Chris Fox on plot gardening

There are a few people among the “writer guru” tribe whom I particularly like. The first of these is Lindsay Buroker. (Lindsay is awesome, and one of the cohosts of the Six-Figure Author podcast.)

Another one is Chris Fox.

Chris Fox is a successful science fiction author in his own right. He also runs a YouTube channel for authors.

Chris’s YouTube channel has not been as active in recent years as it used to be. About a year ago, he more or less decided that dealing with aspiring authors was not worth the time, effort, and drama that it entailed. Since then, he’s scaled back his activities on that front.

I get it. I’ll be honest here: I enjoy interacting with readers. And I may, eventually, have a single writing book in me. But I would never attempt to bill myself as a writer guru—and certainly not on any social media platform.

Why? Well, as I might have told Chris Fox (and as Chris Fox now tells others) the creative writing field attracts a lot of very temperamental snowflakes. It also attracts a lot of people who don’t play particularly well with others.

(Since someone will no doubt ask: No, I wouldn’t consider myself a “snowflake”. I get along with most people; but I don’t play particularly well with others on large projects. Twenty-plus years in the corporate world couldn’t change me, either.)

But anyway, back to “plot gardening”: There are two basic models for writing fiction, neither of which has ever worked optimally for me.

The first of these is “discovery writing”, aka “pantsing” (a cutesy term I avoid like the plague), aka “writing into the dark”.

The idea here is: you sit down, with only the barest threads of an idea, and a story just magically flows out. Like magic!

Some working writers do it this way. (Read Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing Into the Dark, if this intrigues you.) Stephen King writes this way.

For me, pure discovery writing relies too heavily on bursts of inspiration. It’s a fine way to write if you’re only writing a book per year. Much more difficult if you want to write multiple books per year. (But again: Dean Wesley Smith, a very prolific writer, is a discovery writer. So there.)

Then there is the meticulous outliner, in the style of Robert Ludlum or John Grisham.

John Grisham has said that his outlines often take longer to write than his books. Robert Ludlum famously wrote outlines of more than one hundred pages.

I spent some time in the late 1990s programming in Visual Basic. I therefore see a very meticulous outline as akin to a computer program for fiction. The writer first writes out the program (the outlining stage), and then runs the program (the drafting stage).

That model appeals to the orderly side of my brain. But here’s the problem: There are many connections and twists that you simply don’t see until you’re down in the weeds, actually writing.

What I employ now is an in-between method. I like to lay out a basic framework of a plot, and then fill in the blanks.

I don’t necessarily write my chapters—or sections within a given chapter—in linear order.

But I always know, more or less, where the story is going. I just don’t always know how it’s going to get to each specific point along the way, or what details will be added. That’s where the inspiration comes into play.

Many writers use various forms of “in-between” methods like this. It isn’t something that can be patented or copyrighted. But Chris Fox has codified his version of it nicely in his “plot gardening” explanation.

If the above video resonates with you, you might want to consider his book of the same title. Chris Fox is, once again, a sharp guy who is worth listening to. (And if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I certainly don’t say that about everyone.)

Authors, narrators, and audiobook economics

There has been a lot of talk in the “author community” of late about audiobooks. As is usually the case with these things, the news is both good and bad.

On one hand, audiobooks represent the fastest growing segment of the book market. Some markets (mostly outside the English-speaking world) have even gone to an “audio-first model”, whereby the audiobook—and not the hardcover print edition—is considered the flagship of publication.

On the other hand, though, audiobook production costs make it difficult to turn a profit with an audiobook title in the short term—especially if you’re an independent and/or mid-list author. This is compounded by changes in what consumers are willing to pay for digital products.

Let’s break this all down.

High production costs

At present, all audiobooks sold at the major retailers are read by human narrators. Most of these narrators are self-employed, independent contractors who work from home recording studios.

Audiobook production is priced “per finished hour”. This hourly rate typically runs in the hundreds of dollars.

How much is that, though? Findaway Voices, one of the main audiobook distributors, suggests a per finished hour cost of $250. This means, per Findaway, about $1,350–$1,650 for a 50,000-word novel.

