer book kits! With special contents tailored to kids and teens of all ages, including books to take home and keep, activity guides, and more, these kits are a great way for kids and teens to keep their skills sharp all summer long. Get yours but act fast—supplies are limited!

. . . .

The New York Public Library’s free summer book kits have been specially prepared for kids and teens of all ages:

  • Babies and Toddlers (Early Literacy)
    Includes a special NYPL tote bag containing NYPL’s ABC Read with Me in NYC board book, and an early literacy tip sheet for caregivers. 
  • Pre-K through 1st Grade
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing two free books to take home and keep, NYPL’s Summer Learning 2021 welcome kit, and the NYPL After School Activity Guide for Grades K–3 (28 pages, English/Español).
  • 2nd and 3rd Grade
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing two free books to take home and keep, NYPL’s Summer Learning 2021 welcome kit, and the NYPL After School Activity Guide for Grades K–3 (28 pages, English/Español).
  • 4th and 5th Grade
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing one free book to take home and keep, NYPL’s Summer Learning 2021 welcome kit, and the NYPL After School Activity Guide for Grades 4–6 (16 pages).
  • Middle School
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing one free book to take home and keep, a special NYPL bookmark, one pot of Play-Doh, and a stress ball.
  • High School
    Includes a red drawstring bag containing one free book to take home and keep, a special NYPL bookmark, one pot of Play-Doh, and a stress ball.

Link to the rest at The New York Public Library

See also Summer Reading Downloads which anyone can download to allow their children to record their summer reading and write a review of one or more of the books they’ve read.

Should Authors Review Books?

From Writer Unboxed:

As I was preparing to write this month’s post, I took a quick spin through the posts on the site that talk about reviews. No surprise, most of them focus on what you as an author should do about reviews of your book. (Consensus: ignore them, mostly, and go about your business.) But I thought it might be interesting to look at things from a different angle.

Should you, as an author, review other authors’ books?

After all, major publications do it – many of the reviews in the New York Times are one author’s opinion on another author’s work. At its best, this yields insightful analysis from someone who knows a lot about how hard it is to succeed at the thing the author is trying to do; at its worst, when the author doesn’t know much about the genre or has a particular axe to grind, the results can be insulting, biased, or otherwise off-base. And of course if the review is negative, feelings can be hurt, though I would urge all authors to process those hurt feelings more professionally and appropriately than Richard Ford famously did.

But for most of us, the NYT isn’t knocking on our door or dropping into our inbox asking our opinion of the books we read. It’s far more likely that we need to think about whether to review other authors’ work publicly on review sites like Goodreads, BookBub or Amazon. And no one can make up your mind for you—different authors have different philosophies about whether to use these sites and in what way. 

So here are three things to think about as you’re making that decision for yourself.

Think about your goals. Of course you have a right to write reviews—we’re all readers! Readers get to have opinions!—but you should give some thought to what you want those reviews to accomplish. Do you want to boost other authors and recommend the books you loved? You can do that by writing positive reviews of the books you loved and just not writing about books that don’t fit into that category. If, on the other hand, you want the internet to reflect the complete record of everything you read and what you thought about it—positive or negative—go for it. But remember that some authors can’t help reading their reviews, and your name is going to be associated with that negative review. Which leads me to…

The internet is forever. Maybe you’re a reader today, but you have plans to publish at some point in the future, and if the name you publish under is the name you review under, those things are forever connected. And though I’d love to say that all authors understand that criticism is part of being published and that you’re fully entitled to write whatever you want about someone else’s book, I can’t promise that every author is going to take that criticism in stride. I know people who complain (in private, at least) about reviews on Goodreads from fellow authors who wrote positive things about the book but rated it four instead of five stars. (“If you liked it so much, why are you bringing down my average??”) You can’t control other people’s reactions. You can only control what you’re giving them to react to. And so, if you choose to review… 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

For authors, PG’s general suggestion is that it may be the best business decision not to speak ill of other authors online.

The internet is a wonderful place for extended feuds and nasty disputes and PG doubts that being known as the author who got into an epic online battle with another author about one of that author’s books, particularly when such a dispute attracted additional participants and exploded into a huge brawl.

As argument for not fighting online, PG would ask,

  • “Is it your job to make sure that everything on the internet is true?”
  • “Does your muse ever become distracted when you’re in a nasty fight?”
  • “Has anyone contacted you and begged you to share your completely candid view about this book/author online?”

Reading Jane Eyre as a Sacred Text

From The Paris Review:

The summer that I did my chaplaincy internship was a wildly full twelve weeks. I was thirty-two years old and living in the haze of the end of an engagement as I walked the hospital corridors carrying around my Bible and visiting patients. “Hi, I’m Vanessa. I’m from the spiritual care department. How are you today?”

It was a surreal summer full of new experiences hitting like a tsunami: you saw them coming but that didn’t mean you could outrun them. But the thing that never felt weird was that the Bible I carried around with me as I went to visit patient after patient, that I turned to in the guest room at David and Suzanne’s or on my parents’ couch to sustain me, was a nineteenth-century gothic Romance novel. The Bible I carried around that busy summer was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

I love the idea of sacredness. I want to be called to bigger things, outside of myself. I don’t want my life to be a matter of distractions from death and then death. I want to surprise myself and to honor the ways in which the world surprises me. I want to connect deeply to others, to the earth, and to myself. I want to help heal that which is broken in us. Which is why I went to divinity school at thirty years old.

But God, God-language, the Bible, the church—none of it is for me. And halfway through divinity school, I realized that my resistance to traditional religion was never going to change. I wanted to learn how to pray, how to reflect and be vulnerable. And I didn’t think that the fact that I didn’t believe in God or the Bible should hold me back.

I, like many of us, have such complicated feelings about the Bible that it’s distracting to even try to pray with it. Too many caveats feel necessary to even begin to try. So I asked my favorite professor, Stephanie Paulsell, if she would spend a semester teaching me how to pray with Jane Eyre. Throughout the semester, we homed in on what I was searching for, a way to treat things as sacred, things that were not usually considered to be divinely inspired. The plan was that each week I would pull out passages from the novel and reflect on them as prayers, preparing papers that explored the prayers in depth. Then, together, we would pray using the passages.

This proved more challenging than I’d expected. I so resisted praying. In Judaism, prayers are prewritten and always in Hebrew. It felt like too much of a betrayal to my Judaism and to my family to pray in English. I just couldn’t do it. Stephanie would invite me, gently, to pray every once in a while. But I always resisted, so instead she would hand me books. She gave me Guigo II, a Carthusian monk who developed a four-step reading practice to bring his fellow monks closer to God. She gave me James Wood, a fellow atheist who wrote How Fiction Works. She gave me Simone Weil, a Jewish woman who escaped to America from Vichy, France, only to go back to Europe and die of starvation because she would not eat more than the prisoners of Auschwitz ate, unable to handle her privilege of escaping.

Eventually, we decided that sacredness is an act, not a thing. If I can decide that Jane Eyre is sacred, that means it is the actions I take that will make it so. The decision to treat Jane as sacred is an important first step, surely, but that is all the decision was—one step. The ritual, the engagement with the thing, is what makes the thing sacred. Objects are sacred only because they are loved. The text did not determine the sacredness; the actions and actors did, the questions you asked of the text and the way you returned to it.

This premise is obviously quite different from traditional ideas of engaging with sacred texts. What makes the Bible sacred is a complex ecosystem of church legitimacy, power, canonization, time, ritual, and other contributing factors. When the sacredness of the Bible or the Koran is questioned, great bodies of people and institutions will rush to defend them. Regardless of how these sacred texts are treated by an individual, they are widely considered to be sacred texts. In how I was treating Jane Eyre, I was saying the opposite: if one treats Jane Eyre as a doorstop, it is a doorstop. If one treats it as sacred, then it can be sacred.

Over the months we worked together, Stephanie and I discerned that you need three things to treat a text as sacred: faith, rigor, and community.

Faith is what Simone Weil called “the indispensable condition.” And what I came to mean by faith was that you had to believe that the more time you spent with the text, the more gifts it would give you. Even on days when it felt as if you were taking huge steps backward with the text, because you realized it was racist and patriarchal in ways you hadn’t noticed when you were fifteen or twenty or twenty-five, you were still spending sacred time with the book. I solemnly promised that when I did not know what a passage was doing, or what Brontë was doing with her word choice, rather than write it off as antiquated, anachronistic, or imperfect, I would have faith that the fault was in my reading, not in the text. In Friday night services, rabbis do not talk about what year the book of Genesis was most likely written and how the version we have today was canonized. A good rabbi instead considers the metaphor of God separating light from dark instead. That was how I set about considering Jane Eyre.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG had never thought of identifying a candidate for the silliest post he had ever put up on TPV until he read the OP.

Per the author’s bio at the end of the OP, she has degrees from Washington University, The University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Divinity School. For those outside of the United States, that’s one highly-regarded liberal arts undergraduate university and two Ivy League institutions

During his years in the higher education system, PG met more than a few well-educated dumpkopfs, but he honestly struggles to recall a lighter-than-air mind to compare with the one revealed by the author’s article in TPR.

All of PG’s offspring are finished with their formal education, but he still remembers thinking about the cost/benefit ratio of some of the “parents’ share” of the financial aid statements and tuition bills from various universities. (To be fair, PG’s offspring were extremely hard-working students and also hard-working employees while they were in college and PG seldom had to pay anything close to the full amount of the “parents’ share” for the education of any of them.)

