This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Talking to the Rotary Club About Publishing

            This week the program chair of the Rotary Club asked me if I could give a talk on self-publishing in the digital age at one of the December meetings. I’d love to tell you I was asked because I’m an internationally recognized authority on the subject, but the reality is that I’m someone they know who has done it, and I’m generally willing to give a talk.
            Actually, one of the points I would make in such a talk is that I don’t believe there are any true experts in that field. There certainly are people who know a considerable amount about some aspect or another, but digital self-publishing is so new, and the options so many and bewildering that no one could really grasp it all. Nor have there been sufficient time and verifiable results for anyone to really know with any degree of certainty what’s most likely to work.

The Known Knowns

            There probably are two things that can be reasonably stipulated. The first is that digital self-publishing has given authors a more cost-effective and return-probable way of publishing their own work. The second is that the internet gives everyone a chance, albeit a longshot, at making a new book known to a wide audience and getting it purchased by enough people to make the effort worthwhile.
            In the old days (less than 10 years ago), self-publishing was a mug’s game. The author had to pay a printer thousands of dollars up front to run off a few thousand copies of a book, then drive to every bookstore for miles around, begging them to take a couple of copies on consignment, then try to keep track of all the books. Not one person in a hundred thousand came out ahead.
            Now there are outfits like Amazon that can process a word document into an e-book in minutes and sell that book around the world, or can format it as a print book and print copies only as ordered, saving the author a huge up-front cost. Game-changer is too mild a word for this development.
            Of course before anyone buys that book, they have to know about it and have a reason to seek it out. If it’s a book about a specific subject, say model railroads, with a number of core enthusiasts, internet searches can generate sales. For a general mystery novel like my book, The McHenry Inheritance, it’s not so easy.

The Unknown Unknowns

            It’s pretty much a given now that an author has to create a web site for his book, and do a video as well. The next question becomes how to drive people to the web site and video. I have been working with an excellent social-media guru on this subject and received some valuable pointers. Still, at the end of the day a lot of it comes down to persistence and experimentation.
            An author trying to promote his or her own book has such a smorgasbord of choices that it’s intimidating. I could easily be working 16 hours a day on book promotion (if I didn’t have a day job) and still not be doing everything I could. Nor would I really know whether the things I was doing were the things I should have been doing. A spectacularly big reaction tells you you’re doing something right, but no reaction simply means maybe. Maybe you tweeted a couple of hours too early. Maybe everybody was simply too busy to see what you put out today. You just don’t know. At this point, I figure all I can do is keep trying, keep analyzing, and pray for luck.            

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Author Meets Public for First Time

            What if I threw a party and no one came? That’s probably the fear of every writer approaching his or her first book-signing or reading. You put the word out every way you can, but there are no RSVPs, and when you show up for the event, all you can do is hold your breath and hope.
            Saturday afternoon was the first book-signing for my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. It was held from 1 to 3 p.m. at Crossroads Books, a locally owned store of about 2,000 square feet in a shopping center on Main Street in Watsonville. Kelly, the friendly and supportive owner, had told me that if six people show up to buy the book, that’s a good showing. Doing the math, I figured six people in two hours is one every 20 minutes. If I could keep each one talking for five minutes, that would be enough action to keep things interesting.
            Leading up to the event, I got stories printed in three local papers, announced it on Facebook and Twitter, made an announcement (and paid a fine) at my Rotary Club, and sent e-mails to more than 100 people who live in the area. After that, I figured it was out of my hands.

The Curtain Rises

            We got there a bit early on the appointed day and helped with the set-up, which consisted of putting a table by the front door, with a chair for me to sit in and a copy of my book propped up in plain sight. Kelly said she wanted me to sign the books, then have people take them to the register to pay.
            The first customer showed up at five minutes to one, a woman I didn’t know, but who had read about the book and was interested in it. Shortly afterward, Elias and Heidi Alonzo came in. Elias and I had worked on a couple of projects in the past, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him. He got a copy for himself and one for a friend who had requested one. He gave the friend’s name, so I could write a personal inscription.
            All in all it was a mixed bag of people: A couple of Rotary friends, two of Linda’s old childhood friends, a man who had an office just across the hall from me a few years ago, and a couple of people I knew from around town, and a couple of people I didn’t know at all. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise visitor was Margaret, who worked in the classified ad section of the newspaper when I was city editor and managing editor, and who I hadn’t seen in years.

