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6.28.2011

Change Afoot in the United Nations? The Election of FAO's Director General Raises Questions

Jacques Diouf, Senegalese diplomat and politicianJacques Diouf Image via WikipediaAfter 18 years at the helm of FAO, Jacques Diouf, Senegalese, is about to step down. A new Director General, Jose Graziano da Silva, a Brazilian, was elected last Sunday, amid the general indifference of the world.

I witnessed the proceedings, and I can tell you that something has changed over there in FAO. You're probably thinking it doesn't matter to me and what is FAO anyway?

FAO (full name: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) is not exactly nothing. It is historically the biggest and oldest of the UN specialized agencies.

Founded in 1945 and focused on food and agriculture, forestry and fisheries (as its name implies), it has been undergoing a harrowing process of so-called "reform" - along with the rest of the United Nations since the mid 1980s, when the Scandinavian countries first called for reform.

Reforming the UN is one of the things our politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, like to do best. Portraying the United Nations as a money-eating behemoth of little use to anyone, they spew out reform proposals that they know can only help their image at home. Downsizing international organizations has one big advantage: it doesn't irritate your electorate, on the contrary. They see you as a savvy, cost-cutting guy, who is not "taken in" by big words and empty ideas.

What a pity. Because the UN - if only one honestly believed in it and gave it a chance to work - could help make this world a better, more peaceful place.

FAO is a particularly interesting piece of the UN system because whatever happens there also happens elsewhere in the United Nations. And if the world looks on with indifference at the FAO Director General election, then it is in large part the media's fault. Because the United Nations is not a "hot spot", not a headline grabber - it probably won't do any good for my blog's ranking either, but I don't care.

I do think something important and rather unusual happened last Sunday in the course of that election (by the way, these are secret ballot elections - so there's no gaming the results). But to explain why I need to give you some background, so bear with me for a moment.

I've worked in FAO for 25 years and I have seen these "UN reform gurus" at work - even traveled with some of them across the world back in the early 1990s, to inspect FAO food security projects in an attempt (at that time sponsored by Switzerland) to push FAO away from its traditional role as supporter of agricultural development towards a so-called "food security" organization.

When Jacques Diouf came on board in 1994, he knew little of FAO and he picked up the reformers' jargon and proposals, including food security. He called it the "fight against hunger" -  words harking back to an earlier time, the 1960s, when the battle against hunger was the order of the day. As the French say, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose". However the new "fight against hunger" caused some confusion with the World Food Programme, FAO's sister agency (also located in Rome) directly mandated to relieve hunger. After several years of misunderstanding and name-calling, thing got better in the early 2000s, as a letter of cooperation was signed and the agencies stopped stepping on each other's toes.

If you consider that the World Food Programme was an outgrowth of FAO activities going back to the Seventies, it is truly amazing that it took some thirty years of bickering to figure out who did what. But now that it is (more of less) behind, one should probably consider it the single most important long-term achievement of the departing Director General. In his good-bye speech yesterday (although he won't be leaving before the end of the year), Diouf claimed he's turned  FAO into a more "streamlined" organization, "fit to deal with the 21st century challenges".

The first part of that proposition is undoubtedly true:  FAO is leaner with about half the staff it used to have before he arrived. But much of the streamlining has been done under duress, under the whip of the so-called "reform process" and "external independent evaluations". Through Mr. Diouf's tenure, the budget (provided by member countries for "core" activities and by a series of donors - mostly from the developed world -  for field projects) has continually shrunk and now, expectations are that the current FAO Conference will result in yet more shrinking.

The new Director General, due to start his mandate in January 2012, is thus inheriting an ailing agency, with a reform process that is still unfinished (!) and a budget, in spite of all the nice oratory around it, that is not, by a long shot, enough to allow FAO to play its full role.

What is FAO's role? What are these "21st century challenges" FAO is supposed to face? You may well ask, and it's because member countries can't agree on what FAO should really do that in the end, not enough funds are coming to it.

For developing countries, FAO should be there to help them develop their agriculture and achieve food security. For developed countries, it should act as a forum for discussion, as a statistical and information gathering center, and as a norm-setting institutions in certain specific areas like food safety (eg.the Codex Alimentarius) or plant protection (eg. the IPPC - the International Plant Protection Convention).

The compromise solution is obvious: FAO should do both within its budget. In these recessionary times it is equally obvious that not enough funds will ever be provided for FAO to do this. It ends up doing not enough of either and getting everybody annoyed with it. Perhaps, if developing countries had wanted more funds, they should have considered voting for a candidate from the developed world - after all, that's where the donors and the money come from. But they didn't, and the Brazilian candidate won.

Yet, here is something both interesting and unexpected. For the first time in FAO's history, the victory of the developing world's candidate's over his rival, the Spaniard Miguel Angel Moratinos, was extremely narrow: only four votes. Out of the 180 votes cast, he obtained 92 and Mr. Moratinos 88.  Yet Mr. Graziano da Silva had a lot going for him: he had official support from the G77 group, and that should have insured a comfortable victory, as had always been the case in the past for a G77 candidate. It was also generally understood that after a Director General from Africa, Latin America was the next region to furnish one.  Moreover he was considered one of the architects of the highly successful Zero Hunger program in Brazil, in short he was "Mr Food Security". Last but not least, he had been working inside FAO since 2006, in charge of the Regional Office for Latin America and had therefore an insider's knowledge of the house: he would be able to "hit the ground running".

While Mr. Moratinos, a Spanish diplomat and ex-Foreign Affairs minister, had none of these things, and he even had to face the challenge from another European candidate, Mr. Franz Fischler. 

Europe, thanks to Lady Ashton's usual negligence, hadn't been able to pull its act together: if it had presented one candidate instead of two, it is very likely that Mr. Moratinos would have received the ten votes that Mr. Fischler took away from him in the first ballot. And that could have made the difference in the second and final ballot (after the four other candidates had withdrawn, including Fischler). Of course, I don't have a crystal ball nor can History been replayed, and perhaps the results would not have been any different.

But fundamentally, Mr. Moratinos received a remarkable proportion of the vote - in other words, a lot of developing countries voted for him. This is a first. And it might mark a change in United Nations politics, where the countries that are most responsible for the budget and provide most of the funds, finally get the recognition they deserve...

