Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Alcohol Fuels the Engines of Awesomeness

We all sat quietly at our desks, captivated, listening intently as the two tattered middle-aged men took turns telling us unbelievable stories about the wild party days of their youths. They both seemed to be intensely focused on digging through their respective murky, faded memories to recall their most extreme personal experiences in an attempt to exceed each other's depravity. Prior to this experience, most of us were unaware of how much fun could be had under the influence of excessive amounts of alcohol. Many of us drew the misinformed conclusion that having over-the-top alcohol stories may be necessary later in life for possible pissing contests with others in the adult world.

The intended purpose of these men's visit to our elementary school was to educate us about the horrors of alcohol abuse. The first phase of the lesson was apparently to provide examples of the awesome destructive power of alcohol, and the second phase was to show us a real-life example of the possibilities of a life of sobriety.  Needless to say, things grew even more entertaining during the second phase of their program. When the men were finally satisfied with their storytelling performances, they led us out of the classroom to the parking lot in front of our school. 

The lowest intelligence quartile of the class was immediately awestruck, in speechless disbelief,  at the sight of an enormous monster truck illegally parked halfway up on the curb in the passenger loading zone. None of us thought to ask who parked the truck there, seeing as how the only two presenters for the alcohol training program were in our classroom for the past hour. They must have parked it there earlier, insensitively blocking traffic; possibly preventing disabled children from easily boarding their parents' vehicles via the loading ramp located in the passenger zone. I can only imagine that these guys were too blinded by their newly found righteousness to concern themselves with those whom they considered to be less-awesome (kids, parents, teachers, pedestrians, anyone). 

We stood a safe distance away, patiently waiting for something cool to happen. One of the men carefully scaled a gigantic 6-foot-tall tire, and leapt into the driver's seat. The other man stood between the crowd of children and the truck, and spouted off some forgettable closing statements about how sobriety made their dreams come true; apparently, their shared dream was to drive a shared monster truck. Eventually, the man on the ground realized that his words of wisdom were being completely ignored, and finally trailed off mid-sentence and stopped talking. No one noticed. After a few moments of breathless silence, something childishly cool finally happened.

"Yeeeaaaaahhhh!" The man on the ground shrieked as the thunderous roar of the monster truck engine unexpectedly shook our 11-year old souls. The man in the drivers' seat revved up the engine, and it screamed  even louder. In reasonable fear of an explosion, as a result of their possible insobriety, we collectively took a step backward. They continued to run the engine for several minutes, until their wine turned into the vinegar of bored children waiting for a nonexistent follow-up act.

The last thing I remember about their educational program was that the man on the ground yelled over the booming engine sounds to inform us that the monster truck engine [also] ran on alcohol. So in sum, in all its glory, alcohol makes for very entertaining stories about extreme partying and/or regret, and it powers monster trucks. Yeeeaaaaahhhh!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Demands From an Independent Author

Over the past few decades, independently owned brick and mortar retailers shuddered when places like Walmart Supercenters, Targets, Kmarts, etc. rolled into town, creating an environment of impossible price competition. Many small retail business owners exhaled their collective dying breath as they watched their impending doom approach like a rapidly growing tsunami. Then they were subsequently, and quickly swallowed into the abyss; relegated to relics of a bygone era of 'main street' American entrepreneurial opportunity. Surrounding communities somewhat involuntarily accepted the transition as their low-wage, increasingly impoverished existences could only sustain a life sourced by the impossibly low prices offered by corporate retail chains. With most American manufacturing jobs already departed during the previous wave of corporate exploitation (outsourcing), local economies became increasingly dependent upon the minimum wage offerings of corporate giants, and many of us stepped off the cliff together and descended in a freefall into a slightly deeper ring of hell; heading toward serfdom. Ultimately, what happened was that the long distance exploitation (e.g. outsourced sweatshop manufacturing) that enabled corporate retail giants to offer unsustainable prices came home, and we were incorporated into the corporate exploitation model once again. This should not be a surprise to anyone, because corporations are accountable solely to shareholders, and therefore must perpetually increase earnings to satisfy their appetite for increased wealth. Exploiting locals [again] was the next, obvious method to sustain continuous profitability. However, this scenario is rapidly transforming as the agents of exploitation must develop new methods in their never-ending pursuit of elusive profits.

