Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Pets and various small animals should be removed from a room that is about to be fumigated. Anyone applying pesticides would know that just by reading the directions on the label.

So when Sammy Sabic went into an apartment to spray for bedbugs, he removed a resident guinea pig first. And for that, he was arrested.
Excuse me but what did I do wrong and why am I arrested please?

Mr. Sabic is originally from Bosnia where they do things differently than you'd find in Chicago. He was working as a handyman for his landlord, which is a big help to a man who doesn't have the language skills to land most other jobs. What is a Bosnian refugee going to do for work, anyway, considering the state of the economy and the unemployment rate among the unskilled. He had something of an occupation, and when his boss told him to go spray an apartment for bedbugs, Mr. Sabic wanted to do the best job ever to show that he was worth employing. He had a good work ethic, and nothing would deter him from completing his assigned task.

What caused him a bit of trouble was the tenant who had complained to the landlord about the bedbugs. The tenant would not let Mr. Sabic into the apartment when the handyman showed up to spray for bugs. How was he supposed to do his job if the tenant was blocking his way? It was the building's owner who was his boss, not the tenant, and the tenant was not going to give him orders that contradicted an order from the boss.

Mr. Sabic found a way to get into the apartment, using ingenuity to open a window. He was going to spray that apartment no matter what the tenant said. Once he got in he noticed that there was a little guinea pig in the apartment, and he would never spray deadly chemicals around without first safeguarding the rodent. So he removed it.

The tenant had Mr. Sabic arrested, and Mr. Sabic entered the twilight zone of bureaucracy and the Cook County legal swamp. Dig anyone listen to him when he said he was just doing his job? Of course not. He was a foreign man with a heavy accent and a resident claimed he was a burglar who stole a guinea pig after entering through a window like a thief.

Like the average person getting by on a hustle, Mr. Sabic had no hope of making bail, and so he sat in jail for 45 days, wondering what he had done that was so wrong, and wondering if he was ever going to get out. It was the most lonely time of his life, when he was friendless and confused and frightened.

His public defender argued in court that the charges were absurd, and they are indeed absurd. Mr. Sabic's landlord testified to the facts as Mr. Sabic detailed them in the first place, that he was working as a handyman who was told to debug an apartment and that's all that he did. He removed the guinea pig because it would have been pet murder to leave it in place.

Having already gone through the process of arrest and prosecution, the court could not just drop the case and admit that the system failed Mr. Sabic in a spectacularly idiotic way. Instead, the judge sentenced the man to eighteen months probation, just for show.

Mr. Sabic can go back to being a handyman for his landlord, but he will forever be hesitant to perform even the most simple task, out of fear that he might be doing something that someone would say was illegal and have him arrested again. He will spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulder, in search of the acclaimed American justice he heard so much about when he was trying to escape Bosnia.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Writers Write And Amazon Become Illiterate

Writers who write for a living tend to write quite well. Their prose is clear and concise. Those writing literary fiction pen prose that is maybe not so clear but it sounds nice. At any rate, those who use words to earn their keep are rather good at it.

Is this the face of literary suffocation?
Writers who are published by Hachette Book Group are feeling the pain of the ongoing dispute between Amazon and their publisher. Amazon wants to control the book selling world, and Hachette wants to stay in business while paying their authors the royalties promised. If Amazon can bring Hachette to its knees and extract the sort of financial concessions it wants, then Hachette won't be paying its authors as much because the cuts have to come from somewhere, don't they?

Amazon is making it difficult to buy Hachette books, which means Hachette's authors can't sell as many books and that means they can't earn as much as they did when Amazon and Hachette were getting on in an amicable way.

So what did they do, these injured authors? They wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos who runs Amazon and then they published their letter in the New York Times for all the world to see.

A lot of the world did indeed see it because these are authors with loyal readers who will read their favorite author's words wherever they appear.

Amazon responded in kind by appealing to its users of the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, but the marketing department at Amazon isn't made up of best-selling authors like Stephen King or Douglas Preston. The letter garnered more laughter than serious consideration, and it was largely ignored.

As for that letter the authors sent to Amazon? Nothing changed, so we can only conclude that Amazon developed an acute case of illiteracy.

Writers write, and so the writers have penned another letter, this one to the members of Amazon's board. They heap guilt onto the heads of the liberal-leaning directors who are more likely to feel the sting of shaming than some conservative corporate honcho who has thick skin and a heart of stone.

Do you want to be a part of book banning, the authors ask, and isn't that something with a very, very bad connotation. Not to mention the Nazis flat out, but, well, you get the point, don't you Judith McGrath of MTV? And you, Patricia Q. Stonesifer of the non-profit charity Martha's Table and the Gates Foundation, do you want your name linked to the attempted suppression of the written word?

The letter will end up in the New York Times, of course, and Amazon will be driven to respond, but what can they do beyond pretending not to be able to read the words that all those writers wrote? Their last rebuttal was laughed off the stage and there would be no point in trying the same thing again.

But then again, Amazon has the power to keep up the fight against Hachette no matter how many letters are sent to Jeff Bezos or the board of directors or the readers of a prominent newspaper.

They can feign illiteracy and continue to apply pressure to Hachette to accept what is offered and let Amazon boost its profit margin like it wants to. After all, a reader can always try another option to buy whatever book they like.

Is that why independent booksellers are doing better these days? Has anyone at Amazon wondered if the bad publicity could actually be hurting them a bit?

Ah go on. This is Amazon we're talking about.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Books In Need Of Homes

The box of books slated for the upcoming Goodreads giveaway are sitting in a box under the desk, just waiting. They'll be sitting around for the next month, until the giveaway is concluded and new owners identified.

There are always a few stray copies floating around the office, however, and we'll be giving those away as well as the launch for Katie Hanrahan's newest novel, THE SECOND WAR OF REBELLION, is released.

Follow us on Twitter and watch for a tweet that asks for a re-tweet as a way of entering a contest to win a copy for yourself. Free of charge. A bargain at any price, of course, for the entertainment that is packed into the 300 pages of an intriguing story that you won't be able to put down until you reach the end.

Read the opening pages here. You can pre-order a digital edition if you like, but then you'd still have to wait for the e-book to be released.

THE SECOND WAR OF REBELLION is the sequel to THE LIBERTY FLOWER, and continues the saga of a star-crossed couple who found themselves on opposite sides of the American revolution. The second installment is told by the daughter of Sarah Mahon, a sheltered child who must re-make her life when her safe and secure world crumbles around her.

The sequence of events parallels the action taking place on the world stage, where England was fighting Napoleon and using its power to bring all countries into line with British interests. The United States, only a few decades removed from its own successful rebellion, finds that it must face a second war of rebellion to assert its freedom, much like Madeleine must fight to regain the independence promised her before things changed between her and her stepfather.

It is a well-researched and beautifully executed piece of history in fiction form, but there is a strong love story at the heart of the novel that will keep youi entertained as you turn the pages to see if Madeleine can find victory from her position of relative weakness.

Why not give the retweeting bit a go? You've nothing to lose and a very enjoyable work of historical fiction to gain.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bittersweet - A Book Review

Poor girls longing to be like the rich tend to be fat and ugly in novels. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore does not disappoint.

In BITTERSWEET, our heroine from the wrong side of the tracks thinks she has won life's lottery when her very wealthy roommate invites her to the family cottage for the summer. Mabel Dagmar (she of the suitably pudgy name) enters the world of privilege but soon realizes that her hosts are a bit odd in an unpleasant sort of way.

Being very, very rich, the members of the Winslow clan are naturally very, very evil while the poor folk who work for them are good, honest people who are made to suffer by their overlords. That sort of cartoonish excess makes the book extremely slow to start, and I put the book down many times over the course of the three months that it sat around unread and ignored.

The book does not become interesting until the mid-point, when Mabel starts to uncover some of the deep dark secrets that the Winslow's wealth has kept covered. Her interactions at the family summer playground with various aunts and cousins form the trail she follows, in part at the behest of the addled spinster aunt who wants the family's secrets to be exposed. Her relationship with the college room mate suffers as Mabel discovers more about the people she envied, the room mate included.

Without giving the ending away, I can say that the family secrets are truly monstrous, but in keeping with the caricature of rich folk at play that the author paints, it fits into the narrative.

BITTERSWEET is a good book for a beach read, once the reader gets past the beginning and can dive into a faster paced narrative. Everything comes right in the end, loose ends are tied up, and the Ugly Duckling evolves into a swan after dropping a few pounds over the eventful summer.

No Longer The Cutting Edge Of Rock

You know you are old and insignificant when the very market you are trying to reach doesn't know who you are. And if you are of the same age, give or take a decade, of an old and insignificant rock band, you feel pretty damned old yourself.

Apple launched their new iPhone with a generous bonus for absolutely everyone who already has iTunes. That's a lot of people in this world, given the popularity of iPads and iPods and iPhones. But were the recipients grateful? Were they pleased?

The youngest of the technologically savvy are not happy.
iTunes users don't all want U2

Who is U2? They have no real idea. It's a band that hasn't released a new album in five years, which is almost half the lifespan of the younger set that is coming into the market for advanced devices. Why is this U2 music on my device, they are asking, and why are their songs popping up in my shuffle when I didn't ask for this?

Not exactly the welcome that U2 was expecting when it teamed up with Apple to reach as many ears as possible with its latest album, "Songs of Innocence".

The band was probably feeling fairly confident when they decided on the strategy. They are considered a powerhouse rock band, and their tours have generated millions in profits. What must Bono and the Edge be feeling now, with the kids they were trying to reach complaining that they are being forced to listen to this music that isn't hip hop or rap or the saccharine pop of the Katy Perry sort. U2 gave the album away for free to attract that very audience, the youngsters who don't know U2 but would like the music if they only opened their hearts and their ears.

The numbers are not great. Of all the millions who could download "Songs of Innocence" for free, only 200,000 have done so. Among the rest, there is annoyance that an entire album is sitting in their device, wasting space.

It doesn't matter that music critics laud the songs. It's a question of choice, and not being given any. A bunch of tunes from some old Irish dudes pops up in a list of purchases and every time you check that list it's there, waiting expectantly to be included with the rest of the music but you didn't invite it and it won't go away.

What about those of us who heard of the free giveaway and plan to download the album as soon as we get a minute to spare?

We are feeling like a bunch of pensioners who should be sitting on a bench in the sun, earbuds in place, enjoying the sounds of our long-gone youth. The kids don't know our music, nor do they care to listen to the sounds of the previous generation. How can a group of men with grown children possibly speak to them, they might wonder as they ignore the free download and Twitter away their complaints at the inconvenience and the intrusion.

Adults. Always making kids do what they don't want to do or forcing things down their throats.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fresh Faces, Fresh Ideas

Newly appointed supervisors tend to change things, if only to show that they have some fresh ideas that will justify their elevation to the loftier position. They may have come in with ideas percolating, or they may have come in with a notion that they have to leave their stamp on their department.

Spinebreakers suffers a quiet and slow death
With the merger of Penguin and Random House, you can imagine how very many employees were thrilled to bits to be given new posts where they could at last unleash their brilliance. Their job is to boost the bottom line of the Random Penguin House, and their ideas for innovation or strategy are at last being given free rein. Change away, they are told, do what you think needs doing so that PRH thrives. And justifies the expense of the merger, by the way.

Where to cut costs, then, to please the overlords? Someone in the merged PRH entity took a look at the online teen-oriented writing site Spinebreakers and decided that it could go. It's all about return on investment, and if the investment doesn't return as needed, it must be killed off.

The point of the website, which was the brainstorm of some other creative type prior to the merger, was intended to interest teens in writing. On the heels of the Harry Potter craze, it was discovered that kids could actually like reading, and once hooked on reading, they became teens who read and who pushed sales of serial novels like THE HUNGER GAMES. Publishers like blockbuster books and that takes buzz, which requires readers talking to each other and aren't all the kids today virtually speaking via forums on websites like Spinebreakers?

The person who was in charge of Spinebreakers lost their power after the merger, and the new suit took a look at statistics before decreeing the death of Spinebreakers. Not doing enough of what needed doing to fuel sales of YA titles. The time for change has come.

The new suit has a better idea, one that will do more for PRH than Spinebreakers did for Penguin. Maybe the new chief felt that Spinebreakers was too Britain-centric and it would be better to have something based in the States. Someone says they talked to young people to see what those young people really want, and so Spinebreakers has to change to meet the advice of a focus group, and if that focus group was largely American, you can expect that they'd have different opinions than their British equivalents.

Something else will replace Spinebreakers, something that the people putting it together will see as radically different, much improved and more effective than the old system. It will be up to the end users, the teens being targeted, to make that final assessment. If too many of them voice complaints about how the old way was better, there might be a tweak here or there, but there will never be a return to Spinebreakers as it currently exists (until the end of September when it will go dark).

The teen writing website is being given a long and slow death, to give users time to retrieve the writing they posted before it is gone forever.

Will they come back? Or have the current users outgrown the site? PRH may be trying to snag a fresh crop of young minds with a site purporting to be absolutely brand new, the latest trend in sharing your angsty prose. It might not be all that new, but if you've never seen something before, it's brand new to you, right?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Lure Of The 99 Cent Sale

What is the price point for a publisher looking to promote an e-book? If you guessed 99 cents, you win. Congratulations. You are obviously someone who likes to read digital editions and who is always on the lookout for a bargain.

What is the price point for the world's largest bookstore when it wants to promote that which is not an ebook because Amazon is fixated on the $9.99 figure and won't budge on that particular price?

Right you are. 99 cents.
Kids say the darndest things

You may have seen the advertisements lately, featuring a pair of sassy kids dressed in clothes you'd associate with your grandparents. Trying for cute, I guess, or pre-pubescent hipsters hanging out at the coffee shop. At any rate, the miniature adults are seen touting the wonders of Amazon's Fire phone to a couple of yuppsters who look like they've just moved out of the family home after finally landing a job out of college, and aren't those precocious youngsters just full of information about the glories of the Fire phone?

But how glorious is it, in reality, if Amazon is now all but giving the phone away for free?

A smartphone that comes with Amazon Prime discounted shipping for a full year? Whatever you buy at Amazon would arrive at no extra charge and in next to no time, but customers are passing it up in droves. What good is anything for free if you can't get the product you want, like a discounted Hachette title? Could it be that the smartphone buying public is somewhat aware of Amazon's attempt to strong arm Hachette into a very bad deal for the publisher? Maybe they've heard about the calls to boycott Amazon until Amazon stops punishing Hachette's authors by making it more difficult to buy their works?

Or maybe the Fire phone isn't such a great phone to begin with. There is competition out there in the technology world, and Apple has been in the phone business a lot longer than Amazon and Apple has some devoted fans who love the way their devices work. Who wants a cheap phone that doesn't boast of an easy-to-use iOS system? Free isn't always better when you're sending a text and you want a virtual keyboard that reacts quickly to your touch. Free doesn't overcome the potential aggravation of an unhappy user.

What about the added benefit of being able to stream movies or read books on a Fire phone?

Would you watch an entire movie on that tiny screen, and who has that much time to watch an entire movie? Maybe on your laptop or tablet, in a pinch, like when travelling, but it's hard enough to see things on a phone. There isn't much appeal in watching some miniature world play out for ninety minutes. The eye strain alone would put you off. If you want to read a book you can download any number of apps that give you access to ebooks, including those owned by your local public library. You don't a Fire phone to do that. You're already doing it without one.

And what about apps? iPhone comes pre-loaded with a few basic apps but there is an app store where you can find an app to do just about anything you might need done. Often for 99 cents. Or free. Amazon's Fire phone just doesn't have the selection, and it can boast of a growing app trove, but it's all about what you have now, not later.

Amazon is promoting its Fire phone because it isn't selling. All that Jeff Bezos knows about selling involves steep discounts to lure customers, but a steep discount works best when it is like versus like. We all know that the fake Prada purses are cheaper than the real ones because the copies are of lesser quality. Is the phone buying public thinking the same thing about the Fire phone?

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Witness To The Resurrection

The Spire may yet rise up from what is currently a large hole in Chicago.


Garrett Kelleher's grand vision, a structure that would be his mark on the world, was felled by bad timing and the collapse of the real estate market. Like your average stubborn Irishman, however, he did not let the dream die. Since the financing first fell through all those years ago, he kept at it, seeking new financing and another partner willing to take a great risk.

Alas, the property market that collapsed and took The Spire with it has not quite recovered. The resurrection has not yet been scheduled, apparently, because Mr. Kelleher is finding it difficult to get the money to pay off his old debts and get out of bankruptcy and then find more money to build the iconic building.
It might be. Some day

His current partner does not have what is needed to fund the massive effort. Or is unwilling to gamble that much on a project that requires a more robust real estate market to sell luxury condominiums at high prices. Sure the view is grand, but who has that many millions to invest in a place to live? There's more than enough choice available in Chicago, even though none of it was designed (down to the door knobs) by a famed starchitect.

So the case drags on.

Mr. Kelleher must get permission from the judge in bankruptcy court to go find others willing to invest, to cover what Atlas Holdings is not funding. As for the firm that currently holds the debt, it is willing to give Mr. Kelleher the time he requests to find other sources. If he manages to line up the investors, Related Midwest (which bought up the debt) gets paid in cash. If he does not, Related Midwest gets paid in land, which is at the moment an abandoned building site with a big hole in it. Who wouldn't prefer to take the money?

The deals and counter-deals would boggle the mind with the tangle of clauses and terms and who gets what if things go one way but then there's this if things go another.

The Spire is not yet dead. To follow along with the court case is to witness a resurrection, or at least a whole-hearted attempt to breathe new life into an idea that was declared as dead as the Celtic Tiger a few years ago.

What is helping the resurrection along is faith, a belief that the building would ultimately be of benefit to the city of Chicago which is known for its architecture, and a belief that if you build it people will buy because there is a unique cachet not to be found in the ordinary highrise. What is needed for the building to rise again is a belief by those who hold the money. A belief that the property market is going to be reborn as well.

And evidence of that event has yet to be spotted.