Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Greatshadow is one heck of a fun book, and is easily one of the best reads I've had so far this year. I loved it so much, in fact, that I've convinced my fellows at The Ranting Dragon that we should read it for June's book club. Keep your eye's open tomorrow (May 10, 2012) for a giveaway of several copies. You can read my full review here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My review of Andrea Cremer's YA novel Nightshade is up at the Ranting Dragon. This is the first book in a trilogy.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Article 5 by Kristen Simmons is a great addition to the young adult dystopia movement. If you're going through Hunger Games withdrawal, this will likely carry you through for a bit. My review of this excellent book is now up on the Ranting Dragon.

Monday, April 30, 2012

So, I had an excellent time at Penguicon, and was really excited to see my panel on Library and Librarians in the Information Age so well attended. We had a lot of audience participation, and so didn't get to talk about everything we had on our list of issues. But, that's just more things for me to blog about, right?

First I'll recap what actually was covered before I move further afield. Libraries are repositories of information, and librarians are the caretakers, gatekeepers, and facilitators of these resources. It is there job to develop the collection, make sure the collection stays relevant to their service area, and to provide access to the collection to their patrons.

Libraries house a wide variety of materials. Nearly all libraries collect ink-and-paper books. A public district or community library will generally collect books for all ages in fiction and non-fiction. It is also now standard for libraries to stock CDs, as well as audio books in formats from cassette tape to CD to MP3. More and more libraries are stocking DVDs and BluRays, replacing video rental stores in their communities. Each of these materials comes with their own host of problems. First, they all take up space, and every library has limited space. My library (CADL) is actively weeding our video tape collection, because a video takes up the same space as three or four DVDs or BluRays. Book bindings do not last forever. Discs scratch, and can only be resurfaced a certain number of times. BluRays cannot be resurfaced at all. Any item that incurs water/liquid damage has the potential to grow mold. The upside to all of these materials is that the library owns them outright and can circulate them as they choose.

As technology changes, so are libraries. This brings us to the topic of biggest interest to the panel's audience: e-books and the library. For the moment, aside from small exceptions, there is one company all libraries work with for their digital collections: Overdrive. This is true for Canada as well as the United States. A library will contract with Overdrive, who will then house their digital collection on their servers, facilitate the buying of these materials from distributors and publishers, and provide the programming which allows library patrons to check out materials via their library card. Essentially, it is a complete privatization of a portion of library services. For the most part, libraries cannot opt out of this system, as there is nothing to replace it with. It is not cost effective for a library to try and duplicate these services in house. The cost of just paying someone to build the software alone is price prohibitive. But Overdrive does come with it's downfalls. Not all publishers sell their books to Overdrive, thereby cutting libraries off from their digital editions. This includes most of the Big Seix publishers. Those who are still selling to Overdrive are winnowing their bestseller list, so that e-book editions of major releases are not available to Overdrive and participating libraries until well after that book has released to retailers. It should also be noted that libraries are still free to buy print copies of these books at the same time retailers do, just no the digital copies. Overdrive, not the library, ultimately controls access to materials and those materials' DRM.

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and is essentially a list of rules coded into digital media which restricts its use. Every publisher and distributor has different DRMs, but they often include not being able to freely copy the file. While you can own a paper-and-ink book outright, you often do not own an e-book outright. It comes with terms and conditions. For libraries, DRM always means a limit to how many circulations they own the book for. Once a certain number of people have checked that book out, the library no longer can loan it and must repurchase a licensing agreement. Those limits are also generally less than what an average print book can handle before it falls apart. Also terrifying from a censorship point of view: e-books are insanely susceptible to change. A publisher/distributor can go into the master file and change it, and those changes are reflected in all copies of this file (because with DRM, all copies remain linked together), often immediately and without your knowledge or permission as the 'owner' of that copy. While this is mainly limited to text corrections (typos, spelling, etc), it is very easy for this to turn into a dystopian nightmare. What happens when The Diary of Ann Frank that we know today turns into The Diary of Ann Frank that exists in North Korea? A reader may know that this is not the same book it once was, but will be unable to find any unchanged digital copy, at least legally. The only record of those changes would be in the printed book, provided they are still around.

In conclusion of the first part of this series, I'd point you over to Charles Stross's website and blog. Stross is an SFF author who often blogs about current technology and their potential ramifications. He's done a number of excellent articles on e-books, DRM, their benefits and their downfalls.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Penguicon

I can't believe that April has flown by so fast, and that Penguicon is already here. For those of you who don't know, Penguicon is a general geek convention run on an open source model that happens every year in the Detroit, MI area. Just about anyone who wants to can present a panel on just about everything. Program tracks include science, technology, literature, gaming, web comics, food, and so much more.

The guest of honor this year is none other than John Scalzi, author and blogger extraordinaire. Jim Hines and Saladin Ahmed will also be on several panels throughout the weekend.

Also of note (at least for me) is that I will be co-presenting a panel on "Libraries and Librarians in the Information Age" at 2 pm on Saturday in the Franklin Room. What challenges do we have? What role are we still serving? What are the needs of the populations we serve? If you're making it to Penguicon this year, I highly encourage you to attend! My co-presenter and I have a lot of ideas to throw at you. I may post an entry or two on the panel and what we discussed later this week if I find some sanity. (Note: Penguicon is not conducive to me finding my sanity, but rather loosing more of it.)

For more information, check out Penguicon's website. Registration can be done at the door, and the new much bigger hotel may still have rooms available.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Short Break

I'll be taking a short hiatus from my blog. I don't even like to think about how long my to-do list is for the next three weeks, and somehow it's just getting more and more complicated. I barely have enough time to collect my thoughts, much less blog.

So, I may pop in and post links to newly posted reviews by me at the Ranting Dragon, but for the most part I'll be quiet. I promise to come back in a reasonable amount of time with new entries.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


I initially found this book at the library. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I've been finding a lot of my books through online resources lately, instead of browsing the shelves for likely candidates. This lovely creature I had the good luck to handle as it was going onto our hold shelves for a patron's request. It's a beauty, with lovely accordian folded pages. In other words, the pages aren't glued into a binding, but fold up like an accordian. One side of the fold is one story, the reverse is another story.

I admit, I was tempted to read this book just on the cool factor. However, I did actually stop to take a look at the back cover blurb (the book comes in a box that acts like a cover), and found it to be about a pair of star-crossed lovers. That sounded fun, so I put it on hold and happily picked it up once the other patron was done with it.

It wasn't until I was actually reading this book that I discovered it was literary fantasy, and not just a literary romance. Granted, there's an emphasis on the literary instead of the fantasy, but I needn't tell you I was pleased as punch by this. The story is about Evelyn and Brendan, who meet in Cornwall during a college break and bond over an obscure medieval Arthurian myth. However, Evelyn's break is just one week long, and at the end of that magical week things go south. After ten years have passed, they mysteriously meet again. I began with Evelyn's side of the story, as that's where the publisher put all relevant publishing information like the copyright and Library of Congress information. So I called Evelyn the beginning. When I was done with her story, I then flipped the book around and read Brendan's story.

