Archive for October, 2009

Books… and More Books

Over the end of September and the beginning of October, at the behest and expense of my publisher, I traveled to several regional book shows hosted by associations of independent booksellers. For all the hype about the demise of such bookstores, there are still a considerable number of such stores in business and ordering books. It’s also clear that the majority of such bookstore owners and employees do love books.

My tasks at such shows are relatively straight-forward — to sign books for booksellers in the hopes that they’ll order more, to participate in whatever activities the show and my publisher have lined up for me, and to stand somewhere in the publisher’s booth that is out of the way of the sales reps and yet located where I can talk about my books to booksellers. Fortunately, Macmillan had large enough booths to make this possible, and very professional sales reps who were very accommodating.

I’ve done this, on and off, for years, but it’s an experience that every author should have for a number of reasons. First, when you walk past the rows and rows of booths from publishers large and small, it brings home just how many publishers there are and how many books are published every year. What’s more amazing is what isn’t there. Tor is a division of Macmillan, and Tor publishes over two hundred F&SF titles a year, over half of which are new hardcover titles. At each show, the Macmillan booth displayed, at my best estimation, no more than 200 titles — and those were titles from close to 20 Macmillan subsidiaries, of which Tor is only one. There were display copies of less than ten Tor/Forge titles and advance reading copies. Ten… out of two hundred, and the same general ratio doubtless applied to the titles of other Macmillan subsidiaries. And, remember, the majority of books displayed represented less than half a year’s titles. Now… I can’t say what ratios applied to other publishers, but I’d wager that none of the larger publishing firms were displaying all their current titles or even a significant fraction of those titles.

This didn’t mean that the sales reps weren’t selling the other titles. They were. They often went over long, long title lists with bookstore buyers, but there are thousands of titles, and even the best rep can only mention so many.

Why do I bring up this perhaps obvious point? Because too many authors seldom understand why their publishers don’t “do more” for them and their books. Given the low margin in bookselling, publishers have to focus the majority of their efforts and resources on the blockbuster books, and then on a comparatively small number of best-sellers. The rest are sold through the publisher’s seasonal catalogue and through booksellers who ask for certain titles because their customers want them — call it the end product of word-of-mouth and past sales figures.

For all the logic behind the process, for an author, or at least for me, such shows are always a very sobering reminder that even those of us authors who have enjoyed some moderate success are still very small fish in a very large ocean of books.

NOTE: Because I’m headed to World Fantasy Convention, the next post won’t be until November 3rd..

What a Bunch of Apes!

Like it or not, the distant ancestors of our species were simians — monkeys, apes, what-have-you. For better or worse, many of those traits remain with us today, no matter how much we’d like to disavow them, either by claiming we’re beyond that or denying it totally through a wholehearted espousal of some miraculous divine world-creation mere thousands of years ago.

If we’re so far beyond that ancestry, why are so many behaviors so simian-like? Why do we listen to the loudest and most vociferous chatterers, rather than the most thoughtful? Why, in general, do we follow the tallest males and select them as leaders? And when they’re close to the same height, why do we select the most persuasive, regardless of the facts? Think otherwise? Just look at the history of presidential campaigns since the founding of the United States.

Like all simians — except perhaps the bonobos — we form groups and ostracize those who don’t play by the rules, while attacking all outsiders who intrude. Some of us do treat sex the way the bonobos do — indiscriminately with anyone — but most follow the simian model of faithfulness when convenient or required, but with a large modicum of cheating or serial monogamy, if not both.

Human social dynamics follow many simian patterns, such as male gifts of delicacies, grooming, and food in order to obtain sexual favors. Or females playing up to dominant males for special privileges and status. American male teenagers, as well as those in many other human cultures, form often rowdy gangs, just like many simian pre-adults, who can only be brought into line by social pressure and adult authority.

We’ve taken tool using farther than have our simian relations, but the earliest tools were predominantly weapons, and we’ve certainly carried through on that line, and like our ancestors, who used trees and high places for refuge, so do we, except we build higher than any tree to create such refuges.

Then there’s our vaunted communications technology, which through emails, cellphones, PCs, internet, twitter, Facebook YouTube, MySpace, is predominantly used, not for conveying information, but for the electronic equivalent of social grooming and posturing. Even the majority of face-to-face conversation contains a minimum of information and a maximization of chattering and “grooming.” And as in most simian cultures, most of the time most people don’t listen because they’re too busy chattering or thinking about what they’re going to chatter.

Now… for a bunch of intelligent and sometimes educated apes, we haven’t done too badly… so far, but whether we survive anywhere close to as long as the dinosaurs did is going to require some transcendence of some of our simian characteristics. More chattering and posturing isn’t going to do much to solve energy problems, global warming, terrorism, and an overpopulation of one small planet — and that’s just for starters.

