United Artists in Turmoil: Teachers (1984) BluRay Review/Analysis

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Directed by Arthur Hiller.   Released TODAY.

Notable Soundtrack featuring .38 Special, Bob Seger, Night Ranger

United Artists, originally begun as a creative and financial alternative to the Hollywood studio system before films even had sound, by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths, and several partners, struggled successfully with that vision through the 1950s and ’60s, eventually backing what might be called a series of “anti-blockbuster” releases in the 1970s, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the original Rocky.  We can give them their fair share of credit for what remains of intelligent, risk-taking and watchable film in America today.  The 1980s were a particular turbulent decade for the outfit, including a merger with MGM and brief acquisition by Ted Turner.

Eclipsed today by lightweight efforts in the James Bond franchise and the increasingly overblown Rocky sequels, a film like Teachers (1984) came and went into obscurity, undeservedly so.  It’s not as significant as Apocalypse Now, of course, but it’s no Trail of the Pink Panther either.  The studio delved into all genres: Westerns, Sci-Fi, Horror, High Drama, screwball comedy.  Hiller’s piece can be termed Romantic Comedy, in the old, Hawthornian sense of the word “Romantic”: an exaggerated version, satirical in this case, of what we all go through every day.

Set in the middle of a snowy winter rather than the early Autumn or late Spring typical of high-school stories, Hiller’s film immediately warns of its darker tone.  .38 Special’s title-song lyrics, “And for all the things you taught me, only time will tell If I’ll be able to survive” and reference to a “jungle, ” along with a security guard muttering “animals” as he unchains the doors, hint at naturalistic themes.  For those who might object that too much cynicism is packed into a running time shy of two hours, understand that a real-world time frame of many months can be inferred–it’s a convention of the genre.

Characters are lead by bleary-eyed teaching vet, Alex Jurell (Nick Nolte,) whose awards are fifteen years in the past  but who still sees more value in saving individual students who might slip through the cracks than in propping up a corrupt, mass-production system, championed by his friend, sell-out administrator Roger Rubell (Judd Hirsch): “You’re job is to get them through this school and keep ’em out of trouble–that’s it.”  Their similar surnames alert us to the fact that every educator faces a crossroads in career paths, and not all choose an idealistic one.

But it’s an ensemble piece, minor characters sometimes stealing the show, like an escaped mental patient recruited as a substitute Social Studies instructor, Herbert Gower (Richard Mulligan).  He’s a showman, of course, but he knows that keeping his students awake is prerequisite to them learning anything, unlike his colleague ‘Ditto’ Stiles (Royal Dano).

Morgan Freeman, not long after his stint as Easy Reader on PBS’s The Electric Company, fills a wonderfully ironic role as a corrupt lawyer helping to sweep illiteracy under the rug.  He and Lee Grant (as Superintendent Dr. Donna Burke) function as major villains, trying to keep the doors open and willing to skin Jurell alive if need be.

The vast majority of teaching ever represented in the American cinema portrays teachers as either devastatingly boring, or a cranky, if not insane lot.  But one would never know that anything were ever taught or learned within the confines of a school building, because scenes in most films are “saved by the bell” (classes lasting, apparently, an average of 8-10 minutes in America).  Whenever possible, of course, a sexual element gets thrown in for good measure (see the late Transformers 2 film for a regrettable example).  No, we actually see and hear Jurell trying to teach, and his students struggling with and against him.

Teachers doesn’t sign off early–one can’t help wondering if a few honest-to-goodness educators served as consultants.  Nolte fails to engage his students with the textbook material, notably Eddie Pilikian (Ralph Macchio,) and he’s most effective as a reluctant role model with the lifestyle of a broken-down loser, but with the advanced ethics of a disillusioned campaigner.  His unstated theory–we sense he’s tried them all–seems to be that if he can reach the worst kid, the better ones will all come along.  It’s worth a try.  One fiasco involves him being drafted by Eddie and Diane (Laura Dern) into a mini-drama to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, similar to the one that lent some gravity to Cameron Crowe’s lighter, contemporaneous Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s still timely stuff, but speaking as one who sojourned through high school in the mid-’80s myself, Hiller also offers an authentic period piece here.  Nolte doesn’t have a smart-board or computer–he has all he can do to keep the radiator in his classroom working.  The kids aren’t driving 6-year-old cars as in Linklater’s often-brilliant Dazed and Confused, or ordering pizzas in class a la Fast Times, or staging detention-be-damned production numbers as in Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.  At one point, during a parent-teacher conference, Macchio gets slapped across the smart-mouth by his father. It’s a sobering moment, for all of us, a reminder of how much has changed.

