5.20.2015

Self-publishing for Newbies: Risky but Useful

Last week's post, "Newbies Self-publishing: No Longer a Good Idea" must have resonated with a lot of people because I never got so many reads for a post in a single week (over 2,000 views) and so many thoughtful comments. Thanks to everyone!

There was one comment however that forced me to look back at my own experience, it came from someone calling himself (or herself?) "Bookshelf Battle", a great looking avatar:


And he (or she) concluded:

"I suppose the question boils down to 'Will you start with traditional publishing queries or just go directly to self publishing?' As a newbie, I'd love for a traditional publisher to take my hand and guide me through the process.On the other hand, I'm a nerd from Podunk, Nowhere and the likelihood of me jet-setting off to NYC or LA to charm the literary world into making my dream come true lies somewhere between slim and nil. For me and a lot of people like me, self-publishing may very well be the only path towards being a professional writer (with it fully understood that there's no guarantees in life, even in self publishing)."

Indeed, there's no guarantee! Publishing is risky, self-publishing is riskier. People like Konrath, David Gaughran etc are totally right in their guidebooks for newbies when they say that as a self-published author you are fully in control of every aspect of publishing - from editing and formatting to marketing - and that the returns are much, much higher (70%!) than in traditional publishing (you're lucky if you get 20%). But for that to happen, it still remains true that you need to get that return. A successful writer, whether traditionally published or going at it on his own, is always a "black swan", to use Talim Nasseb's famous metaphor: highly improbable.



So I was moved to give Bookshelf Battle a long answer based on my own experience - an answer that was way too long for a comment thread - and as I was writing it, it occurred to me to share it here as a post: my hope is that it would be useful for anyone contemplating self-publishing their first novel. Learn from my mistakes!

So what I wrote is this:
"I'm with you on this all the way, and it's exactly what I did! I started to query in 2009 and by 2011 I was desperate with rejections from literary agents! I'd done my "due diligence", the first two books of a trilogy were done (edited, formatted, good cover - I'd used BookBaby's services). Since the third was in progress and nearly finished, I figured I would publish all 3 within 3 months of each one, and I started with the first in May 2011. By December, all three were out. I had tweeted, facebooked etc, as well as announced and talked about on my blog (which I had started in 2009). In short, I had done all that one can reasonably expect to achieve success. I knew of course that success is elusive, it's a "black swan" and the chances of making it were slim! But it started very well. I had 30 sales in my first month, 47 in the second, reviews began pouring in, good reviews too, and so I figured, ok, I'm on my way! But by the third month, sales had petered out. I thought, no problem, I'll release the second book and do a promo on the first. And that's exactly what I did in September, and got over 2000 downloads. That looks like not much today, but back then, it was a respectable number. And in fact, my sales for both books again took off - though never exceeding (alas!) 50 per month.

Then the cycle repeated itself: the sales petered out, so I figured on doing another promo, which I did in January 2012, if my memory serves me right. With similar results - by that I mean a short spike in sales followed by a petering out...Very depressing, all the more so that the third book of the trilogy didn't take off. So I figured I'd release it in a single volume, an omnibus edition, in order to "force" readers to get to the third book (which I thought was in some ways the best and most fun) and also create an event to draw attention to my work. But I knew I needed to write another book and I did. Published it, same cycles were repeated. So I published yet another, and another. Always the same story, exhausting! So yes, I'm exhausted and turned off.

But it's been a fantastic experience. I've interacted with my readers, I've improved my writing - because I always read all my books' reviews, including the bad ones: if the criticism is constructive it can be enormously helpful. If it's not constructive, of course it should be simply ignored!

So now, after 5 years of doing it, I've come to the end of the road of self-publishing. Why? Not because I don't have more books up my sleeve - hum, wrong metaphor, shall we say writing hand? - but because the marketing cycles are getting less and less rewarding. In fact, I haven't sold a single copy in a whole year in spite of doing marketing campaigns (99 cent sales, giveaways, blog tours etc). Something happened in August 2014: KU started! And then I realized that Facebook and Twitter, for a writer like myself who's very present on Internet, had started to act like "echo chambers".
Indeed. Social media doesn't work the way it used to. I was reminded of this when I looked at my Twitter analytics for last week's post (I use Buffer, I highly recommend it, very useful). Here's the Buffer dashboard and the way they report on the results of one's tweets (screenshot of two tweets I sent out on 15 May):



Overall, in the course of the week, I sent out a total of 8 tweets regarding this post and I got 126 re-tweets with a potential outreach of 1,167.7k (yes, over one million!).

How many clicks? 98.

Looks good? Not really, if you analyze it further. The high number of  re-tweets was caused by the hashtags I used and the very effective "power scheduling" used by Buffer (i.e. picking the best time of day to send them out given my own timezone and my "audience"). Now these hashtags are pertinent to the world of writers, things like #amwriting or #writetip or references to writers' associations like IAN or ASMSG. Hashtags, as we all know, ensure that tweets get re-tweeted.

But are the links to the post actually clicked? After all, that's what one wants: to get traffic to one's blog. But something strange actually happens: with a few exceptions, the clicks are lower than the re-tweets. I got 98 clicks for my 126 re-tweets.  The shortfall was 28: that means 28 people re-tweeted without bothering to check the post and see whether it was worth sharing. They just clicked because of the hashtag. That's almost 25%...I worked the numbers out: to get one click, you need to reach out to at least 10,000 potential readers.

Then there is the "echo chamber" effect caused by the use of hashtags: people who re-tweet and click are (in this case) writers like myself. Now, as long as I'm clicking about an article like this one on a blog, people are likely to flock to it if they like the title and it sounds like something interesting to them (hey,  titles for posts are important, remember to use keywords!). But if I'm clicking to draw people to my book page on Amazon, forget it. These people are writers, their Kindle is full to the brim, their TBR list is a mile long (I know, mine is!). We're all overstuffed with books! And when we want to relax, we go look at a TV series like Game of Thrones, right?

