Monthly Archives: January 2013

Quality: Cover Design

Novels in a Polish bookstore

 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, for the indie writer who doesn’t sell his books in bookstores, cover design is a lot less important than some will suggest. What I mean is that a really superior cover design will not help much to sell books online. On the other hand, a poor and obviously amateur cover design may well suppress them. So cover design isn’t unimportant, it’s just not as important as we are sometimes told, in my opinion.

 

Here’s why I believe that. Let’s consider first of all why a great cover is really important when you’re selling books in print in physical bookstores. Surely most people reading this have had the experience of browsing in a bookstore. Maybe you go into the store initially looking for a particular book, but then again, I’ve walked into a bookstore just looking for something to read and intending to walk out again with a book, but not knowing what precisely. I go into a few sections that have books I’m interested in (fantasy and science fiction, naturally, and also history and science and spirituality). I run my eyes over the shelves. As I do so, in order for me to consider a book, my eyes have to be drawn to something. Maybe it’s an author I’ve read before but a book I haven’t read. Maybe it’s a really catchy title. Or maybe it’s a truly awesome cover, something that grabs notice from all the way across the room. That certainly won’t sell the book, but it may get me to pick it up and take a closer look, giving the book a chance to sell itself.

 

This process has been understood for a long time, and that’s why it’s conventional wisdom that a great cover design is a must. But if you’re buying something online, the process is very different. (It’s also visually different, and what works as a bookstore cover won’t necessarily work well as a cover for an e-book or POD, or vice-versa. I’ll get to that in a bit.) You’re a lot less likely to browse the virtual shelves the way you would the physical shelves in a real bookstore. Instead, you’ll go to Amazon or wherever you want to buy your books, and you’ll do a search for a particular book or author that’s been recommended to you. Maybe you saw it reviewed by someone you trust who raved about it. Maybe a friend gave you the author or title and told you to check it out. Maybe the friend even sent you a link by email. Maybe you were surfing social media and an author presented something about his book that caught your attention and you clicked on his link. However it came to your attention, you start interested in what you’re looking for before you even arrive at the website. The cover doesn’t have to attract your attention. The book’s already got that. About the only time that the browse-the-shelves experience is ever simulated online is when you’re looking at the book you’re interested in, and you happen to glance below where you see “Those who bought this book also bought” and a list of clickable book covers. That’s such a small portion of the online book-buying experience, compared to shelf-browsing in a bookstore, that it’s not worth investing a huge amount of effort to make your cover absolutely wonderful and eye-catching — effort that you could instead be putting into editing your book or working on your next one.

 

On the other hand, if you go to the link and you see a cover that’s just plain awful and amateurish, that might give you a poor first impression and drive you away, or help drive you away. In fact, common sense says it would have to. You might not even consciously realize it; you might tell yourself not to judge a book by its cover, and look at the description and the sample pages, but having gotten that poor first impression from the cover, you are more disposed to dislike the writing itself. A nice, professional-looking cover will have the opposite effect.

 

What does all this mean? What I think it means is that cover design isn’t unimportant — at least it’s important to achieve a certain minimum of quality and professionalism — but its importance is often overstated.

 

So how do you achieve that minimum of quality and professionalism? What goes into a book cover?

First off, let’s deal with that difference between a good cover for online display and one for a bookstore. In a bookstore, you can pick the book up, read the blurbs on the back, check out the small print on the front, and pay close attention to a lot of tiny details. Online, you’re not so likely to do that. So a bookstore cover can (and should) have a lot more detail and small-print information than an online cover. The online cover needs to look nice in a small thumbnail and a medium-size image that’s a lot smaller to the eye than a book in your hand. All of its visual elements need to be big enough to discern in that format. Its text needs to be large-font so as to be readable in that format, too, which means the amount of information you can include is strictly limited. As a general rule, you can fit the title, a subtitle, and the by line — and that’s it. Any blurbs, quotes, etc. have to be left off the online cover, maybe included inside to come up on the first page after the legal stuff.

So the first step is to decide how you want to market your book. You should definitely market it online; if you want to market it in bookstores, too, then I recommend having two cover designs, one for each venue. (And of course the bookstore cover will be print-only; online you will need an e-book cover for sure, and a print cover suitable for online if you’re also marketing your book in a POD version.)