Setting a Bookstore Record

            It was really busy the first hour, then stopped altogether for about 35 minutes, then picked up again for the last 30 minutes. When the dust had settled, the event had generated 13 sales, and a few people also came in who had bought a book earlier in the week and wanted it signed. Kelly said it was the best sales event since she had become owner of the store. Afterward, we went out for coffee with one of Linda’s old friends and her fiancĂ©.
            All in all, it was a successful event and provided some much-needed positive reinforcement. There will no doubt be other bookstore appearances as I continue to flog the book, and some may be more lucrative in terms of sales. But none will be as fondly remembered as this first one.

Friday, September 21, 2012

When Journalists Write Novels

            Ever since my mystery novel The McHenryInheritance came out in late July, I’ve been cataloguing the responses I get when people hear about it. As a recovering journalist, who still knows a lot of people in the newspaper business, I’ve heard a recurring comment from that particular group.
            “I think every journalist is actually a frustrated novelist,” wrote one. “I’ve still got a few manuscripts in a desk drawer.” He went on to say, essentially, good for you that you published your book.
            Another ink-stained wretch I’ve known for a long time said, when I ran into him, “Yeah, I’ve tried writing a novel a couple of times, but it didn’t work out.” Others voiced a similar refrain, essentially that they had tried to write fiction, gotten a ways into a book, and realized it wasn’t working so set it aside. Pretty much permanently.

Twain and Hemingway Did It

            Up until the last half-century or so, it was not at all unusual for journalists to switch to fiction writing with success. Mark Twain was a newspaperman first, and someone who believed that newspapers were an essential element of a civilized society. (Or an uncivilized one: See his hilarious short story “Journalism in Tennessee.”)
            Ernest Hemingway worked for a couple of newspapers in the early 1920s before his novels began to sell. He often said that journalism was good discipline for a young writer, and that he had learned a great deal from it. I have my doubts.
            Increasingly, though, fiction writers tend to come out of creative writing schools, not newspapers. There are exceptions, like Carl Hiaasen, but they mostly prove the rule. There simply isn’t much crossover any more.
            Actually, news writing and fiction don’t have much in common. Writing a news story is a matter of collecting facts and arranging and presenting them lucidly and coherently. The stories are short enough that the reporter doesn’t have to worry about pacing and structure in anything like the way the fiction writer does.
            In fiction, the author has to imagine the story, then structure and restructure it until it flows seamlessly.  He or she has to develop characters and work in dialogue that brings out their humanity and individuality. Reporters don’t have to do anything like that.

The Freedom of Genre

            A few times during my misspent youth, I tried writing serious fiction. It always ended the same way. I got to a point where I felt I had a strong enough idea to write a book, sat down and wrote a passable first chapter, then a much weaker second chapter, then began a third chapter that remained unfinished because I was utterly at sea.
            Although I had been a fan of mystery novels since the age of 12, it didn’t occur to me back then to try writing one. I didn’t think I could come up with a clever enough plot, or conceal the clues well enough to fool a reader of any intelligence.
            Imagine, then, my surprise, when somewhat late in the game, I actually tried writing a mystery and finished it, when I’d never been able to get far with a serious novel. I found that the imposed structure of the mystery forced me to outline an entire book, rather than have a good idea that fizzled out after a couple of chapters. The confinement of the genre proved to be the liberation I needed to become the author of a book, rather than an imaginer of books that never got written. Who knew?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When Your Book Makes the News

            Ten days ago, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, our county’s daily newspaper, ran a news story on my mystery novel, The McHenryInheritance. I had been interviewed by a reporter more than three weeks before that, and for various reasons it took a while for the story to get published. There was nothing time-sensitive about it, so I waited reasonably patiently and was quite pleased with the story and the play when it did come out.
            It appeared on Sunday, the day when the largest number of people read the paper, and took up a big chunk of page 3 in the local news section, with a small photo and a teaser to the story on the front page of the section. The Sentinel is pretty generous about doing stories on local authors, but this was good play by their standards or any other.
            As an author, you expect that media coverage of your book will drive a grateful nation to the bookstores and Amazon to buy many, many copies of it. Typically, that doesn’t happen, but in this case the response was pretty impressive.

