Saturday, July 09, 2011

Actual Value vs Perceived Value

A lovely young Chinese girl pours boiling water into a 400-year-old teapot, adds tea leaves, and puts on the lid. Hot tea-flavored water cascades down the sides as she explains that the patina imparted by using the teapot is what gives it value. "Some things," she says as she wipes the sides with a cloth, "have no value unless they are used."

A Stradivarius violin, the finest violin in the world, cannot be kept in a safety deposit box or safe or it will crack and dry out and be useless. Unless it is used regularly by a violinist, no matter how good or bad she is, the violin is just so much glue, pegging, wood, and strings that go out of tune. The same is true of a piano, no matter what make or model; it will dry out, crack, and die without being used.

Some things were made to be used, and so it is with books, but how do you judge a book and assess its value?

Each book is a labor of love, a work of art, no matter what the critics say. Each book is the brain child given life and form on paper, and in pixels and electrons, and lives only when it is read.

Authors regularly tout their best selling status, count their profits, and continue to create more brain children, but does that make a book valuable? It is valuable in that the book earns money, but there is value beyond money, beyond the price, and beyond the profit. There is value in every book for some reader who has read the book so many times she can quote passages by heart, giving them nuance and a flavor the author may never have intended or realized. Each book is valuable to some one -- and sometimes to many someones, until the rest of the world and fans catch on. That is what I hope happens to my books, that they are read over and over by someone -- or many someones -- regardless of how much I earn, so long as they touch someone's heart and/or mind. That is the value of a book. It imparts a view of life, a bit of magic, a soupcon of wisdom, and often a titbit of laughter, tears, or joy.

Too often, in our rush to be recognized, lauded, and to profit from our dreams and visions made real, we forget that the real value in a book is in its impact. There is no value otherwise.

I remember a story about Beatrix Potter who made up stories and painted the scenes she saw in her imagination. As a Victorian woman, her only possibility of a life was to marry, manage a household, bear children, and be a helpmate to a man. The only other option was to ruin her reputation by going on the stage or becoming a prostitute, at least if she was from a good family. Lots of jobs were available for lower class women and few cared what they were. Someone had to serve, clean, cook, manage a household staff, etc., and no well born lady would have considered for a second having a valet instead of a lady's maid.

Beatrix was from a good family with some money and position and still she wanted to continue writing stories and painting her friends. She decided to have her work published and, with her companion in tow, she went round to various publishers until she found a publisher willing to take on her project and do it her way. She would not be fobbed off with second class work. She would draw and paint her own illustrations, and her first book was born.

Beatrix wrote and illustrated several books and, to her family's utter surprise, people talked about the little books as if they were gems of beauty and value, and bought so many of the books Beatrix was able to move out of her parents' home and into her own home on her own land bought with her own money. She was free at last. The rest of the story is as fascinating as the writing, but better leave that to another time and another subject.

Beatrix's books were her brain children and children, and adults, who bought the books loved them, cared for them, and passed them down to their own children. The books aren't big in size, but they are works of art that have value far and beyond the cost of materials and publisher's fees. The books are immortal. That's what every writer dreams and so few achieve.

Is it because the writing isn't good? Sometimes. Is it because the subject is off the beaten track? Sometimes. Is it because the author didn't play the socializing, marketing, and networking game? Not always.

Sometimes books don't hit their stride right away or fans don't form clans to discuss, rehash, and proselytize for the author. It's not the book or the author's fault; it's the luck of the draw -- or not drawn.

Every book has value to some person, some individual, and to the author. In order to transcend the first flush of creation, a book must be read and readers must talk and spread the word of mouth necessary to bring a book out of the shadows and into the light. However, if just one person, or even one hundred persons, read and reread and commit the book to memory, it's value soars. A book, like a 400-year-old teapot, has no value unless it is used. Usage brings a patina of beauty that the brightest diamonds and the richest fabrics cannot achieve.

Read a book. Pick one, any one, and find within it the beauty and profundity of the author's dreams. One person, one book, or a hundred persons and a hundred books, it does not matter. It only matters that you read and keep the words and images and dreams burnished. It's the difference between actual value and perceived value.

If you're looking for a gift, what better gift to give someone you love than a book?

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Only Good Bug

It gets lost in the switch from childhood to adulthood that sense of curiosity and awe of insects. That need to get down on all fours and watch ants pick up crumbs of food and follow them to the nest, that avaricious desire to examine all trees for a sign of a cast off cocoon or drying skin from a cicada disappears and is replaced with a feeling of crawling skin and an ick factor that goes off the charts the closer an insect or larvae get within touching distance. Out comes the bug spray and on go the gloves while steaming water rushes into a bucket where it foams on contact with antibacterial and antimicrobial soap and cleansers to eradicate every last alien hell-spawned insect in the vicinity.

Add spiders to the mix, and all the arachnid family, just makes the feelings worse. The alien hair-covered legs and compound eyes of a spider waiting to pounce from some shadowy niche to sing venom-dripping fangs into a soft portion of skin that will soon seethe with pus, turn red, and catch on fire to blacken and drop off or deteriorate into a spongy, decomposing mess engenders terror and horror the likes of which even the best horror writer never understood because it strikes women more than men. Men cringe in horror at spider webs, but secretly hope they will one day learn the secret of The Fly, as long as it happens to a close personal friend.

Insects are multi-legged aliens that must be destroyed.

Humans are the late comers to this planet. Insects emerged and differentiated long before humans had crawled from the mud in the cells of amphibians that would eventually evolve into warm-blooded mammals and eventually into humans. We are the aliens.

As a child, I crowed with sheer delight when I found a cicada husk clinging to the roughened bark of a tree and summers were spent scanning bark for any signs of an intact split skin, the hope of seeing a cicada emerge a close nurtured hope. I caught doodlebugs and heaped up little piles of dust ringed with popsicle sticks and bits of wood while I pushed and prodded the bugs to curl up and scuttle backward through the dust mounds and watched and played for hours. Each new insect -- the giant walking stick and grasshopper dad caught and pinned to the inside of a box to send to a cousin for biology, the mealy bugs that swarmed out of wet and warm cracks among the coconut trees, and the dozens of brilliant butterflies and brightly colored spiders that seethed and crawled and stalked among the debris of the jungle floor in Panama -- was a magical world of wonder and possibility that fascinated me endlessly -- until I grew up.

No longer did I spread a blanket in the summer grass and flop down onto my belly to peer through the grass to watch the silent world, not without a big can of bug spray and constantly scanning the edges for invading armies of ants and insect life. The big black ants that appeared on the my skin was a sign for a frantic Watusi until the interloper could be shaken off or squished beneath something large and heavy were signs the invading hordes were upon me. A bee or wasp or hornet sent me into paroxysms of fear while holding my breath and inching toward safety, eyes glued to the buzzing, flying death dealer. I'm allergic to bees, wasps, hornets, and other stinging insects and carry an Epi-Pen everywhere I go, avoiding dark colors and perfume that lure the assassins in.

The world became overnight an arena where death crept, flew, and stalked on six legs and eight. I remained fascinated by insects and arachnids on the television, but not in real life. I wanted them far from my sphere of influence and farther away from me. The only good bug was a dead bug -- until the other day when I contemplated buying eggs and live bugs to set loose in my garden to kill off the bad bugs, as long as I can find some way of delivering the assassins without actually touching them or having them in the house.

I received a notice from the gardening club I belong to that detailed how to purchase thousands of lady bugs and green lacewing flies and my childhood wow factor kicked in long enough to check the claims out.

A lady bug eats up to 50 aphids, thrips, and other garden pests a day while a green lacewing fly eats 1000 a day of the same pests. Good bug versus bad bug. I could handle that -- as long as the good bugs stay outside. The memory of a lady bug infestation several years ago still sends shivers through me.

There's nothing like sitting on the toilet when a lady bug flits into view. The first couple brought smiles to my face. The seething red and black carpet oozing through the cracks and crevices of the screen window beside me filled me horror. I was trapped, still struggling with current business, and new business was actively invading my sanctuary. I had no choice but to finish the old business before cleaning up and rushing pellmell for the kitchen where the bug spray waited waited under the sink. I could not get there fast enough, nor was I elated with the results. The can emitted a few watery spurts and died while lady bugs swarmed and oozed through the infinitesimal breaks between aluminum frame and wooden sill.

I'm not sure I can face another infestation of lady bugs, especially if only 50 aphids a day per bug are being eradicated, not when green lacewings will kill more. The question is whether or not I need that much bug power. Still, I am interested, and a bug hunt is in order.

My research provided me with several options, each larger and more lethal, culminating in three healthy and fertile praying mantis eggs guaranteed to get rid of another form of insect life, otherwise known as Mother Nature's assassins. Encarsia Formosas that prey on whiteflies, earthworms for aerating the soil, green lacewings, lady bugs, predatory mites, flea killing nematodes and dozens of other supposedly good bugs to kill off the bad bugs, and lady bug homes. I didn't know lady bugs needed homes, but evidently there are places that build and sell homes for lady bugs without the problems of mortgages and defaults, unless the owner's mortgage goes up in flames when he defaults, or just before if he's planning on collecting the insurance.

Lady bug, lady bug fly away home.
Your house is on fire,
your children are gone.

Somebody knew about lady bug homes before I did.

I may change my mind about actually handling Mother Nature's assassins if I can summon up sufficient energy to clear out the planting beds and put in something more decorative than the evergreens crouching in the beds or the nearly impossible to kill honeysuckle that is taking over the front planter. I might even consider berries, roses, and flowers that will seduce hummingbirds and butterflies to visit regularly. Butterflies I can handle, but keep the moths far away from me, or me in the house when they're swarming the honeysuckle, at least until I can find a way to eradicate the honeysuckle without digging up the lot.

There are good bugs and bad bugs, at least as far as humans are concerned, and most of the time it is difficult to tell which is which -- even with a scorecard. The only good bug is the one that supports what you do want against what you don't want. That's the trick -- figuring out which is which.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Now Presenting . . . Who?

It never gets easier this whole networking, socializing to sell books thing. I wonder how authors did it a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago? Oh, right, people bouught books, read the books, talked about the books and more people bought the books. Of course, there weren't millions of people writing millions of books then. Only a few ever got through to the gatekeepers. The few who could afford it and paid to have their own books published had some success, depending on how good the books were. That's the real trick. Not socializing or networking but writing really good books.

I read George R. R. Martin's Live Journal blog and I was struck by the surprise that he is having such success now, especially since his ice and Fire series has been out since 1996, except for the new one coming out next week. A Dance With Dragons took about eight years to write and finish. George admits he's a slow writer and doesn't do deadlines very well.

George garnered a lot of fans, as he should since his Ice & Fire series is amazing. The writing is accessible and not overdone or heavy with description, although there is sufficient description to put you right in the action at the right time and place. Each character is unique and flawed in some way, but eminently memorable, from the Imp (Tyrion Lannister) to Eddard Stark, Jon Snow and Danaerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo. The books have been translated into several different languages and Vietnamese may be next. What George has created in Winterfell and the world where it is set crosses all boundaries and touches something inside us that believes in magic and demons and in the strength of men and women to combat anything that comes down the Kingsroad.

A recent article cited sales in one day that exceeded all of 2010 before HBO picked up the series and shoved the series to the top of all the best seller lists here and abroad. I wouldn't mind selling 40,000 books, but I'm new at the game and don't have George's track record in movies, television and books. I'm working my way up, but I do wonder what it would take to get people talking about my book the way they talk, dissect, and love George's books. Probably stop writing about relationships and the evil that men and women do in the real world and take the same elements and place them in a world of my own creation like Middle Earth and Westeros. I love fantasy and dragons and everything that goes with them, but find it difficult to write fantasy. I work best in the real world where the harms we do each other are next door and the next town over. I'd do well to create a world, set the rules and let my imagination run wild -- right after I finish the current trip into Victorian England where Jekyll, Hyde and Jack the Ripper put Whitechapel and serial murder on the map.

There is a world -- this world a few hundred years hence -- that lies under the curse of man's technology and Mother Nature's ire where vampires rule, not the vampires currently known and written about, but vampires of a different breed at war with each other and king of a world locked beneath dark skies where the sun doesn't shine and glaciers creep ever closer to the equator. It is a world where domed cities protect the ragged remnants of humanity cloned to near extinction, a shadow of itself, and ruled over by vampires who breed the humans for food and to run the machines their ancestors built.

The mother lode of humanity's best and brightest live underground safe from the ravages of nature, nurtured by vampires who archive their memories and protect what the shadow humans in the domed cities can no longer remember after generations of cloning. The underground humans and vampires protect technology, books and memories of what went before, what caused and perpetuates the season of Ragnarok that reigns on the surface, and these two worlds are about to clash over the precious seeds of life as it once was left behind that will soon be resurrected as the world rebounds and begins to bloom again. Memory will guide the way.

If I'm very lucky, then the novels I write, in the real world and in a world of fantasy, will start the buzz and word of mouth will sell 40,000 or more books. It's my dream, and one that isn't out of reach -- so far. In the meantime, I need to work more on socializing and networking because I'm not sure I could handle any more book signings where no one shows up or a dozen people stop by on their way up the aisle to join the hundreds waiting to see the author of Clifford the big red dog's adventures. George can tell you how that one goes. There's nothing like holding a book signing where everyone forgets to come.

Now, about that socializing. Do I really have to? Can't someone just start talking, someone with a big mouth and a bigger audience full of big mouths? I can only hope.


Monday, July 04, 2011

A Whole New Ball Game

This is an exciting time to be a writer. It is also a frightening time to be a writer. everything is changing. Some things are changing slowly and ponderously and everything else is changing at light speed.

Case in point: J. K. Rowling jumped ship from Christopher Little's literary agency and Little is calling foul. There may even be litigation in the future. It seems, Ms. Rowling and Mr. Little were negotiating their future together when Neil Blair left the agency to create his own agency and Rowling went with him.

The way I understand the author-agent relationship is that when one or the other of the parties is dissatisfied with their agreement, one or both can walk. Rowling took the option and walked. Little is considering suing her. Unless there is some ethics breach, I don't see that as anything but a nuisance suit, but it may likely result in scorched earth. Play nice, people.

Everyone wants to get in on the ground floor of the digital revolution. Authors are self-publishing work that publishers and agents have rejected, usually with a fill-in-the-blank form, or with a generic form, literary agents are turning into publishers and muddying the waters, and university bookstores are crying foul on professors and lecturers who are posting their notes and lectures online. Said Iain Finlayson, manager of Blackwell, a university bookshop, "Anybody who works in academic bookselling would be extremely concerned if the material in textbooks is posted elsewhere for free. Lecturers posting notes online is harmful for us and I believe it discourages students from reading around their subject area. I would discourage it. It is certainly not helping book sales, but lecturers might think differently."

Lecturers have been posting lectures and notes online for ages, at least ever since the Internet made it easy for them, so why is it only now that booksellers are complaining? Oh, right, because they are posting fewer profits, and of course the fault is lecturers using technology to give their students immediate access to lectures. At this rate, everyone will stay home and party, waking long enough to pop a pill, read the lecture and go back to partying until time for exams. I'm surprised that booksellers didn't complain when students taped lectures to listen to at their leisure and consult when studying for exams. Once again, it's more a matter of not moving with the times than the Internet doing booksellers in.

How about pricing books so they are affordable or offering digital versions of textbooks at a reasonable price in these hard economic times? When parents and students are already paying £9000 a year to go to university, it's time to make textbooks and source material affordable. The digital age is here. Embrace it and profit.

Of course, booksellers are considering lobbying the government to encourage students to use some of their bursary funds for textbooks, and that brings to mind non-compete clauses and all of the other governmental shenanigans that Ayn Rand predicted would bring economic downfall in Atlas Shrugged, and here it is in all its me-first glory.

Why not, like South Korea, consider phasing out backpacks and books and moving into the digital age? South Korea has moved boldly into the digital age and is remaking education in wired fashion. According to "...the country’s education ministry [they] will spend 2.2 trillion won ($2.06bn) to convert existing school textbooks and develop cloud computing systems to provide digitised content for learning." I don't hear -- or read -- booksellers complaining about their profits in South Korea. Maybe they have already shut their doors or moved to a new business model where they sell tablets and provide cloud computing systems, or even offer digital books to download directly to tablets.

Before the age of backpacks to carry books, people in my generation carried armloads of books to and from classes and home. In poundage alone, tablets and digitalization will save many young people from back problems and biophysical stress.Ultimately it is about what works and what doesn't. Clinging to old business models and considering litigation to keep things the way they were will not profit businesses or the public. It's not as if manufacturers of dish detergent wept into their beers and whiskey when people began buying and using dishwashers. They retooled and manufactured a line of dishwasher detergents to work with the new machines. It's called progress and moving with the times. There were still people washing dishes by hand, but automatic dishwashers provided a new avenue of business and a new arena in which to play. I do not understand why bookstores aren't catching on and finding a way to fit in.

How about putting an Espresso Book Machine in the store. As wonderful as ebooks are, being able to print a personal copy of a book that has been out of print for decades, or longer, would be worth having, and the books wouldn't have to be high priced. Profitable, but not out of pocketbook range. Print a book while you wait.

But what would they do with all that extra space? How about forming new partnerships with computer manufacturers to put sales models in the stores or offer free wi-fi and sell computer time like digital cafes? The possibilities are endless and it doesn't have to be all about books.

Training classes on how to self-publish. A department to help aspiring writers edit, polish and self-publish. Connections to cover artists and illustrationists. A place to hold training sessions on every aspect of the self-publishing business and even marketing classes to help maximize sales.

There are always the old standbys of author book signings, readings and meet and greets. The possibilities are endless. Instead of whining about the decline in profits, how about using the move to digitalization and find gold in the digital rush? Anything is possible for a business owner not stuck in the past and willing to move forward with the times.

It's a whole new ball game and most poor suckers are stuck in the nose bleed seats without binoculars. The only answer is to buy binoculars or get there early to get better seats. This is the winnowing time and only the visionaries will profit and succeed.