Friday, August 29, 2014

Creative Differences In Publishing

Martin Amis is one of England's literary stars, but that doesn't mean he can get his novel published in Germany or France. No matter how well known his name, it all comes down to sales or lack thereof.

Mr. Amis has penned a new book about the Holocaust, which was once a rather sensitive subject. With the passage of time and continued insight into the era, however, there is a renewed interest in the period of Fascism and world war. Writing fiction set in concentration camps has proved successful, as in THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS which presented impossibly horrible circumstances from the eyes of a child. Why not write a novel from the point of view of those who were in charge of mass murder?

THE ZONE OF INTEREST has been met with critical acclaim, another example of Martin Amis' ability to probe the depths of the human soul and present the bleakest of pictures. Despite the positive reviews, his usual publishers in Germany and France declined to publish the book, but it had nothing to do with the subject. It was simply a matter of the publisher not believing that the book would sell.

According to reports, the German publisher found the book 'too frivolous'. A topic as heavy as the Holocaust was not dealt with in a suitably heavy manner in THE ZONE OF INTEREST, what with a love story between two of the main characters, a married woman and a man related to one of Hitler's confidantes. Germans would not buy such a treatment, in the publisher's mind, and so the book was turned away.

In France, the book will be published by Calmann-Levy, after the opportunity was declined by Gallimard. There are those who believe that Calmann-Levy was feeling the sting of having rejected a previous best-selling novel on the Holocaust, and this was an opportunity to correct the error. As for Gallimard, they must have felt that Amis was not selling well enough in France to warrant their participation in the new venture, and once the Germans declined, well, there must have been something lacking in the novel and best to jump ship before it starts to sink.

Not everyone 'gets' what a writer is trying to say, no matter how well that author thinks he has composed his prose. Not everyone likes what every author has written. Not everyone who reads books is a fan of Martin Amis.

It's a matter of finding the right fit, whether you are famous or completely unknown.

Finding that fit, of course, takes time and effort. That is why you keep going with your submissions and your next novel and the next one after that. Because you just don't know when the pieces will fall into place, and someone out there will appreciate what you've done and see the financial benefit in bringing it to the reading public.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

About The Burning Of Washington

The 200th anniversary of the British burning of Washington, in retaliation for the Yanks burning the city of York up in Canada, went off with a rather large bang. The Brits caught hell for putting burning sparklers on an edible replica of the White House, but ruffled feathers have been smoothed and it is time to ponder that long ago time of world war and unrest and economic pressures unknown today.

Katie Hanrahan's upcoming novel, THE SECOND WAR OF REBELLION, is set in that tumultuous time.

You will have to wait unitl November to obtain a copy, but you can read the opening pages now.

You can even pre-order the book from Newcastlewest Books if you like. You can order any of our titles via links on our website, for that matter.

There will be books given away, and those clever enough to ask for a free copy just might receive a free copy. We are always open to early reviewers' requests.

Two hundred years after the fact, why not jump back into that time, when the fledgling United States was a weak and disjointed cluster of territories that did not command an ounce of respect from the world's powers.

It was a fascinating time, a time that shaped a nation and altered the face of the globe. The U.S. Navy flexed its puny muscles back then, and little Madeleine Beauchamp did a fair bit of flexing herself, the American orphan who fought to remain a true American patriot while her new British family battled to rein in her spirit.

The novel is a work of historical fiction with a strong element of romance, the sort of book you'll want to read during the upcoming holiday season. It will make a perfect Christmas present for a special someone who enjoys a good book with a strong female protagonist.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Skins Have Grown Too Thin

The British Embassy in the U.S. had a lovely cake baked to commemorate a special occasion.

What could be more friendly? Come over for tea and a slice, the ambassador might have said to the current occupants of the White House. We'd like to have you in for a quiet little party. Bring the girls, by all means. This is truly a family affair.

To share the masterful confection with the world, the embassy tweeted a picture of the cake. It is a replica of the White House in flour, eggs, and sugar, perhaps covered with a delicious fondant icing and carefully decorated to capture the various architectural details of the actual structure. A pastry chef spent a long time in crafting this cake, and would justifiably by proud of the accomplishment.

And what did the thin-skinned have to say about the cake?

Yes, right. I should mention that a few lighted sparklers were inserted where one might put birthday candles. Sparklers, the wits at the British Embassy tweeted, rather than flames. The cake was meant to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the burning of the White House by British forces during the War of 1812.

It is an event that figures prominently in Katie Hanrahan's upcoming novel, THE SECOND WAR OF REBELLION, which will not be released until the holiday shopping season this year. You'll be sure to look for it, and watch this space for further information on give-aways  and the like.

At any rate, the British tweeted a snap of a cake that looks like the White House, with sparklers blazing, and the next thing you know they are apologizing for what a few humourless individuals declared was an example of poor taste.

For fuck's sake, can we stop apologizing constantly to the few curmudgeons who make a little bit of noise?

It's funny, the cake with the sparklers. It's a joke.

Some people simply don't have a sense of humour. They are unable, for some reason, to see that which is not serious, which is meant to bring a smile or even a chuckle. They take everything at face value, incapable of seeing beyond the ends of their noses. Or beyond the poles thrust solidly up their arses.

Besides, the British lost that war, and to a bunch of upstart soldiers commanded by officers who were not members of the peerage. Ordinary men defeated what was supposed to be an undefeatable force, so if the Brits can laugh about it 200 years on, why not let them have their face-saving stab at humour? It's only polite, to let a nation laugh at itself.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Wife Talks Back

Sophia and Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy did not treat his wife well. A divorce may have been more merciful, but in his time, a divorce was not sought. The scandal would have ruined the author's reputation and career, and there was no positive side to divorce for the wife either. Indeed, living with misery was seen as a better choice when compared to the social fall-out of divorce.

Instead, he took out his frustrations in his prose, penning a particularly bitter piece about a marriage that the reading public thought was about his own marriage. Which it probably was, although it would have been the Tolstoy marriage as it existed in the opinion of Leo Tolstoy. And there it was left, with readers presuming and Mrs. Tolstoy fuming at the insult.

