Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Mass Market Paperbacks – The Death Spiral

The other day I got a striking reminder that the distribution of mass market paperback books, at least in the fantasy and science fiction field, is getting close to a death spiral (perhaps I’m exaggerating, but the situation isn’t good for lovers of the mass market paperback).

I was contacted by an independent book store that informed me that one of the mass-market paperbacks in the Imager Portfolio was being listed as indefinitely out of print. When I contacted Tor, I learned that the paperback in question wasn’t selling all that well. That struck me as rather odd, because I was under the impression that the Imager books were all selling nicely. Well… I obviously hadn’t looked closely enough at my royalty statements. The book in question has been selling quite nicely. It sold well in hardcover and e-book, and sold well – initially – in mass market, but in the last two years, it’s tanked in mass market, although e-book sales remain strong.

I wanted to know why paperback sales had dropped. So I asked. The reason given by Tor was that, while mass market paperbacks still sell well in independent bookstores, that’s because they’re more frequently carried as back stock by independent bookstores, while Barnes & Noble, the largest brick and mortar outlet for physical books, has been cutting back on carrying back stock paperbacks that aren’t selling extremely quickly.

Without the demand by B&N, the publishers can’t afford to reprint backlist titles nearly so often, since there are so few independent bookstores that have large stocks of fantasy and science fiction, and the publishers can’t afford to keep large inventories because of the federal tax laws under the Thor Power Tool precedent. As explained here: Thor Decision

But… if the titles aren’t on the shelves, that reduces the demand, which means that fewer backlist mass market paperbacks get reprinted, which in turn reduces demand, and readers either order the e-book or move on to another author or series that is available.

So if you can’t find as many mass market paperbacks by your favorite author, all that just might be why.


Human beings are social. Most of us form groups. The problem is that while some groups are helpful and socially beneficial, others are socially toxic, and when a socially toxic group becomes powerful enough, the greater society always suffers. Sometimes, this is immediately obvious, as demonstrated by the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville. Other times, it’s hushed up, as I discovered, months after the fact, when the president of my college alma mater “disinvited” a conservative speaker. While I scarcely agree with the views of the speaker, I don’t believe in disinviting speakers whose views don’t match those of an institution.

At the same time, I also don’t believe in violent demonstrations. No matter what the aggrieved partisans who feel disenfranchised say, violent demonstrations have no place in a democracy, particularly since they strengthen the opposition and weaken the cause of the demonstrators. Demonstrations, yes. Violence, no.

All of this, however, also obscures an understanding of a critical aspect of the problem, and that’s a failure to distinguish between perceived groups and real groups. Skin color and ethnicity don’t often, if ever, correspond to groups. Just look at Africa today, or Europe in the 1600s, or England in the Elizabethan era. Muslims in Afghanistan are killing other Muslims of the same ethnicity and skin color.

Groups almost always have an identity based on a belief of some sort, whether it’s a religious faith, a belief that members of the group are oppressed or otherwise disenfranchised, a sense of supremacy, or some mixture of beliefs.

Groups also have two basic goals/drives: first, to reinforce the identity of all group members as part of that group and, second, to become more powerful as a way of strengthening the group and its identify. These drives motivate all groups, from gangs and drug cartels to philanthropic organizations and political parties, even religious groups.

One of the ways groups strengthen group identity is by claiming some sort of superiority — moral, spiritual, physical, intellectual, cultural, or some combination thereof, but in the case of toxic groups that “superiority” is based on stigmatizing and minimizing non-group members. The “better” types of groups trade more on some form of superiority based on service, morals, cultural uplift, or another form of cultural elitism, rather than emphasizing the negatives of non-members.

But all groups trade on their group identity in some fashion, ranging from very slightly to the point that, in some groups, nothing matters to the group but the group.

Toxic groups are the problem, not ethnicity, skin color, wealth, poverty, degree of education, or so many other “indicators” that people so easily cite.

Language and Culture

In an article recently republished on, the linguist David J. Peterson took dead aim the underlying premise of Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao. Vance postulated that language influences cultural behavior and that changing a culture’s language could change the culture. Peterson’s assessment was blunt: “The premise of this book is pure fantasy and has absolutely no grounding in linguistic science.”

In a less direct manner, he also mentions Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue, noting that the language creation was “extraordinary,” but reiterates the idea that changing culture solely through changing language is “pure science fantasy”

Oh… really?

Peterson’s certainly not the only authority on linguistics, and his blanket statement is a bit suspect (as are most vast generalizations). While he has an M.A. in linguistics and has created a number of languages, Suzette Haden Elgin had a Ph.D. in linguistics and was a professor of linguistics at San Diego State University for a number of years, and also created at least one complete artificial language. She apparently didn’t seem to think that the use of language to change culture was infeasible or pure science fantasy. And for years, she taught people how to use language more effectively. Peterson seems either totally unaware of this, or chooses to ignore it, neither of which is exactly praiseworthy or honest.

Also, from a logical point of view, one can argue that language has no impact on culture or that it has some impact. I don’t see how any rational individual can claim that language doesn’t have an impact on human behavior, and anything that affects human behavior affects culture. It seems to me that the question of impact is only one of degree.

To be fair, Peterson makes the argument that changing a language alone can’t change culture. But that’s a straw man argument, an all or nothing argument. No single factor will by itself change society. Society is influenced by a myriad of factors, and the use of language is definitely one of them. Witness the use of language by demagogues, notably by Adolph Hitler, but also by Donald Trump in the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2016.

I’d be the first to admit that both Vance and Elgin exaggerated the effect of language in their books, but authors often exaggerate to make a point. I’ve certainly been known to do so. What Peterson doesn’t seem to get is the fact that, while language by itself may not change an entire society in a generation, over time language and its patterns do reshape society, and that individuals in every generation use language to do just that, turning nouns into verbs and vice-versa and inventing new terms and usages, not just in reaction, either – and that’s not “pure science fantasy.”


