Saturday, November 29, 2014

Without You There Is No Us: A Book Review

Here's the disclaimer: "I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Now for the review.

Last month, the French press reported on a rather bizarre incident involving a foreign exchange student who suddenly went missing. This unnamed young man was studying architecture at a school outside of Paris, one of five or six men from North Korea. One fine day, the man in question just disappeared, failing to show up for class. Soon he was spotted, or made himself known to authorities, as he was being put aboard a flight to China.

The man's father had recently been purged in North Korea and the attempted kidnap victim is now being held in protective custody so that he can avoid the same fate.

By some strange coincidence, the day of the news story was the same day that I received a copy of WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US, by Korean-American writer Suki Kim. The memoir details her time in North Korea as a teacher of the English language, a cover she adopted so that she could write about the highly secretive country that is not open to journalists or investigative reporters.

Ms. Kim's family was directly touched by the partition of the Korean peninsula, and she approaches her topic from that unique perspective. She was raised on the heartache of relatives trapped in the north, never to be seen again. At the same time, she understands that she is essentially imprisoned herself within the compound of the school where she teaches for two semesters. Her ability to describe the sensations she experienced, the paranoia and stress of constantly being watched, make for a page-turning story.

She records her impressions of the very brief and controlled glimpses she received of North Korean life, with every activity scripted for outside consumption. The rare view of the starving peasants, as opposed to her well-fed corps of elites, is included to show the contrast. In addition, Ms. Kim provides the reader with a sense of the soul-crushing effect of monitoring that altered her way of thinking as she adapted in order to mentally survive.

Like the missionaries who run the school, she longs to touch the minds of her students. Her naivete is charming as she concocts lesson plans meant to open the eyes of those who have been trained since birth not to see. As the relationship between student and teacher evolves, she makes a sad discovery about the immorality of a repressive regime where nothing is real and all is fantasy.

Overall, Ms. Kim does an excellent job of painting a picture of life under an ever watchful eye, when a single mistake could cost a person, and their extended family, their lives. With the world ever curious about the most closed society on Earth, this memoir is a recommended peek through the keyhole.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

35 Hours In Name Only

Those French. So important, the short work week so that all les citoyens can sit in les cafes and drink absinthe. One must relax, the French believe, and so they wrote it into their laws. Thou shalt not work more than thirty-five hours per week.

Et voila.

The French are working more than that because you can't make enough money to get by if you only pull down thirty-some hours. Mon Dieu! Is it time to rewrite the law so that it matches reality?

Among the socialists who govern France is a firm belief that the workers are exploited by the bosses so the State must step in to protect the workers. It sounds good, but in practice it is impossible. Not working does not boost a nation's economy, especially when the State is generous with the social welfare. The funds have to come from somewhere.

According to the New York Times, there are those in France who simply work two jobs and ignore the law against excessive labor. As these criminals have discovered, you can make more money if you work more hours, and if you make more money, you can buy things that you would like to have. You could save that extra money and buy yourself a house in the south of France, and then rent it out to Irish tourists desperate for a glimpse of the sun, and make even more money.

Poor France must fight its image as a nation of lazy sots, some ministers have said. What multinational wants to locate in Lyons if the CEO has no confidence in his work force? A day's work for two day's wages isn't exactly the stuff of capitalism. To make matters worse, many multinationals are owned and operated by Americans, who are known to not take any vacation at all because of their obsession with work. As if the Germans aren't bad enough.

Unemployment is high and the French economy is stagnant. but there are too many in government who refuse to admit that their economic model is a failure. They take great pride in the 35-hour work week, even if the short hours exist in name only. The head of France's Socialist Party, Bruno Le Roux, is quite vehement when he states that the 35-hour work week is not going to be changed, not ever.

Perhaps a small step could be taken, suggests Economic Minister Emmanuel Macron. How about if the workers themselves decide if they want to work 35 hours per week, or more. A drastic step, to be sure, to trust the people to decide how best to manage their time.

Employers are working around the law by hiring people as part-time employees, keeping the hours under the limit for overtime pay so that the business is not hurt by high labor costs. For the workers, it becomes a game of cobbling together two jobs and juggling a time schedule to get enough hours to put food on the table.

The law about 35 hours exists on the books, but in practice, it's just a jumble of nonsense words. Real life does not match the intent. For those in power, it's all about the intent. But it's also about the populace agitating for a better economy. Something has to be changed, but what, exactly? And by how much?

Instead of more leisure, the French worker gets less. The road to hell, good intentions, and all that......

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Foresight In HIndsight

Once upon a time, a little minnow swallowed a mighty publishing whale because that little minnow had a vision.

