Friday, July 22, 2016

When the only words are "How cool is that!"

I don't believe in omens. Seriously, I do not believe in omens. I know I keep saying it, but it's true. I don't believe in omens.

We will forget about all the omens that led me this past April to pick up a book I'd started in 1996 and start writing on it again, a process that resulted in the publication earlier this week of that book, The Looking-Glass Portrait, on Amazon.
 
 

I immediately began work on a new book, which I have only the vaguest idea where I'm going with. The opening scene is of the main character, one Iola Fairfield, taking leave of her old life in Indiana and heading out on her own. She gets into her car, starts the engine and . . . . 
 

"Satisfied that everything looked in order, I put the key in the ignition and turned the car on.  I knew that as soon as I pulled out of the parking lot, I would never look back.  There was nothing here for me at all.  Instead of looking back, I looked at the clock.  Ten minutes after eleven.  I waited another minute before shifting the Suburban into gear.  Eleven had always been a lucky number for me, even though I wasn't particularly superstitious, and it seemed fitting to begin this journey at the auspicious moment of 11:11."


Now, this may seem trivial to you, and in reality it is. There is eventual significance in the novel, but that's not what this post is about.
 
This post is about baseball.
 
I am not a fanatic baseball fan, the kind who remembers stats and so on with an encyclopedic memory.  And I'm certainly not a personally athletic person by any means.  But I am a Chicago White Sox fan.
 
In seventh grade, in Bill Kyger's social studies class at South Junior High School, we studied Illinois and Chicago history.  We had to do "projects," some kind of 3-D construction of something depicting Illinois or Chicago culture.  I'm sure there were the usual models of Fort Dearborn and maybe someone constructed a model of the Water Tower out of sugar cubes.  I made a model of Comiskey Park.

In the spring of that same school year, my buddy Sue S. and I decided we would enter the Chicago Daily News batboy contest.  As I recall, entrants had to write 200 words (or some such) on why they wanted to be the White Sox batboy.  Two boys would be chosen, one for the home team and one for the visitors, but every entrant would receive an official baseball.  And yes, of course, in 1961 this contest was open only to boys.  That didn't matter to me; I was determined to enter anyway, and I thought Sue was, too.  I wrote out my little essay, forged my mother's signature to the entrance form, and sent it off.  Sue chickened out.  But it didn't matter; I was apparently disqualified for being a girl -- or for doing a bad job of forgery? -- and never even got my free baseball.

Girls couldn't play Little League then, and my high school didn't even have girls' softball.  Not that I probably would have made the team anyway, but it would have been nice to know I wasn't automatically excluded.  Oh, well, I could still be a spectator.

Did I have a favorite player?  Oh, of course I did.

One morning in the spring of 1996, the phone rang.  I answered it, and it was my son Kevin calling from Tempe, where he was attending Arizona State University.  

"I'll bet you don't know what day it is," he taunted.

"Of course, I do," I replied without any hesitation whatsoever.  "It's the 29th of April, which means it's Luis Aparicio's birthday."


Aparicio was the star shortstop for the Go-Go White Sox in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Everyone in the family knew he was my favorite player.  His uniform number, as you can see above, was 11.

Then there was the Mother's Day a year or so later when Kevin walked in the house with a gift for me from -- if I remember the name correctly -- The Glass Cage, a sports memorabilia store.  The baseball autographed by Luis Aparicio still sits on top of my piano.

I missed watching the opening game of the 2005 World Series between the White Sox and Houston Astros, when Aparicio threw out the ceremonial first pitch, but I watched the next three games as the Sox swept the Astros to their first championship since 1917.  I remembered the 1959 series and the loss to the Dodgers; 2005 was special.

There's other stuff, tangential stuff, irrelevant stuff, the weird stuff that gets tucked into a writer's head to be pulled out when some bit of weird stuff is needed, whether it's an old house with plastic tulip shade pulls or an auspicious moment for a character to embark on a new life.  So it was that just a couple of days ago, my fictional Iola Fairfield hopped into her car and waited to leave the parking lot until 11:11.

But wait!  There's more!

That same son who teased me about Aparicio's birthday and brought me the autographed baseball is now raising his own son to play baseball.  This week Kevin and Andrew are making a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York, to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  This morning, Kevin sent me a picture on Facebook.

How cool!

(And yeah, at this point I was already thinking about that auspicious start to a journey at 11:11 and dismissing it all because I really don't believe in omens.)

Shortly after receiving the Facebook post, I heard the whistle on my cell phone that indicates a text message.  "Ok" he wrote.   "So are you ready for this????"

Followed by


And


How cool is that???!!!!!!!!!

But I still don't believe in omens.  Really and truly I don't.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Where the words came from


Very, very, VERY long background on the project that has occupied me for the past two months (and four days).

Let me start out by saying once again that I am NOT superstitious and I do NOT believe in "omens." I do think, however, that our brains latch onto things from deep in our subconscious that trigger connections we sort of forgot about until that subconscious throws them in our faces again.

That's what happened back in April with a shared Facebook story about a duplex in Toronto that was basically unchanged from the time it was built in the 1950s or so.

It looks like a typical '50s duplex, very similar to the one my aunt and uncle built shortly after my cousin was born, which was 1956. The three of them lived in the downstairs unit, and my aunt's widowed mother, whom we called Aunt Petie even though her real name was Gertrude, had the upstairs. 
 
My Uncle Dick is my mother's brother, so Aunt Shirley was only related to me by marriage. Her dad, Cornelius Stryker, was a commercial artist, a career my aunt also followed. She was an only child, and in turn only had one child, my cousin Connie. Connie also went into the arts; she and her husband Paul have a graphic arts and printing business in the Chicago suburbs.

You'll understand all these details . . . . eventually.

We were a very small and geographically close family, so holidays were spent at the in-laws' homes as much as the family's. My dad's family, the Wheelers, also lived in Edison Park not far from the Strykers, and his sister, also Shirley, was friends with Shirley Stryker who married my mother's brother. In fact, the Wheelers' house on Owen Avenue was not more than a few blocks from the Strykers' on Olcott. My dad and both Aunts Shirley went to the same grade school, Ebinger. Thus I was relatively familiar with the Stryker house, where Aunt Petie lived until 1957 or so, when I would have been nine years old. And that's old enough to remember things.

As the oldest of the five cousins born in that time period -- my brother and sister are half a generation younger -- I was eventually granted special privileges when visiting the Stryker house, the biggest of which was to use the upstairs bathroom. It was a marvelous, mysterious blue, totally unlike any other bathroom I had ever seen. The stairway was beautiful polished dark wood, with a large landing in the middle where it turned 180 degrees. On that landing was a glass fronted case containing my aunt's collection of dolls from all over the world, gifts from a family friend. I was also the only one of the children allowed to sit on the landing and look at the dolls.

I loved the house. And over the years, even after Uncle Neil Stryker died and Aunt Petie moved in with my Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley, certain details of the house remained absolutely crystal clear in my memory, as clear as the crystal knobs on the interior doors in the house. I remembered the very modern chrome and glass end tables in the living room, the dining room, the closed-in back porch where we kids played, the white painted brick fireplace with its never burned white birch logs. The back yard with all the tulips -- the Strykers were Dutch and the yard had hundreds of tulips -- and the kind of creepy basement, too, all stuck in my memory.
 
 
 
There was another creepy thing about the house.

