An Award and a Sale

Impala won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. They announced it in the March/April issue of the magazine.

 

Writer’s Digest Awards

That comes on top of Amazon naming the book one of the best mystery/thrillers of the month in September, 2016, and IndieReader naming it one of the best of the year. It’s nice to get a little recognition.

Impala will be on sale for $0.99 during the week of Feb. 20-25, 2017.

 

In Memory of O’Neil McGean

oneil_mcgean

I knew O’Neil since I was about 12 years old. We called him Neil back then. He was about 16 years old, and my mother used to have him come to the house to watch my brothers and me when she went out. Neil’s main job was to keep my older brother, Dan, from beating the crap out of my younger brother, Paul. Neil was very good at distracting Dan, who was 13 at the time, and the two became close friends.

After he graduated high school, Neil worked for the small business my mother owned and ran. The company collected data from the Labor Department and from the Securities and Exchange commission, verified it and cleaned it up, then published it in volumes that were sold to professionals in the financial industry. Neil’s job was to call the companies that had filed documents with Labor and SEC, and verify that all the data was still accurate. He was good at it, because he was good at talking to people.

After he left that job, he started working at the Charles Jourdan store on Wisconsin Avenue, near Friendship Heights. How he pulled that off, I still do not know. The guy didn’t shave half the time, he didn’t dress particularly well, and he seemed to always have a toothpick or a plastic straw hanging out of his mouth. (Maybe some of his other friends from that time will remember how, whenever he went to McDonalds he always came out with a pocket full of straws. He’d stick one in his mouth and chew on it for a while, and then when he got sick of it, he’d unwrap another one, like it was a fresh cigar.) Anyway, this somewhat slovenly guy somehow wound up being so good at selling high-end shoes to rich women that they promoted him to manager.

He stayed there for quite a while before he decided it was time to move on. And what’s the logical next step in that career path? Why, landscaper, of course! He left the fancy shoe store and started rooting around in the dirt. In the summer of 1988, we were both working again at the same company. I forget the name of the place, but the headquarters was in Rockville, and they had a fleet of 30 or 40 white pickups, along with a few larger trucks. About 90% of the business was mowing, so that’s what 90% of the employees did every day.

We used to roll in a little before 7 A.M. Neil and I drove separately, but we both liked to get there early because there were only three or four fast self-propelled mowers and whoever got there first got to take them for the day. We were also both pretty particular about which truck we drove, and the trucks too were first-come, first-serve. Almost the whole fleet was Dodge, and the Dodge trucks of the late 80’s had the brake release directly above the parking brake pedal. When you pulled the release, the pedal would shoot up and crush your fingers. I always tried to take one of the Ford trucks to avoid getting my fingers crushed. Neil seemed to favor one really old truck that reminded me of Sanford and Son. (It wasn’t quite that old, but you get the picture.)

Each morning, we’d be assigned a partner, and we’d go out in teams of two, with a list of 20 or 30 lawns to cut. Neil and I were both very efficient, and they’d give us the longest lists. We’d take the fast mowers and head out with our partners.

One day, after the rains had made the grass unusually tall and thick, I remember Neil had his truck all loaded up with two mowers and a trimmer and blower, and he was pacing around the shop and cursing because he had a huge list and his partner had not shown up.  Neil called the guy’s house, but there was no answer.

I headed out with my partner, and we had a lot of trouble getting through the high, wet grass. We typically ended our days at the Montgomery County Transfer Station up in Gaithersburg, where we’d dump our truckload of grass. Actually, we had pitch the grass out with pitchforks. Unlike the dry yellow grass of late summer, the tall green grass would get heavy in the truck bed. We’d start pitching it out, and when we dug down to the middle of the pile, it would be steaming. The decomposing grass got so hot that if you fell on it (which I did many times), it burned your skin.

