Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Time flies when you throw your watch at someone

The past ten days have been all sorts of adventure!

A picture book project I'm working on had its deadline trimmed short, necessitating FHDM (Full Hunker Down Mode). Happily, the manuscript didn't suffer and I was pleased with what I submitted. Not surprisingly, though, there are now... complications... so it appears that I'll be spending the next few weeks doing re-writes.

More on that later--like, next week sometime. For now I want to take a moment to expose my inner geek.

Late last week a shiny new toy arrived via the FedEx Man (thanks, George!) in the form of a new MacBook Air! You've probably seen the commercials--Apple seems to be running them on every channel at 90-second intervals (or so it seems).

So what's the verdict? Only a heaping spoonful of awesome!

Not since Blu-ray in 2006 has a new gadget exceeded its hype with such splendiferous panache, right out of the box. The Air is light, nimble and very fast. In a way, it is everything I am not. I guess you could say it completes me.

© Apple Computer
If you're unfamiliar with this Magical Device of Wonder, the MacBook Air is Apple's newest ultra-portable laptop. Available in both 11.1" and 13.3" screen sizes (I got the bigger one, of course), the Air is ridiculously thin, tapering down from a slender 0.68" to an Olson Twin-like 0.11".

It skips the CD/DVD drive, which is arguably unnecessary in a world where everything is available as a download. Instead of a magnetic hard drive like most computers, it utilizes the much faster Flash memory--a whopping 256 GB in the model I chose. Apple also integrated a series of smaller batteries instead of one big, heavy one. All of this adds up to, well, it doesn't add up to much--the Air is a modest 2.9 lbs. That's significantly lighter than any other notebook on the market, and just slightly heavier than Apple's iPad or Kate Moss holding a dictionary.

When Apple first announced the tech specs on the Air, many critics argued that it wouldn't be able to compete with other ultra-portables in terms of performance. Coming from a heavier, monstrously powerful MacBook Pro, I have to say that the Air keeps pace nicely for what I (and most people) use a laptop for: browsing the web, writing, playing around with photos, and the occasional game or two.

Some of this efficiency is due to the fact that yes, Apple did opt for a slower, less power-hungry processor, but they utilized the speedier Flash memory and also incorporated a very spry graphics processor. The trade-off seems to work well--the Air goes from Off to Ready! in about 11 seconds (most Windows laptops take about 45-120 seconds to boot up by comparison) and waking it from Sleep mode is, literally, instant.

The most important change I've noticed in comparing the Air to my old MBP is that battery life is worlds better. The Pro gave me (maybe) around 2-3 hours of battery life. WiFi use, playing videos, and anything else even moderately taxing would drag that average down to 01:45 or so. With the Air unplugged, I'm still amused when I look at the estimated battery life and see 08:15--it never gets old!

Now, I'm a fan of Apple products, but I'm no fanboy. I understand the Air isn't for everyone. In fact, I'd say the market for an ultra-portable is small compared to tablet devices like the Samsung Galaxy or the iPad. But for what it does, the MacBook Air does it all exceptionally well, at least for me, at a price that isn't hard to swallow for this kind of tech (they start at $1199). And while I don't think it will make me a better writer, it certainly does improve my mood and eagerness to write when I get to do it with a fun new toy.

It makes me wonder... did Shakespeare enjoy writing more when he got a cool new pen? Do you get a nice "shot in the arm" when writing on a new computer, laptop or (*gasp*) pad of paper?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Another independent bites the dust jacket

News hit Nashville this week that beloved local independent bookstore Davis-Kidd is closing in December. Davis-Kidd is something of an institution around here, and while not truly "independent" in the rawest sense of the word--it is owned by the Joseph-Beth Group--the forthcoming shut-down has many Nashvillians already feeling pangs of loss.

Excessive use of hyphens aside, I am trying to be sympathetic to those who have expressed concern over the "death of the independent book store." Admittedly, however, I'm having trouble with that.

You've Got Mail
© Warner Bros.
Look, I get it. People form attachments to retail locations. Record stores, coffee shops, and hardware stores are all popular community favorites.

