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February 27, 2010
Making light under difficult conditions
Posted by Teresa at 10:10 AM *

Or, some reflections on a power outage.

If you can’t find your emergency lighting gear in the dark, you might as well not own it.

It’s okay to know the approximate location of everything else, but you have to know the exact location of the matches and at least one candle. Alternately, stash a glowstick in the same container where you keep your candles.

Carrying the same emergency book of matches in your purse for several years can rub off the striking strip.

In general, do maintenance on your lighting supplies before the lights go out, because otherwise you’ll just feel stupid.

Adorably dim little tea light holders are designed to look pretty, not provide functional home lighting. Standard tapers and candlesticks are much more effective. Glass-sided lanterns are okay, but make sure they’ll accommodate whatever candles you have on hand.

Store the lamp oil near the oil lamp, and vice versa.

(During the Great Blackout of 2003, I patronized a linoleum Chinese restaurant in Park Slope that stayed open by lighting the place with improvised oil lamps: tuna or cat food cans filled with oil from the fryer, with big freestanding wicks made of twisted paper. They flickered wildly, gave off a lot of smoke, and can’t have been safe, but they worked.) (I still wouldn’t recommend using them.)

Your room will not be set up for a candle or lantern. Take the time to identify and clear off a suitable space. Consider putting a shallow dish or pan under it. Watch out for rising heat. In general, regard open-flame lighting as an unstable technology that requires constant monitoring and maintenance, and always manifests its bugs in the worst possible ways.

Candles and oil lamps are dim. No wonder our ancestors gave up and went to bed.

Once you’ve got your first candle lit and stabilized, you can fiddle around with the rest. My choice of first thing is a big devotional candle, the kind that comes in a tall cylindrical glass container, and is rated to burn continuously for seven or eight or fourteen days. I pick mine up at the grocery. Try to avoid the really colorful containers, as less light escapes them. Candles made out of white wax are less likely to be scented.

If you can’t stand the smoke from soft paraffin, they’re called sanctuary candles, and they cost more.

(Keep an empty devotional candle holder around to hold your scrap wax. If the blackout continues, you can melt down your scrap wax, insert a wick, and have a whole new devotional candle. Assuming you have a wick. Note: cosmetic cotton balls are made of short-staple cotton, and don’t spin well.)

A comparative survey: devotional candles are a bit dim until they’ve got a good pool of melted wax to work from, but they’re dependable and long-lasting. Tel Aviv brand utility and sabbath candles burn down quickly, but they’re bright. Three or four of them grouped together are bright enough to let you read big type or cook simple food.

Pure beeswax is awesome! It’s bright, clear, stable, long-lasting, and nearly smokeless and dripless. One beeswax taper in a wall sconce will light an area as well as a half-dozen devotional candles, and five or six inches of it will last all evening.

The chief virtue of IKEA tea lights (go ahead, get the bag of 100) is that they come in little lightweight metal cups. Once the tea light has burned halfway down, blow it out, then stick a sabbath candle in the melted wax and hold it upright until the wax cools and hardens. Stick this “base” into a tea light holder and light the sabbath candle instead.

The best way to get a patch of candle wax out of clothing is to pour boiling water through it.

February 25, 2010
Power outage
Posted by Patrick at 07:38 PM *

On our little block of Brooklyn. Presumably as an effect of the endless slushy snowfall. The Con Ed website registers the outage and estimates that it’ll be fixed tomorrow morning. Oh joy.

Our phones still have some battery power, but we’re likely to be off the net pretty soon. I understand that reverting to a state of pre-civilization savagery is next.

UPDATE, 11:30 the next morning: Our neighbors remain uneaten, but the power’s still out. Con Ed, whose outage map first estimated it would be restored at 7 AM, later changed it to 11 AM, and now they say 3 PM. I suspect the map increments these estimates foward in four-hour chunks.

Given what a slow-moving mess this storm is becoming, for all I know our lights won’t go back on for days. If we have to do another evening of stumbling around by candlelight, though, I may run mad.

UPDATED UPDATE, 3:30 PM. We have power, hooray.

February 24, 2010
Heads Up For Our Friends at Random House
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:53 PM *

For all mail room folks at Random House who are about to get a bunch of printed and bound books from PublishAmerica, and for the editorial assistants who are going to be asked “What the foo do you want us to do with these?” and are wondering what this is all about … here’s the skinny.

Our good friends at PublishAmerica (a vanity press located in Frederick, Maryland) have hit on a way to increase their sales! Observe this letter sent to all their authors yesterday morning (emphasis theirs):

Your Book Published By Random House?‏
From: PublishAmerica Author Support Team (
Sent: Tue 2/23/10 11:35 AM
To: [Redacted]
Dear Author:

PublishAmerica will submit your book to Random House!

Random House, the publishing company? Yes. We’re submitting your book to the world’s most famous publisher so they get a chance to read it and see if they want your book.

Every writer dreams about becoming a published author. Once they have reached that goal, as you have, many dream of the next step up: to become a Random House author. Random House is one of the most prestigious publishing names. Their extensive operation a few miles from our own headquarters makes them virtual neighbors.

We will submit not one, but up to five copies of your book to Random House’s acquisition editors, so that they can also pass the book around their imprints if they want. They may do anything they choose with the books. We will alert you immediately if Random House shows interest, and in that case we will do everything we can to ensure a smooth transition. Since PublishAmerica is not affiliated with Random House or its owner Bertelsmann, we would totally share in your pride.

Here’s how we do it:

If you want to have books on hand, order now, and we will donate up to five copies to Random House. And you receive a 50 pct discount!

Go to, find your book, click on it, then add to cart, indicate quantity, and use this coupon: Random50. Then click Recalculate and finish the transaction. Minimum volume is 10 copies.

By using the coupon you are authorizing us to donate the books to Random House. You may also request that we ship five FREE books to you instead.

Full-color and hardcovers excluded. Offer expires this weekend on Sunday night.

Thank you,
PublishAmerica Author Support Team

“Not affiliated with Random House” is pretty much the understatement of the year.

