The Weather War: UN Report Shows Toll of Climate Change

On 23 November, just a week before the opening of COP 21, the Climate Change Conference in Paris, the United Nations issued a fascinating (and scary) report showing the unexpected toll of climate change over the past 20 years (see here). The author of the report is the UN's office for disaster risk reduction (UNISDR). Headquartered in Geneva with 5 regional offices, UNISDR is an organizational unit of the UN Secretariat, headed by Margareta Wahlström and tasked to support the implementation, follow-up and review of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 that was adoped by UN Member States in Japan in March 2015.

Margareta Wahlstrom, presenting the report. She is  Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction, appointed since 2008. A citizen of Sweden, she started her international career with the Red Cross (1995-2000).

Did you know that over the past twenty years, since the first Climate Change Conference (COP1) in 1995, over 600,000 people have lost their lives and over 4 billion have been injured  in weather-related events? Losses to property are of course commensurate and enormous: 87 million homes were damaged or destroyed over the period of the survey; the total cost of property losses – including from earthquakes and tsunamis – is between US$250 billion and US$300 billion annually (a UNISDR estimate, noting that loss data is systematically under-reported).

The numbers are mind-boggling.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that weather-related events account for 90% of disasters. We always think of disasters in terms of war and other human-related causes (and of course, those are the worst, on ethical grounds because they could be avoided) and we tend to accept passively disasters caused by climate change.

But we shouldn't. The pace of climate-related events is increasing: An average of 335 weather-related disasters were recorded per year between 2005 and 2014, an increase of 14% from 1995-2004, and almost twice the level recorded during 1985-1995. That is truly scary.

Yet, there is a silver lining in all this. In the upcoming Climate Change Conference, we have a chance to finally do something constructive. This report proves that, in purely economic terms, engaging in measures to control gas emissions and reduce global warming results directly in lives and property saved. And that translates into an automatic reduction in the costs of controlling climate change. So it's not a straight exchange, one on one, between economic growth and climate change control. By choosing to curb emissions, even developing countries would find that they are enjoying a better quality economic growth.

And then there's the moral question. Do we really have the choice of sacrificing lives to the God of Economic Growth and the Golden Calf of Profit?

Adoration of the Golden Calf by Poussin


The Key for Peace: The Indispensable Role of the United Nations

Once again, one of my articles, just published on Impakter, with a remarkable introduction from the Editor (he is a millennial, a man deeply concerned about the issues of our time, value-driven like his whole generation, and this too is reason for hope in a better future). This is the beginning, to read the rest, go on Impakter, click here.



Note from the Editor: In these hours, following the tragic killing of innocents in Paris and Beirut,  our thoughts are with the people of France and Lebanon.
Impakter is a global publication. Our team comes from every corner of our beloved World. We represent the citizens of the World. Furthermore, our aim is to express that through this publication. Today we want this thought to reach higher than ever before. 
We believe that the current events taking place during the G20 could potentially be a significant milestone in our human history. A unprecedented event. The G20 could potentially regroup all the citizens of the World.  All united into delivering a safer and united future for all the generations to come.
The road is full of challenges, but  we will all walk through it under one flag, that of Peace. This is without a doubt a key turning point in our history. Like the Phoenix, we are to be reborn from the ashes of our World’s darkest hours.
Now, more then ever, we must move upwards and onwards. 
This is a first analysis of what might be happening next.


Once the United Nations Security Council is unblocked, we can hope to see an end to the Syria crisis. So far, because of Russia’s repeated use of its veto power at the Security Council, supported by China, its usual ally, the international community has not been able to move forward in a concerted fashion. Syria, after three years of a devastating civil war, is now pounded by Russian and American forces and their respective allies, but they haven’t agreed on common objectives: Russia supports Bashir al Assad, the United States targets Daesh, a.k.a ISIS or IS. But now things are changing.
On Sunday 15 November, at the G20 meeting in Turkey, a major political decision was reportedly taken, a page in the difficult relationship between Russia and the West appears to have been turned. It seems that Putin and Obama had an eye-to-eye talk that lasted half-an-hour and their meeting was caught on Turkish television.
Negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations between the Syrian opposition and the regime [meaning Bashir al Assad] and a cease-fire
A White House spokesman said afterwards...


Climate Fiction Update, it's Now Eco-Fiction

The thread discussing climate fiction on the top-rated SFF World website is still on-going! If you haven't read it yet, click here to see it. It has now veered to discussing what makes for a good story based on  an eco-fiction premise. And here I thought the thread had been winding down! But it hasn't, you're still in time to join the discussion and post your comment.  I'd even posted this comment that I thought would be my last:

I do hope that one lasting result of this excellent debate on SFFWorld is that we can put to rest the discussion around cli-fi vs. climate fiction vs. eco-fiction! 

