Monthly Archives: August 2010

Max the Cat, 3 Months, Lands a Mega Deal for 81 Books

A cat that lives in my neighborhood, aged 3 months, has won a multi-book deal worth almost 20 dollars.

I write in the wee hours of the morning, getting out of bed before sunrise to eek out a few words before heading into the day job. Imagine my frustration when a neighborhood cat, named Max, discovered that I’m the only one around who’s up at this hour. A few loud meows outside the window of my home office, and he’s lonely no more. Why write when you can go outside, in the dark no less, to play with the neighbor’s cat?

One day I took my laptop with me only to discover something phenomenal. Max is a writer too. After a cup of black coffee, he’s a total keyboard hog. Watching his little paws fly over the keys is truly an inspiration. That kitty can write circles around me!

Once I realized his talent, I shared his WIP (work in progress) with an agent I met at a local writer’s conference. Well, not at the conference itself but in the parking garage. He promptly sold the book to Illustory Press as part of an 81 book deal, 9 books for each of Max’s lives.

Max the Cat’s first book Me & The Squirrel will soon hit at least one bookshelf.

From the Mount Baker neighborhood, this cool cat couldn’t be more thrilled. After I informed him of his mega deal, Max proceeded to thoroughly clean himself, then drink more coffee. Finally, he typed this response to the acclaim: “Writing makes me very, very happy. It’s so interesting. I like writing about squirrels. And birds. And people, since they all bother me so much. I would like to be more famous than the GalleyCat–even more famous than Publishers Weekly and the Mirror.”

Max is following in the paw steps of the immensely talented 6 year old whose story is best told on Writer Beware. I couldn’t be more proud of him.

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PW Select: Who Really Benefits?

Publishers Weekly received tons of flack this week when they announced the launch of PW Select. In short, they’re adding a quarterly supplement that will list self-published titles from the preceding period. They’ll also review at least 25 of these titles and apparently include other tidbits. In their words:

At least 25 of the submitted titles will be selected for a published review. There will also be an overview of the publishing trends that can be identified from among the titles from that reading period. We will also focus on the opportunities that the self-pub world offers. A resource directory will accompany the section offering names of companies providing services in the DIY space.

The catch? To be included on the list, self-publishers must submit a processing fee of $149. Reading through the comments, it seems PW has since revised this to allow all current subscribers one free listing. If this is the case, the flack can be somewhat mitigated, but overall there still seems to be a fundamental problem with this business model–at least from the self-publisher point of view.

First off, I applaud PW for not for not going the Kirkus Discoveries route of flat out charging for reviews. I know from my own reviewing experience that often a whole lot more work went into selecting which books to review, from the hundreds I received each month, than actually writing the reviews. (And these were books from traditional publishers.) The real service PW offers the publishing world isn’t the few reviews they write, but the winnowing process in which they select those titles. The problem is that they’re charging the wrong people it.

Most self-publishers won’t actually see their book reviewed. They pay for nothing. Who does benefit? People who read the magazine and need this information, i.e. book store buyers, other publishers, and these agents with whom PW hints they’ll share their findings. They’re the ones who would otherwise be faced with the daunting task of making heads or tails out of the hundreds of thousands of self-published books. Yet it seems clear that all of the above beneficiaries aren’t willing to pay anything extra for this winnowing service. And if they’re not willing to pay for it, we can pretty much sum up what the overall value to self-publishers is likely to be.

This might change over time. If PW invests in this space, doesn’t just see it as a means to bilk unsuspecting writers from their cash, it could become a valuable tool for the industry. But this all very much remains to be seen.

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Barnes & Noble: The Injured Kid on the Block?

I worked for an independent bookstore in the late 90s where we saw our foot traffic plummet when a Barnes & Noble opened up in the neighborhood. They were open until 11 p.m. We closed two hours earlier, and that apparently was enough to lure many of our customers away. All around, my poor independent had the feel of a sinking ship about it, back then.

How much things have changed.