Hiller pulls off a rare trick in not polarizing the cast–neither the kids nor the adults escape his satire, or forfeit his sympathy.  Eddie probably deserves the reminder, and his Dad also deserves collaring by Jurell.

Nolte’s major conflict with the system–whether to compromise standards to such a degree that his job becomes meaningless–resonates today as well as it did thirty years ago.    Teachers haven’t gotten much respect in this country since the time of Ichabod Crane, and so the incentives to die for principle defending any particular hill or trench come mighty infrequently.  Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams) functions in the role of Hiller’s mouthpiece, a former student who appears just in time to remind Nolte that he has made a difference, and herein the film falls prey to that charge against all works of social criticism: it’s too heavy-handed at times.  “We’re not talking about business here, we’re talking about the future!” cries lawyer Hammond to her boss, ordering her to squash a lawsuit against the school.  She regroups, in one of the more memorable nude scenes on screen, and it’s a bit over-the-top for a work that functions with a sustained aesthetic of realist detail to buttress its romantic elements.  This isn’t helped by the semblance of a happy ending, which comes abruptly and can mistakenly leave the impression that integrity must triumph over corrupt unions and The Man.  But it’s really a conclusion to a third act in the tradition of existentialist drama like Two-Lane Blacktop and even The Magnificent Seven: the Jurells and Gowers and Hammonds and especially Palikians can’t win, but it’s better for all of us that they were there, than otherwise.

In that vein, the film itself can’t be updated to HD quality no matter how much remastering/digitizing goes on, but that would be as questionable a move as updating the edgy soundtrack to a set of 21st century songs.  The new Blu-Ray is short on special features, but as Hiller’s film was unavailable except in VHS for many years, it may be that you don’t own the DVD anyway.  It’s well worth the screening–and if you’re an educator or librarian, or know one–the acquisition.

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Weight, Warmth, and Writing: Return of the Analog

 

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By Shawn Stjean

If only that were true; but the signs are there.  Signs that a few people yearn for a more authentic, true, immediate, and visceral experience, and that the shadows and echoes we’re being served don’t quite satisfy us.  I mean, why struggle through Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey, or The Grapes of Wrath when you can get the Wiki-version, or better yet catch a Simpsons‘ parody?  When was the last time a movie gave you joy?  Follow-up: Good for you.  How much CGI did it have?

Somehow, people still wear faced wristwatches–not because they are in a hurry, but because the object emanates beauty: through design, precision, aesthetic qualities.  They still search the night sky, with their naked eyes.  A few even read, in their best if flawed voices, to their children.

Let’s not forget that both analog and digital are recording technologies–rather than see and hear a live performance (a play, concert, reading, interview, and so on) we get the convenience of having it to experience, not live, but at our leisure.   This usually means, of course, that we’ll be doing it alone rather than among a crowd–or with far fewer people around, at any rate.  I will never forget attending a screening of  Eastwood’s Unforgiven at Red Rocks Amphitheater on a hot July night in Colorado, along with three thousand other people, under an open canopy of stars.  That experience ranks second only to my eleven-year-old self seeing the original Star Wars in the local theater–never has a film received a standing ovation and cheering, in my memory, by an audience of adults, reliving their childhood enthusiasm for right over might.  However, these experiences pale in comparison to getting one’s chest thumped at a Bachman Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult show in a small club and amusement park, respectively–those were rehearsed and orchestrated, of course–but they sure weren’t Memorex.  They were live, baby.

And I have held pen-and-ink manuscripts more than one-hundred years old in my own hands, at the risk of them falling apart, to study the past, and pass on what I discovered.  I could not be present at the crucifixion of Christ, but I have the Pieta and the New Testament.

I won’t wax nostalgic about analog recording, which is being brought back most recently in the form of 180g vinyl LPs of many popular, classic albums.  Yes, there was tape hiss–hell, there was tape breakage.  Records are delicate, and they scratch.  Film gets exposed, or deteriorates.  Paint chips; sculptures erode; and readings fade into memory.  But you have to realize that digital recordings, even more so, are from the moment of creation MISSING SOMETHING.  The dynamic range is clipped off at the edges, compressed–the warmth goes away, and portability doesn’t come free: we trade away what used to be called “Hi Fidelity”–and fidelity, in its primary definition, means Truth.  It can be experienced authentically as a thump in your chest–but today, what is absent in the sound wave is substituted for/covered up by more power and volume.

