Saturday, February 28, 2009

I'm not so stimulated by the Stimulus...the Long-Awaited Rant

My Facebook status has been that I'm working up a rant for a while and today my son woke me at 4:30 and I couldn't get back to sleep, so I figure now is as good a time as any....

I've long been a fan of science fiction, going back to TV shows like the original Star Trek and UFO. Around the age of twelve, I started reading a lot of Robert Heinlein and in high school, while writing a paper on Heinlein, I discovered the meaning of "social science fiction." While many readers of SF think it's all about technology or simply setting something in the future, authors of social science fiction know that it's also about the way society might be in the future or on another planet. And economics are part of society. And, folks, I fear we are officially into "social science fiction" in the US.

More than one author has imagined a world where all manufacturing is done by machines and humans simply "use." I believe the US is far closer to this future than we imagine, but it's not the machines who do all of the manufacturing, it's China, Mexico, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and even Canada. Looking around my home and office, I imagine few things I own are made in the US. And this is the problem. We don't make things anymore. Why are the US automakers collapsing? Well, partially it’s because US cars are perceived as being of lower quality than those made in Japan or Germany or Sweden, and partially it’s because of the crippling costs of running factories and dealing with unions and thousands and thousands of retired union workers in the US.

Don’t get me wrong. I think unions have and will continue to play an important part in the world of American business. But talk about fiddling while Rome is burning. I have seen many mentions that the UAW has walked out of negotiations with the automakers on plans that would allow the automakers to stay in business. Talk about short-sighted! How will all of those autoworkers benefit if the companies that employ them go out of business?

We have, over the years, seen airline personnel take pay cuts to help keep the airlines in business. Are airline employees simply bigger pushovers or are they smarter? Perhaps they recognize that some money is better than no money? Perhaps they recognize that it is better to lose the battle than lose the war?

In one novel that I could unfortunately never sell, the author wrote of a future in which classes were broken down to “achievers” and “welfies.” This is likely self-explanatory. And as I watch the middle class in America get smaller and smaller—lest it be unclear, because they are losing their jobs and thus leaving the middle class for the “lower” class—I see us moving a bit closer to this future.

Could the economic collapse have come at a worse time? Just as the Babyboomers are coming into their retirement years, their retirement plans are being decimated. If you were worried about collecting Social Security before, how about now, when many of this generation that might have planned on delaying taking benefits will now have to take them as early as possible?

Looking back at the Great Depression, which is the depression most often now being used in comparison to ours, one can’t help but realize that what saved the US was WWII. Literally, the destruction of much of the world and millions of lives is what it took. Just as some science fiction novels describe a future in which “planned obsolescence” is required to ensure a never ending manufacturing process that sustains the economy, the US was saved from the Depression by there being so much destruction and loss of life that it had to ramp up manufacturing and the results benefited the economy. Exporting goods and machinery to a devastated Europe and Asia is what made the US economy grow throughout the forties, fifties, and sixties.

Much has been made of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, in which billions of investor dollars were lost without any actual investments being involved. Is the rest of our economy really that far off? Look at credit in this country and how credit has become the linchpin that, once pulled, has caused banks to collapse and threatens to bring down car companies whose names were once nearly synonymous with “America.” Is it not just another giant Ponzi scheme? The people borrow from the credit card companies, who borrow from the banks, who borrow from the government, which used to borrow from the people (remember savings bonds?) but now borrows from other countries (e.g., China) that still manufacture stuff that the people buy with the money they’ve borrowed from the credit card companies. Is anyone really surprised this situation was unsustainable?!

Now I look at the billions and billions the US is planning on spending on the “stimulus” package and my head wants to explode. “Infrastructure” is a huge part of this package. Does anyone believe that building roads and bridges, often out of imported steel, is what this country needs? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fixing old bridges. But where is the “smart” infrastructure? One thing that drove the dynamic growth of this country way back when was the train and the laying of track from one end of the country to another. Two things that are killing this country in more ways than you can count are the automobile and the highway system. Pollution from cars, traffic congestion, and lost hours of productivity from being stuck in that congestion are costing this country billions every year. So why isn’t public transportation the very foundation of the stimulus bill? Imagine building a network of heavy and light rail throughout the nation, connecting to subways, monorails, trolleys, and buses throughout America’s cities and towns. Imagine that this network is built using American-made steel and that the equipment is all made in America by American auto builders who retool to focus not on the individual automobile but on the trains and trolleys that will carry Americans to work and play. Our goal should not be to “save” the American auto companies. It should be to transform them into highly successful manufactures of public transportation platforms.

I don’t know if it is still in the plan, but at one point I saw that $75 million was to be spent upgrading the Department of Agriculture’s computers. Since few if any computers are actually “Made in the USA,” I wonder which country’s economy will receive this “stimulus.” Clearly not ours.

Foreign countries have already begun complaining that the stimulus plan should not have “Made in America” provisions, but this is ridiculous. It’s US taxpayers’ money being spent and of course it should be spent in America. In fact, the US government should be required to only buy “Made in America,” I feel. Imagine if every computer bought by the US Government had to be made in America. Then companies like Dell and Gateway and HP would have the incentive to have manufacturing plants in the US. Imagine if every city and small town in America created the same requirement. This is not protectionist; it’s practical, reasonable, and fair. I believe that every tax dollar paid by Americans should be spent in America. This will not put Wal-Mart or Target out of business, because consumers will still spend billions and billions every year on products made outside of the US. But by committing to buying American-made products, government—be it federal, state, or local—will be creating manufacturing markets here that will need to be fulfilled. And creating those markets creates jobs, and that’s what we need.

The next part of the stimulus I’d like to see is a commitment to education with the goal of creating smarter, healthier Americans. We cannot afford to have an obese, unhealthy nation that cannot do math and that cannot invent things. We are not in a space race with the Soviet Union anymore. So what can we do to inspire out kids to be smarter, study harder, and lead healthier lives? Higher wages for teachers would help, federal money to upgrade science labs in schools would help, not to mention more money for libraries. Money to educate kids and their parents on healthy eating would be great, also. And physical education needs to focus more on the “physical,” I feel. Crab soccer was fun, but I was thirtysomething before I realized that yoga, properly taught, could be of enormous benefit. Why aren’t we teaching more yoga in school? Team sports were not for me, but does do any schools have PhysEd that isn’t focused on team sports? Perhaps they should. Teach kids a “work-out” ethic, as well as a work ethic and the country will benefit. Where is the money for that in the stimulus package?

My business can do something, too. Stop discounting books. End the vicious cycle where retailers feel they must be able to offer 10%-50% off of books in order to sell them. Because this only leads to higher prices on the part of publishers, who must jack up the cost of the book so that they can get more money after giving Barnes & Noble a 50-65% discount, so that B&N can then offer shoppers 30% off best-sellers. I bet the price of book could be cut at least 10%, which means that libraries could be that many more books and so can parents. More books in homes means more readers and we all know that kids who read are generally better students. Kids who are better students will, I believe, grow up to be better contributors to society. And we can certainly use as many of those as we can get.

Do I believe that what I’ve proposed here will actually be accomplished? No. In fact, my expectations of the stimulus package and our country in general could likely not be lowered any further. But I feel better. Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What is your opinion about websites such as Authonomy is a website sponsored by HarperCollins to search for new talent. Is it wise for authors to post their works on sites such as these for review by others? Is it wise for authors to post chapters from their novels on blogs? Do you have knowledge of Agents/Publishers perusing sites such as these?
I have posted my novel on Authonomy (La Fleur) and I have created a blog as well. Needless to say, I am now having second thoughts. I would appreciate your professional opinion.
Claudia Ross

Hi Claudia:

Truth is, I've never heard of it. Perhaps it was launched somewhere in the middle of my wife's pregnancy and the birth of our son?

I just took a quick look and I don't really have an opinion. Publishers have always published the occasional book bought directly from an author, versus an agent. And they've run contests, too. This seems to me to be an attempt by the publisher to get you more involved on its site, perhaps in hopes that you'll buy a few more books they publish and, though it's a long shot, maybe they'll find something good to publish.

Let's face it: There's no American Idol of publishing. Reading is very time-consuming. Even if you are a very, very fast reader, there's still an editorial process and likely one to four other people will also read anything you as an editor bring up. In a way, this site could act as a focus group. If enough readers on here love one single project, then it would make sense for the editors to take a good, hard look at it, right? The cream floats to the top. Yes, I know the other thing that floats and that explains several best-selling authors' success. But you can't blame the authors if it's the readers who really like crap.

So is it worth doing? Hard to say. I'd like to see the contract they offer the authors and wonder if the terms of service of the site give them any ownership of your work. I'd be wary of posting my novel there for fear of it committing you in any sense at all or conveying rights to the publisher in any way at all.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Somewhat belatedly, the January Round-up

In January 2009, we...
  • Received 54 queries and declined 34
  • Received 7 sample chapters and declined 3
  • Received 4 manuscripts and declined 3
We also...
  • Requested 8 sample chapters
  • Requested 1 proposal
As of February 19, 2009 we have on hand to read the following:
  • 4 Proposals
  • 5 manuscripts
  • 43 Sample chapters
We are also waiting to receive:
  • 7 sample chapters
  • 2 manuscripts
  • 2 proposals
We have read all sample chapters dated before October 7, 2008. If you submitted to us before that and sent an SASE but did not hear back, you should contact us.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Now that's what I call a "blurb!"

As noted here previously, Thomas Dunne books will be publishing Jack Lynch's memoir of his time in Iraq, The Majestic Twelve, in hardcover. I now have a planned pub date of 9/29/09. Further, and more importantly, we have our first blurb for this great book!

“WOW! The Majestic Twelve is a front seat ride into combat at its most dangerous point. A must read.”

—Jack Coughlin, author of Shooter: The Autobiography of a Top-Ranked Marine Sniper

If you'd like to read Coughlin's book while you are waiting for The Majestic Twelve to come out, use the link below.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Reading Aloud Versus Audio Rights

It's been an interesting couple of days. On the one hand, the Authors Guild is up in arms over the new Kindle's ability to read the text of a book aloud to the user. This, they say, infringes on audio rights that may be owned by either the publisher or the author. I firmly agree. In fact, for years, I argued with publishers about the need to prohibit them in their eBook clauses from allowing the electronic text to be read aloud. I rarely made headway. The position most publishers took was that they can't control if a person has software or hardware that converts text to speech. Frankly, I think this is a cop-out. If a gizmo is smart enough to read a book out loud, it is smart enough to be programmed to not read certain books. It's called "crippling" and while some users who actually can't see will be deeply unhappy, most users probably won't even notice. Because, in the end, it's unlikely that listening to a flat, monotone voice from the Kindle or other device will compare to listening to an audio book. That said, I do believe that the ability of the Kindle to read text infringes on audio rights.

And I also believe that an individual reading a book and posting chapters on YouTube is an infringement. Yes, you read that right. An individual took it upon himself to create a series of YouTube videos in which he was reading one of my client's books, chapter-by-chapter. He took them down when I requested, but I still shake my head in awe at the pure chutzpa. With all of the hullabaloo about Napster and Bit Torrent and other services that infringe on copyright, could a guy smart enough to make all of those videos just under the YouTube limit of ten minutes really not know that it was copyright infringement to post them?

I often think that people don't realize that a book can be sliced into many different formats and each of those formats is protected by copyright. For years, professors used to photocopy entire chapters from books and have the university bookstores sell them to students, without compensating authors and publishers. In some countries, the English-language version of a new Harry Potter book has been translated and posted to the web. Authors have reported finding translations of their books in foreign countries, even though they never signed a contract or received payment for that to happen. This folks is all piracy of copyright, pure and simple.

One thing that's interesting to me is that publishers are moving toward removing DRM from electronic books (for those not in the know, that's Digital Rights Management). DRM is roughly the same as the key codes used by Microsoft to keep you from ripping off Windows or Office, but in books, it works quite differently. Your computer is likely connected to the Internet 24/7 (or close to it) and so when you install new software, the program can require you to connect to a Microsoft website and "activate" it with a key code before you can use it. Books tend to be tied to the portable readers and for some reason folks believe they should be able to lend books or give them away freely, without the author receiving further compensation. Of course, this is because physical books work that way. But is it right?

Personally, I don't think so. I believe in DRM because without it, people can share books as many times as they want and the author and publisher earn nothing. It's not linear like with physical books, and they don't wear out, like physical books. Without DRM a book can be propagated potentially many times, and the only losers are the author and publisher.

What I would like to see, though, is less expensive electronic books. If an eBook costs a few dollars, then there's less incentive to rip it off. Just like if a song costs 99 cents, do I really need to borrow the CD from someone to burn it? Time is money. Make getting books in electronic format cheap and easier than hooking up with a friend to copy his or hers, then piracy will drop.

In the meantime, though, keep in mind that when you borrow a book, the author likely only got 10% of the cover price for the original purchase, and very possibly only 10% of the net purchase price (what the bookseller paid after a 50% or greater discount). Thus, when my father and his golf buddies all pass around the same novel and read it, the author is collecting only pennies per reader, if not less. Presuming that novel was any good (why else would so many borrow it?), is it really fair that the author—and, yes, the publisher—made so little? Buy your own copy, folks, and reward the author who sweated long hours to write it.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

How to Increase Your Chances

Do you want to increase your chances of finding a publisher, of selling your book? It's easy, though not exactly cheap. No, I'm not suggesting you bribe anyone. Ready?

Buy books.

Yes, that's right. If you want to increase the chances of finding a publisher for your book, buy more books. The book industry is hurting, just like every other industry in America. There have been lay-offs, salary freezes, and one house even froze new acquisitions. Why? Because they aren't selling enough books.

Relative to movies or even cable TV, books provide more entertainment per dollar. You can buy a 400-page book for $6.99 and it will take hours to finish it. And if you buy the right books, you might LEARN something. Not that I don't learn something from every episode of DIRTY JOBS, but you know what I mean.

So take this pledge if you want to increase the market at publishing houses for new titles: Buy one book a week this year. Because if you do, and I do, and every author sending me query letters does, I promise you those publishing houses will be acquiring new titles and hiring new editors darn quick!