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9.19.2011

Self-Publishing in the Digital Age: 8 Reasons Why it's Golden, and 2 Reasons Why it's Not

A Picture of a eBookImage via WikipediaStigma used to be attached to self-publishing. Traditional publishers and literary agents looked down on indie publishers dubbed "vanity presses". Any aspiring writer's dream was to land a contract with one of the Big Six.

The digital revolution has changed that and now all you hear is enthusiastic talk about the dawn of a "golden age of self-publishing".

A golden age... really?

8 Reasons Why This is The Golden Age of Self-Publishing

Joel Friedlander, one of the more respected professionals in the publishing industry, has just posted a video about it (click here) giving 8 reasons for this wonderful new "golden age".

Briefly put, and using Joel's words to the best of my abilities (his presentation is not written - just a video) they are:

1. The "playing field" is leveled: by that Joel means that anyone can afford to publish - you don't need to be a publisher or have access to bookstores: digital books are produced and made available on all digital bookshelves at a minimal cost and in record time; actually, you don't need a "vanity press" to publish.

2. Easy access to tools and professionals : anyone can hire on Internet the needed editors, proofreaders, file converters, book cover specialists etc, often at very low costs;

3. Social media marketing replaces the expensive marketing strategies of yore (bookstore tours, reading club events etc): you don't travel and do everything sitting at your computer without spending money (or almost none)

4. Elimination of financial risk: since production/distribution costs are so low, your risk of losing money is minimized;

5. Prejudices against e-books and self-publishing are eroding: that, I believe is how Joel put it. Of course Amazon sells more e-books than print books. And self-publishers are tough entrepreneurs, willing to take risks and showing marketing savvy: not everyone's cup of tea (many writers still prefer to write and leave the rest to publishers). But the word "eroding" does imply that there is still some prejudice lingering...

6. Changing definition of "Book": a fascinating observation! Yes, publishers used to request long manuscripts in order to justify the price they charged. No more. You just write books at their "natural length" and short ones find markets just as easily, as proved by the Kindle Singles that sell novellas and short stories and the Milano-based 40KBooks selling strategies brilliantly focused on short non-fiction.


7. Global Nature of the Internet: true, books now sell everywhere on every continent - the American book market has been transported to every corner of the planet by Amazon, but conversely, books written in India or Sweden are becoming bestsellers in America.


8. The rise of mobile technology: sure, this is obvious but easy to overlook. Following the Kindle (it was born just 3 years ago!), we've had the Nook, the iPad etc etc and more and more people read books on their smart phones. The more mobile devices spread, the more book reading spreads...

Is all well in the brave new world of digital publishing? Not quite.

2 Reasons Why All is Not Well in Digital Self-Publishing

Of the eight reasons listed by Joel Friedlander, I believe the first is both the most important and the most deceptive.

Ambiguous, really.

While the brave new world of digital publishing has been especially beneficial to mid list authors with a big back list of titles and a good-sized fan base, it hasn't been so for newbies. Sure, young Amanda Hocking famously made it in 10 months with her Trylle Trilogy and landed a contract with one of the Big Six (St. Martin's Press). But that was last year.

I don't think that performance can be easily repeated today.

Why not? because of two new reasons that are changing the playing field Joel is talking about: it is no longer leveled. And that means that the window of opportunity for newbie writers which propelled the likes of Amanda Hocking to the top is rapidly closing up.

There are two reasons why self-publishing in the digital age has become much harder for aspiring writers:

1. Tough competition from mid list authors: they have what it takes to make a success of self-publishing, that is: several books. You can't have just one up there! It doesn't look serious! I know I do, but I'm busy on my second one (should be available next week) and working on my third (it's got to be out before Christmas). God, the pressure is intense, believe me! While your long-published writer can simply relax and pull out his or her back list and publish books one after the other like hot cakes.

Julie Ortolon in her Survival Guide makes no bones about this: along with Konrath, Scott Nicholson and so many other professional writers, she urges writers to put up several books on that digital book shelf! If you add the fact that mid list authors already have a fan base, you can imagine how hard it is for a newbie who's unknown, who's got no fan base and only one book! A year ago, there were fewer mid list authors in self-publishing. Today they are flocking by the thousands...

2. Rising competition from Traditional Publishers: at last, they are entering the digital market. Many are already lowering e-prices below the $13 or $14 level that they had seemed so unwilling to cross a few months ago. Also the infamous "agency model" is presently under attack by one or perhaps several class actions (against Apple). That means it's probably not going to last more than another two years. And then prices will be free to move downward - pushing close to the famous 99 cents-$2.99 price range so dear to self-pubbed newbies. Also, I might add, this is a price range not disdained by mid list authors either, as they seek to relaunch their back list in digital form. But with traditional publishers pressing down, the marketing magic of low prices will not work in the same smooth way!

More importantly, traditional publishers have at their disposal weapons in terms of marketing and branding that no newbie has. Things like access to reviewers of renown, major journals etc in short, they can call upon what some term "cachet", a quality attached to their authors and that attracts readers. They are the "gatekeepers of quality" and for a newbie that's hard to beat.

No doubt mid list authors are better placed to fight back, or even play the field on both sides.

Not so the newbie.

Sorry if this post is not gushing with wild optimism. I guess, I'm sort of issuing a warning: newbies beware! The self-publishing road has been opened up by the digital revolution - no doubt about that - but it's no longer the easy road it once was, even just one year ago!

Do let me know whether you agree with this or whether you think I'm too much of a pessimist!
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9.15.2011

Euro Crisis: Doomsday is Near!

Christmas Doomsday #SLImage by Alvi Halderman via FlickrEuro collapse is accelerating.

On  7 September, the German Constitutional Court upheld bailouts but put up parliamentary approval as a precondition, effectively tying Chancellor Merkel's hands...as if they needed to be tied! Here's one politician who notoriously hates to take decisions that might alienate supporters.