This phenomenon is not confined to music and movies (they used to be called “films.”)  Your money has been digitized: what was once a barter of labor or product for something of like value, was substituted for precious metal, later non-precious metal, then paper, and now a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer database.  It earns interest at perhaps one-quarter of the inflation rate, which means it’s shrinking all the time.  Furthermore, this compression and convenience has resulted in the fact that one man can hold a billion times more money units than his neighbors (this could never happen under a barter system.)  And you can now spend your whole roll from your chair, at places like Amazon.  Your friendships have been digitized: so much so that many of us prefer a text message to a phone conversation, which is a bastardized version of a visit.  Don’t even mention writing letters.  Your very identity is in the process of being digitized–don’t think it isn’t.  You, the sum total of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, can be represented by a bar code.  You’re being tracked and profiled by traffic cameras, GPS chips, your phone, advertisers, and the IRS.  And you are either a one or a zero: dangerous or harmless, a lead or not a lead, worthy of further scrutiny, or not.

Digital means two choices only, no gray:  Black or white.  One or zero.  The TV reception is either there, or it’s not.  You’re wise, or a fool.  Female, or male.  Rich, or poor.  Good, or evil.  Successful, or a bum.  See the limitation?  Analog may mean static, inefficiency, gradual loss, getting old, warped, dirty, wrinkled.  But you’re still there.

When we turn off the television, in our moments of sanity, and insist on HANDWRITING a note and READING a paper book, PAINTING and DRAWING, shooting PICTURES, conversing on the PHONE, we’re doing analog, one step closer to revealing how much we’d prefer to be TALKING, ARGUING, STEERING, WRESTLING ON THE GRASS, THINKING FOR OURSELVES, PLAYING BALL, HAVING SEX, USING INSTRUMENTS or otherwise PERFORMING and LAUGHING (a.k.a. living.)

analog-digital 1We need to hold on to the analog.  It has its ups and downs, literally, but at least there’s more than two choices.

Otherwise, it’s which are you?  Harmless, or dangerous?

 

Indie Authors Defiant: What Are We, and Why, and Who Wants to Know?

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By Shawn StJean

In part this post is a response to my friend Emily McDaid’s ruminations awhile back, Why Do We Do it?, http://emilymcdaid.com/blog/12/why-do-we-do-it and to anyone feeling a similar crisis of spirit over your chosen, unremunerative path.

I’ve been teaching English for 22 years, and every Autumn I find myself reviewing whether I think it’s still worth it–okay, so I’m a bit early–it’s been a tough year. 

My best students are often the most concerned about their grades.  I always tell them, “Do your best, and the grades will take care of themselves.” To me (who was a college student myself for 10 years,) this referring them to a higher standard seems so clear.  But from the undergraduate perspective, and given the pressures and competition of the job market out there, I can empathize with their concern. 

Now, as an Indie author, try this one on for size: “Do your best, and the sales and reviews will take care of themselves.”  Seems hard to swallow, right?  Yeah–now we can really feel my undergrads’ point-of-view. 

‘Cuz writing is no more about making money than going to college is about grades.  College is about learning, making friends, drinking too much, sleeping in the wrong bed, finding out excuses won’t work anymore, doing your own laundry, not eating right, throwing a frisbee, flirting, and. . .learning.  Writing is all of that, too, and more (I’m fairly certain they still offer courses in writing, so it’s no coincidence.) 

Writers have a higher standard to uphold, and that makes us a bit freakish.  The Amazon reviews will be unfair, the good ones mysteriously vanish, sales slump or never start, favors go unreturned, the blog doesn’t get enough hits, it never ends, and it’s all so much damn work. 

You aren’t writing for fame and fortune.  You aren’t.  If those things are in the cards for you, they’ll come like the pot that boils, unwatched (I love to mix metaphors.  Take that, corporate editors!)  You’re doing it for a dual-higher purpose.  One: You’re doing your mite to keep literacy alive on our small planet.  Once we lose it–the ability to communicate at a level above the blurb, to ponder our purpose in words, to think in other than cliches, to access the records of our own fitful past, to force those dormant neurons to fire into life so that our heads actually hurt from the brain growing, a useful pain very few human activities can produce–once we lose those, we’ve lost civilization.  And we don’t want to find out what replaces it–worse, we don’t want our children to find it out for us. 