There are two elements to a good cover, and hence two talents or skills that you need to either acquire or hire. These are the original art itself, and the overall graphic design. The art (which can be either a drawing/painting or a photograph) is incorporated into the graphic design along with other elements, mostly text.

Art is a talent, and to a degree so is photography. The first question to ask yourself, then, is whether you have the talent (and the skill) to produce original art. If you do, that’s fantastic. If not, you’ll need to acquire the rights to art by someone else, and this will certainly cost at least a little money. The ideal way would be to commission a work of art specifically for your book cover. That’s quite expensive, though. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to commission a decent work of original art for less than $1,000. If you regularly sell enough books to justify that cost, go for it. If not, an ideal book cover won’t make the difference for you, so my advice is not to. You can acquire the rights to stock art for about $75. If you’re careful about choosing it, this can result in a very nice cover.

The other part, graphic design, is much less expensive. You can hire a professional e-book cover or POD cover for between $250 – $500 as long as you supply the art for it yourself using either your own artistic creations (yay, you!) or stock art. If you’re really strapped, it’s not all that difficult to acquire enough skill at graphic design to make your own. (Yes, I’m serious. You’ll be told that this is impossible, that your covers will be crap. This advice arises from professional graphic designers, however, who want your money. Consider the source.) The truth is, designing a decent e-book cover, although it does require some skill and a little aesthetic sense, is not high-end super-difficult graphic design. It’s not that hard.

Well — let’s clarify that. It’s not high-end super-challenging graphic design, but neither is it falling-off-a-log easy. You will, if you want to do it yourself and aren’t already a graphic designer, have to put some time and effort into learning how. That means acquiring a good graphics design program and learning how to use it to create a book cover. The best program for the purpose is almost certainly Adobe Photoshop, so if you have that or can afford it, use it. Among free software, the best is GIMP. That will do almost but not quite all that Photoshop will do, and for purposes of creating book covers it’s just as powerful. It’s a little harder to learn and use than Photoshop, but luckily there are good tutorials out there in video form that will show you how to make book covers with it. (Or with Photoshop.) As that’s all we’re talking about here, peruse several of those and get some practice in, and you’re good to go.

If you have to or just want to do this yourself, I advise getting quite a bit of practice in first using some simple techniques. Make covers and compare them to efforts you know are professional, such as those from the major publishing houses. (See, those guys are still good for something.) Make a dozen or so that you’re happy with, and you should be good enough to make a cover for your own book.

As I said initially, this is not as crucial as some will tell you, in my opinion. It’s not nearly as important for the quality of your book as editing. But it’s not totally unimportant, either, and it does pay to invest a good bit of time learning how to do it, or else the money to hire it done.

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Book Promotion Time!

Green Stone Tower

Time once more to offer a free copy of a book for a limited time.

The Green Stone Tower, book 1 of A Tale of Two Worlds, will be available free at Smashwords from now through February 28, 2013. To get your free copy, use this coupon code:

BE57T

You can order your free copy here: The Green Stone Tower. It’s available in any e-book format (for the Kindle, Nook, Sony reader, any app on your phone, whatever).

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Quality: Editing

Quality 1

This post was sparked by a heated discussion on social media regarding the necessity of professional services for independent writers (editing, formatting, and cover design). I do not believe in that necessity — a statement that requires, however, a huge caveat. I do believe in the necessity of professional quality in these things, particularly editing. But it isn’t (absolutely) necessary to pay for them in order to have that quality.

Nor is it altogether a good idea, at least when a writer is starting out his or her career, for two reasons. To begin with, the first X number of books published by any writer (the value of X varies but is almost never zero) will not sell well no matter how perfectly they are edited and packaged. The writer is unknown. He must connect with his potential audience. Also, he must develop his abilities as a writer and there is only one way to do that: write. Your first novel, almost surely, won’t sell well because it won’t deserve to. It won’t be a good enough story and you won’t be good enough at storytelling to make it stand out from the crowd of other self-published books. You can expect to sell a few copies, but not very many. For that reason, professional services to make it as good as it can be amount to very expensive lipstick on a pig. It is unlikely in the extreme that the book will sell enough to cover the cost.

