Interesting letter from Jim Steranko making the rounds. Several people forwarded it to me for comment, and then it showed up on an email group I subscribe to but rarely participate in. In it, Steranko brings up ethical issues comics, and particularly comics fans, don't often wrestle with. I don't know that Steranko would want the actual text of his letter published, due to some of his characterizations of particular people and institutions, but here's a quick summary:
Golden age comics publisher Harry Chesler established, at Fairleigh-Dickenson University, a supposedly permanent collection of comics art, mostly from books he published. Steranko, who Chesler asked to organize the collection, donated the original art from a poster he had done for Marvel (Steranko was virtually unique among Marvel artists in that his artwork was returned to him after publication) during his tenure on FOOM!, their company-published fan magazine of the '70s. The poster featured every superhero then extant in the Marvel universe, and a few villains, making it also unique among Steranko's work. For the collection, he also hand-colored it.
The short version of the story is that following Chesler's death, Farleigh-Dickenson chose to sell off part of the collection, contradicting their arrangement.
At some point, Steranko was approached by a collector who wanted him to sign the FOOM! piece, meaning it was now in his possession, not the university's. How it came to him is a matter of some dispute, but the upshot is the University claims it was never among the pieces they sold off, meaning it could only have come to him one other way: theft. (Apparently, the collector's identity is widely known in the art collector's community; that not being my milieu, I haven't a clue who it is.) Which is not to say the collector committed theft, only that whoever provided him with the art did, but it does mean that at minimum he has received stolen property and by this point must be aware of it. (The gist of the letter is that Steranko made him aware of it, and refused to sign it for that reason.)
Except for one thing: the University, while denying any knowledge of the matter except that the piece should be in their collection and isn't, has never (to my knowledge) filed a police report, despite also being aware by this point that it is not simply missing, but taken illegally taken from their collection.
According to Steranko, the school has yet to make any, in his words, "significant use" of the collection aside from selling portions piecemeal. He concludes with a plea to the current holder to return the poster art to the collection.
A number of ethical questions surface in the course of the letter, some of which Steranko perhaps didn't intend. The question of ownership is, of course, the monster in the closet for those who collect comics art done prior to the early 1990s. The fact is that for much of the history of American comics it was traditional for comics publishers to claim automatic ownership of the physical artwork, as they claimed ownership of everything, regardless of identifiable legal status. It was just done. The argument could be made that Chesler's collection was itself illegal, aside from Steranko's gift, if he kept the artwork without the explicit permission of the artists or without explicitly paying them to retain ownership of it, separate from the right to publish it. If anyone had chosen to sue over it, of course, and it's not at all clear that any artist's right to do that has expired. Readers may recall that a big issue in Jack Kirby's lawsuit against Marvel in the '80s was his attempt to recover physical possession of the art he had drawn for them or be compensated for it, which was a big issue for Marvel not only because it set an uncomfortable precedent - Marvel for a long time preferred any "extras" to freelancers to be magnanimous gifts rather than legal obligations, a distinction that for a long time saw them offering "incentive payments" where everyone else was paying "royalties," the latter having a specific legal meaning the former didn't - but because a good chunk of Kirby's artwork had either been destroyed by Marvel (storage space isn't cheap) or passed by whatever means or intent into the hands of fans, collectors and other comics artists, some Jack certainly must have been aware of. In the '60s, Julius Schwartz commonly gave away art pages to readers sending in the best letters, and Marv Wolfman, during his early assistant editor days at DC, rescued a number of art pages from incineration by chopping up and later reassembling them. (Apparently it was company policy that original art pages couldn't leave the building, but once they were split up they were no longer pages.)
As original art became a collectible in its own right in the early 80s, Marvel devised a plan (it involved playing cards, believe it or not) to split the art from any given story between writer, penciler and inker, and I have to say that as a beneficiary of that policy I didn't give the ethical ramifications much thought. But it does bring up a question for the factory system a company's stewardship of original dodges: who's the real owner of an art page, the penciler or the inker? (The only thing I'm sure of now is that the writer, whose words exist on their own in a separate script, doesn't, though the letterer might, at least before the period when lettering on overlays became common.)