I vote for eco-fiction, particularly since it has shown to have proven historical antecedents - wow, back to 1971, as Burt pointed out, and with a string of big names from Asimov to Vonnegut to Steinbeck...That's impressive and yes, I would certainly also sign on to that pitch Burt quotes: 
"Eco-Fiction is a provocative and poignant collection of short stories that issue a plea to each individual to recognize his inevitable place and vital responsibility for the future of man on earth." ​
Indeed, our responsibility "for the future of man on earth" is vital. This is what Mary and Bert do so beautifully: fighting for a better world with "provocative and poignant" stories - they, and all the other authors mentioned in this thread...

By the way, let me close by saying that I am looking forward to Ecotones!

Yes, I do think the debate around what to call a book set in a post-climate change world (or in the midst of the worst of it) has been laid to rest. And I much prefer the discussion around what makes for a good story. I was introduced to a soon-to-be published anthology of eco-fiction, called Ecotones, and I'm looking forward to it.

Here it is on Kickstarter, seeking to gather funds by 1 December:

Hurry if you want to help them! I did, they're half-way there. And you know how Kickstarter works, don't you? If they don't reach their stated goal (in this case £1,000) they don't get the money, Kickstarter cancels the whole campaign and doesn't take any money you have contributed. Here's the message you get once you've paid in:

Nice, isn't it? I hope they make it! These are both talented and dedicated writers, deeply engaged in our future - but then, aren't we all? Aren't we all worried about global warming, pollution, wars, the end of civilization as we know it? Don't we all want to pass onto our children and grandchildren a beautiful and safe and just world?

Bless you all!


Climate Change and the Price of Survival

BOOK REVIEW - BACK TO THE GARDEN, by Clara Hume, published by Moon Willow Press (2013) Available on Amazon, click here

BREAKING NEWS: On the forum of top-seeded SFFWorld, there's an on-going debate on climate fiction where Clara Hume intervenes as Guest Host, using her real name, Mary Woodbury, along with two more Guest Hosts, Brian Burt, author of the Aquarius Rising  trilogy and myself under my pen name Claude Nougat. To see or join this stimulating debate now, click here.

Climate change usually inspires the direst of dystopian fiction: end-of-the-world situations, cities under water, people desperately seeking safety and fighting for survival while children and the elderly are the first to die...With Clara Hume's Back to the Garden, you get that but you also get much more and something that is very different.


You get a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of hope even though in that book, as in all other climate fiction novels I've ever read, the world is overheated and overrun with lawless gangs as society as we know it has collapsed.

What this book tells us is: maybe mankind can survive after all...but at what price! Back to the Garden is like going back to square one, the start of civilization. All technological advances are lost, there is no electricity and little fuel left. This is a world of growing scarcities. But is that "garden", the one in the book, a new, revised garden of Eden?

Maybe it is, and that is a comforting thought: what we have here is dystopia with a smile.

And that's what makes Back to the Garden very different and really worth reading.

And pondering over.

This is the story of a trip across a devastated, post-apocalyptic America told from multiple points of view, one for each traveler, and each one is an engaging character. We soon find ourselves liking them, feeling their pains, their hopes, their loves. This is a very human tale, some die and we cry, others live on in spite of dreadful obstacles, and they all finally get "back to the garden" - but I stop here, I don't want to give away the story and ruin the suspense, I will not tell you about this garden, pick up the book and find out!

One commentator on Amazon (see here), made the interesting comparison with Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, noting that while Steinbeck depicted a cross-country trek of people driven from home by the Great Depression, Clara Hume's characters are driven by Climate Change. The comparison is apt, although the story is in fact very different (as are the characters). But we are indeed at a literary level, this is a beautifully written novel.

The author (Clara Hume is a pen name) is a young woman deeply committed to fighting climate change and preserving our environment for future generations. She maintains a vibrant website Eco-Fiction  that acts as a hub for a community of people eager to debate environmental themes, including climate change, in both literature and the arts.

Here's the landing page, and you can glimpse a series of interviews of climate fiction authors:

The site is an outreach project run by Moon Willow Press, an independent small press in Canada (British Columbia) with a mission to "help sustain forests while celebrating the written word". On the site, we learn that "MWP has planted over 1,000 non-invasive trees in ecologically and economically rough areas since 2011. The press prints only on recycled, hemp, and forest-certified fiber."

Here's their opening page (screenshot, there are three images that keep changing, I caught this one about the "Blue Dot Run Team"):

Well done, MWP, this is a social-minded business, it is currently open to submissions for both fiction and non-fiction books. And of course, MWP is the publisher of Back to the Garden and numerous other climate fiction novels - reads that anyone with an environmental conscience and a concern about man's survival on this planet should not miss...


What Turns a Police Thriller into a Bestseller? Lessons from Faceless Killers

Discovering Henning Mankell (here)

Let me start with a confession: I'm not a habitual reader of police thrillers and murder stories. Like everyone, I've read Agatha Christie when I was young, I've gone through all the classics from Arthur Conan Doyle to Ngaio Marsh but I'm not a fan, call me a dispassionate reader.
Why? Because too often, I can see through the plot and it all looks depressingly formulaic.

