Opinions

Authors Beware of deals that seem too good to be true – they are just that!

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There’s been a number of articles on various sites about publishers who hook unwary authors into contracts that give nothing in return. Many indie authors have fallen into this trap—I include myself, unfortunately, in that number.

 

When I was working on my first book length manuscript, a book on leadership that I was encouraged to write by a young man who worked for me as my speech writer when I was U.S. ambassador to Cambodia (2002-2005). After slaving over the manuscript for nearly three years, I went searching for a publisher.

 

I encountered an ad from PublishAmerica, a Maryland-based small imprint that, unlike the many vanity publishers advertising at the time, touted the fact that they PAID authors for their work instead of asking for payment. Knowing, or at least suspecting, that the book I’d written would have limited appeal, it didn’t sound like a bad deal, so I submitted it.

 

A few weeks later I received an email advising me that my book was accepted for publication. Attached to the email was a contract. Naïve in the ways of publishing, I unwisely didn’t have that contract read by a lawyer before signing it. From what I’d read, it didn’t seem to bad – the advance was paltry (a mere $1.00), and I was locked into an 8-year commitment. But, the book would be published, so I figured I had nothing to lose.

 

It was published, but from that point on, it was a nightmare. The cover was somewhat amateurish—even then, just learning the art of designing book covers, I could’ve done a better job. The price was a bit high, I thought, but again, I was new to all this and didn’t know any better. I was encouraged to buy copies for myself at a measly discount from the inflated cover price. The royalties were also small; something like 8% of the cover price (compare that to the 75% you can get publishing it yourself through the Kindle Direct Program, or even the rather generous percentage you get when you publish a paperback through CreateSpace). They did, at least, list it on all the major book-seller sites; Amazon, etc.

 

Surprisingly, there were a few early sales, and I even got it included in a couple of libraries (The U.S. State Department Library, and my college library, to name two). A few people I met at conferences, who had read it, also informed me that they’d purchased copies to use in their management training programs. Despite this, my royalty checks over the past eight-plus years have yet to exceed $50. Looking back, when I compare this to the $100 per month I get through KDP, and an average of $30 per month through CreateSpace and other sales of paperbacks, I can see that what seemed at the time to be ‘too good to be true,’ in fact was just that.

 

The eight years in the contract are up now, and you would assume, as implied in the contract, my book rights belong to me. Guess again.

 

PublishAmerica changed its name to AmericaStar, in an effort, I believe, to attract foreign indie authors, but its practices remain the same. It does nothing to promote the books it accepts, beyond importuning the author regularly to buy copies, and lately it has done something that seals its fate as far as I’m concerned.

 

Over the past 60 days, I’ve been getting emails from AmericaStar nee PublishAmerica, informing me that the company is getting out of the publishing business and going full time to book promotion. In doing so, it plans to sell the rights to the books it holds to another ‘Indie’ publisher, but I can get them assigned to me for a modest fee of $199—it said in the initial emails that this was to cover the cost of removing it from selling platforms, etc.

 

At first, I couldn’t believe they would have the gall to do something like this, so I just ignored the first four or five emails. Then, they said, if I couldn’t afford $199, for a few days I could get my rights back for a mere $149. Again, I ignored them. A week later, another email, informing me that I had only two days to BUY my rights back, and they were doing me a big favor by reducing the cost to $99.  Thoroughly steamed by now, I just filed the emails away and went on to other projects.

 

The latest are . . . funny, pathetic, I’m not sure how to characterize them. I now have 24 hours to obtain the rights to my own work for $79. If I fail to do this, someone else (as yet unknown) will own the rights to my book, and they can’t promise what the buyer will do with these rights.

 

Thankfully, I’ve self-published scores of books since my first mistake, and while I’m not on any best-seller lists, and not getting rich from it, I’m enjoying fairly regular sales, and getting some pretty solid reviews. As for buying the rights back to my own work—I’m in wait-and-see mode. If the last email is correct, I will probably be hearing from the mysterious new publisher someday soon with a request that I buy my book, or something equally ridiculous.

