Nabokov’s Butterflies

by wjw on July 22, 2017

IMG_4484At one point in my life, the author and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov was my primary literary god.  He’s still a major influence, for all that I don’t write anything like him.

There is a museum devoted to him in St. Petersburg, in his family’s old mansion.   (You can’t really describe it as “his” house, since he fled St. Petersburg in 1917, when he was a mere student.)

The museum is free, which is good because there’s not a lot in it.  There are editions of his books, and old family photographs, and a photo of every house he lived in during his entire life, mostly in Ithaca, N.Y.  There’s his butterfly net in a case.  There are cases of butterflies, though it’s unclear whether these were butterflies caught by Nabokov personally, and there’s his Scrabble board (with “Ardis” set up ready to play), and a chess set with one of Nabokov’s problems fixed on the board.

There is a little blue butterfly that he discovered in Albany, which is now endangered (like all such blue butterflies) by climate change.

And there are also the butterflies that he invented.  If you were a close friend, or a relative, or were his wife, he’d get out colored pencils or watercolors and inscribe a butterfly on the title page of one of his books, complete with a plausible Latin taxonomy.

These were imaginary butterflies that don’t exist in the real world, though if you’re a lepidopterist you’ll recognize the genus, if not the species.

Vladimir Nabokov, his head full of poems, fictions, chess problems, and invented butterflies.  A singular species, if not quite imaginary.


Kindle Unlimited, for those of you who don’t know, is an Amazon service where (if you’re an author) you upload your book exclusively to KU.  In return for this exclusivity, Amazon does . . . well, I’m not sure what they do for the author, but if you’re a reader, you can read, um, Unlimited numbers of titles for about ten bucks a month.  The money goes into a pool, controlled by Amazon, and is distributed to authors not by books downloaded, but by pages actually read.

This probably makes sense for a reader who (1) reads a shit-ton of books every month, and (2) doesn’t really care if they’re any good.

I’ve never made any of my books available to KU, because (1) not all my readers have a Kindle, and (2) it seemed not to make great business sense simply to take Amazon’s word that they have this big pot of money that they are distributing to you with absolute fairness and impartiality.

KU is an enormous black hole, with books going in one end and money coming out the other, and you only have Amazon’s word for what happens in that black hole.  I decided when I got into indiepub that dealing with a completely opaque marketing process probably wasn’t good for my mental or financial health.

Especially now, as according to indie author David Gaughran, the whole KU system is now riddled with scammers scamming their way to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

On Friday, a book jumped to the #1 spot on Amazon, out of nowhere; it quickly became obvious that the author had used a clickfarm to gatecrash the charts.

The Kindle Store is officially broken.

This is not the first time this has happened and Amazon’s continued inaction is increasingly baffling. Last Sunday, a clickfarmed title also hit #1 in the Kindle Store. And Amazon took no action.

Over the last six weeks, one particularly brazen author has put four separate titles in the Top 10, and Amazon did nothing whatsoever. There are many such examples.

So what, you ask, is a clickfarm?  Clickfarms are low-cost services that will, for example, download a shit-ton of your books and pretend to read them, so that you’ll (1) jump to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, and (2) make a shit-ton of money.

We aren’t taking about the darknet here. These services are open to the public and incredibly easy to find. I’m not going to link to them directly, but here’s an example of the kind of services they offer:

  • 100 guaranteed KU borrows for $59

  • 200 KU borrows with a guaranteed Top 100 ranking for $109

  • 1000 KU borrows with a guaranteed Top 5 ranking in any category for $209

They also provide paid reviews, ghostwriting services, the works. Fake authors, fake books, fake borrows, all parlayed into real chart position stolen from genuine authors and significant funds paid out of the communal KU pot.

The scammers have been repeatedly reported to Amazon, which has (so far as Mr. Gaughran can tell) done nothing.

What this tells you is that Amazon’s fabulous and storied metrics might be worth a lot less than Amazon wants us to believe.

Of course the last time Amazon tried to fix a problem with scammers on KU, they used the equivalent of a 10kt nuclear device and nuked a bunch of people who weren’t scammers, and weren’t even KU authors, including me.

So even though I’ve stayed clear of KU, maybe I should be thankful that Amazon doesn’t seem to be on top of the problem.


Lessons of History

by wjw on July 18, 2017

IMG_4338Let’s see now . . . Russia needed a revolution because . . . wait a minute . . . it slipped my mind.  Let me think.  I’m sure it will come to me any second . . .


Mr. Jones

by wjw on July 17, 2017

IMG_1081What is practically the first thing I see in St. Petersburg?

A monument to American naval hero John Paul Jones, that’s what.


In St Petersburg

by wjw on July 16, 2017

party100 years after Lenin’s arrival, l make my own appearance at the Finland Station.

Let’s get this party started.


Lost in Transition

July 15, 2017

All sorts of things happened en route to Finland, though none of them actually happened to us. The problem was that very little actually happened once we got into the little commuter mini-jet to fly to Chicago, which was the first leg of a long-distance triad that was supposed to continue to JFK, and from […]

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Travel Time

July 11, 2017

I’m off to Helsinki and several weeks of traveling around the Baltic before the Worldcon. I’ll be checking in when I can.

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Literalize That Metaphor!

July 11, 2017

When I’m teaching at Toolbox, I talk about literalizing metaphors, but it’s always hard to come up with a concrete example of how that works. No longer.  I’ve watched Hotel Beau Sejour on Netflix. This ten-episode Belgian-made mystery series, with dialog in Flemish, opens with teenage Kato waking up in a hotel room, to discover her […]

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July 10, 2017

This morning the neighbor’s tree was covered in African cattle egrets, a breathtaking sight.  Since first appearing in the Rio Grande Valley forty-odd years ago, these migrants have multiplied and made themselves very much at home.  Their numbers seem to have increased greatly just in the last couple years. The neighbor was irrigating his alfalfa […]

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Tower of Dreams

July 8, 2017

So the other night I dreamed I was in the Tower of Definitive Editions, a giant structure literally built from the definitive editions of every book ever written.  There was some kind of mechanism that would pluck the book that you wanted from the structure without either damaging the book or destabilizing the tower.  (Maybe […]

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