MM: Eggcorns

Ah, they’re tricky little buggers!

An eggcorn is a word or phrase that speakers and writers tend to get wrong because the wrong version (which always sounds a lot like the right version) sort of makes sense. “Eggcorn” is the eggcorn for “acorn.” You can see the sense of it, right? An acorn is a tree’s seed, and a seed is a tree’s equivalent of an egg. Perfectly reasonable.

Some eggcorns show up a lot. It’s not “intensive purposes”; it’s “intents and purposes.” It’s not “tender hooks”; it’s “tenterhooks.” It’s not “a tough road to hoe”; it’s “a tough row to hoe.” And so forth.

Unfortunately, there’s no general rule for fixing eggcorns. They have to be hunted down individually. Your best bet may to find a long list of eggcorns and read it through. Maybe you’ll discover you’ve been eggcorning something. I thought it was “in like flint” for the longest time (it’s “in like Flynn”).

The main thing, I think, is to maintain your sense of caution, never assuming that what you think is right must, in fact, be right. If you have the slightest doubt, just feed the questionable phrase into Google with the word “eggcorn.” If you Google “doggy-dog world” and “eggcorn,” you’ll get your answer right away (it’s “dog-eat-dog world”).

A final thought: sometimes no one really knows which is the acorn and which the eggcorn. Is it “hone in on” or “home in on”? The mystery remains.

The Agency Model: Not So Bad for Indie Authors?

Today paidContent is reporting on Barnes & Noble’s letter to the Department of Justice on the price-fixing suit against Apple and five large traditional publishers. The points B&N makes aren’t new, I don’t think, but they did get me thinking about another way in which the agency model may not be a bad thing for indie authors (an idea I blogged about  a few weeks back).

As was illustrated during the PayPal fiasco (when PayPal tried to pressure online book retailers, such as Smashwords, into cutting certain erotica titles out of their offerings), indie authors aren’t really independent. We’re actually highly reliant on a few major companies: those that process payments and those that make our books readily available to readers. Any one of those entities can make things very difficult for us at the drop of a hat.

Our biggest dependency is probably on Amazon. So far, Amazon has been a good partner for indie authors. In response to what they were hearing from their author-clients, they made the 70% royalty available. They also made it possible to publish without DRM. They’re also innovative, experimenting with new programs, such as KDP Select. Their publishing platform is relatively user-friendly, and if you write to them with a problem or concern, they write back.

But Amazon doesn’t have to do any of these things, and we should be careful not to get lulled into a false sense of security, not to start believing that Amazon is a morally driven proponent of the indie movement, not to think of Amazon as being “on our side.” Amazon is on Amazon’s side, and we’d do well to remember it.

(Please note that I’m not criticizing Amazon for being on Amazon’s side. It’s a business: where else would it be? I suspect most successful companies become and remain successful by focusing, you know, on success.)

The presence of plausible competition could encourage Amazon to continue being good to its indie authors, and there’s no doubt that Amazon’s competition has grown under the agency model. The figures I commonly see reported are that Amazon controlled about 95% of the ebook market before the advent of the agency model and now control about 60%. Much of the lost market has moved to B&N, and some to Apple. Was this growth caused by the agency model, or does it just correlate? It seems to me the link is probably causal, since the agency model ended Amazon’s loss-leading price advantage.

The presence of B&N and iTunes (and others) as workable indie-publishing alternatives is a good thing for indie authors because they give us an opportunity to jump ship, should Amazon’s policies or behavior become less satisfactory. If the agency model is what has allowed the alternatives to emerge, maybe it’s not a bad thing for us.

I’m not pondering whether what Apple and the big publishers did was legal. I doubt it was, thought smarter people than I will have to make the real decision. The question I’m asking is, Was it good for us indies? If it kept the prices of traditionally published ebooks inflated and it encouraged the growth of indie publishing alternatives, maybe it was.

Now if only PayPal had some competition.

Rob W. Hart’s “Six Tough Truths”

In a column on Lit Reactor, Rob Hart enumerates the challenges of self-publishing. He’s careful to underline the fact that he’s “not against self-publishing. It is a legitimate option, one [he’s] considered” (“Six Tough Truths About Self-Publishing [That The Advocates Never Seem To Talk About],” accessed  6/5/12). His point is that many authors who go the indie route just don’t realize that “It’s really fucking hard” (accessed  6/5/12). I don’t think he means to discourage indie authors. After all, he says that “Anything worth doing is really fucking hard” (accessed  6/5/12). But he does want people to “Go into self-publishing with realistic expectations” (accessed  6/5/12).

I’ll just quote Hart’s list. Each of these headings is followed by several paragraphs of discussion in Hart’s piece, which I encourage you to read, since the discussions explain and, in several cases, qualify the headings:

1. Stimulating sales is hard.

2. Many self-published authors earn less than $500 a year.

3. The biggest contributing factor to sales is luck.

4. Designing a cover and editing is not easy.

5. Kiss movie and foreign rights goodbye.

6. The advocates aren’t selling a new paradigm, they’re selling themselves. (accessed 6/5/12)

The Passive Voice posted on Hart’s article a few days back, and a number of the commenters there said the same thing I’m going to say: much of what Hart discusses applies to publishing in general, not just to self-publishing. Most traditionally published books don’t sell well. Luck plays a huge role there, too. If you include all the would-be authors who submit their manuscripts to agents and are rejected, most writers going through the traditional route also make a lot less than $500/year. And you certainly should include the “slush pile” writers in the traditional publishing side of the equation, since it takes more money and gumption to submit your work to agents than it does to stick it up online. (As another writer pointed out to me on Kindle Boards a couple days ago, a good chunk of the “slush pile” has now moved online, giving readers the opportunity to find [or the burden of finding] the gems on their own.)

Nevertheless, Hart is making a valuable point: indie is hard, and in all the excitement about self-pub as a great new opportunity, the difficulty of it doesn’t get discussed as much as it might. It’s not that the big proponents of indie publishing don’t know it’s tough; if you read their blogs carefully, you’ll see that they’re perfectly aware of how hard it is. But it’s not the main focus of discussion.

Why not? Well, traditional publishing and indie publishing are very difficult in a lot of the same ways, so why not talk about the ways in which indie publishing and traditional publishing differ the most: the advantages? Proponents see way more advantages on the indie side. Since that’s where (to their minds) the big difference lies, that’s where the focus goes.

The unintended result may be that many indie authors go into it not realizing how difficult it’s going to be. That matters, and not just because crushed expectations suck. Here’s why: if you don’t truly realize how difficult it’s going to be, you may not take seriously enough the message that you need to do certain things to maximize your chances of success. Why would you put yourself substantially in the red by hiring out for professional proofreading and cover design if it hasn’t been drilled into you that these are steps you really need to take?

I don’t care for Hart’s snake-oil analogy: snake oil always comes with a salesman, but no proponent of indie is trying to misinform or take advantage of would-be authors. But his underlying point is valuable, and it’s once I didn’t take seriously enough myself:

Learn before you leap. Be realistic. Do everything you can to maximize your chances for success.

Review: The Fighter King, by John Bowers

The Fighter King (2010)
By John Bowers
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

cover imageJohn Bowers has written an impressively constructed, gritty sci-fi that blends several genres: military novel, political allegory, and Bildungsroman. His writing is sharp and clear, with natural-sounding dialogue and snappy, economical phrasing. His prose is error-free.

The book’s main character, Oliver Lincoln III, is a young man who identifies as pacifist, even though his father runs a major arms company known for its excellent space fighters. To Oliver’s way of thinking, such craft should only be used for planetary defense. The novel’s main plot takes Oliver from his native Terra (which seems to be the future Earth) to one of the many planets humans have colonized, Sirius. He’s there to sell his company’s fighters to the Sirian military. While there, Oliver comes to suspect that the Sirians have designs on another human-colonized planet, Vega. As the plot progresses, Oliver moves away from his pacifist impulses.

He moves about as far as you can get, actually. The strongest parts of the novel, I thought, were those that follow Oliver on the battlefield. Bowers does a terrific job portraying warfare’s disturbing mixture of camaraderie, horror, frustration, terror, and excitement. It’s through this meaty central portion of the novel that Bowers generates a convincing coming-of-age story as we follow Oliver from where he starts — as a nice and bright but naive and pudgy young man — to where he ends up —  as a fit, tough, morally righteous, yet very humane warrior.

Meanwhile, the novel’s subplot follows events back on Terra, where Oliver’s family worries about his fate and where his best friend, Henry Wells, pursues a related political agenda.

I’d categorize The Fighter King as “soft sci-fi.” Though Bowers gives us a world with FTL travel, laser weapons, and anti-grav devices on vehicles and elevators, the emphasis isn’t on the tech. It’s on warfare and politics. Battlefield strategy relies on trench lines, infantry ground assaults, and field artillery, giving those scenes a WWII, rather than futuristic, feel. The novel’s gender politics also remind me more of mid-20th-century sci-fi: almost every woman Oliver encounters is a sweet, guileless, gorgeous babe, and he’s irresistible to them — even near the beginning of the novel, when he’s not just short and balding, but also pudgy. I thought this element of the novel was rather charming — sort of Captain Kirk-y — though I can imagine some readers finding it tad annoying that the female characters don’t have a bit more heft. I believe other books in the larger Fighter Queen Saga have more central female characters.

The novel’s political subplot, especially the heavy use of allegory therein, did strike me as weaker than the main plot. Bowers inventively aligns the Sirians with the mid-19th-century U.S. Confederacy. He does this both allegorically — his main character is named Lincoln, etc. — and by proposing a literal connection: Sirius was colonized in part by racist groups from the American South (Bowers gives the Sirians southern accents), which then took over the planet, subjugating and enslaving other colonizing groups. This racist civilization is aggressively imperial (there’s also a Nazi connection, as the Sirian president is named Adolph). Their militarism is motivated by their desire to acquire new “product” for their slave trade. They seem to be primarily interested in enslaving women, and the peaceful planet of Vega is known for its genetically engineered beauties.

In Bowers’s hands, this set-up yields a passionately political novel: pro-human rights, anti-racist, and pro-military. That message comes through convincingly in Oliver’s experiences, and I liked it. But the Henry Wells subplot makes the latter parts of the novel heavy-handed. Wells, as a member of Terra’s Senate, is trying to push through a bill that will hugely increase funding to the planet’s military. His reasoning: the Sirians are a major threat, and peaceful planets, such as Terra, have let their militaries go entirely to seed. When Sirius comes for Terra, which he believes it will, Terra will fall. Opposing him are a group of “pacifist” senators, many of whom are obvious allegorical stand-ins for contemporary political figures (Jacques Kennedy = Ted Kennedy, William Boxer = Barbara Boxer, Dianne Weinstock = Dianne Feinstein). Once he gets started on the allegory, Bowers really lets go: his Jacques Kennedy has a “smug, alcohol-bloated face” (Loc. 7676), “pale, rheumy eyes” (Loc. 8949), “a face as puffed as his silver hair” (Loc. 8938), etc.

As a reader, I’m bugged by this sort of thing. First of all, I feel as though I’m being hit over the head with Bowers’s point:  This novel may seem to be set in the future, but really I’m making a point about the contemporary U.S. Get it? Get it?!? GET IT???!!! I did get it. I got it from Oliver’s experiences and realizations in the main plot. But when we move into such blatantly obvious allegory, I begin to get a little offended as a reader. Does the author, I begin to wonder, think I’m not quite smart enough to get connections that are painted a little more subtly? I sometimes have this reaction to left-wing artists as well, folks like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone. For instance, about halfway through Born on the Fourth of July, I began to feel I was being repeatedly hit over the head with the mallet of The Point because Stone thought that was the only way to make me notice there was one.

Also, the allegory seems to draw Bowers into some really thin characterization. If this author is passionately hawkish and believes it’s both foolish and irresponsible not to have a strong military — fair enough. But the political figures who oppose Henry are so sniveling, so hypocritical, so awful, so completely without redeeming features, that they lose all depth. For instance, it’s suggested that Kennedy opposes Henry’s military spending bill not because he’s a pacifist who privileges social over military spending, but because he’s secretly pro-slavery:

a few years ago, on one his annual “fact-finding” tours of Sirius, someone with a high-powered camera holographed him on a party boat fucking slave girls. … He also has an estate in Tennetucky that reportedly gets stocked with fresh girls every time he visits. The man’s a real lecher. (Loc. 9015)

Not only do the people opposing Henry have no good arguments to make whatsoever, but they’re actually actively evil. I think it’s the closeness of the fictional material to its real-life analogue that pushes Bowers into this sort of thing. His hatred of the real Kennedy is so profound that the senator’s analogue in the novel becomes little more than a mustache-twirling, bwa-ha-ha villain. It’s only in the allegory that we see this; in the main plot, Oliver has a fair amount of interaction with a slave-owning Sirian man who was once his college roommate, and that figure is far more subtly drawn than the cardboard senators.

That’s the thing about allegory: it only works well if the vehicle — the fictional story — has enough life of its own to exist richly and meaningfully apart from the tenor — the real-life analogue toward which the fiction is pointing. Here the tenor has reared up and poked through, taking over the whole show and leaving a notably thin patch in the fiction.

Fortunately, the subplot is a relatively small part of the overall book, and the main plot is very strong.

I notice The Fighter King has been given a new cover, which I think improves on the silhouette-style art the book had when I downloaded it. The book’s formatting is good, but there are scattered small glitches, the kind caused by non-standard characters that the KDP conversion program doesn’t know what to do with. Those characters end up as little boxes with question marks inside or other  strange characters. They certainly don’t impeded understanding; they’re cosmetic.

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

Stephen King, Tom Petty, and the Paper Book

Did you know Record Store Day happens in mid-April every year?

Record Store Day was conceived by Chris Brown, and was founded in 2007 by Eric Levin, Michael Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Don Van Cleave and Brian Poehner as a celebration of the unique culture surrounding over 700 independently owned record stores in the USA, and hundreds of similar stores internationally. (accessed 6/1/12)

In 2011, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers marked Record Store Day by re-releasing their first two albums on limited-edition colored vinyl — just 4,500 worldwide prints of each. These LPs were sold only in independent record shops.

Just recently, Stephen King has announced that his forthcoming book, Joyland, will be available only in paper, at least initially.

You can see the connection I’m making, here.

It’s not exact. Vinyl has long since been a collectors’ medium for music, whereas paper is still the mainstream medium for books. But the similarity is there nonetheless. The Tom Petty re-releases are about harnessing nostalgia for a superseded form in defense of indie record shops, themselves an embattled entity. King, in turn, couches his decision in the language of nostalgia: “I … loved the paperbacks I grew up with as a kid, and for that reason, we’re going to hold off on e-publishing this one for the time being” (accessed 6/1/12).

So, are book stores analogous to record shops? Borders = Tower Records, which went bankrupt in 2006? Ebooks = MP3s? Well, you probably know what I think.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I like browsing in book stores, and I own about a zillion paper books. But I don’t buy many of them, nowadays. I’m one of those people who still buys an occasional CD instead of downloading an album on MP3. But maybe I won’t be doing that ten years from now. CDs take up so much more space, and I have to rip them if I want them on my iPod.

As for record shops, I still like browsing in them, though there isn’t one anywhere near where I’m living right now. I was last in one in summer 2011 — the fantastic Strictly Discs in Madison, Wisconsin. I sold them the last of my import and special-release vinyl. I think they paid me $58.

And hey, I love Tom Petty, too. That’s the music I grew up with. If you’re interested in those re-releases, they’re available used on Amazon here and here.

Problem is, it’s not really about what I like. It’s about what the whole stinking mass of us like, because the whole stinking mass of us spends enough money to dictate how things work for everyone. The resisters eventually get relegated to collector status, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

That’s a hard thing to accept. Heck, you’re looking at someone who held onto her favorite vinyl until 2011, close to twenty years after her last turntable broke. It took that long for me to admit that I was just never going to buy another turntable.

You know what else I’m never going to buy?

Another bookcase.