Saturday, June 27, 2015

Please Don't Ask Writers for Free Books

Recently, a coworker of mine (at my day job) learned that I’m a published writer. Several times since then, he’s asked me if I could give him some of my books for free. I refused. I made a simple suggestion that should have solved the issue right then and there if he was truly interested in reading my work. For every one of my books that’s available online, whether in print or e-book format or both, Amazon offers some sample pages. It would be the easiest thing in the world for a curious person to go to my Amazon page, choose a book, click on the “Look inside” feature, and read those sample pages to see if it grabs his attention tightly enough to make him want to buy it.   
            There; problem solved. But apparently it isn’t. He seems almost insulted and unable to understand why I won’t give him books for free.            
            Truthfully, I do occasionally give books away. But those occasions are rare and have good reasons behind them. I sometimes give copies to my very few, very closest friends. The reason for that should be self-explanatory. I’ve also been known to give copies to those who are somehow connected to the story coming into existence in the first place. For example, my grandfather introduced me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, so I sometimes give him free (free to him, but I have to pay for them!) copies of the anthologies in which my Holmes stories appear. Other than those exceptions, I really don’t give my books away for nothing, and most of my friends and acquaintances, and even my relatives, are fine with that fact.
            So yes, I’m beginning to get seriously annoyed at this coworker’s begging for freebies. But, to be fair, it occurs to me that there are certain factors involved here that he may not be aware of. After all, unless you’re part of a particular profession, you can never really understand what a certain kind of work involves.
            So here are a handful of good reasons writers should be paid for their work and should never feel obligated to give it away for free.

Writing is Work!
            Yes, we sit down while we’re doing it, so maybe it looks easy. Sometimes it feels easy too, but it’s never as easy as it might appear to be. Writing a novel or short story can take days, weeks, or months, and that’s even if we only count the actual time spent typing. Ideas take time to form, manuscripts have to be revised, edited, and proofread many times before going to an editor who isn’t the writer, and then, once that outside editor has had his or her way with it, the writer has to go back and make the suggested changes (or produce some damn good reasons why he won’t change things). Writing a story takes a lot longer than reading it. The handful of hours of enjoyment you get from reading a novel is just a fraction of the time it took the writer, editor, publisher, proofreaders, and various others to prepare it for your consumption.
            Also—and this is something non-writers might not realize—we’re not just writing when we’re physically sitting down to work on our stories. Writers’ minds are going every waking moment, churning ideas around, trying to memorize sections of prose at times when we can’t stop whatever else we’re doing to jot notes down, and even groping for a pen and paper in the middle of the night when an idea pops up in a dream or in that strange, wonderful zone of consciousness between fully awake and fully asleep. We’re never truly “off the clock.” Divide the money we make from our books by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and figure out what we’re really paid!  
            And, on top of all that, there really is a substantial amount of work we don’t make any money from. Not every story we write gets published. Things get rejected no matter how good a writer is, and some projects that do get published just don’t, for whatever reason, successfully make a profit. So it’s even more vital that we do make some money from those stories people really want to read.    

Even the Writer Doesn’t Always Get His Own Books for Free
            Sure, I often get comp or contributor’s copies of the books I write or have work included in, but I certainly don’t receive box after box of unlimited supplies of them. I get a few, keep one or two for my personal bookshelf, maybe give one or two away as gifts, and then, if I need more for any reason, I usually have to buy them.! In this day and age of technology allowing books to be produced by many publishers, some of them quite small, which gives readers a much greater variety of stories to choose from than back in the days of just a few major publishers, smaller presses just can’t afford to give authors dozens or hundreds of comp copies, and that’s just fine. But readers, especially those who personally know the authors, have to understand this fact.

Sales Numbers Count
If you want to support an author whose work you enjoy, or an author who you consider a friend (even if you haven’t yet tried his work), the best ways to do that are to buy the books and leave a review on Amazon or another venue. By purchasing his books on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or wherever, you not only make sure the writer is paid for the work, you also, without any further effort on your part, give the book a boost in sales rank. Potential buyers, some of them at least, do look at such statistics. The more successful a book is, the more successful it might continue to be.

