Archive for March, 2010

Anyone Can Do That

The other day I received an email from a faithful reader who noted that he had stopped reading The Soprano Sorceress because the song magic was “too easy.” Over the years I’ve received other comments along the lines that all she had to do was open her mouth and sing.

Right. Except that under the magic system in Erde, the song had to be perfectly on pitch and in key; the words had to specify what had to be accomplished; and the accompaniment had to match. In the opening of that book, a sorcerer destroyed a violinist whose accompaniment was imperfect — because it could have threatened his life. Comparatively few professional singers, except classically trained opera singers, can maintain such perfection in a live performance. And some of those don’t have the best diction — yet clear diction would be vital in song spell-casting. Now… try it in the middle of a battle or when your life is under immediate threat.

I bring this up because there are certain skills in any society, but particularly in our society, that almost everyone thinks they can do. Most people believe they can sing, or write, or paint almost as well as the professionals, and almost all of them think they can certainly critique such with great validity.

I’m sorry. Most people have a far higher opinion of their skills than can be objectively confirmed — and that’s likely an understatement. Even in noted music conservatories, only a minority of graduates are good enough, talented enough, and dedicated enough to sing professionally. The same is true of noted writing programs or established art programs. For that matter, comparatively few graduates of noted business schools ever make it to the top levels of business organizations or corporations.

A similar attitude pervades our view of sports. Tens of millions of American men identity with sports and criticize and second-guess athletic professionals whose skills they could never match under pressures they can only vaguely comprehend. Monday morning quarterbacking used to be a truly derogatory term, enough so that its use tended to stop someone cold. Now it’s almost jocular, and everyone’s an expert in everything.

Is all this because our media makes everything look easy? Because the media only concentrate on the handful of individuals in the arts, athletics, and professions who are skilled, dedicated, and talented enough to make it look “easy.” Or is it because our society has decided to tell students that they’re wonderful, or have “special” talents when they’re failing?

The bottom line is that doing anything well is not “easy,” no matter how effortless it looks, especially when one of the talents of the best is to make that accomplishment look effortless… and that usually means that only those who truly understand that skill really know what it took to make it look easy or effortless.

The Impact of the Blog/Twitter Revolution

The Pew Research Center recently reported that among 19-28 year-olds, blogging activity dropped from close to thirty percent in December 2007 to around fifteen percent by the end of 2009, while the number of teenagers who blogged continues to decline. Those under thirty now focus primarily on Facebook and Twitter. On the other hand, blogging has increased among adults over thirty by close to forty percent in the last three years, although the 11% of those who do blog is still below the 15% level of the 19-29 age group. Based on current trends, that gap will close significantly over the next few years.

These data scarcely surprise me. After all, once you’ve blurted out, “Here I am,” and explained who you are, maintaining a blog with any form of regularity takes, thought, insight, and dedicated work, none of which are exactly traits encouraged in our young people today, despite the lip service paid to them. And, after all, while it can be done, it’s hard to fully expose one’s lack of insight and shallowness when one is limited to the 140 characters of a Twitter message, and since Facebook is about “connecting” and posturing, massive thought and insight are not required.

There is a deeper problem demonstrated by these trends — that technology is being used once more to exploit the innate tendency of the young to focus on speed and fad — or “hipness” [or whatever term signifies being cool and belonging]. All too many young adults are functionally damaged in their inability to concentrate and to focus on any form of sustained task. Their low boredom threshold, combined with a socially instilled sense that learning should always be interesting and tailored precisely to them, makes workplace learning difficult, if not impossible, for far too many of them, and makes them want to be promoted to the next position as soon as possible.

As Ursula Burns, the President and CEO of Xerox, recently noted, however, this urge for promotion as soon as one has learned the basics of a job is horribly counterproductive for the employer… as well as for the employee. The young employee wants to move on as soon as he or she has learned the job. If businesses acquiesce in this, they’ll always be training people, and they’ll never be able to take advantage of the skills people have learned, because once they’ve learned the job, they’re gone from that position, either promoted or departed to another organization in search of advancement. It also means that those who follow such a path never fully learn, and never truly refine and improve those skills.

This sort of impatience has always existed among the young, and it’s definitely not unique to the current generations. What is unique, unfortunately, is the degree to which society and technology are embracing and enabling what is, over time, effectively an anti-social and societally fragmenting tendency.

