Kobo removes self-published books…temporarily

Ebook seller Kobo announced yesterday that they’re going to “quarantine” self-published books in an attempt to clean up the plague of books filled with questionable content like rape, incest, and bestiality.

I think this is ultimately a good thing; it was just done in a very bad way.

As self-publishing has exploded, Kobo and other digital retailers have been inundated with books. Some of those books are quite good, and a number of indie authors have found deserved success through digital platforms. But quite a few of these indie books are just, well I’ll be honest, horrible. They’re glorified fan-fiction and the not-so-secret extreme sexual fantasies of writers who feel they need to share (there’s nifty.org for that kind of stuff, people!). Big name authors like Stephen King include some pretty dark sexual content too, but the books aren’t purely focused on that material. There’s a line between telling a story that can go to some pretty dark and strange places, and filling a book with nothing but the deepest levels of human depravity. I can’t blame Kobo for enforcing some kind of quality control for the sake of their business and the self-publishing industry as a whole. And Kobo, like Amazon, has some pretty clear (one might even say, explicit, heh) terms about what they don’t want to see on their store. When a store chooses to remove content that it doesn’t want, it’s not censorship. It’s not unfair treatment. It’s enforcing standards. Some material just doesn’t have a place in a reputable book store (and again, if you write this kind of stuff there are other venues for you). As long as the standards are fairly and consistently applied, I don’t mind.

It is unfortunate that every self-publisher has to suffer because of this, and Kobo could have handled the situation much better (they didn’t give anyone notice that all indie books would be unavailable for a while). Even my own books are off of Kobo right now. Let’s be clear: this was a knee-jerk reaction that is going to cost indie authors money while Kobo figures things out. But I think the temporary inconvenience is worth it if it helps our continuing efforts to make indie books as respectable as indie movies.

Book Launch! Ghosts of ARCADIA is now on Kindle

Great news! After years of development, Ghosts of ARCADIA is now available in a “soft launch” exclusive to Amazon Kindle. You can buy Ghosts of ARCADIA on Amazon

Ghosts of ARCADIA is a sci-fi novella that combines video games, brain-scanning technology, and a heist mystery all into one easy-to-read story that’s all killer and no filler. This is my first time writing a novella (the book is just a tiny bit short of the 50,000 minimum word length I’d consider for a novel), but this shorter format was perfect for this story. I hope you enjoy it.

Ghosts of ARCADIA cover

Book Review – I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems By Cats

If you know me, you know I love cats. I often get cat-related gifts for birthdays and holidays, and I keep every single one of them. But I also like poetry, so when a friend gave me a cat poetry book for my birthday, it was a beautiful match.

With a book title like I Could Pee on This, you know what you’re in for before you even pick it up. Cat owners (and I use the term lightly, because can anyone truly own a cat?) will immediately understand the snark and quirky humor in these odd little poems. The selections range from free-form to haiku to nothing more than an odd collection of sentences. But everything perfectly reflects the seemingly odd, apparently self-absorbed thought patterns of our feline friends. A good coffee table book, and a nice treat for kids and adults alike.

The book’s title is borrowed from one of the poems within, and it’s one of my favorites. There are also plenty of cute cat photographs to go with the poems, which makes it even more entertaining. It’s a short book, but one that can keep you and your guests entertained for years.

Your personal data is not safe; but it never really was.

The hot topic in US politics today is the use of a federal “dragnet” used to take a peek at pretty much every digital communication a modern American creates. Many federal organizations are reportedly in on it, including the FBI, DOJ, DOD, and NSA, making many people go WTF.

But, as an engineer and a former employee of one of those arcane three-letter organizations, I have a different perspective than most.

There are real reasons to be concerned about big government encroaching too much into our lives, and there are real reasons to be concerned about potential abuses of overreaching powers. Government should not be trusted blindly. But there’s also a lot of fake and/or misguided outrage here.

There are two major components of the leak-fest of late: One, the government has accessed logs of which phone number called which other number and for how long. These logs contained data from all of Verizon’s customers, and perhaps those on other networks. Let me address this one first. This kind of system has existed for a long time, and it’s called a pen register. Pen registers log the very basics of a phone call; the original systems only recorded the numbers involved, but newer ones can record the duration and location of the numbers as well. There have been laws governing the use of pen registers since the late 60s, but in the past 30 years or so the laws have been revisited to account for new technology. Still, the Supreme Court ruled way back in 1979 that pen registers do not pass the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test. I usually don’t quote WikiPedia, but the wiki on pen registers is quite accurate here:

[The Supreme Court] overturned Olmstead v. United States and held that wiretaps were unconstitutional searches, because there was a reasonable expectation that the communication would be private. The government was then required to get a warrant to execute a wiretap.

Ten years later the Supreme Court held that a pen register is not a search because the “petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the telephone company.” Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 744 (1979). Since the defendant had disclosed the dialed numbers to the telephone company so they could connect his call, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers he dialed. The court did not distinguish between disclosing the numbers to a human operator or just the automatic equipment used by the telephone company.

So, there you have it. Wiretaps need warrants, but just looking at the call logs does not. This is not new. This ruling happened before I was even born. But there’s a key factor to latch on to here: a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. We as a society have forgotten what that means, or perhaps never fully understood it in the first place.

There is a deep-rooted and understandable personal fear at the core of all this. It’s not about having “nothing to hide”, and it’s not about distrusting government, or thinking Bush or Obama is the anti-christ. It’s about privacy, and how we often take it for granted.

There’s a subtle but important difference between secrecy and privacy. Here’s an example of that difference: We all poop. Everyone knows we poop. It’s not a secret matter, but it is a private matter, and we’d all bitch up a storm if some “authority” said that even one person was allowed to see us pooping at work or at home.

But, if you poop in the alley, well…there’s no reason to expect total privacy. Using GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo, Facebook, etc…it’s all the equivalent of pooping in the alley. Any assumptions of true privacy here are misguided. It’s not likely that anyone will see you doing your dirty business in that alley, but it is quite possible that someone might, and you can’t blame someone for invading your privacy if you do that.

That leads me to the second aspect of this leak-fest: Google, Microsoft, and other email providers/social networks have been providing the government with data. To me, this should not come as a surprise, nor should it be particularly scary. The truth is that pretty much all this stuff the government has access to is already accessible by employees or contractors of the corporations who operate our favorite things, and these companies have even less oversight and responsibility than the government. You might be surprised if you knew how many average salary guys could access your Facebook, Google, or Microsoft data at any given time. Not too long ago, two Google engineers were fired for abusing their awesome technology superpowers, but you should seriously consider how many of them do less egregious things and get away it.

Facebook knows who your friends are, where you’ve been, what you like to eat, what your friends like to do, and hundreds of other data points. You willingly gave a huge corporation access to your life, just so they could send you some ads.

And then there was this little quote from a Microsoft employee blasting Google for their un-private email practices, while inadvertently revealing some of Microsoft’s own issues (emphasis mine):

“Like many email providers, Outlook.com scans the content of your email to help protect you and prevent spam, gray mail, phishing scams, viruses, malware, and other dangers and annoyances. It is just like how the postal service sorts and scans mail and packages for dangerous explosive and biohazards”

See, they’re just looking through email for your protection. To keep you safe from harm. Sound familiar?

You already have corporations running programs through your emails for their own purposes. Sometimes, as in GMail’s case, it’s purely to show you ads based on your email messages. This so-called invasion of your privacy has been happening for some time, with your consent (you agreed to the terms and conditions, folks!). Does the situation really change when it’s Uncle Sam doing it instead of “Don’t Be Evil” Google? One could argue that at least the government can do some good things with that data in some cases (e.g, stopping people who blow up things).

Governments, corporations, and regular citizens must all adapt to the rapidly-changing digital world where we so freely and gratefully use products controlled by multi-billion dollar organizations, and create laws and processes to keep a healthy balance between security and spying on the very people we’re trying to protect. But don’t expect privacy unless you work to keep things private (encryption is good, so is taking your info out of “the cloud”). In our real homes we close the doors, draw the window shades, and keep our dirty laundry hidden from view. For some reason we’ve lost that common sense when it comes to our digital homes. Maybe we shouldn’t vilify the politicians or the CEOs for this kind of stuff. Maybe we should simply realize that we’ve been exposing too much of ourselves for too long.

Book Review: Fringe – The Zodiac Paradox

As a Fringe book, and a “prequel” version of a TV series that’s no longer on-air, this story works pretty well and gives fans what they want. But as a novel taken on its own merits it’s fairly average.

If you’re a fan of the show (and you’d have to be to have any interest in this book at all), the main thing you’ll be interested in is the portrayal of Walter Bishop. I can say for certain that Faust’s characterization of Walter is very much in line with what you saw in the TV series. This is understandable, given the nature of this novel and its intended audience; the directive was probably not to mess with the formula too much. But part of me wishes that the author took more liberties with Walter’s youth. Everyone changes as they mature, but in this book Walter in his late twenties is pretty much exactly the same as Walter in his sixties (even the way he dresses).

William Bell and Nina Sharp also figure prominently in the story. Bell’s characterization is fairly unremarkable and straightforward, and he lacks the deviousness and outside-the-box thinking we came to associate with the founder of Massive Dynamic. Again, there was opportunity to break fascinating new ground with these characters, but the story plays it safe in that regard. Nina actually comes out as the most interesting character of the bunch. She’s young and feisty and much more daring and clever than either Bell or Walter. Nina was the main aspect of the story that kept me reading.

As the book title suggests, the story follows our intrepid trio of Sharp, Bell, and Bishop as they hunt the famed Zodiac Killer in the midst of his reign of terror. But there’s a Fringe-y twist: the Zodiac is actually from the parallel universe, and he was brought here by Walter and Bell during a trial of a special blend of LSD that would eventually become cortexiphan. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle references to both major and obscure aspects of the TV show. The story does often feel like an overlong standalone episode of the series (in both good ways and bad). It’s a good concept, and one that fits into the Fringe lore.

But a great concept needs great execution, and this book has a few issues. These supposedly genius-level characters often do fairly stupid things, and although Nina comes off as the “sharpest” of the bunch, she and William Bell are still lacking the cunning minds we came to know in the series. Also, the author does a little too much description for my tastes. She often delves into long descriptions of minutiae about side characters who barely appear for a few pages, and places that are just briefly visited. I’m don’t mind descriptive, rich world-building, but sometimes it should be done with a light touch so the main story can flow. Far too often, the descriptions got in the way of the story and I found myself fighting the urge to skip over paragraphs. But, I’ll readily admit this is a matter of reading taste and others may find this style to their liking.

If you really, really liked Fringe and you felt the series ended too soon, this book will definitely give you your fix. If you were a more of a casual fan, you might not like this as much.

disclosure: I received a free ARC copy from the publisher

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review. Spectacle is Irrelevant

I’ve seen the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise and, to my surprise, I found it quite enjoyable. It’s a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good movie. Star Trek is the hot thing again. But what’s most important to me is that it shows signs that J.J. Abrams and his producers might be taking Star Trek a bit more seriously, and trying to make the franchise mean something more than dollar signs.

For the most part, Into Darkness is a typical summer action blockbuster that plays it safe and hits all the right money-making notes. It’s good old-fashioned, adrenaline-invoking, explosion-laden fun. It’s an enjoyable movie, and even more enjoyable if you check your brain at the door and don’t question the numerous things that just don’t hold up to logical scrutiny (the same method was required to get the most enjoyment out of the first movie). But, unlike its predecessor, Into Darkness goes a little further in trying to make this new generation of Star Trek more solidly connected to the wonderful material that made this franchise worth rebooting in the first place. Most of all, and I think this is key, there are signs that Abrams and his cohorts took some of their past criticisms to heart, and actually tried to add story elements that went beyond the pretty graphics and constant action.

I like the Star Trek franchise…well “like” may not be a good enough word; perhaps “venerate” is more accurate, but still inadequate. Let’s just say that I’m quite familiar with Star Trek lore going all the way back to the original 60s pilot episode, and I credit the series with spurring my interest in engineering, science, and science fiction. So I’m a tough, but fair, critic when it comes to new material in the franchise.

One of my favorite aspects of Star Trek was that, although it featured a futuristic military organization, it wasn’t really about the military. It was about exploration; it was about pushing and exceeding the boundaries of the human experience. It was about asking tough moral questions and painting a vision of a fantastic future that made our present seem juvenile and petty. Gene Roddenberry created an egalitarian and peaceful future Earth in a time when the real Earth was mired in racism, sexism, poverty, and war. Star Trek meant something. It stood for something. It told stories that mattered, and it never dumbed down for anybody.

The Abrams version of Star Trek has eschewed much of that philosophy, and instead Abrams (who admits he was never a fan of the franchise’s various series and movies) capitalized on the circumstances of Starfleet as a peaceful-but-militaristic-when-it-has-to-be entity. Abrams used the military aspect as a good reason to create pretty explosions and grand fight scenes in space. I can’t blame Abrams for that; this method is bankable, and his job is to sell tickets after all. But there was much anger and consternation among the longtime Trek fans. They felt that Abrams didn’t “get” Star Trek; they believed he’d made a shallow, meaningless movie that was aimed at the lowest common denominator and only good for cheap thrills. Add to that the hasty ending of the first movie, and Kirk’s hurried promotion to captain after literally just graduating from the academy, and critics had plenty of justification for saying the movie was short on artistic ambition. The movie was fun, but it had little regard for the art of storytelling. It was cinematic junk food; popular, easy, and profitable…but ultimately unhealthy and a poor substitute for more artisanal fare.

But there’s something different about the sequel. It has a more mature prevailing theme: Starfleet can’t be a ruthless military organization. That’s not what it was founded on, and it’s not the right direction for its future. It’s the great realization that Kirk comes to during the course of the film, and it’s the main theme of his speech at the end of the movie. It’s all very “meta”, because it’s almost like the movie is talking to itself; Star Trek films can’t be all explosions and phaser fights and horrible, horrible lens flare. It has to be something more than that. I think Abrams realized this, and he tried to change. It didn’t quite work out this time, but there’s definitely effort.

Right before Into Darkness was released, Abrams had an interview with the L.A. Times, in which he said:

“There was never going to be any shortage of spectacle, but the thing is, spectacle is irrelevant. The big, giant special-effects stuff, as much fun as it is and as cool as it can be in a movie, it never matters if you’re not loving, caring, relating to the dynamics of the characters that are in that spectacle.”

That’s exactly want you want any director to say, especially one charged with one of the most beloved and influential franchises in history. And Into Darkness really does try to get past the spectacle. It is emotional in ways that are quite effective, and there are glimpses of a story that could be there in the future — the story of an Enterprise whose primary mission is to explore, not make things explode.

And the character development is there. Kirk faces tremendous personal questions after Admiral Pike, the closest thing he has to a father, admonishes him for being reckless and thinking that he’s hot shit. Pike tells Kirk the truth; he’s been the beneficiary of “blind luck” and he’s just not ready to be a captain. That hasty promotion at the end of the first movie proves to be as foolhardy as many fans thought it was. Spock also goes through a bit of transformation as he realizes how strong of a friendship he actually has with Kirk, and for the first time in this reboot we truly see the legendary “bromance” that existed long before bromances were even a thing.

This stuff is great, but it relies heavily on what came before it; it relies on the decades of lore and emotional investment that people have with these characters because, frankly, Abrams isn’t a good enough director and Lindelof isn’t a good enough screenwriter to create that kind of character bond on their own in a two-hour movie. Therein lies the problem, because it’s a battle of two competing goals: to implement J.J’s vision while staying true to the franchise’s ideals. In that aforementioned LA Times article, Abrams also said:

“I was never a fan of “Star Trek,” […] I knew that when we started doing work on the first movie, we needed to come up with a way that this wasn’t just a “Star Trek” movie, meaning we couldn’t make it for fans of “Star Trek.” I’m not saying it might not have been better if that had been the case, but I couldn’t do that. It would have been disingenuous.”

This is where Abrams’ lack of connection with the source material really shows. It’s great that Abrams realizes that the movie needs to be more than just spectacle, but he doesn’t have the background to know what really works for this franchise and these characters because he doesn’t “get” what makes Star Trek special. This is ironic because a lot of the movie’s best scenes rely heavily upon knowledge of the franchise lore since there’s no on-screen explanation to help the uninitiated. There’s a tribble in this movie, and there’s no explanation of what it is. You have to be a fan of the show to get that. The movie’s antagonist has much more weight and effect if you get the references and hints that are never explained in the movie itself. Even the most emotional moment between Kirk and Spock only really hits home if you know the history of that scene, and how poetically different it is in this version. Into Darkness succeeds most when it borrows from what came before it, but Abrams doesn’t always do it effectively. I suspect his co-producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are the ones really responsible for keeping this movie true to its roots, or as true as it can be while still implementing Abrams’ vision.

The movie ends with the famous speech that preceded the opening credits of each episode of the original Star Trek series and The Next Generation.

“These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I sincerely hope that the creative team behind the third rebooted Trek movie take these words to heart, and give us something bolder, more inspirational, and more enterprising.

Persons of Color in Comic Book Movies

I had an interesting chat on GoodReads recently, and figured I’d make an extended version of my comments on the blog. The topic started in the Multiculturalism in YA,Fantasy, Sci FI,Paranormal and fun books group, and the issue at hand was the news that the next Fantastic Four movie might have a black actor (Michael B. Jordan) as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch (a character who has always been white in the past). The news spurred some very disturbing but not-very-surprising Internet conversation about race. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, and we will no doubt see it again. But I think it’s important to look at the issue from multiple perspectives, and to constantly revisit it as American society shifts and evolves.

As an African-American author, and life-long comic book fan, I actually don’t like it when Hollywood changes the races of well-established characters. This is partially because I’m kind of a comic book purist/nerd, and partially because I just don’t think it’s necessary. Comic books are already full of interesting, popular characters of color (who have always been that way). We don’t need revisionist heroes.

John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971
John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971

 

People who read comics know that Marvel, Image, and DC comics have been introducing characters of many races since the ’70s, and there was an explosion of multiculturalism in the ’90s. Characters like Bishop, Jubilee, ShadowHawk, War Machine, DeathLok, Luke Cage, Spawn, Blade, Cloak from Cloak and Dagger, Sunspot, and Forge emerged in the most popular comics of their time. In some cases a hero is more of an icon than a particular person, and over the years their personas were passed on to new characters of different races, like black John Stewart joining the Green Lantern corps waaaaay back in 1971 or Steel joining the Superman corps in the ’90s or Miguel O’Hara becoming the first latino Spider Man in the early ’90s during the “Spider Man 2099” series. These characters were also prominently featured on TV (Bishop and Jubilee had major roles in the beloved ’90s X-Men cartoon, and John Stewart has been a major character in the Justice League cartoons). There are plenty of non-white characters in comic book lore who are very popular and have been so for many many years. Hollywood just needs to invest in them.

Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years
Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years

 

New Line Cinema has been the most forward-thinking studio in promoting non-white lead comic characters, having distributed both the Blade series and Spawn. Those were both fairly successful franchises financially, even though they weren’t exactly the best movies. But then we had Halle Berry as Catwoman, and things haven’t been the same since :-). Right now all we have is Nick Fury (who had a race-change in the comics long ago), but I have hopes things will change soon. The latest rumor is that Black Panther will FINALLY start shooting in 2014 after years of various actors/producers (including Wesley Snipes) trying to get it out of development hell, Bishop and Warpath are in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Zoe Seldana is confirmed to co-star in Guardians of the Galaxy, and if there is a Green Lantern reboot I would not be surprised if they went with a black actor because there’s strong precedent for that already in the Justice League cartoons.

Still, certain people in Hollywood will still opt for changing the race of old minor characters; creating “hand-me-down heroes” in an effort to bring something new to a franchise without too much risk. For lesser-known characters, race changes usually work out just fine (see Michael Clark Duncan as The Kingpin or Jamie Foxx as Electro in the upcoming Spider Man film). There wasn’t much complaint about either decision, probably because no one really had an attachment to either character (they’re not well-known among general audiences). It’s only when people start messing with the beloved “iconic” characters that the nerd-rage comes out. I do like the idea of opening up fiction to different interpretations and possibilities, and adding an actor that doesn’t fit the traditional race of the character is one way to do that, but it has to be done at the right time and with the right stories, and too often when it happens in Hollywood it feels forced and disingenuous.

If you’re interested in learning more about persons of color in comics, here are a few suggestions:

  • The Black Panther. Not only is he like an African Batman, he’s the head of a whole country!
  • The Spawn comics from the 90s were incredible.
  • Shadowhawk from Image Comics (who also tackled the topic of HIV when Shadowhawk contracted the disease in the 90s).
  • If you like Iron Man, War Machine did have his own comic for many years and Rhodey is quite a different character than Tony Stark.
  • Anything with Jubilee and Wolverine. They’re an odd couple, but that makes them all the more entertaining

You can find collections for all these on Amazon, or visit your local comic book store.

Indie Book Pimping, Part 1

Like all indie authors, in addition to actually going through the labor-intensive process of writing books that people hopefully love and rave about, I also have to market those books. That is a much less pleasant process than writing (which can also be unpleasant at times), and most authors are horrible marketers. We spend hours at a time locked up in a room, pecking out words on a keyboard, and trying to make the stories in our head make sense to everyone else. Writing is done alone, and it is mostly done by people who would rather spend their non-writing time with their cats, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or just reading books that other people wrote. That’s why it’s hard for most authors to make the switch to being gregarious marketing people.

But authors are also people who do well with challenges. You have to be a certain kind of stubborn to have the resolve to complete a novel and, like all artists, authors also need to have a special kind of fearlessness. When you put your work out there for all to see, you’re exposing a raw part of yourself to criticism and ridicule. But we still have the guts to say, “this is mine and I want you to look at it.” That stubbornness and fearlessness comes in handy when you’re forced to switch from book writer to book seller.

I’ve been gradually making that switch myself, and making some hilariously bad mistakes in the process. But my suffering and embarrassment can be your gain! In this first installment of my marketing series, here are a few lessons learned from my epic fail adventures in getting people to care about indie authors:

  • Don’t be afraid to be just a little annoying. The most effective sales people are persistent without being pushy. Know where the line is, but get as close as you can to that line without crossing it. Be like an asymptote, my friend (and yes, I did break out the high school math on ya).
  • Be genuine. Nobody likes fake people. Say what you mean and mean what you say. A short-term sale is not worth your long-term credibility.
  • Focus your efforts on a target audience. Yes, Facebook has eleventy bajillion people on it. But the vast majority of them aren’t there to find new books to read. Go where the readers are: book blogs, GoodReads, book forums, etc.
  • Help others. Think of it as promotional karma. You may not see an immediate return, but your kindness will be repaid in ways you never could have imagined.
  • Start conversations. I know this can be hard for the aforementioned socially-awkward wordsmiths, but it’s important. Show people interesting things to see, learn, or talk about and they’ll be more likely to listen when you start promoting your own stuff.
  • Be funny. “If you can make a woman laugh, you can make her do anything.” ― Marilyn Monroe

Amazon, Goodreads, and eBook giveaways

Now that readers and authors have had some time to come to terms with the news of Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads, I’ve been thinking of ways this turn of events could end up benefiting both readers and authors. One idea seems like a no-brainer: eBook giveaways.

It’s no secret that GoodReads giveaways are a useful tool in the publishers toolbox. It’s a proven method for getting attention and finding new readers, for big publishers and indie publishers alike. But currently, if you’re an author focusing on digital releases and you don’t have any physical books to offer, GoodReads giveaways aren’t available. They only allow physical books.

With Amazon at the helm, this could change. That would be a very welcome change for indie publishers who aren’t quite ready to take the paper book plunge. Amazon could even build in a system that helps authors promote their KDP free days, which could be a powerful new tool to help self-publishers get exposure.

I’m also hoping that the GoodReads acquisition leads to some integration between Amazon sales pages and GoodReads ads. Right now, I can only track clicks on my GoodReads ads, but if I could tell exactly how many sales were coming from those ads I’d have extremely useful information to help me shape my ad campaigns.