It’s been widely reported that Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale earlier this month, and that this may be a gamble on the part of founder Len Riggio to take the company private. This weekend, the New York magazine ran a fantastic article detailing both the company’s history and its battle with investor Ron Burkle. The piece doesn’t mince words:

Riggio was trying to say that, whatever becomes of books as physical objects in this new age of digital distribution, he is certain people will still pay for the pleasure of reading. Assuming he’s right, the more pertinent question is whether they will be spending their money at a Barnes & Noble. Sales numbers are down, and the company is valued at a third of what it was worth four years ago. If it is to avoid the fates of Tower Records and Blockbuster, it will have to figure out how to compete in a world where prices are falling and nimble competitors like Amazon and Apple are offering in actuality what the superstore bookseller used to promise only figuratively: immediate, cheap, and limitless selection.

The article gives a great account of both Riggio and Burkle, as well as a history of how the chain came to be where it is today. After seeing this bookstore chain as the behemoth enemy for so long, it’s odd how much I feel sorry for it now. I really would hate to see it go. I’ve become used to having gargantuan bookstores everywhere. Barnes & Noble has been a mecca whenever I’ve spent more than a week back with the parents in suburbia. There’s something about having this massive chain so fully permeate American society that makes books feel front and center. I love humongous bookstores, even if they are part of a chain.

It does seem that Barnes & Noble has its work cut out for it though. Just as it’s facing the most serious shakeup the book industry has witnessed for a few centuries, it’s also distracted with squabbles amongst shareholders. It’s sheer size works against it. Stockholders want profits, and all that real estate is worth a pretty penny too. Independents have far more freedom–no stockholders or crashing stock markets, much less billionaires bent on hostile takeovers, to fret about. They can focus on readers and their local community. Who else do we depend on for all those book readings?

It’s amazing how quickly things have turned. The once mighty goliath now seems the injured kid on the block.

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Snail Mail Submission Angst

TypewriterI just got a snail mail submission together for one of my short stories that’s making the rounds. I’m sending it off to one of the big science fiction markets, a holdout that still doesn’t accept electronic submissions.

It’s amazing how much more complicated snail mail is. The cover letter feels far more formal. It must be printed on something that resembles letterhead. The “fast draft” print that I use to edit stories won’t do. It’s “best print” mode all the way, which both uses more ink and took half a century to finish printing the story. It does look rather spiffy though.

Then there are the envelopes that need to be filled out, addresses double and then triple checked, and appropriate postage attached. My morning will begin with a wait at the post office. All around it looks like this submission will take about an hour… and it won’t be free. There is the postage, paper, and ink costs of actually sending the physical story out.

This isn’t a gripe though. It made my story feel much more solid. It’s real now, sitting out there on the dining room table awaiting its fateful trip to the post office. That baby is going places!

I also wonder if this market has chosen to not accept electronic submissions, in part at least, to cut back on their slush pile. They’re okay with PayPal for a magazine subscription, so they can obviously handle e-mail. But how many of us have become so lazy that we’re no longer willing to print out and mail short story submissions, even for a top-tier market? I definitely debated about sending this story to this market, wondering if instead I should move directly on to a less noteworthy one that does accept electronic submissions.

That’s amazing, especially when I think of how things worked for Roald Dahl or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or Ray Bradbury. Those guys had to actually type out a clean draft of a story before submitting it. That would have taken the better part of a day. How did paper, especially squeaky clean word-processed paper, ever become such a pain? Have I really become that addicted to instant submission gratification?

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Glacier National Park in Montana

This past week I ventured inland to big sky country, spending most of it in and around Glacier National Park in Montana. It’s huge, and amazingly unspoiled–though the glaciers are sadly little more than remnants of what they were just 70 years ago.

We did still see an abundance of wildlife, including deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, marmots, and black bears (though thankfully the bear sightings were all from the car, rather than while hiking). There were many squirrels too, much nosier little guys than the type in my back yard. How can such a tiny thing squeak that loud?

And then there were the mountains.

Glacier National Park Mountains

And the hilltops above the tree lines.

Glacier National Park Hilltop

And the lakes.

Glacier National Park Lake

There was even a double rainbow. The second one to the left of the first is a bit dim here, but I guarantee you it made me far more excited than this guy’s infamous reaction to double rainbowhood.

Glacier National Park Rainbow

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What’s Up with Ticker-Tape Parades?