Sophia Tolstoy turned to the same platform to return fire, but she was not a famed novelist and who would want to publish her scribblings? Some nobody, married to an author who apparently wished the woman would pack her bags and go. The manuscripts sat, unread except by the infrequent scholar, in the Tolstoy Museum.

As the less influential half of a married couple, Mrs. Tolstoy suffered twice in that her husband's acolytes also painted her in a very unfavorable light. Over time, that view became accepted as fact, that the wife was embittered or jealous or too ignorant to recognize Leo's great wisdom and philosophy. She held him back when he might have been even greater.

The manuscripts that she left behind tell an entirely different story, but until recently her words were languishing in a vault in Russia. Tomorrow, a new translation of Sophia Tolstoy's two novellas, along with a fresh version of her husband's book, will be published. Her rebuttal to her husband's once banned book,  THE KREUTZER SONATA,  will make fans of Leo Tolstoy reconsider their beliefs in the veracity of the Tolstoy image.

With Leo Tolstoy thoroughly studied, his wife came to be an object of scholarly interest, and the scholars have discovered that they had a wrong image of her. Sophia Tolstoy was a woman of her times, to be sure, one whose training created a female with a deep interest in child-rearing and caring for those around her. She was not, unfortunately, the sort of sexual partner that Leo Tolstoy wanted, but then again, he was a man who created fiction and did not wish to face the fact that women don't have the same sex drive as men. Especially women who have been up for three days running, minding a sick child.

In THE KREUTZER SONATA VARIATIONS, Professor Michael R. Katz has compiled two novellas from Sophia Tolstoy along with family letters that present a more revealing portrait of Tolstoy private life. The other side of the story comes out here, in Sophia's work of fiction that was a direct rebuttal to Leo Tolstoy's well-known screed. The inclusion of a piece by Tolstoy's son Lev Lvovich adds to the picture, revealing more about Tolstoy the fallible human than an analysis of Tolstoy's prose would bring. We look different to ourselves as compared to the way others see us, and Sophia Tolstoy had a long time to study the subject in question.

No longer the shrew, the untalented or plodding dull housewife, the person who put up with Leo Tolstoy's libido is becoming a subject of interest for scholarly study. Her words provide insight that was previously ignored because her husband's powerful presence left no room for her. Mr. Katz's book will add to the increasing body of work that presents a more balanced view of Sophia Tolstoy, whose reputation suffered because she was the wife of a great author who sucked all the air out of every room they shared.

It should prove to be a very interesting treatise, and one that may inspire more than a few historical novelists to pen their own revised history of the Tolstoy family.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What Will Inspire You This Weekend?

Jesse Burton was walking around a museum in Amsterdam when she spotted a miniature house. As an only child growing up in England, she had played with a dollhouse, and a dollhouse is just a house in miniature. Many a woman has kept a love for her childhood toy and expanded the interest to a more adult pursuit that is the room in miniature, filled with detailed trappings more elegant than they had as a little girl.

Chicago's Art Institute is home to the famous Thorne miniature rooms, a collection of tiny reproductions of period styles. But when you gaze upon the scenes, do you see tiny books and candles, or do you see yourself in the room, a character in an historical drama? Do you marvel at how a human hand could craft something so small but so accurate, or do you find yourself thinking about a woman who commissioned the construction? From that spark, then, your mind takes you into a story of your own creation, a fiction based on the inspiration you found in an art exhibit.
Put people in here and let your imagination take over

That is where Jesse Burton found the inspiration for a novel that has been selling well in England. She was drawn to a miniature house on display, one woman's reproduction of her own home. In cold reality, it was more likely just the hobby of a wealthy and bored housewife who felt a sense of accomplishment in doing something creative, at a time when there was little that a woman was allowed to do.

For Ms. Burton, the cold reality was not what inspired her, but a notion in her head. What if the housewife was actually a young bride married to an older man? In the 1680s when the miniature house was made, it was not unusual for a man to wear out one wife and take another who was young enough to produce more offspring.

So what then? The bride would be less than happy, of course, saddled with an old man...but a good novel needs a bit of mystery so the husband would have to be carrying some deep, dark secrets that the bride was determined to tease out. And where would the dollhouse fit in? A secretive stranger, one with magical powers to appeal to fans of Harry Potter, would be the source of the miniature objects decorating the miniature rooms.

Much of what an author devises comes from an observation that leads to those "What if" questions, which the author then answers in the text of the manuscript. It is a way of looking at things that may differ from the way that non-authors look at things. You could suppose that your friend the structural engineer would see a miniature room in one way, while you would drift into a world of make-believe that has nothing to do with load-bearing walls.

The work of historical fiction with strong elements of mystery garnered a six-figure advance for Ms. Burton, and the book has been heavily promoted to reflect the importance of THE MINIATURIST to Picador's bottom line. The book is set for release in the United States, and the promotion will be just as heavy. The publisher has invested a lot in display pieces that reflect the theme of the book, intended to be erected in bookshop windows or used on front tables where reader's eyes are most likely to land.

What will inspire you as you go about your life this weekend?

It could be something large. Or it could be something small. Very, very small.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Alas, Poor Twinkie! We Knew You

Once upon a time in Chicago, a man came up with the idea to fill a sponge cake with banana flavored cream filling and so the Twinkie was born in the hard times of the Great Depression. Two cakes sold for a nickel, a price that most could afford even when money was tight.

The Twinkie became popular, like so many other treats manufactured by Continental Baking. The Hostess line churned out small packets that were perfect to drop into a child's lunch box, and a kid could grab a pair of Twinkies after school and not have to bother Mom. It was a typical convenience food of the Baby boomer generation, and with so many members, there was a high demand for Twinkies.

Alas, poor Twinkie. Somewhere in the 1960s people started to become concerned about what was going into their stomachs. Like so many other baked good with a long shelf life, Twinkies were peppered with preservatives. Then eaters became concerned with fat content and calories and starches and sugars and dieting, and Twinkies were not quite so beloved. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to eat so many of them, people mumbled. Maybe we should give our children carrot sticks in their lunch boxes instead of sugary treats.

