Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Long, Slow Death of NOOK and the Problems with DRM, eBook Pricing, and Publishing

If you haven't heard yet, Barnes & Noble is closing the UK NOOK store. This comes after they closed down all of the other markets besides the US and UK over the summer. With most of the ebook sales going through Amazon and Apple, it's no wonder that B&N is having trouble, but were it simply brick and mortar stores that failed there wouldn't be an issue, or if the ebooks had been priced as essentially disposable content, or if the ebooks hadn't been saddled with digital rights management (DRM).

Digital Ownership

For most things in the world, when you pay for them you own them. If you pay for your hamburger you can choose to eat it, spray paint it red and frame it, or throw it at a passing unicyclist while they try to hit you with their lance made of straws. But digital ownership is different. 

You don't own your copy of your computer's operating system, you only have a license to that OS granted by the software maker and, if they so decided, you could be kicked off of your computer in an instant. That wouldn't be very smart for a company to do when they want to make money, but what happens when a company can't make money? What happens when a company like Barnes & Noble can't support the software they created? 

Digital Rights Management

When there's DRM involved what happens can be pretty terrible. 

Even though I don't own my OS, I could still run it offline, make changes as necessary, and get along fine for a while if the software company decided to cancel my license. If my MP3 collection were to suddenly be turned off by the company that hosts it, I would still have the copies of the files on my computer that I could listen to, just without the convenience of listening to them everywhere through the cloud service. 

But some levels of DRM prevent copying files from one location to another, some DRM requires internet access to verify the validity of the file and the reader hardware. These tools exist to prevent piracy, but usually only serve to annoy honest customers. Unfortunately, when the company that instituted the DRM goes out of business, there may not be a legal way to continue to use the files that you have paid for. 

eBook Pricing

Most ebooks published by the major publishing houses are around $10 apiece, while most ebooks published by independent houses or authors are around $3. I don't want to get into too many of the arguments about the difference in price. There are plenty of voices on both sides of that debate. 

Where it comes into play here is in what you can or cannot do with that ebook once you've paid your money. If you bought a paper book, you could sell it to a used bookstore, you could loan it to a friend, you could pack it in a box and ship it around the world, or you could leave it on your shelf until you decide to read it and then know it will be readable. But with an ebook you can't sell it, you can't loan it (most of the time), you can't send it to anyone else, and if you leave it on your digital shelf, you have no guarantee that you'll be able to read it in the future. 

One of the key pieces here is that the ebooks published by the major publishing houses also employ DRM so you can't make copies, you can't make a backup for yourself, you can't change formats, you can't do anything with that ebook but read it on the devices that are approved. 

You are, essentially, renting your ebooks if they have DRM (note that I won't voluntarily put DRM on any of my ebooks or stories). And, if you are paying the higher price demanded by the major publishing houses, you are renting a book in electronic format that is less versatile, less capable, and less long-lived than a paperback that might be the same price (or cheaper if you get it used). 

Publishing

Businesses exist to make money and they do that by providing a good or service. Right now the publishing industry doesn't know what they're providing or how to make money off of it. In the past publishing provided a good: books. That physical thing had value that could be exchanged for money. 

But now with ebook readers and ebooks what's being sold isn't exactly a good. There isn't a physical thing with value. But neither is it completely a service because each book is valued differently and separately. The major publishing houses are trying to retain the goods-model of pricing while independant publishers are gravitating more toward the service-model of pricing. 

What this means for readers is similar to what shift toward digital music has meant (or digital video, or digital news). Namely, readers will have to be more aware, more vigilant, and more flexible with the increased options. 

As an author I want to make this as easy as possible for you. If you have a copy of any of my books on your NOOK platform (regardless of which region you're in), let me know and I'll get you a DRM free version for your platform of choice. I know that may not be the way to make the most money, but it's the way I would want to be treated, so it's the way I'll treat my readers. 


Monday, February 15, 2016

I've Got Your PG-13 Deadpool Right Here!

