Category Archives: News

The New Censorship?

censorshipAt the end of this last month, erotica writers on Amazon noticed something disturbing. Erotica and romance novels containing adult content were being stripped of sales ranks and reviews without any explanation. It appeared to be more than a technical glitch, in that adult content in particular was being targeted. Amazon has yet to release any sort of statement explaining what is going on, but many writers including me are concerned about the possibility of ramped-up censorship on the world’s largest online book market.

A big blow to the romance community has surfaced as romance and erotica authors are having their titles on Amazon stripped of their ranks and reviews. Towards the end of March, the romance community began to notice romance and erotic novels being stripped of their ranks and/or reviews, without an explanation. Although Amazon has yet to make a statement about what’s going on, it’s clear that any book that contains adult content could be stripped.

Of course that’s devastating to both authors and readers. Both of these things allow authors to successfully sell their works and helps readers to find titles they would be interested in. In an effort to try and save their reviews and rankings, some romance/erotica authors have taken to removing any keywords that might cause their titles to be stripped. For those that have published in the erotica category, it might prove even more difficult to protect their books from these changes.

Since Amazon isn’t being transparent about what is happening, it’s not clear why these novels are being stripped. Many authors believe it could be in response to the FOSTA bill, while others believe it could be an internal update from Amazon to push these books off the ranks. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was touted as a bill to make everyone safer by creating accountability for internet companies. However, the bill was met with great backlash for many reasons, including the amount of censorship it would allow.

I want to be clear on a couple of things here. First of all, FOSTA is a fundamentally stupid law. Much like the Communications Decency Act in the 1990’s that was struck down as unconstitutional, it enables censorship on the grounds of what might happen. With the CDA, it was about liability for Internet companies hosting anything children might be able to access, regardless of verifications and safeguards. FOSTA is about liability for Internet companies that might host a personal ad that was really put up by a sex trafficker. Might, could, maybe, possible. Nothing about due process or even a reasonable understanding of how Internet platforms work.

Second, I have no idea if this is related to FOSTA or not. Amazon has made no statement one way or the other. It seems kind of unbelievable that it would be at first glance, since even given the goofy “might” criteria in the bill, there’s no way that I can imagine a book of erotica could possibly have anything to do with sex trafficking. I also think it’s kind of strange that Amazon would kill their own golden goose here, since they are making a lot of money on erotica. It’s hard for authors to make money on anything else, and Amazon always gets a cut. But whatever is going on, it’s not good. I don’t think anybody halfway sane wants an Internet that is so sanitized that you have to install Tor and hit the dark web for anything not rated G.

So I’m calling on Amazon to knock this crap off. I realize that it’s unlikely to make much of a difference coming from an insignificant author like myself, and I also realize that this is one of the hazards of allowing a single company to monopolize so much of the book industry – which is a whole other conversation.

UPDATE: As a point, I am aware that the term “censorship” technically applies to actions by the government, not private corporations. Amazon is a business and it can decide what it will and will not carry. However, my point is this – if they really are removing and down-listing content in response to the ridiculous FOSTA law, as I see it, that DOES qualify as censorship. At this point nobody knows if that’s what they’re doing, which is why they need to clarify their actions as soon as possible.

Charging for Giveaways?

authors-money-marketingOne of the things I will always tell aspiring authors is that there is a lot more money to be made off of authors than there is to be made by being an author. The reason for this is pretty simple. Writing is a passion, so we authors keep doing it even though making money at it is really tough, and we are always looking for new ways to publicize books and get them in front of readers. At the same time, hardly anything ever works that well, so if you, say, run a paid service that publicizes books you may find that authors are happy spending a significant amount of money on your service even if all it generates is a handful of sales.

Sometimes, though, these services get too greedy for their own good. As of January, Amazon-owned book site Goodreads has been charging authors for book giveways. So not only do you have to pay the money out of your own pocket to buy the books, you also have to pay Goodreads to… do whatever Goodreads does. Post a listing? For hundreds of dollars? Yeah, I’m not going to be doing that, and I advise everyone else to do the same.

The truth is that if you follow author discussions online, giveaways rarely accomplish much of anything these days. They had their day in the sun maybe two years ago. Everything I’ve read recently suggests that these days they have little effect on sales and maybe garner a review or two – if you’re lucky. I also think that the rise in giveaways has had a toxic effect on the book market in general, by acclimatizing people to getting all their books for free.

That’s just not sustainable if want any authors to be able to support themselves on their writing going forward. The biggest problem with writing and the arts in general is that writers and artists are passionate about our work and enough of us are going to keep doing it regardless of how much money we are making. That makes the supply practically unlimited against a finite demand, and the more of us who give away our work for free, the worse it gets for everyone else.

I suppose Goodreads imagines that it will be making money off of publishers and the few writers like me who have money to spend, but the bottom line is that charging for a giveaway is just stupid. I’m not about to waste the money I have on nonsense like that. And if you realize going in that a giveaway is very unlikely to generate sales, you probably won’t either. My suggestion is this – if you want to do a book giveaway, give away ebooks through a platform like Smashwords.

Here’s why. First, they’re not owned by Amazon. Amazon already takes a big enough share our money and web traffic. Second, with an ebook there’s no inventory involved, so you aren’t really taking a loss on the books you give away. Third, unlike Amazon which requires a Kindle or an e-reader or whatever, when you buy an ebook on Smashwords you have the option of downloading the book in a bunch of different formats – including PDF which you can basically read on any phone, computer, tablet, or whatever.

Smashwords makes it easy to create a coupon that you can send out to people on your mailing list. You can set it up to last for a period of time, or a certain number of downloads. All your fans need to do it is buy the book on Smashwords with the coupon, and the book is free. Once they own it, they can go into their Smashwords account and download it again, any time they way, and in any supported format – including Kindle, Nook, PDF, Apple, and so forth.

Oh, and making those coupons is free. With the way things are going, that right there recommends it pretty highly.

Ursula K. Le Guin

LOS ANGELES – DEC 15: Ursula Le Guin at home in Portland, Origon, California December 15 2005. (Photo by Dan Tuffs/Getty Images)

This week author Ursula K. Le Guin passed away at the age of 88. Le Guin was a master of speculative fiction and one of a handful of writers credited with bringing the science fiction genre into the literary fold in the 1970’s – that is, except by those writing snobs who are absolutely convinced that only “realism” can ever count as serious or important literature, regardless of how clever or well-written a speculative piece may be.

In 2014 Le Guin won an award for distinguished contribution to American letters and gave this wonderful acceptance speech. I’m quoting the whole thing because it is just that good, and because it touches on various themes I’ve been discussing on this blog over the last year.

To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.

I have a couple of takeways from this. First, Le Guin was an excellent writer, easily on par if not better than most of the “literary realists” whose work doesn’t get dismissed as “genre fiction” only because they write about “real life” – whatever that’s supposed to be. Le Guin wrote about real life, too, but from the far more interesting standpoint of speculative fiction.

Second, by 2014 the publishing industry was already in crisis, under attack from discount sellers like Amazon and and facing an enormous glut of books on the market due to the rise of self-publishing. It’s understandable that publishers would want to do everything they could to move books, but at the same time Le Guin is right that an author’s vision should never be compromised by what will or won’t sell.

Sadly, it’s become common advice that authors should chase the market – if you self-publish, your cover should look like those of other books in the genre, your blurb should read like every else’s, and your story should employ tropes that are easily recognizable to your readers. It’s nice to say that as artists we should dispense with all this, but the reality is that if we do we will usually sell nothing. With self-publishing our share of the proceeds may be more “fair” in terms of overall percentage, but a better percentage of nothing is still nothing.

