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 tag “New York Times”

The Changing Significance of Book Reviews

With three epic fantasy novels coming out over a period of 18 months (they were written over the previous three years before you ask), I have become very interested in the issue of reviews and wrote about it a couple of months ago.

I have come to believe that reviews left on a book’s Amazon page are crucial for sales. While you do see the cover on line, it is less visual than in your hand. There is no salesperson vaunting how great the book is, no positioning next to A-list authors, and no cardboard display in the window. On the other hand, when a potential reader looks at your book page on Amazon, there are virtually no distractions: not hundreds of other books surrounding it, or bumping into someone you might know etc.

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So what so you have to look at to help you buy a book? The reviews. 

In response to last week’s post of the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon.com, a friend suggested that I should be excited that Goodreads members would be putting their reviews up on Amazon, because they are true bookworms and leave considerably more thoughtful reviews.

A person recently gave me a 5-star review for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and I tweeted to see if I could find them to thank them. I was curious because it was short and not well constructed. I discovered (via the father) that it was a young teenager who had read the book and felt moved to write what was, in his mind, a strong recommendation. I was thrilled because so far I am only hearing from adults who have read my novels, despite seeing the Young Adult as my target audience. 

Vancouver-based publishing consultant, Thad McIlroy, summed it up in a Forbes article. When it comes to: “what do I read next, Amazon has become almost the only show in town:

“Despite that Amazon said it would keep Goodreads independent (like IMDB, Zappos and several other Amazon acquisitions), most in the industry will look at it as just Amazon now. Providing that service is a chief concern for booksellers who want to make it as easy as possible for readers to discover their next book purchase. Now, Amazon is the undisputed No. 1 when it comes to book recommendations. Ebook retail sites, like start-up Bookish, have long claimed that readers need a better way than Amazon for finding new books. Those claims now have little teeth; Amazon pretty much has it all right now when it comes to recommendation.”

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What excited me most is that Goodreads will add credibility to a system rocked with controversy of false or paid for reviews. Leslie Kaufman wrote in The New York Times: “Amazon has been wrestling with review fraud in the past year. Because book reviews on Goodreads are identifiable (tied to a social profile), they are harder to manipulate. This may add a new and more credible review source to Amazon’s internal reviews.”

The price for this new credibility (for authors) is a more thorough critique of our books. Goodreads members leave lower average book review scores and deeper in-depth discussion.

While these reviews, undoubtedly more useful to readers, might feel threatening to the author, it reinforces what should be obvious from the start: that the keystone of success is to produce the best possible book in terms of every aspect of our craft. Are you up for the challenge?

Finally, if you have got this far into the post and have read any of my books – fantasy and other – please take a moment to leave a short review on the book you read: an honest critique worthy of Goodreads.  

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front CoverHeroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

Have a great weekend.

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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.  

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Amazon and Goodreads

The book world (whoever that is these days) was rocked last week when Amazon announced it had acquired Goodreads. Chances are, if you own a credit card, you know who the first is, but you need to be a book lover to know the second.

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Goodreads is no small start-up. It boasts 16 million members who have added more than 530 million books to their ‘shelves’ and generated more than 23 million reviews. Basically, Goodreads has emerged as the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations. There are more than 30,000 book clubs within Goodreads. Founded in 2007, Goodreads is also a place where more than 68,000 authors connect with readers. It is huge. Oh, and it was created and based in San Francisco – not relevant, but I feel a need to boast, though none of the credit is mine.

“Books – and the stories and ideas captured inside them – are part of our social fabric,” said Otis Chandler, Goodreads CEO and co-founder. “People love to talk about ideas and share their passion for the stories they read. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to partner with Amazon and Kindle. We’re now going to be able to move faster in bringing the Goodreads experience to millions of readers around the world. We’re looking forward to inspiring greater literary discussion and helping more readers find great books, whether they read in print or digitally.”

“Amazon and Goodreads share a passion for reinventing reading,” said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon Vice President, Kindle Content. “Goodreads has helped change how we discover and discuss books and, with Kindle, Amazon has helped expand reading around the world. In addition, both Amazon and Goodreads have helped thousands of authors reach a wider audience and make a better living at their craft. Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike.”

