Monday, March 21, 2011

11 PM Book Review: No Doors, No Windows

No Doors, No Windows is by Joe Schreiber, who writes short, smooth little horror thrillers with a really crawly creep factor.

No Doors, No Windows finds Scott Mast back home in small town America for his father's funeral. His alcoholic brother can barely take care of his precocious nephew, but Scott's about to go back to his succesful job writing greeting cards on the coast when he finds pages from a novel manuscript written by his assumedly unimaginative father. The manuscript leads Scott to a haunted house mentioned in it, which leads to our protagonist renting the haunted house and trying to finish his dad's haunted novel. He's stopped taking his meds, and his research on the house's history seems to indicate that his whole family has a history of mental instability that goes back generations.

I liked how the scenario starts sleightly off, with the funeral and the dysfunctional family. Each detail the author adds: the house in the manuscript turning out to be real, the dead girl in the blue dress, the ex suddenly showing up, the revelation that she dumped him cold without an explanation when they were set to leave town together, the once beautiful town matriarch addicted to plastic surgery... each bit just adds tension and an element of creepy, until the weird is rattling around in the story like a loose bolt in a dune buggy. I also really relished that the house showes up in many generations of his family's art, like a bad thought they are trying to exorcise.

I felt like you couldn't tell if the protagonist was haunted or nuts until close to the end, and I'm not going to tell you which. I do think Joe mines interesting territory, setting a presumably modern illness in the remote past. The ending seemed like it got wrapped up a little too neatly. Perhaps that was because over the course of the story your feelings about the protagonist are muddied: should you be afraid for him, or of him? That's often par for the course in horror, but I wanted a little more emotional certainty about the outcome. Otherwise, it was a creepy, fun, quick read.

Monday, March 14, 2011

11 PM Book Review: White Cat

White Cat, by Holly Black, opens with a Cassel Sharpe sleep walking onto the roof of his dorm. You find out fairly quickly that he murdered his girlfriend three years ago, which doesn't make him a very sympathetic character. But he doesn't seem like the murdering type.

The setting for White Cat is an alternate world in which "curse workers," people who do magic, are an acknowledged minority in the world. Because curse work is legal in the US, several large crime families regulate the black market. If you are a curse worker, you are almost by definition a criminal. Cassel's whole family are curse workers. His Mom is in Jail for manipulating the emotions of rich men. His Grandfather is missing the fingers of his left hand, the hand that he kills people with. One older brother breaks bones with a touch. The other is a lawyer. As far as he knows, he's the only member of his family who isn't a worker of some kind.

From early in White Cat, you get the feeling that something weird is going on, and as Holly Black lays out the parameters of curse work, you begin to realize that there's lots of reasons why. Workers can control your luck, your emotions, your dreams, your memory, and even, in very rare cases, your shape. When Casse is kicked out of school for being a liability risk (almost walking off roofs will do that), he goes home to his family. Their weird indifference to his plight means he must ferret out what is going on by himself. And those dreams about a white cat.

Cassel isn't an unreliable narrator in that he can't be trusted... it's just that with so many stone cold manipulators around him, he can't trust himself. White Cat builds up into a great plot, smart but no so convoluted you lose track of it. A huge part of the tension comes from the fact that Cassel can't trust anyone, and a large part of the satisfaction is watching him have to take the risk of trusting.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thought experiment on limiting the lifespan of ebooks

So HarperCollins, a book publisher, has announced a new policy whereby they will sell ebooks to libraries with a limited number of loans built in. They have fixed the number at 26 loans. This is effectively a pay per circ model, levied only on libraries.

There are two reasons why this is a bad idea. The first is that HarperCollins will sell fewer, not more copies this way.

The second is that it will shorten the shelf life of older titles. This will hurt authors and publishers by removing them from a venue that sells their books for them.

The rational for a pay per circ ebook model is that, because ebooks last forever, a public library that buys an ebook, like a child who buys an Everlasting Gobstopper (TM), will never have to buy another. Therefore, libraries won't buy the theoretically endless copies of tree-books that they might have bought in order to replace worn out books. Publishers are losing sales. Alas.

I believe that HarperCollins thinks that it has a cash cow here. The thinking might go something along the lines of "somebody will always be reading X title by Clive Cussler, ergo, libraries will need to repurchase X title in perpetuity." From long experience building and weeding collections of tree books, here's what I think might actually happen:

I’m going to use as an example The DaVinci Code. I currently have 11 tree-copies. The oldest three have 64, 48, and 47 circs respectively. The first 3 titles, the oldest, were bought in 2003. I would have had to buy 7 e-copies to satisfy those tree-circs. HarperCollins has just magnified my initial costs by 2.3.

The remaining 8 copies are all from 2006 and later. We were still buying copies in 2006, because the DaVinci Code was a freakishly popular book. The remaining titles have circulations of 2, 6, 6, 7, 9, 12, 16, and 19. They have a total of 77 circs between them. Huh. I would only have needed three e-copies to satisfy all those circs. Now, 8 users couldn't simultaneously read 3 copies... but all those uses weren't simultaneous. I obviously didn't need anywhere near all 8 copies later on.

Now, if I needed 7 copies to start and only 3 copies later on, I should just buy 10 copies and be done with it, right? Very tidy.  This is, I will point out, one less than the tree copies I actually bought. What I know, from weeding my own libraries' collections, is that books have a kind of life cycle. We needed way more than 10 copies of The DaVinci Code in 2003. We need way less now. Use plummets so that, over time, you need far fewer copies to satisfy the same number of circs.

Obviously, ebooks and tree-books are not the same animal. They don't act the same way in the wild. Ebooks spines don't break, so libraries don't have to worry about their usefulness being cut off early. But print books don't cost 3 times as much to get 3 times the circ.

In fact ebooks are still supplementary to my collection. Where the library market is concerned, they are gravy to the publisher. But let's assume HarperCollins is looking forward to a brave new world where libraries circulate ebooks alone. Are they preserving a portion of the market they would lose by attempting to build obsolescence into an otherwise obsolescence proof format?

Here’s what I ask myself: If I know that the number of uses of a book will go down over time, does it matter if some of my patrons wait an extra 2 weeks to read that popular title because I bought 8 copies instead of 10?  Because fewer copies will eventually satisfy the same number of circs, I am dis-incentivized to buy more copies.

It looks to me that what Harper Collins has done is inflated the value of the circ, and deflated the value of the copy. This might have lots of consequences. How many books do even as well as The DaVinci Code? Less popular books don't even get 26 circs. Should I even bother to buy them? I certainly won't get my full use out of them. That question kind of deflates the value of HarperCollins’ midlist.

Then at the end of a book’s life cycle, instead of keeping one copy on the shelf to satisfy newer fans of an author, I am faced with the decision of whether or not to buy another 26 circs of an older title (where a gently used book or an unlimited use ebook would have stayed on the shelf forever) or an extra 26 circs of the next passing literary fad. That kind of forced choice is unsustainable for libraries. HarperCollins is asking for libraries to pay for ebooks in perpetuity. How would that serve the needs of our patrons? In reality, it's an active limit to a book's shelf life.

HarperCollins is trying to create an artificial scarcity or obsolescence, inflating operating costs for libraries and forcing libraries to buy more copies of books than they ultimately need. But I think it will backfire. Librarians are conservative buyers. In reality, we have limited budgets. In the end, a library would buy fewer copies of ebooks than tree-books as replacements for worn out copies... but they will be buying fewer copies over all, and many will not be renewed after they become less popular.

Which brings us to our second point. By moving to a pay per circ model, HarperCollins is devaluing their own role as a publisher of books.

One thing the pay per circ model points up is that HarperCollins is in the business of selling widgets in the form of  units of use. Libraries are not in the business of selling units of use. We are in the business of selling access to stuff that the tax paying public wouldn’t normally get access to.

Unfortunately, we have limits. In the case of tree books, our hard limit is shelf space, which forces us to remove books that aren’t getting used heavily.* We don't have the same kind of issue with e-books, but as I pointed out above, we have limited budgets. That means in a pay per circ model we can't buy unlimited circs for a given title.

This is where I may sound cranky. In "business land" libraries have been characterized as leeches that take the efforts of publishers and devalue them by spreading those efforts around too far. What 12 people should have bought, one person bought and 11 read for free. That's like socialism. Icky, Icky, literary socialism.

But libraries don’t work the same way as the open market. We sell access, not units. For books, access is often better. Libraries introduce readers to new authors, encouraging them to buy copies of books they loved just to keep one. Those books would not have been bought if the library hadn't lent them in the first place.

Libraries also extend the life of an author’s career. We not only sell copies of an author's current book, we sell copies of a author's next book by keeping out-of-print titles on the shelf for readers to find by browsing. We do this long past the efforts of a publisher to market the author or book. Libraries allow readers more chances for exposure to an author than a publisher ever does.**

If a pay per circ model succeeds, libraries will be forced to choose between buying another 26 circs of a once popular title, or 26 circs of a currently hot title. Which doesn’t do authors any favors.

Ebook or tree books, each time a consumer buys a book they take a risk. Will I like it? Won't I? I dunno. Maybe I shouldn't risk it right now. Libraries socialize that risk, exposing readers to new authors and creating new customers. HarperCollins will effectively kill an author’s visibility by actively limiting their lifespan on the shelf. Libraries offer greater word of mouth advertising than publishers, over time. Taking authors out of libraries just penalizes them further, and really just steps on the author's and publishers's bottom line.

It's harder for ebooks to generate word of mouth than tree-books. Ebooks aren't easy to browse. You can't loan them effectively, or resell them. None of these things will prevent the adoption of ebooks, though, because in the end the consumer doesn't care about other people's uses of the item they pay for. And it's just going to get worse over time. The durability, portability, and ease of use of ebooks mean that each title is competing with more and more titles on the electronic shelf over time.

And, of course, selling books by circ may also eliminate the number of venue an author’s book can be found in. Selling by circ vastly inflates the cost for libraries, and is going to cause libraries to struggle harder to provide good service, making them less useful to taxpayers. If  libraries close, they leave people without service. That, by the way, leaves authors without readers.

*In fact, you could say that HarperCollins is doing libraries a favor by selling us self=weeding books: we won't raise the ire of Nicholson Baker for throwing away copies that we don't have room for any more. They will just disappear…

**There is another problem in that many publishers don't allow their ebooks to be lent by libraries, cutting off a venue for that title by disallowing access to the format. It more of a problem for ebook only publications. But I digress.

Monday, March 07, 2011

11 PM Book Review: Hold me Closer Necromancer

Hold me Closer Necromancer is about Sam LaCroix, slacker extrordinaire, who is confronted at the Burger Joint where he works by a seemingly mild but terrifying man who calmly threatens him with bodily harm. In rapid succesion, Sam is attacked by a werewolf in the parking lot and his best friend's head is sent to him in a box, to verbally deliver an ultimatum. Sam finds out he's a necromancer, which his witch mother tried to hide from him. But really, there's only supposed to be one necromancer in Seattle. Sam is not it.

When Douglas, who is it, finds out about Sam, he begins to stalk him. Laura, my Bro-Worker, who is the Greatest Living Young Adult Librarian Alive (TM), was talking to me over lunch. She's all, "Like, I'm reading this great book, about this kid who finds out he's a Necromancer (Meh, I think), and who's being hunted by this crazy, more powerful necromancer (Meh, I think), so, GET THIS, the older Necromancer sends the kid his best friend's head in a box, still talking to him, as a warning." And I was like, "HOLY CRAP! DUDE, you had me a talking head in a box."

I did not hurt that the title is a play on an Elton John song title.

A big part of the fun of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is not that there'a crazy bad guy (TM). It's that he's so brutally, practically dismissive of other people's right to remain intact and alive. His only option is the nuclear option, but he does it so calmly. I really liked Sam's voice. He's casual, sharp, and self effacing, very Gen X, as filtered through Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I also liked that the setting is kitchen sink urban fantasy world, with vampires, faeries, and satyrs living under the noses of their irritating human neighbors. Anubis makes an appearance. It's always good to see Anubis. I personally like kitchen sink urban fantasy. Vampire urban fantasy always feels a little like the whole world is populated by loafer wearing Emo supermodels.

I felt that the story moved pretty well despite having an oddly static plot. Sam spends the first half of the book trying to find out what the hell is going on, asking his mom, his absentee dad's new family (necromancy is passed down in families, you see, like hair color or liking Paul Anka), really anyone he can reach who might have any kind of handle on what's going on. Then he gets kidnapped and spends the rest of the novel in a cage with a sexy werewolf chick.

There were a bunch of plot elements that didn't make a ton of sense, and some lazy plotting: after dealing with the Necromancer, by supernatural law Sam get's all the old Necromancer's Stuff. That was kind of Mary Sue. However, the personalities carried the book: His Mom, a witch afraid of her son's power to control the dead, enough to stick his power in a magical straight jacket. The sexy half werewolf half fey, born to lead her pack and now a crazy Necromaner's guinea pig, who needs to get Sam to butch up and find his Necromancer in time to save both of them. And Sam's loyal slacker buddies. Or the various parts of them. The cast of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer rocked the plot like a small press publisher rocks an orange zoot suit, which is to say, with more panache and heart than any vampire. Those loafer wearing bastards.