The Daily Ed

The Consultant: Chapter 5, Part 1

Sgt. Park and the young guard grabbed Barry by the arms.

“Wait! Where are you taking me?”

He turned and saw Jung-Ho disappear through the doorway to the prison facility. Although he despised the younger man with the glasses, Barry was acutely aware that Jung-Ho was the only human being here that he could communicate with. Without Jung-Ho, he was both deaf and speechless.

There were shouts from Sgt. Park and the young guard. Hard shoves. Barry allowed himself to be shoved back into the prison facility, too. 

They pushed him roughly along. His hands were still bound, and he nearly tripped. He felt like a pinball, tossed between the two men. 

He heard another shot from the courtyard. Another life snuffed out.

“Where are we going?” Barry said. He stopped abruptly, planting his feet on the concrete floor. 

There was no answer; and there could not have been. Neither Sgt. Park nor the young guard spoke English. How could he have forgotten so quickly?

Sgt. Park paused and laid a hand on his truncheon. Another beating was only seconds away.

“All right, all right!” Barry said. “I’ll go!”

They rounded a corner. Then there was another short hallway, another turn. Barry was shoved into a big room. He noticed drains on the floor.

The young guard shoved him into the center of the room. He took a little utility knife, and cut the plastic tie that bound Barry’s hands. 

Then he walked back to the wide doorway. He pantomimed disrobing. The instructions were obvious: Barry was to undress. 

Barry started to protest. Sgt. Park reached for the truncheon on his belt again. 

“Okay!” Barry shouted. He began to undress. As he did, he became aware once again of his body odor. It wasn’t just the usual stench of going without a shower for an extended period. Nor was it merely the smell of the rancid mud that he had picked up from the courtyard.

It was also the smell of fear. In his forty-seven years, Barry had experienced mild bouts of anxiety and low-grade depression, like almost everyone. But never before had he had to fear for his life. What he was experiencing right now was mortal fear; and it was coming out of his pores. 

Once again, he loathed himself. He had been in North Korea for only a matter of hours, and already they had turned him into a Pavlovian response machine. All they had to do was threaten him with physical violence.

We wonder why people living in tyrannical regimes don’t rebel, he thought. Now I know why. 

Barry stood there, naked. They wanted him to bathe in here, obviously. Barry looked around for shower nozzles. He couldn’t see any.

Outside the room, the young guard stepped out of view. Barry heard something clattering around. Sgt. Park watched him, the big man’s stern expression never wavering. 

Barry saw the young Korean guard reappear with a firehose in hand.

Barry had seen the old newsreel footage of policemen in Alabama using firehoses against civil rights protesters during the 1950s and 1960s. It was said that water from a high-pressure hose could knock a grown man to his feet, could peel the skin off an adult’s body. 

“No!” Barry said, having realized what was coming.

The guard pointed the nozzle of the hose at Barry, and reached for the little metal release value.

There was a rumbling in the hose. Then a fast whooshing and gurgling sound. 

Suddenly he was aware of nothing but water, as the blast of liquid filled his eyes, his mouth, his nostrils. The water was ice-cold, and carried the force of an NFL linebacker.

Barry fell to the floor, his feet taken out from under him. He had no control over the water. The young guard was aiming it at him. Barry alternatively tried to cover his eyes and genitals—his most vulnerable parts. It was no use. The force of the water pushed him into one corner of the room.

The young guard had stepped into the room now. With Barry balled-up in the corner, he continued to direct the freezing water from the high-pressure hose. Barry was aware that he was screaming. The water was both cold, and delivered at a pressure that was never intended to be used on the human body.

Barry caught a glimpse of the young guard’s face.

He was smiling. This was a rare diversion in his otherwise monotonous day.

Finally it was done. The guard shut off the release value, and walked out with the hose. 

Barry lay on his back, shivering. He was technically clean now, but his skin was bright red, and stinging all over.

He heard Sgt. Park shout something. Barry looked up: Park had drawn his truncheon. He was using it to gesture for Barry to get up.

Barry saw his clothes in the opposite corner of the room. His clothes had been top-tier business attire only hours ago. Now his garments were wet and muddy, a ruined mess.

“What am I supposed to do for clothing?” Barry said. 

The answer came a few seconds later, when the young guard returned with an armful of clothing, including what looked like a pair of shoes. 

The guard dropped the clothes near the entrance to the little room. 

He and Sgt. Park both shouted at Barry. They wanted him to hurry up and get dressed.