Starting with Aristotle, there’s been a great deal of controversy about what “plot” means. Aristotle called plot “the arrangement of incidents,” incorporating a beginning, middle, and an end. My dictionary defines plot as “the scheme of events or situations in a story.” The novelist E. M. Forster distinguished between story and plot, saying that a story was “a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” Later critics suggested that the purpose of a plot was to show the interplay of events and character, with those events requiring conflict.

Yet I’m finding that there is a certain small subset of readers who equate “plot” with “action,” especially physical action with lots of violence, threats of death, and a high body count. That is, for these readers, if there is not a cascade of continuing action, the story or novel has no plot or point.

I fully understand that some readers read primarily, if not solely, for excitement and physical action, and there are more than enough books that provide such action. Many of them, I would contend, actually are without any vestige of a plot, in the sense that those books contain minimal character development, and no emotional or intellectual conflict, aspects of a novel that most readers and scholars would consider as necessary elements of plot. I certainly do.

A series of high energy actions isn’t necessarily a plot. The big-bang creation of the universe was violent and high energy, but it has no plot. For that matter, the Biblical take on creation is only a series of events, with neither character nor conflict [after the serpent and Cain and Abel, things change].

This also brings up a subsidiary but vital point. The lack of violent action doesn’t necessarily mean the lack of conflict, or for that matter, the lack of tension. Hitchcock’s acclaimed picture Vertigo contains no actual scenes of violence, only one apparent suicide, and an accidental death, yet the tension builds throughout, and it can hardly be called plotless.

In the end action doesn’t equal plot, and a well-plotted and tense story may contain little physical action or violence.

Writing for Hire?

Over the years, fans and even other writers have suggested ideas that might fit in my series, and I’ve always nodded politely and said kind words, but I’ve never taken up any of those ideas. Nor have I ever been approached for or pursued doing “work for hire,” such as Star Wars novels or the like. Then the other day, a long-time reader emailed me and offered an idea, declaring he wasn’t interested in anything, no royalties, no acknowledgments… nothing, and I had to think about the matter more deeply before I could answer him.

It’s not as simple as rejecting, subconsciously or consciously, other people’s ideas. For years, I was a successful consultant, developing, packaging, and presenting their case to clients or to the government. I had absolutely no problem in taking ideas from anywhere and using them. To this day, when I’m dealing with technical presentations or commentary on the website, I still have no problem in taking or expanding on other’s insights, especially those of my wife.

But with novels… it’s different. But why?

That was when I realized something that I’d known all along, but never really verbalized. I don’t tell stories nearly so well when I don’t come up with the ideas – even in my own “universes.” Part of this is because others simply don’t know my universes/worlds as well as I do. Especially in my fantasy series, but also in a series like the “Ghost” books, so much of that world lies in my mind and not on paper or in outlines that often ostensibly workable story ideas really won’t work and be true to that world or universe.

The other part lies, I believe, in how much of my creative process is subconscious. With all writers, I believe, a good part of the creation is subconscious, but from what I’ve observed, I tend to rely on the intuitive/subconscious feel of what I’m writing more than many writers. This is neither good nor bad. Different writers have different ways of creating. Some writers very successfully can cold-plot a novel, write it to that plot, and come up with an interesting and readable work. I can’t. Yes, I know the story arc before I start, and I know the character, and the main points, challenges, and the society and culture. But, for me, not only does the story have to hang together logically, but it has to feel right.

This also might explain why I’ve never been interested in writing something like a Star Wars book or a Dune novel… or anything created by someone else, however much I may have enjoyed those stories or those worlds. I simply can’t get into those worlds as deeply as I can into my own, nor, if I’m going to be honest, do I really wish to.

This also leads to another problem, one that my editors have usually been able to catch before it manifests itself on the page before a reader – that I know something so well and so intuitively about a world that I forget to make it clear to others, because in the end, the story has to feel right to them as well. That’s also why I suspect that what I write tends not to appeal as much to those readers who prize action and technology/magic in the extreme over character.

And all that is also why it would most likely be a very bad idea for me to try to write a novel in someone else’s universe.

Attacking the Symptoms

The recent debacle in Congress over the Affordable Healthcare Act is all too representative of an ever greater societal problem – the fact that far too much legislation and too many governmental programs are aimed at dealing with symptoms and avoid addressing the real underlying problems.

The issue isn’t really about healthcare insurance. It’s about the cost of healthcare itself. In 1970, the average American spent $380 on healthcare. In 1980, it was $1,180, but by 2013 [the latest data available], that cost had risen to $9,810. In essence, the cost of healthcare has increased at four times the rate of inflation, at a time when middle class earnings, adjusted for inflation, have remained roughly the same.

Then there’s the opioid crisis, which the media splashes everywhere. And yes, it’s a real and painful problem, but the root of the problem lies in the fact that we still don’t have non-addictive painkillers, especially for nerve-rooted pain. Yet the big push is to restrict the use of opiates, when there’s literally no other type of pain-killer available.

What about the high cost of education? Since 1980, the real cost of a college education has increased four and a half times the rate of inflation, and now the average debt of a recent college graduate exceeds $35,000. Students graduating from elite institutions or pursuing graduate degrees can easily end up owing more than $100,000 in student loans. Yet, as I can attest from both statistics and personal experience, that money isn’t going, for the most part, to college professors, not when average professor’s salary has increased by less than half a percent a year over the last thirty years and when the majority of new teachers are underpaid adjuncts. The problem lies in the fact that there’s been a huge increase in the number of students attending college and that state legislatures have refused to fund that increase in students and have passed the costs on to the students and their parents. At the moment, and as I’ve noted earlier, there are now twice as many college graduates each year as there are college-education-required jobs for them. Yet all the solutions proposed seem to be designed to bail out the states and to produce more college graduates for jobs that don’t exist, while neglecting non-college training for well-paying jobs that do exist and have shortages.