Also, the way the election process was conducted was radically changed (this was one of the results of the reform process): for the first time, the candidates had a chance to address the delegates and did so twice, at the Council 3 months ago with a full speech followed by a question-and-answer session, and at the Conference with a short 15 minute presentation of their platform (but no Q and A to save time). Mr. Moratinos of course was one of those who spoke best (and he traveled around to some fifty countries to solicit votes but he wasn't alone in this - so did some of the others).  It wasn't exactly a real election campaign but pretty close. So much democracy had never come to the United Nations where the election of a Secretary General or Director General has always been a totally non-tranparent process, in the hands of devious diplomats and governed by hidden government interests. Now, for the first time, the delegates had a chance to judge the candidates on the same basis as we voters judge our politicians (not that this leads to exceptional results, but still...It is better than nothing).

So a minimum of democracy was introduced in the process, and it seems to have changed somewhat the way the political game is played at the United Nations, bringing in a modicum of free choice based on judgment of who might be, objectively, the best candidate for the job.

Maybe or maybe not. I guess I'm an incurable optimist. What do you think ?

 
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6.26.2011

Greek Default = Eurozone collapse = Great Recession Once More

Original caption: I decided to see if I could ...Image via Wikipedia
The domino effect of a possible (probable?) Greek default is with us.

First Greece defaults on its debt, next the European banks, foremost among them the French and German banks but also the European Central Bank, are hit.

Next in line, the other insolvent countries in the Eurozone: Ireland, Portugal, Spain and, yes, Italy too.

Finally, through the holdings of American banks in Europe coupled with the business of derivatives and credit swaps (intended to provide insurance against sovereign debt defaults, starting with Greece), the financial tsunami  hits the American shores.

This can mean only one thing: a return of the Great Recession. The feared "second dip" becomes reality.

This nightmare scenario is not a figment of my imagination. Unfortunately, it is very real - and explains why the Eurozone finance ministers , in their latest meeting in Luxembourg, have issued an ultimatum to Greece: austerity, or else no bailout money.

The requirements are tough: a five year plan of spending cuts, tax increases and privatization.

Something Antonis Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, the main conservative opposition party in Greece, adamantly refuses to consider. George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister has reacted with a promise to drive the austerity measures through parliament by July 28 and with a government reshuffle. He has removed his finance minister and appointed instead his defense minister, Evangelos Venizelos, to the post.Venizelos now now occupies both the position of deputy prime minister and finance minister.

He is clearly a heavyweight...But who is he and why the change? A professor of Constitutional Law and author of books, monographs and articles dealing with a range of political and social policy issues such as the future of the Greek university system, Venizelos at first sight wouldn't seem to be an appropriate choice as finance minister: he's not an economist and has no special knowledge of finance. Although a lawyer's background nowadays seems to be what is needed to reach any political post (for example Christine Lagarde's candidacy to the IMF or Sarkozy as President of France).
 Evangelos Venizelos, Minister for National DefenceEvangelos Venizelos Image via Wikipedia
So what has he got? First, a strong and varied political experience, starting in 1989 when he defended the current prime minister's father, Andreas Papandreou,  from corruption allegations. Impressed with his lawyer's talents, including a remarkable gift for oratory, Andreas Papandreou included him in his PASOK party. In 1993, when PASOK returned to power, Venizelos became the government's spokesman and thereafter occupied a succession of ministerial posts from 1993 to 2004: the press and media, transport and communications, justice, culture (twice) and development. In 2007, he tried to wrestle the PASOK leadership from George Papandreou and failed. Presumably, the two men cannot be close friends, and yet...

Venizelos is also reported to have a great ability for negotiation with trade unions and to be well respected by the Greek general public, who tend to trust him and see him as something of a political outsider. And that is important because the whole Greek political class, on the left and the right, suffers from a serious gap in confidence.

Politicians in Greece are universally considered as the culprits for the present catastrophic situation, and Andreas Papandreou in particular is seen as the main architect of the bloated public sector. Whether he is or not, I don't know, but there is little doubt that for decades democracy in Greece has been played out on the basis of a disarmingly simple equation: votes = government jobs = juicy pensions.

The public sector has become a behemoth eating up some 40 percent of GDP (although statistics are only a rough approximation: in such cases of rampant corruption and profligacy, there is no particular reason to trust them). That leaves 60 percent of the economy still in the private sector.

That would be a sizable amount if the private sector was healthy and willing to pay taxes. But confronted with a huge and manifestly unfair government machine, what would you do? Would you pay your taxes and feed the monster? Of course not. And that is exactly what has happened in Greece. Every business, from the largest (the shipping industry) to the smallest (the bar and hairdresser), is busy avoiding paying taxes. And those who can (the wealthy) are busy transferring their money out of the country. Once again, statistics are moot, but it is likely that some €50 billion in tax payments are evaded each year and possibly €30 billion of funds are exported and placed in safe havens abroad. I am not standing by these numbers, but you get the idea.

Result? The economy is on its knees, and that is a pity, considering that Greece had at least two cards to play (tourism and shipping) as well as one of the best banking systems in Europe. Greek banks survived the 2008 financial shock remarkably well, and if customers hadn't started to withdraw deposits and credit rating agencies had not downgraded Greek government debt to junk status (or thereabout), Greek banks would have no trouble functioning efficiently. But now, the only place where they can get the liquidity they need to finance the needs of their business clients is the European Central Bank. And the latter has joined the political chorus of European finance ministers and the IMF demanding additional austerity before releasing any more  funds.

So we are back to square one, where we were a year ago when the Greek debt crisis exploded. Greek business can't get the financing it needs from its banks, the economy is clearly on a downward spiral, with unemployment rising etc.

Is more austerity the answer? Even though austerity measures (budget cuts, tax increases, sale of state assets) justifiably aim at correcting the excesses of the public sector, they unfortunately also adversely affect the private sector. How come? Because in a downward spiral, the bailout money acts like good money chasing the bad. There is never enough of it if the economy keeps dipping. Now, as I am writing, Greek banks have almost ceased functioning, i.e. filling their main role as providers of  working funds to business. This coming summer they will be able to fulfill the business funding role only if the bailout money is provided.