During the Depression, Cornelius Stryker worked as a window dresser for some of the department stores in downtown Chicago, and he supplemented his income by making plaster of Paris figurines which he then painted and sold. I still have a set of five little puppies that my aunt gave me after he had passed away. But one thing that he had made scared the crap out of me. It was a head, maybe of a person or maybe of a frog or maybe of something in between, and it was painted green and it had its mouth wide open. The inside of the mouth was painted red. The whole thing was about as big as the palm of your hand. It was used to hold a pot scrubber, such as an SOS pad or whatever, and it sat on the counter in the kitchen, and I was terrified of it.  Absolutely terrified.  I can still see that thing in my mind's eye, creepy as hell.

I have other memories of the house that may not be quite as clear or may not even be memories so much as they are products of my imagination.

On the other side of the kitchen from the counter where the plaster thing was, I recall a little breakfast nook, pretty much like a booth in a restaurant. The two benches and the table were painted bright red enamel, and there was a window overlooking the back yard and garden. That window faced east, and to block the morning sun at breakfast time, there was an ordinary pull-down window shade. The pull on the shade was a little red plastic charm of tulips growing in a wooden shoe. I have no idea why I was so fascinated by that red plastic shade pull, but I was, and I remembered it with absolute clarity.

As I said, Uncle Neil died in the mid-1950s, and Aunt Petie sold the house in Edison Park and moved in with Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley and Connie, somewhere around 1957.

Fast forward 40 years or so, to 1997. My career writing historical romances was in the process of dying, but I am a compulsive writer, as you may have noticed, and so I kept on even though I knew I would never publish anything again. I got an idea for a contemporary gothic -- similar to what Barbara Michaels wrote -- involving a house modeled on. but for various reasons not identical to, the Stryker house. As I began to write it, the details I remembered about the actual house came more and more and more into play. I hadn't originally intended to be quite so exact, but it seemed as if my subconscious was writing parts of the story around some of those details.

Unfortunately, there were certain things I didn't remember. I thought I'd just write around them, or make up something, but nothing fit right. So one Saturday, I called my aunt to see if she could refresh my memory. She had, after all, grown up in the house.

This was in the days -- 1997 -- when long distance calls still cost some real cash, so it was quite an investment for me to call from Arizona to Illinois, but we had a long and delightful conversation. She was pretty surprised at how much detail I did remember, especially the crystal door knobs, the evil grinning scrubbie holder, and the plastic shade pull. She offered to draw me a floor plan and send it to me, so I'd have the details of the layout, in particular of the second floor, since I had never been up there very much. (Only the bathroom!) The floor plan diagram arrived a couple weeks later, along with a most truly bizarre extra.

To my surprise, the floor plan did not include the breakfast nook that I remembered so vividly, but, well, I apparently misremembered.  To this day I don't know where that pseudo-memory came from.

I continued to work on the novel, incorporating some of the details she had told me about, but 1997 was a traumatic year for me for a wide variety of reasons. It was also a financially troubling year, more so even than all the other financially troubling years I'd been through. In 1998 I put virtually all my fiction writing aside and made the bizarre decision to return to college; I got my BA in 2000, then stuck around for a master's in 2003. Those five years were filled with more trauma, emotional as well as financial, but I got through it. Just when things should have been leveling off, my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died 10 weeks later in 2005.

I've dabbled with fiction through all this, but haven't really done much. I have gazillions of files on the computer, plus notes and sketches written longhand and filling a fat folder in the file cabinet. Every once in a while I get the folder out and transcribe some of those notes in an attempt to put everything in digital format, but I usually get discouraged and quit.

Several years ago, I picked up that particular novel and thought I'd work on it again. Self-publishing via Amazon's Kindle had given me the opportunity to put some of my historical romances out there again, and I thought it would also allow me to bypass all the trauma of dealing with editors and agents and the attendant bullshit, and I figured what the heck. I hit up good ol' Google to see if I could get some exterior pictures of the real house just for inspiration, and as luck -- or omens? -- would have it, the house happened to be for sale at the time. One of the real estate sites, Trulia or Zillow or whatever, had a whole portfolio of interior pictures as well, and I greedily gobbled them up and tucked them in the digital file folder. One of those photos was of the kitchen counter, exactly as I remembered it except for the grinning mouth figurine. The breakfast nook with its window and shade and plastic tulips was nowhere to be found.

But alas, for whatever reasons I never went any further than collecting the photos. The book itself continued to languish.

Until this past April.

The article about the Toronto house, frozen in time, brought all of that back, for some reason or other. Maybe it wouldn't have except for the fact that my daughter in New Jersey bought a house last summer that in many ways resembles the interior of the Toronto house. There's a lot of pink in Rachel's house, a lot of decor left from the 60s and 70s which the original owner from whom they bought it never changed. Ultimately, though, those subconscious connections all led back to Aunt Petie's house in Edison Park and the gothic novel I had started 20 years ago.

Again, I do not believe in omens, just odd coincidences. But maybe that's what it took to start me writing again, writing on that particular novel, writing until 1:00 a.m. and then dredging up the original text files -- still dated 1997 -- and going back to work on it.

Because there was that little bonus gift, that bizarre little extra in the envelope Aunt Shirley sent me back in 1997.

She told me that the house had been sold again a few years before our conversation, and somehow the new owners had contacted her to try to put everything back the way it was structurally at least when Neil Stryker built it. So the white paint had been removed from the red brick fireplace and the chimney opened to make it functional again, and the two stained glass windows that flanked the chimney had been uncovered. (They were boarded up sometime in the 40s; I never knew they were there.) The original kitchen cabinets had never been changed, though the blue bathroom was gone and there had been other alterations over the years.

As far as I know, she never went in the house again after our conversation, but I don't know that for sure. Still, 1997 was 40 years after her mother had moved out, and insignificant little things don't usually last 40 years.

What she had included as a gift with her drawing of the floor plan was the red plastic shade pull from the kitchen nook window. There was no way she could have known in 1956 or 1957, when the house was sold, that such a tiny thing would have any meaning to me at all. Maybe it did to her as well; I don't know. But why, of all the things in the house, did she still have THAT? And why, of all the things in the house, did I remember THAT??



That first night last April -- it must have been the 25th -- I wrote about 1000 words on the book, and the following evening I compiled all the separate chapter files into one document on the computer. It desperately needed proofreading and there were other details that needed to be fixed. The whole timeline had to be brought forward 20 years, and the technology as well.

But I was amazed as I skimmed through a brief synopsis I'd written that there were certain very creepy details, things that I had planted in the plot of the novel that foreshadowed events in my own real life over the course of the subsequent 20 years. I've wanted to go back to writing -- gee, can you tell? -- for a long time, but life seems always to intervene. I'm not at a point where I can financially devote myself to it fully, but my anger and frustration over certain other things need an outlet.

And the little plastic shade pull with the tulips and wooden shoes was still in the file cabinet, along with the floor plan of the house in Edison Park.

I honestly didn't expect anything to come of it. But night after night, morning after morning, afternoon after afternoon, I continued to add words to it. What began as something like 13 chapters and 44,000 words grew, and grew, and grew. I hit horrible snags in the plot that I thought would put an end to the thing, but somehow they seemed to get worked out. A subplot that I was very fond of couldn't get itself resolved because it meant veering off from the main thread, so I made the painful decision to just do away with it.
 