The Writer is Not the Only Person Who Needs Sales from that Book
So let’s say you want to read, for example, one of my Sherlock Holmes anthologies. And instead of buying it off Amazon or from the publisher, you want me to give you one of my copies. Even if I’m willing to forego my royalties from that copy so you can read it, let’s think about what else is happening here. Guess who’s not being paid for their work on that copy of the book. How about the editor’s royalties? Or the illustrator? What about the other three or four authors whose work appears in that volume?
            And even if it’s one of my novels we’re talking about, I still didn’t do it alone. The publisher wants his share, as does the editor, and whoever drew the cover illustration. Don’t these fine creative folks deserve to be paid for their hard work in making my story available to you, the reader?

It’s Just Wrong to Expect Something for Nothing
Would you walk into your dentist’s office and expect a free filling? Would you demand a free oil change from your mechanic? Do you go into the local Dunkin’ Donuts and think it’s likely they’ll just hand you a coffee and say there’s no charge? Of course not, because that mechanic and dentist and barista (yes, I know, that’s more of a Starbucks-style term) are people doing jobs to earn a living. Well so are writers! Try to keep that in mind.  

Saturday, June 13, 2015

An Open Letter to the Woman Who Wants SANDMAN Banned From Her College

Last night I signed onto Facebook to find that a friend had posted this article:

 I read it and I’ve been furious ever since. It seems a 20 year old woman named Tara Shultz, a student at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California took an English course focused on graphic novels (the modern term for comic books, in case anyone isn’t familiar), a course which included in its material Neil Gaiman’s wonderful series Sandman, which was originally published under DC Comics’ Vertigo line (a line aimed at adult comics readers) from 1989 to 1996. Poor Miss Shultz was absolutely shocked to learn that the graphic novels which were the subject of the course, including Persepolis, which is, after all, a memoir of growing up during the Iranian revolution (which means it contains—gasp!—depictions of violence which are based on real events), feature graphic illustrations and plot elements she found upsetting and disturbing, which was probably exactly what the creators of the works in question intended (not in a malicious way, but because that's how effective stories are told). And now she’s feeling traumatized, and, as so often happens in today’s far too easily offended world, this young woman, with the help of her parents, is protesting the teaching of these books at her college. Yes, that’s right, instead of simply avoiding something she doesn’t like, she wants to prevent the teacher from teaching about them and her fellow students from learning about them. What a great example of someone missing the point of education!
So here I sit, fuming over this because it’s just so very, very wrong. I need to express my feelings about this. I really need to let it out. To do that, I’m writing an open letter to Tara Shultz and posting it here on my blog. Chances are she won’t see it. And, if through some twist of the wonderfully connected internet age, it does find its way to her attention, it probably won’t do any good, considering what she’s already doing. But I’m posting it anyway because I’m so tired of people thinking being offended gives them the right to rob other human beings of potential knowledge or entertainment or experience. Here goes.    
Dear Miss Shultz,
That didn’t work out the way you thought it would, did it? You took a college course in comic books (and yes, they’re all comic books whether you also use the term ‘graphic novel’ or not.) And you were expecting, as you said, “Batman and Robin.” But that’s not what you found because, as you now know, this amazing art form that combines words and illustrations to form a unique type of narrative is not, by any means, limited to the superhero genre or other subjects originally intended for children. Why would it be? It’s just another form of storytelling, and, as with film or prose or theatre or opera, there’s no built-in limit on what sort of tales can or cannot be told using it. So what really happened here? An experience at an institute of education took an assumption you had and shattered it, revealing the truth about the subject you’d signed on to study. The last time I checked, that’s what’s supposed to happen when one takes a class. Otherwise, what’s the point? So you should be happy to have learned something and been shown that comics, like any other art form, have an infinite number of possible uses as an outlet for artistic expression. Now, to be honest, I haven’t read Y: The Last Man or Persepolis, although I would like to at some point (there’s never enough time for a reader to read all the good stuff!), so most of what I’m saying here is my reaction to your attempt to hissy-fit your way into Sandman being, as you so mercilessly put it, eradicated from the system.