Barry had no practical choice but to obey. Anyway, he felt vulnerable in his nakedness. 

With a supreme effort, he stood. Then he walked over, and picked up the items they had brought for him.

They had given him a pair of underwear that was stiff and oddly made—but at least it appeared to be clean. The socks were similarly clean but shoddily manufactured. They had correctly guessed his shoe size (men’s 12, more or less). He was able to get his feet into both shoes. The shoes were far from comfortable, though. 

The uniform was a bit like the tunic and trousers that Jung-Ho was wearing—only not nearly as nice. 

As he was buttoning up the front of his blue-grey tunic, he thought: I look like one of them now.

Chapter 5, Part 2

Table of contents

Revolutionary Ghosts: Chapter 27

I made it to the McDonald’s on time—barely.

I walked in through the front door. As the six o’clock hour neared, the restaurant was doing a fair amount of business. 

This early, it was mostly families. Young parents with small children. McDonald’s wouldn’t release the Happy Meal for several more years, but the fast food chain was already a hit with children. 

When I walked back into the employees area, behind the customer counter, I didn’t see any unfamiliar faces—and certainly no one who could be Diane Parker.

I was about to take my place behind the open cash register—the one on the far right. But first I had to clock in. The time clock, with a card for each employee, was mounted on the wall, adjacent to the manager’s office. As I stepped past the office door, I saw Louis seated behind the desk. He was smoking a cigarette, as always. 

Louis saw me through the window in the center of the top half of the door. He waved me in.

I pantomimed punching my timecard. Louis nodded. I clocked in, so I would get credit for my time. Then I entered the smoke-filled office. 

Oh, another thing about 1976: Smoking in public was still more or less acceptable behavior. Most restaurant dining rooms had nonsmoking sections. But smokers lit up without hesitation in the common areas of offices, shopping malls, and bars. 

“Shut the door behind you,” Louis said.

I complied. The smoke inside the office was so thick it stung my eyes, filled my mouth and nostrils. 

I waved my hands about dramatically, as if I could drive the smoke away. “You’re going to stunt my growth with that stuff, Louis.”

Louis was a tall, gangly young man with black curly hair and a light complexion. He often developed inexplicable red blotches on his cheeks and neck. He wore thick glasses encased in heavy black frames.

Louis smiled impassively at my objection to the smoke. We had had this discussion before. 

“How tall are you?” he asked.

“Six-one.”

“Well, there you have it. You’ve already done all of your growing. And look at me: I’m six-three.”

“We could both get cancer.”

“You won’t get cancer. Have a seat, please.” He motioned to the visitor’s chair on the far side of the desk. “I wanted to go over next week’s schedule with you.” 

I sat down, coughing.

“Quit hamming it up. The smoke will make a man of you.”

“If that’s the case, then I should have a twelve-incher by the time I walk out of here.”

“Hey, I didn’t say that smoke is a miracle drug. Think of what you’re starting with. Anyway, take a look at the days and shifts I have you signed up for next week. Let me know if there’s any problem. But please don’t let there be any problems. If I have to redo your schedule, I have to redo everyone else’s schedule to fill in the gaps.”

He slid the paper across the desk to me and I gave it a quick look. I was scheduled to work almost every evening, as usual. 

Ray Smith had a diktat about day shifts: Day shifts were reserved for the older employees, especially the young married women with children. I think Ray Smith believed that he was doing his part to keep at least a handful of the local teenage population out of trouble, by keeping us at work at his restaurant during the witching hours. 

“I don’t see any problems,” I said, sliding the schedule back to him. “That will be fine.”

“I saw you looking around when you came in,” Louis said. “You were looking for Diane Parker, weren’t you?”

“Not really.” I said. 

“Bullshit. You were rubber-necking like you’d never seen the inside of a McDonald’s before. Anyway, Diane Parker is working a half shift tonight. She’ll be in at eight. Speaking of schedules: You’re good for closing up tonight, right?”

“Closing up” referred to the procedures that we went through after the conclusion of business hours. Some light cleaning, restocking supplies, etc. Everything that needed to be done so that the morning shift didn’t walk into a chaotic, messy restaurant. 

“Of course,” I said dutifully. I would leave the restaurant at 10:30 or 10:45 p.m. tonight, I estimated. 

“I guess you can go ahead and get to your cash register.” He glanced at his watch. “Did you get here at six?”

“Five minutes early, actually. Then you called me in here to talk.”

“Ah. Yes. Well, anyway.”