For authors and avid readers, there's something even more magical about a bookstore. It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling walking into a book shop and catching the aroma of billions of pages, that slight hint of ink, blended with the fragrance of ideas swirling in the air.

But at the end of the day, it's a retail store. It is bricks, and mortar, and shelves and employees. It is commerce. And in that respect, it is neither unique nor magical.

My natural conclusion is that these stores close due to loss of market share from larger, "corporate" bookstores, like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Using that as the basis for the following, some of the reasons I've heard why people lament the closure of independent bookstores are:

Independent bookstore employees are better qualified & know more about books - It's true that "big box" stores will employ just about anybody with a pulse. But it's ignorant to assume every employee at an indie store is inherently knowledgeable and every employee at a corporate store is clueless. My local B&N has been around for at least 15 years, and the employees are educated and passionate about their various departments.
The indie bookstore is an American icon - I roll my eyes to this one. Considering that moveable type is still a relatively "new" invention in the stream of human history, and that literacy amongst "ye common folk" runs almost parallel to its existence, book stores are not ancient and hallowed ground. Libraries are. As I mentioned earlier, I understand forming an emotional attachment to a retail location, but the fact remains that many of America's most beloved independent bookstores were opened in the 20th century. There are older car dealerships out there.
If [insert indie store here] closes, where will people get books/authors promote? - Again, another eye roll. It's not as if books turn into a scarce relic the moment an indie bookstore closes. There's likely another option available to the community, whether it be a library or corporate bookstore. There's also online sites aplenty. Corporate bookstores still host author events and signings. They have story time in the KidLit area. You can sit and read there for hours undisturbed, without actually buying anything.

To be clear, I'm not saying I don't support local businesses--especially bookstores--because I do. However, I make my decision on where to shop based upon distance, price, service, and availability. For example, there's a Books-a-Million less than 3 miles from my home, but I happily travel 14 miles to B&N because the Books-a-Million has mediocre service, high prices and lackluster selection (not to mention a depressing Children's section). The Davis-Kidd that's closing next month is twice the distance as B&N--not exactly "the shop around the corner." Alternatively, if I need a book and I'm not in a hurry, I usually turn to Amazon.com or BN.com.

The bottom line here is that, as a writer and book-lover, I am genuinely trying to understand more about why people are so grieved by the closing of a local independent bookstore. What are your thoughts? Do you bemoan the closing of indie bookstores? Do you not care? Do you prefer B&N or Borders, and why?

Sound off in the Comments section and give me the benefit of your perspective. Give me a compelling reason not to feel so indifferent, and I promise to listen with an open mind.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Amazon.com, pedophiles, and free speech

It happened earlier today. A few messages went out over the Twit-o-sphere proclaiming that Amazon.com "published" a "how-to guide" for pedophiles.

It spread like wildfire, with re-tweets and blog posts lighting up the web. The Twitter hash tags #amazonfail and #boycottamazon are on the verge of trending.

In typical Internet community fashion, this whole thing is being blown way out of proportion.

This is, on the whole, a family-oriented site, so I am not going to name the offending book, link to it, or give specific quotes or details. But here are the facts: there is currently (as of my writing this) a Kindle e-book for sale on Amazon that specifically mentions pedophilia and, according to the description, offers advice to pedophiles on how to avoid prosecution if caught.

Now, I'm not one to judge a book by its cover, but this is a terrible idea for a book. It goes way beyond the realm of "free speech" when you start actively promoting ideas on how to escape punishment for committing a crime, and a particularly heinous one at that.

Let's be abundantly clear: I am of the opinion that this book should--and hopefully will--be pulled from Amazon's online storefront. And while I am not an attorney, I would even go so far as to say the author should be investigated by authorities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've been an Amazon customer for over a decade, and they've always treated me right. A week doesn't go by when a package doesn't arrive at my doorstep from them. Our household relies on Amazon for coffee, cereal, snacks, books, video games, movies--lots of stuff!

However, I've also seen products pulled from their site before, for far more innocent offenses. They can, and do, respond to their customers.

The issue for me here is that most of the people I've seen tweeting and blogging about the e-book in question are not giving Amazon time to respond. The calls to boycott Amazon or bring them up on criminal charges are just knee-jerk, premature reactions that smack of idiocy and ignorance. The offending book may have gone up for sale on October 28th, but the buzz about its controversy appears to be less than 12 hours old in "Internet time."

Here's why I'm not writing off Amazon just yet.

First, from what I've read, the process for independent authors to submit their own Kindle e-book for sale on Amazon is still relatively new. It is by no means "commodity" and is very much still "novelty."

While Amazon claims they review all products submitted, it should be noted that Apple says the same thing about their App Store, but that hasn't stopped malicious or inappropriate content sneaking through. It's a law of numbers--there's just no way they can personally review everything in detail. And being that the system is new, it takes feedback (like they are undoubtedly receiving right now en masse) to properly refine the submission/approval system.

Naturally I agree that a book with the word "pedophile" in the title should have been flagged for further scrutiny, but it wasn't. Instead of whining about what wasn't done, let's focus on what can be done--that is, asking Amazon to improve their system. People need to understand this is a huge, international company; it isn't one guy sitting in an office rubber-stamping stuff.

The Catcher in the Rye
If this book had been
published today, would 
Amazon not sell it?
Secondly, there's the matter of legality. Again, I'm not an attorney, but I would bet dimes to donuts that when an "author" presents an independent book to Amazon for selling on their Kindle store that some type of official Terms & Conditions contract is entered into by both parties.

This contract would undoubtedly grant both sides various rights and obligations. It likely entails that Amazon will not just arbitrarily remove the author's work without justifiable explanation--and by that I mean something Amazon's lawyers have reviewed and can substantiate. Otherwise, a malicious person could send off emails to Amazon all day declaring that the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid is offensive and demand it be pulled from the store, "just because." Or, conversely, an author could take legal action against Amazon claiming their First Amendment rights were violated if their book was removed. This sort of thing can be a slippery slope, and every responsible company is going to cover themselves from a liability standpoint.

Imagine for a moment if you were an author who put up a "controversial" book for sale on Amazon, and had it removed pell mell just because of public outcry, with no opportunity to defend yourself or your work. I'd imagine you'd feel a bit like JK Rowling when a Georgia, USA mother demanded Harry Potter be pulled from schools. The proverbial knife cuts both ways.

Third, I haven't heard or read of anyone who has actually purchased or reviewed this book. If they did, I somehow doubt that person would actually admit it. As such, and given the appearance of this book shortly after Banned Books Week, it is possible, however unlikely, that the contents of the book are benign, open impudence, or just controversial for controversy's sake.

To be clear, I don't think this is necessarily the case. But this is the Internet. Stranger things have happened in a place where anyone can do just about anything they want.

Last but not least, many people are emailing Amazon customer service and getting replies back stating Amazon does not censor its product offerings. They immediately point to this as "evidence" that Amazon approves of the controversial book, without for a moment considering that Amazon, like many large companies, has thousands upon thousands of pre-written email replies for a wide range of regular customer inquiries.

One ABC News article (which I will not link to because it specifically names the book) goes so far as to equate Amazon's canned email reply with an officially issued statement.

Seriously?

As I mentioned before, in all likelihood Amazon's corporate office is aware of what's going on. They are likely consulting their legal team and their own policies in order to make a reasonable, responsible reply. The offensive book is probably being read and evaluated. And I have every confidence that Amazon will make a statement to the media and take proper action--they're a publicly traded company and have a reputation to uphold. But these things take time.

If they do remove the book, great! They listened to their customers and stood up for what's right, even if some minority may say it "tramples free speech." That book doesn't belong on a site like Amazon, in my opinion.

If they don't remove the book, then we should all take a long, hard look at who might be a better source for our e-commerce needs.

Until Amazon makes a formal decision either way, I will continue to buy from them. Unlike some who take a hard line, I will not let unreasonable fear-mongering and ignorance dictate my consumer habits. If we all endorsed this idea that a company should be vilified for carrying products we have ethical and moral qualms about--however justified we may be--then no one would shop anywhere.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Optimism on Sale - Selling Hope out today!

