A Bunch of White Guys, or The Hugo Awards

It isn’t a surprise to anyone that I am not the biggest fan of that literary ghetto of a genre, science fiction/fantasy. Despite publisher attempts to rescue books from that dreaded pit by re-labeling them speculative fiction, it remains a genre that has become a shorthand for basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing virgins.

The SFWA Magazine cover, Winter 2013

The SFWA Magazine cover, Winter 2013

Not that all readers of SFF are such – I know some lovely people who read it, and no doubt it produces outstanding literature, when it is careful about book jackets and avoiding the cliches that so haunt it as a genre. Some of my favourite books are technically SFF, but only because its such a broadly-defined genre. I didn’t start reading Pratchett for the dragons, but for his cop stories. But I still feel that this is a genre more haunted by outright racism and misogyny than it should be in 2015.

Then this year’s Hugo Awards nominations were released, and I feel like SFF took five steps back.

In summary: the internet’s bored white boys got annoyed that, gosh darn, women and people of colour were winning awards for SFF writing, and by their pointy white masks, this could not stand. So this group, called the Sad Puppies (I fucking kid you not) petitioned their followers to vote with their $40 dollar membership, and influenced the slate enough to make it nearly entirely white straight guys. They say that the Hugos were too leftist, that ‘serious works’ were shortchanging more popular ones.

Are these assholes serious? Apparently.

...are they serious about this design?

…are they serious about this design?

Now I normally wouldn’t care, because literary awards are bullshit and nearly always go to tedious books or tedious people. Just because the Hugo is the oldest, it doesn’t make it the most important or meaningful. And like io9 points out, now the Hugos are entirely political. But the reason I do care is because its a sign of a trend, and I don’t like that trend. I don’t like the trolls of the internet having enough power to hustle an old award into their agenda. Maybe the Booker prize is given to undeserving novels, but at least it doesn’t get awarded based on whose fans have $40 to spend on a vote. To quote the inimitable Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds:

The easy answer is, “Buy a supporting membership and get voting,” but sometimes this is formed as criticism and it’s worth noting that plenty of folks (fans, authors, whoever) may not be comfortable to (or able to) spend forty bucks just to vote on a science-fiction award. Forty bucks is cheap to a lot of people. And expensive to a lot of others. There’s an argument to be made, too, that if SFF is to represent marginalized or under-served voices, then we may also want to recognize that those voices are often in possession of less filthy lucre than more privileged segments. And further, this argument somewhat explicitly turns the Hugo Awards into a capitalist pissing match rather than a popular vote — have your voice be heard and your vote counted is lovely to say as long as you don’t add to it, but it’ll cost you forty bucks, so write a fucking check.

No one should stand for this state of affairs, and I”m glad that authors are withdrawing their nominations. But you’d think that SFF would just grow up already as a genreits readers, its publishers, its authors. I feel like we’re dragging this damn genre as a whole kicking and screaming into the 1950s, never mind 2015. Given the inexplicable success of Game of Tits and Ender’s Game despite its hideous author’s homophobic and racist rants, the endemic sexism in this genre since its inception, and the ongoing racism, I wonder if this year’s Hugo furore wasn’t inevitable.

Still, there’s hope yet – this is just one year’s awards, and maybe 20 years ago no one would have blinked at a slate like this. The resultant Twitter firestorm, while as predictable as a sunset, is still a good sign that maybe that the status is not quo, and that many authors and readers are horrified by what’s happening in their genre. Look at the 50-author strong backlash against the SFWA magazine cover I put up a few paragraphs ago. Even I, someone who probably wouldn’t pick up SFF unless I was tricked into it, give a shit about this state of affairs. I look forward to seeing it swing back to an interesting, diverse pool of authors next year. Perhaps someone should run a parallel set of awards?

Goodbye, Sir Terry, and Thank You

The first Discworld novel I read was The Fifth Elephant, and it wasn’t the one that got me addicted to Pratchett. No, not at all.

The novel that made me go back and devour more was, oddly, Snuff. Released late in Pratchett’s career, it was my gateway to the Discworld and there was nothing for it but to go and find every single Sam Vimes novel. I adore Sam Vimes, the majesty of the law himself, and Death is splendid and there are a hundred characters that I’ll be reading to my kids one day. The witches. Moist. Lu-Tze. The Patrician. Susan. Ridcully. Nobby Nobbs. Rincewind, Angua, Carrot and oh god, if I keep listing them my heart will break.

I have had so many happy hours with these books. When I have been sick, I have turned to them. When I have been shoulder-deep in depression, when I felt like every nerve was frayed and exposed and I couldn’t bear any human contact. Every night with insomnia, every lazy Sunday to chase away the Monday blues. My copy of Night Watch, gifted to me by my very best friend, is about to fall apart at the spine. I read Pratchett out loud to my beloved physicist and we have discussed the intricacies of the Discworld for many happy hours.

For the gods’ sake, I have the Ankh-Morpork board game.

He was only 66, and though we know all beloved authors must die, it is still vastly unfair that a writer of such prodigious talent went so soon. At the least, he died loved and in company, and in the end, that is all we can really hope for, for all of us.

I am grateful that there are so many Discworld novels to read, and that we have them at all. That any book’s birth is a combination of luck, talent and timing, and to have so many is wealth indeed. It’s hard not to mourn the books that will now go unwritten, but at least we can turn to dozens and dozens of novels and be glad that those books live now.

Thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett. Back to stardust we all must go, but at least you spent your time here making so many people happy.

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The War Continues: Amazon Throttles Legacy Publisher Sales

Oh look, it’s happening again. Amazon has removed buy buttons before, in 2008, 2010 (twice) and 2012, and now they’ve decided they’re going to try again and see if people allow it, AGAIN.

Goddammit.

My grief with Amazon has been documented a few times before, and I’ll never apologise for it. However we must realise that what we have been prophesying as an industry for years is rapidly coming to pass. Today author Sam Sykes announced on his Facebook page that Amazon has removed preorder and buy buttons from Hachette authors in order to bully the publisher. James Patterson announced on his blog that:

Currently, Amazon is making it difficult to order many books from Little, Brown and Grand Central, which affects readers of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, me, and hundreds of others whose living depends on book sales. What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers. It certainly doesn’t appear to be in the best interest of authors.

Hachette, Little, Brown and Grand Central are not small publishers in themselves, and they also belong to the biggest publishing houses in the world. This is a clear message: Amazon is taking on big publishers once more and expects to win. These are the warning signs that have been discussed nervously by all of us in the book industry, be we publisher, author or bookseller. Amazon made it known ages ago that they wanted to become publishers, beginning with their purchase of Createspace in 2005, creating Direct to Kindle Publishing, and their institution of the godawful Kindle Worlds.

For my money, Amazon’s end game is to control the entire ebook publishing industry, either by buying up authors or driving publishers out of the digital publishing game through these strongarm techniques. To begin printing and editing their own books would take more capital, human resources and intellect than Amazon is willing to spend, but what they already have is a monster of a self-publishing industry producing hideous books at a fat margin to them. No publisher getting a cut, and the author is not much better off trying to flog their stories in a trough of self-published stories the size of the Mariana trench. The Kindle is their outlet, their store in readers’ hands, essentially circumventing the need for them to get off their asses and walk into a bookstore.

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It isn’t digital that’s going to kill the book industry. There’s no reason authors and publishers can’t use the ebook to leverage sales of hardcopies. JK Rowling, far ahead of the curve, controls sales of her ebooks, while her publishers manage the huge sales of her hardcopy books across the world. Better use of DRM might help publishers sell more ebooks. The ebook can prevent books from disappearing when they go out of print. People can take their ebooks on the train and keep their beautiful hardbacks at home. I don’t have a problem with ebooks, but I have a huge problem with Amazon. Amazon is a thug, with no respect for authors’ rights, for publisher overheads, for customer autonomy. They own your ebooks, they’ll yank them from your kindle and delete your entire library without blinking. Their sudden deletion of buy buttons on authors’ books on their store is not a surprise, and it is not unprecedented, but it is still unpleasant.

The only way this will change is if customers vote with their wallets. Buy Nooks or Kobos, if you must. Use a Note or an iPad to read, and for the love of all that is written, please support bookshops, indie and chain. Buy directly from authors’ websites where possible. Buy from Humble Bundle and support authors directly. But please: don’t support Amazon.

UPDATE: How the war between publishers and Amazon will cause a brain drain of talented writers and editors, from Slate

The full text of James Patterson’s speech at Book Expo America – a passionate call to talk about this important issue facing our industry

Neil Gaiman weighs in: I’m Obviously Pissed at Amazon

The superb Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds reminds us that Amazon is neither savior nor underdog.

An author that found his fame with Amazon defends them, and asks umcomfortable questions about why authors are defending the traditional publishing model: Sympathy for the Devil

The Unnecessary Elevation of Fanfiction: The Announcement of Kindle Worlds

So Amazon has stooped to a new level of illiterate thuggery, and is now looting the corpses in a way both blatantly ruthless and pathetic. With the introduction of Kindle Worlds, Amazon is now allowing people to write and sell fanfiction for three different, equally vapid series (Gossip Girls, Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars). 

Some people would say (and they would be wrong) that fanfiction authors should have the right to earn money off their work, and they might also (wrongly) suggest that the fanfiction will only bolster the licenced properties in question and therefore generate more money for everyone. Everyone goes home happy and the Internet is better off for it, etc. Except that this is probably one of the worst (and most meta) examples of a poor author-publisher relationship ever. People more studious than I have taken a magnifying glass to the terms offered by Amazon to fanfiction authors, and have found the contracts fairly restrictive, and in some cases outright exploitative. The most excellent John Scalzi has scoured through the terms, and found this little nugget:

As a writer, there are a number of things about the deal Amazon/Alloy are offering that raise red flags for me. Number one among these is this bit: “We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.” i.e., that really cool creative idea you put in your story, or that awesome new character you made? If Alloy Entertainment likes it, they can take it and use it for their own purposes without paying you — which is to say they make money off your idea, lots of moneyeven, and all you get is the knowledge they liked your idea.

And as he goes on to explain further:

“Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.” Which is to say, once Amazon has it, they have the right to do anything they want with it, including possibly using it in anthologies or selling it other languages, etc, without paying the author anything else for it, ever. Again, an excellent deal for Amazon; a less than excellent deal for the actual writer.

Again, we are seeing Amazon trying to create not only a new publishing playing field, but eroding the rights of writers that have been so hard-won over the years. So many authors are already getting scammed out of their money by vanity presses or traditional publishers with watertight, author-unfriendly contracts – it doesn’t help that the behemoth that is Amazon is further contributing to this increasingly unfair market. Sure, the fanficcers may be earning money they wouldn’t have before, but at what cost in the long term? Like Scalzi mentions,

If you are a corporate rights holder, for example, would you bother with seeking out pro writers any more, and paying them advances and royalties and all of that business? Or would you just open up the gates to paid fan fiction, which you don’t have to pay anything for and yet still have total control over the commercial exploitation thereof? Again, this is interesting stuff to consider, and if I were a pro writer who primarily worked in media tie-in markets, I would have some real concerns.

How many other big licences are going to take advantage of this? I am curious to see how many of them do. Clever authors have made sure to maintain all their rights, and I doubt that any of the really big author-created franchises (Game of Thrones, The Avengers) will follow in this path.

Secondly, how successful can this really be? Does anyone really want to pay for fanfiction? It isn’t clear if there will be a stringent editorial process – as far as I can tell there isn’t much of one on Kindle Direct Publishing and it is unlikely that they would have the people required to proofread the mountains of drivel about to descend on Kindle Worlds. And sure, the fanfiction will probably only cost $5 or so (like most self-published drek) but nonetheless people are accustomed to paying sweet fuck-all for fanfiction. And not only that, but they have been able to get it in a variety of communities, ranging from the infamous fanfiction.net to livejournal,  tumblr to AO3. Many of these websites have become sophisticated platforms, throwing in gifs and deviantart.com-sourced jackets, fan-mix soundtracks and more, all for free. So why pay for it, and be forced to read it on a Kindle anyway? Most Kindle users don’t have the ridiculously priced Kindle Fire, so off it is to dreary e-ink land and no more pretty gifs or fun formatting.

And even worse: who is going to want to buy fanfiction that isn’t allowed to have sex scenes in it? Isn’t that the point, after all? To slash that which has not been slashed before? To have characters bonk boldly where none have bonked before?

And the third (and the worst): why are we even legitmising fanfiction in the first place? I’m sure some people are celebrating this, thinking that now fanficcers can ply their craft in public, like real authors do. And while fanfiction has its place, that place is not on the level of original work. I may not be a fan of his books, but I am a big fan of what George RR Martin has to say about fanfiction:

 I am not saying here that the people who write fan fiction are evil or immoral or untrustworthy. The vast majority of them are honest and sincere and passionate about whatever work they chose to base their fictions on, and have only the best of intentions for the original author. But (1) there are always a few, in any group, who are perhaps less wonderful, and (2) this door, once opened, can be very difficult to close again.

His blog post is a fascinating look at what fanfiction/plagiarism has cost authors in the past, and the importance of defending their copyright. It has cost authors entire novels, caused lawsuits and even affected their livelihoods. Now I know that the Kindle Worlds have been authorised, and I know the authors have ceded (in part) their control, but nonetheless it is an attempt to monetize and legitimize fanfiction and I am really, really uncomfortable with that. If I published Savant (hahaha, NO) and I came across a fanfiction of it, I would probably be more than a bit pissed off that my years of work had been used by someone else to for whatever strange reason. It is teamwork, but the person who does the most work is still getting screwed and is expected to be grateful for the attention during the unasked-for screwing. And after all the work an author has done, it seems grossly unfair that anyone should dare to profit off their efforts and imagination. Like Martin says “No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me“.

More tasty links:

What Famous Authors Have to Say About Fanfiction (Flavorwire)

How Kindle Worlds Aims to Colonise Fanfiction (The Guardian)

‘Kindle Worlds’ Lets Authors Publish Fan Fiction — At Dubious Cost (Wired)

Fan Fiction Is Finally Legitimized With Kindle Worlds (Forbes)

Amazon launches Kindle Worlds allowing authors to publish fan fiction

Quick Fix: A Writing Submission Gone Horribly Wrong

Pictured: manliness, circa 1900

Pictured: manliness, circa 1900

Far be it from me to piss on the writing parade of someone who likes to scribble cowboy fiction. After all, I suppose it has its place, much like bric-a-brac in the glorious, universe-spanning world of literature. While undoubtedly a genre that pretty much reinforces every heterosexual norm you can think of (the manly man that provides manly protection for his lone bride wasting away on the farm and too lady-like to fight the bison etc), it bakes someone’s cake. And I suppose there is the chance that it can be an intellectual, egalitarian, tasteful discussion of body politics, cattle and sex. A tiny chance, but a chance nonetheless.

Gaze upon the entry conditions for this cowboy anthology, and when you’re done, come back here and laugh with me.

And cry a little.

You see, I find these kind of anthologies more than just mildly offensive. Look at this clause:

Material that includes the following will be summarily rejected:

Necrophilia (sex with dead bodies—vampires don’t count)

Bestiality (sex with non-sentient animals)

Rape intended to arouse (though we will consider forced seduction or dubious consent if it is respectfully handled)

What does that even mean, ‘forced seduction’? Is this just another way of writing non-con? I don’t think its possible to tastefully handle ‘dubious consent’, that euphemism for rape. Rape is inherently distasteful, and to try write it as ‘they actually are really into each other, she just doesn’t know it, the bint’ is as offensive as it is misguided. And how do vampires not count? They’re undead, is anyone fooled by this? (And why are there vampires in a cowboy story? Isn’t that the worst combination of genres ever?) And sentient animals are somehow not animals, so it’s fine to hump them? (Stephenie Meyer, I blame you for this shit.) My cats are pretty sentient, able to make decisions and unlock doors and manipulate humans. I guess that means it’s okay to sex them up.

And add to it this shamefully sexist tripe:

Their rugged masculinity make us feel attractive, protected, womanly and pursued. They are the perfect antidote to the glut of androgynous and metrosexual men the media is saturated with. Sun-bronzed skin stretched taught over work-hardened muscles, and the soft sound of a deep Texan drawl, is enough to quieten the wildest of women.

‘Quieten the wildest of women’. I see. I wasn’t aware that we were meant to offended by men who have better things to do than beat up animals, bench-press and belch. A man who dresses well, takes the time to groom himself and who doesn’t want to go camping is definitely an upgrade on the ultra-boring Camel Man as described above (and so perfect for a smoking ad! Don Draper would be proud.) But maybe I’m just a crazy person. Millions of Shades-reading women can’t be wrong (oh but I think they are.)

My point is (and I always have one) is that this is an anthology for women written by women, and it encourages the same kind of tedious, negative crap that we should have grown out of reading round about the 1930s. We shouldn’t be encouraging anything that allows for tasteful descriptions of rape, or reinforces outdated norms of sexuality. This is 2013, a grand new millennium that is looking away from this kind of backwards thinking and towards a world with (hopefully) better literature. If we’re ever going to have anything tasteful to read, there has to be some kind of backlash against this kind of unmitigated drivel. If I am that lone person, fine, I can deal with that. Someone has to stand against the tanks of shitty literature.

The Hobbit HFR 3D Review

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So, I was fortunate enough to get a preview ticket to see The Hobbit in very sexy HFR 3D. This luxurious new 3D format actually delivers what it promises: increased depth (which sometimes creates a weird soap opera feel) and no more blurriness. Thankfully, it is also much, much easier on the eyes. I was pleased that I didn’t have a headache after nearly three hours of 3D. For that alone, the new format is worth your time, especially for epic battle scenes.

The-HobbitNow, onto the movie itself. I read The Hobbit a long time ago, like most people, and haven’t reread it since for a number of reasons. Mostly because a) I very rarely reread books when there’s so much out there that should be read and b) I find fantasy the most boring genre in the world. So, the movie should ideally be a distillation of the best parts of the book to encourage people to explore the book further while making the movie a manageable, digestible experience.

Does the movie deliver? The action scenes are sublime in their direction and excitement. The post-production clearly cost a great number of millions. Gollum made an excellent appearance and his facial rendering now severely dates the Lord of the Rings trilogy in comparison. Martin Freeman, while a bit stilted initially, (basically Watson with no shoes on) still makes a great action hero. The dwarfs are fun, and of course Gandalf can save the movie by himself. The art direction is outstanding, the clothes are most beautiful. Taken on the value of those things, the movie is worth watching just for how it looks.

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But you knew that I was going to find something, and I hear the nitpick train coming into the station. The Hobbit is a product of the 50s, and it is going to be inherently problematic. Like Game of Thrones, it too is about a bunch of white men running around having adventures. (Thankfully, less rapey, gratuitious sex.) There is ONE speaking role for a woman in three hours. She mostly glides around like a lost bride and doesn’t really inspire much awe or even interest. As you can imagine, everyone is pretty much lily-white. Men are brave and manly and smoke a lot. It could have been mistaken for a tobacco ad, at times. I don’t see how problematic it would have been to have the dwarves being of different skin colours. (But you only have to look at the backlash about Hunger Games having a few black actors to see where the problem comes in).

The-Hobbit-550x281So, that’s the BA part of me speaking up. Now for the writer part. Dear god, did this one average-sized book have to be split into three movies? There’s still too much walking. There are goddamn musical numbers, which should have been left in the book. They were as trite and folksy as they were in the 50s; they have no right being in a movie now. (Also, sometimes sound editing dropped the ball and the lyrics weren’t very clear.) They jar with the whole movie and should really have been left out. There’s a lot of scenes that could have been left out to make a more coherent, interesting whole. Peter Jackson, like James Cameron, is dragging the viewer into his special circle-jerk. Sure, I can imagine the hardcore fans appreciate the thousands of details in Orc costumes that are only on screen for a few minutes. But what about those of us who want a better version of the books? With less walking and tedious descriptions and complicated family trees that make reading the books like chewing concrete?

My opinion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has always been an unpopular one, but I stand by it. And unfortunately, the problematic things about the books have made their way into the films, the one chance the books had to get better. The movies are interminably long, as are the books. More writing is not necessarily good writing. Just because I want cheesecake, it does not mean I want to eat one the size of a dustbin lid. The racism and elision of women could have been addressed. After all, the idea of some races being better or smarter qua race is at the very foundation of this. Hobbits are lazy, Elves are smart, Dwaves are drunken and strong, etc.

Sherlock 2 Specials

The best example of a canon evolving is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes the character (as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s) was a racist, misogynist asshole, for all of his smartness. But the two most recent iterations of this phenomenon have changed Holmes for the better. BBC’s Sherlock has kept the asshole tendencies but at least he isn’t hardcore racist. I’m ambivalent on the sexism issue. Sherlock-Holmes-A-Game-of-Shadows-Poster-007Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes works with women and has lost the general dickishness of the character as developed in the 1960s and onwards. I don’t think this has harmed the character: if people can change and grow, why can’t characters?

The inherent problem with Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit is that it has one of the most puritanical fanbases (just like Jane Austen fans). They don’t like change, and they don’t like upgrades. Surely the core message can survive a little updating? Ultimately, the books are about being good, doing good and being brave regardless of size or strength. What difference does it really make if Sam had been a female hobbit? Or black? And if Tolkien couldn’t have done it then, surely Jackson could have done it now? If the characters are really defined by their personalities, there’s no reason race or gender could be an issue. Unfortunately, it is still edgy to to have a female lead. Or a gay one. Or a black one.

Alright, so segue aside, do you need to see the movie? If you can see it in HFR 3D (the Nu-Metro rep said that only four screens will have it nationally), then go see it just to enjoy the new tech and experience. If you’re a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/fantasy fan, nothing I say here will dissuade you. The problems I have are not the ones everyone else will have. It is the holidays, and it isn’t the worst movie you will ever watch (because that movie is Sex and the City).

Read what others thought here:

Slashfilm.com – ‘Rousing, yet Repetitive’

Butter Scraped Over Too Much Bread: Robbie Collins

Variety.com – No kinder on small bladders or impressionable eyes

The Trilogy Will Test the Stamina of Non-Believers: The Guardian.co.uk 

Misty Mountain Out of a Molehill – The Daily Mail

Feels Twice As Long as Half a Movie Should – Film School Rejects

Tony Blair, A Journey and the Armchair Activists

Despite the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a handguide to how abusive relationships start, and that Game of Thrones is an airbrushed Medieval Europe where feminism and civil rights are things that happen to other books, I would never call for these books to be banned or burnt. You’d think this would be evident, but it really, really isn’t.

Part of my job is monitoring social media, and on the basis that Tony Blair is speaking at the Discovery Leadership Summit, an impassioned bandwagon-hopper has told us that we have blood on our hands for selling his books, for he is a war criminal. We should do a Tutu and remove ourselves from the equation. Here ends the rant. (Except it was much longer than this, and I don’t think anyone needs that in their lives right now. EDIT: It’s now a loooong Facebook thread all by itself. A guy screaming into the void all alone.)

Now, I agree that Blair is – to use a Valley Girl phrase – a complete tool. He agreed to follow America into a rather stupid and pointless war (although what war isn’t?) and while thousands of Iraqis have died, no one has really taken responsibility. I agree that is entirely unacceptable and there should be some kind of consequence.

But taking his books off the shelf really isn’t the answer.

The guy who wrote in to complain obviously doesn’t know much about publishing or moneymaking, or even common sense, it would seem. Let’s start with the first problem: if we ban one book, and are seen taking a stance on one political view, we will be swamped with demands to ban other books that upset people. We might be told to toss out Dawkins, or anything about the Pope, or a book about Julius Malema or Steve Hofmeyr. The minute we concede any ground in this matter, my time on social media will become exponentially painful as I field complaints about how we stock atheist books, or religious texts or some treatise written by a crazy person that people still study in philosophy.

Secondly, it is not the place of a book store to be the moral guardian of the nation. We have enough self-righteous Brittas around for that. Any place that makes money cannot be expected to toss valuable income down the drain to take a stance that is as transient as it is unnecessary. This is the second half of a very long recession. Bookstores have been particularly hard hit. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll skim off that to say that no sane bookstore is going to listen to three customers complain and toss income potential down the drain. Life must go on, and we do not need to close more stores or retrench more staff. Besides, in three weeks this will have been a non-event and no one will remember that we took a couple hundred books off the shelf (if that many). In any case, if we ban it, Amazon will still sell it. This is a company that sold dolphin meat in its Japanese store; I doubt Blair will bother them much.

Thirdly: Blair is not making as much money off these books as people might think. Once his advance is paid, the publisher (Cornerstone) has to fight to get that money back through sales. The sales aren’t setting the world on fire, which is a pity, since the proceeds are going to the Royal British Legion. I feel sorry for the publishing house, who were probably hoping to make big cash off this so that they could take a risk on a worthy debut author. Remember, publishing houses take a huge risk on any book, and the more money they have to take those risks, the better. Besides, if no one wanted to publish Blair, he could have done it himself. The age of gatekeepers is over.

Fourth: let him embarrass himself in the written word. There’s really not much harm in watching him desperately try to exonerate himself and no one buying it. And nothing destroys a writer’s ego like seeing their book piled high in the back of the warehouse, returned by stores who had customers too smart or uninterested to buy it. The kind of book that gets donated to charities or gets pulped.

Let the bookstore speak, and let the customers make their own decisions. It is not the place of the angry armchair activists to dictate to the buying habits of others, or the selling policies of stores. At the end of the day, banning books is archaic and never seems to work anyway. Remember when Monty Python was banned? And Catcher in the Rye?

It is a lot more gratifying to watch Blair be hoisted by his own petard than to lose out on some much-needed sales.

JK Rowling, Pottermore and the Future

As far as moments in publishing go, the launch of Pottermore is massive. But what makes it momentous is that, for the first time in contemporary publishing, an author has dictated to the biggest names in book-retailing. To put not too fine a point on them, she has told Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble exactly where they can shove their DRM. That kind of authorial power is rare and truly magnificent in its scope.

The watermarking system of the Potter books is a much nicer approach to treating readers like trustworthy human beings rather than the Draconian (mm, puns) hammerlock of DRM. If the book is pirated, it can be traced. It’s probably more effort than its worth but at least Rowling is not treating her readers like criminals. I have discussed book piracy before, and my friends have offered superb links in the comments thread there, so this is an interesting and refreshing approach to DRM.

To be fair, there are maybe ten authors alive that could pull off something as big as this. My bet would be that if James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Jeff Kinney and that ilk decided to get their own online stores and sell their books directly, there’s not much outside a watertight publishing contact that could stop them. And big money means big lawyers to break those contracts. So where does that leave the humble bookseller? And publishers?

For booksellers, the doom and gloom is unnecessary. Most authors don’t have the wherewithal to be able to bypass the retail chain. Honestly, JK Rowling is a rock star amongst writers. The Telegraph shares these facts:

69 Different languages that the Harry Potter books have been published in.

400 million Copies estimated that the Potter books have sold worldwide. It is considered the fastest selling book of all time.

200 Countries in which the books have been published.

Her record-breaking sales and allure as an author gives her power that 99% of the world’s authors do not have. The reason self-publishing hasn’t been able to put a dent in the publishing world at large is because publishers still give authors a platform and help they would not have alone. (Selling your own books is much like door-to-door insurance selling. Thankless, tedious and with pitiful payoff.) Amanda Hocking and the untalented EL James of Fifty Shades notoriety are still the only examples of self-published authors gone big. Rowling had to start with a publisher. Now she has outpaced them and given something back to her incredibly loyal readers.

I like to see this momentous occasion as a wonderful snub to the big baddies in book retail. It is remarkable to see an author empowering her readers by treating them like people. The books are fairly priced at R90 and can be bought with South African credit cards. This is a great time for readers, and inspiring for other authors. No doubt, the publishing industry needs an overhaul. It still screws the authors, and the book retailers screw the buyers. This is a brave new world of author power; I can’t wait to see what happens from here.

Why the Anti-SOPA Movement Matters

I have said before that I am a supporter of Anonymous and all their crazy folks, and today is a good day for a display of fierce, lively internet democracy.

The internet is the only true democracy on the planet, since no one rules it other than its own members, and where everyone has a place to say what they will. While I think Kopimism is an interesting religion, at least on the internet its okay to be atheist. That means a great deal to me, as does the freedom of information. I love the internet, which is why I’ve spent the last hour trying to find out where to install a black-out plug-in for WordPress. I want to show my support for the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement. WordPress has already eloquently explained what it is here, as well as ways to help.

I know that many of my friends will say “but you didn’t give nearly so much of a flying fuck for the Secrecy Bill in SA”. I have given my reasons for that here, but to paraphrase the difference: this is the US government and hundreds of powerful companies, not just the ANC by its misguided self. This battle seeks to repress information internationally, making it possible to arrest people for their fanmade music videos or opinions. Already there’s been an attempt to arrest Occupy protesters who used the #OccupyBoston hashtag on Twitter. What will happen when the government has access to information, and we don’t?

And this isn’t just an American thing; the Mail and Guardian wrote here that there will be a noticeable impact for South Africans. It will give the Secrecy Bill an unprecedented grip on our lives and enable the worst backstabbing since Adam bitched about Eve (metaphorically). Add to this the effect it will have on businesses:

South African businesses could also stand to suffer if the Bills are taken forward. Many companies’ websites are hosted in the US because it is more economical and, in some cases, more reliable than hosting locally. In addition, much of the internet content consumed locally is based in the US.

It is shocking and it should not be shrugged off as “how dare you black-out Wikipedia lol”, which is what is starting to fill my Twitter feed as AnonOps responds to all the fuckwits who can’t see the point of the blackout. This is why I have tried my best to black out my blogs, though my technical knowledge does not match my desire.

I hope that we can all do what we can to keep the Internet free for all, even the evangelists that piss me off. Because on the Internet, everyone gets a voice, and that’s what makes it so special.

McDonald’s and Michael Morpurgo

It has been announced that author Michael Morpurgo has authorised the distribution of nine million copies of Mossop’s Last Chance and Martians at Mudpuddle Farm with McDonald’s Happy Meals. Finger puppets will be included as well, which is kind of fun.

Of course, there will always be detractors for everything, especially if McDonald’s is involved. The National Literacy Trust is supportive of this campaign due to the poor literacy rates in the UK, and the lack of access to books.

The move is supported by the National Literacy Trust, which said that McDonald’s “size and scale will be a huge leap towards encouraging more families to read together”. Eight out of 10 families visit McDonald’s, according to the fast food chain. Pointing to the National Literacy Trust’s recent research which showed that one in three children in the UK – almost four million – don’t own a book, director Jonathan Douglas said he was “very supportive of McDonald’s decision to give families access to popular books”.

And then there’s the Children’s Food Campaign, who are not happy with children being rewarded for bad eating habits with free books:

“The idea appears to be designed to make fast food more attractive to children, which is not the direction we should be going in … You have to question whether it is McDonald’s role in society to improve childhood literacy.”

Both points are valid, and I can understand why it might seem like a bad idea to give children such a reward for their bad eating habits. But isn’t it more important to get books into the hands of children? Most kids love junk food, whether they get an extra reward for it or not. Eating sugary, high-fat foods is a reward in itself for kids, and they will eat it anyway, with or without permission from their parents. While I admire Jamie Oliver’s campaign to get kids to eat better in schools, I think its unfair to say that equating junk food with books is an inherently bad idea. This kind of exposure to reading is absolutely fantastic. It is clear that, in the UK at least, schools and libraries are not coping with the burden of getting kids to read for pleasure. If the parents can say “you can have a Happy Meal, but then you must read the book to me”, isn’t that a wonderful opportunity to inspire a new love?

Its hard for me to be against any program that is trying to get kids to read. Some kids will toss the books aside while chomping on their burgers; I have no doubt of that. But it is unfair to say that millions of kids shouldn’t get books just because they want a Happy Meal. I have my issues with McDonalds and the fast food industry, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t try to do some good. They should be given the opportunity to do so.

It would be fantastic to be able to do something similar with South African food distributors. I’m sure some publishers would be happy to work with someone (maybe me!) in repackaging and translating some classic stories for distribution with Chicky Meals or Brat Packs. For some kids, a book is still a precious and beautiful thing, and nothing makes me happier than seeing boxes of books go out to charities. Its a luxury, and it shouldn’t be. If McDonalds, HarperCollins and Michael Morpurgo want to give more kids the joy of reading, then is it really such a bad thing that they buy two Happy Meals to get two new books?

After all, not every kid that eats junk grows up to eat it all the time, right?