Will ebooks fall to $0?

I am a big fan of The Sell More Books Show, hosted by Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen. Whether you’re an indie or a traditionally published author, this is a great place to get a weekly update on the latest trends in publishing and book marketing.

One of the topics in this week’s episode was the devastation that streaming services have wrought on the music industry, and what that might presage for writers and publishers.

This segment of the show begins with a reference to several online social media posts and articles about the financial situation of musician Danny Michel.

Although Michel’s music is popular, he isn’t even earning beer money through the streaming services:

I’ve been a full-time musician for 25 years. It’s been nothing but hard work, but I love hard work. My songs bought my house, my studio, pay the bills and more. Through it all the conversations backstage with other musicians have always been about music, family, guitars, friends, art etc. But in 2018 that conversation changed. Everywhere I go musicians are quietly talking about one thing: how to survive. And I’ve never worried about it myself UNTIL 2018. What I can tell you is my album sales have held steady for the last decade until dropping by 95% this year due to music streaming services. Note my earnings for “Purgatory Cove”: this song has been in the TOP 20 charts (CBC Radio 2 & 3) for 10 weeks, climbed to #3. In 2018 that equals $44.99 in sales. (An artist earns $0.003 per play on Spotify)

Michel and other musicians who complain about Spotify (and similar services) are correct: The entire concept is a lousy deal. The streaming services arose as a cynical compromise with music piracy. No one in the music industry–from record label executives to the back-up drummer for the latest up-and-coming garage band–thought that this was a good idea.

But twenty years ago, too many musicians were afraid to say that music piracy wasn’t cool, wasn’t okay. Musicians at the time (circa 1999) were afraid of alienating the first generation to come of age with the Internet.

Members of that generation are now in their late thirties, and are no longer in the prime music-buying demographic, anyway. But as a result of the prevailing attitudes of that time, musicians are  stuck with the streaming paradigm–at least for now.

 

In his commentary on the Sell More Books Show, Jim Kukral suggests that Dan Michel is just whining, that musicians should simply “suck it up”.

Why? Because digital robbery is the wave of the future? With all due respect to Jim Kukral, I wonder if he would be so glib if Russian hackers were to penetrate his personal savings account. After all, you can’t fight the future.

Obviously, I don’t want to see Jim Kukral’s bank accounts get hacked by Russians. But to some people, Russian hackers helping themselves to your money via hacking is just part of the future.

 

 

No version of the future is “inevitable”. The future is always open to debate and influence.

I’m not a musician, so I don’t have a dog in the streaming music battle. But if I were a musician with any control over my content, I would remove my entire catalogue from Spotify, Pandora, and all similar venues of online digital servitude.

Then I’d release my music as a  CD. In fact, I might even release my music in vinyl, which produces a better listening experience, anyway, and is presently making a comeback among fans.

But what about the vast audience on Spotify? you might ask. I would submit that an audience from which the #2 song makes less than $50 in a year isn’t worth much.

 

How should we extrapolate all this to the publishing business? Authors are worried about the Spotify-ing of publishing, too. As Bryan Cohen (back to The Sell More Books Show) pointed out in his commentary, Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited is an incremental payment system–just like Spotify.

At present, participation in the Kindle Select program is voluntary; but suppose Amazon required it in the future? Further suppose that we eventually had a situation in which authors were getting paid $0.12 per each complete read, or something like that.

Then Jim Kukral laid out yet another really dire scenario–a bit more far-fetched, but by no means impossible. Suppose some hacker in China or Russia creates a device or app that allows anyone to read all the digital books presently on Amazon–for free?

Either of these dire outcomes would completely destroy the publishing industry, and prevent anyone from making any kind of a living writing books.

But I don’t think we have to worry about it too much.

Why? Because digital books (ebooks, Kindle books) are not inevitable.

 

If we ever reached a state in which ebooks went to $0, due either to widespread piracy or some version of “Spotify for books”, publishers would simply stop publishing ebooks.

Yes, that could happen.

Publishers are still selling hardcover and paperback books today, in 2018, after all. (And as Jim Kukral has noted in previous episodes of The Sell More Book Show, paperbacks are making a comeback with young readers in their teens.)

Some indie authors are so desperate to be read, at all costs, that they probably would agree to a “Spotify for books”; but there is no way that Michael Connelly, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and the companies that publish them are going to agree to such an arrangement. Why would they? Bestselling indie authors wouldn’t agree to that, either.

 

For further evidence that “the wave of the future” is always subject to debate and revision, note the widespread resistance to Kindle Select. Amazon launched the service in December 2011. But it hasn’t become “the wave of the future”. The New York publishers immediately said, “No thanks”. And seven years later, you still can’t read the latest Lee Child or James Patterson novel in Kindle Unlimited.

Many indie authors are also saying no to Kindle Unlimited. (Joanna Penn and Dean Wesley  Smith have both been prescient in detailing the drawbacks to the program.)

 

The  music industry was completely vulnerable to piracy (and the subsequent forced acquiescence to streaming) because in 1999–the year of Napster–everyone believed that vinyl was dead. At the time, all music was being sold in easily pirated CDs.

The publishing industry is not in a similar state. A few years ago it was considered trendy and futuristic to say that “paper books are a thing of the past”. But those dead tree books are proving to be rather persistent. (I’m reading the latest Michael Connelly novel in hardcover right now, in fact.)

 

Be careful about declaring any new setup “the wave of the future”, just because  a particular group of people has embraced it–often for self-serving purposes.

As an artist or creative type, you should be immediately skeptical of any “wave of the future” which has the net result of preventing you from making any money whatsoever from what you do.

Nor should you be overly concerned about “alienating” those who insist that you must work for free–or almost free.  Let that audience go elsewhere.

Finally, who are the real “whiners”? Are the musicians who complain about making less than $50 per year from a #2 hit “whiners”?

Or are the whiners those listeners who claim that $9.99 (the price of a few coffees at Starbucks) is a simply unacceptable price for an album, because in their preferred version of the future, all music is free?

‘Red Sparrow’: quick review

I’ll just come out and admit it: I can’t get enough of the Cold War. Part of this is nostalgia, of course. I make no secret of the fact that I consider the culture of the latter half of the 20th century to be far superior to what the 21st century has produced so far. And if you lived in the United States, the Cold War was the dominant geopolitical reality of the late 20th century.

Or maybe I’m fascinated with that old enemy, the Ruskies. Islamic terrorists I simply want to see annihilated. Kill ’em all, and let Allah sort ’em out. But the Russians are intelligent and innovative enough to be interesting, even if they aren’t always likable and almost never trustworthy.