Selling HopeToday marks the release of Selling Hope (Feiwel & Friends), the new book by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb.

I had the privilege of meeting Kristin at September's SCBWI Mid-south regional conference. Ten seconds of chatting with Kristin is enough to make you want to read whatever she writes--she is vivacious and clever, with a winning smile and creative spirit.

Yep, all of that in ten seconds.

Now just imagine what kind of ingenuity lurks inside her new book. Or, you know, just read the synopsis:

It’s May 1910, and Halley’s Comet is due to pass thru the Earth’s atmosphere. And thirteen-year-old Hope McDaniels and her father are due to pass through their hometown of Chicago with their ragtag vaudeville troupe.  Hope wants out of vaudeville, and longs for a “normal” life—or as normal as life can be without her mother, who died five years before. Hope sees an opportunity: She invents “anti-comet” pills to sell to the working-class customers desperate for protection. Soon, she’s joined by a fellow troupe member, young Buster Keaton, and the two of them start to make good money. And just when Hope thinks she has all the answers, she has to decide: What is family? Where is home?

If you've read any of my previous blog posts, you can probably see why this type of story would appeal to me. It's also got Winkin excited, too! Granted, I'm not a huge fan or reader of YA books, but the artful blend of historical realities with imaginative fiction is irresistible.


Time For More Free Stuff!

So with that said, let's have a give-away! Selling Hope is set during the Vaudeville era, a time when American show business was hitting its stride. Many beloved entertainers became famous during this period, whereas others merely used vaudeville as a platform to launch careers in other venues.

Post in the Comments below and tell me who your favorite vaudevillian performer was, and why. You don't have to go into great detail, as it won't help your chances of winning, but this is a contest so we're trying to have fun -- be original!

On Tuesday, November 16th, I'll pick one comment at random. That participant will win a FREE copy of Selling Hope by Kristin O'Donnell Tubb.

And who knows? There might be an extra surprise in there for you, too!

(Please be sure to include an email address in your comment so I can notify the winner.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

5 Small Steps | Part 4: Dress for Success

You hear in business how employees should dress for the job they want, not the job they have. This is especially true of corporations with large hierarchies, where the rank-and-file are often "biz casj" and management is suited up, French cuffs and all.

A lower tiered employee with designs on a promotion may not have to copy that style, but in many cases dressing in less formal attire is an outward expression of inward motivation.

Athletes do the same thing. When trying to earn their spot on a roster, they'll train harder, buy new equipment, and work with mentors, all in an effort to impress the coach and show their dedication. A future on the team, and millions of dollars in contracts and endorsements, depends on it.

Not an author.
Applying that example to the dream of becoming a full-time author, both literally and figuratively "dressing the part" is a good way to let others know you're serious.

Now I'm not sure about you, but I have no idea what a writer looks like. So when I say to dress like a writer, I'm not implying you go out and imitate the fashion choices of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. But you can dress in a way that makes you feel like a writer, whether it be jeans and a t-shirt or something a tad classier.

More to the point, envision yourself at your first book signing, or book reading, and dress like that. You might be surprised by the psychological benefits to being "in costume," as it were, for your profession of choice, even if you're all alone with a laptop and your thoughts.


It'll Take More Than Just Good Looks

This is more than just an outward expression, though. Like the athlete example mentioned above, this is about building an identity, developing your skills, and creating a support network.

If you are seriously considering writing as a career, treat it like any other career choice. Proactively make yourself into what it is you want to become. Don't let it just happen, but do it on purpose!

Build a résumé of skills and talents - Professionals call this a CV, or Curriculum Vitae. It's Latin for "course of life." Where have you been? What have you done? How does it apply to where you're going? Think of it like a résumé, only more personal. There are limitless free sources online demonstrating how to create a good CV. Keep it updated as you grow, because you'll need it when that publishing deal comes along.