So this is the kind of environment in which a new writer must do battle. Small wonder it's hard to sell! You need all the help you can get of course. And that's where publishers can help newbies. They can get behind you and give a hand in all the phases of book production and promotion. That is...if they want to! Much depends on the kind of contract you eventually negotiate and then...It's a matter of luck. The Black Swan again...

But hope never dies, right? Besides, it's fun to write, isn't it? I wouldn't do anything else in the world. How about you?

5.12.2015

Newbies Self-Publishing: No Longer a Good Idea

You've just finished your first novel, it's professionally edited - yes, you're a newbie but you know you've got to get everything right if you want to succeed in this cutthroat business. You've gone all the way, you've boned up on the latest industry news with Publishing Perspectives and the Passive Voice, you've absorbed all of J.A. Konrath's precious advice on his Newbie's Guide to Publishing.


You've used Reedsy, the latest, most up-to-date site to find professional help to edit and design your book - you chose among the best free-lancers in the industry and you just know you got the best.



Your book cover stands out, the pitch is arresting and everything you've done is as good as it could ever be.  Your beta readers love it. You're ready to go.

Ready to self-publish?

If you're a newbie, don't do it. Shocked? Don't be shocked. There's a truth about self-publishing - the truth that your likelihood of breaking through and being noticed with a first novel is practically zero - and that truth is unfortunately permanently obscured by the success of a few emerging authors. Very few in fact, no more than a dozen names, and among them, Amanda Hocking always gets mentioned. She's the classic model of a self-published success. If you click that link it will take you to her Wikipedia page. Take a minute to read it, it's illuminating.

Notice something?

Yes, her self-publishing success dates back to 2010. That's five years ago, the digital world has changed since, the conditions she faced no longer exist (more about that in a minute). Also note that  before self-publishing anything, she had already written 17 novels in her free time while employed as a group home worker. Have you got 17 novels already written and unpublished?

She simply self-published because over the years (she felt old, she was 26!) she had encountered nothing but rejection from all the literary agents she had applied to. Actually that's usually the main reason anyone self-publishes. You can get tired of rejections, year after year. And Amazon makes it so easy to self-publish: just press a button.

And, as the saying goes, the rest is History. She went on to unimaginable success, getting picked up by St Martin's Press that re-issued her self-published novels. And now, if you look her up on the Net, she has a brand new website that is both lean looking (gone is all that clutter of romantic curlicues) and highly inter-active, with videos, giveaways, contests, quizzes etc (take note anyone if you want to revamp your author website!):



Anyone who self-publishes of course hope to be another Amanda.

Don't kid yourself. But don't despair either. Amanda is simply no longer a model to follow. Back in 2010, Facebook and Twitter worked fine and she was able to use them as advertising platforms. She attracted attention there and got enough sales to hit Amazon's top 100 titles, and then hit Amazon's top ten.

People say that when they buy a book they don't pay attention to a book's ranking. Maybe not, but Amazon does pay attention! And the ranking is what determined the position of your book in the Kindle Store.  Just like in a real bookstore: if your book is not displayed on the table as you walk in, nobody will know your book is in there for sale. What you want (if you're traditionally published) is to have your printed book right there, up front, on that table:



And ranking plays the exact same role for digital books. If your book is among the first 10 or 20 titles that turn up in a search on Amazon - particularly in the listings that sell, like romance or thrillers - then people will see it and buy it (if the cover looks good, if the pitch is right). It's on that digital table!

And Amanda Hocking could get on that digital table because she was able to use Twitter and Facebook to gain traction. Back then, social media worked but as I explained last week on this blog (see here), the verdict is in: Twitter, Facebook (and other media like LinkedIn or Pinterest) no longer work the way they used to.

So if you self-publish, the way to go now is with a proper, advertising campaign - the old-fashioned kind because "blog tours" (paying to be reviewed/interviewed on book-reading blogs, setting up giveaways etc) are not enough. Blogs have become an "echo chamber" of sort, attracting traffic from writers as well as from readers - perhaps even more from writers than readers! Remember: there are over 4 million titles on Amazon alone, with hundreds of thousands added every year, a veritable tsunami - that's a lot of writers! 

What's needed in this world where advertising on the Net gets so few clicks is to hit all the major mainstream media (TV, radio etc). And you need to launch a concerted campaign, in the course of 2 or 3 months, prior and during the book launch. In short, you have to do what a traditional publisher does when they decide to spend money on book promotion  - as unfortunately we all know, that's something they don't always do: publishers only "push"a small part of their list... and usually bet on books written by celebrities!

It can be done but it's very expensive: upwards of $20,000, and of course, it means using professionals. Just to give one example: you need a Kirkus Review, you can pay for it and cross your fingers that they will like your book! Because if they don't, they won't mince their words and then you can't use the review. But it will set you back by about $450, and that's only a start.

Yet some people make it, their self-published books sell like hot cakes. But look at who these people are, just two kinds:
  1.  Those who made it as self-published authors in the "window of opportunity for newbies" that only lasted a couple of years from the time Amanda Hocking started and she began in April 2010;
  2.  Established authors self-publishing their back list - all those who made a name for themselves with traditionally published books and have regained the rights to their back list. People whose names are already known, even though they may not be making the current New York Times list - but the names are ever so familiar. Like J.A. Konrath with his fun thrillers. Names that ring a bell. Moreover, fans are only too happy to read long out-of-print books of their favorite authors, books they've heard about and haven't been able to get hold of. For all those authors, digital self-publishing is a boon! An unmitigated success story!
And of course they displace newbies. People only have a limited number of hours to read and a limited budget! So, if you have to choose between a name you know and you like and somebody unknown, what would you do?

That's why I think self-publishing for newbies is no longer a good idea. Your views?

5.05.2015

Why Social Media is Useless to Promote Books

Let me start with an example of how Facebook is supposed to help you promote your book (or any website for that matter) and next I'll take a look at Twitter.

I just posted this message on the Facebook Boomer Lit page (that I set up and run since 2013), together with the book cover of my Boomer Lit novel, currently under promotion that started on April 1st - yeah, I know, April's Fool day, no doubt a good start for what turned out to be an exceptionally foolish campaign:
Hey, Boomer Peeps, the quintessential Boomer Lit novel, Crimson Clouds is still selling at half price, hurry up to get it and find out why 60 is the new 20! Available in Kindle Store.
Posted by Boomer Lit on Tuesday, May 5, 2015
And Facebook immediately suggested that I "boost" this post for the modest (!) sum of $60 that would let me reach out in "one day" (wow!) "all the people who like [my] page and their friends", and I'm further informed that means reaching out to an estimated 7,700 to 20,000 people. In one day! See here: 


Sounds good? Well, believe me, it's not. Even assuming that my post might reach 20,000 people (highly unlikely - 7,700 sounds more like it), it's plain ridiculous if you consider that your chances that some 20,000 people will click through to your Amazon book page are less than 0,1 percent. If you're lucky, between 8 and 20 people might click through to your site and see your book. Of those, again only 0,1 percent will click the "buy" button. In short, NOBODY!

You've thrown $60 out the window! If you want to learn more about click through rates, this is an excellent site: "Display Advertising Clickthrough Rates" that gives you a breakdown by region - there are some slight variations by country though the world average remains 0,1 percent and it's been this way for five years now (since October 2010).

Yes: a dismal 0,1 percent.

Now let's turn to Twitter. Consider that I have over 4,000 followers but when doing a campaign I rely on the Twitter "retweet" function to reach out to more people and I did this in the campaign I started on April 1st.  Obviously, the effect is similar to a boosted post on Facebook. As your tweets are retweeted every day, you're told by whoever manages your Twitter stream, that your retweeted messages have  "potentially" been seen by well over 200,000 people on Twitter - my case. Why? Because in the course of my book promotion throughout the month of April many of my messages were retweeted over 20 times. So, it's even possible that I reached well over one million people overall through the month - I didn't do an exact tally. And it doesn't really matter: for a comparison with Facebook, the point is that at certain times in the month, I managed to reach out to over 200,000 Twitter users in a single day, and did that repeatedly (at least five times).

As I watched the many retweets, I began to feel really good. This was turning into a success! Had I cracked the mystery and found the solution to effective book promotion? I had done everything on Twitter that is universally considered "right", including:
  • setting up your tweets at the "right" time for your audience given your timezone, 
  • using hashtags that amplify your message and reach particular groups of people interested in that said hashtag (for books there are a whole range of them, well over 20 so you can pick and arrange them at will, constantly varying your messages),
  • including images (like your book cover and variations thereof) that attract more notice than mere messages,
  • picking on "clever", attention-arresting messages, stuff that make people smile...
  • buying into campaigns offered by people with a strong online presence (I used People's Reads but there are a large number of them, all with large followings, well over 100,000 each) etc
After 6 weeks of this activity on Twitter, you'd expect that I would have sold quite a few copies, wouldn't you? Well...I didn't.

Not one copy sold. Even thought some 200,000 people were repeatedly reached within a single day, not one click on the Amazon "buy" button that day. NOT ONE.

The same explanation applies as the one for Facebook: it's that 0,01 percent click through rate that's the problem.

What has been your experience with Twitter and Facebook? I'd be most interested to hear it.

4.27.2015

The Battle for Food: Winners, Losers and Victims

The battle for control over what's in our plate. It's all in a new book I just reviewed - 5 stars on Amazon, an excellent read, I highly recommend it. I did a review for Impakter magazine that you will find here and here's the opening on Impakter:

http://impakter.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/cover1-1050x509.jpg


THE BATTLE FOR FOOD: SMALL FARMERS VS. BIG CORPORATIONS: WHO WINS? 

BOOK REVIEW BY CLAUDE FORTHOMME

Food Security Governance, Empowering communities, regulating corporations by Nora McKeon, Routledge’s Critical Security Studies, February 2015. $38.
The battle between rural communities and big corporations is a modern replay of David vs. Goliath. And it’s a battle that concerns all of us, as Nora McKeon, a political scientist and the author of three books on the United Nations and civil society, reminds us  in her latest, just-published book, Food Security Governance. She  reveals the complexities of the world food crisis and provides a unique chronicle of how this battle landed at the United Nations.
The book opens with a vivid account of the food riots that erupted around the world in 2008 when spikes in food prices sent thousands of people protesting in the streets, from Cairo to Lima. And it reminds us that such episodes will happen again and again as food price volatility has become a permanent feature of our food production system.
algeria food rio
Hunger – especially in developing countries – is only one of the recurrent problems. Others are rising food waste, greenhouse gas emissions, health problems like obesity and diabetes that affect all of us in the developed world.
The rest on Impakter, click here

4.21.2015

The GermanWings Crash: Did the Suicidal Pilot Deserve a Candle?

It is surely a sign of our times that we delicately talk of "pilot suicide" when in fact this German Wings pilot killed 149 people along with himself when he slammed the plane in the mountainside. In any other society, at any other time in History, this would have been called a homicide. In plain English: murder.

So far, only the New York Times has come out with a really outstanding article about this tragedy, apportioning responsibility where it belongs, in particular to Lufthansa's management - that overlooked the danger signals regarding this pilot when he was in training, "haltingly" going through the process as the Times put it (it took him several years with many unexplained stops).

As far as I know, no media in Europe has done as good a job of probing into this problem of "denial of risk of pilot suicide", and if I'm wrong about this, please signal it in the comments. All I see is that Lufthansa took the position that it was "not required" to report the pilot's "depression" to the aviation authorities (see related article below).

The New York Times attributes this "denial of risk" to Germany's culture of privacy: in the German view, if you have health or mental problems, these are a private matter and you don't need to share information. Fine and well. Until you threaten, as the experts say, "aviation safety". More bluntly: until you kill human lives. Then perhaps, privacy cannot be used as an excuse.

Moreover, I'm not sure it's just a question of privacy. There is something else at work here.