Because of the order I read them in, I liked Evelyn's point of view more than Brendan's. Her side is also the more fantastical of the two. When I flipped the book around and started in on Brendan, I got a lock, stock and barrel retelling of Evelyn's story only from Brendan's point of view. There was exactly one point of departure, and that's in the summary of the ten years between their meetings. The dialogue is pretty much the same, with little additions and minor subtractions. I got to know Brendan better, and I can see how he sees Evelyn, but I didn't gain any clearer understanding into the plot as a whole. In the end, even though I enjoyed this book, I only really needed to read half of it to get a well defined story arc. I may have felt differently if I had read Brendan, and then Evelyn.

However, don't let that completely turn you off. The Thorn and the Blossom is only 82 pages long, cover to cover to cover. Essentially, it's two novelettes pasted back to back. I read the entire thing in about an hour, maybe less. Where I would have had serious issues with this book if it were full novel length on both sides, I can forgive the simplicity in the shorter work. Overall, if you're a fan of writers like Jane Yolen, like mythic fantasy with a light, literary touch, you'll enjoy this.

Friday, April 13, 2012

My E-book Pricing Examined: Part III was posted within two hours of the lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice against Apple and five of the six major publishers. I have since had the time to actually read the legalese of the suit itself, so I thought I'd offer this addendum and some corrections. (Honestly, what can I expect when the big news media can't get it right the first time around?)

The key to this lawsuit is that the DOJ is accusing these six companies of violating Section 1 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. This piece of legislation was passed in 1890, and is primarily about ensuring healthy competition between companies operating within the United States. Section 1 reads:
Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, or restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared illegal. Every person who shall make any contract or engage of any combination or conspiracy theory hereby declared illegal shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $100,000,000 if a corporation, or, if any other person, $1,000,000, or by imprisonment not exceeding 10 years, or by both said punishments, at the discretion of the court.
For those interested in doing their own digging, this is US Code Title 15, Chapter One.

In their suit, the DOJ is arguing that the agency model unlawfully restricts the trade of e-books. Further, that the defendants in the case conspired together to deliberately restrict the trade of e-books. The bulk of the document is an interesting list of a chronological order of events which is meant to establish that the CEOs of the corporations in question colluded on price fixing. Keep in mind, the CEOs in question are not themselves listed as defendants and are not being charged with anything. Whoever wrote the document does an interesting game of naming a few CEOs in certain places, but deliberately does not name CEOs or companies in other places. Not being of a legal background, I'm unsure as to the legal reasoning behind this, but as a reader this certainly made me feel like certain companies and CEOs were being targeted more than others.

Also, even though Apple, Hatchette, HarperCollins, McMillan, Penguin, and Simon & Shuster are all listed as defendants, Hatchette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Shuster have all signed a settlement with the DOJ. However, the settlement must be approved by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York before it goes into affect. Random House did not enter into an agency agreement with Apple and other retailers at the same time as the other five, and has therefore avoided any and all conspiracy charges. I should also point out that there are in fact seven defendants listed: Apple, the five publishers listed, as well as Penguin Group, the parent company of Penguin Group USA. I do not know why the London based company is listed along with its New York based subsidiary. All of the five publishers are parts of larger companies, but the multi-national conglomerations are not listed for the other four publishers.

This one is kind of hard for me. I can see where the DOJ thinks it has a case. However, I can see the flip side. In making a move to control prices, publishers actually encouraged having more e-book retailers in the marketplace. While Amazon is still the major e-book player, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Kobo all have healthy positions. I am unsure whether this would be the case had Amazon continued with loss leading most (but not all) of their bestselling e-book titles at $9.99. Competition is now more about user experience than about price, but that's still a very valid method of competition. It's also become and increasingly important method of competition in the digital age. I've also notice a fairly unilateral rise in print book prices over the last year, though no one has complained about that in flame wars across the internet.

I don't know. Maybe I'm still just stuck on the "if you can't afford it, don't buy it" financial ideals I ascribe to. (Before I spark a flame war on myself, this DOES NOT include things necessary for basic survival. This is only in reference to life's little and not-so-little luxuries, some of which are books.) As well, I'm a library advocate. I couldn't afford to feed my book addiction right now if I bought everything I read at retail value. I'd read myself out of house and home if I tried. So, I borrow my books from the library. If indeed e-book prices were too high, consumers would not be purchasing them, and publishers would be forced to adjust the price to a point where they saw healthy sales or they would go out of business. To me, the fact that e-book sales are growing, as are book sales overall, means that e-book prices are not out of line for the market in general. But, just as my legal understanding of this lawsuit may be completely wrong, my understanding of basic economics may be as well. I also worry about what price the authors, editors, and other staff at the big publishers may pay if their product is deeply devalued. I want them to be able to eat, so they can go on keeping me addicted to all their stories.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

My review of The Wolf Gift, Anne Rice's newest book, is up at The Ranting Dragon. This was a fun book, not mind-blowing, but nice. Very very much reminiscent of Rice's early works.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In Part I of this article, I talked about the emergence of the e-book as a mainstream commodity on the open US market. In Part II, I briefly outlined the switch from a traditional wholesale model to the agency model in 2010.

In December of 2011 the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation into Apple and the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, McMillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Shuster) for suspicion of non-compliance with anti-trust laws in using the agency model. These laws are meant to encourage competition, ensure ethical business practices, protect consumers, and to prevent any one company from gaining a monopoly. A monopoly is defined as when a sole entity has the complete control of a commodity in a marketplace. By definition, every media company (whether for books, movies, or music) has a monopoly over it's content because they own the copyright on the material. You can only buy that content from them (or from the companies a media company retails through), and the media company controls nearly all aspects of that product's creation. But the DOJ was worried that the big six had taken this one step further and were colluding with each other to fix prices at a level that was beneficial for them, but not to the consumer. While the monopoly end of media business is the nature of the beast, price fixing is not. The DOJ has also expressed concern over Apple's 'fair nation clause': a publisher who sells its content to Apple may not sell that same content to another company for less than what it was sold to Apple for.

As part of it's investigation, the DOJ contacted each of the companies named in the investigation, as well as several smaller companies who also follow the agency model but who are not named as being in collusion to fix prices. Smashwords, one of the largest and most well respected self publishing platforms, posted on their blog the information they provided to the DOJ during the investigation, which took place in March of 2012. This is a listing of their sales with Apple's iBookstore from October of 2010 until March of 2012. Remember, under the 'fair nation clause' of their Apple contract, Smashwords and Smashword's authors cannot price their content lower than their Apple iBookstore price at another retailer. Overall, they showed that prices had gradually dropped during the period of agency pricing by a not insignificant amount.

Also in March of 2012, the DOJ offered Apple and several large publishers a settlement agreement. This agreement does not mean that the DOJ found criminal wrongdoing on the part of those it was offered to, it only means that if the parties accept the settlement the DOJ agrees not to take them to court. Because of the large legal expenses involved in going to court, it is sometimes advantageous to settle. The only part of the settlement that I have found that's been made public yet is that it would forbid those publishers who signed it from selling through Apple. Should all of the parties named in this settlement have taken the agreement, that would have effectively been the end of the iBookstore, leaving the field of e-books primarily to Amazon and to Barnes & Noble. However, as we saw in 2009 and 2010, this is a competition that Barnes & Noble cannot win. Over time, the e-book market would shrink to just Amazon, perhaps at great detriment to the publishers. In effect, people like the chief executive of Barnes & Noble are arguing that the breaking of the agency model will result in less competition, not more.

