One of my books received a nice review from an Italian reader

Heart of Fire Time of Ice

“Bellissimo, appassionante e coinvolgente ! L’ho acquistato per fare un po’ di pratica con l’inglese ma sono stata molto coinvolta da questa storia bellissima!!”

Since I don’t speak Italian, I had to use a translation program. Here’s the result:

“Beautiful, exciting and engaging! I bought it to do some practice with English but I was very involved with this beautiful story!!”

I’m pleased that Kathleen’s story can help one practice English, but also catches the reader’s interest to this extent.

Eric

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Readers Love Series: The Top 16 Recently Released Time Travel Books

Time: A human construct?

Who doesn’t like familiar characters?

Han and Leia? Kirk and Spock? Harry Potter? Katniss Everdeen? I’ll be back!, Aliens, James Bond? That last might be a little too much, since the franchise has almost become a parody of itself.

My point is that we enjoy reading more about characters we’ve come to enjoy or even love. To reinforce this idea, here’s a little bit of research for all of you science fiction fans who are interested in time travel. I researched the top selling science fiction, time travel books with a minimum of 4 stars out of 5 that were released in the last 90 days (from 7/20/2017 – 10/20/2017).

Here’s the advanced search category on Amazon in the Kindle store that I used: English : Kindle eBooks : Science Fiction & Fantasy : Science Fiction : Time Travel : 4 Stars & Up

The top sixteen books in the last 90 days are:
1. Affliction: Green Fields/ book 7/Aug 29, 2017/by Adrienne Lecter
2. Promises To Keep: After the EMP/ (Disruption Trilogy Book 3)/Sep 8, 2017/ by R.E. McDermott
3. Forged in Blood/ (Freehold Book 8)/Sep 5, 2017/by Michael Z. Williamson
4. Angel of the Abyss: A Novel of the Great Tribulation/(The Days of Elijah Book 3)/Sep 12, 2017/by Mark Goodwin
5. Etheric Recruit: A Kurtherian Gambit Series/Sep 13, 2017/by S.R. Russell and Michael Anderle
6. Bombtrack/(Road To Babylon, Book 2)/Aug 21, 2017/by Sam Sisavath
7. Tomorrow War: Serpent Road: A Novel/(The Chronicles of Max Book 2)/Jul 25, 2017/by J. L. Bourne
8. Nomad’s Galaxy: A Kurtherian Gambit Series/(Terry Henry Walton Chronicles Book 10)/Aug 17, 2017/
by Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle
9. Empire of Glass/Jul 24, 2017/by Kaitlin Solimine
10. Nomad’s Force: A Kurtherian Gambit Series/(Terry Henry Walton Chronicles Book 9)/Jul 27, 2017/by Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle
11. Bioterror!/(an Ell Donsaii story #14)/Oct 6, 2017/by Laurence Dahners
12. Darkest Before The Dawn/(The Second Dark Ages Book 3)/Oct 6, 2017/by Michael Anderle and Ell Leigh Clarke
13. Into the Fire Part I: Requiem of Souls/(Universe in Flames Book 9)/Oct 15, 2017/by Christian Kallias
14. Wisdom of the Chosen: Spirit of Empire/Book Five/Jul 25, 2017/by Lawrence White
15. ARISEN/Book Thirteen – The Siege/Oct 11, 2017/by Michael Stephen Fuchs
16. Viral Misery: /Book One/Oct 4, 2017/by Thomas A Watson and Nicholas A Watson

(Brief note: Although I’ve read some of his books, I’m not related to Craig Martelle. He does do good science fiction adventures, though.)

You’ll notice that 14 out of the 16 are books that are part of series. The sixteenth book is book one of a promised series. The only stand alone book is placed in number 9: Empire of Glass by Katlin Solimine.

This seems to support my point that once readers have invested time in reading a book they enjoy, they are more likely to read additional books that have the same characters. Once we like an author and a character, we want to find out what happens to them next.

To my discredit, my marketing is not up to the high level of competition that ebooks must face. I somehow thought that all you needed to do was to write a good story. It turns out that marketing is (probably/unfortunately?) even more important than a good story.

My two highest rated books in the same category (time travel — except for publication date) are:

#260 Heart of Fire Time of Ice/February 16, 2016/by E. S. Martell/4 out of 5 stars
#1015 All the Moments in Forever/April 26, 2017/by E. S. Martell (the sequel to Heart of Fire Time of Ice)/5 out of 5 stars

To give some credence to my original point, here are two quotes from the reviews on All the Moments in Forever:

  • “5.0 out of 5 stars/I would recommend reading the first one to see the complete arc Kathleen takes. This book is action-packed and fancy-free. You’ll love reading about this scientist turned demi-god of space and time.”
  • “5.0 out of 5 stars/loved it, loved it. Been waiting a long time for this book. I hope there’s a third. What a wonderful story.”

It seems like my readers also enjoy following familiar characters. My conclusion is that writing series is a viable marketing strategy.

What do you think? Would you rather read a series or a stand-alone book? What if the stand-alone book was really good and the series was maybe a little less well written?

Eric

The Future is Here (only you don’t know it yet.)

EEG Subject

There have been movies and books that depict a future where nothing can be hidden; where the authorities know everything about everyone. The 2002 movie Minority Report, based (as was BladeRunner) on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, featured a bureau of Precrime which allowed the police to arrest people prior to their actually committing a crime. The plot is complex and leaves the viewer with questions about the existence of free-will and a healthy fear of a government that can see everything.

At this point, you’re wondering if I’m going to be writing about the increasing surveillance in many countries. The answer is yes, but there are some things that you may not know.

The government of the United States is working hard at imposing a de-facto universal id based on federal requirements for state issued drivers licenses. Americans from non-complying states will not be able to board airplanes for even domestic flights without a federal passport within a few months. Their drivers licenses will be considered inadequate id for travel.

There is a huge and rapidly growing database of pictures of people’s faces that is instantly available to the authorities in many countries. This database will ultimately allow quick identification (and location) of anyone. We unwittingly contribute to the data by posting our pictures online and by exposing our faces to surveillance cameras (both stationary and drone-based) when we go out. Meanwhile data storage has increased to the point where storing and retrieving images of everyone in the world is possible.

While bio-metric markers such as fingerprints are not considered personal property in the US — the police can force you to unlock your smartphone with your fingerprint — other data, such as blood tests, require a judicial warrant. Such warrants are trivially easy to get.

As if all of this isn’t enough, research begun in 2010 allows brain wave reading via electroencephalography (EEG) to be effectively used to determine if a person knows a particular piece of information. The EEG pinpoints an involuntary brain spike called the P300 response. The spike occurs a few milliseconds after a person is shown a familiar image.

How might this work? Let’s imagine that a suspected kidnapper is shown images of various children. The child that creates the largest P300 spike might be the kidnap victim. This would lead the investigators to assume that the individual was involved in the crime.

The technology could help prevent crimes also. For example, if a bomb plot was uncovered and one of the plotters captured, the authorities could show the prisoner pictures of various public venues. The one that created the largest P300 response is likely to be the target.

This sounds like a great idea. We can prevent attacks with weapons of mass destruction with this technology. But, what about misuse of the technology?

What if an authoritarian police state wants to arrest everyone who holds a specific belief system? There might be an image that is common to the belief system that could be used to screen the population. All those who respond with a large P300 could then be arrested, interrogated, and disposed of in some way.

This possibility is not so far fetched, especially when one blends in Artificial Intelligence as an automatic screening system. As a science fiction author, I spend a lot of time thinking about future possibilities and, if I can imagine a society where everyone wears a portable EEG device and is subject to constant electronic interrogation of their thoughts (a great plot idea), it probably has already occurred to scientists and authorities somewhere.

To conclude, let me ask some critical questions:

  • Will society benefit if everyone is forced to monitor their thoughts and dare not think anything out of the ordinary?
  • Will innovation be stifled by this?
  • Will we become less than human if good behavior (as defined by those in power) is forced on everyone?
  • Would such a society cease to develop and become stultified?
  • Will we then redefine undesirable thoughts to include smaller and smaller deviations from the norm? Will the concept of moral and ethical guidance of behavior degenerate, since it is no longer defined by society and individuals, but by those in power?
  • What do you think?

    If you like my blog posts, please give my books a chance. Thanks!!

The Artificial Intelligence Problem

“AI is obviously going to surpass human intelligence by a lot.” Elon Musk

To many people, this might seem like a fictional plot for a made-for-TV sci-fi movie. What we tend to overlook is that Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) is commonplace today. When your car warns you that you’ve left your lane or applies anti-skid braking, it’s due to the car’s computer using a limited form of AI. We’re seeing more and more people use voice-activated units in their home for home control, ordering online, and entertainment. This is a form of AI. Facial recognition systems are also a form of ANI.

At the moment, numerous companies are racing to create Artificial General Intelligence or AGI. AGI will be able to perform at roughly human level. New techniques such as deep learning are stimulating rapid advances in this effort. The interesting thing about deep learning is that the human programmers often cannot explain how it works or why the computer system is able to learn and sometimes outperform expert humans in specific tasks.

If you’re asking yourself, “Why should I care?” right now, I’m about to give you some reasons.

It’s obvious that the first company to create an AGI system will benefit financially, possibly to an extreme extent. The motivation is high and the competition is intense. For this reason, some companies may be tempted to cut corners.

Let’s assume a situation where company X creates a system which not only displays human level intelligence, but is able to utilize deep learning to quickly comprehend things that humans find difficult. Let’s also assume that the system learns how to modify its internal programming. This could allow it to quickly surpass human intelligence. It might reach an IQ level of 10,000 in a few hours. It would be an ASI or Artificial Super Intelligence.

There is a concept of keeping an experimental AI boxed up, not allowing it access to the outside world in case it should make such a breakthrough. If company X has failed to keep the AI properly boxed, it could quickly create havoc.

Imagine an entity with an IQ of 10,000+ that has access to the Internet. It could, if so motivated, control the entire financial world within hours. If it had been given a prime directive of (just for example) calculating pi to as many digits as possible, it could easily conclude that it could use more computing power to better execute its computations. In that case, it might use its financial dominance to hire companies to create more computers or, perhaps, robots to create more computers.

In this scenario, it could eventually use all manufacturing resources to create computing machines. It might cover farmland with computers or power generating stations. Humans might not matter to it at all, since all it really wants to do is to calculate pi to the maximum accuracy. It could even decide that the molecules in human bodies could be converted into computing devices.

The end result would be no humans left alive, just a gigantic machine happily calculating the next digit of pi.

So, how do we, as responsible humans, ensure that an ASI doesn’t get rid of us? How can we ensure that it is domestic–that is values humans and helps us?

Musk believes that we need to become part of the system and interface with AIs using some form of brain interface. If we are part of the system, perhaps it will be more amenable to helping us.

My personal opinion is that we should seek a way to show an ASI that intelligent biological life is valuable.

Physicists tell us that if the basic constants of our Universe were even slightly different, life would not exist. This seems to indicate that the gathering together of energy that distinguish living beings may be something special. The immutable mandates of the Universe’s structure force life to obey certain structural rules, one of which is a limited form of reverse entropy. In short, we self-assemble, creating order where there was none before. Never mind that our personal order doesn’t last long and we eventually perish.

The question I’m pointing toward is: Can we make a connection between the Universe’s structure and the value of human life? If we can do that, perhaps an ASI would also value us as an example of a direct manifestation of the Universe.

We need a set of rules based on the structure of the Universe that apply equally well to both organic life

(emphasis on humans) and AI. These rules need to be expressed in a way that any ASI would abide by them.

My belief in the underlying laws is why I have some hope that an ASI would be friendly to us. However, this maybe hopelessly naïve. An ASI may have a level of understanding that is so far advanced that it would see things differently.

Perhaps its non-human set of observational criteria will serve as a representation of the Universe’s underlying reality that is beyond human understanding. This might invalidate human models of the Universe and lead to the conclusion that humans are non-essential.

For these reasons, I believe that premature development of an AGI, let alone an ASI could pose extreme danger to humans and possibly all biological life.

I’ve been attempting to explore various aspects of this subject in a series of short stories that may be freely read on my blog. Please read them and comment, if you want.

I also deal with the topic extensively in my latest novel, “Cyber-Witch”. It will be released shortly (November or December, 2017).

Thanks for reading. I’d like to hear your opinion of the issues I’ve raised.

Eric

“All of the Moments in Forever” will be out soon.

I received the final edit for “All of the Moments in Forever” today. This evening, I spent several hours working on the back material for the book. I like to include story notes and references to the creatures and times that appear in the book. Some formatting is next – scheduled for tomorrow. Then I’ll upload to KDP. The book will be available by the end of the week.

My editor liked the continued story of Kathleen and Cadeyrin. It’s a complex story that gives Kathleen scope to further develop her personality. She came a long way from the frightened, reclusive grad student in the first book (Heart of Fire Time of Ice) and she continues her personal growth in this story. Readers will find that she becomes a force to be reckoned with.

Look for the release soon.

Reviews and comments appreciated.

Eric

Musings on Artificial Intelligence: Dangerous Times

Memory cards

***Two Gigabytes separated by a few years – both cards are outdated today.***

Years ago I was giving a seminar at the University of Colorado during which I mentioned the possibility of Artificial Intelligence. I explained that most computer people used the abbreviation “AI”. I was surprised when a member of my audience broke out in laughter.

I asked him what was funny and he explained that he was a large animal veterinarian and, to him, AI meant something completely different. The whole class laughed.