My Cold War fascination undoubtedly played a role in my enthusiasm for The Americans, the Cold War spy drama that ran on FX from 2013 to 2018. I suppose, too, that I was a naturally receptive audience for Red Sparrow (2018) , a movie about a Russian ex-ballarina who is recruited into “sparrow school”, where the comely are trained to be ruthless, to use their sexuality in the service of the Russian state.

 

Note that I said “Russian” and not “Soviet”. Red Sparrow is set in the Putin era. Russia’s new leader-for-life isn’t directly portrayed in the film, but he is constantly referred to as “the president” (the same disingenuous title used for Saddam Hussein during his long, dictatorial reign in Iraq).

The Russia depicted in Red Sparrow is appropriately cold, snowy, grim, and brutal. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, you will be tempted to turn up your house’s thermostat. You’ll also be thankful that you live in the United States (or in some other Western democracy)–and not there.

(Another personal aside here: My grandfather spent a year in the USSR during WWII. His U.S. Navy duties also took him to Syria, Egypt, and a host of other places that most Americans wouldn’t eagerly visit in 2018. The only place he described in negative terms was Russia. As he put it, “the asshole of the world”. Not only did he hate the weather, but the Soviet soldiers were uniformly unfriendly, and ordinary citizens were afraid to even look at Americans, lest they be accused of treason. But to be fair, this was during the Stalin era.)

 

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Red Sparrow as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who supports her mother on her dancing income, until her career is ended by an injury. Dominika is then approached by her uncle, Ivan, who heads the Russian SVR. Ivan has a job for her.

I don’t want to summarize the whole plot for you. But suffice it to say that Ivan is creepy and evil. He also has incestuous designs on his niece. Through a series of carefully orchestrated circumstances, Ivan closes off Dominika’s options until her only real choice is to dedicate her life (and her body) to the service of the Russian state.

There’s much more to the movie, of course; and the real fun begins when Dominika starts interacting with her American CIA adversary, Nate Nash (played by Joel Edgerton). Nash and Dominika have an affair. (Of course: If a Cold War-era spy movie has a pretty female Russian operative and a CIA male agent, they must have a sexual liaison.)

Speaking of sex: There is a lot of it in Red Sparrow. In this case, however, it really is integral to the plot, as Dominika has been trained to use sex as a weapon of espionage.

 

A word about Jennifer Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence is one of those Hollywood types with whom I have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, she is a complete idiot when she opens her mouth about political matters–something she’s been doing increasingly in recent years.

On the other hand, she is a brilliant actress. I became aware of her years ago, when I saw one of her first movies, Winter’s Bone.  In that movie, Lawrence convincingly became an impoverished Missouri teenager. She is just as convincing as a Russian ex-ballerina-turned-secret-agent. You don’t have to like Jennifer Lawrence’s off-screen behavior (and I for one, don’t), but you have to admire her mastery of her craft. (Now–if she would only just stick to that craft, and spare us the moonbat political activism.)

 

Dominika is understandably bitter about her mistreatment at the hands of her uncle and her native country. She is therefore ripe to be turned by Nash, who recruits her as a double agent. But has Dominika truly turned? The viewer can’t be sure. As the plot of Red Sparrow evolves, you aren’t sure if you’re watching a movie about doomed Russian patriotism, an espionage double-cross tale, or a classic revenge story. It’s worth the two hours and twenty minutes it takes to watch Red Sparrow in order to find out.

Thoughts on the ad-blocking wars

Someone recently asked me for my opinion regarding ad blocking software (like Adblock Plus) and Internet users who install it.

Opinions on this one range at both extremes. On one hand, some publishers regard ad-blocking software as “theft”.  I’ve also read op-eds and blog posts suggesting that online publishers should simply quit “whining” about the loss of ad revenues.

The issue gets more complicated from there. A few years ago, ad-blocking software firms began taking money from large corporations in exchange for “white-listing” their ads.

So is this really about an ad-free online utopia, or is this a cynical money grab on the part of a handful of software development firms?

Finally, there are reports that ad blocking software doesn’t actually work that well. 

Let’s separate out the extreme viewpoints on both sides, and look for a middle ground.

Fifteen years ago, online ads weren’t obtrusive.

Yes, there was a small, vocal minority who objected to those rotating banner ads at the tops and sides of webpages. Most Internet users understood, however, that online advertising paid for the production and hosting of free online content.

I don’t recall online ads being a major distraction for me in 2001.

Pearson Education (InformIT)

 

But in 2001, many people were still accessing the Internet via dial-up modems.  Later, as high-speed Internet connections became common, online publishers and advertisers made ads increasingly more intrusive.

You all know what I’m talking about. Those large drop-down screens that descend atop the page you’re looking at. Auto-play videos that start within five seconds of you landing on a page.

I’ve written at length about how the Internet is not as much fun to explore as it used to be in a general sense, due to factors such as social media and Wikipedia. More germane to this topic, though, is the simple fact that the technology has become far more intrusive.

This intrusiveness is not limited to online advertising. Apple has been bugging me to upgrade the iOS on my iPhone 6 for two years now. My motto is: One operating system per device. (I have this policy because I’ve never upgraded an operating system without experiencing a subsequent diminishment of hardware performance.)

My dad, who is 72, recently started using the Internet more often when he went back to work to relieve the boredom of retirement. He noticed the intrusiveness of the new, drop-screen video ads and wanted to find a way to block them.

And my dad, I should note–is not a hippie tree-hugger. For many years, he ran his own successful company. My dad is as capitalist as they get.

As I’ve hopefully made clear, then, I fully understand the demand for ad blockers.

MAGIX Software & VEGAS Creative Software
But then…there is another side to this.

If ad blocking software becomes ubiquitous, then publishers will need to find new revenue models.

This will invariably mean less free online content.

There’s an old adage in publishing: “If no one gets paid, then nothing gets made.”

Well, some things will still get made: The Internet will still contain free political screeds and online confessional blog posts. (Because some people, I’ve found, simply have to share their intimate personal details with the world.)

But as for quality news, technical information, and educational content?

No. That will all go behind paywalls–or back into books, offered for sale on Amazon. An Internet without advertising revenues will largely resemble one big pay-as-you-go shopping mall.

I don’t want to see that. On the other hand, I don’t want to be assaulted by a dropdown video ad for Viagra or car insurance when I visit the website of one of my local news channels.

Publishers can–and should–lead the way in dialing back the ad block wars. Old-style ads are fine. Old-style ads are necessary. But publishers must say “no” to the more intrusive ads that have become common in recent years.

If that happens, then the demand for ad blocking software will decline over time.

Again: there will always be ideologues who object to any commercialization of anything. Those are the same people who would rather infect their computers with malware from a bit torrent site than pay $3.99 for an ebook on Amazon, or $0.99 for a song on i-Tunes. Those people are not going to be convinced, no matter how much publishers scale back advertising–unless advertising is scaled back to zero.

Those are the ideologues.

Most people, though, understand that advertising supports free content on the Internet. But they expect that advertising to adhere to unintrusive standards and parameters.

This expectation, I would submit, is not unreasonable, and should be easy enough for publishers to accommodate.

 


Reading notes for November 2018: ‘Year One’, by Nora Roberts

A quick book recommendation for you, based on my current and recent  reading….

I decided to take a chance on Nora Roberts’ recent novel, The One.

I say, “take a chance,” because while I’ve been aware of Nora Roberts for years (she’s been publishing since the 1970s), I’ve always considered her to be something of a romance author.

Straight men and romance fiction. You know how that goes. Oil and water.

The One certainly has more romance content than this reviewer would like. But this isn’t a Danielle Steele novel. From the perspective of a male reader who generally prefers writers like Michael Connelly and the late Michael Crichton, The One isn’t half bad.

 

This is the set-up: A plague (a particularly virulent version of the avian flu that so terrified everyone a decade ago) sweeps the earth and kills most of the population.

Some people are immune, of course. (Otherwise, there is no story.)  Those who are immune have dormant magical powers, that are awakened in the aftermath of the catastrophe.

The One, then, is part post-apocalyptic, part urban fantasy, and (yes) part romance fiction.

On the whole: not bad.

Did this novel convert me into a raving Nora Roberts fan?

No. But then again, I’m not in Nora Roberts’s target audience, am I?

After The One, might I read another Nora Roberts title in the future?

Perhaps. It would probably depend on how intrigued I am with the description and opening chapters.

 

Ice storm in Cincinnati

No one moves to Ohio for the weather. It is only mid-November, and we’re already having honest-to-goodness-oh-man-this-sucks genuine winter weather, as pictured below.

 

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the icy coating on the tree branches, and on the floorboards of my deck.

Or perhaps not. In any case, take my word for it. This morning we had .30″ of ice in the form of freezing rain. Just enough to make driving a pain in the neck.

Also enough to cause power outages. My power was out from 3:30 am until a little after 4. (Duke Energy, as public utilities go, is reasonably efficient at restoring services when they’re interrupted for any reason.

Bad weather days are good days for writing, however (provided the power stays on). I’ll be spending much of today working on the manuscript for REVOLUTIONARY GHOSTS. I hope to have it done by the end of this month.

The rebooted Magnum PI: mini-review

If you’ve been watching CBS in recent years, you’ll have noticed that many of the network’s top programs are reboots of shows from the 1970s and 1980s: MacGyver, S.W.A.T., Hawaii Five-O.

Now you can add a new one to the list: Magnum PI.

I’ll admit: I was a skeptic. The 1980s coincided with my high school and college years. I didn’t watch much television during that decade. But I did make time for Magnum PI. The original Magnum, starring Tom Selleck, is one of my favorite television programs from my youth.

I was sure that CBS would make a mess of the remake.

I was wrong. The new Magnum PI is just as fun and entertaining as the original.

I’m a conservative, and all conservatives are naturally nostalgic. We tend to believe that things were better in the old days, that previous versions of things were better than the new and updated ones. In this vein, there was a part of me that would have loved to have seen Tom Selleck star in the 21st-century reboot of Magnum. (Selleck presently stars in Blue Bloods, another  CBS staple, as the patriarch of an NYPD family.)




 

But another part of me knows that would have been ridiculous. Tom Selleck is very fit for his age, but he’s now in his seventies. The starring role in Magnum PI is one for an actor in early middle age: 35 to 45.

CBS has cast Jay Hernandez as Thomas Sullivan Magnum. And while Hernandez brings his own style and interpretation to the role, he pulls it off with as much flair as Selleck did before him.

The new show more or less ports the characters and the basic premise over from the original: with some necessary changes. In the original show, Magnum and his sidekicks (TC and Rick), were Vietnam War vets. In the 2018 reboot,  they’re veterans of the wars in the Middle East.

There is one fairly major character change: In the 1980s version, Higgins, the majordomo of the Hawaiian estate where Magnum lives (off the largess of the never seen Robin Masters) was played by British actor John Hillerman. In the reboot, Higgins is still British, but Higgins is a woman (Perdita Weeks).

Conservatives like me are supposed to hate it when rebooted shows arbitrarily change the genders of characters. I don’t necessarily hate this practice in a knee-jerk sort of way, but I’m always skeptical of it, often with good reason. (The reimagining of Boomer and Starbuck as female characters in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica produced uneven results.)  But in the case of Magnum PI, the distaff version of Higgins works perfectly. I think–sorry, Mr. Hillerman–that I even like the Perdita Weeks interpretation of Higgins better.

The show includes lots of fun details that were crucial to the 1980s Magnum, like the dogs Zeus and Apollo, and Magnum’s habit of thinking aloud to the audience. TC and Rick (Stephen Hill and Zachary Knighton) don’t get much character development. But then, they were little more than affable sidekicks in the original version.

The Magnum PI reboot is as good as any purist could have asked for, 38 years after the start of the original series (and 30 years after it went off the air).

Sometimes the networks botch things, but sometimes they hit home runs, too. The new Magnum PI is a home run

David Gaughran’s post about the Amazon “also-bought apocalypse”

David Gaughran is a constant source of valuable information for anyone publishing in this brave new world of indie publishing. One of his recent blog posts concerns the Amazon “also-bought” apocalypse.

If you’re a writer/indie publisher, the post is well worth reading in its entirety.

But here’s my quick take on the  matter:

For years now, thousands of indie authors have made themselves wholly dependent on the Amazon ecosystem. This trend has accelerated nonstop since Amazon established the KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited program in 2011.

At least one of the indie author “gurus” now states that indie authors no longer need individual author websites.

Why? Because the only thing that matters now is gaming the Amazon algorithms!

Many indie authors no longer think in terms of any kind of “platform” beyond Amazon.

Rapid release into KDP Select….

Rapid release into KDP Select…

Rinse and repeat…

I’m not anti-Amazon. (I rather like them, in fact.) But as David Gaughran’s post illustrates, it is dangerous to build a consumer-focused business that is solely reliant on a single channel of distribution.

What is the solution? Forget about silly “boycotts” and online petitions. Those things don’t mean squat, at the end of the day.

The solution is to spread the risks: Go wide, and work with other retailers–in addition to Amazon: Apple Books, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.

Let me make clear: Amazon is not evil. But Amazon is a large company that will, like all big companies, act in its best interests.

How do you think Amazon got to be the world’s largest retailer?

