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6.25.2012

Writing more and more books per year...Why should you bother?

Books
Books (Photo credit: henry…)
Is it madness? American writers are gearing up to writing more than one book per year - some set themselves the goal of 4 books per year! Of course big name writers who have long been on the NYT best seller list and have the means can do it: they use teams of assistants to help them - people who do the research for them and (probably) write up pieces that they can then use with a minimum of editing. But the others?

Why should any author aspire to writing 4 books a year? A writer on a popular blog, Author Culture, recently wrote that he would "love to be in a position where [he] could churn out upwards of eight titles a year". Why would he ever want to do such an apparently insane thing? Because he is extremely ambitious, that's why: he's planned on producing some 50 to 60 titles over his lifetime as a fiction author, and by speeding up yearly production, he'd be able to achieve his life goal much, much sooner,  in seven years instead of seventy! And probably produce more than 50 books, maybe double that or triple that amount! Imagine going to your grave having authored upwards of 200 or 300 titles!

Wow! I'm impressed! And why so many books? Because he says he's bubbling up with stories: he had started out with the modest goal of one book/year when he realized that if he kept that pace, he'd have to live past one hundred years "just to write the stories that had come to [his] mind in the last seven years"...An explosion, a tsunami!

Certainly this is admirable. And also it helps that he writes in a genre - action/adventure thrillers - where you tweak the setting, twist the plot and modify the characters and voilà, you get a new story with every new variant.

If you're in that enviable position of having so many stories to tell in your genre, then follow his advice, I found it quite thoughtful and spot on, particularly the idea of participating in NaNoWriMo to get your writing hand exercised (you have to write 50,000 words in one month) and as an added bonus, you get to make contacts with fellow writers both on line and physically - which can always come in handy should you decide to publish your NaNoWriMo produced book. I've got a fellow writer who did this and she was very pleased with the result.

Another good idea is to write more than one book at a time. Actually, I suspect that's something most writers do. I know I do: for example, I'm working on my novella I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU BEHIND, I'm putting the finishing touches on my BB novel A HOOK IN THE SKY (BB stands for Baby Boomers - the novel's main protagonist is a recently retired Baby Boomer), I'm translating Fear of the Past back into Italian with the help of an Italian editor, Giuseppe Bonanno di Linguaglossa who's curating it and has given it a smashing new title: IL VOLO DELLA FENICE ( the Flight of the Phoenix), love it! And he plans to release it in the form of a trilogy this fall. Then RICH, FAT AND BORED, a novel set in Tunisia needs a profound rewrite so that it takes in the events of the Arab Spring. And I've got a couple of non-fiction titles in the works as well: about the United Nations (having worked 25 years for the UN, I really know it from the inside) and the biography of Lievin Bauwens, Napoleon's favorite entrepreneur...

Will all this add up over time to some 50 titles or more? I doubt it. And it's certainly NOT my goal. I'll write just what comes to me naturally and following my interests and instincts. To try and produce a set number of books per year sounds so...mechanical. I know I couldn't do it and I'm not even interested. Because one thing is certain: if I don't enjoy what I'm writing, if I'm forcing myself to produce 5,000 words/day, then it's no good. Oh, sure, if a novel has got suspense or sex it might be fun to read, but it won't be literature.

Bottom line, it depends on your writing goal in life. If you want to be a successful genre writer and make money, it is true that you have to produce several titles a year, the more the better. If you're not a genre writer (my case), then you needn't worry. Write as much or as little as you like and feel comfortable doing.

In short: don't despair! This is one race you don't need to get into!

I know I won't. I can't possibly produce more than a couple of books/year, and probably only one book a year (if that) once I will have finished releasing my backlog. I'm totally, completely convinced that a high number of books produced does not equal a high quality of literature. 


Indeed, even among the classics, I don't think there's more than two or three titles per author that matter - I mean books that are really worthwhile and memorable and will stay on as beacons in the History of Literature. Even a giant in world literature like Tolstoy is only associated with a couple of novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina and perhaps the novella Death of Ivan Ilyich. Yet he's written a lot more...How many of his other books have you read or do you plan to read?


