Dragons at HurogBy: Mike Jan 15, 2014
As those who have read Dragon Bones may remember, "Hurog means dragon". In the books, it's a land populated by a proud but poor people. Somehow, we've adopted it not only for our web page, but for our raggedy little farm. We own a few acres of dry-as-dust ground, which has far more rock than soil. Patty insists on maintaining at least one horse more than we really have pastures and facilities for. And, as quickly as I can cobble together some sort of fence and shelter, she comes up with another horse. It's a money sink, but we love it.
And, like the books, Hurog has dragons. We love art, and dragons feature prominently among the prints and paintings hanging on the walls. The carousel horse in the dining room has a dragon worked into the shield. There are dragon statues on the back porch, and even a pair worked into a stained glass window. But, once in a while we find dragons we didn't intentionally add.
Our bedroom has a window beside the bed, and over the main window is a small transom window done in beveled glass. It's just an abstract design: swoops and swirls. A week or so ago, after a couple of very busy days, we decided to sleep in on Saturday. I awoke to a beautiful golden-tinted morning light streaming through the transom, and shining on the wall at the foot of our bed. Somehow, the pattern of the light looked like a dragon on the wall. I rubbed my eyes, and put on my glasses, but it still looked like a dragon. Finally, I grabbed a camera, and snapped a quick shot. Hurog means dragon, and they're everywhere around here!
NOTE: The wall is a tinted plaster, so what looks like compression artifacts from a bad .jpg are actually little swirls and whorls in the plaster.
Walking with GiantsBy: Mike Jan 27, 2014
We all have our childhood heros. I grew up in a small, conservative town in Montana, where most people's biggest dream was finding a job that payed more than minimum wage. When even small dreams seem impossible, big dreams were foolish. My world was safe, but small, the prison bars almost visible at the city limit signs.
But the library had books. Mostly they were reference books, dusty classics, and self-improvement texts to deal with alocholism, depression or teen pregnancy. But there were also grand stories of a bigger world. In junior high I discovered the Edgar Rice Burrows' John Carter of Mars series. The tales were gripping, and I raced through them quickly. But what really caught my eye was the cover art. Our school library had a series with cover art by Michael Whelan. Alien landscapes, terrifying monsters, scantily-clad damsels in distress, and improbably-muscled heroes. I didn't want to grow up to work at the local lumber mill, I wanted to grow up and head to Mars!
I quickly discovered other fantasy books: Tolkien, of course, and C.S. Lewis. Soon, I stumbled onto Michael Moorcock. When I started the Elric of Melnibone series I found an old friend. The cover of Stormbringer had an absolutely fantastic image of a fantasy warrior, standing atop some rubble with his cape (of course he had a cape!) billowing in the wind while he held his sword aloft and screamed defiance at something off screen. While reading the book, I kept flipping back to look at the cover art. The smooth lines, alien sky, and detailed muscles reminded me of the Mars books. Eventually, I learned that most books list a cover artist credit, and found that all of these covers were the work of artist Michael Whelan.
Over the years, I learned to recognize a Whelan cover. He did quite a lot of covers, and won just about every award a professional artist could win, often multiple times. I didn't have much money, but I sometimes bought a book that sounded promising, especially if Whelan painted the cover. This was not a bad strategy, because publisher's only requsted Michael Whelan covers for the books they expected to sell well!
Eventually, I went to college and got married. Somehow, in the busy life of a husband and father, my reading tapered off. Michael Whelan decided to take time to pursue personal visions and largely quit painting cover art, and we sort of quietly parted company. He, of course, was completely unaware that I was among his thousands of fans.
Fast forward to a year or two ago. My fair bride has become a moderately-successful author, and we regularly get to rub shoulders with our literary heroes (which is something that never gets old). I was talking with Patty's cover artist, Dan Dos Santos who has also become a personal friend, and I mentioned that my all-time favorite painter was Michael Whelan. Dan replied, "Michael and his wife are good friends of ours, and live nearby. Would you like me to arrange a dinner with them?"
Life, as always, got in the way, but last week we took Dan up on his offer. We jumped a plane and flew to Conneticut. We got to spend an eveing with Dan and his lovely family. Their home is almost a museum. Not only did it have lots of Dan's amazing paintings, but they've gathered a very impressive collection of other artists' works. I've written previously about how much I love art, even though I'm completly untalented, and this was a real treat.
We visted New York City, and did all the usual tourist stuff. We walked through Times square, went to the the top of the Empire State building, and visited the Strand Bookstore (where Patty promptly doubled the weight of our luggage). We browsed some of the many interesting shops. We stopped by Penguin publishing, and Patty's editor, Anne, introduced us to some of the people who work there. We had a lovely lunch with Patty, her editor Ann, and the art director, Judy. Ideas were exchanged, some business was conducted, and I gained a greater appreciation for the work done by an art director and cover designer. Trust me, these folks are professional, and they are sharp.
And then it was time to go visit Michael Whelan, and his lovely wife Audrey.
Dan drove us to the Whelan's home. Patty and I had bought a big box of chocolates in New York as a gift for them, but in our excitement, we'd left it in our hotel. I've mentioned I'm a genius, right? Dan slipped me the nice bottle of wine he'd purchased, so I had something to hand our hosts (thank you Dan Dos Santos, that's yet another one I owe you). We knocked, the door opened, and there stood Michael and his lovely wife Audrey. Hands were offered, greetings and introductions made, and I sat there gaping like a fish out of water (yeah, I'm smooth like that). But it really wasn't my fault. Right there in the entryway were a half-dozen paintings, and they were breathtaking.
Several years ago, Patty and I were privileged to visit to Louvre in Paris. In the Italian wing we found many paintings which I had seen frequently reproduced in art books. There is simply no way that a color plate in a book, or a few pixels on a screen can capture the soul of a great painting. I remember looking at some of the Rubens pieces and thinking, "I've seen this piece at least a hundred times, and I've never seen it at all." Let me assure you that Michael's paintings have the same magic.
Of course we own The Art of Michael Whelan. I've looked at those color plates many, many times. But Michael works big -- most pieces are at least four feet on the longest dimension. The book is wonderful, but it absolutely doesn't prepare you for seeing the real thing. I'm no sort of art critic. I have no training, and can't even draw a stick figure. I can't comment on technique or materials. I can say that Michael Whelen paints the most realistic and lush textures I've ever seen. I can tell the difference between silk and linen at a glance. I can look at a rock in his paintings and tell you wither it's gneiss or granite. And with my eye less than a foot from the canvas (the closest distance as which my aging eyes will focus) the materials still look real.
Michael and Audrey seemed to be accustomed to visitors ignoring them to shamble, zombielike, into their parlour to get a closer look (or else they just cover really well). When my brain re-booted itself, we re-did the introductions, and they showed us around. And around, and around again. There was a lot to see. There are about one hundred and twenty paintings adorning their walls. And I mentioned that most of them are large paintings, right? This was better than a trip to Disneyland!
We casually walked by the cover art from Piers Anthony, C.J. Cherryh, Stephen King, Barbara Hambley, Anne McCaffrey, and a dozen others. Iconic covers that had launched the careers of world-famous authors were hung here and there; lying stacked along the walls in some places. The art that adorned the covers of most of my heroes was right before my eyes, larger and more colorful than I had ever seen it before.
How many of you remember McCaffrey's "The White Dragon" or "Weyrworld" covers? Those were there. How about Tad Williams' "Stone of Farewell"? The original is about four feet across, and you simply can't imagine the amount of detail in it. The incredibly lush covers of Joan D. Vinge's epics The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen were hung within a few feet of one another, bigger and bolder than any poster ever made of them.
And, of course, Michael has done far more than just illustration work. His personal visions are equally amazing. When Michael first started pursuing his personal visions and doing studio work, a younger me was unimpressed. Instead of stalwart warriors and beautiful maidens, he was painting grassy hills and floating crystal spheres. I didn't understand them, and I wanted my easily-accesible eye-candy back! Over the years, however, I have come to really admire his studio work. Of course it's crafted with the same lush textures and attention to detail that characterize his cover illustrations, but these pieces are often meditations on a theme, and take a bit of time to really understand.
Of course, as any artist will tell you, the same piece of art can mean different things to different people. Michael often paints the same symbols to represent common themes. Fossils, especially ammonites, represent the past or the grand scope of time. A crystal sphere with a burning flame may represent the soul, or a faded star the dreams of our youth. Sometimes I would study a piece, captured by it's beauty, but unable to grasp the message it was intended to convey. Other peices are more easily understood.
One of my favorite paintings is called Ellie's dream. I am a child of the Apollo years, and like most people of my generation, I assumed we were going to the stars. In school we were admonished to study math and science, because the world was going to need scientists and engineers. Of course, our politicians quietly decided that long-term research and exploration was less interesting than endlessly squabbling over things right here on earth. By the time I graduated with freshly-minted degrees in quantitative biology and biogeochemisty, we basically just needed more accountants and MBA's. Scientists need not apply, and all of the launch pads had long since been marked "Abandon in Place" (not that I'm bitter or anything, really!).
So, while my frustration just led me to shake my fist at faceless politicians, Michael captured all of it in this image of a bright young girl trying to get to the moon on a rusting and incomplete structure in a perfect, cloudless sky. It's poignant, poetic, and manages to encompass a lifetime of frustration and wrap it in beauty.
The biggest problem, for me, was that many of the pieces were so powerful that you can't absorb them in one sitting. One of his personal pieces, The Red Step had me excusing myself from the conversation to study it several times over the course of the evening. Michael and Audrey were amazingly understanding, and patiently answered one querey after another throughout the evening.
