The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help— review and commentary

ToxicA friend who works on the staff of a large church recommended this book to me, and while it lacks sufficient support for some of the concepts, the principles are sound. Basically, the title says it pretty well—whether just throwing money or a week of unpaid labor at poverty—this act of charity might do more harm than good.

Author Robert D. Lupton has plenty of experience in urban ministry, and he cites many examples from his experience in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where he lives and works. But, as I have seen lots of churches gather a group of volunteers for week long “mission trips” I was fascinated by the story of a church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer, by six different sets of volunteers. Indeed, what the author terms “religious tourism” is big business. He states that in 2005, $2.4 billion was spent by 1.6 million Americans, who traveled abroad for short term mission trips. My favorite statistic: “The Bahamas, it is estimated, annually receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents.” Okay, I have never traveled abroad on a mission trip, but the Bahamas sounds like a great place to visit. (My daughter mentioned knowing of a local church that did a mission trip to Ireland. Sounds heavenly!)

Lest readers get the idea that all Lupton does is make the good hearted look either mis-guided or just plain stupid, he does mention that many people set out on these trips with good intentions. Then he explains that in the third world, a little bit of money spent properly can do quite a lot. He explains the use of “micro loans” which can give a struggling person a needed hand up. For example, a $50 loan to a woman in Nicaragua allowed her to buy a sewing machine so she could ramp up her production of baby clothes. Once she paid off the loan, she still had the increased earning capacity.

In the U.S. many churches and other charities give away certain items. One example was giving holiday presents to needy families, but the fathers in such situations are often embarrassed that they can’t match the generosity of the well meaning givers, and are thus emasculated in front of their wives and children. Another example was a food bank, wherein the recipients had come to view the handouts as entitlements, which the author then contrasted with a food co-op, where members paid a small ($3) membership fee, and the members then gathered food from free or discounted sources, set their own rules for distribution, and so forth. The co-op helped the members but did not demean them or destroy their work ethic.

Toxic Charity is a bit controversial, but the U.S.A. is one of the most generous nations which has ever graced this planet. Unfortunately, just throwing money at problems can actually make things worse. This book is a must read for anyone who is involved in charity work, faith based or not, because it explains the problem but gives some good guidelines for better ways to help without hurting the recipient or wasting effort and money.

The editors are children

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 3.01.40 PM

The other day, I wondered aloud why writing is so bad these days. My young adult son scoffed and informed me that he went to school with some of the staff at the news outlet that posted the story above. He didn’t view these fellow students as the best or brightest, obviously.

My sister, a media professional, informed me that these days, editors (and program directors) are more interested in how many hits an item gets on YouTube or Twitter than how well written or researched an item might be.

Considering the power our nation gives the media, it is scary how low the bar is set for those who write, edit, and direct what the rest of us consume.

Oh, and look out for the back Nissan.


Here’s another one:

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That’s from a site with a big budget, but again, there’s not much editing going on.

Resources for Readers

DaVinciWhat to read? When I was young (a very long time ago) my mother took my sisters and me to visit the public library every week. This was “free” entertainment, and as we were fairly poor, it was a great deal. However, there was that day when I’d read everything of interest to me in the children’s and young readers category. Again, this was a long time ago, when “young adult” publications were not a big category. I remember her guiding me over to the adult fiction section (meaning not for kids, but nothing racy—it was a public library) and she suggested some titles. My first reads from that section were what mom would term “mysteries” although romantic suspense would be closer to the genre of that time. The authors were Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, although I can’t remember the titles. So began my transition into reading for pleasure, an activity that is still a big part of my life.

Mom has been gone for a long time, as she had cancer and died before she should have, but there are plenty of other places to find recommendations for reading. I do belong to way too many Facebook Groups, and most of those have advertising that I largely ignore. For a time, Amazon was my favorite place to find books, and while it is a source for content, the weirdo reviews have made it less and less reliable for recommendations. Also, big A encourages authors to buy ads, making it even less relevant. If you are lonely and want to be inundated by promotional emails, there are lots of sites that promote books via that route, but by and large that content comes from paid ads, so it’s not reliable either. I read a lot of eBooks these days, and my public library has a few thousand titles, but I’ve noticed that far too many of them are “reprints” wherein established authors are giving their backlist titles new life, and I have either read those books are wasn’t interested the first time. So, what to do?

There are some solutions. First, check out Goodreads. It’s now owned by Amazon, but it seems to work quasi-independently from big A, so the reviews are more often by serious readers. Authors can have a “page” on Goodreads, too, which can be helpful. If you like a certain genre, typically there are blogs that feature books of interest. As a lover of science fiction romance, I like this blog: SFR Brigade. Some authors maintain a blog or a Facebook group, so check on a favorite writer’s web presence. Often writers will mention fellow writers or their own favorite reads. I’ve really enjoyed Susan Grant’s books and her blog, Come Fly with Me (now found via her website).