On that particular day, my partner and I were in the transfer station before noon, unloading more than a full day’s worth of clippings. We were only half way through our list, and we knew we’d be back later with another full load. A couple other trucks from our company were unloading next to us, and trucks from other companies were streaming in as well. Everyone was having the same problem.

We usually started around 7 AM and finished around 3 or 3:30. That day, my partner and I finished the last yard around 5:00, and we had a long drive from Bethesda to Gaithersburg to dump our grass. We were on River Road, rolling up to a red light, in the left turn lane so we could make a U-turn. Neil’s truck was up ahead, already stopped at the light, and he had a mountain of wet, heavy grass piled high above the top of the cab. His mower was on top of that mountain. I have no idea how he got it up there, but I imagine he was cursing the whole time. The back of the truck was sagging so low that the wheels were almost scraping against the wheel wells.

I pulled up next to him, and I said, “Hey Neil!”

He was angry and tired, and his face was sunburnt.

I couldn’t help teasing him. “Did you get through that whole list?”

He said, “I have one more to go.” Then he held up his middle finger and repeated. “One.”

I said, “Where’s your partner?”

“Looking for a new job.”

That was about the most annoyed I’ve ever seen him. Then he started laughing.

When the light turned green, I started my U-turn. He hit the gas, and his overloaded Sanford and Son truck stalled. As I headed up the road in the other direction, I heard him yell, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!!”

I didn’t see him again until the next day. He came in a little late, which was unusual for him, and he walked right up to me, laughing, and he said, “You know what happened yesterday? Right after I saw you? Like one minute after I saw you?”

“What?”

He told me he got the truck started again after the stall, and it took a while to get the thing up to speed because it was straining badly under the load. He was approaching a yellow light, which he wanted to run, because he wanted to finish that last lawn and get that miserable day over with as soon as possible. He sped up for the light, trying to squeeze through, and assumed the driver of the school bus in front of him would do the same. The school bus stopped, and Neil said that it wasn’t until he slammed on the brakes that he realized an overloaded truck takes a lot longer to stop than an empty one.

He was laughing when he told me, “I rear-ended that bus so hard, I snapped the truck right in half.” The frame of the truck broke just behind the cab, the mower flew up over the bus, and 2000 pounds of grass went all over the road. Neil wasn’t hurt, and there was no one on the bus but the driver. The cops were pissed about having to clean up all that grass in the middle of rush hour, and Neil wound up stuck at the accident scene for an hour or two. After that, he went out and got drunk.

Somehow, improbable things were always happening to him, and he would report them as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. Like the time he found an envelope in the alley with $2000 or $3000 in it. Neil, the good Samaritan, turned the money over to the police, because he thought whoever had lost it really needed to have it back. He asked the cops what would happen to the money if no one claimed it, and they said in that case, it would be his.

A few months went by and no one claimed the money. When Neil tried to get it back, the cops said they were keeping it. He was pretty pissed about that. He said that if he ever found a big wad of cash again, he’d just put it in his pocket and keep his mouth shut. He also said, “You know, I wish I could have learned that lesson with, like, fifty dollars.”

In 1993 and 1994, Neil had his own landscaping business, and for several months, I was his sole employee. We liked working together, because we were both efficient. We’d spend the days out in Montgomery County, cutting grass and cleaning up yards, then pick up a six pack on the way back into DC.

I’d see him now and then in the evenings walking by the Fox and Hound on 17th Street, where I used to drink at the sidewalk tables with my friends. There was one point when we weren’t doing any work, and I hadn’t seen him for several weeks. Maybe it was winter. I don’t remember. But when I finally did run into him and asked where he’d been, he said, “I was walking down the street, and I got this sharp pain in my side, and then I just doubled over and passed out. Right on the sidewalk. I woke up in the hospital, and they told me they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, so they just took my appendix out. That must have been it, because I feel fine now.”

I think he was living down near 9th and O Streets around that time. He had bought a house in a neighborhood known for its drug dealers and prostitutes. This was during or near the end of the crack epidemic in DC, when the city was the murder capital of the US. There was a crack house across the street, and Neil would watch the dealers and the addicts quite openly, and report to the police who was there and what they were doing. The cops raided the house so many times, they finally shut it down. The dealers and the users were so sick of being harassed, they just left.

Neil spent a lot of time cleaning up the yard, because he wanted the house to look good, and he wanted to provide a visual symbol that someone cared about the neighborhood, as well as an example that showed that if you try to make things better, they will eventually get better.

Anyone who lived in DC in the 70s, 80s, and 90s knows that it was a city of deep racial tension. In the late 80s and early 90s, DC was had the highest per-capita income of any major city in the US, and the highest poverty rate. Think about that. The white minority had more money than almost every other group in every other city in the US. The black majority had almost nothing. And there was a lot of mistrust and resentment on both sides. The city’s own mayor, Marion Barry, once publicly refused to plow the streets of Northwest DC after a blizzard (even though he had plowed out the rest of the city), because, as he put it, “Those people didn’t vote for me.”

Down at Ninth and O, Neil was the only white person in a tough neighborhood that was many years away from becoming gentrified. On the one hand, his convictions were powerful enough that he would risk his personal safety almost daily to shut down the crack house across the street. On the other hand, he often felt in danger. He told me that he used to weed his garden with one hand while he held a pistol in the other, just so people knew he had a gun. (And by the way, handguns were illegal in DC back then.) When his neighbors said hi, we would smile and wave back with his gun hand.

The gun, and the fact that he so frequently talked to the police in front of his house, led many of the neighbors to believe that he was a cop. After a while, they started addressing him as “Officer Neil.” He thought that was funny, but he also liked that it provided some protection, and made people less likely to mess with him.

He told me that one day, one of the neighbors came banging on his door, crying. She said her boyfriend had just beat her up, and she wanted Neil to come over and arrest him. Neil said he didn’t want people to know he wasn’t a cop, so he put his gun in his pocket and went over to the woman’s house and starting talking to her angry, violent boyfriend. He actually managed to calm the guy down. Anyone who knew Neil knows he could connect with anyone, in any situation, because he was a good listener, he was empathetic, and he was a straight talker. There was never any bullshit with him. He got the guy to leave, then he talked to the woman about filing a formal report and getting a restraining order.

Somewhere in this time frame, Neil was living with a guy named Brian, who I think was first guy Neil was really in love with. I don’t remember if that was just before Ninth and O, of if that was at Ninth and O. Neil and Brian had this giant Saint Bernard that was always slobbering on everything, and the only toy the dog would play with was a 16-pound bowling ball that he pushed around the house with his nose. The dog would nudge the ball down the basement stairs, and watch it thump down each step, one by one. Then he’d slowly turn his giant head to Neil, as if to say, get that for me, will you?

Over the course of twenty minutes, Neil must have hauled that bowling ball up the stairs a dozen times. His fingers kept slipping out of the holes because they were filled with dog slobber. Finally, he said to me, “You see how backwards this is? Most people throw the ball, and the dog has to get it. Some of my friends say this dog isn’t very bright, but you can see who’s running the show here.”

I only saw Neil upset twice in my life. Once was after he and Brian split up. He didn’t go into details, but I could tell the end of that relationship really hurt him. The other was on a drive home after a long day of landscaping, when we were both covered with dirt. We stopped at a little grocery store off of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington and picked up a six-pack of Budweiser. We were drinking them on the drive back into city, joking and having a light-hearted conversation.

As we were going around Chevy Chase Circle, I mentioned something about him being left-handed. He got upset, suddenly and inexplicably. And he glanced over toward Blessed Sacrament, just east of the circle, and there was a lot of emotion in his voice when he said, “Those fucking nuns used to smack my knuckles with a ruler when they were teaching me to write. They said, you’re using the wrong hand. Use the other hand, like everyone else. Why couldn’t they just understand I was made that way?”

When I first met Neil, he was still in high school, still dating girls, or at least flirting with them, including my cousin, Regina. He was probably beginning to suspect by then that he was gay. I don’t know if coming out was a struggle for him, but I know that, on some level, the nuns got to him. If being left handed was unacceptable in the eyes of the God they represented, how much worse was it to be gay? When he finally chose to come out, he chose to be the person God made, and not the one anyone else was telling him to be.

The honesty that everyone who knew him could sense in everything he said and did started there, in his acceptance of himself, and pervaded every aspect of his character. He was honest to the point of trying to give back an envelope full of cash to someone he had never even met. And in the end, he was robbed and killed by people who just wanted to take from him the money he didn’t really care that much about. His first love, Brian, who was also an unusually generous and open person, came to same end just a few years ago. Someone killed him just to get his bank cards and empty out his accounts.

All I can think is, what the fuck? That would be Neil’s response too. I can hear him saying it. He had a perfect facial expression to go with that question. If you took a photograph of him when he uttered those words, you could show the photo to anyone and ask, “What is this man thinking?” And the viewer would respond without hesitation, “What the fuck?”

Neil, I am glad to have known you, and I am sorry you are gone. There is no replacement.

 

Impala Wins Writer’s Digest Award

I just got news that Impala won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The genre fiction category covers all genres (mystery, thriller, sci-fi, romance, historical, etc.). The announcement and the book will appear in the March/April 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest.

E-books and Pricing

I got an email from a fellow author who is considering raising the price of his Amazon Kindle title. At $2.99, his e-book is so much cheaper than his paperback that people aren’t buying the paperback.

I’ve seen this same phenomenon with my book. The electronic version sells about 10 times as many copies as the paperback. Amazon’s more voracious readers tend to go for e-books, because they consume so many of them. When self-published authors advertise through any of the promo sites that send out email blasts to their subscribers, we’re reaching mostly those voracious Kindle readers.

Unlike self-published indie authors, the big publishers tend to keep their e-book price closer to the paperback price. Often, their e-books are priced at $9.99 or above. Publishers do that on purpose, because they have decades-old relationships with physical bookstores, and they don’t want to damage those relationships or put the bookstores out of business by selling e-books that are drastically cheaper than paper books. Believe it or not, 60% of books are still sold offline, as physical books, mostly in traditional bookstores, but also in places like Costco and grocery stores that offer a limited number of best sellers at a cheap price.

Amazon has numbers proving that publishers will make a higher profit selling their e-books for a lower price. A price-drop of 30%, for example, may result in a sales increase of more than 30%.

After a court ruling in 2014, traditional publishers were forced to renegotiate their e-book contracts with Amazon and Apple. When Amazon started to renegotiate their contract with Hachette, they wanted to force Hachette to drastically lower their e-book prices. This turned into a very public dispute, in which Amazon displayed some exceptionally nasty behavior, including listing a number of Hachette’s top-sellers as out of stock when they weren’t. They basically refused to sell Hachette’s books, and since Amazon controls about 40% of the US book market, the idea was to strangle Hachette financially until they gave in.

Hachette didn’t want to give in because offering cheap e-books would be one more nail in the coffin of physical bookstores throughout the US. And they felt if they gave in, all the other major publishers might be forced to follow. This LA Times article has a brief overview of the story. And the New York Times has a summary as well.

Eventually, Hachette and Amazon settled, with Amazon insisting that the terms of the settlement be disclosed to no one.

The pricing model that Amazon wanted to force on Hachette was one part of its existential threat to the traditional publishing industry because it would have threatened the existence of traditional book stores. The other part of Amazon’s existential threat is its ability to identify and sign new authors. CreateSpace, and Amazon’s whole self-publishing eco-system have turned out to be a very good farm system for minor league writers. Amazon has crowd-sourced the old slush pile. Instead of a handful of interns wading through thousands of unsolicited manuscripts, Amazon has millions of readers checking out millions of new self-published works. This new system is inherently more efficient than the old system. Amazon’s readers process more books more quickly, and the fact that one thousand readers like a book predicts sales more reliably than the hunch of a single editor.

I have to say, I have mixed feelings about Amazon as a publisher and bookseller. On the plus side, they’ve opened up a whole new world to indie authors. Twenty years ago, if you or I wanted to publish, we’d have to go through the traditional submission process, which is a long-shot. Then we’d wait months or years to maybe get a contract, and then if we couldn’t, we’d have to pay a lot of money to a vanity press, leaving us with a big stack of books and no distribution channels.

On the negative side, Amazon has this fanatical desire to stamp out all inefficiencies in the production and distribution of goods. That’s fine for commodity items like soap and socks, but books are not commodity items, and the creative process, when judged by the standards of industry, is inherently inefficient and always will be. Now Amazon has its own publishing imprints, like Montlake Romance and Thomas & Mercer, and it approaches publishing as it approaches all other businesses. It’s strictly a numbers game. They look for indie authors who are selling well, they sign them and promote their books. Amazon has access to all the sales numbers, so they know exactly who’s selling, and what kind of readers an author attracts. They also control the marketing platform, so they can push sales very effectively. And I must say, they offer exceptionally good terms for authors.

But what’s lost in all this is the curation and nurturing that the traditional publishing world provides. Publishers do what they do out of passion and the love of books; and passion and love are inefficient to the point of being contemptible in the eyes of a machine like Amazon. Where a computer algorithm may recognize a promising book by its similarities to what has sold before, a good editor recognizes a promising author by their originality, depth, and uniqueness. A good editor spends a tremendous amount of time cultivating and polishing both a book and an author.

What an editor does for an author is similar to what producers and sound engineers do for a musician: they improve the work by applying their passion, insight, and technical skill to the creative process. Readers don’t typically get to see that process, or the difference between the unedited drafts and the final publication. But you can hear the difference between this earlier, less polished version of Hozier’s From Eden and the final version of the same work.

As editor nurture individual books, so publishers have traditionally nurtured and cultivated careers. That investment of time, and in particular time spent in pursuit of a qualitative goal, rather than a quantitative goal, is entirely at odds with Amazon’s grinding culture of metrics and efficiency. You may have seen the New York Times article describing Amazon’s internal culture.

Having worked at Amazon in the past, I can say that the article is accurate at least in its description of the pressure to work hard and to consistently produce measurable results. (I never saw any back-stabbing there, or people crying at their desks. And I was not one of those people who was ground down by working there. That culture brought out the best in me at the time. I learned a tremendous amount, and when I was ready to move on, the words of encouragement that finally pushed me out the door came from Jeff Bezos himself.)

But again, that culture of metrics and efficiency will never seek out, discover, nurture or even recognize work that is daringly original, challenging, and deep. The machine is designed to recognize what sells, and to promote more of that. Over time, this leads to a homogenization of literature in the same way that computer algorithms have led to a homogenization of web content. Ever wonder why every other article in the web is “7 Secrets of X” or “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Y?” Because the algorithms say people click on those kind of easy-to-consume teasers, so the machine gives us more. Popular music seems to be going the same way.

Some of the smaller presses, like Graywolf, continually impress me with the books they put out. When I read something by Deirdre Madden or Vikram Chandra, I’m always asking, “How did they find this? How did they have the nerve or the vision to publish it? No commodity, by-the-numbers publisher would ever have picked this up.” I’m grateful for those deeper, more challenging works that bring us to a level of thinking that genre fiction doesn’t even attempt to reach. And I’m worried that Amazon’s imprints may suck up all of the talented new genre writers whose best-selling work once financed the unremunerative bets that passionate editors made on authors whose voices enriched the culture by opening our eyes and minds to things we don’t normally see.

Misreading

Years ago, I wrote a story that included one character who was crass, uncouth, racist and sexist. He was a minor character, making one brief appearance.

I gave the story to a few friends, and one of them came back to me upset. He said, “Hey, I liked this, and I shared it with a friend at work. She pulled me aside after reading it and said, ‘Your friend who wrote this is a racist, and you should stop hanging out with him immediately. You should never speak to this person again.'”

That really caught me off guard. I never considered that anyone would read the story that way. And just for some background, the character was ignorant and thoroughly unlikable, casually using the N word on one occasion. The friend to whom I gave the story was black, and his coworker who said I was racist was white.

I’ve written stories with characters who are French, characters who are psychotic, and characters who are stupid. But no one has ever inferred from those that I am French, psychotic, or stupid. So why would someone infer that I’m racist simply because one minor character made some racist comments?

Because I didn’t punish the character. That’s why.

There’s a certain temperament, peculiar to the American mind, that cannot tolerate moral ambiguity. You might remember the old Seinfeld episode called The Outing that deals with the characters’ discomfort with the topic of homosexuality. In that episode, every time a character mentions homosexuality, they end their statement with the words “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Why do they keep saying that? Because homosexuality is an uncomfortable issue for them, and if they don’t explicitly reassure each other of their moral stance on the issue, then the topic becomes too uncomfortable.

Mainstream American literature and film often portray characters as being on either the right side or the wrong side of a moral issue. The character on the wrong side is often loaded up with despicable traits just to make sure the audience knows how they should feel about him. For example, if a character is sexist, he might also be a rapist and a child molester and a Klansman, just so the audience can be sure they should hate him.

Then the bad guy gets it in the end, and we all feel vindicated. Think, for example, of the old Dirty Harry movies, where the more we learn about the bad guy, the more despicable he is. The exposition of the bad guy’s moral depravity is just foreplay leading up to the orgy of violence at the end, where the bad guy dies a nasty death, and we can all go home feeling how right we were for rooting against him.

The Dirty Harry films present a cartoonish exaggeration of the American audience’s expectation of moral certainty and vindication. They’re moral porn, enforced with guns, but they play to a psychological need that the American audience brings to almost all narrative art forms.

If I had punished the racist character in my story with a violent death, my friend’s coworker might have been reassured that I disapproved of his beliefs. Or if I couldn’t punish that character, perhaps the reader would have liked me to pause the story after his appearance and state explicitly, a la Seinfeld, “there IS something wrong with that.”

But I didn’t do that. I simply left that unpleasant character as one more person in a world that is full of all types of people. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for my friend’s friend.

The author Dorian Box recently had to deal with this issue, when a reviewer of his book Psycho Tropics complained that the author was trying to justify his character’s criminal act. The book, in fact, describes what’s going through the mind of a normal, caring person when he acts out of character and does something really horrible. This character has a strong conscience, and throughout the rest of the book, he suffers from the consequences of this act. He cannot forgive himself, and he punishes himself relentlessly.

In Psycho Tropics, the author does a really good job of exposing the character’s state of mind when he commits the crime. He allows you to see clearly how a good person can do a horrible thing.

It seems to me that the reader who complained about the author “justifying” the crime was uncomfortable with the main character being a good, likable person before the crime and continuing to be a good, likable person after the crime. American literature and film have trained audiences to believe that if a character does something bad, he must be bad, and that an evil act can only be the product of an evil soul. To see a character do something that is clearly wrong and hurtful, and then to not be encouraged to hate that person is confusing for many readers.

It’s even worse if the character is portrayed as a rich, deep, and sympathetic person. When a character is too complex and nuanced to be contained within the judgment that the reader wants to pass, the reader becomes really uncomfortable. This is the kind of ambiguity that many people can’t tolerate. The easiest way out of this discomfort is for the reader to say, “Well, you didn’t explicitly condemn this character, so you must condone them, and I know that’s bad, so I condemn you.” Now the reader has reached what they’ve been aching for: that oh-so-satisfying point of moral certainty. Damn you for not just handing it to them.