To say that we ejoyed our time with the Whelans would be a gross understatment. They are delightfully warm and compassionate people. Michael is something of a philosopher, given to deep introspection, and then delighted by the simple beauty of the world. We watched a number of brilliant-red cardinals in the bushes behind their home, and Michael showed us a Christmas card he'd painted with the same birds. Somehow, in Michael's work, it always comes back to beauty. I can't help but feel there's a lesson there somewhere!
We're All Special, Snowflake!By: Mike Feb 10, 2014
I once saw a bumper sticker that said, "All True Wisdom Is Found On Bumper Stickers". While I find that claim dubious, it is true that some profound thoughts can be condensed into a few carefully-chosen words. For example, "If you want peace, work for justice" or "Visualize Whirled Peas". Last year I saw a bumper sticker that said "I'm An Author, Ask My About My Book". Lately, I'm wondering what it means to be an author.
It's no secret that the publishing world is still in a state of upheaval and flux. Markets are shifting and new distribution models are proposed almost daily. The old gatekeepers still stand sentinel, like the pillars of a bridge, ignored by the river of authors whirling and flowing past them. Over the past couple of years it seems that everyone is an author. And that is becoming a problem.
Before I go any further, let me tell you a little story
Once upon a time a handful of publishing companies held a virtual monopoly on the distribution channels for books. All of the bookstores, great and small, bought their books from a very few distributers, who in turn only bought from the publishing companies. While anyone could write a book, and even have some copies printed and bound, those books would never get sold in bookstores1. They were banished to the ubliet of invisible books, and like most things invisible, they were soon forgotten.
The rulers of these big publishing companies were not angels, but neither were they demons. Most of them loved books, and tried to publish the stories that they felt their readers would enjoy. Of course, being human, they were not infallible . . .
And here I will pause the narrative. It it not my intention to defend or decry the traditional publishing world. Regardless of my opinions, change is upon us, emotions are running high, and since my crystal ball stubbornly refuses to function reliably, I cannot say what the publishing world will look like some years hence.
Ahem . . . And, in this entrenched and ridged world of publishing, anyone could write, but an author was someone who's writing had been selected for publication. They had been pronounced worthy, and their work given the imprimatur of acceptance. When you met someone who claimed to be an author, you could quite properly ask who had published them, and how many titles they had published. The average quality of the books selected for publication were indisputably better than the average quality of the work arriving in the slush pile, ergo those authors blessed by the publishers were, on average, more skilled than the teeming masses sending in submissions2.
The world has changed greatly. The gatekeepers no longer have a monopoly on the distribution channels. In fact, the big-five publishers publish far, far fewer books than sites like Smashwords and Amazon. That's not necessarily a bad thing. However, this this change has not come without collateral damage — being an author doesn't mean what it used to.
The term professional is, at it's heart, exclusionary. It denotes somebody who has acquired a certain set of knowledge and skills. These people are professional engineers: those are not. John is a doctor, Jim is not. The concept of the professional was developed for cases where the client couldn't easily assess the skill of the laborer. If I hire someone to shovel dirt in my garden, I can quickly tell whether their work is satisfactory or not. It may take me a few tries to find a worker I approve of, but it's not a great hardship. If I have heart problems and need surgery, I'd like a doctor who has already been adjudicated skilled and competent. So the question becomes, what happens to a profession when anyone can join? Is being an author a profession, like plumbing or engineering, or is it unskilled labor?
In fact, the word author doesn't mean much these days. Anyone who has written anything can slap it on a random website, and proclaim themselves an author. There is no minimum level of quality or quantity required for publication. If your story doesn't make sense, or your grammar is hopelessly garbled, you can still get published. Most tradtional books are seventy-five thousand words or more in length, but I've seen works as short as five thousand words published as stand-alone books on Amazon. If someone slaps an ISBN and a cover on their shopping list they instantly become a professional author.
So Who's it Hurting?
I can just hear some of you muttering "Oh, Poor Patty. The widdow snowfwake gotted her feelers hurted." That's not the point. This isn't really hurting Patty. She's an established author, with a solid track record and a good number of readers. But that wasn't always the case.
Twenty years ago, Patty was a brand new author. She'd managed to teach herself enough to cobble together a complete story or two and get them published. Contrary to popular belief, that doesn't mean she had mastered her craft; far from it. Her toolbox was terribly incomplete. But as a published author, some very important doors were opened for her.
Getting published didn't mean you were done learning, it meant you were capable of being taught. Authors like Terry Brooks, Jerry Oltion, John Dalmas and C.J. Cherryh took time to help her build her skills. Conventions waived fees and gave her opportunities to speak. Eventually, some conventions even paid her to come speak with other new authors. Bookstores invited her to come sign books, and bore the cost of promoting and advertising these events. All of these things worked together to help her bridge the gap between freshly-published neophyte and seasoned professional. It was still an uphill climb, and it still required a lot of work and more than a bit of luck.
The people being hurt are the current generation of serious, dedicated, talented authors trying desperately to build a market for their work. Trying to make a living as an author has always been a risky proposition, but if someone got that first book published there was a tenuous, shaky, support system to help them on their way. There are too many new authors to help, and there's a growing sense that, because the world is changing so quickly, the established professionals don't know enough to help anyone anyway. And, sadly, that may be true.
Twenty years ago, the grizzled veteran writer could recount the path they had taken, and point out pitfalls and shortcuts to the neophytes. Now the conversation might sound like this:
"Well in my day, we would leave the road and head across this back pasture . . ."
"I'm sorry, sir, but that back pasture is now a mine-field, and no longer a shortcut."
"Yes. Quite. Well, at any rate, then we would swim across the old mill pond to come out —"
"Sir, the mill-pond has been freshly stocked with alligators. Jimmy tried it last week, sir. He didn't make it."
"I see. Well, in that case, have you heard about the shortcut thorough the dairy pasture —"
"Sir, that's a strip mall now. There's no way through. Don't you have any information we can use?"
In short, it has always been hard to make a career in writing. I fear that the combination of eroding standards and rapidly changing markets is making things even more difficult for modern authors.
But the Cream Always Rises to the Top
There are many difficulties facing authors: declining ebook prices, increased competition for attention, smaller advances, piracy, and the list goes on. Whenever these gloomy topics are raised, someone always points out that the cream always rises to the top. It's become a widely accepted dogma: no matter how thin the odds, or how hard the obstacles, the truely talented and dedicated professional will somehow persevere. In fact (according to popular belief), the low wages, lack of recognition, and additional hardships are a blessing to readers, weeding out all but the best authors.
I see many talented people working diligently to perfect their craft; striving to become skilled and competent authors. At the same time, many other people are carelessly spewing drivel onto a few pages and claiming the same title. The writing tracks of many conventions look less like a professional panel and more like a Jerry Springer episode, with three or four self-proclaimed geniuses vying to promote their latest book while conspiring to keep the bestselling author away from the microphone. But nobody's really listening anyway because everyone in the audience is an author too. Yes, now we are all authors, and so we are all equal. It reminds of a line from The Incredibles, "When everyone's super, no one is!". That's a surprisingly profound statement; maybe it belongs on a bumper sticker somewhere.
I have one final thought. It's easier than ever to get published, and harder than ever to make a career in writing. Maybe only the weak and unworthy writers are discouraged by the long odds and low rewards. Maybe it's just a signal-to-noise issue, and the cream will magically rise to the top. However, I recently had occasion to replace our septic tank, and I can assure you that cream isn't the only thing that floats. I am concerned that the current system may not be working as advertised. A dedicated young author who spends years reading, studying and working to improve their craft and writes a promising first novel may be discouraged by only a few hundred sales and little recognition. The person who quickly jots off a few thousand words of erotica while watching internet porn and publishes it on a whim may find a few hundred sales gratifying enough to continue. We are all authors now, but I'm not sure that it's only (or even primarily) the cream that's rising.
And next week, we'll be back to the fuzzy bunnies and rainbows channel!
- Certain celebrities, and possibly close relatives of the CEO of one of the big distributors doubtless managed to get moderate distribution. There are always exceptions for the rich, famous, and well connected.
- Yes, I know that it's impossible to measure "quality" objectively. Still, talk to an editor sometime about the joys of reading slush. I've only dipped my toes in that fetid, pustulating morass and I'm not brave enough to venture further. Also, I used the word average over and over because there ARE exceptions. Great books have been passed over, and stinkers published, I concede the point without protest.
Special Deliveries Coming SoonBy: Mike Feb 11, 2014
I'm sitting in my office with the little space heater running to take the chill off. The weather has been an oppressive, heavy grey. Grey skies, which have alternated between sleet and snow for long enough to turn the ground into a sodden mess. Half the ground is melting snow, the other half mud, and in the horse pastures there's a distinctive aroma that reminds one that not everything that looks like mud is. The whole place is — what's that word? Oh yes, dismal.
Over the past couple of days we've been moving horses around. It's a bit like one of those tile-puzzles. This horse doesn't get along with that one, but does fine with the little ladies over there. This one needs grain, and that one's on a diet. But the shuffling is done, and there's two very pregnant mares grazing contentedly in the mare pen. Of course, they both need to get immunizations tomorrow, and they'll be less contented when I whip out a giant needle . . . but for tonight they're slogging around trying to eat their hay before it floats off somewhere.
I was going to grab photos, but it seems almost unkind. They're still in winter fur, so they're as wooly as mastodons. Their coats are packed with mud. (Why do horses roll when it's muddy out? Is it just to make their owners look bad?) One of them has a shabby, ratty, gnawed-off excuse for a tail. It was long and full and glorious until this year's foal decided to eat it. Like an indulgent mother, she let him. *Sarcastic voice* Isn't that just precious?. If I were Southern, I believe this would call for a "bless her little heart." And, of course, both mares are heavily pregnant, and not quite their usual graceful selves. . .