The problem is: 50,000 words is very much on the short side for a novel. 50K words is barely in proper novel territory at all. (And a very short audiobook is unlikely to sell well, for reasons that will be discussed shortly.) 80,000 to 110,000 words is more typical. In some genres, like fantasy, 200,000 words is not uncommon.

Here’s another way to do the math: The conventional wisdom is that 9,300 manuscript words equate to one hour in an audiobook. My Kentucky crime novel, Blood Flats, is about 180,000 words. That’s on the long side, granted, but by no means off the charts. Divide 180,000 by 9,300, and you get about 19 hours in audiobook time.

Doing further math, this would mean a cost of 19 x $250 = $4,750, using Findaway’s base rate of $250. But some narrators charge more—sometimes much more. If a narrator charged $350 per finished hour (not uncommon), the total nut for production costs would be 19 x $350 = $6,650.

The result is that it is often possible to have a small deck put on a suburban house in Ohio for less money than it costs to produce an audiobook. Audiobook production, under the current model, is an expensive undertaking.

This is where the pitchforks are likely to come out, and audiobook narrators on Reddit will start to look up my address on Google Maps.

Please hold the pitchforks. I’m not suggesting that audiobook narrators are price-gouging. I have a subscription to Adobe Audition. I’ve dabbled with narration and sound production myself. I know what’s involved in producing a “finished hour” of salable audio.

Suffice it to say: it’s a pain in the ass. To begin with: Most fiction audiobooks are not simply read, but acted, with distinct character voice inflections, regional accents, and whatnot.

The performance is only the beginning. Afterward, all the little annoyances present in all human speech (“um”, audible inhales, etc.) have to be edited out.

Then there’s the post-production sound engineering. This means paying attention to factors like the noise floor and the “root square mean” or RMS, of your recording. You’ll likely have to learn about EQ settings, de-essing, and pop elimination, too.

Almost nothing about audio production is conceptually difficult, as in rocket-science. But it is very detailed and time-intensive work.

And it doesn’t stop with what you pay for. Even after an author receives a completed audiobook project at a cost of $4,750 to $6,650 (to cite the Blood Flats example), the work isn’t over. Few authors will be foolhardy enough to upload the completed sound file without a final quality control check, which will verify that all 180,000 words have been read correctly, with no omissions or misreadings.

The impact of the subscription model

The concomitant problem is that the changing economics of the audiobook market make it difficult to earn all that time and money back.

At present, Audible bills customers on a credit system, where 1 credit = 1 audiobook. Your level of Audible membership determines how many “premium” titles you get per month. At present, this is only…one.

One premium title per month? This means that customers will choose that title carefully. Size therefore matters. A 50,000-word title (Findaway’s base example) will only mean about five hours of listening. Wouldn’t most people prefer the 19-hour title instead?

Oh, and there’s another problem, involving customers and digital content. People don’t want to pay a ton of money for it.

Here comes the pitchfork mob again, only this time, it’s a different pitchfork mob. And for what it’s worth, I’m a part of this pitchfork mob myself. While I’m a writer on one hand, I’m an avid reader (and audiobook listener) on the other.

Even I balk at audiobook prices from the big New York publishers, which typically range from $25 to $30. That’s a lot of money for a file that you’re going to put on your smart phone, and probably use only once.

Most readers are not freeloaders, though. All that “information want to be free” hooey has diminished considerably in recent years, right along with Cory Doctorow’s claim to hipness.

(Circa 2009, Cory Doctorow was a much-ballyhooed cheerleader for the digital pirating of intellectual property. Putting his money where his mouth was, Doctorow even gave away digital downloads of his own books from his website.

Cory Doctorow does not seem to be doing that anymore, or at least he’s making it awfully hard to find the free download links. But there are plenty of salient store links on his site.)

Most readers understand the maxim, “if no one gets paid, then nothing gets made”. They want creators to be paid for their work—but they don’t want to pay $26.95 for a 10-hour audiobook.

As both a creator and a consumer of content, I get that.

Further downward pressure is coming from the increasing prevalence of the all-you-can-eat subscription model. This means Spotify for musicians, Kindle Unlimited for authors.

From what I’ve read and heard (big disclaimer here: I am not a musician, but I do have friends in the business) Spotify seems to royally screw over musicians. The Spotify business model arose at a time when music piracy was rampant, and the prevailing wisdom was: it’s better for musicians to be paid almost nothing, versus absolutely nothing.

Kindle Unlimited arose under different circumstances, and this program involves a more nuanced situation. But plenty of authors don’t like it.

Be that as it may, smorgasbord subscription programs are creating a race to the bottom, or severe downward pressure, on the distribution models of all forms of digital content. But it still costs thousands of dollars to produce an audiobook. Audible, meanwhile, is still rationing audiobooks to its customers as if each one were imprinted on gold leaf, rather than in digital files.

“Audiblegate”

The folks who run Audible aren’t fools. They realize that their business model is out of whack. For a while they tried to have it both ways. They actively encouraged customers to return audiobooks for new ones—even after a full listening—wink, wink. This created an informal, “sort-of” subscription model.

But a “sort-of” subscription model is a bit like being “a little pregnant”. You either are or you aren’t. You can’t have it both ways. When you do try to have it both ways, someone has to take the short end of the stick.

And guess who got that short end in this case? When customers returned an audiobook for an exchange, Audible was withholding payments to the author of the returned title. This was, in effect, a creator-subsidized subscription model. Audible tried to be a little bit pregnant…at authors’ expense.

The resulting uproar has come to be known as “Audiblegate”. Authors got wind of what was happening, and raised a much-justified ruckus.

How much should an audiobook cost?

I’ll be honest here: I don’t much care for subscription models. This isn’t a beef with “giving stuff away”, or wanting to charge everyone in my audience the full price of a front-row ticket. People often want to sample the work of an unfamiliar musician, writer, or filmmaker before they plunk down money. I get that. This is why I put so much free content on my website.

The reason I dislike subscription models is: they inevitably involve corporate monopolies or oligopolies. Only large corporations can achieve the economies of scale needed to maintain control on a tipping-point volume of content, sufficient to charge money for a subscription service.

There is some competition in the music streaming business. But Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program (which mandates per-title exclusivity) holds a virtual monopoly over the subscription ebook market. Yes, there are a few other players, but not a one of them seriously competes with Amazon.

To get back to audiobooks, I like the Chirpbooks model. Chirp sells audiobooks at aggressive rates of discount. I’ve picked up many good audiobooks there, from indie authors as well as New York-published ones, for $0.99 to $6.99.

That’s still a wide range; but even the high end of that range is a substantial improvement on the typical audiobook price of $25~$30.

I should also mention that Chirp has a limited selection, and each discount runs for a limited time. To get the most out of Chirp, you have to be willing to read across genres, and to try new authors.

But it is worth considering the question: what should the ordinary, non-discount price of an audiobook be?

I worked at Toyota for many years. One of the business rules Toyota taught me was: The customer (i.e., the market) decides the price. It is the producer’s job to find a way to manufacture an item at the price that the consumer is willing to pay (with a reasonable profit built in, of course).

What’s a “reasonable” cost for an audiobook? Not .0001 cents per stream, but not $25.99, either. Something reasonable for both sides.

Speaking as a consumer, I would say: $4.99 to $9.99. Slightly higher than an ebook. This also makes sense to me as an author.

Enter DeepZen and AI narration

But that means that production costs will have to be lowered, too.

I really don’t think that third-party human narrators can do what they do for a substantially lower rate. Again, I’ve dabbled with audiobook narration, editing, and mastering myself. There is a lot to it.

But there’s another side: At present, audiobooks are over-engineered. An audiobook is not a Mozart concerto. An audiobook isn’t even an AC/DC concert. It shouldn’t try to be.

Production costs could be substantially lowered in two ways that I can see.

The first of these is: Authors could produce their own audiobooks. Some authors are already doing this; but most aren’t.

This would inevitably require a loosening of standards. Note: once again, the reasonableness standard applies. This doesn’t mean an author reading her book into her iPhone while her dog is barking, and her kids are crying in the background. But it might mean (for example) the straightforward reading of an audiobook with prosumer-level recording equipment, versus the theatrical performance of an audiobook. It might also mean the occasional “um” or inhale sound.