The fictional location is not, of course, Edison Park. And I've made some major alterations to the floor plan of Aunt Shirley's house to better fit the story. None of the characters are based on anyone I actually know.

I haven't decided on the title. It has always had a working title, and I happen to like that title very much, but it may be too much of a spoiler, and I'm not sure if it will be commercially viable. There's plenty of time to worry about that, however, while I do the editing and rewriting needed for a project that went on hiatus for 20 years.  And I have to find cover art, one of the tasks a self-publishing author has to take over from the vampire publishers.  (Can you tell I don't like them?)
 
When I hit 100,000 words, I could hardly believe it. My first complete novel, written when I was 15, ran to about 115,000 so it wasn't the raw number that surprised me. It was that after all these years I had stuck with it that far. I honestly thought I had lost my touch, that I was too old, that my other books had been flukes.

A couple days ago, I hit another snag, one that was looming as insurmountable. I didn't want to take a day off from it, because I literally had written every single day since the bug bit me. Most days I added around 1,000 words, but sometimes it was over 2,000. And it was so much damn fun. So I made myself write, made myself think, made myself create, and the block passed and I got through the insurmountable problem.

By Sunday, 26 June, I was down to the last "action" scene. I had hoped to get through at least half of it that day, maybe finish it the next, then write the mop-up denouement. In the middle of this last scene, my mind went blank. An absolutely crucial detail just plain wasn't there. I was well over 134,000 words by this time and I couldn't believe the final confrontation was going to fall flat.

I've always been one of the writers who plots everything out, writes a detailed outline/synopsis to start, and who doesn't like surprises. This book has been a surprise from the very beginning, or at least from its "new" beginning two months ago. The sketch has always been very clear, but details have seemed to fall into place on their own. So why was this one detail not showing up?

I don't know. I don't know where it was or where it came from, but it finally made an appearance and made everything make sense.

It doesn't have to be perfect, it only has to be finished.

It's far from perfect. In some places it's not even good! And it wasn't really quite finished just because that scene worked out. There were more small revelations to be made, but those were backstory details that had already been worked out. On Monday, 27 June, I finished the last action scene, and on Wednesday, 29 June, I wrote the final lines.  There is still a lot of editing to do, but it's finished.  It's the first novel I've completed since 1995.


And I'm damn fucking proud of myself.

Words of Joy -- Cartwheels, Alan Alda, and me

This blog post was original drafted in February 2015, more than a year ago.  I had completely forgotten about it until I logged in this morning to post some actual writing updates, since this is, after all, a blog about writing.  I will have another post for tomorrow, but I think this one was just sitting here in draft mode waiting for the proper moment.  I'll check the links to make sure they work.



Life gets in the way.  Dreams get put on back burners.  And then something happens.
Something like someone mentioning cartwheels, and my replying that someday I should tell my cartwheel story.  And the very next day the whole thing starts into motion.

It all happened a few weeks ago.  I was getting ready to log off the computer when an email popped up, a notification that my daughter in law in Seattle had posted something to Facebook.  It turned out to be something innocuous, but when I logged in to Facebook, there was this weird picture on the right side of my screen, some paid ad or link or whatever.  The pic was of Alan Alda from 30-40 years ago, fatigues costume from M*A*S*H.  Now, you know how I am about omens, which I don't believe in.  But my first thought was, like, is this some stupid non-omen trying to tell me I need to tell the story of the cartwheels? 


Anyway, here's what happened with the cartwheels, Alan Alda, and me.


Way way way back in October of 1968, I was living in a girls' residential club at 435 W. Surf St. in Chicago.  (The building is still there, now converted to luxury condos.)  A group of four or five of us decided to head downtown one Saturday evening to see a movie.  We picked Finian's Rainbow, with Petula Clark, Fred Astaire, Tommy Steele, etc.  I was wearing a Black Watch plaid kilt (which I still have) and a black V-neck sweater borrowed from my then boyfriend Randy.


On the bus going downtown, we chatted about how uptight people could be, in general, and afraid to let go every once in a while.


Finian's Rainbow is one of those "feel good" movies, so when we came out of the theatre on Randolph Street around 11:00, I was feeling very "up."  The sidewalk was crowded with people coming out of and going into the theatres and other places.  I told the other girls I felt so good after the movie that I could almost do cartwheels down the sidewalk.


Oh, horrors!  They were adamantly against that idea.


"No, no, no, don't do that.  Don't do that!  Don't make a spectacle of yourself!  Don't embarrass us!"


That was all the encouragement I needed.  I set my purse on the sidewalk.  I did three or four cartwheels down to the corner, three or four back to where my purse was.  The other girls were mortified.  The people around us laughed and a few clapped.  On the bus going back up north to Surf St., I wanted to sing songs from the movie.  We were the only passengers on the bus the whole way, except for a woman sitting right behind the bus driver who was probably his wife or mother or some such.  No one else sang.  I did.  The other girls were furious with me, even when I reminded them of our earlier conversation.


Jump forward about ten to 15 years. 


Somewhere back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when M*A*S*H was consistently wiping up Emmy after Emmy, Alan Alda tried his hand at directing and then at writing.  One year he was nominated for an Emmy for writing the script for an episode.  We happened to be watching -- I rarely watched awards shows but my husband was an addict -- and as I remembered it, though incorrectly, Carol Burnett was presenting the award for comedy writing.  She opened the envelope, scanned the name, and burst into hysterical Carol Burnett laughter.  She was barely able to read "And the winner is . . . Alan Alda."  (In fact, according to YouTube, it was Penny Marshall and Cindy what's her name from Laverne and Shirley who presented.  I think there may have been a later interview or conversation between Burnett and Alda where he said he had told her what he was going to do.)


The camera pans to Alda.  He has this huge shit-eating grin on his face.  He bounces up, stops for a second, and turns a cartwheel, on camera. 


At that point I was half hysterical, and then I had to tell my husband about my Randolph Street/Finian's Rainbow cartwheels.  He just rolled his eyes.


Fast forward again, now to early May 1998.  I was going through some severe emotional crises at the time and had been stabbed in the back by some people I thought were my dearest friends.  My editor at Pocket Books had destroyed my writing career and I was on the verge of total meltdown.  I had gone to a writers' conference -- which in fact I had organized -- where just everything that could go wrong had done so, and in terms of my writing and my career and my personal life, I was getting nothing but horrible advice -- shut up, don't complain, don't stand up for yourself, do whatever it takes to get along even if it means sacrificing ALL your creative integrity.  I was emotionally devastated.  Even being in the Crowne Plaza in NYC and getting all the perks of being the organization's president and conference chair didn't help.


From my journal, at the time:


    Sunday, 3 May 1998  (Morning entry)
    A strange evening last night, and now awake at 5:15 to a foggy Manhattan morning.  I was up here reading through the old letters yesterday evening when T*** called and asked if I wanted to go out to dinner with H***** L****.  It would have been rude to decline even though I couldn't really afford it.  So we went out, to a nice little restaurant a half block from the hotel.  H***** is very much into horse racing, so we had an interesting little talk about Arlington Park and horses and Round Table, of all things.  I indulged myself with an amaretto. After dinner – I loosened up a little, but I'm still very furious at both T*** and K**** – we came back to the hotel and chatted with P** K**, B**** D****, B**** [H****], M******* B*******, C****** K*********, etc.  Somehow the subject came up and I told the little story of my cartwheels down Randolph Street in 1968.  Everyone thought it was funny.  Then someone mentioned tarot, so I came up to the room to get my deck.  While waiting for the elevator, I tried a cartwheel in the hall.  Once downstairs, in the lobby, in red skirt and red silk blouse, sans brassiere, barefoot, I did two very nice cartwheels.