Digital was the way to go in educational publishing, and a small publisher could not reach the heights in that bright future without growing. And so Barry O'Callaghan took Riverdeep Publishing and made it bigger and bigger and bigger until it burst. He sucked up too much debt as he swallowed Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt and all the other little publishing fish. All that debt drowned the little minnow that became a dying whale.
Barry O'Callaghan in happier times

Synergies and reconstructions and reconfigurations propped up what was left, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt emerged from the rubble. More nimble, a lean and mean swimming machine, HMH is now looking at the banquet table loaded with acquisition targets and finding a snack to its liking. Not dining in excess, having learned its lesson, but HMH is looking at growth because....because digital publishing in educational materials is the future of educational materials publishing.

Just like Barry O'Callaghan knew when he first started to realize his dream. He had the right idea, but unfortunately could not execute the plan in the face of a crashing equity market. Right idea, wrong place, wrong time.

HMH has picked up a few small digital operations that use the Internet to deliver content. A website for the primary level and a technology company are now part of HMH as it expands further into the digital area. School districts are on tight budgets, and they can't afford to update their textbooks every year or two. But they can manage an upgrade on digital content, which costs less than thousands of hardcover books. In addition, digital content can be changed with a keystroke. No waiting around for a delivery, and then having to pay someone to unpack and sort. The convenience alone would have an impact even if lack of financial resources was not an issue.

HMH's Linda Zecher, brought in from Microsoft to run things, has recently stated that digital educational publishing provides half of the revenue from educational publishing, and the education end of the business accounts for 85% of the business. That's a big chunk of the profits arising from the digital end. Barry O'Callaghan saw that coming, but his timing was off.

Digital is on the rise in educational publishing. More and more students are using tablets to store their books, instead of an over-filled backpack. Kids are becoming accustomed to using electronic devices, and there will not be a big push to go back to the old days of dog-eared textbooks. Electronic learning is growing and will continue to grow, fed by expectations of a wireless society.

Barry O'Callaghan had the foresight. He still has the dream.

Beanstalk Innovation is his new baby, a small tech firm that has a contract with the state of Georgia in the US to provide digital educational materials for an American history course, along with English language instruction for Puerto Rican schools.. As the CEO, instead of the owner, he has fallen a step or two down from the glory days, but he intends to bring English language coursework to students around the globe, all through the wonder of the Internet. With success in that niche, he plans to rebuild Riverdeep and work his way back, the little minnow once again swimming in the digital sea and swallowing up whatever small fry come its way.

Could a re-acquisition of HMH be a part of his strategy?

Employees of HMH, those not lost to the realization of synergies, are very much hoping the answer to that question is a solid "No".

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Books Make The Best Gifts

The holiday shopping season is upon us and you can make things easier on yourself by purchasing books.

For the people in your life who enjoy a good historical romance, they would be delighted to find THE SECOND WAR OF REBELLION under the tree...or loaded on an e-reader if you're giving more generously.

Can't wait until Christmas?

THE SECOND WAR OF REBELLION is available now, at any and all online retailers. Ask your local independent bookseller to order a copy for you. Go on. It's a wonderful gift, and you could read it first before re-gifting. Just don't crack the spine or leave stains on the pages...

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Opening Of Your Next Thriller

Writers in the US are preparing for a long weekend holiday of excessive eating, so they aren't likely to be thinking too deeply about the subject of their next novel. Sit down at the table and be thankful that the North Koreans have provided a plot for you.

North Korea is a fascinating place because it is such a secretive nation. The media is so thoroughly controlled that you can't find out what is happening, and you can't believe what they tell you because it's all a pack of lies anyway.
This is a picture of Jeanne Gang, a brilliant architect with a particular set of skills.

For a writer, there is an added benefit in that you can make up whatever you like if you use North Korea as a setting because your readers don't have much disbelief to suspend. Anything is possible in a country that exists in total isolation from the rest of the world.

When news is released by North Korea, it carries greater weight due to its rarity, and when that news includes a freshly minted "Dear Leader" having his uncle executed, the world takes notice. Not only the uncle, but all those associated with the uncle were killed off as Kim Jong Whichever purged those who most endangered his complete control. Including an ex-girlfriend, apparently, but that's a different story.

What of the families of those purged? It's been thought that people who ran afoul of the regime were put into labor camps along with their families, so it would make sense that a purged official would bring his nearest and dearest along for the ride to the afterlife.

It turns out that one of the uncle's colleagues had a son who was studying architecture in Paris at the time of the Great Purge. The young man was part of a group of select students whose parents were high enough up in the government to be trusted to go away and then come back, bringing much needed knowledge to North Korea. The country might be isolated, but it needs modern architectural techniques to build cheap housing that won't collapse. That sort of unpleasantness can stir up the masses and a stirred-up mass is a potentially rebellious mass. Who wants the inconvenience of putting down a rebellion?

French authorities have said that the North Korean student disappeared one day recently, not showing up for class when he was always a dedicated student. The next thing anyone knew, the unnamed individual was being put on board a flight to China. The story is unclear, but he either evaded his captors or the French border authorities took him into protective custody after he let them know that he was not getting on the flight of his own free will.