To get an idea of what I mean, consider podcasts. Most podcasts have decent audio quality, but not Mozart concerto-level quality. I’ve seldom been distracted by background noise in a podcast; but I’m sure that some of them have a technical noise floor level that wouldn’t meet present audiobook requirements.

Equipment standards are less demanding, too. Most podcasters use (prosumer) Blue Yeti USB microphones, not the high-end mics which can easily run into the thousands of dollars.

Another possibility is: AI narration. This is probably a better solution than the above, since artificial intelligence doesn’t miss words, doesn’t say “um”, and doesn’t produce distracting breath sounds when speaking into a microphone. Equally important: AI is never self-conscious to the point of being tongue-tied, or freaked out over the sound of its own voice on a recording.

A company called DeepZen has made tremendous strides in AI voice narration. Listen to some sample readings on the DeepZen website. These aren’t the android-like voices that your PC spoke with in the Windows 95 days. These voices sound like real people talking. DeepZen offers voices with considerable demographic range, from an authoritative, middle-age man who speaks unaccented American English, to a perky British lass who sounds like she’s in her mid-twenties. Only the most discriminating listeners will be able to distinguish the DeepZen voices from the real thing. Fewer still will be bothered by the difference.

And think of the production cost savings: I don’t know what it would cost to have DeepZen produce an audiobook version of Blood Flats; but I’d be willing to bet that it would be a lot less than $4,750.

So why don’t I (along with thousands of other authors) just do that?

Because…good luck putting that AI-produced audiobook up for sale anywhere. Audiobooks read by AI narrators are currently banned from all the major platforms, including Audible. Human narration is one of the absolute requirements for all audiobook titles submitted to ACX (Audible’s distributor):

“Your submitted audiobook must be narrated by a human. Text-to-speech recordings are not allowed. Audible listeners choose audiobooks for the performance of the material, as well as the story. To meet that expectation, your audiobook must be recorded by a human.”

Maybe. And maybe there are plenty of folks who have a vested interest in keeping things just the way they are, without any technological disruptions.

Enter the unions. The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has brought audiobook narrators into its fold. SAG-AFTRA charges members an initiation fee of $3,000, and annual dues of $222.96.

I’m not privy to the ins and outs of SAG-AFTRA’s activities, but the union doesn’t seem to be shy about telling its members which companies they can work with, and which ones they can’t. Most unions have a gluttonous appetite for arbitrary authority. SAG-AFTRA seems to be no exception in this regard.

Narrator unions (even if not this one in particular) have likely pressured audiobook publishers and distributors to treat AI-produced audiobooks as the equivalent of hate speech or child porn. Hence the blanket ban. Those of us who are not “in the know” will probably never know what is going on behind the scenes. But we can make some educated guesses. The phrase, “a parasitic, power-hungry organization that inflates costs and hampers all innovation” is as good a working definition for “union” as any.

Why not let customers decide? At the very least, DeepZen voices would be more than adequate for reading nonfiction. How much passion and/or individual quirkiness does the audio presentation of a cookbook or a business nonfiction title really need?

All audiobook titles read by a DeepZen AI narrator could be labeled as such. Customers could listen to the online samples of each book, and decide whether or not the title is for them.

But again: I don’t think that customer needs are the only factor behind the AI narration ban, or even the primary one.

***

But even if market forces were allowed to prevail, AI narration would no more replace top audiobook narrators than AI singing would replace Taylor Swift.

Voice actor Scott Brick, for example, is an all-star in the audiobook narration field. Scott Brick reads most of the Clive Cussler novels, as well as titles from Lee Child and Tom Clancy.

Scott Brick has his own fan base. I’m part of it. I am far more likely to give an iffy audiobook title a try if I see Scott Brick listed as the narrator. Even if Audible started accepting AI-narrated audiobook titles tomorrow, Brick would still have his fans, and more work than he could handle.

(Title below narrated by Scott Brick)

AI and the mid-list title

Where AI narration is most needed is not at the Clive Cussler/Lee Child literary superstar level, but among the mid-list. There are thousands of mid-list titles with potential that are never going to be made into audiobooks, because the upfront costs of doing so are simply too high for independent authors. Narrators wouldn’t “miss out” on most of this work if it went to AI, because they weren’t going to get it anyway.

Joanna Penn has suggested that in a new world of AI-narrated audiobooks, DeepZen narrations could serve as entry-level products, with human-narrated audiobooks commanding a premium price—just like they do now.

I tend to agree. The audiobook market is currently trapped between production economics of the 1990s, and distribution/retail economics of the 2020s. Technology is not being properly exploited, because it threatens the old way of doing things.

Something has to give. The audiobook market is ripe for disruption. And if history is any guide, the forces of technology and market economics will likely win out in the end. This is a movie that every student of economics (my undergrad major) has seen many times before.

Scott Brick in action reading ‘The Columbus Affair’

The singing Mennonites of Lancaster

We could all use some good news this year, right?

Well, good news is out there; but we may have to go back a few years to find it.

This video from 2018 shows the surprise on the faces of unsuspecting diners at a food court in Pennsylvania when they were greeted by a hallelujah “flash mob” from a local Mennonite group. 

Yes, despite the bad news, good things still happen…in 2018. The above scene would be dangerous this year due to COVID concerns.

YouTube’s guitar heroes

I know: It seems I never say anything positive about social media, because…mostly I don’t. I wouldn’t mind if most social media platforms (especially Twitter) disappeared tomorrow.

But even social media has a few upsides. One of these upsides is the abundance of very talented young musicians on YouTube. 

Sophie Lloyd, the guitarist in the video posted above, does a virtuoso job on the guitar. I took guitar lessons myself for a while in the very early 1980s. I couldn’t begin to do what she does, but I do have an insider’s understanding of how much practice it takes to play like that.  

I also love the rock bands of the 1980s–Van Halen, Boston, Rush, AC/DC, Def Leppard. A solid cover of any of their old songs is sure to get my attention. Continue reading “YouTube’s guitar heroes”

Jenna Moreci and WriterTube

“WriterTube” refers to the YouTube community of writers. Basically, it is an ongoing discussion about writing and (mostly self-) publishing with YouTube as the platform.

The vast majority of the WriterTube vloggers and commenters are teen girls and young women who are interested in the romance and young adult fantasy genres. I’m a 52-year-old man who writes and reads suspense, horror, and thrillers. WriterTube therefore isn’t a big draw for me, on either side of the camera.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions. From time to time, I have tuned in to the videos of Jenna Moreci. She was recently interviewed by Craig Martelle, whom I follow.

Most indie writers nowadays spend all of their time writing new fiction, and relatively little time building an online platform. Many indie writers have no fixed online presence beyond their Amazon sales page. As a result, they must spend disproportionately on various ads, mailing lists, and the like. Continue reading “Jenna Moreci and WriterTube”

‘The Far Side’ is back

There are many things about the 1980s that I miss.

The music was better, for one thing. (Def Leppard vs. Taylor Swift? No contest, dude.)

Everyone was much less uptight in the 1980s. Less angry about everything all the time.

Everyone seems to have burr up their keister about something in the 21st century. This is the age of trivial anger.

The 1980s were much more chill.

Also…we had ‘The Far Side’. Continue reading “‘The Far Side’ is back”

The ETB Online Books Project

Like all of you, in recent weeks I have been more preoccupied than usual with current events. As a result, the content here since mid-March has focused on the daily news.

The name of this site, though, is Edward Trimnell Books. I chose that name for a reason. Commentaries on the news will always have a place here. (I’m rather opinionated, as you may have noticed.) That said, this site isn’t, strictly speaking, a news site.  I primarily write books, many of which you can find on Amazon

This is a business for me. I’m an author, of course; but I’m also a micro-publisher.

Nevertheless, these are tough times for many readers. The COVID-19 shutdown has cut US economic activity by about a third. Unemployment now hovers at an unbelievable 18%. Hopefully the economy will be reopened soon, and the raw numbers will improve. Many people, though, will need time to recover from this unprecedented interruption to normal life.

In light of these highly unusual circumstances, I would like to make all of my books available to readers for free.

This is already the case with most of my existing library, if you’re a member of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program

I realize, though, that Kindle Unlimited won’t be the right option for some of you. And as much as I love Amazon, people were reading online long before anyone ever heard of a Kindle. 

One of the purposes of a website is to provide free online content. Without something for people to read, a website is nothing more than a glorified online brochure.

That’s what all too many websites are. I’ve always wanted this site to provide more to the reading community—especially in times like these.

I initially explored the idea of making more of my existing catalog available here on the site. The problem, though, is that I can’t make content freely available to you here, as well as in the Amazon Kindle Unlimited program. Amazon requires that all Kindle Unlimited titles be exclusive to the Amazon platform (in electronic form). I am bound by the terms of that contract, and I intend to abide by it. 

So I had another idea…

The Edward Trimnell Books Online Books Project

I’ve therefore decided to start making some titles available here on the site exclusively—or in advance of bookstore publication. These will not be serials, technically speaking, but I’ll be posting them a chapter at a time, as I write them. And you’ll be able to read them here for free. 

I have several titles in mind for the first round of online books. These will be a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. The fiction books will span several of the genres that I usually write in (thriller, horror, mystery). I also have some short stories planned.

And for those of you who have enjoyed all the news commentaries over these past few weeks, fear not: At least one of the titles I have in the works concerns politics. But whereas the daily blog posts typically deal with ephemeral headlines, the upcoming book one will dig deeper and involve more theory. 

The plan is to serialize several diverse titles at once, so that at least one of them will be something you’ll be interested in reading. As I say on ETB’s About page , I don’t expect anyone to like everything posted on this site, but everyone should be able to find at least something that they like. That’s one of the advantages of a variety format.

How can you support the Online Books Project?

No, this isn’t a prelude to asking you for money.

Some sites that provide free content immediately turn around and panhandle you at every turn—usually via requests to support them on Patreon. 

I don’t necessarily have a philosophical opposition to Patreon (or similar crowdfunding intermediaries, like Kickstarter). I’ll probably put up a Patreon page eventually, for readers who would like to voluntarily contribute. But if I’m going to make that an upfront requirement, I had might as well just put everything on Amazon first. A Patreon paywall is still a paywall.

***

But I still have bills to pay, just like everyone else. Can free content work with paying the bills? In part, yes. 

One of the really cool things about online content is that “free to the reader/viewer” need not mean “unpaid to the creator/publisher”. This principle goes all the way back to the origins of the Internet-as-we-know-it, in the 1990s.

In the beginning, at least, the Online Books Project will be sponsored the old-fashioned way: through the placement of a few unobtrusive ads.

Some of these ads will be for my books on Amazon. If you really like what you read here for free, consider purchasing a book of mine that isn’t part of the Online Books Project. You may also want to purchase an edited, proofread version of a book that appears online first. But that’s totally up to you.

***

The Online Books Project will also be sponsored (sparingly) by banner ads and affiliate links to third-party products. I don’t fundamentally have any difficulty with the idea of supporting free content with third-party ads. That’s what newspapers, magazines, and television have done since time immemorial. 

Online ads have (not without some justification) gotten a bad rap in recent years. That’s because some sites have totally overdone the concept.

The online versions of The Independent and USA Today come to mind here. These sites are littered with dropdown full-screen ads, autoplay video ads, and many more extremely intrusive forms of advertising. 

Edward Trimnell Books is old-school all the way. Just like I hate social media (why would anyone want to bother with Snapchat or TikTok?), I’m also allergic to newfangled forms of online advertising. I keep the ads here low-key, like they were up till about 2003. 

***

Those are my basic ideas about the Online Books Project.

I’ll be posting new content and new chapters daily, more or less, so check back often!

Amazon slashes affiliate commissions

And Amazon Associates learn to love Amazon a little less

This bombshell hit online publishers this week, both large and small:

Amazon Cuts Commission Rates for Advertising Affiliates

….Commission rates for several affiliate product categories are getting reduced significantly. For example rates for furniture and home improvement products have been cut to 3% from 8% while grocery product commission rates fell to 1% from 5%. The commission on ads for headphones, beauty products, musical instruments, and business and industrial supplies got reduced to 3% from 6%.