The problem is that this is precisely the scenario that played out last year and yet didn't work. Everybody fears the new bailout will prove not to work again - to be simply a way to kick the can down the road. Why? Because there's more to it and it's not something the banks can solve on their own: the private sector has to start behaving appropriately vis à vis the public sector. This means it has to start paying taxes and refraining from exporting its profits abroad. Of course the government can pursue the tax evaders and slap on a series of anti-tax evasion measures (including a tax holiday to repatriate funds). And the government has already done some of  this, but there is little doubt that coercive measures can only do so much.

What is needed is a cultural change: a changeover in the Greek mindset. Greeks have to stop seeing their government as a repair of bandits and start trusting in its capacity to put its house in order. For this to happen, it is clear that the government has to very openly and efficiently apply the needed austerity measures. But it also has to convince Greek citizens that it is serious about this reform - that it means business. This is where Venizelos comes in, this is going to be his challenge: effectively apply the needed reforms and convince the Greek public that he is doing so.

Can he make it? The bets are open, but in my opinion, one thing is certain: if he can't, nobody can.

I would love to have your views, and in particular I would love to hear from my Greek readers out there...
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6.20.2011

Amazon at Risk: its Kindle Platform can be Spammed!

Pirates thumbImage via Wikipedia
Amazon is at risk: because it's so easy and cheap to publish on Kindle, anyone does it, including spammers. They get public domain content (free) and repackage it with a new title and cover, and voilà! Readers are taken in and buy something they could have had free. And the Kindle is awash with spurious, useless content.

Not good for Amazon's reputation in its primary market: readers.

But the damage doesn't stop there. Writers also are hurt by some smart alecks who re-publish the more popular ebook titles under a new title, author name and cover, just changing slightly the text so as to avoid any out-and-out plagiarism (and that's when they're careful...)

But it's piracy nonetheless...and it's beginning to give a bad name to Amazon's Kindle - including among writers. What was a golden opportunity for writers to go down the road of self-publishing isn't looking so good anymore.

This story was first picked up by Reuters and then expanded/explained by Eric Mack on PCWorld. And picked up by many around the blogosphere and in the media (I've listed a few of the more interesting articles below).

Eric Mack suggests Amazon could charge "authors $50, $20, or even just $10 to publish to Amazon".  He feels "any author that spent months or years crafting a quality work should have no problem shelling out a small amount to access a global market and ensure that there's fewer titles to weed through".

Would you agree with that? Would you pay something - say up to $50 - so Amazon can check and weed out the spammers? I know I would!

It need not be such a difficult task for Amazon to start acting as a gatekeeper. I may be wrong, but surely  Amazon could set up some sort of computerized system that would go through submissions and using keywords, alert them to subject matter/content that is most likely to be spammed (like things related to public domain). Also, it should be possible for a computer to scan a text to see if it is identical (or very close) to another already published and popular e-book. All that would take time (and money) of course, and slow down the 48 hour turn-around that now exists when you submit an e-book for the Kindle platform. But surely it would be worth waiting for...

What do you think? Are you as a writer ready to pay Amazon something so that they start doing a better job as a "gatekeeper"?

I know readers would welcome a stronger "gatekeeping" role for Amazon!  

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6.17.2011

Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem: How will it end?


Animated atomic bomb explosion.Image via Wikipedia


The Palestine-Israel question has been with us for decades now, it's part of the scenery. Can you imagine watching TV or opening your morning paper and not find news about it? Unthinkable!

It's like that picture of a bomb that keeps exploding and re-exploding endlessly...

Friends of mine have asked me repeatedly to blog about it, and so far I've always resisted. I just didn't think I could add anything useful to the debate. Or suggest a solution. Whatever solution is suggested, there's always somebody ready to shoot it down.

Just look at what happened to President Obama when he recently tried to suggest that peace negotiations could resume using as a starting point the 1967 Israel-Palestine border lines. Perish the thought!  Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu who was then on a visit to the US blew up and manifested his discontent in a speech to the American Congress where he was met with a standing ovation.

Still, the EU is pushing a peace plan based on Obama's suggestion. And the Palestinians have more or less papered over their differences: Fatah and Hamas are close to some sort of agreement much to Israel's dismay (it cannot accept Hamas at the negotiating table). In any case, coming next September, the Palestinian Authority will ask the UN to  recognize Palestine as a state (for the moment it's just an "Authority" with an observer status, like for example, the Holy See). That would give the Palestinians a much stronger card to play at the negotiating table.

So time is running out on Israel. Will they react positively to the challenge? I don't know, Netanyahu and even more than him, his Foreign Affairs minister, have a tendency to adopt extremist, uncompromising positions. The political opposition in Israel is more open to the idea of negotiation (for more on this, click here), and I have a feeling that a lot of people in Israel would welcome a compromise solution, provided it brought peace.

Meanwhile, around the Mediterranean, protesters of all kinds, including an 86 year-old woman daughter of Holocaust victims, are gathering together a flotilla to try and break the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza two and half years ago. Said blockade, as you will recall, being in retaliation/defense against the attacks of Gaza's Hamas government in Israel territory - all because Hamas steadfastly refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.

Result on the ground? All I can say is that it's a sorry mess. Israel continues to live in fear of attacks and dreadful attacks do occur, with deaths that every time remind us that this is a tragedy that hits innocent civilians. The Gaza population that had voted in Hamas has paid dearly the exercise of its right for a democratic choice. Because of Hamas' extremism and use of terrorism, the Gaza population has also suffered attacks from Israel, and an economic blockade that has caused untold pain at an individual level. The situation has recently somewhat  improved, with  Israel agreeing to let some goods in and Egypt partly re-opening its borders (one of the immediate effects of the Arab Spring). But a return to normalcy, if it ever happens, is far off in the future. Unemployment is still at a whopping 46 percent level.

JerusalemJerusalem Image by Wilson Afonso via Flickr

The end to the spiral of violence is nowhere in sight, and possibly the worst of it is reserved for Jerusalem: the holy city for all three religions, the Muslims, Jews and Christians. Take a look at the sample of articles I brought together for you (see below). The words are harsh, the hate is palpable, everybody wants Jerusalem, the city of God, for themselves. And not for the others.

Wailing Wall - 1The Wailing Wall Image by Giara via Flickr



The wailing wall is mine!