Meanwhile, at the factory where Twinkies rolled down the assembly line, the employees enjoyed the bounty of a popular product that was in high demand. Then the sales started to slide, but the workers were used to a certain wage and there was no budging. The drop in sales collided with the ever increasing cost of production, and then one day the bakery had to go out of business.

By 2013, not all that many people were eating Twinkies. The iconic snack cake was soon to be barred from school cafeterias for failing to meet nutrition standards, and with so many worried about obesity, sales in general were too depressed to keep the factory going.

The Metropolous family saw value in the Twinkie, but only if they could cut costs at the factory. They bought up the assets and opened up the factories once again, but this time the workers were not unionized.

That situation would not last, either. The employees voted in the union, and were just about to sit down to negotiate for higher wages and increased benefits when they learned that the Illinois bakery would have to go. There simply aren't enough Twinkies being sold, and there isn't a way to increase the selling price without harming sales. Fewer workers are needed to make fewer Twinkies, and if the bakery has to pay those workers more, it can't afford to keep as many on.

Machines can do some of the work once done by humans, and machines don't go on strike or demand concessions. The machines became cheaper than the unionized work force, and so, the unionized workforce will become the unemployed while the machines keep cranking out Twinkies in the three remaining Hostess bakeries.

Twinkies are still fairly cheap. And it often feels like we're still in a Great Recession. The more things change, right?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

And Now The Germans Are Anti-Amazon

After a large number of American authors signed a letter of complaint to Amazon, citing the harm being done to authors while Amazon wrangles with Hachette Book Group, a gathering of German authors has taken the same approach.
Available from Amazon or subject to negotiations?

Amazon's way of negotiating is standard across international lines. The behemoth demands greater concessions from a supplier, the supplier balks, and Amazon makes it difficult to purchase the product. When an author's book is that product, and a seller is doing what it can to keep readers from buying the book, it's the author who suffers more than the publisher. An author has to build a readership and to lose those readers is to lose an audience for future works.

Eminent writers, including Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, have put their names to a letter that is similar to one already sent to Jeff Bezos from prominent American authors.

The Germans cite similar problems with apparent censorship, in that Amazon is misleading readers who are looking for books published by the Bonnier Group. It's the same old story, of Bonnier Group offerings not getting listed as recommended (if you like this, you'll like that, but not if it was published by who-know-who) which indicates that Amazon is manipulating the lists and the recommendations have nothing to do with preferences but everything to do with who is giving Amazon the best wholesale terms.

Unlike their American counterparts, the German authors make mention of their nation's culture, and how Amazon is showing an utter lack of respect towards it. In addition, German law does not allow deep discounts, which puts Amazon's culture in direct conflict. The love of a deal that works in America is not done the same way in Europe.

Of course Amazon responded in the same way, with the same whinge about the publishers being greedy, etc. etc., but that style does not translate well. The German authors are very concerned that Amazon will financially destroy the many small presses that are operating on shoestrings. They tend to be fearful of Amazon's might, and the fact that publishers were reluctant to complain is a reflection of that fear.

The authors took it upon themselves to make their sentiments known, even as their publishers drifted back into the shadows lest the mighty Amazon see and hear and then punish. Instead of publishers being vocal, it is the authors who ask their readers to write to Jeff Bezos' representative in Deutschland (along with Austria and Switzerland) to let him know that they don't like the way Amazon is playing.

In which case, it is only a matter of time before a new group of united authors appears, to extoll the glories of Amazon and all the wonders wrought by the Kindle Direct Publishing platform. The question is, will Amazon in Germany also spam the mailboxes of their KDP authors with misbegotten letters filled with misrepresentations? That fell pretty flat in the States. It most likely won't play well in Germany, either.

Monday, August 18, 2014

When The Government Stands Between A Woman And Her Doctor

Warring political factions speak of compromise as a way to settle on a solution to a problem, but what if the issue cannot be resolved by splitting the difference and finding common ground somewhere in the middle?

A woman recently arrived in Ireland discovered that she was pregnant. She told doctors that she had been raped in her home country, and she did not wish to continue the pregnancy for reasons known best to her. Sadly, she had arrived in Ireland rather than England, where her medical care would not have been under the influence of a religious body that has a dismal record when it comes to women's rights.

The Catholic Church is busy fending off the scandal of the industrial schools and the history of child sex abuse, along with the horrors of the Magdalene laundry gulag and the mother-and-baby homes with their astronomical infant mortality rates. In spite of such a bad record, the Church continues to influence Irish society, and the members of that society charged with making the laws. Hence, the splitting of differences to reach a compromise that everyone could vote on.

The foreigner wanted an abortion, but under the new law she had to meet with a panel of doctors and plead her case for why she should have an abortion. There being few legitimate reasons, she said she was suicidal. She'd rather die than give birth. The two psychiatrists on the panel found merit in her claims. The obstetrician, however, had a different take from his point of view, and the request for an abortion was denied.

In part, the problem was that it took a rather long time to get through the whole process, and with the passage of time the fetus just continued to grow and develop. When the committee did finally come up with a decision, the woman was already beyond the date at which a simple abortion could be performed. 

She, in turn, went on a hunger strike. Did she have to prove how sincere she was about making an end of it rather than have a baby she did not want and could not care for?

Clearly the woman was determined to take her life, and if she succeeded it would be just another black eye for Ireland and its record of abuse. Coming on the heels of the newest scandal in regard to dead illegitimate babies dumped in unmarked graves and the selling of babies in forced adoptions, the timing was very wrong for yet another mark against the State.

How to split the difference, then, between forcing a hunger striking woman to give birth or allowing her to sort of terminate the pregnancy?
Premie born at 25 weeks gestation

Perform a Caesarean section, deliver a premature baby, and there you have it. Not pregnant any more, and technically there was no termination.


And, like all compromises, no one is quite happy.