The other students he came with have also disappeared, but it is thought that they have gone into hiding, knowing that they are likely to find themselves also being put on board a flight to China. From there, it's off to North Korea and the same fate that their parent met. Who wouldn't rather stay in France given that outcome upon returning home?

So there is your opening. A North Korean student is kidnapped off the streets of a Paris suburb, and your protagonist must find him because he has critical knowledge of his home country's nuclear programme. The real kidnap victim wasn't part of the science community but having secret knowledge of a country's architecture doesn't make for much of a thriller. You'll have to alter reality to make for a compelling read. As for the ending, it is essentially written for you, complete with bungling kidnappers who can't get beyond the security gate at Charles de Gaulle airport.

What happens in between is up to the writer. Just remember, Taken is already taken. You'll have to adjust accordingly. The Liam Neeson role could be written for a woman, right? That's one way to tell the same story in a different way.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dystopia As A Government Policy

It takes some degree of imagination to concoct the sort of scenarios that are often discussed in government conference rooms. There's the central planning to be done, of course, but you have to see into the future to make a plan for the future. Who says there's no use to be made of a degree in creative writing when bureaucrats needs a little creative spark?

In the 1950s, the Red Scare washed over Europe and trickled into Ireland. What if? the authorities asked each other, formulating their plan in the event of catastrophe. What if Russia invades the continent, what can we do to save our Irish citizens?

A group of fiction writers could have been of use in those days, to compose short stories or even full-length novels that took the invasion as the initial premise and then let the story spin out from their fevered brains. One writer would likely have written something from the perspective of a family on vacation in the south of France, eager to get back to the auld sod to die in a nuclear holocaust in the company of the extended family. One last fry-up and maybe a quick trip to the confessional before the end.

In the event of nuclear holocaust, fly Aer Lingus

What does the family do first, and what might go wrong, and what is Plan B? Those are the questions an author would ask and answer. Those are the questions that a bureaucrat would ask but not be clever enough to answer. But the bureaucrat needs those answers to create new levels of bureaucracy to deal with the what ifs and the then whats.

If a group of novelists had been consulted in 1950, is it likely that someone would have suggested that the State compile a list of all Irish nationals living abroad? With such a list, the State would have letters at the ready to mail off to these citizens, warning them to come home at once.

And then what?

Airports would be jammed with Irish and every other foreigner wanting to get out before it was too late. Commercial airlines couldn't handle the crush. What to do?

The State had plans in place to send Aer Lingus, the entire fleet if necessary, to evacuate the far-flung Irish. While those frightened hordes were making for the airports, the ambassadors would be hard at work burning secret documents and generally doing what needs doing to shut down an embassy. They could leave after their work was done, with a hope that they managed to clear things out in time to catch that last Aer Lingus plane.

After preparing this contingency plan, however, those in charge were unable to suspend disbelief long enough to get caught up in the story. The scheme was deemed unlikely to succeed, which is often the case when a government explores its dystopian policy.

The stuff of good fiction can instruct or serve as a starting point for further discussion, but for making government policy, it's not always possible to blend fiction and reality. A minister can order something, but it takes an author to make things happen in a way that leads to the desired ending. Even though writers create characters that seem real, it's the real people who don't follow directions. Especially when the world is collapsing around them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Poor Choice Of Words

How would you describe a filthy,stinking hovel? Would you just use those very words and be done, or should you find a better way to show that your hotel room was not suited for human occupation? A contest? Not quite. A couple who stayed one night in a hotel in Blackpool, England, were charged £100 in addition to the fee for the room after they left a negative review on TripAdvisor.
A picture is worth 1000 words but a poor choice of words will cost you 100

The Broadway Hotel in Blackpool has not been burning up the Internet with positive reviews, judging by the ratings at the website. The table is heavily skewed towards "Terrible", in fact, which makes the fine for a negative rating sound like a way to extort money from the unwary tourist who doesn't bother checking the available information. With 147 bad marks, that's a lot of money coming the hotel's way.

"This place is filthy,it really needs closing down,bedroom full of mould no heater,no hot water,beds need throwing away,couldn't bear to eat breakfast staff drinking cans of strongbow while serving breakfast,could not wait to get out of this place and get home to bath. environmental need to get in there quick..." So said Jeannette M of Derby rather recently. Did she get nicked for the hundred, and did she pay, or did she even notice that her credit card was charged after she'd paid her bill?

Maybe the hotel is still trying to figure out which guest she was so they can go after her for being so mean. It hurts business, reviews like that. Too many people have smartphones and they use them to read things like this. A place could be put out of business if this keeps up.

