Sunday, March 25, 2012

What I Believe

A popular observation these days quotes G. K. Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.” This is meant to explain the late 20th century’s outpouring of devotion to mysticism, witchcraft, satanism, communism, and space aliens living among us, which seems to be in direct proportion to a fading of belief in the teachings of the little church on the corner.

With all respect to Chesterton, that puts a low value on the power of the human intellect and the human heart.

As someone who has professed atheism since my teenage years, I don’t feel myself attracted to nothing, nihilism, negativity, and anarchy. Neither am I about to go into flights of gullible acceptance over the teachings of wicca, homeopathy, herbal medicine, or redemption through space invaders.1

Although I was never formally trained as a scientist, most of my life has involved interaction with scientists and engineers, and I greatly respect their viewpoint. A scientist does not—or tries not to—“believe” in anything, because belief is generally taken to mean acceptance of an idea, fact, or system without testing and proof. A scientist instead works by observation: first, perceive and study a series of facts, situations, or conditions; second, from these observations, draw one or more generalizations, hypotheses, or rules about what is happening and why; third, develop a strategy for testing and proving that these generalizations may be wrong; finally, if the most rigorous tests cannot disprove the rule, accept it as a working premise.

Limits of Knowledge and Proof

The scientist accepts that what he or she can “know” is limited to the situations that can be directly observed and recorded. These include the results of any testing, where the condition or process to be tested is formally stated; the limits of applicability to other, similar conditions are firmly established; the inputs and outputs are observed and recorded; and the apparent proof or disproof is precisely stated. It’s a pretty limited form of knowledge.

On this basis, a scientist attending the Wedding in Cana would have tasted the water first, tasted the wine after, kept an eye on the jugs all the time—and then only have acknowledged that water had become wine. A scientist would not have concluded from this observation that anyone was a god, the son of a god, or especially gifted in any capacity other than time-independent fermentation. It’s a limited form of knowing.

This is why evolution has remained only a theory for more than 150 years, despite huge amounts of confirming evidence from the geological record, genetic analysis, and observations of physical structure. Evolution is an idea, a statement of how individually separate circumstances—the genotypes and phenotypes of individual animals and plants—are related. While no serious biologist doubts their relationship, while no instance has ever been observed of a living organism on Earth that was not chemically related to the organisms around it and preceding it, while evolution has never been formally disproved—the evolutionary process itself can still only be inferred, not directly observed. And so evolution remains a theory.

It’s on this basis that I’m prepared to deal with the physical universe. But I grant that the severe limitations of scientific knowledge break down when they encounter the human realm of relationships, emotions, preferences, antipathies, morals, and personal honor. These are the products not only of observation but also of cultural influence and familial upbringing.

As a scientist, I might infer and test the social proposition: “I have no special place in society that lets me act, and be perceived as acting, any differently from other people.” From this, it’s a short and testable step to: “If I find it possible to lie, cheat, steal, and murder to my advantage, it is also possible that others around me might lie, cheat, steal, and murder to my disadvantage.” And from this observation, one might also infer and test a moral principle: “Society functions better—that is, with less injury, hurt, and distrust—when I and those about be are instructed and act in a way that refrains from lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering.”

From this and similar propositions, I can draw a set of—not necessarily beliefs—but working principles, subject to review and revision.

People Aren’t Good or Bad

The world isn’t divided into “good” people and “bad” people. Human thought and activity are far too varied to make such simple distinctions. Even a Hitler thought he was doing something good for the German people, and a Lenin or a Pol Pot thought he was working for the benefit of future humanity.

Hitler was short-sighted in believing that what was good for the German people mattered more than the lives of people of other nations and races, and that what was good in the short run—expanding the borders, winning the battles, clearing the streets of undesirables—would suffice for the long run and survive the dispassionate judgment of disinterested observers (i.e., historians and their readers), who would take all sides into account. Lenin, Pol Pot, and others who would make a sacrifice—sometimes even a bonfire—of people, traditions, and relationships today in pursuit of a vision of what might be beneficial tomorrow, or in the distant future, or for some hypothetical and possibly fantasized “humanity,” are also guilty of extreme short-sightedness.2

But that said, while people as a general rule may not be “bad,” they may still be adhering to bad data and false assumptions, confused about the ultimate effects of their plans and goals, or mistaken about their own situation and their right to impose their planning on others. These are all cases of imperfect knowledge.

People are also capable of self-delusion. They may be acting selfishly or greedily in their relations with others, but see themselves as simply taking responsibility for their own lives and futures. Some people may even be cruel—sometimes with the thought that it’s the only appropriate way to be kind—but they don’t see themselves as monsters, merely as principled and unbending.

The world is more clearly divided into those who know themselves, take time for introspection, think through their actions, and view themselves with honesty and no special favoritism—and those who don’t. The latter figure the world is theirs for the taking, and their needs and priorities will always come first.3 This is more a matter of honesty and enlightenment, than moral virtue and impairment.

World Is Not Good or Bad, Either

By extension, the world—by which I mean the situation in which we as individuals, and collectively as humanity, find ourselves—is neither favorable nor unfavorable, neither good nor bad for us. The world simply exists and we must deal with it as we find it.

The world is “good” for humans and for all life on Earth only to the extent that evolution has shaped us. Our lungs adapted over time to breathe an atmosphere with the current percentages of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace gases. These percentages have not remained fixed over time, and the environment of the early Earth would have been deadly to us. In the same way, we are well—if not perfectly—adapted to the environment’s atmospheric pressure and ambient radiation, to sunshine’s visible wavelengths, and to the Earth’s seasonal variations, day-night cycles, Moon-Sun tidal phases, and other physical characteristics.

If we lived in an environment with no ionizing radiation at all, for example, there might not be enough genetic mutation and variation to drive our adaptability to other changing conditions. In the same way, if the environment did not change through sunspot cycles, ice ages, and ephemeral challenges like drought, floods, volcanoes, asteroid impacts, and other natural and sometimes human-caused disasters, then life on this planet would have remained static.4 We humans might not have evolved at all.

There have been good times and bad, in terms of both physical and socioeconomic conditions. The good times encourage human industry and development; the bad times challenge human survival. There has never been an Eden, where life was in perfect balance, all the apples were sweet, and humans could relax at their ease.

The world may not always be what we might wish it. We might dream of Eden. But getting everything we want—either at an individual or a societal level—would be bad for us. No animal on this planet was designed to relax in idleness, except perhaps the three-toed sloth. Fighting, scrambling, and surviving are the nature of living: they keep us sharp; they keep us lean and healthy.

On this basis, it’s useless to bewail fate. When the tornado knocks down your house, it makes no sense to ask “why me?”5 Our brains and bodies were designed instead to pick up the sticks and rebuild—or go under in despair.

I only hope I can maintain this optimistic belief when the next big earthquake comes.

1. But I have a long-standing appreciation for Buddhism, Zen, and eastern psychology and spiritual practice in general. This goes back to my university days, when I studied karate and picked up a bit of its philosophical side, then took some courses covering eastern religions, and ended up at the university press editing Garma C. C. Chang’s The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism (University Park: Penn State Press, 1971). Hwa Yen is one of the Chinese traditions of Buddhism and one of the roots of Japanese Zen.

2. As a general rule, anyone who would compel others to do his bidding or subscribe to his vision should be distrusted. When dealing with individual human beings, who remain the ultimate components and units of action in any group, it is better to invite and persuade than to coerce and compel. The results of persuasion and agreement are longer lasting, and you end up with fewer hurt feelings.

3. In the old Transactional Analysis, this is the position of “I’m OK, you’re not OK”—also sometimes known as the “criminal position.”

4. Probably at the level of blue-green algae, bacteria, and other microbes.

5. By choice or chance, you ended up living in a part of the country subject to tornadoes. Others live with floods, earthquakes, fire danger, and other hazards. There is no Eden.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Take a Deep Breath

For everyone who’s a writer, or a reader, or just interested in the business of book creation, book publishing, and the Gutenberg legacy over the past 500 years: Take a deep breath.

The book business (or more correctly, the story business) is now changing even more rapidly than the record business (or more correctly, the song business) changed since the heyday of compact disks. But this time Apple and iTunes aren’t in the driver’s seat. The publishers aren’t either. Amazon, with 60% of the market for digital books, would seem to be, but looks are deceiving. We are all going over the falls, and no one knows how high the falls really are or how many rocks there are at the bottom.

Some people see this as a great loss, because they believe that the print-based publishers have functioned as gatekeepers, maintaining the quality of the books available to the marketplace.1 Without them, it’s said, more drivel and dreck will be published. This is the view that holds self-published ebooks as simply an extension of the “vanity press”: writers who can’t make it in the real world styling themselves as authors by printing their own books.

But these days many established authors—myself among them, being generous with that word “established”—have chosen to epublish our own books because it gives us (A) more freedom of expression, (B) a better royalty deal, and (C) a shorter lead time to market. The downsides are (D) no advance payment—the whole book has to be written “on spec,” and (E) we have to learn to do our own editing, book coding, cover art, and marketing—or find and pay professionals who will do these things for us. This is really nothing new: in the book market of the past decade or two, publishers have been spending precious little money on good, dynamic editing, and aside from the big-name authors with their prepaid book tours, most authors have always been responsible for marketing their own brand and their books.

It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that publishers have the built-in ability to find and reward quality books. A friend of mine, Pat Larkin,2 and I recently had a long discussion about this. Paper publishers aren’t actually looking for a beautifully written manuscript with a great and moving story. Their hearts don’t leap when they find a story that really works in clever, inventive language. Ours do. The hearts of readers do. But publishers look at the numbers and their hearts leap only when they see that a certain kind of book has sold in large numbers. Right now, it’s vampires and zombies. And there’s a lot of dreck and drivel in the pile of vampire books out there. Ten years ago it was teenage wizards with glasses.

If any new author ever managed to get a facetime interview with an agent—or, even more unlikely, an acquisitions editor—and presented a novel of literary fiction as a potential project, these representatives of the quality market would hem and haw, then ask if maybe one of the characters couldn’t be a vampire, or become a zombie? Just an idea … In science fiction, this answers the age-old question, “Why is there a dragon on the cover of my novel of space adventure?”

We are all going over the falls. Right now, with print book sales in steep decline, a lot of the publishers are sensing they will not make it. A lot of the agents who follow them like little fish after the sharks, are also running scared. Barnes & Noble looks at the bankruptcy of the Borders chain and shrieks in fright—and thanks God they had the sense to launch the Nook, and that it was, for a while, a nicer product than the Kindle. Even Amazon looks around and knows that sales figures are just a monthly thing. Yeah, two million books this month, but a year from now somebody else—maybe Google (Google! the search engine people, f'r gosh sake!)—might be eating Amazon’s lunch the way they ate up Waldenbooks and B. Dalton.

We are all going over the falls. Amazon would seem to have started it all by bringing out the Kindle and igniting ebooks. But really, ebooks were already out in the marketplace with the Sony reader and Gutenberg and other first-run experiments. The Kindle was just a way to insure against Amazon’s warehouse full of mail-order books becoming a warehouse full of inert paper sometime down the road. B&N’s Nook was a me-too play. Google wants to be everything to everybody and eventually become the last app standing. None of them knows where this thing will end.

I have a few ideas. Or rather, call them articles of faith.

First, there will always be print books, just as photography didn’t do away with oil paintings, and movies and television didn’t destroy the urge to see live actors in a stage play. But books will become treasured classics and gift items. Andrew Hoyem’s Arion Press—fine printing of highly styled artifacts—will become the model for book publishing. It will be a small and financially impractical business, in the same way that staging a play is now a labor of love more than a commercial exercise.

Certain types of non-fiction, especially books with large-format graphics, will linger for a while, but they will eventually fade as the mixed-media capability of tablets and online links does away with the static book. For the compulsive readers of novels, mass market paperbacks will disappear first, then trade paperbacks, then first-run hardcover novels with a price tag above $20. I know this because readers want words and stories, not paper. And the economics of printing, inventorying, shipping, displaying, and remaindering wads of paper simply cannot stand up to the ereader with its always-open storefront, wireless delivery, and near-endless carrying capacity.

Second, all of the current schemes for cornering the ebook market—for example, Apple's iBook formatter, with its licensing clause making the formatted book the property of Apple, Inc., or the Kindle Selects sales prize, for which authors compete so long as they distribute exclusively through Amazon—are just that. Schemes, experiments, trials. Kindle is big this year, iPad has staying power, but who knows what will happen in another five or ten years? Unlike bricks and mortar and warehouses, these things can change with the next new idea in software or the next expansion in telecommunications (4G, 5G, gee-whiz!). That’s why I don't advocate authors (or readers) getting locked into one reading device and distribution system or another. The company behind that ereader can change the rules—the terms and conditions, the royalty percentages, the formatting requirements, the distribution method—or whatever they like in the space of one breath and the next. But, if the rules become something we as readers and authors don’t like, we’re all prepared to jump ship, change loyalties, and try something else.3 That’s why, with my ebooks, I’m specializing in a standardized format—HTML and epubs—with files and coding that I can understand, control, and eventually expand and change as the market changes.

Third, everybody gets banged up in going over the falls, but big boats do worse than little canoes, barrels, and free swimmers. Right now, the megapublishers are trying to fight the ebook wave by pricing their ebooks just a dollar or two under the print version. Readers hate that. Authors hate it because it hurts their sales in a medium which everyone senses is the wave of the future. Book publishers will fail in that. More authors are bailing on a scheme that gets them a 10% or 15% royalty on a price no one wants to pay, when they can get 35% or 70% on a much more reasonable price. No reader wants to pay $27 for just a couple of hours of entertainment. Ebooks are putting the price of a story, one way or another, back to the $3 to $5 per book that most of us long-time readers remember. That’s the new market price for a one-time, first-through read of a new author. By trying to stamp out ebooks with high pricing, the publishers are trying to swim upstream. We all know how well that works at Niagara or Iguaçu Falls.

Fourth, readers are going to get a lot closer to the authors they like. The days of the bestseller (a marketing phenomenon of the megacorporation book business) are going away. The market and its focus on genres will fragment. It will no longer be a herd of readers crazed for the latest marketing phenomenon, but readers finding and celebrating authors whom they really like. We’ve already seen the start of this with book clubs, who share ideas and find authors who might not be the latest media darlings but satisfy the likes of their members. Word of mouth and recommendation are still the strongest marketing. These readers like books with rich content and reader guides that are springboards for discussion.

In this environment, the author had better not be sitting in Connecticut and communing with the world only through the marketing department of a New York publisher. Facebook, online chat groups, and all the other social media put the author just a click away from his or her interested readers. Which means that if a reader has a question or a criticism, the author should hear it, reply, be courteous and—to an extent never dreamed of before—let readers participate to some extent in the writing process. We’re already seeing the start of that closeness with the few authors who have tried publishing a chapter at a time through social media and taking immediate feedback.4

The business models and marketplace shenanigans of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes really do not matter. Authors are—and have always been—their own franchise and their own brand. That’s what will stand the test of time in the reader’s mind as the whirl of distribution devices, cloud services, and schemes passes on down the road. Can I get a good read out of this author? Can he or she work the magic? Maybe, one day soon, readers will be getting the book as a hologram with a background selection of images and a mix tape soundtrack on a 3D device.5 But the reader still wants an author who can make people and stories come alive.

This whole business is going over the falls. We’re all going to get soaking wet and a bit battered. Some of us will not survive. … Take a deep breath.

1. See my blog The Future of Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle from August 28, 2011.

2. Patrick Larkin specializes in historical, military, and espionage thrillers. His novel The Tribune is the first of a series set in imperial Rome at the time of Christ, with a sequel now under way. He wrote two novels in Robert Ludlum’s bestselling Covert-One series, The Lazarus Vendetta and The Moscow Vector. And earlier he coauthored with Larry Bond five novels of military fiction, including Red Phoenix, Vortex, Cauldron, The Enemy Within, and Day of Wrath.

3. How many computers, cell phones, tablets, and ereaders have you owned in your life? I have come a long way over the years, from my first computer, an Apple II, to a CompuPro S-100 system, an IBM PC with DOS and then OS/2, then Windows, and now a Mac. I’ve had half a dozen different cell phones, now an iPhone. I read from both a Kindle and a Nook, think about getting the iPad but can still read everything just fine on my iPhone. I’m not bragging here but showing that we are all platform-independent and will churn with the market. The days of having the same Motorola radio or Philco television in the living room for twenty years are long gone.

4. Do you know how brave that is? When I write a book, I’m constantly revising, going front to back and back to front, as new ideas and twists in the story occur to me. In order to produce a chapter a week for a Dickens-like serialization in social media, I would want to have the complete novel finished and polished—this is my special form of OCD speaking—and then dole out the chapters over time. I have no trouble making the finished book available to a few select readers for a reality check, and then going back and dealing with their comments and questions as a whole, because a patch here always reveals a crack over there which needs fixing. But to serialize a novel on the fly, and then honestly take reader feedback on each chapter, would put the whole story constantly into play. It might be a better story in the end, but as comments ignite fixes and changes, I would have no way to ensure that the early chapters—with which the serial readers are already familiar—would have any relevance to the later chapters those readers would be receiving. Madness! … But an intriguing author problem … Hmmm.

5. I’ve already had a taste of this in selecting the pictures and music for my book trailer for The Children of Possibility. It was fun.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Self-Control and Commitment

True confessions time. I’ve experienced two great changes in my personal life—or perhaps I should say “physical life,” because each change had nothing to do with the “personal” or “spiritual” me, were nothing to do with love, work, philosophy, or politics, but rather involved personal habits and health. The changes are instructive, I think, because they involve habits with which many educated and enlightened people are now wrestling.

I started smoking as a freshman at the university. I chose a pipe because, as a bookish lad, I believed it fit a certain scholarly, thoughtful, British-tweedy, semi-aristocratic image I rather admired.1 My parents, both lifetime heavy cigarette smokers, could not really object (except when I occasionally lit up a cigar in the house), but I knew they were disappointed. I continued smoking after graduation and through my first couple of jobs. As an avid reader, aspiring writer, and then a copy and technical editor, tobacco helped my body relax (“narcotized” is the word, I think) and focused my mind for long stints—often hours at a time—of juggling words in one form or another.

Note that I started smoking about three years after the first of the Surgeon General’s reports on smoking and health in 1964. I was aware of the report and its warnings, but I was young and immortal: cancer, disease, and death were bogeymen of the distant future, after many pleasant years of contented smoking. But in the early 1970s, and after moving to health-conscious California, I began to find my smoking habit a bit inconvenient: not so many of my co-workers smoked, more public places were putting restrictions on smoking, people I respected were turning up their noses.2

All the beliefs about pipe smoking being less harmful than cigarettes are false. By then I wasn’t just puffing but actually inhaling, and it was a far richer, denser, more tar-laden smoke. I was also consuming about an ounce of tobacco a day, which I reckoned as somewhere between one and two packs. And, truth to tell, I was feeling poisoned. My body knew this habit was not good for me, even if my brain still liked the stuff.

I tried several times to cut down if not quit. I could stop for a week or so, then find an excuse in a moment of work pressure or anxiety to start back up. Note that at the time there were fewer organized cessation classes available, and weaning aids like nicotine patches were still in their infancy.

During college and for a few years after I had neglected my teeth, as young people away from the organized lives and gentle reminders of parents often do. By then I was also finding the tar buildup inside my mouth, which no amount of brushing could touch, distasteful. I made an appointment with a local dentist and went for a cleaning and checkup. He spent an hour with pick, probe, and scraper removing the tar, all the time muttering under his breath. And it hurt. But I walked out of the office figuring I had another seven or eight years of relatively clean teeth before the tar built up again.

I did go back for a checkup six months later, and it was the same routine: scrape and mutter. “Does that hurt?” “Well, yes …” “Good!” When I walked out of the office that day, I thought, “I’ll show him. I’ll stop cold and, the next time I come back, my mouth will be clean.” Silly damn thought, based on my peevishness toward a medical professional who was only doing his job.

Somehow, making a silent commitment—about which the doctor never knew until many years later—worked for me. It became a commitment to myself. I stopped smoking cold that day and never picked up a pipe again. In a few days’ time I noticed that the brown rime around my nostrils from the inhaled smoke went away. I no longer had little burn holes in my shirts from falling ash. The air smelled better both outdoors and in my apartment.

About a week after quitting, I was assigned to edit a mammoth project at work: a multi-volume engineering report on an iron ore mine that involved many revisions, huge stress, and hours of overtime. I never once used the workload as an excuse to light up. After surviving six months of that stress without smoke, I figured nothing else in my life would work as an excuse. Then I met Irene and the war was over.3

My second bad habit was drinking. Again, my parents were regular drinkers, each consuming a couple of martinis before dinner. I didn’t drink at all while still under age,4 but when I turned 21 (legal age at the time in our state) I went to a favorite bar with friends for beer. Later, as I established my working life, I kept alcohol—a six pack of beer, bottles of whiskey and vodka, two or three kinds of wine—in the apartment to drink in the evenings. Although my wife was not a smoker, she too enjoyed a beer in the evening and didn’t object.

As with smoking, the dangers—delirium tremens, liver damage, disease, death—were far down the road and of no concern. I had learned how to dose myself in the evening before bed with aspirin, vitamin C, and plenty of water, so the hangover in the morning was manageable, other than a certain lurching unsteadiness until I’d had coffee and breakfast.

This habit continued for a dozen years longer than the smoking. In time I was regularly consuming a bottle of red wine each evening, or the equivalent in beer or—sometimes, rarely—shots of a brand-name hard liquor. I was always able to function at work and never drank during the day. But still, I was feeling poisoned, and my body knew better than my brain. I was thinking about quitting, and one time I managed to stop drinking for a whole six months. But then I sold my first novel and had a glass of wine—two glasses, actually—to celebrate. By the end of that week I was back to my bottle a night.

This continued until I went in to the doctor for a minor medical problem—a nothing, a sebaceous cyst—but as it had been several years since my last visit,5 I had to fill out a medical history form. One of the questions was “How many drinks do you consume per week?” It gave the standard equivalencies among beer, wine, and hard liquor.6 Still, I had to count on my fingers to tot up all that wine. Even giving myself a free night, when I didn’t drink the whole bottle, the total came to 28 glasses.

The doctor asked, “How long have you had a drinking problem?” I started to say, “I don’t consider it a problem”—and stopped. That kind of denial was one of the warning signs I had been brooding about. It was a moment of insight, like the dentist scraping away at my teeth. The doctor also tested my feet with a huge tuning fork and described “peripheral neuropathy.” Here was a danger—not being able to feel where my feet were and when they struck the pavement, an embarrassment for someone who prided himself on his karate skills—which wasn’t reserved for the distant end of life but looming in my face right now.

I left the doctor’s office and decided to surprise him by never drinking again. Unlike smoking—which is a “do it” or “don’t” proposition—drinking involves daily choices and temptations. What goes well with this food or that? What to sip in the evening after dinner? I discovered nonalcoholic beer, sometimes even nonalcoholic wine, but mostly consumed (and still do) oceans of Diet 7-Up. I quickly adopted a rule: “Don’t put it in your mouth.” I could have desserts with denatured alcohol, like plum pudding and rum sauce, but if a liquid, any liquid, contained alcohol and came in a glass, spit it out.7 I’ve been sober ever since. In fact, sobriety has become precious to me.

Although I greatly respect Alcoholics Anonymous and the good work they do, the twelve-step program was never for me. I’ve been a convinced atheist since I was a teenager. Surrendering my will to a “higher power”—however I wished to conceive of Him/Her/It—was inconsistent with the universe I knew. The human mind is the most advanced and evolved system within a couple of parsecs of this place, so my worldview requires me to rely on it. And since I’ve never been very good with authority figures, I had to rely on myself.8

Much as I respect the mind, I also learned a valuable lesson from both episodes of quitting: “The mind is a monkey, and the body wants its candy.” Tobacco and alcohol reach parts of the nervous system that are far below thought and memory, actually down at the chemical and somatic level. The craving is a hunger, like the desire for food or sex. When the body is accustomed to its daily or hourly dose of nicotine and alcohol, it responds with an unreasoned craving. And in this case, the mind is quite willing to go along and invent excuses.

“You’ve had a really hard day—you deserve a drink!” “You had a really good day—let’s celebrate with a drink!” “There’s a half bottle of wine in the fridge—shame to let it go to waste!” “There’s still a glassful left in that bottle—shame to put it in the fridge!” “It’s my birthday … my wife’s birthday … somebody’s birthday …”

The patter, the urgings, the excuses go on and on unless the mind has already made a decision, an override, a Rule That Cannot Be Broken: “Don’t put it in your mouth. And if it somehow gets in there, spit it out.” Reaching that decision, making it final and not just a preliminary Good Idea I Really Should Try, is the life change. After years of false starts, of trying to cut down, and making short-term—almost trial—efforts, a person really must get serious, dig in, and make a rule. After that, quitting is actually easy.

I still have one more mountain range to cross. After years of eating as I liked, eating everything I wanted, eating according to patterns I established in my twenties and thirties—and watching my weight rise by 10 to 15 pounds per decade—I now have to do something. Twenty years and thirty pounds ago, I tried Weight Watchers for a couple of months. But that turned out to be a roomful of people sitting around for an hour each week talking about food—healthy, nutritious, lower-calorie food, yes, but still an obsession. That looked to me like a dead end.

Over the years I’ve kept up—more or less, now and then, on a journey covering hills, plateaus, and valleys—with the same Isshinryu karate katas that I learned way back at the university. Karate has become my built-in, default-level form of cardio exercise. The only trouble has been that, on the days I do a workout, I’ve been rewarding myself with extra food and treats. So while my heart is strong and I’m relatively limber, the pounds don’t go away. But the karate exercises are something to build on.

I need it, because my body mass index has now gone into dangerous territory. In the past year or two I’ve been experiencing minor troubles with foot and ankle swelling, which recently became to a condition that involved clotting in my surface veins, which led to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. So, “someday” is now here. Immortality is now out of reach. And I have to start taking seriously everything I put into my mouth, not just the tobacco smoke and the intoxicating beverages.9

I can do it. I did it before. The mind may be a monkey, but it’s the only thing I’ve got to work with.

1. Mostly from the movies coming out of the World War II era that preceded mine and seemed very adult, including Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. And yes, at one time I owned a calabash—dreadfully heavy thing, poor draw, and no way to set it down once lit.

2. And the woman I was eventually to meet and marry was a dedicated non/never-smoker. If I had shown up at her door with my dirty habit (“Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray”), we never would have finished our first date.

3. Oddly enough, for years afterward I occasionally had what I call “smoking dreams.” In the dreams, which might involve any kind of activity, I would be smoking again. I would feel bad about it, but there it was. Only as I started to wake up would I realize, “No, that’s wrong. I did quit . I don’t smoke. I didn’t go back to smoking.”

4. Unlike some students I knew, who finagled a false driver’s license to go drinking even as freshmen. This seemed like too much work and risk to me—but I hadn’t acquired the taste as yet.

5. Remember, I was still relatively young and immortal.

6. For the record: 12 ounces of beer equal 5 ounces of wine equal 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

7. Once, at a social function, I picked up a glass of champagne by mistake, thinking it was my usual sparkling cider, drew in a sip, spit it back into the glass, and put the glass behind a fern on a side table. Life is full of little victories.

8. However, I will admit the irony that in giving up first smoking and then drinking, I was relying on the implied authority of medical professionals. But they were the catalyst that led to the decision to stop, not the actual strength behind making that decision a permanent part of my life.

9. As a woman I know who struggles with her weight once pointed out, if smoking is a “do it” or “don’t” proposition, and alcohol is something you can choose to drink or not, food is a basic need, and it all has calories. Every day is a struggle for the weight-challenged. There’s a decision to be made about every donut in the coffee shop display, every piece of candy being offered on a co-worker’s desk, every item on the restaurant menu. This is the fight that goes on and on. The “Rule” must hold for the rest of your life.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ebooks and Time

For me, the choice to go independent and publish my earlier novels and now my new ones as ebooks on Kindle, Nook, and iBooks was not that hard. It was a case of “self-publish or perish.”

My early career with Baen Books in science fiction was launched in the mid-1980s, which was an interesting time for writers. A change to the tax law on treatment of inventories1 was already putting pressure on the book business—which put pressure on writers who did not already have an established following or were making big sales. It was also a time when more books than ever were being printed and sold, which meant more competition among this crop of new writers. My sales for eight books over about the same number of years were adequate to keep the publisher interested in my ideas, but I never made much more than pin money for myself and never saw a title sell through its advance to start earning actual royalties.

When I tried to reignite my career in the mid-2000s with new novels that were more thrillers than science fiction, I trolled The Literary Marketplace trying to attract an agent who would get my work before a suitable publisher. A few thousand letters and emails later—which garnered all of about 20 responses, expressing polite interest and then ultimate regret—told me that the literary world was full of new authors looking to make a name, established agents with too many hungry authors to service, and a reduced number of ever more selective publishers struggling to find a marketing success.2 For me, the lure of self-publishing electronically meant that at least some readers would have a chance to find and enjoy my work—and I wouldn’t be filling a storage locker with a press run of physical books, which I would then have to flog through the local bookstores.

In the 18 months since I started epublishing, I’ve learned that time is a completely different commodity in the electronic world.

First, the act of bringing out a new book no longer has to be a big splashy event. This is not because there is no publisher with an advertising budget able to host a party and invite the literary world. I can hold a party and invite my friends, if I want. But my ebook does not have to make a big impact with press releases, a tight schedule of author interviews and public readings, and a flurry of favorable reviews in prominent newspapers and magazines, followed by its closely watched entry onto bestseller lists and a climb up to some terminal position—with an eventual fall off and fade away.

Conventional paper books are under such pressure to make a big hit—all in hopes of interesting as many readers as possible in buying the book as quickly as possible—because time is chasing the inventory. The publisher has a large press run to sell off before holding unsold books incurs too much tax expense and it becomes more economical to remainder the book and pulp the copies. In contrast, the ebook has no inventory, no tax on inventory, no cost of holding inventory. It’s simply a string of digits on a server somewhere and has no physical cost to the author/publisher (except the time invested in writing, editing, and coding, plus something for acquiring cover art) or to the bookseller (except the business costs of maintaining some disk space and adding a line or two to the accounting software).

Of course, I want potential readers to know about my new book. I will post a notice on my author’s website, put a video trailer on YouTube, have a full-page description available with pricing and links to my ebooksellers, post updates on social media, send notices to friends and acquaintances, and float out other “soft” marketing.3 But the time pressure is simply not there.

Why? Because I do not have to build up a standing wave of enthusiasm in the book business among store owners, chain store buyers, and marketers, all of whom have their own inventory and shelf-space issues to contend with.4 My appeal is directly to the readers. It does not really matter (well, except in terms of my ego fulfillment right now) whether a reader finds and buys my work this week or next—or next year, or the year after.

A second consequence of epublishing is that no book is ever really old. The grand ta-dah! of publishing a new book means that last year’s book and all that went before it are suddenly ancient history. Of course, bookstores are filled with novels that have stood the test of time—those by once-prominent authors whose publishers are going back for a second dip, usually in connection with a new movie release—and a new generation of readers will find them and love them. So long as a novel isn’t too horribly dated (without the intention of becoming “historical”), it can be new and exciting to the readers who have not yet discovered it.5 But for less than big-name authors, early works are lost in the dust of crumbling paperbacks, never to be resurrected.

Epublishing now enables every author to make his or her backlist permanently available. There is no investment decision to reprint the physical books and undertake new inventory costs. Converting a printed book to digits and then proofing and coding it as an ebook can be relatively cheap. In bulk and done by professionals, the cost is about $300 to $500 per title. The more titles an author has available, the more chances for a reader to find the one work that seems interesting, like it, and then go look for another.

The great secret is that a habitual reader is not only interested in finding something new and exciting—that wave of “buzz” in the literary world and among like-minded friends. A reader with a nightstand full of books will also look for, and reward with purchases, any author who writes just the sort of books that reader likes. I think of the mother in Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, who showed her children the moon rising just as the sun was setting, and they exclaimed, “Oh, Mama, do it again!” Every one of us who finishes a book we have come to love sighs, “Oh, Mama, do it again!”

In an emarket where an author’s books are continuously available, without the tyranny of inventories and press runs to take them out of the public reach on a regular basis,6 producing a new book is not so much an astounding literary event as the slow and steady building of a name and a body of work.

For the habitual reader, it means that every book ever written, and every author you’ve ever loved, is potentially available for browsing and download at three o’clock in the morning. These are literary riches beyond the dreams of Gutenberg!

Time is on the ebook author’s side. We don’t have to make our reputation among a literary marketplace of publishers, reviewers, and chain store buyers with a big and costly marketing splash. We reach our readers one at a time, often on a hunch or a whim. Then we spread a full hand of cards and let them pick. And if they honor us by liking our work, they can come back and take another, and another. The shop is always open and fully stocked.

1. See Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.’s excellent discussion of this in How Thor Power Hammered Publishing.

2. See my previous blog Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle.

3. I call this “soft” marketing because the secret to selling on the internet and through social media is to be a gentle presence, to be inviting and entertaining, and not to scream. An author’s website is meant to attract readers through entertaining and ever-changing content (like these blogs) about the author’s active and interesting life and ideas. Social media are meant to share thoughts and experiences among friends and their acquaintances, with an occasional reference to an author’s book activities. Potential readers must always choose to click on and read these links. No one goes to a site hoping to get an advertisement.

4. And standing waves eventually crash.

5. There are any number of thrift and consignment shops with the name “New to You,” and they sell old clothes on the same terms I invite readers to try my earlier books. One of the broadcast channels used to advertised its summer reruns with the same thought: if you didn’t see this episode last year, then it’s “New to You.” Repackaging and selling established books is similarly a big part of the book business.

6. Yes, there is the local library, and many people feed their reading habit with books from its shelves. But libraries are usually as selective about what fiction they will carry as any bookstore, and not all of an author’s works are available on the local library’s shelves.