The end of an Amazon pricing policy

Amazon will end a practice that threatened to put the company in the crosshairs of antitrust enforcers:

Amazon will no longer tell third-party merchants that sell products on its platform in the United States that they cannot offer the same goods for a lower price on another website, according to a person with direct knowledge of the company’s decision.

Why it matters: Critics have said the so-called “most favored nation,” or “price parity,” provisions could violate antitrust law. But even without them, the company still faces a broader set of attacks on its size and power in the United States and around the world.

I do most of my selling on Amazon, so this doesn’t affect me at the moment.

Nevertheless, I know authors who have received angry emails from Amazon when their books were discounted on other retail sites, often without their direct involvement, or even knowledge. (This seems to happen a lot on GooglePlay.)

Jeff Bezos is no idiot. He realizes that the 2020 Democratic challengers are are all lining up against the tech giants (especially Elizabeth Warren).

Donald Trump, too, has been less than friendly toward Amazon.

This is a far cry from 1998 or 2000, when no politician wanted to take a position against anything that was being done on the Internet, short of outright hate speech or child porn.

The Internet and ecommerce are just normal parts of the landscape now. Ergo, they now are fair game for politicians on both sides of the left-right divide.


The end of the ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast’

Although most of what I write can be classified as neither science fiction nor fantasy, I’ve been a faithful weekly listener of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast for about three years now.

Joe Lallo, Lindsay Buroker, and Jeff Poole never fail to provide good insights on the art and business of writing.

This past week, they announced that they would be “taking a few months off”.

That of course leaves the door open for a return. If the history of other podcasts, blogs, and YouTube channels is a guide, however, “taking a few months off” is usually synonymous with quitting for good.

I shall be sorry to see them go. Nevertheless, I can understand if their hearts are no longer in the endeavor.

Sometimes a podcast, a YouTube channel, or a blog simply runs its course… Sometimes for the audience…and sometimes for the creator(s).

 


Book break: ‘1215: the Year of Magna Carta’

If you’re interested in the history of England during the Middle Ages (and if you already have some grounding in the subject), then you might enjoy this short volume by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham.

This is less a systematic history of the Magna Carta, than it is a series of historical anecdotes about the state of England in the early 13th century. (The chapters are broken down by topic: “School”, “Town”, “Education”, etc.)

I recommend this book to readers who already have some background in the subject matter because it is not a systematic, linear history.

This is, nevertheless, a very interesting book. You’ll pick up lots of tidbits about English life, religion, and politics around the time when the Magna Carta was signed. (The book also includes the full text of the Magna Carta.)

Should authors narrate their own audiobooks?

This is a question that has been coming up frequently of late on the various indie author boards.

The question is only natural. Dedicated narrators charge around $250 per finished hour to narrate, edit, and master audio files.

That means $2,700 to $3,300 to convert a 100,000-word novel into an audiobook.

No, those numbers aren’t in Japanese yen. They’re in US dollars.

To be fair to the narrators: Although $250 per hour sounds like a lot, the narrators aren’t necessarily charging the same hourly rates as corporate attorneys, heart surgeons, and high-class call girls.

Notice that I said, per finished hour. That means not only reading the material, but also editing out obtrusive plosive sounds, loud breaths, and overly lengthy pauses. It means mastering the files to make sure they meet certain technical specifications.

According to some estimates, five to ten hours of work can be required to produce a finished hour of audio for an audiobook.

Audiobook production requires a material investment in both hardware and software. There is also something of a learning curve, as sound engineering is both an art and a science. To become competent in sound engineering isn’t quite as difficult as becoming an attorney or a heart surgeon (I won’t speculate about the difficulty of becoming a high-class call girl); but it isn’t exactly simple, either. There are many new concepts to absorb and understand. Unless you have worked with audio at the technical level in the past, all of these concepts will be completely unfamiliar to you.

So hopefully I’ve made clear: No one should be resentful of the narrators who charge $250 per finished hour to deliver store-ready audiobook files.

That said, $2,700~$3,300 represents a significant upfront investment for most indie authors. If you’ve got a backlist of ten books, that means that you could buy a new Toyota Corolla for what it would take to convert your entire library into audiobook format.

It is only natural, then, that some authors are asking the question: Why not just do this myself?