PG has no doubt what his thoughts would be had he contributed to a three-degree education at expensive educational institutions and saw the tangible evidence of a child’s learning included anything like the OP.

That said, PG realizes that he is being judgmental in the extreme, has never met the author of the OP and expects she has more than one redeeming characteristic. Besides, anybody can forget to take their meds.

If anyone feels PG has misjudged the OP and/or its author, feel free to set him straight in the comments.

PG doesn’t recall cutting any of his pills in half today, but, absent close medical supervision, one never knows for certain.

From the very beginning

It is…highly probable that from the very beginning, apart from death, the only ironclad rule of human experience has been the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Ian Tattersall

All history

All history is the history of unintended consequences.

T. J. Jackson Lears

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy is inheriting a behemoth that is under siege

From Yahoo Finance:

Jeff Bezos is out of a job. The former head of Amazon Web Services, Andy Jassy, has taken Bezos’ place as Amazon CEO, leaving the world’s richest human to his rocket company Blue Origin, the Bezos Earth Fund and, of course, his role as chairman of Amazon’s board.

Jassy, meanwhile, takes over at a time when Amazon faces its biggest existential challenges yet. There are ongoing antitrust investigations; battles with labor advocates; and increased competition in the lucrative cloud space from the likes of Microsoft and Google.

“Amazon has been under siege from different quarters,” Ari Ginsberg, professor of at the NYU Stern School of Business, told Yahoo Finance.

But Jassy, who’s worked for Amazon since 1997 and ran its most profitable business, may be the perfect person to guide Amazon through its most tumultuous era yet.

“You want somebody who has the confidence of the chairman and the board,” said Harvard Business School professor of business administration Rosabeth Moss Kanter. “You want somebody who understands the strategy, and was part of it, and knows where the bodies are buried, and the mistakes that have been made and how to move forward.”

Still, the road ahead for Jassy will be tough.

The antitrust suits are coming

While Amazon started out as an online bookseller, it’s now a gargantuan business with its tendrils in everything from cloud computing to groceries, entertainment, pharmaceuticals, and even physical stores. It now has a market capitalization of nearly $2 trillion.

And now the regulators are circling.

“Probably, the most important at this point is the antitrust regulation issue, because that threatens the continued stability and growth of Amazon as this huge corporation,” Ginsberg explained.

Amazon has already been sued by Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, who accused Amazon of violating the District of Columbia Antitrust Act by forbidding third-party sellers from offering cheaper rates for their products on competing websites.

Federal regulators may be coming soon, too. It doesn’t help Amazon that the FTC’s newly appointed chair, Lina Khan, is a fierce critic of the e-commerce giant who made a name for herself by publishing an article for the Yale Law Journal titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” calling for changes in the current antitrust regulatory framework.

Then there are the six antitrust bills targeting Big Tech working their way through the House.

“The intensity of the spotlight on Amazon from an antitrust perspective is only going to increase,” said Christopher Krohn, adjunct associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “So that’s an area for Andy as a CEO that he’s going to face, much more so than Bezos ever did in the past.”

Amazon’s labor relations problem

Amazon is one of the largest employers in the U.S., and after years of complaints from warehouse workers, labor unions are beginning to take action.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters recently announced it will begin working to organize Amazon workers, an effort that could succeed where an earlier campaign to unionize a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, failed.

“They’re going to have tons of political pressure, pressure from their customers, pressure from their employees, and I would not be surprised at all to see a continued drive toward unionization,” Krohn said.

Amazon has responded to criticism of its workplace practices by pointing out that it offers warehouse workers starting pay of $15 per hour plus benefits. But the pandemic saw increased calls for Amazon to treat its workers better, especially as they helped keep Americans’ cupboards full when the aisles of traditional brick and mortar stores were running bare.

. . . .

“[Jassy] needs to deal with this perception…that has been reported in the media that Amazon kind of dehumanizes or mistreats its workers in the warehouses,” Ginsberg said.

To cut off that criticism, Amazon recently made an addition to its famous Leadership Principles that guide the company, which calls on the e-commerce giant to “Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer.”

Link to the rest at Yahoo Finance

PG points out that Amazon has been depicted as on the brink of destruction by various journalists over a period of many years.

Perhaps PG is wrong, but he doesn’t think the latest rounds of criticism are going to knock the Zon off its position.

He will mention a few items:

  1. The horrors of Amazon’s warehouses have been publicized for a long time. There is little doubt that the Teamsters Union and other unions that wish to unionize Amazon employees have been the source of a large number of these horror stories. In long-past lives, PG worked in more than one place doing heavy manual labor for low wages and a lot of people continue to do the same type of labor. Had he been able to grab a job as an Amazon warehouse worker during that time, he would have instantly accepted it. Unions dramatize working conditions that shock subscribers to The New York Times. The people who actually do this type of manual labor aren’t dumb and they can easily distinguish the difference between working under typical manual labor conditions and working in an Amazon warehouse.
  2. Speaking generally, labor unions have been on a long downhill slide for many years. The simple fact is that, other than employers that were unionized decades ago, unions have not had any big successes in expanding their membership into major new employers in a very long time. PG points out the long and unsuccessful effort to unionize Walmart employees which has gone effectively nowhere. Additionally, a great many Amazon warehouses are located in states which have very few unionized employers. Nothing prevents Amazon from closing down warehouses in places that are hostile to its anti-union stance.
  3. Antitrust cases take years and years and years to work their way through the US court system, including trials and appeals. If the Justice Department filed an antitrust case against Amazon tomorrow, Amazon would almost certainly be rolling along in about the same way it does today in 2031. Additionally, there is a lot more turnover among low-paid Justice Department attorneys and the premier law firms Amazon would likely hire to defend itself. For a great many low-level Justice Department litigators, experience at Justice often leads to transition into private practice.
  4. Significant changes in antitrust laws have been very rare and taken a great deal of time to work themselves through Congress. If, as many political observers are speculating, there is a good chance that control of the US Senate will revert to the Republicans in the 2022 election cycle, such a change is likely to kill antitrust legislation in its tracks. The idea that any sort of antitrust legislation which targets Amazon, Google and Facebook would not generate a lot of opposition from companies other than those three is fantasy. A great many different businesses, including competitors to those three companies, would worry about the potential impact of such legislation on them. Once they make their way through the legislative meatgrinder, major new antitrust laws are like unguided missiles which can go off in all sorts of directions and impact companies no one in Congress thought about during the process of drafting, revising and amending that any major legislation goes through before it becomes law.

PG isn’t saying that Amazon should take these threats lightly and PG doubts anyone at the company is doing so. PG does say that the author of OP seems to be pretty naïve about the realities of big-time antitrust litigation and way too accepting of labor union talking points and manufactured quotes.

The Howe Dynasty

From The Wall Street Journal:

On the hot afternoon of July 6, 1758, advance troops of a vast Anglo-American army probed through forest toward the French fortress of Ticonderoga, in what is now upstate New York. As skirmishing suddenly erupted, the woods crackled with gunfire. Casualties were minimal but momentous: Shot through the heart, and among the first to fall, was the army’s charismatic second-in-command, British Brig. Gen. George Augustus, Lord Howe.

Since arriving in America the previous summer, the dynamic and popular Lord Howe had galvanized hopes of reviving a flagging colonial war against the French. The calamity of his death was soon compounded by another: Two days later, the flustered Maj. Gen. James Abercromby authorized a frontal assault that was repulsed at a heavy cost in killed and wounded.

The loss of George Howe at age 33 was not simply a jarring setback in Britain’s struggle with France but a personal tragedy for the aristocratic family he headed. Back in England, his widowed mother, Charlotte, Lady Howe, led the official mourning. Despite her grief, she worked to ensure that the seat in Parliament left vacant by George’s sacrifice was filled by one of his surviving brothers rather than an outsider. It was an action that won widespread admiration, inviting comparisons with the stoical matrons of ancient Rome.

Yet as Julie Flavell reveals in “The Howe Dynasty,” it was just one example of the way in which extraordinary Howe women transcended their expected gender roles to enter spheres of influence dominated by men. Ms. Flavell, an independent scholar who specializes in British-American relations, traces the fortunes of Lady Howe and her extensive brood. Key characters include George’s younger brothers Richard and William, who likewise played prominent roles in Britain’s imperial conflicts, and their lesser-known—but no less remarkable—elder sister Caroline. During a long lifetime, Caroline Howe (1722-1814) was a dedicated correspondent, expressing opinions that not only provide a fresh perspective on her notoriously taciturn brothers but offer fascinating glimpses into the rarefied world of the English aristocracy.

Spanning almost a century of the Georgian era, “The Howe Dynasty” presents a richly detailed and lively saga of one of its most distinguished families. Challenging and insightful, it reflects impressive scholarship, grounded in exhaustive archival research on both sides of the Atlantic. An especially valuable source is the correspondence that Caroline Howe maintained over more than 50 years of friendship with Lady Georgiana Spencer, mother of the celebrated leader of fashion, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

“The Howe Dynasty” shows how women whose supreme function in life was to produce male heirs could nonetheless find a voice through informal “networking,” establishing crucial contacts in the drawing room or on the hunting field that could be mobilized to secure favors and control opinion.