They all cry the same cry, irrespective of religion. And American born-again Christians are among the most vehement - sometimes even more than the Israeli themselves.

You know something? I wonder how God feels about this, He who is sitting up there in the sky and is watching this absurd drama unfold on the good earth He has created.  Here are his creatures all trying to get hold of His temple, of His holy city, stepping on each other, screaming, killing for it.

Is He angry? Is He disgusted? Is He ready to forgive us?

Personally, I don't think He is ready to forgive us if we don't do something to deserve his forgiveness. Like holding out a loving hand...

How do you think God feels about this?






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6.15.2011

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad: A Slow-burning Masterpiece?

Jennifer EganJennifer Egan Image via WikipediaWhy did Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, published in 2010, take off so slowly? But take off it did, first to the top 10 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Next it unexpectedly beat out Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And this year it was crowned with the prestigious Pulitzer Prize awarded by Columbia University. Soon it is to be adapted into a TV series by HBO.

Is this a slow-burning bestseller that is going to rise and rise, until it becomes, a few years or decades from now, a classic masterpiece?

I was curious and recently decided to join a Goodreads group to read it (it's being read by Goodreads during the whole month of June). It was a fascinating experience, sharing my feelings as I went along with other very dedicated readers, most of them women in the middle of their career and/or young mothers.  Most of us felt a little uncomfortable with the way the novel begins: it comes at you as a puzzling collage of what appears at first as unrelated snippets of life - disgruntled characters facing middle age and cracks in their career... I began to wonder whether that was the reason why it started out as a "slow-burning" best seller.

If we were feeling a little displaced as readers, this is not viewed as a drawback by critics. Just to mention one, Ryan Britt, whose comment is particularly telling: "...the structure of the novel is also the sort of thing that when described might sound a little too complicated or “high concept” for its own good. Every chapter in A Visit From the Goon Squad takes place from the perspective of a different character, sometimes in different tenses, and almost completely out of chronological order. Telling a story from the perspective of numerous characters and without a regard for a linear narrative isn’t a brand new concept, but the way Egan employs it is particularly effective."

No doubt about it: the multiplicity of characters and points of views are jarring at first...One wonders which characters are central and how to "connect" with them. This for a reader is rather an uncomfortable position to be in. One suspects there is a bit of literary gimmickry at work here.

What kept me reading was curiosity: I wondered how it would all knit together into a story. 


And of course, I kept going because the writing is first class and reality is closely observed.  I was presented with a world I didn't know  - the musical punk rock industry from the 1970s to the present (and even with a glimpse to the future, ten years from now) - and remained fascinated by the glitzy glamor and the cheesy underside. 


Some images hit me hard, like this description of  Art History professor, Ted Hollander's promenade in Naples:
"He passed churches blistered with grime, moldering palazzi whose squalid interior leaked sounds of wailing cats and children. Soiled, forgotten coats of arms were carved above their massive doorways, and these unsettled Ted: such universal, defining symbols made meaningless by nothing more than time." (Chapter 11)
Also, some characters' names are unforgettable, like PR rock start LaDoll who was a blond sex bomb with  "roving, algorythmic eyes". Yes, this is the work of a master at crafting language. Superb writing.

Still, after I finished it, I wasn't fully satisfied. The string of disconnected chapters had indeed coalesced into something of a whole, and in a rather unusual way. In pulling the story together, the virtuosity of the author was remarkable in at least two ways: 
(1) in weaving the plot from the point of diverse characters, with great attention to the telling detail (I have never learned so much about the punk rock scene!); 
(2) in writing from numerous points of views (one for each chapter), with a voice that perfectly matches the different characters. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter where Rob, the "half gay" friend of one of the novel's main characters, a mixed-up woman named Sasha, goes swimming in the East River at sunrise and drowns. That particular chapter, written from the "you" standpoint is a genuine literary tour de force. Indeed "you" is a rare and notoriously hard to manage point of view (most books are written either in the first or third person). Yet Egan manages to describe everything that is going on between no less than three characters (Rob, Sasha and Sasha's new boyfriend). By adopting the "you" mode (Rob is the one who uses it in the chapter), Egan succeeds in expressing in an original way the fact that Rob suffers from deep identity problems. He's gay but not quite, he's in love with Sasha but not quite, so he says "you" as a way to win over your adhesion to what he is thinking.

Yet all this is not fully satisfactory. For example, one of the last chapters meant to describe how Sasha ends up is laid out like a series of scientific diagrams, graphs and boxes of varying shapes. That is of course visually intriguing but it is not an effective way of narrating a story. As a reader, you miss out on what you have come to expect from a work a fiction: plot development and linkages between characters, events and settings. It reads more like a scientific summary than a novel. If intended as a new, experimental form of fiction (which I imagine was the idea), then it doesn't work. It leaves the reader out in the cold, yearning for more. In no way could you connect and enter in the mind of any of the characters ensconced in the graphs: no empathy is possible.

More generally, empathy, or rather the lack of it, seems to be the big problem here. You can't jump from one character to the next every time you start a new chapter (you can do that two or three times but not through a whole book), no matter how enticing or well-written. Too many points of views, too many characters, none of which you, the reader are given a chance to get close to (although I'm sure that's great for a TV series: plenty of material here to work from).
 
What a reader wants from a novel (in my opinion) is to get into one (or more) character's mind - the protagonist(s) - and stay there to the end of the book, living through his/her/their upheavals or drama or what-have-you, that then resolve themselves in a good or bad way (depending on whether it's a tragedy or comedy). Here, characters do grow, mature, get old and come to grips with their lives, but it's never fully a tragedy or a comedy and you, the reader, can't get close to any of them. You're left on the outside, a "voyeur", observing somebody's life unfold in...yes, a pretty "normal" way.  

As a result, you  don't choose a character, there's none you feel like "inhabiting", and there are no raptures, high emotions or big tears. At first I thought Sasha would be "the one" for me - she reappears several times through the story - but I couldn't reach out to her as she was repeatedly seen "at a distance", through the eyes of other characters and not herself. And that was a disappointment. 

Ultimately, while this novel is brilliant and brilliantly written, I couldn't get drawn into it. Sure, it's about important things, Time and Death (that's the "goon" in the title) and the banality of everyone's daily life and how we all end up in the same place in spite of our struggles...But a whole novel about this? Mmm... Hit-and-run literature, that's the way I felt about it! 


All right, "hit and run" might sound a little harsh, but it does describe how all these snippets of life grab you by their very brilliance...and leave you in the cold.  Still, this is undoubtedly Literature with a capital "L" and not women's fiction, much less chick lit. 


My hope is that Jennifer Egan will put her undoubted talent in her next book and focus on a single story line from start to finish, and not leave us poor readers out in the lurch. If she does that, I'm sure she'll produce a classic!

Wonder how you will react. Do read it and let me know. Or join Goodreads and read it with a group of readers online - a fun way to do it and get reactions from each other.



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6.13.2011

The Bondholders are Strangling the World Economy!

credit crunchCredit Crunch Image by HappyHaggis via Flickr
Bondholders of the world, beware, you are under attack!

Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman has just come out with another brilliant article, this one on the "rule by rentiers", as he calls it.  Great term! At least one French blogger (see article below) was thrilled by the use of this French word. Of course, what Krugman means are bondholders - and the credit rating agencies that "oversee" sovereign debt.

Krugman in his article doesn't mention the credit rating agencies by name, but the reference is implicit. By rating a country's debt, like for example Iceland or Greece, and lowering it repeatedly, sometimes down to junk status, they signal to bondholders that they should stay away from bonds issued by those countries. Result? Those countries have to pay a much higher interest rate to refinance themselves, which means it costs more to carry the debt (and run the government), causing untold pain to the average, hapless tax-paying citizen. Because in the end, it's the little guy who gets it in the teeth. You and me.

End result? A slowdown in recovery (or even none at all) and more unemployment! And while that is exactly what is happening both in the US and in Europe, it is a highly unfashionable subject, as Krugman notes.

The media on both sides of the Atlantic is full of news about budget deficits and how governments should adopt austerity programmes to cut expenses and raise taxes. Politicians, from the US Republicans Tea Party to UK's Conservative PM Cameron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel are wed to the idea of cutting deficits. Even Bernanke's Federal Reserve which so far had fought the slowdown with a monetary "easing" policy has said it will do nothing more. Nothing about how to deal with unemployment. Mum's the word.

In this context, the latest news on Greece come as no surprise: don't restructure the debt, don't force bondholders to take a "haircut" (a dainty term for loss), just keep throwing more bailout funds at the government in exchange for more austerity measure and more taxes. And hope for the best.

Bondholders have to be preserved at all costs, and in this case, one of the biggest holders of Greek bonds is...the European Central Bank. No wonder Trichet won't hear of restructuring the Greek debt! Yet the Greek economy has already contracted 4% (and probably worse to come). The contraction is so bad that tax revenues continue to drop and at this rate, there's no way Greece will ever manage to pay its debt back. How much more should its economy contract before bondholders are finally told to shut up?

Cutting government expenses and raising taxes are a surefire way to kill off any budding economic recovery and ensure that unemployment remains intractable. This, I know, places me among the "liberal" economists who believe that Keynes had it right and the conservatives had it wrong. By "conservatives" I mean those who are ideologically committed to Small Government = Big Economy, convinced the key to growth is the private sector.

Sure, the private sector is the key to growth but when difficult times come (like now), the public sector has a role to play: it should counterbalance the economic slowdown, ease the pain of unemployment and lay the basis for the next growth cycle. How? By doing everything that is needed from incentives to innovation, in particular supporting small innovative startups with grants or at least tax holidays, all the way to structural investment in areas that are not normally attractive to private investors because they don't easily generate profits - mainly two areas: innovations that have yet "to prove themselves" as profit-earners (like much of green energy) and humanitarian public services that level the income inequalities in society (like public provision of health services and minimum pensions).

This is a roundabout way of saying that one of the government's fundamental roles in society is to take care of the poor.

But as Krugman says, this approach to economic governance has gone out the door. To describe what has happened, he uses striking images: the "rule of rentiers" govern capital markets, the "pain caucus" has put a stop to any attempts at solving the unemployment problem.  The political class is aligned with the interests of bondholders worldwide (including the Chinese government). There is, as Krugman suggests, reason to suspect a conspiracy of the wealthy bonholders, brought together in a "pain caucus" to wield their "rentier rule" against the rest of us.

If you consider that we are living in an increasingly unequal society where the rich are getting richer and the middles classes are losing ground, there is indeed something to worry about. Some statistics are astonishing: for example, 50% of American consumption expenses come from 10% of American households. That's how skewed the society is!

Bondholders are only thinking of defending their wealth - and the rest of the economy be damned! Small wonder the bonholders are strangling the world economy. Because make no mistake about this: the Chinese economy may well be the second most important one in the world, but is is dependent for its growth on the American and European markets. They are all linked, and if we go down, so will they.

And ultimately, so will the bonholders who will be paying for their shortsightedness. Unfortunately so will we!

Link to Paul Krugman's full article here

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6.11.2011

E.Coli Disaster: Germany vs. Europe - Where are we going?

Loss!Loss! Image by Xtream_i via Flickr
Germany has repeatedly turned against Europe. Last year, after Angela Merkel dragged her feet for three months, the Greek debt problem that could have easily been resolved within Europe, exploded, rocking the Euro-zone and putting at risk recovery from the Great Recession, even in the United States. In the breach Germany created by its testy tardiness, the IMF wiggled itself in, vying with the European Central Bank for a prime role in the bailout of Greece - those were in the heydays of IMF Director Dominique Strauss Kahn, when he was still toying with the idea of displacing Sarkozy as President, and Greece provided him with a perfect opportunity to show his face in Europe.

Now, with the e.coli disaster that has claimed so far the lives of 31 European citizens (all Germans, one Swede) and caused painful sickness in thousands of others, including some foreigners who had recently traveled to Northern Germany, the Germans have done it again. We were treated to the spectacle of regional authorities in Hamburg talking to the media, pointing the finger first at Spanish cucumbers, and then at tomato and lettuce, all without any shred of solid evidence. They just "suspected" that might be the case and rushed to issue warnings. With the immediate result of causing a panic , with consumers turning away from all the incriminated vegetables, across Europe - even as far as Russia that banned exports of all European vegetables.

As a consequence, farmers and wholesalers have suffered millions of Euros of losses and started screaming for compensation. We were treated to the usual spectacles: piles of cucumbers to be destroyed, a meeting of EU Agriculture Ministers haggling over the details of what compensation should be paid for farmers for their losses. A sorry spectacle compounded by the weak proposals coming from the EU Agriculture Commissioner who talked to the press of finding some €130 million in EU coffers to cover about 30% of the losses (!) and the Spanish Agriculture Minister, livid with anger, obviously refusing.

How much farmers and wholesalers will eventually get once the haggling is over (and the fuss in the media has died down) is anybody's guess. One thing is certain, it is the European taxpayer who is going to pay as usual for the incredible inefficiency, laxness and unprofessionalism of its political class.

Because that is what is most striking in this whole deplorable story: the European political class's inability to come to grips with an emergency situation, even though Europe had given itself a specific European institution to deal with food safety. Created in January 2002, after the BSE "mad cow" disease emergency had rocked Europe for a decade, finding the continent unprepared, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), installed in splendid headquarters in Parma, Italy, was supposed to be running "at full capacity" by 2004/5. It took a little longer than that to get it going (no surprise there!), but it is supposed to be fully operative since at least 2008/9. It has even undergone an internal reorganization to make it more "effective" and the new structure should be in place by January 2012. Of course, internal reforms can be profoundly disruptive and this may go some way to explain EFSA's absence in this story. Still EFSA, with a staff of some 450 professionals and a whole series of scientific panels, is on-going and operative: there's no reason to assume that it shouldn't be able to play its role.

What is EFSA supposed to do? It's interesting to read its mandate - in a nutshell, it's supposed to position itself in the public mind "as the independent guardian of food safety in the EU with a strong scientific focus. It should be the first point of reference for expertise on food safety." (Highlighting added).

Did you hear them say anything during the e.coli crisis? Okay, we all know that in the European power play, European institutions like EFSA are politically tied and told to shut up. We also know that in the EU context, risk assessment is done separately from risk management. But the point here is that the panic was caused by local authorities (in Hamburg) issuing a false alarm. Surely, if risk assessment was the business of EFSA, why didn't it move? Why didn't the German authorities defer to the EFSA?

I don't know, I don't have the answers, and nobody is asking either the German Minister of Agriculture - and much less the local authorities in Hamburg -  or the EFSA why they didn't collaborate on this one. Or why the EU itself didn't move. Both EU Commissioners concerned - the one for Agriculture and the one for Health (and thus food safety) - seemed to be dumb-struck, and the EU head, Barroso, didn't fare any better.

Why is Brussels so silent? The best the EU Commissioner for Health could come up with was a weak defense for the Germans: "We have to understand that people in certain situations do have a responsibility to inform their citizens as soon as possible of any danger that could exist to them," John Dalli said in Brussels. As soon as possible? Yes, but do it responsibly! And that was precisely the role of EFSA: ensure responsibility and confidence, by reference to solid scientific evidence.

Two elements seem to have been at work here to cause this disastrous situation. One, the famous "precaution principle" Europeans are so enamoured with. Because of the precaution principle, Europeans reject American-promoted OGMs, chemical additives etc - and often, quite rightly so: until all the scientific evidence is in, the precaution principle dictates that one should reject such new-fangled ideas. But here we were dealing with sick people, suffering from bleeding diarrhea and exposed to a life-threatening bacteria. So the precaution principle undoubtedly inspired local authorities in Hamburg to issue warnings, rather than remain accused afterwards of having caused possibly unnecessary deaths. One of these guys had probably a bad memory of an unhappy vacation in Spain so the Spanish cucumbers were immediately accused. In the rush to issue warnings, they forgot to get EFSA's opinion. Or did they? We shall never know. But they were clearly speaking for themselves and never made any reference to any European institution.

And here we get to the second and more serious element: in an emergency such as this one, no one turned to the EFSA although it had been fully functioning for some years already.  And the German Minister of Agriculture, by allowing local authorities to speak ahead of itself, is particularly remiss in this. Because if local authorities may forget that Europe exists, surely the Minister of Agriculture of a big country like Germany does not and cannot.

Why was no reference, no attempt to defer to European institutions made?

Who knows. My guess is that a certain, home-made, throw-back form of chauvinism is at work in Europe. Because World War II memories have faded and fallen behind the horizon, people have begun to forget what it means to be European. All they see is their nose. All Europeans seem to be this way nowadays: only concerned for their own well-being and Europe be damned. This renewed sense of patriotism seems to be particularly strong in Germany, where more and more people appear to be besotted with the Greatness of Great Germany.

This is a real pity. Because after Greece and the e.coli disaster, the great loser in all this is Europe. And along with the European ideal, all of us European citizens, in the hands of incompetent politicians who have little common sense and no scientific knowledge - yet both are essential in our increasingly technological world. This e.coli crisis would never have happened if somebody hadn't started to grow soya bean sprouts in a technologically advanced greenhouse south of Hamburg, duplicating the moist tropical environment necessary for bean sprouts in Northern Germany. And to think that the incriminated farm is supposed to be "biological"!

In my view, the lessons from this story are clear: don't trust local authorities, or European institutions or bio agriculture! What a mess!

What do you think?






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6.09.2011

Amazon vs. Book Stores: Another Crushing Victory?

Amazon may well be the Next Big Publisher, but it is already one of the biggest book distributor, both for printed books and ebooks, if not the biggest. Does that spell out the end for your traditional corner bookstore?

The rumour around the blogsophere leaves little doubt as to the answer: Amazon is not only the biggest online bookstore but could well become the biggest bookstore in the United States, period.

We've all heard how the Kindle, introduced only three and half years ago, has changed the parameters of online book sales.

This year, the company is expected to sell 17.5 million devices for a total $ 2 billion: not bad! And for us over here in Europe, it has come out with a really good model (see pix above). It can be used anywhere without having to remember passwords etc to link into a local Wi-Fi system: the 3G model works no matter where you are. And whenever you feel like it, you can tap into the Kindle Store from your device and buy anyone of the million titles available (yes, one million, that isn't a typo!). It will be delivered to you in a matter of one or two minutes (probably less if you live in the US). Amazon charges about $2 to "whispernet" it to you if you live in Europe, but that is still a very reasonable expense and unbeatable if you happen to be in Timbouctou, far away from any bookstore of any kind...
Corner Bookstore, Washington St., BostonCorner Bookstore Washington St. BostonImage via Wikipedia
The Kindle was - and is - an obvious winning card, but not only.