Original art may not even be a necessary proposition anymore. Back when Mike Zeck and I did DAMNED for Wildstorm in 1998, the original art never left his hands; everything was transferred on disc. Though I still know of one publisher who, while not officially claiming ownership, insists on physical possession of all art he publishes (a proposition that has kept several artists I know from doing any work for his company), the new capabilities of computers make physical art itself unnecessary; it's increasingly vestigial, existing mainly for the collector aftermarket, which still feeds quite a few comics artists. At any rate, since ownership of art became an increasingly indefensible issue for publishers and the art collector market boomed in the '90s, the question of ownership of pieces since then is largely not in dispute. Most companies as policy return original art to artists, who gift or sell it to friends and collectors.
But there's still a vast array of original comics artwork out there that passed hand to hand over fifty some odd years of comics history against the permission or will of its creators, whether they thought they had a say in it or not. What's the best fate for it? It's not much of a stretch to claim that all that material is stolen, except where it was distributed with the artists' assent, but the collectors now holding it likewise bought it in good faith. Probably the most ethical course would be to surrender or sell the work back to its original artists or their heirs, but most collectors have much money poured into their collections; it's easy to make ethical conclusions if you're not the one bearing the brunt of them. In many cases, collectors are far more responsible than anyone else for preserving original art and they generally take far better care of it than anyone else would. To that extent they do great service to the medium and it would be unfair to punish them for it.
The logical best solution, from the perspective of comics history, would be donation to official collections, where the donors (maybe even jointly with artists or their heirs, if arrangements could be reached) could receive tax breaks for their gifts. But there are problems with that as well: the most logical collections like The Cartoon Art Museum are often short on space and the money to obtain and maintain it. Like Fairleigh-Dickenson, several universities like my alma mater the University of Wisconsin have comics art collections, but more often than not the collections are disorganized, badly protected and, though ostensibly open to the public, not displayed. What's really needed is a Guggenheim of comics art, but who's going to finance it?
Meanwhile, what we have on our hands is a vast black market of old comics art, and it's way past the point where collectors can claim they don't know better. In most instances, it has just become unchallenged tradition that possession of comics art gives the holder to right to own or sell it, but that's a system-changing lawsuit waiting to happen, even where the holders believe they've operated completely in good faith. Then there are the situations, as with Steranko's FOOM! piece, where there's no way the holder can't know he has come by the work illegally (in that instance, the holder has reportedly produced several different, contradictory versions of how he ended up with it when it's supposed to be in a university collection, and in those cases it's time for everyone to, as Steranko requested, turn them over, but that's not likely to happen or they wouldn't have them in the first place.
With this year's Consumer Electronics Show drawn to a close, there's not a lot to add. Apple came along midway to announce their IPhone at MacWorld, and while the multifunctional iPhone - not an exactly new concept to any paying much attention to the cell phone/PDA market (it wants to be all portable devices for everyone - is really little more than a questionably practical exercise in conspicuous excess, it was still far sexier than virtually anything that surfaced at CES, taking the wind out of the sails (and sales) of most of the new entertainment/phone/PDA convergence devices sprung there. Wireless, particularly for computer and music purposes, was big, but it is every year. As at last year's show, things either got much bigger - a 108" flat panel TV screen was lovely to look at - or much smaller, like the SanDisk pocket videorecorder I mentioned last week. Everyone was going gaga for this year's iteration of the SlingBox, a device that lets you watch your TV, DVD player or VCR from anywhere in the world via the Internet, including pay TV channels
Fact is, it must be a tough era for consumer electronics. While the occasional "must have" bit of electronics pops up now and then, we're at a point where technology across the board (though not necessarily its implementation) has gotten pretty good; while there are lots of great speaker systems out there, for instance, when was the last time you heard one so good it blew all the others away? It's pretty much the same with anything. For more than a decade the game industry has driven the computer hardware industry, but even the hardcore gamers I know out there are rarely obsessed anymore with having the fastest videocard. The technology has in general gotten too good, usually past the point where anyone can see much difference between it and the previous version. How many people think it's really worth spending the money and effort to swap out the 16X DVD recorder in your computer for an 18X? How much real difference - by which I mean in practical terms while computing - can anyone see between an ATI chip or an Intel chip, or a duo core CPU and a quad core, unless you have a specific ap that demands the latter? Even gaming and application software, which used to drive the hardware market, hasn't really kept up with the hardware. In the consumer electronics market, there are a flood of technologies but they're all trying to deliver basically the same content, giving almost none of them the chance to really stand out, good as any of them may individually be. History has shown us a great new technology needs great new unique content, or at least (as with MP3 players) a great new delivery system for very desirable existing content. For most consumers, the technology itself is never as cool as the content it can deliver, which is one reason the computer market has cooled: virtually no significantly original content is now being developed for it.
