A Full Irish Holiday

It looks like this Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season is going to be Full Irish.Full Irish Cover MEDIUM WEB

This political suspense novel marks the return of Paul and Shannon Forté, several years after they had moved to Carmel following Paul’s acquittal on corruption charges. It also introduces Finola McGee, the brassy political editor of the Irish Telegraph, Dublin’s second biggest paper.

McGee is on a mission to find the murderer of an honest politician and close friend. Forté is hired in Boston to dig up dirt on a conniving Irish competitor.

When the two collide at a famous County Kerry castle and discover their mutual interests, the ensuing game plan is more Pink Panther than Hercule Poirot. In a sometimes madcap, sometimes dark adventure, Shannon lands a blow against lecherous politicians, McGee shows off her pole dancing prowess, an Anglo-Irish butler turns double-agent, and the zygomatic bone take disproportionate abuse.

But can the trio unravel the web of conspiracy stretching from the back corridors of Leinster House to the polished inner sanctum of the Massachusetts Senate?

Against the backdrop of the windswept west coast of Ireland and the watering holes of Dublin and Boston, Full Irish exposes a rivalry that goes to the very heart of politics.

_____

Susanne O’Leary and I started the project on May 1st. As my principal objective in seeking a collaborator was to find a more efficient way to produce a finished novel, this has been a smashing success. We did it smoothly, and we had a lot of fun (and very few arguments) doing it. I look forward to seeing how readers react to it.

While we finish up the details with formatting and the Createspace process, Susanne and I will begin to work on a sketch for the next one. Might be something to do with banking, or maybe the art market (to get Shannon more directly involved). If you have any wacky ideas, feel free to share them (for attribution or not).

 

 

Celebrate your bad reviews, and celebrate reviewers!

So much vitriol is going on about “author vs. reviewer.” It’s come down to acts of physical violence now. And it’s casting a pall over the entire indie community. Every time some reviewer gets hassled (or worse), hundreds of us are cringing, thinking, “that’s not me! No, no, don’t put me in the same boat as that one!”The enduring advice is, “ignore bad reviews!”It’s great advice, and I am going to break it, by celebrating my favorite bad reviews.

This is not a whiny post that mocks the reviewer. I’m talking about, “Check this guy out! He really got me good!” Appreciating and respecting a point of view other than yours. Because if we’re lucky, we have some good ones, and celebrating them – accepting that they are opinions well-stated – makes us stronger, and makes us better writers. Taking criticism makes you a better writer. Yes, it does.

Soon after I published Diary of a Small Fish, I solicited and received a review from a critic at the Chicago Center for Literature & Photography (CCLAP). It was beautiful, and you might enjoy reading the entire review. Here is the part that makes me smile the most.

“But still, maybe Small Fish would turn out to be a redemptive story when all is said and done, and our protagonist would by the end understand what kind of sneaky, petty, subsumed-guilt Bush-loving Michael-Scott frat-boy douchebag he actually is…”
I love that.Here’s one more, a one-star from a Goodreader:
It’s kind of like the author couldn’t decide whether he wanted to write a political thriller or just a really long story about rich people enjoying expensive food and wine (which he goes to staggering extremes to explain in every detail during almost every scene). I read books for interesting character and plot development, not to hear how often they eat fancy food and drink expensive alcohol.
Are these guys right? (Hey, what’s wrong with fancy food and expensive alcohol?)
It doesn’t matter what I think. It comes with the territory. Everyone’s a critic.
This business requires thick skin, humility, and an indelible sense of humor. Some writers are born with them, some have to grow them. Some of the rest will be next week’s fare in The Guardian.

Mad Men Features Small Fish Voice

In this Sunday night’s (May 11th) episode of the wildly popular Mad Men, the producer and narrator of Diary of a Small Fish (audio), Keith Sellon-Wright, makes his first appearance. He will play a character in a scene about which he cannot say a word. He points out that it’s always good when his scenes end up on-screen instead of in the trash can.[1]biopic

Keith’s resume is truly impressive, and Mad Men is the latest in a string of his high profile appearances, like Scandal, Vegas, Parks & Recreation, The Mentalist and Nip Tuck (to name a few)

I am wishing the best for Keith. He’s a fine gentleman, a great actor, and a perfect voice for Paul Forte. Break a leg!

 

 

 

[1] Note: I use “trash can” in the desktop icon sense, not where actual household trash is deposited. I use this in preference to “the cutting room floor,” which people who know these things (like Keith) tell me a thing of the past, an anachronism, a relic.

Surviving in the Amazon Jungle – How authors and reviewers can co-exist in a hostile environment (and run to court if they don’t)

Well, the Rice Petition has lost a lot of its steam as author after author continues to sign it with no apparent understanding of exactly what it proposes (based upon their own comments), but in the meantime, there has been a lot of discussion, and agreement, that Amazon’s review guidelines could use a few tweaks and a lot more enforcement.

There has also been a fair amount of criticism that demanding the true identities of ten million customers of Amazon products was too high a price to pay for a few dozen militant female reviewers to be “taught a lesson” by Queen Anne.

In that light, I began to consider the kind of actions the author and reviewer could take to both clarify their expectations in the book review arena and provide meaningful remedies against wrongdoers. There is no reason to send the cockroaches into the woodpile when a few well-coined provisos and wherefores can bring about harmony and understanding.

