Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Becoming An Enemy Of The Literati

The major publishing houses and Apple took on Amazon's attempt to corner the e-book market and the U.S. Department of Justice took them to court on charges of price-fixing. And won.

The literati are no fans of Amazon, to say the least. The discount retailer has grown so big that it can now set prices for publishers, rather than the other way around. To make matters worse, independent booksellers find that their expensive shops have become nothing more than showcases for Amazon, where customers can browse the wares and then whip out a smartphone to buy at a discount from Amazon.

People who love books really, really hate Amazon.

By and large, these are the same people who voted for Barack Obama and continue to support him.

Until now, perhaps.

Painfully few businesses are adding jobs these days, so it is difficult for the President of the U.S. of A. to find an establishment where he can stage a photo opportunity to deliver good news on the economy. In what will prove to be a very awkward moment, his people arranged for an event at an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee. Amazon has just announced that it is going to add thousands of jobs, many of them full time with benefits, and Mr. Obama plans to stand inside a big building and trumpet this as an example of all that is right about the business world.

If only Amazon had a better reputation. To laud Amazon as a job creator is akin to lauding Mussolini for making the trains run on time. Sure, it was an important issue, but there are all those other problems that the Italian dictator created along the way.

Publishers hate Amazon. Book sellers hate Amazon. And it gets worse, with Overstock.com engaging in a price war with Amazon. The other online discounter is adding books, and it promises to sell for less than Amazon. All that means is even fewer customers for the brick and mortar indie seller, and more pressure on publishers to cut costs, i.e., pay their authors less money.

The President is in a tight spot, of course, because Jeff Bezos supports his campaign and any politician can tell you that you have to take care of your donors. That fact only makes the Justice Department lawsuit more painful, implying a Chicago-style quid pro quo in which political support is exchanged for protection from competition.

There is the other uncomfortable fact that Amazon has been accused of dodging its fair share, using every available loophole to avoid paying taxes at local and federal levels. It can be difficult for a President to speak out against the rich, and then applaud one of them as an example of how business should be done in America.

Will the President speak at the Amazon fulfillment center? The American Booksellers Association is mounting a protest, asking its members to write and demand that Mr. Obama not endorse Amazon. There is nothing laudable about what Amazon is doing, in their opinion. It sounds very nice to be able to say that a company pays X% above average warehouse wages, but when that salary is coming at the expense of an independent bookstore owner, it loses that cheerful tone.

Timing is everything. It's looking like the timing is wrong for the literati, who love books, hate Amazon, and wish the politician they support would support them in turn.

Are they all a bunch of Republicans, do you think?

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Irish Girl

Reading has left me exhausted, Mary
Many are familiar with the Irish diaspora, in which upwards of one million people fled starvation when a disease wiped out the potato, the staple crop of the poor. Black '47, they called it, the height of the famine in 1847. But the diaspora went on, through the 1800s and beyond, never quite ending until the Celtic Tiger brought prosperity to a very poor country.

More women than men emigrated in those dark days, drawn by opportunity and a chance to get a job. They were willing to work cheap, and so every American home could afford to hire an Irish girl as a maid of all work.

Even families of limited means had the ability to pay the miniscule salary of a girl just off the boat from Ireland. In turn, she would have a place to live and food to eat, which was a better deal than anything she'd left behind. Her small salary could then be sent back to her relations who relied on her income to keep themselves fed.

The Irish girl is back.

McCreery Contract Cleaning is expanding in Dublin and is set to hire fifty people to clean the homes of the well-off who don't have the time to do their own housework. The Irish Times is trumpeting this news as an opportunity for the unemployed, who find themselves in the same situation as their ancestors, except with the dole to fend off starvation. And a council house to fend off eviction.

As in days of old, the cleaners will be screened so that one does not have to allow some undesirable sort into one's home. Wouldn't want an Irish girl coming in with an eye for valuables to be lifted and pawned, would one?

When everyone had an Irish girl, it was common practice to call them all by the name 'Mary', which made it easier for the lady of the house to remember the maid's name. The Irish girls who skivvy for McCreery Contract Cleaning will, no doubt, be allowed to work under their own names, but whether or not the client will be interested in learning that name depends on the client. Many will most likely not be home when the cleaners come, too busy with their social and work activities to spend much time in their lovely houses.

Ireland has come full circle, from grinding poverty to prosperity and back towards grinding poverty. The job offerings have come around as well. Now it's news if a person can land a job as a cleaner.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

No Line On The Horizon

Rise up, U2 Tower. Rise up from the docklands of Dublin where today there is no line on the horizon. The picture above is, of course, just a computer-generated architect's rendering.

The property crash brought you down to earth, after the high fliers in real estate development discovered that what goes up must come down. Now you belong to the National Asset Management Agency which has been working for years to find ways to recoup losses suffered by the Irish taxpayers who bailed out the failed banks that loaned too much to too many with too little common sense.

NAMA noticed that a parcel adjoining the site of the proposed U2 Tower was owned by an American property developer based in Beverly Hills, California. Anyone familiar with the old television programme would know that there is money in them there Hills and development projects are not going to take off without money.

In the classic manner, a deal has been struck and the U2 Tower is resurrected. Granted, it is a great deal shorter (insert Bono joke here) than the original concept that the band was going to help fund, but the project itself has spread out a little to encompass the parcel controlled by Kennedy-Wilson Holdings.

Kennedy-Wilson has been investing heavily in distressed Irish properties, under the assumption that what went down will, in time, go back up. The Irish government is hoping that they will go a step further and invest in actual buildings where actual people will live, thereby attracting urban pioneers who have money to spend on shops that will open to cater to their needs.

Whether or not the revised version of the tower will have studio space for the band, as originally envisioned, remains to be seen. Certainly the chance that a resident might encounter Mr. Hewson wandering the corridor would be a major selling point for one of the luxury flats. What the nation needs is something new going up. The government needs a splashy project to point to, indicating that they have done something for the hard-pressed taxpayers who could use a little good news.

As for Kennedy-Wilson, they can expect the local authorities to be quite a bit more flexible than they might have been when developers were so keen to construct and more willing to bend to meet council objections or recommendations. It is now the Dublin County Council and state planners who are willing to twist themselves into whatever shape a developer would like, just to get things moving again.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Life After Restructuring

Barry O'Callaghan started small and went big, transforming his small educational publishing materials company Riverdeep into a behemoth by acquiring larger publishers like Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin.

Those who follow business news in the publishing industry know how that went. Cengage is going there now, a straight path that leads to bankruptcy court and debt restructuring and a quiet death.

Or new life.

HMH is making noises like a survivor looking to launch an IPO. A suitable law firm has been hired to handle the technicalities, and it may not be long before the creditors who had a plan to resurrect a dying whale of a publisher will recoup their investment. They have managed to breath enough life into the carcass that Barry O'Callaghan left behind that they believe the result looks quite attractive to someone who wants to own a piece of HMH.

It is a survivor's tale, one littered with the bodies of the redundant who lost their jobs in the teeth of an economic downturn. Unpaid creditors line the shore as well, those who had to accept pennies on the dollar when the debt was refinanced. The picture is not a pretty one.

What sort of income can be gained from an IPO remains to be seen, with investors most likely wary of sinking their money into educational publishing. The competition in the market is fierce and getting fiercer, with Google Play planning to add textbook rentals in the near future. Electronic publishing is not as profitable as producing expensive textbooks that must be updated and replaced on a regular basis. Indeed, the markets are jittery these days and risks are higher than some might like, those who will sit on their piles of cash and wait to see what happens next.

HMH appeared to be on the verge of washing up dead, choked on a load of debt that was impossible to service. The turnaround is remarkable, and offers hope to those at Cengage who fear for their livelihoods. The ability of HMH to rebound shows that it is possible to undo the damage done by the mania for mergers that marked the opening of the 21st Century. But it will not be pretty.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Settling A Score With Dueling Pens

Don't get mad, get even. Write out that vendetta and watch your adversary squirm.

Such is the tactic employed by Rick Swart, a freelance writer who just happened to fall in love with the subject of an article he was writing. His subject? She was in jail after killing her husband.

Like any other man smitten by love, Mr. Swart lost his ability to be subjective and his words took on a different hue. He had fallen so deeply in love with convicted murderer Liysa Northon that he asked her to marry him, and all this while he was composing a story about her personal tragedy.

Not a good combination for a reporter, although if the man had been penning a novel he would have been well served. Fiction can go where the writer wants, without stirring up a storm of convtroversy on facts. And it was facts that got in the way of his report.

By the time he finished his article, he had taken author Ann Rule to task. Ms. Rule is well known for her non-fiction, having made her name in true crime.

Mr. Swart and Ms. Northon
In the eyes of the adoring Mr. Swart, Ann Rule had done his spouse wrong in her telling of the murder. To read his version of events, you would think that Ms. Rule's HEART FULL OF LIES was so riddled with errors as to be essentially a work of fiction. He is entitled to his opinion, of course, but he failed to tell the Seattle Weekly, which published the article, that he was going to marry the heroine of his epic, which made him a very interested third party. What loyal husband would not push the theory that his new bride was the victimn of poor legal counsel, and then raked over the literary coals by an author who trades in sensationalism?

Mr. Swart may have thought that he had settled the score with Ms. Rule via a stroke of his pen, but in this digital age it is all but impossible to hide certain key facts, like relationships that are posted on Facebook.

Ms. Rule is now suing the Oregon-based weekly journal, citing slander and defamation of character that has harmed her reputation as a factual presenter of crime stories. That being her stock-in-trade, the article would hurt her ability to earn a living, which is grounds for a settlement that the journal may not have the resources to pay. As it turns out, the Seattle Weekly was recently sold, and the new owner is no doubt reeling at the news that liability has come along to spoil the party like an uninvited guest.

At some point, Mr. Swart will have to appear in court, having been named in the suit as well. His cheerleading for Liysa Northon may cost him some money, to say nothing of his reputation as a reporter capable of maintaining a distance from the story he is covering.

In future, he is free to criticize Ms. Rule all he likes, as long as the facts stand up to scrutiny. Or he can pen a novel with some thinly disguised true crime author as the antagonist. The vendetta can go on, as long as Mr. Swart has words in his pen and a pot of venom with which to ink them. Will his wife keep that particular well filled?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Chicago Ain't Ready For Reform: The Award

It seems like only yesterday that Chicago alderman Ambrosio Medrano was convicted of bribery.

That's because it was fairly close to yesterday. He was found guilty about a month ago, just another in a long string of corrupt aldermen stretching back for decades. They were in office in 1889, when police detective Daniel Coughlin was working elections to put them in office, and some think they came through for him when he was arrested for murder.

So corruption in Chicago's City Hall is not news.

