The Digital Nativity…

This morning’s inbox brought me a bit of humor from my cousin…

It’s clever all by itself, but, once I stopped chuckling, I realized that it was actually a tutorial in social networking and suddenly I had new insights into this whole social networking thing.

Between it and TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” article, I may figure out what 500 million people are doing on Facebook….

Seeking North

We talk.  The three of us inside Closed Circle (Jane, CJ, and me) talk – not as often as we could or should, but we’re trying to do better at not letting time and the better part of a continent stall our communication.  We’re scheduling weekly conversations now and have actually managed to keep ourselves structured for two weeks running!

For the last year or so, when we’ve talked, we’ve mostly been talking about Closed Circle and how to make it work (and word better).  One of the things we discuss regularly is Content, or, as I call it, Feeding the Beast.

A couple weeks ago, Jane suggested short stories and all three of us groaned, even Jane, because if there’s one thing the three of us have in common is that we’re NOT short-story writers.  By the time I come up with an idea for a short story and get the characters, the setting, the plot and all that ironed out….well, really, what I’ve got is indistinguishable from an unwritten novel and I’m going to spend months trimming it back down to something in the neighborhood of short-story length.  The problem’s a bit different for Carolyn and a bit different again for Jane, but the gist is the same: taking a scalpel to your newborn idea just isn’t fun.

But there is an exception: the much-maligned Shared-World short story, of which the three of us have written dozens….all of which are locked up under contracts.  And, besides—we admitted strictly amongst ourselves—we weren’t really interested in going back to old territory.  We kinda wanted to do something, something that might (collective gasp) be Fun.

We digressed, then circled back: as a matter of fact, I’d recently conjured up a new playground….just to prove to myself that I could still do it.  Late one sleepless night, I’d challenged myself to build something around the next two words to float up from the magic 8-ball I keep in the back of my mind.  The words had been “seeking” and “north” (altogether better than, say, “blue” “ketchup”).  I had characters and the beginnings of a plot (which was looking pretty episodic) but I wasn’t invested in it.  I could share it…if Jane and Carolyn were interested.

Good friends and cagey professionals that they are, they said—almost in unison—okay, send us what you’ve got.  I, of course, had nothing in the way of actual words, but I put a few paragraphs together…about as much as Bob and I had put together back at the dawn of Thieves’ World…and emailed it off.

Truthfully, Seeking North is not the world’s greatest story concept.  Even more truthfully, it didn’t/doesn’t have to be.  The hardest part of this profession is getting the first bits written…after that it’s all revision and expansion.  By the end of the day, both Jane and Carolyn had ante’d up their characters and we were ready to hammer out the technical details:

1.  I’m writing the first installment, due on 1-1-2011.

2.  We’re going to publish it via Word Press (because our blogs and Closed Circle itself are Word Press installations and we’re pretty comfortable with Word Press)

3.  There will be at least one new installment per calendar month (see “Feeding the Beast, above).

4.  It will be free — lots of links to us and our income-generating projects, but otherwise free as a proverbial bird.

5.  The story, as it unfolds, won’t necessarily be linear – none of the old “lock the characters in a room and set the hallway ablaze” shenanigans that Carolyn and I have been known to create for each other in the past (TW 8: Soul of the City).  We’re going more for the literary equivalent of a jam session rather than a studio session.

6.  What has been written will not have been written “in stone”.  We may repair the contradictions and inconsistencies when we find them.  Individually or collectively, we may decide we’ve headed down a blind alley – but rather than delete an installment, we’ll ignore it or fossilize it.

7.  Our loyal readers can comment on the story, the world, the possibilities, the contradictions, and the craft (It’s going to be Word Press, after all, with all those blog-y features built-in).  We may break the unwritten rule and be influenced by those comments…with unpredictable results.

8.  Everything is subject to change, but –

9.  We’re going to have ourselves some fun

Weekend thoughts…

Statistically, any day could be a bad news day: the phone rings and a few seconds later your life’s crossed a threshold from which there’s no going back.  And, statistically, the older you get and the older the people around you get, the better the odds are that any particular call will be that call.

Lately, by which I mean since Bob died in 2008, it seems I’ve been getting a couple every month and I almost got one today.

The phone rang about 5:30, which was a little unusual in and of itself – my usual crop of politicians, solicitors, and misguided debt collectors only call at dinner time during the week; on weekends they tend to call around eight in the morning.  It was my mom.  She sounded fine—and sometimes she sounds weary—but she told me I probably should sit down.  And I did, though it was more like I contracted into the nearest chair.  She hastened to tell me that she was, indeed, fine but that she’d been in a car accident.

