Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Joy Of The Contest

Goodreads is a great place to find free books, given away by publishers who are promoting a new title. For the publisher, it's a marketing angle that puts prose in the hands of readers who have friends who read and trust the reviews of others. Word of mouth sells more books than a print advert.

But there are those who are not avid readers. They are avid contest entering sorts, people who want to win prizes. It does not matter what it might be, and if it is something that can be turned into ready cash, so much the better.

Books can be turned into cash if you aren't looking for a big payout. Used book sellers buy paperbacks to be sold to recyclers in need of pulpable material that can in turn be made into new paper. Maybe it's a dollar or two, but it's real money that takes no more effort to acquire than trolling through the list of giveaways at Goodreads and clicking on everything.

How does Goodreads determine who to send a publisher's free books to, in that case? Does it make sense to reward those who have no intention of reading, let alone reviewing the book?

It seems to be happening.

Newcastlewest Books ran two promotions for our newest work, SAINTS OF THE NEW IRISH KITCHEN. Ten books were shipped off to winners, but the great majority of those winners had no books on their lists. Not a single review given. Not a single book read.

Just a lot of entries for giveaways, every day, day after day.

As a publisher, we wasted our time, effort and money to generate a little buzz about a witty bit of women's fiction. Without some reviews on a site where a lot of readers find new books, our copies shipped out to the brick and mortar shops are missing the word-of-mouth buzz that generate sales. How many people are willing to risk their entertainment budget on an unknown quantity? Sure they can read the opening pages, but they would feel more confident about a purchase if they knew that a friend, or a Goodreads reviewer with similar tastes, had said some positive things about the novel.

Is it worth it to offer a giveaway at Goodreads?

Not when the book does not land in the mailbox of someone who intends to read and review the book. Not when a publisher is doing nothing more than transferring some scrap pulp, or feeding the addiction of a book hoarder who collects for the sake of having a collection.

Maybe someone at Goodreads could take a look at the analysis that determines who gets a book and who doesn't. Like culling out the applications of those who have long been members of the site but do nothing more than request books because they feel so happy when they win something, even things they never use.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Green Island: A Book Review

We read fiction for entertainment, but often a novel can teach us something as well. Shawna Yang Ryan's GREEN ISLAND is such a book, one of those rare works of fiction that is so grounded in reality that you can't help but keep turning the pages.

Set in Taiwan, the novel delves into the life of ordinary people living under what was a dictatorship, even though the world saw the island as some hazy haven for liberty in the face of Communist aggression. The real government of China ruled there, until the geopolitical world shifted on its axis and Taiwan became an almost independent nation that continued to face down Communist aggression. By reading GREEN ISLAND, you will discover the harsh reality of an existence frought with peril and the threat of Mao's forces invading.

The tale is told by the youngest child of the Tsai family, although the POV shifts here and there, in a way that suggests the narrator is still telling the story from a different perspective. An uprising begins on the day she is born, and her father is dragged into the conflict by opposing the thuggish tactics of the Kuomintang rulers. The father is taken away, a political prisoner, and so the author enters into the questions posed by the remaining pages. How does one deal with the direst of circumstances, when lives are at stake along with personal freedom?

It is a question that the narrator must answer for herself as she deals with what she thinks is her father's madness. She comes to learn that he is indeed being watched, with the ever-present army of spies infiltrating the family itself as the Kuomintang utilizes every tactic to avoid losing power. After the narrator marries and moves to California, she finds that she cannot escape the ruthless government of Taiwan, especially as the United States reaches accord with Red China and Taiwan's future grows shaky.

The prose is gentle while the story is brutal, the tension increasing as the narrator finds herself enmeshed in a nightmare that Confucian obedience cannot resolve. While I could have used less references to smells and odors (the author is a bit obsessed with how things smell), the story is gripping. The overall theme of the novel is quite topical, with the issue of compliance versus resistance the sort of thing that could apply to many other places in a troubled world.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy lyrical prose and thought-provoking narration. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the copy used in this review.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Better Devils Of Our Nature

The first thing you'd ask of Roosh Valizadeh is, are you serious, or is this some type of performance art?

The blogger is a firm believer in rape, taking a man's rights, anti-feminist, approach. Women are the enemy because they won't have sex with men on demand and that must be stopped. Or so he says. Can he be serious?

Maybe he's just being radically Islamic, coming from a background in which women who dare to go out in public without a guard are considered nothing more than prostitutes who deserve what they get. Leaving the confines of one's home is akin to asking to be raped, therefore, give the lady what she wants.
Look at me, Mommy, look at me!

Mr. Valizadeh is trying to organize a gathering of like-minded individuals, all men of course, and men who would like to be permitted to rape women who are not cowering behind locked doors.

You can find his philosophy at Return of Kings, if you're wondering how serious this man might be.

Some took him seriously, however. The proposed rally has been cancelled.