The Bishop of Elphin is upset that the pregnancy was not made to continue without medical interference, even though the woman had gone on a hunger strike. Well, naturally, if she had died herself the baby would have died but that's a natural thing and not something brought about by medical intervention. Besides, to deliver the child early was unethical. We can't have babies delivered prematurely because a woman wants an abortion.

The Minister for Justice, who happens to be female, is calling for revisions to a fatally flawed law. The woman in the case was put through an ordeal that is not yet over, which is not what the revised abortion legislation was supposed to do. Others are calling for a change in the Irish Constitution which was crafted under the influence of the Catholic Church, and which puts heavy restrictions on women's abilities to make medical decisions for themselves.

As for the Irish taxpayer, they will be footing the bill for the extensive, and expensive, care that is required to keep a 25-week-old premature infant alive. Going forward, they will be paying for a litany of ailments that are typically associated with premies, and all because a new law meant to prevent abortion on demand resulted in a delay that prevented a timely abortion.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I Pity The Fool On Trial

No lunch for Mr. T of A-Team fame.

Plenty of photos with fans, phone calls to the families of those fans, but no lunch. Hunger makes a man mean and Mr. T is all about mean when it comes to fighting crime.

Not that the Chicago-based actor was on a film set or starring in a new television production.
I pity the criminal
Mr. T, or Laurence Tureaud, was just being an ordinary citizen this past week when he showed up for jury duty in a Rolling Meadows courthouse. The same as anyone else, he was called and he did what any of us would have done, which is to arrive on time and then sit around waiting to be selected to sit in judgment.

He has been a motivational speaker for a number of years, targeting the young who can turn to crime as readily as they can to education:
"Reading is the key to knowledge," he's said. "Knowledge is the key to understanding. So read on, young man! Read on, young lady!"

Considering his fervent religious beliefs and toughness, you wouldn't really want him on your jury if you were the criminal. Not a famous actor known for attempt to guide people like you to the straight and narrow path. A motivational speaker, a leader-type, on your jury? Your own lawyer would have a hard time competing with that sort of influence.

Which is why any lawyer would be a fool to select Mr. T, and which is why Mr. T was never selected.

The star power alone would be too great a distraction for both the prosecution and defense. The jury is supposed to go back and discuss the case, but what are the chances that they would all be discussing Mr. T and what it's really like in Hollywood and is Sylvester Stallone easy to work with. Famous people never get picked for juries because the ordinary folk who represent the real peerage would have a hard time focusing on the task at hand.

Or at least that's how it would be if I was sitting on a jury. But I've never been called, not once. The random selection process seems to have missed me.

But they can call a celebrity, can't they? What's wrong with me, I ask you. Am I not good enough to judge? Or is there someone in the clerk's office who wants to save me the trouble of trying to get out of jury duty and makes sure that I'm not randomly chosen in the first place? After all, in Cook County, it's not what you know but who you know.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mommy, What Is Bondage?

Your thirteen-year-old has found your copy of "50 Shades Of Grey" and the questions start.

You've got some explainin' to do
You might start with one. For example, you most likely would begin the interrogation by asking where the kid found what you had so carefully hidden and why was he or she in your personal stuff and how would they like it if you rummaged through their private things. By that time you're hoping that the child's question is long forgotten.

If only there was a book that could explain, in scientific and analytic terms. No emotional outburst, no uncomfortable throat-clearing. Just a clear and concise description that any freshly minted teen could understand so you wouldn't have to explain.

Enter YOUR HEALTH TODAY. This is the textbook you've been looking for.

Unless, of course, your child has been kept sheltered or you've done a really fine job of hiding your mommy porn. In which case, would you want a textbook that introduces bondage to your high school freshman?

The people of Fremont, California, where the book was used as a textbook in the health education class, certainly did not. When parents cracked open the text to see what their little darlings would be studying for the semester, many of them went apoplectic.

Books are special because we learn things by reading. Being able to read alters the wiring in the brain and changes the way we think, so books can be very powerful. And no one wants to empower their high school freshman who is already dealing with raging hormones and a changing body.

Do children of this age really need instruction on petting? Some would say the kids already know about "erotic touching" (fancy term, isn't it) but not all do, and their parents would rather that their child not learn until they're maybe fifteen or sixteen or thirty-seven.

How about bondage? The book contains a section that describes bondage as a means of gaining sexual pleasure, but unless you share your collection of novels with your young daughter, you don't much want her to know what bondage is because it doesn't come up much in casual conversation and there is no need to know. Besides, you might think it's not quite a normal practice, along with other sorts of fetishes that are lumped together in the kinky department.

After outrage and a petition to the school board, the book is heading back to McGraw-Hill, to be sold to some other school district that will then face the ire of parents who want to protect their children from the oversexualization of America's youth. The kids have their Abercrombie and Fitch catalogs for that, and the only words in that printed material have to do with fabric content and size. The rest is left to the imagination, and don't we want our kids to be more creative and imaginative?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Summer Doldrums

With but two weeks remaining to the month of August, the publishing world has gone dark.

They have their summer hours, with weekends beginning in the middle of Friday, if not on the day itself. You wonder at their complaints about the dearth of book sales, considering how they treat the work week, but tradition is hard to change even if the industry is much in need of change to keep pace with changing times.

You may have a query letter you've been polishing. You no doubt have your list of literary agents you believe would be a perfect fit.

Follow some of them on Twitter and you'll notice that they are tweeting about their vacation. Where they've gone. What they're seeing. What they're eating.
They are not in the office, waiting for your letter to drop into their inbox.

In fact, they are dreading the return to that office, with an inbox overflowing with missives from authors. Would you want your letter read by someone who resents its presence?

This is not a good time to query, unless you can be certain that your target is not part of the publishing summer hours crowd. All the work you put into making the letter perfect is worthless if a pair of receptive eyes are not perusing your stellar prose.

Check social media before you query. You could be saving yourself a lot of sadness, a lot of stress, and the misery of finding that more and more these days, no response means the answer is no.

