Monthly Archives: January 2010

Dear Amazon:

Now that you’ve admitted that you’re going to accept Macmillan’s pricing proposal on ebooks, would you mind turning the “Buy Now” button back on for all my Tor books? Pretty please? The longer you wait, the more I’ll have to think you’re just being petulant and foot-stompy about it.

Kthxbye,

JS

P.S.: Come here, have a hug. Let’s never fight again, okay?

No, seriously. Let’s never fight again.

Thanks.

On a Personal Note

To the folks who have followed up to ask if I was going to be okay with the whole Amazon/Macmillan blinking contest: Well, you know. I don’t expect the corporate eye-pokery to last beyond the weekend, but if it does, the wife and I have tucked away some pennies here and there and stored up provisions for the winter. And if worse comes to worst… well. Let’s just say we love our pets. Our adorable, delightful, succulent pets.

Seriously, however: we’re fine, and we’ll be fine even if this little event somehow and rather stupidly drags on past Sunday. Thanks for asking.

It’s All About Timing

Question in e-mail from someone who wanted to know why I thought Amazon pulled this stunt at this moment. I’m not privy to Jeff Bezos’ brain (otherwise it’d have my footprint in it at the moment), but again presuming that this is indeed Amazon’s doing (it seems clear it is, but I still don’t think we’ve seen an official comment) I speculate Amazon pulled Macmillan titles on a Friday night for a couple of reasons:

1. As the White House across several administrations knows, Friday is the day to do or say anything you don’t want heavily reported in the traditional media or heavily read by traditional media consumers, including on traditional media Web sites. And even electronic media outlets are sleepy on the weekend, because, hey, it’s the weekend, and people have lives, even the ones who hang out online. So the black eye Amazon will get in the media for this stunt will be relatively smaller for pulling it on a Friday night than, say, on a Tuesday morning.

2. I’m willing to bet Amazon works like the rest of the online world, which is that its traffic is (and commensurately, its sales are) less on the weekend than during the work week. Inasmuch as Amazon is punishing itself sales-wise by pulling an entire publishing company’s inventory off its site, it wants to do it on low traffic days, i.e., the weekend, when people are away from their computers anyway.

Alternately we could just be seeing a monumental and irrational fit of pique in action, with Mr. Bezos tromping down to Amazon’s data servers and screaming “Embargo!” in his best Master Blaster voice. But as fun as that is to picture in one’s mind, I do give the man and his company some credit for tactical thinking. A weekend embargo would be enough for the company to make its point, without overly hurting itself.

The only problem with this is that tactics are not strategy, and delisting an entire publishing house as a bargaining tactic, on a weekend or no, is going to have a long-term effect on Amazon’s relationship with publishers, and not the one Amazon is likely to want, especially now that iBookstore lurks, gravid, on the horizon. But I suppose we will see.

A Quick Note On eBook Pricing and Amazon Hijinx

It appears (if this article is correct) that Amazon has pulled Macmillan books from its online stores because it’s unhappy with Macmillan’s desire to up the price of their eBooks from $10 to $15. Macmillan, I’m assuming, wants to raise the price because it will make more money that way; Amazon, I’m also assuming, wants to keep the price lower because it has Kindles to sell, and low eBook prices is a fine motivator for convincing people to part with the $400 (or so) that Kindles cost. And looming over all of this is the iPad WHICH WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING AS WE KNOW IT FOREVER AND EVER AMEN, and for which, allegedly, Apple will allow booksellers more flexibility in setting their pricing (i.e., you’ll pay $15 for a new book at iBookstore).

How do I feel about all this? Well:

1. I personally don’t buy ebooks with DRM on them, because I actually like to own the books I own. It’s a funny twitchy thing of mine. I’m not sure why other people are so willing to let that slide.

2. Leaving the above aside, I’m philosophically inclined to let publishers attempt to charge whatever they think they want to charge for the electronic versions of their books. Why? Oh, call it the free market advocate in me.

3. Do I think Macmillan (or anyone else) will be able to sell $15 ebooks? They could; after all, they sell $25 hardcovers (and similar amounts for ebooks, depending on the retailer). Now, some people won’t spend that much for a book, so they pick up the book later when it’s an $8 paperback. That’s fine, too. Likewise, I think it’s fine to attempt to charge $15 (or more) for an ebook for a brand-spankin’ new release to service the folks who just can’t wait, drop it to a lower price point (say, $10) later on in the run, and then drop it again to $8 or so when the paperback hits. That’s how I would do it, in any event. Would it work? Hell if I know. But that’s not to say it (or some other pricing scheme) is not in a publisher’s interest to try.

And to be blunt about it, it’s in my interest as an author as well, because, you know what? My royalty is a percentage of the sale price. I have a mortgage, I have a kid to send to college, I have an addiction to games that allow me to shoot zombies in the head. I’d like money for those, please. It’s not unreasonable to test the market and see what it will bear.

4. This asinine jockeying over electronic book prices has very little to do with what’s actually good or useful for anyone other than the manufacturer of a piece of hardware… who also happens to be a book retailer. I understand Amazon’s desire to corner the electronic book market with the Kindle, which requires publishers to bend to its will on pricing, but I’m not notably sympathetic to it. In one of those grand ironies of life, I’ve been here before with the iPod, a thing for which I buy music not from Apple but from Amazon, which sold DRM-free mp3s and earned my music purchasing dollars because of it (and who, if memory serves, allowed for some flexibility in pricing). Now my iPod touch is filled with music not bought from Apple. If these companies’ relative positions flip because of books, well, now. That would be funny.

5. If nothing else, this bit of asshattery on the part of Amazon has well and truly cured me of any desire to ever get a Kindle. If Amazon is willing to play chicken with my economic well-being — and the economic well-being of many of my friends — to lock up its little corner of the ebook field, well, that’s its call to make. But, you know what, I remember people who are happy to trample my ass into the dirt as they’re rushing to grab at cash. The money I don’t spend on a Kindle will mean more to me than it does to Amazon, but I’m fine with that. The money I don’t spend on electronic books bought from Amazon over the next couple of decades will also probably mean more to me than Amazon, but I’m okay with that too. I’m not really trying to make a huge statement about it, and I’m not suggesting anyone else join me. Enjoy your Kindle if you have one. Buy my books for it if they ever come back to it.

All I’m saying is: I remember how I’m treated and for what reasons. And you know, I do buy a lot of books.

Update, 2:05pm: Further thoughts on the timing of this all here.

Update, 3:41pm: This NYT post has been updated with a little more information regarding the negotiating context between Amazon and Macmillan. Short version: They’re both playing hardball. That said, I think this particular negotiating tactic of Amazon’s makes it look worse than Macmillan in the short term, and certainly will make other Amazon partner wary in the long term.

Update, 6:21pm: Letter from Macmillan CEO John Sargent on the matter, here.

Update, 5:58pm: Amazon Kindle team responds here. It appears from the post that Amazon isn’t winning this one. One wonders if they could have been aware of this without first gouging a hole in the sales of a couple thousand authors.

Macmillan Books Gone Missing From Amazon

On Twitter a couple of minutes ago someone expressed annoyance that my books aren’t directly sold by Amazon, which seemed odd, because they were available just yesterday. But I check and sure enough they weren’t there (Amazon has its “available from these sellers”) line up. I checked other Tor authors and it seemed they were gone too. I noted that on Twitter and then someone pointed me to this news post, which suggests many books from Macmillan are off Amazon at the moment.

Also, just for fun I went to the Amazon site to see if any of my books are on the Kindle section. Nope, they seem to be all gone, as do the books of other Tor authors. I hope this doesn’t affect the folks who have already bought my Tor books for the Kindle.

What does this mean? Well, it could mean nothing; it might be a glitch, as has happened before. This was my first thought and continues to be my primary suspicion at the moment. Alternately Amazon might be trying to screw with Macmillan in some way (or alternately, Macmillan is trying to screw with Amazon), but it doesn’t seem like a very smart way to go about things if either of them are.

So what I plan to do at the moment is not panic, not try to assume more than I know, and check around to see if anyone has a clue what’s actually going on. When I know more, I’ll tell you.

That said, a reminder to folks that just because my Tor books and the books of other Macmillan authors are for the moment off Amazon, doesn’t mean you can’t find them elsewhere online: Barnes & Noble and Powell’s both have fine Web sites, for example, and I’m told the Sony eBook store (for one) has my Tor books in stock. And of course if you have a brick and mortar store near you, it might be a fine time to visit them.

Also, my non-Tor books (including The God Engines and my non-fiction work) are still about on Amazon, so there’s that.

No matter how you slice this, however, this is a bit weird. And if this does turn out to be something other than a glitch in Amazon’s system, I’m likely to be more than a little pissed.

Update, 10:12pm: Possibly relevant, possibly not.

Update, 11:33pm: The New York Times says it’s not a glitch, it’s Amazon trying to play hardball with Macmillan. I’m almost certainly going to have more to say about that later, likely not complimentary to Amazon, if it’s true.

Update, 1:55am 1/30: some of my further thoughts on the subject here.

Re: That “GOPers Are Nihilists” Comment of Mine

Here’s a cogent criticism of the current GOP:

[N]othing could be worse for the GOP than the illusion of success under present circumstances. Worse than learning nothing from the last two elections, the GOP has learned the wrong things… Not recognizing their past errors, the GOP will make them again and again in the future, and they will attempt to cover these mistakes with temporary, tactical solutions that simply put off the consequences of their terrible decisions until someone else is in office. They will then exploit the situation as much as they possibly can, pinning the blame for their errors on their hapless inheritors and hoping that the latter are so pitiful that they retreat into yet another defensive crouch.

Is the GOP in a worse position than a year ago? On the surface, no, it isn’t. Once we get past the surface, however, the same stagnant, intellectually bankrupt, unimaginative party that brought our country to its current predicament is still there and has not changed in any meaningful way in the last three years.

Where is this particular criticism made? The American Conservative magazine Web site.

The Intervention is Not Going Well

Lopsided Cat and Ghlaghghee knew that it would be difficult to talk to Zeus about his addiction to ‘nip. But they never expected Zeus to brazenly pull out the Catnip Sock and “snork up” right in front of them.

And as they say on the street, that’s when the shit got real:

“Seriously, man, he had no right to attack me like that. Yeah, I like my ‘nip. So what? It’s natural, it’s legal, and I’m totally in control of it. And anyway, look who’s snorking the sock now. Yeah, that’s right. Lopsided Cat. Dude’s totally a hypocrite, man.”

Disgusted with the whole sorry incident, Ghlaghghee leaves Zeus and Lopsided Cat to their ‘nip induced haze.

Tragedies like this happen in America every day. Personally, I blame the bastard who gave them the ‘nip in the first place. And when I find him, oh, the things I will do to him.

From the Whatever Archives: “Holden Caulfield in Middle Age”

On the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s passing, I find it appropriate to exhume from the Secret Whatever Archives this essay, entitled “Holden Caulfield in Middle Age” (also available in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which you should buy, damn you). Enjoy.

July 18, 2001

Holden Caulfield turned 50 this last week, and if the imaginary, fictional world in which he lives has any parallel with ours, right about now, he’s got a kid who is now the age Holden was in The Catcher in the Rye, and that kid is just driving him nuts. Wouldn’t that be a kick.

I never got Holden Caulfield anyway. This partially due to having my own reading tastes bend towards science fiction as a teen rather than the genre of Alienated Teen Literature, of which Catcher is, of course, the classic. If you were going to give me a teenage hero, give me Heinlein’s Starman Jones: He traveled the galaxy and memorized entire books of log tables and became Captain of a starship (for procedural reasons, granted). All Holden did was bitch, bitch, bitch. Put Holden at the controls of a starship and he’d implode from stress. Not my hero, thanks.

(Actually, if you’re going to give me a teenage hero, give me Joan of Arc. There’s an achiever for you: Kicks English tail and saves France, despite suffering from profound schizophrenia (Shaw argues that the voices were an expression of the “Evolutionary Appetite,” but in truth, there’s no reason they couldn’t be both). Thank God she wasn’t born in the 20th century; they would have medicated her ass into catatonia, and then the Germans would have been able to roll right over the French forces at the start of WWII! Hmmmmm.)

But it’s also partially due to the nature of Holden, and my own nature as well. Holden is justly famous in the literary pantheon as being the first major teenage literary character to be allowed to note that the world was a tremendously screwed up place, and to have an intellectually appropriate response to that fact. All the other literary teens of the age were solving low-grade mysteries or having boy’s own adventures or what not, and, golly, they were always polite and respectful to their elders. Holden was the proverbial turd in that punchbowl, and arriving as he did in the early 50s, just in time for rock n’ roll and the first mass teen market, he offered the blueprint and pathology for teenage sullenness that’s still fervently followed to this day (although, admittedly, the tattoos and piercings these days are a new touch).

However, I was not especially pained as a teen, and all attempts in that direction ended up as sort of twee, rather than genuinely dark and isolating. It was too bad, really, since I was all set up to accept Holden as a soul mate. I mean, I went to boarding school, I was somewhat sensitive, I had all that bundled up energy of wanting to change the world and not knowing quite how to do it. But I just didn’t have that certain something – mistrust of society, desire for someone to encapsulate all my inexpressible teenage emotions, basically suspicious and snotty nature, or whatever — that would make me go cookoo for Caulfield. I suppose it’s a shortcoming. I failed angst in high school. They let me graduate anyway.

Fact is, I liked neither Holden nor the book. One can recognize the book has a certain literary merit without needing to like the thing, of course. But it’s more to the point to say that Holden has a certain fundamental passivity that I dislike — the desire for people and things to be different without the accompanying acceptance of personal responsibility to effect those changes. To go back to Heinlein and his juvy novels, his teenage characters are not very big on internal lives, but they’re also the sort who go out, do things, fail, do things again, and eventually get it right. Holden merely wishes, ultimately a man of inaction. He’s a failure — a particularly attractive failure if you’re of a certain age and disposition, admittedly, but a failure nonetheless. I remember reading the book as a teen and being irritated with Holden for that reason; I couldn’t see why he required any sympathy from me, or why I should empathize with him.

It’s been a fortunate thing that Salinger has sat back and rested on his increasingly thorny laurels for the last several decades, because in doing so he’s spared us inevitable Catcher sequel, in which we learn whatever happened to that freaky Caulfield kid. Here’s what I think. After a certain amount of time faking being deprogrammed, Holden goes to Brown and after graduation eventually gets a job at an ad firm, where, thanks to his ability to pitch products to “the kids,” he does very well. He gets married, has a couple of kids, gets divorced, becomes a high-functioning alcoholic but is nevertheless eased towards the door with a generous buyout, and after that — well, after that, who cares? Sooner or later, the rest of one’s life becomes a coda.

Big Holden fans will no doubt be upset with the life of hypocritical mediocrity I’ve provided for their anti-hero, but really, unless he committed suicide shortly after the end of the novel (not at all unlikely, given his creator’s literary tendencies), he has to have caved. He was too passive to do otherwise. No Holden fan would be at all satisfied with this, of course — which may be one of the reasons Salinger packed it in. It’s better for everyone involved if Holden’s life coda begins before he’s out of his teens. Everyone walks away happy, except, of course, for Holden himself. But that’s as it should be.

State of the Union 2010

One word: Eh. More words: It was a bit weird; the rhythm was herky-jerky and the audience didn’t seem to know if it wanted to applaud or not in places, and basically the whole thing felt like school play with the main character thrown off his game by no one else knowing their lines. Note this observation has nothing to do with the content, merely the presentation. But the presentation matters, and this was a little off for me.

Content-wise I liked it just fine, which isn’t surprising, since in a general sense I like most of Obama’s policies and platform; it strikes me as generally sensible politically, economically and ethically. But then it would, as I’m cut out of the same moderate-left cloth as he is (note to wingers on both sides: expressing the opinion that Obama is not in fact moderate-lefty in the current US political spectrum, but is instead whatever thing you hate the most, is an IQ test in itself. Try not to fail it). If most of what he proposed got through, I wouldn’t complain.

But Obama’s real problem is not Obama or his own policies; Obama’s real problem is that in Congress, his allies are incompetent cowards and his adversaries are smug dicks. I find it genuinely appalling a Democratic president has to prod his party members in the Senate, with a 59-seat majority, to stop acting like spooked children. The lot of them need to have a stick jammed up their ass, because it’s clear they don’t have much in the way of a spine. As for the Republicans, a recent reader was distressed when I said they were “hopped-up ignorant nihilists,” but you know what, when your Senate operating strategy is “filibuster everything and let Fox News do the rest,” and the party as a whole gives it a thumbs up, guess what, you’re goddamned nihilists. There’s no actual political strategy in GOP anymore other than taking joy in defeating the Democrats. I don’t have a problem with them enjoying such a thing, but it’s not a real political philosophy, or at least shouldn’t be.

The gist of it is that I feel genuinely sorry for Obama that he has to be president in this political climate, with the allies and adversaries he has. He deserves better in both respects, and so do we. As noted before, despite this he’s managed to be pretty effective in his first year, something he doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for, and I do imagine that in the next year he will continue to be so, despite both the Democrats and the Republicans on the hill. For all that, if I have one wish for Obama, it’s that he play harder ball than he’s been content to do so far, and that includes with his own party, not just against the Republicans. He’s from Chicago, he knows how to do it. If he wants to get his State of the Union agenda through in an election year, I suspect he’s going to have to.

The Big Idea: Sara Miles

Where is the story of the world being told? It might be in the place you least expect: far away from news cameras and press releases. Sara Miles finds her work in those margins — she is the founder of the St. Gregory’s Food Pantry in San Francisco — but more than that finds the inspiration and ideas which inform her latest book on faith, Jesus Freak. Below, Miles goes into detail about looking where others don’t to see something new… and explains why doing so may be what we’re meant to do.

SARA MILES:

In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time writing about wars, mostly revolutions and counter-revolutions–– like the ones in El Salvador or the Philippines––and hanging out with soldiers, guerrillas, peasants and death squad members, as well as other journalists. My big idea then was really a technique. If I had to cover what everybody else thought of as the main event––an election, a massacre, a press conference by some crazy general––I’d focus on the stuff that was happening off to the side.

So I’d ignore the official announcements, the formal interviews with important people, and instead I’d chat with the lady mopping up in the back room of the Presidential Palace, or check out which movies were playing next to the Army headquarters, or spend an afternoon drinking Pepsi with guys stuck digging graves on the outskirt of town in the aftermath of a battle. I liked looking at things slant.

As a methodology, this approach kept me interested––even when I came back to the United States and started writing about electoral politics. The official version, prepared by handlers and delivered by hacks, was always just unspeakably dull. The dutiful Q&A was mostly an opportunity to be lied to. But some really funny things happened when nobody was paying attention. (Ask me about the pool party in Silicon Valley where Tipper Gore played drums with an aging Grateful Dead cover band.)

And this approach to writing remained useful when I had a totally unexpected mid-life conversion to Christianity and wrote two books about faith, including my latest, Jesus Freak. In fact, the methodology became an idea.

Because it turns out that God is very much interested in the margins: in the unlikely, ridiculous, and outcast. It turns out that the center of power––military, political or religious––is actually not where most change takes place. And it turns out that Christianity is all about the unexpected.

Think about the prophets with their mad faith the mountains will be flattened and the valleys raised up; think about Mary, with her conviction that the poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. Consider the impossible idea of an almighty God who chooses, of all possibilities, to be born to a shameful unmarried teenage mother in a barn; who scandalizes politicians, priests and his own family; and who spends his time on Earth hanging out with crooked cops, whores, and the dirtiest, least attractive foreigners around. Imagine a God who winds up as a despised, tortured criminal, condemned by religious authorities and executed by the state.

“Look away” is a big idea, if one embraced more by fools and losers than by the smart and powerful of our world. But my experience is that the more I look away from the way things are supposed to be, the more I get to see.

—-

Jesus Freak: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Jesus Freak. Visit Miles’ food bank.

Meanwhile, On the Home Front, I Have Growing Suspicions My Male Cats Are Totally Gay

It’s because in the last several days I have come across Zeus and Lopsided Cat openly and enthusiastically grooming and gently headbutting each other in open, conspicuous places, followed by a casual glance over to me as if to say “What? You have a problem with two male cats showing their affection for each other in their own home?

For the record, I do not. Indeed, I celebrate their feline gayness, inasmuch as two cats who have had their gonads removed can be said to be gay, which I think is a fair amount, since “gay” encompasses more than physical sexuality and gonads (or lack thereof). And anyway, what sort of hypocrite would I be if I supported same-sex marriage but viewed my two male cats tongue-bathing each other and thought, dude, that’s just wrong. It’s not. Go, Lopsided Cat and Zeus! I wish you joy.

That said, it is kind of sudden. Lopsided Cat has generally viewed Zeus as something of a nuisance, to be smacked about whenever the younger cat got too uppity but otherwise to be ignored. For Lopsided Cat to go from benign neglect of his fellow cat to open affection seemingly in the space of a few days is a little weird. But then, I don’t speak cat. Maybe this has all been simmering under the surface, like how in all those romantic comedies the leads can’t stand each other and then suddenly they’re mad for each other. This is like that. With cats. Who may be gay.

I know some of you are thinking, “yes, yes, but what does Ghlaghghee think about this turn of events?” She is perhaps unsurprisingly perfectly okay with it. Ghlaghghee has always struck me as an unusually tolerant cat (although she, like Lopsided Cat, has to been known to smack around Zeus when he gets out of line), and so her apprehension of these current events seems to be along the “Oh. Huh. Well, okay, then” line. Which of course is just fine with me. It’d be sad to have to have a talk to her about embracing diversity, not the least because I don’t speak cat. So that’s one awkward discussion avoided. For which I think we are all grateful.

Obligatory Quick Assessment of the iPad

Like the size and form factor (the bezel could be shaved down a bit), and can see this or something like it eventually replacing my netbook and allowing me to skip a dedicated e-reader entirely. On the other hand, in the real world outside Steve Jobs’ head, a modern computer should be able to handle multitasking, so I’m not entirely sure what’s the problem there. I suspect I’ll hold out from getting the first generation version, especially as I so recently purchased an iPod Touch, and wait to see what the early adopter complaints and their fixes are before considering this for a purchase.

In the meantime, my little netbook has the same screen size, a faster processor and more memory, multitasks, features a real keyboard which doesn’t cost extra, and overall cost less than the low-end iPad by about $200. I can wait.

iPad Book Availability: No Idea

I’m already being asked if my books will be available on the iPad. As Macmillan (which owns Tor) appears to be part of that book thing Apple’s doing with the iPad, my guess is, uh, probably?, at least as far as my Tor books are concerned. Although of course the random and haphazard nature of ebook distribution being what it is, honestly, I can’t say which books and when or anything else.

But more to the point, again, people: Why do you think I know these things? I’m finding out about the iPad at the same time as every other human not working at Apple or one of its partners. I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does any other author you might wish to ask this question to today. When I do know, I’ll tell you. Beyond that, this post still applies.

(photo above snaked from this iPad unveiling recap from GDGT)

Kage Baker

Many of you know that writer Kage Baker has been fighting against cancer in the last several weeks and months. To that end, the Green Man Review has just posted the following note from Kage’s sister:

Kage’s doctor has informed us she has reached the end of useful treatment. The cancer has slowed, but not stopped. It has continued to spread at an unnatural speed through her brain, her lungs and – now – reappeared in her abdomen. It is probably a matter of a few weeks, at most.

Kage has fought very hard, but this is just too aggressive and mean. She’s very, very tired now, and ready for her Long Sleep. She’s not afraid.

We’ve been in a motel the last week or so, in order to complete her therapy. I’ll have her home in her own bedroom by the weekend, though, so end of life care can take place in more comfortable surroundings.

I met Kage a few times, most notably in 2007 when I was on my book tour, and she, I, Harry Turtledove and Cory Doctorow were on a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books. It was a delight to have met her then, having been a fan of her work, and she was gracious and good company. Her work is stuff I look forward to.

With that in mind, and in celebration of a life in words, here’s a new story by Kage Baker: “The Bohemian Astrobleme,” just posted to Subterranean Magazine Online, and in the same universe as her recent novella “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s”. If you’re a fan, you’re going to love it; if you’re new to Kage’s work, you’ll see why you’ll be wanting to catch up on her canon.

All my best thoughts are to Kage, her sister, her friends and loved ones. Thank you, Kage, for all your words and stories. They are wonderful.