If you’re an independent author, you need to act in your best interests, too.

And acting in your best interests doesn’t mean relying solely and entirely on Amazon.

A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett (mini-review)

Get it on Amazon!

 

I just finished reading Ken Follett’s mammoth historical novel, A Column of Fire.

The novel opens in 1558, just as the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary is coming to an end. Mary has reversed England’s Protestant shift, which began when her father, Henry VIII, decided that he couldn’t make due with one wife and a mistress.

Mary, who is also known to history as “Bloody Mary”, occasionally burned Protestant dissenters, and this is depicted in one of the opening chapters of A Column of Fire. Hence the name of the book.

This is the opening historical backdrop. The hero of the novel is Ned Willard, who is a young man in love as the story opens. The object of Ned’s affections is Margery Fitzgerald. Ned’s affections are returned, but—of course—there is a problem.

Margery hails from a devoutly Catholic family that has prospered under the reign of Mary. Through the connivances of Margery’s fanatically papist brother, Ned loses Margery to Bart, a member of the local Catholic nobility.

And so Margery enters into a loveless marriage with Bart (who is an uncouth, insensitive, and blundering brute), while Ned goes off, forlorn, to seek his fortune in London.

Ned is a lukewarm Protestant who abhors the intolerance of Mary’s reign. Ned longs for a monarch who will allow the British people to worship freely (or as freely as possible, according to 16th-century standards of “freedom”.)

Just as Ned is reeling from the loss of Margery, Mary dies. Elizabeth takes the throne. A chance connection to Sir Francis Walsingham (principal secretary to Elizabeth) enables Ned to enter the service of the Crown. Ned is greatly impressed with the young queen. With the option of a married life with Margery closed off, Ned devotes himself to the service of Queen Elizabeth I, and the implementation of her (initially) tolerant ideals.

There is a lot more to A Column of Fire, of course. This is a 900-page book, after all. There is also a storyline set in France, where Protestants are a minority in an officially Catholic country. Still another set of characters has adventures in Spain and the New World. (All of the storylines converge before the end of the book.)

The overarching theme of A Column of Fire is the religious strife that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. As noted above, the story opens with anti-Protestant burnings in England. Follett later weaves into his plot the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The book covers around half a century. (Ned Willard is in his eighties in the final chapter.)

I loved this book. I have read almost everything that Ken Follett has written to this point, and A Column of Fire is hands-down my favorite.

I like stories with complex twists and turns, and physical threats; and A Column of Fire has all that in spades. There are sea battles, and opposing rings of Catholic and Protestant spies.

The majority of readers seem to agree with me. A Column of Fire is highly rated both on Amazon and Goodreads.

But even a really good book has its flaws. Most of the criticisms of A Column of Fire come from one of two angles, which I’ll address briefly.

Ken Follett seems to harbor a secret desire to be an author of Harlequin romance novels. Almost every movie, novel, and television series has a love interest (or multiple love interests), and I’m not suggesting that this, in itself, is in any way a drawback.

Follett, however, tends to go overboard on his sex scenes.

Now, before you ask, I’m no prude. I’m a fifty-year-old, very heterosexual man with right-leaning libertarian tendencies. I have an equal loathing for leftwing political correctness, and anything that smacks of goody-two-shoes censorship.

That said, there is only so much detail that I need when an author describes a romantic coupling. To be blunt about it: Once the author has described the male protagonist’s erect penis, or the heroine’s moist nether regions, the author has given me more detail than I actually need.

Follett does this on multiple occasions (and in more than a few of his novels). There are some lacunae that an author should trust readers to fill in for themselves.

Secondly, A Column of Fire has something of an anti-Catholic bias. Almost every Catholic character is portrayed as a bloodthirsty fanatic, an amoral schemer, or a deluded simpleton.

(This may be a thing with baby boomer British authors who write historical fiction, as I’ve noticed a similar tendency in the historical novels of Bernard Cornwell.)

These flaws, however, are minor ones. On balance, A Column of Fire is a great read.

A final word before I end: You’ll appreciate A Column of Fire far more if you already have a basic knowledge of European history in general, and the Protestant Reformation in particular. But then, if you don’t already have some interest in history, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be strongly attracted to this book.

Flash fiction, you ask?

A reader recently asked me about flash fiction: Do I write it? Do I plan to write it?

Flash fiction is defined as very short fiction–usually only a few hundred words. Sometimes even less.

I write a lot of short stories (some of which you can read right here, on this site). But my average short story runs about 3K ~ 5K words. This is not excessive where short fiction is concerned (it’s about average, in fact), but that’s way beyond the length desired for flash fiction.

I have read a survey of the flash fiction available, both in print and on the Web. The vast majority of it, it seems to me, consists of either a.) truncated scenes and vignettes, or b.) mere contrivances of “irony”.

There is obviously little room for character development in flash fiction, let alone setting.

I mostly regard flash fiction as a literary parlor trick–mildly interesting (on occasion) but nothing to get excited about.

The main selling point I always see touted for flash fiction is that it appeals to the ultra-short attention spans that supposedly hamper all of us in this age of Internet/24-hour news cycle/social media/latest i-Gadget.

I’m all for making fiction more gripping–more like good television. (This is a real task for some writers of literary fiction.) But is it really true that people’s attention spans are so short that they won’t sit still for an engaging story?

I recently sat through 85 episodes of The Sopranos; and I’m far from the only one who can make that claim.

Yes, the Internet and the i-Gadgets have their temporary pleasures: the cat pictures, the viral meme about Donald Trump or Maxine Waters. But if there wasn’t an appetite for good long-form storytelling, then cable TV channels wouldn’t be able to viably produce long series like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and The Americans. (None of the aforementioned series would work for a viewer with a stereotypically short attention span.)

This doesn’t mean that audiences aren’t more fickle than they were in the days of Charles Dickens. To be sure, anyone who aspires to be a storyteller faces more competition than they did in the past.

But the goal should be better storytelling, not simply shorter storytelling. The Sopranos would never have worked as the television equivalent of flash fiction.

Remembering those Burger Chef ‘Star Wars’ posters of 1977

I was part of the original Star Wars generation.

I remember being nine years old in the summer of 1977, sitting with my dad in the cinema, watching that first epic Star Wars opening crawl.

I became a total fanatic for Star Wars. And yes, that meant Star Wars action figures, Star Wars trading cards, and much else. During that first two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, I wasn’t thinking about stagflation or the energy crisis, or Jimmy Carter’s “malaise”. I was thinking about Star Wars.

Among my favorite Star Wars memorabilia of that era were the four Star Wars posters issued by Burger Chef. (Burger Chef was a once popular fast food chain that went out of business in 1996.)

