Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Prices

Interesting article in Slate magazine this week by Jack Shafer, about e-book pricing. The entire article is worth reading, but something he brings up in the first paragraph interests me more than the rest.

According to Shafer, publishers routinely sell books to retail booksellers for half the cover price. This is true of both hardcover version and e-books, so a publisher is charging the bookseller $12.50 (more or less) for a license of electronic content. The money saved by not having to produce a physical copy, ship it, and pay for returns is not passed along.

Another good question is why Amazon charges the same for the new Dan Brown as for a reprint of The Maltese Falcon. (We’ll leave the relative merits of the books for another discussion. Or not.) Does it make sense to charge more for an e-book, which costs them virtually nothing to ship and warehouse, than for the equivalent paperback?

Part of the problem with the book industry is that books, especially new hardcovers, are expensive. The new Michael Bay explode-a-thon at the multiplex is $9; the new Elmore Leonard is $25. While readers and writers will argue (correctly) the Leonard provides more hours of entertainment and more actively engages its audience, most consumers just see the price tags. They aren’t all that interested in how actively engaged they are, or they wouldn’t be going to see Michael Bay movies in the first place.

The publishing industry is hurting, no question, largely through its refusal to adapt its outdated business models. E-books may be this year’s Big Thing Of The Future, but they still have to face the hurdle of getting people who enjoy the tactile sensation of holding a book and turning pages (people like me) to convert to e-readers. Given the choice of going to the local library, waiting a year for a paperback at $7.99, or paying $25 for the new hardcover, the new hardcover is Choice #3. If I’m willing to wait the year for the paperback, the e-book has nothing to interest me at all.

I like to support working authors and local booksellers all I can, but I read about 65 books a year. That many new hardcovers at $25 each, plus 6% Maryland sales tax is $1,722.50 that has to compete with my mortgage company, the University of Maryland, my doctor, the oil cartel, State Farm, groceries, clothing, and the taxes of various jurisdictions. The full-price book purchase comes pretty far down that list, and reading is an integral part of my life. I don’t read as much as many of the people who will read this, but I probably read more than 95% of the population at large. It might be time for publishers to start looking for ways to get more books into the hands of more people, instead of trying to bleed every last penny out of a stagnant or shrinking existing sales pool.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Industry Salaries

I recently discovered the Editorial Ass blog; lots of good stuff there.

This post is a few weeks old, but interesting.

Any thoughts?

Monday, July 13, 2009


The Western is the archetypal American story, the progenitor of the hard-boiled and noir schools. Few genres can get away with running the same tropes past an audience over and over again as well as the Western, when it’s done right.

Appaloosa is based on a novel written by Robert B. Parker as a break in the routine of writing Spenser novels. Any movie starring Ed Harris (who also directed), Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, and Renee Zellweger has to be good, right? (Well, maybe not Renee Zellweger. More on her later.)

Harris and Mortensen play the standard wandering lawmen, moving across the West to clean up towns as needed. Irons is the ruthless cattle baron. We know as soon as Irons shoots the old marshal down in cold blood two minutes into the movie that there’s going to be a final confrontation. The fun is watching the twists and turns of getting them there. And there’s a lot of it, and of them.

The laconic dialog Parker has made almost an affectation in his recent Spenser novels serves the characters well here. Harris’s Virgil Cole and Mortensen’s Everett Hitch are classic Western sidekicks; you can imagine Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in these roles fifty years ago. They understand each other without having to say a word, and both are good enough actors to make sure the audience understands, too.

As director, Harris was fanatical about authenticity. The window glass is period quality, and Harris makes several subtle references to it. (Having a horse and rider pass by the window while filming Cole indoors, to let an attentive viewer see the distortions caused by flaws in the glass is one example.) A tan line on Martensen’s forehead when he removes his hat. Nothing too obvious, set out like Easter eggs for those with their heads wholly in the movie.

Irons is his usual excellent self as the heavy, menacing and greasy at the same time. Lance Henriksen makes a brief appearance in the role Richard Boone would have played in the Lancaster-Douglas version and does his usual yeoman service.

It’s Renee Zellweger who’s the fly in Appaloosa’s ointment. The character is obviously there as a plot device, to cause friction down the road. It’s to everyone’s credit she doesn’t cause the overly predictable plot complications, save one, which actually works well for advancing the story. The problem is, there was no reason for her character to be in the town of Appaloosa in the first place, and there’s certainly no reason for the hard-bitten Virgil Cole to fall for her so quickly.

Let’s face it, Renee Zellweger is not an attractive woman. Maybe if you saw her in the mall she’d look okay compared to the overweight, belly shirt-wearing trailer trash coming out of the NASCAR Store, but not by movie standards. Even for a movie that works so diligently for authenticity, a woman who looks like her is not going to land a man like Virgil Cole with so little effort, even if she’s the local gold standard. Salma Hayek, okay. Even dirtied up after a long train ride, she’d make a man accept a lot of life complications. Not Renee Zellweger. (IMDB research shows Diane Lane was the original choice for the part. She could let a man agree to some complications, too. It still would have been nice to know why the character came to town at all.)

Still, a movie well worth seeing. The acting is superb, and the story goes in directions that aren’t always expected, with twists to make the less than unexpected palatable. A lot about Appaloosa deserves more than the 6.9 IMDB gives it. It’s a solid 7.5 without Zellweger.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Building the Reader's Trust (And How Not To Do It)

I’m not a nit-picker when I read. I don’t care if there’s not really a door that opens directly onto Penn Avenue from Heinz Hall. Minor mistakes or changes can be lived with, so long as they don’t mess with historical facts (Germany can’t win the war, unless that’s the premise of the book), the author doesn’t get too specific (if you need a gun to have a safety, don’t specify it’s a Glock), or a key plot point hinges on it (don’t coerce a confession out of a guy by threatening the death penalty for marijuana possession.)

Still, some mistakes rankle so much you have to doubt what else the author got wrong, and where the hell those persnickety copy editors went to. I recently read a book (which shall remain nameless) where two such incidents came so close together I had to doubt the research and accuracy of some historical facts that were key to the story.

The hero has driven a couple of hours out of town as part of the investigation. There he sees the man who’s been following/threatening/bribing him for most of the book. The bad guy takes off; the good guy follows. The chapter ends with the hero driving sixty miles-per-hour down a country road, ostensibly in hot pursuit.

The next chapter opens with the hero stopping half way back to town to call his pregnant wife from a pay phone. (The story takes place pre-cell phone.) The bad guy is already there, posing as a cop to menace her. The hero hot foots it home where, of course, the bad guy gets the drop on him.

Additional menacing and threatening ensue. Finally pregnant wife gets permission to go to the bathroom, so long as she leaves the door open so the bad guy can hear what she’s up to. While he’s putting The Fear of God into the hero, wife comes out with the family shotgun.

So far, so good. (Well, maybe not, but not wholly inaccurate.) The weapon is then called a rifle. The bad guy raises his gun to fire. Wife blows his hand off and knocks herself over with the recoil. (Sounds like a shotgun again.) The hero grabs the gun and pump another bullet into the chamber (shotguns have pump actions, rifles have bullets) then shoots the bad guy in the shoulder to knock him down (apparently still in rifle mode; a shotgun strong enough to blow off a hand would do some serious damage at that range).

They take the bad guy to a hospital in the rough part of town, where gunshot wounds are commonly treated and often not reported. This guy’s unconscious, missing a hand, has a shoulder that should look like hamburger, and hospital’s just going to patch him up and get his insurance information?

Makes you wonder what else they got wrong. Since this is a socially-conscious book with an ax or two to grind, these doubts are something to be avoided at all costs. Why should the reader take the author’s word on social and racial conditions of almost thirty years ago when easily verified stuff like this is wrong? I’m not saying the racial facts aren’t accurate; I don’t know. And that’s the point. The author clearly wants me to feel a certain way, but I have to accept her facts to do it, and, as the above shows, her facts have shaky foundations.

These are things, along with a few others, that would have been easy to fix, and would have raised the empathy felt for the major characters by increasing the book’s overall believability. Something to think about when a bit of information doesn’t seem important enough to check out while you’re writing.