And as I’ve said before, I wish I had a solution to this conundrum, but I don’t. I just am going to keep doing what I’m doing – making my living in information technology and writing on the side, because making enough to live on writing books is basically impossible except for a lucky, tiny minority.

Do Readers Dismiss Science Fiction?

science_fiction_quote_bradburyThe Guardian has an article up today discussing the results of a study that to my way of thinking plays right into the “literary versus genre” fiction debate. As I’ve mentioned a couple of time, I had an English teacher in high school who insisted that science fiction was automatically not literature, which to my way of thinking conveyed a lot of ignorance about the genre. Sure, there’s pulpy science fiction that isn’t written well enough to give it much value beyond passing entertainment, but there are also examples of the form that are written at least as well as most literary novels.

According to the study, readers were given 1000 word short stories to read. The stories were identical in terms of writing quality and content, except that a “literary” version was set in an ordinary cafe, and a “science fiction” version was set on board a space station at some point in the far future. The study found that readers tended to dismiss the science fiction version and not read it as carefully as they did the literary version.

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling. Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.

This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,” they write. “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

As the article goes on to explain, the study has a number of problems. The authors made no effort to sort their subjects according to what they actually liked to read, which is an enormous hole. It seems to me that the most obvious observation in the world from this is that once you identify a piece of writing as a genre you don’t really like, you tend to just skim over it. I like fantasy and science fiction and don’t read romance, for example, and I can certainly see if somebody handed me a “romance” piece and a “science fiction” piece, I would probably test a lot better on the science fiction one than the romance. I’m automatically not going to read something as closely once I identify that it’s in a genre I don’t particularly like.

This would require a new study that would group the participants into science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers, and compare their scores. I suspect that among the science fiction readers, the scores would be similar for the two pieces, and among the non-science fiction readers the scores would diverge dramatically. Since science fiction is not the most popular genre out there, my guess is that these two sets got averaged together to produce the final result. I would also predict that if a follow-up was done on genre preferences, it would find that there are far fewer science fiction readers in the sample than non-science fiction readers, just due to random selection.

So I think the answer to my question up there would be that yes, readers dismiss science fiction if they don’t like science fiction. But seriously, did we really need a study to work that out? My guess is that it holds across the board, with readers engaging with genre fiction that they like and dismissing the rest. And as for literary fiction, the primary characteristic of that version seems to be that there was nothing in the story that allowed a reader to classify it into a genre. There was no real difference in writing quality or content, just the setting. So to frame it as the headline does – suggesting that there is something in particular about science fiction that makes people “poorer readers” is just plain wrong.

So one takeaway – if you can write a piece that people can’t easily classify into a genre, you maybe have a larger potential audience. But it’s also challenging to get there, because people tend to look for writing in the genres they like, not pieces of writing that might or might not fall into their preferred categories. “Literary” readers tend to go for stuff in the “dysfunctional family” genre – which is totally a genre with a whole detailed set of tropes – and pieces that appear to be about “real life,” which basically just strike me as drop-dead boring. Maybe that means I would score better on the science fiction piece in the study – after all, at least in that version something is going on that has the potential of holding my attention.

Mortals, Immortals, and an Internet Mystery

ebony_my_immortal_handbookThis month an enduring Internet mystery has finally been solved. For many years now, a piece of Harry Potter fanfiction called My Immortal has been circulating on the Internet. My Immortal is considered the worst piece of fanfiction ever, and many have wondered whether it was an intentional parody or just plain awful. Up until now, all attempts to track down the author had proved fruitless.

But Vox reports that as revealed in a new memoir Under the Same Stars, Rose Christo, the author of many serious young adult novels, was the author of this notorious tale. And yes, it turns out that My Immortal was an entirely intentional parody by a skilled writer trying to produce the worst possible thing that she could imagine.