Charlotte von Kielmansegg was only 15 when she married Emanuel Scrope Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe, in 1719. At her husband’s death in 1735, Lady Howe had already borne him 10 children, eight of whom lived into adulthood. Her direction of family affairs was later aided by a redoubtable sister-in-law, Mary, Lady Pembroke. She dedicated herself to schooling Lady Charlotte and Caroline in the subtle arts of exercising influence at court and in the country. In Ms. Flavell’s assessment, mother and daughter alike became “apt pupils of their capable kinswoman.”

The Howes shared the same Hanoverian ancestry as their monarchs, and it was widely credited that Charlotte was the illegitimate offspring of King George I of Great Britain. Thanks to Lady Pembroke’s persistent lobbying, Charlotte became lady-in-waiting to Princess Augusta, the wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales. This was a vital conduit of patronage that proved pivotal for reviving the Howe fortunes. In her turn, Caroline established a rapport with the unconventional Princess Amelia—the aunt of George III—who shared her love of hunting, gossip and cards.

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

The Sound of My Inbox: The financial promise of email newsletters has launched countless micropublications — and created a new literary genre.

From The Cut:

Christine Smallwood’s recent novel The Life of the Mind— a bleak, funny tour of academia’s outer fringe — offers a lament for the state of email. Dorothy, the book’s grad-student heroine, “used to love email, used to have long, meaningful, occasionally thrilling email correspondences that involved the testing of ideas and the exchange of videos and music links.” Emails had been the way Dorothy and her friends “crafted personas, narrated events, made sense of their lives,” Smallwood writes. “That way of life, alas, had ended.” Now the emails they exchange are perfunctory, businesslike, “and if you wanted to know what someone was doing, you could usually find out on social media.” Still, the craving for digital connection persists. “Dorothy had not stopped checking, expecting, or wishing that a good message might be out there, waiting in the ether just for her.”are u coming?Late-night dispatches from a city ready to party.

Would it be a consolation to Dorothy to know that long emails aren’t quite dead? I now get emails that are longer than ever, in fact. They strain against the confines of Gmail, these emails; they demand to be opened in new tabs. The videos and links are still there, and often ideas, too. In no sense, however, are these emails “just for me.” These are emails composed for an audience not of one friend but of many fans. These emails are newsletters.

Personas are still crafted, events exhaustively narrated, just now at industrial scale. The newsletters of today can be professional editorial operations, like Politico’s Playbook (which casts its readers as fellow Beltway insiders) or The Skimm (which casts them as brunch-drunk sorority sisters). They can also be scrappier, more idiosyncratic missives akin to personal blogs. Newsletters can be like newspaper columns, cut loose from institutional authority. They can be like podcasts that you cannot absorb while running errands, like zines without the photocopy static, like Instagram with the lifestyle recommendations rendered as text instead of subtext. Many newsletters partake in the limitlessly available navel-gazing of online media commentary. Newsletter writers describe the process of writing a newsletter; creators who monetize their personalities through their newsletters report on the ways that other creators are monetizing theirs.

Newsletters vary in subject as widely as, for example, books do, and their authors may be cryptocurrency investors or indie musicians. What they share is the direct personal appeal of special delivery. They require the self-confidence involved in making this appeal to dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of strangers. A newsletter reshapes a writer’s relationship to their readers. The first-person informality that has been present since the earliest days of web writing achieves its business apotheosis in the newsletter: from personal essay to personal brand. “Subscribe directly to writers you trust,” urges Substack. In a newsletter, the reader is welcomed as a supporter, an ally — or perhaps even a friend. Addressing an audience of fellow Substack writers last year, Delia Cai (who started the media newsletter Deez Links) explained that “growing your subscriber base is like making friends.” The comparison may sound “cheesy,” she admitted, “but I do think that it speaks to this very personal nature of newsletters. You’re sliding into their inbox every morning or every week, and your subscribers can just hit RESPOND and tell you what they think. It’s worth investing in those relationships because once you become friends with these people, they’re there for you forever.”

The contemporary email newsletter is not a novel form; often it amounts to a new delivery system for the same sorts of content — essays, explainers, Q&As, news roundups, advice, and lists — that have long been staples of online media. (Subscribe to enough newsletters and sort them the right way, and it’s possible to re-create something like an RSS-feed reader.) Indeed, ready access to what one already knows and likes tends to be a selling point. But spurred in part by services like Mailchimp and TinyLetter, which made it easy to send mass emails, newsletters gained traction as a business tool for both media organizations and independent writers — a way for publications to reach readers more insistently and a way for writers to circumvent existing publications altogether. Substack, crucially, made it easy to charge subscribers, then attracted further scrutiny by offering a handful of established writers six-figure advances. In late June, Facebook entered the fray with a newsletter service called Bulletin. Consumers of digital media now find themselves in a newsletter deluge.

Early on, circa 2015, there was a while when every first-person writer who might once have written a Tumblr began writing a TinyLetter. At the time, the writer Lyz Lenz observed that newsletters seemed to create a new kind of safe space. A newsletter’s self-selecting audience was part of its appeal, especially for women writers who had experienced harassment elsewhere online. Whatever its perils, “online life is unavoidable, and it can also be a valuable source of support for women who might otherwise be isolated,” Lenz wrote for the Cut. “So where can they seek community? For some, the answer is your inbox.” (I should note, as a former editor at the Cut and a writer, I’ve crossed paths with many of the newsletter writers mentioned here. Start talking with anyone who works in media about newsletters and things get tangly fast.)

This era now feels somewhat distant. The stereotype that Substack often conjures today is of the writer who scorns a safe space — indeed, the perception that the platform had become a home for anti-trans views inspired a fresh round of Substack debate this spring. But what newsletters offer readers is still the sense of access to a social sphere limited by design — a project that can take many forms. The newsletter may be marked by intimacy, or it may hold out the promise of exclusive intelligence on such matters as places to go and things to buy. Its author may be a guru who is also a friend or a dissident purveyor of samizdat. Its audience may be a community of people who imagine themselves holed up in the same bunker or who all get the same inside jokes.

Hunter Harris (a former New York staffer and current contributor) was recruited by Substack, where she now writes a newsletter called Hung Up about pop culture. It is an open-ended category, and in February she devoted one installment to the clothing brand Reformation’s marketing emails. The subject lines on these emails, Harris wrote, “read like one-off missives from that girl you met in line for the bathroom at that concert that one time.” They raise the question “What if, after you and that girl exchanged numbers and swore to get drinks sometime, she just kept texting you?” The results are things like “DO YOU EVEN GO OUT” and “DOING NOTHING IN A HOT TUB,” among other surreal and aggressive overtures. “I have so many ideas about this character,” Harris wrote of the imaginary woman in whose voice the brand speaks. (Still, “as a rule, I hate brand emails, mostly because I hate emails.”) In her own subject lines (“Happy Bennifer to All Who Celebrate”), Harris brings the confident charm of a natural performer to the stage of strangers’ inboxes; she sounds chatty but not unhinged. The most skilled newsletter writers seem conscious of the delicate balance they must strike. “Your friend” is the desired voice of many newsletters — one long-running weekly link roundup is called Links I Would GChat You If We Were Friends— just as it is the desired voice of many brands.

People want an email because they want company, and, like listening to a podcast, subscribing to a newsletter can provide the parasocial pleasure of having a slightly famous imaginary friend. In the reader testimonials Ann Friedman includes with her newsletter, one longtime subscriber attested to “five years of Friday evenings spent reading her links with a glass of wine.” Another wrote that the newsletter “makes me wish we lived in the same town so we could hang out!”

Signing up for a newsletter means subscribing to a person, and it can also mean joining a club. Often the ability to participate in comment threads and discussions is a bonus for readers who pay. Earlier this year, a group of writers with popular tech and culture newsletters expanded upon this premise; they joined together to launch a Discord server called Sidechannel where all their subscribers could meet and chat. (“So it’s just people paying for internet friends?” asked one woman I know when this arrangement was described to her. Yes, and currently Sidechannel has some 5,000 members, several hundred of whom may be active at a given time.)

. . . .

Subscribe to a person and it’s up to that person to decide what you’re going to get. Some writers treat their newsletters as outlets for particular projects. The novelist Brandon Taylor uses his for literary and art criticism, and the novelist Jami Attenberg uses hers to run an annual two-week-long writing challenge (as well as give craft advice year round). Tressie McMillan Cottom — the sociologist, author, and MacArthur genius — maintains a newsletter alongside her academic writing, popular writing, podcasting, and tweeting; in an interview with Ezra Klein, she described the ongoing challenge of deciding what form a given idea should take. “I sit down and I go, Okay, what is the right speed for this? What’s the right genre? When will I know that this argument is done?” McMillan Cottom explained. “I like a complete argument. I like to walk away from something and say I left it all on the court. And sometimes that’s 240 characters, sometimes it’s 20,000 words.” She treats the newsletter as a complement to her work elsewhere — a place for discussions with people who aren’t her students, for personal meditations, for essays untethered from the news. Earlier this year, McMillan Cottom chatted with readers about the podcast Dolly Parton’s America; the podcast came out in 2019, but Parton was a perfect case study for her interests in class, race, status, and beauty, so why not? The newsletter isn’t the centerpiece of McMillan Cottom’s output, which would seem to diminish the pressures of timeliness and volume, as well as the incentive to weigh in at length on every microcontroversy. X OUT OF TEN PEOPLE ARE GOING TO SHOW UP AND READ THAT AND JUST BE LIKE, ‘THIS IS IMPENETRABLE, I’M OUT,’

. . . .