The other reason is even more important. These three skills — cover design, formatting, and especially editing — are ones that you really should have in your toolbox. As with writing, there’s no way to learn them other than by doing them, and if you’re always paying for someone else to do them you won’t learn them. The practical reality is that you can do almost all of them yourself if you develop the skills to do so. There is one extremely important exception and it’s a part of editing. But even with editing, you can do two-thirds of the tasks (which constitute nine-tenths of the work) yourself, and get help from someone else (or, better, at least two someones else) with that all-important third task.

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on these services, or just plain don’t have it to spend, then there are three rules to doing without the pros.

1) Learn the skills.

2) Do it.

3) Get good beta readers.

In other words, quality requires either money or time, and if you don’t have the money you must invest the time. Far too many indie writers don’t. So let’s deal with those three things that you need to be able to do (besides writing) to make your book the best it can be. I’ll start in this post with editing, which is far and away the most important of the three.

Editing involves not one task but three, and only two of those can you do yourself without help. This is why we’re often told that “you can’t edit your own work.” There’s truth in that. You can’t do all of your own editing. But you can do two-thirds of it.

The three tasks of editing are proofreading, copy editing (also called style editing), and content editing. The last of those is the one you’re going to need someone else for. Luckily, it’s also the most enjoyable of the three and the least tedious, so getting help isn’t that hard, where if you want someone to proofread your work you’re almost certainly going to have to pay for it.

Proofreading. This task involves going through the book to find and correct misspellings, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and so on. Yes, your word processing software comes with spelling and grammar checkers, and these can help, but they are not a substitute for proofreading by a human being. They just make the job a little easier. Spell checkers won’t correct a word that’s spelled correctly but is the wrong word. For example, if you were to write, “The burden was more than he could bare,” neither the spell checker nor the grammar checker would say boo. “Bare” is a real word, it’s correctly spelled, and it’s a verb where a verb is called for, but it’s still wrong. (Actually I just experimented and found that my Word grammar checker does catch this one, which is pretty amazing. But don’t count on that. I’ve seen it do some very stupid things.)

You must know how to spell, and you must know correct English grammar. (Just to make things more complicated, you must know the correct spellings for the type of English you are writing — American English has many words that are spelled differently than the same word in the UK, Australia, or Canada, thanks to the fact that English didn’t even have standard spellings until right around the time America became independent, and then the country developed its own standard spellings in parallel to the ones set down in England.) (I really pity people learning this tongue as a foreign language.) You must also know the correct spellings of any made-up words or names that you use in your writing — you’re an absolute authority on how they are spelled in that case, but you must be consistent. You must go through your book repeatedly. One pass is not enough. (You can do proofreading at the same time as copy editing and plain old reading to revise, though, so it’s not quite as awful as  it sounds.) Make no mistake: this is work. It’s not as much fun as writing that first draft, but it’s a labor that must be done. Spelling and grammatical errors in a book are distracting; they pull the reader out of immersion in the story and they annoy. Two or three of them in a full-length novel don’t meet my standards, but if you’re not as much a perfectionist as that, they’re probably allowable; most trade-published books have a few errors. But two or three on a page is absolutely not acceptable. And you will not catch them all the first time you proofread the book. I don’t care how good you are.

How many times must you go through it looking for errors? Until you don’t find any, and then once more. When you have gone through the book twice and found no errors, it may not be error free, but it’s surely close enough that the reader will forgive you for the few that remain, and professional publishers won’t do any better.

Copy editing. This task is somewhat similar to proofreading, but instead of looking for spelling and grammar errors, you’re looking for clumsy style or language that could be shortened, tightened, made stronger. I look for sentences that are too long (my great stylistic failing), and also for repeated words. Except for articles, conjunctions, and prepositions, I don’t like to use the same word twice in the same half a page. I like to read through it aloud, and if I hear a word used too often I change it so that no longer happens.

