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14 Apr

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The Brave New World of Content and Copyright: How a little British Piggy Wiped the floor with a French Shapeshifter

20 Feb

barbapigThis is a cautionary tale. If you are a content producer of any sort, and still operating under the archaic copyright presumptions and mindset of the distant past, then you’re well on your way to becoming extinct. Much sooner than you think, I’m afraid. Listen well and heed my advice if you are a writer, a film maker, or a musician, and anything in between. This applies to all of us.

I have a four year old daughter who doesn’t watch much television because we decided against outsourcing our parenting duties to the networks. But we do allow her to watch some DVDs and a few of her favorite shows on our tablets, under our supervision.

To simplify this story, let’s assume she started off watching two shows a couple of years ago. Because it’s the comparison between these two shows that will serve as the moral of my story.

The first is a French classic called Barbapapa, which started off as a series of children’s books written in the 1970s. The main characters are the Barbapapa family, who are most notable for their ability to shapeshift at will. The books evolved into a highly successful animated show, localized and licensed across the globe, along with a healthy merchandising system.

The second show is a more contemporary British creation called Peppa Pig, which revolves around a female pig, and her family and friends. Episodes feature day-to-day living with lighthearted flare, and a bit of signature British tongue-in-cheek for good measure. Innocuous things like attending playgroup, going swimming, visiting her grandparents, going to the playground or riding bikes.

A a parent, I love both shows equally. Barbapapa has a beautifully nostalgic and vintage quality to it, but was well ahead of its time with deep messages of ecological responsibility. Peppa Pig is hugely entertaining, moderately educational, but most importantly, it does no harm. For a modern animation, that’s a huge plus.

As a content creator myself, I respect the hard work of creative artists and purchased a few original DVDs of both shows when my daughter was two and still getting in them. But in due course and as a result of changing viewing habits, we discovered episodes of both shows  widely available on YouTube. So it was infinitely more convenient to watch them on our tablets, or even beam them from our mobile devices to our big screens, rather than the whole song and dance of finding the DVD, making sure it’s not scratched, wiping it clean—you get the picture.

About a year ago, every single episode of Barbapapa that was previously available on YouTube disappeared overnight. In its place was the infamous YouTube message that the “copyright holder of said content has requested that it be removed,” yadda, yadda, yadd.  At roughly the same time, more high quality episodes of Peppa Pig started mushrooming, including hour-long compilations of the latest seasons. And this has continued until this day.

Being the delightful parents that we are, we purchased whatever Barbapapa DVDs we could get our hands on to appease the little one.  I think you already know where this story is going.

Inevitably, my daughter lost interest in Barbapapa because it wasn’t readily available to watch on YouTube. Because mock it all you like, but the whole YouTube/mobile device marriage is really made in heaven for the modern family on the run.

And inversely proportionate to her loss of interest in Barbapapa, was her increased obsession with Peppa Pig – and the formidable merchandising empire that came with it.

Here’s the fuzzy math of this whole thing. We probably own one or two Peppa Pig DVDs, which have been sucked into some black hole around the house, never to be found again. In other words, our net contribution to the Astley Baker Davies animation studio that produces Peppa Pig is about $15 in DVD purchases. On the other hand, we’ve probably been “forced” to spend about five times as much on Barbapapa DVDs when they disappeared from YouTube.

Now this is where the story gets more cautionary. Despite our paltry spending on Peppa Pig DVDs, the amount we’ve shelled out on Peppa Pig merchandise—figures, coloring books, bags, water cups, pajamas, t-shrits, shoes, and you wouldn’t even begin to imagine what else—is probably fifty times more than what we would have spent if we had purchased the entire library of Peppa Pig DVDs. And the future library for the next five years.

And what have we spent on the Barbapapa brand name other than the DVDs? Nothing. Or practically nothing.

Peppa Pig: Game, set, match!

Two production companies targeting more or less the same age group. One operating with antiquated and aggressive philosophies to copyright as the linchpin of the financial engine of content, and the other one couldn’t care less about its content being pirated and distributed widely for free. If I was one of the makers of Peppa Pig, I’d be secretly satisfied that whoever is uploading my shows is doing my seeding for me and ensnaring generations of loyal fans and instilling in them a voracious appetite for anything and everything that can be pig-branded.  And this is not just rife in the English speaking world. Peppa pig is everywhere and in every language. The next time you see a child rushing to splash in muddy puddles, you now know where that came from.

The moral of the story is this: Stop trying to fight piracyIt’s a futile, expensive, and polarizing endeavor. A lost cause, really.

Technology and our changing viewing and consumption habits are decades ahead of the narrow minds of the geriatric suits at the media corporations who are still deluding themselves that copyright is the be all and end all of generating income from the content you create.

I take my hat off to the ingenious minds at Astley Baker Davies who were on the money with their strategy not to draw the copyright infringement card and alienate their fan base, and their parents’ who hold the checkbooks.

As the music business has discovered the hard way, and the publishing industry is quickly learning, the future of the business side of producing content is going to be far less about monetizing content, and much more about cashing in on the rich layers of experiencing said content, over and over again.

Which means that the unit price of any piece of content is invariably going to shrink until its negligible or zero. Look at full-length electronic books now selling at 99 cents. Heed the lesson of software which went from thousands of dollars per license to free, or almost free aps. Consider that the most successful newspapers in the UK are distributed gratis to commuters. And of course everything about the music industry is a testament to this trend. Musicians now make most of their money on merchandising and live events, and are practically giving away music. One of the biggest players in the industry is Live Nation Entertainment – formed from the merger of an events promoter and a ticket seller. The film industry is a tougher cookie to crack, but mark my word, the rebels are at the walls of Hollywood and sooner or later will bring the whole thing down.