If The Broadway Hotel figure out who posted this snap they'll be made to pay
Dolores C of York was at a loss for words, according to the headline of her review. Perhaps that loss saved her the expense that words might have cost, although she did say " I would rather stay in Bates Motel than this joint. terrible, terrible, terrible" and "Think it is worthy of a visit from the Hotel Inspector." Did that get her fined for half the amount for having but few words of complaint?

Tony and Jan Jenkinson noticed the fine on their credit card statement after they posted a bad review, but they did not pay quietly. Instead, they complained, only to be told that hotel policy dictates the fine for every bad review. So no refund. The idea was so preposterous that they took their case to the Cumbria County Council, citing an apparent violation of fair trade standards.

The hotel manager is not making any comment on the outrage that has reached some higher office within the UK. He is at a loss for words as well, it seems.

And now that the story has hit the newspapers, he may be at a loss for a job. And don't be surprised if a hotel inspector shows up at the door, making for a loss of a hotel that needs a bit of work. Or a lot of work. Depending on how much they might try to fine me for bringing it up.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

After The Ball Is Over

Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Amazon are now friends. Or frenemies. The dance of dominance is over and the parties have found accord, although no details have been released.

So it is good for authors, or bad for authors, or is the status quo maintained with Amazon still holding all the cards?

For the publishers, it's a return to the agency pricing model that was in place until Amazon complained to the US authorities and Apple was sued for anti-trust violations. Not so anti-trusty if it's Amazon doing the deal, apparently.

Publishers set the price of e-books, and Amazon as retailer gets a fixed piece of the money pie. And the authors get....?

The Authors Guild wants authors to get more than 25% of net, especially because those authors were highly supportive of Hachette, and therefore in support of all publishers. Where's the love, publishers? Show me the money!

The publishers are unlikely to give more. Amazon wanted more and that was the start of the whole thing. There isn't more to give, in the publisher's opinion, but then again, the publishers are paying huge advances for shite because it's a celebrity's book, and then make it up by short-changing talented authors. It's the business model they've known and loved, and they can't change the steps of their dance after decades of practice.

Amazon does not seem too much the worse for wear. It will continue to sell books as it has been, and you have to wonder if there is some wording in the agreement that works to Amazon's benefit so that it gets something to improve the sagging bottom line. It could be any kind of incentive, even a promo to push some book that a publisher particularly wants to sell, and Amazon gets a deeper discount on something else as a reward. Any mention of steeper discounts has authors looking at their sagging bottoms. They're at the bottom of the payment pyramid, and the ones most likely to take a hit if there's costs to be cut.

Smaller royalties might be in the offing, but it's anyone's guess. There are no details in the devil of a deal.

What's A Little Anti-Semitism Among Friends?

If you share your prejudiced views with a few close friends and the entire Twitterverse, where's the harm? It shouldn't cost you a job, should it?

What if you were in line for a prestigious position at, let's say, a prominent state university. You saw what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, and you tweeted about it. Except you said something about "Only #African-Americans can attempt to murder a policeman and insist that they are the victims. #WhiteFolks #WhiteFolksUnderAttack" because you're racist but it's your personal opinion. Would you then be surprised that the prestigious position evaporated before you could claim it?

Steven Salaita is unquestionably a supporter of Gaza, based on his tweets. He's also quite the anti-Semite, but that's his private affair as far as he is concerned. The University of Illinois had no right to pull the teaching post he thought was his until his tweeting exposed his less-than-acceptable prejudice.

The university fumbled around, searching for an excuse that would get them out from a problem of their own making. No one thought to fully vet Mr. Salaita before the job was offered to him, and when the tweets hit the fan, they were caught up in a controversy they had to get out of. A lot of their donors are of the Jewish persuasion, and a lot of their donors let the school administrators know just how unhappy they were with the possible hiring of an anti-Semite who would end up teaching other Jewish children.

Imagine the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan teaching about past injustices done to the native American population. And teaching it to a classroom full of Ojibwa students. Would you really expect a thoroughly unbiased discussion, and would you really expect the students to say much in protest when their grade depends on pleasing the instructor?

But there are few jobs to be had in public academia these days, and especially in Illinois where the budget is so tight that the U of I gives preference to foreign students paying an inflated tuition. The school has the biggest population of Chinese students among all the public universities, who also aren't going to become major donors to the school after graduation. Keeping the donors happy is quite the priority.

Steven Salaita was told the job wasn't his after all, and the problem was his anti-Semitic tweeting. The administration made noise about civil discourse and the like, citing some of the tweets to better explain without having to be more explicit. It wouldn't be particularly civil to call Mr. Salaita a horse's ass or an arrogant prick, and those aren't causes to be cited publicly when denying a job. That's what gets said in private, while a candidate is being vetted. But they didn't do the vetting before offering.

Little wonder, then, that Steven Salaita is suing the university for exposing him. The lawsuit, however, is one of those legal actions that is meant to be settled out of court for a substantial sum of cash, which is all Mr. Salaita needs to tide him over until his tweets are forgotten and he can try to find another job somewhere else. There must be another prestigious institution in the US that doesn't have such powerful Jewish support.

