Monday, November 24, 2014

Fifty Hours on Planes (or more) and a Theory of Travel: Honeymoon Part 1

Flight supplies.
By the time we landed back in Boston, at the end of a roughly 40 hour November 3rd, Rissa and I had been in flight for 50 hours or more over the course of 2 ½ weeks. Some of that time was spent productively; Rissa actually knit the pair of gloves she would wear for the trip and I got some reading and writing done, but there's a point where the productive parts of the brain just shut down and, depending on where you are in your travels and how well you can sleep on a plane (which for Rissa and I, not particularly well at all.) you can end up with a lot of dead time.

How did I spend that dead time. Well: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The LOTR Trilogy (original cinematic releases, which are not as good as the extended releases), Pacific Rim, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, some Wolverine-based abomination, and maybe one or two more. It was easily the most movies I've watched over that stretch of time, probably in my whole life.

There's a lot to consider in this display.
The travel itself, was, of course, exhausting and if we had any “dark nights of the soul” on our adventure, they came on our trip from Boston to Cairns. Our flight out of Boston was delayed almost an hour, which meant that when we landed in San Francisco we had 15 minutes to make our connection. Thus began the legendary San Francisco Sprint! I'm not going to lie, I miss playing sports, and so a part of me kind of appreciated the chance to tear ass through the airport. And running on a people mover makes you feel like a superhero. We even had a “Go! Just leave me!” moment when I totally ditched Rissa (at her rational insistence) to try and get there in time to hold the plane. We did, though, thanks to the delay, we hadn't eaten since about ten in the morning. Luckily Air New Zealand serves good food and free wine. Seriously, after dinner service flight attendants walked up and down the aisles with bottles of wine.

And then the flight from Auckland to Cairns. Really, there was nothing wrong with it. Another perfectly lovely flight with another free meal. (Making for the rare no-lunch-3-breakfast 36 hours.) The failure was in our awareness of geography. The times on the tickets implied to us (who didn't think about it for a goddamn second) that it was a short three hour flight. If we had taken a tiny fraction of an instant to look at a freakin' map, we would have seen there was no way it could be a three-hour flight. It was a six-hour flight. Those last three hours were agonizing. We were so exhausted that we couldn't even make it through the New Zealand vs. Australia rugby game that was on a giant freaking screen in a bar in Australia later that night. (And it was such a good game! Or, at least the first half was.)

But I always reminded myself every time the travel started getting gross, of one fact; for the vast majority of human history, what we just did was impossible.

This is "flyover country" in New Zealand
Though I wasn't quite as productive as I'd hoped to be across those 50 plus hours, I did get some thinking done about travel itself, specifically, about why travel is so vital to some people, while others despise it. Whether it's new places or new people, newness puts you on your guard. That's just basic evolution. Being on guard has, essentially, two different emotional expressions; anxiety and alertness. How you feel about travel is likely to be determined by the balance of those two states in your mind. Honestly, I feel a lot of anxiety when I travel (I tend to get to airports very early), but the balance of my experience is alertness, a drive to observe, to see all that is around me, to “get a handle” on a place. There are plenty of times when I travel, when a nervousness builds in my stomach, but, to me, there is such a primal joy in seeing something I've never seen before that I pretty much always push through it.

Of course, the tragedy (probably too strong a word) is that those who, on balance, experience more anxiety will have the least motivation to push through their anxiety to experience the benefits of being alert, and because anxiety and alertness are self-reinforcing, all it takes is a slight balance one way or the other. The anxiety balance will elucidate all of the potential risks, thus increasing the anxiety, while the alertness balance will keep the mind open for all that is new and exciting happening around it.

Now that I'm reflecting on this idea, it really isn't limited to travel. Any new experience with virtually any level of potency, with inspire your brain to ask either “Will it kill me?” or “Can I kill it?” leveraging our evolved intelligences to either enumerate all the reasons to get out of dodge or observe with an inspired focus the environment around you. And from that, so much of how you experience the world and what you will experience follows.

On the flight home I found my relationship to the time line of this trip odd, almost paradoxical. On the one hand after months of planning, suddenly it's over. All the time from the first conversation to that moment on the plane felt like an extracted tooth; it's there and then it's gone. In contrast, it also felt like we landed in Cairns months ago. The same experience felt instant and extended.

