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Archive for January, 2014

In days gone by–in other words, about a decade ago–an author could expect to have a given book run for a few years, if that long, and then disappear. The only exceptions were books that the publisher decided to make into bestsellers. Soon enough, though, the only place to find many books were used bookstores.

But now that these are widely available:

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no, wait, I meant these:

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and the like–yes, now that so many are carrying around devices that can store books by the thousands or even more, if they’re willing to have their books stored by someone else–someone who is making lists of everything you buy and read–where was I going with this?

Ah, the point I’m making is that now that books are widely available in digital form, there’s no reason for anything to go out of “print.” Books can be stored in hard drives for transfer at any time, and with print-on-demand becoming respectable, even paper copies can be cranked out whenever anybody wants one.

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But with every new thing comes a new set of problems. In those days of auld lang syne, authors like Dan Brown and E. L. James mercifully disappeared after a momentary flash in the pan. But now, literary zombies can continue sucking the brains of their readers forever. Or am I talking about vampires? At any rate, mindless soul-sucking creatures that don’t die in the light, but glow a faint hue of sparkly and whose dialogue wouldn’t challenge the abilities of the New York telephone directory to thrill will be with us until we’re all living in Panem and don’t have time to read anyway. This means that every time readers go looking for a book, there will be many more than there were the last time.

So what’s an author to do? Leading a revolution to ban all books but the ones I write is one option. But that’s not likely to go over too well, especially since we authors are a cantankerous lot, and readers have the annoying habit of wanting a diversity of styles, genre, and subject matter.

Given the changes in technology and the field of publishing, I’ve reached the following conclusions:

1. Publishers must change or die.

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Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, as the writing on the wall declared. Publishers have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. They don’t promote books, except those by authors who are already famous. They are stuck in a world in which a book had to be handed from one person to the next, instead of being copied in an instant. Their business models treat books like boxes of cereal, when in fact books are today more like Internet memes.

2. Authors must produce quality work.

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Yes, I know that lots of bad books get cranked out, many of them given away. But I hope that the reading public will come to its senses and realize that spending a little money for something that’s been well written and then edited is worth the expense.

3. Books must be promoted in new ways.

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You can’t rely on putting ads in magazines and on librarians recommending your book. Eyeballs are on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs (such as this one with its many viewers like you), and other places that Charles Dickens never imagined when he sold novels in serial form. No one’s waiting at the docks for the next chapter to arrive from England.

But there is good news. The cost of all this digital publishing and marketing is low. Time and talent are the keys these days. So what’s the secret?

One thing is to exploit the fact that searching for what you want is as easy as putting something on-line. That is, searching is easy if the thing you want is tagged with enough terms that make finding it possible. If I want a book about the Sahara desert, yours just so happens to be about that, you’d better indicate that your book covers sand, the desert, the Sahara, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mogambo, a guy named Dirk Pitt, and some rivers that have been dry a long time. No matter how tangential, tag it. Even throw in Dirk Benedict if you figure it will help.

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Another thing is to get yourself on popular websites that allow comments with linking to more of you and make a name for yourself. I’ve found The Huffington Post to be a good place to practice this, especially since I can work in the occasional link to my blogs in what I say there.

Oh, but you want more, don’t you? Recall how I said it was cheap? That doesn’t mean free. I also said it takes time and talent, and that is for sale. My company, Oghma Creative Media, has a plan for you, a plan designed to make promotion successful and a whole lot easier.

Or you can just buy my books. That’s cheaper.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog and Oghma Creative Media.

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The news today (17 January 2014) reports the death of Russell Johnson, an actor with many roles to his credit, but best known for playing Professor Roy Hinkley on Gilligan’s Island.

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His was my favorite character from that show. Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve had my share of Gilligans in my classes–goofs who can’t seem to get things right, but are excruciatingly charming–so I sympathize more and more with the Professor. He was a MacGyver character before MacGyver came along, though still couldn’t make the S. S. Minnow seaworthy again. But really, that was the job of Gilligan and the Skipper, and his calm in the face of insanity gave at least one intellectual child hope that someday brains would win out over bumbling and brawn.

Since the song’s already in your head, watch the video, and raise a coconut to Russell Johnson.

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As a writer and editor, I have to acknowledge a reality about the publishing world: There are a lot of crappy books that people buy. I’m talking to you:

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This raises the question of why an author would bother with trying to write a good book. What’s the point? You don’t have to get a publisher to release your work these days, and some well-known authors got their start through non-traditional means. I’m talking to you:

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But is the answer that marketing matters and quality doesn’t?

Well, marketing is certainly important. We know about this guy

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because his work was produced in the licensed theaters of his day. He got a following by becoming known in the approved channels. Now, though, there are hundred of thousands of books published every year, so the ones that get put in front of the most potential readers are the ones more likely to sell. The problem is finding ways to get your book distinguished from the herd.

Of course, a lot of readers don’t care about good writing. Thus the sales of the books pictured above. Instead, they want a racy story with lots of plot. But if you set out to write a book that will appeal to the masses, what you’re doing is no better than playing the lottery. The masses, being fickle, are likely to love what you’re writing only when someone else writes it. One year it’s vampires that everyone wants, while the next it’s teenagers with swords, but who knew before the fact that it wasn’t going to be talking cats or rock drummers who solve crimes when they’re not bursting eardrums?