That's how it is with the Internet and the blogosphere and social media these days. Any fool can find a forum and an audience for any nonsense he or she wishes to spout. Those looking to spoof others are equally able to find an outlet for their joke.

There's no telling which way a post is meant to lean, comedy or tragedy.

In the case of Mr Valizadeh, his claims that he is skilled at picking up women and can show you, one of life's losers, how to seduce the ladies, smacks of the old ads in men's magazines from a by-gone era. All a guy needed was a dose of Spanish Fly and he could make a woman desire him. It was laughable then, and Mr. Valizadeh is laughable now.

Just like in those long-ago days, there are those who take his philosophy seriously, who really believe that it is the women at fault and not some personality defect preventing a guy from access to casual sex. Had the rally gone ahead, there would have been a few followers at Devon and Sheridan Roads on Saturday, milling about looking for answers to their emotional problems.

Women would have been excluded because they are bad, not falling on their backs, dazzled by the virility of the men who turn to Roosh Valizadeh for help in achieving their goal.

Those who did not see 'satire' in the proposed performance raised such a protest that it would have been impossible to stage a rally and maintain the anonymity of the attendees. Everyone has a camera on their cell phone, and photos would have been snapped and posted to shame any man so socially inept as to stand with the legalized rape contingent.

So the enemy has won. Or the performance art fell flat.

It doesn't much matter, in the end. Roosh Valizadeh got himself a big load of attention, his name in the news and his blog site advertised. He won.

Monday, February 01, 2016

White Collar Girl: A Book Review

A few pages in to WHITE COLLAR GIRL and I was wondering if author Renee Rosen was a newspaper reporter. Not because her depiction of the Chicago Tribune offices seemed so real, but because she exhibited a reporter's tendency to describe things in minute detail. Good for an article in the newspaper, perhaps, but a little goes a long way in a novel.

The novel is set in the 1950s, and features a young Jordan Walsh making her way in a male-dominated profession. The cub reporter longs for a seat at the City Desk, a club as exclusive as Berghoff's men-only bar. Which gets a mention in the book, by the way. All kinds of things get mentioned in the book.

In general, the novel is more a series of events than a flowing narrative. Jordan puts in her time on the society pages while pondering what really happened to her brother, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Or was he on to a hot story and got himself killed for poking around a potential scandal?

Her drive to succeed spoils romantic relationships as she moves up the ladder, hoisted along by a secret source in high places feeding her info for further investigation. It makes for an entertaining read, but if you are familiar with Chicago history and politics, you might become annoyed at Ms. Rosen's decision to use modern-day scandals and mingle them in with events that actually happened in the 1950s. It might almost seem to be too much scandal in too short a time, with corrupt judges following corrupt meat inspectors and corrupt cops.

For a light weekend read, WHITE COLLAR GIRL will provide enough entertainment. The author does a good job of immersing her readers into the era, taking things a little too far by dropping addresses as well as names. She did her research on Chicago of the 1950s, to be sure, but it isn't necessary to use all of it to that extent.

Overall, the novel is worth reading, particularly if you can forget what you know about Chicago and go along for the ride. We often forget how tough a woman had to be sixty years ago to make it in business, and it can be enlightening to inhabit that world for a few hours to refresh memories and appreciate what our mothers and grandmothers had to endure.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Good Riddance To Bad Rubbish

Author Solutions had a rather shady reputation as a vanity press that charged unwitting writers for services that were either not delivered, or did not rise to expectations.

The firm has been the defendant in a few lawsuits filed by disgruntled clients who felt that they had been defrauded. They thought they were buying into a traditional publishing model, when in fact they were paying to get their words printed and bound. Sales and promotion were their chores to tackle, essentially, with Author Solutions doing little more than encouraging the writers to buy more product that was as ineffective as the previous product. It was not, the plaintiffs claim, a traditional publishing model at all at all.

For reasons never made clear, Penguin Random House took in Author Solutions in the course of the Penguin and Random House mergers. You would think they would have jettisoned the detritus from the start, but someone in the corner offices thought that something could be made of Author Solutions.

Look at how well Amazon has done with its Kindle publishing unit and its CreateSpace arm. Surely the random penguins could ride that particular self-publishing train and steal a bit of Amazon's steam. Let authors do it themselves, as they are increasingly doing these days, and maybe some golden nugget will shine without PRH having to do much of anything. Then it's time to pounce and promote that best-seller that otherwise would not have been discovered.

The chief penguin has just announced that PRH is selling off Author Solutions.

So clearly things did not work out as planned.

The vanity press was picked up by Najafi Companies, for undisclosed terms. The investment firm sees potential to make money with Author Solutions, despite the litany of complaints and reputation for deception. Such bad press does not directly impact a business that does not have a reputation as a traditional publisher to maintain, of course. Najafi is all about return on investment, and if that means misleading clients so that they pay thousands of dollars to see their book in print and can't understand why it isn't getting shelved in every brick and mortar store around, that's how money is made.