Also, I bought shoes. Weird, huh.
Perhaps it is simply that so much of that time was filled with so much activity that my perception recalibrated it to more closely match my activity-per-day average. I did more in that block of time than maybe I have ever done in a similar block of time, and so, almost the way time and space interact, my sense of that time is partially expressed by the activities themselves. Also, over the course of that time, we developed and redeveloped our daily routines, a process usually not so quickly repeated. And, in that much of how we experience our lives comes from our daily routines, it is almost as though Riss and I went through four major passages in life.

There are, of course, other ideas that came to me as I traveled, because, well, that's how I see the world, but I'll get to those when I write about the specific cities we visited. If there is one final lesson, Riss and I might have gleaned from the travel is that we can take it and it's worth it. There were times when it sucked, when it was uncomfortable, when it was close to miserable (though, watching that Wolverine movie was my own fault) but, every bit of it was worth it. Hong Kong, Singapore, or Tokyo, or Spain here we come.

Weird Travel Experience 1: I have a pretty good sense of direction that I always assumed was simply based on remembering the turns I'd taken or, if I've looked at a map, being able to keep track of that map while I walk, but now I suspect it might actually be..magnetism. Because I seriously completely lost all sense of direction in the Southern Hemisphere.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pre-Order My Book! (With Bonus Industry Wonkiness)

I have probably been somewhat neglectful in waiting this long to formally post this information, but, there was a honeymoon involved and some proofreading and some, well, pretty basic reluctance to engage in any kind of overt self-promotion. So....

Holy crap, guys. This is my book.
Pre-order my book here from Porter Square Books. I will sign books ordered from PSB, just put "signed" in the order comment. I'll also add any personalization or message you like. Just put that request in the comments field as well. (One of you is getting a “mint condition copy of the book, suitable for preserving in a shadow-box," but you don't have to put anything in the comments field. I know who you are.) If you are big into shopping local, go here and find your local indie bookstore. There are, of course, other options, and if any of those options are your preferred option just cut and paste “An Exaggerated Murder by Josh Cook” into the search engine of your choice and you'll find it. And, for you digital readers, the e-book will be available in all the major formats. (Pre-orderable, preferably here of course.)

And yes, pre-orders are important. Here's why. (This is the bonus wonkiness.)

Publishing and selling a book is a gamble—investment. Investment. No matter how much data they might have and no matter how much experience they may have, publishers and bookstores pretty much just guess how many copies a book will sell. For the publisher, each and every book is a multi-thousand (or million) dollar gamble—investment. Investment. Pre-orders lessen the risk of these investments in three ways.

Sorry. Just wanted to look at it again. Holy crap! My book!
First pre-orders represent an early return on investment. One of the biggest challenges publishers face (that bookstores don't quite so much) is the sheer distance between the investment and the return. Typically, the time between the initial expense of an author advance (I'm not even counting the cost of an acquisitions editor) and actual sales of the book is a year at minimum, a year in which the publisher pretty much spends money constantly on the book. And even once sales begin, publishers really don't know what they've made back from their investment until months after the book has been released. It is a lot of time to keep the lights on. Pre-orders inject early cash into the economic equation of bookselling. (Via money to bookstores who then pay publishers.)

Second, pre-orders give at least a glimpse of how the book will sell. Before anything organic can build, before booksellers start handselling, and before reviews start coming in, pre-orders give the publisher a sense of what kind of sales the book (and author) can generate pretty much on their own. They reflect an existing fan base. That information is extremely useful in, not just setting a publicity budget for the book, but in determining how and where to spend it. It can also be very useful in deciding where to send an author or tour or even if to send an author on tour.

Yep. Author photo. Yep.
Finally, they encourage book stores to order more copies and the more copies there are in circulation the more likely the book will sell well. ("Stack 'em high and watch 'em fly," is a real thing said about selling books.) It really is truly amazing how many books are not sold, just because there wasn't a copy of the book on the shelf, at the moment. I mean, books aren't fish. If you wanted it on Friday, it'll still be good on Tuesday. But many, many people just won't wait a weekend. If the book isn't there when they want to buy it, they just won't buy it. But if a store has five pre-orders for a book, odds are pretty good the store will order ten, or even fifteen. And if a store starts out with five or ten books on the shelf, they will be less likely to run out of copies before they have a chance to restock, and thus, less likely to lose those impulse sales.

Of course publishing is still a gamble—investment. Investment. But, pre-orders do help mitigate that risk, so if you're a fan of an author or want to support that author, pre-ordering their book is a great way to do it. (Here's that link to my book again, you know, just in case you were waiting to see how the wonkiness went before pulling the trigger.) 
Sorry. It's just a real thing that is real and I like to look at it being real. (And it's a wicked cool cover).

Friday, November 7, 2014

My Super Cynical Simon & Schuster/Amazon Contract Theory

I'll take it with 2 sugars & 1 cynicism.
Apparently, the world of publishing doesn't go on vacation whenever I do. Things, with a flagrant disregard for my opinion, happen without me. The biggest news in my time away was the shockingly swift signing of a new contract between Amazon and Simon & Schuster. Given Amazon's notorious secrecy, I doubt we will ever know anything about the negotiation process, though, once we see how prices and discounts on S&S's books on Amazon work out, we'll be able to extrapolate much of the terms of the deal. Most likely, the course of the negotiation and the reason for Amazon's swift acceptance of the contract, follows one of the trajectories outlined by Dennis Johnson. I suppose it also could be possible that S&S discovered and eliminated the legendary “inefficiency” in publishing and so will be able to continue producing books while meeting Amazon's price requirements. (They didn't, because that's not possible. But even if they did, they couldn't share it with other publishers. More on that below.) And, because Amazon is sustained by share-prices rather than profits, whatever happened, must have something to do with Wall Street perception. But I have a more cynical theory.

Trigger Warning: This theory is really cynical.

Here are the two facts on which I base my theory. (the cynicism I earned through years of reading the news.) First, the DOJ lawsuit and the bizarrely aggressive letter the DOJ sent to the publishers involved in that suit before the latest round of negotiations began, mean that publishers are going to be terrified of doing anything that could remotely be considered collusion. This means that even if there is an obvious best course of action to take, a course they would individually choose based on its own merits, they will be nervous to take it, because if they all take it, they will get sued. Which could mean, that each publisher will be limited by what the preceding publisher does. Which is a difficult place to negotiate from. For example, there is a good chance that Simon & Schuster was nervous about holding out as Hachette has done for no other reason than holding out for any reason, even completely different reasons than Hachette, could trigger an investigation. Second, Amazon's “Gazelle Project” is based on exploiting weaker publishers for better terms.

You ready? This is seriously cynical. OK.

It says "See Josh's post" right here.
Amazon is turning Hachette into a gazelle. Every time Amazon quickly comes to terms with another publisher, Hachette looks more and more like the obstinate party in the negotiation. People will wonder why the other publishers were able to reach an agreement but Hachette was not. The low price at any cost crowd will begin to crow about just how much Hachette is trying to squeeze from the unsuspecting public. In the eyes of the public, as opposed to industry members, Hachette will look less and less like a defender of culture and more and more like a profit hungry “$10 billion company.”

Furthermore, Amazon can live without Hachette forever and Hachette can only live without Amazon for some amount of time. As part of an informal industry-wide effort to protect the sustainability of the publishing, that amount of time could be years, but eventually, someone is going to have to pay Hachette's utility bills. Furthermore, agents, who, yes, are human beings who, like authors, need to eat, will eventually avoid signing with Hachette (and its imprints) because of how limited the sales are going to be. Meaning that, if my super cynical theory holds, along with the sales drain directly caused by Amazon, Hachette will also suffer from a talent drain, meaning that, there is a chance Hachette could suffer losses long after any contract is signed with Amazon. And then Hachette is a gazelle. And then, through one process or another, the world will have four major publishers and Amazon will only need four contracts. Told you it was cynical.

I'd love to be cynical just to feel something.
I don't know if there's a “ray of hope” in this piece, but I will say it could all change when it is Penguin Random House's turn to negotiate. Given the disaster that was its “phone,” and the more general slow shaking of investor confidence, I don't think even Amazon could go without roughly 25% of all English language publishing for very long. I mean, wasn't that the point of the merger? Penguin Random House could potentially force Amazon's hand, and if that happens after another quarter of ridiculous losses, we might actually hit some kind of turning point in publishing.

Or the Justice Department could sue. (Cynical, remember.)

(What should we do about this? Same thing we should do every day, Pinky, buy books from independent bookstores.)