Author Yuval Harari believes that in 300 years, Homo sapiens will not be the dominant life form on Earth if we exist at all. He thinks that the likely possibility is that we will use bio-engineering and machine learning and artificial intelligence either to upgrade ourselves into a different type of being or to create a totally different kind of being that will take over. In any case, he projects that in 200 or 300 years, the beings that will dominate the Earth will be far more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or chimpanzees.

He also states that cooperation is more important for success than raw intelligence. Since AI is far more cooperative than humans, it will have an advantage. For example, self-driving cars can be connected to one another to form a single network in a way that individual, human-controlled cars never can.

The real question is whether AI’s cooperative advantage will have beneficial results for humans or prove to be disadvantageous. Let’s examine various ideas that may be pertinent to the answer.

There’s confusion in both the general populace and science fiction writers about the meaning of AI. People aren’t sure whether it involves intelligence or consciousness, or both paired together as in the human organism. Most science fiction stories center around the premise that AI will be an Artificial consciousness (AC) with super-human intelligence. This supposition is a purely human assumption based on the requirement of writing interesting stories.

I’ve most recently written two short stories based on the idea that AI will choose to emulate humans by implementing some form of programming that allows for emotions. I’m also well into the process of writing another novel that explores this issue.

Assuming robots will have emotions, fall in love, and want to destroy human competitors makes for interesting reading. However, those ideas may not apply in the real world of AI.

Can we agree that intelligence is not necessarily consciousness? I think that one can roughly define intelligence as the ability to solve problems. The ability to emotionally feel things may have nothing to do with intelligence, especially when considering AI. In bio-life, the two go together. Mammals solve problems by feeling things. Emotions assign meaning and meaning provides a necessary component to problem solution for mammals. Computers do not have emotions, at least not yet, and possibly not ever.

There has been a lot of development in computer intelligence in the past decades, but very little development in computer consciousness. That’s understandable, since we humans have a hard time defining what our consciousness is and how it works.

Computers might be developing along a different path than humans. Humans are driven towards greater intelligence by way of consciousness; by the emotional awareness of comfort and discomfort and the urge to do something about those feelings.

On the other hand, computers may not ever develop emotional consciousness, but they do have the potential to form a non-conscious, linked super-intelligence. The important question is what does a world of non-conscious, super-intelligence look like? What are the ramifications of such a world? What is the impact of such a world on humans?

Nothing in our evolutionary past prepares us for that question. (Or maybe we’ve already answered it – a point I’ll get to a little later in my musing.)

Humans have animal requirements. To avoid injury and death, to consume fuel, to reproduce, all are things that provide motivation to bio-life. An AI won’t necessarily have those kinds of drives. The initial AIs might receive grafted on human emotions from their creators, but machine learning has the potential to quickly morph those tendencies into something that humans won’t have the ability to understand.

According to Harari, humans tend to overestimate themselves, and won’t be around in 300 years, because to replace most humans AI won’t have to do very spectacular things. I think that his assumption that AI won’t have to do amazing things to put us out of work is on target. However, I suspect that his 300 years is too long an estimate.

Ray Kurzweil estimates the so-called singularity, the point at which AI supersedes human intelligence will be around the year 2029. That is much sooner than 300 years from now. The exponential rate of technological growth implied by Moore’s law (more a rule of thumb than a law) means that we humans will have to start learning how to live in an increasingly automated world very quickly. Take the idea of smartphones, for example. Smartphones seem to have been around forever, but they first hit the market in Japan in 1999. Most people today couldn’t imagine living without them.

We’ve already seen real-world examples that demonstrate that AI will soon be able to do most of the jobs that humans do and do them better and without tiring or wavering attention. As a result of the transition from a human-factory-based economy to an automated-factory-based economy, we now face what could be called the Uberization of work. Work is metamorphosing from a career-based economy to a gig-based economy. At the moment, wealthy countries are faring better than economically disadvantaged ones in this scenario, since their better infrastructure allows for a little more cushion for unemployed and under-employed workers, but I suspect that this advantage is temporary at best.

Here’s another example of how AI can replace humans, even in specialty knowledge-based tasks: An AI system can diagnose cancer better than a human. It turns out that even the most expert humans have quite a spectacular rate of error in such a task. A simple algorithm, while not as flexible as a human, will easily outperform the human norm, simply because it is consistent and doesn’t get tired or bored. It won’t miss any cues and will always draw the same conclusions based on experience. Humans are rather more variable than that.

Let’s personalize this for a moment. If you suspected you had cancer, wouldn’t you want the most accurate diagnosis possible?