Lack of Communication

One of the biggest problems my wife and I keep coming across in this supposedly ultra-communicative world is… lack of real communication. How can this be in a world filled with cellphones, IMs, Twitter, email, and even old-fashioned telephones? Actually, it’s very predictable. In effect, all this modern technology increases the noise to signal ratio while increasing the demands on personal time and decreasing the real and productive time for communication, while making live, real-time, person-to-person contact, especially in commerce and business, more and more difficult.

For example, because my wife suffers from asthma, she wanted to see if she could get a swine flu vaccination. Both the state health website and the local newspaper reported that vaccinations were available at certain hours from the hospital, a local pharmacy, and the health department. After getting periodic blood work at the hospital, she attempted to discover about getting a vaccination. After waiting some fifteen minutes to get an answer from a real live person, she was told that, contrary to published information, the hospital didn’t have the vaccine and that she would have to get it from a pharmacy or her private doctor. On her way home she stopped by the pharmacy, where, after waiting, she was told that they only gave “regular” flu vaccinations [which she already had]. Once at home, she made calls over an hour to the doctor’s office [calls necessitated by a continually busy line], only to discover that the only source of vaccine in the city was at the health department. Calls to various functionaries in the health department were rewarded with voice message after voice message, none of which answered her question, until some time later, she got a real person, who informed her that, first no one over 49 could get a vaccination, regardless of health conditions, and that, in fact, there was so little vaccine that only small children were being vaccinated. All in all, that process took close to two hours.

A month or so ago, I ordered a present for my brother from a company I’ve patronized for years. I attempted to order by telephone, but never could get through. So I tried the website and placed the order. Within minutes I had an order confirmation. Except… after a week, I had no shipment confirmation. So I tried to telephone…and again, after listening to various voice mail messages and punching buttons and waiting ten minutes… I was disconnected. I sent an email asking for an order status, and got no response, even after two days. I left a telephone message, since no real person would answer, and another two days passed with no response. I tried again, and after close to fifteen minutes waiting, a real person answered — and I stated the problem. She promised to look into it. Seven hours later, she called back, apologizing because it had taken six hours to get through to her own warehouse, but stating that the order had been sidetracked, but was now being packed and sent on its way. That was six days ago, and it hasn’t arrived at my brother’s house yet.

I could follow these examples with at least a half-dozen more, all of events in the past year and all involving similar problems. But what I want to know is why anyone in his or her right mind thinks that technology actually improves communications. Oh…it’s great for sending things to people… but for actually communicating… it seems to me that the inundation factor has effectively reduced two-way communications. I’m sure all the voice mail screens and messages reduce manufacturer and office costs… but they certainly increase my costs and waste more of my time, and that’s not so much cost-savings as cost-shifting.

Modern communications have many advantages, but when there’s a problem to be solved… the systems aren’t up to it… and don’t tell me that they’re saving me time. My computer saves me time; company voice response systems and voice menus and endless options waste that time.

"A Stellar Performer"

The problem with “stars” and stellar performers in any field is that the description includes three categories, not one. The first and most obvious is the individual who is indeed stellar and recognized as such. The second is the individual who is recognized as stellar, but who is only competent, or even less. The third is the individual who consistently performs at a stellar level and is never recognized as such.

In some areas, particularly those where “popularity” comprises a large part of what determines “stardom,” which often includes not just cinema and entertainment, but many corporate CEOs, there’s often little distinction between the first and second category, especially when one of the factors that determines such stardom is appearance and “presence,” rather than performance.

In areas of what one might call more concrete achievement, or in the arts, recognition of stellar achievement is often either ignored or overlooked, at least until the achiever is safely dead. Caesar Augustus was the first ruler of the Roman Empire, but his success was largely founded on the technical support of Marcus Agrippa, who designed the weapons and built the fleets Augustus needed, not to mention masterminding the battle of Actium that destroyed Antony’s fleet… and building the original Pantheon and rebuilding and modernizing much of the city of Rome. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life-time [except to his brother].

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was considered a gifted and highly competent composer during his lifetime, but others, such as Salieri, were the stars. Bach was thought to be a very good organist who wrote so much competent music that few in his lifetime recognized his genius. Jane Austin sold literally only a few thousand books in her lifetime — less than ten thousand, but today her works have sold in the millions and have spawned cinematic success after success.

In the corporate and political worlds, both in the past and today, image determines “stellar performers” more often than actual performance, as noted in a number of financial publications about a year ago where they documented that, on average, those CEOs who were less visible and less highly compensated tended to consistently outperform the “stars.” During his lifetime, Warren Harding was greatly beloved and popular, despite being possibly the worst president of the United States, and John F. Kennedy remains beloved to this day, despite a lack of any significant achievement, except perhaps avoiding war with the USSR, and in spite of his extravagant, if concealed, wide-spread philandering.

