Friday, July 25, 2014


If your name is Kiriojo Karen lee Hallam, you did!

Congratulations, Karen! Please e-mail me at kvandolzer(at)gmail(dot)com with your mailing address so I can get your signed copy in the mail.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Happy Release Day, ALL FOUR STARS!

Today is the day! Tara's ALL FOUR STARS is officially out. To celebrate, I'm reposting a classic from my now-defunct "Massacring the Art of French Cooking" series. It was great while it lasted, and this post was the first. I hope you enjoy! (I'm also giving away a signed hardcover of ALL FOUR STARS, so don't miss the details at the bottom of the post!)

Today is my birthday, the big two-six. Now I tell you that not to solicit your happy birthdays (although you're welcome to leave your best birthday songs in the comments, if you like), but as an explanation for why we baked a cake.

Some friends invited us over for dinner Monday night, so we decided to turn it into an early birthday celebration and offered to make dessert. So we needed to bake a cake and, since it was going to be my birthday, not just any cake--the great Reine de Saba, or Queen of Sheba, a chocolate and almond masterpiece rumored to be Julia Child's favorite cake.

We first encountered the mighty Queen when we rented JULIE AND JULIA several weeks ago. My husband and I are closet foodies, so JULIE AND JULIA sounded interesting to us both. (Yeah, my husband's pretty cool like that.) By the end of the movie, all we had to do was take one look at each other, and we knew: We needed a copy of MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING.

Now French cuisine is to the culinary world what Shakespeare is to the literary one: that aged sage who seems more myth than truth, whose works are thick and incomparable and define the entire discipline. So the Queen of Sheba is more than just a cake; it's an aspiration, a distant mountain peak, a legend.

We made sure we had all the right ingredients and equipment. We made a special trip to procure the things we lacked. And then we started baking. My husband separated his first eggs (six of them, no less--the Queen doesn't trifle with silly things like baking powder). I beat my first egg whites (until soft peaks started to form, then added a tablespoon of sugar and kept beating, until there was nothing soft about them). We folded everything together. And then we eased our cake rounds into the oven and set the timer for twenty-two minutes (three less than Julia called for, just in case our oven wasn't properly French).

Twenty-two minutes later, when I inserted my fork exactly three inches from the edge (should have been a needle, but I figured a tine was good enough), it came out a little dirty. Three more minutes on the timer, then another fork into the cake. This one came out clean. Which meant it was time for the final test: the jiggle.

According to Julia, the center of the cake should "move slightly" when jiggled. The whole point of the Queen is to leave her slightly underdone so as to preserve her creamy texture.

So we jiggled. And got nothing.

There was nothing we could do about it by then, of course, so that was exactly what we did. We iced her as if nothing unusual had happened (in nearly half a pound of butter mixed with four squares of baker's chocolate), we pressed a few leftover slivered almonds into her sides, we took her to our friends' place. And when it was time for dessert and I sampled the first bite, I knew: We'd ruined her. The Queen of Sheba was as dry as a slab of day-old bread. Chocolate and almond day-old bread, but day-old bread, nonetheless.

What makes this an even greater tragedy is the fact that we're on a no-dessert diet for the next month and a half. Our health insurance company does these wellness challenges, and for each one you complete, you get a partial refund on your premiums. So the first wellness challenge is to not eat or drink any desserts, treats, or soda for two months. Two whole months. You do get a few free days, so you've got to make the most of them. And we wasted one of ours on the over-baked Queen.

Still, we will not be defeated. We refuse to be bested by the French. So we're planning to crack that cookbook again in about a week and give another recipe a try. If our next attempt is a success, I'm sure you'll hear about it. And if our next attempt is as, uh, massacre-ful as this last one, I'm sure you'll hear about that, too:)

And now for the giveaway! To enter, just tell me in the comments that you'd like to win (and for an extra entry, feel free to share your most epic kitchen disaster). Contest is open to US and Canadian residents and closes in two weeks, on Wednesday, July 23, at 11:59 p.m. EDT (or 8:59 p.m. PDT). I'll select a random winner the next day.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Few Thoughts on the Ongoing Debate Between Hachette and Amazon

You've probably heard of the ongoing debate between Hachette and Amazon, so I'm not going to give you the blow-by-blow. Suffice it to say that these two behemoths have been wrangling over terms for several months, and a long list of authors have been caught in the crosshairs. Tensions flared this week when Douglas Preston started circulating this open letter to readers and a group of self-published authors responded with a petition of their own.

Before I go any further, I should point out that while I'm not a Hachette author, I have sold books to two traditional publishers, so if I do have sympathies, they probably lie on Hachette's side. That said, I've tried to tackle this topic as fairly as I can (but I AM a writer, so sometimes I get a little carried away--consider yourself warned).

Amazon's MO

Contrary to popular opinions, I don't think Amazon is either the savior of the publishing industry or the greasy-haired conman they're sometimes made out to be. They're a business, so they're out to make money however they can. One way they make money is by selling books, and they sell LOTS of them. They sell so many books--and TVs, hot pads, and jet packs--that they can afford to sell books for not very much money. Sometimes they even sell books for less than they paid for them.

If a seller does this with the specific intent to drive other sellers out of business, it's called predatory pricing, and it's illegal under most countries' antitrust laws. Now, of course, I can't speak to Amazon's intent, but from the outside looking in, it does seem like there might be a case.

The Thing About Royalty Rates

One of the first points raised by the petition in question has to do with royalty rates. To quote directly from that petition:

New York Publishing once controlled the book industry. They decided which stories you were allowed to read. They decided which authors were allowed to publish. They charged high prices while withholding less expensive formats. They paid authors as little as possible, usually between 2% and 12.5% of the list price of a book.

Amazon, in contrast, trusts you to decide what to read, and they strive to keep the price you pay low. They allow all writers to publish on their platform, and they pay authors between 35% and 70% of the list price of the book.

Though the facts themselves are right, I disagree with the way that they've slanted these facts. A traditional publisher--and Amazon runs several of these--pays for everything upfront, including the editors, the designers, the sales reps, the publicists, and the author himself or herself. From a monetary perspective, the author risks NOTHING. Any money he or she makes at this point is pure profit, since he or she has incurred no costs. (Okay, okay, the author has incurred SOME costs, but they're opportunity costs at this point, and accountants never take those into account.) The royalty rate that the publisher pays reflects this balance of risk.

(Is it the right royalty rate? I don't know. But the economist in me has to believe that if publishers were unnecessarily dinging authors, there would be room in the market for another publisher to come in and pay better rates to produce the same product. Smaller presses attempt to do this--and some offer rates that are significantly better than the ones you can get at a larger house--but their resources are often more limited. For instance, while you can buy a HarperCollins or Penguin Random House title in virtually any bookstore in the country, you can't always find books from a randomly chosen small press.)

By contrast, Amazon invests very little in the self-published titles they offer for sale. They provide a virtual storefront from which self-published authors can peddle their wares (and perhaps some free advertising), but these services cost little to no money on their end. From a monetary perspective, Amazon risks NOTHING. Any money they make at this point is pure profit, since they haven't incurred any costs. When you think about it that way, it's kind of surprising that they find reason to keep anywhere from 30% to 65% of the list price.

Amazon's Position in the Market

It's undeniable that the rise of Amazon was the major contributing factor to the rise of the e-book. Someone was going to develop the technology sooner or later, so why not Amazon? We're dreamers, believers, so even though I still don't own a smartphone, I support innovation.

I wasn't really plugged into the industry when Amazon first came to power, but it seems like most publishers welcomed Amazon--at first. They were going to single-handedly save the publishing industry, give book lovers greater access, and woo new readers with their cheap wares and quality customer service. But what started as a snowball quickly morphed into an avalanche, and as Amazon's market share soared, publishers started to see the writing on the wall.

Is it great to have a seller who can cheaply and efficiently get your goods into the hands of consumers? Absolutely. Is it great to have ONE seller who's forced its competitors out of the market? Not so much. And that's where we're headed. Borders has already fallen. Barnes & Noble isn't looking so great. Independent booksellers have made up some ground in the very recent past, but they'll never be able to compete on price or distribution (so they'll have to find other ways to market themselves--and in many cases, they have, which is why they've been doing better lately).

The Power of Price

Which brings me to the next issue: price. Prices do lots of great things in the market. They ration scarce resources and act as signals to consumers. I've already addressed Amazon's reasoning for keeping the price of books low, so why do traditional publishers want to keep the price of books high (or at least higher)?

The truth is, I don't know. Some people would have you believe they don't want you to have easy access to books--or, in other words, that they're using prices to ration scarce resources (which, in some ways, they are)--but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that they can't pay everyone who needs to be paid to produce the caliber of books that they're used to producing for $2.99 (or even $4.99). Also, as I mentioned above, prices act as signals to consumers, who are confronted with literally tens of thousands of books to choose from. With so many choices (and I'm not bashing on choices), price is one way that traditional publishers can set their books apart.

The End

I won't address the rest of the petition's assertions, since they're less about facts and more about feelings. The writers offer explanations for Amazon's actions regarding Hachette titles, so I'll let you decide what you want to believe. But I do think it's important to have these conversations, because they WILL shape the future of the publishing industry, and I think we can all agree that we want it to be around for a very long time.