I had all four posters, and they were hung all around my bedroom. (I can still recall the exact placement of each one, in fact.)

These are now collectors’ items, of course. But they were just delightful children’s bric-a-brac in 1977.

Is John Grisham slipping?

Late last week I received my hardcover copy of John Grisham’s The Reckoning from the folks at Amazon. (I had preordered the book.)

Before I jumped in, I was curious to see how the reader reviews had been running.

The early reviews are less than stellar. The average, based on Amazon’s 5-point scale, is running at 3.1 at the time of this writing. There are quite a few 1- and 2-star reviews.

What might account for this?

Well, first of all, what doesn’t: No one dislikes John Grisham for being John Grisham. He isn’t political. So the negative reviews weren’t made in retaliation for something Grisham said or did outside the printed page.

(Grisham, unlike Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, mostly stays out of the culture wars. He did test the waters with speaking out on a (very) inflammatory issue a few years ago, got burned, and promptly re-devoted himself to fiction.)

Nor does anyone, in 2018, purchase a John Grisham legal thriller with the expectation that they’ll be getting a fantasy novel or a romance. Everyone knows who he is and what he does. They either like Grisham’s schtick, or they don’t.

And for the most part, John Grisham does what he does brilliantly. But even he can have lackluster books.

For example, I was bored to tears by John Grisham’s 2010 novel, The Confession. To my reading, The Confession was a blatant piece of agitprop that Grisham wrote to oppose capitol punishment, and to attempt to SAY SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA.

The Whistler, too, I found to be a little slow, though it was free of socio-political virtue-signaling.

But when Grisham hits one out of the park, he really hits one out of the park. His last two efforts, Camino Island and The Rooster Bar, have been among his best books ever.

So to answer the question posed above, no–I don’t believe that John Grisham is “slipping”. But the guy has been cranking out novels, at a rate of about one per year, since before Bill Clinton was president.

Not all of them are going to suit your tastes–even if you’re a diehard Grisham fan. And where taste is concerned, your mileage may vary. I absolutely loved Camino Island, but plenty of reader-reviewers panned it. Likewise, not everyone disliked The Confession.

Which brings us to another issue: Grisham has legions of longtime fans, people who have been reading his books for decades. Many of them have very high expectations for every Grisham novel. And they have their own proprietary ideas concerning exactly what a John Grisham novel should be.

There is only so much money within the indie authorspace

There is a predictable evolution that can be seen in all online communities.

I’ve witnessed it over the last fifteen years, in at least four online communities that I’ve been a part of.

At first, the online community is comprised of a small group of individuals who have gathered to share their enthusiasm for a specific topic. They freely exchange advice.

And then the community reaches maturity.

The numbers grow, and people inevitably start marketing books, courses, etc. to other members of the same online community.

We’ve definitely reached this point in the indie authorspace. (We reached it several years ago, in fact.)




 

Let me say, first of all, that I see nothing intrinsically wrong with this practice. I’m a proud capitalist, after all.

Moreover, I’ve benefited from a handful of these courses and books myself.  I’ve especially benefited from the work and advice of Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I am also a weekly listener of several indie author podcasts, including: the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, The Creative Penn, The Sell More Books Show, Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula, and—most recently—The Career Author Podcast.

These are all great sources of information, and I recommend them highly.

 

 

But the indie authorspace is—to put it bluntly—overcrowded, and the market is oversaturated. (Even Joanna Penn, once endlessly optimistic that “there could never be too many books”, has belatedly recognized this.)

There are now over 3.4 million books in the Kindle ebook store. 

Ten years ago, the challenge for indie authors was to prove (to themselves and to others) that indie publishing is a legitimate alternative to a reliance on the New York-based legacy publishers.

Much has changed over the past decade. We’ve seen the big-time success of Andy Weir, Mark Dawson, Blake Crouch, JA Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and numerous other indie publishers.

Meanwhile, the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookstores has made New York’s stranglehold on traditional methods of distribution less significant.

We also see the rise of the so-called “hybrid author”. More traditionally published authors are either self-publishing, or going with small, entrepreneurial presses. (This is especially prevalent in genre fiction, as the New York publishers are systematically jettisoning any title that doesn’t have the mass-market appeal of the latest John Grisham or James Patterson thriller.)


 

Okay, so self-publishing is no longer a stigma. (And for what it’s worth, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an impassioned argument on either side of that debate. The fundamental legitimacy of self-publishing appears to be a settled question.)

But if obtaining the permission and resources to publish is no longer a problem, discoverability is now a massive challenge, in a market that can only be described as over-saturated.

Discoverability still isn’t a major problem if you write ultra-niche fiction. I recently learned that there is actually a category called “billionaire reverse-harem romance”. The (exclusively female) readers for these novels congregate in online communities dedicated to this topic, and they’re easy enough to find.

But this doesn’t describe the situation of most indie authors.  Suppose you write generic legal thrillers, in the tradition of John Grisham. Your online reader community is far more difficult to locate.

 

All indie authors, however, are aware of one concentrated, relentlessly passionate online community: the indie authorspace. 

If you go onto Twitter and identify yourself as an indie author, you will immediately be followed by other indie authors whom you’ve never heard of. (And they’ve never heard of you, either.) There are Kboards, 20Booksto50K on Facebook, Authortube on YouTube.

Lots of author communities. Easy to find online. We all know where they are.




 

This is what makes it so tempting to say, Hey, I’ve learned a lot about self-publishing. Maybe I could monetize that knowledge! 

And so you write a nonfiction book for authors. (Whenever a fiction author talks about “branching out into nonfiction”, you can bet that the author is talking about writing a nonfiction book about some facet of self-publishing.)

Or maybe you start yet another podcast. Or you attempt to host your own convention for indie authors, as many of the established podcasters are now doing.

And if you’re really business-minded, you bill yourself as a consultant to other authors. This seems to be the latest trend. As newbie authors become increasingly desperate for any leg up in the crowded marketplace, more and more second- and first-tier indie authors are hanging out their shingles as fee-based marketing consultants.

 

I reiterate: I am a capitalist. I therefore have no moral or ethical objection to any of this. I would much rather see indie authors coming up with innovative business models, versus petitioning the government for subsidies.

At the same time, though, there is a fundamental economic constraint to keep in mind: There is only so much money in the indie authospace. This is not a community of stockbrokers and heart surgeons. This is a community of artists, most of whom are making less than what an ambitious Walmart employee could make.

 

I interpret this trend of authors scrambling to sell their books/advice/services to other authors as a sign that the indie author community is due for a major shakeout. A shakeout is the inevitable consequence in any market that is oversupplied, vis-a-vis the demand.