As a (dreaded) litigation attorney, I am forced to parse the language of contractual covenants, indemnifications, waivers, warranties, representations, certifications, promises and disclaimers. While the reading is excruciating, I take comfort in the fact that, pedantic and dull as they are, these kinds of clauses are usually enforceable according to their terms, no matter what they say. As long as both parties agree to the language and it is otherwise unambiguous and capable of only one meaning, it will be enforced in the event of a breach and consequent suit.

This kind of dirty business is not something fiction writers find tasteful (to say nothing of affordable), but believe me, knowing at the outset what your rights and obligations are gives you the comfort that your engagement in the Amazon marketplace is not going to land you in an FBI sting operation or subject you to nasty pranks or sudden food poisoning.

In the spirit of conciliation and cooperation, indie author to indie author, indie author to book reviewers of all kinds, and officious interloper to guileless newbie, I offer you these helpful tips to avoiding the snake pits and alligator jaws lurking in the Amazon jungle.

Authors and Their Babies Books

 When you’ve spent several hours a day, several days a week, over several weeks years, on your next series blockbuster; when you’ve waited days months for your friends experienced beta readers to return their uncritical praise detailed criticisms and smiley emoticons line edits; when you’ve begged paid your BFF copy editor to go over it with a blow-kiss fine-toothed comb; when you’ve spent hours putting together your cover using stock photos and impossible fonts hundreds for a professional cover from a reputable graphic artist, and run your word file through the free software you downloaded from someplace paid for professional formatting and design of interior matter, the last thing you need to worry about is having no control over who reviews your book and what they say. One opinion from a gangster bully the discriminating reader, and your new baby book is floating face down in the Amazon swamp, has met its first troll review unflattering opinion, a victim proud new participant of the evil unnamed cabal of bully gangster trolls rough and tumble of the new book marketplace.

To enhance the opportunity for your book’s immediate and unqualified acceptance by avoidance of the mindless fangurlz “thought leaders” of the Amazon review system (as represented by the vaunted Society of Top Awesome Reviewers – STAR), I suggest that you insert the following language into the front matter of every one of your ebook offerings:

By receiving a copy of this book from any source whatsoever, the reader agrees that s/he will not post any review of said book in any Internet venue, without prior disclosure to and approval of the author. The author shall have no obligation to approve any review that contains undue criticism of any aspect of the author’s craft, imagination, story, cover or author page. The determination of what is “undue” shall be at the sole and unfettered discretion of the author, with or without regard for fact or reality. The author reserves the right to employ any and all means of social media (included but not limited to Amazon forums, Facebook, Kindle Boards, Facebook, personal weblog, Facebook, Pinterest, DiggIt, Tumblr, Fivrr, Facebook and Facebook) for the purpose of criticizing, mocking, ridiculing and otherwise defaming any review or reviewer, whether or not such review has been published in any public venue (including but not limited to the Internet generally, message boards, bulletin boards, telephone poles and public urinals); and the reviewer hereby waives any and all claims s/he may ever have against the author for the exercise of said right. As security for the performance of the reviewer’s obligations hereunder, the reviewer hereby grants the author an unlimited, unconditional lien upon reviewer’s residence located at _____________ as described in a deed dated ____________ and recorded at the _______________ county registry of deeds at Book ___, Page ___.

(Notary Public)

Please note that the notarization is a very important detail, as many foreign states require that contracts contain the raised seal of the notary to be enforceable.

Authors new to the business might consider the recommended language to be more aggressive than necessary. Who would agree to such ridiculous terms just for the pleasure of writing a review?

Those authors are dipshits not inured to the risks of the marketplace. They have not witnessed the permanent damage temporary setbacks that can result from the ravings of a psychotic stalker troll the expression of a frank opinion.

You are business people. Business people use contracts. Contracts protect rights. You can’t be too clear with your expectations!

The Rabid Stalker Bully Gangster Trolls Reviewers

 Only a few short years ago, the average stay-at-home mom spent her relaxation time reading Jackie Collins and staring at the pool boy. Now, half of them are outselling Jackie Collins writing porn about the pool boy.

The other half are writing reviews of them.

Make no mistake – some of these reviews are the evil and illiterate rantings of jealous nobodies  can be controversial, as they may shine an unduly harsh light on perceived shortcomings such as spelling, grammar, usage, style, characterization, plot, pacing and other frivolous details.

As many of these hypercritical reviewers do not boast MFA degrees and over-blown writing resumes, their criticism is often met by rabid hoards of fans attacking en mass in a deliberate prompt from the author’s Facebook page emphatic disagreement. The troll truly dedicated reader, a devoted two-book-a-week genre junky who has been a big meanie and said bad things to me written hundreds of reviews (good and bad) and been responsible for destroying the destiny of fame and fortune for tons of indie authors the word-of-mouth sales of thousands of indie books, might be publicly attacked by a bestselling household name as a “cartoonist reviewer” or like term find her opinion challenged by informed and respectful fellow readers.

There is only one way to protect the avid reviewer from the repercussions of harsh attacks on illiterate tripe honest intellectual criticism. Get it in writing.

The next time those indie authors contact you via email with a review request, send this back to them, auto-reply:

Hi!! I’m so GLAD that you contacted me to request a REVIEW!!!!

I’m glad to oblige and I can do it almost immediately!