As of today, April 12, 2012, the DOJ has launched a civil lawsuit against Apple, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, McMillan, and Penguin Group. Random House accepted the DOJ's settlement, thereby avoiding the extensive legal costs of this lawsuit. HarperCollins and Hachette are listed in court documents as also having accepted the settlement, so I am unclear as to why they are listed in the lawsuit.

John Sargent, the CEO of McMillan both during the Amazon face-off and through today's struggle with the DOJ, issued a statement regarding the lawsuit. In it he defends his and his company's innocence in price colluding, as well as derides the DOJ's settlement as having large long term negative effects.

So that's the story of why you pay the price you pay for your e-books, right up to today. I'll keep watch over the next few weeks and months, and be back with Part IV once the dust has settled.

Friday, April 6, 2012

In Part I of this article, I talked about the cost of producing e-books as well as the initial domination of the market by Amazon.

To continue our story, in 2010 Apple released the iPad. Much of it's initial marketing included use as an e-reader, so it's launch also saw the launch of the iBookstore. Because Apple had never sold books before, both Apple and publishers were starting with a clean slate. Apple decided that it wanted to follow a marketing model called agency, and not wholesale sell-through. In an agency model, the publisher would decide the list price on the iBookstore, and Apple would take a 30% commission on each sale. After the struggles publishers were having with Amazon, they essentially jumped for joy, said yes please, and Apple became their knight in shining digital armor.

I'll stop here and outline some other players in our tale. The traditional publishers I keep referencing are a set of six conglomerations, who when combined constitute most of the books sold in the United States. Those six are: Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Group, Random House, Simon & Shuster, and McMillan. In February 2010 McMillan takes one for the team, and tells Amazon that it has a choice. Either it can enter into the same agency agreement that McMillan just signed with Apple, or it can face a windowing of McMillan e-book titles. This would mean that e-books would become a version of a paperback, and would be available after the hardcover print version of a book had already been on the market a while.

I should also mention that moving to an agency model was not likely to cost Amazon money on the e-books it was selling. Because Amazon was paying McMillan more than $9.99 for the e-books it was selling, Amazon was taking a loss. By raising the price, Amazon instead gained a 30% profit. While Amazon felt that low e-book prices were the key to selling its Kindle, and that the market would not bear prices higher than $9.99, McMillan felt that such low prices would cause a create deal of long term harm to it's ability to publish new books. Perhaps the key piece of the agency model was that Amazon lost the ability to set the prices on the products it was selling. Instead, the prices consumers paid for their books were set by the publishers.

Amazon had a snit fit at this ultimatum, and pulled all McMillan titles, both digital and print, from it's 'shelves.' You could still find these titles from Amazon affiliates in the used bookstores, but not directly from Amazon itself. This is not the first or only time Amazon has pulled books from it's inventory, simply the largest in the book market that I know of. Amazon then posted a snippy note on their site about why a significant portion of it's inventory had disappeared overnight. McMillan stood it's ground, and by the end of the week, Amazon was selling McMillan titles on the agency model at the higher price. Soon, the other five large publishers, as well as a number of smaller publishers, forced Amazon into the agency model with less fanfare. Other retailers like Barnes and Noble followed, again with little fanfare. Prices for new release bestselling e-books rose across the web, to an average of between $13 and $16 in the United States. There was a lot of grumbling from consumers, but the e-revolution continued unchecked. 2011, which was completely under the agency model rather than the traditional wholesale model, was the biggest year yet for e-book sales.

However, the fight over e-book pricing is hardly over. In December of 2011, the Department of Justice of the United States announced that it would be investigating the agency model because they suspected that it broke anti-trust laws.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Even though I'm still puttering around writing my 'first' book (or at least the first one I have real hopes of getting published, however grandiose those hopes may be), I still like to keep an eye on trends in self-publishing and the growing e-book market. Every once in a while, I'm reminded that not all of my acquaintance (both online and offline) are doing the same, so I thought I'd talk a little about the realities of e-books and the shift to digital content. For the purposes of this entry, I'm only going to look at traditionally published material. Self-publishing is an entirely different kettle of fish, and follows a few different rules. I'm also going to do this in three parts. Historian that I am, these parts will be in chronological order. Hopefully you will find this illuminating and thought provoking.

While electronic books have been around in various formats for decades (yes, decades) it wasn't until 2009 that they really began to represent a noticeable market share in the publishing industry. In part, this was thanks to companies like Amazon and Sony aggressively marketing dedicated e-book readers. Since then, more devices have entered the marketplace and e-book sales have grown at an exceptional rate. While print sales have also grown during this period, e-book sales are a growing percentage of total sales. This overnight jump in sales, as well as a shift in American culture, has sent a few shock waves through the publishing world over the past few years. These shock waves will affect how you buy your books (whether print or digital), and what price you pay for them, for the rest of your life.

First, how much should an e-book cost? This article in the NY Times from 2010 does a good job outlining the costs of publishing. In essence, digital publishing only saves the publisher about 30% of the price of traditional printing, which is only the actual cost of physically printing the book. Cover art, editing, formatting, and overhead (I hear offices have electricity bills to be paid), are all still in effect for e-books at the same prices they are for print books. The cheaper a traditionally published e-book is sold for, the less the publisher makes in profit. The less they make in profit, the fewer advances they can afford to pay for new work, and so they publish less in the future.

Books in the United States were sold under a wholesale model until 2010. What this meant is that the retailer paid a wholesale price (50% of what the publisher decided was it's retail list price), and then was free to sell that book for whatever price it wanted. Large retailers like Barnes and Noble could offer their special membership prices, or massively discount bestsellers, because they could sell these items in massive volumes. But these price cuts all came out of Barnes and Noble's profits, not the publishers'. In 2009, in order to push Kindle sales, Amazon took this a step further, and started listing e-book prices below the wholesale price. This is called loss-leading. Amazon was taking a loss on smaller products in order to encourage sales of a higher-profit item, the Kindle. Amazon felt, and was likely correct, that the key to triggering an e-book revolution was price. With the Kindle initially introduced at nearly $300, consumer's were not likely to buy a $26 book to read on it.

This created concern in the publishing world. While it was Amazon taking the loss on those $9.99 bestselling e-books, it was a loss that even Amazon could not maintain indefinitely. Publishers were worried that eventually they would be the ones called upon to take the long term losses associated with a $9.99 e-book price, which they were not prepared to do. Publishers were also worried that if given a choice between a $9.99 e-book and a hardback print edition at $26, they'd take the e-book. This becomes even more problematic, because those hardbacks are priced with a high profit margin. Loosing that profit margin means that the payback on publishing a book takes more sales, and more time. It could mean less profit in total. Publishers were faced with diminishing profits on all fronts should Amazon be allowed to set prices that were good only for Amazon, and not for the makers of their products. This is a similar scenario to what's happened to several companies who produce product for Walmart.

In 2010, Apple arrived on the scene with the iPad and the iBookstore. In Part II of this series, I'll talk about just why that's so important.

Monday, April 2, 2012

While Stewart has done a lot of work for a little game called Magic the Gathering, you might have heard of it, he's also done several wonderful epic and high fantasy covers. In 2010 he won a Chesley Award (the premier award for SFF illustration work), and has been featured in the Spectrum Annual several times. You can peruse his gallery of work here, and even buy prints on his Etsy shop.