I had, I realized, transformed my inbox into the rest of the internet. The great hope of newsletter writers seems to be some escape from the internet as it exists now — escape into nostalgia for a bygone era of blogs or into a past when liberalism reigned. Escape to the refuge of a safe space or escape from the cancel-culture mob. Escape from an online landscape shaped by the imperatives of big tech. Escape was what I wanted too — I saw this now. I want to read a newsletter that feels like a dispatch from another planet, and I haven’t found it yet.*

Link to the rest at The Cut

Why do so few men read books by women?

From The Guardian:

The byline at the top of this piece reads MA Sieghart, not Mary Ann. Why? Because I really want men to read it too. Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.

For my book The Authority Gap, which looks at why women are still taken less seriously than men, I commissioned Nielsen Book Research to find out exactly who was reading what. I wanted to know whether female authors were not just deemed less authoritative than men, but whether they were being read by men in the first place. And the results confirmed my suspicion that men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.

For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.

In other words, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top 10 who had the biggest male readership – the thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to accord equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?

Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership that is only 21% male. Male fellow Booker prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have nearly twice as many (39% and 40%). It’s not as if women are less good at writing literary fiction. All five of the top five bestselling literary novels in 2017 were by women, and nine of the top 10. And it’s not as if men don’t enjoy reading books by women when they do open them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating men give to books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for books by men, it’s 3.8.

Turning to nonfiction, which is read by slightly more men than women, the pattern is similar, though not quite so striking. Men still read male authors much more than female ones, but the discrepancy isn’t so large because women tend to do the same in favour of female authors. But there is still quite a difference. Women are 65% more likely to read a nonfiction book by the opposite sex than men are. All this suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, don’t accord female authors as much authority as male ones. Or they make the lazy assumption that women’s books aren’t for them without trying them out to see whether this is true.

Why does this matter? For a start, it narrows men’s experiences of the world. “I’ve known this for a very long time, that men just aren’t interested in reading our literature,” the Booker prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo told me in an interview for The Authority Gap. “Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore narrative, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we’re writing women’s stories, we’re talking about the experiences of women. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think that it’s very damning and it’s extremely worrying.”

If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As PG examines his own reading habits, he believes that he doesn’t care whether a book is written by a woman or a man. In many cases when he hears something about a book that makes it sound like he is likely to enjoy it, he may not even pay attention to the author’s name.

(PG understands that many people, especially authors, will feel that PG’s lack of attention to the author’s name is exceedingly disagreeable and even worse than it would normally be since he has and does represent a number of authors, but it’s an old habit that long predated him marrying an author or representing any. If he’s going to point to the source of this habit, he’ll mention a childhood lived largely in book deserts a long way from any libraries in a family which owned a few books, but couldn’t afford to buy any new ones very often. Under those circumstances, PG read any book he could get his hands on that was not vastly above his reading abilities. Rereading books he liked several times was something he always did as well. He read the poem, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes so many times that he still remembers most of it from memory.)

As an adult, when PG finds an author of any gender he likes, he tends to read every book the author wrote. Dorothy Sayers comes to mind as an example as does Vera Brittain on the prose side and poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson.

Plus almost everything J.K. Rowling has written and close to everything that Barbara Tuchman published, including The Guns of August, The Zimmerman Telegram, Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1914. (Listing Ms. Tuchman’s books has made PG realizes that he wants to reread all of them again.

We envy people

We envy people who are extremely old because we wish to live that long, not because we want to be that old.

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

It is pardonable

It is pardonable for children to yell that they believe in fairies, but it is somehow sinister when the piping note shifts from the puerile to the senile.

Christopher Hitchens

How Twitter can ruin a life

UPDATE: Yes, this is the second post PG has made on the same OP.

He may be losing his mind, but, in his defense, he was a long distance away from PG Central working from a motel room when he made the first post and now he’s home. Perhaps his subconscious was feeling that the same post in two different time zones would not be quite the same thing.

He apologizes to any who have been confused or irritated. Maybe PG’s medications differ in their effects when he’s outside of Casa PG or maybe he’s living in two different dimensions simultaneously. He does believe he’s married to Mrs. PG in each of these dimensions, however.

From Vox:

“In a war zone, it is not safe to be unknown. Unknown travelers are shot on sight,” says Isabel Fall. “The fact that Isabel Fall was an unknown led to her death.”

Isabel Fall isn’t dead. There is a person who wrote under that name alive on the planet right now, someone who published a critically acclaimed, award-nominated short story. If she wanted to publish again, she surely could.

Isabel Fall is a ghost nonetheless.

In January 2020, not long after her short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was published in the online science fiction magazine Clarkesworld, Fall asked her editor to take the story down, and then checked into a psychiatric ward for thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

The story — and especially its title, which co-opts a transphobic meme — had provoked days of contentious debate online within the science fiction community, the trans community, and the community of people who worry that cancel culture has run amok. Because there was little biographical information available about its author, the debate hinged on one question: Who was Isabel Fall? And that question ate her alive. When she emerged from the hospital a few weeks later, the world had moved on, but she was still scarred by what had happened. She decided on something drastic: She would no longer be Isabel Fall.

As a trans woman early in transition, Fall had the option of retreating to the relative safety of her legal, masculine identity. That’s what she did, staying out of the limelight and growing ever more frustrated by what had happened to her. She bristles when I ask her in an email if she’s stopped transitioning, but it’s the only phrase I can think of to describe how the situation appears.

Isabel Fall was on a path to becoming herself, and then she wasn’t — and all because she published a short story. And then her life fell apart.

In the 18 months since, what happened to her has become a case study for various people who want to talk about the Way We Live Today. It has been held up as an example of progressives eating their own, of the dangers of online anonymity, of the need for sensitivity readers or content warnings. But what this story really symbolizes is the fact that as we’ve grown more adept at using the internet, we’ve also grown more adept at destroying people’s lives, but from a distance, in an abstracted way.

Sometimes, the path to your personal hell is paved with other people’s best intentions.

Like most internet outrage cycles, the fracas over “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was enormous news within the bubble of people who cared about it and made barely a blip outside of that bubble. The full tale is amorphous and weird, and recounting its ins and outs is nearly impossible to do here. Just trying to explain the motivations of all involved is a task in and of itself, and at any rate, that story has been told many times, quoting others extensively. Fall has never spoken publicly about the situation until now.

Clarkesworld published Fall’s story on January 1, 2020. For a while, people seemed to like it.

“I was in awe of it on a sentence level. I thought it was beautiful and devastating and incredibly subversive and surprising. It did all this work in a very short amount of space, which I found completely breathtaking. It had been a long time since I had read a short story that I had enjoyed and that also had rewired my brain a little bit,” said author Carmen Maria Machado, who read the story before controversy had broken out.

In the first 10 days after “Attack Helicopter” was published, what muted criticism existed was largely confined to the story’s comments section on Clarkesworld. The tweets that still exist from that period were largely positive responses to the story, often from trans people.

But first in Clarkesworld’s comments and then on Twitter, the combination of the story’s title and the relative lack of information about Fall began to fuel a growing paranoia around the story and its author. The presence of trolls who seemed to take the story’s title at face value only added to that paranoia. And when read through the lens of “Isabel Fall is trolling everybody,” “Attack Helicopter” started to seem menacing to plenty of readers.

“Attack Helicopter” was a slippery, knotty piece of fiction that captured a particular trans feminine uncertainty better than almost anything I have ever read. Set in a nightmarish future in which the US military has co-opted gender to the degree that it turns recruits into literal weapons, it told the story of Barb, a pilot whose gender is “helicopter.” Together with Axis — Barb’s gunner, who was also assigned helicopter — Barb carried out various missions against assorted opposition forces who live within what is at present the United States.

Then, because its title was also a transphobic meme and because “Isabel Fall” had absolutely no online presence beyond the Clarkesworld story, many people began to worry that Fall was somehow a front for right-wing, anti-trans reactionaries. They expressed those fears in the comments of the story, in various science fiction discussion groups, and all over Twitter. Fans of the story pushed back, saying it was a bold and striking piece of writing from an exciting new voice. While the debate was initially among trans people for the most part, it eventually spilled over to cis sci-fi fans who boosted the concerns of trans people who were worried about the story.

Link to the rest at Vox and here’s a link to Clarksworld

PG admits that, while he has a couple of Twitter accounts under pseudonyms, he is not inclined to go there using his own name. For him, of all the major social media platforms, Twitter seems like the one that attracts hordes of aggressive crazies. He’s happy to hear contrary/alternate opinions, however.

The publishing industry experiences good news

From Nathan Bransford:

First up, there’s…. good news? In the publishing industry? What is this? Book sales are up a whopping 21.4% YOY, fueled by adult fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. The rest of the year looks promising as well, though pandemic-related high costs and service disruption plague the print supply chain.

What was the year of the pandemic like for people within the publishing industry? Literary agent Jennifer Laughran has a great timeline of dealing with the adjustments, delays, and backlogs forced by the pandemic, on top of all of the stress everyone was separately experiencing. Worth a read to get a sense for why response times might be slower than normal in an already-slow industry.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Will Barnes & Noble’s Next Chapter Be Its Last?

From Forbes:

Barnes & Noble’s Chief Executive James Daunt is leaving behind the strategy that, decades ago, made it a bookselling behemoth.