In addition to big A, readers sometimes leave reviews on traditional bookstore sites such as Barnes and Noble and Books a Million. As these sites primarily serve readers, the reviews tend to be written more literate customers. There may be fewer reviews, but I believe they are more reliable.

Also, if you know others who like to read, try forming a book club. My sister belongs to such a club, and members propose which books to read. She’s given me some suggestions of books that were well-received by her group, such as my current read: DaVinci, by Walter Issacs. It’s fascinating, and I would never have chosen it without the recommendation of that group over in Richmond, Virginia.

 

 

Resources for writers

Book Covers SFOver my almost two decades of writing and (occasionally) publishing, I’ve learned some stuff. Lots of stuff, actually. Some of what I learned (such as a great place to buy a box for a manuscript) is out of date. However, there are some resources that budding writers should utilize that are still quite relevant, so here goes—

While a novel (or a short story or screen play) is still in the drafting stage, consider getting editorial help. Informally, there are many writer’s groups which offer support and critiques. If you live close enough, consider that as a first source of assistance and career development. I was once privileged to judge a short fiction contest held by the Northeast Georgia Writer’s Group, and all of the entries were quite worthy. The group is active, with contests and guest speakers. Many libraries sponsor such groups. There’s a great list of writer’s groups in Georgia at ReadersUnbound.com.

Depending on genre, there just may be a writer’s conference waiting for you. Such conferences usually feature guest speakers, workshops, and opportunities to meet with literary agents, who are the typical conduits between writers and publishers. I was fortunate to attend a few in nearby Athens (at the UGA campus) which was sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, but there are a number of conferences, either general or targeting specific types of writing.

When the work is more or less complete, if there is no conventional publisher in the picture paying for it, an author seeking to self-publish or polish a manuscript for possible submission should really consider a paid editor. The Writer’s Digest magazine folks have an entire “store” devoted to such services. When I was working on my first novel, a publisher recommended that I go through a course with Writer’s Digest, and the experience taught me quite a lot about the value of editorial assistance.

Whether self-publishing a novel or developing a website and/or a social media publicity campaign, hiring a professional graphic artist is really important. For a web only publication, such as Kindle Direct, I might try the do it yourself method, but even then, it is good to use a site such as Canva.com. However, if there is any serious money going into the project, such as self-publishing in print or multiple platforms, then a cover artist is very helpful. Both The Gift Horse and the second edition of Trinity on Tylos have covers designed by an independent artist. There’s a list of cover artists over at The Creative Penn. By the way, I’d steer clear of Fiver. I tried that, and got nothing, not even a refund for my initial payment.

Once a book is in print or available as an eBook, most writers will want to help with marketing. This can be rather daunting for many writers. The publisher of The Gift Horse (Booklocker) has a companion site, Writer’s Weekly, which has some links to paying markets for shorter works, as well as articles about writing and marketing.

There are a lot of companies that offer “services” to authors. Be very careful to choose wisely, or money that should have been spent on editing and cover design will be frittered away on something else. While some of these resources have costs, others are cheap or even free. Regardless of how much money you spend, for a novelist the two most important resources are editing and cover design—in that order.

 

So you want to be a successful author—

book and moneyWhile I am pretty sure I don’t qualify as successful in the author department, I made enough mistakes to write (or rant) about the topic. Here are some tips, in no certain order, for those who are writing with the intent to publish a book, or for those who have published but are lacking in sales.

First, write the best book you possibly can. Yes, that should go without saying, but writing is like photography or cooking in that no matter how good you have done it, you can get better. There is no such thing as perfect in any of those endeavors. However, don’t publish unless it is really ready. Mistakes in print are embarrassing!

Next, find a real publisher if you can. Not necessarily one of the big companies (although if that happens for you, whoo hoo!) There are a lot of small and micro presses that can get a book into print and into at least some distribution channels, which leaves more time for the author to help with promotional activities and keep writing. A small company, Whiskey Creek Press, published my second novel, and while my sales were low, any money I spent on promotion was voluntary. My debut novel was initially accepted by a micro press, but when it failed, I ended up using a self-publisher called Booklocker.

Third, if you end up self-publishing, do so at minimal cost. Many authors have published via the Amazon Kindle Direct program, which is free. Yep, that’s right, free. I published the second edition of Trinity on Tylos via KDP, and my only expense was a fancy new cover by Dawn Seewer (which was entirely optional.) I disliked the first cover, which was done by an artist at Whiskey Creek Press, and I thought the book deserved a better effort, and Dawn did a great job for me. Another self publishing program that I am considering is Smashwords, which offers many free services. For most self published authors, the distribution channels associated with Smashwords are fantastic.