September is a lovely month for querying. Publishing is preparing for the next year's catalogue, and searching for the next big blockbuster plot. Don't rush things. Wait until the heat of summer has cooled and the literary agents have recovered from the strain of a vacation to some exotic locale. Or recovered from the strain of spending two weeks in the close company of bawling, squabbling children and relatives who aren't avid readers.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

If You Don't Buy From Amazon, You Can Buy With Amazon

Is there nothing that Jeff Bezos doesn't have a finger in?

His Amazon website sells just about everything, but lately there have been a few rough patches on the road to total world domination. His attempt to squeeze Hachette for more discounts to increase his own profits has resulted in an unexpected backlash with calls to boycott amid a whiff of censorship. No one likes a basher of authors, and because authors are being hurt in Amazon's struggles with Hachette, Amazon has lost a little of its lustre.

So you're not buying from Amazon, are you? Well, not to worry. When you go elsewhere for your needs, the storekeeper just might be funneling your payment through Amazon. Jeff Bezos will get his cut no matter what you do.

Taking on the market outside of Amazon's walls
Amazon is introducing a device that snaps on to a smartphone and allows the vendor to swipe payment cards. It is not the first such device out there. Square has been in the mobile payment market for some time. But Jeff Bezos is taking his usual approach by copying what is already being done and then offering a lower price.

So Square charges the vendor 2.75% of the purchase price as a fee? Switch to Amazon and it's down to 1.75%...until the first of January 2016 when the cost goes up to 2.5%. Still less than Square, and a savvy merchant will see that fraction of a percent as real money going into a real pocket. That sort of pricing could eliminate Square, which would have to meet the decreased price or face defeat. Once the competition is crushed, Mr. Bezos can set the fee at just about any level he likes.When Amazon is the only game in town, you pay to play or you don't play at all, and with your clients dependent on convenience, you have to play.

Some might call it predatory pricing and note that it is illegal in the United States, but the wheels of federal justice move slowly and Square could be long gone before anyone in Washington DC notices.

Paypal is larger than Square, however, and Paypal also has a point-of-sale payment device. Their device is free of charge, and their fee is a fraction less than Square's, at 2.7%. Still higher than what Amazon will be offering, however, and again it will be a case of lowering the price to compete or face defeat. With bigger pockets, Paypal could match Amazon's discount for a much longer time than Square, and it would also have the money to fund advertising campaigns that just might feature people having nothing but problems with their Amazon point-of-sale transactions.

Are you all in to the Amazon boycott?

When you buy anything anywhere, you'll have to ask how the vendor is processing your payment. There may not be anywhere for you to make a purchase that doesn't put some money into Jeff Bezos' pocket.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Jelly Belly Hits The Road, Won't Come Back No More, No More

The late President Ronald Reagan kept a candy jar filled with Jelly Bellies on his desk. It was the best publicity a candy could have, to be seen so conspicuously in photos taken with the President of the United States. It give reporters something to report on when news was slow. How many stories were written about the President's favorite flavor combination, and where did the favorite sweet snack come from?

The Goelitz Confection people started making candy corn in the 1890s, when the candy business was booming. By 1913, they recognized the need for more capacity and they migrated west from their Cincinnati base. They found the perfect spot in North Chicago, a manufacturing area near the booming metropolis of Waukegan, Illinois. Their neighbors were the sailors of Great Lakes Naval Training Station, a few short years away from a war that would sweep across the world. A young Ronald Reagan was toddling around Tampico, Illinois, perhaps dreaming of candy corn.

So there they were in North Chicago, making candy corn and then butter creams and chocolate malt balls and licorice and peppermints. Business thrived, through the First World War and family conflict that saw one of the Goelitz brothers go west to start his own company in Fairfield, California.

They survived the Great Depression when there was little money around for luxuries like candy. They survived the Second World War, with its rationing and shortages of sugar. The family squabble was eased and the two branches of the candy company found common ground, working together to make jelly beans.

Ronald Reagan promoted Jelly Belly jelly beans and the product took off, in spite of escalating sugar prices and increasing labor costs.

The end has been reached. The factory in North Chicago will no longer make Jelly Bellies. 70 people will lose their jobs.

The North Chicago plant will shrink because it isn't economically viable any more. The remaining workers will be shifted into contract candy production, making goods for someone else who will have to make a profit. Cheaper, private label products will come off the assembly line, without the Goelitz Confectionery name.

The cost of doing business in Illinois is too high, when coupled with sugar prices that are artificially high due to heavy lobbying by American sugar producers.

Jelly Bellies from the Land of Lincoln, boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, will cease to exist. It's fitting, in a way. Ronald Reagan left Illinois as well and never came back, remaining in California until his death. He's even buried there. In the state where Jelly Bellies continue to be made.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

In Which Amazon Begs Us To Boycott It

Important Kindle request, says the subject line. Whatever could Kindle be urgently in need of, we wondered.

Dear KDP Author, Amazon begins the missive that we found in the inbox this morning.

And straight off, it's a history lesson. We're publishers of historical fiction here at Newcastlewest Books, so the first line caught our eye. Granted, Amazon was referring to the Second World War and we grew up calling it The Emergency, but it's a one-size-fits-all sort of letter so we'll forgive the slip.

Paperback books revolutionized the book industry, Amazon tells us, right after the end of the big war. To be more factually correct, Amazon, you could have pointed out that the recently deceased Oscar Dystel was instrumental in fomenting that rebellion, but that might be too much history for the average KDP author and if they ever figured out that Jane Dystel, his daughter, is a literary agent trafficking in traditional publishing, it could spoil the narrative arc.

So paperback books made books cheap to buy and now we have digital books that also make books cheap to buy. And that evil publishing industry just tried to stop it. Tried to keep the common folk from gaining access to literature. Greedy bastards.

If you, the KDP author, didn't get the class warfare implication, Amazon continues in the next paragraph of this letter, attacking Hachette Books Group as part of that evil publishing empire and by the way it's a segment of a $10 billion congolomerate.

Didn't Jeff Bezos who owns Amazon just buy the Washington Post? Doesn't that make him rich? Or are we not supposed to compare apples to apples and conclude that Jeff Bezos is a greedy bastard as well? Sorry. It's the Jesuit education coming out. But then again, the average KDP author probably wasn't schooled by Ignatians so maybe we're asking questions that Amazon doesn't expect to be asked.