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Besides, it’s not the poor quality of the writing that makes a book sell. Yes, writing at a sixth grade reading level may help, but clunky dialogue and flat characters aren’t a guarantee for success. Look at it this way: The people who read only for the wild plot aren’t going to reject your book if you also write well, but good readers will appreciate your efforts.

There is more to this. I would like to be remembered as having written something worth reading. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle quotes a saying from the Greek lawmaker Solon to the effect that we should count no one as happy until after the person has died. The meaning of that was that we can’t judge the totality of a life before it’s finished. I’d like people to read what I’ve written long after I’m gone and to regard it as good. Yes, I’d also like to make a lot of money by writing, but as I said, that’s a wish, not a goal. We cannot plan to write a bestseller.

And that’s why it’s good to write the best work you can. Then you may need an editor and a promoter to polish and sell your book. As always, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Or you can just be happy that your mother likes what you write.

Crossposted at Oghma Creative Media.

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I’ve had plenty of things to say about education on this weblog. Since I’ve spent the last fifteen years teaching, the subject comes naturally to me. And it’s not just out of self-interest that I support universal and public education. But a recent article on The Huffington Post about Common Core standards that are spreading a layer of varnish over our failing schools reminds me of the need to be clear about what exactly we’re trying to do in education in the first place.

1. Critical thinking

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Another way to put this is logic. Knowing how to think correctly and how to spot erroneous thinking–in others and in one’s own thoughts. That is the one essential skill that students and indeed citizens must have. That skill alone, what the ancients would have called philosophy, makes everything else accessible and useful.

2. Other skills

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These certainly include literacy and numeracy, civics, history, and science, among many other things. Students should have opportunities to find careers that suit them and to learn the skills necessary for those fields.

3. Exposure

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Schools should show students things that they might not otherwise encounter. Not everyone gets to see great paintings, listen to music beyond what’s immediately popular, or hear about the many claims of science and religions at home. To make an informed choice, we have to have some notion of the broad world that we have yet to explore personally.

4. Exercise

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My advisor in college told me that I needed to take a P.E. class–to knock a ball around or something similar. I objected until I saw sailing as one of the options. But in the fine tradition of the Greeks, an educated person improved the body as well as the mind, and given our health concerns in the modern age, that old idea remains valid.

What is the purpose of all of this? For one thing, a wealthy nation should have excellent citizens. But a nation in which citizens participate in their own governance requires an educated population to function. Another article on The Huffington Post decries the influence of money in politics, but with educated voters, money becomes irrelevant.

And that is the point. Citizens make a society in their own image, and I want our image to be an educated one.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

My writing for sale.

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The law of unintended consequences says that when we do something, results that were never contemplated often occur. This apparently applies even in Oklahoma. This monument was placed on the capitol grounds of Oklahoma City:

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This is clearly a religious symbol. Does it establish a religion or prevent the free exercise thereof? If no other religion is allowed to put up monuments to their own doctrines or deities, the former looks to be the case. And so, the Satanic Temple has sought permission to add this:

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to the same grounds. And good for them. In fact, a look at their beliefs shows the Satanic Temple to be a lot more rational than some groups I could name. Regardless of the theology, if one religion is allowed on state property, all must be allowed. Otherwise, the favored religion is established as the official belief of that state.

And that’s the point. Here in America, we have religious freedom and a long tradition of refraining from making any one faith the state religion. Perhaps as a result, we have rates of belief that are the highest in the First World. Our religions don’t require the support of government to thrive. But if the government starts picking favorite religions, our freedom to choose what we will believe and practice becomes constrained.

The better thing for the State of Oklahoma would have been to keep the capitol grounds a secular zone. But having decided to allow religious monuments, the state must permit everyone. And so this Satanist image is a welcome corrective.

Crossposted at Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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Now that we’re in the interdiem of the two wretched holidays of Christmas and Valentine’s Day, we’re free to return to despising humanity without the commercial pressure to spend money to love everyone. This brings to mind that marvel of a society, the Diogenes Club, mentioned first by Sherlock Holmes in the story, “The Greek Interpreter”:

There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion. My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.

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The eponymous Diogenes was a Greek philosopher about whom a number of stories are told. One has him wandering about with a lantern, looking for an honest man.

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Another tells of a meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes. The young king asked the philosopher what he might do for the older man, to which Diogenes replied that Alexander could stop blocking his sunlight.

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His philosophy was known as cynicism, derived from the Greek word, κυνικός (kunikos), meaning dog-like. He praised dogs for their natural behavior, animals that don’t take on the hypocrisy of civilized life.

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My regular readers will see why I hold Diogenes in high regard–not that he would care in the slightest. And that is the message here. We spend far too much time worrying about what other people think of us. A measure of cynicism is a good corrective. As George Carlin told us, a cynic is a disappointed idealist, and a whole lot of disappointing people could do us all a favor and stop being so bloody annoying.

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