Because there's another consideration: how many readers are there out there who can absorb so many books? If you've got one million writers (the probably number in the English language), can one expect the market to absorb 200 million books over the next fifty years? 
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6.18.2012

Euro Crisis: Is Grexit Off the Table?

With the narrow victory of New Democracy, a pro-bailout party in Greece, relegating the anti-bailout radical left Syriza party to second place, can we expect "Grexit" - meaning the exit of Greece from the Eurozone - to be off the table?

Not really. Citigroup's chief economist, Willem Buiter (the one who coined the term "Grexit") doesn't think so, and he gives the chances of exit anywhere between 50% and 75%. That's as good as saying it's going to happen for sure, and a lot of the financial world (read: speculators) are of this opinion. They don't see how Greece still mired in debt and with a fast contracting economy can ever dig itself out of the hole's it's in. With 50% unemployment among its youth and the collapse of the welfare state (some 400,000 children are reportedly suffering from hunger), it is difficult to see how the so-called "seeds of dystopia" will not blossom in Greece.

Dystopia? Yes, that is where the Eurozone is headed. Look at this picture of a beggar, father of two hungry kids, in front of a supermarket:


You think that's Greece? Wrong, that's Italy! Near Perugia, in an area (Umbria) that not long ago was considered a perfect example of the "Italian Miracle". Have you forgotten the term? It refers to the boom the Italian economy experienced coming out of the Second World War and that seemed to go on for decades...Umbria until 2008 and even 2009 had survived the financial crisis and seemed to be doing very well, at least as well as the Germans, exporting its diverse luxury and artisanal goods to half the world. No more. A picture like this one is something I'd never thought I would see. The whole area used to be so prosperous, only a year ago! Shocking.

The crisis has hit here too, dystopia is on the march. Yesterday, in several Italian cities, people protested Monti's austerity measures and made ridicule of his (not very convincing) package of measures to stimulate growth.

Expect more protests across Europe.

Aren't the Germans aware of all this? Apparently not, even though much of their own youth is not happy with social policies that provide them with subsidized jobs (at €400 a month for the young worker and zero cost for the employer - all paid for by the State): young workers have learned that such jobs never lead to a career and that companies that have hired them never renew the contract. Rather than give them a chance, companies prefer to get another young worker at zero cost. That just makes good business sense!

There are really only two financial fixes: a banking union and Eurobonds. Both are difficult to get going (too many people involved) and Eurobonds in particular do not enjoy support from the Bundesbank. Indeed, the Bundesbank is dead set against them: not possible it says, unless we have a fiscal union with all Euro members relinquishing their authority over their national budget.

So, to solve the Euro crisis, we're back to politics. Everyone expects a lot from the end-of-June European summit, but what can German Chancellor Merkel do if the Bundesbank won't listen to reason? You'd think central bankers would be attentive to economic realities, but all they seem to be attentive to are their own balance sheets. This is a situation where the Germans could really bring down the European project.

People are fed up with austerity: they see that as measures to make them pay for the mistakes made by banks. Can you blame them?

One thing is certain: politicians in the Eurozone will need to listen more and more to what is happening in the street. In Greece, the new government (to be headed by the winning New Democracy's Samaras) will have to listen to the demands of whatever popular protest is orchestrated by Syriza (who, as of now, says it will stay in the opposition). It cannot afford not to do something to improve the lot of the average citizen - the famous 99 percent.

The time when the one percent  called all the shots is over (read: the speculators buoyed by the American credit rating agencies, Fitch, Moody's et al). Which is why I have hopes that the situation will get fixed - not immediately but over the medium term and maybe, just maybe, the Euro will be saved, and along with it, the European project.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
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6.11.2012

Can You Make it as an Indie Author?

How to Be IndieHow to Be Indie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Book Expo of America (BEA), the major annual book pageant in the US, has just concluded and left behind  some interesting indications of where the publishing industry is heading, in particular confirming that self-publishing is the "new frontier for writers" (to use agent Rachelle Gardner's words). 


A new frontier? Maybe but not a very friendly one if we are to believe Author Jennifer Weiner, the keynote speaker for the Book Bloggers Conference, who said and I quote:  "very few indie authors will make it!


Wow! 


And here's another unnerving observation made at the IDPF Digital Book conference about online discovery of books: if a book is not discovered in the top 10-20 results of a query, no chance of discovery! Furthermore, if you consider that it is accepted wisdom that most digital books are discovered by search, then we are all wasting our time marketing on Internet. No need to tweet, blog or post on Facebook...Forget everything, relax and just focus on writing your next book!


These pearls were picked up by Anthony Wessel for DIGITAL BOOK TODAY. He recapped his experience in the form of bullet point notes that are fun to read and don't waste your time. Consider his recap of Author Bella Andre's keynote address - Bella André who's one of the most successful indie author in the pantheon of self-published writers. I can't resist quoting his notes in their entirety:


Speaker: Author Bella Andre – Making it as an indie author.
Currently at 700K in digital books sold
Ave. book price $4.99.  Uses $0.99 only as a promo price.
Very clear author branding on her books (shown on overhead). FYI: take a look at her books on Amazon. A very good example.
Believes author name is the most important.
Readers don’t care if the author is an indie. They just want to read good books.
Series magic. Is a big driver of book sales.
Every time you gain another sale of book one in a series there is a corresponding increase in the other books in the series.
She was very dynamic.
Publishing in 2 different sub-genres under 2 different names.
Look at the branding of the pen name books written by “Lucy Kevin”.
Self published in foreign languages (I heard this theme elsewhere – emerging markets)
Uses an interpreter, editor, translator. Changes cover. Audio.
“I put out the books readers want. “ “I know my readership.”
“It takes a great deal of time and effort to self pub.”
“Readers don’t know that I am self pub.”
“In 3 weeks earned my money back on Audio.” (ACX.com)



Clearly, that's how you can make it as an indie author. Ready? Go!


For more, go to Anthony Wessel's excellent post on DIGITAL BOOK TODAY: click here You'll find invaluable tips on how to become a top Twitterer, a Bingo Blogger, in short a Master Internet Marketeer to sell your books, particularly in the Holiday Season (the only Big Season for book selling, in case you didn't know it). And you'll find that emerging markets in the rest of the world are the "next great opportunity" for writers.


And if you've got not time left to write books, well...hire a ghostwriter!
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6.04.2012

What is the Source of the Euro Crisis: Public Deficits, Cultural Divergences or Globalization?

Spain
Explosive Spain : the next challenge to the Euro? (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)
We all know how the Euro crisis began: with Greece and lies about its public deficit. Then over the next two and a half years, the drama expanded to include Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain. Now the Spanish banking system threatens to collapse and take with it the Euro. But what is really causing the Euro crisis?

Is it "just" a problem of sovereign debt and speculative attacks fed by the bond markets conviction that the Euro is not defended by credible institutions and financial power the way the US dollar is? Or are other factors at work here, in particular cultural divergences and globalization?

Let's take them in turn.

Public Deficits


On June 2nd, Soros, in a memorable and much-discussed speech in Trento (Italy) has made the point that Angela Merkel is the one single source of the crisis: she put a stop to Germany in its traditional role as the engine of a federated Europe. How did she do this?  By declaring in 2008 after the fall of Lehman Brothers that "the virtual guarantee extended to other financial institutions should come from each country acting separately, not by Europe acting jointly." It took the markets a while to digest this declaration but once they had, speculators (guided by the credit rating agencies, Moody's et al) realized that the weaker economies on the Euro periphery were open to attack - and attack they did, starting with Greece.

Furthermore, he made an important and very convincing prediction that Germany (and the Bundesbank) have only three months to stem the Euro crisis (see articles below and if you can, take time to read Soros' speech here: it's really worth the read). 


UPDATE: A few days ago, Soros's speech was taken down from his website and re-loaded without any of the references to Ms. Merkel that I quote here...no doubt as a result of diplomatic pressure placed on Mr. Soros: I can only suppose that the German authorities did not appreciate and Ms. Merkel was not amused. But this changes nothing to the thrust of his arguments...


Soros is convinced that “the euro crisis threatens to destroy the European Union."

Frightening words! For him, the European Union itself is similar to a financial bubble. It grew as a "fantastic project" from one "small step forward" to the next, each time forcing politicians to take the necessary measures to move it forward, closer to European union. That's how it went from the original, relatively modest Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s to the current European Union, a process feeding "on its own success, very much like a financial bubble."

Now, when the Maastricht Treaty created a common currency without prior political union, it took a step that was too big. And at the wrong time when Germany, having obtained unification with East Germany had largely lost interest in the European Union project. To this potent brew, add the fact that the common currency threw together countries at very different levels of development: for Germany (and other northern European countries like Finland or the Netherlands – i.e. "the center"), the Euro was an opportunity to expand exports (since the Euro was cheaper than the national currencies had been) and they took the necessary measures to improve competitiveness (restraint on salary increases etc). For Southern European economies (i.e. "the periphery") the Euro became a source of  cheap credit feeding a dangerous consumption and housing boom. 

Meanwhile commercial banks were allowed to accumulate government bonds without having to set aside equity capital; so they were tempted to "to accumulate the bonds of the weaker euro members in order to earn a few extra basis points." When the 2008 crash came, "many governments had to shift bank liabilities on to their own balance sheets and engage in massive deficit spending. These countries found themselves in the position of a third world country that had become heavily indebted in a currency that it did not control. Due to the divergence in economic performance Europe became divided between creditor and debtor countries." But it was a while before the financial markets discovered that government debt was no longer sovereign and could actually default. At that point, banks loaded with bonds discovered they were insolvent. As Soros points out: “that constituted the two main components of the problem confronting us today: a sovereign debt crisis and a banking crisis which are closely interlinked." 

The international financial authorities moved in, but unfortunately they are reacting to this crisis exactly the way they did in the 1982 banking crisis: creditors are shifting the burden to debtors. Soros has some striking things to say about this: "Just as in the 1980’s all the blame and burden is falling on the “periphery” and the responsibility of the “center” has never been properly acknowledged.  Yet in the euro crisis the responsibility of the center is even greater than it was in 1982. The “center” is responsible for designing a flawed system, enacting flawed treaties, pursuing flawed policies and always doing too little too late. In the 1980’s Latin America suffered a lost decade; a similar fate now awaits Europe. That is the responsibility that Germany and the other creditor countries need to acknowledge. But there is no sign of this happening."

Are you listening Ms. Merkel? Your policies are flawed and you are always doing too little too late! Wake up! Or do you want Europe to suffer a lost decade? It could even be much more than that: a lost historical opportunity, the killing of the European dream of a peaceful, prosperous union! You always say you want "more Europe", but do you really?

Okay, Ms. Merkel always manages to make me very angry. Let me get back to the argument at hand. The European Union is a political bubble about to burst. And it is also an economic bubble. How? This is a little complex (if you want to know all about the arcane Target 2 mechanism for the Euro, read Soros!) but in simple terms, what is happening is this: financial institutions (central banks and commercial banks) are reordering their financial exposure along national lines, meaning the "center" is shedding bonds from the "periphery" and conversely there's a capital flight from the periphery towards the stronger Euro countries (i.e. towards Germany in primis - German bond yields are practically zero...). 

By March 2012 the Bundesbank had claims of some 660 billion euros against the central banks of the periphery countries - so now it is pulling everything in. It is against expanding the money supply (Euro-bonds are a no-no for them!) and it has taken measures to limit the losses it would sustain in case of a breakup. Alas, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: once the Bundesbank does it, they all do it.  As a result, credit to enterprises, especially the medium and small ones that are a major source of employment, becomes less available and unemployment soars.

Hence a deeper crisis. A wider divergence between Germany and the rest of the eurozone. A greater risk of political and social disintegration. Increased public opposition to austerity and distrust in the Euro.

In short: blow-up!


Why does Soros give three months to the Germans who are in the "driver seat" to reverse the situation? He expects that the Greeks in the next election (June 17) will elect a government ready to accept the bailout agreement but unable to meet the conditions. So that “the Greek crisis is liable to come to a climax in the fall. By that time the German economy will also be weakening so that Chancellor Merkel will find it even more difficult than today to persuade the German public to accept any additional European responsibilities. That is what creates a three months’ window."

Between now and September.

And reversal will require some extraordinary and courageous measures. Among them:

- a European Bank Deposit Insurance scheme to stem capital flight;
- a functioning European Stability Mechanism capable of providing sufficient financial support to the banking system;
- euro-zone wide supervision and regulation.

And all within the existing European Treaties! By end June, a European Summit should come up with proposals on all these points.

A Euro-break up would be catastrophic at this point in time and will impact the whole world from the US to China. An orderly break-up is not possible mainly because the current re-ordering of Euro financial exposure within national boundaries has not been completed, far from it. And the ones who would ultimately suffer most from the break-up would be the Germans, no question about it. They've benefited the most from the Euro so far - a cheap Euro has been the source of Germany's success in exports - but they will also suffer the most if the Euro collapses: a restoration of their dear Deutschmark would be very dear indeed, as it is bound to be valued much higher than the Euro ever was.


Soros believes Germany will do whatever is needed to preserve the Euro but no more, allowing the internal divergences between the center and periphery to grow, thus profoundly altering the very nature of the "fantastic European union project". Killing off the dream of peace and prosperity. What is needed is to convince the Germans to do more. Sure, this is bound to be difficult for the German government confronted with a people who doesn't see or feel the problem: jobs are still opening up in Germany, immigrants are coming in; the influx of light capital is causing a housing boom. As Soros put it: "We need to do whatever we can to convince Germany to show leadership and preserve the European Union as the fantastic object that it used to be. The future of Europe depends on it."

Can Ms. Merkel be convinced? Maybe.

I personally doubt that more than a strict minimum will be done by September this year. We'll need to boot Ms. Merkel out of Germany first, and that won't happen until 2013. By then, the current recession may well have bitten into German prosperity as it finds difficult to sell exports abroad: after all, recession winds are again slowing down the US and China.

2013 will be a year of reckoning and Germany might well be more amenable to sustain the Euro and solve the euro management problems.

But what if Soros was wrong: what if his reading of the situation was limited and some other negative forces were at work in Europe?

Cultural Divergences

Cultural divergences could well be the factor that will tilt the boat.


Some researchers and most recently NYT columnist David Brooks (see his excellent article here) have argued that the European union project makes no historical sense in the face of deep-set cultural divergences. Brooks reminds us how the world, after the disasters of World War II, yearned for peace and harmony: it was in this favorable setting that multicultural and supranational entities like the United Nations were created and with it all the international organizations still with us, chief among them the World Bank and the IMF. Those were also the years of the birth of the European Union project that began with an optimistic effort by Germany and France to bridge their differences and "never" go to war against each other again.

Now, the pendulum has swung the other way: cultural divergences are increasing, not diminishing. There is a "failure of convergence" not just between countries but also within countries. Consider the United States: a single country with a single currency, but as Brooks points out: "the country has become more polarized, not less. The country has become more difficult to govern, not less." This is what he calls "the segmentation century". With the rise of modern communication technologies and Internet, "people's tastes have become more parochial, not less."

For Brooks, "the failure of convergence is most striking in Europe. True, a tiny sliver of European society is becoming more transnational. But only 2 percent of Europeans live in a different European nation than their country of citizenship. On the whole, European nations still have very different understandings of the rule of law and political order, different work ethics and conceptions of citizenship. (italics added)"

True enough. For example, it seems that 40% of Danes believe that work is a “very important” part of their lives, compared with roughly 65 percent of the French.  According to Pew Research surveys, 73 percent of Germans think that economic conditions are good right now. In France, 19 percent think that, and in Spain only 6 percent.

For Brooks, "the euro crisis is not a crisis of debt. Total European debt levels are not that high. It’s a crisis of legitimacy. Debt burdens are divergent across nations, and Europeans with one set of habits and values do not want to bail out Europeans with other habits and values."

Germans do not want to bail out the Greeks.


Europeans do not trust Brussels. They don't believe in giving over their budgetary sovereignty, the only ones who don’t mind are the Italians, according to Pew research.

Add to that the fact that there's been a resurgence of local regionalism: the Basques in Spain, the Flemish-Walloon rift in Belgium, the Lombards' Northern Lega in Italy  etc. Not to mention the remarkable success of nationalistic, anti-immigrant parties like Marine Le Pen's Front National in France, a veritable throwback to the 19th century chauvinism.

In this environment, it should come as no surprise that the European Union project has a hard time surviving...

But isn't there something else at work here? Let's turn now to the third negative factor at work, the one which I believe underlies the other two: globalization.

The Impact of Globalization

Much has been written about the effects of globalization, both good and bad, and there is no space here to go into details. But certain aspects of globalization are clearly impacting the eurozone and have had negative effects for the whole past decade:

- governments in Europe (and elsewhere, the US included) are losing control over their tax revenues: it becomes ever easier for big, global corporations and the ultra-rich (the 0,1%) to escape taxation. To illustrate, two examples will suffice: the Greek shipping industry is not taxed by the government, the theory being that if shipping magnates were taxed, they'd move elsewhere, hence it's useless to even attempt to tax them. So far, even the radical leftist Syriza does not specifically raise this issue: it just limits itself to calling for more "equality" and "taxes on the rich".  General Electric, the American corporate giant, has over one thousand staff dedicated to exploiting tax loopholes with the result that GE pays one of the lowest corporate taxes in America: we all learned last year  that despite $14.2 billion in worldwide profits - including more than $5 billion from U.S. operations - GE did not owe taxes in 2010.

- competitiveness in the industrial sector is threatened by emerging economies (the BRICS) and outsourcing is eliminating jobs causing increasing unemployment (agriculture is such a small part of GNP in the developed world that it doesn't enter the equation).

- the IT sector and other advanced technologies (eg. green energy) have not so far created enough jobs to cover the losses in industry - as a result, unemployment is not only sticky, it has grown especially large for new entrants in the labor market, i.e. the young.

Conclusion: Quo Vadis Europe, Can You Reform?

This is the general backdrop against which the Euro drama  is unfolding. Which means that even if a "financial fix" is found to shore up the Euro, the long term downward economic trends due to globalization will continue as eurozone governments find it hard to raise adequate revenues; as European industry finds it hard to compete with cheap imports produced in the BRICS; as the loss of jobs in manufacturing is not compensated by gains in other newer sectors.

Over time, this means the eurozone as a whole is growing poorer (even if the Germans still feel rich!) And obviously less able to afford its expensive welfare system.

That means it will have to cut into pensions and health care benefits OR make the management of the welfare system MORE EFFICIENT.

That means reforming the state apparatus, cutting out unnecessary duplicative jobs, streamlining management processes, suppressing red tape etc. This concerns in particular the euro "periphery" though even the "center" is not immune to the need for administrative reform.

Are Europeans capable of reform? The Germans demand it. But will the cultural divergences stop reform in its tracks? Very possibly. People in the periphery are already rebelling against austerity: from there it's but a small step to rebel against any kind of reform, however much needed.

The only way to move forward would be to believe once again in something BIGGER: the "fantastic project" of the European Union. You need dreams to overcome the grim reality of chauvinistic retrenchment, each country behind its own borders.

Is the European dream dead? Can it be revived? I hope so. What do you think?


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