Reading on, we start to wonder if one of President Obama's speechwriters put this letter together. It's filled with straw men and suggestions of consensus that don't exist if you do the research, but there again, the average KDP author doesn't follow the industry and can't judge the veracity of the statements contained in the letter from Amazon. They aren't business people either, and they may take Amazon's pricing argument at face value, without considering the costs of publishing that have to be recouped in the sale price of a book.

So when Amazon states: "We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture.", they won't know that what Amazon wants is not lower prices for the readers but lower prices for them so they can make a bigger profit.

Anyone who uses the Smashwords platform for digital publishing knows that Amazon takes a bigger piece of the digital pie from the author who worked so hard to produce the book. The Amazon-Hachette dispute has nothing to do with readers getting a better deal. The better deal falls to Amazon, which is spending so much on competing against the likes of Apple in electronic devices that its stockholders are getting more than a little concerned.

It isn't the reader's champion Amazon doing battle with greedy bastard Hachette. That's what Amazon's letter to Dear KDP Author wants you to think, but it's all smoke and mirrors meant to obscure what Amazon is really after.

So in closing, Amazon asks the KDP Author to e-mail Hachette's CEO. Join the Amazon army for lower prices! You have nothing to lose but your chains, readers of the world!

If you have been following the dispute, you'd know that 900 disgruntled authors are calling on their readers to e-mail Jeff Bezos and tell him to stop censoring their books by making them unavailable via Amazon. This letter is Amazon's reaction, offered with a fervent hope that they can garner enough outrage among the unknowing to develop a marketing strategy that can say X hundreds of authors are against what Hachette is doing so there take that we've got the umbrage on our side as well.

We're not the brightest bulbs in the marquee, but neither are we stupid. Amazon's letter is playing its KDP authors for fools, and that is a tactic that we find highly insulting.

So write to Hachette's CEO. The e-mail is provided in the letter from Amazon. Voice your support for Hachette's stand against Amazon's attempt to control the book market by manipulating book sales. It is the authors who are getting hurt. The authors who work so hard for so little money to provide you with your entertainment and knowledge. The authors who will make even less so that Amazon, and Jeff Bezos, can make even more.

Friday, August 08, 2014

A Done Deal Comes Undone

The deal was announced to much excitement, particularly in light of the Hachette/Amazon brawl. Perseus Books Group was going to divide itself into two pieces, with onef going to Hachette to improve that publisher's backlist, and the other part going to Ingram so that the distributor would become big. Really big.

Things are not always so easy in the execution.

Hachette stood to gain, with the addition of Perseus' non-fiction titles giving the expanded publisher a stronger position in its ongoing fight with Amazon. Perseus' executives knew that, of course. They would have played on that fact and used it as leverage to lift the sale price.

The same applies to Ingram, an already large distributor looking to grow. Good for Ingram, but should Hachette then expect a discount for the loss of the distribution arm of Perseus Books? Was there a flicker of loyalty to Mark Suchomel, the founder of a Perseus boutique distribution line? Ingram was quick to declare that he would be leaving the company as soon as it became a branch of Ingram. How about a little something, Ingram, for the effort? Did the price of a golden parachute sink the deal?

The three-way deal became unwieldy as negotiations over who would pay what for which did not proceed with the same smoothness as the initial announcement. It all sounded good on paper. Once the parties talked money, however, real money, the consensus was lost and for want of consensus the deal was lost.

From comments made by Perseus CEO David Steinberg, the company will simply move forward and consider the failed deal as just that, a deal that didn't happen in a business climate where plans are floated all the time and don't necessarily amount to anything.

Someone else will come along, especially now that it is known that Perseus is willing to entertain suitors. Some other publisher will make an offer, or some hedge fund perhaps, and a different deal will be struck and negotiated and agreed.

What will become of the distribution arm of Perseus? Ingram may still be interested. It will simply be a matter of locking horns with a different nemesis and wrangling the best price that makes sense for Ingram and is acceptable to Perseus. Next time, maybe they could see their way to keeping Mr. Suchomel on for a limited time, or send him away with a lovely parting gift.

As for Hachette, there is no reason to expect that the embattled publisher is going to retreat, not when strategy calls for a firmer non-fiction list. They can go out shopping and find another publisher willing to sell a piece of itself, some entity located in the United States where Hachette wishes to expand. Hachette needs to be bigger to win its fight against Amazon. The publisher needs a backlist as protection against Amazon's manipulation of the frontlist market.

This deal is undone, the victim of hard negotiating and Perseus' lack of urgency in selling.

The deal-making, however, will continue.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Amazon: The World's Biggest Book Censor

Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel, Mark Twain once opined, and Jeff Bezos is discovering the truth in the observation.

It's an unintended consequence of business, of course, nothing personal against authors. They just happen to be in the line of fire as Bezos takes aim at Hachette Book Group as part of the great pricing war. Amazon must have a bigger discount from Hachette to improve the bottom line. Amazon's tactics are creating a very unpleasant unintended consequence.

Hachette's authors were the ones to suffer when Amazon decreed that it would not allow pre-orders of Hachette books when Hachette refused to accept Amazon's harsh terms. There is a limit to how low a publisher can sell a book, and Hachette decided that Amazon wanted more than the publisher could give. Amazon, being the world's biggest book store, played hardball because the corporation has the power to do so. But it was the authors who were taking the hit, and the authors struck back.

Quick to react to the negative publicity that was generated when the authors started speaking out, Amazon made things worse by offering the authors a deal resembling Satan's temptation of Christ. As it turned out, the authors kept their loyalty with the publisher that made their success possible, and a new round of verbal abuse rained down on Amazon.

Amazon went back to playing the long game, restoring a few marketing widgets here and there, but still applying pressure to Hachette. As Jeff Bezos will soon realize, he doesn't have quite so many barrels of ink in his Washington Post as all the authors who are protesting Amazon's battle plan in the war against Hachette.