 

I’ve written that book off as a lost cause, and a lesson learned. Never were the words caveat emptor more appropriate.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Three-star Reviews

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Happy star

I read and review a lot of books. Most of them I love, some I like — and some, well, I don’t like so much.  I try always to give them as objective a review as possible. As an author, I know the importance of reviews to the visibility—and ultimately sales—of an author’s work.

Different people have different views of reviewing. I know some reviewers, for instance, who will not publish a review unless they can give it four or five stars. Others seem to delight in giving one and two-star reviews. Personally, if I can’t give a book at least three stars I will usually not review it. Some people view a three-star review as negative. I think that’s a mistaken view. It’s not over the moon, sure, but a three star review is saying that a book is acceptable, but it contains a few issues (typos, grammar, formatting, etc.) that detract from the reading experience.

As a writer I know how it feels to get a bad review, but I don’t think of the three-star reviews I get as negative. I take them as teaching moments. They’re telling me that I’ve written a so-so book that could have been better. If a book is on the verge of being great, but has two or three typos or grammatical errors, I’ll give it four stars. Five stars only go to books that wow me and have no issues. That’s the criteria used by Awesome Indies Readers and Reviewers which I apply not only to my reviews, but that I use when I’m doing the re-read and edit of my own work.

So, a piece of advice to young writers—especially those putting out their first book—that will help in the process of maturing as a writer: don’t let a three-star review send you into a fit of depression. Read it carefully and see what you can learn from it. Even after you’ve gained some experience as a writer, don’t expect to get all four and five-star reviews. Not everything you write will appeal to everyone. No problem. Just keep writing. Resolve to do better with each book, and let the stars fall where they may.

Black Friday will be Bleak Friday for Many

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Poaching's legacyCoined in the 1960s to mark the start to the Christmas shopping season, ‘Black Friday,’ or the Friday after Thanksgiving, is one of the major shopping days of the year in the United States. It is the period when most businesses move from ‘red’ to ‘black’ profit-wise.

While it’s not an official holiday, coming as it does after Thanksgiving Thursday, many workers (except those working in retail stores) get it off. While Black Friday might be a happy day for owners of stores that finally start to show a profit, it has to be Bleak Friday for many of their employees who often give up Thanksgiving with their families for the sales that sometimes start on Thursday. Retail giants like Walmart and J.C. Penny, for example, begin their Black Friday sales the afternoon or evening before, meaning that their workers have to give up a significant portion of their holiday. While I’m sure they get holiday pay (at least, I would hope they do), it hardly seems to compensate for the missed time with family.

Now, I have to begin by confessing that I have never done a Black Friday sale. When I do Christmas shopping, it’s either done in September and October, or the week before Christmas. I don’t really celebrate, but I do buy gifts for my children (when they were small) and now for my grandchildren.

Being aware of how Black Friday impacts many retail workers, I’m glad I’ve never been tempted. Added to this, there’s the fact that we have this period celebrating conspicuous consumption at a time when nearly 7 million households in the U.S. don’t have enough food to eat, and nearly 4 million are unable to provide sufficient, nutritious food for their children. We have more than 40 million people living in poverty, and some 20 million live in extreme poverty (making less than $10,000 per year for a family of four).

While many politicians seem to delight in blaming the poor themselves for their poverty, the U.S. political and economic systems are primarily to blame. In our free enterprise economy, companies are not creating enough jobs for everyone, and the top echelons of business tend to allocate the lion’s share of profit to themselves. Our political system, which one would think would focus on the needs of the people, tends to have other concerns. Military and security expenditures, for instance, make up half of U.S. federal discretionary expenditures; corporations and the rich have greater lobbying power, and as a consequence tax breaks and subsidies tend to benefit them more; and, the Democratic Party; once the party of the working man, focuses on the middle class, often to the detriment of the poor.

As a consequence of this, we have a culture of inequality, with people segregated by income and sometimes race or ethnicity. With jobs scarce and wages low, the lack of income leads many low income people to dysfunctional behavior, creating a vicious cycle – in other words, poverty often leads to more poverty.

With all this on my mind, I can hardly see Black Friday as a time to celebrate. If you want me to notice the day, maybe it should be changed to Bleak Friday – a much more appropriate appellation.013

Writing: It’s Not Really About the Money

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Pen When I’m asked how long I’ve been writing, I can say truthfully, most of my life. I was taught to read at the age of four, and by the time I was in third grade had devoured most of the books in the meager collection in my school’s library. I remember being most struck by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the worlds they created between the covers of the musty old books high up on the shelves.

