Bookstore Idiocy

Last weekend, I attended a fantasy and science fiction literary symposium in northern Utah, called LTUE (or, after a noteworthy writer, Life, The Universe, and Everything). As more of a literary symposium than a standard convention, LTUE attracts a great number of writers and editors, and an even greater number of would-be or beginning F&SF writers. Over the years, the guests of honor have included best-selling authors, F&SF publishers, and noted editors in the field (and, yes, I’ve been a GOH twice).

One of the highlight events of LTUE is a “mass signing” of all attending authors on Friday night, and this is facilitated by a book-selling site in the same enormous room as the mass signing, which means that those who are attending can run over and buy a book for an author to sign if they attended panels or discussions and realized that they really wanted to try an author’s work.

For over twenty years, the Barnes & Noble in Orem operated this on-site temporary book-selling venue, and, from what I’ve observed in the years I’ve attended, they seemed to do very well indeed. I know that my books have always sold moderately well at LTUE, and often the works of bigger name authors sold in the hundreds of copies over three days.

This year, however, the B&N store was unable to continue this activity, not because it didn’t sell books and make money, but because B&N recently adopted a chain-wide policy that banned “satellite events.”

To me, such a blanket policy makes no sense. I could understand a policy that declared that satellite events must cover their costs or come close, but a blanket ban? This reeks of accounting bean-counting. The business of a bookstore is, at least ostensibly, to sell books. If LTUE gets readers to try reading authors new to them, at least a proportion of those readers will buy more books by those authors. This increases sales, and since B&N is the only large set of bookstores in Utah, at least some of those sales will come from B&N. What’s not to like about making a bit of money at the symposium and increasing overall sales?

Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor, came up through the sales ranks, and he’s told me more than a few times about the role the small mall stores – Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, now both defunct – played in developing readers, because they were convenient places for people to pick up books, not destination stores like the current B&N megastores, or the vanished Borders stores. Now, most of those convenient places are gone, whether it’s the vanished rack in the drugstore, the small mall bookstore, or the like, and those bookselling venues that are left are stocked by computer on based on national sales that often have little to do with the community where the sales outlet is located. Along that line, the ability of B&N store managers to customize their inventory has been reduced, if not eliminated.

I know B&N is having financial problems, but focusing on almost mindless cost-cutting when the effect of cost-cutting is to reduce sales is counter-productive. Success is measured by increasing sales in a cost-effective manner, not by cutting costs and doing less. You don’t turn around a financial down-turn just by cutting costs; you also have to increase sales, and doing things like a blanket ban on satellite events cuts down on sales. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the symposium regulars and organizers, as far as B&N is concerned – and those people are all heavy readers. Does this really make sense, economically or in PR terms?

By the way, a small book vendor did step up at the last moment and set up an on-site book store, and she certainly sold a number of my books, as well as those of quite a few other authors.

Political Appeal and Innumeracy

U.S. federal spending in 2016 was roughly $4 trillion, and revenues were slightly over $3.4 trillion, leaving a deficit of around $600 billion. Out of total spending, $2.6 trillion was mandatory spending on programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Spending on these programs cannot be cut without major changes in federal law, and since 77% of all Americans oppose such cuts, it’s highly unlikely that major cuts will occur any time soon. Then add to that some $260 billion in mandatory payments on the federal debt, and essentially 72% of federal spending cannot be effectively cut, at least at present. That leaves $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending, that is, spending that can be increased or decreased by Congress.

Unhappily, the vast majority of Americans have no real understanding of even these basic numbers, especially Fox News viewers, 49% of whom declared in a recent poll that cutting “waste and fraud” would eliminate “the national debt” [which now stands at $14.4 trillion]. A number of polls over the year have shown that most Americans believe that 25% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid [it’s less than one percent], and that five percent of all federal spending goes to PBS and NPR [in fact, roughly a tenth of one percent does].

The real numbers are more daunting. The largest component of discretionary spending is defense, and while the DOD “official” budget is slightly under $600 billion, various contingency funds and defense activities funded in other forms and by other agencies [for example, the Coast Guard is funded by the Treasury Department], brought the total annual cost of U.S. defense much higher, as high as $900 billion, according to some sources, but even assuming $600 billion for defense, that leaves $500 billion for everything else, including agriculture, energy, education, transportation, federal lands management, national parks, environmental protection, veterans benefits, welfare payments, and a whole lot more.

Trump’s proposed tax cut would reduce federal revenues by $500 billion, according to the Tax Foundation, on top of that $600 billion deficit, so even if he could persuade Congress to cut non-defense discretionary spending by 50% — in essence gutting most federal agencies, the deficit would increase to nearly $900 billion, and that doesn’t count the additional spending he’s proposed for infrastructure spending – which initial estimates suggest range from $500 billion to over a trillion dollars, over ten years, or $50 billion to $100 billion a year.

Proponents of the Trump plans claim that all the new investment and jobs will increase tax revenues, and some probably will, but not anywhere close to enough to deal with the federal deficit that increases the national debt – and the interest that must be paid on it – each year.

Based on a 2014 study by Standard & Poor’s, if Congress were to pass a $50 billion a year infrastructure bill, that legislation would create an additional 1.1 million jobs. Construction workers make an average of around $35,000 a year, and, under the best estimate of the Trump tax plan, those million workers would pay around $4,000 in federal income taxes each, thus adding up to an additional $4.5 billion. Economists like to point to the multiplier effect, i.e., how many additional jobs are created by one new job. According to the IMF, under present conditions, the multiplier effect is hovering around one, one additional job created somewhere in the economy for each new job created by investment. So… fifty billion dollars of infrastructure investment might create somewhere over two million jobs and possibly add $10 billion in tax revenues while costing $50 billion. Even if the multiplier effect is five times as much as the IMF says, the infrastructure proposal is at best a break-even proposition, and, as such, might be a good idea. BUT… it won’t do much for reducing the current deficit, let alone the increase in the deficit that will be occurring as a result of more federal spending on defense, and the likely coming increase in interest rates.

The other bottleneck in increasing jobs is the mismatch between available workers and the available jobs. According to research from human resources consultancy Randstad Sourceright, a survey of more than 400 U.S. executives found a skills gap impacting their businesses. Four-fifths of those executives said that a shortage of sufficiently skilled workers will affect their companies in the next 12 months. Complaints of hard-to-fill factory jobs are backed up by Bureau of Labor Statistics data: 324,000 manufacturing spots were open in November, up from 238,000 a year earlier.

Another problem that the Trump approach doesn’t address is that jobs creation isn’t equal. Right now, employees of high-tech companies receive almost 12% of all employee compensation, but there are only seven million of them and the average salary is close to $105,000, more than double the salary of the average industrial or manufacturing employee, or triple that of a construction worker. In addition, the tech industries are only adding about 200,000 employees a year. That doesn’t do much for the nearly 15 million unemployed or underemployed Americans, or the roughly three million college graduates each year. The largest numbers of jobs are in the lower paid service industries, and all the investment money putatively freed up by the tax cuts will be going to tech-heavy companies, and those jobs comprise less than 5% of total U.S. employment.

Massive tax cuts, more defense spending, a major infrastructure initiative… all to be paid for by new jobs and cuts in such federal programs as PBS, NPR, the Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, foreign aid, and the like? The numbers don’t add up, even if the political appeal does, perhaps because most Americans don’t seem to understand the numbers, or care to.

The Education/Business Fallacy

Recently, a semi-prominent president of an educational institution told a group of music professors that they shouldn’t complain about the fact that they were paid less than professors in other disciplines or that they were required by the institution to work longer hours and more days than most other professors because they “knew what they were getting into.” Besides the arrogance of the statement, I also found the sheer ignorance behind those words even more disturbing.

First off, when the vast majority of students on the collegiate or graduate level begin their academic preparation for their careers – whatever those careers may be – they have only the vaguest understanding of the scope of that career or of the demands it will make on them. Those only become truly apparent AFTER students graduate and move into the professional fields. That’s one of the reasons why something like 50% of all teachers drop out of teaching within five years. It’s why professionals change careers or leave them behind totally.

Second, this kind of attitude is typical of those who regard education from the “business” mindset and contributes to such factors as pushing to obtain as many students as possible, regardless of whether the students are ready or suited for college and where there’s a huge push to “steer” students toward “STEM” education and careers, as if students are organic robots that can simply be programmed toward the most lucrative careers, or those that will at least allow them to repay their often-massive student loans. As both a parent of a number of children who have been successful in various fields and careers and as a former faculty member on the collegiate level, I find the idea that students can be successfully “programmed” for specific careers or even careers in a general field totally ludicrous. People have different levels of ability in differing fields and different mind-sets.

For someone to have suggested that I might have a career in music because pop music stars make lots of money would have been both criminal and deceptive, given that I can’t carry a tune and have no sense of rhythm. In turn, to suggest that a good music student who can barely pass basic chemistry or physics, and for whom calculus is akin to magic, would be better served by going into a science or technology career would also be criminal and deceptive.

Third, the emphasis on college as vocational training, particularly on the undergraduate level, ignores reality. Even today, most college-educated individuals change jobs and often entire career paths seven to ten times in their professional lives. Those who make those transitions most successfully are those who have learned how to keep learning. Even those who remain in the same field have found that the requirements of their positions continue to change as technology advances.

Fourth, available jobs and job requirements are constantly changing as the result of shifting economic factors and technological advancement, and “guiding” students to the current “jobs du jour” may serve those not strongly motivated to enter that field poorly indeed.

Fifth, while employment “supply and demand” does in fact determine compensation levels, those levels have increasingly less and less to do with the skills needed by society. At least at present, scarce skills, even those that aren’t all that necessary to the functioning of society, are more highly valued than many necessary occupations and services. No matter what the financial types say, we need very few hedge fund managers for a successful civilization. We need a lot more of the practical and mundane skills, from electricians and plumbers to good classroom teachers and more doctors in general practice, but fewer and fewer doctors want to be in internal medicine or general practice because those fields usually pay half what specialized medical fields do and require longer hours, making it far harder to pay off the medical school loans.

Finally, what drives personal success in any field is the love of what one is doing combined with the education and capability to do the job at hand. “Training” a student for a theoretically more remunerative field that disregards the student’s abilities and interests serves neither the society’s interests nor the student’s. It’s a sad commentary on higher education when a university president suggests that because economics lowers the comparative compensation of professionals in certain disciplines and because the university takes advantage of that to the point of requiring more of those individuals, it’s all the fault of those professionals because they “chose” to pursue the field in which their talents lie.

This administrative mindset is also why more and more universities hire fewer and fewer expert and dedicated full-time professionals and more and more underpaid part-time adjuncts, because the quality of the instruction has become increasingly less and less important than the push to lower “people” costs, or at least the people costs associated with actual learning, as opposed to those associated with collegiate athletics.

Decline of Fictional Uniqueness?

As some of my readers know, these days I binge-read fiction on business trips or other travels, and, for the most part, I make an effort to search out books and authors I haven’t read, as well as books that deal with what I’d call interesting subjects or more familiar subjects addressed in a unique fashion.

The problem is, at least for me, that, beneath the veneer of “new and different” claimed by publishers and authors, I’m finding that there really isn’t all that much truly new and different. Oh, there are definitely books that deal with “new and different,” but not nearly so many as the publishing hype might suggest. Perhaps that’s always been the case, and perhaps when an author gets older, and has read as many books in the field as I have, it’s just harder to find something that’s truly different.

But I’m not so certain about that. Tolkien re-invented heroic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings, and I can’t even count the number of follow-ons and knock-offs. As far as I can determine Fred Saberhagen re-invented the vampire genre with The Dracula Tape in 1975 [Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire wasn’t published until May of 1976], although one could also claim that Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend [1954] was the first of the true twentieth century vampire “re-births,’ but Matheson’s blood-suckers were more “generic.’ Saberhagen also pioneered the whole idea of malevolent, non-gendered cyber beings with his berserker stories, something that tends to get overlooked in all the hoopla about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its sequel.

Certainly James Tiptree, Jr., [Alice Bradley Sheldon], Joanna Russ, Sheri Tepper, and Ursula K. LeGuin were questioning gender roles and societal norms some thirty years ago, and even in 1987 Melissa Scott wrote The Kindly Ones, a masterful work in which it is impossible to determine with any certainty the gender of the protagonist.

The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones are essentially huge-scale epic fantasies, with a few twists, that, in my mind, at least, fall into the post-Tolkien follow-on school.

Now, as I’ve noted in some of my comments on what I’ve read, there are still books with unique twists on old themes and some few with new themes, and I’m still looking, but it just could be that, as I’m getting older, it’s just harder to surprise me.

What do you think… and what books have struck you as unique… and why?

Egocentric Facts and “Morality”

Donald Trump’s initial reaction to the questions raised by federal appellate judges about his Executive Order establishing a travel ban clearly establishes his viewpoint – again. Anything he believes is right is indeed right, and it doesn’t matter what judges, history, or the Constitution say, because he is right. Even after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the stay on the travel ban, Trump insisted that the Court was wrong and that the Supreme Court will see it his way.

Since the Ninth Circuit merely ruled on the issue of not allowing the ban to take effect until it is fully reviewed by the judicial system, it’s certainly possible that some version of the ban will be approved. In time, in fact, that’s very likely to occur, but it most likely won’t be the ban that Trump initially proposed.

The ban issue also is merely one facet of an unfortunately larger issue. The man who outsourced the production of all of the consumer products bearing his name (but who champions verbally U.S. production while avoiding it) is “right.” The man who stiffed scores of contractors is “right.” The man who insisted for years that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen is “right.” The man who promised a clean sweep of corruption and business as usual in Washington and who started his administration by appointing the wealthiest and most “business as usual” types as his cabinet picks is “right.”

This is a man who refuses to accept proven and verifiable facts that contradict him and who attacks personally the people who cite such facts to oppose him.

I’m not sure which appalls me more, the fact that Trump is so arrogantly sure about what is clearly not so, while being blatantly hypocritical, or the fact that some 48% of U.S. citizens apparently believe him, and more than 55% approve of the travel ban.

We truly live in a polarized country, so polarized that what is accepted as fact depends more on ideological beliefs than concrete and provable evidence. Polls show fairly clearly that more and more people are rejecting provable facts that don’t agree with what they wish to believe, and Trump is not only playing to this weakness but doing so in a way that attempts to destroy the credibility of anyone and any institution that disagrees with him… and his supporters and 90% of Republicans are lapping it up, according to a recent poll by Emerson College.

This sort of attack on the media isn’t new. A then-little-known German politician started the same way in the late 1920s, with blistering attacks on those who opposed him, with deceptive statements and outright falsifications, and by the early 1930s had complete control of Germany.

In 1935, the novelist Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel entitled It Can’t Happen Here about a U.S. politician taking power in the same way. But it can happen here, particularly if Trump and his supporters are allowed to flout the laws and tell blatant falsehoods without being challenged. All it takes is 51% of the voters to vote for such behavior on a continuing basis.

Political disagreements are endemic and necessary in our system of government, but vicious personal attacks by the President and his staff, blatant lies and falsehoods, and, in particular, personal attacks on other branches of government that disagree with the President are neither necessary nor desirable. Nor are attacks on a free press anything but a disservice to us all.