Joe "Disgruntled Employees" Moore
That Alderman Joe Moore has been having a nice, long talk with the FBI comes as no surprise to those who know how things work in the City That Works. He is being investigated for paying off a couple of employees he fired when they complained about illegal doings in his ward office. The FBI has been explaining to Mr. Moore that an employer cannot pay hush money to an ex-employee to buy their silence when said employer is breaking the law. And an employer can't use public funds to buy the silence of an employee by granting them a bonus for unused sick days that exceeds the number of unused sick days calling for compensation.

It's done all the time in Chicago, of course. What matters is not getting caught. Unfortunately, Mr. Moore failed on the first principle of corruption.

Which makes it a little embarrassing for the Obama administration to be giving him a Champions Of Change award today, in recognition of Alderman Joe Moore's work in creating an open government in his ward. 

Just a disgruntled employee, says Mr. Moore, and will you please pay closer attention to what's going on over at Metra with their scandal? It's bigger and juicier, and there's nothing to see here so move on.

This is not the best time to be handing out awards to a politician being investigated by the Feds, because it makes a mockery of the award's purpose. Maybe Joe Moore could be seen as exceptional for asking residents of his ward how they would like a portion of the budget to be spent, but he's not at all exceptional in using a different part of that budget to keep a lid on the corruption that is bubbling up in his office.

He's just another Chicago politician in a long line of politicians, a string that connects the City Council to the prison system.

Rewarding his good behavior in the middle of an investigation into his bad behavior isn't exactly the sort of press that the Obama administration could use these days. But pulling the award after announcing it wouldn't be any better.

Between a rock and a hard place. That's where Mr. Moore has put the Champions of Change award. It would have been nice if he'd mentioned the FBI investigation a little sooner, like when the award committee approached him.

Monday, July 22, 2013

From Kidnapped To Extradited

Kevin McGeever pretended he was kidnapped for several months. He went to a great deal of effort to make it appear as if he had been taken by miscreants and held for ransom, but then after eight months he turned up and his story fell to bits.

In better times
As you'd expect, speculation turned to a reason for a man to hide himself away, go on a strict diet to lose weight so he seemed to have been held with little sustenance, and let his appearance become thoroughly disheveled.

The once high-flying property developer was, as it turned out, being pursued by creditors who wanted their money back. Naturally, Mr. McGeever preferred not to offer refunds.

In all likelihood, he doesn't have the money, having spent it on lavish digs and a jet-setting lifestyle. Money that was supposed to be invested was instead invested in Mr. McGeever's personal enjoyment. There is no return whatsoever for the investors in that sort of scheme.

An expensive lifestyle cannot be maintained by fleecing Irish investors alone, and now that Mr. McGeever has come back from his self-imposed exile/kidnapping, the scope of his fraud is coming out.

Authorities in Illinois started looking at Global Trust Bank and Global Trust Ltd. in 2003, a couple of purported 'high-yield investments' that Mr. McGeever promoted. People in Illinois and neighboring Wisconsin who bought into the scheme lodged complaints with authorities when those high yields failed to materialize and their initial investments disappeared.

It has since been determined that it was nothing more than a money-laundering operation that benefited Mr. McGeever. Before he could be called in to explain what he was about, he decamped for Dubai. The FBI notified Interpol that they wanted to talk to him, but nothing was done to bring him in. The scope of his fraud was too small to generate interest internationally. In 2011, Dubai put him on the Interpol watch list after he engaged in real estate investment fraud in the country, but Mr. McGeever found his way home without getting arrested.

Authorities in Ireland are considering charging him for wasting the time of An Garda Siochana, which launched an investigation into his kidnapping claim that proved to be false. Now they know where he is, and if the courts in Illinois wish to pursue the still open case against the Irish fraudster, there is an extradition treaty in place.

Chicago is lovely at this time of year, and the warden of the Metropolitan Correctional Center would be sure to find a nice cell for Mr. McGeever to stay while his case is heard. Although it would be difficult to maintain that tan of his behind bars. The narrow windows of the prison are part of an architecturally acclaimed facade, but they don't let in much sunlight.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Hearse Is Here For You, and Other Intimidation Tactics

The IRA might send a bullet in the mail to intimidate, but that's nothing compared to the very public intimidation tactics employed by a disgruntled former lover.

John Holliman had an affair with a married man who happened to be quite rich and successful, and who did not wish to come out of the closet. Blinded by love, or lust, said executive believed that Mr. Holliman cared enough for him to keep their little secret a secret. Chance are, he also showered his paramour with nice little gifts to express his appreciation for their hidden romance.

As it turns out, Mr. Holliman was not exactly the most mentally stable of people, and was therefore not the best choice for secret-keeping. The man who had been arrested for impersonating a police officer and a doctor in Ohio found it easy pickings to extort tens of thousands of dollars from the executive. It isn't much, but it's a small living.

How do you make someone pay you when it would be easy enough for the executive to deny your accusations? Mr. Holliman was just a gigolo, after all, and someone with mental issues isn't the most credible of witnesses.

Your ride is here
A bullet in the mail? No, not something that subtle. Instead, Mr. Holliman sent a hearse to his lover's home, on more than one occasion. When payment was not forthcoming, the hearse arrived with instructions to pick up Mr. Lover, or Mrs. Lover if there was a need to escalate the tension.

An ambulance arrived once, called to the scene by Mr. Holliman, who used the emergency service as a sort of calling card or reminder that a bill was coming due and he expected payment in full. There would be no forgetting him, no getting rid of him. The demands went on and the executive paid, stuck in an endless loop.