All News Is Local

            A caveat of sorts is in order here. I’ve lived in this community nearly 45 years and have been fairly high profile during that time. I was the editor of the county’s other newspaper (now a thrice-weekly), president of the Rotary Club, active in other nonprofit organizations, and involved with community affairs and organizations through my public relations business. There is also a major university here, of which I am considered a respectable alumnus, and which makes this area a community of readers.
            In other words, I know a lot of the people who are avid newspaper readers, and they know me. The Sentinel ran two photos of me with the story, so anyone who reads the paper and knows me would have seen it.
            That stipulated, the response to the story has surprised me. It’s been ten days since it appeared, and on every one of those days, at least one person has commented on the article to me. It’s happened at the grocery store, the bank, community meetings I’ve gone to — you name it.
            A surprising number of the people who talk to me are asking good questions, particularly about what’s involved in self-publishing a book. There seems to be a real awareness among book readers that the book industry is undergoing a sea change, and they want to hear from someone who has had personal experience with it.

Moving People to Action

            As every marketer knows, it’s one thing to get attention, and quite another to get people to act. The news story seems to have generated some action as well.
            Bookshop Santa Cruz, one of the leading independent bookstores in the nation, sold out of my book the day the Sentinel news story appeared. It has since reordered more copies of the book twice. Crossroads Books in Watsonville, where I will be doing a book signing this Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m., sold enough copies and got enough inquiries to place a substantial reorder.
            Finally, in the 36 hours after the story appeared, 18 e-books were sold on Amazon. Considering that Amazon sales had been averaging one a day, that’s not bad. What that last number tells me is that while the response is gratifying, there’s a long way to go before the book pays for itself. All I have to do is repeat this experience all over the country, and I’ll have a best-seller. That’s a long road to travel.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Obama, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon

(STILL in the grip of this wretched virus, so reprinting a post from December 2011.)

            It’s far too early to be making any predictions about next year’s presidential elections. We don’t know who the Republican nominee will be, we don’t know if there will be viable candidates from a third or fourth party, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world in the next ten months or so.
            With that qualification, I can’t help looking at what we can see now and being reminded (given a propensity for glib historical analogies) of two other elections gone by, where a lot of similar factors were in play.
            Barack Obama took office in the most tumultuous set of circumstances inherited by any president since Harry Truman, and there are some intriguing comparisons with Truman in his first term. Like Truman, Obama had to make a lot of tough decisions right away and pleased almost no one. Like Truman, he saw the Republicans decisively take over Congress in the mid-term elections. Like Truman, he has been scorned by many in his party, but unlike Truman he doesn’t appear to be in any danger of facing extra-party campaigns begun by disgruntled Democrats.
            For all those problems, plus some economic difficulties (inflation and postwar scarcity of some items), Truman ran a strong campaign, positioned himself as the friend of the average American, attacked the “do-nothing Congress,” and stunned everybody by defeating the excessively stiff New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who was once described by Dorothy Parker as looking “like the little man on top of the wedding cake.”
            That brings us to another troubled incumbent and another presidential election. Richard Nixon was elected president with 43 percent of the vote in an election where third-party candidate George Wallace polled more than 12 percent. Nixon was the most personality-deficient president of the television era, and he came before the voters for re-election in 1972 at a time when the economy was going through a period of inflationary shakiness.
            Nixon and Obama had some points in common. Like Obama, Nixon came to office inheriting a huge problem, the Vietnam War, and in four years he had neither won it nor gotten the country out of it. Like Obama, Nixon was a pragmatic moderate, whose moderation was appreciated by nether his party nor the opposition. And like Obama, Nixon drove many people in the opposition party absolutely out of their senses — bug-eyed, drooling crazy. It was the latter quality that got him re-elected.
             One of the best things in favor of a candidate is a vulnerable opponent. Many Democrats had become so rabid about Vietnam by 1972 that their primary criterion for a candidate was that he be as passionate against the war as they were. They ended up getting Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a smart and decent man who didn’t deserve all his followers.
            Despite his inability to connect personally with most voters, and despite his failure to resolve the biggest problem he was handed, Nixon made himself look better by attacking his opponent. Calling the Democrats the party of acid, amnesty and abortion, he rode those attacks to victory with nearly 62 percent of the vote.
            Truman and Nixon both showed that an incumbent president of some ability can win despite problems in his record. They both demonstrated, to differing extents, the value of having a problematic opponent. Obama is certainly a president of some ability, with a better record than either his opponents or his own party give him credit for. And it looks as if he’ll be lucky in his opponent. The Republicans appear poised to nominate either their own fringe-element darling or else Mitt Romney, who, come to think of it, reminds you of the little man on top of the wedding cake.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Becoming a One-Bookstore Town