Fourth, once the book is ready to debut, get the marketing plan in motion. There are lots of books on this topic, as well as a gazillion websites. I’ve had some success with using Facebook groups, such as Ebook Rave, Kindle Book Authors, and Sci Fi and Fantasy Authors . Those have worked well in conjunction with sales and freebie promos, but bear in mind that I have low cost Kindle titles. Under “links of interest” on this site I have a few other spots that I’ve used for promotion, including “Book Goodies” and “Goodreads.” Having an author page on such sites is not necessary, of course, but doing so usually offers links for anyone who “googles” your author name.

Finally, the most important pillar in promotion is reviews, and lots of them.  If friends and family will write a review on a vendor site, such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble, that’s great, but most of us don’t have that many friends. Also, such reviews don’t carry as much cashé as a professional or semi-professional site. Do send your books to as many of those as you can find and afford. Don’t ever pay for a review, beyond giving a copy of the book. Paying for reviews is wrong on both sides of the equation. If the author pays for a review, then there’s a bias that makes the review worthless for the reader. Unless the book is an eBook only, then there is some expense in distribution of the ARC (that’s advanced reading copy) or published book, so it is best to send the book(s) to appropriate sites, because some sites only review certain genres. There are any number of review sites, and these do come and go fairly frequently. My first novel, The Gift Horse, had several reviews online within a year or two of publication, but apart from those on Amazon and one archived on The Midwest Book Review, they are gone! Therefore, if you get an online review, don’t just save the link, but archive the content, too!

When I first published The Gift Horse, I was invited to do some speeches to local clubs, and I sold a few books via that avenue, but as publishing and self-publishing became more common place, those opportunities dried up faster than blackberries in late August. I also got a book signing at a book store after Trinity on Tylos came out, but it was a very lonely afternoon. If those opportunities come your way, enjoy them, but books and eBooks must be purchased via online vendors in order to make any real money, and that means social media marketing. If you are here, clearly you know what a blog is, of course, and having an author website is usually a good idea. Marketing is an ever changing field, but as of this post, you must get to know Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other modern means of communication in order to build an audience for your books.

Oh, and as footnote to “finally” when readers like a book, they usually look for another book by the same author, so you’d best be writing another book, too.


A few books on marketing:

How to Market a Book

Guerrilla Marketing for Writers

The Frugal Book Promoter

Book Marketing 411 for Authors

And a couple on having a book worth the effort:

Don’t Sabotage Your Submission

Writing the Breakout Novel

Want a book? Check eBay before you check out!

My daughter and I have been using eBay as our “go to” bookstore lately. As an eBay seller, I’ll assure you that the fees are far less when selling used items, including books, on eBay. When selling via the big A marketplace, the fees start at about $4, and go up incrementally. Obviously, selling anything other than textbooks or other high end items on the big A marketplace is not worthwhile. However, eBay’s current fee structure is 12% for books, which means sellers can offer better prices to customers. Also, big A has a flat fee of $3.99 to ship a book, unless the seller offers “free” shipping. As USPS offers “media mail” rates for smaller books, the shipping can be cheaper via eBay. Win-win, right?

Here’s an example of a book that I have placed on the marketplace for a client; basically big A gets $6 of the $17 price:

Amazon fee

The fee for that book on eBay would be $2.04. The difference between selling via eBay vs big A is 23%, which is about $4 on a book that costs $17.

Let’s say you’re a bottom feeder looking for a deal. Here’s what happens with a $5.50 book listed via the big A marketplace:

Amazon fee 2

The sale price is $5.50 and the fee for selling it via the marketplace is $4.21, which means the seller gets $1.29. Not many sellers will opt for such a small amount, which is bound to drive up the prices of used mass market paperbacks and/or popular hardcovers. By the way, as of this post, this same book is available for $3.34 on eBay, while the lowest possible price on big A is $4.75. Clearly, bottom feeders need to go to eBay for book purchases. And, while there, check out all the other goods available, from electronics, to clothing, to collectibles— often at better prices than you’ll find anywhere other than the neighborhood yard sale.

One reason buyers flock to big A is the user reviews. Unfortunately, those reviews are not particularly reliable. Big A is purported to fighting this issue, whether banning reviews by customers who have not purchased the item being reviewed, or attempting to  control “paid” reviewers. Lately, the issue with reviews on big A is a problem with “hijacked” reviews, where in a product’s reviews are actually for a different product. Certainly, if you must read those reviews, really read them, and don’t be fooled by the number of stars highlighted. All in all, while there may be more variety available on big A, the prices are probably better on eBay.

As a matter of full disclosure, I sell on both big A and eBay. My eBay store is here:

The Alternative Article

iBooks and eBay—a winning combo

liver-rescue-apples

Apples and Apple, Inc.