Maybe it was the bomb scare that Mr. Holliman called in to the executive's place of work, a threat that resulted in several floor of the office being evacuated. At some point, the executive realized he couldn't go on living in fear, and so he called for help.

Mr. Holliman was arrested when he accepted one of his bribes. Charged with felony theft and felony stalking, he sits in jail awaiting trial.

The executive is sitting elsewhere, dealing with the fall-out of his hidden homosexuality and the wife he cheated on.

He may soon be sitting in court himself, but in the civil division, watching his assets get divvied up in a divorce trial. Or he might be signing a contract with her, in which he pays her a large sum to not leave him and keep his little secret.

It's that old tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. Honesty is always the best policy, even if it means an equitable divorce settlement and an exit from the closet. He's out now, isn't he? If he'd come out sooner, he'd be $90,000 ahead.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Do You Know Where That Finger Has Been?

Not that I'm obsessed with cleanliness, but the first thing I thought of when I saw Microsoft's new operating system in action was greasy, streaky fingerprints making the screen look like a health hazard not to be touched.

I've seen the screen on my smart phone with its dull sheen of body oil after I've used it on a warm day. The sweat and slime leave a film that you can't see through and when the sun hits it a certain way, it's disgusting. Why would I want my tablet to look like that? It's one thing to rub the phone across my sleeve to clean it up, but to wipe a tablet down my trouser leg?

It comes as no surprise that Microsoft is taking a hit on unsold tablets that featured the touch screen. I'm not the only person around who would be ashamed to share an image on my tablet with friends, out of fear they would gag at the site of my fingerprints streaked across the glass.

Someone at Microsoft might have thought of that when they added the stylus to the package, an oil-free device that can be touched to the screen without leaving a mark. But as anyone knows, a stylus is too easy to lose and then there's all the difficulty in replacing it. That isn't any kind of a selling feature for a device meant to compete with Apple's iPad.

The operating system lacks the elegance of an Apple device, and not many are willing to train themselves to a new system these days. We all have enough to do as it is. And making those big tiles work on a desktop model in the office? Would you want your co-workers touching your screen when who knows where those fingrs have been? The whole idea is nauseating and distracting from the work you should be doing. How can you get anything done if you're obsessed about bacteria counts? You're spending half the day wiping down your keyboard with alcohol swabs already, and there's no telling if the screen material can take that sort of abuse.

The PC market is in decline because the economy is in decline and businesses are closing up. The need for new PCs in start-ups is non-existent, and companies barely hanging on aren't going to upgrade systems when it's all about cutting costs. On the other hand, entering a new market that is already largely built to capacity isn't going to be the panacea that Microsoft needed to boost the bottom line.

How about replacing the stylus with a wiper that cleans the screen like your car's wipers? Push a button and the glass sparkles. Now that's a development we can all appreciate, even if we aren't obsessive about germs.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

No Roles For Old Women

Actresses face a bleak future as they age. They have no roles to play after they mature from fresh-faced young ingenue to harried young mother and then...they are invisible.

Now Barbie is facing the same bleak prospects. The 54-year-old doll is not as popular as she used to be. And it is Mattel, her manufacturer, that is undermining her by introducing new dolls to take her place.

She's had some work done, like all the others who wanted to keep their youthful good looks as long as a surgeon's skill could nip and tuck things into shape. Barbie has added every conceivable outfit to her wardrobe, built a dream house and a dream car, done the California thing, but time cannot be outrun.

Especially in those high heeled shoes. You'd have to be a thoroughbred to run on your toes, which is all Barbie can manage with her ready-for-stilleto feet.

And what has Mattel created to replace Barbie in the hearts of little girls?

Wouldn't you know it. The new line features some fairly bizarre looking creatures who are barely old enough to drive. Who needs a Barbie dream car when you're in high school and lucky to have a learner's permit?

Monster High dolls are pushing Barbie out the door and off to the nursing home. The teens are model-thin, lacking Barbie's old-fashioned curves. Their clothes are not high fashion but thrift shop.

Where Barbie was all about glamor, Monster High dolls are about horror in a fun way. They are Saturday morning cartoons as compared to Barbie's Saturday night date with Ken. For all of Barbie's friends added over the years, she never had a genuine posse like the Monster High gang. That dating scene? So last century.

Not that Monster High is Mattel's salvation. With fewer children being born, the market is shrinking and Mattel's profits are slowing. What few kids there are tend to gravitate to video games instead of toy cars that require imagination to power, instead of an electric outlet.

The parents of those kids are lucky to have jobs, and are facing shrinking paychecks and rising costs. They just don't have the money to spend on luxuries like fashion dolls of any sort, and they sure aren't going to buy Barbie a new dress when the child playing with Barbie needs an outfit for school.

Toy manufacturers are starting to look east, to China, where markets are emerging and income is disposable. They respect their elders there. Barbie stands a good chance to survive, leaving the Monster High crowd in the dust of fading trends.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

After A Period Of Reflection The Answer Is No

For decades, Irish women were enslaved by the Catholic Church, often in collusion with the Irish government, and no one dared to speak out against the power of the Church.

The history of the Magdalene laundry system is nearly incomprehensible in its cruelty and ferocious persecution of female sexuality,
but recent investigative reports have spelled out the unquestionable involvement of no less than four orders of nuns. The Sisters of Mercy, the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity all profited by the back-breaking labor of women who were put away for the crime of being pregnant outside of marriage, or of being too pretty, or or being at risk for fornication as determined by a parish priest. Victims of rape, victims of incest, they all had to be punished.

