Dead Men Tell No Tales

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

For our 100th episode, Geek Gab reviews the latest entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The verdict may surprise you.

Take a listen!

And don't miss the next episode of Geek Gab: On the Books. I'll be discussing characterization with author Justin Knight. Be there this Wednesday, May 31st at 3:30 PM Eastern.

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier



Remember the Mall?

Empty Mall

It's surprisingly difficult to explain to people born after the 1980s just how central the local shopping mall was to a community's social and economic life. I remember when social conservatives would lament that nobody went to church anymore, and that malls were the new, secular temples.

Now people still don't go to church, and the malls are just as empty.

As of this writing, the local street gangs are engaged in a turf war to decide who will control the new bowling alley that's going into mall retail space once occupied by a major name brand anchor store. This is serious business. There have been shootings over it.

My hometown mall was one of the largest in the Midwest outside of Chicago when it opened in the 1970s. As kids growing up in the 80s, that meant my friends and I were kind of spoiled. We got two bookstores, two record stores, a two-story pizza place, and an arcade that remained a major social hub until the early 2000s.

That's all gone now. Anything that didn't cater to bored housewives, vapid teenage girls, or stoners disappeared ten years ago. Borders bought out the last bookstore, closed it down, and then went out of business themselves. Best Buy did the same to the video store. They're not dead yet, but online retailers are steadily driving them to the same fate that the big box stores inflicted on the mom & pop outfits.

It might surprise you that young men used to go to malls. They've since been driven out, just like they've been driven from pretty much every public establishment and institution. As is the case with churches, men's clubs, and universities, young men have strategically redeployed to their homes and the internet. Predictably, World of Warcraft and XBox Live finally did for the arcade.

I used to make solo outings to the mall on Saturday afternoons starting in junior high. The odds of running into not just one, but several, friends were good. This trend increased through high school and beyond. The mall wasn't just a place to blow money on SNES carts and comic books. It's where many of us got our first jobs and even worked our way through college, back when you could still do that short of cooking meth. One friend had jobs at so many mall establishments that we took to calling him "Visa".

In the economic as in the social sphere, mall activity revolved around the arcade. Nearly everyone I knew did a tour of duty there. Almost getting electrocuted while working on the World Heroes machine was a local rite of passage.

I never worked there. Instead I manned a large kiosk that sold Christian-themed figurines. The cordless phone's signal was strong enough to receive calls at the arcade, so on occasion I'd head down there with the handset and assure the owners that I was at my post when one of the snitches at the stores near the kiosk informed on me. I'd often be scheduled from open to close on weekends and would connect one of my vintage game consoles to the 13" CRT TV behind the counter to help pass the time.

Was the shopping mall a vulgar monument to crass consumerism? Sure. But it carried on something of the community socialization that goes back to the Roman forum. Now shopping is a solitary affair conducted via smartphone. Video games are likewise played alone or with Korean strangers. As Americans become ever more atomized and isolated, we drift further not just from contact with the transcendent, but from contact with the community as well.

The book reminded me something that I could see Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle writing.


Amazon Terrifies the Big 5

A friend alerted me to an article published by Vox.com which purports to show that Amazon is an evil monopoly bent on destroying the publishing industry.

I greatly enjoyed this story, and not just because it's rife with the usual Amazon zombie memes. Here, Vox.com take their butthurt over the fact that their legacy publisher pals are terminal losers to new depths of bizarro world delusion by insinuating that the used book market is tantamount to piracy:
It used to be that when you were shopping for a new copy of a book and clicked “Add to Cart,” you were buying the book from Amazon itself. Amazon, in turn, had bought the book from its publisher or its publisher’s wholesalers, just like if you went to any other bookstore selling new copies of books. There was a clear supply chain that sent your money directly into the pockets of the people who wrote and published the book you were buying.
But now, reports the Huffington Post, that’s no longer the default scenario. Now you might be buying the book from Amazon, or you might be buying it from a third-party seller. And there’s no guarantee that if the latter is true, said third-party seller bought the book from the publisher. In fact, it’s most likely they didn’t.
Which means the publisher might not be getting paid. And, by extension, neither is the author.
If a retailer is selling books produced by a publisher without first buying those books from said publisher, then those books are either a) used, b) pirated, or c) counterfeit. Amazon's policy states that the buy box can only link to retailers that are selling new books, so that leaves options b or c. In which case, the retailers are breaking the law.

But the point of the article is to cast large subsidiaries of multi-billion dollar conglomerates as persecuted victims instead of feckless losers. Therefore, Vox.com can't cry piracy because that would imply a responsibility on the publishers' part to safeguard their authors' interests.

How, then, does Vox.com explain the baffling appearance of these publishers' new books in third party retailers' inventories while also ruling out piracy? Simple. They do a bit of hand-waving to the effect of saying that "they don't seem to have bought their books from publishers" and link to The Huffingtong Post:
Third-party sellers may have obtained the books they sell in any number of ways. They might be a used bookstore that buys stock back from consumers at a cheap cost. They might troll book bins where people recycle books. They might have relationships with distributors and wholesalers where they buy “hurts” (often good enough quality to be considered “new condition”) at a super low cost. They might have connections to reviewers who get more books than they can handle who are looking to offload. And this goes on and on.
The last time I saw that many weasel words was in an MRK rant. To translate from the demagogue, they don't know. Note to Huffpo: "And this goes on and on" is not a data point.

What Vox.com and Puffho are studiously overlooking here is the minor detail that, if any of these speculative scenarios are true, all of the books ultimately came from the publisher. The most risible theory is that unscrupulous reviewers are able to sell ARCs because review copies aren't marked "not for resale". Apparently, protecting their copyrights isn't worth the expense of a ten dollar rubber stamp.

Vox.com then rehashes the "Amazon's low prices are driving down the value of books!" zombie meme:
This policy is part of Amazon’s ongoing, years-long quest to drive down the price of books. If Amazon succeeds, fewer people will be able to make their living as writers. That means fewer and worse books will make it to the marketplace.
Amazon routinely takes a loss on its book sales, often charging customers less per book than it pays publishers and swallowing the difference. It’s a priority for the company to be your preferred bookseller, even if it has to take a hit; its business model can accommodate the loss, because it generally makes up the extra dollars on the last-minute impulse buys customers toss into their shopping carts. Meanwhile, on the e-book side of things, Amazon’s low prices help drive sales of its Kindle. But that also means it has set certain customer expectations: Many Amazon customers now believe that books should be cheap — cheaper to buy than they are to make.
It is already punishingly rare for writers to make a living wage from their books. As Amazon drives down the cost of books, it will become ever more rare. That means fewer people will be able to invest the time and effort it takes into becoming a writer, which means a lot of talented writers — especially working-class writers and writers of color — will go unheard. All of which means that you, the reader, will be missing out on some excellent potential books.
The value of commodities like books is subjective. If enough customers believe that a book should be a certain price, then guess what? That's how much a market-facing retailer should charge for it. They cover that in econ 101, but it looks like Vox.com was sick that day.

Amazon is the biggest bookseller int he world. They have more and better market data than anyone else in the business. Their pricing practices aren't arbitrary. They're what the market wants. If the Big Five publishers weren't ossified incompetents, they'd find ways to reduce costs so as to enable more competitive pricing by, say, moving out of their astronomically expensive Manhattan offices.

But the most egregious deception in the whole piece is the glib assertion that lower prices will lead to fewer authors making a living from writing. This is not only illogical--stores run sales to increase revenue--it's contradicted by hard data.

Author Earnings - $50k

As the Author Earnings chart shows, authors who self-publish on Amazon are far more likely to earn a living wage from their writing than authors who publish with the Big Five. Not only that, tradpub's $50k per year earners are mostly name authors who've been in print for the better part of a century. The leftmost blue bar is especially impressive when you consider that self-publishing has only been viable for about a decade.

Thanks almost entirely to Amazon, more books are being published each year than ever before, and more authors are making a living with their writing than at any time in human history.

To dispense with the "low prices are bad" canard, the folks inhabiting those big blue bars are pricing their eBooks within Amazon's suggested $2.99-$9.99 range. It was the Big Five who badgered Amazon to move from wholesale pricing to an agency model where the publishers got to set the prices of their books.

The New York cabal promptly jacked up the prices of their digital versions to paperback or even hardcover heights. Now they're whining because reader-centric indie authors are murdering them in the marketplace. And you've got to love the "poor people and minorities hardest hit!" zinger at the end.

Vox.com missed the real story here, which is that Amazon, for all its faults, is at least market-facing. Meanwhile, the big New York publishers are hapless dinosaurs who go crying to their fellow travelers in the fake news media whenever the laws of economics fail to bow to their paper distribution monopoly.

UPDATE: Author and publisher Russell Newquist weighs in on Vox.com's wankery from a business perspective. Here are some choice excerpts:
That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
Like most big corporations, Amazon engages in a primary business and a few dozen complementary businesses.
Ms. Grady’s post shows that she seems to have some understanding of these concepts. But she’s gotten it all backwards. Amazon’s loss leader isn’t books. Books (and, these days, other digital content such as movies and television) is Amazon’s primary business. Amazon may, indeed, occasionally take a loss on specific books. It most definitely does not do that on a general basis with books. Pay attention: Amazon sells more ebooks than print books, and has since 2011. EBooks tend to sell for less money. But because it spends less on distribution and storage costs, Amazon makes a lot more profit off of them. The same is true of streaming music and movies. Amazon has focused on the primary business of delivering digital goods for years now.
Amazon selling books through third party distributors isn’t a big deal for indie publishers or self published authors. As Brian notes, there’s no way for a third party distributor to get our books in the first place except through us – unless they’re engaging in practices that are already both illegal and against Amazon’s terms of service. This is just one more way for Amazon to sell more of our books. Ultimately, that’s a good thing.

Related: I happen to have a well-received series of reasonably priced books available on Amazon.

Brian Niemeier - The Soul Cycle



How to Write Action

Honor at Stake - Declan Finn

How much action is enough? Is character important to fun, engaging action? Is Dan Brown any good at writing action scenes?

Find out on the latest episode of On the Books with Declan Finn, author of the Love at First Bite series.

Brian Niemeier - The Soul Cycle
Action flows quickly and keeps the reader on edge. At one point, I was at 30% read on my Kindle. By 5:00 PM that same day, I had finished the remaining 70%. I was so engrossed I could not put it down.