Still in the grip of a virus, so repeating a column from March 2011

            About a decade ago, Borders announced that it was planning to open a bookstore downtown. A lot of people were worried that it would put locally owned Bookshop Santa Cruz out of business, and for a couple of months it seemed like the only story in town.
            At the time, I had been doing public relations for The Home Depot, which also wanted to put a store in our community, and which was also opposed in part by people who felt that it would put locally owned hardware stores and lumber yards out of business.
            Based on what I had learned on the Home Depot campaign, I didn’t feel the local bookstore was in grave danger, provided it responded to the competition and made a few prudent adjustments. In fact, I recall having a conversation with my best friend in which I argued that the real problem for Bookshop Santa Cruz wasn’t Borders; it was and the internet in general.
            Those memories came flooding back this past week as I visited Borders to pick up a few discounted mysteries at their going-out-of-business sale. The Santa Cruz store was one of many being closed because of troubles having to do with failure to compete with and the internet, in the form of digital books. Bookshop Santa Cruz is still in business.
            I’m happy for Bookshop Santa Cruz, but sorry to see Borders go. For those of us who love books, it’s never a good thing to lose a bookstore, even if it’s one of the big chains with not much local connection. Show me a town with more than one bookstore, and I’ll show you a good town.
            When Borders came to Santa Cruz, it did not, as many feared, stick a siphon into the local store and begin sucking out money. Instead, it created a dynamic that made the downtown more appealing and vibrant.
            With the two largest bookstores in the county separated by only a couple of blocks, and with two used bookstores also within easy walking distance, Santa Cruz was the clear destination point for book lovers.
            The presence of the two big stores made it worth a trip to town just to see what was new and to browse. If you were looking for a certain type of book but didn’t know exactly what, you could compare between the two stores. Any time we were planning a trip, it was great to check out the two travel sections and pick the best guidebook or two from between them.
            If I was looking for a specific book, it was great to have two options. Generally, I would go to Bookshop Santa Cruz first, and if they had it, I’d buy there to support the local business. If not, I’d go down to Borders and get it if they had it, which they nearly always did.
            One thing I learned from checking both places was that there seemed to be no truth to the argument, often advanced by the anti-chain advocates, that chain stores stint on serious titles. Over the years there were a number of times when I was searching for a serious novel or nonfiction book and found it at Borders after Bookshop Santa Cruz said sorry.
            And now there is one new-book bookstore in town. I’m happy that Bookshop Santa Cruz is still around and seemingly doing well, but something tells me they’ve merely won the first and easiest skirmish. Best of luck to them in the more serious battles to come.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Best Time of Year Is Here

(Flattened by a cold this week, I’m reprinting a post from last September, with minor editing to update.)

