Review: Palm Sunday, by R. J. Fisher

Palm Sunday (2012)
by R. J. Fisher
Available on Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imageI loved this novel and, at the same time, found it frustrating. What’s to love? The meat. What’s frustrating? The seasoning. Or invent your own metaphor: the characterization, setting, world-building, and plot are strong, but a solid round of professional editing is very much needed.

The strongest element, I think, is the main character, Dewey McShane, who joins the already small cadre of male urban-fantasy heroes. But unlike the typical example of that group, Dewey isn’t macho sex-on-a-stick poured into a tight pair of leather pants and adorned with a fancy Japanese sword and a bad-ass gun. No, he’s a short, paunchy, mixed-race gay guy. Yeah, he’s psychic, but other than that, he’s wonderfully, humanly, charmingly normal. I fell in love with him immediately and rooted for him hard. I really, really wanted him to live. Moreover, he’s lonely, and I wanted him to find peace and happiness.

Not that Fisher gives us a pat HEA ending. Urban fantasy is a hybrid genre, but it hybridizes in a number of different ways. Here we’re getting fantasy melded with thriller, not romance. Perhaps we get to see Dewey in love in later books in the series (I see Fisher has Books 2 and 3 out already, but I’ve yet to read them). But in Palm Sunday, the focuses are mistrust, confusion, moral gray areas, greed, craziness, back-stabbing, and demon-world politics.

Dewey works for a “travel agency” that arranges for demons — here conceptualized not as devils, according to a Christian paradigm, but as a species that lacks yet yearns for the experience of true existence — to visit New Orleans for a brief vacation by allowing them to possess a “rental” body. Distressingly, the rental bodies belong to brain-damaged senior citizens. So, while you love Dewey and root for him, he’s no saint — he’s involved in something creepy and discomforting. Dewey’s job becomes massively complicated and potentially deadly when he has to figure out why some demons have been able to possess bodies outside the sanctioned vacations provided by the travel agency.

This is all carried out quite well, plotwise. Dewey finds himself in increasingly scary and confusing situations as the novel progresses, and there’s a well placed and satisfying climax. I wonder if the “now everything gets explained” moment could’ve been staged in a way that didn’t have people standing around explaining themselves and one another so much, but it’s hard to wrap up a thriller without some of that. Big Baddies have a tendency to monologue — as an author, what can you do?

My frustration with the novel comes from its lack of editing and proofreading. Fisher can write — there’s no doubt about that. There’s nary a semicolon error in sight, and Palm Sunday offers some wonderful passages of tight genre-fiction prose:

“Groovy.” I closed my eyes and let my head fall back. “Anything else I need to know?”
A pause. I heard the answer long before I heard the lie.
“No,” she said. (Kindle Locations 2554-2557)

That is some fine dialogue supplemented wonderfully by the narrative voice. It’s so economical. And how about this?

I picked at the white paint on the holding cell bars … making sure to keep a distance from Jerry in order to give his ramblings plenty of room to breathe. (Kindle Locations 2387-2388)

That’s a really nice metaphor — short and subtle, but with a punch and enough wryness to help build Dewey’s narrative voice. But then in the very next sentence, we get:

I tried to bring my thoughts to an appropriately morbid placed, but instead they insisted on playing a game of hopscotch. (Kindle Locations 2388-2389)

The book has several dozen of these kinds of typos, the ones spell-checker won’t catch. It also has quite a few that spell-checker would’ve caught, such as “ahir” for “hair.” “Your” and “you’re” get mixed up, as do “blonde” and “blond.” Many words get left out (“I could still [hear?] her determination”). There are instances of misused vocabulary, such as “circumvent” used to mean “encircle”. Almost every time Dewey uses a “Joe-and-I” kind of structure, he should be saying “Joe and me.” Hyphens are used where we should get M-dashes. Extra spaces creep in, periods get left out. None of the compound modifiers are hyphenated. There’s just a lot.

Lastly, many sentences lack the powerful, spare directness of the ones I’ve quoted above:

Now, I am more than aware that a tongue has no olfactory system housed within its flesh. (Kindle Location 166)

Sentences like this lose the taut, spare (yet subtly rich) directness that marks Fisher’s best prose. Writing that advertises itself, so that the reader notices the prose style more than what’s happening (“I had the pleasure of watching shock work its way through her epidermis” [Kindle Locations 3527-3528]), is generally not a good fit in genre fiction. Our readers don’t come to be wowed by clever or unusual sentences; they come for the world-building, characters, and story. There are exceptions to the rule, but not many.