Out of an endless sea of bad fanfiction typically found on FF.net in the mid-aughts — there’s a reason fans refer to the site as “the pit of voles” — My Immortal stood out because it contained every hallmark of terrible fanfic, but ratcheted up to 11: a main character who was a blatant Mary Sue, a hilariously defensive author who liked to alternately explain things and argue with readers in author notes, amusing misspellings, and, as the owner of the current My Immortal archive puts it, “extreme gothic attitude.” (“I ate some Count Chocula cereal with blood instead of milk.”)

When the story first appeared, many readers thought it was an intentional parody, but no one was quite certain. This essential question — was My Immortal trolling fanfiction or not? — would come to define the story’s cultural reception.

At 22,000 words, it offered what Harry Potter fans instantly recognized as the typical Mary Sue Goes to Hogwarts trope. Ebony, often spelled Enoby in the story, instantly wins friends and enemies thanks to her unapologetically goth — or “goff” in My Immortal speak — lifestyle and innate sex appeal. Clad in her signature black corset bra and Hot Topic fishnet leggings, she has romantic flings with all the wizard hotties. (The fic also features a past relationship between Draco Malfoy, who has sexy red eyes, and Harry, who’s a vampire.) She ultimately fights Voldemort using the power of sex appeal — with a constant background soundtrack of her favorite goff bands: Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park, and so on.

Having only heard of My Immortal in passing as the worst fanfiction ever, I finally read the opening excerpt in the Vox article – and to me, it looks like it has to be a parody. Just the main character’s name alone – “Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way” – is so over the top that I find it hard to believe anybody took it seriously. A bad fanfiction character might have one or two of those in their name, but five in a row? That had to be a joke.

Christo was outed by a scandal that came to light this last August. The scandal itself had nothing to do with her, but in the ensuing discussion the existence of Under the Same Stars was revealed. Christo would be outing herself as the author of My Immortal in her memoir anyway, but because of the scandal, her book’s contents were leaked ahead of its publication.

On August 27, 2017, the publishing industry’s online community began whispering about a book that had sprung out of nowhere to overtake the long-dominant No. 1 best-selling young-adult novel The Hate U Give at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The Times is notoriously secretive about its methodology for calculating its list, so it’s possible for a book to come out of nowhere and debut at No. 1. The problem was that this particular book, a YA fantasy called Handbook for Mortals, was by an author no one had ever heard of. And while normally books are marketed for months leading up to their release, with advance copies circulated to generate buzz, no one had seen any previews for this one.

My Immortal and Handbook for Mortals have nothing to do with each other, but they converged online in an astonishing way. Speculation ensued that Handbook for Mortals and its mysterious author, Lani Sarem, had bought their way onto the Times best-seller list. (The book was ultimately pulled from the list.) In the middle of the intense scrutiny of Handbook for Mortals, Bookriot writer Preeti Chhibber offered up a wild guess: What if Lani Sarem was the author of My Immortal?

I covered the Handbook for Mortals scandal back in August, noting that if I had over three hundred thousand dollars available to promote one of my books, I probably could have come up with something better than calling up a bunch of bookstores, asking if they reported sales to the New York Times, and then if they did, ordering hundreds of copies at a time. The methodology was so transparent it amazed me that it took as long as it did for anyone to notice.

Basically, what was going on here is that there was some speculation, based on similarities in the writing, that Handbook for Mortals might have been written by the author of one of the worst pieces of fanfiction of all time. Ouch. No wonder they had to buy their way onto the New York Times bestseller list in order to scam investors on a movie deal. My novels may not sell that well, but nobody’s ever told me that they read like monumentally terrible fanfiction.

At the same time, an editorial assistant at Macmillan Publishers, attempting to interject amid the speculation over Handbook for Mortals, blurted out the news no one was expecting, in a pair of since-deleted tweets: that Sarem couldn’t be the author of My Immortal because the real author of My Immortal was publishing a memoir with Macmillan.