And, now that you mention it, that's very strange. No, I don't recall Patty ever being less than beautiful and graceful when she was pregnant. I would never have described her walk as a bow-legged waddle. No sir, I'm a smart man, and a happily married man. And neither my wife nor her mares have ever been less than beautiful. Honest.
So Patty and I are looking at these two beautiful mares, both of whom are bred like princesses, and we're wondering what sort of surprises we'll get in the next month or two. One of the mares is tall and black, with extremely animated gaits. She's bred to a famous gray that recently passed away Hey Hallelujah. The other mare is a dark bay, and is bred to an up-and-coming chestnut named Apalo.
I think Patty loves the anticipation. It's like Christmas in the spring. Will we get colts or fillies? What color will they be? Are they going to be knock-your-socks-off amazing, or just nice? Will Patty ever breed a horse that she doesn't lose money on? These are the questions that keep us up at night (and believe me, if you could see the feed bills, they'd keep you up at night too!).
So here we sit, side by side, staring into the lowering, gloomy, soggy night. I'm calculating the cost of a larger shelter, and trying to figure out how we're going to pay off the tractor. She's smiling to herself as visions of foals-to-be gallop and cavort in the grassy meadows of her mind. There should be a moral to this story. . . oh yeah, that's it: Be careful, lads, when you marry a dreamer — you might be expected to make those dreams come true.
Night Broken ReleaseBy: Mike March 21, 2014
A couple of weeks ago Patty embarked on a signing tour for her newest book, Night Broken. Naturally, I came along for the ride. (Trust me, I can sit home and imagine one unlikely disaster after another and call her obsessively, or simply come with. Everyone is happier if I tag along). We started in our own back yard, doing a signing at the Richland Hastings, and then gradually worked our way over to the coast, down to California, across to Texas and home by way of Montana. Next time we'll try to include some east coast stops as well! As always, we had a great time.
Most of the signings were between one hundred and two hundred people, which is actually a very nice size. It's large enough that we don't feel like we need to apologize to the book store owners, and small enough that Patty can take a little time to chat with everyone as they come through the line. The line moves a little slowly, but it's better than the frantic, impersonal hurry of a really big signing. We would both like to take a minute to thank both the book store managers who agreed to host us, as well as the many readers who came out to support Patty. Patty has often said that writing is like having half of a conversation, and you only hear the other half when someone reads the book and talks to you about it. While there's always room for improvement, the majority of the feedback we received was very positive and supportive. Thank You!
When we left the Tri-Cities area, spring was just settling in for the year. The tulips and daffodils were up, and the cherry trees were just beginning to blossom. By the time we got to California it was tee-shirt weather, and we took a late-night stroll along the beach at La Joya to admire the moon. In Texas, we had a light rain and some wind, but the sub-tropical vegetation made Houston seem like a jungle. The great-tailed grackles were hooting and whistling from trees and buildings everywhere, and I expected to hear Tarzan any minute. Then we went to our home state of Montana.
We love Montana. The mountains are beautiful, the rivers are clean, and there's a lot of wide open space. Wide open, but frozen space. Neither of us brought a coat. When we touched down in Butte a traditional spring snowstorm was busily draping a fresh blanket of white over everything. We had just a few hours to get our rental car and drive to Bozeman, some seventy miles away — and over Homestake pass. The temperature was dropping, the winds were rising, and the rental agency told us that there was a travel advisory. We upgraded from an economy car to a jeep, and took off for Bozeman. I remember thinking ""We're just wearing tee-shirts. If the car dies, this isn't going to end well!" Fortunately, we arrived in Bozeman without incident, and made it to the signing fifteen minutes early and slightly disheveled.
I think the moral of the story is that poor preparation can add excitement (and a bit of risk) to any journey!
We're Number Two!
A couple of days ago we got a call from Patty's editor to say that they'd gotten some information on the sales of Night Broken. She was #6 on the USA Today list, which is always welcome news. Night Broken was number two on the New York Times fiction hardcover list, and also number two on the NYT e-book fiction list. Oddly enough, since different authors took the top position in both lists, she ended up being #1 on the ebook + paper list (which doesn't count for bragging rights, but will certainly help get the kids through college!). Thanks everyone, we're very happy indeed!
Just a reminder that tomorrow Patty will be signing books at the Bookworm stores in both Richland and Kennewick. Hope to see you there!
In my last post, I mentioned that we were expecting a couple of foals this spring. One of the mares was due about three weeks prior to the signing tour, which would have worked out perfectly. Of course, nothing is ever easy with horses. Most horses give birth without incident, but when things go wrong, they tend to go very wrong. So, just to be safe, we were on mare watch. The expecting mares occupy a pasture very near the house. We can periodically look out a window to check on them during the day, and it's a short walk to check them at night. Every few hours. All night long. Never mind that we can't get a good night's sleep, it's all about the mares.
The due date came and went . . . nothing. We were getting pretty tired, but surely she'd deliver any day now. One week past due, two weeks past due, no dice. We had a couple of false alarms, but I'm sure the mare was taunting us. Three weeks past due. Patty and I haven't had a good night's sleep in over a month. The book signing tour is right around the corner. The mare is as big as a barn, but nothing is happening. So, we left on the signing tour and the very first night we were gone the silly mare drops a beautiful and healthy filly. ARRRGGHHHH! No wonder I prefer carousel ponies!
The Meaningless Metrics of FameBy: Mike April 11, 2014
One of the most frequently cited indicators of an author's popularity is their status on various bestseller lists. The most commonly cited are USA Today, Publisher's Weekly, and The New York Times lists. When an author has placed on one of these lists you can virtually guarantee that all future titles will be prominently tagged with Bestselling Author of Title. The author's walk develops a little swagger, and they're able to introduce themselves in signings or panels as "I'm bestselling author so-and-so". Bestselling authors typically get more promotion, more speaking engagements, and bigger advances, so the lists are an important metric. For all the caché attached to being a bestseller, there is a lot of misunderstanding of what it really means.
Ideally, bestseller status is an indicator of popularity. The assumption is that popularity means sales, and sales are proportional to income, so a #1 bestseller should be very, very lucrative. And, of course, to a certain extent, this is true. However, no bestseller list is perfect. For one thing, there's no way to perfectly measure sales. Some lists try to draw from major wholesale distributors, others query various retail outlets. Amazon, of course, uses their very own data set. Depending on the sampling method (and frequency) there may be any number of biases or errors introduced. Since the exact calculations are often kept secret (to make it harder for unscrupulous authors or publishers to manipulate the results) it's difficult to say how accurately a given list might reflect nationwide buying habits.
A bestsellers list is a measure of sales. Not total sales, but sales over a particular (usually short) period. Most lists are calculated weekly (though the Amazon lists are calculated hourly). It's accurate enough, but it's hard to extrapolate anything meaningful about long-term performance from such myopic data. The important part to remember is that the bestsellers lists are a measure of sales velocity, not total sales.
Consider the following diagram. I've omitted the units on both axis to simplify things. The X-axis is time — it could be in hours, days, or weeks. The Y axis represents the sales velocity. This might be books per minute, or hundreds of books sold per day, or any variant of quantity per unit time. Obiously, for any given bestseller list, there will be a threshold value to qualify as a bestseller, which I've represented by the dashed red line. I've shown the sales profile of a more-or-less typical novel in blue:
Books often arrive at the stores a week or so before the official release date, so there may be a few early sales before the novel is released. Sales build fairly quickly, and the maximum sales velocity is reached fairly early in the book's shelf life. After the peak, there's a long a gradual decline. There may be some temporary bumps and jiggles — maybe the author does a few signings or gets a TV spot, but the sales gradually taper off. In the example shown, the book failed to cross the bestseller threshold.
If a publisher has a title that they suspect might become a bestseller, there are several things they can do to increase its chances. They may put extra money into advertising, spring for higher-quality cover art or send the author on a signing tour. All of these are likely to increase sales, particularly during the first days after the book is released. Another common technique is enforcing a strict on-sale date. Instead of allowing the booksellers to start selling copies whenever they arrive, the publisher insists that no sales can be made prior to the official release date. In effect, they're trying to concentrate sales into a narrow time frame.
Before we continue, let me point out something about our chart. If we multiply the sales velocity by time, we get the total sales: sales/time * time = sales. So, the area under the curve indicates the total sales of the book, while the height of the curve indicates the instantaneous sales velocity (and the slope of the curve indicates the rate of change in velocity). If this is starting to feel like college physics, congratulations. But I digress, now back to our publisher's attempt to create a bestselling novel.
The next chart shows the effect of a good marketing campaign and a strict sale date. Even if no new sales were generated, by concentrating most of the sales in the few days around the release date, the sales velocity was high enough to cross the threshold, and this book is officially a bestseller.
In this simple example, I kept the total sales of both novels the same, even though the second one (thanks to some clever marketing) became a bestseller. That's good for bragging rights, but it probably didn't justify the expense of a the marketing campaign. So why would a publisher do it? To answer that, we need to learn a little more about the bestseller lists, and talk about what that little red line in our chart really means.
A Fractured and Divided Landscape
There are a lot of bestseller lists, and they're often divided into various categories. Fiction is often tracked separately from nonfiction. Children's books, comic books, etc. may be split into separate categories. Ebooks, paperbacks, and hardcovers may be combined or treated separately. To make it worse, some sources list the top ten selling novels, while others may list as many as 150 of the top books each week. Depending on which list you look at, and how far down the list you scroll, a great many authors may be "bestsellers".
Publishers used to be pretty careful about when they decided to put the Bestseller stamp on their author's next book. If you hit the NYT print list, or the USA Today's top fifty it's pretty defensible to claim bestseller status. But, as always, things change. Many authors consider themselves bestsellers if they appear in any list, regardless of position. I've even overheard authors saying that they are Amazon bestsellers because their book was listed on the "Amazon Best Sellers Rank" — at number one-million and something. So, when someone is presented as "bestselling author" they might be a legitimately popular author, or they might be someone who ranked in the top ten thousand fantasy authors beginning with the letter 'A' for an hour.
Show Me the Money
Most publishing professionals only really pay attention to the USA Today, Publishers Weekly and NYT lists in terms of marketing. They're sort of the gold standard in bestsellers. They're established, widely recognized, and use well-explained methods for calculating their lists. These lists are watched not only by publishers, but buy book buyers, radio stations etc. and getting on one of these lists is a great way to dramatically increase sales.
In the example above, we showed that a good marketing campaign could take a book that was almost at bestseller levels, and push it over the line without really increasing sales. However, as soon as that book becomes a beseller, a whole new dynamic comes into play. Many of the thousands of little bookstores at airports and bus terminals that only have shelf space for bestselling novels will now stock this title. Those bookstores move a lot of books, so the sales figures are going to get a healthy boost. Radio shows, TV shows, and book bloggers are far more interested in interviewing bestselling authors, so a number of additional promotional opportunities open up. And, as every author knows, the point of promotion is to drive additional sales. Finally, the author is now and forevermore a bestselling author, which is a good marketing bullet. And that, gentle readers, is why both publishers and authors are willing to spend considerable time and effort to make a book a bestseller.
Hitting a Moving Target
So, if the bestseller's lists are a measure of sales velocity, how many books does an author need to sell per day to become a bestseller? And therein lies the problem with using short-term sales velocity as a performance metric: each time a new list is calculated the numbers change. This week, maybe a dozen mega-authors are releasing new titles, and you may have to sell 10,000 books per day to make the list. Next week, perhaps all the major publishers will be paralyzed by a shipping dispute, and you can top the charts with 500 books per day. Instead of representing the "bestseller threshold" as a solid line, it should be shown wandering all over the place.
Here we can see that the author tried all the usual tricks to maximize early sales, but didn't quite make it. Maybe Patterson and King had titles that came out the same week. If the author had released a few days earlier, or even a few days later, that book would have been a bestseller. When you hear someone say that they're a bestselling author, or even a #1 NYT bestselling author, take it for what it's worth: at some point in time their books sold more quickly than the competition.It's also worth noting that the bestseller threshold doesn't just jump around randomly. It responds to big-name author releases and seasonal demands. Patty is a #1 NYT bestselling author, but her sales are far lower than George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. The highest book sales are in the fall, right before Christmas. The publishers know this, and position their heavy hitters to release then to maximize sales. If you want to top the charts in October or November you'll be slugging it out with the big boys. The lowest book sales are in the spring, when everyone is trying to pay off their credit cards. The major league players have left the field, so the junior woodchucks have a chance. Patty's books are released in March, when the competition is not at its peak.
Let's assume that you're gaining some popularity, and have managed to hit a couple of the bestseller lists. That's awesome, but you'd like to be able to put "#1 Bestselling Author" on your next book. Knowing that the market fluctuates, and that that some of those changes are predictable, you can take steps to position your book to maximize the odds of being a #1 bestseller. Most of the big-name authors list their publication dates far in advance. They need to, because the promotion engine will be winding up at least a year prior to publication. So, if you sit down with a calendar you can figure out when, in the next year or so, all the major players will be releasing their new books. With a bit of luck, you'll find a week where none of the big-name authors are releasing anything — the first week in January might be a good bet. And that is your release date. It won't matter that three weeks earlier Patterson just shattered the previous record for books sold in a single week, or that the next week Danielle Steel's eagerly-anticipated book is going to blow the lid off the charts. That week, maybe, you have a chance to take the top spot, and #1 bestseller looks just as impressive on your next novel as it would on J.K. Rowling's.
Finally, when talking to other authors, remember that bestseller status is a poor indicator of sales or success. Some authors have an active fan-base who largely buy on the release date. Their books frequently hit the bestsellers lists in the initial weeks after release, but sales fall off quickly. Patty is an example of this type of author. There are also authors whose work sells steadily over months or years, seldom topping the charts. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and has been selling very well for over fifty years at this point, dipping into bestseller territory on an irregular basis. Remember, sales (and therefore income) are the area under the sales curve. Any author with an ounce of sense would love to have a book with a sales curve this broad, even if it never became a bestseller. So, if you've managed to become a bestselling author, remember what it really means, and don't get cocky. The non-bestseller sitting next to you at the next convention might be hugely successful!
Business Models For Books: Part 1By: Mike May 17, 2014
Over the past year or so, I've read many articles discussing the business model that publishing should be following. The articles usually include the strong suggestion that everyone currently employed in the business is too old, too stupid, or too entrenched to see the opportunities for change. After one too many breathlessly-gushing articles advocating alternate-model "x" I've decided to jump up on my handy soapbox and take a hard look at the alternatives.
First, of course, the disclaimers. My economics courses in college . . . weren't. I didn't even take econ 101 (though I've read a large number of books since then). My business acumen is questionable — I almost made millions (of pennies) in the dot.com bubble of the late 90's, and lost it all. However, thanks to the the internet, everyone with a web page can be an expert, even me! So, let's look at how books could be produced.
Now, when it comes to publishing, we have the following players:
- The author, who probably doesn't want to live in a drafty garret and eat cat-food.
- The reader, who would like to read entertaining stories.
It looks so simple when we write it like that. All we have to do is match the author with the readers who would enjoy the type of stories they produce, extract a bit of cash and Shazam! problem solved.
The devil, they say, is in the details. The story must be "packaged" and turned into a product that can be monetized. The resulting product must be marketed to potential buyers, and someone needs pay for the time and labor involved. A business model determines how this is accomplished, and may bring additional parties into the transaction.
There are three basic business models that have been proposed for publishing: patronage, advertising and commercial. Of course, there are lots of variations on each theme, and a number of hybrid approaches as well. To begin, I'd like to consider each of the major models.
The Patronage Model
Prior to copyright, this was the most common way of funding music or literature. The production, editing, and packaging costs of a book are borne by a patron: a wealthy person or government entity. The word patron comes from the medieval Latin patronus which means lord or master (and is a bastardization of pater [Father]). The patron is the customer, the writer is simply labor, and the reader is the product.
Advantages of the Patronage Model:
- Books written under the patronage model can usually be copied freely. Since they don't depend on free market capitalism, they are not adversely affected by piracy or digital distribution.
- The author doesn't need to consider the readers or popular opinion while writing, since the object is to please the patron not the audience. A six-volume treatise on the "Divine Appointment, Moral Superiority and Manifest Destiny of the Koch Brothers" can be undertaken with confidence of remuneration.
Disadvantages of the Patronage Model:
- Since the reader is not the customer, their preferences play no role in determining what gets published. If you don't want to read the six-book Koch Brothers series, too bad. Shut up and eat your vegetables, they're good for you.
- Production depends on someone being willing to pay for it. It's said that Mozart died with a number of unpublished scores, just waiting for some rich guy to pay him to "write" the piece. The artist has no incentive to produce unless there's a sugar-daddy willing to pay.
- The Patron may not choose the most talented author. In fact, in patronage systems favoritism, nepotism and political acumen frequently trump skill. Your books may not be written by the best author, but by the Patron's favorite nephew, regardless of his skill level.
- TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch). Or, as computer nerds say, if you're not the customer you're the product. If someone is willing to pay good money to get their ideas in your head, it might to wise to ask why.
The Advertising Model
In fishing, the goal is to present the fish with something that appears desirable (like a fat, tasty worm) which comes attached to something of value to the fisherman (the hook). Advertisers have a whole array of hooks and are always looking for fresh bait. Why not books? The advertisers would subsidize the production and distribution of books if they could just insert a few advertisements. The writer gets paid, the reader gets free books, and the advertiser picks up the tab.
Advantages of the Advertising Model:
- The writer is motivated to produce books with broad public appeal, since their income is (presumably) proportional to the total distribution. Bait is supposed to look tasty, right?
- Just like the patronage model, the books can be freely distributed and copied.
Disadvantages of the Advertising Model:
- Well there's, you know, advertisements in the book. A lot of them. The author, editor, cover artist and all those other folks still have to get paid (and even if a book is self-published, all it means is that the author wore a lot of hats, did a ton of work, and deserves the profits that would otherwise go to the publisher. There's no free lunch out there folks!). So, let's say that a new release e-book sells for $10, about half of which goes to the author and publisher. We'd need to stuff the book with $5 worth of ads. Ad prices have been dropping lately, but the last I checked a tenth of a cent per impression was considered a very good price. So, your 350 page novel is going to be peppered with five-thousand advertisements, or about fourteen ads per page.
- Books tend to have a long shelf-life, advertising not so much. The ad companies won't want you reading a book stuffed with ads from a year or two ago. No, your book is going to need to have an internet connection and download fresh ads as you're reading. How else will you know that Pizza Hut is offering a large pepperoni for only $7? In fact, that's important enough that we should make that ad blink so you don't miss it.
- Some clever monkey is going to try to find a way to strip the ads out of the content. Since this would break the advertising model, it must be prevented. Some heavy-duty digitial rights management (DRM) will be needed to keep everyone honest. Expect to see a technological battlefield very similar to the one currently being waged over copyright.
The Commercial Model
This is the most common way of bringing books to market. The book is treated as a commercial product. The costs of writing, editing, packaging, production, printing and marketing all all borne by either the author or a publisher, and a finished product is offered for sale. The sale price is set like any other salable good, and with a bit of luck the sales will cover not only the production costs, but a bit of profit as well. The sales and profits are determined by standard free-market economics.