Friday, March 30, 2012


Yesterday saw the release of a huge project for me over a the Ranting Dragon: a twenty book list of retold tales that fully represents the variety of the genre. It was a lot of fun (and a lot of work), and you should head over and check it out!

Thursday, March 29, 2012


I realize it's been a while since I posted a review. The start of the fiscal year at the library always means a break in my ability to get new books (ordering goes on freeze for a few weeks as the financials are done and we change over the year). Also, us at the RD had a whole lotta life happening in January and February, and we're just starting to get back on our collective feet. 

Anywho, take a wander over here to read about Doubletake, which I quite enjoyed. Keep your eyes open over the next few days, as I should have a few more things published.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A little while ago, I did a post on why Anne Bishop's recent writing hasn't worked for me. Yesterday I finished Patricia Brigg's new novel, Fair Game. It's a straightforward paranormal fantasy with a strong romantic line, and it's relatively short. But I enjoyed it, for a very simple reason: the story was well crafted.

A lot of author's try to cram too much stuff into a book. A friend of mine recently chalanged me to tell him what my book was about in one sentance or less. Granted, I took a moment or two to craft that sentance, but I could do it. I understand that virtually everything else I'm putting into that story is more or less window dressing for that one sentance. When editing time comes, I need to make sure that what I told my friend my story is about is communicated more than anything else. Sadly, I find that sometimes professional authors can make this mistake, and bury their plot in so much extraneous fluff than a reader can have a hard time finding it.

Happily, Briggs is not one of that kind of author, and that's why I tend to respond well to her work. Fair Game is ultimately about Anna and Charles tracking down a serial killer who specializes in supernatural prey. There's a subplot featuring Anna and Charles' relationship, because every relationship requires constant work. That's why romance novels can be so unrelatable: you don't get to walk off into a sunset forever. There's also an underlying theme of racism and intolerance, but that doesn't distract from the plot. Overall, the book is about as relastic as a paranormal fantasy with werewolves and faeries can be.

Now, I will grant you that one reason why Briggs can get away without a lot of window dressing on her latest books is because she's already done a lot of world building in previous novels. But even if you look at her earlier works, even the pre-Mercy Thompson ones, you see that she is an incredibly clean and concise writer. If something doesn't need to be there, you don't see even a hint of it. She built her incredibly detailed world over a number of novels, not in one foundational info drop. And over the course of her career, those tiny additions and explanations have served her very well.

In other words, she keeps it simple, in the best possible connotation. A well crafted story doesn't need a lot of bells and whistles to entertain.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A little over a year ago, I attended a panel on writing, and one of the panelists (herself a published and successful author) warned that learning to write would for a while kill your joy of reading. She warned that revisiting some of your old favorites while wearing your writer's hat may mean that those books are no longer favorites. I was confused by this. I was teaching myself how to write long form fiction because I loved reading long form fiction. I wasn't at the point where I was reading everything I picked up with a critical eye for that author's craft. 

Now, a year later, I am starting that part of my development. But for me, it hasn't been much about being aware of these things for the first time. Instead, I find myself hyper aware of things I was already aware of. "Ah, this author has a problem with effectively building a scene," or "this author has a problem with characterizations." I was aware of these things before, but now I have names to put to them, and I understand better how these weaknesses can affect the entire work. In turn, I can take that understanding and apply it to my own work. Right now I feel like I need to work on characterization and descriptions, and so my focus in reading is going to be on those things and not on things like theme and pacing. 

The key to my entering this phase was twofold. First, I started picking up books because other authors had said that this author did something extremely well. For example, in panel after panel focusing on dialogue I've heard two names come up again and again. First was Elmer Leonard, who writes primarily adventure suspense and mystery. While I didn't find Leonard's dialogue to be to my taste (I tend to lean towards characters that are a bit chattier than his), I did find that he is especially skilled in inserting dialogue into text without having a high number of obvious tags. Learning to do this transformed scenes I'd already written from choppy and awkward to smooth, tight, and effective. The second name was Jos Whedon, of Buffy and Firefly fame. While you can't really analyze Whedon's work on the page, pay attention to how his characters talk and how much Whedon tells you about them just in dialogue. No character will talk like any other character, particularly in Firefly. Even without tags, you know who’s talking. The dialogue is exceptionally tight and effective. The last time I watched Serenity I was blown away by the subtext contained in the dialogue. Learning that level of craft will take me quite a lot of time, but it will be worth the effort when I get there. 

Second, I started writing book reviews again. When I first started this blog in 2010, I was looking to 'build a platform' like so many agents and editors advise. If someone is already reading my work, and I can market professional publications to those people, then I'm more likely to get a professional publication. Now I'm actually using this blog and my work at the Ranting Dragon to further my craft, which is a huge difference. Now I'm talking much more knowledgeably about what an author did well or poorly, why did I like something and why didn't I like something. When I was reading a book in order to review it, I was paying closer attention to the details of craft than when I was just reading for fun. 

So far I’d say I've been lucky. I haven't picked up any old loves and gone "This is trash! Why did I like this?! What was I thinking?!" But at the same time, I'm finding it harder to find new loves. The bar for loving an author is so much higher than it was in the past. It's no longer just about giving me a few hours of entertainment, now it has to be highly crafted fun.

Monday, March 19, 2012

If there's a cover artist who can make me really want to pick up a book even when the summary/teaser turns me off, it's Donato Giancola. When I was still working as a page and shelving in the SF section, I had to force myself to put some of his covers back because I was very certain that I didn't want to read the book, but another story that would fit that cover. On the other hand, I have read books he's done the covers for and loved every page. Perhaps my favorite thing about this artist is his balance between modern ideals and classical form. Particularly with some of his more recent work, you can see the influence of Renaissance and Romantic artists, and I love that. You can see more of his work (and his incredibly extensive list of covers) on his website.



Sunday, March 18, 2012

Once upon a time, I stumbled accross The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop. I thought it was dark, gritty, well written, compelling, and just all around awesome. So I lent copies to friends, bought them copies for their birthdays, and just promoted the hell out of the series in my social network. Not that we thought of it that way then, in the days before Facebook. Every book of Bishop's that I've picked up since then has in some way dissapointed me, with the exception of The Invisible Ring. Her most recent books I've actually been disdainful of. I just picked up Bridge of Dreams (sequel to Sebastian and Belladonna) and had to fight with myself to try and like this book.

It's not badly written. The mechanics are top notch, no complaints. The characters are thoroughly fleshed out and believable. The world building is also fully fleshed out and consistant accross all three books in this series. Why then was I not connecting? Why was I just waiting for the book to be over? Why did I think the book needed to be over about at least fifty pages earlier than it was? Maybe even a hundred, if you edited out unnessary plot lines.