Mom and Dad live in a very nice community just off US Highway 441 in Tavares.  When they moved there in 1980, you could practically go bowling each day out on Highway 441, but that’s changed now.  441 is six lanes now and while just about every place lays claim to the worst drivers in the country, I think Lake County might actually have them.  When Jane and CJ came to visit, they watched as the driver at the next gas pump, dragged himself out of the driver’s seat and down the length of his car, clearly a stroke victim, completely paralyzed on one side—with all that that means for depth perception and peripheral vision.  Jane and CJ were agog, but I scarcely blinked—that’s an ordinary sight on Highway 441.

It’s the kind of road that drives you crazy and brings out the worst in every driver – including me and, today, apparently, including my mom.  She was trying to make a left, which means crossing the three southbound lanes (never mind that they’re actually going due east), holing up in the median cut, then merging into the northbound lanes (which are going due west…love driving that road at sunset).  And, somehow, she overlooked a semi in the outside lane and merged into its second axle – the rear wheels of the cab.

Somehow, she got the car back onto the median (from which I infer that it wasn’t so badly crumpled that its tires were no longer in contact with the ground).

And she’s not hurt.  Embarrassed, but not hurt.

And I’m blogging rather than doing any of a great number of things that I’m really not looking forward to at all.

But a semi–   The mind boggles, and cringes.  I don’t think I’m going to sleep well tonight.

All in all, I’d rather have had a replay of last weekend’s crisis.  That was when we lost Jane’s email archive.  Seems she’d been archiving all her email (and all the Closed Circle email!) on the server and in the midst of trying to tamp down Carolyn’s spam torrent, I missed the warning messages (assuming there were warning messages) that her archive had grown larger than its server-space.  She sent me this very plaintive message—did I have any idea why she couldn’t access her email archive?

I didn’t…until I looked at the server directories, then I did a swift OMG, ‘cause her account was gone, gone, gone.  Fortunately, I had access to a full system backup of everything on our server.  Once I got it downloaded, I started picking it apart.  Ultimately, I found the missing archives and restored them (along with her email account which now has infinite storage!) 

But it took a while and while I was working I apparently forgot to move because when I finally stood up I had a stabbing pain above my left hip.  Ibuprofen didn’t touch it and I thought I’d done something not only stupid but serious.  It’s still stupid, but it’s not serious: I managed to pull a groin muscle while sitting!  For several days, I asked myself, How did I do that? all while grumbling to myself that it wasn’t really getting better.  On Wednesday it dawned on me (one of those “dawn broke over the universe” moments) that the problem was my computer chair—my beloved Balans chair in which I’ve been kneeling for nearly thirty years.


I don’t know whether the fault lies with the chair or with my body (a bit of both, I suspect), but I rolled the Balans aside and sat myself down in a spare dining-room chair.  The dining-room chair brought instant misery to my back, but my groin stopped hurting immediately.  So I went on a quest for a new computer chair.  I guess I’m glad that there are so many more choices now, but I lost hours figuring out what all the adjectives meant.  After sitting in every chair at the local Office Depot, I concluded that I wanted (needed?) a mid-back chair with forward-tilt adjustment and a waterfall seat (waterfall seat???  Who knew???)  None of the available local chairs worked for me, so I’ve ordered one from Amazon.  It had gotten as far as Jacksonville by midnight last night and should be here, ready to assemble, on Monday.

In the meantime—and for the first time in a long, long time—I’m having ration my at-the-computer time, which meant I didn’t get to alert everyone to the shout-out that Closed Circle got on Tele-Reads last Thursday.  It’s an interesting article, worth reading even without Closed Circle.  We’ve moved into the next round of the publishing Kerfluffle – now an agent has their authors’ backlists and given them exclusively to Amazon.  I’ll have more thoughts to share about this…once I’ve assembled the new chair…

We got a nice plug yesterday…

I’ve been wrestling with some chronic vision issues caused by living in a part of the country that is too bright for my Britain-based genes so I missed this nice mention of Closed Circle over at the Dear Author blog

Their tag line includes the dreaded word “romance,” but please don’t let that stop you from delving deeply into their archives.  Genre boundaries are less meaningful than ever (less ghetto, more sprawl) and the “J”s have great insights when it comes to the evolution (devolution???) of traditional publishing

Pronoun Problems (Macmillan Again)

The kerfluffle has gone another round.  John Sargent, CEO at Macmillan, has penned an open letter to Macmillan authors and illustrators, with a CC to literary agents.

Already I’m confused.  All agents?  Just those agents with clients at Macmillan?  There is a difference.  But, since I’m definitely a Macmillan author, whose Amazon buttons have yet to reappear, I kept reading…

Over the last few years we have been deeply concerned about the pricing of electronic books. That pricing, combined with the traditional business model we were using, was creating a market that we believe was fundamentally unbalanced.  In the last three weeks, from a standing start we have moved to a new business model. We will make less money on the sale of e books, but we will have a stable and rational market. To repeat myself from last Sunday’s letter, we will now have a business model that will ensure our intellectual property will be available digitally through many channels, at a price that is both fair to the consumer and that allows those who create and publish it to be fairly compensated.

About that “we,” Mr. Sargent….  Exactly who are the “we” who’ve been deeply concerned, who’ve moved from a standing start to a new business model in just three weeks!?  I assumed, through the first four sentences, that “we” was “you”—corporate Macmillan—rather than “us”—because why else would you be sending me a letter.

Then I hit the fifth sentence:  …”our intellectual property”…

I checked, just to make certain, but there it is on the title page verso – copyright 2006 / Lynn Abbey.  Rifkind’s Challenge is MY intellectual property.  It is licensed to Macmillan/TOR under a contract that sometimes feels like indentured servitude (or maybe like the old Hollywood studio/contract system).  License is not quite the same as ownership.

But, by golly, they’re going to be fair to “those who create.”

These are the good guys?

Is it any wonder I’m confused…and just a teeny bit skeptical?

Back in the Dark Ages—the mid 70s, the post Star-Wars period when Hollywood started optioning SF—the wise words were: Get all your money up front; and if that doesn’t work never, ever take a share of net anything, especially profits.

So, now I’m back to thinking about that Wall Street Journal article I linked to few days back.  Macmillan’s got the same problem…a problem they can partially solve by sweetening current/future contracts and then offering to sprinkle the same sweetner on old contracts…all in the name of fairness….toward the creators of their intellectual property.

Yeah, there are going to be problems. Somebody’s going to have to come up with the publishing equivalent of United Artists.  UA didn’t change the game because they won an anti-trust suit against the system; they did it by beating the system at its own game

Is there an entrepreneur in the house?

This morning’s email brought me a message from the Authors Guild, of which I am a longtime member.  You can read it for yourselves here—in fact, they’re encouraging me to “feel free to forward, post, or tweet.” 

Clearly, my Guild is part of Team Macmillan.  I’m not going to mail my membership card back to them, but I’m not joining the team, either.

Actually, I’m not joining either team.

Maybe it makes sense for some of my peers, but I stand by my original contention: my interests are quite different than either Amazon’s (the interest of a mass distributer) or Macmillan’s (the interest of a traditional publisher). 

And I really don’t care which one of them “wins” ‘cause a larger share of nothing, last time I checked, was still nothing.  For years now, my agent and I have pursued a strategy of negotiating the highest advance possible, ‘cause that’s the only money we’re going to see.  My contracts—and I’ve usually seen middle-of-the-road boiler plate—are pretty much designed so that the books aren’t going to earn out.  We dicker over terms and rights in the hope that maybe we’ll have an advantage down the line, but in twenty years, we never have. 

(Speaking of contracts–  Back in December, the Wall St Journal took note that Bertelsmann AG (owner of Random House and, by extension: Ballantine Books | Bantam | Delacorte | Dell | Del Rey | Del Rey / Lucas Books | The Dial Press | The Modern Library | One World | Presido Press | Random House Trade Group | Random House Trade Paperbacks | Spectra | Spiegel & Grau | Villard Books ) has decided that it “owns the digital rights to books it published before the emergence of an active marketplace for electronic books.”  So forgive me, if I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy when I hear that Macmillan et al. are fighting for my rights.)

Once again, though, I’ve digressed.

Reading that Authors Guild letter got me thinking about what it would take to get me to sign on the dotted line with a publisher again.  Short answer: Nothing.  That bridge is burnt…charred…vaporized.

What I would do, though, is purchase services…a one-stop shop where I could get whatever pre-pub services I felt I needed and could afford, peer review, and bona fides.  And of those, the bona fides are probably the most important.

Reading this, you may never have heard of me, but if you Google, you’ll see I’ve had a couple dozen books published. Some editor laid out company money so you could lay out your money to buy my prose.  It gives me valuable credibility.

Jane, CJ and I couldn’t think about Closed Circle if we hadn’t already earned our bona fides.  We’ve already been approached by writers who’d like to be a part of Closed Circle because they think we might be a way for them to earn their bona fides. It’s  a problem we’re ducking for now (we didn’t chose the name “Closed Circle” by accident), but one we’ll have to face, especially if we (and by “we” I mean not just the three of us, but every DTB author who’s planning to fly solo) are successful.

Five stars at Amazon or Goodreads are nice, but nothing compares to the cachet that “Publisher: Macmillan” confers on a title.  (At least you’re sure it’s not going to be the Eye of Argon…well, reasonably sure…)  So long as that’s true, Macmillan’s got leverage, but I suspect that Amazon aspires to cachet and leverage, too.

Which brings me back to my topic: Now would be a good time for some Bill Gates/Sergey Brin/Don Wollheim type to come up with a new way to convey cachet and bona fides that doesn’t depend on royalties.