Obviously, not all members of the younger generation follow these trends and patterns, but from what I’ve learned from my fairly widespread net of acquaintances in higher education across the nation, a majority of college students, perhaps a sizable majority, are in fact addicted to what I’d call, for lack of a better term, “speed-tech superficiality,” and that’s going to make the next few decades interesting indeed.

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Publishing

Several of the comments in the blogsphere during the Macmillan-Amazon dust-up focused on the point I and others had raised about the fact that, depending on the publisher, from thirty to sixty percent of all books lost money and that those losses were made up by the better-selling books. A number of commenters to various blogs essentially protested that publishers shouldn’t be “subsidizing” books that couldn’t carry their own weight, so to speak. At the time, I didn’t clarify this misconception, but it nagged at me.

So… almost NO publishers print books that they know will lose money. The plain fact of the matter is that when a publisher prints a book, it is usually with the expectation that it will at least break even, or come close. At times, publishers know a book will be borderline, because the author is new, but they publish the book in the hopes of introducing an author whose later books, they believe, will sell more. While the statistics show that 30%-60% of books lose money, the key point is that the publishers don’t know in advance which books will lose money. Yes, they do know that it’s unlikely that, for example, a Wheel of Time or a Recluce book will lose money, but no publisher has enough guaranteed best-sellers to fill out their printing schedule. Likewise, they really don’t know who will become a guaranteed best-seller. Just look at how many publishers turned down Harry Potter. Certainly, no editors ever thought that the Recluce books would sell as well or for as long as they have. Not to mention the fact that there are authors whose books were at the top of The New York Times bestseller lists whose later books were anything but bestsellers. The bottom line is simple: Publishers do not generally choose to print books that they know will lose money just to subsidize a given book or author. They try to print good-selling books, and they aren’t always successful.

Last week, Bowker released sales figures for the book publishing industry that revealed that only two percent of all book sales in 2009 were of e-books, while 35% were of trade paperbacks, 35% were hardcovers, and 21% were mass market paperbacks. Interestingly enough, though, while chain bookstores sold 27% of all books, e-commerce sites, such as Amazon and, sold 20% of all titles, including hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and mass market paperbacks. People talk about how fast matters can change, but even “fast” takes time. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994. Today, based on the Bowker figures, Amazon probably accounts for between nine and fourteen percent of all U.S. book sales, but that’s after sixteen years of high growth. A study by Nielsen [the BookScan folks] also revealed that forty percent of all readers would not consider e-books under any circumstances. To me, those figures suggest that, while e-books may indeed be the wave of the future, the industry isn’t going to be doing big-time surfing on it for many years to come.

Total book sales were down about three percent last year, but fiction sales were up seven percent. The overall decline was linked to a decrease in sales of adult nonfiction. That indicates there was definitely an increased market for escapism in 2009.

And one last thought… in 1996, Amazon was still struggling, and there was a question as to whether it would really pull through — and then Jeff Bezos introduced the reader reviews, and Amazon never looked back. Because readers could offer their own views… they bought more books from Amazon. Do so many people feel so marginalized that being able to post comments changes their entire buying habits? The other downside to reader reviews is that the increasingly wide usage of the practice — from student evaluations to Amazon reviews — reinforces the idea that all opinions are of equal value… and they’re not, except in the mind of the opinion-giver. Some reader reviews are good, thoughtful, and logical. Most are less than that.

So, in yet another area, good marketing has quietly undermined product excellence.

Thoughts on "The Oscars"

Actually, this blog deals with my reaction to the expressed thoughts of others about the Oscar ceremony. Before beginning, however, I will cheerfully admit that I watch almost all movies either on DVD or satellite, often years after they’re released.

Now…for those thoughts. By Monday morning, in all too many media outlets, so-called columnists and pundits were complaining about the ceremony being too long and that too much time was wasted on “minor” awards that no one cared about, such as make-up, costumes, sound mixing, and the like. I didn’t happen to see a complaint about special effects, but maybe I overlooked it.

