Editor’s Page


I had just finished lunch in a small restaurant in Villa de las Rosas and was reading a Buenos Aires newspaper over a cafecito, when I came across an article about a riot in Berlin on the fortieth anniversary of the construction of the Wall. The last paragraph read as follows: “From the beginning of the fifties until the construction of the Wall, approximately 2.5 million East Germans abandoned the ex-German Democratic Republic. Afterwards 254 people died trying to get over the wall (along the entire German border there were 957 deaths), but more than 40,000 escaped to the west. On October 3, 1999, under the government of Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl, the two Germanys were unified.”


Knowing that Ricardo, the restaurant’s owner, was an admirer of Fidel Castro and wanting to make a point, I read that paragraph aloud to him, then said: “Fidel’s Wall is the sea.” Ricardo is a choleric type. His eyes bulged and his gray-streaked beard seemed to crackle with electricity. “The sea is his protection from the Yanquis,” he shouted. “Maybe,” I retorted, “but how come South Florida is full of Cubans who escaped at the risk of their lives from his socialist paradise - I should say dictatorship?” A hard question to answer, but Ricardo was ready: “All U.S. propaganda. Anyway, what do we have here? People dying from lack of medical care, decrepit schools, hunger, crime – a disguised dictatorship because we can’t do anything about it. We’re under the thumb of the IMF and savage capitalism” We were at the shouting stage by now.


Ricardo is neither stupid nor ignorant, although somewhat misinformed. In a way he and his family are refugees – from crime-ridden Buenos Aires. With four school age children, he and his wife eke out a precarious living in the remote, beautiful Traslasierra Valley. He had a good point, I thought, but I could hardly let him win the argument. Argentina is, in fact, one of the Third World victims of globalization. It is a country with enormous potential, but has always had inefficient, corrupt governments. Historically, when these two qualities become unbearable, a populist (Peron) or the military take over, making things worse. Certainly the situation has again become unbearable, but the military is so discredited because of its last 12-year dictatorship, which ended in the eighties, that there is little possibility of that ugly head being raised again – at least one hopes not.


The current government is democratic, having been duly elected, but it is weak and will certainly become much weaker after it is punished in the congressional elections in October. There is really no way that it can be compared to dictatorial Cuba. Nevertheless, it is true that we are close to chaos. The government’s newest policy to save itself and insure a new bail-out from the IMF is “zero deficit”, which sound fine, except that it means cutting the budgets of such things as education, health and social security benefits, all of which are seriously under-funded already. This has resulted in strikes (teachers in Buenos Aires providence were on strike for three weeks), anti-government demonstrations (40,000 gathered in the plaza in front of Government House last week condemning the cuts and the open market economy in general) and condemnation by the government’s own party, who’s president issued a manifest yesterday calling for “zero hunger”. 


Ricardo insisted that he’d rather live in a Cuban society with decent education and health care than in the disguised Argentine dictatorship.         


I tried to explain that I wasn’t defending this kind of capitalism, only pointing out that there is no point in praising a communist dictatorship like Castro’s as a viable alternative – that’s it’s not a simple matter of black and white.


The handful of customers in the restaurant were listening in varying degrees of surprise, understanding or amusement. Ricardo’s wife was taking a break from the kitchen reading a magazine at one of the tables, ignoring us.      


Ricardo said that as far as he could see there weren’t any other alternatives. Then he looked at me curiously. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “the biggest problem is the stock market, where people and organizations that have nothing to do with the companies they own can determine their fate. It’s why Argentina maintains the distortive one-to-one exchange rate with the US dollar, and results in a kind of slavery for the workers. Eliminate the stock market, for one, let the people who work in a company be the owners. And the banks….

“Hey, Ricardo,” a customer shouted, “you wanna get paid, stop the bullshit and gimme another glass of wine.” A few late diners entered and Ricardo had to attend to his business, his reality. “I see you have something else in mind,” he said, calming down. “Let’s continue some other time.”  


