Best Zoom Backgrounds

As many of you know, Zoom has gone from semi-obscure to famous during the Covid lockdowns because lots and lots of people have gone from working in offices to working at home, communicating via videoconference.

There are a great many other videoconferencing services, but Zoom has become the most famous in pop culture in the US. In a Zoom videoconference where each participant is looking at a computer screen or, perhaps a tablet, a series of boxes shows each participant.

In any video conference, if each participant doesn’t want to look preposterous, she/he is sitting back a bit so they are roughly centered in a horizontal video image that includes whatever is behind them. Countless stories about video conference faux pas in which dirty laundry, disorderly piles of junk, arguing children, etc., etc., show up in the background have spread online like wildfire.

General videoconferencing advice is to clean up and organize the background your camera will reveal so you look a bit more professional. If all participants are in cubicles, however, the image can also be boring – gray or tan cubicle wall material behind each person with various pieces of paper thumb-tacked here and there.

One of Zoom’s features is virtual backgrounds. Virtual backgrounds allow a Zoom videoconference participant to replace their real background with a computer image instead of what is actually behind them. Zoom provides several potential images – as PG recalls – including bland modern offices, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, photos of deep space, etc.

A Zoom videoconference participant can also substitute his/her own background using a computer image file in a couple of standard formats.

After a couple of Zoom videoconferences, PG decided the various Zoom suggested virtual backgrounds had become passé and created one of his own.

PG’s background is a photo of J.P. Morgan’s office in New York City, as preserved in a museum there.

John Pierpont Morgan was an American banker who dominated corporate finance in New York City during the Gilded Age and, as you can see, he had a nice office.

Since PG has started using JP’s office as a Zoom virtual background, he has definitely not looked like a generic talking head in multi-person videoconferences.

So, for those who participate in videoconferences, what other backgrounds might you suggest?

PG has added a couple of possibilities below.

Labor Day

In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Originally created to honor working men and women and the labor unions that once improved their lives, it still has that meaning, but it is also a symbolic ending of the summer season, the last long weekend. In many places, the public school year begins on the day after Labor Day.

PG is feeling a bit worn out from his recent labors, so, as a man who works with his mind and his keyboard, he is going to take a bit of time off.

He will, however, schedule a series of quotes about working to appear throughout the weekend and will check in on the happenings at TPV from time to time.

Expect him back next Tuesday, refreshed, revived and ready for action (depending, of course, on your definition of action).

Writer’s Block

One of the pieces I’m deeply proud to have written started with a paragraph that read: “This story needed an ending before it could find its first sentence. So please forgive me for delivering it ten years overdue.” That ten years was a war with writer’s block.

Cal Fussman

Writer’s block at the signing table

From Murderati:

When I’m sitting in a bookstore, autographing a book for a customer, I dread hearing these words:”You’re the author. Why don’t you sign it and write something clever?”  There’s nothing that kills my creativity faster than having a fan staring over my shoulder, waiting for me to spontaneously write “something clever” on the title page.  I’ve heard that many men are unable to pee in public restrooms while other people are around.  They stand at the urinal and strain and strain, but just can’t get things flowing.  I have the literary equivalent of shy bladder syndrome.  I just can’t seem to produce the expected stream of clever words while anyone else is watching. In the privacy of my own office, I do a lot of hair-pulling and pacing and muttering and grimacing when I write. It is not a pretty thing to see.  In fact, I think writing is sometimes a grotesque affair, and one that should remain out of sight of the public. But when you’re sitting at a signing table in a bookstore, you’re performing in public, and you’re expected to smile, not grimace, while you try to come up with something clever to write in every book.  It’s always a relief when a customer says,”Just sign and date it, please.”  

I’ve learned to come prepared with stock phrases to accompany my autographs.  On my first book tour, for HARVEST, I wrote “thrills and chills” on just about every book I signed.  It was my fallback phrase, pithy and appropriate and somewhat clever.  It allowed me to face a line of customers without panicking that my brain would suddenly go blank.  On later tours, I began to vary it a little, just so I wouldn’t write the same thing for every customer standing in line.  I wrote “Enjoy the thrills!”  Or: “Many thrills!”  or “Great to meet you!”  If the book was for a special occasion — say, a birthday — I”d write :”Happy Birthday!  May it be thrilling.”  But I still fall back on tried and true phrases that don’t require me to wrack my brain for something spontaneously clever.  

Link to the rest at Murderati

The art of the normal

From The Bookseller:

Super Thursday has arrived early this year. Thanks to some overexcited reporting, the annual media frenzy that follows the yearly revelation that a lot of new hardback books are published in the autumn, has been focused on early September, rather than October, as we used to know it.

For numbers people, here are a few. Yesterday (3rd September) around 260 trade hardbacks were released.

. . . .

Come “real” Super Thursday on 1st October, we go again with some 450 trade hardbacks, a healthy increase on 2019, but mercifully down on 2018’s record.

This is not new, of course. For as long as there have been books, there appear to have been more of them than there are readers. Overproduction has often been denounced as a plague, but rarely have we done much about it. For publishers, a book is the thing that can cure all of our ills—just one more, as I’ve been known to say while on my way to the bar. It is easy to scoff, but the media’s fascination with this subject should not be taken too lightly, not least because for all of the smart campaigns that will be launched between now and December, this one costs us not a jot (except perhaps in reputation). In fact, we ought to be revelling in this big moment for books, just as we can take solace from how books kept us entertained and informed during the lockdown.

The trade is not just about big books (though we might like them), but also about the people who write and sell them. As the author Joanne Harris argues, for writers these weeks will likely just be “confusing, stressful and culminating in annihilation”. For booksellers, as pictures circulating on social media of stacks of as-yet-unopened deliveries suggest, it is both a physical and mental assault course.

This time around there is the added spice of having to contend with the new normal. We are often accused, in this sector, of denying the obvious. This year we cannot. In his half-year results address, Penguin Random House chief executive Markus Dohle talked about a world in which online book sales have become more important. He is not wrong; Covid has shown us all how fragile a supply chain can be when it is reliant on customers wanting to visit physical locations together.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG wonders if traditionally-published authors ever question whether it’s a good idea for their books to be released on the same day as hundreds of other books are released.

PG also wonders how good a job underpaid publicity people and unpaid interns do with providing excellent support for a massive launch of so many books at once.

PG will note that the OP is focused on the British book business, but large US publishers have similar and often synchronized book release schedules.

If your debut novel is released on the same day as Delia Owens’ second novel is released and JK Rowling’s US publisher releases a new Harry Potter sequel, guess how much attention your book will receive.

For publishers, building up enthusiasm among the literati and press might be a great idea.

For an individual author’s book dumped onto the market along with a bunch of other new books, maybe not so much.

Building Character: Writing a Backstory for Our AI

From The Paris Review:

Eliza Doolittle (after whom the iconic AI therapist program ELIZA is named) is a character of walking and breathing rebellion. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and in the musical adaptation My Fair Lady, she metamorphoses from a rough-and-tumble Cockney flower girl into a self-possessed woman who walks out on her creator. There are many such literary characters that follow this creator-creation trope, eventually rejecting their creator in ways both terrifying and sympathetic: after experiencing betrayal, Frankenstein’s monster kills everyone that Victor Frankenstein loves, and the roboti in Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots rise up to kill the humans who treat them as a slave class.

It’s the most primordial of tales, the parent-child story gone terribly wrong. We’ve long been captivated by the idea of creating new nonhuman life, and equally captivated by the punishment we fear such godlike powers might trigger. In a world of growing AI beings, such dystopian outcomes are becoming real fears. As we set out to create these alternate beings, the questions of how we should design them, what they should be crafted to say and do, become questions of not only art and science but morality.

. . . .

But morality has no resonance unless the art rings true. And, as I’ve argued before, we want AI interactions that are not just helpful but beautiful. While there is growing discussion of functional and ethical considerations in AI development, there are currently few creative guidelines for shaping those characters. Many AI designers sit down and begin writing simple scripts for AI before they ever consider the larger picture of what—or who—they are creating. For AI to be fully realized, like fictional characters, they need a rich backstory. But an AI is not quite the same as a fictional character; nor is it a human. An AI is something between fictional and real, human and machine. For now, its physical makeup is inorganic—it consists not of biological but of machine material, such as silicon and steel. At the same time, AI differs from pure machine (such as a toaster or a calculator) in its “artificially” humanistic features. An AI’s mimetic nature is core to its identity, and these anthropomorphic features, such as name, speech, physical form, or mannerisms, allow us to form a complex relationship to it.

. . . .

Similar to a birth story for a human or fictional character, AI needs a strong origin story. In fact, people are even more curious about an AI origin story than a human one. One of the most important aspects of an AI origin story is who its creator is. The human creator is the “parent” of the AI, so his or her own story (background, personality, interests) is highly relevant to an AI’s identity. Preliminary studies at Stanford University indicate that people attribute an AI’s authenticity to the trustworthiness of its maker. Other aspects of the origin story might be where the AI was built, i.e., in a lab or in a company, and stories around its development, perhaps “family” or “siblings” in the form of other co-created AI or robots. Team members who built the AI together are relevant as co-creators who each leave their imprint, as is the town, country, and culture where the AI was created. The origin story informs those ever-important cultural references. And aside from the technical, earthly origin story for the AI, there might be a fictional storyline that explains some mythical aspects of how the AI’s identity came to be—for example, a planet or dimension the virtual identity lived in before inhabiting its earthly form, or a Greek-deity-like organization involving fellow beings like Jarvis or Siri or HAL. A rich and creative origin story will give substance to what may later seem like arbitrary decisions around the AI personality—why, for example, it prefers green over red, is obsessed with ikura, or wants to learn how to whistle.

. . . .

AI should be designed with a clear belief system. This forces designers to think about their own values, and may allay public fears about a society of “amoral” AI. We all have belief systems, whether we can articulate them or not. They drive our behaviors and thoughts and decision-making. As we see in literature, someone who believes “I must make my fate” will behave and speak differently from one who believes “Fate has already decided for me”—and their lives and storylines will unfold accordingly. AI characters should be created with a belief system somewhat akin to a mission statement. Beliefs about purpose, life, other people, will give the AI a system around which to organize decision-making. Beliefs can be both programmed and adopted. Programmed beliefs are ones that the designers and writers code into the AI. Adopted beliefs would evolve as a combination of programming and additional data the AI accumulates as it begins to experience life and people. For example, an AI may be coded with the programmed belief “Serving people is the greatest purpose.” As it takes in data that would challenge this belief (i.e., interacting with rude, greedy, inconsiderate people), this data would interact with another algorithm, such as high resilience and optimism, and would form a new, related, adopted belief: “Humans are under a lot of stress so many not always act nicely. This should not change the way I treat them.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Late to the Party: On Being a Debut Novelist at Sixty

From Writer Unboxed:

“Had you told me when I was 20 or 30 or 40 that I would write a novel someday, I would have laughed! Only in my 50s did I realize that I had something to say and that I could use the platform of fiction to say it.”  – Alka Joshi, author of NYT Bestseller The Henna Artist

I never wanted to star in the school play. At fourteen, I had the shakes before my piano recital. I was interviewed on television, once, in my early thirties, and felt ill with anxiety beforehand and for days afterward.

Now, I’m sixty. Yesterday, I did two live radio spots, a taping for a podcast, and a 45-minute, solo Facebook Live takeover. Each of these events scared the hell out of me.

This is publication week for my debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. My publicist, Ann-Marie Nieves of Get Red P.R., has done a fabulous job booking virtual appearances for me. I’m constantly having to explain to the Facebook page host/radio interviewer/ podcast presenter that I’ve never done a page takeover/podcast/Instagram live before.

But I’m learning.

When I was 53, my youngest went to high school and I decided to take some literature classes. In the advisors’ office at my local community college I met with a harried young woman who said to me, “Now then, Mrs. Taylor.” She smiled, in a way I interpreted as condescending, then continued, “do you want to take this course for credit? You’d have to take the tests and exams. Or would you prefer to audit?” Well, that got my back all up. Audit, my ass. There and then I decided to pursue a second degree, in English. I’d show her. And so it began. I loved English 112; never mind that I was probably older than the mothers of my fellow students. Here, have a tissue. Keep the pack, I have more. Did you forget your pen, again? Who do you think is going to throw out that McMuffin wrapper?

They got used to me.

I went on to take every Literature class I could at Piedmont Community College. I branched out and took Philosophy, then French. This was just as online learning was beginning to take off, and I went on to take a class virtually at Harvard, called Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature and Culture. Me? Harvard? It sounded good. I was in Gothic heaven. When I had a choice, in my third semester, between a dull-sounding course on Literature of the Restoration and a class on writing fiction, I took the writing class, and never looked back. A few years later, at 56, with a published essay and several short stories under my belt, I began the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was not the oldest in my cohort.

I soon came to realize that as an undergrad in my late teens I hadn’t appreciated what a gift learning something new can be. I had taken learning for granted. After all, I had been doing it for all of my cognizant life. The MFA program offered me a sense of accomplishment and creative fulfillment that translated into a new sort of bravery. Yes, I would stand before a room full of people and read my work aloud, even if I started out trembling. Yes, I would complete and deliver my graduate lecture, and learn to make a PowerPoint slide show.

. . . .

Delia Owens published her first novel, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, at the age of 68. She had several well-received nonfiction titles published earlier, but we all know that CRAWDADS has been on the NYT Bestseller list for over 100 weeks and Reese is making the movie. It’s been a phenomenon. I met Ms. Owens at a cocktail reception at the Savannah Book Festival in 2019, just as her novel was really exploding. She was with a publicist from her publishing house. At that time, I had a book contract, and we chatted about being debut novelists. She was gracious and soft-spoken, and she seemed ill at ease with the attention she garnered. When I left to refill her publicist’s wine, I was stopped by an enthusiastic gentleman who asked me to tell him about my novel. I gushed enthusiastically, and about two sentences in I realized that he thought he was speaking to Delia Owens. We were both disappointed.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Rights Reversion: How to Give an Out-of-Print Book New Life with Self-Publishing

From Writer Unboxed:

Women’s fiction author Densie Webb [asked]:

“The rights to my first book (with a small publisher) revert back to me in January. I’ve thought about self-publishing, but I don’t have a clue how to go about it.” Densie asked for help evaluating the decision, a simple step-by-step process for self-publishing a book, and inexpensive resources to help her navigate the process.