What really makes the difference, as recently pointed out by Mike Shatzkin  in his widely read Shatzkin Files, is the sea change Amazon has brought to "book curation" - the term used to describe the work and role of bookstores. In Mike Shatzkin's words, here is what curation is all about (highlights added): 

In a shop, curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.

That describes pretty accurately what a traditional bookstore is all about.

How does Amazon differ? From the start, when it was a young upstart online bookstore, it had to come up with a different curation model, one that works from your computer. Again, as Mike Shatzkin says:

Until Amazon, if you wanted any particular book or if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted, your best strategy was to go to the shop with the biggest selection to try to find it. Once Amazon happened, the magnet of in-store selection lost its power for many customers. If you knew what you wanted and you didn’t need it right this minute, the most efficient way to buy it would be to go to Amazon and order it. Customers who would have been browsing store aisles and, if necessary, placing special orders with their bookstore, now just shopped online.

But the sea-change didn't stop here. There was more to it, in Mike's words, recalling his own experience at Brentano's: 

I had grown up with the Brentano’s “selection” story and had seen it demonstrated over and over again throughout my career that increasing the title selection in a location increased the traffic and increased the sales. Technology had changed the reality. The magnetic power of a physical space full of books to bring in shoppers had been weakened. The surest way to find something that wasn’t as ubiquitous as a current bestseller remained a visit to the store with the most selection. But that store was no longer in a building. It was in your computer.

And, ultimately, that is the single most powerful force bringing the era of the super bookstore to an end.

Yes, and that spells out the end of traditional bookstores and of course, goes a long way to explain the demise of Borders.

So are we stepping into a completely different world in which bookstores will be no more?

Mike Shatzkin points out that not all aspects of book curation are that well done online, in particular the guidance and advice that a good bookstore personnel can provide to its customers. As he says (and I've said it also in an earlier post) at least three Big Publishers have realized this and set up Bookish.com for that very purpose, in an attempt to link readers with the legacy publisher's traditional role as "taste gatekeeper". Naturally, Amazon has not held back and has also tried to remedy this, setting up readers forum and savvy editors'advice via Amazon Omnivoracious daily digest.

Beyond this, I think it's a little premature to expect all bookstores to go the way Borders went and close down. It is certainly not the case yet in Europe but of course the impact of the digital revolution has yet to be felt.  But it is perhaps not even the case in the United States.

What bookstore owners need to understand is that ebooks and printed books are NOT two different products and they can showcase BOTH. That is what Barnes & Noble does, and with its Nook, a device equivalent to the Kindle, it has managed to avoid Borders' fate so far.

But bookstores can do more to remain relevant to their neighborhood clientele. They can organize community events, conferences, meetings with celebrities etc They can provide additional "comfort" services, like a Starbucks-type coffee shop/lounge where clients would be enticed to stay, read and write...and walk off with a book purchase, whether ebook or printed book, it doesn't matter.

Again Barnes & Noble has partnered with Starbucks and is moving towards a "Nookcafé"...clever! But small non-chain bookstores are waking up too, and carving out their own space with success. Take the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass: it has an attractive website and a carrousel of events every month - things like Fiction Friday with 15% off on purchases online that day.

In Germany also there are such bookstores, and I don't mean a big chain store but simple local bookstores, that are developing following this model, both physical and online. And you can probably come up with examples in your own area.bookstoreBook Shelf CharmImage by darwin.wins via Flickr

Whatever sea change the digital revolution brings, it will not kill off either the printed book or the traditional bookstore - just like the movies did not kill off the theater, or mp3 players displaced concert halls and music festivals. People like to get together around what they love to do - in this case, read books.

In my view, those able to and smart enough to play on both fields - in the real and in the virtual world - will be the winners - or at least the big survivors!

What do you think? Are the cities of the future going to be without bookstores?

Link toMike Shatzkin Files here for more on "book curation" and a fascinating historical overview of how it evolved over the past 50 years and  Passive Voice here for further illuminating comments  on Amazon's role as a primary online bookstore.

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6.06.2011

Self-publishing: Go with a YA Novel?

The stigma attached to self-publishing has just about disappeared thanks to the digital revolution and the likes of Amanda Hocking. She started out in 2010 with book one of her Trylle Trilogy selling it for 99 cents. Within a year she had made $1 million on e-book sales and signed up with one of the Big Six traditional publishers for a $2 million deal, saying she wanted to reach out to more people than those reading the Kindle. "I want to become a household name", she declared, referring to all those people out there who read printed books.

Good for her, everyone is drooling over this fabulous story of rags to riches. But how did she do it?


Two things stand out.

First the product: she struck out with a YA paranormal trilogy (of course, she's got more out now - modern authors are famous serial writers). Yes, three books right away and all centered on youthful vampiric romance - ok, a little like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, but that's important. You want to have a winning model in mind when you start out. And Amanda Hocking's marketing strategy: she priced the books at 99 cents - a great promotional tool since it works on impulse buying. Who's going to hesitate when the layout is so small, less than a coffee? It is also reported that she relied heavily on Twitter and, as far as I can tell (I follow her on Twitter) she still does.

I, along with every other new writer, have little hope of duplicating such a stupendous performance. But surely something can be learned.

Let's set aside this question of price: it is only a promotional ploy and anyone can do it (I am! Check me out on the right upper corner! And of course, I'm not going to leave that low price for very long...So hurry...And if you think that's brash marketing, you're right, it is!)

More interesting is the question of whether it make sense to come out with a YA novel.

The publishing industry is generally convinced books for YA are in a winning category all on its own, covering all sorts of genres and sub-genres, and whose unifying feature is that they are aimed at young adults. There are some grumbles about this, most recently coming from the Wall Street Journal's Ms. Gurdon, who complains that too much YA literature is lurid, violent and in bad taste - perhaps even damaging for teens. That, predictably has caused a strong reaction in the YA blogosphere  (for a couple of fiery examples see below). But of course, I have never had any intentions of producing a violent book - actually that's not something that turns me on: I never liked Grand Guignol whether in the visual arts, the theatre, the movies or books. Grand Guignol in my view is cheap, debasing and a waste of time...There I said it!