Presently, there need not be a corporate encampment in our towns to sap the life out of us, because the corporate planners are slowly realizing that an actual physical presence is relatively expensive. The new strategy is to migrate the exploitation model to an online environment, because by being online, corporations can be omnipresent. There are fewer jobs 'created' in exploited communities, and economies can be savaged, remotely. For example, a corporate department chain can build stores in one small town after another, draining the lifeblood out of individual communities, but online retailers need not ever be physically present; they are already present by virtue of being online entities.

Concerning e-books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, and a few others have implemented systems that are driving professional independent authors into extinction. The primary component causing this effect is marketplaces where authors can directly price-compete with one another. The result of these environments is a veritable race-to-the-bottom, with the victor being, obviously, the owners of the marketplaces themselves; Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, etc. Of course, participation in these marketplaces, and competing on price is a choice, but with the established oligopoly, independent authors have very few options for other online locations to retail their e-books if they are to achieve a temporarily survivable level of exposure. The alternative to the dominant distribution channels is to launch a new website, which is a lot like opening a brick and mortar bookstore in an uninhabited desert; hopelessly futile.

The Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) marketplace is a relatively new method of pitting peasants against one another. With KDP, authors write, edit, format, upload/publish, and market their own works. Like the aforementioned distribution channels, the KDP marketplace allows authors to price-compete with one another, with a minimum retail price of $0.99 (at this price, authors receive 35%; ~$0.35 USD). The KDP platform is unique in that it has a program called "KDP Select", which allows authors to give away an e-book free for 5 days for every 90 days of said title's enrollment. This feature is a powerful and effective tool for reaching a large audience of potential readers. Its purpose is to allow authors to gain exposure in hopes of converting free downloaders into future purchasers of other works. Unfortunately for authors, the overwhelming abundance of e-books enrolled in the KDP Select program has resulted in a bottomless buffet of free e-books, and resultantly fewer paying customers. I must confess that I am guilty of regularly using the free book giveaway feature to gain exposure for many of my titles, and many of the feature's other critics do as well. However, as long as this feature exists, it's use will be widespread, and therefore must be implemented by most independent authors who wish to remain visible.

Aside from the obvious, inevitable doom that authors will meet on the course set by this model, there is another issue of acute concern that I have observed in discussions among authors/publishers. It is that the e-book sales reporting tools are inconsistent, some sales do not seem to register (even when authors test the system by purchasing their own books), some sales mysteriously disappear (not returns/refunds), and sales for individual authors are in precipitous decline. With tangible goods, retailers monitor their inventory, sales, payments, etc. However, with digital goods that are sold in a system that is enshrouded in secrecy, accountability to, and responsibility toward, the producers is virtually nonexistent. In other words, not only does the nature of the system contribute to the extinction of writers due to financial de-incentivization, many authors are becoming increasingly suspicious of the sales reporting practices of e-book distribution channels and are beginning to think that the distributors are simply not paying them for their e-book sales. When I first read discussion board posts written by concerned authors, I dismissed their complaints as slightly paranoid, or as impatience with the sales reporting systems. However, as time passed, I observed the frequency of these concerns increasing, even among well-established authors. It seems that notwithstanding the overt extinction-inducing features (i.e. free book giveaways, extreme price competition, etc.), the combination of the sheer number of e-book reading devices sold and the ever-expanding international e-book marketplace should not lead to the precipitous e-book sales declines for independent authors that my peers and I are currently observing.

Many large corporate retailers have well-documented histories of selfish, inhumane, dishonest, and ruthless trade practices. It is not inconceivable to entertain the possibility that these same monsters are continuing to behave in a pattern in accordance with their established characters. However, this is post is not an indictment. It is a demand for increased transparency. As authors, we are the brick-cutters in a modern pyramid building scheme. At a bare minimum, we require adequate transparency and/or oversight to assuage our concerns that the system is less fair/honest than it is purported to be.
As a start, I would like to see the following:
  1. Establish a processing time from the time of purchase to actual sales reporting. This will ensure that authors can verify sales.
  2. Establish a royalty rate at >= 50% of the retail price for all price bands. Currently most systems allow authors to receive a dismal royalty percentage for the lower price bands, i.e. 35% if the price is less than $2.99, and up to 70% if the price is >=$2.99.
  3. Make page view statistics for individual e-books available to authors/publishers.
  4. Disclose Kindle, Nook, and other e-reader device sales data.
  5. No free book giveaways

No More Coffee-Making Dreams

I was recently invited to an interview for a highly un-lucrative, part-time job opportunity to make coffee for a large coffee retail giant at a location embedded within a large grocery store. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation. And while I did not spend last night in sleepless anticipation, it was nice to receive an invitation to a job interview. 

I arrived on time, and was initially unsuccessful at locating my interviewer, a store manager. After chatting it up with the presently-employed, friendly, and helpful baristas at the coffee stand, one of them dispatched the manager to the coffee area via the store intercom. After a few minutes, the manager eventually materialized and acknowledged my existence (+1 point), and told me to be patient while she attended to another non-urgent matter; talking to a random employee about training someone on a cash register (-1 point). After about 10 minutes had lapsed, the manager finally approached me again and told me to follow her to the interview room. We walked through the store, through the meat department, and eventually up the stairs to the employee break room.

She produced a 3-page set of standardized interview questions, and started firing away. The interview itself was fairly straightforward, until she asked me to pretend like she was a customer and to persuade her to buy a beverage; "It's cold outside, I want a beverage that is warm, and not too sweet." This was difficult, mostly because I don't really care if someone wants to buy coffee or not, and shitty because I didn't have time to prepare a believable pack of lies prior to my interview. I replied with a fragmented series of disconnected phrases about why I like coffee so much. I have no idea how my answer passed this test, but it did. Note: If you find yourself in this scenario, just remember that it does not make a damn bit of difference what you say as long as you smile. 

The manager completed the set of interview questions, and determined that my answers were somehow satisfactory enough to proceed to the next phase of the hiring process. She retrieved a foil-wrapped canister from a nearby table and opened it. Then she informed me that there was an required pre-employment saliva-based drug test. Then she read a script about the nature of the test. At first, it seemed legitimate. However, toward the end of the script she said something about how the results of my test may be shared with other health databases.

I responded by saying that I felt that drug testing was not necessary to successful coffee-making, to which she assured me that most jobs require this type of testing. My entire professional life quickly flashed before my eyes, and I only recalled one prior instance of this happening to me at a large grocery chain, where I passed the ten-minute saliva test in front of a panel of four judging interviewers. However, this time I argued, explaining that this was not standard for most jobs and that despite being drug free, I was not comfortable completing a pre-employment drug test because I felt like it was a violation of my privacy. I quickly realized the futility of further pressing this point, and slightly changed the subject by asking which health databases these results could potentially be shared with. She said that she did not know. Then I asked what they are testing for, which she also said she did not know. Then, I finally asked, "Are you administering tests for unknown substances, and potentially sharing the results with unknown parties?" She said, "Yes." Finally, I asked if she knew if they were testing for legal substances, i.e. alcohol, nicotine, etc. Once again, she did not know. 

Her ignorance regarding the tests was shocking to say the least. I felt disappointed in myself for my momentary acceptance of the test. Had she not said anything about 3rd party health databases, I may have voluntarily subjected myself to it. I was thankful that she jolted me back to reality with the particularly scary finale of the script. However, I decided to end the interview by politely thanking her for her time, saying goodbye, and exiting the room.

I must admit that I am not familiar with statues pertaining to hiring or health-insurance discrimination based on the use of legal substances, but that is beside the point. The point is that participating in tests for the presence of undefined [possibly legal] substances is a terrifying prospect for the working class. Why are the substances unstated? Why do the parties administering these tests now know where the data is shared? Don't get me wrong, I am not entirely against drug testing for some jobs, such as operating heavy machinery, shooting at things, or nuclear reactor maintenance, etc., but the substances being tested for should be identified, and the data-sharing policies should be clear, otherwise we have no idea to what we are subjecting themselves. This is a slippery slope, and it is especially important to act on principle in this era of rapidly diminishing privacy. 

I now realize that my coffee-making dream-fantasy has ended and I've awakened in the sad reality where I only make coffee at home. However, making a principled decision to not submit myself to ambiguous substance use screenings is much more satisfying than persuading someone to buy overpriced coffee that they don't need. 

Have you had a similar experience?