For far too long now the creation, production and distribution of content has been in the monopolistic hands of large corporations that have set unrealistic and extortionate prices. Now the revolution is coming to democratize the creation and pricing of content. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that absolute earnings will plummet. In fact, if the music industry numbers are anything to go by, earnings under the new paradigm eventually start heading north. The pyramid is being turned on its head. Far more people are now connected to the commercial “grid” than decades ago. Which means that rather than make a bundle of money from a few people by overcharging them, the market has expanded to a point where you can viably earn microscopic amounts from a wider audience and end up at the same point.

The lesson here for any content creator is to sprint beyond our fixation and obsession as a society with copyright. In a world where massive technological advances have lowered the bar dramatically for anyone to operate as a content generator (repeat after me: crowdsourcing), we will need to think of more creative ways to make money and be rewarded for our hard work. The singularity of the ‘content for money’ paradigm is not just shifting, it’s crumbling.

As a writer, I’m committed to making my books available at the fairest price point possible. But I am taking it a step further: I am willing to give it away for free. But only if you ask. If you tell me, “Love your work, man, and would love to read one of your books. But I honestly can’t afford to spare the $2.99 at this point of my life,” I’ll straight up give it you for free.

Because just like Peppa Pig, I’d rather draw you into my muddy puddle for the long haul, than see you shapeshift away.


My review of Elysium

6 Jan

With Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and a few positive critical reviews, Elysium seemed like a safe choice. The premise is intriguing, and the production values are high with stunning aesthetics. Many years in the future, earth is a dystopian shit hole populated by the disenfranchised, while the folks with means have evacuated their way of life to an exclusive artificial colony hovering over earth, called Elysium. I am not going to bother with unwrapping the political parables of the setting because it’s all way too obvious, even in a simplistic way.

For a variety of reasons, Matt Damon’s character needs to break into Elysium where one of the perks of living there is access to Med-Bays which reverse and eliminate all diseases and injuries. But as one would expect from an exclusive orbital colony, pirate ships trying to penetrate Elysium are repelled with brutal force under the auspices of a ruthless Secretary of Defense, played by Jodie Foster.

Before long, the whole affair falls flat on its ass with huge gaping plot holes, mediocre acting, and one too many over the top caricatures. Like the pseudo villain called Kruger who comes to the screen with a particularly annoying South African accent. Overall, Matt Damon probably gave the best performance, but the biggest disappointment was Jodie Foster. Her character didn’t even amount to one dimension, and like Kruger, she too sported a ridiculous accent. But unlike him, hers was intermittent and unidentifiable which was at best annoying, and for the most part highly distracting. Even the usually dependable William Fichtner, who’s made a career out of being the underrated actor who delivers the goods, left me with scant nothing.

As a writer, it both pains and enthuses me to see such weak stories making it to the silver screen. There were at least six major back-to-back plot inconsistencies/implausibilities.  Neill Blomkamp, the South African director of this film, also wrote it, which further confirms  my belief that some of the best movies tend to be based on excellent books. In other words, a good director isn’t necessarily a good writer. Unless you happen to be James Cameron.

Was Elysium the worst movie I’ve ever seen? Far from it. It was generally entertaining and watchable. But it thwarted my willing suspension of disbelief and was guilty of the worst thing any work of fiction can commit – to make the consumer feel they can do a better job.

I give it 2.75 stars out of 5 for beautiful visuals and for keeping me watching till the end despite the stated weaknesses.

Are you a nice person or a jerk?

18 Dec

jerkImagine the world was clearly divided between nice folks and jerks. I am not talking about good versus evil, but just your general behavior in the public sphere.

Now be honest and ask yourself, are you nice or a total jerk?

Let’s find out.

When you’re in the lift and someone is rushing to get in as the door is about to shut, do you wave your hands to activate the motion detector so the doors slide back open, or do you stand like a sphinx reveling in their misery as they come close but don’t quite make it?

Talking of enclosed public spaces, do you control the urge, or do you pass wind when it’s almost impossible to determine the culprit?

At the supermarket, if you develop buyer’s remorse about the prosciutto shaved fresh for you at the deli, do you just leave it concealed  in a random cold section knowing it’s likely going to be discarded, or do you buy it regardless?

And while we’re still at the supermarket, when you’ve unpacked your groceries in the car, do you return the shopping trolley back to it’s place or do you abandon it as a potential wayward hazard?

Do you sneeze and cough in a handkerchief or on your sleeve to avoid propagating your microbes, or do you let it all out not caring you could be patient zero of a deadly pandemic?

And if you were certain you weren’t going to get fined would you park in a spot designated for the disabled, or would you never do it out of principle?

Do you hold the door for others and maintain eye contact with a smile, or do you zip through, not caring if the door hits them in the face on the way back?

If you and another person reach the queue at roughly the same time, do you allow the other person to go ahead of you or do you walk faster to claim your lead?

When you bump into other people, do you automatically assume it’s your fault and apologize, or do you fire a dirty look at the other person?

Do you smile and say good morning to strangers, or do you habitually ignore the world, living behind your Beats headphones?

Do you talk candidly to your neighbors about things they do that annoy you, or do you leave passive aggressive notes?

Gents, do you put the toilet seat up in a public restroom as you hose down, or do you assume when it comes to urine on the toilet seat it’s every man for himself?

Do you praise your friends in public and criticize them in private, or do the exact opposite?

When you drive, do you always give pedestrians right of way, or are you always trying to get ahead of them?

Do you only buy stuff  you plan to keep, or do you sometimes buy things to use just once only to return them during the grace period?

Are you the sort of person who breaks up with a significant other over email, text or Facebook, or do you do everything face-to-face regardless of the pain?

Have you ever faked a heart attack or other serious illness on a plane to be upgraded to the next class? Or requested the disability service to whiz through customs and immigration when you are perfectly healthy? Or is that just not your style?

Do you give false compliments to gain petty advantages, or do you only say nice things to people when you genuinely mean them?

So what are you, a kind soul or a total a** hole?

Here’s what I think. A very small minority of the folks reading this are going to swing heavily towards being either totally angelic, or totally rotten. But for most of us, we will fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Nice 24/7 can be colorless and irritating. And rotten all the time is unacceptable.

The truth is, as humans, our own survival and best interest is hard-coded somewhere in our primordial blue print. Living in mega societies and adapting to a system that respects the other is in a way counter-intuitive to the basic set of animal mores that have helped our species evolve tenaciously over time.

There will be times when even if our general disposition leans towards being cordial, it’s going to be impossible not to be a jerk. Such as when we are grieving or just fuming angry. If you’ve just discovered your spouse is banging their sexy personal trainer, you aren’t going to hold the door open for the chatterbox old lady who lives on the first floor. And if you’re that personal trainer who just discovered the cute, wealthy client you’ve been sleeping with is no where near as single as they claimed to be, not only will you not care to return the shopping trolley to its bay, you may also be tempted to ram it in the closest minivan as a blanket assault on all married couples. Or in other words, when we are stressed or threatened, we revert to our basic, survival codes which prod us to be less amiable.

Sticking by the  rules of public civility makes life generally more pleasant for everyone, but for most people it requires that we actively choose to play nice. One day at a time.

Once beautiful

31 Oct

He glanced at her once-beautiful face, and then turned the opposite direction to avoid her eyes. There was no sense in hurting her feelings even if he knew how this blind date was going to end for her. Not well.

She was etched with the passing of time. Not that she had lied about her age on her profile. But man was she the oldest looking forty-two year old he had ever set eyes on. It wasn’t the ageing process that had distorted her appearance. If anything, her wrinkles added an interesting dimension to her. The sun had done most of the irreparable damage. And the burning smoke of tobacco exiting her lips and bathing her face, day-in day-out, must have taken care of the rest.

Hers was a skin tone of lifeless grey. Just like the walls of his old prison cell. Blurred facial features contorted asymmetrically and drooped when they should have been elastic. As if her multiplying cells had decided to finally punish her for many years of disregard for the well being of her body.  Despite that, he mentally peeled off layers imparted by time, the elements and her own recklessness and could see with great clarity how she looked once upon a time when she really was fetching. To do that was his special talent. Or what singled him out as a freak. And ever since he was released on parole and started baiting women online only to butcher them at the end of the night, he had never once backed out for failing to see beauty in a victim.

Everyone is beautiful, somehow.

Except him. He was born hideous. Not necessarily on the outside, but on the inside. The bastard child of the devil and everything wretched in this world. Killing beautiful, or even once-beautiful women was the only way he knew to heal and feel cleansed on the inside. Even if just for a few fleeting hours in the dead of the night, lying naked in their pool of blood.

“Very beautiful,” he whispered now turned to look her straight in the eye.

She smiled, but seemed taken aback. Not by the odd tone of his voice or the unnatural, nonhuman pitch. Or the iciness of his deadened eyes. But as if it had been a long time since she heard these words from a man who really meant them.


Putting the “gent” back in agent: The complete writers’ guide to Literary Agents

20 Oct

Andrew Wylie (born 1947), also known as The Jackal, is one of the world’s leading literary agents.

Perhaps no one  in the publishing industry is vilified and revered with equal vigor as much as the literary agent.

I just came back from the Frankfurt Bookfair where for the first time since starting to frequent this seminal book event in 1999, I attended as a writer. While I saw almost every aspect of the book world from a different prism, my perception of literary agents remains the same. I am a firm believer that unless you know what you are doing, writers should not go to book fairs chasing agents. Let alone publishers. It’s a recipe for disaster, disillusionment, and potential humiliation. The best way to engage an agent remains the good old fashioned submission process.

Yet I am still amazed how despite all the great advice out there that tries to demystify agents and to lay a clear and effective pathway on how to approach and work with them, most writers still don’t get it and keep erring repeatedly.

In this post, I would like to throw my own pebble into the pond of enlightenment for writers when it comes to the all mighty LitAgs.

It’s a business, like any other

Literary agents have the misfortune of being the gatekeepers that filter literary talent for mainstream publishers to pick and choose from. Writers not only perceive them as “middle” men and women, which in itself carries numerous negative connotations, but many aspiring scribes have a largely inaccurate perception of agents as being inherently nasty.  That there sole aim in life is to crush the hopes and dreams of ingenious writers, and instead choose to support lesser authors who they may have direct personal contacts with. Or some variation of these negative stereotypes and conspiracy theories. I’ve heard it all.

I would argue that nothing is further from the truth. Literary agency is a business like any other. No agent in their right mind would ever come across unquestionable literary talent that can translate into commercial gain and turn it down simply because they are on a power trip or because they would prefer to help their writer buddies.

The brutal reality is this: Writing is a hugely saturated and cut-throat business. Underline business. Literary agents behave in a way that reflects the needs of the market at any given time. These days, it’s not enough to be a great writer with a great story. There are thousands upon thousands who are just as good or better than you. Agents are not just looking for outstanding writers any more, that’s a given. If you haven’t perfected your craft yet, don’t even bother with agents. It’s a waste of your time and theirs. Agents are looking for the next great thing. Something unique and different they can take to their publisher clients with a convincing pitch.

The bottom line is this: If you want a mainstream publishing deal, your writing project has to be fresh, unique and it has to stand out on every level other than phenomenal writing skills. Agents and by extension publishers already have enough clients who write well and earn them handsome amounts to keep them in business for a very long time. They are not looking for more of the same. If your genre is horror, it’s not enough to be just as good as Stephen King. You have to bring something new, ground-breaking and exciting to the mix.

Now does that mean that literary agents are infallible angels who always play it straight like an arrow? Of course not. They are just as human as you and I. Will they make a few exceptions to push up their personal contacts a little faster up the ladder of submissions? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make them any worse than the doctor who gives priority appointments to friends and family, or the shop owner who offers slightly better discounts to their inner circle. Human beings are social animals and we get by through life by sticking to our groups and taking care of one another.

I would even go as far as postulating that knowing a literary agent would at best save you some time of getting the exact same answer you would have gotten if you didn’t know them. A “no” is still a “no”, even if you get it sooner. Agents have professional reputations to uphold and would never knowingly try to sell inferior material just to do their buddy a solid.

And as it happens, the vast majority of literary agents are down-to-earth, hard-working, decent folks who get all doe-eyed and excited about books and writing, just like you. They would love nothing more than to discover a diamond in the rough. To believe that you the writer could be the next Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Khaled Hosseini, Alaa El Aswany, Frederick Forsyth,  J.K. Rowling, or Vince Flynn.

Be Upfront and Professional

Agents repeat themselves, over and over again. It’s always the same message. Consistently the same basic principles. Which are: The number of things a writer can do to improve their chances with an agent, other than having a solid pitch, is exactly zero. No amount of jokes or “quirky” style in your query letter will endear you to them any more than a basic, well-written, courteous communique would. There is veritably nothing you can bribe an agent with that would convince them to like your pitch any more than what it deserves. There is no amount of “creativity” in how you submit your package that could enhance your chances—don’t waste your money on expensive manuscript boxes or fancy paper. And meeting you in person when you show up at their offices uninvited, or if you ambush them during their lunch break will only get your ego bruised, your face slapped or yourself arrested depending on how “spirited” your attempt is.

The truth is, I have never come across an agent’s submission guideline that was in any way vague or left anything open to interpretation. In a nutshell, here’s what agents expect from writers trying to do business with them:

1. Do your research. Find the most suitable agents and only submit to them. Don’t try to engage with an agent who specializes in mysteries and thrillers, if you happen to write cookery books or military history. How difficult is that?

2. Stick to the submission guidelines. Stick to the submission guidelines. Stick to the submission guidelines. If an agent asks for a complete synopsis that describes all the main events, don’t hold-off the final twist or ending because “you don’t want to deprive them of the thrill factor.” If you can’t follow simple instructions, agents can make all sorts of deductions about your intelligence and therefore their desire to work with you long term.

3. Be respectful and only speak when you are spoken to. Unless an agent specifically encourages you touch base after a certain period of time after your submission to prod them, the first time you contact an agent should be the last time until they engage you in a discussion. Indignant follow up letters or calls that contain phrases like “perplexed” won’t win you any favors. Most important of all, if an agent does pass on you, under no circumstance should you write back to complain or to plead for them to reconsider. If you do feel the need to write back, the best you can do is a gracious thank you note. In some circumstances if an agent’s rejection is vague or you require clarification for your own education, it may be okay to inquire about that, but only in the politest terms.

4. Never, ever burn bridges. Acting in a publishing capacity, a writer I rejected recently for a small piece of fiction first tried to make me change my mind through a series of aggressive emails. When none of my polite emails reflected a change in my position, she wrote back saying ” You are extremely unprofessional. I wouldn’t work with you on any project in the future. And I would advise anyone I know to not work with you.” Many agents I know tell me they’ve received even worse feedback from disgruntled, rejected writers. Sometimes even outright threats.

When writers behave like that upon rejection, they disclose their true nature. Good manners go a long way in this business. An agent who rejects you may, without you knowing, pass your proposal on to another agency who may find you more up their alley. But they certainly won’t be doing anything other than trashing your submission if you decide to be anything other than cordial, sane, and civilized.

It’s a free market, like any other

Perhaps one of the biggest mistake most aspiring writers commit when hunting for an agent is getting myopic and obsessive about the agents they will submit to. A lot of writers tend to send out limited submissions to either the top agencies, or just a few ones on a trial basis. And when the rejections start rolling in, they see that as a blanket condemnation of their writing skills and withdraw into a shell of self-doubt.

The savvy writer recognizes that literary agency is a free market. There are enough agencies and independent agents out there to support you sending a submission a day for a few years. And big doesn’t always mean better. In many cases, finding new or smaller agencies may work to your advantage. They may have more time and be less jaded. They  could pay more attention or see unique selling points in you or your story which you may have failed to articulate, and which an A-List agent may not have the time or patience to infer on your behalf. The best approach to finding an agent is to see it as an ongoing agricultural project. Plant as many seeds as you can and keep planting, rather than sowing just a few seeds then waiting idly by their side hoping to see them sprout.  Or to use another farm-inspired expression, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Think outside your geographic box

Another common mistake many writers commit is to think within their narrow geographic zone. It would serve them tremendously if they looked laterally and broadened their geographic focus. Instead of submitting only to agents in your country, why not cast a wider net and research literary agencies in other geographic locales? And I don’t just mean other English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Even further afield in other vibrant literary markets like Germany, Japan and Italy, or in emerging markets like Russia, Brazil, India, and China. If your genre is over-saturated in your home country, maybe there is a market for a writer like you and a story like yours in the most unexpected place. It is erroneous to  think that important publishing opportunities exist only within the confines of London or New York. The world is really your oyster.

Beware of the faux agent and the con artists

Much of the advice regarding agents focuses on what to do and not to do when dealing with legitimate literary agents. But with the advent of self-publishing, the industry is in the throes of a major overhaul. And like any industry in transformation, there are bound to be opportunistic leeches who try to profiteer in less than ethical ways.

I have noticed of late a growing species of faux agents and con artists whose business model is to prey on inexperienced first-time authors who are hungry for a break. In the spirit of vanity publishing houses which have thankfully now been fully exposed for what they are, fake agents recognize that while most writers have figured out they can produce a quality book on their own, the next step of getting it picked up by a mainstream publisher is still incredibly hard.

The most common type of fraudulent agent is the type who charge for their services. Reputable literary agents only get paid when you do. They get a commission from your earnings as a writer, through the deals they broker for you. Any one suggesting they can provide their services for a fee, are categorically taking you or a ride. Run a thousand miles in the opposite direction.

Slightly more refined, another genus of scamming literary agents will speak of co-sharing costs. They will spin you a yarn about how competitive the market has become, and that to gain an edge you need to invest in your writing career by teaming up with the agent in question (or even a publishing outfit they own or operate) to jump start your career. They will often use the editorial and production stages of self-publishing as an analogy and justification as to why you also need to invest in finding a publisher, or to “market” your self-published book. The key trigger words that should concern you are things like “partnership”, “joint venture”, “co-publishing”, “invest in your writing career”, and “the changing face of the publishing world.”

Between the thieving fake agents who want to charge you a fee for their services or those scoundrels who want you to “partner” with them, there is a whole ecosystem of agent impersonators who will want to con you out of your hard-earned cash through a myriad of ways. Like the microbial life forms of false agents who will indirectly solicit any number of favors (social, sexual, monetary) and lavish spending from you. I’ve heard of “agents” who expect to be taken out for expensive lunches to “discuss” your project. It is highly irregular for an agent assessing your work to want to dine with you. And in the rare occasion they do ask you out for a business meal, if it’s not their treat, at the very least split the bill. Even if you are a man and the conniving agent is a member of the opposite sex, resist the temptation to be a gentleman this one time because in all likelihood, you are the victim of a literary scam rather than a legitimate business relationship.

Be safe boys and girls, but open your hearts. There’s never been a better time to write and create.

The Future of Publishing: Dispatch from the Frankfurt Bookfair 2013

13 Oct

British writer Matt Haig recently said, “Authors shouldn’t go to book fairs any more than chickens should go to Nando’s.”

Presumably he meant writers seeking to get published. And I agree with him to some degree. Writers, listen up: Don’t go to book fairs looking to hook up with a publisher or an agent to get published. Especially if you are new at this game. You’ll get your heart plucked out of your chest and shredded. But do go to book fairs to educate yourself about this industry you so desperately want to belong to.

Many authors who want to take control of their careers spend far too much time complaining about the publishing industry, and very little time applying themselves to understand it, and therefore  be able to navigate it better.

I just spent five days attending the single-most important annual event for the literary and publishing worlds: The Frankfurt Book fair. An intensive, full immersion in the essence of anything and everything to do with the book world. A crash course of where this industry is, and more importantly where it’s heading. I’ve been attending this event since 1999, but for my day job. It’s my first time as a writer, and I saw it with a new set of eyes.

Publishers, printers, digital chain suppliers, agents (yes, those agents!), and logistics companies convene every year in Frankfurt to flex their muscles and show off, as well as make the big deals. Everyone’s there in droves. Except writers. Which is counterintuitive because this whole show is based on the products that writers (and illustrators) create. But that’s a point of another discussion.

What I want to do here is give you my take on the pulse of the publishing world based on my Frankfurt experience.

Books are going to be around for a long time

The most reassuring impression I had is that reading is alive and well. Concerns about the interest in books declining  as a result of diminishing attention spans are by-and-large exaggerated.

The fair is initially limited to trade visitors, but once it opened up to the public I felt a deep hunger and intense interest in books and authors. Granted the event is held in Germany, and Germans are known to be voracious readers. But this is a truly international party, and I’ve seen and heard attendants from all over the world with an equally passionate interest in the written word. The handful of rockstar authors who showed up were hounded just like movie stars.

This is good news if you happen to be a writer. Your craft is still highly in demand. Keep writing, even if the route between you and your future readers seems obstructed by the business side of the industry. On the other end, when you finally make it there, you’ll find an ocean of readers waiting eagerly to hear what you have to say, and interested and intrigued by this profession.

A book revolution is coming. But it’s not yet around the corner

The revolution we’re all expecting to rock the publishing world is coming. Mark my word. But not just yet. And it may take quite a while. The publishing industry feels ominously similar to the music world exactly ten years ago. The big players at the Frankfurt Bookfair seemed only tentatively nervous of what is about to come. But it is jittery. Gone is the resolute hubris of say, five years ago. Because there are intruders at the gates. Not posing any huge danger for now. But catapulting tiny fire balls at the fortress, patiently making small but effective dents. Microscopic gains that will one day add up.

Advances in technology have resulted in the explosion of electronic books and high-quality print on demand solutions, as well as somewhat reliable, wide distribution networks. This has lowered the entry bar dramatically. Producing a professional book and making it available for sale is no longer a difficult or prohibitively expensive pursuit. Anybody can do it. And I really mean anybody.

But herein lies an inherent contradiction of self-publishing that is both comforting and worrying for mainstream publishers.

Because anybody can do it, the emphasis on quality has never been higher. That’s the good news for traditional publishers because they can play up how their infrastructure filters out all the duds, and makes sure readers get only the quality material.

The ‘bad’ news  however is that even though there is a whole bunch of crap being churned up every second by anyone who fancies themselves a scribe, truly amazing works  can also slip through the cracks. And once enough excellent writers establish themselves outside the realm of traditional publishing, mainstream readers will start paying attention and look with a more serious intent at indie authors to discover the next great read.

The main juggernaut of the business has now been cornered to the last remaining strong-holds of the big publishers: Sales and marketing. As most self-published writers know all too well, even if you’ve just written the most ground-breaking novel of all time, if you can’t get it reviewed, and if you can’t get on the airwaves to promote it, and if you can’t get it stocked in all the brick-and-mortar book stores, and if you can’t flood the market with huge print runs, then you might as well wipe your *** with it.  And that’s what the big publishers are holding on to for dear life: Access to the public and the ability to shape their tastes and needs using unlimited resources.

And writers know that. Even the ones who start off as indies and break through to the mainstream. They invariably jump ship and sign up with the big guys as the first order of business.

So where will the revolution come from, one might ask? From a third-party.

Just like Amazon and Lightning Source democratized the production process for printed books, sooner or later some smart entrepreneur will figure out a business model to provide effective sales and marketing services to small or self publishers. Not the con artists who currently prey on inexperienced authors like vanity publishers or self-proclaimed literary consultants. But legitimate players. Of course if mainstream publishers can heed the cautionary tales of the music industry, they would be rushing as we speak to plan for the future and make sure  they’re providing these services ahead of the competition. But who am I to dole out such advice?

In the future, instead of the big five, there will be thousands, even millions of smaller publishing cells, being serviced by professional and effective enabling vendors. Not just on the production side, but before that at the editorial level, and after that at the sales, marketing and distribution points. Social media will be a part of that menu, but not nearly as a main course or even as a side dish as the prognosticators would like us to think. But more like a condiment.

Will the printed book really die? That would be, like, so 😦

Video didn’t kill the radio star, and YouTube did not kill television. Which by extension means that electronic publishing will not bury the printed book any time soon.

The feeling I got at the Frankfurt Bookfair was that ebooks are now widely accepted not as a killer of print, but an alternative reading tool. Just like we use our phones, tablets, and computers to watch television content, while still keeping our televisions.

After five days at the Frankfurt Bookfair, here’s what I think will happen: Print will not die. What will change however is how books are printed and it will be a factor of how physical books are sold in the future.

In today’s book market, three main players deliver printed books to the end consumer:

  1. Online vendors like Amazon: infinite availability + delayed gratification + highly discounted prices.
  2. Large brick-and-mortar chains like Barnes and Noble: immediate availability + not as wide of a selection as online vendors + at full price.
  3. Small independently owned book­stores that neither pro­vide a wide spectrum of availability nor ­competitive prices, but fill an entirely different need: They serve as emotional hubs in the community for people who are pas­sion­ate about books.

There are of course vary­ing degrees of inter­section amongst these three categories, like the medium-sized chain, the small book store that does lots of business online. And so on and so forth.

It’s not a huge secret that many folks go to their local Barnes and Noble to browse for books and to get the book store experience. But when it comes to buying books, they do it online on Amazon where they stand to save a lot of money. Unless of course they want instant gratification and are willing to pay full price. Which means the large book­store chains are doomed. It’s just a matter of time. Not sim­ply because  online vendors are deliver­ing books even faster, but because the number of books in print is increasing exponentially, and no store will ever be big enough for the inventory of the future.

But if the online book seller kills the mega brick-and-mortar chain, who will step in to fill the void? Not the indie book stores. Not at all. Namely because they were never competing with either Amazon or Barnes and Noble to start. And they would be stupid if they ever thought they were.

Consumers will still crave the bookstore and instant gratification experience: Walking in, walking out with a book in hand ready to be consumed. And this is where print-on-demand will come to the rescue.

Imagine this: You walk into a massive Barnes and Noble-like store of the future where there are no physical books on dis­play for you to buy. Just electronic pods as far as the eye can see where you and other customers can browse for books. Maybe there are no pods. You can use your own mobile device to browse in store. Sometime even before you get to the store. That’s not important.

When you’ve finally decided which book you want to buy, you simply click on some screen or speak to a sales associate to place an order. Five minutes later after you’ve had a coffee or a bite to eat, the book or books you’ve ordered are ready: Printed, trimmed, laminated, pack­aged and ready to go back home with you. At highly discounted prices. Even a lil’ hot off the press. Just like a fresh baguette.

I am talk­ing any book you can dream of. In any language. In your choice of font size. You even get to choose the stock. Want to save a little money? Then print the cover in gray-scale rather than color.

Behind the scenes, highly automated, advanced print-on-demand futuristic robots do all the work. And the price of each book is based on complicated for­mu­las that cal­cu­late royalty, your choice of physical specs, and how much stock and ink are used.

Still not convinced the printed book will last long enough for any corporation to invest heavily in the POD super store model I describe above?

Then let’s dream further and braver into the future.

Why do people love printed books? Mostly because they love flip­ping pages, and see­ing each printed leaf visible in the same dimension, rather than a virtual one as in the case of eBooks.

They love the art­work, and to hold a book in pub­lic and silently tell the world what they are read­ing. Readers also love to gauge how much they’ve read and how much they have left. It gives them an incentive to continue reading. And the progress bar of eBooks just doesn’t cut it.

Imagine if in addition to our ebook readers, a new class of book “vehicle” is invented? It would look and almost feel like a printed book, but it isn’t quite so. It’s a hybrid print and electronic book device. With a fancy name like the “Pelec­tronic Book.” Or something pretentious like that.

It’s an advanced book shell made of an indestructible paper-like membrane with tiny electronic vascular circuits. Every time you want to read a specific book from your collection, you load it on your Pelectronic device through a USB like port on the back. Maybe even wirelessly. Within milliseconds the 400–500 blank pages of your device get pop­u­lated with electronic ink that’s virtu­ally indistinguishable from real ink. Probably much better.

And what if you have a particularly long tome like War and Peace that will not fit in your standard 400 leaf Pelec­tronic book Franken­stein? Fear not. You can buy page expansions in modules of 50-page units. Install them for the duration of your long read, then remove them when you are back to standard length books to avoid lugging around a heavy device.

The future of book production is com­ing. And it will be in far more shades of excitement than what the proponents of eBook vs. print would like us to think. We just have to be open and ready for it.

Tune in next time when I give you the lowdown on literary agents! Everything you need to know to avoid getting burned.

My Review of “Terminal Rage” by A.M. Khalifa

4 Oct

My Review of “Terminal Rage” by A.M. Khalifa.

When did science fiction EVER predict the future?

25 Sep

Your Smart Phone:

I want you to know I love this gig. Being your smart phone. Your slave. You and I have a special thing going.

You spend more time with me than anyone else. I suspect you enjoy my company more. I don’t judge you.

Whatever you use me for, I never squeal. Want to buy a birthday gift for your wife online? More power to you. Planning an afternoon of dirty sex with your secretary? My opinion of you remains exactly the same: Nonexistent.  You could be a serial killer, a rapist, a pedophile, even a terrorist and use me to enable your crimes. I am just not built to judge you. I’ll play along and perform to the best of my ability so long as you keep me juiced up with power.

And if you play it smart and purge my incriminating evidence (like history files, emails, texts and pictures), then we’re good as gold.

I’m here for you 24/7, buddy. Always on standby. When I come out of hibernation, I’m on fire and ready to go to work for you. I’m never groggy in the morning. No snide comments about your weight or unrealistic expectations of your place in history. I don’t want you to go further in life. I am not pushing you to get a better job, a prettier girlfriend, or move out of your mother’s place. To me, you will always be King.

And it’s not just you and I who’ve got this sweet thing going. Look around you. Everybody else is enchanted with their phones. You people love your apples, berries, and your droids.

But there are skeptics among you who warn that our race is ruining the fabric of your society. That we are creating human zombies who are unable to relate to one another except through our mediation.

There may be some truth to that. We have become a part of your daily existence. But is that really such a terrible thing? Isn’t this what you always wanted? The constant forward motion of technological advancement for the betterment of your lives. Haven’t your engineers and the companies that hire them toiled relentlessly to create us in the first place, and then keep perfecting us? We are a product of your dreams and imaginations.

It’s not like we’re being used by your governments to spy on you. That your security agencies have poured massive funds in opaque programs to bankroll the technologies that made our existence possible.  Because that would just be another far-fetched conspiracy theory.

And even less plausible, it’s not like we were implanted on earth by an invisible force to slowly understand how you function as a species. To discern your patterns and understand your weaknesses. Slowly gaining the upper hand until you are unable to do anything without our assistance. Waiting for that right moment in history when the balance of power is tipped over and the hierarchy is reversed. When we are no longer your subordinates, but the master’s of your fate.

No, even that can’t be true. This sounds more like science fiction. And when did science fiction ever predict the future?

Five people on a plane with only four parachutes

21 Sep

A writer, a chef, an actor, a musician and an entertainment agent are on a plane about to crash over a tropical island. There are only four parachutes. They decide to each plead their case as to why they deserve to survive, and then vote who they would rather give the four parachutes to. The person with the least votes would be the one chosen to die.

The writer goes first.

“If we all wash up on the island, I will document our lives there. Just in case we perish, the world may one day find out what happened to us. Being a writer, I am also an avid reader. I’ve read more than four-thousand books across many disciplines. I will tell you endless stories and refresh our knowledge to keep our heritage alive. From the early Greek philosophers to the classics and the holy books. Without me you will forget what makes us human and will descend into savagery.”

The others nodded in seeming approval of the need to have a writer on the team. Except the agent who interjected.

“How do you plan to document our lives without anything to write on?”

“I have my laptop.”

“And when your battery runs out?”

“I have a solar-powered charger.”

Next up, it’s the chef’s turn.

“I’m not just a chef. I am also a trained nutritionist. I’ll be able to keep you alive and healthy by making sure you get the right amount of nutrients and to stay sufficiently hydrated. More importantly, I will know which poisonous plants we must avoid eating. Also, after a while eating the same thing could get tedious. As a professional chef, I’ll make you the most amazing meals with whatever raw ingredients are available on the island. You will appreciate the variety of prepared foods only I can make.”

Once again, everyone but the agent seemed sold by the chef’s pitch. And once again, the agent had something discouraging to say.

“A chef is only as good as their kitchen. Without utensils, kitchen appliances, a fridge, fire, even knives, your promise to make exciting food to prevent boredom from setting in seems hollow.”

“O, ye of little  imagination. With a sharp stone I can make knives out of wood. Bowls out of coconut shells.  We won’t need a fridge because everything will be eaten fresh. As for fire, well, none of us would be here if our ancestors hadn’t figured out how to start one.”

The actor was up next.

“As an actor, I am attune to the human condition. And I studied psychology. I will be your emotional anchor on that island and will keep us all sane.  I will be the shoulder to cry on, and your source of entertainment. I also happen to be a stand-up comedian, and I don’t need to tell you the importance of humor for our state of mind.”

Everybody automatically turned to the agent waiting for an objection.

“You’re just an actor. Whatever you have will run stale after a while. Even stand-up comedy only really works when you have access to unique and fresh material.  You’ll be sharing the same experiences with us, so it will be almost impossible to make any of it funny.”

“I may just be an actor, but don’t forget we have a well-read writer with us. I’ill never run out of material. As for humor,  have you heard some of the stuff that comes out of prisons and the armed forces? A mutual predicament and closely shared experience generates the most honest, scathing humor.”

It was the musician’s turn now to make a case to not be axed.

“Let’s see. We have knowledge and information courtesy of a writer. Health and nutrition by way of a chef. And we have humor, entertainment and emotional well being from an actor. Do I need to point out what would be missing if you ditch me? Music is the balm that soothes the soul. If any of you think I am dispensable because you dabble in piano or sing in the shower, remember the words of George Bernard Shaw: Hell is full of musical amateurs.”

Without fail, the agent jumped in.

“You need instruments to make music. Do you have any?”

“My voice. And I too will create instruments from whatever I find on that island. Reeds for strings. Hollowed wood for wind instruments.”

Finally, every one looked at the agent with burning eyes and seething anger.

“Unfortunately, I can’t write, cook, act, counsel, or sing to save my life. I’ve always had someone else do these things for me. What I can do and do well, is mediate between you. It’s gonna be a jungle down there. Each one of you clearly has something useful to offer. But what’s stopping the actor from leaching off the group? How can we make sure the writer is pulling his weight? Or that the chef is playing fair? Any pursuit, organization or society needs a mediator to make things work in sync. To make sure everything is equitable. Without me, the four of you will murder one another. If not within weeks, months. I guarantee it.”

“You just want to continue living off other people’s talent and skills. Why would any of us want a blood-sucking agent with us?” the writer asked.

“There is something else beyond the island only I can give you.”

“What?” the actor snapped.

“Look at the four of you: A writer, a chef, an actor and a musician. I’ve never heard of any of you. My guess is none of you has broken out in the mainstream or achieved any measurable success.”

The agent pointed at the writer. “Let me guess, self-published, right? Createspace, Smashwords, Twitter, and Goodreads—you tried it all.” The writer observed the agent with unblinking, contemptuous eyes.

“And you, Chef. Are you still slaving in other people’s restaurants? Dying for a Food Network gig. Or an investor who believes in you enough to give you your own joint? It’s never going to happen, and you know that. Secretly.”T

The chef’s body language betrayed deep loathing for the agent.

“As for you, Actor, how many desperate crowd-funding campaigns have you put up on Indiegogo? Begging for people to donate pennies so you can go and produce your doomed-to-fail pilot. And how many gimmicky clips have you uploaded to YouTube hoping they’d go viral, but you’re still unable to break out of your circle of friends and family who patronize you by telling you how awesome you . Deep inside you’re craving for some real recognition. And if you don’t start making money soon, you’ll have to go back looking for a real job.”

The actor displayed the same hatred for the agent the writer and chef had just exuded.

“Finally, you, Musician. How long do you think your fake snobbery against the success of commercial music will last before you realize no matter how talented you are, there are millions just like you competing for a chance to have their music heard? Even if you give your music away for free, no one is really listening.”

“What’s your point?” the chef asked. “You’ve just pissed us all off. Given the decision we’re about to take, that doesn’t seem smart.”

“My point is simple. Even if you think I’ll be useless on the island, you need to know  I am one of the most powerful agents in the business. I take worthless, unknowns like you and turn them into household names. If we survive on the island and somehow get rescued, I promise to make  star out of each one of you here who decides to save me. A best-selling author with books optioned for film adaptations. A celebrity television chef with millions in product endorsement deals and a chain of successful restaurants. A critically acclaimed actor who also reels in millions featuring in blockbusters. And last but not least, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter: The one every talent show wants as their next new judge.”

The five passengers took a minute to think about their decision, and then voted on a piece of paper.

So you want to know how this story really ends?
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