The Flight of the Sorceress

The Flight of the Sorceress
Front and Back Covers

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


One of the major theme points of The Flight of the Sorceress resolves around Original Sin and its relationship with the Pelagian Heresy, the counter doctrine that good works alone can win the Kingdom of Heaven. St. Augustine, the great proponent of Original Sin, is a moving force in my novel. His work City of God provides a dramatic backdrop to Glenys’s revelation of sexual trauma.  

St. Augustine was a native of town in what is now eastern Algeria. In 396 A.D. he became the Bishop of Hippo Regius. This area, along with modern Tunisia and much of Libya is in the province that the Romans called Numidia. The Roman province of Numidia lends itself to many scenes in my historical novel, The Flight of the Sorceress. Major scenes take place in ancient Carthage and the Auras Mountains in Tunisia. Numidia, what is now called Al Maghreb, in the years of The Flight of the Sorceress was a Christian land. Its spiritual leadership was in the hands of men like St. Augustine, pillars of the Roman Catholic Church and they held power under the auspices of the Roman legions.

But Numidia was also a land inhabited by Jews, a large number of whom were refugees from the pogrom of Alexandria in 415 A.D., a story that is recounted in detail in The Flight of the Sorceress (although, in the novel, only the westward migration of refugees is related.)

Readers should be aware that there was a Jewish presence in Numidia for several thousand years. But that is no longer true. Libya, in the last century, before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, had about 40,000 Jewish citizens. By 1967, that number deceased to 7,000. In 1961, all but six Jews were deprived Libyan citizenship. By the time Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power in 1969 only about 100 Jews remained in Libya.  Under Qaddafi’s rule, the last remnant of the Jewish population was forcibly expelled. All Jewish property was confiscated. All debts to Jews were canceled. Emigration for Jews was legally prohibited. Today, there are no Jews in Libya. It is the only North African state that can make such a claim. Indeed this ethnic cleansing of an ancient minority population was so complete it would make a Nazi drool with envy. In fact, Qaddafi was so hung up on this Jewish thing that after he took power he demanded that the U.S. Air Force, which then had a large airbase (Wheelus AFB) close to Tripoli reassign its Jewish personnel (about 135 of them) out of the country. The entire base closed down shortly afterward.

When the faction dominated by the Augustinians kicked the Donatists out of the Catholic Church by force of Roman arms in 411 A.D. did it lay the groundwork for a military enforcement of religious dogma? Did that set a precedent for the forcible expulsion of Jews from Alexandria four years later? Did it preface the subsequent demise of Christianity in Al Maghreb at the hands of Muslim conquerors two centuries later? Is it a stretch to think that Qaddafi is an inheritor of that very same state of mind? Does intolerance have a half-life longer than Cesium?   

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I know this isn't exactly Flight of the Sorceress material, but I thought I'd redirect readers for a moment to my website at A Gauche Press and the article: .Energy: Are We In A Fix

Although you might not have noticed, we are still in the midst of the Daiichi disaster and now the radioactivity is getting into the water supply as well as marine life. The immediacy of the disaster is being pushed onto the back pages. The "news" has determined that "there is nothing to see here, so just move along." And that's the problem with nuclear disasters. The radiation just settles in an kills silently over long periods of time. No big tsunami photos, no toppling buildings, just people and animals wasting away in agony. That's not news.

So I just though I'd do a brief summary for those who may be interested about what our energy options really are these days. I do hope you'll take a look. In perspective, it kind of makes the Dark Ages look balmy. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Spectacular women characters.”  Jonah Raskin, author of Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives.

Compelling characters” Holly Shumas, author of Five Things I Can’t Live Without, and Love and Other Natural Disasters

Very realistic characters. Coffee Time Romances Review.

The central roles played in particular by Glenys, Aschi and Hypatia, revolved around each other to create a plot tension and foreboding that did really work.” John Nash, Molokai, HI.

You can’t help but feel for these women, who are so grossly over-matched but who still do not give up.” Historical Novel Review.

The Sorceress is an enlightened mind… her tenacity will impress you, but it is her will to flourish that will make you want more."  Ransom Stephens, author of The God Patent.

Reviewers, blurbers and readers have uniformly described the characters that I created in The Flight of the Sorceress in such terms. I do not hold an MFA. I’ve taken writing courses, yes, but what I am doing is drawing on over forty years of experience as a trial lawyer when I create my characters.

Lawyers, and in particular trial lawyers, have a unique experience when it comes to assessing states of mind and human emotions. We get the opportunity to question people and to demand answers under oath. This power is not limited to adversaries, or even witnesses, but extends to jurors. I have taken the testimony of more than a thousand witnesses. I have been counsel in well more than a hundred trials. I have questioned innumerable jurors. In some of the more significant cases, I have had the benefit of insights from jury-selection experts and focus groups.

What am I looking for? Well, besides the truth, I am looking for how people react when I put them under stress. And I want to know whether I can replicate those reactions. When that occurs, I know that I have found a behavioral trait that signals an emotion. It is what poker players call a “tell.” Does the person habitually evade eye contact when feeling pressed and uncomfortable? Does she attempt to zero in and make eye contact? Do knuckles go white? Do hands instinctively fold across chests? Do veins in the neck constrict?

Trial lawyers know that these subtle behaviors are subliminally processed by jurors when they are assessing whether or not a witness is lying. People are “read” as much as they are heard. So it stands to reason that when creating a believable character, the task of the author is to provide realistic and appropriate “tells” within scenes, rather than to attempt to describe emotions.

But these skills are not unique to trial lawyers. Many of you have day jobs that qualify you to draw better characters. Maybe you are or have been a therapist, a shoe salesperson, a waitperson, a teacher. You have opportunities to witness behavior and to draw conclusions. Will this person tip well? Is she really out to buy shoes? Is he evading in his responses to your questions? You notice little things that tip you off.

We, as authors always hear the advice, “show” don’t “tell.” Well there is a tendency when writing description to tell. It is easier in some ways. We tell about facial hair, physical features, dress. But what we really do in life is evaluate what we are being shown. So it is possible to show, and let the reader do the same evaluation of your characters as you do when you deliver a plate of spaghetti to a cheapskate you know in your heart is going to stiff you on the tip. If the author does her job skillfully in describing the character’s behavior, little more need be done in expounding on the emotions. In this respect, the readers are your jury.

That is not to deny the importance of description, especially when it comes to the descriptions of significant characters in a book. It goes without saying that characters should be distinct from one another, to avoid confusion. But I personally go for detail work, rather than rough brush strokes. Saying, for example, that a character is “heavy set and oafish” doesn’t do it for me. I would prefer to know that his sweat-stained size forty-six belt had been extended even further through the addition of a few poorly placed auger holes.  Now I know much more about the man, based on a single sentence.

And I want to take that image with me into the next scenes where the character appears, so don’t load me up at the first sitting with a lot of description. Let me digest that bit before offering me another bite. The author should manage the portions and allow plenty of time to dole it all out. This is especially true when there are contradictions within a character. And, there should always be contradictions. I’ve gotten criticized for the absence of contradictions and flaws in my characters more than their presence. Readers know that no one is perfect, flawless, airbrushed. Or that the villain must be all bad 24/7.
When an author draws such a character, unless it is intentionally cartoonish, editors and agents will begin to cringe. I have plenty of personal knowledge on that front.

If you have the time and interest, I’d like to offer you a hands-on demonstration. I have linked this article to a news spot from a legal case I recently completed. I provide it here not to toot my own horn about the case — although I am extremely proud of the work my colleagues and I did on it over the past eight years. (I am no longer in practice and not taking any clients.) Here’s the link:
(Note: there is both a print report and a video. Check out the video.)

This defendant, whom I will call Hugh Swindle, (a real name actually) might serve to inspire a potential villain in a novel. What shall we take from him for our novel? Certainly not an accurate description of the whole man, but perhaps some mementos. 

Before you read on, take a few moments to jot down how you would describe Hugh Swindle if you were planning on making him a character in your novel. Send it to this blog. Hopefully we will get some real feedback on this and be able to compare notes.

Now that you’ve done your bit, here is mine: "He came at the camera with his hand outstretched to block photography. "You'll have to leave," he said, in a monotone as cold as a Canadian wind blustering over an icy lake in the dead gray of winter. It was a meaty hand, a hand that meant business. And the etchings on his face betrayed little experience with joy." 

One of my favorite writers of all time is Dashiell Hammett. He could do that with his descriptions. His books rarely exceeded a couple hundred pages, but his characters persist in my imagination because he compelled himself to be creatively spare.  There is no mind-wandering allowed when you read him. Skip a few words and you risk missing the boat. I know a lot of us are mostly writing eBooks these days so the metaphor I’m about to impart may be a bit inapt but I’d say that writing believable characters involves saving the forests.

So, I’m not the final word on this subject. I want to learn from you. Send in your character sketches and we might just all learn a little something beneficial from each other.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Dear friends and followers, 
Over on my website, I've posted a long political essay entitled THE COMING DARK AGES: WHAT THE FLIGHT OF THE SORCERESS HAS TO DO WITH THE TEA PARTY. You're of course welcome to go over and take a look, but WARNING it is political and you're entitled to at least a PG notice. (There's no swearing, porn or anything kinky, so if that's what you are into today, look elsewhere.) But if you 're troubled by things like Wisconsin and the other stuff that is going on now across the country, from assassinations of abortion providers, judges, attempts to kill elected representatives, bombings of MLK peace marches, if you are wondering where this all may be heading, you might be interested in the frame of mind that created  The Flight of the Sorceress. And I'm hoping that even though it's just available as an ebook at this time and you may be waiting for print, you might restrain the Luddite in you, take a look at it now in its available format and become familiar with some of the urgency that I am feeling, in these increasingly troubled times. Sorry to politically rant you all out. Can't help myself. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


I had no idea how cool the setting for this novel was until I read one of the other reviews and realized that this was set at the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. The time period (Britain ~410 AD) was almost post apocalyptic to a lot of people in Britain with the Roman Empire abandoning the British Isles and the old ways clashing with Christianity and that sort of thing.
The setting is really exciting.
The characters are extremely well done and one finds oneself really getting to know them and fear for their fate as the novel progresses.
There is also a lot of really intelligent discourse between characters in the book and a lot of it is highly relevant to modern society. That may be what I am enjoying the most. Modern elements viewed from the "safety" of the distant past. As one reads some of the conflicts about religion, women's (and minority) rights and notions on acceptance and/or blind hatred, one can see how the lessons in Flight of the Sorceress can be applied to life in 2011.
I picked this book up to better explore Britain in 400AD. I have found a meticulously researched historical fiction novel that is both captivating and thought provoking.
Well done! 
Joel Gates, NC. Green Gates


Are we all screaming so loudly that no one is hearing us?

You will notice that I have not punctuated the title of this commentary. I don’t know whether to make it a question or a declarative sentence.

I hadn’t heard the word “noise” used in the context of PR until a few months ago. I was talking to one of my daughters. Nina happens to be the editor-in-chief of Budget Travel. She offhandedly asked my how the sales of The Flight of the Sorceress was going. I told her that I was on fourteen Yahoo Groups, five Amazon discussion groups, that I had a blog and also a website. That I had put so many promos on Facebook I was surprised that I hadn’t been universally de-friended. Shunned. Cast out of the electronic community. I shook my head and said “eh.”

“There’s a lot of noise out there,” she replied with a bemused twinkle in her eye. Nina’s got a finely sharpened stiletto of a wit and some people don’t get it. It can pass for snarky or condescension, but it’s not that at all. She gets to the nub of things with a few spare words. Until she said that, I had been a faithful believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I began to reassess his thesis.

“Noise. Hmmn.”

If you’re an author and you have a book out there, chances are purer than the old 99.44/100% pure Ivory soap ads that you’re self-promoting your asses off. And if you’re like me, you’d much rather be writing, researching, creating, sharing ideas, reading stuff to one another, talking about what you learned. You’re not a salesperson. You probably are pretty shy. Self-effacing and fragile about your skills, Are you any good? Really. Can you believe what people tell you about yourself? Are they just patronizing you? Can you trust your friends?

You are not alone. I don’t know if it does any good to say that. It’s a kind of misery-loves-company sort of thing. But I know a lot of artists, writers, actors and musicians. They all feel the same way, despite how they present themselves. We are a moody bunch, we obsessively creative types. And the truth is that we see the cracks and crevices, the bad work and the poorly-formed phrases in our own work better than others. For us they are emblazoned in neon and ten feet high. We know we can do better and we are pissed that we didn’t see or foresee. And when that happens we tend to think our lives are in ruins. We are humiliated. Your number one job at that moment is to stave off depression. You can’t sell anything if you look like a haggard and harried wretch.

Now, in the current environment, it is we, perhaps the least qualified among us to toot our own horns, who find ourselves wandering the virtual wilderness in droves to promote what we have written. Unless you inhabit the rare pinnacles of commercial success, you are flung out by your publishers, your elbows poking against one another in desperate paroxysms to get some space.

Every day, I receive somewhere between fifty and one hundred promotional emails from authors much like myself, trying to be heard, seen, appreciated, invigorated and validated. True, some of us are not all that talented, but there is really no way to tell that until you actually read the work. And you have to really want to do that.

I think of myself as a discriminating reader. I have to be with all the noise out there. So I don’t generally select my reading material from email promotions. Yet there I am pounding the keyboard, adding my own little cacophony to the general noise. What the hell am I doing?

If you are anything like me, you’re close to wearing out your delete button. You’ve got so many filters working that it remains amazing anything at all gets through. But there they are every day, fifty, sixty, seventy promos.

I have a number of author friends. I hear their laments and disappointments at their own numbers. This is not a business where a sane person can expect to get rich. Sometime you’ve got to wonder whether you are sane. Sometime you can legitimately question whether, from the author’s perspective, it is even a business. Especially when you end up eating the cupcakes you bought for the crowd that didn’t come and all you get is fat. “What kind of American dream is this?” you cry.

As I said, I didn’t bother to punctuate the title. It’s a tease. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have an MFA and even if I did, I’d probably need an MBA to make money at this gig. (Plus a very crass and cynical personality that would disqualify me on the creative end.) I don’t like PR people. I find them disingenuous and mercenary. I am skeptical of their ability to deliver. I think that if you looked at the results, client by client, and not simply their three or four testimonials, the truth would tell a very different tale. Every day, on every group and every blog, I see them trying real hard to sell to a market that is primarily us. That’s enough evidence for me.

I’d actually prefer to deal directly with authors. But the fact is that skills do not necessarily cross over. You don’t want a proctologist doing your brain surgery. Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of all time, but he couldn’t play major league baseball. And that is what authors across the board are being asked to do. What a conundrum.

What do I do when I get into this funk? I remember when I was in college. I was a varsity athlete and when asked what position I played, I said “bench.”  While some thought I was being funny, it was actually sarcasm, which really isn’t funny at all … but then it is. I am a firm believer that it is way better to be on the bench than in the stands. Sometimes— every once in a while —you do get to play. More importantly, getting to bench means you know how to play. It means you’ve worked as hard as the starters. It means you’ve sweated the same pints that they have. And it means that even though you might not be the best, you’re head and shoulders above the rest. You are not in the stands. You are actually playing the game, and that puts you in a very special minority — the people who seriously try and do not lead a Walter Mitty life. I take encouragement from that, a residual faith in a kernel of Tipping Point truth and a little bit of lottery fantasy. What the hell else is there? When you boil it down, the American Dream is to get struck by lightning.

But that doesn’t happen to most of us. So let’s all face the truth. Nearly every publisher, for nearly every author, with only a few notable exceptions, is de facto a vanity publisher. They may give you an advance. They may pay you for the rights to your work. But they can’t pay you even minimum wage for a good novel. And that’s nothing compared to the time you’ll have to put in, away from all of the other things you love to do in life, trying to sell your work. Beyond that, if you paid someone to do that shit for you you’d need your own personal government bail-out just to keep food in your stomach. So in every way, we authors are subsidizing our own works.

I knew all of this when I began the unpleasant task of promoting The Flight of the Sorceress. I think it’s a great book and I get positive feedback that reinforces that belief. But empirically I know that reviews, great blurbs and internet promo won’t sell a lot of books. There is just too much noise out there. We are suffering from a wealth of creativity, all of our own damn making. And the noise that does get heard gets made by big budgets. If you’ve got a big budget, my recommendation is that you buy real estate now while prices are low and the rates are good. You’ll certainly be glad you did. Don’t spend it on a book promotion budget.

Yet I still flail and thrash. What else can be done, I ask. My book is too good to get lost in the slush. I write reviews for Goodreads and Amazon. When I hear from people who read the reviews and like the way I write, I write them back, one person at a time. Perhaps one or two may even buy a book or join my blog. I try to write things that interest people, or at least I’d like to think I write things that interest people — sometimes I’m not so sure. I reject give-aways because it devalues the product and diminishes the work. I won’t do that. I write because I want to. I take solace in the fact that a publisher will invest anything in me. It has to be a sign that I am doing something right— or to be more accurate, worthwhile. Yet another reason to keep the faith baby.

I’m sorry. I’ve got no panaceas here. I’ve got no special “how-to” gimmicks or 50-item check lists or power-point presentations. That’s probably because I’m not selling anything — other than my book that is. (Don’t forget, after you read this, to be stunned by my writing abilities and hypnotized into buying a copy from Wild Child Publishing.) And if past history is any predictor of future performance, I’m not likely to do very much of that.

Writing is, and really should be, a labor of love. It should be a gift to civilization from a grateful member of society — a way of teaching and an encouragement to our posterity. We write because we want to be a person who writes. We want to say something that we so strongly believe needs to be said that we will put aside a large part of our lives to do it. That is primary. I do believe we should do our best to promote, but without bringing on utter depression, despondency and desolation to our lives and those of our loved ones. Most of all though, we should continue to do what we love, to write and to take our gratification from the creation rather than the royalty check. Otherwise we’ll be the worse for it. Glenys, one of the heroines in Flight of the Sorceress speaks for me when she says: “Even if only one single person reads it a century from now, couldn’t that make a difference?” That keeps me going.

Monday, March 7, 2011


For the next 10 days, Wild Child and Freya's Bower will be offering 25% off any ebook purchase over $5 with the coupon code "green". The code is good until the 17th of March because we are celebrating St. Paddy's Day.
Just go to  Wild Child Publishing find The Flight of the Sorceress under "historicals" and buy it for less that four and a half bucks. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Future of Publishing: Part 3 of 3

The Next Big Move in Publishing Will be Geographical

Ransom W. Stephens, Ph.D.
Legacy publishers have several inimitable core strengths. The question is: Are these strengths sufficient to keep them alive as they navigate the altered landscape? The thing that historically trips up legacy players is the inability to see past their own sense of validity in the face of technical disruption. The role of the publisher is to make books available to the people who want them. In the absence of that role, none of the others – the cultural filter, content development, quality control, employer, protector of shareholder value – are relevant.
In this, Part 3, we concentrate on legacy publishers’ immediate strengths, a few mistakes they’re making, an obvious weakness, and one huge oversight that speaks of the industry’s myopia.
Details, details – no one can handle the mess of details that the stature of books in our society demands. From ISBN and Library of Congress cataloging to legal issues like copyright, plagiarism, and most important of all, the inter-human details of book promotion.
A myth has propagated in the wake of the transformation of the music industry. People steal music. They steal movies. The volume of theft crippled the industry until a reasonable price model was developed by Apple at the iTunes store. The legacy players either died, followed suit, or are still lingering in corporate hospice. There are two fundamental differences between music and books: the customers and usability. The vast majority of music buyers are 18-24 years old. As for book buyers? We’d rather not discuss our ages, thank you. And it’s not that book buyers are aging, the demographic has always been thus.
Second, when you buy a song you expect to listen to it dozens, maybe hundreds of times. A book? Get through the whole thing if it’s good, twice if it’s really good, several times if it’s outstanding.
The fact is, people do not steal literature. It’s not like music, doesn’t have the same customers, doesn’t have the same usability. If people stole literature, libraries would be packed. The only part of the library that is packed is over at the computers.
It has never been particularly difficult to copy a book and then reprint, bind and sell it. This has been a small problem for the US publishing industry, hardly worth mention. Ebooks, of course, are the issue.
Legacy publishers are wringing their hands over Digital Rights Management (DRM) – a technique for preventing piracy of text files, that is, ebooks. It’s a massive waste of time. More people share hardcopy books than ebooks, it’s easier. The only area of piracy that needs to be monitored is redistribution of ebooks. Anyone can buy a copy of an ebook, turn around and sell it on the internet. Preventing this flavor of piracy requires skills that legacy publishers lack: software and web-sniffing algorithm development. Skills that are integral components of the businesses models of Google, Apple, Smashwords, and
In an irony that is typical of these types of business transitions, the new players have solved the problem but rather than adopt the solution, the legacy publishers are suing them. It’s a corporate temper tantrum that is disturbingly reminiscent of the legacy music industry’s business model of suing their best customers.
To prevent copyright violations at they developed technology that automatically checks whether an ebook uploaded to their site was truly the property of the person who claimed authorship. It’s impossible for you to upload Eat, Pray, Love because the technology knows it’s not yours; more importantly, it’s impossible for you to upload The God Patent because Scribd knows it’s mine. Legacy publishers demonstrated their appreciation for the new kid looking after their rights by suing them. You see, Scribd’s technology compares uploaded text to a vast database of known copyrighted works. The publishers are suing on the basis that’s database itself violates their copyrights because the database contains excerpts of copyrighted work. Forget that no one can access the database for something as trivial as reading. It’s just there to protect everyone. Even me, probably you, too.
There is something sinister in the way that publishers handle the elusive details of legal issues like libel and defamation. Every contract between an author and publisher places the legal responsibility for any conceivable lawsuit at the feet of the author. Legacy publishers are good at handling the details, but they do so to protect themselves, not their authors or their customers.
In fact, there are other backhanded gifts handed down from publisher to author. One of the perceived perks for an author signed to a legacy publisher is the advance on royalties. But the advance is more shackle than perk, at least for those authors who could benefit most. Should the title earn less than the advance, the author frequently becomes anathema to the publisher. It’s an odd way to run a business: fire the developer for a mistake made by the marketing team. In publishing’s glorious past, they trusted their initial judgment of an author and provided a steady hand through the bumpy ride of the first few titles. This is now more often exception than rule.
But, you say, pounding the keyboard, how else can a writer be paid? How can new books be written by competent authors? How can writers make a decent wage?
Ultimately, in the course of an author’s career, whether they are paid before or after a title earns money only matters for their first title. It’s called a bootstrap issue in Silicon Valley, “chicken and egg” in the heartland, “advance on royalties” in New York City.
The new model flows more logically. My publisher, Numina Press, LLC does not pay advances. Instead, they pay more than three times the royalties that legacy publishers offer and they pay them promptly each month. Google, Smashwords, Scribd, Amazon, etc take a commission, anywhere from 20-45%, and the author collects the rest. Yes, the author must finance the first title, but that’s always true. You can’t get an agent, much less a publisher without the manuscript in hand. After that, the first title finances the second, the second finances the third, and so forth. Successful authors build a trail of royalties that increases organically with their readership and will support them at whatever level that readership provides.
The advance is coveted by authors, but it is ultimately a red herring used against them.
None of this means that authors and, for the moment, readers don’t need publishers. There is one vital component of the process that the legacy publishing industry simply dominates: wetware.
It’s part skill set but, as they say, it ain’t what you know, it’s who you know.
When Random House sends a press release to NPR, or complimentary copies to Booklist, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, etc, the person at the receiving end recognizes and trusts the person at the sending end. When the director of promotions for Numina Press sends out press releases, there is no response. Neither Smashwords, Scribd, Apple, nor Google are likely to ever send such a press release and, if they did, they wouldn’t know to whom to send it.
Radio, television, and print sell books. There are a lot of details to cover and, with well over a century of experience, legacy publishers know how to manage them: reviews, awards, author appearances, book tours, timely placement of excerpts in ideal places, tradeshows, sales calls on booksellers – all these things, not to mention the long list that I didn’t mention, are utterly foreign to the likes of Apple, Google, Scribd and Smashwords.
The most poorly written book in history, if its author appeared on Oprah, would spend at least one week on the major bestseller lists. Of course this wouldn’t happen; back in the real-live handshake-and-meet-for-lunch world things are vetted. The problem is that the vetting is still small-statistical-sample subjectivity. How long until Booklist, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, etc, realize the power of democracy and choose books to review based on how they are received by readers? Or will reader reviews altogether replace them? And why not? Is their opinion more relevant than yours?
How effective are reviews? The God Patent got a stellar review in the San Francisco Chronicle, but the 50+ reviews by actual readers posted at Amazon provide a much more accurate snapshot of who likes it.
The Six Sisters get major reviews for all of their titles and more than 75% of those titles fail to return their initial investment. By “investment” publishers only include the author’s time investment up to the advance on royalties. Most advances these days don’t pay the author minimum wage for the hours spent writing (when royalties on The God Patent reached minimum wage on the time it took to write, I had a party! If you weren’t invited, you should complain bitterly to: ransom at ransomstephens dot com).
A new type of marketing acumen may prove far more important than the wetware-handshake-and-lunch-based model that has served legacy publishing so well. Programmed targeted marketing builds a model of your preferences based on the web pages you surf, the stuff you buy, the questions you ask of Google, your social networking profiles and standard demographics like age and zip code. The model calculates the probability in terms of a confidence interval that you will buy a certain item. The best current example is Netflix’ method for predicting what movies you’ll like. The beauty of targeted marketing is that it makes narrow niche items profitable. In annoying corporate parlance: it monetizes the long tail. With known probabilities and their uncertainties, promotion budgets can be produced with known risk.
Where success in legacy marketing results from who you know, success in targeted marketing results from how much math you know. Legacy publishers do not employ an excess of mathematicians, physicists and software engineers – the people who understand data analysis and mathematical modeling. On the other hand, at Google, Apple and Yahoo you can’t spit without hitting one of these guys.
At last, to the point around which we have danced: The publishing industry operates with a blockbuster profit model. They are homerun hitters who survive on that less than 25% profitability batting average by having a few big hits. In addition to this model being subject to fluctuations, there is a deeper more essential weakness.
Consider three different authors. First, a guaranteed bestseller: Janet Evanovich. Rumor has it that she has demanded $50M advance for her next books and St. Martins has denied the offer. Does she need a publisher? If she were to toss a manuscript to iUniverse, Lulu or any other self-publishing house wouldn’t she make more than by having St. Martins run the show? Janet Evonovich doesn’t need the marketing acumen of a legacy publisher. The instant gratification of the internet will propagate her work with little effort on her part. Bookstores will grapple for copies, even if they can’t get them on the archaic consignment/returns model.
The question is more interesting when rephrased: Does the legacy publisher need Janet Evanovich? A homerun hitter who has lost the ability to hack a hanging curve out of the park is soon riding the pine (i.e., yes).
A more telling example is Mark Morford. Morford is a columnist online version of the San Francisco Chronicle, He is brilliant, hilarious, outrageous and so edgy that you have to sand down his sentences to avoid cutting your retina on them. Morford self-published his book, The Daring Spectacle, a collection of his favorite columns supplemented with fresh details including samples of the hate mail he has received from people of opposing political opinion.
Morford is the guy that legacy publishing needs; someone who jumps over the transom with 50,000 ardent fans in tow. But, does Mark need the publishing industry? Why take 7-12% royalties that are delivered 6-18 months after they are earned when he can take 50-100% right now? What makes Morford’s story intriguing is that he’s in the middle. A big publisher probably would finance a substantial marketing campaign and that 50,000 could go up by a factor of ten. Of course, then Mark would have to answer to editors and if you read his column you’ll detect reticence to subject himself to censorship of any flavor.
What about the emerging author who lacks celebrity? Writing is solitary work which naturally attracts people who like to be alone. Being alone is not an effective approach to building a platform. A “platform” is marketing-ease for what Mark Morford has, a large group of people who are ready to buy his book the instant it hits the metaphorical shelves. If we make a list of the great writers – people like Cormac McCarthy, Amy Tan, Nick Hornby, Michelle Richmond, Mary Stewart, Neal Stephenson, Ransom Stephens (thought I’d squeeze that in to impress my daughter) – we’ll see few names who would have gained celebrity independent of their books.
In statistical terms, legacy publishers are biasing their sample against the very writers who make them the most money.
Where Janet Evonovich does not need a publisher and Mark Morford can do just fine without one, who does need a publisher? Ransom Stephens needs a publisher. His, I mean, my platform was quite tiny before The God Patent came out. With the help of my indie publisher, my list has increased by a factor of almost a hundred. A hundred times nothin’ is, umm, well larger than nothin’. If we believe the dozens of reviews on Amazon, it’s easy to see that the marketing acumen of a big publisher could have increased it by thousands. Of course, if a legacy publisher had bought The God Patent, the marketing budget would have been the same that Numina Press provided and the actual result would be the same except that I’d be getting 7-10% instead of 40-80%.
The problem for legacy publishers is this: The authors they need, don’t need them and they don’t want the authors who do need them. It’s unstable. It will change.
But how will it change?
Shortly after the 2009 San Francisco Literary Festival, Litquake, in a glowing New York Times review of the festival, a phrase appeared. A fragment that indicates the mindset of the legacy publishing industry. It said,  “… San Francisco’s writers have come to recognize and trumpet the idea that this city prizes their craft, its solitary difficulty and what can emerge from it, even though there isn’t much of a publishing industry here.” Between Google, Scribd and Smashwords, more books will be published in the San Francisco Bay Area in the next 12 months than have been published in New York City in the last 12 years.
It’s true that most of the publishing profits for the next few quarters will be made by legacy publishers in New York City. These two facts are indicative of the accelerating part of the technological development S-curve.
Let me conclude with this, pay attention to that Sister who first makes a substantial Silicon Valley footprint by, for example, acquiring Scribd or Smashwords, you can forget the rest.
Ransom Stephens, Ph.D., writer, physicist, and public speaker, has had a front row seat for three industry upheavals: the collapse of the established computer industry in the mid ‘80s; the transition of the World Wide Web from a physicists’ tool to an economic cornerstone in the early ‘90s; the introduction of 3G and 4G technologies in the mid 00’s; and sees established publishers making the same mistakes that killed other legacy institutions. The San Francisco Chronicle called Ransom’s novel, The God Patent, “the first debut novel to emerge from the new paradigm of online publishing.” (

Another Reader responds

I read the book and enjoyed it and passed it along to my book club, many of whom went right out and downloaded it to the Kindles. Darlene Meskell, Washington D.C.