It’s been a summer of weather extremes in America: Droughts, heat waves, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes. Meanwhile, here in coastal California the weather has been boring, which is a good thing. Early morning fog, burning off to sunshine and temperatures in the low to mid 70s in the afternoon.
            Even though we’ve had a better summer than most of the country, I’m particularly excited this week. We are now entering what I consider to be the best time of year in Santa Cruz County — the stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.
            In our Mediterranean climate we get good weather and diverse weather during that period of nearly three months. Take the fog that has been hanging around like a sponging house guest all summer. California’s interior valleys begin cooling off this month. That means they’re not sucking in our marine air, which means less fog and typically clear, sunny days.
            Right now it’s definitely summer. Overnight lows are in the 50s, and if the fog burns off by noon or earlier, high temperatures will hit the 70s or 80s, with a couple of days in the 90s even possible. By Thanksgiving it’s winter, regardless of what the calendar says. Mornings will be in the high 30s or low 40s, and the daily high should be in the low 60s or high 50s.
            Getting there is half the fun. We cherish the summer days now because we know they’re ending, The seasonal transition is more pronounced than winter to spring, and we enjoy that as well. Leaves are beginning to turn, and that will hit its peak in mid to late October.
            Most years we’ve gone three or four months without rain at this point, the ground is bone dry and the grass on the hills has turned brown. We can expect the first serious rain of the year in October and more in November — enough to turn the hills green by Thanksgiving.
            The rain is fun those first two months because it’s a novelty and it rarely rains steadily for days at a time as it often does from December to March. The fresh smell after the first good rains have wet the earth and washed away the dust is a joy. And with those first rains and shorter days come the first fireplace fires of the season as we spend more time indoors.
            It’s not just the weather that makes this such a good time of year. This is a tourist town, and after Labor Day, the locals get it back to some extent. The roads are a lot less congested on weekends, and there’s elbow room at the beaches and parks. The university is back in session, and downtown Santa Cruz has more of a college-town feel than a tourist-town feel.
            With summer over, the pace of work typically picks up a bit, and so, with cooler air and sunnier days, do personal energy levels. It’s even the best time of year for sports, with football on weekends and the baseball playoffs and World Series.
            I try to enjoy each day for itself and live in the moment as much as possible, all year long, but these three months are special. I’ve always figured that if I’m ever diagnosed with a terminal illness and still alive on Labor Day, I do believe I’ll make it to Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Question of Literary Timing

            Time, in the fictional sense, has always been a vexing problem for the writer, and especially for the writer of a series of books featuring a recurring character or characters. Different writers have handled the issue in different ways.
            In the mystery genre, to which I am a recent contributor, two polar examples come to mind right away. Martha Grimes, an American who writes books featuring a Scotland Yard superintendent, Richard Jury, wrote the first book in the series in the early 1980s and established that Jury had been orphaned when his parents were killed in the London Blitz during World War II.
            When her first book, The Man With a Load of Mischief, was published in 1981, this was no problem. Jury was a healthy bachelor in his early 40s. As the series grew in popularity, it became more of an issue. Jury was still going strong a couple of years ago, but by all rights he should long since have been pensioned off.

Still Working With Typewriters

            Then there is the approach taken by Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries. The first, A Is for Alibi, was released in 1982; the most recent, U Is for Undertow, came out in 2009. Kinsey, the female detective, has been in her thirties throughout, and the penultimate book in the series, T Is for Trespass, was set in 1987, with the characters still using typewriters and pay telephones.
            I’m not in the same league as those two authors, but had a time-frame decision to make when I recently published my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance.
            The first draft of the book was written in the latter part of 1994, and had a number of contemporary references. It was revised a few times over the next few years, then put away when no agent could be found. It sat in various computers for a decade until I decided to put it up on Amazon this summer.
            In doing yet another revision for publication, I had to make a determination about the timing. Should I leave the book set, as originally written, in 1993, or should I try to update it? Pretty quickly I decided to go the first route.

Hindsight Helps the Author

            A big reason for that decision was that the book’s story revolves around a “citizen militia,” something fairly prevalent at that moment in history. The militia in my book was headed for some sort of uprising or spectacular “statement” action, along the lines of the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place in April 1995. Leaving the story set in the fall of 1993 kept it at a point in history between the Waco and Ruby Ridge debacles, which inflamed the militia movement, and Oklahoma City, which was the “payback” for the first two and the point at which the militias began to fade.
            Beyond that reason, it seemed to me that there was a certain pleasure in looking back on things of that period through today’s eyes. At that time, the laptop computer was a wondrous new invention, owned by few, and CompuServe (remember that?) was a cutting-edge online service.
            Finally, I decided I liked the idea of being able to riff off the past from the perspective of the present, sort of like Mad Men. In the book, I was able to have the lead character cashing in on the stock market boom of the 1980s; in a future book, I might have him solve a mystery by knowing something everyone knows now but that few knew in the time the story occurred. There are no mulligans in my life, but I can experience them vicariously through my detective.