Purpose Number Two:  You’re writing because you are a freak.  Somehow the latent and preposterous belief that everyone possesses–that, deep down, you really are special, a unique if garbled snowflake–is actually true.  Why else would you pursue such a pathetic risk-vs.-reward-ratio, against all the common sense that pushes most of the human race to their toolboxes, spreadsheets, trucks, plows, cubicles, and secure paychecks, every day?  Face it: you’re a mutant, an X-Man.  There’s a screw loose. 

And you can think of your reward for reaching toward a higher standard this way: When there’s an errant nail sticking up above the hardwood floor, will the carpenter raise the entire floor to meet it?  What will he do?  That’s right–he’ll drive it down, to the level of all the other nails.  It better have a hard head.

But my feeling is, if they’re going to beat on your head anyway–and they will, ‘cuz everyone’s a nail–you might as well go down hard, and bend, or work your way out again, your best way. 

 As Thoreau once insisted, it’s not enough to be a philosopher, or even found a school and think better, if you can’t live according to your wisdom.  And if realizing that pursuing money is not going to improve your life, but will actually hinder your progress, isn’t one of the first steps in reaching a higher standard, then what in Hell is? (I paraphrase).  

To put it another way: 

If you’re a freak like me, Wave your flag 
If you’re a freak like me, Get off your ass 
It’s our time now, To let it all hang out 

So shout if you’re a freak like me, Don’t apologize 
They can’t hold you down, You were born to rise 
It’s our time now, to come out    -Halestorm

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Book Review: Write the Body–Post Rock Limestone Caryatids by Rachel Creager Ireland

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By Shawn StJean

Surely for not the first time in history, modern feminists proposed, forty years ago, that genuine women’s writing follows patterns that would seem alien to male readers: perhaps circular or spiral–or at least non-linear, non-phallic, and non-formulaic (this lack the greatest source of readerly anxiety: a defeat, though not a disappointment, of expectations).

Beginning with its title, one clearly not designed to enhance marketability (what genre is this?  Sci-Fi? Chick-Lit?  Naturalism?,) Ms. Ireland’s debut novel fits the non-pattern.  Although the setting eases us in–human beings living on the eve of the 22nd century, insulated, born into robotic nurseries and raised into cubicles and having contact only through computerized avatars via sanitized social networking and virtual sex, their bodies slowly falling to atrophy while the world outside slowly recovers from the human virus, in remission.  Meanwhile, privileged children are genetically modded and sponsored into Matrix-like docility/productivity as adults. Fans of political allegory and films like Neill Blomcamp’s Elysium or District 9, or anyone who’s ever simply slaved away in the human ice-cube-tray of an office building, should find plenty to satisfy their sense of satire here.

The plot, however, spreads its legs, so to speak: between a wealthy runaway escaping a controlling father to seek a free birth for her child, and a woman who abandons the cubicle life, following the death of her sister and loss of her infant niece to the state “corporocracy,” to go into the wilderness with an attractive, seductive politico-religious zealot.  One of the defamiliarizing aspects of the book is the consistent splitting of our attention back-and-forth, toward an eventual convergence in the great yonic center of our country, the Kansas prairie, the culmination simultaneously the most common and most miraculous of events.  Écriture féminine, indeed.

Male readers, especially, or any conditioned in the mode of phallogocentric writing, should not expect to find chase-and-gunfire narrative lurches and jerks, progressing hurriedly to an all-too-predictable climax.  As one of the protagonists learns in the company of natural childbirthers, patience, and release of control, form much of non-technological existence.

And the writing, at the paragraph and sentence level, frequently bares its beauty in a range from scatological to sublime, though in the least pretentious of ways.  One could read many passages as the journal of a writer who has herself plumbed both the mysteries and fears of homo sapiens childbirth, and the macro-birthing process of Mother Earth. Ireland could become one of the few legitimate woman naturalists–though this is only one of the book’s several modes–a tradition dominated by males in America since the 1870s.  (A scan through her author’s blog, http://veronicasgarden.wordpress.com/, will confirm this.)  “If Maeve were the only human alive, the only tragedy would be human, that is, that Maeve would be the last to witness to such immense beauty; yet this world would go on being beautiful, to itself, for itself, without suffering any loss.  It was somewhat reassuring to Maeve to know that the world was really that big, that her little human sufferings, meaningful as they might be to her, were really a very small part of the whole.”  Norris or Crane or Dreiser–all appreciative of the ironic scope of androcentrism that defines our species among the animal kingdom, would agree.