Then there are the stellar performers who are seldom if never recognized. Often these are teachers who produce outstanding student after outstanding student, students who achieve great success but seldom mention, or only mention in passing, the teacher who launched them. Some, such as Nadia Boulanger, are noted, but most are not. Sometimes, they’re authors who produce good or great book after great book, but who never catch the “critical” eyes of reviewers or scholars. At times, they’re in unlikely fields, such as Bob Lee of Colorado, who understood politics better than any man I ever encountered in twenty years in the political arena, and who mentored an entire generation of politicians and political operatives, and who died almost forgotten by so many whose careers he had made possible.

From what I’ve seen, the unrecognized stellar performers far outnumber the ones who are lauded and praised, and in many, many cases, the performance of the unrecognized stars is superior to those recognized. So why do we as a society tend to over-reward image, even when such images are so often based on little or no substance?

Wrong!… and Socially Irresponsible

Last Friday night, the comedian and social critic Bill Maher stated that vaccinations for the swine flu did no good. In a discussion with heart surgeon and former Senator Bill Frist, Maher went on to say that immunizations aren’t that helpful for any diseases and then proceeded to claim that because the flu virus mutates so quickly, immunizations do no good. Maher ignored both Frist’s statistical proofs and his personal experiences as a doctor, dismissing the statistics out of hand and the experience as “anecdotal.” Not only that, but he apparently dispatched a twitter message to thousands suggesting that anyone who got a swine flu vaccination was an idiot. Since I’ve just recently discussed the ignorance of the anti-vaccine advocates, I won’t deal in detail with the medical side here, but with an equally troubling aspect of Maher’s totally false assertions.

Frankly, I’d always thought Maher was more intelligent than that, but clearly he’s out of his depth when talking about diseases. Yes, the flu virus does mutate, but the mutations in the course of a year don’t render the vaccination ineffective, and in fact, one of the reasons why young people, those under 30, are at so much greater risk than older adults is because those who are older have been exposed to flu strains and vaccines with similarity to the H1N1 strain, and those past exposures have given them greater resistance, and in some cases, immunity.

But what concerns me most about Maher’s ignorance and arrogance — and he was arrogant and patronizing in the interchange — was what it reveals about too many of the current generation of commentators and comedians. If I claim something untrue and libelous about someone, particularly in print, I could face a lawsuit and be responsible for damages. If Maher, or any other popular media figure, purveys blatantly wrong information that could lead to someone dying because they decided not to be vaccinated, there’s no effective way to prove that the individual refused vaccination solely because of Maher’s comments, even though those comments create and reinforce an unfounded belief among some segments of the population that vaccines are ineffective and dangerous. In effect, Maher and others who purvey falsely dangerous information get a free pass.

The First Amendment effectively guarantees the freedom of the press [and media] to allow writers and talking heads to spout any nonsense they want, but the problem with this is that in our media-driven culture, all too many people take as gospel what their favorite “talking head” says. That’s one reason why so many Americans believe things that aren’t true and that may be harmful, or in this case, deadly to them. Yet trying to legislate a fix here is far worse than the problem, because, unlike the case for vaccines, many public issues aren’t nearly so clear-cut as to what is “the truth,” and all too often government itself has a vested interest in misrepresentation.

Thus, public figures, whether they like it or not or whether they accept it, do in fact have a social responsibility not to set forth total falsehoods as truth. The right to freedom of speech may allow a freedom from moral and ethical standards of conduct, as too many public figures seem to demonstrate at least upon occasion, but those freedoms do not make the purveying of falsehoods ethically correct. And when a public figure forthrightly advocates a course of conduct that creates a public hazard or danger, the rest of us have a responsibility to bring such to light those falsehoods and misstatements.

So I’ll put it as clearly as I can. Maher’s words were not only flat-out wrong; they were blatantly socially irresponsible… and, with thousands of lives at stake, that is inexcusable.

Being Connected

The other day my brother and I were discussing social networking — Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, E-mails, etc., and he made the observation that, apparently for most people, “It’s important that you’re in touch, not that you have anything important to say.” Or even that you have anything at all to say.

Twitter is, of course, unless I’m already outdated, the latest phenomena, and it’s epidemic. But why? Messages are limited to something like 140 characters, enough to say, “Here I am in suburban metropolis, going to Vortex [or whatever]” or “At San Diego ComicCon, and Neil Gaiman’s here…” Why should anyone really care? And yet, they obviously do.

College campuses are filled with students, and more and more, they don’t talk to each other face to face. The moment a class lets out, most of them are on their cellphones — those that weren’t already texting under their desks in class — connecting to someone, and oblivious to anyone around them, so much so that students have been known to walk in front of oncoming cars… and not just occasionally, either. It’s not even remarkable when a high school girl receives something like 20 twitters/text messages in less than a half hour… or that none of them convey any information to speak of.