If you’re an indie author (and I suspect that you are, if you have read this far), I’m not going to attempt to play dictator here, and tell you that you can’t become the next Chris Fox, Joanna Penn, or Dean Wesley Smith by rebranding yourself as a writing advice guru.

I would, however, suggest that you do some soul-searching before you go this route. As a fiction writer, your focus should be on readers, not other writers. Let’s not forget that Stephen King had been a best-selling author for twenty-five years before he wrote On Writing.

Furthermore, you may already be too late. It is only a matter of time before the marketplace of authors selling expertise to other authors becomes oversaturated, too. I repeat: There is only so much money within the indie author space.

Binge-watching ‘The Sopranos’ in 2018

 

I have always loved mafia movies. I am one of those guys who has seen The Godfather more times than I feel comfortable admitting.

I also watch all the documentaries about the mob. I know the name John Gotti, of course, but also Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino, and Aniello Dellacroce. The Italian mafia made an appearance in my first novel, Blood Flats. I’m sure I’ll write more stories about the Italian mafia in the future.

I was therefore a natural audience for the HBO series The Sopranos (1999 – 2007). But for various reasons, I didn’t get around to actually watching The Sopranos until this year, when I binge-watched all six seasons of the series over several months.

Yes, I’m a little late to this party. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Pages and pages have already been written on the Internet about The Sopranos, dating back to the aughts. I will therefore keep my comments brief. (Er, well, fairly brief.)


The Sopranos is probably best categorized as a drama, but it’s a drama that’s loaded with plenty of physical threats and suspense. (In this regard, The Sopranos is similar to The Americans (FX), my all-time favorite television series.)

The Sopranos  employs a great deal of black humor. Murders are often committed with a smirk.

Black humor is completely absent from The Godfather. But 1972 moviegoers didn’t expect a film about the mob to have a laugh track. By 1999, however, incessant “irony” was thoroughly embedded in our culture, and it would probably have been difficult for The Sopranos to be played completely deadpan for six seasons. Black humor is not usually my thing, but in The Sopranos, it mostly works.

It is important to consider just how difficult this high-wire act was, from the moment of its conception through the last scene of its execution. The creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, faced a two-sided challenge:

When conceiving characters who were mafiosos, Chase had to portray his subjects’ amoralism and brutality, without turning them into unsympathetic monsters. If a main character (even an antihero) is completely unsympathetic, audiences don’t become emotionally invested in him, and don’t care about his fate.

But at the same time, Chase had to make his characters sympathetic, while never allowing the viewer to forget that they’re ultimately criminals. Crooks. Thugs. Bad guys. So it really was a very difficult balance.

Chase pulls this feat off brilliantly. The Sopranos is filled with cynicism, violence, and betrayal. And yet…Each major character is complex and distinct.

Before you finish the first episode, you feel like you know these people, and you want to see more of them. And that’s as much as anyone can ask for.




All of the major characters are also expertly cast. I did a little research, and it seems that a majority of the actors were Italian-Americans who had some connection to the New York/New Jersey area.

Not just James Gandolfini, but also Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

Did that have an impact on the authenticity of the show? I think it may have.

But there’s one character, of course, who is the tentpole, the central pillar, the focus for the entire series…and that’s Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. Without the character of Tony Soprano, The Sopranos would have been a mildly interesting Godfather knockoff that would have lasted a season or two, and then would have been quickly forgotten.

I would also speculate that without James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano would not have been nearly as effective.

I’ve seen James Gandolfini in a few other films. He played a junior U.S. Navy officer in Crimson Tide (1995), for example. Gandolfini is unspectacular in his pre-Sopranos roles. But as Tony Soprano, Gandolfini is a giant. He seems to have been born for this role. (It is also unfortunate to note that Gandolfini met an untimely death, at the age of 51, about six years after The Sopranos ended.)

Tony Soprano is capable of both nobility and venality, loyalty and ruthlessness. Flashback scenes suggest that his parents were both sociopaths. Tony, by contrast, seems to legitimately care about his wife and children. But that doesn’t stop him from engaging in a string of extramarital affairs. He is, after all, a mob boss. Philandering comes with the territory.

One of the more interesting subplots involves Tony Soprano’s (nonsexual) relationship with his psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco). Tony is tortured by crises of identity. He suffers from panic attacks. He has a spiritual side (several episodes are dedicated to explorations in this regard), even as he’s capable of being petty, greedy, and violent—exactly what you would expect a mid-level mob boss to be.

And this is, I think, why the character is so appealing. Almost no one who watches The Sopranos knows firsthand what it is like to be a mafia capo. And yet, we identify with Tony Soprano in a thousand ways.

I know that I do: I see a lot of myself in Tony Soprano, the fundamentally flawed and short-sighted human being who nevertheless harbors aspirations of doing/being better.

The Sopranos takes some dark turns in the final seasons. This may partly be related to the changes that were happening in the real world between 1999 and 2007. The first few seasons of The Sopranos has a buoyant fin de siècle feel, despite the subject matter.

Let us not forget that in 1999 and 2000, the mood of the country was optimistic. Everyone was captivated by the ever-rising stock market, and the then novel wonders of the Internet. By 2007, American politics had taken a sharply partisan turn, 9/11 had happened, and we were embroiled in two quagmire wars in the Middle East.

And so the last few seasons of The Sopranos focus—perhaps more than necessary—on the dark sides of the characters’ lives. Not just the killings, but also various personal traumas.

One of the main characters develops Alzheimer’s. Much time is devoted to the troubles associated with Tony Sopranos ne’er-do-well son.

Tony and his wife, Carmella (played by Edie Falco), separate for an entire season, when she decides that she can no longer tolerate his extramarital adventures. (Spoiler alert: Tony and Carmella eventually reconcile.)

Some of the arguments associated with the marital split are almost too realistic. While watching these scenes, I actually felt that I was an unwilling witness to the breakup of a real marriage. There were several moments when I felt physically uncomfortable.

And what about that final scene of the final episode? After a flareup of factional mob violence that leaves many of Tony Soprano’s friends and associates dead, he meets with his wife and children at a restaurant, for what is supposed to be a quiet family dinner.

The family members arrive separately. Tony has been in hiding.

While Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (a deliberately chosen song, of course) is playing on the jukebox, Tony surveys the other diners, speculating that one of them may be an assassin sent to kill him.

First Carmella arrives. Then his son, AJ.

Finally, Tony’s young adult daughter walks in. Tony looks up at the sound of the bell above the door (the restaurant is a neighborhood diner).

And the screen goes instantly silent and black.

The ending is wonderfully ambiguous and ambivalent, downright spiritual for a show about organized crime. (I have a confession here: I hated the ending the first time I saw it. But after I re-watched it on YouTube several times, I found that I recognized and appreciated what David Chase had done here.)