My first realization is that Bishop has decided to pull her punches. It looks like something horrible is going to happen, but wait! It's either not as bad as advertised, or it's mendable in some way that takes little effort. Or both. For example, the main character Lee is held captive by the villians, tortured, and blinded. This is hefty stuff! But almost all of the details aside from his blindness are glossed over. What happened to all the bruises, cuts, infections, malnutrition, and other physical trauma? He also appears to not be suffering from PTSD after this experience, and he should be! This book should be littered with his mental issues stemming from the first quarter of the tale, and it's not. In fact, they are so seldom there that the few times they are mentioned they've lost believability.  Finally, there's this magical potion that can reverse his blindness! Huzzah! Bad things happened, and then they all got cleaned up. By the time we get to the point of no return in the story, he's even regained enough sight to wander around by himself. Subconciously, I've pulled away from the story by this point because I know that nothing bad is really going to happen. And if bad things happen, the suffering will be temporary, and at the end everyone walks away into the sunset. The conflict needs to be real, needs to matter to me, the stakes need to be suitably high (and I need to believe that they are high and that victory is not garanteed), and I need to have doubts as to how the characters are going to pull it all off. I have to want to know just how they possibly could.

Another problem is that Bridge of Dreams doesn't really have a main villian. It's a group of villians who are never directly on the page long, those who are are flunkies who are then gone longe before the point of no return, and are given no motivation beyond their action other than 'this is what they do.' I don't care about Lee's struggle against them because I don't care enough about the villians. For that I need at least basic characterization done.

Finally, sheer predictability. By the time we've reached the point in the book where the characters are piecing everything together, I already know how they are going to solve it. There's a few curveballs, but nothing I'm deeply surprised about. The first two books in this series set up the world so well that I found myself reading along, adding everything up, and getting the correct answer. As a reader, I shouldn't be able to do this. If I know what's going to happen, and mostly how it's going to happen, why would I finish reading it?

A Bridge of Dreams is a weird little love story trying to be dark fantasy. It doesn't committ enough to either tale to be really successful. On one hand, it's mechanically well written. Descriptions are well done and even compelling. On the other, there are so many basic, amateur mistakes in the storytelling that I'm really dissapointed. I know Bishop can do better; her debut book was better! If she had tried to debut with this, I'm not sure she'd have made it out of the slush pile. Not because it's badly written, but because the story is poorly set up. It's missing too many of the hallmarks of craftsmenship that I expect a writer at her level to do all the time, every time.

Please, Ms. Bishop. Take some time to really craft your next tale. I'll love you for it! Because at some point I'm going to stop hoping you've remembered how to write, and just leave your books on the shelf.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

As a reader, my imagination is often caught by an author's work. When the story finishes, my head is off running far away, asking a lot of 'what if' questions. What if this had happened? What if this character had made a different choice? This is the basis of all fanfiction, and can be the basis of original works. But how do you make the jump from one to the other as a writer?

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to outline my strategies for that using a well known work. If you find this useful, by all means, use to your hearts content. I'm not scared of posting what in the end will be a proposed story for one reason: execution is easier said than done. Even should one of you take the ideas outlined here and write out the story, it will be completely different from what I would write from this same set of ideas. We'd use different details, which if done properly would result in different characters, choices, events, and outcomes. A different story.

So, perhaps one of the works with the biggest fanfiction community currently is Twilight. A basic summary of the first book is that Bella, a female teenager, goes to live with her single father after her mother's remarriage. At her new school she meets a male teenaged vampire named Edward. Edward and Bella fall in love and start dating as Bella learns more about the culture of Edward's vampire family and his way of life. A trio of new vampires to the area challenge Edward's family's control of the area, and use Bella against Edward during the conflict. Edward saves Bella, and they happily go to prom in celebration. In the rest of the post, I'm going to still refer to these characters as Bella and Edward even though by the end of the post, they shouldn't resemble the originals. Changing just their names won't change anything at all. They will still be the same people, doing the same things, in the same story. In order to change the story, and the characters, the changes must be more extensive than surface details.

An easy first thing to change about Bella is that in the original her parents are no longer together and  are even living in separate states. A teenager who's parents are still married, or still have a close relationship, or still live in nearby areas, will have a very different relationship with their parents. In the original, Bella and her father aren't close, and her mother isn't present. This leaves Bella free to do a lot of things a teenager might not otherwise be able to do, including manipulate a father who doesn't know her well. If Charlie knew his daughter better, would she be able to mislead him as much as she did in the original? Would he stand by as much when Bella fell apart in the beginning of the second book? Notice that simply changing Bella's family dynamic will change her relationships with them. It will also shift her personality. If she's no longer the child of single parents, would she be as independent of them? Would she rely on them more for things like dinner, gas, or even approval? Adding in Bella's mother is a huge step, because she's almost completely absent from all four Twilight books. You essentially have a new character, because Meyer hasn't given you much to go on. If you make Bella's mom be still married to Charlie and acting as a mature adult, you've completely negated almost everything Meyer has given you. What happens to Bella if she is no longer the adult in that  mother/daughter relationship? If Charlie is making pro-active and effective choices, you've also negated much of Meyer's original character. Your changes to characters must be more than skin deep. You've changed their backstory, which is going to change them. Pay attention when your changes to characters negate some other part of their backstory, resolve any conflicts between new and original, and allow those things to express themselves as changes to the characters personality and actions. If your goal is something that can be sold as an original work, find things to negate. The more the better.

How would you deal with vampirism differently? Every vampire book you pick up uses a different set of circumstances. Some are based in old mythology, and some are utterly unique. Meyer uses a very unique vampire, so I'd be tempted to pull back into something more traditional. No sparkles, but to keep the young adult genre and the high school setting, my Edward is going to need lots of sunblock. Maybe he's goth or punk of some flavor and wears a hooded jacket with the hood up no matter the weather. I also don't particularly like the idea of someone who is a hundred years old (more or less) falling for a seventeen year old girl. There's a certain creep factor to it, and I also have trouble believing that someone who is a hundred is going to find much in common with a teenager. I'll grant you they'll feel lust, but I'm unsure of long lasting love. So what if Edward is older, but maybe only in his mid-twenties. Maybe he was still turned as a teenager, but he had to leave school in order to learn control. Now he's back and wants to finish his education. We still have an older male love interest who values education, who wants a normal life, who can hopefully be a positive and mature influence. But he's going to be wearing his scars from his turning a bit more obviously. He's going to be a bit more vulnerable, more tentative. He's going to be more attuned to modern youth culture. He's going to have more in common with Bella. He's also going to be easier to write, because he's going to need to do more obvious growth than someone who is a hundred years old. The more he needs to find his way, the more distance you've put between new Edward and original Edward.

While having conflict between competing vampire groups happens in multiple books featuring vampires, it's worth considering loosing it completely. Again, key and recognizable piece. On the other hand, it can be utterly transformed by simply letting Bella be a protagonist and not a princess in the tower waiting to be rescued. If Bella saves the day instead of running away, we have a completely different story. In order for new Bella to be strong enough to do this, she's going to be radically different from the original Bella. If you choose this path, be sure to backtrack and make sure that your Bella has everything in her backstory that she'll need to be the heroine. Original Bella does not have a great deal of things in her backstory that would let her play, survive, and thrive in Edward's world as a human. That's why in Breaking Dawn she becomes a vampire herself. It's not just because she loves Edward and wants to spend eternity with him, it's because she wants to survive. Giving her those things without turning her into a vampire will transform her as a character. This new Bella will make fundamentally different choices, so the story will go in new directions as a reflection of those choices.

To sum everything up, with a few changes, we've gone from Twilight to something new. I have new female and male protagonists, who have different strengths and weaknesses. They have different familial relationships. They have different problems to solve. They will find different answers to the questions of how to fall in love (and why), and how to defend against violent outside aggression. However, it's still deeply similar to Twilight, and legitimately pulls a lot of inspiration from it without being fanfiction. When shifting a story like this, identify key recognizable elements. Anything that suggests deep seated ties to the original work must go. These changes need to be more than surface ones; they need to go all the way down to the foundations of your story. With something like a teenage love story with vampires, you're going to be compared to Meyer no matter what you do. That's fine, and in some cases my actually help you sell more copies of your work. But your work needs to be different enough that agents and editors will be intrigued instead of bored. It must be different enough that Meyer cannot sue you (and your potential agent, editor, and publisher) for copyright infringement.

Virtually every author does this process, consciously or unconsciously, at some point in their lives. I liked this, but what happens when I change that? It's the amount of and level of changes that take another person's story and makes it your story. You can also take inspiration from multiple sources. Like, what if Bella and Edward had to fight Blade or Buffy in order to win the day? At the same time, I find that proposing these changes is far easier than writing them. Writing fanfiction is writing with characters you already know on some level. Without being able to read new Bella first and write her later, I have to write as I get to know her. I have to figure it out as I go, and I need to think about her long and hard. It's how I execute that thinking, planning, and writing that will ultimately determine whether I have a successful piece of fiction or not.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

First, I apologize for some of the radio silence this month. My home network has been a bit screwy, which severely limited my connectivity. Full service seems to be restored.

So! New eye candy.

Jon Foster is a cover artist and illustrator for traditional publications as well as comic books and Magic The Gathering cards. Some of his most recognizable work has been done for Liz Williams, Cherie Priest, and for the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Comics. He typically works in oil on canvas, but also uses digital effects on some of his work. Again, he has a very distinctive style. There's some Asian influence, as well as a talent for gears and other machinery. You can see more of his work on his website. 


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Over at Jami Gold's blog there's been a discussion about fanfiction and plagiarism raging for the past few days. In reading the comments, I noticed a lot of authors and perspective authors who were completely dismissive of fanfiction and those who write it. I decided that I wanted to add my two cents, but I decided to do it here instead of in Ms. Gold's comment threads.

First of all, anyone who tries to monetarily profit from fanfiction is guilty of copyright infringement within the United States. I can't speak for other country's copyright laws, as I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own. United States copyright allows for derivative works to exist, but there's a very fine limit for derivative works (works that are based on other works) to be able to make money. In the writing world, those limits are exceedingly strict, and fanfiction never fulfills them. Any money (or goods) a fanfiction author makes from their fanfiction is legally viewed as belonging to the original author, at least in part. This includes 'gifts' from fanfiction fans. Differing authors have differing amounts of care about fanfiction, and are more or less likely to sue for their fair share if a fanfiction author becomes known for profiting from their fanfiction. But keep in mind that an author's agent, editor, and publishing house may all also push for a lawsuit. They also put in a lot of elbow grease on the original work, and aren't going to want to give the monetary value of that work away to someone they don't know. That's the legalities of fanfiction.

Now, why would anyone want to write fanfiction if they are planning or hoping on a career in fictional writing? Well, I see several reasons.

First, some people just need to start out working with writing mechanics. How do I write description? How do I write dialogue? Simple, basic things that must be mastered. For some people, using an existing world, concept, and characters means that they can concentrate on those mechanics without having to juggle all of the balls they eventually need to keep in the air in order to be professionally published.

Second, communities like fanfiction.net provide an ever expanding cheerleading squad for fanfiction authors. Many people in the initial stages of learning any craft find positive feedback to be helpful and motivating. Some fanfiction readers are better than others at giving constructive critiques, but that's not what the author is usually looking for at this point, but merely acceptance of and liking of their writing. Some critique is welcome, but not necessarily sought. In my experience, about the time a writer is starting to look for heavy duty critique, they're graduating out of fanfiction writing. Or at least no longer putting a large degree of emphasis on it.

Ms. Gold also pointed out that simply changing the name of a character, where they're from, and other informational aspects of a character does not make them your own. You can not take a fanfiction story, change a few surface details, and then sell it as an original work. If you're making this mistake, there are a few things you have fundamentally misunderstood about writing, particularly about characterization. I'll cover that in an upcoming post. Also, by posting to a site like fanfiction.net and admitting openly and publicly that your work is fanfiction, you can not copyright that work, and therefore cannot publish it in professional or semi-professional avenues. In order to reuse that fanfiction work, you have to utterly transform the work into something inherently different from the fanfiction piece AND the work the fanfiction was based on.

For me, fanfiction is amateur work. I say this as someone who has dabbled in fanfiction. I moved on after a time, because I was more interested in writing the stories in my head rather being constrained by the foundations of someone else's work. You could say I graduated to journeyman level work (or I'm at least attempting to, depending on where your markers for journeyman and master are). But even the best fanfiction is amateur on some level. The author has not created something that is completely their own. They're still copying a master. Just as in the art world, there's something to be learned by copying someone else's work. You learn their style, their techniques, their voice, their quirks. The next step is to take these lessons, internalize them, and make them your own. Fanfiction is work that hasn't taken that next step. Again, I'll post my ideas for doing this in the future.

Monday, March 5, 2012

So, as you can see from the reviews that have been published by me at the Ranting Dragon lately, I spent a few months reading a lot of the popular young adult books for 2011. This included works by authors like Cassandra Clare, Andrea Cremer, Kiersten White, Becca Fitzpatrick, Patricia C. Wrede, Tamora Pierce, Brenna Yovanoff, Beth Revis, Lauren Oliver, and a few others. While I did pick up books that I genuinely enjoyed, I did notice a disturbing trend running through a some of these works.

I talked a bit in my previous young adult rant about the growing proliferation of pre-twentieth century literary themes and devices in modern young adult fiction. I'm going to expand this further now. Again, we can start with the Twilight books. Meyer freely admits that her books are based on Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, Wurthering Heights, and A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Now, I'm not going to argue that all of these titles are classics, and deserve to be read, and even be read by young adults. But we need to understand something fundamental about these works: they are all from a time, place, and society different from ours. The relationship's described in them are reflections of those other times, places, and societies. When adapting them for a modern reader, in particular for a young modern reader, we need to be careful about what aspects of those relationships we keep and how they are presented. 

For starters, all four of the works mentioned above are from a time and place where women had few options other than marriage. They also deal heavily with society's expectations of what a good marriage is, which do not match modern ideals. Elizabeth finally accepts Mr. Darcy after she sees his mansion, after he helps her family avoid ruinous scandal and after he convinces his best friend to marry Elizabeth's sister even though the Bennett's are poor. Romeo and Juliet die tragic deaths because their love (and brief marriage) is not socially acceptable. Notice here that the lovers die. This is not necessarily meant to be starry-eyed romance, but a very real warning about the cost of inappropriate love. A Midsummer's Night's Dream is completely based on what are appropriate relationships, and a woman's place in society. The play opens with the very political marriage of Hippolyta (a former Amazon) and Thesus and with the threat of death or a nunnery for Hermia if she does not marry her father's choice of husband for her. Demetrius is literally be-spelled so he will fall in love with Helena. Oberon shames  his wife Titania by making her fall in love with a man with the head of an ass. While this is hysterical on stage, pull it into the realm of drama and suddenly things become very dark and very creepy, and extremely misogynistic. Wurthering Heights is a mess, with Catherine marrying Edgar because he is the more socially acceptable choice, rather than Heathcliff who she really loves. This tension literally destroys all three of them, plus a few more people along the way. While we're finally getting into the realm of love for love's sake, this gets turned on it's head when Heathcliff tries to resolve his own broken heart by making his son marry Catherine's daughter even though Linden and Cathy aren't in love with each other. What is perhaps most disturbing to me about using Wurthering Heights as modern teen literature is the choice between two men becoming a choice about a woman's future.

