Humanism Lives Long, And Prospers: Star Trek Continues Review

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 By Shawn StJean

Who says it takes a hundred million dollars to do Star Trek right?

Under the wing of Farragut Films and Dracogen Investments, Vic Mignogna and crew have launched the second episode of their wonderful fan webseries, Star Trek Continues.  It takes place during the final three years of the original five-year mission that ended prematurely when the network cancelled Star Trek in the late 1960s.

All due respect to the rebooted mega-budget studio feature films–sorry, but this is where it’s at: no one is going to get resurrected by “Necrotic-Tribble-Cross-Superhuman DNA,” either.  That kind of technobabble/solution nonsense is for fans of Next Generation and its ilk.

I screened the just-released second episode in the webseries, “Lolani,” with a smile on my face the entire time.  This reaction was part nostalgia, part admiration, and part gratitude for Vic and the gang who’ve devoted themselves to continuing a great tradition of truly humanistic storytelling, even amidst the most technological setting.  I thought it bettered the excellent first episode (featuring the return of old nemesis, Apollo, reprised by Michael Forest).

As with the original series, the episode “Lolani” takes a local incident and extends it not only to allegorical proportions, but retains the Trek romanticism while it resists succumbing to the sentimentalism of dozens of silly imitation shows over the years.  An Orion slave girl, taking advantage of a dispute among her recent purchasers, kills the new owner who would have raped her.  The Enterprise rescues her from the drifting Tellarite vessel, and she proceeds to enchant the crew (Kirk included, naturally) with her pheromone-enhanced wiles.  The rhetoric of gender relations undergirds the script, and the threat of female power remains inescapable, but the story somehow escapes radical feminism and balances its themes in a way that would have made Gene Rodenberry proud.

The episode also does an excellent job creating moral ambiguity: given the laws of the Federation and perhaps even the Prime Directive, the crew is forbidden to interfere with her return to the slavemasters who sold her.  And yet, she gives a face to the thousands still under the thrall of the homeworld’s patriarchs.  Lolani herself, like so many women characters in literary fiction, remains a mystery until the end: part liar and manipulator, part sincere and helpless girl, worthy of the genuine love one crewman gives her.  Of course, the Captain wouldn’t be Kirk if he failed to make a pass at her along the journey.  In fact, many of the old tropes are present for the fans: the Vulcan mind-meld and neck- pinch, for example.  I have to admit to being disappointed that Kirk’s shirt wasn’t ripped during the fight scene–but then again, with a budget smaller than that of the original 45-year-old episodes, and adjusting for inflation–well, those things aren’t cheap.

The scripts of the old Trek were the reason for its longevity among fandom, and this tribute series follows suit.  While some may find the style hokey, I personally applaud the refusal to give in the cynicism and parody that invests so many of today’s remakes.  The production values: sets, costumes, special effects, music, lighting, and even a few stunts–really cannot be faulted by any reasonable viewer.  Some may wish for more professionalized acting, or folks who more closely resemble the original cast members–but naturally this would defeat the purpose of a fan-series, being both cost-prohibitive and elitist.  No one in the troupe’s ensemble cast fails to deliver competence, anyway, and guest stars like Sci-Fi vets Erin Gray and Lou Ferrigno are always welcome.  Naturally, such pros also deserve the thanks of fans everywhere for their contribution to keeping the Enterprise flying.

Visit the Official Site:

http://www.startrekcontinues.com/

And Kickstarter page:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/125377036/star-trek-continues-webseries

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Guest Post: Laurence O’Bryan, Author

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Friend of the blog and prolific Irish writer Laurence O’Bryan debuts his new thriller, The Manhattan Puzzle, today!  Congrats, mate!  I’ll let him tell you a bit about it:

The Themes of The Manhattan Puzzle

By Laurence O’Bryan

 

What has been hidden in Manhattan by the most powerful people on earth?

What would you do to a Manhattan banker who treated ordinary people like slaves?

What magic is buried under Manhattan that allows it to rise again from anything the world throws at it?

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BXH Bank building, Manhattan, vehicle entrance visible under the arch.