Or he might try landing a job at a university in Gaza. He could do some good there, and he's a strong supporter. Well, maybe not so strong as all that.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Source For Regency Writers

The curricle
When writing historical fiction, you want to make your readers feel as if they are there. You need touches of reality, but you aren't living in London in 1804, so how are you to go about painting an accurate picture?

You could read everything Jane Austen has ever written, but she was writing about everyday matters and you may not find the detail you need to paint a picture in your own head. You can't show a partial image to your reader. They won't get wrapped up in a story that they can't quite play out in their imagination.

There was a war going on through much of the Regency period, and you can help set your story in a particular era by referencing some important battle or the celebration that would have taken place to commemorate a victory. That sort of detail is more interesting than a simple sentence that gives the cold, hard fact of a certain day without the little snips of info that the people of your novel would normally be discussing. Grand, so, it's Tuesday in November of 1798, but it was also a period of a mini-ice age and shouldn't your characters be making mention of the unusual cold? People who kept diaries made note. Aren't your characters just like those real people?

Roy and Leslie Adkins have written a book that you would want at hand while you spin your Regency yarn.
The post chaise

Jane Austen's England is a history book that provides the backdrop you want to create. Each chapter covers a different topic, from the popular entertainments to the acceptable standards of hygeine. The authors touch on the lives of ordinary people, the farmers and those who were thrown into a newly industrialized world with the invention of steam power. Study up, and you can more easily put yourself into the world you are creating.

You would want a copy of Daniel Pool's treatise on Regency through Victorian times as well, to prepare yourself for writing before you put pen to paper. What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew is a trove of detail that you can insert into your manuscript to make your characters seem more real, and far less 21st Century.

Write what you know, the sages have decreed. If you want to write historical fiction, you have to learn what you don't know. Then you'll know it.

Go write.

November is half over and you have a NaNoWriMo deadline to reach.

Sure you should have started your research months ago. How will you ever get the rough draft finished by Sunday the 30th?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Easter Rising of 2016

Ireland is gearing up to celebrate its centennial and the State wants to make a big, tourist-appealing splash that also honours those who gave their lives on those few days after Easter in 1916.

Those who gave their lives left living relations behind, and the descendants of those living relations would like a say in how the grand event will unfold. Would you want some politician making a speech about how your ancestor was a blood-thirsty eejit and Ireland would have been given Home Rule after the First World War so the Rising was a pointless loss of life?

Of course not. You would want your people honoured for their sacrifice. The centennial is no time for revisionist history or an insistence that Ireland is a peaceful country. That's forgetting all that went on before 1916. The Land Wars were not peaceful protests and there were more than a few men killed in 1798 and 1803.

A few of those whose family members signed the declaration of independence in 1916 are feeling ignored by the government, and so they have gone and started up their own group to make their own plans. The 1916 Relatives have given up on having their voices heard, so they will shout unofficially while politicians make their speeches to a crowd wondering why the descendants of the nation's founders are off at some other gathering.

Ireland 2016 from Ireland 2016 on Vimeo.

Speaking on behalf of the 1916 Relatives, Patrick Cooney has described the Government's plans as a bit of a shambles, a festival that manages to ignore the people who put their lives on the line by signing a document that declared Ireland to be free. There is more consideration being given to an official visit from Queen Elizabeth than to the presence of James Connolly's great-grandson.

It's grand to show the Brits that we're all friends now, but can't it be done while including the dirty business of an armed insurrection? Remember where we came from? That's not easy to do when the Government's video skips over that bit like it's too shameful to be shown.

The video put together by the Arts Minister is all Bono and Yeats, Mr. Cooney has said, without any references to men like Pearse or Ceannt or Plunkett. Seven men signed a proclamation and seven men were executed for it by the British authorites. Yeats wrote a poem about it, which is about as close to risking his life as he came, but there he is. Don't blink. You'll miss his picture.

In fact, you'd be hard pressed to learn a thing about the Rising from the video, which sprints past a few old photos before flying into the modern era with happy children and pretty scenery. There isn't much of anything in the video to even suggest that there was an actual battle in which men, women and children were killed.

Remember where we came from? A song in Irish isn't exactly remembering. It's more paddywhackery than tribute to the rebels.

So clean. So sanitized.

Is it any wonder that the descendants of the Seven Signatories are off doing their own remembrance? One that has actual memories.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Who Blinked First?

When Amazon and Hachette Book Group reached an accord, the news rippled through social media. The fight had been long and the dispute was followed with great interest by the publishing community. That the resolution would generate buzz was to be expected.

The treaty is signed and peace is declared
The question remains, however. Who blinked first?

After months of wrangling, who felt the pain of the dueling boycotts?