Everyone of course was scandalized and humiliated, though the swanky wedding party going into their reception in one of the ballrooms off the lobby thought it was terrific and applauded.


I continued to turn cartwheels every once in a while, usually in defiance of something or other.  In the lobby at Walmart when I worked there and someone didn't believe I could do them.  In the parking lot at another job in 2005.  At my 40th class reunion in 2006.  I'm not sure if I've done any since then, but I probably could.  It's not like you forget how to do cartwheels.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Separation of words and self

The past several weeks have been rather, shall we say, challenging for me, which is why I haven't kept this blog up quite as regularly as I would have liked.  Two separate writing projects have demanded my time and concentration, as well as other aspects of real life.  Right now, however, I am facing the prospect of about a week tending a dog recuperating from surgery, so I'll probably have a lot of time at the desk and computer to catch up on some of the blogging.

One of the issues that's been brought home to me in some rather startling ways is this whole issue of writers wailing that their books are their babies.  They seem to use this claim as a justification for both outrage over negative book reviews and outright attacks (usually verbal rather than physical) on the reviewers. 

This is not a new phenomenon.  Writers have been dissing critics just about as long as there have been writers and critics.  My own experience goes back just around 30 years to my early days in Romance Writers of America and judging RWA contest entries.  In face-to-face critique groups and online groups, along with one-on-one evaluations, responses to criticism ranged from "You're right; I need to fix that" to "It's my book and I'll write it the way I want to!  Who are you to tell me how to write my book?"

After this more recent brouhaha over critical reviews which escalated to the point of reviewers receiving death threats, I wondered what is it that makes some writers react to criticism of their writing with such intensely personal outrage.  The reviewers don't know the writers; all they're doing is commenting on their reaction to the book.  And yet the writers take it so very personally.  Why?

I'm not sure why I happened to think of my old writing buddy EK last night, but I did, and I began to see a connection between her reaction to criticism 20 years ago and this current wave of battered egos.

EK was in her early 60s when I met her, a delightful, cheerful woman with an infectious laugh and a constant smile.  Nothing about her demeanor suggested she had been through some very, very hard times.  Her first husband had deserted her with two small children; she had at one point lived with the children in the basement of an abandoned church.  Her second husband was abusive, and in and out of jail for various not-so-petty crimes.  After two more children she divorced him, but he hounded her for years and years afterward.  He broke into her home, stole from her, made so much trouble that she was evicted from several apartments.  The problems with him only stopped when he beat her so badly -- because she didn't have any cash in her home for him to steal -- that she ended up in the hospital and he ended up in jail for a much longer stretch.

She had lived in or near poverty most of her life, unable to hold a job very long because of the issues in her personal life.  One child died of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic; another disappeared into the streets.  There had been other, serious problems, the kind none of us wants to have even one of but EK had several.

Two other writers and I had formed a critique group, and when EK asked to join we welcomed her.  At our first meeting she described her work-in-progress as a contemporary romance featuring a high school math teacher recovering from a bitter divorce and a firefighter who had just lost his young wife to cancer.  Given that this was the late 1980s, EK's characters were way ahead of their time in terms of the contemporary romance market.  The rest of us warned her about this, but she insisted this was the story she wanted to write, and these were the characters she wanted to write about.  Okay, fine.

The book began with a Prologue that provided almost all the backstory for both characters in a classic "Write Chapter 1, write Chapter 2, throw away Chapter 1" fashion.  EK politely accepted our suggestions that she weave backstory into the narrative, but continued to insist it was her story and she would tell it her way. 

At our next meeting, we critiqued her Chapter 1 (which was effectively her second chapter), which served to introduce the firefighter hero character. Though it was competently written for the most part, we three readers found some continuity and consistency flaws and a few other mistakes.  EK graciously and sometimes self-deprecatingly agreed with almost all of our assessments and said she would fix the errors.  My personal feeling was that she had a workable story in process, and if she continued to accept advice as well as she had, she would probably end up incorporating her prologue's info-dumpy contents into the story and ditching the Prologue to produce a viable book manuscript.

Our third meeting should have brought us to Chapter 2, but instead EK brought her revised Chapter 1.  She had reworked the sections where we had found problems, and she had made some other revisions and additions.  The new material revealed some other errors and weaknesses; she didn't argue with our comments and agreed these things needed to be fixed.  We specifically told her to let them go for the time being and bring us the next chapter.

She didn't.  She brought yet another revision of Chapter 1.  When we asked her why she hadn't brought the next chapter, she explained that she hadn't written it yet.  "I have to have this chapter absolutely perfect," she said, "before I go on.  This character is my hero, my hero, and to tell the truth I'm reluctant to share him even with the other main character in the story."

At the time, we all kind of laughed and teased her about falling in love with her own fictional creation, but as a few more meetings went by, she brought only the first few pages of Chapter 2 along with more revisions, more additions to Chapter 1.  It became clear that EK really had fallen in love with this fictional firefighter, and she wasn't about to share him.

For a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with EK and her book boyfriend, the critique group dissolved after about five months.  I stayed in contact with both EK and one of the other members for a long time afterward, long enough to learn that EK never did write any more on her book.  The other writer, who went on to be traditionally published, and I agreed that EK really wasn't writing for publication.  She was writing to create the kind of man and the kind of romance she had never had in real life. 

We further agreed that there was nothing wrong with this.  If EK had been pushed to finish her book, if she had found a publisher for it, she would have had to share her hero; and sharing him would have broken her heart.  She wasn't writing for readers, she was writing for herself. 

In at least one of the recent explosions of writer over-reaction to negative reviews, the writer had made it abundantly clear that she was writing the kind of story she loved.  As in EK's case, there's nothing wrong with that. 

What seems to be more and more apparent in each of these emotional outbursts in response to negative criticism of the writing is that the writers are equating that criticism to attacks upon themselves.  They claim, sometimes in explicit language, that their books are their babies and criticism of the book is therefore a personal affront. 

They claim that they don't mind low ratings (1- or 2-star ratings) or negative reviews, provided the review is constructive, is kind, is helpful.  Again, they want the review directed toward them, as the writers, not toward the readers for whom the review is intended.

Which all makes me wonder if in fact the writers were never writing for readers in the first place.  They were writing for themselves, with really no thought to the fact that other people would be reading, people who did not have the same passion for that particular book that the writer had.  Unable to separate themselves from their stories, the writers are unable to put themselves in the position of "mere" reader.

Very often there are other specific details about the writer's experience that raise some red caution flags. 

The writer who over-reacts to negative reviews often has a group of fellow writers for mutual support.  Most of them will have very little if any experience or knowledge of the writing/publishing business.  They are writing books based on personal experience or personal passion with the intent of sharing the writing as a direct extension of the self.  There is much less emphasis placed on how the resultant work will effect or impact or be received by the reader, and more emphasis placed on the personal expression of the experience or passion.  In other words, the writing is writer-centered rather than reader-centered.

The group is not, in fact, a critique group directing its attention to the writing, but a support group directing its effort toward the writer.  The writer is encouraged to write, but the writing itself is not critiqued.  Or if it is, the critique is more encouraging than critical.

Even after the writer has self-published the book, there is an entire community of writers who refuse to offer critical reviews because of their identification with the writer.  They admit they do not want to hurt the writer's feelings.  They refuse to leave a negative review or low rating because to do so would be to minimize the effort the writer put into the product.  They defend other writers, even when the writing is shown to be objectively sub-standard, and admit they fear retaliation if they even point out mistakes.  In some cases, these writers' works exhibit the same mistakes, suggesting they themselves are not qualified to provide the kind of writing-criticism the original writer needs if she wants to write for readers.

It's easy to make the leap from this to speculate that many of these hyper-sensitive writers have never been voracious readers.  They don't exhibit any kind of empathy with readers, but only with writers.  They seem unable to recognize the writing flaws that distinguish their writing from "good" writing, or at least writing that fits the standards generally accepted for successful popular fiction and non-fiction.  Even when they do admit, however reluctantly, that their writing mechanics may fall short, they offer a common set of excuses and/or justifications: They can't afford an editor, or the reader shouldn't complain about a free/inexpensive book, or the writer is a beginner and shouldn't be held to the same standard as professionals.  Again, the writer and her feelings always have priority over the quality of the product and the reader's expectations of it.

Anyone who disagrees with them is a bully, trying to kill their book and their writing career.  I'm not sure, at this point, that most of those writers ever really contemplated a writing career.  They have exhibited little to no professionalism in the production of their books that would indicate they've studied how to write and how to publish.  Instead, they have simply poured their "heart and soul" into words on electronic paper and uploaded them.  That's not a career any more than my buying a set of golf clubs would make me a professional golfer.

A common response to these meltdowns is that the writers need to develop thicker skins, and I've certainly expressed that feeling often enough myself.  After some of the most recent events, however, I'm beginning to think that's the wrong advice, simply because for these writers, growing a thicker skin is simply not possible.  Their books were really never intended to be shared with a wider audience than friends and family and supporters who would be encouraging and uncritical.  Their books really are their babies, part of themselves, created for themselves, even if the writers insist otherwise.  There's no indication that the writers did any kind of research to make sure they were producing a work that would be well-received by the reading public.  There are many more indications that they were simply writing for their own enjoyment.

And again, there's nothing wrong with this.  The problem arises when the writers forget -- and perhaps they never knew -- that when one writes for other people's enjoyment, one has to take their considerations and expectations first, not last.

Those of us who are avid readers long before we are compulsive writers know almost viscerally that books are not their writers.  Books are a creative product put into a public marketplace for consumption, discussion, comparison, and review, quite separate from their creators.  The conversations we readers have with each other about those books that fall short of our expectations as readers are not about the writers -- unless and until the writer inserts herself confrontationally into that conversation.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Part 1: The price of buying -- and selling -- words

This is going to be a very long work in progress.  Rather than wait until I have the whole thing written, I'm going to post each part as it's completed and then post updates and/or corrections as needed.

The quick background is this:  Effective 1 January 2015, the European Union ("EU") will require all sellers of digital media to include Value Added Tax ("VAT") in the listed prices of the item being sold, to collect the VAT from the buyer, and to remit the VAT collected to the appropriate authority.  This requirement has been public knowledge for at least six months as of this date (18 December 2014) and some sellers of digital media have taken steps to comply.  Others have not.  Others are trying to but cannot.  There appears to be a huge amount of misinformation, misunderstanding, ignorance, and, well, a lot of other stuff.

I don't have all the answers, and don't claim to.  I'm just trying to ask the questions and put whatever information I find into some coherent order.


The concept of VAT has been around for quite a while.  It functions as a national sales tax for some 28 European countries, and ranges from a low of 3% to a high of 27%.  Much like state, county, and local sales taxes in the U.S., VAT is imposed on the buyer of physical merchandise at the time of purchase.  The merchant collects the tax at the rate imposed on the location where the purchase is made and then remits the monies to the appropriate authorities.  The purchaser may be from another country (or state, county, or city) where the rate is different -- higher or lower -- but the rate is charged based on where the actual transaction (where the buyer actually takes possession) takes place.

Unlike U.S. sales taxes, however, the VAT is included ("VAT inclusive") in the advertised price.  Assuming a 20% VAT rate for the United Kingdom, an item with a price of £5.00 would be displayed/advertised/listed at £6.00.  The customer thus knows up front what the total price is.

With physical goods, this isn't difficult to understand.  VAT being a national tax, even such things as printed books could (but in actuality may not) carry the correct VAT-inclusive price printed right on them.  Merchants collect the taxes at the time of the sale and then later report and pay them.

The U.S. having so many different taxing authorities -- state, county, city -- as well as various exemptions within those authorities, sales taxes are calculated after all the retail prices are added up.  Again, the merchants collect the taxes and remit them to the appropriate authorities.  Large retail merchants who sell a variety of goods at various tax rates have much of the complicated calculations programmed into their scanners and cash registers.  Smaller merchants who only sell one category of merchandise are permitted to calculate manually; in some jurisdictions they may even be allowed to calculate tax as a percentage of the list price paid rather than adding it to the list price.

You may think I'm writing this on the wrong blog and that this applies more to selling my arts and crafts than to writing books.  In fact, this has everything to do with books, and almost nothing to do with selling jewelry or wooden bowls at an art show.  Well, almost nothing.  We'll get to that later.


What worked for physical commodities sold in physical stores/locations was one thing.  Online selling of physical merchandise posed a different scenario.  In the U.S. as well as the EU, application of taxes to physical goods that were ordered online and delivered from one taxing location to another required some new requirements and strategies as well as implementation procedures.  In some cases it works, and in some it doesn't.

Digital distribution of digital products across jurisdictional boundaries was a bit trickier, for a variety of reasons.  The most obvious issue was that since there was no physical object being transferred, there was no physical point at which the taxing authority could intercept a package and demand payment (or evidence of prior payment) of taxes before turning the merchandise over to the purchaser.

Digital downloading via the Internet also meant that buyers and sellers could be in different states, even different countries.  Which taxing authorities then applied?  What rates?  How could the funds be collected and remitted?  What currencies would be involved?

The rapidity with which digital selling of digital products has increased apparently caught the EU taxing authorities sort of flat footed.  Especially when digital behemoth -- and infamous tax avoider -- Amazon got involved.

For one thing, the EU were upset that Amazon was taking over retail markets of physical goods and not paying any VAT at all, nor was Amazon paying any corporate taxes.  While various negotiations were taking place to rectify those situations, the EU took steps to begin collecting VAT on one market where Amazon had a very visible market dominance: ebooks.

The EU, in order to capture revenue from huge digital sellers and Amazon in particular, declared that VAT on digital media would be assessed based on the location of the seller.  Amazon then chose to set their EU location as Luxembourg (so did Nook and Kobo) whose VAT rate on ebooks is 3%, even though such a low VAT rate apparently contravened EU directives.  (France's rate of 5.5% on ebooks has also been deemed in violation.)

Effective 1 January 2015, that will no longer be the case.  Because of the amount of VAT funds being lost, the European Commission has stated that sales of digital products -- electronic books, crochet and knitting patterns, music recordings, digital training materials, etc. -- will have to be taxed by the seller but the rate will be based on the purchaser's home location, or at least the IP registered location of the computer or ereader device to which the file is downloaded.   This is similar to how U.S. sales taxes have generally been assessed on physical goods:  It's not the point of sale that matters; it's the point of purchase.  As online purchases of physical goods have increased, many taxing authorities (usually the individual states) have implemented measures by which sales taxes can be collected based on the buyer's location, especially if the seller has any physical presence in that particular state.  But again, it all depends on the taxing authority.  They're the collectors; they set the rules.  (Enforcing them may be a different matter.  We'll save that for another post, I think,)

There are several stipulations involved in all this beyond just the assessing, collecting, and remitting of the tax itself.
  1. The listed price posted by the digital seller must include the specific VAT amount for the prospective purchaser and that VAT-inclusive price must be posted prior to any sale.  The VAT amount can't be tacked on afterward the way sales taxes in the U.S. are.
  2. The seller must be registered with the EU and each member state (there are 28) in order to collect and remit the funds.  (There are some procedures in place for "one stop shopping" programs to allow digital merchants to remit VAT monies to just one location, which will then distribute according to the merchant's tax return.)
  3. Returns must be filed quarterly to those 28 member states.
  4. Records identifying each and every purchaser's location via IP as well as corroborating indentification evidence must be kept a minimum of 10 years and it must be stored on a server in the EU for auditing purposes. 
  5. Sellers' records must be auditable.
  6. And so on.

Amazon is complying with the order, albeit imperfectly.  Some other distributors of digital publications are not.

Amazon's fix is not, as I said, perfect, and that lack of perfection will have a direct and potentially serious impact on the digital self-publishing author.

Digital publication has allowed author-publishers to put their digital products online via a single distributor and then sell virtually anywhere in the world.  Amazon's Kindle dominates the ebook market.  One report suggested that 9 out of every 10 ebooks purchased in the UK came from Amazon.  But Amazon isn't alone.  There are other ebook distributors such as Smashwords, Nook, and Kobo, but there are also craft-oriented sites such as Etsy.com that allow "shop" owners to upload and sell digital files such as knitting patterns and downloadable graphics files.  The files are held on the website's servers -- not the seller's -- and downloaded automatically upon payment, usually through PayPal or another automated payment platform.  The EU and the UK's taxing authority HMRC have stated that such platforms constitute "3rd party" sellers who are liable, as is Amazon, for the collection and remittance of the taxes as well as the recordkeeping.  I'll get to the details of that distinction in a subsequent post, but I wanted you readers to know that Amazon isn't alone.

But getting back to ebooks in the EU.  The VAT rates on ebooks in the European Union range from 3% (Luxembourg) to 27% (Hungary).  There are 28 taxing bodies.  (Because most of those member states have more than one rate, there are actually the possibilities for 75 or so different rates on various products, but this post is only concerned with ebooks.)

Let me reiterate part of this:  The law that is slated to go into effect on 1 January 2015 (two weeks from today) includes the stipulation that each digital product be priced to include the appropriate VAT amount.  Thus, to use one example, a digital book priced by the publisher/author at £5.00 in the U.K. would have to be listed at £6.00 to cover the 20% VAT rate.  Amazon has its amazon.co.uk website, so the Kindle edition of the book would appear there at £6.00.  Amazon would collect that amount, remit the £1.00 VAT to the taxing authority (HMRC), and pay the author's royalties based on the selling price of £5.00, which the publisher/author set.

In the event, however, that a copy of the book is purchased from the amazon.co.uk site by a customer in Ireland, the numbers change.  The Republic of Ireland has a VAT rate of 23%, which on that book would be £1.15.  Since there is no separate Kindle pricing available for Ireland, the Irish VAT would be assessed and paid out of the posted price of £6.00, but now the publisher/author's selling price is docked to cover the shortfall, and subsequently her royalty from Amazon is based on £4.85.  In effect, the author in the U.S. has subsidized the higher Irish VAT rate.  The author can set a higher price, of course, to cover the Irish VAT, but that means the UK buyers will also be paying the higher price, too, and higher than they really need to.  Amazon will essentially split the difference with the publisher/author.

Amazon does not provide sufficient information to the publisher/author distinguishing the number of sales to Ireland and the number of sales to the UK.  The publisher/author just has to make a guess.

The VAT was never intended to be paid by the producers of the goods but by the consumers.

Amazon does have a variety of websites for Kindle publishing and publisher/authors are able to set the prices for each of those venues to cover the VAT rates.  But those venues do not cover all the taxing situations.  Amazon.de would presumably cover the 19% rate for Germany as well as the 20% rate for Austria, since Amazon doesn't have a unique Austrian platform.   The publisher/author will have to cover the 1% shortfall.

No big deal, right?

But what about situations involving France?  Amazon.fr will presumably require ebooks to be priced to include the 5.5% French VAT on ebooks.  Can a Kindle buyer from Sweden buy Kindle books from Amazon.fr?  If so -- I've searched and haven't been able to find anything definite yet -- who pays the difference between the French 5.5% VAT on ebooks and the Swedish 25%?

So far, I have not been able to find out if buyers from Sweden even can purchase from Amazon.fr, or are they restricted to Amazon.co.uk, or can they buy Kindle books at all?

If there is a shortfall, even if it's 19.5% between the VAT-inclusive French price and the 25% Swedish VAT rate, how much you wanta bet it's gonna be charged to the publisher/author as a deduction from the selling price of the book, with a resultant diminution of the publisher/author's royalties?

So far, only France, Luxembourg, and Malta have applied a substantially reduced VAT rate on ebooks.  Austria, however, only applies a 10% VAT to physical books and periodicals.  Other EU member states also have lower rates on books, magazines, newspapers.  Ireland and the UK impose no VAT at all to physical books and periodicals.  That reduced rate does not apply to digital books and periodicals, per the EU declaration that it's not really clear that digital and print media are equal, the same, equivalent.  (They are discussing the issue, however.)  After all, digital books have linkable indexes and so on.  (Never mind that digital books require some kind of digital reading device; physical books don't.  Or that digital books cannot be legally resold because they aren't legally "owned."  Did you know that?  You really don't own any of those Kindle books.  All you have is a license to read them. . . .)

If the Kindle books are sold(sic) and taxed at the rate posted on the Amazon marketplace website but purchased by someone in another country with a different VAT rate, the tax is going to be applied unfairly.  Either the publisher/author will have to subsidize the buyer if the posted rate is too low, or other buyers will be paying more than they should.

There is another effect of this variability in taxation:  The publisher/author may take an even greater hit when it comes to royalties because of KDP's two-tiered royalty schedule.  That issue is just full of math (or maths) so let's save it for Part 2, shall we?

Friday, December 5, 2014

And another dangerous word


Honesty.

It does not pay to be honest.  It is not safe to be honest.  Honesty is a very dangerous commodity.

In the past, with my blogs and reviews and other writing, I have tried to be as honest as I can.  I believed very sincerely that that was what was needed.

Honesty may have been needed, but it was not wanted.  I learned that over a year ago when Goodreads instituted the infamous September 2013 Purge.  I learned it again last month when Goodreads permanently banned me. 

It doesn't make any difference.  I don't know how to be dishonest about these things.  I can lie about other things -- I assure you, I'm no saint -- but what point is there to lying in a book review?  Or in a discussion related to books and writing and reading?  What's the freaking point?

Authors need to get a clue.  I am amazed, yes truly amazed, that there is so much ignorance out there still, after all this time.  Maybe it's more willful ignorance than the innocent kind.  And yes, this is the kind of not-nice-but-honest comment that gets me into trouble.  No doubt I will get into trouble again before this post is finished.

Reviews are not commercials.  Reviewers are not there -- wherever there is -- to write ad copy for authors.  How difficult is this to understand?  Leaving out the semi-pro reviewers -- by which I mean those who have formal book blogs and regularly obtain advance copies for the explicit purpose of reviewing -- most reviewers are just readers.  They're consumers.  They bought the damn book, or obtained it free when the author was giving it away, or checked it out of the library, or whatever, and then they read it.  Where in that commercial transaction is it decreed that the reader owes the writer anything at all?  Where is the requirement that the reader help the author sell her book to other readers?  Or help the author become a better writer?  Or fix the mistakes in the present book?

That's right.  It's not there.  Readers do not have any obligation to review at all.  They don't have any obligation to rate a book on Goodreads, or shelve it on Leafmarks, or proofread it or anything else.  None. At. All.

And readers are most certainly not obligated to lie for you, the author of a terrible book.

You know who you are.  I don't have to put your name out here for everyone to see.  You know who you are.

I've read your books.  Or at least I've tried to.  And they're terrible.  And you just can't stand to have that truth held up in front of you.  You just can't stand it.

Truth is a very powerful thing.  It can be painful, very painful, but if it has the power to hurt, then it must indeed be very powerful.

You will hate me, if you don't already, but you cannot stop me from being honest.  You can, like someone else about whom I dared to tell the truth, take revenge against me.  I already know, however, because I am capable of at least a certain amount of honesty with myself, that I cannot be anything but honest with others, especially if they are being dishonest in a way that would hurt the innocent.  I know, because I do try to be as honest with myself as I am with others, that this makes me Not a Nice Person.  I know that people will dislike me because of it.  I know that I have almost no defense against them or that revenge, because my only defense is the same damn honesty that got me into the mess in the first place.

Your book is terrible.  Whether you're so ignorant that you can't see it for yourself, or you're in total emotional denial, or you know it but you've decided to just lie about it anyway, the fact remains:  Your book is terrible.  But you want me to lie about it so someone else will buy it?  Is that the name of your game?  You want me to try to get someone to believe that they will be sufficiently entertained by this piece of tripe you have written and published so that they will fork over $2.99 or $3.99 or whatever the asking price is?  The only way anyone will think this piece of garbage is readable is if people lie about it.  People like me.   Well, no, not exactly.   People like me won't do it.  We won't lie.

What will you do then?  You can, if you so choose, pay people to lie about it.  You will pay them to post online that they loved your book, that it's the greatest thing ever written, that it should be made into a movie starring George Clooney, Orlando Bloom, Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian.  Some people will believe those lies.  Most, however, won't.

Your writing stinks.  But you don't want anyone to point that out.  Rather than be honest and want honest "reviews" of your book, you want to silence the honest voices.  You throw up a litany of reasons why low ratings and negative reviews are by definition  invalid.  You think no one should read books they aren't enjoying, that they should not rate or review books they have not completely read, that they should think of the author's feelings and only review books they can give five stars to.  You declare only other authors are qualified to write negative reviews because they are the only ones who know how much blood, sweat, and agony goes into the writing of a book, any book.  And then you accuse any author who posts a negative review of being jealous and cruel and unsupportive of her "fellow authors."

By that standard, authors are only allowed to post positive reviews . . . or none at all.  And readers, who by that definition are disqualified from leaving negative reviews, can only post positive ones.

You want readers to lie by omission.  You want them to shut up and say nothing about your awful book, as though that will make your writing any better.  It won't.

Your book is indeed awful.  You can't write.  Your story is banal, your characters are wooden, your plot is implausible.  Your cover looks like something knocked together by a couple of 12-year-olds, and your formatting is an embarrassment to MSWord.  This product has no redeeming features whatsoever.

Yet if I say that, and if I provide evidence to substantiate my claims, you will call me a troll and a bully and a meanie.  You've done it in the past.  You will accuse me of jealousy, and I will laugh hysterically because there is no reason for someone who is reasonably competent with the English language to be jealous of you and this file of putrescent gibberish that you call a book.

You will tell me that I should think of your tender feelings, but I should not care at all about the potential readers to whom my silence is a lie of tacit approval.  Those readers are nothing to you, or at least nothing more than their credit card numbers on their one-click accounts.  To you they have no feelings worthy of respect, worthy of honesty.

You want me to be what I am not.  I am not a liar.  And I will not lie for you. 

A few people stood up with me when I took on Goodreads (which is well on its way to becoming nothing more than the advertising arm of Amazon if it isn't already) but most did not.  A few have spoken out since my banning, but most of gone back to their previous silence.  It is one thing to "take one for the team" by reading and then reviewing a terrible book, because of course that is done voluntarily and there are a lot of laughs to go around in the process.  And one really doesn't take any kind of risk when doing that.

I took one for the team over and over and over.  Under my real name.  The blog posts are still on Booklikes.  And here.  And there are screenshots of many of the now-erased posts on Goodreads.

I put my Goodreads account on the line in the name of honesty.  I am not one to blow my own horn when it comes to my books, but I will blow my horn 'til the cows come home over what I did on Goodreads:  I documented the dishonesty.  And that's what I was banned for.

The excuse that will probably be given, if there ever is one, is that I wasn't nice enough.  And that much is true.  I wasn't nice.  I was honest, but I wasn't nice.

When authors came onto Goodreads threads and asked whether or not they should buy reviews, I was honest:  I told them they shouldn't.  I told them those reviews might be removed.  I told them those reviews could be identified and then their books would be labeled as "This one is so bad the author has to pay people to pretend they read it."

Could I have been nicer?  Could I have written, "Oh, dear, I don't think that would be a very good idea.  What if people found out you bought those reviews?  What would they think of your book?  What would they think of you?"  Yes, I suppose I could have written it that way.  Would it have got the point across?  Maybe, or maybe not.  Would it have been me? 

No, it would not.

I understand the allure of reviews.  I recognize that they are repeatedly touted as the key to making sales.  One has only to read the posts of the frankly desperate authors who beg for reviews because reviews are, they believe, needed to generate sales.  They believe this as surely as they believe night follows day.  Except that night really does follow day; unfortunately, reviews do not generate sales.

Amazon, however, has a vested interest in fostering that belief. 

Amazon wants people to keep uploading books.  The cost to Amazon is negligible, since they do none of the actual work of publishing.  They do not edit, provide artwork, or market those author-published works.  They do, however, get a cut of each one that's purchased.

Though these are rough numbers and there are exceptions on all, these are the basic figures.  On a 99-cent Kindle book, the author's royalty rate is 35%.   Amazon keeps 65 cents off the top, the author gets 34 cents.  The same percentages hold up to $2.98.  At $2.99 and up, the author can elect a 70% royalty, which means Amazon's cut is 90 cents plus they charge a few cents to cover the cost of digital storage and delivery. 

Amazon is much better positioned to cover the minuscule costs of those thousands of free downloads than the authors are, even the perma-free titles.  Will that benefit someday disappear?  I expect it probably will, but that's another discussion.

So who benefits from the Kindle Direct Publishing platform the most?  Amazon.   And it doesn't matter how good or how bad the product is, Amazon still gets a cut.

Crappy books do not sell.  Not even hundreds of glowing 5-star reviews can push crappy books into best-seller status -- and profits for the authors.  Some of you who are reading this are very well aware of what you've done to rack up those reviews and ratings.

Have you given the books away free and then asked readers to leave a review?  Have you used social media to make friends with your readers, in Facebook groups or on Twitter, on Goodreads and Amazon and Booklikes, and then solicited just a short review from them, telling them how much it would help you?  Did you make them feel obligated to do so?  Of course you weren't really pressuring them.  You just sort of left the suggestion in their minds, and they of course being flattered were more than eager to do so.

Why is it then that the next book, the one you didn't give away free and didn't pressure readers to buy and read, didn't get hundreds of 5-star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads?  Why do you suppose that is?  Maybe because people didn't like it?  Maybe they lied in their reviews on the first book because they'd been flattered by your attention, but in reality they knew the book was garbage?

Amazon doesn't care why your second book didn't sell.  Or your third, fourth, or any of the subsequent titles.  Did it ever occur to you that maybe Amazon is using you as their loss leaders to put the competition out of business?  Probably not.  Probably not any more than it ever occurred to you to read the 1- and 2-star reviews that were left for your crappy books on Amazon and Goodreads, on Leafmarks and Booklikes.

Nor does Amazon care if you buy reviews.  Many of you do, of course.  Many of you have been caught red-handed on fiverr.com.  Many of those reviews have been removed from Goodreads and the reviewers' accounts have been terminated, but very few of you have lost your author status there, unless like Michael Beas and Cheryl Persons you were also selling reviews on Goodreads.  But do you remember how this paragraph started?  "Nor does Amazon care if you buy reviews."

Amazon doesn't care because they've got that wonderful "Verified Purchase" button.  It's supposed to imply that the accompanying review is a legitimate consumer opinion, the kind that's required under Federal Trade Commission guidelines.  There are probably a lot of genuine consumers who trust that label.  But you've figured out a way around that, which is exactly what Amazon wanted you to do.  So now when you buy your "reviews" from fiverr and the other shill outfits, you buy another "gig" so the reviewer can buy your book and get that "Verified Purchase" stamp.  And Amazon gets their cut and they're happy to turn a blind eye to the transaction. 

How's that working for you?  Two fiverr gigs are going to cost you $10.  On your $2.99 book you'll net roughly $2.00.  You'll get that back when the reviewer buys your book, and then you have to hope they don't return it and pocket the extra $2.99.  Even if they honor the agreement and don't ask for a refund, that review has to generate four more sales just for you to break even.

Amazon got 90-some cents for doing pretty much nothing.  That's why they don't care if you buy reviews that say your paranormal YA chicklit book is better than Tolkien and Herbert and Martin and Gabaldon and Rowling all wrapped up together even if anyone with more than twelve functioning brain cells can see it's absolute dreck.  Amazon has a vested interest in not caring about, well, about honesty or integrity or ethics or quality or any of that bullshit.  Honesty and integrity and ethics aren't profitable.  And Amazon, like all corporations, is all about profit.

None of the Amazon accounts identified as belonging to fiverr "reviewers" have been removed from Amazon by Amazon.  None of their reviews have been removed by Amazon.  Some of those individuals attempted to establish new Goodreads accounts but were quickly identified and quickly removed.  However, Amazon doesn't remove them.  Even though Amazon's review guidelines explicitly state that paid reviews are a violation, no amount of reporting "abuse" will get them removed.  I know this because I've reported them.  Repeatedly.  They're still there.

During the months that I routinely monitored Goodreads and Amazon reviews to connect them with fiverr "reviewers," I came to be very familiar with the names under which they posted their reviews.   They're still posting.  That means you're still buying. 

And yes, in case you're wondering, I'm still monitoring.  I'm still taking screen shots, though not as many as I did before.  And of course I'm not reporting to Goodreads.  Why should I?

I already took one for the team, a big one.  I did my part.  Now it's someone else's turn, if they care enough that it.  My guess is that they don't.

Does that mean you're in the clear?  Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't.  Maybe I'll get angry enough with you again and start posting more screenshots to Booklikes.   Because remember,  I'm not a nice person.  I have no reason to be nice any more.  My being nice or not nice really has nothing to do with it, does it?  No, the real issue is that I'm honest, and you just can't stand that.  You just can't stand it at all, can you.

Maybe you're one of those authors who self-righteously brags that you never bought a review and you didn't stoop so low as to give your books away to anyone.  You put time and effort into your books and you don't think you should let someone benefit from your effort without, by God, paying you for the right to read it. 

But when I look at your book on Amazon, I see more familiar names.  No, not fiverr shills but the names of other authors, other self-publishing authors, other self-publishing authors who have been desperately looking for people to buy and read and review their books and they'll do the same in return.  It's different, you insist, when you agree to swap honest reviews with each other. 

You and I both know those reviews aren't honest in the least.  You and the other author are going to stroke each other's egos because you're afraid that if you don't tell him his steaming pile of manure is the next Hunger Games, he'll retaliate and let the world know your book isn't the next Interview with a Vampire.  Both of you believe that 5-star reviews will generate sales, and that's what it's all about.  You're no different from Amazon in that respect (pun intended).  You don't care one fig about honesty.  You only care about sales.  You will lie, and you will ask someone else to lie, in the name of selling your terrible, terrible book.

The CJRR continues -- that nefarious group of self-publishing authors who rate each other's absolutely suckworthy spewings with unalloyed 5-star ratings and attack anyone who dares do otherwise.  The sockpuppet ratings continue unabated.  The fiverr shills haven't missed a beat.  It gets worse instead of better on Goodreads and Amazon, because that's the way Amazon wants it.

Readers may ask, "But why?  Why does Amazon want to promote crap?"

Because it sells.  If it doesn't sell itself, it at least sells advertising.  Every time a reader clicks on a free book, other items pop up.  Try it sometime.  Recommended.  Readers who bought this also bought.  And so on.  And Goodreads is just an advertising platform for Amazon.  So Goodreads doesn't really care either.

They cared a little bit for a little while.  They cared long enough to remove a few of the shadier accounts.  Michael Beas with more than 350 purchased reviews.  "Meghan" from Manila with almost 800.  The publicist and her sock puppet army who had over 2500 5-star reviews posted on Goodreads.  Did someone from Amazon come along and tell the Goodreads staff that they had to axe Linda Hilton's account because Linda Hilton wasn't being nice? 

Did Amazon not like it that I was posting screen shots that linked Amazon "Top Reviewers" to fiverr accounts? 

Were publicists like Kelsey McBride buying enough ads for their clients on Goodreads and Amazon that those websites took the cash over ethics to let those publicists, their employees, their sockpuppets, continue to post reviews in violation of FTC regulations and didn't want Linda Hilton to publicize (pun intended) that information?

Yes, I'm angry at you uploaders -- you're not really authors at all -- because you've fouled the nest we all need to live in.  I despise you, and I know the risk I'm taking even in posting this screed.  Amazon is big enough and powerful enough, and I am insignificant enough, that they could refuse to publish my books.  Believe me, the loss of my sales wouldn't hurt them financially.  (Actually, it probably wouldn't hurt me financially very much either.)  If they do that, you'll know and I'll know that what I've written here is important enough for them to want to silence me. 

They don't go out of their way to silence the insignificant.  Honesty is never insignificant.  It's too dangerous to be insignificant.