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

From Gizmodo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at Gizmodo

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

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

Summer Book Kit Giveaway at The New York Public Library

From The New York Public Library:

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at The New York Public Library

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

Should Authors Review Books?

From Writer Unboxed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

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

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

As argument for not fighting online, PG would ask,

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

Reading Jane Eyre as a Sacred Text

From The Paris Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Yahoo Finance:

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

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

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

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

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

Still, the road ahead for Jassy will be tough.

The antitrust suits are coming

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

And now the regulators are circling.

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon’s labor relations problem

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at Yahoo Finance

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

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

He will mention a few items:

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

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

The Howe Dynasty

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Cut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at The Cut

Why do so few men read books by women?

From The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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

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

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

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

How Twitter can ruin a life

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

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

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

From Vox:

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

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

Isabel Fall is a ghost nonetheless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The publishing industry experiences good news

From Nathan Bransford:

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

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

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

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

From Forbes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

Link to the rest at Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-publishing

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

From Cory Doctorow:

Publishing is doing great

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

But authorship? Not so great.

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

. . . .

Enter Sam Walton, twirling his mustache

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

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

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

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

Monopolies beget monopolies

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

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

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

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

Health-care-ificatoin of publishing

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

The myth of the benevolent giant

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

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

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

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

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

The writer-friendly mid-tier

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

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

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

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

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

The endangered mid-tier

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

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

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

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

. . . .

Self publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1 bestselling author at Barnes & Noble?

or

#1 bestselling author at Amazon?

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

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

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

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

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

The Missing Men

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

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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

Link to the rest at Statista

The Three W’s of Scene Orientation

From Writer Unboxed:

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

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

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

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

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

Who took action, and who did it affect?

What happened, exactly?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

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

Wait—didn’t you say 3 W’s?

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

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

~or~

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

~or~

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

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

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

Examples from a Master

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

. . . .

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Bookshop.org Continues to See Strong Sales

From Publishers Weekly:

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Faustian Bargain

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Message to Our Community: Our Continued Commitment to Advancing Equity and Justice

From BookBub:

Just over a year ago, the horrific killings of George Floyd and several other Black individuals led to a historic reckoning with systemic racism, prompting people and organizations — including our own — to reflect on how we’re perpetuating such social injustice.

Last June, we shared a message to our community with preliminary thoughts about our shortcomings and initial ideas for how we could effect positive change. Now that a year has passed, we want to hold ourselves accountable to the commitments we made in that message by providing the community with an update on our progress so far.

Reflecting on the commitments we made last year, we’ve made some progress, but not as much as we had hoped, and it’s clear there is much more work ahead. In this message, we share a summary of the work we pursued in the five areas of commitment we outlined in last year’s message as well as our plans to continue and broaden these efforts.

The first commitment we made last year was to audit the books we promote so we could understand our current representation of books by authors of color. This year we completed a preliminary analysis of the books that get submitted to us by our partners and those we select for promotions on BookBub or Chirp. While this audit was imperfect in a number of ways, it gave us a top-level estimate for our current representation rates.

Our audit showed that while our editors selected books by authors of color at the same rate as books by white authors, books by people of color made up less than 10% of our overall submissions, a figure that is well below reflecting the populations of the countries we primarily serve.

While this shortcoming may in some part be due to underrepresentation of published authors of color in the industry as a whole, we know we have a responsibility to address this issue ourselves. As a result, we’ve actively begun exploring ways to both encourage our partners to increase the number of books by authors of color submitted to us and help underrepresented voices be published and read, and we plan to increasingly invest here. We also realized we need a more automated method of auditing the books that we feature so we can track our aggregate progress on an ongoing basis, so we’re investing in ways to do this as well.

Our second commitment was to help break the echo chamber in publishing, the cycle in which the industry publishes and promotes books that are “comparable” to those that have sold well in the past, and tends to favor the same (generally white) authors and types of books that have historically been published and promoted.

This past year we’ve worked on several initiatives to try to push back on this trend, including creating more recurring opportunities to prominently merchandise authors of color on our sites, featuring more authors of color in our blog content, speaking with our publisher partners about their efforts around representation, and discussing ways to evolve our selection process to be based not only on historical performance trends but also on featuring a range of content.