For much of the third quarter, Hachette's titles were difficult to come by if you limited your shopping to Amazon. The idea on Amazon's part was to inflict as much financial pain on Hachette as possible, to force the publisher to yield to Amazon's might. Yet when Amazon reported its earnings for the third quarter, the news was so bad that the stock took a big hit. It was starting to look like the actions of the publishing community against Amazon were having some effect, with well-known authors calling for boycotts on the pages of the New York Times.

Beyond the pages of a newspaper, however, was the airing of the dispute on television to an audience that might not otherwise know a thing about the stand-off. And when a popular television programme calls on its viewers to boycott Amazon, that's more negative publicity than the average online behemoth can shake off.

Now Hachette's parent, Lagardere Publishing, has released its third quarter earnings, and it is clear that the loss of Amazon as a sales outlet took its toll.

Sales were down while Amazon was making it hard to buy Hachette titles, and you might wonder if the publisher was considering how long it could hold out, if indeed it could afford to continue the fight. Book sales in the US were down markedly, the result of Amazon's tactics, and with other negatives weighed in, Hachette would have had plenty of incentive to end the dispute.

In the end, however, Hachette got what it wanted in the ability to set its own price on its e-book titles. Being able to control pricing was of the greatest importance, to avoid being run out of business by a vendor offering discounts while maintaining its own piece of the digital pie. If Hachette gives Amazon a more desirable deal on price, Hachette gets a nice prezzie from Amazon, but whether or not the incentives work for Amazon remains to be seen.

Hachette would like to sell more books, and if it can offer a steeper discount while making up the difference on volume, Amazon could stand to benefit. But not all books are best-sellers, as Hachette well knows. They blame part of the decline in third quarter sales on the fact that 2013 brought them some very popular titles that 2014 did not, and when you compare year to year, it shows.

The publisher and the vendor are returning to the old agency model of pricing, the very pricing structure that Apple introduced when the iPad was released and the iTunes bookstore needed stability. Amazon cried long and loud to the US trade authorities, citing violations of anti-trust laws. Now it is embracing the same model

Who blinked first? It's looking like Amazon backed down.

Wouldn't want consumers to be thinking "boycott Amazon" with the holiday shopping season about to begin in earnest. After all, timing is everything.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ghosts Make For Good Television

Mike Arians is not a detective. He is just an ordinary man who owns a restaurant and can't get the ghosts to leave him alone.

The ghosts are behind his obsession with identifying the person who killed Mary Jane Reed and her boyfriend Stanley Skridla in 1948. That's a lot of years of haunting. Who wouldn't want to put a stop to the harassment?

The couple were shot to death at the local lover's lane, a secluded spot in Ogle County, Illinois. Mr. Skridla's body was found there, while the body of Ms. Reed turned up a few days later, in a ditch on the side of the road. There were some suspects at the time, but nothing could ever be proved, and so the case remains unsolved.

According to Mike Arians, the ghost of Mary Jane Reed haunts his roadhouse restaurant, and she's a persistent one.

In 2005, Mr. Arians thought he could placate her by getting her body exhumed for some forensic analysis using modern methods. Maybe some bullet fragments would turn up that could yield a clue as to the murder weapon. Mr. Arians has long felt that the killer was a former law enforcement officer whose advances were spurned by Ms. Reed, and if a bullet pointed to a service revolver, he'd have a stronger case to make.

Forensic anthropologists informed him that the skull in the coffin wasn't hers.

He tried suing local authorities, claiming there had been a cover-up at the highest levels. The judge did not see things that way, and tossed out the case. The sheriff's deputy who was implicated in the cover-up believed that the suit was just a publicity stunt because Mr. Arians was trying to make a movie about the murder.

So where is Ms. Reed's head? Could it be in Mr. Skridla's coffin, the result of a simple mix-up after the autopsies were performed?

Or was it something more devious?

Mr. Arians has just been granted permission to exhume Mr. Skridla's body to find out that very thing.

The Travel Channel was in Oregon, Illinois, in September to film the story that Mr. Arians has to tell. They'd be likely to send the film crew back if the exhumation reveals anything. Even if it doesn't, the sense of anticipation and potential discovery would be enough to get the cameras rolling. Ghosts make for good television, and the analysis following the exhumation would be compelling theater. It's a mystery to be solved, but a real mystery that may or may not be solved by the end of that particular installment of The Dead Files.

And if Ms. Reed is listening, this is the last attempt Mr. Arians will make to solve the crime. He can't think of anything else to do besides explore this rumor that circulated through the town all those years ago, that there was another man who committed murder out of jealousy. Whoever did it is most likely dead by now. The person Mr. Arians suspects did the crime has been dead for almost thirty years.