“I just found out my two favorite people are getting married,” said Hugh Howey, best-selling author of WOOL. “The best place to discuss books is joining up with the best place to buy books – To Be Read piles everywhere must be groaning in anticipation.”

I must admit to being conflicted. Having lived most of my life in two small countries, I believe competitive prices and customer service in the US is so good (generally) because there is healthy competition. If the customer has one bad experience, there are always other companies out there next time.

In fact, it is not hard to put your finger on areas where bad customer service and inflated prices are  prevalent. So I am not sure how, as a consumer, I feel about Amazon and Goodreads getting into bed together.

As an author, though, I am having a problem finding a downside. I have a profile on Goodreads, but have not put any effort into it. But it does seem that participants on Goodreads are more thoughtful and less hype-driven in their recommendations. It is interesting that many authors complain about a lower star ranking offered from Goodreads reviewers. Having read my share of 5 star books that were clearly undeserving of such hype, I have to agree. I have two three-star reviews for At The Walls Of Galbrieth – both with honest and profound observations. I have no doubt they were genuine. In fact, one sought me out to share more feedback and I truly appreciate the care and concern this stranger has for my craft.

New York Times contributor, Leslie Kaufman, writes that Amazon has unearthed a few fraudulent review ‘businesses’, whereby people are making money from offering five-star reviews.  Kaufman notes that book reviewers on Goodreads are clearly identifiable through their Goodreads social profile.

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If you are not comfortable with single industry sources this merger might not seem so exciting. But as Amazon and Goodreads combine their creative energy and synchronize their efforts (Goodreads were still directing you to buy books on Barnes & Nobles nook), I have little doubt the customer and author experience will become a richer experience. 

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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.  

Roshaneh Gets What Politicians Don’t

Roshaneh Zafar is helping to fight extremism and create a sustainable model that will discourage recruitment to terrorist organizations by giving people hope that they can live a prosperous and stable way of life. Tell me this does not make political sense whether you sit on the left or the right, or balance precariously in the middle.

On Monday, I talked about micro-lending as a model to help our domestic policy, This American-educated banker is focusing her efforts on micro-financing and while she has found a way to empower some of Pakistan’s poorest women by giving them the tools and educational opportunities to create businesses and income for themselves and their families, I want to propose that this as a sustainable solution to cutting back our huge financial burden in foreign policy.

“Charity is limited, but capitalism isn’t,” Roshaneh told Nicholas D. Kristof in an interview for the New York Times. “If you want to change the world, you need market-based solutions.”

Micro-financing lends a small amount of money to impoverished people that will enable them to set up a business and have a stable income. I wrote about the mechanics in a post last year,

Ms. Zafar grew up in Lahore and took the opportunity to study business at the Wharton School and economics at Yale. She worked for a while at the World Bank before returning to Pakistan in 1996 to start the Kashf Foundation.

Below is an interview with Ms. Zafar. Make yourself a cup of coffee, then sit down and spend 7 minutes with this inspiring woman.

Despite many setbacks, Kashf can now boast 152 branches throughout Pakistan and has loaned over  $200 million to more than 300,000 families. Ever thinking ahead, Ms. Zafar is now studying how to leverage this model to encourage the poor to build up savings and accrue assets.

Ms. Zafar is not only helping people start businesses, create jobs and support education that will enable people to break out of the vicious spiral of poverty, but will offer an option to living that is neither violent, nor exploitative.

She deserves a Nobel Prize, in economics and in peace. Micro-financing is a tool to ending the very conditions that create terrorism and extremism. Every Western and stable country has an interest in incorporating her model into their foreign policy.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, 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).

 

Churning Out Books in the Digital Age

The world of publishing is changing rapidly and I think, for the most part, that is good. The industry was bloated, wasteful, expensive, and an environmental disaster. The move to eBooks, the competition from those who can now publish their own works or create their own boutique publishing company, means that even the best authors need to avoid complacency.

Ready to be pulped. A shame we can’t plant them and replace the trees.

But there are inevitable side effects to this new shift.  One such phenomenon was spotlighted by Julie Bosman, in an article entitled: “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking.” Ms. Bosman gathered any quotes from other sources mentioned in this post.

In the previous model, writing a book a year was considered impressive and many A-list authors struggled to achieve this level of creative input. Now, however, with an audience thirsting for more, and having instant accessibility with eReaders and falling prices, publishers are demanding more from their authors, often in the form of short stories, articles, novellas, and often as not, another full length novel.

It is all about presence on the Internet and publishers are demanding that their authors are out there. It is not just books, but a social media presence. Authors are expected to be on twitter, blogging, Google+, Facebook, giving interviews and blog tours.

“It used to be that once a year was a big deal,” said Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling author of thrillers. “You could saturate the market. But today the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.”

Ms. Scottoline is now producing two books a year, doubling her writing output, and this is often fueled by a fear that readers won’t hang around waiting for the next book, but will move on to the next author.

Publishers are often demanding short stories to be published in between novels and prior to a launch, especially when a series is being produced over several years.  Lee Child, who writes the successful Jack Reacher thriller series, publishes these short stories in digital-only format.

“Everybody’s doing a little more,” said Mr. Child, who is published by Delacorte Press, part of Random House. “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”

Apparently publishers have discovered that a $0.99 short story will drum up support for a new eBook at $12-15 or $25+ for a hardcover. Given the impulsiveness in eBook purchases (if you like one book by an author, you will drop $20 to buy several of their older books) providing a welcome rise in sales of earlier books.  

That can translate into higher pre-order sales for the novel and even a lift in sales of older books by the author, which are easily accessible as e-book impulse purchases for consumers with eReaders.

But where is the balance between asking for more from authors and seeing a decline in the quality or level of creativity from authors? And are we going to see more burn-out from our top authors? And, I can’t help wondering, whether this is why we are seeing a rise in ghostwriting?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, 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).

Focus On The Real Issue

What is it with the American press, politicians and the rest of us! Why are we able to discuss every aspect of an issue except the core problem or conflict. I am guilty too. On Monday, I chose to focus on Congressman Rush getting kicked out of the House and even turned to my most trusted source, John Stewart on the The Daily Show.

Congressman Bobby Rush in the House

Mr. Stewart actually isn’t as guilty as the rest of us. He makes his living though satire (and does it exceedingly well, I might add). He is permitted to comb any situation and find a humorous angle to highlight. The rest of us shouldn’t.

It sometimes needs a quality journalist or social commentator to remind us of this. Thank you, Gail Collins for reminding us. Her op-ed in the New York Times, More Guns Less Hoodies, was excellent, and though I am going to lift a few choice paragraphs, her article is worth reading right through.

This is not about the right to wear a hoodie. The hoodie is nothing more than a symbol for racial profiling. “Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum,” a hooded Congressman Rush stated before being served a double technical and sent for an early showers.

Ms. Collins: “This is pretty much par for the course. Whenever there is a terrible shooting incident somewhere in America, our politicians talk about everything except whether the tragedy could have been avoided if the gunman had not been allowed to carry a firearm.

“You would think that this would be a great time to address the question of handgun proliferation, but it has hardly come up in Washington at all. This is because most politicians are terrified of the National Rifle Association. Also, the small band of gun control advocates are busy with slightly less sweeping issues, such as their ongoing but still utterly futile effort to make it illegal to sell a weapon to anyone on the terror watch list.”

But there is little discussion about gun control. Ms. Collins has argued gun control in the past and admits to feeling jaded. Many people just accept that there are certain interest groups that are untouchable. They are so well funded, so well organized, that they are simply impervious.

Ms. Collins chooses to highlight the discussion on carrying guns legally between states. If you have a license in one state, you can take it into many others. Ms. Collins concedes that anyone can walk with his gun around Time Square and many other vulnerable sites packed with citizens. In a country that has instituted many laws curbing citizen’s rights in the name of Homeland Security, this is patently absurd.

I am new to the topic of gun law. There is something far deeper in the American psyche that I, as a relative outsider, am having trouble  grappling with. As left as my politics go, I am keenly aware of the danger of terrorism and willing to have some of my rights curbed for what is, ultimately, the protection of my family, community and myself. 

But this is the same reasoning that doesn’t want almost anyone to walk around thinking he has the right to take a life in anything but the clearest scenario of self defense. We have one police force. They are trained and clearly defined by uniform and procedures. They might not be perfect and we might want to demand improvements and more policemen and policewomen on the streets, but this is the nature of democracy.

No one has a right to walk around with a gun and play God. And everyone has a right to walk the streets without fear of fellow man or woman, regardless of a person’s gender, race, or sexual orientation. This is what makes America great, not the false fear that a gun on your hip makes for a safer society.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, 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).

Who is in the Top 1%? Don’t ask the New York Times – Tom Rossi

I’ve now heard an obvious piece of propaganda used by several journalistic organizations, including the New York Times and ABC television News. It has to do with who it is that’s being asked by the rest of us to pay their fair share of taxes.

What is the propaganda? The phrase, “high wage-earners.” The news media has chosen, without any apparent logic, to use this phrase repeatedly.

This, to me, serves as even more evidence that the media is not biased toward the left, as is often claimed, but largely toward the rich and powerful.

The purpose, as near as I can tell, is to kill the fair tax movement (not the official name or anything) by making it appear that those who are being “picked on” are doctors, accountants, engineers, and so forth. Baloney. The “1%” DOES NOT refer to the top 1% of wage-earners at all. It refers to those in the top 1% of net worth. They earn money by owning things. Their earnings are from stock transactions, and real estate and other investments – mostly what are categorized as capital gains.

Think your doctor can afford this?

The same authors of the original NYTimes article that raised too many eyebrows made a weak attempt at reconciliation with their readers, but they spent a lot of print basically defending their position and feigning concession while diverting attention from their shortcomings that it didn’t accomplish much.

So let’s settle, once and for all, who is “rich” and who is not. Here’s a quick test:

Call your U.S. Senator’s office in Washington, D.C. Tell whoever answers your name and ask to speak to the senator right away.

If the senator picks up the phone, you are rich. If not, you are not rich.

OK, I’m exaggerating… a little. The point is that the people that should be paying their fair share are not “wage-earners.” They are powerful forces that can bend our actual government to their liking, if they are so inclined. It was the efforts of a very large subset of this group that brought about the policies that led to the current state of imbalance.

Pointing to the top 1% of salaries is willfully dishonest. It distracts and robs credibility from the real issue.

-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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Oakland Oppression – Unanticipated 500th Post

I realize that this is a second post in one day. I always anticipated a celebratory post for Left Coast Voice’s 500th post. Maybe a nostalgic look back on the last two years that this blog has existed.

But I am listening to live reporting from the Occupy Wall Street protests in Oakland. There is something ironic that a country who is trying to architect democracy and freedom in the Middle East and Africa, cannot tolerate the assembly of their own citizens to express discontent.

Freedom of expression is integral to democracy. We all applauded a Chinese student who stood in front of the tanks Beijing‘s Tienanmen Square and other peaceful demonstrations, not least what has been coined the Arab Spring.

Whatever the legalities of lawful assembly in Oakland, and I am no lawyer, when the police open fire with rubber bullets and gas on children and people in wheelchairs, the machine is truly broken. People coming together to demonstrate remains a powerful expression of communal freedom.

Whether you agree or disagree with the protestors, and the 99% message is pretty clear, the right of people to organize, whether they are Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party activists, is an integral part of a democracy.

At a time when the US is working so hard to influence nations around the world who have thrown off the chains of their oppressors to choose the road of democracy, what is the message that they are hearing from Oakland?

As one man just said on the radio – my faith is just shattered right now. Hoping that Left Coast Voice’s 1,000th  post will be of a more hopeful world.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, 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).

Who Needs A Tax Break?

The more I read about rich people and big companies who get tax breaks, the more I am coming to the conclusion that the only reason we are not balancing our national budget (I know that is an understatement), is because not everyone is paying tier dues.

Now I accept that there are some who need the extra help – doctors and teachers in areas that go to underserved areas out of a sense of service (Northern Exposure anyone?), but corporate fat cats?

How about those poor deserving millionaires who are designing violent video games? I’m sure these humble citizens are providing a national service. There are a number of examples of different companies as noted by David Kocieniewski in a recent New York Times article.

Here’s a few highlights:

1. Calvin H. Johnson, who has worked at the Treasury Department and is now a tax professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Those tax incentives — a collection of deductions, write-offs and credits mostly devised for other industries in other eras — now make video game production one of the most highly subsidized businesses in the United States.

2. “Electronic Arts of Redwood City, Calif., shipped more than two million copies of Dead Space 2 in the game’s first week on the market this year. It shows a total of $1.2 billion in global profits the last five years using an accounting method that management says captures its operating profits. But largely because of deferred revenue, deductions for executive stock options and a variety of accounting requirements, the company officially reports a net loss for the period. And the company reports that it paid out $98 million in cash for taxes worldwide in those years.”

3. ” During the last five years, Electronic Arts has claimed tens of millions in tax savings from research and development credits for its various games, according to the company’s regulatory filings. (Company officials declined to specify how much of that total came from the federal government.).”

Most of these tax breaks came about when these companies were just beginning and, as start ups, they needed help. But they reinvested their profits in a sophisticated lobbying system to ensure they keep these benefits.

Helping start ups is an admirable step. However, there needs to be clear limitations in how long this goes on, and a clear understanding that these companies owe a debt to the taxpayer – simply that they pay their taxes in years to come.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, 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).

San Francisco Military

Last week, the 18-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy officially ended. Gay servicemen and women can now serve openly in the US military. I have served in a combat unit and know the intense pressure that creates a sense of camaraderie and a strong bond between soldiers. The idea that one of the men in my unit had to hide a part of his identity (there weren’t women in our unit) from us is truly astonishing. The additional pressure that it must have put on these brave men and women is incomprehensible.

It is believed that more than 13,000 men and women were kicked out of the armed forces when it was discovered they were gay.

I would like to pay tribute to 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, a 25-year-old active-duty Air Force officer, who is a gay rights activist, and risked his career to see this achieved. Seefried, highlighted in a New York Times article, made contact with and organized about 4,000 gay members of the military who were in hiding and worked hard to overturn the policy. He did this using a pseudonym, J. D Smith, which he can now discard. 

Photo by Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Seefried, who was harassed and outed when an officer discovered he was gay, and then was ‘temporary removed’ from his job, created a organization called OutServe, He took the courageous step of speaking publicly at the State University of New York at Oswego.

All Seefried sought was :“When I go to a Christmas party, I can actually bring the person I’m in a relationship with. And that’s a huge relief.”

Now he has that. He should have had it a long time ago, but better late than never.

 Why the title? Elaine Donnelly, a longtime opponent of allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces, commented that “as of Tuesday the commander in chief will own the San Francisco military he has created.”

I have long thought that San Francisco should follow the Berkeley initiative from the 60’s and declare independence! I would be proud to have these fine men and women in our army, and I am proud to have them in the US army. There are only two words that we should be saying to them: Thank You!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, 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).

Medcaid 2

Following on from yesterday’s post, I am struggling to understand how individuals have been denied the right to sue the state that they pay taxes to. It seems a gross obstruction to personal freedom.However, the Justice Department has backed the State of California agreeing that the individual cannot sue, while also admitting that Federal law clearly states that Medicaid rates be “sufficient to enlist enough providers.” In other words, there should be no discrimination of resources or access to treatment between the beneficiaries of Medicaid and everyone else in their state. Only what happens when that is precisely what is happening?


“California has been accepting more than $20 billion in federal Medicaid funds per year in exchange for its promise, among other things, to ensure that needy patients had access to health care,” Democratic chiefs wrote in their brief, “California has failed to adhere to its obligations.”

What they are fighting for is the right of the patient or the medical providers to challenge in court any violation of federal law. The response of the Justice Department is that federal health officials have “exclusive responsibility” to enforce the standards set and can punish a state by withholding Medicaid resources from any state found wanting.

The question is whether they would. One former federal health official told the Supreme Court that the DHHS was not able to enforce this stating it was “logistically, practically, legally and politically unfeasible.” The reason being that the DHHS does not have either the staff, money or political clout to do this.

The supporters of the right to sue have all been endorsed and supported by the AARP, the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, civil rights groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Judicial enforcement is the only viable means to remedy states’ noncompliance with the Medicaid Act,” the A.M.A. said.

True protection can only come in the courts

In the true story behind my novel, The Accidental Activist, the British Government was ultimately found guilty of not protecting the citizen from a multinational corporation. In the US, the struggle is similar, except we are seeking protection from our own elected government and its agencies. The President, I feel, should understand this better than most.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, 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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