In addition, we’ve started adjusting the way our algorithms surface authors and books to our members to show a more diverse selection of content. One specific change we made over the past year was to adjust our author suggestion system to recommend a larger and more diverse pool of authors that our readers might want to follow. This change has led to a significant increase in the percentage of members following authors of color and will increase the visibility of those authors’ deals, new releases, and other activity. Although improvements like this are small in the grand scheme of breaking the industry’s echo chamber, we’re hopeful that continuing to invest in even minor changes will help us play a part in driving equity and representation in the industry at large.

Link to the rest at BookBub and thanks to D (who wonders how BookBub identifies authors of color) for the tip.

PG also wonders whether BookBub has any processes for determining whether someone who claims to be an “author of color” in order to obtain additional promotion and other benefits from BookBub is, in fact, an author of color.

In the OP at the link, PG could find no definition of “author of color”.

The date of the OP was June 28, 2021. BookBub published an earlier post on the same general topic on June 18, 2020, about a year earlier. The earlier post included the following paragraphs:

Like so many people around the world, our team reacted with horror and despair to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other Black people killed by police or denied swift justice by the state after being killed. These dehumanizing tragedies reinforce much broader statistical data that the U.S. persists in not valuing the lives of Black people as highly as other individuals. Such racial inequity is antithetical to our company values, and our organization fully supports the movement to make sure Black Lives Matter.

This latest string of deaths has led to demands for law enforcement reform, but has also brought about a much needed surge of awareness and discussion around systemic racism, leading so many of us to examine how we as individuals, businesses, and society are empowering the status quo.

Our team is no exception. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been reading, listening, learning, and scrutinizing everything we do as a company, looking for places where we and the publishing industry are perpetuating problems, or where we see opportunities to effect positive change.

. . . .

Are aspects of our book selection process or categorizations stifling Black and other underrepresented voices from gaining a wider audience? Could we be doing more to elevate such voices on our platform, or influence change within the industry to get more voices published and promoted? 

. . . .

 We believe we will do our best by listening to input from our members, authors, and publishers (especially those in our community who are Black or from other underrepresented backgrounds) about how we can make impactful and lasting changes to address systemic racism.

. . . .

Our industry invests most heavily in authors who have historically sold well, or books that the industry feels are “comparable” to those that were popular in the past. This practice reinforces the same (generally white) authors and types of books hitting bestseller charts while Black and other underrepresented voices struggle to get published or earn promotion budgets. We’ve realized our practices can perpetuate this echo chamber since we too decide which books to feature based on historical performance with our audience. We’ve started exploring ways to revamp how we select, categorize, and merchandise our books to break this cycle and start widening exposure for Black and other underrepresented authors. 

. . . .

When we asked ourselves how much we were highlighting books by Black authors or from other underrepresented voices in general, we realized we didn’t fully know because we don’t track metrics on this subject. For an organization that strives to be both inclusive and data driven, not tracking this information is a significant failure. We’ve started working on metrics to quantify author diversity in our book sales and selection process, both to see where we are now as a baseline and to measure the success of our initiatives.

Link to the rest at BookBub

NOTE: PG drafted this post a few weeks ago, but did not put it up, then forgot about it for awhile.

PG is a bit cranky from spending too much time traveling to and from airports and on airplanes during the past several days. He remembers when airlines tried to create a veneer of glamour that accompanied the flying experience and seemed pleased when he showed up at the airport to board a plane.

That is definitely no longer the case. The decline was present before September, 2011, but it has greatly increased since the installation of a great many ill-paid and surly government employees at every airport who change the security protocols every few weeks to keep the terrorists and tourists off-balance.

PG is not 75 years of age, but, after failing one or more security processes at various airports, he was asked if he was 75 years of age (not necessarily the best ego-booster around) on several occasions, Perhaps the airport security theater process may have aged him prematurely.

Evidently, if PG survives to the age of 75, government employees will have a whole new security process for him. Perhaps the new one will be designed to get PG off the Social Security rolls as quickly as possible in addition to catching ancient terrorists.

PG suspects questions like, “How many fingers am I holding up?” and, “What was the make, year and model of the car you were driving during your first drivers license test?” may be added to airport security protocols to make certain that foreign evil-doers disguising themselves as senile men of a certain age don’t blow up airplanes while sitting in coach.

But back to the OP.

If an “author of color” is not expressly defined, PG will argue that he qualifies. Due to a bit of time spent out in the sun, he is a bit brown with darker speckles which appear from otherwise unobtrusive. If he holds his arm up to a sheet on a hotel bed, PG is definitely not white. The sheet is white and PG is a color other than white.