And my choice for best toy of CES '07 is still the SanDisk V-Mate. I want one. You'll want one too.
A couple letters on recent topics:
"For what it is worth, things like the BATMAN 10-CENT ADVENTURE no longer appear on the Diamond sales charts. They did at first, but I think there was a general understanding that it wasn't a comparison of apples.
This reporting decision was on "promotionally priced" items, and since COWBOYS & ALIENS was full-priced (even if some stores apparently received some form of kick back in order to purchase them), my guess is it will appear on next month's GN list. Probably at #1."
Ah. Well, that explains everything...
"This week, you said: 'You'd think by now most manufacturers would have figured out that in entertainment media when there are two competing standards, only one of them will eventually win out. "
You're right, but I think there is a new factor this time around. It is true that Sony has never successfully launched a new media format (minidisk, those purple flash drives) with any lasting market saturation, but this one might actually succeed. Why? Because the competition between Blu Ray and HD-DVD isn't the same as it was between Betamax and VHS. Betamax and VHS had different physical dimensions, so that a machine to play one couldn't play the other without substantial design modifications. In the end, the crappier VHS format won because it was smaller, cheaper, and was wholly embraced by the porn industry.
Blu Ray and HD-DVD, however, look identical. The difference is only in how information is encoded onto and read off the disc. Given how evenly split the major studios are over the two formats, I think the smart money is on the proliferation of dual-format disc players. There already are a few, and although they're expensive (those blue lasers are costly), they are the most viable option I can see at this point."
In that case, what it really comes down to is how interested consumers will be in replacing their existing DVD collections with either BluRay or HD-DVDs, and in that case it may come down to studios and manufacturers forcing the issue by retiring the standard DVD format. Psychologically I think it's going to be a hard sell, generally, unless they do that. We shouldn't discount that DVDs were physically dissimilar to videotape and, aside from being unrecordable, at least until DVD recorders materialized, were a significant jump in a number of ways, including picture and sound quality and storage compression. The high density DVD, regardless of type, still comes across mainly as a tweak of an existing, perfectly functional technology, even physically resembling it; it smacks of double dipping, and left to its own merits isn't really seductive enough to generate interest.
"Just read your thoughts on the CES. I don't know how you manage to get in there but I'm glad you do.
1) The feeling I get from just about every sign I see around me is that neither BluRay or HDDVD or whatever are going to survive another five years. People seem very happy with regular DVDs -- even if sales have stabilized from the dizzying growth of the last half-decade, they are still selling DVDs hand over fist, and the widespread proliferation of DVD copying technology is only going to make the format more popular (not with movie studios, obviously). I think it's going to be a long time before we see DVDs replaced in the consumer imagination - probably decades. The only way either of these new formats is going to survive is if they make an end-run at the high-end videophile market - obviously, those are the only people who'd be buying the machines now anyway, but if either format is truly any good it could stick around in the same way that DAT tapes did for recording professionals. The DVD is going to remain the format of choice, especially as more and more video content shifts to all-digital transmission and DVD burners become faster and cheaper.
2) The take on Vista from the convention floor is interesting, because the only thing I hear anyone talking about in reference to Vista are the copyright protection features. Everyone I have spoken to who knows anything about the new system is pretty much dead-set against having anything to do with Vista until they figure out how to crack the copyright protection software. I've even spoken to people who say that if they buy a new computer with Vista anytime soon they will probably scrub the hard drive and install XP instead. Perhaps not on the floor of CES, but in the "real world" many people seem to be reacting to the new Vista with a pretty visceral negativity. Is there any sense of that?"
Both those things are clearly issues. I've seen several computer magazines now warn their readers against installing Vista until compatibility and digital rights issues are resolved, and computer manufacturers apparently haven't found the promise of free upgrades to Vista to be any great come-on for customers. (Conversely, no one seems to be waiting for Vista's release to buy a computer, which might also tell Microsoft something.) As for BluRay/HD-DVD, I have a feeling they will, despite manufacturers' intent for them to be the dominant new formats, end up being the videodisc of this era, specialty items for those obsessed with owning the high end, and quaint geeky items to everyone else.
"Something you might want to look into regarding MS Vista: German newspapers (obviously, I wouldn't know about US papers) reported that Microsoft worked with the NSA when they created Vista. While Microsoft maintains that they did it to help make Vista more hacker-proof, the general reaction at least here in Germany (I haven't bothered to check how the rest of Europe reacted) is suspicion: did the NSA, instead of making it hackerproof, install backdoors into Vista so they can better snoop everyone's PCs? While it sounds like a paranoid delusion, it's not all that far-fetched, even for people who only follow your column about such matters. Just take Ghost's order about mail in this week's column. Plus, German Secretary of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble has demanded precisely that sort of thing just a week or so before the Microsoft/NSA collaboration was revealed."
In all honesty, I doubt Microsoft would be involved in something like that, given that their relations with the US government have generally been less than cordial. On the other hand, you never can tell.
"'Subject: Hi Def DVD war over
Not because some company has announced they're building players will play both BluRay and HD-DVD, but because the porn industry has chosen to go with HD-DVD over BluRay. Or rather, Sony made the choice for them by declaring that no BluRay manufacturer can press disks for the porn biz. (Sony owns the BluRay process.)
Sony has made this decision once before - they declared that no Betamax manufacturer could put porn onto its tapes. Plus it turns out that it's cheaper to manufacture HD-DVDs than it is BluRays, which was also the case with VHS vs Betamax. Deja vu all over again for Sony!'
Since you mentioned Blu-Ray.
And you know he is right. The company that controls porn controls themarket."
Just another example of how Sony never learns. Today I'm not sure surrendering the format war on the porn front will have repercussions quite as thorough, since the growing medium for porn isn't disks of any kind but the Internet. But while it may not ensure the destruction of BluRay it will almost certainly ensure the survival of HD-DVD.
I've been having this recurring nightmare lately where a woman keeps insisting it's my patriotic duty to have intercourse with her, and that, despite my reasoned objections, no protection is necessary. While it seems obvious to any rational observer that, given the plan, pregnancy is inevitable, she insists that she has looked at it from all possible angle, she has a plan, and that intercourse is absolutely required while pregnancy will simply not occur.
Then she gets pregnant.
This is a baby nobody wants. It's a bad idea baby, a monster baby. There's no quick way of dealing with it, something which, if brought to full term, will eat up virtually all our money and resources for the indefinite future and lock us on a basically suicidal path. We hire a team to study the situation and come up with a plan, and they do: abortion. It's not necessarily a good way but the woman's stupidity - and mine, for going along with her - haven't left anyone a lot of options.
And she says no. No abortion. Abortion just isn't going to happen. She has a better way to handle it: more intercourse. Which is, of course, insane, and when I call her on it, she looks at me and says, "Well, what's your plan, then?"
So I wake up screaming at the dream logic, to find that the Ghost has a new plan for victory in Iraq: send in 21,000 more warm bodies to be shot at. Apparently the plan now is to go door to door in Baghdad, root out all the local terrorists (provided they're compliant enough to stay in one place while this is going on, anyway) and secure the city. I guess the idea is that the rest of Iraq will see the writing on the wall and fall into step. Oh, and whatever you do, don't mention that we tried this before. It's one of the reasons we're in the mess we're in over there now. There was a brief moment, shortly after we deposed Saddam Hussein, when we at least marginally had the trust of the Iraqi people. Before we started marching through their homes, treating them all like potential insurgents regardless of what they'd done or hadn't done. Of course, that's something the Ghost's administration has never figured out in their domestic policies either; if you want people to feel their trust has been breached, tell them you're assuming they're criminals and it's up to them to prove they're not. (That's largely the upshot of the Patriot Act and most other administration initiatives, and the underlying premise of the "if you have nothing to hide, what are you afraid of?" argument.)
Now, of course, the idiot hawks are resurfacing with their usual "If America had the will to win in Iraq, we could win in no time" nonsense. They said the same thing about Vietnam, ignoring that will isn't really the issue; we haven't fought in a World War II situation since World War II. Besides, we already won in Iraq. It's not the war we're trying to win now, it's the peace, and the time to win it was three years ago. Instead, the administration initially alienated the Shi'ites by tapping Saddam's largely Sunni Ba'athists for service, then basically abandoning the Sunnis when this came out. The only group in Iraq still overtly siding with us, not that they're not disgruntled too, are the Kurds, partly because they're the weakest of the three major groups and have no one else to turn to. Still, I hear guys like Danny Bonaduce, now a sidekick on Adam Carolla's morning talk show, spouting how America could "win" in Iraq if they wanted to, which may only show that recovery from substance abuse is a slow, prolonged process.
There is, in fact, only one way to "win" in Iraq: we have to decide which group we want to be in charge of the country, and put them in charge.
Then kill everyone else.
The main argument against withdrawal from Iraq is that we will leave the country in a state of chaos and civil war - even the administration grudgingly admits it's a civil war now, even if they couch it in euphemisms - and the most likely result is a radical Islamic government similar to that of Iran, which is obviously funneling support to Iraq's majority Shi'ite faction. (Funny, I remember this being brought up in 2003 as an argument against deposing Saddam Hussein, only to be denounced by the Ghost as preposterous; by their vision, a Western-style democracy was the inevitable outcome.) We can stay in Iraq - let's even accept, for a moment, the Ghost's argument that we can bring the country to heel - but (as was also warned in 2003) it essentially means we stay forever. Because whatever stability we manage to establish, even if that were possible at this stage, would shatter the instant we finally pulled our troops out. Given the amount of money we're spending to keep them there, we'll have to pull them out sooner than later unless we all want to start speaking Chinese. (And make no mistake: the Hand Puppet has basically auctioned us off to the Chinese to fund his little war.)
Unless we kill everyone in Iraq who opposes us, which means killing their women and children and relatives down to the last living being as well, so that absolutely no one is left to pick up any fallen flags and renew the charge. In other words, genocide, which, international ramifications aside (even if it didn't result in a massive, rapid worldwide recruitment of anti-American terrorists, at minimum any influence we'd have in the Middle East would be shot for good, and probably in Europe as well), and despite various incidents in our history, is not how we see ourselves as a people. The only way to "win" in Iraq is to become in actuality the worst version of what many throughout the world have for the last fifty years or so claimed we were, and which we have kept insisting we're not. That's what we have to do to win. And, sure, if we really want to, we can win. Maybe. But the Ghost's plan, his "surge" (because, you know, "escalation" is just too ugly a word), is just treading water, delaying the inevitable, I suppose until it's someone else's turn to deal with the situation. The fact is that the Ghost has been so wrong about the situation in Iraq for so long and for so many times, in the face of so many contrary analyses that turned out to be right on the money, that we have absolutely no reason to believe any statement he makes on the situation or trust that he has the slightest idea what he's talking about. He had the chutzpah to lead us into an unnecessary war (and some observers suspect his "surge" is less about Iraqi security as setting the stage for an eleventh hour invasion of Iran, which would exacerbate the situation exponentially) but, obsessed with a now unattainable victory that would leave him at least a shred of a legacy, hasn't the balls to get us out of it.
A bit of a screwy day. As many of you know and are doubtless sick of hearing about, my main computer dropped like a stone due to electrical shock just before Christmas, and I've been trying to get it working again. After miserable personal failure, I took it to a shop - and they couldn't figure it out either. Eventually we brought it down to a dead motherboard, which I replaced but had to order out on. When that arrived, and worked, it became apparent the CPU was gone too, though it likely didn't start out that way; in the midst of yanking it out of the motherboard and putting it back in, oh, a dozen times or so, a pin came out. Turns out you can sometimes run chips that are missing up to half their pins (there are hundreds on the back of a CPU). Just not this one. Complicating matters is the relative antiquity of my technology; though perfectly adequate for my purposes, it's not a couple format factors back - Socket 754 rather than 939 or AM2 - making it impossible to find replacement parts locally. Today (yesterday to you) my new CPU, a marginal improvement over the original, arrives. Knock wood, I'll be back in business by the time you read this.
24 (Fox, 9P Mondays) is back for its sixth season, even more gloriously ludicrous than ever, though they started off so fast - most seasons have a slow build-up to a terrorist plot so manic-depressive superagent Jack Bauer has time to catch up to them, but this one began with a terrorist wave already well in progress before Bauer even materializes - and so quickly, um, jacked up the stakes that it's hard to even imagine where they can possibly go from here, or what they can do next year. The final minutes of the two night season opener were certainly among the most surprising in series history. But there's also the suggestion they're running a little dry, and burning up in minutes storylines that in earlier seasons might have been milked for hours. Given that the trick of 24 is to not give viewers enough time to think about what they're seeing, it's a pace they might ultimately not want the audience getting used to. It's been breathlessly entertaining enough so far, with a parade of familiar faces in bit parts - Meg Gallagher, Scott Winters, Peter MacNicol - but anyone who really believes Jack has lost his edge is a sap. (Hey, didn't Kim live somewhere around Valencia? One can only hope...)
I'm sure it's a decent convention, but for a good laugh, check out Calvin Reid and Heidi MacDonald's deification of the New York Comic-Con, which gets its second outing next month. Not that a nice little pimping job isn't called for - this year's show sounds amusing enough - but while basically identifying the show as the second coming of the comics industry, Reid and MacDonald only passingly note that it's a product of the same corporation they're writing for. When that sinks in, the tone - encapsulated by "However, Topalian strongly recommends getting tickets in advance." - turns a funny kind of desperate, which may not be what they had in mind. (Am I misremembering, or were last year's problems with police and fire marshals, promoted in the article as evidence of the convention's raw heat, not more the result of coordination problems among the sloppily coached convention staff than blisteringly high demand for tickets? Not that I'm questioning that last year's show turned out more popular than they'd anticipated.)
Congratulations to last week's Comics Cover Challenge winner, Jeff Kapalka, for correctly identifying "time" as the theme. (NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS; Alan Moore & Rick Veitch's 1963; Minute Man; THE SECOND LIFE OF DOCTOR MIRAGE; a cover by Gene Day; ECLIPSE MONTHLY; and THE NOCTURNALS: WITCHING HOUR. Jeff wants to aim you at Dave Kellett's web-comic SHELDON, "a darn funny strip filled with pure geeky goodness," which sounds a bit like Jeff's getting his inner Larry Young on, but click on the strip name and take a look. For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme - it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything - and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next's week's column. If you need any clues beyond what's here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and there's also a clue hidden somewhere in this column, but this week it's maybe just a little too precious.
By the way, for those who've ordered my e-books from the Paper Movies Store, copies will be going out the instant I get my desktop computer back and set up. Which is also fair warning for the rest of you: the involuntarily extended special offer on the e-books will end as soon as I get set up and paste together a new page. So grab them at the special price while you still can because the clock is ticking. Get the details at the Paper Movies Store.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.