On 10 September, Mr. Stark, one of the German directors of the European Central Bank resigned, making it clear to all that the German central bank, the Bundesbank, disagreed with the ECB bond buying policy to save Spain and Italy. That makes for additional trouble as the bond buying is carried out by the national central banks participating in the ECB and not by the ECB itself.

On 13 September, Moody's downgraded a couple of French Banks (Crédit Agricole and SocGen), punishing them for holding Greek bonds. On 14 September, Italy barely passed its €54 billion austerity package but while there was a rebound in the market, long term prospects are not good: the bond market views Italy as "too big to bail out" and is likely to demand increasing interest rates (now already close to the 6% level considered unsustainable for Italy).

On September 16 and 17, the Euro Finance Ministers will meet in Poland and Geithner is scheduled to attend the meeting - an unusual appearance and a sure sign of the deep concern Americans have regarding the fate of the Euro.

But what can they do in the gathering storm? Probably not much. The hope is that they will turn the European Financial Stability Facility in a real European bank, able to issue Eurobonds, exactly as a central bank would. A vain hope given the continued German opposition to eurobonds, and small wonder: interest on German bonds is currently around 2% compared to over 15% for Greek bonds. 

And it is going to get worse before it gets better: in October, Greece will have to go back to the bond market to raise €8 billion to pay for wages and pensions - and face rising interests that will only achieve one thing: total destruction of the Greek economy. The latest quarterly figures show the Greek economy contracting by more than 7%...

Why Do we Have a Euro Crisis?

How could Europe sink into this mess? Are the economic fundamentals so bad? Of course not! Recession has affected Southern Europe but under normal conditions, you would have expected the German locomotive - with its healthy exports, especially to China - to pull up the whole continent.

Logically, when Germany sells more of its wonderful wares, from luxury cars to sophisticated electronic stuff, its unemployment goes down, its people have more money and start spending. Thanks to the Euro, trade is facilitated, money circulates. Germans buy Italian and French goods and go to Greece and Portugal on vacation, and all is well and good.

That did not happen.

Because the Germans did not start spending more. The average consumer in Germany is afraid. Afraid of losing that job, that anchor to salvation. So the average consumer doesn't consume, he or she is sitting on their money. The recession mentality is widespread, people retreat into their homes, delay expenditures. When Christine Lagarde was Finance Minister in France she repeatedly called on her German counterpart and Chancellor Merkel to try and jump start consumption in Germany - to no avail.

Instead of focusing on consumption, the Germans talked of deficit control.  For them, balanced budgets are a matter of ethics. They embedded the concept of balanced budgets into their constitution and now they pretend that the whole of Europe do likewise.

So far, the Spaniards have been the first to follow suit, and some other European countries may soon comply.

This is frightening. Because balancing the budget is not the solution.

Instead of addressing the real problem - recession and a slow-down in consumption - the whole of the European political scene is buzzing with one concept only: deficit control. What's needed are policies to address unemployment and jump start sluggish economies. But politicians never discuss them: stimulus has become a dirty word! God forbid that a government should come in aid of its poor and unemployed!

The Americans have at last put job creation at the center of their political debate. Not so Europe.


The Euro Mess: Whose Fault?

Politicians.

It always boils down to that: the wrong people are in power. Angela Merkel for one. She is only interested in her own political survival - the survival of Europe be damned! She was born in Eastern Germany, brought up under communism, she has no idea what Europe is for. All she hears is that her own party is in trouble and that the right is screaming against bailouts. For the Germans, all Southern Europeans are corrupt lazy bums, rascals and thieves. 

Considering that Germany was the main beneficiary of the Euro, this is preposterous.

The other person largely responsible for the mess is Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank. From the start of the crisis, all he seemed concerned by was...price stability. Fighting inflation rather than defending the Euro. Honestly, the house in on fire, and this guy goes about watering the flowers in the garden! Fortunately he is leaving in October to be replaced by the Italian Draghi but that may be too late for Draghi to do much good.

Actually, the problem is larger than either of those two.

It's the WHOLE EUROPEAN POLITICAL CLASS that has lost not only the voters' confidence but any claim to being responsible and respectable.

They are crooks, no question about it. They are crooks in all of Southern Europe but even Northern Europe is not immune.

Italy: the Sick Man of Europe

In the 19 century, the Ottoman Empire was considered the "sick man of Europe". Today it is Italy.

Italy has suffered for a long time (since the 1970s) from political corruption, and more than Greece (which is but a small part of the Eurozone),  it is the situation in Italy that is the key factor precipitating the Euro crisis. Because Italy is not only "too big to bail out", it is actually the biggest European economy after Germany. Yes, you read that right. That's not a mistake: if you factor into the Italian national statistics the "submerged sector" (those entrepreneurs that don't pay taxes and flout work regulations), you find that Italy is larger than either France or the UK. That's because the submerged sector amounts to some 20 to 30 percent of GNP. 

So if Italy is in trouble, so is the Euro. So is Europe - and you better believe it, the problem will jump the Atlantic and spread to the US.

The debate about political corruption has been simmering for years in Italy, ever since a couple of journalists came out in 2007 with a hugely successful book La Casta, investigating political excesses. Wikipedia even has a list of Italian political scandals where Berlusconi figures prominently. And now the debate is exploding again.  A remarkable email is currently circulating among Italian citizens and has been picked up by several Italian bloggers (see here). Referring to an article published in the Espresso, it points to yet another disgusting political move on the part of Italian parliamentarians. In the middle of this painful recession and amidst the austerity talk and need to pass bills raising taxes and asking for sacrifices from all citizens, our dear Italian Parliamentarians have voted to...raise their monthly salary by €1,135 to a grand total of €19,150. The highest in Europe!!

