Pluralistic: 15 Mar 2021

Today's links

  • Making Hay: My new "Lost Cause" story in MIT Tech Review's "Make Shift."
  • Free markets: My latest Locus column on rent-seeking and audiobooks.
  • STREAMLINER: Vantablack noir French hotrod comics for the win.
  • This day in history: 2001, 2006, 2016, 2020
  • Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading

Making Hay (permalink)

Back in December 2019, I started work on "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel that tells the conflicts that come AFTER we apply ourselves to addressing and remediating the climate emergency, including relocating every coastal city in the world inland.

I'm nearly done with the first draft (you can follow my progress on my daily words hashtag) and one of the ways that I've worked out the ideas in the book was by writing short stories telling the stories of how things unfold elsewhere in the world:

The first one of these to see publication is "Making Hay," about the low-carbon concrete prefab factories that only run when there's more solar than the local baseline usage can takeup, and the wild instant cities being built inland from drowned California towns they replace.

"Making Hay" appears in MIT Tech Review's "MAKE SHIFT," edited by Gideon Lichfield: it's the latest instalment in its long-running, excellent "12 Tomorrows" series of anthologies.

I'm sharing a bill with many brilliant sf writers, including my old collaborator Karl Schroeder, Madeline Ashby (I published her first story!), and such luminaries as Adrian Hon, Malka Older, Hannu Rajaniemi, Ken Liu, and many others.

"Making Hay" is a story about salvaging hope from the inevitable trauma of the coming emergencies, each of which will be worse than the last – about a group of young people who call themselves "the first generation in a century that doesn't fear the future."

Writing it (and The Lost Cause) was a tonic for me through the plague year, a daily visit to a place where the fact that we are in crisis is cause for resolve and solidarity, not despair.

Free markets (permalink)

Last autumn, I ran the most successful audiobook crowdfunding campaign ever, raising nearly $270k with ATTACK SURFACE, the third Little Brother book:

As successful as the campaign was, the delivery was a nightmare. Part of that was down to some pretty poor digital distribution tools on my fulfilment partner's side, but the real problem was mobile devices and their operating systems.

The earliest mobile devices made it very simple to synch and listen to audio you downloaded from the internet. Just plug in your Ipod, wait a few minutes and unplug it, and you'd have all your music synched and ready to listen to.

That's no longer true. If you download a zip file of MP3s to your laptop and want to transfer them to your phone or tablet to listen to on the go, the process involves many, many steps, and it baffled hundreds of my backers, who found themselves stymied by the complexity.

Of course, it's rare that we get digital assets by downloading them direct to our devices or transfering them from laptops – these days, it all comes through an app and "just works." So why not deliver everything via app?

For the same reason I had to do a Kickstarter, as it turns out. The market for audiobooks is monopolized by Amazon, through its Audible division. Audible has a mandatory DRM policy.

To sell a book through Audible, you have to let Amazon wrap it in its proprietary "digital lock." That lock can only be removed by Amazon – if I give you a tool to liberate my audiobooks, I commit a felony under Sec 1201 of the DMCA, and can go to prison for five years.

Locking my customers to Amazon forever is not good for my future. Amazon, after all, is notorious for squeezing its suppliers, and while we authors associated with major publishers aren't yet in the vice, indie audiobook authors are.

Amazon has stolen tens of millions of dollars from indie audiobook authors, who are also contractually forbidden from withdrawing their books from Audible:

Amazon hasn't exercised forbearance for us "big name pros" out of respect for our stature – we've been spared this wage-theft thus far because they know our publishers are powerful enough to push back. But Amazon gains power daily, and once they can squeeze us, they will.

I'd sell my audiobooks through Audible if I could. My agent tells me that not selling through Audible cost me enough to pay off my mortgage and probably pay for most of my kid's college education. But I've turned down that money, because I won't lock my readers to Amazon.

Economists have a name for the extra money that companies like Audible are able to extract from buyers and sellers by dint of owning a choke-point in the market: this money is called "economic rents," and Audible is a "rent-seeker."

The founder who builds a factory and the workers who make it function all contribute something to its product. The landlord who owns the dirt underneath it contributes nothing, but still extracts rent, raising prices and lowering wages and profits.

Adam Smith railed against rents, describing markets as "free" when they were free from rents, not free from regulations. For centuries, a "free market" was a market where buyers and sellers operated without interference from rentiers, not regulators.

This is the subject of my latest Locus column, "Free Markets," which makes the connection between Amazon's rent-seeking on audiobooks and the reason I couldn't deliver my audiobooks by app.

The short answer? If you sell stuff through an app on either of the major mobile app stores, then Google and Apple require you to use their payment processors and pay 30% for the privilege.

Apple recently cut its app tax to 15% for some sellers, but the actual cost of processing a payment is 0.5-3%. It's ironic that two of the most aggressive corporate tax-evaders in the world are levying a 30% tax on anyone who uses mobile devices.

But it's not merely ironic, it's fatal. One of the audiobooks I sold in my crowdfunder was the Random House audiobook of LITTLE BROTHER; which retails for $20. I get a 20% wholesale discount on it (I make $4/copy). If I sold that book to you on an app, I'd lose $2/copy.

Which brings me back to the massive regression in ease-of-use for downloaded media on mobile devices, the massive retreat in usability from the first Ipods to their distant descendants in our pockets today.

It's possible that this is a coincidence. Maybe the fact that unusable web-downloads corral sellers into using app stores and handing over 30% commissions are just a coincidence.

But maybe not. Maybe mobile devices intentionally suck as download devices because wrecking the once-functional download workflow makes billions for the mobile duopoly.

I crowdfunded an audiobook to escape Amazon's rent-seeking, only to get caught in the rent-trap of Google. Once we dreamt of free markets, where buyers and sellers could transact without rentiers sticking their hand in the till.

Today, we have unregulated markets that are anything but free. Sure, the ferryman is free to buy out the bridge company and shut it down, and force all the other ferry services out of business and then charge merchants 30% vig to reach the market.

But the "free market"? It's nowhere to be found.

STREAMLINER (permalink)

I just finished my second pandemic staycation, a two-week, at-home revel in simple pleasures, like discovering new comics. A visit to Burbank's House of Secrets led to my acquiring the two-volume French graphic novel STREAMLINER, and it was brilliant.

STREAMLINER is the story of a secret outlaw hotrod race set up in different remote places every year, in which the racers compete to push souped-up classic jalopies of the 30s, 40s and 50s to lethal speeds, trading paint for the right to boss the infamous Red Noses gang.

This year, the Red Noses' leader has brought his gang to Evel O'Neil's remote desert gas-station, where Evel – a retired legend of Streamliner racing – lives with his granddaughter in the shadow of his old fighter-plane, shot down long ago in no-man's land.

Billy Joe, the leader of the Red Noses, cuts the phone lines and puts the word out that this year's race has found the ideal site: a desert that is in contested international territory, where the fed cops that hunt the racers have no jurisdiction.

Old Evel isn't all there anymore; the booze and the isolation have reduced him to a shadow of his former self. But his granddaughter Cristal is as smart and tough as they come, but she quickly comes to realize that there's no getting away from it – the race will take place.

But misery turns to tragedy when Evel gets into a drunken poker game with Nikky "The Head," Billy Joe's nemesis, and stakes the gas-station, the wrecked fighter plane, and the desert he holds title to on the outcome of the race.

To save her family's home and land, Cristal must race in the Black Widow, Evel's painstakingly rebuilt Streamliner, and compete against a motley crew that includes the meanest all-woman biker gang in the world, the feds' number one most wanted killer, and others.

To make everything more complicated, a powerful senator has cut a deal with a broadcaster to turn the race into a reality TV show in the hopes of domesticating and de-fanging it, and has dispatched a blimp to broadcast the race as it's run.

And on top of that, there's the Senator's real target, William "Billy the Kid" Bonney, the number one most wanted murderer on the hit parade, who is to be assassinated under the race's cover by feds masquerading as racers.

All this plays out with so much fucking noir it's practically vantablack, in a way that makes it clear why STREAMLINER and its creator Fane are great heroes of the French comics scene.

American comics are in the midst of a decades-long revival, but honestly, they have a lot of catching up to do. The anti-comics witch-hunts of the 1950s, led by the fraudster Frederic "Seduction of the Innocents" Wertham, set the field back by half a century.

In the meantime, the rest of the world raced ahead, developing comics vernaculars that have done things with the forms that have still never been seen in the USA.

That's how pioneering presses like First Second were able to attain liftoff: by cherry-picking these incredible marvels of the non-English comics world and bringing them to the Anglosphere in translation.

And it's what Magnetic Press, the publisher of STREAMLINER, is doing here. The American comics renaissance is just the tip of the iceberg: the rest of the world is doing stuff with comics that'll knock your socks off, and this is a great place to start.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Special 1040 for laid-off web workers

#10yrsago My weird femur printed in stainless steel

#10yrsago New York slashes hospital spending, but can’t touch multimillion-dollar CEO paychecks

#10yrsago War on the PC and the network: copyright was just the start

#10yrsago Bahrain’s royals declare martial law

#10yrsago Poor countries have more piracy because media costs too much

#5yrsago America’s universities: Hedge funds saddled with inconvenient educational institutions

#5yrsago Open letter from virtually every leading UK law light: Snooper’s Charter not fit for purpose

#1yrago Chelsea Manning's supporters pay off her $256,000 fine in a day

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Feb 26 progress: 504 words (115653 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Feb progress: 255 words (7816 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability (Part 2)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla