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7.10.2011

The Credit Rating Agencies' Hidden Agenda: Rock the World Economy!

Kill BillImage via Wikipedia
The credit rating agencies are threatening country after country with "rating downgrade". Many erstwhile respectable countries find themselves degraded to "junk" status - yet these are countries with a long History and hard-working citizens, like Portugal and Greece (yes, there are honest citizens there too, even if the Germans don't believe it!).

It's like going to school: if you're a "well-behaved" government keeping your debt under control, then you earn an A, even a triple A, like the United States.

If you're "badly-behaved" and can't keep your debt from blowing out of control, then you get a "B", and fewer investors will buy your bonds (some funds have strict rules about buying only A rated bonds). If you still won't toe the line, then you get a "C" and no investors will buy your bonds the next time you go to market to refill your coffers.

In a nutshell, that's how credit rating agencies call the shots on the international scene, and get sovereign governments cowering and scampering for cover. Italy is the latest country that has come under fire, causing Tremonti, Italy's finance minister to work on the double to put into place a "maneuver" - "manovra" in Italian, meaning more taxes and less benefits. In other words: a quick dose of austerity. And it could spell out BIG trouble for the Eurozone as it is not remotely ready to protect a country as big as Italy: the rescue fund currently in place is simply not enough. Click here for more info on this.

And if the United States Congress doesn't lift the "debt ceiling" by next August 2nd (i.e. allow the government's debt to rise above the pre-set limit), the United States itself could see it's status downgraded... Perhaps not to the level of "junk" - but a downgrade would have a terrifying effect worldwide, much worse than Greece, Portugal and Italy combined, considering the size of the American debt.

But of course such a scenario is unthinkable. There are only three major credit agencies that call the shots; several countries have their own, including the Chinese, but they have no effect worldwide. And, no doubt a curious by-product of American capitalism, it so happens that all three agencies are American: Fitch, Standard & Poor's and Moody's. Don't be fooled by any of them having dual headquarters in Europe. They are all American and use American-trained economists as their analytical staff.

So, right or wrong, the US has felt pretty safe so far (yes, so far...but who knows).

Europeans are not so happy. European politicians have repeatedly gotten annoyed at the Three Big agencies, and called for the creation of a European credit agency, and barring that, more stringent rating agency regulations. The latest to call for a new European agency has been the German Foreign Affairs Minister - which is interesting, considering how the Germans have so far handled the Greek debt crisis and how they still resist setting up either an effective rescue fund or common defense mechanisms. Like, for example, floating Eurobonds that would be guaranteed by all Eurozone members, Germany included (natch, and that's the rub as far as the Germans are concerned: they've been the winners with the Euro but they don't want to pay to defend it).

There is little doubt that the Euro's very existence is threatened by the barrage of downgrading coming out of the Three Big. And the Euro is an easy prey for attack: economists have always held that no currency is viable if it isn't backed by a sovereign political entity capable of conducting (1) a monetary policies and (2) fiscal/social security policies. That's the key to a viable, world currency.

The Euro just isn't there. The European Central Bank only covers monetary policies. And it's made very clear that it will follow the ratings set by the Big Three: for example, in the case of Greece, the Big Three have indicated that getting private bondholders of Greek debt to agree to a roll over or delay in payment was akin to "selective default" - and in that case, the European Central Bank would stop financing Greek banks.

All the rest of the policies that affect a currency - from tax to pensions - is still in the hands of the 17 Eurozone member governments. Judging from the lack of leadership displayed by European politicians, it is likely to remain that way for a very long time.

That means the Euro can crash with a very little nudge - all it would take is for Spain or Italy to threaten to go under (no need to actually go under - just the threat will do).

The little nudge comes from the Three Big, of course, who gleefully note that austerity is needed to control the deficit but it slows growth - making therefore a country unable to ever pay back its debt.Meaning what? Default on te horizon!

So you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

What kind of economists do the Three Big Agencies employ? What is their agenda? To destroy sovereign debt because their agency clients have placed bets on that particular outcome?

Do you think I'm exaggerating? Perhaps there's not an actual plot, perhaps it's just an unfortunate set of circumstances.  But it's a fact that the Three Big in question are NOT independent: they are paid for by their clients. Who are their clients? Big corporations wanting to raise money on the stock market, financial power houses like Goldman Sachs. In short, the big guys with big money, that's who. And they need the Big Three for their financial maneuvers: without a rating, you can't float anything on the market, can't get an IPO going, can't do your financial cooking.

The Euro was an obvious target, as it hobbled along on one leg only (the monetary one). And an obvious, easy way to make money: bet on its demise and get the credit rating agencies to say so. Nobody can be accused of collusion, because it makes economic sense: austerity cures deficits, austerity causes recessions, so a default is inescapable, sooner or later. Plus alert the media, that acts as an echo, amplifying the Big Three's ratings that otherwise wouldn't be heard.

And voilà! You have the Irish crisis, the Greek crisis, the Portuguese crisis, and probably the Italian crisis next.

Will the world economy really collapse because of this incredibly selfish and dangerous betting game?

Perhaps not. The politicians and the taxpayers (always us!) will come to the rescue. That's what's expected, right? And it will be done at the last moment - after summer (the Germans have asked to delay decisions on the Greek bailout until September). I guess our politicians don't want to have their holiday spoiled.

How do you feel about this state of affairs?

I'm disgusted. European politicians are a revolting lot, all they think of is their next election and Europe be damned! 





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7.09.2011

Writersof the World Unite: Amazon's Kindle is Under Attack!

PirateImage by jurvetson via Flickr
Spammers and pirates - really the same people - have mounted against Amazon's Kindle an unprecedented attack over the past few months: spammers have filled Amazon with "crappy" books - really collections of stuff found free on Internet (in the so-called "public domain"); pirates have stolen the work of writers who had published on the Kindle, like Ruth Ann Nordin.

I wrote an article on the spamming/pirate problem for Authopublisher, pointing out that, because it is easy to upload up to 10 books a day on the Kindle publishing platform, some con artists have taken advantage and published thousands of books. There is even one master spammer, a certain Mr. Parker, supposedly a marketing expert, who has produced between 100,000 and 200,000 titles!  With an algorithm of his own invention, he pulls together material freely available on Internet to produce "how to" manuals and surveys, and claims that he is now about to produce romance novels with the same system!

For the full articleclick here.        

At first, it looked like Amazon would do nothing to either defend itself or its authors.

Passive Guy, an extremely active blogger (he has up to 3 or 4 posts a day!), with more than 3,500 followers on Twitter, launched a tweet campaign yesterday. We all joined in (I certainly did!) and it seems the campaign gave results: today, Ruth Ann Nordin's pirated book was reportedly pulled out by Amazon and is no longer listed in Kindle Shop.

For more about this story on the Passive Guy's site: click here.

But the spammer threat remains - and possibly more pirated books will turn up in the following days.

If Amazon doesn't want to give up its Number One place to Barnes & Noble, it is imperative it fixes its problem and secures its Kindle platform from both spammers and pirates. See the article below: it looks like sales of the B&N Nook Color have already pulled ahead of the Kindle. The time when more books may be sold on the Nook than on the Kindle could yet happen - in any case, it is getting closer!

So Amazon, look out!
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7.06.2011

Two Tips for Success in Book Marketing Online

Caricature of Ben Hecht by fellow Chicago Dail...Image via Wikipedia
Marketing is a scary subject for authors. We writers are a solitary, retiring lot - and often proud to be: we need silence and loneliness to write our best stuff, right?

Problem: how can we jump into the marketing jungle and turn ourselves into marketing pros?

That's one reason why a lot of newbies would prefer to sign up with a traditional publisher, figuring most of the marketing would be out of his/her hands.

Well, as we all know, that is no longer quite the case, is it?

Publishers, even the most traditional "legacy" ones, insist we must do our own marketing. And most of it is done online.