There are two BIG things that bother me about all this Monday morning quarterbacking. First, the Oscars were designed to recognize all aspects of film-making, not just the six “biggies.” As a matter of fact, I could make the argument that those who have been nominated for those — best picture, best director, best leading actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress — need the recognition far less than all the others who enabled the “biggies” to shine. Without a good script, the best actor looks stupid, as some of the greatest names in film have proved a few times. With the wrong music, the right mood doesn’t get created, and Richard Nixon certainly proved that make-up makes a difference. How can you have a Jane Austen period piece, or a Young Victoria, without the right costuming? The entire success of Avatar depends not so much on the actors as on all the things that aren’t the actors. The actors and directors are always recognized. Why begrudge all the others a few hours once a year when a few of them actually get noticed?

In addition, the ceremony and the awards were originally developed to provide such recognition — not to provide prime-time, viewer-oriented “entertainment.” But, of course, because many people have become interested, the “Oscar ceremony” is now packaged as entertainment, and the vast majority of the more technical awards are presented at another ceremony — noted at the “real” Oscar ceremony with a quick picture and thirty seconds of explanation [out of three hours] and not even a listing of names, because, after all, why should one be obliged to read a long list at the “official” Oscar ceremony?

My second BIG objection is that movies, especially today, are a highly technical enterprise that requires great expertise, and yet these commentators seem to want to ignore the very expertise that makes such great films possible in favor of glitz and celebrity. In a way, it reminds me of the Roman Empire, where the great majority of the engineers who designed all those buildings, bridges, and aqueducts were slaves — more privileged slaves, to be sure — but slaves nonetheless. And what happened as even the minimal respect for those slaves vanished in the decadence of glitz and ancient celebrity?

What these commentaries about the dullness of recognizing expertise reveal, unfortunately, is a deploring culture shift away from appreciating the technology that underpins everything we do, including even one of the least substantive aspects of our society — cinema — toward even more superficiality. And even that superficiality that has to be so current. Last year is so passe. As for more than a year ago… forget it.

The polite and bored minimal applause that followed the heartfelt tribute to John Hughes was incredibly painful to hear. A man who gave his life to his art, and combined humor and insight, and the general reaction was, “We’re bored.” And then the “In Memoriam” section was so abbreviated and flashed over so quickly, with names even eliminated when the camera flashed to James Taylor singing, that it was almost a travesty.

Are we so into glitz that we can’t spare an hour or two once a year to allow a little recognition for those who went before and for a comparative handful of experts, who represent tens of thousands of technical specialists that we never otherwise acknowledge, yet whose contributions are absolutely vital to the film industry? Is that really too much to ask?

And, remember, I’m not even a film buff.

Reader Expectations?

The other day I got an email from a male reader who “finally read” The Soprano Sorceress… and enjoyed it and says he’s looking forward to the others. What was interesting about the e-mail was that this reader — a careerist serving in the military — admitted he’d put off reading the book because the protagonist was female. After receiving that email and then getting the early sales reports on Arms-Commander, I got to thinking matters over. I’ve written a number of books with female protagonists, and frankly, while they’ve sold well, they haven’t sold as well as other comparable books of mine with male protagonists, even though, in general, they’ve gotten far better reviews.

Now… obviously, female protagonists don’t kill book sales in general, or Patty Briggs or Marjorie Liu or any number of other authors wouldn’t be on The New York Times bestseller lists. So, if my books with female protagonists, which get better reviews, don’t sell as well as those with male protagonists, why is that so? I’d certainly hope that it’s not that better written books don’t sell as well.

What I’ve tentatively concluded is that readers form expectations of writers, and when an author writes something that appears to go against those expectations in a negative way, sales suffer. I’d been writing professionally for 25 years when the first book I wrote from a female viewpoint — and, yes, it was The Soprano Sorceress — was published, and I had eighteen books in print by then, all of which featured strong male characters and many of which were military/action oriented. Although I have always written strong female characters, they were usually viewed from the male perspective.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I upset the expectations I’d inadvertently established over more than twenty years. In a way, perhaps I should have been grateful that the fall-off in sales was merely “noticeable,” rather than catastrophic. Part of the loss in readers was probably alleviated because I’d been publishing fantasy for some six years before I took on writing a fantasy with a female protagonist, so that the shift was likely not so wrenching as it might have been to some readers.

And yet, at the same time, why didn’t I pick up more readers from among those who like strong female protagonists? For exactly the same reason! Those readers had likely scanned earlier books of mine and decided they were not to their tastes, and having done so, were not likely to return to peruse later works of mine unless someone called one to their attention.

This sort of expectation-generation, unfortunately, is not helped by current publisher marketing strategies, where all too many authors are encouraged to use one pen name for one type of book, and another for a different type, and where an author’s name is a stringently and narrowly defined “brand.” That strategy is akin to applying fast-food marketing techniques to books, and while it might sell more books in the short run, it definitely has the downside of limiting publication of books and/or authors that don’t “brand” easily.

This”branding” also has the side-effect of effectively reducing reader exposure to a wider range of fiction. For example, I write, under my own name, straight SF, fantasy, alternate world SF, what might be called science fantasy, and I write from both male and female points-of-view, and I use different tenses in different books. Offhand, I don’t know of another author who does all that — not under the same name, although I do know some writers with multiple pen names for differing styles.

In the end, though, I have to ask, just what are readers losing by the creation of such rigid expectations of author names? What discoveries will they never make… what intellectual and mental challenges will they never encounter… what unexpected pleasures will they miss?

And The Winner Is…

No, I’m not giving awards, but commenting on the social implications of the recent Winter Olympics. Put bluntly, there’s something really wrong with the world when a national psyche, such as Canada’s, rests on the outcome of a hockey game. Did this athletic contest produce a cure for cancer, a new space drive that will allow us access to the planets, or a way to effectively deal with terrorism? For that matter, did any of the Olympic contests really determine the best athletes in any given endeavor? No, they did not. They determined who was the best on a given day. One could even claim that the U.S.was the better hockey team since the two teams split contests and overall the USA scored more goals. But Canada’s national psyche was “saved” because one game was somehow more important than another game. A game! So be it… sadly.

And, by the way, when did games and viewing them become so important? Has it ever happened before in history? Several times, as a matter of fact — in ancient Greece, before its civilization collapsed, in Rome, after the fall of the Republic, and in Central America, before the Mayan civilization became too weak to survive environmental catastrophe. There might be other examples, as well, but those spring to mind immediately.

More to the immediate point, the Winter Games — and the television hoopla surrounding them — trivialized the lives of everyday people everywhere. A skater was praised for competing and winning a bronze medal in the days following her mother’s death. Yes, she was courageous, but how many people, every day, have to go with their lives after a loved one dies unexpectedly? Several other athletes were lauded for overcoming difficulties in order to triumph in their fields, and the media played it up as if they were the only ones who had ever done so. I don’t recall any media hoopla or medals for my wife when she had to sing a full concert while her mother was dying, in order to keep her job, nor do I recall any great praise for the student who had to do a singing competition after surviving a car crash and a broken shoulder and the death of a beloved aunt. And there seemed to be a great deal of concern over whether Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series would be finished, which concern and commentary lasted far longer than the brief praises of his career at the time of his unfortunate death.

There was a note that the coverage of the Winter Olympics actually outpolled American Idol in terms of viewers. Why should this have been any surprise? They’re different sides of the same coin. Both reward a performance of the moment, not necessarily sustained excellence, and both performances, frankly, have little to do with improving the human condition, except for momentarily making those watching feel better. I’m not taking anything away from the athletes; they’ve worked long and hard to achieve excellence in their fields. But to showcase such performances and to surround them with such hype… what does that say about our society?

Now, before anyone jumps to conclusions that I’m just a geeky science fiction and fantasy writer who has no understanding and appreciation of sports, I will point out that, for better or worse, I was one of those athletes. In addition of lettering in high school sports, I was a competitive swimmer for fifteen years, all the way through college, and although I was just a touch too slow to be Olympic caliber, I do know what it takes to succeed first hand. I’m not against sports; I’m against the glorification of the spectator side of sports, against glitz overwhelming true achievement, and against the creation of an image where sports achievement is blown totally out of proportion to solid values in life.

We live in a world where American Idol far outdraws opera, yet opera is far more demanding and technically superior. Where stock car drivers make thousands of times what those other drivers — such as truckers and highway patrol officers — do. Where graphic novels sell far more than books that actually make readers think in depth. Where the glitz and financial manipulations of Wall Street quants and financiers draw rewards hundreds of thousands of times greater than the salaries of those who police our streets, fight our fires, and educate our children.

History won’t remember American Idol, nor the winners of Olympic Games. If history is even read by the coming generations, it might list Shakespeare, Edison, Washington, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Pasteur, and Einstein, among others who made real accomplishments.

What did the Winter Olympics say about us as a society? That the winner is… those with the greatest ability to entertain and dazzle, rather than those who provide us with solid achievements?