Buy it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Post-Rock-Limestone-Caryatids-ebook/dp/B00AWE6B8O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366041370&sr=8-1&keywords=post+rock+limestone+caryatids

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Clotho’s Loom Full Review on Veronica’s Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland, author of Post Rock Limestone Caryatids (soon to be reviewed in this space) has written an in-depth evaluation of the novel Clotho’s Loom.

http://veronicasgarden.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/clothos-loom-weighty-amusing-mysterious-difficult-to-put-down/

ImageImageWhile you’re over there, check out Rachel’s own novel: “Part dystopian sci-fi, part women’s lit, with a touch of romance and a generous helping of nature writing, Post Rock Limestone Caryatids might be the book Marge Piercy and Willa Cather would co-author if they met on a natural parenting forum.”

FINALISTS for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013! Cast Your Vote!

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LINK: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

You can have a say in who takes home all the marbles!  Download an excerpt and vote (Note that this requires an Amazon.com Customer account to participate.)  Heartfelt congrats to Ken Moraff for It Happened in Wisconsin, Jo Chumas for The Hidden, Evelyn Pryce for A Man Above Reproach, J. Lincoln Fenn for Poe, and Rysa Walker for TimeBound.

My personal pat on the back to Ken, who defeated me (and 1998 others) in the General Fiction category!  Go Ken!

 

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Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award: Semi-Finalists Announced for 2013

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By Shawn StJean

And then there were twenty-five. . .

We began with 10,000 applicants (I say “we” because I fell by the way between the second and third rounds).  It’s safe to say that when one comes this far–and remember that there are five categories, so only five books and authors remain in each–that everyone is a viable candidate for the Grand Prize, and the books that are not chosen next month are still well worth everyone’s attention.  It’s like being nominated for the Oscars.

I’d like to extend a special congratulations to the semi-finalist-survivors in the General Fiction category:

Danielle Fifer    The Great Wall
Ian Flitcroft        The Reluctant Cannibals
James Brakken The Treasure of Namakagon
Ken Moraff         It Happened in Wisconsin
Scott Cairns       Silver

Good luck, authors–you’ve achieved great visibility already!  Everyone else, there are twenty-five new books for you to put on your must-check-out list: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

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The Double Edge: “Giveaways” As A Bleeding Book Marketing Strategy

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By Shawn StJean

My thinking is evolving on this topic.  Just six months ago, I declared to a fellow author: “I don’t think you can give away too many books.”  We both ran highly successful KDP Select events, and got our work out there to thousands of potential readers—but, today, I’d like to shift emphasis from thousands to potential.

Today, I say: FREE is not necessarily a good thing.  Like many self-published authors, I launched my novel under the Amazon.com Kindle Direct Publishing Select program–which allows one to host five giveaway days in a three-month period–under the assumption that immediate wide distribution was a worthy tradeoff for the lack of short-term profit.  And like many others, I can confirm that giving away XXXX copies will result in a residual spike of one or two days of actual sales, after the price returns to normal (a modest $2.99, at the time.)  Another desirable (short-term) side-effect of these giveaways is that the members of groups like Goodreads and LibraryThing will now have your work in their possession, and have their fingers poised to write reviews.  More on that in a bit.

Some believe that there is no bad publicity.  Lately, I wonder.

Over time, I’ve become convinced that, even if giving books away is one viable means of launching, and gaining a toehold in the marketplace, it is not the proper way to ensure a permanent market share for one’s self-published work.  For years, I’ve known that FREE was the fundamental flaw of Craigslist: most of the abuses (the scams, the spam, the phishing, the no-shows, the tire-kickers) could be done away with by a simple $10 yearly fee, or a $1 per-transaction fee.

Why? It’s human nature: people don’t properly value anything they don’t have to work for.  Think of the last music CD you actually paid for (this would be between $5 and $20 US, probably.)  Of course you’ve replayed the hits over and over again, but eventually you delve beneath the surface, and those tunes that don’t immediately capture airplay have a chance to work their less-quantifiable magic upon you.  You’re a fan.  Now, if you hadn’t paid good money for them, chances are these songs would be lost to obscurity—the b-sides don’t have to pay you back, because you’ve invested nothing in them.

Everyone in publishing understands how vital reviews are.  My book has received, on Amazon, reviews at every level: even though several five-star entries were removed in the infamous sweep, several remain, but I also have four, three, two, and yes, several one-star reviews.