Instead of focusing on maximizing economies of scale and simplifying the in-store shopping experience—tactics that once fostered success but, in the age of Amazon, are now leaving stacks empty—Mr. Daunt is looking to empower individual store managers to curate their shelves based on local tastes. In doing so, he is letting go of those who supervised large groups of stores and firing nearly half of the company’s New York-based book buyers who once decided which titles to put on shelves.

Personally, I think this is a really smart strategy, yet the question remains: will this turnaround effort be enough to save the bookselling giant in a post-pandemic world?

When I first read the news of Barnes & Noble’s seismic shifts, I’ll admit, I was shocked.

Yet as I thought about it more, I came to realize that in a time when purchasing the latest bestseller can be done with just a few clicks from the comfort of one’s own home, Mr. Daunt’s new approach may not be so far-fetched.

Barnes & Noble has suffered from seven years of declining revenue as Amazon’s dominance in online retail grows. By giving store managers more autonomy to make decisions based on their knowledge of the local market, Barnes & Noble may be better able to tailor what it does within its individual stores to give shoppers the experience they’re craving.

Rather than just being a place where you could buy a book, what if Barnes & Noble could become a place where you could discover a book? I spend a fair bit of time in Duck, North Carolina where our family loves Duck’s Cottage—a charming book and coffee store that has a very well-curated selection of titles. We have all bought a number of books from there, almost entirely based on the owner’s handwritten recommendation notes.

As we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and start the long process of recovery, what will bring shoppers through Barnes & Noble’s doors may not be the desire to simply purchase a book, but the desire to be a part of something in the community. I would suggest that is something shoppers will remember, talk about and that will bring them back.

. . . .

The prior operating model for this 50+ year old business did not have a strong balance between local autonomy and standard processes across all locations, which meant clients did not have a consistent experience. This created an operational management nightmare—a challenge when trying to delight clients—and allowed competitors to find easy ways to chip away at their market share. Fast forward to the introduction of one national set of processes and the permission for local leaders to do what they thought necessary to appeal to their market, and the results were transformed.

. . . .

Contrary to a lot of decisions coming out of corporate HQ, consumers across the nation are looking to support their local businesses during the pandemic. We are seeing more and more “Buy Local” campaigns targeted to smaller communities, whether through Facebook or other platforms, and there is strong support for the local service provider or restaurant owner who remembers our usual order. Fundamentally, the team who manages every local Barnes & Noble store knows what their community is talking about, what they are interested in, what the local issues are and who the influencers are.

Link to the rest at Forbes

In many places large enough to support a Barnes & Noble store, there are are independent bookstores that really know how to do local very well and which have (for PG) a more welcoming quirky little bookstore feeling than the bland corporate design that characterizes every BN store that PG has ever entered, even in college/university towns where one might expect more local touches.

While PG has some good memories of quirky bookstores with a local flavor that he last entered a long time ago, no particular memories of any Barnes & Noble store come to mind (even some where Mrs. PG did author signings during ancient days and PG came along to provide unskilled labor for a couple of hours).

And it’s not just the small size of memorable unique bookstores that PG remembers. He still has clear recollections of going to the giant Powell’s Books mothership in Portland, wandering around their immense stacks and talking to a couple of employees who would probably not have been anxious to work at Barnes & Noble.

There’s also the fact that PG doesn’t think Daunt has a lot of money to throw around to remake the physical design of Barnes & Noble stores everywhere. This is a company that went bankrupt a few years ago and hasn’t really turned around anything since.

PG suspects that a great many BN store managers who could get work elsewhere have already done so. Plus, Covid has taken down retailers with much more savvy people running stores than BN has.

Finally, although Daunt is very good at getting press for himself, PG questions how many smart people are left on BN’s headquarter staff to put Daunt’s visions into actions. What sort of person would go to work there or stay there if they had other viable options?

BN is owned by a hedge fund (approximately $41.8 billion in assets) that didn’t buy it out of bankruptcy because the hedge fund partners all loved books. This private ownership means that the general public will only hear the Barnes & Noble financial performance information that the hedge fund wants the public to hear.

Self-publishing

PG will note upfront that this is an excerpt from a much longer and more detailed essay. He’ll have a couple of comments at the end, but doesn’t have the time to respond to every one of Mr. Doctorow’s points contained in this review of publishing history and traditional publishers.

From Cory Doctorow:

Publishing is doing great

Publishing is doing great. Despite panic at the start of the lockdown, book sales were actually up during lockdown, as people turned to books to pass the time, joining online bookclubs and finding ways to support their local indie booksellers.

But authorship? Not so great.

Every part of the publishing supply chain has undergone radical concentration over the past 40 years, starting with consolidation of mass-market distribution in the 1980s. “Mass market” books are produced for sale in non-bookseller channels —pharmacies, grocery stores, news-stands, etc (books produced for sale in bookstores are called “trade books” because they’re sold through the bookselling trade).

. . . .

Enter Sam Walton, twirling his mustache

But by 1990s, when I started selling stories and then books, that advice was long past its sell-by date. Nationally, groceries and drugstores had been transformed in a process that originated with Sam Walton, who took advantage of deregulation to expand Walmart nationwide. Walmart was followed by waves of copycats who used predatory pricing to drive local merchants out of business. Big-box stores became a fixture, and represented such an important part of the mass-market bookselling channel that they were able to restructure the entire market.

First among their demands was an end to regional distributing. A retailer with outlets in 50 states didn’t want to manage 50 distribution accounts (indeed, most distribution territories were citywide, or even neighborhood-by-neighborhood, so a national chain might need to open hundreds of distributor accounts to serve all its stores). Within the space of a few short years, the number of distributors nationwide fell from about 400 to fewer than ten, in an orgy of bankruptcies and mergers.

This had a profound effect on the mass-market. Decisions about which books would be sold where were no longer in the hands of thousands of drivers who knew their territories intimately through long experience — rather, they were centralized into the hands of a few buyers who used databases to track sales and make predictions about the most “efficient” titles to stock nationwide.

The number of titles for sale nationwide fell off a cliff, and woe betide an author whose book failed to meet sales targets. A single stumble could lead to the permanent exclusion of that author from a big box chain’s consideration. Without those big box stores, publishers could no longer profitably publish those authors. If you are a genre fan of a certain age, you’ll remember the wave of established writers who rebooted their careers by switching to pen-names in a bid to trick these all-powerful buyers into giving them another chance.

Monopolies beget monopolies

The effects of deregulation —the Reagan-initiated “consumer welfare” reconstruction of antitrust enforcement —weren’t confined to Walmart and other big box retailers. Bookstore chains devoured one another in a too-fast-to-follow blizzard that saw mall stores nationwide changing corporate ownership more often than they changed their window displays (Borders was bought by Kmart, merged with Waldenbooks, spun out again, renamed, merged with a toy retailer, expanded globally, merged with the UK chain Books etc, flipped to private equity, debt loaded and crushed; Barnes and Noble bought B. Dalton and Bookstop, went public, bought Gamestop — yes, that Gamestop — started haemorrhaging money, got flipped to private equity, and rebooted under new leadership with James Daunt at the helm).

These mergers weren’t just driven by deregulation, though: monopoly begets monopoly. With mass-market sales dominated by big-box retailers (who could use predatory pricing to discount books below their wholesale prices), booksellers’ share of mass-market revenues collapsed. Getting big enough to negotiate preferential terms from publishers — in the form of “co-op” payments to promote blockbuster titles, as well as sweetheart discounts, “incentives,” and favorable credit terms — was one way for bookselling to compete in the new market.

This was bad news for publishers, of course (it was even worse news for independent booksellers, who not only couldn’t get the favorable terms extorted by big box retailers and the Big Two national bookstore chains, but actually saw their terms get worse in this period, as publishers took their gains where they could get them).

Consolidation in both trade and mass-market retail and distributorship was met with consolidation in publishing. Publishing went from dozens of publishers to a handful that continues to dwindle to this day: the Big Six publishers of the 2010 are now the Big Four, thanks to Penguin-Random House’s acquisition of Simon & Schuster (the full name of this monstrosity is properly “Viking-Putnam-Berkeley-Avery-Ace-Avon-Grosset & Dunlop-Playboy Press-New American Library-Dutton-Jove-Dial-Warne-Ladybird-Pelican-Hamish Hamilton-Tarcher-Bantam-Doubleday-Dell-Knopf-Harold Shaw-Multnomah-Pocket-Esquire-Allyn & Bacon-Quercus-Fearon-Janus-Penguin-Random House-Simon & Schuster”).

Health-care-ificatoin of publishing

Meanwhile, both trade and mass-market retail were collapsing even further, as Amazon claimed the lion’s share of both markets, giving the final say over what books were connected with which readers to a single firm, whose executives used a mix of algorithms, superstition, vindictiveness and raw, anticompetitive bullying to determine which books would succeed or fail.

. . . .

As competition in publishing has faded, the deal for most writers has gotten worse. We’ve seen a rise in odious contracting terms, from binding arbitration waivers; to “joint accounting” that allows publishers to drain money owed for a successful book’s sales to cover the failure of another book; to non-negotiable inclusion of ebook, foreign, graphic novel and audio rights (with no increase in advances); to the abolishment of rights-reversion for out-of-print books. Advances and royalty rates have stalled.

Books are doing fine, authors (and publishing workers) are not — just as health insurers, hospitals and pharma companies are thriving, while patients and medical workers’ fortunes are growing steadily worse.

The decline in the author’s share of the pie is directly attributable to a decline in competition among publishers (which, in turn, is directly attributable to a decline in competition among retailers and distributors). In a world with four large publishers, if Publisher A passes on your book or makes a unacceptably low offer, you try your luck with Publishers B, C, and D, and, if four decision-makers all make no offer or a poor offer, you’re done.

This situation is bad for writers, readers and publishing workers (the same dynamic plays out for publishing workers — if you don’t get a job at Macmillan, Harpercollins, Hachette or Random Penguin, then you have been rejected by every major publisher). Many things have been tried to fix this system.

The myth of the benevolent giant

First came the search for an alternative to publishing itself (just as the mass-market was an alternative to trade publishing). Writers, readers and editorial workers sought out other sectors who’d get the books they wanted into the hands of readers. There were a lot of startups that tried to fill this niche, but apart from some religious publishers, the only one that attained liftoff was Amazon, which leveraged its dominance in every other area of publishing to create a successful alternative to the publishing industry itself.

But while Amazon produced some high-profile wins for indie writers, and a port of call for editorial workers shed by the major publishers in post-merger layoffs, the honeymoon was destined to be short and end bitterly.

After all, the reason companies in concentrated industries treat their customers, workers and suppliers badly is because they can. Google doesn’t shower its tech workers with stock options, free kombucha and massages because of its generous spirit —if the company was a champion of labor rights, then these same perks would extend to its low-waged workers, too. The fact that these workers are misclassified as independent contractors and paid through a staffing agency cutout reveals the true predictor of how Google will treat you: how hard you are to replace.

When the options for writers dwindled — as publishing concentrated into fewer hands — the treatment for the writers who defected to Amazon also declined. They became replaceable. Right on schedule, the company embarked on a program of wage theft that stole tens of millions of dollars from the indie authors who’d shackled themselves to Amazon’s platform.

The only way that the mass of disorganized readers, workers and suppliers of an industry can get a fair deal is for the industry itself to be disorganized — to consist of competing firms that have something to lose if we walk out of the door. Trading one monopolist for the other in the hopes that it would look more kindly upon us was doomed from the start.

The writer-friendly mid-tier

In parallel with this effort to pit one giant against another, many publishing workers embarked upon upon a very different project: to fill the gap between self-publishing and the Big Six^H^H^H Five^H^H^H^H Four publishers with “boutique” publishers staffed by publishing veterans and bright young publishing workers, scooping up the fantastic authors who had been turned away from the big publishers.

This project has been much more successful than the giant-seeking expedition that ended with Amazon devouring the writers who’d helped it build its indie platform.

Today’s publishing landscape boasts a very exciting mid-tier of publishers, some organized as nonprofits, others as commercial entities. Several of them — Canada’s Raincoast, the UK’s Bloomsbury — have been able to grow to regional juggernauts thanks to their willingness to publish JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel after it was rejected by major publishers.

These scrappy publishers are doing marvellous things, and the internet has allowed them to connect with audiences in unique ways, while a new tier of distributors have cropped up to serve as a bridge between the mid-tier and the nation’s struggling, tenacious, and utterly vital indie bookstores.

I’ve dealt with several of these mid-sized publishers and I can report that they are great to work with. To be fair, they can screw things up just as much as the big publishers (whom I also work with) do, and it’s true that from a writer’s perspective it doesn’t matter if something bad happens to your book because a giant publisher’s bureaucracy failed it or because a small publisher didn’t have the staff or ready cash to capitalize on an opportunity. But they can also score wins with books that the big publishers can’t or won’t figure out how to get into readers’ hands, and they represent a competitor and hedge against further intensification of the Big Four’s squeeze on writers.

The endangered mid-tier

But the existence of this thriving mid-tier doesn’t change the overall dynamics of publishing. The squeeze on workers and writers isn’t just the result of an industry dominated by four publishers — it’s also the consequence of an industry with one major distributor (Ingram), one major brick and mortar bookstore (B&N) and one major online bookseller (Amazon, whose audiobook dominance through Audible is even more extensive than its dominance of print and e-books).

The one advantage that the Big Four publishers have that the mid-tier of publishing does not is that they are big enough to push back (with limited effectiveness) against Amazon and Ingram’s worst practices. Lacking this might-checking-might, the mid-tier is in a precarious place indeed.

Amazon, recall, is the company that once created a “Gazelle Project,” to “approach the small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue sickly gazelle,” to get them to accept unfavorable terms for their books in the Kindle store. That was in 2004. Does anyone think the company has gotten less willing to play hardball since then?

Fewer people are attuned to the risk of all of distribution consolidating into one company, Ingram, but this should alarm anyone who cares about publishing. Distributors are incredibly powerful, and anyone who distributes on behalf of third parties has numerous opportunities to engage in funny accounting practices whereby they cream off a sneaky share of their own.

. . . .

Self publishing

With all this, you may be tempted to self-publish. After all, the mechanics of self-publishing have never been simpler or more extenisve. Lulu will print beautiful books onshore, quickly, and cheaply (I ran up some “author’s galleys” for a couple of my upcoming books to use in soliciting blurbs and feedback and discovered to my delight that I could print a 6 inch x 9 inch finished, perfect-bound book with a full-color cover for less than I pay to photocopy and side-staple a manuscript at my local copy shop!). Smashwords and Bookbaby offer extensive author services and ebook distribution.

And, of course, Amazon will take your book for the Kindle store, and Ingram will accept it as a print-on-demand title available to every bookstore in the country (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em).

I often hear from friends and strangers who want to know what I think of self-publishing. Here’s what I tell them:

Publishing a professional-quality volume has never been easier. Working with publishing platforms, you can contract with excellent proofers, copyeditors, cover artists, book designers, typographers — the whole stack of professional services that go into making a book into a finished product (many of them are publishing veterans, still using their skills after merger-based layoffs). You can hire as many or as few of these professionals as you need, based on the skills you bring to the table.

But that still leaves you with a serious problem — perhaps the most serious problem in publishing. All of that stuff is writing and printing, but until the book finds its readers, it is not publishing.

As my beloved novel editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden told me long, long ago, “Publishing is the process of identifying a work and its audience, and then taking whatever steps are necessary to connect the two.” That may include cover design or marketing copy or copy-editing, but it also includes the huge, ill-defined, and nebulous world of marketing, sales, and publicity.

Put simply, you need to figure out why anyone, anywhere should give a shit that you wrote a book. This is a very hard problem. Indeed, it’s the hard problem of religion, advertising and politics: getting someone else to care about something you want them to care about.

. . . .

Here’s where publishers have an advantage: they have a longitudinal view of how books and audiences find one another. They publish lots of books. They try variations on their marketing, sales and publicity with each book, see which tactics show the most promise, and refine them. They can iterate.

That’s the single largest disadvantage faced by self-publishers. You go into your marketing and publicity plan without any precedents to have learned hard lessons from. You are a data-set of one.

. . . .

Publishing is — by definition — very good at targeting readers, but when it comes to targeting the vastly larger world of non-readers, publishing’s expertise is far patchier. After all, understanding “non-readers” involves understanding the whole world, the motivations not just of people who do buy books, but people who don’t.

Mega-bestsellers are just books that a small proportion of non-readers read. “Airport novels,” books that Oprah pitches, books that get made into movies — these are all books that are exposed to groups of non-readers that are orders of magnitude larger than the people who consider themselves “readers.” And they’re funnels: the Harry Potter novels and 50 Shades of Grey both introduced vast numbers of non-readers to books, and induced a small proportion of those non-readers to become readers.

This is where self-publishing has a potential advantage relative to publishing. You may be in touch with a group of non-readers — a faith group, members of a subculture or fandom, a professional association or a political movement — that you have well-developed ideas for reaching and convincing to give a shit about your book. It’s entirely possible that you are the first person who’s ever considered the potential pathway to engaging that group of people, that is, you might be the world’s leading expert on the subject.

In that instance, a publisher brings a lot less to the table. 

Link to the rest at Cory Doctorow and thanks to C. for the tip.

As mentioned at the outset, PG doesn’t agree with all of Mr. Doctorow’s ideas and opinions although there are many good ones.

PG’s main disagreement is that publishers are good at what they do. In the US, traditional publishing is a shared monopoly that has a strong connection with book distributors (Ingram and Baker & Taylor) and, through them an excellent connection with traditional bookstores, including rapidly-collapsing Barnes & Noble.

With respect to the place where the most people buy their books, Amazon, traditional publishing doesn’t have a monopoly and all the old boy networks that run through traditional publishing channels don’t mean anything.

Here’s PG’s hypothetical question – if you had to choose one of the following (and only one), which would you rather be:

#1 bestselling author at Barnes & Noble?

or

#1 bestselling author at Amazon?

As a matter of fact, PG thinks most authors would prefer being the #1 bestselling author on Amazon to being the #1 bestselling author on all the other book sales platforms combined.

Traditional publishing simply has not been able to make the transition to an internet-dominated book sales channel. Yes, they spend money on author tours (both virtual and meatspace) and NYT reviews and persuade Oprah to talk about their books, but they also take the large majority of all of the revenues the book generates and give the author only a small piece of the pie.

Traditional publishers are simply not able to hire and retain very smart people. Does anybody at the top of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher? Does anybody at the bottom of their MBA class at Wharton go to work for a big New York publisher?

Does anybody who is reasonably intelligent and talented who has other employment options (and no trust fund to fall back on) go to work for a New York publisher?

End of PG rant. You may enjoy Mr. Doctorow’s OP more.