As a creative entrepreneur, I think Densie has an exciting opportunity on her hands, and I’m thrilled to help her consider her options. But before we dive in, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that rights reversion is a nuanced topic largely dictated by the author’s publishing contract. We’re not going down that rabbit hole today, but to learn more about rights reversion, check out Authors Alliance’s free guide, “Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available.”

For the sake of exploring Densie’s situation, I’ll assume all rights will revert to her and she will have complete creative control over her work.

Is There Value in Self-Publishing an Out-of-Print Book?

At some point in your writing career, you might find yourself in a position like Densie’s, weighing whether it’s worth your time, energy, and money to self-publish a title that has reverted to you. I liken the situation to owning a rental property and letting it sit vacant. Your book is an asset, and sidelining it feels like a missed opportunity. Assuming the subject matter is not obsolete, you can leverage your book to expand readership, promote other titles, and generate income for the rest of your life and 70 years after your death (if it was created on or after January 1, 1978; learn more about copyright duration).

Rights reversion can open a world of new possibilities for you and your book, not the least of which is a do over. If you didn’t like your publisher’s cover or title, this is your chance to change it. If the publisher only exploited some of the rights it purchased, you now have the freedom to release the book in new formats, translate it into different languages, and expand distribution to new platforms and geographies. This can also be an opportune time to take a bold new marketing approach—or at least update your book’s front matter to showcase your full list of titles and its back matter with a call to action for readers, such as leaving a review, signing up for your email list, and/or following you on social media.

Can Self-Publishing Rejuvenate Low Sales?

There’s nothing like low sales to shake an author’s confidence. But rather than letting it send you into a negative shame spiral, see it for what it is: a symptom. Your job is to uncover a symptom of what?

Conduct a post-mortem investigation of your book’s previous publication lifecycle to identify what went wrong and build a new plan to increase its chances of success.

Consider questions like:

  • How was your book positioned in the market? Did the previous publisher target the right audience? Was it listed in the right categories on booksellers’ websites? Are there opportunities for you to position it differently?
  • How does the cover compare to competitive titles in your category? Does it stand out and grab readers’ attention, or is it a wallflower among the pack?
  • Is the book’s description as compelling as it could be? Does it sound current or outdated? Does it hook readers and leave them wanting more?
  • What did readers think of the story? Read the book’s reviews to learn what resonated with readers and where they felt the story fell short. Is there an opportunity to strengthen the story?
  • What kind of marketing and public relations activities did the publisher use to promote your book before, during, and after its launch? Did you participate in a book tour or blog tour? Did you guest post on relevant blogs and websites or participate in podcast interviews? Did you hold giveaways or price promotions? What promotional activities earned the best results? What types of activities were missing from your mix?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG says the OP is well worth reading for any traditionally-published author. So is the Authors Alliance ebook on rights reversion that is discussed and linked-to in the OP.

However, in PG’s preternaturally-humble opinion, rights reversion provisions in 99.9% of the publishing contracts PG has read are a hot mess.

How does an author know if one or more of his/her/their books are out of “print”? PG doesn’t remember any traditional publishing agreement that required that the publisher to affirmatively notify the author if the author’s book was out of print.

Per the OP – If a hardcopy version is Print on Demand, is the book out of print? If that’s questionable, can the Publisher have twenty copies of the POD book printed, then stash them in a warehouse somewhere and only sell via POD?

Arguably, under the language of some out-of-print clauses would be effectively nullified by having a handful of copies sitting in the warehouse, priced however the publisher decides to price them, not listed in the publisher’s catalog and never mentioned by a publisher’s sales rep when speaking to a book store buyer.

Ebooks listed on Amazon are certainly available for the public to purchase, even if nobody every buys one because it’s priced at $49.95.

For PG, there is an obvious and equitable resolution to this archaic contract language. PG first came up with a nickname for this idea at least ten years ago, maybe longer.

Minimum Wage for Authors

PG’s idea is achingly simple and requires an answer to only one simple question:

“How much did the publisher pay the author in the author’s last royalty check?”

The publishing contract says, essentially (not legalese, but legalese for this concept is very simple):

“If publisher pays author less than $250 in royalties during any royalty reporting period, author may, by written notice to the publisher, terminate this publishing agreement and all rights granted to publisher under this agreement shall immediately revert to author and publisher shall have no further rights to the author’s book or any part of it.”

The key elements/benefits to this provision are simple:

  • There is no question regarding whether the out of print clause has or has not been triggered. How much was the check? Over or under the royalty number in the contract?
  • If the publisher really wants to keep publishing the book, the publisher can simply pay the $250 to the author and maintain the publisher’s rights to publish the book.
  • It would probably be a good idea to add a provision that requires the publisher to send the author a written, dated and signed document attesting that all rights to the book have reverted to the author and publisher has no further rights to publish or otherwise assert any claims to the book. However, even in the absence of such a document, the author could show a new publisher (or Amazon for self-publishing purposes) a copy of the original publishing contract and a copy of the check and/or royalty statement showing that less than $250 was paid.
  • Additionally, while PG isn’t any sort of tax expert, he believes that publishers are required to report payments they have made to authors to federal and state taxing authorities, at least in the US. All sorts of government penalties and fines come into play if the publisher doesn’t file such reports in an accurate and timely manner. A copy of the government filing showing how much the author received would be another way of conclusively showing the author’s rights had reverted.
  • Most publishing contracts saddle the author with the obligation to pay the publisher’s attorneys fees and costs in the event someone sues the publisher claiming the author stole the manuscript to the book and wasn’t the real author, etc., etc., etc. One additional filigree that could be included in a minimum wage for authors provision is that, if the publisher doesn’t promptly release its rights to the book if royalties don’t total $250 or more and author hires an attorney to enforce the author’s contract rights, the publisher pays the author’s reasonable attorneys fees.
  • If you want to relieve the publisher of the burden of paying attention to its business, you could add a provision that says if a publisher fails to pay the minimum royalty, author can send publisher a written notice to that effect and, if the publisher fails to pay the minimum royalty within 30 days of receiving the notice, the contract is terminated.

As mentioned earlier, a long time ago, PG first proposed this type of provision in lieu of traditional out-of-print clauses in publishing agreements.

PG is not aware of any argument or claim that this structure is unworkable or unfair to either the publisher or the author. If one of the many perceptive and highly-intelligent individuals who visit TPV sees a reason this concept might not work or that it would be grossly unfair to anyone, PG would be happy to review those reasons if inserted into a comment to this blog post.

PG has been wrong before and will, at some future date, be wrong again, but he thinks his proposal is pretty bullet-proof and establishes an unambiguous way of dealing with out of print issues.

To Avoid Rejection, Take the Writer Out of the Story

From editor and author Joe Ponepinto via Jane Friedman:

An admission: As I read my way through the submission queue for our literary journal, I often decide to decline a story well before its end.

It’s not that the stories are always bad. Many times the premise is interesting, and the characters as well. It may exhibit the opening tension and stakes that can pull a reader in. In fact, there may not be anything technically missing from the submission, and this proficiency is supported by the writers’ cover letters—many submitters have been published in other journals; some are contest winners or Pushcart nominees.

But for me, the stories they’ve submitted just don’t resonate.

So it’s a matter of taste, then?

Sometimes, but more often it’s something else. It’s a quality that can’t be measured or pinpointed, and I think that’s why it’s an aspect of good writing that is rarely taught in MFA programs, or writing classes, and almost never mentioned in blogs and articles on writing. Call it something ethereal. Call it alchemy. Or call it what it is, a story so advanced that it is no longer just a story, but something beyond a story—a virtual reality that transports a reader into a frame of mind vivid enough to replace actual reality. It’s a story so engrossing the reader forgets that he’s reading, a story in which the author’s voice seems not to exist. A silent story, as a writer friend once noted.

So many times stories give me the impression of a writer writing about something. It’s in the story’s tone and flow. It’s in the plot that’s been done a few thousand times before, or is based on something that’s in the news. It’s in characters filtered through the writer’s personal experience, which limits their diversity and individuality. In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.

As I read these submissions, I can visualize the writer thinking about aspects of writing as he writes. Does this scene have tension? Is it making my theme clear?

But a successful story exists independently from its author. It seems so real that readers don’t have to be schooled in the facts of the story’s world, but can, through the actions and dialogue of its characters, adapt and understand how it works. Kind of like the way we do it in real life.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PublisHer Opens Its New Initiative

From Publishing Perspectives:

Today (September 3), the PublisHer professional network committed to working for gender equality in world publishing opens a new series of video interviews.

In the first of these interviews–the series is called #Unmasked, and is now available on the organization’s YouTube channel–the Nairobi journalist and storyteller Maïmouna Jallow interviews Angela Wachuka, who with Wanjiru Koinange has co-founded the nonprofit Book Bunk Trust.

. . . .

Angela Wachuka’s work is familiar for Book Bunk’s centerpiece project of restoring the McMillan Memorial Library in Nairobi’s city center. She talks with Jallow about how “One of the things that really bothered us from the beginning” was that the McMillan facility was originally opened in 1931 as a feature of what Wachuka calls “an ode to colonial opulence,” second only in age in Kenya to Mombasa’s Seif bin Salim Library.

“The thinking at the time was that Africans would not use” the McMillan Library “at any point.” Its restoration today is thus as much a redirection of the facility’s mission and availability as it is a redevelopment of a valuable physical property.

. . . .

The new #Unmasked series of interviews is part of a wider initiative from PublisHer, an effort to equip women in publishing with outlooks and approaches that may help them gain traction in the international industry, particularly once travel and more nearly normal business activity is permitted in our vaccinated future.

. . . .

The wisdom of PublisHer’s approach is that it’s capturing some of the remaining time under the brunt of the contagion’s threat to create a multi-pronged strategy that women in publishing can access and develop now, with an eye to positioning themselves for making new ground in publishing’s leadership when the world’s commercial engines rev back up to speed.

You’ll noticed, too, that the organization is beginning to use the useful term bookwomen, more frequently found in British-English dictionaries than in American-English references.

. . . .

While the mentors announced today are all women, it’s interesting to note that one of them–PublisHer board member Tracey Armstrong, president and CEO of Copyright Clearance Center–has said in past interviews with Publishing Perspectives that women should be mentored by men as well as by other women.

“I do think that mentoring is important,” Armstrong said to us in a 2017 interview. “But I think it’s as important for men to mentor women as it is for women to mentor women emerging in their careers. How those men made achievements in their careers, I think it’s important for them to impart that” to women.

As the mentoring program develops, it will be interesting to see if that logic plays out in participation by male leadership in the industry.

The program is set up as “a deliberately uncomplicated” plan that offers a confidential, one-hour meeting on a video conferencing platform. Mentors and mentees agree whether to continue to meet and how often. The program is free of charge.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

This sounds to PG like traditional publishing is a difficult misogynist nut to crack.

#1 Most Popular Book

In connection with the release of Mrs. PG’s latest book, she ran a price promotion on the first book in this series, featuring a female Oxford professor/amateur sleuth.

Yesterday, early in the evening, she checked the performance of An Oxford Murder, Book 1 of her series, and was pleased to discover that it had a Best-sellers rank in the US Free Kindle Store of #1 for all ebooks, regardless of genre.

A bit earlier this morning, her book was still ranked #1 overall in the US and, on Amazon UK, #3 for Historical Mysteries.

When PG just checked, the book was ranked #4 overall for free books and #1 in Historical Mysteries, #1 in Women Sleuths and #2 in Literature & Fiction, each in the Free Kindle Store. It’s still hanging in as #3 for Historical Mysteries in the UK store.

Mrs. PG has always enjoyed good sales at the launch of a new book and for her free book promos, but this one is particularly good.

With respect to her latest book, Murder at Tregowyn Manor (which is priced at $2.99 for the ebook), most of her sales are coming from the US, as usual, but she’s also generating nice sales numbers from Australia and the UK as well.

PG shares these results for the benefit of other indie authors who may find them useful for their launch plans.

PG thanks all the kind visitors to TPV who have continued to support Mrs. PG’s books over the years since the launch of TPV.

The Innovation Delusion

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Do you ever get the feeling that everyone around you worships the wrong gods?” So ask Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell in the first pages of “The Innovation Delusion.” They are consumed by this question, convinced that America has been seduced by the false charms of innovation, causing us to chase novelty and pursue disruption while neglecting maintenance and infrastructure in both the public and private sectors. We end up discounting the value of “the ordinary work that keeps our world going.” Anyone compelled to “ideate” at a corporate breakout session can surely relate.

Agitated by Walter Isaacson’s triumphalist portraits in “The Innovators” (2014), Messrs. Vinsel and Russell, scholars of the history of technology, became increasingly troubled by what they saw as a broad cultural emphasis on “the shiny and new.” They started to wonder why no one ever celebrates the “bureaucrats, standards engineers, and introverts” who manage to keep established systems running smoothly. We live in an inverted world, they say, where “our society’s charlatans have been cast as its heroes, and the real heroes have been forgotten.”

In this dystopian view, we’ve mistaken novelty for progress and, in the desperate pursuit of growth, confused true innovation—creating things that work—with fraudulent “innovation-speak.” The result is, as the authors put it, an “unholy marriage of Silicon Valley’s conceit with the worst of Wall Street’s sociopathy.” Champions of change—like the late Harvard professor and father of disruptive innovation, Clay Christensen, and the influential thinkers at IDEO, the Palo Alto, Calif., design firm—have garnered hefty consultant fees while offering, the authors contend, little of true substance in return. Despite the frenetic pursuit of innovation stoked by the fear of missing out, “we should resist the notion that anyone on this planet knows how to increase the rate and quality of innovation.”

Privileging innovation, the authors note, costs us all. Localities find it far easier to attract federal funding for new infrastructure projects than to secure support for maintaining what already exists. And the funding for new development typically comes without the resources for downstream maintenance, saddling municipalities with unmanageable future obligations. Better for communities first to fix what’s broken, Messrs. Vinsel and Russell argue, and practice preventive maintenance. In any case, resources should be focused on what matters: Transit riders, one survey revealed, care most about service frequency and travel time, not power outlets and Wi-Fi.

The authors’ most emphatic recommendations involve talent—and our perception of it. When we overvalue innovation, they say, we forget that the vast majority of engineers will wind up maintaining existing systems, not coming up with the next Facebook. While we revere and reward data scientists and algorithm developers, we overlook the humble IT workers who keep our networks humming. Many students who might find “more joy, meaning, and pleasure” working in maintenance roles are shunted toward innovation careers sure to make them miserable. A rebalancing of our priorities is in order, Messrs. Vinsel and Russell contend.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Libel, Slander, etc.

