Saturday, February 2, 2013

Books, TV and Apocalyptic scenarios.

I read yet another apocalyptic novel recently that used the cessation of all electricity in the world as a theme. It seems it’s become a popular topic, with multiple books and at least one television series (Revolution) depicting a world without power.
So it occurred to me to explore the topic from the viewpoint of someone who truly understands how electricity works and what can actually happen during a nation-wide electrical failure.
First, the scenario depicted in Revolution is impossible (it violates the laws of physics) but it makes for great TV drama. Most of the writers in that series have no concept of the laws that govern the electromagnetic force but I doubt they care. After all, science fiction does require a certain suspension of reality to tell a good story.
However, good, hard science fiction should contain at least some realistic elements of science.
So let’s get real.
There are some actual dangers that that have a relatively high probability of occurring which could disable the electrical grid in a small or large portion of the world. The same causes could render a large proportion of electronic devices inert, damaged to the point of inoperability.
But these causes are limited to two; insanely strong electromagnetic fields, and intense electrostatic energy.
The only really devastating sources of these forces (that we know about) are the Sun and a thermonuclear explosion.
A solar flare of sufficient magnitude could make our lives miserable (not to mention dangerous) for a long time (weeks, months, or years) while the damage was being repaired. It could take down the electrical grid over at least one hemisphere of the world causing massive damages and deaths from panic.
The solar flare of 1859 and its consequential coronal mass ejection (CME) caused widespread disruptions of the emerging telegraph network, shocking operators and causing telegraph paper to catch on fire. It caused the northern lights to occur as far south as Georgia. 
If such an event were to occur today, with our modern reliance on electrical grids and semiconductor electronics, it could prove devastating. The flare of 1859 was big, but the evidence is it’s not the biggest that could happen.
A thermonuclear blast, assuming it was from one bomb, could cause damage over a limited area. (If it was a wide scale nuclear war, lack of electricity would be least of our worries.)
Nuclear war is something we as a species can control. The solution is simple, just don’t do it.
However the sun has a mind of it own. It’s the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room and it can do anything it wants. We’ve had massive solar flares it the past and they’re certain to happen in the future.
To be dangerous, there are a lot of factors that have to be just right when (not if) a huge solar flare hits the earth.
The blast carries a massive magnetic field along with it, and to be devastating it must have the correct magnetic polarity to overcome the earth’s magnetic field. Also the highly charged particles that are expelled as a part of the explosion must penetrate the protective atmospheric gases that form a secondary barrier.
Assuming the dice come up seven, and nothing is done to prepare our technology, we could be in the dark (in more ways than one) for an extremely long time.
So what happens if the odds are against us and the unthinkable happens? (It could, there’s an uncomfortably significant possibility in our lifetimes.)
Most novels (and one TV show) depict a complete cessation of anything electrical. In truth that’s not likely to happen. 
Why? I’m glad you asked.
The first myth to shoot down is the idea that you could eliminate all electrical activity. (That’s the concept in Revolution.)
All compounds are held together by electrical forces. Your brain works off electrical energy. Eliminating all electrical activity means that your brain would shut down, end of story and no worries. Water would become hydrogen and oxygen so your body would simply vanish into its constituent elements (although you wouldn’t be around to experience it.) Everything would dissolve, including the planet. So Revolution is just bad science. 
But that doesn’t mean you can’t eliminate most of the things that produce electricity and the devices that depend upon it. It could happen and on a wide scale.
Assuming the worst happens, what’s the prognosis?
It depends on whether or not we’ve prepared.
Assuming we’re a bunch of dumb-shits and haven’t prepared for the worse, two things can occur.
First anything that contains modern electronics is subject to destruction. The electrostatic energy created by the solar flare and the electrical energy created by the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) can cause sparks to leap between microscopic components inside a computer chip. This action guarantees the chip won’t work again, end of laptops, cell phones, video games, television, iPods and pads, refrigerators, stoves, and more. Anything operated by a computer will die and that includes modern automobiles. 
Since damn near everything is controlled by processors these days, a huge number of devices won’t work.
Not all electronic devices will be inoperative. Any device enclosed in a Faraday cage might likely survive.
(A Faraday cage is a conductive enclosure like a box made of copper mesh that is connected to the earth. For reasons that are too complicated to explain here, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) can’t penetrate the cage.)
There are more Faraday cages around than you might imagine. A steel building is a type of Faraday cage and will provide some protection from EMP. Still, even good shielding will not withstand an EMP of sufficient magnitude.
In a worst-case scenario, about 75-90% of chip-based electronic devices will become inoperative. (Older electronic devices that operate with vacuum tubes will be unaffected.)
Batteries will still function as will flashlights (LED flashlights might fail.) Any car made before 1990 might survive and cars made before 1985 will definitely still work.
Not so with satellites. They’ll not be protected from the full force of the flare and unless they’re well shielded they’ll die. The heat of the solar wind can expand the atmosphere causing them to fall to the earth.
Combined, the damage will disrupt most of the satellite communications but land-based relay stations might still work. Fiber-optic cables will be unaffected by both the EMP and the electrostatic discharge, but the devices they connect to might fail.
So the net result will be spotty communications and in some cases a total loss in the ability to communicate.
Losing the ability to communicate could be devastating to the financial services industry since all transactions (assuming the computers still worked) go through our vast communications network. ATMs, phone and internet transactions, and point-of-sale will likely not work. Rebuilding the financial data for one-half of the world might prove impossible.
As if that isn’t bad enough, the damage to the electrical grid might be far worse.
The nation is crisscrossed by high voltage electrical cables that carry power from the power plants to homes and businesses. One of the key components in the electrical network is the transformers that change the power from a lethal level to something that won’t kill us in our homes.
This vast grid of electrical wires is a ripe victim for the EMP effects from the sun. The sun’s magnetic energy and to a lesser extent the electrostatic energy generated by the sun’s highly charged particles, can and will create massive electrical charges in those wires. This type of electrical energy (direct current) spells death to a high voltage transformer. If they’re not adequately protected by fuses or circuit breakers, the current generated by the EMP will cause them to explode. Even with protection some, or a significant percentage of them, may be damaged.
High voltage transformers are expensive and difficult to construct. It’s not something one can buy at Home Depot. It takes months to a year to create one of them and guess what? It takes infrastructure and power to build them. No power, no transformers.
The best way to prevent this is to shut down the whole electrical grid prior to the flare’s arrival. Isolate the transformers from the high tension wires to prevent them from being damaged. Ground all the grid wires and hope for the best. It would mean a nation-wide black-out but the power could be restored after the CME passes. (I hope the government’s listening. It’s a major undertaking but it’s doable.)
Store critical electronic components in Faraday cages made with multiple shields. Replacing the damaged electronics in vital infrastructure devices will get them running again.
Still if precautions are taken, some damage and major interruptions in the power grid are to be expected because the grid is controlled by computers and a major EMP will likely damage the power lines.
A loss of electrical power lasting weeks or months will be devastating to the country. Food is produced by mostly automated factories and delivered by trains, trucks, planes and ships that rely upon electronics to navigate and control the engines (electricity). Some older automobiles and ships might work and airplanes might fly, but any planes or ships using electronics might be grounded or lost at sea.
The water supply relies on pumps run by electrical motors (electricity).
Our modern Army uses vehicles and weapons controlled by computers (electronics).
Newer passenger aircraft could fall from the sky (electronics or avionics if you prefer).
The financial network relies on computers and communication. Without the financial infrastructure we’d be back to bartering (assuming there was anything to barter with.)
For those who think hording gold is the way to becoming top dog, remember, a gold coin contains no calories. You can’t eat it.
The damage to our infrastructure might be so great that to rebuild we’d have to forget there was any such thing as money. To bring ourselves back to current levels, the government would have to assume draconian powers, mobilizing the population to rebuild a lot of the hardware from scratch.
One asset would be the fact that for any solar storm and CME, only one half of the world would be affected. If the most industrialized half was spared, it could provide the nucleus to rebuild the other half.
Knowing humans, that’s an iffy proposition. The spared half would be more likely to attempt to occupy the damaged half.
Of course, perhaps the milk of human kindness might rear up and show humans at their noblest moment. People might join hands, sing kum-by-ya and work together.
Who knows, but one fateful day in the future, we're sure to find out.

Friday, October 19, 2012

eBooks and Price Gouging.

The decision by the justice department to remove agency pricing from the market for eBooks has led to what I think, is a lot of price gouging by the major publishers. They’ve put out a lot of lame excuses, but the fact is that in many cases, eBooks are priced higher than print books, and there’s truly no justification for it.
As a self-published author who does all the work with the exception of editing, I can guarantee that the cost of publishing an eBook is much cheaper than publishing a print book. The eBook version of my second book in the series is $2.99. To maintain the same royalties, the hardbound print version of the same book is $22.50. The paperback is half of that.
I actually had to put in more effort in creating the printed version than I did for the eBook version. Although the print version came out nice, it hardly justifies the effort required to create it.
I recently read a printed paperback. As someone who’s been reading eBooks exclusively for the past three years I was amazed at how difficult is was to cope with the paperback. It wouldn’t lay flat, the print was too small, and I kept losing my place in the book. Why anyone would opt for a print book when they could read the same book in electronic format is beyond me.
This is the dilemma that major publishers face. Once a printed copy is produced, they’re stuck with it. It either sells, or they must swallow the cost.
An eBook has no returned copies to shred. Unlike conventional brick and mortar stores, the eBook’s place on the bookseller‘s shelf isn’t constrained by limited space and what’s-hot-now eliminating it from the book market.
EBooks are taking more and more of the market for all books, amounting at this time, for one in every three sales of books in general.

But let’s at least try to be fair. The major publishers are whining about the costs of salaries, overhead, and the exorbitant royalties (12%-15%) authors demand. That’s their reason for justifying the eBook prices.
I think we can arrive at a ball park figure for the costs of creating a book, eBook or otherwise, and then extrapolate the real price of an eBook from there.
What are the services a publisher must provide to create a book? Well, they can be listed as; slush pile, editing, cover design, copy editing and formatting. Few authors see many marketing efforts today, but to be fair we’ll tack that baby onto the list. If the author is lucky he or she will get an advance, but since that’s part of royalties we can ignore it for the moment.
I’ve read some figures about the salaries of employees in major publishing houses. Most often mentioned is about $85,000/year for a good editor and $100,000 for a managing editor. Editors say they fish the slush pile looking for good books to publish and regardless of how skeptical I am of the claim; I’ll go along with it.
Copy editors are paid less than that. I have no idea but I imagine it’s $20k below a full editor. Cover design is done in-house or farmed out. A good cover can cost upwards of $500, most are less than that.
Overhead’s a big factor. It’s the cost of doing business; power lunches, business jets, heating, lighting, rent, mortgage payments, phones and a lot more. It could be very high. (That’s a likely reason why the cost of books is so high.) For sake of argument, let’s say it’s a mid range of $100/hour. (If it’s substantially more than that, the publisher needs to take a serious look at his or her business practices.)
During the process from submission to ready to publish book, there are hours involved. Many people spend a period of time handling the manuscript and the amount of time varies from person to person.
To avoid a lot of tedious math which no one will pay attention to, I calculate the cost of producing a good-sized book at $18562. I used reasonable figures for hourly rate, overhead, and the time expended for each task. Let’s round it off and say, $20,000. (That’s 50 times more than the cost of most expensive eBook I’ve published yet.) (If anyone cares to view my calculations, email me.)
Okay we have the cost, now let’s look at the other things. Say the author has been published before by the publisher and he or she gets a $5000 advance on the book. (In this economic climate it’s unlikely.) Depending on how well the contract was negotiated, the author may earn royalties on the projected price of the book but that varies with the contract. The maximum royalty rate for authors publishing through a traditional publisher is 15%. The calculations are complicated, balancing expected sales with the costs and expected profit, but to keep it simple, let’s say the author expects to earn $1.00/book in royalties. That means the publisher must sell 5000 books to equal the author’s advance. Dividing the cost of producing the book by the expected sales comes out to $4.00/book. (That’s to cover the publisher’s initial investment, not the publisher’s profit or the author’s advance.)
Adding profit for the publisher at 20% and the author’s royalty and rounding off, brings us to about $8.00/book total base price. (A publisher does not willingly shell out an advance without projecting sales. If the author is trusted enough to get an advance, the publisher expects to at least sell enough books to cover it.) (If you factor in the projection that for every two print books you’ll sell one eBook, the publisher’s costs spread across all the books (paper and electronic) could actually be less than $4.00.)