I could sense Louis hemming and hawing around. There was something else he wanted to talk to me about.

 

“Is something else on your mind, Louis?”

After pondering my question for perhaps five seconds, he said, “I’m not sure, really. I’ve been feeling a little…weird, of late.”

“‘Weird’? You’re always a little weird, Louis.”

“Come on. I’m being serious.”

“All right. What do you mean by ‘weird’? Are you sick?”

“No. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong or weird about me. I feel like there’s something weird going on. Around here, I mean.”

It was as if Louis had read my thoughts, been privy to the events of the entire day: the hoofprints at the Pantry Shelf, the missing persons flyer, that shadow I saw in the hallway of my home…and then finally, the second set of hoofprints and the bizarre reaction of the  clerk at the Sunoco station.

“What about you, Steve? Have you noticed anything unusual of late?”

I could have confided in him in that moment. I could have told him about everything I had experienced since roughly noon. 

Unlike the clerk, Louis was certainly open to a speculative conversation.  

But I didn’t reveal anything to Louis. 

“I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary,” I said. “Not really. Not at all, now that I think of it.”

Why didn’t I meet Louis halfway, when he was clearly attempting to take me into his confidence? 

I wondered to myself—even then. 

My reasons had nothing to do with Louis. I don’t know if I was still in denial, but I was definitely in a state of resistance. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I wanted it to be filled with fun. Pleasant memories. Maybe a new girlfriend.

I didn’t want to think about young people around my age going missing, possibly the victims of some horrible forces that I could barely imagine existing. I didn’t want to consider the notion that Harry Bailey’s article in Spooky American Tales might be anything more than the sensational ramblings of a pulp journalist. I didn’t want to contemplate the possible meaning of those two sets of hoofprints, the nasty gunk around their edges. 

“I’d better get to my cash register,” I said.

“Yes, I guess you’d better.”

I was standing up from the visitor’s chair when Louis gave me yet one more thing to think about. 

“Oh,” Louis said, “if you do happen to hit it off with Diane Parker, I recommend that you don’t take too long in making your move. What I mean is: Don’t let Keith Conway make his move first. You know how he is, after all.”

Chapter 28

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FUJI-SAN

富士山

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain, with a height of 12,285 feet, or 3,776 meters. Mt. Fuji is technically classified as an active volcano, although it is currently dormant. The mountain is located on the border of the Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures.

As a landmark, Mt. Fuji has become an internationally recognized symbol of Japan. The mountain was first introduced to a worldwide audience through the woodblock paintings of the artist Hokusai (1760-1849), who produced a series of pictures of Mt. Fuji from various perspectives. His paintings were sold abroad during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and foreigners have been in love with the mountain ever since.

To many Japanese, Mt. Fuji has a quasi-religious significance. Expeditions up the mountain are quite popular among Japanese and foreigners alike. Climbing the mountain is arduous; but the activity is regarded by many as a spiritual experience.

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 4, Part 6

The guard with the pistol probably didn’t speak a word of English. Moreover, he was obviously not in a listening mood. He was in a shooting and killing mood.

Barry looked in the other direction. He saw Jung-Ho standing at the edge of the courtyard, the massive Sgt. Park at his side. 

Barry broke out of the line and ran in the direction of Jung-Ho.  

What was the worst that could happen? They would shoot him?

Jung-Ho watched him approach, but he did not react.

A short distance from the edge of the courtyard, Barry tripped and fell in the mud. With his hands bound, he had no way to break the fall. He struggled to his knees, aware that the front of his body was entirely caked with mud. 

“Okay!” he pleaded. “You win! You want me to perform a task for you? Serve your Supreme Leader? I’ll do it!

Even as Barry spoke these words, he loathed himself anew for his desperation, this voluntary surrender of his dignity.

Without looking directly at Barry, Jung-Ho said something in Korean.

Sgt. Park stepped forward, into the muddy courtyard, and lifted Barry off the ground. The big Korean yelled something incomprehensible at him. 

“I—I don’t understand,” Barry said, as he struggled to his feet.

Sgt. Park punched Barry in the stomach. He doubled over, and fell back into the mud.  

Barry heard Jung-Ho say something else in Korean. Sgt. Park lifted him up again—but this time he spared him the punch. 

It didn’t matter. Barry’s stomach felt like it had been struck by a cannonball. But that pain was minor, compared to his terror of that guard with the pistol— the one who liked to shoot unarmed prisoners in the head. 