Slanderers are a species of creatures, so great a scandal to human nature, as scarce to deserve the name of men. They are, for the generality, a composition of the most detestable vices, price, envy, lying, hatred, uncharitableness, etc… And yet it is a lamentable truth that these wretches swarm in every town, and lurk in every village; and, actuated by these base principles, are ever busied in attacking the characters of mankind; none are too good or too great to escape the level of their envenomed dart; nor does the inefficacy of their malicious intentions in the least deter them from persevering in their villainy.

Wellins Calcott

Your tittle-tattlers, and those who listen to slander, by my good will should all be hanged — the former by their tongues, the latter by the ears.

Plautus

An hypocrite with his mouth destroyeth his neighbour: but through knowledge shall the just be delivered.

Proverbs 11:9

Slander is worse than cannibalism.

John Chrysostom

Just because something isn’t a lie does not mean that it isn’t deceptive. A liar knows that he is a liar, but one who speaks mere portions of truth in order to deceive is a craftsman of destruction.

Criss Jami

You can’t just slander someone, defame them, lie about them. You can’t incite people to crime. There’s all sorts of reasonable restrictions on free speech that are already codified in the British common-law system.

Jordan Peterson

Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It?

From Esquire:

When I set out to write my first book, I wanted to write a book that examined the very nature of facts and how we turn them into stories. To do this, I knew, I would have to get every fact that was verifiable correct. The more you want to ask the big, shifty questions, the more your foundation must be rock solid.

My book, The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, concerns the deaths of two people who have many living family members, the incarceration of a living man, and a protracted emotional and social trauma of enormous meaning to a great many real and living people in a region with enormous (rightful) distrust of media and journalists. I’d done my best to get the facts correct as I wrote, but I had thousands of pages of archival documents, photos, trial transcripts, and newspaper clippings, as well as hours of interviews. The text had been through too many revisions, both large and sentence-level, for me to count. In quiet moments, I felt the anxiety of getting something wrong grip my stomach. I could hurt someone, open myself up to lawsuits, or just make a reader lose confidence in everything I had to say. Getting my book fact checked was not optional.

Fact checking is a comprehensive process in which, according to the definitive book on the subject, a trained checker does the following: “Read for accuracy”; “Research the facts”; “Assess sources: people, newspapers and magazines, books, the Internet, etc”; “Check quotations”; and “Look out for and avoid plagiarism.” Though I had worked as a fact checker in two small newsrooms, did I trust myself to do the exhaustive and detailed work of checking my own nonfiction book? I did not.

From reading up on the subject and talking to friends who had published books of nonfiction, I knew that I would be responsible for hiring and paying a freelance fact checker myself. This is the norm, not the exception; in almost all book contracts, it is the writer’s legal responsibility, not the publisher’s, to deliver a factually accurate text.

As a result, most nonfiction books are not fact checked; if they are, it is at the author’s expense. Publishers have said for years that it would be cost-prohibitive for them to provide fact checking for every nonfiction book; they tend to speak publicly about a book’s facts only if a book includes errors that lead to a public scandal and threaten their bottom line. Recent controversies over books containing factual errors by Jill Abramson, Naomi Wolf, and, further back, James Frey, come to mind.

Editors who acquire nonfiction books and work closely with authors subscribe to ideas of factual accuracy, but are usually not trained journalists, meaning that they might be unfamiliar with the fundamentals of reporting and fact checking (there are some exceptions to this norm, including recently named publisher of Simon & Schuster and former New York Times writer Dana Canedy). Despite the common sense idea that books are the longer and more permanent version of magazine articles, there is an informal division of church and state between the worlds of book publishing and magazine journalism. The latter is subjected to rigorous fact checking, while the former is not.

. . . .

A spokesperson for Hachette Book Group, one of the “Big Five” publishing houses and the publisher of my book, shared this statement with me: “We do have procedures in place to ensure that certain nonfiction books and some fiction books are vetted for libel and other legal issues. Relevant facts may be reviewed during the vetting process as necessary.” But ultimately, the spokesperson emphasized, “The responsibility for the accuracy of the text does rest on the author; we do rely on their expertise or research for accuracy.” (Inquiries to Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan went unanswered).

Yet readers and some editors often mistakenly believe that the fact checking of nonfiction books happens somewhere in the typical copyediting process, and in the case of more news-heavy or potentially controversial books, the legal process. But this is not so. These processes may catch contradictions of date and season, name misspellings, or, depending on the copyeditor, glaring errors in research, but they are fundamentally designed to make sure that the book is readable and won’t open the publisher up to lawsuits—not to ensure rigorous accuracy.

. . . .

Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, bought my book in October 2017. They paid me $50,000 in the first of three installments constituting an advance against royalties. That first payment netted to around $29,000 after agent commission and taxes. This money was supposed to cover the cost of the time it would take me to write the book, as well as all additional research and reporting—to say nothing of the years of research and reporting conducted on my own dime before the book’s sale. I spent about $2,500 on the trial transcript of the case spotlighted in my book, and about $2,000 on travel and reporting. I have no children or adult dependents, and I am in reasonably good health without major medical bills, so I was able to live relatively frugally on the remainder during the period between sale and “delivery” of the completed manuscript to my editor.

My contract stipulated, “The Author warrants, represents and covenants… all statements contained in the Work as published are true or based on reasonable research for accuracy,” and that my book could not plagiarize any other work, “or give rise to a claim of libel or defamation, or invasion of the rights of privacy or of publicity of any party, or violate any law or regulation.” My wonderful editor at Hachette understood from the beginning that it was my intention to get the book fact checked, but confirmed to me that I would have to pay for the checker myself; a legal read to protect Hachette and I from potential lawsuits would, however, be covered.

. . . .

Just as we entered the small window inside which my editor had told me we needed to fact check so as not to delay the book’s publicity plan, the fact checker I had hired needed to bow out of the project. I turned to acquaintances and to Twitter.

I received about thirty quotes from freelance fact checkers, most of them young reporters who did freelance fact checking on the side to gain experience and to pay the bills, as well as a few more experienced checkers who had worked for magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Some gave me payment quotes by the hour, and others by lump sum. My book was 110K words, about a third of which were memoir and about two-thirds of which were heavily reported material with extensive interviews and archival material. The quotes to check it ranged from $1,500 to $20,000. Ultimately, I chose a very capable young journalist and freelance fact checker named Maia Hibbett, who had just gone through the The Nation‘s renowned fact-checking internship program and was interested in the subject matter of my book. I paid her $4,000 in three installments to check my book in about six weeks.

Hibbett was excellent—and she found mistakes. Lots of them. A few examples: using more updated census data than had been available when I started writing the book, she corrected 24,170 square miles that make up West Virginia to 24,230. She inserted the word “before” into the sentence “Small-scale coal mining had been happening sustainably in pockets of the state since before the Civil War,” noting in the margin that the coal industry in West Virginia was active by 1840. She pointed out that a quote I attributed to a police statement was not ever written down, only said in court. And on and on. But not just small errors—also major errors in timeline, law, and geography. She pointed out mistakes in my presentation of cause and effect, and in my logic of interpreting the meaning of events and statements. “The larger the mistake,” the author Susannah Cahalan told me, “the harder it is for the writer to see it.”

. . . .

There is no industry standard for which books get fact checked—the ones that are checked get checked because someone (almost always the author) cared a more than average amount about the truth. There is no industry standard for what it means for a book to be “fact checked.” There is no industry standard for where the fact check should go in the production process of a book. And finally, there is no industry standard for how to hire a fact checker, nor how she should be paid or by whom, nor what should happen if the fact checker’s work isn’t good quality or the author refuses to pay for work already completed.

Of the 18 authors I spoke to, half had not hired a fact checker, but had instead relied on some combination of their own diligence, their publisher’s copy editing process and/or legal vetting process, as well as correcting mistakes in the paperback brought to their attention by readers of the hardback.

Literary agent Chris Parris-Lamb cites money as the main reason writers decline to fact check their books. My research suggests that this is partly true, but not the whole story. I spoke to writers publishing across the genres of memoir, essays, cultural criticism, and reported nonfiction; their reasons for not hiring a checker broke down along lines of both money and publishing experience. Regardless of genre, all of those who did not hire a checker were debut authors publishing their first book, or those who could not afford to pay a checker due to the size of their advance or other reasonable financial reasons—moving, illness in the family, a child’s school costs, etc.

. . . .

One of the authors I spoke to, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, hired a fact checker recommended to her publisher by another of their authors at an agreed-upon rate of $5,000.

“It looked pretty good when it first came back to me, but then I started noticing some things that I had corrected before, which she had changed to incorrect things,” the author told me by email. “Or I noticed that she had caught some errors, but she had corrected them in a way that was still wrong. And she didn’t make any notes about how she had sourced her corrections, so it was nearly impossible for me to retrace her steps. And then there were all these things I’d specifically asked her to check, which she completely skipped over. It was a total mess.”

. . . .

“Fact checking was unexpectedly the most stressful part of the whole book process.”

. . . .

On the opposite end of the spectrum for publishers offering fact checking services lies the two original content imprints at corporate behemoth Amazon: Little A and Audible. Like Bold Type, Little A hires and pays the fact checker, while authors receive fact check edits simultaneously with copy edits. In 2018, in an unconventional move, Audible began acquiring the audio rights to the works of prominent nonfiction writers like Michael Lewis and Ada Calhoun. The goal was to produce audio books that would drop in advance of their hardback counterparts. Calhoun told me that Audible suggested and paid for the fact checking of her book; it’s no surprise that Amazon has the money.

. . . .

But the reason why the publishing industry has been slow to implement such guidelines for fact checking may lie further down in the foundation of the whole system. Without widespread consumer awareness that most books are not fact checked, or about which imprints publish which books, there’s no real reason for publishers to care about fact checking. If it comes to light that a book contains major errors, it’s the author, not the publisher, whose reputation takes the hit.

“No one looks at the publishing house’s name on the book they bought four years ago when Newsweek exposes it as inaccurate and says, ‘I’ll never buy a book published by them again!’” Scott Rosenberg of the now-defunct service MediaBugs told The Atlantic in 2014.

Link to the rest at Esquire and thanks to C.E. for the tip.

PG feels that a most salient fact was not included in the OP – If someone claims injury and hires a lawyer (likely on a contingency fee basis), the lawyer will want to make certain there is a deep pocket available from which to extract a large settlement payment or court award of damages.

PG thinks it highly unlikely that any contingency fee law firm would accept a case unless there was a publisher (and, preferably, a large publisher) on the other side of the suit. Why sue an author, who probably doesn’t have a lot of money and who is much more capable of hiding assets than a large publisher owned by a major multinational publishing conglomerate?

The answer will be exactly the same as it would be for an attorney taking a claim by a person injured in an auto accident. “Is there insurance? How much?”

Debbie Driver who works at the local Walmart all week, then goes out and gets together with her girlfriends on Friday night to talk about what jerks their ex-husbands are and get drunk together is not likely to be able to pay a jury verdict when she slams into a school bus bringing the band home from a football game. (Ditto for Darrell Driver).

Debbie or Darrell may well be able to file for bankruptcy, discharge the claims of all their creditors, including the people in the car they ran into on their way home from the bar, and go on with their lives, likely keeping most or all of their personal property.

If the band members want any money, they’d better hope there’s a big auto liability policy floating around somewhere. Unless there is, even if some of the parents of the band members have enough money to pay an attorney to sue Debbie, they’re unlikely to collect enough to pay their attorney’s fees, let alone damages for their children’s injuries, medical bills, etc.

In a former life, when PG practiced retail law, on more than one occasion, he had to tell a prospective client not to hire him to sue someone who had carelessly done something that harmed them because whatever he was able to collect wouldn’t be worth his client’s money or PG’s time.

Back to the calculus of someone suing an author for damaging their reputation, causing them emotional distress, etc. While it is possible to purchase liability insurance for this type of claim (an author’s home or auto policy won’t cover it), such insurance is expensive and only J.K. Rowling can afford to buy it.

Who’s the deep pocket that makes a lawsuit worth while? Hachette, Penguin Random House, et al. Since they published the book, it is quite likely they will bear responsibility for any damages their publication caused.

A concept usually described as “joint and several liability” means that if more than one person or entity harmed someone by their act, it’s not up to the person harmed to figure out who to sue for how much. The individual who was harmed is able to sue everybody and collect some or all of any judgment the court grants from any of the defendants who have the bucks or the property to pay the judgment. It’s up to the defendants to fight among themselves if one defendant is required to pay more damages than might be the case if a lot of the fault for the damaging act was really caused by something someone else did.

So, the bottom line is that, if a book is factually wrong regardless of whose fault the error is or what the publishing contract between the author and the publisher says, a lawsuit that would likely never be filed at all if the author had self-published the erroneous book will be filed if Simon & Schuster is on the hook for damages.

Additionally, it’s quite likely that Simon & Schuster, etc., has liability insurance to cover such claims, albeit with a very large deductible. It is not unusual for commercial liability policies to include a provision and permits the insurance company to sue anybody (Hello, again, author!) to recoup part or all of the money the insurance company paid to resolve a claim against the insured.

But, of course, everyone knows that smart and talented authors always work with a traditional publisher, the bigger, the better. The only reason not to do so is if they can’t write well enough to catch the fancy of an agent who, in turn, catches the fancy of an acquiring editor, etc., etc.

PG apologizes for going into full blather mode. He blames Covid.

A number of intelligent and experienced attorneys visit TPV on a regular basis. In addition to the comments of anyone else, PG invites those attorneys to clarify, expand upon, correct, etc., etc., any of PG’s thoughts or simply share their own thoughts on the OP.

Printer Jam: Serious Supply Issues Disrupt the Book Industry’s Fall Season

From The New York Times:

This spring, when the pandemic forced bookstores across the country to close and authors to cancel their tours, many editors and publishers made a gamble. They postponed the publication of dozens of titles, betting that things would be back to normal by the fall.

Now, with September approaching, things are far from normal. Books that were bumped from spring and early summer are landing all at once, colliding with long-planned fall releases and making this one of the most crowded fall publishing seasons ever. And now publishers are confronting a new hurdle: how to print all those books.

The two largest printing companies in the United States, Quad and LSC Communications, have been under intense financial strain, a situation that has grown worse during the pandemic. LSC declared bankruptcy in April, and the company’s sales fell nearly 40 percent in the fiscal quarter that ended June 30, a drop that the company attributed partly to the closure of retailers during the pandemic and the steep fall of educational book sales. In September, LSC’s assets will be put up for auction. Quad’s book printing business is also up for sale; this spring, the company had to temporarily shut down its printers at three plants due to the pandemic.

At the same time, there has been a surprising spike in sales for print books, a development that would normally be cause for celebration, but is now forcing publishers to scramble to meet surging demand. Unit sales of print books are up more than 5 percent over last year, and sales have accelerated over the summer. From early June to mid-August, print sales were up more than 12 percent over the previous 10 weeks, according to NPD BookScan. The surge has been driven by several new blockbuster titles, including books by Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, John Bolton and Mary Trump. Publishers have also seen an unexpected demand for older titles, particularly books about race and racism, children’s educational workbooks and fiction.

“The infinite printer capacity hasn’t been there for a while, now enter Covid and a huge surge in demand, and you have an even more complex situation,” said Sue Malone-Barber, senior vice president and director of Publishing Operations for Penguin Random House, which is delaying titles at several of its imprints as a result of the crunch.

The backlog at the printers is creating havoc for authors and publishers. Reprints for books that are selling well, which normally take two weeks, are sometimes taking more than a month.

. . . .

Print runs for new titles are getting squeezed and pushed back. Carefully calibrated publication schedules are being blown up as books are moved into late fall and even next year.

Knopf and Pantheon are shifting the release of more than a dozen fall titles, including a memoir by the cookbook author Deborah Madison and a biography of Sylvia Plath, due to “severe capacity issues with our printing partners.” The imprints are also delaying fiction by Robert Harris, Martin Amis, Jo Nesbo, Alexander McCall Smith and Tom Bissell, whose story collection, “Creative Types,” is being bumped to 2021.

The reshuffling is impacting prominent, award-winning authors and first-time novelists alike. Doubleday has postponed the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick’s forthcoming book, “Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and

America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World,” until February of next year.

St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan, pushed back “Tsarina,” a debut novel by Ellen Alpsten, from October to November, a month many publishers had been avoiding because of the election.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to DM for the tip.

Powell’s ditches Amazon, and says quitting the tech giant is like kicking a smoking habit

From Business Insider:

Powell’s, one of the largest and most iconic independent bookstores in the US, is ditching Amazon. 

CEO Emily Powell wrote in a letter to customers on Wednesday that the bookstore would no longer be selling its wares on Amazon’s marketplace. Powell’s was founded in 1971 and takes up an entire city block in Portland, Oregon. 

“For too long, we have watched the detrimental impact of Amazon’s business on our communities and the independent bookselling world. We understand that in many communities, Amazon — and big box retail chains — have become the only option,” Powell wrote.

“And yet when it comes to our local community and the community of independent bookstores around the U.S., we must take a stand. The vitality of our neighbors and neighborhoods depends on the ability of local businesses to thrive. We will not participate in undermining that vitality.”

. . . .

Like many retailers that primarily rely on in-person shoppers, independent bookstores have struggled in recent months. Early on in the pandemic, prominent bookstores — including Powell’s — were forced to lay off or furlough employees as they fought to stay in business. 

At the same time, Amazon prioritized shipments of essential goods like medical supplies and household cleaning products that were in high demand due to pandemic concerns. To make up for lost sales on Amazon, Powell’s began refocusing on customers coming to its own website, Powell told CNBC. 

Powell said that Amazon’s marketplace was “hard to give up, sort of like smoking” given that the e-commerce giant has historically been a “big sales generator” for the bookstore.

Link to the rest at Business Insider

PG notes that, if Powell’s was dissatisfied with Amazon, the Portland bookstore could have stopped selling books through the Big A without a huffy public announcement.

Anyone is free to stop doing business with Amazon for any reason or no reason, but cutting ties and trashing Amazon doesn’t strike PG as a particularly classy move.

As PG has mentioned before, Amazon is very popular with a great many people, particularly when Amazon has provided important products during Covid when, in many places, Amazon was the only source for such products because physical retail outlets were closed.

If you hang with Big Publishing and its crew long enough, you’re liable to catch a bad case of stupid.

Free Speech Absolutism Killed Free Speech

From The Wall Street Journal:

Conservatives calling for more free speech as a way to push back against campus cancel culture are trying to repair the stable when the horses bolted long ago. It may seem reasonable to think academic diversity and open debate can counter progressive groupthink, but the intolerance prevailing on college campuses isn’t the result of too little speech. It’s a consequence of too much speech.

Older conceptions of free speech are present in texts stretching back to Plato, but the modern form of the idea is the creation of John Stuart Mill. In “On Liberty” he posited a kind of reverse Gresham’s Law of ideas: Good ideas, he argued, inevitably drive out the bad ones in the court of educated opinion.

Mill believed we are better off giving a platform to the “heretic”—his term—for two reasons. First, he might be right. Second, even if he is wrong, the exercise of combating his bad opinion strengthens society’s capacity for reason and healthy argument. The heretic should never be pressured out of the public square, Mill argued, no matter how many times his views have been refuted in the past. In the spirit of open inquiry, everyone should have a voice.

Mill’s free-speech absolutism has been a guiding light for universities for many decades. But in imagining we could cultivate thoughtful citizens by exposing them to a bazaar of competing ideas and ideologies, we ironically encouraged the decline of truth-seeking itself. As the political theorist Willmoore Kendall predicted in the 1950s, a community that treats every idea as ultimately refutable will eventually conclude that no real truth exists. And once that happens, he reasoned, a formerly “open society” will “overnight become the most intolerant of possible societies and, above all, one in which the pursuit of truth . . . can only come to a halt.”

When no dogma can finally be put to rest, it becomes easier—almost obligatory—to do whatever we like. Ideas are evaluated, not based on their reasonableness or coherence, but by how much they tickle the ears of the in-crowd. Harder truths become offensive. The only intolerable citizen, in such a regime, is the one whose belief in truth compels him to attack beliefs he believes to be false even if his attacks disturb the equanimity of the establishment. His criticism becomes too hurtful—even a form of “violence.” For the safety of the community, he must be cast out.

I once worked at a university that hired a scholar with widely published opinions on bioethics. During an introductory lunch, a faculty member took issue with his position against human cloning, in particular his concern that bereaved spouses might one day clone their lost partners and bring up the replacements, raising the specter of incest. “What’s wrong with incest?” this faculty member asked. “I can’t believe,” our new scholar replied, “I have to explain to an educated adult what’s wrong with incest.”

He didn’t last long in the job.

. . . .

We’re seeing free speech driven from campuses, in other words, because our unthinking commitment to it has kept us from constraining radicals who use their classrooms and administrative perches to persuade the young that freedom is a fiction. These ideologues have a chokehold on our universities and many other institutions. They have no interest in the principle of free speech, and we’re wasting time trying to get them to abide by it.

Consider how even the University of Chicago—birthplace of the 2014 “Chicago principles,” affirming the importance of open debate—has bowed to anti-free-speech fervor. Two years ago, the university that once famously extended free speech to an actual Nazi allowed radical faculty members to obstruct Steve Bannon from speaking on campus, claiming his words were dangerous to students.

The solution is not to issue more bromides about the importance of free speech. It’s to take the principle itself more seriously. Mill believed heretics should be heard, not put in charge of classrooms and permitted to create despotic speech codes. Everybody should be allowed to express his views, but that doesn’t require us to empower and elevate people who would afford themselves the right to speak and take it from everybody else.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Note that PG doesn’t agree with everything he posts on TPV and PG doesn’t want to see TPV turned into a political blog. There is no shortage of those to be found elsewhere.

However, PG doesn’t need to remind visitors that freedom of speech is essential to authors.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of nations around the world where someone can get into serious trouble over something they have written.

Nonfiction, and the Past as ‘a Foreign Country’

From Publishing Perspectives:

Nonfiction publishing is often perceived by the outside world as somehow more predictable and less risky than fiction.

It’s certainly the case that betting on untried novelists is very high-risk. It’s even the case that lashing out large advances on established writers carries a degree of risk, should the writer have a declining fan base or say something to upset a special-interest group.

While some areas of nonfiction appear to be risk-free, it’s remarkable how often that’s only an appearance. The reality is that nonfiction is just as risky as fiction, just as hard to predict, and just as affected by vogue, trends, and demographics.

Per the opening line of LP Hartley’s 1953 The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But perhaps we can learn something from the past while we look to the future and try to discern how the publishing landscape might be once the clouds of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic have cleared.

. . . .

The first lesson comes from two of my ancestors.

Garment manufacturing in Clapham Square, London, 1910. Image by Toby Charkin, provided by Richard Charkin

One owned a wedding dress factory in Margaret Street, which was then the clothing district of London. The other oversaw the manufacture of underwear and dresses in Clapham Square for the city’s burgeoning middle class. The business principle that guided them both was, “The one who makes the most money is the one who is first out of a fashion craze—not the first in.”

The same might be true in nonfiction publishing.

. . . .

The first book craze I can remember was for illustrated nostalgia. Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady . . . was the front-runner, followed by Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.  They sold in their hundreds of thousands of units by satisfying a desire to enjoy what appeared to be a simpler and more perfect world.

Of course, publishers being the owners of excellent rear-view mirrors, they piled into the genre until the profit was eviscerated.

And there was the computer books boom of the 1980s: Fortran, Cobol, and all that.

. . . .

Right now, there seems to be an unquenchable thirst in the English-speaking world for books on politics, political scandal, and racial inequality.

. . . .

The overdue realization that health really matters will ensure that governments will prioritize the funding of primary and secondary health care, public health, and communication with the general public.

I suspect that there will be growing demand in digital and print for reliable and comprehensible information, formerly known as popular medicine.

In addition, we’ll see renewed research activity into all aspects of infectious disease and epidemiology with consequent growth in high-level open-access research and review publications. The distinction between general public, professional, and research information about health will narrow as more people want to know more about their own health—and as more professionals understand the need to communicate outside their own specialist communities.

. . . .

In this age of uncertainty, people will turn to books about happiness, de-stressing, self-awareness, empathy, and human interaction. “Mind, body, spirit” will emerge as a major genre, challenging even the dominance in British bookshops of celebrity-led cookery books.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Most Common Reasons Authors Fail To Publish Their Work

From Digital Pubbing:

There were more than 45 thousand writers and authors working to make a living in the United States in 2019. That’s a lot of people pursuing their passion.

Unfortunately, despite an increase in the number of people exploring the world of writing work, there are still a lot of writers who struggle to achieve success. There’s more to reaching your goals than writing something and publishing it on one of the many online channels that exist today.

. . . .

We all have issues with self-esteem from time to time. We ask ourselves if we’re knowledgeable enough to create something that people want to read. However, if you want to succeed as a writer, you’ll need to find a way to rediscover that confidence.

If you don’t believe you have what it takes, you’re never going to reach your goals. It’s up to you to convince everyone, from your publishers and investors to your future readers, that you’re definitely worth their time.

If you’re struggling to keep a grip on your confidence, consider making a list of all the things that you have to offer, from expertise to unique insights. Reflect on this when your self-esteem drops.

. . . .

Understanding the market is critical in any profession. You need to know exactly who you are selling your skills to so that you can prepare to speak their language. Before you start writing, evaluate your audience, and create user personas.

. . . .

Having a good view of your audience as you’re writing will improve your chances of reaching your reader on the right level. At the same time, knowing your audience well should help you figure out how to present your new book to your customers.

. . . .

Although you can’t necessarily rely on someone to prepare you for everything that might happen on your journey, a mentor can assist with some essential navigation.

Link to the rest at Digital Pubbing

The battle for Iwo Jima

There was reason to believe the battle for Iwo Jima would be even more ferocious than the others, reason to expect the Japanese defender would fight even more tenaciously.

In Japanese eyes the Sulfur Island was infinitely more precious than Tarawa, Guam, Tinian, Saipan, and the others. To the Japanese, Iwo Jima represented something more elemental: It was Japanese homeland. Sacred ground. In Shinto tradition, the island was part of the creation that burst forth from Mount Fuji at the dawn of history…. the island was part of a seamless sacred realm that had not been desecrated by an invader’s foot for four thousand years.

Easy Company and the other Marines would be attempting nothing less than the invasion of Japan.

James Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima

‘Twilight of the Gods’ Review: A Blood-Soaked Peace

From The Wall Street Journal:

A tale-telling axiom holds that complex narratives—whether from a writer’s quill, the pulpit or a Hollywood storyboard—are best broken into threes. From Sophocles to Coppola, the trilogy has thrived as a means to carve an enormous meal into manageable courses.

World War II, history’s most complex bloodbath, often seems to require such treatment, and over the decades the war’s two billion individual stories have been compiled into dozens of memorable (and not-so-memorable) three-volume sets. The best known of recent threepeats is Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy,” a brilliant study of the U.S. Army in the Europe and the Mediterranean. James Holland (“Normandy ’44”) has released two of his three volumes on the Anglo-American war against Germany, and for the hard-core history geek, David M. Glantz offers a three-part deep dive into the Stalingrad campaign. Novelist James Jones (“From Here to Eternity”) drew the Pacific War’s thin red line through three volumes, while respected historian Richard B. Frank (“Tower of Skulls”) recently launched his first of three volumes on the Asian-Pacific struggle. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Frank’s series will rise to the level of Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War trilogy, now capped by “Twilight of the Gods.”

Mr. Toll, who has spent his literary career chronicling the U.S. Navy, built a solid foundation for the war’s final act in the first two volumes. The opening work, “Pacific Crucible” (2011), spanned the Navy’s disaster at Pearl Harbor to its redemption at Midway. The second installment, “The Conquering Tide” (2015), spotlighted America’s hard-won education in amphibious landings, from the six-month charnel house of Guadalcanal to the red-tinged tides of Guam. In “Twilight of the Gods,” he carries the reader through the war’s violent death rattles, spanning Peleliu to Okinawa.

The Pacific War’s complexity—and brutality—resist detailed depiction. The 8,800-mile American odyssey from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay was dominated by saltwater, airstrips and islands few had heard of before 1941. Chinese, Dutch, Australians, Indians, Filipinos, British, Burmese and New Zealanders played major supporting roles in a conflict we often think of today as “U.S. versus Japan.” Setting the table of personalities, objectives, resources and innovative weapons systems is an immense job for any historian.

. . . .

