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 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 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.