I’ve read Sandman, all of it, and most of the related material that came after the original series, and many of the other works by its writer, Neil Gaiman, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most amazing, awe-inspiring works of storytelling I’ve ever encountered, comics or not. It can make you laugh, cry, fear, smile, think, hope, cringe, and nearly burst with the sheer volume of wonder Mr. Gaiman managed to stuff into the series (with help from many of the best artists in the comics industry). Sandman has won a World Fantasy Award and been praised by people with names like Harlan Ellison (does his work offend you too?). It is certainly not, as you said in what the article about you makes me think is your usual ineloquent, judgmental manner, “garbage.” No, it’s far, far from garbage. Sandman is a beautiful tapestry of stories that touch upon all the essential elements of the human experience as the author masterfully wraps his metaphors in a richly imagined fantasy universe. Sandman examines dreams and their relationship to the human soul and tells the tale of Dream (or Sandman or Morpheus), who is, along with his siblings, Death, Despair, Destiny, Desire, Destruction, and Delirium (who used to be Delight, one of the Endless, who are all, to put it one way, incarnations of some of the basic conditions of human life and thoughts. They’re sort of like a pantheon of gods, but not quite. It’s been a few years since I’ve reread Sandman, but the mere thought of that masterpiece of storytelling fills my mind with a pageant of its best points, like its portrayal of Death as a comforting, witty, sympathetic, lovely character; the perfection of the story “Ramadan,” which appeared in the series’ fiftieth issue and was beautifully drawn by the great P. Craig Russell; the breathtaking moment when the enormous sea serpent appears, brilliantly timed at a page turn (one of those neat little tricks that the masters of the comics medium know how to use) in “Hob’s Leviathan; the Shakespeare-related tales scattered throughout the book’s run; and so many other memorable moments that have stuck with readers for years after they’ve read them. Yes, Sandman is good, so good, in fact, that I’d put it on the list of the greatest storytelling feats of the late twentieth century, in all media, not just comics! This is an important work that should probably be taught in every college in one course or another.            

So here we are, with you upset by something you read (I hate to tell you this, but upsetting things happen. Just wait till you get out into the adult world. Trust me, it will make being offended by a comic book the least of your worries), and now you’re hell-bent on changing the options other people have about what to read, what to teach, what to experience. You’re acting like a spoiled child.

You have no idea how the world works, and you have no idea of your proper place in it. How dare you try to decide what others get to read, what others get to learn, how artists and writers should express themselves, and what audiences should get from the works of those writers and artists? How dare you assume your personal dislike of something and your readiness to be offended by art and literature (which Sandman certainly is, and thousands, perhaps millions, of those who have been affected and inspired by it will attest to that fact) gives you the right to expect that your tantrum will result in the opportunity being taken away from others to read such works and maybe, hopefully, be changed by the experience? Who are you to attempt to limit the experiences of your fellow students, your fellow explorers of this life we all live together? These are human beings—curious, motivated, creative, living, breathing, important, wonderful, unique human beings who are spending time and money to gain the best education they can. Many of them wish to broaden their view of the world, and understanding the art that flows from the minds of writers and artists is a part—a very important and precious part—of that education, of that noble attempt to appreciate every aspect of this world and those who inhabit it. And you think you have the right to place limitations on how and when and what those people are allowed to learn? Are you really trying to do something on that level of evil? Yes, I called it evil, and I stand by that statement. Demanding that books be pushed out of the reach of those who wish to read them, for no other reason than that YOU find them offensive and upsetting is, at the very least, selfish and arrogant, and, at worst, an act of unspeakably foul intellectual terrorism that has no place on a college campus, no place in a nation that values freedom, and certainly no place among any group of human beings who respect each other and the right of all of us to experience the fruits of creativity and learn from each others’ artistic endeavors.   