By the time I was in fifth grade, I was making up stories of my own. In my freshman year of high school, when I was thirteen, I entered a Sunday school magazine short story writing contest. Surprise of surprises, I won first place, and it was a national competition. The fact that I was competing with other ten to fifteen year-olds is irrelevant – my name appeared in a national publication above something I’d created. I don’t remember what the prize was – probably just the byline and copies of the magazine – but, I was hooked. I wanted to create more stories, and share them with more people.

From the beginning that was my goal; to share the stories swirling around in my mind with others.

It wasn’t until I’d graduated from high school and joined the army that the idea of actually making money from writing occurred to me. I wrote poems, articles and short stories for publications for free. Then, I submitted an article to a magazine and along with the acceptance letter got a check – I think it was the princely sum of $10.00, which was a lot of money in the 1970s when most publications paid less than fifty cents a word.

Over the decades since, I’ve continued to write articles, short stories, book reviews, and since the mid-2000s full length works. Writing doesn’t pay the bills – it never has, and the odds are it never will. I’m fortunate in having served as a federal official long enough to qualify for a pension that, along with my investments and writing income, provides me with a comfortable living. The number of authors who make a good living from writing, compared to the total number of authors in existence, is a miniscule percentage.

It’s always been that way. There are some people who write books mainly for the money – most of them writing books on ‘how to make money writing.’ I’m convinced, though, that those of us who write fiction, don’t do it for the money. We do it because we love writing. Because we have these stories in our brains, straining to get out and be shared. If we just happen to get lucky and are able to grab the brass ring of ‘best-sellerdom,’ that’s a bonus. I’d be willing to bet that even if Stephen King hadn’t attained mega-stardom with his books, he’d still be writing. I know that’s why I continue to write.Writer

Can writing be a career? It depends upon how you define career. Even though writing doesn’t provide the bulk of my income, I have no problem introducing myself as a writer when I meet people. With 40+ independently published books to my credit, and hundreds of clip sheets of published articles and book reviews, I think I can call writing something other than a hobby.

If writing is your career goal, there are a number of preparatory steps I strongly suggest. Get yourself a good style book and learn the rules of good writing – grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Now that you’ve done that, the next step is simple – sit down and write what’s in your mind, and if necessary, break the rules you just spent all that time learning. But, break them with a purpose. You’ll, of course, need some other source of legal income while you hone your skills – many writers before you have had to do the same. But, never despair. If your lot in life is to be a writer, you’ll know it. You’ll know it because no matter what, the urge to write will be there like that itch between your shoulder blades that you just can’t seem to reach. Most importantly, write, write, and write some more. Write something every single day. I once worked for an old newspaper editor in North Carolina who suggested that I write at least 1,000 words a day as a way of improving my writing skills. I’ve followed that advice, with my own shot of steroids; I now write about 2,000 words a day. Character sketches, plot outlines, research notes all count against that daily quota. When I’m on the road I take along an old steno pad or two, in which I write. I write on planes, in hotel rooms, and in the back of taxis.

That might not be the best way to become a writer, but it works for me.

For another perspective on writing, check out An Ode to Novel Writers at Webucator.com.

Review of ‘Marza’ – A Different View of War

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MV5BMjI1NTIxMTQwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODQ5MzAxOQ@@._V1_SX214_AL_ Every war spawns a whole host of books and films, and the second war in Iraq is no exception. Most, though, focus on the relationships among those who fight. ‘Marza,’ a film written, directed and produced by former Marine Regan A. Young is a film with a difference.

The story of a cynical, battle-hardened Marine sergeant (played by Josh Ansley) who meets and befriends a quizzical, precocious young Iraqi girl, Marza (Claire Geare) who likes chicken and ice cream shows us the human side of war that is seldom portrayed. Sergeant John Whitacre is a man who has seen much war, and as a result has a decidedly dark view of life in general. Marza pulls him out of his funk in ways he could never have anticipated, and teaches him to feel again.

This is a film that has both dark and light moments – and enough death to lift it from the category of a mood movie and firmly into the ‘war’ category. Young, a veteran of tours in Iraq, writes and directs this short film with a sense of awareness of the realities of war that most in the business lack. Moreover, he takes us into the depths of emotions that run rampant when death is a constant companion, and shows that even at the darkest hours, there is a glimmer of light and hope.

If ‘Marza’ doesn’t get an award for best short, independent film of 2014, there is no justice. And, if you can watch it with dry eyes, I’d suggest an immediate trip to an ophthalmologi

The Demise of the Content Mills

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002 One by one they’re biting the dust – fading into obscurity – riding into the sunset. I’m talking about the content mills – those internet sites that took short posts from all kinds of writers and put them up for all to read. For this they paid peanuts; a mere fraction I’m sure of what they took in from advertisers. But, despite that, their business model is no longer seen as viable.

That at least is what the note said that I got from one of the sites that I’ve contributed to for the past several years. I never made a ton of money from feeding the mills; chump change actually; but it did help me to reach a lot of readers, and was great for working out the old writing muscles. Most importantly, having to write to the length limits – 200 to 600 words on average – helped me learn to trim the fat from my writing.

A lot of writers I know view content mills with disdain. They think of them as second rate places for writers that don’t pay enough. I’m not sure about the second rate part, but I do agree they never paid enough. But then, I used to work for print publications, the most generous of which paid me fifty cents per word, or sometimes $400 to $500 per article (the latter were very rare. My average per article was around $50). Compare that to the content mills that were paying based on readership. I’ve had content articles that made me a hundred bucks, and had the site not close for economic viability reasons, would still be paying. When the print publications I wrote for went out of business they still owned my articles. When the content mills shut down I can download my articles and sell them elsewhere.

So, I’ll miss them. But, like the changes from paper only to paper and e-books and the rise of indie publishing, the writing industry is forever changing, and writers who want to endure must change with it. I have no doubt that most of the current content mills will soon disappear – but, in due time they’ll be replaced by something else. I have no idea what that something else will be, but I’m sleeping with one eye open so I can be near the front of the line when it arrives.

Cameroon’s Primate Sanctuary Attempts to Prevent Extinction of Apes

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For many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, tourism offers the hope of economic development to deal with poverty and overpopulation, but in many cases, development of the tourism sector is hampered by increasing reductions in the very resources that attract tourists. Species of animals are hunted and poached to the brink of extinction, and habitats are destroyed through deforestation and human encroachment.

Some countries are taking steps to reverse this unfortunate trend – small steps, but necessary if the cycle of poverty on the continent is ever to be broken.

One such project, in the West-Central nation of Cameroon, is the Primate Sanctuary at Mefou National Park, south of the capital city of Yaounde. The park was created in 1999, and is currently devoted entirely to the sanctuary project, which is attempting to halt the destruction of monkey and ape species such as the red-capped mangabey, the mandrills, chimpanzees, and gorillas.  Managed by a British NGO, Ape Action Africa, and supported by the Cameroonian government and international donors, the sanctuary cars for 250 primates at Mefou and another 150 at the zoo in Yaounde.

276Most of the animals have been orphaned when their mothers were killed or captured by poachers. Animals are poached for local consumption, either as traditional food or for ritualistic purposes, and for international markets such as Southeast Asia where certain animal parts are used for medicinal purposes. While some of the devastation of primate species is due to animals damaging crops, most of the poaching, according to a guide at Mefou, takes place in primary forests far from human settlements. Poaching has resulted in the virtual extinction of many of the country’s native primates

In addition to providing care and treatment for the animals, the sanctuary conducts education programs to introduce wildlife conservation to young Cameroonians and show the interrelationship between humans and animals. A motto prominently displayed at the Mefou site says, “Where will the great apes be without man? Where will man be without the apes?”234

Mefou is about an hour or so drive from Yaounde, with the last several kilometers over a bumpy dirt road. A knowledgeable guide conducts a walking tour of the facility, which takes nearly two hours and covers more than a kilometer as each species is given an amount of area suitable to its needs. Among the species currently at the sanctuary are gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, and some smaller monkeys, such as the agile mangabey and the red-capped mangabey.