As a person of color, PG strenuously objects to being wrongly classified with persons who have no color. He is simply different from them on a fundamental basis. From the earliest days of his youth, PG’s skin has never resembled a white bedsheet. He loudly contends that spotted tannish lives matter.

Back in the Saddle

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

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

5 Steps to Creating a Unique Character Voice

From Writers in the Storm:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step One: Pick a greeting that reflects their personality.

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

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

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

Step Two: Decide how they answer questions.

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Is the Pirate Queen of Scientific Publishing in Real Trouble This Time?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

It’s been a rough few months for Sci-Hub, the beloved outlaw repository of scientific papers. In January its Twitter account, which had more than 180,000 followers, was permanently suspended. In response to a lawsuit brought by publishers, new papers aren’t being added to its library. The website is blocked in a dozen countries, including Austria, Britain, and France. There are rumors of an FBI investigation.

And yet Alexandra Elbakyan, the 32-year-old graduate student who founded the site in 2011, seems more or less unfazed. I spoke with her recently via Zoom with the assistance of a Russian translator. Elbakyan, who is originally from Kazakhstan, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and coded Sci-Hub herself. She lives in Moscow now and is studying philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Back when she started the site, which offers access to north of 85 million papers, she didn’t expect to be fending off lawsuits and dodging investigations a decade on.

“I thought Sci-Hub would become legal in a couple of years,” she said. “When the laws are obviously in the way of scientific development, they should be canceled.”

. . . .

It hasn’t been that simple. In 2017 a New York judge awarded Elsevier, the multibillion-dollar publishing company behind more than 2,500 journals, a $15-million default judgment against Sci-Hub for copyright infringement. The same year, a Virginia judge awarded the American Chemical Society $4.8 million. (With Elbakyan overseas and Sci-Hub’s financial situation somewhat mysterious, neither publisher is likely to collect a dime.) Courts have repeatedly forced Elbakyan to switch domain names.

The latest lawsuit, filed in India by three academic publishers, including Elsevier, asks the High Court of Delhi to block access to Sci-Hub throughout the country. While the case is pending, the court has instructed Sci-Hub to stop uploading papers to its database. The order is not unusual; what’s surprising is that Elbakyan has complied. She has a history of ignoring legal rulings, and the Indian court has no power over Sci-Hub’s activities in other countries. So why has she chosen, at this moment, to give in?

One reason is that Elbakyan believes she has a shot at winning the case, and her odds might improve if she plays by the rules. “I want the Indian court to finally support free access to science,” she said. If that happened, it would mark a significant victory for Sci-Hub, with reverberations likely beyond India. Victory remains a longshot, but Elbakyan thinks it’s worth the hassle and expense. She didn’t even bother to contest the two lawsuits in the United States.

In coverage of Sci-Hub over the years, Elbakyan is usually cast as an idealistic young programmer standing up to publishers who resell science at a steep markup. There’s some truth to that. Elsevier brings in billions in large part by charging colleges and universities for bundled access to its journals. Those without subscriptions often pay $31.50 for access to a single article. For an independent researcher, or one who works at a small institution that can’t afford to sign a deal with Elsevier, the cost of merely scanning the literature is prohibitive.

And you could argue, as Elbakyan does, that the company’s paywalls have the potential to slow scientific progress. She’s not the only one: More than 18,000 researchers have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier journals because of its business practices.

The other option is to download a journal article’s PDF from Sci-Hub free. About a half-million people each day choose the latter.

Pirates and Publishers

So what’s wrong with using Sci-Hub? According to the publishers who brought the case in India, quite a bit. Pirate sites like Sci-Hub “threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal data,” a joint statement reads. It goes on to say that sites like Sci-Hub “have no incentive to ensure the accuracy of scientific articles, no incentive to ensure published papers meet ethical standards, and no incentive to retract or correct articles if issues arise.”

For the record, there’s little evidence that Sci-Hub is actually a threat to the scientific record. The papers on the site are the same papers you can download through official channels. It’s almost certainly true that articles that have been retracted or corrected remain up on Sci-Hub, but academic publishers themselves have a less-than-stellar record of policing and pruning the literature. Plenty of research that has failed to replicate, or should never have passed peer review in the first place, can be found in Elsevier’s archives.