Jung-Ho looked past Barry, and summoned another guard. Barry turned and saw the guard running, double-time, in their direction. He was a young guy, looked like a new enlistee. 

Barry heard the pistol crack again. More cries of anguish. Behind him the killing continued.

 

What is wrong with these people? Barry thought. But he knew that he had other, more immediate problems of his own.

The young guard stood at attention before Jung-Ho, as Jung-Ho issued a set of instructions in staccato Korean.

“You will go with this guard and Sgt. Park,” said Jung-Ho in English, his words obviously intended for Barry.

“What?” Barry said. “Where are they taking me?”

Maybe the North Koreans had an even more horrific means of killing him mind—something worse than being shot in the head with a pistol.

Perhaps this nightmare was about to get even worse—if that were even possible.

Barry had dreadful feeling that it was possible.

Jung-Ho walked away without answering him.

Chapter 5, Part 1

Table of contents

Bugatchi

The Consultant: Chapter 4, Part 5

The guard with the pistol shouted something in Korean. Barry watched in disbelief as he placed the muzzle of the pistol against the head of the first prisoner—a middle-aged woman.

There was a loud crack, and Barry saw the pistol buck in the guard’s outstretched hand. 

The female prisoner fell to the ground. A section of her head was missing. Her blood was gushing out onto the mud. 

A few seconds ago she had been alive. Alive in this hellhole, yes—but alive. 

And now she was dead. 

Just like that.  

Before Barry had even absorbed this horror, the guard with the pistol moved on to the next prisoner: the great grandfather.

The old man looked stoically ahead, not looking at the officer.

The guard held out the gun and the gun went BOOM! again. 

The top of the old man’s head seemed to have been sheared off. He toppled forward into the mud. 

The next prisoner was a youngish woman. Under different circumstances, she would have been pretty. But now she was crying, babbling hysterically in Korean. A line of mucus ran down from one nostril. 

She fell to her knees. Barry couldn’t understand her words, of course, but he understood their import well enough: She was still very young, and she was begging for her life.

The gun went off yet again. 

The top of the woman’s head collapsed inward, in an explosion of blood, and her body fell forward. 

Now there were three dead bodies, their heads ruined by that terrible weapon that the guard wielded with such cold efficiency.

Life and death means nothing to these people, Barry thought. 

They’re going to kill me.

They aren’t kidding around. 

It’s really going to happen.

Unless…

Barry hated himself for what he had just decided to do, but he was still determined to go through with it.

Chapter 4, Part 6

Table of contents

The Consultant: Chapter 4, Part 4

Perhaps twelve or fifteen prisoners—all of them Korean, apparently—were lined up against a wall. Four more Korean guards were watching them with scowling faces. 

Three of the guards carried AK-47s. The fourth guard, who might have been an officer, carried a pistol like the one that had been used to threaten Barry.

The prisoners were a mix of age and gender. The youngest of them was a woman who appeared to be in her twenties. The oldest was a man who looked old enough to be a great grandfather.

Sgt. Park and the guard who had helped jostle Barry outside now shoved him to the nearer end of the line, and against the wall.  

Barry had some idea what was going to happen here. He shouted, “Wait!” and tried to resist. The big Korean, Sgt. Park, smacked Barry with his open palm. 

It was only a glancing blow across Barry’s head. But after being struck by the truncheon in a similar manner, his head was already ringing. He also now realized that he was famished and dehydrated…Not to mention the shock of waking up from a drug-induced slumber in North Korea. 

Add now this: They were pushing him toward what looked like preparations for a mass execution. Toward the target line.

Stunned, Barry had little choice but to let himself be pushed. He looked down, and saw one of his two hundred-dollar loafers sink briefly into the muck of the courtyard. 

This couldn’t be real.

But it was real, impossible though it seemed.

They shoved him again. 

Sgt. Park and his helper finally pushed Barry into the place they wanted him. Barry turned around and saw a crumbling brick wall that was punctured with obvious bullet holes. There were also dark stains that could only have been dried blood.

The smell out here was wretched. A mixture of the oozy mud beneath their feet, and the reek of the prisoners’ long unwashed bodies.

His own unwashed body. 

Barry glanced over and saw Jung-Ho, waiting and watching impassively. He was at the very edge of the courtyard. He had not stepped out into the mud. 

Opposite the wall, Barry could see the four Korean guards talking among themselves. The sky was a white-grey, the air warm and fetid. From a flagpole in the center of the courtyard hung a North Korean flag. 

Barry could hear some of the prisoners beside him begin to whimper and sob as the guard with the pistol approached the line. 