But it doesn't stop there. Each deputy enjoys an astounding number of additional perks: a personal secretary paid over €4,000 a month; rental subsidy of €2,900 per month; function indemnity (indennità di carica) also raised from some €355 to €6,455; free air, rail and bus travel within the country; use of a free official car with driver; free cell phone, movie card, restaurant, health insurance etc etc plus a full pension after only 35 months of service in Parliament while hapless Italian citizens have to work 35 years on average to obtain a pension...Then, if an Italian deputy manages to be elected to the European Parliament, he or she is allowed to take in the full additional salary, which, not unsurprisingly is the highest among European parliamentarians.

How can people stand it?

Why the Politicians Have Gotten Away with It

The politicians have managed to avoid being booted out simply by distributing "goodies".

Goodies in the form of jobs in government and related institutions - at all levels, from national to regional to small towns and villages (yet another reason why political institutions have multiplied...). Goodies in the form of pensions including pensions for imaginary invalidity. Goodies in the form of a national health system where even the rich can get free treatment.

Citizens have their mouth full of goodies so it's no wonder they cannot cry in protest.

Unfortunately goodies distribution can go on only as long as the economy is growing. And for the moment, it has stalled. Balancing the budget is just applying a band aid to the wound. What's needed is to clean the wound and get Italy back to walking. But the austerity package that has just been passed does nothing of the kind. As Ms. Marcegaglia, the head of the Italian  industrial association said to the Sole 24 Ore, this package is nothing but taxes and will only have a "depressive" effect.   

How to Get Out of This Mess

The solution is well known and simple. It requires three policies:
(1) cut out the goodies
(2) take away political perks and reduce the number of parliamentarians
(3) adopt measures that will stimulate growth - any measure appropriate to a country's particular situation will do.

The Germans want the first two and never talk about the third. Almost nobody does, except for a few enlightened economists, including Mr. Paul Krugman in America and Mr. Adam Posen in the UK.

Meanwhile we are in the hands of vile, corrupt politicians whose only concern is to save the status quo. That wonderful status quo which enables them to take vacations on yachts and "enjoy" pretty girls (vide Dominique Strauss Kahn and Berlusconi).

What else can you expect but total collapse?

Okay, Italian politicians are among the worst offenders. But I'm sure you can come up with similar stories about your own politicians! Please do so in the comments below, it would be interesting to confront and share data!


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9.13.2011

Is Heredity Destiny? A Matter of Family Ghosts and Genetic Memory...

An overview of the structure of DNA.Structure of DNA Image via Wikipedia
Heredity haunts us and genetic memory is an intriguing notion: it is based on the idea that fragments of memory could be handed down to us through our DNA. Many of the things we know and think we have learned are actually innate

We are born not only with genetic physical traits, blue eyes and red hair like Grandma, but with specific knowledge and skills. 

We are not a virgin slate on which Education and Life draw our Character. Much of it (if not all) is already there from the start. 

Heredity is Destiny. 

Or is it?

How Much Do We Inherit from our Forebears? 

Are we the product of heredity? Are we the prisoners of our genes? Do DNA strands determine how we act, how we feel? That's a highly debatable question. And it gets the proponents of the virgin slate (usually educators) really angry: they are firm believers that what we are is the result of education or experience. 

I lean in another direction. I like to believe in free will. I like the notion that we can choose, that we are not beholden to either our genes or our education. That our life is in our hands. Each one of us is a unique individual and not the replica of some forgotten forebear, nor the product of principles taught by family and school! 

On the other hand, I can accept the notion that, as a minimum, we are predisposed towards certain values and skills. Some of us are naturally generous, others short-tempered and egotistical. Some have a talent for music, others are tone deaf. For instance, I'm a hopeless mathematician and a great doodler - always was.

I recently googled the notion and was amazed to read the results (no, I didn't read all 12 million of them!). The subject seems to inspire an astounding number of complex theories. There were obscure references to difficult notions such as Carl Jung's archetypes and Sheldrake's "morphic fields". 

Fortunately Wikipedia (ah, what would we do without it?) was reassuring on one point. It reported that scientists now generally consider genetic traits as "dispositional", that is they encode the way one reacts to stimuli, and they do not transfer the actual memory or experience. 

Phew, that's reassuring, isn't it? 


Some Strange Results of Genetic Memory Tests...

But tests have been carried out on animals and the results can be worrying, to say the least. 

There was this particular one that caught my attention. A first generation group of mice was taught how to get through a specific maze, and it took them weeks or months to learn. A year later, the offspring were made to go through the same maze, and it took them half the time. 

The next generation was even faster and several generations down the road, they managed it in 30 seconds, without ever having seen the maze before.

Scary! 

Are We Conditioned by our Family's Past?

So are childhood memories and teenage experiences not quite the maturing events we think they are? Is whatever we're good at something we've inherited from our forebears? Are we not responsible for our successes and also for our failures?

The notion of heredity implies that we are not responsible for our talents (or our shortcomings) anymore than for our blue (or brown) eyes. We just drew the lucky ticket in Life's Lottery - or the unlucky one!

I am not me, you are not you, we're both the results of genetic chance

The notion is terrifying...or is it? 

You could look at it another way. What if it only meant that we're part of one great family - the human family - past and present? But isn't that a little abstract? How can we handle this terrifying notion?

What's Your Opinion? 
 
I've worked on this notion for years - as a novelist. In fact, genetic inheritance is the issue at the heart of my trilogy  Fear of the PastFor the protagonist, meeting the ghosts of his forebears is a traumatizing coming-of-age experience. Unlike us (we don't normally meet the ghosts of all our forebears going back 900 years!), he is in the unique position of finding out exactly who he takes after. That's hard to recover from, particularly as he learns how his look-alike forebears lived, how they handled their work life, their loves, and in particular their failures...He eventually realizes he's been dealt the same genetic cards, but how he plays them is up to him. 

And I think that you'll agree that by the third book, the protagonist finally reaches maturity, not without having first gone through some harrowing experiences!

Take a look, I'd love to know what you think! Do you agree that heredity deals you your cards, but how you play the life game is up to you?

Book 1, FEAR OF THE PAST, is available on:

The sequel, RECLAIM THE PRESENT is due out shortly, and Book 3, REMEMBER THE FUTURE comes out in November. 






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9.09.2011

Ten Tips Plus One Step to Achieve Success in Blogging!

Lacrimae mundiLacrimae Mundi Image via Wikipedia
If you're starting a blog now, there's super advice around to make a success of it. You're among 50,000 people doing that every day (yes, that many!), so you really need help to stand out! See here for a couple of  the latest and best:
2. A beginner's Guide to Blogging: 10 Tips to put into Practice Right Away   

I'm not sure why the tips add up to ten, but in both cases, they make sense! Actually I've attached below an article by someone suggesting 12 tips...but here let me focus on just one essential step, but it's the KEY one!
When I started my blog two years ago, I wish I had known…I certainly wasted much time to figure out the gadgets, things like the share button, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and all the rest. Sure, they're important but there's one thing that tops them all.
What is it, you say? Simple:  blog in a “niche” !  Be generous with your expertise! Fill your blog with your expert content! Yeah!
Funny I should say that, right? Because that's precisely what I don’t do. 
My problem is that I’m interested in so many different things: books (yes, I’m a writer - see that book icon on the top left corner? That's mine!) but also politics, economics, cooking, contemporary art and classical painting - not necessarily in that order! That doesn't mean I'm an expert in all those things, just someone who likes to keep herself informed and has rather...strong likes and dislikes!
Go figure how you’re going to fit all that stuff into a single “niche”! 
What niche? There’s none. 
What online community should I belong to? Okay, you're right, I know what you're thinking: go and join several. I'm trying, but believe me that takes TIME! And I also want to write the sequel to my novel, and the day has only 24 hours (and help, I need to sleep too!). 
As for search engine optimization strategies, forget it. I'm not going to put a keyword in the title and the opening sentence just to get attention. If the keyword happens to be there, it's only because it makes sense! One day I'm here, writing for a certain set of readers (say, writers and bloggers), the next I'm somewhere else, writing for people interested in politics...or in cooking!  So I always end up disappointing somebody, sorry about that! I don't mean to annoy anyone. It's just that I can't stay interested very long in the same subject...
Hey, I like change! Just as I read books in all sorts of genres (provided the writing is good)! And in the news, everything interests me, from the latest archeological find to riots in Syria...
Obviously, I'll run into problems growing my blog! Only one thing’s certain: for success, do “niche” blogging! Do NOT follow my example!
Oh well, it's tough being me in this digital world! How do you manage? Are you also interested in all sorts of things? Do you like a far-flung blog such as mine or do you get annoyed when I suddenly turn to something that is of no interest to you? Conversely, do I succeed in interesting you in something you've never considered before? 

Let me know, so I can decide whether to retreat in a niche like a good doggie or continue to roam around freely!

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9.06.2011

If Greece Defaults, Is It The End of the World?

Holownik H8 (2)Tugboat at workImage via Wikipedia


Greek default = Euro crash = end of the world as we know it.

World trade collapses. China - universally considered as the bulwark against the West's recession -  grinds to a halt. The other BRIC countries (India, Russia, Brazil) too. And America, already on the brink with historically high unemployment, will tip back into recession.

That's what the media will have you believe. That's conventional wisdom.

The Latest Kink in the Bailout Process

Auditors from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund unexpectedly left Greece last Friday, breaking off the fifth quarterly review they were conducting regarding Greece's compliance with the bailout - reviews  are a standard bailout requirement.

By Monday, the markets, jittery as always, came crashing down, losing an average 4% across the globe. Yet all the auditors had was a banal dispute over how the Greek Government intends to meet its deficit targets. It seems they'll be back by mid-September, by which time the Greek Government should have prepared a note for them clarifying its position.

A New Chapter in the Great Recession?

In the gathering gloom about the Euro's future and the conviction that measures to handle the debt  (any country's debt, really, but the Greek debt in particular) will cause a deep recession, let's consider the unthinkable: a full Greek default.

Will that be a new chapter in the on-going Great Recession?

The Americans have clung to the idea that they are into a (slow) recovery (that produces no new jobs), and that things will turn out okay in the end provided the world's economy is not rocked by a Euro crash.

That's conventional wisdom too.

Let me don my Pessimist's Hat: I'm convinced we are not out of the woods.

The American so-called recovery is just a bubble on the surface of an on-going Great Recession.

The proof? Unemployment is bad in the US and growing, no question about it,and it is bad everywhere else too. It is abysmal in Spain and Greece, but the rest of Europe is suffering too, with one exception: Germany.  And China of course.

But Germany's exports have just begun to slow down again and even China is riding rough waters, what with its imminent real estate bubble that could burst anytime and rising wage demands on the part of Chinese workers that are slowly squeezing China's trade advantage.

So the two world economic tugboats are definitely slowing down and coming into rough waters, if I may be permitted the metaphor.

Let me ask you, is this the time for our politicians to concentrate on controlling deficits when the real problem at hand is lack of growth and unemployment?

When Controlling Deficits Means Killing Growth and Letting Unemployment Increase

No, we're not out of the woods. By a long shot. We are right in the middle of them. European politicians - along with the Republican party in the US that has successfully shackled Obama so far -  seem bent on taking every political decisions they can think of to make matters worse.

Needless to say,  Cameron and Osborne's drastic cure for Britain that has instantly slowed UK growth and there's no need to go further into this here: it's obvious that austerity measures in Britain can only have the effect of discouraging growth.  The stats are in to prove it.  And, as we've seen recently with the wild rampage of disgruntled youth in London and other cities, austerity, even just the prospect of it, can cause unusual social tension.

Likewise Angela Merkel has been irresponsibly late in bailing out Greece, only agreeing reluctantly and at the very last minute to do something (half) constructive.

Result? The Greek bailout is now running into trouble, My only consolation is that Merkel is also politically in trouble, as shown by the poor showing of her party at the latest regional elections. This is a woman who has absolutely no understanding of economics and no European vision at all.

The Finns too are showing a total lack of European vision: they want collateral from the Greek Government to cover any funds they might provide to the bailout effort!!! That obviously defeats the purpose.

Actually, the Finns are only expected to provide 2% of the total (small country, small input). But one can't help but wonder about them! The trouble is they've set a bad example: other Eurozone countries have jumped into the fray, including countries that ought to know better like Austria, shamelessly clamoring for a guarantee.


Thinking the Unthinkable: Go Ahead, Greece, and Default

What happens if Greece defaults? Nothing.

Yes, you read that right. Well, nothing in the sense that it won't be the end of the world, and may well signal a new beginning for Greece, finally free of its strangling debt.

Yes, I know, many of you will be surprised that I write something like this, after having so often explained that the way to defend the Euro is to avoid a Greek default.

Let me be clear: I am not saying Greece should come out of the Euro. I'm only saying that a controlled default is the only way out for Greece. To wipe out its debt and start anew on the path to growth.

Actually, it's already in controlled default mode.

In the latest bailout process, private investors in Greek bonds are asked to accept a bond swap taking a thirty percent cut or thereabouts. And the cut is a lot less painful than the one that is already operating in the markets where Greek bonds are trading at nearly half their value. Also, Greece should make clear what policies it will pursue to re-awaken growth.

The problem is: so far, all we've heard are measures aimed at righting the deficit.  More taxes, a higher VAT destined to strangle Greek tourism, and a shameful garage sales of the crown jewels - I mean the best of State-owned property: how can anyone hope to sell them at a correct price in these recession times?

Surely, this is not the way out of the recession!

But let's consider for the moment a careful, controlled Greek default.

That means immediate relief on the debt front. Just like Iceland: so much has been written about how lucky Iceland was not to be in the Euro because it could devalue and start afresh. And it has just done that: its economy is not exactly roaring but it is clearly on the way to recovery.

If Greece defaults but stays in the Euro, what will happen? Euro devaluation? Yes, a little bit, and it has already happened: the Euro trades lower against the dollar, in spite of the bad employment news out of the US. Probably this downward slide would continue. The Euro might go down to trading at 1.25 against the dollar, or even lower.

Is a weaker Euro bad for the Eurozone economy? Not at all, it would help European exports, chief among them the German ones that have just stalled.

The German tugboat would start chugging again. Much to the benefit of all its European partners (whose exports would also improve), including Greece.

Let's not forget, please, that the Euro is the second reserve currency in the world after the US dollar. The Euro cannot and is not about to disappear.  True, it is badly managed and it walks on one leg only (the European Central Bank) and it lacks its second leg in the form of a federal European Treasury to carry out fiscal measures. Such a Treasury, modeled after the American one, is urgently needed, and that too is a question our politicians should address.

But let me repeat: this has to be a controlled default accompanied by measures aimed at reviving growth and employment.

That is what we should all talk about: how to revive economic growth and create new jobs. Obama is to address Congress next Thursday 8 September, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to propose to stimulate growth and employment in the US. Hopefully, some of his proposals will be heard and followed by the European political class - a class that has been remarkably deaf and dumb on economic issues, in spite of what the best economists of our times are saying, all of them getting hoarse in the attempt to draw their attention to the real problems that beset all of us: slow growth and unemployment, not deficits! I'm getting hoarse too!

Why Keynes Is Neither Irrelevant Nor and Idiot

Every time an economist talks about fighting recession with government intervention in the economy - things like investing in infrastructure, the most basic of Keynesian recipes (and surely the US needs some investment to renew its crumbling infrastructure?) - he is accused of being a Keynesian, as if this were an irremediable shortcoming. If you come forward with a Keynesian recipe to cure our economic ills, you're considered an idiot. You're told Keynesian recipes lead to Big Government, and Big Government is Bad.

Why this extraordinary black and white or cowboys-and-indians vision of the economy?

Why should Big Government be bad in a democratic society that has parliaments to control government?

Big Government is needed in recession times because it is the only economic agent that can be counted on to invest and create jobs. Private agents - businessmen and investors - are too afraid to invest: they don't see any quick returns in recessionary times, so they stay put. They sit on their cash. And that's exactly what the Big American Corporations have been doing since the start of the Great Recession. Sitting on their cash. And avoid paying taxes. And getting the media (Murdoch with his Fox News first among them) to support their Small Government/No Taxes/No Budget Deficit position.

That position is based on a hugely simplistic argument: it's bad for a family to be in debt, right? So it is likewise bad for a country. Future generations will have to pay for our (debt) sins, if we don't put our house in order! This argument calling in the sorry fate of our children and grand-children is really aggravating. Of course, no one wants to willfully hurt one's children. So should we really pull in our belts and go full blast for deficit control? Will that solve the problem of slow growth and unemployment?

Actually History teaches us otherwise.

The Lesson of History: Default Can Have a Positive Outcome!

Not just in Iceland. In the United States too!

Yes, the United States! This is not a typo on my part. I mean the United States, the top economy in the world, the country whose currency forms the basis of international trade. Sure, it happened a long time ago, in 1841, when the Second United States Bank defaulted. It was, to all intents and purposes, a Central Bank default. And it hurt like hell the British investors who had bet on American industrial development and had financed the construction of the first big American railroads. They were left with precisely nothing in their hands!

But America, freed from the weight of a huge debt, started growing again - all through the rest of the 19th century, and of course, the rest is History. And yet, if you examine the history of banking in the United States during this whole period when the great American economic might was being born, you'll be struck by the instability of the banking system (banks didn't last longer than 5 years on average) and more generally, the political mess and uncertainty in which the system operated. Worse than the Euro!

So why can't Greece - and Europe - follow the American example?

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8.30.2011

How to Promote Your Book: Use Loyalty Transfer!

John Locke pancakeImage by tsand via FlickrThat is John Locke's marketing secret: "loyalty transfer". Coming from the man who sold a million ebooks in five months, you better believe it works!

He's very open about it in his book recounting his experience, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months: (1) latch onto a major public figure - somebody you really like and genuinely feel for - and (2) write about him (or her) in a superlative way on your blog.

Don't make it too long, nobody has time for extended dissertations: 500 words is about right.  Write in the style that is your own - keep it real close to the "voice" you use in your book - and express your feelings as vigorously as you can.

Make sure you sneak in stuff about yourself. That's important, because you want people to know what sort of person you are, that you are a real fan of that "celebrity" you are celebrating. That you are "One of Them". Or as Locke puts it: OOU, meaning "one of us".

It's that wonderful, warm feeling of participation, of sharing that you need to provoke and stimulate.

Then make sure you put a link at the end of your post that takes the reader straight to your book. Not a link somewhere else on your blog page. No, it has to be placed at the end of the post, so it's easy to click.

But you're not finished yet. Now, you need to find where all the fans of the celebrity you just wrote about happen to hang, and you need to address them directly.

The easiest vehicle for that is Twitter. So you tweet them about how wonderful xyz Celebrity is and tell them you just blogged about him/her. You tweet this message to one hundred fans the first day, another hundred the next day and so on, until you get to the end of the list.

Then, because you're a polite person and know all about Internet etiquette, you watch for re-tweets and engage with the re-tweeters, thanking them for the re-tweet. At that point, you've become pals and you can start asking them about your book...Meanwhile, keep an eye on your sales, and watch them zoom up!

Of course, all this works pretty smoothly if you let your blog post sit there for at least one month: that's the amount of time you need to drive your Twitter campaign. And you can't have lots of posts on your blog, that would confuse people! Indeed, John Locke makes about a dozen posts a year. Yes, you read that right: not two posts a week (something considered a standard for regular bloggers), but just 12 or 13 in the whole year!

Ah, and here is one more peculiarity: his posts elicit relatively few comments (not more than a dozen or so). He figures that's because people click on the book link and buy the book instead of commenting!

John Locke swears that with this kind of blog model, his sales, which had been stagnant for several months, suddenly took off. Just flew out the window.

He figures he's now got about 100,000 "core" fans, people who've bought one or more of his books and swear by him. They are ready to buy ALL his books and every new one that comes out. They're all his dear OOUs ("one of us", right). They're his pals, they've moved up from Twitter to email exchanges. They're in touch with him. They all share in a double loyalty: to the celebrity John Locke originally wrote about on his blog, and to John Locke himself.

Hence, the phenomenon of what he calls "loyalty transfer": they've transfered their loyalty from the celebrity to him.

Clever, isn't it? He says he is not "manipulating" anybody. He strenuously rejects the notion. He claims it's just the way he genuinely feels about the said celebrity. All I can say, is that one has to believe him, because in his case, it sure worked!

Of course, it doesn't need to be a specific celebrity, it could be anything else. Say you've written a cookbook or a wine directory, you want to look for people with a love for cheese or wine. So that's what you blog about and it's something that can be easily shared with lots and lots of people who love cheese and wine. Then, once your post is up on your blog, you go look for these people on Twitter.

How? For example, Twellow (linked to Twitter) has directories of Twitter users broken down by...over 1300 categories - so you can always find who you're looking for. Then, to spread out the good word beyond your immediate followers, you need to use # hashtags in front of keywords. You can also latch on to daily trends Twitter announces and add your voice to the trend, thus ensuring you are reaching out to many more people than those who follow you.

The point is to aim straight at your audience, tell them you share in their feelings. Yes, but...there's always a but. It also means you've got to KNOW your audience. You have to have a clear idea of who your book is written for. And this is something John Locke had no doubts about: he knew exactly what sort of person would read his novels!

Get the idea? I think it's pretty neat. It's worked for John Locke. Has anyone else tried it? Do you know exactly who your audience is? Do you know how to reach them and move them so they fall in love with you and your book?

In short,what has worked for you?
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8.27.2011

Libya: A New Day or a Long Night?

Arabic Machine Manuscript (Orient manuscript 3306)Image via WikipediaMuammar al-Ghaddafi is still missing as I write, his mercenaries still shoot from rooftops in certain parts of Tripoli. But Syrte, Ghaddafi's last stronghold and hometown, is bound to fall sooner or later. And more and more countries recognize the Rebels' National Transition Council: the Rebels have won!

Libya has turned a page.

Trouble is: what's going to be written on that new page? For the moment, all we see on TV is a ragtag army rushing about in pick-up trucks, waving guns and flags, and making the V-sign with their fingers (surely not the first letter for Victory in Arabic!) But the war has made many victims, there are threats of revenge, and it will take months before oil exports resume at the level they were at before the rebellion.

Libya has to clean up house after 42 years of a harsh, bloodthirsty dictatorship, and has to build up something it has never had before: a democracy. All the harder that Gaddafi has literally sucked the life blood out of every state institution, starting with the army (he relied on mercenaries and on his sons running special brigades).

A tall order.

Its two neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, can't act as models to follow: to begin with, these were countries with a much stronger civil society than Libya. Their starting point is much higher, yet neither so far has fulfilled the promises of the Arab Spring revolution.

Sure, they've kicked out their respective tyrants much faster than Libya and without (or with little) bloodshed. But in spite of that achievement, they too have yet to build a solid, equitable, democratic system of government. We'll see how it goes this fall in their respective parliamentary elections, but the signs so far are not encouraging. Particularly in Egypt, where the Copts, its Christian population - fully 10 million people out of eighty - is increasingly the target of persecutions by Muslims who now feel  the country is theirs and they can do with it whatever they want. Christian churches were burned at Christmas time before the Arab Spring took off, and again more recently, after Mubarak had stepped down.

And all this is happening in a dark economic climate, as tourism has come crashing down in both countries.

Perhaps that is one (small) advantage for Libya: it never was a tourist mecca. Its wealth was always based on oil, and it has plenty of money stashed abroad: reportedly some $150 billions. In principle, it has enough money to successfully carry out reconstruction.

Unfortunately,  it's not just a question of money. It's a management question, and in a society like the Libyan, historically torn between feuding tribes, this is going to be very, very difficult to solve. Libya is like Iraq, divided into at least three parts, if you add in the Berber-held mountains to the south.

So far, democracy has not proved to be a very good system to hold a country like this together.

Is Libya destined for decades of instability as the various factions fight for power? Perhaps, and that won't make Western energy companies particularly happy, starting with the Italians who are Libya's chief customers.

But too much Western interference in Libyan affairs is bound to backfire: already NATO walked a dangerous borderline with its continuous five-month air battle, provoking a lot of sour comments around the world. Surely sending ground troops would be a bad idea, as shown by the disastrous experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So chances are that Libya will be left alone to struggle its way out, with perhaps only a few gentle and discreet prods and nudges, here and there, to try to keep it on the road to recovery. It doesn't require much of a crystal ball to predict that sooner or later, stability will come to Libya only through another strongman.

Another strongman, another Ghaddafi? God forbid! All I can say is that I hope I'm wrong.

How do you see the situation? How do you think it will evolve? Should the West get involved further or not?




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8.24.2011

Customer Reviews: the Best of Marketing Tools or the Worst?

Illustration of DNA "Holliday junction"Image via Wikipedia Illustration of DNA Holliday JunctionCustomer reviews are the latest buzz in marketing:
They are used by everyone, from hotel keepers to fiction writers. As marketing tools go,they are cheap by definition: a customer review is meant to be a customer's own independent opinion.

It is also a great way to move away from top down, authoritarian style reviews, as those provided by, say, literary critics. Because one person's taste may not be the same as everyone else's. So customer reviews, if in sufficient number, provide a buzz, start a fashion, really make sales take off.

It's not surprise that when you travel, you find them on TripAdvisor, when you go to a restaurant, you find them on Zagat, when you're looking to buy a book, you find them on Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing.com, the Reading Room and a host of virtual book clubs, both in the US, the UK and all across Europe.

When Customer Reviews Boomerang
 Problems have turned up with customer reviews in all these areas and for obvious reasons. Chief among them: corruption. It is understandable that in a highly competitive market, all shots are allowed. If not allowed, at least tried. Friends will write favorable reviews. Businesses will be tempted to provide incentives (say a discount) for good reviews.

But - there's always a but! - if the customer review system is broadly corrupted, it collapses. Nobody believes in it anymore, potential clients run away. The best of marketing tool suddenly boomerangs, and turns into the worst.

So those who run customer review systems have to be very, very careful and constantly weed out the offenders.

The Amazon Solution
Amazon is probably one of the most adept at this sort of game - mainly because it uses a double prong.

On the one hand, it has set up boxes for customer reviews (with one to 5 stars) as well as buttons for "likes" just below the book title (for those who can't be bothered to write reviews) and buttons for "tags" (to indicate agreement with descriptive keywords that help in searching for the book - you the reader can also provide the tag you feel best describes the book).

On the other hand, Amazon keeps track of every customer's past acquisitions. In other words, it uses social feedback and buying behavior. That's what I mean by a double prong. What doesn't come out right with one is corrected by the other.

Very clever, and no doubt it explains to a large extent the success of Amazon as a virtual bookstore, where much of the book discovery work is already done for you, and you are directed into virtual shelves that contain books similar to what you have bought in the past and that correspond to your tastes.

Trouble is: what happens if you want to get out of your past purchases and try something new? It recently happened to a friend of mine: in a bout of enthusiasm, she had filled her newly-bought Kindle with all sorts of 99 cents books, just to see what they were like. After a while, disappointed by most of them, she had decided she wanted to try something else. A different genre, a different price range. She knew the sort of thing she liked, but Amazon didn't. And at that point, finding a book became very, very difficult. She should have probably started from scratch and moved into the Amazon site incognito!

Why Book Discovery is so Difficult
Actually, we are touching here the core issue of what makes book discovery so very difficult.

Few books are actually genuinely "discovered". Trouble is: social feedback - i.e. book reviews - feeds on itself.

What drives public awareness of a book are marketing dollars - especially if movies are involved. When a movie is made out of a book, it becomes the buzz of the town. Of course, that's what all aspiring writers dream of: that a movie be made from their book. The ultimate consecration. But there are various degrees of consecration like the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize etc. No matter how you view it, the book is there because somebody - usually the Big Publishers - have spent a lot of marketing dollars on it.

So in terms of book discovery, we have a very simple equation: marketing dollars drive public awareness, this in turns drives what is discoverable and recommended. Therefore bestsellers occupy the top of the heap, simply because more people know these books exist. Presumably, that leaves a lot of very good books at the bottom of the heap, undiscovered.

Can this equation be broken?

How to Make Book Discovery Easy
There is one interesting, experimental website that is trying to do just that: BookLamp.Org.

Arising from the "Book Genome project" started in 2003 by a bunch of students, BookLamp started working a year ago, setting up a new kind of book recommendation engine.  Similar to what Pandora does for music, it is based on what it calls the "story DNA" or "data points" - really the book's thematic ingredients, covering both contents (physical characteristics, history, environment etc) and the way it's written (pacing, motion, dialogue, description, density).

So far, it has some 20,000 books in its database, currently tracking over 600 million "data points of book DNA" in their system (and growing!). They started out with  fiction but also mean to cover non-fiction, and they work only with publishers, chief among them Random House and Kensington Publishing Corp.

What's their objective? Simple: help readers find the sort of book they like to read. As they put it in their FAQs section:  "If you think about it, what we’re basically doing is championing the idea that the contents of a book – what the author actually wrote – should be the primary consideration when finding new books for readers. It shouldn’t matter that one book has a million dollar marketing budget, and the other is from a new author with no track record at all. If the content between the covers is a good match, that should be all that matters."

Sounds great, doesn't it? Here is a way of discovering books independently from any marketing push, just focusing on a book's contents. In other words, it makes the value a book potentially has for a reader the key feature, responding to a given reader's tastes. And of course, it would be any author's dream come true.

How does BookLamp do it? By asking you to indicate your favorite title(s), then it searches for similar stuff. The system usually works, except when some "zingers" turn up, as they call it, largely a result of not having yet a sufficiently large database to find suitable matches in every case.  For example, if you have outlying tastes and give them a book title that is unique in style (say cross genre etc), they may have trouble coming up with satisfactory choices for you.

What BookLamp Needs to Achieve its Objective
They admit themselves that they need an extra 100,000 books to smooth out all the crinkles and achieve their cruising speed and main objective - which is of course to sell their tool to publishers. They want to be the book Pandora. If you read their FAQs, you'll see they repeatedly ask you to suggest publishers names, so that they can add more books to their database.

It is surprising that publishers are not flocking to them. Particularly since publishers have had a notoriously hard time figuring out the "next bestseller" and  finding the way to connect directly with readers. That was, as you'll recall, the purpose of Bookish launched in May of this year, with the backing of Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Shuster but it's still not functional. In fact, publishers act very much like huge steamships that are having a hard time turning themselves around in the digital storm.

I don't know why publishers are reticent and it may well have something to do with being such "huge steamships" (hopefully, not the Titanic variety!).

And I don't know why BookLamp isn't willing to turn to Indies: that would be an inexhaustible supply of books to test their search engine with. They needn't accept everybody: they could call the shots and specify the types of books they want to fill the "holes" in their system. After all, the stigma of self-publication has disappeared now, with the successes of John Locke, Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath et al. Surely BookLamp must have taken notice?

What do you think?
What is your take on this problem of book discovery and the sort of solution provided by BookLamp?

Personally, I worry that their solution is too dependent on restrictive algorithms and that good books will still remain at the bottom of the pile. But I'd be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, until they've proven, with an additional 100,000 books in their database, that it really works...

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8.21.2011

Sex and the American Novel

Sexuality and gender identity-based culturesImage via WikipediaJ.A.Konrath recently fumed about sex: when his books contain explicit sex scenes, his readers are unhappy and call him a pervert! Amazing! 

Although I know America well and am a keen observer of American mores, I'm still puzzled by the way Americans view sex. This is particularly evident in politics. The on-going Dominique Strauss Kahn affair or scandal if you prefer to put it that way, certainly shows the complexities and innuendoes of how sex is viewed in America.

And it's not just a reaction to the sexual habits of a French celebrity, American politicians have repeatedly fallen prey to American public opinion. 

Most recently, it was Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - N.Y.) who sent nude photos on Twitter to some woman in Texas. He caused quite a stir and subsequently the Washington Post explored the question, polling some women on how exciting they found "naked man-parts" (not very), and what research had turned up. Unsurprisingly, research shows that women, as the Post delicately put it, are "nuanced sexual beings whose arousal depends on context, mood and a whole bunch of things they aren’t even aware of. Men are different. Men do tend to find the equivalent naked pictures of women titillating."

If this is the way it is in politics and American society, where does it leave the American novelist writing for adults?

It would seem, on the face of it, that a writer should figure out who are the majority of his/her readers, men or women, before sticking torrid sex scenes in novels.

Now, if you write romance or what used to be called "chick lit", it's pretty clear that the majority of your readers are women. So, no explicit sex scenes please!

But if you write mysteries/thrillers? Science fiction? These are genres that presumably are read by both men and women - perhaps more men than women. So some sex should be okay.

Yet, if you insist on your torrid sex scenes, you're in trouble, as J.A.Konrath found out. It is a fact that the genre he writes in - mysteries, thrillers, detective stories - has traditionally very little sex: it's there but it "fades to black".  Readers don't expect to find it in that kind of book. In fact, two of his followers who left comments on his blog, were quick to point that out.

I can agree with them on one thing: people don't expect torrid sex scenes from someone like Konrath. One goes to his books for the suspense: violence is right smack in the middle but sex is peripheral. Still, here is a writer who would like to write sex scenes: he enjoys writing them, he feels they forward his story plot, they enable him to better describe his characters and their relationships.

Sex scenes have definitely a place in literature, and why deny them to a writer?

A way out of that conundrum, and it has been chosen by many of my professional writer friends, is to write erotica under another name (I could name at least three...all women). To write sex scenes, if they don't fit into your genre, you have to hide behind a pseudonym.


In short, you can't write the way you feel like because your novel won't find a market.

And that's the whole point about pushing novels into genres. Yes, genre is a STRAIGHTJACKET! This can be very frustrating to an author: it conflicts with (part of) his inspiration. But, hey, you can't get out of it, you're in America, this is a business matter! It makes business sense! Genre, as everybody knows, is a marketing tool. It picks out the main features of your novel and shoves your book in a box where people who like that particular genre will find it. Past sales history shows how a given genre fares, so you know what sort of sales to expect.

Books that are "cross genre" are trouble: they're difficult to categorize, and therefore to market. Hence you have to be careful not to cross over: in the mystery/thriller genre, too much sex means crossing over. Konrath beware!

As I see it, there really are only two ways out:
(1) you pick a pseudonym and write as many sex scenes as you like turning your novel into booming erotica, or
(2) you move up to the "literary" category where anything goes, and indeed where erotica and violence work well together!

How do you feel about sex and the American novel? Is it easier to work in sex scenes in French, German, Spanish or Italian novels? Or is it about the same as in America, with genre acting as a straighjacket?


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