The charge that Sci-Hub is a threat to personal data stems from Elbakyan’s practice of using, let us say, borrowed logins in order to download papers. That’s necessary because whenever publishers determine that a login is being used to download an unusual number of papers, they cut off access, forcing Elbakyan to constantly seek new logins. She’s done this for years and makes no secret of it. The publishers also allege that she uses “phishing attacks to illegally extract copyrighted journal articles.”

Elbakyan denies employing phishing attacks — that is, sending emails that trick people into revealing their login information — but allows that some of the accounts Sci-Hub has used might have been obtained with that technique. “I cannot check the exact source of the account that I receive by email,” she said. There’s no indication that Sci-Hub is using the logins for some other nefarious purpose.

Even so, courts have found that what Sci-Hub does isn’t legal. The question is whether, in the cause of sharing scientific information, her systematic ransacking of academic publishing is justified. In short, is Elbakyan doing more good than harm?

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Disclosure: A very long time ago, PG spent an unhappy three years working for what is now called RELX , which is the owner of the Elsevier which is the focus of the OP. (Combine Dutch and English top executives and you can come up with some of the most stupid company names in the universe.)

The business in which Elsevier and related companies is massively profitable for the following reasons.

  1. Elsevier and its associated companies obtain valuable intellectual property at no cost.
  2. Elsevier, etc., obtain expert editing and review of valuable intellectual property at no cost.
  3. Elsevier, etc., employees perform the most mundane tasks involved in putting together this free material into printed and (reluctantly) electronic publications for which they charge research academic libraries obscene prices to receive printed copies and access electronic copies of this material.
  4. Libraries at academic research institutions (every major and most minor universities, colleges, schools of law, medicine, etc., plus research institutions, etc.) must have access to this information so their scholars can perform research for a variety of purposes, including, prominently, writing new articles to submit to the editors of Elsevier’s prestigious journals to be considered for publication.
  5. The engine that drives this entire boat is called (at least in the United States) publish or perish. If you wish to move from a lowly graduate student into the world of assistant professors, associage professors, full professors, deans, etc., and have your employment in such roles protected by tenure, you need to publish in the sorts of journals Elesevier owns. The exact same work published via KDP won’t do the job.

By PG’s potentially-blinkered lights, this sort of system is possible because the people paying for these journals and funding the writing and review of the journal articles are spending other people’s money.

There is no direct cost to the dean of a medical school who requires that any candidate for an assistant professorship at the medical school have published a lot of articles in respected medical journals published by Elsevier or similar publishers.

In PG’s mind, there is no reason that an entrepreneurial University president could not start a University publishing organization that operates in the same manner as Elsevier and others do. Harvard University has had its own press for a long time but, to the best of PG’s knowledge, has limited itself to publishing books, not periodicals, The Harvard Business Review, published by the Harvard School of Business, is an example of a prestigious journal published by a private university.

On the law school front, many law schools have published law reviews in which law professors seek to have scholarly publications published. Publications in law reviews satisfy the publish or perish obligations of law professors at a wide range of institutions. One cool feature for law schools is that quite a bit of work on the law reviews is performed by second and third-year law students who have performed well in law school. Indeed, being invited to become a member of the law review’s staff is an important résumé entry for a starting lawyer looking for a job.

Why can’t the medical school and the biology and chemistry and English departments do exactly the same thing? If the Stanford Medical School announced it would be starting a series of medical journals devoted to issues important to a variety of medical specialties and staffing it with the same sort of people Elsevier uses, Stanford publications would very quickly take their place at the top of the journal rankings and receive gobs of submissions from graduate students and professors elsewhere. Stanford could charge others for subscriptions to these publications and substantially burnish the medical school and the university’s already stellar reputation.

Yes, it would cost a university some money to start its own series of professional and scholarly journals, but such publications would allow a university to earn extremely large sums of money that its libraries and the libraries of other colleges and universities pay to Elsevier and its ilk.

Professors at colleges and universities would be happy to scratch each other’s backs by exchanging peer review services for colleagues at other institutions.

PG suspects that the reason that universities do not start these sorts of entrepreneurial ventures goes back to the Other People’s Money problem and a desire for a quiet life.

If others with to comment, criticize, expand, dismiss, etc., etc. PG’s thoughts on this subject, they should feel free to do so in the comments, in their own blogs (hopefully linking back to this post, but PG’s not going to sue anyone who quotes him with or without attribution plus ideas are not protected by copyright laws.)

How Twitter can ruin a life

From Vox:

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

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

Isabel Fall is a ghost nonetheless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Vox

PG wonders why outrage cycles exist and why, with so many intelligent people worried about the damage they cause and the mindless hate they include, we have not discovered a way of short-circuiting them and blunting their impact.