Just send me back a (prc)(epub)(pdf)(doc)(other__________) file and your signed acknowledgement of the following statement:

“By delivering a copy of my book to REVIEWER, I hereby acknowledge that I have no expectation that the reviewer will read, like, or even review my book; and should REVIEWER publish a review in any venue, I will not criticize or otherwise comment negatively upon the review or the reviewer in any Internet venue; and further, I will not request or exhort any family member, friend or fan to do so. I further agree that any violation of this covenant shall entitled the reviewer to damages in the amount of $5 for each such comment made, in any venue, times $5 for each day such comment(s) remain visible. I hereby certify under the penalties of perjury that my true and correct legal name is _________________, and my true and correct residential address is ____________________.”

It comes down to communication. Problems arise between author and review when there is a failure to communicate. By both utilizing the form language above, or such modifications as they may mutually agree, the risk of miscommunication is substantially reduced. Each party knows their rights and liabilities. And they have an ironclad, enforceable promise in writing, upon which they may escalate any possible dispute.

I am available for consultations, should a problem arise.

That Damned Anonymous Panned My Book!

In the past week, there has been a great deal of exposure of a petition to Amazon seeking to remove anonymity from all Amazon book reviewers.  With a great deal of help from author Anne Rice’s nearly one million Facebook followers, the petition, initiated by one of Rice’s fans, has garnered over 5,000 signatures.

In the scheme of things, 5,000 is not a lot of signatures, but I am still baffled that this many people – I might assume many of them are authors and Rice fans – could put their names behind the mandate expressed in the petition.

Before we get to the petition itself, though, I want to point out a few things.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Amazon forums, and perhaps out of morbid curiosity, followed and reviewed the history of many of the more egregious instances of author versus author, author versus reviewer, and perhaps the worst instances: author fans on reviewer. These nasty encounters occur in the dark recesses of the Amazon book world, more commonly surrounding self-published works of erotica, romance and paranormal romance. As I read none of those (I swear), I am a mere wide-eyed spectator.

Let me say that one of the worst examples of this kind of gang attack was perpetrated by Ms. Rice herself, who posted a one-star review on her Facebook page, for all of her nearly 1 million fans to see, with a link to the review. You need no imagination to know what happened.

So then, this petition was submitted by one Todd Barselow, an independent editor and avowed fan of Ms. Rice, last week. (Mr. Barselow once attempted to raise money via gofundme to pay for a trip to New Orleans to visit the author and her son.) In just a short period of time, news of the petition – and more importantly, Ms. Rice’s championing of it (complete with PR photos)- has reached a variety of press outlets, all liberally using the press package delivered to them. Interesting!  Still, with all of that worldwide press coverage, the petition still stands at just 5,280 signatures.

In the midst of this all, it was announced that Ms. Rice’s long-awaited next novel is to be released imminently. Ah. It starts to make sense.

Saturday the 7th, a freelance writer from Tampa, FL initiated a thread on the Top Reviewers Forum, identifying herself as a reporter and asking for comments on the Rice petition. She had already written the piece covering the “authors” perspective (Rice and two others); she wanted to cover the reviewers. Amid suspicion that she might be a Rice fan, she assured forum members that she would report “objectively.” The freelance writer pens a regular column for the Tampa Bay Examiner called The Anne Rice Examiner, in which we can peruse such objective news articles as “Five Reasons Why We Love Anne Rice Novels.”  Other hard-hitting pieces can be found, such as Anne Rice Has a New App, and Random Facts You Might Not Know About Anne Rice (she prefers Jack-in-the-Box tacos to room service at the Ritz Carleton).

Needless to say, the article purporting to convey the opinions of reviewers in that forum wasn’t the objective reportage one might have expected from a typical journalist. In her lead, she stated that “some were suspicious of my motives and tried to expose me as some spy for the other side.” Gee, I can’t understand why they would have thought that! The freelancer’s next piece, published the very same day as her “Reviewers Fight Back” piece, is titled, Anne Rice’s Big Reveal – What will the subject of her new book be?

Anyway, I’ve come to the regrettable conclusion that this petition, launched by an Anne Rice fan, promoted far and wide by Anne Rice’s PR team, and reported on by Anne Rice’s hand-picked accolyte, is a publicity stunt – and successful one, at that – by the author, timed to occur immediately prior to the release of her newest book.

Now that we’ve covered the origin of the petition, what does it say? Well, here are a few of its utterances, and my reaction.

Anyone can now quickly and easily publish a book using the tools freely provided by Amazon.

This is a problem, because “anyone” covers a lot of people who (a) have no business putting a price tag on their so-called “book” (ouch, I know – but it’s true) and (b) are not emotionally equipped to handle the reaction of a disgruntled customer.

What is at issue is the fact that there is an incredible amount of bullying and harassment of some of these self publishing authors taking place on the Amazon platform/system.

Well. “This is the worst book I’ve ever tried to read” is not bullying and harassment. Blunt, hard to accept (if you’re the author), yes. Warranting the removal of anonymity? No.

I believe, as do countless others—many who will have signed this petition—that the reason this bullying and harassment is able to take place is because of the allowance of anonymity on Amazon.

The book has to be uploaded first, so that starts the ball rolling.

These people are able to create multiple accounts and then use those accounts to viciously attack and go after any author or person that they feel doesn’t belong on Amazon or who shouldn’t have published a book, made a comment on a forum post, etc.

Is the problem anonymity? Or is it multiple aliases under one account? I’m all for eliminating the use of multiple sock puppet accounts – frequently used by authors to post fake five star reviews of their own work, as well as to attack competitors.

Reviewers and forum participants should not be anonymous. By removing their anonymity and forcing them to display their real, verified identities, I believe that much of the harassment and bullying will cease.

We really do need to define these terms, “bullying” and “harassment.” Both are laden with subtext. But what Ms. Rice proposes is that the tens of millions of customers who buy from Amazon and might wish to review a product must surrender their anonymity because a few authors have had bad receptions to their work.

The impact of such a policy is hard to over-estimate. What soccer mom is going to continue to review the erotica she buys when she fears the judgmental eyes of the PTA board? What sufferer of mental or physical illness is going to review books on those subjects? The list of products reviewed on Amazon is endless. And so are the people whose opportunity to provide other customers with feedback will be impaired by this intrusive demand for identification.

Author Anne Rice has recently taken up this cause, as well, after experiencing the vitriol and hatred spewed by sock puppet account holders in the Amazon forums. She has publicly spoken out against these types of activities on numerous occasions and I’m sure that she will support this petition.

This is where the sheep’s clothing starts to look fake.

First of all, Ms. Rice was not subjected to “vitriol and hatred.” She initiated discussions in the Amazon forums, made deliberately provocative allegations against “careerist reviewers,” and “gangster bullies,” and met with disagreements. I invite anyone with the idlest curiosity to have a look. Furthermore, who knows whether any of the people daring to challenge Ms. Rice’s opinions were “sock puppets” or not. I know I did, and here I am. Many other authors disagreed with her, by name.

The petition was posted by Ms. Rice’s fan on change.org on Monday, February 24th. Ms. Rice signed the petition that day, and appears to have been the first person to have done so. She posted a link to the petition on her Facebook page on March 3rd, the day before the media campaign began: The Guardian (“Anne Rice signs petition to protest bullying of authors on Amazon”), Entertainment Weekly (“Anne Rice stands up to haters on Amazon”), Mediabistro (“Anne Rice Fights Author Bullying on Amazon”), the Toronto Sun (“Anne Rice wants Amazon to ban anonymity”) and (of all places) the American Conservative (“Anne Rice Against Amazon Bullies”), all  on March 4thTime on March 5th, the Christian Science Monitor on March 6th,  and a variety of secondary sources picked it up.

All with Ms. Rice’s name in the headline. All featuring lovely pictures of Ms. Rice. Some of them repeating false information about things that didn’t happen; none of them repeating the gory details of Ms. Rice’s own penchant for attacking her critics.

It offends me that a famous author would use such a far-reaching cause to both punish her critics and promote a new book. It’s shameful, really.

I get it that some folks have thin skin (Ms. Rice said, “thin skin got me where I am today”), and I’m not one to stick up for malicious people. I am not pleased at all by a lot of the anti-social behavior exhibited on the Internet. I’d like to see Amazon more aggressively monitor and moderate their customer forums, and I can think of a number of users I’d love to see banned outright.

But compelling millions of customers to reveal their names as a condition of reviewing a product is the equivalent of dropping a bomb on an anthill. You get rid of the ants, and a whole lot more than you intended.

Do Readers Care, or Even Notice?

There’s been an awful lot of bandwidth used lately over the subject of fraudulent book reviews and book marketing tactics.

One fellow in UK has admitted inventing sock puppets to write both gushing reviews of his own work and critical reviews of his competitors’. I find that sociopathic.

Another highly successful American author has admitted to paying for reviews (and no, not of the Kirkus variety). I find that devoid of ethics.

Then there is the ever ongoing tug of war on Amazon (The “Badly Behaving Authors” thread in the Kindle Book Forum is now 227 pages)  and Goodreads over shill reviews, vengeance reviews, etc.

It is inconceivable to me that any reasonably mature, well-balanced writer could become so consumed by the necessity of good reviews or the harm of a bad one that he would resort to (a) contriving false praise or (b) attacking a reviewer or competitor. And yet, it happens, and not seldom enough. So much for maturity and balance.

I know that a good number of subscribers to this blog are not writers but just friends and readers. So I would like to turn this post over to you folks in the comments section.

Do you buy books from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc.? How do you choose what books to read? Do you pay any attention to reviews at all, and if so, in what way? How much weight do you give them?

Talk to me.

On Promoting Your Book and “Shill Reviews”

This past week, I’ve spent a bit of time lurking in the Kindle forums. I found a few interesting discussions, aptly titled “badly behaving authors” and “badly behaving reviewers.” It seems I’ve been acting unethically – at least that was the consensus from the authorities there. Have I?

Since Diary of a Small Fish went live in September of 2011, it’s garnered 33 reviews, 21 of which are five stars, 11 four stars, and the one 2 star from the nice gentleman who abhors vulgarity.

One of the Amazon guardians pointed out to me that of the 4 and 5 star reviews, close to a quarter of them are what he called “tit for tat,” also known as “you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” or more notoriously, the product of what they call author “review rings.” Reminds me of Authonomy.

Since my reputation is pretty important to me (not all important, mind you – there’s always going to be someone calling you an @$#&@^$%), I’ve reflected quite a bit on this. I even examined the reviews I have given to novels written by authors who first reviewed Small Fish, to see if my review might have been influenced by the kind opinion they expressed in their reviews. I’ve also examined my reviews of “friends’” novels, to see if my “friendship” might have influenced me to give them more credit than they perhaps deserve. Or, as it was otherwise stated, if my review was “objective.”

At the end of my reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it’s pretty much total crap.

There is an opinion out there that the ethical author is never to solicit an Amazon review from a friend or family. The corollary must also be true then – if a friend reviews your novel, you mustn’t review his or hers in return. Much discussion around the definition of “friend” suggests that the term includes people on Facebook with whom you’ve become familiar (such as, for instance, participating in the same groups). I assume the term would also apply to people whom you’ve met on a LinkedIn group or through other social sites that cater to writers (like Agent Query Connect, Red Room, Red Lemonade and the like). Perhaps a good ground rule is if you’ve ever laughed at or agreed with anything someone says in an internet forum, you are disqualified from reviewing her novel.

For my purposes here, I include all the “friends” I made on Authonomy and Agent Query Connect, a grand total of one of which I have actually met in real life – my editor, Robb Grindstaff (who has not reviewed the novel he edited). Those are the people with whom I have the strongest affinity – because (a) I like their style (see infra), and (b) I’ve read their stuff and think they know what they’re doing. I take it on faith that my opinion in that regard is well founded.

A healthy number of these “friends” have reviewed Small Fish favorably. Looking at them, I note that I asked only one of them  – Suzanna Burke, who maintains a very active book review blog and agreed to review an advance copy in anticipation of launch. I don’t think under any circumstances I could have predicted how she would react to the story, and I was pretty damn nervous about it, up until the moment I read her review.

Months after she’d posted her review, I read Empty Chairs, the first installment of her memoir. If you know nothing of her story, I challenge you to read it. I gave it a complimentary review, but I now see that it seems to have disappeared. Odd, that.

I have also given “courtesy” reviews (those that follow the author’s review of Small Fish) to Alexander McNabb’s Olives, and Fred Limberg’s Ferris’ Bluff. Following my initial reviews of Vernon Baker’s Slow Boat to Purgatory, Stephen Woodfin’s The Sickle’s Compass, Susanne O’Leary and Ola Saltin’s Virtual Strangers, and Heikki Hatala’s Tulagi Hotel, I received reviews from them. I’ve also reviewed a whole bunch of other novels of non-reviewers. In no instance have any of the reviews been discussed in advance, requested, expected or implied.

So is there anything wrong – ethically – with writing a review of your Authonomy friend’s novel? Are you tainted by your relationship with this person?

I suppose it’s true that in the Brave New World of indie publishing, some aspiring authors enlist their friends to write unduly laudatory “reviews” of a piece of trash that doesn’t deserve to be read past page one. In fact, it happens all too often (which is, I think, what prompts the strong opinions that drive the forums above). It is also possible that one might have a low opinion of a friend’s novel, yet still feel compelled to give him a boost with an unduly favorable review (you might call that a “patsy review,” since the reviewer doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing).

It is also possible that some friends might read the novel, have an unfavorable opinion of it, and decide against reviewing it due to their affection for the author. In fact, I am guilty of that myself (you know who you are!). Is this dishonest, to withhold your negative opinion? To suggest it is, you have to first assert that you have an ethical obligation to review every book you read. Eh, that’s a stretch. I have no obligation to read past the first page, much less finish it.

What about this notion of objectivity? By definition, literature is subjective, coming as it does from the personal perspective of the author, and going as it does into the eye of the reader. A reader’s reaction to a novel cannot help but be subjective, so pure objectivity is a fiction. But am I going to read a novel differently because I know it was written by someone I know (virtually, anyway)? I don’t believe so, but if there is any truth to it, I am probably going to be more critical in my reading, so that I can give the author something of real value – my unvarnished opinion, privately.

Since I didn’t ask any of these folks to read my novel, much less review it, I certainly don’t think any of them have any reason to be deceptive about their opinions of it. And I have an objective basis to conclude that they weren’t: their opinions are almost unanimously shared by complete strangers (alas, the sole exception being the nice gentleman who abhors vulgarity).

What this all comes down to is the propensity for some folks to impose a set of rules for everyone that are based upon the lowest common denominator. Yes, there is impropriety in the way that some people seek and give reviews. There are plenty of indie writers who are immature, insecure, petulant, self-deceptive and overambitious. Their impropriety is obvious enough, and they inhibit the progress of all self-published authors.

But I do not subscribe to the philosophy that the “appearance of impropriety” exists in every instance in which one indie author reviews the work of another – or reads and reviews the work of one who has done him the courtesy first. We are all writers, and we are all readers. We do not give up our rights as readers to express our opinions (or not express them, as the case may be). We do not give up our right as friends to say nice things about people we know or the work that they produce.

I am drawn to the friends that I have because I sense in them (aside from talent) emotional maturity, intellectual honestly, a health sense of humor, and above all, humility. I trust in them to see the same in me. That is the basis upon which I conduct my relationships, and I’m not going to worry about what someone who doesn’t know me thinks.

Customer reviews on Amazon do not have the imprimatur of authority some folks might wish. They are nothing more than the opinions of readers who think enough about the reading experience to leave some feedback for other readers. To the extent that they are written with the intent of misleading customers, that is fraudulent. That’s not what the people I call “friends” do. It’s not what I do.

Prostitution and Slander

The uproar over Rush Limbaugh’s degrading and insulting comments about law student Sandra Fluke has included calls for him to be removed from the airwaves for his slanderous remarks. This presents an excellent opportunity to revisit some of the principles of defamation law that I discussed in my earlier post, You Dirty Rotten ^@#$%^.

Ms. Fluke, a Georgetown Law School student, testified before an ad hoc committee made up of Pelosi and several of her Democratic colleagues to give her public testimony on behalf of the Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, a number of whom attended the hearing with her. Since Georgetown is a Jesuit institution, it does not provide contraception coverage in its student health plan. She wished to share the voices of women who suffer from this policy and to speak on their behalf in advocating for the Obama administration’s insurance mandate.

The next day, Limbaugh let loose. Let’s look at his most incendiary statement:

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan (sic) Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex, right? She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception, she wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex, what does that make us? We’re the pimps. The Johns, we would be the Johns, no…. uhhhhhhh….Okay she’s not a slut she’s round-heeled, I take it back.

Fluke says that she has been told by legal experts that “I might have a case” if she were to sue Limbaugh for slander. [This followed the odd statement from Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) that “we will be filing a slander suit against Rush Limbaugh,” suggesting further that the perfect lawyer for the case was prominent women’s rights attorney Sybil Shainwald. I don’t know if Cong. Maloney was speaking for Fluke or not, but it would be highly inappropriate for her to say such a thing if she weren’t. What does she mean, “we?”]

Plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer Max Kennerly says:

Fluke “definitely” has a defamation case against Limbaugh if she chooses to pursue it. He suggests that Limbaugh’s comments that Fluke was a “slut” and “prostitute” “embedded false statements of fact,” were thus defamatory and that a judge might allow a jury to decide the case [Ed: see below].

“His statements implied facts about somebody’s sex life, that she was promiscuous and trading sex for money,” Kennerly said.

Kennerly’s post refers to this opposing viewpoint from Russell Smith at Legal As She Spoke:

Rush Limbaugh is a dumbass. I can write this without getting sued for defamation because it’s hyperbole. No reasonable person could conclude that I’m stating an actual fact about Mr. Limbaugh. (Feel free to agree, of course, but it’s rhetoric, not provably true or false.)

He also looks at Mark Rendazza at Legal Satyricon:

In other words, “slut” is properly regarded as little more than a statement of opinion. But see Bryson v. News Am. Publs., 672 N.E.2d at 1221; Howard v. Town of Jonesville, 935 F.Supp at 861; Smith v. Atkins, 622 So.2d at 800. …

The term “slut” has different meanings to different people. C.f. McCabe v. Rattiner, 814 F.2d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1987) (finding that the term “scam” “means different things to different people . . . and there is not a single usage in common phraseology. While some connotations of the word may encompass criminal behavior, others do not. The lack of precision makes the assertion ‘X is a scam’ incapable of being proven true or false.”); Lauderback v. Am. Broad. Cos., Inc., 741 F.2d 193, 196 (8th Cir. 1984) (insurance agent referred to as a “crook”). “Clearly, if the statement was not capable of being verified as false, there could be no liability for defamation.” Woodward v. Weiss, 932 F. Supp. 723, 726 (D.S.C. 1996).

Absent something really bizarre happening in Court, I can’t see a court, in this day and age, allowing a defamation claim based on the term “slut.” [Ed: Rendazza is saying that a judge would not allow a case to go to a jury, but would dismiss it before trial; he is also ignoring the bigger threat, the use of the word “prostitute.”]

Kennerly takes this position:

As much as Rush Limbaugh might sound like some drunk in a bar, he speaks for a major media organization, and his assertions to the public carry a certain degree of weight as a form of reporting. His listeners don’t think it’s just Rush sitting in front of a microphone, they rightly believe there’s a whole team of people who help prepare and review the day’s content and that Rush, an experienced broadcaster, would pay attention to his comments for accuracy. When Rush describes a woman as asking a congressional committee to pay her for sex, and says the woman is having a lot of sex, many listeners will infer that Rush has, at a minimum, investigated the congressional testimony, and has concluded the testimony includes some factual basis for his remarks.

And that’s the crux of the biscuit: Do Limbaugh’s comments, examined in their totality, considering all the words used, the circumstances surrounding them, how they were disseminated and the audience to which they were addressed, imply the existence of undisclosed facts about Ms. Fluke that support his insult, or would his listeners take the comments to be “epithets, rhetorical hyperbole, or pure statements of opinion,” which, vile as they may be, he may express without committing slander?

Kennerly is not saying it is necessarily a winning case, just that he thinks “a judge might allow a jury to decide the case.” This is no small distinction (unless you’re the one paying for the defense lawyer). Kennerly simply believes that there would be a question of fact sufficient to avoid dismissal of the case as a matter of law (at what is called the “summary judgment” stage).

I do find interesting the title for Kennerly’s post, “Sandra Fluke Can Sue Rush Limbaugh For Defamation And IIED.” Well sure she can. This is America. Anyone can sue for anything, and there’s usually a lawyer willing to take the case.

There is certainly no shortage of bystanders urging Ms. Fluke to sue Limbaugh. He brought this on himself, his remarks were tasteless, unnecessary, inaccurate, and damaging to his own personal and financial interests – to say nothing of the damage to the politics he supports.

And I could say the same about remarks made by Keith Olberman, Al Francken, Jon Stewart, Glenn Beck, and a lot of other pundits and talk hosts out there who rely on ratings and attention to sell advertising and run their special brand of vitriol.

(Want to see some more gen-yew-wine misogyny? Don’t see that on MSNBC, do you?)

The problem is that if Limbaugh were to be tried and found not liable, that result would embolden the rest of them. Personally, I think the economic boycott is a more effective, and less risky, approach.

What a really wish is that they’d all just shut the hell up.

Joining the Scrum

Last week, my friend Jill Marsh invited me to guest blog on her site. Jill is a UK writer based in Swizerland whom I met at The Bookshed, which you will see below. I thought I’d repost it here. Hi Jillie!

Some of this might sound repetitive to regulars. It’s a story I’ve told before, but honestly, I’m still pinching myself over this whole experience.

________________

Jill asked me to share that part of my journey wherein I decided to ditch my pursuit of the Holy Grail of traditional publication and join the ranks of the Great Unwashed (that’s how Big House editors look at us, I’m told).

First let’s get something straight. I am not a dreamer. I am a cynical, battle-scarred veteran of partisan politics and the trial courtroom. While I briefly entertained a dream of being a novelist back in college, it was quickly squelched by the pressure of parental expectations, economic reality, and the recognition that I had no life experience worth writing about.

So I went off and got some life experiences. The kind worth writing about. But it wasn’t until almost 20 years later that these experiences began to spill out of me in a story. A pal of mine asked back then, “do you have a novel in you?”

“Nah,” I said, and believed it.

Then my father died in August 2007. I’d been helping him with his memoirs when he became too weak to continue. After he left us, I tried to transform the work into a biography. But it was just too painful, and too soon. Still, I needed to find a way to grieve, and I found burying myself in a story was a pretty good way to do it.

One day I found youwriteon.com, where Jill’s pal John Hudspith found something within the rough first chapter I’d put up there that glimmered through the crap. I don’t know what it was, or why he thought so, but he invited me to join him and Jill and a lot of other awesome writers at a place called The Bookshed, and 18 months of merciless flogging later, I typed “the end.”

I did not write a novel to become a novelist. I had no illusions of big advances or Hollywood movie deals. I just wrote a novel, and people seemed to like it. I wrote some short stories and people seemed to like them. And I had a blast doing it, so what the hell, right? You enjoy doing something, why not see how far you can go with it? Surely, somewhere not far down the road, cold reality would slap me silly.

I started two more novels, just in case.

Going 0-for-120 on the query trail didn’t really bother me. This novel must not be as good as people say, I thought. Hell, a lot of folks think the food at Denny’s is pretty good, but we know differently, don’t we? It was the same as cooking. A lot of my friends thought I was a pretty good cook, too; but I’d never thought I was qualified to run the kitchen at a five star restaurant.

Then I went to my first writer’s conference in November of 2009, The New England Crime Bake. The first day, I attended a pitch practice session. Fate’s fickle hand at work, you know. I sat at the first empty seat, next to a lady I’d never met. She happened to be the agent. She went around the table, listening to stumbling and stuttering neophytes who hadn’t known what at all to expect. But I had practiced my elevator pitch. I sure had.

“What have you got,” she said to me, wearily.

Diary of a Small Fish is about a virtuous man who gets indicted for playing golf.”

A couple of giggles from the others.

“I want to read that,” she said.

Heh, what can I say? She’s married to a trial lawyer. She read it and loved it. He read it and loved it. Dumb luck. Nothing more.

Six months later, I signed on with Christine Witthohn at Book Cents Literary, but not until I’d spoken to a half dozen of her current clients, published and unpublished (at her insistence). The lady had sold practically everything she’d put her hands on. She must know what the hell sells!

Still, I am a cynic, you recall. I do not entertain fanciful dreams.

During the next nine months, I did significant revisions to the manuscript, based upon long conversations with Christine – and her husband, Jeff Mehalic. In that stretch of time, I might have sent Christine a dozen emails. She responded to every one of them within two hours, mostly by phone – except once, when she was stranded in Italy.

I know there are other cynics out there who find this preposterous. An agent responding to an email with a phone call? Within an hour? Like I said. Dumb luck.

These developments occurred, you will note, during the onset of the “ebook revolution.” Self-publishing was developing at light speed, and there were dozens of pioneers blazing the trails. I followed this closely, because many of my Authonomy friends were trailblazers.

In December of 2010, Christine submitted DOSF to editors at 7 publishers – editors she knew. Editors she’d sold stuff to before. But she told me when she did, “I’m not sure I can sell your book.”

You see, it didn’t fit neatly into the mystery/crime/suspense genre. (As Jill’s lovely review begins, “What exactly IS this book? Yes, it’s a political mystery. It’s also a love story. It explores corruption, honour and integrity. And it’s funny. But how to define it?”)

The wait began. That ridiculous, inexplicable, infuriating wait where even your own agent’s inquiries to them go unanswered. Two months, three, four. Okay, that’s to be expected. But more?

In the meantime, Joe Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, Barry Eisler, Amanda Hocking, John Locke and dozens of others filled the internet with dazzling information. Bloggers like Robin Sullivan kept tabs on a growing number of self-published authors making a serious living! Selling ebooks at 99 cents!

Get out of town. Seriously. And I was sitting on my hands waiting for a response, 6 months now.

June arrived. Christine and I had a heart-to-heart.

My novel is Boston-centric. It involves the shadows of personalities still walking, big names in politics being tried and convicted of the very same crimes my poor virtuous protagonist is accused of. At that very time! There was a market for this fiction, right here, right now! I was missing it! I couldn’t wait!

Christine’s response was simple:

  1. When you want to withdraw DOSF from submission, say the word, and I’ll call them.
  2. If you want to self-publish, then do these things first: (a) put up a single short story that’s really, really good, for FREE, (b) put up a collection of short stories a month later for 99 cents, (c) bust your ass creating buzz in advance of DOSF release, and (d) keep busting your ass to sell it.

Like a man looking at a break-up with his first true love, I asked, “What about us?”

Seriously! I had snagged one of the hottest agents in the business, and one who not only had a conscience, but a clear one at that. A lady as righteous and morally sound as my own protagonist! How could I take my only property off the market and negate the subject matter of our contract?

“We’ll use DOSF as a platform to sell your next one. And if it does well enough in the meantime, I can still sell it.”

Dumb luck. I’d stumbled upon a literary agent who not only understood the changes that were coming, but embraced them, and encouraged me and several other of her authors to self-publish.

When Amazon announced their genre imprints, she was on the phone to them, grilling them about what they were looking for, and in some cases, delivering it.

When the 9 month anniversary of the DOSF submissions approached, when none of the 7 had even given her the courtesy of a reply, and when Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer took a pass, it was time to go ahead.

[Note: There are now several authors on Christine’s list (some signed to multi-book deals with Big 6 publishers) who have at least one self-published work available. Some shorts, some novellas, some novels.]

I self-published Diary of a Small Fish on October 1st. I worked hard on the launch, had a lot of help from writer friends who delivered some very nice reviews (none nicer than Jill’s), and sold some books. I ordered 100+ paper copies from Createspace, sold most of them in a month, ordered some more. I had a smoking hot launch party in the shadow of the State House, sent out a very smart press kit.

Why did I, the stubborn cynic, the world-weary ex-politician and trial lawyer, decide to go to all this work and trouble to self-publish a first novel? Why didn’t I put it on the shelf and move on to the next, as the Old Guard would have?

Because somewhere in the process – when I’d heard enough feedback from people whose opinions I respect and trust – and when I’d re-read enough of it for the 100th time, I realized how damn much I believe in this novel.

I’m no authority on fiction. I’m just a guy with a little storytelling talent. But I firmly believe that a successful novel is one that touches all of your emotions. Humor, sorrow, anger, hatred, love, hopelessness, panic, fear, elation, etc. I didn’t know that when I started writing.

I think that’s what DOSF does. And I wanted readers to experience it now, today, not in Q4 of 2013.

There is also this:

What is going on in fiction publishing today is truly revolutionary. Seldom is the use of that word so fitting. It was impossible for me to sit idly in the cheap seats, waiting for my prom date, when all that energy was burning on the dance floor below. There are some bad dancers down here, but they’re not stepping on my feet. And there are some really fabulous dancers, too. This is where the action is, here in the scrum. I want to have fun dancing, not compete in a marathon.

The Dumpster as a Metaphor

Over the past week, I have been distracted by the excruciating task of emptying our parents’ house in Florida and preparing it for sale. I’d been on a pretty good writing jag for several days before, but came to a screeching halt the minute I got off the plane in West Palm Beach.

My parents were exuberant consumers of … stuff. When my father went out for something, he came back with three. He once went out to purchase a new pants presser and bought four – and sent one each to his sons. I used mine at most a half-dozen times. He took me hunting on the Eastern Shore of Maryland once years ago. On the Annapolis side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, we stopped at a sporting goods store to pick up hunting licenses and ammunition. We walked out with that, plus two shotguns worth about $1200 apiece. Several years after my mother had her stroke, he thought it would be nice for her to get around, so he bought one of those JAZZY electric wheelchairs. On her first test spin, she ran into the butcher’s block and took a chunk out of the door frame. Ol’ Jazzy sat in the corner of the guest room for the next four years.

In light of this, you can imagine what a daunting task it was for me and my brothers to start opening cabinets and drawers. Four flashlights. Countless “extra” batteries. Owner manuals for appliances long since discarded. Cuisinarts, blenders, knife sharpeners, juicers, salad bowls, Woks. It was like the domestic version of clowns in a Volkswagen.

You would think that the detritus of couple who’d already “downsized” twice would easily fit into a 15 cubic yard dumpster, but you would be wrong. Not counting the furniture which remains to show the house, or the medical devices and equipment which were donated to the local Hospice, we gorged that dumpster with junk. At dusk on Friday, the neighbors (if they were around) would view the spectacle of three men in their 50’s jumping up and down atop an overflowing steel tub the size of a small bus. It was a curious and melancholy sight.

In Chapter XII of his 1916 book, On the Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch discusses his thoughts on writing style. He comes to this point:

Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

This pithy invocation has been variously attributed to Mark Twain, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. It is apparent that Quiller-Couch was merely reiterating the thoughts attributed to Samuel Johnson many years earlier:

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’

But as James Boswell explained in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1832) (courtesy of Google Books), Johnson was only repeating to Boswell “what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils. Johnson experts have no idea who that tutor might have been.” (Isn’t the internet amazing?)

Back to domestic detritus.

As we emptied cabinets, drawers and closets (setting aside what we could for charitable donations), we were repeatedly struck by the extrinsic value of  so much of it. Glass vases. Tools. Utensils of every kind and shape. Pictures, paintings, prints, along with their frames. Audio equipment long obsolete but in good operating condition. Hats. Blazers. Lamps and shades. Champagne flutes. Waterford snifters. Bar implements. A golf cart!

So many of these items (particularly the last) were things we would have loved to keep, but they just didn’t belong. They had utility neither where they were nor where they might have gone.

So as I teetered on the top of the dumpster pile, tentatively jumping, fearful one leg might find a bedding sinkhole, I was reminded of the “cut file” I’d created for all of the darlings in Diary of a Small Fish. The dumpster to my manuscript, full of fluffy stuff that was of no value to the finished product.

I only wish there were such a thing as a yard sale for prose. Or maybe that’s what blogs are for.