In short, this is a very good book that would be a great book if Fisher dropped a few hundred bucks on a professional editor — not just a proofreader, but a real book editor who could not only catch errors, but also suggest ways to tone down the wordy or florid passages. This is one valuable thing a traditional publisher is supposed to do for authors — provide editors. Since we’re indies, we have to do it for ourselves, but that does not mean doing it by ourselves: almost every writer has blind spots (including me, I’m sure) and it’s very, very hard to proofread your own writing.

Palm Sunday‘s formatting is fine, though the book lacks an assertion of copyright. If Fisher hasn’t applied for copyright, he certainly should. It only costs $35 to do it online at The cover? Okay, but not great. Editor first, then maybe a graphic designer for the whole series, once this very good book brings in the big bucks it deserves to make. I will certainly be reading the rest of the Dante Travel Agency series and following Fisher’s career as it develops. There’s tremendous promise, here.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Indie Authorship + PayPal = Scary Vulnerability

What PayPal Did

In February of this year, as part of an effort to “aggressively enforc[e] a prohibition against online retailers selling certain types of ‘obscene’ content,” PayPal tried to force Smashwords to stop selling books containing incest, bestiality, or rape (accessed 4/17/12). PayPal finally ended up backing down, but the story is worth pondering because it highlights the vulnerability of indie authors and their platforms.

First, keep in mind that PayPal’s threat to Smashwords didn’t say that its service couldn’t be used to pay for “obscene” content; rather, they said they won’t do any business at all with a retailer that sells such content. That’s bringing out the big stick, and Smashwords, which apparently would’ve had a hard time separating itself from PayPal’s payment services, was justifiably spooked. Founder Mark Coker emailed all Smashwords erotica authors on February 24 saying that incest, bestiality, and rape were no longer permitted under its Terms of Service. Books with such content would have to be removed immediately.

After an uproar from the blogosphere, petitions, anti-censorship advocacy, and so forth, PayPal rewrote its Acceptable Use Policy. From now on it will

focus this policy only on e-books that contain potentially illegal images, not e-books that are limited to just text. The policy will prohibit use of PayPal for the sale of e-books that contain child pornography, or e-books with text and obscene images of rape, bestiality or incest. . . . In addition, the policy will be focused on individual books, not on entire “classes” of books. Instead of demanding that e-book publishers remove all books in a category, we will provide notice to the seller of the specific e-books, if any, that we believe violate our policy.  (accessed 4/17/12)

This position strikes me as much more reasonable, if still potentially subject to abuse. Whatever — it’s a huge improvement, and Coker and the others at Smashwords are to be commended for negotiating for the change. And all those whose outcry strengthened Smashwords’s position are to be commended as well.

Visa Made Me Do It

Why did PayPal pursue its initial assault on Smashwords? According to another publicly posted email from Coker, PayPal was forced into it by credit-card companies. At first, I found this awfully hard to believe. If credit-card companies wanted to target “obscene” material, why on earth would they begin with independent authors publishing low-cost or free erotica on Smashwords? What about looking to the porn industry? No one really knows how big it is, but conservatively estimates it at $2.6 billion to $3.9 billion a year. Even these low numbers are enormous compared to the amounts being spent on Smashwords erotica. Furthermore, credit-card companies as arbiters of public morality? Really? If you asked me to name an outfit whose No. 1 concern was making money, whatever the social cost, I might well answer, “a credit-card company.” It’s hard to believe that American Express is all upset about Jane-Doe-40-something-working-mother purchasing the occasional rape-fantasy erotic novel for $1.99 on Smashwords.

Dollars and Sense

Erotica author Selena Kitt blogged about PayPal’s actions early on (before it started in on Smashwords, PayPal hit several other sites with the same threats), explaining that it really does come down to money. Kitt discovered that retailers specializing in pornography, sex products, and so forth are charged higher fees by credit-card companies because it’s more common for the charges to be contested. You know, your husband notices the $49.99 charge to Extra-Large Dildos, Inc., and instead of fessing up, you say, “I don’t know how that got on there! It must be a mistake.” Hubby calls MasterCard, and MasterCard has to eat the $49.99. That’s why credit-card companies might conceivably be interested in whether retailers are selling naughty-but-legal merchandise. It’s not a question of morality; it’s a question of dollars and cents.