There's an advantage to working online: you don't have to waste time travelling around and doing a lot of book signing in different towns. But you have to spread yourself on Facebook with a jazzy fan page and lively groups. You have to Twitter like mad and participate in online discussion forums and make clever comments. You have to set up a web page and a blog, with content, pretty images, videos and what not. Worse, you have to keep it going.

And of course, if you do all that, you have no time left to write!

If you're an author lucky enough to be published by one of the Big Six, you probably feel relatively secure: after all, the publisher's name on the book cover signals that this is a "quality product". So you figure you don't have all that much marketing to do. And the publisher does give you some basic support, for reviews, for interviews and book discussions in book clubs. That's assuming your last book didn't bomb - and that it made at least somebody's bestseller list.

Otherwise, you're likely to find yourself very much on your own, almost like a self-published author.

So, whether you get a contract with a legacy publisher or go the self-publishing route, you're still left with a lot of self-marketing to do.

There are, of course, a lot of market experts out there on Internet ready to help and give you good advice. And there are a lot of sites, including writers' blogs, where you can place ads and obtain interviews and go on a "blog tour". There are even blog tours for indies.

But is it worth spending money on all that? Probably it is if you can find a reliable, experienced marketing adviser. And if you have the time and energy to dedicate to all this.

If not, you'll need a strategy: focus on one or two of the most important things you can do yourself, and stick to that. AND never spend the whole day doing it! ALWAYS set aside time for yourself and to write your book. Give yourself a daily target - say 5,000 words to write - and DO IT!

But what are the two most important online marketing strategies you should follow?

After much thinking about this (and spending days and weeks roaming the Internet and discussing it on forums) I've come to the following conclusions:

TIP ONE: Have more than one book up for sale on the various online sites you have chosen (say Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc). A trilogy is fine, a series is better, several series are best! Why? Because having more than one book for sale makes you look like a professional, established author. In this respect, midlist authors, for once, are in luck. They will find it very easy to satisfy this requirement: all they have to do is recover their past books from the dustbin of forgotten titles and convert the files for e-publishing.

TIP TWO: Get readers reviews, get as many as you can. From friends (that's easy) but also from ezine editors who are interested and looking for new talent. You'd be surprised how many people there are out there who are genuinely interested in books! And ready to do book reviews. Also fellow authors are often willing to do them (after all, they are genuinely interested in books, right, or they wouldn't be writers in the first place...).

The advantage of those tips? Maximum return for a minimum investment. Following the above won't kill you or take away from your writing time!

In my opinion, this works better than either direct marketing (like tweets on Twitter crying out: download my book!) or author interviews on blogs and elsewhere.

Frankly, I don't know about you, but I rarely (if ever) buy a book because the author tweeted about it! Even indirect tweets (from some third person) don't work, at least as far as I can make out. But your experience might be different! If so, please tell me. As to author interviews, I have to admit that I find them, on the whole, incredibly boring unless they concern a celebrity or a top writer, like Stephen King, Dan Brown, Philip Roth or J.K.Rowling...

That's just my humble opinion. And that's the strategy I plan on following: multiple books and lots of readers reviews. I simply don't have the time to dedicate myself to a full marketing campaign just for my first book here (see upper corner, left). I need to write the sequel, Reclaim the Past, or those who've read the first are going to get angry if I don't deliver! I promised it for September, so I better get going! Indeed, if any of you ever felt like writing a review (and posting it on, say, Amazon or Barnes and Noble), that would really help!

What's your take on this?
What kind of marketing works for you? I'd love to know!

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7.05.2011

Is Contemporary Art at a Tuning Point?

Fountain from Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp's Foutain signed R. Mutt 1917 Image via Wikipedia
The more extreme forms of Contemporary Art have for decades been breaking one record after another at auction sales. The latest sales at Christie's and Sotheby's are no exception, as pointed out by Souren Melikian, the savvy, tongue-in-cheek art expert of the New York Times in an article with the odd title : "A serious Moment for Contemporary art" (published 1 July, 2011)

Because, the implication is obvious, Contemporary Art is NOT normally serious.

Isn't it nice to hear an art expert admitting to this? And so rare...

