Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kindle vs. iPad

The Christmas season is behind us, and it appears the Kindle and iPad were two popular gifts. That makes us writers happy, because people have to fill all those devices with content. (My best Kindle version sales date was December 27.) Since I have owned four Kindles and my wife uses an iPad, I thought a consumer comparison might be useful to the seven or eight people  who haven't acquired one or the other yet.

First, my wife and I love our gadgets, and neither of us is willing to trade. Buying a Kindle or iPad is not a lifestyle choice. It's a amplification of an existing lifestyle.

I'm a writer and a heavy reader. I'm almost always reading at least three books at the same time, especially when I'm in research mode. I read text-heavy narrative non-fiction and novels.  I can get lost in my Kindle for hours. The only game I play is Spider Solitaire on my laptop. I travel a lot, so subscribing to my newspaper on the Kindle means my paper is always there to enjoy with my first cup of coffee. Last, I use a laptop for writing, and almost always have mine within reach. The Kindle is perfect for me. It's light to carry along with my laptop, holds an entire library, and is easy to handle and navigate. With the search, highlight and note capabilities, it's also the best research tool invented since the Internet. (I still trust history books more than most websites.)

My wife is visual. She loves the graphics, color, and touch features of the iPad. We make family movies together with iMovie on our desktop Mac. She is also an excellent photographer. I love carrying around a library on a device that can almost fit in my hip pocket, while she loves carrying around all her movies and photographs. (Don't get caught sitting next to her on a long plane ride.) She'll search the web for entertainment, and loves the process of exploration. I go to the web with a purpose, and get frustrated when I can't immediately find what I want. She is a big game player and moves to different game right after a yelp of victory. My wife still prefers to read her books in hardcover printed form, but will read an occasional book on her iPad, especially if I've raved about something I've read on my Kindle. She tends to pick up her iPad and use it for an hour at the most before she bounces off the couch to do something in the real world.

We both love our respective machines because they fit our personalities and lifestyles. Someday they may merge, but I don't think so. I predict they will each just keep getting better at providing a service to their constituencies. I've owned all three versions of the Kindle, and each has been better—that is better for me in what I am looking for in a companion device. Despite these improvements, my wife was never tempted to get her own Kindle, but immediately went out to buy an iPad. To each, his own makes for a great world.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Future of the Western Genre

For the last couple of decades, enthusiasts have lamented the demise of Westerns while the rest of the world has gone about its business, ignorant that anyone might care about a genre relegated to a few obscure shelves at the local bookstore. Westerns were hugely popular for over a hundred years. Not only were they popular in the United States, but the whole world devoured them. The Western was a staple of fiction, Hollywood, television, and daydreams. What happened?

Lonesome Dove: A NovelAll the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, Book 1)ResolutionThe Shopkeeper

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Perfect Gift

Books are perfect gifts. They're already a great value, but with the speed the world is going to those nifty electronic readers, books will soon be valuable antiques. Heck, in the near future, you may only be able to gaze at books in those brick and mortar museums they call libraries.

My bet is that children's books won't go electronic anytime soon. We always search for autographed storybooks for our grandkids. A great find is when the author and the illustrator both sign the book. We've done this for several years, so now our grandkids' bedrooms have dedicated shelves for signed books. The icing on the cake is that we get to read them a story from one of these books when we visit

Several of our relatives have hobbies and special interests. Some people can be hard to buy for—unless you pick a book about their hobby. Whether your relatives or friends are interested in the Civil War, railroads, guns, cooking, or collecting old comic books, there's always a book around that will grab their interest.

Books are the best entertainment value around. They provide hour after hour of personal pleasure, and then they can be passed on to another person. I also like that when I give a book as a gift, I can write a personal note that won't get tossed out like last year's Christmas cards.

By the way, if you're thinking about a gift for me, I collect vintage Western books from the first half of the twentieth century. I especially like the ones with great illustrations on the dust cover. But if you give me one of these, do me a favor and write your personal note on a Post-It.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What would the Founders Thinks?

I accepted an invitation to write articles for the What Would The Founders Think? blogsite. This is an interesting site where multiple contributors look at current events through the eyes of the Founders.

What Would the Founders Think?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Indi-Publishing Rewrites Promotion

There’s not much you can believe about self-publishing. Information from self-publishing houses is suspect, and most of the other stuff comes from people making their living off striving writers. As someone who has published with a traditional house and self-published, I’ll try to give you the straight scoop.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Founding Principles at Beck University

Professor Dr. Peter Lillback and I will be conducting a course on Founding Principles for Beck University. The course premiers on October 13th at 8:00 PM EST.

Dr. Lillback is author of George Washington's Sacred Fire and a great speaker. I'll review the Five Founding Principles and how they've been eroded over time.

Beck University is one of the exclusive features for subscribers to Extreme Insiders. The course will be available for viewing at any time after this evening.

Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Helping with a book report

I received an email note from a student asking for help on a book report on The Shut Mouth Society. Here are the questions and my responses.

Were did you spend your childhood? 
book reviewIn southern California. Although I lived in Torrance, I spent, or misspent, my youth in Hermosa Beach surfing.

Why did you write the Shut Mouth Society?
My first novel was Tempest at Dawn, a historical novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I was researching a companion book about Lincoln's political leadership during the Civil War, and discovered that Mary Lincoln had supposedly burned all of Lincoln's papers before they left for Washington. It got my imagination going. What if new pre-presidential Lincoln papers were found? Why had they remained hidden? How could I make a mystery out of it? One day I started writing, and a bit over a year later, The Shut Mouth Society was sent to editing. I'm still working on a Lincoln book that will take place in the mid-nineteenth century.

Why did you pick President Lincoln?
I write historical novels, but my special interest is the Constitution. After Tempest at Dawn, I felt the next most important Constitutional event in history was the Civil War because slavery had been left unresolved during the Constitutional Convention. I also find Abraham Lincoln a fascinating character, which is crucial in storytelling.

Why do you write about history?
I love history. It's the story of mankind. Also, I want to write books with a long shelf-life. My first book was non-fiction about computer technology. The publishing industry moves slow, so the book was technically obsolete before it hit the bookstores. A historical novel can last forever.

Were did you get your education?
I got an undergraduate degree in economics from California State University at Northridge, and an MBA from UCLA

What awards have you received?
I don't generally submit my work for awards, but The Shut Mouth Society was a finalist for the ABPA Glyph Award for "Best Popular Fiction." Although not an award, Tempest at Dawn was featured on The Glenn Beck Show and is on the Glenn Beck Reading List and the Constituting America Reading List.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who Wrote the United States Constitution?

The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable, and perhaps the world has lost little it should regret. But the origins of the American Republic contain lessons of which posterity ought not to be deprived.James Madison

The Articles of Confederation proved barely adequate during the imperative of war and a failure after independence. It looked as if the American experiment was doomed. Then in May of 1787, delegates came to Philadelphia with a congressional charter to revise the Articles of Confederation. They didn’t revise the Articles. Instead, they wrote a constitution from scratch for a totally new government. These men carried out a bloodless coup that replaced an existing government without a shot.

Who were these men? Who wrote the Constitution of the United States?

The short answer is that Gouverneur Morris wrote the Constitution, with editing help from other members of the Committee of Style. In truth, all of the delegates, to a greater or lesser degree influenced the substance of the Constitution. There were fifty-five men that attended the Federal Convention, what we now call the Constitutional Convention. When Thomas Jefferson read the list of attendees, he called them an “assembly of demi-gods.”

Not exactly, but they were staunch revolutionaries and patriots. They were also highly successful, well educated, and unswerving in their support of the republican form of government. They came to Philadelphia committed to rescuing American from its slide into anarchy.

A few are household names. George Washington presided over the convention. James Madison, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and George Mason were all key delegates. Many of the rest have been forgotten.

Most of these men knew each other from years of politicking or war. Twenty-nine served in a military capacity during the Revolution and another twenty-three risked their fortunes and lives by taking an active political role during the war. Eight committed treason by signing the Declaration of Independence.

In colonial America, college degrees were rare, yet twenty-nine held college degrees and many others were self-educated in the classics and modern political thought. Almost all of the delegates were knowledgeable about Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu. Ten had degrees from the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton), six from European universities, four from Harvard, four from Yale, four from William and Mary, two from the College of Philadelphia, and one from Kings College (later to become Columbia University).