All I can think is, “Wow.” PublishAmerica is going to be your agent now? What about those PA authors who already have agents?” (Yeah, yeah, I know, those agents would be either gormless, hopeless, greener than grass, or out-and-out scammers in order to have submitted a book to PA, but still….)

This does represent a change for PublishAmerica—up to now their party line has been that the major commercial publishers are trembling in their highly-polished wingtips at the thought that this upstart publisher has opened up publishing to folks who aren’t celebrities or already best-selling.

From another letter sent to their authors in 2005:

…We are the David who has opened the gates of what used to be elite territory. We are championing the underdogs. You, our authors, are putting an end to what used to be literary Apartheid. You did not pay a penny to walk through the gates, and now you are published authors, the peers of entrenched power. Of course Goliath fights back. They don’t want you to be their peers. They won’t tell you that, though — they will say that they don’t want your publisher. But it is you that they are after, and you — that is whom we are fighting for.

Everyone knows the final outcome. The Goliath elite will be beaten, not by our slingshot but because we are darfing them.

Yeah, they really said “darfing.”

What this is, of course, is a naked inducement to get their authors to buy multiple copies of their own books at inflated prices (and that’s before figuring in postage and handling, which are insanely inflated themselves). A PublishAmerica book at a fifty-percent discount still costs more than most books of the same length at full retail. Like any other vanity press, PublishAmerica’s market is their own authors.

So, stand by, Random House. Soon you’re going to get a ton of unedited, poorly typeset, previously published books. As the letter says, what you do with them is up to you.


This just in: PublishAmerica sent this letter to their authors this morning:

Dear Author:

PublishAmerica will submit your book to the New York Times Book Review!

Home of the famous NYT Bestsellers list? Yes. We’re submitting your book to the nation’s most notorious reviewers so they get a chance to read and recommend it.
Every author dreams about writing a bestseller. And, honestly, is your book really inferior to most celebrity books that make it to the NYT Bestsellers list? Many would say it’s not. Let’s present your book to the New York Times Book Review. We will submit not one, but up to five copies of your book to the NYT reviewers, so that they can pass copies around if they want. Here’s how we do it:

If you want to have books on hand, order now, and receive a 50 pct discount!
We will ship your books to you, and we will donate an EXTRA up to five copies to the New York Times Book Review, at no cost to you or the New York Times.

Go to, find your book, click on it, then add to cart, indicate quantity, and use this coupon: NYT50. Then click Recalculate and finish the transaction. Minimum volume is 12 copies.

By using the coupon you are authorizing us to donate up to five books to the New York Times Book Review for their reviewers’ consideration at their discretion, at their 8th Ave office in New York, NY. You may also request that we ship five FREE books to you instead.

Full-color and hardcovers excluded. Offer expires this weekend on Sunday night.

Thank you,
PublishAmerica Author Support Team

Hardcover books excluded? Presumably because, as is well known, the NYT never reviews hardcovers. And at no cost to the New York Times, too! Wow! Presumably because other publishers make reviewers buy the books.

In other news, PublishAmerica is suing Lightning Source, and Lightning Source is countersuing.

Man could I use a slice of Schadenfreude Pie about now.

Open thread 136
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:19 PM *

Caption competition*


(Photo credit: Avram Grumer)

* Part of the competition is how long we can resist the obvious.

February 19, 2010
Rowling’s being sued for plagiarism again
Posted by Teresa at 10:22 PM *

In the news today:

J. K. Rowling dismisses plagiarism claim

‘Harry Potter’ author J.K. Rowling, who has been dragged into a 500 million pound legal battle over claims of plagiarism, has dismissed the allegations calling them “absurd” and “unfounded”.

“Absurd” and “unfounded” looks right to me.
The multi-millionaire author has been named in the lawsuit originally filed last year against publisher Bloomsbury for alleged copyright infringement, Daily Mail online reported.
This is going to be another case like Nancy Stouffer’s ignominiously unsuccessful attempt to sue on account of some purely nominal similarities between the Harry Potter series and an obscure children’s book Rowling never saw.

What these lawsuits teach us:

1. The plaintiffs haven’t paid much attention to other works in the genre.

2. Non-writers think it’s the ideas, rather than the execution, that make a book. They’ve got that backward.

3. People who aren’t accustomed to having a lot of ideas of their own have a very poor grasp of the odds that others might independently come up with the same ideas.

The estate of writer Adrian Jacobs maintains Rowling stole ideas from one of his books The Adventures of Willy the Wizard for her work, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But Rowling has issued a statement dismissing the claim as “absurd,” and is applying to have the case thrown out.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth book in a consistent and tightly sequential series of seven books. It would be bizarre to assume that J. K. Rowling committed plagiarism in the fourth book but not in the three books before or the three after it.

What’s really happening here is that Adrian Jacobs’ book imagines that a society that’s full of wizards would still have railroads, newspapers, schools, students, hospitals, government bureaus, candy, contests, sporting events, prisons, maps, and beer, only they’d all be the wizardly versions of those things.

Surprise, surprise: J. K. Rowling’s books do that too—as do thousands of other works of genre fiction. It’s basic worldbuilding. (This is the part where the plaintiffs not paying enough attention to other books comes in.) The reason the plaintiffs are suing over Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is that it’s built around a magical competition, so its insignificant resemblance to Willy the Wizard is infinitesimally greater than that of the other books in the series.

“I am saddened that yet another claim has been made that I have taken material from another source to write Harry. The fact is I had never heard of the author or the book before the first accusation by those connected to the author’s estate in 2004,” Rowling said.
I’m inclined to believe her. One of the many reasons for this is that it looks to me like Willy the Wizard may have been self-published. The following account of the book’s history is from the website Adrian Jacobs’ heirs have put up, on the page titled Background to Publication in 1987 of The Adventures of Willy the Wizard by Adrian Jacobs with illustrations by Nick Tidnam ©1987:
Adrian Jacobs’ work “The Adventures of Willy The Wizard” was well received when it was sent around in manuscript form by his literary agent to potential publishers in 1987.
No. While the publishers may have found kind things to say about it, they rejected it.
Publishers were enthusiastic about his ideas, including …

(List of ideas, carefully selected and phrased to maximize the resemblance to Rowling’s work.)