Restoring Cameroon’s primate population is a monumental task, and probably beyond the capacity of one sanctuary, but one has to applaud the effort. If nothing else, it goes a long way toward helping mitigate the damage humans are doing to their own environment.

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Gun Violence in America: Are We Abdicating Our Moral Responsibility?

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Your NRA, exploiting a tragedy to advance a pr...
Your NRA, exploiting a tragedy to advance a pre-existing political and economic agenda (Photo credit: Patrick Feller)

Members of Congress cowed by the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) lobbying power, and its extensive war chest, which it uses unashamedly against legislators deemed ‘soft’ on gun control issues, continue to do the association’s bidding. The ‘Gang of Fear’ came together recently to defeat proposed legislation for enhanced background checks for gun purchasers. As it does with all legislation designed to bring rationality to the purchase and possession of firearms, the NRA’s knee-jerk reaction to the proposed law was that it was a ‘first step to confiscation of our firearms.’

This argument seems to presuppose that there is, somewhere in government, a group that sits in a room plotting to relieve ALL Americans of ALL of their guns. Shudder! A truly scary thought; except that it’s so far from the reality of how our chaotic, short-term focus bureaucratic and political systems work, it’s laughable. Anyone who thinks the U.S. Government does this kind of long term planning has only to look at our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, I digress. Let’s get back to background checks. The intent of the legislation, as I understand it, was to establish procedures that would go a long way to keep guns out of the hands of felons, the emotionally or mentally disabled, etc.  News reports and surveys indicate that over 80% of the American public, including a significant number of NRA members, supported the proposed law. One has to wonder, then, why the leadership of NRA and the Gang of Fear so adamantly opposed it. But, I’ll leave that for others or for another time.

Right now, I’d like to put another issue on the table – one that I’ve not seen discussed – liability. Are those who block rules that would curb access to guns by people who clearly should not be allowed to have them liable for the harm such people cause? Now, I seriously doubt such an argument would stand up in a court of law. After all, efforts to hold gun manufacturers liable have gone nowhere, so a case like this is unlikely to ever be brought. But, it does raise an interesting ethical and moral issue. Are you morally and ethically responsible if your actions help create conditions that inflict harm on others?

English: United States Congresswoman Gabrielle...
English: United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at her desk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would it have been useful to have enhanced background checks that would have limited the ability of Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho, who had been previously diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder, from obtaining the weapons he used on April 16, 2007 to kill 32 people and wound 17 others on the school campus?  Or Jared Loughner, a disturbed young man who bought ammunition on the same day he attempted to kill U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords during a constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot in Casas Adobes, Arizona, near Tucson. The January 8, 2011 shooting claimed the lives of six people, including a nine-year-old girl.

Going back further in time, would stiffer backgrounds have made it more difficult for Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, a member of the disciple of murderous cult leader Charles Manson, get her hands on the .45 caliber automatic which she waved at former president Gerald Ford in Sacramento in April 1975, or Sara Jane Moore, who shot at Ford 17 days later in San Francisco? We might never know, because those opposed to rational controls over gun ownership also try to block debate and discussion of the issue, hiding behind the Second Amendment.

Assassination attempt of U.S. President Gerald...
Assassination attempt of U.S. President Gerald R. Ford by Sara Jane Moore. Location: San Francisco, CA. Description: Reaction of Secret Service agents, police, and bystanders approximately one second after Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford. 22 September 1975 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are but a few of the incidents of clearly disturbed individuals being able to acquire arms and ammunition under our current regime of lax and haphazardly applied controls.

It’s not a Second Amendment issue. In my humble opinion, it’s an issue of stepping up to the plate and assuming moral and ethical responsibility for the violence that has become endemic in our society. More than 80% of the American public gets it. When will the Gang of Fear?

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Foreign Service Veterans Seek to Dispel the Myths

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Capitol Hill, Washington DC
Capitol Hill, Washington DC (Photo credit: KP Tripathi)

http://m.govexec.com/pay-benefits/2013/04/foreign-service-veterans-dispel-myths/62838/

Excellent article in ‘Government Executive‘ Magazine about visit of FSOs to Capitol Hill.

 

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