E-books, POD

In the Home Page comments, I said I thought e-books and Print-on-Demand books are rip-offs, and promised to explain why here. There are several types of e-books: a) sold on web sites by e-book publishers. b) sold by large electronic distributors such as Amazon and Barn & Noble. c) offered free by electronic publishers. Southern Cross Review went through two variations of stage a, and finally arrived at c. We also learned a lot on the way. Here's how it works.

a) - You go to an e-book publisher on the web. You? Aye, there's the rub. Who would want to go to an e-book publisher's page. Easy: authors. Once there, the author sees a professinal looking page similar to Amazon or B&N that looks like it's selling e-books. But you're an author, so you soon see the tab "publish your book". You click on it and see that all you have to do is send your manuscript to them and they will convert it to pdf (Adobe Acrobat) or a similar Microsoft script and "sell" it on their site, paying you 30% to 50% royalties on a price you set yourself. The only cost to you is a $1 monthy "storage fee". Sounds good, so you send you MS and before you know it your book is available to be bought at that site. Of course you want to see what it looks like and you want to have a copy, so you buy it (some e-book publishers give the author a free copy, others don't), figuring that it will only cost you $1.50, assuming that you were humble and set the price at $3. You are horrified to see that it's a mess. Even someone experienced at converting to pdf needs at least three drafts to get it right. But this publisher isn't concerned with getting it right and merely presses a button to covert what you sent. So you go back over your MS to correct paragraphing, page numbers, etc., until you think it's perfect; then you resubmit, buy it again and maybe it's presentable this time. If not, you go through the process again. The next step is to advise all your relatives and friends that your book is at that site and they should buy it there. The copies you bought and the one your mother will probably buy came with a password, by the way, which prevents simply sending it on to others without paying. So finally you've sold about a dozen copies. Who else will buy it? No one. Anyone can go to that site and buy, but they have to be looking for your book and type it's title in the "search" box. If you are an unknown author the unlikelyhood of that happening is obvious. Remember that the publisher doesn't edit the books, doesn't even read them, so there's all kinds of junk there -- which doesn't mean that there couldn't be a hidden jewel as well, but it would be hard to find. Meanwhile the publisher has earned $23 - not much, but if thousands of suckers go that route (and they do) it adds up to big bucks.

Sometimes big name authors publish e-books, Stephen King being the best known example. His "Riding the Bullet" sold tens of thousands at $2.50 a piece. I don't usually buy Stephen King, but did that time, mostly to find out how it worked. After paying with a credit card, I had to download a different text conversion program, but it was free. When I finally got the text, it couldn't be printed. All the text conversion programs, like Adobe, provide passwords and non-printing capabilities. So I had to read the book on my screen. Not so bad because it was a 67 page double-spaced novella and a page turner. But in general who wants to read a whole book on a computer screen? Ernesto Sábato, the grand old man of Argentine letters (not a page turner), also published his latest work as an e-book, free, before it appeared in print. I downloaded this e-book and found it had the same restrictions as the King book: not printable and not forwardable. I read the first chapter and stopped, resolving to buy the print version when it came out, which I did, but which I would have done anyway. Others, though, were probably hooked by the e-book.

E-books marketed by book sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble are by known authors and aren't much cheaper than print versions. You have to download a special Adobe (or Microsoft) "e-book reader". The original print versions are usually out-of-print.

What advantages do e-books have? They are cheaper, yes, but anyone who can afford a computer with web access can also afford to buy books. In my opinion, only if a book is available in e-format that is not available in print and is interesting to a certain target group, will it sell relatively successfully as an e-book.

POD (Print on Demand): This is essentially the same rip off as e-books, but more costly. The author gets paid a "royalty" on the books only he or she buys. It is cheap for a "basic" printed version. If the author wants the book to look decent, he has to pay for cover design, etc. The sale price of these books is usually no lower than non-POD books, so the only one who benefits is the publisher: no risk, low costs.

E-book publishers who give the books away are the only ones who are performing a public service. They may have advertizing on their sites, or they may not. At Southern Cross Review, we always select the e-books we are going to publish (which means a lot of rejections) and edit them as well as convert them to pdf. We thought the work involved - and it is considerable - was worth the 2 or 3 dollars we were charging. We received many complaints, however, from potential buyers that the credit card purchasing process was too complicated. It was also costly to us. So we finally decided to distribute the e-books free, informing recipients that they were free to make a small donation if they so desired. The result was more orders and fewer manuscript submissions and even fewer donations. That's OK. We're honest and we have received expressions of gratitude.

Frank Thomas Smith, Editor