Advantages of Commercial Book Production:
- In general, competition keeps prices affordable to the consumer. Since reading is a leisure activity, and is in competition with other leisure activities, book prices are unlikely to soar to unaffordable heights. (Required textbooks are an exception, but that's driven by an entirely different economic).
- The profit motive assures continued production of new material. Authors like to eat, and if they can make money and feed their families, they're going to continue telling stories.
- Since supply tends to follow demand, reader's preferences strongly influence production. We could write a book about the rise and decline of the computer mouse, but it probably wouldn't sell as well as the next Mercy Thompson book. Guess which one we're going to write?
- All financial risks for production are borne by the author/publisher. The reader doesn't pay a penny until there's an honest-to-goodness finished product available. If the author suddenly dies or decides to take up a career in water-polo instead of writing, you don't lose anything.
Disadvantages of Commercial Book Production:
- Because it's based on free market economics, the scarcity of goods must be maintained. Basically, if you can't pay, you can't play, which necessarily excludes some readers. This can be partially offset by libraries (which use public money to pay for goods which are loaned without cost), but even a super-efficient library system would impact the scarcity-based economics required. This will require either a very honest bunch of readers or some heavy-handed DRM. Strong copyright laws are also needed.
- Because profit is related to popularity rather than merit of a book, the market tends to favor accessible and entertaining material. Popcorn entertainment books generally earn authors more than deep philosophical meditations or timely political commentary.
But Wait, There's More!
Yes, I see all of your hands waving frantically. No, I'm not going to call on you individually, so put 'em down. Yes, I know that there are hybrid approaches, and they're supposed to solve everything. Oops, pardon my venomous skepticism, I'll clean that up later. There's a lot of ground to be covered, and this article has already gotten long in the tooth. In fact, I'm sorry I started it. I should have just written something about the cute, fuzzy bunnies who are eating the lavender I just planted. Now we're stuck and we'll just have to muddle through. Tomorrow I'll post the second half of this article and tie it all up with a bow. And then maybe I'll write about the cute little voracious flower-munchers. Now, where's my shotgun?
Business Models For Books: Part 2By: Mike May 17, 2014
In yesterdays article, I tried to highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of the major business models that have been proposed for publishing. My analysis was obviously facile and incomplete; it's entirely possible to write books about comparing business models. Moreover, I didn't look at any of the hybrid models that people are supporting. Here's my problem with hybrid approaches: there's no way take only the good parts. Today, I'd like to examine a few of the methods people are actively championing.
The Micropatronage Model
There are several variants of so-called micropatronage that make interesting business models. The most common I've seen is for an author to solicit support for the production of a book through sites like Kickstarter. Basically, the author sets a dollar amount as a target (and potentially a couple of bigger goals, just in case the money really rolls in), then starts beating the bushes trying to get people to fund the project. Instead of one rich patron, many smaller donors are solicited. Typically, the author offers rewards for various levels of donation, ranging from a printed copy of the book to, perhaps, a weekend at the author's home. The patron's donations are placed in escrow, and if the goal is not reached, the money is returned. If the goal is reached, the monies are handed to the author.
There are a thousand variations on this theme. Some authors are hoping to fund the writing and editing of a novel, and plan to market the finished book as a commercial product. Some are hoping to finance the entire project including the profits that would normally come from sales, and promise to release the finished book into the public domain (or with a creative commons license) so it can be enjoyed without cost. There are even projects to "buy" the copyright on out-of-print novels from established authors.
At first blush this seems like a nearly perfect plan. The production costs are spread among a pool of patrons, who receive some small token in exchange for their support. The author is able to fund the creative process and still retains total creative control. As a bonus, the finished book may be free to readers.
My only reservation is that the patrons typically get only a small return (like a printed book or a signed bookmark) for a contribution that often far exceeds the usual price of said item. We've gotten a lot of emails urging us to support one project or another, and most of the ones I've seen don't offer a good return on investment for the patrons. When a stranger hits me up for fifty or a hundred bucks (or more) promising to write a book and send me an e-copy when it's done, I have to ask "Would I have bought this book for $7 at a book store? If not, why would I pay ten times that for a novel that doesn't even exist yet, with no assurance that it will be a good book, or even professionally edited?" Once the project is funded, and the cash is handed to the "author" there's no way to insure that the book is ever written, much less any guarantee of quality.
More importantly, even assuming that a book is actually produced, and that the quality is professional, when the final book is either given away for free or sold commercially (at much lower prices than the patrons paid) won't the patrons resent it? This model seems to depend on finding a number of patrons, and then playing them for chumps. Assuming your circle of acquaintances has a sufficient number of chumps, this looks like a fine model, but I suspect the chump-supply will dry up quickly.
The Author is the Product
Some people claim that commercial book produces have committed a cosmic blunder, and that the author is the product. They reason that books can be reproduced, copied, traded and shared without limitations: they are an infinite good, and treating them as a scarce commodity is foolish. The author is the source of scarcity, so the author is the product and the books are merely advertising for that product.
In this model, authors give their books away freely to build an audience, and then monetize that fame (think cast-of-star-trek-business-model). Once you've become world famous on free books, you can demand tens of thousands in speaking fees and tour the world selling two hour seminars and photo-ops.
The fly in the ointment is that I've spent the last fifteen or twenty years hanging out with authors. They tend to be introverts, and many of them are not socially adept. Their words may be powerful, but they are often not the most gregarious and scintillating of humans. There are a few who have developed a cult of personality and who could fill an auditorium, but most would fail miserably. This business model devalues the actual product (storytelling in the written form) and promotes personal charisma instead. As I see it, if you want to promote excellence in writing, you need to reward excellence in writing, not an unrelated skill set. As a reader, I don't care if an author is pretty, witty, height-weight-proportionate, has the social graces of Julia Child, or the stage-presence of Fred Astaire — I'm not looking for a date, I just want to read a good book.
The Freemium Model
Many people have proposed combining the advertising model with the commercial model. Under this model, an author would release two versions of each book: a free advertisement-laced version and an ad-free commercial version. This allows authors to reach price-sensitive readers in addition to their usual customers, potentially offering dramatic increases in readership. If the ad-based version is sufficiently encumbered, the author should make about the same profit regardless of the chosen format.
Personally, I hate ads, and will certainly pay a premium to avoid them. I got frustrated with broadcast TV, and pulled the plug on my cable years ago. Now we use Netflix (disk and streaming), Amazon Prime, and buy a lot of DVD's. The real difficulty is driving people to the paid version, and not into piracy, since a customer who is angry and frustrated with the "death-by-a-thousand-commercials" approach may not feel like opening his wallet!
The Subscription Service
If it works for Netflix, it should work for books. This is basically just an aggregate purchasing agreement on top of the commercial model. The authors and the publishers would still get paid, and the voracious reader gets a bargain. I suspect we'll see more of this model, and there are several companies testing these waters now. The real difficulty is securing the legal rights to provide a sufficiently divers collection of books.
Unlike movies, where studios typically own the rights to their product, the publishing world is fractured. The authors typically retain copyright and control of their individual properties, and the publishers buy very specific reproduction rights, negotiating a separate contract (with different terms) for each author. Quite often, these contracts specify the region, language, and pricing, and the publisher can't alter those contracts unilaterally.
One possible way to shortcut the logjam would be to have the government grant a cumpulsory license (as they did for music), so that any company could sell access to any book for a set fee. Personally, I hope that doesn't happen, as it would unleash a tidal wave of contractual disputes and lawsuits. . . and I sort of like the ability to negotiate our contracts rather than having them mandated.
One of the things I see all the time is someone saying, "I'm willing to pay X amount, or I'm justified in taking it for free!". If you don't think the price is fair, then by all means don't purchase the product, but declaring goods priced higher than an arbitrary level forfeit is an attempt to force a mandated price on the producer. There's no doubt that piracy has placed a downward pressure on ebook prices, and that downward pressure benefits consumers. The danger is that the price may eventually be set so low that publishers and authors can't profit.
Several years ago I was talking to a friend in Venezuela. He said that they had a terrible shortage of milk, and people were smuggling powdered milk across the borders from Columbia and Brazil. I asked what had happened, and he said that the president had been angry because milk prices were high, and poor people couldn't afford it. Milk, he reasoned, was a basic food and should be available to everyone. So, he issued a mandate and set the price of milk to a level he deemed affordable, with severe punishments for anyone caught selling above that price. Unfortunately, the price he set was below the production cost of milk. Unable to reason with the president, the farmers slaughtered their dairy cattle for meat, destroying the dairy industry almost overnight.
I have nightmares about something similar happening in publishing, either because of pirates or government for intervention. There are already people calling for governmental pricing mandates on textbook prices, and asking compulsory licenses for libraries and ebook subscription services. Mandated pricing may be a needed fix for abusive monopolies or profiteering, but it's seldom a good business model.
In the final analysis, I've read a great many people who claim to know the future of publishing, and who are ardent supporters of alternative business models, all of which work at least some of the time. I think there is room for multiple business models, and I'm excited by some of the things I see being discussed. Having more options available benefits all the players. Unfortunately, despite all the claims, I haven't seen a model that I would consider noteably superior to the tried-and-true commercial model. Still, for new authors, avant-garde publishers and entrepeneurs, there is room for innovation and experimentation.
I, Too, Have a DreamBy: Mike July 14, 2014
A number of years ago I was talking to our veterinarian. As a side note it's worth mentioning that, if you have a horse you'll get to know your vet. If you have several horses you'll soon be on a first-name basis. And if you're addled enough to have a horse farm you'll know your vet better than you know your own family. Anyway, we were talking to our vet the way an alcoholic talks to the bartender, and I mentioned how busy I was.
Our vet just looked me up and down and said, "By your age, if you're busy it's probably because you want to be."
I started to sputter an outraged defense about how none of it was my fault, but after a moment's consideration I had to concede the point. We're busy because we choose to be. Since then, I've sort of made my peace with the idea that if you're a dreamer, and married to a dreamer, you're going to be busy. Dreams are sort of funny things, they seem all hazy and insubstantial, an ephemeral glimpse of something not really there. But the minute you say, "I could actually do that!" they start to become real. The catch, of course, is that dreams don't become real by themselves. No, they push and prod and itch in your brain until you finally make them real.
Dreams are not the sweet-tempered companions described by the poets, they're demanding task-masters that conspire to consume your time and resources. Think about it, consider a small, innocuous dream. . . maybe you have a front yard that's all brown and weedy and, seeing your neighbor's profusion of blooms and greenery, you start daydreaming that your yard could look like that . . .
There it is! That cute, fuzzy, innocent-looking dream of a lush yard. Yeah, Skippy, I'm looking at you! Shoo! Get outta' here! I don't need no stinkin' dreams. Yeah, you just keep movin' I like my yard yellow. It crackles when the bad guys step on it, so it's a good thing, ya' understand me? Now beat it!
OK, now that that silly dream is gone, let's talk about what would have happened if I hadn't sent it packing. Yes, it was a cute little dream, and it looked lonely. Now pay attention! If I'd left that dream loitering around here, it would have followed you home. It would have snuggled up to you like a long-haired rabbit and cuddled into your brain. You'd have visions of green grass and flowered borders, and fall asleep with a smile on your face dreaming of shade trees and cobbled paths through shaded nooks. It sounds blissful doesn't it?
That's how they get you. They come in all innocent and fuzzy, and they anesthetize your brain while they insinuate themselves into your thoughts like a parasite. While you're euphoric and distracted it's growing, gestating, heck it's probably pupating while you're oblivious — and then the nagging starts.
One night, as you drift off to sleep, you'll be envisioning the front yard of your dreams and a little voice—and since it's not your voice, whose is it?— will say, "So, when are you going to do something about it?" And just like that, your innocent little dream starts bossing you around.
It will nag you, quietly but constantly, until one day you give in and,just to appease your curiosity, you'll drive by a home and garden store. You'll walk by racks of shovels, rakes, and grass seed. You'll see shelves piled high with plumbing, hoses, sprinklers and arcane hardware. There will be bins filled with seed, and flowering plants spilling off of the tables, and a little voice will whisper, "Buy it. Buy it all. Buy it now!".
And, that first trip, you'll probably resist the urge to buy. You're in control of your life, master of your destiny, and you've spent years developing financial discipline. But the next night when you lay down, the familiar dream of your perfect garden won't materialize. You'll see that discount grass seed and those gardening gloves with the green canvas fingertips, and you'll be stuck trying to remember the name of that really beautiful flower you liked. In the back of your mind, that familiar nagging voice will suddenly say, "You're too stupid to make this dream come true. You have much to learn. There are several hours remaining before you have to get up and go to work, why don't you rectify your ignorance and become a bit less pathetic?"
Okay, in all fairness, the snark and insults are probably just my dreams. Give 'em long enough and they'll figure out what motivates you and use it against you. Trust me, dreams are tricky and absolutely ruthless.
Sooner or later, they'll catch you when your guard is down. It helps that now you're spending four or five hours a night reading gardening articles on the internet, and your sleep-deprived brain isn't working quite right. You'll be doing your grocery shopping, and somehow a couple of flower bulbs or little gardening trowel finds it way into your cart without you even remembering how it happened. It's only a couple of dollars, so what's the harm? In the words of the immortal Mr. T "I pity the fool!"
The game is afoot. The dream's got your number, and they're relentless. It will push and prod and tickle and scratch at your thoughts. Pretty soon you'll be buying grass seed and sprinklers in the hope that, if you're exhausted enough, you might get a little sleep. You'll be surprised to find that you know the names of every flower in the garden shop, and your credit card is maxed out. Your friends will complain that they never see you anymore. Suddenly, you never seem to have time for movies or a trip to the beach, there's a yellow patch in the lawn and it's either that nasty neighborhood dog, or you need more selenium in your fertilizer . . .
And as you go about your busy day, reduced to a mere automaton endlessly toiling over your lush, green lawn, completely subservient to that sweet little dream you once adopted, you'll see a neighbor cast an admiring glance at your immaculate lawn. In that moment, to your horror, the dream that has become your master will cackle without mirth, and a small, furry piece of your dream will split off and bound over to the new admirer, begging with big eyes to be picked up and taken home.
The German ConnectionBy: Mike Aug 1, 2014
Last year we received an interesting proposition. A teacher from Germany was visiting family in the Pacific Northwest, and was a fan of Patty's writing. She asked if we would like to come to Germany for a week or two. She was going to Maryshill to see the stonehenge and some of the sites mentioned in River Marked, so we drove over to meet with her.
She was smart, funny, and spoke very highly of the college she taught at, the Leuphana Universistä in Lüneberg. We'd never heard of Lüneberg, much less the school, but she was very friendly, and said she'd travel around with us to keep us out of trouble if we'd come. Besides, hey, there was a free trip to Germany involved, so of course we agreed!
Patty and I greatly enjoy our crazy lives, but we do have a habit of trying to fit too much in. Writing is very time intensive, promotion is an endless time-sink, and even though the children are largely grown, they still take time. Oh, and Patty's $%#&!! horse farm is an enormous
waste of time commitment. And, of course, when it was time to go we were well and truly behind on everything here at home. Apparently, there really are only twenty-four hours in a day, despite our best efforts to deny it *sigh*. Someday, we'll learn to schedule better, but obviously not this year!
Lynette met us at the airport, and was soon showing us around Lüneberg, which is a very interesting town located in the north of Germany. It's an old city, built around the salt mines that brought considerable wealth to the area. Where most medieval villages were built with wattle and daub (or whatever the peasants could gather to keep warm and dry) Luneberg was built with good timbers and brick. We've seen picturesque German villages in postcards, of course, but the reality was different. In Lüneberg you don't have to stand in one particular spot and frame the shot just right to get a postcard-perfect photo; you can stop anywhere in town, point the camera in any direction, and you've got the money shot.
Soon, it was time for Patty to go earn our keep (and yes, I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm basically dead weight at author events . . . but that's a topic for another time). We were a little nervous about meeting Lynette's students — she'd told us that they were super-bright and creative and that they speak English well. All I can say is that I've taken some college language classes in the states, and I would not have wanted to interview visiting foreigners on film. Of course, we needn't have worried. Her students were absolutely fabulous! They were bright and inquisitive, brimming with life and it's endless possibilities. My only complaint is that in comparison, I felt old and uninteresting.
The students were working in teams, and were interviewing Patty on film. Back in the main classroom, they also decided to interview Ann and I. At first they were a little stiff, either self-conscious or worried about offending us. However, within a short time we were all laughing and chatting like old friends. Their English was not just good, it was superb, and they were very friendly and funny. We had a great time!
You can watch the the interviews here: Leuphana Students Interview Patricia Briggs
We also had the opportunity to judge a series of posters on monsters and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night by the students. Ann and I got drafted as honorary judges to make a three-judge panel (and numerous three-stooges references were made!) The posters were very nicely done — far better than any art project I ever did in school. Patty and Ann felt the same way. And judging them was frankly something of a crap shoot. None of us are experts in art. Our whispered discussions didn't focus on whether the the neo-classicist approach of one group was more artisitically meritorious than the art noveau lettering and woodcuts favored by another. While I hope the students thought we were nodding and furrowing our brows in sage discussion, we were really just about ready to resort to multiple rounds of rock-paper-scissors (optionally with lizard and Spock thrown in) to decide the winners. I hope we never have to appear before a panel of real art critics and defend our choices!
And then, mostly we traveled around Germany like bug-eyed tourists. We saw castles. Old military castles . . . check. Fantastic palaces with soaring spires and elaborate ostentation spilling across every conceivable surface . . . check. Crumbling ruins of castles built atop steep cliffs, overlooking huge sweeps of greenery. . .double check. Two of the castles had Renaissance faires in progress. We love ren faires, but in the states most of them are just held in a park or a farmer's field. The really nice ones have a few permanant buildings, but they're usually pretty cheaply built. In Germany, they just take over the local castle. Hey, why work at building a throne-room and courtyard out of pallets and string when you can have the real thing?
We spent a few days in Berlin, visited the Roman ruins in Trier, and spent another few days in Quidlenberg, which is another Medieval town filled with lovely fachwerk buildings. We travel through former East German towns, and visited the American Military base to help sell things for charity. We spent an absolutely lovely time with Michael Bock and his family. Michael and his wife are the people responsible for Zee developing a much more authentic German voice after the first book or two. They've saved us lots of embarrassment. After all, how believable is it that a powerful and ancient fae would speak his native tongue like a slightly-daft three year old? We owed them a lot before this trip, and after getting to spend a little time with them, we owe them even more!
We had so much fun in Germany that it was almost hard to leave. Sadly, Patty is running a little behind schedule on the next book, and running a horse farm in absentia is just asking for trouble. And, of course, things don't quit stacking up in the proverbial in-box just because nobody's home. Our first couple of weeks home were a veritable marathon of long days and short nights punctuated by occasional bouts of temper. Now things have settled back into a comfortable, productive groove and there's some good book-writing activity happening in Patty's office!
Shifting Shadows Audio Book GiveawayBy: Mike Aug 24, 2014
The story anthology is almost out. The moderators had already organized a drawing for a hardback. When we mentioned that we've got a couple of the audio books sitting around on CD, they offered to help us find homes for them. Good luck, and happy listening!a Rafflecopter giveaway
Shifting ShadowsBy: Mike Aug 14, 2014
In just a couple of weeks Shifting Shadows will be hitting bookstore shelves. This is an anthology of stories old and new set in Mercy's world. The first pre-release reviews are starting to trickle in, and it sounds like the results are favorable. So far, my favorite is a video review from Rachel of RayKayBooks, her enthusiasm is infectious and put a huge smile on our faces!
But wait, there's more. Our wonderful and amazing moderators have organized a giveaway!a Rafflecopter giveaway
Mercy Is Back in ComicsBy: Mike Aug 14, 2014
A few years ago we launched a series of Mercy Thompson comic books. The series launched with an origin story called Homecoming that was eventually released as a graphic novel, and then we tried to adapt the a couple of the Mercy and Alpha and Omega novels to the comic book format. We got to work with some very talented people, and it was fun to see the stories in graphic form, but there was something missing.
Almost two years ago, we called Nick Barruchi, the president of Dynamite, with a feeling of dread in our stomachs. We carefully explained that while we enjoyed working with him and his crew, we felt that final product was slightly lackluster, and that we would not be continuing. Much to our amazement, instead of anger and blame, Nick agreed with our assessment. He carefully explained that re-hashing the novels meant that we were playing to a limited audience. That meant production costs had to be controlled, which affected how much time the artists and writers could spend, which obviously affects the final product. Then he made us an offer — if Patty would come up with an original story idea, something that she would be comfortable basing a novel on, and let him base a graphic novel on it, he would do his best to blow her away.
We thought it over, and decided to take a chance. Patty thought up a creepy story that might have made a good novel, and sent it to Nick. Frankly, our expectations weren't too high. Then we saw the story draft, and it was good. We began to hope. The first art rolled in, Patty asked for a few corrections, and they were made promptly and the revised panels showed a great deal of promise. We got more excited. Then we saw the colored versions, and we have to admit that Nick has kept his word. This is a comic we're proud to be part of.
The original plan was to skip the comic medium, and publish this as a stand alone graphic novel, but after seeing the first dozen or so pages, it was decided to release it in comic form first. So, the first eposide of Mercy Thomposon: Hopcross Jilly will be available in October. You can find more information on Dynamite.com.
Mike and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayBy: Mike Sep 19, 2014
Like Alexander in Judith Viorist's excellent children's book, I've just had one of those days.
Now, generally speaking, Patty and I live very well. We're almost criminally happy and spend much of our time together. I'm well aware that we're far more fortunate than we deserve. I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for us, which would be patently ridiculous. But, of course, in every life a little rain must fall, even ours. The sunny weather of my life began to cloud up on Wednesday afternoon.
Being an author has many rewards, but one minor down side is the pay schedule. We get paid twice a year: April and October. If we were smart, disciplined, and had fewer kids, we could easily budget for the six months between paychecks. Since we're not, we usually have a few lean weeks waiting for payday. That means that instead of tackling the big projects, I'm trying to catch up on the plethora of small, inexpensive ones. On Wednesday afternoon I finished repairing the lawn mower (and just in time, our lawn is almost tall enough to bale), and decided that I would paint the arena fence.
And then I remembered that my paint sprayer was broken. About a year ago, I'd loaded it to a friend, who had painted his whole house, and then let my sprayer sit, full of paint, for a couple of months before returning it. I'd taken the machine home and scrubbed and scraped the dried paint. It chugged and sputtered, but wouldn't actually move paint, and that's how I'd stored it. So I dragged it off the shelf and got serious. I checked the seals, scraped more paint, and replaced a clogged hose. I tried to pump water, but it still wouldn't work. I decided to try using paint, which is more viscous and would presumably seal better.
Since I was just trying to get the machine to prime, I didn't have a hose attached to the paint outlet. I flipped the switch off and on, and prodded and poked at various settings. Nothing. Lots of noise, but no paint was moving. Then I flipped the switch from prime to paint and something happened. The motor made a different sound, there were a few little bubbles in the paint bucket — and suddenly I was getting hosed down with a high-pressure deluge of paint shooting from the stupid nozzle where I would normally have a hose attached. I quickly flipped the switch back to prime, and it continued to spray me with paint like something out of a bad sitcom. OBVIOUSLY, the problem is a bad primer valve.
So, I stood up, looking like swamp-thing, covered in paint from head to toe. I can't go in the house like this, Patty will kill me. I need to get out of my clothes. I thought, "If I'm buck naked, I'll just look like a Celtic warrior, replete with woad, but I shouldn't drip too badly." I started to shinny out of my clothing, and then remembered that Ann, Patty's assistant, was still working in her office . . . in the house. Fortunately, I regained my sanity before flashing Ann. I hosed off the worst of it, sneaked to my office, and managed to effect an entrance that did not subject me to sexual harassment lawsuits, while getting only minimal paint on the floor. I'm now convinced that this should be a written as a quest in all fantasy-adventure games: You are covered in paint. You must sneak through the manor house, avoiding all occupants, without leaving incriminating foot-or-handprints on anything!
So ended Wednesday. Patty wasn't feeling well (just a bit of a cold) and didn't sleep well. One of the unavoidable truths of marriage is that if your partner doesn't sleep, you don't sleep. So, Thursday I struggled into the day with bleary eyes and a headache. I decided to run a couple of errands, and get the parts I needed. It took me three tries to make it out of the house, because I kept forgetting things. I finally got my part list, my wallet, keys and cell phone all together at the same time and left for town. After driving about two hundred feet, my notebook fell off the chair and onto the floor, spilling papers everywhere. I tried to grab it. I wasn't very coordinated, and the driveway is narrow, with steep ditches to either side. I drifted to one side, and the soft shoulder collapsed, pulling the car (speeding along at something like twenty miles an hour) into the ditch despite my valiant efforts. The ditch, like everything else in the aptly-named scablands we call home, is filled with boulders. Judging from the shrieking, tearing, ripping sounds, the Toyota Camry is not designed to drive over large boulders. Fortunately, they were a wonderful aid in breaking to a stop. Er, braking to a stop.
So, there I sat, tipped at an improbable angle, two hundred feet from the house, with cheerful music filling the cabin. I got out and surveyed the damage. Embarrassing, but not too terrible. There was a small ding on one door from a friendly fence post, and a dubious-looking plastic skid-plate was sitting behind the car, which thankfully wasn't leaking any suspicious fluids. If I could just get it back on the road, this might go down only in the top fifty or so dumbest things I've ever done. I walked back to Patty's office, and confessed my sin. Since I've harrassed her endlessly about backing into a boulder, I knew I was in for it. She wasn't angry, but I suspect I'm going to be hearing about this for a long while. She came with me to look at the car and try to figure out how to get it back on the road.
I thought, maybe, I could pull it backwards using the backhoe. Patty wasn't convinced. I ran to get the backhoe, and grabbed a long tow chain. The car was stuck at an uncomfortable angle, leaving much of the back end high in the air. The backhoe could pull it, but it wasn't going to move easily, so I started looking for a good place to hook the chain. Arrrrrggggghhh! Did you know that modern cars are made almost entirely without metal? There's lot of plastic, a few suspension components that definitely don't look like a good place to apply a few thousand pounds of pull, and some tin-foil thick bits of sheet metal. I looked for several minutes, before concluding that I was far more likely to pull random pieces of the car free than to actually move it. I was tired, my headache was pounding, and now I was filthy dirty, and I'd somehow managed to get stickers and thorns all down my back. Hey, it's a desert, everything that grows has thorns!
Patty had been looking at the front of the car, which was sort of buried in a big berm of gravel. Ahead of the berm, however, the ditch wasn't as steep, and it might be possible to pull it up to the road. The burm had to go, and I already had a backhoe on site. "Say no more, M'Lady, your knight gallant shall remove that vile berm." I drove the backhoe into position, sort of crab-wise across the narrow driveway, with the front end hanging over one ditch and an outrigger on the edge of the soft shoulder, and began trying to clear the berm. Since I couldn't get in front of it, I was sort of sweeping it away; placing the bucket inches from the car, and then jamming the stick to swing the bucket sidewise, pushing dirt and debris further down the ditch. And, of course, you know what happened. I was pushing a stubborn batch of material, with the bucket inches from the front of the car. It didn't want to move so I upped the revs and gave it more pressure, and more pressure and . . . and spun the backhoe instead of the arm. As the backhoe spun, the stupid outrigger slipped, and the bucket rebounded right into the front of the car. Our formerly-attractive car now had a backhoe-bucket shaped dent in the front, to go with the dented door and whatever damage I'd inflicted to the undercarriage.
I was so mad I jerked on the joysticks in the backhoe. Naturally, the left joystick broke off in my hand. Patty has always said she based the werewolves on me, and I'm not sure it's a compliment. If you think cars are expensive, try heavy equipment. So I counted to ten, and very calmly climbed down from the happily-idling backhoe. At this point, I wasn't able to form coherent sentences, although I did manage a few choice swear words. And then Patty had the bright idea of calling a tow truck.
An hour later, the smiling tow truck driver was counting out a stack of money, and our poor little car was safely back up on the road. He was friendly and cheerful. He had some special hooks that let him grab the suspension arms without bending them, and he managed to lift our little car to safety without so much as scratching the paint. He made it look easy. As he was about to leave, he got a puzzled look, and said, "I see where you left the road and scraped up the bottom, and I can see the fence post that got the door, but what the heck did you hit to damage the front?"