Consider the non-denominational memorial ceremony organized by German Wings and held five days ago in the Cologne Cathedral in memory of all those who died in that tragic crash. It was attended by the German President and Angela Merkel, as well as all family members, rescuers and German Wings personnel. A moving ceremony with 150 candles lit for each victim.

150 candles?

Forgiveness was extended to the pilot and he got his own candle. When you think that he snuffed out, among others, the young lives of many exchange students and two renowned opera singers - all innocent people who deserved to live a full life - one cannot help but wonder. What is the meaning of forgiveness? What kind of society is it that celebrates the memory of a man who has taken along with his own life, the lives of 149 innocent people? Yes, of course, the answer is: a forgiving society. A tolerant society. The Cardinal urged forgiveness for the depressed pilot...

What is your opinion? Did he deserve a candle? Does anyone dare say what they feel?


Source: UK Guardian, photo: Action Press/REX Shutterstock


4.15.2015

Sometimes You Just Have to Let Yourself Go...

Sometimes you have to leave behind the pains of the world, the pressure of work, your responsibilities to all your loved ones and... take a walk! Breathe deeply, take a few steps outdoors and then some more, and yet more, for an hour or two, until, for a few heady moments, you feel FREE...

That's exactly what I did a few days ago, it was a cool spring day on Lake Trasimeno, in the heart of Italy - a lake that straddles Tuscany and Umbria. It wasn't at sunset (like on the cover of my book "Crimson Clouds"), it was midday. A cold wind was blowing but the sun shone bright, the birds sang, and horses happily grazed in the fields. Here are some of the images I took on my smart phone that I want to share with you, starting with the lake:


This is Isola Polvese - an island that is a natural reserve - and the shot is taken from high up. In fact, we had driven up to the small, medieval village of San Savino, with its characteristic tower:


 You can glimpse the lake in the back, to the right. The tower dates back to the 12th Century and is part of a fortress - not a place you can actually visit, people still live in it. Here it is:


The castle was restored - or rather rebuilt - in the 14th Century. You can learn more about San Savino here, and if you want to spend sometime in the village, you can even rent small flats with great views - but be warned, the place is so small that there are no shops, no restaurants or cafés and that, in Italy, is very rare. Most villages have at least a café. But you're very close to the Lake and the pleasant little town of San Feliciano, from where you can take a ferryboat to Isola Polvese.

We took a walk around the back of San Savino, going beyond the nice, old cemetery and found this jolly horse:


He quickly noticed us and came up:


After that encounter, we felt ready for lunch and drove back towards Perugia  - ten minutes - to the Osteria dell'Olmo, a Seventeenth Century villa turned restaurant. The setting is a pleasure, the dining room with a fireplace is particularly nice in winter:


Overtime, the food has had its ups and downs but now they have a new chef and we ate very well, a superb steak and fried spring potatoes with the skin on, very tasty. But more complex menus are available:


And they have a delightful coffee machine dating back to the 1920s (don't worry, it's not in use!):


Yes, the person in the mirror is me, bent on taking this picture...

In summer, you can eat outdoors, not the case that day (much too cold). But when we looked outside for the restaurant owner who had disappeared in the course of our meal, we found him busy taking care of a herb garden he had recently laid out on the terrace in neat white boxes:


Gardening is an Italian passion!

4.04.2015

Chasing the Flame...

This week leading to Easter was an authentic Via Crucis for some 300 innocents massacred  by demented people: half of them were hapless tourists flying on Lufthansa's low cost GermanWings, the other half, university students in Kenya who were shot and decapitated because they happened to be Christians.

The Pope had unforgettable words on Holy Friday for the Christians who were killed and for all the senseless violence permeating our society. Referring to the Christ's Via Crucis, he said "In you, divine love, we see also today our persecuted brothers and sisters, decapitated and crucified for their faith in you, before our eyes and often with our complicit silence.”
Whether Christian or not, let us all agree that we cannot be silent. That something must be done - all of us can do something either at work or on our days off. And I was reminded of Sergio Vieira de Mello from Brazil, a man who dedicated his life to humanitarian causes and was horrifically killed in the line of duty. Samantha Power wrote an unforgettable book about Sergio - a man defined by Stephen Balbach, one of the reviewers of the book, as the "ultimate go-to guy", in his words:
Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (simply "Sergio" to many) was the personification of what the United Nations could and should be. As Paul Bremer's adviser Ryan Cocker once said, "Sergio is as good as it gets not only for the UN, but for international diplomacy." Sergio was the UN Secretary General's "ultimate go-to guy", a nation builder in the world's toughest spots like East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo. No one who met him - from George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War, to the Khmer Rouge, to Slobodan Milosevic - came away untouched by his intelligence, physical bearing, charisma and integrity. It was a major blow to the world when he and 14 other UN staff were killed on August 19th 2003 by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, an event that has become known as the "UN's 9/11".
Yes, another victim of terrorism - one who died twelve years ago. I only recently came across Samantha Power's book about him (it was published in 2008), in the course of researching my upcoming book about the United Nations. And I was immediately taken in by what is in fact a gripping read.

Here is my own review of it (I gave it 5 stars!):
Available on Amazon here
Brilliantly written, with a title that beautifully reflects the thrust of the book, it draws a spell-binding portrait of an idealist, dedicated to his work and the goals of the UN. At the same time, it depicts with deep compassion a very human person, highly likeable in spite of the flaws. The last chapter, reporting the details of his tragic death, makes for a harrowing read, high drama that will bring tears in the reader's eyes - including tears of frustration, because with a little better organization, his life might have been saved.
Yet, it could be argued that the real value of this book lies in another direction, it zeroes in on a phenomenon I have often come across in my 25 years of work at the UN: the rise of a new class of bureaucrats, far from the stereotype we all think of when the word "bureaucrat" comes up. Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian, was a true cosmopolitan, a man who lived beyond any nationalistic allegiance (though he loved his home country) and who truly believed in the supremacy of human rights, as defined in the UN Charter and the Declaration. Here is no bureaucrat attached to red tape and looking forward to week-end partying. Here is a man who worked incessantly, often putting work before family. I can vouch that there are many more like him in the UN system, people who honestly believe that the world should move beyond nationalism if it is ever to achieve peace and prosperity. Such people are "civil servants" in the most basic sense of the term, i.e. serving Society with a capital "s", and Samantha Power reveals in this book exactly how such people come about, what pushes them, what inspires them and frustrates them, in short, how they act and why.


To anyone wondering how and why the UN continues to survive the violent attacks against it, including skepticism about is continued relevance, here is the beginning of an answer: the resilience of the UN system lies largely in the quality of (some) of its staff - people like Viera de Mello. The insights "Chasing the Flame" provides into this little known aspect of the UN is what makes this book particularly important and a must read.

Indeed. I consider this  an important piece of evidence for my own book about the UN, tentatively called "Soft Power, the Real Nature of the United Nations System": Sergio exemplifies the special type of "bureaucrat" that the UN system attracts - people who are idealists, who believe in human dignity and in the value of every human life, precisely the reverse of Daesh assassins or suicidal pilots who criminally take the lives of others along with their own.

I hesitate to say "Happy Easter" but we need to make it happy and hopeful, we need to believe that humankind can be redeemed, that there will be in future many more people like Sergio...So have a Happy Easter, whether you are Christian or not!


3.29.2015

How the United Nations Foresees The Future




The United Nations’ Predictions of War, Disaster and Famine till May 2015: The IASC Early Warning Map

One always thinks of the United Nations as the harbinger of bad news, in particular dire predictions of global warming as the upcoming “Paris Climat”, the next World Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December 2015, is gathering steam.

But what is not so well known is that the United Nations plays a major role in the international community in predicting the next emergencies, man-made disasters like war devastation and economic collapse, but also some natural disasters that can be foreseen, like famine caused by  a protracted, on-going drought.

Predictions of this kind are essential to get everyone in the humanitarian community prepared for the next emergency. And in a 2-page document that anyone can find on Internet, there is a map of the emergencies foreseen by the UN for a 6-month period ending May 2015 (this one came out in December 2015 – screenshot):

IASC

Eleven hot spots, eleven areas in the world where chances are very high –close to 100 percent – that people will die in large number soon if nothing is done. It’s an amazingly high number.

The rest on Impakter, click here .

3.21.2015

Click with Compassion

That's what Monica Lewinsky tells us in her moving TED talk that has just come out, a talk that is a call for action against our "culture of humiliation", magnified by the Internet, where, alas, cyber-bullying is too often the order of the day.




You can see her talk here:



It got a standing ovation, a rare event on TED and (in my view) well deserved.

Before that talk, she had written an essay on Vanity Fair (published in June 2014, you can see it here). Titled "Shame and Survival", it is brilliantly written and was even nominated for a National Magazine Award for best Essay Writing. In a way, more than the TED talk itself, it constituted for Monica a real comeback, after over a decade of silence as she tried to rebuild her life. Much of what she says in the TED talk is already there, in the essay.

Two things stand out in that essay: one, the headline picture which shows us a sophisticated woman, eons away from the beret-wearing girl with the blue dress that we all remember:



The other thing is something she quotes towards the end of her essay, a snippet from a "New York Supergals" cocktail party conversation held at a chic New York City restaurant, Le Bernardin, in January 1998, to discuss, a week after the scandal had exploded in the media, what it really meant from a female/feminist point of view. That conversation was recorded by writer Francine Prose and published in The New York Observer under the telling title "Supergals Love that Naughty Prez".

Yes, the feminists took President Clinton's side - and what a coterie they were: writers Erica Jong, Nancy Friday, Katie Roiphe, and Elizabeth Benedict; Saturday Night Live writer Patricia Marx; Marisa Bowe, the editor of Word, an online magazine; fashion designer Nicole Miller; former dominatrix Susan Shellogg; and their host, Le Bernardin co-owner Maguy Le Coze. 

Monica imagines herself participating in that meeting, inserting in their conversation her own remarks in italics - it's an interesting exercise in trying to reshape the past, and I quote it here from the VF article:

Marisa Bowe: His whole life is about having to be in control and really intelligent all the time. And his wife is really intelligent and in control all the time. And the idea of just having stupid sex with some not-brilliant woman in the Oval Office, I can see the appeal in that.

Imaginary Me: I’m not saying I’m brilliant, but how do you know I’m not? My first job out of college was at the White House.

Susan Shellogg: And do you think it’s tremendously selfish? Selfish and demanding, having oral sex and not reciprocating? I mean … she didn’t say, “Well, you know he satisfied me.”

Me: And where exactly “didn’t” I say this? In which public statement that I didn’t make? In which testimony that’s not been released?

Katie Roiphe: I think what people are outraged about is the way that [Monica Lewinsky] looks, which is interesting. Because we like to think of our presidents as sort of godlike, and so if J.F.K. has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s all in the realm of the demigods…. I mean, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.

Me: Well, thanks. The first picture that surfaced was a passport photo. Would you like to have a passport photo splattered across publications around the world as the picture that defines you?

What you are also saying here is that the primary quality that would qualify a woman to have an intimate relationship with a powerful man is physical attractiveness. If that’s not setting the movement back, I don’t know what is.

Erica Jong: My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease.

Shellogg: What do you think will happen to [her]? I mean, she’ll just fade out quietly or write a book? Or people will forget about her six months from now?

Nancy Friday: She can rent out her mouth.

Me: (Speechless.)

Jong: But, you know, men do like to get close to the mouth that has been close to power. Think of the fantasy in the man’s mind as she’s going down on him and he’s thinking, “Oh my God.”

Elizabeth Benedict: Do for me what you did to the President. Do that.

Me: (Still speechless.)

Jong: I think it’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that we’re not trashing Monica Lewinsky.

Mmm, yes, of course they were the feminists of 1998. Times have changed (I hope). What strikes me in all this is Monica Lewinsky's basic contention that "the price of shame" exacted by the Internet is much higher than it would ever have been possible without it.

Hugh Merle's painting - Scarlet Letter
And perhaps that explains why over here, in Europe and particularly in France, as we watched the scandal unfold in the USA, we wondered why American society was reacting so violently to what seemed like a minor case of "sex at work" - hardly something to write home about. I remember we all figured that Americans were over-reacting to their President's philandering out of puritanism; after all, those were the roots of American culture, Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous Scarlet Letter etc.  etc.

But we tended to overlook the fact that in 1998, the Internet was not present in Europe the way it already was in the US. And now that the Internet has invaded Europe (and the world for that matter), the philandering of powerful political figures is no longer taken so lightly. The French have notably changed their mind in how they view President Hollande's whizzing about on a motorbike to see his latest paramour or Dominique Strauss Kahn's sexual pranks.

The Internet does change how people view other people's lives. As Monica Lewinsky says, "how do we cope with the shame game as it’s played in the Internet Age?"

In closing her essay, she tells us that her current goal is to "get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums". She has certainly started doing that with a bang and should be congratulated for the courage she is showing in coming out. 

So please, let's follow her advice, let's call on everyone to click with compassion!

3.16.2015

My Life without You

Simone Ruyters - her brushes, one of her paintings
To all my friends and those who enjoy reading my blog: please forgive the silence, my mother passed away on 12 March, she was 101 years old. It's been very painful for her and of course for her family but now at last, she rests in peace. The last time I talked on my blog about her was on the occasion of her 100th birthday, back in 2013, and  I uploaded a page about her, "Ruyters: A Painter's Life", you can see it here (she worked every day until 2009 when she declared she couldn't see well enough to go on). I found it difficult to keep up with my blog and instead wrote a poem that I dedicate to her:


The First Days of My Life without You


The first day of my life without you
I cannot believe it has happened,
Your eyes are closed, your lips don’t move,
You will never smile at me again.
You look so serene in your sleep. Are you still breathing?
I stare at the brown-striped blanket covering your body,
I think I see the cotton threads moving slightly,
But nothing moves.

The second day of my life without you,
The lid comes down over your face.
The Church is dark and peaceful, flowers cover your bier.
This is the last time we are together.
Outside the sun has lit up the spring sky,
Rome looks the way you have always loved it,
You are carried out by four men in a silvery car,
You are gone and I’m left with my tears.

The third day of my life without you,
I see in your house all the things you have loved,
I want to leave them the way they always were,
Yet I cannot, life must go on.
I find your paint box in a corner where you used to work,
The paint has dried in the tubes, unusable.
On the table, your brushes are crowded in pots,
Wooden stems sticking up, like dead flowers.

I don’t want to throw anything out.
I look at your paintings around me, on the walls,
Silent witnesses of your life, they live on.
But I have something more, my memories of you,
Special moments between a mother and her daughter,
Moments that only you and I have lived through,
Moments that will live on as long as I do,
All the coming days of my life without you. 

Simone Ruyters at her easel, fifty years ago

2.28.2015

Getting Close to the "Darkest Hour": Ancient Art Destroyed, Lives Lost, A Voice for Freedom Silenced

We are getting close to Mankind's "darkest hour". The Voice for Freedom, silenced in Moscow on 27 February, was that of Boris Nemtsov. It was close to midnight, he was gunned down not far from the Kremlin, as he was walking home from a radio interview in which he had dared to take Putin to task for his warmongering in Ukraine.

He was a liberal politician, a fighter of corruption, one of the most important leaders in the opposition to Putin. As a young man, he'd been close to Yeltsin, serving as his first deputy minister and many thought that since he was Yeltsin's right arm, he would succeed him; instead, Putin, Yeltsin's left arm, the man picked to spy on several of his colleagues, was the one ultimately chosen - with the catastrophic results we all know.


And of course Putin is behind the failed cease-fire in Ukraine. Merkel and Hollande unwittingly played their part: the agreement they brokered was faulty, the rebels quickly took advantage of the loophole and trapped the Ukrainian army.



As to the situation in Iraq, we can only watch with rising horror as ISIS and like-minded terrorist groups in Libya systematically pursue and behead Christians - putting at stake the very survival of Christians among the Muslims - and, as if this were not enough, destroying ancient art in Mosul, proving to the world that they have sunk to the levels of animals. Yes, indeed, Yeats' poem of the Second Coming, with its image of the beast, comes to mind:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?



The "darkest hour" is the phrase coined by Winston Churchill to describe the desperate moment when Britain stood alone against Hitler, as the Nazi forces invaded France in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941. The "finest hour" is perhaps one of his most famous speeches, delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June, 1940 two days after France had sought an armistice.

It is probably one of the world's greatest masterpieces of oratorical art, both defiant and uplifting.

The peroration of that speech, if you substitute references to Britain with the phrases civilization and "human rights", eerily applies to our situation today.

....However matters may go [...], we [...] will never lose our sense of comradeship with the [Christians of the Orient] ... the Battle of [Human Rights] is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of... civilization. Upon it depends our own [...] life, and the long continuity of our institutions... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.... If we can stand up to him, all [the world] may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, ... including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if [civilization and human rights] last for [another] thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.
What a pity the United Nations continues to be bypassed: our best instrument to avoid war and defend human rights remains sadly unused, as the Big Powers take turns to block the Security Council. 

All we have for now are comments from the UN affiliated organizations. Two stand out:

  • One made earlier by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian prince and the first UN human rights chief from the Muslim and Arab world: reacting to the horrific beheadings perpetrated by ISIS, he implored the Security Council to support efforts to overturn ISIS' “ideology of violence and death” , saying there was no space for it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No space at all.

  • The other from UNESCO. Irina Bokova, UNESCO's head, condemned ISIS' destruction of ancient Assyrian art "as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred."
as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred - See more at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Feb-28/289122-unsc-condemns-isiss-barbaric-terrorist-acts-in-iraq.ashx#sthash.3VLKW3P0.dpuf
The head of the U.N. culture, education and science agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also condemned the destruction of artifacts in the Mosul Museum.
"I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred," she said in a statement.
- See more at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Feb-28/289122-unsc-condemns-isiss-barbaric-terrorist-acts-in-iraq.ashx#sthash.3VLKW3P0.dpuf
The head of the U.N. culture, education and science agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also condemned the destruction of artifacts in the Mosul Museum.
"I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred," she said in a statement.
- See more at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Feb-28/289122-unsc-condemns-isiss-barbaric-terrorist-acts-in-iraq.ashx#sthash.3VLKW3P0.dpuf


Naturally, the Security Council also condemned ISIS, but it continues to debate the situation in Syria with no resolution in sight, because of Russia's and China's threat to block any action with their veto. Authoritarian regimes band together to trample human rights, no surprise there. 

This week, in a New York Times Op-Ed aptly titled "Unshackle the United Nations", Amnesty International vigorously called for the Big Powers to stop using their veto when human rights were at stake. "2014 was a catastrophic year", it said, listing human rights abuses in 160 countries and noting that the Security Council wielded their veto power on the sole basis of "vested interests and political expediency."

Wounded Syria girl treated at a hospital. See NPR article
The world has become more dangerous than ever, a dark place. Very sad... 

2.22.2015

What's Wrong with Europe? Ukraine, Greece and Libya: All Unfinished Businesses

Libya is sinking into a fundamentalist Islamic chaos, the cease-fire in Ukraine is breaking down and Greece's debt problems are far from resolved.

Merkel, Putin and Hollande at the Kremlin (2015)
And this in spite of the the so-called agreement reached in Minsk between Putin and the Merkel-Hollande couple. And in spite of the news coming out late Friday evening (20 February) that the Eurogroup (the Euro-zone 19 finance ministers) had agreed to extend by four months Greece's bailout, thus avoiding a financial shutdown of Greece.

Anyone following the news in Ukraine can see that the cease-fire hasn't got a ghost of chance, with Russia still fully supporting the rebels' advance in the East.  Yet, both Hollande and Merkel confidently talk about taking new sanctions and Kerry echoes them. One wonders how anyone can still believe in the power of sanctions. Surely Putin doesn't care.

As to the Greek bailout extension, it's a sham: this coming Monday (23 February), as reported in the New York Times:
"Greece must send its creditors a list of all the policy measures it plans to take over the next four months. If the measures are acceptable, European finance ministers could sign off on an extension of the bailout agreement on Tuesday."
Varoufakis and Tsipras (Facebook)
Really, a "list of all the policy measures" by Tuesday? And to whom are the said measures supposed to be "acceptable"?

To Germany, of course. The fundamental idea is that a newly elected government in the Euro-zone cannot change the commitments taken by a previous government, i.e. the austerity measures forced upon Greece by Germany. Therefore the new government led by Tsipras and his dynamic finance minister Varoufakis must continue with the reforms and austerity policies called upon by the infamous "troika", the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Back to square one.

Italian Military Mission (Olycon)
And the same can be said for Libya. The chaos threatening this country, just 350 km off the coasts of Europe, is a matter of grave concern to Italy: the radical fundamentalist Islamic militia over-running Libya are patterned on ISIS. Threats have already been sent via Twitter to Italy. The wonder is that the rest of Europe doesn't seem to care. Italy declared its willingness to lead a multinational force to "restore peace and order" in Libya and sought a green light from the UN Security Council - as did Egypt, after it had attacked extremist positions inside Libya a few days ago.

But the Security Council did not respond - in practice, both Egypt and Italy were told to calm down and forget it.

I am worried. The world is fast sinking into anarchy, the West is doing nothing to stop it and not even using its prime instrument to prevent war: the United Nations. After Gaddafi was ousted, no serious effort has been undertaken to help Libya recover and rebuild - a tiny UN mission was sent to Libya, with no means to operate on the ground, and all the UN Representative can do, is warn that Libya is falling apart. Yes, it's rapidly becoming a failed state like Somalia, and it's sitting on Europe's doorstep.

Of the three problems, Greece should be the easiest to fix: write off the debt and forget it. If one is to believe Paul B. Kazarian, one of the "vulture investors" of Hilary Rosenberg's famous book, the €318 billion Greek debt is worth only one tenth of its value as a result of the series of adjustments to the Greek debt over the years that include restructuring, maturity extensions and interest rate reduction. He argues that if one applied international accounting rules and took into account the assets owned by Greece, the overall net debt figure would fall to €32 billion. "You are suffocating a country with a figure that has no relevance", he argues, "Just take the fricking loss and move one."

Not many people agree with him, such views are always scary to conservatives and particularly so in German circles. Yet, historically, sovereign state debts have always been treated this way: that is exactly what happened in the United States, for example when the Second Bank of the United States collapsed in 1836, sending thousands of UK investors scrambling for their money. This was not the end of the United States' dollar, so why should a Greek (near) default be the end of the Euro?

When will our European leaders wake up and start facing the far more important challenges of Ukraine and Libya? Europe, quo vadis, where are your values, where are you going?

2.16.2015

France, Taking the Pulse

I spent the past week in Paris and it has opened my eyes.  Several widely-held opinions and ideas struck me:

1. I am not Charlie

I met NOBODY who evinced support for Charlie Hebdo - now with the killings in Denmark, there has been a revival of that "let's defend freedom of the press" mood, but it is sure to soon pass away. The Charlie Hebdo cover that came out a week after the murders caused everyone to tell me, with emphasis on the "not", "I am not Charlie".

You may wonder who I met and to what extent the people I talked to were representative of French people at large. I can't prove it but I am convinced that they were in fact very representative.

First, everyone in the French opposition to the French President François Hollande felt that way. Even the most rabid supporter of the French government were upset that taxpayer money was used to finance what they saw as a "dirty sheet" (my opinion too, I never bought it) - one that just went ahead and produced yet another disgusting caricature in bad taste, profoundly disrespectful of another religion. And that means about half the French feel that way. If not more: you need to add all the Catholics of France who ave heard Pope Francis exclaim from the Philippines (where he was traveling at the time), that every religion should be respected.

2. The Légion d'Honneur is Not What it Used to Be

I discovered that the very people you'd expect to respect (even admire) the Légion d'Honneur, the top decoration in the country - and I am talking about top diplomats, lawyers, business managers - felt that the Légion d'Honneur was increasingly misused: in fact, the Légion d'Honneur is not what it used to be. They mentioned to me (with ill-disguised disgust) that it is given to athletes because they run faster or jump higher, to celebs because their smiles  go viral on Internet, but it is no longer given to "for the right reasons" to people "who deserve it". In their view, Thomas Piketty was right to refuse it.

 3. The United Nations No Longer Counts

This, to me, is very upsetting, considering that France has historically always been a great supporter of the United Nations since its inception - and France is one of the Five Big Powers at the UN Security Council with veto power (along with the US, UK, Russia and China). I came across this conviction when I listened to a conference given by Ambassador Jean-David Levitte in a private circle - a fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, Mr. Levitte is a top French diplomat who was French Ambassador to the United Nations (2000-2002) and Washington (2002-2007) and served as Diplomatic Advisor to two Presidents, Chirac and Sarkozy. He talked knowledgeably (of course!) about world politics and the changes since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, evoking the way ahead, particularly in connection with the on-going Ukraine and Syria crises.

He sees the world as totally changed since World War II. In his view, the United Nations no longer counts. The way ahead, in his opinion, is through setting up  ad-hoc mini coalitions of committed and involved countries, preferably a mix of one or more of the UN Security Council Five Big Powers, the P-5,  plus interested countries.

For example, the way forward for the Syria crisis, he suggested, would be to get together the P-5 plus Germany and include those countries in the region that are most directly concerned: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. He noted that, while they didn't "like" each other, they ought to understand that it was in their best (and immediate) interest to see the Syrian situation resolved.

As to Ukraine, the mini coalition, he reminded us, is already at work: Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (Kiev) with the East Ukraine rebels on the outside and the US benevolently looking on. As he told us that night, he fully expected that when Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko met in Minsk, they would "stop the clock" to ensure they would reach an agreement for a cease-fire. Now we know he was right, and they did: they worked all night Thursday 12 February - a full 16 hours, something unheard of for heads of state and government chiefs.

4. Stopping the Clock

Now let me say something about this gimmick of "stopping the clock". I know it well, because my uncle worked on the EU Common Agricultural Plan in the 1960s, and I remember he used to work all night long and I'd often meet him after breakfast, walking in his garden and musing about the future of Europe before returning to the (clock-suspended) meeting.  This gimmick was repeatedly employed by European high-level functionaries -including ambassadors - who thus hammered out all the basic agreements needed to build the European Union. Let me emphasize: Functionaries used to do this, not top level politicians. But diplomacy is no longer what it used to be either, and now diplomatic work has been taken over by the likes of Putin, Merkel and Hollande. Personally, I think it's a mistake: if you discuss at top level you don't allow yourself the chance of saying, "I must refer back to my capital" which is an elegant way of stalling and gaining time before figuring out the next best move.

Regardless of what the Four Big Guys said to each other in Minsk, Hollande and Merkel came back triumphantly saying (some sort of) an agreement had been (somehow) reached. Whether it will hold up is anyone's guess. The first cease-fire back in September 2014, as we all know, didn't last beyond a few days...

5. Mini-coalitions of "Willing Countries" Have Yet to Prove that they Work

As of now, and I am sure that if Mr. Levitte is reading me he would agree, the "mini-coalition" model has yet to prove itself. It works in the short run, but does it work in the long run? It allows for quick decision-making and fast on-the-ground moves, notably in Iraq when Bush and Blair steamed ahead in 2003 and more recently yet, in Libya, with the French-English attacks to dislodge Gaddafi. But what about the aftermath? Iraq, as we all know, dissolved in chaos with ISIS taking over a big chunk of both Iraq and Syria. As to Libya, it's an on-going chaos, with militia vying for power. Libya, if nothing is done, is going the way of other failed states, like Somalia.

Mr. Levitte suggested that Libya should be "accompanied" on the road to state-building by yet another mini-coalition of willing countries - presumably, he was thinking of France and Italy plus a handful of Arab countries, maybe Qatar?

The question comes naturally: why not strengthen the UN Mission in Libya and give it (for once) the means to operate instead of resorting yet again to a phantomatic coalition of countries whose interests and commitments must necessarily waver with every new election at home and thus vanish overnight. Only the UN can ensure long-term commitment, provided it is given the means to function (i.e. sufficient budget and manpower - the UN has a proven track record of state-building in East Timor and Cambodia - and it has a long experience in electoral assistance the world over).

6. Paris in the 21st Century: the Louis Vuitton Foundation

After all these discussions, it was a pleasure to relax and visit Paris' latest museum for Contemporary Art, Frank Gehry's new, stupendous construction, the Louis Vuitton Foundation's, on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne. It occupies a corner of the old Jardin d'Acclimatation - a sort of rural, botanical garden with pigs, ducks and sheep and a Guignol show, great for children. And, seen from the Jardin, the Gehry building looks like a weird, disjointed, alien sailing ship that crashed from the sky:


Within that array of "sails", there are some terraces you can walk on that give you surprising vistas on Paris - very much a 21st Century town with its skyscrapers of the Defense lining the horizon:


My only regret was the inside of the museum: big rooms, yes, but most without direct light. No attempt is made to take advantage of those "sails". As a result, the rooms display art very much in the way other museums do, with flat walls and rectangular floor plans. So why bother so much with the outside and not the inside? I had expected to see weird-shaped rooms, things that would leave me gasping...Maybe another time, somewhere else, an architect will surprise us with both the outside and the inside.

I highly recommend that if you go and visit the museum, take your time to stroll in the Jardin d'Acclimatation next door (your ticket buys you entrance to both): a pleasant walk in nature after so much steel and stone...