UPDATE: SHE IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF MY IMMORTAL BC THE AUTHOR ALREADY HAS A BOOK OUT??? IT’S NONFICTION??? pic.twitter.com/3gERmLLT8f
— tori (2017) (@grinchhands) August 25, 2017

Christo, as it turns out, has already self-published numerous young adult novels. But her memoir, Under the Same Stars, forthcoming from the Macmillan imprint Wednesday Books, is all about her secret identity and her most famous creation.

So, in fact, the mystery of My Immortal is now solved. It was an intentional parody by an author with some actual writing talent deliberately trying to write something terrible. For those folks who made fun of the story on the grounds that it was serious and the author was really that terrible, this has to be a pretty big letdown. Also – this means that there are enough similarities in Handbook for Mortals to suggest the serious author of that book writes like a parody by another author trying to write the most awful thing she could come up with. Double ouch.

Stephen King complained in On Writing that he finds it pretty annoying that so many people tell him that The Stand is the best thing he’s ever written, because he wrote it back in the late 1970’s and had written a lot more books by the time On Writing came out in 1999. One of the odd things about writing is that with your early books, you use your best ideas but your writing has yet to mature. As you write more and more, your ideas tend to get repetitive. So there’s a sort of “sweet spot” where your writing has gotten good enough and your ideas are still fresh. That might explain why The Stand turned out the way it did.

For Christo, though, it seems like she finally has embraced what will likely remain her most famous creation in her new memoir. I can only imagine what it must have been like seeing the thing become an Internet sensation, and then feeling ambivalent enough about being known for it that she hid her identity for so many years. I suppose I’ll have to read Under the Same Stars if I want to find out what she went through for myself.

Buying Your Way to the Top

new_york_times_bestseller_jpgThis week, a story came out of a small publisher who tried to buy their way onto the New York Times Bestseller List – and got caught. They issued their first title, a young adult novel, that mysteriously and immediately shot to the top of the list. This was despite any real buzz online, or even many copies available on Amazon. Also, according to many reviews, the novel is flat-out terrible. Apparently, what happened was that the publisher attempted to game the system by putting in large orders for the book only at bookstores that reported sales to The New York Times.

Handbook For Mortals by Lani Sarem is the debut novel from the publishing arm of website GeekNation. The site announced this news only last week, through a press release that can be read on places like The Hollywood Reporter, not a site known for extensive YA coverage. Sarem has an IMDb page with some very minor acting roles, several of which are uncredited, but details on the book are scanter to find. Googling it leads to several other books with the same title, but most of the coverage for it is press release based. There’s little real excitement or details on it coming from the YA blogging world, which is a mighty community who are not quiet about the things they’re passionate about (believe me, first hand experience here).

YA writer and publisher Phil Stamper raised the alarm bells on this novel’s sudden success through a series of tweets, noting GeekNation’s own low traffic, the inability to even buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and its out-of-nowhere relevance. Another user, writer Erik. J Brown, noted the questionable quality of the book’s Amazon reviews, which Fakespot deems of unreliable and low quality. The book currently has 9 Goodreads reviews, all of which are 5 stars and some of which are duplicates. If you know anything about Goodreads, you’ll already hear the bullshit alarm.

Jeremy West, manager of OnBroadwayish, pointed to the book’s sales, which according to Nielsen Bookscan, are 18k for the past week alone. That’s weird. Very weird. Buying your way onto the bestseller list is not technically illegal, nor is it that hard if you know how. Many conservative publishers have found success through bulk-buying books then giving them away as, say, subscriber gifts if you sign up to Newsmax or the like. The thing is, usually the New York Times make note of this and include this as a footnote of sorts to the list. Here, there’s nothing. Pulling this kind of trick is hard to conceal, but here it’s especially glaring.

