Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Pope Benedict XVI and Politics – Tom Rossi

It was just announced that Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down, due to health concerns. And while he’s certainly no John Paul II, he’s a decent guy (although he didn’t resolve the molestation issue to anyone’s satisfaction, to say the least) and I hope he isn’t suffering too much from his arthritis and whatever other afflictions he may have. However, in thinking about his tenure as Pope, I couldn’t help but think about how involved in politics he and the Catholic Church have become (again) lately.

Pope-Benedict

The Catholic Church was, for centuries, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the political story in Europe. But in more recent times, the church had actually settled in to look more like, well, a church. But during the term (as it turn out) with Pope Benedict XVI (formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) as the leader of the Church, politics have again come to the forefront, even if to a lesser degree than in the Middle Ages.

Of course,the Catholic Church is far from the only large, religious organization playing politics (while enjoying tax-exempt status) – the Southern Baptist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) are also well known in the political arena.

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What these groups (and many others) share, is the desire to impose their brand of morality on others. For example, it’s not enough that Catholics and Southern Baptists and Mormons be prevented from entering into a same-sex marriage, they don’t want anyone in a same-sex marriage. These same groups often work for the suppression of science, also.

As I write this, as usual, I can’t help but think, “Well, how am I different?” I want people to follow certain rules of society. I want people to be polite and considerate. I want them to make tiny sacrifices in order to grease the wheels of a pleasant community. I’d sure like it if, when a driver sees a car in the next lane on the freeway put her turn signal on, he would let her merge into the lane unobstructed instead of speeding up to make it more difficult. I think I’ve uncovered the reason nobody uses their turn signal, anymore.

I’d also like it if, when someone goes through a door, he or she would make sure it’s not going to slam right in another person’s face. Life would be nicer if people were just nice to each other. And what if no country or group waged war on another? We could do away with the military altogether, and either keep our tax dollars or spend them on constructive things instead of things whose purpose is to blow up and disappear.Church-and-State

It would be great if owners of businesses paid their employees a fair, living wage instead of concentrating on making enough money to buy a new yacht. It would be great if nobody polluted our air and waterways in order to save the money it would take to clean up their messes the right way. It would be great if everyone just stopped whining and paid their fair share of the taxes that are needed (if sometimes abused) to keep our country running. It would be great if nobody littered the streets with their cigarette butts or Starbucks cups.

But these principles won’t really work (especially the war part) if only a part of the population adhere to them. It would be much better if everyone did.

So there it is.

I think my way is right or better, just like the various Christian groups think their impositions are perfectly reasonable, while the same phenomenon in Islamic nations is so terrible. But I wish people would ask themselves one thing before taking a political stand based on any kind of morality… Is this a principle that will improve our lives, or just some ancient custom that we superstitiously cling to as a proxy for actually understanding the world around us?

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Reviewing Reviews

I have a friend who is successfully establishing herself as a novelist and doing it by selling books on Amazon.com. Francine Thomas Howard is an Amazon Encore author. This means that her first book, Page from a Tennessee Journal, advanced deep into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and was selected by Amazon to publish. They were sufficiently impressed to take on her second novel, Paris Noir.

imgresFrancine is a wonderfully modest woman who attends the California Writers Club’s Marketing & Success Group to help struggling authors with her experience. She does this in a way that is neither condescending nor arrogant. She cares about other people. I don’t know how many successful authors there are around like her, but I don’t see many attending author events unless they are the main act.

Francine protests that she is not responsible for her success beyond the writing of her novels and gives all the credit to the folks at Amazon Encore. However much time and energy she invests in marketing her own books, Francine has done a great job at garnering reviews – 83 for Page from a Tennessee Journal and almost 50 for Paris Noir.

I am convinced that reviews are crucial in a world where people purchase novels on the Internet, whether e-book or tree book, without the help of a friendly bookseller or extravagant display at the front of a store. Surveying several friends I have come to the conclusion that book reviews are critical to sales on Amazon and other book purchasing websites.

In particular, when it comes to new authors or authors that the reader has not read before, the reviews offered are scrutinized. Interestingly enough, people seemed more apprehensive about investing their precious reading time in a bad novel over the fear of having wasted money.

I believe that reviews are now the second most important marketing tool. The first is a good old-fashioned recommendation from a friend. Word-of-mouth, even in the digital age, remains a powerful influence. I find this strangely comforting.

The issue I want to raise, however, is how ‘kosher’ are these reviews? I recently heard of a man making more than $20,000 a month generating reviews for authors. He was exposed for not having read the books, and accused of offering a five-star review for cash.

I am struggling to get reviews for Unwanted Heroes. I implore anyone who tells me they bought it to post on Amazon but most people, unsurprisingly, don’t generally write reviews. They are too busy devouring the next novel on their towering ‘To Read’ pile.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18I do not want to pressure friends because they will feel they must leave a 5 star review, otherwise I won’t car pool their son to basketball practice. I want readers to leave an honest review and generate a solid collection on my Amazon page, but I am not sure how to go about it.

Do you have any ideas how I can solicit honest reviews? Oh, and if you have read Unwanted Heroes (or any of my other books), please take five minutes and leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever you hang out.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.com.

Art Exhibition on Thursday – A Special Artist

Some shameless promotion for my friend, Hagit Cohen, who will be exhibiting new material at the China Brotsky Gallery in The Presidio tomorrow in the early evening. See details below for the exhibition.

“I am constantly seeking to capture moments of beauty, moments that are filled with magic, that connect me to a place of spirit while in nature.”

Print

Seeking the magic in nature is a spiritual journey, whether using paints, words, wood or any other medium, is a spiritual quest, and nature serves as a temple for all who seek such magic. I experience Hagit’s magic in her friendship, her mannerisms and the way she conducts herself. Her work exemplifies her own nature and her own spiritual path.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

Legitimate Gun Owners Vs. the NRA

Just as it is essential that we figure out how to separate actual small businesses from giant corporations when it comes to policy, it is now, more than ever, necessary to separate actual gun owners from the NRA (National Rifle Association).

The other day on TV, (I wish I could remember on which channel) I finally heard someone say what’s needed to be said for years: “The NRA is the lobbying wing of the gun manufacturers of America.” That summed it up, beautifully. The NRA does NOT represent the interests of most gun owners – hunters, target-shooters, or people interested in home-defense. Not remotely.

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It’s certainly true that a small fraction of gun owners have given themselves over to the ridiculous hype generated by the NRA – that President Obama is coming to take away everyone’s guns, or whatever nonsense, but their real benefits are not considered by the NRA in the slightest.

What the NRA cares about is money. They want their real bosses – Glock, Colt, Smith and Wesson, etc., to sell more guns and not to ever have to worry that those sales will slow down. And they want to keep on selling guns to people who buy them with the idea that they may want to kill someone for reasons other than self-defense. Their Strategy has worked well. Gun sales have soared.

Remember when someone created a way to identify what gun had fired a bullet found at a crime scene? The NRA had a sissy, hissy fit. They immediately created and released videos showing how to alter these guns in order to disable the identification mechanism. Why? If you’re going to use your gun for legitimate reasons, what have you got to fear?

The NRA works to convince its members that they need to buy as many guns as they can, before the coming war for freedom from our oppressive government. I’m not really sure what you do with 65 guns and only two hands, but that’s what your supposed to do – keep buying.

Most gun owners aren’t really all that complicated about the issue. They want to hunt and/or shoot targets or clay pigeons, they want to defend their homes or other property, they want to be able to defend their families against armed assailants… mostly pretty reasonable stuff (although I’m not a big fan of trophy-hunting). But a few have been driven to lunacy, mostly by the incessant fear-mongering of the NRA.

I really wish I had time to list all the ways this guy is delusional.

I’m not even sure HOW President Obama or anyone else would go about any attempt to ban guns, even if he wanted to do it. And I’m quite certain that the impossibility of such a task would stop the policy from ever being realized, anyway. In addition, Obama can hardly get anything done at all with all the Republican opposition. Remember the “fiscal cliff?” And now we have a huge fight coming up over his appointment of Chuck Hagel, a Republican, no less, as Secretary of Defense. Coming to take away your guns? I would much sooner bet on the Cubs to win the 2013 world series… AND the 2014 Stanley Cup.

One of the things that’s angered me about the news media, lately, is this: one of the worst crimes ever committed in the United states – the killing 20 children and 8 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school, has led to a huge bully pulpit for… the NRA. While most of us saw this horrible tragedy as at least an opportunity to finally impose some reasonable rules on the gun trade, people like NRA president Wayne Lapierre and NRA board member (and crappy rock star) Ted Nugent are all over TV, being legitimized in interviews on news programs.

As I always say, I’m all for a good debate. And some reasonable people are worried that gun-killing-control laws will go too far, infringing upon the rights of ordinary citizens. But the rantings of a man whose largest contribution to society was a song called, “Wango Tango,” don’t interest me at all. Ted Nugent strikes me as nothing but a meth-head, and Wayne Lapierre is nothing more than a corporate robot. Watch this to see how he’s flip-flopped, at the whim of his gun-manufacturing masters:

The relevant part starts at 2:03

and Ted Nugent at his finest:

I sure wish the voices of reason were the loudest in our country – even those voices that disagree with me. Instead, we have one lunatic fringe telling stories about the other side’s lunatic fringe (that really hardly exists) to scare the people in the middle that it HAS to be their way, or we will surely descend into tyranny. They say this in a tyrannical, ranting way, by the way.

We need to separate what it takes to make guns OK for the people who want to use them legitimately, while making it as difficult as possible for those who want to use a gun for illegitimate purposes. Legitimate gun owners do not fear this. In fact, they probably fear the lunatics as much as any of us do.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Interview at Author Spotlight

I recently interviewed with James Moushon at Author’s Spotlight.

First things first. Do you have another book on the horizon? Can you tell us the timeline for its release and give us a little tease.

I do. I actually wrote three Young Adult epic fantasy novels in consecutive years, so the second, The First Decree, is due out in March. The first – At The Walls Of Galbrieth – came out in 2012. They are stand-alones, but follow on from each other. The third has yet to be edited and begin all the publishing process.

The First Decree-hi resolutionI have also completed a manuscript that follows on from my latest social justice-themed novel, Unwanted Heroes, but I think my publisher has a few more authors in line before they get to me. My writer’s group is critiquing it now.

You have a great following on Twitter. (Over 20K followers) How important are the social media relationships that you’ve formed to your writing success?

I actually have 20K followers on @elfwriter and just less than 20K on a second twitter account – @alonshalevsf – that focuses on my social justice-themed novels. Writing in two genres really needs separate social media platforms, so there is also a blog for each – leftcoastvoices.com and elfwriter.com

There is an absolute connection between the relationships created from the blogs and twitter and my readership. My whole marketing strategy is based upon offering a genuine value and connection between author and reader. Hopefully, people become regularly engaged with me through the blog and twitter and therefore are already invested when each book comes out. 

Not only that, but the cover designer, editor and interior formatter for the epic fantasy novels all came from either referrals or directly as followers of my blog and twitter. They are amazing people and I am so grateful to have such a supportive team. The physical beauty and quality of the books, exterior and interior, are all due to them and I am in awe of their commitment.

Do you do book signing, interviews, speaking and personal appearances? If so, when is your next place where your readers can see you?

I do, but a knee operation has held me back the last few months. I did a virtual book tour in November 2011 and a series of reading this past spring when Unwanted Heroes was originally coming out. I am putting together several in Northern California now for this spring and will put the details on my website

While this isn’t a marketing priority I do cherish the interactions with readers and fellow writers. There is something richer in the face-to-face conversations.

You have real good book covers. How does your cover development process work? Do you hand over the basic theme or do you have more of a hands-on approach? Do you get your readers involved in its development?

The artist, William Kenney, designs my epic fantasy covers. I send him a couple of paragraphs about the plot and what I envisage on the cover. He produces some sketches and solicits my feedback. The end result is always far better than anything I imagine.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front CoverIronically, with my social justice-themed novels, my publisher Lloyd Lofthouse, encourages me to be involved. In fact, the cover for Unwanted Heroes is from a photograph I took in San Francisco’s Marina District, overlooking Alcatraz. This is based on a scene in the book.

Have you create a book trailer for any of your books to promote your books online?

No, but I am excited by the medium. I do think that the book trailers I see are either excellent or bad – there is little middle ground. I would need to outsource and it is a question of finance. I also think that given my market for fantasy is Young Adult, it becomes an even more compelling marketing tool.

You run a non-profit organization that provides education and support for Jewish students in San Francisco. Now rewarding is that? Do the students give inspiration in your writing? 

The students definitely inspire me for the social justice-themed novels. The SF Hillel Jewish Student Center is very social justice-orientated and we volunteer with different organizations in San Francisco. I was very impacted by all that happened around Hurricane Katrina (I had just arrived in the US) and have organized and taken groups to New Orleans ever since. 

All these experiences produce interesting and fascinating people and conversations – in the writing business, we call this novel fodder.

Has the advent of ebooks changed anything in your writing, getting the book to your readers and the relationship with your readers and fans?

It hasn’t changed how and what I write. An author has a responsibility to write the best book possible. There should be no compromise on quality. As you might read between the lines, as e-book production has become cheaper and more accessible, there are people who are churning out books and not investing in an outside editor or formatter. Even if someone is paying $0.99, they should not be reading a book littered with spelling and grammar mistakes. It is a question of pride in the craft of writing. 

Having said all that, the opportunity to sell books cheaply (book price, delivery, production) means that books can be sold for under $5. This gives the new or struggling author a great opportunity. Who isn’t willing to spend the price of a cappuccino and take a chance on the book by a new author? 

Finally, it puts pressure on the more established authors. John Grisham writes social justice-themed novels. His e-books cost x4 the price of mine. He now has to offer x4 the experience to satisfy our shared target audience. By the way – I love John Grisham’s novels and have all of them on my bookshelf.

Does being from Israel present any unique selling and marketing situation? Do you publish your books in other languages?

Actually I was born and bred in England and my first two novels (A Gardener’s Tale and The Accidental Activist) are situated there. Since a lot of my stories come from personal experiences this has a bigger influence – in fact the protagonist from Unwanted Heroes and the subsequent novels is also British. 

There are scenes that happened to me in Israel. For example, there is a scene in Unwanted Heroes in which a war veteran tells of the time he was in Israel for Soldier’s Remembrance Day and compares it to how we recognize Memorial and Veteran’s Day in the US. 

I have a small following in the UK but I am not aware of other countries. I would love for my books to be translated into Hebrew, for my own satisfaction rather than financial potential. Israel is a very small country and my target audience is probably reading in English anyhow. 

There are apparently two people in Scandinavia who buy all my books. I don’t know them, but definitely appreciate their loyalty!

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

Do you belong to any author support groups? Do they help with writing, marketing and the publishing process?

Absolutely. I have facilitated the Berkeley Writer’s Group, a weekly critique group, since 2006 and we learn so much from each other. I have no doubt that my novels are considerably better for the feedback that I receive. 

I am also a member of the California Writer’s Club and attend their monthly meetings. Again, I have the opportunity to network with other writers and accomplished authors. At this club, a small group meets an hour before the regular meetings to discuss marketing. We teach each other different forms and techniques and help each other when people get stuck.

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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

 

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