Why did the publishers comment on his ideas? Most likely because it spared them having to say anything about Adrian Jacobs’ prose, storytelling, pacing, and ear for language.

Sorry. It’s far from being the worst book I’ve ever seen, but it’s not up to snuff.

However his literary agent advised him that the work needed some re-writing and was densely packed with themes and ideas that needed expansion and development.
True, as far as it goes, though it’s awfully generic advice. I’d like to know who this agent was who thought the manuscript needed serious work, but sent it round to publishers anyway. Maybe they were a real agent. If not, Adrian Jacobs will have been paying them. Note: placing Jacobs’ book with a vanity press (if it was a vanity press) is not the sort of thing real agents do.

And since we’re comparing Adrian Jacobs and J. K. Rowling: when Rowling first submitted her work to agents and publishers, she got turned down too. The difference is that instead of self-publishing it, she buckled down and worked on her writing. A few years later, her first book sold to Bloomsbury.

Adrian Jacobs was impatient to publish and not wishing to re-write, Adrian commissioned an illustrator- Nick Tidnam RBA and retained him to illustrate the manuscript. Cecil Turner of Bachman Turner published the book in October 1987.
That’s not as in Bachman Turner Overdrive. Cecil Turner and his wife Marta Bachman ran Bachman & Turner in the 1970s and 1980s. Neither of them appear to have had any background in publishing before starting the company. If you read between the lines of this perhaps over-laudatory obituary of Cecil Turner (it’s written by one of the authors he published), it looks like Turner wasn’t wealthy before marrying Marta Bachman and starting a publishing company, but adopted a patrician lifestyle thereafter. That would be unusual for a couple running a legitimate small press, especially given the not overwhelmingly commercial books Bachman & Turner published. I don’t know. Maybe Marta Bachman had money.
Some 5000 copies were printed. Adrian sent a large number of copies of the highly colourful finished book to his literary agent. Adrian Jacobs visited several schools and read extracts from AWTW. The book was reviewed in papers including the Daily Express.
I’m not seeing any mention of book sales or bookstore distribution.

The only publishing detail the relatives seem to know is exactly how many copies were printed. Most or all of the copies wound up in the hands of the author. He sent many of them to his agent, which is an odd thing to do if you already have a legitimate publisher. Maybe I’m wrong, but to me this sounds like vanity publishing.

I can tell you one thing that definitely didn’t happen: the book didn’t get edited, copy edited, or proofread, which is sad considering that it’s only 36 pages long. Check out the prose. (If you’re feeling brave, here’s the complete list of excerpts.) The punctuation is full of errors, and never rises above “haphazard.” Obvious words are left out, and essential connections and descriptions are missing. Some passages make no sense at all. The text contains errors no editor would let stand, like “bathroom-come-study,” “carpenterised” for “remodeled” or “subdivided,” and “fawcett” for “faucet.” Some interesting passages:

Willy sat in Ali Baba’s chair and was frequenctized into vision acute, now receiving clarity waves from the Ruby Tower.
Kentucky set the scene for the polo feast. A green green carpet appeared like a field in the sky, and the audience was enthralled as the mini polo ponies careered back and forth with their Jockies at breakneck velocity around the entire carpet lawn. … Duke plied them with the local coconut juice which spiced and blended with Bay pineapple juice, caressed their lovely day.
In Willy’s laboratory, Wizard Cricket demonstrated how a mixture’ of grounded nicket paste and paleberry juice applied gently on the eyebrows of an Aussie guinea pig would bring a marked change of appearance. Willy suffered the mixture and clumsily knocked the contents of the texture into the berry juice paste and ! The guinea pig became a winking wongo - a wonderful little chap, a cousin to the Dutch Tree Squirrels.
It was specially intimate between them and had provoked some envy as its sweet success for silent discourse. Sitting in the cove, Willy sniffed deeply and drew into his mind Breathair Oxy-Zone. He had been taught the trick by Master Wizard Onlywheness who had been blessed by Guardian Saint Lovely Lucinda. Onlywheness had shown Willy how to breathe and on outward breath to sound silent messages. It was a question of nose muscle control and delicate lacquering of the air with thought pellets. Willy concentrated hard. He was rusty for he hadn’t drawn on this secret power for decades but his patience was prized…
In my personal opinion, not intending any untoward imputations about anyone involved, that’s not the kind of text you tend to see when the publisher is footing the bills.

Back to the website:

Adrian wrote a sequel- Holiday Antics, which was passed as a manuscript to his literary agent but never published.
According to the Daily Mail, Adrian Jacobs lost all his money in a stock market crash in 1991.

Back to the news story:

Jacobs’s 36-page book, also about a child discovering he has magical powers, —
If you threw us into prison and only fed us on days when we could supply the title of a published work that fits that description, we could stay alive for a very long time. Many of the works we’d name antedate Willy the Wizard. Perhaps their authors should sue the Adrian Jacobs estate.
— was published in 1987, ten years before the first Harry Potter book and three years before Rowling said she came up with her idea. Jacob’s estate said many ‘concepts and themes’ were copied from ‘Willy The Wizard’ in Rowling’s ‘The Goblet of Fire’, the fourth book in the series, published in 2000.
Printing isn’t publishing. The existence somewhere of copies of a book doesn’t mean a given person saw or read one of them. Being exposed to a text, if such a thing could be shown to have happened, isn’t proof that a writer made improper use of it. I mean, these guys are citing the use of flight and transfiguration as evidence of plagiarism, as though those motifs haven’t been turning up in folk tales and fairy tales since time immemorial.
In both books, the main character competes in a magic contest and each features wizard trains and prisons.
No kidding? What a coincidence! The society I live in also has contests, mass transit, and law enforcement. Where do you suppose we got those concepts?
Jacobs died penniless in a London hospice in 1997, before the Harry Potter phenomenon took the world by storm.

Australian-based agent Max Markson, who represents Paul Allen, the trustee of Jacobs’s estate, said, “I estimate it’s a billion-dollar case.”