Authors United, a group that coalesced around the concept of Amazonian censorship, has bought a full page in this Sunday's New York Times. They are taking their protest a step further, to the heart of both publishing and financial industries.

Nine hundred buyers of ink by the barrel have signed a letter to their reading public, essentially accusing Amazon of censorship. In a nation that incorporated freedom of the press and free speech into its founding documents, it is a heavy charge to lay at Jeff Bezos' feet.

In closing, they ask their readers to use some of their own ink to voice their opinion directly to Mr. Bezos, and this after telling those same loyal readers that Mr. Bezos' company is actively preventing them from accessing the books that entertain and inform. The inbox will fill quickly, with hundreds of readers joining their favorite authors in protesting what Jeff Bezos has created.

He started Amazon to be the place to go to buy everything with the utmost convenience, and people have developed the habit. Sure they could buy any book they like at any bookstore, but not at two in the morning on a Saturday when the urge strikes. He created that mindset, and the attempt to rein in Hachette by blocking easy book sales is also seen as a direct blow to the easy transmission of thoughts and ideas.

Will he dig in and refuse to budge with Hachette? After all, he has no other way to punish the publisher than to harm sales. But how much will it hurt Amazon, if Authors United succeeds in ratcheting up consumer outrage and escalates the boycott of Amazon?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Children In War

Dublin was one of the poorest cities in Europe when the First World War broke out. Its slums were notorious, the buildings so degraded that they sometimes collapsed from rot. Overcrowded, ridden with disease, it was no wonder that a boy looking for some sort of future would seek any means to escape.

Joseph Pierce Murphy joined the Royal Navy as a boy sailor, someone unskilled, not unlike an apprentice. Unlike his wealthier counterpart, he was not admitted as a midshipman. That was for his betters, the ones destined to become officers because they were upper class. He was around 20 years of age, and his family would have been delighted that they had a member with a steady job and a reliable source of income. It was 1910 when he signed on, and his career looked relatively safe. His term of service was to be twelve years. There was no telling how far he might go in those twelve years, but he was out of the slums of Ringsend where a boy his age had no hope of finding much work of any kind.

While the young Mr. Murphy was learning his trade as a sailor, becoming a signaller and earning a promotion to petty officer in June of 1914. Within a matter of two months, England was at war with Germany and what might have seemed a fairly safe career changed entirely.

One hundred years ago today, Joseph Pierce Murphy died when the ship on which he served struck a mine in the North Sea. Ironically, the German ship that laid the mine was sunk just the day before, but it was too late for Mr. Murphy. Along with thirteen of his countrymen, he was one of the first battle casualties of a war that did not end all war, but did put an end to European monarchies and give a group of Irishmen the notion that the time was right to launch a rebellion against Great Britain.

A memorial service to honor the young man will be held at a church near his boyhood home, to be attended by his descendants who still reside in the area.

They say they are proud of him, of his accomplishments in a short life, but it has taken one hundred years for the Irish to grudgingly accept the notion of sacrifice during the Great War. Many felt that the Irish were used as cannon fodder, their bleak poverty caused by English rule becoming a driving force to encourage men to sign up to fight. They should have been fighting in the streets of Dublin, many thought, and when that day came in 1916, those who served the King became objects of shame.

One hundred years later, opinions are changing and historians are looking back with a slightly different slant.

Now to come to grips with the centennial of the Easter Rising and who should be allowed to attend and what do we do with the Queen of England now that she's been invited?

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

High Seas And The Vanishing Coastal Communities

They watched the sea rise and cover their wooden pier. They were helpless as the salt water over-ran the coastline and crept inland, to wash out the freshwater bog. Their forests died and their land disappeared under the sea.

They were Bronze Age Irishmen and it was three thousand years before the common era. Or before Christ, if you're keeping track in the old-fashioned way.
The lake became a bay

Recent storms along Galway Bay uncovered a few interesting artifacts that had not previously been spotted. A local resident found bits of oak  and passed it along to Professor Mike Williams of NUI Galway. The geologist had been studying the area and had already discovered evidence of forests that were now under Galway Bay, which meant that Galway Bay was once not there at all. Being a geologist, he was keen to determine just how old Galway Bay might be, what with the clues of recent creation turning up. Publish or perish, as they say, and the professor was off to gather artifacts and evidence of his hypothesis so that he could write it down and share it with fellow geologists.

Near where the local man found the piece of ancient oak, the professor found the preserved remnants of a wooden walkway, unseen and forgotten for centuries. But what does it mean, that ancient people built a wooden walkway and today it's under water?

It means that the sea level rose, and it wasn't all that long ago in geological time. Scientists are suggesting that Galway Bay wasn't Galway Bay until some time around 3700 B.C. Before that? It was a lough. And that's why local Galwegians have been know to refer to Galway Bay as Lough Lurgan. Because the memory of the lough is still around, even if the lough isn't.

Sea levels rising? Isn't that something we are supposed to fear in this modern time of man-made global climate change?

You're imagining some Neolithic Al Gore right about now, aren't you, running around Spiddal and Galway town, giving speeches to the assembled masses and warning them to stop burning fossil fuels because they're making the earth too hot and the ice is melting. We know now that it was just the ending of the last Ice Age, when the ice did indeed melt, and not because of human activity but as part of a poorly understood natural cycle.

Friends in Chicago can live there now because the ice had the decency to melt all those thousands of years ago and leave behind a very large lake filled with fresh water. For those surrounding what was once Lough Lurgan in Ireland, the melting ice had the opposite effect. What was once fresh water became contaminated with sea water and there went the neighborhood.

The residents of Galway adapted as best they could when it was obvious that the sea was rising and wasn't retreating. They built their walkway and when the sea kept coming up anyway, they moved inland.

All that without an influx of cash from some Bronze Age United Nations, demanding payments from the more well-heeled nations who stood accused of causing the melting ice problem.

However did they manage back then?

Monday, August 04, 2014


It is now official. Harlequin is part of the HarperCollins family which is a part of NewsCorp which is owned by Ruper Murdoch and he's rich so he must know what he's doing, right?