Now, consider for a moment how a reviewer would decide to award a book one star–because even the worst B-movies usually get two.  A book would have to be either plain awful on every level, or very frustrating.  Just trust me, Clotho’s Loom is not for everyone, but by no conceivable standard is it plain awful.   Among my dismissive, one-star reviews, I see two definite trends: 1) the writers are baffled by my writing–either because they couldn’t or wouldn’t read carefully, or beyond the second chapter, or at all–and 2) they got the book for free.

These guys couldn’t be bothered to take a 540-page novel seriously.  They were not my target audience, and I have no one to blame but myself,  putting my best stuff into the hands of someone whose interest lay definitely in “free,” but not so much in “book.”   At least, not my sort of book.  Free is too indiscriminate.  It’s like a sawn-off shotgun.

Easy come, easy go.  Every writer knows that some cliches stick around because they’re true.

We’re living in the age of “free.”  Young people who can’t get jobs do internships, offering free labor in the marketplace.  Rock bands are giving away mp3s of their best material, solely for the exposure.  You can see new movies and TV shows just by typing a few characters into YouTube.  Bulky televisions and microwaves and exercise equipment and computers–much of it perfectly functional–can be had for the taking on suburban curbsides.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, the internet offers trillions of bytes of content, generated by the mainstream media, private bloggers, commercial sites, everybody, for merely the cost of your time, the only limitation being how you choose among it all.  And chances are, if you have a coffee in one hand right now, you’re reading this on free wi-fi.

Now take a look at what the world calls the “successful” people.  The executives, the professionals, the politicians, the lawyers, bankers, even famous authors.  How much are they giving away, really—in proportion to what they’re taking in?  Because they know how the capitalist system works: you trade what you have for other stuff, and you do it at an advantageous rate, not a disadvantageous one.  Certainly not for nothing.

I’m not discouraging the act of promoting a charity, posting flyers for someone’s gig, or volunteering for a bake sale.  We all need to help out someone, somewhere, sometime.  We need to pay forward the help we’ve received, ourselves.  I’m talking about devaluing your own creative talent, time, and more hours of hard work than you could keep track of.  It’s just not smart.  It’s not good business.
Some clown (prince of crime) once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  He may have been crazy, but he was no dummy.

Yes, give away your sample chapter.  Write your guest posts, and return the favor by hosting some.  Tweet your friend’s successes.  Promote someone who will never return the favor directly.  That’s all good karma, and more importantly, it’ll keep literacy alive in our culture.  But don’t give too many books away—give fewer, and to the right people.  Find them on Goodreads, LibraryThing, the coffee shop down the street, on a forum or social network, in your extended family, and among the Moms of your kid’s sports team.  They’ll spread the good word.  At worst, they’ll keep quiet.

Amazon Adopts GoodReads: “Never Go Against the Family, Fredo.”

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By Shawn Stjean

An old bestselling book, from the 1970s, featured a hand controlling marionette strings in its logo, indicating how manipulation becomes second nature to those in power.  I’d like to offer an image that accords better with today’s book news.  For those of you whose talents lie more in visual analysis than in literary, look abstractly at the photo-logo above–ask yourself, what other series of upright oblongs, when stacked in series, topples easily with the right application of very little energy? (answers at bottom)

For us self-appointed oversight-eers, keeping an eye on the Amazon.com A-to-Z monopoly  has become something of a full-time hobby.  They’ve done self-published writers a lot of good with their CreateSpace program, and their big (and free-to-enter) Breakthrough Novel Award contest is currently underway, though the jury is still out on whether the KDP Select program is a boon for exposure of obscure authors, or a cheap parlor-trick designed to put Smashwords, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble out of business, by locking up the new talent into an exclusivity contract for months at a time (see more on the pitfalls here and here).

And now they’ve added GoodReads to the “family,” as GR co-founder Otis Chandler put it in this announcement on their blog.  Immediate reactions (only within the last few hours) from the membership have been mixed, to put it mildy.  They range from a sense of outrage and betrayal, to genuine enthusiasm. Many of the concerns mention money as the primary motivation behind such a merger, and echo the sentiment that Amazon has become too big, grasping for anything and everything it can chew and swallow.  Others are comparing AZ to Wal-Mart, and still others wonder what will become of AZ’s own Shelfari.  So what will this mean for the “Good Guys'” mammoth independent sharing site many of us have loved for years now?  Will AZ influence the reviews on GR, now that their interference in their own reviews, taking thousands off their site arbitrarily and without explanation, has become legend among authors?  Will GR become a venue for sales that profit the corporate bean-counters?  Will the planned integration of GR with the proprietary Kindle platform mean some books will become “more available,” “better-rated,” or suddenly more popular than others?  Will the Listopia voting scheme be affected?