When good, honorable, open-minded people don’t like something, they make a choice to avoid it. And they allow others to make their own choices. Nobody’s forcing you to read those books. You have all the freedom in the world to drop the class and take a different one. You don’t like the contents of the materials? Fine, it’s your right to dislike something. Then CHOOSE to have nothing to do with Sandman or any of the other books in question. Walk away. But don’t try to force your choice, your taste in literature, your personal opinions (and that’s all they are, opinions) onto everyone else. You want to get upset and offended over a book? Nobody will stop you. You want to go home and cry to your parents about words and pictures on pages making you feel uneasy? Go right ahead. But DO NOT come charging back to school, assisted by your Mom and Dad, and demand that those books, those experiences, that part of an education, be taken away from your fellow students as if those books were not worthwhile expressions of human creativity but matches that must be kept out of the reach of children.     

Maybe in the world you WISH existed, books (and comics, movies, plays, etc.) would contain nothing but sunshine and joy and happy endings. But there aren’t too many stories out there in any form (at least the ones adults read) that don’t contain some sort of conflict or problem, and, yes, those conflicts and problems can often involve upsetting events and ideas, and violence, and sex (and I absolutely hate that we live in a world where sex and violence get mentioned together so frequently, as if an act needed to assure the continuation of the human race is somehow as bad as acts that involve us destroying each other), and pain, and heartbreak, and confusion. Now here’s the great secret you may have missed along the road to college if your life has been as sheltered and sanitized as it seems it must have been if you think you can just wish some great books out of the curriculum. Are you ready for this? I hope so, because it’s important. Stories contain unpleasantness because art is a reflection of life (dressed up in fantastic details, of course, but inspired by life nonetheless), and LIFE itself contains all the conflicts and pains and horrors that so upset you in the art it inspired.

So how about this for an idea? Instead of running around screaming and trying to ban books, why don’t you look at life and reality. I mean really, really look at it, and find things that are truly worth being offended by! Don’t protest the stories; protest the realities that inspire the darkness therein. Wars are being fought and blood being spilled right now in dozens of nations. Diseases are ravaging people and need to be cured. Children are being abused and people are living in slavery and poverty. Religious fanatics are blowing up people who don’t call an invisible being, for whose existence they have no solid evidence, by the same name. We have racism, sexism, homophobia, and bullying. Yes, it’s a cruel and nasty world sometimes. And that cruelty and nastiness is, as is only natural, often reflected in our art. What you need to learn to do is embrace the creative products of humanity’s minds and hearts, both its light and its darkness, and laugh because of it or cry because of it, but, by all means, embrace it, enjoy it, cherish it. And balance your awareness of that with your awareness of the world’s real problems. And once you see both sides of the coin, find a problem that really needs solving. If you so desperately want a worthwhile cause to fight for, then stop trying to ban books and go do something useful that will really make the world a better place.

Good luck in life, and may your future be a more open-minded one.

Aaron Smith

P.S.  And to Neil Gaiman, if you happen to read this somewhere on the internet, you have my sincere gratitude for all your stories. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015


“Where did you grow up?”

It’s a common enough question, one I’ve been asked many times in casual conversation. The mundane answer would be, “Paterson, New Jersey.” Yes, Paterson, once a great industrial city, birthplace of Lou Costello, now a decaying, crime-ridden mess. But Paterson is only part of the answer. I was born there, lived there until I was nineteen, so yes, I grew up there, but a man whose best feature is his imagination (and it must be, ‘cause it sure ain’t my looks or personality!), has many homes encountered in many ways. So here’s the rest of the answer, the facts that go beyond the easy answer of Paterson, New Jersey:

I grew up on Baker Street, where the client comes panicked and tells a terrible tale while Watson packs his revolver and the game is suddenly, joyously afoot.
And I grew up in the 23rd century, on a great ship where the captain is brave and confident, the first officer logical, and the doctor is the real McCoy (not an Urban legend).
And I grew up in a very specific New York City, selling selfies to finance my webs and hiding the wonderful, terrible truth from dear old Aunt May, and I could see the Baxter Building towering over us and I knew that even the streets of Hell’s Kitchen were safe because justice is blind.
And I grew up in Gotham, waiting for a signal that outshines the moon, a call to arms, for the hour to don cloak and cowl and chase down clowns, cats, and others of that superstitious, cowardly lot.
And I grew up in Cimmeria, surviving on sword and wits and wanderlust.
And I grew up in Innsmouth, where the air smells of fish and strangers are most unwelcome.
And I grew up in the Carpathians, where the children of the night make sweet music and the dead travel fast.
And I grew up on Tattooine, and flew off across the stars with an old hermit and a master pilot and his loyal, furry first mate.
And I grew up in the October Country, where a saint named Ray showed me how mood and essence are just as vital as plot.
And I grew up in London and a plethora of other places, where my face often changed while my name and number stayed the same and the gun never left my hand except when my arms were around an exotic beauty, and the world was always better shaken than it was stirred.
And I grew up in Middle Earth and traveled far and wide and back again in the company of wizards, dwarves, and elves.
And I grew up in jungles and battlefields and on pirate ships and in Sherwood Forest and Ancient Egypt and Rome in the days of Caesar, and Camelot and ‘Salem’s Lot.
And I grew up under an opera house where the Phantom silently terrified the world with a simple revelation of what waits beneath his mask.
And I grew up in a strange neighborhood where a family of monsters lived down the street from a witch, a Martian, and a talking horse.
And I grew up in the ‘40s flashing a whip, punching Nazis, and fearing snakes.
 And I regenerated in a blue box that’s bigger on the inside and can take you anywhere and any-when and safely home again or onward farther and deeper than imagination itself.
And I grew up in a hundred other places that etched their echoes into my mind and dreams and ideas and made me who I am today.
Paterson was only an ingredient. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

To Bond or Not to Bond

One of the big stories in the news this past week has been the leaked Sony emails. Among this leaked info has been the idea that actor Idris Elba has been suggested as a candidate to someday play the part of James Bond. This has caused a lot of differing opinions in various places online, including some controversial statements regarding Elba’s race, among other things. 
            As a writer of spy novels, and a lifelong fan of the Bond novels and films, I thought I’d chime in and offer my view on the subject.
            So, the question is, should Idris Elba be cast in the role of James Bond?

            My answer is no, but the answer has nothing to do with the color of Elba’s skin.
            Do I think Idris Elba is capable of playing Bond? Absolutely. At least if we’re talking about one version of Bond.
            Let me explain that last statement.
            James Bond has always been among my favorite fictional characters. He’s right up there on the list along with Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Captain Kirk, Batman, and Indiana Jones. But Bond is different from all those others. 007, you see, would probably appear twice on the list if there really was an official list. Yes, sometimes you do live twice. I love the literary Bond, and I love the cinematic Bond, and those two are no longer really the same character.
            Ian Fleming’s Bond novels were all written in the 1950s and 60s. That Bond is a World War II veteran turned British agent, very much a Cold War character. The movies, however, really only featured Fleming’s Bond for the first fifth or so of the film franchise’s history. The early Sean Connery movies came pretty damn close to being faithful adaptations of the books. But then, something changed. James Bond became a cinematic archetype and began to adapt and change according to the time in which each individual movie was produced. The Bond of the Roger Moore era was very different than that of Connery (and George Lazenby), and he underwent yet another metamorphosis when Timothy Dalton (the great, underrated, truly awesome Bond) took over the role, and shifted personality and attitude again when the part fell to Pierce Brosnan. Then, in the early 2000s, the current Bond, Daniel Craig, started his term of office and the series underwent a complete reboot, starting over with a fresh continuity. So we have, on one hand, the set-in-stone original James Bond, loved by those who have read the novels, and forever preserved in words as his creator, Ian Fleming, intended. And then, on the other hand, we have the cultural phenomena of the Bond film franchise, experienced by far more people than have ever read the books, immensely successful for half a century, and capable of adapting to the changing times without losing (most of the time) the essential elements of what made the character so popular to begin with.
            I happen to be a big fan of the novels’ James Bond, and also of the movies’ Bond, and, honestly, I’m unwilling to commit to liking one more than the other.
            Now here’s the key to the question of whether or not Idris Elba could play James Bond. If we were talking about straight adaptations of Fleming’s novels, period pieces set in the 50s and 60s, there’s no way Elba could portray the character. The social and political conditions of the world at that time would not have made it possible for a black man to do the things that Bond had to do in those books. In that time, his interactions with the other characters would have been totally altered by his race. He could not have gone to the same places, dealt with situations in the same way, or done his job the same way a white agent could have. Sad, perhaps, but history nonetheless.
            But we’re not talking about the Bond movies being period pieces. They never really have been and they probably never will be again, which is fine, because, as I said earlier, Movie Bond is not Book Bond. He’s grown into something else, a franchise of his own. And the world now is different than it was in the 50s and 60s, in mostly good ways. Could a man with the skills to be a competent British secret agent do his job well in the 21st century regardless of whether he’s a black Englishman or a white Englishman? Yes.
            I think Idris Elba would make a fantastic James Bond. He’s an amazing actor. I’ve binge-watched all of LUTHER and enjoyed everything else I’ve seen Elba in and I think he’s one of the best actors working today. I don’t care what color he is, I can absolutely imagine him walking into M’s office after a quick, “Hello, Moneypenny,” and standing in front of his supervisor listening to the details of his latest mission while inserting the occasional wisecrack into the conversation, then flying off to some exotic city to face a nasty megalomaniac villain, seduce a few beautiful women, and fire a few dozen rounds of ammunition and cause a handful of explosions before the movie ends.
            So why, then, did I just say I don’t think Idris Elba should be cast as Bond?
            It’s simple. The clock is ticking and it can’t be reversed.
            The next Bond movie, SPECTRE, is being made right now. It’s not coming out for a year. From everything I’ve heard or read, Daniel Craig is going to do at least one more after that. That will take three years. If Craig quit after that one and another actor (hypothetically, Idris Elba) was cast in the part, it would probably be three more years before that actor’s first Bond movie was released. So, best case scenario, we’re talking about 7 years before we’d see Idris Elba acquire his license to kill.
            Elba is 42 right now. In 7 years he’ll be 49. Do the math. He’d be pushing 50 when he became Bond. Sorry, but that just doesn’t work.
            How old should James Bond be? Old enough, I think, to have been a military officer, lived some life, gained some scars, and learned how to best use his specific skills, yet young enough to be physically capable of the dangerous grind of risking his life over and over again (not to mention “keeping the British end up,” as Roger Moore quipped in one of his finer moments). His is not an easy or safe job. Maturity and fitness is the necessary combination to make a successful Double-O agent. I’d say that means at least in his thirties but not far past fifty. With that in mind, thinking of the actors who have portrayed Bond, we have this: Connery and Craig both started in their thirties. Dalton and Brosnan were in their early forties. Roger Moore, the latest starter, was 45 (and stayed too long, into his late fifties). Brosnan left the role at 50. Connery came back for one last movie at 53, but the story included the theme of him being an older agent who had to prove he still had what it took to do his job. An actor still playing Bond at 49 is okay if he can still make it work, but 49 is no age to do your first Bond movie. I don’t want a talented actor who would be so good in the part just coming into it when he’s on the edge of being too old for it.

            I also don’t want to wait those 7 years now that I’ve had to think about Elba in such a role!
            So I say we forget him as Bond and come up with something better than sitting around waiting for the Daniel Craig era to end so Elba can take his place behind the wheel of the Astin-Martin, because thinking that way is an insult to both actors.
            Hollywood, if you’re listening, let Idris Elba have his own espionage/action franchise now. I mean, right now, while he’s in his prime and at the peak of his career and the height of his popularity. If it’s written right, it’ll be as good as Bond. Maybe it will be better than Bond. And there’s no reason we can’t have multiple successful spy franchises running at the same time. Bond is not the only spy in town, and hasn’t been for a long time. We’ve got Mission: Impossible, the Bourne Franchise, and Liam Neeson’s TAKEN movies, all of which are very, very successful.
            So, no, I don’t think Idris Ebla should play James Bond. He’d be great, but the timing’s not good. He’s the right age now, but somebody else is standing in the famous gun barrel at the moment. So, rather than wait for a chance that may or may not come half a decade or more down the road, somebody please give this fine actor his own spy game to play? I’m pretty sure he’ll win.

And if anyone reading this wants to check out my take on the spy genre, here’s a link to my novel NOBODY DIES FOR FREE.