Go through with a merciless pair of scissors. Cut out anything that doesn’t need to be there to say what you want to say. Be particularly ruthless with adverbs. There’s a somewhat exaggerated rule in writing style that you should never use adverbs; that’s not true, but it is true that novice writers use far too many of them. Many times a sentence can be strengthened if you just cut out superfluous words. Occasionally, the opposite is true and something needs to be added.

The rules of style aren’t as hard and fast as those of spelling and grammar, but they do exist. I suggest picking up a copy of a good literary style guide, such as the classic Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and reading through it, focusing on the type of writing you want to do. These are rules that can be bent. But before you can bend them appropriately, you need to understand them. Also, the more reading you do of the same type of book you are writing, the more you will have a feel for what makes good writing style.

How many times should you go through and revise a book for style? The same rule applies as for proofreading, with one extra proviso. Do it until you don’t find anything that needs changing. Then put the book aside for a couple of weeks minimum. Then do it again. When you have gone through it twice (with some time off in between) and not found anything to change, then it’s ready.

Some people argue that a writer shouldn’t do his own copy editing. I don’t agree, unless you are unfamiliar with what makes for good writing style, and in that case you should still do your own because that’s how you’re going to learn. (Although it won’t hurt to have someone give you a second opinion.) It’s the third task, content editing, that requires someone else.

Content editing. This last task that’s bound up in the overall concept of “editing” is looking at the flow of the story, the characterization, the pacing. It involves looking for plot holes, inconsistencies, places where developments aren’t clear, actions on the part of a character that don’t seem right, events that seem out of order.

You can’t do your own content editing — and yet you have to. Say rather, you can’t do the content editing by yourself. Sure, go through it and look for things like this, and you’ll find some of them and fix them and also see ways to make the story better and more compelling. But guaranteed you’ll miss things. You’re too close to the story. You know exactly what you’re trying to say, and so you’re not the best judge of whether you’ve succeeded in saying it.

This is the biggest service a professional editor will do for you. It’s the only thing that a pro will do for you that you can’t do just as well for yourself if you work at it. But while someone else looking at your work is mandatory, that someone does not have to be a professional editor. An experienced writer can be just as good. The skill sets are very close to identical when it comes to content editing. A common approach is to do a trade, paying for someone else helping you with content editing by doing the same for her. Content editing, especially if the proofing and style editing have been largely done already, is actually fun. It doesn’t take a lot of persuasion to get people to do it for you. It gives them a free book to read, after all! And they get to tell you where you’ve screwed the pooch, and get thanked for it!

Whatever arrangement you make with your content editor(s) (I would recommend having at least two), pay attention to their recommendations. Even if you decide in the end that a suggestion isn’t appropriate, you will have gained much by considering it, especially if it had never occurred to you before.

As with the other editing tasks, content editing should be done until there’s nothing more to change — and then once more after waiting at least couple of weeks.

Work at it!

Does this sound like a lot of work? If so, then I’ve communicated the main thing I want to. Quality doesn’t come without work, either your own or that of someone else you hire to do it for you. Right now, the indie book scene — a large portion of it, anyway — is a sad travesty. There are far too many books out there that haven’t been edited properly, which gives people who want your money an excuse to say that you have to pay them or your book will suck. They’re wrong about that. But it will suck if you don’t put the necessary work into it, whether that work comes from your brain or from your wallet.

Image credit: justdd / 123RF Stock Photo

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Book Review: City of Masks by Mike Reeves

City of Masks

Mike Reeves called City of Masks a “magicless fantasy.” I wondered what that could be until I read the book. Having done so, I can say that it isn’t a fantasy (there are no fantasy elements in the story), but it is a wonderful, tightly-crafted tale with richly-developed characters and an intricate plot in a highly imaginative setting. I believe the reason Reeves calls it a fantasy is because it takes place in an alternate world, but of course that isn’t a defining characteristic of fantasy; many fantasies don’t take place in alternate worlds, but all fantasies include fantastic elements, which City of Masks does not. But enough on categories and genres.

The alternate world of this story is a city, Bonvidaeo, where everyone wears a mask at all times. Not only does everyone wear a mask but everyone is supposed to behave in a manner appropriate to the mask being worn, and there are restriction on who can wear what masks when. In fact, the city has adopted (and enforced) a religious doctrine called “characterism” which asserts that the person wearing the mask is the mask and must be treated accordingly. Opposing this is an underground which preaches the heretical doctrine of “personalism,” the idea that the mask and the person are two separate entities.

The story centers around this religious dispute and a series of grisly murders that touches upon it.

The book is told in first-person via the memoirs and journals of several characters. Most of it is from the point of view of a foreign envoy who is there to represent his nation and the immigrants from it into the city of Bonvidaeo, one of whom is the first known victim of the killer. In the course of tracking down the murderer, a twisted political plot is uncovered, love is found, surprises arise behind the masks, there is swordplay, an assassination plot, a beautiful and devious and powerful woman, and, of course, quite a bit of disguise and impersonation. This sort of first-person writing is hard to bring off successfully but Reeves does succeed in giving each perspective its own voice. I am going to give this book five stars for superior characterization, plot, and writing style, all three, although none of them stood out enough to justify five stars by itself.

City of Masks isn’t a fantasy and therefore not something I would normally review, but it is certainly not lacking in imagination and Bonvidaeo is well worth exploring. The pace may be a little slow for readers accustomed to books packed with action, but there is plenty of action in this story.

You can find City of Masks at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble.

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The Problem of Evil

Evil

In the classic meaning of the phrase, the “problem of evil” applies only to monotheistic theology (try saying that three times fast). The problem is, how can God be omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, all three, when evil exists? Theologians tie themselves in knots of sophistry over that one. It’s simply enough resolved if one abandons the premise, however, and acknowledges that indeed there can be no omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God, given that evil does exist. Either God has insufficient knowledge to prevent evil, or He has insufficient power, or He chooses that evil exist. Incidentally, there’s one monotheistic (more or less) religion that draws precisely this conclusion and has decided that God is not omnipotent; in Zoroastrian teaching, the God of Good, Ahura Mazda, must contend with an equally-powerful God of Evil, Ahriman. Evil exists because God is unable to prevent it.

However, having dispensed with that particular manifestation, there are other dilemmas that might be called “the problem of evil” that are more universal. What is evil, exactly? What is it in the context of spirituality, or in the context of fantasy?

Start with the fact that evil is not an objective characteristic of anything. If we limit ourselves to falsifiable statements, we can call nothing evil (or good). The Holocaust was, objectively, an act of mass murder by a national government conducted in secret with great efficiency; all of that may be demonstrated. But that this act was evil is a subjective judgment — one that most people would probably agree with, but subjective nonetheless.

The statement, “this action is evil,” is a distortion of the truth caused by a fuzziness in English grammar. The verb “to be” is properly used in a statement of fact about something. It describes a property of the thing described. Thus, in describing an evil act such as the Holocaust, we may properly say, “the Holocaust was an act of mass murder,” or “the Holocaust was a government policy of Nazi Germany,” or “the Holocaust was a secret program of extermination during World War II in which some eleven million people were killed, mostly Jews, homosexuals, and Gypsies.” All of these are characteristics of the Holocaust and so the construction “the Holocaust was” is logically correct as well as grammatically correct.

But if we say, “the Holocaust was evil,” we imply a characteristic called “evil” which may be observed about the Holocaust, and in reality there is no such characteristic. We can point to the Holocaust’s murderousness, its officialness, its secrecy, its organization, or its death toll, but we cannot point to its evil. The phrase is grammatically correct, but logically incorrect. The evil of the Holocaust is added to it by our judgment that it is evil, and so the phrase should properly read, not “the Holocaust is evil,” but “I judge the Holocaust as evil.” This is not a statement of fact but an assertion of will. It’s almost equivalent in meaning to “I don’t like mass murder,” but also incorporates the idea of “you shouldn’t like mass murder either,” and that of “you shouldn’t commit mass murder,” which isn’t so with all “I don’t like” phrases.

Now, some might argue that this trivializes good and evil by removing them from the sphere of divine judgment and assigning them purely to human judgment, especially since human beings can honestly disagree. But human beings can honestly disagree about good and evil whether or not they attribute this judgment to the divine. They can (and do) disagree about which scriptures or religious teachings are true, or about their interpretation, and that amounts to the same thing. Practically speaking, it makes no difference. The compelling quality of a judgment that something is good or evil always came from our own hearts, not from its attribution to an authority greater than ourselves. That attribution may at times have persuaded people to agree with a common judgment, and so helped to enforce moral behavior, but it is nonetheless a falsehood.

In fact, outside of a human context, the terms “good” and “evil” lose all their meaning. Good can be what benefits us or what we would like to see people do or what meets a certain standard of values, but always in the context of human decision-making and human behavior. If a human being shoots up a school or a movie theater and kills, say, twenty people, we may reasonably judge that action as evil. But if an earthquake kills thousands of people, it makes no sense to call the earthquake evil, and few would do so.

The book of Job from the Bible actually touches on this, when God appears in the whirlwind and asserts in poetic language that moral judgments are meaningless applied to God. God (or the gods or the cosmos) is not morally good. God is not evil. God is beyond good and evil and at that level of reality such judgments have no meaning.

If we recognize that good and evil are human judgments, then we can also accept that they are judgments that can be changed if our circumstances change or if we achieve new enlightenment. Thus we now judge slavery, spousal rape, and bigotry to be evil, all of which were once considered acceptable. In addition, we remove a barrier to spiritual experience, since expecting God/the gods/the cosmos to be the source of moral judgments is inserting a delusional veil before the Holy. Religious teachings that give moral judgments diving authority are like a parent telling a child: “because I said so!” This may be of some value in making children behave, but eventually one grows old enough to need a more realistic basis for judgment.

I try to make this understanding part of my storytelling as well. While I may depict religions that teach morality on a basis of divine authority (such as the Church of the Good God in The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born), I’ll never have a deity actually making that claim as if his or her word were absolute. Deities know better.

So should we.

Image credit: fotokostic / 123RF Stock Photo

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Farewell to Twenty-Twelve!

mermaid

An end-of-year review seems obligatory on New Year’s Day, and 2012 was an interesting year for me personally, for writing, publishing, and fantasy fiction, and for the spiritual development of humanity. So I’m going to review 2012 in this post from those angles. The world’s political and economic developments have been thoroughly covered elsewhere, so I’ll skip them except as they impact those subjects.

For me personally, it was a year of struggle with marketing. I suck at that. I moved from Facebook to Google+ in terms of social media, which amounted to making a fresh start, and I’ve begun encountering people there who know a lot more about how to create exposure for an author’s books than I do, not that this is saying much. So I have reason to hope that 2013 will be better in that respect. People who read my work all seem to like it, but few know it exists.

Creatively, it will be hard for 2013 to top 2012, though.  I finished and published two novels, The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born, which are the first two books in the projected Tale of Two Worlds collection. I’ve begun work on the third volume, The People of the Sea, and my goal is to have both it and the final volume, Light and Shadow, finished and available by the end of this year. I also started writing this blog and this is my 56th post over the part-year I’ve been keeping it. So far, I haven’t failed to put a post up at least once a week, usually more often.

My “day job” consists of writing freelance for various clients, and the business continues to grow slowly. That’s not where my heart is, though it pays the bills. I’ve had a delay in my long-term goal of paying a long visit to the island of Corsica, which I had once hoped to do by the end of 2012 or in early 2013; it will be a few more months minimum.

On the subject of publishing, the big news for 2012 is the growth of the e-book, the continuing shrinkage of what we must now call the Big 5 publishing companies (it was the Big 6 through most of 2012), and the continued rise of self-publishing. Self-publishing has now become the default for most writers. Another thing we’ve seen is the rise of new small publishing companies. American Publishers lists 2660 publishing companies in the United States alone. For a writer of any sense, if self-publishing is the default option, seeking a small publisher who isn’t part of the Big Declining Number is or should be the first step up from that default. One common quality of the small publishers that are springing up today is that they offer a writer help with marketing to readers. (Remember I said above I suck at marketing? This is something I should consider for the future.)

Regarding fantasy fiction, well, let’s take a look at what’s selling well in the Amazon Kindle Store in fantasy fiction as of today.

The no. 1 seller is 11/22/63 by Stephen King. I haven’t read this. I don’t know what it’s about except that obviously it’s a fantasy take on the Kennedy assassination. It’s published by Simon & Schuster, despite which it goes for the very reasonable price of $3.99. Maybe that’s because it’s from 2011 and the price has dropped (although for a Big 5 publisher to drop e-book prices that far is almost unheard of), and maybe it’s because if you’re Stephen King the publishers pay attention to what you want. Either way, it looks like a decent deal and King is always good.

Second is Cold Days by Jim Butcher, a new book in the splendid Dresden Files series. I love that series. But I absolutely refuse to pay $14.99 for an e-book, knowing that the author will receive a grand total of $2.54 out of that. Bah. Mr. Butcher, on the off chance you read this blog post, take note. You could make the same money per volume  if you self-published with Amazon and sold the book for $3.65. And then I’d buy it.

No. 3 is A Different Witch by Debora Geary, self-published, $3.99. It’s a contemporary fantasy about a witch, one of a series that looks amusing and I may have to check it out. (The Harry Dresden series by Butcher is also contemporary fantasy, about a wizard detective.) Remember that as we skip over the next few titles, which are George R.R. Martin’s things and Tolkien.

Justin Cronin’s The Twelve is also contemporary fantasy of the apocalyptic sort.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is next, and is quite difficult to categorize, but could be uncomfortably considered contemporary fantasy as well.

One has to come to the second page before encountering a book that isn’t contemporary fantasy or historical fantasy (other than the aforementioned Martin and Tolkien stuff) and that is a new volume in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth/Confessor series, ho-hum.

Past that, and we do begin to see a mix of contemporary with other-world fantasy, but the trend here is that contemporary fantasy is on the rise in the world of fantasy fiction. It isn’t effacing other-world fantasy, which is a good thing, but it is pushing its way into our consciousness. Magic is asserting its place in our lives alongside of advanced technology. We no longer consign it to a world other than this one, wistfully imagined, knowing such things don’t happen in real life.

And that brings me to the final observation about 2012. This was a year in which those who do not belong to any established religious tradition decide the course of an American presidential election. (See, politics did intrude, but in this case it’s relevant.)

According to the Pew poll on religious affiliation in the United States, the category of “unaffiliated” rose to 16.1 percent of the population. This category includes atheists and agnostics, but they make up only a small minority of the unaffiliated, most of which are religious believers of some kind, but do not consider themselves believers in any faith’s teachings in particular. I fall into that category myself. What’s more, Gallup found that Americans’ confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low of 44 percent.

The interesting thing about this in terms of the presidential election is that this demographic, although it constitutes less than twenty percent of the population, voted for Obama by a margin of more than 70 percent. That’s a bigger win than the president had with any other demographic except African-Americans. Obama lost the votes of both Protestants and Catholics, but the huge margin by which he won the unaffiliated made up for this and gave him his reelection.

Puzzling out why, I came to realize that the unaffiliated, although a majority of us are spiritual or religious, do not accept the authority of religious organizations. Among those who do accept that authority, some will be persuaded by the arguments of the religious right and some will not. Either way, their votes may be swayed by some other political factor, so that (for example) a pro-choice voter may vote Republican, or a voter opposed to gay marriage may vote Democratic, but statistically it will go the other way. But it’s safe to say that none of the unaffiliated will see the religious right positions as anything but the authoritarian stances that they oppose viscerally. With the Republicans coming out so strongly in support of cultural-right positions last year, it should come as no surprise that the unaffiliated opposed them by huge margins.

If this category of voter continues to grow, it will not mean a permanent victory for liberal and progressive politics, except in this one respect. It will mean the end of religious authoritarian right-wing politics, that bizarre aberration in the American political environment.

I also firmly believe that it is a step forward in the spiritual evolution of humanity. In an age when information about religions not one’s own is available in seconds on the Internet, the mental isolation that allowed sectarian exclusivity is a thing of the past, and the growth in the ranks of the unaffiliated is predictable. Religious authority has served as the greatest barrier to spiritual enlightenment. Break that authority, and the barrier is gone. Other barriers exist, but this is a big step forward.

With all that in mind, we bid farewell to 2012, and face the new year with cautious hope and optimism.

Image credit: volkoffa / 123RF Stock Photo

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