I got to see Deadpool last night. How shall I say this? It is awful and amazing. No matter your tastes or preferences you will find something in the movie to deeply offend you. If you're like me, that uncomfortable feeling of being offended will melt quickly into bouts of gut-wrenching laughter.

Disclaimer: This movie should not be viewed by anyone under the age of 31 without a papal edict and probably a fistfull of indulgences. 

Because of the R-rating for the movie there were several fans that petitioned the studio to release a PG-13 cut of the film. But for Deadpool, the R-rated bits are almost completely inextricable from the rest of the movie so that Ryan Reynolds said the only thing remaining would be a trailer.

While I haven't read any of the solo Deadpool books, I have always liked the character when he shows up (my favorite so far was in Hulk vs, you should check it out if you have the chance). And, after seeing Deadpool, I realized how much he was an influence for the main character in my novel Like Mind

I have often said that Like Mind is a PG-13 book and, after having seen what Deadpool did with a full R, I'm happy to keep my work in the PG-13 realm.

In Like MindI you get all of the snark, pop-culture references, 4th-wall breaking, action, explosions, guns, fighting, car chases, nicknames, romance, and unnecessary exposition of a Deadpool movie without the horribly offensive nature of Deadpool himself.

So if you can't bring yourself to see Deadpool because it is so very, very R-rated, then get a dose of the same type of humor in a PG-13 package.

Or, if you were like me and already watched Deadpool and you need a half-way-house for your soul to come back from the utter darkness, then pick up Like Mind as a brain-palette cleanser so you can once again speak acceptably in mixed company (by which I mean speaking to other human beings).

What did you think of Deadpool?

Would you have preferred a PG-13 version?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

6 Ways an Author is Like a Role-Playing Character

I've been doing this whole writing thing for a few years now and I have come across, in roughly equal numbers, writers with varying styles and writing guides promoting those various styles. I know writers who are hard-core engineers and plot out their stories using spreadsheets and Github. I know other writers who use note cards taped to the wall to visualize their tale. Others still eschew plotting altogether and simply write words until the story coalesces out of nothingness.

All of that got me thinking about Dungeons and Dragons. Follow with me here.

There's No Such Thing as a Bad Character or Writer

When you first sit down to start playing D&D (or any such role playing game), the first step is to create a character. The character is created by rolling dice and assigning those numbers to different statistics that define the abilities of the character. The rolls often determine how the character will need to be played, which attributes will be emphasized and which will need to be minimized.

If I were to roll up a character with a lot of strength and charisma but with very little wisdom or intelligence, I wouldn't play that character as a mage or cleric, but that same set of attributes would make a nice cavalier. There isn't really a bad roll when it comes to character, just limits on the way that a character can be played.

The same is true for writers. Some of us are ideal engineers, others are poets, others are marketers, and others are professors, but in the end every one of us can write a compelling story. The stats we rolled and the characters we play don't exclude us from writing, but they do force us to consider the best way to take advantage of our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.

We've All Got High Stats

Authors and D&D characters come pre-set with strengths. For the authors it's a mix of nature and nurture that gave them abilities that turn word-piles into stories. In many ways the abilities of an author are as random and uncontrollable as the roll of the dice for an RPG character. None of us had any choice in where we were born or to whom, we weren't able to decide our genetics or our economics. We all just came into this world with the attributes that were given to us and we have to make the best of it. 

The engineer, by trade, may excel at creating believable, well-researched worlds, while the philosopher may force the readers to ask the deep questions. Neither is any less a writer though their strengths vary wildly. 

We've All Got Dump Stats

The flip side of the randomness of our strengths is the utter randomness of our weaknesses. Some of us are born with disabilities or conditions, some of us develop them throughout life. Some authors are crippled by dyslexia others by depression. Some authors struggle with writer's block, unable to come up with ideas, while others are overwhelmed by writer's lock being swarmed by so many ideas they can't seem to choose which one to write. 

If your RPG character has terrible dexterity, that doesn't make it an unplayable character, but it does demand that you take the stat into account while playing. If you don't, the game or the writing may not be very much fun. 

Rigidity Causes Struggle

If you were to sit down, before rolling up a character, and decide that you could only play a warrior in your D&D game, you might be in for a long slog. If you roll up a character with no strength or constitution, your warrior will be doing precious little damage with each hit and have even fewer hitpoints with which to stay alive. You could, if you were committed, push through, get gear that minimizes your weakness, and never leave the side of your party's healer, but every fight would be a struggle to manage the stats of your character. 

Sometimes as a writer, I want to do things the way my heroes do. I want to write Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, but I'm not G.R.R.M. or J.R.R.T. (I don't even have that many initials). If I were to insist on writing according to a certain formula or in a certain style, I might be able to do so, but not without constantly managing the struggle of that choice (and likely relying on my cleric-editor to bail me out time after time). 

Flexibility Leads to Fun

If, instead of choosing to force your character down the path of a warrior, you decided to emphasize your character's strengths you might play it as a bard or a thief that doesn't need to be strong or tough. Having that flexibility gives your more options when playing the character which can lead to more fun in the actual game. Struggle is, absolutely, a part of both role-playing and writing, but so too is the fun of rolling high and doing awesome things. 

By no means am I saying that authors should only concentrate on their strengths and avoid their weaknesses, because we all need to work and grow in our craft, but if it's not fun some of the time, then it'll be increasingly difficult to keep going when the struggle comes. Keeping fun as a part of the work is the carrot that balances out the stick. 

Adventure, Loot, Level Up, Repeat

The point of D&D isn't to craft the best character with the best stats, but rather to go on adventures. The character serves as a vehicle for getting to the adventures not a replacement for the adventures. I'll be the first to admit that it can be fun to obsess over abilities and backstory and gear to tweak a character until it's shiny and perfect. But then that character needs to get beat up and messy as it tackles the challenges in its world. The reward for that effort and struggle is loot and experience that you can use to make your character better so you can go out and have more adventures to get more loot and experience and so on. 

As a writer it is absolutely important to set the stage for adventure by working on the building blocks. Take classes, learn grammar, dissect story, understand character, go to conventions, participate in workshops, even get a degree. But all of those things, as fun and important as they are, exist to get you ready for adventure, not to replace it. There comes a time when you, the shiny, perfect author, must go out and face the adventures. You may be battered and messy after the attempt, you may fail, you may need near-magical healing to get back on your feet, but without adventure there's no improvement and no way to get to bigger adventures in the future. If you don't get rejected submitting your story, if you don't get bad reviews, if you don't have lackluster sales, you lose out on the experience and the leveling up without which greater adventures would be much more difficult to handle. Also, the loot of the writing adventure can be pretty nice. Writing credits, awards, good reviews, and plain-old money all help to make the next writing adventure that much more fun. 

Metaphors break down at some point. You probably don't have orcs or goblins to slay in your writing life (unless you do), but the point is this: there is no one template for what makes a writer. If you're a dyslexic introvert with a degree in chemical engineering or a natural poet who's the life of the party and struggles with depression, you have just as much opportunity to thrive as a writer. But trying to fit yourself into someone else's template, trying to judge your weaknesses by someone else's strengths, or trying to perfect yourself before you ever dare put down words on the page will keep you from writing as surely as trying to run a thief with no dexterity or a mage with no intelligence. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars, Storytelling, and Nostalgia

I may need to recant my previous post about Star Wars. I said that "JJ Abrams Doesn't Understand Star Wars" after having seen the trailer for The Force Awakens. Now that I've seen the movie I need to revise that statement.

First, I promise not to spoil any plot points in the new movie. I will, however, let you know some of my feelings about the movie, which might spoil things for some people. You have been warned.

What I Got Wrong

After seeing the trailer all the way back in May, I was worried that Abrams was going to take Star Wars and make it into any other action movie instead of making a space opera film. He didn't use any of the cheesy wipes and the action was so frenetic as to remind me of a Michael Bay film. 