The commission reductions are a significant blow to some Amazon affiliates who rely on commissions as a main portion of their income. Websites like BuzzFeed publish buy lists that drive readers to Amazon products in return for a cut of those sales.

Amazon is one of the oldest affiliate programs on the Internet. I don’t know exactly when it launched, but Amazon Associates certainly dates back to the turn of this century. Continue reading “Amazon slashes affiliate commissions”

Mike DeWine and Amy Acton as ‘Laverne & Shirley’

Northeast Ohio animator creates hilarious ‘Laverne & Shirley’ theme song for Mike DeWine’s coronavirus briefings

To be clear, there is nothing humorous about the pandemic, or the considerable human suffering that has resulted from it.

Nevertheless, we can find the light side in some of the pandemic’s peripheral aspects.

These would certainly include the foolish hoarding of toilet paper.

And, of course, the daily press conferences with public officials who previously had negligible footprints outside their immediate polities. How many Americans outside of the New York/New England area gave Andrew Cuomo much serious thought two months ago? Continue reading “Mike DeWine and Amy Acton as ‘Laverne & Shirley’”

Malware on CNN.com

This morning I checked the day’s headlines on the CNN homepage, as is often my wont. I saw a story that interested me, and clicked on the article’s hyperlink.

The article page was a legitimate page on CNN’s website. But the page was loaded down with autoplay videos and obtrusive ads.

Almost immediately, a “Flash player” piece of malware began downloading onto my MacBook Air. I closed the browser immediately.

For the record: I don’t believe that CNN—or any major news outlet—is deliberately distributing malware. They are, however, so filled with ads from various ad brokers and networks, that invariably a bad apple or two slips through.

Some news sites are now almost completely filled with ads. (Local news sites seem to be the most grievous offenders in this regard.)

I’m not opposed to ad-supported online content. Since the beginning, ads have been the tool that have enabled most of the content on the Internet to be free. Without online advertising, the Internet would become a pay-as-you-go space. The only free content would be content from the government and public agencies, or cleverly disguised infomercials.

But online ads are not what they used to be. Online advertising started out as banner ads above and below, and to the right and the left of content. People who complained about that (and there are always people complaining) usually did so on ideological grounds. They didn’t like the idea that someone was making money from their online content.

Things have changed. Nowadays, many sites are more ads than content. And we’ve all uttered a few choice curse words at those full-screen drop-down ads that won’t go away.

Particularly odious are the autoplay video ads. I’ve noticed an annoying tendency toward autoplay videos of all kinds on news sites in recent years, and these videos invariably are preceded by ads.

I’m not here to encourage anyone to visit online gambling dens or Russian porn sites. But if you were avoiding such websites for fear of malware, well….you might be taking just as big a risk when you visit CNN.com.

Apple and the slowing iPhone

I love my iMac, my MacBook Air, and my iPhone, but I have a firm rule with all of these devices:

One operating system (OS) per device.

This isn’t really so radical, when you think about it. Prior to automated updates (circa 2010), this was the way that most people functioned by default. If you bought a PC with Windows 95, you didn’t upgrade it to Windows 98 or Windows 2000. You waited until you bought a new machine, and then you got Windows 98 or Windows 2000.

And so on.

I first ran into problems with automated updates in 2010, when updates from Microsoft crashed my perfectly good Gateway computer running Windows XP (still the best operating system that Microsoft ever developed). That was the point at which I became a Mac convert.

But I noticed something about my Mac devices: Whenever I upgraded to a new Mac OS (which Apple pushes relentlessly, especially on the iPhone), I noticed a significant drop in performance.

Apparently, I’m not the only one:

Apple will pay up to $500 million to settle lawsuit over slowing down older iPhones

I miss the days when changing your operating system was a user-initiated event, versus something that tech companies try to compel on users via the Internet.

Apple constantly pushes new versions of the iOS to my iPhone. And I constantly delete them, uninstalled.

Get it right the first time, Apple….and that goes for the other tech companies, as well.