Image © LP O’Bryan

 

These are the themes of The Manhattan Puzzle. The story sees Sean and Isabel (my characters from The Istanbul Puzzle and The Jerusalem Puzzle) reunited in Manhattan at the headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks, BXH. There’s been some grisly murders, and now the plot takes a new twist. The contents of the book they found in Istanbul are revealed.

My personal journey with this story grew out of my disgust at the financial crisis that has brought many so low. I am interested in the myths and the beliefs of those who value money above everything.

But The Manhattan Puzzle is about other things too. For instance, what would you do if your partner didn’t come home one night? And what would you think if the police turned up at your door the next day looking for him?

Relationships are under stress everywhere, because of the demands placed on us by our jobs, but few of us will face what Isabel has to face when Sean goes missing.

There is violence from the start in The Manhattan Puzzle too, but the opening has a woman inflicting it on a man. I am tired of reading about men inflicting sexual violence on women. I think it’s time for the handcuffs to swop wrists. And they certainly do in The Manhattan Puzzle. You can download the first chapter here as a pdf. 

But don’t get me wrong. I love Manhattan. It’s a city in a snow globe of dollar bills. So look in your bookstore and on your E-readers and order it too, if you want.

To order The Manhattan Puzzle click here.

Or to visit my website click here.

And thanks for reading this and for buying The Manhattan Puzzle, if you do. I hope you find it entertaining and the themes interesting.

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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They Will Not Thanks Us—Generation Y Can’t Stay in School Forever

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By Shawn Stjean

When is the last time your kid genuinely thanked you for the drive to school/a friend’s house/a social or sporting event/part-time job? Because if he or she is not thanking you now, it sure won’t happen later, when the mini-van trips are all over.

In general, millennials of the so-called “middle class” are deprived of the rituals of youth in America, which toughened previous generations.  The school bus stops these days at every house for a pickup, rather having little Dylan make the trek of a block or two to a common bus-stop, where swaggered actual (not cyber-) bullies, cranky at their own failure to get/maintain their own set of wheels, and willing to take it out on whomever looked vulnerable.  They were teachers too, in their way–they modeled bad behavior, taught who we didn’t want to be, and the price of admission was their company.

And when the bus actually arrives at school, today’s lads and lasses dismount only to board a vicious cycle dressed up as a merry-go-round, and underneath, the corroding machinery works something like this: the administrators inherit a shrinking budget less-and-less reflective of our society valuing education, which leads to “differentiated learning,” (the semi-literate bully might appear next to you in class now, rather than being tracked into a room with other low-functioning brutes.)  They’ve got bigger class sizes, less homework, shorter readings–or maybe no readings at all, because the teacher is reading the book aloud, leaving many free to stare out the window.  She’s got challenges of her own, because when the phone on the wall rings, or someone runs the old “I gotta go pee” ploy, or a girl who’s been out for eight weeks with mono needs catching up, or the e-mail light blinks constantly with parents demanding to know why Brittany–a real treat to have around–isn’t getting her “A”. . .well, then, old Teach just has to soak it up.  Nothing three glasses of a middling Chardonnay after 4 pm won’t help her repress, until she burns out on weekend grading, while never finding time on Sunday for better lesson plans, meanwhile absorbing pressure to “keep standards high” while somehow not flunking anyone.  She doesn’t even have the power to throw Christian a detention anymore, as he whips a pencil and happens to catch Peter (a boy with a diagnosed and legitimate learning disorder, who used to have an IEP, but they’re much harder to get this year) in the ear, drawing extended screams, but no blood.  So the flinger gets written up for it, twenty minutes of class time get wasted, and the administrator gets to try another case of “The Lesser of Two Evils.”  Will his parents support a suspension, or at least a series of DTs, and ground him during his tenure at home, or will they take his word that he didn’t mean it, and pressure the school to keep him on because he’s already behind? (that trip to Florida between the winter and spring breaks probably didn’t help.)  And to give them their due, they’re both working, and ultimately Christian can’t be trusted home by himself–he’s got an undiagnosed case of painkiller addiction, and chronic pain-in-the-ass.  So the Big Wheel of administrator-parent-teacher creakily slows down long enough for the lad to jump back on, and keeps on turnin’.