Forty-five delegates were rich. Thirty-one had the good fortune of being born to wealthy or prominent families. Twelve were self-made and two married into money. Ten struggled to make ends meet and to support their families.  Eight were born in other counties and many were second generation. Eleven were businessmen, eight owned large plantations, three were physicians, one was a professor, and six could be called professional politicians.

Thirty of the delegates were lawyers in an age that revered the rule of law and reason. All of them had extensive political experience and many went on to take substantial roles in the government they created. Two became president, twenty-five served in Congress, five gained appointments to the Supreme Court, four became foreign ministers, and four held cabinet positions.

Not every delegate went on to further success. Six wealthy delegates died impoverished, fleeing creditors. One was indicted, but not tried, for treason. One barely escaped impeachment from the Supreme Court and another was expelled from the Senate. Two died in duels, another mysteriously disappeared in the middle of New York City, and another was rumored murdered by a grandnephew impatient for his inheritance.

These were not demi-gods, but real men with human frailties and weaknesses. The story of the Constitution’s creation is incredible, but what makes this work as a novel is the cast of characters. The Founding Fathers were bigger than life, but they were also real human beingsmen and women that I wanted to bring into the reader’s living room.

It was fun getting to know them as I researched and wrote Tempest at Dawn—well, all of them except for possibly Elbridge Gerry.  

Friday, August 27, 2010

Lincoln at Cooper Union

In early 1860, Abraham Lincoln was a little known regional politician from Springfield, Illinois. The Republican Party was new, and had failed running national hero John C. Frémont for president in 1856. Abraham Lincoln chances of ascending to the presidency under the Republican banner were slight. All that changed in New York City on February 27, 1860. That afternoon, Lincoln had his photograph taken by Mathew Brady, and in the evening, he gave a historic speech at the Cooper Union. Lincoln often said that Brady’s photograph and his Cooper Union address propelled him to the presidency.

Below is a highly abridged version of Lincoln’s speech.

“We hear that you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that event, you say you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us!

“That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you and then you will be a murderer!’

“What the robber demands of me—my money—is my own; and I have a clear right to keep it; but my vote is also my own; and the threat of death to me to extort my money and the threat to destroy the Union to extort my vote can scarcely be distinguished.”

“What will convince slaveholders that we do not threaten their property? This and this only: cease to call slavery wrong and join them in calling it right. Silence alone will not be tolerated—we must place ourselves avowedly with them. We must suppress all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

“All they ask, we can grant, if we think slavery right. All we ask, they can grant if they think it wrong.

“Right and wrong is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy.

“Thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield? Can we cast our votes with their view and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?”

The hall burst with repeated shouts of “No! No!”

“Let us not grope for some middle ground between right and wrong. Let us not search in vain for a policy of don’t care on a question about which we do care. Nor let us be frightened by threats of destruction to the government.”

Prolonged applause kept Lincoln silent for several minutes before delivering his final sentence.

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it!”

When Lincoln stepped back from the podium after this dramatic conclusion, the Cooper Union Great Hall exploded with noise and motion. Everybody stood. The staid New York audience cheered, clapped, and stomped their feet. Many waved handkerchiefs and hats.

If you want to see how a principled politician gained national repute with honor and integrity, I recommend Lincoln at Cooper Union by Harold Holzer.  You might also enjoy the Lincoln historical theme I used in my contemporary thriller, The Shut Mouth Society.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Create Interesting Villains

The key to a good story is a good antagonist. The bad guy or bad gal makes the hero heroic. The character of a protagonist can be confining, but villains are wide open. In The Shopkeeper, Bill Sprague was an assassin that killed from a distance. In this excerpt, the hero encounters him for the first time.

McAllen was the one to speak up. “Did you see that man on the hotel porch, reading a newspaper?”
“Yes.” As instructed, I had kept alert when we walked from Jansen’s office to the hotel. The only person I spotted lingering had been reading a newspaper on the porch. He looked innocent enough, and the activity was certainly not unusual for a hotel guest.
“That was Bill Sprague.”
“What?” I hesitated, but after thinking about it, I was sure I had not seen another man. “That was Sprague? Are you sure? The man I saw looked like a bookkeeper.”
Sharp said, “That’s him, all right.”
Captain McAllen nodded and then added, “Rumor has it he once made his living totting up columns of numbers but changed professions when he discovered he had a natural knack for marksmanship. He brings a bookkeeper’s methodical manner to long-range shooting.”
I looked toward the door, but he had not followed us into the hotel. “Must take more than marksmanship. I can’t image a man making his living by killing strangers for money.”
“I heard a story about him,” McAllen said. “Don’t know if it’s true, but sounds ’bout right. Supposedly, Sprague once competed in a long-range shooting contest. Won it hands-down. But each time before he shot, he consulted this little notebook filled with numbers in tidy columns. The book contained his meticulous measurements for different ranges, wind conditions, and even different temperatures. This was years ago, when he supposedly still wore a green eyeshade to work. Not long after that contest, he put his talent out for hire. Now, I’m told, he carries those measurements in his head and uses his notebook to keep track of his money.” McAllen took a swig of beer. “Yep, I’d say he’s an odd duck.”


Monday, August 2, 2010

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ben Franklin

Objecting to increased taxation is an American tradition.
Excerpt From Tempest at Dawn
The owner of the Indian Queen appeared instantly. Bowing respectfully, he asked, “Gentlemen, is there anything else you desire … another ale, tea and cakes, a plate of cheese? We have excellent cognacs.”
“No, no,” Morris said. “We’re ready to retire. Thank you for your hospitality.”
The innkeeper never looked at Morris; instead he aimed a witless grin at Washington. “My pleasure. The general’s always welcome at the Indian Queen.”
All evening, Madison had found the Innkeeper’s solicitous behavior irritating. Now he was amused by his inadvertent slight toward the rest of the party. Washington often elicited bumbling adulation.
“Thank you,” Washington said, with a regal nod of the head. “We’ll be in Philadelphia for a spell, so we’ll visit your fine establishment again.”
“Yes, the Federal Convention. A noble endeavor. My best wishes.”
“And what might those wishes be?” Washington asked.
“My wishes? Oh my. Yes, well, I suppose I … uh … yes … I, uh, wish you gentlemen great success.”
When the innkeeper recalled the incident for friends, relatives, and customers, his answer would undoubtedly be eloquent and coherent. He would tell everyone that the great General George Washington had asked for his advice and he had responded with sage counsel.
Washington betrayed nothing. Looking genuinely interested, he said, “Success comes in many guises. Do you support a strong federal government?”
Now, the innkeeper looked nervous. “Dear General, with deepest respect, I don’t think so. I, uh … well, I work hard: all day and well into the night. Please excuse me¾sir, I don’t mean to be impertinent¾but taxes already lighten my purse. A larger government will surely demand more money. I see no benefit.”
Washington looked like he was mulling over a new concept. “Taxes are a congenital disease of government.”
“Philadelphia seems unaffected by these ills. People prosper, trade flourishes, and our vigorous commerce supports many public works. In time, the rest of the country will follow our lead.” Then, with a little stronger voice, the innkeeper added, “Most of our problems emanate from politicians. They already meddle too much.”
Madison found the man’s newfound tongue intriguing. Obviously his purse held greater import than the risk of offending the great hero of the Revolution.    

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Excerpt from The Shut Mouth Society

Dealing with sensitive social issues in a novel can be difficult. Racism is a theme that runs through The Shut Mouth Society.


He had been fuming ever since Baldwin quit talking. He had enjoyed the last half hour of civility and hated to ruin it. Making a decision, he said, “Professor, I should tell you that I get angry when someone throws the racist accusation around.”

“Oh.” She hesitated. “There’s a dictionary definition of racist, and Lincoln fits within that strict definition. His own words indict him, but I didn’t mean it to be as derogatory as you might think. Remember, I said a man must be judged in his time, and nearly everyone was racist back then.” When Evarts didn’t comment she asked, “You have some scar tissue?”

“As any cop, especially one that grew up and works in a rich white enclave.”

“Doesn’t your friendship with Abraham Douglass grant you absolution?” 

“It means nothing to those who use the epithet politically, and it means everything to real racists.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Federalist Papers at Constituting America

Tempest at Dawn is a dramatization of the constitutional convention of 1787. The recent publication of my novel has gotten a lot of attention, especially by people concerned about focusing the country's attention on the United States Constitution.

I wrote two essays for Constituting America. Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie founded Constituting America to "reach, educate and inform America's youth and her citizens about the importance of the U.S. Constitution."

This is an except from my essay on Federalist 60:

"One is struck by the recurrence of the checks and balances theme—in Madison’s convention notes, the Constitution itself, the Federalist Papers, and the minutes of the ratification conventions. There can be no doubt that the Founders believed that liberty depended on one part of the government acting as an effective check on all other parts of the government, and that meant between the national branches and between the states and the national government. The Founders abhorred concentrated power. They believed that only through judiciously balanced power—constituted by dissimilar modes—could liberty survive the natural tendency of man to dictate the habits of other men."

These links will take you to the full essays.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Guest Appearance on Glenn Beck

On Friday, June 11, I had the opportunity of appearing on The Glenn Beck Show. The Founders' Friday program was about James Madison, known as The Father of the Constitution. What a fun day. Glenn Beck is a gracious host and all around good guy. He is also surrounded by terrific people. You can watch the show at this link.

Dakota Voice also reviewed the program here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Beaufort Observer reviews Tempest at Dawn

Allen Ball Reviews Tempest at Dawn in his Ballpoint column

United States History, Constitution
The real story of our nation's founding
"I find hope and confidence in the wonderfully written Tempest At Dawn, by James D. Best. Mr. Best sheds light on a time when it was necessary to revise the Articles of Confederation. He does it with eloquence. I wanted to read Tempest At Dawn, from cover-to-cover, after reading the first couple of pages. 

I felt as though I was present at the proceedings of the Convention and the private meetings of James Madison, George Washington, Roger Sherman, and others. You cannot help but feel pride as an American, as Tempest At Dawn reminds us of the impeccable integrity of our Founding Fathers. The delegates regarded one another with utmost respect and civility.

If you want to know the truth about the character of those gentlemen and you want to learn about the evolution of one of the greatest documents ever created by man—the Constitution of the United States—relax in your bed, favorite chair or recliner, and enjoy Tempest At Dawn, by James D. Best."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Another Time, Another Place ... Another Story

I will be making a presentation on storytelling at Trilogy Vistancia on April 22, 2010, 6:30-8:00 pm in the Tewa Ball Room. The event is not open to the public, but I have posted my presentation on Slideshare. I'm interested in any feedback.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Characters Matter -- Part 3

In a previous post I said that novelists should pay close attention to the personalities of minor characters. Cardboard secondary players make a dull story. That said, the most important element to engage readers is the character of the protagonist and antagonist. Antagonists are fun, and come in many varieties, but in this post, I'll discuss the protagonist.

Protagonists can be an action heroe like Dirk Pitt or the bride from Kill Bill, or cerebral like Sherlock Homes and Nancy Drew. Most of the time, however, protagonist fall between these two extremes, like Philip Marlow or Emily Pollifax. Even though protagonists are distributed along an unbroken and endless continuum, I classify them generally as wholesome heroes, flawed heroes, and antiheroes.

For wholesome heroes, think Roy Rogers, Luke Skywalker, Jefferson Smith, or any superhero before Hollywood started jerking them toward the dark side. Today, we seldom see wholesome heroes. Some see this as part of society's new-found cynicism, but I attribute it more to the demise of the standards boards that used to rule television and movies. In truth, a flawed hero is a more real character and certainly more interesting.

The flawed hero has ruled fiction since Odysseus, and has always been my favorite. When I was a child, Gene and Roy didn't appeal to me. I preferred Paladin and Josh Randall, the gun for hire and bounty hunter respectively. Flawed heroes come in many varieties, but they all struggle with something personal as they engage their adversary.

Recently, the popular media has become infatuated with the antihero. Antiheroes run the gamut, with many finding redemption as they sacrifice to save the day. The epitome of this trend toward increasingly nasty antiheroes would be Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. This reprehensible character is engaging, but not sympathetic. In the end, he is not redeemed, nor does he feel remorse. Walter Hartwell "Walt" White in the television series Breaking Bad is another example of Hollywood's facination with antiheroes.

The key to a good protagonist is an emotional connection with the reader or viewer. The audience must care whether the protagonist succeeds in his/her quest or endeavor. Wooden heroes need not apply. That's why the flawed hero dominates fiction. People identify with their failings and imagine that they too can overcome their internal misgivings to rise to the occasion. We all need heroes, and we all want to think that if the situation presented itself, we could indeed be heroic ourselves.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Is the US Constitution Viable in the 21st Century

Today, it seems many people question the viability of our Constitution in a world that has dramatically changed since 1787. People ask if 18th century men could anticipate the complex issues of the 21st century. In other words, can something written over two hundred years ago direct a government in our modern world? 

The short answer is yes, but let me explain.

When James Madison brought the Virginia Plan to Philadelphia, it was not a list of laws, but a system of government. A system that forthrightly recognized the weaknesses of man, and delineated a set of checks and balances to distribute power; not just between the three branches of government, but also between the federal government and the states.

Although the delegates debated endlessly over the elements of the design, and made major revisions to Madison's plan, they always kept the debates focused on limiting centers of powers. They were serious men designing a system of government for the ages to protect liberty for themselves and their posterity. Although not a common phrase at the time, every one of the fifty-five men at the Federal Convention would agree with the maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, defines powers and, more importantly, limitations on powers. It is a brilliant system to govern people in an imperfect world. This was the original intent of the Founders. Since the nature of man has not changed, the Constitution is as valid today as it was in 1787.

When I started writing Tempest at Dawn over twelve years ago, there was no Constitutional crisis. I was drawn to the story because it was filled with giant personalities, and it was a unique event in the history of man. At no other time was a standing government changed with thoughtful reason, instead of the sword. The United States Constitution is a living document, not because it can be wrenched to fit politicians' whims, but because it bequeath to us an eternal system that inhibits the natural tendency of man to dictate the habits and liberty of fellow citizens. This is a truly astounding story, and I can only hope I did it justice.

From the Publisher

The United States is on the brink of total collapse. The military has been reduced to near extinction, economic turmoil saps hope, and anarchy threatens as world powers hover like vultures, eager to devour the remains. In a desperate move, a few powerful men call a secret meeting to plot the overthrow of the government.

Fifty-five men came to Philadelphia May of 1787 with a congressional charter to revise the Articles of Confederation. Instead they founded the longest lasting republic in world history.

Tempest at Dawn tells their story.

Tempest at Dawn at Amazon

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscar Night Ramblings by Raymond Chandler

Whenever the Oscars come around, I'm reminded of this article written by Raymond Chandler in March of 1948. By the way, in 1948, the Oscars were broadcast on radio. I hope he will forgive some editing for brevity. The highlights are mine, of course.

Oscar Night in Hollywood
By Raymond Chandler

It isn't so much that the awards never go to fine achievements as that those fine achievements are not rewarded as such. Technically, they are voted, but they are not decided by the use of whatever critical wisdom Hollywood may possess. They are ballyhooed, pushed, yelled, screamed, and in every way propagandized into the consciousness of the voters so incessantly, in the weeks before the final balloting, that everything except the golden aura of the box office is forgotten.We elect Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business?

If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are, find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. The point is not whether the average motion picture is bad, but whether the motion picture is an artistic medium of sufficient dignity and accomplishment to be treated with respect. Those who deride the motion picture usually are satisfied that they have thrown the book at it by declaring it to be a form of mass entertainment. As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So was the Elizabethan drama. It might reasonably be said that all art becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.

Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. In painting, music, and architecture we are not even second-rate by comparison with the best work of the past. Our novels are transient propaganda when they are what is called "significant," and bedtime reading when they are not.

Show business has always been a little over noisy, over dressed, over brash. Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner, which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing.

If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, "In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived "; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens; if you can do all these things and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong, because this sort of vulgarity is part of its inevitable price.

Perverse fellow that I am, I found myself intrigued by the unimportant part of the program. I was intrigued by the efficiently quick on-and-off that was given to these minnows of the picture business; by their nervous attempts via the microphone to give most of the credit for their work to some stuffed shirt; by the fact that technical developments which may mean many millions of dollars to the industry, and may on occasion influence the whole procedure of picture-making, are just not worth explaining to the audience at all; intrigued most of all perhaps by the formal tribute which is invariably made to the importance of the writer, without whom, my dear, dear friends, nothing could be done at all, but who is for all that merely the climax of the unimportant part of the program.

If the actors and actresses like the silly show, and I'm not sure at all the best of them do, they at least know how to look elegant in a strong light, and how to make with the wide-eyed and oh, so humble little speeches as if they believed them. If the big producers like it, and I'm quite sure they do because it contains the only ingredients they really understand—promotion values and the additional grosses that go with them—the producers at least know what they are fighting for. But if the quiet, earnest, and slightly cynical people who really make motion pictures like it, and I'm quite sure they don't, well, after all, it comes only once a year, and it's no worse than a lot of the sleazy vaudeville they have to push out of the way to get their work done.

But that is the real point, isn't it?—whether these annual Awards, regardless of the grotesque ritual which accompanies them, really represent anything at all of artistic importance to the motion picture medium, anything clear and honest that remains after the lights are dimmed, the minks are put away, and the aspirin is swallowed? I don't think they do. I think they are just theater and not even good theater.As for the personal prestige that goes with winning an Oscar, it may with luck last long enough for your agent to get your contract rewritten and your price jacked up another notch.

Monday, March 1, 2010

More on the Kindle and e-books

Last post I said that 42% of my January books sales were Kindle. Now, two months into the year, Kindle sales are 44.2%. More startling to me, 78% of Tempest At Dawn sales are e-books.

Anecdotally, on recent flights to Boston and back, my seatmates in both directions had Kindles. Both said they loved their Kindles and no longer bought print books. A year ago, I seldom saw another Kindle, and now I know many people who own e-book readers. The trend toward e-books seems to be moving faster than I expected, and I was an early adopter and Kindle enthusiast.

So … what does this mean? Everybody's up in arms over the dominant position of Amazon, but the current pricing dispute won't move the flag. Nor will pitting Apple against Amazon. For one, Apple is not a good opponent for Amazon. The Apple iPad may end up a barn burner, but the narrative word is not Apple's primary target. Once again, Apple is trying to capture people who like motion. The kind of customers that talk, text, and tweet people and share videos and photos of friends and celebrities. Games and music are good too, but long text narratives are generally a bore.

For the moment, everyone in the industry seemed focused on pricing. Wrong. In business, pricing makes a good weapon, but a lousy bulwark against attack. The industry needs to reassess the entire value equation for books, assuming that e-books will grab a larger and larger market share. Publishers might also take an under-graduate course in elasticity of demand.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A more perfect gift?

In my last post, I said that books were the perfect gift. Judging from my sales, evidently Amazon Kindles were a popular gift as well. A year ago, barely 10% of my total sales were e-books. Kindle sales now average 21.6% overall, with a whopping 42% so far in January. Wow. Evidently, readers are loading up their new Kindles and depleting their gift cards. Combine these numbers with the introduction of the Barnes and Noble's Nook and the Apple Tablet, and one has to question the direction of book publishing.

I'm not one of those who predict the demise of the printed book. I'm a Kindle owner and love having my entire library at my fingertips, but I still prefer to read many publications in print. In fact, I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal on my Kindle—which is handy because I travel a lot—but I read the paper version when a hotel offers a free copy.

That said, e-books are a tsunami hitting the publishing industry. And tsunamis do their most damage when they recede, sucking everything away from the landscape. Publishing is older and more staid bound than the music industry, and will have more difficulty adjusting their business model. But adjust they will, and after this wave has receded, the major publishers will remain the dominate power driving popular books.

Traditional publishers provide four services. They act as quality gatekeepers, edit and design books, print them, and do large scale promotion. Although all the services are affected, an e-book only eliminates printing. Publishers still represent an arbitrator of market-worthy material, but e-book readers are giving increasing credence to customer reviews. At the present stage of technology, e-books have reduced the value of book design, but that will change with future generations of e-readers.

That leaves book promotion, which remains fundamentally untouched. Here, the almighty power of the traditional publisher remains intact and bestsellers will continue to be the domain of the large houses. Nationwide and global sales require hitting the market right, eye-catching design, and media clout. (Sounds more like an ad agency, doesn't it.)

Paper-based books won't go away, but print runs will become shorter, which means the unit cost will be higher. If this analysis is correct, publishers will probably whittle down their backlist and much of their mid-list. Publishers only gave these authors puny advances and zero promotion anyway, so this won't hurt too much. Besides, the growth in e-books gives authors an easy to reach, low-cost market. I just hope these self-published authors remember to buy editing and proofreading. Just because it starts with a lower case e, doesn't mean e-books can be as sloppy as email.