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7.24.2011

Amy Winehouse is Dead at 27, like Janice Joplin

Amy Winehouse at Eurockéennes de Belfort (Fest...Amy Winehouse in 2007 at Eurockéennes Festival Image via Wikipedia
Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London home by the police, yesterday afternoon, 23 July. She was only 27 - just like Janice Joplin who died at the same age...in 1970. Forty years separate them, yet they share the same sort of amazing trajectory in their career and life:  huge success and a desperate addition to drugs and alcohol. Both were known for striking vocals and a love for soul and jazz.

There the similarities end. Janice was born in Texas in a middle class white American family: her mother worked in a college, her father was an engineer at Texaco. Amy was born in London, the daughter of a taxi driver of Russian origin and an English pharmacist. In both the girls' families, music had an important place but while Janice wavered between painting and singing, finally becoming famous with her break through hit A piece of my heart only two years before her death, Amy was an instant success at twenty with her debut album Frank, followed three years later by her 5 Grammy award-winning album Back to Black. Perhaps her single biggest hit was Rehab, singing her refusal to go through rehab and renounce drugs.

In that refusal to give up drugs and rebellion, in their love for soul music, in their incredibly beautiful voices that express the whole range of human emotions, Amy and Janice are twin souls. Every time I hear Amy sing Will you still love me tomorrow, a 1960s hit by the Shirelles, I think of Janice.

Good-bye Amy, I'm going to miss you just as I miss Janice...

 Janis Joplin
    


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7.23.2011

The Summer of our Debt Discontent

G-20 heads of governmentG20 Heads of GovernmentImage by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
The United States struggles with removing a debt ceiling by 2 August while Europe struggles to bail out Greece and save the Euro.

What if both efforts failed?

What if rating agencies downgraded the US debt and extended the downgrading already started by Fitch on Greece's debt to the rest of the ailing European economies, Portugal, Ireland and especially the big ones, Spain and Italy?

A nightmare scenario?

This couldn't be a worse summer, with the two events coming together in time.

How likely is it that this will cause a cataclysmic collapse of the world economy?

I know, you expect me to say this is highly unlikely.

I wish I could say that.

But the truth is, we are saddled on both sides of the Atlantic with an irresponsible class of politicians who either don't understand the challenges they are facing or don't want to understand. All these guys think of is to satisfy their own electorate, people who perhaps voted them in but don't remotely grasp what is going on in the financial world.

German Chancellor Merkel is crucially responsible for the delay of the European response to the threat of a Greek default. From the start of the crisis a year and a half ago, all she was concerned with was how to protect the German taxpayers, in the hope of securing their votes. She never had any vision of Europe and the need to defend the Euro.

The much touted European leaders "debt summit" last week gave birth to a financial mouse. The summit never tackled the problems beyond Greece. Not a word about Portugal, Ireland and worse, Italy and Spain and (maybe) Belgium. My only consolation is that when the Euro collapses,  Germany will collapse too.

Big consolation!

And when the US Government closes down its doors because the debt ceiling will not have been lifted in time and it will no longer be able to refinance itself, then the dollar that has (in fact) underpinned the world economy will be gone.

Do you think that an urgent meeting of the G20 will save us, the way it did after the 2008 financial collapse? Of course not, that avenue is closed. The caricatures I posted here are, alas, uncomfortably close to the reality: these people as a group can't do a thing.

Will the Chinese save us? Fat chance ! Just now, they've run into problems of their own, and their economy is slowing down. True, the strength of the emerging economies, especially China, India and Brazil, was both remarkable and unexpected after the 2008 debacle. But don't kid yourself: the miracle can't be repeated.

So what will happen? I don't know. What's needed are politicians with the courage to take decisions their electorate back home might not understand but that would save the world economy - all of us.

Europeans should stop playing around with the Euro and realize that a common currency means common financial, fiscal and social policies. The Euro needs a federal Europe behind it, not just a Central Bank that is limited both by its mandate and by a narrow-minded, conservative president like Trichet.  The European Union has to become a reality fast, or the Euro will evaporate.

The logic of a common currency is incontrovertible.

The Euro needs what the dollar has: a Federal Reserve System that runs monetary policy but is also concerned with economic growth and a Treasury with full financial powers. Call it what you will, but what the Europeans have come up with so far, is definitely not it. The rescue fund they've set up - and it won't be fully functioning before 2013 (!) -  and the so-called "Marshall Plan" for Greece meant to boost its economy are both laughable.