18,000 copies of this book would run you upwards of $360,000. It’s a way to go if you have that much cash, though I have to admit if I had that much to promote a book I probably could come up with better ways to spend it. More ethical ones, too. The problem is that the publishing world has become something of a vicious circle. If you’re a small publisher, it’s hard to rack up significant sales numbers without pulling almost-scams like this. The more people do it, the more everybody else has to do it to get noticed. And you need to get noticed because nowadays, you just can’t make it as a writer if nobody hears about your stuff.

I’m not writing this article to present a solution. I honestly don’t have one. I do know that people need to value the work of writers they like. At the very least, fans should be willing to write the occasional review of books they like, and mention them on social media once in a while. And people who justify book piracy on the grounds that we writers are making all this money should just knock it off – nowadays there are a handful of writers getting rich out there and the rest of us are struggling to get noticed by enough people to make a dent in the market.

About all I can suggest is that you take a look at this post from awhile back, and click on the image to enlarge. It shows a whole list of things you can do to help authors promote their books on Amazon, which like it or not, is where everybody goes looking for reviews, sales ranks, and so forth. Even if you didn’t buy the book there, your review still matters (a number of people I’ve spoken with over the years have been unclear on that). People seem to pay about as much attention to “unverified” reviews as they do to “verified” ones, according to current market research.

For those of you who have been willing to review my books and help with my promotional efforts, I thank you all very much. It’s always appreciated. The better my books do, the more of them I can write and you can read, which is a win-win all around.

Oxford Comma

If you’re familiar with my writing, you probably are well aware that I am a fan of the Oxford or serial comma. This can be a surprisingly contentious debate among writers. For anybody who doesn’t know, the Oxford comma precedes the “and” in a list of three or more items, like so.

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

The Oxford comma shows up there after “science fiction.” Without it, the sentence would be written like this:

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

Opponents of the Oxford comma find it redundant because as they see it, the “and” already provides the necessary division between items. However, depending upon the sentence, it can be ambiguous with respect to the last two items on this list being part of a whole. Here’s another example that I found online:

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective.”

versus

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective.”

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence is ambiguous. Is Amanda’s ex-boyfriend the herbalist and pet detective? Or, are there four people in the camper? This recent news article got me thinking about this today. In a court ruling from the state of Maine, the absence of a serial comma, intentional or otherwise, turned out to be crucial to the case.

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma for its endorsement by the Oxford University Press style rulebook, is a comma used just before the coordinating conjunction (“and,” or “or,” for example) when three or more terms are listed. You’ll see it in the first sentence of this story—it’s the comma after “milk”—but you won’t find it in the Maine overtime rule at issue in the Oakhurst Dairy case. According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

There, in the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or,” the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued. Is packing (for shipment or distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two different activities, and both exempt?

If lawmakers had used a serial comma, it would have been clear that distribution was an overtime-exempt activity on its own. But without the comma, wrote US appeals judge David J. Barron, the law is ambiguous as to whether distribution is a separate activity, or whether the whole last clause—”packing for shipment or distribution”—is one activity, meaning only the people who pack the dairy products are exempt. The drivers do distribute, but do not pack, the perishable food.

Seeing as I don’t believe in depriving any hourly worker of overtime pay, this is a happy outcome as far as I’m concerned. But it also shows why the Oxford comma is necessary for clear communication. If it were in standard use, its absence would be meaningful and the statute would unambiguously read (packing) (for shipment or distribution) as opposed to (packing for shipment) (or distribution).

Some opponents argue that the use of the Oxford comma is somehow more ambiguous, but I just don’t see that. The point is not that you have to use it all the time regardless of context, but rather when the last two of your three or more items are distinct. You omit it when they are not. That’s how I use it when I write, and in my opinion everyone should do it that way.

Of course, there’s a lot of disagreement out there on that point, and it has somehow turned into the writing version of the “how to hang the toilet paper” argument that so many non-writers seem to get worked up about. This case shows that it is less trivial than you might think at first, and its ramifications can lead to real-world consequences.