At its last statement of earnings, Harlequin reported a decline in revenue, a decline that has been ongoing. So Mr. Murdoch must believe that his company can turn things around and get Harlequin back up there to the top of the romance novel genre.

Maybe all that's needed a good shake-up. The market's face has changed a bit since Harlequin first appeared.

Unlike other publishers, the imprint was open to submissions from authors who followed the precise guidelines. Harlequin was, and still is, very much a specific brand providing a particular product that never varied. Manuscripts of a certain length. Plots of a certain arc. No sex or plenty of sex, depending on which given unit of Harlequin the author was submitting to.

And next to no money for the effort.

While Harlequin was running the show its way, the world of digital publishing evolved and the people who once hoped to write for Harlequin found that they could write for themselves, and with some promotion, sell their own works to the very readers that they would have reached via Harlequin. But without having to give Harlequin a cut.

As a unit of HarperCollins, Harlequin will continue to operate out of Canada but will the staff remain unchanged? Not likely, if NewsCorp is after turning things around and restoring the brand to profitability.

What could attract writers who now do it themselves? Better marketing, perhaps, or a bigger slice of the profits, but it's hard to give more when the corporation is getting less. The self-publishing crowd can offer much lower prices with the middle man cut out of the picture.

For HarperCollins, there is Harlequin's global reach that offers it an expanded opportunity to get HarperCollins books out there. It won't just be Harlequin books getting hyped, but similar titles from the parent company. So does HarperCollins want Harlequin for its distribution network, or for its iconic label?

Both, possibly. Only time will tell.

Hopeful authors will keep an eye on the submission requirements while monitoring the many options available for self-publishing. HarperCollins may find a way to sweeten the deal and attract the authors who don't find it quite so attractive these days when there are so many other suitors available.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Friends In High Places

In 1889, Daniel Coughlin went to prison for a murder he did not commit. You can read all about it here, courtesy of a free book promotion from Newcastlewest Books.

Over 125 years of political corruption and still going strong
He was a politically connected police detective in Chicago, but his clout was at war with another faction seeking control of the city. Not to spoil the ending of the novel, but it's already written in the history: when his appeal was heard, there was talk that political trickery had gotten him back into court for a second chance.

The more things change, as they say, the more they stay the same.

Chicago alderman Patrick O'Connor is descended from the proud tradition, a product of the Irish diaspora that settled in the city and promptly exercised their rights to vote and run for election and then take over the town via the ballot box. Which is often stuffed, but that's as much a part of tradition as the annual St. Patrick's Day parade.

Like the council members in Coughlin's day, all the way back in 1889, Mr. O'Connor sees nothing wrong with helping himself and his family. He's working hard there at his ward office, making sure the garbage is picked up for those who toe the party line and vote for O'Connor. Surely a man is entitled to some compensation.

And if a man can't give his poor sister a hand, what sort of man is he?

Catherine Sugrue is Alderman O'Connor's sibling and she wanted to be a principal in a Chicago public school. Principals make more money. They have better perks. They have more power. Who wouldn't want to advance? It isn't as if she wants to spend the rest of her working life in a classroom with obnoxious, disrespectful kids who aren't learning much of anything anyway.

But alas, she didn't have the skills needed to be made a school principal. She failed the test. Twice. And having failed twice, she was barred from taking the test again for a three year period, during which time it was probably assumed she'd study hard and find success.

That's three years without all the benefits accruing, and Alderman O'Connor wouldn't hear of it.

Ms. Sugrue had been the assistant principal until the school board promoted her, despite the fact that she was not qualified. And in true Chicago fashion, when next the Chicago Board of Education met, they approved a change in the law that would allow Ms. Sugrue to be made an interim principal, even though she had failed the test to become a school principal. She can be the interim principal ad infinitum. There is no term limit. So that puts an end to worrying about that test that she failed twice already.

Corruption, the cry went out, but Alderman O'Connor would not hear of it.

Corruption? he asked. As for that, well, he just pushed through an ordinance at the last City Council meeting that strips the city's official Legislative Inspector from inspecting the very charges of corruption against the alderman that the inspector was in the process of investigating.

They said that Dan Coughlin won his appeal because strings were pulled in high places, to change the rules that put him in jail in the first place.

One hundred twenty five years ago, citizens saw political corruption put to work to help those in power. Funny how it hasn't changed a bit in all that time. Except maybe now it's a lot more blatant than it used to be.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The War To End All Wars Begins

One hundred years ago, the Europeans watched as their world descended into war. An obscure member of some minor royal house had been assassinated and before long the continent was heading straight towards armed conflict.

How did it happen, that countries would consider sending a generation of young men to their deaths, and for what?

In today's Irish Times, an editorial from an Italian newspaper is reprinted in all its hot-headed glory, and demonstrates how something that should not have been such an enormous incident became the match that lit Europe on fire in 1914.


It all came down to alliances and who had assured whom of support and mutual defence. An archduke was killed so the Austro-Hungarian empire had to retaliate. It could have done otherwise, or taken a different tack, but the world of 1914 was still one of class privilege and royalty. The grandchildren of Queen Victoria took things personally and felt duty-bound to retaliate, while the United States felt cushioned by an ocean and took little notice.

With Serbia under attack, it was accurately believed that Russia's Czar Nicholas would have to counter his cousin's move and go to war. In that case, Italy would be bound to join its ally against Russia because they had made agreements and a gentleman never goes against his word. It was very much a world of gentlemen back then, an insular coccoon of class that kept the common folk in their place and likely in service to the well-heeled.

England was ready to stand behind France one hundred years ago today, prepared to protect a former enemy (remember Agincourt and all those plays that Shakespeare wrote?) in case the King's cousin had an eye towards expanding his empire. By this day a century ago, opinion was running towards the inevitability of war because of promises made by various relations.

We can look back and marvel at the heated words, look back from our modern world in which there is no tsar in Russia or kaiser in Germany. The war to end all wars did not stop war, but it did spell an end to monarchy and an entire way of life.

It fascinates us still, the breakdown of society and the expectations of behavior. Why else would Downton Abbey be such a hit?