On Monday the markets will decide how laughable all this is, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Euro plunged and interest on the Greek debt - but also, worryingly, on the Italian debt and Spanish debt - rose again. Sky-high.

Europe is not out of the woods.

And the United States is fast getting into the woods, unless the Republicans stop their Tea Party games and realize how their insistence on defending tax cuts for the wealthy and reducing social security entitlements for the middle classes is putting at risk the (once) almighty dollar.

Can you imagine a world economy without the Euro and the dollar?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we won't need to imagine, much less live in such a world!
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A Great Artist is Dead, Long Live Lucien Freud!

Francis Bacon - Three Studies for the Portrait...Portrait of Lucien Freud by Francis Bacon 1964 (Study III)Image by Cea. via Flickr
 Lucien Freud, the greatest 20th century artist after Picasso, the friend and arch-rival of Francis Bacon, died yesterday, age 88.  The greatest living artist of our times is no more.

To me, he was one of the greatest artists of all times. Now that he is gone, well, it's a shock. We all have to go of course, and he was an old man who had lived a very long, full and ultimately incredibly successful life.

Still, I am profoundly sad and feel it as a personal loss. I never met him, I only knew him through his paintings. But when someone like that goes, someone you admire and relate to because their incomparable art is there to establish the link between him and you-the-viewer, well, you feel it in the pit of your stomach.

Lucien Freud (superposed image of two frames)                        Lucien Freud                        Image via  Wikipedia
Lucien Freud was the grand-son of Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology. And, true to his inheritance, his portraits are unforgettable and ruthless explorations into the human psyche.

When he portrayed Queen Elizabeth, there was a storm of protest. Indeed, if you look closely at that portrait, you will see the Queen's soul laid bare: this is no easy lady, this is a woman of power, used to wielding it without mercy. A strong woman, one who can survive any storm, as she has proved when Princess Diana died.

But he is perhaps better known in the public for his portrayal of human flesh. His nudes match the greatest nudes of the past, in terms of composition, drawing and handling of perspective. More importantly, he matched any of the past masters in the way he worked the flesh. He used his brush to plumb the depths of shades and texture of the human flesh. Especially female flesh. Oil painting has never been brought to greater heights.

And no wonder. When he started to paint sixty (or more) years ago, his paintings looked like they had been done in Van Eyck and Memling's time. He started his life with a great admiration for the Old Flemish Masters and was their match. With his craft, he belonged to their time, not ours.

But he quickly moved up to the 20th century, losing none of his abilities. He followed the Spirit of the Times and (like every other artist, including writers), he deconstructed his painting: each square of light on human flesh was brought out in bold strokes; no wart or defect of his sitter escaped his brutal gaze.

If a woman had raw, blistered working woman's hands, like the one portrayed below, he would paint them in all their rawness.

If a woman was fat beyond imagining, he would paint every fold of blown-up flesh, huge flopping breasts, vast bellies and the tired-out, desperate face too.

Those paintings are hard to take: I remember seeing a Freud retrospective in Paris a couple of years ago, at the Beaubourg. There were row after row of naked women and savage depictions of men (including one nursing an infant and self-portraits - he was not tender with himself ). Walking out of there - almost running out - I felt sick. It was too much.

Unbearable.

And that is what makes of him one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Yes, because the art of our times, the kind of Contemporary Art that draws crowds and makes for astonishing auction sales - with prices ten times more than the Old Masters - is one that is unbearable to the viewer. It's not art meant to be lived with in one's own home. It's monumental and arresting. It's art for the museums and public places. And Lucien Freud was a past master at producing unbearable art.

Lucien Freud is like Victor Hugo. Someone once famously said (I think it was André Gide): "le plus grand poete de la langue française? Victor Hugo, hélas!"

To paraphrase: the Greatest Artist of the Twentieth Century? Lucien Freud, alas!

freud.naked-girl-asleepNaked girl asleep by Lucien FreudImage by nigro pino via Flickr



7.21.2011

Book Promotion Stressing You Out? Here's How To Survive!

Cricket ball, used for wikiproject cricket. De...Cricket Ball Image via Wikipedia
Marketing in the digital age is a whole new ball game for everybody, but especially for writers. We all know that publishers expect their authors to do most of their own promotion and it is rumored that if you don't have at least 600 followers on Twitter, you won't get a contract!

And those of us who've gone into self-publishing are provided with opportunities that didn't exist just two or three years ago but also experience the full blast of the digital revolution - I know, I'm a self-published writer! Once upon a time, I was "traditionally" published (here in Italy and in Italian - I'm multilingual) and I used to let the publisher handle marketing issues.

No longer.

All of us self-pubbed writers have to think of how best to reach out to our readers and grab their attention long enough so that they'll click on that damn buy button! We've got Amanda Hocking, John Locke and Joe Konrath as models! They've all used their Internet presence to make a splash! And so can we, right?

A great day and age to live in, no doubt, but the stress of doing your own book marketing is AWFUL! Think of it: you've got to be on Twitter, run your blog, set up a website, a Facebook page, and now Google+... Thank God, MySpace has (more or less) disappeared! Still, if you're serious about promotion, you have to do your own book trailer, run video chats and go on blog tours (guest interviews on other writers blogs), make comments galore, participate in readers' fora like Goodreads or Kindleboards etc etc

Enough to go bonkers!

So how do you survive?

I'd love to hear how you're doing it, and here's my take.

The pressure eased off one day when I suddenly realized that ebooks are on that virtual shelf in Amazon, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere FOREVER! That means you (and I) don't have to go rushing into anything! We can take our time, stop and think and ponder our next move.

Take the time to EVALUATE what you're best at, where your chances are to make a splash.

If you're photogenic and great at talking in public, by all means, go and make videos. If not, forget it!

Don't stress, there are other ways that work just as well. Because remember, when a book is out there forever, there's plenty of time to increase your Internet presence - because your Internet presence is the only thing that matters. And it can be increased through all sorts of ways - in primis, your blog.

If you're a writer, running a blog should be no problem. It's fun to write, right? (Notice the alliteration, ha ha!)

But if a blog is a drag and you'd much rather write your novel and cuddle your baby, don't worry. Set up a nice website (or get some expert to do it for you) and let it sit there. All you need to do is update it at reasonable intervals - and make sure you leave a contact so your fans can write to you (and of course you should respond!). Because the digital age is all about direct communication with your readers!

What about Twitter? Now, here's a place a writer can make a splash, provided you can come up with entertaining tweets within the space allowed: very little!140 characters - if you download Tweetdeck on your computer (it's free), you can double that length and easily schedule tweets several times a day. Very useful.

The trick is to come out with something that is arresting. Not easy. Because, let's face it, self-promotion sucks! You feel silly standing out there on Internet, hollering "buy my book"! Not only silly, but downright useless. People won't stand for it. The soap industry learned its lesson in the 1950s when it bleated on every TV screen that its soap washed whiter than white! Direct marketing does not work, never has.

The trick is to go into indirect marketing: get other people to sell for you.

How do you do that? This is not easy either. First you need reviews. This is where going into self-publishing really hurts the most: because if you're published by one of the Big Six, they'll do it for you. They'll send your book to the best critics in the land! But don't despair. Not everyone buys books on the basis of the New York Times Bestseller List (I bet a lot of people don't - I rarely do). Indeed, readers communities like Goodreads are a great place to get promoted - by real readers, not literary critics on a newspaper's staff. Readers have a sense of community among them, they tend to trust each other.

Okay, friends can help too. But be careful: what you need are honest reviews - not stuff that smacks of self-promotion. And that gushing 5 star review full of not-to-be-believed praise will hurt you far more than an honest 4 or 3 star review with a lot less praise...

So, once you've got a few, believable lines of praise, do use them in a Twitter campaign! Make sure you use hashtags to throw your net far and wide: these little # signs that you put in front of keywords. They pull together tweets under the said #subject and that's how you attract the attention of people who are not your followers. You can even run contests on Twitter, though that (to me) sounds quite stressful and I'm not at all sure how effective a contest can be: it all depends on how far you manage to throw your net (but that would be the subject of another post).

Anyway, that's my strategy: get reviews, build up interest in what you can offer readers as "useful content" and don't worry about book promotion.

Remember, in the digital world (unlike the physical), time is on your side!

What is your strategy to promote your book? How do you handle the stress? Please let us have your tips!




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7.18.2011

The Curious Case of Belgium: A Headless State

Bilingual signs in Brussels.Image via Wikipedia
Belgium has been "headless", i.e. without a government for over a year: a world record, even beating Iraq at it!

Why is that? We all know the problems between the Flemish (Dutch speaking) and Walloons (French speaking). We all know this has been going on for as long as Belgium has existed.

The political parties can't get their act together and nominate a government, so the country carries on with a caretaker government, with good old Leterme at the helm. Regularly, there's an effort to put together a government, and just as regularly it fails. The Flemish won't hear about it: they're fed up with government funds - resulting from their tax payments, because they are the richer taxpayers - going to the Walloons, who are the poorer ones.

What is so very curious about the situation is this: the country is doing fine, thank you, without any government in power. It's doing fine financially and economically (at least it's no worse than most Euro-zone countries and considerably better than the PIIGS). It's even managing to participate in the international community: not only has it joined the Battle for Libya, but it has just confirmed its commitment.

So does Belgium need a government at all?

Good question!

First, it says a lot about the kind of political class we are saddled with: they are not actually the people governing us. The state bureaucracy is - the much decried bureaucracy. Is there something good about it, after all?

Two, governing people with any effectiveness means moving closer to them. Down to their level. The Flemish want to be governed by the Flemish and no one else. Same for the Walloons and come to think of it, that parochial attitude is true everywhere in Europe: in Italy, the Lumbards want to govern Padania and have nothing to do with Rome; in Spain, the Basques prefer to throw bombs rather than listen to Madrid; in France, Brittany has historically felt independant etc etc

Third, in a European context where the EU is still making progress - the Euro crisis notwithstanding -, it is not clear what the role and place of State Governments are, or will be.

For example, if Europe comes closer together on major foreign policy issues, including on such matters as war, then one of the major roles of European governments will disappear. No doubt that is why Lady Ashton is having such a difficult time in becoming a European Foreign Affairs Minister: nobody wants that! But it is written in the EU constitution and sooner or later it will come to pass.

So is Belgium in government limbo because a government is not needed?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland, British politicianLady AshtonImage via Wikipedia










Regions of BelgiumImage via Wikipedia
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7.17.2011

Military Democracy: an Inevitable Outcome of the Arab Spring?

A political vintage poster from 1960sImage by Kodak Agfa via Flickr
The Arab Spring could spawn off a new kind of political animal: the military democracy. Egypt seems to be headed in that direction.

In spite of the summer heat, protests have recently multiplied in Cairo's famed Tahrir Square, and the usual pattern of soft response from the Egyptian Military Council has not placated the protesters. They insist they want Mubarak tried right away, that the military are taking too much time to move the country into a new democratic government, that the role of the military should be reduced and civil society given priority. As one of the protest leaders told the BBC: "We want a proper transition to democracy".

Now the military have announced they are directly participating in the drafting of the new Constitution through the adoption of a "declaration of basic principles" to govern it. It seems, according to legal experts involved in drafting these principles, that the military's expenditures would be shielded from parliamentary scrutiny. "Proposals under consideration would give the military a broad mandate to intercede in Egyptian politics to protect national unity or the secular character of the state" (see NYT article below)

To protest national unity or the "secular character" of the state? Really?

The intention is clear, the cards are finally on the table. Egypt is headed for a military democracy à la Ataturk. Because that's exactly what happened in Turkey: the new republic that displaced the Ottoman Empire was in the iron grip of a pro-Western, secular military elite. They intervened in Turkish political life everytime they deemed it necessary to defend their view on how civilian life should be run (down to details like the ban on women's head scarves). It then took 70 years and Erdogan to loosen the grip (and we still don't know with what consequences - but that's worth another post).

It has become quite clear to everybody in Egypt that the benign military, the protector of the people, is not quite so benign after all.

The military is a historic power in Egypt, and ever since the monarchy fell in 1952 and King Farouk was exiled, the military have run the show, first with Naguib, next with Nasser. Also, and an important point, the military, not only benefits from American aid to renew regularly its arsenal, but it owns directly a considerable slice of the economy - nobody knows how much, but it could be worth anywhere between 10 and 20% of GDP or more. As Matt Berman points out, "the military is in charge of constructing roads and bridges, it produces cars and clothing, it even grows and processes food". As he explains, the role of the military grew larger with every war since the 1960s: "once a peace treaty was signed, the military decided that it would be economically and socially risky to just cut loose all of its forces. So instead of just throwing its forces into the job market, the military decided to go into business."

In the Middle East, and across the world if one is to judge from the excellent BBC review of the results of the Arab Spring six months after it started (see article below), all eyes are trained on Egypt. Although the Arab Spring didn't start there (it began in Tunisia, much earlier, at the end of 2010, remember?), the ouster of Mubarak in February through peaceful demonstrations supported by the military was a historic turning point.
Egypt - the most populous country in the region, with the longest most prestigious history going back to the Pharaohs - is universally considered the bearer of the Arab Spring - the harbinger of revolution, the leader in the transition to democracy.

Will that transition happen? El Baradei, who used to head the IAEA and is now a candidate for the Egyptian presidency would like the "declaration" proposed by the military  subjected to referendum so that the role of the military in government "would have some legitimacy", as he put it.

"Some legitimacy"? That's an interesting concept: some, but not too much legitimacy...Honestly, I don't know where Egypt is headed, but this is extremely worrisome.

In my view the transition to democracy is seriously compromised. What is your opinion?





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7.14.2011

The Greek Crisis is Becoming a Euro-Crisis!

Devil's Marbleyard: PigImage by Vicky TGAW via Flickr
Now you can add Italy to the original PIGS quartet!  We're up to PIIGS, and what other letters are next?

The UK Guardian came up with this wonderful Euro-crisis Song that explains it all: click HERE. 

Enjoyed it? Yes, better laugh than cry over it.

Friday 15 July 2011 or, what is more likely, Monday 18th,  the European Big Heads will again have a "special summit meeting" in Brussels  to "decide" on how to proceed. So far, "decisions" have eluded them.

Still, it could be D-Day for the Euro.

Or should I say a C-Day? D is for default, natch, and C is for crisis.

How did we ever get there? The credit rating agencies have added fuel to the fire, no question about it, but the fire was started by the Europeans themselves.

Now everybody suddenly realizes that the Euro does not exist. It's a figment of the (European) imagination. A daydream that hasn't come to pass. Because a currency needs a Central Bank (the Euro's got that) and a Treasury/Finance Ministry, whatever you want to call it, i.e. somebody who levies taxes and finances the government activities, whatever they are (this, the Euro hasn't got).  

There's not one Treasury or Finance Ministry behind the Euro, but 17 - one for each member of the Eurozone.

Crazy! How do you expect these guys to agree on anything? Particularly on sensitive political issues like pensions, retirement age, tax rates etc Believe me, they cannot agree on anything. Not even on the size of the bailout fund needed to protect not just the PIGS but the PIIGS! 

The markets did not need the credit rating agencies to tell them that this was an unworkable arrangement. And that the bailout or "rescue fund" so far agreed to might bail out Greece, but certainly NOT Italy, the third largest Eurozone economy.

This is not funny. Because if Italy goes under, banks around the world will go down - yes, in America too. The 2008 crisis brought on by Lehman's demise will look like a dainty hors d'oeuvre. A light antipasto. This is going to be the real thing, a main dish that no one will be able to digest, not even the biggest American banks. True, Italians themselves hold about half of their debt - problem is: the debt is huge. And if you add the afore-mentioned PIGS to the soup, you have a truly hellish stew of hundreds of billions of debt going sour all of a sudden!

Our savvy European politicians are talking about increasing the rescue fund. Even the British who are out of the Eurozone are worried: after all, 40% of their exports go to the Eurozone and who likes to lose a lucrative market?

What fund size will do the trick? I don't know, I don't have the numbers: much of the data is kept hidden from us poor citizens, and in any case, the multiplying effect of the (still-unregulated) derivatives market are hard to predict. All one can be sure of, is that it's going to be hard, very, very hard to achieve.

Okay, Italy, like the Wall Street behemoths, is reputed to be  "too big to fail". Is that a consolation? What if it does fail? Nothing is ever impossible.

So why limit the rescue mechamisms to a bailout fund? Why not consider Euro-bonds that would be guaranteed by ALL the Eurozone member countries, Germany included? In other words, pull together all the financial might of all 17 members (minus the PIIGS, of course - but they have to follow suit and toe the line - which they already are, just consider all those austerity measures in place...)

I'm singling out Germany because at this point, Germany should stop dragging its feet: if the crisis has reached the current dramatic point of no-return, it's because of Germany's delays and worse, its adamant refusal some months back to consider the floating of euro-bonds, as originally proposed by Juncker and Tremonti.

Let's not forget  that so far Germany has been the great winner in the Euro-zone, the one country that has truly benefited from the Euro.

Germany, it's time you paid up and join in to save the Euro!



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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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