PG wonders why there isn’t an ad hoc anti-outrage group that can leap into action as soon as the beginning of an outrage cycle is detected.

PG doesn’t condone or encourage online bullying, but he can imagine a relatively simple computer script that could fill an outrage bully’s online accounts with so many objections to the wrongful outrage posts/messages that the bully would have more than a little difficulty digging through the incoming objections. Certainly, such action would seem to catch the notice of Twitter, Facebook, etc., etc., that something strange was happening.

An online bully storm seems to be ready to break towards all sorts of different political targets that a reverse anti-bully storm would seem to be equally easy to organize.

Again, PG doesn’t condone group attacks on anyone, but does think that an offender who receives internet-based blow-back for improper attacks on others might be somewhat deterred from conducting further vicious attacks on others.

But PG is a naif about much of this.

The real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war

From The Guardian:

s the car with the blacked-out windows came to a halt in a sidestreet near Tübingen’s botanical gardens, keen-eyed passersby may have noticed something unusual about its numberplate. In Germany, the first few letters usually denote the municipality where a vehicle is registered. The letter Y, however, is reserved for members of the armed forces.

Military men are a rare, not to say unwelcome, sight in Tübingen. A picturesque 15th-century university town that brought forth great German minds including the philosopher Hegel and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, it is also a modern stronghold of the German Green party, thanks to its left-leaning academic population. In 2018, there was growing resistance on campus against plans to establish Europe’s leading artificial intelligence research hub in the surrounding area: the involvement of arms manufacturers in Tübingen’s “cyber valley”, argued students who occupied a lecture hall that year, brought shame to the university’s intellectual tradition.

Yet the two high-ranking officials in field-grey Bundeswehr uniforms who stepped out of the Y-plated vehicle on 1 February 2018 had travelled into hostile territory to shake hands on a collaboration with academia, the like of which the world had never seen before.

The name of the initiative was Project Cassandra: for the next two years, university researchers would use their expertise to help the German defence ministry predict the future.

The academics weren’t AI specialists, or scientists, or political analysts. Instead, the people the colonels had sought out in a stuffy top-floor room were a small team of literary scholars led by Jürgen Wertheimer, a professor of comparative literature with wild curls and a penchant for black roll-necks.

After the officers had left, the atmosphere among Wertheimer’s team remained tense. A greeting gift of camouflage-patterned running tops and military green nail varnish had helped break the ice, but there was outstanding cause for concern. “We’d been unsure about whether to go public over the project,” recalls Isabelle Holz, Wertheimer’s assistant. The university had declined the opportunity to be formally involved with the defence ministry, which is why the initiative was run through the Global Ethic Institute, a faculty-independent institution set up by the late dissident Catholic, Hans Küng. “We thought our offices might get paint-bombed or something.”

They needn’t have worried. “Cassandra reaches for her Walther PPK” ran the headline in the local press after the project was announced, a sarcastic reference to James Bond’s weapon of choice. The idea that literature could be used by the defence ministry to identify civil wars and humanitarian disasters ahead of time, wrote the Neckar-Chronik newspaper, was as charming as it was hopelessly naive. “You have to ask yourself why the military is financing something that is going to be of no value whatsoever.”

In the end, the launch of Project Cassandra saw neither paint bombs nor sit-ins. The public, Holz says, “simply didn’t take us seriously. They just thought we were mad.”

Charges of insanity, Wertheimer says, have forever been the curse of prophets and seers. Cassandra, the Trojan priestess of Greek myth, had a gift of foresight that allowed her to predict the Greek warriors hiding inside the Trojan horse, the death of Mycenaean king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and her lover, the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, and her own demise. Yet each of her warnings was ignored: “She’s lost her wits,” says Clytaemestra in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, before the chorus dismiss her visions as “goaded by gods, by spirits vainly driven, frantic and out of tune”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Where My Money Comes From

From Jane Friedman:

While I’ve often revealed at conferences and workshops where my money comes from—complete with pie charts—I’ve never laid out in writing, at this site, what my earnings looks like. It is perhaps an overdue look, since I reach more people through this blog than I do through speaking engagements.

My 3 key categories of earnings

Most of my income arises from three types of work:

  • Consulting one-on-one with writers
  • Teaching in-person and online
  • Paid writing (newsletters, articles, books) and indirect income from free writing (advertising and affiliate income through my website and newsletter)

Since I started full-time freelancing in 2015, these categories have always remained central, although the mix and character of the work shifts.