It is a different story entirely for Penguin Random House. CEO Markus Dohle does not want to besmirch the reputation of his well-regarded firm by having it linked in any way to PRH. It would not do, to have people in the industry whispering behind his back about the poorly edited product issuing forth from the Author Solutions wing and is PRH going down that road as well what a shame it used to be such a reputable house.

To provide authors with a platform to publish their work is one thing. To be actively involved in selling marketing plans and the like, programmes that are not much like the marketing campaigns for books acquired through standard channels is quite another.

Chances are, Author Solutions did not show as much promise as hoped. A Google search can readily reveal how unhappy Author Solutions clients are, and you don't attract many new customers when they can read all about the negative aspects of the vanity press.

Good riddance to bad rubbish for Penguin Random House. Let Mr. Najafi and his clan make a go of it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cut Costs And Censor The News In One Easy Step

Just one of Steinmetz's famous alums
No less than Hugh Hefner got his start in publishing as a high school student at Steinmetz, toiling away on the school paper while dreaming of soft pornographic grandeur.

Finances being what they are these days, the Chicago Public School system that operates Steinmetz is strapped for cash and must look for ways to cut costs. There has been talk of larger classes, teacher lay-offs, and various other scare tactics meant to terrify the taxpayers into begging their representatives for an increase in the tax levy. The taxpayers realize that no one can squeeze blood from a turnip, however, and they've collectively shrugged their over-burdened shoulders.

What constitutes a removable offering at the high school level? Sports? Impossible. A school's pride and spirit rests in the exploits of its teams.

Music? Maybe. It's nice and all, but a student can get into college without ever once playing an instrument.

How about getting rid of the newspaper? If not for Hugh Hefner sending a generous grant to keep the Steinmetz Star in print, the rag would have folded long ago. That windfall is gone, and what better way to kill a story about the finagling going on with school start times that fly in the face of research showing high school students are worthless in the early hours when it comes to learning.

The budding journalists were all set to produce an investigative piece on the early start times that were being sold to the public as money saving. Some higher ups didn't like the questions being posed, feeling that they were being put on the spot by smart-ass kids who should have been more deferential to their elders who know ever so much more.

School Principal Stephen Ngo took action on behalf of bureacrats everywhere. He wielded his power and axed the article. It would not run.

And then he sent out an e-mail declaring that journalism was getting the axe as well. Not only would there be no school newspaper, but students with an interest in journalism could take that interest and choke on it. They wouldn't sit in another class to learn about reporting or investigating.

Censorship does not go down well at any level, particularly at the secondary school portion of education where college interests are formed. Just when the kiddies start to spread their little wings, no one wants to see their feathers clipped so they cannot fly.

Thus, Mr. Ngo was countermanded by CPS authorities above him, who hemmed and hawed and spluttered things about misunderstandings. No indeed, there was no plan to eliminate journalism. What Mr. Ngo meant to say was that the newspaper would become an online only publication because it costs so darn much to print it. Have to save money where we can! But we're not censoring. No, indeed, what gave you that idea?

English teacher Sharon Schmidt, the paper's advisor, claims that the school has the money to print the paper. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. You wouldn't expect a teacher to have complete knowledge of budgets district-wide, let alone be aware of all the machinations going on behind the scenes to pay bills and pensions with limited funds.

But that doesn't really matter. The fact that the school principal killed an article critical of the system he serves so loyally is enough to demonstrate an attempt to censor and then silence a group of students who have also learned that a free press is critical to a free people, even when that free press is a school newspaper.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Back when Lena Dunham's HBO series was a hot commodity, an acquisitions editor at Random House thought that WRECK AND ORDER would resonate with all those young women who never missed an episode. A twenty-something female exploring her sexuality, in an endless pursuit of the perfect orgasm? The makings of a blockbuster, right?

The television programme died a slow death while WRECK AND ORDER worked its way through the publishing process. Sadly, it has arrived when readers no longer wish to inhabit the world of a complete wagon.

Elsie, the protagonist, is a narcissist who is obsessed with sex. She should be a sympathetic character, what with a backstory of familial dysfunction and a history of abusive relationships. And she's a lost lamb, funded by her father's generous checks so that she does not have to actually work and support herself like an adult. Should a reader not feel sympathy for a character trapped in perpetual childhood?

She goes off to find herself and ends up wallowing in self-pity, too busy studying her own navel to notice that she's lodged her head firmly up her arse. She treats those around her with selfish disregard, and if you manage to stick around to read through to the end of this plate of shite and onions, you'll find that her experience among the downtrodden does nothing to improve her because that's what all the other ordinary novels do and this is literary fiction.

Don't waste your time on this one. The author can write, but there's more to creating a novel than an ability to string words together into coherent sentences.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for providing the review copy.