The Irish government is putting together a compensation scheme for the survivors, who not only were not paid for their work but do not stand to collect an old age pension because the nuns never paid into the funds. For those who were incarcerated for most of their adult life, they have nothing on which to live in their declining years.

Enda Kenny has called on the nuns to contribute to the redress fund, to finally pay some small portion of wages that should have been paid, but the nuns have said no. Enda can't make them pay without engaging in some dangerous maneuvers, and they know it.

Sure, the Sisters will yammer on and on about feeding and housing the women who were tossed out by society, but the report makes a lie of their claim. Not all the Maggies were left at the door by a parent who was outraged that a daughter went and got pregnant before marriage. Many of the inmates were the illegitimate children of those women, who passed through the industrial school system and came out illiterate, institutionalized, and the perfect sort of slave for the laundries that washed the dirty linen of prominent Dublin hotels, for a fee.

Reflect on your behavior, Sisters, and see the light preaches Enda Kenny, but when there is money involved, the Sisters don't see things his way.

Please reflect carefully, because the last thing Mr. Kenny wants to do is be forced to act with authority and come down hard, to follow the request of Magdalene Survivors Together and strip away the charitable status of the orders. And then start taxing them like any other corporate entity.

He would prefer not to confiscate the books, Sisters, and open them to review so that all can see what assets the orders hold and how much money is in the kitty. To see where assets have been hidden to avoid confiscation, to judge if the Sisters are as poor as they claim or if it is a matter of reserving funds to care for the old nuns who were guilty of abuse, while the victims must go without.

There are voters out there who would take offense at that sort of abuse. Not that they took much offense at the abuse of the Magdalene inmates, but there are always those who take the word of a nun as the word of God, all honest truth without question.

Their numbers are shrinking as the Irish people continue to turn away from the religion that held them together for centuries under British oppression before turning oppressor. Maybe Mr. Kenny will determine that he doesn't need the votes of the every-shrinking population of the faithful. Then he won't have to ask for reflection. He'll ask for the money and stop playing the diplomacy game.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Writing The Breakout Novel After A Break

Could J.K. Rowling break out of the Harry Potter mold? Could she get an assessment on her ability to write something other than YA wizard lore?

In short, could the renowned author pen a breakout novel?

In short, no.

The literary world is abuzz with the news that J.K. Rowling wrote a detective novel under a pseudonym, to find out if she had the writing chops. Naturally, if she had published under her own name, her fans would have purchased the book and then complained because there were no boy wizards or sorting hats or witchy paraphernalia. The actual prose would have gotten lost in expectations, and when an author is feeling a little unsure of her talent, it would do nothing to boost her self-esteem or offer the reassurance that fans like her books for the writing and not the name on the cover.

Ms. Rowling's first venture into adult literature fell a bit flat amid criticism that THE CASUAL VACANCY was not all that. It was, perhaps, too adult for those accustomed to her initial series of books. The characters she created were not likeable like Harry Potter et al., although reviewers felt that the world she created was similar in the juxtaposition of the powerful against the weaker members of small town society. It was not done in a way that was pleasant, however, like all the Potter books, so it was deemed less than stellar.

Last spring, Ms. Rowling published another adult novel, this time using a pen name to hide her identity. No one would compare THE CUCKOO'S CALLING to her earlier works because she made up an identity. She hid behind a mask, presenting a work of debut fiction from a fictional writer who was supposedly retired from the security industry. Her literary agent went along with it, because when you represent a writer with the following of J.K. Rowling, you pretty much let her do as she pleases.

The book sold just over 400 copies.

Not a blockbuster, by any means. A genuine debut author would be unlikely to win another publishing contract with such low sales. By one account, an editor who rejected the manuscript did not fall in love with the story. Ms. Rowling received a sincere and unbiased appraisal in that offhand way. If the editor had known who the writer really was, she would have snapped up the manuscript at once. Instead, she looked at the potential to sell through and found it lacking.

The prose was considered outstanding, and reviewers questioned if the writer were indeed a novice, so polished was the product. In the end, however, good reviews did not sway the reading public. 

Somehow or other, the true identity of the author was leaked and voila, as the French might say, sales shot through the roof.

The book is in a second printing to meet demand, a demand that did not exist until the reading public learned who actually wrote the novel.

So you have a manuscript that is polished, with perfect grammar and pretty words all in a row? Even J. K. Rowling couldn't break out with that. It takes a good story to make a good manuscript that people will buy. After that, you can rely on your name.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Publishers Do It, Literary Agencies Do It, Even Educated Fleas Do It

Let's do it, let's fall in merger.

Much has been made of the merging that is consolidating the publishing industry, now down to five major houses that are themselves the product of mergers over the years. Is it good or bad, the industry insiders ask, is it of a benefit or a long-term detriment, will there be fewer good works of literature appearing and are we entering the era of the blockbuster smash bit of drivel that won't be taught in literature classes one hundred years from now?

While all this has been happening, some literary agencies are consolidating as well, combining forces to become leaders in the industry. A leader in the industry, of course, can pick and choose its clients and negotiate huge contracts (at the standard commission rate for the agent) for those mega-blockbuster bits of drivel.