Don't get me wrong, before the late twentieth century, who a woman married very much decided what kind of life she would have. If she married an educated man, she would likely live in material comfort, her children would be better fed, have access to healthcare, and be more likely to be educated themselves. If she married a poor, uneducated farmer life would look very different. But this is no longer the case. Women can now have careers outside the home, and are in fact encouraged to do so. Recent studies show that women are now out earning men, likely due to higher education rates among modern American women than men. A growing number of women are the breadwinners for their families, with the husband staying at home with the children. So the idea that who a woman marries, or dates, decides her future is no longer applicable. Why then are we seeing it in teen literature in not insignificant numbers?

We can start with the Twilight books. Bella must choose between Edward and Jacob, and this choice is a metaphor for the choice between being human or becoming a vampire. Andrea Cremer is another great example for her Nightshade series. Calla must choose between Ren and Shay, thereby choosing whether to remain in her own repressive society and do the expected thing or leave. Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall uses two boys as a metaphor for who her female protagonist chooses to be at the end. Granted, this is the choice between a socially acceptable but abusive relationship which rewards her for negative behavior and a non-popular boy who actually likes her for who she is and will encourage her to be a better person, but the pattern is still there. Cassandra Clare plays with this a bit in her Infernal Devices series, even if Tessa's choice between Will and James is not a choice between two different lifestyles. It's still a choice between two boys.

It's gotten to the point in much of young adult literature where a girl's choices must involve choices about a boy. Brenna Yovanoff's new book The Space Between guides the female protagonist's growth  is through the growth of her relationship with a boy. Again, this was well done and worked in context, but after a month of reading the above books, even this was too much for me. Enough with the romance! Let's give my fellow Millennials some ass-kicking role models like Generation X had. Do we as women really want the younger members of my generation to backslide on the feminist front? Because that's what we're teaching them in their literature.

I'll end this by saying I am very much looking forward to new books by Tamora Pierce and Patricia C. Wrede. Pierce's female protagonists are always strong in their own right, and the boys can either keep up or get out of the way. Wrede's current series, Frontier Magic, had at the end of book two yet to develop a romantic line for it's female protagonist. Stories like these are becoming as rare as young adult SFF for girls was when Pierce and Wrede first started writing it in the late eighties and early nineties. Wrede's Far West is due out sometime this year, while a new as yet untitled Circle book is due scheduled for publication in 2012 as well.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

I talked a little yesterday about what services libraries provide, and what a bargain those services are. Today, my library released our Annual Report for 2011 and included in that is some real statistics about library finances, which I've decided to talk about here. So again, this information is very specific and may not reflect the realities or experiences of other libraries. Any discrepancies between what I've posted below and the actual report are my own mistakes. Additional information to what is in the report should not be taken to reflect anything but my own opinions, and not those of my employer.

A little about my library: I work for the Capital Area District Library (CADL), which is a large district library located in Ingham County, Michigan. We serve twenty-three municipalities through thirteen branches, a bookmobile, and extensive online services. Our thirteen branches saw 1,578,043 visits last year, and we circulated 2,297,913 items. I can't even begin to enumerate the number and types of programs we put on, from toddler and preschool story times to concerts by local musicians. We provided free classes and lectures on materials spanning from English as a Second Language to computer classes to urban farming. To find out more information about CADL, you can visit our website.

In 2011, we spent $10.3 million out of $11.3 million in revenues. Most of that $10.3 million went to staffing, with the next largest expenditure being new library materials. We also allocate spending on professional services, building maintenance and utilities, technology, and basic supplies (can you imagine the amount of paper we use? It boggles the mind.)

Now, where did that money come from? $10.1 million of it came from the tax revenue of our millage that was renewed in 2010 and will run until 2014. $582,000 came from penal fines, which during 2011 were solely on our entertainment movie collection (informational films, such as documentaries, had no late fines). I believe this also includes charges for lost or damaged items. $223,000 came from fees, the major source of which is our non-residency fee which I discussed in yesterday's post. $116,000 came from aid from the state of Michigan, and is a source of funding that can go away without notice. Since Michigan, like many governments these days, must find ways to downsize and cut spending, that may happen. Finally, $273,000 came to us from other means. These are donations, grants, bequests, and proceeds from the used book stores our various Friends organizations run.

All of this sounds fantastic. That's a lot of money, right? And I won't argue; it is, and I'm glad to be a part of a community that values it's library services this highly. But here's the hard truth: property values all over the country are falling. While in some areas those values have bottomed out, and some may be beginning to climb again, Michigan is not so fortunate. Here's another real life example: in September 2011 a friend of mine purchased their first house. Since they had the down payment and a good credit score, it made financial sense in this market to buy rather than rent, as it will be cheaper in the long term. Just before the housing bubble burst, the house he bought sold for literally twice the amount he paid for it. Between January 2011 and January 2012, the city he lives in calculated that his house lost 15% of it's taxable value. While this is good for my friend, who will hang on to some more of his hard earned cash, think about his municipality, his school district, and his library, who all depend on those taxes. Not every property has lost this kind of taxable value, but as more and more houses are bought at current market value, that will change. And surprisingly enough, the housing market in my neck of the woods is moving, and moved fast this summer. Rent is relatively high, and houses are relatively cheap. For those with the down payment, like my friend, this is ideal.

However, just because housing values have plateaued (at least for now), that's only the beginning of CADL's worries. Every time a house changes owner in our service district, taxable value is reassessed to reflect current market value, and whatever calculation that is used for that means that the taxable value is less than what the property last sold for. As long as most people stay in their homes, CADL's millage is relatively stable. But as you can guess, there's been a high turn over in houses in the past year, a trend that will likely continue in 2012. So when you see that we banked $1 million dollars last year, we did it to cover expected revenue shortfalls in 2012. Maybe we'll get lucky, and we won't need it. But every sign we have indicates that we will need at least part of it, if not all.

And yes, new revenue sources are being explored and implemented. In April, CADL will do what it's never done before: charge late fines on all of it's materials. While this will hopefully encourage faster circulation by getting materials back on time and will generate additional funds, it has the potential of pricing library service out of reach of some of our patrons. It's a two-edged blade, and one we're not entirely happy about embracing. But, as they say, needs must. I also anticipate further cuts in staff, materials, and other expenditures to avoid disasters like furlough days, layoffs, or closings in 2013. 2014 may look very scary for us indeed, with anticipated revenue cuts and a larger millage to pass. It will not be easy.

I'll end this by again saying out how lucky CADL is. We're independent of any municipality, and are completely in charge of our own budget. We rely directly on voter support, support we have so far maintained. Many smaller community libraries are in much darker places than we are, in direct competition for municipal funds with police and fire departments. We have a dedicated and creative staff, willing to find every possible way to do things more efficiently and save money to ensure that our patrons receive the highest level of service.