Another problem requiring a solution is the current U.S. air control system. There are more and more passengers, and more and more demands for passenger rights, but, so far, no one seems to be seriously looking at the underlying problem of a technologically outdated air control system.

I’ve just listed four areas, but, if I wanted to do the research, I have no doubt I could find many more examples of policy-makers and well-intended activists vigorously trying to address the symptoms of a problem, rather than the root causes.

Why does this happen? Largely, I suspect, because addressing the root causes upsets all too many apple carts, and is often initially far more expensive, even if cost-effective over time, while addressing the symptoms is far less controversial.

Entertainment Escapism – F&SF

While I’m anything but a television or cinema or gaming addict, I can’t help but notice a growing trend in what I’d classify as the field of “video entertainment” – the enormous growth of fantasy and science fiction video-type entertainment.

While Star Wars was released in 1977, with the next two movies in 1980 and 1983, sixteen years passed until The Phantom Menace premiered in 1999. A similar pattern occurred with Star Trek. The original series began in 1966 and ran for three years. It was ten years before the movie, and almost 20 years before The Next Generation appeared as a series.

Over those years, while there were some other F&SF films, I don’t recall anything close to the deluge of F&SF films, TV shows, and spin-offs of spin-offs that began in the late 1990s, possibly spurred by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy and science fiction have been around for well over a century, but they were primarily available in written form, for the most part, until comparatively recently. And most movies, with the exception of a few, like Portrait of Jennie, and possibly Forbidden Planet, were essentially “B” movies, if that. So what happened?

Some will say that it’s been fueled by the improved technology and the CGI special effects. That certainly enabled the field, but that overlooks the fact that for something to be popular, people have to want to watch it.

One of the main reasons for entertainment is to be diverted from the day-to-day… or, if you’re really desperate, to escape entirely from the “real world” in some way. It’s no coincidence that the years of the Great Depression fueled the rise of feel-good movie musicals and up-beat movies.

A century, or even fifty years ago, people could feel that there were unexplored places in the world, places where “escapist” movies could be set, and there was an innocence, a belief that movie musical magic could happen in “the real world.” For the most part, now most of that innocence is gone, and except for the greatest depths of the ocean, the vast majority of the world has been explored and found not to contain Shangri La or Tarzan’s hidden cities, or islands that contain monsters like King Kong.

So, given all that, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing an enormous rise in fantasy and science fantasy video entertainment today. There aren’t many other places to escape.

The Anger Problem

As I noted earlier, there is growing incivility in the United States, and that includes the rapid resurgence of hate groups. Why are so many people so angry?

One reason often postulated is that the American middle class is being “hollowed out” by rapid changes in technology that drastically reduced the number of well-paid semi-skilled jobs, and by the perception that immigrants who take low-paying jobs keep all wages depressed… and these losses fuel anger.

Next are minorities, women, and others affected by the history and legacy of racial and gender discrimination. They’re tired of endlessly waiting for equality, and with ethnic, racial, and gender discrimination continuing, those feeling that discrimination is continuing are also getting angrier and angrier.

Then there are those people who are angry at social change, at the acceptance of more liberal sexual mores, at the emergence of the LGBT culture, at women demanding equal pay.

In short, a lot of people are angry… and the evidence of just how many lies in the election of Donald Trump and the support for Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t seem to matter to these people that the vast majority of Americans have a higher standard of living than their predecessors did or most people elsewhere on Earth. They feel deprived.

All of them have reasons. Some reasons are good; some are understandable; and some are neither.

Those who lost jobs to off-shoring and automation want those jobs back, or something similar. They’re not getting them back, because times have changed. This isn’t new. It happened in England in the early 1800s, when the automation of textiles and weaving was introduced, and comparatively well-paid weavers were replaced by factories. The “Luddites” revolted, and a number of them were executed or exiled to Australia… and nothing changed. In a sense, both the Luddites and those who lost semi-skilled jobs in the last few decades were angry because they felt entitled to those jobs.

For better or worse, however, a capitalistic culture doesn’t recognize entitlement, whether of factory workers or others. And it’s not just happening to factory workers. Jobs for lawyers are drying up, with 55,000 fewer jobs for attorneys this year than 10 years ago, while the number of attorneys has increased by almost 200,000, and a good part of the decreased demand for lawyers results from improved technology in a number of areas.

Technology is continuing to improve, and that means that other semi-skilled and even some skilled jobs will be replaced by technology, most likely creating more displaced and angry people. While technology does create jobs, so far the number of well-paid jobs created doesn’t match those replaced by technology. Unless trends change drastically, and they don’t seem to be, despite predictions of more skilled and paid-paid jobs, more and more the most available jobs will be those requiring personal lower-level skills, while those paying more will be a smaller and smaller fraction of those available.

And that’s not going to help the anger problems… or American politics.

Missing Prices in Fantasy?

The other day I was trying to work out price equivalences for certain goods and services in a forthcoming Imager Portfolio book when I suddenly – and clearly, very belatedly – realized how seldom prices – for anything – appear in most fantasy novels, or at least, so it seemed to me.

What makes this surprising to me is that every society in Earth’s history, once beyond the Stone Age level, has been governed by some form of market economy, where the necessities of life have a cost and daily items must be paid for. Yet prices and costs, especially exact prices and costs, appear to be missing from many fantasy novels. I’d almost [but not quite] be willing to say that they’re missing from the majority of fantasy novels, especially in those scenes depicting daily life, except for a token mention.