Why not, indeed? This brings us to the debate. There are plenty of reasons for doing it yourself…and for not doing it yourself. I don’t believe that there is an absolute, one-size-fits-all, right or wrong answer to this one. As is so often the case in this life, the only succinct answer is: It depends. 

To begin with, the writer who seeks to produce her own audiobooks will have to be comfortable reading her own work in a very public way. Many writers are painfully shy. I am amazed at the number of writers who are terrified to appear on YouTube or on podcasts. Many are too shy to even post their author photos on Facebook or their Amazon author pages. These authors almost certainly won’t feel comfortable reading their own fiction, and that will show in the results.

Narrating an audiobook is also a unique skill, above and beyond other forms of public speaking. I don’t believe that professional theater training is a prerequisite, but it would certainly help. At the very least, no author should attempt to read his own work for audio without first having listened to hundreds of hours of audiobooks as a consumer. If you don’t like audiobooks, if you aren’t a consumer of audiobooks, then you have no business narrating them. 

And then there’s the investment and technical side, which I’ve touched on above. Some writers embrace technology, others shrink from it. Can you learn about RMS, noise floors, and hard limits as eagerly as you learned about three-act structure? Are you willing to plunk down the money needed to purchase a computer with decent processing power, a high-quality mic, and other equipment? Are you willing to pay for Pro Tools or Adobe Audition software?…Oh, and are you also ready to ascend the learning curve that it takes to competently use them?

In regard to this last point, I would offer one piece of cautionary advice. On writer forums, I occasionally see writers state that they are overwhelmed by Scrivener (a popular non-linear word processing program designed for writers). If you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener, then you probably shouldn’t try to produce your own audiobooks.

(I don’t mean to imply that you’re an idiot, by the way, if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….But I do mean to imply that you aren’t very technically inclined if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I can run a six-minute mile; but I can’t make simple free throw shots on the basketball court with any degree of reliability. Know thy strengths, know thy weaknesses.)

That all said, there are plenty of reasons for embarking on self-production…if you have the basic aptitudes and willingness.

One of the big arguments for self-production is this: The job that you hire out might not be any better than the job you could do yourself, with a bit of preparation.

There are few formal barriers to entry to the narrator field. Anyone can hang out a shingle as a narrator nowadays. Many of the narrators you encounter in the marketplace might be only a few steps ahead of you…or possibly a few steps behind you.

Let’s start with the quality of the narration itself. If you’re going to hire Scott Brick (the narrator of most of the Clive Cussler novels, among many other books) then Scott Brick is almost certainly going to do a better job than you. By all means, hire Scott Brick. Scott Brick is not only a consummate professional, he’s a “brand”. (I’m far more likely to consider an audiobook from an unknown author if Scott Brick is the narrator.)

I don’t know what Scott Brick charges per hour, but it’s probably more than $250; and his schedule is likely booked months or years in advance. I am therefore going to assume that you won’t be hiring Scott Brick. You’re going to hire some narrator from the online marketplace, whom you’ve never heard of before.

I’ve listened to many samples from lesser known narrators on the Audible site. Most of them meet a basic level of competence; but the indie author might honestly ask: Is that voice, that quality of narration, worth $250 per hour?

On the technical side, some of the independent narrators seem to be just as tech-averse as the average indie author. Many seem to have backgrounds in acting. When you think of someone who is technically proficient, is a drama major the first person who comes to mind?

It might therefore be easier to just bite the bullet, and learn about RMS, noise floors, etc.

Yes, it’s hard…but not heart surgery hard. It’s more like building-your-own-backyard-deck, or learning-conversational-Spanish hard.

You also have the option of recording and editing the audio files yourself, then hiring out the final mastering—which is not free, but which is far cheaper, in most cases, than $250 per finished hour.

The quandary of whether or not to narrate one’s own audiobooks, then, is a uniquely personal one that every author needs to carefully assess.

Whichever way you go, audiobook production isn’t going to be easy or cheap. Accept that from the get-go, or don’t even start.

The question is: Given your priorities, proclivities, and resources, are you better to sacrifice ease (self-production), or are you better to sacrifice cheapness (outsourcing)?

That’s the decision that you have to make; and whichever one you choose, you’re likely to encounter a bit of buyer’s remorse if your audiobook sales don’t meet your expectations.