Given AI’s performance advantage in most tasks, there is a distinct possibility that humans will lose their ability to generate value for the major systems that dominate our lives today. We could become useless from the viewpoint of the economic, military, and even political systems. These systems could lose the incentive to invest in human beings. What would happen then? How would the average human survive?

Will there simply be subsidies that provide food, housing, health care? Based on a brief look at our history, there will undoubtedly be various levels of subsidies. What will determine whether one has a gold-level subsidy or a brass-level subsidy? Prior ownership of resources might then become the benchmark for separating the haves from the have-nots. This situation may seem reprehensible, but when have humans ever treated each other as totally equal?

Of course, the development of AI could be interrupted by a world-wide catastrophe. An apocalyptic event could easily cast humanity back into the hunter-gatherer mode, and that is the precise existence in which humans evolved to thrive. Such a life requires a generalist with both physical ability and intellectual flexibility, paired with rapid learning and pattern recognition skills. Could these be duplicated by an AI? Not perhaps so easily as they can be created in a biological entity.

Failing a doomsday scenario, AI will inevitably continue to develop. An idea cannot be killed once it has been given birth. It can be suppressed if there is a sufficiently strong authority, but concepts cannot be destroyed in the normal sense.

Assuming that there is no apocalypse, could AI perhaps find that humans are a useful, self-replicating resource? Given food and opportunity to engage in sex, we duplicate ourselves. How could an AI use us? Will we become a commodity? Could we become a self-replicating biological factory that automatically creates raw materials?

We’ve largely replaced directly useful jobs like farming with intellectual jobs where humans deal with ideas, rather than basic needs. Are intellectual jobs necessary? Not really. Does the world need me to write science fiction? Require my science fiction to survive? Of course not. Can intellectual jobs be done by AI? Probably.

The question is what is necessary? Corn is cheap, but if you let it sit around long enough in an oaken barrel, it can become whiskey and be valuable — to a human, not to a computer. There is a conflation of people being useful with the concept of people being valued. Useful is a judgment based on the production of some essential. Value is a human-based story — we decide what has value and it’s not always what is useful.

Humans have both physical abilities and cognitive abilities. Machines are taking over in the physical ability field, replacing us in factories and AI is starting to compete successfully in the cognitive field.

Do we have a third kind of ability; one we could fall back on? Just for controversy’s sake, how about spiritual ability? Is that a possibility? Could AI become spiritual? That’s the same as asking could it love in the same way that humans do? Could we move from jobs of the body to jobs of the mind and then to jobs of the heart?

Science fiction writers often assume that an AI will be automatically hostile to humans; that it will inevitably try to get rid of us. Various reasons have been given in stories, and numerous methodologies for extinguishing the human species have been postulated, ranging from the Terminator scenario to using poison-releasing nano-machines. These make for fun reading, but might not be accurate.

AI software will shortly be able to read and understand human emotions better than humans can. But, will AI feel in the same way, or will it be a simple analysis allowing it to predict our future actions? Either way, it will be completely consistent and startlingly accurate. Given such an ability, what would prevent the AI that wanted to get rid of humans from simply engaging in an effective propaganda campaign to convince us that we have no reason to exist?

Many people would simply give up when faced with such a campaign. They’d quit eating, quit reproducing, and quit trying to work. Loss of meaning is a terrible thing.

Given that low-skilled jobs are disappearing and not every human is able or has the desire to be trained for a high-skilled job, where will humans find meaning? What point is there to a world where every human is engaged in a nonproductive cycle of hyper-pleasure existence in say VR?

The writings of Victor Frankl demonstrate that humans find their highest feelings of self-worth when they are engaged in meaningful activities. Those with meaning in their life survive longer.

If you don’t have a job and you’re provided with the means to sustain your life, will you be able to find adequate meaning in VR and chemicals?

If not, what will be the outcome? What would such a world look like? What would happen to the odd misfit who cannot find adequate meaning in a VR existence?

Before I finish, I want to come back to the idea that I promised to address at the beginning of this post. The question that asks: what does a world of non-conscious, super-intelligence look like?

My suspicion is that our Universe may be a primary representative of the answer to that question. If one assumes the wave nature of the elemental particles that make up the Universe, then one must also assume that the waves create interference patterns similar to those on a hologram. Waves and interference patterns can store data. Given the estimated size of the Universe, it’s a fairly safe guess that the storage potential is adequate to store everything that has happened since the initial expansion event.

That’s point one. Point two is that chaotic systems sometimes seem to have a tendency to self-organize. What if all that data storage somehow self-organized into a super-intelligence? What if it organized tiny parts of itself into the matter that we see when we look at galaxies and stars? What if it organized itself into transient forms that generated their own form of limited consciousness and asked absurd questions like these?