The Missing Men

Not necessarily connected with the book business, but potentially impacting the economy and the book-buying public. Plus, educational levels and a lack of discretionary income will certainly impact the purchase of books and a great many other optional spending decisions.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

George Wilson knew remote learning was not for him. So when his classes went online because of the coronavirus pandemic, Wilson, a then-45-year-old furnace operator in Ohio, did what thousands of men nationwide did last year — he stopped out.

On campus, “I’m a machine,” said Wilson, who is pursuing an associate degree at Lakeland Community College, in Kirtland, Ohio. “I don’t have that same drive at home.”

Wilson is part of an exodus of men away from college that has been taking place for decades, but that accelerated during the pandemic. And it has enormous implications, for colleges and for society at large.

Last fall, male undergraduate enrollment fell by nearly 7 percent, nearly three times as much as female enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The decline was the steepest — and the gender gap the largest — among students of color attending community colleges. Black and Hispanic male enrollment at public two-year colleges plummeted by 19.2 and 16.6 percent, respectively, about 10 percentage points more than the drops in Black and Hispanic female enrollment. Drops in enrollment of Asian men were smaller, but still about eight times as great as declines in Asian women.

. . . .

. . . .

In the late 1970s, men and women attended college in almost equal numbers. Today, women account for 57 percent of enrollment and an even greater share of degrees, especially at the level of master’s and above. The explanations for this growing gender imbalance vary from the academic to the social to the economic. Girls, on average, do better in primary and secondary school. Boys are less likely to seek help when they struggle. And they face more pressure to join the work force.

. . . .

In an effort to turn things around, colleges are adding sports teams and majors in fields that tend to attract more men than women, such as criminal justice and information science. They are creating mentoring and advising programs for men, particularly those who are Black and Hispanic. And at least one is hiring a director of Black and males of color‘s success.

But programs and positions catering to men remain relatively rare, said Adrian H. Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies programs for men of color. Those that do exist tend to be untested and underfunded — “a person who is dedicating 25 percent of their time and asked to produce miracles with no money,” he said.

James Shelley, who founded one of the nation’s first men’s resource centers at Lakeland Community College, in 1996 — “the prehistoric period,” he calls it — said many college leaders still view men as a privileged class.

“One thing I often hear is that men still have most of the power, they still make more on the dollar than women, so why create a special program for them?” he said. “It’s not an easy sell.”

. . . .

In 2018, the female-male gap in enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds stood at eight percentage points for Black and Hispanic students, and six percentage points for white students. Over all, nearly three million fewer men than women enrolled in college that year.

Some of this difference may be due to the belief among some young men that college “isn’t worth it” — that they’re better off going into the work force and avoiding the debt.

“In a lot of communities of color, there’s this mind-set that the man should work, the man should provide,” said Michael Rodriguez, director of the Men’s Resource Center at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, which is part of the City University of New York. “They think, ‘if I sit around and go to school, I may not be looked at as a functioning provider in my home.’”

. . . .

Though the decision to work after high school may make short-term economic sense, it deprives these men of thousands in lifetime earnings, and deprives colleges of the perspectives they would bring to the classroom — both as students and as future professors, Rodriguez said. “For colleges to really thrive, all voices need to be heard,” he said. “A gender gap creates unhealthy institutions.”

. . . .

But labor-market factors alone can’t fully explain the growing gulf in college completion between men and women. Academic preparation and gender norms play a role, too.

The differences between boys and girls emerge as early as elementary school, where boys lag in literacy skills and are overrepresented in special education. Boys are also more likely than girls to be punished for misbehaving — an experience that can sour them on school.

The disparities in discipline are the most pronounced among Black boys, who made up 15 percent of public-school students in the 2015-16 school year, but accounted for 31 percent of law-enforcement referrals and arrests.

Boys are also less likely than girls to seek or accept help for their academic and emotional struggles, having been socialized to be self-reliant. By the time they’re in middle school, some boys have disengaged from school entirely. Even if they manage to graduate from high school, these boys lack the skill — or the will — to succeed in college.

. . . .

At Lakeland, the decision to create a stand-alone center for men back in the mid-90s stemmed from the success of the college’s women’s resource center, Shelley recalled.

“It was thought that if we have a program that’s such a benefit to women, wouldn’t it make sense to have a similar program for men” who had fallen behind their female peers, he said. The premise was that “men have problems, too.”

But when Shelley began calling around to see what other colleges were doing to support men, he came away empty-handed. “Most of the people I talked to expressed the sentiment that men are the problem,” he said.

Twenty-five years later, Shelley sees this structural “anti-maleness” embedded in school-discipline policies that disproportionately net boys, and in sexual-assault prevention programs that sometimes treat incoming students as threats. “I had one young man tell me ‘I was welcomed to college by being told that I’m a potential rapist,” he said.

. . . .

Shelley, of Lakeland Community College’s resource center, is generally skeptical of efforts to “reprogram” males, believing it better to “channel” their deeply ingrained identities then to attempt to change them. Asking students to share their deepest feelings might work in a women’s group, “but if I ask men that, no will say anything.”

“But if I ask ‘what are your challenges? What do you need to surmount to become successful?’ then it becomes more about problem-solving,” and less about problem-confessing, he said.

. . . .

[H]ands-on fields favored by men were harder to transition to an online environment, said Douglas Shapiro, vice president for research and executive director of the Clearinghouse research center. During the pandemic, enrollment in male-dominated programs like construction, precision production, and firefighting declined two to three times as much as enrollment in nursing and education — fields dominated by women.

“We are losing a generation of men to Covid,” said Huerta. “We need to be really creative about how we get them back in the pipeline.”

That starts with convincing men that college is, indeed, “worth it,” said Rodriguez, particularly when the payoff isn’t immediately obvious.

“When you break down what they want, they really want a job,” he said. “Colleges have to tell a better story of what you can do with an English degree.”

Shelley would like to see colleges create more short-term programs, too, to get men into the work force more quickly. He said that when he tells prospective students a program will take two years, plus prerequisites, they often tell him “forget it.”

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Share of adults who have read a book in any format in the last 12 months in the United States in 2018 and 2019, by education level

Link to the rest at Statista

The Three W’s of Scene Orientation

From Writer Unboxed:

I suspect we all know people who will walk in a room and say something like, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me.” I’m married to one of them.

It’s obvious there is conflict, so this might end up being a good story, but right now the comment is floating in space. I’ll need more words to understand it. Who is this woman? Where did he see her? When did this happen—ten minutes ago? Is he still chewing on something from his youth? Or is this a future action that worries him?

One thing is for sure: to assume that I can read his mind is a sweet yet preposterous overestimate of my editorial prowess. I suppose that’s what happens after you’ve been married a few decades.

But judging from the manuscripts I see, it can also be what happens when you are on your umpteenth draft of a novel and can no longer remember which version of which facts are on the page. For that reason, it can be helpful if at some point, before sending your manuscript to beta readers or developmental editors, you take one pass to make sure that you’ve set each scene appropriately.

Although reportage is different than story-building (for more on this you can check my previous post on paragraphing), borrowing the journalist’s 5 W’s can inspire a set of useful questions that will ensure that the scene you’re building is also giving the reader the information she needs.

Who took action, and who did it affect?

What happened, exactly?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did it happen, and why does it matter to this particular story and this particular protagonist?

Wait—didn’t you say 3 W’s?

The bare minimum we need at the outset of a scene is the who, when, and where. With that information, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me” gains context:

It’s been ten years and Simone’s clothes still hang in the back of my closet. I still can’t believe she quit on me.

~or~

I still can’t believe what just happened at the office—Joanna up and walked out on our partnership.

~or~

I backslid at Ed’s retirement lunch; I couldn’t resist the shrimp scampi. I still can’t believe Cleo warned me to stop eating garlic or she’d quit training me at the gym.

I was thinking about this topic after a question was posed on a Facebook page about how to cleverly fold in these details without being as pedestrian as, say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch, his brother…” The thing is, though, those seven “pedestrian” words perfectly orient us to who, when, and where.

When it comes to setting your scene, clarity—not cleverness—should be your first priority. Let’s look at how that’s done.

Examples from a Master

As it happened, on the day that question was posted, I had just finished reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It’s the story of two siblings who cannot overcome a past symbolized by the grandiose home that their father had bought—fully furnished by its previous Dutch occupants—for their unappreciative mother, who then left the family. Patchett is an author at the top of her game, and she had plenty of game to start with. Among this bestselling title’s many accolades, it was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

. . . .

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Bookshop.org Continues to See Strong Sales

From Publishers Weekly:

Online bookseller Bookshop.org is on track this month to surpass $15 million returned to independent bookstores since the company began in 2019. That figure is in addition to the $250,000 it donated to Binc’s “Survive to Thrive” campaign. “It is a milestone we are anticipating surpassing by the end of July,” Andy Hunter, CEO of Bookshop.org, said.

Sales have reached $29 million this year, including tax and shipping, and are up 17% for the first half of 2021 compared with 2020. That increase comes despite an expected decline in sales compared to a year ago since April, when most bookstores around the country began to reopen form normal business. In the April-June period, sales were down 20% from the comparable time in 2020, less than the 30% drop that Hunter had been expecting. “Last year, June was very busy for us, particularly with the huge sales of antiracist books with the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the country. This year is more like a normal June.”