The article is worth a careful read, and when you do, you'll notice that contemporary art got serious only for a very short moment, and only at Christie's. As Melikian puts it: "in a session where 53 of the 65 Contemporary works of art on offer found takers, adding up to almost £79 million, or 126 million, the six most expensive lots were decidedly figural." (highlight added)


And he points to a Francis Bacon ("Study for a Portrait", 1953) that topped the list and sold for £17.96 million, exceeding by 50% the estimate, noting that it "ranks among Bacon's most strictly representational paintings".

Likewise, "this appreciation of faithfully figural art probably helped to rescue the 'Mao' executed by Andy Warhold in 1973. The quasi-photographic likeness managed, albeit with some difficulty, to sell for £6.98 million, the second highest price paid that evening." This all the more remarkable as there were problems with that sale: (1) it "lacked the punch of the Pop artist's images admired by his fans" and (2) it was burdened by a so-called "guarantee" to the consignor. This is something that tends to dampen the enthusiasm of buyers, because they are faced with a somewhat locked situation: on the one hand,  the auction house guarantees a certain undisclosed percentage of the low estimate in case the work doesn't sell (usually 90%), while a "third party finances the guarantee" and becomes the buyer.

Both these sales concern "historic" contemporary artists (with that term Melikian means they're both dead). But live artists also broke records, like Peter Doig, whose "Red Boat (Imaginary Boys)" made an astonishing £6.2 million, triple its high estimate. And Melikian enthuses: it is all "the more astonishing because the painting is hardly the best among Doig's works seen at auction. Rather banal, it is pedestrian in execution. The reason for the triumphant success [...] may well lie in the echo that the subject sends back to Gauguin's Tahitian period oeuvre. Works with reference to 19th century artists combined with straightforward figural execution were sought after right from the beginning at Christies." (highlight added)  And he goes on to include works by Lucien Freud, Marlene Dumas and Miguel Barcelò.

So is "figural art" back in fashion?

Not quite, says Melikian. Abstract works were also successful at Christie's, in particular Lucio Fontana's paintings punched with holes and slashed with knives (the hole-punched one, part of the "Concetto Spaziale" series, reached a respectable £2.33 million).

And the magic moment regarding figural art at Christie's was not repeated in the Sotheby's sale that followed - which "outshone Christie's session with its financial scores, £108.8 million realized by 79 Contemporary works, leaving 9 unwanted" (this is quoted from the IHT, 2 July - like some of the rest of the article here - unaccountably the two articles, in the NYT and the IHT, do not coincide entirely, even though the papers are institutionally linked).

The stuff sold at Sotheby's was, according to Melikian, back to the usual. There was some figural art, but it was "less representational". Melikian was shocked (aren't we all?) when Jean-Michel Basquait's "Untitled" picture painted in 1981 sold for a "stupendous £5.41 million". It is, he writes, "an outsized cartoon"... 

So, in Melikian's view, "it is too soon to say that a page has finally turned. The time when 'works' of the talentless followers of Marcel Duchamp's art of the absurd sell in the millions of dollars is not yet over. Would-be witty pieces were still seen this week, though in fewer numbers. At Christie's, butterflies pinned on a large ace-of-hearts painted in solid pink, made £601,250, more than the high estimate [...] Melikian doesn't tell us who's the artist here, but we can easily guess...

At Sotheby's, another work by Christopher Wool, a white panel displaying black lettering which read "cats in a bag" (!), provoked his ire. In the International Herald Tribune, Melikian finishes his article with a punch line that is not present in the New York Times, and I quote:
"Estimated at £1.5 million to £2.5 million plus the sale charge, the Wool was allowed by the auctioneer Tobias Meyer to sell for £914,850. His considerable expertise in Contemporary art is widely acknowledged. Perhaps Mr. Meyer suspects that such cats may not stay in the bag for ever."

So when will the cats get out of the bag and serious art will be back in fashion?