Like Capone's vault, this show might not discover anything. But if the viewers are riveted, it doesn't really matter. Except to Ms. Reed, whose restless spirit hangs out in a roadhouse restaurant, waiting for someone to bring her killer to justice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Late To The Party But Better Late Than Never

To introduce readers to Newcastlewest Books, we lowered the price on one of our digital titles. Lowered it to free, in fact, to make it an irresistible offer. Lowered to free where we could, that is. Amazon wouldn't let us drop the price below 99 cent.

Readers who download e-books via Smashwords were able to take advantage of the offer and have been enjoying THE KING OF THE IRISH for several weeks.

Those who limit their downloading to Amazon's Kindle or Kindle app have not been able to get that price. We wanted to make THE KING OF THE IRISH free for everyone, but Amazon does what it wants when it comes to pricing books by small independent publishers.

Free at last, free at last
Non-Amazon users have been introduced to the sordid beginnings of Chicago's political machine through the story of Daniel Coughlin, a police detective who was charged with murder in 1889. He was a pawn in a larger game, a loyal second-generation Irish-American who took up the cause that his father championed. The connection between Chicago and Ireland's nationalist movement was strong, and Dan Coughlin was one small part of the vast and complex machinery. That he got caught up in it was a consequence not anticipated. How he was crushed by it is the heart of the tale. How the leaders of the movement manipulated government to achieve their goals forms the backdrop of the novel.

Suddenly, Amazon has noticed that a novel is available for a lower price than what they are offering. Readers could get THE KING OF THE IRISH for free if they went through iTunes or Barnes and Noble. They could not let the competition get the better of them.

Without warning, Amazon dropped the price on THE KING OF THE IRISH so that it is now free for downloading from Amazon.

We wanted to do it ourselves, back when we first thought of promoting our list by giving away a title.

It was not our choice to make. It was Amazon's decision, out of our hands.

The deed is done, although it would have been easier to promote from our end if we could have set our own price. That is not how publishing works in Amazon's world, where the small presses must sign on to Amazon's exclusivity deal to be allowed to give a book away, and even at that it's all up to Amazon.

Thanks for noticing the price change, Amazon. Readers can now discover Newcastlewest Books through THE KING OF THE IRISH, finally available for free downloading at Amazon. Just like it's been available via iTunes for free. A bit late to the party, but at least Amazon is finally on board. Without that exclusivity deal that makes no sense for publishers or authors.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Was She Or Wasn't She

The big shock of an announcement came in December of 2009. Right there on Van Morrison's website was a news flash about the birth of a son, except the reclusive singer's wife was never pregnant.

The mother was someone else, and the PR spin was begun.
Van and Gigi in happier times

The woman claiming to be the mother of the newest Morrison was a total stranger, Mr. Morrison's PR man said. John Saunders gave a radio interview to get the message out. The birth notice was a hoax. Mr. Saunders was hired to deny the claim, and he went about his job as instructed.

Well, right, the mother wasn't a total stranger. She might have been a bit strange, but she was the tour manager for Van Morrison's American performances so they did have some contact. Purely professional, however.

The rumour mill started churning out stories, so many stories that Mr. Morrison sought a court injunction to keep the whole thing quiet.

At some point, after issuing a string of denials about the paternity issue, Mr. Saunders turned around and sued his client for such unpleasant issues as breach of contract and misrepresentation.

That misrepresentation would be Van Morrison's insistence that he didn't know Ms. Lee but then a photograph turned up that showed them together and they worked together so, there you have it. You can't hold things back from your PR man is he's to do his job properly, with the facts in hand and a well-crafted spin in place to cover all the potential pitfalls.

To this day, Van Morrison denies that he was the father. Tragically, both mother and baby died shortly after the birth, and it would seem that the point of arguing is lost. Both are gone. Does it really matter? There won't be any future issues in regard to inheritance or estates, which is the main reason why paternity would have to be established.

And it could have been established with a simple DNA test, but matters never progressed that far.

We will never know if Van Morrison had an affair with his tour manager. The lawsuit has been quietly settled out of court, with the participants keeping silent on what if any damages were agreed. The earlier dispute, that Mr. Saunders had not acted on Mr. Morrison's direction when he told the world that the singer wasn't the father, has been officially concluded with a note that Mr. Morrison had indeed instructed Mr. Saunders to go forth and spin away.

The child dead after falling into a diabetic coma. The mother dead of throat cancer. The unhappy incident is dead as well, except perhaps for a little spark of life in the Morrison household, where Van Morrison had some explaining to do to his wife. But that is an entirely private matter between husband and wife.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Novel As Prophecy

George Orwell saw through the rhetoric of the Soviet era and the post-World War II Cold War. His world was an uncertain place, with freedom trying to make a glittering return after years of secrecy and espionage that were necessary to keep loose lips from sinking ships. What if a population could be fooled into thinking that the war footing was ongoing, and the government had to curtail certain liberties for the good of the people? What if people let it happen?