And now The Sopranos is over, for me at least. If you haven’t binge-watched this show, find a way to do so now. The Sopranos is among the best drama ever to see the screen.

Amazon earnings and indie authors

Today Amazon missed it’s earning estimates, leading to a fall in share prices.

Many indie authors are entirely reliant on Amazon. They are Amazon-exclusive, placing all of their titles in KDP. (Amazon makes this tempting, by dangling various cookies.)

I’m not anti-Amazon. On the contrary: I love Amazon–both as a reader and as an author. And under the current structure of the market, it would be virtually impossible to avoid any reliance on The Zon.

Nevertheless, as today’s news demonstrates, Amazon–just like any other company–has its ups and downs.

Amazon has also been known to make abrupt policy changes.

This is yet one more argument for “going wide”–or for making one’s titles available across multiple retailers.

The Van: a short story crime thriller (excerpt)

Troy is a single father, traveling with his 13-year-old daughter, Ellie, through Tennessee.

When they stop in a restaurant, Troy becomes alarmed as two rough-looking men begin paying his daughter unwelcome attention.

Troy is soon to discover that the two men harbor a horrible secret…a secret with implications for himself, Ellie, and other lives as well.

Troy noticed that the two men standing in the adjacent line of the crowded restaurant were eying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ellie. The men were both in their mid-thirties, probably only a few years older than Troy. But unlike Troy, they were big, hard men, dressed like painters or roofers. Both had full beards. One was blond, and the other had black hair.

Their interest in Ellie was more than simply casual, and they were making little effort to be discreet, let alone secretive. Troy met their stares and neither of them turned away, as grown men would ordinarily do when caught in such an act of impropriety. On the contrary, they were laughing and ribbing each other while they looked at Ellie. 

Troy and Ellie were waiting in line in the Julep’s BBQ, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the evening rush hour. This was one of Troy’s last dinners with his daughter, at least for the summer, and he didn’t want it to be spoiled by two random perverts. And there was also the very real possibility that these two men would turn out to be a significant problem, rather than a passing annoyance.

She’s only thirteen, Troy thought. What kind of men look at a thirteen-year-old girl that way? 

Nevertheless, he turned his attention back to his daughter. 

“Do you know what you want?” he asked her. He was somewhat relieved to see that Ellie seemed not to have noticed the men’s attention.

“When we stopped here in June, you had the pulled pork, I think.”

Ellie nodded, after giving the question the full attention that it deserved. “I’ll have the pulled pork again.”

Julep’s was one of those establishments where you place your order at the counter, fast-food style. It was hot and crowded at this hour of the evening. The last week of August in eastern Tennessee. 

Troy was an outsider in this part of the world, even though he had made numerous trips this way since Ellie’s mother had remarried and relocated from Ohio to Florida. Knoxville was one of the logical stopping places along the long southerly trek down I-75, and of course on the way back north. 

“Will you eat here on the way back from Florida?” Ellie asked. They were the next ones in line. 

“No,” Troy said. “Julep’s is our restaurant. I’ll stop at Wendy’s or Hardee’s or Chipotle, but not Julep’s.”

Ellie smiled. “Maybe I can come back with you. Mom doesn’t really need me.” 

She said this in a light-hearted manner. They both knew that Kylie loved Ellie. But Kylie loved her daughter in her own way, at a different intensity. Different people had different ways of loving, of expressing their love. This was a matter that Troy and Ellie had discussed at some length over the summer.

 “We can just go down to Gainesville and I can come home with you, then,” Ellie pressed. “I’ll pop in and say hi to Mom—and to Joe, I guess.”

Troy put his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. She hadn’t yet acquired that don’t-acknowledge-me-in-public attitude that teenage girls so often adopt toward their parents between the onset of puberty and the end of high school. It gratified Troy when Ellie said things like that, and he was more than a little glad to see that she still loathed Joe, Kylie’s “new” husband of three years—even if Joe wasn’t, on balance, such a bad guy.

“I wish you could,” Troy said. “But we both know how it has to be.”

Troy glanced over at the adjacent line. The two men were still there, still looking at his daughter. They were just out of earshot, given the buzz of the busy restaurant. But there was no doubt about what they were doing, whom they were looking at.

Troy stepped around Ellie and placed himself between his daughter and the leering men. Don’t give them anything to look at, he thought. 

Troy wished he were the sort of man who could simply walk over to the men and tell them to look elsewhere, and be confident that his words would carry the necessary weight. But there were two of them; and the truth was that either one of them would be more than a match for Troy. He wasn’t that sort of a guy, but he would protect his daughter however he could. 

He turned back to Ellie and noticed that her cheeks were reddened. She looked up at him knowingly. So she had noticed the two men. 

Troy was also suddenly aware of what Ellie was wearing: shorts and a halter top. It was summer, after all; and they were on a long drive through the South. Moreover, Troy still saw Ellie as the little girl she had been just a few years ago, eating cereal in front of the television in her pajamas on Saturday morning, her smile showing the gap of a missing baby tooth. 

Wanting to freeze time in place, he hadn’t fully acknowledged the changes that had taken place. Had he not made that mistake, he thought, he could have made sure that his daughter dressed more modestly. Then she wouldn’t have drawn the attention of these two perverted men in their thirties.

So he had failed to protect her twice: first, preemptively, and now, that these two men were actively making her uncomfortable.

Troy took a deep breath, and put his shoulders back, as if trying to expand his five-foot, nine inches to a brawny six-four. Ridiculous, and probably transparent, even to Ellie.

“Don’t worry about those two,” Troy said. There was no need to specify which two he was talking about. “I’m here.”

Ellie nodded and looked up at the lighted menu board behind the counter. The young woman at the cash register nodded for them to place their order, and they stepped forward together. Troy felt more inadequate than he had in a long time, probably since Ellie’s mother had first left him.

Five minutes later they had their food and had taken a seat out on the dining room floor. They both ordered the pulled pork.

Troy noticed, as they departed from the counter, trays in hand, that the two men were still waiting in line. 

The tables at Julep’s were varnished wood, covered with checkered red-and-white vinyl tablecloths. Julep’s was decorated in a faux country motif: The walls were rough-hewn, bare plank boards. There was a restored gasoline pump from the 1930s in one corner of the dining room. In another corner was a life-size wooden cigar-store Indian. The planks of the walls were adorned with vintage photographs from the early twentieth century. There were old signs for bygone brands: Walter’s Beer and Gem soap flakes. Ben-Bay cigars.