Max Markson isn’t an agent, and this case is outside his area of professional competence. He’s a publicist. He runs a publicity, celebrity management, and events organization firm, Markson Sparks. He calls himself Mr. Fame, and says on his website that “Max Markson can give anyone fame … and fortune.” I don’t think that’s true. I also don’t think it’s a claim a legit publicist ought to be making.
The estate also claims that Jacobs had sent the book to literary agent Christopher Little, attributed as the man who years later discovered Rowling.
The estate’s been pushing this supposed connection, saying that Jacobs “sought the services” of the agent who later took on J. K. Rowling as a client, but Victoria Strauss says she’s found no evidence that Christopher Little ever agreed to represent Jacobs. Lots of writers apply to agents and get turned down. In many cases, the agent rejects them without ever laying eyes on their book.
“Adrian Jacobs did not live long enough to see the massive success of the Harry Potter books and films. If he had, he would have sought the proper recognition of his contribution to this success story,” Allen said.
Right. It’s all about recognition. The money has nothing to do with it. I await the news that the Jacobs estate has filed suit for copyright infringement against all the other books and stories published after 1987 that contain the same motifs.

Addendum: A pertinent quote from Max Markson:

People have ideas all the time. I’ve had millions of them. The hard part isn’t having the idea, it’s making it work.
It’s nice to have the Adrian Jacobs estate’s own mouthpiece confirm that.

February 17, 2010
New Magics and New Skies, in Korean
Posted by Patrick at 12:53 PM * 24 comments

From Korea’s Changbi Publishers, my two YA-oriented reprint anthologies, New Magics and New Skies, originally published by Tor in 2005 and 2004 respectively. Love the Edward Hopper diptych on the covers. I have no idea what the books’ titles are in these editions—perhaps the fluorosphere can illuminate me!

We’re back, we’re bad,
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 08:12 AM * 39 comments

We hope you’re…delighted.

Martin saved the day. Because he’s like that.

Now Hear This
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:30 AM * 26 comments

Something went wrong with the database last night. We’ve gone from one error message to another for comment posting, but at the moment, we’re waiting for people to wake up from their various versions of the sleep of the just and give things a poke.

Until such time as we get things happy again, you are free to contemplate the jewel-like perfection of Making Light as it stands. However, if you prefer conversation, I’ve started a thread over at my place.

Updates will be posted here, there, and on the Twitter feed as they become available. The final update here will use the word murnival.

I would counsel you all to the practice of patience; many of the people who run this thing have pretty busy real lives at the moment.

Update the last: Five things make a post, but four make a murnival.

February 14, 2010
What future we were making
Posted by Avram Grumer at 01:34 AM *

Over at Michael Bérubé’s joint, people are discussing which science fiction movie most plausibly depicts what out lives are going to be like over the next few decades.

Rather than try to predict the future, I’m going to predict the present and recent past! I’ve believed for several years now that the SF movie that most accurately predicted the first decade of the 21st century (even though it’s set in the 22nd) is Woody Allen’s 1973 film, Sleeper. Let’s check off some bullet points:

  • Steak considered a healthy food? Check!
  • Robot dogs? Check!
  • Orgasmotron? Check!
  • Police state obsessed with the threat of terrorists? Check!
  • Cloning? Check!
  • Funky futuristic-looking McDonalds? Check!
  • Giant strawberries? Check!
  • A political class that can’t remember as far back as the Nixon administration? Check! Check! Check!

February 12, 2010
The lily knows not why it blossoms in the spring
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:07 PM *

(This started as a comment on this thread, then grew and grew and grew until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.)

So the latest meme that all the cool kids on the internet are using is I don’t like the new Facebook login page. Look here to see the moment of its birth. Note that fourth, bolded paragraph, and read some of the comment thread. Then look at the comment posting box.

Still puzzled? You are, trust me, not alone. Daring Fireball will clarify matters. And this is a very good analysis of where the problem really comes from. I’m sure there are more interesting comments to be found on the matter.

But I didn’t notice when it happened, because on that day, the Facebook login failure day, Buzz was launching, and my gmail was afire with everyone I know poking around at this strange new interface, getting into conversations with friends of friends, unearthing previously unexplored connections, and wrestling with the privacy settings. And it all went wrong for some people, and there was shouting, and Google started working on improvements. They issued an explanation, which tells me more about how they got into this situation than how a user can get out of it.

What’s the commonality here? Turns out the people who couldn’t make head nor tail of why their old route for reaching facebook put them at this red blog weren’t alone. Turns out that the secret engines of the world do weird things even to techies and geeks. And some of the people who pointed and laughed at the Facebookers are probably sitting there right now, trying to figure out whether their profile is public enough to allow them some privacy.

It really isn’t that people are stupid. Some people are stupid, particularly when you constrain the definition of intelligence to certain fields. But plenty of people are shrewd and smart and still haven’t grasped the underlying nature of the tools they use1.

Remember that the acquisition of a mental model is like a flash of enlightenment, entirely changing the universe before one’s eyes2. To top it off, it’s an irreversible change, and one can’t truly re-inhabit the world one lived in before it happened. My worst arguments with my colleagues, the ones that leave everyone sulking, happen when I use their product without sharing their mental model. The irritation comes because we’re both right within the bubble universes we inhabit. They just don’t overlap at all.

So let’s talk about meatspace.

I used to work on cars. I can explain, succinctly and with hand gestures, the basic mechanics of an internal combustion engine. But I know many, many people whose structural comprehension of automotive engineering is just barely past the belief that Queen Mab and her invisible fairies tow the thing along when you summon them with the vroomy noises. And yet they drive.

And me, I’ve never understood electricity. I’ve been turning lights on all my life, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I finally got a good teaching book on electronics and started to look at how all these volts and amps and ohms make the shiny thing happen. And yet my electrical goods have always worked3.

I guess, you could say, that I’m getting the point of the iPad. Even though I still don’t want one.

  1. I once met a very well-dressed lady in her fifties who explained to me that one did not press elevator buttons to indicate what one wished to do—for instance, pressing the up button to go up. Rather, one used the buttons to tell the elevator what to do next. Since it was above us, pressing the up button would make it go further away; the correct button to press to summon it to take us upward was down. Her world was full of unresponsive elevators, but she had still, quite clearly, made her way through it.
  2. I still remember the aha of object orientation. It was like a conversion experience, and I kept being driven to explain it to everyone I knew. That was a dull week or two for my friends and family.
  3. Well, apart from the travel light box, whose need for repair prompted the book purchase.

Pretty rocks
Posted by Teresa at 12:36 AM *

I have gotten brave, and am exhibiting ten pieces of jewelry in this year’s Boskone art show. There’s a Flickr set of the individual pieces. The photography isn’t brilliant, but it should give you some idea.

This partly grew out of compulsion that somehow settled on me a while back: to make a rosary for Charles Darwin out of fossils. It helped that so many commonly available semiprecious stone beads are made of fossil material. I wound up making two rosaries, which turned out to be surprisingly pretty, and will probably make more. Next time around, though, I have got to get my hands on a usable trilobite.

My favorite moment so far was when I had a package containing the interior casts of turritella snails shipped to Patrick’s office, and the woman who sold them to me sent along a charming note saying “OMG you work at Tor! I love your books!” Fossils and science fiction: clearly, a member of our tribe.

The other compulsion is harder to explain. It has its roots in a series of obscure incidents that left me in possession of more than a thousand small stone bears, worked in all kinds of odd material. Like, I’ve got cacoxenite bears, and lepidolite bears, and bears I can’t begin to identify. (Not objecting. Seriously not objecting.) When I started working with them, I discovered that bears have opinions. They have narrative. You find yourself making eight-foot-long necklaces with strange names and properties.

At that point it becomes clear that one has strayed out of respectable craft and into art. I figure it’s like walking the dog. Every so often, you have to let your art out of the house (albeit on a leash) so it can sniff the air, bark at stuff it doesn’t recognize, and spend a while hanging around with other art.

I’ll see you at Boskone.

February 10, 2010
Like an ice storm, only with more volume
Posted by Teresa at 03:20 PM * 106 comments

We’re getting hit with vast amounts of heavy, wet snow. On the other side of my back fence, my neighbor’s carport roof has collapsed under its weight. Next door, the horizontal members of the Azerbaijanis’ backyard aqueduct are visibly sagging.

If you’re in the path of this monster, consider reaching out your window with a long broomstick and VERY, VERY GENTLY tapping the accumulating slush off your power and cable lines. Don’t fall out.

UPDATE: A Flickr collection from Patrick, Snowpocalypse 2: The Slushination.

February 07, 2010
Boomdeyada boomdeyada boomdeyada boomdeyada
Posted by Patrick at 05:49 PM * 159 comments

First there was a great commercial for the Discovery Channel.

Then there was “xkcd Loves the Discovery Channel.”

Then there was the animated adaptation of that xkcd strip.

Now this:

Full credits here.

February 06, 2010
PSA, part 2
Posted by Patrick at 01:21 PM * 61 comments

You know something, being sick for nearly five weeks isn’t nearly as much fun as they say.

Much better now, thanks to high-tech prescription drugs that appear to have successfully interrupted the cough/asthma/allergy cycle that had me unable to do much more challenging in the month of January than watch old House episodes. As of the last few days, I’ve even been back in the Tor offices, accomplishing actual work.

But if you’re wondering why I’ve been even more unresponsive than usual, that’s probably why. At this point I need to do something like proclaim “email amnesty,” or maybe “email apocalypse.” Or at least do this, an approach that seems applicable to non-email inboxes as well.

February 05, 2010
The “agency model” as I understand it
Posted by Teresa at 09:43 PM *

I’ve been seeing a lot of confusion about the “agency model” for publishing ebooks, which is what Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Apple are on record as preferring to Amazon and its Kindle program. Please understand that I am not speaking on behalf of Macmillan or any of its subsidiaries, and I don’t have any inside information on what exactly John Sargent had in mind this past week when he wrote his statements.


Under the agency model, online retailers will sell a publisher’s ebooks in return for 30% of the gross. It’s not tied to a specific price structure or publication schedule. Publishers will set their own prices for the titles they publish, and decide when their own editions will come out.

The model isn’t newly hatched. Tom Doherty* came up with something like it a few years ago. (I distinctly recall him saying “We are not going to license ourselves out of our own business,” and hearing from Patrick not long after that that Tom had decided that online ebooksellers were distributors, not publishers.)

At the heart of the model is the proposition that ebooks aren’t essentially different from hardcopy books. Ebooks are just another repro technology.* Furthermore, online ebook sellers like Amazon aren’t publishers; they’re distributors or booksellers.*

The difference between the agency model and Amazon’s plan for world domination is that Amazon wants to license* the ebooks in its Kindle program, control their content, and set their prices. That is: it wants to be the publisher, not a distributor or seller. This might be doable if Amazon were out there negotiating to buy rights at market prices. It isn’t. Amazon expects to have the rights just handed over, as though it were doing the conventional publishers a favor.

Amazon also wants to have the Kindle edition go on sale at the same time as the hardcover, and it wants to set a single price for the Kindle edition that undercuts the new hardcovers like crazy. This is a major problem. The revenue from hot new hardcovers is what keeps most conventional publishers afloat. It enables them to buy odd books and small books and first novels, and to put real effort into editing and packaging and promoting their books, and to pursue long-term projects like developing their authors’ careers.

In the long run, the Amazon model turns publishers into unfunded R&D labs that are obliged to turn over everything they develop to other companies at rock-bottom prices. It isn’t viable, and it’s not author-friendly in six different ways. Have you ever seen a discussion of how badly messed-up Kindle texts are? Amazon’s business isn’t about books and authors; it’s about selling units at a discount.

I like the agency model. Publishers keep doing what publishers do well. Online retailers step into something very like the role of the bookseller. Market forces continue to exert themselves in normal ways. And after decades of theories and models and way too much discussion, the ebook settles into being what it always should have been: just another repro technology, with its own strengths and weaknesses and price points.

The agency model is a good illustration of how publishing can constantly be going through (supposedly) cataclysmic changes while continuing to putter along as a recognizable entity. The specific mechanisms and technologies change, but they’re assimilated into existing roles, relationships, and areas of competence and responsibility. It’s not unlike the way the military turned cavalry into mechanized units in the first part of the 20th century: tech changes faster than the roles of the people who use it.*

From that standpoint, the agency model is a suitable and fitting development:

  • Responsibility for essential tasks stays with the people who already know how to do them.
  • The power to determine how work gets done stays with the people who are doing the work.
  • Rewards for creating value flow back to the people and organizations that are creating it.
Which is as it should be.

February 04, 2010
Blake Charlton experiences suffering
Posted by Teresa at 09:49 PM *

I haven’t met Blake Charlton or read his novel, Spellwright, but everyone I know who’s met him says he’s a very nice guy. Everyone I know who’s read his book—it’s about a student wizard who’s working in a spell-based magical system, only he’s dyslexic—says it’s charming, even the ones who don’t normally like fantasy.

Spellwright is his first novel. He’s written it in his copious spare time as a medical student at Stanford. Its official release date is less than a month from now. This is how he’s come to write What Happens to a Debut Author’s Brain on #Amazonfail.

He’s not alone. There are first-time authors published by Macmillan whose books came out last week. There are authors whose first novels were published last month, and were just starting to get word-of-mouth sales traction. And so forth. And so on. They have nothing to do with the fight over ebook prices, but Amazon is screwing them over just the same.

A music exec’s take on the Macmillan/Amazon throwdown
Posted by Teresa at 08:44 PM * 162 comments

Macmillan author and former record company exec Susan Pivar has a brilliant piece at HuffPo, The Macmillan vs. Amazon Throwdown, about the significance of sales and distribution structures, the perils of letting retailers control prices, and how, starting in the 90s, their mishandling of the issue “led the music business to unwittingly fall on its pony-tailed sword.” Her analysis goes far beyond Amazon’s grab for lebensraum and other issues of the moment. I suspect people will be reading and quoting it for years to come.

Among other things it’s the first explanation I’ve seen that accounts for a big difference between the recorded music industry and trade book publishing. The music industry promotes and releases a relatively small number of albums, which it expects to sell in vast numbers. The trade book industry publishes a vast number of titles, of which a tiny fraction are bestsellers, a small fraction are modestly profitable, and the rest either lose money or come darn close to it. I mostly understand why we do what we do, but I’ve always wondered why the music industry took the other path.

I’ll try not to quote her entire essay:

…How did the American public get hoodwinked into believing that the suppliers are the bullies rather than the retailers?

As an ex-music business exec (1989-2000), I’ve already seen how the story ends when an industry allows retailers (rather than suppliers) to set product pricing. Recording companies waited around for someone else to take the hit by telling Best Buy or Walmart to stuff their “loss-leader” strategies and outrageous price and position fees. But no one did. Kudos to Macmillan’s John Sargent for his bold gesture. And shame on Amazon for calling the move to accept Macmillan’s pricing (for now) a capitulation. That word really gave me the creeps. …

Yeah. Bullies that are into self-pity feel justified no matter how badly they’re behaving. It’s also been creepy watching days pass without Amazon re-listing the books. I’m increasingly wondering whether the whole point of their “capitulation” announcement was to kill the story in the mainstream media.
Here is one woman’s blow-by-blow view of how we got to a place where retailers control basically everything about how a book reaches your hand. (Social media phenoms notwithstanding.)

Shift in purchasing patterns from regional to national. In the 90s, there were things called record stores. They sold recordings. There were things called appliance stores. They sold appliances. There were things called grocery stores. They sold food. Somewhere in the early 90s these things started to get all mixed together. When it became apparent that the CD was for real and not only were people going to buy new releases in this format but also replace every single thing they already owned, the industry kaboomed. In a good way. Suddenly every retailer wanted to stock CDs. (I’ll never forget the time Rounder Records (my employer at the time) got a 3000-piece bluegrass catalog order from Blockbuster video stores.)

Around the same time, we saw the rise of big box stores selling music. The famous phrase “loss leader” came into our lexicon. CDs became those inglorious leaders. They were imagined to be just the thing to lure unsuspecting customers into the big box with the hope, I suppose, that they’d realize they needed a new washing machine while shopping for Nirvana’s Nevermind, or perhaps the other way around. To capture market share, Best Buy, Circuit City, and others priced music below even wholesale costs in some cases. What knucklehead thought of this, I have no idea, but this was the beginning of the end. Suddenly regular record stores had to compete on price in order to survive. But they couldn’t achieve the economies of scale, so instead they ate each other. 20-store chains became 100 store chains. 100-store chains became 800-store chains. Independent stores began to die. First individual stores and then small chains.

That represents a huge loss of expertise in the overall system. Local stores knew their territory and their customers, and had diverse but well-informed tastes. That is: they had superior resolution when it came to answering a basic question: “Are there people out there who (a.) buy records and (b.) will really like this recording? And if so, who are they, and how do I sell it to them?”
So what, you might think, it’s the American way to compete on price and anyway bands were still making music, so what’s the big deal. The big deal is that purchasing became centralized. This had two important consequences:

One, regional bands or labels couldn’t sell records to a buyer in their own hometown, thereby building a local base, and, drum roll please,

Two, Central buying can only succeed with hit-driven product. When one guy in an office in Albany is deciding what’s going to go in 1200 stores throughout the country, he can’t buy this for Miami and that for Ann Arbor. He doesn’t have time to buy 500 copies of a new release this week and then monitor sales patterns and buy another 500 (or 10 or 1000) the next week and then keep 2 copies in the bin just in case someone wants to buy it in a year. Too labor intensive. Plus he has no idea what people care about in Miami or Ann Arbor. He needs quick turns on music that’s going to blow up out of the box and then be gone. For good.

Buh-bye developing artists.

Context matters. Developing new artists requires a long-term commitment to their work and readership, and close attention to their sales patterns. You can’t do that if every new release has to be a blockbuster. It’s like expecting children to pay the entire cost of their education.

As I said on Boing Boing right after the story broke:

…while a fixed $10 price point would undoubtedly be good for Amazon’s ebook business, it would take a shark-sized bite out of the market for hot new bestsellers, which is trade book publishing’s single most profitable area.

That revenue source is what keeps a lot of publishing companies afloat. It provides the liquidity that enables them to buy and publish smaller and less commercially secure titles: odd books, books by unknown writers, books with limited but enthusiastic audiences, et cetera.

My honest estimate is that the result would be fewer and less diverse titles overall, published less well than they are now.

If you strip away the industry’s margins, you lose the things the industry can do.
Nationalization of music distribution. Central purchasing systems do not thrive on having a multitude of vendors, each with different terms, sales cycles, pricing structures, and styles of customer service. They want to buy a bunch of stuff from as few people as possible. Distributors had to figure out a way to do business with retail behemoths. They had to become behemoths themselves. Major labels actually began scouting indie labels and offering distribution deals to the bigger ones. Smaller indie distributors and one-stops began gluing themselves together to form national distribution companies. Though they were once the bastion of new music, indie labels and distributors had less and less time for developing artists themselves.

Buh-bye regional music.

Nationalization of radio.

(Snipped: interesting history of the Telecommunications Act and its effects.)
… Local radio lost its local-ness and all the pride, quirkiness, and opportunity for new artists and creative programming that went with it. Again, a few people making decisions for a huge number of outlets. And, again, only hits serve an infrastructure like this.

Buh-bye new music.

Here’s the paragraph I think should be carved in granite and inlaid in gold:
Shift in creative locus. Hits, hits, hits. Have I made my point? Instead of a record label being able to survive by selling a few copies of a zillion different recordings, they had to sell a zillion copies of a few recordings. Product lines became less and less diverse, less and less risk-taking. What can sell a zillion copies without artist development? Only already-established artists or those lucky few who a label would choose to get behind and push, push, push until they made it to the top (as long as it happened within the first month after the record came out). To do this would literally require millions of dollars. To spend millions of dollars, you have to have a sure thing. To have a sure thing, you look at what has already succeeded and try to copy it by going out and finding an act that fits the bill. When you copy others, you end up with bullshit.
I know this problem from other places. It’s why major entertainment franchises won’t allow character change or worldbuilding in tie-in storylines: you can’t let the creatives mess around with a narrative franchise worth millions and millions of dollars. It’s why you can’t take your artistic guidance solely from polling the fans: all they know is what they liked last time. It’s why it’s perilous to do editorial work on material with which you have no personal sympathy: if you’re making choices based on what thus-and-such market segment “ought to like,” you run the risk of choosing stuff that no one loves at all. Hell, it’s the single biggest reason acquiring editors are hesitant to get too specific about what they want: aspiring authors will write to fit that description, rather than satisfying their own sense of what’s cool/fun/interesting/worth reading.

(And no, self-publishing is not the answer.)

Have you had the experience over the last decade of checking out the paperback wire racks at your local grocery, or a small airport newsstand, or the sundries store at a highway rest area, and found they were full of famous-author bestsellers, none of which you wanted to read? That state of affairs is the result of the same kind of processes Susan Pivar describes in music. Big-box retailers insisted on simplified purchasing deals with a small number of distributors, and while they were at it they gouged themselves out a bigger wholesale discount.

This triggered the collapse of the previous system of distribution, with its hundreds of regional distributors with all their accumulated expertise, to one where the handful of distributors left standing manage an impoverished system of huge territories with which they’re imperfectly acquainted. That’s why you see those wire racks, which used to have a diverse selection of books, stocked entirely with books by a small number of big-name authors, one vertical row per author. It’s called “famous author racking.” Publishers have run sales demos at selected airport newsstands, showing that a more diverse selection will sell significantly more books, but the distributors weren’t interested. Famous author racking is simple, it’s easy, and the distributors already have as much work to do as they can handle and their resources will allow.

Yay, retailers. We love the retailers. Commerce wouldn’t work without them. But if you let a few big retailers dictate your prices, next thing you know you’re going to be bidding to be allowed to supply them with wholesale merchandise at sweatshop rates so they can drive their remaining competition out of business by undercutting them. That’s bad if you’re making t-shirts. It’s disastrous if you’re making books or music.

It’s particularly disastrous if you care about having access to a wide range of well-made new art. Authors may grumble about publishers (and musicians certainly grumble about record companies), but when they’re not being forced into dysfunctional arrangements, publishing houses are companies whose job it is to find, nurture, shape, package, and sell good books to people who want to read them. When we do it well, we make a world where there are more books, and better books. Authors get paid more to write them, and can afford to put more love and effort into them, and more writers can afford to be authors. We co-enable good bookstores and booksellers. We package books so that they speak to you, telling you what kind of reading experience they are, and letting you decide whether that’s what you want.

If you want good art, you have to pay for good art. You also need a delivery system that connects that art with its audience. And you need for the money paid for that art to go to the people who make it. Macmillan’s fight with Amazon isn’t a meaningless corporate squabble over a few percents profit. It damned well matters.

“No one goes around suggesting that everyone should become their own autonomous cheesemakers and cheering the death of the cheese industry. Why? Because that would result in a lot of shitty cheese.”
Posted by Patrick at 05:47 PM *

Novelist Cat Valente addresses the idea that in the glorious, friction-free digital utopia of the future, all writers will electronically self-publish:

Funny thing is, if this future came to pass and the market were nothing but self-published autonomous authors either writing without editorial or paying out of pocket for it, if we were flooded with good product mixed with bad like gold in a stream, it would be about five seconds before someone came along and said: hey, what if I started a company where we took on all the risk, hired an editorial staff and a marketing staff to make the product better and get it noticed, and paid the author some money up front and a percentage of the profits in exchange for taking on the risk and the initial cost? So writers could, you know, just write?

And writers would line up at their door.

February 03, 2010
Intelligence in, intelligence out
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 08:03 AM * 54 comments

Remember Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber”?

Remember how a Rasmussen poll concluded that 58% of US voters favored waterboarding him, while the conservative media staggered toward its collective fainting couch at the idea of reading him his Miranda rights?

Well, according to an article on Reuters today, he’s been providing “useful, actionable intelligence” in the time since he was Mirandized. Know how we got that intelligence? Rather than disappearing him in some gulag or subjecting him to “enhanced interrogation”, it appears that US officials have treated his injuries and “brought family members from Nigeria to help convince him” to talk.

So now we have information about developing threats in Yemen, more reliable information than we would have had by torturing the guy.

And it’s not fruit of the poison tree, so it’s admissible evidence in court (perhaps not open court, depending on security issues). This means we can put Abdulmutallab on trial like any other person accused of a crime. (Which, interestingly, means he is more likely to be convicted and, if so, given a serious sentence than if he went before a military commission.)

I think this is a good thing for us. I believe that by holding a criminal trial, by looking into his face, hearing what he has to say and the case against him, we’ll learn more about the threats that face us than we have from years of whispering our fears in the dark. And if he’s found guilty, we can then sentence him according to our tradition of law, which is older and stronger and wiser than at least 58% of us have shown ourselves to be.

And the next time someone is concerned that a son, a brother, or a friend is planning an attack, it will be that much easier to step forward, because we treat accused people decently. No matter what our enemies say.

There’s plenty I’m not happy about with the Obama administration right at the present moment. I want health care reform so bad it aches. But this would never have happened under a Bush presidency*, or a McCain one. We’re doing the right thing here, the intelligent thing, and it’s important that we stand up and say it.

* I stand corrected. Where were the fainting couches then?

February 01, 2010
Amazon versus Macmillan
Posted by Teresa at 01:14 AM *

On Friday, Amazon removed the “buy” links on its site from every book published by Macmillan or its subsidiaries. The two companies were in the middle of negotiations about ebook rights and pricing, and Amazon got tired of negotiating, so they de-listed Macmillan’s books to force them to capitulate.

I opine that Amazon’s demands were overblown and excessively self-serving, and their attempt to strongarm Macmillan put them in clear violation of federal antitrust regulations. I observe that Amazon has pulled this same trick on several previous occasions, and gotten away with it more often than not. Those victories had nothing to do with laws and rights, and everything to do with the power distributors hold over publishers.

The book production pipeline is long and expensive. If a major distributor suspends sales of a publisher’s books, there’s a good chance the publisher will go broke and go out of business before they can do anything about the situation.

It’s been an exciting weekend.

Today, Amazon backed down and said they’d decided not to invade Belgium after all. It’s good news, though I’m still waiting to hear they’ve actually put the links back up. In the meantime, some selected readings:

From Zinc Blinked, by Scott Westerfeld:

This is not a case of two corporations pissing down on us mere mortals with equal disdain; it’s a case of complex negotiations in an ancient industry with many arcane traditions that’s in a state of technological flux, being conducted at a level which the overwhelming majority of readers do not understand (nor should they have to), and which were going along in a way that made, frankly, perfect sense to those of us who understand this industry a little, when suddenly, out of the blue, one of the sides in this negotiation spat their pacifier across the room in a very public and embarrassing display of petulance. And that corporation was Amazon.
From the formidable Amazon, Macmillan: an outsider’s guide to the fight, by Charlie Stross:
Note that Amazon have been trying to grab a larger share of the cake by dipping into the publishers’ — and the authors’ — share of what meagre profits there are (book publishing is notoriously, uniquely unprofitable, within the media world), even though they’ve already got the wholesale and retail supply chains stitched up. Their buy wholesale/sell retail model screws publishers’ ability to manage their cash flow and tends to induce price wars on the supply side, which is okay if we’re talking widgets with a range of competing suppliers, but books are individually unique products and the industry already runs on alarmingly narrow margins: this isn’t the music or movie biz. …

Just before Apple announced the iPad and the agency deal for ebooks, Amazon pre-empted by announcing an option for publishing ebooks in which they would graciously reduce their cut from 70% to 30%, “same as Apple”. From a distance this looks competitive, but the devil is in the small print; to get the 30% rate, you have to agree that Amazon is a publisher, license your rights to Amazon to publish through the Kindle platform, guarantee that you will not allow other ebook editions to sell for less than the Kindle price, and let Amazon set that price, with a ceiling of $9.99. In other words, Amazon choose how much to pay you, while using your books to undercut any possible rivals (including the paper editions you still sell). It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the major publishers don’t think very highly of this offer.

John Scalzi has been on top of this story all weekend, starting with Macmillan Books Gone Missing from Amazon, and continuing on with A Quick Note on eBook Pricing and Amazon Hijinx, It’s All About Timing, and Dear Amazon. His most recent entry, All the Many Ways Amazon So Very Failed This Weekend, is gratifyingly thorough:
Leaving aside the moral, philosophical, cultural and financial implications of this weekend’s Amazon/Macmillan slapfight and What It All Means for book readers and the future of the publishing industry, in one very real sense the whole thing was an exercise in public communications, a process by which two very large companies made a case for themselves in the public arena. And in this respect, we can say this much without qualification: oh, sweet Jesus, did Amazon ever hump the bunk.

How did it do so? I’m glad you asked! Let us count the ways. …

2. Amazon Lost the Authors.

Amazon apparently forgot that when it moved against Macmillan, it also moved against Macmillan’s authors. Macmillan may be a faceless, soulless baby-consuming corporate entity with no feelings or emotions, but authors have both of those, and are also twitchy neurotic messes who obsess about their sales, a fact which Amazon should be well aware of because we check our Amazon numbers four hundred times a day, and a one-star Amazon review causes us to crush up six Zoloft and snort them into our nasal cavities, because waiting for the pills to digest would just take too long.

These are the people Amazon pissed off. Which was not smart thing, because as we all know, the salient feature of writers is that they write. And they did, about this, all weekend long.

For further discussion, check out the comment thread of the preceding entry on Making Light.


From Tobias Buckell, Why My Books Are No Longer Available on

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