So… why are so many people working so frantically to “stay in touch,” especially given that it’s not that cheap? Since human beings come from simian stock, is this fad a form of “verbal grooming?” Or is it an attempt by the communicators to reassure themselves that they really do mean something to someone in a universe that we as humans have been forced to realize is so vast as to reduce even our entire solar system to comparative nothingness? Or perhaps an effort to fill some sort of emptiness with the sound of a familiar voice… or at least the letters texted by a friend?

It’s clear that I’m incredibly dated and old-fashioned, at least in the social communications sense, but I’d rather hear those words and voices in person. It’s not that I don’t have a cellphone, because I do. I just never carry it except when I travel. When I do travel, I use it to obtain information, such as directions to the bookstore I’m going to visit. Although I do know how to use a GPS and could certainly use an IPhone or a Blackberry, I’ve no interest in putting my entire life on one of them, not after watching what happens to people when they lose them or break them… or even when they don’t, because they’re always checking them, as if their communications device happens to be more important than the people around them. Just what does that tell you about how they feel about you?

I even forgot the cellphone when I went to WorldCon in Montreal, and it wasn’t even close to a disaster. Getting information from a live person suits me fine, but, with the increasing depersonalization of communications involving commerce, with the endless message menus, I wonder just how much longer that will be possible.

And yes, when I travel, I do call my wife to touch base — generally every night, not every five minutes. But that may be because we’re more connected in the ways that count.

The "Anti-Vaccine" Illusion

A lead story on AOL last week was “Teen Dies from Vaccine.” Farther down in the story was the “admission” that no definitive link had yet been established between the vaccine and the girl’s death and that over a million girls had already received the British vaccine against cervical cancer. In the United States over the past decade, if not longer, a growing number of parents have been keeping their children from receiving vaccines for fear that the children will suffer adverse side effects, ranging from autism to death.

The problem with both the news story and the parental reaction is that they represent the equivalent of medical no-nothingism and an unwillingness to understand as well as a failure to comprehend the magnitude of what vaccines have prevented over the years. Many of the vaccines are administered to prevent what we in western European-derived cultures would term “childhood diseases,” with a feeling that such diseases are mild and would be an inconvenience at worst. Unhappily, this is an illusion.

I’m old enough to remember classmates in leg-braces and iron lungs as a result of polio, now prevented by a vaccine. My mother remembers classmates who died of whooping cough, and an acquaintance whose child was born severely handicapped because the mother caught the measles when she was pregnant. Now… those are anecdotal, although we tend to remember the anecdotes better than the statistics. The statistics are far grimmer, if less emotionally binding. Even today, whooping cough [pertussis] kills 200,000 unvaccinated children annually, mainly in the third world [or 2 million in the past ten years], and, in 1934 alone, before the vaccine was widely administered in the U.S., more than 7,500 children died from it. Measles killed thousands of U.S. children every year prior to the adoption of the vaccine. The U.S. averaged 30,000 cases of diphtheria annually, with some 3,000 deaths each year.

Are these vaccines safe, though, ask the skeptics? For roughly 99.9% of the population, yes, but there is always a tiny, tiny fraction of those vaccinated who may suffer side-effects, as with any medicine. The early version of the pertussis vaccine, for example, did have some adverse side effects, often severe, for a minute fraction of children, including, I might add, one of my own daughters, but those who suffered from such side effects were a minuscule fraction of those vaccinated, and in the U.S., that version of the vaccine is no longer used.

Despite years of overwhelming statistics and the reduction of death rates to the point where some diseases, such as smallpox, have been virtually eliminated, anti-vaccination advocates still proliferate, preying on the fears of those who understand neither science or medicine. The plain fact is that, no matter how “safe” a medical procedure or medicine or vaccine is deemed to be, there will always be someone — one of a very few individuals — who will suffer an adverse reaction. In comparison, for every food ever developed, there is some one who is allergic to it — often fatally — but we don’t advocate no eating wheat because some people have gluten disorders, or peanuts because others might die from ingesting them.

The problem with the media highlighting isolated adverse effects or deaths from vaccines is that — given the anecdotal nature of the human brain and the fact that anecdotes affect us far more strongly than do verified facts and statistics — such reports create and have created a climate of opinion that suggests people’s children are “safer” if they’re not vaccinated. The lack of vaccine-generated resistance/immunity in a population then allows the return and spread of a disease and, as I’ve noted above, such diseases aren’t anywhere as “mild” as most people tend to believe. After all, measles is estimated to have wiped out more than half the Native American population, and was documented in decimating the Hawaiian population.

Mild childhood diseases? Nothing to worry about? Just worry about the vaccines. Think again.