The guard with the pistol now stood at the end of the line farthest from Barry. 

Barry looked around: There was nowhere to run. In every direction, was a brick wall, a North Korean with a gun, or both.

Barry had a sudden realization: He would be dead within a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Chapter 4, Part 5

Table of contents

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The Consultant: Chapter 4, Part 3

The guard grabbed Barry by his shirt collar. The other big Korean—the one whom Jung-Ho had identified as Sgt. Park—squeezed into the cell to help manhandle Barry.

They picked him up. Sgt. Park slammed a fist into Barry’s abdomen. Barry would have vomited, if there had been anything in his stomach. 

The guard slipped a little plastic tie around Barry’s wrists.

Jung-Ho shouted something else in Korean. Then Sgt. Park and the unnamed guard pushed Barry out of the cell. 

“Stop!” Barry shouted. “I want to speak to the Swedish embassy!”

No one answered him.

Now he found himself in a long corridor with stone walls. The kind of decor one would expect in the hallway of a prison in North Korea. 

The corridor was almost completely dark. There were bare bulbs spaced at wide intervals in the ceiling. But as was the case in the cell—they didn’t give off much light. 

Barry was jostled around a corner, where he saw a wedge of daylight just ahead of him. A few steps further, and he saw an open doorway, lit up with the obscured sunlight of a cloudy day.

Sgt. Park and the guard kept shoving Barry forward, while Jung-Ho walked calmly alongside them.

Barry shouted more protests. But Jung-Ho would give him no response, and the other two Koreans didn’t even understand him. 

Another shove, and he was outside, in a muddy courtyard enclosed by brick walls.

The courtyard was barren, but not empty. There were two groups of people out here.

One group was wearing rags. They looked like prisoners in a concentration camp, which—Barry supposed—was exactly what they were.

The other group was wearing military uniforms. They had guns. 

Something, Barry could tell, was about to take place in this courtyard—something very bad.

And he was going to be a part of it.

Chapter 4, Part 4

Table of Contents

The Consultant: Chapter 4, Part 2

Barry diverted his attention from the gun in his face, to look in the direction of the door. Where the voice had come from. 

There were actually two men standing there.

One was a bespectacled. youngish man, maybe in his early thirties. Not very tall, slight of build. He was wearing a dark gray tunic. An outfit that Barry had heard called a “Mao suit”. It was common in communist countries, especially in Asia.

The other newcomer was a large Korean man in a military uniform. He wore a peaked cap. This man was a giant, one of the largest men Barry had ever seen, in person. 

The two newcomers stood in the doorway. There simply wasn’t enough room in the cell to accommodate them.

“My name is Jung-Ho,” the man in the dark gray tunic said. He gestured to the giant standing beside him. “And this is Sergeant Park. I’m afraid that Sergeant Park speaks no English.”

The large uniformed Korean glowered at him. For some reason, Barry feared the big man even more than the Korean guard who had just beat him with the truncheon, the one who was now holding a gun on him. 

“Where am I?” Barry demanded—though he already deduced the answer, more or less. 

“You are in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.”

“You people have kidnapped me and brought me to North Korea?”

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The young man who had introduced himself as Jung-Ho said, “We would prefer to say that we have liberated you. And you have been brought to the DPRK for an important task.”

Jung-Ho said something to the Korean guard holding the pistol. His tone was not angry, but firm and self-assured. The guard gave Barry one final glare, and reholstered his weapon.

That was progress, Barry supposed. But it didn’t even come close to rectifying this situation. 

It was so outlandish, that Barry was almost tempted to believe that this whole thing was a practical joke.

But Barry knew better. This was no joke. As absurd as it was, he was in real trouble here. The worst trouble of his entire life.

“What is this?” Barry asked. What this man was saying made absolutely no sense, whatsoever. “I demand that you take me to the American embassy, right away.”

Jung-Ho sighed. He looked at Barry as if he were a child, or a simpleton who had overlooked something painfully obvious.

“First of all, there is no American embassy in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Officially, a state of war exists between our two countries. Secondly, you are here at the generosity and forbearance of the DPRK, and our Supreme Leader, Comrade Kim Jong-un. We have a job for you. A task that is essential for the development of our country, and the plans of our Supreme Leader.”

This explanation made even less sense to Barry. Why in the world would anyone from North Korea want him taken prisoner?

He recalled stories in the news from recent years, in which some reporter, or that rare American tourist who traveled to North Korea, was imprisoned in the Hermit Kingdom on some trumped-up charge.

Usually what the North Koreans wanted was money. Or a visit from some high-ranking American. Barry seemed to recall that former President Clinton had made a visit to North Korea some years ago in order to secure the release of an imprisoned American reporter.

“This is a scam, right?” Barry said. “You want money, right? Or maybe you want President Clinton to visit. Is that it?”

“No, Barry. I assure that is not what we want.”

“Well, you’re not going to get it,” Barry said, heedless of the man’s denial.  “I’m a nobody. Do you understand? I’m not Laura Ling, or Lisa Ling, or whoever it was that Bill Clinton came here to rescue. Nobody knows who I am, except for my family, and a small circle of my business associates.”

Jung-Ho smiled. The smile infuriated Barry. “Barry Lawson, you sell yourself short. You will remember that our agent produced a magazine with your face on the cover.”

Now Barry understood the larger significance of that encounter with Mr. Kim. But the North Koreans were obviously mistaken. Did they think he was some kind of celebrity or dignitary? Advertising World Weekly was nothing but a trade magazine, with limited circulation. Did the North Koreans even know that?

“I demand that you take me to the American embassy,” Barry repeated.

“I’ve already told you that there is no American embassy in the DPRK.”

 Barry struggled to think, scouring his mind for every bit of information that he had ever gleaned about North Korea.

He seemed to recall that the Swedish embassy served as the intermediary for Americans who found themselves in North Korea, and needed the assistance of a western government.

“Take me to the Swedish embassy, then.” Barry said. 

Now it was as if Barry were the one speaking an incomprehensible language. 

Jung-Ho said something in Korean to the guard with the truncheon—the one who had been ready to shoot him only minutes ago. 

The guard smiled at what Jung-Ho had said—whatever it was. 

“Very well,” Jung-Ho said now in English. “If you are unwilling to accept our generosity, then you are of no use to the DPRK.”

“So what now?” Barry asked.

“Now,” Jung-Ho said, “you die.”

Chapter 4, Part 3

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AMSAdwerks and the inevitable reconsolidation of publishing

Warning: this post contains arcane details about indie publishing. If you aren’t interested in indie publishing, skip this post!

I happened by Russell Blake’s site the other day when I saw his post about his investment in AMSAdwerks, a new company whose mission statement is as follows:

We specialize in Amazon marketing. Our experts manage your campaigns from your KDP-AMS or AA dashboards following your budgetary and ROI requirements.

We offer a distinct value to independent authors and small publishers who would rather work on their product lines instead of attempt to figure out the intricacies of the Amazon platforms. 

AMS Adwerks

According to the graphic on the company’s homepage (see below), the fortunate author/client might hope to shovel $8,000 into the maw of the Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) machine, and net a profit of less than $2,000…minus the Adwerks commission, of course.

Source: AMS Adwerks

Russell Blake said in an earlier post that indie authors have little choice but to invest heavily in advertising nowadays. He’s right. Over the past year, Amazon has changed its algorithms to make its website a pay-for-play venue.

I’ve been listening to Bryan Cohen’s podcast, Relentless Authors Advertise. In the podcast, Cohen generously reveals the details of his extensive advertising activities throughout the week, including his final profit or loss.

Cohen, to be sure, is a smart guy who takes advertising seriously. And even he is barely making money at it.

The entrance of a company like Adwerks into an already overheated market will make advertising on Amazon even more expensive. I have no doubt that, with a cash infusion from Russell Blake, the company will hire a full staff of bright young things, and be very good at what it does….Certainly better than the typical indie author, tinkering away in her AMS dashboard, playing with ad spends of $10 or $20 at a time.

In 2019, the indie author who relies solely on the Amazon ecosystem must advertise. In 2020, the likely new imperative will be: The indie author who relies solely on the Amazon ecosystem must hire an outside consulting agency to tweak his ads constantly throughout the day.

This, of course, will require wheelbarrows full of cash. (Notice again, the sample numbers on the AMSAdwerks graphic. These are telling.)

I predict that by the middle of next year, or thereabouts, the requirements of advertising spending (for authors solely reliant on the Amazon ecosystem) will become prohibitive for most individual authors.

The likely result of this will be a reconsolidation of publishing.

Authors have always been technically free to self-publish. There has never been a law against it. Twenty years ago, though, indie publishing was prohibitively expensive, because of the economies-of-scale of printing and distribution.

That changed ..for a while. About ten years. But the speculative bubble of indie publishing has brought about a practical need to winnow down the number of books being published and thrown into the Amazon database.

Having observed the dotcom bubble of twenty years ago, I saw this coming. (Also, economics was my undergraduate major.)

But I was wrong about one thing: I predicted that Amazon would eventually charge authors and publishers to list their books on its site. A listing fee of $50~$300 per title would have met with some complaints, but many authors and publishers would have paid it.

But Amazon has opted for a much more profitable course (for Amazon): The company has convinced authors that they should engage in a bidding war for AMS ad clicks. Bids of over $1 per click are now common in competitive categories within the AMS system.

Very few authors will be able to make money at that game, long-term, selling $3.99 ebooks. The margins simply aren’t there.

Publishing will once again require deep pockets to shell out up-front costs…if you want to make any money at it, that is.

Economics is inexorable. Despite all the utopian pretensions of the indie publishing community, the future may end up looking very much like the past.

Nunn Bush

Writers: If you need a “sensitivity reader”, you need a different book

So you’re a writer, and you’ve heard the buzz about so-called “sensitivity readers”. 

Do you need one? Or is the whole concept of the sensitivity reader a load of B.S.?

To begin with the conclusion: You almost certainly don’t need a sensitivity reader…And if you actually do need a sensitivity reader, then you need a different book to write.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. But first, let’s examine both sides of this debate. 

 

On one hand, the cult of political correctness has empowered Twitter mobs to seize upon the slightest pretext, and virtue-signal on a grand—and often destructive—scale.

Case-in-point: The Black Witch brouhaha of 2017. In The Black Witch, young adult (YA) author Laurie Forest wrote a novel that was set in a completely fictional universe. The Black Witch is a fantasy tale in the old tradition of the genre, featuring imaginary, anthropomorphic creatures like wolfmen, faeries, etc.

Enter Shauna Sinyard, a worthwhileness-challenged book blogger who saw an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Sinyard wrote a 9,000-word, wildly extrapolated denunciation of the book, filled with all the most cutting-edge PC buzzwords.  Here’s a sample:

It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.

Source article from Vulture.com

Sinyard then asked her lemming followers on social media to slam the book…which they did, like good little lemmings. An exercise in adolescent/early twentysomething Internet melodrama followed, fulfilling all of the worst stereotypes about Millennial “snowflakes”. 

The Black Witch, thankfully, seems to be doing well on Amazon today, the best efforts of one worthwhileness-challenged, basement-dwelling book blogger and her social media goons notwithstanding. 

But of course, there would be a repeat. A similar situation befell Amelie Wen Zhao, author of another YA fantasy novel, Blood Heir. Advance copies of her book were sent out, and once again, a mob of Internet cretins decided that her [completely imaginary] world was actually racist/sexist/homophobic/(yawn!) you fill in the blanks.

Amelie Wen Zhao was bombarded by accusations of being racist/homophobic/ableist…over a novel that wasn’t even set in this world. 

Amelie Wen Zhao’s Twitter post

Amelie Wen Zhao, who is an immigrant from Communist China, was both emotionally battered and honestly puzzled by the backlash. Rather than tell the Internet to trolls to go fornicate themselves (which would have been the appropriate response), she submitted to the howling mob. Zhao asked the publisher of Bood Heir not to publish the book. 

Zhao then issued an apology to “the book community”, along with the news of her act of contrition.

As Larry Correia recently pointed out on his blog, in a post entitled, TO THE BOOK COMMUNITY: GO FUCK YOURSELF. AN ANTI-APOLOGY, if this is what the online “reader community” is all about, then we writers don’t need them. 

I certainly don’t need readers like that. Neither do Amelie Wen Zhao or Laurie Forest. 

And we know where Larry Correia stands.

That all said and fully acknowledged, it must also be noted that these tempest-in-a-teapot firestorms are mostly limited to the young adult genres—and especially to young adult fantasy literature. 

This is partly because the younger generation is most immersed in the leftist obsession with identity politics that academia has been inculcating for the past twenty years or so. It is also because fantasy literature, at the moment, is dominated by leftwing cultural concerns. (Military science fiction, by contrast, has been mostly freed of its leftwing literary overlords, thanks in no small part to the explosion of indie publishing.) 

The net result is that someone who has an interest in YA fantasy literature (enough to blog about it online, at least) is typically a bootlicking little PC weasel, with aspirations of becoming a Lavrentiy Beria in the Internet bookspace. 

