Category Archives: Rants

The Kindle Blues

I thought that people who did a lot of reading were supposed to be smart.

See, at the end of 2008 I ordered an Amazon Kindle, and it arrived at the end of February in 2009. I love it. It’s a brilliant device that does one thing – let you read – really, really, really well. But for such a brilliant device, it’s inspired an awful lot of unbrilliant thinking on all sides of its release.

While I was waiting for my Kindle to arrive, I subscribed to Amazon’s discussion board for the Kindle in the hopes of having a leg up before when it actually came. Well, I got that. But I got something else.

It seemed to me that a lot of other Kindle owners have the biggest entitlement mentality I’ve ever seen. I know not all of them are like that, but the ones with their hands out are the biggest complainers.

While I was waiting to get my Kindle, Amazon made the decision to quit making the original model, and introduced the Kindle 2. Everyone in line for the old model would now get the new model instead. That was pretty cool of them, right?

Except among some of the owners of what is now called the Kindle 1 – especially the more recent owners. There was outrage in some corners. Some who had bought the K1 and enjoyed it up until Amazon’s February announcement decided this switcheroo was unfair. Amazon had knowingly sold them an old product when they knew a newer version was coming out.

Using this same logic, they were probably shocked when the car in their driveway was suddenly made obsolete by the newest model. The same with their TV sets, their blenders, their sofas, and especially their computers – but do you suppose they demanded a free replacement of any of those? Amazon’s woes continued in this vein as they introduced a bigger model (the DX) and an international model of the K2 (the K2i).

The wave of unbrilliance continued as Amazon tried to hold the prices of bestsellers to $9.99. Rabid customers tried to organize boycotts when prices on some books went higher than that. This has been compounded by the fact that Steve Jobs capitulated to publisher demands in order to try and make the eReader software on the iPad more competitive against the Kindle.1

What Jobs’ turn as Neville Chamberlain did was empower publishers to put the screws to Amazon’s pricing policies for the Kindle. If Apple gave them terms, then Amazon should cough up the same agreements in spite of previous precedence. The result is “The Agency Model” – a fancy term for publishers setting their own prices for eBooks.2 And by the publishers’ way of thinking, that price should be about the same as a trade paperback.3

Of course, there’s a lot of whining going on about this, too. The entitlement readers probably attended the school that in the 2000’s claimed that “music should be free.”

Now there is a little bit of logic behind their desire for low eBook prices. After all, since there’s no paper, ink, labor, shipping, storage, etc., needed for an eBook, they should be practically free, right?

Wrong.

I agree that eBooks should have a lower cost than DTB’s (Dead Tree Books), but as something of an industry insider, I also understand that there are some book-related costs that publishers still can’t shake, namely, the cost of their infrastructure – buildings, desks, and all those editors, proofreaders, sales persons… and then they have to pay the authors something, right?

Plus, the publishing industry has another dirty little secret they’re not sure they want you to know. That is, in an eight-figure deal (that’s millions with an extra digit in front of it – tens, twenties, thirties, etc.) with a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling, they do not get their money back in associated book sales. What they have basically done is paid an exorbitant amount of money to have a prestige author in their house’s lineup. And no, they don’t make money from movie sales, etc., because the agents for these writers have already negotiated to keep those. Where they make their money is from mid-list authors, the ones who meet their sell-through and go on to make profits for themselves and their publishers. These are the names you’ve probably seen on the Bestseller Lists and wondered who in the world they were. Now you know. They’re the publishers’ bread and gravy.

The other dirty little secret of the publishing world is that right now, they’re in the same mess that the music industry was in a decade ago when mp3’s were coming into their own. And judging from their behavior, they have learned nothing from the mistakes the music industry made back then.

As example, early on in the Kindle’s history, many publishers put the smackdown on the Text-To-Voice feature, which reads any text document on the Kindle in a well-rendered synthetic voice. They claimed it was a threat to their revenue from audio books.

Well, let me tell you about Text-to-Speech. As I have already chronicled in these pages, when I was doing the most recent edit to …and that’s the end of the news, I loaded into my Kindle so I could read it without being tempted to edit it. While commuting, I tried using the T2S on the document and… what a rush it was hearing it read my own novel to me. I was so thrilled, you’d have thought I was listening to an audio recording of it by James Earl Jones.

But while the synthetic voice (you have a choice of male or female) is nice, it still has oddities of pacing and pronunciation (it never did pronounce my female protagonist’s name correctly). And if I was going to listen to, say, Moby Dick and had the choice, I’d take a James Earl Jones recording of it over either Kindle voice every time. It’s a no-brainer that the publishers have made, in their avarice, a brainer.

The transition to eBooks is going to be a rough one.4 Amazon has stumbled in the process too, like with their release of 1984 and Animal Farm in unauthorized editions, and the, um, Orwellian way that they took them back. But they apologized and made good on it, something a lot of publishers have yet to catch on to.

All we can do is sit tight and see how it all spins out. Meantime, anybody got a suggestion for a good book to read?

  1. Although I can’t understand why he did this. He was the one who, when he found out about the Amazon Kindle, said he wasn’t worried because “People don’t read anymore.”
  2. But Amazon is rubbing publishers’ noses in their own dirt – check out the Kindle pricing of an eBook, and some will say “Price Set By Publisher”. But I suspect this is not so much to fight back as silence the entitlement-minded whiners who say the price is too high.
  3. Or, they have the right to delay release of the eBook, anywhere from three months after the hardcover to coinciding with the release of the paperback.
  4. No, I’m not one of those doom and gloomers who thinks that eReaders spell the end of the book – just like CD’s and mp3’s put an end to vinyl, right?

Canine Inflation, or, How Much Is That Labracockabegaschauzabernadinedoodle in the Window?

Once upon a time, a German Shepherd was passing through town with his briefcase full of wares, when, on his way through a residential neighborhood, a familiar pheomonal call filled his rather elaborate sinuses. He did what any red-blooded American dog would do and jumped the fence, and found on the other side a very desirable and willing female Laborador. Two months later, her paramour nowhere to be found, she delivered a dozen healthy pups, most of which looked just like her.

Heeding an ad in the paper, a man came along, picked a female pup, and bought it for his son. He paid $5 for it in 1985 dollars, the equivalent of about $10 today. Just enough to keep the local medical research lab from coming in and claiming the whole litter.

My son dubbed the dog Sandy, and we had her for many years. She was a great dog – one of the best we’d had as a family. She had the look of a golden lab, the protective instincts of a Shepherd, and was gentle and patient with kids. Quite a bargain for those five 1985 dollars.

Were I to get a Sandy nowadays, I probably couldn’t afford her. Some nitwit would probably advertise her in the paper as a “Sheprador” and want five bills for her.

Back when I was a kid, there were three kinds of dogs. There were purebreds, usually pretty  expensive, but if you just wanted one as a pet you could find one that wasn’t quite up to breed standard for a reasonable price. Then there were mutts. This was applied to any non-purebred dog. Mutts were usually free, although when medical research facilities began harvesting them for nefarious purposes, token fees were placed on them to prevent the practice. Then there were crossbreeds, and back then there was only one – the cockapoo, a cross between a poodle and a cocker spaniel. Cute dogs, but not purebreds. They cost less than a purebred, but more than a mutt.

And that was it.

Now check out the classified page of your local paper. The business of breeding and selling has gone to the dogs. They’re no longer Mutts. They’re called “designer dogs,” and with them come designer price tags. To give you some idea of how far this has gone, check out this slide show describing the top ten mutts designer dogs, coming soon to a puppy mill near you.

Your Universe Belongs to Us Now, So Shut Up and Spend Your Money

Disclaimer: I’m not a Harry Potter fan. Haven’t read any of the books. Have seen some of the movies and thought they were all right. But I can’t ignore this. It is getting too big. Or at least annoying.

A few days ago, author J.K. Rowling revealed a juicy bit of Harry Potter backstory when she told a reporter that Albus Dumbledore is gay.

That news was greeted by me with some eye rolling, but I put it aside and forgot about it. After all, an author in her position needs to do a little headline grubbing to make sure that the books keep moving off the shelves, especially when there are two movies yet to be made. Although this isn’t exactly the way I would have gone about doing it, especially when the Harry Potter series is supposed to be a done deal, but that’s just me.

But apparently this isn’t the first time she has spilled aftermarket information about the Potterville. She’s also dropped hints about what some of the characters do in life after Hogwarts. I know that a writer’s head is full of their little worlds, including a lot that never gets included in the finished product. However, Ms. Rowling is supposedly working on two separate book projects right now, and her mind is supposed to be on those. The Harry Potter universe is finished, according to her.

I’ve been through this. There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t put in my books that was cool. I even know what happens to some of the characters after the events in a given book – and at least one character has one more book full of adventures that will probably never be written. Deciding which part of the story to tell is a part of the creative process.

But it sounds like J.K. has either not had a lot of experience in dealing with rabid fans (“What was the combination to Kirk’s safe in episode 26?”), or else she feels compelled to spill details before and after the seven books take place. Either that or she has gotten an inflated sense of her own importance as author of these books, and feels compelled to trickle out more details – especially if it’s a slow news day and the press keeps asking.

A shame, because what she’s done two things. She’s started the wheels of disenfranchisement turning within her fan base, and she has opened the floodgates for Potter-themed slash fiction. Not saying that there wasn’t any before hand, but her current behavior is almost inviting it. She’d better not complain about it.

If she’s going to keep doing this, she needs to do either one of two things. First, she could go the Tolkien route, shaping all the outlines, notes, and cocktail napkin scrawlings into a book of pre- or post-history. That would be better than tormenting fans like she is and put more money into her coffers (not that she needs any more, but you get the point).

Second, she could just plain shut up.

I know which one I’d prefer.

Meantime, here is an insightful piece from the Dallas News about the whole subject that pretty much sums up my feelings about the situation.

By the way did you know that Andy Birch…

Snakes on a Plane, or, Five Lessons from Hollywood

CONTENT ADVISORY: Some of the links in this post lead to places that use an abundance of naughty words. Even some of the URL’s have cussin’ in them. You have been warned.

I really hate to hop on a meme like this, the Internet Flavor of the Month, but it says so much about something broken in our culture that I must open my big, fat mouth.

A week or so ago, I ran across this post, linked from some blog that I frequent. I think Ace, the fun-loving scamp at Ace of Spades HQ was the culprit who first brought it to my attention.

In the post, a struggling screenwriter comes to grips with the chance to work on a film that he says has the ultimate title: Snakes On A Plane. The fact that it pegs the Hoke-O-Meter in the red means nothing. It’s all about the title, which went through a number of changes until, allegedly, the high-dollar star of the pic, Samuel L. Jackson, claimed he’d signed on just because of the title.

Hollywood Lesson #1: The high-dollar star is the 800-pound gorilla. Whether he or she knows better or not. Usually they don’t.

I passed it off as another example of Hollywood stupidity until the weekend, when I received a note from a film junkie friend with a link to a blog posting about this film. “This is going to be the new All Your Base,” he wrote. The link was to a recycled version of this spurious FAQ at Cracked.com (the online version of a magazine that was once a third-rate imitator of Mad). I figure that it’s just more bad buzz on what’s going to spend a week at the cineplex and then go straight to video. But then I remember something.

Hollywood Lesson #2: Movie industry folks subscribe to the theory that “the only bad press is no press at all” – largely due to their inability to tell “good buzz” from “bad buzz.”

So I did what any semi-serious invesitgative reporter blogger would do – I took five minutes and Googled the phrase snakes on a plane.

And found this entry on Wikipedia – that’s right – Snakes On A Plane has gotten so much play on the Internet that it’s already got a lengthy Wiki entry.

Now according to this entry, S.O.A.P. (as it has been so lovingly acronymed) wrapped up filming in August (IMDB says September), but underwent five days of reshoots. But not because of the usual reasons (spoiled film stock, last minute rewrites in the editing room, removal of scenes that didn’t work, etc.). No, these reshoots were to capitalize on the Internet buzz. These reshoots are intended to take the film from a PG-13 to an R rating with added gore and violence, and the addition of a vulgar line of dialogue from Samuel L. Jackson that originated on an Internet parody.

Hollywood Lesson #3: When people quit coming to the movies and you hit on something you think people would pay to see, give it to them in spades and hope for a killer opening weekend.

Now I have to admit that, while it’s one of my favorite sites, Wikipedia is still rather unstructured. If congressmen can go in and edit the entries about themselves to be more favorable, what kind of other mischief might it inadvertently play host to? So I checked one more source, the online version of The Hollywood Reporter. And they pretty much confirmed everything that’s been going on with Snakes On A Plane.

Hollywood Lesson #4: If they’re going to this much trouble to cater to a potential audience, then what I’ve said for the last few years is really true – Hollywood is a city that is officially Out Of Ideas.

So, will I go see this film when it comes out? No. Will I rent it? Nope. I might pick it up if it turns up on the shelf at the local library, at which point I’ll watch it with the same sick fascination that I watch Plan Nine From Outer Space (although I do own a copy of Plan Nine, but that’s another story).

Which prompts the question, if this festering carrot of a treat that they’re dangling in front of me is not enough to get me into the theater, what will?

  • If you quit paying people like Tom Cruise the equivalent of a third world nation GNP, maybe I could afford to come more than a couple times a year.
  • And I might be more willing if you lose the kids with the laser pointers. Or at least point them to the right theater, the one showing Chainsaw Zombie Cheerleaders XVIII.
  • While you’re at it, get people to turn off their cell phones.
  • And get them to just shut up during the film.
  • What’s with the commercials? Previews I love. Commercials I can see on TV.
  • Might help to make something I want to see. This excludes anything based on an old TV series.
  • Ditto the comic books.
  • Ditto Adam Sandler. What’s the deal with him, anyway? He have blackmail photos of you or something?
  • On the other hand, what’s the point when the DVD will be out fifteen minutes after the film opens?

But alas, that brings us to our last lesson:

Hollywood Lesson #5: Hollywood always misses the obvious solution.

Don’t get me started on that one, or I’ll be here all night.

Meantime, if you want to see what there is of a trailer at the moment, go here. And keep in mind the words of the philosopher David St. Hubbins: “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.”

Listening:
All my dreams came true last night
All my hopes and fears
All my dreams came true once more
In tears in tears

(via iPod Shuffle)

Tantrum

If one of my novels finally made it through the gauntlet into moviedom, I’d be happy. If a novel and a novella made it to film, I’d be thrilled. If I liked the end results, I’d be delirious. And if the film based on the novella won every major film award known to mankind short of The Big Casino, I’d be humbled.

Not so Annie Proulx (pronounced “proo” to rhyme with “shoe”). For some unknown reason, The Guardian U.K. saw fit to give Ms. Proulx some space in which to vent her spleen over the fact that her Brokeback Mountain didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture – after winning every other major award that Hollywood gives itself.

I’m not going to go into a whole lot of discussion on matters like whether or not Hollywood is liberal (it is, but apparently not liberal enough for Ms. Proulx), or whether or not Crash was a worthy winner (Roger Ebert, himself liberal, believes Crash was the better film).

What I am going to point out is how incredibly in bad form Ms. Proulx’s hissy fit is.

Talk about a sense of entitlement. She reached a level of success that few writers ever get to see, and it wasn’t enough for her. Her literary tantrum reminds me of a certain girl who gets invited into the chocolate factory and goes on a rampage because she wants it all.

What world is she living in? Apparently one that is not enlightened enough for her tastes.

Am I being harsh? I don’t think so. At the end of the essay, Proulx chides us in advance to see it as sour grapes. But it’s not. The way she snidely referrs to the winning film as Trash and generally browbeats the industry is more reminiscent of a childish squall on the third-grade playground.

I’m not “playing it as it lays,” Ms. Proulx. I’m calling it the way I see it.

Lesson for today, kids: be grateful for what you get. I know from my work in advertising and my struggles as a novelist that writers are a dime a dozen. For any success that you see, you should drop to your knees and thank Jehovah God. We don’t all make it, and if you find yourself in the winner’s circle, don’t thumb your nose at the people who put you there.

I wouldn’t blame Hollywood if they never touched another Proulx property. But knowing them, they will. She’d have to be a member of the Republican National Committee before they’d snub her.

Meantime, it makes me sorry that I liked the film version of The Shipping News so much.

And it almost makes me glad that I no longer live in Wyoming.

Listening:
We chased them for miles I had hate in my eyes
Through forest and moors as the clouds filled the skies
The storm broke upon us with fury and flame
Both hunters and hunted washed out in the rain

(via iPod Shuffle)

An Open Letter to Pat Robertson

Dear Pat,

I see you’re in the news again. You’ve turned your hand from praying away hurricanes to calling down the wrath of God on people who irritate you. Like calling for the assassination of the president of Venezuela, or telling the citizens of Dover, PA that God wouldn’t answer the prayer phone if disaster struck their town.

Now you’ve announced your schadenfreude over the failing health of Israel’s president, Ariel Sharon, whose peace overtures to the Palestinians went against your own interpretation of scripture.

Well this Christian is tired of explaining to the lost in this world that you don’t represent the type of Christianity that I believe in, that you’re a rogue state, a loose cannon, a stiff-necked Pharisee who specializes in bludgeoning anyone within earshot with Old Testament Wrath of God punishments. This Christian is tired of the mainstream media trotting you out every time you say something ill-advised, holding you up as an example of “what those Christians believe.” This Christian is tired of you being an embarrassment and is tired of trying to make up for your ill-advised behavior.

So what I’d like to do is refresh your memory on some things you have obviously forgotten since your early days – if indeed you ever knew them at all.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a book that comes after the Old Testament. It’s called the New Testament, and it’s got a bunch of stuff in it about how God sent his Son to redeem all of mankind, not just the chosen nation that, time after time, turned their backs on him. Some would say it reveals a kinder, gentler God, but remember that this is the plan that he had in mind all along – he just had to wait for the world to catch up with him.

Just like now. God is waiting for the plan to play out. The end may come before I finish writing this – or it may be in 10,000 years. It’s not my job to know. And here’s a flash for you. It’s not your job, either.

What gives you special information on the time of The End, an event that not even Christ knows the hour of (he says so himself – in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32)? Are you laboring under the misapprehension that you can be kingmaker and bring the end about on your timetable? You’d be better off building a secret island fortress, hiring a hundred thugs, and planting an atomic bomb in Fort Knox. Certainly, it would be a better use of your time.

Now about these smirking assertions that those who meet with misfortune had it coming from God. If what you say is true, then why did it take the deaths of 6,000,000 Jews for God to wake up and finally corner Adolf Hitler in a bunker in Berlin? Or, by your way of thinking, did they “have it coming” too? What about the Poles, the French, the British, the Canadians, the Russians, the Americans, and yes, the Germans who also died during that war? Did they have it coming, too?

Perhaps you’ve forgotten Matthew 5:45, which tells us that the sun rises and falls, and the rain comes down on the just and the unjust. We’re all sinners. We face the consequences of our sin. But sometimes we suffer the consequences of someone else’s sin. Get used to it.

How about this business with threatening your enemies? Assassination, natural disaster with no hope of help. If you really could turn back hurricanes with your prayers, you could have taught a lot people about the true nature of God’s love by showing up in New Orleans recently, or in Florida many times over the last couple of years. Instead, you gave smug suppositions on why God smote the cities affected.

Why help sinners? Well, the person who should be your role model and taught us by example, Jesus Christ, kept a woman caught in adultery from being executed (John 8:3-11). If you’re hung up on gratitude, remember that he also healed ten lepers and only one came back to thank him (Luke 17:12-19) – so don’t expect it.

Here’s more inconvenient New Testament guidance set forth by the Son of God. Love your enemies (Matthew 5:44). And pray for them, even when they persecute you (same verse). If they’re not going to listen to your words (and believe me, those numbers plummet every time you open your mouth), we’re not instructed to call down an air strike of Holy Napalm. I believe the advice is to shake the dust from your feet (Mark 6:11, also Matthew 10:14 and Luke 9:5) and move on.

Need I remind you that the fire ‘n brimstone approach wasn’t really Christ’s style? He told Peter that he could have called 12 legions of angels to defend against the mob that came to arrest him, but didn’t (Matthew 26:53). In fact, the only one I can think of who asked Jesus to call out the troops was Satan (Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:9-11). He was tempting Christ and quoting scripture in order to make his point. If that doesn’t make you think, it should.

I realize that the idea of a loving New Testament Jehovah is not as much fun to wield as the Old Testament one who brought down floods, fires, plagues, and the sword on his enemies, not sparing beasts, women or children. But that’s the way things are now. Have you even stopped for a moment to consider how many people you’ve kept from reconciling their lives with God because you keep opening your mouth and bludgeoning them with an outdated covenant that wasn’t even meant for them?

It’s a good thing that the God I worship is one of love and mercy. Because you’re going to need as much of both as you can get in order to be cut some slack when your time comes.

So if you can, think about what you’re doing and the damage you’re doing to the cause you profess to support.

In the meantime, please… shut up, shut up, shut up.

Oh yes. I’ll be praying for you. But probably not in the way that you’d ask.

In Christ,
Joe Clifford Faust
Phillippians 4:8

(Thanks to Drudge, Mark Daniels, Accidental Blogger, The Volokh Conspiracy, and Ace of Spades HQ)

Bloom v. King

Harold Bloom, recently derided as a self-appointed guardian of American literature, has made known his displeasure over the decision of the National Book Foundation to give their annual award to Stephen King.

His contention is that King is getting the award for nothing more than the commercial power of his works. He also takes the time to make potshots at Harry Potter, making light of King’s comment that J.K. Rowling readers grow up to become King readers by drawing a line not unlike the one that leads from marijuana to heroin.

Bloom also wanders a little, taking time to attack the writing in the Potter books while ignoring King’s, which is as sloppy as he claims Rowling’s is (having never read Rowling, I won’t comment here – but King is sloppy and bloated, as I’ve noted before).

Bloom is the kind of blowhard that I usually ignore, but I can’t help thinking he’s right about King not deserving the award. The problem is, Bloom is right for the wrong reason.

If they’re awarding the prize to King for his prowess as a commercial force, then blow off Bloom and hand the man a new paperweight. Then give Rowling the award next year; she’s on track to become the world’s first billionaire author (or, as Bloom contends, give it to commercial juggernaut Danielle Steele).

But if Bloom’s central thesis is correct – that the award is for literary excellence – then King has no business darkening the door. He could tell a good story when he was hungry, but even then his tricks and contraptions were just that. They worked, to be sure, but after a certain point the go-for-the-gross-out-if-nothing-else works, the constant brand name-dropping, and the breathless prose that OVEREMPHASIZES!!! EVERYTHING!!! LIKE!!! THIS!!! wears thin.

Plus, did the book committee that decided to hand Mr. King this award stop to think what kind of acceptance speech they’re going to get? “I haven’t been this surprised since I used poison ivy leaves as toilet paper! And let me tell you…”

I once saw King on C-SPAN 2’s weekend “Book TV,” giving a speech before a convention of teachers in Maine. His hair was a mess, he wore a black T-shirt and jeans, and he haltingly read his speech from the pages of a binder. Very disappointing, given the professional nature of the venue (in King’s defense, this could have been at the height of his cocaine addiction, when the only thing he would have cared about was more White Lady to Hoover up his nose).

If the National Book Foundation wants to recognize a commercially successful writer while maintaining their airs of literary excellence, King is the wrong choice. They should have looked to someone like Elmore Leonard, who takes the hardboiled thriller to a totally new level with his brilliant writing style and his realistic expect-the-unexpected way of plotting. Or how about Richard Price? His novel Clockers alone is worthy of notice as a Great American Novel, and he’s also had success with… *gasp!* screenplays such as The Color of Money.

Leonard and Price are both better suggestions than Bloom’s own ideas for alternate prizewinners. Two of the three he mentions – Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon – are brain hemorrhagingly difficult to read. They’re the sort of authors that professors inflict upon upper level lit students to humble them. I haven’t tried to read the third, Cormac McCarthy, so I withhold comment there. But if the company Bloom keeps him in is any indication, a hat trick is in the offing.

The odd thing is, while I disagree with the choice, there’s a part of me that delights in seeing King get this award. It’s going to make him a member of the circle that has done nothing but deride popular fiction for decades – his own work included. Personally, I hope their next banquet puts him in a seat next to John (“I have no use for science fiction unless it happens to be a science-fiction-like novel that I happen to have written”) Updike.

Watch out, National Book Foundation. You done made Bubba a member of the country club now.

And Steve… Steve, old boy! Mind if I load that shotgun up with rock salt and nails for you?

NP – Technicolor Web Of Sound Internet Radio.