Category Archives: books

Like Fire is a Medium Novel: Where I’ve Been

Asta_Kirbi_Fagan

It’s not like I quit writing or anything. I have spent the past two years, and most intensively, the last year, learning how to most-effectively use Medium. You can find me on Medium here. I am using it because of its ease of access to any and all readers on any device.

Why am I publishing the work I most believe in for free on Medium first?

Many reasons.

First, because everything published on Medium can be read on any device at any time. It also looks great on any device.

Second, because the recently-completed U.S. election has made it crystal clear that money is not the answer to anything.

And third, because we already know that many people are shut out of the careers, education or jobs they would like to do because of racism, gender bias and class bias. This book is what I most want to do, have most wanted to do, and believe in with 100% of my mind, body and soul.

It’s who I am, and it’s what I did. As I recently commented on Medium regarding a person’s unwarranted criticism of writing by a diverse author, “I don’t care if only one person reads my work here on Medium. It is what I believe in, it is what I want to do, and I know it is the right path for me.”

As recently as early 2015, I believed that if I just worked hard enough, I would have sufficient opportunity to pay my basic bills and earn a basic living as a writer. In the past, I have absolutely paid my basic bills and provided many things for my daughter through my writing. I believed that the self-publishing revolution was a good thing, and that it enabled people to reach an audience. I knew there were some problems; for example — I could see that self-publishing worked best for people who were writing a type of already-recognized or popular fiction. I saw that the “successes” were those associated with established fan or other types of internet communities.

If you think “Mainstream Media” is messed up and not working, reporting only what corporations or the wealthy .00001% want the rest of us to see and hear, the same is true of popular “Entertainment” from books to television to movies. And then some.

Up until this past year, I spent my entire life thinking if I just worked harder and “got good enough” I could be “successful” like other writers I knew who had $20,000 book contracts, or who had large empires “selling” instructional material, newsletters, e-book omnibus editions, and so-on. I had stopped believing the common wisdom that “getting good enough” was a matter of copying other writers’ work or known formulas years ago.

Is She Available HardcoverI built a whole publishing company and motivated others. Years ago, I agitated with my writing friends that we could combat the collapse of the midlist writer and other egregious problems in the publishing industry that seem quaint in hindsight, and was a co-founder of Book View Cafe (I am still the treasurer). I convinced Igor Goldkind that his poems were good and motivated him to get all of his friends, the best comic artists of their generation, and unbelievably gifted fine artists like Mario Torero together to make the beautiful, groundbreaking e-book Is She AvailableIgor and his friend Addie printed a fantastic hardcover version and had two big presentations at the San Diego ComicCon.

I did everything humanly possible to send Igor’s legitimately spectacular, groundbreaking book out to reviewers. Two major publications reviewed the e-book, both in Chicago. Igor got mentions from various others in the comic industry. Nobody reviewed the hardcover. The Washington Post was among many publications to sell the hardcover to used book dealers. Igor is a new poet, but the art is by Eisner-winning artists, one of the founding members of the Chicano movement in America, and the e-book had music by a British album of the year Jazz artist. It wasn’t an unprofessional “self published” book.

It was new, different, unusual, represented a man’s voice and journey that didn’t include war, death and destruction but love for family, heritage and history (and there is an anti-war, gorgeous comic panel in it).

So it was sold to used book dealers and not even looked at. I have two downloads of the e-book by reviewers and I know who each of them are. Joe Wikert featured us on his industry blog. Other than that? Jack Diddley. If you are reading this as a second-language speaker, this means “nothing” happened.

We do learn more from our failures because instead of my best work and Igor’s best work, and the best work of award-winning, influential artists who have made millions for their corporate masters, but whose own work of their heart is hidden in back of their studios or must be given away free –

We have this.

Kindle Worlds

The whole system is broken. Book sales were down by 4% during the recent U.S. election not because of the election directly, but because of this picture I show above. This type of repetitive, derivative, unoriginal material that purposely encourages UNORIGINALITY for a quick buck isn’t going to bring new customers through the door.

As I pointed out previously in articles read by no more than 1,000 people, and to audiences at writing events numbering no more than 500 people total, 20% of North Americans regularly buy and read books. 80% do not, yet 100% of people are literate, and can read, and DO consume written content on their mobile devices. Before you Corporate Media Troll me, everything I learned about that I did through independent market research, relying primarily on the Pew Center. People also discuss and interact with each other through, primarily the written word, on social media. There are more texts sent than voice or video calls.

It is about the content. It’s about what is provided.  Sales are down because the content doesn’t meet the needs of the people who currently buy and read books who are good with the corporate media slant: violence, certain types of sex, certain types of “addictive” content, and simply reinforcing the current status quo in any imaginable way.

The current publishing system cannot create books to meet the interests and needs of the 80% of people who don’t regularly buy and read books; it is increasingly failing the 20% who do.

I’m not telling you “I am the content provider.” As I said; I am happy if only one person reads what I have written for free on Medium and enjoys it.

I’m telling you that I, who have written under the “old system” for a lifetime, who believed in it, who did everything “right” –

  • I have a BA in Literature from Scripps College, where I won the Claremont College writing prize not once, but twice, a blind-judged contest.
  • I was admitted to, but chose not to attend, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the UC Irvine MFA program.
  • For reasons of time, cost, and wanting to be a sci-fi writer, I applied to, was admitted to, and successfully completed the Clarion Sci Fi Writers Workshop in 1984.
  • I gave up writing as “impractical” about two years after that. I did not write for another eight years.
  • I returned to writing in 1996, and applied to and attended the nearest MFA program to my home (Chapman University in Orange, CA). I completed this program in 1999.
  • I published my first sci fi story professionally in 1996 (“Jonny Punkinhead, F & SF).
  • I did the usual drill with short science fiction and published my first novel in 2001.
  • I was also nominated for a Nebula Award that year.
  • Now – where I am today is related to my not going the route of $5,000 novel “advances” and selling 4,000 to 6,000 books and so-on.
  • I worked with Alan Rodgers as he established Alan Rodgers Books (and there wouldn’t be Chameleon Publishing if Alan hadn’t spent the last 10 years of his life doing that).
  • I worked with the others to set up Book View Cafe, the largest author publishing cooperative.
  • In between all the rest of that I am sure I’ve published well over 2 million words, about 75% of it nonfiction.

A troll on Twitter said, “anybody can publish a book these days.”

Until we can somehow reinvent the system of publishing as it stands, an unhealthy, struggling system, the books will be selected and published for that ever-dwindling 20% of readers and never, never will get beyond that. And above all, they won’t be written by people who are generally willing to say and do what I have:

I do not care if only one person ever reads what I’ve written. That is enough for me because I have done what I believed was right, what was right for me, and what is the best path for me and best work I can do.

That person has read what I have written. Others I am close to also have read it. I am okay. I know I have done my best.

It shouldn’t have to be that hard. People shouldn’t have to work for free for a lifetime just to express a story with emotional truth, of meaning and worth to at least one other person.