A search of A Game of Thrones came up with only scattered references to coins, occasionally gold, but virtually no actual numbers. For Words of Radiance, the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, there were some thirty references to money, but no specifics. Nor could I find specifics for coinage in Tolkien. I tried some urban fantasy, including newer works such as the Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans and Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen, but found nothing there. There were one or two specifics per book in Patty Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books, and while Simon Green’s Nightside books do mention money, I could only find one specific – a cheque for fifty thousand pounds. Paul Cornell’s urban police fantasies occasionally mention specifics, but only big numbers, like payoffs of ten thousand pounds, but nothing about daily expenses, not that I could find.

Patrick Rothfuss, on the other hand, uses “talents,” and gives specifics, as does Scott Lynch in his Gentleman Bastards series, but of the books and series I searched, I couldn’t find any other authors besides the three of us who give consistent specifics and prices. Given the number of authors writing fantasy, I’m sure that there are quite a few others, but, even so, if my sampling is any indication, authors who do are definitely in the minority.

Although I’ve read several thousand F&SF books [I lost count years ago], there have been more than 40,000 F&SF books published over the last twenty years alone, so I have no idea how representative my reading is about the use and frequency of specific costs and prices in fantasy books.

What are your experiences… and good and not-so-good examples?

Congressional Selfishness

Just last week, the House of Representatives was dealing with the massive Defense appropriations bill. The Pentagon had proposed an actual common sense measure that would have required Congress to look at military base closures and submit a report on recommended closures by 2021. The Republican majority barred any base closures and voted down an amendment that would have allowed the Pentagon to proceed.

We’re not even talking about closing bases, but about a report to determine which bases might be closed, and a report that wouldn’t even be finished for four years. What such Congressional action signifies isn’t a desire for a strong and effective national defense, or even more support for wounded and disabled veterans, but merely the political requirement for local pork-barrel defense make-work jobs.

There’s one thing I’m very certain about, and that’s if the incredibly conservative Pentagon says it doesn’t need a base… it really doesn’t need that base. And I’ll admit readily that the generals may not always be right. That was one reason why the proposal was for a commission to study the recommended closures. The fact that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives wouldn’t even look at the closure issue is a good indication of how present-day politicians have no desire to even look at anything that might cost them votes, even if it is in the national interest.

In fact, I’m not certain that more than a handful of national politicians give a damn about the national interest. Certainly, for all their rhetoric, none of those recently elected from my state do. I’d go even further. It’s gotten to the point where almost any politician who goes against his or her party line or popular opinion is likely to be viewed as a traitor.

Admittedly, there’s a need for consensus for any group to get anything done, but when challenging that group consensus is treason, we, as a society, have gone from a fractious representative democracy to a nation riven and paralyzed by cliquish group-think, represented by men and women either afraid, unwilling, or unable to follow Burke’s statement to the electors of Bristol that, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

And that’s not only sad, but if it continues, will likely be terminal for the experiment begun by the Founding Fathers.

Story Agendas

The other day I read a reader review of one of my books, a review that summarized the book as “a good story ruined by an agenda.” I had to shake my head at the naiveté/ignorance of the reader.

The plain fact is that all stories have agendas. Those agendas may be conscious or unconscious, or some of both, but all stories reflect their writers in some fashion or another, and thus, reveal either what the writer wants to reveal or reveals what he or she doesn’t want to reveal… or perhaps some of both.

Occasionally, the agenda is direct and simple – just tell a straight-forward story. But that agenda has its own sub-agendas. One thing I’ve learned in life is that everything is more complex than it seems, and some of the greatest lies begin with words like “keep it simple” or “it’s really simple.” An author who tells a direct and simple tale may be entertaining, and that may be the writer’s obvious agenda, but what such an approach also says is that nothing else is really important, despite the fact that, in life, as the old saying goes, “the devil’s in the details.”

Sometimes, stories or novels are incredibly detailed and twisted so much so that most readers will recoil and think, “Nothing in life is this complex.” That’s another agenda or set of agendas, because, while life is complex, those complexities range from fairly simple problems to thornier ones, and very few people’s lives are an ongoing, never-ending maze of incredible complexities.

I’ve seen well-written books where everything seems tied to sex, and others where gender issues and or politics, or both, are clearly part of the writer’s agenda. There are others where there’s little thought, and action and reaction dominate almost every page of the book, suggesting either that the writer is aiming at that market, or that he or she honestly believes that human beings act on impulse and minimal thought… or perhaps both.

I’m not judging authors or agendas. All authors have them, and that range of agendas is exactly why a great number of authors have very different readerships.

I don’t write simple stories, and any reader who thinks I do is missing a great deal. I’m a cynical romantic and idealist who spent too many years in the military, politics, and business to believe that anything is as straight-forward as it seems, even though I’d often like it to be, or that any long-lasting romance is ever simple or without cost.

My overt agenda is to write the best story I can, given the complexities I know and have seen in life, while showing that dreams can be achieved, but only if the cost is far higher than the reader and the characters ever thought possible and that paying that price means learning costly lessons. At least, that’s what I strive for, but I’m also certain that parts of my subconscious slip in other aspects as well. I suspect this is true of other authors as well, at least in the vast majority of books I’ve read.

So when a reader complains about an agenda, what that reader is really complaining about is that the author’s agenda didn’t match the reader’s agenda and expectations.

The Civility Problem

There have been more and more appeals for civility in politics and public discourse, in the media, and almost everywhere… and from what I can see, matters are not getting any better, and in some areas they’re definitely getting worse.