So I rummaged in my past publications (for which I have the rights) and decided to use the plot of a paranormal/historical romance I published in Italian a few years ago - doing a total rewrite in English to adapt it to a YA audience.  When I presented my YA proposal - a paranormal trilogy called Fear of the Past -  to a literary agent sometime ago, the discussion bizarrely veered on my protagonist's age.  I thought he should be 19, the agent persuaded me that YA novels call for protagonists who are not over 18...Discussing his age this way seemed slightly Kafkaesque...Later I checked it on Wikipedia:  the agent was right, YA is defined as a teen audience not over 18 (!) But I wanted to go beyond the age question. I wanted to know whether my story was adapted to a YA audience, and beyond the question of audience, did she (the agent) feel it was a good yarn? I've always felt that "a good yarn" is what made the difference.

She stared at me and told me she'd give me the answer when my query letter turned up in her email thread. Immediately I imagined an email string as long as the Mississippi River: as I had first sent my query out to her six months earlier, I assumed I'd have to wait another six months before she got to it (by the way, I'm still waiting...).

Was she right? Wrong? Let me try to give you in a nutshell what this book is about and see what you think.

Forget the Past (the first book of the trilogy) starts with Tony suffering from burnout: a computer whiz kid and a top video game programmer since the age of 14, he's fed up and feels like an old man at age 17 (yes, I gave in to the agent: 17 not 19!).  He sets off looking for his roots in Sicily,  the homeland of his father. When he walks into an abandoned palazzo with a weird name on the front door: Circolo di Conversazione (Conversation Club), he meets the ghosts of his ancestors, going back 900 years. Among them is the Duchess of Floridia, a famous 18th century beauty. He falls in love and tries to escape with her to his own time. Can he make it?

That was my pitch but it didn't work. The agent was a little non-plussed by the idea: what, she said, he falls in love with an ancestor of his? Making it sound as if this was a novel form of incest. I weakly tried to defend myself, pointing out that 200 years separated them - a lot of generations. Actually, I bet many of us are closer to each other than we think, and  not worse off than young Tony and his Duchess of Floridia!

So much for Book One, then it is followed by Book Two, Reclaim the Present, where Tony meets a present-day Sicilian woman who reminds him of the Duchess (and she's older than him - yes, I have this fixation with age!) and Book Three, Remember the Future, where his self-quest comes to a happy conclusion. As you can see, all three sub-titles - referring to the passage of time -  tie neatly in the overall trilogy called Fear the Past. I thought that was rather clever, but it didn't cut any ice.

So I began to worry. Had I got my YA trilogy wrong? It covers several genres, and I thought that for YA that was supposed to be okay.

It's part paranormal : all the ancestors Tony meets in the palazzo are ghosts.

It's part time-travel: the ghosts act out the defining moments in their lives in short plays. The plays are meant to be a sort of after-life therapy, a way to prepare themselves for Judgment Day. Yet the Circolo di Conversazione is not set in a particular century: it  is a place out of time, where dead people linked by family ties meet and "live"  in a limited way since all they can do is talk and act in plays. Incidentally, I had trouble getting across the idea: a historical novel that uses historical figures yet is not a reconstruction of a particular time period didn't apparently fit into any category.

It's part romance: Tony falls in love with a more mature woman, the Duchess of Floridia, who teaches him about love and its limits. That of course sounds a little sulfurous but it's an important part of growing up...

It's part psychological: Tony is on a self quest and his coming-of-age experience doesn't come (as it does for most people) from interacting with his friends and immediate family. It comes from his ancestors and the wrenching discovery that he has more in common with an English adventurer who settled in Sicily in the 1800s (and transmitted his genes to him) than with his own father.

That part (in my humble view) is what really makes it a YA novel: the self-quest. But of course, that is also what makes it interesting for adults. If you think about it, as you live through your life, you are continually on a self-quest: the terms are different in different periods of your life, but the self-quest is always there. Probably the reason why so many adults read so-called YA literature: it is said that every Harry Potter book was eagerly awaited by parents as much as their kids... 

It also raises existential nurture vs. nature questions: to what extent does your immediate family determine who you are? Are you a throwback to some unknown ancestor? Tony is in a unique position: meeting all his ancestors in "the flesh" as it were, he's able to determine who he really takes after (the English adventurer).

Do we all harbor some form of "genetic memory" that makes us behave in sometimes unexpected ways? Young people as they grow up are confronted by comments coming from the adults around them,  like "he looks like his grandfather", "she behaves like her aunt" etc Most aggravating, especially when you realize there's probably some truth in them! And then, who knows to what ancestor your looks and your behavior hark back to?

Again, too many questions underlying a work of fiction make it sound too intellectual - egg-head stuff. Pretentious. Once more a no-no.

Okay, let's set aside these questions.

Bottom line, what I really want to know:  is a good YA novel a mixture of genres? Am I right in my conviction that YA is focused on a self-quest? Since Catcher in the Rye days (that was back in the late 1950s), self-quests are the determining feature of YA literature (something Ms Gurdon of the WSJ forgot to mention).

Just take a look at the basic strategy here: since self-publishing has become a real option, is a YA novel the best way to go?

I see this as an experiment. The digital revolution opens up options that did not exist before. But, as I've said in a previous post, in my view there's no reason to give up on the traditional road to publishing - either seeking out one of the Big Six or smaller, independent "niche" presses. I've got ready a novel that neatly fits into women's fiction (lucky,  this time it goes into a well-defined genre!). It's only wise to hedge one's bets...

But I'm eaten up by self doubts. Am I right to engage in this e-book experiment?

There are so many questions that need answering. Is anyone out there thinking of self-publishing too? And if you've made the jump, what happened next?  How did you do your marketing? How do you balance the marketing (it takes a lot of time and energy) with the writing you need to do? And with all those successful serial writers out there, à la Amanda Hocking, you really need to put that pen to paper, or bang, or click on your computer like mad!

Please share your thoughts!
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