Most readers of crime fiction, adventure fiction, and political thrillers, by contrast, could care less about such nonsense

But I said at the outset that there were two sides to this, and there are. The other side is best demonstrated by example.

Suppose that I were to set out to write the next breakout, coming-of-age novel for African American women—set not when I was actually a young person (the 1980s), but in the present day. 

I would make a total mess of that project. I would get everything wrong. My entire life experience illy positions me to write such a book. I haven’t been a young person since 1980-something. I’m not black. I’m not female. 

I’m a middle-aged white guy who grew up in the (mostly white) suburbs of the 1980s. I would need not merely a single sensitivity reader, but an entire team of them, to accomplish such a task.  

And the odds are high that I would still bungle it.

And this really is the other side of our opening question. Writing is an art, but it is also a business. I stand by my earlier assertion that Laurie Forest and Amelie Wen Zhao should have told the online mob to…well…go fuck themselves. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every author is the right author for every project.

 

I know that there are some projects I should stay away from as a fiction writer, because I lack the perspective. For example, I would never attempt to write the definitive novel about the experience of being gay, transgender, African American, or female. I don’t know what I’m doing in those areas. 

To the extent that the concept of the sensitivity reader is legitimate (and that’s a very, very thin slice of ground), the following rule applies: If your book project legitimately needs a sensitivity reader, then you are probably the wrong author for that book.

Note, however, that this doesn’t mean that every book that has an African American character needs a professional sensitivity reader, if the author is white. There is a difference between a book with an African American character, and a book that attempts to define the African American experience. 

The first book anyone can write with a bit of observation and common sense. The second book should probably be written by someone who is actually African American, or someone who has at least spent a lot of time in that culture. 

For example, Michael La Ronn, author of Old Dark and many other fantasy novels, recently said in an online video that he plans to feature African American characters in most of his future novels. (Michael La Ronn is an African American writer.)

This makes perfect sense to me. Michael La Ronn can do that better than I ever could. There is no reason for him not to pursue that niche.

Likewise, there is no reason for me to pursue it at all.

A white-bread author like me can feel free to not worry overmuch about racial diversity in my books. And to be perfectly honest: I mostly don’t. I’m not interested in box-checking every story I write, to see if it has the ideal balance of race/gender/sexual orientation. Why should I try to write intimately about perspectives that are unfamiliar to me…when other writers can cover such ground from a position of firsthand experience?

This doesn’t mean that all of my characters are exactly like me…though many of them are. As noted above, I don’t get too worked up about this. And I’m not alone here. 

Amy Tan writes almost exclusively about Chinese American women. The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter…All these books explore the specifically Chinese American, specifically female experience. 

And guess what…Amy Tan is a Chinese American woman! If Amy Tan were to attempt a novel about redneck men in southern Ohio—where I’m from–she would probably need a sensitivity reader. 

But why should she bother with such a book? 

Sometimes I do employ a loose version of sensitivity reader—not in regard to race, but to age. My books often involve characters of other generations, both older and younger. 

When such a situation arises, I ask one of my younger (or older) relatives or acquaintances if I’ve gotten a particular detail correct. 

At this level, what we’re talking about here is research. No writer should knowingly publish something that is blatantly distorted, or hackneyed, or stereotyped, because “free speech”. If you’re a straight white guy and your story contains an African American or gay character, there is nothing wrong with soliciting the input of someone who actually has an insider’s perspective. 

That isn’t political correctness, that’s due diligence. 

Realize though, that your ability to convey such a perspective secondhand is inherently limited. How much this limitation hampers you will depend on the type of book you are writing. 

In a thriller, you could probably rely on common sense alone. If you’re writing a literary character study, however, your lack of real, experiential perspective will likely get in the way. 

But again: Why are you writing such a book?

To realize one’s limitations as a writer is a far cry from submitting to the arbitrary dictates and whims of the political correctness mob. It is a matter of common sense, and also a matter of obvious, observable intention

Shauna Sinyard was reading what she wanted to read into The Black Witch, a fantasy novel set in a nonexistent world. Shauna Sinyard’s intentions were clearly bad (borderline evil, in fact). 

As explained above, though, my low opinion of Shauna Sinyard doesn’t mean that I should write intimate character studies about Chinese American women, or that Amy Tan should attempt the next great novel about Appalachian men. 

Context matters. It will always matter. Each situation is unique, and must be individually evaluated. This is art, not physics. 

But as a general rule of thumb: If you conclude that you really, really need a sensitivity reader for a particular project…think about writing a different book. 

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