If you wish to read the Annual Report for yourself, it is available online here. And once again, I encourage you to discover how your library is funded, and to visit the Geek the Library campaign.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I've decided to talk a bit more about libraries in my blog, particularly since my reviews are no longer being posted here in full. First and foremost on any librarian's mind these days is funding. Along with cuts to essential services like education, police, and fire departments, many municipalities have chosen to cut funding to libraries or simply close them. Regardless of where the tax revenue comes from, those revenues are falling at a time when they need to cover more costs than ever.

But why should you care if your public library closes it doors? That's what the internet is for, right? If you're a fine upstanding citizen, you can buy your books and other media from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, both of whom will ship them right to your door. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and even cable companies like Comcast will let you stream movies and television shows. If you're a rather shadier character than that, you can pirate all manner of material. I read these arguments online far too often, and there are a few problems with them. First, piracy is morally and legally frowned upon. If too many people pirate too much material, that will limit the creation of new material, because it will no longer be profitable for anyone involved. Granted, piracy may need to be taken to the extreme to cause that kind of damage, but it is possible. Second, it requires that everyone have a computer (or other electronic device) and the internet. Third, this supposes that you have an unlimited amount of money at your disposal for your entertainment.

Because I'm most familiar with the library system I work for, I'm going to throw some of our numbers at you. Yes, this is one specific example, and is not a representative sampling from libraries across the country. But I hope it will give you an idea about how much a bargain your local library is. My library is a district library system consisting of 13 branches. We are funded by a millage on property taxes that is renewed by the municipalities we serve every few years. While some people will pay more towards the library and others will pay less, all based on how much their property is worth, we charge non-residents (who are not paying taxes into the system) a $50/year fee. This is meant to represent what they might expect to pay, on average, should they move within our service area. Once upon a time this was a rather low estimate, but with the drop in property tax values we've seen in my community, I'm guessing that it is now a more accurate number.

On the internet, without unusual deals or promotions and using only legal suppliers, $50 will get you:
  • about 3 new hardcover books OR
  • about 6 new paperbacks OR
  • about 1 new audio-book OR
  • about 2 new DVDs, or 2 new BluRays OR
  • about 4 new CDs OR
  • about 1 month of cable internet OR
  • about 6 months of basic Netflix, steaming or DVD by mail only.
I'm not going to try and work out how much you could buy in just electronic formats: prices are too scattered between big names and small names, and somewhat between vendors.

Now, $50 at my library will get you the following:
  • the ability to check out up to 50 items at a time, including up to 10 movies (VHS, DVD, and/or BluRay formats), 10 CDs, and 10 audio-books (in cassette tape, CD, and/or MP3 formats), AND electronic downloads (books and audio-books in several formats depending on publisher) as well as traditional books and magazines.
  • access to over 700 different library collections as part of the Michigan Electronic Library System (an inter-loan/co-operative program between Michigan Libraries). Materials are requested online, and are then shipped to your home library free of charge.
  • up to three hours a day of computer time, in one hour increments.
  • free WiFi
  • free computer classes, ranging from basics to advanced word processing, social media, and e-book downloads
  • free tutors for adults and children, including ESOL classes and Citizenship classes
  • free public showings of movies
  • free lectures on various topics
  • free children's programming such as story time, crafts, and performances.
  • free book clubs
  • free professional help for research, or just help selecting your next book based on what you've read and liked previously.
And that's just the basics, and only the first three truly require a library card. We're stretching your $50 rather far, and goes way beyond the non-fiction section most people think of when they think of a library.

I encourage you to check out your local library's offerings, and also take a gander at a non-profit group called Geek the Library, which does public awareness about Library funding across the country.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dos Santos is another artist who if you read any Sci-Fi/Fantasy at all, you've seen his work. It's everywhere, and that's a good thing. As well as doing book covers, he also does some work for DC Comic's and Wizards of the Cost among others. To me, his signature is all about the incredibly vibrant colors and strong women. You can see more of his work, as well as purchase a few prints, at his website. He also contributes to a group blog, Muddy Colors, which is an excellent read for both artists and those of us who just love eye candy.



Saturday, February 25, 2012

A few days ago, an article appeared in The Atlantic Cities about a project in New York City to convert pay phone booths into ad hoc, or "guerrilla," libraries. This is interesting to me on a number of levels.

It would be so easy to see this as an experiment combining two dead technologies because of the advent of e-books. But I think that's unfaithful to what's really going on here: an attempt to share information and entertainment in a very twenty-first century way. In an ideal world, where people replace the materials they take with other materials, I would imagine that these little libraries function much like social media does. How many times have you used your social network to find music, books, movies, or just the next internet meme? Watching your Facebook feed would be a little like watching what turns up in these libraries. Books on art and history from my friend who makes miniatures for a living, books on pet care from those who work for the humane society, or books on meditation from the Zen Buddhist. Mixed in with these would be books of general snark from an entire generation of assholes liberated from being social pariahs by the internet and 4chan. What's available is random, hard to predict, and impossible to control. 

You wouldn't look materials up and go to the specified destination, you'd stumble upon it quite by accident. And of course, it's free. When you're done you send the material on the next person by putting it back in the library, not too dissimilar from what internet pirates do with their torrents. Except, the authors and publishers of the materials in the library have been paid for the copy that's being shared. Yes, they're not getting paid for every single use by every single user, but that's not new. And what if someone found a book that they loved? That they had to share, but the book's been read so many times it's falling apart? What if they bought a new copy for them to keep, either electronic or paper and ink? What if they then bought a new copy to place in the library? Except at academic libraries, which are collecting for posterity, this happens all the time. Community libraries and large urban libraries are collecting for right now. What's being checked out? Let's go buy more of that. This paperback has been checked out by ten people and is falling apart? Let's consider buying a new copy. This would simply be an informal version of a system that's already in place and widely accepted (unless we're talking e-books, which for some reason must be different. But that is a discussion for another day).

Unlike NYC, my city has very few pay phones left in service, and they're mostly at gas stations. This makes sense in a Midwestern city that has not had significant pedestrian traffic since the automobile became widely available. So while my city, and likely most cities in my state, would not be able to use this exact design of shelves in a pay phone booth, there are other public structures such as covered bus stops which could feature shelves with free books on the honor system. I'm also struck by what affect  these guerrilla libraries could have on urban illiteracy. So many people with reading problems don't like to venture into the library, because the first thing we ask you to do is to read and write a library card application. How embarrassing if you can do little more than write your name! The library becomes the most intimidating place to go, even if we're one of the best solutions to your adult reading problems. Others rack up late fines that they have no way to pay, and so are prohibited from checking materials out, sometimes for years. This system does away with both of those hurdles. However, I don't foresee guerrilla libraries utterly taking the place of a traditional library system. A twenty-first century library is so much more than just books: it's technology classes, tutors for adults and children, book clubs, lectures on various topics, and even just an old school community center where you can go to just hang out without having to constantly buy something. But it's not random, and user input is filtered by authorities with access to purse strings and shelf space.

I will be very interested to see how the Department of Urban Betterment's experiment with pay phones and libraries pans out. What are your thoughts?

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