Folio Literary Management is itself a product of merging. Principal Paige Wheeler used to run a place called Creative Media before she joined forces with Scott Hoffman and they sprang Folio Lit on the world. While they and their fellow agents are hard at work representing manuscripts that they believe can sell, they are also business people who recognize that a business has to grow if the profits are to keep rolling in.

Folio has sucked Literary Group International into its orbit. Like any well-known agency, it also has a stable of writers who create works of fiction or non-fiction that sell well. It is a good acquisition for Folio, and it obviously makes sense for LGI or the merger would not have gone through.

Two agencies merged together means fewer support staff to manage the office chores. One receptionist, a few less office managers, a little less paperwork....it all adds up to savings that turn into profits that the partners get to pocket. Who wouldn't want a bigger Christmas bonus?

Is it better for writers, if there is one less agency competing for their work? Probably not.

But the industry itself is less friendly to writers who aren't producing those blockbuster bits of drivel. To fill that niche, small publishers have sprung up to replace the small publishers who were gobbled up over the years in a series of mergers that have resulted in the Big Five. Those small publishers, however, don't pay big advances and so the representing literary agent doesn't get a big commission for all the work involved in getting a publishing contract.

A part of the industry is heading towards super-sizing, with big agencies picking up big authors who will make their names largely on their own, through success in the other part of the industry that is leaning towards small and compact. And not particularly profitable.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

That Would Be Both Sides Shutting Up

If you're cutting a deal in which you agree to take the money and keep quiet, you expect the party of the second part to shut up as well. Chances are, the people on the side of the bargain with the most to gain from your silence will be the least likely to antagonize you.

This is the Chicago way of doing business. It has been the practice for generations.

However, this level of "transparency" in government inevitably leads to the conclusion that someone is hiding something. News types wishing to make a name in investigative reporting tend to pounce on such incidents of Chicago-style politics. And so it came to be that the buzz began to buzz, that a fix was in.

Questions came up after Alex Clifford was awarded a generous severance package in exchange for stepping down from his post as CEO of Metra, the transportation agency that oversees the commuter rail system in northeastern Illinois. That would be Chicago and its suburbs, in layman's terms. 

Why was Mr. Clifford getting over $700,000 to leave a job that paid far less than that? Mr. Clifford wasn't talking, and the members of the Metra board who approved the payout weren't talking. The standard practices of Chicago politics were not quietly accepted by the people who pay to ride the rails and adjust their budgets to meet the fare increases. They wanted to know what was going on.

Silence is golden
Ah sure Brad O'Halloran has the gift of blarney and can't keep his mouth closed. He's gone and done it, breaking the rules and inviting a little unpleasant disclosure.

The chairman of the Metra board just couldn't resist when he had the chance to cut former Metra CEO Alex Clifford down to size. In front of the board of the Regional Transporation Authority, the group that oversees Metra and public transporation in Chicago, he read a statement designed to not reveal anything about the shady deal, but then, that devil on his left shoulder got the better of the angel on his right and the words tumbled out.

Words about Mr. Clifford's incompetence, words that implied the gentleman had to go because he was over his head, that sort of thing that would not look good on a resume when Mr. Clifford went to find a new job.

Mr. Clifford didn't like being insulted in public, so he has gone Mr. O'Halloran one better.

Mr. Clifford has detailed certain illegal patronage schemes that certain members of the Metra board tried to push past him, to get friends and relatives into high-paying, do-nothing jobs. 

As the man hired to clean up that sort of mess, he wouldn't go along, and so Mr. O'Halloran and his minions knew they had to get rid of Mr. Clifford. Not one to go away empty-handed, Mr. Clifford took the big check and walked, and would have kept on walking if he wasn't called back by the need to settle the score.

The allegations are detailed in a memo that Mr. Clifford turned over to Metra, which started the ball rolling on his severance package. The RTA board has the memo, but doesn't want to release it, citing various lame excuses about confidentiality and agreements and whatever else sticks. They aren't at all interested in pursuing an investigation into the exorbitant payout, either.

Mr. Clifford is willing to release the memo, and news reporters are very keen to see it.

We wouldn't be here if Brad O'Halloran had taken a deep breath and listened to the better angel of his nature, instead of attacking someone with damaging information who had agreed to shut up. You can't change the rules in the middle of the game, as everyone knows.

Without rules, the game becomes chaos and then bloody war. That's the sort of thing that gets the attention of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and nobody wants that. Especially those trying to keep government "transparent".

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Merging Into A Colorless Stew

Mergers in any industry have consequences that the Board of Directors hope to manage as they arise. Any venture into uncharted territory will yield surprises or crises to be wrangled. The merger of Random House and Penguin, to form a gigantic publisher strong enough to battle the likes of Amazon, is no different.

There is the usual merging of the corporate cultures and the interweaving of various presidents, directors and the like. Those who were accustomed to the Random House way of doing things will have to learn the Penguin principles, or the other way around, depending on whose head did not roll when the leadership positions were handed out.

As Boris Kachka points out, all that enmeshing will likely result in the loss of brand recognition, with so many small independent presses getting rolled up over the years into some behemoth like Random Penguin House. The name of the publisher no longer signifies any particular strong suit, whether it's thrillers or history or literary fiction.

Besides the loss of publishing opportunities for writers, the readers are losing out as well. They don't have a particular imprint they can turn to and know what sort of book they'd be getting. There was a time when you could pick up a book published by MacAdam/Cage and know that you had a well-crafted piece of literary fiction in hand, but those days are gone...like MacAdam/Cage, now struggling to survive.

Publishing is more and more about creating some big blockbuster that sells through and then some. It doesn't matter if it's under the Knopf imprint or the St. Martin's Press imprint. Indeed, the imprints don't mean anything to the average reader, who just wants something entertaining or enlightening or escapist.

What does Hachette represent, brandwise? Not much of anything, and Mr. Kachka sees this as an unintended consequence of all the mergers that have turned the Big Six...make that Big Five now...into producers of books that could have come out of any one of the publishing houses.

Without small independent publishers, the type of book available will be more formulaic and definitely less risky. The reading public loses out on gems that might not sell one million copies worldwide, but are worth reading just the same.

It should come as no surprise that small presses are arising, to fill the niche that is being left unfilled by major publishers who abandoned those niches in an ongoing series of corporate mergers. Mr. Kachka calls for more gatekeepers to keep publishing from becoming a colorless stew that has no room for distinctive branding. Those gatekeepers are out there, struggling to get noticed, to get their books into brick and mortar stores or reviewed in the New York Times.

Independents need a little help to survive in a world of massive competitors like Amazon that make it very difficult to operate a small business. In a crowd of giants, it is nerly impossible for a small company to be seen, let alone heard.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Falling On One's Sword: A Metaphor

Amazon is killing the competition for e-readers with Kindle, while Apple is reeling in the profits from its iPad. Where in all that is there room for another e-reader that can't do anything but act like an electronic library when the market for e-readers is largely settled?

Barnes and Noble gave it a go just the same.

And the man who thought he could catch some of that digital lightning in a Nook? He's fallen on his sword, metaphorically speaking.

William Lynch was brought in to the Number 2 book seller to work magic. He said he could invigorate the e-book division, get B&N.com on the cutting edge of technology and drive up sales. Given the time to prove himself, Mr. Lynch failed, and so he had to man up and accept the blame by quitting. He would surely have been let go if he had not done himself in.

That is what happens to CEOs who don't generate profits for the shareholders. In Mr. Lynch's case, his promises turned out to be false, as the corporation took a loss on the Nook end of the business. If not for profits generated through the bookstores, the whole corporation would have been dripping red ink.

It is not good business practice to suck one half of a firm dry to sustain the other. By accomplishing only that much, Mr. Lynch was not on the right track. He certainly wasn't positioning BN.com to be a leader in the market, which was supposed to be his strong suit.

What has stockholders worried is that there is no interim CEO in place, which leaves Barnes & Noble adrift. Majority stockholder Len Riggio has some plans about selling off a part here or there, but it is nothing concrete that a sound corporate policy can be built on. The book seller does not seem to have a direction at the moment, and until Mr. Riggio gives more guidance, it will sit there going nowhere.

B&N lost money on the grand schemes of William Lynch. Now he is gone, but whose grand schemes will chart the future course? Inquiring stockholders want to know.

And the sooner something solid is in place, the better. The market does not like stocks that are difficult to value when it can't be determined where the company is going in a year, or five years. Investors tend to assign a negative worth to shares that appear to growing more worthless by the day.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Captain Midnight And The Land Wars, 21st Century Style

There was a time when it was illegal for an Irish Catholic to own land, and that heritage played out violently during the land wars of the late Nineteenth Century. Captain Midnight roamed the countryside, according to legend, but it was just a group of vigilantes targeting those who tried to evict tenants from the land they could not own.

People are being evicted yet again, but this time it's all about foreclosed mortgages and payments in arrears. An Irish Catholic can own land, but it's not an easy proposition if you've lost your job and can't afford to reimburse the bank that loaned you the money to buy that land.

Once the secret discussions between bankers came out, plotting to use the taxpayers like piggy banks, those who are being squeezed by those same banks have decided that they aren't going to be pushed around by the fatcats who played the government for a fool. The banks were bailed out and they manipulated the facts to convince the Irish taxpayers to save them. Now those taxpayers want a little consideration for themselves, whether it be more time to meet expenses or a refinancing to make the loan more affordable.

Allsop Space has called in the guards to keep the irate citizenry at bay while they try, yet again, to auction off distressed properties for banks wishing to recoup their investments. That citizenry has no sympathy for the banks, to be sure, and it does not help that Allsop Space is based in England. It's the old "British landlord vs. Irish tenant" match-up that roiled the country over one hundred years ago. In time, that particular round of protests escalated and then it was 1916 and the firing commenced.

They weren't shooting guns in Dublin last Saturday, but the attempt to conduct the property auction was met with outrage and protests by people who have had more than enough of bankers and their shenanigans.

If it is any consolation, Allsop has made it known that it doesn not accept repossessed family homes for sale. They are strictly involved in auctioning business properties, like pubs or offices. And they have an office in Ireland. And they employ Irish people.

You know, like the old gombeen men?

Friday, July 05, 2013

Floating Joyce

Along the Liffey

Who else but an artist would have devised such a clever project? Limerick's own Fergal McCarthy is going to power wash the words of James Joyce into the grime of the quay walls along the Liffey.

Just random words from Dubliners.

Mr. McCarthy will create stencils and the words will appear on the banks of the river, to be read by all who walk along the quays or cruise through Dublin by boat. In time, the clean areas will revert to their original patina, as the grime is being called, and the words will disappear.

Tourists will have something else to look at besides the Guinness Brewery, something that will not last because it is not designed to be a permanent art installation.