The site currently hosts 1,100 bookstores, with 400 using Bookshop exclusively for their e-commerce and another 700 that use it in addition to their own e-commerce solutions. Notably, among the top 10 highest earning bookstore sites on Bookshop, six are Black-owned bookstores, Hunter said. Of the sites top-selling books, several are multicultural and diverse titles, including How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith (Little, Brown), Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford (Flatiron), Yoke by Jessamyn Stanley (Workman), and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (Knopf), The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris(Atria) and Long Division by Kiese Laymon (Scribner).

“Our bestseller list does not look like the typical list,” Hunter said. “It reflects the diversity and iconoclastic nature of the community we serve.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Faustian Bargain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Adolf Hitler gets the blame for lighting the fuse of World War II, and for good reason. Yet Germany had a partner in Soviet Russia, not only during the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 but well before, starting with the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Without his enablers in Moscow, it’s hard to imagine that Hitler would have dared go to war against the rest of Europe.

In “Faustian Bargain” (Oxford, 384 pages, $29.95), Ian Ona Johnson shows how extensive Russia’s help was. He begins the story at the end of World War I, which had left the world with two pariah states: Germany because it had begun hostilities, Russia because the Bolshevik Revolution had transformed the country from a wartime ally to a postwar menace. Hardly had the ink dried on the punitive peace treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 than the two pariahs joined forces.

As Mr. Johnson chronicles, Russia offered a place for the German army to develop weapons and train men in violation of the treaty that its civilian government had just signed. In return, Russia would learn how to modernize the Red Army, huge in size but badly trained and poorly equipped. The agreement was formalized at Rapallo, Italy. “Poland must and will be wiped off the map,” wrote Gen. Hans von Seeckt, the man who established Sondergruppe Russland (Special Group Russia), the bureau that would manage military relations between Germany and Russia. Seeckt was referring, of course, to the country that Versailles had resurrected between them. (Poland had been divided between Germany, Russia and the now-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire.) “It was not an unfair peace that motivated Seeckt and his fellow officers,” Mr. Johnson writes. “It was the far more ambitious aim of reversing Germany’s defeat in the First World War.”

Mr. Johnson, who teaches military history at Notre Dame, draws on American, British, German, Polish and Russian archives to describe a “secret school of war.” The resulting book has an academic flavor, but it’s consistently interesting and spiced by the occasional scandal, including one in which a German naval officer brings his Russian girlfriend home to Germany, supporting her through a movie studio he purchased with government money, planning to use it for military propaganda. When the studio goes bankrupt, damning details emerge, triggering high-level resignations and bringing to light “the breadth of Germany’s commitment to rearm.”

In the 1920s, without troubling the civilian government in Berlin, the Reichswehr (German defense force) set up a ring of bases south and east of Moscow. German companies like Junkers and Krupp contracted directly with the Soviet government to manufacture warplanes in Russia, deliver coveted German-built locomotives and train Red Army technicians. Versailles had banned all offensive weapons, but the “Black Reichswehr” in Russia included warplanes, battle tanks and poison gas. Russia, for its part, learned alongside the Germans. Stalin was so interested in Krupp’s tank designer Eduard Grotte that he ordered that the man be kept in Russia by “all measures up to arrest.”

It’s chilling to learn how much time and money Germany and Russia devoted to chemical warfare, hoping to develop gas bombs to be dropped from high altitude upon enemy cities. In the end, the effort failed. “The vision of cities obliterated by mustard gas was fading,” Mr. Johnson says of the situation in 1931, “with a war of machines—tanks and planes—rising in its place.”

Armored warfare seems to have been the most successful collaboration. The Reichswehr developed the doctrine: Heavy tanks with large guns were more valuable than speedy vehicles; they should be deployed in mass and accompanied by motorized infantry. Companies in Germany built the prototype Panzers, as they were called, and shipped them to Russia disguised as farm tractors.

. . . .

When Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, his obsession with “Jewish Bolshevism” cooled the relationship with Moscow. Nor did he worry about adhering to the terms of Versailles. The official and “black” Reichswehrs merged into the wartime Wehrmacht, with conscription supporting a huge army with modern tanks and a fully fledged air force, all made possible by Soviet Russia.

Cooperation between the two countries began again in August 1939, when Hitler and Stalin agreed to a “nonaggression pact.” The Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, the Russians on the 17th, and the two armies met at Brest-Litovsk on the 22nd.

. . . .

Meanwhile, German machinery, weapons and technology flowed east, and Russian oil, grain and raw materials helped equip and feed the Wehrmacht that occupied most of Western Europe in 1940. More quietly, the Soviet Union absorbed half of Poland, the Baltic countries, and strategic pieces of Romania and Finland. The mutual exchange continued until the Sunday morning in June 1941 when Germany crashed into the Soviet Union. “Invading German forces,” Mr. Johnson tells us, “marched on rubber boots made with materiel shipped over the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Their rations included Soviet grain, which had continued to arrive up to the very day of the invasion.”

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

PG has read a great deal of 20th century history, but the OP was the first time he had learned that extensive cooperation between Germany and Russia began in 1922 instead of 1939.

PG notes that the publisher of the book discussed in the OP, Oxford University Press, has elected to release the book in hardcover only, at least for the moment. PG may or may not check back later to see if an ebook is available or, more likely, put a hold on the book through his public library.

The author of the book, Ian Ona Johnson, is a an Assistant Professor of Military History at the University of Notre Dame who looks very young (which is a more revealing statement about PG than it is about Dr. Johnson). His author page does mention that he and his wife are the owners of a dog named Patton.

Speaking of his local public library, several years ago, PG and Mrs. PG culled their physical book collection to the tune of at least a couple of thousand books by donating them to that library. The librarian who accepted the donation glanced at the books and told PG that the library was likely to keep some of them instead of selling all of them off. Evidently, that was a compliment that the librarian did not customarily deliver when accepting book donations.

PG just checked and he still has nine oak bookcases (6 feet tall, except for one that is 7 feet tall, made to fit in a niche in a gone-but-not-forgotten law office and a bit tippy if not secured to the wall behind it, made by a former client of PG who owned a furniture factory in exchange for PG’s legal services).

Each of these bookcases is filled with physical books that will also make a trip to the local public library with the help of a couple of burly young men as and when Mrs. PG is willing to let them go.

Back in the Saddle

PG and Mrs. PG took a short trip to visit family and are back again in one piece.

PG may have to spend some time reclaiming his mind after too much time in airports and on airplanes, but he expects the scattered bits and pieces will soon catch up with him.

5 Steps to Creating a Unique Character Voice

From Writers in the Storm:

Create unique character voices by varying how they communicate with other characters.

I’m one of those writers who needs to put my characters through a first draft before I figure out who they really are. Tossing them into trouble and watching how they wrangle their way out of it helps me get to know them. Their dialogue and voices are usually interchangeable at first. It’s more about what they say than how they say it, or even why they say it.

The voices usually come to me as I write, and by the end of the first draft, I’ve written snippets of voice that let me see and hear the characters. On draft two, I develop those snippets into fleshed-out characters.

Since I don’t hear my characters first (like many writers do), I make conscious choices about their voices, and craft them same as I do a setting or the plot. Which keeps my authorial nose out of my character’s business, and lets them be who they are—not extensions of who I am. Characters who all sound like the protagonist or the author is a common first-draft issue for a lot of writers.

The author’s voice sometimes gets in the way of the character’s voice.

The characters themselves might be fully fleshed out and different as can be, but their voices aren’t. That’s only natural since the author is writing the novel. All their vocal quirks and mannerisms sneak in, which can lead to every character in the story sounding more or less the same. They all ask questions the same way, they react to trouble the same way, they greet each other the same way. If you took out all the dialogue tags, it would be hard to tell which character was which.

Character voices that reflect their personalities not only help readers remember them, it helps them connect to those characters as well. When a reader connects to a character, they care, and when they care, they worry what will happen to that character, and bam—you’ve hooked them in the story. Now they’re invested.

Here’s a five-step plan for creating unique character voices for your novel:

Step One: Pick a greeting that reflects their personality.

How a character greets people says a lot about where they grew up, where they live now, and how open they are toward others. A shy character might offer a soft “Hi,” while an always-the-center-of-attention character might shout, “The party train has arrived!”

For example, imagine one character is waiting outside a restaurant for another. When they approach, the waiting character greets them with:

“Good afternoon.”
“Yo, whassup!”
“Hey.”
“Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to see you.”
“You’re late.”
Did you picture a different character for each of those greetings? Each greeting hints at the type of personality that character might have, from formal, to rude, to enthusiastic.

Step Two: Decide how they answer questions.

How someone responds to a question can tell you a lot about them. If you establish a character as a shy, introvert who has a hard time opening up, it might not ring true if they start giving speeches when asked a question. A non-stop talker is the right character to go to if you need to convey information to readers—just make sure they’d know that info so it doesn’t come across as an infodump.

But a character acting out of character can pique reader curiosity. A chatty gossip will raise eyebrows if they suddenly start giving one-word answers to everything. Why are they so quiet?

For example, what kind of characters do you picture based on these responses to… “Did you go to the movies last night?”

“Yep. Any pizza left?”
“I did. Jo and I went to that old art theater they just remodeled on Main. They’re showing these cheesy old westerns. It was a total blast.”
“Stay out of my business.”
Shrug. “Nothin’ better to do.”
“Oh dear, I should have called you. I’m so terribly sorry.”
“Yeah, with Juan.”

These answers do more than just answer a yes or no question. Many of these answers lead to more questions. Is character one trying to change the subject? Why does character five feel so guilty about not calling?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm