Fiction and Public Science Education

Fiction and Public Science Education

By Dennis Posadas

Despite decades of initiatives in various countries to educate their citizens on science and technology topics, we still see a lot of myths and lack of awareness in certain key areas.

Take for example climate change and renewable energy, topics that have pretty much hugged the headlines in recent years. If you go out and ask someone on the street what the carbon cycle is, chances are you won’t get an answer. The carbon cycle is of course the natural flow of carbon from various sources from the ground and into the atmosphere and back, which has been disturbed by the burning of fossil fuels that were originally sequestered in the ground for millions of years. Coupled with the increased heat trapping capacity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is one of the main arguments why we say burning fossil fuels causes climate change. But apparently very few people understand the concept.

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Aside from the fact that scientists, policymakers and those in the know often speak in jargon, the method of straightforward information dissemination that experts think will work doesn’t always do so.

This is because humans are not data transfer machines. We get bored, we have other interests, and even if we think something is important, often responding to that Facebook post takes precedence over everything else. Terms like “anthropogenic” (instead of man-made) or “myocardial infarction” (instead of heart attack), even if the former are the technically correct terms, simply do not facilitate lay communication, and are often unfortunately viewed by the public as cues for dry and boring information.

Science educators, policymakers, scientists, and everyone who feels science education is important ought to take a second look at fiction, whether in novels, short stories, film, radio drama, and the like, as vehicles to impart knowledge. This is because we humans are hardwired for stories. There is a reason why Aesop’s fables are still with us even after many hundreds of years.

In millions of households across Asia for example, it is a common occurrence to see radios blaring at full volume, to allow the whole household and even closely crowded neighbors to listen in to the news. In the afternoons, when some do their household chores such as ironing, these people love to listen to afternoon radio drama. Instead of the usual fare of mistresses, murder, mayhem and massacre, why not use this as a means to reach this audience for science education purposes?

The late Michael Crichton, a Harvard trained science researcher in his own right, made a career out of writing technically accurate science fiction. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said that what he hoped for was to tell a story so that even a scientist would say that the premise was at least scientifically feasible. Many of Crichton’s novels have been made into film (e.g. Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain, etc.), and have led to discussions that would have otherwise not have happened without his fictional novels and films.

Andrew Weir, the author of The Martian, really did his homework on the technical aspects of a Mars rescue mission, and even got his novel editorially reviewed by a crowd audience of scientists before it got picked up by Ridley Scott and made into an Academy Award nominated film. Weir initially published his novel online, and then his friends requested him to load it up on the Amazon store as it would be easier for them to read it on their Kindle e-readers. Eventually, several scientists wrote to him with their technical suggestions, which allowed Weir to make improvements to the manuscript before it was picked up by a New York publisher (Crown), became a NYT bestseller, and eventually an Academy Award nominated film. NASA officials have praised the film, and said that in general, the film has portrayed the difficulties and challenges of a Mars mission, and has actually catalyzed public interest in it.

Science and tech fiction should not simply be dismissed as a form of escapist entertainment, especially if the writer takes care in checking the validity of the science behind the story. Fiction, when well researched and written, should be considered as an additional way of teaching those who have not been served by traditional science education techniques, so that we lessen public ignorance in key science issues.

Dennis Posadas is a clean energy project consultant and the author of several tech business fables such as Leap: A Sustainability Fable (Singapore: Pearson, 2015), Greenergized (UK: Greenleaf, 2013) and Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009). He has recently written a novella on biomass renewable energy.

 

Chicago: A great band for all time

Chicago – A great band for all time

By Dennis Posadas

Recently this April 2016, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame finally awarded Chicago (along with Cheap Trick, Steve Miller, Deep Purple, and NWA) their much coveted lifetime achievement award. Desired by the who’s who of rock and roll, the award is extremely selective and is for the artist/band’s entire body of lifetime work. Even the living members of the Beatles showed up when they received their award in 1988, introduced by no less than Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, in this day and age where artists often snub awards nights left and right. Many artists have had scathing criticisms of the R&R Hall of Fame, the latest being Steve Miller, who after receiving his award, called it an industry with “f*ck*n gangsters and crooks.”

The award for Chicago was, to put it bluntly, too long in coming – 49 years after their founding. According to their online history and other sources, the band started in 1967, and has been called a “rock and roll band with horns.”

Chicago has sold more than one hundred million records and is one of the world’s most well-known and successful bands. They have 21 Top Ten singles, 5 consecutive Number One albums, 11 Number One singles, and 5 Gold singles. An incredible 25 of their 34 albums have been certified platinum, and Chicago has a total of 47 gold and platinum awards.

Chicago started in 1967 when saxophonist Walter Parazaider, guitarist Terry Kath, drummer Danny Seraphine, trombonist James Pankow, and trumpet player Lee Loughnane banded together at DePaul University while keyboardist/singer Robert Lamm joined them from Roosevelt University.

They needed a singer to hit the high notes, so they recruited bass player Peter Cetera. Initially, they called themselves The Big Thing, then shifted to Chicago Transit Authority, then finally shifted it to the present day band name Chicago. That first album yielded them a few of their famous hits including  “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings”, “Questions 67 and 68”, and “I’m a Man.”

 

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During their early years in the Seventies, they churned out songs that often had a mix of political overtones and slices of everyday life, represented by songs like 25 or 6 to 4, and Saturday in the Park. Later in the decade, they started shifting their emphasis to romantic ballads, most notably If You Leave Me Now (1976), and Baby, What a Big Surprise (1977), their last Top 10 hit during the Seventies. Ironically, If You Leave Me Now was really a last minute song addition to the Chicago X album.

Before the close of the Seventies in 1978, guitarist Terry Kath died of an accidental gun shooting and was replaced by guitarist Donnie Dacus. That year, Phil Ramone produced their twelfth album, which was already starting to veer away from their original jazz sound to more of the romantic ballads that seemed to generate more sales and attention for them.

Entering the Eighties, Columbia Records dropped them in 1981 after thinking they were no longer sellable commercially, and in its place Warner Brothers records took over. Their new producer, David Foster, shifted them from their earlier emphasis on horns and trumpets to more of the love ballads that generated their hits that decade. Peter Cetera, with his locked jaw singing style (brought upon by an earlier surgical procedure on his jaw from a fist fight with four Marines in Dodger Stadium), came to be the band’s most famous member.

Previously, Chicago’s idea of a band was that no one would stand out, as they performed their music together. They felt that they needed no titles for their albums except Chicago and the album number because they felt the music spoke for itself. But with the advent of MTV, more focus and attention was brought to bear on Peter Cetera.

Chicago 16 saw the hit Hard to Say I’m Sorry (1982), produced by David Foster, which became number one worldwide. Their 1984 album, Chicago 17, brought two #3 singles, You’re the Inspiration and Hard Habit to Break. It also became their biggest bestselling album to date. But Peter Cetera decided to run with success and embark on what would become a successful solo career, with love ballads like Glory of Love, Next Time I Fall, and After All.

The post-Peter Cetera era of Chicago saw his replacement, newcomer Jason Scheff singing the hits Will You Still Love Me? and If She Would Have Been Faithful. Later albums would bring hits like Look Away and What Kind of Man Would I Be?  During the subsequent years, many band members moved to and from Chicago, including most notably Danny Seraphine during the early 90’s, replaced by former Kenny Loggins drummer Tris Imboden.

Later years up to the present saw the band release mostly compilations of their greatest hits, Christmas albums, and live recordings of concerts. New albums they released were moderately successful, especially with diehard fans, and they had also started touring and doing concerts with Earth, Wind, and Fire and later on, with the Doobie Brothers. In 1993, they tried to go back to their horns, clarinets, sax and flute roots with the album Stone of Sisyphus, but Warner Brothers did not buy into it.

From 1967 to 2016, the only original band members with an unbroken tenure were Loughnane, Pankow, Parazaider, and Lamm. The rest, like Cetera, Seraphine, and Scheff either transitioned in or out of the group.

Chicago has, along with such bands as The Eagles, been a staple of my personal favourite recordings since my college days. To see them get their long overdue award and be recognized as one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time is a vindication of the enjoyment and emotions that their fans (like me) have enjoyed with their music.

This was why I was extremely disappointed with Peter Cetera’s decision, although he had his own personal reasons for doing so, to skip the R&R Hall of Fame awards ceremony. While the members of Chicago are individuals in their own right, their music now belongs to the millions of fans they have touched who have laughed, cried, reminisced, and enjoyed each of their hit songs.

For just one night, we were reminded again of the power of Chicago’s great music, and their lasting legacy.

Q&A: Nury Vittachi on writing and digital ebooks

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The author (R) met briefly with well-known HK based author and journalist Nury Vittachi (L) during the former’s recent visit. The venue shown is the courtyard between the HK Museum of History and the HK Museum of Science, which also reflects the topics both authors write about.

Mr. Vittachi emailed his thoughts to the author about writing and the future of e-books.

Read more about Nury Vittachi including his published works here.

Q&A: Nury Vittachi on writing and digital e-books

DP: Nury, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions on the future of writing and digital e-books. My first question is this. Do you feel that the preponderance and wide variety of digital content in the form of websites, games, podcasts, and other types of entertainment have taken away time from people to read books?

NV: No. I’m less worried about the rise of new media than many people. I think serious book readers have always been a minority. For most of history, only the tribe shamans and leaders could communicate using written marks – what, one percent of people?

When reading became more common, as recently as the 1700s, it was still a pursuit for the leisured classes—maybe five percent of a community.

Today, thanks to the internet, which is still largely text, more people spend more time reading than ever before. Today, it is still a small percentage – the smartest of the smart – who still make time to read entire fiction books.

Funnily enough, parents often ask me if I am worried about children not reading. I reply that children read fiction books a lot – it’s the parents who are too lazy or prioritize other things.

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DP: My impression is that short form reading from social media posts, short website articles, short stories, news articles and the like dominate most of what people read, especially in this fast-paced digital age. What do you think this means for the future of long-form written works such as novellas and novels? Ian McEwan, for example, said that the novella is for him, the preferred way of telling a story.

NV: Not so. McEwan makes his money from novels and screenplays, and he knows it. Not novellas. He said that for a reason. He is always criticized by other authors for stretching short story ideas into books. As the famous critic, Robert McCrum wrote: “It’s often said – even McEwan’s friends have said this – that he is, au fond, a brilliant story writer, a sprinter not a marathon runner.”

According to the New Yorker, when Martin Amis was asked to name McEwan’s greatest achievement, he replied: “The first 200 pages of Atonement.” In the same piece, philosopher Galen Strawson characterised McEwan’s books as “stories pushed into a novel.”

“The way science is taught, sadly, mitigates against deep communication. You’ve probably seen that report that shows that people who grow up into terrorists are overwhelmingly science and engineering students – people who are told that every question has one right answer – and are almost never students of literature, art, drama, comparative religion, humanities, psychology, etc – people who are told that we can hold multiple ideas in our minds at once.” – Nury Vittachi, Q&A on writing and digital ebooks in The Asian Spectator, 4 April 2016

The most famous essay on novellas was a hilarious one by Stephen King in which he describes the misery of publishers whenever he announces that he has written a novella! Even the king of the bestsellers lists knows that novellas are the problem child of the publishing industry.

In the digital age, lengths of stories are no longer key – that’s what people keep saying. They forget entirely that the majority of successful ebooks are also successful physical books, and the book-buying business is a mature business with specific tastes already established by customers. People like novels and buy them. Less than one percent of bestsellers are novellas.

DP: What are your thoughts on the future of paperbacks versus digital e-books? Is one going to push out the other? Or will there always be a market for both?

NV: Of course both.

DP: On ebooks in particular, do you think we should stick with traditional e-books that only have plain text and maybe a few static pictures? Or do you think we should delve more into enhanced ebooks [combining ebook text with video], considering that computing power is now cheap and in the hands of most people with their smartphones, tablets, e-readers, etc.

NV: Enhanced ebooks have been a disaster. The cost of producing them is much higher than for a regular book – and buyers won’t pay a premium for them – on the contrary, they want a discount, because they see it as some sort of game/ program/web show. The vast majority of publishers are [still] going for the standard model.

DP: Since we both write about science and history, this question is probably appropriate. How do we get more engineers and scientists to embrace literature as a way of simplifying and telling us about their work through stories? How do we make our mothers and kids understand what the Large Hadron Collider is, for example? Words like anthropogenic or coronary infarction for example, can we replace them with slightly erroneous terms like man-made or heart attack and still be able to communicate science effectively?

NV: The way science is taught, sadly, mitigates against deep communication. You’ve probably seen that report that shows that people who grow up into terrorists are overwhelmingly science and engineering students – people who are told that every question has one right answer – and are almost never students of literature, art, drama, comparative religion, humanities, psychology, etc – people who are told that we can hold multiple ideas in our minds at once.

Unfortunately, scientific discourse is dominated by people like Krauss and Dawkins who are openly hostile to anything that isn’t a Rational Fact.

“If the vast majority of people think the heart should drive the head, there’s an evolutionary advantage to it.” – Nury Vittachi, Q&A on writing and digital ebooks in The Asian Spectator, 4 April 2016

Yet the abiding themes of great literature, in every country, over centuries and millennia, are things like “choose the heart over the head” and “love is stronger than death.” The hyper-rationalists cannot begin to compute these ideas. In their view, these ideas are simply Wrong—despite the fact that everyone else instinctively knows what they mean.

Ironically, that part of the science lobby could find the answers they need in their own libraries of science classics. Darwin explained that human culture drives human evolution, not the other way round. If the vast majority of people think the heart should drive the head, there’s an evolutionary advantage to it.

DP: What do you think of crowdsourced editorial review, such as that done by Andrew Weir, when he wrote The Martian. The Washington Post, Smithsonian magazine and other publications reported that experts in various scientific fields would help Mr. Weir edit and improve his self-published work. This coupled with the fact that digital e-books can be edited and the changes or new revisions pushed out even to buyers of the older versions of the ebook.

NV: It’s all mathematics. For every digital success like The Martian, there are literally millions of failures.

The biggest problem is that people don’t understand what a publisher is.

“Good writers are reading addicts. I don’t know any really successful writer who isn’t.  Second, they should write. So often people come up to me and ask: I could be a novelist. How do I do it? And I say: You have to write a book. And they look kind of disappointed. It sounds hard! And I’m thinking: Why is this not obvious?!” – Nury Vittachi, Q&A on writing and digital ebooks in The Asian Spectator, 4 April 2016

A publisher has nothing to do with printers. Publishers don’t even have printing departments. That function is outsourced. A publisher is a person with capital to finance your intellectual property project and the marketing and distribution know-how and connections to make it a success.

People who put out books on the internet are cutting out the exact person who is absolutely vital to put them on the world stage.

DP: What are your thoughts about the way literature ought to be shaped, or even if it should be shaped by the literary gatekeepers. By shaping literature, I mean in particular that should they ensure that more contemporary thoughts and ideas be published? My view is that one use for literature is to act as a snapshot of what people’s lives and inner thoughts are (e.g. what they are thinking) at a given point in time.

NV: No, publishers should not “ensure that more contemporary thoughts and ideas be published.” Publishing is a business. They need to make money to feed their children. If there is a political or social angle that someone wants to push, then a social or political organization can pay for it.

DP: I know you teach screenplay writing at the HK Polytechnic so let me ask you this. Do you think the three-act story structure is dead? Are there other story structures that writers ought to know about?

NV: In other words, can I put a fourteen-week course into a paragraph? The answer is no! The three-act structure is a form used in Hollywood in the past. By all means, use popular elements and study formulas from the past. But ultimately, creativity and originality are key—not formulas. Today, originality is prized more than ever.

DP: Your thoughts on the craft of writing, and maybe the fallacy of thinking tech can save us from bad writing?

NV: Many people have noted the negative correlation between stories which are beautifully formatted by new technology, and stories scrawled on coffee-stained paper. The more tech, the worse the story.

We have 1,400cc of brains – if half of it is taken up by fonts and formatting, there’s little hope of having enough brain power left to write a good tale.

DP: What is your advice for budding authors and writers across Asia? The first thing they need to do perhaps plus others you may want to add.

NV: First, they should read books. Good writers are reading addicts. I don’t know any really successful writer who isn’t.  Second, they should write. So often people come up to me and ask: I could be a novelist. How do I do it? And I say: You have to write a book. And they look kind of disappointed. It sounds hard! And I’m thinking: Why is this not obvious?!

Thank you for your time Nury. It was a pleasure to meet you and to have done this Q&A with you.

Dennis Posadas is the editor and publisher of The Asian Spectator and has written opeds for several international newspapers. His latest traditionally published book is Leap: A Sustainability Fable (Singapore: Pearson, 2015).

His traditionally published and Kindle e-books are available here on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

 

How I reached Number One on Amazon (for a free download in an obscure niche)

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The statistical long tail distribution that governs book sales, and how Amazon leverages it to reinvent Gutenberg’s publishing model

How I reached Number One on Amazon (for a free download in an obscure niche)

by Dennis Posadas

Last March 20-24, I put an ebook that I had uploaded to Amazon many years ago on a free promo. I had written this book out of a documentary script that our group of former Intel robotics and computer imaging engineers had proposed to a Manila-based science museum at that time, but which did not prosper. So I took it and uploaded it to the world’s number one book retailer, mighty Amazon, and saw it languish for many years, until I placed it on the free promo a few days ago. Well lo and behold, on March 21-22 it ended #1 on the niche it was assigned to! Prior to this, a short story that I had also written and uploaded to Amazon also ended up at #5 during their free download program.

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The author’s ebook hit #1 in its assigned niche, during its free download promo last 20-24 March 2016

Granted that it was free, and the niche is not that popular, nevertheless there are some important things to know for anyone aspiring to get to the Amazon paid bestseller list. Note that Amazon tracks the number of books being downloaded, so the tracking of revenue is separate.

THE LONG TAIL

Statistically, the distribution that governs book sales is a power law distribution called the Long Tail (note:  former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson has written extensively about the Long Tail in his book of the same name and in his blog here). You can look up what it means, but you are probably already familiar with it instinctively.

We are all familiar with the saying “winner take all (or winner take most).” The long tail is actually the opposite of that; it is in fact the occurrences that most of us are familiar with. We sometimes win (or get selected), but often we are not. We’re not in the major leagues, but maybe we are considered in our small circle as being good enough at something. The long tail is the tail end where most of us are. Sometimes we win or get picked. But most of us are there. And there are a lot of us.

When you ask your child to compete in a sports match that’s limited to your village or the local school, then you are playing in a small local pond. As your child gets better, he/she goes on to play in bigger and bigger ponds, from inter school meets, to regional meets, to national meets, and eventually if he/she is lucky, hardworking and talented enough, to the Olympics. It’s what’s called a power law because while there may be 10,000 authors who can sell 3,000 copies, there may only be 2,000 authors who can sell 10,000 copies, 500 authors who can sell 50,000 copies, 50 authors who can sell 200,000 and so forth. So it’s not a linear but an exponential curve. It gets harder and harder to move up.

Normally the NY publishers only take the authors who can sell at least 10,000 copies. Because cost pressures and the reality of free content on the web has set in, most of the bigger publishers (if they haven’t folded up or been acquired) only want to take a chance on highly sellable books. That leaves lesser known authors to try their luck with smaller less known publishers, or academic presses which only publish a few copies for a very limited audience. In short, most of traditional NY publishers service only the top of the long tail curve, with the smaller and academic presses more interested in quality rather than sales considerations – which should remain the case.

The traditional brick and mortar sales model basically involves the publisher vetting, editing and designing the book in exchange for a profit sharing scheme where the author gets a royalty. From its evolution from Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th Century, not much has changed.

Normally for most traditionally published authors (I’ve done three with Pearson, and one with Greenleaf), the author gets around 7% of net, depending how good he/she negotiates with or without an agent. For most, especially newbies, it’s a take it or leave it deal – and normally you end up taking it, especially after maybe twenty or more publisher rejections and several years of trying to get one. It’s normally a royalty based on the net revenue. Because of the final selling price at the bookstore, the bookstore actually takes a huge chunk of the sales revenue. Percentages vary but normally it can range from 40-60% depending on the terms agreed, who the author is, etc. So in short, most authors have to make up in volume the peanuts they gather from sales of their book.

ENTER AMAZON

Amazon is said to be the big gorilla that has been putting companies like Borders and other bookstores out of business. Barnes and Noble itself is struggling to become relevant with its brick and mortar stores as a lot of people still like to read paper books, especially those written by well-known authors from publishers like Faber and Faber, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and other well-known imprints. It’s really hard to determine Amazon’s actual impact in numbers, because they refuse to publish their business figures, and so most industry analysts just go by with estimates from other experts.

One cannot deny the cachet from having Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster as your publisher. However, it cannot be denied that the Kindle e-reader has made significant inroads, particularly in the ebook market, at least in the U.S. and most developed countries. Although there are other platforms for selling digital content, such as the Apple store, Kobo, B&N, Scribd, Smashwords, Lulu, and others, most industry analysts agree that Amazon still dominates in terms of volume and sales revenue. Analysts estimate that several million Kindles are out there, setup with their one touch purchase capability. So people just click, click, click away to buy several books.

In the case of Amazon, instead of playing only at the top of the long tail, it can play at any segment of the distribution. Amazon and other digital vendors can afford to upend the traditional model of publishing because the main cost of selling a book was already captured in trying to establish the capability to sell the very first book they sold. They have so much server memory that they are now even selling cloud storage space. Thus, every additional book they carry in their store costs them almost nothing, and they get a percentage of every sale. This works well for small players, even individual authors. Try negotiating by yourself to carry your paperback with a big bookstore chain. Chances are, it will be difficult for you to do so with favorable terms.

Folks like Andrew Weir have leveraged this. A few years ago, Mr. Weir tried to give away his novel, The Martian, for free on his website. But since his friends and fans had a hard time reading his book on screen, they suggested he just upload it on Amazon, where he ended up selling it for 99c (the lowest price you can set your book). After doing just that, and getting crowdsourced advice from scientists, etc., his novel ended up being picked up by Crown and optioned by Ridley Scott for the film rights. The rest, as they say is history, with seven Academy Awards to its credit. The same thing happened to that runaway bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey, which also began from the Kindle store.

Read about Amazon’s 99c blockbusters here.

YOU DO JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

I’m sometimes guilty of this. There are those who think that it’s the content that matters, and the external packaging is just fluff. But in reality, people who don’t know you won’t buy your book if you have a lousy cover. Resist the urge (as I sometimes can’t) to design your own cover. As one professional cover designer said once, if a cover doesn’t evoke a subliminal positive response in a split second, then reject it and tear it up.

PRICE MATTERS

Zero or Free is undeniably an attractive price (or non-price). Although you can’t build a business or any venture (even a non-profit one) if you are not getting any money in, the hope is that if people enjoy your free read (normally it’s free only for four to five days), then they may actually turn out to be your true fans who will stick it out with you. Then again, this theory might simply be baloney, and you end up working your tail off for nothing. While some may say it devalues your work, in reality it is the entire Internet that has devalued books. The real problem is not whether you offer your work for free. The real problem is very few people are still reading books because there is so much free content on the web. I can even argue that most of what we read these days are our friends unfiltered social media posts.

One can be delusional sometimes and think that people will buy your book at $9.99 or up. But in reality, these price points now belong to the well-known authors. For most unknown authors (like me), the price point ranges from 99c to just above or below $5. If you are trying to sell a short story or something below 10,000 words, the $0.99-$2.99 price point might make sense. If you are trying to sell a lengthy book, maybe from 30,000-50,000 words, then perhaps the $5 mark might make more sense. Actually pricing is of course a subjective matter, that depends on how much you feel your work should be priced, and how much you think the reader would be willing to pay for your work.

There is however the Amazon Unlimited program to contend with. For $9.99/month, Amazon allows users to loan up to ten books at a given time. This means that for people subscribed to this service, they will probably loan your book instead of buying it. So how does one make money as an author from this fact. That’s where it gets a bit complicated.

Basically Amazon sets aside a pot of money per month (around $12M in March 2016) and pays you for every page that is read the first time. The pot is divided this way.

Amazon monthly pot  x  (No. of your pages read this month) / (No. of total Kindle pages read this month)

Although it varies a bit every month, on average it works out to around a penny or so per page read. So if your book has a hundred Kindle pages, you get a dollar for every loaned book of yours, assuming the borrower reads the entire one hundred pages of your book for at least one time. Subsequent reads of a page from a loaned ebook already read once don’t get paid anymore.

Traditional publishers don’t like this Amazon Unlimited program, and this is why many of them haven’t enrolled their books in this program. They feel it devalues their authors and their books. They don’t like it that their books can be given away for free. But many people are cheap skates – that’s about as plain as I can put it. What this also means is that the owners of those millions of Kindles out on the market have no choice but to wade through ebooks written by…you guessed it…YOU.

This is also one complaint I have about the traditional publishing business. Even if you actually do get your book published (like I said I’ve done it four times), if the price ends up to be too high for the market, then nobody ends up buying your book even if the prose is perfect and the cover is great. So that defeats the purpose of writing a book, which is to spread your message far and wide, just because there are too many middlemen who want to partake of your book revenue. So if my publisher decides to put a Kindle edition at an unreasonable price on Amazon, there is really nothing I can do about it, even if I know that price doesn’t make sense.

GOOD ENOUGH IS GOOD ENOUGH

When one opens a book published by Faber and Faber, FSG, WW Norton, Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc. one expects to find perfection in the prose, the cover, to the blurbs, back cover copy, etc. But don’t expect to pay 99c. Instead expect to pay more than $9.99 for the paperback and more for hardcover, although with Amazon’s pricing tactics, this has already changed. But these publishers won’t (unless the crow turns white) sell at rock bottom prices. If you are selling at the Amazon store, try to edit your work to the best of your ability, and remember that saying from Spiderman that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

But also remember that if you had made a mistake and attributed that “great power” statement to Batman, then you can always change it with digital ebooks. If you somehow made an error in your ebook that said Sting was the Italian singer who sang for U2, then say a thousand apologies and remember that you can push out a correction to the people who bought the earlier uncorrected version of your ebook.

SEARCH TERMS AND GENRE MATTERS

In my case, I had to figure out what search terms people would likely use by guessing what they would likely type to look for the kind of book I wrote. Amazon gives each author around seven search words he/she can play around with.

Genre also matters. In the case of Bay of Reckoning, I ended up in the war / naval genre, which I guess does not have much activity as say romance (which I heard is the most popular). The problem however with ending up in a very obscure niche is that no one actually goes to that part of the Amazon store, and no one buys anything. There is a reason why JK Rowling, Stephen King and John Grisham can probably buy several mansions, limousines, airplanes and the like. It is because they have reached the top of the long tail on genres where millions of people seek information, seek solace, seek instant gratification (I won’t elaborate on that), and for other needs, say education and entertainment. But then of course, that’s where you end up competing with thousands of authors going after the same pie.

So it’s a question of being king of the little pond or being a pawn in a very big pond. What genre or niche do you want to compete in? In my case, at least with this #1 download, I accidentally hit on this small pond niche.

Somewhat similar to a basketball player who decides to remain in the minor leagues as a big shot instead of staying in the NBA where he might only be marginal player, Amazon allows you some leeway to pick where you want to play – as long as the content of your book supports it.

LOVE FOR THE CRAFT OF WRITING

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be doing B.I.C. (Butt in Chair) for hours on end writing books if I didn’t enjoy it. It keeps me sane, and is perhaps my equivalent to a good golf game. Well I figure, hey if I pass on from this Earth, at least I would have left a couple of short stories, novellas, novels and published opinion pieces and other books to remind you of who I was. That’s also my excuse if people ask how much I’m making.

I say this because there are no guarantees of success in this business (if I can call it that). In fact, more often than not, you will fail in this business. Sometimes you did everything by the book, and still you fail to even make a dent. But then there are times when you have absolutely no idea what you did, but then you aced it.

If despite the odds, you are willing to do B.I.C. and churn out book after book with no guaranteed return, then I dare say you ARE a writer. If you enjoy playing the guitar and singing or playing tennis or golf, then maybe what you ought to do is either form a band or play sports competitively. If you are just doing this for the money, then it is more likely that you won’t succeed.

Whenever I pick up Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or other writers books for the second or third time, it is no longer just to get the story from the book. It is to dissect and analyse how these masters wrote their books. That is what you call craft.

At the end of the day, if you somehow made it past most people’s defenses by having a great cover, doing your traditional and social media campaign and all that, it still boils down to what you wrote. If you do hit #1 (or even the Top 100) paid books on Amazon because of attention to the craft of writing, then you have paid your dues and deserve whatever reward comes to you my friend.

Dennis Posadas has had four traditionally published books, three with Pearson and one with Greenleaf UK. He has recently started publishing some short fiction works on the Kindle store.

His blog The Asian Spectator now syndicates to YaleGlobal, HK Economic Journal, Singapore Business Times, Japan Today, and soon to other newspapers worldwide.

Checkout his Amazon personal page at http://www.amazon.com/Dennis-Posadas/e/B001JOCGW6

Guest Commentary: Australia climate R&D spending cut bad news for entire APac region

Australia climate R&D spending cut bad news for entire APac region
By A. Barrie Pittock
The Asian Spectator

Early in February, Larry Marshall, the CEO of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), announced that major cuts would be made to CSIRO’s climate change research program. Doing so will have a strong negative impact not just to Australia but to the entire Asia-Pacific region’s ability to understand their local climate change impacts, and thus funding should not be cut. In fact there has been an international outpouring of protest from leading climate scientists around the world, and from the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the Australian Academy of Science.

Marshall, a political appointee by the federal government, acted without due consultation with CSIRO program leaders and scientists both from within and outside CSIRO. In cutting climate research funding, Marshall argued that the “science is established,” that climate is changing globally, and the need now is to shift to more innovation and adaptation.

While human influence in changing the global climate is now well established, the details at the regional and local levels still need further study. For example, CSIRO scientists, in collaboration with scientists from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology have focused on improving regional climate models particularly the Southern Hemisphere and Australia in particular. In the past, international scientists have relied on CSIRO research to improve their climate models as is well demonstrated in successive IPCC reports which often quote Australian results.

For example, one of the points that Dr. Mike MacCracken, former executive director of the Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and currently the Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs of the Washington D.C. based Climate Institute raised in his letter to the committee that is reviewing Australia’s future in research and innovation is that “the primary Southern Hemisphere storm track that brings precipitation to the agricultural areas of southern Australia is shifting poleward as global warming leads to a general expansion of the subtropics. This is gradually pushing this storm track south of Australia and as a result, southern Australia is becoming more and more arid.” This is an example of a scientific research area that CSIRO is uniquely qualified to handle, and has important consequences for Australia, and if I may say, for the region in general.

It is not just Australia that benefits from CSIRO climate research, but the entire Asia-Pacific region. Critical research areas where Australian scientists at CSIRO have been working on concern the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole, both of which have a major influence on Australian climate and also that of its neighbors in South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Other research areas include a better understanding of the rates of sea-level rise (given uncertainties regarding Greenland and Antarctic ice melt rates), local variations in sea-level due to changes in ocean currents and other effects, potential changes in tropical cyclone (hurricane) frequency, intensity and location, and changes in extreme events especially flood rainfall amounts and location.

Understanding these areas of research have benefits for future climate planning not just for Australia, but for the region in general. In addition, countries in the Asia-Pacific region have special need for Australian expertise on climate change mitigation and adaptation, and CSIRO has had long experience in working with these countries on their issues. The regional proximity of Australia to these countries gives it an understanding of local conditions that research institutions in Britain and the U.S. for example, may not have in depth knowledge of.

Australia is viewed by its neighbors as a leader in climate research, and CSIRO research helps these neighbors with their climate impact plans and needs. Both for Australia, and for the region’s sake, funding for CSIRO climate research should not be cut, else a critical lynchpin for preparing for extreme weather in the entire region may be lost.

A. Barrie Pittock was head of the Climate Impact Group at CSIRO before his retirement in 1999. He holds an Australian Public Service Medal and shared in the Nobel Prize awarded to the IPCC in 2007.

Amazon’s $0.99 blockbusters

Amazon99cBlockbusters

Amazon’s $0.99 blockbusters

By Dennis Posadas
28 February 2016

The Washington Post ran an article last May 2015 on how a 99c Amazon Kindle download ebook may have saved NASA and the Mars space program. Oh by the way, did I forget to mention that it became an NYT bestseller, and as you probably know, a 2015 hit film with 7 Academy Award nominations starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain and directed by Ridley Scott? You probably know this already unless you were out hiding somewhere, like on Mars.

There are several interesting things to point out here. One is that The Martian began as a self-published sci-fi novel. But Andrew Weir the author was already working for the DOE Sandia National Science Laboratories at the tender age of 15, so he wasn’t exactly a stranger to science. In fact, he is a self-confessed geek who has written a space guidance software in his spare time and worked on the popular game Warcraft II. Despite being self-published, Weir was able to crowd source peer review of his novel during its early days – chemists and astrophysicists would write to Weir to point out improvements.

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Second, the 99c price point is almost free. Psychologically, the buyer may say “oh it’s only 99c, so I can live with a few bugs, “ as opposed to say a 9.99 price point from Random House or Simon & Schuster. This doesn’t excuse major errors of course (e.g. like saying Mars is the planet closest to the Sun or something), but admittedly when a price point hurts your wallet, you tend to be more discriminating. Large publishers of course, with their corporate staff numbering in the hundreds, can’t afford to go down to this price point, except for promotions on occasion. But even that has been a slow sell to the 15th Century industry of publishing that started with Gutenberg in 1439 .

The third point is that major NYT publishers and film studios now look to Amazon 99c, etc. blockbusters to look for gems in the rough. The Martian was eventually picked up by Crown and became an NYT bestselling sci-fiction book, and was made into a film starting Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. Another is author Hugh Howey, who has signed print distribution rights with Random House and Simon and Schuster with his Kindle sci-fi novel Wool, which has also been optioned by Ridley Scott for the film rights.

The fourth is that Amazon is a master of the Long Tail. The long tail is where the typical bell curve (Gaussian) statistical distribution tapers off. For most people, they are concerned about what occurs most frequently, which is where the peak of the bell curve occurs.

For example, NY publishers only want the bestseller that can sell to millions of people, in much the same way that most NBA teams only want the first few draft pick choices from college hoops. But we forget that there are bestsellers in small niches, or talented players in small community colleges who may dominate their small pool, and not the overall pool. This is what Amazon and Jeff Bezos have spotted, that there is money in catering to the Long Tail of the bell curve.

Because the nature of ebooks is digital, Amazon can afford to give each sub niche (where they might only be 20-30 books) a bestseller count. After all, shelf space in the digital domain is almost infinite, and so even if you are a bestseller or star player only in your small neighbourhood (or niche), you’re still a bestseller or star player.

Don’t fault me for trying to get my feet wet at least on digital self-publishing for some of my lighter work like short stories (not quite book length) and try to pass it off for free on occasion, and a cheap price point such as 99c. When you want it, it’s there. When someone buys it, the royalty rate is well, Royal. And I may be a bestseller, even if there’s only one other book I’m competing with in my niche. Literally, they allow me to become a legend (or a bestseller) in my own mind.

Personally for my serious work, I’d still like the cachet of traditional publishing, even if they make me wait a gazillion months for their decision, with an extremely high selling price that only a billionaire would love, even if their royalty rates are let’s just say lousy, and even if the print inventory system says the book is there but it isn’t on bookstore shelves. Yes, I’d still live with those faults, even if they can actually fix it, but don’t.

Has anybody written a sci-fi thriller on Venus yet?

Dennis Posadas is an author and cleantech columnist. His latest book with a traditional publisher is Leap: A Sustainability Fable (Singapore: Pearson, 2015). Lately however, he has tried his hand at publishing his short stories such as Victory Before Noon and Finding Captain Chesterton on the Kindle platform.

 

 

The Eagles and the Southern California rock sound

Eagles

The Eagles and the Southern California rock sound

By Dennis Posadas

Just this January, Eagles band co-founder Glenn Frey passed away due to health complications. For those above the age of forty, the band The Eagles has come to symbolize the quintessential Southern California rock sound. This was an evolution of the sound pioneered by the Beach Boys, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which normally meant country and folk vocal harmonies mated to a rock beat that sometimes came with a societal message. The natural leaders of The Eagles were Don Henley, the vocalist drummer, and Glenn Frey, the guitarist composer and vocalist. The band was notorious also for its infighting among its members, notably the one involving Glenn Frey and Don Felder, melody composer of its iconic rock song, Hotel California, and those that involved Frey and earlier band members Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner.

The Eagles began their journey when Henley and Frey met as backup bandmates for Linda Ronstadt, a popular female rock/pop singer at that time, during their stint at a popular Los Angeles musical club called The Troubadour.  Influenced by some close friends like then upcoming singer Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther, the Eagles were signed up by rising producer David Geffen and his fledgling record label Asylum Records.

To produce their work, The Eagles chose legendary British rock producer Glyn Johns, who had produced bands like the Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin. But Johns tried to downplay their desire to do hard rock, as he had grown tired of working with hard rock bands. Glenn Frey was always getting into arguments with Johns, but the latter said that “The Who is a rock and roll band, and you’re not.” Once when Henley wanted to have some additional microphones installed near his drums to get a louder sound, Johns asked him to hit the drums harder. Eventually, they realized along with Johns that their real trademark sound was a rock vocal harmony, and not the old version of rock that most people were used to.

Their first national hit, Take it Easy, began when Jackson Browne asked Frey to help him complete the song, which began with “standing in a corner in Winslow, Arizona” as he had gotten stuck on how to proceed. To which Frey added the now famous “Such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.” Eventually, the band dropped Glyn Johns for a communications electronics veteran of the U.S. Navy, Bill Szymczyk. They also replaced their folk banjo style guitarist Bernie Leadon with a harder rock sounding Don Felder and eventually added Joe Walsh as well. Sometime 1976, the band released Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975. It became the highest-selling album in the U.S. with more than 29 million copies sold and more than 42 million copies sold worldwide.

As Glenn Frey and Don Felder narrated in their definitive History of the Eagles DVD, Felder often had the habit of sending Frey and Henley some guitar licks he had composed in a cassette tape that they often listened to for song ideas.

Felder wanted to write something musically that would fit two guitar players, him and Walsh, so they could play off each other. While relaxing in Malibu in a rental house by playing an acoustic guitar, a guitar riff came out. Felder had the good sense to use an old reel to reel tape recorder to record it, arranged the progression and put it on a cassette along with ten to fifteen pieces of music that he had assembled.

Frey would often receive these cassettes from Felder and wondered ‘well where do we sing?’ But as he and Henley listened to one of Felder cassettes, a song came up and they both said, ‘Hmm, this is interesting.'”

“The music to me sounded like a cross between Spanish music and reggae music. And that one really jumped at me,” said Henley. So he and Frey set out to write a song to that Felder guitar riff. “I’m pretty sure it was Henley’s idea to have a song called ‘Hotel California,’” said Frey.

“We’ve been asked a million times, what does that song mean. Don and I were big fans of hidden deeper meaning. You write songs, and you send them out to the world. And maybe somewhere in that song is some stuff that’s just yours that they’re never gonna figure out,” said Frey.

As for Henley, he said “There’s been a lot of ridiculous speculation about that song over the years. It’s taken on a life or a mythology of its own, like the Paul is dead thing. It’s been denounced by evangelicals. We’ve been accused of wacky things like being members of the Church of Satan. People see images on the album cover that aren’t there. Just lunatic stuff. My simple explanation is that it’s a journey from innocence to experience. That’s all.”

The group went on to dominate the charts in the late seventies. But sometime during the making of The Long Run album, the group experienced the debilitating effect of success coupled with drugs. While Timothy B. Schmit of Poco eventually replaced Randy Meisner to hit their high note songs like Take it to the Limit, the band was spiralling out of control. A fight between Felder and Frey broke out during a 1980 concert, caused by a disagreement from a benefit gig for then Democratic senator Alan Cranston.

The band parted ways, and both Henley and Frey and the other band members embarked on solo careers for a while.  But during a reunion spurred on by country singer Travis Tritt, the group decided to reunite. “For the record, we never broke up, we just took a 14-year vacation”, announced Frey at their first reunion performance in April 1994.

The Eagles and their timeless songs form a staple of classic rock radio. For many people, fond memories of 8 track cartridges, cassette tapes, long playing albums and eventually DVDs and MP3s will always carry hits like Hotel California, Best of My Love, Desperado, New Kid in Town, and other songs. The Eagles music is timeless and will continue to generate a new generation of listeners who enjoy their classic vocal harmonies mated to a rock beat.

Dennis Posadas publishes The Asian Spectator blog and is a Philippines based clean energy consultant. His latest book is Leap: A Sustainability Fable (Singapore: Pearson, 2015)