After coming across multiple references to ticker-tape parades in the last few weeks, I got thinking. How did this whole ticker-tape parade thing ever get started? One of the wonders of the internet is that any question, no matter how random, can be answered in moments. Wikipedia does an admirable job of explaining the phenomenon:

The term originated in New York City after a spontaneous celebration held on October 28, 1886 during the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, and is still most closely associated with New York City. The term ticker-tape originally referred to the use of the paper output of ticker tape machines, which were remotely-driven devices used in brokerages to provide updated stock market quotes. Nowadays, the paper products are largely waste office paper that have been cut using conventional paper shredders. The city also distributes paper confetti.

Admittedly, waste-office-paper parade doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Still, there is something that just feels wrong about a ticker-tape parade that employs anything other than ticker-tape. Also, having a city hand out confetti so the whole thing can come together feels disingenuous. Though, I do understand the spontaneous thing for the first parade in 1886. Want to celebrate that shiny new statue by chucking all this paper out the window? Sign me up.

My original question answered, I moved on. Are ticker-tape parades less popular now that we don’t have all that ticker-tape? Wikipedia to the rescue again. Yes, there has indeed been a serious decline in the number of ticker-tape parades in New York since the obsolescence of ticker-tape in the 1970s. Here’s a swanky graph I made from the data:

Ticker Tape Parade by Decade

I found tons of other interesting tidbits too. Amelia Earhart got two ticker-tape parades in her honor before she went missing. Lots of royalty got them in the old days too, though now they seem reserved for sport teams. As you can see above, there was a huge surge in the 50s and 60s. My hunch is ticker-tape obsolescence was widely predicted, and that it held on for much longer than anticipated. Everyone thought: we better get one last ticker-tape parade in before it’s too late. There were three-ticker tape parades in June of 1962 alone. How can a single month ever offer that much worthy of so much celebration?

Oh, and in case you can’t tell. I started writing a new novel, and I’m willing to accept any excuse at all to not work on it. Perhaps we should have a ticker-tape parade?

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Drowning in a Sea of Television Slush

MatlockWhen I was studying film production at Syracuse University, we had the chance to head to Hollywood for a week and meet with illustrious alumni from the university. Of all the people we met, Fred Silverman stuck in my mind the most. The man is a living legend of television, having helmed all three of the original US networks at one time.

I met him in the early 90s, when he had moved on to his own production company. Its shows then included Matlock and Jake and the Fatman. His offices were the swankiest out of everyone we met. I remember a huge stone table with an elaborate conch shell sculpture in the middle of it. I spent half the time sitting there trying to figure out if the sculpture was carved out of the same piece of stone–a rough, beige sandstone–as the rest of the table.

Silverman spoke about the explosion in cable channels that was happening at the time. When viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from, it segments the audience. He accurately predicted the end of truly mass television. Of the top 45 most-viewed television shows, the only one from this millennium is the 2008 super bowl.

Our host felt this was disastrous for “quality” television. He said that it cost so much money to produce good television that unless it could garnish a mass audience, we’d end up with nothing but low budget crap. I remember thinking that Matlock wasn’t exactly the epitome of quality, but didn’t mention it. My mother was a huge Matlock fan, and would never have forgiven me.

Fred Silverman was right… in part. Television has become a sea of sludge, endless cheap reality shows and low budget drama targeted at subcultures. But we also have some phenomenal programming, much of which doesn’t come from the three grand pappy networks. Cable channels, yes those very same stations that Silverman seemed to so despise, produce shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Mad Men which win far more awards than shows dredged up by the three old-boy networks.

At the time, I thought that what Silverman really resented wasn’t some uber threat to quality programming, but all the new kids on the block. Rather than having all of American television controlled by three networks, it had exploded across hundreds of cable channels. Today, as books begin to expand out beyond the dominion of the big six New York publishers, we hear many of the same arguments that I heard them from this television executive. We will all be drowned in a sea of slush, they tell us. We have no idea of the evils that await us.

I think just the opposite. With a level playing field, there will be a slew of small and independent presses that will produce some fantastic books. Yes, the mega best sellers may become a thing of the past. But do we really need to sell 40 million copies of a book for it to be deemed worthy?

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