Anyone who’s bought a hardback recently knows they’re not cheap. Depending on where you purchase the book, you could pay $17 to $35 dollars or more. Paperbacks typically go for $10.00 (Okay, $9.95), but the publisher’s cost plus profit and royalties is fixed at $8.00 for a 5000 book printing, so anything else must be printing costs (unless the publishers are being less than honest).
Publishers typically complain about how hard it is to format an eBook and how much it costs. Well, I’ve done several and it’s not rocket science. It boggles my mind that J.K. Rowling’s new Amazon Kindle eBook was screwed up from the get-go. From my experience in formatting both eBooks and Print books, eBook formatting is much easier. It should cost less than getting the book ready to print. In addition, if you convert an existing paper print book to electronic format, most of the above more expensive costs disappear, leaving only the scanning, copy editing and formatting tasks (and possibly the cover).
No matter how you figure it, (and I’m figuring high) the prices should progress like this: eBook $7.95, ($8) paperback $9.95 ($10) and hardback $19.95 ($20).
Regardless of what the publishers claim, eBooks should always be cheaper than paper. (This does not factor in the unlimited shelf-life of an eBook and the fact that there are no returned books to be shredded and recycled.)
In the past, publishers have printed more books than they expect to sell. The cost of any unsold book must be covered by the publisher. This results in losses when the book is returned, typically to be shredded rather than resold. To recover the costs, they must find a revenue source and the eBook is a handy alternative. (If the publishers had any sense, they’d do a print run of enough paper books to cover the advance and rely on the eBook to cover the rest.)
Do I believe that publishers are taking advantage of eBook readers? You bet I do! In my mind, there’s no justification for pricing an eBook higher than a print book and eBooks should be substantially less.
The time is near. Shadow Twins is slated to be published this month. I can’t predict when it’ll be available on Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo, or Apple iBooks because they need to vet it first. Some time after I publish to Smashwords, I’ll make it available on Amazon. Taken in all, that means a release date of October 26, give or take a few days. Look for it on your favorite site.
The book is priced at $2.99 on all the sites, less than a cup of cappuccino at Starbucks. With the changes occurring in the publishing industry, the book is a bargain.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Robots, the Middle Class and the Future

A recent comment by a reader on my Facebook author's page interested me. Besides expressing his admiration for the newly revised version of "The Reality Plague", he also commented on one of the hard technologies in the book. Specifically, he mentioned the idea of a general purpose machine that could manufacture anything, a machine called a "Fabber".
My mind works in mysterious ways and unbidden it started running threads ("what ifs?") following each thread to its logical conclusion.
The term "Fabber" came from a talk I attended years ago when I was an officer in the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. A professor from Cal State LA presented the concept and the newly coined word. In his vision, the user of the future would purchase a file from the internet, a file that contained the programming to use the Fabber to make something. It could be any consumer product. The user would pay a small fee for the program and the Fabber would make the item on demand.
Many of my colleagues thought the idea was science fiction but I knew better, because the machines were already in existence and making parts. At that time and (still) today the machine was not called a "Fabber" it was known as a "Rapid Prototyping Machine" and I’d worked with many of them, both using them and repairing them.
The machines varied, some used paper, some chemicals, some corn starch and some metal. Using these materials they converted a series of program commands to a useful object. In my own lab at San Diego City College we had fabricated dozens of objects ranging from a skull for medical research to aircraft parts and a plastic ball that actually bounced when thrown.
It's no secret that most of my career was centered on automation. I've worked with and repaired hundreds of robots and machines that are designed to replace people in the creation of manufactured goods.
Now, at this point you might rightly ask where is he going with this? As I said before, my mind led me along this path, and if you'll bear with me we'll get there together (eventually). If you have a tad more tolerance, a little history is in order.
Others might argue the point, but in my opinion the first true robot was built by MIT in 1955. At that time it wasn't called a robot. It was called a Numerical Control Machine (or NC). A 'robot' (unlike Isaac Asimov or other sci-fi authors) is a programmable machine designed to work in three or more dimensions and replace humans in various tasks. It needn't look like a human to qualify. The NC was designed to use a cutting tool and create useful three-dimensional parts out of solid chunks of metal.
Here’s where the story gets close to the point. Fast forward seven years later to 1962. At the company I worked for at the time, the United States Air Force had purchased two of the machines and had leased them to the company.