As a reader of eBooks, I’ve been exploring new ways (and revisiting old ones) to view content. Recently, I saw a title touted on Facebook, and a quick look at eBay revealed several purchase options, including an eBook which was offered as a pdf file. I paid a golly whopping .99, and it arrived via email. Not quite as quick as Big A, but the seller offered pretty quick service. I tried reading the file via my email app, but that didn’t save my place, so I downloaded the file to iBooks. Winner, winner, but no chicken dinner. However, the iBooks app is a very good way to read a pdf file, and the app is easy to use, just like other, more well known ways to view eBook content. Certainly, the price was right, too.

When Big A (the relentless internet seller) decided to give me the old “heave, ho” I was a bit concerned about when and where I’d get new books to read, as I am not buying from them at the moment, but that fear has been allayed by the eBay and iBooks combination. The title I purchased is “Liver Rescue” which I won’t review, as I sincerely hope my readers don’t need it, but I’ll let you know that one way to help the liver is to eat lots of apples. Actually, I am very pleased to get a 500+ text for a buck, and the advice to eat a fruit I really like is welcome, also. Thanks eBay! And thanks to Apple, for making such an intuitive app for the iPad. Reading about apples on an Apple product is quite appropriate, isn’t it?

Nook—a second look at the eBook app

NOOK-feature-300

Nook is an app and a device!

Since big A decided to fire me as one of their “Associates” I have set aside my K—  library for the moment, and am re-reading some older titles via the Nook app on my iPad. For readers who aren’t familiar with this, it is basically the eBook platform used by Barnes and Noble. While I have not purchased many books via B & N, I was once a very loyal customer at Fictionwise. When B & N bought out Fictionwise in 2009, I was able to keep some, alas not all, of the content I had purchased, by adding the Nook app, so those books became part of my Nook library. And, as there are quite a few titles there, I am looking through the library, seeing if anything is worth a second read. One of the best aspects of eBooks is that the “keeper shelf” takes up no room in my house!

The Nook app works like other eBook apps; the raw file format is ePub. In their review of eBook apps, CNET judged it as #3, and it is quite good. I find the animation associated with page changes very pleasing; it looks just like flipping a physical page! I also like having basic info at the top of the screen (date, time, % of battery are all available) as well as the typical (in print format) of two facing pages, with the title on one side and the author name on the other. Apart from a page number, which is not possible as the file must adapt to the reader’s screen size, the interface is very book-like, and I mean that as a compliment. As an app, it is a bit quirky, however. For instance, getting back to the library can be a bit of a chore, as one must first get a more info screen, and then the option to move around a bit becomes available.

There is a library screen, a bookstore screen, a quick link back to the current book being read, and something called “Readouts” which is a bit of sales pitch mixed with freebies and information. The library screen shows “Recent Reads” and “Recent Purchases” as defaults, and there are tabs with “All titles” and “Shelves” which are, of course, organizing tools. Unfortunately for me, the only way I can find some of the oldies is via the “search” feature, but it works quite well. For instance, I didn’t finish my last name before both of my titles popped right up!

I use my iPad (mostly) for reading, so I’m using the free app, but Barnes and Noble is currently offering a 7 inch screen Nook for about $50, and a big screen (10 inch) for $130. When eBooks were new to the market, most were priced substantially lower than their print counterparts, and sometimes that is still true. Lots of classics are free, of course, but lower priced options can be, well, garbage. Overall, the prices at B & N are a bit higher than their ginormous internet competitor, but the store’s interface is elegant. Also, the content is a bit more “curated” than the content over at Big A, where just about anyone can sell anything, regardless of quality.

Since I’ve been reading via the Nook app, I have begun researching the possibility of pulling Trinity on Tylos out of the K— exclusive program and publishing it via ePub to other bookstores. Perhaps Barnes and Noble readers would buy a few digital copies. Stay tuned….

Anxious for Nothing— brief review and commentary

A friend told me how much she is enjoying her study of Max Lucado’s book, Anxious for Nothing, so I bought an eBook version. Quite frankly, her comments were so positive that I did not want to wait to pick up the physical book. I’ve read several of Lucado’s Christian living texts, and they have all been easy to read and helpful, and this book fits that mold.

The title says quite a lot. Modern people have too much information coming at them, much of it negative, so being anxious is almost a modern plague. This plays out in all sorts of ways: addiction, suicide, failed relationships, etc. Lucado discusses the whys, and then gives some very good solutions to our problem thinking. One of my favorite passages says this: “There is a reason the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror. Your future matters more than your past.”From my own experience, over thinking the past— the coulda, woulda, shoulda— is very damaging. When I counsel students, who almost always want me to allow them to “make up work” or “try again” I tell them to do better going forward. I even use the windshield analogy. But I like Lucado’s take on it.

Okay, his writing lacks sophistication; but not substance. Anxious for Nothing can be a quick read, but there is sufficient food for thought for study, too.