One of the reasons for this is that too many groups and too many people are attempting to legislate personal beliefs into law… and on the legislative front, the battle lines have been drawn. Little or no quarter is being given, and if it continues, we’ll all be defeated.

The United States is a country founded on certain principles, but most people fail to understand that those principles – such as freedom, equality, and equal opportunity – are ideals, and that, in the real world, implementing those ideals is far harder than talking about them, particularly when different groups of people have different ideas about what those ideals mean and how the laws to uphold and protect those freedoms should be written and enforced.

Because those differences exist, for a society to function, compromise is essential, and secular laws are, in effect, a compromise, laying out the ground rules on which the majority of groups agree… and leaving other matters to personal or group determination.

Today, one of the problems is that too many groups believe that their interpretation of the principles of the Founding Fathers should be enacted into law and that anyone who has a different interpretation is not only wrong, but effectively a mortal enemy and that such “enemies” should be forced to comply with the interpretation of whatever group has the power to enact such narrow interpretations.

What is overlooked is that the Founding Fathers did not want a bureaucratic or religious state where only one set of religious beliefs was enshrined in iron-clad laws. They attempted to create a system where basic rights were protected, but one where beliefs were not imposed by law.

Needless to say, the initial attempts were flawed, in allowing slavery and in denying the franchise to slaves and women. These failures alone should suggest the error of claims of the “originalists” that the Constitution was perfect, a lack of perfection that the Founding Fathers themselves realized by allowing Congress the power to make laws and to amend the Constitution – with the approval of the states.

The structure established by the Founders was a statement in itself that changes would be necessary and that compromise would also be necessary. Unhappily, the message about compromise seems to have been forgotten as each ideological group has decided that its principles, and only its principles, should be enacted into law.

Principles should be how each of us guides his or her own life. Laws should be the framework under which we undertake that guidance, not tools to force beliefs onto others – with the sole exception that the law should protect individuals from harm caused by others.

Unfortunately, that necessary exception has created enormous conflict because there are areas, such as abortion, gender, and civil rights, where absolute individual rights conflict, and rather than compromise, one or both sides become intransigent and demand that their view become the law of the land, rather than hewing to the Founding Fathers’ attempts to place the rights of the individual above the state, except where such individual rights harm others.

And even that principle requires compromises… and civility.


As I write this, the largest active forest fire in the United States is burning through the mountains some twenty odd miles to the northeast of Cedar City, having consumed more than 70,000 acres of trees and vegetation. What started the fire was a homeowner who decided to use a weed torch to clear away weeds on his property. The fire swiftly went out of control and reached a stand of trees killed by bark beetles, growing to close to a thousand acres overnight. Currently, close to 1,500 fire fighters are engaged in battling the blaze, estimated to be 75 percent contained. The homeowner is liable for the damage and the cost of fighting the fire, a cost that the state of Utah estimates will exceed twenty million dollars. Fortunately, there have been no deaths and less than twenty homes destroyed… so far.

Just about a week before the Brian Head fire began, here in Cedar City, a local resident tried the same thing on his weeds on farm property inside the city– at a time when winds were gusting from fifteen to twenty miles an hour! Predictably, the fire got out of control. Thankfully, there were no trees nearby and the fire department and BLM firefighters managed to contain the fire in a five acre area, although three old livestock buildings and several horse corrals were destroyed.

In addition to these two examples, there have been three other fires in the area in the past weeks, and the fact that all of Utah is now considered high risk for fires has been in the news for weeks. Yet it’s clear that more than a few individuals haven’t listened or ignored what they heard or read.

At least to me, these fires came about because those who caused them succumbed to some of the oldest human weaknesses, the idea that they were above taking into account the conditions around them… or that such considerations didn’t apply to them.

The problem is that, when people ignore common sense and practical precautions, the rest of us are the ones who get burned, both by property being destroyed and by taxpayer funds being spent to deal with the fires and the aftermath – and that’s not just the case with fires.

An Apology to My Suitcase [As Occasioned by Our Recent Vacation]

My dear suitcase,

I am deeply sorry that we must part, but the debilitating effects of your last flights make it impossible for us to travel together any longer. I understand that you had no control over the TSA inspector, or whoever it was that shredded not only the protective covering of the ends of the inner zippers that provide closure and containment, but ripped the zippers from their anchor points. Nor was it your fault that the handlers amputated the supposedly indestructible rest studs so that you always tipped over when placed on your side.

Nor could you do anything about the tracked behemoth that left black scars on your once shining gray surface and inflicted that last mortal wound to both your pride and your structural integrity. I can remember when we first met in New York, and the saleswoman assured me that you would be the last piece of luggage I would ever need. And for two years, that was indeed true, but your mortal enemies – indifferent baggage handlers and automated conveyor systems – have taken their toll on you.

Yes, you have given me the best years of your life, three long years of enduring scrapes, bruises, continual pressure changes, temperature variations, sitting on baggage carts in rain and snow while baggage handlers ignored your plight, selflessly maintaining as much water-tightness as possible, wielding off slush and snow, stoically enduring the blazing heat of the Saint George airport or the winter chill of the Cedar City airport. You have endured delays and misroutings, gouges, grooves, bruises, and more, far more than you ever bargained for when you first traveled with me, shimmering gray and proud.

You have borne it all without complaint, and I can only hope that your spirit will find peace in some other dimension where faithful luggage is rewarded for selfless service.

The Negative Agenda

Hillary Clinton should thank her lucky stars she’s not President. Trump’s election has shown exactly what the Republican agenda is… and isn’t. In point of fact, the Republicans, and Trump supporters [and while they overlap, they’re not all the same in their exact views], all campaigned and were united by a rejection of Hillary and of what they perceived as a Democratic agenda. For all the talk of making America great again, the underlying agenda was primarily negative… and still is.