‘American Dirt’ and another kowtow to the Internet mob

Yet another example of cancel culture in action. The book tour of Jeanine Cummins, author of the novel American Dirt, has been cancelled after the backlash of an Internet social justice mob.

What’s the issue? Apparently a woman who is not of Mexican heritage is not allowed to write a novel about Mexican migrants. 

Or so the mob declares. 

***

Update: 124 relatively unknown authors have signed an open letter to Oprah Winfrey, asking Oprah to abet the book-burning project.

I’m not familiar with the majority of the authors. Quite a few of them, though, seem to be authors of competing books (also about the Mexican migrant experience) that have not achieved similar commercial success.

A hint of the green-eyed monster, perhaps?

Make of that what you will.

The new blog format for 2020

Some things will be changing here at Edward Trimnell Books in 2020. Other things will remain the same.

What will stay the same?

The fiction. I primarily write fiction, and I’ll continue to post novel excerpts and short stories here.

I may even serialize a complete novel here before the end of 2020.

What will change?

The blog. No—I don’t intend to stop blogging. You will, however, notice changes in the length, tone, and style of the blog posts in 2020.

We will still discuss current events. That said, there will be no effort here in 2020 to follow the daily news on a headline-by-headline basis.

This site isn’t Huffington Post. Nor is it Breitbart, Daily Kos, or Instapundit. Those are all group blogs. I’m one person, and this is a personal website.

What you’ll get here instead in 2020 will be a deeper perspective. That will, though, necessarily mean narrowing the focus, and letting some headlines go by.

A semi-autobiographical orientation

Many of this year’s essays will be semi-autobiographical.

No, this doesn’t mean that I’ll be telling you what I had for breakfast each morning (oatmeal and a protein shake today, just in case you do want to know.) But I’ll be adding more of a personal spin to the blog this year.

Some of you will like that—others may not.

Time and perspective

As I begin 2020, I am fifty-one years old.

Granted, that’s much younger than many people who remain in the public eye. Former President Jimmy Carter, at the age of 95, could easily be my grandfather, after all. President Trump, age 73, was born the same year as both my parents.

On the other hand, though, I’m old enough to be the father of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, age 30. (Not that I’d want to be, I should note, but I’m old enough). If you’re old enough to be the parent of a sitting congressperson, well, you’re no longer a kid, are you?

A half-century on the planet has taught me a lot of lessons.

Chief among these is the need for humility, and the corresponding pitfalls of taking oneself too seriously. When we are young, we see the world, and ourselves, in very black-and-white, absolutist terms. As we get older, we are forced to accept that real life—and real people—involve many shades of gray.

Sometimes we are tested and we come through. Sometimes we are tested and we come up short. I have made my share of mistakes. At least some of this year’s essays will detail how I screwed up—and how I would do things differently, if I had my life to live over again.

In many cases, it might be too late for me to change my circumstances. But it might not be too late for you. If that happens to be true, then it really will have been worthwhile for me to talk about myself.

I have also changed my mind on occasion, when the available evidence has changed. Politicians often say that their opinions have “evolved”—which usually means that their opinions on a particular issue have shifted to the left.

Well, not always. Sometimes my opinions have “evolved” to the left—but just as often they’ve “evolved” to the right. I’ll probably find time to delve into some of those about-faces, or subtle shifts of perspective, too.

***

Anyway, that’s a little bit about the new blog format for the New Year. Welcome to 2020. I hope it’s a happy, healthy, and productive 366 days for you.

The Internet, Jonathan Franzen, and distractions

About a year ago, literary novelist Jonathan Franzen shared his “10 rules for novelists”. Number 8 was:

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Jonathan Franzen

I’m not sure I would be this absolutist about the matter. But as someone old enough to have reached adulthood before the Internet was “a thing”, I can appreciate just how distracting cyberspace can be.

It was bad enough in the beginning. But then came social media (I’ll spare you my usual rant), and those damned smartphones. 

As for Jonathan Franzen: The guy gets a bad rap, and I’m not sure why. Yes, he is quirky and eccentric. Yes, he is fashionably progressive and eye-rollingly politically correct in his politics. But no more so than many other people in the arts.

I’ve read two of his novels: The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). I thought both books were pretty good.