Not an author.
Attend classes & conferences to improve your craft - This really should go without saying, but it's been my experience most people overlook the benefits of continuing education in their selected field. It keeps you fresh! It also means that you will have a leg up on your peers who don't do this (and there will be many). No athlete would dare stop training or practicing after he made the team. No writer should stop learning how to be a better writer.

Enter contests to gain notoriety & win awards - There's a bazillion writing, short story, and essay contests available in newspapers, trade journals, at community colleges, and online. Seek out the ones that match your WIP and enter. If you win, or get some form of special recognition, it's an impressive addition to your CV. Not only does it add to your credibility, but it shows you have confidence in your work. Hint: Agents and publishers like this. Many book deals come about as a result of contest awards, both directly and indirectly.

Network with others & develop references - Every good job applicant is ready to produce references upon request. These can be professional or personal, but they have to be people who can speak to your abilities, talents, ethics, and personality. Writing is no exception. A critique group will make you a stronger writer, hands down. Get in one, or start one! Join SCBWI and communicate with other members. Let people know who you are and what you do. It's true what they say about "birds of a feather." And on the topic of cliché statements, don't forget that it really is all about who you know. With so many publishers and agents not accepting unsolicited material, being referred or introduced via mutual acquaintances is now the norm.

Is likely an author.
© Susan Kuklin
Start building your brand online and off - To you, it's a book. It is the culmination of hours and hours of heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, and millions of cups of coffee. To an agent or publisher, it's a product. And products have to $ell. You don't have to go nuts with social networking, blogging, or meeting others within the industry--if you do, you'll easily run out of time to write. But you do have to build your brand. Make sure you exist online, whether it be you or an alter ego, and update that existence with compelling content regularly. Gain "followers" online. Meet librarians, book store owners, and others who can be good people to know down the road. Your goal here is not to become a celebrity, but at least be on the radar of those you intend to read (and buy) your book. In short, be accessible, and not aloof or withdrawn.

Treat your goals like they're inevitable - One of my favorite quotes is from the classic video game Star Control II. In it, you play a space-faring captain seeking to save the galaxy from an alien threat. Along the way, you regularly encounter a merchant to trade with. His spaceship is named "Inevitably Successful In All Circumstances." I love this, and have made it my personal mantra for the last 18 years. No matter what you do, or who you meet, or how many times you're told otherwise, persist in your goals like they're going to happen. It's not a matter of "if." It's a matter of "when." This might require some patience, and shrugging off people who give bad advice (like the ones who tell you to quit). But confidence breeds success, and nothing establishes confidence like knowing something is going to happen. It's like Faith, but better!

In conclusion, you will never publish anything unless you engage the industry. To do that, you have to be, well, engaging! Just as money has no value until it is spent, your book has no value until someone wants to read it. Give them a reason to. Dress like a writer. Talk like a writer. Learn like a writer. Live like a writer. Be a writer... and, sooner or later, you will be!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November

There are many reasons why November 5th is such a memorable day for me. For starters, this is the day my little girl, Blinkin, was born, six years ago. Since Winkin is actually my step-daughter (I abhor the label, but for the sake of explanation we'll run with it), Blinkin was my first opportunity to be Dad to an infant.

At the time I hadn't yet started my marketing company, so I took paternity leave for a few months and did the whole Mr. Mom thing. I'd do bottle feedings at night, diaper changes 24/7, take her to the store or park during the day, and my favorite thing: singing to her when she was restless. A little Phantom of the Opera and she'd drift right off to Sleepy-bye Island.

How did I enjoy those six months? They were a blast! I had so much fun with that kid, watching her grow before my very eyes. Even now, six years later, there is an unmistakable bond between us that I attribute to having that extra time together.

Personally I believe it's important for fathers to be there for their children, right from the start, and as often as possible. Not everyone's circumstances allow for a six-month leave of absence from work to be with a newborn. But I guess the point of this post is that it doesn't have to be six months, and it doesn't have to be a newborn. Fathers, especially, should make a conscious effort to devote extra time to their kids, as often as possible. Not a dad? What about your nieces or nephews? Can you be there for them? You might be surprised how positive an influence you can be... for each other.