From that background came 1984, a novel that imagined a world in which government exerts absolute control over its citizens, all behind a barrage of rhetoric that is doublespeak and thinly veiled nonsense.

That the citizens would see through the verbiage and put an end to it is a notion that is highly dangerous to a government that would like to exert control and maintain power for the powerful. There are some who see parallels between the world envisioned by George Orwell and modern day Egypt, where the military took over to preserve democracy, only to trample democracy under its heel. Maybe it's better than the Muslim Brotherhood running things, especially if you are female or Christian, but that's a different argument for another day.

The book is still a dangerous collection of prose, even after all these decades since its publication.

That could be why a report surfaced over the weekend that described a student at Cairo University being arrested for the crime of openly carrying a  copy of 1984 in full view of the police.

When asked, the police could only look puzzled. They say they don't know a thing about some British novel that was written 65 years ago. They don't have time to engage in light reading, and would be more likely to get lost in a good thriller than some English dystopian concoction. To the students who say their fellow was arrested, the book has great symbolism, and it is possible that the insertion of 1984 is a little embellishment to better express their outrage over the direction their country is heading.

Authorities have said they arrested the young man for filming the security forces without permission. Sure the man had a book on him when he was arrested, but what would you expect when you arrest a student at Cairo University? The whole world isn't studying off of iPads and some schools are still using physical books.

Did you hear the part that sounds like something out of 1984?

Maybe the book should be required reading for those who would prop up a regime, to get their minds into thinking about what they are being told and what they are doing to protect that regime.

Education, in other words. It's a dangerous thing, that learning, and it comes out of books.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Only At The End Do You Realize The Power Of The Dark Side

The business model? Eliminate the middle man and keep the profits.

The means to reach that end? Become a publisher and control the product, and the pricing, from start to finish.

The current level of success? For Amazon lately, not much to brag about at corporate headquarters.

For some time, Amazon has been trying to get itself established as a real publisher, to create its own product and then sell it through its own channel online but also in brick and mortar stores. Just like the big boys, like Hachette Book Group that has not been very cooperative of late.

A few years back, Amazon launched a publishing company that could be viewed as the first step towards world publishing domination. They brought in Larry Kirshbaum, a highly regarded player in the publishing industry, and it was clear that Amazon meant to succeed. To get its titles into the bookstores where people do most of their book selecting, the online retailer inked a deal with Houghton Mifflin (still coming off its earlier debacle in the Barry O'Callaghan era) to utilize HMH's existing sales force.

The bookshop owners were not easily fooled. They had said they would not carry Amazon books on their shelves because Amazon was a leech sucking out their life's blood, and so they did not. Amazon tried to disguise the fact, but the book vendors hadn't just fallen off the turnip wagon.

Larry Kirshbaum left Amazon, about a year after he came. Some might have seen it as a bad sign, that the master plan had some major flaws and the publishing start-up was not going all that well.

Has realized the power of the Dark Side
You never know what people like to read, and publishers have to meet a lot of different interests. Amazon created a series of imprints to cover all those various interest categories. Romance is always popular, right? So Amazon invented an imprint to publish romance titles. And there is another for mysteries, another for reprinted work, one for science fiction, and so on through all the genres. They wanted to flood the market, and force book shops to carry their titles through the back-door strategy of having customers ask for the books. In time, the vendors would bend to meet customer demand and then Amazon would get its big foot in the door and never leave.

Still the public was not clamoring for an Amazon title. What was needed was a unit that would make the literati sit up and take notice. Little a was added to the roster, and novelist Ed Park was put in charge. The man who edited The Village Voice literary supplement had the reputation and the connections that Amazon needed.

Now Ed Park is leaving Amazon.

He has hinted at the ongoing feud between Amazon and Hachette Book Group as part of the reason. He sits on the wrong side of the cultural divide, trying to bring literary fiction to the world through Amazon's portal, while his friends in the industry despise Amazon for turning books into commodities like batteries or light bulbs.

At first, he might have been tempted by the power of the position. With so little good literary fiction getting to the public, who would not want to be in a position to expand the list? The big publishing houses are all looking for the blockbuster title, the fluff that entertains but is forgotten the moment it is finished. Ed Park was granted the ability to publish what he felt was needed to make the world of reading a better place.

But at what cost?

Can you imagine going to a drinks party and telling people you work for Amazon after they've finished lambasting the Internet demon for what it is doing to the independent book seller? Would you want to go to work every day, knowing that your boss is the Dark Side of retailing, hell bent on bringing the publishers under its control, treating books like things for sale instead of works of art created by someone deserving of a decent royalty? Was he being used by Amazon because he had the right credentials and connections in the literary scene?

Ed Park realized the power of the Dark Side and decided to end his association with Amazon.

So Amazon will find someone else to step up, just like they replaced Larry Kirshbaum. It's a minor setback for Jeff Bezos. He may be a little stunned, but he's far from defeated.