The Nameless Horror

Joe Konrath's new Amazon petition

Todd Barselow and Anne Rice’s petition to do away with “anonymity” (a very loosely used word) on Amazon reviews and replace it with users’ (presumably CC-) verified identities causes consternation for Joe Konrath:

This slippery slope means there is no place to draw the line. If you demand something be deleted from a forum because it offends you, where does that end? Amazon doesn’t allow hate speech or threats. But being critical and mean-spirited, even anonymously, has to be protected. If it isn’t, watch how quickly you get hauled off to jail for criticizing a government, or a law. In countries without free speech, anonymity is the only way to voice opinions.

If everywhere public voices mingle is policed, some good voices will be silenced, good people will mingle less, and trolls will whine about their rights–and they may have a point because of that annoying due process/freedom of speech/Constitution thing.

Everyone repeat after me: “freedom of speech” does not apply to private property. I can’t rock up at your house, stand on your lawn, and yell over and over and over again, “The family who live here are dicks!” without the cops being called and finding myself arrested for being a jerk. And quite rightly too. The laws that prevent me from doing that freely have been in place for many, many years without causing the destruction of democratic society.

(I may not even be able to do it from the safety of the public street if the volume of my constitutionally-protected speech is sufficient to breach public nuisance laws, which also haven’t caused a collapse in civil liberties.)

Amazon is not the public street. It is private property. As is every single website on the internet. Every time you make a free speech argument in relation to user discussion on a website, Jesus kills a civil liberties lawyer.

There should, in any case, always be better arguments than that. (One of which Joe makes, for example: that “verified user identity” is a laughable concept in a world of disposable credit cards.)

FWIW, I think this petition is frankly silly, and not just because it’s a petition and we all know how well they work. User ID is too easy to fake, I’m not sure what anyone hopes to gain from the exercise, especially given how broken the review system is anyway (“I have not bought this product nor has it been released yet, but I know it’s going to be shit on a stick. ONE STAR!!!”), and while it’s a trivial matter for them to accomplish (and has indeed already happened accidentally on at least one occasion) Amazon can counter-argue that people should in theory be able to give their honest opinions on stuff without necessarily risking backlash from sellers and manufacturers, even if the vast majority already use some variant of their given names anyway.

I've turned myself in to the Polis

Last year, as you may know, was not a great one when it came to my writing career. This year may be different.

A week or so ago I got an email out of the blue from Jason Pinter. I’ve met him once in person and known him via the internet for years (he kindly blurbed THE LEVELS back in the day too). Late last year he launched Polis Books, signing up an array of fine writers, and also Dave White and Bryon Quertermous, presumably as the result of a lost bet.

Anyway, it turns out he must have lost another bet because he wanted to know if I wanted to sign on to Polis, handing over North American rights (and gaining better North American distribution, promotion etc.) to All The Novels - the three “writer’s cut” versions of my ex-Penguin books, the last of which remains unfinished, plus the two full-length ones out under the Sean Cregan moniker. Any new material could then be considered as, if, and when.

Just like that, as you do.

And I though about it for a few seconds, double-checked my instincts against sources in the know, and said, “Yup, sure.”

And that, as they say, was that. (Bar a minor delay sourcing a scanner to swap contracts; I don’t own one.)

This means Polis will be (re)publishing THE TOUCH OF GHOSTS, THE DARKNESS INSIDE, BURIAL GROUND (if it retains that title), MURDER PARK, and DAY ZERO across North America, and, of interest to MURDER PARK which is largely set there, the Philippines, over the course of the next few months. And all the books will be coming out under the ‘John Rickards’ label. (Elsewhere, in particular the UK where ‘Sean Cregan’ has/had print readership and I didn’t want to garble my already horribly mangled publishing history any further, the rights remain mine and it’s business as usual.)

This is awesome, and I’m looking forward to seeing everything pan out. Polis is a digital-only (or, with the possibility of print arrangements in the future, perhaps “digital-first”) publisher, very young, run by a very smart guy with years of publishing experience as an agent and a writer, and a sharp weather eye on the future. It certainly fits the ideal of the smaller, leaner publisher that’s quicker and much more adaptable than the traditional names, but still handles the donkey work faced by those self-publishing as well as having access to publisher-only outlets and promotional capacity, and doing crazy things like paying up-front and performing QA on output.

(“Why give up the independence of going indie, John? 70%, complete control, etc. etc. buzzphrase buzzphrase.” That previous list of things is why. I’m not a self-promoter at all, and the books, while well-received, haven’t really torn up any trees. They earn a bit, but nothing to get excited about. I still have a foot in both camps, with the shorter material still mine, and the longer stuff outside N Am. I’d like both sides to work. But trying to make a real go of it everywhere sucks time and energy I’d rather spend doing something else, and if anyone’s in a position to make the best fist of publishing in the future - and to find readers for books - it’s outfits like Polis (and Angry Robot, etc. etc.). The contract’s not a shackle, royalties are considerably higher than major standard, and the potential benefits are huge. So there.)

The particularly pleasing thing is that MURDER PARK now has a publisher, and an extra crack at finding a proper audience, because of all the books that’s the one I’d most love to see do well.

So there we go. And now I have to go and finish hacking BURIAL GROUND into shape. I have a deadline.

Chuck Wendig's BLACKBIRDS, a late-to-the-party review

Sometime just before Christmas, the steel-clawed cybernetic rulers of Angry Robot decreed that there would be a series of by-author sales, with books reduced to free/peanuts or free peanuts for LIMITED TIMES and MASSIVE SAVINGS. TM. One of those writers was Chuck Wendig, and one of those books was BLACKBIRDS, which I had heard many good things about (and whose Joey Hi-Fi cover I’d always admired), but hadn’t bought because I already sold both kidneys to cover my son’s school lunch money.


So BLACKBIRDS winged freely to the feathered nest of my phone. (And so did MOCKINGBIRD and THE BLUE BLAZES for next to nothing, but I don’t have a handy metaphor for those too and anyway shut up.)

And I’ve read it. And once I’m done with Jeff Vandermeer’s FINCH, I’m going to read MOCKINGBIRD. And here’s why.

Protagonist Miriam Black can see how you’re going to die. One touch of skin on skin, and bang, instant replay, date and time. She lives hand-to-mouth, hitching around until she finds someone whose end is imminent, and then emptying their wallet after it happens. That’s the core conceit, and it’s obviously a good one. She meets someone whose death seems to directly involve her, and then someone else who knows what she can do, and then someone else else who also knows this and isn’t at all nice. That right there is the story. More or less.

Like a lot of other people, I very much liked this book. It’s really, really good. I’ve read Chuck before - and while, yes, he is a bearded internet phenomenon unto himself, he got that way through (a) working a lot and (b) being good at what he does. And this is good. Miriam is a superb protagonist, as miserable and messed up as you’d expect someone with her ability to be, and consequently when she has the chance to change her stars, just a little, you want it to work out for her. That the villains, held just shy of scenery-chewingly vicious, seem so capable of making it not work out, means that there’s a healthy bucket of tension to sustain what’s actually, despite its concept, a very simple tale.

What especially struck me, though, is how Chuck handles the issue of Miriam’s past and the events that led to her manifesting her power. You don’t see the Big Thing for what it is until quite late on, and even then it’s not explicitly stated or explained that this is what did it. Its effects, which could/would be the source of much melodrama in lesser hands, are also never directly referred to. It’s very smartly done.

The writing’s lean, the skipping timeline never confuses (and features a nice little reveal when you learn when the interview happens in relation to the main events), and the secondary characters are rich and believable.

If I had a quibble, and in reviewing something you sort of feel like you should pick at anything if you can, it would be that Miriam escapes her lowest point on a particular bathroom floor with the aid of a truly remarkable piece of luck, not skill, that deals with the particular threat she faces. It’s a very minor quibble, and by the time it happens the story has banked so much credit with you that it doesn’t matter a damn.

BLACKBIRDS came out something like a billion years ago and as far as I know I’m the only person on Earth who hadn’t already read it, but nevertheless, I’d would heartily recommend anyone else do so, for money and everything. It’s really top notch story-telling.