When Henning Mankell died this month (see this excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly, here),  I was reminded of his stature in Scandinavian literature - the Atlantic Monthly calls him the "dean of Nordic Noir", with 30 million copies of his Kurt Wallander series sold since the first one came out, 25 years ago, in 1990.

Of course, I'm familiar with the character of Kurt Wallander, an ordinary, middle-aged policeman working in a small town in Southern Sweden, having seen several episodes of a series featuring him on ARTE TV. But now I wanted to find out more, I thought I would try and uncover the roots of his success by reading that first book in the Wallander series, the one that "made it", with the arresting title Faceless Killers.

Here's what I found - the main "lessons learned" to ensure that your next thriller is going to rise above the genre and make it as a global bestseller.

As you will see, there are only two rules to follow.

First, let me say it's a great read, the pace never slackens. When it does slow down - as inevitably it must if you're following a police investigation step-by-step, an indispensable aspect of making this novel realistic - then Kurt Wallander's personal life butts in. He has problem with his senile, grumpy and lonely father, a landscape artist endlessly painting the same landscape, his cool wife Mona who has just left him, causing him to dream of making love to a black woman (inexplicably black but then dreams are not always explainable) and his complicated daughter Linda, an independent young woman who lives with her boyfriend from Kenya and can't make up her mind about attending college. You get the sense that Kurt Wallander, ordinary as he is, has in fact a complex life and you, the reader, feel for him.

This observation leads directly to:

Rule #1: establish empathy with your main character - even if this is a police procedural and the implications are that police procedures and the thrill of the chase should trump characterization.

To transcend the genre and establish credentials as a genuine, world-class work of literature, follow Mankell's example: develop your main character. Kurt Wallander soon becomes someone you feel you know, someone who goes through the same (often depressing) experiences so many of us go through our lives as a marriage grows stale, as a child turns into a rebellious teenager, as a parent slowly sinks into old age.

The other striking aspect of Faceless Killers is its social dimension. 

This is a book that has deep roots in Swedish society, and by extension, in the society of any advanced country that calls itself (like Sweden) a democracy, that believes it has humanitarian traditions. And it's a book that does not shy from raising deep, uncomfortable questions. In fact, Mankell himself had lived in Africa and brought his own views to his books and the character Kurt Wallander. As he explained on his website,
“Racism for me is a crime, and therefore it seemed natural that I wrote a crime novel. It was after that the idea of a policeman was born.” 
The book is peppered with Mankell's personal opinions about racism and how refugees are viewed and ill-treated in refugee camps in Sweden. One, a Somali, father of nine children, while walking alone down a country lane near his camp, gets his head blown off  by a ruthless killer with an accomplice in a near-by car ready to whisk him away from the crime scene.

But the book does not merely "show", Mankell is not afraid of "telling", here are some examples:
  • [One character says:] "We have a refugee policy in this country that must be followed." [The other answers:] "Wrong. It's precisely the lack of  refugee policy that creates chaos."
  • [Then this character amplifies his thinking]: "Right now we're living in a country where anyone with any motive at all can come in anywhere in this country at any and in any manner. Control of the borders has been eliminated. The customs service is paralyzed. There are plenty of unguarded strips where the dope and the illegal immigrants are unloaded every night."
Sounds familiar? Yes, it's amazingly relevant to our own times and the current migrant crisis in Europe. Germany expects to have to take in one million refugees this year, Sweden less of course, but it is still a favorite destination of the millions of migrants pouring into Europe through Greece, the Balkans and Italy - most of them from war-ridden countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan (Darfur, remember it?)

I wonder if any of those migrants has read Faceless Killers?

The book gives you the whole range of feelings - pro and against - caused by waves of migrants, here are a few more samples:
  • "For brief moments [Wallander] could also detect contradictory sympathies in himself for some of the anti-immigrant arguments that came up in discussions and the press while the trial was in progress [trial about the murder of the Somali man]. Did the government and the Immigration Service have any real control over which individuals sought to enter Sweden? Who was a refugee and who was an opportunist? Was it possible to differentiate them all?"
And then comes the conclusion, one that is haunting all of us these days in Europe as we watch waves upon waves of migrants entering the continent:
  • "How long would the principle of the generous refugee policy be able to hold without leading to chaos? Was there any upper limit?
Indeed, that is precisely what we wonder about now. And we are all like Kurt Wallander, who, as Mankell writes:
  •  "He realized that he harbored the same vague apprehension that so many other people did. Anxiety about the unknown, about the future."
This is what makes this book so extraordinary, and enables it to rise above the "genre" of mysteries, leaving behind the usual tropes and reaching out to the level of "real" literature - not pure thrills, not entertainment for the sake of entertainment but applying a lens to reality that makes you understand reality better, and perhaps in a way you have never understood it before. In short, great literature.

And this brings us to:

Rule #2: Root your story in reality - address real life issues.