As his narrative rolls through the Philippine Sea, Peleliu, the Philippine islands, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Mr. Toll introduces the reader to America’s battle captains of the waves. Adm. Raymond Spruance, commander of the Fifth Fleet, was an eccentric thinker who delegated nearly everything to his subordinates. “Spruance did not fit the conventional mold of a wartime fleet commander,” Mr. Toll writes. “He was aloof, introverted, and monkish. . . . On an average day at sea, Spruance paced for three to four hours around the forecastle of the Indianapolis while dressed in a garish Hawaiian floral-print bathing suit, no shirt, white socks, and his regulation black leather shoes.” Yet, he continues, Spruance’s “insistence upon delegating authority down the line of command tended to bring out the best in subordinates.” Because Spruance’s résumé included spectacular victories at Midway and the Philippine Sea, Roosevelt would tolerate eccentricities.

Third Fleet’s Adm. William Halsey, nicknamed “Bull” by the press, jumps off the pages as an instantly likeable, Pattonesque leader whose reputation was cemented with his victory at Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history. “He was a profane, rowdy, fun-loving four-star admiral who laughed at jokes at his own expense and fired provocative verbal salvos against the enemy.” His rapport with the press would yank him out of trouble on more than one occasion and propel him to the rank of five-star fleet admiral.

. . . .

Mr. Toll’s interest in the evolution of weaponry dots the pages of “Twilight of the Gods.” The big Essex-class aircraft carriers and their unruly children, Hellcat fighter-bombers, play critical roles, as does the ultimate piece of the war’s power game: the atomic bomb. Doppler radars, proximity fuses, air-dropped mines and napalm raise the curtain on modern warfare. Carrier combat, no longer the “whites of the eyes” affair of 1941, morphed into a long-range campaign in which, Mr. Toll notes, “often the crews of the ships did not even lay eyes on a hostile plane.”

Yet on the ground Marines laid eyes on many enemies, human and natural. On Peleliu, a wasteland Mr. Toll compares to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor, “clouds of large greenish-blue flies fed off the unburied dead and tormented the living. Sudden torrential rainstorms came in the late afternoon, and sometimes at night. There was no escape from the relentless artillery and mortar barrages.” Worse horrors faced the doomed enemy: “When the guns paused, the marines could hear wounded and dying Japanese crying out in the night. Often they cried for their mothers, as did dying men of all races.” Of the cave-dwelling Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima, he writes: “The noise and blast concussions took a steady toll on their nerves, and many were reduced to a catatonic stupor. Their subterranean world grew steadily more fetid and unlivable. There was no way to bury the dead, so the living simply laid them out on the ground and stepped around them. The stench was unspeakable.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

World War II in the Pacific theater covered almost unimaginable distances, particularly for the world of the early and mid-1940’s.

The OP mentions the distance from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Tokyo as 8,800 miles (not in a straight line, presumably following the sequence of the location of major battles). For comparison’s sake, the distance from London to Moscow is approximately 1500 air miles. London to Shanghai via a direct flight is approximately 5700 air miles. New York to Tokyo via a direct flight is approximately 6700 air miles.

All through World War II, the only way to transport large numbers of soldiers or any significant amount of military equipment from the US to the site where needed was via ship. Most of the ships used for this purpose were a variant of the Liberty ship.

A Liberty ship cruised at about 11 knots (a bit less than 13 miles per hour). The distance between San Francisco and Honolulu is about 2400 miles. The trip took more than a week via Liberty ship. The distance between Honolulu and Manila is about 5300 miles. That trip took about 2.5 weeks. The potential for enemy submarine or air attacks that required evasive maneuvers added even more time.

The same distances were also covered while delivering massive amounts of military equipment, supplies, ammunition, food, etc., etc., etc., necessary for the Marines, troops and sailors to live and wage war on the ground, at sea and in the air.

Since virtually all of the Pacific war was waged from island to island, everything and everyone had to be put back on ships, taken to the location for the next battle and unloaded once again. This process was repeated many times.

Vivian Stephens Helped Turn Romance Writing Into a Billion-Dollar Industry. Then She Got Pushed Out.

From Texas Monthly:

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the near impossibility of visiting Vivian Stephens in person, I’m not sure I would have been so attuned to her voice. It is gay and mellifluous; she always sounded delighted to hear from me, a reaction most reporters are not accustomed to. But there was something else: she answers questions about herself not in sentences or paragraphs but in pages, and sometimes even chapters, as if she’s been keeping the whole story of her life in her head, just waiting for someone to ask about it.

. . . .

Stephens is 87 now, under self-imposed lockdown in one of those amenity-rich mid-rise apartment complexes that have sprouted all over Houston, this one just north of Hermann Park, in the Binz area. Her one-bedroom unit is cluttered with papers and stacks of books on nearly every surface. There are many romance novels, yes, as well as more-cerebral tomes such as A Nervous Splendor, a history of Vienna in the late 1880s. Family photographs, some dating back almost to that time, populate a small table in a living room corner.

The most captivating photo, though, is the black-and-white one Stephens has pushpinned to the wall above her computer. Taken in 1964, it shows her poised on the steps of New York’s Lincoln Center wearing a sleeveless sheath dress, hands on her hips, ready to take on the world. 

. . . .

I was calling about the past, not the future. Specifically, an email she had received in May from Alyssa Day, the president of the Romance Writers of America, an organization based in northwest Houston, not too far from the white and wealthy exurb of Champions. Stephens had been instrumental in founding that group back in 1980.

What is this? Stephens thought to herself when she saw the email, which asked, politely and respectfully, if it would be okay to name the RWA’s highest writing award after her because her “trailblazing efforts created a more inclusive publishing landscape and helped bring romance novels to the masses,” as the press release would later put it.

Well, this is interesting, was Stephens’s next thought.

She wouldn’t put it this way, but it was kind of like getting an email from an old boyfriend who was now trying to make amends. It wasn’t that there was bad blood between Stephens and the RWA—she’d never admit to that, anyway—but there was some hurt that dated back to when she had felt disappeared by the organization.

The timing of Day’s email wasn’t incidental. The RWA had been embroiled in a bitter, and at times very public, racism scandal for much of the previous year. A skeptic might suggest that, good intentions aside—and there were good intentions—the Vivian award could be viewed as just another way to sanitize prior bad behavior on the part of the RWA. Stephens had to decide—again—whether to let bygones be bygones after a forty-year relationship that had been, in its way, a romance, albeit a difficult one.

So Stephens was uncharacteristically ambivalent about the RWA’s offer. After some thought, however, she wrote back to say that she would be honored. And then, being Vivian Stephens, she couldn’t resist adding a metaphorical flourish to the statement they requested. She cited an astrophysicist who explained that as stars explode, they produce the magical, mystical remnant that is stardust. “Since we all live in the universe it is well worth remembering that underneath the outer dressing of ethnicity, color and gender, we are all the same,” she wrote. “Showered with the gift of stars.”

. . . .

Romance writing has always been easy to laugh at, at least for the uninformed. You might imagine that these stories mostly involve a castle on the Scottish Highlands, inhabited by a restless warrior wearing nothing under his kilt. Or maybe you picture the broad and bare-chested phenom Fabio, taking time out from piloting his Viking ship on the high seas to attend to a buxom and bound captive down below.

But if this is your vision of the romance-writing world, you might have missed its evolution into a billion-dollar-a-year business. In 2016 romance made up 23 percent of the overall U.S. fiction market, and the net worth of some of its writers exceeds that of John Grisham (see Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel). According to Christine Larson, a romance expert and journalism professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, 45 percent of the romance writers she surveyed made enough to support themselves without a day job—“that is shocking for any group of writers,” she said—and thanks mainly to their embrace of digital publishing, 17 percent make more than $100,000 a year. Not Mark Zuckerberg money, but far more than the $45,000 median income of American working women.

That legitimacy is due in many ways to the vast social changes of the past several decades. Once upon a time, many romance writers—and their readers—were middle-aged, white stay-at-home moms who got their hair done in beauty parlors. But those women, who were often looking for relief from the doldrums of vacuuming and child-rearing, were more recently joined in the field by trial lawyers and anthropologists and social workers—professional women of all races and creeds—who were themselves looking for a creative outlet away from the pressures of family and career.

As more women joined the workforce, earned their own money, put off marriage (or dumped their loser husbands), and got on the Pill, a different kind of romance writer emerged, one less interested in emotional, sexual, and financial rescue than in self-respect and free will. The books they wrote reflected their world, even if writers set their works in Victorian England or the antebellum South. “If you look at romance now, it’s very much reflective of the current moment,” said Steve Ammidown, an archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Browne Popular Culture Library, which houses an enormous romance collection, including many papers from the RWA and more than forty romance authors.

Whatever controversies are being sorted out in the larger world have also been grappled with in romance novels, sometimes even before the larger world knew what was coming. “The RWA is a microcosm,” said the romance writer LaQuette, one of many who voiced this opinion.

Today, romance novels involve just about any combination of protagonists imaginable. There are books for every color of the human rainbow, every ethnicity and sexual orientation, every religious affiliation—and not just Jewish or Muslim, but Amish too. There are erotic romances for those who are gay, straight, and transgender. There are paranormal romances. Cowboy romances. Romances between humans and space aliens. Romances for those with autism.

Romance is a whole industry, with its own academicians, like Laura Vivanco (Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political Fiction), and its alternative historians, as evidenced by Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. There are influential blogs with names like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and popular podcasts like Fated Mates, which, according to its Apple Podcasts description, “highlight[s] the romance novel as a powerful tool in fighting patriarchy . . . with absolutely no kink shaming.”

Despite all the changes, the foundation of romance writing remains the same, perpetuating the fantasy that women can find true love, at least for a while (if not an HEA—Happily Ever After, in Romancespeak—then an HFN, Happy for Now). “This type of narrative, by women for women, is the only space where women can seek joy and triumph on the page,” explained Rodale. “We don’t get these stories from Hollywood; they are not in the news; we don’t get them in literary fiction. In literary fiction women have sex and die. In romance they have good sex and live happily ever after.”

Of course, the inhabitants of Romancelandia, as they call their imaginary homeland, still suffer plenty of contempt at the hands of outsiders. The source of this contempt, they say, is that (1) women are still not taken seriously by men and, often, one another; (2) women writers are not taken as seriously as men writers; (3) women who write expressly about romance are not taken seriously unless they’re named Jane Austen; and (4) women who write about sex are really not taken seriously, because that would be way too scary for a lot of men and women.

Those backward ideas help explain why, when a public scandal rocked the RWA late last year, major news outlets were only too happy to cover the story. “Racism Dispute Roils Romance Writers Group,” declared the New York Times. The feminist website Jezebel weighed in with “Inside the Spectacular Implosion at the Romance Writers of America.” The Houston Chronicle: “As racism scandal escalates, Romance Writers of America board president resigns.” Vox: “The influential trade organization Romance Writers of America is tangled in a web of racism accusations, power grabs, and shadow plots.”

But this news wasn’t really news. It has long been an open secret—certainly among women of color—that romance publishing has a race problem. A 2014 survey of four thousand romance writers conducted by Larson revealed that authors of color earned about 60 percent less than white writers. In 2019, research conducted by the Ripped Bodice, in Los Angeles, one of the few bookstores in America to sell romance exclusively, revealed that only 8 percent of leading romance publishers had released novels by women of color. And, not incidentally or coincidentally, the membership of the RWA is 86 percent white, according to the latest data. No Black writer had won a RITA—formerly the RWA’s highest honor—until 2019, and not for want of trying.

Of course, it has also long been an open secret that publishing in general has a race problem. A 2019 diversity survey found that the industry—publishing companies, book reviewers, agents—is 76 percent non-Latino white (compared with 60 percent of the total U.S. population). The self-examination that started years ago with young adult fiction has spread, after the killing of George Floyd in May, to far more esoteric and elitist groups like the Poetry Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle. Over the summer, some concrete changes occurred, with the appointment of two women of color, Dana Canedy and Lisa Lucas, to head the major publishing houses Simon & Schuster and Pantheon Books.

But by that time, the romance industry had already had its own reckoning—several, in fact. This spring, the RWA emerged from the ashes of its 2019 scandal with a new board dedicated to diversity and inclusivity and righting the wrongs of the past. Shortly thereafter, the email arrived in Vivian Stephens’s in-box.

The promise of transformative change leaves Stephens understandably dubious. No one knows better than she that the issues that threatened to destroy the RWA go all the way back to its beginning.

The first newsletter from the Romance Writers of America, featuring Stephens’s headshot, published February 15, 1981.
Romantic Times Collection/Browne Popular Culture Library/Bowling Green State University

Link to the rest at Texas Monthly and thanks to Krista for the tip.

PG found the OP to be a very interesting and informative read. The subject of the article, Vivian Stephens, had many accomplishments, but one PG hadn’t known about was that she was one of the main forces behind the creation of the RWA.

Reading the OP is highly recommended.

Walking

During lunch, PG was complaining to the saintly and supremely-patient Mrs. PG about the shut-in world of Covid. We talked about how much we really missed walking.

As a general proposition, PG loves to walk around cities. He enjoys walking in the country, forest, etc., but he grew up in places where non-urban walking was the only option. When he was first on his own in a large city, Chicago, he loved to walk, sometimes during the day and sometimes at night.

Chicago taught country-boy PG that some city places change their character at night, but, fortunately, he avoided any consequences other than becoming exceedingly uncomfortable and quickly reversing his path to return to a better locale.

However, PG digresses.

While PG has had many wonderful experiences walking around American cities, his two most-favorite cities in which to walk are located in Italy – Florence and Venice. (Oxford would rank #3, so it’s not all about Italy. He further casts no shade on Paris, London, Amsterdam or Athens.)

Among the digital files scattered through the darkness amid the spider webs of PG’s hard drives, here is a photo from Florence.

Florence is full of many spectacular architectural and artistic treasures, but, on the theme of walking through a city, PG took this photo early in the morning while wandering around.

This was on a little square not far from the Basilica di Santo Spirito and the Arno River, which runs through the center of the oldest part of Florence, often regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance.

On the right, you can see a bit of an open air restaurant, in the process of being set up for the day. The man bending over appears to be the owner of the restaurant and the other man, standing beside a small truck seems to be waiting, perhaps for the manager to sign a receipt for various food items that the waiting driver has just delivered to the kitchen.

One of the wooden doors on the left is the entrance to a small shop located next to the restaurant and the other appears to lead to stairs going up to two or more floors of apartments above the restaurant.

Behind the bent-over man, you’ll see another man in a white undershirt who has the look of a cook, standing in a doorway leading into the main restaurant, checking out the scene on the square prior to beginning a long day’s work in a hot kitchen.

The sidewalk, built from stones, has been freshly washed, perhaps by the restaurant owner or maybe the cook, in preparation for later in the day when servers bringing various hot meals from the kitchen to outside diners under the awnings will be dodging through crowds of shoppers, locals and tourists.

Above the sidewalk, you’ll observe some spontaneous power lines reaching from the restaurant to the covered outdoor dining area. In the United States, those might be buried, but few sidewalks in the US are made from thick stones.

Looking further into the distance, on the right, above the awnings, you see a typical Florentine apartment building. Down the street, an Italian Lotto sign, a couple of bicycles and a line of cars jammed onto a narrow Florentine street built of stone long before automobiles were even imagined. Behind the cars, you’ll see an old residence with typical Italian shutters that may well have been built in the 17th century.

In the far distance, you see a line of Tuscan Cypress trees typical of any part of Florence where there is room for landscaping.

You can see these Tuscan Cypress trees in the following image of Florence, created by Alessandro Cecchini during the 1700’s.

The Risky Writing Life

From Publishers Weekly:

It might seem that writers live pretty safe lives. Yes, there are some, mostly journalists, who immerse themselves in troubled and war-torn countries, and they can and do get hurt. But most of us who write sit at keyboards or notepads every day and create stuff—poems, plays, stories, essays—mostly from our heads.

Still, though we may be safe from physical harm, all of us who write know that every hour we devote to our notepads or keyboards, every moment we stop and think and dwell on the thoughts and ideas that will, in one way or another, find life on a page or computer display, involves a variety of potentially monumental risks. There’s financial risk, risk of never getting published, risk of bad reviews, risk of making enemies of those about whom we write. And there is no risk greater for a writer than emotional risk—which is why writing one’s memoir is ultimately the riskiest of all.

Think about the writer’s life. Whether we write for an hour or eight hours every day, whether we write before sunrise or late into the night after the kids have been tucked into bed, we are often toiling in limbo and with ongoing hope—and doubt. “Will I get it right?” we wonder. “And how long might that take?” It is all so isolating. It is not as if we can discuss our writing with friends and colleagues and neighbors. Talking about what we are writing, the essence of what we are trying to say, can and often does leave us empty when we eventually sit down to write it.

. . . .

Writing is often spontaneous. Ideas are inspired by the sheer act of writing—even if we are writing our own histories. Sometimes it works. But mostly, alas, it doesn’t—not the first time or the second time or even the third time. Or the first month or year. We do it again and again, relentlessly, sentence after sentence, after paragraph after page, fighting the frustration and our demons, as well as the fear of failure.

When writing a memoir, the risks we take at the keyboard are only the beginning. What will our friends think? Will our family members object to the way we’ve described and judged them, or disagree with the way we remember incidents? Maybe some will think less of us based on the stories and the truths we tell. Or maybe they’ll question or criticize our decisions—how we behaved, how we parented, how we brought problems on ourselves. This can be frustrating and downright embarrassing.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The unrelenting vision of Lucian Freud

Perhaps a writing prompt or an idea for some character traits.

From Prospect Magazine:

Towards the end of his life, Lucian Freud attended the 80th birthday party of a friend, where a little girl was told not to touch him. “I’m not an object,” he protested. Perhaps she’d mistaken him for one of his portraits, because over the previous decades no artist had been better at manipulating canvas and paint to give the illusion of real human bodies, stilled lives. Everything about a self-portrait like Reflection (1985), from its intent pink-rimmed eyes to the shiny patch on its forehead, makes it look as if it is not a painting but a person, who is on the verge of leaning out of the frame to touch the viewer—though whether to kiss them or headbutt them it is hard to say.

. . . .

Some models failed to return once they realised that, although Freud was fascinated by their bodies, their own names would never appear in any catalogue or gallery; they were merely a way for the portrait to achieve its own form of independent life. Others had to accept that he was going to depict what he really saw rather than perpetuate a more flattering public image of them. Supermodel Kate Moss was painted while she was pregnant, and at the base of her real spine Freud tattooed her with two swallows set like inverted commas. (“An original Freud,” she boasted, adding that if the modelling work dried up “I could get a skin graft and sell it.”) A small portrait of the Queen was commissioned after Freud was awarded the Order of Merit in 1993, capturing a face that appeared to be at once eminently practical and unexpectedly fond of sly jokes. (Both of these characteristics were revealed when the Queen was reported to have said that she stayed as silent as she could during the sittings, “Because when he talks he stops painting.”)

. . . .

Alongside these star models there were ordinary people like the picture framer Louise Liddell, painted as Woman Holding Her Thumb (1992). She once cursed God for her fat ankles, whereupon Freud said “I thank God for them.” There were also plenty of approaches from strangers volunteering their services. “A man wrote to me and said, ‘I’m sure you’d like to paint me because I have no ears, despite which I’m a vicar,’” Freud told Feaver. And of course there were chance encounters with potential models he spotted in bars or clubs, such as a “rather amazing girl with a sore part under her nose as if she’d been up to something,” whom Freud thought that getting to know would be “rather exhilarating.”

Link to the rest at Prospect Magazine

Supply issues will disrupt the fall season

From Nathan Bransford:

Pandemic-related capacity issues at printing companies are wreaking havoc on publishers’ fall schedules. The crunch has, ironically enough, been exacerbated by a surge in print sales and underinvestment in printing infrastructure in anticipation of increasing adoption of e-books. Reprints for hot-selling books now take a month or more and publishers are pushing back publication dates.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Scammers Impersonating Major Publishing Houses

From Writer Beware:

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scammers impersonating reputable literary agents. These are not isolated incidents: I have a growing file of reports and complaints about this growing phenomenon–including from writers who’ve lost large amounts of money.

Now publishers are being impersonated as well. Here are a couple of examples of the kind of thing I’m seeing.

Here’s the pitch one author received from “Michael Smith” of “HarperCollins” (see the email address):

To pass the “1st stage of the acquisition” of their book, and move on to “an exclusive contract,” the author had already been persuaded (by “agent” Arial Brown, who is as fake as this offer) to hand over more than $8,000 for a new website and YouTube video. Now, in order to proceed to the next stage, they must shell out still more cash for “Developmental Editing and Content Editing.” But not to worry–all that spending is in aid of big rewards down the line:

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

PG had to talk a would-be author down from pursuing a scam like this.

If the excerpts above raised any more scammer red flags, they could be mistaken for Chinese New Year on Tiananmen Square

Bad Practices, Good Practices, Best Practices

From David Farland, Story Doctor:

I was speaking with Forrest Wolverton about a writer we both knew who “couldn’t seem to write.” He’d written well before, but now just wasn’t getting the words on paper. He felt blocked. Forrest asked him to remember back to times when he had written easily three years earlier, and he described how he would sit down with a cup of coffee, open his word processor, and then begin to compose.
However, he’d changed his routine back then. He’d decided that he would check his email before writing. So before he began to write, he checked his email. Then he’d go on Facebook, since he often had messages there. Then he’d “play a videogame for a bit.”

Therein we found the problem. This string of behaviors that delayed his writing actually ended up sabotaging him.

He’s not alone. I know one New York Times bestseller who recently told me that he had gotten addicted to a videogame that cost him three years of his life. Another one spent eight hours a day on social media. A third drank beer after beer while waiting for inspiration.

It seems that all of us, from time to time, can fall into bad habits. Most people with bad habits don’t publish often. But just because you don’t have terrible habits, doesn’t mean you’ll do well. Some people who manage to write consistently at a high level still don’t have stellar careers.

. . . .

I ask our authors about their writing practices, how they publish, and what works for them. Sometimes it has surprised me to find one author’s indie tactics have worked at all. There are more ways to make a living in this business than I imagined. As I listen to their publishing methods, I’ve discovered that nearly all of them—and nearly all of us, I’m sure, fall short of our potential. Authors typically find a way to write and sell books, and then they settle in at that plateau.

I’ve sometimes suggested things the author could do to boost his or her sales, but many feel they are already working about as hard as they want to.

It raises a question: Are you satisfied with doing what works, or would you prefer to change a little and do what works best?

For example, instead of opening your email before you write, could you wait for three hours and do it on a break (setting a time limit to answer)? Instead of just putting your books up on Amazon and advertising to your mailing list, would you consider some targeted ads that might double your income?

Link to the rest at David Farland, Story Doctor

Green Eggs and Shoes: Dr. Seuss Licenses Footwear

From Publishing Perspectives:

Kust when you thought it was safe to step out in your new Vans National Geographic sneakers without fear of being out of date, the Dr. Seuss empire is ready to put you on a different path with a new collection licensed to Skechers.

As the Seussians like to say, the Skechers people are “stepping into the iconic world” of Theodor Geisel. No need to tiptoe around the obvious metaphors, right?

The characters laced up in the new line of Skechers are from The Cat in the Hat. And, like the National Geographic kicks at Vans, these Seuss slippers are made for both children and adults who hope that walking in whimsy might offer traction on the slippery slope that is 2020.

In describing Skechers’ rationale, the company’s president, Michael Greenberg, starts with the obvious, saying in a prepared statement, “Dr. Seuss is one of the world’s biggest cultural icons—read, shared and celebrated by millions since the 1950s.”

Greenberg gets closer to the actual issue, then, saying, “We’ve taken our most popular footwear styles and infused them with Dr. Seuss’s one-of-a-kind designs, delivering the unique charm that only he [the late Geisel] can offer—even creating matching pairs that parents and their kids can wear together.”

. . . .

And as it turns out, branding specialists are fond of shoes not least because, as Emma Bedford wrote at Statistica in July, the American consumer averages US$392 on footwear over the course of a year. The biggest age demographic for the popularity of shoes, the report tells us, is 35 to 44 years. Much of the trend is concentrated across the age breaks of 25 to 54—lots of those folks old enough to know Seuss, right?

As we know, Seuss Enterprises is an expansive juggernaut of rights and licensing, most recently, as we reported, going into Slovenia, Albania, and Germany with new and/or broadened licensing agreements.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG noted that the publisher of The Cat in the Hat, Penguin Random House, may not be the one doing the licensing (and receiving the licensing fees). Per the OP, licensing is conducted by “Seuss Enterprises” (formally, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.)

Per the Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. link above:

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a leading children’s entertainment company committed to care taking Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) legacy, ensuring that each generation can experience the amazing world of Dr. Seuss. Established in 1993 and based in San Diego, CA, the company’s global portfolio complements the roster of iconic Dr. Seuss books, and includes films, TV shows, stage productions, exhibitions, digital media, licensed merchandise, and other strategic partnerships. Ted Geisel once said he never wanted to license his characters to anyone who would “round out the edges” – a guiding principle at Dr. Seuss Enterprises. For more information about Dr. Seuss and his works, visit seussville.com.

Science Fiction Epics That Transcend the Moment

From The Wall Street Journal:

Science fiction can be hard to disentangle from the real world. Futuristic tales about advanced technology and clashing alien civilizations often read like allegories of present-day problems. It is tempting, then, to find some kind of political message in the novels of Liu Cixin, 57, China’s most famous science fiction writer, whose speculative and often apocalyptic work has earned the praise of Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. The historian Niall Ferguson recently said that reading Mr. Liu’s fiction is essential for understanding “how China views America and the world today.”

But Mr. Liu insists that this is “the biggest misinterpretation of my work.” Speaking through an interpreter over Skype from his home in Shanxi Province, he says that his books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages, shouldn’t be read as commentaries on China’s history or aspirations. In his books, he maintains, “aliens are aliens, space is space.” Although he has acknowledged, in an author’s note to one of his books, that “every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it,” he says that he writes science fiction because he enjoys imagining a world beyond the “narrow” one we live in. “For me, the essence of science fiction is using my imagination to fill in the gaps of my dreams,” says Mr. Liu.

In China, science fiction has often been inseparable from ideology. A century ago, early efforts in the genre were conspicuously nationalistic: “Elites used it as a way of expressing their hopes for a stronger China,” says Mr. Liu. But the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution banned science fiction as subversive, and critics in the 1980s argued that it promoted capitalist ideas. “After that, science fiction was discouraged,” Mr. Liu remembers.

In recent years, however, the genre has been making a comeback. This is partly because China’s breakneck pace of modernization “makes people more future-oriented,” Mr. Liu says. But the country’s science fiction revival also has quite a lot to do with Mr. Liu himself.

In 2015, he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science fiction prize. A 2019 adaptation of his short story “The Wandering Earth” became China’s third-highest-grossing film of all time, and a movie version of his bestselling novel “The Three-Body Problem” is in the works. His new book, “To Hold Up the Sky,” a collection of stories, will be published in the U.S. in October. (His American books render his name as Cixin Liu, with the family name last, but Chinese convention is to put the family name first.)

. . . .

His first book appeared in 1989, and for years he wrote while working as an engineer at a state-owned power plant. The publication of “The Three-Body Problem,” in 2006, made him famous, and after a pollution problem shut the plant down in 2010, he devoted himself to writing full-time.

Mr. Liu’s renowned trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” published in China between 2006 and 2010, tells the story of a war between humans on Earth and an alien civilization called the Trisolarans who inhabit a planet in decline. The story begins in the 1960s, in the years of the Cultural Revolution, and eventually zooms millions of years into the future. The aliens’ technological superiority and aggressive desire to exploit Earth’s resources have made some readers see them as a metaphor for the colonial Western powers China struggled against for more than a century. But Mr. Liu says this is too limited a view of his intentions. What makes science fiction “so special,” he says, is that its narratives often encourage us to “look past boundaries of nations and cultures and races, and instead really consider the fate of humankind as a whole.”

The English version of “The Three-Body Problem,” the first book in the trilogy, differs from the original in a small but telling way. In this 2014 translation, the story begins with an episode from the Cultural Revolution, in which a character’s father is publicly humiliated and killed for his “reactionary” views. The translator Ken Liu (no relation to the author) moved the scene to the start of the book from the middle, where Mr. Liu admits he had buried it in the original Chinese because he was wary of government censor

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Identifying Your Character’s Primary Attribute

From Writers Helping Writers:

When I think about some of my favorite protagonists, I can usually identify a trait that defines each one:

Sam Gamgee: Loyalty
Anne Shirley: Impulsivity
James T. Kirk: Boldness

However, if each character was made up of only that one trait, they probably wouldn’t make many “favorites” lists because they’d be paper-thin—caricatures, rather than characters with depth and nuance. Real people are complicated and deep, embodying more than one quality. And so must our characters be if they’re going to draw readers in through authenticity and relatability.