Blinkist and the shortening American attention span

I’ve been following the news about Blinkist, the new app that promises to deliver “the key ideas from bestselling nonfiction books in just 15 minutes”.

The premise of Blinkist is that no one has time to read anymore. We’re all just so distracted nowadays, and our attention spans are so short. So we need things like…Blinkist.

But why is that, exactly?

Work? Yes, most of us have jobs. But did people not have jobs in 1999? Or 1979?  As I seem to recall, the job is not exactly a twenty-first century innovation.

But who has time to read an actual book…when there’s all those updates on Facebook…and did you hear about that latest outrage on Twitter? And you’ve got loads of text messages coming in….all of which are urgent and important, of course.

Just the other day, I was driving in suburban Cincinnati, when a woman about my age drove through a red light and nearly ran into me.

She wasn’t drunk or high. She wasn’t fleeing from the police.

She was talking on her frigging cell phone.

Yes, I understand that things change. I don’t expect this to be the America I grew up in anymore. But maybe this mantra about the inevitable shortening of the American attention span is something we ought to resist a bit more.

Do we really need an “app” to condense books for us? Or do we need more time with books, and a bit less time with cell phones and their many “apps”?

‘The Reckoning’ by John Grisham: Ed’s review



I recently finished reading this latest novel by John Grisham. This is a very good book, although it is a little different from John Grisham’s previous offerings.

The standard John Grisham novel goes something like this: An attorney has happened upon a scandal of some sort, usually involving a big pot of money. (The money may or may not be held in a numbered account in the Cayman Islands.)

The attorney faces some moral quandary. Maybe someone approaches the attorney looking for assistance. Perhaps the attorney is threatened himself. The perpetrators of the scandal are invariably mafiosos or the corrupt managers of some Big Evil Corporation.

In the end, the attorney makes the right decision, solves the problem, and saves the day.

I’m not knocking the standard John Grisham Formula, mind you. (On the contrary, John Grisham is one of my favorite authors.)  But The Reckoning substantially deviates from that formula.

The Reckoning opens in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, in 1946. Forty-three year-old Pete Banning, a successful farmer, respected local citizen, and decorated World War II POW, is about to commit an inexplicable homicide.

Banning drives into town, where he shoots the pastor of his Methodist church, Dexter Bell.

Banning is arrested and charged with murder. Of course.  When questioned by the sheriff, he refuses to say why he did what he did.

Pete Banning’s young adult children plead with him, as does his older sister. But Banning simply won’t say why he murdered Dexter Bell.

It is also revealed that while Banning was away fighting the war (and presumed dead) Dexter Bell spent a lot of time with Pete’s wife, Liza. When the story opens, though, Liza has been sequestered away in a mental institution.

Suffice it to say (mild spoiler alert) that the outcome for Pete Banning is not a pleasant one. After Banning meets his fate, the story jumps back in time, to cover Pete’s exploits during the war, as a POW, and later a guerrilla fighter, in the embattled Philippines.

In the final section of the book, we finally learn why Pete Banning killed Dexter Bell.

No, I am not going to reveal the reason. I would, however, caution you against assuming the most obvious answer.

Although I liked this book quite a bit, many readers did not agree with me.  The book seemed to upset many readers who were expecting the Grisham Formula. Here’s a 1-star review from Amazon:

Crappy, pointless mess:

If I were a writer and knew that I would have to give up money if I didn’t have a “book” on my publisher’s desk by a date certain, and time was up, this is the kind of load of crap I would dish up. What passes for a plot is meaningless: the whole book is fleshed out with WW II history that needn’t be narrated as fiction, and arcane minutiae of criminal and civil procedure that couldn’t be more boring and, moreover, is woefully inaccurate. I actually felt that I’d been tricked into reading this steamer by being bamboozled by Grisham’s reputation, on which I can’t comment. BORING!!!!!!

The Reckoning is not “boring”. But you do need something beyond the attention span of an eight year-old to enjoy it. In many ways, The Reckoning is more like something that Stephen Hunter or W.E.B. Griffin would have written.

To be fair to the readers who didn’t like this book: John Grisham has now been publishing novels for about thirty years. To put a personal spin on this, when Grisham published his very first book, the initially overlooked A Time to Kill (1989), your humble correspondent was a bright-eyed twenty-one year-old.

I am now a not-so-bright-eyed, world-weary fifty year-old. My concerns and preferences are not what they were thirty years ago. I am a different person. So are you…if you were even alive in 1989.

Why then, should we expect that John Grisham is the same writer that he was when George H.W. Bush was president? The Reckoning is not The Firm, Grisham’s breakout success of 1991.

Why should it be, though? The Firm was a long time ago.

Longtime writers almost always evolve. Sometimes readers like the changes, sometimes they don’t. I used to read Stephen King’s early novels over the course of two or three days. But starting with It (1986), King adopted a meandering, bloated style that is a sharp departure from the taut, economical storytelling of the novels he wrote in the 1970s, and the first half of the 1980s. I now struggle to get through a Stephen King novel. I’ve been working on The Outsider for several months now, reading it in bits and pieces, while I’m reading other books.

(But that’s just me: Some readers prefer the new Stephen King.)

If The Reckoning is any indication, Grisham is moving away from the legal potboiler, in the direction of the literary thriller. This pleases me…But it clearly doesn’t please everyone.

To recap: The Reckoning is a very good novel, but you should not begin it with an expectation that you are about to get another helping of the Grisham Formula. Be prepared for something new, and different.

And if you’re not open to something new and different from John Grisham, then you might want to skip this one, and reread The Firm or  The Pelican Brief instead. They’re still very good books, too.

Competing by volume: the cancer of indie publishing

Kristine Kathryn Rusch almost never fails to hit the mark when she analyzes the publishing industry. (Her political pronouncements on Twitter are a different matter; but that’s another topic for another day.) In a recent blog post about a scandal involving ghostwriters in the romance genre, Rusch wrote: Continue reading “Competing by volume: the cancer of indie publishing”

Paperbacks, paperbacks

There are now paperbacks available on Amazon for all of my horror and most of my thriller titles.

I’ve been surprised to find that, despite the Kindle being over ten years old now, many readers still prefer to read on old-fashioned paper.

Which is fine with me. I’m rather attached to reading on paper myself.

Check out the paperback edition of 12 Hours of Halloween on Amazon!

‘Luk Thep’: Get the ebook, dirt cheap, through the weekend!

Through Sunday the ebook version of Luk Thep: a horror novella will be reduced to $0.99.

I wrote this one I after I read this article in The Economist.

Amazon description:

The ‘luk thep’ are the ‘angel dolls’ or ‘spirit dolls’ of Thailand. Ultra-realistic in appearance, some Thais believe that each doll is infused with the spirit of a prematurely departed child. But are all child spirits benevolent?

Jane Hughes is an American executive who is visiting Thailand for a routine business trip. When she sees her Thai colleague’s ‘luk thep’ doll, she has dark premonitions about what is actually inside it. When Jane later receives the same doll as a gift, she begins a ghostly nightmare that will lead to terrifying supernatural encounters on two continents.

From the Author

Excerpt:

(Excerpt from Chapter 5: “This is Lawan.”)

Jane looked closer, and now she saw that the small figure seated in the chair was only a doll, albeit a very realistic-looking one.

“She gave you quite a scare,” Khajee said with good humor. Jane noted Khajee’s use of the personal pronoun. Jane also noted that yes, indeed, the doll had given her quite a scare.

The corporate realm was not a world without fear. The cutthroat competitiveness of the global economy produced a macro-level fear of being downsized, “right-sized” out, or otherwise falling into obsolescence. Jane had not a protectionist bone in her body, but she couldn’t help feeling the occasional twinge of admiration-mixed-with-resentment toward her Asian colleagues: They worked so tirelessly, so efficiently. All of the jobs at TRX Automotive Thailand represented jobs that no longer existed in the United States. How long before her job, too, was outsourced to a more efficient Asian or Latin American rival?

Beneath the macro-level fears was the constant uneasiness about where you stood within the company hierarchy–not just the formal organization chart, but within the ever-shifting hierarchy of senior management favor. This was not simply a matter of doing your job well, but of maintaining the outward perception that you were doing your job well.

Although Jane was single and had no dependents, she had much invested in her career. She knew that despite her undeniable hard work, she was fortunate to be where she was at her age. Jane did not want to lose what she had gained. She wanted to continue moving forward.

Anxiety about such matters occasionally kept Jane up at night. But the fear of the genuinely unknown was mostly alien to her existence. No one ever discussed haunted houses or vampires at a corporate meeting, even during the informal pre-meeting banter. To express an interest in the macabre would be (yet another) way to sideline your career prospects. People would think you were unhinged.

Perhaps that was why Jane was momentarily uncomfortable over her reaction to the doll. She now knew, rationally, that the doll was just a doll. But it made her uneasy, nonetheless.

“It looks very realistic,” Jane said. “Like a real little girl.”

Khajee nodded. “Each one of them is unique. They aren’t cheap.”

Khajee then mentioned the price she had paid in baht, the Thai currency. It was an amount that corresponded to about $800 American dollars.

“A lot to pay for a doll,” Jane blurted out. Then she realized the potential rudeness of her observation. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that remark.”

But it was a lot to pay for a doll, realistic-looking or not.

“That’s okay,” Khajee said. “But this is a special kind of doll, you see. And I’m not only talking about the way it looks. The doll is called a luk thep. That means ‘angel doll’ or ‘spirit doll’. They perform a ceremony for each doll at the plant where the dolls are made. And then each doll is supposed to be inhabited by the spirit of a deceased child.”

“You mean the doll is–possessed?” Jane asked. Khajee gave a puzzled look in response. “I mean–haunted,” Jane clarified.

“Well, yes,” Khajee replied, after giving the matter some thought. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it, though a Buddhist would see the matter differently than someone from the West, you understand.”

Jane nodded noncommittally. A lapsed Roman Catholic, there were many holes in her knowledge of her own spiritual and religious traditions. She had only the vaguest grasp of Buddhist beliefs.

Didn’t the Buddhists believe in reincarnation? Jane was almost certain that the Buddhists did. Perhaps that would make them more comfortable with the notion of a ‘haunted doll.’

But still, even a Buddhist would have to ask certain inevitable questions. For starters: What kind of a spirit would want to inhabit a doll, and to what purpose?

“It certainly looks realistic,” Jane said, repeating her prior observation, not knowing what else to say.

“Her name is Lawan,” Khajee said, as if correcting Jane. Khajee smiled self-consciously. “Yes. I named her. Most luk thep mothers do. I suppose you’re wondering why an adult woman would want to buy a doll and name it.”

Jane couldn’t avoid an involuntary flinch at Khajee’s description of herself as the doll’s ‘mother’.

“I suppose I would wonder,” Jane admitted.

**

If you think you might like to read Luk Thep, now is a good time to get it. Next week, the price will go back to $3.99. (Still cheap, but not dirt cheap.)

 

Remembering my childhood “shark phase”

When I was a kid, I went through various phases with hobbies, interests, and obsessions.

One of these was my “shark phase”. For about a year, I read every book about sharks that I could get my hands on.

I still have a passive interest in sharks. Sharks are awe-inspiring creatures. I mean, just think about it: A shark is a fish that, even now, in the 21st century, will eat you if given the opportunity.

My interest in sharks has occasionally shown up in my fiction. (There is a shark story in my Hay Moon short story collection.) And I’m still a sucker for  Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

But back to that childhood obsession with sharks. While poking around on Amazon, I recently came across a listing for the book, Sharks: Attacks on Man, by George A. Llano. Published in 1975, the book is long out of print; but there are still some old used copies floating around.

I owned a copy of this book around 1979. I read it and reread it. Included in this slender volume were stories of the Matawan Creek shark attacks of 1916, and the harrowing experiences of the sailors of the USS Indianapolis, who had to contend with man-eating sharks after their ship was sunk by the Japanese.

There are probably better books about shark attacks on the market today (and certainly more current ones). Nevertheless, I’ll always look back fondly on George A. Llano’s Sharks: Attacks on Man, which provided me with many hours of entertainment about forty years ago.

 

‘Revolutionary Ghosts’ in Kindle Unlimited…for a while, at least!

I’ve enrolled Revolutionary Ghosts in Kindle Unlimited for the next 90 days.

Eventually, it will probably be going out to other stores and platforms. For now, though, you can read it for free if you have a Kindle Unlimited membership! I hope you enjoy it.

 

About Revolutionary Ghosts:

The year is 1976, and the Headless Horseman rides again!

Steve Wagner is an ordinary Ohio teenager in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976.

As that summer begins, his thoughts are mostly about girls, finishing high school, and driving his 1968 Pontiac Bonneville.

But this will be no ordinary summer. Steve sees evidence of supernatural activity in the area near his home: mysterious hoof prints and missing persons reports, and unusual, violently inclined men with British accents.

There is a also a hideous woman—the vengeful ghost of a condemned Loyalist spy—who appears in the doorway of Steve’s bedroom.

Filled with angry spirits, historical figures, and the Headless Horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Revolutionary Ghosts is a terrifying coming-of-age story with a groovy 1970s vibe.

 

What I’m working on…late January 2019!

The manuscript for Revolutionary Ghosts (which I’ve been serializing here on the site) is done. I’m finishing up some final edits.

Then it goes off to a third-party editor and proofreader.

Revolutionary Ghosts should be available on Amazon by February 1st.

Don’t hold me to that, please…but that’s the plan.

You know how it is with publishing…the best laid plans often change.

‘Revolutionary Ghosts’ update and progress report

I’ve been adding pages of my dark fantasy/horror serial, Revolutionary Ghosts to the site more or less every day. (I did miss a few days during the holidays.)

The online version of the text represents a rough draft (with a brief editing pass for flagrant typos). This version of the book will remain online.

Before Revolutionary Ghosts is published, though (in formats that I’ll be actually charging money for), it will undergo additional editing and proofreading passes.

The basic plot of the story won’t change during the editing phases; but the descriptions may be enhanced, the character dialogue will be tweaked, etc.

Awkward sentence structures (inevitable in any first draft) will be eliminated. I’ll also make sure all the typos are nailed down. (I’m sure a few have slipped by me in the online version.)

E-book, audiobook, and paperback editions of Revolutionary Ghosts will eventually be available–not only from Amazon, but also from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play.

You are welcome to read the full text here. (That’s one of the options I had in mind when I decided to post it online, after all.)

You might alternatively choose to merely sample it here, and await the fully edited, finalized versions in the stores. (They won’t be expensive. Don’t hold me to this: But the ebook version will probably retail at $3.99.)

I plan to have retail versions of the book available no later than March 1st.

How you read Revolutionary Ghosts is up to you. In any case, I hope you enjoy the story.

 

 

Are New Year’s resolutions really worthwhile?



 

It’s that time of year again. The time of setting New Year’s resolutions—or not.

Since I belong to a gym, I approach January 1st with mixed feelings. On January 2nd, I know that my gym will be overrun with hordes of new members. They will fill the parking lot, take up locker space, and wander aimlessly around the exercise floor, as they struggle to master the nuances of the pec fly machine and the StairMaster.

The New Year’s resolutions members, we call them. Roughly half of them will be gone by Valentine’s Day. By the Ides of March, two-thirds will have fallen by the wayside. By Tax Day, they will be a shadow herd, less than ten percent of their original number.

This is, to a major extent, how fitness facilities make their money: They sell scores of memberships that go unused after a few months. The owners of every gym know that the year-end, that time of New Year’s resolutions, is the prime time for such sales. Because so many people make New Year’s resolutions that they quickly abandon.

This raises a natural question: Are New Year’s resolutions even worthwhile? Or should we go into the default mode of post-modern cynicism, and assume that New Year’s resolutions, too, aren’t what they’re cracked up to be?…Another residual cliché of a bygone age.

Yes, New Year’s resolutions do have a notoriously high failure rate. And yes, the New Year’s resolution has become something of a cliché. I’m going to submit to you, however, that the New Year’s resolution is still a very worthwhile undertaking.

 

Consider the significance of January 1 as a juncture for clearing the decks, hitting the reset button, starting over.

The first day of January is a completely arbitrary date, from a scientific, mathematical perspective. Theoretically, you could start afresh on any day of the year. Why not March 10th? Or May Day? Or Thanksgiving?

(I’ve occasionally tried to start afresh on my birthday. This hasn’t worked well at all—at least partly because my birthday falls in the humdrum, dog days of August.)

The entire world has earmarked January 1 as a new beginning. The way we designate time subtly changes, as the year is altered by a single digit. The New Year is hyped in the media, and practically everywhere else.

I’m often a cantankerous contrarian. But even I know when to go with the flow. Even though you could theoretically start afresh on any given day of the year, there is a great deal of cultural momentum behind New Year’s Day. Why not use it in your favor?

 

 

New Year’s Day, in fact, has a semi-spiritual status in some Asian cultures. The Japanese celebration of Christmas is purely secular (Christians are a small minority in Japan); and the Japanese don’t recognize Hanukkah at all. But the New Year bears a special significance within the animist beliefs of Japan’s native Shintoism.

In Japanese corporate settings, there is the bonen-kai, or “forget the year party”. Held in late December, these are occasions for putting the previous year firmly in the past, so as to facilitate a fresh start in the New Year. New Year’s Day in Japan is a time for visiting friends and loved ones—much like Christmas Day in the West.

Speaking of corporate settings: Even though many companies end their fiscal years on October 31st or July 31st for accounting purposes, most use the New Year as a time to rally employees, suppliers, and customers for a new set of goals. Why not do the same, at an individual level?

 

 

New Year’s resolutions become more important as we grow older. Children, teens, and very young adults rarely set New Year’s resolutions, and with good reason. Their lives are already focused on change and transformation.

When you are in school, after all, there is a natural progression built into the transition from one grade—and from one major level of education—to the next. Your life is going to change whether you want it to or not. The process is going to kick you forward.

The setting of new goals, likewise, is built into the process. Many of these goals are predetermined. You don’t really have a choice about the goal of moving from the fifth grade into the sixth, or graduating from high school.

As an eighteen year-old high school graduate, you’ve got to do something next. If you’ve been blessed with caring parents and other conscientious adult authority figures, you’ll have no shortage of advice. But either way, you can’t remain in high school. The only way to go is forward…toward something.

After we become entrenched in the adult world, however, that systemic forward progression no longer pushes us along. In its place arises an inertia that encourages us to fall into ruts. The external trappings of this year might not vary much from those of the previous year, or the year before that. Change is quite often something that has to be initiated from within, versus accommodated from without.

And this is how we get “stuck”—in any number of ways.

 

 

I recognized signs of this pitfall in my own life in the mid-1990s, as I passed the midpoint of my twenties. I was five years removed from college, and about ten years removed from high school. I was just another working adult, and I could already sense myself falling into ruts.

So in 1995, I began two new habits.

The first of these was the setting of annual, quarterly, and monthly goals. I set goals in all areas of my life: financial, physical, social, professional, and “skills” (areas of knowledge that I wanted to improve or acquire).

I also began keeping a daily record of my activities. Nineteen ninety-five was still a largely analog world, so I used a paper-based system: I acquired a “business diary”, and used this for my daily records: accomplishments, setbacks, challenges met and overcome, memorable events, etc. Nothing fancy or too elaborate. Just something to give me a bird’s-eye view of the year the following December, when it would be time to set the next year’s goals.

I’ve been following this practice for twenty-four years now. I still have my 1995 diary, as well as my diaries for all the years in between. It’s interesting to see how my goals and priorities have changed since the Clinton era.

I’m naturally nostalgic (most conservatives are); but you don’t have to be obsessed with your personal auld lang syne in order to benefit from such a system. It is as focused on the future as it is on the past.

And the pivotal day of that system is New Year’s Day, January 1st, when I set aside one diary and open a blank one.

All those pages—twelve months of time.

A lot can happen in a year. A lot can be accomplished in a year. That is as true for me today, at age fifty, as it was on January 1, 1995, when I was twenty-six. But at age fifty, I probably rely more on this tangible reminder of what the New Year means.

That word tangible is important, by the way. I would encourage you to record your annual plans (and results) in a written, paper format.

I know: iPhones and Word files and “the cloud”. Fiddlesticks. Holding a year in your hand, in a single bound document, makes that year more psychologically substantial. This will be true on both January 1st and December 31st. And it’s definitely true later on, when you’re looking back on long-past years. Use a physical diary to both plan and record your personal year.

The past 24 years of my life.

Back to the gym. I know that the bulk of the New Year’s resolution members will come and go by March 15, because I’ve seen them come and go so many years in the past.

Likewise, I have fallen short on many of my New Year’s goals. So will you—unless you set goals that are unambitious (and therefore, uninspiring).

That said, the past twenty-four years have taught me that my New Year’s planning has a direct and proportional impact on the success of each subsequent year. This is why I maintain the practice, and probably always will, until the day when my New Years are no more.

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.