How did this get to be the way we all roll?  It’s easy enough for the principal to blame the economy, the parents this generation of poorly trained teachers, and the teachers a non-supportive administration.  It’s a Mexican stand-off now, not a carnival ride.  So does it really matter–or is the real issue what we’re going to do about it?  Start blasting, and hope to be the least-unlucky-hombre in this tepid triumvirate, or lower our weapons long enough to see where the real loser has skulked off to?

The kid doesn’t have the vocabulary, so he doesn’t know the operative word–complicity–but he does know the concept. He understands, deep down, that he’s not exactly doing his best, either–and why should he?  Every time he lowers the bar a notch, someone unaccountably offers him a boost to get over it, and it’s not long before he’s looking down at the floor for the standards and expectations everyone’s paying lip-service to.  Terms like Excellence, Achievement, Breadth and Depth, Pride–they mean only so much to a fella who can’t remember his girlfriend’s phone number, despite texting her 22 times a day, because it’s saved in his Contacts.  Hell, he doesn’t remember his own number.

Oh, the computers play their part, too.  Because when you cut three-and-a-half teaching positions, but acquire three hundred touchscreen terminals in the same five-year period (hoping the community won’t notice the former, as they ooh-and-ahh over the latter,) well, you better use the things.  The students will need the keyboarding practice, anyway, in an age where “all thumbs” is actually a skill, and half the jobs they’ll be qualified for involve this new form of coal-mining: checking people out as they run up their credit cards for new possessions, big and small, new services, needed and unneeded.  Unless there’s a bar-code reader at the counter.

Oh, not my Chelsea!, I can hear some of you declaring.  She’s going straight to college to become a professional!  What kind, I’m wondering?  Well, we haven’t figured that out yet.  But she’s going–this Fall.  No break.  Of course she hasn’t thought up a major to declare, because she’s had enough of school–she really has–and instead of wasting her parents’ second mortgage or retirement funds, she ought to be out there–in a crummy apartment with leaky pipes, taking public transportation to work, eating substandard food, yet still living life here in America with free speech to complain, fresh water to drink, and rights many people in the world can only dream of.  It’s those years of deprivation, out from under one’s guardians, that make young folks appreciate the rest of it.  And it shouldn’t take a war that decimates both their generation, and the population of another nation with a different skin color, religion, or economic ideology from our own, to evoke that appreciation.

Now in the old days, she could work her way through a series of jobs, eventually gain a toehold and some maturity through making her own mistakes and creating her own triumphs, meet a partner, start a family of her own.  Not anymore, and again, you can only take the “blame the economy” game so far.

See, instead, she’s persuaded to take a different path, to endure 4-6 more years of “higher education,” with ample Spring, Summer, and Winter Breaks, but no real relief.  She changes majors three times and the actual college twice, meanwhile signing over student loans–in addition to Mom and Dad’s contribution–that will keep her in payments until she’s 55.  And those payments, depending on where she went to school, will take a lot of choices out of her hands along the way.  Now she has to take work as somebody’s “administrative assistant,” (Heaven forbid we call a secretary a secretary!,) even though she’s come a long way in the Brains department, and she’s pushing 30 now.  Because the Bachelor’s degree she cobbled together in between partying is about worthless in the job market of 2020, and the Master’s she’d like to earn at night will cast 100 grand, and she’s not sure about the gamble.

Somewhere in here, in between dropping her divorce papers in the e-slot (lawyers are still doing well, but the USPS is defunct) and feedings of her three-year-old, Chelsea gets upset.  Really upset.  And by now, she’s self-aware enough to realize she’s not just sad, or lonely, or menstruating–she’s angry.  Pissed.

Why?  She’s had every advantage.  So many, in fact, that she never had to go to summer school to make up that gym class she blew off nine times in tenth grade, never had to repeat the eighth grade even though the “D”s she got in three classes were as munificent as the gifts of the Magi, never got suspended for calling her sixth grade teacher a “bitch” right to her face–Mom got her counseling instead.  Never got called on showing up in class high, never did most of what little reading and homework was asked of her, never had to walk home after school.  Never had to count cell-phone minutes or texts (or pay the bill for them,) never had her allowance withheld, never had to stay home from a prom, never picked up a check (eating out-food 2-3 times a week).

So, again, why the anger?  Because, plain and simple, everything she was supposed to learn before she was twenty, under relatively easy and supervised conditions–from how to track a bank account, to how to sew, write a business letter, read a tax rule, do a real job interview, and apologize sincerely when she’s wrong–she’s now having to learn herself, a decade late, the hard way.  It’s always the hard way, now, because if she can’t do it, someone else with more degrees, fewer recent scars, and who is still young enough to live with her parents (28 or so,) will do it instead.

She missed out on the one advantage that can’t be bought, substituted, calculated, synthesized, or replicated: she never had to choose.  Because choosing always means losing something, leaving something behind, and valuing the other thing enough to sacrifice for it.  Instead, she was fed fat on the absurd idea that every previous generation of human beings on the planet was weaned off, in childhood: that you can’t have everything.

Forgive us, kids, we felt guilty.  ‘Cuz we f—–d things up for you, and we knew it.  We knew the coming world was tough, tougher than we’d ever had to survive ourselves, and in meaning well we hoped to insulate you from the worst.  And somehow the worst just became the bad, and the bad the uncomfortable, and the uncomfortable the inconvenient.

Too bad–ol’ Chelsea could’ve done alright for herself.  A few bumps and bruises aside.  They would have saved deeper cuts, later on.

So if your youngster is thanking you for that ride now, (you’ve raised her to at least be polite,) enjoy it–it won’t last.  We knew it back when we were young (there was a T-shirt, remember?) No one rides for free.

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The Con of the Coin: Shouldn’t Batman Go Independent?

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By Shawn Stjean

One of the unsung virtues of independent film is that, as miraculous as any production seeing the light of day is in the first place, they rarely suffer from the Hollywood strain of sequel-itis.  Thankfully.  It seems that barely two, let alone three or more, entries into a successful franchise can bear the weight of sustained storytelling.  Give a series enough rope, and it will begin to show inherent contradictions, and self-deconstruct.  For the sake of coherence, I’ll confine myself mostly to the most fully realized of the three 21st century Batman films, The Dark Knight, while referring obliquely to its excellent predecessor, Batman Begins, and its pale follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises.  Together, a half-billion dollar story to make.

Since Batman’s first appearance in comics in 1938, readers have grown accustomed to a self-made hero, one who traveled the Earth learning from the best instructors, honing his body to Olympic-athletic condition, and his mind to that of a world-class detective.  In stark contrast to Superman, then, the Caped Crusader’s thematic popularity consists in the realization of the everyday potential of normal human beings. In the conclusion of the recent film trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his position, his fortune, his butler and friend, and for a time, even the use of his body.  But, it doesn’t matter to police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman,) because of the symbolism: “anyone could be Batman.”  However, this sentiment runs counter to nearly all the major signs in the previous films–as Carmine Falcone rightly put it, Bruce Wayne is “the Prince of Gotham.” Christopher Nolan does not present us, visually or narratively, with a democratic hero.  Contrarily, this Batman is truly a feudal knight, in that he’s not only the inheritor of a seemingly endless fortune, but, like the military itself in any age, he relies far more on technology and its exclusivity than on human ability.  His adversaries (villains) are less fortunate.  In fact, THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT FALL ON A CONTINUUM OF GOOD TO BAD BASED ON THE LEVEL OF THEIR INVESTMENT IN THE WHITE, CAPITALIST SYSTEM.  The richer, the better; the less material wealth, the greater the evil.

Beginning with the hero himself, among Batman’s other problems, he must contend with vigilantes inspired by his own image, but without his vast resources for support.  They masquerade and attempt to bash criminals in home-made versions of his high-tech body armor (developed at Wayne Enterprises from scratch—a very conservative estimate might put this suit, rubberized muscles and all, at one-hundred thousand dollars.)  When the real McCoy rescues one of them and warns him to stop, the humiliated imitator angrily demands “What gives you the right?”  Batman’s reply: “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”  Two resonant lines of dialogue, which might paraphrase: “If you’re not privileged with a Batmobile, Batcomputer, and a combat-surgeon-turned-butler for a nurse, your only right is to be safely escorted to your day job.”  In a world where we can suspend our disbelief over the constant jumping off rooftops, Batman’s later, willing destruction of his own bat-radar system to satisfy the ethical demands of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman,) a priceless and unique invention which merely invades the privacy of citizens on cell-phones, is among the most unbelievable premises we are asked to consume.

Next, the film conjures and disposes of a half-dozen minor villains, not coincidentally all minorities/of ethnic descent: Gambol, a black gangster-type; Lau, a Chinese mathematics wiz; Maroni, an Italian Mafioso; and the Scarecrow, a homosexual readily identified by visual cues.   This leaves the struggle for power in Gotham City to be fought exclusively among white patriarchs.  Harvey Dent, a conspicuous (“White Knight”) if unpedigreed double for Bruce Wayne, has half his body burned by the Joker, and thereafter adopts a two-headed coin, scarred on one side, to decide whether to support good or evil in any case.  The suggestion here is that money is morally neutral, depending on its use for its value.  This is, in fact, a luxurious position.  To quote Oliver Stone’s black corporal, King, from Platoon, “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.”  Director/Writer Nolan insists Dent suffer a more tragic demise than the other rogues: a clean-cut, politically ambitious, right-wing, upper-middle class WASP, he deserves better.  What a waste that, because of partial immolation, he should turn his back on a career as agent for law-and-order.

And lastly, the poor folks.  How did such an anarchist as the Joker (Heath Ledger) come to be?  He explains to Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that his wife had been attacked and her face disfigured: “We got no money for operations,” so the husband mutilated himself  in sympathy.  Rejected in horror because of his inability to provide the conventional solution of plastic reconstructive surgery, he turns to destruction (“Dynamite is cheap,”) and crimes like extorting the mob–“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  But he does do it for free, and the glee.  If Batman stands for defense of the established order, the maintenance of the status quo, the Joker stands–archetypally, and in this film–for chaos and the rejection of systems.  He amasses his loot into a Marxian unfinished pyramid—the apex missing  (a figure familiar to film buffs from Blade Runner, and which represents the base power structure of working proletariat supporting the upper classes by their labor, further oppressed by the military, church and schools, and the government) which he proceeds to burn down, to the horror of the assembled spectators.  Once captured, the police find no labels in his clothes (no Armani or Gucci or even Bill Blass as Bruce Wayne would own.)  He’d apparently like to hide his true identity, but he’s also refusing to support the marketplace—very un-American.  And as a white man whose face has been reinscribed in bleached “whiteface,” (thus only “playing” white,) his “evil” seems very non-specific: the robbing of banks and demolition of a hospital, not to mention murder—none of these is as bad as his betrayal of capitalism.

As for the later sequel, neither Ra’s al Ghul, Thalia, nor Bane shows any interest in established wealth–when not pursuing utter chaos and destruction, they redistribute property and power to the lower classes.  This third entry redresses the subtextual racism of its predecessor, but amplifies the classism: Socialism=Evil (and false socialism=even worse.)  Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, who issues Bruce a dark, Marxist warning about “liv[ing] so large, and leav[ing] so little for the rest of us,” seems more interested in stealing a new identity and start for herself, which she eventually gets—again, by accepting proprietary Wayne Enterprises tech–and becoming Bruce’s traveling companion, essentially “selling out.”

The three films not-so-subtly endorse the values of consumer capitalism by casting their hero in the role of billionaire by day, and. . .what do you know?, billionaire by night.  This Batman is the sum of his parts: the toys, the cave, the computers, the vehicles.  His most worthy adversary, a working class victim of an industrial accident incarnated as a grotesque clown, by his refusal to buy into bourgeois principles even with unlimited wealth in his grasp, is written off by everyone as insane.  After all, who would burn a giant stack of money but a madman?

