Wednesday, August 20, 2014

“An e-book should cost 50 cents,”

Tomorrow I head out for three weeks in Kenya, Tanzania, and London--researching and allowing my soul to grow in Africa and then hawking my latest at the Historical Novel Society conference in London.  To the extent that my internet connections allow, I will apprise you of my progress as I go along.  In the meanwhile, discussions I have had with readers and writers in the last couple of weeks have encouraged me to return to this post from three and half years ago.  As predicted, the situation is worse now than it was then.  The US government has sued publishers, giving even more power to Amazon, and Amazon is "renting" ebooks of current novels free of charge to their "Premier" members.  The members pay Amazon $75 a year for the privilege and, of course, pay Amazon for the Kindle on which they read.  Authors and publisher get zilch.  OY. OY. OY!!!

…the woman at the gym said to me and a couple of others. We had just taken an exercise class together and were chatting as we changed to go out into cold and windy mid-February New York. “I mean,” she went on, “it doesn’t cost anything to produce.” The person who was speaking is a grownup who lives on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. She reads a lot, so presumably she is capable of more subtle thought than she was displaying at the moment. She had been touting reading on a Kindle to one of our group who was about to head out on a vacation away from the sleet and slush. The main advantage the speaker saw in the electronic book reader was that one can carry so many books so easily. That e-books cost less than print copies made up for the cost of the Kindle, she thought. Then she dropped that bomb about 50 cents being the appropriate price for an e-book.

I spoke up to defend the rights of the writer. I even defended the right of the publisher to make a profit for taking the considerable trouble to publish the book. Once I pointed out that a writer had probably spent two years working on the book and deserved get more recompense than such a price would afford, and that publishers had to maintain offices and pay editors, the 50-cent-lady changed her tune. The discussion then turned to an even more difficult subject. One of the company had heard that only the most successful authors make more than a pittance for their work. Why do they do it, they asked me. By then I had revealed my profession.

Fact is that if authors don’t get a decent cut of the income from the sale of electronic books, our plight is going to get worse and faster than was predicted even just a year ago. A couple of days after that discussion at the gym, I received an email from The Authors Guild outlining the impact of e-book sales on authors’ royalties. The story isn't pretty. Quoted here is what the Guild said:

E-book royalty rates for major trade publishers have coalesced, for the moment, at 25% of the publisher’s receipts. As we’ve pointed out previously, this is contrary to longstanding tradition in trade book publishing, in which authors and publishers effectively split the net proceeds of book sales (that's how the industry arrived at the standard hardcover royalty rate of 15% of list price). Among the ills of this radical pay cut is the distorting effect it has on publishers’ incentives: publishers generally do significantly better on e-book sales than they do on hardcover sales. Authors, on the other hand, always do worse.
How much better for the publisher and how much worse for the author? Here are examples of authors’ royalties compared to publishers’ gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:
“The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett
Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -39%
Publisher’s Margin: $4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%
“Hell’s Corner,” by David Baldacci
Author's Standard Royalty: $4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -37%
Publisher’s Margin: $5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%
“Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand
Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -17%
Publisher’s Margin: $5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%
So, everything else being equal, publishers will naturally have a strong bias toward e-book sales.

We can suppose that the future will belong more and more to e-book formats. If publishers continue find them so much more profitable than printed books, they will push change even faster.

Much as I love the tactile experience of reading what I still call “a real book,” I have begun to buy e-books too and to read them on an iPad. I like it that the device is backlit, which allows me to read in the dark, since I am often awake in the night and turning on the light would wake my husband. I love it that if I am reading to research a story, I can highlight and write notes on the text quite magically. And I have to say, that I do like the lower price.

But now having seen the Authors Guild’s numbers on the subject, I feel guilty depriving my fellow authors of a fair share of the profits from their work. Predicting how all this will work out is a favorite game in every corner of the publishing industry these days. For my part, I am counting on organizations like the Guild, Mystery Writers of America, and other author advocacy groups to press for authors' rights. In the meanwhile, I am grateful to the Guild for giving me information to set the record straight when the subject comes up, even if it's just in response to uninformed opinions in casual discussions at the gym.

By the way, the following week, one of the other people who overheard our conversation brought in a hardcover copy of one of my books and asked me to autograph it. Now there is something you can't do with an e-book!

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mom and Gail

My mother was a very smart woman who, in high school, pursued what was then called a “commercial” course of study. It prepared young women to become clerical workers and secretaries. The other option was the academic track which would lead to a college education that few families in my grandparents’ circumstances could afford.

In her senior year my mother took shorthand. One of her year long assignments was to become a pen pal of another student. Mom’s pen pal was Gail and the two of them wrote to each other in shorthand. I don’t know how many of my mother’s classmates maintained their relationships with their pen pals beyond graduation, but my mom and Gail dropped the shorthand and wrote to each other for almost 50 years.

They never met nor did they discuss the possibility of meeting and came to be like strangers on a train (though not in the Patricia Highsmith sense of that term). While I doubt that they were candid with each other by contemporary standards—my mother always believed that there were certain things you just didn’t tell other people—I know they told each other a lot that I doubt they shared with family or friends closer to them.

I came to love Gail’s letters as much as my mother did. They were warm, bubbly novellas of acquisition and material content. Gail married the kind of guy who went out for a pack of cigarettes and came back with a Cadillac. Each of their three children had a television set in a time when parents were not as indulgent of children as they are now. Gail did occasionally allude to the possibility of overspending but these hints of unease were buried under detailed descriptions of appliances, curtains, clothing and cars.

There was some discussion of books in these letters and Gail would send my mother books that were “just too weird for me.” Thus did I first read Flannery O’ Connor (Everything That Rises Must Converge) and Joyce Carol Oates (Expensive People).

I still remember being enthralled by the first line of Expensive People: “I was a child murderer.” I read on to find out if this meant the narrator was a child who murdered or an adult who murdered children. I was hooked and read Joyce Carol Oates for years, though I now realize I can never keep up.

I never saw my mother’s letters to Gail except in one circumstance. A professor of mine with whom our family was friendly called to see if he could borrow my mother’s typewriter. He had something important he had to work on and his typewriter had died. I told him he could use the typewriter without asking my mother. I could tell she wasn’t entirely pleased to lend her Olivetti, but the man asking for it was a college professor and she both liked and respected him. He assured both of us that he would have it back in a tick. He kept it for three weeks. My mother said nothing.

When the typewriter was finally returned, my mother set to work on a letter to Gail. She left the letter in the typewriter. I happened to read the opening paragraph. My mother was very angry at me and displeased that I had loaned her typewriter without asking her first. I couldn’t discuss this with my mother because I would have to reveal that I had read the letter, but my mom had the satisfaction of letting me know how she felt without having to provoke a confrontation.

A few years later when my father abruptly left the family, I also got another glimpse into what my mother said to Gail. I was filled with advice for my mother after my father left. We were both distraught, but my mother seemed paralyzed in a way that threatened every aspect of her life. She hated my advice, but she read me a letter of Gail’s which said, “I know it’s hard to take advice from someone you remember as a baby, but Stephanie sounds sensible.” While my mother didn’t hang on my every word, we had an easier time discussing unpleasant topics.

In later years, Mom reported that she heard less from Gail. Then one Christmas she got a card from Gail’s husband. The card had some cheery family scene on it, but inside Gail’s husband had written “Bonnie, I am sorry to tell you that Gail has Alzheimer’s Disease and never wants to do anything anymore.”

“Now I guess I’ll never get to meet her,” my mother said.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Miss Bacall

She hated being called a legend. 

And by the standards of performers who began their careers in the golden age of film, Lauren Bacall didn't do that many movies. She married a legend, and her career suffered. She lost her Svengali, Howard Hawks, after the marriage, and he sold her contract. Movies fell on hard times — middle class flight to the suburbs, TV. And movies in the 1950s wanted voluptuous, not-too-bright blondes. So why do we film fans recall her with such deep admiration and affection? It starts with her first movie, To Have and Have Not

You have to see that movie to understand what a sensation she caused. It was not only because she was gorgeous. It was because of the way she played Marie. Sultry, yet somehow innocent, teasing, playful. And the repartee between her and Bogart is, well, legendary. Finally you’ll understand why film buffs like to say, with a wink-wink to each other, “You know how to whistle, don't you?”   

And she was only 19.

But while I thoroughly enjoyed How to Marry a Millionaire and Designing Woman, by my teens, I had moved on to other movies, “younger” movies. British movies.

But I found Bacall again when I was in college, when she starred in Applause on Broadway. I was living in Tennessee. Didn’t matter. I was studying theater, and I was captivated by a musical version of All About Eve

I wore out that album (although I still own it!). I took it to Saturday set-building sessions at my undergraduate university, and we’d stick it on the hi-fi and turn up the volume so we could hear it onstage. And sing along. Well, at least I did. I thought it would be the best thing in the world to be on stage. 

With Bacall.

So of course, when it came time to name my heroine, a tall blonde with a snappy attitude, there was only one first name I could give.


Sheila York
Copyright 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nazis Nuns in Paraguay

I wish I could write short stories. I very much admire the form and stand in awe of writers who can produce those small jewels—like the tiny towns, churches, images of the saints sculpted in gold and silver and placed on medieval reliquaries.  It takes a magnifying glass to see their exquisite beauty and the perfection of every detail.

My imagination and level of skill require large blocks of literary marble, a sledgehammer, and sharp chisels.  I have had exactly one piece of short fiction published.  Every once in a while, I get an idea for another, but by the time I have thought about it for forty-five seconds, it begins to expand with plots and characters and scenery and grows into a gargantuan epic that, if I took the time, I might be able to cut down to the 70,000 words or so that my publisher might be willing to print as a book.

A couple of months ago, a fan of my second novel Invisible Country gave me an old, brown newspaper clipping about something that had happened in Paraguay—the setting for that book.  At first, I thought I might use the information as the basis of a short story.   It has all the elements of a perfect background.  I will share it with you here verbatim:

From The New York Daily News- 5 May 1989

Alarmed by gruesome reports of excessive discipline at a convent school, a concerned priest investigated—and discovered the “nuns” were a gang of bloodthirsty ex-Nazis in disguise! 

             For decades the Hitler henchmen hid beneath black habits to escape justice for their barbaric crimes, while torturing orphan pupils and plotting world domination!  (The exclamation points are The Daily News’s, not mine—except for this one!)
            “It’s an abomination,” cries Father Juan Escalpa, “that these 14 men of darkness could masquerade as sisters of light.  It is a desecration of the church.”
            Instead of religious training, students were a taught a hateful mixture of racist bigotry.
            The Nazi nuns drove their points home with various instruments of torture.   “Their favorite was the ruler rapper,” notes battered student Miguel Parraiba.


“They strapped your hand into a machine, and the steel ruler beat your knuckles bloody.”
            Father Juan, a priest in Asuncion, Paraguay, heard horrifying stories from shattered orphans about the convent and traveled into the jungle to investigate.
            “When I spied on then later that night, I saw them goose-stepping around the convent and singing Nazi songs,” recalls Father Juan.
            An elite army corps raided the convent, where they discovered a large cache of guns and explosives, along with Nazi literature and regalia.
            “We’ve been able to establish that they were all high-ranking S.S. officers,” notes Police Sergeant Jorge Ciminado.
            “Their leader was Colonel Klaus Van Roeppelgang, who was also their Mother Superior.”
-Ben Snark

Immediately on reading this,  I imagined the germ of a story.  An old man had gone to visit the grandson of his deceased best friend.  The boy had been cared fro by his grandfather, but had been taken to an orphanage after his grandpa died.  As soon as the friend arrives, the nine-year-old begins to complain about the treatment the children receive.  Abuelo, Sister Superior is so nasty.  All the sisters punish us too much.”  The old man gives the child the same argument he had gotten from his parents.  (The same one I got from my own if I complained about my treatment in school.)  “You must listen to your teachers.  They are trying to help you grow up to be good people.”  But when the old man looks at the scars on the child’s hands, he wonders.  He thinks it over the bus home.  When he gets back to Asuncion,  he calls his parish priest Father Juan.

At this point, the ballooning of the story begins.   Chases through the jungle.  Neo-Nazis in high places.  The lost gold of Paraguay.  The investigation of the deaths of the real nuns who ran the orphanage before the Third Reichers took over.   It all becomes too daunting, and my enthusiasm disintegrates.

And so my best-bet short form remains the brief essay.  That’s why I enjoy writing blogs.

Annamaria Alfieri

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How Much Sex is Too Much?

Today's guest is a writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour. Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Wynd’s novella of murder and obsessive love, EXTRICATE, is out now from Fox Spirit Books; the print edition also includes the novella THROW THE BONES as well as a collection of short stories. ‘The Tender Trap’ appears in EXILES: AN OUTSIDER ANTHOLOGY from Blackwitch Press and the short story ‘Kiss Like a Fist’ appears in NOIR NATION 3.

We know what they say about us crime writers: better a bullet than a kiss. I don’t want to say that we’re puritanical, but you should see people’s faces if you suggest something like Fifty Shades of Miss Marple (though I bet the old gal had a lot more going on than we might want to guess). Across the border over in thriller territory, James Bond is getting it on. But the crime scene tape keeps those shenanigans at bay.

Mysteries tend to appeal to the intellect; our investigators might develop a patchy romance with a colleague or even a criminal, but anything between the sheets happens offstage. But I write noir. Noir is a bit different: it’s all hard men and femmes fatales, who seem destined to use that allure as a weapon. The sexy is out there in the open, but it tends to be a tease. The most we get is Chandler allowing Marlowe a brief indulgence with Mrs. Grayle: “She fell softly across my lap and I bent down over her face and began to browse on it.”

The novella Extricate which opens my collection from Fox Spirit Books features a pair who fall into what folks would now recognize as a BDSM sort of relationship. They don’t have a name for it: they’re just stunned to find a kindred soul. Of course the choices they make so they can be together are not so smart, which is noir in a nutshell: things fall apart. But things do get a bit steamy.

Is it too much? Your mileage may vary, as they say. The crimes are the main focus in the narrative, but sex is the engine that drives it. Don’t you want to peek at what’s under the hood now and then? Go on. No one’s looking.

© 2014 Graham Wynd