Thursday, July 27, 2006

Vote Early and Often

After almost forty years observing and, occasionally, participating in politics, I normally didn’t get too riled up about elections. 2000 changed all that, and not only for me. There was an outcry and chorus about reforming the way we vote, cleaning it up, making it transparent, incapable of sabotage. Now, almost 6 years later, as we approach another election year, it’s time to ask what happened?

The answer is grim. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And that’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. Especially when it’s such a simple issue. As the Clintonites were wont to say, “It’s the optical scanner systems, stupid.”

Report after report proves that these machines, as well as other electronic voting systems, just don’t work. (, just Google “voting irregularities, optical scanners) They’re able to be hacked, manipulated, and contaminated. And the fact that many of them don’t even generate a paper trail so we can see how they were hacked, manipulated, and contaminated is absurd. Never has the potential for vote fraud been so massive, so pervasive, and so dangerous.

We are allowing our democratic system to be hijacked by companies like Diebold. Come on, folks. He’s a significant Republican contributor. Always has been. Are we that naïve?

And yet, six years after we first saw it happen, nobody seems to care. If there’s anything we hold sacred these days (and there’s not much) it should be our ability to vote and think it might actually make a difference. But except for sporadic emails from Move-On and other liberal groups, I don’t hear much of an outcry.

Okay, I’m not naïve enough to think stuffing the ballot box is new. Chicago, my home town, has a rich tradition of it. (Quick: who coined the phrase “Vote Early and Often”?)*

But are we all so inured to systemic corruption that we don’t even want to lift a finger in protest? Are we so apathetic and cynical that we just assume the fix is in?

I know we’re all faced with demands on our time. I also know there are lots of good causes to commit to. All of this makes it increasingly difficult to energize ourselves, to care about everything. But this seems to me to be one of the most basic.. I mean, if we give up our right to unfettered and fair elections, we may as well tear up Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence.

Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we just forget the exercise of voting and watch it on TV instead? We already have a show called American Idol. Why don’t we just let Paula, Simon and the rest of the gang decide who our next elected officials will be? That’s tantamount to what we’re already doing when we allow optical scanners to tally our votes.

By the way, David Skibbins, a fine mystery writer has a book coming out, hopefully in 2008, about how the Presidential election could be manipulated through optical scanners. He’s calling it Hardened.

Appropriate, don’t you think?

*Answer: Big Bill Thompson, Chicago mayor, 1915-1931 (more or less)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

bookselling in america

The future of retail selling is changing.

I saw a fascinating interview on Charlie Rose last night. Most of his interviews are just that, but this was particularly of interest because of the subject. Chris Anderson is the award-winning editor of Wired magazine. He has authored a new book titled “The Long Tail.” He contends that we are looking at the end of the increasingly desperate search for the mega hit. And the implications that descend therefrom are interesting. If he’s right, there are new business models to consider, and since every author is a small business person, his POV is something to seriously consider. Here’s what he believes: “The future of business is selling less of more.”

In other words, the hit television program or movie, the hit record album or the mega-seller book, is becoming less important to the financial health of the musician, the author or the producer than is a larger quantity of a smaller number of whatever it is.

Here are some approximate figures:
New titles every year in the US-200,000
Number of titles in print-4,000,000

How many does B&N or Walmart stock? A thousand titles?

According to Publisher’s Weekly, Nielsen’s Bookscan reports that in 2004 they recorded 1.2 million book sales. 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies each.

Only 25,000 titles sold more than 5,000 copies each.

The average title in the US sells around 500 copies annually. So if your average mystery is in print for two years, sells 1,000 copies the first year and 500 the second, and then essentially disappears from the shelves, you have a sales record of 1,500. But if it is in print for five years and the author continues to promote and the book averages 500 copies annually after the first bump, the sales record is 3,000 copies. Meanwhile, a second book is now available. A year later, perhaps, a third.

One obvious answer to all this for authors at least, is to be sure the publisher will keep your book in print long enough to sell widely and steadily.

Quite possibly the answer is niche marketing, because finding the right book is often difficult to do. If you write a mystery that appeals to necrophilia’s who love vampire fantasy, you need to figure out where those people are and build a contact list.

Authors ought to look at the actions of bands and independent producers who seem to be building a fan base through widespread merchandising of their products on UTube, Myspace and similar outlets. Book publishing appears to be behind the curve in making use of these outlets, although some bookstores, notably Powell’s and Barnes & Noble are becoming more aggressive at offering books via the internet and I am of the opinion that independent bookstores will need to develop strong on-line presences in order to stay in business.

This is certainly not the whole picture. And I’m sure I don’t understand the entire picture. What about warehousing? Why do distributors HAVE to buy quantities from a publisher? There are upside and downside elements I haven’t considered, but I thought it was all worth a conversation. Just maybe the present business model in book publishing, anyway, is in need of reassessment. What do you think?

Thursday, July 20, 2006


So I was all set to spend the evening catching up on an old John Lescroat novel... dont know how I missed reading him, because he is so fluid... anyway, suddenly the phone rings, and it's Congressman Mark Kirk, (he represents the 10th district in Illinois, of which I'm a resident). Seems he is launching a town meeting by telephone. All I have to do is press the pound key and get in the queue for questions. Being the sophisticated high-tech maven that I am, I do. Well, it's been about an hour so far, and he hasnt called on me. (was it something I said? Or are my brain waves somehow getting through to his handlers and they know NOT to open up my phone line)...

Nevertheless, the entire experience has been fascinating. Particularly the questions. (Kirk's answers have been less than scintillating) Most of the questions are about our immigration policy, (probably not surprising in the lily-white northern suburbs of Chicago), but there have been several on Iraq (none supporting the administration), the prescription Medicare program, a balanced budget, and more. My question has to do with net neutrality and the fact that Kirk voted against it... which is seen as a capitulation to the big phone companies... but seeing as how he's using their resources to make this town meeting possible, I doubt I'm going to get much more than a pablum response. If I get the chance to ask it at all.

Sometimes I wish I werent so cynical about the political process. Is it because I used to live in Washington DC? Or because I was an activist forty years ago? Or is it just that I grew up ?
But there's only one politican who excites me these days.. who makes me think it's all possible all over again.. but he's very new, and very green.

Three guesses who I'm thinking about...


Tuesday, July 18, 2006


So, I went to Austin Texas in the middle of July. Demented, right. Never mind, it was 100+ degrees in St. Paul while I was away. A small, excellent, well-organized con, mostly for working authors and those struggling to become published. Plenty of good panels, interesting guests and endless conversation. As usual, I encounterd several heretofor unknown (personally) authors of note. No, I'm not going to mention those I can remember right now. There will be pictures on the web site soon. But I found the shirt! Yes a few people in Texas are wearing the shirt!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A peripatetic symbol

This shirt seems to be showing up here and there.
Anybody know this gentleman? Spotted in El Paso.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Recent movies


A Mexican production that was an academy Award nominee, a Golden Globe nominee is 2001, and a winner of the Cannes festival for Best Feature Film. I knew none of the players, although I recognized two. If you saw Paul Haggis stunning CRASH, you’ll know about this film, an intertwining of several characters, a punk who fights his dog, an old anarchist who saves a Rottweiler, and a woman whose dog is lost under the floor of her apartment. It’s a long, intense rewarding film. It’s unflinching examination of the lives of several inhabitants of Mexico City is emotionally wrenching and unsparing of the dogs and the people. Difficult to watch but very worthwhile.


A Golden Globe winner as Best Foreign Film. In Rio de Janerio, there are simpler, ordinary and necessary services readily available to travelers who arrive at the central train station. One of them is letter writing. For a small fee Dona will write a letter for you. For a largely unlettered population, this service can be vital. Dona is a cynical, lonely ex-teacher and she doesn’t always mail the letters, particularly if she somehow knows the sender or the potential receiver would be better off with out the written connection.

She encounters a boy of nine and witnesses the death of his mother under a bus. With reluctance and over a long time, she decides to leave Rio and escort the boy to his father’s town. It is a difficult journey and the film really explores the places the bus takes the travelers and the growing bond between the boy and the ex-teacher. A fine, if predictable production.

THE THREE BURIALS of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones is all over this one. He directed and stars. I was impressed that nearly all the time you forgot it was Jones you were watching. His movements, his look and his voice all seemed to belong to another person. An excellent modern western that looks at the Border Patrol, affection between two men, and the sense of loyalty and friendship that can go beyond normal relationships.

I have just finished reading 1491, by Charles C. Mann. If you want a disturbing look at the reality of the Western Hemisphere, particularly South America, before Columbus and the other Europeans rode in, here it is. Engagingly written, extensively researched, this one will raise all kinds of questions about the accuracy of what we were taught in history classes.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


So here's a place where we will talk about books, but not all mysteries, about publishing and traveling like vagabonds from small town to city to wherever; about libraries and bookstores and friends and food, and whatever else moves us. Soon there will be tales to tell about a tour group of mystery authors to which I belong. It's called THE MINNESOTA CRIME WAVE.

But today, through the heat, we spent an enthralling two hours with Diane Arbus at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. This is said to be the largest collection of her photographs, many printed by her own hand, ever assembled. As A sometime photographer, I felt a strong connection, of course, but even without that, her photographs of ordinary people in ordinary acts of their lives reveal so much to us, not just about the subjects, but about us, the viewers. If you have the opportunity, see the show, here in Minneapolis or wherever it may go.

a south dakota scene

A lot of folks think South Dakota is a flat, relatively featureless prairie, a place of pitiless winters and hot dry summers. It is that, sometimes, but it can be a lovely place as well. These are scenes from Duel County in Eastern South Dakota.