Keeping that in mind, it makes perfect sense that at least one credit-card company, Visa, denied putting any pressure on PayPal, saying that “Visa is not in the business of censoring cultural product” and pointing to “PayPal’s recent blog post where it states that its own policies drove the decision” (accessed 4/17/12). According to Visa, you can use its cards to pay for anything that’s legal in the country in which the purchase is being made. They recognize that obscenity is hard to define, legally (accessed 4/17/12), but they don’t seem too worried about it.

This attitude is exactly the one I’d expect from a credit-card company. After all, if some state government thinks Joe Schmoe Cartoonist’s work is obscene and would like to see it banned, it goes after Joe Schmoe, not the issuers of the credit cards consumers have been using to buy Joe Schmoe’s graphic novels. So long as they don’t lose money accepting charges from the shops that sell Joe’s work, they don’t have any reason to worry.

So, if credit-card companies really did motivate PayPal’s actions, I’m guessing the link was quite indirect — much more related to PayPal’s in-house fear of being charged the higher fees credit-card companies extract from sex-merchandise retailers, and much less related to moral qualms or legal fears about obscenity.


But here’s what’s really disturbing about this whole thing: setting aside the question of PayPal’s motives, what’s clear is that the providers of sexual content being targeted — indie authors — were highly vulnerable. Smashwords’s independent authors have no major publishing company standing behind them. Jane Schmoe, an indie author putting her erotica up on Smashwords, probably can’t afford a big legal team and doesn’t have a PR department.

Furthermore, Jane Schmoe Indie Author is vulnerable because she’s not really “independent.” None of us are truly independent. A truism, I know. But indie authors are really in quite a difficult position — we’re trying to be independent, but inevitably we have to partner with retail sites, such as Amazon (which has already banned the content PayPal went after), and those sites have power over us. Even those who stick to sites like Smashwords (as non-corporate a platform as you’ll find, I think) can find themselves at the receiving end because Smashwords isn’t a stand-alone entity, either. It has to — or has chosen to — partner with sites like PayPal.

Indie authors’ vulnerability may be exacerbated by their edginess. After all, major publishers aren’t going to publish your erotica if it’s likely to get them sued for obscenity. There are no such restraints on indie publishers. No one is vetting our work to ensure it passes legal muster. That’s a good thing, I believe, but it creates challenges. Mark Coker gets to the heart of it:

Indie authors are the biggest publishers of erotica. Already, one retailer/distributor, Bookstrand, decided to drop all indies from their store. I can only assume they decided the angry authors were more trouble than they were worth. … The campaign at hand goes beyond erotica authors. It’s an indie issue. Indies are breaking the boundaries previously set by large traditional publishers. This boundary-breaking scares people. (accessed 4/17/12, ¶13)

If not for the internet uproar, would PayPal have backed down? Maybe not. The story got some coverage in the mainstream media, but perhaps not enough. Targeting one indie ebook platform at a time, they might very well have gotten away with it.

(FYI, Bookstrand had actually been subjected to the same PayPal threats as Smashwords — here’s one author’s account. So had All Romance Ebooks, according to Kitt.)

Indie Authorship + Savvy = A Way Forward

Perhaps some lessons can be learned from this whole mess. First of all, it’s important to try to understand what motivates a company like PayPal. Personally, I think the motivation in this case was money — specifically, fear of potential high fees being imposed by the credit-card companies for which PayPal serves as middleman. If it all comes down to money, we need to know it. If bad PR and moral arguments about the evils of censorship and the importance of free-speech don’t work, we can move to a brass-tacks approach: how much bigger do we need to make your slice of the pie in order to convince you to shut up and leave us alone?

It’s also to our benefit, I think, not to hold exaggerated ideas about how independent we actually are. We’re more independent than traditionally published authors in some ways, yes, but we still have dependencies. We need to know what those dependencies are and be able to assess the risks they pose.

Lastly, we need established mechanisms of resistance that can be kicked into gear as needed, ones that will function well in the leaderless, chaotic environment we inhabit (the web). When something like this happens, blogs need to get the news ASAP, we need to get the word out to mainstream media, a petition needs to be started, and so forth. In other words, exactly what happened this time needs to happen every time.

So thanks, PayPal: lesson learned? Maybe.

Amazon & Libaries

Several ebook-related articles, here, from the New York Times. The first reports that Amazon, in the wake of the Justice Department’s recent antitrust action, is bringing ebook prices back down to $9.99. The second examines the difficulties libraries face in serving patrons who would like to borrow ebooks. According to the Times,

Five of the six major publishers of trade books either refuse to make new e-books available to libraries or have pulled back significantly over the last year on how easily or how often those books can be circulated. And complaints are rampant about lengthy waiting lists for best sellers and other popular e-books from the publishers that are willing to sell to libraries. (accessed 4/14/12)

Apparently, most major publishers will not distribute ebooks to libraries because they think borrowing an ebook, which you can do from the comfort of your own home, is much easier than trucking down to the library and picking up a hard copy. The article includes advice on ebook borrowing for various devices. It also includes this interesting statistic:

Three years ago, 2 percent of American adults owned an e-reader, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and only a few had a tablet. By January, in the latest Pew survey, 28 percent of adults said they owned an e-reader or a tablet, or both. (accessed 4/14/12)

Twenty-eight percent. That’s something like 80 million people, right?

Review: Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author, by Zoe Winters

Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author (2010)
by Zoe Winters
Available at Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imagesThis is the single most useful book I’ve read in a long time. Winters covers the process not only of becoming an independently published author, but of pursuing success through marketing once you’ve made your book available, and she does it comprehensively. I very much wish I had read this book earlier in my own authorship process.

The book begins with a look at the mindset of the successful indie author. Some of Winters’s suggestions might seem obvious (for instance, that you have to set and adhere to your own deadlines), but I think they fall into the category of Things No One Says Because They Seem Obvious, But Actually They Really Need Saying. After all, there’s a difference between sort of knowing something and keeping it front and center in your mind because you understand how important it really is.

Winters then takes you through the different ways you might make your book available to authors — print, electronic, audio. She provides extensive information and advice on the print side of things, which makes this book valuable to indie authors who want to move beyond ebooks. She also hits hard the importance of professional editing and decent cover art, a message that really needs to get out there if indies to compete effectively with books issued by the big houses.

The latter portions of the book, which focus on how you actually get your book bought and read, are eye-opening. Winters is clearly a master marketer. In truth, I had no idea there were so many ways one could market oneself and one’s work. This portion of the book strikes me as particularly valuable. I haven’t come across these suggestions anywhere else.

Winters’s style is colloquial, clear, and engaging. Mechanical errors exist but are minor. Ebook formatting is good. The cover is lovely. This book is highly recommended.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Review: Thoroughly Modern Monsters, by Jennifer Rainey

Thoroughly Modern Monsters (April 2012)
by Jennifer Rainey
Available on Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imageThis novella-length book of short stories is outstanding. I suppose Thoroughly Modern Monsters has to be categorized as urban fantasy. Its seven stories are set in an alternate U.S. in which everyone seems to know about “monsters” (gorgons, vampires, werewolves, and so forth) and the “Monster Relocation and Employment Act” has been passed to control their more dangerous tendencies and to make use of their special abilities.

Forgoing the gritty style typical to the subgenre, Rainey’s first-person and third-person-limited narrators sound like characters from literary, rather than genre, fiction. The narratives are allusive and subtle, with much left unstated (though clear enough to the careful reader). Pat morals are nowhere apparent.

The stories’ central concerns, too, transcend the genre: although the set-up I’ve described above could easily generate a typical dystopic urban-fantasy plot, Rainey is far more interested in subtly drawn human relationships and character development. Most of the stories focus on one or two central characters who are struggling with the dislocations imposed by the MREA or with the challenges of being monsters integrated into human society. Half-siren Quinnish works as a barker for a carnival that never goes near the sea. Todd and his wife, Marsha, struggle to adapt after he’s downsized out of the job he was born to — grim reaper.

A couple of the shorter stories might’ve benefited from just a bit more development. “The Monster Relocation and Employment Act,” the collection’s last story, is an example. At only about five pages on my laptop screen, it’s really short. A few more pages might allow the poisonous conventionality of Lizzie and Frank’s mindset to emerge in a more rounded way. But this is minor critique. What’s there is already very good.

Rainey’s prose is great: clean and error-free (literally — I saw one typo and no mechanical errors). She writes natural-sounding dialogue and concise paragraphs, with no flab. The ebook is perfectly formatted, with the strange exception that (at least in my case), the table of contents appears at the end of the book, not the beginning. The cover is decent, though something more enticing could probably be created with the help of a professional designer.

I highly recommend this book. I hope that its genre-blending tone and interests don’t doom it to a small readership. It’s a real find — indie authorship at its best.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.