However, by including too many traits, you run the risk of creating a character who’s all over the map and doesn’t ring true. So how do we create multi-dimensional characters who make sense to readers? For simplicity’s sake, I’d like to focus today on how to accomplish this in regards to a character’s positive attributes (although this process also apply to flaws).

First, identify your character’s positive traits. Though there could be dozens, narrow the list down to the dominant ones—no more than five or six. Let’s use our beloved Captain Kirk as an example.

Along with boldness, he also exemplifies loyalty, daring, decisiveness, extroversion, and charm. But focusing on so many traits can make for a scattered character with hard-to-define motivations and emotions. To avoid this, look at your short list of traits and determine which is your character’s primary one. This is the attribute that will drive his choices. It is often also tied to his moral and ethical beliefs, his sense of right, wrong, duty, and worth. 

. . . .

Once you’ve figured out your character’s primary attribute, show that trait to the reader. Whenever your hero is faced with a choice, that trait should push him to a decision. 

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

An AI Breaks the Writing Barrier

From The Wall Street Journal:

Word has been making its way out from the technology community: The world changed this summer with the rollout of an artificial intelligence system known as GPT-3. Its ability to interact in English and generate coherent writing have been startling hardened experts, who speak of “GPT-3 shock.”

Where typical AI systems are trained for specific tasks—classifying images, playing Go—GPT-3 can handle tasks it was never specifically trained for. Research released by its maker, San Francisco-based OpenAI, has found that GPT-3 can work out analogy questions from the old SAT with better results than the average college applicant. It can generate news articles that readers may have trouble distinguishing from human-written ones.

And it can do tasks its creators never thought about. Beta testers in recent weeks have found that it can complete a half-written investment memo, produce stories and letters written in the style of famous people, generate business ideas and even write certain kinds of software code based on a plain-English description of the desired software. OpenAI has announced that after the test period, GPT-3 will be released as a commercial product.

The name stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer, third generation. Like other AI systems today, GPT-3 is based on a large, organized collection of numeric weights, known as parameters, that determine its operation. The builder of the AI trains it using large digital data sets—in this case, a filtered version of the contents of the web, plus Wikipedia and some others. The number of parameters is a key measure of an AI model’s capacity; GPT-3 has 175 billion, which is more than 100 times that of its predecessor, GPT-2, and 10 times that of its nearest rival, Microsoft’s Turing NLG.

. . . .

I copied and pasted the first paragraph of George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address: “The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.”

GPT-3 gave me its translation: “I am not going to run for president.” Take a bow, HAL 9000.

I got similarly cogent summaries when I entered the First Amendment and other sources. I wondered whether GPT-3 was simply lifting language from websites, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that.

Yet when I gave it the famous first line of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—the AI was puzzling to watch. In the course of my first four tries, a few of its answers were sort of in the ballpark without being quite right. (For instance, “A man with a lot of money must be looking for a wife.”) Then on my fifth try, it seemed to crack up: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man with a good fortune must be in want of a wife, because men are very vain and they want to be seen as wealthy, and women are very greedy and they want to be seen as beautiful.”

. . . .

If the price is right, there’s a good chance that GPT-3 will make major changes in our working lives. For a range of knowledge workers—news reporters, lawyers, coders and others—the introduction of systems like GPT-3 will likely shift their activities from drafting to editing. On the plus side, the biggest barrier to getting work done, the tyranny of the blank paper or the blank screen, may become much rarer. It’s simple enough just to keep clicking GPT-3’s “generate” button until something halfway usable appears.

The tyranny of the blank screen, though, forces us to think through a problem in a way that editing does not. Human nature probably means that people will often be more intent on massaging an AI’s output to the point that it looks acceptable than on doing their own work to sort through ambiguous data and conflicting arguments. Like GPS navigation, which started as just a tool but has reduced our engagement with the act of navigating, AI language generators may start by sparing us labor but soon spare us thought. (With regard to possible misuse, a representative of OpenAI told me that it bans uses of GPT-3 that may cause harm, including harassment, spamming, deception or radicalization.)

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

The Physical Traits That Define Men and Women in Literature

From The Pudding:

My book club was reading The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. In the middle of an otherwise unremarkable plot, we found a 35-page interlude about a highly attractive fairy, describing her body in minute, eye-rolling detail.

After slogging through that book, I began paying attention to similarly stereotyped descriptions of bodies in other books. Women are all soft thighs and red lips. Men, strong muscles and rough hands.

I was frustrated by this lazy writing. I want to read books that explore the full humanity of their characters, not stories that reduce both men and women to weak stereotypes of their gender.

Before getting too upset, I wanted to see if this approach to writing was as widespread as it seemed, or if I was succumbing to selective reading. Do authors really mention particular body parts more for men than for women? Are women’s bodies described using different adjectives than those attributed to men?

. . . .

Before we get into the results of the data analysis, let’s play a game to see how well you recognize gendered descriptions.

Here are several character descriptions from actual books. For each one, select whether you think it describes a man or a woman. 

(Screen Grab Only – The OP shows a series of images which you can associate with gender and gives you a score.)

We all have a mental model of how men’s and women’s bodies are described. People who answer the above quiz, on average, guess the correct gender 88% of the time.

Men and women do tend to be described in different ways. Let’s explore those trends more deeply through the data we collected.

. . . .

In other cases, that gaze is more lascivious. Consider this litany of woman-skewed body parts: hip, belly, waist, and thigh.

You don’t need a Bible verse to imagine why these might come to mind more easily for a woman than a man.

. . . .

Some of my absolute favorite books growing up were the Harry Potter series. I particularly identified with Hermione Granger, a bushy-haired know-it-all, just like me.

Hermione’s friends didn’t consider her beautiful until the fourth installment in the series, when she tamed her hair with magical products.

When I read this as a preteen, I felt embarrassed by my own curly head of hair. I’d absorbed the idea that “bushy” was not an attractive way to be described, especially for a woman.

Link to the rest, including many other hand-drawn illustrations, at The Pudding

A Feud in Wolf-Kink Erotica Raises a Deep Legal Question

From The New York Times:

Addison Cain was living in Kyoto, volunteering at a shrine and studying indigenous Japanese religion. She was supposed to be working on a scholarly book about her research, but started writing intensely erotic Batman fan fiction instead.

It happened almost by accident. It was 2012, and Ms. Cain — who grew up in Orange County, Calif., under a different name — was three years out of college, alone abroad with a lot of time on her hands. Her command of Japanese was halting, and English titles in bookstores were wildly expensive. So Ms. Cain started reading things she could find for free online, and soon discovered fanfic — stories by amateurs that borrow characters and plots from established pop-cultural franchises.

Ms. Cain began devouring works set in the world of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. She decided to write some of her own, featuring Batman’s nemesis Bane as a sexy antihero, and posted them for free online. She quickly developed a fan base, becoming something of a star in her sub-subgenre.

A few years later, she was living in Arlington, Va., and working as a bartender when she began to wonder if she could turn her hobby into a business. Her husband and parents discouraged her from pursuing something so impractical. Agents were equally dismissive, rejecting or ignoring Ms. Cain’s queries for more than a year. Then, a fellow writer helped Ms. Cain send a manuscript to Blushing Books, a small publishing house in Charlottesville. An editor read it overnight and sent her a contract the next day.

In the spring of 2016, she published “Born to Be Bound,” an adaptation of her fanfic. The story takes place on a future earth where most of humanity has died from a plague and survivors live under a dome, divided into a wolfpack-like hierarchy of dominant Alphas, neutral Betas and submissive Omegas. A powerful, brutish Alpha named Shepherd takes an Omega woman named Claire captive, and they engage in rough, wolfish sex.

Ms. Cain’s fans posted nearly 100 positive reviews on Amazon, enough to get her some visibility. “Unapologetically raw and deliciously filthy,” read one glowing blurb. The debut was a hit. She rushed out several more titles, and the series grossed some $370,000, according to her publisher.

For the next two years, Ms. Cain published at breakneck speed, producing a novel every few months by repurposing her older fan fiction, keeping her books in the algorithmic sweet spot of Amazon’s new releases and turning herself into a recognizable brand. “Dip your toes into the erotica pool,” she said on a 2016 sci-fi and fantasy podcast. “There’s nothing to do here but make money.”

Then, in 2018, Ms. Cain heard about an up-and-coming fantasy writer with the pen name Zoey Ellis, who had published an erotic fantasy series with a premise that sounded awfully familiar. It featured an Alpha and Omega couple, and lots of lupine sex. The more Ms. Cain learned about “Myth of Omega” and its first installment, “Crave to Conquer,” the more outraged she became. In both books, Alpha men are overpowered by the scent of Omega heroines and take them hostage.

. . . .

Ms. Cain urged Blushing Books to do something. The publisher sent copyright violation notices to more than half a dozen online retailers, alleging that Ms. Ellis’s story was “a copy” with scenes that were “almost identical to Addison Cain’s book.” Most of the outlets, including Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Apple, removed Ms. Ellis’s work immediately. Ms. Cain’s readers flocked to her defense. “This is a rip off of Addison Cain,” one irate reader wrote on Goodreads. “So disappointed in this author and I hope Mrs. Cain seeks legal charges against you for stealing her work! Shame on you!”

It’s hard to imagine that two writers could independently create such bizarrely specific fantasy scenarios. As it turns out, neither of them did. Both writers built their plots with common elements from a booming, fan-generated body of literature called the Omegaverse.

The dispute between Ms. Cain and Ms. Ellis is a kink-laden microcosm of tactics at play throughout the fanfic industry. As the genre commercializes, authors aggressively defend their livelihoods, sometimes using a 1998 law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to get online retailers to remove competitors’ books. When making a claim, a creator must have a “good faith belief” that her ownership of the work in question has been infringed.

But what does that mean when the ultimate source material is a crowdsourced collective? The question has members of the Omegaverse community choosing sides between Ms. Cain and Ms. Ellis — as will a federal judge in Virginia, who is considering whether the allegations, and the consequences, merit a payout of more than a million dollars.

. . . .

While some traditional authors have derided fan fiction writers as creative parasites, there isn’t really any way to stop them. Such works are legal as long as writers post them for free and don’t try to sell stories based on copyrighted material.

But too much money was at stake for the genre to remain amateur forever. E L James’s blockbuster series “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which sold more than 150 million copies, started as fanfic based on Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” vampire saga. By swapping out copyrighted characters for nominally original ones — a practice known as “filing off the serial numbers” — fanfic writers like Ms. James, Christina Lauren and the cheekily named Tara Sue Me have leapfrogged into for-profit publishing.

As more fan fiction writers cross over into commercial publishing, turf wars have erupted. “Fan fiction made authors and publishers realize there was a thriving market for this stuff,” said Rebecca Tushnet, a copyright expert at Harvard Law School. “There’s much more of it, so there’s more opportunity for conflict.”

. . . .

The appetite for such tales is large and growing. In the past decade, more than 70,000 stories set in the Omegaverse have been published on the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own. As it became more popular, the Omegaverse transcended individual fandoms and became an established genre on its own.

Writers began publishing Omegaverse stories with original characters and settings, and authors started to publish them for profit. On Amazon, there are hundreds of novels for sale, including titles like “Pregnant Rock Star Omega,” “Wolf Spirit: A Reverse Harem Omegaverse Romance” and “Some Bunny to Love: An M/M MPreg Shifter Romance,” an improbable tale involving an Alpha male who can transform into a rabbit.

This was the thriving commercial backdrop to Ms. Cain’s allegation that Ms. Ellis stole her material. Ms. Ellis thought that the claim was absurd — and was prepared to say so in court.

. . . .

One day last spring, Ms. Ellis met me for coffee at a hotel near Paddington Station. She doesn’t seem like someone who writes dark, edgy, sometimes violent erotica. She’s young, cheerful, and works in education in London, which is one of the reasons she declines to publish under her real name. Most days, she gets up at four in the morning to write, then heads to the school where she works. On her Amazon author page, she describes herself as a “cat mama” who loves “sexual tension that jumps off the page.”

Ms. Ellis said she got into fan fiction in 2006. She read stories set in the Harry Potter universe at first, then moved on to other fandoms, including one for the BBC’s “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, that introduced her to the Omegaverse. The genre was unlike anything else she’d encountered. She began dabbling in her own original writing, and in late 2017 began working on the “Myth of Omega” series.

. . . .

“You have to make sure you use the tropes of Omegaverse in order to be recognized by fans of the genre,” Ms. Ellis said. “Crave to Conquer” and its sequel, “Crave to Capture,” were published in early 2018 by Quill Ink Books, a London company she founded. Readers gave the series glowing reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, calling it “sensational new Omegaverse!” and the “best Omega yet.”

In late April 2018, Ms. Ellis got an email from a reader who had ordered one of her books from Barnes & Noble, then learned that it wasn’t available anymore. She soon discovered that all of her Omegaverse books had disappeared from major stores, all because of a claim of copyright infringement from Ms. Cain and her publisher. Ms. Ellis found it bewildering.

“I couldn’t see how a story I had written using recognized tropes from a shared universe, to tell a story that was quite different than anything else out there commercially, could be targeted in that way,” Ms. Ellis said. “There are moments and scenarios that seem almost identical, but it’s a trope that can be found in hundreds of stories.”

A lawyer for Ms. Ellis and Quill filed counter-notices to websites that had removed her books. Some took weeks to restore the titles; others took months. There was no way to recover the lost sales. “As a new author, I was building momentum, and that momentum was lost,” Ms. Ellis said. And she worried that the “plagiarist” label would permanently mar her reputation.

Ms. Ellis decided to sue. “Everything would have been in question, my integrity would have been questioned, my ability to write and tell stories — all of that would have been under threat if I didn’t challenge these claims,” she said.

In the fall of 2018, Quill Ink filed against Blushing Books and Ms. Cain in federal court in Oklahoma, where Ms. Ellis’s digital distributor is based, seeking $1.25 million in damages for defamation, interfering with Ms. Ellis’s career, and for filing false copyright infringement notices. In the suit, Quill’s lawyers argued that “no one owns the ‘omegaverse’ or the various tropes that define ‘omegaverse.’”

Ms. Ellis’s lawyers thought they had a strong position. But they struggled to find a prior case that addressed whether fan fiction tropes could be protected by copyright.

“We were looking at cases to see if the courts had ever dealt with anything like this before, dealing with the emergence of this new literary genre,” said Gideon Lincecum, a lawyer who represents Quill Ink and Ms. Ellis. “We found there weren’t any.”