Storytelling is important to people at a level beyond money and more than momentary “entertainment.” It helps us imagine our world and future. It helps us to make choices about ourselves, and it helps us to understand people who are different from us.

Our society and economy has now made it so it is the province of a very limited group of people.

And — it’s creating things like this:

Kindle Worlds

I’m not saying there is not a place for commercial genre fiction, fan fiction or related work. Of course there is. Just not to the exclusion of there being something new, different, and individual or expressive of individual human creation and nature. The majority of what is out there right now is similar to these “Kindle Worlds,” not to things like Alice in WonderlandDavid Copperfield, or War & Peace. Of these three books, each author was male, each author was white — in Dickens’ case, he was a poor boy and self-made man. The other two: they had some money. Leo Tolstoy was Russian nobility.

Imagine what stories the young woman who did his laundry may have told.

This is what I’m saying and as I have in the past few months told others “I was at some time, the one who did the laundry.” And as she told her friends, so now I tell others.

You can start reading Like Fire for free here. (Medium Publication with additional information and links to all chapters – I will also be putting some short fiction suitable for kids and young adults by request).

Direct link to Chapter One is here.

If you like it you can join Medium and follow the publication. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, got me on that damn thing in the first place.

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900

How Did I Get 14 Science Fiction Stories About Women in One Book?

I wrote them!

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900You can read stories about women in love, women’s problems, or women’s issues. Or you can read stories about the future of women…

Fourteen sci fi and fantasy stories all about women by FEMALE SCIENCE FICTION WRITER author Amy Sterling Casil. This collection contains the Nebula Award-nominated story “To Kiss the Star.”

In the Nebula Award-nominated “To Kiss the Star,” gravely disabled Mel Armstrong gets the chance to explore the stars, but doesn’t want to leave the man she loves behind.

In “The Renascence of Memory,” nanotechnology returns 80 year old Alzheimers patient Carol Meyers to her former youth and beauty — but everyone she knew and loved is dead, except her former young lover — he is now too old for her.

Famous female film director Helene Bacon will be the first woman to win an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award — but she’s dying of cancer and her daughter is the best donor. How will she choose?

The Lady, the only daughter of the last great ruler of Copan, wishes to be a man, so she can save her father and her city.

Dr. Vi Elliott believes she’s discovered Early Man in the Southern California Desert — maybe she has, and maybe she has not — but she does run across a couple of mint-addicted intergalactic eBay traders in this sequel to “Mad for the Mints.”

And lawyer Lori Johnston is happily married to insurance guy Jack — until he tells her he’s committed to gender reassignment to save his job. What Jack doesn’t know is that Lori appears and is female, but her biology is male: born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.

Available directly from Book View Café Publishing Cooperative (EPUB and Mobi), as well as Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple and GooglePlay.

“Amy writes like Ray Bradbury on real sci-fi …” Tom Easton, Analog Magazine

“‘To Kiss the Star’ was up for the Nebula Award, but didn’t win. I haven’t read the work that did win yet, but, again, it must have been absolutely unbelievably fabulous to beat out “To Kiss the Star.” This is a beautiful, poignant, moving story of a soaring mind trapped in a damaged body. Read it.” – Hugo, Campbell and Nebula award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, author of Flashforward and other bestsellers

This is my own personal website so I may answer this question: What did win? It was about teenage boys. One critic said about “To Kiss the Star,” — “It’s like a Lifetime movie.” Why YES – YES IT IS.

The Instrumentality of Women
First eBook Edition Book View Café 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61138-584-7
$4.99
Trade Paperback Chameleon Publishing 2016
356 pages
ISBN: 978-1-46380-239-4
$15.99

The Path to Publication May Take Many Forms

Shannon Page is putting a book together covering different writers’ “paths to publication” and I told her — I’ve got one!

If you’ve read my essays about the Writers of the Future Contest, you’ll recognize parts of this story, but I tell the complete tale here for the first time!

FSFJUN96I didn’t change any of “Jonny Punkinhead,” my first professional science fiction sale, which appeared in the “New Writers” issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1996. Yes – here it is – the infamous “Nazi Clown” issue. The painting is by my now-friend Kent Bash, who also did the cover for “Chromosome Circus” – somewhat of a sequel to “Jonny” (a much nicer clown!).

So here is a draft of my “Path to Publication” …

My path to publication would have been very different, and may never have happened, if I hadn’t entered the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest between 1995 and 1998. Eventually, I ended up winning two prizes and attending the Writers of the Future events in Hollywood in 1998 and 1999. But my first professional publication wasn’t a story entered in the contest, it came as a result of it, especially help from the head judge: Dave Wolverton (who also writes fantasy novels as David Farland). Another judge of this contest, Kathy Wentworth, was a writer and editor beloved by many. Kathy suffered from cancer and died in 2012. At that time, Dave Wolverton returned as the head judge, so he is also currently the judge of this contest, which continues to help new and aspiring writers and artists.

Back in those long-ago days, we still sent work in the mail, whether on submission to a print publisher, or to a contest like Writers of the Future. The idea of “simultaneous submissions” was very important. Most publications didn’t want them. What if you sent a physical story to six different publications, and more than one of them agreed to publish the work? You ran the risk of “being banned” if editors learned you were trying to save time and postage by taking a “simultaneous submission” shortcut.

The preferred method was to laboriously put the printed story in a manila envelope and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the response – you could either include a large manila envelope in which the editor could return the actual manuscript, or a small, regular white envelope, which would be big enough for a form letter response. The understanding with the small envelope was that the editor could throw away or recycle the manuscript you had sent and just return a note or form letter.

Think about the cost in time, effort, postage and paper!

So, why was I doing this? Starting in Junior High, I had the crazy idea I “wanted to be a science fiction writer.” By the time I was in college, I read an article in Asimov’s Magazine urging young writers to apply to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop – at the time held at Michigan State University. I completed a storylike document by mixing and matching what I understood (not very much!) of a literary story by the well-known author Paul Bowles with the plot of one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. I sent this thing to the workshop and they let me in!

Many of the others at the Clarion Workshop were writing fantasy or horror, so I decided, “I want to be a horror writer!” Stephen King was very popular at the time – it seemed like the thing to do. This outstanding thought process resulted in my “Pudding I left in the refrigerator came alive and ate everyone!” phase.  One of my Clarion classmates convinced me to send my stories to the high-paying, and to me – very intimidating – Twilight Zone magazine. I sent three stories to them. I also sent several others to less-intimidating, low paying publications and all were rejected. Considering these tales were mostly about deadly pudding, I can’t blame these editors. I got used to seeing a big manila envelope in the mailbox that I had addressed to myself. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

Because I knew no other writers to talk to after Clarion, I didn’t know that I was “getting close” and receiving personal rejections even for malevolent pudding tales – so when I got a rejection card from Twilight Zone editor Alan Rodgers*, I decided, “You don’t have what it takes, Amy – just forget about it. Devote your time to a real paying job and your family.”

I quit writing for eight years.

After my daughter Meredith was born, her father Mike encouraged me to start writing again since it seemed like my life was consumed 100% by our daughter, my ailing father and grandmother, and job/household duties. I needed something to take my mind off of these heavy responsibilities. Mike reminded me, “Didn’t you want to be a science fiction writer?”

“Yes,” I told him – that was true. I had and did.

Mike pulled out some of his old paperbacks, including Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven. As I read, I realized I remembered reading most, if not all, of these stories from the old days. I discovered the ability to complete an actual story text – and I didn’t have to combine a literary writer’s tale with Star Trek, either. I plugged along, writing from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. before it was time to take Meredith to school.

Rejection. Rejection. Rejection.  42 of them. But they were “personal” – i.e. written notes from various editors. I knew enough by this time to know that this meant my work wasn’t completely abominable.

I also learned about the Writers of the Future Contest, and the prizes looked great. A lot of writers I respected and admired were either judges, or had won the contest. So I developed a policy: I’d send a story to all the high-paying professional sci-fi markets in order of which ones I thought had the best potential of buying it. If, by the end of this laborious procedure, the story still hadn’t sold – then I’d enter it in the contest.

The first story that fit in this category was “Jonny Punkinhead.” This story is also my first professional science fiction and fantasy sale.  It appeared in the “New Writers Issue” of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in June, 1996.

When I finished “Jonny Punkinhead” in early 1995, I knew that I’d “done something.”  From what I could determine at that time, it was “publishable.”  Inside, I knew that I’d done the very best that I could do.  Through this story, I began to learn what I was really good at as a writer.  It was about a subject very close to my heart:  inspired by the homeless, desperately poor children I worked with through my day job at that time — the director of a charity devoted to helping people in need.  I invented the idea of “changed children,” and did much research on slow viruses and genetic mutations to come up with a scenario by which such a disaster might occur.  I left all of this “background information” out of the story and instead wrote about what might happen if somebody . . . oh, somebody like me . . . had to try to take care of these kids who were throwaways — the unwanted, the unloved, the bizarre.  Kids with heads like pumpkins and three eyes.  Kids like “Jonny Punkinhead.”

For reasons that are clear to me today (but unclear to me at the time) I made the protagonist a male doctor – Dr. Hedrick Arlan.  But at the time, I didn’t really understand what I was doing although I knew the doctor’s problems with “taking his job home” were similar to challenges I also faced in my real-world job with homeless, very low-income people.

I put “Jonny Punkinhead” in a big manila envelope, along with a self-addressed, folded large manila envelope for its return, and sent it out (one at a time) to every reputable science fiction and fantasy magazine that existed at that time.  Guess what happened?

Yeah – same as the Malevolent Pudding stories. Two of the editors, who shall forever remain nameless, actually used these words: “This is an award quality story, but . . .”

But – they still rejected it.

“Jonny” was rejected by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, at that time, the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

After all these rejections, I entered it in the Writers of the Future contest. One day, I went to the mailbox and here was another big manila envelope.  I trudged back inside and put the envelope on the kitchen counter. I figured, “Another rejection.” The same thoughts I’d had eight years before flooded my mind. “Just quit. You’re no good. You’ll never sell a story.”

I cleaned the kitchen before opening the envelope, quickly recognizing “Jonny Punkinhead.”

Then a letter fell out. It was pretty long—several pages and typed, single-spaced!

The letter was from Dave Wolverton, head contest judge.  “Fred Pohl and I both thought that this was the first prize winner,” he wrote.  Dave went on to discuss my story in detail, my writing in detail, and by the time I finished, I could hardly breathe.  Even then, though, I was still thinking, “You didn’t win anything and they’re sending the story back, unpublished.”

Dave said that the story was “publishable.”  That was great! He urged me to send it to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, where he felt it would be a “good fit.”

He had no way to know that the story had already been sent to that magazine and rejected.

Keep in mind this was before regular use of the internet and I didn’t know what to do. How could I send a story “back” that had already been rejected even if Dave Wolverton said it was good and right for the publication?  Then I read Fred Pohl’s letter.  You may not know who Fred Pohl is, but if you love science fiction, he was the author of The Space Merchants, Man Plus, and the Gateway novels. He was also the editor of Galaxy magazine, and considered to be the best editor in the field for many years.  As I read this letter, I knew that Fred Pohl had picked a number of incredibly successful, wonderful writers of short science fiction out of his editorial “slush pile.” Among them, he had “discovered” Cordwainer Smith — and as far as I was concerned, Cordwainer Smith (real name: Paul Linebarger) was a genius.

Fred Pohl’s letter was much shorter than Dave Wolverton’s, but he said, “Being able to read stories like this is why I have continued to judge this contest over the years.”  He called my story “award-quality” and my writing “beautiful,” and I believed him.  That was when I decided not to quit.

As far as my “but the story was already rejected” dilemma, I wrote Dave Wolverton back. Following his guidance, I put the story back in an envelope, wrote a new cover letter that said, “Dave Wolverton suggested I send this to you,” and sent “Jonny Punkinhead” back to the editor Kristine Rusch at the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Honestly, I didn’t change a word though the cover letter probably said “I revised this with Dave’s advice” (in fact, I’m certain I said that – he told me to!).

And this time, she bought it.

I kept writing.  It took me a long time — two years, probably — to recapture the feeling I had when I wrote “Jonny Punkinhead.”  I wrote competent, even moving stories in the meantime.  But stories like “Jonny” don’t come every day.  Stories like that come from heartfelt honesty, caring, and sincerity.  How many words had I written before I wrote “Jonny?”  I’m not sure.  It wasn’t the “million words” that I heard bestselling author Harry Turtledove speak of — he said that writers had to write “a million words” before they became publishable, professional writers.  I racked up a total of eighty rejections before my next professional sale.

No one can take “Jonny Punkinhead” from me, or tell me that he’s “not a winner,” because I know that little boy is a winner, even if he lost hope in his own story.  Even if he smashed his own head against the wall just the way I wanted to do back then.

My grandfather always told me, “You have to take the bad with the good.”  When I was growing up and reading science fiction, my ultimate dream was to be a part of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which was the place where all the writers I most loved and admired published their work.  Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Daniel Keyes, Walter M. Miller.  Writers like that.  My writing has been sandwiched in issues between writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Joyce Carol Oates.  That’s not “the bad.”  That’s “the good.”

And that *asterisk? *Alan Rodgers, the Twilight Zone editor? I met him in 1998, not realizing who he was until quite a while after he and I had fallen in love. We were either a couple, or very close friends, until his untimely death after a series of strokes in 2014. I had kept the little card he’d sent as a rejection – the one that convinced me to quit writing way back when.

When I showed it to him and told him the story of how the terse, small card had inspired me to quit, he said “Amy, I only wrote 6 or 7 of those the whole time I was at Twilight Zone. That was meant to encourage you.

If you had sent another story as good as that one, I probably would have bought it!”

Amazon Customer Help Unhelpful, Trollish and Bad

With Amazon, it’s not just troll reviews, it’s also their “customer help” that’s a problem.

Most of us who do business online may have asked ourselves more than once: “Just who is writing these online reviews?” Well – some see themselves as self-appointed “brand ambassadors,” according to a 2013 study of thousands of online reviews conducted by Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester—professors of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Anderson and Simester studied Expedia, Amazon and other companies, but of the group, no company is so associated with online reviews and the “5 star system” than Amazon.

Amazon-logo

I’ve told my friends, “YES there are some writers who pay for fake 5-star reviews,” and some who’ve probably paid people to put fake 1 star reviews for competitors. In the writing community, we go around and around about these problems. It makes legitimate writers question the reviews they receive. I have experienced a self-appointed “brand ambassador” who seems to have decided that a novella I published as an early experiment was the worst sort of self-published book (when it was not). I fought back. After my recent overview of many Nebula Award-nominated authors’ e-books, including single, standalone stories and collections (so, sorry online “Brand Ambassador” reviewer lady – I don’t think that other award-nominated authors you may not have heard of are as bad a writer as I am) — fighting back was better than sitting on my hands. I have more reviews and sales of Shakespeare in Hell than the majority of other single-story e-books or short story collections that I saw when I did the survey.

I didn’t realize until today that the problems in the online review system also extended to the “help community” for Amazon. Amazon’s Kindle message board help community is supposed to provide specific help to self-publishing authors: it’s nearly unusable, I discovered a couple of years ago. The Kindle message boards are dominated by trolls, weirdos and what-have-you. They seem to exist for some self-published Kindle formatting advice authors to troll and advertise their “How to” books, and for others to spam regarding their self published titles. For the average person seeking formatting answers: they’re a disaster!

The motive for this is obvious: most of the people who spend their time spamming others, slamming newcomers or exhibiting other forms of Web 1.0 behavior on these message boards make money from it. They sell their “How to” Kindle or other books by means of their online “help community” advertisement.

But what would the motive be for other commenters to be unhelpful, creepy and even abusive on the regular Amazon.com “community help” message boards? I recently experienced a double charge from Amazon. In attempting to rectify the problem, I clicked on the “Customer Help” message board option. It’s a lot easier to find than the customer service telephone option! Just one of the message threads I saw was this. I was motivated to respond because I’d seen answer after answer from the same small group of people saying “Click on the blue help button.” Well, there is no such button, it isn’t blue, and it isn’t located in the same place on mobile devices. In addition, the “help” link takes the customer to a page where a variety of help options (also web pages and FAQs) are located. There are no less than 3 clicks required to get to a page where the customer could answer questions and get to a telephone customer service option.

This may be a joke to these Amazon customer “help” weirdos making fun of or abusing average customers. But I saw one customer referring to overcharges on his bank account, and a second one referring to two $60 overdraft charges on her bank account. She stated she was a mother of two and they were only receiving small holiday gifts as a result. People like this guy like to inform others of exactly how their bank account works — instead of advising customers how to get duplicate or other wrong charges refunded. I finally broke and responded after seeing him and other commenters being downright rude or mean to regular customers one too many times.

These message boards aren’t hard to locate. They are listed before any paid Amazon customer service option, and long before the web page routine that will result in the telephone customer service. If people comment there, they get either repetitive, insulting or downright creepy and weird answers from a small group of “regulars.” It’s very similar to the same bizarre weirdos who go around clicking “unhelpful” on average or ordinary reviews of books or other products.

Amazon review seller

The only reason I’ll post an online review is if I think the product, restaurant or other business, or book, is really fantastic, or in very rare cases — really awful. I am reviewer #870,251 on Amazon and it is mostly books, dating back to 1998. I was tremendously tempted to review the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, but I resisted.

I know that Amazon.com has its own problems with employee morale, and probably, its customer service message boards are far down on the list as compared to new product launch, driving advertising revenue, and convincing people that ordering online is better than in-person shopping, up to and including getting products within an hour of placing an order.

But I have a hard time thinking that putting the “Customer Help Message Board” button first in front of an actual Customer Service representative method of contact (phone, chat, email) is a great business strategy. The “help” customers would get is non-existent. One of these people informed me that she had been “helping” people on the Amazon customer service help message boards for seven years. Her “help” that I saw consisted of telling people who were complaining about a duplicate, triplicate or otherwise incorrect charge needing to be refunded was to “click on the blue help button.” She persisted in disputing with me approximately 4 hours today and I have no doubt the weirdo crew there is Googling me to their heart’s content, just like some of the others did with the Canadian businessman who had an unusual concern/complaint.

I do not think you have to be an internet, mobile or new media genius to figure out there is a problem when that is your go-to “customer service” method. Some of it is a sort of misperceived value on the commenter’s “reputation” — representing about 1% of people who comment. A very different 1% to the “one percent” we have heard about in the news, but a bullying 1% all the same.

Amazon recently made news for suing over 1,000 fake reviewers. It turns out that auto review website Edmunds.com preceded them by two years. But Edmunds doesn’t directly sell anything: Amazon does. They should take control of their help and advice sections. Misinformation, disinformation and abuse that is rewarded by the company’s ill-considered 5 star review system is not “customer service” or “help.”

Introduction 2015: The Instrumentality of Women

My perspective has broadened a bit since 2014.

Introduction

When I was 13, one of the most popular songs was “At Seventeen,” by Janis Ian. I had a record player. There was no such thing as an iPod. If you played a vinyl record enough times it got a grayish tinge and started to crackle and pop. After a few months, I could hardly play Janis’ album any longer and it was gray as hell. I not only idolized Janis — her “look,” her fashion, her voice, her poetry – I related to this song just like every other teen girl. It turned out, later, that the song really was about Janis at age 13, my exact age.

I learned the truth at seventeen

That love was meant for beauty queens

And high school girls with clear skinned smiles

Who married young and then retired …

I had no sense I was “beautiful,” and as far as future career path, I pictured being the secretary to a wealthy and powerful man. I wanted to marry a handsome, strong man. My ideal wedding dress was an “empire” dress — but I didn’t know what it was called back then. I wanted two children: a boy and a girl. Sure, I wrote storylike objects and I painted pictures and I made things. I “whittled” and woodcarved and banged stuff together with old nails. I foraged and hunted and hiked and explored with my dog. I shoveled the manure out of my pony’s stall —

It had been nigh upon three years since I’d gotten a copy of A Wrinkle in Time from my aunt Donna.

The summer I was 13, as I listened to “At Seventeen” over and over, I read Lord of the Rings front to back four or five times. I got the “pancake tan” (didn’t want to turn over so brown in front, white in back). I read Dune. I read Warm Worlds and Otherwise, stories by James Tiptree, Jr. I read through all of Ray Bradbury. I read England Swings edited by Judith Merril. I read Dangerous Visions, and Again, Dangerous Visions. Those were edited by Harlan Ellison. He looked like a handsome guy, judging by his picture. But I wouldn’t have said anything like that to anyone. Admitting I was reading this stuff was beyond weird and nerdy.

Nobody told me I couldn’t be a sci-fi writer. Somewhere in the back of my head this idea took root. I liked to imagine things. I couldn’t help it. I imagined things whether I wanted to or not. These things: they were stories. Not about me. About people I didn’t know, lots of the time. Places, sometimes very far away in space and time, from where I was.

Then my grandfather died and my grandmother didn’t talk to me for a year, and then I moved away to Hollywood and then I came back to Redlands.

I was a different person; I’d lost a year. The normality of my life before was gone. I no longer imagined I’d marry a wealthy, powerful man, although that seemed like a pretty good plan if it ever did happen. I just wanted to survive from day to day.

And so it goes.

This is my third collection of short fiction. Three stories are fantasy; eleven are science fiction. All are about women. Although the fantasy stories are told with male viewpoint characters, their linchpins are the women.

The degree of prior professional publication and recognition on these stories is directly graphable by age. The younger the protagonist, the easier the sale — in fact, “To Kiss the Star,” the first story, was a cover story of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and nominated for a Nebula Award. Its protagonist, Mel, is seventeen, just like Janis Ian’s song. And I realize now what song I heard when Mel looked in the mirror after the ISA “cowboy” doctor gave her sight. In stories I have written, the older the female protagonist, the less likely the story would be to appear in a top publication. At best, these appeared in small press or anthologies edited by friends.

Now, these stories about women age 30 and over are in a book that is published in e-book form by Book View Cafe, the first, largest and most-successful author publishing cooperative, and in trade paperback, by Chameleon Publishing, the publishing company I founded.

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900Here are the stories and who they are about:

To Kiss the Star

Mel Armstrong – 17 – wheelchair-bound, blind, spastic, chosen for spaceflight

The Renascence of Memory

Carol Meyers – 80 – Alzheimer’s patient, former wife, mother, college professor

This Monster

Grendel’s Dam – ageless

Jenny, With the Stars in Her Hair

Jenny Julian – 28 – addicted to extreme cosmetic surgery

The Color of Time

Gia – 21, Nana – 81, Faith – 31

Smiley the Robot

Miss Gia – 85

Everything I Have is Yours

Helene Bacon – 50 – famous film director, Sarah Bacon – 16 – her daughter

Heart of Jade

The Lady – 30-ish and thought barren – daughter of 20 Rabbit, the last great king of Copan

Shakespeare in Hell

Emilia Bassano – 35-ish (actually died at age 74) – reputed “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets

The Ruined Gods

Ginger – 28 – a cat woman; Rikki/Roxane/Roksana – 73

The Gods That Men Don’t See

Ginny Baumann – 33 – primatologist, unmarried

Digger Lady

Vi Elliott – 73 – paleontologist, never married

Incandescent

Paperwhite – a newborn Vogue girl

Her Name is Jacqueline

Lori Johnston – 36 – attorney, married, male genes, female nature

For many years, I did not know that nobody wanted to read a story about a woman over age 30, or a story with a female character over age 25 who wasn’t a “black widow,” a canny elderly detective or nosy old lady next door.

Of course I know that now.

Of course I know there should be romance stories for women, men and transgendered people. There should be stories about crises of conscience for men. How stupid is it, for example, for there to be a story about Helene Bacon, the first female film director to receive an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award? There’s some sci-fi for you. Imagine that this successful, powerful director never had time to get married, but she did have a daughter, Sarah — a daughter very much like her. And right when she has achieved the height of her recognition and power, Helene learns she’s dying of lung cancer. Only a total lung transplant will save her. And Sarah’s not just her daughter: she is her clone. Oh, what to do? God, what a ridiculous, idiotic story. Its mate (architect dying of cancer learns that only his cloned son can save him) was a Writers of the Future winning story. When people questioned that a man would consider using his son that way — what about a mother? — the story was born.

“Digger Lady” has not so much been rejected, but rather – lost, three times, by three different editors of two major sci-fi/fantasy magazines. It is inspired by a lady I got to know at age 17 — some coincidence? — Ruth “Dee” Simpson, the archaeologist at the San Bernardino County Museum. That was my first real job — the “intern” at the museum. The character inspired by “Dee,” Vi Elliott, is explicitly said to be 73 in the story. She is being forced into retirement. There are few women who can claim to have discovered Early Man in the Southern California desert along with world-renowned paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey. Ruth “Dee” Simpson is one of them. Nobody wants to read about someone like that.

I think they’d rather read about a naive 3-day old genetically manipulated prostitute who is bound to save the world from an alien plague, all the while being beaten to a pulp by a vicious, burned-out case who learns at the end, the value of what he valued so-little. I did write that story and it is in this book; I will not continue to write dozens of them.

It makes me sad when I think of the stories I was given to read while in school (this includes college and graduate school). “The Yellow Wallpaper” – a classic by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The husband’s name is John; the young female narrator has no name. This story was written well over a hundred years ago.

My life, oddly enough, was not over when I turned 25, nor 30, nor even the dreaded 40 and unholy, impossible, “no man will ever want you!” 50. Such adventures I have had – and still have.

The best stories are those which tell themselves. It isn’t “who writes the stories” that is so important; it is the stories themselves.

These are the stories that came to me, as they came to me. For a long while, I didn’t realize that I was, as far as getting paid or getting anybody to read the work, literally wasting my time even attempting to write stories outside the conventional genres (romance, mystery) and genre conventions (like Ellie Sattler in the Jurassic Park movies – she retires, is married, has children and becomes a children’s book writer) about women. Now I do understand that.

I’m writing them anyway. I’m publishing them anyway.

At 13, at 17, at 53, it was and is my job to listen.

Amy Sterling Casil

Aliso Viejo, CA

December 2015

 

The Instrumentality of Women: January 19

 

 

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900 instrumentality-of-women-wrap-cover (1)

You can read stories about women in love, women’s problems, or women’s issues.
Or, you can read stories about the future of women.

In the Nebula Award-nominated “To Kiss the Star,” gravely disabled Mel Armstrong gets the chance to explore the stars, but doesn’t want to leave the man she loves behind. In “The Renascence of Memory,” nanotechnology returns 80 year old Alzheimer’s patient Carol Meyers to her former youth and beauty — but everyone she knew and loved is dead, except her former young lover — he is now too old for her. Famous female film director Helene Bacon will be the first woman to win an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award — but she’s dying of cancer and her daughter is the best donor. How will she choose? The Lady, the only daughter of the last great ruler of Copan wishes to be a man, so she can save her father and her city. Dr. Vi Elliott believes she’s discovered Early Man in the Southern California Desert — maybe she has, and maybe she has not — but she does run across a couple of mint-addicted intergalactic eBay traders in this sequel to “Mad for the Mints.” And lawyer Lori Johnston is happily married to insurance guy Jack — until he tells her he’s committed to gender reassignment to save his job. What Jack doesn’t know is that Lori appears and is female, but her biology is male: born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.

The Instrumentality of Women

First eBook Edition Book View Cafe
18 January 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61138-584-7
$4.99

First Trade Paperback Edition Chameleon Publishing
4 April 2016
ISBN: 978-1-46380-239-4
356 pages
$14.99

This is the original introduction: it will be changed now but probably will still include the information about Asimov’s.

Will Authors Hang Separately?

At the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin famously said, “We must all hang together, or we most assuredly will all hang separately.”

benfranklinjohnadamsgifIt’s like that for writers these days.

In nearly every area, people have figured out how to make money off the creativity of others. I just reviewed the education app Nearpod this morning. It is primarily aimed at K-12 teachers and classrooms. While very interesting in terms of providing a tool for interactive classroom content (especially for tablet-enabled classrooms – it is mobile oriented), I was little surprised to learn that the “App” requests teachers who have made their own Common Core-friendly lessons to apply to be “authors” who will be able to sell their lessons to other teachers at prices ranging from $2.99 for a single lesson to $40 and $50 for “bundled lessons.”

The time and effort to make a decent Nearpad interactive lesson (the app’s beauty is it allows teachers to pace the lesson and break it up with assessments – quizzes, questions, etc.) is far in excess of being paid a few dollars here and there, most certainly what the Nearpad people would offer for the “lucky” teachers “selected” to be “Nearpad Authors.” There are a few such authors featured on the service. There are many more professional “educational content” companies listed. These in turn pay the people who make their lessons as little as possible, usually piece rates for “work for hire,” while making huge amounts of money from it.

We turn to “self-publishing” where authors are encouraged to make their own money and told it’s the “new frontier” enabling them to have creative and financial freedom.

The reality is, there is less freedom than ever. As to financial freedom, the small numbers who are making good money right now … or at least purported “experts” like Jane Friedman (who make money from aspiring writers and conferences and fees) … appear blissfully unaware of the writing on the wall.

writing on the wall

Search engines are going local. Mobile advertising and customer contact is going local and device-specific. Because retail stores aren’t going away. People will probably *never* buy everything online and after more than a decade of every algorithm known to man developed in the absence of direct human contact …

What any real salesperson will tell you is: you can guess about the customer but you won’t know until you talk to them in person.

Which authors other than James Patterson and J.K. Rowling are going to be able to afford targeted mobile ads? Everyone who was previously successful in self-publishing has gone for a traditional publishing contract if possible.

Why would that be so?

Because if we do not hang together, we will most assuredly, hang separately. They have some type of partnership with their publishers.

Yes, that is the future. It was the past – it was exploitive. It broke down. Now authors are being exploited individually.

Of course there’s a better way. But it sure as he** is not going to come from “subject matter experts,” “book formatting experts” or “author assistants.”

I have been a professional writer since 1996. I have worked in nearly every aspect of the publishing industry, from educational to trade fiction to magazines, and every conceivable type of online “content.” I’ve also worked as an executive in the nonprofit world, with government, foundation and private funders and a huge range of projects, and as a business development professional, with over 160 businesses. And, I’m a college teacher.

Writers, by far, have the least ability to work together to benefit each other of any group I have ever worked with. They are at present, hanging on every word of gurus that promise riches and hanging separately.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparshin.

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How Will The World End? Is There a Clue From The Easter Island Heads? They Also Have Bodies!

Did you know? The Easter Island heads have giant bodies that are buried below the surface!

AH2B07The end of the world came sooner for the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) people than for the rest of us.

While people remain on the island today, all the trees of this once-tropical paradise are gone, and the secrets of making the giant statues are forgotten. This rare picture shows the size of the head compared to the buried body.

easter island head bodyThere are more mysteries on earth than we can possibly imagine!

I am often inspired by one of my favorite media personalities, Giorgio Tsoukalos. Giorgio’s open mind helps us to see many possibilities that we otherwise would not consider.

Aliens may very well have started the human race down the path of civilization. They may also have been a source of much ancient knowledge that has been forgotten today. From the ancient Mayans to the Easter Island Rapa Nui people to the ancient Greeks and Romans, many have predicted the end of the world or apocalypse.

Hundreds of predictions have not come to pass, but here are some of the threats coming up soon:

“There is an asteroid with our name on it,” British television astrophysicist Brian Cox told the Daily Mail. tv astrophysicist brian coxAn asteroid nearly impacted the earth in 2014. We almost died in a cataclysm similar to the one that destroyed the dinosaurs.

But, we didn’t.

Now, as many as six world-shattering asteroids could be headed our way, with reported impacts predicted for the days between coming between September 21 and 28 … less than a month from now!

The “Blood Moon Prophecy” originated with Rev. Efrain Rodriguez. Additional pastors, including the Revs. Mark Blitz and John Hagee, have told their followings of tens of thousands that the fourth “Blood Moon” this year will herald the arrival of a giant asteroid. This monster-sized rock the size of a city block, is supposed to hit the earth near Puerto Rico, causing a 300-foot tsunami, vaporization of Puerto Rico and surrounding areas, and a magnitude-12 earthquake.

jumbo jet sized asteroid

Asteroids “bigger than a jumbo jet” come close to earth on a monthly basis, according to NASA, which regularly updates the public on near-misses.

And guess what?

By anywhere from 1 to 2 billion years from now, the earth will for certain be burned to a cinder due to the inevitable expansion of our Sun. Some experts now predict that the end may come even sooner than that — as soon as 100 years from now. According to Reuters, children born today may live to see humanity’s end as a result of global warming above 2C.

Just in case …

You can read up on all of these doomsday scenarios and more!

For $15, you can get a bunch of classic disaster novels from StoryBundle, and donate to the Challenger Center for Science Education! Featuring FIRE by Alan Rodgers (there are some nuclear challenges in the book, but mostly a horrible virus that brings the dead back to life — including meat in freezers! — is on the rampage) and great books by Kevin J. Anderson, David Sakmyster, Laura Anne Gilman and more! If you have never heard of StoryBundle, check it out! You can get top-quality, best-selling books for a single low price, you can name your own price as well, and let them know how much of the proceeds you would like to go to the author, to StoryBundle, and to a designated charity!

 

 

Amazon is the Past, Not the Future

Amazon has made the self-publishing revolution possible; no question. They have also enabled a number of publishers, especially those in esoteric areas or those specializing in low-volume titles, to survive and potentially thrive.

They also provide a huge number and range of goods for sale and services, including data, cloud services, entertainment and shipping. It’s hard to visit their busy website and not think “Are they *everything* to everybody?”

The recent NY Times expose of working circumstances for the company’s white collar workers (tech, marketing, management) has raised a lot of questions. It’s certainly true that there are wretched companies to work for out there, many worse than Amazon. However, Amazon doesn’t appear anywhere on the top 50 companies for Executives from CEO Magazine in the past 5 years; numerous others do – and there’s high variability in rankings.  You will not find Amazon on any of Training Mag’s Top 125 awardees for 2015. You will find, from the tech and retail sector, Best Buy, CarMax, Cisco and Walgreens.

The people who so callously said that Amazon’s policies were fine used the excuse that the company earns a profit; indeed – according to Investopedia, “Amazon’s profits for its entire existence are still less than what ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) takes home every 2.5 weeks.” The company earned NO PROFIT AT ALL until 2009 (founded 1994).

According to BusinessInsider, which is partly owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, “Get it into your heads: Amazon is not going to become a big-margin company. Never has, never will — it’s not in the model.” Of course not. Most retail is not high profit margin; however, most retail cannot go for years with no profits.

The very day of the NY Times Amazon expose, a laudatory article about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos appeared in the UK Telegraph (a conservative or Tory publication). Last week, investment publications reported that Bezos sold over $550 million of his Amazon stock. Possibly, to buy the NY Times and prevent future negative articles.

Jet Amazon competitor

The company is not without competitors. Jet.com is just one of them.

WalMart also does more sales volume in books than Amazon does.

So, what’s the difference? Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a writer or other professional. You’re an educated, sophisticated person and do not shop at stores like WalMart.

Therefore: no one does, right? Amazon may have advanced in revenue size but it’s still weak and tiny and resource-poor compared to WalMart. Amazon isn’t Apple. It’s not Microsoft. It’s not Cisco. It’s a retailer. An online retailer that ships and has realized it has resources that could compete with UPS or FedEx. It’s still using trucks and gasoline. It still has physical warehouses.

This extremely optimistic chart projects that Amazon will surpass WalMart in revenue by . . . 2024. Even with this hinky curve – there’s a better revenue curve there. It’s the blue one on top. If you’ll notice the raise there for the red one starts after 2015. It hasn’t happened yet.

Walmart vs AmazonSo to the people who work for Amazon, it’s a game with uncertain results.

To the rest of us, especially those of us who are creative professionals, in working with Amazon, we are working with … wait for it … and I *do* work with them and they are human beings just like everybody else. I am never discourteous to others in interactions, but let’s just say Apple customer service is celestial compared to Amazon’s.

If you read that NY Times article and didn’t come up with “crazier than a barrel of spider monkeys and a fifth of whisky,” then you should read it again. You should read Nick Ciubotariu’s “Data driven response” to the article. The only data in his long, full of hurt feelings response is “On average, the ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback was over 5:1.” That’s it. Thousands of words, ZERO data. Nick even says “I don’t know what the employee retention (or turnover/burn) rate is.”

Is it about good vs. evil?

It’s about poor management and decision making. I don’t care that Nick Ciubotariu’s “mentor” told him that Amazon was the “best company in the world.”

I can see from my own limited perspective that what impacts our publishing company and to a larger extent, our world that could benefit from better books (not more books – better books) that everything about Amazon’s e-book hardware, software, sales, delivery and marketing, is harmful to the product’s long-term growth and development of excellence. They are doing nothing but doubling and tripling down on that. For this customer growth.

Do you see the same growth curve in this chart of customer demographics as that optimistic “Amazon will surpass WalMart by 2028 chart”? Oh, those algorithms. There is a secret Amazon anti-aging project. It will deliver “instant youth” in one hour, guaranteed. Only to Amazon Prime members.

Amazon customer demographics

I don’t know how many times I can tell people, “The reason Amazon Kindle sales do not match ‘regular’ book sales is that the Kindle owner customer base doesn’t match everybody else/the general population.” Only about 10% of all books sold are via the Amazon e-book platform.

Now they’ve got Kindle Scout, which is basically another Kickstarter-type crowdsourcing for getting content for a whopping $1,500, some of which might end up being a great investment.

There’s not an original piece of work on the entire Kindle Scout page. People can upvote/downvote/game to their heart’s content. It’s crap made by people devoted to making crap they believe to be marvelous. Oldtimers know this as Sturgeon’s law (90% of everything is crap). Or – “imitation fast food.” Like this (Fast Food You Can Make at Home).

Kindle Scout Crap

Maybe a year from now if this keeps going, the titles will be better, the covers a little slicker. It will still be DIY Fast Food.

Am I saying independent authors only write crap?

No. I’m just saying schemes like Kindle Scout or various “author communities” have as much point as McDonalds opening its stores up to local cooks trying to duplicate dishes the restaurant has sold for years. It is the same whether Amazon does this or legacy publishers do it.

Ron Collins says that lots of big companies are using advanced math to determine the cost-benefit analysis of treating your employees as if they are worthless and interchangeable, and treating them as if they have some value to the business. Amazon’s math doesn’t add up all around. Low/no profits for years. High rate of employee turnover and burnout. Endless schemes, dozens of new business ventures, few of which pan out. Low growth in new business sectors.

All the algorithms and analysis in the world will not tell a business the truth about a customer who is remote (i.e. not “in the store”). And just because somebody buys something one day, does not mean they want or need the exact same thing the next.

Just because a reader stops reading a Kindle book on a certain page doesn’t mean they do not like, value or would not purchase a book by that author in the future.

And above all, these things cannot tell Amazon what people will want in the future. They cannot tell them why people didn’t adopt the Kindle Fire phone (I was told “it sucks” by the ATT representative – “Get the iPhone instead.”) An Apple and a GooglePlay store representative both said that the Amazon display in another office/tech store was “never attended.” One of them described how he bought his aunt a Kindle Fire this past Christmas. He said she returned it and used the money toward a new tablet. Her age and gender put her right in the middle of the Kindle demographic.

I had no negative feelings regarding Amazon until a few months ago. I just thought they were too fast-growing and somewhat impersonal. Then I noticed how nasty, unprofessional and a-creative many of the extreme self-publishing Amazon proponents were. They were not actual employees or executives. Yet their culture was horrifying. “This doesn’t go with creativity or good business,” I thought.

These vicious, rude, crude, unimaginative people are just unpaid versions of the brutes at Amazon HQ in Seattle. Maybe some people think this is winning.

ragnar lothbrok

I do not.

What’s Wrong With Stuff Like #Pitchtopublication ?

Sometimes I feel like I’m in an endless, hopeless battle. As if no one will ever “get” what I’m talking about, even though I’ve given up everything and am doing only what must be done to move everything forward.

I try to follow stuff out there, and this a.m. saw #Pitchtopublication. This is another YA- and genre-dominated way to attract fresh aspirants into the editor (paid) / agent / publisher world.

This Twitter-fueled contest sucks up a big needlefull of Film/TV logline disease and mainlines it into the prose fiction world.

lindsay lohan so bored
This writer wanted to use the contest to judge how interesting his ideas are. To this group.

your comps should be recent

 

 

 

 

Most of the “comps” that I saw were from recent movies, not books. However, there were a few classics TV/book mashups like “Buffy meets Jekyll & Hyde.” There wasn’t enough in-depth information from any of the pitches to determine if there was any variability in age of character, gender of character or plot.

nail the comps

 

 

 

Sell your book to … whom?

I asked this question at the LA Writers Conference and got maybe 30% audience response (who got it). After the agents discussed the acquiring editor issue (they can say “no” but cannot say “yes” on their own) and described how editorial boards make decisions, I asked “but what reader input is considered in the process?”

This #Pitchtopublication process isn’t even about putting a basic, coherent brief pitch together about the writer’s work. It’s about creating something that will appeal to the participating agents and editors. They are asking for comparables from the past five years.

In what universe is working like that going to reach anything but a smaller audience of whatever the “comps” had?

It’s guaranteed, built in from the ground up, that anything created in a process like that is going to be similar to something that somebody else already did. Better.

So this is where we’re at. Yes, I watched Elon Musk’s battery wall pitch.

The threat: 20% of North American adults regularly buy and read books. This number is flat and may even be slightly shrinking each year. Nearly 100% of people are literate enough to buy and read at least some books. No one (other than us) seems to question that some people who would otherwise read regularly aren’t reading because they aren’t being presented with things that interest them in the market channels to which they’d respond.

The evidence that books have changed our world, and continue to change it, is overwhelming. Dickens’ stories of little orphan boys who overcame incredible adversity to “be the hero of their own lives” contributed to the dismantling of extreme classism. They instilled the basic idea that someone could “rise above” given enough hard work and natural gifts. Dickens himself was this person. He was telling his own story, over and over. Before Dickens, the only characters in fiction that left their “station” were those born noble, yet were unaware of it, like Fielding’s Tom Jones. People often look to “issue” books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin as things that encourage change. I think it’s popular stories that make the real change. Dickens’ work is the work I know the most about, but more recent books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22 have had a huge influence. Most of the official lists of this type are made out of the “canon” so they overlook books like Peyton Place, which unveiled the way small town people really lived, including their sex lives — including women’s sex lives.

We are in a worse straitjacket now than anything Ken Kesey wrote about. This straitjacket involves figuring out what someone liked last week, last month, last year, and shoving more of the same down their throat. This is what is considered “marketing.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – with its signature female horror, Nurse Ratched – very doubtful it would be published today. What were its comps? For sure Stephen King’s Misery had a little Cuckoo’s Nest of a “comp” but … that wasn’t within five years, was it?

It isn’t just that “more of the same” is what’s being enforced and promoted, it’s that the people who can work in this type of straitjacket and confined space are the opposite of the Ken Keseys of the world. I’m using the Merry Prankster as the example. If a writer likes to work to “please” some “agent” who’s chasing dollars for themselves, work to attract the attention of an editor who may or may not have any audience connection, who judges what they do based on what their competitors are doing, then the chances they’ll be writing about something real are …

ragnar lothbrok

Like the chance that somebody’s going to kick Ragnar Lothbrok’s ass.

(Aside: Vikings jumped the shark … King Whazbo has a sex crush on Lagertha and she accepts him? Really?)

There is a movie out right now called Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a white boxer named Billy “The Great” Hope. Today’s young audiences may not remember “The Great White Hope” so they do not “get” that a movie of this nature that was pretty good was already made. Called Rocky.

YOU COULD NOT EVEN F-ING MAKE ROCKY TODAY. We would not have Rocky and Rambo today. Maybe the world won’t fall apart without Sylvester Stallone but the whole point of Stallone was “the Italian stallion.” Yes, that was an unknown movie hero type before the Italians overtook film in the 70s.

Let’s try making Shaft today, shall we?

Denzel Washington’s biggest recent role is a remake of an 80s TV show that was essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy (what if an all-powerful ex-spy could fix everything and right all wrongs) starring a white British actor.

Right now everything on the bestseller list that isn’t James Patterson or E.L. James is Gone Girl clones. ___________________ did something (bad/wrong/secret) and ___________________ (outsmarts/tricks/hoodwinks) _____________________. This MadLib story is filled out with age (28-32), hair color (blonde/light brown), eye color (blue/blue-green/hazel), job (magazine writer, fashion editor, designer), husband/boyfriend (Ben Affleck/Jake Gyllenhaal/Jason Momoa (exotic/slated for death)). These are pop books.

Did anyone see the “the book had a blue cover” bookstore joke? It’s not a joke.

blue cover

So what was on the bestseller list before this misunderstanding of “marketing” took over? Like, 45 years ago?

1970 ny times bestseller list

Let’s see. I’ve actually read three of these books.

Love Story: the classic of its type. Great Lion of God is about St. Paul, by historical novelist Taylor Caldwell (PW noted it was written for a “sizeable and predictable market” – which is no longer being served very much by secular trade publishers). The French Lieutenant’s Woman, of which I have a copy signed to me by the author, is an unconventional, time-spanning narrative covering a clandestine, very sexy romance between a Victorian naturalist and a “woman of ill repute” combined with contemporary story by the author. It may well be published today – but it would absolutely not be #3 on the NY Times Bestseller list. Deliverance by James Dickey is the book origin of “squeal like a pig!” and the developmentally-disabled backwoods banjo player, as well as ultrahot Burt Reynolds and his hunting bow. It is in fact an incredibly well-written book by a great poet. In addition to having been made into a popular, award-winning film (as was The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Calico Palace is an historical novel about a young female protagonist who moves to San Francisco during the Gold Rush (’49). It was thus out of print and, although part of a “back in print” forgotten classics series – isn’t as well-remembered or preserved as Deliverance (“Squeal Like a Pig!” = top 100 books of 20th century). The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart … I now realize I’ve read four of these books. It is the first in Stewart’s Merlin trilogy: i.e. Arthurian legend. The Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick is one of the first gay romance novels. Losing Battles is Eudora Welty’s fourth novel; it features the tales told at the 90th birthday of Granny Vaughn in northeast Mississippi. Made into a hilarious movie, The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight is columnist Jimmy Breslin’s tale of the Brooklyn mob. Such Good Friends by Lois Gould is the only one of the group that is out of print. Gould was the editor of Ladies Home Journal and wrote semi-autobiographical books that focused on womens’ inner lives. Such Good Friends is about a woman whose husband dies, whereupon she discovers he was a serial cheater.

So, before the “comps” took over (they did not do this type of thing in 1970) they looked at basic things like “What is this book about?” They recognized that some authors like Eudora Welty ran on place and voice. They knew that sophisticated writers like John Fowles worked in unique ways. They could “get” basic subjects like “Merlin” and “San Francisco Gold Rush” and “St. Paul” or “This Jimmy Breslin is hilarious and a great columnist — his story is a hoot!”

Are people really going to “comp” The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight? It’s a hilarious book. Jimmy Breslin is a funny, gifted writer. They certainly have comped The Lord Won’t Mind: but these books aren’t generally on the NY Times bestseller list (though may be bestsellers).

They didn’t have computers in 1970. There was no internet. No Twitter. No hashtags. No agents telling aspiring writers what to do and forcing them to spend hours “comping” their ideas … gee whiz –

It’s Deliverance crossed with Love Story . . . Kenton Pierce, a successful 45 year-old sports agent, falls in love with beautiful 23 year-old Samantha “Sam” Justice. After a whirlwind courtship and fairy-tale wedding, “Sam” convinces Kent to spend their honeymoon in the remote Northern Georgia wilderness where she was raised by her widowed mother. While canoeing down the last wild river in the area, Kent and “Sam” are kidnapped by a group of backwoods hunters. After a night of sheer horror, Kent learns that nothing is as it seems. Not only is the hunter who rapes “Sam” her own father, she’s also dying of a new, ultra-virulent form of AIDS! Kent and Cletus the deadly Bowie-knife wielding daddy-rapist now both have the disease.

See? Easy-peasy.