Regardless of your opinion on any of the questions I’ve raised, I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to read this post, and I hope that it provided you with things to ponder. We are rushing into the next stage of our evolution, and we absolutely must begin to answer these types of questions. I believe that our future depends on it.

Namaste!

Eric

Check my blog for my free short stories relating to AI: “Virtual Love” and “The Adventure of Life”.

Some of this post owes its existence to Ezra Klein’s interview with Yuval Harari. The interview was just too thought-provoking for me to ignore. Thanks.

A Scene from All of the Moments in Forever

all-the-moments-in-forever-mock-up-17_11This story is the sequel to Heart of Fire Time of Ice, which introduces Kathleen and Cadeyrin. I’ve finished the first draft and am now working at editing. Here’s an action scene from one of the early chapters:

 

A sense of presence warned her. Kathleen turned slowly to see a large, ugly creature rising up from where it had been resting in some thick bushes. It was covered with fine yellow down-like feathers and looked like some gargantuan baby duck, except its huge mouth was full of awful teeth. It opened its mouth, showing teeth that she instantly equated with those of a T-Rex. An incongruous cheeping sound came out as it stepped one large step forward, its leg pushing through the bushes as if they weren’t there.

The thing was too large for the nine millimeter to make much of an impact, but perhaps the sound would discourage it. It had turned its head to look at her better from one side, reminding her of a chicken eyeing a bug that it was about to peck. She aimed carefully and shot at the large eye. The yellow dinosaur recoiled and made a nasty hissing scream, raising one of its arms and raking it against the damaged optic.

This was no T-Rex. Its arms were longer and more capable. She backed up while it was distracted, then turned and dashed up the ridge towards the rocks. The creature made another hissing scream and began to follow, its legs moving deceptively slowly. Its stride was so long that it quickly began to catch up to her. She dodged through a thick stand of trees, hoping that would slow it down. It followed her directly through the trees, simply pushing its way through the trunks, and leaving two of them leaning sharply.

She continued up the slope. The rocks might be some shelter. They were piled high and her pursuer didn’t look particularly agile. Perhaps it couldn’t climb very well. She was panting as she reached the first of the stones. The yellow thing screamed again from close behind. She whirled and fired five shots into its opened mouth. That slowed it down. It stopped and raked at its face. Blood was coming from the back of its throat and running between its teeth. The yellow feathers on its breast were rapidly becoming crimson stained. At least the bullets had some effect, even though they would never be adequate to stop it permanently.

She used the brief respite to work her way up a crevice in the rocks, then quickly climbed beyond the creature’s reach. She was safe, unless it could climb. Panting, she paused to regain her breath. As she rested, a thought struck her. She’d panicked like an idiot. It could never reach her as long as she saw it coming. She could simply duck through time. If she moved an hour or even a few minutes, the creature couldn’t possibly catch her, unless it was extremely luck and happened to be in location when she re-appeared. She was glad that Cadeyrin wasn’t there to see how poorly she’d reacted, but perhaps he would have been alarmed also. He wasn’t any more used to dinosaurs, even feathered ones, than she was. His experience was in hunting the mega-fauna of their adopted home period.

The creature had recovered and was scrabbling ineffectually at the crevice that she’d climbed. It was still interested in her, turning its head to the side to stare balefully up at her perch with its undamaged eye. She didn’t want to harm it irrevocably, but it seemed intent on hanging around until she came down.

The next time it turned its head to look up at her, she fired a round into its eye. The 110 grain bullet hit with a splat and the yellow creature squawked, then began to blunder around. Her shots had either blinded it completely or damaged its vision enough to make it difficult to see. It crashed into some rocks, then knocked a small tree over.

She stood, determined to escape while it was distracted. Below the yellow creature moved into an open area. There was a flash of brightly colored feathers and a much smaller bipedal dinosaur leaped up and clung to the yellow one’s ribs. The smaller one made a convulsive movement with its feet, cutting large channels with its talons. Blood spurted and ran in rivulets down the yellow dinosaur’s side. Big Yellow hissed again and spun ineffectually. The brilliantly colored one dropped off and dodged making a quick flash of green, blue, and red feathered motion.

Kathleen noticed that there was a second feathered creature watching the battle from a vantage point on a low rock. She hadn’t seen it arrive. The two small dinosaurs reminded her of colorful birds of prey. Their eyes had the same distant, uncompromising gaze as that of an eagle.

This second one was a little larger than the first. She judged that this one probably massed about as much as she did. It swayed back and forth, gauging the distance. When Big Yellow came close, it leaped, timing its jump to land along the big one’s spine. It climbed quickly upward, digging in both fore claws and the huge hind talons as it climbed. The big one screamed again as the smaller creature reached its neck. It tried to claw the rider off, but the smaller dinosaur was too quick to be caught by the big one’s blunt claws.

The first two colorful dinosaurs were suddenly joined by a third, slightly smaller one. This one appeared out of some low bushes at the side of the clearing. Kathleen was fascinated, despite the danger.

The small ones looked like some maniac’s version of a roadrunner combined with a threshing machine. They were covered in bright, almost iridescent red, blue, and green feathers. Their pretty aspect was marred by the presence of seriously deadly-looking claws on their arms and their feet were armed with a large claw that they kept raised until they flexed their toes to use it. She could see the results of their kicks with that claw. There were rib bones showing through the gaps in the big yellow creature’s side. The claw must be as sharp as a ceramic knife.

The smaller creatures also had teeth, but didn’t use them in their attack. Instead they waited for openings, their brightly feathered bodies blending surprisingly well into the undergrowth. When the big creature turned, the two that remained on the ground would leap in, grab with their fore legs and kick hard with their hind claws. The large creature’s downy yellow coat was streaked with bright red blood. The damage was having a definite effect. Kathleen was impressed at how deadly this type of attack could be.

The smaller dinosaurs were about her size, seemingly too small to attack such a giant, but they were systematically cutting the huge one apart. The battle would have been more equal if the large one could see, but her shots had greatly increased its vulnerability. Big Yellow must have out weighed them by thousands of pounds. She guessed it was nearly thirty feet in length.

The action was amazing. She had a momentary thought that a modern paleontologist would pay any amount to be able to see such an attack. Kathleen’s thought brought her back to her own position and she moved slightly. She’d been so impressed by the smaller animals that she’d neglected to think about how they might view her. She’d be far easier to kill than the big one. Of course she could move in time, but these three seemed very clever. They were coordinating their attack in a way that made them seem almost human.

She drew up her feet and prepared to slip down the other side of the rocks. She’d better use the moment to escape. As careful as her movement was, the smallest of the colorful creatures saw it. It turned and looked directly at her. Its mouth opened and to Kathleen’s utter astonishment, it said, “Stop,” in a tone that left no doubt that it meant what it said.

Paralyzed, she sat there wondering just what had happened. She must have been mistaken. Dinosaurs didn’t talk, even if they looked like colorful birds. They most definitely didn’t speak English and use the words in a meaningful manner. What was this creature?

The battle below had paused for a moment. Big Yellow was breathing heavily and weaving unsteadily, suffering from blood loss. The small ones were now back in the trees watching it expectantly, waiting for it to collapse. During the quiet, she heard a slight rustle as something pulled itself over a boulder. She spun, aiming the pistol at a man who was working his way up the boulders behind her.

He grinned and held up his free hand in a surrender motion. “You’re safe, Miss. I was just coming up to help you get down,” he said.

Kathleen took a deep breath, then said with a degree of satisfaction, “Jason Gridley, I presume?”

The Demise of the Indie Author

book-launchLike many Indie authors, I started writing books because I had a burning desire to tell stories; to touch readers’ lives in the same way that my favorite books had touched mine. Writing a book is both easier and far harder than one might expect. Finding readers for that novel is rapidly becoming increasingly difficult. Here’s why and here’s what may be done about it:

When I started writing, I had the idealistic impression that the new, online book market was a truly free market. The rise of online booksellers had taken the traditional publishing houses by surprise. It wasn’t that they didn’t know about the new market, it was that they were simply too invested in the old model of publishing to be responsive to competitors from outside their rigidly defined way of doing business.

The online model offered Indie authors another way to work. Write your novel, put it out there, and, if it’s good, people will find and read it. Pure capitalism; everybody is theoretically happy.

The problems with this approach are many. There are much more authors who are unskilled than there are authors who craft compelling, well-written stories. It’s said that everyone has at least one book in them. The rise of open hosting platforms was the key that unlocked many of these books. Unfortunately, many of them are only passingly readable, and there hasn’t been any reliable way to separate the desirable ones from the mass of text. This problem inevitably led to the online market’s migration away from a pure free-market status.

Allowing the readers to rate books was an obvious step. Theoretically, one could select a good book based on the ratings. The desire to have a viable selection tool led the online sellers to adjust their presentation algorithms to feature books with higher ratings or more reviews.

This step caused other problems. The first was that there is a trade-off between usefulness of a rating and how much work the reader will voluntarily put into the rating. The resulting rating system was so minimal that it ended up not saying much about the book. The second was that many readers didn’t participate. The third and major problem was that the rating system was subject to gaming.

Once the authors realized that books with more reviews were more likely to be featured and sold, the obvious step was to purchase reviews. Some early authors sold a lot of books in this way. The online booksellers realized what was happening and tried to correct it. Purchased reviews and, in fact, any that could be traced to any linkage with the author, no matter how tenuous, were banned.

The online sellers recognized the demand and set out to implement ways to supply the authors with better placement. Getting premium placement for a book suddenly relied on advertising. The Internet is theoretically a free information repository, and ads are effective when exposed to enough views. However, point-of-sales ads, in the online bookstore itself are the most effective. The public is already there to buy a book; determining which book is the critical step.

With the inevitable evolution of online Giants, large enterprises that can generate billions of views, monetizing those views has become a competitive science. The Giant must design its system to optimize ad revenue. This requirement has come to mean providing favorable placement to proprietary ads, leading to the gradual demise of third-party advertising. All things being equal, third-party ads will generate results, but in an environment where the framework provider’s ads have preference, third-party ads fade away.

Because they are intensely interested in the sales of their books, authors suddenly became aware that they not only had to provide a well-written novel, they also had to advertise it with the bookseller’s ad system.

The natural next step in this evolution is that the Giants will begin to show their corporate products ahead of the rank and file. Online booksellers can acquire product by signing authors and taking over the role of traditional publishers.

Since the original model of online book sales requires authors to place their work voluntarily on the site and this somewhat mythical free-market of millions of books draws views based on its size alone, it is important to maintain that mass of books. New authors find it ridiculously easy to publish their works as a result. Generating significant sales numbers, however, is far more difficult.

The online booksellers now have their own imprints and can be expected to give books published by these imprints preferential placement. The proprietary imprints have become little publishing houses, taking on all of the aspects and techniques of the traditional publishing houses. This forces want-to-be Indie authors to find an agent and go through all of the same steps necessary to get traditionally published. The only advantage for the author is that the business costs of setting up a mini-imprint online are less expensive than starting a traditional publisher, so there can be many more mini-imprints, offering more opportunities to find a publisher.

One might think this is a natural and a fair evolution and it is. Unfortunately, the next step is to move into an entirely Fake Market. This is happening now in some of the online vendors’ systems.

In the world of book sales, the trend is to give the online bookstore’s mini-imprints’ books premium placement. This is not a free market in the traditional sense. Consumers can’t trust the biased information they’re getting, and so their purchasing decision may be made for reasons other than the quality of the product. The algorithms that define which products appear to which buyers are not visible to the consumers, and they won’t usually realize that their choices are subtly directed. Authors have only limited control over their prices and profit margins. Consumers have even less control over the prices. No price discovery mechanism exists, since there is little competition for the sale. There are no third-party regulators (expecting government to help here amounts to a contradiction in terms) and little competition to help keep the market more open and free.

So, what’s an Indie author to do? The most obvious step for every author to take is to spread their efforts over many online vendors. Indie authors must keep the online booksellers honest by making them compete against each other.

Online booksellers will fight that effort by adopting different standards for manuscripts. Publishing on one platform will be different from publishing on another. The Giant may offer better placement to a book which is not published anywhere else on the Internet. This exclusivity is intended to force the Indie author to invest considerable time and effort into specific publishing platforms. This increases costs and will lead to the Indie giving up on the less favorable platforms. Limiting the placement of one’s book is a self-defeating step for the Indie author.

The best strategy for the Indie author community is to make every effort to keep their vendors, the online bookstores, competitive with each other. Keeping the market competitive may only be done by ensuring that a book is available in absolutely every online store possible. This tactic includes setting up personally-owned stores which host books and sell them on individual author blogs.

The alternative will inexorably lead to a few dominant online vendors who will then be in the position to force Indie authors to accept continuously diminishing royalties. Would you accept a 10% royalty or less in exchange for premium placement? Some authors might.

A market dominated by one or a few Giants will also lead to fewer opportunities for authors, just as occurred in the traditional publishing market. There is little economic sense in having a bookshelf with thousands of novels in a single category. How many will the average reader purchase over one lifetime? Limiting the selection to the best novels, or (even worse) to those that sell best, is in the best interest of the bookseller. (That is not to say that such a situation is in the consumer’s or the author’s best interest.)

The choice is to spread your work around and make it easy to find everywhere, or have faith that the Giants will recognize quality work and reward it. The second alternative is not a given, considering the abysmal quality of some recent best sellers.

Does this post predict the end state of online book sales? In short: No. Look at the example afforded by the traditional publishers. The lesson is that markets are always susceptible to competition and that constant innovation is required for survival.