To begin with, this administration can’t even fill all the political appointments. Why not? Because anyone who ever deviated from Republican doctrine or ever said an unkind word about our dear President appears to have been rejected, no matter how qualified he or she (rarely are potential appointees women) might be. It’s not about who can contribute positively, but about their perceived negatives.

And it’s not just the President. Congress is just as bad.

Even the so-called health care bill is negative – how much can be cut from healthcare insurance spending and how many people can be denied insurance. There’s absolutely no action or interest in the more basic underlying problem – that the profit-obsessed pharmaceutical and health care industries have created a U.S. health care system with the highest costs in the world, for only average health care [unless you’re wealthy].

The environmental agenda is a retreat from environmental and climate improvement based on the fallacious idea that allowing more pollution will revitalize U.S. industry and create more jobs in the fossil fuels industries, when most U.S. coal isn’t competitive economically and when the technological success of oil and gas fracking has not only kept the price of energy down, but made any expansion of coal production unlikely. Where are the [positive (?)] tax credits for environmental improvement? Or for reduction of greenhouse gases?

The anti-abortion agenda is theoretically positive, since it’s pro-life, except that it’s not. It’s pro-birth at any cost, but the same people who are pro-life are not only opposed to abortion and to birth-control, but also opposed to any government support of all the children born unwanted whose mothers have no way to support them, and the Republican contention that abstention from sexual activity will solve the problem is another negative approach that time and history have shown to be flawed. What reduces overpopulation and unwanted children are positive programs of health care, education, and economic improvement, not negatives.

Then there are all the cuts proposed in federal research. Science doesn’t advance without the funding for R&D, and corporate basic R&D is essentially non-existent. Corporate R&D is about creating products, not about the basic science that underpins those developments.

We’re now almost six months into the new Congress, and so far as I can tell, even with majorities in both the House and Senate, neither House has yet to pass anything positive, unless you consider a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans positive. The Republicans have forgotten how to do positive, if they ever knew.

Now… if Clinton had been elected President, given the negative bent of the Republicans, we’d most likely be watching impeachment proceedings going forward, either on Benghazi or on the Clinton Foundation or anything else…because negative is all the Republicans know or care about.

Hillary… you don’t know how fortunate you are you didn’t become President.

The Problem with Profit

The other day, I ran across an article in a prominent business publication [Bloomberg Businessweek] that made the point that bringing back manufacturing jobs to the United States – as President Trump promised – might not be the great thing that Trump and his backers seem to think.

As Bloomberg pointed out, manufacturing has declined to twelve percent of gross domestic product from twenty-six percent some fifty years ago, but total U.S. manufacturing output is actually higher, and the U.S. still accounts for nineteen percent of total global manufacturing, more than Germany’s and Japan’s shares combined, if somewhat behind China’s twenty-five percent. More important, in Bloomberg’s calculus is the point that profit margins of companies actually engaged in physical manufacturing is far lower than in companies such as Apple (with profit margins of 21% on revenues), and which manufactures nothing, but subcontracts out all manufacturing and parts to largely off-shore companies that only make profit margins in the middle single digits [and most of the U.S. suppliers offshore part or all of their contribution]. Yet Apple employs some 80,000 people.

Bloomberg also makes the point that the only way to increase manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is to, in one way or another, raise the price of imported manufactured goods, and that raising the price of imports might well decimate the retail industry, which accounts for 25% of all U.S. jobs and which is already struggling. Yet the bulk of the jobs in the retail sector are among the lowest paid positions, along with food service.

The Bloomberg conclusion is that “Trump should press for an even freer global exchange of goods and services so U.S. corporations can best organize their operations to maximize profits.”

Especially in the retail and service sectors, maximizing profits means minimizing wage costs, relying on part-time employees in order to avoid the higher cost of paying benefits.

The problem with this outlook, as I see it, is that the “high profit” model creates an employment structure where a comparatively small percentage of the workforce is well-paid at creative and professional jobs and where an ever-larger percentage of the middle-class, particularly the formerly modestly well-paid semi-skilled workers, must compete for lower-paid service positions in retail, sales, and other service positions.

What often gets overlooked is that in 1955, U.S. Steel had nearly 270,000 employees, as opposed to 43,000 today. General Motors had 570,000, compared to 200,000 today. Today, the largest employer in the U.S., is Walmart, with something like a million and a half employees in the U.S. Now, high-tech firms pay well, but those high-paying jobs are limited. There’s a reason why the labor force participation of men from 25-54 is the lowest ever — there aren’t enough jobs for which they’re qualified that they want to take. According to Labor Department figures, there are currently some four million unfilled jobs, but there are ten million men in the 25-54 age group who aren’t looking for work, for one reason or another.

But when national growth depends on spending, and the profits go to people who spend a smaller percentage of their income, the high-profit model just might not be the best one for the country as a whole, which doesn’t seem to bother all too many of those who are the beneficiaries of that model.

The “Deep North”

For a good part of my early life, to most of those people I knew, the “deep South” was essentially synonymous with the slave-holding states of the Confederacy and “Jim Crow” politics that enforced segregation and dual school systems for whites and blacks. Then in the mid-sixties came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which resulted in turmoil and change, but there’s still a lingering suspicion about the “deep South” on the part of northerners and westerners.

When I was in college there was a statement going around that, in the south, blacks could live where they wanted, but they’d better not try to get any higher [economically], while in the north the attitude was that blacks could go as high as they wanted economically, just so they didn’t live next door. Both representations were flawed, but many people accepted them anyway, especially, I suspect, northern liberals. At least, I thought they were flawed, but now…

Recently, a series of reports from the Urban Institute used census figures to show that the ten most segregated U.S. metropolitan areas, both racially and economically, were: Philadelphia, Bridgeport, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Detroit. Interestingly enough, all of them are in the north. Not only that, but the pace of economic segregation has increased since 2000, particularly in the north, but also in places in the Midwest and west. So just how did the north, all those states that fought the Civil War, at least in part to end slavery and racial discrimination, come to be the most notable practitioners of segregation [and the Urban Institute data shows that this trend is increasing faster in the north, as opposed to the south]?

The answer is breathtakingly simple – the use of economics. If you incorporate separate municipalities around cities, then build high-income housing, and zone out low-income housing, you don’t have to engage in overtly racist discrimination. There’s more to it than that, but it amounts to the use of economics and the legal system to break metropolitan areas into economically, and thus largely different ethnic/racial areas. Given that school systems are funded in most states by property taxes, that means that the high income areas can better fund education and all manner of public services.

The “segregation” of property tax revenues means that the economically poorer communities simply can’t provide the same level of public services as the wealthier communities, and with the popular revolt against increasing state and federal income taxes, neither states nor the federal government can make up the difference.

Welcome to the “deep North.”

The Imposition of Meaning

From what I’ve observed, human beings tend to take on one of two overall philosophical attitudes toward life, or to alternate between the two. One “outlook/attitude” is to survive in the least painful or most pleasurable state possible. The other “outlook/attitude” is to seek meaning, either in life, the universe, or the theological/metaphysical beyond the tangible we perceive. Some individuals try to balance both outlooks; few, I suspect, succeed. Part of that problem is that, if one isn’t successful at surviving, one doesn’t have the time or resources to seek meaning.

Most, but certainly not all, intelligent individuals I’ve met want to survive as well as possible, while devoting some time and thought to meaning, almost as sung in the now-ancient pop song, “Alfie,” the opening line of which is “What’s it all about, Alfie?” [The song was first a hit sung by the British singer Cilla Black, and then later recorded by Cher, Dionne Warwick, and Barbra Streisand, as well as more than twenty other singers.]

Now there are those human beings for whom meaning beyond maximization of survival is irrelevant. For those who are truly poor, survival has to come first.

But there are those who carry maximization of survival to extremes. As Bud Fox asked in the first Wall Street movie, “How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?” For such maximizers, meaning lies in how much power and wealth they can accumulate. Even if they owned the entire earth, what would that mean? [I’ll offer an answer to that at the end.]

Not surprisingly, most individuals searching for meaning seem to seek that through religion, as if nothing else could explain and attribute meaning to anything as vast and majestic as the universe, especially since every decade more refined measurements show that it is far vaster than the last set of measurements found it to be. The usually unspoken part of that quest for meaning is: “How am I meaningful in this universe?”

The answer to that is, bluntly, we’re not. The latest calculation on the size of our universe by the Institute of Physics is that it contains two trillion galaxies, each containing something like 200 billion stars.

We’re only meaningful to ourselves and to those who care about us and – for those who believe in a personal Deity – to that Deity. Yet we all want to mean something, somehow, to someone, or to lots of someones.

The only entities that appear to understand this need are other human beings, and most likely, not even all of them.

Yet, in all too many cases, the followers of each religion or variation of that religion, rather than appreciating the need and the quest for meaning, seem determined that their particular views are the only “true” way of reaching understanding and meaning, and today and historically, seem determined to prove in one way or another, that their belief is the only “true” faith, just as the maximizers of survival are trying to convince themselves and others that billions of dollars mean anything to the universe.

Really? In a universe where the planet on which we live is less than one eighth of one two hundred billionth of one two trillionth of the known universe?

Isn’t that a bit arrogant? Either way?

Maybe we should find a bit more meaning in other people, rather than trying to impose our meanings on them, and in turn, they should stop trying to impose their meanings on us. Then, we might, just might, be able to work on what’s meaningful to all of us.

Book Price Complaints

Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more than a few complaints about the price of books, especially the price of ebooks, and how they have gotten more and more expensive, and how the people who complain just can’t afford to buy new books.

How does price factor into this? Since 2013, print book prices have stayed relatively the same, but the average ebook price from traditional publishers has increased about a dollar to about $9.50.

During this period, ebook sales have declined about three percent, while print book sales have increased slightly less than one percent, but what is interesting is that juvenile fiction sales of print books are up 13% since 2013, while adult fiction print books are down by 7%. Those numbers don’t include ebook sales because they’re based on BookScan data, which doesn’t track ebooks. Sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks are up, but, not surprisingly, the sales of mass market paperbacks are down by over 25% in the last four years, and they’ve been declining steadily for almost fifteen years. In most reading categories, print books make up something like 65-80% of sales – except in adult fiction, where ebooks comprise 48% of sales.

The high rate of ebook sales for fiction makes sense to me, because much fiction is read for one- or two-time enjoyment, and ebooks are more convenient for many people, and that convenience is definitely a component in the steep decline of the mass-market paperback. And, no matter what anyone claims, ebook piracy is a definite factor in the decline of the mass market paperback/ebook reading sector, given that ebook sales have been flat for the past four years while mass market paperback sales have plummeted.

As for the complaints about book pricing, I did a little research, and while some of that research involves my own books, that’s because I know the prices and times. For example, the hardback version of The Magic of Recluce was published in 1991, and the list price was $19.95. According to the CPI calculator, which likely understates inflation, an equivalent price today would be $36.67. The mass market paperback version came out in 1992 at $4.99, which equates to $8.80, compared to the current list price of $9.99 [discounted to $7.70 by Amazon], and an ebook price of $10.00. A more recent book, Imager’s Intrigue, was published in hardcover in 2010 for $27.99, and an inflation-adjusted price today would be $31.31, but Treachery’s Tools, a book of equivalent length, published in late October of 2016, also lists $27.99.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness came out as a mass market paperback from Ace in 1969, costing $1.25 for all 284 pages, which would equate to $8.64 today, also now list-priced at $9.99 and discounted to $7.70. Adjusted for CPI inflation, most mass market paperbacks published more than ten years ago cost slightly more today in inflation-adjusted dollars than when published, but given the discounts, actually sell for less.

Yet compared to other forms of entertainment, books are anything but exorbitant. Today, the average movie price in the U.S. for a one-time ticket is $9.00, the average pizza price around $13.00, and a single Big Mac costs just over $5.00, on average, yet people complain about $10-$15 ebook prices. This desire to get books cheaply has had a definite effect on authors and publishers. Many major publishers are barely profitable, even after often massive cuts in staff and editors, and reductions in the numbers of books published.

As an author, I can’t complain,because I make a comfortable living from writing, but while my hardcover sales numbers [including those ebooks released at the same time as the hardcover] are slightly higher than fifteen years ago, my mass-market/ebook sales on an individual title basis [these ebooks being those priced comparably to mass market paperbacks] are down by more than 30 percent, and so is my total income. Without my extensive backlist, the drop would be catastrophic, which is why a number of authors who publish fewer books have literally dropped out of the market. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, this situation affects all but about the top one percent of authors. A recent U.K survey found that of British authors who published work in the previous year, only 11.5% made a living wage in 2015, compared to 40% in 2005.

Author Earnings – a website devoted to writing – recently reported that only 4,600 authors made more than $25,000 a year, and only 1,340 made more than $100,000, compared to 1,696 NFL players in any given year drawing an average salary of $1.9 million. Given the methodology used by Author Earnings, I suspect that those numbers are a bit high, because they’re based on gross sales and include self-published authors, without deducting all their costs of promoting and producing.

So… do you really think that books and ebooks are that expensive?

Americans and Illusion

As a nation, Americans have generally been more optimistic than other countries, but how much of that optimism has been based on facts, and how much on the embracing of various illusions?

Some illusions are deep-rooted, such as the ideal of the United States as “the land of the free.” Well, yes, if, at the time of the revolution, you happened to be a male, white, and a property-holder, but not if you were black and in the American south. Not if you were female, and little more than a chattel of your father, husband, or other male relative.

Slavery was abolished in Great Britain more than 30 years before the U.S. did, and it didn’t take a brutal Civil War in which between 620,000 and 750,000 died. And even after the Emancipation Proclamation and two Constitutional amendments, it took another century, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, for most blacks to even have decent chance at voting. Women didn’t get the right to vote until almost 150 years after the Declaration of Independence.

Illusions have also cloaked American political personalities from the beginning and have continued to this day. Franklin Roosevelt concealed, and the press abetted that concealment, the severity of his disability, as well as his several marital affairs. . Dwight Eisenhower had a public image as a genial, avuncular man, but in private was cold and calculating. John Kennedy was portrayed as a healthy vital young man with a solid domestic family life and a beautiful wife. The wife part was true – although even she hid her chain smoking – but Kennedy was having affairs continually and was actually a sick man racked with a bad back and Addison’s Disease, which required continual cortisone treatments, a condition so severe that when he underwent back surgery in 1954, he actually received the last rites. Yet Richard Nixon was perceived as far less healthy, despite his living to the age of 81. Such illusions haven’t always been favorable. Gerald Ford, possibly one of the most athletically gifted of American Presidents, was portrayed by the press as clumsy, because he had a terrible slice when he played golf and because he once stumbled on camera, but that illusion helped defeat him for re-election, combined with his pardon of Richard Nixon, enabling the genial, honest, and well-meaning Jimmy Carter to be elected, who was, unfortunately, also cloaked by an illusion, that as a governor, he’d been a good manager, when in fact he was an excessive micro-manager.

There’s also the American self-illusion that we happen to be a peace-loving people, except that, paraphrasing Citizen Kane, we’re peace-loving on our own terms… as are most nations. Despite the protection of two large oceans, we’ve managed to get involved in close to a hundred armed conflicts over the last three centuries, including fifteen large-scale wars. We’re also the most gun-toting nation on the planet with over three hundred million firearms in private hands. To me, that doesn’t exactly square with peace-loving.

Then there’s the illusion about having the best medical system in the world. Again, if you’re talking about medicine for those who can afford it, there’s no doubt we do have the most high-tech and advanced system, but if you’re poor – or even rich and ill-informed – it’s another story. We definitely do have the most-expensive health care system in the world and the most technologically advanced, hands down, but the best?

Then there’s the illusion of opportunity. While a century ago, it was truer than now, study after study shows that the odds of an individual’s economic improvement over a lifetime have dropped significantly over the past forty years. Most people who were born at the bottom of the economic ladder will stay there, and most born at the top will stay there. Although the United States is supposed to be a land of opportunity where young people can expect their quality of life will be better than their parents, a U.N. sponsored study shows that the U.S. isn’t even in the top 20 countries when it comes to opportunities for young people, ranking twenty-third on a list of 183 countries based on 18 indicators that measure progress for youth ages 15 to 29. Eight of the top 10 countries are in Europe, plus Australia and Japan. Now because, our standard of living is still higher than in most countries, it doesn’t mean young people are starving, but it’s another indication of an illusion – most young people aren’t going to live comparatively better than their parents did. The same perhaps, but not better.

And one of the problems with all these illusions is that people cling to them, rather than recognizing them, because you can’t change things without recognizing reality.

It’s one thing to have ideals, and to strive for them, trying to reach them, and another to profess that we’ve attained the ideals and that all is well when we’re falling short.