What my top-line income looked like in 2016

Here’s what was happening in each of these categories.

  • Online teaching (26%): This includes (1) multi-week workshops I was offering directly, (2) multi-week workshops I was offering by guest instructors (I kept a cut of registration fees), and (3) webinars I taught for other companies, such as Writer’s Digest. While it looks like a healthy percentage of my income, my profit margin was low on courses taught by others.
  • Query-synopsis editing (24%): In 2016, I started attracting a steady stream of clients who were seeking help with their queries and synopses for submission to agents and editors.
  • Consulting (17%): I do two types of consulting: book proposal consulting and one-on-one consulting. It’s all done on an hourly, flat-fee basis, trading money for time.
  • Paid newsletter (12%): In late 2015, I launched a paid email newsletter (The Hot Sheet) with Porter Anderson. This was the first year we had a full year of subscription income, which we split down the middle after expenses. (The profit margin is excellent, about 90 percent.)
  • Freelance writing (7%): This included varied opportunities, including features for Writer’s Digest magazine. I also initially counted The Great Courses income under this, because it literally required me to write 100,000 words in three months. (I had to write the script for the course, then deliver on camera.)
  • Affiliate income (6%): I’m an Amazon affiliate and also started affiliate arrangements around 2016 with Teachable and Bluehost. I don’t work for this money; it’s passive income.
  • Book sales (5%): This is all income from Publishing 101, which I self-published in late 2015.
  • Conference speaking (3%): Some people think I get paid the big bucks for speaking. I do not. It represents the smallest of my revenue streams in 2016. But speaking (especially in person) is important for visibility and trust. It’s also critical for me to remain in touch with real writers’ everyday concerns, plus I get to hear and learn from other experts in the community.

If I combine these into my three main areas of income:

  • 41% one-on-one work (consulting and editing)
  • 30% writing (affiliate income goes in here since it’s powered by my writing and blogging)
  • 29% teaching and speaking

What my top-line income looked like in 2020

You’ll notice one big change here!

Here’s what was happening in each of these categories. And note that 2020 was the first full year that my husband joined the business as a full-time employee.

  • Online teaching (48%): In fall 2019, I began hosting my own webinars because I now had someone who could help with post-production and customer service. Some webinars I teach myself and others feature guest instructors. This move proved fortunate when the pandemic rolled around. I keep 50 percent of the net for webinars taught by guest instructors. I still continue to teach for a range of organizations and companies, so that’s still included here as well.
  • Query-synopsis editing (12%): I stopped taking on this work in the middle of 2020 to open up more room in my schedule for writing work. I still offer a query letter master class, though—that income now falls under online teaching.
  • Consulting (16%): In 2020, I was still accepting one-on-one consulting clients and book proposal clients. In 2021, I now accept only book proposal clients in an ongoing effort to pull back some of my time for writing (or at least make consulting time more profitable).
  • Paid newsletter (16%): I am now the full owner of The Hot Sheet. While this percentage doesn’t look much increased despite me now taking 100% of the net, it’s not because the subscriber base didn’t grow. Rather, it’s a reflection of how much the other areas of my business have grown—namely online teaching. Also, if this were a profits chart, not a top-line revenue chart, the paid newsletter would represent a bigger proportion of the pie.
  • Book sales (3%): This is income from Publishing 101, my Great Course, and The Business of Being a Writer.
  • Conference speaking (3%): This includes some virtual conferences and would’ve been more had it not been for the pandemic. (I’m not complaining, though! I needed to get off the travel wagon for a while.)
  • Advertising (2%): I recently started accepting advertisers in Electric Speed, my free newsletter.
  • Affiliate income (1%): Amazon has reduced its affiliate marketing payouts over time, and I’m more often linking to Bookshop—which simply doesn’t bring in as much income. (But one feels better linking to it.) I’ve also stopped actively engaging in or seeking affiliate marketing, not because I’m against it, but frankly I have a lot of other things I’d rather do.

If I combine these into my three main areas of income:

  • 51% teaching and speaking
  • 28% one-on-one work (consulting and editing)
  • 22% writing (advertising/affiliate goes here since it’s powered by my writing)

Yes, I realize this adds up to 101%. What can I say? My spreadsheet rounded things up.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG really likes Jane’s flexibility. She isn’t afraid to modify her work emphasis as market conditions and her personal desires change.

A handful of people stumble on a magic formula that works over and over again so long as they just keep repeating the same effort over and over again.

However, very few businesses are that predictable and unchanging over a long period of time.

Technology changes, what people want and are willing to pay for changes, etc., etc., etc.

For PG, this is one of the great weaknesses of the wash, rinse, repeat mindset of traditional publishing. They really, really want to keep doing things the way they did them before. Paying someone a few thousand dollars to run a social media promotion for a book is regarded as a big creative move (in an age where teens can become social media stars with a new angle and a new attitude and use their fame and followers to build a commercial business from scratch.

If you really don’t want to change, putting a new coat of paint on the old machine won’t fool anybody outside of your closed little world.

The #OwnVoices Conundrum

From Publishers Weekly:

I was straight for part of my life. Most gay people were, at least when I was growing up. I kissed some boys and worried about finding a date to prom, all the while falling headlong for my friends who were girls. I thought everyone felt this way—at least until one of my crushes broke my heart so thoroughly that I had to reconsider my assumptions.

Then I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and the scales fell from my eyes. Simply put, since I had never been exposed to an alternative, I had reversed the definitions of like and love in my mind. It was 1992 when I figured that out; I was 17, and I flipped through the card catalog at my local library in suburban Chicago, desperate to find books about me so I could wrap my brain around this change in circumstances and maybe figure out how to envision my own future.

In case you were wondering, the pickings at the Libertyville Public Library were slim.

Since then, there’s been a fairly miraculous change in the world around me—first in representation of the LGBT+ community on film and in print and then in authentic stories finding greater purchase in publishing through the #OwnVoices movement. What I love about #OwnVoices is that people are starting to catch up (admittedly, not without some backsliding) with the very true idea that minority stories of all different types are relevant to everyone. At their foundation, stories transport, educate, and cradle us. Storytelling has always been a critical part of being human, and diverse storytelling is a critical part of crafting a global society that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.

I believe there’s been wide benefit from the #OwnVoices movement—both for writers finding outlets for their work as well as for readers who now have a much richer selection of stories available to them. I find it interesting, then, that the We Need Diverse Books organization has decided to stop using the #OwnVoices term. In a recent blog post, WNDB says it sees #OwnVoices as having become a “ ‘catch all’ marketing term” and is moving to particularize (and personalize) authors more in its descriptions. Bitch Media also ran an extensive article about the problems with this approach to promoting diversity and authentic storytelling.

But have we, in our push for progress, fallen into an unexpected trap?

I’ve been resistant to categorization my entire life (which, believe me, has not been easy for my parents). I splash around in the deep end of gray areas and kind of love that I’ve left a long trail of confounded people in my wake. I’ve had a career in technology for a quarter century, very often as the only woman on my team. I wear men’s clothes, do most of the cooking in my house, have a well-used sewing machine that’s almost as old as I am, and, okay, I get man crushes sometimes. So, as much as I’ve appreciated (and benefited from) the #OwnVoices label, labels in general make me suspicious.

The beauty of fiction is that it has always gone beyond the lived experience of the author: that’s what research is for, what networks are for, and how sensitivity readers can help. I write literature that explores love, family, and friendship, and I’m committed to writing authentic characters with universal experiences. After a lifetime of living in a world that either wasn’t quite sure what to do with me or was downright hostile, I don’t want to be boxed in with my art. I also don’t want a stupid hashtag to provide cover for inauthentic, substandard writing acquired to fill quotas or facilitate marketing and sales.

I want diversity in storytelling to be celebrated and promoted no matter who is writing, which requires much more than a hashtag; it requires diversity within the ranks of people in power—the gatekeepers, the tastemakers. It requires us all to try hard to put ourselves into other people’s shoes and challenge ourselves to deeply understand and empathize with a variety of experiences. Frankly, it requires more (and more delicate and thoughtful) work than I suspect most people want to put in.

Publishing is a business, and business thrives on formula, efficiency, and succinct and compelling marketing. But publishing is also a conduit for art, which means that everyone in it, writers included, needs to be held to a higher, more exacting standard. There are important stories to tell—stories that can bring us together and illuminate dark corners.

Maybe #OwnVoices isn’t the best solution to this, but bringing diversity and authentic voices to a broader audience has never been an easy problem to solve, and I’ve learned to take what I can get without stopping my push for something better.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly