Snips, Snails, and … Technology?

Hey everyone! I’m over on the Emblazoners blog today, wondering what the heck a snip is…

Books Parallel Music Once Again

If there’s one thing that Amazon’s better at than selling books, it might be stirring up controversy.

For those who don’t know, last year, Amazon unveiled a subscription reading service called Kindle Unlimited (KU). For a monthly fee of $9.99, users can download and read as many books as they want, ten at a time. Once you “return” one of those ten borrowed books/stories, you can download another. For voracious readers, the service is a godsend, saving them tens, or even hundreds, of dollars a month on books, depending on their reading habits.

But, where does the author stand on this? While I do have a book that is available for free, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to have all my books available for free. Call me old fashioned, but I’m rather fond of eating and having a roof over my head.

In order for Amazon, or any other subscription service, to have content available to the consumers, they must compensate the content provider in some way. Initially, Amazon chose to utilize a system where, if a reader downloaded and read a book up to a certain point (10% of the text), they paid the author a portion of a substantial “pot” of money each month. That piece of the pot (which started out around $2 and eventually landed in the area of $1.37) was the same for each qualifying download, regardless of length. A short story received the same slice as an epic doorstop.

Naturally, many authors saw this as an opportunity to put out tons of shorter works, be they single short stories or novels transformed into serials. Less reputable folks uploaded short Wikipedia articles and ridiculous non-fiction “books” to take advantage of the 10% payout trigger. Readers began to complain about having a hard time finding something of quality to read. Longer form authors complained about not being compensated fairly.

Now, Amazon has upset the KU apple cart and updated the payout system to a slice of the pot for each page read. Length of the whole work no longer matters. Authors get paid for engagement. If the doorstopper-writer loses the interest of the reader after 20 pages, they earn the same amount as the short story-writer whose 20-page work is read clear through.

Understandably, short form writers are upset by this change. To earn the same $1.37 they got before from one download read to 10%, they have to accumulate approximately 240 pages read — according to the best guess at the pot slice we have at the moment which is $0.0057, or a little over half a cent per page. Novel writers will get paid more than the previous $1.37 if their book gets read all the way through. Writers will now be rewarded for reader engagement.

To all those up in arms about the change, let’s step back and look at the music industry.

Say you hear a song on the radio and decide to purchase it. You see that the artist has a number of other songs available as well. (Us old folks used to call those “albums”) You certainly wouldn’t expect to purchase all the songs for the same price as the one, right?

“Okay,” you say. “But purchasing is different from renting or streaming.”

You’re right, it is. So, let’s look at how artists get compensated for streamed songs.

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Taylor Swift showing her support in the ALA Celebrity Read campaign from 2014. Learn more about the American Library Association at http://www.ala.org.

Spotify is currently paying approximately $0.006 per play (sound familiar?) according Spotify (the artists get much less than that depending on the contract with their label, much like traditionally published authors are paid a small fraction of the money earned from a book). We can argue about whether the number itself is fair or not, but how does this model apply to books?

Think of a page read as a song play. If the listener/reader likes what you have to offer, they’ll listen again (i.e. read more). Then they get to the end of the chapter, or the short story, and think, “Man, this is really good! What happens next?” Just like if you’ve listened to a particular song from an artist a few times and wonder what else they might have available. That performer has made a fan out of you. Our books have the opportunity to do the same thing for readers. If we catch their eyes and engage them with interesting characters and plot, they will come back for more.

Many of you authors out there are probably still not convinced, so let’s look at it from one more angle. Everyone in the equation has to be compensated somehow. Namely, the readers (who get content to consume), the authors (who provide the content to read), and the platform (who creates the method of getting the content to the consumers). Spotify and Amazon have chosen to be compensated directly from the end consumers in the form of a subscription fee and they, in turn, compensate the artists/authors for product consumed.

Another company, YouTube, has taken a different approach. They provide all their content for free, but compensate themselves and the artists through advertising. Imagine if Amazon went this route. Would you want your book to be interrupted every 20 pages by an ad? As a reader, I know I wouldn’t put up with that for very long, even if it was free for me. Take a look at this brilliant info graphic, at the bottom of this article from the Guardian, to see how many more views/listens a song has to have on YouTube for an equal level of payout from the streaming services. It’s quite eye-opening.

What does this all mean? I think subscription services are here to stay. Spotify and Netflix are popular with consumers. The battleground is content and how much to pay those content providers. Scribd’s model for books, while attractive to authors and publishers, is clearly flawed as we’ve seen with them eliminating much of their most-read content this past week. We are only guessing at Amazon’s payout at this point in time. We won’t know what the actual number is until mid-August and the number will undoubtedly fluctuate over the next several months and settle at a point that Amazon is comfortable with. Whether authors will be comfortable with it remains to be seen, but books are only locked into the program for 90 days. If you aren’t happy with what you are seeing, drop out and try other avenues.

I have one series in KU and one not. I’m looking forward to see the dynamics of how all this plays out through the rest of the year. In the meantime, I need to get busy writing. This next book isn’t going to finish itself!

Please let me know your thoughts on KU, Spotify, how much authors and musicians deserve to be paid, or anything else that comes to mind in the comments.

Technology: Ally or Anchor?

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

Movie poster for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, from December of 1984.

I stumbled upon an airing of Starman this weekend on one of the movie channels and sat down to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. I was shocked to realize this movie came out in 1984, during the middle of my sophomore year in college. It was an instant favorite and had many lines my friends and I repeated to each other for months afterward. Jeff Bridges was amazing and I had a serious crush on Karen Allen. (Kids, think Emma Stone, but not as prolific)

As I watched, with my bowl of microwave popcorn, I enjoyed the reminiscence, but was also struck by some things that were missing. Chief among these were cell phones and the Internet. These items are so ubiquitous today that it’s shocking to think of a time when they weren’t part of our everyday lives.

1984. That’s just over 30 years ago. The first cell phones (analog) were introduced in the US in 1983 and calling them “mobile” was a stretch of the word. It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the devices really became practical for the average consumer. The Internet didn’t become something used by anyone other than scientists and other academicians until the late eighties and early nineties. Boundless information has only been available to us at the touch of a few keystrokes, or the swipe of a screen, for a little over 20 years.

My two daughters, born in 1990 and 1995, have never known a world without cell phones and the Internet, just as my generation never knew a world without television. And my parents never knew a world without radio. What revolutionary piece of technology is in its infancy today that my grandchildren will grow up never knowing a world without?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember (or conceive for those my daughters’ age) a time when communication and information weren’t instantly available to us. My childhood would have been vastly different had I grown up today, as opposed to 30 years ago. The technology has become an integral part of our lives.

A few weeks ago, a storm blew through and knocked out power in my neighborhood for several hours.

I had no idea what to do with myself.

Eventually, I decided to be somewhat productive and use the time to make a trip to the store I’d been putting off (I’m certain grocery shopping exists as a form of torture in one of the mid-to-lower levels of Hell). I grabbed my shopping list and hopped in the car, soon after looking for a parking place in the asphalt behemoth outside my nearby Wally-world. After finding a spot, I strode to the store entrance, only to find a handful of people milling about with bewildered looks on their faces. I walked past them and almost ran into the automatic door that refused to open at my approach. It was only then I noticed the hastily written sign taped to the door: “Closed. No power.”

The bastion of all things retail had been shuttered by a lack of electricity.

The simple act of buying and selling could not be performed without computers and the Internet.

And, more importantly, I couldn’t restock my cupboard with cheese puffs.

This got me to thinking, after I got my breathing under control — no cheese puffs! — what would people do if the whole grid suddenly went down with no hope for speedy recovery? How would my daughters cope without texting, Instagram, and Snapchat?

512181main_rbsp-orig_fullTechnology helps us in countless ways, makes our lives easier and richer, but we don’t often consider just how fragile the whole system is. Approximately 1,100 satellites orbit the Earth, governing everything from basic GPS to nearly all our communications, including television, cell phones, and the Internet. The basic structure of the power grid in the US uses elements that were first developed in the fifties and sixties and haven’t been significantly updated since that time. A catastrophic event, either in space, such as a giant solar flare, or widespread weather disaster, could render huge sections of the country without power or communications for days or even weeks, depending on the severity of the catalyst. Would we be able to manage life without these things we deem essential nowadays like our phones and computers? What about light and heat?

Of course, part of my preoccupation with these ideas is a kernel for a new story I’m working on, but I’m curious to hear what you think. Could you survive without your electronic devices for an extended period of time? What would you do? How would you live? Would you enjoy living “off the grid” or would it drive you crazy?

Give me your answers in the comment section below, and I’ll choose one to receive a paper copy of either A Measure of Disorder or Knot in Time (your choice) and you’ll also receive an e-copy of my new book (tentatively titled The Devil You Know) when it comes out later this year.

Black Widow and Children Deserve Better

Many news outlets have already discussed this, but as the father of two daughters (even though they have grown older than the target demographic) I felt the need to weigh in on the apparent black balling of Black Widow from the Age of Ultron toys currently hitting the market.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Black Widow is a female super hero member of the Avengers and a relatively key character (apologies if my sarcasm drips onto your keyboard) in the latest blockbuster from Marvel and their parent company, Disney. An example of her awesomeness is shown below and was one of the scenes featured in the trailers for the movie.

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She drops out of a jet on her motorcycle and speeds off to help save the world. What child wouldn’t want an action figure of that, right?

Evidently, Hasbro, Marvel, and Disney think no child would. Here is the play set based on this very scene that has been rolled out for kids to play with:

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Do we notice anything missing from this? Hm. It seems to have a definitive lack of Black Widow.

Yes. That happened. Black Widow was replaced by Captain America in one of her signature scenes from the movie. In fact, there is no Black Widow action figure to be found, even if you wanted to buy one separately and have a proper representation of the movie.

My question is: why? Even if your marketing showed you wouldn’t move as many units of Black Widow figures as Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk (Hawkeye has proven to be a poor seller, yet he is still represented), wouldn’t you feel it prudent to at least produce a small run of them? There are so many things wrong with this lack of foresight, I have a hard time even typing this post.

We all want our children to grow up in a better world than the one we did. I think that is safe to say for any parent, regardless of generation. I, for one, would like children to grow up to view all people as equals, regardless of gender or race or religion or sexual preference or whether they like broccoli or not. (Broccoli was spawned from Hell, in my opinion, yet I don’t begrudge others who enjoy this waste of a plant — at least most of the time) What sort of messaging does this merchandising send to kids? I certainly can’t see anything positive about it.

So, come on Hasbro, Marvel, and Disney! You can do better! We want our kids to understand that being a hero is not about gender or race. It’s about our actions and what we believe in.

The Adversary of Change: Acceptance

“Daddy, why do people die?”

I look down at my six-year-old daughter. Her bright red hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail and a dusting of freckles dots her nose and cheeks. How can such a such a serious question come from something that personifies adorable? “It’s hard to say, Honey. As our bodies grow and age, things start to wear out I guess. Kind of like the doll you got last Christmas. You played and played with it until the hair fell out and the arm fell off so many times we just couldn’t fix it anymore.”

“Yeah,” she says, pausing to blow the seeds off a dandelion and watch them flutter away in the wind. “But why do people wear out?”

“I don’t know, Sweetheart. Some things we just have to accept because we can’t change them.”

* * * * *

Sometimes I think back to those days when my kids were young and regret explanations like that. True though they may be at times, they encourage us to stop asking, “Why?” When we’re little, every utterance is a question. Eventually, even the most well-meaning parents tire of answering the ceaseless queries and the “That’s just the way it is” answers start to come out. After enough answers like this, children become less verbally inquisitive and the parents breathe a sigh of relief, but is this really a good thing? I can only imagine having a small child now.

“Daddy, why are those people fighting on TV?”

It’s a question that deserves an answer, but is it an answer we can give? How can we explain race relations, or income inequality, or religious persecution to a child without quickly coming to a spot where we give up and say, “I don’t know, that’s just the way it is, Sweetie.”

Unfortunately, what seed does that plant in our children’s minds? Social issues have no solution. Just accept them. That’s the way it is.

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Can we afford to accept these problems any longer? Reach inside and draw on your inner child. Allow yourself to ask, “Why?”

And when figures of authority answer with, “That’s the way it is,” don’t accept it as an answer, because it’s not. Be persistent.

Science has progressed throughout our history because some people refused to accept conventional wisdom at face value. They repeatedly asked, “Why?” until they found answers to satisfy them. And later, those answers were questioned once again. Elements of science fiction such as artificial intelligence and warp drive are becoming teasingly close to becoming science fact. Who knows what other things we previously thought impossible will someday become commonplace?

In order to affect social change, we have to approach it in the same manner. Question why. Why are people, living in the richest country in the world, subjected to conditions that resemble life from two centuries ago? Why are we uncomfortable interacting with people who are different from us? Why does that discomfort seem to always lead to violence?

The cycle can only stop if we refuse to accept it.