I went into the house to
pout relax for a bit. After an hour or two I started feeling guilty. Patty was working. Ann had worked all day. I was just sitting there feeling sorry for myself. So, I looked for something simple and unchanging to do. There were a couple of lights burned out in the living room. After the remodel from hell, the house has ten-and-a-half foot ceilings. I grabbed a ladder which had been sitting in the garage for a month or two and a few spare bulbs, and climbed up to the first light fixture. Balancing atop the ladder I disassembled the shade to get to the blasted bulbs. With my hands full of parts, I reached down to grab a new bulb — and got stung by the sleepy hornet that had just crawled out of the hollow rung of my ladder, with several of his little buddies trailing behind him. I managed not to drop the shade. I changed the light, carried the ladder, with it's cargo of almost-hibernating wasps to the garage, and decided to concede the battle. Some days you just can't win.
P.S. Today is much better!
Privilege and PrejudiceBy: Mike Oct 20, 2014
As our regular readers know, we live on a little horse farm. Back when I used to used to play lots of Dungeons and Dragons, one of my friends noted that horses are treated sort of like golf carts with saddles —a nice, interchangable and mostly boring means of transport. And, for those who have only ridden the occasional horse at a pony-ride or dude ranch, that may be mostly true. However, most horses aren't like that.
Our horses have likes and dislikes, and a surprisingly-complex social structure. It's like a combination of Peyton Place and Days of Our Lives, all played by middle-school actors. The usual script runs something like, "Well, Shaquana was talking over the fence with Snappy, and he says that Barbara Ann is getting fat. And she said that Barb is not fat, she's pregnant. And Snappy said that she's just fat, and that's why they moved her out with the other fat mares, 'cause mares are all fat. And then Shaquana said that all those mares were pregnant, and called Snappy an insensitive clod. Then Snappy bit her in the butt, and now they're grazing all the way across the pasture and won't look at one another, even though Snappy secretly has a crush on her."
OK, I'm guessing at the conversation, but it's easy to tell who's had their feelings hurt, and who's best friends, and which horses are ticked off with one another. So, among our various special snowflakes, one of the standouts is an aging grey gelding named R. A. Spectacular, though we just call him Speck. He's a lovely horse, and might have been a stallion if not for his personality. Speck, I suspect, may be the inspiration for Ben — he's cranky, far smarter than any horse should ever be, and often a bully. Patty's often said, "If that horse had thumbs he'd rule the world, and he would not be a kind ruler."
Because he doesn't get along with other horses well, he's usually kept in a small pen by himself. Because I hate to see a horse in a small pen, I often let him wander during the day. We've reached an understanding: I'll let him out of horsey-prison if he agrees to parole himself to the farm, stay out of the grain bins, and generally behave like a gentleman. He mostly struts up and down in front of all the other horses like a general surveying his troops, just to show them that he is a special horse, and he doesn't have to stay in a stupid pasture like they do, and he gets to go graze on the forbidden grass of the front yard, which is the greenest grass of all and far better than whatever-grows-in-your-pasture loser-pony!
Saturday, while Patty and Ann were attending the Bellingham ComicCon (which was a smashing success; Patty said she signed hundreds of books), I was home getting over a flu. Earlier in the week I came down suddenly ill, and within a day or so I was considering calling our contractor and having a second toilet installed in the bathroom. I figured I needed one to sit on, and a second to throw up in, and it would be convenient to not need to change positions. Anyway, by Saturday I was feeling almost human. Saturday afternoon I heard a THUMP on the house. We live in the middle of nowhere, so what goes THUMP in the middle of the day?
I edged around the back of the house and there was Speck, up on the porch, staring intently into the back windows. I called, and he looked at me, and went back to staring into the house.
I walked over to look in the window beside him, and this is what I saw. This spring, when we were at the Scottsdale Arabian show, Patty found a cute little ride-on-pony in the dealer's room. Because we have a cute little grandson, she bought the toy horse, and brought it home. Usually, it's kept out of sight up by the living room, but today it had gotten left by the porch door.
Speck was furious. He is the special horse, the one who gets to wander free while lesser horses are captive in their pastures. The one who grazes on the front lawns. Not only different from other horses, but better than lesser equines. Now he's discovered that there's an even more privileged horse: one that actually gets to live in the house. Not only that, but this rude little horse simply ignored all his dominance displays. The little git isn't even afraid of Mr. Speck.
I led Speck away from the window before he decided to attack the little pony, and Speck was indignant. So now he wasn't even allowed to beat some manners into the little upstart? Stupid golden-pony. He kept his ears pinned, swished his tail, and stomped like a petulant two-year-old all the way way back to his pen. He's been sullen and resentful all day. Apparently, it sucks to find out you're not the only special snowflake in the world!
An Unassuming PropositionBy: Mike Nov 16, 2014
With Apologies to Jonathan Swift's satirical A Modest Proposal
Earlier this week while poking around the Internet, I stumbled across a couple of articles. The first What I Want From Library Ebooks was published by Library Journal. It turns out that what the author wants from ebooks is the ability to buy a book at reasonable price (hardcover or below) with absolutely no DRM and distribute the book to unlimited simultaneous readers, including readers in other states or countries. Imagine, if a library could buy an ebook of a popular title for $25 or so, and freely share unlimited copies of that book worldwide! Culture and entertainment could be freed at last from the chains and shackles of commerce. O brave new world that has such visionary thinkers in't!
Then I read an article in Wired entitled Streaming Services Need to Pay Songwriters Fairly. Most big performers don't write their own music, and the songwriters are usually paid a percentage of the recording revenue. Streaming music platforms, like Spotify or Pandora pay so little that songwriters are earning tragically small amounts. A quick look at the comments section shows a distinct lack of sympathy for the songwriters or performers.
Obviously, the winds of change are blowing. The real question, of course, is what sort of change is required to weather the coming storm? How can the apparently-contradictory needs of creators and consumers be harmonized? After all, making something for nothing has always been a tricky business.
In a capitalist society effort is motivated by self interest, often in the form of financial compensation. Sadly, removing the compensation removes the incentive to perform. For example, this fall I told the nice gentleman who mows our yards that I wouldn't pay him again until spring. Predictably, he has ceased his labors on my behalf. What is wanted is a microcosm of people without capitalist motives who can be persuaded to exert themselves in the creation of music, literature and other entertainment without demanding monies in return.
But where would we find a group of people with time and (presumably) talent, who can be compelled to serve the greater good of society without pay? Big business has already plumbed the limits of seeking cheap labor through H1B visas, outsourcing to third-world nations and unpaid "educational" internships. However, there remains an unexploited labor force which is imminently biddable (or at least easy to manipulate): prisoners.
Obviously, there have been problems with prison labor in the past, and I implore the dear reader to hear me out before committing judgment. Why should, say, Patterson or King spend months hunched over a keyboard in a tiny office to produce a new novel (a service they would clearly charge money for) when the same service can be performed by any of hundreds of people already compelled to spend their time in a small cell? Would it not be a kindness to free the conventional author from such tedium?
Why should songs be penned by people who will demand remuneration from a frugal and intransigent public? Can they not be equally well penned by someone serving a life sentence? And here is the beauty of the plan: to a person without the freedom to enjoy the rewards money can bring, cash is a poorer reward than an extra portion of vegetables, and the public is already buying the vegetables. Given our nation's proclivity for lengthy prison sentences, there is no shortage of souls who have no hope of ever ever buying anything more costly than a candy bar, whose efforts could be procured for the most meager of rewards.
I urge the public to consider the very real benefits of creating art and music in prisons. For example, imagine if music lessons were compulsory for all inmates. The best and brightest could be invited to play in prison bands, and the prisons could be equipped with recording studios. This would completely eliminate the need for the existing music industry, at virtually no cost to the public. The prisoners would be overjoyed at the prospect of playing for your wedding reception or senior prom; the mere whiff of freedom a greater incentive than any five-figure check. And, with proper penalties for missed notes or shoddy timing, their performances could quickly surpass those of free-market bands.
From your dubious looks, I perceive that you have yet to grasp the full benefits of this plan. There are many prisons in this nation, and doubtless they would specialize. Perhaps Atwater penitentiary has a warden who prefers blues, while Leavenworth leans classical. An obscure state prison could become the epitome of training in writing fiction. Prisons could become the epicenters of culture. A prison like Allenwood could become the equivalent of Julliard, with prospective musicians vying for "admission".
This would handily solve the problem of keeping the prisons full. You see, since many prisons have been privatized, the states frequently sign contracts guaranteeing occupancy rates. Under our current system, a state with a contractual obligation to maintain a 90% prison occupancy level might be tempted to pass harsh laws or arbitrarily increase sentences if crime begins to decrease. But under my system, a prison that distinguishes itself in the creative arts will have people committing crimes merely as a means of seeking admission, and the prisons will stay full without unethical shenanigans. A bank robbery becomes not just a crime, but an audition!
Finally, criminal codes are infinitely mutable. If, for example, no prisoner can be found to emulate the literary skill of Nora Roberts, then Ms. Roberts can always be found to be a criminal. It is worth noting that our current system of unfathomable laws and constant surveillance is ideally suited for such tasks.
Show me the man, and I'll show you the crime.In fact, it may not even be necessary to find a crime to charge her with at all. We already allow law enforcement to seize private goods and properties under asset forfeiture laws, without even the suggestion of a crime. Perhaps these laws could be expanded to allow talents to be seized as well. It's certainly possible to imagine that dear Nora is doing something unsavory, so it should not unduly strain our current vision of justice to seize her time and talents for the good of society. If that still seems unfair, bear in mind that sometimes a few must suffer injustice to promote the greater good, and the ends will doubtless justify the means.
So there you have it, a modest proposal that will insure the continued production of arts and entertainment without crass commercial rewards, improve the life of prisoners, and help maintain the legally-mandated minimum prison occupancy levels, all without costing the public more than a few extra servings of ice cream.
In case it has somehow escaped the reader's notice, the preceding article was satire heavily seasoned with black humor. This suggestion was not serious, and I have no desire to exploit prisoners or harm artists, honest!