In this case, migrants, what to do with them, how to integrate them in our society. In a globalized world shaken by war and injustice, this is the kind of issue that will stay with us a long time. Think of it, Faceless Killers was written 25 years ago, yet the issues it raises are incredibly relevant to our situation today.

From BBC article: "What can Europe Achieve?" (see here)

You may wonder whether those two rules actually apply beyond thrillers and mysteries.

Of course they do!

In my view, applying those two rules to any genre novel will lift it to the level of
     (a) a bestseller; and
     (b) literature with a capital "L".

You may make a lot of money with strictly genre books, selling by the millions like 50 Shades of Grey did, but you won't reach the top. To achieve that, as Menkell shows, you need to go beyond mere thrills and open the doors of the real world for your readers, you need to make them think.

And you may ask, what is the benefit for you, the writer? Not much beyond some splendid obituaries like the one Henning Mankell got in the Atlantic Monthly or the New York Times and of course, why should you care?

But if you're an activist who would like to see the world become a better place, then you do care. I know I do. How about you?



Water is Life

Another one of my articles published on Impakter:



Water is life. Water is essential to food security and nutrition: who could disagree? There is a “right to food” and now we have an emerging “right to water” and “right to land”. And a coming battle for water.
This – “water is life” – is a direct quote from a major United Nations document put out by a unique Committee in the United Nations System, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) that has just concluded its 42nd annual meeting, held in Rome at FAO Headquarters, from 12 to 15 October 2015.
CFS 42 – First Day October 12, 2015, Plenary Hall, FAO Rome.Over 1,000 participants attended, a majority from civil society and the private sector.
The CFS is unique in the United Nations system in that it is an open “multi-stakeholder platform”, as we were reminded by the CFS Chair, Gerda Verburg, Ambassador of the Netherland, in her closing remarks – she is outgoing after serving her 2-year term as a very successful, forceful chair. The CFS, founded in 1974 and reformed in 2009 to open it to non-government stakeholders, has a Bureau of 12 member countries plus the Chair, an Advisory Committee that includes representatives from non-government stakeholders and it is supported by a permanent Secretariat located in FAO, Rome, with inputs from the World Food Programme and IFAD.
Here is one of the numerous and vigorous videos through which CFS Chair Gerda Verburg has spread her message about “climate smart agriculture” in various expert meetings, exemplifying the role of the CFS:
To see the video and read the rest, go to Impakter, click here.
See you there, let me know your point of view, either there or here, I love to hear from you!


Amazon Has Done It Again for Self-Publishing!

The wonderful case of Swedish self-published author Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin is there to prove it! Thanks to Amazon, this author, a psychologist who has founded a psychological coaching company and published several "help" books in various genres since 2006, has hit the jackpot.

News came out in this summer that something strange was happening on Amazon's printed books best selling list: big best-sellers from established authors (like Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman) were being displaced from their top position by a book for children from an unknown Swedish author with the weird title The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep - a book specially designed to lull restless children to sleep.

The news were repeated in the press both in America and in the UK (for example, here and here, both pieces dated August 15) and now the New York Times has just learned that in September Mr. Forssen Ehrlin had landed a juicy deal for multiple books, including re-issuing his first book unchanged (but on better quality paper), with one of the Big Five: Penguin Random House no less.

The interview he gave to NYT is an eye-opener. Curious? You can read it here.

So what is the secret of Forssen Ehrlin's success?

To begin with, a huge number of readers' reviews - now already over 900 on Amazon.

Next, a well-orchestrated presentation. The NYT felt the illustrations looked a little "amateurish" - perhaps they do, but Penguin Random House is (wisely) maintaining them and (I personally think) they have a lot of charm, and obviously a lot of readers have felt the same way. As they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Also, an attractive, professional author website. Take a look here and see for yourself. The site is as much about the author as it is about his books, well balanced, convincing.

Last but not least, a unique sales pitch. The author presents himself as a trained psychologist and life coach, someone "in the know", who can help parents in the delicate task of relaxing their children at bedtime. His book meets a broadly perceived problem, et voilà, you have a best-seller on your hands, with desperate parents loading up on the book!

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this story is the fact that this is NOT A KINDLE SUCCESS STORY. It's a Create Space success, Amazon's service for self-publishing printed books. 

We've been used to read about Amanda Hocking, Bella Andre and Hugh Howey -  they all made it first by hitting the Kindle's best selling lists.

Carl-Johan has done it differently, with a printed book.

And, not content to break new ground format-wise, he's done it genre-wise too. This is not a romance, this is not a thriller or science-fiction, it's a children's book.

Congrats Carl-Johan, well done!

 Carl-Joan Forssen Ehrlin's website (Screenshot)
PS. This story can also be construed as another confirmation that the digital format is not particularly adapted to children's books. Mr. Forssen Ehrlin was wise to choose a printed book format, that is what parents want to do with their children, sitting on their bed after dinner, thumbing a book...

Your views?


Boomer Lit Three Years Later: What Next?

King Lear and Cordelia - painting by Ford Madox Brown (Source: click here)
In a way, Boomer Lit has been around for ever. Any book dealing with the challenges of "mature life" (meaning over 50) could be said to be "Boomer Lit".

And now that some 78 million baby boomers in the US have reached 50 or are older - and that's a big segment of the American population - the term Boomer Lit given to the kind of books they want to read has truly come into its own.

Why do I claim "Boomer Lit" was founded three years ago? Some people may say they'd heard the term before, that it was "floating in the air" and they could well be right.

But something specific happened three years ago that made it literally come out of its chrysalis and be born as a new genre -  a genre, I'm convinced, destined to become a great marketing success, given the sheer number of baby boomers. Not just in the US but around the world. And these are people who are rapidly reaching retirement age or are already retired...which means they've got plenty of time on their hands to read!

The Love Story stars, reunited today, see here
So what exactly happened three years ago to launch Boomer Lit? By chance, at this time of year (actually September 2012) I had just published a novel about a man facing a new phase in his life after retirement and the choices he makes threaten his marriage.

My problem was I didn't know in which genre to place it. Romance since it dealt with a marriage relationship gone awry? Yes, but the man is over 60, and he has a love adventure with a woman in her 50s.

As we all know, "classic" romance is like Segal's Love Story, all about young people. Also my book drilled in depth with how it feels like when you stop working and the rug is pulled out under your feet. Not the usual stuff of romance!

How to market such an odd book that didn't fit anywhere?

That's when I turned to a Kindle Forum thread for listing new books under specific genres and asked the moderator to allow the addition of a new genre aimed at Baby Boomers (I figured they were my audience). My request was granted and that boosted my confidence. I felt I was on the right road.

Happily armed with this new Amazon avenue that had opened up for marketing my book, I turned to Goodreads, looking for a group to discuss Baby Boomer novels and possibly get a chance to talk about my book and list it and reach out to more people.

Tough luck. I found no such group anywhere on Goodreads (and there are thousands of groups dealing with thousands of different themes!).

Determined to launch my book, I wasn't discouraged. I'd been already fairly active on Goodreads for years and achieved the status of "librarian", so it was a no-brainer to found a group to discuss Baby Boomer novels - or BB novels as I called them, I liked the humorous, facetious aspect of this term. If YA was for Young Adults, surely BB was for Baby Boomers?

I started the group in October 2012 with an explanatory pitch around this BB novel concept and put up a photo-shopped picture of my husband reading his Kindle ( washed over in blue color letting his hair show white - he actually has dark hair!).

By December 2012, the group had attracted over 50 extremely enthusiastic and active members and I started to write about in several online publications  and the Baby Boomer ball got rolling (for details on how it went, click my Boomer Lit tab above)...

In fact, today, three years later, the group has grown to nearly 600 - most of them, if not all, Boomer Lit authors.

That's a lot of writers who claim to be writing Boomer Lit!  Writers who belong to the Group know that they also have at their disposal a Facebook page to announce their books or special events and a Twitter account (@boomerlit. To support Boomer Lit events, there is a dedicated hashtag: #boomerlit

To go to page, click here

In the spring of 2013, the Goodreads member of our BB novel group discussed the title of the group and there was a unanimous agreement that it should be called "Boomer Lit" because it didn't cover just novels but also memoirs, poetry etc.

And there was a pointed discussion about the very nature of Boomer Lit: did it cover just challenges facing the "third age" or did it  also evoke the past, what it was like growing up in the 1960's and 1970's? I've always felt that the former was truly Boomer Lit while the latter was not. In my opinion, nostalgia pieces - whether a poem, a novel or a short story -  that deal with, say, a first love that happened some 40 years ago should still be classified as YA romance and not Boomer Lit. Why? Because it features, yes, a "young adult" (or maybe not so young, perhaps someone in their twenties) - but surely not anyone over 50!

At least that was my view and I fought for it, but not always winning that battle. Many Group members felt nostalgia was definitely part of Boomer Lit even if it dealt with a first love.

I believe this is the kind of intellectual "battle" only a Big Publisher could win.

That's why Boomer Lit, to get truly established and go mainstream, needs to have a traditional publisher, preferably one of the Big Five, set up a Boomer Lit imprint. With a clear definition of what the term Boomer Lit covers and a clear outreach strategy to Baby Boomers.

I'm convinced such an imprint, correctly launched, would automatically access a huge market. Some authors have already made a splash with books that are clearly "Boomer Lit", notably "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" that's been turned into two films, and there's no reason that many more Boomer Lit authors of quality cannot be found.

Source: click here

For a partial list of Boomer Lit books, check the Wikipedia entry, here. A publisher could also ask its editors to look among the members of the Goodreads Boomer Lit group. The group discussed a number of books and those discussions were very fruitful in helping to define what was and what was not quality Boomer Lit. And all those discussion threads are online, easy to access.

Furthermore, I'm pleased to report that the Goodreads Boomer Lit Group has started a particularly interesting thread about Boomer Lit, its challenges and potential as a major genre, to read it click here.

Yes, Boomer Lit has a future and in America, its future is 78 million strong! The first publisher who wakes up to this opportunity and establishes a Boomer Lit imprint is likely to be richly rewarded.

Your views? What do you think you can do to help put Boomer Lit on the map?


The Power of Amazon to Kick Down Newbies

Let's face it, the new tech world's giants, Google, Apple, Amazon (and others for the Chinese) have incredible power over our lives. Some of it sweet, some not so sweet.

First, a sweet example, Google's doodle to wish you a happy birthday:

Those are some of the doodles you see when you do a search on your birthday (I just got the top one on the left). Surprised? Of course not, when you signed up for any of Google's services from Gmail to YouTube, you gave away your birthday. So the friendly giant with the clever algorithms whose famous motto is "don't be evil" gave you a pat on the back.

Not everyone is happy with this (see this person's complaint to the Daily Telegraph, here) but I must confess I was happy. I thought it was a rather nice touch.

Next, a not so sweet example, Amazon's book recommendations to you. The principle, of course, is the same: clever algorithms that "remember" your past purchases, possibly even the samples you download (? I'm not sure, but it's feasible). From those, your reading tastes are deduced, and Amazon suggests to you what you should read next.

Convenient? Yes and no. For people who are readers and not writers, it's probably very convenient. Though some unexpected hiccups can happen: for example, my husband lent his Kindle to my mother because when she got older (beyond 95) she had trouble with daily financial management (normal at that age). But she still read assiduously, at least one novel per week on her Kindle. I downloaded books for her directly to her Kindle, mostly thrillers and some romances. Result? My husband was getting from Amazon tons of recommendations for books in genres he never read simply because Amazon had no way of knowing who in fact was reading that Kindle.

But for writers, especially newbies trying to break through with their first novel, Amazon's system can be lethal. Simply because it is geared to zeroing in on the best selling books in any genre/sub-genre or descriptive keywords you use to search for books. As a reader, if you go to Amazon's website, you will see lists of book titles ranked by sales, i.e. most popular. And if you don't go to their site, you'll receive emails with similar recommendations filtered by the trail left by your past purchases. 

In both cases, what you get is what is most popular since for Amazon that is easiest to sell. 

A vicious circle. If you're a newbie, you need to break into that circle. But reaching the top selling 100 books on Kindle is not enough, you need to stay there. A tall order, one that very few newbies manage: individual marketing efforts, no matter how continuous (Twitter campaigns, free downloads, give-outs!) cannot match the marketing machine of Big Publishers who have access to all the Big Media, starting with the New York Times and the UK Guardian.

So traditionally published books sell ahead of indies: they turn up at the top of all Amazon sales lists while the few indies that make it in those lists are those that were once traditionally published and therefore have a recognizable name (they are often busy selling their back list to their fans and only more recently have moved to publishing new stuff). 

The point for Amazon is this: there's more money to be made from traditionally published books than from self-published ones. With publishers, Amazon makes more money: the price of indie titles tends to cluster around the "sweet price" of $3.99 while traditionally published books normally sell around $13.

Or at least, Amazon thinks it makes more money. It has allowed publishers to set their own prices and (surprise!) the high prices they have set are causing a drop in ebook sales. 

Ebook sales were reportedly down by 10% in the first half of this year according to the New York Times. But as it turns out, this was only a partial statistic concerning the books of 1200 publishers of the American Publishers Association (AAP) not the whole market.  See Fortune's article here

According to Authors Earnings that tries for a broader view through sampling the whole market, indies ebooks sales are not down: 

E-book unit sales

As you can see, AAP-reported traditionally published sales went from some 45% of the market in February 2014 to little over 30% in September 2015, that's a big drop for traditional publishing!

And it's a big drop for traditional publishers in a market that is holding steady, or growing by at least one percent this year, according to this interesting and convincing analysis in stratechery .

So what is really happening?

There is no question that a few indies are doing very well, from Bella Andre to Hugh Howey - both masters in the difficult art of marketing. Hugh Howey is excellent with videos about his writing life and Bella Andre uses teams of marketing consultants, something I discovered last year at the Matera Fiction Festival where she explained how she uses up to 30 specialized consultants to market her numerous books, she's like a small publishing house all by herself...

For newbies without this kind of marketing savvy, the story is very different. Their books gather dust on their digital shelves and automatically fall into the "long tail" in the Kindle Store because of Amazon's algorithms that always give pride of place to best sellers. There are over 4 million titles in the Kindle Store, so the tail is very long!

The solution?

Amazon should follow Netflix's example. If it did, it would show a "nice touch" and become less "evil" for newbies.

Let me explain. There is a huge difference in the algorithms used by Amazon and those used by Netflix. 

The reason? Netflix's business model is different. The price at which it sells its film streaming service does not cover the cost of blockbusters. Therefore Netflix has designed its algorithms in such a way that it sends its customers to view the hidden gems in the long tail. That is the way Netflix makes money.

If algorithms can do that for Netflix, surely they could do it for Amazon too. Indeed, Amazon needs to reflect on that drop in traditionally published ebook sales. It will soon reach the point where revenues from those sales will also drop (if it hasn't already). 

Amazon could make a lot more money from indies if it did like Netflix and sent its customers down the "long tail" to discover that overlooked read from a uniquely gifted writer...

Just a suggestion. But I hope someone at Amazon will read this and wake up to the possibility. There's money to be made from indies and Amazon has been way too much focused on the easy part of selling, limiting its efforts to traditional publishers. Time to look after the long tail!  


Soft Power: What it Really Means

Source: click here
Soft power is a very popular term. 

If you google it, you will get 106 million results in half a second. 

It is bandied about in every conceivable context and everybody thinks they know what it means. But in the international community - that political world that whirls around America and the United Nations - it has a surprisingly specific meaning. 

A meaning first given to it by a Harvard professor, Joseph S. Nye in an article and then in a book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power  published in 1992. 

Professor Nye's political theories have had a formidable impact on American thinking - we have to remember that among his many positions at the university he was the Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and now that he has retired, he still holds the position of University Distinguished Service Professor. He was  active in  government when it was in the hands of the Democrats and served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton AdministrationHe is the chairman of the North American branch of the Trilateral Commission[12] and the co-chair of the Aspen Strategy Group.  

This is someone whose ideas travel far and wide.

As reported on Wikipedia, he "pioneered the theory of soft power. His notion of 'smart power' became popular with the use of this phrase by members of the Clinton Administration, and more recently the Obama Administration." 

In fact, he expanded on the notion of soft power - as opposed to the "hard power" of raw military might - in several books, in particular, in The Paradox of American Power (2002), Soft Power (2004) and The Future of Power (2011) - the latter explores "the enduring nature of power in the cyber age". According to Madeleine K. Albright, "If your goal is to understand world affairs in the twenty-first century, there could be no better guide than The Future of Power."

So if Professor Nye has written a book about soft power with that very title on the cover, we have the final word on it, right?


A top reviewer on Amazon, Robert David Steele Vivas made this scathing criticism regarding  this particular book (quote is edited to include only the main points - highlights added):

First, this book does not focus at all on the most important soft power of all, that of a strategic culture. Others have documented how North Vietnam whipped the United States, not with firepower, but with political will deeply rooted in a strategic culture that was superior to that of the United States of America.
Second, despite the author's earlier service as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the book gives cursory attention to intelligence reform, and does not mention, at all, open source intelligence (disclosure: my pet rock). [...]
Third, the book lacks substance in the sense of effective examples. A simple illustration: $100M can buy a Navy ship of war or an Army brigade with tanks and artillery (two forms of hard power) or it can buy 1,000 diplomats or 10,000 Peace Corps volunteers or a water desalination plant capable of distilling 100M cubic meters of fresh water a year (three forms of soft power), or it can buy one day of war over water (the typical failure cost of hard power).
The book has exactly one paragraph on corporate misbehavior, which as William Greider has documented in "The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy", is the most evil and destructive form of "soft power." This is a severe oversight.
The book neglects foreign aid in a strategic context, and shows no appreciation for open spectrum, open source software, and open source intelligence, the triad of the new global open society. There is no hint of how a Digital Marshall Plan might be the most powerful "soft power" device every conceived.
The book neglects non-governmental organizations, with no mention of the organizations that are giving soft power a whole new dimension today (the European Centre for Conflict Prevention or ECCP, for example) and the book makes no mention of the "good" side of religious activism, the soft power so ably articulated by Dr. Douglas Johnston in his two seminal works on faith-based diplomacy and religion as the missing dimension in statecraft [...]
Joe Nye has my vote as the new voice of reason within the Democratic circles, but he needs to be balanced by the Jonathan Schell, William Greider, Herman Daly, Paul Ray, and other European and Asian scholars. The world has gotten too complicated to be addressed by Op-Eds out of Harvard. 

Here I'd like to pursue further two of the above points:

(1) the soft power of religious activism

 In the academic world, this is exemplified by the work of Douglas M. Johnston, a Harvard Ph D. in Political Science and President/Founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. He is the author of several books, including  Religion, Terror, and Error that won in 2011 the “Book of the Year Award” by Foreword Reviews, the rating agency for universities and independent publishers.

In the world at large, the iconic image of soft power is Pope Francis, with his "message of peace and forgiveness". He is an unrivaled master of "spiritual engagement", nobody comes close to the moral force of his voice.

He is the real successor of Pope John Paul II.

Here we have two extraordinary Popes who were able to change the course of History.

Everyone agrees that the collapse of the Soviet Union was accelerated by Pope John Paul II's actions; it is still early days for Pope Francis but he has already played a role in the Cuba-America rapprochement - perhaps not as a mediator (he denies it) but in providing a favorable setting.

The American press has taken note in anticipation of his trip to the US, as you can see in this notable piece by Jim Yardley in the New York Times: "A Humble Pope Challenging the World".
Pope Francis (Source: click here)

Popes operate without a single division, without ever firing any weapon and without any threat of military power.

"Hard power" is not part of the Vatican arsenal.

Unlike the Permanent Five at the UN Security Council (US, Russia, China, UK and France).

When the Permanent Five exercise their "soft power" at the UN, what is meant is their veto power. Outside of the UN, their power is never soft: it is rooted in their nuclear arsenal.

 (2) the soft power of strategic culture 

Mr David Steele Vivas mentions Vietnam and he is right about that. But I would add to the argument. I would mention ecological economics  and the vision of a world where growth cannot be based on a capitalistic model of perpetual growth and exploitation of natural resources.

Our future economy must necessarily be limited to the carrying capacity of the planet if we, humans, are to survive at all.

And this brings us straight to the theory of a "steady state economy" of which Herman Daly, co-founder and associate editor of the journal, Ecological Economics is a major proponent.

In fact, ecological economics has become a discipline in its own right. It tries to answer such questions as Can China achieve its carbon intensity target by 2020 while sustaining economic growth? 

But attacks on the once-dominant economic paradigm, the neo-liberal market-based approach generally referred to as the "Washington Consensus" don't stop there.

New ideas keep bubbling up and the Internet acts as an accelerator of ideology shifts.

Jacques Attali
For example, if you go outside America, you find economists like Jacques Attali, author of numerous best-sellers - his latest is "Peut-on prévoir l'Avenir?" (in French only for now, published by Fayard - title translates roughly as: Can One Foretell the Future). He has founded a new economic discipline based on including future generations, the "économie positive". Proponents of this economic school will meet in the Havre next week to debate new approaches to solve the world problems, none of them based on neoliberalism.

It is interesting to observe how new ideas that shake our culture end up at the United Nations. 

In previous posts, I have mentioned Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, adviser to the UN Secretary General He is by far the clearest proponent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Following on his hugely successful, The End of Poverty, Economic Possibilities for our Time published in 2006, his latest book, The Age of Sustainable Development, is a must read for anyone interested in taking the pulse of our culture.

But Professor Sachs is only the latest of a long line of major intellectual figures that have influenced the way of thinking at the United Nations.

Twenty five years ago, it was already happening. For example, you have fascinating figures like Marylin Waring, a New Zealand activist for female human rights and environmental issues, a development consultant and United Nations expert. 

In 1988, with her forceful book If Women Counted, she managed to convinced the United Nations to review its definition of Gross National Product. She powerfully argued that national accounts never included the economic contribution of women, their housework, their caring of the sick, of the young and old.

Her arguments inspired a revision of national accounting methods in dozens of countries and she is considered a principal founder of the discipline of feminist economics.

In fact, all this brings me to my point: so far, all discussions of soft power that have stemmed from Professor Nye's work have focused on America's role in world politics.

This is due to the restrictive definition of soft power proposed by Professor Nye, and I quote from the prologue in his Soft Power book:

"It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies."
Clearly the focus here is at the national level. And if case you missed that he's talking about America, his next sentences make it crystal clear: "When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced. America has a long had a great deal of soft power. Think of the impact of Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in Europe at the end of World War II..."

But the term deserves a broader, non-American application. I would propose:

Soft power is the use of logical reasoning and/or moral values in place of the hard power of military might.  

Soft power is very much in evidence at the United Nations where it is not only wielded by the Permanent Fives at the Security Council. As I plan to show in my upcoming book about the United Nations, it is wielded by all stakeholders in the UN
(1) all delegates, not just the Permanent Five, also for example the Group of 77
(2) civil society, from NGOs, including "human rights watchdogs" like Amnesty International, to representatives of indigenous populations; 
(3) UN professional staff and UN experts - a somewhat nebulous but very large group that covers the core UN staff (some 45,000 persons) as well as the constellation of international consultants working with them, some of whom, like Professor Jeffrey Sachs have both a high profile and clear attachment to UN goals. 

Since this is after all a human organization, it is obvious that the UN contains a varying range of individuals, from those wholly dedicated to UN values to those dropped in high managerial positions as a result of political pressure (notably the Secretary General himself whose appointment is dependent on the full support from the Permanent Fives). Nevertheless, as I hope to show in my book, the UN staff, as it is tasked with monitoring UN decisions and bringing problems to the UN's attention, tends to do exactly that. 

It's part of the job.

The results are there for all to see: for example, the climate change issue was first brought to the UN's attention in the late 1980's. That led to the 1992 Sustainable Development Rio Conference and many more conferences that followed on the same subject. 

And now, in 2015, some 25 years later (!), we again have the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change on the agenda. 

First in New York in September at the UN General Assembly with the adoption of the new set of SDGs and later in Paris, at COP21 in December.

2015 is turning into a Soft Power Year at the UN...