It’s hard not to be happy for Otis and Elizabeth, if they are indeed doing well out of this deal.  Capitalism pays off the smart and good folks who’ve worked hard sometimes, as well as the ruthless and backstabbing pirates (when you link to their photo, you’ll agree its not possible to cast them in the latter role). I’m going to assume that what they’re claiming is true: that they think this will improve the experience for the membership.

Personally, as a small publisher/indie author, I’ve felt safer with GR out there before today, as if there still weren’t an offer AZ could make that I couldn’t refuse.  Havens still exist, of course: Lightning Source, for one, though they don’t host e-books.  Problem is, those that do are not in the strongest position: Barnes & Noble’s Nook series of electronic readers, though a stellar bunch of devices, is looking like a financial e-albatross.  Smashwords is already in bed with Amazon, too.  Don’t even bring up the audiobook market.

“Divide and Conquer”–the old strategy has turned itself inside-out, has transmogrified into “Combine and Conquer.”

Is it time yet to go to the mattresses? (if that film reference isn’t familiar, you might be able to just catch The Godfather on Netflix, before Amazon absorbs that, too.

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Friend: An Indie Author’s Vocabulary Starts and Ends On The Word

Thoughts Inspired on a Super-Bowl Sunday

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Alternatively, the word would be Loyalty.

Am I wrong in declaring that about every independent author or small/self-publisher out there secretly longs to become a breakout success?  Not so secret.  Of course, we’re not all money-grubbing, would-be capitalist dragons dreaming upon treasure hoards.  Most of us are humanists, in one way or another.  But if we were to enjoy commercial fame, sell a lot of books, do the talk-show circuits, get reviewed and lauded in The New York Times, nominated for prestigious awards, and the rest, well. . .rewards vary.  A lot of us would simply like the financial freedom to write, full-time, without the drudgery of either having to support ourselves with a ten-hour-a-day-job, or having to network and promote for the better part of the writing-day.  Others could sure use the dough, to buy better houses, computers, and cars, or to get out of debt for ones already bought.

Whatever the motivation, the plain fact is that. . .most of us are not going there.  Most of us will live our lives continuing to work, write, revise, format, publish, network, and (hopefully) supplement our incomes as a modest, partial reward for daring to share ideas with other human beings, making our voices articulate among a 21st-century sea of overwhelming images, and dreaming well into adulthood, after others have stopped.

Agree with me?  I know, it’s a bittersweet vision.  Read on.

Given this dose of reality, what sense does it make, then, to continue to act like one of the mindless drones who actually subscribe to the slogan of the NYS Lottery: “Hey, it could happen“?  Groan.  This type of rubbish, preying on the hopes of normally sane people, has probably killed more human potential in our culture than War.

If you’ve made the decision to publish independently of the traditional commerical establishment (no matter what it is calling itself at the moment–you work, they take the profit, bottom line,) then Congratulations!  You’ve done a brave thing.  Don’t betray your own courage by then proceeding, out of ignorance, cowardice, or greed, to act as if you were still a slave.

Here’s what I mean: You won’t make it five steps, alone.  You’re going to need pals.  A lot of ’em (though not as many as you might think.  One good one is worth a hundred others.)  You’re going to be saying, “Buy my book” quite often, naturally, but at some point you’re going to have to give some away, and you’re going to have to buy others.  And if you want to get reviews, you need to write reviews for others.  If you want a manuscript critiqued, a blog post shared and tweeted, an endorsement, an introduction, an interview, a guest post, and so on–you’ll be repaying, in kind.  Not that every single event needs to be quid pro quo with every person, but you’ll at least be paying it forward to someone who needs it, the way you once did, before you moved on.

This is the beginning of a crusade well beyond whatever Facebook definition of “friend” your fifteen-year-old has.  Because you’re going to discover, as you go, that there are real, flesh-and-blood people behind those avatars.  This is a good thing–and exactly the reason you retreated from the monolithic, exclusionary moat-and-wall that surrounds the castle of commercial publishing.  You wanted to touch other people.  Well, they’re here on the ground, bleeding shoulder-to-shoulder with you, not up there on the ramparts.  And as you do rub elbows with your brothers and sisters-in-arms, you’re going to see that some of them are worth, as Shakespeare said, “grappling to thy heart with hoops of steel.” And others, not.