“Are you looking forward to school starting?” Troy asked Ellie as they sat down. He now realized that he had involuntarily avoided this question all summer, even though it was something that a father ought to inquire about. This was because the start of the school year meant the end of the summer, and the summer was theirs.

Ellie shrugged. “I guess so.” 

Ellie was going to be in the eighth grade this year. She was growing up so fast. To Troy, the news of her impending arrival in the world seemed like just yesterday. Troy had been a college student, two years away from graduation, when his girlfriend Kylie had told him that she was pregnant. 

There was no question about marrying Kylie then, even though he and Kylie had been dating for a little less than a year, and she seemed ambivalent about the entire situation. The pregnancy had not made her less ambivalent. Maybe we should consider our options, Kylie had said. But Troy had talked her into it. 

He now reflected that when you had to talk a young woman into marrying you, that was probably a warning sign. Didn’t women always leap with joy at marriage proposals in the movies? 

For the better part of ten years they had made a go of it, amid numerous disappointments and recriminations. Then four years ago, the inevitable had happened. 

Kylie had wasted no time remarrying, starting a new life, while Troy’s own life was stalled: He had no romantic prospects to speak of, and he was stuck in the same dead-end job that he had held at the time of the divorce: He was an assistant manager at an electronics shop—or more properly, a video game store, as that was all the establishment really sold anymore. And he had once planned to be an engineer. 

But Troy had no regrets about getting Kylie pregnant, even though common sense told him that he should feel otherwise. He couldn’t feel otherwise—sitting across the table from his daughter.

“The eighth grade is an important year,” he told her. “This time next year, you’ll be a high school student.”

She was about to reply when they were interrupted by a boisterous male voice, audible even above the buzz of the dinnertime crowd.

“Whataya think, Dennis? Where should we sit?”

Troy knew without turning around that the words had been spoken by one of the two men who had been leering at Ellie in the line at the counter.

“There’s a good spot!” the other one replied.

Troy didn’t know if they were speaking at an excessive volume to make sure he and Ellie heard them, or if unnecessary volume was simply an aspect of the way these two men moved through the world. Either answer was possible. The men—one of whom Troy now knew was named Dennis (though he could not have said which one)—noisily took a seat at a table behind Ellie, a significant distance to one side of them. 

Troy was grateful for the crowd, and the relative scarcity of seats. He had no doubt that these two would have claimed the table directly beside them, had it not already been claimed by another group of diners.

Ellie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. He should be doing more to make her feel comfortable, to reassure her, to behave in a protective manner. 

The two of them had had a good summer together, a summer of reconnecting. It had been a little awkward at first, as it often was when she came to visit after an extended period in Florida with Kylie and her husband, Joe. In another day they would be in Gainesville. He didn’t want their fleeting time together to be ruined by two Podunk buffoons from Tennessee.

At that moment he blamed a little bit of everyone. He blamed Kylie for taking so little time to remarry, and for “marrying up” to an older man who made more money than Troy was ever likely to earn. He blamed the judge who had signed off on the revised custody arrangement, the one that placed his daughter in Florida for much of the year. He blamed the lawyers who were involved on both sides.

But most of all Troy blamed himself: He had let Kylie get away when he should have done something—anything—to keep her (if he had ever really had her in the first place, that was). He had not fought long enough and hard enough when Kylie had first announced her plan to take his daughter out of Ohio due to Joe’s transfer. 

And now Troy was failing to protect his daughter in an obviously uncomfortable situation. Maybe he should say something. Yes, he decided, if the two men said anything more, he would say something—even if that meant fighting them both in the parking lot, and getting beaten half to death.

“I wish I didn’t have to go to high school in Florida,” Ellie said. “I wish I could live with you instead.”

Ellie had expressed this sentiment several times over the course of the summer, and Troy never got tired of hearing it. But the custody agreement was the custody agreement. It was fair—at least according to the way the law measured things—and Troy knew that he had no chance of successfully fighting it.

To make matters worse, Kylie’s new husband had turned out to be a reasonably decent guy—and what many women in their thirties would call “a good catch”. Joe was ten years older than Troy and Kylie. He was nevertheless more athletic than Troy. Tall, fit, and tan, Joe was an avid tennis player. 

When Joe’s high-paying finance job had necessitated the move to Florida, the three of them—Joe, Kylie, and Troy—had had to go back to court. Joe, consummately gallant and reasonable, had offered to kick in an annual stipend to defray the travel expenses that Troy would incur going to and from Florida. Troy had refused, not wanting to take any of Joe’s money. Not a single cent.

There was no abuse on Joe’s end, either physical or emotional. Not even a hint of it. Troy had subtly probed in that direction, and found nothing. Ellie had made no intimations of late-night visits to her bedroom, or of angry slaps. Based on what Ellie had told him, Joe kept his tone studiously neutral, allowing Kylie to be the face of discipline on the rare occasions when it was necessary. 

So there would be no change in the custody agreement—at least not anytime soon.

“I wish you could go to high school in Ohio, too,” Troy said. “But well, I suppose your mother has rights, too. And the court said that her rights mean you live with her for most of the year. Also, she loves you, too.”

“Mmm,” Ellie replied. “Yeah, I guess so.”

There was a loud, unmistakable whistle from one of the men. Troy looked up and Ellie turned around. It was the blond one who had made the wolf-whistle. He winked obscenely at Ellie.

The men were both laughing now. A few of the other patrons briefly noticed, then turned away. Either the entire context of the situation wasn’t clear to them, or they didn’t want to get involved. 

Troy met the men’s stares and shook his head. Come on, now, he was trying to say with the gesture. You’re adult men; she’s an adolescent girl. This isn’t right.

The men returned Troy’s look, directly and without any fear or restraint whatsoever. These two weren’t going to be shamed. They weren’t going to back down. 

Troy glanced across the table at Ellie. He saw her embarrassment, of course; but he was also acutely aware of the way his features mingled with Kylie’s in the child that the two of them had made. He realized now that because of Ellie, some part of him would always love Kylie, despite everything that had happened.

Troy started to stand up, knowing that he would be hopelessly over his head. But he couldn’t let this go. If he couldn’t defend his daughter against these two men, then what use was he as a father? He had let Ellie down in so many ways already.

The men leaned back and smiled expectantly when they saw Troy begin to rise. Come on over, their smiles seemed to say. This should be fun.

“Dad, no.” He felt Ellie’s hand on his. “Sit down, Dad.”

“I can’t let them carry on like that with you,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Ellie said—though it couldn’t be okay. “It’s just talk. This isn’t the first time. There are guys like that at school, you know. And besides, you can’t fight them both.”

“I can try,” Troy replied. “What I can’t do is let them carry on like that.”

“Dad, please: sit down. You can’t fight them both.”

End of excerpt