Because indie films, like the productions of self-published authors and unsupported artists of all types, are not themselves “sold out” to the formulas and packaging of the marketplace, they can “afford” not to promote the dominant cultural values it patronizes.  Meanwhile, Hollywood, always quick to imitate its own success, and with no public outrage or boycott of $10 seat prices, exacerbated by the intermixture of TV-type commercials with its theater trailers, continues to chronicle for us the adventures of another billionaire industrialist: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who got his start as a crusader against stereotypical Arab terrorists.

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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

From E-book to Print Book, Part 2: One Indie Author/Publisher’s Mild Month with Lightning Source

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This is intended as a companion piece for my original report on CreateSpace, the Amazon-owned solution for independent, Print-On-Demand publishing.  Following my own, less aggressive version of the infamous “Plan B,” I also produced an identical version of Clotho’s Loom (under my Glas Daggre imprint) for the more industrial entity, Lightning Source, to have my alternative printing, Ingram listing, and extended distribution handled by them.  There was no intention on my part to manipulate prices (list is fine with me—more on this later,) but I simply wished not to put all my eggs in a single basket.

It should prove useful to directly compare and contrast the two printer/distributors, on primarily two fronts: first, ease of set-up and cost/service, and second, quality of product.  But let me dissolve any suspense right now: I’m not going to recommend one as vastly preferable to the other.  Both have pros and cons, and this report is meant to be informative, for the use of self-publishers contemplating the choice, from the perspective of one small author/publisher who has used them both, in late 2012.

First, you should note by my title that Lightning Source (hereafter LS) does not quite satisfy the need for immediate gratification that CreateSpace (hereafter CS) does.  The latter took one week only of production—from account opening, to copies in the mail—whereas LS took more like a month.  Still pretty darned fast, compared to the year traditional publishers consumed in producing each of my first two books.  In general, the wheels turn a little more slowly and deliberately at LS than CS, because it services the needs of everyone from giant publishing houses down to sole proprietorships.  And, as with all self-publishing outfits, it’s garbage-in, garbage-out, so the burden is on the self-publisher to get her files in proper order, proofed and corrected, according to the published guidelines.

Like CS, LS provides templates to aid in formatting.  I did encounter some difficulty here, because CS hand-holds you with a sort of preflight, online format previewer, which instantly shows a virtual mockup of your book.  If your gutters, headers, and footers, for example, do not fall within production tolerences at CS, you will know within minutes of uploading the interior file to CS.  And, it’s fault-tolerant—you can keep trying, at zero-cost to you, until you get it right (or, right as far as the computer can discern).  Yes, it’s all very automated over there.

By contrast, LS has actual people that will communicate with you from the very start—all by e-mail, in my case, though phone numbers are never far to seek—and you will be assigned an primary account representative, or Client Services Rep.  I probably exchanged a dozen e-mails with this person, and he was always courteous and prompt in his responses (as long as your expectations are not artificially inflated by sitting at your keyboard all day long) and appropriately attentive to my needs, even though I’m a bit player.  All in all, things operate just as one would expect in an arena of professionals.  I never had the need to communicate directly at CS, so I can’t comment on their humans.

Now, LS and CS do not have identical templates, and my files had to be altered somewhat.  This can be a bit nerve-wracking if one is pinching pennies, as LS does charge fees for uploads—so it is not like throwing darts at a board.  However, they are not draconian in fee enforcement.  My CSR determined in two cases that problems with my files could not have been reasonably avoided, and allowed me to re-upload free of charge.  In one other case (where I did make a significant alteration,) I was charged.  So I believe the final cost for initial setup was about $120 total—and it could have been about 1/3 cheaper, had I been perfect.  Also, a proof fee of roughly $40 may apply. Also, they have been known to offer discounts with orders of 50 copies.  Your mileage will vary.  This is in contrast to well, free setup, at CS (including ISBN—they own it, though).  By the way, my setup difficulties resulted from two sources: 1) I believe there are a few vagaries in the LS guidelines (as to the size of gutters and outside margins, in my case).  Also, 2) I am not a master of Photoshop and related PDF software, and my conversion into the PDF/X standard resulted in a few unsatisfying artifacts in my cover file.  After spending two days trying to remedy this on my own (LS has no tech support for this; CS will charge you) I discovered it was easier to upload a TIFF file.  Problem solved.

As for per-copy-cost to me (to sell through my website, send out review copies, bring to signings, and so on,) I will note here that LS scales its cost-per-copy according to the size of the order.  If you are ordering 1000 copies, you’ll find the difference to be several dollars per unit.  However, as I am dealing in small numbers, my final cost per copy (including shipping) for a 540-page softcover book was almost $2.00 more per copy at LS than CS (CS price is constant, I think).  Royalties from online bookstores were also not quite as high from LS.  This disparity may sound steep, but I have to plead ignorance here.  Other articles have argued that your ultimate profit through LS will scale higher, if you achieve sales numbers in the several hundreds, so I refer you to those sources.  If you expect very few sales and are just looking to publish a mass market paperback for your personal social circle, the consensus seems to be that CS will leave you a higher bottom line.

At each stage, every small step in the LS learning curve will likely consume a day or two, and a buck or two—remember that the humans on the other end are working with you, and their time is worth money as well.  You will be required to order a physical paper proof, if this is your first job through LS.  It arrives in a timely fashion (figure a week,) and approval can be done online.

Now, let me move to a briefer and subjective evaluation of the final product.  Whose books are better?  This is not a 100% apples-to-apples comparison, because I went with a matte-finish cover at LS (versus gloss at CS).  This helps me tell copies apart at a glance—but I also don’t recall being offered the choice at CS.  LS gives you a pretty decent matrix of choice between trim sizes, bindings, paper color, and cover type (you can get two kinds of hardcovers!—at more cost, of course.  I calculated I’d have to raise my list price by 1/3 to remain profitable in HC, and ultimately demurred.  A hardcover is a separate edition and requires a new ISBN, whereas I was able to reuse my CS-provided free ISBN for my identical LS book.)  At CS, your choices as to size and paper only are comparable, but the other options are not offered. No hardcover.

I prefer the look and feel of the matte finish, but again this is entirely a matter of taste.  Gloss yields a more detailed image, by the way.  But other than one exception, the Lightning Source books do look better.  The interior print is remarkable for its dark, smooth quality—with my untrained eye, I see no real difference from offset (printing press) production in the type pages.  CS’s fonts are lighter and appear to have been produced in tiny dot-matrix, though I should emphasize they are entirely acceptable and should only strain the eyes of those with real ocular impairments.  Still, advantage LS.  The paper color and quality seem comparable to me, though LS manages to be a bit thinner (not a bad thing when your book weighs two pounds) while not feeling cheap in the least.  CS did seem to produce a bit more consistent trim tolerance, however.  My book has several borders near the edges of the binding and both covers (professional cover designers apparently know enough to avoid these).  For this reason, I can see, through comparison of many copies, that LS will sometimes cut a bit crookedly, or closer to tolerance in the edges.  Not enough to reject any copies, or to really bother me, but noticeable if you are the publisher.  CS does this, too—no one’s perfect.  And they do warn you.

Final Verdict: well, in all honesty, I am saving my LS copies for “special people,” both because of the higher cost and lighter weight, and because I prefer the matte. I also feel a greater peace of mind in knowing Amazon is not my only venue for distribution (or indeed, production).  Oh, and for those of you “Plan B” people out there, you should hear this.  Due to no action of my own, barnesandnoble.com (which listed my book well in advance of my initial shipment, perhaps a week after I approved LS’s proofs.  The Ingram system is efficient) listed Clotho’s Loom at a 9% discount from list (just over $18.00, versus $20.00 at Amazon.com).  A week or ten days later, Amazon dropped their price to match.  This is considerable, to me.  I set my price through LS at only 20% discount, with no returns (I’m not that keen to get the volume into physical bookstores, so I elected not to go 55% as often recommended).  The reader/purchaser reaps the reward of a reasonable retail price for a quality product, the online booksellers have new content to offer, and I (as both author and publisher) get a satisfying share of the earnings.  Win, win, Winnebago.  Take that, traditional publishing establishment!

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P.S. LS also charges an annual $12 distribution fee that CS, as far as I know, does not. Considering the initial fees that can reach toward $200, an LS book should be treated as a long-term investment.