Not soon, I suspect, and not as long as the art market is "fed" by newly-made billionaires who are more interested in art fashions than in art proper...These are guys who are more interested in investing in Art than enjoying the pleasures Art can give. And that's understandable:  they've been more busy making money than building up their knowledge and taste for Art. So they rely on a coterie of astute art experts - mainly art merchants, but also art historians and art museum curators - to guide them in their art investments. Wealthy people notoriously do not like to waste either their time or money. So the art they invest in has to be the kind that makes headlines (and incidentally, helps their PR image: for a newly-made billionaire, it is always a plus to be considered an art connoisseur). That means their advisers pick out art works for them not for the pleasure they might give, but for their "shock value". That's the key concept: shock value. Without it, no art work can make the necessary splash in the media. And thus ensure a good return on investment...

What is your take on this? When do you think the cats will get out of the bag?

For the rest of the NYT article,  link here
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7.02.2011

Four Secrets to Success in Self-Publishing

Self-publishing no longer has stigma attached to it, as savvy literary agent Rachelle Gardner recently noted in her blog, answering the question that is on every writer's mind: Will Self-Pubbing Hurt My Chances?

As far as she's concerned, "the answer is...NO. Self publishing will probably not hut your chances of traditional publishing." By "self-pubbing" agent Gardner meant e-book publishing - not going to a vanity press. Not worrying about having your book in print, only an e-version on as many e-readers as possible (Kindle, Nook, iPad etc). Provided you're careful at putting out a quality product. She advised "be ready to pay for help in editing, design and e-book coding if you need to".

I'm self-pubbed too (a YA paranormal/historical romance - see right top corner of my blog) and I tried my utmost to produce a quality product, including using help for file conversion to e-publishing and the title design on the book cover (no need for an illustrator - I used one of my own paintings for that). BookBaby did the work for me and I'm quite happy with the way it looks...Why did I self publish? Because it was such an unusual book that I had a hard time getting an agent interested in it. It just didn't fit  into any pre-established genre - except YA literature which is where genres tend to mix (that YA literature is so flexible is interesting and worth another post on its own). I had  published a first version of the book in Italy with a traditional publisher and it had been very successful locally. So I rewrote it for the American market in English (the original is in Italian) and put it on the Kindle (and elsewhere) last month. It's too soon to know how it'll fare, but before self-pubbing I carefully researched the publishing industry (I'm not a trained economist for nothing!).

And I found some very interesting things.

I found that, in addition to putting out a "quality product", there are quite clearly 4 known secrets to successful self-publishing:

1. adopt a price that is a promotional ploy and triggers impulse buying: 99 cents is preferred. Look at how John Locke has been successful, selling 1,000,000 books in 5 months! It works up to the $2.99 level (where Amazon starts paying 70% - at the lower levels it leaves you with only 30% of the price); a "sweet spot" for established self-pubbed authors may be around $4 but not above: that's what J.A.Konrath found.

2. pick a "niche" or "genre" that is currently fashionable and known to sell: eg. YA paranormal like Amanda Hocking or sexy thrillers like John Locke or J.A. Konrath.

3. put up more than one title for sale: Amanda Hocking started with a trilogy, John Locke has a series. It doesn't matter as long as it's a number of books: that makes you look like a professional writer.

4. market your book everywhere on Internet (FB, Twitter, on your blog) but don't kill yourself doing it: the key to success here is to have lots of readers reviews...

I don't know whether this will work for me, but that's what I've learned about self-publishing and I'm happy to share the knowledge!

Do let me know whether you found more secrets for successful self-publishing.
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6.30.2011

The Wonders of Self-Publishing: Midlist Authors Take Heart!


LOST-john lockeImage by Luca Effe via Flickr
Not everyone can be John Locke and sell one million copies in five months. Not everyone can be Amanda Hocking and make several million dollars in one year, of course counting in the advance she got from a legacy publisher after her brilliant bout at self-pubbing YA paranormal romances (btw, a very high-selling genre).

But there's a lot of space out there, in the e-book market, and while Amazon's Kindle is still king, the Nook and others are fast coming in, feeding market growth. And we can expect Apple and others to give us soon more iPad-like products that will make the "enhanced e-book" a reality at some point in the near future! With enhancement (i.e. adding video, music and other extras), you can expect yet more people to be attracted to the pleasure of reading.