The cost is approximately Eu8000, a tidy sum that will no doubt elicit howls of protest. With so much talk of austerity budgets, there are many who will question the sense of spending that much money on something that isn't going to last. If it brings in an extra load of tourists, of course, and more than earns back the investment, it would be money well spent.

But there is also the question of feeding the soul as well as the body. Life would be grim indeed if it was all about social welfare and national health in a world without color or whimsy. Sometimes you have to take your last few pennies and buy something frivolous to feel better about yourself or your dire situation.

"Word River" is in keeping with Dublin's status as a Unesco City of Literature, and the use of James Joyce's words is key to drawing tourists to see what an artist can do with words as objects, 1.5 kilometers of objects arranged in a visually intriguing way. What other author can draw people to his home town, where they dress up in period costume and follow a route laid out in a work of fiction?

It's not as if the entire text of the novel is being inscribed. This is not about reading a book but looking at literature from a new perspective. It is, in large part, about having a little fun.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Genuine Miracle

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church was a powerful organization that didn't need much publicity to generate revenue. The parishioners came to Mass and donated money to the parish, the diocese, and the Vatican.

Then along came revelations of sexual abuse by the clergy, abuse that was covered up by the powerful bishops who ran the Holy See like a business that needed protection from bad publicity. Their efforts fell short and they discovered that the faithful weren't so inclined to head off to Mass every Sunday and put their pennies on the plate. Revenue fell and those revelations of abuse turned into lawsuits that drove several dioceses into bankruptcy.

In the Vatican, Pope John Paul II presided over the attempt to get the folks back to paying, praying and obeying. When victims of clerical abuse came forward, the perpetrator was shunted to another parish and money was distributed to hush up the chatter. It was all about stifling reports, keeping it under the rug where it had been festering for generations.

The latest diocese to be exposed sits in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Timothy Dolan dealt with the pedophile priests and tried to not rock the boat. He succeeded in part. He was made a Cardinal in New York, but his star has been dimmed by evidence that his steady hand on the tiller required the shifting of pedophiles from one group of innocent children to another.

How to stop this nightmare?

The Vatican has happened upon a true miracle and will soon declare that John Paul II is a saint.

The collective loss of memory is a genuine miracle. It's a far better miracle than the purported cure of a nun who was said to be suffering from Parkinson's disease, which cannot be diagnosed with certainty until the patient's brain is sectioned. That is an analysis that can only be done post-mortem. And the Sister is very much alive.

The man was a saint, the Vatican claims, and will everyone stop mentioning that other apparently saintly man who founded the Legionaries of Christ? Now there's a miracle, that Marciel Maciel had time for so much evangilizing when he was busy fathering children with multiple women and molesting the seminarians.

Until the scope of the clerical sex abuse allegations came out, John Paul II was a beloved figure. The Church is hoping that making him a saint will bring back some of the love, and with that love will come money to fund the Church and pay off the lawsuits from the scandal for which John Paul II is miraculously not held accountable.

Good luck with that. There aren't many sitting in the pews to hear the grand announcement when John Paul II becomes a saint at a speed that is dazzling for the slow-moving bureacracy that governs the Catholic Church.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Selecting The Right Literary Agent

As you compile your list of literary agents to approach, you can eliminate some from your list of "perfect fits". You may not be a perfect fit for some of those agents you perceive as ideal.

While you might think your manuscript is in the same league as Junot Diaz or Chris Ware, it is highly doubtful that a literary agent will agree unless you've built up a tremendous track record of success in the literary world.

Nicole Aragi is one such agent.

Her recent interview will make it clear to you why you are most likely wasting your time in submitting to her unless you're already labeled a budding genius. Which, in all likelihood, you are not nor soon to be so labelled.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The End Of The Modern Army

Soldiers die in war. It is a fact that volunteers face when they sign on.

Now, when a soldier falls in combat, their family can sue the government that sent the soldier into combat. No more fog of war, no more chance encounter, no more bad luck. It's become a question of negligence.

The Supremes
The European Union has a clause regarding the right to life in its convoluted set of rules, and so the legal minds who sit on England's Supreme Court have declared that death of a soldier in combat violates that rule.

Two families brought suit, one involving a friendly fire incident and the other a death caused by an improvised explosive device and an inadequately armored Land Rover. In one case, it was claimed that the Department of Defense was negligent for allowing British soldiers to be misidentified as enemy combatants, resulting in death. For the other, the government was deemed negligent for sending poorly protected vehicles into a combat zone.

War is cruelty and you cannot refine it, General William Sherman once said. In these modern times, you can ameliorate that cruelty in a court of law.

How can an army function if the commanding officers must consider, not only strategy and intelligence, but legal implications of an operation?

The court has decreed that soldiers have a right to life, even in combat situations, which sounds like a lovely sentiment but it isn't exactly grounded in the realities of the cruelty that is war.

There are those who have long been opposed to foreign wars that do not seem to have a direct impact on daily life at home. That they found a way to use the courts to express their displeasure will be applauded in some circles, while the officers in the armed forces will complain about hands being tied.

They may make mention of unintended consequences at some future time, now that the precedent of a successful lawsuit has been set. Attempts to refine war can lead to unintended consequences down the line, when an officer hesitates because he's thinking of lawsuits instead of flanking maneuvers.

Sounds like a plot for a futuristic fantasy of a novel where the Allied generals are tied up in court while the Axis attacks without concern for legal rulings....where would we be if this had been a decision reached in 1939?

Go write.