Let me offer one concrete example, among a legion.  I always hear about folks buying up domain names (this is like buying insurance on a blackjack bet,) in case you get famous.  Well, you wouldn’t want someone cashing in on your name, right?–and the first thing you’re gonna do, when you hit big time, is ditch that free WordPress host/domain, right?  Amplified groan.  I don’t expect everyone to agree, here, but consider what you’re doing.  Abandoning friends at the first sign of non-trouble. I personally have been running a blog at WordPress for eight months, and they’ve never asked me for a dime.  Never littered my site with ads, never annoyed my visitors with pop-ups.  ‘Cuz that’s what commercial entities do.  You know, there are things I wish WordPress would do better, and I suppose if I do enjoy a lot of traffic one day, I’ll pay them the mite they want for upgrades.  Hell, at this point I would pay without the upgrades, if they said they needed it to stay afloat–because, even though we don’t share text messages and swap cute animal pictures, I know there are still friends of mine, over at WordPress.  They’ve treated me well, and I’m gonna treat them well.  You can go all cynical and say, “Well, StJean, you dummy, they don’t care about you.  They make money off you whether you know it or not.”  If they do, I say, good. They’d better.  But even in business, there is such a thing as loyalty.  This is not The Godfather, in which “business” is a euphemism directly preceding back-stabbing (or garroting).

Now, if I’m not going to turn on an entity like WordPress, which doesn’t even have a human face, I’m damned sure not going to use and discard real people who’ve aided me, or at least wished me well.  (I can hear everyone out there saying “Neither would I!”  But you may not have thought it fully through.)

I’m taking about competition vs. cooperation.  When you compete with someone, you’re by definition trying to take their share for yourself.  No way around it, be it a title, a trophy, a dollar, or a slice of pizza.  And you might say, “we’re all competing,” but that’s not really true.  Only in the sense that every member of an army or sports team competes–some get medals, records, or payment for personal achievement, true, others remain obscure.  But still, a win for one is a win for the team.  When you cooperate, everyone cedes a bit of his personal share for the greater success of the whole–and this can be far greater than the sum of its parts.

Amazon knows this (not to target them gratuitously, but they are a pertinent example.)  They know that every author they sign into KDP Select, no matter how big a hack and how few books they sell, is one more author cooperating with them, by legally agreeing not to compete against them.  However, when that same author goes Kobo, ITunes, Smashwords, Google Play, Barnes and Noble, or some smaller outfit, maybe even just sells on Ebay and from a blog, then that’s one tiny step toward breaking the monopoly.  AND, when these little guys start teaming up, then you have a whole league (which is the way both capitalism and democracy are supposed to work,) of teams, with more-or-less equal viability in the forum/marketplace.  Competition continues, but it’s healthy, because everyone has a real chance.

Somewhere there, I shifted metaphors, away from the medieval and violent.  The cost of competition should not be measured in broken and severed limbs.  So, Sports.  A lot of intellectuals look down on sports fans–not without reason, at times–but even the drunken, body-painted clown standing up and obstructing your view knows one thing, for sure–he’s chosen his team, and he’s loyal to it through thick and thin, whether they win it all, or go winless that season.  ‘Cuz there’s another inning, another quarter, half, game, series, and season coming.  That’s why they play the games–you really never do know what the future holds–and the victories are much sweeter for the adversity that came before, and for the folks you’ve shared it with.

You and your girlfriend may both write Suspense-Thrillers or Romance novels, may both have gotten your M.A.s in the same grad program, have been up for the same scholarships, and are now eyeing the same prizes as surely as that Amazon ranking taunts you both.  But you’ve both been called up to the Show, now.  The big leagues.  Believe me, put your back to hers, and find others with the same colors.  Pros know, they’re going to be coming at you from all sides.

Assemble your team.  Make flags, design logos, sew uniforms if you have to–but much more, research and recruit the players (the best ones are not always the snazziest, loudest-talking, biggest chest-bumping, highest high-fiving either,) hire the coaches (the best ones don’t always already have high-profile jobs,) build the stadium (not always the newest, biggest, or best-located,) and run the game.  And don’t be a fair-weather fan–they need you when it’s raining and snowing, more than ever.  And you definitely need them.ImageImage