The machines produced an essential part for an airplane. Each employed one human operator and about three technical people to keep it running for a grand total of five. (I was one of those people.)
Prior to the introduction of the machines, the part in question was made of one hundred and two small parts, all assembled together. To create those parts required the services of forty-five highly skilled machinists and a like amount of lesser-skilled assemblers (round it off to one hundred people all working full time). Once the machines were installed, each machine could make the same part out of one solid piece of aluminum (exit, stage-left, one hundred well-paid, skilled workers).
It didn’t stop there. Over the years the machines (robots) became more reliable and more sophisticated, finally employing computers to control them. After a few sputtering starts, robots appeared everywhere, making cars, airplanes, cereal, kid’s bikes, the list is long.
In fact, larger computers began to control entire factories, sending programs to the slave robots to cause them to perform different tasks.
When robots begin to make things they replace humans. It’s as simple as that.
You might be tempted to think I’m talking about what’s going to happen in the future, but I’m not. I’m writing about what’s occurring right here and now. To get an idea of the impact of automation, think of this: if every component in a modern cell phone, pad computer, video game console or home computer had to be constructed by hand, no one could afford them. I’m talking about everything, the fabrication of the chips, the construction of the boards, and the final assembly of the device. (Yes, workers assemble iPads in China from prefabricated parts (parts built by robots), but they’re underpaid and commit suicide at a depressing rate.)
One might think that the new robots might have opened more opportunities for the people who repaired them but that didn’t materialize. The increased reliability and the more modular construction actually reduced the amount of technicians required.
So, where does this lead? We have a huge amount of manufacturing occurring (manufacturing has actually increased in the United States) but fewer and fewer people can obtain gainful employment by it.

Of the major economic and employment areas in the United States, one of them is manufacturing. Traditionally manufacturing was the place where the lower educated middle class could find a decent job and raise a family. However manufacturing as a place to employ people is, and has been, declining. In fact, I’d argue that the decline in manufacturing employment has directly led to our current economic woes.
For example, the disagreements over Social Security stem from the fact that not enough people are gainfully employed to support it. Social security has been likened to a Ponzi scheme and it’s true, but it was a Ponzi scheme created by people who thought it could continue forever.
During the years Social Security was created, manufacturing was huge and the other economic sectors small in comparison. The word ‘robot’ was in the vocabulary of a fringe group of sci-fi writers and no self respecting politician admitted to reading it. In the politician’s minds goods were created by people, plain and simple and that was the way it would be forever. Since the U.S. was destined to rule the world in manufactured products, employment could go only one way and that was up. Social Security could therefore never run out of money. Today we know that’s not the case.
(The detractors of Social Security never mention that the program worked and worked well for decades. It kept seniors from starving and pumped much needed money into the economy. In addition, Medicare prevented seniors from going bankrupt from catastrophic illnesses. The problems with a government program like Social Security or Medicare stem more from the fact that there aren’t enough workers to support them rather than the idea the program doesn’t work.)
In the past, manufacturing represented a place where undereducated people could find employment at relatively high wages. 
Even today, many potential young workers drop out of education, before or after graduating from high school, either because they’re not interested or motivated, or the cost of college is too high. These young men and women represent a large labor pool we could use but we can’t. They will find it difficult to contribute in this society. They face few choices and most of them only provide low to minimum wage.
Of the jobs lost and created after the banking meltdown in 2008, 60 percent were lost in construction and manufacturing, the places where the above young people might have found a decent job. However, of the jobs added since the crisis, 58 percent have been low wage and minimum wage jobs.
Those working for minimum wage are in the poverty level, only making about $15,000 per year. Providing minimum wage jobs for these people is clearly not the answer. After standard deductions, they pay little or no income taxes and their Social Security and Medicare taxes can’t support the programs. No matter how many jobs you create at low or minimum wage, it won’t solve any of the problems. Of the high wage jobs added, most were involved in moving around money to create more money, making the one percent richer.
Projecting the current trends into the future and looking at other trends eroding our freedoms, I foresee America as a police-state oligarchy, ruled by the rich, with robots making most of the manufactured products. The middle class is destined to vanish replaced by a huge disenfranchised slave-labor class that will be forced to work for a pittance or starve once the government’s economic safety net is jerked away.
The elderly (like me) will be allowed to die off becoming less of a burden on the national debt, and wars will be used to control the lower classes by distracting them and killing off the excess people.
In Robert Heinlein’s novella ‘Revolt in Twenty-one Hundred’ one of the characters discusses the use of the English language to appeal to emotions rather than logic. (The word is commonly known as ‘propaganda’.) Exciting one’s fears, racial and religious prejudices using loaded words, even though they might be blatant lies, works and works well. People want to be soothed by being told what they already believe, rather than facing the truly complex nature of the world they live in.
Perhaps Heinlein foresaw our current scenario in his novella or George Orwell in ‘1984’. They just got the dates wrong.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The case for self publishing.

I hear many people say, "I've always wanted to write a book." It seems to happen every time I mention the fact that I'm an author.
It's an urge that many people share but up to now it's not been strong enough to encourage the same individuals to write a cookbook, short story or novel. After all, when you've done it, put the effort into the writing and finally possess a finished manuscript, who will read it?
Having a reader is important. Most (if not all) writers possess a yearn to be read that transcends earning money or making a living at writing. Although I can't speak for all writers, that's been my experience.
To be read, you need to publish the work, get it in front of an audience. In the past there were only two ways to do that, seek a traditional publisher or publish it yourself.
Established publishers could distribute the book to a wide audience because they controlled the distribution sources. If you self-published, the burden was on you. Many people who tried it beggared themselves using unscrupulous vanity publishers, and the negative connotation along with the miniscule number of successes discouraged the practice.
But then the internet grew to maturity. Web publishers offered an alternative to the traditional route, giving people who wanted to try writing, a path to a huge audience. At first, traditional publishers ignored the web-publishers, treating them like annoying insects that would eventually fly away or could easily be crushed.
Now the web-publishers have become more like a pack of hungry prowling wolves. If traditional publishers can't or won't change, the pack may select them for their next meal.
Writers who seek the traditional route to publishing success are frequently lonely and confused. Almost a hundred percent of their tentative efforts to seek traditional publication will be met with form letters, if they receive a reply at all. They'll flounder around in the dark with absolutely no knowledge as to why they were rejected.
Traditional publishers hold their cards close to their chest and frequently the hand they hold is a pair of deuces. The writer may be rejected, not for the quality of the writing, but for economic reasons that the would-be author doesn't understand and which may not hold validity.
Nevertheless an impersonal form letter provides no enlightenment at all.
So we'll suppose that some of the replies from agents and publishers have resulted in more than the typical rejection. Perhaps they've seen something in the writing that triggered a personal reply and encouraged by the response, the would-be author continues to send out queries. (This could consume a significant fraction of the writer's life.)
Of a sudden, bam! The author gets an offer from an agent or publisher and with trembling hands stroking the keys on the computer keyboard, he or she responds. After all, success is just around the corner, isn't it?
Not so fast, prospective author, now come the hurdles. You're racing toward the finish line but you're not there yet.
Is the offer legitimate? Is the agent or publisher set to help you become an author, or are they just out to rob your wallet? There are more scam artists out to fleece wannabe authors than there are legitimate agents and publishers.
Let's assume you've done your homework, and verified that the offer is real. If you're like most people it may have been the only offer you've had, so you decide to take it.
If you're not careful and you don't understand the in and outs of contracts, you may just be selling your life away. When you sell a book you give up your right to it. Once it's sold, unless you're really adept at contract negotiations, you own it no longer. It's your baby and you've just peddled it to the only bidder. You've sold your soul to a devil you don't know and can't understand.
Okay, you've signed the contract and turned your fate over to the agent or publisher. Everything has worked out, and now the only obstacle remaining is to get it to the bookstores.
Be prepared to wait, in fact, be prepared to wait a long time. In the case of an agent, it may take a long time to find a publisher and the agent may request substantial changes to the manuscript to make it salable. If you've contracted directly with the publisher, you'll need to satisfy the editor, approve the book cover (assuming you negotiated that in your contract), pour though the proof copy and make corrections. It's time consuming.
Finally, a year later, your book is in the bookstores, and then it's time for the readers to vote with their dollars.
Maybe it's a best seller or maybe it's a mid-list, or maybe it doesn't earn enough to repay the advance (the most likely outcome, assuming you got an advance).
To complete the above process may consume five to ten years of your life.
You could have learned all that in a couple of months if you'd self-published it and could have earned substantially more in royalties than agents or the traditional publishers offer.
To understand why the writing is accepted or scorned, the writer needs to be read. Maybe it's the fact that the work is bad, or just maybe it will strike a chord with readers. Either way, you've learned something, because readers don't hesitate to pan bad writing or reward good writing, a fact I've learned from experience. The question is, how do you get read, because in the final case, it's the readers that matter, not an agent or publisher.
Is self publishing easy? No, but it's not as daunting as you might think, and I guarantee it's easier and faster than seeking an agent or traditional publisher. If you're competent or can become accomplished in a few areas, including editing, cover design and formatting, you won't have to spend one red cent to become self-published. If you're not, there are hundreds of people who can help and the costs are more than reasonable.
There are many free options to get your work in front of an audience like Smashwords, Feedbooks (free books only!), Pubit! (Barnes and Nobel), Lulu (print on demand) and AmazonKDP to name a few.
Feedbooks, Pubit!, Lulu and Amazon limit your exposure to their sites or a couple others, while Smashwords distributes to multiple book sellers.
(Don't be caught by crooks who want to charge a lot of money to publish your work. If you're asked to spend in total more than the mid three figures, including editing, cover design and formatting, you're likely being ripped off.)
In the end you need to be recognized and reach readers. Self-publishing can accomplish that, it can give you an idea of whether or not your work is appealing to the readers.
If there's an expressed interest in this subject. I'll post future articles on formatting, cover design, pricing, and the overall strategies you can use to get your work self-published.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cell Phone

I was writing a paragraph today and something that I’d written struck me as being strange, bordering on the bizarre.
Like many of you, I’m an avid reader of science fiction, having started when I was just twelve years old. That was fifty-six years ago.
I was always amazed at the technology the authors dreamed up, remembering descriptions of what today could only be interpreted as modern e-readers and personal communicators and frequently wondered when these things would come to pass. Those weren’t the only wonders science fiction authors wrote about, but since FTL space ships don’t seem to be on the drawing boards (speaking of that phrase, I suppose I should change it to read “CAD programs”) I suppose the afore mentioned technology will suffice to illustrate my point.
I can’t help but feel like Captain Kirk, communicating with the Enterprise, every time I flip open my cell phone, and that little marvel is the reason for this blog post.
A new character in “Shadow Twins”, a beautiful, saucy, Italian woman named, Dani, makes an innocent move in the novel. The sentence reads: “Dani removed a cell from her pocket and slid it across the table.”
That’s weird. If I’d written that ten years ago it would have been interpreted as the woman actually plucked a cell from her body and slid it on the table, as unlikely as that might seem.
Actually to avoid misinterpretation, I probably should have written “cell phone” rather than “cell” but even with the short version I doubt anyone will wonder what I meant. The previous paragraph is about a cell phone and a modern reader will understand it. Besides, the epiphany it conjured in my mind led to this post.
We’re living in a science fiction world minus the space ships and space colonies and we don’t register it except for rare occasions.
I learned engineering on a slide rule. Any of you know what that is? If you don’t, read some of the old Robert Heinlein novels and pay attention to the phrase “slip-stick”. That’s a slide rule. It’s not a ruler; it’s a calculator, an analog calculator. No electronics, no batteries, and horribly inaccurate. We used to carry them in holsters, like a sword strapped to our waists. You were lucky if you could perform a calculation to two decimal places, but that device and others like it allowed us to travel to the moon and back. Heinlein understood it perfectly, but a modern reader would be confused.
Given the technology we possess today, how much further we can progress? The sky is within our reach folks, I think we should grab it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

PayPal and Censorship (and how it affects me)

A lot of blogs and comments have been written about the outrage over PayPal's edict to Smashwords and other online publishers prohibiting the sale of certain erotic content. I wish that PayPal would extend that to the sale of illegal firearms, but that's unlikely, because the NRA would quickly destroy their business. Since we writers are a small group with little clout they'll likely get away with this kind of censorship and one can only wonder what's next. Both firearms and freedom of speech are Constitutionally protected, but it seems that death is more palatable to PayPal than sex.
As I said before, a huge quantity of words have been expended to question the validity of PayPal's actions, so rather than repeat them, I'll confine my comments to how this decision will affect me personally as an author.
I have two books on Smashwords that may fall under scrutiny. One of them listed as erotic but completely lacking in prohibited content and the other contains a reference to incest but listed as romance.
Ironically I received an email from Smashwords because I had the one book categorized as erotic, and that book contains no prohibited content at all. The second book will not be subjected to the microscope because it's listed as romance, and that's the book that might be interpreted as having content possibly prohibited by PayPal.
The romance novel tells the story of two couples who fall in love and have sexual encounters. One couple are older, in the twilight of their years, and the other couple are younger, just starting out. After I'd written much of the novel, I realized I had placed the characters into a situation that might be described as a stepbrother and stepsister engaged in an incestuous affair. In fact, I wrote one or two paragraphs in which the young couple joke that since their parents ran off to Las Vegas and married, they might be committing incest.
Curious as to the laws surrounding incest, I researched the topic and found to my dismay a bewildering range of laws, varying from state to state and country to country, some of which provide twenty years imprisonment and some with no penalty at all. Some define incest as relations between blood relatives, some even include step-siblings, and some allow marriage between first cousins. In at least one case, the relationship is considered incestuous even if the couple was married, and their parents subsequently married later. During my research I read articles from respected scientists that argued against certain incest laws saying that the reasons for them were more religious rather than scientific, and that genetic counseling could determine if the union held any dangers from recessive genes.
In other words the whole thing is a jumble of dumb laws with no relation to reality. Realizing that, and knowing that the issue deserved to be addressed, I left it in the novel to showcase how stupid it was. I'm not addressing the issue of incest between stepfather and minor stepdaughter (or vice-versa) because that relationship is rape and child abuse, both of which I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole.
Having said that, I will admit that after sixty-eight years of experience and numerous girls friends, a disproportionate number of them confided they'd had sexual encounters with stepfathers, either unwanted or instigated by the minor stepdaughter. So, the problem seems widespread and mostly hidden and deserves to be brought out in a factual manner or through fiction. Unfortunately PayPal blushes at the mention of sex even though it's the driving force that keeps the human race alive.
Now, I wonder if I'll have to withdraw one of my best novels from publication.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sex in Novels (revisited)

A lot of novels are about serial killers that commit multiple murders and paranormal creatures like zombies that munch on live human beings.
It often seems that violence and gore is perfectly acceptable in fiction while love, romance, and the resultant sexual encounters are not. I've read numerous novels that describe in graphic detail, horrific amounts of blood, shattered teeth, torture and dismemberment. It seems it's considered part of the craft and acceptable, yet describing an accurate, loving, sex scene is considered obscene.
What does that say about our society?
At any given moment, nearly half the world's population is engaged in the pleasurable act that makes babies. Yes, babies. You know, those cut little bundles of joy that make life worth living and keep the human species from becoming extinct?
Half. – over three billion people.
Maybe more than half, if you count those people making love in the daytime.
So, why hold back on the one aspect of life that prevents the end of the human race?
In the U.S. We have a very skewed outlook on sex. This is a country in which a three letter word, describing the act of killing people, (war) is considered heroic and brave, but a four letter word describing the act of making babies (fuck) is considered obscene. Is that a rational or sane?
So I put sex in my works. I don't do it to sell, I do it because it belongs there. Sex is an essential part of human life. It's grand and sometimes glorious if it includes love. There's nothing nasty, obscene or degrading about it. It's about the closest you'll come to experiencing heaven in this life. The French call orgasm the little death. They've got a point. If a good orgasm never stopped, I think I would die. Check any novel, novella, or short story ever written and you’ll find sex ranging from either blatant sex or sex hidden somewhere. Even Harry Potter has sex in it and that's supposed to be a kids book. Lord of the Rings has the romance between Arwen and Strider, and between Sam and the barmaid. Sex is the natural outcome of romance. Everyone knows it, it hovers in the back of their minds and that's what makes romance work.
I look at it this way, if two people fall in love in a novel, and at the end, bounce babies on their knees, then they've had sex with each other. It's as inevitable as sunrise. So, if the outcome is a glorious, loving sex scene, then why not write about it? It's much more preferable than writing about killing people.