I'm happy to say that Episode VII felt like a Star Wars film. I only counted a couple of the scene wipes, but they were there, and the action, while fast paced, didn't overwhelm the characters in the way that other action movies tend to do. 

Nostalgia

What Abrams did supremely well, was to evoke nostalgia for the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI). It felt like Star Wars in a way that the prequels (Episodes I-III) never quite did -- fun side note, George Lucas' first wife, Marcia, had an incredible impact on the OrigTrig that was noticeably missing from the prequels.  

There were callbacks, references, inspirations, and direct quotes from the OrigTrig all throughout The Force Awakens (TFA). They brought back several members of the original cast and used the iconic John Williams score to further evoke the feel of Star Wars. 

But, in many ways, it felt as if the nostalgia of the movie was more important than telling a new story. If you have seen both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: Into Darkness, you'll understand what I'm trying to say. Abrams clearly wanted to evoke nostalgia for The Wrath of Khan in Into Darkness and he mostly succeeded. 

And that's the problem. For me there was too much nostalgia. There were too many references. To many ways where the movie was the same thing only slightly different. And yes, I'm talking about both Into Darkness and The Force Awakens

After having seen TFA only once, I can't make a definitive statement, but I can't recall a single scene without at least one reference or nod to the OrigTrig. It may have only been a setting or a line, but it was so prevalent that it began to distract me from the story. 

Storytelling

JJ Abrams is a master at his craft. Period. I can't take anything away from him because I think he accomplished exactly what he set out to do: restart the Star Wars franchise. 

The prequels failed in all of the ways that TFA succeeded. Abrams was able to take the mess left to him by Lucas and reshape it into something that feels like my childhood. It feels like watching Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker battle on a catwalk or Han and Chewy fighting Storm Troopers on Hoth or Princess Leia staring down Vader on the Death Star. And that was a great feeling. 

But TFA fails in all of the ways that the prequels succeeded (and yes, the prequels did succeed in many ways). While the prequels were hokey and filled with intolerable or unsympathetic characters, they succeeded in telling a new story rather than rehashing the same old yarn with different characters. But TFA doesn't bring much that's new. We have new characters, but the same dualistic fight. We're 30 years into the future, but nothing in the galaxy seems to have changed. 

In many ways, TFA feels like a reboot rather than a sequel. It feels like the board has been reset so someone else can tell the story that Lucas did in the 70s and 80s. It feels like what Abrams has done to Star Trek is happening to Star Wars. 

Fan vs. Critic

As I have grown and learned more about the craft of story, I've had to develop the skills of a critic. The problem is that I often can't turn off that part of my mind, even when I want to. It is immeasurably helpful to my writing for me to be able to see the beats in a story, to see the structure, the character development, and the plot flow. But it's also a hindrance to my enjoyment. 

As a fan, as best as I can still separate that part of my mind from the critic, I thought TFA was as good as the OrigTrig, and far better than the prequels in so many ways. I will watch it again, I will enjoy it, and I will own it. I'm a sucker for Star Wars and Abrams has done nothing to undermine that. In fact, he has done a lot to restore my faith in the franchise. 

But as an older, wiser, more critical fan, I'm seeing the bones underneath the skin; I'm seeing that Star Wars is more than a story to be told, it's a franchise to be marketed. That was always true of the OrigTrig, I was just too young, too naive, and too much in love with Star Wars to notice or care. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Grandfather was a Racist and I Love Him

I love my grandfather (Jack Wood). He passed away over 20 years ago, but I still remember him fondly. He took me to see the redwoods of California for the first time in my life, he took me on an ATV for the first time in my life, and it was at his house that I first got to watch satellite TV (all 4 channels of it).

But he was also a racist. I'm not talking about the overt, violent, hostile racism that is in the news so much today. To the best of my knowledge he was never involved in anything like that. But I do know that he grew up (born in Missouri) thinking that people who weren't white were somehow less.

So what am I supposed to do with that?

There's a good chance that your grandparents were racist too. Even 50 or 75 years ago most people thought that different skin color meant something about the quality of the person. And I'm not relegating this to only white people (though people of European descent have benefitted most from racial stereotypes in the United States). It was a far different time. People hated each other for the color of their skin.

So, what are we supposed to do with that?

What are we supposed to do with the fact that some of our ancestors owned slaves, others were slaves, and others sold people into slavery? What are we supposed to do with the fact that some of our ancestors were reprehensible people? What are we supposed to do with the fact that we owe no small part of our place in this world to the lives, beliefs, and experiences of our ancestors?

Embrace and critique.

We don't need to ignore our past to recognize that it wasn't always good. I can look at my grandfather and see the good he did in providing for his family, taking me on adventures, and raising his kids. But I don't have to accept his mistakes to love him. I don't have to reject his whole life to critique what he did wrong.

You don't either -- not that you need to love my grandpa, but for your family and your history. And we don't either, for our shared history as Americans. We can call out the great things that have happened in our past -- bringing freedom and democracy, fighting to protect the innocent, working to make the world a better place -- without ignoring the truly bad things our country has done.

I love my country, and I want it to be better. I love my country, and I'm willing to admit that it has struggles. We've been racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and committed genocide. Our nation isn't innocent. But we've also fought for freedom, rights, hope, justice, and equality.

I can both love my country and critique it just like I can love my grandpa despite his flaws and mistakes.

So don't give up on loving your history. Don't give up your past. Don't give up your heritage because it might contain some great or small sins that you're ashamed of. And, don't give up the constant striving to be better. Don't settle for the way things are. Don't stop pushing for equality, freedom, and hope for every person.

You can do both. You can hold both together.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Why JJ Abrams Doesn't Understand Star Wars

The trailer for Star Wars VII was played before The Avengers: Age of Ultron, so I saw it (it was the short teaser trailer). So now I have to deal with what I saw, even though I didn't want to.

The Power of Setting

I noticed something almost immediately about the trailer. It didn't feel like Star Wars. It didn't match the tone of the original trilogy. Sure it has better effects. Sure it has a Stormtrooper of color. Sure it has a quillioned lightsaber. But none of those things were the problem. 

The problem has to do with JJ not understanding (or rejecting) the genre of the original trilogy (I'm going to ignore the prequels for this post). 

The setting of a movie is more than just where the characters interact. The setting of a movie is the entire tone of the film. It's the lighting (I hope there aren't all of the lens flares in SW7), the camera angles, and even the wipes between scenes. 

Cheesey Wipes

The heading for this section makes me think of a terrible cleaning product or a terrible food product. But don't let that distract you. A big part of the setting in the original Star Wars was the scene wipes (the transitions from one scene to the next). There were wipes from one side of the screen to the other, from top to bottom, from the middle out, and the clock wipe that might be my favorite. 

It looks a little bit like George Lucas got a new version of PowerPoint and was playing with all the transitions. It looks cheesey. It looks like a Space Opera (which, for the record, is what George was trying to make). 

But when you look at JJ's trailer (which you shouldn't do, unless you're subjected to it before a movie in the theater) you see mostly black screens between the scenes (and a few smash-cuts where there's no transition at all). It's a modern, blockbuster, action-movie style of trailer. It's not Space Opera. It's not Star Wars. 

Why I Care (and Why You Should Care)

I care because I really love Star Wars. I care because I want these movies to be amazing. I care because the tone and genre of the movies has been so much a part of what sets them apart from all the rest of the space-action movies that have existed since 1977. 

I also care because the way in which a story is told is almost as important as the story that's being told. If Schindler's List had been shot in the style of film noir, it wouldn't have had the same impact that it did. If The Princess Bride had been shot with the wide, sweeping vistas of Lawrence of Arabia the film wouldn't have become a classic. 

As I tell stories I try to match the tone to the subject. I've written mythological stories that have an almost biblical tone to the words. I've written action stories that drop jokes and explosions with equal abandon. As I sit down to write each story I think about the tone, the choice of words, the amount and type of description, and even the transition between scenes. 

I think JJ might make great movies, but from the very little I've seen so far, I don't think he's making Space Opera, which is at the heart of Star Wars. 

He doesn't get the tone of the original (or he doesn't care). What we get may be fun, it may have lightsabers and wookies, and it most certainly will have my butt in a seat on opening day. But I don't think it will be the same Space Opera that we all fell in love with nearly forty years ago. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Why I Won't Watch the Star Wars VII Trailer and You Shouldn't Either

Today (April 16, 2015), the second teaser trailer was released for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

I'm not going to watch it. I didn't watch the first one. I won't watch any more that come out.*

Trailer Failure

Trailers ought to exist to help people decide to watch a movie. They ought to entice people to put their money down, sit in a chair, and enjoy a cinematic experience. But what most trailers have become is a hype machine (yes, there's a difference between hype and marketing).

I'll watch trailers for movies that I've never heard of to help me decide if I want to watch them. But I won't watch a movie I've never heard of in a first-run theater. My first-run movies are rare gems. Usually I don't watch more than about 5 per year. I'll watch second-run movies (at the cheap theater for $3) with less knowledge of the film and/or by watching the trailer. The total investment is quite a bit less, so I'm willing to take more of a risk. If the movie isn't interesting enough to get me out of my house, I'll watch it on Netflix or Redbox.

Hype vs. Marketing

Marketing is the age-old (or a couple of centuries old) practice of trying to convince people that they need to spend their disposable income on your product. You don't really need to market essentials. They pretty much sell themselves. You just need to market luxuries (including upgrades to essentials like fancy homes or gourmet food). 

Hype, on the other hand, is the intentional generation of communal emotions. It's the effort to get society to react to something. Marketing wants to motivate individuals to make a purchase. Hype wants to motivate groups to have an emotion. 

Hype is, by definition, irrational and manipulative. It is a snake consuming itself. The hype machine, when it works, creates a frenzy of people dressing up, standing in line for days, and posting frame-by-frame interpretations of a trailer on the internet.

Hype can occur naturally. It happened around the original Star Wars trilogy without massive changes to the movie marketing system. But once the marketers got a taste of the hype, they wanted more of it. They wanted to manufacture it. They wanted to control people's emotions rather than encourage them.

Story vs. Marketing

I tell stories for a living. There is a part of my soul that dreams about one of my stories generating the kind of hype that Star Wars has. But there's another part of me that wants my stories to be free of that kind of pressure. 

The story of the original trilogy was compelling. It connected with people in a powerful way that made them want to tell their friends about it. It painted a vision of a world that people wanted to inhabit. The story, the world, and the characters generated the hype of the original trilogy. The marketing was in making the best possible space opera and telling the most interesting story. 

I won't generate Star-Wars-level hype by manipulating people's emotions or trying to have the most exciting blurb for my next book. I'll generate the hype is my stories are so amazing that people want to live in the world I create. I'll generate hype if I create characters that connect with people in meaningful, compelling ways. 

Enjoy what You Love

I don't think you should watch the trailer for Star Wars VII. Of course, I'm assuming that you've already committed to watching it (I'll be there on opening day). 

Eschewing the hype machine doesn't mean you have to stop loving things. It doesn't mean you have to stop geeking out over your favorite entertainment. It doesn't mean that you have to stop enjoying all of the things that you enjoy. What I'm asking is that you enjoy things because you enjoy them, not because of a hype-machine that is trying to generate group-think. 

Enjoy what you love because it's good. Enjoy it because it makes you happy. Enjoy it because it's creates a compelling world that you want to live in. 

Not because a trailer came out -- eight months before the movie -- trying to make you wet your pants in fan-joy. 

But what do I know, I'm just an author. 



*Note: If I'm in the theater to watch another movie and the trailer comes on I won't close my eyes, I'm just saying that I'm not going to actively pursue watching the trailer.