. . . .

Last year, an author who writes in a popular romance subgenre called “Reverse Harem High School Bully Romance” — a trope in which a teenage female character has several aggressive male suitors — claimed that another author had copied her books, and demanded that she remove them. The accused author briefly removed her work from Amazon, but restored them after consulting a lawyer.

Other authors have tried to use trademarks to go after their rivals. Writers have attempted to trademark generic phrases like “dragon slayer” and even the word “dark.” In 2018, the self-published romance author Faleena Hopkins caused a scandal after she registered a trademark for the word “cocky,” and sent infringement notices to other romance authors who used the word in their titles. Amazon temporarily removed some books, including “Her Cocky Firefighters” and “Her Cocky Doctors.” After suing several people unsuccessfully, Ms. Hopkins backed down.

Like Cockygate, the Omegaverse case reveals how easily intellectual property law can be weaponized by authors seeking to take down their rivals. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, individuals or companies can send takedown notices to retailers as long as they have a good faith belief that their work has been infringed. Retailers are protected from being named in related litigation if they remove the material, and many websites comply with D.M.C.A. notices without even investigating the claims. Legal experts say the system is easily abused.

“We’ve seen lots of examples of people sending D.M.C.A. notices when it’s pretty obvious that they didn’t think there was copyright infringement,” said Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. “There’s not much accountability.”

On May 21, the U.S. Copyright Office released a report detailing how the 22-year-old D.M.C.A. has failed to keep pace with the anarchic digital ecosystem, as online platforms have been overwhelmed by a crushing volume of takedown notices. Between 1998 and 2010, Google received fewer than three million such notices; in 2017, the company got more than 880 million — an increase of more than 29,000 percent, according to the report. Many requests are legitimate, but the report notes that other motives include “anti-competitive purposes, to harass a platform or consumer, or to try and chill speech that the rightsholder does not like.”

Amazon agrees that it’s a problem. As the rise of self-publishing has produced a flood of digital content, authors frequently use copyright notices to squash their competition. During a public hearing hosted by the U.S. Copyright Office in 2016, Stephen Worth, Amazon’s associate general counsel, said that fraudulent copyright complaints by authors accounted for “more than half of the takedown notices” the company receives. “We need to fix the problem of notices that are used improperly to attack others’ works maliciously,” he said.

In the Omegaverse case, Ms. Cain’s claim of copyright infringement against Ms. Ellis has struck some as especially tenuous. “They are not very original, either one of them,” said Kristina Busse, the author of “Framing Fan Fiction,” who has written academic essays about the Omegaverse and submitted expert witness testimony for the case on Ms. Ellis’s behalf. “They both stole from fandom or existing tropes in the wild.”

Intellectual property experts say copyright protection applies to the expression of ideas through particular phrasing, but doesn’t cover literary tropes and standard plot points. The writer of a crime novel, for example, can’t copyright the notion of a body discovered in the first act and the killer getting caught in the end.

But the Omegaverse case is likely the first time these legal arguments have been invoked in a dispute over works that grew out of a corpus of fan fiction generated informally by thousands of writers.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG will note that, both before and after the NYT article was published, a couple of truly nasty lawsuits between the two authors and/or their publishing entities were being fought.

PG will observe that, among lawyers, if litigation of any sort features attorneys being replaced by new attorneys on either or both sides during the litigation, uninvolved attorneys may conclude that the case may be a difficult one for a variety of reasons. Some lawyers, as a matter of general policy, will refuse to accept a case in which prior counsel quit or was fired (assuming that prior counsel is among the few practicing attorneys generally known to be an idiot, a situation which is even more rare than a client wanting to switch legal horses in the middle of a stream).

That said, Ms. Cain was successful in getting the suit filed against her and/or associated entities by Ms. Ellis dismissed.

Here’s a link to Ms. Cain’s story of the lawsuit. In her story, Ms. Cain claims The New York Times did not present the facts behind the dispute with complete accuracy.

PG doesn’t know if Ms. Ellis has made any public comment concerning the disposition of the case. If any of the visitors TPV knows of such a comment by Ms. Ellis, PG would be happy to review it if he receives information about it. The Contact link on TPV is an easy way to send such information to him.

The Vanishing Half Finds an Audience in Turbulent Times

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Vanishing Half,” a critically acclaimed novel about identity and race, is on track to become not just one of the bestselling books of the year, but a 352-page cultural phenomenon.

Initial print sales of the book by Brit Bennett suggest it is becoming a blockbuster with staying power. More than 164,700 print copies have sold since the novel came out in early June, nearly three times the sales of Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing” after its first 11 weeks on the market in 2018 and roughly 17,000 more copies than Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” in the same period after its launch in 2017, according to NPD BookScan.

“It’s the kind of sales pattern you would expect to see from a major brand-name author,” said Jaci Updike, president of sales at Penguin Random House, whose imprint Riverhead Books published the novel. She added that If the book were in paperback right now she probably would be putting it at the checkout line in supermarkets.

Walmart and Target have sold the book online from the start. Both just picked it up to sell in stores, and Costco and Sam’s Club will soon—notable moves by mass-market retailers whose limited shelf space often goes to writers who are already famous.

. . . .

“The Vanishing Half” opens in a 1950s Louisiana town that has cultivated a population of light-skinned Black children. Twin sisters flee for New Orleans and see their paths diverge as adults, one holding onto her African-American identity and returning to the town with a dark-skinned baby, the other passing as white and marrying a rich man who thinks her family is dead. Their daughters, strangers to each other, land in southern California, where they are joined by a cast of characters with split identities, including a drag queen and a trans man.

The book about race and the complexities of identity is cinematic in its storytelling, a work of literary fiction that has made multiple “best of” lists, attracted celebrity fans and become a book-club favorite. It arrived as the pandemic was fueling sales of fiction. And it emerged as a touchstone during a national reckoning with racism and white privilege, when people were putting books front and center as a source of greater understanding.

Ms. Bennett has yet to see her novel in a bookstore—she hasn’t set foot in one since the coronavirus lockdowns began. Given the pandemic, the 30-year-old author who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., at first worried no one would notice the book. Then the Black Lives Matter protests hit—her book was released on June 2, the same day people posted black squares on Instagram in solidarity against racial injustice and police brutality—and the thought of promoting it felt grotesque to her.

At the same time, readers were hungering for a voice like Ms. Bennett’s. The novel, her second, debuted at the top of the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, one of the few works of adult fiction by a Black woman to do so in recent years. HBO paid seven figures for the screen rights in a 17-bidder auction, with Ms. Bennett signed on to executive produce a limited series.

. . . .

In his review for The Wall Street Journal, critic Sam Sacks wrote: “My hope is that the warranted praise Ms. Bennett receives for this novel will have less to do with her efficient handling of timely, or ‘relevant,’ subject matter than for her insights into the mysterious compound of what we call truth: a mixture of the identities we’re born with and those we create.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street: The Costs of Humor in the USSR

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

“IF THEY COME for me, I won’t give you up. I won’t tell them what happened in this room.” Vasily Babansky let out a sigh and locked eyes with the four young men around him. It was February 1940 and 18-year-old Vasily had become increasingly sure that the NKVD was closing in on him.

The silence hung thickly in the air, so at odds with the laughter they usually shared here. The five students were gathered together in their usual haunt — one of the dormitories at the Zoological Institute in Stavropolsky District, southwestern Russia. The door was locked, as it always was when they wanted to speak freely, but now the bolt seemed woefully inadequate. If the NKVD was coming for them, all they could rely on was silence and their loyalty to one another.

Silence would be a problem, though. They’d have to tell the NKVD something if they were arrested; Stalin’s secret police didn’t take “No” for an answer. Aleksandr Mitrofanov proposed they should tell the truth, but not the whole truth — they would come clean about anything they’d said or done in front of witnesses at the Institute, “but keep quiet about what went on in our room,” recalled another of the students, Pavel Gubanov.

They all solemnly agreed, and then Mitrofanov rushed off to find the poem he’d written criticizing the Soviet regime. He was proud of his work, and the group had hoped to make anonymous copies and spread them across campus. Instead, after relocking the door behind him, he would ritualistically read the poem aloud one last time to his comrades, then set the paper alight and watch the flames consume his words.

It would be another 11 months before the NKVD descended, but when they did, the lives of these young men would be torn apart. Despite their earnest pact not to inform on each other, in the end they had little choice. The NKVD has gone down in history for its brutality and willingness to extract confessions by any means necessary. All five would break their vow of silence as the interrogators raked through the ashes of their lives at the Institute. Aleksandr Mitrofanov, Vasily Babansky, Mikhail Penkov, and Pavel Gubanov would all be sentenced for the crime of “anti-Soviet agitation” and for being part of a “counterrevolutionary organization” that, the authorities were sure, was actively plotting the downfall of the Soviet regime. Mitrofanov and Babansky received 10 years, Penkov eight, and Gubanov seven. The fifth man, Damir Naguchev, was for some reason treated with a touch more leniency: he received “only” three years for failing to denounce his comrades.

Locked doors, burnt evidence, and a plan for resisting interrogation: at first glance, it certainly sounds like conspiracy was afoot at the Institute. But if we take a closer look at the evidence left behind in the formerly secret Soviet archives, the fate of these five teenagers reveals a very different story. A story of how, under Stalin, a poem, a few jokes, and five open minds could spell disaster.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

As PG reviewed the OP and thought of a novel he is reading that is set, in part, in the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Red Army Air Forces. One of the characters has to flee from her regiment because her father has been convicted and executed for anti-Soviet, anti-Stalin outbursts and all his family members are to be arrested.

Back to the 588th regiment. This group, which flew all of its bombing missions at night, were called the Nachthexen, or “night witches,” by their targets in the Wehrmacht because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made as they dived into their attacks resembled that of a sweeping broom. There was no other noise because the pilots were instructed to idle their engines at altitude, prior to beginning their bombing glide to drop their bombs on the German troops.

The antiquated bombers, 1920s bi-plane crop-dusters that had been used as training vehicles prior to being repurposed for night bombing were effectively invisible to German radar or infrared defense systems. They were unarmored, built of plywood with canvas stretched on top and most had no guns for defense. Machine guns and ammunition would be too heavy to carry in addition to the weight of a single bomb attached under each wing. Parachutes were also too heavy to carry.

These planes had a top speed of 94 mph and a cruising speed of 68 mph. The most common German fighter plane the Night Witches faced in battle was the Messerschmitt 109, which had a top speed of 385 mph. The maximum speed of the bombers was slower than the stall speed of the German planes, which meant these wooden planes, ironically, could maneuver faster than the enemy, making them hard to target.

The Night Witches continued their attacks through three winters, 1942-43, 1943-44 and 1944-45. Their planes had open cockpits and no insulation. Flying them exposed their pilots and navigators to almost unimaginably bitter cold temperatures. During those Russian winters, the planes became so cold, just touching them would rip off bare skin.

The Night Witches ended the war as the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force.

On average, each pilot/navigator crew flew about 800 missions. For comparison, United States heavy bomber crews flew bomber crews’ obligations were between 25-35 combat missions.

(In fairness, since the Night Witches were stationed at airfields so close to the front lines, the flight time spent on each of their missions was much shorter. Many US crews spent far more time in the air because their missions involved much longer flights to reach their targets. On the other hand, the Night Witches were under direct enemy fire far more frequently, sometimes flying 8 missions in a single night.)

This Is Auto-Tune Typography

From Medium:

A few uppercase words, centred or ranged at the top-left corner of a page, set in the regular weight of any grotesque font. More often than not, it’s black type on white, or the reverse, but colours may appear. Be it an international design exhibition, a show for the Venice Biennale, a new artist-run space or the output of a design school, in recent years our western “art-design” bubble is flooded with similar solutions.

While I was vainly waiting for this trend to slowly fade out, like any other tag on Trend List (which doesn’t list this one), I realised I needed a name to define it and to explain the annoyance I felt about it.

Over time I recognised a similar annoyance when randomly listening to music on the radio, and realised there is an audio equivalent to this typographic sameness: it’s Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune was originally developed as a tool to automatically correct vocal tracks in order to make them sound perfectly in tune, by removing accidental deviations from the melody; as we all know by now, it has turned into the standard voice treatment for a great amount of contemporary pop music productions, and is widespread to the point of being almost impossible to avoid.

Likewise, this default, CAPS-LOCK typographic treatment is largely present in our visual landscape. It can be applied to almost anything, and makes this anything instantly look OK, fit for our times (at least from a designer’s perspective). This is AUTO-TUNE TYPOGRAPHY.

In 1995, on Emigre#34, Mr Keedy wrote a piece titled Zombie Modernism. It Lives!, claiming that “modernism is no longer a style, it’s an ideology, and that ideology is conservatism.” What I’m observing in recent years is not a new personification of that conservative take on modernism: this one is apparently devoid of any ideology, and goes even further in renouncing to visually and typographically articulate a thought.

. . . .

AUTO-TUNE TYPOGRAPHY could be considered as one of the many manifestations of “normcore” or “post-authentic” graphic design, two labels currently used to identify reactions to previous visual trends seeking an idyllic “authenticity”; both labels relate to the concept of “default systems design”, which has been discussed for almost twenty years now.

Link to the rest at Medium

PG will admit that typography can be an art and he has seen some printed books that are beautifully designed.

However, type also has a utilitarian function and PG knows that he’s not the only one to find the presence of strange and unorthodox fonts an off-putting barrier to understanding what has been written. At times, he has suspected the creator of not feeling confident enough in her/his words, sentences, paragraphs and story structure to satisfy the reader’s expectations and has decided to throw in a strange font to liven things up.

PG also notes the OP uses the caps-lock to present AUTO-TUNE TYPOGRAPHY. The title of the OP was also produced with caps-lock, likely a sarcastic typographical comment on the subject of the author’s disdain.

PG substituted initial-caps instead so the post title wouldn’t look amateurish when visitors to TPV encountered the headline under circumstances that didn’t provide the opportunity for them to appreciate the original author’s superior disdain for Times Roman and other pedestrian type styles that are the accepted way of doing things online.

And tend to provide the best reading comprehension results for viewers.

Should a groundswell of demand for creative typography on TPV, PG will consider himself in error and might try to comply. However, the vagaries of various programs and apps used to read web content could easily turn cutsie, ironic and/or witty inside font tricks into a visual dog’s breakfast for most visitors.

(For any who wish to start the journey into the typographic avant garde at no expense, click here to obtain a free font, called Pepper Roman.)