Because that's the single big difference the digital revolution has brought (and is bringing) to publishing: it is expanding the number of readers.

True, it is also expanding the number of writers, but the "bad" ones, those self-pubbed novels in desperate need of proof-reading and serious editing are headed for the slush pile anyway. Forget them, nobody reads them.

What remains are the "good" ones, those professionally edited that couldn't make any money (or at least not very much) as "mid list authors". Because that's the fate that befell up to now most traditionally published authors. Few ever make the bestseller lists, and fewer still to the top. At best, their books spend some three to six months on bookstore shelves, then are inexorably headed for the dustbin. Under the circumstance, the terms of contract renewal grow slimmer every time..until contracts disappear.  Why? Because in these days of the digital revolution, the traditional publishing industry has (for the most part) retreated to giving support only to their star writers - those that are a "sure sell". Like Dan Brown, Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer.

A midlist author is somebody left with a dozen or more books, no longer published and he is lucky if he has maintained his rights to them (or at least some of them). If he has, then there is a way out: publishing the back list and of course, adding to it. Super stars like J.K.Rowling have joined the game ( see her Pottermore site where she will start selling Harry Potter e-books starting in October).

But it is the fate of midlist authors that is truly interesting. Abandoned by their publishers, they have started to flock in increasing numbers to self-publishing in the e-book market, reassured by the success of Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath et al. Self-publishing used to be the kiss of death. No more. Not only is it okay to do it, it's fashionable: you look clever, savvy, dynamic. You're no longer a humble writer scribbling away in some dark, remote corner. You take center stage as a risk-taking entrepreneur.

Risks? Fewer than you might think and that's the good news.

I spotted this fascinating article by Robin Sullivan in Publishing Perspectives that tells you how it is. She starts off with husband Michael J. Sullivan's experience as a self-published author on Amazon and then expanded on various other authors statistics that tell a very interesting story, if you can bear with the numbers for a moment.

excerpt: 

The following graph shows the number of authors who sold books in various quantities (Data provided on Kindle Board):
Amazon author sales over 800
Because authors on Kindle Boards were sharing sales figures and book prices, I was able to calculate March income for the following:
  • Michael J. Sullivan — $16,648
  • Ellen Fisher — $3,915
  • Siebel Hodge — $15,425
  • N. Gemini Sasson – $4,222
  • David McAfee — $6,085
  • David Dalglish — $12,132
  • Victorine Lieskie — $7,281
  • M. H. Sergent — $4,211
  • Nathan Lowell — $9,296
Of these authors, only Victorine Lieskie ever had a book that made the Amazon Top 100 Bestseller List. Most of the authors selling at a rate of 800+ books a month tend to have rankings from 300-6,000. (A ranking of 1001 indicates that 1,000 kindle books are selling better than yours).
 ...
Many detractors of self-publishing point out that by doing so you close the door to foreign sales and any chance of ever seeing your books on a bookstore shelf. Again, this was true in the past, but times have changed and now being successfully self-published actually opens the door to foreign sales and provides a better chance of being signed by a major publisher since you already have an established audience which is so important in publishing today. Let’s return to Michael [that's her husband] as he is an example that I have real data for. The Riyria Revelations produced $154,000 in foreign translation rights sales in just the last six months. Deals are already finalized for: The Czech Republic, Russia, Germany, France, Poland, and Spain.... 
...
As for seeing your books in the bookstores…it is true that most brick and mortar stores will not carry self-published printed books, however, major publishers are very interested in authors with an existing fan base. What’s more, they have to offer larger advances than those paid to debut authors in order to woo them. A self-published author already has a pretty good idea what they could make from the works if they continue to stay independent. For a debut fantasy author, several surveys indicate an advance of $5,000 – $10,000 is standard. So a three-book deal would warrant $15,000 – $30,000 advances. In comparison, Michael was offered a six-figure contract from Orbit (the fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group).

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives (June 27 2011): The New Midlist: Self published E-Book Authors Who Earn a Living  That article provoked 65 comments to this day - more than I have ever seen on Publishing Perspectives!

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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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